Steve was exhausted. When he’d planned this little operation, he’d known that they’d run into complications. In his experience, nothing was ever easy, especially when he’d come up with a solid plan. So when he’d run into his target Kashmir Vennema almost immediately, he’d automatically known that something was about to go very, very wrong.
Of course, that was when the auctioneer introduced the Harvester Protocol, which Kash and her hired hands then proceeded to unleash before disappearing with the intentions to sell the technology to AIM. Steve failed to be surprised. It had proved to be a real threat, though. In addition to corrupting any technology it came into contact with, the virus also analyzed and stored information and schematics on everything it destroyed.
Considering that it had infected nearly every technology within the very prolific weapons exposition they’d found it in—including the Iron Man armor—they’d had no choice but to track it down, and fast, before the information could get into the wrong hands.
It was well into the evening when Tony finally managed to pinpoint the source of the energy signature the virus steadily emitted. By the time MODOK and his goons had been taken care of, and they’d safely handed Vennema off to the proper authorities, Steve wasn’t sure whether he could still call it the middle of the night, or if early morning was more accurate.
He just wanted to go home, but again—too easy.
The Quinjet that they’d flown here on this morning had been affected by the Harvester, suffering from the same electronics failure as the rest of the city. On the one hand, it wouldn’t take that long to get it back online—Tony had programmed the device he’d brought with him to the expo (the Pym-Stark Myriad Engine, he’d called it) to kick out little wasp-shaped drones to negate the effects of the virus.
The drones were steadily making their way through the city with the anti-virus, slowly bringing the city back to life, prioritizing the more important technologies like the hospitals and infrastructure. It was going to take hours. Still, once the Quinjet was operational again they’d still have the flight home, which would be a good several hours more.
Honestly, Steve just wanted to sleep and start again tomorrow. Luckily, Tony had reserved his usual hotel room when they’d decided to case the weapons expo, just in case anyone decided to look into his appearance a little further. They’d checked in and left their belongings there earlier that morning, after Tony had outfitted Steve with the sub-dermal image inducer and identification he’d used to smuggle him into the weapons expo.
Normally Steve would have suggested that they stay at his safe-house in Lowtown and go back for the rest of their belongings in the morning, but since it had been compromised (and torn apart) by a run in with Batroc’s Brigade anyway, he’d given in and agreed to head back to the hotel instead. They’d probably be more comfortable in the fancy hotel room, anyway.
There were still plenty of people on the streets, though this district seemed to be a bit quieter in comparison to the nightlife he could see a couple of streets down. The night was cooler than expected, and Steve was thankful for it. He took a deep breath to clear his head before trailing after Tony through the crowds of people still indulging in the nightlife. He followed Tony out to the street to hail a cab.
Tony’s expression was tight as he climbed into the cab, mouth pressed into a firm line that Steve had learned years ago meant he was suppressing a wince. Steve frowned but kindly didn’t comment as he climbed in after him. They’d both been through several fights and a crash landing today, and Steve didn’t think Tony would appreciate him pointing out his injuries right now.
“Hightown, Sovereign Hotel,” Steve told the driver instead. He’d ask how Tony was fairing when they were settled into their hotel room. Steve hadn’t seen him take any serious injuries, but he couldn’t be sure.
He’d had to leave Tony alone to face MODOK and his cronies when Vennema had tried to make a break for it. It wasn’t an easy decision for him, despite Tony’s assurances that he’d be fine in a matter of minutes. He’d still been infected with the Harvester Virus at the time, wearing a crude parody of the Iron Man armor assembled from prototype weapons being shown at the expo. By the time Steve returned, Tony had managed to reboot his real armor (and save the day, just as he’d promised when Steve left him), but the improvised armor he’d been wearing was a mess—a testament to how hard-fought his win had been.
The cab pulled up to the curb in front of the hotel, and Steve thrust a handful of bills at the cabbie without bothering to count them. He ushered Tony out of the cab with a hand on his elbow. Most of the lights on this street were still corrupted by the Harvester virus, but the lobby was well lit when they pushed through the doors. Tony made a bee-line for the bank of elevators on the far wall, and Steve trailed behind slowly, noting a few stray drones that had already managed to make it this far across the city buzzing around the computers at check-in.
Tony mashed the button with his thumb just as a throat cleared behind them. They turned to greet the employee who had sidled up behind them, an apologetic look on his face.
“Um, sirs, excuse me, but…” the bellhop wrung his hands together nervously in front of him, looking very much like he expected violence. “The, uh, the elevators are offline,” he said. The man was all elbows and knees, leaning forward as though attempting to look unassuming. Steve wondered how many other’s he’d broken this news to, and how many hadn’t taken it well.
Tony blinked at him.
“You’re kidding me,” Tony said, voice completely flat. The man winced with sympathy. Their room was on the 47th floor. Tony turned his gaze from the elevator to Steve and back, then groaned and buried his face in his hands.
“We’re sorry for the inconvenience. If there’s anything we can do…” The man offered hurriedly. Tony waved him off.
“Not unless you’re gonna carry me up the stairs.” Tony eyed the stairwell entrance with distaste.
“But thank you,” Steve added. The man nodded and seized the opportunity to retreat, relief evident in his features. He’d probably seen his fair share of furious guests tonight. Steve turned back to Tony and gestured at the stairs, stopping to hold the door for him, “Shall we?”
“Fine,” Tony grumbled, peering up the spiral stairwell. He made a face. “I nominate Vennema for the Supervillain of the Year.”
Steve followed his gaze. The floors seemed to spiral upward unendingly.
“I could get behind that.”
Tony has huffing by the 22nd floor. A few years ago, Steve might have teased that he needed to hit the gym more often, work a few more sparring sessions into his schedule. Tony would give as good as he got while Steve waited patiently for the man to catch his breath, completely unfazed by the workout due to the serum.
That was before he’d injected himself with Extremis.
Now Tony had grown himself an entirely new body, complete with new set of lungs and heart. He was in pretty good shape, and while it couldn’t quite keep up with Erskine’s formula in that respect, Tony wasn’t so much of a slouch that the stairs would give him trouble at the pace they were going. The realization made Steve pause.
Tony huffed and irritated sigh and tried to push past where Steve had stilled on the stairs, shooting him a warning look as though to ask him not to mention it. Steve wasn’t going to be deterred, though, as he reached out and stopped him with a hand on his elbow.
Tony fixed him with a glare, chin tipped up defiantly as though gearing up for a fight. Steve bit the inside of his cheek and tried not to let his own irritation at Tony’s stubbornness bleed through into his voice.
“Are you all right?” Steve asked, voice stern to make it clear he expected a real, honest answer. He really wasn’t in the mood for Tony’s penchant for playing down injuries.
“I’m fine, Steve. Just leave it,” Tony replied, breath still coming a little too quick. “I wasn’t expecting the cardiac stress test, is all.”
“You don’t look fine,” Steve said, ignoring Tony’s attempt to play his condition off with a joke. If Steve didn’t know any better he’d say that he looked even worse than earlier, when they were getting their asses kicked. Beyond being short of breath, he was sweating, looking a little too pale.
“The virus is just…wearing me down. It’s really not that big of a deal—”
“Is?” Steve cut in. “As in, currently? Tony, I thought you said that your little…robot bugs took care of the virus already.” Tony flinched, clearly not having meant to let that slip. He looked chagrined for a moment, crossed his arms in front of himself.
Steve gave him a pointed look and refrained from making a remark, not wanting to give Tony the opportunity to change the topic. He didn’t understand why Tony always felt the need to hide things from him. He’d tried not to take it personally, but when it came down to it the only explanation Steve could come up with was that Tony didn’t trust him. He couldn’t help but feel a little hurt. Tony scrubbed a hand over his face, looking resigned.
“I did. They did. It’s just…I outfitted the drones to attack and destroy the Harvester virus, but I didn’t exactly have a lot of time to actually reprogram the Pym-Stark Myriad Engine between putting together some makeshift armor back at the Expo and coming to save your ass from Batroc the Loser at the safe house, so I just sorta…set it to attack the virus’s nanoware, instead, which just so happens to be a major component of the Extremis too—”
“Tony!” Steve looked mildly horrified. “You programed thousands of self-replicating hornets to eat you—”
“They’re not going to eat me, Steve, give me a little credit,” Tony snapped, suddenly on the defensive. “They don’t like the frequency that I’ve got the Extremis emitting. So long as it’s running they won’t come near me... It’s like really high-tech bug spray, if you overlook the fact that they’re actually not bugs. And it not actually a spray. Details.”
“Well you’ve got time now. Can’t you fix it? Program it better or something?” Steve asked. Steve was sure that Tony had already thought of any suggestion he could come up with, but he couldn’t help himself. Tony gave him an impatient look.
“Not without stopping them from distributing the anti-virus first, and that’s more important. It’s fine, Cap. It’s not gonna kill me. Extremis will take care of it on its own eventually, like it would any other biological virus,” Tony said wearily. “Think of it as a glorified cold. It’s fine.”
“Were you planning on telling me any of this?” Steve crossed his arms to keep from clenching his fists at his sides, mirroring Tony’s pose.
“Why? So you could make sympathetic eyes at me? It’s none of your business, anyway,” Tony snapped. Steve might have been able to agree with him, if he didn’t sound so petulant about it. As it was, it sounded more like an excuse.
“In case you hadn’t noticed, whether you’re fighting fit is just as much my concern as it is yours,” Steve pointed out.
“For Christ’s sakes, Cap, give it a rest! We’re going to bed, not to battle!” Tony shouted, and his voice echoed through the stairwell, seeming to resonate for a moment. He fixed him with another cold stare, jaw set, before wheeling back around and starting up the stairs again. Steve stared at the back of his head angrily for a moment before shaking his head and following, trying not to give in to the gnawing worry in his gut.
Tony couldn’t be more thankful that the hotel had gone with old-fashioned, ornate lock and key for their rooms. He’d kicked the door aside without much fuss, leaving it to hang open so that Steve could follow him through.
Steve had trailed silently behind Tony the entire length of the stairwell, and by the time they’d reached their floor Tony was sure that he should have a hole burned through the back of his skull. Whatever. Steve could be a stubborn bastard when he wanted to be.
Tony kicked off his shoes and flopped down onto the bed immediately, making a noise between pain and pleasure when he hit the sheets. It was the only bed in the suite (but it was enormous, and Tony made a point to spread his limbs as wide as possible, just to rub it in), and he planned on keeping it to himself. Steve was being an ass, so Steve could sleep on the lumpy pull out couch…not that he’d want to sleep in the same bed as Tony, anyway.
Maybe that was petty, but Tony didn’t really care. He could feel Steve’s eyes on him as he puttered around the suite, getting ready for bed. Tony couldn’t bring himself to object, because doing so was sure to start up another argument that he really didn’t have the energy for.
The clock on the nightstand was stuck blinking on 12:00 am, so he pulled up the Extremis feed to check the news and the time. He regretted it immediately, as a sharp pain lanced behind his eyes and made his stomach roil with renewed strength. He managed to not groan as he forced the information away again; didn’t want to give Steve the satisfaction (even though Steve was too good a man to take any satisfaction in that, he knew that, that wasn’t the point).
The Extremis still wasn’t working, then. Tony had hoped that it would cooperate more fully once he’d given his body some time to reset. Now it looked like he’d just have to wait until he was rid of the virus entirely, and avoid using Extremis as much as possible until then. Especially with the armor. Using the Extremis to control the armor after rebooting had been a real treat—one he was none-too-eager to repeat. Tony curled up under the blankets and willed the ache in his bones to calm enough for him to get comfortable.
Tony watched Steve unfold the couch, and then wrapped an arm possessively around his pillows—all four of them—when Steve turned his way. Steve huffed and turned riffle through the dresser under the television. After Steve found a spare set of pillows in one of the drawers, Tony waited until he had walked all the way across the room before he flicked off the lights with Extremis (despite the little headache it spurred) just so that he could hear the irritated little breath when he had to stumble back to his bed sightless, and just so that he could smirk, triumphant and, yes, a little petty, into the dark.
When Tony woke again, it was still dark outside. He considered bringing up a clock to check the time, but with last night still fresh in his mind he decided that another attempt was probably inadvisable, at least this early in the morning. It couldn’t be any later than seven, judging by the lack of sunlight through the window. Tony felt like he’d hardly gotten any sleep at all.
Actually, he felt like he’d been hit by a truck. He wasn’t surprised, with his immune system working to fight off a pretty nasty bug, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant to experience. He had spent the better part of an hour trying to will himself to sleep last night (long after Steve’s breath had evened out—the man had fallen asleep almost as soon has his head hit the pillow).
It was difficult to turn his brain off normally, but he felt empty without the familiar buzz of Extremis at the back of his mind, stuck alone with his own thoughts. Piled on top of a skull-splitting headache that had taken far too long to fade, he’d been in for a rough night.
Tony pushed himself up into a sitting position, ignoring the brief feeling of dizziness as he climbed the rest of the way out of bed. Steve was still sound asleep on the pull-out couch, shield propped against the coffee table, just within reach. The pull-out was a bit too small for him, and now that Tony had time to get over his irritation from last night he felt a little guilty for making him use it. Not that it could have been helped. Tony hadn’t actually been planning on using the room when he reserved it, and there was only the one bed.
Steve looked much more relaxed that he had last night, though. Tony had long since grown accustomed to the ever-present worry lines that Steve had developed in the years after the ice, but even the most prominent lines seemed softer, like the only time he could truly allow himself to relax was when he slept.
Tony suspected that if there was a way to worry in your sleep, Steve would find it. Until then, he’d let him sleep a little longer. Tony could feel the beginnings of a headache building once again, and he doubted he could get back to sleep if he tried. For a brief moment his gaze flicked to the minibar, before he turned pointedly away, rubbing absently at his temple to dull the tension. After a moment of indecision he headed for the door, stopping briefly to straighten himself in the mirror and run a hand through his hair.
He could just use the phone in the room, or Steve’s cell phone, but he didn’t want to wake Steve and he did want to see how difficult the Extremis was going to be to use. Besides, his head was going to ache regardless, so he may as well get some work done. Start small, just a phone call to check in with the Avengers, let them know that they’d taken care of Vennema. No big deal.
He closed the door as quietly as he could as he padded out into the hallway. Steve was a light sleeper, a habit from his life before going down in the ice, and there was no need for him to be awake while Tony tried to call home.
The hall was mostly empty. He could see the room service cart standing outside one of the rooms, but all the doors were closed. On the other end of the hallway, there were two men standing in front of their door, near the entrance of the stairs. They eyed Tony nervously, pointedly turning their bodies away while they continued their conversation. They looked a bit shady, dressed in suits a bit too cheap for this part of town, but he didn’t pay them any mind. Madripoor was famous for their laissez-faire market, and it made the island a haven for those who operated in the gray areas of the business world. No one cared what you did in this city, so long as you didn’t upset the status quo. Tony saw this sort—and much, much worse—every time he visited, even in a reasonably high-end hotel such as this.
Tony ignored them and instead opened the feed. For a moment there was just static, empty of any data or sensory input. But when he pushed a little further, a stab of pain spiked behind his right eye, and he quickly slammed the feed closed again. Tony let out a little angry huff. Still not working, then.
He tried not to be disappointed. It had been a long shot, anyway. Tony didn’t actually have a cell phone on him, since he hadn’t been expecting Extremis to go out of commission. He’d seen several phones he could use down in the lobby, though, so he headed over to the elevator bank. The two businessmen got suspiciously quiet when he was within earshot—one of them actually started whistling, good lord—but the thought of laughing at their failed attempt at subtlety was quickly replaced by relief when he found the elevators were online again.
The lobby was busier than it had been last night (this morning?), but not by much. The employee hovering by the elevators—a different man than they’d had running interference last night—offered to show him to one of the private conference rooms when he’d asked to use a phone. He’d agreed to that, pausing for a moment to pick up a complimentary coffee on the way.
They’d left Carol in charge when they left for Madripoor, and for a moment Tony considered just calling her directly. Ultimately he decided against it. It was a little after seven in the morning now, which would make it…still early in the evening back in New York. He tried the tower anyway, half expecting to have his call ignored. He was only a little surprised when Jarvis answered instead.
“Is Carol in?” he asked without preamble, though he already suspected that she wasn’t.
“She and the rest of the Avengers have gone to assist with a…minor incident at the Baxter Building. She assured me it was not serious enough to warrant requesting your assistance,” Jarvis confirmed, and Tony couldn’t help the small smile that quirks his lips. At least he didn’t have to deal with that. Small blessings.
“Have her give me a call as soon as she gets back?” He gave Jarvis their room number.
“Certainly, sir. And, if I may,” Jarvis paused, as though he would actually refrain from finishing the thought if Tony told him to, “are you all right?”
Tony smiled fondly. “Fine, Jarvis. Just tired.”
He paused again, clearly seeing through the lie, and for a moment Tony expected more nagging. Instead he simply responded with, “Very good, sir. Give Captain Rogers my regards.”
The way he’d said it made Tony feel distinctly as though Jarvis was teasing him. Tony didn’t know why he would be, though, and more importantly, he didn’t want to think about where Jarvis would have gotten the idea that there was reason to tease, because that would prove that he was far more see-through than he wanted to admit. He agreed and hung up the phone slowly, staring at where it sat in the cradle for a moment before heading back to the elevators, coffee in hand.
One of the men was gone when he made it back to his floor, although the other was now talking to a very scantily clad woman. Tony smirked—that certainly explained why they’d looked so nervous when he first saw them…as though he actually cared who they were sleeping with. The escort swiveled to flash Tony a coy smile as he passed, which he returned with a wink, mostly for the put-out look that appeared on the man’s face. She actually looked vaguely familiar—a thought he was certainly not going to share with the class, because honestly, people would assume things. It didn’t sit quite right, though, because he would never dream of hiring her (not interested, despite what the tabloids might say, and even if he’d wanted to, god, Pepper would have killed him), so he couldn’t place where they’d met.
He was slotting his key into the lock on his door when he realized where he recognized her from—the expo—and Tony whirled back around just in time see the fist coming at his face. He shouted in surprise and ducked out of the way. The man’s hand cracked off the door, and he howled in pain as Tony planted a knee in his stomach.
The second man from earlier reappeared and slammed into his side. They both went down, the man’s hand fisted around his tie, and his coffee splashed across the wall. Although he’d never admit it, he wasn’t so proud that he wouldn’t fight dirty when he was outnumbered, so when he started to fall, teeth clenched, Tony made sure to grab a fistful of hair and yank. The move served to piss the man off more, and he made a sloppy attempt at a head-butt, forehead slamming into the ridge of Tony’s right eye, before he landed on top of him, effectively pinning him to the ground.
He landed hard on his back, the breath left him and it hurt, it was dizzying, and it was all he could do to bring up an arm to protect his face when the thug pulled back for another punch.
Tony saw the shield before he registered the door slamming open. He flinched and it slammed violently into the back of the man’s skull. He slumped forward on top of Tony, raised arm falling limp at his side. The other thug had exactly enough time for an outraged cry before Steve brought the shield around to slam into his face. The thug crumpled to the floor, and Steve’s knees almost hit the ground first as he dropped down next to Tony to throw the other man off of him.
Steve was a mess, hair sticking up slightly and eyes still red from sleep. He yanked Tony up by the collar, looking furious and concerned at the same time, and for a moment Tony was sure he was going to hit him, or at the very least start screaming. Instead he pulled him forward and smashed their lips together gracelessly. Their teeth clacked and Tony’s eyes widened, a surprised noise escaping him.
Steve was kissing him, and Tony’s first thought was fuck, I’m hallucinating again.
For a split second he was sure of it, because nothing else made sense. But he blinked, and Steve was still there, Steve’s lips on his, forceful but surprisingly chaste. Steve was leaning over him, so Tony brought his hands up between them, separating them before Steve came to his senses and did it himself. He could feel his pulse pounding in his ears.
“Um,” Tony pushed him off entirely and immediately regretted doing it. He huffed, suddenly irrationally angry at Steve, because this was perfect and horrible all at once, it was exactly what he’d wanted and it was all going to fall apart, like always, and he was terrified to risk their friendship over this. He’d spent years telling himself that this was exactly what he could never have, and now Steve had to go and ruin that hard-built resolve. He clenched his fists to stop himself from pulling him back. “Just, what the fuck was—Steve look out!”
Steve whirled at Tony’s shout and raised the shield just in time to deflect a spray of bullets. The escort was standing at the end of the hallway, aiming a semi-automatic Tony was sure he’d seen on a rack at the Expo yesterday. Steve gripped him hard on the bicep and half dragged him back inside the door of their hotel room before he could even get to his feet properly.
One of the thugs was lying in such a way that he was making a very effective doorjamb, and Tony actually had to look twice to determine whether he was breathing, he was so still. Christ, Steve had done a number on his face, but only his nose was still bleeding sluggishly, so at least he hadn’t been hit by any stray bullets. As it was, they couldn’t actually close the door between them and Fishnet-Rambo down the hall, and another spray of bullets took out the back window of the room. Tony ducked reflexively, even though he was…fairly sure that the bullets wouldn’t make it through the wall. At least not right away, depending on what kind of toys she was using and how bad she wanted it.
He needed to do something; they were essentially backed into a corner. He couldn’t activate his armor, but maybe he could manage just one gauntlet…
“Tony, can we talk—” Steve started breathlessly, and Tony whipped around to gape at him incredulously. Steve looked…well, like he was already regretting kissing him, and fuck, he could not do this right now, he wasn’t sure he was ever ready to hear Steve tell him how much of a mistake he thought that was, but he certainly wasn’t ready for it now.
“Really? It can’t wait? We need to talk about this right now?” Tony evaded. He went back to glaring at his palm as though it would make the gauntlet respond—c’mon c’mon you piece of shit—and fuck, his head hurt. The armor pooled in his hand like beads of mercury, refusing to take shape.
“We’re not avoiding this conversation, Tony,” Steve said, jaw set, and wow, okay, he was determined.
“I am a little preoccupied with avoiding the bullets!” Tony shouted. That seemed to be a good distraction, because Steve glanced back at the door as though he’d forgotten about the woman with the submachine gun steadily chewing through the wall between them. Steve huffed in irritation. Then he followed Tony’s gaze to his palm, nodded at it.
“Is that going to work?” Steve asked, sounding like he already knew the answer. Tony grit his teeth and shook his head.
“Where do you want me?” Tony asked instead, and the disappointment in Steve’s expression just proved to irritate him more. Steve seemed to pick up on that, thankfully, and said nothing. Instead, he glanced around, eyes finally landing at the man lying just outside the door. There was a gun clipped to his hip, and Steve’s hand flexed around the leather straps of the shield for a moment as he considered it.
He darted out with raised shield, the bullets clanging loudly off the surface as he grabbed the pistol. He actually tore through the leather holster with considerable strength in an effort to pull the gun back faster, not wanting to give the woman enough time to aim more fully at the parts not covered by the shield.
Steve handed Tony the gun solemnly, and he immediately busied himself with opening the chamber and checking how full the cartridge was. It was fully loaded save two shots, and Tony snapped it back into place deftly before looking back up to meet Steve’s gaze. Steve raised an eyebrow in question, silently asking whether Tony was okay with this plan.
He wasn’t. He wasn’t okay with any plan that involved using Steve as bait, but he knew, logically, that Steve would have an easier time dodging bullets if he wasn’t trying to fire them himself at the same time.
Tony nodded tightly, a little terrified with how much Steve trusted him, and even more terrified how long that would last after Steve realized what a bad bet Tony was. God, Tony was the one dragging their asses into the fire in the first place, and Steve would be taking the bullets—this was all a horrible metaphor for his life, and it hit pretty fucking close to home.
“Ready when you are,” Steve mouthed. Tony paused, waiting and listening for the end of another spray of bullets before signaling Steve to go.
Steve rolled out into the hallway, shield up in front of him to provide a target. She took the bait, turning her attention on him, letting loose a stream of gunfire and screaming obscenities. At the same time Tony threw himself down on the ground, trying to stay low to remain a smaller target. He landed heavily on his shoulder, but his grip on the gun didn’t waver as he lined up his shot.
He fired twice, the first barely clipping her arm and the second hitting her square in the shoulder. She wailed and fumbled the submachine gun for just a moment, but the two-handed weapon wasn’t designed to be fired with one, and the kick threw her aim. The slip gave Steve enough time to fling his shield, and it bounced perfectly off the wall to hit her in the side of the head. She went down in a heap.
Tony watched from the ground as Steve walked over to relieve her of her weapon. He paused long enough to tie her jacket around the wound on her shoulder before turning his attention to the other two. Tony was not even going to pretend to be interested in helping Steve clean up. Honestly, if he had his way, he’d just let the authorities handle it. They had no doubt been called during the firefight, and were probably en route now.
Tony was exhausted. He couldn’t remember being this bone-tired since before he’d injected himself with the Extremis. He’d spent a lot of his life feeling ill, with a weak heart and a compromised immune system and all the beatings he’d taken over the years. He’d thought that he was done with this when he’d reprogrammed himself. It was frustrating to be back to how he’d felt years ago, when he’d still needed to plug his chest plate into a wall to keep himself going.
He’d have almost preferred that, right now. At least then he’d actually have a way to fix his situation that didn’t involve orange juice and bed rest. Right now he really didn’t have any other options than to be patient and let his body overcome the virus on its own.
“You okay?” Steve asked, offering him a hand up. His tone of voice suggested that he was referring to more than just the fight, but he really didn’t know how to formulate a decent response. Tony took his hand and let Steve pull him to his feet effortlessly. Steve brought a hand up to ghost over the bruise around his eye, and Tony flinched away when he felt himself start to lean into the touch.
“Fine,” Tony said, brushing a hand absently over his forearms. Now that the immediate threat was out of the way, he was at a loss for what to say. Awkward was so far out of his comfort zone he didn’t even know where to begin—Tony Stark just didn’t do awkward—so he did the responsible thing.
Pointedly ignore the problem.
“I gotta say, these are some low quality thugs,” Tony mused. “I’d have sprung for the Latverian guns-for-hire hanging out by the heavy artillery. They looked competent. Very surly.” Steve blinked at him, not following for a moment. He glanced back to study the men on the floor, before he understood.
“These people were at the expo,” Steve said. He nodded. Tony had recognized the woman from one of the displays he’d plundered for parts when he was making his replacement armor yesterday. Steve turned back to him. “What were you doing out here, anyway?”
“Checking in with the Avengers,” Tony replied. “I didn’t want to wake you… so, uh, sorry I woke you?”
Steve just shook his head, fixing him with that hard-set-jaw, and pinched glare that meant he was in trouble. Clearly, Steve was not pleased that Tony had left him to sleep, but at least he seemed to see there no point in arguing the matter, and had settled for silent disapproval. Instead he turned to survey the spray of bullet holes along the back wall of the suite.
“I’d like to know what they were after.”
“Well maybe if you hadn’t beaten them all into unconsciousness we could ask them,” Tony accused. For one fascinating moment Steve actually looked mollified, maybe even about to blush, but he settled on a sheepish shrug instead, toeing the nearest man with the inside of his boot. He hesitated, as though choosing his words carefully.
“I got a little carried away,” Steve admitted plainly, but the words were loaded, expression partly a question and partly an apology. Tony kept his expression carefully indifferent, resisting the urge to flinch. Yeah. He’d just…gotten carried away, he hadn’t meant anything by it. Any of it.
If Steve wanted to just write that kiss off as in heat of the moment, well, Tony would let him.
“Right. Well. Tone it down a bit next time,” Tony responded flippantly, averting his gaze so he didn’t have to see the relief on Steve’s face. He brought an arm up to tug at his suddenly too-tight collar, cleared his throat, “I’m just gonna…” He made a vague gesture toward the bathroom.
“Oh. Okay, I’ll just…”Steve started, sounding sad or relieved he couldn’t tell, and Tony didn’t wait to hear the rest. He closed and locked the door behind him, resisting, just barely, the urge to bash his head against the tile. Tony could hear Steve hesitating outside. For a moment it sounded like he was coming closer. The footsteps stopped when the phone rang.
That was probably Carol. Tony wasn’t sure he wanted to go out there right now, so he left Steve to handle it as he started a scalding hot shower. The steam rolled past him in lazy waves, and Tony contemplated never getting out.
Steve sighed in irritation when the phone started to ring. It was probably the hotel staff calling to scream at him. He had half a mind to just let it ring, but then they’d just come up to scream at him in person. No doubt the police had been called already, so he was better off just getting it over with. He sat down on the edge of the bed and snatched it out of the receiver on its third ring, snapping a little louder than necessary.
“If this is about the gunfire—”
“Woah,” Carol cut him off, curiosity bleeding into her voice, “rough morning?”
“Carol.” Steve grinned, surprised. “You could say that. Sorry, I thought you were hotel staff.” Steve rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “Didn’t Tony call you earlier? Did something happen?”
“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” she said. Steve raised an eyebrow, because from Carol he’d learned that usually meant ‘nothing globally threatening’. He could imagine her shrugging nonchalantly. “Now, what’s this about gunfire?”
“A couple of men attacked Tony outside our room. I took care of them, and then while I, uh… when I went to see if he was all right their friend started shooting at us,” Steve said, “and before you ask, we’re fine.”
“Does this have anything to do with Vennema?” Carol asked. She sounded upset, and he didn’t blame her. When he’d put her in charge, Steve had insisted that he and Tony would be able to handle Vennema on their own—which, in fairness, they had. There was obviously something more at work, here, and Steve was sure that a couple of hired thugs were the least of their worries.
“I honestly don’t know. Maybe AIM, or someone else she worked with,” Steve replied. “They might be able to shed some light on things, but I doubt they’ll talk.” Especially not right away, he thought blandly, leaning back to peer out into the hallway where he’d momentarily left them.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, then:
“Are you going to be okay? Do you want me to assemble the team?” she asked. Steve shook his head even though she couldn’t see the gesture. Even if they left now, they still wouldn’t be here until nighttime. Not to mention if half of New York’s superheroes showed up, whoever was after them was much more likely to disappear into the Madripoor underground than face them, and that was exactly what they didn’t need right now.
“We can handle this,” Steve said. Or at least, he hoped.
“Be careful,” she said. Steve assured her once more that they were fine before voices in the hall drew his attention. From the sounds of it, the police had finally arrived. Steve sighed.
“The local police are here. I have to go take care of this.” Carol made a sympathetic noise and wished him luck as he hung up. Then, running a hand through his hair to make it a bit more respectable, he made his way to the hall to meet them.
Dealing with the hotel manager had been a mess. He’d insisted that Steve be arrested, first, and then that Steve had, in fact, been working alongside the assailants. It took twenty minutes of explaining what had happened, over and over, as well as an offer to pay for the damages before he’d finally calmed down. By then the police had already taken the thugs back to the precinct.
Tony was still in the shower, so he’d gone with them, promising himself that he would talk to him when he got back. They were none-too happy with having a “tourist” interrogating their prisoners, and were just as unimpressed with the fact that he was Captain America as the manager had been at the hotel. After hours of processing and paperwork, it still took a ridiculous amount of time convincing, and being bounced back and forth between superiors, before the local authorities finally agreed to let Steve talk to them.
It didn’t make much of a difference. Whoever they were, they were extremely loyal. Trying to get anything out of them proved to be a dead end.
Steve spent the whole cab ride back to the hotel thinking about what he was going to say to Tony. He hadn’t actually meant to kiss him in the hall. He just wasn’t thinking straight, snapping awake when he’d heard shouting in the hallway followed by something slamming into the door. He’d panicked and grabbed his shield the moment he realized Tony wasn’t in bed anymore. Tony was sick. He should have been in bed resting, anyway, so when he’d come outside to see Tony by the door, and the man on top of him…he’d seen red. He should have stopped himself, but Tony had looked so surprised to see him and he’d been so relieved that he was okay...
Now he didn’t know what to do. Tony hadn’t seemed too interested in talking about it, and Steve was beginning to worry that maybe it was because he didn’t want to have to reject him. After all, Tony was brilliant. He had parades of equally beautiful and intelligent women lining up on his doorstep. Steve was...not his usual type, in any case.
Steve justified stopping in the hotel bar to gather his thoughts, but not for too long. Someone was after them, and he had bigger things to worry about than what Tony had to say about him.
Tony woke up on the shower floor with the spray still streaming over him and no memory of how he’d gotten there. He blinked the water out of his eyes and clawed at the tap to shut the water off. He wasn’t sure whether it was from the heat or the exhaustion after an adrenaline crash or something else. He pointedly didn’t think about what that something else might be. He pushed himself to his feet, rubbing feebly at his aching side.
Thank god Steve was too busy avoiding him—or was he avoiding Steve?—to notice. Small favors.
When Tony finally stepped out of the shower, he was dizzy from the heat, his skin flushed pink (hopefully from water and not the beginnings of a fever, though he was already feeling unpleasantly warm earlier, so he was probably not so lucky). He paused at the bathroom door to listen. The room beyond was quiet, so he wrapped a towel around his waist and slipped out into the bedroom. It was empty. He assumed that Steve had gone to deal with the local authorities.
There was a stiff breeze in the room from the gaping hole in the back window, and bullets had peppered the pull-out couch as well as a large portion of the back wall, both now riddled with holes. The carpet was littered with stray flecks of glass. He tiptoed around them carefully, crouching down next to his suitcase to inspect the damage. He groaned and rolled it onto its side, causing little scraps of fabric to flutter out onto the carpet.
Bullets had chewed through most of the clothes, and he ripped the zipper open, dumping the contents out on the bed. Most of them were riddled with at least three or four bullet holes, one of his ties had been torn nearly in two. He dug through the pile, managed to find exactly two pairs of socks and a tie that had been spared in one of the side pockets. He scraped the whole lot back into the bag in irritation.
Tony eyed Steve’s bag where it was safely tucked against the wall, sighing. He and Steve were roughly the same height, though Steve was a little broader in the shoulders. The clothes should fit…and with his alternatives being bullet-riddled clothing or nudity, it wasn’t like he had much of a choice.
Miraculously, the mirror hanging by the dresser in the corner remained intact, and he stopped in front of it to study his reflection. His skin was still flushed, meaning he probably did have a fever, after all. The headache he’d been sporting had dulled, but not completely disappeared, and any of the adrenaline he’d benefitted from during the excitement earlier was long gone, leaving him aching and tired.
He had a long, ugly bruise where he’d landed on the ground, another where the man had landed on him, and he could see the beginning of a shiner where he’d been head-butted. Having such superficial injuries last so long, or be so damn sore, after getting used to the Extremis was disconcerting, and he quickly turned away from the mirror.
He pulled out a grey t-shirt and a pair of jeans out of Steve’s bag, paused at boxers—no, not going there—and tossed the lot up onto the bed. Tony pulled the clothes on roughly, and tried very hard to think of anything other than that they smelled like Steve. It made his stomach twist, and he was very viscerally reminded of how hot Steve’s mouth was, and how he’d smelled like leather and fresh soap even after just waking up—
Maybe he should have taken a cold shower instead.
Tony managed another hour of sleep, and he felt a little better when he woke. Still sore, but a little less feverish and no longer bone-tired, he forced himself to get up and grab the electric razor from his suitcase. He definitely needed a shave.
The bathroom floor was still wet, and Tony snatched a fresh towel off the rack. He brushed a thumb up over his cheek where the stubble was already growing out and grabbed his shaving kit. He took his time, and he was halfway done when he felt his eyes start to water. Tony sneezed.
Suddenly the razor was spitting sparks. He yelped and dropped it into the sink, where it hissed pathetically and began to smoke. Tony stared at it for a moment. That…he hadn’t expected that. When he’d told Steve that the Extremis would be able to take care of the virus he hadn’t thought he was lying. He’d honestly thought that after a night’s sleep he would be good as new. Now it was looking more like it was going to get worse before it got better.
It was also possible that it wasn’t just Tony’s ability to access Extremis that wasn’t working. He preferred not to think about that.
Tony went back to rooting through Steve suitcase and eventually found his razor. Thank god—going around lopsided would just be adding insult to injury. He went back to the bathroom. The razor in the sink had stopped sparking, so he picked it up and flipped the switch. It didn’t turn on—he hadn’t expected it to—and he tossed it on the counter so he could turn on the tap.
Tony needed some way to figure out what was wrong with Extremis. What he really needed was his lab, and probably a doctor, but admitting as much would mean getting himself benched. He sighed and rinsed the blade.
Tony heard the door to the room open from where he was standing in the bathroom. He couldn’t help but be tense, an irrational part of his mind wondering if the thugs from this morning had come back.
“Tony?” Steve called out to the empty room. Tony allowed himself to relax.
“In here,” he said as he went back to shaving. For a moment his only response was silence, and then Steve appeared in the doorway. Tony glanced at him in the mirror, and then did a double-take. Steve was staring at him, a peculiar expression on his face. Tony felt his face heat under the scrutiny, and he was suddenly very grateful for the flush already in his cheeks. He determinedly resisted the urge to glance down at his clothes self-consciously.
Finally he studied Tony’s face, and his expression morphed to one of concern. Steve frowned, “You look terrible.”
“Yeah. Well. It kind of feels like my insides are trying to crawl out of my insides,” Tony said. He tried for a carefree grin, but even to himself he only managing to look more tired, “but I bet you say that to all the boys.” Tony paused, cleared his throat. Steve glanced away briefly.
He looked back, and for a moment Tony thought that Steve was going to bring up this morning. Then his eyes fell on the razor on the counter.
“What happened to your razor?” Steve asked. Tony shrugged.
“I sneezed on it,” he said. Steve raised an eyebrow, confused, so he explained, “The Harvester virus was made to be airborne.”
Steve looked alarmed. “Is it contagious?”
“Only if you’re a toaster,” Tony said. “Where have you been?”
To Tony’s complete surprise, Steve actually looked guilty.
“I went with the police to try and get some information,” he said.
“You don’t seem happy about it.”
“They didn’t talk,” Steve said simply. “Frankly, I don’t think they knew anything.”
“Well, I’d trust your instincts on that,” Tony said. He rinsed the razor under the sink and then set it aside. “So what’s our next move?” he asked.
“I want to know why those guys were sent after us. They have to know there’s no use trying to scare us. If they’d wanted to kill you—”
“I’d be dead,” Tony supplied, when it became apparent Steve wasn’t going to finish. “Or at least have a few more bullet holes. Whatever they wanted, they either didn’t get it, or they did and we don’t know it.”
“Either way, we’re changing rooms. I don’t like assassins knowing where to find us now that we know they’re looking.”
“It would be better to change hotels,” Tony said.
“Do you think we can get a room somewhere else on such short notice?”
“Probably,” Tony said. He stepped around Steve and into the bedroom, making his way over to the room phone. He could call around, see if there were any hotels nearby that had availabilities, preferably without requiring a credit card, since broadcasting where they’d gotten a room would completely defeat the purpose of moving.
The line crackled, and Tony hesitated, finger hovering over the nine. He gave it another beat, but the noised didn’t come again, and Tony quickly dialed the number for the front desk instead. Tony switched the phone over to his right hand and scribbled on the notepad beside the phone with his left.
The phone is tapped.
“Hi, Tony Stark. In the penthouse suite?”
“If you’re inquiring after the damage charges, they’re already been applied to your bill.”
Steve pulled the pad over. Are you sure?
Tony shook his head no, not sure, and Steve frowned, glancing around the room. He left the pad there, and started pacing around the bed, eyes tracking around the room.
“No, that’s not why I’m calling,” Tony said, while Steve ran his fingers over the light fixtures, combed through potted plants. “That’s fine, I’ll pay the damages, but my room is a little,” Steve stripped the dressings from the bed, and then flipped the mattress up as well, “messy. I’d like to change rooms.”
There was obvious reluctance in the manager’s voice when he said: “I don’t’ believe we have any suites available.”
Tony didn’t believe him, but he didn’t argue either.
“A normal room is fine,” he said. “One the bottom floor, if possible. And two beds,” he added as an afterthought.
There was a pause. “Would Room 113 be acceptable?”
“Fine,” Tony said hurriedly. Steve turned away from the mirror, a little black bud in his hand and Tony scowled. Judging by Steve’s expression, it was a wonder Steve hadn’t crushed the thing.
“—you can come to the front desk to reassign your keys.”
“Right,” Tony said distractedly. “How late is the front desk open?”
“Until nine,” he said.
“Okay. Thank you,” he said.
As soon as he hung up the phone, Steve asked: “What happened to changing hotels?”
He handed Tony a sheet of note paper.
“I’m not convinced we need to change tonight. It’ll be easier to make a reservation for tomorrow. For now, we’ll just change rooms.”
The same person?
If it is, they’ll act tonight. Tony scribbled back.
“Desk closes at nine though, so we’d better pack,” Tony turned to his suitcase, and he didn’t have to fake a sigh. “I wonder if there are any clothing stores that will deliver at this time of night.”
Steve was already packing his things away into a suitcase, and Tony stooped over to help him pull together what they had—they were already traveling light, even more so now that most of Tony’s things had been destroyed. Once Steve had zipped his bag up, he grabbed the notepad off the desk and scribbled.
We’re not staying in that room.
Then, he ripped out all of their notes, folded them up, and stuck them into his pocket. Tony shrugged, trying to convey of course not without having to say it outright, and then nodded toward the hallway. Even in the hall, Tony refrained from saying anything until they were nearing the elevator.
“We’ll get the room across the hall,” Tony said. “If they’re keeping tabs on us, odds are they’ll try something before we switch hotels—they won’t want to risk losing us entirely.”
“How much did we say, with those bugs in the room?” Steve asked.
“I’m pretty sure they have an extensive knowledge of how clueless we are on who they are and what their motives were,” Tony said. “At least now, they don’t know we’re coming for them. Or that we’re ready for them to come to us.”