So show me family,
All the blood that I would bleed.
I don’t know where I belong.
I don’t know where I went wrong.
But I can write a song.
~Ho Hey, The Lumineers
(Excerpt recording from All Things Considered, NPR)
“I’m sorry, I need to stop you right there. Tony Stark is a lot of things, but a cold-blooded killer is not one of them. He has shown on numerous occasions his willingness to protect the city and its people, putting his life on the line to that end, and what you’re saying is—”
“What I’m, listen, what I’m saying is, it’s four days to Christmas, there’s a city in shambles, and the nation is in mourning because of the actions of a single man. I’m unclear how anyone can defend his so-called heroism, publicly or privately, when he has all but killed a true American hero.”
Two weeks ago
Steve’s eyelashes are dusted with gold. They’re dark underneath, and in most lighting— i.e., to the untrained eye— they look the same color as his eyebrows, a smooth raven at odds with that inherent evening sunlight in his hair.
Tony does not have an untrained eye, not anymore. Now he studies the flash-curve of blond rolling up each lash, dwells on the way the sun speckles previously unseen facets and lights them up over the planes of Steve’s cheeks. In a row like they are, Steve’s eyelashes look like the flow of velvet cloth, glowing above, a fullness beneath where the shadows catch.
Filaments. Maybe that’s the best word.
Tony touches the side of his finger to the skin just beneath Steve’s lashes. Steve’s skin is warm, soft with fine hairs even there.
He bends and, as carefully as he can, kisses Steve’s closed eyelid.
Steve’s brows pinch. It’s a tiny, gradual thing that changes his whole face. He draws a breath through his nose and as he lets it out, his face clears. His hands rise, sluggish, from the bedclothes. He takes Tony’s face between his palms and angles him down without even opening his eyes, until their mouths meet.
His dreams are a taste on Tony’s tongue. Steve kisses him as a sleeper rising: muted and watchful drifts upward to firm and aware, and the shape of Steve’s mouth changes, coaxes Tony’s open, eases the kiss under his control and draws it all steadily free of Tony’s grip as if he’s drawing one tool after another from Tony’s hands.
Tony runs a palm down the naked length of Steve’s side while he still has the wherewithal, and Steve shudders. His body, covered by hatches of morning light, ripples into gooseflesh. The thin blanket between Tony’s duvet and his bed sheets loops the side of Steve’s hip like drapery over a Grecian idol, and Tony pushes it away, uncovering more skin, the arc of a thigh that lifts under his fingers as the kiss finally breaks.
“Slept awhile.” His own voice sounds hoarse to him. Steve blinks once. Tony can feel the track of those eyes over his face, down to his chin and back up on a leisurely path. At the side of his neck, Steve’s thumb strokes just under his ear.
The faintest of smiles glances across Steve’s face.
He rolls up, shifts his grip to Tony’s hips and lifts all in one sinuous movement, stomach tensing as the slats of light file over it. And it’s barely an effort, Tony can see it in Steve’s face, as he is displaced and resituated onto his knees facing Steve, his legs locked round Steve’s hips as his lover kneels on the mattress. He looks like a statue rising into the light. Tony checks the instinctual heave of air into his lungs at the sight. Steve is awake now, no fog clouding his eyes, and they are fixed on Tony. It’s the intent there that stills any movement Tony might have made because this, this is arresting, and sharp. Convulsive against the end of every nerve.
He can feel the blanket still between them, the edge of it over Steve’s left leg. He pulls it free with some effort, and forgets to pay attention when Steve moves, a heady shift of muscle beneath his own. Steve catches him off guard, halfway through inhaling, one hand tucked low at Tony’s back to hold him close as he rises on his knees, cants his hips, brings them together. Tony clutches at Steve’s shoulder blades, and Steve noses in, kisses him oh-so-gently on the mouth. Nothing but a peck, and then another, another nearer the corner of his lips. No penetration, not this morning, but Steve has never needed it to bring Tony to this precarious a state. Tony arcs his hips into it, instinctive, and meets Steve’s next slow thrust, the beginning of a devastating rhythm. Tony can feel the tensing of every single muscle he touches.
Steve’s eyes are open, though heavy-lidded, and looking straight into his.
It’s slow and quiet. Steve’s breath comes audibly through his nose, then across Tony’s lips with every chaste kiss he gives him. Every single roll of his hips, every slide, punches the breath out of Tony’s lungs. Steve’s hands climb up Tony’s back to his ribs and grip, press their bodies together. Tony can’t help probing at each kiss as it is given, openmouthed and drunk on it all, but Steve keeps it tantalizingly out of reach, and all the while every nerve is igniting in a relentless churn, flaring up Tony’s spine over and over. He shivers, thrusts down as Steve rolls up, lets himself be lifted and held fast.
And then Steve slips a hand down between them, his knuckles bumping over the hollow of Tony’s belly, and takes them both in hand. Tony loses eye contact for an instant, eyelids snapping shut without his permission, and he utters a sound, shaky as the light crisscrossing Steve’s shoulders, lacing over his own fingers as they dig helplessly into Steve’s skin. This time Steve kisses him, deep and deliberate, stroking upward with his hand, and Tony feels the first juddering throes in the backs of his thighs.
The comm clicks over the speakers and Fury’s voice sounds. “Stark, the general has arrived.”
And Steve twists his hand, and Tony comes.
The miracle lies in his silence.
Tony falls forward, mouth open and gasping against Steve’s shoulder. He knows he’s clenching too hard into Steve’s sides with his fingertips. But he can’t make his muscles cooperate, any of them.
It feels interminably long before he answers. “He’s early.”
There is no sign that Fury notes the rasp in his voice. “Believe me, if I could pack him out of here without any repercussions, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Over Fury’s words, Steve tilts Tony’s head with a touch to his cheek. Rubs his nose alongside Tony’s. Kisses him again, the same affectionate kiss as before. Steve’s breath is audible to Tony’s ears only, and heavy. Sweat beads in tiny flecks on his upper lip and Tony can feel the slickness of it at Steve’s sides.
“I’m… What? Just… Just repercuss him, then.” He can’t avoid Steve’s mouth, doesn’t want to avoid Steve’s mouth, and Steve, Steve couldn’t care less that his commanding officer is practically sitting over his shoulder while they have sex and that’s really very incredibly incredible.
Fury sighs. “Stark, get in here. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can tell the WSC to fuck off again.”
“Noted,” Tony murmurs mouth to mouth as Steve grips his hips again and hitches him higher, closer, nearer, god, he can’t get much more turned on by this, and he already came once and he’s, he knows that before he gets out of this bed, come hell or generals in highwaters, Steve’s going to make him come again.
“Fuck—” he hisses, but the line has clicked off, thank the lord. Steve takes his mouth in yet another kiss, this one dirty and fathomless as an ocean, and surely Tony can skip this meeting. The whole damn world and certainly all of the military would understand.
“Captain Rogers, this is Fury.”
Steve draws out of the kiss so slowly it hurts. “Rogers here, sir.” His voice is clear.
“Did I wake you?”
“No, sir.” This with a smile that makes Tony want to shove Steve back and climb over him, swallow him down until he comes twice. “Something wrong?”
“I’d like you to come down to HQ, please. Stark’s meeting has been bumped up. I believe your presence would provide an effective… motivation for General Van Horn.”
For an instant, Steve’s eyes darken in a way that has nothing to do with sex. Tony runs a thumb over the ridge of his cheekbone.
“Yes, sir,” Steve says, then smirks. “I’ll make sure Tony’s up.”
It’s a raging shame that laughter is not an option for Tony. He’s going to choke and die on it, he really is.
“I’ll come in with him,” Steve finishes, softer. His hand presses on the small of Tony’s back, fingers stretching down further in a gentle rub.
“I’ll expect you in half an hour.”
The comm clicks off and JARVIS says, contrite, “I am terribly sorry.”
“Not your fault, JARVIS,” Steve murmurs. He pushes up onto his knees again, leans Tony back across the bed and slides effortlessly atop him between his thighs. Tony can remember a time when Steve was afraid to even think in a room with an observant AI.
“It’s the direct line, sir. I really would prefer to dismantle it.”
“Then— then they’d never leave us alone,” Tony gasps, and it’s true. Since his agreement to put in the direct line to SHIELD— because he could always cut it off later— the number of calls has actually decreased. By half. He knew Fury just needed that itchy anxiety of his scratched.
Or Bruce had known. Either way—
“Oh, god.” Tony arches as Steve cants his hips into him, all that muscle tightening under his hands.
“It’s Steve,” Steve corrects. He plants his lips under Tony’s ear and works his way down the line of his jaw.
“You. Are just.” Tony smacks him with an open palm, partly appalled but mostly just fascinated. Incredulous and giddy and turned on, he’s— osmosis, he’s absorbing the super serum somehow, has to be, and do they know over at SHIELD that this is what happens to Steve’s lovers? No, they’d better not, because Steve only has one lover at the moment and Tony’s never letting that change.
But Steve’s in earnest now and the alteration is always breathtaking. Tony can’t catch up, he’s already gasping, lungs stretching for air that doesn’t seem to exist. Steve kisses him like he’s breathing right from his blood, tonguing Tony pliant and loose, setting an inexorable pace with his hips and his hands on Tony’s skin. Tony drops an arm back and grabs a handful of the sheets, twisting, seeing white, going from zero to sixty faster than he can ever remember going, amazed at his own body, at the fact that there’s anything to answer the hard length pressed into the crook of his hip, but there is, oh god, there is, and he can’t control any of this and he doesn’t want to, and Steve, Steve is so gorgeous, the most gorgeous human being Tony’s ever seen and known and fucked and loved, yes, loved, he loves Steve, and the best thing about it, the thing that shoves him right over the top for the second time, is that Steve knows it.
It takes a long time to come down. He’s so lost in it he isn’t sure if Steve comes, or stops, or kisses him or… “Oh, god,” Tony says again, and is sure it doesn’t come out like that, but there it is. He makes himself move, makes himself drag at Steve’s body and face, haul him closer, find his mouth and just… breathe him in.
At long last, Steve pulls away with a lingering suck to Tony’s lower lip. He smiles down at him, carding fingers through Tony’s hair. Tony can see all that gold in his eyelashes again.
“Twenty minutes,” Steve whispers.
Tony groans and throws an arm over his eyes.
“General.” Tony takes his sunglasses from where they’re perched atop his head, sets them down on the table, and presses the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “This whole argument is more than a little strange from my point of view. Let’s just set aside, for the moment, the fact that you’re not getting your hands on any of my prototypes… I don’t remember the army getting all that bent out of shape over the extras when they had Stark tech before.”
Van Horn’s face lends itself rather frighteningly to frowning. It’s not the first time Tony’s received that look this morning. “Given the fact that leaders of the armed forces, Mr. Stark, were able to observe testing on each piece of technology themselves before implementing it in the field, the comparison is inappropriate.”
In the corner, Fury leans silently, his single eye tracking back and forth with every exchange. He looks lazy, but his entire body has been tensed since they sat down, more likely since the general and his entourage had first shown up. At the general’s final statement, his eyebrow climbs. The cynicism would be plain, if the general were looking in his direction.
He’s not, though. He has eyes only for Tony, and they are piercing eyes, Tony will give him that. Dark and large, as if his pupils have swallowed his irises. In spite of all his deftness in dealing with naysayers, Tony’s glad he’s not the only one here.
Hill is there, scratching her pen audibly on the pad before her whenever the conversation takes a heated dip on the general’s end. It snaps the tension apart and remolds it into a new, one-sided unease. The result is so calculated it’s eerie, and Tony has seen the general’s aide’s eyes shift toward Hill again and again, as if he is unable to keep from doing it.
Steve stands at the end of the table at Tony’s left, stance tall but easy, arms crossed over his chest. He’s in a pair of well-fitted khakis and an off-white shirt that would be at home under any suit jacket but just looks second nature with the collar open and the sleeves rolled up like that. With Tony’s crisp pinstripes, neat tie, and cufflinks, they offer a display in well-crafted divergence, and Tony knows the subduing effect it has on others.
He’s counting on it. And he is trying his best to concentrate. But it has only been an hour since he lurched his way out of bed. He’s having a little trouble containing the afterglow.
And that’s when Steve’s not even actually fucking him.
Tony smiles, can’t help it, and draws another frown from the general. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware the armed forces had the patent rights to equipment they’re not responsible for inventing.”
“That is not the point of this discussion,” Van Horn says with an edge.
“I think it is,” Tony cuts in. He looks around, spreads his hands wide. “Oh, I’m sorry, have patent laws changed in the last… let’s see, I went to bed around one AM, which, you know what, I resent being woken early on a Sunday for—”
“—for something so unapologetically offensive.” He plants his fingertips on the table. Meets every eye head-on. “As this. You. Trying to assert control over my property, my intellectual rights. Again.”
The general sighs. “Mr. Stark. I realize the armed forces do not have a good track record in dealings with your company.”
“With me, General. The bad track record pertains to me. Hey, I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page.”
Fury is now looking at Steve like he might, just maybe, want him to force a lid on Tony’s responses. Otherwise, he almost seems to be enjoying himself. Tony did tell Fury he was an entertaining person, but Fury never took him as seriously as he should have in the beginning.
Steve, for his part, is watching Tony.
“Listen. I know you have a topnotch armament development team at your fingertips. Maybe not as advanced as Stark Industries, but certainly not inept. Hell, my oldest friend in the world is sitting at the head of it, and I am the last person to question his capability in terms of doing what needs to be done.” He sits back, spreads his hands again. “General, surely you have something better to do than come to me.”
The really crucial thing to focus on here is that today, Steve has decided to showcase the fact that he knows the value of untucked button-down shirts. Such a little detail in the grand scheme, and still Tony could eat him alive, right here in this room, on this table, right in front of Fury, and that’s the significance of Steve’s effect like this, because Tony has known for a while that he’s rabidly against sharing what they have with anyone.
For an interminable instant, Tony’s at sea, facing the riptide current of his constant awareness. Is it always going to be like this? They haven’t been doing it for very long, it’s only been, well— it’s been four months, okay, that could be considered a long time, but damned if Tony realized any of that time was passing, not with Steve being there all distracting and aware of him and, and attacking this new thing like he conquers all other things in his path: the most efficient, strategic angle of approach, raising the straightforward voice of question when the answer is the rope he requires to scale that wall, never going around it, going through it and not taking it down at all in his wake, but building it up instead, fortifying, servicing any fault lines he finds, and maybe that’s why Tony barely has a concept of just how long he’s been in Steve’s bed, because when Steve sets out to do something, the world had better get the hell out of his way or get the hell behind his shield, otherwise the force of that movement will flatten, blow back, dismantle and rebuild and change a person, and the sight of it all happening is so utterly breathtaking that—
“If this discussion concerned inadequacies in the technology being developed by the military, we certainly wouldn’t need your help to fix it,” Van Horn’s aide says. “The fact is, Mr. Stark, you are still blasting ahead on your own without any thought to the world you’re leaving behind, without checks or balances. The American government will not sit by and allow it to continue.”
All of Tony’s lines converge at once, a rare instant of perfect clarity. He leans forward, fighting the sudden stiffness to his shoulders. He can feel the subtle angle of Steve’s body toward Tony’s side of the table. “I will not allow the military any rights to my company’s tech.”
Close one, getting ‘company’ in there. Tony hopes the pause wasn’t noticeable. “We have been here before,” he continues, enunciating into the silence. “I’ve made allowances in the interests of keeping things a little more civilized than the last time the government tried to manhandle its way into my business. I have been providing your scientists with schematics and blueprints as part of a good faith agreement between the World Security Council and SHIELD—”
“Schematics and blueprints that are always missing vital components, Mr. Stark—”
“—which is as far as I am willing to go,” Tony finishes, raising his voice, and once again, he is left with the upper hand of silence afterward. “This arrangement will have to suffice.”
It’s already far more than I feel comfortable with.
“Mr. Stark,” the general says, “forgive me for being blunt, but how can we possibly know that your technology is safe for use when you refuse to allow outside testing on the prototypes? Under your current stipulations, the people who stand to benefit from your advancements— not the individuals in the armed forces but the people on your team right now, on and off the field— are essentially working with untested, unproven weaponry. Even your own personal improvements to your battle suit lack a certain, shall we say, scientific methodology?”
Okay, Tony resents intensely the suggestion that he would ever place any of the Avengers in danger, he hasn’t even developed his suit much lately because he’s concentrating on the five of them and he’s not even pissed off about that, but before he can gather his ire—
“I’m in the field,” Steve says casually, like he’s shrugging. “I trust his scientific methodology.”
“With all due respect, Captain Rogers,” and Tony can see the general is having trouble streamlining past that interruption, “you’re in a different bracket from most of the people out there on the battlefield.”
“But I’m not immortal,” Steve responds without pause. “I trust him and his technology with my life.”
Hard to respond to that, for the general. Hard for Tony to respond to that. He has to get around the sudden swelling in his throat.
The general turns to look at Steve, and Steve stares right back, that tiniest of frowns on his face, the one that no one in their right mind would not feel the need to quail from, on the battlefield or off. Tony knows this from personal experience.
He also knows what Van Horn is thinking. They can’t be sure Steve’s not immortal. Half of what the serum can do is uncharted. Tony would so be in favor of testing hypotheses if it didn’t mean testing on, you know, Steve.
“Captain Rogers, I am aware and respectful of Mr. Stark’s aptitude and skill. I rely on it. I’m simply concerned with the lack of checks and balances in its development, and the potential for it to be misused or perverted on a whim, by someone who does not have Mr. Stark’s… moral fortitude and forethought.”
Steve leans over the table to look Van Horn directly in the eye. It’s his way, and a good one, of giving especial weight to his words and the importance of the person they are directed to. The only difference is that Steve is truly genuine about all of that. “Then, General, the only place it is safe is in Stark’s hands. He’s a little flippant about his own life, but when it comes to us, to his comrades and the tech we use, the people who depend on him for their lives, he never cuts corners. He never allows even the tiniest of oversights to slip by; he’ll run himself into the ground finding that missing thread before he lets anyone suffer for it. And he never lets the pursuit of his craft get in the way of our safety. I can’t say the same for other people I’ve worked alongside in our military.”
Van Horn studies him, then nods. At least his respect for Captain America is real. Tony thinks Van Horn is probably one of those closet case comics hoarders, every issue crammed into his foot locker during Basic, then moved to secure drawers in offices and living quarters on various bases. “Your faith in him is laudable, Captain. Nevertheless. It’s already been proven more than once that, despite Mr. Stark’s best efforts, outside forces have been able to get hold of his technology and use it for their own ends. These are individuals with no connection or responsibility to any recognized system of government. Instead, the technology becomes an immensely destructive plaything in personal spats and terrorist endeavors.”
“And you think gaining control over the technology is going to stop those attempts from occurring?” Fury asks from his side of the room, but Van Horn’s response goes directly to Tony.
“With some control over its development, we would be able to develop countermeasures for it as well, yes. Implement its potential on a wider scale rather than for a small group of extremely specialized fighters. Strictly speaking, the US military, and the World Security Council as well, does not like the idea of Stark Industries, and namely you, Mr. Stark, holding the monopoly on the most powerful defensive and strategic army in the country.”
Tony wishes he had a glass of water, because then he could do a proper spit-take. “I’m sorry. Are you, did you just call us an army?”
Steve’s frown is getting deeper. Tony shares an incredulous stare with anyone who will match him— for the record, that’s Hill and, Tony will swear to the free world, Fury. A little bit. He returns to the general. “We are not an army.” He gestures at himself, at Steve, sweeps his hand to encompass every one of the teammates not currently in the room. “And I can tell you, a couple of our buddies are going to take offense at your labeling.”
Steve says nothing. For him, the incongruity will be on a deeper level, one requiring more explanation than Tony’s simple foot stomping. But it is there, nonetheless, the assumption that this general knows them, knows who they are, and takes for granted that he can predict what they’ll do as soldiers under his personal command. That battalions can be reassigned. Split apart. That he can order Steve’s team right out from under him.
And they’re more than that. They’re Steve’s family.
In a tower full of people with broken families, the magnitude, the meaning of that word, grows tenfold. Hell, Tony feels his own blood rising at the implications, and he’s never had much interest in family ties. “Let’s get down to the real issue here. What exactly is it you plan to use my technology for that isn’t immensely destructive?”
“The defensive potential in terms of our fighting forces alone is significant, Mr. Stark,” the general’s aide says. He’s a straight-backed young man, maybe twenty-two, already up a few insignia. West Point, no doubt. Tony had known they’d go immediately for this argument, and in all fairness, it’s the only one he can’t really refute without sounding callous at best, dismissive of individual lives at worst. “You’ve clearly made no secret of the fact that you’re developing different types of individual armory and group defense. Why not apply that to the members of our fighting units, give them the opportunity for more protection in the field while they risk their lives?”
“Because, clearly,” Tony answers, “every single aspect of these defensive strides forward can be turned around and developed for an offensive purpose. Come on, you seriously expect me to believe you’ll shield up each of our boys and girls and then just stop, pat yourselves on the back and throw a cocktail party?”
The aide opens his mouth, but Steve speaks up again. “In my experience, the military has never been overly concerned with the safety of individual soldiers, not when speed and money are under consideration.”
Van Horn draws an audible breath. “While I appreciate your input, Captain, I believe the topic at hand here is of much wider scope than any one soldier or unit.”
“It’s not hard to tell why he’s here,” Van Horn’s aide mutters, raising his brows and looking Steve over with a quick flick.
“Regardless of scope, I feel the real question here is still about the rights to certain technology, General.” Tony fixes the aide with all his attention. “Something you want to say?”
The aide scowls. But Tony knows he won’t speak. They will walk all over his reputation with impunity, but they will never touch Captain America, and not just because Steve’s capable of crushing a rifle with one finger.
Woe unto the first person who does, if Tony’s present, anyway.
“With government backing,” Van Horn continues with a single warning look at his aide, “you would have more resources. More manpower to advance along avenues a single person cannot touch. The potential would be—”
“I don’t need or want any more backing,” Tony states, the snick of a blade into new silence. He stands, straightens his suit. “And the potential is already staggering. Ladies. Gentlemen.”
They stand— Fury pushes off the wall in such a way as to draw the eye, and Tony would be annoyed at the theft of his thunder except he’d much rather they focus on Fury at the moment. He’s tired. He wants to get back home, maybe back into bed or down into his thoughts in the lab. Safer, cleaner thoughts than what they’re trying once again to make him consider here.
Steve somehow manages to convey both respect and disapproval in his acknowledgment of the general’s farewell. Tony can’t even rightly call it a dismissal, what with the easy way Steve moves as he exits. This is SHIELD, Steve’s home turf, and he’s well aware.
Outside, the air has the bite of ice on its edges. Steve’s in his leather bomber again and the rich brown makes his hair glow. Tony slides his hands into his pockets, shuts one eye against the fledgling headache, and sighs.
“Wish you’d brought the bike.” That ride home sounds absolutely freeing right now: no enclosure, no limo smell or the dignity that comes walloping along with it. And let’s face it: ripped blond guy in leather, riding a motorcycle? Tony wouldn’t need to convince anyone of how necessary that is.
Only thing better is being the one on the back of that motorcycle while everyone else drools.
Steve smiles faintly. His jacket collar is turned up, framing his jaw, and the breeze plays with his hair, invisible fingertips carding through and resettling. He sidles in until he is a mere foot away. Tony could reach out, hook his fingers into Steve’s pocket and pull him in.
“Could go get it,” Steve ventures. “If you want to wait.”
What he really wants is the familiar smell of his own halls, the sense of motion ever-present even when the rest of the Avengers are sleeping. He wants to dig in down in his lab, get that niggling and sporadic glitch out of his suit’s computer once and for all. He wants Steve. Tony shakes his shoulders out in a too-jittery roll.
“Hold it for me?”
Steve’s smile fills out, showing the white of his teeth. He passes behind Tony and slides a hand from his shoulder to his waist, a warm diagonal track across Tony’s spine. He opens the limo’s door for Tony and gets in behind him.
Tony’s cell buzzes halfway home, a text from Clint: Don’t come in the front way.
Tony takes a beat too long to understand, and then he curses in such a way that Steve swivels his head to stare. Tony redirects Happy up the back entrance, even though he holds out little hope. “JARVIS.”
“Please tell me they want to take pictures of my Jags.”
Steve lets out a soft groan of understanding just as JARVIS responds. “According to reports from public relations, the press appears to have assembled in regards to your meeting with General Van Horn. Sadly, they are located at both entrances to the tower.”
Without a word, Happy raises the screen between the cab and the rest of the car, flashing Tony a rueful grin as it cuts off their line of sight. It’s another ten minutes before the masses come into view, standing three deep outside the main car ramp. Tony smacks his head gently against the window. “How do they know these things so fast?”
“I assume that’s rhetorical,” Steve says. Tony slumps back, presses his eyes shut with his fingers and despairs at the sudden blossoming of that headache.
“You alright?” Steve is looking at Tony far too observantly.
Tony moves on to kneading the center of his forehead. “Oh, you know. I’ll have to be.”
Happy gets them around the building and into the secondary crowd that has gathered near the rear. They’re on the sides, too, having learned all too well about Tony’s escape contingencies. Tony laughs, so humorless it hurts, and shakes his head. Rubs his face again. Can’t even begin to guess at what questions they’ll ask. His mind has done the self-preservative thing and wiped away the immediacy of the meeting for later cataloguing and analysis, and now he can’t even seem to grab hold of a single word on the subject of weapons and why he won’t just give them away, thank you very much. Why they aren’t weapons, actually, has anyone been paying attention to what he’s been trying to accomplish these last few years?
Steve pushes the button to connect to the front. “Happy, any way we can just drive through?”
“About to suggest that,” Happy says.
Tony forces a smile and slips his sunglasses back on. “We could. But then they’ll write slants into their stories that I’ll spend weeks trying to detangle. Or Pepper will, actually.” He taps the partition. “Okay, just stop, Hap, get this over with.”
Happy reluctantly halts the car, and Tony straightens his tie, runs a hand through his hair where he can see his reflection in the window, then reaches for the door handle. The crush outside is dense, though, and he rethinks it, slides over to Steve’s side where he will at least be able to make it out without stepping on a baby reporter or five. “Here, budge over.”
Instead, Steve touches his face, the swiftest brush of one fingertip across Tony’s cheek. He grabs the handle and opens the door, then gets out of the car. Immediately voices rise and cameras start clicking, a hundred scorpions chittering away. Tony exhales, grateful for the show of solidarity at least, and scoots in Steve’s wake, but Steve presses back against the car and pulls the door close, blocking Tony’s exit. Tony looks up, only to find Steve’s hand settling on his shoulder. He squeezes gently.
The clamoring begins anew, all variations of Steve’s name and rank, some salutations to Captain America, and a load of interwoven questions. Steve waits for quiet and answers one of the less intrusive ones, something about an autograph, and as he does, he leans away enough to catch Tony’s eye. Gives him the tiniest smiles, and a wink so fast Tony blinks.
“Captain Rogers, why out and about so early?”
“Oh, you know.” Steve sounds relaxed, but bright. He shrugs and grins, settling again across the doorway as if it were his own personal car. “Morning person to the bone. Heard about some good bagels and decided, why not?”
“Is Mr. Stark in the car with you?”
“Nope. Why?” Steve’s frown is overtly quizzical.
“Are you coming from the meeting with the military?”
“There’s a meeting?” As he speaks, Steve waves Tony on with the hand still out of sight inside the car, then steps back just enough to shut the door, muting all that damn sound. The path clears in front of Happy as the predators forget their former prey, and Tony sits in silence as the car continues down the drive to the back entrance ramp. He turns on his seat and watches Steve, standing amidst the press in his bomber jacket, nodding at individual reporters as the car finally wheels around the corner beneath the tower.
When he sits back, the partition is down again, and he catches Happy’s eye.
“I’m glad he’s here, boss.”
Tony can’t think of any words that could do more justice than that. He lets his gaze travel out the window again and smiles to himself.
“Stark, you busy?”
“Always.” Tony yanks the last of the ragged paneling free with a heave of his pliers and tosses it aside, hopefully into a place where he won’t later jam it up through the sole of his boot. Future planning, thy name be Anthony Edward. “Fixing— fucking programming.”
“Yeah, that doesn’t look like a software problem,” Clint calls with a snort. Tony threatens him vaguely with the pliers before nudging at the wire casings again.
“Checking the cause of a glitch,” he grunts. “Got sidetracked.”
“Sidetrack you again, if that’s allowed.”
Tony looks up to find his teammate, slightly scruffy in a corduroy jacket and jeans, fingering the loading mechanism on his quiver. “Yeah, hit me.”
“Something’s catching when I pull the magnetic arrows. Almost got my ass handed to me because I couldn’t get one out fast enough.” He presses the button on his bow and the quiver spins, hooks into an arrowhead and stills again. Clint gives the arrow a tug, then a much firmer one. The arrow sticks visibly before it pops free. Tony reaches for the quiver.
“Probably the new magnets screwing with the mechanism. Arrows work alright once they’re fired?”
Clint nods. “No complaints. Just, getting it out in time to make it useful.”
Tony dials in another magnetic head and gives it a tug of his own. Once it’s free, he hefts the arrow in his grip. “You have your other quiver?”
“In my room.”
“Leave this one here. I’ll take it apart later.”
“Thanks.” Clint takes the quiver back and takes a seat in one of the chairs, crossing his arms. “So how’s our favorite army man?”
Tony pauses with pliers poised and raises his eyebrows at Clint. “Uh, my favorite army man is Steve.”
Clint rolls his eyes. “Duh. But for us plebeians.”
“He wants my tech.” Tony shrugs, looking around for his mallet. “Same old same old.”
Clint waits until he’s done whacking the paneling into indistinct arcs. “And what did the Powers That Be do?”
“Oh. They tried to fuck with Fury, apparently.”
Tony shakes his head. “My thoughts exactly. Hey, shoot an arrow.”
He taps the paneling, and Clint stands, sweeps his bow into place and nocks an arrow all in one fluid roll, then lets it go. The hiss-twang is much briefer than usual, and the arrowhead slams the metal, gouging one tiny hole. Tony peers at it. “Eh.”
He turns and finds Clint sucking on the knuckles of his forefinger. Tony can see the redness forming along the top of his thumb as well.
Clint grimaces, nearly a smile. “It’s fine. My fault.”
“Alright. Well… Can you do this one, too?”
No hesitation from Clint, even if Tony hedged a bit, and on this panel casing, there’s barely more than a divot. Ah, vibranium alloys. If he could just get it into a purer form— Tony swipes the surface with his fingertips and grins.
“Why don’t you just make the entire suit out of that stuff?”
“Planning to. Don’t have enough of it yet. In the meantime, this.” Tony discards the casing with the hole and sets the dented one in place over the suit’s right shoulder circuitry. “Got some important fuses for the upper atmo stuff, propulsion, guidance. Weak spots hate me. I really should find a better place for them, honestly, but until then—”
“Pad it down, I gotcha.” Clint takes his seat again and rubs his eyes. “Fuck.”
Tony snorts and keeps digging around in the shoulder guts of the Mark VIII. “Yeah, okay, what.”
Clint scowls at him without ceasing his massage. “Shut up and let me be exhausted in peace.”
“Not my fault you came down here. Go to sleep.”
“I can’t,” Clint moans plaintively. In his defense, Tony thinks, he is just back from Myanmar. Jet lag can really suck.
“You could, you know, tell Fury to shove his assignments sometimes.”
Clint shrugs, a little too intent on the welt he’s rubbing again. “Coulson’s assignment,” he corrects, very nearly casual.
Tony straightens, looks properly at Clint, and waits. But Clint doesn’t say anything, Clint never says anything, and Tony forces his breath out silently.
Ends of the earth and back, as they say.
And then he changes his mind because fuck it, he’s Tony Stark, did he forget, now that Steve is— oh, Steve must be fucking it right out of him; that deserves some scientific exploration. “You know what I think—”
The doors hiss open to reveal Steve, just as Clint shuts down on the hunted look he sometimes gets. Looks relieved instead.
“Steve. My man.” Clint claps Steve’s back with too much gusto. Not that Steve notices. “Where you been?”
Tony goes back to his open shoulder plating. “Taking care of some vermin for me.”
“Did you sic him on the media again?” Clint demands, but the sternness is exaggerated. There are hands on hips, it’s great.
But Steve heads him off. “There was no siccing. More a diversionary measure.”
Now it’s Clint’s turn to peer at Tony, and Tony busies himself with other things.
“Ah,” Clint says. After a moment, “Well. So, I’m going gymming. Get Thor to kick my ass or something. Cross your fingers. Hey, good luck with that computer glitch.”
“Yeah,” Tony murmurs, shoving a flashlight between his teeth to aim into the panel.
Steve frowns. Verbally. He’s an ace at it. “Glitch.”
“How were the rats?”
“Easy to divert. Tony. Glitch?”
“Thank you so very much, Barton!” Tony yells caustically around the flashlight. Clint’s laugh is swallowed up by the closing lab door. Tony turns a wan smile on Steve and takes the flashlight out of his mouth. “Just a bug somewhere. Keeps fouling up the HUD. I’ll have it detoxed by tomorrow. Seriously. Nothing to worry about.”
But Steve is definitely frowning. “The same foul up that sent you into a wall in the Bronx a week ago?”
Tony points his pliers at Steve’s face. “That is an exaggeration of events, I did not run into a wall.”
“Sounded like you did.”
Tony winces. Yes, he remembers that crunch. Not that he could feel much. Just a repulsor kicking in late. But he can imagine how it looked, especially since Steve was only too ready to yell at him for it later. “And that’s why I’m digging it out.”
Steve remains silent, and Tony straightens up, turning to face him fully. “Steve. I won’t use the suit till it’s gone. Even if I have to wipe the damn memory banks and rewrite the whole thing.”
Steve purses his lips. “Good. I don’t think I can deflect the press from Iron Man careening into the Empire State Building.”
Tony puts the pliers down and steps around the metal littering the floor until he’s close enough to wrap Steve up in his arms. Steve’s arms come easily around him in return, but Tony is already nuzzling his way into a kiss.
“Thanks for that.” Their lips brush with each word.
Steve hums softly and pecks him. “Looked like you needed… an out?”
“Got it in one.”
Steve’s hands slide down, an unhurried trek over the small of his back, diverting once to the side and then continuing, cupping Tony’s ass and drifting back up again. Tony exhales through his nose as Steve doesn’t stop. Just that slow, steady stroke up and down, full palm, splayed fingers. He rises up, angles his hips in, and Steve’s arms press firm against his sides, holding him there.
“Mmph.” Tony touches the tip of his tongue to Steve’s mouth. “You want something?”
Steve starts to chuckle. “Think I got it.”
His hands flex.
“Yes, you do,” Tony breathes.
Tonight. Tonight he’s giving Steve his present, doesn’t matter that it’s still two and a half weeks early.
A snowflake spirals down to rest in Steve’s palm. When the second one drifts into range, Tony pushes up, hands on the side of the tub, and catches it on his tongue. Steve wraps an arm round his hip and tugs him down into the roiling water again.
“Tony, get— Jeez. Already covered in goose pimples.”
Beyond the spa’s rim, the rooftop is white from yesterday’s flurry, undulating smoothly against a black sky. The air up here bites at Tony’s cheeks but the rising steam whisks it away. Tony turns around and sinks to his shoulders, gliding across the deepest part to kneel in front of Steve. He finds Steve’s knees under the water with both hands and cozies his way between them.
Steve settles back against the side with a sigh. “This is a nice gift.”
Tony eyes him, up and back down again. “Oh, you think this is a present for you.”
Steve laughs, soft at first, then gaining momentum. He doesn’t open his eyes. The heat curls the ends of his hair and sheens his face with moisture. Tony catches the reflection of light off his Adam’s apple as he swallows.
Steve has never actually told Tony that he aches to his bones, but Tony knows. Some nights when the weather was first changing, he limped a little when he walked, pulled up out of bed with a heartfelt groan and kneaded his knees. Elbows. Neck. Tony traces the lines of Steve’s body with his eyes, heat-flushed skin and perfect arcs made imprecise by the water, and thinks, Psychosomatic, because with the serum, there is nothing wrong with that body, no possible physicality to back up such stiffness.
It’s that damned ice, trickling in through the cracks as the days grow darker. Tony runs his hands from Steve’s knees to the bend at his hips and back again under the water, and watches muscle after muscle tick loose in Steve’s face.
“You alright?” he asks quietly.
Steve sighs again, long and loose. His fingers find Tony’s under the surface and close around them. He lifts Tony’s hand free of the water and kisses the side of his pointer finger. Rubs over the spot with his thumb. “Thank you. For… this. Really, I can’t even tell you how much.”
“Mm, you could bang me in it,” Tony murmurs, glad to smile again, and Steve pushes his face to the side with a loud exhalation. He cranes around— god, his shoulders, the breadth of them, Tony will just never get over that— and rubs at the shiny gold plate screwed to the rim of the tub, the lettering distorted by the water that has collected atop it. “‘For Steve Awesome Rogers, with love.’ I cannot believe you.”
Tony rears back, lets his eyes go wide. “Wait. That’s not your middle name?” He smacks Steve on the chest. “All this time, why didn’t you say anything?”
Steve’s laughing, trying to hold it in and failing. His cheeks, pink already with the heat, are stretched wide in a grin and his hands have returned beneath the water to travel up and down Tony’s sides. Tony shimmies in further, mindful of the thin fabric separating them, wondering if he can’t… somehow… ramp the jets and just suck the suits off of their bodies on command, might work, definitely has to be voice activated, has dangerous potential side effects though, so right now, the old fashioned method will be just fine.
“Merry… early… mm, Christmas,” he grins between kisses. Steve hitches an arm around him so fast Tony’s already in his lap before he can be startled. Steve straightens up, his spine going taut and tall, and pulls Tony to his front, and Tony, oh, Tony’s got a soft spot for this, kneeling over Steve, being the one tilting his head down while Steve cranes up, the angle of the kiss like this is just, just really— and the way their mouths meet, the almost curious sweep of Steve’s tongue over his teeth as if he’s new to this. Tony palms the back of Steve’s head right above his nape, turns him up even further, delves messily into his mouth in long, suggestive strokes.
But it does mean his back’s mostly out of the water. “Ngh, cold,” he manages, and Steve hunches forward, slides to his knees on the bottom of the tub and presses Tony against the other side in a slow, sweet slide, almost rocking him to a stop against the wall. Tony can feel the water lapping at his lower lip, over his chin, hot and perfect. A little in his mouth, making Steve taste warm and metallic, loose.
When Steve pulls back, he brushes melting snowflakes from Tony’s hair. His eyes rove over Tony’s face. “You are trouble, aren’t you?” he says like an afterthought. Tony grins.
“And you were well aware.”
Steve kisses him again once. He tucks them close against the side of the tub, up to their throats in the water. Squints out across the roof for a long moment. “S’really beautiful.”
The snow shines crisp and brilliant, reflecting light from the city. On the other side of the roof, Tony’s landing run is completely blanketed, nothing but faint mounds to show where the dormant machinery sits. Just their footprints leading in a solitary trail from opaque windows to hot tub steps. Against the darkness of the skyline, flakes continue to drift.
“I can’t remember when we got so much snow this early,” Tony muses. He looks to Steve, and Steve straightens a little.
“There was one winter, ‘34, maybe. ‘35?” Steve’s mouth purses in thought and his eyes go far away. “Hm. Well, we got a lot of snow, end of November. All the schools shut down, there were buses stalled in the middle of the streets and no way anyone was getting a cab. Not that people cared; we were all out making forts.”
It must be a good memory because Steve is smiling, a faint bend of his lips. Tony traces their shape with his eyes, then Steve’s own eyes as he talks, the tilt of his jaw and the fine slant of his nose. “The kids?”
“A few, yeah,” Steve says, and Tony laughs. “Nah, adults, too, but they all looked like kids. My mother even came out, just after shift, and dumped snow down our next door neighbor’s back.”
“Bet you ruled that snowball fight.”
Steve nods, more gravely than Tony had intended. “I had good aim.”
Tony settles back with a sigh, watching flakes descend almost to the water before disintegrating in the steam. “Bet we could get a fort going up here before everyone’s gone.”
“Is anyone staying this year?”
“Uh, Bruce is headed to Virginia, I think, to see his cousin. Barton says he’ll be damned if he’s spending the holiday anywhere but in the middle of a sweltering pile of coconuts. Natasha’s going to Belarus to… do Natasha things, I guess, and Thor’s taking Jane to Asgard for Jul.”
Steve’s forehead creases deeply as Tony speaks. He’s not looking at anything, just ahead into the darkness, and Tony thinks of empty rooms. Holidays, and people Steve considers his family.
“I think Bruce is the last one to go. The 24th, and then back on New Year’s Eve.” Tony pauses. “Sorry, it’s just going to be me.”
Steve shakes his head. “Just you is perfect.” He turns over and slowly, relentlessly crowds Tony into the wall. “Whole tower to ourselves.” He kisses right beside Tony’s nose. “Seven days.” Kisses the corner of his lips. “One hundred sixty eight hours.” On the mouth, straight and searching. “Every… single… room.”
“Hot damn, this is gonna be a swell Christmas.” Tony settles in for another lengthy make out session, made all the more promising by Steve pulling Tony forward by the crooks of his knees, cleaving their bodies together at the hips. But—
Steve frowns and pulls out of the kiss. Tilts his head. “What is that?”
Besides the far off traffic and the breeze— “I don’t hear anything.”
“I think it’s… pounding.”
“Oh.” Tony leans back, cranes over his shoulder. “JARVIS, show us Clint.”
The screen against the outside of the darkened glass windows flickers on. Clint’s voice erupts, along with the sound and image of his fist hitting the door’s surface. “—ot even fair, Stark! I need the open air, it’s a compulsion, give me back my roof access! I live here too, you know!”
Steve sinks down in the water until his shoulders submerge, his face in his hand. “Oh my god. Tony.”
Tony shrugs. “It’s just for two hours. I prepared for all contingencies, JARVIS is ready with electroshock or the first season of the X-Files, whichever fits the situation better.”
Steve’s laughing again, shoulders shuddering mutely. It’s contagious: Tony ends up with his face pressed the side of Steve’s neck, chuckling helplessly as Clint’s remonstrations continue, enriched by some impressive epithets. A second later, Steve shifts, sobering.
“Wait, why is Clint leaving again?”
Tony lets his head fall back as exasperatedly as he can manage. “Pick a reason, I’m sure he’s thought of it. I pointed out ever so politely that his hopes for a not so silent night were staying right here at their prissy little desk with all their very secret reports, but he—”
Steve exhales loudly over him. “Tony, drop it.”
“Why? No, Steve—” He turns Steve’s chin toward him. “Why? Tell me why, because he’s being an idiot, everyone and their mother can see it, and it’s irritating, I’m sick of it. I bet even Fury’s sick of it.”
Steve’s hands climb up Tony’s wrists and close around his fingers, and Tony realizes he was gesturing. He looks Tony in the eye. “It is not your business. It’s not my business, it’s not Fury’s. Clint’s got to do what he needs to do.”
“Yeah, well, you’d think after nearly losing the guy—”
“You’d think.” It’s still a sore spot; Steve’s eyes are steelier that before.
“If it’s about the team thing, he has a perfectly serviceable example of why it damn well works right in front of him.”
Steve huffs. “Yeah, except you and I are not Coulson or Clint. Personally, I can’t speak to that dynamic. Can you?”
“Hell no. I would never have agreed to be your handler, for one. Restraining order waiting to happen.”
“Understatement,” Steve mutters.
“Look,” Steve says, sliding close again until the water sloshes between their chests. “They’ll figure it out. Or they won’t. Either way, it’s not up to us to decide for Clint. Just to be there if… if he asks.”
Tony grumbles, but even the usual muttering about suffering group dynamics doesn’t get more than a raised eyebrow from Steve. “He’s right there, Steve. Right at that line. He could just step over, fix it. And instead he suffers. Just don’t like him like this.”
“Neither do I.” Of course Steve doesn’t. He’s the team leader, he can feel every single fault line with double the precision, and he strategizes with it in mind. Tony wonders for the first time just how many explosives he’s unknowingly sidestepped specifically because Steve planned for their existence.
“Well, whatever,” Tony sniffs instead. Gestures at all the noise. “He sounds just fine right now anyway.”
Steve winces at a particularly loud bang on the window. “Pep and vinegar. As Mom put it.”
“Maybe we should let him have time in the hot tub.”
Steve’s quiet for a moment, then his mouth quirks. “Not tonight.”
“Mmm.” Tony kisses Steve’s parted lips, coaxes his mouth gently open. Murmurs, “JARVIS, cut the feed.”
The racket slices off abruptly, and the snow-silence sweeps like a blanket cast overhead, left to drift downward.
The glitch will not budge. Over the next two days, Tony is convinced that he’s coaxed the ruffles flat in the coding, only to have it spring back to life elsewhere in the HUD display. First targeting, then trajectory. At this rate he really will be spinning off into buildings, proving Steve right.
Steve, who went to bed hours ago, or maybe to the gym. Maybe back to the tub, not that Tony could ever fault him for that. The trouble there is that it’s distracting. It tickles constantly at the back of Tony’s mind, making him want to toss aside his work and climb in there with him. Good god, he really is insatiable; he feels like a David Cronenberg film.
But. He promised. No glitches. And it’s not exactly an argument he needs to have with himself, being the one inside the suit.
It’s just that he adores the Mark VIII. Adores it. Unhealthily so. And he only got to take it out a couple times, and never once was it totaled or in need of a complete computer overhaul, which is more than he can say for most of his other suits. The Mark IX is still a series of virtual reality sketches, months away from real world application.
When the glitch migrates into the infrared scanning, Tony throws a wrench across the room, careful to miss Dummy and You by a good margin, and stalks out of the lab. A lot more effective when someone’s there to see it, but then, Dummy’s been filling that role for years, why stop now? He leaves them to clean up anything they think needs tidying— which, not exactly a limiting parameter, one day he’s going to regret that, more so than usual— and beelines to the kitchen via the nearest elevator.
Where someone has left treasure on a tray atop the now cool stove. Six luscious rows of it.
Tony checks the time. It’s… not as late as he thought, but still plenty outside of normal baking hours. He digs a spatula out of some drawer somewhere and goes to town.
“You should have called me in on Van Horn.”
“Sonofa—” Tony loses his grip on the spatula and barely gets hold of it again. He slaps it down on the counter, leans on both arms, and hikes his head around. “Would you please make some noise when you attempt to socialize with normal people?”
Natasha’s smile drips condescension. “If you were normal.” She’s still in traveling clothes: older-looking jeans, a plain gray shirt and her black leather jacket. She comes closer and lifts a cookie right off Tony’s spatula with two prim fingers, pops it whole into her mouth. “Mm, ginger. You shouldn’t have.”
“I didn’t.” He doesn’t know who made these cookies (probably Bruce), but they happen to be unattended on his counter top. Salvage rights apply. “And I couldn’t call you, you were in Tokelau,” he says, using finger quotes. “What exactly were you doing in Tokelau anyway? Stringing leis?”
She steals another cookie. “For three days and four nights. And then I brainwashed two cabana boys and wrestled a Mako in the marina. How was your weekend?”
“Is this two truths and a lie? I vote for the shark.”
“What did Fury say about your tech?”
“He didn’t capitulate. Didn’t help, either, but he brought in reinforcements so I forgive him. Did you know Van Horn is a Captain America fanboy?”
“Who isn’t?” She eyes him, head cocked until her ponytail— still short but growing longer— bounces against her shoulder. “You didn’t leave him any loopholes, right? Van Horn’s wilier than he looks.”
“I think the straight refusal did the trick, but Steve was nicely—” A third cookie is missing. “Okay, was your mother a stealth missile?” She doesn’t have visible ailerons, but he’s learned not to assume. At least, not in the tower. He pretty much enjoys assuming all over everyone else, very vocally.
Natasha blinks at him slowly. Her eyes flick to the side, once. “You didn’t hear it from me,” she says, bland as you please, and Tony’s sorry, but he loves her. Madly. He does.
“You and me, Natasha.” He points between them and nods. “Getting hitched. FYI.”
She smiles, placating and slightly tight. Pats his arm and gives him a little shove as she leaves. With another cookie.
When he follows her a couple minutes later with two more cookies in tow, he finds her door ajar and her sitting on the plush couch just inside, her head tipped against the back. She has one boot off and the other unzipped, and he’s just opening his mouth to comment when he notices how slack her expression is.
Her features are serene, though lines of weariness rest clearly around her mouth and nose, and her chin has dipped a little to shadow her throat. She breathes steadily through parted lips.
Tony knows better than to touch her. He sets the cookies on the bureau to his left. “JARVIS, lights low,” he whispers. “Keep the temperature comfortable in here.”
He locks her door as he leaves.
“Fuck. Fucking fucker of a— JARVIS.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir, do you require my services?”
“I require you to not be a smart aleck. For once. And run that defrag again, include the last three upgrades.”
Tony yanks up the propulsion coding alongside the infrared and watches as the code scrambles. He can see the instant the glitch jumps over and heads it off, fingers flying over the new code. But—
“I’m sorry, sir. The anomalous coding has successfully transferred back into the infrared and imbedded itself.”
Tony squints at the main camera in the lab. “You make it sound like it’s sentient.”
A pause. “There is no true indication of that. My apologies, I will choose my terminology more wisely in future.”
“Thank you,” Tony grumbles, shoving his stylus back between his teeth. “Last thing I need is HAL setting up shop in my suit. Log that last attempt.”
“I’m sorry, Dave,” JARVIS says. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
“Hey. Bad AI. Very, very bad, go sit in the corner.”
Somehow, JARVIS’ silence sounds delighted. Tony taps out a new code splice. “Okay, next it heads to the… to targeting. Run the defrag in propulsion, hit the last four upgrades this time. I’m going to quarantine this sucker if it— JARVIS, did you compensate?”
“The anomalous code has already jumped, sir.”
“Damn.” Tony pounds a fist into the table top. Slippery little gremlin.
The lab’s door opens and Steve’s voice sounds. “Tony.”
“Yep.” No one answers. “Yep?”
He looks up, then looks up again and jerks off the stool, nearly catching his foot in the rungs. Steve is grinning, and most definitely not alone.
“He liiiiiiiives!” Rhodey crows as soon as he sees Tony, raising both arms over his head like he had something to do with anything. His thick jacket is still dusted with melting snow and he advances on Tony, arms wide.
Tony dodges around the end of the table. “Nuh-uh, I’m filthy, covered in filth, get—”
“Come here, Anthony, I missed you.”
“What are you even— No. No. No?”
“So very much, you have no idea, hold still, there’s a good evil genius.”
“Rhodey, I will chew off your medals—”
“Lucky thing I didn’t wear them, then.” Rhodey catches him at last and wraps him in a smothering hug. Tony grunts into his shoulder, holds out for a few seconds, then gives up and hugs him while managing a distinct disinterest.
Not that it matters. Rhodey gifts him with a satisfied grunt and claps his shoulder hard, then holds him at arm’s length like a proud parent surveying his child. “Aw, Tony. Don’t pout. You look like you’re five.”
Tony smiles as condescendingly he can. “Don’t you have a foreign power to liaise with somewhere?”
“As a matter fact, I do. Right here in NYC.” He steps back and clears his throat, then holds up one palm in front of him like a cue card. “Oh, please. Please give us access to your weapons, Mr. Stark, so that we may go behind your back and use them in reprehensible ways,” he says in the blandest tone in existence.
Tony raises an eyebrow.
Rhodey lets out a phenomenally heavy sigh. “Oh well. Did my best.”
“Really? That’s it.”
He shrugs. “Let’s just say I have my limits, too.”
Tony grins at his friend. “Thought you were a Marine anyway.”
“Army figured I’d have an easy in. It felt like too much work to disabuse them of the notion.”
“How long are you here?”
Rhodey checks his watch. “Uh, until you agree to our terms. So.”
“Oh, good. Wanna get lunch?” Tony leans around him, lifting his chin at Steve where he’s now sitting on a metal stool, the heels of his boots hooked over one of the rungs. “What are we in the mood for?”
Steve points up at the ceiling. “Thor’s cooking.”
“Oh, god no.” Tony inhales and hangs his head dramatically. “That’s it, then. So long, cruel world.”
“They ordered in,” Rhodey stage whispers. “It arrived five minutes ago.”
Steve is smirking at him. Tony eyes him, weighs the pros and cons of just marching over there and kissing it off his face. One of these times it’ll take. He’s pretty sure.
“Well,” he finally says to Rhodey, rubbing his hands together. “Probably the last time we’ll all be in the same place for rest of the year. You’re in for a treat. Or a major mangling of some poor deceased barnyard creature. Either way—” He spreads his arms wide. “We got the entertainment.”
Rhodey nods thoughtfully at him, then at Steve. “Could go for that.”
Tony drops his arms, inclines his head and returns to his stool. “Just give me a minute, set another diagnostic going on this thing.”
He hears Steve get up and approach. “Still in there?” The frown is audible in his voice.
“Persistent bug,” Tony mutters, eyes flicking from one projection to another as each system is called up. He sets the algorithm, loops the entire program together, and makes a couple of spur of the moment switches in coding. “JARVIS, run it.”
Fury’s dulcet tones come in without preamble. “Avengers, we have a bomb threat at NYU.”
“Ooh, not it.” Tony looks up, fingers stilling over the keys. “Send Romanoff, she’s scrappy.”
Steve is just turning his favorite frown Tony’s way when Fury answers.
“I would, except for the Hammer drones demolishing the area directly around it.”
Tony jumps back to his feet. “JARVIS.”
“Preparations underway, sir.”
“Tony?” Steve points at him, already on his way out the door.
“Mark VII it is,” he answers and holds out his arms, activating the bracelets. “Stop mothering.”
And then Steve’s gone and the suit is assembling itself around him. “Fury, how many drones?”
Coulson comes in with, “Forty by last count. They came up through the sewers.”
Rhodey’s eyes widen and Tony shares a dark look with him. “Has Hammer monologued yet?”
“Nothing so far.”
Steve patches in from somewhere in the tower. “Coulson, what’s our timeline?”
“Thirty-three minutes, counting down. A SHIELD team’s already dispatched.”
Tony rolls his shoulders, settling into the fit of the Mark VII. “Gotta admit, the direct line makes for speedy chatting. Rhodey. You wouldn’t happen to have brought that hunk of junk you stole from me?”
“The War Machine armor is already en route, Colonel Rhodes,” Coulson answers before Rhodey can.
“So much for that dinner.” Rhodey pats Tony’s now armored shoulder. “Wanna give me a ride?”
The mask shutters into place. “Why, sweetcheeks. I thought you’d never ask.”
He knows he’s going to be spending a lot of money on repairs in the wake of this battle.
Already rubble litters the streets beneath him, the tumbled colors of it rushing by like rocks on a shoreline. Tony dives into the path of two drones and takes machine gun fire aimed at the civilians evacuating the street behind him. The rat-a-tat-tat echoes like raindrops on the metal casing. In the Mark VII, it’s barely enough to make him sway, and he gets out of the way by the time the pulse blasts discharge, drawing fire up into the air.
The snow is still coming down.
“Widow, one on your six and a pair coming in from eight o’clock.” Clint pauses and the twang-boom of an explosive arrow erupts over the comm. “A little help on street level?”
“I got her,” Rhodey responds. There is another boom, screeching metal, and then Natasha checking in that War Machine has dropped her back on Broome Street. Tony dives and rolls, narrowly avoids the sizzle of a pulse discharge, and blasts the limbs off a drone. Its torso skids through the snow piling up against a building and sags to a stop. To the north, smoke billows in great black tufts, and the eastern sky roils with concentrated thunderheads.
(Alright, Steve said. They’re attacking in three concentrations, the two heaviest focusing on Washington Square and the third ranging from SoHo to Little Italy. Hulk, get as close to the square as you can, clear the drones and keep them out until we can get someone in to dismantle the device. Thor, I want you above me on the east edge, providing air support. We have civilians evacuating in Lower Manhattan. Hawkeye, up top west of Chinatown, directing Widow while she clears a path down the main drags. Try to get somewhere where you can see me as well and keep an eye on my six. Iron Man, War Machine, you’re on sweep. The box is from Canal to East Fourteenth, Sixth to the Bowery. Any hostiles moving outside of the lines, take ‘em out, first priority. The objective is to clear the way, get SHIELD’s disposal unit in there. We have… twenty minutes, people.
Clint fingered his bowstring. A little spread out, Cap.
Can’t be helped. Clear your area, squeeze it all in, we’ll meet in the middle.)
Tony doesn’t like the team so disconnected like this. Steve’s up near Fourth now, Hulk with him, and Thor was even further north when Tony made his last circuit, closer to Union Square but unable to use his lightning due to the sheer number of civilians in closely packed quarters.
At least these drones don’t seem to be airborne, but they pack a horrendous punch. Tony’s already had one of them smack him twenty yards backward into solid concrete. They’re far from invincible though. Like everything of Hammer’s, it was just a matter of finding the glaring weaknesses.
“Iron Man, watch your left!”
“Roger that.” Tony barrel rolls, flashes by an intersection and takes out the drone there right as it fires. He has no idea how Clint can see so far in this mess. Beyond one hundred yards, everything is white and swirling, the only saving grace the HUD’s systems in bright blue across his vision.
He hears Steve direct the Hulk toward a pack of drones and then the ensuing chaos as their green friend smashes his way through. “Cap, is SHIELD anywhere near the bombsite?”
Steve sounds distracted but not particularly frenzied. “Can’t send the techs in yet. Still nine drones in my way alone.” The shield sings over the comm. “Make that eight.”
“I could drop someone in.”
“St—” Steve’s voice is cut off by the Hulk’s bellow and Tony flinches. “Stand by.”
“Hey, Cap, keep your distance. He sounds especially cranky this afternoon.”
“He has a good reason,” Steve grunts out.
“Avengers, be advised,” Coulson cuts in, “SHIELD is taking heavy fire on Sixth.”
“I see it,” Clint says. “Holy— Where the hell did they come from? Iron Man, get your metal ass over there. Or War Machine, if you have a second?”
“Why the hell does he get special treatment?” Tony demands. The temperature outside has dropped two degrees in the last ten minutes, but the snowfall does seem to be thinning.
“Because I’m prettier,” Rhodey says. “Right with you, Coulson, I just have to—” Gunfire drowns him out, and then he whoops and Tony grins. He flashes past over Natasha’s sprinting figure. She looks bulky in the thermal coat, but— still able to leap tall buildings and all that. As he passes overhead, she springs up onto a drone’s shoulders and slices through very important circuitry with a glinting blade. Tony cuts east, heading for a cluster of drones ripping into the side of a building.
He’s just finishing off the third in a line of mechanical irritants on the Bowery when a warning blares.
“JARVIS, proximity alert?”
“Negative, sir. The system is registering, but there is nothing within range.”
“Huh.” Tony checks his six for wayward projectiles and takes a wider arc to get a more conclusive view. “Run a debug on it— oh, what the hell?”
The view screen blinks black and the infrared kicks in, the sighting program providing the city’s layout in edgy crimson. It’s a matter of seconds before JARVIS reroutes, and another alert goes off. Now it’s the propulsion.
Worryingly familiar. “JARVIS, run a full systems check.”
After a long moment— “Systems appear normal, sir.”
“That bug get into the Mark VII somehow?”
“I do not see how, sir. The different suits’ systems are buffered and entirely disconnected from each— duration of— em scan.”
“JARVIS.” Tony pulls up in midair. He sets the viewer to the rear and sides, keeping an eye on his surroundings. “What was that?”
A drone spots him from two streets over and sends a pulse his way. Tony hitches to the left and raises his hand, firing off a blast and lopping the drone’s headpiece free. It spins into the gutter, but the drone continues to fire, matching his movements. “JARVIS, any time now.”
“I am uncertain what has occurred.” JARVIS sounds unfazed, of course, but Tony has learned to read his AI’s tone in great detail. He can hear the unprecedented speed of the words, if nothing else. “All systems still— ioning within normal— ameters.”
“No, no, JARVIS, that is not normal. Not normal.” The drone continues to track him and Tony takes off the right cannon.
“Iron Man,” Steve says, brusque and swift. “We’re ready for that EOD drop at ground zero.”
Tony implements a self scan and dodges another blast. “Busy now. Two seconds.” He zags upward, targets with a repulsor and fires.
The next shot from the drone is so close he feels it graze the suit at the hip. Tony jerks back. “JARVIS, evasion protocols on autopilot.”
When JARVIS answers, Tony only hears every third word.
“Wait, wait, wait, JARVIS, stop, say again, slowly.”
“—said the system interface— erouted from an outsi— ource.”
Tony blinks. Hears the sound of his own breathing. “Are you saying we’re being hacked?”
“—at is correct, sir.”
“How is that even fucking possible? JARVIS, JARVIS, talk to me, I designed specific safeguards.”
“—oice communication tamperin— basic level of code— ystems rerouted to off-site server. —otal loss of interface in one minute four seconds.”
“Reroute all available memory to maintaining the code,” Tony orders. “Switch from life support to external vents, cut evasive protocols and automatic piloting.” He’ll dodge; he can dodge, he’s spent ages doing it. “Tell the other Avengers.”
“I am unable to do so, sir. The main com— down— ill keep try—”
He sets himself to staying alive, darting between blasts from… from three drones now, and a fourth coming up from the next block. They’re targeting him, but— He misses a dodge when a repulsor in his boot cuts out, but the shot does not impact, only sears close by on the right. “Yeah, okay, that’s not—” Tony inhales on a new suspicion, as icy as the air venting into the suit. He checks the HUD and finds absolutely no sign of a targeting lock. “JARVIS, are they locking onto me?”
“No, s— oes not appear—” Static. The repulsors give out entirely and Tony drops fifteen feet before they re-ignite. Every single warning light flares simultaneously. “—ompensating for— aving no effect.”
“JARVIS, reroute everything to the comm system, tell the team, now!”
The drones have left off firing. Now they sit dormant on the pavement below, heads tilted up like children watching a kite. Snow dusts across their faceplates and Tony hears his own heartbeat in his ears. Sweat slides down the side of his face. “No. Oh, no.” Hammer doesn’t have this type of knowledge, could never have done this himself, but he could find and hire other people, someone who just might be able to get into an older model, only no one else knows these systems, they’d have to know the Mark VII intimately in order to—
“Sir, my interface with the Mark VII has been rerouted by ninety-six percent. Total loss of connection in ten point three seconds.”
“JARVIS, institute a counter hack, get back in here whatever you have to do!”
“Beginning now.” The comm switches to the main channel. “Avengers, be advised, the Mark VII has been severely compromised and is now under remote hostile control. Implement all necessary containme—”
Nothing but silence.
“Okay. Okay, can anyone hear me?”
He’s answered by a rush of sound like traffic whooshing by. The main channel must still be hooked in, but there’s no way to control it without JARVIS’ interface. He can still see and he’s not falling, so the repulsors are working again, but the world is a silent spectacle beneath him, buildings and streets and running people like toys below.
Tony exhales hard, opens his mouth, but suddenly the suit banks to the right, a whump of motion that slams most of the air out of his chest.
“Hey, hey, hey!” he yells when he can collect himself. “The hell do you think you’re doing?”
The suit whizzes as if he’s the one turning it, choppy but fixed, heading for the façade of a building. Tony shouts for JARVIS before he remembers, then shouts in general, watching the wall come straight at him, trying to figure out his position for when they, oh god, when they come to pick up the pieces—
He doesn’t hit. Instead, his arms rise without his input and the repulsors blast the corner of the building out of his way.
“Mayday, mayday, I’m in trouble, is there, can anyone hear me?”
“Iron Man?” Coulson, pointed but still smooth even though weapons are clearly going off around him. “Location.”
“Uh…” Tony peers through the faceplate, trying to get his bearings. Like an answer to his prayer, the mapping program flickers back on, but before he can get a good look at it, the suit veers left, skims so close to another building that the windows explode behind him from the force. He can— he can see people on the other side of the glass, far too close, the injuries he just caused—
A third alteration in trajectory. A third building with holes through it. It’s haphazard, but there’s clearly method to this, a sickening sort of intent. “Coulson, you have to get me down. Anyone in range, this is an emergency, I need you to get me out of the air.”
Rhodey’s voice erupts over the channel. “Tony, hang on, I’m coming to you.”
Yes, that’s, wait a minute, “No, Rhodey, get out of that suit, it’s an older operating system!”
A silent second, then Rhodey is yelling orders to others at street level, his voice raw. Tony takes a couple breaths, trying to slow his heart rate.
“Okay. Stay there, stay down there.” They’re going to need troops, someone to fend off Hammer’s drones. “Hulk’ll need help keeping the robots away from the bomb site.” The situation is reorganizing itself too fast in his mind; he can see all the angles jutting up out of the haze, the multitude of drones, the spread out attack sites, the anonymous call with the bomb information, and god, there are only five of them if Rhodey is grounded, spaced out too widely across the street grid.
From this height, he can see the drones south of Washington Square moving fast, heading— He jerks at his arms, too instinctual to remember that it won’t matter. The suit continues its flight forward unimpeded and accelerating. “Coulson, be advised, multiple drones zeroing in on SHIELD’s position, ETA one minute.”
When the suit hits a fourth building, takes it all the way to the ground in the explosion, Tony grits his teeth.
“Avengers, keep your distance. Do not make contact, repeat, do not make contact.” On the rearview screen, he can see the damage to the building, the street as a whole. Mercilessly— or the opposite— the suit whips him around a corner before he can recognize humans in the tangle of power lines and rubble.
He shuts his eyes, allows one deep breath, then sets himself to contingency plans.
His limbs are another person’s, the repulsors firing at commands he hasn’t given. Every system he rerouted earlier is up and running again as normal. The screen before his eyes shows him everything, likely by design, but allows nothing. He can’t even override the arc reactor’s input without smashing head-on into cement, and he has no way of controlling his trajectory.
About all he has are the thruster implants in each glove and boot, unaffiliated with the main system. Meant to slow a deadfall in the event the computer shorts out.
Tony curls his thumbs immediately and both glove thrusters fire, jerking like a dog on the suit’s leash. He spins a little, shoots left and clips the wall beside him, bursting snow off the window ledges in a silver flurry. The knowledge sings through him like music: it’ll work, it’ll work, he can at least—
The gauntlet repulsors blast twice as hard, righting his trajectory. Whoever is behind the controls knows what he’s got in his arsenal now.
“I’m on Lafayette, I’m— Can anyone hear me?”
“Clear as a bell,” Clint says flatly in his ear. “He’s letting us.”
Tony curses again. Of course he is, but only some of them, the comm’s acting up for Steve and the Hulk, or no, maybe he just hasn’t completely hacked the audio yet and if Tony gives him— her?— enough to think about, he might not get around to it. In the right hand corner of the view screen, a smaller panel blinks on, showing colorful dots over a grid of gray-green streets and buildings. The black dot sweeps closer, the sighting program pulling tight in, and Tony’s mind goes silent with understanding.
“Hawkeye, move, he’s accessed my location program.”
In his ear, Natasha swears, and then Coulson says something tight and fast, but a radio screech shears in alongside a massive blast, followed by a bellow. Steve’s channel, with the Hulk somewhere close.
More explosions. Steve’s channel winks out again and Thor’s comes in. “Iron Man, do you require assistance?”
“Thor, no lightning, it’ll just jazz the suit.”
“I understand.” He’s nowhere in sight.
The black dot is getting closer as Tony shoots through the streets, repulsors blowing chunks of glass and brick from structures at random. In the corner, a red dot edges into frame, and then a blue opposite.
Tony’s going to make use of what he’s got. “Hawkeye, ETA twenty seconds.”
“Remember those panels we discussed? The ones that hate me?”
A second’s pause. “Yes, I do.”
“Electric tip. Short it.”
Someone shouts something that cuts in and out, then Thor demanding to know Clint’s exact location, but Clint’s voice comes swiftly over both. “Cake mix, Stark, bring it home.”
The suit veers right, turning off of Chambers, honing in on the black dot. From the north, a yellow marker zooms into view, coming on breathlessly fast.
“You must wait!” Thor’s voice sounds stretched, as thin as wire with the wind speed. “He will fall out of the sky!”
“Canal and Broadway,” Clint rattles off, “the 401 building!”
“Ten seconds, Hawkeye!”
Thor growls. “I cannot reach you in time!”
“Then I’ll aim for something soft,” Tony says. The suit’s energy reading spikes again on visual, and he checks himself, looks down at the screen. Repulsors, combustion, backwash, what in god’s name— “Oh, no, no, Clint, he’s blowing the building!”
Voices erupt, another shriek cuts the feed, and then Tony can see Clint, still on the rooftop, the thick collar of his coat turned up around his jaw. He’s a fierce, dark blot against all the white, an arrow nocked to bowstring and aiming right at the juggernaut barreling his way.
Clint doesn’t even twitch. Half the team is yelling into his ear, Thor is shouting, Tony can hear the whine of the repulsors’ build-up, feel the heat coalesce around his forearms, the stretch in his shoulders as the gauntlets rise to aim simultaneously. Tony clenches hard with both thumbs and pinkies, firing all four thrusters just as Clint releases the arrow. He swerves right, and then the repulsors discharge.
The top corner of the building explodes, hunks of shrapnel rocketing over the roof’s surface like the grotesque unfurling of a fan. Clint tumbles to his knees, staggers up and turns— “Damn it, run!” —gets four steps, and the entire roof goes up.
Smoke and dust and blue-white fire.
The blast smacks Tony like a giant hand, wheels him round in midair. He can’t see, can’t—
“Hawkeye!” Someone— Natasha?
“Barton.” That’s Coulson. Tony feels the sluggish kick of his boot repulsors, can’t even shake his head to clear it inside the helmet. “Clint, answer me.”
Nothing but static. In the corner of Tony’s vision, the black dot is gone.
“You sonofabitch!” It’s so raw, so enflamed, Tony doesn’t even recognize his own voice. He jerks as hard as he can, wrenching his shoulders, unable to swing, to strike out at the source of his rage. “Hammer, you sonofa—”
“Clint, respond.” Coulson again. “Barton, respond!”
Tony sees the flare of red as Thor zags past him, but he’s already turning, ineffectually fighting the kick of the repulsors. Behind him, the building smokes and groans as rubble careens earthward. Snow slides like an avalanche.
He. He just.
Tony swallows it down. Checks the readouts and finds the horizon indicator listing. The Mark VII is constantly correcting now, little repeated pulses from the two left jets compensating for an almost drunken drag. He cranes his head and sees the panel on his right shoulder is bent, a little crater in the middle with a neat black hole in its center. The arrowhead is gone, but smoke sucks at the hole like a tiny fog bank, whipped away in puffs by the speed of his flight. It’s a frail gray, likely electrical in origin. Clint hit him, did some kind of damage.
“Alright.” The word shakes and Tony blinks his eyes rapidly. “Alright, get clear. Do not engage. Maybe I can ram this thing.” The building goes up again in his mind, Clint vanishing in a tide of pearlescent fire. Even if he survived, the fall, almost thirty floors—
“Avengers!” Natasha again, her tone is brisk. “Anyone close, rally to me now!”
The feed whines. Steve cuts in, halfway through a demand for their status, positions, and for the first time in what feels like ages, Tony lets himself think about the explosive in the middle of the city and feels physically sick.
He prays, prays his string-puller targets Thor next, someone with a chance of stopping him, but he knows it won’t happen, not with that red dot staring him in the face.
“Widow, it’s going to be you,” he says dully. Repetition, the same future, the same horrible scene. “Get out now.”
She’s not moving. God, she won’t move, not when their best marksman is gone, not when Tony is still up here with enough firepower to flatten half of downtown. He wants to scream at her, shake her, pick her up and throw her out of range if that’s what it takes.
All he can do is watch as she swings into view and he pummels right toward her.
“Nat,” he begs, “move!”
Standing in the middle of Broadway knee-deep in snow and broken stone, she takes aim with both handguns and opens fire. The suit’s evasive tech kicks in, swinging wide around each shot, until one hits, then another. Another. Minimal damage, even with the bullets he made for her. She changes clips, and he’s coming at her so fast her ribs will simply shatter when he hits.
“Go!” Twenty feet.
She takes aim again.
Thor thuds down behind her and yanks her into the sky, so close that his cape whips Tony’s faceplate. He can’t parse the relief, so gone over it that his vision whites. For a second he can’t even breathe.
“Nat, are you—”
“Fine.” The word sounds breathless, knocked about.
“Thor, thank god, thank you.” He cannot have another Clint, not again, unable to fucking stop it from happening.
“Take me back,” Natasha orders.
“Do not, Thor, get her as far away from me as you can, she doesn’t stand a chance!”
Natasha disagrees vociferously, Thor answers, and all Tony can think is that he doesn’t know if Thor can out-fly the suit, suspects he can, he’s a god after all, but if the suit targets them, if it gets a fix—
In the city to his right, there is another explosion and another unmistakable roar. That wasn’t the explosion, wasn’t nearly big enough, but he’s going to be putting Avengers out of commission left and right if this keeps up, and that’s the fucking idea.
Tony doesn’t think, just activates all thrusters at once. The suit spins, knocked off its path, and he bashes into the building next to him in a shower of sparks. When the Mark VII rights itself again, there is a definite wobble to his flight.
Natasha and Thor are still arguing; Coulson has joined in, and Rhodey too, somewhere down in the streets. Tony takes a deep breath.
“Lis— Listen! Here’s what’s going to happen. Take care of the bomb, that’s your priority! I’m going to find some place to… set this thing down.”
Take this thing out. He can do it if he times the thrusters just right, finds the right surface to aim for.
Of course, he’s not the only one who can extrapolate.
“Tony,” Thor says, “do not do this thing, we will find another way!”
“Once the bomb’s off,” Tony overrides him, searching out potential places along his current flight path, “you come find me, see what you can do.” But by that time, Tony knows, he’ll be—
“Take me back,” Natasha says.
“Widow,” Tony starts.
“Shut up, Stark! Thor—”
“Don’t you dare, Natasha Romanoff, get the hell away!” The suit takes another corner and Tony feels the snap of it in his hips and shoulders, the piloting oversights of a person who isn’t actually inside the armor.
“I can do this without killing y—”
“No, I built this thing, I know what it’s capable of!”
The comm hisses, another channel. “It’s alright, Thor, go. I’ve got him.”
It’s the voice Tony least wants to hear, speaking words that are a nightmare. Tony tries to protest, but the suit banks to the left, the chest plate pressing against his sternum and sucking the words away. The G-force hauls at his guts like an anvil. Tony wrenches with all his might, all his muscle, manages to throw the repulsor off just enough to miss a woman making a dash across the street. The blast impacts the wall above her and masonry skids down into her side, sending her sprawling into the snow. Tony bites through his lip, one rough clamp, tastes blood as the suit’s trajectory takes his victim out of visual range.
“Get Black Widow to the bomb,” Steve says. “She can dismantle it.”
“Captain, I’m right here, I can take him down without hurting him. I just need to get closer—”
“Widow!” The snap in Steve’s voice is both loud and somehow quiet. “Get to that bomb, that’s an order!”
For a moment, nothing. Then—
“Yes, sir,” crisp and flat.
Tony looks at the targeting screen. He’s approaching the blue dot fast from three blocks over, and he feels a surreal sense of displacement as the scanners pull in once more. He’s speaking before he realizes it.
“Cap, no. Cap? Don’t do it, do not do it, you can’t be here, he’s already seen you!” He doesn’t even know what he’s saying, just pouring it out, every word that comes. Steve’s progress slows and for a second, Tony thinks he’s succeeded.
Until he realizes that Steve’s waiting for him. He’s picked a smallish street, a connection that juts between thoroughfares. Some old throwback from before Steve’s time, old enough that the street is narrow and the newer buildings block out sunlight on summer days. Close quarters, not a lot of room to maneuver.
He knows the comm’s open, that everything they say will be overheard, but he doesn’t care anymore. He has to convince Steve to leave him be.
“Steve.” The word is almost too thick to make it through his throat. “Steve? If you love me at all—” He’s choking on it, on the sheer possibilities slamming like asteroids into his mind. “If you love me, you will, you’ll get as far away as you can, please, please—”
“Tony?” The softness cuts through. “I can’t do that.”
“Yes, you can, just turn around, just.” The blue dot is getting closer, he’s arcing toward it on the left, and like a crimson laser, the locating program locks. “No, go back!”
He skids around the corner, so low to the ground the snow rushes up in a white wave. In the center of the street, about halfway down, Steve stands, cobalt blue and striking scarlet, shield held before his torso. The suit kicks into high gear, turning Tony into a missile, arms raised straight out before him. At first Tony fears twin blasts from the gauntlets, but his fists force themselves closed, and Tony can only watch the oncoming horror. And shut his eyes.
And Steve stops him. Braces, catches Tony’s extended fists in one hand each and grinds him to a halt, skidding halfway down the road through the rubble. The muscles of his arms bunch visibly, and he shoves Tony back, crushes the forward momentum. The suit hitches and Steve flips his grip fast as thought, releasing Tony’s fists in favor of his elbow joints, finding extra purchase against Tony’s biceps. The pressure of his hands at the crooks of Tony’s elbows keeps the gauntlets aimed down at the street.
Immediately the boot repulsors fire.
Steve’s strength is staggering. Despite the force exerted, he holds Tony in place, squeezing so hard around the elbows of the suit that Tony can hear the metal groan.
“Think I’d leave you here alone?” Steve manages through clenched teeth.
And he smiles.
Tony’s breath escapes him as a laugh, as thready as it is, and then the boot repulsors cut. Steve stumbles forward as Tony’s inertia disappears. The suit’s left arm jerks up, an inward twist meant to dislodge grappling holds. Fingers wind into the fabric of Steve’s cowl where neck slides into shoulder, and flings him backward into a building.
Steve’s body hits and breaks glass, breaks stone. Tony screams obscenities into the comm link, so furious his sight dulls. But he can feel the lack of control over the suit, the drunken learning curve as his legs turn clumsily.
His puppet master proves too slow: in the next instant, Steve is on him again, ramming straight into his side. He grips Tony’s wrist with both hands, fingers overlapping, and turns him, swift and sharp, uses the momentum to hurl him into that same wall.
Tony hits hard and the armor barely cushions it. He hears whining, the shuddery sounds of joints shorting and metal denting. Something sparks and Tony goes for it with his right hand. It’s like trying to pull a whale across a beach, but he gets his fingers around the edge of the gauntlet plate and hauls it up in a squeal of metal.
A second later, his limbs jerk so smartly out of his control that his elbow joints burn.
“Steve.” In a moment, he’ll be gone, up out of reach. But he can arm them with the next best weapon: information. “There’s a delay, it’s damaged, he’s learning but he doesn’t know the suit as well as I do, you have to move now, get under my right shoulder guard and get the plating off, there’re fuses—”
The suit tugs into motion again, and Tony’s stomach thuds down with dread, but Steve flattens him to the broken façade using his entire body, and for a few blessed seconds, Tony is still again. He lets out his breath in a whoosh.
“Break it,” he gasps. “Pull the damn armor apart.”
And Steve… shakes his head. His cowl hangs free over his shoulder like a shredded rag, and his hair is filthy with cement dust. “Not an option.”
“Of course it is!” He can feel the suit pulling every which way, working itself free of Steve’s hold. The only saving grace is that Steve’s too close for a proper repulsor blast. “Take it apart before it takes the whole damn city down!”
Steve fixes him with a look that nearly makes Tony take it all back. “Injuring you is not an option.”
“It is. Steve. It is.” He doesn’t know where he’s found this quietude all of a sudden. His tone is intimate, the tone of early mornings when the sun is milky through the shades and the bedroom is bathed in the heaviness of sleep. The vibration of the suit, the shuddering of Steve’s muscles… it’s all outside them for the moment. “Steve?”
Steve looks up at him.
“Do not hold back,” Tony says.
Steve exhales through his nose and drops his head to hang loosely between them, in direct contrast to the strain of his body. He shakes his head, back and forth in a steady weave. “Believe me when I tell you there is no choice, Tony.”
“Make the choice. You’re the leader of this team for a reason, to make choices like this, when we’re compromised. And you don’t even have to, I’ll make it for you. You need to do this. Or Hammer will burn this city to the ground with this suit.”
Steve grunts and reaffixes his hold. “Choice is made, Iron Man. Discussion closed.”
He’s going to get free. He can feel Steve’s grip weakening little by little with each wrench the suit makes, each repulsor blast edging them back and forth in wider arcs, scraping against the building at his back. Once he does get free, it’s a toss-up whether the suit will jet into the air or go after Steve himself.
Something in Tony’s bones already knows which one it will be. Because he is still being allowed to see Steve. To hear him. To talk to him, for god’s sake. And their entire team can hear them through the comm.
There is no better way to crush the Avengers into the dirt than to turn one against the other and make the rest watch. It’s not even an original idea.
Figures it’s Hammer’s plan, then.
Tony laughs, a distraught burst from the center of his chest. The suit wrenches and Steve’s feet slip. He barely corrects.
Tony gets it, he knows what Steve’s true objective is: to keep him at bay, buy them time to get rid of the bomb. After that—
After that is an open, endless space.
“Please don’t let me do this.” He’s begging again, can’t do anything but put all his eggs in one basket and rely on Steve to stop this tragedy from unfolding any further.
He wishes he could look his lover in the eye. See him without the faceplate in between.
Steve smiles at him again, as if he doesn’t have a ticking bomb of his own clutched in his hands. “It’s going to be alright.”
He gives Tony a sharp nod, and his face hardens. Tony readies himself as best he can.
Steve lets the suit go, gives it just enough time to lift away from the wall, then slams it back, shoving Tony through brick and supports. Stone cracks as the Mark VII’s weight hits and Steve latches on to one elbow. The metal bends enough to hamper the joint. Tony hears the mechanical hum as compromised pistons attempt to move. The suit judders further into the pylon as Steve pushes. The next instant, all the repulsors fire simultaneously, hurling them to the side and out, but Tony feels the damaged panel at his shoulder tear away under Steve’s tug. He hammers on the thrusters as the repulsors go again, and ends up taking Steve with him to the ground. Steve flips him onto his back in the snow in one smooth reversal and straddles him, going for the open panel, but the suit gets its first good grip on Steve by his uniform’s winter jacket, the jacket Tony made, and hurls him off like so much dust. A second later, Tony’s upright again, listing but airborne. On the edge of his vision, the broken paneling sparks.
Steve gets to his feet directly in front of him, breathing hard. The suit moves and Steve counters, a step backward to keep his distance.
Absolutely a given, what Tony’s puppet master plans to do now.
“Steve, watch it,” he breathes. He can’t give him more than a couple inches leeway with the thrusters.
The boot repulsors’ energy readouts build, and Tony prepares for the straight rush. But his right arm jerks up instead and detonates the façade beside them. Steve turns, raising an arm instinctively, and Tony processes for the first time that he abandoned his shield in order to get both hands on the suit in that first push. The suit darts forward, taking advantage, and Steve only just turns in time, ignoring the shrapnel as Tony collides with him. There’s nothing behind Steve to stop him this time, and he flies backward, gripping onto Tony until they hit a fallen slab at the end of the street. Steve smacks flat against it, scattering the fine powder that has settled, and the slab rocks precariously. The suit gets hold of Steve’s shoulders and plows him further into the concrete.
Steve coughs. He’s struggling to get air, but using their proximity anyway, grabbing for the opened shoulder compartment and digging gloved fingers in. One of the boot thrusters spits and dies, and Tony falls, but it sputters to life once more, just in time for Steve to get a grip on Tony’s arm. Tony fires the thruster for that arm, sending the already unstable jet wide, and Steve turns off the slab, yanks Tony’s arm behind him, forces him face-first into the cement.
He catches the gauntlet’s next blast straight to the stomach.
Tony doesn’t realize what’s happened until the suit turns him, an ungainly flop as the boot repulsor cuts again. Steve is bent at the waist, an arm clutched round his midriff. Tony can see the blackened patch of material at Steve’s abdomen, fabric peeling away. Right through jacket and tunic. Tony gets both hands up and thrusters himself back, putting space between them. But Steve closes that same distance, aiming for Tony’s waist. The suit jets to the side, turning the charge into a graze instead.
Tony looks around. If he can find the shield, get Steve over to it—
The Mark VII spins, batters into Steve and slams him into the side of another building. Immediately it grabs Steve and, despite the missing repulsor, whirls him again. Slams him again.
“Steve!” Tony shouts, but Steve has him by the arm now, twisting, crushing the damn metal like a soda can. The gauntlet repulsor gives out under a shower of sparks that fizzle against Steve’s suit. Steve gives the right gauntlet another twist, wrenching painfully at Tony’s wrist, but now the glove hangs loose around his hand, the casing broken. The pressure exerted by the hacker on his arm vanishes; Tony whacks the compromised gauntlet into a skeletal support beam and it sags further. He can feel icy air against sweaty skin. If he can just—
His other arm shoots out, sending Steve tumbling. The suit follows, a flash-burn of the remaining boot repulsor, and the functional left hand yanks Steve up, bashes him into the wall. Lets go, pulls back, hammers into Steve’s sternum.
Tony hears ribs crack.
Steve’s air leaves him in a bolt of distended sound. He stares at Tony, lips parted, and is that… is that blood on his—
“Thor!” Tony doesn’t recognize his own voice. “Get here now!”
“I cannot leave the Black Widow unprotected!” Thor shouts, tinny through the comm. On his end, the sound of destruction deafens, the sizzle of lightning.
Steve spits— it is blood— and grapples with Tony again, wrenching more wires free under that panel, but the suit hits him over and over, either side with the same arm, like a swinging crowbar. The thruster does nothing to stop the assault, and it isn’t until Steve gets an arm up and blocks one of the blows that Tony staggers.
He hears his own voice, didn’t know he was speaking. “Oh god, n— Steve.”
“Tony,” is all Steve gets out, lips flecked red. But it’s calm, it’s— nowhere near what it should be. Tony feels wetness on his cheeks and realizes he’s been doing other things he wasn’t aware of. Steve’s face is dirty and scraped, his hair wild, his eyes still fixed on Tony as he fights to breathe.
“Steve, run.” Even though it’s too late. The suit will never let him go now, they both know it.
Tony’s killing him. He’s killing the man he loves. From the beginning, Steve refused to fight back, to put his full force into it, and now it’s too late. And he’s still holding back. Steve could have ripped his arm right off, armor and all. And he didn’t. Doesn’t. He just stares at Tony straight on and holds him there by the wrist.
“Bomb’s off,” Natasha shouts over the comm, “go!”
Tony has no idea what their situation is, if Natasha is still under attack, if Thor will leave her. For all he knows, Clint’s dead. Everyone else is too far away to get here any time soon. The suit presses bodily into Steve, holding him in place and freeing the still functional left arm. Tony watches the repositioning with a sense of vertigo.
“Tony, look at me.” Steve sounds abruptly urgent.
He obeys, but catches the dart of Steve’s eyes and follows it back down instead. The suit’s good arm digs into the rubble and extricates a piece of broken rebar.
“You fucking bastard,” Tony hisses at his silent hacker. He drags with all his strength, but he’s no match for the machine. “I’ll kill you, Hammer, I swear to god I will.”
A hand touches the suit’s face plate, pulling his attention back. Steve looks desperate and for the first time afraid, but not of the rebar. “Tony. It’s okay. Listen to me, it’s oka—”
His words chop off as the Mark VII shoves the rebar into his side above his hip. Tony can feel Steve’s flesh give way, and still Steve looks at him, not at the rebar, as his face goes white.
“Steve, oh, god.” It comes out broken. Horrified. He can see the clench of Steve’s fingers around the functional gauntlet as if magnified. Steve’s other hand slips lower, glides over where Tony’s cheek would be, digs one more time into the open shoulder panel and yanks another wire.
Static sputters in Tony’s ear and JARVIS’ voice chitters in piecemeal, every other word. “—control— hack success— aining power n—”
“Steve.” He can’t, can’t even touch him, can’t hold him up. The gauntlet shudders and releases the rebar, then thunks down to his side with a mechanical groan.
“S’okay, Tony,” Steve murmurs. His chest hitches where Tony still presses against it, and the words slur. “S’alright.”
“—trol returned, all systems rerouted. Sir? Sir.”
The suit slumps back, releasing Steve. He slides down the wall into a heap on the snowy, cluttered ground.
“Are you— Steve.” It’s not him standing here witnessing this, taking part, it’s, it can’t be.
Thor shoves past, pushes Tony and the suit out of the way. He pulls Steve off the ground into one arm and sends Mjölnir spinning again. He looks at Tony only once and his face, his expression is so—
An instant later, he’s gone, carrying Steve into the sky.
Tony drops, suit and all, to his knees in the mess of debris and slush. JARVIS still speaks, over and over, but Tony can only make sense of a steady buzzing. He braces on the shattered gauntlet. The glove is gone, his own whitened fingers splayed there against the pavement. “J… JARVIS, get it off me, get it—”
The suit begins to contract, pieces folding in where they can, the metal whining in protest. Halfway through, Tony grabs what’s left of his gauntlets and yanks them free in a frenzy, forces his helmet off amidst gasps and other sounds that don’t seem human. Once out of the suit, his legs give out and dump him into the snow. He crawls away from the heap of scrap, kicks it free, and keeps going to where the side of the road used to be.
He vomits violently into the gutter. Everything in his stomach. And then keeps heaving until his body shakes.
Everything’s fuzzy, all the objects have strange, muddled edges. He becomes aware of wind, sound, something, looks up, around—
Steve’s blood is a dark asymmetrical shape on the fallen stones and snow. Tony retches again, shoulders aching, trying to push the poison out.
A roar sends his ears ringing. The Hulk is suddenly above him, acid green and larger than anything, snarling down. Tony’s never been so close. Every muscle freezes as the Hulk’s exhalations huff over him— one, two—
The behemoth turns, gallops to the wreckage of the Mark VII and picks it up with both hands. Smashes it into the ground with a crunch. His roar this time cracks something miraculously left whole inside Tony. He shudders as the Hulk raises his arms and beats the suit repeatedly into a mess on the cement. And then looks up, right at Tony. Tony stares back.
Hulk could kill him in an instant. One good smack. If he’s lucky.
It’s Natasha’s arms that come around him instead, from behind where she has knelt down on her knees. She touches his shoulders hesitantly, squeezing as she turns him. “Tony?”
She sounds almost as beaten as he feels. Her hands disappear, and a second later she drapes the coat warm from her own body over his shoulders, tugs it fruitlessly around his larger frame. When he finally looks up at her, her eyes are wide and lost.
Everything left inside heaves up out of Tony in a single raw sound there in the street.
Somehow, he gets back to SHIELD. He doesn’t remember how, just that he’s there suddenly, voices too loud around him, people rushing past, and Natasha sitting amidst the chaos with her hand firmly on his shoulder. She’s cut up, her face hatched with three parallel slices as if grazed by claws, and there’s a substantial bruise coming to light under her jaw. Her hair is matted with blood down behind one ear, but the wound isn’t visible. A nurse tries for it and Natasha shoves her hands away, and then those hands are dabbing at Tony’s face instead, taking his pulse, testing his wrist. He can’t feel any of it because beyond them, behind a glass partition—
There’s a lot of blood. The whiteness of the room seems bitten through with it. Thor is still in there, standing to the side and staring hard down at the bed where doctors and nurses swarm around Steve’s inert form. Thor’s forearms are red, his throat streaked with it as if he tried to wipe himself clean there. Steve’s blood threads across the metal of his armor in thin, congealing rivulets.
The floor is already a rusty mess of soaked gauze, and Tony can see the rebar discarded across it like the slit of an open wound. Monitors beep and whine, weaving between the doctor’s strained orders.
Something in Tony tries to take inventory. Steve is here. Thor, Natasha. Hill and Fury in the corner watching through the window, and… Van Horn? He skips over it, looking for Bruce, but he’s nowhere in sight. In the room, a nurse maneuvers a cannula down Steve’s throat and Tony belatedly registers shouts about failing respiration. He watches as a flurry of movement inside finally hushes into the low suck and flow of the machine regulating Steve’s air.
Steve’s hand hangs off the bed, white and still, and the nurses bump it as they pass back and forth.
Finally, Tony’s nurse leaves him alone and sets to on Natasha in spite of her deferrals. Tony stares through the window, riveted by mouths moving when all he can hear are nonsensical sounds. He clenches his left hand, almost able to feel the ghost of the rebar in it.
He never even… held the rebar in his bare hand, he…
The door slams open and Clint Barton limps in surrounded by more EMTs. Tony is so lambasted by everything else that he can’t react.
Clint is on his own two feet, but he’s a mess. Whatever skin is bared is covered in bloody nicks and slices, and one side of his head and neck are black with the soot spray of an explosion. A jagged rip careens across the front of his armor, the leather torn completely through. His left ear has a patch of blood beneath it, a spike of rich color against the flesh of his jaw.
Coulson is just behind, catching the door as it swings back. He looks beaten, bare forearms covered in dust, no jacket, just dirtied pants and a dress shirt so smudged it’s barely white at all anymore. He’s still carrying his gun in one filthy hand.
The EMTs hustle Clint to the side and Coulson nearly drops into a chair, but sways back upright, taking in the other people in the room. His eyes meet Tony’s and Tony stares dully back for a long instant. Coulson’s mouth opens.
“I hope you’re satisfied, Mr. Stark.”
Everyone turns faster than Tony does; movement is a slog through the thickest mud for him, even swiveling his head. He finds Van Horn’s fierce eyes fixed upon him.
“What?” That’s not his voice, that’s… Tony blinks, looks back, stares through the glass instead where the monitors’ blare is as muted as elevator music. The bodies in there move swiftly, round and round the bed. Steve’s skin is so colorless.
He feels Natasha’s fingers tight on his shoulder. “General,” she starts, but he cuts her off.
“You did this, Stark,” a sharp emphasis to each consonant. Tony gapes up at him, pulse thumping in his ears, but the words cut through like knives. “You’ve sacrificed a valuable asset in exchange for your insistence on subverting protocol. This destruction is due to your compromised technology!” He jabs a finger at the glass window. “It’s your hubris, your incredible narcissism that’s done this. If he dies, it’ll be on your—”
Clint slams into the general so hard he smacks into the window frame, that stabbing finger sweeping wide. Someone shouts; a chair clatters over. Clint jams a knee between Van Horn’s thighs, pushing his legs wide, and shoves one forearm roughly enough into the general’s throat to make him gag.
“Don’t say another fucking word,” Clint snarls, “or so help me, god, I will reach in and crush your throat from the inside!”
“Barton!” Tony has no idea who yells it. He can’t process, can’t— His heart thuds, cinching off his breath, and his muscles spasm too late, forcing a ragged gasp. Someone pushes past him, almost knocks him over. Coulson, it’s— and Hill, Natasha, because her hand is no longer on his shoulder. The general’s words batter through Tony’s head.
Coulson gets his arms around Clint and hauls him off with a monumental effort. The skin around Coulson’s knuckles, the dirtied flesh of his forearms, is white with strain.
Clint’s frame is so taut he’s shaking.
The general coughs, a frenzied hacking that yanks away all the control in the uniform. “You have,” he manages with a hand to his throat, “some very dangerous people here, Fury.”
Clint lunges forward again so fast Coulson gets dragged before he can pull him up. “You’re damn right he does!”
The general sways back out of reach, but despite Coulson, Clint takes an aborted swing, a jerk of one shoulder as if he’s throwing himself around in a circle. “There was nothing he could do! You sit in your comfortable chair and make fucking judgments when you have no idea—”
As Tony watches, Coulson’s grip on Clint changes, the arm around Clint’s hips hitching tight and his other palm spreading flat from its fist, pressing right in the center of Clint’s chest. Clint’s next breath comes on an audible judder; his whole frame gives an odd shiver.
The words die, leaving Clint openmouthed in staring silence. One of his hands climbs up, hovers just over Coulson’s in the center of his chest, and drops away.
In the room, the sound of the monitors changes.
Oh… god, Tony knows that sound, intimately.
“Out!” Fury yells. “Everyone not an Avenger, get out of this room!”
Amazingly, no one puts up a fight. Even Van Horn retreats. Tony jerks to his feet and stumbles to the window. He barely catches himself on the sill.
The room is in absolute tumult, a nurse now straddling Steve’s chest on the bed and compressing his heart, another priming a crash cart, others shoving things out of their way, clearing space around the bed. Steve’s face, caught in flashes between rushing bodies, is gray and so very still, should never be that still, it’s different from sleeping, from being unconscious, Tony can see every tiny detail as if he’s right next to the bed, and he can’t breathe, he can’t fucking breathe.
Natasha’s hand slides over his shoulder again, but the weight of it frightens him, as if it’s more to hold her up than to support him. She utters one aborted sound and silences. The machines’ wailing reaches fever pitch and sinks into a long, ominous whine.
He can’t take this, he can’t do it. Tony pushes upright and collapses down again; his entire body feels like it’s been slammed with a wrecking ball, and he cannot watch this.
He wrenches both hands through his hair so hard his scalp burns. He can’t look away.
“Steve, no,” he rasps. Natasha’s nails dig into his flesh through his shirt.
The doctor yells clear and Steve’s body jumps under the paddles. Beside him, Clint shifts convulsively, half turning from the window, arms wrapped tight around his front. Again, clear, again, the jump, like something in Steve is heaving and alive, trying to get out of him. Tony sags down, squeezes his eyes shut and forces them open again. Natasha presses him against the wall to keep him up. To keep her up? The hand Tony has clamped over his own mouth aches from the bite of his teeth.
That whine blips unevenly, again, again—
And settles into a steady electronic cadence. The medical staff pull back slowly, as if uncertain whether it’s real. The blip remains, a fragile, too-slow rhythm.
“God,” someone breathes.
Again, movement. But this time it’s fixated, orderly: machines reattached, vitals taken, orders given. A nurse dumps another load of saturated gauze onto the floor with the rest. Tony’s heart still slams into his ribs, so hard he feels swollen, as if it’s making up for Steve’s momentary lack of heartbeat. He realizes he’s clenching his jaw and tries to relax but his muscles refuse to obey. His shoulders hurt, and he can’t figure out why until Natasha suddenly releases her grip on him and steps back. Her hands linger like feathers floating over his arms.
Finally the doctors fall silent, finally the nurses step away from the immediate edge of the bed. One of them pulls out a new stack of gauze squares and leans over, swabbing more blood away. A doctor peers down at Steve’s side, inspecting the worst of the wounds.
In the midst of orders about scans, x-rays, Thor exits the hospital room. He meets Tony’s eyes and immediately looks away.
The nurses bring in high-tech scanning devices, machines Tony helped invent. They raise the magnetic partition over the window for long enough to take and read an x-ray and then lower it again. When it comes down, the mess on the floor has been cleaned up, blankets replaced, things put to rights. One of the doctors comes out and speaks in a low voice to Fury, stating that Steve is stable for the time being. Fury stops him halfway through a sentence and gestures Tony over, looking horribly tired.
For an appalling second, Tony is certain he cannot have this conversation. His mind will barely wrap itself around Steve there in that room, his uniform pulled off of his body and discarded over a chair.
“Yeah.” He forces his attention forward and it is a struggle. He feels like he’s missing every other word, and he can feel Natasha’s silent presence behind him, Fury to his right. God, he needs Pepper here, he needs—
“…may be his best option. In the past, he hasn’t responded well to sedatives, but he’s still under from the injuries themselves. If we make it quick, we can be in and out before he regains consciousness.”
Tony stares for far too long, then shoves his fingers hard against his forehead and presses until it hurts. “Wait. Are you saying— He’ll wake up. On the table.”
“It’s a distinct possibility. There is also the possibility that…” The doctor looks around at the rest of them. “You need to be prepared for a worst case scenario here.”
At least his voice is gentle. Not that Tony can summon anything other than a blank sort of horror. He wonders how long he’ll stay in shock and, when he finally exits, how catastrophic the fallout will be.
“At the moment, he’s stable, but he’s bleeding internally and we can’t stop it from here. He has broken ribs and damage to several major organs. There is no way to know how far-reaching the effects of the serum are. To our knowledge, he’s never had injuries this extensive. If we do nothing, he may heal himself. Or he may not. In any case—”
“Do it,” Tony says, and it’s as if the room takes a breath. He’s going to be selfish; he cannot stand here and wait. “Just— Damn it, do it.”
The doctor nods, glances once at Fury, and goes back into the room. They toe the brakes off at the bottom of Steve’s bed and wheel him out of the room through the other door.
In the end, Tony doesn’t know how long it takes before he realizes the room around him has emptied. Clint is gone, though Tony swears he was only just standing there. Coulson’s missing, though he might have… might have left when Fury cleared the room. Thor is gone, too. Tony rubs his face, stares through the window at the now-vacant hospital room and has a hard time extrapolating from what he’s seeing. Just that Steve’s not there anymore.
The fact terrifies, a jolt in his chest not unlike the click when the arc reactor disconnects. He starts to rise from the windowsill, already calculating routes, determined to follow wherever they wheeled that bed, to find it and not let it out of his sight again, what the hell was he thinking, letting it go like that?
Natasha, as quiet as ever. He turns his head and stares at her, uncomprehending. She wets her lips. For the first time ever, he sees her eyes dart nervously. “Need to talk to Fury,” she says gently. “Figure out what happened out there.”
“You know what happened out there.” His own voice sounds old, dried out. Her eyes skirt his face this time and he wonders what she sees.
“I don’t think any of us know what happened,” she whispers at last. Tony turns back slowly, looks into the room, still devoid of life.
Whatever the case, he doesn’t… doesn’t deserve to be where Steve is.
He put Steve there.
Tony wipes his face and pushes up, almost falls over when his head swims. Natasha steadies him. “Come on,” she murmurs. “Just for a little while. It’ll be better than sitting here waiting.”
He hovers there, and she half reaches. Lets her hand drop.
“There’s nothing we can do out here.”
He allows her to lead him from the bay without another word.
Fury has commandeered the closest break room. Space is tight, crammed with chairs around a low wooden table. Hill is there, already set up with her recording software. Thor sits rigid on the side closest to Fury, his expression marred by a deep frown. He’s not really focused on anything, as far as Tony can tell.
Bruce is there, too, looking the worse for wear in jeans and a half-buttoned Oxford. He clearly knows Steve’s condition in that he doesn’t search for him among them when they all file in: Clint, walking like his body is about to tumble right off his legs; Coulson, arms and face now clean from a cursory wash but clothing still covered in cement dust. Natasha, guiding Tony in without quite touching him.
Van Horn stands at the far end of the table, glaring stonily at Tony the instant he enters the room. And there is someone else, an older woman Tony recognizes from the WSC files he hacked into ages back.
He wonders briefly where Rhodey is.
“Let’s make this quick,” Fury says.
Clint starts out, recounting in a dull, mechanical drone what he saw from the top of the building. It’s all stuff Tony remembers, things he witnessed from high up in the air, but Clint, as bedraggled as he is, still has the sense to pare it down, to not give anything extra away for their visitors. Every so often, Coulson cuts in with an addition from SHIELD’s position, and Thor speaks in clipped sentences when asked directly what his situation was. When Clint reaches the part where the roof blew, Natasha takes over with smooth professionalism, turning the following events into bullet points of detail.
Tony finds he can’t even lift his eyes anymore. Can’t look at any of them, especially not Thor. Only Bruce.
But Bruce’s face gets whiter and whiter as the debriefing proceeds. When Natasha relays the Hulk’s arrival at the very end, Bruce shoots Tony a look so completely unraveled that Tony has to avert his gaze.
He can feel it building in the corners of the room, the way Hill’s eyes slide to him again and again, the way Van Horn is scowling at him. The stiffness in Thor’s voice and the subdued nature of Coulson’s.
He can hear it every time they hitch over his name, the dam waiting to break.
“I want proof of this hack,” Van Horn cuts in at last. Hill tries to answer, but the general waves her aside and directs it at Fury. “Your team made a hash of this and now you’re hiding behind a remote systems infiltration? It’s clear that the one weak link here is the same one responsible for the entire debacle, no matter how you slice it.”
Fury turns to Van Horn slowly, looking for all the world like a snake swiveling on its prey. Beside Tony, Natasha’s expression has gone very flat.
“What is clear,” the woman from the WSC says, the first thing out of her mouth since Tony entered the room, “is that you do not have the control over your team that you profess to have, Director Fury.”
“He doesn’t have control over Stark,” Van Horn snaps. “No one does, least of all Stark himself.”
Tony’s having a hard time concentrating. His thoughts are filling again with Steve, the last image he had of him, bloodied and tubed and so very still. The look on Thor’s face when he— What if something’s happened and he’s sitting here, nowhere near Steve? He shouldn’t be here. What if Steve—
“—not responsible for the actions of Justin Hammer,” Fury grates, glaring hard enough at the general to burn through him. “Are you forgetting about that explosive? Without Stark, we would have wasted time we didn’t have, trying to figure out how to effectively disable those drones!”
“And yet he clearly endangers everything just by his presence,” Van Horn snaps. “Even your most powerful member has expressed his distaste with Stark’s influence!”
Thor jackknifes up from his chair, slamming his fist so hard into the tabletop that the surface splinters. “That is not what I said!”
“But haven’t you indicated as much?” The Council woman’s hands are steepled in front of her, her gaze intent upon Thor. “I have viewed the transcripts of a couple conversations you’ve had with the director, Mr. Odinson. Your discomfort with the Iron Man technology is very clear. And your frustration during this battle in particular even more so.”
Thor visibly shakes. “How do you expect me to react? Our brother in arms was pitted against a force he could not counter alone and I was unable to prevent his injuries!”
Van Horn nods. “If you would provide a public statement to that effect—”
“And give you just what you need to skin Stark for the media?” Clint breaks in. His hands are so tight around the edge of the table they are bloodless. He looks like he could shoot holes straight through the general’s head. “Try it. Try it.”
The Council woman raises her hand dismissively. “I have no intention of throwing Mr. Stark to the media. In fact, a public statement of any kind would be ill-advised.”
“So instead you’ll hide it all.” That from Natasha, a wholly different iciness than Clint’s. The woman fixes her with a superior stare, but before she can open her mouth—
“The public already knows,” Fury says tightly. “Now it’s a question of what they think they know. In an hour or two, you will not want to hear what that is. As unsavory a prospect as it is, a formal acknowledgement of some kind will be necessary.”
He looks almost pleadingly at Thor— if Fury can ever actually look pleading— and the room goes silent.
“I will provide one of these ‘statements,’” Thor says at last, low and dangerous. “But it will be in my words, not yours!” He jabs a finger at Van Horn’s face.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” Hill leans over the table, somehow just as intimidating as Thor. “If anyone’s words get twisted, I will release the recording of what happened downtown today. You will lose every single credential you possess.”
There is a long moment of silence.
“That won’t be necessary,” Van Horn manages.
Fury eyes Hill with clear wariness.
“Mr. Odinson,” the Council woman begins in the exact same tone of voice as before, as if she hasn’t just been sidelined utterly. “The fact remains that you stated you had several options during the massacre. Moreover, you were aware of all of them. Including the option of removing the main threat.”
“You speak of things of which you have no knowledge!” Thor snarls. “You have clearly never been in battle, had to make a choice between the life and death of comrades!” His hands clench into fists and he stares down at them, suddenly ashen. “He was not breathing. He was still in my arms.”
Tony, still reeling from the use of the word ‘massacre’, jerks and stares at Thor. Steve wasn’t—
Natasha inhales, too swift. And Thor… Thor is resolutely not meeting his eyes.
“I’m sorry.” Tony shoves out of his chair. Doesn’t look at anyone else. Everything’s blurry. “I can’t—”
He makes it out of the room, down the hallway. To their credit, no one follows.
When he reaches the bay again, he finds a nurse and she redirects him to a ward further in the bowels of SHIELD, where he can sit and wait.
Pepper has texted him thirteen times. Tony, where are you? and What’s happening? and Is Steve alright? and Please, Tony, please be alive, please answer me. Finally, TONY WAHT IS HAPPENIGN, and it’s the misspelling that galvanizes his hands.
I’m alright, Pep, I swear. Steve’s in surgery.
After a minute that feels much longer, Pepper replies. Please call me. Soon. And that’s it.
Tony shuts off his phone.
The new room is down a quiet hall, Steve’s bed smack in the middle between two windows with the shades drawn. The dimness is broken by the glow of each machine, bathing the bed in unnatural light. Steve looks small and shattered there in the midst of it.
It’s not peaceful. Not at all like television shows proclaim.
Steve’s mouth is open oddly around the cannula, his tongue swollen and visible between his lips. His chest and shoulders shift upward with each forced breath and collapse back, an unnatural jerkiness. There is trace blood in the IV tube where it exits his inner arm, and blue bruising around the puncture site. Though his skin has been cleaned, his hair is still matted and there is dirt along the line of his scalp.
There are lines in Steve’s face that have never been there before, an age that staggers.
Tony draws a chair from the outer edges of the room, wincing at the scrape of its legs over the floor, and sits down at Steve’s side. He leans in, tracking Steve’s eyelids for fluttering. Dreams, something. Anything.
The smell is quick to hit: blood, antiseptic, peculiarly stale. Scents Tony has come to associate with death in some form. It’s an overwhelming combination at the best of times, but it’s not that the smell is wrong.
It’s that the smell is right.
Underneath the blood, the sickness and the staleness, is Steve. The weakest tint of warmth and sleep, his skin just as he wakes. It’s there, warped, spliced with the presence of death.
Tony fumbles in the direction that he saw the trash can. For an eternity, he thinks he’s going to throw up again, heave and heave until he dies from lack of oxygen. When nothing comes up, he straightens, gingerly and aching, keeping his grip on the rim of the can. At last he feels like he can manage it again, and returns his eyes to Steve’s face.
But every breath into his lungs is a reminder.
Seven hours and thirty nine minutes have passed since he arrived when a nurse comes in and quietly hands him a set of scrubs. It’s as if the very air clogs at Tony’s throat, stuffs his lungs too full to function. And the way the nurse is looking at him— He tries to get up, to put some space between them, but he can’t seem to work his legs. His whole body is sore from the battle and stiffened up, melded in the shape of the chair, and he can feel the leftovers of his own sweat tight across his face. Steve has not moved once on his own. His fingers twitch in time to the hum-click of the blood pressure cuff when it tightens, and the incessant beeping of the machines will not let Tony rest. It keeps galvanizing his mind back to images he does not want.
He finally stands successfully and walks away from the nurse without a word. He should be doing something. Not sitting here looking over his handiwork; he should be fixing the problem, making it so nothing like this ever happens again, to anyone, and certainly never to Steve.
The idea swans in, that it won’t matter because Steve’s never walking out of here, and he slams it down. Slams his hand down so hard against the edge of the door that his fingers throb.
Fuck, he is not going there. He refuses.
He shakes Bruce awake in the hallway, watches him jump in his chair, legs splaying out to catch himself, and regrets his vehemence for a second.
“Going home. I can’t—”
He leaves it, but Bruce nods like he heard him anyway. He gets this look in his eyes, and abruptly Tony hates him for not having to remember any of it.
He steps back, clenching both hands at his sides, and clears his throat. “Back later.”
He makes his way up a level, around a couple corners in the direction of Fury’s office, both hoping he’s there and praying he’s not. He wants this over with, make it short, and fuck Fury if he objects because Tony cannot stay here, he can’t—
His feet stop entirely, and then quicken pace all on their own, guiding him toward an office with a door ajar, he doesn’t know whose, but Steve’s voice is coming from there, strong and decisive.
Agitated. Tony stops short in the doorway.
Hill is transcribing, her fingers a blustery clatter on the keyboard.
The recording is somehow even worse than having lived it, making real all over again things that had pushed past some safety boundary in Tony’s mind: his own voice rising into frenzy so fast, Steve’s… Steve answering. The destructive soundtrack of their fight. And other things Tony hadn’t been aware of then: Thor’s battle roars and the screech of rending metal, weapons fire. The strange hitching of Natasha’s breathing as Tony and Steve’s bout descends out of control.
Coulson, leading a dig through mountains of glass and mortar.
Hill looks up and her eyes widen. “Stark.”
Tony can’t help it. He presses his hands over his ears, and Hill manages to shut the feed off.
“I’m.” She doesn’t finish.
Tony clears his throat. “Anything about the hack?”
Hill’s shoulders straighten a little. “Feedback through your comm. It’s a low level frequency not matched to anything in the vicinity. A/V has it isolated; they’re tracking its source.”
Tony nods. His throat is so damn dry. He nods again. “Well. Thank you.”
It’s the first time Hill has ever used his first name, and she looks uncomfortable having said it. She also looks him in the eye. “I’m sorry. About what happened.”
Tony is the one who has to look away. He sniffs, studies the wall. “Not your fault.”
If he can’t miss the emphasis on the second word, she can’t either. She starts to speak, but Tony gets back through the door before he hears whatever she’s going to say.
He has pressed the button for the elevator when his phone buzzes.
Not your fault either.
Tony shoves the phone back into his pocket.
He calls Happy from a corner of the ambulance bay and leans against the wall with his eyes closed until the car arrives.
It’s the most unassuming Beamer he owns, which isn’t saying much, but the gesture sends waves of gratitude through him. Happy takes him all the way home in silence, though Tony can sense his eyes on him up until the moment he jabs the button and raises the partition between them. His lips feel numb and bloodless under the pressure of his hand. He stares out the window without seeing any of it, and then when he does see, it’s people, people walking down the sidewalk in the dark, tapping at phones one handed or shuffling in boots through snow. Gesturing, calling out, pointing at the high tops of buildings. They’re on the outskirts of the battleground— the city is still basically in one piece here— and these people, they have some sort of normality, and only the slightest fucking idea.
No fucking idea.
The entrance ramps to the tower garage are flooded with people who have an idea. Nausea rolls over Tony again. He feels hunted, and deserving of it. Happy doesn’t even pause, just honks the horn and drives on through. Tony can hear the muted thump of hands on the car’s roof— not the limo this time, thank god, but still they know, they know he’s in here, or someone is. Voices come at him as through mouths stuffed with cotton. Tony presses his fingers over his eyes and holds his breath until the car is safely inside, the gates closed behind.
Happy doesn’t try to engage him, just stands there by the open door with hands clasped together too tightly in front of him. Tony strides to the elevator and punches the button, still wincing at the echo of his steps in the vast garage.
“Boss?” Happy ventures just as the door opens. Tony waves behind him without looking back.
He heads to the lab first, already filtering, prodding at the engines of his thought process and stirring them into motion, but the moment he steps through the sliding door, it rushes out of him like someone has shot him full of holes. He wobbles on the threshold, staring around at a place that…
God, he was here this morning. Steve was here.
“JARVIS,” he croaks.
“Welcome home, sir.” JARVIS sounds subdued, as if to speak too loudly would be to crack Tony in half. A whir sounds from further in and Dummy rolls cautiously out of the back, his whole frame hunched. His camera fixes itself on Tony and remains there as he slows to a stop. Across the room, Butterfingers has lifted his trunk in their direction.
It occurs to Tony what a mess he still is. His skin feels tight and sore, his body bruised. He hasn’t washed or changed clothing, or even thought about it.
He turns quickly away from his bots and heads for the main computer terminals. “Give me the report on the Mark VII. Everything that happened.”
Hesitation from JARVIS, clear as a bell. “Sir, is that—”
“Just do it, JARVIS.”
The main interactive panel hums to life, lighting up blue and silver. Numbers begin to project themselves in steady streams: codes, strings of information rattling themselves off. Images of the suit itself come soaring to life. A replica of the Mark VII in all its un-smashed glory turns slowly a few inches above the panel.
Tony feels pain and finds he’s chewing his lower lip up. He stares at the small scale model as it rotates, the data streaming around it, the pristine contours of the suit and the emotionless detail of exactly what went wrong, one thing after another. Watches as the suit dismantles itself by way of red traveling over the circuitry, joints, gauntlets, repulsors and paneling like a spreading plague. Cataloguing with unfeeling precision the battle Tony lived and breathed and forced himself through.
That’s rage, so sudden and harrowing he can taste it like blood down the back of his throat.
Tony reaches out almost without intention. Picks up the nearest long metal object and raises it high. Brings it down hard. The tabletop interface shatters, cracks spidering out. Tony smashes it again. A third time. A fourth, until pieces of the table drop to the floor in splinters.
He grips the tool— a pry bar of some kind— and crosses the lab, punches buttons until the wall containing all the suits hisses open. Red and silver and gold, burnished and shiny, all in a row. Some nothing more than remnant parts salvaged from wreckage.
“Sir,” JARVIS says tentatively, and then nothing more.
Tony stares long and hard at the suits, squeezing the bar in his fist.
“Wipe them,” he says.
“JARVIS, wipe the suits.” All he can see is the tick-tick-tick of that little glitch. “Memory banks. All of it, get rid of it.”
There’s nothing to see as it happens but something inside him can feel it rapidly erasing, years of effort and backbreaking labor vanishing into nothing. Tony lets the pry bar go and sinks to his knees on the floor in its wake, pressing his hands over his face. Seconds later, he’s stumbling up again, righting himself on his way out the door.
Bruce’s lab is silent and dark. The whole tower feels as cavernous as a ghost house. Tony takes the elevator up to his floor and doesn’t remember the ride, or the walk down the hall, the opening of the door. He’s suddenly in his bedroom, in the silence and stillness.
Steve’s shoes are in the corner, one lined up neatly, the other knocked on its side. Socks in pairs atop the dresser, some of his, some of Steve’s, and Tony’s jeans tossed across the end of the bed, so blue they’re almost black. Someone’s tie is crumpled on the floor, another tie slung up over the bathroom door. On the arm of the recliner is the wine red t-shirt Steve shimmied him out of last night, so close their stomachs heaved against each other, before he picked Tony up and settled him firmly against the wall, hitched Tony’s thighs around his waist. Steve is the only one Tony’s ever been with who can actually manage wall sex, his hands fixed tight around hips and curved under thighs, he’s so damn strong—
Tony shuts it down so fast he sways. He goes to the bathroom, scours himself fiercely and swiftly in the shower until every bit of filth is off of him, then gets out, finds a towel. Dries off. Looks at himself at last in the barely fogged mirror.
He looks like a toy someone yanked at with unforgiving fingers until everything is loose and broken. He can feel stiffness he can’t see, bruises under the surface, but the sallow tint of his skin is somehow worse, the stretched edges and the hollowness they’re trying to cover.
What is he doing here? How could he just… leave?
Tony nearly drops his razor trying to get hold of it, then changes his mind and leaves the bathroom. He gets clothing instead, pulls it on and brushes his teeth, his hair. He goes back and shaves. He finds an old jacket in the closet, smelling musty from not being worn, and shrugs into it. Packs a bag and doesn’t look at whatever shirts and pants he throws in just as long as it’s full. He retrieves his toiletries, thinks about cologne in one instant and lets it go the next.
On the far bedside table, the one closest to the closet, a book of human form and anatomy sticks out from under a paperback copy of The Climb. There are two pencils, a shaver, a packet of the same blue post-it arrow flags that litter the edge of the anatomy book, and a silver scattering of change. A half-full water bottle. Steve’s cell phone, its screen dark.
Tony sits down on the mattress to pull on his socks, and something firm under Steve’s pillow jabs him in the thigh. He reaches down and pulls it out, turns it right side up.
It’s a sketchbook. One of Steve’s newer ones, with a hard cover and double spiral binding. For a moment Tony holds it, feels its weight in his hands. Presses it between his palms.
He opens it with a sigh of relief as Steve’s familiar pencil strokes leap out at him, flow across paper and peter out like fog blurring the edges of each drawing. He pages through, feeling himself grow calmer with each picture: Bruce in his lab, one of Natasha’s hands with a glove clutched in it, a still life of the peaches in the fruit bowl downstairs last week, a stack of books with the titles blurred. Bare limbs one after another like a checklist, an arm, a bent leg, a delicately arched foot, a nondescript head with lines still visible where the mouth, nose and eyes should go. The slope of a man’s throat and the heady awareness in a pair of eyes.
They’re his eyes, a fact Tony only comes to late, but then he’s turned the page and then, then.
It’s him, on his side and tucked into his pillow like it’s been moulded around him. One hand curls up beneath it, the other rests loose-fisted against the mattress. His hair is a lopsided tangle splayed up over the pillow and down across his brow, and there is the faintest of smiles on his mouth. His eyelashes are soot-deep, drawn as lushly as the hair atop his head, and the sheet falls over his body in smooth folds, tucking tight beneath him, hidden by the position of his uppermost arm.
He sleeps like a child across this page, scattered lines and blended shadows, and there in the corner, Steve’s thumbprint slightly misshapen in black charcoal.
Tony loses his grip on the book, barely catches it. Cries.
“The number of casualties continues to rise in the aftermath of yesterday’s tragedy, an unprovoked attack by Iron Man, the crime-fighting persona of renowned billionaire Tony Stark. The government entities involved have not made a statement on any front and are currently…”
It’s a mistake to look at all. But there are times when Tony’s not exactly street-smart.
“…informed that Steven Rogers, beloved internationally as Captain America, is in critical condition in an unnamed medical facility,” from Reuters. “Stark has made himself unavailable for comment, but his detractors hold that he is solely responsible for the attack that devastated Lower Manhattan and the East Village. Though connected with the robotic drones that contributed to the demolition of the downtown area, Justin Hammer, owner and CEO of Hammer Industries, has not come forward to deny or claim responsibility for the destruction. Officials have speculated that the long time duel between Hammer Industries and Stark Industries is to blame for yet more destruction visited upon New York.”
The Associated Press is a tiny bit more forgiving. “A candlelight vigil has been proposed by online fans, but an equal number of people have responded in a less supportive manner, demanding Tony Stark explain and take responsibility for his actions.”
Fox News, less. “New York City cannot weather destruction on such a massive scale not even two years after the previous attack. We must ask the question: are these so-called superheroes more dangerous than they are helpful? Do they in fact put us all at even greater risk?”
And then Tony finds the general public commentary and shuts off his phone.
He wakes, and his upper back hurts like a motherfucker. He drags his head off of Steve’s mattress where it has been pressed against Steve’s side, and the room is quiet, but he’s no longer alone.
Clint straddles a chair on the same side of the bed, arms folded over the back of it. He’s cleaned up, a bandage around his upper arm, all the bloodied cuts reduced to reddened blemishes. He has stitches just above his left eye. He’s dressed in a SHIELD-issue tee and pants that look absurdly out of place next to his wounds.
Tony blinks at him mutely, and Clint sighs.
“Thor didn’t mean what he said,” he says quietly. “Any of… of it.”
Tony clears his throat. Rubs his face. “How did you survive?” he croaks, and Clint smiles very faintly.
“Grappling arrow. Caught the next building on my way down. Worked fine, just so you know.”
Tony nods. “Good thing something did.”
Clint looks abruptly haggard again. “Tony. Don’t.”
Tony stares at Steve, pale skin, mechanical breath, bandages wrapped wide around his torso. He thinks of surgery and serum and— and sticking that rebar—
Can’t say it, holy fuck, can’t even think it. He’s damn well going to give it his best shot anyway. “I ki—”
“No, he’s alive.” There’s anger in Clint’s tone, and none of it for Tony, and maybe it’s frustration and helplessness instead.
For a few seconds, all Tony can hear is the rapidity of Clint’s breathing over the slow huff and sigh of Steve’s.
“He’s Steve,” Clint says. “He’ll handle it.” But there is a break in his voice, ‘handle’. Tony feels Clint jerk beside him and wonders why, but he can’t— see, can’t breathe again, not even to feed the seizing that has started up in his lungs. It razors his throat, sharp as icicles, and he sees gold tipping on fine, fine hairs.
He drops forward, only caught by arms that feel too tight, too lean, too wrong. It’s not Steve, and it’s wrong.
On the television, Pepper is under fire, standing tall amidst the surging mass in the foyer of Stark Industries. She is flanked by assistants, Happy a little ways behind her, and together they create a barrier the reporters clamor against but do not cross. Pepper fields question after question at rapid-fire pace, every third one drowned in the tumult that followed the previous one. Tony watches, head craned up at the TV high on the wall.
He doesn’t hear the specific inquiry— every voice is another murmur of words he can’t acknowledge— until Pepper spins on the man, her expression so enraged that the other reporters startle.
“How dare you ask me that? How dare you even pose such a question?” Pepper’s voice is an inferno and a tremble at the same instant, the edges of her lips white even through her lipstick. The hand in view curls like a claw at her side as everyone falls silent. She points off-camera. “Get out. Get out of here.”
She doesn’t wait, though, just strides down the steps past the reporter, the others scrambling out of her way. Happy rushes to open the door, and it is only when she and her entourage are gone that the room erupts into noise again.
Tony turns it off. He slumps over his knees and massages his face hard, trying to wake himself up.
At one point, Pepper was here, not waiting for his call but coming instead. He has no idea who let her in— Coulson, maybe— but when he walked into the room, she spun around, breath hitching, and stared at him from the darkness beside Steve’s bed. She never stands too close to Steve, and even here, there was space between them. Her face was a mess, she wasn’t even trying to hide it, and she said Tony’s name, choked it right out.
The last time he held her like that was last year, when they were still together. The familiar way she fit to him spread a fierce warmth through his bones, sweeping and unexpected, and Tony pressed her as close as he could.
He should be out there in Pepper’s place, not asking her through inaction to defend him, to stand up against all of that vitriol. He’s heard what they’re saying, back and forth, up and down. The steel backbone he’s always had in the face of public opinion has crumbled to dust; his mind just goes horribly blank, an icy tundra of nothingness in the face of their accusations couched as questions.
He’s so far behind their steamrolling that he has no chance of catching up, even if he knew what to say.
The truth is, he can’t defend against what they’re saying when he agrees with them.
He doesn’t realize Thor is there until his teammate moves away from the door frame and comes into the room. He takes the seat on the other side of Steve’s bed. Tony stares hard at Steve’s hand where it rests against the sheets, far too aware of his own breathing.
But Thor doesn’t say a word. He simply sits. At one point, he looks up toward the now-silent television— Tony can’t keep from paying attention to Thor in some fashion, even now. Even if it’s just out of the corner of his eye. Thor’s brow bends into a furrow.
“How is our friend?” he finally asks, and Tony pulls himself upright in the chair.
“Healing.” It should be a relief to say aloud. The truth of it is much less impressive: the scans and x-rays show enough of an attempt at self-repair to warn the doctors away from more invasive surgery, but not nearly enough to instill any kind of confidence in their voices. And Tony can hear it. It’s all he can hear.
Thor just looks troubled. “They say he has weathered the procedure well.”
Two hours of surgery. Tony shakes his head. Steve’s still in this damnable limbo, when going in and rooting around in his body might have just messed everything up even further. He leans back over, rubs his face with both hands. He’s been doing that a lot lately. What if Steve heals, but heals incorrectly? Will his body correct itself? Or will it be like a bone improperly set, a wound reopened so often the skin riddles itself with ruts?
Steve’s still not breathing on his own.
“Why didn’t you just kill me?”
Thor remains quiet for a long time, staring down at his hands. “I admit I considered it,” he says at last. His voice is empty of all emotion. Then he opens so swiftly in face and body that Tony startles. “The Captain would never have made that trade,” Thor says. “Had he woken after and discovered I had…”
Silence falls again, save for Steve’s breathing.
“Truly, I do not know that I could have done it,” Thor murmurs. Tony’s not sure if his teammate is even talking to him anymore.
It seems right, necessary, to say that Thor should have, that it would have been better, that— any number of things. But they take too much energy and Tony’s so, so tired of calling attention to himself. And Thor’s anger, as much as Tony might deserve it, is something he desperately does not want. But it’s more than that, it’s Thor’s revulsion that hurts. It’s the loss of his regard that is carving up the parts of Tony somehow left un-shredded.
“I do not blame your technology.”
Tony doesn’t look at him. He looks at Steve, who cannot look back. “You’d be right to blame it. I do.” He sounds like someone has stomped all over his throat with football cleats on.
Thor sighs softly. “That is not the truth of it. Your technology— To me, it is as my magic is to you. I am still… cautious.”
Tony finds himself shaking his head. The movement is the opposite of soothing.
“But you accomplish unbelievable feats with it, Tony Stark. You wield it as our völur wield their gifts, with knowledge and deftness, and true understanding of its incredible power. I know in my heart that you are not to blame for what has occurred.”
“I created it, Thor. Without me, this wouldn’t have happened. Who else is there?”
Thor’s frown is heavy and tinged with sadness as it lands once more on Steve. He reaches and smoothes the blankets over Steve’s chest. “I do not know.” He fixes Tony with a sharp gaze. “Yet.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Tony whispers at last. It doesn’t feel taboo. It’s just a dead thing in this room, too real to be anything but weighty. Regardless of what they find, Steve will be here, on an edge he shouldn’t be.
“My friend.” Thor sounds tired in a way he should never sound. “We will get him back.”
Not We will find the truth of it or We will avenge this wrong done to our friend. Thor, as always, drives straight to the heart, latches on to what absolutely must be spoken aloud and discards the rest.
Five days pass, and Natasha does not appear once.
He could touch Steve’s hands forever.
They’re fine-boned, in spite of everything. It’s not something people notice. They see muscle, height and heft, and they assume thickness as well. Tony knows he did, until those hands touched him, until fingers brushed his face and thumb hooked under his chin, and he reached up to grab hold, still that movement before it… told him things about himself.
He holds Steve’s hand in his now and feels like he never stopped holding on, not from that first moment.
There’s warmth. Steve’s skin is pale peach, the golden tone lost to his injuries, but the blood moves beneath flesh. Tony saw the tick of Steve’s pulse at his wrist when he turned it once to the light. Felt it when he laid his lips against it. But Steve’s fingers do not curl around his, Steve’s hand does not move from where it has shifted, fingers fitting between Tony’s forefinger and thumb, palm resting to palm, thumb settled motionless against the heel of Tony’s hand. Tony adjusts his hold again, needing a clutch he will not get.
His mind is so still, lodged in that fight, in single instances of it like photos in his head. Steve standing out in red and blue against the snow. Steve’s blood.
“What happened to that super soldier serum?” he says and then hates himself furiously for his jokes, his need to distance, his everything. Steve’s form on the bed blurs and Tony wipes his eyes. “I’m sorry, I’m so, so—”
It’s been like this: once he starts, he has a hard time stopping. He makes a monumental effort, draws a noisy breath and focuses on Steve’s hand in his. Runs the tips of his fingers over the back of Steve’s hand, traces the miniscule hatch of lines there, the tiny hairs. The shadow of the vein up the middle. Each of Steve’s knuckles, one by one, peaks and troughs, and eventually he just covers over it all and squeezes.
“Wake up, Steve. Wake up.”
Steve breathes as steadily as if he’s still on the ventilator. His eyes remain closed.
According to the x-rays, Steve is healing. His ribs are knitting faster than even the healthiest human’s. His organs are repairing themselves, though more slowly. His body is putting itself back together.
And that’s all.
“His brainwaves haven’t changed.” The SHIELD surgeon looks worn out and on the verge of crushing defeat. “With his enhanced physiology, he should be showing some signs of waking, however small.” He draws a bracing breath and doesn’t quite look Tony in the eye. “It is possible our intervention… tangled things up. Naturally there’s no precedent for this situation. At this rate, he’ll be physically sound in a day or two, and then hopefully we’ll see some signs of consciousness returning.”
But there’s no precedent for that either. Eventually Tony has to get out of there again. It’s especially crushing in that he swore to himself, to Steve, damn it, that he wouldn’t leave. That he couldn’t.
Apparently, he can always sink to new lows.
The idea was to talk to them, to get Pepper out from under fire at the very least. He can still help one of the people he loves, by stepping into the space he should be filling anyway. And he’s been bludgeoned by the media before. This will be no different.
“What the hell makes you think you have any right to stand up here in front of us? In front of New York?”
God, but his least favorite thing in the world is being wrong. About something big.
There aren’t even any questions. Just anger. Accusations that he’s— murdered Captain America, and not in the metaphorical sense. It hardly matters that Hill has taken it upon herself to act as SHIELD’s liaison; no one listens to her, not even to her statement that Steve is not dead. Tony’s throat is a burning mess; the back of his mouth tastes even more of vomit than ever. He feels like a fraud in his pressed gray suit, his trinity-knotted tie. He knows he must look like shit, but honestly, he can’t care. The pictures will be everywhere in moments anyway, are already making their speedy way through cyberspace, and when someone finally does ask after Steve’s health, asks Tony what happened up there in a tone that holds confusion rather than disgust, the man is drowned out, overridden by more shouting. Finger pointing and arguments. It’s not even the reporters anymore; there’s a cameraman glaring furiously at him, and a group of civilians in the back who have basically resorted to obscenities, despite security trying to quell them.
Tony feels so very naked. Natasha’s still missing; he didn’t even ask Bruce because, well, obviously; Thor demanded to come but was sidelined by Fury— again, for obvious reasons that Tony wishes didn’t matter right now. Coulson would have been Tony’s first choice, but he’s not here either.
Clint is the only other Avenger present, and has long since taken to yelling back. He stands in front of Tony as if trying to block him, slinging epithets like arrows.
Tony’s damned lucky, in retrospect, that no one has anything real to throw.
In the end, he breaks unexpectedly, thinking of Steve, pummeling Steve, stabbing Steve— making love to Steve. His cheeks are wet before he knows it and he shudders, almost sinks to his knees right there in front of everyone.
Hill and Clint and the rest of the SHIELD entourage get him out of there.
Pepper berates him, frustrated and broken over voicemail for going out there without her.
In the next breath, she apologizes profusely. For not somehow reading his mind and being there anyway.
But when she sends Tony links to those websites defending him— and there are a surprising number of them— it barely makes a dent in the haze that has encased him.
“God, I miss you.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“I swear I will talk at you until you open those baby blues. You know I will, I can do it. I have that stamina. I am much more stubborn in this regard, I can promise you that, because I need you, I need you more than you need sleep, I need to hear your voice, Steve—” He loses it, has to pulls it all back before far too much comes spilling out of him. None of it makes a difference, all the extraneousness of it, things that don’t matter except in his head where memories are just piling up, trying to pin him down with their weight. It’s all about before, when Steve didn’t look like this, before any of this happened, and now it is all drowning in plain, excruciating sadness, and if Tony could have just seen it coming, if he could just go back and erase all of what happened after— But no. No. Just this, here, right now. “I have nothing going on, Steve. Nothing but you. Been that way for a while now, you need to know that, I don’t think I can go back to anything else, do you hear me? I cannot go back to that, and I will wait another seventy years and I’ll talk the whole time, see if I don’t.”
Beep. Beep. Beep.
“What did I do to you that you can’t heal from it? What did I… did I break or what did I—” He leans closer, clasping Steve’s hand hard. “You cannot stay like this. Listen to me, this, what I did, it’s not strong enough to hold you. It’s not. You need to come back to me so I can tell you how much I regret—”
The word erodes and Tony bows his head quickly, releases and re-grips Steve’s hand and shudders there on the edge.
The machines beep.
Bruce leans against the door, his arms crossed, and speaks just loudly enough to be heard. “You can’t do this to yourself.”
Tony doesn’t even bother to answer, and Bruce shifts, restless. “Tony. You cannot sit here alone reinforcing this guilt in your head.”
He does look up at that. “Oh. You’re telling me not to feel guilty.”
The look in Bruce’s eyes is so very repentant that Tony turns away. “I can’t tell you what to feel here. But I do know what it’s like, to…” He gestures impotently, both hands in front of himself like he’s trying to grip onto something. “To know I’ve done something horrible and also to know I can’t do a thing to correct it. Or make up for it. Ever.”
He visibly shakes himself and looks at Tony again. “But you have to look at the facts, and you have to acknowledge that the situation is not the same. You’re a scientist, and this isn’t a vacuum. You were not in control up there.”
“I had enough control,” Tony whispers. “To do something about it, to—”
“To kill yourself,” Bruce spits like a door slamming shut. His mouth is a level furrow across his face. “No, Tony, I don’t think you even had that. Maybe given more time, but—”
“Then you all should have given me more time!” he shouts, then freezes. Looks at the bed. But Steve is as still as death. A robotic, breathing death. He tries to breathe himself, to gather what he has left. The comment was stupid— how the hell could they have been expected to give him more time?— but he can’t help the anger, and all of it is spiraling inward. His overwhelming instinct is to push it out instead.
“Tony, whoever they are, they hacked into the suit and they manipulated the situation! I have looked over the records, the footage from SHIELD and the videos coming up on YouTube. They were herding us from moment one. They manipulated us all onto a very specific path!”
“Bruce, it does not matter. He’s still this close to dying. I still nearly killed him.” How can he say these things aloud like they’re nothing? Why isn’t he falling to pieces? He can see it in his head but it’s like a sepia film, other people, another version of his team, and the pain cinches again at the thought that he’s desensitized himself somehow, pulled away and washed his hands of it already. “Oh… god.”
“Whatever you’re thinking, it’s shock, Tony. It’s a reaction. That’s all.” Bruce’s words sound dull and inconsequential under the barrage.
The door opens and Fury sticks his head in. He glances at the bed and then waves them out with a snap of his wrist. When neither of them move, he glowers at Tony until the air feels thick, and Tony has half a mind to go out there just to shut him down. It might even get physical. He has no idea anymore, but he knows he’s crammed himself up in too small a space and the walls are cracking.
There is a sudden commotion in the hallway, too loud, and Tony does get up then, strides to the door to shut it, to do something, push Fury out, close off the fucking noise, for god’s sake, can’t they see this is a—
Van Horn is there and Tony’s anger (guilt, horror, impotence) finds a more welcome outlet.
He steps through, nearly closes the door on Bruce as his teammate exits behind him. “Get the hell out.” Tony knows he sounds way too calm; there’s a frenzy boiling up, sluicing around the insides of his ribs and gaining speed with each circuit.
Van Horn glares at Tony. “I was invited.”
Clint is halfway down the hall from the other direction, murder in his eyes, and Thor is just behind him, but Fury steps between, pushing Van Horn back with one hand. The motion is not forceful, but it is firm, and Clint halts on the other side of Fury’s impromptu roadblock.
“Where is she?” Fury demands, and Clint’s brow furrows, wiping clean of anger.
Clint glances at Tony and Bruce, and Tony can only shake his head. Fury scowls in his direction anyway, as if he’s responsible, and another strained segment of Tony snaps. He throws up his hands. “How the hell should I know? She hasn’t shown her face around here!”
He’s not angry at her. He’s not. But he can’t hold onto any of it anymore, it’s all gushing out like blood.
Fury’s glare only hardens. “She requested this meeting.”
“This isn’t a fucking meeting,” Tony snarls. “This is a damned insult.”
Fury spins on Van Horn. “Did you—”
“I was given a location and an order to be here at this time,” the general snaps. “I have no idea if it came from your agent.”
“Then leave,” Tony spits. He points, an inch from jabbing the man in the chest. “You are not welcome here. If she—”
She appears, doors slamming open either side of her at the end of the hallway. People skitter out of the way like water around oil. A nurse drops her clipboard with a clatter and backs against the counter as Natasha bulls her way into the ward. At first Tony has no idea what he’s looking at, until she hauls hard with both arms, and the person in her grip stumbles upright, forward. She shoves him bodily down the hallway, the soles of his shoes scuffing on the floor. Coulson enters right behind her, dressed immaculately in a black suit. Someone protests, but Natasha strides right past without the slightest hint of acknowledgment.
“Good,” she forces out between her teeth. She’s in recon clothing, blacks and grays, tools at her hip and hair pulled neatly away from her face. “You’re all here.”
“What—” Van Horn says as, with one last shove, his aide goes spilling at his feet.
Beside Tony, Bruce takes a step back.
“I think I’ll sit this one out.” He gestures toward Steve’s door, then goes back into the hospital room, closing it gently after him. A doctor hurries toward Natasha, only to be headed off by Coulson. Natasha stoops low to the ground, grabs the general’s aide by the scruff of his neck, and shoves him down again until he doubles over on hands and knees, then yanks him back upright so hard he gasps. Smooth as rain, she drops to one knee beside him, pulling him off balance against her chest.
She turns him forcibly to face Tony, to look him in the eye. Her gloved hand clenches deep in the man’s hair.
“You used him.” Natasha’s voice is low enough, guttural enough to be a growl. “You hurt him. You answer to him.”
Tony’s gaze locks with Natasha’s. He hears the shuffle, the heavy breathing of her captive, Van Horn’s outraged exclamation, but Natasha swats the general’s hand away when he reaches out. She yanks the aide’s head sideways and presses her mouth to his ear, lips pulled well away from her teeth.
“Tell him what you told me. Now.”
For an instant, the aide looks mutinous, but the next sound is a throat clearing, and Coulson calmly levels a smile at the man’s head. It’s far more intimidating than it has any right to be.
Natasha gives the aide a shake, like a crocodile snapping the spine of a rodent.
“Hammer,” the aide breathes. Slumps.
“And?” Natasha prompts.
The aide flushes red, refuses to look anyone, especially the general, in the eye. The ward has gone completely silent. Fury clears his throat. He crosses to a door and throws it open on darkness. “Get in.”
It’s an empty patient room. Thor shoves the beds out of the way and Natasha practically throws her captive through the door. He flops onto the floor, barely catching himself as the lights flicker on. Tony walks in on numb legs, staring at the man at his feet, the perfect uniform wrinkled, hair askew. The one medal he boasted has been torn off, leaving a rip in the front of his jacket. Natasha is on him again before he can right himself, and he cries out as she twists his arm from wrist to shoulder.
“Tap out,” she hisses, “do it.”
“Okay, okay,” he bursts out, face contorted, “I was, I was working for Hammer, stop!”
Coulson comes up next to Fury. “Agent Romanoff tracked his SmartPhone as the hacker’s piggy back, using records at A/V.”
“How?” Fury asks.
“This one’s not responsible though,” Natasha says. “Neither is Hammer. You have three seconds before I break your thumbs. One, two—”
“Hammer is responsible!” the aide shouts, and then inhales raggedly. “He, I mean, he funded it, he arranged the contact and I—”
“Justin Hammer is mentally incapable of hacking my programming.” The words shoot from Tony as if launched, and Natasha gives the man’s arm another yank, making him howl.
“No, it, he’s, I don’t know who actually did it, just that Hammer’s behind the whole thing!”
Natasha releases him with a grunt and he drops forward as if melting, plasters both hands to the ground. “Sir,” he whispers, eyes lifting to Van Horn.
“Soldier.” Van Horn’s voice vibrates. “Everything you know or I’ll break your arm myself.”
The aide swallows. “I don’t know why. I just… My job was to give him the specs on the most recent Iron Man suits. Anything we had. He wanted— wanted Stark’s tech, because it was high time to take him down a peg.”
“And you gave it to him.” Van Horn sounds absolutely poisonous. Given the looks on Thor’s and Clint’s faces, however, the aide will be lucky if the general is all he gets.
“I didn’t… didn’t know what he would do with it. I didn’t know he’d…”
“Use it to try and kill us?” Natasha grabs him up again, does something that makes the man scream outright.
“Please! Please, I didn’t know, I didn’t—” In desperation, he turns to Van Horn again. “Sir, Stark was out of hand! I was only doing what you—”
“Captain Rogers was almost killed.” It should have been a roar, but Van Horn’s voice is disturbingly shaken. His face looks hollowed out. “You helped destroy the city. Americans are dead.”
His aide hangs in Natasha’s arms, wordless.
“The team has Hammer in custody, Director,” Coulson utters into the ensuing quiet. “They’re bringing him in.”
Tony should feel rejuvenation. Rage. A chance to face the man responsible for this.
He feels nothing but that same creeping fog. And Natasha watches him, the slightest tension around her eyes, like he can answer some question for her. He doesn’t have any answers.
“Romanoff.” Fury’s tone is efficient with no room for anything else. “You’re in charge of fact gathering when he gets here.”
The eerie tightness in Natasha’s body leaves no doubt as to what ‘fact gathering’ actually means. She lets go of the general’s aide like he is too disgusting to touch and gets to her feet. “My pleasure, sir.”
“In the meantime.” Fury turns on Van Horn. “You. In my office. And call your friend on the Council. I want to see the look on her—”
The door bumps open before he can finish. “Tony.” Bruce jerks a hand over his shoulder. “He’s asking for you.”
Three full seconds and— The air solidifies and Tony lunges for the door. Someone’s on his heels, he has no idea who, as he races down the hallway after Bruce.
“Just opened his eyes, I thought he was having convulsions—” Bruce catches his arm right outside the room and drags him to a halt. “Tony.”
“Yes, he’s—” Bruce shakes his head, half smiling, half disbelieving. Tony yanks free of his grip with an audible tearing of cloth and forces the door, can’t get his hand around the knob…
Bracketed by medical personnel, Steve stares at him from the bed, slumped against the pillows where Tony left him and bloodless-white. His eyes are holes in his face but— open, drugged languid. The tendons in his throat tense as he tries to lift his head and something brutal passes over his features.
“Tony,” he exhales.
Tony makes it to the bedside, pushes between nurses and locks his fingers around Steve’s outstretched hand.
He fears he’ll have to relinquish his hold on Steve to make way for the others. But not one of them presses the issue, just stepping around the bed and squeezing Steve’s free hand— in Thor’s case, enfolding it carefully in both of his own and looking Steve in the eye as he murmurs his welcome backs.
Steve’s smile goes weak with relief when he spots Clint just inside the doorway, and his eyes shut briefly as he exhales.
Through it all, Steve’s surgeon checks his vitals, talks to him, assesses his condition. He orders more scans and updates his chart in the database. He weaves in between the various Avengers as if they aren’t all in the way, which is a damn feat of both skill and saintliness.
And luckily, they are all there in the end: something strange and horrifying is happening to Tony in that he can’t look Steve in the eye.
What the fuck is the matter with him? No, he knows the damn reasons why he’s incapable, thanks, but he owes Steve this much at the very least, owes it to him to face what happened and whatever Steve thinks of it. And he physically cannot. It’s humiliating and gut-twisting and endless. He hates it, as vociferously as he hated that instant in Afghanistan when he first saw his own weaponry, when he realized he was fucking responsible. He’d done that. This.
The seconds are stretching. He is old friends with this sensation and its ability to make hours into individual, eternal hells.
And… now they’re all leaving, for fuck’s sake. True, it’s not their fault: the surgeon, while not hugely interested in getting between disruptive secret agents and their captives in the main hallway, is more than willing to pull out the big guns in terms of getting them all out of his patient’s immediate space. What he has allowed already is more than anyone else would have, but now the man is brooking no arguments. Whatever catalyst propelled Steve into wakefulness is flagging fast, the strength seeping out of him with every second that passes.
The pressure of Steve’s hand in his has not flagged, but where before it was the single most important thing in the world to Tony, now it feels like a slowly increasing weight, clamming up his palm with the knowledge that he can’t let go. The fact that he actually wants to let go disgusts him, but it’s the truth. He feels guilty for holding onto Steve’s hand as if he isn’t the one who made all this a reality. He’s holding the same hand that Steve plunged into the shoulder of his suit and used to yank his circuitry back to rights, now holding onto him like he’s the only sure thing in this world. The irony is so very bitter.
Tony is deliriously hopeful that he’ll be told to go as well. Get out, give Steve space. But the doctor stays neatly away from any such suggestion. He converses quietly with Steve while he takes his pulse, tells him about the procedure and asks about his heart. His pain level. Steve’s answers are single words when possible, and when they aren’t, he has to pause, finish on the next breath. The doctor waits patiently for each response, and the last thing he says to Steve is, “Thank you.”
Steve doesn’t ask after what he means.
The door closes and leaves them alone at last, and Tony waits for the final hush to thicken until all it is good for is being broken. Until the break itself will be loud enough to cover all ensuing sound. But Steve doesn’t say anything immediately. Instead he lifts his hand, and his fingers come to rest against Tony’s cheek. “Hi.”
Tony lets go of Steve and puts his hand over his face. Holds as still as he can. His eyes burn, his chest is too full, and he can feel each stilted tremor as his shoulders try to release it. When he has to move, he scrubs at his face, looking up at the ceiling, and finally, he makes himself meet Steve’s gaze again. Steve’s eyes dart fitfully over his features.
“Are you hurt?”
“God, Steve.” Back to kneading his eyes. He grabs hold of the irritation because it’s better than the remorse. “Doesn’t fucking matter.”
Steve’s eyes continue to track over his face. “Do you know how important you are to me?”
“Do you know how important you are to me?” Tony says, too fast. He reaches, closes his fingers around Steve’s nearer hand again. Just the touch silences all the rest. Steve’s eyes widen.
“No.” He can see every inch of that fight in his head like some sick film winding in circles. He can hear Natasha’s voice, see the whites of Clint’s eyes, taste the iron in his throat when Steve’s words coughed out bloody. All he has left lies in clinging to Steve like this, pathetic at his bedside and waiting for all his sins to be corroborated.
The worst part… He wants nothing but to hold Steve’s hand. So very badly, every inch of him. He wants to wrap himself around Steve’s body, now that he has miraculously gotten him back. But touching Steve after what he did is physically excruciating. His ribs contract, squeezing at his heart.
“I don’t…” He’s such a fucking coward. “…want to talk about this. Not tonight.” There is a masterpiece of deflection waiting to name itself after him. Anything that will prolong the change bound to slide over Steve’s features is going to be utilized to the fullest.
Steve’s hand drifts down the side of Tony’s neck, gliding as light as feathers, and settles against his chest. The cessation of movement is so abrupt that Tony fidgets, but Steve is still staring at him, looking so deathbed-peaceful and content with the world that Tony’s throat clots.
“God, why couldn’t you just let me go?”
The fog creeping back into Steve’s gaze burns off instantly. He lifts his head, stares at Tony like he can’t believe what he’s seeing. “What did you just say?”
Tony winces at Steve’s rasp. This is not the way Steve needs to be using his energy, Tony’s doing it wrong again.
“Nothing, just. Never mind, never—” Sleep. They should both sleep, and maybe Tony actually can now.
“You wanted me to leave you?”
It’s enough to stall Tony’s breath again, but Steve doesn’t wait for the answer he’s struggling to find. He shakes his head. “Of course you did, of course you… I get it.”
“No. You do not.” He doesn’t know where this fire is coming from. He can’t help his own shock, but it’s not nearly enough to derail him.
“Yes, I do. Doesn’t change a thing, but I get it, Tony.” It takes Steve a little time to get it all out, but his gaze is fixed, trying to peel into Tony, and it is not fair for Steve to use that weapon when he knows how effective it is.
“Yeah, well, it should have. You should have stayed the hell away from me, like I asked— no, begged you to. I begged you, Steve.” Oh, he knows what begging feels like now. He’s been begging gods he’s never believed in to bring Steve back to him for the past week.
He also knows it would have broken his heart if Steve had actually turned away from him in the snowy streets of New York. But he could have lived with that, for however long he had left. “I wouldn’t have this fucking muscle memory of beating you, of stabbing— of.” He lets the sentence fall, just waves his hand to invoke the rest, because Steve was there, too. If he doesn’t have nightmares playing on repeat behind his eyelids yet, he will soon.
“Don’t,” Steve warns, almost icy, and Tony jerks his head up.
“Don’t? What, remind you of what actually went down out there? Rehash exactly why you needed whole pints of blood pumped into your—”
“I’m not debating this with you!” Steve’s face pinches and he sinks back. But the flame in his eyes does not dim at all. “I was not going to ‘let you go.’ That’s the end of the line, Tony! If I had to do it again, I would.”
Tony’s fury rises twofold, one half for Steve and one for himself for being infuriated at all. For god’s sake, why are they fighting? “Do not say that to me.” He jabs a finger at Steve’s face. “Do not. You just… look me in the eye and, what? You don’t know what that did to me! I wanted to die, knowing what I was doing to you.”
Steve reverses their grip so fast Tony jumps. “You did not do this to me.”
But he did. Oh, he did, they were his hands. It was his technology. He built something that he ultimately had no control over. Again.
How many times is he going to have to learn this lesson?
It’s on the tip of his tongue to tell Steve he benched the suits. All the programming, all those years of his life, all the painstaking— and painful— trial and error, culminating in this.
Steve exhales shallowly, like he’s not getting enough air, can’t take too long breathing out. “You’re right. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this now.”
Tony sinks back down into the chair and steadies his hands by clutching his knees. “Yeah,” he mutters. “Yeah, good.”
Steve sleeps again. This time it’s just sleep.
Tony doesn’t care what comes at him, he’s going to fix this. Put money into rebuilding until there’s nothing left to restore. Fucking correct what he did, to the furthest extent that he can. It won’t come close enough. It’s clear they’ll chew him down to bones and crunch him under their feet, but while they’re doing it, he will give them back what he took from them because, at least for now, he holds more power in a single glance than all their words— perks of being rich— and for a little while, until his company’s stock finally bottoms out, they won’t be able to stop him.
He’ll bludgeon through until they can stop him, and maybe it’ll be enough to keep his nightmares silent until… until Steve…
Tony honestly can’t imagine Steve turning away from him. But that’s only his logical half. His emotions are far more unruly, and they assault him left and right because Steve, what he did to Steve—
All he’ll need is one sideways flick of Steve’s eyes. A single dip of his lips to smash everything they’ve built. And right now, he can’t not see it. It’s in perfect tint.
He can feel it building, compressing tight and deep in spaces the human body should not have. When the night terrors finally come, they will wreck him.
Fury clearly expects him to be the first in the room when Hammer ends up at SHIELD. Rationally, Tony expected it, too. Emotionally, though… There’s nothing there to drive him into that cell. He starts to stand when Fury first notifies him, only to slump back down beside Steve’s bed, ultimately too weary to bother.
It’s the same old hurt from the same old wound. The years have done nothing but cause it to fester, and here Tony was thinking it had at last been closing up. Not healing, not to the point of reconciliation, certainly. But indifference, maybe. A divergence of paths.
Not so. The knowledge is discouraging in a slow, tired way that makes him feel fifteen years older.
He finally goes because it’s rote: somehow, he still needs to be there, even if he really… doesn’t need to. He’s not even sure that makes sense. If Steve were awake, he wouldn’t have bothered, but Steve is sleeping again, long bouts as if his body is storing up energy in every cranny. Aside from the deep breathing, his rest is almost completely motionless.
This time the effect has been soothing.
Hammer looks tired as well, and just waiting for this to be over so he can… go to jail again? Move on? He looks like he’s a step ahead of them all in terms of dealing with what’s occurred, and while he’s not contrite or even remotely shocked by the fruits of his labor, he’s also not gloating. Maybe some foundational aspect of that wound is in fact healing, then.
Turns out he did fund it. Provided the drones. Came up with the idea, too. And Natasha doesn’t have to get malicious to drag it out of him. He just answers her questions in a level voice. The only sign of excitement comes when he outlines the basic scheme. Tony has to give him props. For Hammer, it’s an unusual one in that he didn’t try to be the star. At all.
He stepped back and let a far more malevolent soul into the driver’s seat.
That soul, when they pull him in, is nothing more than a kid. Nineteen, if he’s lucky. Tony gazes through the one-way glass and thinks, So skinny. Unlike Hammer, the wrath surrounding this kid is palpable, as is the pride at what he’s accomplished. It is no mean feat to hack a Stark database, to maneuver past the revolving firewalls and anticipate the frequent coding traps. To get in, to stay in, and once there, to learn how to control the suit so damned quickly. If this kid had had a day to feel it all out ahead of time, there’s nothing he could not have done from his pirate’s hub. Tony would have poached him from any company in any country, would have teased this kid away with grandiose offers, and fed his fortune to burgeoning within the first five years.
The kid hates Tony Stark. When he was ten, his parents— one a Marine, one a career munitions expert in the Air Force— met the wrong end of a Stark-made miracle bomb, the impersonal detonation of the very tool that was meant to save their lives by getting them away from the front line. A familiar headache blooms in Tony’s temples, something he’s managed not to feel for the last three years, since not long after he made the best good he could by rerouting his entire company’s direction. It’s a misshapen, sad feeling that some part of him is glad he will never fully forget. Forgetting its pungency means getting used to certain ideas that no one should ever be comfortable with. Ever.
Tony is used to hatred. Being hated, and being deserving of such loathing. He’s used to blame rightly placed, and he smoothes it over his entire body whenever it appears, coddles himself in it so that he doesn’t even think about forgetting what it means to earn his continuing existence day by day by day. But this… This is far more rotten than he’s faced before. This is a specific abhorrence crafted in a specific way, with only one destination: to inflict more and greater pain.
The kid makes it easy to let go of the guilt in this, at least. If he’d been saddened, if he’d returned to the grief he has so plainly nursed for a decade— But he’s straight and calm, as cold as a glacier, and he visibly amuses himself with the descriptions of what he saw through the Mark VII’s eyes. Not just Tony, and not just Steve, but Clint, too, and the other Avengers. His mouth twists upward at the description of the people of New York succumbing under rubble and fire, at the torture of harming a friend.
This kid spent time studying exactly where to stick the knife into Tony’s world, and then he twisted and twisted, screwed it in like a red-hot rivet. If given the chance, he would have kept on twisting until everything was shredded, the landscape stretching in all directions around it laid to waste.
It’s still impossible for Tony to miss his own place in the road of cause and effect. He’d been incubating this event for years before he knew to fear it. For the millionth time, Tony wishes he’d come to his senses sooner.
But the truly eviscerating blow comes unexpectedly, with a blunted edge, and gouges Tony straight and keen beneath the sternum.
The kid is clearly not ashamed of his one failure during the entire venture. It was a necessary evil that led to his greater good, and finally, a question Tony hadn’t even known he should be asking sallies forth.
“Couldn’t get in.” The hacker shrugs thin shoulders. “Not to that one. I could only get my foot in the door.”
A single computerized worm, jettisoned somehow into the Mark VIII. “Oh, hell,” Tony breathes.
“But the other one,” the kid continues with a vacant smile. “Simple.”
The glitch had always, always been to keep Tony out of the more advanced suit, the one they couldn’t break. And he’d stuck his leg right into the bear trap for them to snap.
“Why take out Hawkeye first?”
“He could see everything.” The kid looks puzzled, as if he’s explaining to a child. “Would have organized the others.”
“The Black Widow?”
His eyes are wide, indecently innocent. “Most vulnerable, but if she gets up close, she’s dangerous.”
“And Captain America?”
It’s genuinely unsettling, the expression the kid’s face assumes: totally slack, except for a strange glitter in those green eyes. “Because Tony Stark loves him.”
Tony doesn’t retain much after that, and then they lead the kid away. He sits and half listens to Hill, Van Horn, the WSC woman and the rest as they negotiate the terms of what comes next. Hill wants the majority of the hacker’s testimony made public, and for once, Van Horn agrees, though the Council’s brand new PR representative wants the military left out of the blame.
And that sets Thor off.
“You will wash your hands of this?” he demands, turning on Van Horn and his accompanying commanders when the unfortunate Council delegate refuses to meet his eye. “And you will allow them to do so?”
“These interrogations are Eyes Only,” the woman commander from the Council begins, cool as a cucumber, and yes, meeting Thor’s eye. Of course, she is unaware that such a gesture is no great assurance of alpha status where the son of Odin is concerned. Tony could have told her that, saved her the trouble and possibly the look of shock on her face when Thor literally smacks the glass of ice water out of her hand.
“You are unworthy of the realm you claim to protect,” he seethes, so close her hair moves with the force of his words.
Still, she did not get where she is now for nothing. “The military is not responsible for the tragedy Justin Hammer’s actions have inflicted. Hammer will be tried in court, as will his accomplices, including his mole in General Van Horn’s office. Hammer’s enmity against Stark is at the root of this—”
“No, it is your petty bickering, your squabbling that has done this. Your house is not under your control and my friends have suffered egregiously for it!”
There really isn’t an answer to that, but that damned woman is looking for one, Tony can see it in her face. She doesn’t get that far, though.
“I, for one, will not allow them to do it,” Van Horn says, soft. Overnight, he seems to have broken in some way. Perhaps finding out his mentee has been absorbing all the wrong lessons. Perhaps he feels a measure of guilt in this, too. Tony knows what that’s like. It’s alarming to be experiencing a rapport with Van Horn.
The general lifts his eyes from the table, then rises like an old man dragging his body together and faces Thor. “I refuse to be party to a cover-up like this. At this point, we don’t have anything to hide. Let’s not change that.”
He believes his own words, clearly. On the Tony Stark scale of guilt, he’s probably right. It doesn’t mean he won’t get mowed under for it anyway, first and foremost by the Council itself.
Then again, it looks like he’ll have the entirety of the armed forces at his back.
“You don’t have the authority—” the woman starts, but—
“Director Fury,” one of the other army generals says, standing as well and straightening the jacket of her dress uniform. “You may be certain we will inform the public of the events that have transpired.” She nods at Thor, not disrespectfully. “And with the assistance of our esteemed ally, we can make it as truthful as possible—”
“Yes,” Thor breaks in, turning from her and throwing so dismissive a gesture that Tony’s stomach rolls. He can see that Thor is done with this, in every way. “Tell your world. Tell someone the truth of it, and perhaps you may avoid reliving this tragedy in the future.”
It’s happened. He’s been sucked completely dry.
Oh, sure, it’s occurred before. Afghanistan was extremely notable in that regard. But this time there is no mortal thrum in his veins to goad him past his limits toward the act of creation. There’s just the thick, amorphous dread slinking low in his gut, refusing to assume a concrete shape. He can put it down if he concentrates, but the toll for the effort is steep, and rising.
He cannot believe how badly he miscalculated, how much he overlooked. Walked right into the trap and never saw it coming.
His feet take him back to Steve’s room on autopilot, and every step just emphasizes how far he has to go before he can start shutting things down. But of course, the path is finite, and he gets there eventually. Steve is awake, eyes on him as soon as the door opens. Probably heard his approach. The thought sends such a frisson of heat down his spine that he sighs in relief.
He crosses the room and gets into the bed, slowly enough to broadcast his intentions, and after a second, Steve shifts over, careful of his various medical attachments.
It was meant to keep Steve from talking, from bringing up their unfinished mess. But as soon as he slumps into Steve’s arms, his body succumbs to muscle memory he will never be able to quantify, and unwinds so fast it leaves him winded. It’s… The last time he was here was before, before everything. Tony tucks close alongside Steve and feels himself melting down to base elements, sliding even closer when Steve’s arms tighten around him, when Steve’s legs shift to accommodate his. Steve brackets Tony’s knee with both of his, and even with the blanket sandwiched between them, it’s a shared memory, a bone-deep sense of rightness he had denied was missing.
Steve maneuvers the blanket out from under Tony. He pulls it over them both, and maybe Tony should be worried about Steve lying on his side like this, but Steve’s breathing is steady and soft, the pulse in his throat even. Tony pillows his head against the heat of Steve’s shoulder and shuts his eyes.
Hammer’s confession gets to the press faster than Tony expected, though obviously not in its entirety. A surprising number of details about the hacker are also released.
The result is the most anticlimactic thing Tony has seen since he was a kid trying to impress his dad.
“I don’t understand it,” Pepper mutters. She points the remote with one arm, keeping the other crossed over her chest, and turns the volume of the hospital room’s television up. “Has the entire city become a tabloid?”
The loudest, most irritating members of the public have chosen to be deaf and blind, and the conspiracy theorists latched on so fast it was as if they did in fact have the inside scoop and were just waiting to hack it off so they could run away with what remained. Happy has been bringing Tony clothing from the tower at Pepper’s request, specifically to keep him from setting foot outside. It’s horribly funny, the fact that Tony finds himself not only living at SHIELD full time, but preferring it. Here, they all know. Or at least they know how not to broadcast their discomfort around him. At any rate, they’ve all fought, which lends a certain perspective.
Not the kind of perspective that stems from practically killing an American hero in public during the middle of the day, but some.
He tried a second round with the news teams, because he loves to punish himself. All they wanted to know was what was going through his mind while he tried to blow up Hawkeye, while he went after Black Widow, while he beat Captain America to a pulp. As if he’d gotten some satisfaction out of it. Never mind Hammer, never mind the computerized mayhem: it seems Tony Stark has built his reputation too soundly. None of them quite believe he could be taken advantage of in this way, attacked at the very foundations of what makes him him.
Much worse are the physical manifestations of defamation, including a spree of vandalism targeting the Stark Industries building and the tower itself.
His defenders get louder, too. People swing back and forth like saloon doors, and the web becomes a mess of trolling and slamming from both sides.
On the news, the intact streets and storefronts are still covered with Christmas decorations, but it seems an afterthought, a relic forgotten under the barrage of anger. It doesn’t even feel like the holidays: smiles are few and far between, and though Tony knows half of that is because of the angle the reporters are going for, it’s still a far deeper cloud than the season deserves. People are going through motions, but the anemic quality of it is even more apparent as a result.
Steve watches it all with a messy, worrisome intensity deep down in his eyes.
Oh, and Clint. Clint had let Tony have it. Tony can admit that he never should have tried to apologize to the media, of all people, but not for the reasons Clint hit him with.
“What the hell is the matter with you?” Clint had been an instant away from throwing the water bottle he held at the wall. Even Pepper’s presence at Tony’s side did little to curb his attack. “For fuck’s sake. You did nothing wrong, Stark!”
He most definitely had done something wrong: he hadn’t found a way to fix this yet. But no, he should not have apologized to the damned press. It made absolutely no difference to anything, except that it got his face out there in time to rile everyone up all over again.
It’s just as well he hasn’t been at home; here, at least, there is no opportunity to drink.
Tony walks Pepper out of SHIELD, taking it slowly because the child in him wants to keep her there with him. When he bids her goodbye at last, because he is a grownup, and returns to the room, Steve is fiddling with the remote. The TV is off, but as soon as he walks in, Steve faces him.
“Tony, come here.”
Not quite the command voice, but close enough. Tony moves to his side, and when he gets there, Steve draws him firmly down to sit on the mattress and winds his arms around his waist.
And there they sit.
Fury’s in Steve’s room again. For some damn reason. If Tony hadn’t just swum back up out of sleep, he’d be much more adept at kicking him out and finding out why he was there. In that order.
“Oh my god,” Tony mutters, shying away from the eyepatch and nearly falling out of his chair. He waves Fury off with one hand. “Could you not do that?”
Fury straightens up, an odd look on his face, like he’s amused. Somewhere down deep, because Fury doesn’t get amused. He considers it unseemly. “Good, I was thinking about kissing you.”
Steve makes a low sound from the bed at that, and then someone else snorts, and Tony comes to the entirely horrible conclusion that they’re not alone. Like, even more so than he thought. He swipes his face, blinks, and sits forward with his elbows on his knees. Not just Fury, not by a long shot, though Fury is the closest to him. Clint is by the window, sitting next to Natasha. Tony pauses on her: she’s dressed as if she’s headed somewhere afield, or just returning, and Tony wonders if he’s lost days. Thor stands at Steve’s other side, Bruce just behind him… and Coulson. And Hill by the door. And Rhodey. Rhodey, actually seen for the first time since the battle. Tony blinks again, attention sharpening painfully. “What…?”
“Hey, Tony.” Rhodey sounds relieved, and tired, but he’s smiling widely and Tony has a really hard time resisting that grin, always has. Even if his returning smile is small.
“You alright?” Tony gestures. “You never, I mean, I knew you were alright, but I didn’t hear from you and—”
“Military PR,” Rhodey says with a grimace. “And clean up. I couldn’t get away, and believe me, I tried.”
Clean up. Tony sighs and scrubs at his cheeks briefly with both hands, then continues the motion up through his hair. “How’s that going?” Changes his mind. “No, wait. On second thought. What’s the deal? Why are you all here at once?”
Without exception, everyone looks at Fury.
“In light of the recent vandalism and the implied threat to your safety,” Fury says, nodding at Tony, “Captain Rogers has requested that I explore ways to temper public backlash from last week.”
Steve talked to Fury? Tony can’t think when, he’s pretty much been here, except for scattered half hour stretches where he was invited (i.e., dragged off) to get food with Bruce, or where he needed to get on the phone with Pepper regarding things that would take way longer than thirty minutes to fix.
But Steve looks passive and expectant. Also on the verge of judgment, which arrests Tony’s eyes for longer. Even now, not a man you’d want to mess with. He doesn’t know how Steve does it, doesn’t believe he would personally have that kind of pull while hooked up to hospital machinery, in such a clearly weakened state.
Fury continues. “You’re all here because the solution we are tentatively entertaining concerns you.” He indicates Coulson and Hill. “I’m not entirely happy with what they’ve come up with. But it does seem to be the most feasible option, given potential impact on public opinion.”
Hill steps forward. “You are all aware that recordings are made of every field event via your communications systems, and filed on SHIELD’s rotating servers.”
Everyone nods at her. A faint smile is forming on Steve’s mouth.
“It’s confidential data, naturally,” Hill goes on. “No one outside of SHIELD personnel has access to it, and certainly no one has the ability to alter it in any way without bypassing every firewall we have, plus a host of seek-and-destroy anti-infiltration programs. Before, I was trying to leverage the higher-ups by threatening to release the recording. But we could conceivably do just that. It’s a real time record of all transmissions between the members of the Avengers Initiative, and the most thorough documentation we have on what occurred out there.”
Indeed, Fury does not look happy. But he’s staying silent for now, letting Hill have the floor. Coulson looks positively serene.
“If we do elect to release this recording publicly, there is a lot of potential for fallout down the road. For instance, a standard being set about making public the recordings of all Initiative forays. It’s something to consider. Another consideration is the actual content of the audio file. I’ve listened to the recording several times, and transcribed it. You all lived it. As such, there are several issues with releasing the recording as is, and I’m afraid that if we censor or edit any one part, the entire thing will be called into question. First off, there’s the obvious statement of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers’ personal relationship.”
Yep, it is pretty damn obvious. Tony clears his throat. He rubs at his mouth and winces at how sore his lips are getting from the repeated gesture.
“You do what Steve wants there,” is all he says. He couldn’t care less if his sexual habits are outed to the media. They have been before, in the midst of far more scandalous situations. But he will not force Steve to take up that same cross and walk under it with him in front of all the world. If Steve wants to keep it private, then Tony will gladly—
“It’s fine,” Steve says beside him.
—bear up under the insults and attacks and… And. “You sure about this?” he asks, low, looking Steve in the eye to make sure he’s fully there. “Can’t go back.”
Steve brushes Tony’s jaw with a fingertip. Turns to Hill and says again, “It’s fine.”
Hill gives him a simple acknowledging nod before turning back to the room at large. “There is also the question of identity protection. Dr. Banner is, of course, not an issue in this case, and the world is already aware of Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America’s real world identities. In the case of Agents Barton and Romanoff, we get into trickier straits.”
Clint exhales hard, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. One hand glances over his face, covering his mouth for just a moment. Then he sits up. “I’m good. Go to town.”
“Agent Barton,” Fury says in a vaguely warning tone, “you are still a deep cover agent whose true identity is a strictly kept secret in SHIELD. The public already has your face on record. If they get your name, too, corroborated like this, that compromises any and all missions you undertake for the department in the future.”
“As you say,” Clint rejoinders, “they already have my face. And you already have me for this team. Maybe I think black ops missions are a small price to pay.”
Strangely, Fury doesn’t put up any further argument. He studies Clint for a long moment, and Clint studies him right back, and finally Fury nods. Spreads his hands. “Your choice, Agent.”
“Chosen.” His eyes skip to Coulson once, then he nods as if to finalize it for himself.
But Natasha does not follow. There is a dark little frown on her face as she stares fixedly at her hands. “I need to think.”
“Tasha,” Clint starts, brow furrowing, but Natasha slashes a hand violently through the air, making them all jump.
“I said I need to think,” she growls.
“What is there to think about?” Thor inquires from his side of the room, and Natasha fixes him with the first good look Tony’s seen them share in days. Thor, naturally, shows no sign of backing down, just gazes steadily at her. Natasha raises her chin very slightly.
“You have always been known,” she says quietly, but for all that as sharp and remonstrative as a dagger. “By everyone. There is no soul on three worlds who is not aware of who you are, son of a god. What you are. My life, my existence, and my success, has always been about keeping hidden. I do it and I do it well. In most cases, it’s the last defense I have. Don’t for a second think that you can guilt me into giving that up lightly.” She looks around, meets every pair of eyes in turn and holds them. “Any of you.”
Steve’s face is the only one on which she lingers uncomfortably.
In the silence, she rises from her chair and tugs at the cuff of each sleeve, the only sign at all— and is it even a sign?— that she’s standing on shaky ground. “I said I need to think,” she repeats deliberately, and leaves the room.
It’s her business. He knows it. He knows better than anyone what it means to have your life picked apart by people who don’t even try to know you, to have your name called out in the streets, to have to decipher not only every tone, but every glance and every gesture, to decide in an instant whether it’s a threat, a welcome, or something in between. To not care, if the situation calls for it. He knows what it is to be painted over, to not be able to wear his own face when he’s outside. To be known at a glance by his enemies. To feed the facade that has been created for him by others.
They’ve both been involved in unsavory things, but hers are far darker and more personal than his. Hers come with twice as many well-trained individuals out specifically for her blood.
It still stings that she won’t just drop it all, as Clint did.
The social media grows rife with libel, jeers and jokes and crude artistic interpretations of what Tony did and why exactly the government is hiding him away. Why he’s hiding himself. Who he paid off from his bottomless coffers. For every insult, there is a vociferous defense that spams internet feeds until the streams go down under the weight of it all. They can’t turn on a television or radio channel without hearing about themselves from people who know better, but mostly about Tony and how he’s a menace. Needs to be stopped. A worse threat to the world than Obadiah Stane or his own father in their weapons-making heydays.
Uncaring and unfeeling and inhuman and ashamed.
At least they got one right.
Hill and Fury give them twenty-four hours before the final decision must be made, and then Tony sits with Steve, with Bruce or Thor or Clint, and waits.
“Do it,” is all Natasha says, the last to walk into the room. Hill straightens from her absent slouch, an expression of relief on her face, but Natasha doesn’t offer anything more. Doesn’t look at anyone.
Fury eyes them all for a moment, then nods Hill’s way. “Alright. Get it ready.”
Hill exits Steve’s room with her usual efficiency. Tony can see her already signaling someone down the corridor as the door shuts. Fury lets out his breath in one tired gust. “Now. We need to figure out how we’re getting it out there. My initial thought was to give it to one of the stations—”
“No,” Steve murmurs, eyes on the far wall. “The others’ll question it, whether it’s been altered.”
“They’ll question that anyway,” Tony says with a sigh, but Steve’s right. Giving it to any one news group, no matter how straightforward and upstanding its reputation, is asking for trouble right off the bat. For the first time, he’s thankful for all the handheld video clips surging around online, if only because someone somewhere will eventually tack it all together in order, and then they’ll have a wobbly bit of legitimacy to back up their offering.
He’s not ready to face this, however they do it. Already his heart is thumping up into his throat. He distracts himself by speaking instead. “At least, getting it out there ourselves, there are no middlemen, no potential filtering.”
In the corner, Bruce stirs. “Release it online.”
Everyone looks at him. He looks back, and then lifts his shoulder. “Hack the big sites, and the rest will follow. Notify the airwaves. Tweet a time, then give it to everyone at once.”
Six hours later— one hour after a massive web spam announcing their intentions via JARVIS, which led to broadcasting on all news channels and a good chunk of the social media platforms— they’re all crammed back in Steve’s room, planted in chairs with the shades drawn. All save Bruce, who said that the room was not the best place for him to experience what was coming, before descending deep into the compound to find sturdier confinement. Nobody speaks, and after a third look at his watch, Coulson clears his throat.
“Zero hour,” Tony mutters. He takes a deep breath. “Turn it on.”
Coulson is the very first to be heard over the laptop in the center of the room, his voice only slightly flattened by the communications device. “Avengers, be advised, SHIELD is taking heavy fire on Sixth.”
“I see it. Holy— Where the hell did they come from?”
Later, Bruce will tell him about people standing as still as death in Times Square with their iPads and tablets out, listening. A river of cabs halted along busy streets. Jumpy YouTube footage of a woman crying quietly into her scarf, and an older man sitting down slowly on a bench outside the open door of a barbershop, his cane gripped tightly in one hand, his eyes far away.
Now, Tony just sits and keeps his eyes on Steve while the sounds of buildings going draw out, groans and shrieks, metal on metal, massive thumps and a whole lot of static. Gunfire whines mutedly. The hand-to-hand, when it comes, is bone-crunching.
Natasha and Thor screaming at each other might be the biggest shock Tony gets. He doesn’t… doesn’t remember that, not the visceral quality of it, the way Thor finally shouted her down. The city continues to explode, the whine of the drones’ pulse weaponry, pained cries and orders yelled in the background of Coulson’s comm unit. Beside him in the hospital room, Natasha’s face fixes into place like a doll’s. She doesn’t look at Thor and Thor doesn’t look at her.
And there is the whole side of the incident Tony never heard: Steve, directing the Hulk in tight tones to stay put, hold the line, do whatever it takes, while he turns south toward Tony. Eventually he hears the sizzle of lightning and the devastating crunch of hammer on metal. Natasha’s breathing, steady as a ticking clock around a curse. And Coulson, faint as a memory, his voice abruptly raw around Clint’s first name.
At the end, though, Tony finds he can’t keep his composure as surely as he wished. He shoves his hands over his face, hears the Hulk’s bellow, muted for some reason, and then he understands, because now Natasha is breathing hard in everyone’s ear again, her footsteps quick as she sprints through snowy streets.
And comes to a stop.
Then that cry, sliced to bleeding.
A hand slides over Tony’s and he starts.
Steve reaches, careful of the tube in his arm. He folds both hands around Tony’s and draws them firmly against his own chest.
A new storm has rolled in, washing the sky in soupy gray clouds that trap the light of the city. The temperature descends quickly outside, frost forming on the grass like a creeping sea. In the bed, Steve drowses, head turned to the side against the pillow. The tubes are all gone, his chest rising and falling evenly. All the machinery is dark, shunted against the walls, and if not for the sterile white of the room itself, it could be any bedroom, any afternoon nap.
Tony sits in one chair with his foot propped on another, a magazine in hand but unopened. Steve’s scans are clear, his x-rays as well, a far faster healing than any normal person could boast. He’s not one hundred percent, according to the doctor, not by a long shot, but the internal damage has knit itself together and shows no signs of coming apart again.
“Nice not to hear that beeping.”
Tony looks up at Bruce’s words and gives him a commiserating smile. Bruce really has no idea. And that’s alright. A lot of things are alright today.
He hasn’t seen Clint, Coulson, or Fury for two days. There’s still a lot of damage control to be done, from a lot of different angles. And SHIELD doesn’t just stop functioning; if it did, the world would probably collapse, according to Fury. Hill has made one appearance, to give Tony all of the statements they obtained from Hammer Industries employees on a tiny flash drive. He put it in the pocket of his coat and there it sits. Will continue to sit, until he feels the need to go down that road again. Right now, he’s curiously unbothered. It seems so small a thing in the light of Steve’s recovery, and it’ll wait.
Thor left early this morning to meet Jane, and Natasha has been absent since the recording finished up. Tony finds himself missing her voice and wonders why that lack should push forward first rather than that of her vibrant hair or her calculating eyes. As far as he knows, she could be out of the country already on Fury’s orders, taking up where she left off in whatever capacity she still can.
And speaking of plans. “You out of here soon?” he asks Bruce, softly, in deference to Steve’s slumber.
Bruce stretches a little and looks at his watch. “Yeah. Hopefully the weather won’t hold the planes up.”
Tony’s phone pings and he fishes it out of his pocket, expecting a text from Pepper. Instead, another familiar number lights the screen. He opens it, reads, and smiles. When he looks over at Steve, the idea blooms as if it was already there, just waiting for the signal. Tony types out a quick return message, adds Pepper to the recipient list, and hits send.
The door opens and a nurse comes in, closing it gently behind him. He leans down, voice low for Tony and Bruce. “Paperwork’s all set. They’re ready at the front desk whenever you are.”
Tony nods. “Let him sleep. We’ll get there eventually.”
The nurse nods.
Bruce smiles, and it reaches his eyes, exhausted and heartfelt, crinkling them at the edges. He stands, reaching out to give Tony a pat on the leg. “Snow’s coming. Better get going if I’m going to make the airport in time.”
Tony covers Bruce’s hand briefly, then watches as he leaves the room in the nurse’s wake. He breathes in, exhales. Leans back in the chair and just… is, for a moment. The first moment, maybe, for over a week.
When he opens his eyes again, Steve is watching him from where he rests against the pillows. Tony murmurs and sits up, a little more effort than he’d expected. He reaches out and Steve catches his hand.
“How you feeling, champ?”
Steve’s mouth scrunches up and his eyebrows rise, very ‘what-can-you-do?’ “Is it the day I think it is?”
“If you’re thinking Christmas Eve.” Tony hunches over the bed, toying with Steve’s fingers with both hands now. “What do you say we blow this popsicle stand?”
Steve’s smile is slow but genuine.
“The cold front will last through the night and into the morning, but temperatures will rise again during the afternoon. The chilly weather has not kept New York’s citizens indoors, however; vigils have been convened in various parts of the city to show solidarity for the city’s famous, and infamous, protectors. The extensive damage is clear and will require a great deal of effort and time to rebuild, but tonight, on Christmas Eve, the city can look again toward a hopeful new year.”
Fresh snow tumbles past the window, bright against the early darkness. Tony pulls the jacket tight around Steve’s shoulders. Zips it up himself and runs his hands all the way down his arms. Tugs things firmly into place, no bared skin. Steve’s hands are gloveless now but not for long. Tony grabs said gloves and Steve takes hold of his free hand but doesn’t stop him. Doesn’t say anything, just helps wriggle his fingers into place within the thick wool.
He catches Tony unawares when Tony reaches up with his hat, kissing him gently on the lips. Everything halts, just Steve’s arms easing him close in the middle of the dimly lit hospital room, Steve moving his fingers constantly over Tony’s neck and jaw, and taking his time with Tony’s mouth like no one else is in the building or waiting outside.
Steve takes the hat from Tony’s lax fingers and puts it into his pocket, then pulls the scarf— a lush maroon that makes his eyes stand out and his skin look like cream again instead of leached and pale— over his nape. And then he takes Tony by the nape, gloved palm slightly scratchy, and coaxes their mouths together again.
“Let’s go home,” he whispers. The warmth of it glances over Tony’s chin.
Tony has already decided he’s not going to look anyone in the eye. He’s all too aware of what he’ll see. Tonight is about Steve. Steve’s homecoming, his health, his comfort. The media is its own animal, but he trusts the public enough not to hurt Steve, at least, even if he holds no expectations in terms of himself.
Hope… is another thing, a thing he can’t quite crush despite experience.
The crowd outside the tower is silent, standing in the snow wrapped in jackets and scarves and hats and blankets. There aren’t faces, just many, many sets of eyes hovering over noses and mouths, bordered by thick winter wear. The wind sluices against Tony’s cheeks as he gets out of the car and turns immediately, reaching back inside.
Steve stands with a sobering stiffness, pushing to his feet with a hand curled over the top of the door. He straightens with a sigh only Tony and Happy can hear, and meets Tony’s gaze for a long moment. The corner of his mouth lifts and Tony feels Steve’s fingers thread between his own.
It’s not overt, but when Steve turns outward, his first move puts him between Tony and the crowd. Tony sways in the face of it: even now, Steve is protecting him. He never, ever shuts it off.
The first sound is short and sharp, so abrupt that Tony flinches. Another follows, and another. It takes him too long to realize that what he’s hearing is someone clapping. In spite of himself, he searches the crowd and finds a man with arms raised high above his head, gloves off so the ring of his palms meeting carries.
He’s staring right at them.
The sound shuffles outward, dull thumps and quick smattering, and then the crowd ripples visibly with it, hands coming together out of unison, faces sober and pensive. Someone whoops far in the back and the applause flushes louder, more frenetic.
Steve is… smiling. Something fragile and yet knowing. Already his nose is red from the wind, his bangs tossed out of place. He steps back so Happy can shut the door, and then keeps stepping back, until Tony is just in front of him, before he can react, caught staring at the crowd with nothing between them, and Steve warm and firm against his spine.
The applause deafens.
Tony ducks his head to the side, can’t stop the hitch of his breathing and knows when Steve’s grip tightens that he felt it. Tony swipes at his eyes as quickly as he can, cursing snow and ice because it exists. Steve presses, unforgiving, against him, cleaving them together in spite of jackets and gloves. In front of their city.
The clapping follows them inside the tower, faces Tony knows this time, all smiling at Steve. The place is bedecked: holly and fir boughs, tasteful red and gold and silver garlands, the huge tree in the center lit up in classy white. The lights wink, imitating movement between the branches, and giant mercury glass balls shimmer like they are alive.
“Merry Christmas,” someone calls just before they get into the elevator, and then—
“Welcome home, Steve!” as the doors close.
Steve immediately leans into Tony’s back despite Happy’s presence beside them, winding sinuously around him as if he has more arms than usual. He holds Tony like this as the floors ping by, lights climbing up the numbers. Tony shuts his eyes, listens to the steady in-out-in-out of Steve’s breathing.
“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS ventures, halfway up, “may I be… the second individual to officially welcome you home to Stark Tower?”
“You may, JARVIS.” Steve’s grinning, Tony can feel it. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure, sir. It’s good to have you back.”
When the doors open, the silence presses all the more after the enclosed space. The hallway leading to the doors of Tony’s penthouse is dim, and Steve takes a deep, cleansing breath as he traverses it, still wrapped mostly around Tony. Tony glances back at Happy and gets the slightest of nods alongside the slightest of smiles. Happy discreetly waggles the cell phone in his hand before slipping it back into his pocket. Tony tucks Steve close at the waist. He makes sure he reaches the doors first, and opens them with a little less dexterity than usual so that the doorknob rattles.
The door finally swings open and Steve stops, nearly lets Tony out of his grip before his hand cinches tight. Tony smiles, turns around and draws Steve forward.
All the lights inside are ablaze, and instrumental Christmas music finds Tony’s ears. Just inside the door, Natasha stands in rich red over black jeans. Clint is behind her where the space opens out into the sitting room, and Coulson behind him, both turned their way.
“What…” Steve’s mouth closes as if he’s forgotten he was speaking. He looks around, and Tony is glad of the gloves, because he doesn’t think Steve knows how hard he’s clenching Tony’s hand anymore. Thor is there by the crackling hearth Tony never uses, with Jane at his side. Her face lights up when Steve moves closer, and she waves, a tiny butterfly of a movement. They’ve put up a tree and strung it lovingly with lights and enough ornaments to topple it. There is a wreathe over the mantel and strings of lights tacked to the edge of the counter and the tops of the windows. It’s a fitful mixture without symmetry, clearly cobbled together from several collections, and the effect is captivating. Pepper’s smile is wide and beautiful to Jane’s left. Beside the tree, Bruce stands from the couch, pulling a woman up with him. She’s clearly family and looking both expectant and cautious. Over at the bar, Rhodey grins at Tony and raises the mug in his hand.
Natasha rises on her toes to kiss Steve on the cheek. “Hi,” is all she says.
Steve makes a sound, then lets go of Tony and tugs her in, folds her into a hug that must be tight from the way her eyes widen. But she smiles, tiny and vulnerable, shuts her eyes— shuts her eyes, Natasha Romanoff— and hugs him back.
“I thought…” Steve murmurs. “You had a mission?”
Natasha utters something soft and wordless. “No mission. I was going to look up distant relations. But…” Her fingers squeeze around his sides. “My family’s right here.”
Steve says nothing, but the way his shoulders hunch close, the way his arms tense around her, speaks clearly. She lifts a hand and strokes right beneath his nape, a slow back and forth with the tips of her fingers. When her eyes open, she looks right at Tony and a private smile graces her lips.
“Welcome home,” Clint says, settling a hand on Steve’s back. The motion is nonchalant, but Tony can see how tempered it is, caution hidden in the arc of Clint’s arm.
“You did all this?” Steve asks, pulling back from the embrace and looking around, taking it in again.
“Stark said you wanted a flashy Christmas,” Clint says with a shrug. “Orders are orders.”
“Don’t think I would have said ‘flashy,’” Steve mutters, but he’s returned his grip to Tony’s hand and Tony is perfectly happy to take full responsibility.
“No, that’s what I said, pay attention. Hey. Rhodey. Better be real eggnog over there.”
It is. It bites just enough. There are also the homey smells of popcorn and cocoa, marshmallows scattered from an open bag on the very expensive coffee table, and candy canes in a pile beside them. Someone’s baked cookies again, this time in the shapes of trees, snowmen and ornaments, and then hurriedly frosted them. There are even sprinkles, and those little red hot candies. It’s no elite feast, no customary Christmas goose, but it feels much more like home.
“Alright, alright, give him room,” Pepper admonishes and, hesitating for only a fraction of a second, steps forward. She kisses Steve on both cheeks before taking his hand and drawing him toward the sofa. “Let the man sit down.”
Tony helps Steve out of the coat he put him in, careful not to jar him, but Steve seems utterly distracted from any discomfort. He keeps looking around the room, from tree to mantel to frosted windows, to the hearth with the fire laid. To the people. They’re not dressed up, any of them. Jeans and sweaters, leggings, slippers and socks on feet. Clothing they wear all the time around the tower. It’s just warm and normal, closed off from the world and filled with motion Tony knows. Voices.
The only person dressed out a little is the woman next to Bruce. She wears a fitted shirt and pressed black slacks, but her hair is in a ponytail and she’s gone shoeless as well. Bright green socks with red threading peek out from below her hems. Bruce touches her elbow, then sidles forward as Steve approaches the couch.
“Steve, this is my cousin, Jennifer Walters. Jenny, this is Steve Rogers.”
She shakes Steve’s hand, brown eyes lit up, but also sweeping over him, assessing. “I hope you don’t mind my being—”
“No,” Steve cuts her off, “no. Welcome. Merry Christmas. Thank you for coming out here.”
She smiles and shakes her head. “It didn’t feel right to take Bruce away. And I figured, there’s no reason we can’t still spend the holiday together.”
Pepper comes back into their sphere and passes two steaming mugs into their hands, taking Tony’s eggnog away in return. Tony feels disappointment for all of two seconds, until the smell of Pepper’s mulled cider reaches his nose. Hot damn. He sits down next to Steve on the couch and holds his cider while Steve removes his shoes and sets them aside, curling his toes into the carpet once he’s leaning back again.
It takes Tony all of five minutes to realize that Steve has an agenda. Not that he makes any grand gestures or protests, but his hand is always in contact with Tony: on his knee or looped gently around his wrist, or resting against his thigh. Even when he settles his arm over the back of the couch, his fingers flit through Tony’s hair and rub gently at the base of his neck.
It’s a lovely, lovely thing.
The people on the couch around them rotate constantly, as if it’s been choreographed. Honestly, Tony wouldn’t put it past a few of his team to have outlined some sort of game plan before he and Steve arrived. But it’s seamlessly done, keeping Steve’s smile bright and his laugh busy. He looks so relaxed that Tony catches himself staring, still and silent there amidst the conversation. Just taking him in.
The room’s glow dims a little at the recollection of what came before, and why this celebration is so significant.
He gets up to use the bathroom eventually, not from any physical need but more to stand for a moment in silence and as much darkness as the arc reactor ever allows, and listen to himself. Collect it all up again so he can come back out and last as long as he’ll need to. He squeezes Steve’s thigh as he stands from the couch and Steve’s fingers catch his at their curves, grip and slide before letting go.
The hallway is cool and dark when he reaches it, the bend at the end a comforting barrier he is anxious to pass. As he nears it, though, someone speaks just beyond the turn and he stops.
“…decided I’d just watch you. Watch over you. Make sure none of that shit ever happened again.”
That’s Clint. And it’s because Tony’s so overly tired that he doesn’t add it all up quickly enough to beat the voice that answers, that gives him an unwelcome twinge at what he’s not supposed to be overhearing.
“I can’t live like that. I’m not willing to do it.”
Tony steps back on instinct, but then Clint makes a sound that digs in between the ribs. Tony’s heart starts to hammer and he’s not sure why.
But Coulson continues. “Wait, just— wait a damn minute, Clint.” Tony’s never heard Coulson swear. His tone is the same as it always is, but that single added word carves new, disturbing furrows into it. “I know how I feel. And now I know how you feel. I’m not pretending I don’t just because I haven’t been willing to assume with you until now.”
He needs to not be here. But something ground down deep in him won’t let him leave. Maybe it’s being the unspoken of the team’s two leaders for so long, and he doesn’t know when the sense of obligation broke in and set up shop, but he can’t back off when it’s two of his teammates. His… friends. Steve would say he should leave them to it, trust them to do what is needed, but he’d also say Tony has a sworn duty to both of them. Even if technically he’s never accepted such a responsibility.
“I did it to you, Phil.”
But that, right there, changes everything. Tony’s guts seize up with a tightness he recognizes all too well. Duty or not, he will not be party to this sort of invasion, not when he’s gone through it so recently himself. His throat fills again with the taste of bile, the ghost of hospital disinfectant and the flavor of Steve saturated in sickness. A touch on his wrist that he’s still not convinced he deserved.
He’s trying to figure out a way to leave, quickly and without revealing himself, when Coulson speaks again.
“If what you need is me saying it, to your face, then you are not responsible for what happened to me. You didn’t stab me. You didn’t leave me there. You don’t need to protect me from yourself.”
Clint makes another of those sounds. It is so much more firmly entrenched than anything Tony felt, and has been simmering under there for far longer. Tony throws out caution and simply turns around. Goes back down the hall until the light of the living room spills back over him.
For all his super strength, Steve flags noticeably as the night deepens. He’s leaning fully back into the couch now, not sitting up anymore. His right hand rests motionless on the armrest where before, he gestured, waved his fingers while he chuckled and tapped his knee to make a point.
His other hand lies twined with Tony’s in Tony’s lap, never making the slightest motion of pulling away.
“Think I’m about to pass out,” Tony says during a lull, and gives a self-deprecating smile that Jennifer laughs and nods at. Bruce’s expression is far more discerning, already starting to stand up, but he says nothing, smiles warmly when his cousin looks his way to ask where she’ll be sleeping.
“Oh, your room’s all set,” Tony says, getting to his feet. He keeps his arm loose so that Steve has no need to stand himself, but Steve rouses anyway, scooting to the lip of the couch and rubbing his face. “I stuck you next to Bruce. Best room in the tower, actually, but don’t tell any of these idiots that.”
Jennifer chuckles again. She’s absolutely charming, no pretense anywhere in her voice or frame. Just genuinely amused, and it’s been far too long since Tony has felt even close to that. It stirs something bright and fragile inside him. He hopes she stays awhile.
Natasha is already at the door, accepting Jane’s wish of a Merry Christmas. Tony is in time to watch Thor clasp Natasha’s hand and hold it for too long to be considered a mere farewell. The way their eyes meet and hold says much more than the simple gesture can and while Jane’s smile is ever-present, it is the tentative, indefinable way in which Natasha’s features relax that arrests Tony partway through his goodbye to Rhodey.
Rhodey follows his gaze, then says, “Good,” and nods to himself. He gives Steve a light slap on the shoulder and takes leave for his own room two floors below.
Pepper leaves next with a long hug for Tony, and Clint and Coulson depart one after the other, following Bruce and his cousin. They’ve been silent ever since returning to the group, but Clint no longer keeps his distance, that ever-present few yards from Coulson at any one time. Tony eyes Steve to see if he’s noticed, but can’t fault him for being tied up in his own cares; if Steve has noted it, it’s not on his mind now.
“JARVIS, lights down,” Tony says as soon as the door closes behind Natasha. He can still feel the firm press of her lips against his cheek, the touch of her fingers under his jaw to hold him in place. The room dims, filling instead with the light coming in off the snow outside. In the corner, the Christmas tree glows. “And Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas to the both of you, sirs.”
Tony marks the faint smile on Steve’s face as he leads him down the hall to his room.
They manage to brush their teeth without knocking elbows, and Tony stays in the bathroom to wash his face. Splash water on it and let it flow down to his throat, more like, and the act is comforting. He repeats it a couple times before drying off, then stares at himself in the mirror waiting to feel some sort of the usual dread, but his mind finally seems to be too tired even for that and he shuts off the bathroom light when he leaves.
The bed is a pool of warm yellow, but the rest of the room is grays and blacks. Stripes of silver spool in over the floor where the moonlight hits the snow tumbling past. It’s thick now, building in mounds against the glass. Steve’s already dressed in his t-shirt and sweats, with the blanket settled over his knees. Seeing him ensconced again on his side of the bed is more than a little gratifying. Tony fumbles at his shirt buttons with inefficient fingers. He walks over to the bed, shucking his jeans along the way, steps right out of them to kneel on the mattress in his boxers and undershirt. The cool air against his bare legs makes him hiss, and Steve pulls the blankets back long enough to get him under them.
They settle as one into the pillows, and Tony can feel Steve’s sigh answering his own. For a second, the silence hangs, oddly heavy.
“Hey,” Steve murmurs.
“Is for horses.”
Steve exhales sharp through his nose and pulls Tony to his side with one arm. Tony turns until he’s lying bodily against Steve, head in the crook between shoulder and neck. God, the last time they were here— He shuts his eyes and exhales as well, trying for a cleanse. It partially works, and Steve’s grip on him tightens a little. Tony settles his hand against the other side of Steve’s neck, thumb lingering over the flutter of his pulse.
“Thank you. For getting them all here tonight.”
Tony shrugs. “Nothing to it, Cap.”
“Feels really good to be here,” Steve says. He sounds particularly wondering and Tony smiles.
“If you want to put it mildly.” He wants to kiss Steve, pull his clothing off him and get as close as he can, stroke him hard and hot and bring him down slowly, ply his mouth until words no longer matter, and rememorize every sound he makes. But it’s a steady, distant sort of need, having existed since the moment Steve opened his eyes and looked at Tony in medical earlier this evening, and at this exact moment, Tony can’t quite see it. Oh, he wants it, like he wants oxygen. Like he wants to forget everything he ever did on that frozen, ravaged street in Lower Manhattan. But even more, he wants Steve, all of him. His smell, his skin, his taste and touch. The rise and fall of his chest, and his heat forever beating into Tony, and that tinge of salt in the soft hollow of his throat just centimeters from Tony’s mouth. He kisses Steve as soon as he thinks it, dashes the tip of his tongue over Steve’s flesh. Steve turns his head into it, muscles shifting beneath Tony’s fingers, and utters a sound low in his throat. Tony hugs him close with arms and legs, and shuts his eyes again.
He wakes in the dark, alone.
The other side of the bed is empty, the blankets bunched in close around him. Tony’s body jumps on its own, a horrible sort of spasm. He dreamt it. He dreamt Steve. His fingers close around the duvet, fisting so hard his knuckles burn. Is Steve still in medical? Or did he… is he even—
A low shuffing sounds to his left.
Against the window’s ambient light, Steve stands unclothed, the slope of his hip in sharp relief. His skin is half shadowed, half filmed by the snow’s reflection. His far arm is raised, elbow crooked outward as he towels his hair dry, the noise that caught Tony’s attention. Steve breathes serenely, the dips of his ribs limned in silver, the firm arc of his thigh. The hook of his pelvis and the shadow of hair. He stares out at the snow, now still and layered on the other side of the glass.
Steve’s chest and stomach look smooth, though the light is deceptive, making it hard to pick out any scarring. Maybe he has none, the damage entirely healed. His skin looks downy soft, dusted with the glint of fine hair across his arms and legs. Tony feels his own breath slowing, his heartbeat dipping back into a resting rate.
Steve turns his head, fixes Tony with dark eyes. Naked, unapologetic. Steve just looks him over, as slow as honey. The room is so damned silent it’s eerie, muffled like snowfall. Steve’s body turns as well as he faces the bed again, and Tony catalogues the change in light, the new planes revealed and the ones hidden.
When Steve finally moves, he closes in on the bed with purpose, kneeing onto the mattress before Tony can pull back the covers. Steve’s bangs cling damply to his forehead, strands of darkness across his skin. It makes him look somnolent and used, and so damned interrupted.
“You alright?” Tony asks.
Steve doesn’t answer. Tony reaches for him, uncertain, but Steve draws the blankets out of the way and swings a leg over Tony’s thighs, straddles him with a slow fatalism. He lowers down, bare atop Tony’s boxers, all humidity and warmth pooling in his pelvis. Tony’s spine straightens, knees rising almost on their own, and Steve settles against him.
“Feel like I’m shaking out of my skin,” Steve breathes. His lips trip over Tony’s chin, his mouth, his upper lip just to the side of his nose, a nervous skitter.
And Steve is indeed shaking, minute trembles like there is something hard pressed just beneath his flesh, vibrating off of his bones and tangled up in threads of muscle. Tony grabs hold of him, can’t get his hands to unlock. “What’s wrong, what’s—” To his knowledge, Steve Rogers has never had surgery, never mind Captain America, and it works for other people but they have no idea what it might do to him, long-term damage when they should have just let it alone, the serum might have been all he needed, an immaculate microcosm like the turning of a planet’s ages, but instead they dug on in there and cut and sliced and thrashed around—
“You,” Steve grunts, and Tony’s thoughts flatline. Steve catches his face in both hands and presses their noses together, breathing harshly over his mouth. “You don’t… I’ve never been more terrified, Tony, do you even.” He kisses Tony, full and loose, searching him through, just— finding him in there, yanking him up and out.
When he pulls back, it’s not far enough to break the connection. Their noses still rub, almost like the scenting of animals, as if Steve is trying to inundate himself with Tony or vice versa. “I needed to keep you there. Didn’t know what would happen to you if I let go, the idea of you going up, somewhere I couldn’t follow—”
Tony groans and pushes forward into another kiss, splaying a hand over Steve’s spine and cinching Steve against him. All the things he couldn’t say before, in hospital rooms under the click and beep of machines he didn’t invent, come sliding out. “No, that was the last place, the worst, you were dying and I tried and I, anywhere but there, Steve, wanted you as far away as I could get you—”
“Only place to be was with you,” Steve says with a finality that judders in Tony’s belly, more helpless and fraught than he has ever felt. He squeezes Steve too tightly, he can feel it’s too tight, it’s hurting his fingers, for fuck’s sake, but Steve just kisses him again, bucks close and fits them perfectly together. Rips all his protests away.
The way Steve clutches at him, tongues deep into his mouth and rolls his whole body against Tony’s is a little frightening. There’s something Steve can’t seem to find a way to say, something Tony is very familiar with in concept, but this is far beyond the mere idea. This is blood and bones, a reptilian brain truth that has no words because it wasn’t fashioned in a time of words. This is touch and taste, the recognition of heartbeats and the scrape of fingernails, getting inside as thorough and raw as possible and leaving marks, indelible as muscle memory.
“This— might be rough,” Steve gasps, his voice caged with audible effort. Tony scrabbles, shoves all the blankets and pillows out of the way, shaking his head and pulling at Steve’s body, he can take anything for this, don’t care, I don’t care, just—
Steve wrestles with the drawer on his side of the bed and folds a tube into one of Tony’s hands. But then it’s too hard to concentrate on using it, because Steve’s mouth is back on his, sliding down to his throat and up again, teeth sharp and potent over tender flesh. Tony gives up completely at one point, rocking into Steve full bodied, craving each thrust fiercely, not even caring anymore if they get off this way or if it’s inside him, but then Steve—
Oh god, Steve. He fumbles the tube away from Tony and snicks it open, and coats Tony’s fingers. Grabs Tony’s wrist and guides it behind his own body.
“Sure?” It’s a rasp, not a word, but Steve nods, kissing him halfway through it, hitching up into Tony and then changing to slow, razing rolls that send chills up Tony’s spine, over his face and into the follicles of his hair. He pushes his fingers into Steve without thought and Steve whimpers against his lips.
He gets two in before he remembers that he’s still clothed, damn it all to hell, and he must say something to that effect because Steve pulls upright, working Tony’s shirt up and his boxers down with brutal efficiency. Tony kicks them off, hating the leaching away of the intense heat building between them, but then Steve resettles, mouthing his way across Tony’s bare chest, giving the reactor special attention, and Tony falls in love all over again with the way the blue light washes Steve’s face, sets his eyes glinting. Steve kisses openmouthed right at the edge of the metal before pulling up off of Tony’s fingers completely. He reaches around, grabs Tony’s wrist and holds it still, and then lowers himself down onto Tony instead.
Tony freezes as the incredible heat surrounds him. But Steve doesn’t freeze, Steve keeps going. Tony’s not sure what kinds of noises he’s making, what shapes he’s kneading into Steve’s flesh, just that it doesn’t stop, it’s relentless, and then suddenly it does stop and he’s in Steve, all the way to the hilt.
Steve’s fingers are long, hot stripes on Tony’s neck. He turns Tony’s head gently and kisses him humid on his upper lip. His breath jumps over Tony’s flesh because even now, Steve’s not ready for sex, his body is still tight and shaking, Tony can feel each tremor radiating from Steve’s muscles. Steve exhales his name, leans to the side and presses his mouth just in front of Tony’s ear and holds him there, and, and hitches forward with his hips—
“God, Steve,” Tony gasps. He turns into Steve’s mouth and begs the kiss, hands clenched around Steve’s thighs, can’t help but push up, force him close with his knees, and Steve makes this sound that he bites off. But it’s done, it’s over, Steve’s hips are moving now, choppy rolls like he can’t keep still anymore.
“Stop, stop, wait.” Tony grips Steve as hard as he can, arching because there’s no other way to stave off the lightning rush up his spine. But Steve shudders to a halt, a pained grunt erupting from him, trailed by swift huffs of breath. Tony forces his eyes open and takes Steve’s face in both hands, turning it up to his. Steve’s eyes are fever hot, pupils blown. There’s a sheen of sweat over his forehead, and Tony can taste each breath as it rushes over his mouth. He skirts Steve’s brows and cheekbones with this fingertips, slides one against the underside of Steve’s lower lip and lifts up to tongue the pale swipe he leaves behind. “You ready, you’re, are you—”
In answer, Steve cants his hips and Tony clamps his teeth into the inside of his lip, groaning at the wave of heat and the brief taste of iron. Okay. O— okay, then. He’s worried for a moment, that this will all rush by him and he’ll be left grasping after it, cheated by a memory not snatched quickly enough, but then Steve shudders, a different sort of spasm, and it slams down in Tony what he needs tonight, what Steve is really after.
It’s gone before he can get hold of it, but he knows he’s onto something. Somehow he stops Steve’s body again— damned if he understands the mechanics of halting a full grown man five times as strong— but he does it, he pushes up, twists at the waist and unbalances their established hold. Steve goes with him as if dazed beyond thought, reactions sluggish, and by the time Tony turns him down on his back over the sheets, he’s already forgotten how he managed to do it, just that Steve is under him and he likes that feeling, likes covering him, shielding the most precious of what he’s been offered. Caging the world out with his own body.
He kisses Steve, desperate. It’s a little obscene, he thinks, how dismantled he feels, how out of control the movement of his own mouth. It’s slow, and thorough, pulling Steve’s taste back into himself when it had come too close to washing away. Steve surrenders so quickly Tony’s breath seizes. He melts up into Tony. It’s as intimate as any sex they’ve had, this single kiss, far deeper than the deepest and roughest of Steve’s thrusts into his body, far more ruinous than Steve’s whole hand inside him or Tony’s mouth opening Steve up. Far more piercing than the sounds he has shaken out of Steve’s throat, catalogued and remembered and remembered and remembered. The wordless confessions he’s made to Steve while so beside himself with sensation that he can barely recall who he is.
And Steve opens up to him utterly, to this kiss. He grabs onto Tony’s hand. Widens his thighs and hooks his calves around Tony’s, and heaves him so close their sweat slips together over their chests.
Tony’s thrusts draw long and deep, as deep as he can make them, until he feels like each one is touching all of Steve there is to reach. It’s a claiming, from what, he doesn’t ever again want to give voice to, but he’s going to get Steve back from it completely and never let him stumble down that road again. He wants Steve taken and unraveled, absolutely his once more.
Wants to be Steve’s. No room for doubt.
Tony pulls back, urges Steve up again until his shoulders hunch into the headboard, the rest of his body slipping down as if Tony pushed him there and then could not hold him up. His fingers dig hard into Tony’s forearm as Tony thrusts deep, punching a sharp groan from Steve’s lungs. Steve tucks him even closer, like he’s folding Tony into him, slides his hands down over Tony’s ass and hooks fingers round the backs of his thighs and pulls him forward, as if he could get any further inside.
Fuck, he’s going to come. He’s going to come like this, without any control. Tony feels frantic in a way he never has, and also calm somehow, knowing that this is where he is, who he’s with. Tony’s so fucking thankful, and it punctures fiercely, the reality of that fear tightening his veins all over again, and he just needs.
Steve’s breaths come in gusts, steady as a heartbeat, steady as their rhythm. His eyes climb heavy over Tony’s face, clinging everywhere they alight. His legs tighten at Tony’s sides, heels hooking together at the base of his spine, and he tugs himself closer, upright, urges them together chest to chest again, his arms sweaty and slick, gathering Tony in until his face is pressed panting to Tony’s shoulder. Tony shifts Steve at the waist, hitches forward and up, and Steve gasps, frayed non-words that punctuate each thrust. Steve turns his mouth to Tony’s throat and tries to kiss him, but doesn’t quite manage it. The knowledge of it shoots straight down into Tony’s abdomen and knots tight. Steve cups a hand around the back of his head, fingers clenching, making pained noises until Tony finds his mouth, and then Steve moans against his lips, face fraught so beautifully that Tony can’t keep silent, can never keep silent when it’s Steve, “Love you, love you so fucking much, I—”
Steve tightens in his arms, head to toes, and comes, his head bobbing back. Tony breathes more truths into the skin of his throat, thrusts again, again, feels it when Steve presses openmouthed just in front of Tony’s ear. His climax ratchets through him, almost painful, and he squeezes Steve to him so hard the muscles of his arms cramp.
He comes back to himself knowing he’s moved, no longer sitting upright but now irrevocably tangled in Steve, and the sheets, the wrong way across the bed and so, so drained he can barely think about moving. Steve does move, a little twitch that has Tony clamping his arms tighter to hold him still. He finds bare skin with his lips— there’s a lot of it, all of it smelling of sex and sweat and Steve— and laves it, sucks it, mouths at it until he can’t distinguish the taste from his own. Steve’s hands roam a steady track up and down his sides and legs, feeling him nearly from top to bottom, dragging in places, clutching on as if Tony is stealing the power of movement from him. He can feel Steve’s body still clenching up, riding aftershocks. It’s glorious. He wants so very badly all over again.
Where is his body, and where is Steve’s, and where do they part? He’s no longer fucking sure.
If it were a choice— if he could stay in Steve like this for as long as he breathes, until that shrapnel finally reaches his heart and stills him for good, he’s pretty sure he’d do it.
His first thought upon waking opens like petals, as gradually as his eyelids.
Steve’s uniform, upgrade.
Tony’s got the flex and give down, and now protection from the elements, but he can remake it to withstand more of an assault, integrate some sort of vibranium weave with the fabric, something that will preclude even his suit from—
The idea freezes. Tony clamps down on it and inhales as calmly as he can.
The room is bathed in washed out winter light: mid morning, maybe. On the side of the bed farthest from the windows, draped over Tony’s front exactly where he was when they fell asleep, Steve lies loose and pliant, so very warm. His breath skates over Tony’s chest and his fingers form a heated clutch at his side.
There’s a scent to the room, underneath the musk, that Tony has missed, and he knows it’s all Steve. Never was quite able to quantify it, but its former absence is all the more glaring now that it has returned. Steve smells like summer, if summer has a smell. Like hard work and clean sweat. Like light, if Tony can be forgiven the indulgence.
He strokes circles, feather-light across Steve’s bare shoulder and stares hard at the ceiling to keep his mind still.
“Whatever it is, it’ll be alright,” Steve murmurs against his chest.
Tony shifts at the sound, and Steve stretches, enough to elongate his body and press his nose up into the crook of Tony’s throat. The slide of his body up the length of Tony’s feels so damn right. “Merry Christmas,” Steve murmurs. Tony can feel the tickle of his lashes as his eyes drift shut again.
It’ll be alright.
“How do you know?” he asks. He’s left it too long for coherency, he thinks, but Steve’s arm slips tighter around his ribs.
“Because I’m going to make certain it is.”
Steve’s asking what he needs to do. But this one, this time, is all on Tony. If he just says it, it won’t be the trial it’s trying to be.
“I scrapped the suits,” he whispers.
Two easy breaths. “All of them?”
Tony presses his fingers against his eyelids, presses the sunlight out and turns from the glare. “It can’t happen again.” Each word is its own statement. And then, “I was afraid of them.”
Not… of being hurt. Afraid of what they could do, as if some part of him had never really accepted that until he was forced to watch it happen. Like a dog that suddenly bites, and afterward the look in those eyes is never quite the same.
“I’m not,” Steve says at last. So simple, every ounce truth.
“I’ve never been afraid of my own tech. Not—” Tony waves a hand lightly. “Not something I’ve had my hands on, my blood and sweat in. The weaponry was different, it wasn’t… wasn’t mine. My baby.”
“Are you still afraid of it?”
He doesn’t want to be. “I’m not sure.”
Again Steve pauses. His lips press gently to Tony’s chest. “You know I want you in the air above me.”
Tony nods. That’s never been in question. Tony wants to be in the air above Steve, watching his six, watching him.
Steve inhales, slow. “But whatever you decide… However you want to do that? Or not do it. That’s for you. It’s never been my call. Up there, you make the decisions. That’s your sky.”
Tony gives a tiny chuckle, more a breath than anything else. “And Thor’s.”
“And Thor’s,” Steve agrees, a smile in his voice. But Tony gets the difference. It isn’t the same with Thor, who was born to fly, at home in the wind like blood thrumming through veins. He is a child of the elements. Tony is the one who leapt off the ground and took to the air in spite of it all, in order to say that he could, that he did, who smirked at what had been designated his and straightaway reached even higher. He wishes he could show Steve how it feels to fly, how some part of it sings to him even now, as battered as his wings are.
It’s a lot like being in love, and he misses it, like he missed Steve, so viscerally. Part of his body just ripped away. But he feels like he’s still bleeding somewhere and he can’t… he just…
“I need to be a part of this team.” It shakes out of him, on the edge of a profound and helpless sadness. “This family. I need you. Steve, I need you in so many other ways than, than this, I… it’s incalculable. I can’t see the edges of it, and I don’t know what I’d do if I had to go back to being what I was. By myself.”
The funny thing is, he survived for years by himself. Decades. And now he cannot return there, cannot imagine that reality or how he once made his way through it. Cannot imagine what his life would descend into, without Steve in it.
“I’ll never let you be by yourself, Tony,” Steve says. “Whatever happens next. Not for one second.”
God, he could climb inside this man, wrap his heart snug in Steve Rogers and know that it will always be cradled there, safe as houses. He has no idea how to say it, to acknowledge that he’s aware of what this is. The best he can do is turn in bed, tuck his arms around Steve and nestle in close, hook his ankle around the crook of Steve’s knee and hug Steve’s whole body to him. He splays a palm over Steve’s nape and curls his fingers to hold him still, presses his face to the sweep of hot skin under Steve’s chin. Breathes.
Steve will never know how much Tony loves him, because Tony doesn’t know. He’s still figuring it out, still shocking himself with how much more there always is than he realized.
“Like this,” he finds himself mumbling. Steve’s skin is silken and salty against his lips. He kisses Steve’s throat again and again, slow and smooth, a heartbeat at rest. “Please?”
Somehow, Steve pulls him even closer.
When they finally climb out of bed and into clothing— no mean feat for Tony, but he’s not about to take Steve’s Christmas away from him— they shuffle down a few floors to the kitchen, where they find Jennifer halfway through a batch of waffles. She’s wearing loose pajama pants and one of Bruce’s old college sweatshirts, unzipped over a camisole, and she’s laughing with Jane by the stove as she balances another waffle on top of a piping hot stack. When she sees Tony, she stops, spatula in hand.
“Hope you don’t mind.”
Tony waves her off. “Team kitchen. If one of them said to go for it—”
“I did,” Clint says from the dining table, mouth full of waffle and… blueberries. Coulson chews silently next to him, looking the most unkempt Tony’s ever seen in jogging pants and a shawl collar sweater.
“—you’re good to go,” Tony finishes.
Everyone filters down gradually, and they all end up in the TV room, piled into chairs with plates balanced on laps. Natasha wanders in sleepily just as they’re making the transition, then Bruce arrives with cartons of fruit juice from his lab refrigerator. Rhodey trots in last, barefoot and sporting a Santa hat, which begins making the rounds as soon as he enters the room. The Christmas tree is still upstairs in Tony’s penthouse, but someone’s hung garlands like the ones downstairs across one of the walls, and decorated the TV itself almost beyond recognition with red and gold ribbon.
And slapped a hand-drawn fire in a fireplace over the screen. It really is worthy of tears.
Tony spends his breakfast settled between Steve’s legs on the couch, letting Steve eat off the same plate. Someone, money’s on Thor, went out at some godawful hour and brought back a Hefty bag full of Steve’s favorite bagels, compliments of the proprietors, along with different tubs of cream cheese in a stack almost as tall as the television itself.
No one has any presents for anyone. Honestly, Tony didn’t expect any; Steve has been present enough. So it’s a bit of a surprise when Coulson pulls himself off the lounge chair— where he’s been sitting firmly against Clint’s side since they came into the room— and walks over to Tony, holding out a small object.
“For you,” he says. It’s the first thing he’s uttered all morning.
Tony looks around. Steve is, of course, watching silently, but aside from Clint, whose eyes have yet to leave Coulson for any notable length of time, everyone else is busy chattering and laughing, threatening each other with syrup and plastic knives dolloped with shmear.
Tony reaches out. “I didn’t get you anything.”
Coulson’s lips curve, just a little. “This is from SHIELD.”
He hands Tony a sleek little flash drive on a black lanyard. At first it looks like the one from Hill. But this one is longer and slightly thinner. Tony turns it over in his hand, then passes it to Steve so he can look. “What’s on it?”
Coulson lowers his voice, and that’s noticeable, Tony’s already frowning when—
“All of the computer files we pulled off Hammer’s system.”
Tony’s hand tightens around his fork, the metal biting into his flesh. He stares at Coulson. Feels it when Steve places the flash drive reverently back into his palm and folds his fingers over it. He frees the fork from Tony’s grip and doesn’t say a word.
“Are you…” Tony takes a second to swallow. “Is this the virus?”
“The making of. The implementation of. The backbone and the code mutations, everything we could find.”
His stomach sucks tight and achy, plunging him back into that day like a thick curl of smoke in his nostrils. The snow. The wind. Steve’s dark red blood. He has to force his fingers not to clench and break the stick. He stares up at Coulson and Coulson looks calmly back until Tony drops his eyes down to the little piece of tech in his hand.
“Thank you,” he whispers. “I’m. Thank you. Phil.”
Coulson’s mouth quirks. He looks beyond Tony at something and gives a little nod, almost to himself, before retreating once again to the seat beside Clint.
Steve’s arm settles firmly against Tony’s hip, his hand curving just over the outside of Tony’s thigh. He pushes bare toes under Tony’s knee and wiggles them once. Tony plays with the lanyard with his fingertips, and cradles the drive as if it is made of the finest eggshell.
It’s a quiet New Years. The snow turned into sleet mid-morning, then whipped away in a freezing wind. Not a single door separating the tower from the city has opened all day.
“Alright, JARVIS, light her up.” Tony keeps his voice low and JARVIS answers back accordingly.
“Running now, sir. Time to completion is two minutes, seven seconds.” Blue spills into the room like a fountain over the walls.
On the lab’s ancient couch, Steve’s hand curls gently across the open pages of the sketchbook. The pencil has slipped free of his fingers and rolled down into the binding. On the paper, Tony can see a rough outline of himself in a smudge of a tank top, the bare muscles of his arms tense as his fingers dash through the air, scattering the ghostly wisps of projections and words.
Steve breathes in a nasal half-snore, the way he always does when he falls asleep with his lips parted. Tony pauses, then walks to the couch. He crouches and carefully lifts Steve’s hand from the art book to his lips.
Steve’s healing is slow, for all the power of the serum; it shows in the way his energy levels suddenly spike and drop. But he’s getting stronger, returning quickly to his old state.
For now, though, the lab is warm, the couch big enough and cushy enough, and Tony has work to do.
Or he will, in a little over two minutes. He settles silently to his knees on the floor at Steve’s side and just looks. God, but he’s beautiful. Tony couldn’t create anything so innately pleasing. It’s the life force, he knows. Even asleep, Steve is brimming with it, and a piece of Tony yearns, more than for breath or purpose or creation itself, to wield that kind of force, to wind it into the thread-work of his machinery and bring it properly into this world. Steve is a grail Tony can’t possibly drink out of, but he can hold it, stroke its imperfect arcs. Worship it.
He shifts his grip, cradles Steve’s hand in both of his own. Steve’s breathing changes subtly; his fingers twitch. And it’s that kind of thing Tony feels he will never capture in his works of metal, but he will try and try and try, and the trying will be the whole point. The celebration.
He feels the change when Steve wakes, and passes fingers over his forehead, brushing blond hair back. Steve murmurs. His back arches a little and his eyelids lift, just barely.
“Oh. Hey.” His voice is hoarse with sleep he hasn’t fully left yet, and he smiles.
Tony leans in and kisses his lips, relishes the sense of motion like heat in his chest as Steve rises into it, folds closer to him with the scarcest of actual movement. “Afternoon.”
“Finished?” But he’s slipping back already, his consonants drawing together, fuzzy at the end. Tony makes a noncommittal sound. Dummy rolls up with a scrap of blanket, and after a few seconds’ useless shuffling, Tony takes pity and helps him spread it out over Steve’s shins.
“Second limb for you next,” he informs his robot. Steve chuckles, but it’s just a breath and a curve of lips. A second later, he’s breathing steadily again, his fingers threaded between Tony’s.
“Diagnostic complete,” JARVIS offers quietly.
Tony eases out of Steve’s grip and gets to his feet. “So?”
“The new interface has not integrated successfully with the mainframe. Additional security protocols in place.”
He shuts his eyes and keeps his hands from darting toward things to throw. It’s an infantile system— his father could have waltzed through it before computers were even a drunken daydream— and yet…
It’s been so long since he had to write this sort of interface from scratch. Years since the very first suit shuddered up from the ground, since JARVIS pushed himself through tangles of imperfect coding and forced control over a system that shouldn’t have worked at all, and ever since, Tony’s been building on it, building and building and taking for granted all the very basic baby steps it took to fortify that foundation.
Two days since he steeled himself and uploaded what Coulson’s flash drive had to offer, since he finally took his first good look without trembling at what it brought forward, and… he’s missing something. He’s lost it somewhere in this big damn brain of his, codes he once knew like he knows Steve’s body. Never mind counteracting Hammer’s virus; he can’t even get a decent skeleton up and running. He feels like someone’s punched his mind full of holes and then covered them over with particle board, smooth enough on the surface but it just doesn’t fucking hold up.
He tries another code, lets his fingers walk without thought, just instinct, and for the next few minutes— but the interface buckles and he doesn’t need JARVIS to explain the cascade glittering in front of his eyes. Doesn’t need the projections raining failed code like sheets of water.
Seventh time today.
Tony slumps down onto his stool and tries not to hate the draconian edict he decreed upon the suits. He doesn’t regret what he did. What had to be done. But he could have used the Mark VIII’s interface schematic at least, the one they barely budged. The IX would have been even more impervious, and he can’t remember what he fucking did to get there.
“Given the current rate.” He draws a deep breath. “My miscalculations and my… my attempts to code a cohesive interface. Taking into account the last two days, how long will it take to—” Just say it, say where it is he’s already yearning to be. Little pinpricks lancing through a smothering darkness. “To get me into the air again.”
JARVIS answers without hesitation, though his delivery is gentler than usual. “Three months, eight days and twenty-three hours.”
“Damn it. Fuck, fuck.” Tony reminds himself with difficulty that self-hatred is counterproductive. And Steve is still asleep. “Alright. Alright.” He sniffs and forces his mouth flat. “Erase it. Starting the Mark IX again, new code from scratch.”
JARVIS pauses; it’s audible.
“As it happens, sir,” his AI says slowly, “I believe I may be able to supply you with a template of what came before.”
Tony stills, doesn’t breathe for long enough that his chest begins a distant ache. “Oh, you shifty S.O.B.,” he whispers. Can’t stop the smile, or the burn behind his eyes.
Tony lays a palm gently on the nearest console, spreads his fingers, and just… feels the thrum of his machines.