"Wait, wait, wait, you haven't heard the best part yet. You're gonna love this. Are you ready? It's going to be purple."
Steve almost choked on his hot dog. "Purple?"
Tony beamed with pride. "Yep. You'll be able to see it for miles."
"I'm picturing it now," Steve said dryly. "Tell me again why it has to be purple?"
"Because," Tony said with exaggerated patience. "Have you seen his costume? It's obviously our little archer's favorite color. And also because I'm a little bit of a dick that way. You know, I might promise to build you this totally cool sky cycle, but if you weren't thinking ahead enough to request your own color scheme, then it's not my fault that it's going to turn out purple."
"Of course it's not your fault," Steve said – but he couldn't help smiling a little. He offered his second hot dog to Tony. "Want some?"
Tony made a face and shook his head. "Are you kidding me with those? Do you even know what's in those things? On second thought, you really don't want to know. Trust me."
"Your loss," Steve said, and began wolfing down the second dog. He had eaten lunch earlier, but that was three hours ago, and he was hungry again.
They stood together in silence on the street corner, Steve finishing his snack, Tony surveying the pedestrians as they hurried past. Hidden behind designer sunglasses and a dark suit that retained its crisp lines even in the unusual autumn heat, few people even gave him a second glance. A slightly higher number looked at Steve, their brows creasing as though they tried to remember where they had seen him from, but no one connected the noble Captain America with the guy in the polo shirt eating a hot dog.
Steve was glad for the anonymity. He loved New York. He loved going out on the streets and just walking or riding the subway, his destination unknown until he actually got to someplace and he decided that this was it, this was where he ended up for the day. But even more, he loved when Tony came with him, and he got to share his mysterious journeys with the man he had fallen in love with.
It still amazed him a little when he thought about it like that, like he was taking that fateful step all over again. Six months ago he hadn't even known who Tony Stark was. But then, six months ago he had also never heard of Loki or the Chitauri or the Avengers.
A lot of things had changed on that terrible day when the Avengers had first come together. His entire world view had shifted, forcing him to accept that there were things in this world such as demi-gods from other realms and men who could turn into giant green rage monsters.
But it had taken another experience, a far more personal one, to reveal the truth about Tony Stark. For four long, terrible days on a distant planet called Ernor, where magic was the rule, not science, he and Tony had fought for their survival in a forest full of dangers. The Avengers had gone to that world to help the people prepare for an imminent attack by Thanos. Still new to the concept of being a team, Steve and Tony had argued incessantly the whole time, and the planet's Matriarch had not approved. In order to bind them to each other and force them to learn cooperation, a magic spell had been cast on them that had robbed Steve of his hearing and his ability to speak, while Tony had been blinded.
Even now, four months later, Steve still had terrible dreams about their journey through the Forest. Most often his nightmares took the shape of the beasts that lived there, feeding off the dark magic energy that thrived in those woods. Beasts that had nearly killed him and Tony, that would only stay dead if you believed they were dead, or else they would merely rise again, animated by magic and ready to tear your head off.
And now, as he did when he woke from such a nightmare, he found himself reaching out with one hand for Tony. Needing the reassurance of physical contact. During those four days in the Forest, touch was all they had had, the only means of communication, and the only way they had been able to stick together and stay alive.
He used it now, touching Tony's upper arm, then letting his hand glide down the sleeve of his suit jacket until his fingers brushed Tony's. For a moment they clasped hands.
Tony turned toward him. It was impossible to see his expression behind the sunglasses, but the corners of his mouth lifted in a smile.
Steve smiled back.
They leaned in at the same time. Just a quick kiss, standing there in the autumn sunshine on a New York sidewalk, but it made Steve feel a little funny inside, urging him to throw his arms out wide and shout his happiness to the entire world. He had never known he could feel this way, never known the power love could wield over him.
"If you just got mustard on my suit…" Tony said with a mock scowl.
Steve laughed. And that easily, the Forest was banished once more to the dark recesses of his memory. He saw again how bright and sunny the day was, silver spears of reflected sun bouncing off cars and windows alike. He balled up the wrapper his hot dog had come in, and tossed it into the nearest trash can. "Come on," he said.
"Where are we going?" Tony said. "If I could remind you, you came into my office and pulled me away from doing actual work for a change. Not that I'm complaining, because God knows any excuse will do, but still, I should make you be the one to explain my sudden MIA to Pepper."
"I'll tell her," Steve said. "Don't worry."
"Do I sound worried?" Tony said with a grin.
Steve never got a chance to answer. Far above their heads, something exploded.
Startled, he looked up. At first all he could see was a giant fireball and a huge cloud of smoke. As he stared, the fireball arced out from the skyscraper towering above them and into the sky over the street, where it exploded like a firework.
All around them, people began to scream and run.
"Steve!" Tony's body collided with his, arms wrapped about his chest. "Get down!"
Normally he couldn't be knocked down so easily, but he had been caught completely off guard. He was bowled off his feet, down and down, and as he fell, seeming to take forever, he had a crystal clear view of the debris raining down on them from the gaping hole torn in the skyscraper by the explosion.
He landed flat on his back, hard. The impact drove the breath from him with a whistling grunt. A split second later, Tony was on top of him, sunglasses gone, his face white with fear.
Steve saw it coming, but there was nothing he could do. He couldn't move, couldn't even find the breath to cry out a warning.
The stonework fell directly on top of them. There was a horribly loud crack.
Tony didn't make a sound. His entire body spasmed once, then he was still. He stared down at Steve, his eyes huge and horrified, and in that moment Steve saw that he was fully alert and aware. That he knew, long before anyone officially told him, what had just happened to him. Then he blinked, and his eyes glazed over with pain and incipient unconsciousness. He sagged against Steve's chest and did not move again.
Sirens wailed. High above them, something red and blue soared past and disappeared into the burning building. Seconds later, Steve heard the sounds of battle and destruction.
But he could only lie there, and do nothing.
Physically, he was not trapped. He could have moved. The once-decorative stonework that had toppled onto them had tumbled to the street and was no impediment to him now, and Tony's weight atop him was almost negligible. He could have joined the battle above and helped take out the villain who had caused this destruction.
Yet he dared not.
Lying there, he had a perfect view of the battle raging above. He saw a figure fly out of the skyscraper. The man was perched on a glider, and even at this distance, with smoke rolling into the sky, Steve thought he could see a green mask over his face. For a moment the flyer hovered in mid-air, then he took off, Spider-Man giving chase.
The wailing of sirens was louder than ever. Civilians were starting to come out from whatever shelter they had taken. Some of the injured people were shouting and begging for help. And lying draped across Steve's chest, Tony began to regain consciousness.
It took him a while. His eyelids fluttered and one hand twitched where it lay on Steve's chest. When he did finally wake up, it was with a sharp inhalation of breath – only to immediately tense up and cry out in pain.
Stuck here flat on his back, with Tony's head resting on his chest, Steve was not at a good angle to see much. He lifted his head up, craning his neck back, trying desperately to see what was happening.
What he saw was not encouraging. Tony's eyes were tightly squeezed shut, and he was deathly pale beneath his suntan. His breath came in short gasps; with every exhale, he made a small sound filled with such pain and fear that Steve could hardly bear it. "Tony?"
"Steve." Tony's hand scrabbled at his shirt. "Steve. I can't…ah God. I can't feel my legs."
Steve's heart constricted in terror. "Oh my God."
"No," Tony gasped. "No. God." He flailed with one hand, reaching downward, clawing for his leg. The abrupt movement nearly rolled him right off Steve's chest.
Steve lost all caution then. It might have been years since he had been at war, but he remembered his field medicine, and he knew that he could not let Tony move right now. Without thinking, he wrapped both arms around Tony – high up, though, across his shoulders, not his back – and held him still. "Don't," he said quickly. "Don't move."
"No!" Tony gasped. "I have to… Ah!" He cried out again.
"Don't," Steve said frantically. "It's okay, you'll be okay, but you can't move, Tony, okay? Just lie still, please. Please."
Tony did not seem to hear him. He struggled mindlessly against Steve's grip – which amounted to little more than desperate wriggling as he tried to get free. "Let go," he pleaded. "I have to… Please. Ah, God." He threw his head back, and now Steve could easily see the agony on his face. "Why… I can't feel my legs. Why does it hurt so much? Steve. Oh God, let go, let go, let go."
"I can't," Steve said in anguish. Maybe it wasn't too late yet. Maybe the numbness was just a result of the shock of injury, and it would wear off eventually. But if Tony thrashed around, there was no telling the damage that he might do to himself.
Maybe then it would be permanent.
People were yelling all around them. Steve looked around, trying to catch someone's eye. "Help! We need help here!"
"Steve." Tony's struggles weakened, but did not stop completely. "Steve. Please."
"I'm here," he breathed. "It's okay. I've got you. You're gonna be okay."
"No," Tony whispered. He was failing rapidly, his eyes closed, his breathing ragged and uneven. "Steve. Please."
"I've got you," Steve repeated, because he didn't know what else to do.
The scene at street-level was still one of chaos, but order was slowly being imposed. As Steve lay there, a man with broad shoulders came running up. "Hey," he said. He went down on one knee. "NYPD. Off-duty. Or so I thought. Are you hurt?"
"I'm not," Steve said. He wasn't actually sure, in truth, but he felt no pain other than a nagging soreness in his ribs, so he was fairly confident that he was all right. "But my friend is."
"No problem," said the cop. "I got ya." He reached for Tony's shoulder.
Immediately Steve lifted one hand and held him off. "No," he said. He glanced down at Tony, and saw that he was unconscious again. "Don't. Don't move him."
The cop stopped, and looked at him quizzically.
"You can't move him," Steve said again. "His back is broken."
The hospital was like a three-ring circus, with the media on one side, concerned friends and well-wishers on the other, and the Avengers in the middle.
Fortunately, no one seemed to expect Steve to play the role of ringmaster. Instead he watched gratefully as Natasha quietly and calmly took over.
She seemed to be everywhere on that long, terrible day. She was the one who met Pepper Potts and Colonel Rhodes when they arrived, less than half an hour apart from each other. She dealt with Director Fury and SHIELD. She fielded phone calls, directed visitors to a separate waiting room, and maintained a line of communication with the hospital staff.
Sitting apart from everyone, his hands clasped so hard they hurt, Steve envied her that ability to lose herself in activity in order to forget the pain. He had done it himself in the past, maybe a little too often, actually. But today he could not move. How could he throw himself into work when it was all he could do to keep breathing?
"You okay?" Clint asked as he sat beside Steve.
There was no real answer to this. Physically he was fine, with only an occasional twinge in his ribs. His pain stemmed from a different source, from something he could never hope to explain to anyone else.
So he said nothing.
"You know, Tony, he's a fighter," Clint said. "He's gonna be okay. You gotta believe that."
Steve did not look up at him. "He knew," he said. He kept his voice low, not wanting anyone else to hear. "I could see it in his eyes, right when it happened. He knew."
Clint made a pained noise. "Man, you gotta stop thinking about it. You'll drive yourself crazy that way." He paused. "Take it from someone who's been there."
"We've all been there," Natasha said as she walked up. Steve winced a little. He hadn't known she could hear their conversation. "Cap. Look at me."
Reluctantly he looked up. He couldn't really explain why he didn't want any of her attempts at comforting him. Maybe because he had seen how terrifyingly efficient she was at everything else. Part of him didn't want to be comforted. That part of him knew better.
He deserved this pain. This was his fault. They never would have been on that street if he hadn't pulled Tony away from his work at Stark Industries.
Natasha gazed down at him, her eyes soft with compassion. "What happened wasn't your fault," she said. "There was nothing you could have done about it. What's important is that you did everything you could once you had some part of it back under your control."
"Did I?" he asked softly.
"Yes, you did," Natasha said firmly. "And Clint is right. You have to stop beating yourself up, and wallowing in it. It's not going to do anyone any good, and it's certainly not going to help Tony."
"I don't know what else to do," he admitted. "All I can do is just…sit here."
"No," Natasha said. "You can go talk to Rhodes. He's been trying to get five minutes alone with you ever since he got here, but I've been putting him off." She looked at him consideringly. "Maybe I shouldn't have done that."
It wasn't an order, but Steve took it to heart. He knew full well that it was the only way he would get up off his ass and actually do something. And it was surprising how much better he felt now that he had something to do, even something as ordinary as this. "Where is he?"
"The waiting room on the third floor," Natasha said. "That's where all the rest of them are."
It took a moment for her words to sink in. He blinked. "All the rest of them?"
She smiled a little. "Maybe you forgot," she said, "but Tony Stark has a lot of friends."
"No, he doesn't," Steve said immediately.
Her smile thinned. "Exactly."
And suddenly he understood why she had sent everyone else down to the third floor, away from the real action. He didn't think people like Colonel Rhodes and Pepper should have been banished like that, but he wasn't about to question Natasha's reasoning. Not when she had done all this for Tony's sake, protecting him in the only way she could. Everyone here was desperate for news, but by keeping the Avengers separate, they avoided the frantic questions and rumors, and preserved some illusion of dignity.
He could have hugged her for that.
He stood up. "All right," he said. "I'll go. But if you hear anything…"
"Someone will come get you," Natasha reassured him.
"Thank you," Steve said. He walked toward the door, then stopped. "Um."
"Elevator's down the hall," Natasha said. "Turn left when you get off. The waiting room is a couple doors down."
"Thanks," he said again, and left.
The waiting room on the third floor was nearly full. Steve stood in the doorway, and in that first instant when no one had yet seen him, he looked around at all the people who had come, and his heart clenched painfully in his chest.
Pepper Potts sat in the center of the room, still dressed in a crisp business suit despite the late hour. She was clutching a Kleenex in one hand and talking on the phone. On her left, Happy Hogan glared at anyone who dared to get too close to them, narrowing his eyes as though he could keep them away by the force of his stare alone.
Reed Richards, his wife Sue, and someone Steve vaguely remembered as being named Hank were talking quietly. A short, dark-haired woman wearing a designer dress was on the phone as well, her free hand gesturing a lot as she talked away a mile a minute. A blond woman with a ponytail and a NASA insignia on her jacket was leafing through a magazine; Steve recognized her as the Stark Industries liaison with the space agency. Two SHIELD agents stood awkwardly in another corner, trying unsuccessfully to blend into the beige walls. A small cluster of men and women in business attire stood in the other corner; one of them was still wearing the laminated badge emblazoned with the SI logo.
And in an uncomfortable chair near the door, Colonel Jim Rhodes sat ramrod straight, staring right at Steve.
Steve cleared his throat.
Everyone looked up at once. "I'm going to have to call you back," Pepper said quickly, and put her phone away.
Suddenly realizing what they all expected, Steve said, "I'm not here to… I don't have any news."
Faces fell. The woman on the phone looked distressed; her name was either Jan or Joan, he remembered. Pepper sighed tremulously.
Steve looked over at Rhodes. "You wanted to see me?"
Rhodes stood up. "Yeah," he said. He walked over, and with a touch on Steve's shoulder, guided him out into the hallway.
They walked back nearly as far as the elevators. Then Rhodes said, "I want to know what happened. Why the hell wasn't he in the suit?"
Steve blinked. "Why would he?"
Rhodes gave him an astonished look. "Bad guy? Explosions? Tony might be reckless, but even he wouldn't go charging into…" He trailed off as comprehension dawned on his face. "Shit. It wasn't your bad guy, was it?"
Steve shook his head. "We weren't there as Avengers." It felt like days had passed since he had so cheerfully offered Tony his hot dog, not mere hours. "We were just…walking."
"Wrong place at the wrong time," Rhodes sighed. "Yeah, I get it." He dropped his gaze, visibly uncomfortable now. "Look, I, ah. This probably isn't my place, but you should know… Tony really loves you, man."
Steve's breath caught in his throat. He thought of lazy mornings in bed, and that killer smile that Tony reserved strictly for him. He remembered the baseball game and the way he had pressed Tony up against the glass of his private box, kissing him in front of everyone in the stadium. He remembered paint, swatches of bright crimson and gold on skin, Tony's eyes crinkling up with laughter as he tried not to laugh from the way the brush tickled. He felt the warmth as they lay together in bed, phantom letters traced on his back, spelling out words of love. "I know."
"No," Rhodes said. He looked Steve in the eye now. "You don't know, because you've only known Tony for, what, a year? Not even that. I've known him for over twenty years, and let me tell you, I've never seen him this way, the way he is about you."
The memories of happier times were shredded, vanished, as though they had never existed. Unable to speak, Steve just nodded.
"And this, if what they're saying is true…" Rhodes' eyes flashed. "This is gonna kill him. I can't even imagine it. So what I'm saying to you is, you better be there for him. You better be the man he thinks you are."
"I will," Steve said quietly. He didn't blame Rhodes for saying it. In the other man's place, he would have done exactly the same thing. But it was all right. He had every intention of being there for Tony, no matter what happened to them next.
"Good," Rhodes said. "Cause I'd hate to have to punch out an American icon." His expression lightened just enough to reassure Steve that he was – mostly – kidding.
There wasn't really anything to say after that. They looked at each other for a moment, shared a nod, and then Rhodes turned to go, heading back to the waiting room.
After a long moment, Steve walked over to the elevator and hit the up button. He didn't have long to wait before the car arrived, taking him back to the floor with the ICU.
He let out a slow breath and leaned against the back wall of the elevator. He hadn't known that Tony had discussed their relationship with Jim Rhodes, or with anyone, for that matter. Somehow he had never even thought about it, that what they shared might be a topic of conversation for someone else.
Of course, even before they had left Ernor and its magic behind, it had been obvious that the Avengers knew what had happened between them. He suspected that someone had walked in on them as they had been sleeping together, although he had never quite worked up the courage to ask.
But it hadn't mattered. The rest of his team had accepted his relationship with Tony without batting an eye – and if there had been any eye-batting, it had happened in private, where he had not seen it. And while the rest of the superhero community seemed aware of what they shared, the general public remained ignorant. Some things were better off as a secret, especially when they were such high-profile figures. All it would take was one villain to figure out that the best way to get at Captain America was to kidnap Iron Man, and nothing would ever be the same again.
The elevator doors dinged, and he stepped out into the hall. It was empty, except for a nurse at the far end, and a young man who was standing not too far away, his head down as he pretended to be interested in the ugly green tile of the floor.
Steve threw him an uneasy glance; he didn't like strangers hanging out around here. He started toward the waiting room, intending to ask Natasha if she knew who this person was. But he had only made it two steps when the kid called, "Cap? Captain Rogers?"
With an internal sigh, he stopped and turned around. "Yes?"
The kid had messy brown hair and he was wearing a faded T-shirt. He looked very uncomfortable, his shoulders hitched up around his ears. "I'm sorry... I just wondered… How is he? Is there any word?"
Steve looked at him, irrationally angry at being asked something so personal by a complete stranger. He wondered why Natasha hadn't thrown the kid out yet. "No," he said curtly. "And whoever you are, you shouldn't be up here."
The young man – and he really was very young – looked stricken, then he nodded. "Yeah. Okay. I'm sorry." He hesitated, and swallowed hard. "I am so sorry."
Something in the way he said it gave Steve pause. But before he could say anything, the kid had turned around and hurried away.
With a sigh, Steve returned to the room where the Avengers waited.
It was several hours before the doctor came out to see them.
Steve stood up as the woman approached. He was vaguely aware of the other Avengers taking up positions near him; Bruce on his left, Thor on his right, Clint and Natasha fanned out in front of him. He did not look at them, though. All his focus was for the woman who had finally come to give them the news they had waited so long to hear.
The doctor looked tired. She was still in surgical scrubs, her mask pulled down to sag against her chest. "Mr. Stark is out of surgery now," she said. "We were able to remove the shattered bones of the vertebrae and clear the spinal column. For the time being, we've done all we can."
It sounded like good news, but Steve was not at all reassured. Maybe it was the slump of her shoulders. Or maybe it was the way she kept looking at each of them quickly, never letting her gaze linger too long on any one of their faces.
"With spinal cord injuries, we don't like to give any kind of prognosis this early," the doctor said. "There are a number of factors that come into play, and several of them take time to develop before we can talk about the future with any confidence."
The doctor took a deep breath. "However, there is little room for uncertainty in this case. I am very sorry, but Mr. Stark will never walk again. He will be paralyzed for the rest of his life."