“...Dobroserdechnyy. Vozvrashcheniye na rodinu. Odin. Gruzovoy vagon... Dobroye, soldat.”
Steve was afraid to blink. He wished he could catch Bucky's eye, but Bucky's gaze was locked on the technician holding the Red Book.
“Dobroye, soldat,” the technician repeated.
Stillness. And then, slowly, Bucky smiled. It was a tiny thing, stiff and shadowed compared to his old grin, the easy smile he used to toss to women. It was too contained. But it was him.
“It didn't work,” Bucky told the technician. She smiled back at him and flipped the Book closed, beaming with pride. On the observation balcony above, the rest of the Wakandan team started cheering, hugging and congratulating each other.
“Thank god,” said Steve, and finally let himself take three strides forward and pull Bucky into a hug.
That night the Wakandan scientists invited them all to a celebratory dinner. Scott and Clint had gone home to their families a few months ago, after the world had changed its mind and welcomed them back, but the rest of the Secret Avengers had stayed with Steve, hunting the last few Hydra cells across Europe and Asia, and they'd come with him to Wakanda when T'challa had called. They mingled with the science team, conversing in a smattering of languages when English proved too limited, and enjoying the fruits of the Wakandan jungle. T'Challa showed up as things were winding down, just in time to give his royal blessing to the silver-plated arm that his engineers presented to Bucky.
Then he politely informed them that he was kicking them out of the country.
“I don't understand,” said Steve. T'Challa had sheltered them for weeks after the Accords had been signed, after Tony sided against them, back when they had been international fugitives. After Bucky had gone into cryo, they'd left Wakanda to hunt down Hydra cells across Eurasia. Somebody had to make sure there weren't any more frozen time bombs out there, after all. Various governments had hunted them in turn, but Wakanda hadn't been among those.
“You are welcome to stay, Mr. Barnes,” said T'Challa, inclining his head toward Bucky. “The rest of you, I'm afraid, have demonstrated a lack of regard for national jurisdiction that I cannot tolerate in guests of my country.”
“This is about the Accords,” said Wanda. It was sharper than Steve would have made it. The edginess had never really left her after the Raft.
Steve stepped in before she could make it accusatory. “The Accords have been abolished, Your Majesty.” Wakanda had lobbied hard against them.
“Because their execution left much to be desired.” T'Challa shrugged, somehow managing to make the movement elegant, kingly. “That doesn't mean I don't still believe in nations' right to their own sovereignty. Nor has my parliament changed its mind. The fight for regulation will continue in international assemblies, and I can no longer excuse your presence here under refugee status.”
Wanda's eyes flashed, but only with anger, not power. “Then why don't you arrest us?”
“I invited you here to help Mr. Barnes. I wouldn't abuse that to capture you, even if the Accords were still in effect.” T'Challa shook his head. “Parliament voted to give you three days. After that, your visas expire.”
“That's not too bad. Hey, can we stock up on snacks while we're here?” While the rest of them were standing around drinking nightcaps, Sam had piled up his plate again and was munching on a curly green vegetable. Steve couldn't fault him. He didn't know what half the food here was, but it all tasted amazing.
He was also sure that wasn't why Sam had spoken up.
T'Challa looked amused. “I can arrange that.”
Steve watched Bucky out of the corner of his eye, watched Wanda and the way she relaxed at Sam's distraction, watched Natasha watching everyone else, watched T'Challa. Bucky took up the largest chunk of his attention. He was quiet, turning his hand palm up and palm down, curling and uncurling metal fingers. His hair was so long these days. He'd never let it get that long when they were kids, and if he'd tried it in the War the Army would have had a fit over regs. It made him look more vulnerable, hid the cockiness.
“I'll go,” said Bucky.
Steve turned to put a hand on his shoulder. The non-metal one. Thank you, he wanted to say, but it was more complicated than that. “If you want to stay, you should.” A life on the move wasn't as stressful as a life on the run, but the Accords hadn't been repealed that long ago. They didn't have the world's governments after them anymore, but there had been enough incidents over the last few months to prove they couldn't let down their guard. Hydra was still out there, always coming back with more proverbial heads, and they weren't the only threat. Last month they'd been attacked by a 'private' strike team whose leader had, under Natasha's interrogation, all but admitted that they'd been sent by Ross. Not all of the Accords' proponents had T'Challa's integrity.
Bucky shot Steve a look that clearly spelled out how much of an idiot he was being. “If I wanted to stay here forever, what was the point of thawing me?”
“You have three days to decide,” T'Challa reminded him gently.
The party broke up, until it was just Steve and Bucky drifting back to the common room of the suite that had been provided to the Secret Avengers, the others having gone to bed hours ago. Steve would have gone himself, but Bucky showed no inclination to leave. They sat nursing a couple of fruity beers, Steve wondering what to say, until Bucky finally spoke.
“You were right.”
“I'm always right, that's why I'm the Captain,” Steve said, the retort coming automatically to his lips. It was the invitation to a round of ribbing by the Commandos, because Lord, they'd done a lot of stupid things in the War.
“Not being able to get drunk fucking sucks.”
Steve stilled. “You could stay here.”
He tried not to make it gentle. He wouldn't have appreciated gentleness, himself.
“Triggers're gone,” said Bucky. His words were so soft that they almost slurred together. “Can't make up for anything if I stay here. Out there, you're doing good. Making a difference.”
“It wasn't you.”
“I'm the one with the memories.”
Steve didn't know what to say to that. He watched Bucky shake his head, and then Bucky climbed to his feet and hauled Steve up as well, with an ease that he'd never had back during the War. The new arm was soundless, perfect in its movements as Bucky draped it over Steve's shoulder and chivied him to their shared room.
Steve fell into his own bed and felt sleep drag him down. He had his best friend back, he had his team, he was safe. For once, it was safe to sleep.
Dreams claimed him.
Steve woke to the rhythm of the waves rushing against the beach. The smell of salt and sand tickled his nose, along with the sharper aromas of tropical fruit and alcohol, sex and sweat. He kept his eyes closed, enjoying the warm breeze in the shade of the umbrella, the press of another's skin against his own, for so long that he might have dozed off again.
When he came back to himself, his cock was awake ahead of his brain, thanks to the languid strokes that Tony was giving him. He opened his eyes and grinned goofily at his husband.
“Taking liberties, Mr. Rogers?”
Tony snickered—Steve was probably never going to find out why Tony found being called “Mr. Rogers” so funny—and drawled, “It was being friendly before I decided to say hello. But you know how I feel about liberties, Captain Stark.”
Neither of them were going to change their names, but that didn't matter. The silly terms of address lit another kind of warmth in Steve's heart, and he flipped them both over, rolling so that Tony was the one with his back pressed against the cushioned silk spread. He kissed Tony, nuzzling at his beard, and in response Tony raised his other hand to draw idle patterns on Steve's stomach with his fingers, tracing downward with each curling loop.
“I love you,” Steve blurted.
“God, I hope so,” said Tony. “Or this morning was really ill-advised.” There was the same soft look on his face that there had been that morning, a dampness in his eyes not from sorrow but from joy, as they got married in front of a roomful of their closest friends.
Steve kissed him again, overwhelmed with the feeling—he was married, he was married to this brilliant, gorgeous, brave, smart-ass man. They had exchanged vows and rings and they were married. Tony was his, and he was Tony's. He dropped kisses across Tony's face, and down the line of his throat, while Tony did clever, skilled things with his hands between them, stroking the both of them together. Steve's hips stuttered despite himself, rocking against Tony, getting off on him, as tension built, a rumbling feeling of need shuddering through him.
Then he wasn't the only thing shaking. The world heaved and their beach bed dropped by a foot. Steve slammed down into Tony as gravity tried to play catch-up, and found himself flailing for support against the silken cushions while Tony yelped in pain. He managed to brace them both as the world heaved up again, then down, a rolling, juddery feeling that was more like a derailing roller coaster than sex.
“Ow,” said Tony, when the motion finally stopped. He looked a bit green. If it hadn't been for the serum, Steve probably would have been motion-sick, himself. “I don't think the earth was supposed to move that literally.”
“Earthquake,” said Steve. He rolled off Tony and sat up, suppressing a wince as the motion revealed that sand had gotten into everywhere. The beach jumping up and down had scattered it all over the cushions. Steve slid off the bed and located his shield, thankfully still near to hand. “Think it was natural?”
“It's a Pacific island with an active volcano,” said Tony, also sitting up. He glanced at Steve and winced theatrically. “Going to take care of that before we run off saving the world? You might have trouble fitting it in the suit.”
“Maybe when we get back to the house,” said Steve. Tony's own erection had wilted. “Sorry for landing on you like that.”
“Not your fault. Blame the beach. House is a good idea, though. If that stirred up a tsunami, we don't want to be down here.”
Steve started folding down the umbrella. “If there's a tsunami, then the locals could probably use some assistance from Captain America and Iron Man.” He glanced down at himself. “They'd probably appreciate it if we got dressed first, though.”
“Twenty says you're wrong on that one,” said Tony. He made a face and scrambled off the beach bed so that it could be rolled up. “Disaster management was not how I pictured spending my honeymoon.”
Steve caught Tony's hand with his own. “Anywhere you are, is my honeymoon.”
Tony grinned back at him. It should have been mocking, because that had come out even cheesier than it had sounded in Steve's head, but instead Tony's smile was just as goofy and sappy and ridiculously in love as Steve knew his own was.
It didn't matter if they spent the rest of their honeymoon doing rescue work. This was the best day of his life.
There was no tsunami. The tremor had apparently been localized to Tony's private island, which Steve found alarming until Tony pointed out again that it was, in fact, a volcanic island, and hardly unexpected. That was still alarming, even after Tony showed him the vast array of volcano monitoring equipment around the back of the house.
It had pretty effectively killed the mood.
“I knew we should have jumped straight to sex on the jet,” Tony complained. “Remind me again why we didn't jump straight to sex on the jet?”
“Why would you buy an island that might explode?”
Tony grinned, spreading his arms wide. “Hello, I'm Tony Stark, nice to meet you.”
They wound up sitting out on the house's veranda for the rest of the afternoon instead, feeding each other slices of pineapple and cuddling while Steve looked at news reports and Tony geeked out over vulcanology. This near to the equator, the sun set around six PM, and the view from the clifftop house was staggeringly beautiful.
That night, Steve dreamed again, as vividly as he had on the beach that morning.
Steve woke with a throbbing erection and vivid memories of dreams that wouldn't fade.
Bucky's bed was already empty, the covers made and corners tucked in, and Steve took a moment to be thankful before getting out of bed and stepping into the bathroom to take care of things. Nights in the War where they'd slept pressed together for warmth should have stripped away the embarrassment of waking up with a tent pole, but that had been... a long time ago.
He stroked himself off fast in the shower, and swallowed any names that might have risen to his lips.
When he was showered and dressed, he wandered out into the suite's common room to find that it had been transformed into a buffet-style briefing. Steve loaded up a plate with more Wakandan food he couldn't identify and took it over to sit between Bucky, perched at one corner of the table, and Natasha, who had a laptop open in front of her and documents scattered for four feet around her.
“What's this?” asked Steve.
“Options,” said Natasha. “Depending on where we want to go next.”
Steve turned to look at Bucky. “You want to go back?” He hadn't thought Bucky would want to go straight home, but if he did, Steve would be right behind him.
But Bucky shook his head, and nodded at Wanda.
Wanda shot him a look of annoyance, then nodded in acquiescence. “We need to check on Stark.”
Steve frowned. The memory of last night's dreams rose unbidden to his mind, and he hoped he wasn't blushing. “Why?” Tony hadn't come after them, not since the disastrous fight at Siberia. The interrogation of Ross' goons last month had confirmed that Tony had stopped working with Ross before Steve had even broken the other Secret Avengers out of the Raft, and when Steve caught reports of Tony on the news, it was always about Stark Industries' new cell phones, or energy generators. He was staying out of politics. Iron Man hadn't been seen outside American borders for months.
“Because he's been quiet, and we don't know what he's up to. I don't trust him.”
And Wanda was clearly not saying everything she had to say. Steve glanced back to Bucky, then Natasha, then Sam, looking for input.
“The US was one of the first countries to break with the Accords, it's as good a destination as anywhere to ease back into things,” Natasha allowed.
“We've been on this side of the Atlantic for a while. It'd be nice to visit the folks back home,” said Sam.
Steve sighed. Tony hadn't come after them. He also hadn't called, not once, or even sent a text. And Steve could respect that, it was Tony's choice, but Steve had the feeling that if he just showed up at the Avengers' Compound, he was going to get decked, and it was fifty-fifty odds whether it would be by Tony or by Rhodes. “We can't just drop in on him.” There was no way he was letting Bucky and Tony get anywhere near each other.
“I can,” said Natasha.
“So can I,” said Wanda, more threateningly.
“He's not our enemy.” Wanda bristled; Steve tried to soften his tone. “He made a bad call. We've all done that.”
“He's done that a lot,” said Wanda.
“We've all done that,” said Bucky, effectively ending that line of conversation.
Natasha hunted through her papers. “How do we want to enter the country?”
“I'm not fond of boats, gotta say.”
Natasha shot Sam an exasperated look. “I mean that we can be discreet, or... more discreet. If we're checking Tony's not up to any nefarious plots, then we don't want to let him know we're coming. That has trade-offs.”
“We have no reason to think he's up to anything,” Steve protested.
“He usually is,” said Natasha.
“We go as friends.”
“Then that makes we a me, and answers the level of discretion. Got it.”
Steve fanned out the papers on the table. A lot of them had photographs, links to IDs that they hadn't yet used. Natasha and Clint had a seemingly endless supply of them, and without their caches the Secret Avengers would probably have been re-captured within the first month. Since the Accords had been repealed, though, such measures hadn't been necessary. It seemed underhanded to use them against Tony now.
Tony had come to Siberia intending to help. Steve could never have let him kill Bucky, and not just because Bucky was his friend. He could never have let Tony kill any innocent person like that. But that kind of rage wasn't unique to Tony—and later, Tony had let them go. Tony hadn't pursued them across Europe.
He looked up and saw Natasha had raised an eyebrow against him.
“You sure this'll fool him? I'd have thought his AIs would have facial recognition, something.”
“Tony's not a spy,” Natasha said, confident. “Trust me, Steve. Wanda. I'll get in to see him.” Wanda didn't look reassured. “And if he's moping too hard, I'll kick his butt back into gear.”
They were planning an op to sneak in to see a friend who wouldn't see Steve willingly. Steve didn't feel reassured either.
The wear and tear of a year's use and some close-combat encounters with both Hydra and government forces had taken their toll on the quinjet's once-pristine paintjob, not to mention the interior. Lacking other options, they'd gotten used to it, but T'Challa had taken one look at it when they'd landed and immediately summoned a cadre of engineers. By the time they were ready to leave, it had been completely refurbished. Wakanda's perpetual fog lifted as they made their way to the landing pad, and in the sunlight the jet gleamed.
“No help, huh?”
“I won't offer you weapons or technology,” said T'Challa. “That doesn't mean I want you to fall out of the sky.”
“Was that something we were in danger of doing?” Natasha asked.
“If you'd tried to fire the main guns with your engines in that condition, yes. My engineers disabled those, by the way.”
“Good to know.” Natasha smiled sweetly at T'Challa and stepped up to kiss his cheek, before ducking back around Steve and up the ramp.
They parted, and Steve stepped into the jet in time to hear Sam say, “I don't care if they stuck a tracker on us, they fumigated. I love that guy.”
At supersonic speeds it took the quinjet five and a half hours to cross northern Africa and the Atlantic to New York. Steve spent most of the trip trying not to be too pushy in making small-talk with Bucky, until Bucky finally got pissed off at him and went to sit up front with Sam, roping him into giving an impromptu lesson in the quinjet's controls.
“Well done,” Natasha told Steve.
He held his hands up. “I know, I know.” He wished he could ask for her help. But the forward compartment wasn't isolated from the main bay, so there was no room to talk about it without Bucky overhearing.
He didn't care conversation was stilted or awkward. Or even if it wasn't happening at all. He just wanted Bucky to be there, and to know that that was all Steve cared about, without getting his tongue in knots saying it.
“You sure about that?” Natasha asked. When Steve made a helpless, frustrated gesture, she clucked her tongue at him and beckoned him forward. “Come here, then. Help me with this wig.” She'd been occupying herself for the past hour by testing out various disguises, something between playing dress-up and checking that she had all the accessories she could dream of... and getting Wanda to practice using her magic to change the colour of her spare wig, which had resulted in it going from straight hair to curly to blond dreadlocks. Wanda could hold very small illusions, but she still needed work at not letting the power spill over.
The practice had gotten Wanda to focus on something other than staring at the bulkhead wall, which, as Steve realized while he tried to tease the wig into a semblance of curls rather than an experiment with bleach gone horribly wrong, was probably both Natasha's real goal and the point that she was trying to make to Steve: he needed a less direct approach with Bucky.
When they made it to American airspace they dropped their speed to mimic the small, privately-owned aircraft that their flight plan was filed for. Not that they weren't any of those things, but most civilian aircraft weren't capable of breaking the speed of sound. A fake flight plan and a modified radar image wouldn't fool the security around the Avengers Compound, however, so they dropped Natasha off in Watertown and set down just outside the town's limits while she went off to rent a car.
She didn't take any of her disguises with her when she left, but she sure took the good mood. When Wanda looked fit to go back to staring at the bulkheads, Steve asked, “Poker?”
Poker was safe. Steve got cleaned out by Wanda and it was actually a relief. Bucky even laughed at him for it, which did nothing at all to improve his concentration. After three games of poker, Sam tried to make them play bridge, over which they mutinied and ended up playing Go Fish until Steve couldn't take it anymore and went for a run, ostensibly to check the perimeter. When he came back, Wanda was napping with a wig over her face and Sam was teaching Bucky how to steal wifi.
Around the time Steve might have started to worry, Natasha texted, Hang tight. No one here. Taking a long look around. Eta 2 hours
When she showed up again, she was wearing an annoyed frown. “It's been cleaned out and shut down,” she said, pulling the wig off of Wanda's face. Wanda startled and woke up fast, and Steve watched Bucky out of the corner of his eye. The rest of them were used to Wanda waking up with a red glow in her eyes, but maybe practising on the wig had worn her out, because her powers didn't manifest.
“You're back,” Wanda said, and scrubbed her face.
“I am. The Mighty Avengers are not. Computer logs have the last access at four months ago. Not even a cleaning crew's been there since, and the amount of dust all over agrees.”
Sam raised an eyebrow. “Guess we should have called ahead.”
“If Stark knows we are coming, he will hide whatever it is,” said Wanda. “He's up to something.”
“We give him the benefit of the doubt,” Steve said firmly.
“If he'd just not been home, that would be one thing,” said Natasha. “Clearing out like this? We should have seen something in the media about the Avengers relocating. I should have heard about it. I called Clint, he's heard nothing. He's looking now.”
Steve nodded. “To Stark Tower, then.”
Sam shook his head. “Hotel first. Maybe you supersoldiers can keep on going, but I've been flying this prissy bird for nearly six hours, I'm jet-lagged twice over. We just got it professionally steam-cleaned, let's not get into the habit of sleeping in the van again.”
“If Stark had an alert set up, he'll know you entered the Compound,” said Bucky. He was watching Natasha. There was nothing challenging about his gaze or his posture. “Unless you're good enough to evade him.”
“I am. But I was trying not to annoy him, so I used the front door.” She looked at Steve, and her gaze was a challenge. “If you drive, I'll sleep in the car and be fresh as a daisy by the time we reach Manhattan.”
Steve considered. The serum gave him an edge, and he'd been stuck in the jet with no way to work off his nervous energy. The run hadn't helped. Spending six hours in a car wouldn't help either, but in another six hours it would only be just after midnight Wakandan time. He wasn't that tired, and it wasn't like he'd be doing any talking. He could find a parking spot and stay put while Natasha did what she did best. Or cruise around the city and take in the sights, more likely, given the odds of finding parking around Stark Tower. Though either way, he'd be sitting in the car, waiting to see what Natasha came back with... wondering how Bucky was doing. Even though Bucky would probably be fine. And bringing Bucky to see Tony would be a terrible idea, even if Bucky had wanted to go.
Bucky, like the rest of them, was waiting for his decision. When Steve glanced his way, he gave a tiny shrug.
“Sure,” said Steve, and held out his hand for the keys.
He woke Natasha when they reached Manhattan, and after she'd finished fixing the makeup that had gotten smudged during her nap, she directed him to pull into the underground parking lot of Stark Tower. Steve was doubtful, but the device she gave him to flash at the scanner fooled it into letting them underground, and then further in to the special reserved parking garage.
“Don't pretend you're not coming with me,” Natasha told him.
Steve winced, thinking of the cell phone paired to the one he'd given to Tony. It hadn't rung once in a year's worth of waiting.
On the other hand, sitting here in this car was going to drive him nuts. He got out of the car.
Her ID hack got them past the elevator's security, too.
“Is this leftover SHIELD work?” Steve asked.
“No, custom. Based on Stark designs, actually. You know what they say. If you can't beat 'em...”
The elevator opened at the top floor.
“Join them,” Natasha finished, and stepped out into the Avengers' first home.
It was abandoned: the plastic sheeting covering the furniture made that clear. The air was stiflingly hot. The setting sun beamed straight in through the massive windows, bathing the entire place in a red glow, and there was no low whir of fans for an AC system.
“Knock knock,” said Natasha.
Nobody answered. They walked forward as carefully as they would have if they were exploring a Hydra base. The Tower had automatic sensors everywhere, but no additional lights turned on and the air remained still. Natasha dropped to a crouch and ran a finger over the hardwood floor, then held it up to inspect.
“Not much dust,” said Steve.
“No. But no air circulation, either. You don't cover everything up if you're planning to come back soon,” said Natasha, nodding at the furniture. “They've got to have a new base somewhere.”
“We need to find out where.”
She didn't make fun of him for pointing out the obvious. “This doesn't make sense.”
Steve shrugged uncomfortably. “If he's avoiding bad memories...” The team had moved Upstate after the Ultron disaster as much to get a fresh start in a new place as to avoid bringing anything like Ultron into New York again.
“Why package the place up like this? He could have the entire place cleaned twice daily and ready for him when he came back. Or if he's not coming back—it's Manhattan real estate, there's always something else that can be done with it. Preserving it doesn't make sense.”
“We can ask Tony when we find him. Or one of the other Avengers. You know where that Spider kid comes from?”
“No idea. Tony recruited him personally and he never took his mask off.” She grimaced.
Steve did, too. “Odds that Rhodey will tell us to fuck off?”
Steve woke in the middle of the night from dreams that echoed of loss and loneliness.
He lay staring up at the ceiling for a minute, reorienting himself to time and place. They hadn't bothered to close the curtains before going to bed, and moonlight streamed in through the open windows. The night air was cool, but not unpleasantly so, especially with the warm weight of Tony tucked against his side, snoring gently. Steve tried to curl an arm around him, and discovered that he already had, and the entire limb had fallen asleep some time after they both had.
He tried to extricate his trapped arm without waking Tony, but couldn't quite hold back a gasp as pins and needles shot from his shoulder to the tips of his fingers. Tony startled, the arm he'd draped over Steve straightening as he flattened his hand against Steve's chest in unthinking offence, and then woke up. “Steve?”
In the moonlight he was tousle-haired and indistinct. Steve leaned down to kiss him, and his arm, no longer anything like numb, protested the movement by sending another spike of pins and needles skittering along his nerves. “Sorry. Arm fell asleep.”
He made out Tony's wince in the darkness. “Sorry.”
“Don't be.” Steve kissed him again. “It woke me up, and I was having bad dreams.”
“You're not supposed to have those on our honeymoon.” Beneath the fake hurt in his tone, there was real concern in Tony's voice.
Steve sighed, and slid down in the bed, changing their positions enough so that he could rest his head against Tony's stomach. Not his chest, never his chest. The surgery that had repaired the damage from the shrapnel and the arc reactor had given Tony a titanium sternum five times stronger than bone, but Tony didn't like weights on his chest. Usually Steve would have avoided his chest unthinkingly, but tonight Tony's vulnerabilities felt like a greater weight, themselves.
“You were missing,” said Steve. Despite its odd clarity when he'd woken, the rest of the dream was now fading. Only the feeling of emptiness remained. “It was like I never had you.”
Tony pressed a kiss to Steve's hair. “You will always have me. I will always have you.”
“I know. Just my subconscious being a worrywort.”
“Let's distract it, then,” Tony murmured, his hands stroking down over Steve's bare chest and shoulders. He went back up, kneading at tense muscles, then down Steve's arm and to his fingers, working out the last feelings of pins and needles and kissing Steve's fingertips. Steve began to relax again, his thoughts quieting beneath Tony's touch.
Tony continued, his ministrations shifting between caresses and a massage, starting again at Steve's shoulders and working down Steve's sides, back over his pecs to tweak a nipple, drawing tantalizing patterns over Steve's abdominal muscles. He shifted, fetching a pillow to keep Steve propped up, rolling over and on top of him, and slithering down. To Steve's eyes he was a phantasm in moonlight. It was the feel of skin against skin that made him more real than the shadow in Steve's dream. He added his mouth, pressing light kisses against Steve's skin one moment and then sucking hard enough to leave a bruise the next, his tongue swirling around Steve's nipple and then his teeth scraping against sensitive flesh.
Steve lay back and gave himself up to it. His mind almost felt detached, anchored into his skin by the sensations Tony was evoking while at the same time hovering above, no longer weighed down by fear and a dream's grief.
Tony worked his way down Steve's body methodically, inch by inch, so that when he finally stroked a finger up Steve's dick, it didn't seem like the next step so much as the continuation of a gentle rise. He used his mouth, but carefully. The edge of his stubble, yesterday's beard, caught on Steve's skin a few times anyway, sending jolts up his spine not unlike the sensation of his arm recovering from lost circulation, but oh-so-much more pleasant. The steady swelling of Steve's cock was testimony to that.
Tony sucked a hickey into Steve's inner thigh and stroked fingers up and inward. The callouses on his hands caught against Steve's skin, already sensitive from beard-burn, and he traced over Steve's balls, downward to his perineum, while hovering his mouth over Steve's cock, sucking and drawing out patterns against the head of Steve's cock with his tongue.
“Lube's somewhere,” Steve said, or heard himself say. He sounded kind of dazed.
“Pushy, pushy,” Tony mumbled, drawing back just far enough to make himself understandable. “I'm trying to make love to you down here.”
“It's great,” said Steve. “Could you also fuck me?”
Tony laughed and bobbed his head down, taking Steve's cock into his mouth and letting him bottom out all in one go. A finger circled around Steve's asshole at the same time, already slick, and Steve had completely missed when Tony had grabbed the lube, but he must have done it before Steve had asked. Tony hummed, and Steve groaned. He just wanted—
A high pitch beeping filled the room.
Tony pulled up and off him. He kept one hand stroking Steve's cock, but was fumbling around to the bedside table in search of the source of the beeping. After a moment, the glare of a phone screen lit up the room, and Steve had to squint his eyes shut against it.
“Oh, good grief,” said Tony. His hand sped up, all at once, a jolt of raw pleasure coursing down Steve's spine.
It didn't quite manage to counter the sinking feeling in Steve's stomach, one that was rapidly dispelling the haziness in his head. The feeling of being knotted up began to grow again. Steve sat up and pushed Tony's hand aside.
“You're gonna regret that,” Tony said. Steve's eyes had adjusted to the light of the phone, and he could see the way Tony winced as he said it.
“You've got about thirty seconds to come.”
“Or?” Steve demanded. His cock was still hard.
“Well, if you're not going to erupt, the volcano sure is.”
“The volcano here. The one that formed this island. It's erupting. Got a little over-excited and seems to be about to go off early...”
There was real worry in Tony's voice. He wasn't kidding about the volcano.
There were some time limits that were fun to play with. A volcano wasn't one of them. Steve swore, swung himself away from Tony, and managed not to trip on a sheet and kill himself getting out of bed and over to the washroom, where he wet a washcloth with cold water to quickly—damn it—reduce the distraction.
“I thought you said the volcano wasn't a problem!” It came out more like a yell than Steve had intended. Tony could blame that on the washcloth.
“I said volcanoes were common around the Ring of Fire, I didn't say it wasn't a problem,” Tony returned. He was shuffling around in the main room, and Steve, breathing deeply through his nose to try and throw off the agony of temperature he'd just subjected himself to, leaned around and hit the light-switch.
“You implied it!”
“It's an active volcano. They come with a certain minimum level of risk.” A low mechanical thrum heralded the arrival of the armour out on the balcony. “You going to get dressed and come with, or would you like to see a volcano while naked?”
“That sounds like an even worse idea than cooking while naked.”
“Anything you do naked is a great idea. Actually, same goes for me.”
“Why are we going to see the volcano?” Steve asked, trying to pull his pants up without putting any pressure whatsoever against his dick. Cold water might have wilted his erection, but it hadn't done anything about the sensitivity that Tony had worked up. “I thought we were evacuating.”
“That was a minute ago, when it was oozing magma. Now it's spewing magma all over the place.”
“Oh, great. Wonderful honeymoon entertainment.” Actually, if it had been during the day—if it had not been right at this moment—it would have been interesting to watch.
Why the hell did the volcano have to go off right now?
“It's a shield volcano. It's supposed to ooze, not have pyroclastic flows. This isn't natural.”
Steve was already dressing as fast as he could, given the threat of imminent volcano, so this news didn't actually make him dress faster. But knowing that he'd probably get to punch somebody for this did make him feel better.
From above, the volcano looked pretty damn impressive. Tony had used the maghook to secure Steve's armour to his own, which meant that Steve didn't have to worry about hanging on while Tony navigated their way to the centre of the island, where a formerly picturesque little knoll had become a pit into Hell. Lava was spewing dozens of feet into the air, but Steve could barely even see it through the dense clouds of ash and steam.
“I'm having a hard time picking out heat signatures. The ground's too hot, and the ash is confusing my scanners.”
“I don't think we want to get too close.”
“Brighter. If we can't get too close, our villain probably can't either. Any nearby ships or aircraft?”
“Nada. Aww, damn, there goes the house.”
It was too dark for Steve to really tell what was going on, but he could see the bright lights of the house winking out. “What happened?” The house wasn't close enough to have been hit by one of the boulders that the volcano was flinging out. He hoped.
“Pyroclastic flow tore through it.” Tony sounded put out, as well he might. “There's zip all around us. Either it's remote, or it's somebody who can withstand the force of an unhappy volcano.”
“In which case we should probably call in the team.”
“On our honeymoon? No way. We can deal with this ourselves.”
“I'm flying us to Oahu and booking us a hotel. We're going to catch this guy and enjoy our honeymoon without having to call in the kids, who will never let us live it down, you know that.”
It was dark, it was the middle of the night, and the ash was irritating Steve's throat and lungs. “Alright. So long as there's no casualties.”
“I've tapped into radio reports, but I'm hearing nothing. It'll be fine. Though, a longer flight than we usually do like this. I could call for a helicopter.”
“I'm fine,” said Steve, as the world dipped and swung about while Tony settled in on their course. He'd rolled the armour over so that Steve was resting on top of him and wouldn't have to put strain on his own limbs. “You're not a bad pillow.” And, actually, now that they were flying away from the ash-spewing volcano, it was a nice night. The moon was bright out here, reflecting off the dark water below. When Steve turned his head to the side, resting his cheek against the shell of the armour, the sky above glowed with a billion points of light, the Milky Way stretching across it in a way that he never got to see in Manhattan.
“Sure, gold-titanium, the hot new thing in pillow ergonomics.”
The armour was cool beneath his cheek, but it warmed quickly. Steve rested his head against Tony's back and dozed off to the feeling of flying by the support of his husband's love.
Rhodey didn't tell them to fuck off. He just hung up on them.
They'd given Clint and Natasha's efforts two days to produce results, but there was nothing actionable. The databases of three different intelligence agencies thought Tony was in three different locations, two of which had already been proven false. The third suggested location was Tony's former Malibu home, which had Natasha swearing for half an hour about the incompetency of Interpol. Favours called in generated no new leads. Tony had very effectively disappeared from the eyes of the intelligence community, and they hadn't even noticed him doing it.
The rest of the Secret Avengers helped where they could. At first this meant dropping by Tony's other properties in New York. When they'd confirmed those were all empty, Natasha gave them all a few quick lessons in internet stalking. Bucky in particular took to it with an intensity that the rest of them couldn't match, gluing himself to the screen as he clicked through link after link, and every time Sam or Wanda teased him about it Steve had to stop himself from snapping at them about things they didn't know, that he hadn't told them.
There were gossip-rag speculations about Tony taking his breakup with Pepper badly, and more about him having a new girlfriend every other week. There were photoshopped 'telephoto pictures' that had made their way around the internet. There were Tony's actual, regular stalkers, which were sort of horrifying. The Avengers had always attracted interest, and Tony had been famous his whole life, but Steve hadn't realized the lengths some people went to. But none of Tony's fans knew where he was, either.
So they'd called Rhodey.
Steve sat right next to Natasha as she made the call, close enough that he'd be able to listen in on the conversation. She glared at him and elbowed him in the side, but didn’t get up or resort to any measures that would have actually hurt him, so he stayed where he was. Wanda and Sam crowded in, too, as much as they were able in the cramped confines of the quinjet's cockpit. Bucky stayed in the back, still searching through whatever latest info he'd found.
At this rate they were on track to needing to fumigate the quinjet again, but after spending time reading through muddled reports written by stalkers, none of them felt like setting up camp in a hotel. Having the government after them had been bad enough.
“Jim. It's Natasha.”
Natasha took the phone away from her ear and stared at it. “Okay, I didn't expect that.”
“He actually hung up?”
“He might not have a secure line,” said Sam.
“That's the number for the phone Tony gave him. It's always secure.”
Steve said slowly, “Unless it's not. If Tony had to hand out all his secrets...”
What had been the price for following them to Siberia? At the time T'Challa had assured Steve that he would make sure that Tony got home, even with his armour broken. Steve hadn't thought much beyond that. And Tony had never been forced into the Raft.
“No. Tony would never give away all his backdoors like that.”
“Why doesn't that surprise me,” Wanda muttered.
“It might have been Rhodey, if he was playing ball with higher-ups.”
“With a phone Tony gave him? No way. Not without running it by Tony, at least.” Natasha's tone was sharp, too sharp. It wasn't just irritation at having her analysis of a situation be wrong, though maybe Wanda or Sam thought that. But Steve had seen her with her defences down before. She was off-kilter. That meant genuine hurt.
“If it's not him, he'll call back,” Sam pointed out. “We're not all off-grid anymore.”
“Assume he won't,” said Steve. “That leaves us with Pepper.”
“She doesn't know.”
Steve raised an eyebrow at Natasha, and she elaborated, “SI's servers think he's in New York. If Pepper knew otherwise, Stark Industries would know, and I'd have been able to find it somewhere.”
“He might have asked her not to tell SI.”
“They broke up,” said Bucky, and Steve just about jumped out of his skin. Bucky had come up right between him and Sam, standing almost in Steve's line of sight, and Steve hadn't even noticed him moving. He'd been too focused on Natasha. “Would he tell her?”
“They were close for years,” said Steve.
Natasha shook her head. “Part of what they disagreed about was Tony's 'secret projects.' Pepper doesn't do that. Her life is about being part of a bureaucracy, being on top of a network. She wouldn't be keeping Tony off-grid all by himself without a fallback.”
“If she didn't know where he was, shit would be going down,” said Sam. “SI's owner and biggest brain not being in contact with its CEO? We'd see it from orbit. She has to know.”
“It's a global economy. Nobody needs to see him to think they're in contact with him. There are emails from his account to R&D in the last few days. She might not even realize he's missing.”
Wanda tapped a finger against her thigh. “We should just go ask her.”
“We don't know Rhodey won't call back, yet.”
“Then we should go ask him. In person. One of them knows. You've called Rhodes, that means that he knows we want something, and he'll tell Stark that.”
“She's right,” said Bucky. He was looking at Natasha. “You knew it would put you on a time limit.”
Natasha stared down at her phone. Her grip around it was loose and easy, but from the set of her expression Steve wouldn't have been surprised to see her fingertips had gone white. Why was she taking this so hard? They'd all battered down bridges in this fight. He hadn't thought she and Rhodey were particularly close among the team.
“Getting in to see Pepper will be easier,” said Steve.
Natasha shook her head. “Rhodey first.”
“You know if he's state-side?”
“Of course, and no, but even if Pepper does know where Tony is—and you're wrong about that—Rhodey's still the safer option.” She paused, looking around at all of them. Steve's wasn't the only skeptical expression. Natasha's gaze settled on Sam. “You said it. If SI finds out, it'll be visible from orbit. What do you think that Pepper could do to us if we piss her off? Stark Industries stayed neutral while the Accords were going down, that was on her. If she decides to hang up on us, it'll hurt a lot more than whatever Rhodey can dish out.”
“The Accords are down, but War Machine's still got leave to take out super-powered threats and to define what makes a threat. He's a Colonel in the Air Force, he's got connections. He already went up against us once, you think he won't again?”
“I think you can take him,” said Natasha. You, not we. “We don't want Stark Industries wading into this. They have contracts, contacts, and most of all, money. That counts for a lot more with the politicians than any individual's service records.”
“The Accords aren't coming back,” said Steve, as Sam leaned back and Wanda shifted restlessly. “Rhodey, then. We don't go in on this thinking it's going to be a fight. It won't. That kind of thinking, hell, maybe it's what made the Accords so twisted up in the first place. The whole thing, both sides. We've got a time limit.” He caught and held Bucky's gaze, then Wanda's, both for entirely different reasons. “But it's not a lethal one. If Tony finds out we're checking up on him then he finds out. It's Tony. Most likely scenario, he's holed up somewhere working on a new suit.”
Wanda's lips pressed together. She didn't break Steve's gaze, just stared back in obvious challenge.
“He's not a villain.”
“He stuck us in the Raft, man,” said Sam. It was quiet. “You weren't in there. You ever been in prison?”
“Does being captured by Nazis count?”
A hand came down on Steve's shoulder, squeezing with just enough force to demonstrate that if the owner wanted to, he could bruise Steve. Actually, if Bucky wanted to, he could crush bones, but that was neither here nor there, because Steve flinched as soon as he looked up and saw Bucky's expression. He wasn't challenging, like Wanda. He looked exactly like he did when he was hunched over his laptop looking to see if some stalker had caught sight of Tony through a long-distance lens.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Bucky let it sit. Steve swallowed, tried to think of something to say that wasn't Oh, God, Bucky, and failed. Bucky nodded, let his hand drop, and went off to the main hold again.
Steve hadn't heard him walk up behind them.
Natasha cleared her throat. “Rhodey's at Yokota.”
“Around the world in eighty hours,” said Sam. He slapped his hands against his thighs and pushed himself to standing. “Now, this is the kind of travel that I joined the Avengers for.”
“I thought you joined to get shot at.”
“That's just a side benefit.”
The quinjet had a built in satphone. Natasha made use of it to call Rhodey twice more as they flew across the Pacific. The first time he answered, and then immediately hung up on her. The second time, he didn't answer at all.
But two hours later, as they crossed over the line from international to Japanese air space, he called them back.
“Jim,” said Natasha. She was sitting up front in the co-pilot's seat, while Steve was flying, and flipped the call to headsets-only before Steve could say anything. None of the others were wearing theirs.
“—just don't know when to quit, do you?”
“Then you should pass that along to the leaders of whatever country you're planning to invade next. Oh, wait, I forgot, you guys don't do that, you don't answer to anyone else, or tell anybody else what the hell is going on. Nah, you guys don't really need to be checking in at all.”
“Are you done?”
“I'm just getting started. The Japanese might like you guys, but that doesn't mean USAF does. Is your flight plan faked, or are you really planning on starting shit on an Air Force base?”
“We just want to talk.”
“With the military? That's new.”
“About Tony. We're concerned—”
“You're concerned. You're concerned? What the fuck are you playing at?”
Steve shared a look with Natasha. So Rhodey knew—but he didn't know where Tony was.
Steve knew better, he did, but he couldn't stop himself. “Rhodey, we just want to help.”
“Rogers? I didn't realize you were on this line.” Down the line Rhodey's voice became cooler, the edge stripping away from it and leaving it flat, impersonal. Natasha had gotten anger. Steve got a gulf of distance so wide that he felt like a stranger. “I have no idea where Tony Stark is, but I do know he doesn't need your concern. Romanoff, it is my pleasure to inform you that you are hereby denied permission to enter US Military-restricted airspace. If you attempt to land at Yokota Air Base your actions will be considered as a potential terrorist attack and responded to accordingly. Yokota out.”
“You know,” said Natasha, “I think it went better when he was just hanging up on us from the start.”
They stayed the night in Tokyo, submitting a new flight path and then holding a pow-wow on the jet when they touched down and nobody had to mind the controls. “He might be lying,” Wanda insisted. “We're here, if we have the chance to not lose time—”
“That's crossing a line,” Steve interrupted.
Natasha lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “He didn't say he had no idea what was going on. He might have suspicions.”
“I could see—”
“No,” said Steve, staring at her, appalled. “Enough. Wanda.”
She glared back, then her shoulders slumped and she leaned back against the bulk-head. Where was this coming from? Wanda had been more irritated at being left out of the earlier conversation than was warranted. It wasn't like the entire team could have fit in the cockpit, not while they were in the air and somebody had to mind the controls. But offering to crack into someone else's head was more than irritation. Wanda didn't do that anymore, hadn't done it since she'd joined the Avengers. A month after she'd signed up, she'd apologized to each of them for those prior occasions, excepting Thor and Tony, the former being in Asgard and the latter avoiding her just as much as she avoided him.
“I'll go,” said Sam, breaking the awkward silence. “Might have a chance to get something out of him, we've got more shared background. Similar experience on the crazy best friends front.”
“He's angry,” said Natasha. Her eyes betrayed the understatement.
“He doesn't have any reason to be,” said Wanda, her accent thicker than usual with distress. “He put us in the Raft, he did not lose anything himself.”
“His best friend's lost at the moment, that's enough,” said Sam evenly. He looked around at the rest of them. “We good?”
“Yeah,” said Steve. “Call us on the way back, or if there's... anything.”
While Sam was gone, Natasha and Bucky went out. Originally, Bucky had wanted to go on his own. “They don't know me here. Put on a hat and I'm just another tourist.”
“You underestimate your popularity, and how much the Japanese love the internet,” said Natasha, and proceeded to outfit him with a disguise that really did make him look like a tourist. They wandered out soon after, not quite hand-in-hand but certainly giving the impression of a couple. Bucky didn't seem to mind. As obvious exits went, it wasn't too bad.
Steve gave Wanda half an hour before he knocked at the bulkhead she was sitting against. When she jumped, coming back to reality with just the slightest red glow in her eyes, he indicated the space next to her. “You mind?”
She sighed, but it was a tired sigh, rather than irritated. “Sure.”
He took the seat, sitting forward with his elbows on his knees. The bulkhead wasn't shaped to allow somebody with his height to be able to sit up straight. “You're worried about this. More than I realized.”
“He put us in the Raft,” said Wanda. She was looking down at her hands, too. “They put a gag on me, and a straitjacket. And there were drugs.”
“That was Ross. Tony denounced him, got him investigated and booted out of office.”
“He created Ultron. I... pushed him to it. But he did it.” She shook her head. “He makes things that blow up in everyone else's faces.”
“He's screwed up pretty spectacularly, yeah. But he's made up for it, time and again. He's done a lot more good than evil.”
“Will it be worth it, in the end?” Wanda shifted, turning to face him. “What happens when there is something too big to make up for?”
Was it the trauma of the Raft making this an obsession? Tony wasn't that sort of evil. Tony wasn't any sort of evil. His screw-ups were caused by arrogance, misunderstanding, and, Steve had to admit, often because he'd not had access to all necessary information. But they always came from the place of wanting to do better. Tony was the sort of man who'd risk his entire company to stop making weapons, would grab a nuke with no thought for survival, and throw himself down on the wire. He was, really, a lot less complicated than Steve had thought he was, and discovering that was...
...new. When had he figured that out? Was he mixing it up with his dreams? Was Wanda really onto something?
“I have dreams,” said Wanda, and Steve froze.
After a moment, he said, very carefully, “Oh?”
“There is a metal-clad fist, punching into the sky. Who does that remind you of?”
That was a very different dream from Steve's. And probably not any more relevant than his, either. “You've never had precognitive dreams, before.”
“I still don't know everything I can do. Besides, I was in his head. It might be spill-over.”
“It might just be the next version of his armour.”
“That's what I'm afraid of. In the dream everyone is dying.”
Steve winced, not from the memory of a dream but from one that was real, the conversation with Natasha that he'd had after Ultron, about Fury's post-incident analysis of how the thing had gone wrong. “That's probably spill-over.”
Wanda shrugged, a sharp, restless movement. “Maybe. But it feels real. He closes his fingers and Earth burns.”
She'd never had precognitive dreams before, true. She'd also never been able to manipulate density before they'd had her working on dealing with poisons and gasses. She'd never been able to create illusions that would work on cameras before Natasha had suggested she try it six months ago. There was still so much that they didn't know about her powers. Hydra had given them to her using Loki's Sceptre. Thor had taken that back to Asgard, but from his last report the Sceptre remained a mystery even to Asgard's magicians.
“We'll find him,” said Steve.
He got a text a few hours later from Sam. out drinking don't wait up
Natasha, back from her outing with Bucky, smiled when Steve showed it to her. It was a strangely wistful smile. “That's one way to go about it.”
He caught a flash of a grin from Bucky, but by the time he'd turned to look Bucky was already facing away, ridding himself of his tourist disguise.
Steve woke up tired and confused. The bed smelled like a hotel bed, sheets washed with industrial strength detergent, air dustier than in any of Tony's properties. It also smelled like Tony, the scent of his ludicrously specific and expensive shampoo lingering on the pillow beside Steve, and it was that which anchored him back in reality instead of in the dreamscape he'd been wandering through while clawing toward consciousness.
Tony's voice drifted through the bedroom door, low enough that Steve could tell he was trying to be quiet. Probably a phone call dealing with the fallout from last night. “Flag anything over a five. Six? Well, look at that. Can you plot the fault-lines for me? You're beautiful. So are these lines. Okay, show me the local zone, and add in all the data that the house took before it got flattened.”
Smiling to himself, Steve sat up, stretched, and got out of bed. Not a phone call, just Tony talking to himself. Steve secretly loved it when he did that, getting so wrapped up in his designs that he'd start muttering platitudes, equations, praise and deprecations at himself, focused on bringing a vision to life. Steve was no slouch, especially since the serum, but Tony's mind blew him away. Tony's sheer ability to create was breathtaking.
Still. No doubt he wouldn't mind if his husband (his husband!) wanted to enjoy breakfast with him. Steve dug in the drawers next to the bed, and on the second try discovered the clothes that Tony had ordered delivered to the hotel. It was an extravagance, but considering that their honeymoon had been interrupted by a volcano, it was one that Steve was fully willing to enjoy.
From the suite's living room, Tony's muttered monologue cut off, and then he was poking his head through the bedroom door. “Sorry, beloved. I was trying not to wake you up.”
Steve looked up and paused, enjoying the view. Tony had clearly been up long enough to shower, but not long enough for his hair to dry. Damp curls still clung to his forehead and neck. He was wearing a pair of sweats that hung low on his hips, and nothing else. Beneath Steve's gaze, he shifted, leaning against the door frame in a way that spoke of indolence and lazy, languid sex.
Then he grinned, and for a moment Steve was captivated by his smile. He tuned back in as the smile turned smug. Ha—two could play at that game. He hoped. Casual, unrestrained exhibitionism... was hot as hell, but Steve wasn't practised at it.
I could practise it now, thought a little voice in the back of his head, and the rest of Steve's body warmed with it. He stood and stretched, muscles tensing and relaxing blissfully, and Tony's gaze turned hungry as it traced over his body. “I don't mind. I was thinking of taking a shower.”
“I could come with,” said Tony, voice coming out raspier than it had a few seconds before.
“You've already showered,” Steve pointed out, grinning. He took a step forward, letting his own gaze travel up and down Tony's body, lingering at the band of his sweats. Tony looked good. Even a day or two of vacation in the sun had been good for him, leaving him better rested and giving his skin a healthier glow than he usually got from keeping so much to his lab. Steve stepped forward again, resting his hand against Tony's collarbone, tracing down to Tony's nipple.
Tony's voice was husky. “You'll just have to dirty me up again, then.”
Steve hummed and stepped in close enough to embrace him, to wrap his arms around Tony's waist and hug him close. Then he dipped his hands beneath the elastic of Tony's sweats and tweaked his ass. Tony had an amazing ass, and he jumped when Steve goosed him.
“I think,” Steve said, breathing the words against the shell of Tony's ear, “that you owe me a make-up round for last night. Leaving me like that. Wanting.”
Tony groaned, leaning against Steve and sinking down to his knees, his hands smoothing down along Steve's thighs. He leaned forward, kneeling with his head against Steve's thigh, then turned his mouth toward Steve's groin and mouthed at Steve's dick through the thin cotton of his boxers. Steve breathed a silent exhalation of pleasure, joy and thanks that Tony wanted him, was married to him, 'til death do them part.
The fabric was thin enough that he could feel the warmth of Tony's breath as Tony explored, keeping his hands firmly on Steve's hips and using only his mouth, licking and sucking at the cloth. It moved with more friction than the wet heat of a mouth or hand, and Steve found himself biting his own lip to make sure he didn't move. It wasn't yet at the point where he'd have to fight to control himself, but there was a certain tension in remaining still. He didn't want to move. He wanted to be done to.
Tony moved his hands at last, snagging the edge of Steve's boxers and pushing them down. His left hand slid down to Steve's knee, prompting and guiding, and Steve obediently lifted his foot as Tony's hand pressed against his calf, so that he could step out of his boxers. Tony slid his hand back up to Steve's hip before repeating the process with the right foot, and then he was free of the boxers and standing naked before Tony, who was on his knees with his eyes cast down and his head bowed, reaching up to Steve like a supplicant.
He could move then, wanted to move, so he tucked a finger beneath Tony's chin and lifted it upward. Tony's pupils were dilated with lust.
“Hey,” said Steve. It came out a bit dazed sounding.
Tony smiled, and his own, “Hey,” was similarly hoarse.
Steve settled his own hands on Tony's shoulders and projected his voice lower again, commanding. “Carry on.”
“Yes, sir,” said Tony. It sounded more breathless than smart-ass, so Steve went with instinct and pulled him forward, not hard enough to really make him do anything, a command rather than forced movement. Tony went with it willingly, head bobbing forward and, thank God, his mouth lowering down around Steve's dick. It was everything that it had been last night, but this time Steve was standing over him, the one in control. It was just as heady a rush. He rubbed circles against Tony's collarbones with his thumbs as Tony bobbed and sucked, stroking patterns around Steve's balls with his free hand, before dipping to pull them gently into his mouth and let them rest in the warm heat there. It was harder, now, for Steve to not move, not buck his hips, especially when Tony kept going back and going straight down on him, taking his whole cock past his gag reflex in a way that had to cut off his air, faster each time and groaning with it, sending vibrations from his throat directly into Steve's cock. Steve groaned with him. It was an effort to keep his hands firm but not tight, but while Tony didn't usually mind getting his hair yanked on, that wasn't how Steve wanted this. Stillness was its own reward, when he could just order Tony to do something and Tony would.
Somebody pounded at the main door, loud enough that Tony pulled back and almost fell over. “What the hell?”
Steve groaned in pure sexual frustration. “Fuck!”
The pounding stopped. Tony straightened himself up again. “Jesus, thank god. That—”
“Mr. Stark! Captain Rogers! If you're in there, you're needed! There's a fire!” There was another half-dozen bangs at the door.
“Oh my God,” said Steve from between clenched teeth. He stepped back and hunted around for his boxers, snatching them up and pulling them on. The spot over his dick was wet from Tony's earlier advances, but it wouldn't matter once he got the suit on. There was no time for a washcloth.
“I can have you done in like thirty seconds, I swear,” said Tony, standing up and looking very put out himself. There was no way he was more frustrated than Steve was right now, though. “Ten seconds.”
“Captain Rogers! Mr. Stark! There's somebody, she's making flames!”
“It's a fire, let's go,” said Steve, gritting his teeth as he pulled on his suit. The armouring layer was tight enough to be goddamn uncomfortable.
The fire wasn't at the hotel, which they wasted thirty seconds ascertaining. “So you mean we didn't actually have to stop having sex,” was Tony's response when they figured this out, which made everyone look really hard at anything that wasn't Steve.
“It's half of downtown!” cried a hysterical hotel employee, pointing at the lobby TV, which was currently showing a handful of squat buildings ablaze. That didn't constitute much of a downtown by Steve's standards, but not everywhere could be New York. There were firetrucks parked around the edges spraying water at the flames and having no effect whatsoever.
“Fine, let's go,” Tony conceded, not without an edge still in his voice. Everyone was still carefully not looking at Steve as Tony got him maglocked and they lifted off.
“Think this is the same person?” Steve asked as they flew. It didn't take much altitude for the smoke and flames to be visible.
“Do you really care?” Tony asked in return, which, if Steve was being honest, right at that moment he didn't, much.
Below them crowds of civilians fled from the disaster on foot, occasionally pausing to gawk at either the fire or at the superheroes flying overhead. Emergency services rushed in the opposite direction. In the middle of it all, alone except for the rubble, a flame-headed figure stood with its arms on its hips. As they drew closer, Steve could see that the person was indeed a woman, and her hair wasn't on fire: her hair was fire.
“Woah!” Tony banked hard right, as a ball of fire billowed up from the building they'd been passing, a building that hadn't previously been on fire. Steve hung on as they swerved lower, then tapped Tony's shoulder twice. On the third tap the maglock disengaged and Steve dropped the last thirty feet, hitting the ground and tucking into a roll to bleed off his forward momentum. He came back up just as Tony dropped down at an oblique angle to the firestarter and Steve, putting her between them without setting Steve in his direct line of fire.
“I've got you right where I want you!” announced the woman. Her 'hair' whipped about in the breeze.
“What do you want with us?” said Steve, trying hard not to make it a growl. This lady had caused him more than a little pain today already. Not to mention what she'd done to the locale.
“I'll make sure you won't be able to stop me!”
“From doing what? Burning down the North Shore? This isn't even the touristy part.”
Thank God; in Steve's experience, locals were less inclined to gawk and take pictures.
“I don't care! Nobody will stop me, the Natural Disaster Woman!”
“You know, if you're causing the disasters, they're not natural, they're man-made... woman-made...”
“Ugh!” She stomped her foot and the fire on her head flared. At the same time the ground dropped out from under Steve's feet. He went with it, crouching to absorb the impact as it reached its lowest point and decided to come right back up, then back down, then up, like the world's worst roller coaster ride. Around them, the fire-scorched buildings began to shake to pieces. “I'll show you! I'll raise a new volcano, right here! Yeah, that's right, RUN!”
Tony had taken off and was streaking out past the burning buildings. “Cap, there's a building with civilians going down, I have to grab—”
“Go,” said Steve. He steadied himself, riding with the earthquake as concrete supports twisted and cracked. When the ground came heaving up again he launched himself forward, flinging himself over a chasm in the pavement and taking Natural Disaster Woman in a side-tackle. She shrieked as she went down and he rolled them over, pulling her head down against his chest where the fire resistance of his suit would protect him from her hair, and grabbing her around the neck in a choke-hold.
The earth had stopped shaking as soon as he'd tackled her, which meant she needed to focus to make her powers work. “Tony, I need a sedative for her—”
She slapped her hands against his arm and there was the stench of roasting flesh: his own. Pain dug in from his fingers to his elbow as his suit's sleeve went molten. It melted, dripping to the ground, while beneath it his skin crisped and tore away, stuck to the superheated polymer. Exposed muscle cooked instantly and cracked apart like so much burnt meat.
He shoved her away and spun into a low kick that caught her just below the ear. She went limp, and he followed her down to the ground. The impact jarred his arm and made the world go white. He couldn't breathe.
“Steve? STEVE! Goddamnit, talk to me, fuck, fuck, fuck—”
“I'm okay,” Steve managed. “I'm okay. Civilians. Rescue civilians.”
“Jesus wept, you are not okay, gimme your status!”
“She's down. Uh. I took some fire. Knocked her out. Need a sedative, keep her that way.”
“Need an ambulance, you mean, for you—this is Stark. I have confirmation that the hostile has been incapacitated, we need medical assistance to keep her unconscious while containment is prepared. No, hostile is contained but fires continue, proceed into the area but with all due caution. We have injured on-site and need medevac for Captain America. Yes, immediately.”
“You're hot when you're bossy,” said Steve. It was better than thinking about his arm.
“Is that why you married me?”
Steve grinned doofily. He could tell that it was endorphins from the pain, but the hostile was taken care of so he'd take what he could get. The pain itself wasn't so bad anymore, more of a bone-searing ache from the elbow up. He was afraid to look down and see what was left of his arm below that.
“Hey, Steve. Come on, I asked a question.”
“Uh? Oh, yeah. Maybe a bit.”
“I knew you liked it,” said Tony, sounding self-satisfied and terrified at the same time. How did he manage that? Tony was always mercurial, always in motion, always containing five different contradictory thoughts and emotions at any one time. Maybe it was just being a genius.
Steve looked down, smiling to himself, and caught sight of the blackened ruin of his arm. Natural Disaster Woman's powers hadn't entirely stopped when he'd knocked her out. His arm was disintegrating like a log cracking apart from the fire that burned within. He couldn't feel it because it was burned black and dead, flesh devoured by flame and turned into cinders. Where his skin split, blazing heat and light poured forth, eating him from the marrow out. The light left streaks against his rapidly blurring vision. Her power had flooded down his arm and consumed it, and as he watched the breaks in his skin crept up past his elbow, splitting him open. His blood had turned to magma.
The world spun around him, and he fell.
Steve jerked awake, one arm flailing up against the threat in front of him. There was nothing there to hit. The follow-through brought his arm back at an angle and something went crunch beneath his elbow, or maybe it was his elbow, because there was no way that had been enough force for him to break bones but pain had erupted up from the joint anyway. The sight of his arm falling to pieces propelled him up and forward and he curled inward around his injured limb, only to realize as he did so that he was awake, he was in a bed, and his arm was fine.
He'd just whacked his funny-bone, that was all.
“Steve?” asked a voice, and Steve jumped, whirling to the side and bringing his hands up. His efforts to leap out of bed succeeded only in tangling the sheet around his legs, and he had to drop back to the mattress or trip himself.
Bucky was standing right beside the twin bed, and Steve hadn't heard him approach, hadn't recognized his voice, not the way it was. Low, quiet. Missing something that Steve couldn't give him back.
“Yeah,” said Steve, rubbing at his elbow and kicking the sheet away. He looked around to see what it was he'd hit, and found that the small, penguin-shaped clock on the bedside table had been flattened. He'd have to have the hotel add it to his bill.
He wondered if Bucky would ask him what the dreams were about. Probably not. They'd never talked about it during the War, when mostly Bucky was the one who woke up nearly screaming. Back then he'd rebuffed all of Steve's overtures to talk, just kept going forward, shutting whatever it was out. And maybe it worked for him, just like it worked for a lot of other men. Maybe it didn't work for Steve.
His dreams lately had been vivid, but before now they'd been... nice. Nice enough that when he woke up he was left wanting. Even when they turned to sex, it wasn't physical completion that he longed for upon waking. It was everything else.
This dream had been just as vivid, but the pain had been too real. It wasn't right.
“Sam's back,” said Bucky, instead of asking. His eyes crinkled up in the ghost of a smirk. “He's pretty hung-over.”
“He says he doesn't know where Tony is, Tony just went off-grid again, but he's been getting text messages. From Tony. So he knows he's okay,” said Sam. He shrugged, then winced and carefully took another sip of his water. “I believe him.”
“You sure you weren't too impaired to tell?” Natasha asked, handing him some aspirin. She didn't hide the amused twitch of her lips.
“Hey, he was putting back just as much sake as me.”
“So we've got a line of communication open there, at least,” said Steve, sighing. “Think you could get him to pass along that number?”
Sam dug in a pocket and produced a crumpled and stained napkin. “Yeah, I wrote it down while he was waving his phone in my face.” He squinted at it. “Or not.”
Steve took the napkin gingerly, feeling the way the way it tried to stick to his fingers. There was a wobbly line of 0s written across it, varying in size and steadiness. “Or Tony doesn't want Rhodey to find him, either. But we know he's alive, he left himself. He's still in contact with Rhodes. Thanks, Sam. This is good info.”
“Well done,” Natasha added.
Sam eyed them both, with the wavering gaze of somebody who was so hung over that he might have still been a bit drunk. “Man, don't say it like that. I didn't go in there and trick it out of him.”
“We know.” Natasha patted his shoulder, and turned to put the first aid kit away.
“Our only option left is Potts,” said Wanda.
“She won't know.”
“We won't know until we try,” said Steve.
Time differences between Tokyo and the States meant that they reached California just before midnight on the previous day, which was too late to call on Pepper unless they really wanted to piss her off. While Natasha double-checked that Pepper was still at SI headquarters in Anaheim, the rest of them crashed at a hotel for afternoon/midnight/morning naps. But Steve found himself unable to contemplate sleep. The memory of his skin breaking open and revealing char beneath kept him from enjoying the steakhouse they visited for dinner, too.
Around 3AM, Bucky threw a pillow at him and told him to stop pacing, which Steve took as a cue to take himself elsewhere. He changed to jogging clothes and went for a run, which at least settled his nerves, until he was on the way back and there was a bright flash of light out of nowhere, catching him unawares on his bad side.
Steve threw himself toward the source, cursing himself for not bringing his shield with him, and slammed into his attacker, driving them into the wall and pinning them with his good arm. They cried out as their gun fell, heavy and awkward into the street, and—
“Jesus fuck! Shit, shit, I'm sorry, shit, don't kill me, shit that's my camera!”
Steve blinked, and the face before him resolved into a pimply kid, nineteen or twenty at the oldest, dressed in ratty jeans and a shirt almost too holey to be worth the name. Not a kid. Not a flame-haired woman. And Steve was pinning him with both arms, one against his neck and the other twisting the kid's hand against the wall. Because Steve had both arms. They were both there. That flash hadn't disintegrated one, he was... fine.
“Sorry,” said Steve, letting him go. The kid dropped two inches and staggered. Steve hadn't even realized he'd been holding him off the ground. “Sorry, you startled me.”
“Shit,” breathed the kid, staring at his camera. Camera, not a gun. The kid's eyes jerked back and forth it and Steve.
“Sorry,” Steve said again. It was probably an expensive camera. Steve should probably replace it. Pay for it. No, SHIELD's PR team had counselled him not to make such offers and Tony had agreed, privacy was a rare enough thing in this day and age and the guy had ambushed him, must have seen him go out and planned the route he'd take back in. The guy was a kid. There was no way Steve had enough cash on him to pay for the camera.
“Shit,” said the kid. He grabbed his camera and ran.
Steve leaned against the stucco wall and tried to catch his breath.
Natasha managed to get them a 9:00 AM appointment with Pepper.
They were left waiting in a conference room until 10:30.
As the clock ticked over to the half-hour precisely, Steve picked up the telltale sound of heels clacking against tile in the hallway outside. Likely the receptionist again. She'd come by at 10:00 to apologize and offer them coffee from the machine, which Natasha had declined with a gracious smile, and which Steve had accepted, much to his regret. He half-suspected that the receptionist had done something to it. If SI's coffee was normally this bad, their employees would have revolted.
But the heels turned out to be a tall young man in platform shoes and a smart suit, with his hair hanging down his back in a braid, who told them, “Ms. Potts will see you now.” His voice was a deep bass that made the words more ominous than they should have been. “In her office.”
They stood and followed him in silent agreement. Steve left his still-full coffee on the conference table.
SI's Anaheim office was nothing like Stark Tower. It wasn't located downtown, for one, not that Anaheim had much of a downtown. There were a couple of taller buildings, but mostly the inhabitants had taken advantage of the greater room on the west coast to spread out and build freeways everywhere. Consequently, SI's international headquarters didn't rise above five stories. It made up for it in girth, sprawling across a campus of six different office buildings and two more that looked like high-tech warehouses. Pepper's office was located on the fifth floor of the northernmost building, overlooking the private park that the buildings clustered around. Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, Steve could see a few folks strolling along the well-tended paths, gesturing animatedly on phones or at each other.
Pepper didn't stand to welcome them, just kept typing something on her laptop while her assistant pulled out chairs for both Natasha and Steve and gestured for them to sit. It felt like getting called up to the principal's office back in school, although he'd usually had to stand, then, especially when it had been for starting fights rather than his chronic absenteeism.
Put that way, this felt a lot like high school.
Pepper finished what she was doing with a few final, decisive taps at the mouse, then lifted her laptop and gently set it to one side. She folded her hands on the desk—bringing up further high school flashbacks—and very pointedly looked at Steve, ignoring Natasha.
Steve flushed and set his jaw. This was past being rude to make a point, and entering the realm of absurdity. “Ma'am.”
“Did you have a purpose in coming here, Captain?”
“We're concerned about Tony.”
“He's off-grid and nobody knows where he is. That's not fine.”
If this was new information to her, it didn't show in her expression. “Despite all evidence to the contrary, Tony Stark is a fully grown adult and is legally competent to take care of himself. His location is none of your concern.”
“Wouldn't you like to know where he is?” asked Natasha. Her tone was completely neutral. For her, that meant sincerity of a higher order, the sort where she didn't want to manipulate someone into believing that she was sincere.
Pepper looked right past her. “Aaron, is Legal finished yet?”
“Five more minutes, Ms. Potts,” said her assistant.
Pepper returned her gaze to Steve. “You have five minutes. After that time, if our employees find you or your associates in our servers again, Agent Romanoff, Stark Industries will begin pursuing more strenuous legal options to keep you out, up to and including urging the FBI to press charges of espionage and treason for illegal infiltration of a national defence contractor. You will be escorted off the premises and banned from all Stark Industry-owned properties.
“If you have anything to say that’s worth my time, you should say it in the next four minutes, thirty seconds.”
“It doesn't bother you not to know where he is?” Natasha asked. Her voice had grown colder. More remote. Hurt.
“Tony's doing what he needs to do to not drink himself into unconsciousness every night. He responds to emails in a semi-timely fashion. He's productive. I believe he's safe, as much as Tony ever is. Beyond that, it's not your concern any more, Agent.”
“He's still a friend.”
“That's for you to work out. I don't have time to get involved in your drama.”
This was getting them nowhere. Steve cleared his throat. “And if he isn't safe?” Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Natasha was keeping her gaze fixed on Pepper. She was too skilled a liar to give away that she hadn't been expecting something like this. Or maybe she had been expecting this.
“Is that a threat, Captain?”
“No. Not from us.” The lie didn't quite make him blush. It wasn't really a lie—if he excluded what Wanda might do. Which he'd prevent her from doing, since for himself, it was true. There was something wrong going on. Maybe it was all in Steve's head, or maybe he was catching it from Wanda. But... it was Tony. When Tony stopped talking about his projects, things like Iron Man happened. Things like Ultron happened. The Accords happened. Siberia.
That had been both of them not talking.
He couldn't risk that happening again.
“Then from who?”
Wanda, maybe. Tony himself, more likely. That wouldn't get them anywhere. He floundered. “There's things we've...picked up on. Pepper, please. I just want to talk to him.”
“If you have knowledge of a threat against a Stark employee, then you should contact Stark Industries Security, which will take action or refer your information to law enforcement as appropriate. Aaron will provide you with their number.”
“Just tell him we want to talk, at least.”
“Aaron, we're done here. Could you please show our guests out?”
Within three minutes they were standing on the street in front of the main building, holding business cards for Stark Industries Security contacts. There were two security guards standing in front of the doors through which they exited, who were about as much of a threat as the kid Steve had attacked last night, but the bright red panic button next to one of them was more convincing.
That would be one way to get Tony's attention. If Steve wanted to be a complete idiot.
Steve sighed. “Let's go.”
That proved easier said than done. They circled around to the visitor parking, only to be stymied at the sight of a young woman leaning against the driver's side door of their rental. Steve took her in at a glance and found his hands itching for his shield. She looked more like a kid, really, sixteen or fifteen, but faces could lie. She wore jeans and a patched leather jacket incongruous in the heat of the day and too sloppy for SI's working casual. Every line of her radiated bored amusement. In their world, that meant danger.
But Natasha stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Let me handle this.”
“This isn't what it looks like.”
That was what Steve was afraid of. He followed behind her, checking around the other cars as they moved, one eye on the sightlines from the SI buildings. They all had too many windows for comfort.
“Natasha Romanoff?” the girl drawled as they got closer.
“That's me,” Natasha said, matching the girl's cheerfulness.
The girl reached inside her jacket, and only Natasha's hand on his arm prevented Steve from making a grab for her. This wasn't good. But what came out of the jacket was a badge with a fancy coat of arms on it, which the girl flicked up and then back down fast enough for Steve to just catch a glimpse of a name, address, registration number—registration number? Then she was reaching in her jacket again, and this time what came out was a bulky envelope, which she stepped forward and slapped against Natasha's shoulder.
“You have been served,” the girl said, grinning. “I'm sorry, I'm actually a huge fan, but you know how it is.”
“I do,” said Natasha, never losing her own smile. She took the envelope and patted the girl's hand.
The girl nodded once at Steve and sauntered off.
“What was that?” Steve asked in an undertone.
“You know how I said I didn't want to piss off Pepper?”
“Nat, she wouldn't.”
Natasha ripped off the side of the envelope and pulled out the contents. They were expensive paper, thick sheets, and although Steve was reading right over her shoulder, he couldn't understand anything beyond the addresses. Even the preamble was legal jargon.
“I think this is a final warning,” said Natasha, staring down at it. Her cheerfulness was gone. For a long moment, she just stood there, reading the letter signed by one Marc Ramirez, Esq. “We need to get back. You can drive.”
To Steve's surprise, it wasn't Wanda who took Natasha leaving the hardest. It was Bucky.
“You're not going to let a piece of paper dictate where you go,” he said, after she'd unfolded the entire thing in front of them and told them what it meant. He didn't raise his voice. He hadn't once, not since... not since.
“Be fair, man, that's more like half a textbook.”
Natasha shot Sam a thankful glance. “No, I'm dropping it because this is the wall. This is where we stop.”
“What?” Steve asked.
Natasha lifted the papers back out of Sam's hands. “This is a final warning. This is hundreds of hours of work by a lot of very competent, very expensive lawyers. Just look at the authors list.” She flipped through it to about a third of the way in. “If I continue to work against Stark Industries, they will be launching civil suits and criminal suits, just like she said. We'll be back on the run.”
Steve shook his head. “SI isn't the government.”
“Pepper has enough pull to make this go through.”
“She already has. It's all in place. If I don't back off, this is a treason charge.”
“That's unjust,” said Bucky.
“Is it? I did the crime.”
“You know what treason looks like, and that's not it.”
Steve swallowed. “Buck...”
“No.” Bucky shook his head. “This isn't—why isn't it against all of us?”
“Because I'm the hacker. Because she knows I might stop.”
“We need to find Tony,” said Steve.
“No. Steve... if I thought he was a danger, or in danger, you know I wouldn't let this stop me. But we've investigated, and we've found nothing. Why are you still pushing this?”
The real answer would sound crazy. My dreams are too real.
She took his hesitation for an answer in itself. “Pepper thinks you need to back off. Remember that airport in Germany, at the start of the Accords mess? I sided with you then because you were protecting your friend and I knew you wouldn't stop. Now it's the other way around. Are you going to go through Pepper to get to her friend? Because she's not going to stand down.”
“Jesus, Natasha, we're not going to attack him.”
“Then what are you planning on doing to him?” She looked around at all of them, her gaze lingering on Wanda before sliding back to Steve.
“Talking,” said Steve, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Seeing what he is doing that he shouldn't,” said Wanda.
“Shouldn't according to who?”
“To us! Against us!”
“That's not enough. Without a reason, we're just stalking him. In the legal sense of the word.” She pulled out a page from the packet. “Pepper's lawyers are particularly concerned about it.”
He didn't know what to say. I dreamed I died, and it felt like it really happened. I dreamed I loved him, and that felt real, too. It would never convince anybody who hadn't been there, in his dreams, feeling the things he'd felt. For Tony. And knowing that Tony felt the same way.
He had to know that Tony was okay. He had to know that it wasn't something Tony was doing, putting these thoughts in his head. These feelings. He had to know that Tony wasn't going down the path that Wanda thought he was.
“It's a fair point,” said Sam. “I can't say I trust him, not after the Raft. But he's got a right to do his own thing. That was what we fought for. Unless we learn he's hurting people...”
“We won't learn unless we look,” Wanda insisted. “He's buried himself, hidden everything.”
“He's grieving,” said Natasha, refolding the paper in precise motions. “If you were half as good as you think you are at getting in people's heads, Wanda, you'd know that.”
Steve winced as Wanda recoiled.
Natasha shook her head. “Sorry, guys. But I'm out.”
Bucky snapped something fast and guttural and Russian, and stormed out of the jet.
Steve woke up to the muddled feeling of modern opiates.
He blinked up at the ceiling. It was painted in gradients of warm yellows, oranges, and beiges, all of which throbbed in time to his heartbeat. His mouth was dry as dust. There was a table beside him laden down with books, a Bucky Bear, and a cup of water, which he could see when he lolled his head to the side. Trying to lift his arm to reach said cup of water made the IV taped to the back of his hand twinge, but then somebody was standing next to the bed and handing him the cup, helping him with the straw.
“Buck,” Steve whispered, when his throat no longer felt like the desert. He coughed and took another sip of water. “What happened?” The room was still pulsing gently.
He knew he'd lost time. But when had Bucky gotten here? Or had he been medevaced back to New York? Where was Tony?
He couldn't shake the nagging feeling that Tony wasn't just missing, Tony was gone. He didn't know where it came from.
“Tasha dragged Tony off to force him to eat and shower,” said Bucky, pulling his chair up closer to the bed. The sound of the metal scraping across hospital tile made Steve's ears buzz pleasantly. “He'll be pissed he wasn't here. You've got terrible timing.”
Steve took another sip of water. “What're you doing here?”
Bucky gave him a look he usually reserved for when Steve was being an utter imbecile. “You're in the hospital.”
“It wasn't that bad.” Steve lifted his injured arm and wiggled his fingers. Something in his chest unlocked when his fingers obeyed, moving against the swathes of bandaging that covered his arm from just beneath his fingertips to halfway past his elbow. Lifting his arm hurt a bit, even through the haze of drugs, but not too badly. Dimly, he recalled feverish nightmares, probably worsened by the drugs, where his arm disintegrated in front of his eyes, the fire crawling up him and spreading to the rest of his body, blasting the whole of him into ash. He remembered opening his eyes and staring up at bright lights, too, with EMTs moving around him at an impossibly fast pace, and Tony gripping his good arm with terrified desperation.
“Docs said you'll be fine, sure,” said Bucky. “Tony freaked out and called us first, of course we were gonna come. I'd’ve clocked him if I'd had to find out about it from the six o'clock news, anyway.”
A nurse arrived then and Bucky backed off to a corner of the room while she gave Steve a quick check-over, testing motion and sensation in his fingers and arm. She checked the monitors and IVs, nodded approvingly at Bucky, and said, “You're doing very well, Captain. That tissue regen machine that Mr. Stark brought in is just amazing. It's really going to change things when it gets on the market.”
Tony nearly ran into the nurse as he bolted back into the room. His hair was wet and messy, curling and sticking up haphazardly as it began to dry. His eyes were red and puffy, the bags under them big enough to carry home groceries. He didn't seem to notice the nurse, just crossed immediately to the chair Bucky had vacated and sat down, grabbing Steve's good hand between his own two.
Behind him, Bucky rolled his eyes and offered a half-smile, half-smirk, but Steve barely noticed. Tony looked awful. “You're awake,” said Tony, and he pulled Steve's hand to his mouth, pressing Steve's fingers to his lips, then to his forehead, before hunching over like he was trying to conceal tears.
“I'm here, I'm fine,” said Steve, tugging at his hand to get enough freedom to caress the side of Tony's face. “I'm fine. You're okay?”
Tony gave him a shaky smile. “Didn't take a single hit. You're the one she grabbed. God, Steve. I'm so sorry.”
Steve blinked at him, wishing that the nurse had dialed back the drugs in his IV. Tony was making no sense. “What for?”
“I left you to face her alone. Christ.” He turned his head and pressed a kiss to Steve's palm. “When you screamed...”
“She just burned my arm, it'll be fine. Nurse said so.”
“I left you without backup.”
“You had to get the civilians out, Tony, it was the right call. And I took her down just fine on my own,” Steve added, working up a bit of indignation just to try and distract him.
“I should have called in the team,” said Tony, low and hoarse. “You said—and I was too damn arrogant—”
“But I agreed. If I'd really thought we needed them, then I'd have called them in anyway,” said Steve. He shook his head, trying to clear it, but of course with the drugs that didn't work. “Tony, it's fine. Just... sit here. Stay.”
“I'm sorry I wasn't here when you woke up.”
“I want you to take care of yourself,” said Steve.
“Ditto,” said Tony, his voice too small, and he pressed Steve's hand again, then buried his face against the blankets over Steve's legs.
“Enough drama, Tony,” said a welcome voice from the door. Steve looked up and saw Natasha standing there, grocery bags hanging from one arm. “Steve's fine, but if you stay hunched over at his bedside like that you'll convince him you think he's dying.” She circled around to set the groceries down beside Steve's overflowing bed table, then fished out a pack of pudding cups and broke off three, passing two to Tony and keeping one for herself. “Have some chocolate. Spoons are in the bag.”
“Thanks, Nat,” said Steve. The sight of food, even heavily processed and packaged food, was a welcome one. Maybe even more welcome than something less fake. He was going to be avoiding meat for a while, the lingering sense-memory of the smell of his own flesh, burning, making his stomach clench. But his stomach was also empty, and growling at the thought of snacks. “Tony, feed me.”
“Demanding,” said Tony, but he was sitting up again and even smiling a little as he dug out a spoon and peeled the top off of the pudding cup.
“We'll be outside,” said Bucky, touching Natasha lightly on one shoulder. She looked up at him, a silent conversation that Steve couldn't read taking place in a second. And aloud, sotto voice, “Tash, if we ever get there, kill me.”
“I'd at least hold out for fondue,” murmured Natasha, and she turned, laying a hand against Bucky's lower back and guiding him, or letting him guide her, out of the room. Steve couldn't be sure which it was, but then, he wasn't sure of much when it came to their relationship. It wasn't like what he had with Tony, but that didn't much matter. They were here for him now. They were his friends. They were happy together.
Maybe it wasn't so different. When it came down to it, happiness with Tony was all he wanted, too.
Tony spooned out a measure of pudding, held it up, and obediently, Steve opened his mouth, letting Tony pop it in. He was less obedient when Tony tried to draw it back, catching it with his lips and tongue and letting it go in one slow slide, pursing his lips around it and sucking as it slipped out.
“You're incorrigible,” Tony said, with a watery kind of laugh.
“You'd be doing the exact same in my place,” Steve pointed out. His stomach grumbled then, loudly, and he winced. “Okay, but food first.” He plucked the spoon out of Tony's hand and grabbed a much larger spoonful of pudding, eating with little decorum or grace. Food had reminded him that he was starving.
He checked out a few hours later. Tony had argued for him to stay, but the doctors had dialled back the painkillers not long after lunch, and his arm wasn't hurting badly enough that he wanted them back. Dr. Cho had stopped by to check on the results of the Cradle, and they'd chatted briefly, but she had a flight to catch back to Seoul.
“I hope we didn't pull you from anything urgent,” Steve told her.
“This was urgent,” said Helen, patting his bandages gently. “But, actually, it was good experience. The bone damage was deeper than the Cradle normally deals with, and syncing everything up in a case like this, where it is not just being made from scratch, this is tricky.” She smiled crookedly. “I know you don't like being a test subject, but it gave us valuable data.”
Steve raised his eyebrows. “Glad to be of service.”
An unimpressed nurse spent a quarter-hour telling both Steve and Tony how to care for the bandages, despite Helen's assurances that with his healing factor, they'd be redundant in a day or so. By the end of it Steve was longing to get away from the hospital and back to his own bed where he could just curl up beside Tony and rest. Tony was growing antsier the longer they spent in the hospital, too, and watching him sit in his chair and jitter was wearing at Steve's nerves. But Tony had refused all offers made for him to take a nap on the cot beside Steve, claiming worry that he'd fall off if they both tried to fit on it. Steve was pretty sure that what he was really worried about was hurting Steve.
But finally, Bucky showed up with a nurse he'd collared and a wheelchair, and they made their escape. They even managed to duck the reporters clustered outside the hospital, sneaking out a side entrance into the car Natasha had waiting.
“Thank you both,” Steve told them, letting Tony help him with his seat belt. He didn't really need the assistance, but it seemed to make Tony feel better. “We appreciate you coming down here.”
“Somebody needed to make sure 'Natural Disaster Woman' was taken into custody,” said Natasha. “Did no one point out to her that if she's making disasters, they're not natural?”
“That's what I said,” said Tony, finally done fussing over Steve and fastening his own seat belt. Steve reached over with his good hand and gave Tony's a squeeze, receiving one in return. “I don't know, I never even figured out why she had a problem with me.”
“Your sparkling wit didn’t charm her?”
“Seemed to get her really fired up,” said Steve, which earned him a chorus of groans.
Bucky and Natasha saw them up to their hotel suite, but made it clear they wouldn't be staying, citing a need to get back to the holding cell where the authorities had tossed Natural Disaster Woman. “They're keeping her drugged for now, but that's a tricky line to walk,” said Natasha. “They need to transport her to CIREC soon.”
“It's open?” The UN's 'Centre for the Incarceration and Rehabilitation of Enhanced Criminals' had been under construction for a while, but he hadn't thought they'd finished signing all the paperwork yet.
“Where else can we put her?”
Good question. Steve had toured CIREC himself, back in the early days after Sokovia, when global panic had nearly resulted in legislation limiting the rights and freedoms of metahumans. Despite its grim name, CIREC had turned out to be a pretty pleasant place, a secured park modelled after Norway's approach to prisons: namely, that rehabilitation was key. And Steve knew that the systems surrounding CIREC wouldn't allow for any convenient disappearances, because he'd made sure of that himself. But there were limits to its ability to contain threats, too. The guards had fast-acting tranqs, but Natural Disaster Woman was one of the most, possibly the most powerful enhanced individual they'd yet encountered. She'd set off a volcano, for crying out loud. “If they need help...”
“They won't call you,” Natasha said, making it clear that this was not an option. “That's the whole point of it.”
“Steve?” Tony ducked back through the doorway into the bedroom. He'd shed his shoes when they'd walked in, but now his socks were missing as well.
“Go take your husband to bed,” Natasha told Steve, punching him lightly on his good arm.
Tony grinned. “Marital advice from the Black Widow? Talk about irony—ow, okay, kidding, come on, Steve, let's leave the master assassins to their love affair.” Bucky had reached over to punch Tony as well, less gently. “Out, shoo, you're interrupting the honeymoon.”
“I really don't need to see this,” said Bucky. Natasha looked on the verge of laughter, but they made themselves scarce regardless.
When they were gone, Steve kicked off his own shoes and let Tony lead him to the bed. The hotel room was a different one from where they'd stayed the night the volcano had gone off. Hell, it might have been a different hotel. Steve hadn't really been paying attention. He let Tony undress him and help him into pyjamas, arrange pillows around him on the bed, bring water, get up to fiddle with the room's thermostat, get up to change into pyjamas himself, get up to get his own glass of water, get up to fiddle with the thermostat again, and finally had to talk him out of phoning down to order room service.
“Natasha got us fruit, just get a bowl of that,” Steve told him. “Honestly, Tony, I'm not hungry right now.”
“Well, when you are,” Tony said, waffling, but he did as told.
When he came back, Steve took the bowl from him, then hooked his wrist and dragged him down beside him. “You're wearing me out,” Steve murmured.
That got him instant guilt. “Sorry.”
“Don't be sorry, just... relax.” Steve opened the carton of grapes, still half-full, and picked one from its stem, then held it to Tony's lips. “Have a grape.”
“I'm sure we're doing this the wrong way around, you're the injured party here,” said Tony, but he let Steve pop the grape into his mouth.
“Right, so humour your injured husband and let him feed you grapes,” Steve said, picking up another.
This time, Tony licked at Steve's fingertips as he tongued the grape slowly into his mouth. He grabbed a grape himself from the bowl, and Steve returned the favour in kind, biting the grape in two with his front teeth and then licking along Tony's fingers when a drop of juice ran down. At his next offered grape, Tony gave up the pretence entirely, swallowing it and then sucking at Steve's fingertips, sending a frisson of interest from his hand straight to his groin.
But Steve's other arm was still aching, and the bags under Tony's eyes made him look like a raccoon. Regretfully, Steve disentangled his hand and tucked his arm around Tony instead, drawing him close and laying them both down. “Sleep with me.”
“Gladly,” said Tony, with leering innuendo, but it felt more obligatory than anything else.
“Stay beside me,” said Steve. It was what he really meant.
Tony relaxed against him at last. “Always.”
Steve woke up from his nap feeling groggier than ever.
He, Wanda, and Sam had tried to plan their next move after Bucky and Natasha left, but without Bucky there Steve's attention was too divided. Natasha had told them that she was going to go visit her godchildren, which meant that she'd be hunkering down at Clint's for a few days. But Bucky had just taken off, and Steve was torn between going right after him and waiting. He wanted to believe Bucky would come back, for his stuff and to say goodbye if nothing else. Bucky had come with them out of Wakanda. He'd decided to stay with Steve, and if he decided to leave, he'd at least take his phone.
It wasn't until Bucky did come back, four hours later, that something in Steve eased and he could stop pacing interminably back and forth. Bucky took one look at him and said, “You look like the world's grumpiest toddler, Steve. I'm back, will you take a fucking nap?”
He did, because he was tired and it was screwing with his ability to plan, but sleep held no rest for him these days.
When he woke, the jet was empty, the others gone out somewhere. Steve sat up and buried his face in his hands. There was no one beside him. There was no one he could turn to like he could turn to Tony in his dreams, no one who would take his hand and sleep beside him, who'd stay with him. Bucky would return, but Bucky wasn't—they weren't like that. Hell, Steve and Tony had never been like that; even when they'd been friends, that was all it had been. Tony was attractive and frustratingly magnetic—or magnetically frustrating, Steve had never worked it out—but friendship was all it had ever been, and that was long gone now. Pepper had made that clear.
“Why didn't you tell Natasha about the dreams?”
Steve startled, halfway to standing before he saw Bucky standing in the door to the cockpit, tablet in hand. He must have been sitting in one of the chairs up there, out of sight from Steve's bench in the back.
“I—” It was on the tip of Steve's tongue to ask how Bucky knew about the dreams, but they'd shared rooms often enough in the past few days, even when Steve wasn't just napping in the main cabin of the quinjet for anyone to see. He'd thought he'd done a pretty good job of concealing it from Bucky, but maybe not. Considering how he'd woken up, the last few days... Steve's cheeks heated. It was natural. It was perfectly natural.
But the vividness of the dreams wasn't natural.
“They're just dreams,” Steve said finally.
“Uh huh. Nothing to do with why you're chasing after Stark.”
“It's not like that.”
“That's her story.”
“She's going to hurt Stark when she finds him,” said Bucky. He didn't sound like he cared one way or the other, the dispassion in his voice so cold it made Steve's arm ache. “Are you going to stop her?”
“She won't hurt him. She just wants to know what he's doing. If he's... behind this.” Steve looked up at Bucky. “So do I.”
“Stark does a lot of things, but putting thoughts in people's heads isn't one of them. You've only got one person on your team who does that.”
Your team. “I thought you supported Wanda.”
“I wanted to see what Stark was up to. You moaned his name often enough while sleeping, I got concerned.”
Steve's blush deepened. “I—that's not—we're friends, that's all. I just want to make sure he's okay, figure out what's going on. Wanda's a good kid, Buck, she's got reason to worry. She's not out for blood.”
“Are you sure?” Bucky met his eyes for once, and his gaze was unnerving, the same kind of unblinking stare that the Soldier had, when Bucky no longer knew who he was, where he was, what he was. “I woke up and everything seemed so clear. Longer I travel around with you guys, fuzzier it gets.”
The nap really hadn't done a thing to curb Steve's exhaustion. “Did you want to leave with Natasha?”
“I don't know.” Bucky scratched at the back of his head. “She confuses me. Her priorities...”
Wisps of dream spoke to him. “Sounds like she's thrown you for a loop. Been a while since you had to worry about that with a girl.”
“Woman,” Bucky corrected quickly. Then, more quietly: “No kids in our line of business.”
“If you wanted to go with her, to Clint's—or, hell, back to Wakanda… Buck, if you need—” Steve struggled for words, and stopped. He couldn't think of a way to put it that wasn't if you need to leave me, and that was so self-pitying that if he tried to say it, he'd choke on it. Bucky had had everything taken from him. If being around them, on this mission, was making things 'fuzzy,' then maybe going to Clint's for a few weeks would be best. Or going back to Wakanda. No matter if he had to leave Steve behind again.
“Somebody needs to keep an eye on you,” said Bucky. It wasn't as reassuring as it should have been.
“Alright,” said Sam, when he and Wanda had returned with takeout dinner. “We need to lay our cards on the table.” He nodded significantly at Wanda.
She took a breath, and said, “I've been having dreams.”
“You ain't the only one,” muttered Bucky, but when Sam looked at him sharply Bucky tipped his head toward Steve.
Steve held up a hand to forestall it. If Wanda was willing to say it now, to the rest of the team, then they needed to listen. With Natasha leaving, with Pepper's ultimatum, the stakes had been upped. If they were going to take this beyond a concerned search for a friend, they needed to know.
“The sky is black. It's not night, it's... something is covering the sun. There are shapes around, creatures, fighting. They're not human.”
“Ultron?” asked Steve. This didn't sound like the same dream she'd described to him.
“I don't know. It's not coherent, it just comes to me in flashes. There are bright lights, and I can feel power attached to them. My power. I try to stop it, but it goes right through, and it's like watching Pietro die, right in front of me. We're all dying. It's not an image, it's just what I know is happening. Or I see Stark's armour, and I know—I was trying to save us, but he interrupted me. And then there's a fist, raised to the sky. A metal gauntlet. Then the world is disintegrating.”
Neither Bucky nor Sam looked surprised. Steve wasn't the only one unable to hide things worth a damn.
“Tony's not a bad guy, but he doesn't always... think things through,” said Steve. “He made Ultron because he wanted a suit of armour around the world, because he wanted to stop tragedies like New York. Before that incident with the President, he was making all those different armours for the same reason. He wants to protect Earth. It was why he supported the Accords.”
“He's a control freak,” said Wanda. “And a pessimist. He makes things that shouldn't be made.”
“Okay, but what are our grounds?” asked Sam. “We fought the Accords because they were too hazy on this kind of thing, where we might be forced by outside interests to take pre-emptive action, but that doesn't mean we can just go make a citizens' arrest on Stark because of something he might do. Not when crossing that line means we're going to get into a fight with SI at the least, and probably law enforcement. There's a lot to be said about crooked cops, but I didn't join the Avengers to beat up SWAT teams.”
“I told you why,” said Wanda.
“And you said that it's dreams, that it's not coherent. Honestly, it sounds a lot like what happened in Sokovia.” Sam's voice gentled. “You lost your brother there, Wanda. Nobody expects you to forgive Stark for that.”
“It's not PTSD,” she snapped.
“It doesn't have to be, to make you still have dreams about it.”
“Then why wouldn't I have started dreaming before now?”
“Big changes, different circumstances...”
“Sam,” Steve said, and then had to clear his throat. “Wanda's not the only one having dreams.”
Sam leaned back, eyebrows rising. “You didn't have any psychic powers last I checked. What's that about?”
I dream that I'm married to him and that I love him. That he loves me. And we never manage to have sex, damn it. A blush rose to his cheeks, and he had to stare at the bulkhead wall behind Sam's head. “It's not normal dreams. It's like I'm living a different life. When I'm asleep, this life is the one that feels like the dream. When I fall asleep there, I wake up here.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Sam glancing between Wanda and Bucky. Steve turned to look himself, but while Wanda looked interested, Bucky just looked blank.
“How long's this been going on for?”
“I'd like to say a couple days.” Steve scrubbed at his face. “But it's starting to feel like my entire life. And—over there, or in-between, I had a dream that I disintegrated. Burned to ash. And I woke up again, over there and over here, and it wasn't real, but it was vivid enough it could've been.”
“Alright,” Sam said slowly. “That's a bit freaky.”
“I'm not giving you these dreams,” said Wanda. “I'm not, I would know.”
Bucky stirred. “You don't know where yours come from.”
“I know when I'm putting things in people's heads,” she insisted. “This isn't me. This is whatever Stark is going to do. Maybe he is doing it already.”
It left a logical question, and Sam asked it. “But why Steve? No offence, Steve. Wanda, we still don't know your powers. Your dreams could be some kinda precognition, I don't know. But, Steve?”
Steve shared a look with Bucky, who shrugged minutely. Whatever you want to say, pal.
“Tony's there,” Steve said, when Sam just kept looking at him patiently. “In the dreams, pretty much all the time.”
Sam rubbed at his face. “Okay, I trust you both, so I'll agree there's something hinky going on we should investigate, but I'm just saying, I also think you should both see therapists, make sure this isn't something else. And no, that can't be me. It'd be against professional guidelines, and I'm not that much of an idiot.”
“I don't need therapy,” said Wanda.
“Just because you're allowed to be angry at him doesn't make it the healthiest state of mind for you, not constantly like this.”
“It's not like that,” said Steve, shaking his head. “We're not fighting, it's not—like that.”
Sam stared at him. Then Wanda stared at him. In desperation, Steve looked away from them both, but Bucky was studiously not looking at him, which left the bulkhead wall or the table as the only safe places to look, and that was just as good as admitting he was hiding something. The flush rose up his cheeks again, this time making it to his ears.
“Okay,” said Sam, drawing the word out. “So I'm guessing you don't mean that you're just having really vivid dreams where you cordially and civilly talk out the Accords and he apologizes for going nuts in Siberia.”
Siberia. That thought killed any hazy memories of Tony hand-feeding him grapes. Steve looked down at the floor, embarrassment fading beneath the weight of grief and shame.
“And speaking of laying out cards,” said Sam. Now he sounded downright suspicious.
“I killed Stark's parents,” said Bucky. There was no inflection on the words, making them incongruously casual. “Stark found out in Siberia. There was camera footage.”
Sam looked like he'd just bit his tongue. Wanda just looked angry, and Steve wilted inside. He should have told them. But—it was Bucky's business. Or Tony's. Tony hadn't told the world, hadn't told anyone. Maybe they shouldn't have told them now. Maybe they should’ve left them thinking that negotiations had just broken down in Siberia, one more casualty of the Accords.
Keeping secrets had helped send everything to hell back then, but if Tony didn't want this one released now, didn't he owe that to Tony, after keeping it from him for so long? All else aside: that particular mistake had been on Steve. He wasn't sure they weren't compounding it now.
“Stark killed my parents. They died right in front of me. Then my brother and I spent three days trapped with their bodies.” Wanda wiped tears from her eyes, an impatient gesture, more rage than grief. “I had to get over it. You all expected me to get over it, to work with him, and then he threw us in jail and he does this. He always has some reason, some excuse.”
Sam shot her a narrow-eyed look. “Okay, I'm not going to touch that. I'm just going to say, Steve, this changes things. Bucky, we all know you weren't responsible for your actions back then, but hunting down Stark with you, now, that's... not a good look.”
“He wasn't responsible—”
“I literally just said that, Steve. But you don't think it might be a legit reason for Stark to be avoiding you?”
“I know. But I can't just ignore all this. Sam, if you had these dreams...” Steve shook his head. “They're too real. Something weird is going on, and Tony's at the centre of it.”
“Fine. Here's a thought.” Sam sounded like he was thirty seconds away from throwing up his arms and stalking out, just like Bucky had the night before. Maybe, like Natasha, he wouldn't come back. Steve's chest tightened. Maybe this was Sam's ultimatum. “You keep saying that these dreams are so real, why don't you ask dream-Tony what's going on? If he's supposed to be doing something, wouldn't he know?”
Steve blinked, and exchanged a startled glance with Wanda. Would he?
“When I'm... awake, there, it feels like this is the dream,” said Steve. “It's not like I know I'm sleeping. I can't control it.”
“Yeah, but you said your dreams of here were just as vivid there. So—and Steve, it's the you that you'll think is awake right now I'm talking to—do your dreaming self a favour and ask Stark what the hell's going on.”
“I can try,” Steve said, a little bewildered.
“Try.” Sam locked gazes with him. “Otherwise, man, we need to get you back to Wakanda so T'Challa's scientists can scan your brain.”
When Steve woke up the next morning, the last of the drug haze had faded and he felt clear-eyed again. His arm didn't hurt too badly, either, letting him flex and bend his elbow and wrist with a minimum of pain. Beside him, Tony was curled into a ball, the covers pulled up so high only his hair stuck out. Steve smiled fondly at him, then levered himself carefully out of bed to use the bathroom.
Trying to wash his hands was sufficiently awkward that, after, he sat on the edge of the tub and contemplated just taking the bandages off. The doctors at the hospital had little experience with Steve's healing factor, after all—but Tony would probably fuss. He settled for trying to cut back the bandaging on his hand, to give himself more range of motion with his fingers, and went looking for scissors.
Tony was sitting up when Steve went back into the bedroom, his hair flattened on one side of his head and sticking up wildly on the other, yawning deeply. “You're up,” he said, not particularly intelligently.
“So're you,” Steve pointed out fondly.
“Arm okay? D'you need anything?”
“Scissors,” said Steve, hunting through drawers to see if their bags had been put away somewhere. He usually kept a small first aid kit with him, and that meant safety scissors, although in a pinch a knife would do just as well.
“You know you're supposed to keep the bandaging on, Nurse Ratchet explained that at least five times. I was there, I saw you nodding.”
“Nodding off, maybe,” Steve retorted. “It's healing. This is just swaddling, it's driving me nuts.” He waved his arm around for emphasis, then had to conceal a wince as he caught his elbow on the open drawer, jarring it. It was healing. “I want a shower.”
“I don't want help showering,” said Steve, even though he was aware that now he was just being stubborn for the sake of it. He regretted it instantly. Tony felt bad enough over the whole deal, Steve didn't want to start a fight over this, and definitely not like this.
But maybe the whining was excuse enough, because Tony just rolled his eyes, a gesture that swiftly morphed into a leer. “You don't want quality shower time with your husband, in the honeymoon suite of the very plush hotel he booked for, oh, our honeymoon? There's interesting things you can do with those hand-held showerheads, you know...”
Hell, if he got his bandages wet, he'd have a ready-made excuse to get rid of them.
The honeymoon suite's tub had three different shower-heads, it turned out, with holders for them along the wall so that they could be positioned at different heights. Steve suffered through Tony wrapping his arm in garbage bags before letting him get in, secured with tape from the first aid kit that Tony had found and promptly confiscated. Then he pulled out the bench, stuck rubbery padding along it, and coaxed Steve to lie down on his back before turning on one of the shower-heads and running it over Steve's hair. His fingers massaged Steve's scalp in gentle circles, working in shampoo and cleansing away sweat from the fight and the lingering smell of smoke that Steve hadn't realized was there until it was gone. Steve relaxed into it, feeling luxuriously decadent as Tony murmured something above him, nonsense or equations or declarations of love. Possibly declarations of love in equations, knowing Tony.
“I love you,” said Steve. It came out dreamily.
“Mmm,” hummed Tony, looking pleased. He adjusted the settings on the shower and rinsed out Steve's hair, then soaped up a washcloth and ran it over Steve's skin, underneath his neck and over his chest, down his front. He pulled the shower-head along with him, pouring water over Steve's torso, beneath his arms, over his shoulders. He was, Steve thought, excessively careful on Steve's bad side, which sadly reduced the chances of Steve's bandages getting wet.
That thought in mind, Steve sat up and wrapped his good hand over Tony's around the shower-head. He tugged, carefully so that Tony wouldn't slip, and Tony sat down beside him on the bench, just at the right height for Steve to lean over and kiss him, deeply and lingeringly. Tony tasted like grapes and strawberries, and for once, no hint of coffee, and Steve wanted to stay here and kiss him forever.
The shower-head slipped in Tony's grip and sent a jet of water right across Steve's dick, the pressure three times harder than it had been a moment ago. Steve jolted, caught off-guard, the sensation like fingers squeezing his spine, not wholly unwelcome but not what he was expecting, either.
“Sorry, sorry,” said Tony, catching the shower-head up and fixing the pressure setting one-handed. “Got distracted there.”
“Noticed. I, um, is that what you were talking about, with the shower-heads?”
“I was going to ease you into it, you're an invalid,” said Tony, just a tiny bit indignant, and then he rolled his eyes as Steve grinned at him. “Let me wash your back, since you're already sitting up.”
Steve swung his feet down and held still while Tony stood and soaped up the towel again, running it across Steve's shoulders and back and down along his spine. His fingers lingered at Steve's hips and down along the curve of his ass, the promise of fun to come, then returned up to work a few suds out of his hair at his neck. “All this skin,” Tony murmured. “God, you're fair. I could stretch you out and doodle blueprints on you.”
“Let me take the bandages off, and sure.”
Tony sighed. “Steve...”
He had meant it to be teasing, not to break the mood like that. But Tony's touch became strictly business-like as he finished soaping Steve down and rinsed him again, then knelt down to start in on his left leg, which was really unnecessary, considering that Steve did have at least one working hand. Steve ran a hand through Tony's hair, damp from the steam and spray but still soft and clean. “I'm sorry I scared you.”
Tony grinned at him crookedly. “We do that to each other.”
Steve thought of the dreams that had plagued him recently, of Tony being gone, of searching for him and catching only smoke. Of the Accords passing and breaking them, and the bitter silences between his team, the things left unsaid and the things he wished had been left unsaid. They were too vivid, too real, and they had no place here. Maybe once he got used to being married, they'd stop. He hoped so.
God, he didn't want to keep imagining a life without Tony.
“It'll be fine,” Tony continued after a moment, when Steve might have spoken but hadn't. He sounded uncomfortable—worried for Steve, no doubt. “CIREC's equipped to handle her; she'll get therapy, counselling. We won't have to worry about her again.”
Steve grimaced. He hadn't had time to think about it last night, but now that Tony had brought it up again it nagged at him. “You're sure they can hold her there? She's a lot more powerful than anyone we had in mind when the resolutions were passed. I don't think even Wanda could set off a volcano like that.”
Tony settled down on the shower floor and took to washing Steve's feet with a level of care that far surpassed any Steve had ever given himself. His fingers dug into the sole of Steve's left foot, pressing up against the arch and then smoothing down along to the toes, kneading at the joints, and Steve let himself relax back and groan with pleasure, getting a satisfied look in return.
“It'll be fine. CIREC's part of Area 42, and it's set up to suppress everything automatically.”
Steve's eyes had started to drop closed, but now they popped open again. “What, like constant drugs? That's not safe. That's not—”
“No, no, not drugs, that's the point. Area 42's the pocket-realm research project. Why do you think it took so long to get a prison set up and certified in there? Would have taken longer without Thor, gotta say, I'm pretty sure he snuck us a couple of Asgardian library books he wasn't supposed to.”
“Pocket-realm?” That rang a bell, mostly something about interstellar travel and a lot of rants about string theory that had been entirely over Steve's head.
“You weren't listening? I was going over it while we were on the beach, we're getting great data out of it.”
“Was that when you were speaking math?”
Tony scratched his chin, getting soap all over his beard. “It might have been math.”
“Right.” Steve plucked the showerhead from Tony's hand, giving him time to close his eyes and tip his head back before Steve aimed in in his direction, sluicing away the suds. “I thought we were supposed to be on honeymoon.”
“Yeah, but it's really interesting math,” said Tony, his eyes still closed. Just for that, Steve jetted him with the water again. Blind, Tony reached out and fumbled at Steve, trying to grab the showerhead away from him, which really wasn't happening unless Steve chose to let him take it. “The implications about what we'll be able to do to this reality are out of this world—ha, literally—it's going to change everything we know about cutting-edge science!”
Steve relented, turning the spray away and oh-so-accidentally clipping the bandaging over his arm with it. With luck, the plastic wouldn't be secure enough to keep all of the water out, and he'd have an excuse to take it off. He turned it toward his leg quickly as Tony cracked one eye open, then the other, experimentally, before wiping at his face and getting up to sit on the bench beside Steve.
“It sounds pretty fancy for a prison,” said Steve.
Tony snorted. “Believe me, CIREC was not in the original spec. But they needed someplace, and it turns out it really is the perfect solution. No volcanoes, no earthquakes.”
“Still. She's gotta interact with people, parole officers... they're not trying to do it all by remote screens, are they?”
“Of course not.” Tony looked affronted. “I wouldn't put up with that, and that would be completely wasting the point of having a customizable reality. No, we just worked out the settings on Area 42 to tweak it so that nobody has powers in there. She's just a baseline human.”
Steve brought the hose around to trace over Tony's back. “I feel like I'm missing something here. How is it doing that without drugs or some kind of restraints?”
It was always a bit annoying when he could visibly see Tony backtracking in his head, trying to figure out where his audience had stopped being able to keep up with him. Or at least it was annoying when it was happening to Steve. He had to admit that it was sometimes funny to watch happen to other people.
“It's like... gravity,” said Tony. “Mass is attracted to mass. Water falls down, right?”
“Not in Asgard. Or, not everywhere in Asgard. They've got a pretty complicated system there, everything inverts at the edges and the exact middle, so you get waterfalls that go around in a circle, stuff like that. Or so Thor says. What we're doing in Area 42 is a lot more subtle, but it's essentially the same thing, just changing things so that the fancy abilities Sophie's got, the fire and earthquakes, they don't work.”
That... was a lot more advanced than Steve had expected. Drugs and shock collars were one thing. This was... not inhumane, unless there were side-effects, but the way Tony put it, like adjusting gravity... “Customizable reality.”
“Yep. The main project's about all the ways we can twist it to make the laws of reality work for us. You think the Cradle's good, this is going to revolutionize medical science—we'll be able to make diseases not exist. Or all the drugs you could ever need, because manufacturing's a lot easier inside it. We're still testing to make absolutely sure that there's no effects when something crosses back out of the boundary, but we've established that anything on our side can go in or out without problem, so if something really doesn't work out we can just bring somebody in and bam, they're fixed. Food shortages? Helium shortages? They naturally condense out of thin air in our custom-built world, and when we're done, it will never be a problem again.”
“It sounds like a miracle machine,” said Steve, impressed despite himself.
Tony grinned and leaned in to give him a kiss, only to grab the showerhead back while Steve was distracted. “Science. Now, Steve, Captain, you're nearly nice and clean all over, but there's one area we've definitely neglected...” He slid down from the bench to settle on the floor, nudging Steve's legs apart to give him access, and running the shower-head over Steve's thighs, left and then right and then back to left, carefully not spraying over Steve's cock or balls, even though the pressure was still at gentle. With each pass he slowed, until he was moving at a snail's pace, and only then did he bring the water over Steve's cock, flicking the pressure up just one notch higher while his other hand dipped low, stroking at Steve's balls.
Every time they'd tried to have sex in the past few days, they'd been interrupted. Steve's balls were heavy and aching, and the pressure of the water was nothing like a firm grip around him. It was more like a vibrator pressed against his entire length. His cock began to swell, changing the angle that the water was hitting him at, and Tony hummed with approval, running his hand up and along the inside of Steve's thigh, then back down, this time with a scrape of nails against skin.
“Clean all around,” said Tony, and cupped his hand over Steve's cock before bringing the shower-head beneath it, spraying across both his balls and cock in slow, rotating circles.
Steve gasped. “Gonna have to clean me up again.”
“Comes of having a filthy mind,” Tony said cheerfully, and brought the showerhead in closer, barely an inch away from Steve's cock, while his other hand finally, finally reached down and around Steve—but only with his thumb and a single finger, a tight loop. He stroked up Steve's cock, while the showerhead pressed against him from below, spray occasionally flying up from beneath his wrist when his strokes didn't entirely coincide.
“God, Tony,” Steve groaned. He couldn't keep his hands on the bench any longer. Ignoring the spray that nearly got him in the eye, he leaned forward, pulling Tony into a kiss. His mouth felt shamefully empty, and he sucked on Tony's lower lip, wishing he could suck on some of Tony's fingers instead, or his cock. Steve’s own cock was a brand of heat, only ramping up as Tony shifted the showerhead around again, spraying under the side and rolling upward with the motion of his hand.
What happened next happened both quickly and very painfully.
Something whacked into Steve's balls, a mild force that translated into truly shocking pain. He doubled over, both arms going to protect himself, which promptly backfired as the object—the heavy showerhead—caught on the loose tape near his wrists, and ripped tape, plastic covering, and bandaging upward. Steve's reflexes, already slowed by sheer painful shock, tried to catch the damn thing, as it reeled back toward the wall like a tape measure that had been let go. His bad elbow banged against the fixture behind him, more from his own too-expansive gesture than from the force of the shower hose, which had expended its force tearing up his bandages.
“Jesus shit fuck Christ,” said Steve, his voice cracking in the middle.
“Shit!” exclaimed Tony. He knelt up, one hand on Steve's knee, the other empty. “Shit, what the hell, oh my god, are you okay—you're not okay, it caught you, shit, open your legs, Steve, let me check—”
“Check for damage, holy shit, I'm going to sue, I didn't even press anything—”
“Please don't,” Steve managed.
“Oh my god, I'm sorry, shit! I'm sorry, it just snapped back, oh god, Jesus.”
Steve squeezed his eyes shut, trying and mostly failing to think of anything besides the pain in his groin. It hadn't even hit him that hard. It seemed like it shouldn't hurt this much, although logic told him that usually didn't matter when it came to blows to the genitals. His arm, on the other hand, he'd whacked harder, and it was throbbing in time with his balls, and Goddamn it all.
“Jesus, I'm so sorry.”
“I know,” Steve squeezed out.
Slowly, the pain began to subside. With Tony's gentle prodding, he managed to get his legs apart for Tony to inspect, even though he'd told Tony that it had just whacked him, not ripped off any skin. “It did a number on your bandages,” was Tony's retort.
“I noticed,” said Steve, when he didn't have to grit his teeth anymore to talk. The throbbing in his elbow was still going even as the ache in his balls faded. Maybe the doctors were right about how long it would take him to heal.
“I'm going to fucking sue.”
“Please don't sue over my bruised balls,” Steve said. With effort, he pried his hands away and let himself sit doubled over, elbow on one knee, face in his hand. His other elbow strongly protested being made to bear weight.
“If they're bruised I'm definitely suing, personal injury.”
“Damn it, Tony.”
By the time that Tony managed to get him out and back to bed, Steve was shivering. The bathroom was a lot colder without the constant heat and steam of the shower. Stepping into the bedroom was like being smacked across the front by an icy wind, and he barely finished towelling himself off before diving into bed and promptly getting the sheets all wet from his soaked bandages.
“Here, let me,” said Tony, coming up with the scissors and the first aid kit. He clipped away the gauze, and Steve got his first look at how his arm was healing.
It wasn't pretty. He'd expected it to be one long blister, or red and peeling, but it wasn't. Patches of whole skin were split by reddened lines running parallel to the bone, blistered and oozing beneath the green goop that was slathered over his entire arm. Around his forearm, near to the elbow, the skin was divoted with deep wounds in the shape of a handprint.
They'd heal over without trace, Steve knew. It was the lines that bothered him. He thought he'd imagined his own flesh cooking from the inside out, cracking apart beneath the heat. Knowing that it was real was going to give him a whole new set of nightmares.
And moreover, now that they'd been exposed to air, they hurt.
“I'm just going to re-wrap this,” said Tony. “We were supposed to go back to the hospital this afternoon, we can just go early, you need more goop and properly applied sterile... everything.”
“So long as you don't tell them what happened,” Steve agreed glumly.
“No tales of murderous showerheads, fine—I'm serious about it being a safety issue, Steve, it can be anonymous if you insist but I'm submitting a complaint and making sure they damn well follow up on it. Not all newlyweds might be as lucky as us.”
“To already need a reason to go to the hospital?” Steve asked.
Tony grinned, but there was a tightness about it. “Right. That.”
The doctor who examined his burns scolded. The nurse who re-dressed and re-bandaged them scolded, and was extra emphatic about not getting the dressing wet. Dr. Helen Cho, conferring by phone, asked Steve what the hell he'd been doing and then scolded when he said he'd slipped. As they were about to leave the hospital, Steve's phone rang, and he opened it to hear Bucky say, “Steve, what the hell, why is Dr. Cho on the line ranting to Nat about you ripping off all your bandages? Do I need to come back there and tie you to the bed? I didn't think Tony would need pointers for that.”
Steve told him rather creatively where he could stick his nagging, which earned him a full-belly laugh from Tony and a wide-eyed stare from everybody else in earshot. Fortunately, they all seemed too stunned to get out their own phones and cameras before Steve could hang up, grab Tony's hand, and make good their escape.
Outside, the concrete was baking beneath the Hawaiian sun, making the pavement look intermittently liquid. Steve felt sweat begin to bead on the back of his neck before they'd gotten five steps out the door. He tugged on Tony's hand, lacing their fingers together, although as hot as it was he was going to have to let go in a minute or make both their hands disgustingly sweaty. For now, though... “Ice cream?”
“On the beach?” Tony asked, looking like a cat eyeing a mud puddle as he glanced around at parking lot, parkade, and sidewalk. “Our hotel has a lovely private beach, we wouldn't even have to worry about reporters.”
Steve made a face. “Our hotel with the—thing.”
“Fair point. Well, keep your head down, maybe we'll stay unremarked for a bit.”
They got ice cream at a little pop-up stand, the kind of mass-produced, low-quality bars that Steve had slavered over whenever he'd managed to scrounge up enough for fair down to Coney Island, a single slab of vanilla ice cream coated in thick milk chocolate. Tony made a face at them, because he was an ice cream snob, but he took the stick that Steve bought him and helped Steve unwrap his, and they strolled along the edge of the beach. It was ridiculously crowded. Right along the water was fine, if they didn't mind getting their shoes wet occasionally, or dodging swimmers coming in and out and kids running to splash through the waves. Up where the sand was dry the beach was packed with so many sunbathers and umbrellas and sand-mats and portable chairs that it would have been impossible to walk any distance in a straight line.
Steve finished his ice cream, licked off his fingers, and looked around for another ice cream stand. He wished he could go swimming. Tony handed him the rest of his ice cream instead.
“Snob,” Steve told him, taking it happily.
A quarter-mile along the beach, they found another ice cream place, this one serving old-fashioned cones of flavours 'made with Real Cream!!!' Tony bought himself a single scoop, and Steve a triple, telling him, “You're ridiculous, I hope you know that.”
Steve shrugged. “It's hot out.”
Tony shuddered. “Ugh, let's not do that.”
Fair enough. Steve ate his ice cream, making his licks long and lewder than was really probably polite in public, but Tony seemed to be enjoying it. When he'd managed to get it down to a reasonable size where it would stop dripping over his hand, he said, “I know that I'm lucky. But I still feel so damn impatient to get this thing off.”
“Yeah, so lucky to get burned down to the bone. And you give me shit for charging in blind.”
“If it was you...your suit would have protected you.” Or would it have? What was the temperature of magma? Considering how badly she'd burned Steve's arm, even Tony's suit might have had trouble. And Tony was carefully not looking in his direction. He swallowed. “Or you'll make it so it will. I know you. But what about Natasha? Or an ordinary police officer?”
“We're working on it,” said Tony. “Constantly. Believe me. Like I said—Area 42's gonna revolutionize things, Helen's already had amazing results testing the Cradle inside it. If I can just get the energy requirements taken care of, we're going places, and hey, it's me, energy's my thing. It'll happen.”
“Panacea in a can?” Steve asked, trying not to be skeptical in the face of Tony's obvious enthusiasm. Tony scowled, exaggeratedly. “Sorry, Tony. It just... it really does sound like a miracle. It sounds too good to be true.”
“Ha, that's because you can't see the energy debt I still need to climb out of. A miracle would be if we could reverse it, put the controls over in Area 42 and rewrite reality on this end. Bruce keeps trying to come up with a way to show it's theoretically possible. I think he had a couple too many drinks with Jane one night, I chatted with him the next morning and he sent me a file with a single tensor big enough to crash my phone.”
“I'm not sure I like the idea of drunken physicists playing God,” said Steve. Asgard's perpetual waterfall sounded awe-inspiring, but what would it do on Earth?
“As opposed to sober physicists? Nah, it's impossible in any practical sense, he just wants to work out the theory. The energy debt would be too high, the complexity would be too high, my god—even with our little pocket-realm, it adds up. We can change something like preventing metahuman powers, or making carbon more massive than oxygen, but it's all over a limited area. Every time we try to expand it...exponential is not the word. We get the energy up but then it glitches due to computational limits, the techs get to spend weeks debugging it all over again.” He shook his head. “It needs to be limited, factory-sized, mobile ports people can plug into when they need to play by different rules.”
“No making pigs fly, then.”
“Inside it, sure. On the six o'clock news, no.”
Steve wrapped his arm around Tony's shoulders, and felt Tony's hand settle against the small of his back. “I kinda like this world.”
Tony smiled up at him, soft and goofy. There was, Steve was delighted to see, a drop of ice cream stuck beside his mouth, and Steve leaned down, licking it away and then pecking Tony on the lips.
“Yeah,” said Tony, leaning into him. “Of all the worlds we could've had—no, I won't go into that, statistics are always depressing. We lucked out.”
Steve woke from a dream of Tony curled against his side, the sound of the waves on the shore still crashing in his ears.
He reached up to rub the sleep from his eyes, and found himself brushing away tears instead.
“Area 42,” Steve told the others over breakfast.
“Like, Area 51?”
“No. Area 42's where Tony is.”
“You got an answer,” said Sam.
He sounded stunned. Shame pushed Steve to admit, “Sort of. I think. It... it was what we talked about, in the dream.” He described it the way Tony had, eliding out all the surrounding details and just focusing on Tony's description of the pocket-realm, right up to his theory about potentially turning his reality-breaking toy inside out, and concluded, “Maybe he's already used it.”
“That's impossible.” Sam still sounded disbelieving. “Even for Stark, that's like...making yourself into God. He couldn't.”
“Would that stop him from trying?” asked Wanda. “Maybe he found something to help him, like what Hydra did. We don't know how their doctors gave me my powers.”
“There could be another artifact out there,” Steve agreed. “I ran a search online and got nothing, but he's probably buried it. We're gonna need Natasha's help again, or Clint's, or Scott's.”
“No, we don't,” said Bucky. His plate was still full. He'd spent the past half hour pushing his eggs, sausages, and French toast into an unholy mush in the centre, and he was still staring down at it as he spoke. “Area 42's in New York.”
“You've been there?” Steve asked, at the same time as Sam started, “Hydra—”
“It's not Hydra. SHIELD-adjacent, personal property of Howard Stark.” Bucky set his fork down and laid both hands in his lap. “It's buried beneath the Stark mansion.”
“We looked there,” said Steve. It had been one of the first places they'd checked after Stark Tower. The mansion had been shuttered and dark, no signs of occupancy, guarded by a security system that was both ancient and entirely undisturbed.
Bucky shook his head. “Howard had a lot of secrets. SHIELD, too.”
“Why didn't you say anything before?” Wanda demanded.
He shrugged. “Didn't remember.”
Steve controlled a wince. “Sorry, Buck.”
“Not your fault.” He tapped his fingers against the tabletop, the metal making clinking noises that no flesh-and-bone arm ever would. “If we leave before ten, we can get to New York by noon.”
“Jesus.” Sam looked between them all. “This is crazy, you know that, right? I'm not the only one here who gets that?”
“Two of us are nonagenarians, crazy is relative.”
“Crazy is our lives,” said Wanda, darkly.
“Fair point. But, still. This thing...with Stark's parents...” Sam held his hand out, palm up, toward Bucky, and waved it between him and Steve. “This is a bad idea. Stark's an asshole, sure, but Bucky, you coming along... that's a dick move.”
Steve found himself bristling, not to defend Bucky coming along—that was a bad idea—but to defend Tony. It was ridiculous. He was going to try to break into Tony's house because he thought Tony might be trying to manipulate reality, because Tony had screwed up massively in the past and probably would again in the future. Yet he didn't want to hear Sam called Tony an asshole?
Bucky didn't look up, but he said, “You think he's warping reality, Steve, I'm gonna have your back.”
“He's not going to hurt me.” It slipped out before he could catch it, without thought to moderate the force he put into the words. Against Sam and Wanda's incredulous looks, he put up his hands. “He's not. Everything in that reality... it's not like you think. I'll go in alone and talk to him.”
“And what if he's dead set on warping reality?”
“If he's gotten beyond vague attempts, we're probably screwed,” said Steve. “But, Wanda, you think you could feel it?”
“If I was there.” Her eyes narrowed. “I'm not staying behind.”
“I just need to talk to him. Alone.”
“Then you can speak first. I'm still going.”
Steve looked at Sam helplessly. He didn't know how to say what he knew about Tony, how to put it into words that would make the others understand. It had nothing to do with shared history, only the feelings left over from a dream. A dream that Tony had probably had a part in crafting.
“Hell, you know I think this is a bad idea,” said Sam. He sighed. “But fine, I'm in. I'll stay up top and keep an eye out for the inevitable reinforcements.”
Bucky hesitated. “If you don't think I should be there...”
“I think...Sam's right. It'd be cruel.”
“Then I'll stay up top, too.” He tilted his head. “Hope I can remember where to find the elevator.”
It took some negotiating with the FAA to get their flight plan approved, but shortly after 2pm they touched down in the back of the Stark mansion, which sat in the middle of the surrounding skyscrapers on Fifth Avenue like an ancestral palace, hearkening back to another era. Which wasn't too far off from the truth. The stone wall around the grounds was well-maintained, as were the climbing plants that tried to grow over it, but the lawns hadn't been tended this summer, and the grass rose a foot high as they trooped up to the front door.
The security system, decrepit as it was, presented no obstacle. Bucky picked the physical lock with a set of lock picks, and the green LED light on the security panel beeped once and then died when Wanda fried it. Inside, shrouds covered all the furniture, ghostly presences in the light seeping in through windows that hadn't been cleaned in far too long.
This was to be the fate of the Avengers Compound, or the upper floors of Stark Tower. But the mansion wasn't hermetically sealed, and dust had long ago worked its way in. Where the walls met the floors, it was a good half-inch thick, thinning toward the centre of the hallways but still more than enough to leave footprints in. Theirs weren't the first such tracks, but the others had long ago been layered over with more dust.
Steve sneezed near one of the dust-coverings, and set off a flurry that coated his left side in grey and made him sneeze a half-dozen more times in a row.
“You know where we're going?” he asked Bucky when he got his breath back.
Bucky moved lightly, each step deliberately placed. While Steve and Wanda made old floorboards creak, he was a ghost—nothing left behind except footprints. He led them in a wide circle around the outer edge of the house, past a staircase covered in dust cloths and to a second, smaller staircase in the eastern wing.
Theirs were the only footprints in the dust. Bucky stared down at them. “I don't know if there's another way in.”
“If I'm wrong, I'm wrong,” said Steve.
Bucky tapped along the wall, hit a hollow thud, and punched inward. Wood and plaster broke, and the outline of a concealed panel became apparent, a door for a closet hidden beneath the stair. The only thing inside was a dusty old mop and a few bottles of cleaning supplies, until Bucky moved the mop to one side and revealed a black lever that had been hidden by the mop head. There was a groaning noise when Bucky pulled it, and they all turned as the opposite wall rose up into the ceiling, revealing a chrome elevator door and a very modern-looking keypad.
“You know the combo?” Steve asked, but Bucky just shook his head, ducking out of the closet.
Wanda stepped forward, scarlet ringing her irises. “Let me.”
“We don't want it broken.”
“I can handle it—oh.”
The elevator door had opened with a soft chime.
“You're expected,” said Bucky. “Steve...”
“We'll be fine,” said Steve, and tapped his comm. “Sam, we're going down. It might take us out of comm range.”
“It will,” Bucky muttered.
The elevator dinged again, as if it was impatient, or as if the person watching through a hidden camera was.
“Let's go,” said Wanda, and she stepped inside.
Their radios crackled and went dead halfway through the ride, when the pressure change in Steve's ears told him they were at least ten stories down. Say what you wanted about Howard and his flying cars, when the man was serious he didn't screw around. Bucky had described the layout of the place on the flight over, and it was sprawling, entirely lead-lined, and stocked with enough supplies to last a small village through a nuclear apocalypse. Or to conduct top-secret radiation experiments, which was apparently Howard's other use for the bunker, and the one that had earned it its Area designation.
Tony wasn't hard to find. At the bottom of the elevator shaft was a hallway, dark save for the blue light flickering out from the first door down.
Wanda moved forward to look and stopped with a gasp. Steve stepped in front of her, doing his best to tamp down the urge to raise his shield. “Let me talk to him first,” he pleaded with her, keeping his voice low.
“I will keep an eye on it,” she said.
Her eyes were already fixed on the glowing cube that hovered in the centre of the room. Thick cables ran up to a supporting platform in six distinct groupings spaced around it. More cables were secured to the ceiling and floor. The cube itself was tilted, one corner pointed skyward and the other toward the floor, lining up with the cables, but it hung in mid-air unsupported, like one of Tony's holograms. Unlike Tony's holograms, the cube was entirely opaque, and it pulsed with power that Steve could feel from halfway across the room.
Tony was sitting on the opposite side of it, slumped in his chair and staring at it like... a lot like he'd looked at Steve, when Steve had walked out of that conference room in Vienna after rejecting the Accords a second time.
“You don't ever give up, do you?” he asked, when Steve stepped around the cable platform.
“You know me. Tony.”
“I thought you were used to calling me Steve.”
Tony's eyes flicked up, a startled reaction. “What?”
Had he been wrong? No. Not with that cube hanging there. Steve nodded to it, stepping around so that he could keep both Tony and the cube in his direct vision. “That looks an awful lot like the Tesseract.”
“I wish,” said Tony. “Even I'm not that good. Nowhere near that good. This is just a fake.”
“Looks like a pretty good copy to me.”
“From the outside? Sure.”
In a dream, once, he'd thought that Tony looked exhausted, running on too little sleep and frantic with worry. Looking at Tony now, he knew that was just fatigue: bags under his eyes from a night of no sleep. Exhaustion on Tony looked like bone-deep weariness, a quiet lack of hope draining the animation from him until all his movements were listless. It looked like defeat.
“From the inside,” said Steve. “Where the rules of reality are yours to write, huh?”
Tony turned his head and stared at him, really stared. It took him a few moments to form words. “You... know that?”
“You told me.”
“Huh.” Tony's stare turned inward, his eyes still looking in Steve's direction but not seeing anything. “I did? I must have.”
Steve swallowed around the lump in his throat. “Why?”
“Because you asked, probably.”
“Not that. Why—why all that? Why this?”
He hadn't meant to add that last part.
“You know, my mom was Catholic,” Tony said, and now Steve was really glad that he'd asked Bucky to stay upstairs. “I think she lapsed, later in life... probably my dad got to her, having to put up with him. She used to take me to church when I was a kid. I grew out of it pretty much as soon as I got a grasp on formal logic. Took a look at how unhappy my old man was, with me, with the company, with everything. Catholics, Christians, they think God's all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-merciful. Well, evidence argues that, sure, that's possible—pick two.”
“I'm not here to debate religion.”
“Good, because I'm an atheist.” Tony turned away from him to stare dully at the cube again.
“You can't just play God, Tony. You're not Him. People have a right to their own choices, their own minds, not—not whatever fantasy you've cooked up!”
“You're right,” said Tony.
Steve blinked, the bitterness fading as quickly as it had risen. “What?”
“You're right. Literally right. Even with all the power of the cosmos, compressed into the space of a hypercube... it doesn't work. Setting everything up right—the complexities cascade, it goes incoherent. Change something minor—eh, maybe it holds. I try to make something better, something that works, something happy, and suddenly nothing exists beyond Hawaii. Nice place, Hawaii. Bit small for the whole universe.” He leaned forward, resting his head in his hands. “Can't even manage one of three.”
Steve stepped forward and laid his hand on Tony's shoulder. “You're not meant to, Tony. And you don't have to. We can protect the world just fine from within it.”
“You have no sense of scale, of the future,” Tony breathed.
“I know what I'll be giving up,” said Steve. He did. How was it that the memory of companionship could make the sting of loneliness so much worse? “But this isn't worth it. Shut it down.”
Tony's hands clenched in his hair, tugging at his scalp, and Steve had to fight the urge to kneel down beside him and pull his hands away, cover them with his own, or reach out and smooth the stress lines furrowing his skin. They weren't like that. They had never been like that, not outside of a reality that Tony had created from whole cloth. He didn't know if he wanted it, or if Tony was just making him think he wanted it, and it made confused anger bubble up inside him, an emotion he didn't have time for.
Tony sighed, a short, sharp motion of his shoulders that could have been a sob. Then he said, “Full shutdown.”
The cube flared once, a burst that left spots of light on Steve's retinas, and then the only light in the room was from the industrial fluorescents overhead.
“Come on,” said Steve, hooking a hand under his arm and helping Tony to his feet. As he stood he swayed, toppling sideways into Steve's grip, and it took a moment for him to right himself.
“Sorry. Just, sitting too long.”
Steve would just bet. “When was the last time you slept?” Or, come to think of it, ate? At the Tower, Tony had always been ready to pull out the weirdest dried food at the least excuse, but there were no empty wrappers or half-eaten snacks laying discarded among the coffee cups, unless one counted the mold colonies some of those cups were sporting.
“Easier to just break reality,” Tony said vaguely.
Of course it was.
“Come on,” Steve repeated, and tugged Tony toward the elevator.
Bucky had made himself scarce by the time they reached the top of the elevator, although the many extra footprints in the dust showed that he'd been pacing back and forth before the door for a while. Wanda had been silent and wide-eyed since she'd seen the cube, in awe or in horror, Steve wasn't sure. Either way made it simple to locate the nearest bedroom, pull away the dust covers—the dust wasn't so bad, here—and sit Tony down in the overstuffed armchair. Steve was afraid he'd nod off right there, so he shoved a ration bar into Tony's hand's first along with a full water-bottle. He was going to wake up with a hell of a headache, otherwise.
Then he called Sam in, and they held a quick conference in the hallway outside the suite.
“This is way over our heads,” said Sam.
“Not over mine,” said Wanda, wrapping her arms around herself. “It was like looking down a well with no bottom.”
“Yeah, that sounds over your head. Think a call to Natasha is worth it? If she knows of someone—if Dr. Banner's surfaced—”
“I'm going to give her a call,” said Steve. “Can you drop a line to Scott? And ask if Dr. Pym might weigh in, he does weird stuff at the sub-atomic level, he might be able to figure it out. Wanda...”
“I can take a look at it. More directly.”
“I don't want you down there alone if it's going to be like staring into the abyss. We got Tony away from it, we can keep him away from it. It's not urgent.”
“Until we know that the future I dreamed isn't coming to pass, it is.”
She had a point. And if her dreams were anything as intense, as real, as Steve's had been, then he could understand her vehemence. “Alright. We're going to need to set up a guard on Tony, make sure he doesn't go back down. I don't think Bucky should be on that rotation, though, not with Tony like this. If we have a watch on the outer—”
“Hold up,” said Sam. “Bucky?”
“Considering...everything,” Steve said, knowing that it was cowardly to weasel out of saying it like that.
Bucky hadn't been at fault. But Steve had been, for not telling Tony. For keeping secrets.
“Bucky,” Sam repeated. He looked from Steve to Wanda, prompting Steve to do the same, but she was clearly as lost as Steve was. Sam licked his lips. “Okay. So, we have a reality-bending machine down in the basement, I guess this might be a thing.”
A cold ball formed in the pit of Steve's stomach. “What is?”
“Bucky's in Wakanda, Steve. He went into cryostasis months ago. It was his choice. He didn't want to risk being triggered again.”
No. No. “The Wakandans figured that out, they fixed it a few days ago. He came with us.”
“He told us how to find this place,” said Wanda. Her eyes were very wide.
“No, Scott did, after running a deep search on the SHIELD dump for Area 42,” said Sam. He glanced toward the door of the bedroom. “Shit.”
Steve strode past him, slamming the door open. In the chair, Tony physically jumped, spilling the water bottle all over his lap as he raised his hands, palm out. In the next moment he scrambled to catch it, but he was slow, clumsy, and Steve beat him to the punch, grabbing the bottle and slamming it down on the side-table.
Tony scrubbed at his face. “What?”
“You re-wrote his reality!”
“You told me to shut it off.”
“And I did! You told me, you said, you knew what you'd be giving up.”
“I didn't think it'd be him!”
He regretted the words as soon as they'd left his mouth.
Tony stared at him. Then he snorted, a spurt of mirth that devolved into laughter, almost giggling, too high pitched to be sane. He scrubbed at his face again, this time knuckling his fingers against his eye. “Of course. That does make more sense.”
“It's not like I wanted to,” Steve snapped, feeling ludicrously defensive. It had been a lie, that life. He wasn't even sure if the reason he wanted it back was because Tony had tricked him into it. “Tony, damn it, explain.”
“Some explanation'd be nice, yeah,” said Sam from the doorway. He stepped forward carefully. “Just in case there's something bigger going on than Bucky being on the wrong continent, you know.”
Behind him, Wanda's eyes glowed crimson.
“Or what, you'll sic Carrie on me?” Tony said, getting his giggling under control. He grabbed the water bottle and took a swig. “Jesus, Steve. I told you everything there was to know, do you need me to say it again in shorter words?”
“How about,” said Sam, loudly, over top of the beginning of Steve's angry retort, “how about you fill the rest of us in.”
“Keeping secrets, Captain?” Tony's smile cut like a knife.
“Oh, you're one to talk.”
“Enough,” said Wanda. “Stark, explain. Or yes, I'll 'go Carrie' on you.”
Tony fumbled the cap back on the water-bottle. His hands were shaking. “My cube down there isn't the Tesseract. So I don't know if it's a hardware error or a problem with the user. It alters reality, sure. It can even make a reality. But, you know...realities, they're difficult.” He waggled his hand, and in the bottom of the bottle, the water sloshed back and forth. “Change a lot and it all has consequences, it starts to get difficult to hold it together. It lacks coherency.” He smiled up at Steve, and there was no kindness in it. “Think about it, Captain, you'll remember.”
Steve shook his head. “It feels like a dream.”
“Wow, are you really that unaware of your surroundings? How did you not get shot by a Kraut?”
“I had Bucky to watch my back.”
“Stark, explain,” snapped Wanda.
“Sure, fine, whatever. It's like this. You try to create a utopia, change society, it doesn't really agree with natural law. Change natural law, that changes something else, and so on, until it disintegrates, returns to the previous status quo. Or else just exists as Hawaii, which isn't really enough to support seven billion and change people and I was trying to get away from the mass-murder, y'know. Hawaii, on its own—where are the exports coming from? Why is it always summer? Does it never rain? Where do the boats go? What did you have for dinner? It slips.”
It was just like a dream, it made sense that Steve couldn't remember never having eaten anything. They'd had ice cream for dinner, once. Twice. Three times? Had they eaten anything other than fruit and ice cream on their honeymoon?
They'd never managed to have sex, over the course of several days, following their supposed wedding and a sincerely indicated desire for each other. Something would go wrong, and maybe that was Tony's conscience, but what happened the rest of the time?
How had Natasha and Bucky gotten together?
When had he gotten Bucky back?
“So the machine is still on,” said Sam. “Bucky, him going missing... this is one of those slips.”
“No,” said Tony. He gave Sam a look that was almost pitying. “You think reality would be better than fantasy?”
“I think you have reason to want Bucky out of the way,” said Steve.
“Yeah, and? He was out of my way, he was with you. You got him back! Everybody was happy!”
“It wasn't real,” said Wanda.
“It was, it's not—this isn't one of your mind-fucks, Wanda, you want proof, why don't you look into the abyss?”
“Knock yourself out.”
“Jesus, talking to you is like herding cats,” said Sam. “Stark. Reality. You said a fake reality was unstable—what I've been living in, that's not been unstable.”
“Yeah, you were up top when it turned off, huh?”
“It wasn't unstable for us, either,” said Wanda. “Unless—the dreams—”
“The fewer changes, the fewer cascades, the fewer problems,” said Tony. “Hawaii, world peace, too different. Too unlikely. But little things—I could at least fix something. Just—something.”
Steve's eyes narrowed. “What did you fix?”
Tony held up three fingers, ticking them off as he spoke. “Your best friend out of cryo. My best friend able to walk again. The Accords.”
“You repealed the Accords.”
“The Accords aren't repealed,” said Sam.
“If you're gonna change reality, not that hard to change what people think.” Tony paused. “At least about one thing at a time. Number of changes, like I said.”
“Jesus,” said Steve. He put his face in his hands.
“I didn't really think you'd be against that.”
“Hey, I'm against the Accords,” said Sam. “But, wow. Talk about lines being crossed.”
Wanda's voice was small. “You changed their minds.”
“No, I made a different reality for them to have a different opinion in.”
“You took away their choice.”
“What choice? Nobody was following the Accords anyway, they were just making everyone miserable!”
Steve snapped. “We broke the law, that doesn't—they were your Avengers, the Mighty Avengers, you followed them! How could you just take that choice away from your team, Tony?”
“What team?” Tony snarled, and he was on his feet, head up, right in Steve's face, and Steve itched for them to both be in their suits, to work out this aggression another way—or for them to both be out of their suits, God help him, and he'd work off a week of frustration a damn sight more constructively. Tony made a noise that was half plea and half rage, and it went straight to Steve's dick, phantom memories of other times he'd heard Tony sound like that—but that was all fake, that reality had never existed.
“Everyone fucked off to Wakanda! Natasha stabbed me in the back, T'Challa decided to throw over his principles, and Rhodey's in a fucking wheelchair! There is no Mighty Avengers, Steve, not in this reality! The only Avengers are you, and you were never gonna let 'the people' have their say, so they might as well have been happy about not having it!”
“There's a big difference between disobedience to the law and goddamn mind control!”
Tony cocked his head and stepped back, turned away. “If the people of Earth decide where to draw that line, will you say fuck it to that, too?”
“Yes, if they're following your definition!”
He turned back, and God, Tony could look so cruel while smiling. “So. Your way or the highway, and fuck what anybody else thinks. The machine's still in the basement, Cap. Why don't you have a go at it?”
“Not a chance.” Pain shot up his arm. He was clenching his fist, Steve realized dimly, so hard that his muscles were protesting. He didn't care.
“No. You wouldn't lower yourself.”
“No, it's because I know where the goddamn line is drawn,” said Steve, and stormed out.
Sam found him about an hour later, sitting on the steps of the backyard veranda. The sounds of downtown Manhattan drifted over the top of the eight-foot stone wall, but the trees provided shade against the glare of the sun off of the skyscrapers, while helpfully obscuring the view of anyone looking down. It was probably still reckless to be sitting outdoors like this when the Accords hadn't actually been repealed, but Steve couldn't make himself care. The inside of that dust-covered house was stifling.
“Pretty nice digs,” said Sam, settling down beside him. They were. The trees were overgrown, the bushes likewise, the grass hadn't been mowed anytime this year, and the wooden railings of the veranda were either rotting, covered with moss, or both. But it was quiet and there were flowers blooming on a lavender bush that had started to bend over under its own weight. Amidst the chaos of New York City, it was like a private Central Park.
“Yeah. Wanda on watch?”
“No, she did something after Stark crashed, said it'd make sure he stayed out for at least twelve hours.”
Steve rubbed his face. “We can't resort to that again. That's no better than what they'd like to do to us, to Wanda.”
“Fast as he went down, I'm pretty sure he'd be out at least that long on his own.”
“Doesn't matter. It's not, we can't...we can't let ourselves sink to that.”
Sam was quiet, until Steve finally looked up at him.
“He really got to you, huh?”
Steve huffed out a laugh. “You could say that.”
He stared out at the ruined garden. Sitting and waiting, nothing to do...that wasn't true. He needed to get on the phone with Natasha, with Scott, and try to figure out how they were going to clean up this mess and make sure it never happened again. He needed to check with Wanda that their intervention had worked, although that would have to wait until she could sleep and see if she had any more prophetic dreams. He needed to call T'Challa—never mind that it would be the middle of the night in Wakanda—and ask him to check that Bucky was okay. He needed to sit by Tony's bedside and be able to look down and see the man he loved and know that they'd work it out.
“I don't know where we go from here,” he admitted.
“Keep an eye on him, for now,” said Sam. “I don't know, call in Natasha? They resurrected the Helicarrier, they might have some ideas. I don't think the Accords are gonna cover it.”
Unlikely. The Accords were made to cover enhanced individuals fighting international crime, not mad scientists in basements.
“I don't want to see him locked up. He hasn't even done anything illegal. Stupid, yeah, but...even if he had.” Steve ducked his head. “I don't know if it's because he's my friend, or if we could've—without that other reality. It should feel fake. Me and him, after everything, I don't know how I could've thought... but, he was trying to fix things, and he wasn't—he was even trying to make things better for Bucky. Did, too. Despite... everything.”
“It might not be illegal because nobody makes laws planning for mad scientists,” Sam said, speaking slowly enough to pick and choose his words with care. “That doesn't mean that he might not have crossed some definite lines. I mean, well... consent can sometimes feel like it's...complicated, when you're the one involved, but most people who aren't assholes agree that if somebody drugs you, or they take your choices away, that's clearly violating your consent and your person.”
If Steve had been up front with Tony about Bucky's involvement in the deaths of his parents, would Tony have been, as Sam said, an asshole about it? Steve closed his eyes. “Pretty sure Tony gets it now. I had Bucky back, here. And in that other dream, too, he was fine, he was happy.” Steve made himself try for a laugh. “He was dating Natasha.”
“Heavily armed cornballs who keep trying to make you date girls, I can see it,” Sam said, but he was clearly uncomfortable. “Steve, I wasn't talking about Bucky. I meant you.”
Steve looked up at him, bemused.
“You. And Stark. He made a world, and he switched around reality so you two were...involved...”
“Married,” said Steve, and then he had to press a hand against his face, thumb and forefinger pressing hard at the outer corners of his eyes. “Newlyweds.”
“...Okay.” Sam sounded stunned again. Was the idea really that strange? “So he, uh, he set up a world where you got married, where you had no real ability to consent to it, or anything surrounding it.”
“Oh.” Oh. Steve covered his eyes entirely. “I know, he took away choices—mine, everyone's. I know. But. It was a nice place.” It wasn't that it had been Hawaii. God knew that the fight he'd dreamed about had been no picnic. But every time he'd looked at Tony and Tony had looked back at him, with love and trust and affection, Steve had been so incandescently happy.
His memory of the exact events faded, like any normal dream, but the recollection of that feeling lingered, a joy he'd never get to experience again.
“I'll be honest, that sounds a lot like Stockholm Syndrome,” Sam said after a moment.
“Yeah.” Steve winced. He leaned back until he was resting on his elbows and could tip his head back to stare up at the sky, hemmed in by skyscrapers as it was.
Sam let him sit in silence.
“It didn't feel wrong,” said Steve, his voice low. There was no one else around to hear, but he couldn't say this too loud. It was hard enough speaking the words at all. “Doesn't. We never fought, there. Barely even bickered. Everything just resolved itself. I think... that's what he took away. The fighting. He didn't add anything. And so then, if I hadn't fucked things up between us not telling him, or if we could just agree to disagree—did I toss it away here?”
“Is this—feeling this about him, is that not... a new thing for you?”
“I don't know.” It was all so mixed up in his head. He needed time to sort it out. “I can't be distracted with this right now, not when we've got actual problems in front of us.” Steve grimaced in frustration. “I thought, I'd go outside, go for a run. Then I got out here and remembered, can't go out. And the grounds are too damn small.”
“Not a good idea to be visible these days,” Sam agreed. “But this, my man, I can help with.” He rose to his feet and reached a hand down to haul Steve up, flailing dramatically when Steve pulled a little harder than strictly necessary. “Have you seen the state of the kitchen in there? It is a shameful mess. My sergeant from Basic would've had me cleaning the floor with a toothbrush for the next three days and nights if he thought I'd let a place I was living in get that bad.”
“Yeah, isn't that why you quit?” asked Steve, brushing himself off.
“Uh-huh, and then totally regretted it the first time I gave myself food poisoning.” Sam slung an arm over Steve's shoulder. “Come on, I'll call Natasha and Scott, it'll take them at least a couple hours to get over here from wherever they are, and in the meantime we're gonna set up for guests. And if you don't think that can be a workout then you had a nicer sergeant than I ever did.”
Steve started awake in the dark from a dream of displacement and muted loneliness. A shudder wracked him, and then another, and then he couldn't stop shivering. He felt cold. His arm ached, and for a moment he wasn't sure why, if it wasn't from spending the better part of ten hours scrubbing decades of dust from floors, walls, ceilings, and windows, or if it was because it was cracking from the inside out as he burned up, nothing left to sustain him.
“Steve?” Tony mumbled, raising his head. Steve could just make out his outline from the glow of the clock on the nightstand. “Bad dream?”
“I threw you away,” said Steve, his voice hoarse. “You were gone, everything fell apart and I blamed you.”
“You couldn't pry me away with a pitchfork,” said Tony, crawling up and draping himself over Steve. His speech got less slurred as he woke up fully. “Archimedes' lever wouldn't budge me. You're stuck with me, Steve.”
“It felt real,” said Steve, his shudders beginning to cease as Tony's body heat counteracted the chill of the air, and he recognized that part of the reason he was so cold was that he'd managed to shove all the covers off. “So damn real, like—like some nightmare version of your Area 42, it was a different reality, one where everything went wrong.”
“Tomorrow night I'll tell you a happy bedtime story instead so you don't have nightmares,” said Tony solemnly, and for all that the words were mocking there was only gentleness in the way he kissed Steve, on the mouth and then across his face, gentle touches of his lips on Steve's forehead and cheeks. His hands skimmed down over Steve's upper arms—both arms, since he'd gotten the bandages off that morning, and his touch was the best kind of reassurance. “The pocket-world can't become reality, Steve, the energy requirements would be too great. And anyway, that scenario is ludicrous. It is never, ever going to happen.”
Steve wrapped his arms around Tony, holding him tight. He could feel Tony's breathing, the movement of his chest and stomach and lungs every time he took a breath, every time he let it out. He wanted to stay here with him forever. He wanted to sleep without dreams of loneliness.
“Let's have sex,” he said.
He could feel the surprise in the way that Tony startled a bit before returning to pressing kisses down on Steve, could hear it in Tony's voice even if he couldn't see his face. “Not that I'm ever opposed to this idea, but I'm not quite sure it's the healthiest way to deal with recurring nightmares.”
“Then we'll deal with them in the morning, I don't care,” said Steve. “We're on our honeymoon and we've had the worst luck in the world with sex and I want to make love to you.”
“Mm, hang on.” Tony moved off of him, and a moment later Steve heard him groping at something at their bedside. The lamp clicked on, leaving them both squinting, and then Steve's eyes adjusted and he could see Tony properly. He looked, fair enough, like he'd just been woken from sleep, with his hair a dishevelled mess and his eyes tired. But he was staring at Steve with the same look that Steve so often wore around him, one of dumbstruck adoration.
“Be with me,” said Steve. “I just—I need you.”
Tony licked his lips, taking a moment to find his voice. “You say the loveliest, most ridiculous things to me.”
Steve reached up for him, pulling him down, and Tony met him half way, sprawling out across him so that they could kiss. It was the middle of the night and they should have both been tired, asleep, or at least at the stage for languorous, lazy kisses, and so that was how they started off. But the memory of empty space beside him made Steve deepen the kiss quicker than he normally would have, pouring more heat and urgency into it. What he got out was as much as he put in, and he threw himself into it, rolling Tony over beneath him and mouthing his way down Tony's collarbone, sucking bruises into his skin and listening to him gasp.
The lamplight was dim enough that beyond the bed the room was shadowed, as if beyond this moment in time the world had faded away, itself the dream. The only real moment was right here, skin against skin, movement and touch that proved that he was still real, they were still here. He stroked Tony to hardness, feeling the way Tony arched up beneath him every time he gripped in the way Tony liked, thumb circling over the head of Tony's cock out of time to his strokes, two disjointed sensations that made him groan with need.
They hadn't had sex before going to bed, but one of them had been considering it enough to have put the lube out on the bedside table. Steve couldn't remember which of them had done it. He reached for the bottle, nearly knocking it to the floor as Tony retaliated for the loss of Steve's hands by squirming up until they were at a height where he could wrap his hands around their two cocks, stroking them both off as they rubbed together.
At the sound of the cap coming off, Tony pulled his legs further apart, further open. Steve poured a generous amount into his hand, then reached down to stroke them both. He'd intended to do it just once, but then couldn't help but repeat it, and a third time, while Tony arched up, gasped, and wrapped his arms around Steve so that he could bury his face against Steve's shoulder. He could keep going like this, get them both off with silken slickness, and it would be easy, so easy.
He reached down instead and Tony hitched his legs wider, then stilled as the expected touch didn't come. Steve's fingers found his own hole instead, drawing a line of lube across his own skin down from his balls, rolling around the opening with the pads of his fingertips.
“Oh, hot,” said Tony, breathless. “Let's flip.”
He suited movement to words before Steve could do it himself, twisting his hips in a way that made their dicks rub along each others' bodies, and it wasn't the most graceful roll, designed for the mat or actual combat and not a springy bed where Tony had to avoid using pressure points on his partner, but it got the job done. Steve came out on the bottom, dizzy from movement combined with sex in a way he never had been before, which might have been sleep deprivation, painkillers, or just the rawness of feeling.
Tony backed off, running hands down the insides of Steve's thighs from groin to knee. His thumbs traced the large tendons and then the muscle, and he repeated the entire motion, this time with nails in just enough to scratch, not enough to bruise. Steve groaned, and reached one hand to his cock while the other went back to his hole. Without the pressure of Tony's body against his own, his cock felt bereft.
“No,” said Tony, batting Steve's hand away from his cock and leaning forward, over Steve's other arm. His mouth closed around the head of Steve's cock, which was good, yes, but not enough when he just stayed there. Tony planted his hands over Steve's hips, right against the joint, and kept him from even thinking about being able to push off, just lapping his tongue over the head again and again, in circles and then reversing, then tonguing at the slit. Throughout it all he sucked only gently, never increasing pressure, and never going any further down, until Steve slipped one finger inside himself and groaned. Then he did go down, once, with hard suction that was like a jolt through Steve's whole body until he pulled off.
“Chocolate flavoured lube, nice,” said Tony, perching himself between Steve's legs where he had a good view. “You know, I don't remember buying that, was that you? Were you thinking about going down on me, or me going down on you? If it was coffee-flavoured then I'd know. You're fingering yourself open right now, it's such a gorgeous view, but I could lick all the way around your asshole, you'd just taste like coffee. Would you like that? Getting stretched out around my tongue? Or is it me you want to eat out? My ass in your face, or I could just sit on you, make you hold your breath, I remember how you were with the scarves—I could tie you down, you'd love to just eat me out, go to town, wouldn't you? Getting to fuck me after would just be a bonus, you're actually in this for the slutty holes, aren't you?”
It had been a long time since Steve had gone bright red at Tony talking during sex. He was already flushed from exertion, arousal, and sex, and it was pretty mild for dirty talk but it went straight to his cock anyway, and right now, the only slutty hole was his. He pulled his finger out, then reached up and grabbed Tony, pulling him down and into a kiss that was a lot more teeth than any of their earlier kisses had been, rough and raw. From this position he could stroke Tony's cock with the same hand he'd been using to finger himself open, so he did, then fumbled for the bottle of lube until he managed to empty more over his hand, and then stroked Tony again, making him nice and slick.
He pulled back and panted, “Fuck me,” into the sliver of space between their mouths.
Tony kissed him again, tongue and teeth, then asked, “You ready?”
“I want to feel it, I don't care if I'm walking funny. I want it,” said Steve.
“You've got the serum, I can fuck you into next week if you want it,” Tony promised.
“Do it. Do that—” and Steve broke off on a hiss, because Tony was taking him at his word and had lined himself up, his cock against Steve's hole, and pushed in before Steve had had time to relax. Tony's cock was well lubed up and so was Steve's asshole, but he hadn't been quite expecting it and he'd only had one finger in there tonight. The moment before his body and brain caught up and remembered to relax was a stretch that was both pleasure and pain, pulling him wide in a way he could feel through his marrow, an ache to match the one lingering in his arm but jolting through all of him. Tony bottomed out in that first long, smooth thrust, no quarter asked for nor received, and then he set his hands and positioned himself properly to pull out halfway and thrust back in.
Steve tightened his muscles as Tony pulled out again, this time further, and on the next thrust Tony got it so that his cock slid right along Steve's prostate, a jolt that had his cock stiffening to slap Tony's stomach as Tony bottomed out. He did it again, and again, and it wasn't enough, Steve wanted to feel all of him, wanted to wake up aching from this, a luxury the serum would never allow him, but he wanted it. “Come on, Tony,” he said, and he made the words goading. “Thought you said into next week!”
“Ooh, a challenge,” said Tony, and shoved at Steve's knees, forcing them up to his shoulders and past. “Gotta love that flexibility.” Then he was driving himself in at a punishing pace, hard and fast, his balls slapping against Steve's ass with every thrust and Steve tightening on every withdrawal. They'd been trying and failing to have sex for a week and Steve's balls were blue with need, drawing up toward his body, and he could feel from the way that Tony's fingers were digging into his knees that Tony was close too, his efforts redoubling in a way that made Steve think maybe he would feel this in the morning. Tony pressed Steve's right knee further down, forcing him open, while his left hand reached around to close over Steve's cock, tight and sure, as he fucked Steve open and filled him up, inside him and inseparable and his—
Steve woke in the dark and came all over himself, shouting Tony's name. Untouched. Empty.
He went to the bathroom and cleaned himself up, then washed his face and stood there, looking into the mirror and not knowing what he saw.
He couldn't go back to bed. Not after that. He was briefly, horribly thankful that Bucky wasn't there so they weren't sharing a room, and that there were enough bedrooms in the mansion for nobody else to have needed to room with him, either. His watch said that it was just past nine in the morning, but the dark outside said it was the middle of the night and that he'd forgotten to reset his watch during one of their timezone changes. He considered, insanely, going to talk to Tony, then remembered that Tony was still deep asleep under Wanda's spell. Then he went anyway.
Even asleep with his face smushed against the pillow, Tony looked exhausted. Nobody had taken off his shoes. Steve stood in the doorway for a full minute, indecisive, and then crept across the room, with stealth rendered useless by the way the old floorboards kept squeaking beneath his weight. The laces on the shoes were knotted three times over, but Steve managed to get them undone and off in the end, wrinkling his nose at the smell. He wasn't going to think about how long it had been since Tony had last changed his socks. Or showered. He set the shoes beside the bed and hesitated, then reached for Tony's belt and pulled that off of him, too, coiling it beside the shoes. Tony would sleep better with those off—not that he seemed to need the help. He never stirred throughout the process, his breathing only barely changing.
Steve went to his own room and grabbed the light blanket he'd been sleeping under, then came back and threw it over Tony, making sure to cover his feet. Tony didn't twitch.
He stayed there, watching Tony, until he realized he was just on the verge of stroking his hand through Tony's hair, and no matter what was going on, he didn't have the right to touch Tony like that. Not really. Not in this reality. Steve shook his head at himself and left.
Downstairs in the kitchen, he discovered he wasn't the only one up. Wanda was sitting at the high counter, drinking something that looked like hot chocolate and smelled like a liquor cabinet. The bottle beside her indicated it was Baileys. She gestured to it as he came in, not looking surprised to see him. “Want some?”
Why not. Steve nodded, and she went over to the elegant, old-fashioned stove, moving up a pot that had been simmering on one of the back burners. Steve fetched a glass—they hadn't been able to find the mugs—and she poured him a half-cup of cocoa. The heat of it burned through the glass right away, but he carried it back to the counter without dropping it. Adding an equal measure of Baileys made the temperature lukewarm, and it burned in a different way going down his throat.
“Bad dream?” asked Wanda, returning to her own seat as Steve took the stool kitty-corner to her.
He ducked his face to hide his flushed cheeks. Maybe she'd think it was from the alcohol. God, he hoped she hadn't heard him.
“Weird,” he said, although it hadn't been. It was only beneath the flickering old lights in the kitchen that it seemed weird, out of place. Tony's cube had been disconnected, turned off. The dreams should have stopped. Unless Tony hadn't turned it entirely off...but then why had he just gone upstairs with them? Why admit anything? If he had some kind of direct control over reality, why had he let them find him at all?
Though the way he was upstairs sleeping like the dead suggested one reason.
Steve shook his head and took a too-large swig of cocoa, then had to suppress a cough as it burned down his throat. It made a good excuse not to elaborate. When he could speak again, he asked, “You?”
“Yes,” she said, staring down at her cocoa like it held all the answers in the world. “I thought it would go away, but it's—it was worse.” She looked up and there was grief written across her face. “People were dying, and it was clearer. You were one of them.”
His own dreams of dying used to be ice crawling under his skin. Now they were molten fire consuming his bones.
He couldn't go on like this.
Steve leaned forward. “Show me?”
It wasn't a fair request. He really didn't want to reciprocate, if for an entirely different reason. Not that there was any tactical knowledge to be gained from analyzing him and Tony having sex. If she was dreaming of battle, then maybe if he saw it, he could prevent it. Or maybe he'd recognize something, something he could use to get through to Tony and figure out what the heck was going on.
“It's not pretty,” said Wanda, but scarlet was already ringing her irises and drifting through the air like smoke.
“I know,” said Steve, and fell forward onto his knees.
His bones jarred at the impact, bare skin scraping raw against busted up concrete. Wanda's voice was whimpering right in his ear, a high-pitched no, no, no, as Steve reached toward the body that lay in front of him with hands that were too small, too delicate to be his own. He turned the body over and wanted to recoil at the sight, but the body he was in didn't, just reached up a trembling hand toward the smoking ruin of the man's forehead, and the touch of his hand against the man's cheek revealed that what Steve had thought was a face flayed of skin was just naturally red skin, or perhaps not a naturally formed face at all. The hole blown in the man's forehead revealed dead circuitry, not bone and brain matter.
“No, no, not you too,” said Wanda, Steve's lips moving as she spoke the words. There was an open wound in his gut, an emptiness like all the blood had drained from his body. He drew in breath to speak, and what came out was a scream as the world became overlaid with crimson, energy sparking around him like fire.
He looked up, and before him was an ogre, a giant, with massive fists and a devouring grin. It wore a golden gauntlet on its right hand, and points of light at each knuckle throbbed in time with the energy lines visible in the air. The giant held the gauntlet up to the sky, fingers outstretched, and when Wanda's voice screamed again, this time that energy went somewhere, right at him.
Reality pulsed in time with the energy. The giant snarled, lowering its hand to point directly at Steve, the yellow burst of power over its first knuckle flaring, but it felt like his own power—her own power—felt like Vision's (who?), and he ripped at it, embracing it, and pulled, and as a bolt of raw energy burst towards him the gauntlet ripped free of Thanos. The beam struck him full-on and Steve was catapulted backward. The aura of energy overlaying the world vanished.
He landed, rolled, and looked up in time to see Iron Man blast the giant—Thanos, he knew the giant was Thanos—right in the face with a repulsor and rocket past to pluck the gauntlet from the air. The next moment Thanos recovered and brought his other hand around and down, making the air ripple, not in the scarlet way that Wanda saw the world but like a concussion. Tony crashed and skidded a dozen feet, and Steve dove for him, putting up his shield just in time to deflect a bolt from Thanos' Chitauri shock troops behind them. Somewhere overhead, one of the fliers on their side opened up on the troops behind them, and in front of them T'Challa landed on Thanos' shoulders and raked across his face with two hands of bright, shining claws.
Steve looked down at Tony and his breath caught. The arc reactor was flickering, the chestplate sliced to ribbons around it and half of those ribbons had caved in, curled like claws to stick into Tony's chest. Blood was pumping from the wounds in spurts that told Steve that one of those pieces had struck something major. “Lie still,” he said. Tony wasn't paying any attention to his wounds. “Damn it, Tony—”
“No time,” said Tony, voice sounding weak even behind the armour's filters. In his other hand was a small sphere, only a couple inches in diameter with all sorts of fancy engravings on the outside, the same sphere that Peter Quill had produced when he'd been briefing them all. Steve's eyes caught on it for one horrified second before returning to the ruin of Tony's chest-plate. He shouldn't have brought it here—Thanos had five of the Infinity Stones, they were supposed to be hiding the last. When had Tony taken it?
Tony opened it with a sideways turn that wouldn't have worked if it hadn't already been unlocked. Quill had given it to him, but why—
Tony grabbed the purple Infinity Stone floating between the two halves of the sphere and slammed it into the back of the Infinity Gauntlet, grabbing hold of it even as his repulsor whined and heated with bright light, fusing it into the alien metal. The arc reactor sputtered and died. Tony's hand dropped away, and he picked the Gauntlet up.
And thrust it at Steve.
“No, put it on,” said Steve, frantic. The pulses of blood were still coming, but if Tony kept moving he'd dislodge whatever pressure the claws were providing keeping it from becoming a spurting stream. “Put it on, you can fix the armour and yourself, you know how—”
“You heard Quill, these need conviction, not know-how,” said Tony. He scrabbled at his faceplate, leaving bloody streaks over it, and released the catch. Beneath it his face was white, sweat curling his hair, his pupils too wide. He was going into shock. “Take it, Steve, you have to—”
There was a roar and the ground shook. Steve threw himself over Tony, raising the shield to protect them both as Thanos batted Sam out of the air and carried the motion through to throw a wave of force in their direction. Metal shrieked. Steve looked up to see Sam trying and failing to get to his feet. A second later missiles erupted from his wings and struck Thanos full-on, but when the smoke cleared Thanos was still on his feet and Sam was still down.
Wanda was twenty feet away, her leg twisted at an unnatural angle, trying to crawl to a sheltering chunk of rubble. Or maybe she just wanted it to prop herself up with so she could see. There was murder written all over her face, and scarlet crackling around her.
Vision lay where he'd fallen when Thanos had ripped the Mind Stone from him.
Overhead, gunmetal grey showed where Rhodey was putting up a good fight to drive back Thanos' shock troops. Farther still, military helicopters let loose with their own guns, each retort a concussion against Steve's ears.
Something tugged at Steve's arm, and it took Steve too long to realize that Tony was trying to pull at his arm. His grip was about as forceful as a butterfly's wings. The Gauntlet was still between them, and when Tony saw that he had Steve's attention, he shoved it him.
“Conviction,” said Tony. The last syllable was silent as blood bubbled up from between his lips. He clutched at Steve's arm with terror in his eyes and jolted like he was trying to cough, but there was only more blood. He was drowning in his own blood.
Steve could stop it. He reached down.
The Gauntlet had fit Thanos, and it should have been much too large for Steve, but instead it fit him like he'd been born for it. Then it ignited, and his hand became a burning star.
Steve stood, no longer encumbered by weariness, mass, or gravity. Incandescent potential limed his vision. He could see the whole battlefield, a tiny, inconsequential event compared to what Steve now was. He saw Thanos, and saw through him, alien armour and skin and organs, so much basic matter that Steve could simply disassemble. Thanos' army would require no greater effort. He could rid not just the world but the galaxy of every being who'd flocked to Thanos' banner, every bully who'd taken up arms against those weaker than themselves, and it would take only a thought.
Thor had told them: the Infinity Stones were the greatest power in the universe, and the Gauntlet brought them all under his control. Reality was his to remake as he wished. A mere thought, and the ground beneath his feet fractured into a void that dragged Thanos down into screaming non-existence.
The Gauntlet's power roared through him, a more massive sound than any heard since the birth of the universe. Possibilities unfolded like the dawn. It could build him a world where none of the heartbreak of last year had happened; it could give him his childhood friend back. They needn't have gone to Siberia, he and Tony didn't have to fight—the Gauntlet took his wild imaginings and made them real, giving him a world where he was loved and could love without ever being betrayed, and they'd never heard of the Infinity Stones.
(But, wait: if he'd never heard of them, how was he—)
That thought caught at him, confusing: he found himself back on the battlefield, staring at the Gauntlet—with the Infinity Stones he'd never heard of—
Steve grit his teeth and bent his will through the Gauntlet, feeling the sheer weight of information trying to crush him—seven billion six hundred ninety-two million and how many hundreds of thousands of lives on Earth, how many histories had gone differently, he couldn't keep it straight—but he would, he had to; conviction, he'd been told, and if this was the price for paradise then he would not yield. The Gauntlet leapt to do his bidding, binding the threads of his reality ever-tighter.
Bucky was back, healthy and whole; he and Tony didn't fight; the Accords didn't exist; supervillains were contained without human rights abuses.
Steve married Tony in front of all their friends, and then they flew out to Tony's private island for the honeymoon.
(Flew out from—where? What existed beyond these paradisiacal islands? In focusing on the islands, he left the mainland without attention, and it wasn't—)
The pieces didn't fit. Beneath the increased pressure, their jagged edges crumbled. Reality flickered back and forth, taking on an ethereal, dream-like quality. He tried to find Tony, but Tony wasn't the answer. He went to Wanda, and she showed him a vision of a battlefield, where she watched Thanos stagger backward as Steve raised the Gauntlet to the sky, shouting in frustration as he tried again, demanded of the Gauntlet, MORE. He clenched his hand into a fist, defiant, and the Gauntlet blazed like a supernova.
“NO!” screamed Wanda, her voice louder than it had any right to be, amplified by a scarlet wave of energy that was nothing, nothing compared to the Gauntlet.
Steve took his gaze from the broken sky, looking at her in confusion, and in the corner of his vision saw Tony lying there, eyes still wide and his face too still.
Realization came like lightning from a clear day, because he was looking at Wanda.
He wasn't in her head. This was not her vision. It never had been.
This battle against Thanos was the true reality, and he was trying to make a new world where the Infinity Stones didn't exist, and it wasn't working. He was changing too much and he couldn't keep it together. It was falling apart. Quill was wrong. Conviction wasn't enough, not for something on this scale. He needed to know what he was doing and he had no idea and no time to think. The Gauntlet's power ran through him like molten fire, and now he felt the agony of it as its energies disintegrated muscle, sinew and bone. It was burning him up. His hand was already gone. Its radiance encased his entire arm past the elbow and was still growing, and soon he would be alight and burning up for this chance to change things. But he didn't know how to change things so that they didn't break.
Small changes work, Tony had said, in a reality Steve had tried to create.
Tony would be a genius in any reality.
Live, Tony, Steve tried to say, and Thanos, die, but what came out of his mouth was not his voice but thunder that flattened everything in a mile's radius. He screamed, and it was like a hurricane around him. His arm was raised to the sky because that was all he could do; the Gauntlet was going to atomize him. Tony's face swam in his vision, his mouth moving, or that might have been tears of pain obscuring Steve's sight. His eyes slipped closed, and all he could see was the Gauntlet's power, the inferno at the heart of the universe. Fresh pain ignited across his shoulder, but it was nothing compared to his blood vaporizing in his veins.
And then God had mercy on him at last, and his mind collapsed beneath the Gauntlet's weight.
Steve swam back to awareness of a body wracked with pain. He also found it didn't bother him at all, which meant that either he was dead or someone had pulled out the really good drugs.
Considering that Vision was sitting by his bedside, looking up from a tablet, Steve thought it was probably the former.
“You're safe, we won,” said Vision, which was a comfort to know. Even if he'd managed to take down Thanos, there was still Thanos' army to worry about. “The enemy fleet fell apart and retreated from Earth after Thanos died. And no, neither of us are dead. It appears that keeping my essential components located in a less obvious target than my head paid dividends, and Mr. Stark has installed a power source to replace the loss of the Mind Stone.”
A nurse came in, and maybe a doctor, but Steve had already drifted off again.
“You're not dead, and you're fine,” Sam told him, the next time he woke up. “All of us are fine, too, including Tony and Vision.”
Steve blinked at him, and accepted the cup of ice chips he was offered. “Hi.”
“You've been in and out of it,” said Sam. Maybe it wasn't the next time he'd woken up. He had vague memories of hospitals and doctors, which were difficult to separate from other vague memories of hospitals and doctors.
“What happened with...” Steve tried to gesture, and froze when he realized he couldn't really feel his right arm. Not that the rest of his body was particularly in tune with his brain at the moment—he could feel how very drugged up he was—but beyond an ache through the whole thing he couldn't feel if he'd managed to even wriggle his fingers.
He closed his eyes. Then he opened them again and looked down at his right arm, or rather, where his right arm should have been.
“Oh,” said Steve. Stupidly, he tried to wriggle his fingers again. It didn't work. Well, it wouldn't.
Still ached, though. Somehow.
“I'm sorry,” said Sam, and he gripped Steve's left hand hard with his own.
The Gauntlet had burned up and vanished, too, but Steve couldn't bring himself to believe it had destroyed itself. Not something that powerful. If he was lucky, though, it would stay lost.
He was lucky, phenomenally so, that it hadn't obliterated the rest of him.
For once in his life since he'd gotten the serum, physical therapy might actually be required. The Gauntlet had done a number on the rest of his body, aside from taking off his right arm, and the serum wasn't kicking in as fast as it usually did. Or, as Bruce speculated when he came by to say hi, it probably was; it was just that there was more damage to repair than could be seen from the outside. Helen Cho had been around, and she'd mentioned cellular damage, then told him not to worry about it.
“The serum will have you good as new. Er. Well, it won't heal that. But the rest, it already is.”
The rest of the Avengers all dropped by at some point during that first day. Rhodey came by to sympathize about PT, and inform him that he'd technically been under arrest but had gotten a full pardon for everything, including Romania and everything since, considering that he had rather spectacularly saved the world from Thanos' invasion. The other Secret Avengers were also going to be fine. There would probably be another fight about the Accords sometime after the nations of Earth finished licking their wounds, but it would not be soon and everybody hoped it would confine itself to a conference room.
Steve could live with that. Bucky was safe, Zemo was in jail...there was time to work on compromises. Both sides had their regrets about the last attempt's failure; he'd seen Tony's. And he knew better, now, where he could be compromised.
Tony would compromise, if Steve did. It was everything else between them that Steve wasn't sure about.
“I need to talk to Tony,” he told Rhodey, but Rhodey could make no promises, except that he'd pass along the message.
Scott stuck his head in for only a minute and left as soon as possible, which was understandable, considering that he was taking time away from getting to see his daughter for the first time in nearly a year. Steve was relieved, which he might have felt bad about admitting if he hadn't been so drugged up. Scott was kind of an exhausting guy to be around, and right now Steve was just too tired.
Vision stopped by and showed off the shiny new arc reactor Tony had installed, while Steve tried not to stare at his empty forehead. Natasha dropped by and stared at him in a way that communicated she'd like to yell at him, but couldn't manage because she had two legs and an arm in full splints and had to be pushed around by a nurse. Clint came by, sporting an impressive pair of black eyes, and finally made the joke about brothers-in-armless that had been winding its way through Steve's head since that morning, which got him kicked out after Steve's laughter got slightly hysterical. That was mostly the fault of the drugs, though. T'Challa showed up with an assurance that Bucky was okay. Thor came by and was grim with apologies over Asgard's failure to protect the Gauntlet.
“I made my choice,” said Steve.
It was empty assurance and they both knew it. Thor, voice heavy, replied, “It is beyond all of us now.”
None of them mentioned the alternate realities twisting through Steve's memories, the ones that made the fight against Thanos feel like it had happened last year and not a few days before. He asked Sam, and got a blank look, and he asked Thor, but Thor also looked confused.
Wanda didn't show up until hours after the others had. Steve had fallen asleep talking to Sam, and when he woke up, his window showed it was night outside and she was sitting beside his bed. Like the rest of them she was bruised and scraped up, but the dark circles beneath her eyes, unlike Clint's, hadn't been inflicted by any force except exhaustion.
“Do you remember?” was the first thing she said.
Steve closed his eyes again, whether out of relief or mortification, he didn't know. “Yeah.”
“The others don't. I thought I'd gone a little crazy. But you remember.”
That didn't seem to require him to say anything, so he didn't.
“I'm sorry about your arm,” she said, and left.
When Steve slept again he had nightmares. But they were really, truly, only dreams. Nothing more.
Tony did not come by to see him.
He started trying to learn how to sketch with his left hand. It didn't go well for the first few days, but then something clicked in his head—the serum, probably—and his manual dexterity skyrocketed. It was another few days after before he realized that all his drawings were coming out mirrored.
Steve got his hands on a phone and called Tony, but Tony didn't pick up. So he emailed him instead.
I miss you. I'm sorry.
Two days later, Tony finally showed up right at the end of Steve's PT. He actually didn't mind PT, which pissed Rhodes off and had both of his physical therapists convinced that they were doing something wrong, even though Steve was sure it was just more of the serum's advantage. It did mean that he was sweaty and worn-out, sitting alone on a bench drinking water from a bottle with his left hand, when Tony wandered into the room as casually as if he owned the place. Which, come to think of it, he might. He had a case tucked under his arm, large and bulky and covered in high-tech locks.
Steve nearly choked on his water, coughed, and said, “Tony!” He'd been trying to go for casual, but as soon as Tony's name came out of his mouth he knew he'd missed the mark by a mile.
“Iron Man,” Steve returned. He fumbled the cap back on his water before he could spill it all over himself. All the things he wanted to say, that he'd thought of over and over in his head, now felt too raw to just blurt out, but he had no idea how to make small talk with Tony, either. There were years of memories that had changed everything, but none of those had actually happened.
Tony short-circuited the conversation, coming over and laying the case down on the bench between them, then undoing the locks, which took two thumbprints and a voice-activated password. “This is an apology,” he informed Steve, and lifted the lid.
Steve stared at it. It was some kind of machine with a hole in the centre, about half a foot in diameter. He had no idea what it was, although it reminded him a bit of an MRI machine, in miniature.
“And when it's at home, it's...?”
“An upgraded version of the Cradle, specifically made to regrow limbs. Got the idea from you, actually, so if you've been reading Cho's literature on the side you really need to tell me, as otherwise this has big implications for how those Infinity Stones really work.”
Tony frowned. “Uh, yes?”
“Nobody else does except Wanda.”
“Oh.” He looked thoughtful.
“You haven't been talking to anyone, I take it.”
“No, sorry, I was holed up in the workshop working on a 'sorry-for-lasering-your-arm-off' present,” Tony snapped, and flipped the lid closed again. “It'll be ready for—”
“Wait,” said Steve, holding up his hand. “Tony, that wasn't—the Gauntlet destroyed my arm—”
“It was killing you and I couldn't get it off, I made a call,” said Tony, sounding about as unapologetic as it was possible to get, but to Steve's eyes there was guilt written all over him. “Jesus, did nobody tell you?”
“I—no, they didn't.”
“Shit. I guess it's possible they didn't realize, things were... chaotic—Look. I'm sorry about the arm. However, since you’re a super-soldier, you get to be the first human beneficiary of the modified Cradle. Too strenuous for a standard human right now, but five years and prosthetics are going to be obsolete, and in the meantime, you're gonna be armed and dangerous.” Tony tapped the top of the case.
“Thank you,” said Steve. To his own ears, he still sounded stunned. Why had nobody told him? “It—I—thank you, Tony.”
“Not...just this,” said Steve, still reeling. He'd just started getting good at drawing non-mirror-image sketches with his left hand. Maybe he'd never need to get better. “Thank you for saving my life.”
Tony shrugged. “You saved mine first, and without any limb trauma. I think you're still ahead there.”
“I don't care,” said Steve. “Tony, I...in those other realities...”
“You don't have to worry about the cube,” Tony said hastily. “That was complete mystic bullshit straight out of Narnia, no science behind it that would actually work. The Cradle's one thing, that's actually based in reality, not that weird that in a different one Helen could come up with a couple advances, but the cube—that's never going to work.”
“Good to know, but not what I meant. Tony, I blamed you for it, in that reality, and that...”
“Wasn't fun, whole new level of sleep deprivation, but I knew what I was doing.”
“Because I made reality like that. Everything I said to you... it was always me, doing it. To you, without your permission. I'm sorry.”
Tony looked at him, a long stare that made Steve feel uncomfortably like he was being taken apart and modelled in 3D. “Were you really thinking that much, in the point-five seconds that it happened?”
“Not... really, no.”
“Then we're square.”
“I don't want to fight about this,” said Tony, and he looked tired. “You got that part right.” He clicked the locks shut and picked the case back up, heading for the door. “I'm gonna go give this to Helen, you should have a third arm within a day, probably. Assuming you can sign your way through all the release forms I'm sure the hospital is going to—”
“Tony,” said Steve. Tony stopped in the doorway, looking back at him.
Steve licked his lips. There was every chance he was about to make a big mistake, throw salt into a gaping wound that he'd inflicted. But he knew Tony, better than he'd known him before, and the way that Tony wouldn't meet his eyes was embarrassment, not anger or humiliation.
“Do you really have a private island near Hawaii?”
Tony's expression softened. “I will by the end of the week.” A moment later his eyes widened, as if in realization that he'd said too much.
“Be a nice place to visit,” said Steve. “Especially while still healing.”
“I'll give you the keys to the villa.”
“Or you could come with me.”
Steve held his breath; Tony let his out in a harsh exhalation.
“Not just in that point-five seconds?” Tony asked at last.
“It couldn't have come from nowhere. Maybe I wasn't aware of it before. But I'd like to give it a go, just as long as you can say yes or no, and mean it.”
“Alright.” Tony met Steve's eyes. “Alright. With one amendment: you finish healing up first. Otherwise I'm sure we'll be interrupted by a medical emergency, some kind of bullshit—”
“I can wait,” said Steve, grinning.
For a villa on a private tropical island, it managed to look as different as possible from that other villa on a private tropical island. That one had been open windows and gauzy curtains, whitewashed walls and wooden stairs winding up through the edge of the jungle. This one had glass windows everywhere, three shades of hardwood panelling, and was situated at the top of a cliff looking out to the sea, with steps down to the beach below carved out of the rock.
It was also located in the Caribbean, not the Pacific, and conspicuously lacked a volcano.
There were no interruptions.