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the story continues from
Tesseract Parasitoid







The Triskelion,
S.H.I.E.L.D.’s island HQ and holding facility
near New York, NY, USA

Within the vault, the Tesseract shivered. Its shine intensified, and the Cube began to hover in the air.

Tony’s eyes were wide and he had stopped breathing. Bruce tried to tug him along, away, while Fury barked orders into his walkie-talkie.

As if responding to it all, the Cube floated higher, rotating, then suddenly it seemed its glow was being sucked back into it, leaving the room surprisingly dark in the aftermath.

Bruce let go of Tony to take a closer look – then jumped back when the Tesseract charged forward, through the window of the vault which smashed into a shower of a million pieces. The Cube sailed through the air, and for one glorious, magical moment the Tesseract hovered in the middle of the room, shining, its power making the air almost crackle and burst with unseen energy, blue-ish shades pulsing along the walls.

Then the Cube turned, moving right towards Tony. The man jerked back to get out of the way but the Tesseract hit him in the chest – then vanished. The arc reactor burst with a sudden light from within, then slowly settled, leaving everyone blinking.

Murmured words and cautious questions were thrown back and forth: where had the Cube gone?

“Tony, you okay?” Bruce asked.

Tony’s eyes were closed, his chest rising hard and fast for a moment, then calming down as if he were centering himself again. He opened his eyes as he lifted his head, and the brown was completely replaced by a shining, ever swirling blue in his eyes. He regarded the room, his face strangely passive.

“Stark?” Fury inquired, sliding his gun out of its holster.

The blue, shining eyes moved towards the director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the face not even twitching. When he spoke, his voice was not his own, stripped of anything that made him sound like Tony:

“Anthony is not here right now. I am the Tesseract – the one you also refer to as... the Cube.”

They all stared, wide-eyed in disbelief. It might have been comical if not for the fact that there was something far too real about all this.

“Crazy,” was the first word uttered, Clint doing the honors to cut the silence.

“Stark,” Fury tried again.

An annoyed frown appeared on Tony’s face, the whirling blue stormier than before, swallowing all of his eyes for a moment, white and all.

“If… Tony isn’t there,” Bruce started, finally snapping out of it, and Tony’s head jerked around to look at him, the frown smoothing just slightly, “to whom am I speaking?”

“It can’t be the Tesseract,” Natasha objected.

“It is trickery,” Thor agreed, looking at Loki.

The God of Mischief, for his part, looked decidedly uncertain. “This is not something I would have anticipated. I can feel the Tesseract, but cannot… see it.”

Bruce regarded Tony; he looked well enough, a relaxed rise and fall of his chest, the arc reactor looking normal, his injured left arm still carefully tied against his side. “Is Tony still… okay?”

“He is well,” Tony – the Tesseract – replied.

“Do you mean to change that?” he asked next. The others remained silent for now, perhaps unwilling to believe this was happening, but Bruce had read the notes and listened when Loki told them about the Cube. Could he rule this out?

Tony smiled. “I have no intentions to harm Anthony. In fact… I am certain he finds this union most fruitful once he comes to accept it.”

Bruce nodded slowly. “Can I talk to him? Can I talk to Anthony?” The name was unfamiliar in his mouth, and he knew Tony wasn’t fond of it either; it probably reminded him of his childhood. Bruce had a pet peeve or two of that sort himself.

Tony frowned then slowly nodded as if it annoyed him somewhat, but he would do him this favor. “Very well,” he said then blinked, and in the next instant the blue was utterly, completely gone, and Tony’s eyes widened, his chest almost exploding with a yell muffled by lack of air in his lungs.

“Oh my god,” he uttered frantically, stumbling back to a wall. Bruce had never seen him look so shocked or frightened. Tony’s free hand clutching at his chest and he looked around at them. “Get it out of me!”

“Calm down,” Fury said, but that seemed to be about all he had to supply.

“Tony,” Bruce pushed forward, catching his attention, resting a careful hand on his good shoulder. “What just happened? Is the Tesseract really inside you?”

The dark eyes blinked, gaining a little bit of calm, but Bruce could feel the thundering of his pulse beneath the skin. “I… Yeah, I can… feel him in my head. It’s so much, I can’t…” He blinked, took a deep breath then focused on something on the opposite wall. Bruce followed the small movement, seeing the broken vault, the tiny pieces of glass on the floor. “He says he’s not going to hurt me – that he’ll show me things I never knew existed; that he’ll help me complete the energy field for the armor and so much more.”

Bruce was certain he would have babbled on, the fear turning into excitement, which was unnerving on its own. “Tony,” he shook him lightly. “Why would he do that? What does he want in return?” He dreaded the answer, knew how badly this could end, how the Cube didn’t need to give Tony a damn thing since taking over him was so easy, apparently.

Tony looked at him, confused for a moment, then answered: “He just wants to stay.”

“Stay?” Fury asked. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“He…” Tony seemed to search for words, closing his eyes briefly; they were still brown when he opened them again. “He’s planning on permanent residence. He wants a host body. Huh.” He seemed just as amazed as the rest of them once he said it.

“How?” Natasha asked.

“Why?” was Steve’s follow-up.

“The Tesseract had no need for such things,” Thor claimed.

Tony’s eyes narrowed and the blue returned, flooding the original color until none of it remained. “You presume to know what my will is, God of Thunder? You would wield me and use me, but do not think to understand what I want.”

“Could you explain it to us, then?” Bruce ventured.

“You’re okay with this?” Steve asked, almost as furious as the Tesseract’s earlier words. “This isn’t some science experiment, Banner!”

“No, but as long as we have no idea how to get him out of Tony’s body, we have to understand what is going on to the best of our ability,” Bruce replied.

“You would force me out?” Tony – the Tesseract – asked, cocking his head slightly. “It has taken me long to prepare this body, even though it was quite suitable,” he noted, tapping the arc reactor lightly. “In my true form, I am restricted. Like this, I am able to move and to defend myself at will.”

“Why would a cube of energy want to have those things?” Clint asked bluntly.

Tony raised his hand, and a blast of blue energy seemed to come forth from his palm, slamming the archer into the far wall. “A cube with a will of his own, human,” the Tesseract reminded them. “Your meager minds cannot comprehend…”

“We can understand a desire for freedom, for the ability to control one’s life and surroundings,” Bruce hurried to say before another blast emerged; he was concerned that Tony’s body might not be able to cope with it, no matter what the Tesseract thought. Human tissue was frail and he was beginning to see various problems rearing their ugly heads. They needed to contain this, to keep the Tesseract from exerting its power before they knew what exactly it had supposedly done to Tony’s body.

The Tesseract seemed to approve of his words, nodding.

Clint picked himself up, muttering, but knew better than to bicker.

“Can I speak to Tony again?” Bruce requested.

The Tesseract didn’t roll his eyes, but showed an expression worthy of the gesture – then the left eye turned brown.

It was Bruce’s turn to blink. “Ah…”

Tony frowned – he could tell it was Tony, it was so different when his face came to life again from the passive expression the Tesseract made him wear. “Okay, this is strange.”

“What?” Bruce asked.

“We’re… both on the surface. It’s like sharing a chair, or a pen…”

“Is he… holding you back?” Steve asked. Bruce knew he probably asked it for the same reason he would have; to make sure what Tony said was indeed his words, and not a perfectly veiled lie.

“Anthony can speak his mind; I am not preventing him from doing that.” It was the Tesseract, in tone and in brief facial change, giving a perfect example of looking at a person with severe multiple personalities – or some crazy, overacted serial-killer in a movie.

“Thank you,” Bruce said, slightly put-off.

The brown eye’s brow was raised slightly, the face coming to life again.

“I think we should do some tests,” Bruce said.

“Careful,” Clint warned, “he might get offended.”

“Tony likes tests,” Steve reminded him.

“Not on himself, necessarily,” Natasha murmured.

Bruce just looked at Tony. “I want to make sure this… situation isn’t harming Tony. Is that acceptable?”

“You know I have no objections to spending time in a lab with you, Brucie,” Tony smiled teasingly.

“I understand the necessity to confirm my words, and shall accept,” the Tesseract also gave his blessing.

“Damn,” was all Fury commented to the matter.

Stark Tower
Manhattan, New York, NY, USA

In case it would make Stark uneasy, they chose to move him to a more familiar environment, which meant the Stark Tower. The entire building had been cleared save for the S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel and the Avengers.

Steve was uncertain how to take this new turn of events – for one, he couldn’t believe it would end well, or that it wasn’t some kind of trick. The Tesseract had not reappeared, though, and all the brief tests before leaving the Triskelion pointed towards the belief that the Cube was, indeed, inside Stark’s body. Loki said as much, and since Thor was convinced that his brother could not conjure something like this in his current state of powerlessness, that was what they went with.

When they first entered the Stark Tower penthouse, Stark’s face changed for a moment. He eyed the staircase, and it felt like forever ago to Steve since they found Pepper’s body, hidden away…

Then the blue took over Stark’s eyes, the sadness disappearing, and Steve wasn’t certain how to feel about that. Was Stark hiding, or was the Tesseract taking over to suffocate and conceal the unwelcome feelings? Could Stark have forgotten all the bad things he had done in the shock of this new turn of events and had only now come back to that harsh reality?

Whatever it was, Steve had already decided to keep a close eye on him and this only cemented the decision.

Of all of them, Banner seemed to be most at ease with what had happened although Steve could see there were moments when he hesitated and let his guard down enough to show concern and perhaps even fear.

“You should rest,” Banner told Stark after they were somewhat settled. They had their own temporary rooms here, but in the current situation they would probably take turns resting anywhere they could that wasn’t too far from their compromised teammate.

The now brown-and-blue set of eyes regarded Banner; Stark had apparently come back to surface, at least partially. “Rest?” the Tesseract asked.

“I’m fine,” Stark quipped.

“Your body is still healing,” Banner reminded.

The Tesseract – it had to be the Cube – looked down at the body, the slowly healing shoulder and numerous fading bruises. “Yes, I can… see the problem.” An instant later the air around him seemed to shimmer with faint blue, intensifying, sinking into the skin – or seeping through it, Steve wasn’t sure which. “I shall heal this body. It is the least I can do.”

The least the Tesseract could do was to leave Stark altogether, but Steve knew better than to suggest that. As it was, they watched in amazement as the damaged skin gained its color again, and when the blue glow faded Banner reached out to yank at Stark’s shirt, revealing the stitches had pushed out of perfectly healed skin at his shoulder.

“Incredible,” he whispered.

“Can I remove the bandages?” Stark asked.

“I want to make sure it’s… permanent,” Banner mused and led him to another room.

Steve looked after them, then decided to take the chance to freshen up and perhaps eat a little before it was his time to sit watch over their friend. By the time Banner and Stark emerged again, Steve was seated in the kitchen with Barton and Romanoff, food on the table which was being wolfed down mostly in order to keep up their strength should anything else happen. After all, in their lives one bad event was usually followed by another.

“How is he, Doc?” Barton asked.

“In good health, far as I can tell,” Banner admitted, taking off his glasses and pocketing them.

What he left unsaid, and none of them asked about, was how much lay beneath the obvious. Even Steve without any knowledge of this kind of science knew that having an alien energy source within your body couldn’t be healthy, not to mention two consciousnesses in your head.

Stark glanced at the table then sat down. Part of his face – the Tesseract half – seemed to regard the offered food more critically but Stark dug in, grabbing a cup of coffee Romanoff had no doubt filled for herself. It was an unspoken, healthy rule never to take things from Romanoff she had meant for herself, but something made Stark grab it – a new set of balls, perhaps, seeing as he always seemed wary of upsetting her. Steve had never heard that particular story, but he might have to ask Romanoff about it one of these days.

“Fury has contacted Dr. Selvig. He’s on his way,” Romanoff spoke up a moment later and returned to get herself another cup of coffee to replace the lost one.

Banner nodded, sitting down awkwardly as if his body ached somehow. Well, they had all had a hard time recently and turning into the Hulk so many times in just a few days was probably taking its toll without a proper chance to rest. Hopefully they wouldn’t need the other guy in the near future, if only to avoid any kind of confrontations of a violent nature.

As long as they were all on Stark – the Tesseract’s – good side, it should go well.

“Dr. Selvig!” Thor boomed, stepping forward as the elevator doors opened.

Three people stepped out, two of which Tony knew via professional interests, one only from her S.H.I.E.L.D. file, and Erik Selvig, of course, he had also met.

“Jane,” Thor went on, happy and surprised – there was never a chance for mistakes when it came to Thor’s moods, they were so completely unguarded and unfiltered. Now he lifted Jane Foster off her feet, swinging her in the air, and then they kissed rather passionately.

“Sweet,” Darcy Lewis grinned.

Selvig cleared his throat. “Dr. Banner?” he looked around and Bruce stepped forward to shake his hand.

“We didn’t expect you to have company,” Bruce smiled politely.

“Neither did I, but they insisted on coming,” Selvig shrugged.

“I am glad you are here,” Thor smiled fondly at Jane, who almost disappeared behind his enormous shape.

“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” Jane smiled. It was hard to say what she meant, exactly.

Ms. Lewis, in the meanwhile, looked around curiously. “So, this is the Stark Tower?”

“Welcome,” Tony noted.

She looked at him and almost squeaked, just a little. “You’re Tony Stark!”

Tony just smiled the patented Stark smile.

Jane peered at him past Thor’s arm. “We have… met.” She frowned then. “I recall your eyes were…”

“Ah, that,” Tony shrugged. The Tesseract shifted against his mind, smooth, almost like a caress, not directly interested in what was going on but keeping himself on the surface. He knew it looked eerie, one eye brown, another blue – especially when they shifted places irregularly, sometimes mid-sentence, he was told – but it was of no interest to him. Making people nervous was one of the things he did best, even before this… incident, as Bruce called it; he made it sound like Tony had gotten his own version of the Hulk.

“Cool,” Darcy decided.

“Mr. Stark,” Selvig stepped forward. “I hear you have a… condition.”

Tony bristled – or rather, the Tesseract did. “I would not call it that,” he said. “Might seriously upset some involved parties.”

Bruce cleared his throat. “The Tesseract has related its plans for co-habiting in Mr. Stark’s body for the foreseeable future.”

“The Tesseract?” Selvig frowned.

“Didn’t Fury tell you?” Rogers spoke up from the side where he was standing, leaning against Tony’s wall, arms crossed at the chest.

“He did, but I wasn’t sure what to believe of that brief discussion,” Selvig huffed. “I thought I simply misheard. The Tesseract is an energy source, and while it could ‘behave’ there was never any inclination as to it having its own consciousness.”

“And that makes you deduce that what you could not see does not exist?” the Tesseract spoke with Tony’s mouth.

Tony didn’t particularly like when that happened. It was like his face went numb all of a sudden, and while he could feel it moving, distantly, he had no control over it. Then it was gone again, the tingling sensation gone.

Selvig stood in silence; he must have been able to tell the difference.

“Meet the Cube,” Barton joked from his position on a chair, where he was kind of… perched on top of it instead of sitting.

“Good Lord,” was Selvig’s reply.

Tony rolled his eyes – or eye, he wasn’t sure if the other followed the motion.

“How do you share a body with a cube of energy?” Darcy asked, looking at the notes on papers and screens.

Bruce looked up from his own calculations, then down again. Jane and Darcy had joined them in the lab. Jane was welcome, of course, since her expertise might be able to help them, but Darcy wasn’t helpful at all.

“She sometimes manages to ask the right questions,” Selvig offered.

So, Darcy stayed, ogling Tony’s body when they made him strip down to his underwear, then poked through all the readings and notes and high-tech gear in Tony’s lab.

“Well, we can establish there are significant traces of the Tesseract’s energy on him,” Selvig noted. “And I’ve seen the security feed from the Triskelion. I still don’t understand how he isn’t dead. Perhaps it is the arc reactor?”

“He did mention preparing Tony’s body for their initial… merging,” Bruce frowned. “The stress levels seem normal. There are no traces of abnormality in any of his bodily functions. In fact, it seems he’s… healthier than ever. His shoulder healed in a matter of minutes, which usually should have taken months, perhaps years.”

“Magic, baby,” Tony grinned at him. “Can I put my clothes back on now?”

“There is no hurry,” the Tesseract interrupted.

“You… what?” Bruce asked.

Tony frowned but before he got another word in the Tesseract took over, pushing him to the side. “Anthony has no problems being unclothed in front of you, contrary to what he may have made it sound like. He is rather fond of you, Bruce.”

Bruce felt himself grow a bit hot under the collar and moved to the side. “Well, Tony is… Tony.”

“His advances would be unwelcome to you?”

Bruce looked to the side. Selvig, Jane and Darcy were looking at him with varying stages of confusion and perhaps shock. He looked at Tony instead – the Tesseract. “I will not speak to you about it,” he said then.

His friend’s face twisted into an easy, comforting smile. “You need not fear, Doctor. Surely there are ways for you to conquer your fear and be intimate if you so desire.”

“Not a topic I feel like discussing right now,” Bruce said desperately.

The Tessaract looked at the three newcomers, narrowing his eyes. “Leave us,” he commanded. “I would have words with Doctor Banner.”

Selvig grabbed some of his notes then tugged Jane along, who was staring. Darcy picked herself up from the chair she had been sitting in, front to back, and shuffled off after them. As the door closed Bruce felt an increasing sensation of alarm.

“He wants you,” the Tesseract went on. “He desires you with his body and feels a kinship towards your mind.”

“Does he actually want you to speak on his behalf?” Bruce asked.

Again a smile, colder this time. “No. He is… unwilling to act on those desires but since I wish nothing but the best for him, I shall make his wishes come true.” And with that Bruce received his first kiss in years as Tony – the Tesseract – leaned forward, tugged him in by the collar of his shirt and pushed their lips together. It was chaste for Tony, he was sure, soft and wet, and when Bruce pulled back, Tony’s brown eyes stared back at him.

Tony almost fell off the table. “Oh my god… Bruce, I’m sorry, I didn’t…!”

“I know, it wasn’t you,” Bruce stammered, taking a few steps back.

The way Tony sat there it was almost as if it weren’t him at all; so nervous, self-conscious and reaching for his clothes. Bruce had never known Tony to be ashamed of himself, no matter what his state of undress.

“Tony,” Bruce said then, stepping forward, swallowing the suffocating lump in his throat. “Was that the truth?”

“The truth?” Tony looked up fast.

Bruce nodded. “Were you listening?”

Tony looked away, face hard to read but his eyes remained dark. “I heard,” he said then. “He wouldn’t stop. I wanted him to. You didn’t need to hear those things.”

“So they are true?”

Tony looked at him carefully, as if gauging his reaction. “You really can’t see it, can you?” he asked then, a sad, forced smile on his lips.

“Tony, you just lost Pepper,” Bruce started. He could understand the need to fill the void, to find comfort in companionship, and they hadn’t had time to talk about any of it.

“It’s not about Pepper,” Tony almost hissed. The lights above them flickered, as if in response to the heat in his voice. Blue lightning flashed across his eyes, then disappeared again. “It’s been there since day one, when I first shook your hand and offered you blueberries at the lab; before you caught me falling out of the sky, saving my life. It’s always been there, but you never saw it.”

He hopped off the table, looking for his pants and Bruce caught his arm although he knew it wasn’t smart.

It was like touching a live-wire, a sudden static between them, almost prompting the other guy to surface but Bruce fought it back, struggled to stay on top, to focus on this moment before he lost… everything.

“Tony, I’m sorry,” he finally managed.

“Don’t be. You don’t mean it,” Tony snapped.

“No, I do, I really do. I just know it’s not going to happen. I could never put you through that.”

“And it’s all on you to make that choice?” Tony asked, turning to face him, and he was himself right now, completely, no doubt about it. “You need to strut, Bruce,” he said then, voice breaking and it looked like he might cry, or laugh, or both. It wouldn’t be a nice laugh; not the ones Bruce enjoyed because they were real and pure.

“This is not a good time,” Bruce tried then – because there was no way he could say the kiss had been unexpected, or unpleasant, and that there weren’t times when he and Tony were absolutely perfect together.

“No time like the present,” Tony huffed. “We could all be dead tomorrow.” He cocked his head then. “Or maybe not,” he decided, as if a voice inside his head whispered another kind of promise. He locked eyes with Bruce again, his face blank, but not as blank as when the Tesseract took over; it was amazing to see there was an actual difference. Tony could never be so… empty. “Sooner or later, something’s going to give, but it sure as hell isn’t going to be me,” Tony told him then turned and left, grabbing the last articles of his clothing on the way out.

“Fuck,” Bruce sighed, leaning back again the table, still warm from Tony’s skin.

The sensation of the pressure of his lips still lingered on his own.

When Steve stepped into the kitchen, Banner was making himself some tea. He always made it the long way, brewing leaves, not liking the stuff they sold in the super markets that just needed to be steeped in hot water. As he stood there, stirring the drink in his mug, he was shaking a bit.

“Everything okay?” Steve asked.

Banner jumped then took a steadying breath. “Oh, it’s just you.”

“Whom were you expecting?” Steve prodded.

“I feared it might be Tony.”

“Did something happen?”

“You could… say that. But it’s fine, I’m… working on it.”

Steve nodded but wondered also. Stark was good at keeping everyone else on edge, but Banner seemed surprisingly resilient when it came to that, always smiling at the genius’ antics. Now, though, he didn’t seem nearly as at ease with it so perhaps he was concerned, or Stark had managed to finally piss him off as well.

“Do you want me to talk to Stark – Tony?” he asked, finding it a bit strange to use his first name after all this time, but that’s how Banner always called him and it felt appropriate.

“It’s fine, Steve. Thank you,” Banner reassured with that nervous smile and a twist of his hands before grabbing the mug and taking it with him.

Steve looked after him, a thoughtful half-frown on his face.

“The good doctor is in distress,” a familiar voice said from behind him and Steve turned to see Stark standing there – only it was the Tesseract, not Stark.

“Were you the cause of it? I would rather not have you antagonizing him.”

“Because of the green beast? Fear not, I am not aiming to push him that far.”

“But you are pushing him?”

“Ah, Steve…”

There was something in the way the Tesseract said his name that made a shiver run up his spine. It made Steve square his shoulders as if preparing for a fight. Only, he didn’t know what or who the enemy was.

“Doctor Banner is merely fighting himself to come to terms with what he wants,” the Tesseract supplied.

“And what is that?” Steve asked although he knew it was one of those trick questions Stark sometimes posed for him where he shouldn’t take the bait.

A smile drew across those devilish lips, yet the expression still seemed empty. “Same thing I suspect you are growing to want as well, Captain.”

Steve wondered what that would be. Well, Stark’s safety and the Tesseract back under control was something they both certainly wanted, but how could Banner struggle with that? “I don’t understand,” he finally admitted.

Stark’s body moved closer, the blue eyes intently staring at his. “For a man grown, you are shockingly naïve. Anthony tells me you are still innocent – a virgin. Is that so?”

Steve flushed, he couldn’t help it. Yeah, Stark made jokes about that frequently. Steve had never thought it was particularly funny or entertaining, even if it might be true – was true – but was the mark of the man in the twenty-first century really dependent upon whether or not he got laid?

The hollow smile persisted. “I assume you have no idea, then, that Anthony would love to help you change that.”

If not for his enhanced senses, he would have thought he heard wrong. “What?”

“You have been good to him, especially recently. He feels like he may have underestimated your affection for him. Did you know he used to idolize you? His father gave him all the best toys and comics, the most authentic Captain America Halloween costume… His boyhood dream – a wet dream – and then he met you, in the flesh, and you did not take kindly to him, at all. A huge disappointment, the hero of his childhood.”

Steve had no idea whether any of that was real. Then again, why would it be a lie? But if it was honesty, why did the Tesseract bother revealing those things to him?

When he focused again, the other man had moved closer. He could smell the cologne and the sweat overlaying the simple smell that was Tony Stark. And then he was much, much closer, his lips on Steve’s, and it was worse than crashing into the ice, freezing him from the inside then melting, waking up again –

He started to shove him away forcefully when his fingers squeezed around Stark’s shoulders and the wide eyes that stared back at him were dark brown, blown and horrified if that was possible. His mouth opened and Steve found his gaze falling from the dark eyes to the lips he had just felt on his own. He wasn’t certain what was going on but he could blame it all on confusion later, if need be, as he dove back down to reclaim Tony’s lips – it was suddenly easier to think of him like that, and not just a name on the side of a building.

Tony sputtered a bit when they drew apart, giving him a strange look. “Rogers, what the fuck?!”

“You started it,” Steve noted, flushed again, feeling defenseless and guilty although he had been told by many people that folks these days didn’t deem kissing, touching, dating or having sex as some kind of oddity; it was allowed to happen, just like that, no strings attached. Until this day he hadn’t really thought about that in any serious fashion other than that he thought he couldn’t handle it after being unable to get a date back when he was just a kid from Brooklyn.

Tony stopped sputtering, stopped breathing, his eyes focused on his shoulder far more intently than they should and Steve noticed he was still holding him in a tight grip. He carefully let go of Tony. The lack of contact seemed to jostle him out of it again and Tony stumbled back, hitting a chair, moving to the side to get around it. “This didn’t happen,” he claimed.

Steve frowned. “It did, though.”

Tony shook his head. “The fucker’s pimping me out…” he muttered.


The other man looked up. “You heard that, right?” he asked almost suspiciously.

Steve flushed, just a little. “Can’t help it if you’re talking out loud.” He looked at Tony steadily. “Did you mean the Tesseract?”

“He’s… messing with things he shouldn’t meddle with. This wasn’t supposed to happen. None of this.”

Steve had a sudden dawning suspicion he wasn’t just talking about the kiss but the confession about his feelings, and maybe it had a bit to do with his problem with Banner as well. Could it be this exact same thing had happened between them?

No, he decided – that couldn’t be it and it had nothing to do with a tinge of jealousy that suddenly seemed to dwell inside him. Why would he be jealous? Tony had no limits when it came to other people, Steve had learned, and he and Banner were close – although not that close – but neither had Steve and Tony been, yet now that they had kissed, no matter how it came to be, Steve saw Tony in a completely different light.

“Goddamn,” he swore when Tony bolted out of the kitchen.

“Is this, like, a regular thing now?” Barton asked as he approached Tony’s temporary work space in the living room.

Tony looked at him, glaring. He was glaring at everyone. He didn’t want them to talk to him, or notice him, or… anything at all. “What?” he finally snapped to get rid of the archer.

“You, smooching people,” Barton grinned then wiped the expression from his face just as quickly as it appeared. “It’s a bit worrisome. We don’t want the Hulk and Captain fighting each other over your skinny ass.”

Tony had half a mind to turn the microwave he was working on into a lethal weapon just to shut him up. As it was, he needed to either repair the damn thing or buy a new one because Thor liked his pop tarts warm and no one wanted to try and teach him to use the oven. He had tried to be nice and heat up his own food after seeing how it was done by others many a time, but apparently he still managed to break the microwave without any direct usage of his hammer. Where were Jane and Darcy when you needed them?

“It was a one-time event. Not going to happen again. And how do you even know about it?” Tony asked, annoyed.

“I see a lot of things without being near enough to be seen,” Barton said cryptically and left him alone.

Tony decided he needed to make a sweep of the Tower with J.A.R.V.I.S. again, to take care of any S.H.I.E.L.D. bugs that were still lurking around.

Thor wandered in next, followed by Loki. It made Tony grit his teeth for an entirely different reason. “How is your magical box faring?” Thor asked, meaning the microwave.

“It’s coming along,” Tony said. “Why is he still here?” he asked, pointing at Loki with the screwdriver.

Thor looked at his brother – adopted or not, he still called Loki that – and then turned his attention back to Tony. “As long as the Tesseract remains hidden inside you, we cannot return home. I swear to you, on my honor, no harm will come of Loki’s presence here.”

“Right,” Tony scowled then looked at his project, thinking he might need to take it down to his lab after all. He heard the Asgardians leave and a moment later Darcy Lewis’ high-pitched voice greeted them. She and Jane must have returned.

Briefly he thought of Pepper, how she might have enjoyed showing them around the city, and the pain in his chest was unbearable. He still didn’t remember the moment, but seeing the video feed so many times… it was slowly starting to feel like he had actually been there more than just physically.

The Tesseract pushed at his mind. ‘Think not of her. She is gone, you cannot bring her back,’ the Cube whispered.

Because of you, Tony thought. It’s all because of you.

But then the Tesseract showed him a glimpse of all they could do together, the knowledge Tony had never dared to hope possessing, not for years or in a lifetime, and it was all there within his grasp. It made him forget why he was so angry and in pain. Sometimes… it made him forget everything.

“Mr. Stark,” Selvig’s voice called out, “would you join us in the lab?”

“Another round of tests?” Tony asked. “I’m a little busy right now.”

“Director Fury promised us your full cooperation,” Selvig noted, which of course was a carefully veiled threat; Tony would have to agree or Fury would stomp down here himself and put him under lock and guard.

The mere idea made his ire rise and the Tesseract hummed approvingly inside him. “Fury can promise you stars from the sky; I don’t give a fuck about that,” Tony replied.

Selvig seemed to re-evaluate the situation. “It’s for your own good.”

“I’m sure I can form my own opinion about that,” Tony snapped and knew the Tesseract was raising its head, regarding the man, making Selvig blink at the sudden change of color in one eye.

The scientists stepped back and left the room. Tony watched him go and smiled. Why did people never back off like that before?

Fear. Yeah, he knew that was it.

‘They should be afraid,’ the Tesseract told him. ‘Together, we are strong. We are protected.’

Knowing that made Tony feel stronger and far less frail. Ever since Afghanistan and being forced to co-exist with this device in his chest, he had felt a certain weakness he constantly tried to avoid acknowledging or showing, making play it didn’t exist, but it was there… Now, he felt invincible.

It didn’t take long before Bruce appeared, Selvig on his heels, the latter looking a bit worried.

“Tony, there’s no need for threats,” Bruce told him.

Tony put down his tools and looked at him. Bruce shifted uncertainly but he didn’t leave, didn’t turn away and run. Not with Selvig watching. “It was not a threat. I don’t have to threaten. I can just promise certain things.”

“Please come down to the lab,” Bruce tried again.

“I don’t feel like it.”

“For me.”

Tony pursed his lips. It could be a trap, just a game of words, but when Bruce put it like that… “What do I get in return?”

Bruce flushed and shifted uncomfortably. “What do you want?”

“I don’t think you want me to say it while Dr. Selvig is in the room,” Tony noted a bit dryly, still uncertain if he wanted to admit to anything the Tesseract had told Bruce – or Rogers, for that matter.

Bruce carefully drew a breath of air into his lungs. “Fine. Just come down. Please,” he said and turned.

Tony put away his tools and followed. Selvig gave them both a look but decided on a professional approach – which meant dismissing the whole thing.

After Tony was shirtless and sitting down they took some readings and blood from him. Jane joined them soon after, Thor hovering just outside the lab; he sometimes caused interference with the equipment when he came too close to them or just got excited. Some things were too expensive for Tony to want to replace every other week, and others had been re-built and calibrated with a lot of hard work so Thor was pretty much banned from coming inside.

However, the same restrictions didn’t apply to the other Asgardian and Loki sauntered in, touching things.

Tony gave him an annoyed look at that. “Don’t touch my stuff!”

Loki looked up, raised an eyebrow, even dared to smile a little but pulled back his hand from touching another expensive piece of equipment. “Someone is touchy today.”

“You have no idea,” Bruce agreed.

“Get out,” Tony supplied.

“I have been asked to assist in treating your… condition,” Loki noted.

“I don’t have a condition and I most certainly don’t need your help taking care of it.”

“Ah, now, Stark! I have never known you to be so appalled by my presence!”

“You smashed me through a window.”

“That I did,” Loki mused.

“Which is possibly why we’re here,” Bruce recalled.

Tony gave Loki a pleasant smile that was probably as cold as his frost giant heart. Not that he saw how Loki was a frost giant since he was neither gigantic nor frosty. One day he would have to ask Thor to elaborate on that small detail he had revealed about his brother.

“The Tesseract’s decision to bond with a human host is not my doing,” Loki defended himself.

“Bond?” Selvig looked up from his work.

Loki gave a graceful shrug. “The Tesseract has revealed to us that it went to some trouble to prepare its host body. That implies an intention to stay, un-removed, which could be considered a bond – unless the Cube plans to burn through this body eventually and leave only ashes in its wake.”

Bruce looked up in alarm.

In response the Tesseract burned against a side of Tony’s mind, shoving him back slightly. He felt numb again.

“You presume to know my mind, Loki, pawn of Mischief and Lies?” the Tesseract asked.

“Do you intend to harm Tony?” Bruce cut in before Loki could reply.

The Tesseract moved his attention to Bruce. “I have told you several times that is not my intention. Anthony is safe.”

“But when you leave him? What will happen to him then?” Bruce pressed relentlessly.

Tony felt a ghost of a smile. “Who said anything about leaving?”

There was much more Bruce wanted to say, Tony was sure, but an alarm from J.A.R.V.I.S. interrupted them: “Sir, I’m afraid Director Fury has called for the Avengers to assemble. There seems to be some kind of trouble brewing in Washington.”

“Finally!” Tony jumped up, ripping sensors from his skin. “It’s about time we get out of this nuthouse.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Bruce started and Tony gave him a rather burning look – especially the eye that was still blue; he could almost see its reflection on Bruce’s glasses.

“Are we really going to have that discussion?”

Washington, D.C., USA

What at first had seemed almost like a simple task of removing some super-powered protestors soon became a full-blown mission to stop the violence from spreading. The police had already thrown some figurative gasoline onto the fire by giving the protestors some ultimatums, taking them for dressed up lunatics.

It was shocking in this day and age, as more masked vigilantes and superheroes protected the streets, that they still treated potential super-villains as escaped outpatients with a case of bad medication. That was how the Washington Monument got another dent, government and civilians felt threatened and the zeros at the end of the damage costs kept multiplying.

Steve tried not to let any of that show when he approached the men in charge of the situation, offering the help of the Avengers although they had been pretty much ordered to take care of the situation with or without the local law enforcement’s help. He was too polite to just run over them, though, knowing coordination and cooperation between both parties was necessary seeing as disasters kept hitting them one after another.

As he listened to the report of the destruction so far, Steve kept a wary eye on Iron Man. Tony hadn’t been in his suit since the Hulk almost killed him in it on the Helicarrier, and with the Cube playing a part he had no idea what would happen. However, there was no telling Tony not to come, and after what he did to Hawkeye none of them felt like challenging him unless they knew what they were up against. Dr. Selvig and Banner still hadn’t been able to provide that question with an answer.

Iron Man landed next to the police vehicles, looking around, scanning the area. A safe distance away a group of villains were wreaking havoc, one of them with some kind of flame-thrower attached to his back and arms, another creating powerful shock waves with mere claps of his hands although he seemed to also possess some kind of light suit of armor, and the rest had all kinds of ammunition and weapons attached to them.

“I can take care of them in a few minutes,” Iron Man said into the comm radio. “Their tech is not very advanced.”

“It’s getting the job done,” Steve replied. “Wait with the others. We want to take care of this quickly and efficiently. There’s already been enough damage.” The insurance companies were still fuming about the short-lived alien invasion in New York and with each new super-powered disaster there was more bad blood going around.

Tony let out a snort and Steve knew he could expect him to fly off to deal with this at any moment.

“Stark,” he ordered, “stay put.”

“Aye aye, Captain,” came a dry reply.

“Maybe you should sit this one out,” Black Widow suggested.

Steve knew that wouldn’t go over well.

“Why?” Tony asked, voice hot and holding a cutting edge. “You think I’m not up for this?”

“You are not yourself, not hundred percent.” Trust the Widow to not even hesitate when saying that.

There would have certainly been more but their reason for being here suddenly turned to unleash an attack on them; a shock-wave sent two police cars flying and spinning through the air. Thor lifted his hammer while Hawkeye and Black Widow dove for cover.

Iron Man stood his ground and Steve waited for his chest beam to take care of the nearest flying vehicle but it never came; instead the air around the armor flashed with blue, a sphere of light surrounding it and the car bounced back several feet upon impact before crashing to the ground. The blue sphere receded back towards the armor, sliding over the surface like liquid energy, merging into the arc reactor at the chest.

Steve hoped the armor wasn’t malfunctioning. “Stark?” he asked, to establish contact – and to find out whether the Tesseract had taken over. That had been everyone’s main concern – and whatever would follow after that happened.

The flame-thrower-bearing villain approached before there was a reply and Iron Man took flight, raising one hand to block the flames. Whether that was instinct or an actual precaution, Steve didn’t know, but they needed to finish this fast.

“Hawkeye, find higher ground, Thor and Black Widow, work distraction until Hawkeye can take them out,” Steve ordered. “Iron Man, find a weakness in their armor for Hawkeye to exploit –”

Either Tony didn’t listen or wasn’t in control, but he flew closer, knocking down the flame-thrower guy, then swept down for the others, blasting them with quick repulsor blasts. The shock wave guy attacked him from the side but Iron Man flipped in the air before the wave could hit him. Then the sphere was around him again, but it kept growing this time, pushing forward to meet the shock wave until the two clashed together and the blue energy barrier pushed through it, smashing into the villain, sending him flying and leaving him lying on the ground, armor smoking. And just like that the blue sphere receded once again.

“Well,” Hawkeye observed. “I guess that took care of it.”

Yeah, Steve thought. Not that he liked it, not one bit. He was used to Tony ignoring his orders, or bending them at least, but this was different – and if he knew that, then so did a lot of other people.

Stark Tower
Manhattan, New York, NY, USA

As could be expected, Fury pretty much blew a gasket when Steve reported back to him while the Avengers were still getting back from Washington. Bruce had stayed behind, the threat too minimal to risk him turning into the other guy and causing more damage than the villains combined had been able to create, but he listened as Steve talked to Fury.

Tony returned ahead of the others, refusing to ride on the Quinjet. It wasn’t that strange; he preferred going home at his own pace, should his suit be capable of flying post-battle, and he would be tinkering in his lab by the time the rest of them landed.

Bruce met the other man at the end of the Iron Man suit’s disassembly line. “I hear you have managed to make the energy shield work,” he noted.

Tony looked at him, side by side with the Tesseract, blue and brown eyes regarding him. “No, actually… that was all him,” Tony answered. “In the middle of all the tests I haven’t had time to focus on that, although I have most of the specs drawn up.”

Bruce frowned. “So this was… what, exactly?”

“The Tesseract,” Tony shrugged.

Bruce frowned, stepping towards him and taking Tony’s arm to stop him from walking past him. “Tony, you have to be careful. We still don’t know how the Tesseract affects your body, especially when its power is used. There might be unexpected results – and in worst case it might kill you.”

“I’m fine,” Tony smiled. “Don’t worry. I feel fantastic!” He grinned and grasped Bruce’s arm in return. “We could go work on the suit right now. I could show you the calculations. I could show you so much. There’s… infinite possibilities which he has shown me.”

The earnest light in the brown eye reminded Bruce of a child who was having the time of his life, full of energy and hope. Yet the blue one was cooler, more calculating, and it twisted his stomach every time. “He has told you things?”

“He has shown me,” Tony nodded. “With a little time, I could help you work on that cure you’ve been searching for. Perhaps there is a way –”

While Bruce may have embraced a chance to find a cure, even now after all the years he had spent resigned to his fate that the other guy was now a part of him, he found himself unable to accept this offer. It felt wrong. It felt dangerous. It was too good to be true. “Tony, there’s… a limit to how much a person should know. We’re not supposed to be all-knowing.”

“But you love information. We both do,” Tony frowned. The blue eye seemed even more alert now.

“Yes, but… Doesn’t it scare you? You have this entity inside you, unwilling to leave. It can take over in a heartbeat and you don’t stand a chance. As beautiful as the trade-off feels like, to lend him your body in exchange for all this, I cannot but fear that in the end you will be cast into some dark corner of your mind, caught up in the illusion that you’re still in control, ensnared by everything he can teach you.”

He could tell Tony didn’t take kindly to his suggestion but for an instant there was worry on his face. Bruce knew he wasn’t that far gone that he couldn’t at least consider the possibility of becoming a hostage in his own body – and in the end perhaps not even knowing it, pushed so far from the surface he couldn’t tell if he was alive or not.

The blue took over the brown and the expression vanished as if someone had wiped his face clean. “You still doubt me, Doctor Banner,” the Tesseract noted.

“I do,” Bruce admitted. “I worry for Tony. I care for him.”

“And Anthony cares for you,” the Tesseract confirmed. “You should embrace that happiness, this chance to have another being next to you.”

Bruce felt his breath catch. This again. His mind jumped right back to that kiss in the lab and the strange tension afterwards. Tony wanted him, liked him, but he wasn’t comfortable with Bruce knowing. And he had heard there had been some kind of incident with him and Steve as well… “I could not be with Tony even if I wanted to,” he said simply.

His friend cocked his head, although it wasn’t him that stared back. “There is much I can do to… help you. If you let me. Together, we shall be happy.”

“You mean Tony and I will be happy.”


Bruce wondered about that. He didn’t doubt for a moment that Tony’s emotions were real, because he knew him well enough to know it could happen. He liked closeness of other people – that much was certain from his constant stream of lovers and dates in the past – and he and Bruce certainly had things that made them compatible.

This slip of the tongue from the Tesseract, however, was uncommon. Could it be possible Tony’s affections were influencing the Cube as well? Or was the Tesseract only feeding the illusion that he wanted the best for everyone while it remained with the power to take over Tony’s body and mind at any given moment? And how did Steve fall into the equation? Was the Tesseract aiming to ensnare the entire team but hadn’t just made its move yet?

“I need to shower,” the Tesseract announced – no doubt voicing Tony’s wish to be clean. While he had put a lot of hours into making the suit as comfortable as possible it was still hot work at times and the Tesseract might change how his clothes and the armor responded to each other.

Bruce watched him leave, quiet and uncertain, then snapped out of it when the others arrived.

“How was he?” Steve asked before he had even put the shield down.

“Himself – until the Tesseract took over,” Bruce replied. “Tony still seems positively eager about all this.”

Steve nodded then followed the others to get cleaned up.

Bruce headed out to wait for them in the living room area, soon joined by their guests; Selvig and Jane emerged from the stairwell with Darcy in tow. “The others are back?” Jane asked. When Bruce nodded she disappeared, probably to see Thor.

“Where’s Loki?” Bruce asked, suddenly realizing he hadn’t seen Thor’s brother for a while. How was it possible they could forget he was around after all the grief he had given them? Loki had been so quiet and harmless that he kept disappearing into the background. Perhaps it was some kind of plan, or was he truly afraid of Thor’s potential wrath from misbehaving?

“He is currently residing in the room appointed to him,” J.A.R.V.I.S. answered, startling him a bit. “Do you require his presence, Dr. Banner?”

“No, it’s fine. Thank you, J.A.R.V.I.S.,” Bruce thanked the AI.

Selvig had sat down, working on a tablet while going over some papers and making notes in the margins. “Is there any way we could get data from the Iron Man suit?” he asked then. “It has a vast array of sensors, right?”

“I would presume so,” Bruce nodded. “J.A.R.V.I.S. keeps a close eye on Tony while he’s in the suit, and even Tony himself runs trials from time to time…” He hadn’t even thought of that approach although he certainly should have, especially after today. If the Tesseract had used its power the suit should have some readings about how it occurred and perhaps tell them if there was an immediate threat. Bruce didn’t want to be pessimistic but part of him hoped for some kind of sign that would make Tony reconsider the Tesseract’s position in his body.

Tony wandered in a moment later, his eyes brown for the time being, and he wordlessly slumped down on the couch beside Bruce.

“Dr. Selvig, you have an incoming phone call from S.H.I.E.L.D.,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced a moment later.

Selvig looked up. “I’ll take it in my office,” he said and got up with his notes and tablet, disappearing. The good thing about the Stark Tower was that it had plenty of room to give them all their space.

Once they were alone Tony leaned against Bruce’s side, just slightly, as if seeking some kind of support; he usually gave Bruce a bit more space than that since that’s the way Bruce preferred it. He wasn’t certain why but he was reminded of the kiss again – and their heated exchange of words afterwards.

“You’re thinking about it?” Tony asked.

Bruce refused to physically jump at the words, looking at his hands carefully. “I’m thinking about a lot of things; you’ll have to elaborate.”

Tony twisted around to look at him although Bruce was still decidedly not looking back. Then Tony’s face was much closer to his than was necessary, his lips landing on the corner of his mouth because he couldn’t get closer than that without making Bruce move. “Something along these lines,” Tony murmured.

Bruce jerked his head back. “I told you… this is not a good idea.”

“And I gave you the impression I didn’t care about your crappy reasons, right?” Tony shot back. So much heat in his voice, so much emotion – and not a flicker of blue in his eyes. It was all him, all of this for Bruce, and it had been so long; being afraid for everyone else before they could even be afraid for themselves. But Tony didn’t fear the other guy, didn’t see him like everyone else eventually saw the green monster, and Bruce wasn’t sure what to think of that.

It would be so easy to just give in. It wouldn’t even be his fault, really, although he knew he would feel responsible regardless of who should be blamed for it.

“Damn it,” he grunted then turned his head towards Tony’s face and took his lips.

Definitely better than before.

Infinitely better than the small peck against the corner of his mouth moments ago.

Tony seemed to appreciate it too and didn’t get wild, didn’t go crazy, and that was a small miracle on its own since he seemed like a lover who rarely took his time with anything. Perhaps he was serious about this.


Bruce jerked back, noticing Steve standing there, freshly showered and a look of indecision on his face. There may have been a shadow of hurt in the blue eyes and although he looked like he wanted to, he didn’t look away.

“Hey,” Tony said softly.

“I should go,” Steve decided.

“Or you could stay,” Tony threw back.

Steve’s mouth hardened. “I think we both know that’s not a good idea. Whatever your game is –”

Right; something had happened between Tony and Steve. Bruce had heard about it and wasn’t certain what exactly it had been and if he could trust the rumors, but right now he could feel the tension between them.

It was Tony’s turn to appear hurt and he looked down as if he suddenly didn’t want to be here at all.

“Maybe I’ll let you guys talk this out,” Bruce decided.

“No, it’s fine, I get it,” Steve interrupted.

“Stop being so fucking fine with it!” Tony finally yelled. The lights flickered, as did his eyes, and he breathed hard for a moment, the brown eventually winning a struggle if there ever was one. “I’ve made out with both of you in an embarrassingly small amount of hours. It’s fucked up, neither of you were ever supposed to know about this, and don’t you dare fucking leave, Rogers!” he bellowed as Steve looked ready to bolt.

Bruce took a steadying breath, trying to rewind to Tony’s words. “You were never going to tell us?” he asked then.

Tony gave him a furious look. “I think that much was evident from my initial reaction to Little Blue Wonder’s revelation, but it’s out there now, he made a move on you both, and I have no idea how to fix that.”

“So…” Steve started. “You like us both.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Don’t give me a lecture about how inconvenient, evil and scandalous that is, not to mention illegal and depraved.”

“I was just going to say… Well, none of those things,” Steve looked uncomfortable.

“Maybe it’s a normal thing in a team?” Bruce mused carefully. “We have been through so much, it creates a certain bond –”

“I had a hard-on for Captain America before he was even fished from the ice,” Tony cut him off. “And don’t you dare belittle our bond with something like that. I’m not rubbing up against our other teammates, am I?”


“Yeah,” Tony huffed.

“So,” Steve proceeded, carefully sitting down in a chair across from them, “what do we do about this?” Ever the one to try and find a solution.

“I can’t do this,” Bruce blurted. “He knows that, I know that. There’s no competition, if that’s what you mean; he’s all yours.”

Steve raised an eyebrow. “And you kissing him falls within that statement how exactly? You were turning him down?”

Bruce blushed.

“He’s still figuring it out,” Tony muttered, kicking his feet up on the table. The blue flickered in his eyes again then settled in the left one. “We’re all figuring it out although I think voting for ignoring it would be a smart thing to do.”

Bruce could tell it upset him to even say that; perhaps it had been an option when he hadn’t revealed his feelings to either of them but he could hardly take it back now unless they all suddenly forgot about it.

Steve looked down at his hands. “I don’t know if I can just ignore it. I know it’s out there, I can’t just…”

“You can if you want to. Ask Bruce for private lessons,” Tony glared at them both.

“There is no reason for anyone to ignore anything,” the Tesseract spoke up. “The prospect of a more intimate relationship appeals to all of you, no matter what your misgivings at this point. Why not explore it, all of you together?”

He blinked and Tony was back on the surface, looking a bit panicked.

“Is that what you want?” Steve asked.

I didn’t say that, did I?” Tony tried to make it sound angry, but failed somewhere in the middle.

“No, but you haven’t recently been saying a lot of things that you actually mean,” their leader pointed out. That actually shut Tony up for a moment. “Well?” Steve asked again. Bruce wasn’t certain why he was so intent on learning the truth; he would be much happier not knowing, imagining it was the Tesseract pushing them all.

“I guess,” Tony finally admitted, looking away, towards the stairs; towards the spot where he killed Pepper. Maybe he was going over that again in his mind. He let out a nervous, self-conscious laugh a moment later. “It’s just my luck, being stuck here, unable to choose. Usually I wouldn’t choose; I would just take both.”

“Why not?” the Tesseract enquired almost teasingly.

Bruce was fully prepared to answer that, then thought it over: how normal were their lives anyway? “This is crazy,” he finally decided, leaning back, suddenly weary.

“It’s not how I expected my life to turn out,” Steve confessed. Tony and Bruce both looked at him. Steve shrugged. “I used to picture I would find someone, have a home, have kids – or die in the war defending my country a hundred thousand miles away from home because that looked far more likely than finding a lady on my arm even with the difficulty I had getting into the army. After that… I guess I didn’t expect much of anything, at least not until the war was over and then I was flying a plane into the ocean.”

“Well, you still have plenty of chances to have that life,” Bruce reminded him. “To find a nice lady, have a home.”

“While fighting every bad guy thrown our way, whether they’re from Earth or outer space? I don’t think that’s a good place to start any kind of family,” Steve smiled a bit sadly. “And I guess I was never that realistic about that particular dream anyway.”

“So you would choose this instead?” Bruce asked, only half-serious.

“With people I can trust and care about, who are going to have my back in the toughest spot I can imagine?” Steve looked at them both. “I could hardly think of anything better.”

“Uh, thanks.” Bruce wondered if it was really that easy. No, it wasn’t: “I can’t do this. I just can’t. Guys, seriously. And I don’t even… I’m not into men, in general. Steve, do you even understand what you’re getting into?”

“I know I enjoyed kissing Tony,” was his only answer. It seemed to be enough for him.

Tony was oddly quiet and Bruce expected he had either died or disappeared, but he was still sitting next to him, very much alive, just staring at Steve as if he were some kind of alien wearing their friend’s skin. That was almost amusing seeing as Tony was actually the one with that particular issue on his shoulders. “It takes more than a kiss,” he finally said.

“I figured.” And finally Steve flushed, like he did a lot when things got too ‘modern’ for him.

“A lot more than kissing,” Bruce confirmed.

“But if it’s with someone you care about, does that matter?” Steve asked, and it was an excellent question.

Tony had no idea how this was suddenly his life, and how he had gotten here without actually stopping to think.

Contrary to popular belief, Tony did indeed stop to think once in a while even though he might do that while speeding on the freeway. He could multitask and enjoyed doing that. In fact, he felt more relaxed when his body was doing one thing and his brain another although that didn’t mean to say he didn’t use his brain when he was driving at high speed.

What it came down to was that he had snapped out of being possessed – which he couldn’t remember – and had found out he’d killed Pepper – which almost made him want to hurl himself down those same steps – after which the Tesseract had suddenly taken up residence inside him – giving him a brand new look at split personalities – and there was currently no answer as to how to remove the Tesseract from him – with or without Tony’s own cooperation. When had he been able to turn down the possibility to unlock the world’s secrets and especially secrets he hadn’t even known existed?!

Perhaps it was Bruce’s constant worrying that eventually made him stop and think and this time he did it literally, standing on top of the Stark Tower from where Loki and his Brainwashed Henchmen had fired off the Cube to create a portal which had nearly killed him.

‘You did die,’ the Tesseract whispered in his mind.

“What?” Tony said out loud because conversing inside his head just wasn’t within his comfort zone yet.

‘You died, falling from the sky. I felt it, the life leaving you, your suit unable to take the strain; you were in an environment it was not designed for.’

“I think I’ll have to thank the other guy for saving my life after all,” Tony muttered.

‘The beast did not save you, nor did your friends,’ the confident voice told him. ‘I did. My spark within you brought you back to life, and eventually, to me. We are one, Anthony. We are meant to be.’

That was fucked up in so many ways.

“So I guess I owe my life to you, then,” Tony mused, looking out over the city.

‘And you will repay me by giving me residence within your body.’

If that was an order, Tony wasn’t sure there was room for him to say ‘no’.

“Captain Rogers,” J.A.R.V.I.S. spoke up while Steve was in the gym, giving the equipment a bit more than they were supposed to take. Tony had promised to make improvements to them, to give him a real workout, but his mind was quick to move to other things. He had grown used to that in a relatively short time.

“What is it?” Steve asked, stopping.

“I believe there is something going on you would like to see,” the AI went on and a holographic screen appeared in mid-air. Even at the gym… How come none of it surprised him while he was under Stark’s roof?

A video feed appeared on the screen. He could tell it was originating from the top of the building. Tony stood there, talking to himself it seemed.

“I have analyzed that Mr. Stark is most likely having a discussion with the Cube-being,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced. “They seem to have concluded it was the Cube that saved him the day the Chitauri attacked, after his visit through the portal.”

Steve nodded hesitantly. J.A.R.V.I.S. played the video again from the beginning. “Did you show this to Banner or Selvig?”

“They are both currently visiting a S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. You were the only one present. Should I send them the video?”

“Yes, please,” Steve nodded, only then recalling he was alone with Tony – well, them and a dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents who mostly stayed out of sight. He moved out, wiping the few beads of sweat with a towel, wanting to confront Tony about this. He met him in the stairs as the man was coming down, his face contemplative, brown eyes dark.

“What was that about?” Steve asked.

Tony stopped mid-step. “What?” he asked.

“About you owing your life to the Cube?” Steve pushed, taking a few steps towards him, stopping while he was still beneath him in the stairwell.

Tony blinked. This was one of those moments when Steve noticed how big his eyes were; he wasn’t squinting at anyone, or making expressions. “I… you heard that,” he stated then.

“J.A.R.V.I.S. showed it to me,” Steve confirmed.

Tony’s lips pursed. “We’re going to have to have a talk about that…”

“I think he’s worried.”

“He’s an AI. The first month you claimed it made the house feel haunted with him talking to you, switching the lights on and off and opening doors.”

Steve felt his skin grow hot. Yeah, it had been eerie. As advanced as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s facilities were, J.A.R.V.I.S. put it all to shame: a butler without a body, just a voice, warm and familiar with emotions as far as he could tell although Tony always scoffed at the idea. “Well, I’ve grown used to him. And you’re avoiding the topic. What did you talk about on the roof?”

The blue popped to the surface so fast it almost made him fall back. That he hadn’t grown used to. “It is none of your business,” the Tesseract informed him.

“I was talking to Tony,” Steve shot back, voice hardening. “Let him continue.”

“I am not yours to command, human soldier.”

“No, but you will let us speak.”

“You threaten me?”

“You want to make him happy. Let us talk.”

“You have upset Anthony.”

“I’m sure he can live with it,” Steve raised an eyebrow. “He’s not made of glass; his feelings most certainly are not.”

He could tell the Tesseract was not pleased and it didn’t have to let Tony back to the surface, so Steve decided on a different approach: he leaned up, which reminded him almost too much of how he used to be, a head shorter than everyone else, and kissed Tony. When he pulled back a good while later, a breath caught in his throat, the brown had returned to his friend’s eyes. “Huh, it actually worked,” Steve congratulated himself.

Tony blinked, an uncertain expression washing over his face. His hand rose then settled on Steve’s arm that was currently laid on Tony’s shoulder. “Is this some kind of new way to deal with the Tesseract taking over?”

“It seemed to work,” Steve shrugged. “So, we were talking about someone saving your life.”

Tony looked away, down the swirl of the steps, and reiterated his discussion with the Tesseract. It seemed to trouble him somewhat which honestly was a good sign.

“JA.R.V.I.S., will you include this information in the message you sent to Banner and Selvig?”

“Already sent, sir,” J.A.R.VI.S. responded smoothly.

Steve’s eyes fell back on Tony who was regarding him quietly, very still compared to his usually restless self; he usually moved when simply breathing in and out, but now he seemed frozen with Steve’s hand still on his shoulder and Tony’s hand on said forearm. The contact between skins was turning burning hot and he expected one of them to burst into flames at any given moment.

“Are you going to… do something?” Tony asked, a bit of a shiver in his voice that dropped down right around Steve’s balls - not in an unpleasant way, he might add.

Briefly he wondered what he could do, or should, and how he had no real idea where this was going, or how, or if it was even real and had the potential to last. He had spent seven decades in the ice just when he had had a date planned, though, and maybe waiting for the perfect moment was the world’s biggest lie; if he didn’t do something now, he could lose it all.

He tugged Tony closer by his shoulder, pushing their chests together, ignoring the pressure of the arc reactor, and met his lips. This time Tony didn’t hesitate, parting his lips, letting the kiss turn wet, his beard creating a strange friction on Steve’s skin which reminded him this wasn’t like kissing Peggy or that woman who felt like she had to thank him for saving all those soldiers. Tony’s weight against him was solid and warm, not a ghost of the past, and Steve hoisted him up, still kissing him, walking back down the couple steps he had taken.

They ended up on the floor because he couldn’t locate the couch with his eyes closed, not wanting to break the kiss long enough to see where he should go. Tony didn’t mind; he lay close to him, tugging his shirt up, touching skin, kissing and biting his neck, and then he touched Steve where it mattered most, making him freeze and hesitate for the smallest moment before Steve picked up the pace and decided he wanted this too.

Touching Tony in return was more awkward since he wasn’t sure what he should do or what Tony liked, but feeling his skin against his own was nice, even though Tony didn’t let him take his shirt off or move it high enough to reveal more than the bottom of the arc reactor. Maybe it was a sore spot. Maybe it was something he didn’t like to look at, or let others touch in this manner.

They moved against each other and it was not like he had pictured it, on the floor of the living room, barely out of their clothes, but Steve refused to stop. He touched Tony’s face, making their eyes meet. “I want to… I want you to look at me. I want to know it’s you.”

Tony stopped for half a second, shifting, resuming, taking the lead. “This is me,” he promised but kept his eyes on Steve, which bordered on too intense, yet when they came only some seconds apart from each other, wet and sticky and smearing clothes and Tony’s hand, it made his heart hammer harder and Tony lowered his head to kiss him again. Steve trusted that his eyes remained brown all the way through it although the blue color had returned to the right one by the time they pulled themselves up and went to clean up in their separate rooms.

When Bruce got back from the trip to visit Fury – mostly to give an oral, in-person report on Tony’s condition and any ideas on how to fix it – he found the Tower surprisingly quiet. He discovered Tony in his room, knocking carefully on the doorframe before entering. “Everything okay?”

Tony looked up. “Yeah. How was your day?”

“Not as exciting as you would think,” Bruce admitted, hovering at the door. “Natasha and Clint stayed behind, debrief or training, I don’t know. Jane and Darcy took Thor out to shop in the morning and I assume Loki had to tag along. Selvig is already back at work in his lab.” He looked at Tony a bit more closely. “Where’s Steve?” He had assumed the soldier would hover around Tony to make sure he stayed… well, himself.

“In his room, I guess,” Tony noted, looking away.

“Did something happen?” Bruce wasn’t sure why he asked. Tony had all the right in the world to not be interested in the company of others, of Bruce himself. This seemed different, though; almost tense. They weren’t tense around each other.

“Steve and I…” Tony started.

“Oh,” Bruce said, guessing there hadn’t been a fight but the opposite of that. That explained it, somewhat. “Was it nice?” he asked then, although it made him feel and sound like a total douche.

“Well, it was literally a roll on the floor and it wasn’t what I had imagined it would be like, but I guess it was okay. He liked it.” Tony still wasn’t really looking at him and Bruce moved into the room, closed the door and sat beside the other man. Tony leaned against him slightly once he was there.

“You don’t need to feel obligated to tell me, or even try to make it up to me; like I said, this is a bad idea,” Bruce started. “I’m okay with you and Steve hitting it off. It’s fine.”

“No, it’s not,” Tony argued, angry almost, and he looked at Bruce with eyes filled with brimstone. “He asked me to look at him so that he knew it was me; so that I was the one who wanted it.”

“I think at this point it’s only fair to at least… express some concerns,” Bruce said tentatively, knowing he was treading on thin ice.

“Exactly. This thing is ruining each and every one of my wet dreams suddenly coming to life.”

For the first time Tony sounded truly upset about the Tesseract’s presence in his body; like it was suddenly personal when before it hadn’t been. Bruce was glad of the change although not of the context it came up in. “I’m sure once this is all over you and Steve will have time to figure out it was you, not an alien consciousness.”

“And what about you?”

“What about me?”

“Do you know it’s me?” Tony asked, his eyes searching, earnest for truth.

“It’s you right now,” Bruce frowned. He was almost completely certain of that fact and not just because Tony’s eyes were brown without a single hint of blue.

Tony stared at him a moment longer, as if savoring his reply, then leaned forward. Bruce knew the kiss was coming, felt it and saw it, but he didn’t move. He could pretend it took him by surprise. He also wondered if he could taste Steve on Tony’s lips – wanted to ask how long ago it had been since they did whatever they had done.

The other man didn’t push it which could be taken as an indication that it hadn’t been all that long since Steve had been where he was now. Bruce knew the thought of that should have been a turn-off, or at least make him feel a bit miserable, but his lips clung to Tony’s and he stayed there, quite happily, savoring it even if it felt like leftovers, which it really wasn’t, and he wanted to hit himself for thinking that.

A knock came from the door and Steve pushed his head in. “I was wondering –” He stopped, looking at them sitting on the bed with their heads together and it was pretty obvious he had caught a glance of them kissing.

“Steve,” Bruce started a bit stupidly.

“It’s fine,” Tony uttered, shifting but not moving away. It made Bruce feel a bit better – that he wouldn’t be cast aside. “Do you want to come in?” Tony asked then.

“No. Thank you,” Steve added almost as an afterthought, finding it impossible to be impolite even now. He pulled back out and closed the door.

Bruce felt guilty although Tony had come onto him first, hadn’t he? Not that it was any reason to think like he had some kind of claim on Tony, and besides, he hadn’t even wanted him! Well, he had, of course he had, now that it was out in the open, but there were a hundred and one reasons not to do this.

And then Tony shifted, getting up, and Bruce felt his heart drop to his stomach with disappointment – until Tony sat back down in his lap, leaning in, and Bruce just looked at him, startled but not so much to let the other guy make an appearance. Their lips were fused back together an instant later, Tony’s hands caressing his face, his hair, and it was so easy to lean back on the bed, Tony falling on top of him, and to touch him all over until it was too much and Bruce thought his heart would hammer out of his chest.

“Tony, I can’t…”

“Shh, it’s okay,” Tony sighed above him but pushed up a bit, looking at his eyes.

Bruce caught his breath, just looking at him, and tried to find the reins again. “Could we just… lie here?” he asked, not wanting to risk it.

Tony gave him a nod and slid down a bit further, still mostly on top of him. Bruce could feel the edge of the arc reactor pressing against his ribs and Tony moved to the side as soon as he realized that. “Sorry,” he muttered.

“It’s fine,” Bruce said back. “Really, Tony, it’s not…”

Tony was quiet, leaning his head on his shoulder, staying close – just not close enough for the piece of machinery to come between them.

That’s how Bruce fell asleep, quite unexpectedly, yet he woke up alone some hours later. He knew not to be too disappointed by that.

Tony sat in his workshop, J.A.R.V.I.S. working around him, throwing him comments about calculations, processes and on-going projects. He didn’t need to pay attention to it since the AI was able to operate it all on his own within his earlier orders, but the familiar voice calmed him.

The screen in front of him had grown blank and two faint spots of light reflected back from it; his arc reactor and one blue eye, shining back at him…

“Sir?” JA.R.V.I.S. interrupted his thoughts if he had even had any; he found his mind surprisingly blank these last few days – after Steve and he…

“Yeah, J?” Tony glanced up from the screen.

“Captain Rogers is awaiting access to your workshop. Shall I let him in?”

Tony had told J.A.R.V.I.S. to block anyone from entering but he guessed he should let Steve in if he wanted to talk – especially after he had seen him and Bruce together.

Steve walked in a moment later, taking a look around to see if something was on fire that he should point out – he always felt like pointing out potential safety hazards in Tony’s labs, which was a little annoying – then headed over to where he was seated. “Are you working?”

“Diligently,” Tony replied.

Steve studied his face – or eye, he wasn’t sure which. “Can we talk?”

“Absolutely,” Tony smiled, then dropped the expression. The other man kept looking at him and it was making him oddly nervous. “You wanted to talk?” he prompted after a moment.

“You and Bruce…” Steve started hesitantly then wandered off, reaching out to touch some of Tony’s work equipment. It was actually a prototype for a new weapon designed for the Iron Man suit but it needed some re-design before he would even start fixing it into the armor for a test-run.

“We kissed,” Tony admitted. “More can be said for the two of us.” Steve turned red at his words. Tony sighed. “How did you think this was going to go? I come onto you both – unwillingly, but the fact remains – and we even talked about it, remember? You were the one who actually thought it was a good idea and we should pursue it.”

That didn’t make Steve act any more comfortably. “I did, yes, but I think I thought… the three of us. I don’t know, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have brought it up.” He started to move back towards the door.

“Threesomes don’t just happen, Cap,” Tony reminded his retreating back. “I still need convincing this is going to happen, and Bruce… let’s not even talk about Dr. Banner’s issues on the subject.”

Steve turned to look at him. He didn’t look one inch like the man Tony would follow into battle. “What do you mean, you still need convincing? We just… did things on the living room floor!”

“Oh, that,” Tony dismissed, shifting his chair around a bit, one quarter of a whirl, then toed it back. “I’m good with sex. Fantastic, actually. That’s not a problem. If this was all about sex I would be all over it.”

And there Steve was again, blushing, but at least he didn’t try to hide it because for a man of his size that would be truly awkward. “So this is about more than sex?” he said after he found his voice again.

“Obviously. Boyhood dreams or no, I’m aware that being involved with you, Bruce, and especially both of you is putting a bit of strain on the team and I can’t afford to fuck it up. Have I mentioned I’m fantastic at fucking up personal relationships? You should… should have asked Pepper about that.” He fell silent. Even thinking about Pepper hurt. To fill that hole with anything, like a make-out session with Captain America, would numb it but not dissolve it.

“Tony,” Steve said and Tony noticed once again how he kept calling him that these days. Not ‘Stark’. It had happened some time after the first kiss. Steve stepped closer again, looking like a gentleman ready to draw out his handkerchief for his weeping lady. Not that Tony was weeping and he had plenty of his own – albeit greasy – towels to deal with any surprise leakages from his eyes, thank you very much.

“I’m fine,” he said quickly, shifting his chair around to swerve away and not be forced to look at Steve.

Steve didn’t argue – at least not verbally – but he laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing, and it was so sickeningly comforting Tony wasn’t certain whether he wanted to make a biting comment or shrink back in repugnance.

“We’ll make it work,” Steve promised then turned and left, which made it all so much worse.

Another kind of promise rose from the depths of his mind and his eyes searched the twin points of light reflecting from the blank screen once again: ‘There is nothing we cannot accomplish, Anthony.’ He blinked, one blue glowing circle vanishing for a fraction of a second. ‘There is no reason to be concerned.’

“What if it’s irreversible?”

If he were a rude person, Bruce might have thrown something at Jane Foster for daring to put to words the fear they all had.

“The Tesseract went into him, thus is must also come out,” Thor replied before anyone else could, sounding far more convinced than anyone else had for days.

Selvig was simply biting the end of his pencil, staring at the calculations, medical data and test results. None of them yielded an idea on how to separate Tony from the Cube again and they could barely discern the Cube’s existence within him as it was. If not for that sudden blue in his eyes and the completely separate mind, they could have all forgotten.

Then of course there were Iron Man’s latest appearances and the significant upgrade in his energy output. Too much, almost, for the suit to take – which had made Tony lock himself up in his workshop for days on end to tinker with his most beloved project. They had left him to it, knowing he was less of a danger to himself and anyone else like that although Bruce worried about the tests Tony might be conducting on himself. Then again, if the Tesseract wanted a living, breathing host, it would make sure Tony wasn’t hurt.

That was the only comforting thought he had left at this point.

“So we have come no closer to understanding the situation, or resolving it?” Fury leaned over the table.

“The Tesseract has only yielded so many answers to us,” Loki supplied. “We cannot… force him to do anything. That delightful little display of power towards Agent Barton showed us he is not only capable but willing to protect himself and his current host body. Should he decide we are no longer welcoming of their union, I fear he will take over the body and do as he likes.”

“You ‘fear’?” Steve asked. He had been on edge for days. Bruce had meant to talk to him about the kiss and the whole mess it entailed but he never got around to it; Steve looked antagonized enough to take on the other guy and Bruce had no intentions of putting himself in that position. He cared for their leader and wasn’t about to see if the other guy could hold onto him long enough to tear him limb from limb.

Loki gave Steve a look, raising an eyebrow.

“What do you care if we lose Tony for good?” Steve went on, challenging their former enemy.

“Oh, I assume that if that happens, there will be certain accusations made that it may have been my fault, originally, although I still make no claim for that to be true,” Loki replied. He did look a bit nervous, probably because Thor had brought his hammer into the meeting and was fiddling with it again, scratching some unseen mark of dirt from its surface.

“You assume correctly,” Fury replied.

Loki sank a bit further down in his chair, pursing his lips.

“Perhaps if Tony wanted the entity gone,” Jane ventured. “If they were to argue?”

“I think Stark is in no position to argue,” Clint noted. “We’ve seen that the Tesseract can and will take over in a second, and Stark’s consciousness is of no use to him. Perhaps we’re lucky he’s been kept around for this long.”

“Which shows some kind of attachment between the Tesseract and Tony’s presence,” Jane pushed the subject.

“We could take a look at that,” Selvig noted.

“Do we really want to alert the Tesseract to that possibility?” Bruce asked. “Perhaps it doesn’t need to keep Tony around and us prodding at the subject will make the transition happen at a faster rate.”

There was silence again.

“There has to be a way,” Steve muttered, his fingers tense as they pressed against the table.

“We’ve run all the tests we can imagine,” Selvig noted. “Anything and everything we’ve dared, anyway. Unless we find a way to dig deeper, which I doubt, this is as far as we go.”

“I refuse to accept this,” Fury barked, pushing away from the table, pacing. It was odd to see him so wound up and Bruce liked to imagine it wasn’t as much that he wanted the Tesseract back and out of his sight but that he actually wanted Tony to be as he was. World needed Iron Man, after all…

The door opened and Tony sauntered in. “I wasn’t invited, it seems,” he noted.

“You were out,” Fury noted; Tony had gone for a spin in his latest modification of the suit. They had decided it was a good time as any to have this meeting, and although no place was safe from Tony’s eavesdropping, S.H.I.E.L.D. agents had found them a J.A.R.V.I.S.-proof room.

“I’m back,” Tony smirked and slid into the chair the director had just vacated, swaying it from side to side in a bored fashion. “So, what’s on the table? New super-villain? I’m itching to go and give my new suit a real test run.”

“Nothing like that,” Natasha gave him a sweet smile, which usually made Tony sit up and shut up, but now he just frowned at the agent and kept looking around.

“No? Then you must be talking about me.”

Silence followed that statement.

Tony’s face hardened just slightly. One of his eyes turned blue. Bruce thought it a good sign it wasn’t both of them. “Why can’t you just accept how awesome this is? For once no one can waltz in and steal the Cube,” he threw a rather pointed look at Loki. “There’s so much we can learn from this, so much we can do, and all you do is moan about how potentially dangerous it is. Tell them,” he gave Bruce an accusatory look. “I’m healthy as ever! Save for some mood-swings and occasional alien-talk, I’m fine.”

“And that’s great,” Bruce replied. “We’re happy for you.”

Tony’s face became passive. Bruce had known it was only a matter of time before the Tesseract stepped forward.

“You plan to eject me from Anthony’s body?” the Cube asked.

“We are worried for our friend,” Thor replied.

The blue eye regarded the room. “There is no reason for concern, but should you try to meddle with my existence in this body, I guarantee you will regret it. You are his friends and allies, save for you, Loki Layfeyson,” he noted, and Loki sat at attention again, “but I will not hesitate to protect what is mine.”

“You think Tony’s body is yours?” Steve asked, tension cutting the air like the lash of a whip.

A half-smile played on Tony’s face, and yet it was oddly detached from the emotion that should usually go with it. “Why, yes. We share it.”

“And how long before you decide he doesn’t need to be around?” Steve challenged.

Bruce felt a bead of sweat work its way down his hairline.

Both of Tony’s eyes turned blue. He leaned forward, both feet on the floor. “I like the company,” the Tesseract told them. “His mind is brilliant. The way he sees this world and yearns for more reminds me of the things I have learned of humanity while sitting on this planet. But, as you so eloquently put it… I may come to decide, eventually, that I no longer want him around. I am certain we will both regret it when that day comes.”

With that, Tony – the Tesseract – stood up and left the room. Bruce wondered if it was just him or had the air conditioning suddenly stopped working?

“We need to get it out of him,” Clint said finally, his voice tight.

Steve nodded, his eyes never leaving the door as it slowly swung shut behind their friend.

“Banner,” Steve called as they filed out a moment later. “Bruce,” he repeated after the man didn’t stop and he reached out to touch his arm – not hold, because that might end unfortunately for them both.

Banner stopped with a sigh and allowed the others to pass them. “This isn’t a good time,” he said. “Especially for you.”

Steve knew he had been keyed up after his talk with Tony although he wasn’t sure why exactly. “I’m sorry if I’m… I’m working on it,” he said then, giving a small tense smile. “Maybe you have a few tips?”

“I might,” Banner smiled a bit.

They were alone in the hallway now, footsteps disappearing. Steve kept listening because he had no particular desire to talk about this with someone listening other than the two of them. “I don’t think any of this is getting easier before that thing is out of Tony for good.”

Banner nodded. “I’m sorry if I made things more awkward,” he said then. “I didn’t plan on it happening.”

“Just as I didn’t plan on the things that happened in the living room before that,” Steve admitted, blushing at the memory. They looked each other in the eye. “Look, I know it’s not going to be easy, and it seems Tony has some problems with it as well, but we need to work together on this.”

“We’re a team,” Banner agreed. It was nice he could finally say it instead of going on about what a terrible mixture they were. Well, Steve himself had thought that at the beginning so it wasn’t hard to see where Banner’s hesitation had been coming from.

“Not just that,” Steve dodged. “You, me and Tony… it’s complicated, it’s going to be in the future too, but it also might be the thing that pulls him through all this.”

Banner seemed to consider that. “Has Tony given you the impression that he’s… willing to listen to us?”

“No, not really,” Steve confessed but went on before Banner could draw away: “But I think we have a connection to him the others don’t. And he knows it, too. When he’s talking to me, I feel like I sometimes… reach him. Do you know what I mean?”

“You’re able to make him listen,” Banner nodded. “Yes, I know – or at least I pray it’s like that because if he’s unwilling to listen to us, who’s going to save him from himself?”

When Banner turned and walked away, Steve felt like they had reached an understanding.

If only they could find one with Tony.

They knew any further planning on how to remove the Tesseract would have to be done outside the tower – or S.H.I.E.L.D. premises – because Tony had access to them. Not that it was Tony they were concerned about but the consciousness lurking beneath his skin.

Bruce and Steve took part in meetings as much as they could, at least one of them present, but they also tried spending time with Tony, getting close to him, keeping an eye on what his reaction was to the meeting he had managed to walked into and what his future plans might be. Tony wasn’t too forthcoming about the latter but as long as things kept sliding to the side of intimate Bruce guessed there was no immediate danger of him just taking off.

What Tony would do if he ever took off was anyone’s guess.

“Bruce?” Tony’s voice stirred him from his thoughts.

“Yes?” Bruce shifted his head. Tony was lying beside him on the couch, his head in his lap, and Bruce found it oddly comforting to just run his fingers through the dark locks that were unruly rather than carefully combed right now.

“What do you think they’re plotting?” the other man mused, dark eyes staring at the ceiling then moving to find his face.

“Who?” Bruce asked although he knew what Tony meant. He didn’t have to admit to anything, though.

“The others. Right now. Plotting… They keep going under the radar every now and then, hiding from me.” His other eye turned blue. Bruce tried not to wince at that.

“I don’t know,” Bruce ventured. “There’s work that needs to be done.”

“Then we should be there, too .”

“You would rather be there than here with me?” Bruce knew it was a low blow but it would throw Tony’s brain off track and right where he wanted it – away from the others and the plotting on how to get rid of the blue eye and the thing attached to it.

Tony shifted, smiled, twisted around a little, breathing against Bruce’s stomach, nuzzling close. Dangerously close, but Bruce held onto his self-control and decided he would ask him to move back should it get worse. “When you put it like that…” Tony mused against his shirt.

“Thought so,” Bruce replied, trying not to sound tense or worried. His fingers resumed their idle patterns in Tony’s hair and the man didn’t insist they should do anything else. It seemed he took things much easier with Bruce than Steve but it might have something to do with the reception he got, too; Steve was far more forward and willing to enjoy the physical side of things with Tony and while Bruce wasn’t certain if they had actually fucked yet, there was much heavier petting involved. He didn’t mind, he really didn’t; he worried about the other guy, worried about how far Tony would take things before considering the consequences of his actions.

There was a beep from the side where he had left his phone.

“Dr. Banner, Captain Rogers is calling,” J.A.R.V.I.S. announced softly.

“Okay,” Bruce started to get up – only to realize Tony had fallen asleep in his lap. He smiled, moving out from under him carefully, leaving him sprawled on the couch and went to his phone. “Hey, Steve. What’s up?” he asked casually.

“How’s Tony?” Steve asked back.


“At this hour?”

“You remember we’re talking about Tony, right? He was up half the night making the new, improved suit.”

There was a moment of silence; they both knew why Tony wanted to make a new suit – and who was giving him plenty of ideas for it. The Tesseract seemed to like the idea of the suit, after all, perhaps thinking it would further protect its host body.

“Has anything new come up?” Bruce asked.

“We’re going to a meeting in a moment. Selvig said he might have a new approach to the problem although it didn’t sound like he thought it was a definite solution.”

Bruce nodded although Steve obviously couldn’t see it. “You can tell me when you get back.”

“Keep him out of trouble.”

Bruce looked back on instinct, fully expecting to find Tony on the couch, still asleep, looking innocent and worn out. Instead he jumped, dropping the phone, feeling his heart hammering as the blue eyes regarded him coolly; he hadn’t heard Tony get up and move to stand behind him.

The Tesseract crouched down and picked up the fallen phone. “He’s taking very good care of me, Captain,” he replied to Steve’s earlier line. Then he disconnected and threw the phone to the side.

Bruce took a careful breath, trying to calm himself – yet not too calm if he had managed to piss off the Tesseract and the other guy needed to jump on board.

Tony’s impassive face gave him some kind smile that was entirely too cold to resemble one more than in shape. “This would be a good time for you to start tip-toeing again, Doctor Banner,” he announced, then sauntered off towards the general direction of the workshop.

Bruce let out the breath he had been holding and watched as the skin of his palms turned back to a normal human shade of pale pink.

A secret S.H.I.E.L.D. base,
New York, NY, USA

“Our basic understanding of the Tesseract has not changed,” Selvig was saying. “It is still an energy source, and even with a mind of its own we have an idea – however vague – on how its powers work. All we need to do is harness it.”

“To complete the work you started before Loki’s attack?” Barton clarified.

The scientist nodded. “We know more about the Cube than we used to back then. With our resources pooled –” he gave a look towards Thor and Loki at this point, “I believe we might be able to contain the Tesseract, which would free our hands to find a way to get it out of Mr. Stark’s body.”

Steve wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that, but as long as the Tesseract wasn’t coming out on its own and Tony didn’t have a say in the matter even if he wanted to, it was up them to save him.

His earlier call to Banner worried him slightly because he was fairly certain the Tesseract had been able to monitor the call even though they had tried to keep discussions like this away from Tony and the being dwelling inside him. He knew Banner was more than capable of fending off an attack from a pissed off Cube, at least once he transformed into the Hulk, but that was no one’s desired outcome. Even Fury had given an order to avoid antagonizing Stark as much as possible.

“How long before we can build the harness?” Fury asked.

Selvig looked a bit uncertain at this point. “We have some of the technology and adequate calculations, but as long as we are not aware of the full potential of the Cube we cannot be sure if anything we build can hold it. And there is a potential risk that containing the Cube would destroy Mr. Stark’s body.”

That rendered the room silent.

“That is not an acceptable outcome,” Fury noted just as Steve was opening his mouth to object.

Selvig shrugged. “I’m aware of that, Director.” He glanced at the two Asgardians. “Perhaps we need something with more finesse. The container that was built to contain the Tesseract’s power and enable you to travel between your world and ours… could that be used to meet our needs?”

“Absolutely,” Thor nodded eagerly.

“As long as the full power of the Tesseract eludes us, we should not be too confident,” Loki noted, deflating his adopted brother’s happiness. “The Tesseract did not unveil its own mind before and it has not displayed an ability to control its own powers prior to what we have seen recently. Then there is Stark to consider – he might want to be free of the Cube eventually but as long as his mind can be accessed by the Tesseract and used to gain necessary information, not to mention control his body to execute any necessary plans to prevent our attempts of capture…”

“Were you this pessimistic when you tried to take over our world?” Romanoff mused.

Loki leaned back in his chair and pursed his lips in disdain.

Fury turned his eyes back to Selvig. “Start working on it immediately. All we have is theoretical information, old Hydra notes and scattered facts from Loki, but it may just be enough.”

Steve wasn’t certain if he was comfortable with those odds but this was the closest they had come in planning Tony’s rescue.

He prayed it would be enough because they might not get a second chance.

People started getting up and moving out. Fury gave him a quick look and Steve remained in his seat while the others took their leave. “Dr. Banner is with Stark?” Fury asked needlessly once they were alone.

“Yes,” Steve nodded. “I should get back there; the Tesseract is aware of our meeting and while I trust Banner’s ability to deal with suspicion…”

Fury’s eye narrowed, just slightly. “We are running out of time. We can’t afford mistakes on this one or we might lose both Stark and the Cube for good.” He stared adamantly at the bare table for a moment then directed the steady stare at Steve’s face. “Do you think you can persuade Stark if necessary? We cannot force him at this point.”

Steve wondered what kind of persuasion they would need – and also whether Fury knew of their involvement – then decided the latter wouldn’t surprise him at all; Fury seemed to know about everything that transpired around him. Why should Tony’s relationship with Steve and Banner be any different? “I don’t think it matters, sir,” Steve said honestly. “Whether we can persuade him or not, it’s all about what Selvig can do to separate him from the Cube.”

Fury sighed and nodded tersely. Steve took that as permission to leave. He headed out to the Stark Tower with Romanoff and Barton while Thor remained behind with Selvig, Loki and Jane. The flight to Manhattan seemed to take forever and when he arrived, it was silent everywhere. Well, it was silent almost all the time these days, tension and dread in the air.

“Banner?” he called out and the man appeared a moment later. Steve let out a sigh of relief. “Where’s Tony?”

“In his workshop,” Banner replied. “Has been there since the phone call and I’m happy to leave him there. At least as long as it’s not him but the other one…”

Sometimes they all loathed saying it and Steve wondered if this was how Banner felt about the Hulk. This entity you couldn’t control and which you would rather forget about, only it was there, persistent, unwilling to be dismissed.

“Was there a problem?” Steve asked, referring to their earlier phone call.

Banner looked to the side as if solving some kind of equation in his head, then shrugged and looked back at him. “Maybe. I’m not sure. I don’t know if Tony knows, either. The Tesseract has its suspicions and the clock is certainly ticking.” Which was his way of saying that he hoped there had been some kind of breakthrough at their meeting.

Steve hoped he could say they were getting closer to an answer and not make it sound like a wish instead of hard fact. But since that wasn’t possible he opted to say nothing at all, and Banner read it all from his face like an open book.

Two weeks later

Tony took a look around. “I haven’t seen this place before,” he mused. They were on the outskirts of New York, far away from the buzz of the city, and had entered a facility that had ‘S.H.I.EL.D.’ written all over it.

It was a quiet place when he, Bruce and Romanoff entered, not a soul around, and Tony wondered why they were here. The Tesseract regarded the hallway, not quite on the surface but firmly lodged in a place from where he could follow what was happening. Tony was keenly aware of it, the slightly uncomfortable sensation he had grown used to over the weeks. Just like when he first had to grow used to the arc reactor in his chest; he would learn to deal with it. Maybe not the times when the Tesseract took over because he disliked not being in control of his own body, but as long as things went smoothly they could co-pilot without incident.

The last few weeks he had spent mostly alone in his workshop, planning and working, listening to the whisper of the Cube at the back of his mind, learning things he could implement in his work and other things that were less meaningful yet new nonetheless. The only people to join him were Bruce and Rogers; Bruce, at first, seemed cautious, but Tony reassured him nothing was wrong between them. Rogers was his usual self; it was fairly new, the touches and occasional kissing, and things didn’t get wild again like that day on the living room floor…

Tony missed it, the closeness he had briefly had with the two of them, but he didn’t feel interested enough to pursue intimacy with the two men who had been inadvertently led to know he was interested in. Now that he thought about it, he recognized the Tesseract might have had a hand in it; they had been busy sharing knowledge, just surfing around inside Tony’s brain and accomplishing things that satisfied him deeply. Outside that, human contact didn’t seem necessary and maybe Tony should look into that because while he wasn’t needy, per se, Tony had never begrudged himself human companionship.

Maybe the shock of losing Pepper was finally hitting him…

His head buzzed as soon as the memory entered and he blinked to reassure the Cube that everything was okay; reminders of Pepper, of the things he had done while not being himself, didn’t thrill either of them. They were best left alone.

“This way,” Romanoff pointed, taking a turn and leading them to an elevator. She swiped a card through the lock, the doors opening. They stepped in, the cage jerking gently as it began to move.

“So, what’s down there?” Tony asked, leaning against a wall, watching the numbers beside the doors blink as they descended.

Romanoff gave him one of her patented looks. Tony cringed; he still remembered the needle stabbing into his neck. He wondered if he would ever forget. And he had actually wanted her in his bed…

‘She lied to you,’ the Tesseract said needlessly.

Not the first person to do that, Tony reminded himself. Or the last. He couldn’t hang onto little details like that especially when they were on the same side now. Mostly. As far as he knew. Maybe he needed to talk to Fury about that one of these days because he wasn’t always sure about her motivation when it came to the Avengers.

“Is it another test?” Tony asked then, looking at Bruce for answers, knowing he might yield some.

Bruce shifted, conscious of his gaze and the way Tony wanted to be answered. “Yeah,” he finally admitted. “Hopefully it won’t take long.”

Tony let out a dramatic heave of air. “Great. A way to spend the day. How far down are we going?” he started to ask just when the elevator came to a halt and opened to another long, bare hallway. There was no one there either. Tony was okay with the crowds missing – he was good at distancing himself when he wanted to – but this wasn’t his doing nor was he in control of his environment, and he always needed to be in control of his environment even when he was totally out of control himself. Especially when he was out of control…

Romanoff walked out of the elevator, hips swaying, heels clicking. Tony looked but didn’t feel anything. Bruce was beside him, though, warm and interesting unlike her, and Tony walked closer to him, feeling his body bump against his. Bruce, as always, tried taking a step to the side to minimize the contact but Tony kept moving along with him and eventually the brown eyes looked at him, asking and wondering if he did it on purpose. He should know by now that Tony did very few things without a reason. The reasons didn’t need to be particularly fancy, mind you, but reasons nonetheless.

“We’re here,” Romanoff noted, opening a door. It hissed, thick as it slid aside. Tony looked at it, suddenly wary – perhaps because the Tesseract was wary, coming further to the surface. Half of his face tingled again. Bruce didn’t even flinch at the blue eye appearing these days, just like everyone else. It had become part of the routine.

“What’s up, Doc?” Tony called out when he spotted Selvig. The man looked at him but didn’t reply. Tony didn’t care. He looked around the space, the gadgets on the walls, trying to figure out what they were for. One never knew in S.H.I.E.L.D. facilities and he had an innate distrust for tech that wasn’t his own.

“Please step in,” Selvig finally spoke up, coming down a few steps from a low catwalk. “Right through here,” he said, pointing at what looked like a door into a cylinder of a room with semi-translucent walls.

Tony frowned. “What’s in there?”

Selvig hesitated.

“Just a few tests, Tony,” Bruce said from his side.

Tony gave him a disappointed look then shrugged and stepped in. There was no other door, only the one he had just come through – and that one suddenly hissed shut, sliding into place. It kind of reminded him of the cell at the Helicarrier designed to hold the Hulk. An uncomfortable feeling crept up his spine and the Tesseract pushed at his mind to take over. “Can we talk about this?” Tony tried, fighting for control.

Bruce looked at him and something in his eyes warned Tony he wouldn’t like what followed; it was as if Bruce were apologizing, not on board with this, and then Selvig pushed a button and the air hummed. Tony felt like the oxygen was being sucked from his lungs and he was suddenly unable to breath. It washed over him swiftly, dropping him to the floor and he clutched his chest in a strange need to protect the arc reactor.

“How are we doing, Doctor?” Barton’s voice asked. The rest of the team had just entered, joined by Fury, all of them regarding him.

Tony gasped; it felt like someone was pushing his ribcage open from the inside. Every nerve in his body was beginning to burn.

“Well, the machine definitely has an effect on him,” Selvig noted.

“Will it hold the Tesseract?” Fury asked.

“I guess we’ll see,” Selvig noted dryly and Tony hurled curses at him in his head although he was unable to speak. The world began to black out, then the colors went crazy, he tingled all over – and the Tesseract took over. Tony was shoved back to the passenger seat, paralyzed and harnessed into place.

“You have crossed the line, humans,” Tesseract said, picking Tony’s body up from the floor.

Thor gripped his hammer; Loki shifted at his side. “I think it is not working,” the God of Mischief observed.

Selvig pushed another button, cranking up a switch, and the air hummed more intensely.

Blood flowed into his mouth, leaking out of his nose, and then the Tesseract flared. Blue light flashed and the cylinder-shaped room exploded with a furious shattering sound. The others took cover as the Tesseract stepped out, shoes crunching the broken material.

“You fools think your primitive attempts would capture me?” he snarled, wiping blood from his face.

Bruce was still on the floor when the others started to get up, backing off, ready for a fight.

“Banner?” Rogers asked, nervousness cutting his voice. His eyes kept darting back up at Tony, wary.

Bruce groaned, a tearing sound cutting the silence. The Hulk was coming out to play.

Tony knew that wasn’t good but he could tell the Tesseract didn’t care. “I tried explaining my intentions to you and yet you attack me!”

“You have taken our friend; we will do whatever it takes to free him,” Rogers noted, shifting his shield.

Banner was starting to grow, his features long gone, joints popping and his skin a steady shade of green.

“Then I am certain you are willing to die for him as well,” the Tesseract replied. “I am not to be toyed with.”

Tony struggled. This was going too far, he didn’t want to hurt his teammates – including the two men he had just a tad bit more feelings for than brotherly love required.

As a reply he was shoved further back with frightening ease, and suddenly all of Bruce’s fears and Rogers’ cautious remarks started to make sense. Well, to be honest they had just hurt him, probably in some half-assed attempt to separate the Cube from him, but he didn’t think it warranted such threats on the Tesseract’s part.

The Hulk roared, the others moving away from him swiftly. Only Tony’s body remained where it was, the Tesseract unconcerned with the rage monster’s approach.

“Hulk!” Rogers roared. “Don’t hurt him. He’s… still a friend.”

“You think this creature understands you?” the Tesseract taunted. “All that rage. Basest of emotions…”

The Hulk stopped in front of him, breathing loudly, eyes scanning a familiar face. Then, quite suddenly, he growled and jabbed a thick finger at his chest yet not strong enough to damage the arc reactor. “You give Tony back!” Hulk demanded.

In his dark corner Tony stirred at the words. How did the Hulk, of all people, comprehend what was going on?

The Tesseract smiled. “I am a part of him, you green menace. If you do not like it, I shall destroy you along with your rebellious friends.”

The Hulk stomped, growling again, inching closer, forcing Tony’s body to retreat or risk being stepped on. “Give Tony back! Hulk not smash.”

“But this is my new home; I cannot leave it,” the Tesseract dared to make him smile.

“Not Cube’s home; find new home, outside Tony.”

“This is honestly the longest discussion I’ve heard anyone have with the big guy,” Barton’s voice whispered from the right, making the Tesseract jerk his head. An arrow was aimed at him from where Hawkeye had perched himself on a catwalk to get a better vantage point. “You ready to listen to the friendly suggestion from our green friend or do we have to persuade you some more?” he asked then, seeing that he had been noticed.

The Tesseract looked beyond the green figure; the Avengers had spread out. Selvig and Loki were nowhere to be seen. Fury had a gun in his hand where he stood near the main entrance, which was now bolted shut.

The Tesseract let out an annoyed snort. “You think you can challenge me?”

“We would prefer you just give up and hand us our friend back,” Fury tried to negotiate.

“Friend?” He laughed. His lungs still hurt from before, but it didn’t seem to reach the Tesseract’s notice; like he was ignoring the pain, bypassing it, although it was very much there. “Anthony is not your ‘friend’; you use him, just like the other Avengers. They are just the means to an end, someone you can count on to do your heavy lifting.”

“They know that’s what they’re needed for,” Fury said. “To fight the battles I cannot.”

“And when those battles are no more?”

“I’m afraid there will always be one of those coming our way,” Fury replied unhappily.

“Yes,” the Tesseract mused. “You would be out of a job otherwise.”

“Oh, my work doesn’t end there.” Fury’s dark eye flickered, just a little, but the Tesseract didn’t miss it; Romanoff, now in full Black Widow mode, came approaching from behind, no doubt to tase him. He had a brief flash of memory of this happening before, only he was in the suit and she hit him with something that shut down the armor, but he couldn’t pinpoint when that had happened, and he would most certainly remember that.

The Tesseract whirled and the sphere of energy was there, throwing her back and making the Hulk take a step backwards as well. One of Hawkeye’s arrows hit the barrier, exploding upon contact. To his credit, Rogers didn’t try his luck with the shield. Thor, however, had lifted the hammer and it came flying through the air, making the barrier shudder but not getting through. With an annoyed roar the God of Thunder summoned Mjolnir back to his hand.

Fury fired two shots at the barrier then seemed to come to the same conclusion as everyone else; they were not getting through.

“You can tell it’s not Stark fighting,” Hawkeye noted. “Too much defense. Is that all you’ve got?!” he then raised his voice in challenge.

It wasn’t; the Tesseract raised his arms and the barrier expanded like a blast wave, hitting the room around him, sending all of them flying back through the air until they met a wall or another solid enough object to take their weight. The Hulk and Thor crashed through surrounding walls, debris flying in the air as the wave faded, the excess energy receding and crawling back to the Tesseract, seeping into the skin. The arc reactor burned bright in his chest.

Afterwards it was quiet but slowly the others got to their feet. It wasn’t a surprise Rogers was the first stepping forward, dust on his uniform, the shield clutched close to his arm. “Tony, if you can hear me… you have to fight. This isn’t you.”

The Tesseract cocked his head, considering the words.

Tony wanted to scream inside. Try as he might, it was like clawing at air; he wasn’t hitting anything, nor getting any closer to seizing control. All those absentminded fears that this might happen, coming more from others than himself, were true. He was a mere vessel. His mind was obsolete. Dispensable.

“Tony,” Rogers went on again, looking like Captain America in his uniform and cowl, but sounding like Steve. “You can do it. You can fight. I know you can. You can still end this.”

“Sometimes there isn’t a way out,” the Tesseract replied, making Tony start. It was Rogers’ words, thrown at him after Coulson had died and Loki had escaped, their team scattered. The Tesseract must have dug that out from his memory. It was yet another ill reminder that he had no control over what the Cube was doing.

‘This will be over soon, Anthony,’ the Tesseract whispered to him.

No, you have to stop. This has gone too far. Tony was desperate; he could hardly hide that in his own mind and the Tesseract knew it. He felt the Cube’s annoyance, the dislike at their perfect harmony being broken, but Tony knew the Avengers – his team, and perhaps his friends as well – wouldn’t stop trying to force the Tesseract out until he was truly gone. For the first time since this all started, after the initial shock, it was like he was waking up to realize what was truly happening.

‘I did not lie to you,’ the Cube told him.

No, but you’re a stranger in my body, invading my mind.

‘There is so much we could discover together. Your limited knowledge –’

Never felt so limited until you came along. Perhaps Bruce was right; maybe a human being wasn’t supposed to be all-knowing. It was a nice dream, something to work on, but if this was the price, Tony wasn’t willing to pay it. Regardless of his feelings on how it came to be he was finally getting somewhere with Bruce and Steve, which was a bit of a miracle. The Tesseract wouldn’t hesitate to eliminate them all if need be and that was what it would take for them to stop trying to bring Tony back. There was no middle ground between success and utter failure.

“Tony, please,” Rogers tried again.

The Tesseract raised his head, blue eyes burning – and shoved Tony so far back he didn’t even remember he existed anymore.

Steve felt the urge to swear, but that never helped in battle. He would have to take the disappointment instead and try to work with that because that’s what he did and his team relied on it, too. Tony relied on it.

He had hoped the other man could fight, for one brown eye to appear next to the blue one, but the Cube was holding fast to its control over the body and mind it co-habited.

Hawkeye was back at his post and the Hulk was returning through a hole in the wall he had put there while crashing backwards. Steve’s own body still ached from the impact with the energy barrier although the serum was working on that. He could imagine how his teammates felt. It was still Tony they fought, at least in body if not in mind, and he knew all of them, including the Hulk, had no desire to injure him. Part of him hoped Tony would have put on the armor for this, to make it a fair game at least, but the Tesseract was holding its own almost too well.

Thor emerged with a growl of his own, hammer tightly in his grasp, yet he looked at Steve, waiting for instructions. He always said how frail the Midgardian bodies were, so hitting Tony with the hammer was out of the question – if they could even get past the barrier that shimmered in the air around him.

“Cap?” Hawkeye asked through the communication link.

“We have to take him down,” he started.

“How are we doing that without hurting him?” Black Widow voiced the painful question. “If we get through the barrier, we might kill him.”

“Loki might be able to penetrate it, but not without his magic,” Thor commented unhappily. Perhaps that was why the other Asgardian had exited with Selvig. At this point Steve may have accepted the risk of allowing Loki his powers, but it wasn’t up to him or anyone here.

“Cap, you need to call it,” Hawkeye reminded him.

Just then the Hulk roared and dashed forward. Perhaps the blast had put enough rage into him to make him forget whom he was fighting, or he was trying to scare the Cube out of Tony. Steve doubted it would work but it made the Tesseract turn to face the approaching threat. “Out,” the Hulk roared as he came to a full stop mere inches from the barrier, the rumble making the syllable harder to discern, a wild fire in the green eyes. He stood there, menacing, muscles flexing, body wide and making Tony’s look like a frail little thing, yet the Tesseract was unconcerned:

“I hoped to kill you as a man,” he mused, “but I suppose the monster will have to do.”

The Hulk shifted. Clearly there was much more restraint than anyone had ever given him credit for, but then, Bruce and the Hulk both had affection for Tony; a need to protect him like any other member of the team – and then some. Sure, the Hulk had almost killed Tony on the Helicarrier, but he had been wearing his armor then which made the situation completely different. He seemed fragile now, only his clothes between the tanned skin and the considerable destructive power aimed at him.

The Tesseract had no such concerns; while the Hulk still hovered, menacing but holding back, Tony’s body turned slightly, shifting the stance, his hands rising to his sides, palms up. Two balls of light seemed to rise from the skin, air crackling around the fingers. Almost like the Cube itself but circular, the small spheres hovered an inch from the skin.

Steve was starting to dislike both shapes as well as the color blue.

“Hulk,” he started to tell him to be on his guard.

The two balls of energy took flight, circling Tony at an increasing pace which looked beautiful, sucking the barrier into themselves. A shimmer seemed to radiate from his body, pinpointed at the arc reactor. Then the small spheres launched away from him, at the Hulk, and it didn’t look like much of a threat but Steve had learned while fighting side by side with Tony that the small things were often the most damaging – whether it was a weapon, missile or a cluster of shrapnel. The two spheres in question lit up the room as they exploded, blocking Steve’s ears and rendering him blind. It sounded like half the room was collapsing, a roar from the Hulk following, and when his eyes finally adjusted Steve found himself on the floor again, not even having noticed he had flown back, half-lying on his shield. Dust was in the air and the back wall had indeed collapsed. The Hulk was nowhere to be seen. Torn electric wires flashed, spitting sparks all around them, and two water pipes had broken, adding their own spray and a growing pool on the floor.

“Team, report,” Steve said then coughed, picking himself up.

“That was some blast,” Hawkeye noted, loudly as if his ears were still ringing.

“Does anyone have a visual on Banner?” Black Widow asked with concern.

“We must finish this,” Thor continued. Steve could hear him striding across the debris.

“Hulk is down,” Hawkeye reported a moment later. “I can see him, but… the big guy isn’t moving. The Cube must have knocked him out.”

That was unnerving; Steve could admit that as he climbed over a fallen concrete beam. Taking out the Hulk on the worst of days was a full-time job, even for those trained to do it. He had heard someone say the Cube’s power was potentially enough to destroy the entire planet so perhaps that explained it. He wondered how much of that was needed to fight all of them off – and how much was still in reserve; whether the Tesseract could destroy them all and not even make his host body break a sweat.

He decided to not let that stop him. They had to subdue him and get the Cube out of Tony’s body. “Hawkeye, do you have a clear shot at the Tesseract?” Steve asked. The comm was crackling with static but they could hear each other. As long as they could coordinate, they were one step ahead.

“A moment,” came the response and Steve could see a shadow move on the far wall as Hawkeye searched for a better spot. “Any preferences? I don’t want to hurt him more than I have to,” the archer said next.

“Distract him,” Steve ordered. “I’ll try to get close enough to knock him out.” Assuming that could be done, but there was no reason to believe the Cube wasn’t restricted to Tony’s body and would have to abide to some basic rules, such as unconsciousness.

“Is that a good idea?” Black Widow asked. It wasn’t like her to question orders. “He might just fry you; he just knocked out the Hulk in one go.”

Steve’s fingers flexed around the strap of the shield. “Are there any better ideas?”

Silence met his words.

“Then it’s a go,” Steve decided.

“I shall aim to distract him as well,” Thor joined the conversation; his earpiece had the tendency to malfunction after the fight began but Tony had been fiddling with it to get past that problem. Apparently he had finally made it work. “Good luck, Captain.”

A second later Hawkeye released an arrow, aiming it at the floor next to Tony, the explosion shaking him but not close enough to actually injure. In a heartbeat Thor was there, hammer high, war-cry on his lips.

Tony – the Tesseract, but it was all Tony, movements if not reaction time – dodged to the side, rolling on the floor, fast and agile. Mjolnir hit the floor, leaving a fresh dent as if someone had detonated a bomb in it, bits and pieces flying in the dusty air. The air flashed with something between an electrical current and lightning. So belatedly that it was ridiculous the fire alarm began to ring and automatic sprinklers began to spray the room from above like a falling rain.

A sphere of light appeared, circling Tony, the blue eyes staring at Thor, sizing up his opponent. The blue sphere split in two, flying faster, then split again, and again, into a dozen small, no less intimidating spheres. They were moving so fast they created steady rings around Tony’s form, then one set out towards Thor and the God of Thunder responded by slamming Mjolnir up against it.

The resulting explosion seemed to cleave the room in two, half of the ceiling collapsing in. Steve hid behind his shield although he knew it wouldn’t do him any good. He hoped Black Widow and Hawkeye had found shelter. “Thor?” he called out when the ceiling seemed stable although several chunks were swaying precariously, hanging from wires and piping. Miraculously, the sprinkler system was still spewing water where there was some ceiling left.

There was no response.

On the side a figure moved and Steve saw Hawkeye running out into the open, bow in hand, string taut, arrow ready to fly. Steve moved his head and among all the rubble and disaster stood Tony, a shimmering barrier of blue protecting him from the destruction, the remaining small spheres still circling, slower now. He was surrounded knee-high in a neat circle, almost like a child’s fortress, only it wasn’t sand or snow and this wasn’t a game to be interrupted by one of their parents.

“Thor’s out,” Black Widow said over the comm. “He seems fine, save for some burn marks, but the blast knocked him out. I can’t free him from under the pillar that’s on top of him but I think he can wait until this is over…”

“Thanks, Widow,” Steve said and stepped out as well.

The Tesseract was following Hawkeye’s approach, the barrier still in place.

“Come on, fight,” Hawkeye was muttering. There was a faint tremble in his voice; he knew, just as well as Steve, that their two big players were out of the game. The Hulk hadn’t recovered yet and Steve had an ugly feeling he couldn’t count on him or Thor to help them. It was a good move to go for them first – something Tony would know and the Tesseract could have extracted from his mind.

Well, he should also know Steve wouldn’t just roll over and give up on him.

The blue eyes turned to stare at him instead as if Hawkeye wasn’t worth his concern. “Captain,” he said tauntingly, face unflinching. “Is this truly your idea of challenging me? ‘A man with a plan’,” he scoffed.

There had been very few times in Steve’s life when he didn’t have a plan, or didn’t see a way out forming before him. Half his team was down or beyond his reach, they were no closer to getting the Tesseract to leave Tony’s body, and it was evident their enemy knew it. Perhaps that confidence would eventually make him slip but all Steve could do was make his footing less certain and hope for a slip.

“I wished for this to end differently,” the Tesseract went on – so much like Tony, always talking. Maybe it was rubbing off on him… “Anthony has such admiration towards you, years’ worth of dreams and illusions. And you two got so close to being together; it is a shame to erase that.”

“You can still change that,” Steve reminded him. “It doesn’t have to end like this.” He was slowly walking towards the circle of debris and the barrier, shield in hand, body ready. He didn’t want to be hit by one of those balls of energy although his shield might be able to deflect the impact where the Hulk and Mjolnir had not.

“You have left me no choice,” the Tesseract observed, eyes following him as Steve started to circle the area. “All beings have a need – a desire – to survive. I am no different.”

“You don’t need Tony’s body in order to survive.”

“No, but it makes it… more pleasant, for the time being, until I burn through his form.”

It was said with such disregard that Steve had to hold himself back from attacking. With the barrier between them he would not get through, but Hawkeye and Black Widow were still out there; they might be able to change the game. Fury, too, although Steve hadn’t seen or heard from him after the first blast. He hoped the man had sought shelter and was doing his own part in finding a way out – or evacuating the building if nothing else.

Steve kept circling, mindful of his surroundings, knowing how easy it was to slip on slippery dust and pieces of broken concrete. His pre-serum form would have gone sprawling to the floor a long time ago, he could admit that much, but he knew not to get too cocky of his improved balance and reflexes. The Tesseract followed him, standing still, and Steve wondered if it hadn’t caught on to the fact that now that it had Tony’s body it could move freely, not just lie in one spot.

It pained him to think of their friend and ally trapped in there somewhere. He couldn’t see a single hint of Tony in the blue eyes or the passive face. A fear tapped against his mind – a fear that he would never fight by his side again, and a sharper regret that he would never get to touch him, to feel Tony’s lips on his own, the cocky demeanor dropping a notch once they were alone; to hear him and Bruce talk about things he didn’t understand, their casual friendship deepened but unable to grow if they lost Tony.

Determination punched him in the stomach and he knew that if it were up to his own performance, they would get Tony back. But it wasn’t in his hands: he had no means to fight the Tesseract, to do what men smarter than him had tried and failed to accomplish.

An explosion startled him out of his thoughts and he saw Hawkeye release an arrow, then another. They bombarded the area around the barrier, digging craters into the floor, sending more rubble and splashes of water into the air. The sprinklers were still going off above them, as well as the broken water pipes. Rivers ran down Steve’s face, into his eyes, but he watched as Hawkeye took another arrow from the quiver, sending it flying. What was he doing?

The Tesseract seemed annoyed by this, lifting one hand. One small ball of light moved away from the others, through the barrier, and then flashed towards Hawkeye. Steve saw the archer lean to the side, bow and arrow still pointed, letting lose one more arrow before he hit the ground, rolling, the ball of light hitting the spot where he had just stood. It blew apart one of the last standing pillars, pieces of concrete flying everywhere, a wave of energy chasing them outwards, giving them speed and more force as they hit whatever stood in their way.

Hawkeye cried out in a sudden, agonized voice, hunched over on one knee where he must have been attempting to get up and keep moving, clutching the left side of his face while blood ran from between his fingers.

“Clint!” Black Widow yelled, springing towards him, and no one could fake that level of alarm in their voice – or hide it. Steve moved as well, knowing Widow didn’t stand a chance alone. The barrier flickered, the balls of light shoved through it, spinning, ready to strike while merging into one again, and it was utter madness as Steve leapt to the side, crashing shield first into the sphere of energy and the barrier beyond it.

The entire world seemed to explode – and then they fell.

They fell much further than where the floor had been, and there was a sound like a waterfall, only much briefer, and then he hit the ground hard, the impact forcing the air out of him. Steve rolled over, breathing through the pain. He tasted blood which wasn’t new, but it usually took more than this to get there. His entire body hurt as if someone had torn off his skin and then glued it back on in a slightly different position, not bothering to smooth it into place.

He scrambled up, feeling water under his hands, pooling and sloshing. It was dark but he could make out his surroundings with the glow emanating from Tony’s body; they must have fallen through the floor to a sub-level, the wreckage of the room above fallen in with them. He couldn’t see Hawkeye or Black Widow and trusted them to take care of each other.

“Tony?” he called out, trying to find his footing.

“You keep hoping, human,” the Tesseract hissed back at him, the first hint of emotion they had gotten from him. The man picked himself up, looking a bit worse for the wear than before. The alien power within the flesh didn’t look happy, running fingers over torn clothing which had exposed the arc reactor and swiftly healing injuries. “You have tried to injure my body.”

“It isn’t yours,” Steve ground out with effort, struggling further up. His foot hit the edge of his shield and he knew he should pick it up even if crouching down didn’t appeal to him. Pain had never held him back from anything in his life, though; keeping his eyes on the Tesseract he moved downwards, almost falling over as his body protested, each muscle feeling like it was being torn in two.

“You have injured yourself,” the Tesseract observed.

“A small price to pay,” Steve noted while his fingers grasped the shield and lifted it up.

“Compared to your life?” the dark head was cocked to the side.

“Compared to Tony’s life.”

The lips pursed. There was blood in the corner of his mouth but not much, and he was sure whatever put it there had long healed – and he would keep healing… at least as long as the Tesseract was still inside. Afterwards it was anyone’s guess. The barrier had vanished although he still glowed, and part of Steve was worried the arc reactor might not be able to take the extra energy coursing through it – it hadn’t been designed for this.

Sometime between explosions and the fall the comm had gone silent. His uniform was torn and damaged, pressing against his skull uncomfortably, so he wrenched off the cowl. It fell to the ground with a faint clatter. Steadying himself he took a careful intake of air, his lungs burning along with the rest of the body. He had had broken ribs before, he knew the sensation, but it didn’t stop him from moving, from taking a step towards Tony, and another, making the other man stand back and regard him with untrusting blue eyes.

“What are you planning to do?” the Tesseract asked.

“Tony,” Steve started again, “I don’t know if you can hear me, but I know you’re stronger than this. You wouldn’t let anyone take over your body and especially your mind.”

“Anthony cannot hear you,” the flat voice told him.

Steve didn’t care, nor did he allow himself to believe it. So many times they had been saved by something none thought possible. So many times Tony himself had stepped up the game when it seemed impossible, taking that one step that separated ordinary people from heroes.

Beneath the blue… somewhere… Tony was still there, and he would hear him, no matter what it took.

Steve actually had a painful idea of what it might take but he was willing to do it, to make the ultimate sacrifice if that’s what it took to bring their friend back, for the reign of Tesseract to end. “Tony, I believe in you.”

A flash of blue escaped from the arc reactor, hitting him, taking him down to his knees. Steve wasn’t sure if he could get up again, his body more broken than he could remember it being since the serum. Whatever the Tesseract’s power – pure energy – he couldn’t fight it; as fast as his body could heal, the Cube would respond, and at this pace Steve was already losing.

“I suppose you would like to see him one more time,” the Tesseract mused, taking the last two steps separating them. Steve looked up, trying to think of something to say, something so meaningful it would give Tony the kick he needed to win. He would not be there to see it but the others would take care of him. Banner would take care of him.

A hand shot out and Steve had never noticed Tony had such a strong grip. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe it wasn’t him at all, lifting him off the ground, helping him stand. It certainly wasn’t him in those blue eyes, burning with fire, and it felt like it was spreading to Steve’s own body, burning flesh from the bone until nothing remained but a pile of ash.

“Tony, please,” was the last two words that escaped him before his lungs ran out of air, unable to pull more in.

“It is time to die, human,” the Tesseract announced.

His world began to black out, the edges burning even while he could still make out the drip of the water.

Part of him expected to feel the cold of the ice again.

It was like waking up from one of those dreams where he thought he was in the cave again, that his chest was a gaping hole with nothing to fill it, rusty parts all around him, abandoned just like him.

Then he saw Pepper, sensed her.

“Tony, please.”

And then she fell and was gone. Dead.

But she had never said those words, Tony recalled that. Only her eyes…

“Tony, please.”

It was Rogers, not Pepper. The words jarred him, shoving at him hard and he struggled back to the surface, finding that the Tesseract wasn’t paying attention, too focused, not believing Tony had the fight left in him to challenge his control over the body they had shared for long weeks.

He saw Rogers – Steve – his face bloody, bleeding all over, suit torn, just… standing there like he was going to fall down, blue eyes staring at him although they didn’t see Tony, but Tony could see him, clearly, and heard the finality in his words.

Like he was saying goodbye.

Like Yinsen, in the cave. Yinsen who had wanted it, craving death when he had nothing else left, his family dead and gone, but Steve had so much to live for, a new family growing around him, and frankly, they would all be fucked without him.

“It is time to die, human.”

He heard that too, but didn’t feel his lips moving. It wasn’t his body, not really, and he couldn’t stop it when the blue light began to engulf them both, searing through Steve’s skin, burning, destroying, and he cried out in pain, a sound so pure and horrifying Tony wanted to go back to that dark corner of his mind and never come out.

Only, he never did what may have been the easy way, contrary to what he said to other people. Sometimes simple things were better than elaborate ones – and this was very simple indeed – but at the same time it was the hardest thing he had ever done. An impossible thing: to save Steve when his own body wasn’t his to command.

That was the beauty of it, in the end. Tony didn’t think he could do it, which meant he tried even harder, quietly absorbing the pain, enduring and surviving, slipping to the surface after counting the steps he didn’t know or hadn’t seen before, but which resembled closely the pattern out of the cave – and with a gasp he let Steve go, watching him fall to the ground, the severed contact making the energy simmer and fade.

‘This body is mine,’ the Tesseract announced.

“Too bad I’m cutting the lease short,” Tony managed, then lifted a hand to his chest, refusing to think about it in case he would be too afraid not to. But it wasn’t about fear anymore. It was about Steve standing there, bleeding and being fried to death, not lifting a hand to hurt him. Choosing Tony’s life over his own.

A twist, a tap, a jerk and the arc reactor clattered to the ground.

Sharp pain exploded through him, then an intense, growing discomfort he had known a few times before, his legs giving out on him, body too tired to move, going into shock. The arc reactor glowed, pulsing with energy, then from it and his body rose a blue glow, the Cube emerging once again in its usual form, crashing to the floor a moment later.

Tony kicked it further away for good measure, then jerked his head, looking at Steve. “Hey, Rogers?” he asked, voice cracking.

The blue eyes were open just a little, bloodshot and tired, his chest barely moving while Tony’s own was moving too much. He couldn’t feel the shrapnel moving, of course not, but he could imagine them luring their way into his heart, which made it worse. Now that he was here, he decided he didn’t want to die alone.

“Steve,” he gasped, inching closer, reaching out an arm – when had he gotten hurt? there were small bleeding cuts all over him – and touched the gloved hand. Some of the material had ripped or burned away and he found skin, raw and bloody and stained but he didn’t care; it was human contact and Steve’s fingers curled against his own, holding him while their eyes locked until Steve’s eyelids began to droop.

“Steve. Rogers. Cap!” Tony tried luring him out of it, to keep him with him. “Hang on. The others will… I don’t want to do this alone,” he admitted, voice breaking.

Steve didn’t open his eyes and Tony decided there was no point keeping his own open, his body jerking faintly, perhaps going further into shock. He would black out which would be nice compared to being awake while his heart stopped beating.

He heard steps once the world had gone dark beneath his eyelids. Maybe it was the moment he closed them, or hours or days later, but there were voices, and someone touched him, calling his name – Rogers’ name – and he would have loved to reply but he was starting to fall into that corner again, far away from everything and everyone, and he no longer felt Steve’s hand gripping his.

Tony came to with a gasp, hating every second of it. There was that pressure in his nose, in his throat, that uncomfortable feeling as he swallowed and swallowed again. He tried to sit up, tried to take it out, but it was too bright and warm and it didn’t smell like rock and earth and blood –

“Tony!” Bruce’s voice called out, making him jerk. “You need to lie back, you’re not ready to… move around so much.”

A hand on his shoulder, pushing him back, and Tony blinked several times to make sense of his surroundings. His eyes flew to his chest, though, no matter how much Bruce tried to hold him back. He grimaced, but it wasn’t bad.

“We’re still trying to locate a spare to replace the arc reactor you took out,” Bruce said, hurried but calm. “We were… leery of putting back the one you had in you while the Tesseract was around.”

Tony nodded jerkily, leaning back. It was just the empty ring of metal and some wires stuck down it, probably to serve as a electromagnet in the absence of the actual arc. He took a moment to look around, recognizing S.H.I.E.L.D. quarters immediately. “J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he called out shakily.

“Sir, I am most relieved at your recovery. May I congratulate you on your success for removing the alien entity from your body?”

“Later, J. Right now I need you to tell whoever is at my place trying to dig for another arc reactor where to find the spare unit,” Tony told his AI.

Bruce looked at the ceiling where the speakers were located with a half-smile. “I was wondering whether he had already hacked his way into this building as well,” he mused after he deemed Tony was done.

“Payback for their continuous visits to my private property,” Tony shrugged, wincing a little. His body hurt all the way, like some dull ache that didn’t actually bother him before he moved. As if someone had completely drained him and then had him run a marathon anyway. “How’s… everyone?” he asked next.

“What do you remember of the fight?” Bruce asked in return.

Tony cringed. “There was a fight?”

Bruce nodded. “Well, I didn’t think you were actively involved… The other guy got knocked out in the beginning. I think he’s a bit resentful about that but is glad that you’re back now; Thor is fine with some of his pride battered; Clint had a minor injury to his left eye and its surroundings but it will be healing well; Natasha has some bruises and injured ribs to nurse.”

Tony could easily count he had not included one member of the team – the only part Tony could remember. “What about Steve?”

Bruce sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. He looked worn out and had that tension in his brow that spoke of a nasty headache – no doubt thanks to the Cube. “He’s recovering. You can see him later if you feel up to it.”

“I feel up to it now,” Tony reassured him.

Bruce smiled tiredly and shook his head. “Not before the new arc arrives, at least.”

Tony knew Bruce would just tie him down or sedate him so he didn’t press it. He actually drifted off again, awakened by Thor’s unmistakable voice. He stirred, looking up, finding the God of Thunder standing there with Loki.

“I see you have awakened,” Thor announced needlessly. “How do you feel?”

“I’ve been worse,” Tony admitted. His eyes moved to Loki. “Why is he still here?”

“We wanted to make sure you were all well before we returned home,” Thor replied.

“Thor had a liking to spend some more time with his… lady friend,” Loki added, clearly editing whatever he had originally planned on saying to please his adopted brother more.

Thor nodded enthusiastically, a dreamy look on his face, but he wiped it away while regarding Tony once again. “The Tesseract will be in safe hands, Tony Stark.”

Tony swallowed and nodded. “I… appreciate that.” Thor didn’t look like he had gotten a beating but Tony felt like he still should apologize. He got as far as opening his mouth before Thor clasped his shoulder in his mighty grip.

“Worry not, my friend; it was not you who attacked us. We all know this to be true.”

“Thanks,” Tony said.

“Oh, look who’s here,” Barton’s voice snapped from the door and he moved in, half of his face bandaged.

Tony grimaced. “I’m sorry?” he offered because forgiveness might not come so quickly from this guy, especially if his eye didn’t heal as expected.

“You owe me arrows, Stark,” Barton told him. “I’ll give you some ideas once you don’t have tubes going into places people shouldn’t insert things in.”

“Very creative, Clint,” Romanoff commented from somewhere behind Thor’s broad shoulders.

“He looks disgusting,” the archer defended his observation.

“Come on, ray of sunshine,” she ordered and Barton stalked out, stopping once he was almost out of Tony’s line of sight.

“Glad to have you back, by the way,” the archer added and disappeared.

Loki had raised an eyebrow, looking somewhat amused, then offered Tony a wry smile when their eyes met. “I can see where my presence isn’t desired,” he noted.

“We should leave you to recover,” Thor nodded. “Banner said you should rest.”

Tony didn’t argue just to see Loki leave. He hoped he would be okay to suit up before they left, just to give the god one more ass-kicking even if this may have not been his fault; even so, Tony had no intentions of not blaming him.

He laid back only to see Bruce come in a moment later, a box in hand. “This is it, I hope. J.A.R.V.I.S. told the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents you would know the code to open it.”

Tony motioned him to bring it over. Lying his hand flat over one blank side, another revealed a digital panel and he punched in the code. It opened to reveal a perfectly operational spare arc reactor, fitted to go into his chest. It was slightly different from the ones in his suit, but only in ways Tony could understand.

Bruce carefully maneuvered the wires out of Tony’s chest and slid the arc reactor in place, then watched him closely for a minute.

Tony breathed deep and sighed. “Better. Can you take this off now?” he pointed at the NG tube. He hadn’t liked the sensation the first time, nor did he now, but he wasn’t about to cry over it. Once the tube was gone and he couldn’t taste bile in his throat, he sat up a bit, flexing toes and fingers, feeling a bit more alive. “So, Cap?” he reminded the other man

“If you can stand,” Bruce told him.

“First you said I could see him when you brought me a new one of these,” he said, tapping at his chest. “You just keep making things up.”

“I can always put you in a wheelchair and push you,” Bruce offered.

“I’ll walk,” Tony grunted.

It was easier said than done. It took him almost an hour to get to his feet with the way the room kept swaying around him and Bruce made him drink a horribly large glass of water which Tony didn’t want since he had a thing about germs and if it was from the tap it would have them. There were also some other tubes that needed removing, a catheter among them, which usually would have given Tony a chance to comment, but he chose to leave it for later; he wanted to see Steve because his last memory of him wasn’t comforting, so he soldiered on, dressed in a robe Bruce provided him with since the hospital garments were sexy only in porn flicks.

They went down a hall and then stopped outside a room. It had blinds in the window which were slightly open, allowing them to peer in. Steve lay there, unconscious or asleep, very still and looking like he had just crawled out of the battlefield.

“The serum kicked in last night,” Bruce said. “Until then, we weren’t sure if he would make it. Whatever the Tesseract did seemed to affect his healing.”

An uncomfortably large object was inserting itself in Tony’s throat. “He’ll be okay?”

“We expect him to wake up in a day or two if this keeps up,” Bruce nodded, relief on his face. Tony could suddenly picture him dashing back and forth between their rooms, trying to help, trying to will at least one of them to wake up.

“How long has it been?” Tony asked since he had no idea.

“Four days. We were worried about you –”

“Bullshit,” Tony muttered angrily, lying one hand against the cool glass, still staring at Steve’s unmoving face, willing the eyes to open, bloodshot or not. To just look at him and not leave him alone…

“We were,” Bruce disagreed. “The scans showed we got you hooked up in time, that the damage to your heart was minimal at best.”

“No,” Tony shook his head. “That shouldn’t have mattered next to Captain America lying in bed, not healing.”

Bruce was quiet then suddenly Tony felt his hand against his own, the one hanging at his side, limp and weak. Bruce gripped his hand, strong and desperate. “We had half of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s doctors and specialists working on him around the clock, make no mistake. He was in perfect physical condition. You, however, were a wild card, with the Cube and the arc missing…”

“You found it at the scene, right?” Tony suddenly jerked.

“Yes,” Bruce said quickly, knowing what it meant to Tony. They had talked about it once, how Tony didn’t want his tech – that tech – ending up in anyone’s hands but his own. “But we couldn’t risk putting it back into your chest without possible contamination.”

He didn’t ask what kind of contamination he meant; Tony half expected to still hear the Tesseract whispering in the back of his mind. He would probably expect that for a long time still.

“Mr. Stark,” Fury’s voice called from behind them. “I see you’re up and feeling better.”

Tony looked at him, feeling kind of naked dressed in robe and some garments that didn’t count as clothing at all. “Been better. How come there’s no one keeping an eye on Rogers?” he asked then.

Fury peered in. “I thought J.A.R.V.I.S. was taking care of that?”

“He is,” Bruce confirmed. “The others are taking a much-needed break and this is a rare moment when someone isn’t in there. You don’t need to worry.”

Tony sure hoped not. Well, at least he could trust his AI to make a scene if something started going wrong – that much J.A.R.V.I.S. had learned from him.

“I need to talk to you. Now,” Fury went on.

Bruce slowly let go of Tony’s hand with a brief stroke of fingers against the back of his hand.

Tony unwillingly and with zero enthusiasm followed Fury into what seemed like someone else’s office. Maybe Fury didn’t have his own space here – wherever ‘here’ was – or he thought Tony might not survive a trip further away.

After the door closed Fury looked at him, not unlike any of the other staring contests, only today Tony had even less patience for it than usual. It was almost the same as that time at the diner with a killer hangover and palladium poisoning… “What?” he asked in a quick snap.

“I’m glad you’re finally yourself,” Fury said.

Tony raised an eyebrow, leaning against a wall but unwilling to sit down. “Could have told me that in the hallway.”

Fury nodded. “I didn’t think you had it in you, to snap out of it,” he confessed then.

“I’m offended,” Tony quipped then looked to the side. “Frankly, I didn’t… have it in me.”

“Then how did you do it?”

“I figured that Captain America shouldn’t bleed for anyone, and certainly not for me.” That was the truth and while he didn’t always tell Fury the truth, the man must have recognized this as what it was because he nodded and his face looked a bit less tense, if possible.

“The doctors are certain Mr. Rogers will make a full recovery now that he’s finally on the mend.”

“And if he weren’t?”

“No one would have held you responsible.”

Tony scoffed at the words. Right. No one.

“Life’s too short to live based on what ifs,” Fury told him and started back towards the door.

“This was it?” Tony asked, turning much slower than usual.

“I still expect your full cooperation in the repairs of the Helicarrier you almost destroyed, and you also owe me one facility.” And with a whirl of his coat, Fury was gone.

He guessed it could have been worse.

So much worse.

Steve had gotten used to waking up in an instant, his senses on board with his mind, snapped out of sleep. He was usually full of energy and liked to use the quiet morning hours to go for a run or work out in the gym.

This time, however, it felt like he had been ran over by a truck – or what he imagined that would feel like – and all the willingness to even get out of bed, much less go running, were zapped out of him. Feeling so lethargic signaled that something was wrong, reminiscent of the time he woke up after the ice, and he forced his eyes to open to see his surroundings at least.

There was a violent shift beside his head and the scrape of a chair against the floor. He watched as Tony settled himself back down in said chair, looking like he had almost fallen off it. “You shouldn’t scare people like that, Cap,” he told him, holding his chest. The blue glow was visible even through the clothes he was wearing.

Steve moved his eyes upwards, away from the blue – it would take some getting used to – and just stared for a moment.

“Cap?” Tony asked. “Rogers… are you with me? Bruce, is he okay? He doesn’t look okay.”

Another shape moved past Tony and he smelled Banner; spices and tea, the smell of coffee less sharp. It was all coming back to him slowly, sounds and smells, the touch of the hospital bed that made him miss a real mattress.

“He’s been out for almost a week. Give him a moment,” Banner was saying.

“He’s just… staring,” Tony said, his eyes wide, almost afraid.

“Brown,” Steve managed.

“What?” Tony frowned.

Steve shifted his hand – it shouldn’t have been so hard but it felt like it was encased in lead. He managed to lift it towards Tony’s face, then allowed it to fall back down. “Brown,” he repeated. Talking was just at hard as moving his hand.

“I think he means your eyes,” Banner observed. Steve tried to give him a smile of thanks.

“Oh. Right. Yeah, they’re… brown,” Tony shifted uncomfortable. “Do you think he wants me to leave?”

Steve tried to shift, tried to talk, and it really shouldn’t have been so hard.

“Tap your finger,” Banner said. “One for no, two for yes.”

Steve managed the one tap easily.

“No?” Tony observed.

“I don’t think he wants you to leave,” Banner mused. “I’m sure he’s been worried like the rest of us.”

“I almost…” The brown eyes looked accusing for a moment, bright with unshed tears. Steve had seen Tony like this once, when Coulson died. It also reminded him of the time he comforted Tony after he learned about Pepper’s death, only then there were tears, and now Tony was holding back with iron resolve. “What were you thinking, almost getting yourself killed?!” Tony asked then, and it was almost as if he were shouting with the intensity in his voice.

“Saved you,” Steve managed.

“Damn near killed us both,” Tony said, looking away at the medical equipment in the room that had played too big of a role in all their lives recently.

“You can just go back to sleep if you feel like it,” Banner said then. “You’re still recovering, slower than usual.”

Steve looked at Tony, hunched over on his seat, resolutely not looking at him. He remembered that moment dimly, now that he thought about it; Tony pulled the arc reactor from his chest, the sound of it hitting the hard ground and his body collapsing. The Cube materializing above him and falling down – and Tony’s fingers searching for his, asking…

“Stay,” Steve said, voice trembling from something that didn’t have anything to do with the sheer effort of saying the word.

Tony looked at him again, studying his face, then very slowly he reached out and took his hand, hooking their fingers together.

Steve closed his eyes, feeling the small touch – and it was still there when he woke up the next time, feeling much better.

He looked to the side and found Tony slumped down in the chair, asleep, but his hand was still on the bed, holding Steve’s. Banner was seated next to him, glasses on his nose, reading a book. “Banner,” he said as quietly as he could, making the man look up. A brief smile met him and he shut his book and put it to the side along with his glasses.

“Feeling better?” he asked.

“Yes,” Steve admitted. “How long was I out?”

“Six days before the first time you stirred. Tony woke up after four. It’s been…” he glanced at a clock on the wall, “nine hours since you last opened your eyes.”

Steve felt a bit bad about that; a small nap should have been enough. “You were here the whole time?”

“Tony was,” Banner told him. “I had to stop by for food, make him eat before he passed out. He’s still recovering. Either the stress, the Tesseract inhabiting his body or the violent way of pushing the Cube out left him with plenty of catching up to do, but I’m sure he’ll be willing to sleep for more than two hours at a time now that you’re awake. We were worried.”

Steve attempted to nod then started testing if everything was working. His flesh still ached all the way down to the bones to be honest, but it was better and he could feel and move everything. “It would seem I have been well taken care of,” he reassured the doctor.

Between them, Tony stirred suddenly, with such a start he almost fell from his chair again, his fingers jerking around Steve’s. He steadied himself fast – something a person with recurring nightmares learned, Steve knew from personal experience – and looked between them, eyes finally settling on Steve. “Feeling better?”


“Good.” Tony shifted, uncertain. “Uh… Bathroom.” He got up slowly then exited the room. He didn’t look like himself, not really, but he was getting there just like the rest of them. Banner looked wearier than he had when they first met, but they had all been through so much, not to mention the last battle.

“How’s the rest of the team?” Steve asked and listened as Banner gave him a list of injuries. It seemed they had been lucky and with the Tesseract carefully contained and soon on its way towards Asgard, Steve felt he might actually be able to relax.

Tony returned, giving a quick rant about the lack of style in S.H.I.E.L.D.-operated hospital bathrooms, then sat down in his chair, fidgeted for a moment to find a good position and settled down.

“We need to talk,” Steve announced then. He knew it could wait, should probably wait, but it was the three of them in the room so it was too convenient to pass up on. Who knew when the next disaster might strike?

“Talk about what?” Banner asked, looking like he expected he should leave.

“Us,” Steve motioned at them all. “I think we all know about what.” Maybe it was the ongoing healing process but he finally felt like he wasn’t blushing at the mere idea of it all.

“Oh,” Banner started then sighed. “Look, guys, I’m just going to gracefully bow out –”

Tony was looking away again, resolutely.

“I think it’s not up to you,” Steve replied.

“No?” Banner asked, sitting up straight. “Then whom?”

“Tony. He started all this.”

“Uh, actually it wasn’t me,” Tony finally looked at them although he seemed to have a hard time deciding which way to go with this.

“The feelings are yours. You just didn’t have the guts to tell us,” Steve reminded him.

Decency,” Tony argued, “decency to tell you! There’s a difference. Not every wet dream should become reality…”

“Are they just that?”

Steve, frankly, was surprised to hear Banner ask that.

Tony almost flushed, looking uncomfortable. “It wasn’t really me the last few weeks.”

“I think those were the only moments you were yourself,” Steve gave him his opinion.

Tony looked at him, eyes all brown; Steve hadn’t realized how much he missed that, had probably never even realized what color his eyes were before now. “So maybe I was leaning on you two to keep my sanity. Abusing our friendship.”

“You held up pretty well,” Banner noted. “That was the problem; you didn’t want it to end.”

Tony jumped at the slight change of subject. “No. I… wanted it: all the possibilities and chances suddenly within my reach, not to mention understanding something that baffled even our god-like friends – and the power… that was pretty awesome.” He looked at the far wall for a moment as if remembering, his expression falling and his voice with it: “I never wanted to hurt you two. Any of you, but especially you two.”

“We know,” Steve reassured him.

“That was the only thing I was certain about,” Banner agreed.

“So…” Tony hesitated.

“We should give it a shot, now that the Tesseract is gone,” Steve offered, looking at Banner. “Aren’t you tired of running, of being alone?”

“It’s dangerous,” Banner repeated the old warning – which didn’t answer the question, and Steve had seen how he was with Tony.

“Once you start running, you can’t stop,” Steve revisited an old phrase of his. “You have an excellent chance to stop running for a while. You’re part of this team. You could be part of something else, too.”

Banner gave him a look. “You up for that? Polyamory isn’t easy, and you and me would have to… learn to like each other, on a more intimate level, I wager.”

“Well, we have a lot of things in common, one of them being Tony. We could start with that,” Steve nodded. Being with Tony at this point might be easy but he knew he didn’t have the man’s whole heart and he could not push Banner away just because he didn’t feel comfortable with sharing. If they all started this together, there would be less of that.

“Do I get a say in this?” Tony asked.

“You kissed us,” Banner jumped to Steve’s defense. “You started it. Would you please try to enjoy this while we haggle?”

Tony rolled his eyes then sighed, shifted, and took both their hands in his. “You’re making this entirely too difficult. Over-thinking, in my opinion, is a sure way to destroy what would otherwise come naturally.”

“Yes, because I have heard you have such an excellent track record with relationships,” Banner started then seemed to bite his own tongue to stop. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think before I said it.”

“It’s okay,” Tony responded softly, eyes a bit brighter. They both had to be thinking of Pepper, Tony’s one true relationship with another person as far as Steve had understood it.

He squeezed Tony’s hand. “We’ll be here for you even if this thing between us doesn’t work, because there are no guarantees about anything – we’ve all seen that lately. But we can promise each other to give it our all, to try and give each other something we’ve been missing… some longer than others.” Steve, who had never had the chance to be with another person; Banner, who drove himself away from human contact in fear of hurting the ones he cared about; and Tony, who had unintentionally destroyed the person he had tried to love and cherish for the first time in his life.

“Okay,” Banner finally nodded. “I suppose we could give it a shot.”

Tony looked undecided still, gazing down at where he was holding each of their hands in his own. Steve squeezed the one in his and guessed Banner must have done the same since Tony lifted his head to look at them and smiled. “If the man with the plan thinks it’s worth a shot…”

“You’ll owe me a kiss for that,” Steve snapped, but only half-heartedly.

Tony leaned in to pay his debt right away. “I’ll give you so much more than this after you’re out of this bed.”

Banner chuckled beside them then sighed as Tony sort of curled against him, getting comfortable.

It might not be what he had had in mind when he joined the Avengers, and certainly not what was within the realm of possibilities when he first met Tony Stark, but Steve had to admit it could be much, much worse.

One week later
Central Park, New York, NY, USA

Bruce watched a very familiar scene unfold, although it had been slightly revised since last time; Thor and Loki were preparing to leave, the Tesseract safely in another capsule. Thor and Jane were extending their farewells, and Loki, unshackled yet still without his powers, kept rolling his eyes like a petulant child while Selvig smiled fondly and Darcy snapped pictures and made comments about how cute they looked together.

Fury had joined them this time, standing off on the side with Agent Hill. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were spread around – to hold the perimeter no doubt since people hadn’t been strolling by for quite some time.

Bruce, for once, wasn’t wearing Tony’s clothes, although this pair of pants hadn’t been patched from any spot yet. Tony seemed to appreciate that although he wasn’t as immaculate as he had been the last time they stood there to see their Asgardian ally back home; he was dressed smartly in a leather jacket and jeans, a much more relaxed outfit.

Steve stood on Tony’s other side, just as close to him as Bruce on his other, watching with a small, fond smile at the farewells.

“I shall return,” Thor promised Jane, then stepped closer to the strange circle of interesting, complicated ornaments that would help them to get home safely. “My friends,” he nodded at the Avengers, then his eyes rested on the three of them, “I wish you all the happiness.” And with a grin he offered the other end of the capsule to Loki, who took it with as much disdain as last time, and then they were off in a flash of blue.

Steve looked up at the sky, frowning, but seemed happy they were gone. Bruce could agree; blue flashes made him uneasy these days. He might have to meditate for a few weeks to get rid of that edginess.

“So,” Natasha spoke up.

“How does it work, exactly?” Clint chorused.

Steve looked a bit uncomfortable.

Bruce wasn’t sure what to say but it seemed something had given it away.

“We’re still working out the details,” Tony shrugged. “Would you like a memo?”

“Oh, god, no,” Clint backed off in mock horror, shielding his eyes. His face had healed as nicely as could be expected, only small scars visible.

Natasha just nodded before the two of them got into a car. Fury and Hill were already making an exit of their own.

“Well,” Bruce cleared his throat. “Shall we?”

Steve nodded.

“Anyone in the mood for a little California sun?” Tony asked suddenly. “I want to go to Malibu. We should go to Malibu, right now. Tonight. We could surf in the morning. Have you surfed?” he asked no one in particular, although it was just the three of them present.

“I would like to try,” Steve offered.

“I could just lie in the sun and relax,” Bruce admitted. “Meditate.”

Tony nodded happily and strode back towards his car.

Bruce and Steve exchanged looks before following. There were worse things than flying in a private jet to spend time in Malibu with Tony, learning about this new relationship of theirs that hadn’t really kicked in just yet but was getting there, more each day.

They were starting to act like a team while simultaneously it was beginning to feel like home – a family. Bruce hadn’t had the luxury of a family for a while now and he guessed that part of the reason why they were doing this was that both Tony and Steve shared his longing for one.

Stark Estate
Malibu, CA, USA

They arrived late in the evening. Happy Hogan drove them from the airstrip to Tony’s Malibu home – which was more than a house, of course. Steve was looking out the window as they drove through the main gate and up the winding road. There were no trees to obstruct the view once they could see the buildings.

“You used to live here, on your own?” Steve frowned. He probably had some issue about wasting land and living space.

“Pepper lived here, too,” Tony replied in a voice that dropped dangerously by the end of the sentence, making him clear his throat. He had feared this, dreaded it might come up, and when the car stopped and they all piled out, he took a deep breath as he just looked at the house.

“Everything alright, Mr. Stark?” Happy asked formally.

“Yeah, thanks, Happy,” Tony gave him a quick smile and turned around to see that Bruce and Steve were already at the trunk of the car, getting their things out, rendering Happy completely useless.

Once the car had disappeared down the road they walked over to the main doors. J.A.R.V.I.S. opened them before Tony could even think of keys – did he have keys? He was pretty sure Pepper used to have keys. Tony just never used them because he had J.A.R.V.I.S. for that.

Bruce and Steve looked around for a moment, admiring the view. Tony just hung back watching the two of them, feeling a strange weight shifting around between his stomach and throat. Anticipation, for sure… Things were finally starting to feel normal which meant they could focus on their polyamory issue.

If it were only sex… But no: it was two people who were important to him and there was no room for errors, especially where Bruce was concerned. Steve might be able to take some bumps and bruises that were guaranteed on Tony Stark’s Rollercoaster of Romantic Entanglements, but Bruce was already looking spooked, sensing what coming out here entailed.

“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. acknowledged his arrival. “Welcome home.”

“Thanks, J,” Tony mused. “Guys,” he called out to the other two, “I’m gonna head down to the workshop for a moment.”

“It’s late,” Steve hurried to reply before he could turn and run down the stairs. “Shouldn’t we eat and go to bed?”

Bruce nodded his agreement although surely he wasn’t hungry after the take-out they had scarfed down on the plane. Steve, on the other hand, was always hungry between his super-fast metabolism and compulsive exercising.

“Okay, fine,” Tony said, turning back around towards the kitchen. He trusted that someone had ordered food so that they wouldn’t starve.

“We’ll go and see your workshop tomorrow,” Bruce told him as he followed Tony into the kitchen, knowing exactly what it meant for Tony to be back to his roots here.

Steve dug into the fridge and sure enough pulled food out and over to the table and made them all sandwiches – of which he would end up eating most since Tony and Bruce just couldn’t put away that much food.

“Who did the shopping?” Steve mused while he was slicing some red pepper.

“I did, Captain Rogers. Is there something missing? I shall have it delivered tomorrow morning.”

“No, it’s fine, JA.R.V.I.S. Thank you,” Steve smiled a bit bashfully. “I was just about to say that whoever did the shopping has an excellent idea of what we like to eat.”

Tony rolled his eyes just a bit. Of course Steve would be thankful to find anything at all waiting for them here, and that J.A.R.V.I.S. had kept track of everything they – or Steve – ate back in New York. He wasn’t sure but perhaps his AI would be blushing if his programming allowed it.

“You are most welcome, Captain Rogers.”

Steve smiled and went back to decorating the bread with veggies then carried three plates to the table and put everything away before seating himself beside Tony and Bruce. They ate in silence, staring out the wide windows to the sea that had swallowed the sun a few hours ago. When Bruce and Tony had stopped eating and allowed the rest of their portions to sit unattended, Steve finished his and then continued to wolf down the leftovers.

“Stuffed?” Bruce asked with a fond smile when Steve finished with a satisfied sigh.

“For a while,” the super-soldier nodded.

“Shall we get settled?” Tony asked and they got up. Steve insisted on putting away the dishes before they left the kitchen area, so Tony had to show him to the dishwasher or otherwise the man would be washing the dishes by hand. That had been known to happen. How he ever had had time to go to war with all his housecleaning habits was beyond Tony’s comprehension, but he guessed Steve had also had a lot less stuff to keep clean back in his time. Or maybe it was some kind of stress thing now that the war was over and they didn’t fight bad guys around the clock.

Tony showed them to the master bedroom then suddenly hesitated. “Did you want your own rooms? That can be arranged, I’m just not sure if they’re ready.”

“They are, in case you require them,” J.A.R.V.I.S. supplied.

“Okay, good,” Tony shifted. “Or you can have guest houses. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you want and are comfortable with.”

Bruce turned and sat down on the bed as if testing it, then lay down with a satisfied sigh, hands crossed beneath his head as he looked at the ceiling, then moved his eyes to them. “I’m comfortable here.”

“It’s a big bed,” Steve agreed, putting down his duffle bag.

“Okay,” Tony parroted himself. He had never been so nervous in his own bedroom before, but then, this wasn’t just some random person he would kick out in the morning – or would have Pepper kick out, or J.A.R.V.I.S.

The empty ache in his chest threatened to make him sick.

“It’s okay,” Bruce noted from the bed. “We can just sleep.”

Tony’s attention perked up at that. “You were planning on something other than sleep?” he asked suspiciously.

Bruce allowed an uncertain smile to cross his face. “I know we’re all tired from the trip, but this is also the first chance we’ve had at having complete privacy, away from prying eyes and wandering teammates. And we’ve waited long enough.”

Steve looked around the room and nodded absently, then seemed a bit uncomfortable. “Is there some kind of thread we’ll follow?”

Precious Cap, wanting a plan even in bed; Tony would have laughed if he didn’t feel so giddy. After all, not in a million years had he expected Bruce to make the first move, but maybe it was fitting since they had been waiting for him to get comfortable.

Bruce raised an eyebrow at Tony, issuing a challenge for him to move, and Tony slowly got on top of the bed, straddling Bruce’s waist, then leaned down to kiss him. Bruce’s arms moved around him into a loose embrace, one hand sliding under the hem of his shirt to tease the skin. Tony returned the favor by undoing Bruce’s pants. Body heat met his questing fingers and Bruce’s hardness strained against the touch.

“Wait,” Bruce sighed, trying to roll to the side. “I brought something…”

Tony scooted up so that Bruce could reach his bag. He pulled out a cardboard box – condoms. “I would have had a few lying around,” Tony noted.

“Yeah, but I went for extra thick and strong – my blood is dangerous, so I’m not taking any risks,” Bruce announced then handed one of the foil packets to Tony. “That doesn’t mean I’m willing to go all the way, mind you, but… I would love your hands.”

“You can have any part of me you want, Doc, including my hands,” Tony promised as he leaned in to kiss him again, then had to draw back to slide the condom on him.

Bruce’s eyes flew over his shoulder. “Steve,” Bruce said calmly, voice warm, “you don’t have to stand there all night.”

Tony could sense Steve jerking into movement without even directly looking at him; he felt the man’s warmth behind him, the bed dipping. Bruce scooted farther onto the mattress, toeing off shoes and socks, and Tony followed him, condom in place, hand caressing. He felt Steve’s hands on his hips, uncertain but wanting to touch.

“Do you want him to?” Bruce asked Tony, and he was not the least bit confused as to what he meant.

“Yes, if you don’t mind,” Tony replied.

Bruce kissed him briefly then looked at Steve. “Would you like to make love to Tony?”

Tony rolled his eyes at how romantic Bruce had to make it sound, but perhaps that was what Steve needed to hear in order to comprehend what he was being asked to do.

“If he wants me to, I would love to,” Steve answered as if he hadn’t already heard Tony’s answer.

“This is starting to sound like one of those cheap women’s novels,” Tony complained. “Rogers, take off my pants. Bruce, lie back down,” he ordered.

Bruce leaned back, grinning, then changed his mind and pushed his hands under Tony’s shirt to tug it off him, then pulled off his own. Steve took that moment to almost completely unbalance Tony as he tried to get his pants off and Tony had to get off Bruce in order to get rid of the constricting clothing.

“Better,” he huffed, settling back down. Bruce had kicked off his own pants, flushing a little under the scrutiny, but they had all seen him naked in his post-Hulk state so it wasn’t anything unusual. Only he was aroused; that was new, and Tony liked it.

“Easy,” Bruce huffed in his ear as Tony resumed his strokes.

“What should I do?” Steve asked from behind him.

“Lube’s in the bedside drawer, I think. Get busy,” Tony instructed.

Steve located the tube but looked undecided as he hovered next to them.

“Let me,” Bruce said. “I can do that.”

Tony’s breath hitched just a little.

“Just tell me what to do,” Steve insisted, clearly not wanting to be left with nothing to do.

“Do what I do,” Bruce told him. “Tony, move a bit, will you?” he said, tugging his hips further up his body, making it a bit awkward for Tony to reach his cock but they managed.

Bruce’s fingers were certain – a doctor’s fingers.

When joined with Bruce’s, Steve’s fingers stretched him a bit too fast and made Tony stop moving other than to breathe carefully, riding out the initial discomfort. Then Steve kissed him, turning his head with his free hand – he had a bit of lube on his fingers which smeared around Tony’s ear and in his hair – and breathing wasn’t the key after all when it came to relaxing, the pain turning into relaxed pleasure.

Bruce moaned then guided Tony’s hand back to his flesh. “Don’t hurry it, but… touch me, please,” he whispered as Tony shifted to reach him better and Steve drew away from his lips to move behind him. Tony wasn’t sure what he had imagined would happen once he got past kissing, touching and humping, but it hadn’t been this. Not Bruce beneath him, watching his face as Steve joined their bodies together, gentle yet firm, clearly not knowing his own strength for once and Tony loved that more than he could put into words. He simply moaned and Bruce kissed him while Steve’s hand settled on his chest, probably trying to find his heart but connecting with the arc reactor instead.

Tony froze then bucked back.

Steve’s hand stayed there for the rest of the sex, only to be joined by Bruce’s when the man came undone beneath them, drawing in careful breaths of air to hold onto that thread of control. There was not even a single flash of green in his eyes.

Steve had stamina, no one could doubt that, but this was his first time and he perhaps got a little excited inside although he kept it cool on the outside, puffing air against the back of Tony’s neck, one hand tight on his hip. He tried to time his own climax with Tony’s and got pretty close, freezing for a good ninety seconds before Bruce asked if he was okay and he withdrew, a reverent smile on his face as he asked if Tony was okay.

“Ask me in the morning,” Tony murmured, collapsing beside Bruce because he knew no one wanted an imprint of the arc reactor on their skin.

“Mr. Stark’s vital signs show no cause for alarm,” J.A.R.V.I.S. noted, making them all jump a little until Tony started laughing uncontrollably against Bruce on the bed.

Steve chuckled and went to the bathroom to clean up, then returned and got settled beside them. “Is it always like this?” he asked then, voice low and intimate. Tony had to remind himself again that Steve hadn’t done this before, that he probably had a lot of questions. They had better wait till morning.

“No two times are alike,” Bruce mused, clearly having no problems answering them now, his fingers tickling low on Tony’s back, just above the curve of his ass. “But it gets easier when you get to know the people you’re with.”

“I don’t think it was bad,” Steve confessed. “It wasn’t even very strange.”

“Thanks,” Tony muttered into the bed.

Steve rolled over to kiss his shoulder-blade. “You were very nice,” he commented into his skin.

Tony felt like his skills in bed had definitely gone underappreciated by Steve, but he would have time to set him straight later; all he wanted to do now was sleep. Before he could drift off, Bruce forced them to move on the bed so that they were at least lying the right way and beneath the sheets. Tony noted sleepily that for once he didn’t feel cornered resting between two firm, warm bodies.

Yeah, he was home…

The morning sun was glaring down from the sky with a pleasant wind blowing. The waves crashed against the beach and Bruce sat high above the water, a mat beneath him and his body already relaxing as he breathed in deep and slow.

Maybe it was that Tony was finally safe, or the beautiful setting of Malibu – or his favorite, last night’s pleasant activities – but he felt calm and centered. No hint of tension in his mind or body, no tiptoeing on the edge of transformation. The other guy seemed completely fine with sleeping this one out.

Beneath him Tony was yelling at Steve as they dove into the water and paddled out on their boards. Wetsuits looked flattering on them both, although Steve’s had been a bit small so they had gone with shorts for him. His upper body flexed as he fought against the waves then calmed as he copied Tony when they started coming back, riding the waves.

Just like most things he did, Steve excelled in this, balancing on the board and getting better with every run back and forth. It had clearly been a while for Tony since he had gotten to enjoy himself like this and he kept shouting commentary at Steve whenever he wasn’t underwater.

Bruce hadn’t actually gotten any closer to meditation when the two of them climbed back up, faces grinning, pushing at each other over some joke. Tony tasted of salt water when he knelt to kiss Bruce and smelled of the sea, wind and sun.

Steve sat down beside them, carefully putting his board to the side. “Did we interrupt you?” he asked, picking at the neoprene shorts with his fingers.

“I haven’t even started,” Bruce confessed.

“Were we too loud?” Tony asked in return, actually sounding kind of apologetic for once, perhaps thinking that Bruce had really wanted to meditate.

Bruce simply shook his head; he had all the peace he could possibly want at this moment in time.



The End