The tavern—The Laughing Horse, the vinyl stuck to the front window said—is unequivocally a dive. Oh, sure, it's nice enough in some ways: it’s fully stocked with liquors of several quality levels, and the bar itself is solid pine, if a little worn and showing its age. But a fancy veneer can be deceptive. Those details are just external trappings; they aren’t what make a bar a dive.
It's something not entirely definable, a combination of several factors: the light level, the cadence and volume of noise, the people making it—who they are, how they act, what they’re wearing. The weight of routine, the familiarity of the motions of both the staff and the regulars, the oppressive comfort of a place that's not your home, but not-not your home, either.
Tony wishes he had his armor on.
If he did, he could scan the room and assess the number of patrons: their heart rates, how long each of them had been here, how many they'd had. Track their eye movements, be notified if any of them recognized him, looked askance at his presence here.
He could review the room like it was threatening: a war zone, a trap, where the hiss of each removed bottle cap and the clink of each glass raised in a toast could spell his doom. Like everything that surrounded him was his enemy.
Because, in fact, it’s much worse than that.
Each of these things, each memory, each smell, each sound, is a very old friend. And Tony has missed every sight, every echo, very much. It’s like hearing a song on the radio for the first time in years, and suddenly realizing he still knows the words.
This place is dangerous in a way Iron Man can't fight. He shouldn't be here.
But even without enhanced mic arrays, Tony is able to hear two voices cut through the din, and he swivels his head in the direction of the familiar laughter, remembering why he's in such hostile territory.
Tony spots a table in the back left corner. Clint is sitting facing him, but Tony only has eyes for the other blond man across the table from the archer. Tony stares at his broad back, eyes boring into the light blue cloth of his casual shirt, unsure whether he's willing the man to turn around or stay as he is.
Maybe he should just go. This is silly. Two cross country flights in one day must've addled him. Maybe—
No, he decides. It's Rubicon-crossing time.
Some old friends are worth keeping.
Tony takes two decisive steps towards his goal, and it's enough. His marksman's eye alerted to the movement, Clint sets down his mug of suds.
"Tony Stark?" Clint calls out his full name, for some reason, and it makes everything worse, a pinpoint accurate dart into the heart of who he is. He can't just be “Tony”, just some guy out for the evening. He's not even "Shellhead", someone's buddy with a funny nickname. No, he's reminded that he is who he always is. He's Tony Stark: industrialist, super hero, alcoholic.
But then the other man seated at the table turns. He turns.
Steve turns, and sees Tony, no masks between them.
His eyes are so blue; it’d be so simple to compare them to ice, but after years spent with the man, it’s clear nothing could be a more inaccurate description. They’re blue the way supergiants are, burning hotter than one can imagine. They blaze even brighter now, flickering with recognition.
Steve’s mouth moves... but not enough to form a smile, not a real one, a full one.
"Tony?" he says, and there's concern there. If Tony's heart—and nervous system, for that matter—could shatter more than it already has, it would now: Steve cares that he's here. He's upset to see Tony in these surroundings, concerned for what might happen, which hurts, of course... but at least he cares enough to be afraid. Maybe everything's not lost.
Tony closes the distance and asks politely if he can join them, and pleasantries are exchanged. He explains about the urgent business he had to take care of at Stark Enterprises, and that he just arrived and came right over to find them.
"Could Cap and I have a word alone?" Tony asks Clint as casually as possible, and he's not sure he stuck the landing on that one, simply seeming like a pal wanting a chat, but nonetheless, Hawkeye bows out.
Steve nods to the newly vacated chair. Tony swallows and takes a seat.
"What do you think the horse thought was so funny?" Tony blurts out, to say something, anything.
Tony thumbs behind him, to the front of the bar, at the window with the sign. "The name of the place is—nevermind." He shakes his head.
"What can I help you with, Tony?"
"I... I wanted to clear the air between us. It's been a rough couple of months. I know... I know you—"
Are horribly angry with me? his brain fills in at lightning speed. Are finally seeing who I really am? Are irritated you couldn't get the votes to kick me off the team and wish I'd resign?
Tony tries again.
"I know there's been some upheaval in the team lineup, and I was just thinking about the old days, and I... I don't want to leave things how they are between us."
"How are they?" Steve asks, a hint of challenge in his voice. "Between us?"
Before Tony can choke on responding to that, Steve waves a hand softly in front of himself, as if wiping away that last statement. Clean start.
And then, without another word, he also waves a waitress over to their table, and has her remove the pitcher of foamy domestic swill he and Clint were drinking, and Tony lets out a breath he was unconsciously holding.
“Sorry, should have done that sooner. Where do you want to start?" Steve says, somewhat more levelly.
Tony tries to explain about the Guardsmen incident, and it's hard to put into words, the personal responsibility he felt trying to retrieve his stolen tech, and all the decisions he made at the time. He lost so much—armor designs, most obviously, but other things too: a new quinjet engine upgrade, some experimental LMD tech. But more than being robbed of his intellectual property, Hammer and the others had taken part of his identity. You can’t steal the idea of Captain America, recreate the super soldier serum. Iron Man, on the other hand, can be copied and used for terrible purposes. It wasn’t only about the tech, it was about preserving Iron Man’s good name.
The look on Steve's face tells him he's not getting through, so they move on. Steve recaps their involvement in the recent Kree-Shi'ar war in the most accusing tone Tony’s ever heard.
"We just disagree what constitutes—"
"—appropriate behavior in times of war, yes, I know," Steve interrupts. "I'm really trying not to be condescending, but who from your rogue execution squad has actually been in a war before? Armies have strict chains of command. I'm the leader of the Avengers, Tony. You all voted to keep me that way at the meeting, earlier today. But you want to reserve the right to disobey my orders whenever you feel like it? You can't have it both ways."
"The Avengers aren't an army, though, never were—" Tony rebuts.
"So we should just have chaos?" Steve rejoins, a half-second too quickly. "Every super-person for themselves?"
Bile starts to rise in Tony's throat. He respects Steve. And really, that’s only part of the picture: Steve’s one of his best friends, has been for years. But this kind of response, the rigid, antiquated part of him is just as much what defines Steve’s personality as the rest of it, and it drives Tony crazy.
It’s why, as close as they are, Steve doesn’t know, can never know, certain things about Tony.
How bad Tony’s health has gotten, for one thing. That the already extreme damage to his nervous system gets worse every time he uses the armor. Steve’d bench him for sure. Not an option.
And as for the other things he’s not telling Steve? The idea that Steve would ever be receptive to those thoughts? Not even a possibility.
"You don't listen, Cap, I can't even get a sentence in right now!"
"You're one to talk. You just leave when you don't get your way. Just run off and do what you want to, anyway. To kill the Supreme Intelligence, to fly back to California, to... to do God knows what."
"Is this about me missing your thing tonight?” Steve had set aside time for a presentation on ‘Ethics in Superheroics’—and Tony begged off, citing company business. That… might not have been his only motivation for skipping class. “With all due respect, you giving a lecture didn't seem like an opportune time for thoughtful, two-sided discussion."
"It isn’t just about you, though, Tony. It set an awful example for the rest of your team. They look up to you," Steve insists.
Look up to him? That's madness. He's a founding Avenger, sure; he can pull rank sometimes. But the West Coast Avengers aren't ‘his’ team by a long stretch.
It’s obvious where this is going: Steve will continue to shut down, unreceptive to anything Tony could come up with. His face is a closed door, unyielding anger in his eyes. There's no progress that's going to be made here tonight.
"I'm sorry I came and bothered you and Clint," Tony announces, standing.
"I'm sorry you did, too," Steve says softly, and the cold of that sentiment stops Tony in his tracks. His whole body stiffens.
Steve's face changes, too, eyes wider. He sighs. "Wait, Tony. I mean... I'm sorry you had to come into this place," he gestures to the dimly lit shelves of bottled liquor behind the bar to his left. "It's not fair to you. But regardless, I can't just let bygones be bygones this time."
Tony gives a half-nod, still reeling. Was that addendum just a back-pedal? One way or another, he shouldn't have come. Steve wishes he hadn't come.
“I’m going to head back home,” Tony informs Steve, a numbness setting in.
“To…the mansion?” Steve asks. Tony doesn’t dare believe the uplifting note in Steve’s voice is hope; must be confusion.
“To California,” Tony corrects, faking a smile. “Got to keep working on my tan,” he offers, sliding into glib mode, something he almost never uses around Steve. It feels uncomfortable in this situation, like wearing a parka at the beach.
“Oh,” Steve says, and no, he does not get to sound crestfallen, not after all this.
Tony starts to turn, to head for the door. His heart can't take any more of this—maybe literally. "See you around, Cap—"
"Tony, wait," Steve calls out. Tony halts, almost automatically.
"I'm... I'm taking a leave of absence from the Avengers. To see if I can find John... and Rachel. So I might not see you. For... a bit."
John? Oh, he must mean John Jameson, the pilot. He has been gone for some time... And Rachel? Who…? Oh, Diamondback? Tony had never really been able to keep up with that relationship; he assumed it had fizzled out, reached its logical end. Possibly that was a bit of wishful bias. Sometimes opposites do attract. If they were trying to have another go at it...
He really shouldn't be here.
"Swell," Tony tosses over his shoulder, an imitation of nonchalance. "You deserve a break. Stay out of trouble, okay?"
"Tony," Steve repeats. He sounds... desperate. Why?
This is getting ridiculous.
Tony whirls back to face the table again, trying to rein in his growing anger. "What do you want, Steve? I've got a plane to catch."
Steve's expression is completely transformed from one of admonishment and irritation to one of dismay. Of sadness. His lips are slightly parted, but he says nothing for a time.
"Let's... let's talk again soon," he says finally, nearly sotto voce. "Take care of yourself, Tony."
Tony bites his lower lip so hard he thinks he might draw blood.
I love you.
I’d rather die than tell you.
I just might.
He gives another half nod.
He walks out into the night.
The last little bits of fur are receding from Steve’s neck—he thinks. Maybe he just needs a haircut? Either way, it itches. He feels prickly all over, uncomfortable in his own newly smooth skin.
It could be that his body can’t quite let go of the fact that he was an honest-to-goodness werewolf only a few hours ago. If so, he can’t really blame it.
Steve has seen some strange things in his time—he had several run-ins with vampires during the war, and during the most recent Avengers mission, they fought on an alien planet to try to stop two extraterrestrial races from decimating each other. Steve has grown rather accustomed to the strange.
But having Doc Nightshade turn him into something out of a Lon Chaney flick? That was... well, extraordinary. On several levels.
He's only been gone from New York for about a week; quite a start to his leave from active Avengers duty. The entire incident took place in one little town in Massachusetts—a stark contrast to traveling thousands of light years to do intergalactic battle—but more than any other adventure in recent memory, he feels like his world has completely changed.
It could be a lasting chemical effect of, well, every cell in his body transforming, having to work in an entirely different way.
But as he gazes down from the back of his new acquaintance Zachary Moonhunter's skycycle, he suspects it's more a shift in perspective, a different state of mind.
He left the Avengers active roster voluntarily because of growing doubt in his ability to lead his team, of worry over what a volatile team lineup would do the legacy of the Avengers. The foes no single super hero could withstand, they always said. What if half the time your foes were your own teammates?
It seemed so obvious in the moment: he was losing his ability to connect to other people. How could he possibly lead the team? Taking a break was the only option.
But then Starkesboro happened. One minute, he was on the trail of John Jameson, his personal pilot, once known as the Man-Wolf, and then the next, he was being injected with an experimental formula and turning into a howling, panting beast.
Paradoxically, becoming a wolf made him feel more human than ever: he united a team of all kinds of wolf hybrids who'd been locked up, tortured, and cowed into obedience, and rallied them to fight their oppressor, all without even having the ability to fully speak. It was a powerful reminder that the need to unite, to organize, to overcome differences, to come together and work as one was more important than ever, not just an outdated notion. It was something he was born to do: he’d lost his way before, but the weird wolfy incident he just experienced seemed the perfect situation for him to find it again.
He still feels it even now, returned to his human form: a nearly visceral draw, pulling him back to his teammates. Perhaps it's some kind of lupine instinct kicking in, a drive to be in a pack—but all he can think about is that he needs to be with his team. He needs to bring the Avengers back together—any and all of them, in any form. He needs to fight at their side again, and more than that, he needs them as friends.
And he knows just who to reach out to first.
Perhaps it was the unfortunate end to their last confrontation, but Steve could barely keep his mind off Tony during his entire time in Massachusetts.
In the same situation, Steve kept thinking how Tony would have been prepared: armored, protected from being injected with Nightshade’s wolf serum. If he had still been transformed, then Tony would have concocted some way to communicate in his wolf form. Tony would have come up with a weapon, a plan to defeat Dredmund that would have worked better, faster.
When they weren’t at each other’s throats, he and Tony were one of the best teams he could imagine.
And after a week of reflection, Steve’s beginning to wonder if the disagreements aren’t half of what he’s looking for.
He’d been happy to categorize his relationship with Rachel, formerly the criminal known as Diamondback, as simply ‘one of those things’; after he and Bernie split, it seemed only natural that his heart would run toward someone that embodied the opposite of a normal life: someone who he could work with everyday in the field, someone feisty, someone defiant.
But what if all the things he thought he was seeking in Rachel were just replacements? What if she was just a stand-in for someone closer to his own heart? An ally, a friend… a giant pain in his ass, he smirks to himself.
The thought has been looping in his head endlessly for the past week; he’s been unable to shake it. How did he miss this before?
Even the town's name wouldn't let him forget. Starkesboro. If he thought he could get Tony off his mind by putting more distance between himself and the man, he was gravely mistaken.
"New York City,” Zachary announces as the buildings below them begin to gradually grow in height, freeways and bridges sprawling before them. “Happy to see it again. So where're we headed first? Your place?"
"Avengers Mansion, actually. I need to get in touch with... the team. It's at eight-ninety—"
"I know where it is," Zach tells him, seemingly eager to impress.
They sweep through the lowest layer of clouds, well above the tallest towers, and it makes Steve long for another kind of flying. Zach's a fine enough pilot, truly—his skill is obvious, and he's actually pretty conservative in his maneuvers. Steve plans to submit him as a candidate for a job as an official Avengers pilot, and he’ll do just fine in that role.
But in his mind’s eye, Steve is diving down, slipping in between the skyscrapers, then rocketing back up momentarily, feeling the shift in barometric pressure and temperature with the change in altitude. There's only one way to fly like that, and it's not Zach's skycycle, not even his own.
There's no substitute for flying with Iron Man.
Steve recalls the sensation with perfect clarity: being held aloft, effortlessly; a feeling of overwhelming safety. Which is crazy, really—whenever he flies with Tony, it's usually into danger, not away from it. But all the same, he loves the rush of wind in his hair and knowing a friend is at his back.
Below, Steve observes as he and Zachary zoom past the Botanical Gardens and the Bronx Zoo—allowing a momentary pang of sympathy for its furry inhabitants—mentally ticking off each recognizable building and street as they draw closer to Manhattan. Four Freedoms Plaza, Yankee Stadium… they’re moments away.
It’s terrifying and exhilarating at once, the possibility of pursuing this… this… Steve doesn’t even know what to call it; ‘relationship’ feels like such a small word for everything he’s been through with Tony, not to mention everything they could be.
It might not go his way, he reminds himself—he and Tony weren’t on the best terms when he left before, and more importantly, he has no experience at all dating men, and zero evidence that Tony does either—he’s only ever seen Tony pursue women.
It’s such a fragile thing, this flicker of hope, that he can barely let himself imagine the particulars. But the adrenaline rush that’s pushed him this far steers his focus away from the thought, what if Tony doesn’t want me? and zeroes in on, what if he does?
Whatever happens, he has to talk to Tony first—gets to talk to him, Steve thinks gleefully. He really has missed him.
His heart rate is steadily climbing, blood beginning to thrum in tune with the frequency of the engine as the skycycle slows in velocity. He’s lit up from inside, a sensation that lands somewhere between first date jitters and pre-battle energy. He stifles an embarrassed laugh, unable to suppress the thought that, if he still had one, his tail would be wagging right now.
They float down gently over the front lawn, and Steve can barely contain himself, mind continuing to race.
It’ll be easy enough to use Peggy’s communications array at the mansion to get word to Tony that they should meet. He could call from his home phone, sure, but he wants Tony to know how urgent, how important this is to him. Why, with the time difference, it’s not even that late out in California; not to presume, but maybe Tony could fly out tonight—
Wait—what if Tony’s already here? It’s unlikely, but it is one of his houses. Steve flinches—his uniform is ripped to shreds in places, he hasn’t had a shower in days—oh god, what if he smells like wet dog?
It’ll be something we can laugh about later, Steve thinks, choosing to be optimistic. Now is no time to lose his nerve; he just has to get inside, and then—
Steve spots several figures standing outside the front door, arms crossed, heads down. Crystal looks like she’s been crying. Eric is frowning, shoulders hunched. Even Sersi looks grim. Every one of the them is silent.
Something is wrong.
It’s Natasha that makes her way across the lawn to meet them as the cycle touches down. She walks slowly, expression drawn and somber, but she’s grounded, steady. Steve knows he made the right choice, putting her in charge while he was away. But his heart lurches at the thought of whatever is making her steel herself so thoroughly.
Steve hops off immediately, waving a hand at Zach. There’ll be time for introductions later.
“What is it, Tash?”
“I just wanted you to know,” she takes a deep breath before continuing, “that none of us knew how sick he was. He never told us, any of us. Which is...” she shakes her head, deciding against finishing that sentence. “We didn’t know.”
“What are you talking about? Who’s sick?” Steve’s stomach begins to coil into knots.
“Tony. He was fighting Justin Hammer, I think. Jim Rhodes called to explain it to us, just before his press conference. It was… Tony’s nervous system. It was damaged beyond repair, even before the battle, and—”
“Where is he?” demands Steve, trying to keep his voice neutral. “We should be there, helping him—”
Oh god, no. No, no, no. Tony, what weren’t you telling us this time?
“Steve.” Natasha reaches out to him, as if to lay a hand on his shoulder, but stops. “I don’t know how to say this. Tony’s gone. He… he died last night.”
Steve staggers backward—the mansion, the street, the cycle: everything begins to reel.
He’ll never talk to Tony again. Never get to tell him—
The last time he saw Tony—would ever see Tony—was in that bar—
Steve feels the future he glimpsed briefly on the ride over torn away from him, completely destroyed. The ground flies forward. He feels the impact on his hands and knees, is aware of his entire field of view shrinking to the few square feet of grass in front of him. He stares, focus darting from blade to blade, and wills himself breathe.
God, the pain. It’s wracking his whole body. Unexpected, perhaps, that it’s so physical, but he doesn’t even question it for a second; with what’s just happened, what he just found out? Honestly, it should hurt.
He’s aware of the others running over to gather around him, but he can’t process what any of them are saying, can’t see the shock in their eyes, or even hear them cry out in surprise.
In fact, it’s a full minute before he sees the paws extended in front of him, and smells the fear in the air, and realizes what’s happened.
“Oh, boy,” Zach sighs. “Here we go again.”
Natasha kneels in front of Steve, calmly reaching for him, leaving her hand outstretched in front of his long snout.
“I know,” she whispers to him. “I feel much the same. Come on, Степан, let’s go inside.”
Lying in his bed in an office-turned-hospital room in a private facility in East Hollywood, hooked up to what seems like a thousand tubes and wires, every metric of his infinitesimal progress displayed on a laptop screen that he can’t even turn his head to see fully, he repeats it to himself. Alive.
Also, hey: he can move his eyelids now.
Not, admittedly, the grandest achievement from the owner of Stark Enterprises and inventor of the Iron Man armor, but it’s a start.
Being able to blink means being able to see, and that’s a world better than his previous state: conscious, but shrouded in darkness. That was about twelve hours ago. And twenty-four hours prior to that, he was little more than a flashing cursor in a terminal window, an experimental piece of software being installed to the blank disk, so to speak, of his cryogenically frozen body.
And before that? Trapped in his own memories? Reliving the past over and over? If he ever has to hear an echo of his father’s voice remind him what Stark men are made of again, it will be too damn soon.
He revels in his new accomplishment, as much as he can, anyway—blinks a few extra times, just for fun—and thinks how novel it is that he’s genuinely excited to be alive. Grateful, even. It’s been a while.
The feeling is interrupted, however, by the realization that once everyone finds out he’s not dead, they’re going to want to kill him.
Rhodey. Oh, god. He left the company and the armors to Rhodey. He didn’t really know if any of this recovery process would work, if he’d really come back, and he wanted to make sure his affairs were in order, his legacy secure. It was the right call at the time, and he’d make it again if he had to.
But if he shows up again and takes everything back? That’s… beyond cruel. He’ll call up his lawyers to see if he can preemptively make the change permanent, avoid legal entanglements… That is, if Rhodey even wants that. If Rhodey will ever speak to him again.
And the Avengers—West Coast, East Coast, any and all factions—probably won’t be thrilled with him either. He thinks one of the nurses mentioned something about everyone attending a funeral for him, which is… well, he’d wince, if he could.
Maybe he can just move in with Happy and Pepper for a little while. Or, you know, for the rest of his life. Assuming they’re not throwing darts at a picture of his face as well.
Finally, he lets his mind circle back to the one person he’s purposely avoided dwelling on—but who is nonetheless always there in his thoughts, almost too close to see.
For the first time since he was able to open them again this morning, Tony lets his eyes fall shut for several moments.
Steve. He can picture him exactly: his smile, his laugh, the curve of his shoulder, the line of jaw. His laugh as Tony explains to him he’s not so special anymore: he’s not the only one who’s had to be defrosted.
On second thought, seeing is overrated. He should probably just do this all day. Imaginary Steve won’t yell at him.
Real Steve, on the other hand, won’t ever want to see him again—hell, he was mad at Tony before he ‘died.’
Tony sighs—it’s more of a wheeze, really—and contemplates the idea of never interacting with humans—or mutants or inhumans, for that matter—ever again, because he’s clearly pretty bad at it. Probably safer to stick to robots, and creatures not capable of higher thought. Someone he can’t hurt, or betray. Someone who’ll be happy he’s still around.
Maybe, Tony thinks, opening his eyes once more, counting and categorizing the stains on the ceiling tiles for the thirtieth time today, he should just get a dog.
“DOGGY!” squeals Luna, laughing and pointing at him. “Doggy has a shirt on!”
Steve shifts on the sofa in the first floor living room of the mansion, trying to get comfortable, and failing miserably.
Normally, he wouldn’t mind a child delighting in his predicament—it’s heartwarming, really, to know he doesn’t frighten her: he’s half-wolf, half-man at the moment, like a horror movie special effect gone awry. Patches of thick fur cover his skin in some places and are non-existent in others; his hands are still, well, hands, though they end in nails that are halfway to pointed claws, and his teeth are bigger, sharper than they should be, taking up too much space in his mouth. He’s wearing civvies, but they fit awkwardly, stretching taught in some places and loose in others. And having a tail stuffed down into one of your pant legs? Not pleasant at all.
He can’t help but think he looks like what he is: a mess.
His level of ‘wolfiness’ varies from hour-to-hour, seeming to change at random. He isn’t sure what’s causing it, or how long it will last. He thought Nightshade cured all the former werewolves in Starkesboro, but maybe forcing her to make a counter-serum under duress wasn’t the smartest strategy; seems like she cut some corners in its creation. He wonders if anyone else from Starkesboro is having a relapse too; he’ll have Peggy contact them later today for a status update.
Still, he’s not exactly admitting this to anyone, but as awkward as his condition currently is, he’s glad of the distraction. Trying to figure out the cause of his transformation means something to think about other than the devastatingly bleak idea of a world with no Tony Stark in it.
His gut churns, and he thinks he feels his claws and teeth elongate slightly, even now.
He attempts to look calm and unthreatening as the child claps and giggles at him, and forces a smile for her; it’s awfully hard to do convincingly these days, for several reasons.
“That’s… Captain… Doggy… to you,” he tries to intone to the girl, though every word is a hard-fought battle to form, escaping his throat as a strange rasp.
“Sorry, Steve,” Crystal apologizes, scooping up her daughter into her arms. “I think I heard Hank say some of the tests are finished, though.”
He nods his thanks to his teammate for the update and leaves to head toward the lab.
He lumbers inelegantly down the hall, grasping at the railing as he descends the stairs, not feeling fully in control of the half-digitigrade stance of his current form. He hopes the scientists will have good news; he’s overdue for some.
He inhales as he reaches the bottom of the staircase, and that’s when it hits him.
The scent is so vivid, it practically slams into him, a jolt of memory shot directly into his brain.
Tony. He smells Tony.
A one-two punch, pain ripples down Steve’s spine and he yowls as his legs start to give out from underneath him, falling forward. He’s transforming further, hearing his clothing twist and rip, feeling fur sprout all over his body. When he finally reaches the ground, it’s on all fours, paws now solidly underneath him. He’s shifted into full wolf mode, which he’s only done once before: right after Natasha told him… right after he found out.
“Master Rogers, are you all right?” Jarvis asks, and now Steve can see what he smelled before. The butler, now peering at him, face scrunched in concern, stands before a cart he had just been wheeling out of the lab containing some of Tony’s old things: hand tools, a coffee mug, a few pieces of an unfinished armor, an oil-stained undershirt.
They must not have been disturbed since—
“Is there anything I can assist you with, sir?” Jarvis reiterates calmly. Bless the man, Steve thinks: hardly anything rattles him; he’s seen nearly everything by now.
Steve, lacking any human voice at all in this form, begins to shake his head and proceed to the lab, but he takes a step, and is immediately impeded—oh, no—
He’s enormous in this shape, nearly twice as big as any wild wolf he’s ever seen, very close in comparative size to a human. But even so, the biomechanical changes mean some things just no longer, well, work when he’s this way.
He looks up helplessly at Jarvis and gives what he hopes comes across as the lupine version of a sigh.
“Ah,” Jarvis recognizes the issue at once. “Quite so.”
Jarvis moves forward and steps on one of the pant legs now trailing off the end of Steve’s rear paws, putting his full weight on it, pinning the trousers to the floor, so Steve can pull himself free from them.
Great, he muses, as he regains his mobility and his tail springs free. I’m a furry, pantsless quadruped. I’m halfway to a cartoon character. ‘Doggy has a shirt on,’ indeed.
The distraction, he realizes, is going to have to end soon.
He dips his snout in deference to Jarvis, who collects the discarded trousers as if he’s done it a thousand times (knowing Tony, he probably has), and Steve heads into the lab.
A woman’s voice calls to him as he strides into the main room of the lab. A Scottish burr, to be precise. He didn’t know for sure she’d be accompanying Beast, but he’s not surprised to see Rahne Sinclair, aka Wolfsbane, here. Dredmund had her in captivity, too, so she’s a help in recapping the events in Starkesboro, as well as being a subject matter expert on this sort of thing.
She’s in her human form now, wearing jeans and a band t-shirt; her ear-length red bob bounces as she turns to face him.
“We canna keep meeting like this—oh,” her teasing lilt falls away as she glances down, regarding his new state.
The others—Hank McCoy, Reed Richards, and Steve thinks he even spies Hank Pym’s face on a computer screen, video conferencing in—look similarly distressed.
It’s discomforting that a cross-functional team of all the top scientists in the world are looking at him with worry in their eyes.
(Well, all the top scientists except one, Steve thinks dismally.)
“Oh my stars—” Beast begins, predictably.
And garters, Steve attempts to finish for him, before he remembers he can’t. It just comes out as so much barking. Rahne seems to get the idea, however.
“Aye,” she agrees, “Well said.”
The door he just entered through gusts open behind him, and a foreign thought materializes clearly into Steve’s head—all their heads, from the looks on everyone’s faces.
Jarvis told me what happened, I thought I might be of some assistance? Sersi telepathically projects to them. She’s in street clothes, like she has no particular place to be, and genuinely wants to help. Just think at me, Steven, I’ll make sure everyone hears.
Steve’s embarrassed that someone who used to have a crush on him has to see him this way, but is grateful that the Mansion usually plays host to at least one god or demi-god at any given time.
Thanks, Sersi, he tries to project back to her, and it seems to work. She smiles.
He regards the team before him. Thanks everyone, for that matter, since I couldn’t say it before. Now, what’s the problem?
Beast observes him quizzically. “Your… continued physical alteration, did that just happen now?”
“Do you happen to recall what triggered it?” Reed inquires.
No, he thinks immediately, but it’s too late, the memory of the smell is too strong to be pushed down. He watches the thought hit each of the others in the room in turn. The partition between inner monologue and broadcast thought is thinner than he realized, and tricky to control.
He catches Sersi grimace in apology. Rahne stares at the ground. Reed clears his throat.
“Ah,” says McCoy, after a time.
Shirt or no, Steve feels very exposed right now.
I’m… My…grief. It’s affecting the changes? he tries.
“It would seem so,” Beast confirms. “Tony’s death has been… quite the shock for all of us. And I should say: Steve, we’re so deeply sorry for your loss. Yours, and all the Avengers,” he adds, diplomatically. “But with the traces of Nightshade’s concoction still in your system, it seems as though you are experiencing it in a singularly more visceral way than anyone else.”
No one else from Starkesboro is shifting? John is—?
“Fine,” Rahne reassures him. “No other reports of changes.”
“Our best guess is that it’s caused by the unique scenario of the Super Soldier Serum interacting with the lycanthropy-inducing chemicals. We’ve been in touch with Nightshade, since she’s in custody, but it’s doubtful she planned for this reaction—she couldn’t possibly have tested it on another subject with Erskine’s serum in their veins. Besides, she’s been… less than one-hundred percent cooperative,” Reed explains. “So we’ve been trying to make do with original research.”
“We’re by no means finished,” McCoy makes clear, “But there are a few things you should know right away. The Super Soldier Serum, as you are well aware, provides you a healing factor. But it’s more than that: it operates on on a cellular level, attacking anything it perceives as a threat.”
“And since you’re not naturally wolfen…” Rahne teases out.
“A massively painful physical shift that rearranges your entire organic makeup definitely presents itself as a kind of threat, as far the serum’s concerned,” Pym’s voice pipes in across the network.
Steve tilts his head to the side as he thinks, in unintentionally doglike fashion. So the serum is… fighting off the wolf chemicals?
“It may suppress the change altogether eventually, yes,” Reed concludes.
This thing could go away on its own? That’s… incredible. That’s the best news he’s heard in weeks.
He feels himself break into a grin—or close to one, anyway. But for some reason, no one else seems as excited as he is.
Isn’t that… a good thing? he queries the group.
“It could be,” McCoy acquiesces, “depending on what form you’re in when that happens.”
Steve’s mouth snaps shut, dog-smile vanishing.
You mean… I could be stuck like this? he marvels, taken aback.
“Well,” Rahne cringes slightly, “Hank and I dinna fancy the fur much at times, either.”
Steve whines aloud, chastened. Forgive me, I didn’t mean—I’m sorry.
“It’s a lot to take in,” Beast empathizes, gaze soft.
Steve stands, paces around, claws clacking against the tile floor. Is there anything we—anything I—can do? To control it, predict it? How long do I have before I…?
“There are... a lot of factors,” Reed clarifies, treading lightly. “Your metabolism, hormones, emotions… You may have a better feel for it than we can quantify, honestly. But as far as we can tell, it’s the… shifting, as you say, that causes the most response from the serum. The transition itself, more than any of your settled states.”
Steve sits again, continuing to work through the rest of that logic in his head. So I should stay in one form as much as possible. And since my changes seem to be triggered by, ah, strong… emotions, I just have to… to...
There’s no good end to that sentence, and there’s certainly no ‘just’ about it, but the other five heroes present, in person and on screen, simply wait for Steve to continue in silence, offering neither a response nor judgment.
Well. Important to know, in any case.
“We will be trying,” McCoy continues, a brighter note in his voice, “to find a way to flush out the lycanthropy solution, or render it inert, so we can restore you, permanently and immediately, to your former self. Between our own research and what we can get out of Nightshade, we hope to do just that. But we’ll need time, and we thought you should have all the facts in the interim.”
Reed nods his agreement. “We’ll let you know as soon as there’s progress. In the meantime, if you need anything from us, anything at all—”
Thank you all, again, truly. I’m so grateful for your time. Without hands or facial expressions, Steve finds his current felicity of expression woefully inadequate. He raises a paw in the air twice, feeling slightly ridiculous as he tries to gesture his sincerity. If there is anything else I—or Jarvis, I suppose, if you need someone slightly more, ah, bipedal—can do to help, or to make your stay more pleasant—
“It’s the least we can do, Steve,” Pym assures him from the laptop. “Now, Reed, regarding that metabolic catalyst you mentioned—”
Steve takes their sharp pivot back into scientific details as his cue to leave. Sersi makes her way to him as he rises to leave.
“Do you need any further assistance?” she asks aloud. “Are you headed back to your room?”
Steve is on the point of replying in the affirmative, when he pictures the rest of his evening: pacing the floor until late into the night, unable to sleep, or perhaps worse, eventually passing out, only to awaken from a nightmare, either panting or in a cold sweat, depending on what form he ends up in.
His stomach growls, pulling his mind away from that grim line of thought. Good. More distractions. Food is always a good one. Food, he can handle.
Actually, I think I’m headed to the kitchen. If you want to join me.
“Certainly, Captain. I enjoy watching you mortals eat.”
And… okay, it’s a good thing Sersi is on their side, because otherwise that would seem a lot less charming and a lot more creepy. She’s being awfully accommodating about this whole situation. Steve really hopes she isn’t still carrying a torch for him. If he remembers the Odyssey correctly, she does have a history with men being transformed into lesser mammals…
Steven, of course I still consider you attractive, but I find torch-carrying, as you put it, to be rather fruitless labor, Sersi’s silky voice reverberates in his brain. He must have been thinking too loudly again.
She continues: And your… predicament is somewhat more complicated than charming some brainless sailors to appear as pigs. Or at least so your scientist friends assure me. They instructed me not interfere with my magicks. She arches an eyebrow at him, a saucy grin playing about her lips. I can give transforming you a whirl, right now, if you like.
Steve half-chuckles internally as best he can. No, thanks. I’ll stick to their assessment of the situation.
Apparently Hank, Hank and Reed hate magic as much as Tony does—did. Tony did.
“Captain, Sersi, I’ll walk with ye, if ye don’t mind,” Rahne calls out, jogging toward them as they reach the lab door.
Sure, Steve thinks, giving her a nod. In addition to being grateful for Rahne’s presence as a buffer between him and Sersi, he reflects that he’s genuinely happy to have her around. He didn’t get to know her well during their time in Massachusetts, or on previous missions with the X-men, but she seems a pleasant enough young woman, and she has years of experience in her various wolf forms compared to him. It’d be nice to learn more about her, as well as from her.
“As you wish,” Sersi shrugs, somewhat less enthused than Steve but not objecting.
All three fall in step easily as they pace toward the kitchen, where a delightful smell—strong, like all smells are to Steve when he’s in this form—is emanating from. Like someone ordered a—
“Mmm, Pizza,” remarks Rahne. “I wonder if it’s—”
Pepperoni and sausage? From the place on 70th? Steve cuts in, inhaling. Yeah, he confirms, making a concerted effort not to drool. It definitely is.
A puzzled half-smile crosses Rahne’s face. “I know the docs just told ye how unique ye are, Steve, but it really is remarkable: ye get access to all yer enhanced wolf senses in this form, apparently, an’ yet, you’re still… you.”
Steve tilts his head, taking that in. Is that not… normal?
“Normal’s relative, of course. But I go a bit, well,” she blushes, looking a little ashamed, “feral in that state. Hard to process certain concepts, think like a human. Must be nice, to stay so grounded,” she says, sounding a little wistful.
Steve doesn’t respond; he can’t help but think a more limited capacity for self awareness would be an asset right now.
“It’s funny you should mention my previous exploits, Steven,” Sersi continues, as if Rahne hadn’t spoken, totally ignoring her presence. “Your Tony and I did not always see eye to eye, but he was a good man, and brave, and reminded me a bit of Odysseus: the kind of man who would—and did—travel to the ends of the earth to accomplish a feat, no matter how seemingly impossible.”
Steve logically knows that wolves can’t blush, but feels his neck ruff tingle as his temperature rises. He wasn’t—I wouldn’t say that he was—mine—
Wait. What did Sersi just say?
The ends of the earth… no matter how seemingly impossible…
The words snare in Steve’s brain: the start of an idea.
Sersi, what do you know about Hela?
“She’s a bitch,” Sersi responds clearly, if nonchalantly.
Rahne’s head whips in the Eternal’s direction; Steve’s ears prick further forward and he blinks at her.
“She cheats at Petteia,” Sersi explains. “And cards. And she’s an awful gossip. Once, she said Hercules was—”
“Sersi—” Rahne admonishes under her breath, and Steve isn’t sure if the censure is because what Sersi’s saying is rude, off-topic, or just incomprehensible, but any of those reactions is probably warranted.
“What?” Sersi shrugs. “He asked.”
As they reach the end of the hallway, Rahne and Sersi enter the kitchen, immediately greeted by Eric, Dane, and Crystal, all gathered around the kitchen island, eating the pizza they’d smelled earlier.
Steve halts, surveying the scene before him, realization dawning.
Crystal is a massively powerful Inhuman, capable of psionically controlling the elements of earth, fire, water, and air. So, pretty much anything she wants.
Eric Masterson might be a so-called ‘normal’ human, but he currently wields Mjolnir, which gives him the power of the Thunder God, Thor.
Dane Whitman likewise is a battlemaster with a magic weapon, the Ebony Blade, and has travelled through time more than once. And frankly, the flying horse comes in handy more often than you’d think.
And Sersi has not only tremendous abilities, but connections to every underworld god in existence.
They’re the Avengers, dammit. Maybe one of the most powerful Avengers lineups in the group’s history.
They’ve saved the world—the universe—multiple times.
Surely they can save one man.
A plan is buzzing in Steve’s brain, and he tries to think as quietly, as privately as he can.
Maybe the reason he can’t let go of Tony isn’t because of his unresolved feelings—or least, not the only reason.
Maybe he can’t let go of Tony because he shouldn’t.
“Hey, Steve!” Eric calls to him jovially. Everyone smiles at him, unperturbed by his wolfy form.
The team. His team.
Steve’s heart leaps up. It’s the best he’s felt all day. They can do this. They’re going to do this.
They might have to travel through time, through space, or to other realms, but they’re going to do this.
They’re going to save Tony.
“We saved you a couple slices,” Eric offers, holding one out. “They’ve got pepperoni and—”
A wave of pain courses down Steve’s back, and he yelps, trying to keep the room in his vision.
When he regains his bearings, he’s on his knees.
He’s a human again. Full-human.
And… he’s still not wearing any pants.
He looks up at the group, horrified.
“Ó dhìol!” Rahne squeals and turns her whole body away. Dane covers his eyes with a mumbled, “Oh, hell.” Eric looks upward, extremely interested in the ceiling fan, and Crystal throws a hand over her mouth, blinking owlishly.
Sersi grins, cheshire-cat-like, and stares.
Steve tries the pull the fabric of the bottom of his button down as far as it will go, covering himself as much as possible. Which is not very much.
“This is awkward,” Eric states unnecessarily, still holding the piece of pizza aloft.
“I disagree,” Sersi coos.
Crystal finally moves, pulling a couple of clean dish towels from the cabinet below the sink, and tosses them to Steve. He scoops them up from the floor, and holds them, one in front and one in back, shielding his unmentionables as he stands up, a makeshift loincloth.
“I’ll... just…” he grits out, backing away.
“Good idea,” assures Dane.
He’s pretty sure he hears Sersi cackling as he turns and barrels down the hallway, in the direction of his room.
On the plus side, he thinks, Tony’s going to keel over with laughter when he hears about this.
It only takes Steve a few moments to change into sweatpants, but he lingers in his room; he’s not exactly in a hurry to face the team again after what just happened. Besides, he has research to do; he’ll need to get a plan together before he can broach the subject of a rescue with them—he doesn’t want anyone risking their lives without knowing what they’re getting into.
He’s getting Tony back. He just has to find him, bring him back to earth, and—
There’s a rap on the door, followed by Rahne’s voice calling his name. Steve winces, then steels himself and answers the door.
“Rahne, I am so sorry about what happened—“
“Oh, dinna fash yersel' about that,” she gestures, trying to wave it off, even as her cheeks go beet-colored, looking fairly fashed about it herself.
“I really just wanted to tell you something, in private,” she says, low-voiced, glancing over her shoulder. Steve waves an invitation for her to come in, and he closes the door behind her.
“You were askin’ about… Hela. The Goddess,” she fidgets, explaining. “An’ I wasn’t shyoor what you were thinkin’, but… I got the sense you had somethin’ specific in mind. A rescue, maybe, and… I’ve met her, too, Steve. I was in Asgard before. She had an army of the dead. It’s a bit more involved than Sersi made it sound, ye ken.”
Steve offers her a seat at his desk chair, while he takes one on his bed, leaning forward, regarding her seriously.
“What did you think I was—Did you hear me, thinking?”
“No, no,” she denies hastily. “But your questions, and the look on your face when ye... changed…” She sighs. “I know what it’s like to be parted from someone on another plane of existence, and that’s not—“
“The Avengers have been through things like this before, Rahne,” he starts defensively.
Rahne screws up her face, and Steve thinks he sees a bit of fang flash at him when she responds.
“No, LISTEN!” she demands, raising her voice. Steve is immediately abashed.
(You don't listen, Cap, I can't even get a sentence in right now.)
“Sorry,” he answers quietly. “Go on.”
“Goin’ to some underworld realm, seein’ other people ye’ve lost, risking your own life… It’s not something ye should do… if ye don’t have to.”
“I didn’t go,” Steve sputters before he can help himself. He couldn’t. He hates that he didn’t go, but he couldn’t risk changing in front of everyone. And besides, he couldn’t—couldn’t—
“I did,” Rahne goes on. “It was a closed casket, an' I… Steve, I don’t think Tony’s body was in it.”
“What?” he repeats, more desperately this time. His hands grip air, claws beginning to protrude; fur prickles, poking out from the back of his neck.
Rahne lunges toward him, putting a hand on his knee as she spots the shift.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t meant to—I didn’t know how to say it!” The words come rushing out of her in a gasp. “I was worried I might have been mistaken. But ye have to know, before ye go running off to some afterlife.”
(You just run off and do what you want to, anyway.)
“Please,” Steve implores. “Please, tell me.”
“There was something in there,” Rahne explains, “an’ they tried ta make it smell like embalming fluid an’ such, but it wasna right. It didn’t smell human. An’ it definitely didn’t smell like Tony. I didn’t know him well enough before the service ta say that for sure. But after bein’ in the lab today… That was when I knew. It wasna him.”
Steve’s mind spins through possibilities: A dummy. An LMD. A shape-shifter. But not Tony.
“Does anyone else know about this?” he asks, eyes fixed on hers, voice dropping into a lower register. He places a half-furred hand on her shoulder.
She shakes her head. “I don’t think so. I don’t know. I didn’t tell anyone else. But Steve… it doesna mean he’s not—”
Steve nods, closing his eyes. “I know. But it’s a place to start. Thank you, Rahne. It means a lot to me.” He looks back at her. “I think I need another favor, though.”
“What?” she asks him, voice laced with apprehension.
“What can you teach me about tracking? Hunting? By smell, I mean.”
“A bit, I imagine,” she reasons, warily. “Are you sure you want to risk it, though?”
“I know: I’ll do my best to conserve my changes, but… I have to try and find him. No matter the outcome. And as long as I’m part-wolf, it seems like it could help. I’ll…” he blows out a breath slowly, steadying himself.
He grits his teeth, and tries to consciously push the fur back, retract the claws. Tells the wolf in him to retreat.
He feels his teeth flatten and nose shrink; the change isn’t hurting as much as before. He can do this.
“I’ll get my feelings under control the best I can,” he tells her, voice returning to its normal pitch. “Not to mention, my, uh,” he grimaces, “state of dress.”
“Oh. O’ course. Well. If…” Rahne treads carefully, “If you dinna mind me asking, why didn’t you like the UMF uniform? Are ye allergic? Or did ye not like that it was an X-men uniform? It was just some training gear, somethin’ we had on hand, but—”
“U-M... I’m sorry, what uniform?” Steve feels knocked off-center yet again.
Rahne blinks at him in surprise. “Unstable Molecule Fabric? Doctor Richards’ invention? The Fantastic Four use them, and those of us X-men that transform have them as well. Mine turns into a collar when I change, and it becomes a uniform again when I change back. Which is good, because I’m no’ much of an exhibitionist meself,” she blushes.
“And you… brought me one?” Steve tries.
“Doctor McCoy said he gave one to Sersi yesterday when we arrived, to give to—oh,” Rahne’s mouth forms a perfect tiny circle, just as Steve reaches the exact same realization she does.
“SERSI,” Steve commands at the empty air.
Sersi phases in, leaning halfway through the door, startling Rahne. Steve just glares at her.
“You need something, Steven, dear?” she questions, voice saccharine.
Steve’s incredibly glad to be in human form and have all of his facial muscles back where they belong; he raises one accusing eyebrow at her.
“Oh, fine,” Sersi huffs, rolling her eyes.
A neatly folded piece of black fabric appears in midair, and falls abruptly on the floor between Steve and Rahne.
“Sometimes,” Sersi confesses cheekily, “I cheat, too.”
He had stood there, aghast, gawping at Tony’s prone body, the shallow rise and fall of his chest. Tony mustered all the energy, all the willpower he had, and turned his head to speak aloud his very first words since his resurrection, addressing his friend.
“Hi...Jim…” he croaked out. “What’s… new?”
Rhodey had said a few choice words under his breath that would almost certainly upset his mother, crushed the coffee cup he’d been holding in his right hand, and announced he was quitting.
Tony’s not sure if he meant as CEO of Stark Enterprises, or as Iron Man, but makes a reasonable assumption that it’s both. And probably their friendship, too.
It’s been twenty-three hours, eighteen minutes since that happened.
It wasn’t surprising, but that didn’t make it any easier to hear.
As he heard Rhodey’s footsteps echo through the hallway, every fiber of being was screaming out, follow him, get him back.
Except that’s not true at all: at least 80% of his being’s fibers are still completely unresponsive. Everything from the neck down, to be precise.
Even worse, his rapid recovery progress from the last week seems to be grinding to a halt. He’s been staring at his hands for hours now, willing them to move: just one finger, just a fraction of a centimeter… and nothing. No response.
He knows the core functionality of his newly reconfigured body works—of course it does, he programmed it himself—but for some reason, the I/O is shot—he’s not receiving the signals from his nervous system, or sending them to the muscles for movement.
There’s a physical component he can’t quite grasp, doesn’t know how to jumpstart, short of a total reboot. Complete shutdown of cardiac and neural activity, and even that’s not a guarantee of a fix.
Dying is not on his to-do list today, and frankly, really sucks. Zero stars. Would not do again, would not recommend. So he’s going to have to stick it out and work with what he’s got.
It’s a nice tagline and all, to say that Tony’s super power is his brain, but in reality, it turns out, he needs a bit more than that.
Or… does he?
“—not so fast. Whatever it is you were going to do,” a voice cuts him off. “Don’t.”
Tony huffs. “Hello, Doc,” he intones with all the warmth of Jerry greeting Newman.
Doctor Erica Sondheim is one of the world’s top neurological and cardiac surgeons. In addition to being supremely gifted, she’s utterly fearless, embracing every new technology and experimental procedure put in front of her. Her work makes Stephen Strange’s time as a physician look like child’s play. She’s the reason Tony’s even alive. When he gets the division some funding and grows it to a decent size, she’s going to be the head of Stark Medical. Simply put, she’s the best.
These days, she’s also Tony’s arch nemesis.
Bit of a step down from the Mandarin, he thinks for a moment, before he catches the withering look she’s throwing him over the edge of the clipboard she’s reviewing.
Erica’s not an evil mastermind, but she is the one who assesses improvements in his condition (or lack thereof) and leads the entire team in charge of his care. More importantly, she absolutely won’t put up with Tony’s shit.
No, he amends, not really a step down at all.
“What are you up to, Tony?”
“Oh, you know: some tongue wiggling, some eye rolling, some eyebrow calisthenics. The usual.”
Sondheim purses her lips as she turns her attention to his vital readings on the monitor next to the bed.
“That surliness helping with your recovery?” she asks, sounding detached. “What were you doing when I walked in?”
“Trying to entertain myself with a project.”
“No, no entertainment—you need to focus!” She finally looks at him square on, emphasizing her words by smacking her pen cap against the clipboard. “You don’t want to accept that this paralysis may be permanent and try to move on from it? Fine, we can keep working. But you won’t let a physical therapist treat you, and you don’t even seem to want to work on it yourself—”
“Me being frustrated for hours on end is not a plan—”
“Ignoring it won’t help either. What was so entertaining, Tony?” she demands.
“I’m calling Abe,” he finally admits. “Having him bring over the latest BCI helmet prototypes.”
A Voice User Interface, like the one on the machine at his bedside, is fine for basic tasks, but for any precision job, it’d be inaccurate, not to mention too damn slow, without a proper AI behind it.
But a Brain Computer Interface would give Tony back some measure of control—a seamless data flow from his thoughts to the laptop. From there, he could reach out to any of his manufacturing plants in the world, directly operate the machine fabricators, and start creating things again.
“He won’t,” Sondheim smirks, “if he knows what’s good for him.”
Oh. Tony’d heard some rumors that she and his Director of R&D, Abe Zimmer, were dating. Apparently, that’s true. Damn. That’s… a new complication. He’ll have to get around it.
“Well,” Tony shifts topics, “If the helmet’s off the table, you could get me that other thing I asked for.”
Sondheim covers half of her face with her hand, looking weary. “Tony.”
“What?” Tony asks, all innocence.
He’s not even sure why he’s so fixated on the idea. He hasn’t really thought about it much since he was a child. His father would never, ever permit him to have a pet—a loud, messy creature that would love Tony unconditionally? Definitely not allowed. He has no experience with them, and in fact, for the better part of his life, found most animals to be nuisance.
But ever since the notion of a dog popped into his head, he’s been obsessed.
Plus, it really seems to bother Sondheim, and that’s kind of its own reward.
“It could be the best, smartest—it could be goddamn Lassie, Tony. It wouldn’t be a substitute for a trained medical professional. Of the human variety.”
“Could it hurt?”
She sighs. “I don’t think it will help. There are some studies on the use of Animal Assisted Therapy in specific situations, notably traumatic brain injuries—”
“—my whole life is trauma. My brain is—”
“—your brain is fine—” her mouth twists sardonically, “—as fine as it ever was, anyway. But the rest of you isn’t, and this could prolong your condition. If you are ever going to recover your full range of motion—and you need to come to terms with the possibility you won’t—you have to realize this is only a hindrance. A puppy is not a panacea.”
Tony has no real ammo, no arguments to fire back at his physician’s extremely reasonable and well-crafted wall of facts. Dammit.
Not-so-evil mastermind: one, Iron Man: zero.
“Lassie was a punk, anyway,” he grumbles half-heartedly under his breath.
Seemingly satisfied that she’s crushed his dreams, Sondheim takes some readings and informs Tony she’ll be sending over another list of physical therapists for his rejection. She lingers in the doorway on her way out.
“You know I just want what’s best for you, don’t you?” she asks, completely in earnest. As if that wasn’t her whole job as a physician, and as if she wasn’t doing remarkably at it. Maybe he should ease up on the petulance.
“I know,” Tony offers, matching her sincerity. He smiles. “Hey, one of us should, right?”
She gives a pensive little laugh. “See you tomorrow, Tony.”
Her heels have made a handful of clicks against the linoleum flooring, sounding as though they’ve carried her well down the hallway before she yells back to Tony, voice echoing in the corridor: “You’d never have the patience for a dog anyway.”
Oh, that’s how it is?
Tony tells himself, if it wasn’t for that parting shot, he would have been abashed enough to at least wait a few hours before doing what he has planning to anyway. But now? It’s on: let slip the therapy dogs of war.
It’s a tedious fifteen minutes of dictating code to the terminal, but he manages a simple script to e-mail Sondheim a request for his therapy dog.
Twenty thousand times. At random frequencies and intervals. Over the next thirty-six hours.
(Each e-mail has a little animated GIF of a corgi at the bottom.)
Iron Man, making a comeback. And on that subject...
Tony queries the inventories of Stark Manufacturing plants, skimming the equipment lists. He’s got machine shops all over the globe, but there are only a few with high-precision fabricators of the kind he’d need for this new pet project.
It looks like one is located in São Paulo, but the plant’s been working at full capacity for months, and it’d be hard to slot in the print job without attracting undue attention. There’s another in Tokyo, and one more at… oh, Avengers Mansion. Of course. He had one shipped there for convenience; it seemed like the most logical choice at the time.
He didn’t really prepare for the eventually of having to hide from his teammates after his ‘death.’
If he splits up the mesh into multiple STL files, across multiple orders, he can make this work.
He wonders how risky it even is, if anyone even at the Mansion will even notice.
He asks the computer to dial Stark R&D.
“Abe! How’s it going with my favorite—”
“Whatever you’re about to ask me for… Erica’s going to murder me, isn’t she?”
“Probably, but c’mon, live dangerously!”
Zimmer sighs on the other end of the line, and Tony knows he’s already won.
“Get ready, buddy,” Tony tells him. “It’s time to make magic happen.”
Steve spits the screwdriver on the ground near Rahne’s feet, and then looks up at her, mouth open in a grin, eyes bright with pride.
Over the past week, at Steve’s request, Rahne’s been hiding trinkets from Tony’s lab for Steve to find, first in a private session in the gym, and then branching out to areas surrounding the Mansion, in increasingly challenging locations. Today, she hid a small screwdriver in a particularly distracting, smelly pile of garbage.
That happened to be located all the way in Brooklyn.
His fur is stained with grease and other questionable substances, and he’s trying not to think about the amount of germs that must be having a field day in his mouth, but ultimately he retrieved the object and made back it in record time and with very few missteps; he’s pleased.
She crouches to the ground, inspecting the hand tool, checking to make sure it’s the same one she’d sent him out after. Fair enough—she’s been a brilliant coach to him, and he’s come to expect nothing less than professionalism and thoroughness from her—but she doesn’t have to worry. It’s definitely the right one. The idea that Steve would lose anything of Tony’s at this point, even a little piece of molded metal and plastic… No, more than it being a nosework exercise, Steve thinks of each practice retrieval as a challenge to bring a little bit of Tony back to safety.
There can be no mistakes, no carelessness. He needs to be ready to bring back the genuine article.
Rahne nods approvingly. “Well done, Steve.”
He rocks side to side involuntarily, buzzing with delight from the praise, desperately wanting to lift his forepaws: left, then right, then left again, and so on, in that ridiculous, adorable mambo domesticated dogs do when excited.
He wonders if this is the feralness Rahne mentioned early on; the lupine and canine impulses are getting harder to ignore, are starting to feel hardwired to his body, slipping a bit out of his control. It’s been mostly harmless so far, if a little embarrassing.
He channels the instinctual energy into a tail wag instead. Rahne smiles. She stands and motions for him to follow her. They make their way back to the interior of Bethesda Terrace, behind one of the ornately carved arches.
She pivots once around, doing a cursory check for prying eyes. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but there are times when it nods off briefly—it’s before sunrise and Central Park is technically closed; they can usually catch a moment for him to change unseen. He’d prefer to do it back in his room at the Mansion, but that’s… not an option right now. Not if he wants this whole thing to work.
“Yer clear,” she signals.
Steve tips his head up, tenses his back muscles, and finds it—the tingle at the base of his spine. He can initiate the change now, and it’s no longer coupled with blackout-inducing pain. It’s always accessible when he feels for it—at least, so far. He reaches for it, and just... pushes—and then lets go.
It responds, and the now-familiar free fall sensation kicks in. He senses his body reshaping—and the black-on-black patterned UMF uniform shaping around it. Thank God. He doesn’t have Tony’s gift for pulling off frequent public nudity.
He shakes his head once, and focuses, now looking at Rahne from above her rather than below, back to his normal human height.
She extracts a jacket for him from the backpack she’s carrying, and he shrugs it on, still getting his bearings. “What do you think, teach? Am I ready?”
“As you’ll ever be, I think,” Rahne breathes with trepidation. “Yer tracking is wonderful, I didna mean it like that,” she clarifies, “but aren’t ya worried? With what the docs said, that ye won’t be able to change back—”
“Every time,” Steve confirms. “But unless something else gives, I don’t know what else to do.”
They turn back toward the Mansion, strolling past the fountain, with its sculpted angel reaching down, a gesture of grace and mercy. It’s actually dedicated, Steve recalls, to a clean water system—applied science bringing safety from disease to the city’s inhabitants. Technology to the rescue. He looks north and east, scanning the length of the park in the early morning quiet.
The people’s park. He’s always loved the Mansion being so close by. Historically, his feet have seemed to wind in the direction of its twisting paths and verdant growth when he’s been in need of quiet contemplation, the solitude a balm for nerves frayed by a city—a world, perhaps—that’s somehow the same but constantly changing, all at once.
But in the moment, the abject lonely silence of the place jangles his nerves; the air is unseasonably chilly for a July morning, and the statues are too still, too remote. The sight of their placid, lifeless faces sets his teeth on edge; he has no need of memorials.
If he’d sought more solace in his team instead of in seclusion, he chastises himself, if he’d been more thoughtful, looked for signs that something was wrong—
No. No time to fret about the past. He has to act.
Pack, his near-dormant wolf brain reminds him, as they pace toward the Mansion’s front door, set back from the busy street. Pack broken. Fix pack.
He agrees with that notion fully.
“Do ye know where you’ll start?” Rahne asks him quietly, once they are in the foyer.
He sighs. That’s the one key thing missing from his nascent plan: a lead. He’s grateful to Rahne for helping to rule out the underworld in general. But even so, ‘on earth, probably’ is not a very specific geographic location for him to cover in his search. He’s been looking for clues—news headlines, reports from Stark Enterprises, accounts of supervillain activity, anything—and has come up empty so far.
“The other boroughs, I guess,” he tells her, gently thumbing the screwdriver’s handle. It seems unlikely Tony would still be in New York, but no sense in heading across the country if he can rule out the possibility that Tony’s here.
“Maybe… it’s best if ye dinna tell me much more.” Rahne looks uncomfortable. “Steve. D’ye… d’ye no’ think your team should know where you’re going?”
It’s not unexpected, her finally asking him outright. Guilt has tinged her words every time he’s hinted at leaving on his own. Between her youth and what he’s heard about her strict upbringing, it makes sense: she is clearly not comfortable flouting the rules at all.
And... she’s right, honestly. It’s what Steve should be teaching her, or someone her age; values he’d speak of in a lecture. It’s how teammates should acquit themselves: with trust and honesty. He’s not sure how the X-men operate, but it’s what being an Avenger should mean.
But he can’t tell them. Not anyone. Not yet.
There’s no public evidence of Tony still being alive. Pulling the whole team into a search mission would distract them from other potential dangers with no clear payoff. Not to mention, if Tony is hurt or trapped somewhere, being held prisoner, a team of Avengers descending on the situation could make things worse.
Finally, if Tony’s the one concealing himself away, he must have his reasons, and Steve would hate to destroy what seems to be an extremely elaborate cover. It’d be too easy for the press—and other more menacing figures—to track the Avengers as a unit, but Steve by himself could fly relatively under the radar, and keep Tony’s secrets if he needed to.
It hurts a bit to contemplate, that Tony wouldn’t trust him enough to tell him what’s going on, but Steve kicks himself for that thought immediately. Pick up, Pot: Kettle is calling.
“I’ll tell them as soon as it’s feasible,” he tells Rahne non-committally.
She doesn’t reply, but doesn’t look like she fully accepts that answer, either. As much as that worries him, Steve respects it. Rahne’s a credit to her team and their safety.
But right now, the success of his endeavor depends entirely on her denying her integrity.
A painful pressure settles over his sternum. Is this what he’s actually doing now? Asking a young hero to lie for him? Pulling her down with him?
He wonders if this is how Tony felt when trying to convince Steve of some unorthodox plan of his. He hopes to god he gets the chance to ask him.
Steve swallows. “Are you going to mention that—”
“—that ye haven’t changed form in over a week?” Rahne says pointedly, if shakily, like she’s trying her best. “That ye feel like the changes have stopped altogether? And that you’ll give Doctor McCoy new blood samples once ye get back? Aye, I can mention that.”
Steve exhales, but the knot in his chest doesn’t dissipate. This isn’t right. But it’s what he has to do. He’ll find Tony and come back immediately. He’ll make it up to her.
“Thank you, Rahne. I owe you so much—”
“Och, please,” she smiles gently, “Ye got me out of Starkesboro. We’re… friends,” she tries, testing out the word. “Besides, I’m no’ about to rat out Captain America,” she adds, undercutting her previous statement with a reverence for his title that Steve feels like he really, really doesn’t deserve at the moment.
“Thank you, just the same,” he replies sincerely.
“Are ye leaving now?” she asks.
He nods. “Grabbing a few things, then I’m gone.”
Rahne balls her fists, her face a mask of indecision for a moment, then opens her arms and flings herself at him, an impulsive but no less heartfelt embrace.
Returning the hug, Steve makes a mental note to suggest an amendment to the Charter regarding junior members, and maybe some kind of diversity statement on mutant recruits specifically.
Rahne pulls back just as suddenly as she had come at him. She scrunches her nose—her sensitive nose. “Forgot for a second ye were in the—”
“—garbage,” he recalls, sheepishly. “Right.”
“Professional hazard,” she assures him, laughing. “Maybe—”
“—a shower, then grabbing a few things, then going,” he promises, and she laughs.
“Good luck, Steve. Bring him back safe.”
After Rahne sees him off, everything is set into motion at full speed: following a quick rinse off, he tosses some civvies on over the UMF uniform, packs a backpack, and begins to mentally catalogue places he might even begin his search.
He's slipping out the door of his bedroom, when the screwdriver from this morning's tracking practice catches his eye, resting on the desk.
Tony is the ultimate engineer; whether it's repairing or creating from scratch, there's hardly a situation he can't devise a solution to. There has to be a clue to his whereabouts. There has to.
Steve glances at the red block numbers shining from the bedside alarm clock—4:30am—no one should be up for a while longer. There's always a chance one of members of Team Science could still be burning the midnight oil, looking for a cure for his condition, but it's chance he'll have to take. One more look, for something he missed. Just one more.
He grabs the screwdriver and pockets it, redirecting his course for the lab.
It's empty when he arrives and he makes his way past the biochem area, back to the engineering section. The area has all been cleaned by Jarvis and the mansion staff, and the worktops are barren, spotless—no half finished projects, grease stains, or pieces of armor strewn about. The sight is maybe a stronger reminder of Tony’s absence than anything else in the mansion.
The familiar prickle of hair on the back of his neck hits at the same time as a lump swells up in his throat; Steve bites back both the emotion and the transformation, and forces himself to look.
"Computer, lights up."
Steve walks to one of the main armor assembly workbenches and opens the top left drawer carefully. It's the place he got the other tools and knick-knacks he and Rahne have been using as smell targets. He sets the screwdriver in with its fellows—an allen wrench, a mechanical pencil, some wirestrippers, a stack of unused post-it notes. Every day this week, he has retrieved and placed each one back in its ordained spot after using it, with all the reverence of replacing a sacred object back in a shrine. It's silly—he's going on this trip because he believes Tony is alive, that he can find him—but until he comes back, Steve somehow can't bear the thought of disturbing even the echo of him in this room that meant so much to him. He can't quite fix Tony's status in his mind—not quite alive, and not yet dead—Schrodinger's Stark.
Steve shuts the top drawer and tries a few others, gently yanking at the handles, testing. Locked, of course. He assumed as much. He unslings his backpack from his shoulders and starts to pull a leather case from the side pouch—Steve doesn’t get to exercise his skills as a lockpick too often, but he’s not sure what he’ll encounter on this mission—when he pauses.
“Computer, is there a digital lock on the workbench drawers, or manual only?”
“Both digital and manual locks have been set,” the monotone voice informs him.
Great. Setting off an alarm that wakes up everyone at the mansion would be the ultimate bad start to his mission. Sometimes Tony had overrides for these things, passwords to disable security for trusted system users, but Steve’s sure he doesn't know the current ones. He and Tony hadn’t been as close as they once were. He’s certainly changed them in the intervening years, hasn’t he?
“Digital Override Code: War Machine,” Steve tries, thinking of the latest armor Tony created. He’d had to read about it in a West Coast Avengers mission briefing; he and Tony hadn’t had time to discuss it in person.
“Incorrect override,” the computer notifies him. “Two attempts remaining.”
“Digital override code: Ho Yinsen,” he says, a little more shakily. He’s not sure how many people Tony has told about Afghanistan, the way that he built the first Iron Man armor, but maybe—
“Incorrect override,” the voice repeats. “One attempt remaining.”
Steve shakes his head. He should give up, there’s nothing for him here. He might have to start his search randomly, but at least he’ll start it sooner.
Of course, there’s his old code, but that couldn’t possibly work anymore, could it?
Before he can consider the implications of a final password failure, it’s on his lips.
“Digital override code: Winghead,” he breathes out timidly.
No alarm sounds, and after a moment the computer chirps at him brightly. “Permanent override accepted; workbench access granted. Welcome, Super Admin Steve Rogers.”
Permanent? Steve thinks. Tony must have forgotten that was even programmed in there. Not that Tony was the forgetful type, but why leave a backdoor for Steve, especially when Tony was in California more often than not? Seems like an awfully big security vulnerability.
That, or he still trusted Steve implicitly, right up until the last time he was here.
Steve thinks about Tony’s face, pale and stricken, in the half-light of The Laughing Horse, as Steve told him he wished Tony hadn’t come.
Tony definitely just forgot.
The sound of locks clicking open breaks Steve away from the memory, and he starts to rifle through the drawers, looking for anything useful, anything that might indicate Tony’s whereabouts.
He finds more engineering equipment, ranging from hand tools and simple electronics supplies to prototypes he doesn't recognize, whose purpose he can’t begin to imagine.
The only thing even remotely of interest are a few scraps of paper with mechanical drawings, labelled with names, or code names—unfinished projects, he assumes. Under the heading Tesla, there’s a sketch of what appears to be a battery of sorts. Some notes on a computer program that Steve can’t decipher are listed under Lovelace. There are a couple more projects and titles: Faraday, Bardeen, Volta. Finally, there’s a half finished header that says Mer, but the space below it is blank.
There aren’t coordinates or locations on any of the projects, at least none Steve can discern at a glance. Maybe they’ll still be of some use, if he can spend some more time studying them, but ultimately, they give him nothing to go on.
He stands, looking around the workshop for more notes, projects plans, but sees nothing else physical. Which makes sense: why wouldn’t Tony do everything digitally? Steve isn’t a hacker, and he can ask the voice assistant for help, sure, but he doesn't even know the right thing to request. Tony made him a Super Admin, apparently: he has the keys to the kingdom, but doesn’t even know what the door looks like.
And the clock continues to tick: soon the others will be up, and he’ll have to explain what he’s doing, and he needs to go.
"C'mon, Tony," he whispers to the room, to himself. "Just... give me a hint. Please. I’m coming to find you. I just need a place to start."
After the echoes of his own voice fade, there are several seconds of silence, before the computer chimes in: “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand your request.”
Steve sighs. He’s not sure what he expected.
He kneels and starts to put the folded papers in his backpack, placing them near the lockpicking kit. As he rearranges, nestling everything into place, a shard of plastic falls out, slapping against the tiled floor.
His identicard. Oh, god, what if he forgot to turn it off before he left? In addition to being a form of identification and a comms device, the identicard serves as a geotracker. The other Avengers would have found him in a matter of hours. He hates the thought of going completely off the grid, but it’s necessary, he tells himself as he picks up the card, he has to—
The surface shimmers, text gleaming in upper right hand corner: new private message.
Huh. He presses the message indicator icon, and the card chirrups, the screen’s content changing.
A shimmer of gold and red reflects up at him. Iron Man. He has a message from Iron Man.
Steve’s heart rate shoots up for several seconds before he can remind himself that it’s Rhodey. Jim Rhodes is reporting as Iron Man now. Deep breaths; this is no time to shift.
He presses the play button and listens in.
“You didn’t hear this from me, but someone should know what’s going on.” Rhodes voice is gruff on the recording, and he speaks quickly, as if under his breath. “One word: Merlin. Rhodes out.”
What the hell…? Inscrutable is not usually Rhodes’ MO, and Steve can’t help but notice that Rhodes identified himself by name, not by his call sign.
Steve clicks through the card’s UI, arriving at the monitoring screen that shows a listing of the whereabouts of all the active Avengers. Iron Man’s card is offline, and he apparently switched himself to reserve status in the lineup as well.
This is bizarre. Is Rhodey in danger too? Is this a Stark Enterprises issue, or an Avengers one? Or something else entirely?
“Computer, get me Stark CEO Jim Rhodes.”
“Request requires additional clarification,” the mechanized voice explains calmly. “As of 6:46pm Pacific Time yesterday, Jim Rhodes is no longer Stark Enterprises CEO. Try calling Stark CEO, or Jim Rhodes?”
Jim resigned? Left Steve a bizarre message, and then quit? This can’t all be a coincidence.
“Who’s in charge now?”
“Interim CEO of Stark Enterprises is John Joseph.” A headshot of a young man in a business suit who Steve has never seen before flashes on one of the many monitors in the engineering lab.
Steve doesn’t presume to know everyone at Stark, but he’s interacted with more than a few of Tony’s top employees: Marcy Pearson, Abe Zimmer… He can think of at least five Stark department heads who would be in line for CEO before… whoever this is. Something about the man’s smile in the photo is... flat. Distant. Artificial. Who is he, and where did he come from?
Before Steve can pepper the computer with questions about the new head of Stark, a whirring, clicking sound catches his ear, like something mechanical waking up from inactivity.
In the far corner of the lab, one of Tony’s contraptions is moving, switched on by an unseen trigger. It’s a large cube-shaped metal frame, eight feet in depth and width, maybe ten feet tall. A large robot arm is mounted on some kind of a… sliding apparatus across the top; between the arm’s points of flexion and the movement of the top harness, it looks like the tip of the arm can move anywhere through the hollow center space. Tubes shoot out from the arm and trail back to some kind of reservoir, Steve guesses.
A flat bottom platform—the bed, Steve recalls—adjusts up and down a few inches, humming all the while, settling into place: calibrating.
A fabricator. That’s what Tony had called this. A printer of some kind, to make pieces for his various projects. A machine that can make other machines.
But why is it firing up now?
Cautiously, Steve crosses back toward the robot and spots a small LED panel on the side. There’s a schematic, a 3D object displayed there. Is this what the machine is making? Steve touches the screen gingerly, the image rotating under the gentle urging of fingers—the curves, the divots in the piece on screen look so familiar—
He rotates the item’s representation, twisting it this way and that, when a cavity appears in the piece, a rectangular hole straight through to the other side—and suddenly it’s clear to him what he’s looking at, almost as if there was an eye behind it, staring back at him. That’s a faceplate. Or at least, part of one. But it’s unmistakably a piece of the Iron Man helmet assembly. He’d bet his life on it. He’s looked at that design a million times, both in battle and repose: studied it, drawn it, dreamed about it.
It’s attached to another piece it shouldn’t be, another part of the armor—a section of the underarm, if he had to guess. Steve isn’t sure if that’s a printer configuration, meant to save material, or an attempt to disguise what’s being created in the fabricator. It could well be both.
The printer arm begins moving through space, laying molten metal down on the machine bed, outlining the same object shown on the display, and Steve holds his breath, watching as Iron Man—or a tiny part of him, at any rate—is being willed into being, almost as if by magic.
Merlin, Rhodes had said.
“Who is… Who’s doing this? Who ordered this job?” Steve asks.
“The project order originates from Stark subsidiary MerlinTech, a recently acquired wearables startup based in Los Angeles.”
Steve’s breath hitches. Someone is printing Iron Man armor. This is either horrible news—someone has access to Tony’s armor pattern master files—or exactly what Steve is looking for.
It could be Rhodey. But Rhodey quit. And why wouldn’t he have just told Steve what he was doing?
Steve glances at the time on the nearest monitor—he either has to leave now, or postpone his departure altogether, think of some excuse to dodge Richards and McCoy, put off finding Tony for one more day. But he’s so close, he can feel it—C’mon, Tony, help me out—I’m nearly there—
He drops his hands to his sides, and hears a crumple. He’s still holding onto Tony’s notes. The half-finished projects. He leafs through the pages again—the names. What do they have in common? They’re—they’re all—
“Computer, who authorized this project?”
“MerlinTech project authorized by interim Stark CEO, John Joseph,” the computer tells him crisply.
And all it once, it clicks.
Everything listed on the papers is plan, a protocol, an escape hatch: a backup battery constructed with simple materials, a backdoor computer program to trigger a distress signal—Steve can’t follow the details of each one, but there seems to be a throughline to all of them: Tony getting out of a sticky situation of some kind.
Steve’s willing to bet the final one, Mer, was meant to say ‘Merlin.’
But he had been thinking about it all wrong.
‘Merlin’ isn’t a reference to the famous wizard, the boyhood guardian of a once and future king. As much as Tony has always been a fan of Arthurian legend, this isn’t about magic. Of course it isn’t, Steve chastises himself. This is much more... personal. There’s only one person who could be behind it.
For about the millionth time since coming out of the ice, Steve is grateful for the combination of his serum-enhanced memory and freely available digital encyclopedias.
Every protocol on that list is named after an inventor.
And in the mid 1700’s, Steve recalls with perfect clarity, John Joseph Merlin invented something that would eventually be called the roller skate.
Steve stifles a rogue noise in his throat—half laugh, half relieved sob—and asks the computer for an address, a phone number, any information at all on MerlinTech.
I’ve got you, Tony, Steve thinks, trying not to get swept up in an overwhelming wave of joy. I’m coming. I’m on my way.
When you can’t move at all, Tony observes, it feels like the whole world moves slowly, too.
It’s the middle of the night—not that there’s much difference in Tony’s surroundings based on time of day; the tiny room is unchanging. He is unchanging—immobile, listless. He can see a sparkling glimpse of the lights of downtown Los Angeles from his window. They’re about the closest thing he has to stars, thanks to the city’s pollution, both of the light variety and regular old smog. But tonight he can see the moon for a change. It’s full and bright, glowing a rich orange-yellow. He isn’t sure what ‘kind’ of moon it is—harvest, hunter, gatherer? That folklore-y stuff was never as compelling to Tony as astronomy, but surveying the gray craters scooped into the citrus-colored sphere, he still wishes he knew.
But he doesn’t feel like asking aloud to get an answer from the computer, doesn’t want to disturb the silence, and he won’t be able to use the helmet again for a few more hours at least. He bites the inside of his cheek and wishes like hell he could rub his temple, massage the pain away.
Sondheim caught wind of his scheming with Abe, because of course she did, she’s amazing like that. But instead of denying him access to the BCI helmet as he expected her to, she offered it to him as a trade: if he’d either contact the other Avengers, or talk to a physical therapist, she’d allow him to use the helmet to work on a new armor.
(Also surprising: she hasn’t mentioned being bombarded with dog emails at all. Tony’s pretty sure that’s a calculated move to piss him off. It’s totally working.)
Tony’s talked to six therapists in the past two days, and didn’t really get along with any of them, but selected a couple to work with that he doesn’t hate as much as the others; he starts on a formal treatment plan tomorrow.
Talking to the other Avengers is a non-starter.
Slowly but surely—a phrase Tony truly despises—he’s been making headway on the armor construction, or so the various progress reports from the fabricators across the country would seem to indicate. The printers are not as fast as he would like, not that anything ever is, and too much use of the BCI helmet at at once gives him headaches, like the one he’s experiencing now.
But the pieces are about 60% constructed, and most of the telepresence aspects of the armor code are tested and ready to go, he just has to finish adapting them to the helmet for maximum responsiveness. A few more tweaks, and he’ll be able to fully control the entire unit with nothing but his mind.
It’s not as useful as having control over his own body, but it’s better than what he can do now. Which is effectively nothing.
As the days drag on with his limbs showing no response, no sign of movement whatsoever, he’s starting to regard his physical form as a prison.
The armor, receiving signals from its sensors and relaying them directly to his brain, will at least allow him the sensation of being able to move. He’ll be able to fly and fight, to help people again. He knows Hammer isn’t through with his company yet, and will be trying to wrest back control while it’s in this vulnerable period, especially with a new ‘Interim CEO’ in play. Both Stark Enterprises and its employees are potentially in danger until the threat is neutralized. That includes current and former ones—the thought of Rhodey, continuing to ignore his calls, stings horribly.
It’s better for him to work undercover, to take Hammer—and whoever else might challenge him—by surprise. You can’t prepare for an enemy you think is dead.
After that, well. He’s not sure what he’ll do. He may still be able to write code, develop new technology, but he’s pretty sure he’ll have to step down as head of Stark. The world has changed, and is perhaps a more caring, more open-minded place, but the little voice in the back of his mind that tells him that ‘Stark men are made of iron’ sows doubt into his mind that anyone would see him as a proper leader, an appropriate figurehead for the company in his current condition. He wouldn’t begrudge it of anyone else suffering from paralysis, certainly not—but it’s hard for him not to see his status as his inner failings finally manifesting as outer ones. Someone else would be better suited for the role. He’ll try to convince Rhodey to come back, but even if he refuses, it can’t be Tony.
And despite the telepresence capabilities of the armor… he definitely won’t be Iron Man anymore.
The Avengers will never have him back, not after this deception. Even if they forgive him for concealing his health, how could they let someone like him be a part of the team? As brash and unpredictable as he is vulnerable.
Maybe if it wasn’t him, he thinks for a moment. If he used the telepresence unit, and told the others that he was someone new in the suit, someone Tony Stark hired—
Oh, does that ever take him back. For actual years, he maintained a secret identity, hiding who he was away from the rest of the team and the rest of the world, identifying only as Tony Stark’s bodyguard. Eventually that fiction unraveled, but he sometimes still thinks about how freeing it was in those early days. He could hang up his life in the spotlight and simply be a hero. A friend to his teammates… to Steve, he thinks, chest tightening. He misses the simplicity of those days.
But there’s no going back. Tony pictures the telepresence armor under the full intensity of Steve’s gaze, images feeding back to Tony as he lies there—motionless, helpless, useless. Steve would know. He would see right through the ruse, and he wouldn’t take kindly to being lied to. Not again.
One last mission as Iron Man, and then it’s over. He had a good run.
Tony shuts his eyes. He can let it all go. He can. He just... wishes he’d had one last chance to talk to—
A noise in the hallway slashes through his reverie in an instant, and his pulse flutters in response. It sounds like someone walking toward his room. It could be a security guard or a nurse—there’re at least a few members of his staff on duty at all hours of the night—but the gait sounds like it belongs someone who doesn’t want to be heard—and is doing a fairly good job of it at that.
How did they get past everyone else in the building? His mind races. Is it someone from Hammer’s team? Did they find out he was alive after all? He didn’t expect the John Joseph thing to hold up for very long, but Merlin Protocol wasn’t supposed to take more than a few days—having to use the helmet was really slowing down the timeline—he just needs a few more days—
But as the footsteps become more defined, resounding with less and less of an echo, he knows he only has a few seconds.
“I really, really wouldn’t, if I were you,” he raises his voice to address the figure in the hall, bluffing impulsively. The footsteps stop, and he thinks he hears an intake of breath.
Wait, is this actually working?
“In addition to the many advanced security measures installed all over this room, I myself am highly dangerous,” he continues.
There’s a slight shuffling—and then the footsteps resume. He can start to make out the barest edge of a shadow in the doorway—god, the guy’s practically there—
He should use the voice assistant to launch a call to Sondheim, to security, to anyone—but the assailant in the hall will hear him do it. He decides to double down on bravado.
“I’ll have you know,” he informs the man loudly, “I learned punching from Captain America himself.”
The steps stop trippingly and there’s another hiss of breath, and Tony thinks he sees the edges of the shadow… change.
The steps are replaced by a clicking sound, continuing to make its way to the door of his room; oh, god, what is this?
“Computer,” he addresses the system, trying not to sound frantic, “Call Doctor Erica Sondh—oh.”
Tony looks away from the monitor at his bedside, to catch a glimpse of his midnight visitor, and sees, at first, nothing. Not at head-height, anyway, where he would expect a person to be standing.
He glances cautiously downward, and when his eyes land on it, he feels all the breath go out of him, barely able to comprehend what he’s seeing.
Two enormous eyes—piercing, otherworldly—reflect the moonlight back at him.
There’s a dog. In Tony’s hospital room.
No. A wolf.
A goddamned gigantic wolf.
He’s not sure there’s another single thing on earth—or several other planets he’s been to—that could have surprised him more.
The creature stands stock still near the doorway, just… waiting.
Waiting for what?
“What… what are you?” Tony breathes, voice tremulous.
As if the thing could answer him.
But to Tony’s surprise, the wolf blinks at this question. Like it’s… taking it in?
It steps further into the room—slowly, almost deliberately so. More orange light from the window cascades over it as it sits, and Tony can make it out a bit better. He studies it, and he can’t shake the feeling that it’s studying him right back.
It has all the physical markers of a wolf: lean muscularity, sharply pointed snouted, the shaded fur colorings, ranging from sand to chestnut to even a deep coffee in places. Everything about it emanates the raw power of a wild animal. God, he should be terrified, but Tony can’t stop himself from simply being in awe: it’s a magnificent creature.
But there are no wolves in southern California, his brain screams. Certainly not ones the size of a small pony, like something out of a fantasy film.
And those eyes. It makes no sense. Its eyes are deep, rich blue—wolves don’t have blue eyes, do they?—and the way it regards Tony… Like it’s… happy to see him. Like he’s special.
It has to be some kind of dog. It has to.
Tony’s had some... creative foes in the past—the Unicorn, anyone?—but sending a quasi-wolf-creature to kill him seems… roundabout, even for them. So assuming it’s friendly—
Wait. Is this…?
It can’t be.
“Are you…?” tries Tony.
The wolf’s ears prick forward. Like it’s dying to hear what Tony might say next.
“Are you... here for me?”
After only a second’s hesitation, the wolf-dog thumps its tail against the ground twice, seemingly answering in the affirmative.
Holy shit. It has to be.
Erica goddamn Sondheim sent him a therapy dog in the middle of the goddamn night to scare him. To get him back for the emails. Oh, lord. Well done, he congratulates her in his head. Iron Man offers his complete and unconditional surrender.
God, it’s here now. His dog is here. And it’s beautiful. And intimidating. He barely dares to let himself believe that this is really happening.
Tony starts again, hesitant. "Are you... mine?" he murmurs, voice tinged with hope.
At this, the wolf is a coiled spring released, all kinetic energy, jumping clean through the air and landing on the bed in a single bound.
“Jesus,” squeals Tony involuntarily, shocked by the speed of the thing.
Immediately upon landing and hearing Tony cry out, the wolf pulls up a paw, steps backward, like it’s concerned. It looks him up and down, confused, ready to jump back down.
“You’re not hurting me,” he reassures it, before he can stop himself. “In fact, I can’t feel anything from the neck down, so, you’re okay. Unless you, uh, touch my face, it won’t really matter,” he babbles. It’s probably the most he’s spoken aloud in days.
The animal looks… god, it looks sad for him.
Tony should probably call Sondheim, and let her or the nurse on duty know what’s going on—well, what he thinks is going on—but he just keeps talking instead.
"I mean, don’t, you know, scratch or bite the rest of me, please: I hope I’ll get to use it again, eventually. But if you need to touch... my face, for, you know. The therapy to work. That’s fine. I don’t… actually know what therapy dogs do. Or how this works, at all,” he admits, feeling incredibly foolish. “And you probably don’t either. Because you’re a wolf. I mean, dog. But I… don’t dislike it. Being, uh, touched, or licked, or anything. If you. Needed. To do that.”
Tony sputters into silence finally, supremely glad the thing can’t understand him.
Except, as quiet seconds tick by, it continues watching him, and he starts to get the sneaking suspicion that maybe, on some level, it can.
The wolf-dog begins to lean in toward him, then… hesitates.
It’s an odd thing to see, the momentary pause in the face of the animal; wolf or dog, something that howls at the moon or barks at the mailman shouldn’t even be capable of looking like it’s on the precipice of making a life-altering decision. But improbable as that may be, it’s happening.
The look is absolutely unmistakeable: the creature in his lap stares at him with a silent intensity that’s just barely being held in check. There’s no hunger or aggression behind its eyes, though. If Tony had to describe the emotion, it looks like… longing. He freezes, too, unable to look away, barely able to breathe.
The stale hospital room air hangs heavily around them in the utter stillness, and Tony can’t help but feel that something important is about to happen.
He finally inhales, a needy, scratchy, foreign sound escaping his lungs as he does, and the moment breaks: the dog is there, at once, closing the gap between them, licking his cheek—
And Tony is overwhelmed by how good it feels, how warm, how safe. It’s such a silly thing, this animal’s simple contact. But god, all at once, he feels so much less lonely.
It occurs to Tony this is the first time a living thing has touched him in a way that wasn’t related to a medical procedure since he woke up. The first creature to touch him simply because it wanted to.
And it does seem to want to. It stops licking him and without warning, burrows its massive head against the side of his neck, pressing itself tightly to him, the lupine version of an embrace.
Safe, it seems to say. Safe. Not alone.
Tony feels emotions crack and spill over inside him.
Rhodey. He knows he hurt Rhodey. Nat. Clint. Steve. God, Steve. He ran away rather than face them—selfish—shortsighted—
—but, god, he’d tried. He ruined everything, he knows—but he’d tried. He broke his body trying to protect people. He gave his life. He doesn’t know if he deserves it back, but he’d give it again, if it would help—then maybe the others would see—but, no, it’s too late—
The wolf pushes even harder against him, wedging itself under his unresponsive arm, demanding to be felt: this is affection beyond words, calm and reassurance and forgiveness freely given, asking for nothing in return.
Tony’s chest heaves involuntarily, and a sob pours out of him. Tears spill onto golden fur, and for a time, there’s nothing else in the world, just him and the wolf, breathing.
Tony isn’t sure how much time passes like that—it could have been weeks and Tony’s still pretty sure it wouldn’t have been enough—but they’re eventually discovered by a nurse, doing an early morning round.
“Mr. Stark are you—oh god—” the young woman yelps, freezing, horror on her face. “I’ll just—I’ll call—”
The wolf whips its head around, ears up, on full alert, body tensing with a fight or flight response. Tony wishes he could motion, to reassure both it and the staffer.
“No, no, no, it’s fine, I’m fine, see?” He smiles, hoping that will communicate that he’s in no danger.
“Uh,” the nurse starts, mouth open.
“It’s the dog, right?” Tony continues, voice bright, trying to sound calm. “The dog Erica sent over? The therapy dog? Did she not tell you about it? I’ve got to hand it to her—”
The nurse just continues staring, dumbfounded, and Tony is starting to get slightly annoyed that she’s not listening to him. Sure, he was scared at first, too, and okay, the thing looks like it crawled out of the pages of a George R. R. Martin novel, but—
She raises a slightly shaking hand, and points at the wolf—specifically at its back.
“Mr. Stark… your hand.”
He glances down over furry shoulders, and sees the object of the nurses astonishment.
It’s tiny, a total movement arc of maybe half an inch, but the fingers of Tony’s right hand are stirring back and forth, gently pushing through the sandy fur.
Tony had just gotten his tears under control, but now he feels them welling up again, a lump forming in his throat.
The wolf-dog beams at him, open-mouthed.
“Yeah,” he whispers, grinning right back, “That’s my dog.”
Several hours later, when Sondheim arrives, she’s obviously been briefed on the situation by the rest of the staff, because she doesn’t jump out of her skin when she lays eyes on the wolf, still snuggled protectively against Tony’s side. She’s more shocked—and pleased—by the first signs of Tony’s physical recovery.
But ultimately she’s as baffled as everyone else.
“I was looking into a few reputable companion animal agencies,” she admits, sheepishly—ha, so Tony’s e-mail attack strategy had worked!—“but I hadn’t gotten very far along with any of them. They wouldn’t have even had the address.”
“Someone brought him last night,” Tony insists, adamant. “I heard them in the hallway. He didn’t just appear out of thin air.”
“Normally I’d say I believe you, Tony, but…” Sondheim shakes her head. “Whoever it was, was in and out like that,” she snaps her fingers. “They’d’ve had to scale the walls and come in through the second floor window—with a giant dog in tow. And then… well, it’s like they knew where our security cameras were located—there’s no footage of them at all.”
Tony gives a muffled grunt. No advanced motion sensors? Infrared scanners, heart rate detection? That’s just embarrassing. He really should have done a security audit on this place as soon as he woke back up; it’s hard to keep tabs on your top secret hospital’s safety measures when you’re dead.
“If they came in on foot, they were damn good. And then they just… left this guy here? I know you have some friends with extraordinary abilities,” Sondheim continues. “How many magic teleporting dogs do you know?”
“Just the one,” Tony answers seriously. He looks again at his furry companion, specifically at the top of his head. His pooch is lacking the signature tuning fork hood ornament, but he is of a size to be Lockjaw’s cousin. “I think. You’re not from Attilan, are you?”
Unsurprisingly, the wolf-dog sprawled in his lap doesn’t reply.
Maybe there is more to him than meets the eye. Time will tell. He hopes.
“What do you think, Mom?” Tony asks, cheekily. “Can I keep him?”
“I’ll have a vet in today to give him a physical, make sure he’s healthy, but…” she nods at Tony’s hand, which is still lazily mussing the fur on the dog’s back, stroking in fractionally wider circles. “If you keep making progress like this, I don’t see why you shouldn’t have a hundred-and-one dalmatians.”
“I think I’ll just take the one,” Tony says softly, earning a himself happy thump-thump of his friend’s tail against the mattress in response.
Sondheim makes a few more notes on her clipboard, when she stops suddenly.
“Hey,” she starts, a rising note of curiosity in her voice. “What’s his name?”
“Hmmm,” Tony muses. “Now that you mention it, we haven’t been properly introduced.”
The wolf-dog locks eyes with him, and the stare is intense as always. It feels wrong to name him. Like he’s a thing that could be owned. He seems so aware, so autonomous… He must have a name already, mustn’t he?
A plain, thin black collar rings his neck, but there are no tags adorning it, no indication of what that name could be. Tony is a robot whisperer, not Doctor Doolittle; it’d be impossible to find out, and he can’t just keeping thinking of the wolf, as, well, ‘the wolf.’
There’s a snout poking him the chest, then, and he can’t fully feel it, but he gets the hint. “All right already, pushy.”
Naturally, his mind jumps almost immediately to famous wolves, dogs, and legends surrounding them.
“‘Romulus’? Or ‘Remus’?” he asks, and the dog cocks his head. Yeah, Tony agrees: those seem a bit uninspired, too impersonal. Maybe something more contemporary?
“How do you like ‘Buck’?” he offers.
The wolf’s eyes widen and he gives a small whine, laying his head on his paws. What has he got against Jack London? Regardless, Tony takes that as a firm no.
‘Sirius’? No, the Potter books have sort of beaten the life out of that one. Maybe time to broaden the search.
Just ‘Orion’? Not bad, Tony thinks; he must certainly be a capable hunter, and something from Greek mythology would suit him, insofar as he has a sort of classical majesty about him: features fit to be carved in marble, or preserved in a constellation. But Tony has met too many actually gods in his line of work, and they aren’t all so delightful in person.
Various other options flit through his brain—Cabal (predictable), Rin Tin Tin (boring), Moon-moon (why does he even know about that)—and he rejects them all as the animal waits patiently.
Of course, there is one more name he might consider. It’s more of title, really. He hasn’t thought of it in a long time—at least, not in this context.
But as a child, he always knew what he was going to name his dog, the one Howard never got him.
It’s slightly awkward now, because he knows a lot of people bearing said title—one in particular comes to mind—but he can’t say it wouldn’t fit the beautiful creature in front of him perfectly.
“How about… Captain?” Tony tries.
The wolf-dog barks—Captain barks. It sounds like ‘yes.’
A hand gently massages the back of Steve’s head, and he lets his eyes fall shut, relaxing into the sensation.
Steve has Tony back. Tony’s alive, he’s here, and Steve’s here with him, and it’s… God, amazing doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Tony’s injuries are severe, yes. Seeing him so powerless, so disheartened, so alone, nearly ripped Steve’s heart in two, but he’s recovering now. Steve’s presence seems to be helping, so he’s staying planted right at Tony’s side, and make sure he gets the care he needs.
That’s the most important point. Tony is healing, and Steve is overjoyed each day to see his incremental progress.
The only thing is… Steve is still a wolf.
It’s a silly notion, he knows; he almost didn’t want to admit to himself that he believed it would happen until the moment had already come and gone.
But there was a part of him, deep down, that hoped the second he saw Tony again, that that’d be it: he’d back in his human form again, once and for all.
He berates himself for ever having put his faith in such a possibility. He heard about Tony dying and changed into a wolf, so when he saw Tony alive again he’d change back? It’s fairy tale logic, he chides himself. Tony would laugh at him, if he knew.
But after discovering the existence of ‘MerlinTech’ in the lab at the mansion, Steve was out the door in a burst of energy, reinvigorated with renewed hope. Maintaining his human form felt almost easy: he had work to do, and there was only one way he could get it done. He’d bought last minute tickets on a commercial flight to Los Angeles for later that afternoon (he couldn’t risk the skycycle being spotted), and shortly thereafter he was taxiing into the city, stopping within a few blocks of the address he’d uncovered.
The driver told Steve to be careful, mentioning that it wasn’t a great neighborhood. She asked him what he was planning on doing at the “ass end of Melrose.”
That was kind of up to what his friend thought of his arrival, he told her.
Making his way through the streets, bombarded by unfamiliar sights, sounds, smells, he leaned into his heightened senses, honing his concentration to a single point of focus, and found himself across the road from a rundown office building: bland, inconspicuous, looking much like its neighbors. Probably not where you’d expect to find one of the most intelligent scientists in the country, let alone one of the bravest superheroes.
He had started to just walk up, heading straight for the front door, when he stopped. Maybe that had been the start of it: the hesitation, the fear.
But he didn’t want to alarm Tony—he had no idea what the situation was. Sure, Tony seemed to have initiated the Merlin protocol himself, but Steve really had no idea what he was walking into. It couldn’t hurt to err on the side of caution.
At least, that was what he convinced himself of at the time.
Before he knew it, he was scaling the walls, climbing in through a window, dodging the rudimentary security measures... and then—he had arrived.
All the grief, the planning, the secrecy—all leading up to this moment.
Tony’s smell was closer than ever, and as Steve approached the room he could hear him breathing—he was here, he was alive—
And then Tony spoke, and it was like Steve had his legs knocked out from under him. He changed.
Steve was baffled. He had been doing so well controlling the shifts. What had gone wrong?
But Tony continued talking and Steve pressed on. There would be time to evaluate later—he had to see Tony now.
And that was how he arrived at his present position: therapy dog for Tony Stark, currently receiving copious delightful noogies behind his ears.
He’s nearly constantly with Tony: being touched, talked to, snuggled—hell, Steve has even licked Tony’s face when asked—and Tony has no idea he’s even there.
It’s a delightful kind of agony.
Controlled changes are still out of Steve’s reach—he’s pretty sure he’s still capable of them, that he hasn’t yet fallen into the abyss he was warned of, complete resistance to the chemicals causing his lycanthropy. He can still feel that taught little bundle of nerves that tingles at the base of his spine when he reaches out for it with his mind. But when he tries to push, to initiate the shift, his stomach twists and a wave of mild nausea hits him. Maybe he should push through it, ignore the dizziness and see if he can get back to being human.
But Tony is doing so well now. He’s working with two different physical therapists for hours a day. Steve has tried to catch glances at Dr. Sondheim’s medical records, and it seems Tony is back to making the same rapid progress he was in the first several weeks. For a while, it was like he’d hit a roadblock—Sondheim’s notes seem to imply that it may have been entirely mental, possibly even self-imposed—and something about Steve’s presence caused him to move past it, to access his brain and nervous system fully, rehabilitation back in full swing.
Although, that isn’t exactly true, is it? It’s not Steve’s presence that’s helping Tony. It’s ‘Captain’s’.
Even if Steve could manage to effect a change, would it be the right thing to do? He imagines Tony’s shocked expression as his therapy dog—his uncomplicated, adoring, constant companion—transforms before his eyes into his glowering teammate who he’d last seen when they were trading barbs in a dive bar. Would he think Steve was checking up on him? Spying on him? That was never his intent, but Steve could never forgive himself if he halted Tony in making so many physical breakthroughs. He’s gotten the use of most of his upper body back; Steve can only assume complete mobility isn’t far away.
Eventually, Steve finds himself facing up to the possibility that his own troubles might also be the result of a mental block. Perhaps he could change back, but he’s terrified that it would be to Tony’s detriment. That ‘Captain’ is actually better for Tony than Steve Rogers would be. So he stays.
Yes, there is some awkwardness to being a dog full time. Eating kibble is probably not pleasant for anyone with a normal human pallette, let alone Steve’s enhanced one. And having one of Tony’s staffers ‘walk’ him several times a day to ‘do his business’ always makes him feel horribly uncomfortable.
Additionally, Steve is realizing how much people talk to dogs. In squeaky baby voices, repeating cutesy phrases. In deep tones, mimicking what they think a dog would say, words strung together with broken grammar.
The nicknames, too, are endless: sweetie, boo-boo, boo-bear, baby, babyface, honeykins, lovie, snookums, and, probably the most distinctive of the lot, straight from Sondheim herself in a rare moment of whimsy: Mister Waggle-Butt Jones.
It’s not entirely new for him—he accepted that his life wasn’t fully his own the day he became Captain America. He’s a symbol, a celebrity, and people want to feel close to a beacon of hope sometimes—but this is on another level. Nurses, security guards, even strangers on the street have all reached directly in his face upon seeing him, preceding to coo over him, pet him and tell him he’s a good boy, all while he has relatively little say in the matter.
The worst part, by far, however, is that sometimes… he isn’t able to remember that it bothers him.
The wolf thoughts are getting louder, more frequent, and harder to ignore. His concentration will be broken by a random wisp of an unknown scent, or a burst of movement he catches out of the corner of his eye. Other dogs will approach him for a greeting smell, and he’ll start to move to them on impulse, before he can snap himself out of it.
The Hanks and Reed had warned him not to change too often, but now he’s finding staying in wolf form is having drawbacks as well. The idea of being a human stuck in a wolf’s body unnerved him before; the thought of losing his humanity altogether now looms larger in his mind.
He can handle this, he tells himself. He can. He just has to see Tony safely rehabilitated, and then he’ll put this behind him.
Even so, a slight pang of sadness twinges in Steve’s chest at that thought; the dark possibilities of spending the rest of his life on all fours aside, he’s loved so much about these days.
Because most of his time he gets to spend with Tony, and Tony talks to him.
From morning to evening, everyday, Tony talks. He talks like he needs it to survive. He makes conversation like he’s been saving them up in his own head, and they’ve just become too numerous to fit, spilling over, finally spoken aloud. He gives away words the same way he gives away time, technology, and rooms in his house: happily, freely, and as if he has an endless supply. Tony talks.
And Steve listens.
Tony talks about the armors, of course—especially when the pieces for his latest creation start arriving. He talks about how he had started off creating it as a completely remote unit, so he would be able to use it in spite of his paralysis—nothing can stop Tony, can it?—but in light of his newly rapid recovery, he reworked it be a more traditional armor, albeit with a better automatic assembly functionality.
Tony talks about his health, explains how a virus an enemy had infected him with destroyed his nervous system. He created a special suit to keep him functioning for as long as possible, but he could never remove it—it was both life support system and prison cell. Steve had had no idea that was going on. It reminds him of the confinement of the old chest plate from some of the very first Iron Man armors, only much, much worse.
The only person who really knew his predicament, it seems, was Rhodey. Rhodey had been his friend and confidant through the entire ordeal. So when Tony died—and he really did die, he assures Steve, much to Steve’s silent chagrin—he could think of no one better to take over for him.
Tony gets quiet when he talks about his falling out with Rhodey, and how he assumed everyone else’s reaction to him still being alive would be much the same. Which explains a lot about Tony’s secrecy and prolonged absence.
Tony talks and talks, with absolute freedom, and Steve can’t help but think: he’d never tell me this if he had any idea who I really am.
In the early days of the Avengers, when Tony had kept a secret identity, Steve assumed Iron Man and his employer were completely separate people. Steve tried to downplay his reaction after the truth was revealed, but he was shocked, and a little hurt. Why had Tony hidden himself away from them for so long? Secrets from the public, he could understand, but concealing it from his friends? Lying to the their faces from behind a mask, day in and day out? It didn’t make sense.
But now? Tony is musing about performance improvements in his latest code refactor as he continues to massage Steve’s neck, fingers knotted pleasantly in his neck ruff. Tony contemplates the merits of double linked lists over arrays in certain scenarios, and Steve lets his eyes flit dreamily closed yet again.
He wonders if this is what Tony felt like in those early days: relishing in the feeling of getting to be someone else, no awkwardness between them, freed from the weight of expectation and personal history, and yet, encased in a wall of metal—or in Steve’s case, fur. Closer than ever, miles apart, and wondering if it’s better for everyone this way.
I understand now, Tony, he thinks. God, do I understand.
Tony wraps up his work for the night—and it is actually still night, and not even that late when he does so, will wonders never cease—and proceeds to maneuver himself out of his wheelchair and into bed. He pats the mattress, and Steve hops up, circling once before curling up at the far end near Tony’s feet, like he does every night.
Tony pulls a face. “I keep telling you, you can stretch out and take more space than that,” he invites Steve. “That cannot be comfortable.”
Steve is overwhelmingly thankful he isn’t physically capable of sweating right now. Tony just asked him, in the most innocent way possible, to stretch out in his bed. He releases a long sigh through his nose in response.
“Suit yourself,” Tony yawns. “I’m beat. See you in the morning. Good night, Cap.”
Steve shoots his head up, jolted awake, gaze trained on Tony. Tony’s eyes widen, as if he, too, was affected by the significance of that single dropped syllable.
“Sorry, I mean—Captain,” Tony apologizes, guilt reflected in his features before he covers them, scrubbing a hand over his face. “You’re not… Well, anyway. G’night.”
But I am, Steve thinks. For whatever that’s worth.
Tony’s sigh mimics Steve’s from seconds ago, sounding frustrated and embarrassed, as he rolls away from Steve, reclining into his pillow and closing his eyes, effectively shut down.
The Laughing Horse, thinks Steve. They’ve been here before: driven apart by silence and fear, terrified of what the other might say. They’re trapped—Steve in a very nearly literal sense.
Tony may not trust him anymore after he reveals himself, and maybe rightly so, but this can’t continue. Tony deserves the truth.
Hours drag by as Steve’s uneasy mind races, until finally Tony’s breathing is shallow enough to suggest that he’s asleep, and Steve eases himself off the bed as quietly as possible.
He grounds all four paws against the floor, and breathes deeply. He centers himself, and pushes past the uncertainty, with every part of his being, with everything that makes him who he is, and shifts—
The pain used to be physical when he transformed—bones wrenching, skin twisting—but that’s completely gone now. Instead, his insides are a searing, twisting mass, but he pushes on. He loses his sight, the room disappearing in a field of red. It feels like the change is wrung out of him, like it’s taking something from him—could this be the last time? The end of it? He doesn’t feel like he has many changes left in him, but he just has to get through this one—
Finally, his vision returns. He’s clothed again in black from neck to toes, and the cool of the floor kisses the thin pink skin on his palms. He rises, slowly, cautiously.
There’s a dim haze of streetlight glow seeping through the window, but he needs a bit more than that to see in this form. He scans the room, his eyes landing on Tony’s cell phone, resting on the computer desk. He wakes it from sleep so the face of it glows softly, a makeshift digital lantern, and casts the beam toward the bed.
And for the first time in over a month, Steve looks at Tony through human eyes.
It’s like a grey veil has been lifted, and every texture, every color is coming through, and even though the drab room hasn’t changed at all, everything is so vivid—the pale purple micropattern on the worn bedsheets, the faux chrome shine of the bedframe, the roughened surface of the beige wall—every mundane object in sudden, stunning detail—and in the middle of it all, Tony—
He’s luminous. So much so that Steve can barely look at him, but doesn’t dare look away, either, as though Tony’s sleeping form might vanish again if he doesn’t hold fast to every detail, tucking each away in his memory: the color contrast between each strand of his sleep-mussed hair, the swoop of his eyelashes, the tension in his fingers that doesn’t seem to release, even in these rare moments of tranquility, as though he is building something in his dreams.
The blue cast from the device light washes him out some, but it’s not enough to deny the rosy coloring on his slightly parted lips, moving slightly with each breath, a beacon proclaiming how gloriously alive he is.
God, does Steve love him.
It’s the first time he’s let himself think it.
Oh, he’s always loved Tony, of course, in the way he loves all his friends—joyously, protectively, fiercely. And when this all started, on the way back from Starkesboro, he knew he was attracted to Tony, too. But in these past weeks, listening to Tony, hearing him build the world anew with only words inside this dreary space, Steve feels close to him in a way he never has before. Every new emotion builds on the others, and he feels like he’s putting together a puzzle, revealing new scene overlaid on the individual pieces.
There’s just one piece left.
He reaches his free hand toward Tony’s shoulder, and then stops.
This could go badly, he reminds himself. Tony might still be mad at him, might never trust him again.
Doesn’t matter, he decides.
I can’t wait to see your eyes.
Even if you’re angry, I can’t wait to see you see me.
—Tony’s phone starts beeping wildly.
Steve yanks both hands back instinctively, dousing the screen’s light and clutching the device to his chest, covering the speakers. It’s nonsensical, he realizes, trying to keep the phone from waking the very person he was just about wake himself, but it’s a gut reaction. Besides, he wanted to talk to Tony in peace, with no distractions.
Steve looks at the offending notification.
EMERGENCY ALERT, the text beams up at him in bright red. From… Jim Rhodes? Oh, no.
kidnppd HAMMER dont know where. can u trace? send hlp
The phone lets out another series of beeps, and Tony starts to stir, grumbling softly.
Steve drops the phone on the bed and backs away, into the shadows.
Rhodes. Steve has to find him, help him. He rushes into the hallway. He needs his identicard; he’ll flag the West Coast team and—
“Shit,” Tony curses; he must be looking at the phone. “Captain?”
Steve freezes just outside the door to the room, listening.
“Look, I’m pretty sure you can understand me. I know you’re not a regular dog. Or wolf, for that matter.”
“Your blood work from the vet checkup had all kinds of anomalies, things no one could identify. Plus, you are way too smart to be someone’s house pet. I don’t know who or what you are, or what you want from me. But you have been here for me, and cared for me in a way that I…” Tony trails off into a sigh. "I trust you, okay? I don’t know if I should. But I do, and I think you could help me with this."
Shit. Tony knows. Or at least, he knows something.
Why did Steve think he could hide in plain sight from a genius?
And now Tony’s going to head out to save Rhodey?
He can’t argue with Tony's logic or his instincts: Tony’s got the coordinates to Rhodes' location already and almost nothing can top the speed of the Iron Man suit. It’s the best possible chance of getting Rhodes to safety as quickly as possible.
“Computer,” Steve hears Tony order. “Target Jim Rhodes. Use emergency dispatch metadata to geolocate. I need Goddard protocol, and I need it yesterday—"
"Invalid date parameter—“ the machine squawks.
Tony growls in frustration. "My kingdom for a better AI—Goddard protocol. Right. Now."
Before Steve can try and recall which protocol Goddard is, there's a mechanical startup sound, followed by a whooshing, whirring of air, coming from somewhere inside the building. Steve peers down the hall, anticipating.
"—hey, mind the armor—“ Tony warns.
As if on cue, hail of red and gold metallic pieces are flying fast in Steve's direction; he has just enough time to flatten himself against the wall and let them sail past him. They curve sharply around the door, and Steve risks arching his neck around, allowing his line of sight to clear the doorframe an inch or so.
Tony is kneeling upright on the bed, eyes closed, holding his arms up and out, fingers splayed wide. His head is tilted slightly back, his eyes shut, and a smirk plays on his lips as the pieces swoop and spiral around Tony, each seeking its perfect place.
Steve supposes it's a natural position for letting the armor reach every part of him it needs to to form its protective shell, but it's also damn dramatic. Not that it doesn't suit Tony—he looks like a god, commanding electricity, magnetism, and pure power, and delighting in every second of it.
The chest, arms and hands are complete, Tony's torso sheathed in glimmering jewel tones, and he glances down, flexing his wrists, and the palms repulsors give a gentle whine as they start to lift him up off the bed. The remaining armor fragments assemble around Tony's legs, and Steve is reminded that Tony is about to fly into a combat situation when he can barely even walk. The armor will help with stability and support, Steve imagines, but is Tony really up to this?
But there’s almost certainly no stopping him—if their roles were reversed, no one could stop Steve, either.
Find, save, protect, the wolf tells him, more present than ever. He grits his teeth; he has to think this through clearly, not act on impulse.
So there's only one remaining question: is Steve going with him?
Steve ducks back around the doorframe and scrubs his face in his hands. He can't lose Tony again. He can’t. He needs to help.
But if Steve delays or distracts Tony, he's putting Tony’s and Jim's lives on the line. Steve will never forgive himself if something goes wrong and he could have prevented it.
“Now or never, ‘Captain,’” Tony advises him. “I’m going regardless. If you think you can help, I need to know… Are you with me on this?”
Pack, the wolf-thoughts ring loudly in his mind. Not alone. Never alone.
Steve hopes to god he’s doing the right thing.
He steps into the doorway.
Tony is fully suited up now, entirely encased save for the faceplate, hovering about a foot off the floor. His form is turned partially away from Steve, as though he didn’t really expect to be taken up on his offer. He gazes out the window, his face just beginning to harden into a battle mask.
Iron Man, Steve thinks, excitement combatting the rising panic for just a moment. Iron Man is back.
He turns, and sees Steve, no disguises between them.
“Always,” Steve tells Tony, with absolute conviction. It’s out of his mouth before he can hold back. He’s revealing so much more than his identity.
“If you want me there, I’m always with you,” he says.
Tony’s eyes, locked on Steve’s face, go wide. The corners of his mouth twitch up, then down, then in, working through several minute movements, a war of emotions played out in tense microexpressions. His lips part and he draws a long breath through his mouth, then closes them again, words seeming to fail him utterly.
Steve doesn’t move a muscle, and says nothing.
Tony closes his eyes and inhales deeply a second time, slowly, through his nose, and when he opens his eyes again, his face fixes itself into determined lines, the steady stare of combat readiness returning to his visage.
“You and I,” Tony says, speaking slowly, deliberately, voice half an octave lower than normal, “are having a conversation later. But right now, we have to save Rhodey."
Steve gives a sharp half nod, eyes still trained on Tony. They can do that. They’ll save Jim, and then whatever Tony wants to say him, that will be fine. Even if it’s their last conversation. Steve deserves that.
“Are you—Does anyone else know you’re here?” Tony asks.
Steve shakes his head.
Tony frowns, eyes roving over Steve’s body. “You don’t have your normal uniform. Or your shield,” Tony observes.
“No. I didn’t—“ starts Steve, and cuts himself off, because there is no possible explanation that makes a difference, no reasoning that can matter to Tony right now. He sees himself from Tony’s viewpoint and it’s absurd.
He went off alone, unarmed, without a plan, and has since then has been hiding himself away with Tony, pretending to be dog, for god’s sake. It's inexcusable.
He wants to curse the wolf chemicals, the flood of instincts awash in his system right now. And that’s certainly part of it, this foreign aspect of him, pushing him to be more reckless, more selfish, more wild at every turn.
But even if the animal inside him was the catalyst, these are the desires of his own human heart laid bare. He wanted to help Tony, to be alone with him, to be close to Tony without exposing himself.
He’s to blame here, and there’s nothing he can say to justify his actions.
“No,” Steve repeats.
“What do you have?” Tony asks, his veneer of calculated calm beginning to crack slightly.
Steve mentally runs through the contents of his backpack, stashed in a maintenance closet. “My identicard. A comms earpiece.”
Tony’s mouth forms a line. “Grab the comm, then we’re out of here.”
Before Steve can even turn to head down the hall, Tony calls him back.
“Steve. That was… You remember being… ” Tony’s brow furrows as he searches for the right words. His voice goes higher, softer. “That was you?”
“Yeah,” Steve says, matching Tony’s volume, a confession. “Yeah, that was me.”
An emotion ripples across Tony’s face, and before Steve can place it, the faceplate snaps down.
Iron Man’s voice pipes through the suit speakers: “Let’s get going.”
It’s the standard configuration, with Steve hugging the armor’s chest, feet planted atop the armor’s boots.
They’ve done this exact maneuver hundreds of times—Steve pressed tight against him, making them effectively a single semi-aerodynamic unit. Both of them know exactly how to shift in the air for speed and efficiency; even a casual observer of their midair pas de deux could tell how well Steve and Tony know each other—hell, they themselves have joked about how intimate it looks.
None of that is particularly helpful right now.
He stares past Steve. The grainy scene below—all wide streets, low buildings and bright lights—is pulled taffy-thin, no more than a blur below them as they dive between air currents, faster than a thought.
Tony’s doctors revived him, reanimated his cells weeks ago, but this is one of things living is for, one of the moments he should feel most alive.
He should feel the heady exhilaration that comes from control, over both his own body and the technology created with his mind.
Moreover, he should be consumed with worry for Rhodey.
And he is, even if it’s tamped down for the moment, lodged in his churning guts—it will hit him with its full force soon enough, and he will focus that worry, and use it to take down that son of a bitch Hammer, and get Rhodey back.
But they have ten more miles to go until they arrives at the location Tony extracted from the emergency alert. And it’s a good thing, too, because for the moment, his brain is unresponsive, frozen, fixed on that scene from his hospital recovery room, as he half expected to see a wolf, and half to see… an alien, perhaps, or a mutant, stride into view. An unidentified powered being that wanted something from him.
What he didn’t expect, could never have expected, was Steve Rogers emerging from the shadows.
Complete mental shutdown. Stack. Fucking. Overflow.
How did this happen to Steve? When, why? Can he change at will? Why did he change back now? What’s with the X-men uniform?
Questions on questions zip through Tony’s mind, but he always circles around to one that’s bigger, more important, crowding out all the others: why did Steve stay with him? Help him? What did it all mean?
Those quiet moments of comfort with Captain—Steve, god, it was Steve all along—curled up against his side, comforting him, listening to him… Why would Steve do that?
Tony knew he shouldn’t have trusted the damn dog. Not that he was one hundred percent convinced that’s what it even was. Even the technicians in SE’s life sciences division couldn’t parse what they were seeing in those lab results.
It makes sense now; Steve always has been one of a kind.
But the dog was good for him. It was the only really positive thing to happen to Tony since his revival, so he went out on a limb. He so badly needed a reason to recover, something to hold onto, and when one jumped, however suspiciously, in his lap, he grabbed ahold and didn’t let go. He blew off the warning signs, and just trusted that something was finally going his way.
That’s what Steve would have done, he reasoned at the time, and Tony wants to scream at the irony. Steve always looks for the best in everyone, and Tony just wanted so badly to believe that he’d found someone, something, worthy of his trust.
He looked into those blue eyes—how could he have been so blind—and let himself be vulnerable, let himself feel.
And it helped. It changed him. It helped heal his mind, and allowed the rest of himself start to heal in kind, and it was wonderful.
Which only makes it hurt more now. It meant so much to Tony, and there is no possible way it could have meant the same thing to Steve… could it?
Was Steve just checking up on him? Was he reporting back to the team in New York? No, he said no one else he knew was here. But he’d stayed with Tony. Why—
Two miles out, the armor HUD’s proximity alert updates, and Tony grits his teeth. He needs to focus, goddamn it. He can’t let Rhodey down. Not again.
They can do this. They are Captain America and Iron Man. Search and rescue? Maybe busting up a few Hammer bots? This is old hat. They just have to coordinate in the most rote, ordinary way, and get it over with. It’ll be tricky with Steve so disarmed, but they’ve done more with less.
Tony can only bring himself to really look at Steve for fractions of a second at a time, and Steve, for his part, seems like he’s taking a similar course of action, keeping silent, face turned to the side. It seems it’s up to Tony to take the lead on the conversation. But just so new, so raw, he still can’t quite process it.
The distance reading to the target location eventually, thankfully, ticks down to zero, and they hover down in front of a massive warehouse complex just north of Los Angeles. There are numerous buildings clustered together in this manufacturing sector of the city, and each one is enormous. Several appear to be connected by bridges and walkways; it’s effectively one giant industrial labyrinth.
This is the closest reading Tony could manage from the limited metadata of the distress call; Rhodes could be in any of these buildings. It’s up to them from here on out.
Steve disembarks, and Tony is grateful for the space between them. He touches down, and Tony lets the armor’s legs lock into place, augmenting his own weak muscle control. He takes a trepidatious step, testing—and his footing holds. He exhales in relief. He was really hoping he wouldn’t have to hover the entire time. Thank god for adjustable motion impulse monitoring. As long as he’s in the suit, he’s whole. And if he loses the armor, well, he’ll probably have bigger problems than not being able to walk.
He looks up to catch Steve staring at him, worry flooding Steve's features. Caught in the act, Steve looks away, but says nothing. He shakes his head and arms out, probably working stiffness out of them, getting his bearings, but goddamn if it doesn’t look like a dog stretching and shaking after sleep, and Steve Rogers has been sleeping at the end of his bed—
Get it together, Stark.
There’s no one around at first glance, no visible guards or ground troops of any kind. It’s eerily quiet to Tony’s ears, and he takes a deep breath, and looks at Steve for confirmation of his assessment. Steve has always had super hearing, and it might be even more advanced since he became a werewolf, or whatever he is. “Anything?"
Steve listens in, and then sniffs the air, like it’s second nature, involuntary—that is so bizarre—and shakes his head. “Nothing.”
Everything about the situation just screams ‘trap’, but what choice do they have?
“Right. Armor, life signs check.” Tony turns slowly, letting his sensors scan across the buildings, and a constellations of tiny lights appear on the HUD, scattered throughout the structures.
“You’re a little off your game,” Tony announces. “I see at least 30 people in those buildings, and hell of a lot of machinery. Bots, probably, if I had to guess by the movement patterns.” They need to split up.
“Do you need a weapon? Or can you—you know—" Tony motions, using his hand like a claw, and realizes there’s probably not a universal gesture for ‘turn into a giant wolf.’
Steve seems to interpret it correctly anyway. He winces. “No,” he says, “I can’t.”
And by something in the slant of Steve’s stance, a hesitant flicker in his eyes, Tony can tell it’s a lie. Or at the very least, a half truth. Steve has always been a terrible liar. What is he hiding? Rhodey could die, and Captain Straightforward is choosing now as the moment to hold back vital information?
Tony huffs. “Gauntlet unlock, standalone mode.” He holds up his right hand as the plates around his wrist separate, and he removes the open gauntlet with this left hand, holding it out to Steve. “You got this? It’s all in the wrist,“ he advises.
Steve presses his palm hesitantly into the gleaming metal interior, and it wraps around his hand, central repulsor glowing. “I can work it out. Thank you. What do you need me to do?”
Tony points to the building directly in front of him. “You start here, I’ll start on the farthest end of the complex, and we’ll work our way through.”
It’s not much of a plan at all, but Rhodey doesn’t have any armor, his identicard’s offline, and there’s not a great way to sort out Jim’s vital signs out from the others, whoever they are—probably Hammer’s henchgoons.
Steve frowns, but seems to swallow whatever objections he’s thinking of, and simply nods. “Backup is on the way?”
“The War Machine armor is en route,” Tony tells him, and Steve’s face falls; that was apparently not the answer he wanted to hear.
“Tony.” It’s not much of a rebuke. Steve’s voice is soft, like he doesn’t want to fight, but can’t stop himself this time.
Tony has pushed off assistance from the rest of the team before, citing the need to take responsibility for his own problems, but he can’t see that excuse working on Steve again. He really doesn’t want to reveal himself to the other Avengers right now, in this way. But Steve is right. He can’t be selfish right now.
“Turn on your card, give everyone the coordinates.”
“Thank you,” Steve says, gently, doing just that.
Tony has been waiting for the other shoe to drop, for Steve to attack Tony, call him out for lying to the team. Or for Steve to explain why he was really watching over Tony.
But Steve says nothing.
It will have to wait. Time to be heroes.
“You ready, Cap?”
Steve hesitates for only a moment, like there’s something on the tip of his tongue. A call to assemble, maybe.
But he gives a stilted half-nod instead, and Tony thinks that’s all he’s going to get. It will have to do.
A blaze of jet boots, and Tony is shooting over the warehouses, continuing to scan as he goes. There are lots of people with elevated vitals below, and none of them are moving. They could be immobilized. Is this a multiple hostage situation?
Jesus, thinks Tony, what is this about? He assumed Hammer must have found out that reports of Tony’s death were, to borrow a phrase, greatly exaggerated, and was trying to use Rhodey to get to him.
A strategic kidnapping, Tony could see: a smaller operation, harder to trace back to Hammer’s company, not to mention, logical steps in getting Tony out of the way. It would fit both Hammer’s goals and his style.
But threatening dozens of people? This bizarre maze setup? It’s just strange. Was Rhodey wrong about his captor’s identity? Is some deranged super villain behind this?
Steve was probably right to call for backup.
Tony descends in front of the northernmost building only to find the loading dock bay door open, beckoning; this is getting ridiculous. With this level of subtlety, they might as well have spray painted, “NOT A TRAP” on the front of the building.
Tony zooms in and lands, palms up, drawing his unarmored hand in slightly closer to his chest. He flares the single repulsor, readying it, night vision turning on automatically in the HUD, and begins scouring the darkened, cavernous space.
Though it obviously hasn’t been in use for some time, it’s not entirely empty inside the warehouse. It’s divided into sections, and palettes, tarps, and equipment litter the space—plenty of spaces to hide in ambush. Tony moves swiftly through empty shelving units, trying to find the right balance between thoroughness and haste. The quiet whine of the armor’s servos and sound of his footsteps are the only sounds in the otherwise eerie quiet, until—
“Is someone there?”
That… is definitely Rhodey’s voice. Shit. Tony starts to run toward the sound, when he hears another cry, from another corner of the facility.
That’s Rhodey, too. But the voice sounds tinny, compressed, as if it’s—
A figure emerges from behind a stack of shipping debris, and Tony’s repulsor light glints sharply off of it: a bot. It’s silvery and comparable in size to the Iron Man armor, but the limbs are more squared off, the geometry of of the frame more jagged, and its face is flat, smooth, impassive; there’s no attempt at representing human features. Tony sees the glow of his own eye slits reflected back in it.
“Help me,” it plays back a facsimile of Rhodey’s voice.
It holds a truly immense blast rifle.
“Anybody, please—” Not-Rhodey echoes from behind him, now, too, the words followed by a clanking sound.
Another bot leaps down from a metal rack unit, and it’s equally well armed.
More metallic crunches and whines, and more plaintive calls in his friend’s stolen voice, growing in volume and dissonance. Tony makes a sour face behind the protection of the helmet.
“Is someone there?—Anybody, please—Anybody—Help me—Is someone—”
“You all are so damn needy,” he tells the bots, and rockets up into the air, spiralling and firing from his repulsor as he goes, the bots’ blasts missing him by inches.
It’s a full on scrap then, at least ten bots against him; he knows he has to take out their guns first, but with only one hand to fly, fire, and strike with, it’s a challenge to say the least. He mainly manages to use their numbers to his advantage, dodging them, luring them on, and getting them to fire on each other.
A last bot emerges from behind a fork lift. “Help—”
Tony spins and hits it with a full unibeam blast. It flies apart.
“I guess my Rhodes is in another castle—” Tony quips to himself, but then he hears it: a painful sounding cough, followed by ragged breathing coming from further in the warehouse, beyond the next wall.
“Jim?” Tony calls, already running.
“Here,” the voice is hoarse, pained, and lacking the metallic edge of the recordings the bots were playing, and god, this really is Rhodey.
Tony clears the divider and arrives in some kind of enclosed area, possibly once used as an office or a break room. He looks around frantically, and spots a figure lying prone on the floor. He’s not restrained, and he’s breathing, but there’s blood all over his clothes; what did they do to him?
There’s no one else around—did the bots do this?
“Jim,” Tony reaches for him, gently touches his shoulder.
“Thank god,” Rhodes breathes out, not raising his head.
Tony is about to ask if he can move, when there’s a crackle of static in his ear.
“Tony—” Steve sounds frantic on the comm, but there’s interference; something is messing with the signal and Tony can’t make out exactly what Steve is saying. “It’s not—they’re—em—get—”
What is going on over there?
“Cap, I can’t hear you. Steve?”
Rhodey tries to push himself up off the floor, and coughs wetly again, pulling Tony’s focus. It sounds like something is wrong with his lungs.
The comm line goes entirely to static. Oh, god.
Steve will be okay, he tells himself, he has to be okay for just a few more minutes.
Rhodey manages to lift himself up onto his elbows, and looks up at Tony.
“It’s you,” he pants, and… that’s kind of an odd thing to say. Did he get hit in the head?
Rhodey’s head tilts, then, the angle odd, and he reaches for Tony, the movement a little bit jerky, and oh fuck. Tony has seen this before.
Before Tony can pull back, Rhodey’s hand is on the armor chest piece. His eyes go black, sclera and all, and his smile turns vicious.
“Iron Man,” he says darkly, and there’s a surge through the armor and everything in front of Tony goes horrifyingly dark. The suit’s joints are locked, hard: no power, no movement.
The armor’s heavy on a good day, but he’s weaker than he’s ever been, there’s no way he could move it. He’s completely immobilized.
It was a damn decoy. LMD tech. His LMD tech, in fact. One of many designs he lost to Hammer, stolen by the Spymaster.
It was the least of his worries at the time; the armor was his legacy, and became his single-minded focus. Besides, the LMD tech was buggy. The movement was choppy, disturbing—a big ol’ field trip to the uncanny valley.
But it did have upgraded internals, Tony recalls: certain scanners would register the decoys as humans… including, apparently, Iron Man’s own sensors.
The dominoes begin to topple in Tony’s mind: what if all the other life sign readings were LMDs? Maybe the real Rhodey wasn’t even here. Or even if he was, he’d be lost in a sea of fakes, every one of them revved up to feedback and short out Tony’s suit. Increased power capacity and EMP capabilities had been part of the new design, too.
In the end, all the extra copies had been overkill: it only took one Rhodey to get to Tony.
This is Hammer, he thinks, his earlier confusion resolving in sickening fashion. This explains it. Not some kidnapping coup, or even a display of competing robotics, but instead, Tony’s own technology turned against him, using Tony’s friends as his weakness. A little showy and overengineered as a solution, perhaps, but no less effective for it.
God, Steve. They took out his entire armor, they could easily disable the gauntlet; Steve would be completely unarmed.
In retrospect, Tony really hopes Steve was lying about still being able to change into a wolf; fur wouldn’t be any more of a match for those blast guns than flesh, but he’d at least be fast and low to the ground, and he might be able to escape, get out of firing range until backup arrives.
At least backup was coming; thank god for Steve’s tendency for caution. Thank god for Steve, period.
This is all Tony’s fault.
A sudden deep boom breaks Tony’s concentration—it’s not in his immediate vicinity, but it’s close enough to be heard through the armor’s seal with no speakers, and the ground trembles.
Shit. Hammer’s not coming to fight him, to kill him in person. He’s going to annihilate him.
Another blast, this one louder and closer, rattling the building.
Blast after blast sounds, the explosions accelerating. Every building is coming down, one at a time, and Tony closes his eyes in the dark of his helmet, wincing as he waits for what’s coming.
The charges must have been placed against the outer walls for maximum structural damage, so Tony thinks he’s been spared the worst of it, but nonetheless, the sound and the sheer force of it rock Tony’s body through the armor, and he’s thrown down and back, impacting the floor with a ghastly crack; the armor stabs into his back and neck, joints still jammed into place.
He’d probably have died from the blast alone, had it not been for the suit, but as the building starts to come down on him, he has the hysterical thought that that might have been a preferable outcome.
What he can only assume is concrete and steel begins crashing down on him. His exposed hand is immediately crushed, and he screams in agony. More debris slams into him, and he feels the armor denting in places, groaning in protest under the weight, but holding.
Long seconds pass as destruction rains down on him, and Tony stares into the blackness and waits.
Eventually, the devastation seems to draw to a close, all movement settling, and the unsettling calm returns.
Tony’s alive, and he’s trapped.
His heart is racing, his breathing shallow and he can’t fucking see or move, and it’s just like when he was first waking up from the cryofreeze, except so much worse, because he can feel pain this time, and it’s excruciating. Those are just his external wounds; god knows if the suit protected him from internal injury.
In the darkened silence, the creeping feeling that that’s not even the worst part of it settles over him.
No one is going to be able to save him.
The LMDs: they read as human to most scanners. Some of them were probably destroyed in the blasts, sure, but the ones that are still operational will be pumping out life sign readings similar to his own, making any rescue effort that much harder.
It’s questionable whether they would get to him in time regardless, but the copies will grind any search progress to a halt.
Tony smiles an awful smile behind the Iron Man helmet. Here lies Tony Stark, he thinks. His tech was just too damn good. Or not good enough, depending on how you look at it. Tony knows how he does.
He hopes Rhodey, if he was ever there at all, got to safety. Maybe Steve did that for him. If anyone could, it would be Steve.
Oh, god, Steve. Tony’s heart lurches. He has to be okay. He has to be.
A low rumble, followed by a mechanical whine; it might be a jet landing. Backup? Tony really hopes he won’t be able to hear the futility of his friends searching for him as time ticks by. That… might be one of the worst possible ways to go that he could imagine.
He blinks, uselessly, the contrast between eyes open and closed is nearly non-existent. He waits, and tries not to think about what it is he waits for.
A high keening cry pierces through Tony’s thoughts with surgical precision, making every hair on the back of his neck stand on end. It takes him a moment to place what it could be, it’s so unexpected. But once it clicks, it’s absolutely clear what is.
It’s the howl of a wolf.
Sounds are coming quickly, simultaneously now, drifting down to where Tony is encased. A faint hint of voices in frantic conversation, and then barking. More human voices are woven in and out, but the dog continues—percussive, demanding, as if trying to will itself to be understood.
That’s Captain. That’s Steve.
There’s a long, long pause, then. Tony doesn’t know how long. It feels like eons, and everything is quiet again.
A soft scrabbling over top of the debris, coming closer, closer.
More barking, louder now, closer.
It’s Steve, Tony realizes, and it’s the same information he had before, but it hits him with the impact of a bomb blast now. He turns the shard of thought over and over again in his mind, examining it from every angle.
Steve’s a wolf. There’s a wolf, and it’s Steve.
Steve has super senses, and wolves can hunt and track and find.
Captain stayed with him, protected him, cared for him.
And Captain was really Steve.
Tony can’t quite make that final connection, can’t close that last circuit, not yet.
But it’s close, it’s so damn close, and Steve is directly above him now, just a few feet and a ton of rubble away, and Tony has to get out of here.
“Hey! Hey!” Tony screams, and it’s probably completely ineffectual; his voice reverberates in the helmet and his gasping breaths between shouts are too loud in his ears. But he has to try.
But Steve is barking and yipping wildly already, pawing at the wreckage, and Tony is pushing against the ruined suit, trying not to agitate his mangled hand, pain already shooting down his arm.
And then the barking moves further away, finally pausing, and before Tony can begin to panic, there’s shifting, crunching—and the weight on him starts to move, become lighter—
The faceplate pops open, and even though it’s night, the rush of relative brightness catches Tony by surprise, and he blinks.
He expects to see blue eyes looking down at him, but instead it’s—
Oh, it’s Jan.
She hovers a few inches in front of his nose, smiling, wings aflutter.
“Hang in there, Shellhead,” she tells him soothingly.
He kicks himself, for feeling disappointed at seeing Jan—he was sure only minutes ago he wouldn’t be found in time at all, and besides, it’s Jan—it’s always wonderful to see her.
But where is Steve?
He glances past Jan’s miniature form, and tries to focus above him. Chunks of the warehouse wreckage are pulled away and he sees Simon Williams and Rhodey, in full War Machine armor, alive and seemingly unharmed, continuing to try and free him.
“Tony—” Rhodey—the real Rhodey—calls down to him. “Oh, thank god. We’re getting you out of there,” he smirks, “Idiot.”
Tony’s heart unclenches fractionally.
“You’re okay?” Tony confirms. Rhodey nods, and the relief on his face must be reflected back in Tony’s own expression. They smile at one another. “Did you see—”
“The, uh, Rhodeybots?” Jim shudders. “Yeah, I’m… gonna be having nightmares about that, for sure,” he says, lifting a metal beam out of the way.
Steve must have gotten him out.
Rhodey’s mouth twists a little bit. “I’m—I’m not sure. Hold on, okay? We’re nearly there.”
Tony can’t really focus as they extract him, first from the ruins, and then, when he’s seated in the back of a quinjet, from the armor as well; Spider-Woman is holding bandages, saying something to him about shock, and he’s pushing away a blanket, and why won’t anyone tell him where Steve is.
“He’s… not himself.”
That’s a hell of an understatement, Tony thinks, but as Hank Pym approaches Tony, his mouth strains downward into grim lines, and the retort dies before hitting Tony’s lips.
Hank’s explaining, then, about what happened, about Doc Nightshade, and a place called Starkesboro, and Steve changing back when he heard about Tony, and Tony is trying to take note of it all, but his eyes keep darting past Pym, searching.
“Where is he?” Tony interrupts frantically.
As if in answer to his question, there’s a scuffled running sound, and Steve scampers into view, pursued by Hawkeye, who is holding what appears to be a leash, He seems to be trying to...herd Steve toward the jet. What the hell?
Steve is pacing, just out of Clint’s reach, but eventually runs into the exterior gate around the industrial complex, and turns. His ears begin to go back, and his lip curls as he starts to bare sharp teeth. What did Clint do?
“Come back, please?” Clint begs at the wolf, sweet-voiced, before turning to look at Tony and Hank. “He’s…” Clint shakes his head sadly. “He won’t stay.”
“Steve…?” Tony calls out.
But he knows, the instant he’s said it, that that isn’t right. That isn’t Steve.
The slope of the wolf’s posture has changed, and it looks… wild. Its head swivels in Tony’s direction—but only as if it’s registering noise, looking for threats. It’s terrified, ready to bolt at any second, and that’s hard enough to watch. But what scares Tony the most is its eyes. They’re wrong, the fierce, fiery blue dissipating, a dull dishwater gray color leaching in.
He’s only half catching the scientific explanation Pym is rattling off, what’s causing the behavior change, but he can tell just by watching what it means: they’re losing him.
Resolve tightens in Tony’s chest: no, no way in hell is he letting Steve go. Not like this. Steve saved him from being trapped, and it’s time for Tony to return the favor.
“We have an antidote, a solution that should flush out Nightshade’s chemicals,” Pym continues, “but if the serum has adapted, grown resistant—”
“We’ll bypass it,” Tony says, immediately, adamantly.
“We can hack directly into his immune system,” Tony explains, thinking of Sondheim’s procedures. “Suppress the serum and give it a new directive.”
Hank’s brow furrows. “Has that ever been tried? Is that even possible?”
Tony nods, gestures with his good hand at himself. “You’re looking at the result.”
Hank considers, mouth twisting as he ponders, and ultimately he looks impressed, optimistic. “We’ll need a facility—”
“I have a hospital, of sorts, not far from here; I’ll have Sondheim and the rest of my team meet us there.”
Hank frowns again. “We’ll… have to get him to out of here.” The look on Hank’s face tells Tony he thinks it’s going to be unpleasant for everyone involved, including Steve.
“Let me try,” Tony offers.
“Could I get a little help?” he addresses both Hank and Julia. “I’m not so steady on my feet,” Julia’s eyes flash down to Tony’s injured hand, cradled limply against his body. He shakes his head. “It’ll keep,” he tells her, trying to keep the wince out of his voice.
They help Tony down and out of the back of the plane, and he works himself to a crouch. About six feet away, Hawkeye is still regarding the wolf, whistling at it, calling to it, brandishing the leash. Tony waves him away.
“Hey,” Tony calls softly, just enough for his voice to carry. “Hey, it’s me.”
The wolf glances at him, then away, but it stops pacing. Tony holds out a hand, reaching.
“Steve… Captain… Please, I need you, okay? In case it’s even a question, I’m not upset, okay? You saved me. Again. I told you, I trust you. Always have, always will. But we need you to come with with us, so we can get you back to your old self.” He beckons, gently, and waits.
“I need you, Winghead.”
The wolf looks over at him at that, like it recognizes that name, and takes a few paces toward
Tony. Tony grins, and curls his fingers again, coaxing.
It sits calmly in front of him, and Tony can see the tiniest spark of blue in its eyes, flickering defiantly. Steve isn’t giving up without a fight.
“I got you, Steve,” Tony soothes, returning a promise. “Always.”
Steve grunts softly, and runs a hand over his face—
He has hands—and that’s not a snout—
Those are human thoughts, and—
Steve’s eyes shoot open, and he sits up, fast—then feels weak, and a little woozy.
He’s back in the hospital room, in East Hollywood, and it’s all exactly as it was… except that he’s the one in bed, and sitting beside it is Tony, in casual dress, his right hand splinted. A cane rests against the chair he’s seated in. His eyes look…hopeful, if Steve had to pick a word, but his mouth is a flattened line, like he’s trying to stay calm.
“Take it easy… Captain,” he says, and then allows himself the tiniest smile.
“Tony? You’re okay? Oh, thank god. The buildings came down, and I—“
Steve inhales a shuddering breath, recalling it all: the first wave of bots, and then the first Rhodey he found and how off it was, how it had no scent at all. Fighting off the LMD, and realizing the situation. Half-shifting to his transitional state, to get a better lock on Rhodes’ smell, and just as they had cleared the area, the sickening boom of the bombs going off.
The rest was a blur of instinct. The tech was failing, throwing false positives, but Steve knew he could track Tony’s scent. It might be the last thing he’d ever remember doing, but there was really no choice at all: it was Tony.
“Hey,” Tony repeats, resting both his healthy and splinted hands on Steve's. "I’m here—you found me. The suit protected me, and you found me.”
“I’m…” Steve eyes flick down to his own body. "How did I—? Did you—?"
“I… maybe had to hack your immune system to temporarily suppress the serum. So you’re probably feeling a little worse for the wear."
“A little worse for the—?” Steve laughs, a real, full-throated guffaw, and the sound of his own voice catches him off guard. “Tony, you turned me back into a human being. I didn’t even know that was possible.”
“It was mostly the rest of the science crew,” Tony says, waving the achievement away as if it were nothing. “It was the solution they’d prepared that did it, I just had to find a way to kick off the change. Besides, I couldn’t—”
Tony seems to notice, then that he’s gently stroking the back of Steve’s hand, and he frowns, pulling his own hands back and leaning back in his chair.
“—I couldn't leave you like that,” Tony finishes quietly.
Steve’s face falls. Is Tony still feeling awkward about… everything that happened? He’d have every right to be, of course, but Steve had just been so damn relieved to see him, and he thought Tony felt the same.
There’s a knock on the open door, and both of them look up to see Clint leaning against the doorframe.
“Cap, Tony,” he greets them, voice neutral, a hint of formality about his manner. “Just wanted to update you on the situation.”
Steve has no idea what Clint means. “Situation?"
“Given that both of our,” he coughs, pointedly, glancing at them both, “elected team leads are on a break from active duty, due to, uh, severe injury and a bad case of… wolfiness... Natasha and I felt, as acting chairpersons of the East and West Coast teams respectively, that there were some matters that need to be addressed.” He sighs heavily. "Events transpired that can’t be ignored, and we found it necessary to take immediate action.”
“And?” Tony prompts. “What was your conclusion?”
“I moved that we should have an impromptu movie night at Tony’s house in Malibu later, and Natasha seconded the motion.”
Steve chuckles. “What movie?"
“Well, I had suggested that we watch Ladyhawke, while we drink sparkling grape juice out of goblets, because we are classy like that—“
Steve isn't familiar with the film; he doesn’t much care what they watch. He just wants to be with his team.
But Tony apparently is and does; there’s a flicker of surprise in his eyes.
“Clint—” Tony says, and it’s a warning, but he’s smiling, too.
“—but,” Clint continues, "Natasha vetoed that option outright, on the grounds that it was a royally dickish move. So we compromised on Princess Bride instead, and the motion passed unilaterally, across both teams.”
Steve sits up a little straighter, delighted.“The New York team is here?”
Clint nods, and Tony beams back at the archer; they obviously planned that part. “Not only them,” Clint confirms, "but a couple of our pals from Westchester, too.”
Rahne and Hank McCoy. Steve feels both giddy and guilty. He’s excited to see them, to thank them, and he hopes they aren’t too mad at him.
He glances quickly at Tony; Steve is pretty sure he’s going to be to experiencing that combination of emotions a lot for some time.
“Thank you for your quick thinking and adherence to protocol, Hawkeye. What was the final stance on the goblets?” Steve asks with mock seriousness.
Clint is thoughtful. “Non-negotiable.”
Steve looks again to Tony, who leans forward on his cane. Tony is smiling, but it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. He’s putting a brave face on things, and Steve wonders how long it will take to repair Tony’s trust.
“I’m game if you are,” Tony offers. “Any excuse to put off my post-resurrection press conference.”
Steve turns back to Clint, and nods once, approvingly. “We’re in."
Everyone’s waiting for them, clustered around the front door when they arrive at Tony's, and Steve knows if the wolf was still in his head, it’d be telling him to flee.
But Captain America doesn’t have that luxury.
Besides, even if it’s awkward, Steve has missed his friends fiercely, and while the larger Avengers team is all together, he’s going to savor every moment of it.
For the most part, the whole group is smiling, faces composed in careful grins, like they’re thrilled to see Steve and Tony alive and whole, but don’t want to push too hard.
Jan radiates kindness, vibrant as ever. Hank McCoy has his arms folded, a wry grin on his face. Rahne wears a soft smile. Dane, Crystal, Bobbi, Julia… Hell, even Sersi and John Walker look less surly than usual.
The murmurs through the group dry up, like they’re expecting Steve to say something.
“I just want to take the opportunity to say thank you, and I’m so sorry, to all of you. My conduct recently was… unbefitting an Avengers team lead. I truly believe the way forward comes from trust and truth, and I would completely understand if—“
“Captain...” Rahne—quiet, nervous Rahne—pipes in. “Steve. I know I canna speak for the Avengers, but with all due respect… shut up.”
She rushes him in a hug so fast it knocks him back a few inches, still a little unsteady on his feet as the serum continues to return to his systems. “Ye great bloody fool,” she chides him playfully over his shoulder.
A laugh goes up from the rest of the crowd, and Dane seconds her sentiment, sending up a “Here, here!”
“You already tried to get away from us once, Cap,” Clint accuses teasingly, “We’re starting to think you don’t like us.”
“Never,” Steve promises him.
There’s another slight pause, and everyone’s gaze seems to collectively shift to Tony.
“Don’t look at me,” he dismisses them "I’m not giving any speeches. Let’s skip to the hugs, please?”
And then there’s joking and embracing and people welcoming them both back, and Steve thinks it’s going to be all right.
While there must have been some plot elements Clint had been planning to try and razz Steve and Tony with in that other movie—the ‘hawk’ one—they don't exactly make it through S. Morgenstern’s classic tale of love and adventure unscathed, either—or least, Tony certainly doesn’t.
Tony is seated in the corner of the couch, Jan and Sersi on either side of him. When Steve joins them, looking for a spot to settle in and watch the film, Sersi shoots up and points to the couch emphatically.
“Here, Steve, sit here!” she waves, before winking in incredibly unsubtle fashion. Steve rolls his eyes at her, but takes the seat, anyway. Tony, for his part, at least pretends not to notice the entire incident.
Steve has seen the movie before, and remembers really liking it—sweet, and hilarious, and just an all around feel good movie. But he didn’t really count on it being so…appropriate.
There’s a lot of tittering laughter leading up the Miracle Max scene—some of which is certainly because it’s just genuinely funny to watch, but Steve starts to suspect a fair amount of it is in anticipation.
“It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead,” Billy Crystal explains on screen in a heavy accent and even heavier latex prosthetics. "There’s a big difference between mostly dead, and all dead."
The whole group seems to be holding their breath. Several heads swivel around back to where Tony is sitting. Crystal lets out a giggle and throws a hand over her mouth.
“Have any of you people,” Tony addresses them, half smiling, half scowling, “ever heard the phrase ‘too soon’?”
The room erupts in laughter, then, and Tony glares, playing along with them—for a time. He pushes himself up off the couch, leaving the room in a mock huff; Steve wonders how much of it is actually for show.
Everyone else’s attention has turned back to the movie, and Steve watches Tony go, feels his heart wanting to follow.
He must be fairly obvious in his distraction, because Jan elbows him. “Go get him,” she whispers.
“I think he wants to be alone,” Steve tells her under his breath.
“That’s my point,” Jan insists. “I don’t know exactly what happened with you two, but you of all people should know: how does Tony usually do when he’s alone?” She cocks her head to the side, urging him on. “Go, go on.”
Steve hurries out of the room.
Tony is out on the balcony.
Twilight has almost completed faded into night, the purple of the sky and the ocean nearly the same shade. There’s a tiny vestige of orange hovering just above the water, the only hint that the sun was ever in the sky. Stars are starting to peek out between clouds.
Tony leans against the rail, facing away from Steve, looking out at the ocean.
Steve clears his throat, announcing his presence. Tony looks back over his shoulder. He doesn’t seem surprised at the company. He taps the railing, inviting Steve over.
“You told me, before, when I… You said that we were going to have a conversation.”
Tony continues looking out at the water. “I did, didn’t I?” He doesn’t sound exactly happy about it.
Steve cringes, but pushes ahead anyway. “Tony, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner about who I was. I… invaded your privacy, and that’s—”
“Steve, stop. That’s not… It’s fine. I’m not going to pretend the situation wasn’t… a little odd. But we’re Avengers. We fight mole people, and giant floating heads, and guys who have really unfortunate relationships with adhesives. ‘Weird’ is kind of our bread and butter.”
He turns his body toward Steve, and looks down for a moment, his good hand reaching for Steve’s shirt front. Then he stops himself. He looks up into Steve’s face. “It was… sweet, what you did for me,” he says quietly, like it’s a secret between them. Steve supposes it is.
“There aren’t ice crystals, technically, in the cryofreeze process,” Tony muses. “But… I was frozen, trapped. And you were the first thing that made me want to come back into the world. And if it had been you-you, instead of wolf-you, maybe I would wouldn’t have given myself the chance to be that happy. But you got to me. You got me out of the ice. You were exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, even if was weird.”
Tony pauses, but there’s tension in his face, like he has more to say, and he’s afraid to say it. Steve is scared to death to hear it, too, but he stands his ground.
“But,” Tony goes on, “it’s not that simple. We’re not that simple.” He sighs.
“Once I knew how you felt, I’ve spent every second just… wanting you, wanting this. Us. But I know how we are. We both want to help people, more than anything, but we’re so different in how we go about it. We’re going to keep disagreeing. You say you want me to stop—running off, taking matters into my own hands, and I will try. I swear to god Steve, I will try, but if we both stand our ground, we will fight. We did fight, before all this started, and I don’t think it will be the last time. And if there’s a chance we could tear each other apart—maybe—maybe we shouldn’t—”
Tony’s trying to look away, now, back out at the sea, but Steve brings his hand to cup Tony’s jaw, and very slowly draws his gaze back toward Steve.
“Tony, I know it’s not easy, won’t be easy. But I’d like to try, okay? I want to learn how to listen to you. And maybe what we had before was simple. It doesn’t have to be everything… but… can it be a place to start? I wasn’t entirely myself, I know, but… even then, I knew I loved you: everywhere I went, every moment I breathed, in every shape I was in. I love you, Tony. And maybe we’ll fight, and maybe it will hurt, but I know we’re better together than we are apart, and—”
Tony’s mouth collides with his before he can finish, crashing against him with more force than the waves below them. And it’s overwhelming, being this close to Tony, the feel of skin against skin, and Steve is himself now, himself and whole, and Tony is moaning Steve’s name into his mouth, and they’re really doing this.
Tony’s a genius, a futurist, and of course he’d be ten steps ahead, trying to get in front of all the possible problems, all the potential missteps.
But a tiny part of Steve hopes that maybe Tony is wrong this time, that it can be easy between them. Or at least, if it gets complicated, they can always come back to this: the simple act of being together, powerful and peaceful, all at once.
They pull apart for a moment, and then Steve lets his head tip forward just a bit, forehead coming to rest gently against Tony’s, and they stand there, breathless, awed, humming with bliss.
“One good thing about all this,” Tony whispers, smiling. “is that I already know for a fact that you are a very accomplished snuggler. Wanna go back in there, and show ‘em how it’s done?”
Wandering back to the living room, they make their way back to their seats—although not without Clint hoisting his grape juice goblet and saluting them with with a pronouncement of “WUUUV, TRUUU WUV”; Tony threatens to whack him with his cane, but Steve very responsibly prevents any such violence from occurring.
They do snuggle, and quite well, too: Steve is nestled against Tony’s side, Tony’s arm draped over Steve’s shoulders.
But by the time Inigo Montoya is about to proclaim his famous line for the first time, Steve notices that Tony won’t stop fidgeting; his hand is beating a tense little tattoo against Steve’s shoulder, fingers wiggling and tapping.
Something is still bothering Tony. But they talked everything through—what could—?
Oh, thinks Steve.
Carefully, without a word, he takes Tony’s hand, and guides it away from his shoulder, to the back of head, and pushes Tony’s fingers into his hair.
Tony tenses, like he’s horrified to have been found out, like maybe he didn’t even consciously know what he was doing until Steve pointed it out: a habit from a different place, a different situation, thrown awkwardly into view.
But Steve just cuddles closer into Tony’s side, and nuzzles his head slightly against Tony’s hand, encouraging him.
Maybe it’s a little weird, the way they finally found one another. And maybe it won’t be easy.
But Steve lets his eyes fall shut as Tony falls into a rhythm, scratching the back of his head.
It’s a place to start, he thinks.