The Stone Series: Part III
Chapter Eight

More than anything, it's the sight of Natasha losing her head in a crisis that's sobering to the point of despair. She's tucked back between the wall and a bank of counters, her shoulders hunched in and her face pressed between her knees. Clint's several steps away from her, close enough to offer the comfort of his presence but still give her some breathing room.

For one wild moment, Steve's mind shifts and refocuses: Natasha's got teeth; claws long and sharp; all the killer grace of a career predator. But Clint's worked with animals his whole life, and Steve finally understands how they work. Fierce, wounded, lonely—Clint knows how to approach them, when to offer his hand. When not to.

Steve drags his eyes away, takes in the mess of Bruce's lab as chill terror creeps anxiously up his spine. He's a soldier; he's walked into plenty of hairy situations in his life. But this—it's an emergency come outta left field, an ultimatum they've prepared for, but one Steve honestly didn't expect. And, 'cause of Steve, it's worse than it has to be. 'Cause he should've been here sooner.

There's a glittering trail of glass strewn with the remains of Loki's sofa, feathery clumps of fabric and stuffing, wood framework broke apart like the bones of birds. On the other side of it, Thor's staring helplessly through the sealed door of the containment chamber. He's got his hammer in hand, fine tremors undermining the strength of his grip.

Loki's nowhere to be found. Tony's nowhere to be found. Steve gets caught in the middle distance between panicking and pretending not to.

"Wait," Clint says sharply, suddenly at his side with a hand on his arm, and Steve's surprised to realize he's started moving. He shakes Clint off, though, keeps going, stalks toward one of the chamber's floor-to-ceiling windows so he can get a good look inside. Thor shifts outta the way, makes some space for him.

Howling and thrashing, a blur of greengrass muscle slamming into every solid surface, the Hulk's doing his damndest to break free. It's a terrifying show of force, but the structure holds.

...Then the Hulk shifts, just when Steve notices the slick slide of red across the floor, and he sees.

"No," Steve shouts, slamming a fist against the reinforced polymer.

Washed-out under the sterile lighting of the small room, tiny and crumpled before the heaving mass of a furious nightmare: Loki. He's very, very still. He's got Tony, unconscious, in his arms. They're both covered in blood.

The Hulk makes a lunge in their direction, he's practically right on top of 'em and Steve's heart stutters in his chest—but Loki vanishes. Reappears at the Hulk's back, his blind spot, far away as the limited space allows. Thor's brother doesn't move, doesn't blink; Steve can't even tell if he's breathing, and there's more blood on the floor than Steve ever thought a body could hold. But he's got his arms tight around Tony's chest.

"There's a failsafe," Clint says, his voice tight but resigned to the inevitable. "No one gets in or out until Bruce is back with us."

Steve stares at him. "Can't Loki—teleport them through the walls?"

"My brother is gravely wounded," Thor says, serious as death. "If he has not, it is because he cannot." For the life of him, Steve can't figure out why the guy's not slamming through the doors, the window, anything—but then he glances down. Thor's knuckles are a mangled mess, swollen like he's cracked some of the bones. His body's sharp with tension, compounded frustration and fear.

"Stark has override authority," Natasha says, her voice small. She hasn't yet unfolded herself from her corner.

"Stark's clocked out," Clint says bluntly. "There's no other way to open this fucking door. We've tried, Steve." There's an apology bit off, right there at the end. Steve ignores it, 'cause if he doesn't, he's lost.

"My programming is very specific," JARVIS says, speech stilted and stange. "I have redirected every resource toward locating a possible redundancy in the code, but Mister Stark took great pains to ensure that the system could not be compromised." There's a pause that sounds almost mechanical. "He did not foresee being trapped inside with Doctor Banner, I am sure."

Another crash doesn't quite shake the floor as the Hulk bursts against the far wall, furious to escape and destroy. Then he rolls his enormous fists down through the air in a perfect, violent arc—right over Tony and Loki.

A collective gasp, maybe from Thor and Steve, maybe from everyone; but the strike passes through the open air.

Edged up near the window now, just beside the reinforced entryway, Loki's got blood trickling from his mouth. His eyes've fallen to half-mast, cloudy and unfocused. Tony's still cradled close, but Loki's hands are loose and weak on his back.

They're not gonna make it, Steve thinks distantly, hysteria rising in him like white noise.

Then how did you get in, Pepper's voice reminds him. It trickles through the hot panic of his thoughts like a cool ribbon of water.

So Steve says, thoughtless and desperate: "JARVIS, open the door. But only long enough for us to pull 'em out."

Natasha breathes in sharply, and Clint makes a small, hard sound in the back of his throat. Thor simply looks up, waiting, and doesn't say a word.

And JARVIS says, with a clear note of relief: "System override, Captain Rogers seven-four-twenty-seventeen." The door slides open.

"What the fuck," Clint snaps, already fingering his bow, already loosing a detonating arrow into the Hulk's face.

The Hulk roars wildly, blinded and enraged, and just distracted enough that Thor and Steve can manhandle Loki and Tony outta the chamber.

The door slides shut before the other guy recovers, and Steve settles Tony gently on top of a stainless steel counter. The act reminds him of the bodies he's carried in his time, dead weight, boneless and absent. His arms tighten once around Tony's shoulders before letting go.

Thor's got Loki laid out on the medical table that was prepped for his procedure. He pushes a hand over his brother's bare torso through the peeling bandages, and Steve realizes with a sick start that the steady song of a leaky faucet's not a faucet at all. It's Loki's blood, pooling around him in an ever-spreading circle, slipping over the lip of the table to burst against the floor.

Loki blinks slowly, ashen-faced, and meets Thor's eyes with difficulty. He says something too quiet to make out, manages the shape of the words but not the breath to give them form. Thor leans down and speaks soft, meaningless reassurances against his ear.

Tony's out cold in front of Steve, half his face spotted with red and already darkening to true, bruised purple. Steve runs his fingers over the bones of cheek and jaw and temple, terrified; but there's nothing broken or shifting under the skin, and far as he can tell, it must've been a glancing blow.

"How did this happen," Steve asks tightly, watching Tony's chest rise and fall with each slow, deep breath.

"Bruce and Tony were talking shop," Clint says, coming up on his left. He's got a first aid kit, and he immediately starts checking Tony over with clinical efficiency. "Maybe a half hour after you left. Then they started arguing. I didn't realize it was about Pepper until Bruce stormed out."

Steve turns on him sharply. "What?" The thought of what it could've been rises in his chest like bile, screams and bellows and claws at his insides like the monster a dozen yards away from them, 'cause someday Tony's mouth is gonna get him killed.

Natasha's trying to get to her feet, to force herself up outta sheer will even as she darts furtive looks at the containment chamber. There's another muted crash from inside. When Clint offers his hand, she takes it.

"Stark followed him to the lab," she says. Her lips are pale, but her voice doesn't shake at all. "Wouldn't let it go. You know how he gets."

You idiot, Steve thinks angrily. He can see it in his mind's eye: Bruce furious over the breakdown of his made family, furious with Tony, wanting to be alone to calm down. Tony pushing and pushing and pushing 'til he gets a goddamn reaction. He's irreverent and caustic and careless, and people don't put up with that forever.

But then Steve realizes this would've been the third time today someone Tony cares about walked out on him. He understands Tony's desperation in a carefully fitted moment of empathy, like a lock clicking open; a seamless mechanism. Bleakly, Steve wonders if Tony's some kinda glutton for punishment. It'd explain a lot.

"That's about when we called you," Clint says. He doesn't sound accusing, but Steve feels guilty all the same.

"I feared their quarrel would come to blows," Thor says heavily. "I left Loki's side to intervene." He touches his brother's cheek. In a crooked moment of symmetry, the mess of his knuckles matches the red streaks on Loki's chin, the ragged gore of his belly.

It's how they spill their blood, Steve thinks sadly, not how it fits in their veins. That's the true family resemblance.

"But our Bruce had begun the transformation. I attempted to restrain him, that Tony should bear my brother to safety. I—did not succeed." Thor bows his head, shame and guilt twisting the grief on his face. He's bruised too, an awkward half-moon of darkness heavy around his left eye. He cradles the empty house of Loki's body, stares down at him like there's still someone inside.

"By the time we caught up with them, Tony was unconscious and the system was locked down. They were both trapped inside with the Hulk," Clint says, hard lines on his forehead. "Loki shouldn't have been walking, let alone using short-range teleportation. Multi-system failure doesn't even begin to cover it. He's so fucked."

"Thor," Steve says gently.

"Attend to your shield brother," Thor whispers, voice hoarse and gravelly and lost. "I will attend my own, and dress his wounds as best I can." He starts peeling the ragged bandages from Loki's chest.

Natasha, pushing her sleeves up, joins him. "Tony was talking about synthesizing Asgardian DNA. If he'd ever gotten around to it, we could have attempted a blood transfusion. I guess that doesn't really help us right now, though." Gently, she brushes a sticky strand of hair outta Loki's face.

"Tasha," Clint murmurs.

"It's fine," she says, voice clipped, but Steve hears her for what she really means: I'm okay. There's no trace of her previous terror now that she can put herself to use.

While she explains to Thor what a blood transfusion is, Clint snags an ice pack from the refrigerator and gently presses it to Tony's eye. "You might wanna keep your phone on you, going forward," he mentions to Steve. "And maybe it's not a great idea to have JARVIS reroute your calls to voicemail."

"JARVIS wasn't happy about that either," Steve says, ducking his head. "He made that clear."

"He would've known you had the override." Clint sounds exhausted, and for the first time Steve notices a thin cut just under his jaw. It stretches from his earlobe to the point of his chin. "He just wasn't authorized to tell anyone."

"Hard-coded security," Steve sighs, shaking his head. "Right. Jesus."

"So you would collect my blood," Thor's saying, a little ways away from them, "and he would take it into his body and be healed?"

"No," Natasha says patiently, her hands working over the bandages. She tears off a strip of medical tape. "It could keep him from dying, though. But you usually need to have the same kind of blood."

"This is vexing," Thor rumbles, his lips in a tight line.

Natasha opens her mouth to say something else, but then she pauses and tilts her head. "I'm sorry," she says.

Thor's brow wrinkles in confusion. But then he realizes, right about when Steve does, that she's talking to Bruce.

The containment chamber's quietly opened on it own. He comes to them naked and rumpled, fingers knotted together and shoulders hunched in.

Natasha goes to him and passes over his glasses. The warmth at Steve's side dissipates as Clint leaves to get him a pair of pants.

"I can't think of a single reason," Bruce murmurs softly, "why you would be apologizing to me, Natasha."

"I shouldn't be afraid," she says firmly, her face expressionless and cold in that perfect way that means she's baring everything. 'Cause she's not putting on an act; 'cause she's herself. Vulnerable with blood on her hands and arms from Loki's injuries.

"Then I shouldn't scare you." Clint returns, and Bruce tugs the slacks up over his hips without a trace of shyness. They're dark gray. Then his eyes fall on Tony, and go wide. "What did I—"

"He's just knocked out," Clint says, "far as I can tell. Loki's not doing so hot, though."

Bruce is quiet for a few long minutes. Then he looks at Steve, stiff and old beyond his years, face creased with misery and anger and disappointment. "I'm going to make sure I didn't give Tony any lasting brain damage, but after that I need to—not be around him. For awhile." He swallows thickly and looks at Thor. "I—didn't actually kill Loki this time, did I?"

"No," Thor says. His voice is very, very quiet.

Bruce takes a deep, steadying breath and rakes a hand through his hair. Then he says, "I'll do what I can. After that, I'm going to find Pepper."

Says, "Because this entire situation is fucking unacceptable."

Bruce and Natasha patch Loki up just like before, moving in careful tandem while Clint hangs off to the side and adjusts the fine bones in Thor's hands. His movements are fluid and sure, like he's done this kinda thing any number of times in his life.

There's nothing for Steve to do to help, so he simply watches. Thick, colorless fluid oozes through the IV in Loki's arm; Natasha's efficient hands double-check stitches and vitals; Clint wraps Thor's knuckles in sturdy bandages, reaches up to squeeze his shoulder. No one says anything beyond basic instruction. After Loki's as stable as a guy on his deathbed can get, Bruce leaves.

Natasha washes her hands up to her elbows and sets up camp in Bruce's living room, on the long wraparound couch, to keep watch over Tony. Thor stays at Loki's side in the lab, staring dully into his slack face.

"Ice," Steve says, handing a pack to Thor to hold over his hands. "For the swelling." Thor goes through the motions, but otherwise it's like Steve's not even in the room.

But then he says, "I am lost. I have failed him."

"You haven't," Steve tells him. "To him, he's the one who disappointed you."

Thor shakes his head. "He could never."

Funny thing: Steve really believes him.

On his way out, Natasha snags his wrist as he passes by. He links their fingers, squeezes her hand, but he doesn't stay. Like Bruce, he doesn't really wanna be around when Tony wakes up.

She doesn't say a word, just nods briefly as Steve turns to go. Distantly, Steve realizes he loves her. Loves all of them. And if it weren't for him, most of this could've been avoided.

Back on his own floor, in his own space, Steve takes From Here to Eternity out to the hot tub by his pool and strips down to his skin, rests his muscles for a good twenty minutes. It helps the ache, but he's still gonna be sore in the morning. He shouldn't've run for so long. He should've brought a map, or his phone.

After, Steve swims a few laps in the pool. Takes a shower. Browses through the video collection before settling on a couple documentaries. The first one's about the anglerfish, which Steve finds frankly horrifying; the second's on Clydesdale horses, dry but informative, and easier to watch than the mating habits of anglerfish.

"Miss Romanov incoming, Captain," JARVIS says, much later.

"Bruce called," Natasha informs him, her face coming up on the coffee table. Steve wonders if he'll ever get used to having people beneath his food and books and heels. Figures he probably oughta stop propping up his feet on the furniture. "He found Pepper. She's had a lot to drink. He doesn't feel comfortable leaving her by herself, so they're going back to the mansion for the night. "

"She okay?"

"Probably not. But she'll handle it like everything else." Then, probably 'cause she knows Steve doesn't wanna ask, but wants to know, "Tony's awake. Complaining about the cartoon Thor's watching, so he'll probably be right as rain in a few days."

"And Loki?"

"Sleeping. Breathing." She glances off-screen, backlit by a lightsource Steve can't pick out. The glow catches her in profile for one fragmented instant. Then she looks back. "Thor says that's enough."

"What about you, Natasha?" Steve asks. He's not sure if he's allowed to, if it's something she'll talk about. Weakness—well, it's not something he's ever associated with Black Widow.

"Fine," she says, voice clipped. "I apologize for my performance."

"Not what I meant," Steve says.

Natasha's quiet for a long moment, her pale eyes speculative. Then, careful about every word, she says, "I am a very capable person. I'm very strong and fast. I can manipulate a politician, a criminal, an alien god—but I can't—," she pauses. Closes her mouth. Opens it again. "I am not capable of damaging the Hulk. I can't stop him. I can't talk to him or trick him to keep him from hurting me. All I can do is run and wait for the dust to settle." She tilts her head up, a man staring down a firing squad. "His very existence disarms me."

Steve's mouth goes dry. "They're working on something for that. Tony and Bruce. So he won't have any more—unwilling transformations."

"Now?" She asks softly. "When they can't even be in the same room together?"

"Especially now," Steve says firmly.

Natasha nods thoughtfully. "Tony's asking about you."

"Let me know if anything else comes up," Steve says. He ends the call.

The rest of the evening's relatively silent. At one point, a light rain starts to fall.

"Would you like me to activate the soundproofing substrate, Captain?"

"I don't mind it," Steve says. It crowds down around him like white noise.

He reads a few more pages of Eternity, gets restless, gets up. Wanders around a space with everything he could want or need, listless and trapped. It's too big for him; it's claustrophobic. He needs someone to talk to, he wants to be alone.

He—really needs to do something with his hands.

In the room with his art supplies, Steve finds sheaves of paper he's sure he didn't purchase. The stock is thick, high-quality, archival and acid-free. It was clearly expensive, and there's a full range of colors and textures—creams and eggshells and bright whites, heavier tooths that soak up charcoal and smooth, cool finishes ideal for inks and markers. There's also a new set of pencils in a plastic-wrapped box, right under the ones he's currently using.

Steve rubs the pads of his fingers over his palms, cracks his wrists. He wonders how long they've been here, if they're some kinda apology or just an afterthought from the move Steve overlooked. Tony's thoughtful, thoughtless, appalling and frustrating and endearing; Steve's got no idea how to navigate ground that's always changing beneath his feet. He's still so angry at Tony for Pepper, for being an asshole all damn day, for almost getting himself killed by Bruce 'cause of his damn mouth—but right along with the anger, he still misses Tony like a limb, like air. Like his recent, unreachable past.

So Steve draws. JARVIS adjusts the lights without being asked, and even if nothing worth sharing comes of it, the process settles him. The heavy black strokes sweep long and easy, sink into the linen paper like melting butter over toast. It's cathartic, calming; it's exactly what he needs.

Steve wasn't dreaming, not really, but coming awake all at once jars him. There's a weight settling onto his bed, the soft sound of skin against his sheets, and the familiar smell of Tony's soap. His hair's damp when he presses his face into Steve's neck, his hands cool over Steve's belly and back as he burrows in close. About when his thighs slide hot against Steve's own, the knowledge comes in a slow wave that Tony's not wearing anything.

"Mind telling me," Tony mutters irritably, placing soft, dry kisses on Steve's jaw, nosing his hairline and breathing in deep, "why I had to hack my own AI to get into my boyfriend's bedroom?"

"That really what you're gonna lead with?" Steve tries to sit up, blinking against the familiar glow of the arc reactor, but Tony's arms firm up like steel bands and hold him in place. His tongue slips out, sketches illegible symbols just behind Steve's ear.

"If I apologize right off the bat," Tony explains patiently, one hand creeping down around Steve's hips and slipping beneath the waistband of his pants, "It might remind you of what an unrepentant doucheconoe I was today, and how you can't stand the sight of me. And then I don't get to sleep here." His teeth scrape lightly over Steve's jugular, dry and warm, leaving tiny sparks in their wake.

It's all Steve can do to swallow back a moan, to keep his hands firmly at his sides. "That so."

"I'm fine, by the way," Tony mentions, sucking a soft bruise into his chest even as he slides Steve's pants the rest of the way off. "Thanks for asking."

Steve's throat works around the soft sounds that try to slip out, but then Tony's hand curls around his cock and a sharp gasp escapes.

"There we go," Tony says, a picture of satisfaction. Then he leans down and sucks the tip into his mouth.

Steve's just sinking his fingers into Tony's thick, dark hair when Tony's jaw stiffens.

"Stop," Steve orders, pulling him up with an arm around his back and reaching over to fumble for the bedside lamp.

Tony sighs and says, "JARVIS, lights. Twenty percent?"

"Certainly, Sir," JARVIS replies. Steve'd be hard to pressed to find anyone else who could fit so much disapproval into two short words.

"Oh, come on," Tony complains as the lights come up, "does no one in this house still like me?"

"I have no idea," JARVIS says primly, "to what you are referring. Sir."

"Holy cow, Tony," Steve sighs. The bruising on Tony's face darkens his cheek and temple, smears black across the line of his jaw and deep, unsettling red near his nose. Steve reaches out and curves his fingers around Tony's head, thumbs the swollen flesh as gently as he knows how.

Tony slides his palm over Steve's knuckles and turns his eyes away. "Yeah, well. Common consensus is I deserved this."

"No," Steve says, sitting back against the headboard. "Just 'cause you screwed up doesn't mean you deserve to get beat to a pulp." He pulls Tony into his lap, rests his head against Tony's chest. It's good—the the tight curl of their bodies, the smooth surface of the arc reactor against his cheek; the blue glow on the other side of his closed eyes, and Tony's warm hands sliding up and down his back. They've gotten a lot wrong up 'til now, but if there's another place on this planet that feels as much like home as the circle of Tony's arms, Steve's never found it.

Tony shifts and kisses the top of his head. They're both only half-hard, but the agonizing moment of friction at the slow roll of Tony's hips might change that pretty quick. "You were worried," he murmurs, soft and surprised. "I didn't think—"

"You never think," Steve tells him irritably. "Look. About earlier."

Tony's hands, which've been sliding thoughtfully low over Steve's spine, pause. "Okay, I just—"

"No. Listen." Steve braces his hands on Tony's waist, but gets some space between their bodies so he can think. "We had an affair, Tony. You said you were gonna leave Pepper. You didn't."

Tony rests a hand inside one of Steve's elbows, curls his feet unhappily into the Iron Man sheets and picks at the fabric with his toes. "No," he allows.

"It was a mistake—"

"Jeez, Cap, tell me how you really feel," Tony snorts, his body tight and anxious despite his dry tone. But there's no underscore of cruelty to his words, no reflexive nastiness as an act of self-defense. He simply looks resigned.

Steve shakes his head, exasperated. "Not us," he says firmly. "I don't—regret this. You and me. I can't." Then he narrows his eyes. "But you should've been honest with me up front. And we should've waited."

Tony looks at him for a long time, forehead folded in on itself like he's working through something complicated, mathematical, outta Steve's league. Finally he says, "Point taken."

"It wasn't right, waiting 'til Pepper found out on her own. Wasn't fair."

Tony looks away. "I know. She deserved better."

"You oughta tell her that," Steve says sharply. "You should've told her that before you broke her heart, Tony. Even the way you treated me today, like you—like you don't," he pauses. Like you don't love me, he can't quite manage.

It's something Steve doesn't know for sure, 'cause it's something Tony's never said. Steve's learned first-hand how hope can kill a man, but uncertainty will cut your legs right out from under you when you're still miles from home.

Tony turns his head, waiting. Slides one of his hands down between their bodies and curls his fingers around both their dicks. "Like I don't what?"

Steve closes his eyes, memorizing the feel of Tony's callouses; the perfect weight of his body; the warmth of his breath. "Don't worry about it. But you've gotta stop being a jerk, Tony."

"I'm getting better." He gives an experimental squeeze.

Steve's breath hitches. "From when we first met, yeah."

Tony frowns, then winces. Steve leans in and cups his face with gentle fingers. "Careful."

Tony lowers his eyes, leans in so their foreheads are touching. Works his hand, smearing precome over their flushed skin, and Steve wishes it could be as simple as this: the easy intimacy of close contact, Tony's thighs over his hips, the devilish skill of his fingers and the slow rock of his body.

Steve licks his hand, long and wet and slick, and joins it to Tony's. JARVIS dims the lights. It's a long time before they speak again.

"What if I've lost her, Steve," he asks later, flush and sticky and sated.

"You haven't," Steve says, remembering. Pepper's a sure thing. "It'll be hard for a while, but." She'll never not be in the picture.

He pulls off his t-shirt and uses it to wipe them down, careful not to move too much, then resettles the blankets around them. Tony angles in, his pulse thrumming in line with Steve's body at wrist and groin and throat. There's the rush of blood in Tony's belly, hot and steady; the beat of his heart, muted, beneath a delicate tracery of metal and glass.

"Don't let me this fuck up anymore," Tony whispers, reaching for his hand. "Please. Don't let me fuck up, and don't—leave me."

Steve moves over him in the semi-darkness, meets the molten flash of Tony's dark eyes even as Tony tries to look away. "Don't see how I could," Steve says quietly, "since I haven't yet."

Tony exhales, long and harsh, and murmurs something that gets lost in the press of their mouths. Steve braces his weight on his arms and leans back, looks down at Tony spread out beneath him. The bruises are ugly and dark; his eyes are wet; he looks so relieved he could cry. Steve kisses the fine lines of his face, traces the salt of Tony's lashes with his tongue. "Stop," he says gently.

"But I—"

"Not if it hurts you," Steve says, touching his thumb Tony's lower lip. Tony opens for him, pulls it into his mouth.

"I've had worse."

Steve palms Tony's neck, his shoulders, his chest. Skates his fingertips over Tony's ribs and trails butterfly-soft kisses along the uninjured half of his jaw. Tony moans low in his throat, arches up like nothing on earth's ever been as good to him as Steve's hands.

"Get some rest," Steve finally says, moving to his own side of the bed and stretching out on his back. "JARVIS, can you please disable the alarm clock?"

"Certainly, Captain Rogers," JARVIS replies promptly.

"I can't believe you seduced my AI with your forties charm. How can your charisma possibly supercede my own."

"So program him to like you better." When Tony inches a hand down over Steve's belly, Steve grabs it, pulls it up, kisses the knuckles.

"That's cheating," Tony mumbles. "Anyway, I can't. The whole point of the project was to create a functional intelligence that developed a personality all on its own. I can't just change him. Contrary to popular belief, I'm not actually a monster."

"For which we are ever grateful," JARVIS mentions.

Steve laughs, and Tony relaxes against him. After a while, 'cause Steve's still got his hand, Tony links their fingers together and asks, tentatively, "We're really doing this. Right?"

Steve drops a kiss in his hair. "Going to sleep?"

"Dating," Tony says earnestly. He shifts a bit, messes up the covers so he can get a good look at Steve's face. "You and me. You'll—consent to being my boyfriend or whatever, and this—us—will be a thing. A long-term thing?"

Steve presses his lips together thoughtfully.

"You're killing me here, Cap."

"Long-term," Steve says, watching Tony's face. "As in—"

"What, you wanna put time limit on it?" Tony pinches Steve with his toes. "Sure, you'll get tired of me eventually, everyone does, it's not news that I'm a low-doses kind of guy—"

"Not saying th—"

"Look," Tony says hastily, "I know you don't—love—me, but. I thought maybe we could work up to it."

Steve stares at him.

Tony grimaces. "If we can't, it's—I mean, if. If you meet someone else after a while, I'd. Y'know, get over it. Eventually. But for now—"

"You think I don't—," Steve begins, baffled, but then he catches up with the rest of what Tony's saying. "You think I'd settle for a relationship of convenience?"

"What else would we be doing?" Tony asks bluntly.

Steve grits his teeth around the tight knot at the back of his throat. What else, indeed. For a minute there, he almost thought—

"Um," Tony says cautiously. He's staring at Steve's knuckles, bleached white from gripping the sheets. Then he looks up at Steve's face.

What else, Steve thinks again, furious. He shifts his body away from Tony's. "You need to go."

Tony doesn't move.

Steve says, "Please."

Tony's quiet for a long handful of moments, watching Steve with that sharp, contemplative gaze again while time slips between them like water. Like seven decades of ice. Then he says, "I think there's been a misunderstanding."

Says, "I'm in love with you."

Steve opens his mouth. Steve closes his mouth.

"It's entirely possible," Tony continues slowly, "what with all the, the declarations about Pepper, that I never got around to actually saying it. Out loud. To you."

"No," Steve says. "You didn't."

Tony looks pained. "To be fair, I told you I was leaving her for you."

"All that tells me," Steve says steadily, "is you're the kinda guy to jump ship soon as someone else catches your interest."

"If you really thought I was leaving my perfect girlfriend for an FWB—"

"I don't know what that is," Steve mentions.

"I asked you to be my boyfriend! I told you I wanted to marry you," Tony says, incredulous.

"You say a lotta things, Tony."

Tony starfishes out in the bed and exhales loudly, long-suffering and put-upon. He turns his face into the pillow, frustrated. Then he sits up on his elbows. "Wait. You—you assumed I was using you for sex and you still gave me your butt virginity?"

"You didn't seem to mind the first time."

"The first—oh my god. Steve." Tony buries his face in his hands. Then he yelps and gingerly pulls his palms away.

Steve shakes his head and leans in to kiss the mess of dark, swollen tissue around Tony's eye. It's not something he can help, and he's not quite able to stop. "Don't hurt yourself any worse, dummy."

"DUM-E is one of my friends that I built," Tony complains imperiously. "If we're doing the pet-name thing, I have a good track record with 'asshole' or 'jerk'."

Steve huffs a laugh against Tony's ear. "But not, say, babydoll?"

Tony looks thoughtful. "I don't think I mind that too much."

"Good," Steve says against Tony's cheek, his jaw. "Now go to bed."

"Wait. So." Tony shifts a bit, slides their limbs together 'til Steve's trapped. "You've—never been with anyone else?"

"No," Steve says.

"Oh. How, uh. How do you feel about that?" Tony's not looking at him, but his tone's carefully even.

"Fine," Steve answers honestly. "I don't wanna be with anyone else."

A line of tension melts outta Tony's shoulders, even as his heart rate picks up. Steve can almost taste the rhythm against his tongue. "Okay. Okay. So—are you my boyfriend or not? D'you—you know."

Steve tilts his head, palming Tony's shoulder. "Do I what?"

Tony shoots him a narrow glare packaged in a neat frown. "Your wholesome Captain America facade is only a mask for your nefarious evi."

"Right," Steve says. "Good night."

"You're really making me ask? This is an awful way to start a relationship."

"I can think of worse," Steve says seriously.

Tony grimaces. "Low blow." Then he wriggles closer, antsy and impatient. It's kinda sweet. "Well? Do you or don't you?"

Steve rolls his eyes, but carefully gathers Tony against his chest. "I do," he says. Something shivers through Tony's body. Steve's arms tighten around him. "'Course I do."

"And you'll be my boyfriend," Tony says flatly.

"Yeah, Tony," Steve sighs, exasperated and fond. "I'll be your boyfriend."

Tony hides his warm face in Steve's neck, for once mindful of the bruises. "You're my boyfriend and you love me. Was that so fucking hard?"

Steve's alone when he wakes up. Tony makes himself scarce the next day, and most of the next week—he holes up in Bruce's lab, monitoring Loki's vitals alongside Bruce himself. Steve's not sure if they've had words or not, but they look busy whenever he stops by.

He checks in with JARVIS to see if they're actually eating the food he brings down, but other than that, he gives Tony plenty of space. Steve's not sure what it means, dating him—how they're allowed to act around each other when they're not alone, who they're telling. If they oughta wait 'til things settle down before making any grand declarations.

He doesn't ask anyone about Pepper, but Natasha lets slip she's flown back to Malibu.

At one point, Fury calls in to see if Clint's available to help neutralize a hostage situation with minors. Once he's sure it's a nonlethal operation, and that Clint himself consents, he allows it.

Thor doesn't leave Loki's side. Sometimes Loki wakes up, but mostly he doesn't.

This time around, Steve's not lonely so much as waiting for the other foot to drop. He doesn't feel left out or isolated; he knows it's temporary, and does his best to make himself useful in the meantime.

And, though he never actually finds Tony in bed with him, some days he wakes up to still-warm sheets.

The next Monday, a hard-faced mutant with stiff brown hair meets Steve in front of Professor Xavier's office. He's got the build and the temperament of a bodyguard and stands like he's been a fighter his whole life. "Personal business," he says when Steve asks, shrugging one shoulder. "He'll be out in a minute or two. Doesn't usually run this long."

"Steve," Steve says, offering his hand.

"I know," the man says. Steve thinks he might not take it; wouldn't be the first time someone's written him off. But in the end he does, and even with all that dense muscle knotted over his arms, Steve's still surprised by the strength of his grip. "Logan."

They stand in silence for awhile, Logan with his arms crossed just outside the office door, Steve a little ways away with his hands in his pockets. There's some neat artwork on the walls, and he looks it over with interest.

When the door opens about ten minutes later, Logan's stepped aside with a bitter twist to his mouth. The sunlight pours out into the hall, tracing the outline of a very tall man and flashing off the top of his head.

It's Magneto. Steve takes a breath.

He doesn't look at either of them as he passes by, the sharp lines of his chin angled with the smooth surface and vicious points of his helmet. His shoulders form a perfect square, his steps a solid rhythm. Steve's never seen someone so regal.

But then he steps outta sight of the professor's office, and the moment passes. He's just another tired old man. And then he's gone.

"Logan," a new voice says, and suddenly there's a small asian girl with her hand at Logan's elbow. Steve hadn't even heard her come up. "You promised me two hours with the sword." She's got some kinda accent, whatever country she's from, but she doesn't hesitate over her words at all.

Logan huffs. "I was drunk. My swords are built-in, why do I need to practice with a real one?"

"You were not drunk," the girl says disdainfully. "You can't get drunk."

"The last thing I need's a kid lecturing me on booze," he growls, but reluctantly follows her out. Steve watches them go, bemused.

"How old do you think Mariko is?" The girl snaps thickly, her voice fading out as they turn a corner. "We are the same age!"

Steve shakes his head and goes into the office.

"It's good to see you, Steven," Charles says. He's sitting behind his desk with his hands folded. There are two glass tumblers nearby, both empty, and a thick stack of paperwork. "I apologize for the delay."

"It's fine," Steve says, trying to look Charles over without being obvious about it. He lifts a shoulder in the direction of the hall. "How'd that go?"

"Quite well, all things considered," Charles says. He doesn't look too much worse for wear. He's even smiling. "I believe our immediate concerns may be dispelled for the time being."

"Good," Steve says, taking a seat.

"That said," Charles continues, his eyes bright and direct. "How are your concerns at present?"

Steve doesn't mean to go into it—not all of it, anyway, not really—but what happens is, he starts at the beginning. 'Cause you gotta start somewhere. And then he can't stop.

He doesn't leave anything out. There's Tony on the helicarrier, Steve figuring him out by degrees; there's Steve's first time, bathed in the ghostlight of an arc reactor reflecting off steel, utilitarian walls. Breakfast at an outdoor cafe followed by a month of radio silence.

He talks about Natasha visiting his apartment and Bruce's anxious hands on the centrifuge, Clint breaking him into the zoo with two bright eyes. Pepper. Dinner with Tony, Loki breaking down in Central Park, Thor's impossible faith in his little brother.

Steve knows he's talking, but he gets the sense that Charles is looking through a photobook, sometimes; that the images come out in a fluid rush along with the words. It's more than he ever thought he'd feel comfortable giving away, but the lightness he feels afterward is almost unbearable.

"I'm sorry," he says, realizing a couple hours've passed. "Didn't mean to take so long."

"It is perfectly all right, Steven," Charles assures, warm and present. Steve's struck with a sense of inertia. It's as though Charles is a black hole, or a whirlpool: an inexorable vacuum that draws everything outta you 'til there's nothing left to weigh you down. Steve doesn't deserve the fondness he finds in Charles's eyes.

He'd accept judgement or disappointment, but they're not on offer. "I'm sorry," Steve blurts out.

Charles leans forward, raising his eyebrows curiously. "Whatever for? You came awake in absolute isolation, helped to save a world that had become utterly unfamiliar to you, and managed to forge meaningful relationships with each of your teammates."

"I didn't," Steve says, shaking his head. "They did. They—wouldn't leave me alone."

Charles studies him for a long moment. Then he asks, "And what do you think it says about you, that others should actively choose to pursue your friendship?"

"Fury—," Steve begins uncertainly.

"Had nothing to do with Clint Barton cooking french toast for you, or Natasha Romanov sitting for a portrait." Charles's lips thin out, and his expression hardens slightly. "He certainly had nothing to do with Tony Stark falling in love with you."

Steve turns his head, ashamed.

"I will tell you, Steven," Charles says firmly, reaching across the desk to take Steve's hand. "You can feel guilty for how you chose to handle your relationship with Tony. You can feel guilty for how Pepper Potts found out about it. But what you cannot do," he says, squeezing Steve's fingers with surprising strength, "is regret that you have found happiness in the face of tremendous adversity."

"It was wrong," Steve says firmly.

"It was inevitable." Charles replies. "In my experience, relationships don't end due to external factors. They end because of some inherent incompatibility. You weren't part of the hardwired equation—you were simply a catalyst that triggered a mortal flaw, preexisting, in the firmament. There are worse things than falling in love, Steven."

An image leaks into his mind: darkness, a lit menorah, a mother and son. It's the kinda beautiful that goes out the other side of beautiful, that causes shadows to deepen on Charles's face and age him beyond his years.

But then it fades out, the memory of a memory: a cloud crossing the sun. It passes.

He's sent home with a crate of produce that straps onto the back of his motorcycle. Monday midmorning traffic's not horrible, but he doesn't pull up to the Tower 'til almost eleven. He's in the kitchen on the main floor when his phone rings.

"Hello?" Steve says, fumbling at the touch screen around a handful of tomatoes. He manages to get it against his ear, pinched between his face and his shoulder like a pro. He doesn't drop a single vegetable.

"We're still dating, right?" Tony asks pensively, his voice hazy with exhaustion. "I'm not sure because you're not in bed with me."

"We haven't technically been on a date," Steve points out.

"We went to dinner!"

"To discuss domestic terrorists."

"But—we totally had sex!"

"That was," Steve says, "unrelated."

Tony makes an impatient noise. "If dinner ends in sex, it's a date. And even if it's not, we still have tickets to see Wicked."

"When is that, by the way?" Steve asks.

"I don't remember," Tony sighs. "Come to bed."

Steve looks over the tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, eggplant—there's fresh herbs, too, and bread in the cupboard. "You eat today? I'll make you breakfast."

After a beat of silence, Tony says, "Breakfast in bed?"

"Sure," Steve says. "If you shower first."

"Defeats the point of sleeping in."

"That a yes or a no?"

A half hour later, Tony's buried face-down in Steve's Iron Man sheets, his hair still wet and soaking into the pillows. Steve's got a tray of whole-grain toast with sliced tomatoes, olive oil, and cilantro piled on top, and Tony sits up blearily and makes a grab for it.

"Oh, I forgot to tell you. We got it," he mentions, absently wiping the crumbs off his mouth with the back of his wrist. His bruises've faded to a dull green, more yellow than anything else. Steve'll be glad to see the last of them. "Loki's stabilized and prepped for the new reactor, and Bruce's reactor is ready, too. We're calling it the HulkOff." He grins broadly. "Not bad for a week's work, huh?"

"No," Steve agrees, flashing him a small smile. I love you, he thinks. The sentiment surfaces for no reason at all. It warms him through.

Tony narrows his eyes speculatively, but finishes his breakfast in silence. Then he sets his plate aside, wiping his mouth on a napkin this time, and swallows about half his orange juice. So he tastes like citrus when he shoves Steve back onto the bed.

"We'll have to cut into him a tiny bit," Tony admits, scalpel already in hand. He wisely decides to set it aside.

"You would mutilate my brother?" Thor glowers, his arms crossed over his big chest. Steve rests a hand on his back in a vague attempt to dispel some of his anger.

"Just a little," Tony says. "Once the device is implanted, he can let his body heal. Everybody wins."

Thor frowns severely, but there's a helpless twist to his mouth when he glances down at his brother. On the improvised operating table, Loki's pale body stretches long and bony and bare, his hair loose and dark around his shoulders. His half-open eyes sketch sightless paths across the ceiling. Steve's gotta watch him for a long time before he's able to pick out the subtle rise and fall of his stomach, the faint, rare flash of his pulse. He's barely breathing.

Thor touches Loki's hand. "Do this," he says. "Make him whole. I beseech you."

"Sure thing, buddy," Tony tells him seriously.

Clint's still on his way home from his SHIELD debrief, but Natasha's on hand at Steve's side. Tony and Bruce double check the setup and the equipment, moving carefully around each other with the ease of long practice.

"Remember," Tony tells him, pulling on a pair of latex gloves, "Mommy and Daddy still love you very much. I know it seems like the end of the world right now, but this is better for all of us in the long run."

"You're such an asshole," Bruce huffs. But there's no real anger in it, and Steve thinks maybe they're gonna be okay.

"I have been informed that there will likely be a great deal of pain involved," Loki's telling his brother in a soft, thready voice. "It may be for the best if you take your leave until I am sufficiently recovered."

"I will not leave you," Thor growls. Loki reaches out blindly, and when Thor takes his hand, he turns his head to the side. Slowly, slowly, he drags his eyes toward his brother's face.

"Then do not," Loki sighs, speaking with effort. "And remain."

"It'll be over soon," Bruce informs them. He's got a device in his hands, small and sharp-looking, that makes Steve extremely uncomfortable.

"Maybe ten, fifteen minutes tops," Tony adds. Then he explains the procedure.

There's a small bone, just above the sternum, called the manubrium. It's shaped roughly like a medallion. Bruce and Tony'll open Loki up; they'll affix the psychic signal-jamming arc reactor to the backside of the bone; they'll close him up. And, hopefully, Loki'll start to heal.

It's difficult to watch. They can't sedate him—whatever he's done to suppress his healing abilities, he's gotta be conscious to undo it. Anyway, Steve's not even sure there's any drug on Earth powerful enough to affect his alien physiology.

He doesn't scream when they start cutting into him. As Bruce's careful hands maneuver the miniature bone saw, salt gathers in the corners of Loki's wide, unblinking eyes. It trickles down over his temples in bright tracks. Natasha doesn't look away; Tony does; Thor's eyes never leave Loki's face.

For Steve, the world's reduced to the sounds of tight, quietly controlled breathing and the wet rush of air from Loki's open mouth. The muffled crush of cartilage separating from bone.

Natasha smooths her hand over Loki's knee. It's almost maternal.

When Tony carefully removes the manubrium, it slides out like a wet, red sand dollar. His gloved fingers slip over the surface as he finds a grip, sweat beading along his hairline as he drills tiny starter holes into the bone.

Bruce holds his fingers carefully in place, keeps Loki's chest propped open 'til Tony finally screws the arc reactor down. He fiddles with it for a moment, testing the hold, and when he's satisfied, he gently settles the bone back in place. His hands are perfectly steady. Even at Loki's sharp gasp, he doesn't flinch.

Bruce allows the bones and cartilage to fall back into place, closes Loki up with gauze pads and lots of medical tape. "If you can do your healing magic," he tells Loki, "now would be a good time."

With effort, Loki asks, "You are sure?"

"Yes," Bruce says firmly.

"Please," Thor says. He reaches over and smoothes his fingers over Loki's pale face, touches his cheek and his chin, traces the delicate shell of his ear. His hand's splotchy red and white from where Loki's been holding on to it.

"I'll just. I'll be right back," Tony says. He practically flies from the room. Steve follows him.

There's a bathroom in Bruce's lab, but Tony chooses the one in the apartment proper, on the other side of the floor. By the time Steve's caught up with him, he's already bent, dry-heaving, over the toilet.

Steve sits down on the edge of the bathtub and rubs slow circles on his back.

"One time," Tony gasps between huge mouthfuls of air, "I made P-Pepper replace my arc reactor." He coughs wetly, hands gripping the edge of the seat. "I didn't even think about what I was asking her, she was almost crying at the e-end, made me promise never to m-make her do it," there's another stilted pause, and Steve runs his fingers through Tony's hair, touches his neck, palms his spine reassuringly. "N-never to make her do it a-again."

"Did you?" Steve asks softly. "Promise?"

Tony snorts, cautiously sitting back on his knees. He tears off a strip of toilet paper and wipes excess saliva and little bit of bile off his mouth. "No," he says wearily. "No. I told her she was all I h-had."

Steve doesn't say anything, and Tony doesn't look at him.

"In retrospect, I u-used to be kind of a selfish asshole."