The car came to a slightly abrupt stop outside the rental office and Steve put it in park with one slightly shaking hand. “I cannot believe,” he said, running one hand through his hair and trying to ignore the tremors still sending shivers through his skin, “that I let you do that.”
“You act all scandalized but not five minutes ago you were pulling my hair and calling for god,” Tony said. He licked his lips pointedly and gave Steve a wicked smile.
“Definitely not scandalized,” Steve said as Tony finished zipping him up and gave a gentle, almost proprietary pat to his groin. That probably shouldn’t have been such a turn-on. He could feel a flush spreading down his throat and chest and was glad Tony had declared that they would be driving the convertible - at least he could blame his complexion on the wind. He caught Tony’s hand in his and raised it to his mouth so he could press a kiss against the scarred knuckles. “A little surprised at myself maybe.” He leaned in for a kiss, something quick and lazy that deepened as he caught the taste of himself on Tony’s tongue. “Road safety and all that,” he said as he drew back. “I could have wrapped us around a tree.”
Tony scoffed. “It was an actual, literal dirt road for the last twenty miles, Rogers. We weren't going fast enough to dent a tree, let along wrap the car around it. The only thing we were likely to hit was a rock. Or maybe a moose. I hear they're hazardous. Besides,” Tony squeezed his hand. “With me in the car? You’d never let it happen.”
His chest tightened with a dull pang. “I wouldn't, you know. Not even for one of your blow jobs.” He let Tony’s hand go and turned off the car. “Come on, let’s go check in.”
The rental office was a converted single story house with white aluminum siding that desperately needed a power-wash. There was a small yard behind a white picket fence and a half-hearted effort at landscaping around the front steps. A sign at the front gate advertised The Millet Rental Agency, family owned and operated since 1921.
“You’re older than they are,” Tony said, pausing to press a kiss against Steve’s cheek before he pushed open the front gate and strolled up the front steps like he owned the place.
Which he probably didn’t, though Steve wouldn’t entirely put it against him.
The agency wasn’t what Steve had expected, but then no part of this trip really was. When he’d asked Tony to go away with him for a couple of weeks, to have time together as a couple, he’d expected a lavish resort with dozens of staff and servants, or at least a private island somewhere with plenty of amenities. A cabin in the Maine woods was unexpectedly low-key and he couldn’t help but think that this was for his sake; Tony taking his request seriously and trying to accommodate him.
The front steps creaked under his weight as he joined Tony and the bells on the front door jingled as they let themselves in. It had obviously once been a residence but now the area that had been a living room was a small office with threadbare, utilitarian carpet and wallpaper that had probably been there since the place was built. The walls were lined with chamber of commerce posters, some faded from years of exposure to sunlight, and a rickety-looking spin rack full of postcards and brochures. There was a row of metal filing cabinets against the back wall next to an open door that led to a mustard yellow kitchen and an old wooden desk in the center of the room, topped with a computer even Steve could tell was ancient and one of the old desktop phones – landlines – that had multiple lines.
Steve rather doubted they needed more than the one, looking around.
“Welcome to Millet Rental Agency!” The girl behind the desk looked to be about twenty, maybe younger, with dark blond hair pulled back in a twist and dark red lipstick. She was wearing a button up blouse and jeans, and she stood to walk around her desk and shake their hands. “What can I do for- oh my goodness.”
Tony pushed his shades down and gave her a smile that had her cheeks flushing pink. “Yes, I am him. So is he.”
Steve leaned over to take her hand. “Steve Rogers. We have reservations for the Lakeview Lodge.”
The smile on her face froze into a plastic mask. “Oh no. No, you can’t be staying at the Lodge.”
Steve raised an eyebrow and glanced at Tony. “We made reservations more than a month ago.”
She hadn’t let go of his hand but her smiled was slowly fading. “But I took that reservation myself. I’m sure I’d have noticed if Captain America and Tony Stark were staying in our cabin. I- I should double check the register. Maybe you’re at the wrong agency.”
Steve stepped back as she dropped his hand and dashed back to her desk, tapping urgently at her keyboard. “I suppose that could be,” he said, keeping his tone polite. The look Tony gave him was skeptical at best – it was incredibly remote out there. If they’d managed to end up in the wrong place it was by at least a hundred miles.
“Virginia Potts,” the girl said triumphantly. “It was a Virginia Potts who called. She booked it for two weeks, for two people, under the name- Oh. Edward Stark?”
“That’s me,” Tony said, giving her a little wave. “Anthony Edward Stark. Makes it harder for the paparazzi and corporate kidnappers to find me.” He hooked his fingers through the belt loops of his jeans and rocked back on his heels. “I can show you my ID if you like.”
She nodded, her smile still frozen in place, but her eyes were wide and worried. “I – I should get Mr. Millet.”
“Is there a problem?” Tony asked. He rested his hip against the edge of her desk and slid off his glasses. “If there’s something wrong with the cabin-”
“Oh no!” The girl’s voice rose an octave and was almost startlingly loud. “There’s no problem with the cabin – it’s just – I – Mr. Millet!”
The door on the far side of the room opened and a man stepped through wearing a smile that Steve instantly disliked. He was older, in his late fifties or early sixties, with dark hair just starting to go gray at the temples. “Gentlemen,” he said in a hearty tone. “Leah, is there a problem?”
“There seems to be a problem with our reservation,” Tony said easily.
“They rented the Lodge,” Leah said. She wasn't exactly wringing her hands, but she looked like she wanted to.
“Oh?” Millet gave her a strange glance. “Well, it is our nicest property so I can’t fault your taste. What seems to be the problem, Leah?”
“It’s Captain America and Mr. Stark. Sir, I’m sorry, they had a third party make the reservation for them so I didn’t realize-”
Millet waved a hand in her direction and she stopped. “It’s fine, Leah. No worries.” His gaze flickered over them, sizing them up in a way that made Steve bristle. “Now, I thought we had that couple from down south staying at the Lodge?”
“No,” Leah said, her voice just slightly over a whisper. “No I-” She gave them a nervous glance, her cheeks pale. “I had it double-booked, you know, but the other reservation wasn't coming until tomorrow, so I canceled them.”
Tony gave her a teasing smile. “Well you definitely made the right choice. I'm disgustingly rich and he's too polite to wreck the place.”
She smiled at him, tentative and almost involuntary, but Tony could have that affect on people when he was being charming. “I just didn't know-”
“That we'd be having celebrities staying with us!” Millet patted her on the shoulder and gave her a quick glance. “I'm afraid the Lodge may not be up to your usual standards, Mr. Stark.”
“Probably not,” Tony said with a cheerful ease. “But I'd sleep in a barn if it meant I didn't have to drive back down that wagon trail you call a road. So are we good to go?”
“Of course!” Millet patted Leah on the shoulder again. “Leah's got all your credit card information so there's no reason you can't go right on up. It's a hell of a drive from New York, you boys must be tired.” He gave Tony an exaggerated wink, which Tony returned with a bland smile. “Leah, get the boys a map. Can you find it yourselves or should I lead you out? Some city folks find the woods a bit intimidating.”
Steve figured if they could make it all the way from New York they could handle the last few miles – Steve had navigated his way through the French countryside with considerably less than his map and a GPS after all. “We'll be fine. Thank you for the offer, Mr Millet.”
“He sure don't sound like a New Yorker,” Millet said, once again addressing Tony directly. He pronounced it Yorkah, which Steve found irrationally irritating. “And call me Eric, please.”
Leah handed him a keyring with two keys and a map that looked like it had been hand drawn and photocopied to the point of extinction. It detailed the town and a road that twisted away from it toward the top of the page past landmarks like “old billboard,” “duck pond cave” and, appropriately, “duck pond” marked with x's. “I had all the things Mr. Stark asked for delivered earlier today.” She gave Steve the same uncertain smile she'd given Tony just a moment before.
“Just give us a call if you get turned around,” Millet said. “Cell phones don't always work so well up here, just so you know. Once you get a certain ways up the mountain reception gets spotty.” He gave Tony another knowing grin. “Nice and private.”
“Right,” Steve said dryly. “Okay, are we all set here?”
“Enjoy your stay,” Millet said. “And don't hesitate to let us know if there's anything you need. We're open till five and I live right next door, so if there's any problem with the building you come right on down and get me.”
Tony waggled his fingers at Leah, who was still looking a little shell-shocked and made a beeline for the door, Steve close on his heels.
He glanced over his shoulder on the way out and Millet was slumped in Leah's desk chair, scrubbing his hands over his face.
The map was – to neither of their surprise – not drawn to scale.
But it did the job. They drove through Grand township, the well-worm dirt road mostly smooth as they passed a gas station, a trading post and what looked like a combination church/town hall. There was no school in sight and Steve wondered if the kids were bused to a bigger town or if they just didn't have any. According to the somewhat dilapidated “Welcome to Grand: a GRAND place to vacation!” sign they'd seen entering town, there were only 178 residents. Maybe they all homeschooled.
It took less time to drive through town than it took to think about it, and soon the small houses gave way to trees. Steve could see the occasional structure here and there, back off the road, but most of them looked long abandoned. Whoever was left mostly kept close to town, it seemed. Probably made things easier in the winter.
But the road, despite being dirt, was in fairly good shape and since there was no other traffic – at all – it was easier to steer around the occasional rock or pothole. Tony was ostensibly navigating, but so far the road mostly went in one direction, which was good because Steve could tell Tony was mostly examining the side of the road – probably for moose.
The road got rougher the further up the mountain they went and Steve winced as they hit a patch of road that was more or less all pothole.
“I'm starting to think the Ferrari was not the right choice for this trip,” Tony said cheerfully. “Hey, look, there's the turn-off.”
Steve had almost missed it until Tony pointed it out. The driveway up to the cabin was narrower than the road they were currently on and heavily shaded by the thick woods on either side. There was a small wooden sign, heavily weathered and nailed to a tree that said “Lakeview.”
“Looks inviting,” Steve said as he slowly steered the car up the twisting path. “When they said remote, they really meant it.”
“Well, we wanted privacy,” Tony said dryly. “I think we're going to get it.”
“Millet certainly seemed to think so.”
“Was it just me or were those people weird?”
Steve shrugged, then winced as they hit a rock and the whole car bounced. “Well, the girl was probably just embarrassed she double-booked us.”
“I''m surprised Millet didn't melt under the weight of your Disapproving Look,” Tony said. He waggled his fingers into quotes around the last two words. “I couldn't tell if he was trying to flirt with me or if he just really approved of me banging you.”
“I approve of it,” Steve said. “He was just trying to be welcoming. I'm willing to bet they don't see a lot of same-sex couples in a small town like this.”
“Town,” Tony scoffed.
The road – path, really – leveled out and around the next bend Steve could see the cabin. “What exactly did Millet think your usual standards were like?”
The cabin was two stories high and looked like it had been recently built – in the last ten years if Steve had to guess, though modern architecture was hardly one of his suits. The first floor was stone with huge windows spanning the entire front of the building. The second floor was done in stained wood with big picture windows and a wrap-around porch that lined the entire cabin. Off to the side there was a woodshed next to a cleared area that Steve took to be the driveway and he pulled the car to a stop.
Tony was already out of the car, stretching his arms up over his head. “Nice view.”
The Lakeview lived up to its name. Hundreds of feet below them Grand Lake spread out for miles, the water looking still and peaceful from a distance. The little town of Grand looked like something from a kids toy set – tiny houses and the thin pale trail of the road that cut through the thick undisturbed forest and trailed off into the mountains.
Tony walked over to the edge of the yard, where the ground abruptly dropped away. Steve jogged over after him, his stomach flipping a little at the sight, but the drop was a short one, turning into a steep, but walkable incline covered in rocks and scrub before fading into the forest. “I don't see anyone else, do you?” Tony wasn't looking down, unworried about the possible fall, instead his gaze was on the mountains surrounding them. “Look, I don't see any other buildings.”
It certainly looked like they were the only ones out there. Steve scanned the trees and didn't see any signs of construction, no glint of sunlight off window panes, no roads cutting through the trees. The nearest town of any size they had passed had been Millinocket, at least two hours back. They'd passed signs for a campground almost an hour before reaching Grand. “I don't think there are a whole lot of people up here.”
Tony turned to face him and slid his arms around Steve's waist. “Good,” he said, leaning up to press a kiss to Steve's lips.
They stood there for a few long minutes, just holding each other, trading lazy kisses and letting their hands wander, Tony's nimble fingers stroking his back, tracing the bumps of his spine. Steve shivered.
“It's getting dark,” he finally said, dropping a final kiss on Tony's mouth. “Come on, let's get unpacked while we still have the sun.”
They'd packed light; Tony had cheerfully declared that he intended them to be naked most of the time anyway, and also there wasn't a ton of trunk space in a Ferrari Spider. Two bags each – clothes, and a small satchel full of art supplies for Steve, who thought maybe he could pick the habit back up with some peace and quiet. Tony had packed a bag full of blueprints and a couple of tablets – all low-tech, low-priority projects for him to distract himself with if necessary. Privately Steve hoped they didn't need those bags much. There was supposed to be a pond nearby if they wanted to go swimming, and obviously there was plenty of room for hiking. They could go looking for moose and bear, or take the car down the mountain to the lake to go canoeing or jet-skiing.
Or they could spend the next ten days completely naked out here in the wilderness. Steve couldn't help the smile that spread across his face as he caught up with Tony by the front door.
“I don't know what's put that look on your face,” Tony said. “But I approve.”
Steve pulled the keys out of his pocket and unlocked the door. “I was thinking about your ass,” he said, just for the delighted look that spread across Tony's face, and pushed the door open.
The inside of the cabin was one massive great room with a kitchen to their right, luxurious furniture and a massive stone fireplace to the left. There was a loft upstairs, with another fireplace, and what looked like two bedrooms.
Tony nodded. “This will do.”
Steve swallowed a smile and rolled his eyes. “Come on, let's pick out a room and get unpacked.”
Tony paused, already halfway up the stairs, and gave Steve a heavy-lidded glance over his shoulder. “I have a better idea.”
It was nearly full dark by the time Steve could bring himself to move, his muscles aching pleasantly, his limbs still a little rubbery. Tony was warm and soft beside him, his back curved into Steve's chest, one of his legs caught between both of Steve's. The arc reactor lit the room with a pale blue light and Steve breathed in the salt of sweat and come and felt himself stir almost lazily. Tony was laying on his arm and Steve curled his arm as much as he could, his hand stroking the line of Tony's throat while he ran the other down Tony's side to curl possessively around his hip.
Tony sighed, a heavy exhale that meant he was starting to wake. Steve kissed the back of his neck and squeezed his hip, loving the way Tony pressed back against him. He shifted his hips just a little, pressed his half-hard cock against the curve of Tony's rear end. “We should unpack,” he said against the shell of Tony's ear. “Make dinner.” He kissed the skin behind Tony's ear, licked at a drop of sweat trickling down his neck, and felt as much as heard Tony's low, rumbling groan. It went straight to his groin, heat rushing his belly, his cock thickening against Tony's skin.
Tony shivered against him. “You are such a tease, Rogers.”
He rocked his hips, let his cock slide into the crease and brush against Tony's hole, still slick with lube and Steve's come. He pressed forward gently, forcing himself to move almost painfully slow as Tony's body opened around him like he belonged there. He could hear Tony whine as he bottomed out, high-pitched and almost breathless, his throat trembling under Steve's hand, his body hot and tight around Steve's cock.
Steve kissed his neck. “Don't move,” he said lowly, curling his fingers against the hollow of Tony's throat. “Don't touch yourself.” He slid out to the tip, Tony's body clenching around him as if trying to hold him in place. “I just want you to lie there and feel me inside you.” He held himself still, thighs trembling with the urge to thrust. “Can you do that for me?” He pressed his lips to Tony's ear, felt the sweat in Tony's hair against his cheek. “Just lie there and take it until I tell you to come?”
Tony's only response was a full body shudder. His hips jerked under Steve's hand, trying to push himself back on Steve's cock, but Steve held him still. “Steve.” His name came out as a breathless sound and Tony tipped his head back, seeking Steve's mouth for a kiss.
Steve lapped at the roof of Tony's mouth, kissed lips that were already swollen. “I'm going to fuck you now,” he said, his words pressed against Tony's mouth, swallowed into the short, shuddering breaths that ghosted over his skin. “And you are going to lie there and take every second of it for me, aren't you?”
“Yes,” Tony said, the words thick on his tongue.
“So good,” Steve said. He stroked his fingers over Tony's throat again, felt it when he swallowed, before his curled his hand around his throat – gently, but enough to keep Tony from moving without permission. “God you feel so good, sweetheart.” He rolled his hips and pushed back inside, faster than before, sinking down in one sudden push until he was completely sheathed in the wet heat of Tony's body. “You're such a mess for me.” He could feel his semen already drying on Tony's inner thighs and where it had dripped over the curve of his ass while they dozed. “I'm going to keep you like this the whole time we're up here. Wet and dripping with my come, fucked open and aching for me to fill you up again.” He moved, short, sharp thrusts that made Tony shudder with every push.
“Steve.” Tony's voice was a breathless sob, his whole body practically vibrating with the urge to move, to push back into every thrust. Both his hands were curled into fists against the mattress, the sheets straining in his grip.
“So good,” he said again, sighed the words against Tony's skin. He tugged back on Tony's throat, urged him to turn his head for another kiss. It was awkward, and he could feel the lines of Tony's throat tight beneath his fingers, but it was worth it for the way Tony's mouth opened to his, the way Tony swallowed his breath like a drowning man. “You're being so good.” His thrusts were starting to speed up almost on their own. He could feel the slowly building crest of climax that seemed to start somewhere in his spine until it became a rush of heat through his belly. He let his body have its head, his thrusts becoming faster and deeper until Tony's body rocked forward with every snap of his hips. Tony was panting, and every now and then an especially deep thrust would force a low, needy groan from his throat.
“Not yet,” Steve said, his words little more than panted breath against Tony's open mouth. He shifted his grip to hold Tony's head still as Steve kissed him. “Don't come yet, Tony. Can you do that for me?”
“God.” Tony pulled his mouth away from Steve's to bury his face in his pillow. The angle pressed Steve's hand tight against his throat until he loosened his grip. “Fuck me.”
Steve grinned and put a little super strength behind the next thrust, shoving Tony forward on the mattress a couple of inches and startling a wild yell out of him as Steve slammed into his prostate. “Like this?” he asked, dragging Tony back into the next thrust.
Tony moaned as Steve pounded into him, his body one taut line against Steve's chest. “Please,” he chanted. “Please, Steve, please.” His hands were clawing at the sheets and his body was clenched around Steve's cock like a vice. He wasn't going to last like this, but that had been the plan.
“You're going to wait until I say so,” Steve ground out. “You hear me, Tony? Not yet.”
Tony shook his head. “Jesus, Steve, touch me.”
Steve shifted up onto his knees in one fluid move, dragging Tony up with him so Tony was on his stomach, his face pressed against the pillow, his ass in the air, Steve's cock still buried deep inside. Tony swore, scrabbling at the mattress for purchase as Steve took advantage of the leverage to fuck him in earnest, hard, fast thrusts that drove Tony further up the mattress, only to be dragged back onto Steve's cock. His own breath was coming in shallow pants as he moved, each thrust faster and harder than the one before, fighting the urge to just sink into Tony's heat and come. “Not yet,” he ground out and he wasn't sure which of them he was talking to. “Not yet. Wait for me.”
He could hear the slap of his skin against Tony's, the wet sound of his cock sliding into Tony's clenching ass. His fingers, slippery with lube and come, were starting to slide over Tony's sweat-slick skin. “When I say so, I want you to come, Tony. Can you do that?” He could feel Tony's body trembling, knew he was being a little rough and that Tony would feel the ache of being taken twice so quickly. He also knew Tony would love every twinge and bruise when the morning came. Tony loved the marks Steve left on his body almost as much as Steve did. “Tony?”
“Yes. Steve, please-”
“Soon,” Steve said, the words coming out gentle despite the need clawing in his belly. “In a minute, you're going to come untouched, aren't you? You're going to come all over these nice clean sheets without so much as a hand on your cock. And then I'm going to come inside you, fill you up until you're dripping-”
“Please,” Tony sobbed. His back was one tight line and his thighs were trembling so badly Steve knew he wouldn't be able to hold himself up much longer.
“Now,” Steve said, his voice sharp, the voice he used in combat as Captain America. He felt Tony jerk as the command struck home and then Tony was screaming, his back arched taut as orgasm struck him almost violently fast. His hips jerked as his cock emptied itself, but Steve yanked back, fucked him through it, Tony's body spasming almost painfully tight around him as he drove himself in deeper on every thrust. He felt Tony go limp beneath him, his legs giving out, but Steve tightened his grip on Tony's hips and held him where Steve wanted him as he felt his own climax building.
Tony was moaning, his body shuddering with aftershocks and trembling from the stimulation. It would be just a little too much, Steve knew. Every deep thrust just shy of pain in Tony's oversensitive state. He was feeling every centimeter of Steve's cock as it slid into him over and over. His mouth was open, panting for breath and his eyes were narrowed as he stared back at Steve over his shoulder. His eyes caught Steve's and he smiled.
Steve groaned as he felt himself lose control. He thrust again, as deep as he could, and dragged Tony's hips back against him as he came, filling Tony's body in thick pulses.
“So good,” he said again as he shuddered his way through orgasm, his hips jerking almost helplessly against Tony's ass. “Sweetheart.” He lowered himself down before his arms could give out – super soldier serum or no, sex with Tony always left him boneless – and molded himself against Tony's back, pressing him down into the sheets. He peppered kisses against Tony's back, kissing every inch of skin he could reach, and ran his hands over Tony's sides, soothing even as his cock gave one last throbbing pulse and started to soften inside him. “God, Tony.”
Tony heaved a shuddering sigh. “I think you killed me.”
Steve kissed sweat droplets off his back. “Never.”
“Well, you will if you fall asleep on me.” Tony's voice was amused. He wiggled a little against him and moaned as Steve's cock shifted inside him.
Steve squeezed his hip. “I don't think we're up for round three just yet,” he said, only a little regretfully. He could come again without much effort at all. They had made a game of it, once or twice, Steve rocking into Tony for hours, long past the point where the other man could grow aroused, filling him up again and again while trading lazy kisses until even Steve had reached his body's limit. But he'd been too rough for a repeat performance. And anyway they really did need to eat, he was starving.
He pressed an open-mouthed kiss to Tony's shoulder and suckled until he could feel the skin growing warm, then let go. “Don't move. I'll be right back.” He stroked a hand down Tony's thigh as he shifted his weight, his cock sliding free with an almost embarrassingly loud sound. “Stay just like that. I have a present for you.”
“If it's your dick, I think I already got it.” Tony stretched lazily against the sheets but didn't try to move.
Steve grabbed his bag off the floor and dumped it on the foot of the bed so he could rummage around inside. The small cloth bag was buried all the way at the bottom, where Tony would have been unlikely to see it if he'd peeked in Steve's things for any reason. Steve glanced up but Tony's eyes were closed, his breathing starting to even out.
Steve palmed the butt plug, and dropped the rest of the bag onto the floor. He crawled back up onto the bed and dug the lube out from under his pillow, popping the cap off with a soft little click.
Tony hummed, a lazy, contented sound. “Okay, if that's round three getting started back there, I'm on board but you're going to have to do all the work.”
Steve quickly slicked up the glass and tossed the lube back up toward the pillows. “Not quite,” he said, bending down to kiss one taut cheek. He slipped his fingers into the crease and pressed two inside Tony, gently, watching him for any flinch or wince. All he got was a lazy sigh, and Tony's hips shifting aimlessly against the sheets. He was already loose and open, his body opening for Steve's fingers almost effortlessly and Steve's cock twitched with renewed interest as he remembered how good it had felt to just slide in as if he belonged there.
He pulled his fingers free and replaced them with the plug, pressing the smooth glass into Tony in a slow, steady push. Tony went still as Steve slid it in, his breath leaving him in one long shuddering sigh when it was in place, the end pressed firmly against him. Steve dropped a kiss on Tony's back, right over his tailbone, and gently pressed the smooth round head of the plug, rolling it in circles inside of Tony.
“Shit,” Tony said, his voice thready and high-pitched. “God, Steve, fuck.”
“Okay?” Steve asked. He crawled up the bed until and took a kiss, deep and slow. “Not too much?”
Tony shook his head, his focus inward for a minute as he concentrated on the feeling. Steve traced his fingers down Tony's throat and skimmed them over the smooth face of the arc reactor. “It occurred to me,” he said, his voice as casual as he could make it, “that if this is our first time being completely alone together, that I wanted to make the most of it.” He kissed Tony again. “Wear that for me? Keep yourself ready for me, still wet and open so the next time we're ready I can have you right away.” He cupped Tony's face in his hands, rubbed his thumb against Tony's kiss-bruised lips. “I want to know you're waiting for me to fuck you again all night.”
“You are a dirty old man,” Tony told him earnestly.
Steve kissed his nose. “You love it.”
“I love you,” Tony said easily.
The words weren't new – they'd gone into this knowing they loved each other, building a relationship on a foundation of friendship and teamwork – but they still brought a smile to Steve's face, a quiet sense of awe that after losing everything he'd ever loved he could still feel this quiet, consuming love for another person. He hadn't thought he could stand it, after his mother and Bucky and Peggy, but then Tony Stark had come along, too loud and brash and completely overwhelming, pushing Steve out of his own head and forcing him to interact with the modern world.
Giving him a new home when the narrow confines of SHIELD became too much, helping him build a family out of the ragtag bunch of individuals they'd somehow forged into a team. Loving him, Steve Rogers, the fair-to-middling soldier who'd never been very good or very interested in following orders, who could stick his foot in his mouth with the best of intentions, the man who never knew the right thing to say and always thought he knew the right thing to do. Tony had loved him, all of his stubbornness, all of his awkwardness, every fault and flaw and struggle.
God, if Steve hadn't already loved him, that would have pushed him over the edge.
“I love you, too,” Steve said. He pressed a kiss against Tony's temple and pushed himself up off the bed. “Come on. Let's test out the water pressure in this place.”
The bathroom was spacious – nothing like the one back in their suite at Stark Tower, but still huge compared to Steve's cramped bathroom at SHIELD HQ. The shower was glass enclosed and big enough that most of the Avengers could have crowded in there with them, as long as Bruce kept his temper under control. Steve cleaned himself off quickly, despite Tony attempting to grope him under the spray, then got his revenge on a soapy, slippery Tony by backing him up against the tiled wall and kissing him breathless. They lingered until the hot water heater started to give out and then took turns drying each other off. Tony finger-combed Steve's hair into place and stole a few more kisses before pulling away to get his bag from the floor by the door.
Steve cleared his throat. “Actually I was hoping...” He gave Tony a sheepish grin.
Tony blinked at him, then down at his bag. “What, you want me naked?”
Steve absolutely did not blush, but he may have shuffled a little under Tony's gaze.
“Pervert,” Tony said delightedly. “Steven Bartholomew Rogers-”
“That is not my name.”
“-we should have done this a long time ago. God.” Tony wriggled his hips a little, shivering as the plug shifted inside him. “If I'd known what was ahead of me when we met-”
“You'd have still been an ass,” Steve said, not bothering to hide the fondness. “My tolerance for it is half of what you love about me.”
“The other half is the fact that you turned out to be such a kinky bastard.” Tony dropped his bag back onto the floor. “All right, Captain Rogers. But shouldn't you be naked, too?” He waggled his eyebrows. “I mean, if you want to be able to bend me over and have your dastardly way with me at any moment, having to drop trou would definitely slow things down.”
“One of us has to cook,” Steve pointed out, but he made no move toward his bag.
“If there's not an apron in that kitchen, I'll be very surprised.” Tony started toward the door. “But hey, if you want to take the chance that I'll lose interest in the time it takes you to get your tighty-whities off-”
Steve laughed and strode after him, ignoring his bag in favor of wrapping his arms around Tony from behind. “If your interest is that fleeting, I'll just have to go without, won't I?”
Tony tipped his head back and rubbed his cheek against Steve's shoulder, the finely trimmed hair of his goatee tickling Steve's skin. “Not fleeting,” Tony said in a soft voice, almost too low for Steve to hear. “Steve-”
A car door slammed.
Tony froze in his arms and Steve pushed him back toward the bedroom. “Stay here,” he said shortly and ran for the stairs. It was probably nothing – someone from the rental agency perhaps, or a local who didn't realize the cabin was occupied that weekend. But they were supposed to be alone out there and Steve had learned the hard way that it paid to be suspicious. Especially since they were out there alone and unarmed.
Well. Almost unarmed.
The front door wasn't locked and Steve grimaced at the carelessness – they had no reason to expect trouble but it tended to find them anyway. Aside from the superhero business, Tony's joke about corporate kidnappings wasn't actually a joke.
Steve paused at the door, scanning the woods around the house. The outside lights must have been on some kind of timer and they lit the whole area up almost like daylight. Steve could see Tony out of the corner of his eye, heading back for the bedroom. Good. The cabin was one open space and Tony had been a target standing in the light like that.
He heard something from the far side of the house, something that sounded like the crunch of gravel.
He threw the door open and barreled through, dodging low and to the right, his left arm coming up instinctively to shield himself. There was nothing there, no sign of movement. The Ferrari was still there and looked untouched, and there was no other car in the driveway.
Adrenaline faded almost as quick as it had come, leaving him feeling a little foolish to have run out into the night naked and unarmed. He cast a quick look around, scanning the treeline and walking around the car to make sure it was intact. No broken windows or any obvious signs that someone had been tampering with it, but the doors were unlocked. Steve couldn't remember if he'd locked them after pulling his and Tony's bags out earlier, but it made him uneasy nonetheless. He popped the trunk and hauled out his third bag – the one with his shield, which he'd promised to leave packed unless they had a genuine need for it. Then he slammed the trunk shut and made his way back to the house.
Tony was waiting for him just outside the door, hastily dressed in jeans and sneakers, holding his phone in one hand and a fireplace poker in the other, obviously intending to take on whatever villain had tracked them down. Steve couldn't tamp down a rush of love at the sight. “Do you have the car keys?”
Tony pulled them out of his pocket and Steve hit the lock. The lights on the car flashed briefly. “I didn't see anything out there, and the car looks fine.”
“It sounded like a car door slamming,” Tony said warily, peering over Steve's shoulder.
It had, which wasn't helping the way the skin on the back of Steve's neck was still crawling a little. “We left the car unlocked – maybe some kid saw us come through town and wanted a joyride.”
“Twenty miles up a dirt road on the side of a mountain?” Tony said skeptically.
“You see anything else to do in that place?” Steve asked dryly. “If someone wanted to ambush us, this is probably as good a chance as they'd have gotten. We didn't even lock the door.”
Tony rocked back on his heels. “You're probably right,” he said, not sounding all that sure that he actually meant it. “If it was Loki or terrorists or something, we wouldn't be standing here having this conversation.”
“Probably just kids. Or a hunter.”
Tony nodded. “Stay here? Really?”
Steve exhaled slowly. “Tony.”
Tony's eyes were dark and hard in the yellow light. “Are we having this conversation again?”
Steve swallowed past a tightness in his chest that wanted to start a fight over well-hashed territory. “It wasn’t like that. I just figured one angry naked guy was enough to scare off a prowler.”
There was a moment of tense silence, Tony's eyes sharp on his for a moment before they softened. “Yeah, well, you rushing out here with that massive club was probably overkill,” Tony said.
Steve frowned at his empty hands, then sighed.
“It's very intimidating,” Tony said earnestly. He was biting back a smile, his dark eyes laughing as he leaned up and pressed a kiss on Steve's mouth. “Come on, let's go back inside. I'm starving. I demand food before you ravish me in front of the fireplace.”
“I don't want to ravish someone who makes fun of my dick,” Steve said, but he wrapped an arm around Tony's waist and was leaning in for another kiss when he heard the sound of footsteps scrabbling against gravel as someone took off running down the mountain.
Tony had put his foot down over Steve running naked after some scared kid or sexually traumatized hunter - “Really, Tony? Dick jokes?” - and Steve couldn't work up the will to argue about it. He did dress and do a quick perimeter check of the cabin, his shield strapped to his arm as he checked each window and door, gave the car another look over and even jogged a couple miles down the road, listening for any sign that someone was still out there. He did find tire tracks and signs that a car had been parked on the side of the dirt road recently – it was harder to tell in the dark, but the crushed plants at the side of the road looked like fresh damage.
By the time he made it back to the house it was solidly night and Tony was making dinner.
He was also naked again.
“I could get used to this,” Steve said as he carefully locked the door behind him. He flipped the light switch but the outdoor lights didn't flicker. He tried a couple of others before giving up – it would just make it easier to catch their mystery intruder if they came back. He set his shield down on the edge of the counter, close enough he could easily grab it, but far enough from what Tony was doing that it wouldn't be in the way.
Tony gave him a hairy eyeball. “Me barefoot in the kitchen?”
Steve was ninety percent certain that being barefoot in the kitchen was a bad thing but he couldn't place why for the life of him. “You being naked and within arm's reach,” he said instead. “Not going to lie to you, Tony, that's doing something for me.” He could smell meat cooking, and something rich and creamy, and his stomach growled. “Also, dinner is definitely doing something for me at the moment, too.”
Tony huffed a laugh. “Chicken alfredo with peas. The sauce is ready, I'm just cooking the chicken.” He jerked his head toward the door. “Are we good out there?” He sounded easy and casual, probably well aware Steve wouldn't be talking about dinner if there was any sign of a lingering threat.
“There was definitely someone out there. I found signs of a car parked on the side of the road.” Steve opened the fridge and skimmed the contents. It was sparse, but there was enough for a couple of meals – including what looked like two fat steaks wrapped in butcher paper, plus a six pack of beer that suddenly hit the spot. “Are these all the groceries?”
“Apparently. Most of the stuff I asked to have delivered is missing.” Tony shrugged. “There's enough to get us through tomorrow night, then I figure we can take a trip into town and get the rest of the money back, do our own shopping. I don't want to be interrupted every few days by a yokel delivering steak and scotch.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Be nice,” he said. He slid one of the beers onto the counter by Tony's elbow, then hooked his leg over one of the chairs at the breakfast counter. “I'm still thinking kids, probably interested in the car.”
“I think this place is a teen hangout,” Tony said. He was stirring the alfredo sauce slowly with a wooden spoon, looking as attentive as he did during any of his projects or experiments and slightly more attentive than he usually looked during a mission debriefing. “I bet they get some rowdy parties up here in the off-season.”
Steve took a long swig of the cold beer. “What makes you think that?”
Tony tipped his head to the right. “Look at the back door. There's all these spots where the sheet rock's been patched up and painted over. Lots of holes and dents. Someone partied a little too hard, I would guess.”
Steve craned his head around and studied the wall by the door he'd just walked through. Now that the lights were on and he was looking, he could see exactly what Tony was talking about. He slid of his seat and moved closer for a better look.
“These are bullet holes,” he said.
He could feel Tony's eyes on him before he even turned around, but Tony's gaze, when he met it, was largely unconcerned. “Rowdy hunters?” he offered. “Place like this, probably everyone in town owns a gun – I bet they need them to fight off the moose.”
“I think shooting a moose just makes it angrier,” Steve said dryly.
“What about bears?”
“Well then what are these people all off shooting at?”
“Deer? I don't know, Tony, I've never been hunting.”
“Aren't you supposed to be all outdoorsy?”
“I grew up in Brooklyn.” Steve slid his arms around Tony's waist and rested his chin on his shoulder. “The closest I ever got to camping was when my mom hung the sheets up to dry and Bucky and I would crawl under them and pretend we were in a covered wagon.”
“I thought you were a Boy Scout.”
“You literally made that up,” Steve said patiently. “I was never a Scout.”
Tony leaned back against his chest as they watched the sauce simmer. “They probably weren't invented yet, huh?”
“Nope. They're one of the few things in America older than me.” Steve kissed the corner of Tony's mouth as it curved in a grin. “But the local troops didn't allow blacks or Jewish kids and they were nasty to the Girl Scouts in the neighborhood, so my ma and Bucky's ma didn't want us to have anything to do with them.”
“I like your mom. She sounds feisty.”
“I had to get it from somewhere, right?” Steve gave him a quick squeeze. “I'll grab some dishes.”
They ate in the great room, sprawled out on the couch with Tony's feet in Steve's lap. The television mounted over the fireplace didn't get any local stations – there probably were no local stations – but there were a dozen dvds shoved on a shelf, along with some dogeared paperbacks and a stack of CDs. Tony picked something out and they ate their home cooked meal while a giant ape fought an enormous dinosaur on some island that Steve half suspected to turn out to be real, the way his life was going.
Steve loaded the dishwasher and did one last check of the ground floor to make sure all the doors and windows were locked. Then he grabbed his shield and wandered back into the living area, where the credits were rolling on the screen and Tony was dozing off on the couch. “Come on, gorgeous.” He took one of Tony's hands and tugged gently. “Let's go upstairs and sleep in a real bed.”
“God, it's not even ten o'clock yet.” Tony groaned low in his throat as he let Steve bully him up off the couch. “Steve, I'm getting old.”
“This is a perfectly reasonable time to get ready for bed,” Steve said. “But yes, you are getting old.”
Tony cracked one eye and glared at him. “Big words from a guy who has an AARP card.”
“And a massive dick,” Steve said. “Or so I'm told anyway.” He slid his hands down to cup Tony's ass and squeeze. “Just because we're going to bed doesn't mean we have to go to sleep.” He found the flat round head of the plug and pressed on it firmly, dragging a startled whimper out of Tony. “Unless you're too tired for this old man?”
It didn't occur to him until much later, when Tony's body was slack with sleep, his head resting on Steve's shoulder, that if all the bullet holes were grouped around the door, then whoever had fired had been shooting at someone trying to get in.
“I still can't believe you fell in the pond.”
Tony scowled at him with all the indignant fury of a wet cat. “I can't believe you pushed me in.”
“I was trying to catch you,” Steve said, for at least the tenth time. He'd been protesting his innocence all the way back to the cabin with limited success. Probably because he couldn't stop laughing at the memory of Tony standing knee-deep in pond water, covered in algae and dripping wet.
“Traitor,” Tony said in a dark voice. “Tomorrow I'm feeding you to a moose.”
“Tomorrow we're going into town to get the rest of our groceries, remember?” Steve wrapped an arm around Tony's waist as they approached the cabin, pressed a kiss to his still-damp hair. “You can feed me to a moose the day after.”
“I don't think you properly appreciate the trouble you're in,” Tony said, but he sounded more amused than he did angry.
“I have a very healthy appreciation for your ability to make my life miserable if you want to,” Steve assured him. “Tell you what, why don't you get cleaned up and I'll cook tonight so you can relax.”
That appeared to mollify Tony's need for immediate vengeance. “All right, if you think you can manage dinner without burning the whole kitchen down.”
“I saw a grill out on the porch. I thought I'd see if we could get it fired up and have a couple of those steaks you mentioned last night.” Steve pressed a kiss to Tony's temple, ignoring the fact that he kind of smelled like pond water.
“If you make me a steak I will forgive you for pushing me into pond scum,” Tony said magnanimously.
Steve pulled out the keys – they had locked up tight before they left that morning,just in case. “Sounds like a plan to me.”
“It occurs to me I never asked about a grill.” Tony kicked his shoes off just inside the front door and pulled his damp shirt off over his head. “I didn't ask about gas, or charcoal or whatever.”
“It was listed on the brochure you sent me as one of the amenities, so they probably keep some up here.” Steve let his gaze linger as Tony shimmied out of his pants and boxers, leaving the clothes in a wet heap by the door. “You know, if you wanted to distract me from getting dinner ready-”
Tony laughed. “Go fire up the grill. I'm going to hose myself off and then I figure I'll see if I can get the hot tub going.”
Steve caught his chin in one hand and held him still for a long kiss. He tasted a little like pond water, too, but Steve wasn't going to let that stop him. “I've never made love to you in a hot tub before.”
“Let's see how good your steak is before you get your hopes up,” Tony said. He threw a grin over his shoulder as he left.
Steve lingered for a moment, watching Tony climb the stairs before he shook himself a little and went outside to check on the grill.
The porch that wrapped around the entire second floor also had a small round deck just off the upstairs loft with a two-person hot tub, a wooden bench and table and a grill. Just off the deck there were a couple of garden chairs and Steve thought that perhaps after dinner they could stretch out and watch the stars until they fell asleep.
Honestly, this place was probably going to spoil him. He loved his team, but going back to the Tower to listen to Clint covering his eyes and screeching that he'd gone blind every time they kissed was going to be a real struggle.
The grill looked good, to Steve's admittedly limited experience, but it definitely needed charcoal. A quick search of the porch didn't turn up anything and he was rummaging around in the upstairs closet when Tony stepped out of the bedroom, a towel wrapped around his hips. “Any luck?”
“Can you broil a steak?” Steve asked. “Because unless we can grill a steak over a woodfire, we might have a problem.”
“It's a New York Strip, so yeah, broiling would work out okay.” Tony shook his head a little, sending a spray of water in Steve's direction. “Did you try the woodshed?”
“I could do that.” Steve stepped in close and let his hands settle on Tony’s hips. He stroked his fingers beneath the towel, rubbing over the damp skin. “Or I could just have you for dinner.”
Tony always looked so gorgeous when he grinned, unabashed and genuinely happy. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened and fanned out, and his mouth opened slightly to show perfectly straight, white teeth – a testament to the dedication of Tony’s dentist considering how much coffee the man drank on a daily basis – and his features softened, lost some of that constant wariness that Tony managed to project even around the people who knew him best.
The first time Tony had looked at him like this, unguarded and happy, comfortable enough, safe enough in Steve’s presence to just be himself, that was the first time Steve let himself believe that this was going to work. They’d gotten off to such a rough start and then the fight on the Helicarrier had only worsened it, leaving Steve at least wary and regretful. Tony had waved it away, declined Steve’s apologies and offered none of his own, but less than a month had passed before Steve got a call offering him a place to stay if he was ever back in New York. It had taken him a couple of months to take Tony up on the offer and he’d been the last of the team to move in, but the feeling of being a unit again, of having a place that was his and not just a place SHIELD allocated for him, was exactly what he’d needed.
And somewhere in there his feelings for Tony had grown from wariness to gratitude to the bone-deep comfort you felt in the company of someone you knew and trusted and liked. The first time Tony had kissed him hadn’t been any great revelation, just the confirmation of something Steve had come to realize over time.
Tony leaned into his touch, eyes warm and hooded. “That’s all well and good for you, but I was promised steak.” His chest was warm against Steve’s, the hard pressure of the arc reactor so familiar that Steve barely noticed it anymore. “You made me go on a nature hike, Captain. That sentence contains two things I do not especially wish to experience up close and personal.”
“Nature and hiking?” Steve asked dryly.
Tony kissed his throat, which was as high as he could get without leaning up, or Steve bending down. “Damn straight, gorgeous. You owe me steak. And dessert afterwards. Served on your abs.”
Steve slid his arms around Tony’s back to pull him into a quick hug. “All right, but no ice cream.”
One of Tony’s hands pressed flat against his stomach as he leaned in for a kiss. “Go check the woodshed. I’ll grab the steaks out of the fridge and get the hot tub started up.” He smiled against Steve’s mouth, the soft hair of his goatee tickling Steve’s chin. “Just so you know, I didn’t pack a swim suit.”
Steve grinned. “So I should hurry, is what I’m hearing.”
Tony pulled away with a little shove to Steve’s chest and disappeared back into the bedroom. He entertained the idea of following him for less than a moment - a hungry Tony was very rarely an amorous Tony, and after spending the entire afternoon and most of the evening in the woods, Steve had to admit that most of the lecherous thoughts floating around in his head had more to do with dinner than Tony’s non-existent bathing suit.
He rummaged through the downstairs pantry and coat closet without any luck, then checked the porch on the off-chance he’d stumble over a bag that had been left out. The outdoor lights were already on, either on a timer or programmed to flip on when the natural light faded; it was growing dark, evening had faded to dusk and the sun was nothing more than a golden orange glow on the other side of the mountain. It would be dark soon, but the deck lights would be more than enough for them to see by.
The woodshed was locked, but a quick hunt turned up a hide-a-key shaped like a rock with two spare keys hidden inside. One fit the woodshed door and Steve pocketed the other. He still believed their intruder the night before had just been a kid, but there was no reason to leave a spare house key where anyone could find it. He’d put it back when they left.
The shed door opened silently on recently-oiled hinges. Steve felt around for a light switch as he edged inside, and finally found a chain hanging from the ceiling. He tugged and the room was dimly lit by a single dangling bulb.
From the inside it looked less like a woodshed than a thrift store basement – and not a particularly well-organized one at that. Steve saw gardening tools and potting soil in one corner, an old broken lamp, what looked like toys for a child’s sandbox, a number of broken wooden chairs and one recliner with a huge brown stain covering most of it. There was luggage too – a lot of mismatched pieces that Steve assumed had been left behind by previous renters. He found what he was looking for in the far corner, a large blue and white sack labeled “Applewood charcoal briquettes”.
It was mostly hidden behind a small pile of stuffed animals – and that seemed strange to him. He could see a vacationing parent leaving behind an old briefcase or makeup bag if they’d driven far enough without noticing it had been forgotten, but leaving their kid’s toy? Bucky’s youngest sister had misplaced a ragdoll once and Steve’s ears still hurt from the shrieking.
Some of the toys looked pretty old. There was a brown teddy bear with a bright red heart on its belly, and a baby doll with eyelids that fluttered shut when Steve moved her which seemed kind of creepy for a kid’s toy. There were a handful of bears, a stuffed dalmation, and a Raggedy Ann doll that looked almost as old as Steve felt some days. Several of them were stained with something dark and rust-colored, probably from having been left sitting in the old shed for so many years. It seemed a waste, in Steve’s opinion. If they couldn’t be returned to their original owner, they could have at least been given to local children. But now they were essentially trash.
He rubbed at one plastic doll’s stained face and the stain came away beneath his finger – flaking and the color of dried blood.
In the shadows, something moved.
For a long moment, Steve paused, muscles tensed and ready to spring. Adrenaline spiked his blood as Steve scanned the small confines of the shed, peering into the dim corners. Nothing moved, there was no sound and after a second he let himself relax.
He grabbed the briquettes with one hand and skirted back around the pile of stuffed toys, eyeballing the pile of luggage heaped just inside the front door. A leather satchel was lying on the floor where it hadn’t been before. He must have bumped it when he came in.
The skin on the back of his neck prickled and he rolled his shoulders to shrug it off.
“Victory,” he announced, thumping the bag of briquettes down on the table.
Tony barely spared him a glance. “The hot tub may not be on the menu tonight. There’s something caught in here – the jets are making some god awful noise.” He was still wearing a towel around his hips and was peering into the tub with a look that said clearly that he expected better of machinery and was not prepared to tolerate any subpar poorly maintained bullshit. Steve was glad he’d insisted Tony leave his toolkits behind or he suspected Tony would be halfway to building a new tub from scratch just on principal.
“If you dismantle it, you have to put it back together,” Steve said mildly.
Tony flipped him off without bothering to look up from where he was working. “If I dismantle it, it’s going back together far better than the way it was originally built. They will be thanking me for dismantling – what the hell.” He rose up slightly from his crouch, holding one hand cupped in front of him, mouth curled in distaste.
Steve leaned over the edge of the tub. “Are those teeth?”
“This is disgusting,” Tony said. “I will give you a million dollars right now if you give me something to hold these in besides my bare hands.”
Steve grabbed one of the paper plates from beside the grill and held it out like an offering. Tony dropped the teeth onto it with a quick, stiff movement. There were three of them, polished clean from the water and at a casual glance there was no way to know how long they’d been in there. “These are too big to belong to a squirrel or something.”
“Dog at least,” Tony said. He was holding his hand out to the side, fingers curled in against his palm.
“At the risk of seeming a bit fussy, there’s no way in hell I’m getting back in that hot tub until it’s been drained, cleaned and possibly bleached.”
Steve set the plate down on the floor of the deck. “Go wash your hands. I’ll start dinner. We can cuddle on the deck chairs instead of the hot tub.”
Tony made a face at him. “Don’t keep them for souvenirs, toss them in the woods.”
Steve grimaced right back. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“What are you gong to do, show them to the cops?” Tony paused one hand on the sliding glass door, the other holding his towel in place. “You think those are human, don’t you?”
He hesitated, partially because Tony was currently trying to distance himself from his own hand and partially because the weird niggling feeling between his shoulder blades was turning into a crawling sensation. “I’m no dentist, but yeah. I’ve punched a few Nazis in the mouth in my time and these look like human teeth.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “I don’t know which is worse, that I was carrying around a bunch of human teeth in my bare hands, or the fact that I’m dating a guy who can recognize them on sight.” He pointed at Steve with his other hand. “Nuh-uh. First, I think we should have the hot tub exorcised and possibly burned.”
“Seems like overkill, but I’m starting to see the appeal of your bleaching suggestion.”
“Second.” Tony tipped his head to the side, toward the valley where the lights of Grand were easy to make out in the gathering twilight. “Tomorrow we are definitely going to check in with whoever owns this place, and possibly the cops. There’s too many little things going weird up here, and I’d rather not turn out to be the guy in the horror movie who gets his face munched on because he can’t recognize an obvious warning sign from a mile away.”
“There has been no face-munching degree of weird,” Steve said, automatically denying the flair of melodrama that Tony seemed to manage to bring into everything he came across. “Although, it occurs to me I’ve probably just jinxed us. But this seems strange enough to warrant a conversation. We have to go into town tomorrow anyway to get the rest of the groceries. We can ask the rental office if there have been any accidents up here.”
“Speaking of weirdness,” Tony said. He pulled open the sliding glass door with his unsullied hand and disappeared inside. He raised his voice to be heard as he made his way back to the bathroom. “They were the weirdest part of this trip so far.”
“She was just nervous,” Steve said. “It’s not every day you find yourself face-to-face with the Tony Stark, after all. She was probably afraid she’d get in trouble for double-booking the place.”
“Yeah, but she unbooked the other people before you and I even showed up.” Tony leaned against the screen door, drying his hands on a towel. His hair was getting fluffy as it dried and Steve gave into the temptation to walk over there and run his fingers through the soft brown waves. Tony tipped his head back, his mouth curving in a slow, easy smile and Steve felt his stomach flip over. “I’m calling weird on them both. It’s like they were having an entirely different conversation with each other than they were with us.”
“Because you and I never do that,” Steve said.
“Shh, we are superheroes we’re allowed to be cryptic and have coded exchanges.” Tony leaned in and brushed his lips against Steve’s mouth. “Where’s my steak, old man?”
Steve combed his fingers through Tony’s hair and tugged lightly on the short curls at the nape. “I’m not the one going gray in this relationship.”
“But you are the only one old enough to qualify for a senior citizen's discount,” Tony said. His eyes glittered in the deck lights. “You’re stalling because you have no idea how to "fire up” that grill, aren’t you?“
A sheepish grin tugged at the corner of Steve’s mouth. "It can’t be any harder than starting a campfire.”
Tony laughed, teasing but not mocking. “If you burn the steaks all we have left to get us through till tomorrow is a box of crème puffs and some raw vegetables.”
“We’ll have to live on love.”
“I’d rather just have a steak.”
Steve sighed. “The magic is gone already.”
Tony nodded, mouth pressed into a solemn line, eyes bright. “It’s easier to be romantic on a full stomach.”
“I can take a hint.” Steve pressed a kiss against the top of Tony’s head and turned back to the grill. He grabbed the briquettes and upended the bag onto the grill.
Cell phones – about a dozen of them – tumbled into the base of the grill with a loud clang.
“All right,” Steve said. “I give up. It’s weird.”
Tony reached around him to fish out a phone – one of the flip-top kind, that even Steve knew were old fashioned. “Battery’s been removed.” He peered into the grill. “From all of them.” He flipped the phone open, then snapped it shut. “That’s a good way to make sure no one can trace them.”
“This is too many,” Steve said. “People forget things, but not their phones. People go back for their phones.”
“Or at the very least, have the rental agency mail it back to you. Some of these are old, but that would have just made replacing them even harder and more expensive.”
Steve thought of the toys in the woodshed, the pile of luggage, the clothes heaped in the corner. He thought of the rust-brown flakes drying on the toy. “I’m starting to get a very bad feeling about this place.”
“Teeth in the hot tub, midnight intruders. Bullet holes by the door,” Tony said. “I wonder if the renters were shooting at someone trying to get in, or if someone was shooting at them as they tried to escape.” He flashed Steve a quick, humorless smile. “What are the odds that we managed to rent a serial killer’s hunting ground on our first weekend away together?”
“That sounds about right, actually. It was either going to be this, or aliens.” Steve balled the briquette bag up and dropped it on top of the phones. “There’s no way the rental agency doesn’t know about this. A dozen phones – how do a dozen people go missing and no one notices?”
“Some of these are pretty old. Whoever’s doing this may be smart enough to spread it out.” Tony pinched his bottom lip. “These might go back years. Maybe one or two victims every season – the rental agency might just figure they went home without checking out. One or two lost cell phones a year isn’t worth mentioning.” He sounded doubtful, like he wasn’t sure he believed his own words strongly enough to convince himself, let alone Steve.
“Except they took the batteries out.” Steve picked up one phone, bright pink and covered in cartoon stickers. “The woodshed was full of stuff like this. Years worth. I think you were right the first time.”
“All right. Serial killers are a little out of our usual range of expertise.” Tony curled his fingers over Steve’s wrist, his thumb rubbing over the soft skin of his inner arm, soothing.
Steve hadn’t realized he was gripping the child’s phone so tightly until the casing made a cracking noise. “Not really. We fight monsters all the time. This type just blends in better.”
“At least it can’t fly,” Tony said. “And me without my suitcase armor. The next time anyone tries to convince me to go around unarmed, I’m going to remind them of this. You know, this puts last night’s visitor in a whole new light.”
“That had occurred to me.”
Tony set the phone he’d grabbed back down with the others, carefully, almost gently. “All right. I’m going to call the police – assuming we can even get 911 out here. And assuming the local cops aren’t in on it. And assuming they don’t just roll their eyes and assume I’m some hysterical city boy who got scared of the woods. This is all very circumstantial, if you aren’t the one having to stare at it.”
“Call them anyway. If someone does try anything while we’re here, at least we’ll have our bases covered.”
Tony shrugged. “What kind of imbecile would attack Captain America and Iron Man?”
“We’re just Steve and Tony out here.”
Tony snorted indelicately. “You’re still a super soldier. And I’m still the guy who built Iron Man out of a box of scraps.”
While literally holding his heart in his hands. Steve shook off the mental image of Tony’s oil and grease-stained fingers clutching an old car battery to his chest and the flash of nausea that always accompanied it. “Maybe that’s why the rental office was acting so weird. They thought we’d be easier pickings for their pet serial killer.”
Tony flashed a grin at him over his shoulder as he stepped into the cabin. “That sounds like something I would come up with. I have definitely been a bad influence on you.”
“Keep telling yourself that.” Steve set the little pink phone down on the grill with the others and shut the lid on them. He paused for a moment by the deck railing and looked down into the valley at the bright cluster of lights that made up Grand Township. Half-serious jokes about serial killers aside, something strange was happening and Steve didn’t like the feeling of being so cut off. What had seemed intimately private just that morning now felt isolated.
Steve frowned and thought, only a little aggravated, that he should have just let Tony rent them the private island like he wanted.
Down in the valley, the lights went off, all of Grand going dark at once as if someone had flipped a giant switch.
Steve braced both hands against the railing and scanned the rest of the valley. There were only a handful of lit areas and he watched them blink out as well, not quite in succession, but flickering out within seconds of each other until the entire valley looked empty and abandoned.
Power failure, Steve thought, but his gut was already churning and he drew in a sharp breath. He had no idea what he’d been expecting to happen, but something told him it had already started.
“Phone’s out,” Tony said from behind him. “No signal on either phone. Considering I can see a cell tower on the next mountain over, I’m going to go out on a limb and say something’s up.”
At the far end of the deck, something moved. It was darkness in shadows, black on black and he lost track of it as soon as he tried to focus.
“Something’s out here with us.” He took two quick steps backwards, reaching out behind him. His hand found the warm skin of Tony’s arm and closed around it. “Back inside, quickly. Stay behind me.”
Tony’s arm twisted in his grip just enough for him to latch onto Steve’s wrist with his hand, tugging Steve with him as he lunged for the door. Steve let himself be dragged, keeping his eyes on the shadows at the end of the deck. Tony slammed the sliding glass door shut just as one of the shadows separated itself from the others and came toward them.
It crouched outside the door for a moment, studying them through the glass. Up close it looked almost human, small but not childlike. Its skin was like an oil slick and its eyes were dark black with no iris or pupil and several whip-thin tentacles sprouted from the base of its neck and spine. It crouched on its rear legs, elbows braced on its knees, hands dangling between them. It stared at them, unblinking, and the blue light of the arc reactor glinted off its eyes.
It made a sound, a low chittering that sounded almost curious, then leapt away.
“It’s still there,” Steve said. “It's above us. I can hear it's claws digging into the side of the house.”
“It’s getting between me and a steak dinner is what it’s doing.” Tony’s grip on his wrist didn’t loosen at all. “Did you see its hands?”
Steve had. Humanoid, opposable thumbs and all, each finger ending in wickedly sharp claws. “I’m going to get the shield and see if we can communicate with it.”
“Great. I’m going to put on pants.”
Steve could just barely see the way the creature leaned forward to peer through the glass, its nose and lips pressed against the door. It made the same chittering sound, but louder and sharper. From the darkness of the living room something answered.
“Bedroom!” Steve didn’t bother looking for it – if it could blend into its surroundings it would be almost impossible to see in the darkness downstairs – he just shoved Tony ahead of him. He could hear something skittering on the hardwood floors and the clicking sound of claws on the stairs.
He pushed Tony through the door and slammed it shut behind them, thumbing the lock as he did, then swung Tony back around behind him so he was pressed between the closed door and Steve’s back. The bedroom lights were on and the room looked empty at first glance. Steve tried to focus on the room, looking less for shape and more for movement, but the room looked and felt empty. He could feel Tony’s breath against his back, warm and quick between his shoulder blades. “Get dressed,” he said softly.
“How did one get in the house without us noticing?” Tony dragged on a pair of jeans when the bedroom door began to rattle.
“They know how to use doorknobs,” Steve said, watching the handle move back and forth, slowly at first, then with increasing force. “We hadn’t locked up for the night, so they just let themselves in.”
Tony jammed his feet into boots. “What's our plan?”
Steve hefted the shield. “Stay here, barricade the door behind me. They're fast but they don't look very strong, I should be able to handle two of them.”
“Son of a bitch,” Tony said.
Tony's voice was low and flat and angrier than Steve had ever heard aimed at him. “But not useless. If you think I'm going to sit here twiddling my thumbs-”
Claws scrabbling at the bedroom window cut him off and Steve dragged his eyes away from Tony's face to see a half dozen of the creatures clinging to the windowsill, peering in at them, their dark eyes seeming to glow in the light. One of them reared back and began to pound on the glass with its fists and the pane gave with a sharp snap, the glass giving way in a spiderweb of cracks that fanned out over have the pane.
Steve cursed under his breath. “New plan. We go through the door hard. I hit them fast, you watch my back.”
“I like that plan better,” Tony said.
The creature drew its fist back and Steve didn't wait for the blow to land; the glass wouldn't take another hit like that. He pulled the shield up and ran for the door even as he heard glass shattering behind him. He saw Tony lunge for the dresser and grab something as he followed.
The bedroom door was shaking on its hinges, the knob rattling furiously. Claws were raking across the wood on the other side and Steve gave a brief parting though to Tony's security deposit before he drew his foot back and kicked down the door. There was an explosion of angry shrieks and he saw eyes shimmering in the darkness as light spilled out of the bedroom and into the rest of the cabin.
“That's more than two,” Tony said.
“We don't get separated,” Steve said. “The kitchen door, go, get to the car. Now!”
He brought the shield up in a heavy swing as the first of the creatures flung itself at him. It hit the shield hard, claws scraping across the finish for an instant before the force of the blow sent it flying down the hallway. Steve heard it hit the floor with a heavy thud even as another one lunged at him.
There was the sound of impact and a pained squeal from behind him as another one went staggering away. He grabbed the one in front of him by the throat and tossed it into the group that was rushing through the bedroom door, sending them staggering backwards. He saw Tony take another one down with a kick to the face.
He grabbed the railing with one hand and launched himself down the stairs, hitting a pack of them feet first and sending them flying backwards. Several rolled around on the floor, but the others were getting back up and the ones upstairs weren't slowing down. He threw the shield, hard, trusting instinct more than conscious thought and let it ricochet off the railing into the creature that was breathing down Tony's neck. The creature dropped and Tony threw himself down the stairs on Steve's heels.
The shield bounced off the upstairs chimney, leaving what sounded like a sizeable chunk in the stone facade and returning to his hand. He caught the straps and swung in the direction it was already moving, sweeping three or four of them out of his way.
There was another sound of shattering glass and shards rained down from upstairs as the sliding glass doors gave way beneath the weight of at least a dozen of them, scrabbling over each other as they rushed into the cabin.
“Keys!” Steve shouted.
“I've got them, just keep going!” Tony drove his clenched fist into one creature's face, hard enough to send it staggering backwards.
There were a couple dozen of them piled up in the kitchen doorway, the same place where Tony had first noticed the patched-up bullet holes. More were joining them, jumping down from upstairs and climbing down the walls. Steve could hit them hard, take the shield to them like a battering ram and hope he could bowl them over enough to get them through the door.
He spun, wrapped his free arm around Tony's waist and dragged Tony against his chest. “Close your eyes,” he ordered.
Tony swore under his breath but ducked his head, burying his face against Steve's shoulder and wrapping his arms around Steve's neck.
Steve took a running start at the horde by the door, Tony's weight nowhere near enough to slow him down. He took three big steps, close enough that he could see the reflection of the arc reactor shimmer over their skin, then dodged to the right and jumped, bringing the shield up to cover their faces as he leaped through the plate glass window in the living room.
His feet hit the ground and he all but threw Tony toward the car. “Start the engine!”
He heard the beep of the car unlocking, and the headlights flashed bright yellow twice. The creatures were piled up in the doorway and around the broken windowsill, staring at him with an intensity that made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
Tony swore. Long and loud enough that it echoed off the mountains in the still air.
They creatures were watching them, waiting to see what they were doing. Steve didn't know if they were smart enough to know how the car worked, but their eyes seemed to be focused solely on Tony at the moment, and the hungry intensity of their gaze made his stomach clench. “Tony, what's happening?”
“Get in the car!”
He spared the creatures one last glance then ran for the car. Tony was standing by the driver's side, the door open, one hand braced on the door. His eyes caught Steve's and he gave the car a hard shove.
The Ferrari wasn't a heavy car and the driveway was on an incline. It started rolling immediately.
Tony slid into the car and pulled the door shut behind him. Steve poured on the speed, ignoring the outraged shrieks ringing out behind him. He grabbed the passenger door handle and yanked it open, swinging himself in just as the car hit a steeper section of road and started to pick up speed.
“Engine trouble?” Steve asked.
“The fucking spark plugs are gone.” Tony's hands were white-knuckled on the wheel and he was staring out the windshield with grim concentration. “So we don't have much in the way of brakes here, fair warning.”
The car was rolling now, tires skidding on the loose dirt and gravel as they rounded a curve. “How far is this going to get us?”
“Until we hit a straight patch and lose momentum.” Tony grinned, teeth flashing white in the darkness, only the light of the reactor brightening the interior of the car. “Or I lose control and we wreck out.”
Tony occasionally drove race cars for fun. Hopefully coasting down an unpaved mountain road in the dark with a pack of unknown creatures in pursuit wasn't too different.
“They weren't that fast,” Steve said. “If we can get a big enough head start-”
The car hit a rut in the road and something thudded against the undercarriage. Tony winced. “Town was a solid twenty minutes away when we had acceleration. And brakes.”
“We need to make sure we lose these things,” Steve said. He was twisted around in his seat, trying to see the road behind them. “We can't lead them into the town.”
“Serves them right-”
“They can't all have been in on it.” He thought he could see shapes loping along the side of the road, but it was equally possible it was his imagination. The sky was clear but there was no moon at all and the woods were dark and dense along either side of the road. “We need a phone.”
“Right rear pocket.” The car swerved dangerously and Steve heard the sound of the car drifting off the dirt and onto the grass and scrub along the side of the road for a moment before Tony pulled it back under control.
He grabbed the phone out of Tony's pocket. “No signal.”
“We had one yesterday. I texted Pepper pictures of the view.” Tony's grin was wolfish in the blue light. “Someone set us up for this. Cell phone blocker, missing spark plugs-”
“Who the hell do we know who would go to this kind of trouble?” Steve grabbed at the dashboard as the car skidded into a sharp turn.
Tony swore under his breath as he struggled with the steering wheel. “Shit, shit, shit.”
They were going faster now, but the car bounced fiercely over every rut and hole and as soon as they hit a straight patch, they'd lose most of their momentum. If they didn't lose a tire first.
“Doesn't seem like Loki's style,” Tony said. He sounded almost out of breath. “Hydra would've just shot up the place with us inside. AIM isn't smart enough to find us under an assumed name. Hammer doesn't have access to a horde of monsters, last time I checked and isn't smart enough to control them if he did. He'd have gotten himself eaten already.” He laughed as he took the car through another curve that was basically a right-hand turn, rear tires briefly spinning on the dirt and rocks. “If Justin Hammer got eaten alive trying to ruin our vacation, that would officially make this all worth it.”
“I think we're losing them,” Steve said. He couldn't make out any sign of movement around them or on the road behind them.
Tony cursed, short and harsh, the sound more a snarl than a word and suddenly the war wasn't on the road anymore.
Steve hit the car door and was pinned there briefly by momentum. He could hear the tires skidding on dirt, the sound of branches whipping the sides of the car. His stomach flipped as his side of the car briefly left the ground and he dug his fingers into the dashboard before he could be dumped in Tony's lap.
The car slammed back to the ground with a heavy thud, sending them bouncing under the weight of its own impact. He felt something warm and solid across his chest – Tony's arm, thrown out to brace him – and then they hit something head on, hard enough to send the rear end of the car up off the ground and nearly send Steve into the dashboard. He heard Tony make a sound, pained and harsh, then the rear wheels hit the ground again with a final thud and they were still.
“Okay,” Tony said. He sounded out of breath, but his hand was still clenched in Steve's t-shirt. “Okay, good news and bad news.”
Steve let go of the dashboard, ignoring the hand shaped dent he'd left and covered Tony's hand with his own. “You all right?”
Tony nodded, his face contorted in a grimace, and let go of Steve's shirt so he could press his hand against his chest. “Yeah. Just bruised the ribs, I think. Hit the steering wheel a little harder than I would have liked to, but nobody went through the windshield, so we're calling this a success.”
Steve shoved his door open, the hinges creaking in protest, and climbed out of the car, bracing himself for a moment as he took an internal inventory. Everything was where it was supposed to be and aside from an already-healing bruise on his right shoulder where he'd hit the car door, he was fine.
The car, not so much. The paint was scratched all along the sides and the front end was crumpled in where it had hit the tree. It wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been. “I think the Ferrari's done for.”
Tony laughed. “Yeah, that's the bad news.” He shoved his door open with a grunt and slid out of the car – for a second it looked like his legs weren't going to hold him and Steve was halfway around the car to his side when he caught himself. “The good news is, we missed the tree.”
Steve aimed a pointed look at the front of the car.
Tony shook his head. “Trust me on this one,” he said. He shoved off against the side of the car with a pained grunt and came around to pop the trunk. There was a roadside kit in a duffel bag and Tony rummaged through it, tossing about half the contents back into the trunk. The rest he zipped back up and slung the bag over his shoulder. “Come on,” he said as he turned back to the road. “If we're lucky we made it about halfway there.”
They weren't far into the woods – twenty feet or so at most. Even in the dark Steve could see the trail of damage the little car had left behind; it was either pure luck or sheer skill that had kept Tony from driving into a tree until they'd lost as much momentum as they had. “They'd have heard that.”
Tony nodded. “They might have heard it down in town. It's a still night. Sound carries in the dark.”
They lingered a moment at the edge of the road, but Steve didn't hear or see anything that indicated the creatures had caught up with them yet. Tony pointed down the road. “See? We totally missed the tree.”
The tree lying across the road was significantly bigger than the one they'd struck. The trunk was easily ten feet around and there was no room on either side for a car to get past. If they'd hit that they would have been injured at least. Very likely killed. And almost definitely sitting ducks for anything out in the dark.
“I'll bet you ten thousand dollars and a lap dance that didn't come down because of wind or beavers.”
Tony waved a hand at him. “Or woodpeckers or whatever.”
“No bet.” Steve hefted the shield and jogged the short distance to the tree. The stump was fresh, the wood sawed clean through. Wood shavings and sawdust littered the ground around it, the scent of pine still sharp and fresh in the air. “This hasn't been down more than a couple of hours, if I had to guess.”
Tony sighed. “I love you, babe, but the next time we want a quite, intimate vacation we're bringing Happy along. Possibly a small team of bodyguards. Thor.”
“Don't lie, you wanted to bring Thor anyway.”
The expression on Tony's face wasn't so much a smile as a leer. Steve shook his head. “Now I'm scandalized.”
“Liar.” Tony hefted the duffel bag further up his shoulder. “We shouldn't stay. We're using up our head start.”
Steve shrugged out of his jacket, switching the shield to his other hand so he could pull it off. “Take this.” He tossed it to Tony who grabbed it in one hand. “You're already scratched up from the branches. And the reactor's like a bullseye in the dark.”
Tony didn't argue, just dropped the duffel bag long enough to pull on the jacket and zip it up until the reactor was covered. The blue light still glowed through the thin material of the windbreaker, but it was an ethereal glow, not the beacon it had been. “I figure we made it just less than halfway down. We're near that duck pond that was on the map. Five miles, easy. Maybe a little more.”
“Stick to the road for now,” Steve said. They'd have more cover in the trees, but they'd be forced to move significantly slower and would make a lot more noise. Speed was more important now. Steve waved for Tony to go ahead of him and, with one last glance at the dark road behind them, set out after him.
Five miles was doable. Tony jogged that far with him a few times a week when their schedules allowed it, and did as much on the treadmill in the gym the rest of the time. Steve himself regularly ran three or four times as long and could, if he had to, easily carry Tony the distance. In the dark and on the uneven ground it might take them longer than it usually did, but they'd still make town in a couple of hours, tops.
As long as nothing stopped them.
Somewhere up the mountain, something screeched, high-pitched and grating. The sound echoed off the mountains until it faded into an inhuman howl.
Without having to exchange a word, they both kicked up the pace.
The first ambush hit them less than thirty minutes later.
Steve had been listening for pursuit, ears open for the sound of movement through the trees or the sound of footsteps on the road behind them. Tony's focus is ahead of them, eyes open for another barricade. Steve was a little worried that they're going to end up trapped between armed townspeople and an angry horde, he was even more worried they're going to bring the horde down on people who couldn't defend themselves. But Tony still couldn't get a signal on his phone and there was nowhere else to go.
Steve didn't see them at first. Or he did, but his eyes skimmed over the unmoving shapes in the darkness, took them for shadows or rocks. Tony saw them first, breath punching out of him in a startled exhale as he stopped hard in his tracks.
Steve saw them then, a half dozen of them rising up from the ground like wraiths, starlight reflecting off their skin. The tentacles undulated in the air above them, barely visible even to Steve's enhanced eyes. The one closest to Tony made a sound like an angry cat, and it was close enough that the soft blue glow of the reactor shimmered in its eyes.
Steve tensed, the shield raised for a blow.
Tony grabbed something out of the duffel bag and jabbed at the creature with it. There was the sharp crackle of electricity and the creature shrieked and spasmed, arms and tentacles flailing as it staggered back and collapsed.
The others rushed them at once and Steve rushed forward to meet them head on. He hit one with the shield hard enough to send it flying, took great satisfaction in driving another one into the ground with enough force that he could feel with through the shield. He heard another crackle and buzz from off to the side and looked up just in time to see Tony jab one of them in the chest with what looked an awful lot like the flashlight from the roadside emergency kit.
Steve aimed for one of the two still standing but this one had learned its lesson and grabbed at the shield, clinging to the rim as he swung. It's claws clicked against the vibranium as it curled its fingers around the edge of the shield and hissed at him. Its muscles tensed and Steve knew it was about to launch itself directly at his face.
Tony grabbed it under the arms like a cat and pulled, tearing it free of the shield and hurled it as far as he could. It hit the ground a dozen feet away and came up spitting, tentacles lashing at the air as it ran at them on all fours. Tony met it halfway with a vicious kick that slammed it back into a tree with the sick crunch of breaking bones. Tony flinched at the sound, but it didn't stop him from swinging around to meet the next creature's attack. But Steve had that one already, the creature dropped with one hard blow and for a moment it was silence again.
But not for long. Another cry came from behind them, a long, angry yowl that made the hair on Steve's arms stand on end. “Move,” he said in a sharp voice and he was already running, one hand fisted in the material of Tony's jacket, prepared to drag him along if necessary. It wasn't, Tony was running almost before Steve could even speak. No more jogging, this was a flat-out run, their legs eating the ground at a steady pace. They couldn't keep it up on uneven ground like this, sooner or later one of them would trip or fall into a ditch or break an ankle and then they'd be trapped out in the open.
He could hear them getting closer – the sound of something moving through the woods behind them. Still a ways back but getting closer. The creatures were calling to each other as they moved and Steve could hear them fanning out behind them, forming a net. Maybe a dozen or so for now – but there had been four or five times that many at the cabin and the rest of the pack would catch up with them eventually.
“Map,” Tony said, just a gulp of air in between one breath and the next. “On the way up. Duck pond. And a cave.”
It wasn't ideal. But they might be able to hide themselves long enough for the pack to go on a head and lose them. Or worse case scenario, at least they'd have something to put their backs to if it came to a head on fight. “Where?” he asked.
Tony closed his eyes briefly, concentrating on a ridiculous hand-drawn map he'd probably looked at for all of ten seconds the day before. Tony was good at directions when he wanted to be – he could read a map as easily as a schematic, it all just appeared in his head like a three-dimensional hologram. He always knew where he was relative to where he wanted to be, as long as he'd been paying attention. The only places he ever really got lost were in department stores and on nature hikes when he was spending more time complaining and staring at Steve's legs than watching the trail. “The map was for shit,” Tony said finally. “But if I remember the GPS on the way up we can be there in a few minutes.”
Steve nodded, even though Tony couldn't possibly see him. “Go.”
Tony veered to the right, taking them off the road and into the woods. The trees were thick, but once they got away from the road the undergrowth thinned out and it was easier to maneuver. Steve had a mental image of one of them running head first into a tree in the dark and knocking themselves unconscious and had to fight back a grimace. He could hear Tony's breath coming in quick pants, broken by the occasional sucked in breath as he jostled his ribs. He wasn't winded yet, but he couldn't keep that pace forever either.
Something snapped in the woods just behind them and Steve whipped around, shield up to meet any attack. There was nothing that he could see, no shapes, no movement, but he'd been pursued often enough that he could feel there was something else nearby.
Another snap and something that sounded like claws on tree bark, even closer this time.
“Down,” he said, voice low but sharp enough to carry the few feet between them. He was braced for push back, but Tony just glanced over his shoulder and skidded to a stop behind a particularly thick tree. There's a half circle of scraggly bushes only a few feet away and Steve drops behind it into a crouch, eyes fixed in the direction they'd just come.
It was dark, the treetops thick enough to keep out even the scattered starlight, and even Steve can only see a couple of dozen feet away before everything fades into shadow and darkness. He was braced for it, but even so he didn't see them coming until they were already attacking.
Tony's shout was more startled than pain but it was enough to make Steve's blood run cold. He came up in a run just as Tony hit one of his attackers with the modified flashlight again. The blue sparks were all the light there was for a moment and then the creature that was clinging to Tony's chest dropped to the ground and the soft blue light of the reactor could be seen through the windbreaker again. There were two more of them, and even as Steve reached for the one on Tony's back it wrapped its tentacles around Tony's throat and squeezed. Tony made a choked sound and clawed at his throat with one hand even as he swung the flashlight down in a heavy arc against the head of the creature clinging to his leg.
The tentacles varied in size, the smallest no thicker than Steve's little finger, the thicker ones closer to the wide end of a baseball bat, and the flesh was slick under Steve's fingers. He could feel muscles moving and flexing as he tried to pry them away from Tony's throat, but even when he dug his nails into the corded flesh he could barely budge them. The creature shrieked and clawed at Steve's face while Tony sputtered and coughed.
More shrieks from further up the road. The rest of the pack, alerted to their location.
Steve gave up on the tentacles and grabbed the creature by the throat, snapping it with one sharp twist. The appendages fell away from Tony's throat and Steve dropped the body on the forest floor. “Can you breathe all right?” he demanded. He tugged at the collar of the jacket, letting more light out so he could see Tony's throat where already a thick mass of bruises were starting to form.
“I'll live. Your face-”
He could feel the blood dripping off his jaw, but it was already coming slower than it had been a minute ago. “Superficial. We need to move before they catch up.”
At his feet, something made a sound like a chittering hiss. He looked down and the one whose neck he'd snapped was still moving, tentacles flailing as it pushed itself up on it's hands and feet, head flopping sickeningly to the side.
That... was not right. That was not good.
“Move,” Steve said again, grabbing Tony's wrist in a tight grip. “Move, now.”
“This way.” Tony took off into the woods again, following his mental map. The creature he'd stunned was stirring already, alongside the one whose neck Steve had broken which apparently meant nothing to these things.
They needed a way to stop these things permanently. Just holding them off might not be enough anymore. Steve had been counting on taking shelter in the cave, forcing the creatures to attack from one direction only. He could handle a small horde as long as they couldn't swarm over him from all directions. But if they couldn't be hurt all they had to do was keep attacking until he was too exhausted or injured to hold them off.
“It’s the light.” Tony’s words were a breathless whisper that still seemed to carry too far in the darkness. “They’re tracking us by the light.”
Steve paused for a moment, resting his weight against a tree and scanning the forest around them. There was an angry cry from behind them, probably one of the creatures they'd just fought off calling to the others. “The reactor’s covered.”
The material of Steve’s jacket was thin, the blue circle of the reactor clearly visible through it, and the jacket itself at least two sizes too big. It gaped at Tony’s throat, blue light illuminating his neck and face. It made him look pale and ethereal in a way that made Steve’s chest ache. “Not enough, I don’t think. Did you see their eyes? And this is the only light out on the mountain tonight. All they have to do is get high enough to spot it and they’re all over us again.”
It wasn’t like they could just turn it off like a flashlight, either. “All right, we need to get that obscured. Mud maybe, or-” The expression on Tony’s face was saying quite clearly that it was for the best that everyone pretend Steve had been joking, even though Steve knew for a fact that Tony would be the first one rolling around in the mud if it came to that. “Once we get to the cave-”
Tony shook his head. “We need a way to lose them, not just hold them off. I saw that one get back up, Steve. Nothing we did to them hurt them for more than a few minutes. It doesn't matter if we hole up in the cave, or keep running, or try to fling ourselves off the side of the mountain, they're going to keep coming after us.”
“Once we get to town-”
“What? Assuming the yokels aren't keeping these things like fucking pets and just stake us out as dinner, if they knew how to kill these things they'd have done it already, don't you think? I mean you cannot tell me no one down there owns a shotgun.” Tony's expression settled into one Steve knew entirely too well, relaxed and calm, eyes steady and lips pressed together. The I-know-what-has-to-be-done expression that had been the precursor to some of the worst moment's of Steve's recent life. “I can unhook the reactor-”
Steve didn't even say the word consciously, it just sort of expelled from his chest like air. “No.”
“-temporarily, if you would let me finish a fucking sentence-”
“It's not up for discussion.” Steve had seen the armor's arc reactor go dark twice and that had been bad enough. Watching the one actually embedded in Tony's chest, the one that kept his heart beating... “We'll come up with something else.”
“I am wide open to suggestions here.” Tony's voice was a low rasp, soft enough not to carry far but still louder than Steve wanted them to be. “Give me a better option. I'm running around with a target on my chest and they can see me a mile off.”
“Look, we'll get to the cave and you can take cover while I lead them off.” Steve didn't like that idea significantly better – if he didn't divert all of them, if even a few were smart enough to realize what he was doing, or if the cave was too shallow to provide Tony with any significant cover, then he'd just be leaving him alone and undefended.
Tony grabbed his arm, fingers curling in tight enough to hurt a little. “We're not splitting up,” Tony said. “I'm not letting you sacrifice yourself to the ravening horde out there just because you don't trust me-”
They didn't have time to have this fight again. “Are you seriously lecturing me on self-sacrifice?” Steve hissed. “The man offering to unplug his own heart.”
“It's not my heart, you arrogant – Steve!”
The sound of branches snapping above his head was gunshot-loud in the dark. He grabbed Tony's jacket in his fist and shoved, sending the other man flying backwards just as a half dozen of the creatures dropped out of the trees above him. Claws dug into his shoulders and arms, and tentacles lashed around his face, covering his eyes and mouth. He got a good grip on one of them and pulled it away, feeling the hot wash of blood as its claws were wrenched free of his chest and shoulder and threw it as hard as he could in the opposite direction of where he'd shoved Tony.
Taloned hands wrapped around his throat, too small to get all the way around, but the strength was enough to cut off his air and the claws broke his skin. He couldn't see, he couldn't breathe-
One of them dug its claws into his knee and he staggered, his leg buckling as he nearly lost his balance. He reached behind him with his free hand, trying to find the one that was doing its best to strangle him, but another one latched onto his arm and hissed in his ear as it sank its claws into his biceps.
He swung his arm to the side, aiming for the tree he'd leaned against just a few moments ago. His aim was off slightly and he struck the trunk with his arm, only dealing the creature clinging to him a glancing blow. He swung again and the claws slid out of his arm as the creature fell to the ground.
The hands at his throat tightened, an angry screech sounding from just behind his right ear. Steve grinned, little more than bared teeth beneath the slick appendage still covering his mouth, and threw himself backwards against the tree. The creature screeched and flailed but Steve just leaned back harder, putting all his strength into crushing the thing that was strangling him.
The claws scrabbled at his neck for a moment, leaving behind bloody welts that would take a couple of hours to heal, then slid away.
Steve's chest was starting to ache. He dug his fingers into the tentacle covering his mouth and pulled until he could get his fingers all the way around it and yank it down below his chin. He gasped in air that tasted like water.
And that's when Tony electrocuted him.
Or, the creature still clinging to Steve's back, its claws buried in his deltoids and the rest of its tentacles still wrapped around his eyes. The creature seized against Steve's back and then went limp and Steve cursed as it became dead weight, hanging off his shoulder.
“Sorry,” Tony said grimly as he grabbed the thing and carefully unhooked each claw from his flesh. “Sorry, sorry. You okay?”
“Yeah. Just a buzz.” The shock hadn't been more than you'd get from a badly wired light switch or frayed power cord, but the creature was significantly smaller. “They won't stay out for long.”
“No. We should move.”
Standing in the woods arguing wasn't the dumbest thing they'd ever done, but it was a far cry from the smartest. “Cave. Lead the way.”
Tony took off at a jog and Steve followed as close on his heels as he dared. He kept most of his attention behind them, determined not to get ambushed a fourth time. If they could slip away unseen, wait till the creatures had moved on a little...
Christ. It wasn't even eleven o'clock and it was already one of the longest nights of his life. Next time he was definitely letting Tony book them the tropical island full of servants. If anyone ever suggested a vacation without their Avengers comms again, Steve was going to assign them all twenty laps around the Helicarrier.
He heard a cry ring out somewhere above them on the mountain and a dozen more rise up to meet it from all around them.
Definitely the island retreat. Or the Motel 6. At this point Steve wasn't sure he intended to ever take a vacation again. Maybe he could sell Tony on the superiority of a stay-cation.
Tony paused for a moment, then half-turned to Steve, gesturing with one hand that their target was just ahead. Steve could hear the sounds of water lapping against the shore, but if there had ever been any ducks in the duck pond they were keeping their heads down and their mouths shut. Tony caught one of Steve's hands in his and tugged, and Steve could see it now, the slightly darker patch of darkness on the far side of the duck pond. The cave entrance.
It wasn't as deep as he'd hoped, but beyond the wide entrance the cave twisted back into the mountain about thirty or forty feet and there was plenty of cover. As long as none of them came in there looking, the creatures could run right past and never know they were there.
It was black as pitch and it took a long moment for his eyes to adjust as much as they were going to. Even super soldier enhanced vision had its limits and when there was simply no light to be had-
There was no light to be had.
His breath caught in his throat and he had to force it out, almost painfully. The arc reactor – he couldn't see the circle of it through his jacket, he couldn't see Tony's face, the reactor was dark. He grabbed the jacket and pulled it open – it wasn't even zipped up anymore, Tony had – when had Tony had time to undo it?
“Tony,” he said and even to his own ears his voice sounded too loud. “What did you do?”
Tony pressed a hand over his mouth and used it to turn Steve's head slightly to the side. On the far side of the duckpond, Steve could just barely make out movement – shadow on shadow, tentacles reflecting starlight as the creature on the far shore waited.
Steve wrapped one hand around Tony's arm and eased him further back into the cave, until they were hidden behind an outcropping of rock.
A thumb brushed over his bottom lip, a silent reminder for quiet. “It's okay. Don't panic.”
Okay? Steve pushed at the jacket until tony shrugged it off, ran his hands over Tony's shoulders and chest and down his back. “Are you – Please tell me you didn't.”
“Listen to me.” Tony caught Steve's hand in both of his. “It's not an artificial heart, Steve. I don't die instantly if the light goes out. And the light needs to go out until we can get somewhere safe.”
He curled his fingers around one of Tony's hands. “I wish you hadn't done that.”
“It needed to be done.” Tony's voice was low. “It was my call. I wasn't going to stand there and let you shove me out of danger like a damsel while you fought off the monsters I was bringing down on us.”
“It's your life-”
“It's your life, too!” Tony freed one hand so he could jab Steve in the shoulder as hard as he could. “That thing was choking you. Its claws were in your throat. And there are dozens more of them, at least. How long till one of them ripped out our throats or disembowled us or just took us down by sheer numbers. I was leading them straight to us.”
Steve swallowed a surge of anger, clenched his teeth before he could say something that Tony would make him regret. “That's not the point-”
“It kind of is, actually.” Tony offered him a smile, a flash of white in the dark. Steve couldn't see his eyes at all and he wanted to – Tony lied with his smiles and his words but his eyes always told the truth. Steve didn't think Tony would lie to him about this, about not dying, but he was a hundred percent sure that Tony would have pulled his actual heart out on the side of that mountain if he'd thought it was going to keep Steve alive. “The point is that we were outnumbered, surrounded and I did what I had to do to let us get away. Sort of. The point is that I offered you a solution out there and you shut me down without letting me explain. The point is that I am so sick and tired of you treating me like this when the chips are down.”
That wasn't where Steve had expected him to go. “Treating you- how am I treating you?”
“Like a liability,” Tony said flatly. “Like an amateur. Someone you can't trust.”
“That’s not true,” Steve said. Tony's hand in his was rock steady, but Steve suddenly had the feeling that he was the one holding on. “Stop it, Tony, you know I don’t-”
“What do I know?” Tony tilted his head to the side, and there was another flash of white, another tight smile wrapped around tighter words. “I know it wasn't like this before we started sleeping together. You used to count on me as your second-in-command and now you won't let me out of your sight on the battlefield. What am I supposed to think when the second I spread my legs for you all of a sudden you start treating me like I’m incompetent, second-guessing my every move and treating me like I’m a liability to the team?”
“I have never-”
“Ignored my input in combat? Ordered me to back off and let someone else take the shot when I have a straight line to the bad guy? How many times am I supposed to prove myself to you? Because I’m getting sick of doing it over and over.” He let go of Steve's hand and stepped away with a heavy exhale.
Steve's hand hovered in the air for a second, unsure what to do with it, unsure what to do next. He could still feel the warmth of Tony's grip, and he knew, even in the dark, exactly what Tony's eyes would look like if he could see them. “It was never about not trusting you.”
“I told you I could remove the reactor temporarily and you shut me down. It's my heart, Steve, I built the reactor. If anyone knows what's safe to do with it, it's me.”
Steve shook his head, heat pressing against his temples and sinuses. “I am never going to be okay with putting you in danger. Never. I can't – combat is one thing. I can protect you, you have the team. But the reactor – Tony if something goes wrong with your heart out here there's nothing I can do.” He curled his fingers into a fist and let his hand drop. “I can't even call for help.”
Tony's voice, when he spoke, was a frustrated sigh. “You don't need to call anyone, Steve. It'll take hours of physical exertion for the shrapnel to shift enough to do me serious harm.”
Steve swallowed. He closed his eyes for a moment. “Like jogging down a mountain? Like fighting off a horde of possibly-cannibalistic monsters?”
“Well, I was thinking more along the lines of formula one and going head on against a pissed off Hulk, but yeah.” Tony sighed. “Steve, our lives are dangerous. We do this willingly. If you can't be okay with me being in combat then... then we probably need to talk.”
It was possibly the last thing he'd expected to hear Tony say and it sat heavy and sour in the air between them. “Because I didn't want you to turn off the arc reactor?”
“Because you wouldn't listen to me when I told you it was safe. Because three times in the last two days you've tried to send me away when things got dangerous. Because you just said that the team was there to protect me.”
“We protect each other,” Steve shot back. “We have each other's backs.”
“No, we don't!” Tony shoved forward into his personal space, until his face was just inches from Steve's. “We don't. Not anymore. You watch my back. You don't let me watch yours – and worse you won't let me watch theirs! You can't send me to the back lines when I'm the one wearing the heavy armor!”
Steve shook his head, but every word he tried to say died on his tongue. Stay here, he thought. Stay safe, let me. It sounded like condescension when Tony said it. “I don't know how to risk losing you.”
Tony's sigh was warm against the side of Steve's throat. “Steve-”
“Don't. I can't do it again, Tony, I can't – I barely convinced myself to keep going after I lost Peggy and Buck and the others.” He raised his hand, still curled into a fist, and spread the fingers flat so he could press his palm over Tony's chest. Not the darkness where the reactor was, but over the scarred flesh that covered Tony's heart. He could feel it beating under his palm and for a second he wondered if he knew its beat well enough to know if it was weakening. “I'd rather die than lose any of you. I don't think I could do this anymore without you.” He rubbed his thumb over the casing of the reactor, the metal starting to cool in the night air. “It was never about not trusting you.”
“That's what happened, though. Whether you meant it or not, that's what you've been telling me. Telling the team. Every time you second-guess me or send me off the battlefield all you're doing is screaming to the world that you don't trust me to get the job done.”
“Tony.” Steve flexed his hand, felt Tony shiver a little beneath his touch. “Tony, god, no. I don't think there's a single person on this planet who can't tell I'm scared to death of losing you. They know it's my weakness that makes me hold you back.” The team knew – they knew. He could see it in Natasha's pursed mouth and the way Thor met his gaze over the wreckage of whatever enemy they'd brought down. Clint was less subtle and Rhodes had his own way of making his feelings on the whole thing painfully clear. “None of our team thinks it's you, Tony. They trust you. And they know I do, too.”
There was a silence that rang like church bells. Steve thought his ears would ache from it long before Tony finally spoke. “I can't do this if you won't treat me like an equal.”
“Okay. That's fair. I just – don't be too angry with me if I still try to protect you?”
Tony's fingers curled against his jaw, a feather-soft touch that was gone as soon as it arrived. “Yeah. Okay.” He sighed. “I understand, you know. At least a little. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you, either.”
“I love you,” Steve said quietly.
“Yeah, I figured that out.” Tony leaned forward to let his head rest against Steve's shoulder. “Oh, god, gross, Steve, there is blood everywhere.”
He laughed and slid his hand up to cup the back of Tony's neck. “Yeah, I know. They have claws, Tony.”
“This is the worst vacation, ever. Worse than the time with Rhodey and the minivan full of angry strippers.”
“Why does every story you refuse to tell me feature Jim and a woman who's been paid to take her clothes off?”
“They weren't all women,” Tony said cheerfully. “And Rhodey's a bad influence. No one believes it, but you should have known him in college. I turned out like this for a reason and at least half of it was his corrupting influence. I was a minor, you know. Malleable. Easily influenced. Easily led.”
Steve snorted. “Malleable like a rock, I'm sure.”
“Traitor. Everyone takes his side.” Tony ghosted his fingers over Steve's throat, hovering carefully over the bloody clawmarks. Steve could feel that the bleeding had already mostly stopped – by morning there wouldn't be any sign he'd even been hurt. “I hate to say it, but I think you were right about getting to town.”
“I think if we're going to get answers, that's our best bet.”
“This isn't a random attack. The spark plugs – whoever was outside the house last night had to have done that.”
Steve had already done the math in his head. It hadn't been a car door they'd heard slam, but the hood of the car being dropped after the saboteur was done. “Right before we saw the first one of them, every light in Grand went out. The whole town, just gone dark. I thought it was a power failure, but-”
“Maybe they weren't just tracking the light of the reactor. Maybe they were drawn to it?” Tony hummed a little as he ran his fingers over Steve's shoulder and chest, examining the gouges the creatures had left. And then there's our big fancy cottage up on the mountain, well away from everyone and thing else, with the bright outdoor lights that come on automatically and don't turn off till morning.”
“You noticed that, too, huh?”
Tony hummed. “Didn't think anything of it till just now.” He took one of Steve's hands in his and pressed something into it.
Steve's fingers curled around the core of the arc reactor. “Tony?”
“Keep it safe for me.”
Steve leaned in and kissed him, let himself linger a moment, feeling Tony's breath against his mouth. “Did you turn a flashlight into a cattle prod? Because that's kind of hot.”
Tony grinned against his mouth. “Steven, I'm going to tell you a secret. Pretty much anything that runs on electricity can be turned into a cattle prod without much effort.”
“Do you still have the bag?” Steve resisted the urge to grab for him when Tony moved away. He was back a second later, pressing the roadside kit into Steve's hands. “Well, we've got a little time to kill while we wait for them to go looking elsewhere. Show me how?”
The town of Grand was silent and still.
Steve paused for a long moment to listen, but the only sounds he heard were the hunting cries of the creatures they'd left back up on the mountain and the occasional whine of a dog from inside one of the many dark houses. No kids, no crying babies. If there weren't cars in almost every driveway he'd suspect they'd abandoned the town for the night.
Tony touched his shoulder and points to one of the houses as they go by. There are basement windows and Steve nods. If the town really had known these things were coming, that's where they would have ended up.
The rental agency was just down the street. Tony paused at the house before it and rubbed dirt off the mailbox. Millet.
Tony popped the locks on the front door – just the door lock, no deadbolt or chain, which Steve thought was lunacy. If he lived on the same mountain as those things he'd have bars on the window and at least a half dozen locks. But then, if Steve lived on the same mountain as those things he'd have dealt with them by now.
Tony pushed the door open and Steve went in first, one of Tony's jury-rigged flashlights in one hand, the shield in the other. He wouldn't put it past Millet or whoever else may be in there with him to shoot first and ask questions later. But the inside of the house was as dark and silent as the outside had been.
He waited until Tony eased the front door shut and locked it from the inside, then began to move through the house, checking each room. The basement door was just off the kitchen and he paused for a long moment, listening.
Someone in the basement was breathing very heavily.
He tried the knob, but the door was locked from the inside. He touched Tony's shoulder and stepped aside to let Tony work on the lock. It only took a minute, but when Tony tried the door again the latch gave with a soft click, but the door still didn't move.
Someone down in the basement made a strangled sound, then immediately held their breath.
Tony shrugged. Steve nodded, gripped the door knob as tightly as he dared without breaking it, and put his shoulder into it.
The door opened with a crack of wood, louder than they wanted to be, but not loud enough to be heard up the mountain. Whoever was downstairs was starting to hyperventilate, though.
Steve held up the shield and Tony waved him on ahead.
“I'd appreciate you not shooting at us, Mr. Millet,” Steve said in a low voice as he set his foot down on the stairs. “Honestly, I think you've done enough as it is, don't you?”
“Oh god.” The voice that reached them from below was strangled. “Oh god, you'll lead them here.”
The basement was dark, lit only by a single flashlight that sat on the floor beside Millet. The windows had all been boarded over. Millet was sitting with his back to an ancient washing machine, a hunting rifle across his lap and two handguns within easy reach.
“Looks like you're all laid in for a siege,” Steve said. He let some of his anger bleed into his voice, took some small, petty satisfaction in watching Millet's face go pale. “Would have appreciated a heads up, personally.”
Millet stared at him. “Are you going to kill me?”
“It's not my first choice.” Steve stood a few feet in front of him and braced his feet. He kept the shield up at waist height, but let his other hand hang loose and ready, just in case he needed to throw a punch – or grab Tony and run. “I think the real question here is – did you try to kill us?”
Millet closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the washing machine. “As soon as Leah told me what she'd done I knew it was over. One way or the other.”
“What are they?” Tony asked. “Are they from the invasion? Chitauri rodents or-”
“They've been here longer than we have,” Millet said. He didn't look at either of them as he spoke. “Been here longer than white men. The Indians who lived here before us said they were living shadows. The French settlers called them the nain. Folks around here call them the night children.”
“I got a good look at those things and they aren't any kind of children,” Tony said. “Awfully solid to be shadows, too.”
Millet shook his head. “I don't know what they are. Just what they do. Just-” his voice caught and there was a moment where Steve half thought the man was going to start crying on them. “Just what we do, trying to control them.”
“That cabin is a hunting ground, isn't it? You've been feeding them people.” Steve remembered the shed – the luggage and the dozen cell phones. “For years.”
“For centuries.” Millet met his gaze finally. “For centuries. I learned from my father, who learned from his. Before that cabin was a vacation rental it was a hunting lodge. Before that – if you go back far enough they used to draw lots. Maybe that was better. More honest.”
“You think?” Tony said, his voice sharp enough to cut skin.
Millet shook his head, and when he spoke he sounded pained. “There aren't that many of us here. We all know each other. We're all related. No one wanted to send their kin or their children or their friends up the mountain. So we built the cabin.”
“And you send people up there to die.” Steve shook his head. “There were children's toys up there, Millet. Children.”
“What else could we have done? If we kept them happy, they stayed up the mountain.”
“How many people does it take to feed that horde?” Tony said. He sounded horrified and Steve could hear him doing the math in his head. “How did you get so many victims without anyone noticing?”
“No, no! It wasn't – just one or two a year. That's all!” Millet's face is pale and if anything he looks horrified that they could have thought him guilty of more than one or two murders a year. Steve tightens his grip on the shield and doesn't think of the stuffed animals splattered with blood, of the little pink cell phone with the Dora stickers. “Most of the time it's tourists looking for the campground – the make the wrong turn and come down Grand – and they're happy enough to be offered the cabin for a few nights at no charge. Just... being hospitable, since they drove so far out of their way and it's empty anyway. Sometimes it's hunters looking for bear up the mountain. Sometimes it's a hiker who got lost and stumbled into town. Sometimes it's snowmobilers or ice fishermen or – or tourists. Folks looking for a quiet place to get away.”
Tony exhaled. “Like us.”
Millet nodded, eyes firmly on the ground again.
“How have you managed not to get caught?” People going missing every year – someone had to notice.
“They don't leave a trail. No bills. We never run a credit card or cash a check. No email – your reservation was confirmed by phone and if anyone asks we say that you decided to go elsewhere because you didn't like the price or the amenities or the drive. No one ever asks, though. After it's all over we take the car and drive it down to the campground, or get one of the boys to take it down south and abandon it somewhere. Every few years someone comes looking, but it's easy to say they never showed, or they left early without paying.”
“That explains my groceries,” Tony said. “Why pay out of pocket for a week's worth of food when you knew we'd be dead after the second day?”
Millet let his head fall forward. “As soon as I saw you, I knew it was all going to end.” He sighed. “One way or the other.”
Steve crossed the distance between them and squatted down, balanced on the balls of his feet. “Millet. How do we stop them?”
“You can't. Bullets don't work. Knives. Dynamite.” Millet shrugged.
Tony's voice was exasperated. “So get your little buddies to turn off their cell blocker so we can call for help. The Avengers and half of SHIELD can be here by morning.”
Millet was shaking his head. “They get their offering on the first new moon of summer and then they go away for another year. If they don't – if they're still on the mountain when the sun comes up, nothing's gonna stop them from descending on this town like a swarm of locusts and killing us all. And they won't stop. The campground down by the lake, the hunting lodge over on Abenaki Mountain – nothing's gonna stop them. And your heroes and your soldiers can try all they want, but bullets won't kill them. Don't you think we've tried?” he said, his voice plaintive. “Don't you think some of us have died trying to stop them over all these years.”
“Your family's been a part of this for hundreds of years?” Steve said. “Then you know how to stop them. Someone has to. Legend or rumor – something the local tribes told your ancestors that you didn't believe was the truth. You know something, Millet. Help us save this town. Because I'll stand out there and fight off every last one of those things if I have to, but I'll be damned before I let you offer up another human sacrifice.”
“He'll do it, too.” Tony's hand was a warm and comforting weight on Steve's shoulder. “Not one of you deserves it, but he'll stand between you and them until they take him down. And if that happens, I'll burn this whole fucking town to the ground and let you face the horde the same way your victims did – defenseless and alone while I turn my back on you. So tell us what you know.”
“They're not very smart,” Millet said slowly. “Just – smart animals, but they don't reason. And they can't smell or hear much better than we can. They can see anything at night, though, and they're drawn to bright lights and – shiny things. They like shiny things.”
“Okay, that's something. There has to be some way to kill them.”
“The old wives' tale says you have to stab them in the heart.” Millet licked his lips. “But – they leave their hearts in their lair when they go on the hunt.”
Tony sighed. “Great. Awesome. Where's the lair?”
Millet shrugged. “Hell if I know. There's a thousand fox dens and burrows and who knows what up that mountain. My grandfather used to say they lived under the earth and that's why they could see so well in the dark.”
“Okay, great. We just have to search every cave and rockpile and hole on this mountain. That should only take a hundred years.”
“There's only one cave anyone knows of on this side of the mountain and that's the one up by the duck pond.”
“That's too easy,” Tony said. “There's no way it's that easy.”
“It can't be the duck pond,” Millet said. “That cave collapsed decades ago.”
Tony's grip tightened on his shoulder. “No it didn't. The one we drove past on the way up the mountain? It's wide open.”
“No,” Millet said slowly. “There was a cave-in long before my grandfather was born. No one ever cleared it out since hardly anyone ever goes that far up the mountain anyway. It's full of rocks and dirt.”
Steve tipped his head back and met Tony's eyes. “There were an awful lot of rocks around the entrance.”
“Shit. You think they barricade themselves in there and just push it all out when they come out to hunt?” Tony chewed on his bottom lip. “We were in there, though. I sure didn't see any monster hearts.”
“We didn't go back very far,” Steve said. “And – remember how one of them was sitting out by the pond? It didn't leave, not even when the others sent up the hue and cry. We had to slip past it when we made our break for it.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” Tony said flatly.
“We have to check it out.” Steve gave Millet a hard look. “Whatever you're doing to our phones, stop it. Or get me one of yours that works. I'm calling in help whether you like it or not. And then...” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “For the night, they're confined to the mountain?”
“They've never left – had a few times when the hunt gave them a real run for it, but they always stayed on the mountain.” Milled grimaced. “Come daylight though – they're supposed to be give the tribute tonight. The new moon. Everyone's always been real clear about it happening at night. Come morning I don't know what happens. But I've got no reason to believe it's anything good.”
“I have a plan,” Tony said. He hooked a finger under Steve's chin and tipped his head back to meet Tony's eyes. “You're gonna hate it.”
Steve grinned, a little grim, a little wry. “Funny. I was about to tell you the same thing.”
“Clint says you're a lunatic,” Steve reported. “Rhodey had something a bit more specific to say on the matter. Natasha says we both deserve to be eaten for falling into such an obvious trap.” He tossed the portable phone to Millet, who fumbled to catch it before it could hit the floor and make a noise.
Tony was sitting cross-legged on the basement floor, surrounded by various bits and pieces of detritus and four home-made IEDs. His expression was grim, and Steve could see something dark in his eyes, but he was moving with lightning speed, no hesitation at all as he pillaged Millet's basement for spare parts.
Steve crouched down beside him. “Will they be enough?”
“Depends on how big the space is, how many of them there are, how tough they are.” They IEDs were basically pipe bombs loaded with nails and the shattered remnants of every glass Millet had had in his kitchen. Tony was fiddling with the fuse, his brow furrowed in concentration. “I can set it off from a distance using a cell phone, but we're going to have to get it inside the lair first.” He looked up finally and blew a lock of hair out of his eyes. “Steve, listen to me.”
“You have to be the one to go into the lair,” Steve said quietly.
Tony paused, blinked. “I was expecting more of a fight.”
Steve grimaced. “I know I've been... overreacting. A lot. Lately. But you know more about handling explosives than I do. And frankly, if one of us has to be out here as bait, it's going to be me. I can outrun them longer than you can, and if they catch up with me, I can take a lot more damage before the wounds become serious. So you go in, plant the bombs and get out. In one piece, preferably. And I'll stay one step ahead of them and keep them away from you while you get the job done.”
Tony hooked a hand around the back of Steve's neck and pulled him down into a quick kiss. “Thank you,” he said quietly, too low for Millet to hear. “I'm going to need the arc reactor back. Can you help me?”
Tony stood and led them away from the pipe bombs, settling down with his back to the wall in the corner farthest from Millet, where he wouldn't be able to see much of the process at all. “All right, it's not hard, but it's difficult for me to do myself since I can't see inside. Just do what I tell you and it'll be fine, okay?”
Steve held the dark reactor in one hand. “I remember the first night we spent together and you almost threw yourself out of the bed when I touched it.”
Tony offered him a rueful smile. “I was skittish. I trust you to do this, Steve. It's not gonna hurt me.”
Steve nodded. He tried not to think about the size of the core that he held in his hand, or how far back he could see the core casing went in Tony's chest. “Okay. Walk me through this.”
“Okay, inside the casing, there should be two wires. Both are black, or dark gray at least. The ends look a little bit like an iphone charger.”
“Did that hurt you to say?” Steve teased. He could see the wires Tony was talking about and very, very gently, reached inside Tony's chest with two fingers.
“Apple's a bunch of copycats,” Tony groused. “Once you have the wires just pull them out. Don't yank, because that would be uncomfortable, but you don't have to be timid, either.”
Steve teased the wires loose until the ends dangled out of Tony's chest. It was a little uncomfortable to see and he shifted his weight a little to better shield Tony from Millet's view. “Okay.” He held out the core for Tony to finish.
Tony took Steve's hand by the wrist and guided it a little closer. “Let me show you,” he said quietly. “It's a good plan for you to know, just in case. Bruce and Pepper and Rhodey know already, but I spend a lot of time with you. All right?”
Steve nodded. “The wires connect to the core. Here?” He gestured to one end where there were what looked a little like two small USB ports.
“Right. Just plug them in and we're back in business.” Tony left his hand curled around Steve's wrist as Steve carefully plugged in each wire. The reactor was silent, but Steve heard something like a rush as the core lit up, the familiar blue-white light glowing like a star in Steve's palm.
“Technically, we're good to go. The core doesn't have to be inside the casing to work. If there's every a medical emergency, they don't have to re-install it. If I've got broken ribs or something, it's probably best to leave it out anyway, okay?”
Steve nodded. “Right. Does installing it hurt?”
“No. It's like a push. Pressure, but not pain. Like someone poking you in the chest with their finger.”
Steve offered him a smile. “It hurts when Natasha does that.”
“Natasha likes making it hurt. This is painless.”
“Is it safe to put it in? It's been in my pocket – do we need to sterilize it?”
“In a perfect world, probably. But unless you've got bits of food or decaying organic material in your pants, we're probably fine.” Tony grinned. “Usually I'm a bit more cautious, but this is hardly an ideal scenario. If you want,” he said, his voice deliberately nonchalant, “when we get back to the Tower I'll show you how to sanitize everything. It's – not really that interesting. If you want.”
Steve swallowed. “I want. I – if you want to show me. I'd like to know how to help if you ever need me to. I'd like to know everything about you, as long as you're willing to tell me.”
Tony huffed a soft breath and leaned forward to press a kiss against Steve's forehead. He stayed there a minute, the reactor glowing softly in Steve' s hand, the wires dangling from his chest. “There are only a handful of people in the world I could ever stand to do this with,” he said quietly. “I didn't lie before. That thing isn't my heart. But – sometimes it feels like it is. When someone else has it.”
Steve closed his eyes for a long moment. “We have to get moving. It's only a couple of hours till daylight.”
“Okay. Let's go. Wires in first. Make sure they don't get caught between the core and the casing. It should slide right in, but you need to give it a little push at the end until it clicks into place.”
Tony grunted a little as Steve slid it into place, but the reactor settled in with a solid click and the blue glow was steady. He poked at it and rolled his shoulders. “Always feels kind weird at first. All right. Millet! Duct tape!”
The agent tossed a roll of tape across the basement and Tony gave Steve a shit-eating grin. “So I'm gonna go dark. And you, my shining sentinel of liberty, you are going to look like something that escaped from a Mardi Gras float.”
Steve pressed a kiss against Tony's mouth, then caught him by the back of the head and dragged him in for another, deep and wet and slow. “I'm going to meet you back here at sunrise,” he said finally. “I'm not coming down this mountain without you.”
“Same for you,” Tony said fiercely. “Don't you dare make me hike all over those woods looking for you. They're not that fast, and they're not that smart. Just – just come back.” He closed his eyes. “I don't know how to risk losing you, either.”
Tony hadn't been kidding about the Mardi Gras float. Or the shining sentinel of liberty.
Christmas lights were wrapped around his chest and abdomen, hooked up to a battery cell clipped to the waistband of his pants. Millet had turned up a battery powered headlamp on an elastic band, the kind hikers wore. And a half dozen glow sticks had been safety pinned to Steve's pants. That, plus the road flares Tony had handed him would guarantee that he could be seen from orbit, let alone from slightly further up the mountain.
“Tony Stark,” he muttered under his breath. There was no one to hear him – the only walkie-talkies Tony had been able to scrounge up couldn't be jury-rigged for more than a half mile making them more of a burden than a help. Steve was never letting anyone go anywhere without their communicators again, even if he had to staple it to their clothes. “I love you, but if pictures of me like this end up on anyone's twitter account, we're breaking up.”
That was a lie, but Steve was fairly sure he could make it sound convincing with a little practice. There would be pictures, but as long as Tony limited it to known associates and not the internet as a whole, Steve could deal.
Tony was somewhere behind him, the arc reactor covered with duct tape and three borrowed shirts, carrying a bag loaded with IEDs attached to a cell phone timer. Millet was down in town, waiting for Steve to start his diversion before doing his part – making a run for the town hall to destroy the cell phone blocker. If everything went right, this would work.
Steve very deliberately did not think about the fact that Tony's life depended on a man who practiced human sacrifices holding to his end of things.
He was coming up on the duck pond again. He slowed his pace a little, kept his ears open. He could see one of them, perched on a rock outside the cave. A sentry, maybe, left behind to keep out intruders. Not very good at their job apparently.
“All right,” he said. He reached down and grabbed the first glow stick, snapping it quickly and moving on to the next. He didn't bother shaking them – they'd get enough of a jostling once he started to move. He hit the battery for the Christmas lights – holiday lights, Tony had corrected him at least a half dozen times with an exaggerated eyeroll – and flipped on the headlamp.
The creature – the shadow, the night child – threw its head back and shrieked to the heavens.
“Yeah, come on.” Steve started moving again, a steady pace that would have left most of his teammates in the dust, but that he could keep up more or less indefinitely. “Come and get it.”
He heard the cry go up all over the mountain, the shrieks and howls spread further apart then they had been earlier. The creatures had apparently spread out to look for their prey. Some of the cries were coming from further down the mountain, close to Grand, but most seemed to be coming from further up. They went back to the cabin, Steve realized. Like trained dogs who knew where their next meal was coming from.
He kept his pace, listening to the sounds of pursuit as they worked their way closer. It was the ones further down the mountain he was worried about – he needed to draw them in so that they weren't between Tony and the cave.
The first one to attack was careless and came at him head on. Steve caught it head-on with the shield and swept it away into the woods. Two more followed, and then a fourth went for his legs. Steve grabbed it by the back of its neck and through it down the road, directly into two more of its friends. They scrambled to their feet and charged at him, eyes reflecting the twinkling holiday lights as they came closer.
Steve took off running, putting real effort into it now, and listened to them scream as they fell behind.
It turned into cat and mouse and he could sense them getting angrier as the game wore on. By the time he reached the cabin, there was a chorus of furious shrieks and screams echoing up the mountain behind him.
Eyes peered out of the cabin – dozens of them, watching him from the shattered windows, more of them perched on the deck railing like gargoyles. He slowed deliberately, waiting. If they all attacked at once he could be in trouble. And he had promised to buy Tony a little more time – it hadn't been fifteen minutes yet, and Tony had asked for at least that long to make sure the bombs were properly placed.
Sunrise was in twenty minutes. They were going to be running close.
He heard the sound of claws scrabbling over the shingles of the woodshed and threw himself to the side as another one lunged at him. He knocked it out of the air with the shield and swung around just as the ones waiting inside the house decided to attack.
He met the first few head on, knocking them over the side of the mountain and sending them tumbling down the incline he and Tony had stood at the top of just the day before. A kick sent one reeling back, it's jaw unhinged but three more took its place and Steve had to duck to avoid another faceful of tentacles.
He grabbed one of the road flares and snapped the end off, lit it with one hard strike and threw it straight into the pack. A volley of startled yells and cries rose up and in the light he could see several of them covering their eyes and heads. Tony had thought they'd be sensitive to bright lights – looked like he was right.
Over the top of the next mountain, Steve thought he could just make out a pink glow.
Time was up. Tony should have been inside the lair by now to place the pipe bombs. If Millet had done his job properly the cell phones would work again. Which meant Tony should be setting off the charges any second now and – hopefully – killing the entire pack in one fell swoop.
He lit another flare and hurled it onto the gravel driveway, sending more of them scrambling. They were circling around though, coming up on his sides. He waited until he could hear the closest one breathing down his neck and jumped off the side of the mountain.
He hit the incline hard about twenty feet down, tucked and rolled to use up some of his momentum and came up running. The pack was chasing him, panting like a pack of hunting dogs not more than fifty feet back. It was all the lead he needed, though. Any minute now, Tony would set the charges.
It was only another hundred feet until he was back in the woods and he put on a burst of speed just to hear them howl in frustration. He cut left, away from the road. If Tony needed a few more minutes, Steve would buy them for him.
God, let him just need a few more minutes. If Millet hadn't done his job – if Steve hadn't drawn enough of them away...
Tony could handle one or two of these things on his own. And if Millet didn't hold up his end, they'd be fine. Tony Stark didn't need a cell phone to set off those charges. He could probably do it with a couple of twigs and some moss.
If Millet didn't hold up his end, Tony would have to set the fuses manually and run. Steve very deliberately didn't think about what a pipe bomb would to to anyone caught in its radius. Tony knew what he was doing.
One of the creatures landed on his back, claws shredding through his shirt and several lengths of holiday lights. Steve cursed and swung back with the shield, slamming it into the creature's side until it let go. The lights were sliding down his stomach – he pulled them away before they could get wrapped around his legs and trip him up.
The far side of the mountain was surrounded by a rosy pink halo. Steve swallowed and stared down the mountain toward the cave. “Tony,” he said. His gut was screaming for him to go, to make sure Tony was safe.
He'd promised to buy Tony time. He'd promised to trust Tony in the field. It wasn't sunrise yet, they weren't out of time yet.
He spun on his heel and he could see most of the pack now, spread out in the woods behind him. They were hesitating – wary of the shield, maybe, or unwilling to have another flare thrown in their faces. He whistled, loud and sharp, before he took off running again, heading further up the mountain.
Buying Tony time.
Behind him, something screamed. Not the angry hunting cry of before, but furious. He spun around and the pack was gone – dozens of black forms huddled against the ground, but only five or six still on their feet. He whistled again, but they ignored him and disappeared into the trees. Heading back down the mountain toward the cave and Tony.
He threw himself after them, dodging trees and hurdling over rocks and stumps. He could see clearly now, the eastern sky slowly going gold, so when one of them seized up and keeled over as if dead, he saw it.
Another one staggered and collapsed, and a third.
Steve put on more speed, grabbed one by the tentacle and heaved, slamming it into a tree where it didn't get up again. The final two were howling at the sky as they ran and the cave was just below them.
One of them collapsed in mid-leap, hitting the ground and rolling for several feet before it stopped. The final one didn't even look back. Its claws dug into the gravel of the road and the entrance of the cave was right there. Steve couldn't see Tony anywhere and he knew the way he knew his own name that Tony had gone into the cave to pick off the survivors.
He poured on a burst of speed and dove at the last creature, catching it by the hind legs and taking it to the ground. He hit the ground hard on his knees and the creature turned on him before they had even stopped moving, coming up with a snarl, claws going for his throat and the tentacles lashing at his head. He yanked hard on its legs, threw it onto its back and brought the shield down on its chest even as it collapsed and went still.
Steve climbed to his feet, ignoring the feeling of blood trickling down his throat for the third time that night. He waited, watching the creature in the dirt at his feet, listening for the sound of something coming at him through the woods.
Somewhere further up the mountain, birds were chirping.
“That was a hell of a tackle.” Tony appeared from behind one of the huge rocks at the entrance to the cave. His chest and face were splattered with blood and he held Eric Millet's hunting knife in his right hand. “Very sexy.”
Steve laughed, a breathless huff of air, and leaned forward, resting his hands on his knees. “Had me worried for a little while there,” he said. “Sun was coming up.”
Tony dropped the knife and reached up to wipe some of the blood off his face. He didn't manage much more than smearing it around a little. “Things were more spread out in there than I thought. The hearts were growing out of the walls of the cave, dripping blood and pumping. It was incredibly disgusting.”
Steve held out one arm and Tony came to his side, sliding one arm around Steve's waist. “Come on, let's get back to town, make sure everyone's all right.” Tony reached up and pulled the headlamp off, tossing it back over his shoulder toward the knife. “What are we going to do about this? They've been killing people.”
And they'd probably never be able to prove it. Steve rested his chin on the top of Tony's head. “I don't know. But SHIELD will be here soon. Millet, at least, has to answer for what he's done.” And probably Leah, the receptionist. God knew how many others had helped. And how many more had just looked the other way.
“This was a terrible vacation, Steve. I demand a do-over.”
“I dunno.” Steve closed his eyes. He could hear the engines of the Quinjet echoing over the mountains. “We wanted to talk about our relationship and we certainly managed that.”
The sound of the engines grew louder and Tony tipped his head back to wave at the jet as it passed over head. “Okay, but as soon as we get this mess over with, we're going to Hawaii for the rest of our vacation.” He paused. “But we're bringing the comms. And my armor. And Thor.”
Steve laughed and pressed a fierce kiss against the side of Tony's head. “Deal.”