Pairing : Steve/Tony, OMC/Tony (reference)
Disclaimer : I don't own The Avengers
Rating : nc17/18
Word Count : 64,581
Beta : Meah Booth
Summary : Tony's face was symmetrical now.
Tony's face was symmetrical now.
It had taken Steve a while to see it. And it'd probably been that long because it had taken a long time for Steve to be able to look at Tony in the eyes or even look at his face.
He didn't know if it came from Extremis. Steve couldn't remember Tony's face ever being symmetrical. Maybe it'd been and he'd never really paid attention to it, maybe it was new, maybe…
He didn't know what woke him. It couldn't be the sound of the city; the Tower was extremely well soundproofed from everything happening on the outside, and they were so high they barely heard any sound when the window bays were open.
He was a good sleeper. Contrary to Tony's erratic sleep pattern, Steve had always been able to lie down and fall asleep immediately, and the army taught him to sleep just about everywhere.
Sighing, Steve turned his head on his pillow and stared at the man lying next to him. Tony wasn't really sleeping; at least, that's how he explained those moments. He was—and here, Steve wasn't even sure he understood—performing auto-analysis and self-repairing updates. Steve was sure Tony had used far more words to explain everything, and far more technological phrases, but Steve just liked to say Tony was asleep in those moments. Because Extremis had still left about five percent of Tony's brain human and Steve liked to think those five percent required sleep.
At Steve's request, Tony pretty much came to their bed every night for them to lie together. Tony liked those moments as much as Steve did. He liked to be held and reminded he was still human…somewhat.
And before…before everything, before Steve nearly broke their lives, before Rhodey, before Harry, before Extremis, Tony hadn't needed very much sleep to function and stay in good health. Years of being used to work for days without interruption had probably gotten his body used to such erratic sleeping habit and hard work.
Even with the serum, Steve still needed six to eight solid hours of sleep every day to feel awake.
He rolled on his side and quietly and slowly worked his arms around Tony's body. He didn't mind. At first he had a hard time processing what had happened with Extremis. So many changes, so abrupt and radical had sent his head spinning more violently than when he woken up in the 21stcentury.
In truth, nothing much had changed. Tony was still his moody, bad tempered, brilliant, spitfire self, and Steve wouldn't change Tony for anything in the world.
Not now that he had him for himself for eternity.
Celebrating Clint's fortieth birthday was strange and a little painful. Steve felt happy, satisfied even, but knowing, seeing his friends getting older—old even—was a clear reminder he'll outgrow them all.
Tony was standing next to him, watching the scene with a small contented smile, and Steve instinctively wrapped an arm around his waist. He felt his heart surge with happiness when Tony leaned his back against his chest and looped two of his fingers in the back of his belt.
He won't be alone, Steve reminded himself, and he'll never be alone. Tony was more durable now, more of everything. They'll make it together.
Thor was a god, he didn't age because he was pretty much immortal, and Bruce had the Hulk serum in his veins and had decelerated cells running through his body. Tony calculated Bruce aged at a real slow pace and will live very, very long. It was reassuring, but still heartbreaking. Everyone knew that.
He didn't know how Clint could smile, and joke, and celebrate with such happiness when he knew he was the only Avenger on borrowed time.
Reed Richards was an ass.
Steve had basically made his opinion on the man only based on what Tony told him, but seeing him in the flesh was pretty much confirming everything his husband ever told him.
Richards was self-centered, egocentric, and unpleasant and so full of himself Steve could almost see his head inflate. Tony joked the man was so smart because he could actually inflate his brain, but Steve had doubts. Richards strolled into Stark Tower as if he owned the place, made snarky remarks about the Avengers, about Tony's work, and about Extremis.
If his momma hadn't raised him so well to be polite and tolerant, Steve pretty much thought Richards would be splattered across the walls of the Tower and SHIELD would have to use bleach to wash them.
"So," Richards drawled, looking Tony up and down, arms crossed. "You couldn't stand the idea of someone smarter than you and had to go to such extreme," he guffawed mockingly.
Tony snorted and didn't look up from the tablet he was using.
They'd all been enjoying a meal in the kitchen when the Fantastic Four—well, two of them—had turned up uninvited. Tony hadn't been surprised but Steve knew him so well he'd been able to see the brief flash of annoyance in his blue eyes at the sight of Richards.
"Richards," Tony said in a very quiet voice, "I've always been smarter than you."
Richards pressed his lips together and smiled like a shark. "I need to speak to you. Privately," he added after looking boringly at Steve, Thor, Clint and Bruce. "I don't need your boy's club around."
Tony didn't move and didn't look up from his tablet. "Oh believe me, trying to get them away from me is pretty doomed," he muttered.
The man standing next to Richards snorted and had to turn to keep from laughing out loud. Steve didn't get what was so funny, but from Bruce and Clint's face, it was a blast because the two men didn't even try to hide their laughter.
"Stark, come on," Richards snapped his fingers, turning to look in exasperation at the other man.
Tony looked up, stood and walked to the man standing next to Richards, and as quickly as lightning, Tony had an Iron Man suited hand around his throat. The man choked before suddenly completely lighting up like a torch. Tony looked at the display with serious eyes before stepping away, still staring. He hummed and tilted his head on the side. "Pretty," he muttered. "So we have a Hulk with gamma ray and you have a human torch with…cosmic ray…?"
Richards clinked clicked his tongue and looked sideways at the man. "Meet Johnny Storm, my—"
"Boyfriend?" Tony provided with a slight grin. "Mine's better looking."
Richards looked at Steve with a sceptic raised eyebrow and stared intently. Steve glared back at him and held his stare in challenge. "Does he always look so…intense?" he asked Tony inquiringly.
Tony looked at Steve above his shoulder and smiled at him. "No, he just doesn't like you," he answered tersely at Richards.
The tall man sighed. "Did Extremis suck out every ounce of tact from your body?" he asked in disgust.
"Never had any." Tony answered with a shrug and walked back to where Steve was seated in front of the cooling plate of the curry Bruce had prepared for them all. Tony leaned against Steve's side. "I want you out of my house, Richards," he said coldly. It was as if he needed Steve's presence and strength to get those words out.
Richards pinched his lips together. "I wanted to talk to you out of courtesy, but I'll need to take this to Fury." At this, Tony stared at him sideways but didn't answer. "I need the Avengers."
Tony leaned more heavily against Steve. "Take care of your own damn screw ups alone, and don't drag us into your bullshit!"
Steve tensed ready to pounce when Richards held Storm back with a hand on his arm, and Steve saw Bruce, Clint and Thor prepare to react, also ready to attack at any moment.
"We'll go…" Richards finally said, looking at them all with honesty, perfectly aware he had all the Avengers ready to kill him at any wrong move. "But Tony," he said, "it's getting way out of hand. I'm not so selfish that I can't admit it. I really need help."
Tony turned his head away and Steve felt he could finally interpose. He stood and stared the man down. "I believe Tony asked you to get out of our house, Mr. Richards," he said formally, eyes cold.
Steve could swear he saw something akin to pain and regret flash into Richard's' eyes, but it was too quick for the soldier to be sure. The scientist nodded and with one last look at Tony's back, turned away and left, Johnny Storm sending bewildered look at them all above his shoulder.
"JARVIS," Tony snapped, "never allow him entrance ever again," he ordered. And his voice was so chilly even Steve winced. "Am I clear?"
JARVIS responded in the affirmative before Tony muttered something and stormed out of the kitchen, untouched curry grown cold in his plate.
Steve let Tony cool down for forty-three minutes point eight seconds before going down to Tony's workshop. The man was standing in the middle, arms outstretched and he was practicing suiting up as quickly as possible.
For the last two years since Extremis, Steve had often been down with him timing the transformation, and knew that Tony will not stop until he'll be under one second.
Because 'one second is all it takes for a bomb to explode, Steve'.
Until now, when the Avengers had to fight, the transformation had been quick enough—even quicker than when Tony had to have JARVIS put the suit on—but Tony being Tony, he was never satisfied until he reached the goal his mind had set up.
"Hey, baby," he called out gently when a partially suited Tony turned to look at him. The suit appeared entirely and Steve stared at the expressionless face of a totally black Iron Man. Steve didn't know if the change of color was a mirror to Tony's mood or anything else, but black pretty much reflected his husband's temper here. "What's up?" he asked.
Tony walked to him and lifted his right arm. "The arm is still bothering me," the flat, echoing voice of the suit answered.
Steve looked down at Tony's right arm, frowning. Because the arm was entirely robotic, Extremis hadn't been able to stash out the Iron Man suit in the hollows of the bones and had to come down the elbow. The transformation for that arm took a mere millisecond more than the rest but Tony wasn't having it. "Sorry to hear that," he said gently, reaching up a hand to gently caress the face plate of the Iron Man mask. "Talk to me, okay?"
Tony remained immobile and silent before suddenly reabsorbing the suit and turning back human. "Richards and I…" he started and leaned forwards, gently tapping his forehead against Steve's hard chest, "we…have a past."
Steve snorted an amused laugh. "Yeah, I got that part." He licked his lips and rubbed the back of Tony's neck. "Were you two lovers?"
Tony wrapped his arms around Steve and jumped, wrapping his legs around his waist, and hiding his face in his neck. "Yeah," he said in a small voice. "We met at MIT and…well, we instantly hit it off. He was older, so self-assured and so brilliant, Steve you should have seen him. At that time, he was everything I needed. He just—he saw me. He listened to me, he—he just paid attention when my own father was barely acknowledging my existence. Of course I fell in love with him."
Steve walked them to the sitting area, where he had pretty much set up his art studio and sat in one of the worn leather couch, sitting Tony on his lap. He gently rubbed his back and showered his face with small kissed. "It's okay," he gently murmured.
Tony nodded slowly and turned his face in Steve's neck. "I pretty much idolized him. Then one day, out of the blue, he just…threw me away."
Steve froze and tightened his arms reflexively around Tony; once more glad Tony wasn't human anymore and couldn't bruise as easily as before. "Tony," he breathed out desperately.
Tony shrugged and lifted his hands to the back of Steve's head, hugging him reassuringly and lovingly. "He wasn't good for me, Steve. Rhodey kept telling me he was using me but I couldn't believe him. I just—Reed was the first person in my life to see past the Stark name, to see past the bullshit, and the alcohol and the drugs."
Steve pressed his face in Tony's neck, inhaling the familiar, comforting scent. "God, baby, I'm so sorry," he whispered.
Tony shook his head. "It's—it's nothing to do with what happened to us. Reed was an asshole in the long run…but you're not—" he stopped and took a deep breath, leaning back to stare at Steve's eyes with gleaming blue eyes. "We're past this, okay, Steve? We're past this shit. We're okay."
Steve laughed wetly and felt a tear slid down his face. "Yeah," he nodded, and closed his eyes when the tip of Tony's tongue gently licked the tear. "Yeah we are," he breathed out, kissing Tony deeply.
And thanks god they were.
Steve's heart wouldn't have survived otherwise.
Steve pressed his lips together and frowned deeply at the senator babbling on screen. Steve wasn't sure, but he thought he might be the same one who'd launched that campaign to force Tony to give up his suits.
The senator was sitting behind several microphones, snaps and flashes of dozen of cameras punctuating every word leaving his mouth. He looked satisfied, and something about the way his eyes shifted rubbed Steve the wrong way. Knowing that man had wanted to hurt Tony, even if it was way before they were married and dating, twist something deep into his gut.
He felt the other Avengers gravitate toward the screen to listen to what he was saying. Steve could see Bruce twisting his glasses anxiously, and Clint tighten his fists, while Thor was looking at the screen in perplexity.
"The act requires any person in the United States with superhuman abilities to register with the federal government as a 'human weapon of mass destruction', reveal their true identity to the authorities, and undergo proper training," the senator explained slowly, smiling with too-bright teeth at the multiple cameras pointed at his face. "Those who sign also have the option of working for the government, earning a salary and benefits such as those earned by other American civil servants."
Steve gritted his teeth and reflexively relaxed when he felt Tony lean in front of him, back to his chest, to watch the TV with them. Instinctively, Steve wrapped his arms around Tony's waist and rested his chin of the top of Tony's unruly head.
"That's not good," Clint muttered next to them. "It's going to divide people even more about superheroes and mutants."
Tony hummed quietly and Steve gently tightened his arms around him. "What do you think?"
Tony stared at the screen a bit longer before blinking slowly. "It seems like a responsible obligation," he stated calmly and ignored everyone's outraged expressions and Steve's stiff arms around him, "but it clearly violates civil liberties and the protection that secret identities provide."
Bruce nodded thoughtfully. "It's slavery all over again."
Tony hummed and shrugged. "But it also could be compared to the norms under which the police and soldiers operate."
Clint turned to stare at him. "If I didn't know you better, I'd say you're awfully favorable to the act…"
Tony turned his head and rubbed his face against Steve's arm. "The result wouldn't be worth the fight. If they decide to pass the act, we'll be at war. And we wouldn't be able to stay neutral. We'll divide, fight and kill our friends and allies. We have too much enemies in this world to turn against each other."
Steve wasn't imagining the slight tremble coursing Tony's body. He tightened his arms and calmly whispered soothing words into his ear. After a while, Tony stepped away from him and briskly walked to the stairs leading to his workshop. Steve looked after him, frowning and decided to follow.
It didn't take long to reach Tony's lab and find him kneeling down next to one of his automated suit lying on the ground. The expressionless face of the mask looked up at the ceiling, and seemed to reflect Tony's current expression.
"Talk to me," Steve gently asked, kneeling next to Tony.
The man was silent for a moment before looking up at Steve with tears in his eyes. "I think if I hadn't injected myself with Extremis, I'd be fighting in favor of the Registration Act," he confessed in horror.
Steve's breath stuttered before he could get a grip and swallow thickly. "Okay," he breathed out. "Okay. It doesn't matter. The act won't pass, Tony. It's just a suggestion, but it won't pass. Not after the Chitauri. Not after HYDRA and Magneto and the Brotherhood. Not after Justin Hammer. People need us. They won't vote a law that risks antagonizing us. And this law is way too dangerous."
Tony was nodding fervently at each of Steve's words, slowly crawling toward the soldier and curling himself around Steve and holding for dear life. "I'm sorry," he finally sobbed. "I'm so sorry; I know how it would end. Steve, I know it. In another life, in another universe, it happens. Steve, I saw it all. It's a civil war. It's us fighting against each other!" he sobbed hysterically.
Steve wrapped his arms tighter around Tony. "I won't happen. Tony, it won't. It's in another universe. It's one of many, many path of life. But not here. Tony you need to calm down. God," he muttered in desolation. "You see way too much because of Extremis," he muttered to himself, the sound of Tony's sob bounding against the white walls of the lab. "Way too much."
The act wasn't even subjected to vote. Of course not. People weren't crazy despite how the world seem to go sometimes. The senator was the laughing stock of the media and Steve saw Fury's body lose the tension that seemed to have plagued him for the months the act had been in up in the air.
Steve felt the world take a collective breath and felt the trust he'd invested in this new century wasn't for nothing.
Tony still worried him though. After his breakdown in the lab, he'd been…sad, for lack of a better word. Steve supposed Extremis had run every possible case scenario at lightning speed through Tony's brain and showed him just too much for him to have been able to process. While Tony was mostly constituted of nanobots now, Bruce had told Steve about five percent of Tony's brain had remained human.
He shouldn't be, but Steve was glad for those five percent. It contained Tony's feelings, and his capacity to discern right or wrong and his ability to love. Tony would only be a machine without those five. And what he saw about what he called the Civil War had scarred him deeply.
He was clingy, wrapped himself around Steve at night, sometimes trembling, sometimes crying and asking forgiveness, and Steve wasn't strong enough to ask Tony what happened in the alternative universe.
He guessed his world crumbled down in that other universe.
Steve knew he wouldn't have survived because he could not conceive what it would feel like to have Tony as his enemy and fight against him.
Steve knew Richards wasn't going to give up. After intruding at their house, he'd visibly alerted Fury of his problems and his need of the Avengers.
Fury must have considered Richards's plea legit because on a Tuesday morning, Steve received a text from Coulson just saying: [Avengers Assemble]. Frowning at the tiny words on the screen, Steve sighted and gave up on his plans with Tony to visit the Forbes Galleries and have a quiet dinner.
They all boarded the Quinjet and took off to some part of the sky where the Helicarrier was looming. They went to the debrief room they always used and waited for a while before Fury strode in followed by Reed Richards and his clique of Fantastic.
"Hello, everyone," Fury snapped, "I don't need to introduce Dr. Richards, but here are Johnny Storm, Ben Grimm and Susan Storm."
The blond woman looked amiably at Fury, but her smile was sharp. "Sue, please, Director Fury."
The one eyed man nodded indulgently and turned back to the Avengers. "They came to me for help, and I accepted."
Steve frowned and tightened his fists while Clint didn't even bother to contain his anger. "Come on, you gotta be kidding. They're just a bunch of attention seeking amateurs!"
Bruce snorted before pinching his lips and Steve smiled briefly before stilling his face at Fury's one eyed glare.
"In any case," Fury interjected and gestured for the Fantastic Four to sit around the table, "the thing is, this threat is very much real and we can't let it get out of hand."
Steve stiffened in his chair. "What threat?"
Richards glared at him. "Doctor Doom."
They all stared at each other before Bruce lightly tapped the tip of his fingers against the table. "Excuse me, but I thought Doom was deported back to Latveria."
Richards nodded and exchanged a look with his friends. "Yes, but…he escaped his prison. We detected some strange activities and we're sure it's him."
Tony stared intently at him and Richards glared back in annoyance. "Go on, say it."
Tony turned his head on the side but looked at him sideways. "I wasn't gonna say anything," he said calmly.
Richards snorted and rubbed a hand down his face. "You think it's my fault. You think I…created him."
Tony tilted his head on the side. "I think I'd be pretty pissed too if some fucker destroyed everything I ever built."
Steve leaned toward Tony and gently tapped his wrist. "Tony," he whispered, "don't."
Tony pursed his lips but nodded once and blinked. "What kind of abnormal activities?" he finally asked. "Is it electromagnetic fluctuation? I've been detecting some for about a week but it's too sparse to get a good reading. But it's—" he stopped and scratched his neck in thought.
Fury waved with his hand impatiently to ask Tony to go on. The billionaire glared and twitched his finger. "It's just…strange," he repeated. "It feels like—JARVIS but different."
Richards blinked and leaned forward, eyes intent on Tony. "What do you mean?"
Tony shook his head. "I don't know. What I feel is some kind of AI. It's growing."
Fury stood and rubbed his forehead. "Growing how?" he snapped.
Tony shot him a dirty look. "I told you, I don't know," he hissed in a mechanic voice like when he wore the suit and his eyes flashing neon blue.
Fury stared for a moment, as if gauging Tony's dangerousness and Steve felt angry at the man's reaction.
They all knew Tony wasn't dangerous. He could lose his temper but he had had a firm grip on Extremis for a while now. It had been hard to control at first but Tony perfectly mastered it now.
Steve gently pressed two fingers on Tony's neck and immediately felt his husband's body relax. They exchanged a quick look, no words between them but a whole conversation happened just by looking into each other's eyes.
"I'll look into it," Tony finally said calmly.
Fury gave him a one eyed stare, still speculating before nodding in response. "Alright, keep on the look-out. Stay sharp and report anything out of the ordinary. Richards, you and your cohorts will be given some tech to contact SHIELD and the Avengers at any time," he quickly instructed.
Steve swallowed an angry retort at that. He wasn't the type to interrupt a superior, but the idea of that creep Richards being able to contact Tony any time he wanted pissed him off.
They all stood and Steve immediately pressed a hand at the small of Tony's back, covertly glancing above his shoulder at Richards. The man was talking with his team and must have felt his stare because he turned his head and gave him an intense look Steve wasn't able to translate.
"You're jealous, love," Tony whispered as they walked down the corridors to the main dock to board the Quinjet and return home.
Steve pressed his lips together and sighed when Tony wrapped an arm around his waist. Steve shrugged and draped his arms on Tony's shoulders. "No, I'm not. I just don't like how he looks at you," he confessed with a shudder.
"He's a creep, Steve. And he's got that Storm guy now. It may have been a while but I remember how he looks when he's in love."
Steve looked down at Tony's profile. "Was he ever in love with you?" he quietly murmured.
Tony looked up at him. "Yeah. A long time ago."
Steve hummed and nodded absently at some SHIELD soldiers saluting them as they walked. "Do you think he's trying to…"
Tony stopped and put his left hand over Steve's heart. "Steve," he gently interrupted. "He doesn't matter. It's like with Bruce all over again," he chuckled gently at the frown darkening Steve's face at the mention of Bruce Wayne. "Or Logan," Tony added impishly.
Steve groaned and walked Tony to the Quinjet with his arm still around the smaller man's shoulder. "Is it gonna be like that with every man I slept with?" Tony asked with a chuckle. "Because there was—"
Steve cut him short with a kiss. Tony's eyes fluttered and after a long, loving kiss they parted, and Tony pressed his cheek against Steve's. "I love you."
Steve closed his eyes and nodded, tightening his arms around Tony, feeling his heart swell at those words.
Three years ago, he had thought he would never hear them again.
Now they sounded like music to his ears.
"I love you too."
"How did the Fantastic Four became what they are? Are they mutants?" Clint asked one night, reclining in one of the couch surrounding the TV screen they used for they movie nights.
Steve turned from his sketchbook to look at Tony who didn't look up from his tablets. "Nothing like that," he answered. "Richards' just an idiot."
Clint snorted and crossed his hands behind his neck, staring at Steve with a smirk. They all knew Steve's protectiveness and possessiveness concerning Tony, and Clint never relented in his teasing Steve about Tony's past conquests.
Bruce leaned toward Tony in interest and asked several questions that Steve supposed were possible answers for the many theories the good doctor had about concerning the other group of superheroes. Tony finally looked up from his tablet at one of Bruce's most extravagant theories before answering. "They illegally embarked on a spaceship. A spaceship I designed for the NASA by the way," he added proudly, "Reed had those crazy theories about human's origin being caused by cosmic rays or something…but then, Reed had neglected to account for the abnormal radiation levels in the belt's atmosphere. The cosmic rays wreaked havoc on the starship's insufficient shielding and they were forced to return to Earth immediately. When they crash-landed they found that their bodies were changed."
Cling snorted. "Like Richards' being able to reshape any portion of his body at will."
Tony nodded. "That leaves a huge field of possibilities for many sexual fantasies, doesn't it?" he said thoughtfully and grinned crazily at Clint, Thor and Bruce's manic laughter and Steve's mortified embarrassment.
Steve wiped his moist hands on his jeans and walked toward Tony who had his hands deep in the gut of one of his suits.
"Hey," he said, and had to clear his voice because he had suddenly gone mute. He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. "Hey."
Tony looked up and Steve looked in wonderment at the millions of Tony nanobots crawling in Tony's eyes and along his arms and hands. "Hey, love," Tony greeted with a smile before turning back to his work. "What's up?"
Steve smiled slightly at Tony's nickname and shook his head. Tony wasn't the kind of person to use nicknames except to mock or joke, but since their lives took a better turn—since Extremis in fact, he had come to call Steve 'love' every once in awhile and just that small word of intimacy was enough to make Steve feel happy.
"I was…I mean, I wondered if…Tony, I wanted to ask if you—" Tony looked at him with some form of trepidation, or as if he was a complete idiot—both, Steve's mind murmured—and shook his head.
"Steve, what is it?" Tony asked, perplexed.
Steve took a deep breath, steeling himself and thinking that if he could face down Nazis and Skulls soldiers, then he could ask Tony a simple question. "Tony, will you marry me?"
Tony stared, and stared some more before a gentle smile appeared on his lips. "Really?" he asked.
Steve nodded mutely and sighed. "I mean, I know we're already married. But…I wanted to—you know," he shrugged and smiled sheepishly. "I think we came a really long way, with…" Here he swallowed painfully, old guilt twisting his guts, "with everything we went through. And we're here, together at the end, and—" He felt like an idiot. Actually, he felt exactly like when he was on stage during WWII and was trying to give pep-talks to hundreds of soldiers only there to have a good laugh.
Tony stood, quieted the nanobots which immediately disappeared under his skin and walked to Steve, wrapping his arms around his neck. "Of course I'll marry you, you idiot," he chuckled.
His eyes were clear, his face was radiant, and his heart soared under Steve's hands. Tony, whose mind burned with knowledge, and genius, and brilliance, and so many ideas no one could follow him, or even begin to comprehend. Tony, who was so confident, and brash, and arrogant but under it all so fragile and caring, and loving.
And Tony was his for all eternity.
Steve trusted Bruce.
He even trusted the Hulk…in battle.
In real life, not so much.
Steve didn't know if it was his 40s upbringing, or the fact that Tony was smaller, and so breakable when they met that he took the immediate protective and more dominative side of their relationship.
They weren't into any sexual kink about dominance or some shocking things Steve had read on the internet, but he felt compelled to protect Tony.
Even with Extremis, things hadn't changed.
Tony was stronger now, much, much stronger, quicker and had Adamantium-Beta bones nearly unbreakable. He couldn't break under Steve's hands. And he sure as hell couldn't break under the Hulk hands either, but still, Steve couldn't change, and didn't want to change.
He'd made it his mission to provide and protect Tony. Taking care of him was his job.
And Clint could mutter about chauvinism all he wanted, Bruce could still patiently explain how Tony could take care of himself, Pepper could still send Steve speculative looks and disapproval barbs about neutering Tony. Only Thor seemed to understand, but then, the god was a warrior. He knew about righteousness and honor, he understood where Steve came from, and as long as Tony didn't say anything, didn't feel trapped and uneasy around him; well Steve simply wouldn't change.
And bolting awake one morning from the howl of the Hulk had his heart stopping. He grabbed his shield, put on some boxers and ran to the kitchen where the growl had come from. Because this early in the morning, Tony was probably in the kitchen drinking coffee.
He ran, ran and cursed living in a place so big, before slamming into Clint at the corner of the hall leading to the kitchen. The archer was tense, his face pale and his eyes shining with not quite fear but a worry Steve didn't like to see.
"What happened?" Steve asked breathlessly, leaning around the corner leading to the kitchen and gasping at the sight of the Hulk towering above Tony angrily.
Clint bit his lip. "I think Bruce was barely awake and when he walked to the kitchen and heard the explosion—"
Steve swiftly turned to stare at Clint in worry. "What explosion?"
Clint waved impatiently, "on TV," he explained, "must have been surprised and he hulked out."
Steve tightened his hold on his shield and gently walked toward the threshold of the door. "Tony," he whispered, trying to ignore the sight of his husband in such a vulnerable position.
The Hulk turned and groaned at Steve lowly, and the soldier lifted the hand not holding the shield in a pacifying motion. "Calm down," he said smoothly, but inside he was terrified. "I just—Tony come here."
Tony frowned at him slightly before turning to look up into the Hulk's face. "What you can't tell me you got scared by the TV?"
Steve swore under his breath because goading the Hulk was so Tony it was nearly laughable. But really, not so much when the green giant loomed nearer to his husband with a deep groan. "Tony," he repeated, this time desperately, "please come here."
Tony glared back at the Hulk. "You gonna smash me?" he asked in annoyance, and turned his back to the Hulk to grab his cup of coffee. "Really," he muttered after taking a deep gulp, "can't have a quiet morning around here."
The Hulk huffed and scratched his head in confusion. Steve could relate. Tony wasn't the most sociable being in the morning when he'd spent the entire night in his workshop, and the simple fact the man wasn't even one tiny bit scared of the Hulk was probably what had the great beast in a world of confusion.
Steve swallowed and cursed Tony's stupid, stupid bravery. "Tony."
Tony shrugged. "He won't hurt me," he said calmly and walked to the Hulk, gingerly patting his arm. "Now, you saw there was no danger around. Get Bruce back. I need to talk to him about the new project I'm working on for SI."
And just like that, the Hulk disappeared and Bruce sheepishly grinned at them, and stumbled around to make himself some tea.
Steve leaned against the wall with a deep sigh and closed his eyes in exasperation. Tony really was going to be the death of him.
"Uh, you might put some clothes on, Cap," Clint said in a chuckle, startling the soldier out of his thought.
Steve looked down at himself and unconsciously put the shield in front of him in a desperate attempt to hide he was only wearing boxers. "Uhm—"
"—or, you could join me," Tony's voice called from somewhere around the corner leading to their bedroom.
Clint's mad laugher and Bruce's chuckle followed him all the way to his bedroom.
They went to the Malibu mansion, said yes to each other on their private beach and kissed in front of their friends.
Steve thanked the gods, thanked Tony for giving him a second chance and for once in his life, blessed his being trapped in the ice for so long.
Because it was worth the wait and the cold and the silence.
Tony was worth waiting millions of years and more.
Nothing happened for a while. Steve actually liked being an Avenger, because apart from when a villain attacked New York or any other place where there wasn't a group to protect the area and they were called in, most of the time was actually down time.
Which was pretty much a lot of spare time.
Clint had other SHIELD missions, mostly espionage, Thor moved between Earth and Asgard, Bruce worked in some labs somewhere in the tower, and Tony worked like crazy for SI.
The stocks were skyrocketing, the company was expanding at lightning speed since Extremis as projects after projects, and patent after patent emerged from Tony's brain and hit the market. Steve read last month Forbes edition and was nearly blown away by their estimation of Tony's fortune, now number one in the world.
"Steve, I'm hiring you," Tony suddenly said, walking briskly past him, tablets in one hand, and phone against the ear. "Can't stand to see you mope around the house anymore."
Steve grimaced slightly because, no, he wasn't moping around the house—except maybe a little—and nearly had to run behind Tony to catch up with him. "What do you mean, you're hiring me?" he asked in bafflement.
Tony entered the elevator and must have sent a command to JARVIS with Extremis because he didn't even push the button before the door closed and Steve barely had time to slip through its closing door. "It means I'm giving you a job. I'm still America's sweetheart but they're beginning to gossip about my husband being unemployed."
Steve lifted an eyebrow and followed Tony toward his office, quickly greeting Selena, his personal secretary. "Well…I'm not, SHIELD is—," Steve muttered, and had to stop himself slamming Tony to the ground when the smaller man stopped abruptly in front of him just before his desk.
"SHIELD is Captain America's boss. Steve Rogers doesn't have a job. And I'm not a sugar daddy, and I don't want you as my boy toy," Tony interrupted before walking to his desk and sitting in the large leather chair.
Steve sat in the chair facing the desk and lifted an eyebrow. "Since when do you care about what the press is saying about you?"
Tony shook his head and tapped on his keyboard while he answered. "I'm not. I just don't want you alone all day. It's not good for you and you need to meet people. Talk, go out, have other pastimes besides watching bad TV and going alone to museums."
Steve felt oddly touched by Tony's words. The man was actually worried he was too lonely. He smiled like a loony at his husband and shook his head with a chuckle. "You're something else."
Tony snorted and stared at him sideways. "Of course I am," he said in a way Steve—a lifetime ago—had immediately pegged as arrogant and self-centered before he uncovered everything under the surface of the rich playboy.
"So…what do you want to hire me for? Security? Protection?" he asked after contentedly watching Tony work for a moment.
Tony pursed his lips and blinked strangely for a moment, telling Steve he had been using Extremis and his nanobots to enter some server or do…whatever it was he did with it.
"Advertising," Tony answered finally, turning his full attention back on his husband.
Steve stared incredulously at him. "Advertising? You mean, like a spots and ad?"
Tony shrugged and nodded. "You studied art."
Steve exhaled. "In the 40s, Tony! It—it was like eighty years ago or so!"
Tony looked at him in pity. "Oh Steve, don't cut yourself short like that. You graduated."
Steve chuckled. "Yeah baby, but pretty much everything changed since then."
Tony tilted his head. "I know you studied since getting recovered from the ice. I saw you study recent art books the last few years. I know you worked hard."
Steve shrugged. "Yeah…as a pastime and to understand your work."
Tony shook his head. "I bet you'd do a great job."
Steve opened his mouth and closed it immediately at Tony's pointed stare. "You'd want me as one of your employees?"
Tony nodded. "I have an opening in my advertising team. You can go see what they do, you know…feel the waters…"
The soldier stood and raked a hand through his hair. "I always wanted to do something with art," he muttered thoughtfully.
"Yeah I know," Tony said quietly behind him. "I just—you don't have to work for SI. But…I asked my people if they were okay with you following them around for a bit…I dunno…see if you liked it."
Steve turned around sharply and stared at Tony in bewilderment. "You think I don't want to work for you?"
Tony grimaced slightly. "I'd prefer you work with me, rather than for me," he answered, not meeting Steve's intense stare.
Steve let out a breathy laugh. "Oh baby," he said in deep fondness.
Tony shifted uncomfortably. "Well, what do you say then?"
Steve chuckled and walked to Tony, taking his hand and hugging him with all the care and love he could convey. "Of course I'll work with you."
This was happiness wrapped in perfection, wrapped in gorgeousness, wrapped in Tony Stark.
Fury glanced once at his side before continuing walking briskly down the long empty corridors of the Helicarrier. Next to him, Stark was silent and his face expressionless, barely glancing around at the recent upgrade he'd made for SHIELD, his blue eyes lost in thought.
"The new sensor array programming is lagging," Fury finally said. "My techs can't manage to set it up."
Stark's mouth momentarily formed a smile before he quickly schooled his face. "Really?" he drawled.
Fury snorted and glared at the man. "Yes," he snapped, "now that we've established your brilliance, would you take a look at it?"
Tony hummed. "You said it," he smirked boyishly at the taller man, and Fury had the briefest memory of a small boy grinning toothily and hiding in Howard's lab trying to listen to grown-ups talk. He turned away from the smile, strangely affected and scowled at himself for his sentimentality.
They were arriving before two double doors of an unmarked elevator, still halfway down the corridors when the doors open. Tony looked up from his pad and his eyes caught with the lone SHIELD soldier's standing in the elevator. He pushed Fury against the wall, his pad crashing on the floor and ran toward the man at full speed.
Just as the man got a gun from the back of his belt.
Tony slammed him against the wall and threw him out the elevator, sending him crashing at Fury's feet. Tony swiftly walked to the man, kneeling with a grunt when he saw the man smile insanely at him. "Shit, he's got a poison capsule," he muttered as he violently pushed the side of his right hand through the soldier's teeth. He felt some teeth give as he used more force than necessary but ignored the man's grunt of pain. "Don't bite down, you son of a bitch," he hissed. "Who sent you? I want a name. Give me a name!" he yelled.
Tony took his hand away and watched in disgust as foam dribble down the man's mouth just as his body began to spasm and then still definitely, bloodshot eyes staring unseeingly at the ceiling.
"Suicide pill," Fury snorted sordidly.
Tony absently wiped clean his robotic hand down the dead man's SHIELD uniform. "Potassium cyanide. Guy was dead before he hit the ground. What the fuck is going on? It's Cold War all over again. Who uses cyanide anymore?" he muttered more to himself than Fury.
The elevator dinged and at least a dozen SHIELD soldiers arrived, armed to the teeth, Steve pushing his way through to join Tony's side. "Tony, you okay?" he asked breathlessly. "We caught the alert on the bridge, but then—" he stopped and watched the dead man lying on the ground.
"Well, shit," Clint swore somewhere behind them.
Tony flexed his hands and sighed. "Yeah, you got that right."
Fury was pacing angrily around the conference room while the Avengers were sitting around the table.
Coulson was standing on the side, arms crossed; the figure of unaffected aloofness but for the narrowed eyes. Clint was furiously tapping his fingers on the glass table, unconsciously copying Fury's steps; the guilt of not being there when Fury and Tony had been attacked clear in the deep frown dipping his forehead. Steve could relate, he'd felt powerless when the alarms went off and the terror he'd felt when he saw Tony and Fury being attacked on the monitors had nearly made his heart stop.
He knew, deep down, Tony could hold his own in a fight. Hell, he knew perfectly well that Tony could put him down in a fight now, but still…Years of protecting Tony as the most physically vulnerable of them all was hard to repress. Bruce was twisting his glasses in worry, green tinges appearing randomly on his face. And Thor looked annoyed purely by the fact he hadn't been on board when one of his SHIELD brothers had been attacked. Steve turned his head to look at Tony and his face softened at the sight of his husband.
He was okay. He hadn't been wounded and the way he'd fought had been a state-of-the-art. Tony was getting really good at hand-to-hand combat. Now that he wasn't so breakable, Steve didn't fear breaking him in training and could really start to teach him real martial arts and how to fight. Two years after Extremis, Tony was getting nearly as good as Steve.
"Alright people," Fury finally said standing at the end of the table. "It can't be an isolated act. It's something to do with Doom. Question is; who was the target?"
Bruce hummed and tilted his head on the side. "Doom's a scientist and a mechanic. Tony's probably the target."
Fury nodded. "Yes, that's my guess too."
Steve frowned worryingly. "I think the most pressing question also is how a man intent on killing Tony was even able to board the Helicarrier."
Tony answered quickly. "He's been working for SHIELD for four years. He was the perfect lackey."
Coulson frowned. "I knew him. He was a good man. How can he turn coat like that?"
Tony waved his hand vaguely. "He wasn't operating by himself. He was…I dunno, hypnotized. Doom's got some magic voodoo crap going on. No, the most pressing question is; why cyanide?"
Everyone stared at Tony as if he was crazy. "You think that's our priority, Stark?" Fury asked in annoyance.
Tony tapped his index finger on his mouth and nodded. "Yes. I've already seen that. But it was like…in the 50s."
Bruce cleared his throat. "You weren't born in the 50s, Tones."
Tony ignored him completely and stared intensely at Fury. "Where's Adrian Veidt?"
Fury froze and exchanged a brief look with Coulson that didn't go unnoticed by them all. Clint leaned forward. "Who's Adrian Veidt?"
Fury's mouth twisted. "That's need to know," he growled as he turned toward Tony and glared with his eye. "And you don't need to know."
Tony shrugged. "But I do. And JARVIS and I can't find where he is. So. Tell me."
Coulson stepped closer to the table, probably hoping to diffuse the mounting tension in the conference room. "Mr. Stark, how is Adrian Veidt of any relevance here?"
Tony turned to stare at Coulson in bafflement. "Cyanide, Coulson," was his only answer, and then he turned back to Fury. "I need to talk to him."
Steve could see Fury was already shaking his head. "Out of question, Stark. We already know it was Doom. What more do you want to know?"
Steve didn't like Fury's tone but he had to concede the man was right. Tony could be stubborn, they all knew that, but in this case the need to speak to this Adrian Veidt clearly wasn't a priority as they already knew their enemy.
Tony clicked his tongue and walked to the glass wall, looking at the SHIELD soldiers working on the bridge. "The assassination wasn't orchestrated by Doom," he said in frustration. "He's not subtle like that. We're looking for someone else. Someone…more cunning. More intelligent."
Coulson coughed his disagreement. "Victor Von Fatalis is a polymath genius, Stark. No one is more intelligent."
Tony turned to look dryly at the agent. "Should I feel hurt?" he smirked. "And you clearly haven't spent a night with Richards, or Wayne, or Banner. They're geniuses. Doom is an amateur." He casually said, turning away from them and missing Bruce's face getting red from pride and embarrassment.
Coulson groaned in annoyance. "You're clearly getting delusional, Stark. Doom orchestrated the assassination attempt. Why are you so stubborn about it?"
Tony was silent a long moment, before he turned to stare at him. "What are you hiding?" he asked blankly, eyes roaming over Coulson's face, and then turning to Fury. "What don't you want us to find? You clearly know Doom wasn't the one behind the attempt. So…who is it? I find it a bit too convenient that just when Richards and his clique come to warn us about Doom getting angsty, then suddenly a long time member of SHIELD attack me and commit suicide. With cyanide for fuck's sake."
Coulson pinched his lips and Fury kept glaring. "Are you getting somewhere, Stark?" the Director hissed, "for a moment I nearly thought you were accusing SHIELD of orchestrating the assassination attempt."
Steve froze and looked at the Director intensely. Surely Fury wouldn't…and Coulson? Despite what he let on the man liked Tony. Even Fury had come to begrudgingly respect and appreciate Tony.
"You tell me, Director," Tony growled lowly.
Steve stood quickly and walked briskly toward Tony knowing perfectly well how the smaller man could lose control when feeling threatened and in enemy territory. "Calm down, Tony," he gently but firmly ordered. He could feel the tension emanating from Tony like electricity as his body vibrated next to his. "Let's sit down and talk rationally. No one here wants to hurt you."
He led Tony to the table and pushed him into a chair while exchanging a clear challenging look with Fury, daring the man to leave them without answers. The tall black man finally nodded and sat with Coulson next to him. "Alright," the Director finally sighed, "tell me why you want to talk to Adrian Veidt."
Tony methodically and quickly tapped his fingers against his temple, his blue eyes turned inward as he probably communicated with JARVIS viaExtremis. "Veidt was a mastermind. He made very bad decision…horrible decision, but he was—a visionary. He…probably saved the world by partly destroying it."
Steve shifted uncomfortably. "Who's Adrian Veidt?" he asked, feeling slightly reassured by the same blank look on Clint and Bruce's face.
Fury waved his hand vaguely. "Billionaire superhero during the Cold War. He was part of the Crimebusters. Long story short, he launched a H-bomb that led to the deaths of over three million people in New York City and several other Capitals in the world."
Steve froze, paling dramatically. "What?" He looked around and he could see everyone's appalled faces at the story.
"Leading to the WSC to fall for his ruse. They agreed to a union to oppose this 'new alien menace'. Veidt's plot had the desired effect of uniting the nations of the world and averting a possible nuclear war," Coulson finished.
"That's sick," Clint muttered in disgust.
Fury nodded once. "But from a certain point of view it has also been the mean to avoid a worldwide nuclear war. Only very few people know the truth. And I don't need to tell you people not to say a word about this."
They all nodded before Coulson turned to look at Tony again. "So, how is talking with Veidt useful?"
Tony shrugged. "Maybe he's heard something," he answered curtly.
Fury snorted. "Not possible."
Tony sighed in frustration. "I need to speak to him."
Steve bit his lips and rubbed his forehead. "It can't hurt, can it?" he asked Fury inquisitively.
Fury breathed out noisily and exchanged another long significant look with Coulson. Something in that stare didn't please Steve at all. The two of them were too defensive and protective about the location of that Veidt fella.
Suddenly, Tony made a noise of approval and stood. "Well, I'll be going," he smiled none too gently at Fury and Coulson, walking to the door.
Steve stood quickly, followed by the rest of the Avengers, ready to follow Tony when Fury called after them.
"Damn it, Stark, how did you found out where he was? There's no file on his location in any computer in the world!" he barked. "That's need to knowverbally."
They all froze to look at Tony when the man smirked. "And wouldn't you want to know, Fury?" he laughed, shaking his head as he went.
Steve looked apologetically at Fury, grinning sheepishly with an embarrassed clear of his throat. "Well at least you're not married to him," he said and quickly followed his husband as Fury made a step to seemingly grab him by the throat and kill him.
"I think Fury likes you," Bruce said calmly, not looking up from the book he was reading.
Clint snorted, eyes intent on the Quinjet's command system and exchanged look of disbelief with Steve sitting as his co-pilot.
"Nah," Tony rebuffed, tapping furiously on his Stark tablet, "he's scared. And Fury doesn't deal well with scared."
Steve turned in his seat to look over his shoulder. "What do you mean?"
Tony looked up at him with a gentle smile before turning serious. "Fury doesn't know how to deal with Extremis."
Bruce hummed in agreement. "I wouldn't have been so blunt about it, but your accusation of him being behind the assassination attempt was very reasonable."
Clint laughed. "When has our Tony ever been reasonable?" he asked no one.
Steve smiled slightly but looked worryingly at Tony. "He's not scared, baby. He just wants to make sure you're on the right side."
Tony tensed and stared at Steve. "The right side, huh? How do we know SHIELD is always going to be on the right side?" Something in his eyes send alarm bells blaring in Steve's head. The latent terror generated by the nightmares about the fictional Civil War because of the Registration law was still floating between them and profoundly haunting the man Steve loved.
He leaned forward and grabbed Tony's hand—the flesh one. "Well, as long as we're together, we're on the right side."
Tony's hand tightened on his reflexively and would have probably hurt like hell without the super-soldier serum.
They smiled at each other, love reflecting in their twin blue eyes before Clint broke the intimate moment. "Get a room."
They all stood before the Rocky Mountain range in Colorado looking at a large facility seemingly emerging from the side of the mountain itself. "Stupid. I'm a bit slow on the uptake," Tony said as they all observed the quiet prison installation. "Howard designed it to house tech-based criminals and their gear."
The fact that he never referred to Howard Stark in any other form than the man's name never went unnoticed by everyone. While it was notoriously known the man had been a genius—though nowhere near Tony's own—and personally known by Steve, it was unsaid between them all to never mention the man in front of their friend. What the world didn't know, and Tony never talked about, was the man's poor parenting ability; his love for alcohol and his poor self-control regarding his small bright son.
Steve had had a hard time reconciling the man he'd known back in the 40s, with the SHIELD files he'd read on Howard. But the years old scars on Tony's body and his way tendency to shy away and flinch every time the man was brought up were all the clues Steve needed.
Damn Howard, damn the man for hurting such a beautiful being as Tony.
Bruce laughed. "I don't think I'd ever call you slow, Tony, but SHIELD has more than the Vault to house prisoners."
"The Vault," Clint asked in bafflement. "I didn't even know it existed."
Tony stared at him with a raised eyebrow. "And where do you think SHIELD stored all the bad guys once we'd finish them off?"
The archer shrugged. "Actually, it never crossed my mind."
Steve grimaced. He'd never thought about it either.
"They were put in normal prison before," Tony started to explain, "but the WSC got worried about regular prisoner's safety. So the US Government set about building a unique penitentiary dedicated and designed exclusively for the detainment of super-human criminals. So they launched Project Pegasus, asked Howard to work on it because he was a pioneer on working on materials like Adamantium and osmium. They used his expertise and built this underground three-level structure over 40 feet below ground level," he finished his explanation with a wave in the direction of the structure in front of them. "The Vault acts as a specialized and secret portion of Ryker's Island."
At the end of his explanation Clint was laughing at him. "Well, thanks for the history class, Dr. Van Stark. Now, can we get a move on?" And with that, he started the trek toward the prison facility.
Tony pouted minutely but Steve wrapped an arm around his waist and kissed the side of his face.
"Fury cleared us," Tony informed the guard standing hostile as they reach the entrance of the prison.
The man glared mutely, nodding at his partner, hands tightening around a weapon Steve wouldn't want to be at the end of. They waited in stilled tension before the other guard came back nodding at his partner. "They're clear."
Tony stuck to Steve's side closer than normal as they entered the prison. The soldier didn't say anything but he could feel Tony slightly vibrating next to him. He didn't know if it was anticipation, but his best guess would be to say Tony actually felt nearly physically ill walking in the walls of a place his father had built to house tech-based villains. Short from the villain side, Tony fitted the profile of most of the prisoners spot-on.
They walked inside a large concrete empty lobby to reach a hidden elevator. The guard escorting them didn't say anything and simply slipped his magnetic card in a slot that deployed as he pressed his hand on the wall. They all entered the elevator in silence before it opened on a long sublevel corridor. "Straight forward," the guard instructed blankly before entering the elevator and leaving them here.
"Charming," Bruce stated wryly.
Tony started walking down the corridor as his eyes darted everywhere. "He's a cyborg."
Steve walked quickly to catch up with Tony and gently nudged his shoulder. "I didn't know Howard made cyborgs."
Tony tensed and pressed his lips together. "He didn't."
Thor hummed pensively. "Then who created the technology operating in this place?"
A deep voice with a Russian accent answered Thor's question. "Dr. Henri Sorel, of course."
They all stared and a very tall, very broad man walked to them, grinning in the fake way Steve saw plastered on politicians and Tony's detractor. "Oh, but where are my manners, I am Truman Marsh, current warden of the Vault." He nodded at them all and his eyes linger on Tony. "When Director Fury called to tell me Tony Stark was coming here I couldn't believe my ears. It is such an honor," he gushed.
Steve stepped slightly closer to Tony, ever so slightly placing himself between Tony and the man and nodded curtly. "We are the Avengers. We came to talk to Adrian Veidt."
Marsh looked at Steve up and down and chuckled. "Captain Amerika," he laughed. "I feel very lucky today. I have to admit only being in contact with cyborgs and prisoners is not the fun I had imagined when the WSC gave me the job."
Steve gave a tight lipped smile but inside he was cringing. The man's accent was different but still too close for comfort to Johann Schmidt's, and the tell-tale glint of madness in his eyes told of too many years without human contact. The man wasn't evil per se, but Steve felt he had to speak about the man to Fury at the next debrief.
"Yes, yes, Adrian Veidt. I have to tell you I was very surprised when Director Fury called to tell me you wanted to talk to him."
He was fishing for information but nobody answered his not so subtle quest for answers. They followed him through several others corridors before he led them to what looked like a waiting area. There were only hard concrete furniture carved in the ground itself, with a table at the center and several benches on the sides.
Marsh waved at them to take their ease before speaking again. "Only one to see Veidt," he said and his eyes were immediately drawn to Tony's form. Steve tightened his fists but didn't say anything. He wanted out of this place quickly, and the grim look on the other's faces were telling him the same.
Tony stood and walked to follow Marsh but was stopped by Steve's hand on his wrist. "Be careful," Steve whispered in his ear. "I don't trust Marsh."
Tony smiled up at him reassuringly. "I don't either. Be careful too. This place is crawling with strange tech."
Steve frowned, knowing he didn't have time to interrogate Tony about it and let him leave with a discreet pat on the small of his back. "See you soon, baby."
Tony stood in total stillness in front of the cell door. "Leave me alone with him," he ordered Marsh. He could feel the man's want to protest but he finally left, booted feet clacking on the metallic floor.
Tony pressed his hands on the door, letting his nanobots get a feel of the tech around the cell before shuddering slightly. Magic was definitely tainting the place. And if Tony learnt something thanks to Loki and later Extremis, it was that magic and tech never mixed well.
He didn't bother with the magnetic card Marsh had given him and opened the door with his nanobots. It didn't take any time at all to go through billions of line codes before he was pushing the door open. The cell was empty except for the bed on the far right corner and the toilet on the left. The walls were bare, the floor and the ceiling grey and metallic, and the only light came from a bulb hidden behind a slab of transparent Adamantium. Veidt was sitting crossed leg on the floor, his back to Tony in a meditative pose. Suppose Tony would learn yoga shit too if he'd been jailed for nearly fifty years.
"I was waiting for you, Mr. Stark."
Tony snorted and leaned against the door with his arms crossed. Figure a man with no exterior contact knew his venue. "I have several questions," Tony said curtly.
Veidt twisted his neck and it cracked with the movements. The blond man stood and turned to look at Tony, a small smile on his lips. Tony observed him passively. Veidt was still a gorgeous man. His hair were still blond, his eyes still as blue and as clear as on the pictures Tony had seen and his face hadn't aged a year. He supposed being a superhero had some perk after all. Seems like Veidt had some slow aging mutant genes in his blood.
"You look so much like your father," Veidt said calmly.
Tony tensed slightly but didn't show any emotion.
"I hope I haven't offended you," he said after sitting on the bed. "I've known the man when I wasn't imprisoned. His corporation was starting to be on the rise, mine was in full bloom…" he trailed off and sighed. "Forgive me, I haven't talked to anyone in two years."
Tony felt a small tinge of something twisting his heart before he crushed it. He couldn't…pity the man. He couldn't feel sorry for him. He was a terrorist; he'd destroyed nearly half of New York and killed millions. Tony didn't have the right to feel anything more than disgust for Veidt. But still, the deep sadness and desolation in the man's eyes reminded him of Steve's when they'd first met. When Steve had still been from another world and couldn't bear to look at Tony in the eyes without seeing the dead Howard Stark.
"Someone tried to kill me yesterday," Tony finally said. "But they killed themselves with cyanide."
Veidt looked at Tony in rapt attention, intense blue eyes set on Tony's. "Did you get a name before he swallowed the capsule?"
Tony shook his head. "No. He was already dead. Does this have something to do with Dr. Doom's schemes?"
Veidt pursed his lips and looked away. "I have been cut from the world for—"
"Cut the crap," Tony snapped. "I know you know perfectly well what's happening outside. Now, tell me if you know anything about Doom or…this strange…" he twitched his right hand, "AI that's building itself."
Veidt hummed. "AI?" he looked pensive for a moment and rubbed his face. "Word is Doom is gathering forces somewhere. But…he's a loner."
Tony nodded. "And it's not his style. The AI I get is…something else," he breathed out in exasperation. "Bigger."
Veidt nodded. "Deadlier?"
Tony stared at him with a raised eyebrow and Veidt chuckled slightly. "I'm a bit rusty," he apologized with a sweet smile.
Tony looked away, frowning as his heart made a small summersault in his chest. It wasn't attraction; Tony doubted he'd ever feel anything other than friendship with anyone that wasn't Steve, but Veidt stirred something deep in him.
"You're so different from your father, Anthony." Tony jerked slightly and stared at the man mutely. Veidt sighed and leaned back against the concrete wall at his back, closing his eyes. "I don't know anything about this AI you're feeling but…I can ask around."
Tony lifted a sardonic eyebrow and Veidt smiled with a sheepish grin. "You were right, I do have my ways around here."
Tony shrugged slightly. "Marsh is up to no good."
Veidt shrugged too. "Has been for years now." They observed each other for a long moment before the blond shook his head. "You came for something else."
Tony blinked at the ceiling and crossed his arms. "I have questions," he said carefully. "About…life."
Veidt snorted. "And you thought I was the best option to answer those questions?"
Tony nodded curtly. "Since I…changed, I've been seeing things more clearly. More…" he waved, looking for the right words. "I started to see the big picture through the small details."
Veidt looked away. "Ah."
Tony stepped closer to the blond until he was standing right in front of him. "Was it worth it?" he whispered.
Veidt closed his eyes painfully and shook his head. "No death is worth anything, Tony. Fighting, winning, losing…at the end, we're all just men with small means. Life is more important. Life is what we were born to preserve. I…forgot."
Tony looked pained for a brief moment before nodding. "I understand," he answered. "Would Doctor Manhattan be able to help us?"
Veidt rubbed his face in exhaustion. "He's…I don't think he's very much interested by Earth anymore. He's gone."
Tony nodded pensively. "Right." He observed Veidt for a long moment before turning around and walking to the door. "I'll plead SHIELD for your release," he said just before exiting the cell and no waiting for the man's answers.
Walking down the corridor in step with Marsh, Tony felt he had answered some of his questions.
But also generated a lot more.
There was a picture of Harry in the small office in Tony's workshop. Tony's desk was covered with blueprints, tablets and computer components, but the space reserved for the picture was clean and tidy.
At first, Steve tried very hard not to feel offended, but failed. He felt it was Tony's way to use what happened against Steve and make him pay. Like it was a reminder of Steve's shortcoming and his breaking Tony's heart.
He didn't say anything about it but made sure never to step into Tony's office.
It must have taken three or four months for Steve to accept the picture, and then completely feel at ease with it being placed here when he sometimes used Tony's desk to complete some paperwork or drew something when he couldn't be in the workshop for some of Tony's most tedious and delicate work.
Harry watched him silently, and while ill at ease under his watchful stare at first, now Steve sometimes even talked to him to tell him how Tony was doing, or proudly telling him about his latest invention and how SI business was flourishing.
He'd never admit it out loud, to Tony or even to Harry's picture but…in other circumstances Harry could have been a great friend.
In the end, Doom was relatively easy to subdue and capture.
Steve watched SHIELD agents take the man away, and Tony directing a team of R&D to examine Doom's tech.
Something was terribly wrong.
Doom wasn't their enemy here.
Doom wasn't the one who orchestrated Tony's assassination attempt and Tony told them during the debrief that the AI he was feeling was getting stronger and stronger.
Steve had a very bad feeling about all of that.
He told Tony, but didn't think he made it through Tony's mad laugher as he mocked and ridiculed Reed Richards after the Avengers took care of Doom in less than four hours.
"New ID, new passport. A phone, a laptop, credit cards, a million on an account, some clothes, some cash," Tony quietly enumerated as he put every items on the glass table in front of Adrien Veidt. "There's Steve's number in the phone. Just in case. He comes from another time and you spent fifty years in jail…" he shrugged, but they both knew Veidt would never use that number. At least, not for those reasons. "You don't have to use it. Uh, you're banned from US soil. Couldn't get passed it for your freedom. You're to leave first thing in the morning. I'll put you on a Starkjet for anywhere you want. Oh, your new name is Walter Blake."
Veidt breathed out a hiss and rubbed his face. "So I won't forget?" he muttered behind slightly trembling hands.
Tony fixed him with a cold, despondent look. "So you'll always remember what you did. And the price."
Veidt was silent a very long moment before straightening his shoulder. "I'll always be grateful for what you did. If you need anything…I'll help. I promise."
Tony turned his head and looked at the blond man sideways. "Do them proud."
And with that he was gone, leaving Veidt bow his head toward the table. He didn't think he'd ever be able to make amend for the three million people he killed.
"Why did you help him?" Steve whispered in the night of their bedroom.
Tony was absently caressing Steve's arms wrapped around him and he shrugged. "Because…back then…before you, before the Avengers, before Afghanistan and Iron Man…what he did…I would have done it. I would have done it and never think twice."
Steve tightened his arms around his husband and kissed the back of his ear. "I love you."
Tony hummed quietly and snuggled closer to Steve, feeling warm and safe in the bigger man's embrace. "I love you too."
The Winter Soldier was an unexpected turn of events.
But what was worse was hearing Steve's painful and heartbreaking pleas for his best friend James Barnes to remember him. Then for Steve to plead for them not to hurt 'Bucky'.
When Tony was about to hit the Winter Soldier to subdue him, he heard Steve tell him 'Bucky is all I have'. Tony was about to strike but froze at Steve's words. He was back two years ago. He was back when his world fell apart, and Steve wasn't there anymore, and no one was there anymore, and Harry, oh god, Harry, died in his arms, and Tony wanted to die, die and never wake up.
'Bucky is all I have'.
Then…what was Tony?
Tony wouldn't meet Steve's gaze as they observed the Winter Soldier rant, rage and ram his mechanical arm against the glass wall of the Hulk's containing chamber. It didn't bulge, of course not, Tony conceived and built it.
But still, the man inside was shouting profanities and threat at him while Fury and his band of scientists were trying to understand how James Barnes could be alive and what kind of brainwashing he'd been submitted to make him forget who he was and who Steve was.
Bruce was adding his two cent, arguing and trying to get Tony involved in the conversation, and before anyone could even move or react, Tony was stepping inside the containing chamber, locking it, grabbing Barnes by the throat and immobilizing him with disconcerting strength none of the Avengers knew Tony possessed.
He hadn't really been hiding his real strength to them, but he'd never wanted Fury to discover it. The man was dangerous and knowing how strong Tony had gotten would only bring trouble for him and the Avengers.
But, it was impossible to do anything else here.
Barnes was pissing him off and Tony wasn't known for his patience.
He ignored Steve cries not to hurt Bucky once again and Tony ignored everything, even the baffled looks the Winter Soldier was sending him. Visibly the creep wasn't used to face someone stronger than him.
Tony leaned over the man lying on the ground, grabbed the side of his head and in one great push, fried the microchips implanted in Barnes's brains. Ignoring the agonized cries from the man, Tony send millions of microscopic nanobots to repair the brain parts that'd been damaged by the brainwashing chips and let go of Barnes as if burnt when all was done.
He stepped back, unblinking eyes on the former Winter Soldier and growled, "Name and rank."
Barnes was still gasping on the floor, shaking hands grabbing his hair. "Ja—James Barnes. Sergeant. Sergeant James Barnes of the US army."
Tony was still for another moment before turning to glare at everyone standing awestruck behind the glass. He exited the room without even entering any codes in the door lock and walked passed Steve. "If he's all you have, then, have him," he said in a very low voice and he was gone.
He should have known.
He just should have known.
Bruce Wayne didn't look up from the mountain of documents he was signing when he heard the characteristic sound of Iron Man landing on his balcony and then resorbing into Tony's body.
However, when the man in question didn't speak, he abandoned his work and frowned at his friend's closed-off face. Since Extremis Tony had had a hard time acclimating to his new power and faculties, sometimes forgetting how to even be human, but for about a year now, he'd gotten used to it and had handled it pretty well.
Those famous five percent where the most precious thing they all had of Tony's. No one wanted him to lose them.
He stood and walked to Tony who was standing still in the threshold of the double doors leading to his private balcony for his office at the mansion. "What is it? Is everything alright? Is Steve okay?"
Tony shuddered once and shrugged, walking briskly in the office and absently leafing through Bruce's paperwork. "No, everything's okay."
Bruce frowned and hummed. "Does Steve know you're here?"
Tony turned and glared at him. "I don't need his permission to come see my friend!" he hissed.
Bruce lifted his hands in a pacifying motion and nodded. "I know," he said calmly. "I'm just wondering why you're here when you're clearly this upset."
Tony grimaced and stalked to the large and tall bookcase on the right side of the office. "I'm not upset," he muttered, grabbing an Arthur Conan Doyle original and perusing it quickly.
Bruce sighed. "Of course not." He thought hard for a moment, thinking about what happened recently in New York that could have upset Tony like that but nothing came to mind. "Is it about Doom? I thought you and the Avengers dealt with it."
Tony paced around the office and nodded. "Yeah, he's taken care of."
Bruce groaned in annoyance and finally puffed before sitting behind his desk again to resume his work. If Tony wanted to talk, then he'd talk. Tony was like bloody Fort Knox when he didn't want to talk. He shuddered at the image of what those monsters must have done to him in Afghanistan when he wouldn't tell them anything useful when they interrogated him.
Without realizing it, Bruce was able to complete his entire load of paperwork when Tony finally decided to talk. He sat heavily in the leather chair facing Bruce desk and looked at the ceiling unseeingly. "Three days ago we were attacked…the guy was the Winter Soldier."
Bruce lifted his eyebrows. The Winter Soldier was well-known by all superheroes because he was so deadly and had been for years now.
"Turns out, the Winter Soldier was James Barnes," Tony sighed, "Steve's former teammate during World War II. Everyone thought he was dead."
Bruce nodded. "What happened to him?"
Tony shrugged slightly. "He fell from a bridge, lost an arm…somewhere along the road he must have literally been frozen in the ice—like Steve—the Russians got him, brainwashed him and made him one of the most proficient and efficient killer in their ranks. He must have been programmed to kill the Avengers…but we captured him. I fried the implants in his brain that delivered some sort of toxin that made him forget and kept him docile."
Bruce hummed and kept staring at Tony. "You feel threatened." And it wasn't a question; he could read Tony like a book. They weren't best friends since childhood for nothing.
Tony bristled. "Yes, damn it! I'm not stupid! I think I have reasons to!"
Bruce smiled sadly at him. "I know," he said calmly. "Of course I know, Tony. Your fear is not stupid, but I think it's misplaced."
Tony shook his head violently and stood with a groan, face hidden behind his hands. "They were lovers when Barnes died, Bruce. They would have married if Barnes hadn't died! What do you think's gonna happen now that he's back alive and sound of mind?! It's—" he stopped himself and yelled angrily.
Bruce stood and walked toward his friend, hesitating a brief instant before engulfing Tony in his arms. Their friendship wasn't very tactile. They rarely touched, or embraced, and apart from handshakes or some shoves at the shoulders they tended not to touch. Tony despised being touched and Bruce never was a person requiring much physical contact; it was probably a result of their different childhoods, Tony suffering under his alcoholic father's hand, and Bruce orphaned really early in life.
But here, seeing Tony like that; Bruce was sent back two years ago when Tony's world fell apart around him and he'd been incapable of doing anything as he'd been too selfish to react.
He wrapped his arms around Tony gently rubbing the back of Tony's head with one hand, the other gripping to the back of his friend's shirt. "Oh, Tony," he sighed. "You never seem to catch a breath, do you?"
Tony didn't say anything, at first limp in Bruce's arms, then curling into the slightly taller man's arms. "What am I gonna do without him?" he asked plaintively.
Bruce pinched his lips forcedly and continued hugging his friend.
He didn't have answers.
But he hoped like hell Rogers would have some.
Steve fought and argued with Fury for hours before the man finally allowed Bucky to be released from SHIELD custody at condition he'd be under constant surveillance of at least one Avenger.
Steve sighed in relief and slumped down against the wall outside Fury's office, before strengthening up and walking back to the level of the Hulk's containing chamber.
Bruce, Thor and Clint were standing in front of the cell, uncharacteristically tense, and Steve had to step completely in the room to know why. Natasha was standing on the side, stance aggressive and meek at the same time, and Steve knew only her could look so deadly while also looking so repentant.
Steve nodded at her, but didn't linger and walked to the control panel of the cell. He sensed the others step in his direction, Clint even had an arm reaching in his direction to stop him, but he waved them off. "I cleared it with Fury. We can take him home if he's under our constant supervision for a while." He turned toward Bucky; the man looked hesitant, stressed, exhausted, guilty…Steve had never seen his best friend look like that before. "It's okay, Bucky, I'm gonna take you home."
Bruce snorted behind and Steve turned to look at him in bafflement. "What?" he asked hesitantly.
Bruce shrugged one shoulder. "You're going to take him home. You mean Tony's tower?"
Steve tensed a moment, pinching his lips together and shrugged. "Home. My home too, if you hadn't forgotten," he snapped.
Bruce didn't react at Steve's aggressive tone and nodded once. "Sure, Steve." And with that he left.
Steve ignored the uncomfortable twinge in his guts but opened the containing chamber with a hopeful smile at Bucky. "Let's go home, Buck."
Tony woke up with a violent start and hissed loudly. He curled up in bed and gripped his right wrist with bruising force, but the mechanical armature didn't budge under his superior engineered strength.
He tried to stay quiet, but after another violent spasm he moaned and nearly sobbed in pain. The residual pain in the nerve terminations in the cut arm were still painful, some days more than other, and tonight it seemed like Tony wouldn't be able to ignore it.
"JARVIS, call Bruce, please," he breathed out between clenched teeth. Steve's absence cutting a nearly more painful hole in his heart than his arm was doing to his body.
Bruce arrived hurriedly and took in the situation quickly before grabbing the emergency kit in Tony's nightstand. He took out a syringe, filled it with painkillers and professionally plunged it in Tony's shoulder nerves.
It took too long, like always, for the pain to abate but Tony finally sighed in relief after ten long minutes. Before Extremis, those crisis's were more frequent and more painful because he simply wouldn't take any opiate based painkillers because of past addiction, but now that danger was long gone.
Today, Tony's organism was more robotic than human, except for blood and some fossil organs, so poison or drugs had no real effect on him. What Bruce had just injected him with was some serum they'd been working on to fight attacks like tonight. The product in the syringe was a cross between nanotech and good old morphine, but Tony's organism didn't reject it or metabolized it too quickly. It actually worked against the pain.
Bruce put away the medical kit and gingerly sat on the very comfortable chair sitting next to Tony's bed. He looked over at Tony and sighed in lingering worry; Tony wasn't trembling anymore, and the attack had been relatively mild compared to some where Tony had to be held down as he scream in sheer agony as if his arm was once more being cut off in some faraway jungle.
"s'not your fault," Tony slurred tiredly.
Bruce relaxed in his chair and stared at the ceiling moodily. He could feel the Hulk ripple under his skin, always near, but they both knew Tony didn't need the Hulk right now. If there was one thing they always agreed on; it was Tony's wellbeing. The man had opened his house, his heart, and freely given them friendship and the least they could do was to take care of him.
Bruce still felt guilty about his behavior with Steve's indiscretion two years ago, but Tony and Bruce had been working hard on restoring their friendship, and for Bruce to regain the man's trust.
"Yes, Tony. Yes, it's my fault. I chopped your arm off, for god's sake," he muttered.
Tony snorted and rubbed his smooth cheek against his pillow. He was waddled up in a blue shirt, a thick hoodie—both of Steve's, Bruce recognized—grey sweatpants, and white socks. Bruce nearly smiled at Tony's disheveled appearance; with his hair standing up in every direction and his comfort clothes. It wasn't often the great Tony Stark wasn't pristine clean pressed in a perfect suit.
"I would have died otherwise," Tony whispered.
Bruce hummed pensively. "Probably. But I can't really forgive myself for that. Back then…I had already hurt you too much."
He jumped in surprise when he felt Tony grab his wrist with a huff and automatically wrapped his hand around the smaller man's. "Try to sleep, Bruce." He muttered against his pillow.
Bruce didn't feel uncomfortable with Tony holding his hand. He also knew Steve wouldn't say anything if he were to come back to their bedroom. But, Bruce reminded himself, he knew Steve hadn't been to their bedroom for the week James Barnes had been released in their custody. The scientist didn't even know if the two husbands had even talked more than the few words they sometimes exchanged during breakfast.
Tony quickly disappeared in his lab, and Steve was god knew where with Barnes, teaching him about 21st century and showing him around town.
Tony shifted, having probably fallen into exhausted 'repairing sleep', and hissed as his arm was jostled. The simple movement got Bruce to wince in sympathy and renewed guilt.
Tony's right arm was one of his only weaknesses. The man was nearly unbreakable otherwise, except for that stupid arm. With Extremis, the suit hadn't been able to anchor itself in the metal armature like it fused with Tony's bones because there simply weren't any bones. Bruce made him weak here. He caused that. And because Extremis hadn't been able to repair the arm, Tony's mind still remembered the phantom pain of missing a limb; hence those attacks.
Sighing around those circular thoughts, Bruce finally closed his eyes and tried to force himself to sleep.
If Tony could forgive him, he should be able to do the same.
Tony was pouring himself a mug of scalding coffee, and didn't turn to address Steve sitting sullenly at the table eating his breakfast. "Barnes wants you back," he simply stated, voice emotionless and face blank.
His eyes twitched slightly when he heard Steve snort in disgust. "You're just jealous I'm not spending all of my waking hours with you. You're pissed everything shifted and doesn't revolve around only you."
Tony sipped quietly his coffee before turning around and staring right through Steve's soul. "I understood that very clearly, Steve, two weeks ago when you made it perfectly clear Barnes was the only thing you had in the world. I may be jealous…" he admitted, "but I think—I'm more scared."
He looked away and hummed lowly before staring back at Steve. "You cheated on me with my best friend. I don't know where I stand when your lover returns from the dead." He shrugged and momentarily looked pained. "You're confused. I'm not stupid I can see that. You're confused, and hurt, and scared too. But I need to know where I stand. If I'm still your life and future, or if once again, I just lost everything. You have to tell me because I won't be the one making you suffer. Either you're with me, or you're with Barnes. I'm too tired for this and I won't go through all that shit we did two years ago. Never again."
He blinked and shook himself. "Make a decision. And quick."
And he left the kitchen leaving a stricken looking Steve behind.
Natasha's return was gradual. After they saw her on the Helicarrier, she joined them more often on mission, on debrief, and afterwards on the rare training sessions they made on SHIELD base.
Clint refused to speak to her for a very long time. He wasn't ready to forgive how she threw away so many years of friendship, companionship, tears, and blood.
She was calm, if a bit withdrawn, but very much intending on making amend and become part of their little family again.
She spent hours helping Bruce in his lab, she trained with Thor and spoke of battles and honor with him.
But more importantly; she always asked Tony if she could come into his workshop and after staring at each other for what seem like hours, he shrugged and threw her a wrench before turning back to his latest project. They nearly never talked, everything was said with their eyes, and slowly but surely, a small, but very deep bond over loss, betrayal and grief formed irremediably between them. She didn't ask forgiveness, but her action toward Tony asked for understanding and—yes, maybe forgiveness after all.
She smiled more after that. Talked more freely. Joked with them, and it wasn't so cutting, so dry. It was more freely given. Something seemed to have snapped in her. That tension that always made her shoulders so straight and tense. Her face wasn't so cold, her eyes weren't so dead. She sometimes laughed happily, eyes full of mirth and joyful carelessness.
Her face wasn't so ugly anymore; not twisted in rage, contempt or disdain. She learnt to respect her comrades for whom they were rather than what they could bring her in a fight. She learnt to appreciate going out with Pepper, and work for Tony's company without being someone else. She learnt to appreciate Bruce for his mind, his keen eyes, his gentleness despite the great beast inside that scared her so much before.
She learnt to love them as friends, as brothers, as lovers…
She learnt to say yes at Bruce's clumsy attempt to ask her out. She learnt to appreciate the small gesture of gallantry he had toward her, the small shy smile he always had for her.
She learnt to let go.
"Are you and Steve no longer a couple?"
Tony tensed but didn't turn around to address Natasha. "He hasn't been coming home for two weeks now, Natasha. After I asked him to choose between Barnes and me. I think that's answer enough to your question."
Natasha walked to Tony, sat on a tool and crossed her legs. She was still getting used to those floral, frilly summer dresses Pepper bought her. It suited her, made her figure lean, but she wasn't used to feel so…naked. "Haven't you been a bit hard on him?" she asked quietly, absently brushing a straight lock of hair out of Tony's eyes. "It's quite difficult for him. A person he thought dead for years came back…the only link to his past—"
"Don't," Tony whispered, and took a deep, shaky breath. "I don't know anymore. I think I might have lost him forever. I think I just pushed him away because he was hurting me so much. I just—I wish Barnes had stayed dead," he said in a voice laden with guilt so thick, Natasha actually winced. "But I'm selfish. And I'd rather have Steve happy with Barnes, away from me, than here and miserable and full of regret and resentment."
He stood and walked to another work station in silence. Natasha knew not to follow; that it was a way for Tony to get his bearings back and calm down before he exploded.
"I love him so much it sometimes feels like my brain can't process," Tony finally said after about half an hour. "I only ever wanted him to be happy. And if being with me is such a hardship…" he shook his head in powerlessness. "I've always been ready to give him up," he confessed. "When I said yes at the altar, when you all threatened me if I ever hurt him…it's always been on my mind that one day I might lose him for good. And I won't fight it…because I want him to choose and be happy. I just want Steve to be happy, and that's not twisted, or wrong…that's just how much I love him."
He rubbed his face and groaned in painful annoyance. "I just wished I had more than those two years. We've just barely gotten over…Rhodey…I wished I had had more time."
Natasha pressed her lips together and looked at her friend with sorrow in her eyes. Tony never seemed to catch a breath.
Be it fate or his so-called friends and family…they always seemed to rip into his heart mercilessly.
She wondered if Extremis would ever be enough to repair Tony's heart.
Like the prodigal son, Steve came back the day of one of the most violent snow storm ever recorded in New York.
He was barely acknowledged by his friends, and nodded at them all with steel in his eyes. Barnes was standing behind him, shifting in uneasiness. Taking a deep fortifying breath, Steve addressed them all. "I'd like to speak to everyone," he said in his best commanding voice, but winced internally at the defensiveness he could hear coming out of his mouth. "Uh, please," he added remorsefully at their glares.
Bruce cleared his voice slightly and glanced at his face before looking over his shoulder at Barnes. "Tony had some things to take care of at SI. He's up in his office with the board and his lawyers, something about a patent being called in question."
The subtle slight wasn't lost on Steve. As Tony's husband, he should have been there to support and help Tony so they could resolve the problem together as a family. One of Tony's greatest fears had always been to lose his tech because of a judicial loophole and the fact that he had to be present with the team of lawyers today indicated the problem was very important.
It only made Steve feel even more guilty about being, once again, so cruel and cutting with his husband. It seemed he was always there for the good times and tended to bail out every time things got a bit hot. He had rarely felt so ashamed and inadequate in his own body and head. He prided himself with his moral and sense of justice, but it seemed he'd been confused about who he really was. Captain America, full of good and integrity; Steve Rogers, full of hypocrisy and a damn cheater.
He didn't know if Tony would forgive him this time.
It was nearly three in the morning when Tony finally came back from the head office of SI on the 65th floor of the tower. They were still all in the living room, uneasy and glaring at each other in resentment and defensiveness.
Steve stood abruptly when he heard the elevator and nervously twisted his hands together. He grimaced at his own damn cowardice and closed his eyes briefly before squaring his shoulders. Tony was all that counted now, not his pathetic little nervousness at facing the man he always claimed to love but always seemed to hurt the most.
"Hey, Tony," he said in what hoped sounded like his most composed voice.
Tony froze midway through taking off his tie before resuming moving and throwing the piece of cloth on the back of a chair, followed by the black jacket. He was rolling up his sleeves when Steve took a step closer.
"I owe you an explanation," he kept on, ignoring Tony's impassive face. It was harder than he'd thought because right now he was deeply scared of Tony. "I'm sorry I left like that with Bucky. We went to Germany. We had…to see, that place." Damn, it was more difficult than he'd thought. "We had to see where he died. To put it behind us. Now that he's here…it doesn't change anything Tony. Not your place in my life, not my love for you. We haven't done anything, Tony, you have to believe me." He ignored Clint's snort of disbelief and glared momentarily at him before turning back to look at Tony. "I grieved for my past when I woke up. Then when I joined the Avengers it got easier. Then we became friends, Tony, and it helped me. Then…I fell desperately in love with you and I healed. And then you gave up your humanity for me, and there's no way I'll ever let you go."
Tony was silent and it was only Natasha's movement that got Steve to look away from Tony's frozen face. "I find it hard to believe," she said regally after a long moment of pensive silence.
Steve bristled and swallowed his anger. "It's the truth. Tony you have to believe me. I love you."
Natasha stood and walked toward him predatorily. "You haven't given us any reason to believe you…or to trust you, in the past…and even now. You run away with your supposedly dead lover…what do you want us to believe?"
Steve snarled and towered over her in anger. "What about you?" he hissed. "You wormed your way back in our lives as if nothing happened! You slithered yourself like a viper and never gave us any reason to trust you. Don't assume, Romanov! That's what got us all where we are now, that's what got us to hurt Tony so much!" He stepped back abruptly from her and turned to look at Tony. "I swear to you on my life, baby. I'll never betray you like that again! I swear," he pleaded. "We only went to Germany to…to that bridge where Bucky died."
Tony suddenly seemed to break out of his suspended animation and nodded faintly. "I know. I had JARVIS track you down. I…needed to know."
Steve shook his head and stepped closer to Tony. "I didn't do anything, Tones, I swear to you."
Tony looked pained for a moment and his shoulders slumped. "I think…," he finally whispered. He rubbed his forehead as if in pain and shrugged slightly. "I think I believe you."
Steve stepped closer until he was in arm reach and hesitantly extended an arm toward his husband to gently caress his cheek with the back of his fingers. "I swear, baby," he repeated once more.
Tony closed his eyes at the gesture, leaning into Steve's now entire hand covering his cheek, and nodded. "Yeah, I believe you."
Steve took the last remaining step separating them and engulfed Tony in a warm protective embrace. "There's only you, Tony. I'm yours."
Tony nodded, hiding his face in Steve's neck, closing his eyes against the last remaining shadow of doubt clouding his mind and lifted his arms to hug his husband. "I don't want him in my house," he whispered in Steve's ear. "It's too soon."
Steve nodded and rubbed the back of Tony's head with his hand. "Yeah. I understand."
Tony hummed and buried himself in the embrace, feeling warm for the first time since the Winter Soldier got into their lives.
Tony was tinkering with his robotic arm, fake skin put aside and wires and tubes in the open when JARVIS interrupted his work.
"Sir, M. Wolverine is here to see you."
Tony snorted at the name JARVIS used to refer to Logan and turned to exchange an amused look with Steve who was sitting next to him and helping with the update in his arm. Meaning he was asking hundreds of questions and worrying about Tony and haphazardly apologizing for the pain he'd caused Tony, which Tony promptly stopped with kisses and once with a screwdriver violently hammered in the table mere inches from Steve's right pinky.
"Yeah, let him in."
It took several seconds before the tall mutant came strutting into the lab, hair still styled like it always was and brow furrowed. "Hey bub," he greeted with a sharp smirk at Steve before slapping him forcedly on the shoulder as way of greeting.
Steve hid his wince, because, hello, he was never going to admit weakness in front of Wolverine of all people, and really, was Logan always feeling compelled to slap his shoulder in greeting? Couldn't the man tone down the testosterone for a bit? Logan grinned at him wolfishly before gently engulfing Tony into the most caring hug Steve had ever seen coming from the imposing mutant. "Hey," he greeted gruffly but the affection in his voice wasn't lost.
Tony returned to hug a bit more emotionally than Steve had expected and had to wonder for a moment if something had happened.
"Are you okay?" Tony asked quietly after the hug ended.
Steve shifted on the side and for the first time, saw the red-dyed hair Asian woman standing awkwardly at the door of the lab. "Uh, hi," Steve greeted.
The woman blinked before grinning at him and bouncing toward them energetically. "Hi! I'm Rukio! Logan's bodyguard."
Steve's smile froze in bafflement before he recovered and return the deep bow she gave him. "I'm Steve."
She nodded with an impish smile. "Captain Amerika."
Steve nodded in embarrassment before stepping away from her and standing back next to Tony and Logan who were still deep in conversation, and if the tense lines of stress on Tony's face were any indication, Steve knew the story wasn't a happy one.
"Why didn't you call me?" Tony asked in exasperation.
Logan shrugged. "You know I'm not used to it."
Tony snorted. "What, asking for help?"
Logan grinned down at him and it was his only answer.
Tony sighed in annoyance before hitting Logan in the shoulder. The sound of metal colliding against each other echoed through the lab and Rukio blinked in confusion. "Don't tell me there are two of you," she said as she skidded gracefully toward Tony to observe him intently. She reached out and poked Tony in the forehead inquisitively and the jab sounded metallic as her fingers hit Tony's head. "Ooooh," she exclaimed, "another kuzuri!" She turned to glare at Logan, "you never told me!"
Logan shook his head. "No, he's not…like me. Not really, I dunno," he shrugged.
Tony stared at Logan, clearly not impressed, before staring at the Japanese woman. "I'm nothing like him. I'm handsome, and way classier."
Rukio grinned at him and nodded. "You might be right. I've been traveling with him for about a month now and I start to see what you mean."
Tony grinned at her. "I might come to like you, Miss Rukio," he said in Japanese.
Logan and Steve both groaned at the same time when the two started to converse in Japanese and exchanged long suffering look.
After about half an hour, Tony finally turned to Logan who was now sprawled on a couch and Steve sitting quietly in a leather armchair with his sketchbook. "So, Logan. What do you want?"
The man shook himself out of his half doze and stood in front of Tony, and deployed his claws for the genius to see. Tony pursed his lips in disapproval and skepticism at the bone-like claws and sighed. "What have you done?" he breathed out and gingerly touched one of the claw.
Logan shrugged. "Got a run-in with a giant robot."
Tony looked up sharply and narrowed his eyes. "Not my tech?"
Logan shook his head. "It wasn't so advanced. Just the delusion of a…former longtime friend."
Tony nodded pensively, still examining the claws and turned to face his computer and got quickly to work. "So I'll have to coat those bones in Adamantium Beta…uhm it's gonna be painful I think. Are those part of your exoskeleton? Yeah, I guess. I need to scan your entire body," he muttered more for himself than Logan's benefit. "So, heard you got chummy with Mariko Yashida. Is she your girlfriend now? Pepper likes her style. I think she's got a girl-crush on your girlfriend. Isn't it strange? I mean, Pepper liking a girl? I mean, no liking liking, but you know what I mean. Pepper likes Natasha and they're just friends. But really, Yashida's some competent woman. I have some contracts with her corporation. Steve, remind me to invite her to the next Maria Stark Foundation event. Oh, I got it, I'll just have to fuse some Beta to your wrists and it should flow to the tip of the claws…I wouldn't do it on anyone else, but I know you've got some high pain tolerance and—" he finally stopped when Logan pressed a hand against his mouth.
"Damn it, bub," he sighed in relief at the silence filling the lab. "Oh, man," he told Steve, "I don't know how you can stand so much chatter."
Tony sharply bit Logan's hand and glared at him while Wolverine sputtered and cursed the genius, holding his bleeding hand. "You little pest," he muttered and relieved in the fact the wound was visibly closing in front of his eyes. He'd missed it, strangely enough. Being human hadn't been all that fun.
Steve snorted at him and walked to stand next to Tony brooding and clearly pouting. "See if I help you now, you stinking dog," he muttered.
Rukio snorted and continued turning around on a stool, seemingly taking great amusement in the whole debacle. "What are you, really?" she finally asked Tony.
The man stood and entered several lines of code in another computer before kneeling down and opening a hidden compartment in the lab's floor. "An engineer, a nihilist, a capitalist…a mutation."
Rukio leaned forward and stared at him. "You're one of us?"
Tony tilted his head on the side and frowned slightly. "I'm just me. I'm an Avenger."
Rukio seemed to accept Tony's answer and smiled softly. "I understand."
Tony stared some more at her before nodding back and turning to what he was doing. He lifted a large cubic metallic case from the compartment in the floor and opened it after a long series of password and digital identifications.
Steve shuffled closer and watched over Tony's shoulder at what he was doing, once more baffled by his husband's brilliance. "What is it?"
Tony hummed and rocked slightly on his heels as he carefully extricated a rounded tube from the hermetic case. "It's liquid machinery. I put some of my bots in there with raw Adamantium Beta. They keep it in constant fusion."
Wolverine snorted behind him and crossed his arms. "I don't know Adamantium Beta," he snarled. "I want the real deal."
Tony let out a long-suffering sigh. "Serval, Adamantium Beta is infinitely more resistant than Adamantium," he explained calmly as he stood and walked to the back room expecting them all to follow. "I made it and I'll even coat your claws in Starkium. Like that you'll never have to suffer through them behind severed like what happened in Japan."
Logan started at Tony for a long moment, his sharp eyebrow lifted up before he nodded his consent.
Tony led them in the back of the workshop and to a white partition of the wall where he punched in a series of very long complicated symbols on a dissimulated keyboard. The white wall hissed and opened, revealing an entire new lab hidden from all.
"Wow," Steve breathed out, looking around. If he'd thought Bruce's lab and SI R&D was advanced, this lab was totally another world. "I never knew it was there."
Tony shrugged and gesture for Logan to lie down on a medical chair in the center of the room. "It's conceived like the Hulk containment chamber. Apart from me, you're the only ones who ever stepped foot in here." He booted several computers and talked with JARVIS for a moment before turning to face Logan. "Take off your shirt," he ordered.
Logan smirked and gave Tony a suggestive leer. "Tony, I didn't think you still thought of me like—" he snarled and growled in part annoyance, part surprise pain when Tony jabbed him in the neck with a hypo spray.
Steve didn't say anything, but he had to momentarily turn around to hide his mirth and had to cough to conceal his mocking laughter. They teased each other most of the time, and he knew perfectly well how the mutant loved to goad Steve by deliberately flirting with Tony. Steve knew Logan loved Tony and the feeling was mutual, but there wasn't sexual tension between them despite the heavy flirting.
It was friendship, companionship and a deep past that linked them together. If Steve had to label their relationship, he'd say Logan saw Tony as a younger brother he had to protect. They had had sex together, that Steve knew as Tony had told him, but it had been comforting sex. Something they both needed, and had to do with someone they could trust beyond anything else.
For all of his past playboy image, Steve knew Tony hadn't been so debauched and hadn't slept with so many people the media depicted. They were more respectful today, as Tony was still America's sweetheart, and trash magazines tended to avoid getting the man angry as Tony had made perfectly clear since Harry's death that he'd never tolerate any more slander about the Stark name.
Tony wasn't one to trust easily. Normally, to lose that trust was irremediable and Steve knew he was one of the only person on Earth that shouldn't have that trust given to him, not once but twice after damaging it so much. He'd taken Tony for granted, and he knew now to never do it again. He hadn't come near that slippery slope since his indiscretion with Rhodes, and thought he'd come very close since Bucky's return (only not in a sexual way), he knew that to have Tony's trust, he had to trust Tony back, and more importantly he had to trust himself.
Logan was one of Tony's most cherished friendships and Steve knew his husband needed it. They'd talked a lot since Bucky's return, and Logan and Bruce Wayne had been named a lot of time. But Steve understood. And Tony had come to also. That Steve needed Bucky as much as Tony needed Logan and Bruce but that it never lessened the love they had for each other.
So Steve might act like he didn't like Logan, but the truth was he appreciated having one more powerful guy in his corner to protect Tony. It made him feel a little bit better knowing Tony wouldn't be left all alone in the world if something was to happen to him in battle.
"Would you sit still?" Tony grumbled, which made Steve startled out of his thought.
"Yeah, well, I'd like to see you in my place, bub," Logan muttered between clenched teeth.
Tony chuckled. He was sitting on a stool next to Logan, sharp medical tools laid out on a rolling platter next to him, Logan's extended right hand lying flat on an extended part of the surgery table. He was dabbing Logan's hand in some sort of red slippery concoction, a small jar with blue water and a strange robotic fish inside happily swimming around in it.
"You're such a baby," he smiled fondly. "Alright, Steve, Rukio, out, out, out." He ordered and waved behind him to a small cabin inside the surgery room, with chairs and a wall of glass separating the two rooms.
Steve and Rukio silently took place behind the glass partition to observe Tony work, and the soldier clenched his teeth in anticipation. He trusted Logan with Tony, but the man was unpredictable with violent tendencies when put in a corner. And from what Tony had said, the operation was sure to hurt. A hurting Logan was like a bear with a sore paw. He was nearly definitely assured to attack the source of his pain.
"I don't like the little thing swimming in your jar," Logan muttered at Tony, angrily glaring at the table where the tool laid.
Tony nodded curtly. "That woman you fought, Dr. Green…uhm Viper, she used to work for SI when Obbie was still alive. She stole some tech and disappeared."
Logan grunted as Tony kept preparing him for the surgery of his hands. "So…what's that exactly?"
Tony shrugged. "It was still experimental when she stole it. I was trying to create some nanotech that'd be able to repair internal damage or destroy some tumor…like for cancer patient, or go in area too small and dangerous for a human to perform surgery." He shrugged. "What she did was infect it with some of her poison…she was some kind of mutant snake, wasn't she?" At Logan's quiet nod, Tony continued. "Well, I guess she found a way to infect you with it and she used it to suppress your healing ability."
Logan hummed. "Never thought some tiny little bug could affect me like that…"
Tony cooed softly. "Are you that impressed? Or is it just your pride that took a really bad hit?" Logan growled animalistically and Tony chuckled. "Don't worry. This one is one of mine. One of a kind. If it works on you, I may start talking about it with Omni Corp Med."
Logan started at Tony lowered face, eyes intent on the work he was doing on Logan's hand. "Harry's corporation?"
Tony stilled before nodded with a small smile. "Yeah." He shook himself and clapped his gloved hands. "Well, let's get to work."
Behind the glass, Steve observed avidly as Tony grabbed the small robot fish and hold it in one hand while slowly making an incision in Logan's wrist. The imposing mutant clenched his teeth and tensed his whole body while Tony applied the nanobots to the incision and watched it disappear inside the opening. He held the casing containing the Adamantium Beta above the site, and poured it over the open cut. It hissed and bubbled for a moment before Tony suddenly jerked and gasped painfully. Steve didn't even wait a second before he was running toward his husband and nearly froze in horror at the sight, ignoring Rukio's sharp inhale behind him. Logan's claws were out and deeply set just under Tony's reactor. "Tony," he gently called.
Tony didn't move, face set in a deep expressionless mask and Logan's harsh grunt and panting of pain echoing through the walls. "Logan, retract the claws!" Steve yelled at the barely coherent mutant.
"No," Tony gasped, "it'll be easier like this."
Steve whirled around to stare at Tony and watched in barely concealed horror as Tony's billions of tiny nanobots crawled over the bone like claws and quickly created their Adamantium casing. It travelled around Logan's body quickly—though, not nearly as quickly as Steve would have like—before the claws of the second hand emerged and got the same treatment.
Steve didn't wait for agreement before grabbing Tony by the shoulders and violently pushing him back out of the claws embedded in his chest. Tony groaned in pain and would have fallen from the stool had Steve not gathered him in his arms and put him quickly on his lap. "Tony, Tony," he called desperately.
"I'm okay," Tony gasped. "Give them—time."
Steve watched anxiously as the badly bleeding zone slowly closed itself to leave four red marks on his chest. The reactor was still bright and humming, so Steve allowed himself to relax momentarily. "God," he breathed out and hugged Tony to him. "God, Tony, you can't do this to me! Not anymore!" he half growled, half sobbed, trying to get Tony comfortable on his lap.
Tony hummed quietly and gingerly leaned away from Steve to look up at the table. Logan was still grimacing, fists tightly clenched but he seemed okay. Tony stood and clenched his fist before opening it again, and Steve made a noise in the back of his head at the small robot fish squirming in his husband's palm. "Uh," the soldier could only say as he stood and protectively put himself between Tony and Logan.
Tony cracked his neck from side to side and reached around Steve to put a gently hand on Logan's forehead. "You did great. Sorry about that, it wasn't supposed to hurt so much."
Logan snorted and sat on the bed, shaking his head ruefully. "Don't apologize, bub, that's your thing…always apologizing for things that ain't your fault."
Steve lifted his eyebrows in quiet appreciation of Logan's insight about his husband. The man was rough, raw and quite frankly had gross caveman tendencies but he wasn't stupid; and having lived so long and relatively made him a champion about human psychology. "Shit," Logan muttered at the sight of Tony's blood drench tee-shirt. "Sorry."
Steve pinched his lips, because really—sorry?—that's all the man could say after nearly gutting his husband?!
Tony snorted and began to put away his tools. "Nah, you hit like a girl, Serval. I healed faster than you."
Steve bit back an angry retort when Logan hugged Tony and flicked him on the head. "Idiot."
Steve wasn't pouting.
It was undignified, and totally not his style.
Did Tony have to invite Logan and Rukio to stay at the tower for a few days?
Steve…didn't like Logan.
He was rude, and messy, and drank too much, and…he was always slamming Steve on his back on the gym mat.
But then, Steve endured, because he loved Tony.
And…what could he say when Tony walked to him shyly one night and told him—eyes wandering, not able to meet his—if he'd like to ask Bucky to come have dinner with them.
Steve knew Tony was using Logan's presence to boost himself, like he needed it, even with Steve being there…but, God, Tony was trying so hard.
Steve couldn't say anything. He didn't have the right.
And if it meant having to stand the Wolverine pissing around his house, well…
After Logan and Rukio's departure, things got easier.
Steve always made sure to tell Tony whenever he met Bucky, where they went and what they did together. Tony hadn't asked him to act like that, but Steve still felt he needed to prove himself after his disappearing stint in Germany. He just didn't understand his own behavior and his recurrent lapses of reason were starting to unnerve him.
First Rhodey, then him treating Tony like shit because his old flame was back…
He was overjoyed and sometimes overwhelmed by Bucky's return, of course; he couldn't have been happier. He'd been his best friend long before they'd been lovers back in the days…but Steve had grieved…he'd made peace with Bucky's death and he couldn't understand how after everything, after all the hurt he brought to their lives, he could just do it all over again.
"Hey, soldier," Bucky called and Steve startled slightly, looking up from his bandaged hands at the man calling him, already warming up on the mat.
Steve shook his head and joined Bucky, quickly falling in the warming-up routine he was used to. Then he lost himself in the friendly fight. Bucky didn't fight like he used to. He guessed with everything that happened and the brainwashing he'd been subjected to by the Winter Soldier program; it had included a severe fighting discipline and training.
Now Bucky fought a lot more like Natasha and Clint than the brawl like style they'd used during WWII. Steve grabbed a bottle of water after an intense hour of training and smiled over the rim when he saw Tony quietly enter the gym and start walking around the mat, clearly waiting for them to resume fighting.
Steve didn't disappoint, and soon, he was smirking every time he put Bucky flat on his back, always looking up to meet Tony's intense blue eyes. He must have been distracted (and arrogant and showing off for his husband, but, oh well…) when Bucky's clipped him straight in the jaw.
He grunted and staggered back, holding his painful jaw. "Shit," he groaned, and glared when Bucky laughed mockingly.
Steve huffed and worked his jaw left and right while glancing at Tony who was looking at him intensely. He smiled softly to tell him without word that he was okay, and he relished in the tension leaving Tony's body slightly.
"Hey, Iron Man," Bucky called with a slight mocking tone Steve knew not to be playful but aimed to aggravate. "What are you doing here? Taking notes of some moves and hoping to be able to copy them with your suit?"
Steve walked toward Bucky with a glare. "Hey, shut up, don't talk to him like that."
Bucky huffed at him. "Really, Steve, back in the days we'd never fight with a guy like that! Take off the suit, what's his worth? He's dangerous and a burden!"
Steve saw red and grabbed Bucky by the hem of his tee-shirt. "You don't know him," he hissed, blazing eyes showing anger and guilt, before Bucky's words painfully echoed with his and Tony's first meeting on the Helicarrier all those years ago. "You don't know him at all, Bucky, don't anger him." He said more calmly, trying to relax. He let go of Bucky's shirt and shook his head.
Bucky snorted. "I don't need to know him, Steve. I know his kind."
Steve recoiled and grimaced, walking to the edge and the mat and getting down, instinctively putting himself between Bucky and Tony, as if his mere presence was enough to stop the other man's hurtful words. Tony was still and silent, hands in the pockets of his faded blue jeans, fixedly staring at Bucky, analyzing, and gauging, and judging.
Steve wanted Tony and Bucky to be—if not friends—at least acquaintances and able to be near each other without starting a fight. For his part, Tony had been really good, and Steve never stopped to thank him and congratulate him for his effort, but Bucky…if today was any indication, Bucky wasn't even trying. For the most part he was ignoring Tony existed at all, for a smaller, pettier part, he just liked to subtly insult Tony by degrading his tech, his accomplishment and basically anything that Tony had a part of.
Steve tended to ignore him, tried to make him lay off Tony's back, but the man was stubborn and set off to make Tony's life—and Steve's incidentally—a living hell.
Tony may have been jealous the first few months after Bucky's return, but Steve knew Bucky was going way too far and getting nasty.
He didn't think it was jealousy…no, Bucky was acting possessive and greedy. Like a kid that lost his toy and suddenly found it again in the hands of another one. He didn't really want the toy back, he just wanted to make the other kid pay for having it.
Steve blinked and turned around to stare at Tony. He was still not moving and showed no indication he'd even just been talking.
Bucky was sneering at him and laughing in derision. "Without the suit? Gladly. I'd love to put you in your place, rich boy. Let the real men fight!"
Steve bristled and stepped forward but Tony stopped him with a hand on his wrist. "I won't break him," he whispered in Steve's ear as he passed him and climbed up the mat. He unbuttoned his shirt slowly, and passed it to Steve before turning back to face Bucky.
Steve took a guilty second to appreciate Tony's body and musculature. Extremis had made his body the perfect proof of human perfection, and Steve couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the sheer luck he had to call Tony his, day after day.
Tony hid it well under his hundred dollars suits, and it was more noticeable when he only wore a tee-shirt, but he had an incredible built. He was small, granted, but he was lean and solid. It wasn't obvious like Steve, but his whole body was one mass of slim, perfectly defined sinewy muscles. There wasn't an ounce of fat and it was like everything on his body was rationed. His skin was thin and taut over his bones, he was dry; only skin and bones, but he was slender, trim and…perfect.
Steve loved Tony's body. Had loved it before, but literally adored it since Extremis. He loved to touch his flat and hard stomach, watching the muscles ripple under his skin when he moved, and watching him now, ready to fight…
Well, Steve was only human.
Bucky was smirking and Steve nearly pitied him.
Tony was hunched over one of his many projects when Steve joined him in his lab. He stopped a few feet away from Tony and smiled slightly before walking up to him and sitting quietly on the stool next to his husband's. "Hey, baby, whatchadoin'?"
Tony laughed soundlessly and shook his head, mirth dancing in his eyes. Steve frowned with a smile, not understanding Tony's sudden hilarity. "What?"
Tony leaned toward him and kissed him gently, rubbing his cheek against Steve's. "Nothing, you're just cute."
Steve hummed and kissed Tony again. He didn't know what his husband was talking about but he was glad to be the cause of Tony's happiness. They parted and Tony turned back to his work while Steve watched him silently.
"Did I hurt him?" Tony asked several long minutes later.
Steve blinked, already knowing who Tony was talking about and ghosted his fingers along the back of Tony's neck. "Only his pride," he quietly murmured. "Your hair's getting long."
Tony snorted. "Yeah, well since I mostly shave every day now, I have to keep my hair where I can…"
Steve laughed breathily and kept toying with the longer hair at the back of Tony's head while the other man kept tinkering. "I just love you so much, baby."
Tony smiled and leaned his head in Steve's hand cradling the back of his head. "I know."
Steve was staring dispassionately at Bucky's attempt to hide how much his ribs hurt while shuffling around the kitchen in search of something to drink. "Isn't there any alcohol in this fucking house?" he muttered.
Steve shrugged noncommittally. "We don't drink that much around here…" he said evasively. He didn't want to give Bucky any more ammunition against Tony by saying he was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.
Since Extremis things were much easier for Tony; his metabolism was very much like Steve's and he couldn't get drunk but the alcohol molecule still represented a nasty sword of Damocles above Tony's head. Trusting Bruce's test, Tony couldn't become addicted again, but they didn't want to even think of risking Tony drinking or taking any drugs. It wasn't worth the curiosity.
The public knew of Tony being a recovering alcoholic and while they tended to conveniently forget he was a mutant, they didn't want to risk any paparazzi taking a shot of Tony with a drink in his hand.
Bucky snorted and banged a cabinet before crossing his arms and leaning against the counter. "So, that's where we are now?" he mumbled angrily.
Steve shrugged and put his hands in his pockets. "We don't have to. You just have to adapt, like I did. It's hard, very hard, at first…but worth it."
Bucky turned his head on the side and sneered. "You saying he's worth it?" he gritted out.
Steve leaned against the kitchen wall, facing Bucky and look at him straight in the eyes. "He's worth a thousand of the 40s and more."
Bucky scoffed. "What has he ever done for you? I look how you act around him and you give and give and he doesn't do anything but take! It wouldn't even surprise me if he'd go and sleep around and you'd let him!"
Steve tightened his fists and took a deep, calming breath. "Tony gave up his humanity for me. And forgave things I did to him, things I had no rightto do to him. I already made him suffer too much and I'll be damned if I didn't try to make up for it. Even if it takes all my damn life." He said it in a quiet voice but felt his body tremble with the sheer force it him to contain his rage. "So, you will fucking shut up about Tony or get out of here and never step foot into my house."
Bucky stood stock still, staring at Steve in disbelief. "You'd choose him over me?"
Steve let out a frustrated growl. "I'd choose Tony over the world, Bucky!" he barked. "Either we're friends or you get out of here and never come back. You chose. Make up your damn mind."
And he turned his back on Bucky.
It wasn't as hard as he'd thought it'd be.
He thought…he'd grieved again…for the first, second…what, third time?
He was done with it.
Tony was worth everything.
Bucky didn't talk to him for an entire week.
And one morning, while Steve was making breakfast for everyone—waffle, sausages, eggs, bacon, coffee—Bucky shuffled quietly in and stopped to stare at Steve.
He didn't need any word to translate Bucky's stare. The domesticity of the scene was self-explaining. Bucky wasn't into that kind of things. And the more Steve got to think about it, the more he thought their couple wouldn't have survived post-war peace.
"So, you turned housewife in the 21st century?"
Steve turned his head slowly while flipping a pancake on the mountain he'd already made on a plate and lifted an eyebrow. "We have shifts for cooking," he explained flatly. "Today's my turn."
Bucky squirmed a bit under Steve's stare and rubbed the back of his neck. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? That's what you want to hear?"
Steve snorted and turned back to his cooking. "What I want doesn't matter, Bucky. What matters is that you can't barge into my life and just…judge and belittle everything I've built. I'm fucking grateful for what I have. And I won't let anything take it away from me. Even you."
Bucky groaned in frustration. "But what do you have? I don't get it! Look at you, for god's sake! You're this—this domesticated puppy, wagging your tail, making breakfast…"
Steve closed his eyes and tried to calm himself. He didn't want to get angry at Bucky like the last time as it got them nowhere. Bucky clearly didn't understand, or better yet, didn't want to understand.
"What do you want me to do?" he asked after a while, putting the pan on the side and turning off the stove. "Would you have rather me running around the world and fighting in all the wars? Or should I just wait patiently on the side for the next madman that decides to attack the city?" He shook his head in bafflement. "I do what I like. I'm an Avenger. I work in advertising part time, I train SHIELD recruits…I'm married and so damn happy it sometimes amaze me."
Bucky frowned and grimaced. "But…" He stopped himself and racked his hands in his hair. "This guy…Stark. He's—"
Steve's face darkened and his shoulders tensed. "Careful, Bucky. I'll bash your face in if you say one more thing about Tony."
Bucky glared at him intensely, jaw working in frustration. "He's everything we hated back in the days," he managed to say calmly. "Rich, spoiled, selfish…he's miles from—" Once more he stopped himself and started pacing the length of the kitchen.
"Miles from you?" Steve finished flatly.
Bucky shrugged and let out a breathless, painful laugh. "It's just… after getting out of the brainwashing…seeing you…and spending time with you…I thought…I thought we could get back together."
Steve took a deep breath. "I understand. But we can't and more than that, I don't want to get back with you. I love Tony. You have to understand that. I love him…and I think I never loved you that much. I'm…hurting you…I'm sorry. But Tony, he's—" he trailed off and sighed. "He's my heart."
Bucky closed his eyes and nodded. "I understand…you know…well…I got to think, and if nothing had happened back in the 40s…we probably wouldn't have been together after the war."
Steve smiled gently. "Probably not." He looked at Bucky, still smiling. "So, we friends?"
Bucky chuckled and nodded firmly. "Yeah, friends."
Steve lifted an eyebrow. "And you won't anger Tony anymore?"
Bucky laughed curtly and gingerly touched his fading black eye. "I'll—try to get to know him, if I have to," he added as an afterthought.
Steve snorted. "You have to. You live in his tower." He chuckled at Bucky's grimace and shrugged. "He's a pretty amazing guy when you get past the arrogant asshole bullshit."
Bucky nodded. "Yeah, like Howard."
Steve winced and turned back to pour himself and Bucky a cup of coffee. "Uh, if I were you I'd never mention Howard with Tony around…Howard…changed, after the war."
Bucky stared a moment at Steve's back and processed and nodded to accept the cup of coffee. "Well, he's also always been an asshole, so…"
Steve smiled behind his cup and sipped quietly.
They'd get there. Little by little.
Tony flipped them over and straddled Steve's hips looking down at him with a contented smile. It was probably their favorite sex position and could spend hours like that, Tony slowly riding him, hands on his Steve's chest and Steve lovingly cradling Tony's back.
"You're so easy," Steve murmured with a moan when Tony slowly rolled his hips.
"So're you," the genius muttered while gently ghosting his fingers along Steve's abdomen muscles.
A few years ago, Steve would have cringed at that. Hearing he was easy, that he wasn't hard to fall in bed with someone.
Contrary to popular belief, Tony wasn't a dirty talker in bed, and in reality, he was rather quiet during sex. He was intense and focused in his stare, and hummed during the whole thing, but rarely talked.
Steve had thought it unsettling at first, thinking he was so bad at sex Tony couldn't even moan in pleasure, but he'd quickly understood it was Tony's way. No explanation; he was just quiet during sex as he was loud in everyday life.
They made love like that for another hour before Steve grunted and released himself in Tony with a deep moan. Tony smiled down at him and followed quickly afterwards, slumping down on Steve's chest, both their chests sticky with sweat and cum.
Steve rubbed a hand up and down Tony's back, the other one cradling his head lovingly, while Tony gently caressed his smooth cheek against Steve's neck. "Uhm…I wish we could be like this forever," Tony whispered, breath still not entirely calmed down.
Steve hummed and tightened his arms around Tony. "We have eternity for us, baby. There's a lot more to come."
Tony snorted and straightened up to look mischievously at his husband. "Why, Mr. Rogers, who would have thought you were such a romantic?"
Steve laughed and flipped them over so he was looming over Tony, kissing him between each sentences. "I love you."
Tony smiled contentedly and wrapped himself around Steve tightly. No other words were exchanged for the rest of the night.
Tony had the Iron Patriot/War Machine suit in a glass casing in his lab.
Sometimes when Steve walked passed them, he couldn't help but feel the empty eye socket staring right into his soul. As if to say 'don't screw this up'.
Like Harry's picture, it wasn't Tony's way to hurt him; the suits weren't about him.
They were about the man who had been Tony's first and best friend through years and years of happiness and pain.
Those suits were about the man who'd found him in Afghanistan and saved him.
Steve didn't have any right to argue.
And he found he never wanted to.
Steve didn't know how it happened, but one morning, when he was standing in front of the mirror, he noticed he hadn't been shaving in about a month.
Tony walked in the bathroom and stared at him through the mirror. Their eyes met and Tony pursed his lips. "Maybe…you could keep it," he muttered and walked to the shower, undressing wordlessly.
Steve snorted and put the razor down, walking to the shower stall—big enough for the two of them and a few Asgardians—and leaned against the glass wall. "So, uh…you like the beard?" he asked cheerfully, not even trying to keep the humor in his voice.
Tony stared at him above his shoulder and smirked. "Maybe…" he drawled.
Steve snorted and undressed.
That smirk was better than any word.
Tony was behind his desk, facing the city outside the window. Five men in business suits were arguing around the glass table in his office and he wished he could get away with blasting them to smithereens.
"...people are going to need good, old-fashioned energy to rely on. You can understand that Mr. Stark," one of them was babbling, wiping his sweating forehead with a white handkerchief. "The world can't just quit on oil and nuclear power cold turkey. You'll dismantle our entire economy overnight. You're right, Lee. And why free energy? Well, 'free' is just another word for 'socialist'. We might have to make a public inquiry…into any past communist affiliations Stark Industries might have had…or your father."
Tony tensed his shoulder and exchanged a significant glance with Natasha. She was acting like his PR now since Pepper was leading SI on the entire east coast. Trust had been long to come back between Tony and Pepper of them but he felt he was able to put everything behind him and get back to being friends with her. Not seeing her everyday had probably helped, but there wasn't a week when they didn't talk about SI or just about life.
"Mr. Miller, gentlemen…" he said calmly, turning around and staring at them with his arms crossed behind his back, "I respect your position and what you've accomplished as captains of industry. I do. You wanna know my past? Hm? Okay. Happily. It's a matter of public record that by 17, both my parents were dead leaving me alone. I guess you could say I've always been alone. They say I'm the smartest man in the world, but the truth is I've often felt stupid at being unable to relate to anyone. Well, anyone living, that is. The only person with whom I felt kinship was Alexander the Great, as you know him. His vision of a united world was..." he trailed off and smirked at them.
He blinked lazily. "Well, it was unprecedented. I wanted—needed—to match his accomplishments so I resolved to apply antiquity's teachings to our world today. And so began my path to conquest. Conquest not of men but of the evils that beset them. Fossil fuels, oil, nuclear power are like a drug, and you, along with foreign interests are the pushers."
Miller and the others bristled and the blond one snarled, standing. "Now, listen—"
"No, you listen," Tony interrupted calmly but with frost in his voice. "The world will survive and it deserves more than you've been able to provide. So let's cut to it, shall we? I'm worth more than all of your corporation's combined. I could buy and sell you, something you should factor into your decision should you choose to make our disagreement public. I think you know the way out. Gentlemen," he finished and waved at the doors which opened alone.
He liked to make a point and had a very well developed flair for dramatics. It scared them to be reminded he wasn't human and will survive them all.
He watched them scatter away like scared animals and sat in his chair. Natasha sat herself on his desk, varnished black Louboutin looking more like weapons than shoes on her feet, and a tight fitting business attire, no doubt recommended by Pepper.
"They'll get around…" she said while brushing imaginary lint from Tony's shoulder, "Looking sharp today…did Steve see you wearing that?" she smirked.
Tony snorted and shrugged, three-piece black suits were his favorites. And one of Steve's. "I have to convince the senators to get New York off grid with the Arc reactor tech…industrialists won't follow without senate approval."
Natasha hummed. "You could have dinner with the president."
Tony grimaced. "I don't think it's a good idea. He's getting unpopular with his negative biased against mutants. People start to change…but politics don't follow. They're too scared."
Natasha nodded. "They'll get around too…like they did fifty years ago about homosexuality and before that black people. At least mutant bashing stopped and get is severely punished now."
Tony nodded absently, fingers drumming thoughtfully before he looked up at her. "So, you and Bruce are going out tonight?" he asked with a gentle smile.
She didn't blush, but Tony could see the light lit up in her eyes. "Yes. He's taking me to the Gigino."
Tony nodded. "Awesome view on the Hudson River."
She suddenly leaned over and wrapped her arms around him. "I'm glad I changed," she whispered. "I'm so glad."
Tony hugged her back and nodded, gently patting her back. "You did good."
They stayed like that for a long time. And they both relished that new friendship.
"You ever wanted to hurt Steve?" Clint asked.
Clint was blunt like that. And often telling things out of the blue without notice.
Tony barely looked at him, sitting on a stool in the kitchen, hunched over a disturbing high pile of paperwork to sign for SI and shrugged, already knowing what the man was asking.
"Of course. But at the time I knew his guilt would torture him more effectively than anything I could do to him."
Clint nodded pensively. "You could've ruined him. Do unbelieving things to his reputation…"
Tony finally looked up and stretched his arms over his head, rolling his neck right and left. "Oh Clint, really, who do you think people would've believed? Captain America or the biggest man-whore in the city? I bought this on myself," he ended with a casual shrug.
Clint sat facing Tony and rubbed his mouth. "You didn't, Tones," he said quietly, nervously playing with one of the contract lying on the marble counter. "It's on us."
Tony looked at him and nodded, a small smile at the corner of his mouth. "It's in the past," he finally said gently, and then pushed half his pile of paperwork. "I know you can forge my signature. Be useful."
Clint groaned half-heartedly but grabbed the paperwork and a black pen. He'd never admit it out loud to anyone, but he greatly appreciated these one on one moments with Tony.
Tony had always been a picky eater even before Extremis. Steve couldn't even remember the number of times he had to drag Tony out of the workshop just to eat a sandwich.
But now, Tony just wasn't interested in food at all.
They were all sitting in the kitchen, Bruce serving everyone the curry he prepared better than any four star chef and Tony was sitting sideways on his chair, a leg under his butt while the other one was bent so he could put his chin on his knee. He was looking at his phone intently and was leaning in Steve's personal space without seeming to mind.
Steve was used to Tony being often stuck to him; be it during movie night or meals. Tony always seemed to need to be in some kind of physical contact, as if to reassure himself that Steve was here, next to him, that he was real.
Steve didn't want to even start to imagine what Extremis was doing to Tony's mind, but he sometimes saw the deep terror in Tony's eyes. Those five percent still human weren't made to stand the pressure Extremis coupled with his mutation put on Tony's brain.
And the incident two months ago about Tony's vision about that potential-in-some-far-away-universe Civil War was still fresh in Steve's mind. He didn't think Tony ever could get over it. He'd told him about some bits here and there, but the dread that filled Steve every time Tony had talked about it had nearly been too much to bear.
So yeah, Tony was always near, and Steve loved every moment of it because he'd made it his life's mission to protect Tony.
Steve swallowed a mouthful of curry and nicely nudged Tony in the ribs to make him eat. The man hummed something and absently stabbed a small bit of chicken and made a show of putting it in his mouth and chewing it for longer than necessary before swallowing and returning to his phone.
"So, Steve, you plan on having kids?"
Steve nearly choked on his fork and had to drink a deep gulp of water. "Damn it, Bucky, can't you be a bit more—"
Bucky smirked at him but Steve didn't miss the quick, unsettled look he gave Tony before staring back at Steve.
Steve wouldn't go so far as to say Bucky and Tony were friends, but they seemed to have drawn some kind of line between them. Bucky had stopped antagonizing Tony, accepting him for being Steve's husband and overall, he'd accepted he'd never get back with Steve, and for his part, Tony had made the effort to at least try to get to know Bucky. He didn't ignore him systematically now and even started working on making him a new arm.
Steve sighed and leaned closer to Tony when the man gently started rubbing his neck. "No, Bucky, we don't want kids."
Bucky lifted an eyebrow and shrugged. "Why, you have a big house, more money than reasonable…"
Steve shook his head. "We're also Avengers; it would be unreasonable to bring a child into this world to put him constantly in danger. And…Bucky how old do you think Tony is?"
Bucky frowned suddenly and looked at the man. "Uhm…I don't see the problem. I mean, Steve you're thirty, and Stark is—the same…?" he trailed off insecurely.
Tony grinned at his phone furtively but didn't look up. "I'm fifty five in August," he informed.
Bucky frowned. "What? You look—"
Steve nodded in sympathy. "We don't age, Bucky. At all. It would mean watching the kid grow old and die while we'll still be looking like today."
Bucky frowned. "Is it because of the serum?" and paled slightly when Steve nodded. "But he—" Bucky waved at Tony.
Steve pulled a face. "Tony's a mutant. It's—complicated. He doesn't age anymore."
Bucky shook his head. "Anymore? You mean he hasn't always—but—"
Tony finally looked up and frowned slightly. "He is right here. And Steve already told you, Barnes. I gave up my humanity for him."
The kitchen was deeply silent while Bucky digested Tony's words. "I thought it was a figure of speech…" he muttered, "I knew you couldn't be all human when you slammed me on the gym mat, but—"
Steve waved his hands powerlessly. "Welcome to the 21st century!"
"You know…what I told Bucky about not having kids…well, it's not the entire truth."
Tony shifted slightly in Steve's arms so he could look up at him, body pressed in Steve's sides, and head buried in his neck, securely held.
Steve took a deep breath. "I have one more reason why I don't want kids. And it's a selfish one."
Tony gently encouraged him by rubbing a hand on his chest lovingly.
"I don't want kids because I don't want to have to share you. Share my love, your love…I just want you for myself."
Tony shivered and tightened his arms around Steve. "That's one of the sweetest things anyone ever told me. I don't want to share my love too. We can both be selfish together for eternity."
They chuckled, laughed, teased, kissed and loved all night long.
James "Bucky" Barnes was not a man used to feeling scared.
Hell, he'd stared down Nazis, for god's sake.
But standing in front of an entire glass wall leading to the workshop of a man—but not really a man—about ready to enter was making him squirm.
He wasn't scared!
Just cautious. He knew things had changed since the 40s, and mutants weren't persecuted now, so they didn't feel the need to defend themselves violently, but still, Tony Stark was something that gave him goose bumps. Just his eyes were inhuman and that only made Bucky unsettled.
He took a deep fortifying breath and knocked on the glass door, just to jump in surprise when a refined English voice answered.
"Lieutenant Barnes, if you could please wait an instant, I will announce your presence to Sir."
Bucky lifted his eyebrows, looking left and right, still not used to the disembodied butler Steve told him about and nodded. "Uhm, yes, thanks, man."
JARVIS didn't answer, but the door of the workshop opened and Bucky entered, whistling lowly. He'd never been there, obviously, and could remember a part of Howard Stark's labs in the past but it was nothing like that.
This was downright futurist and miles from anything Bucky knew and understood.
"Hey," a voice called in warning as he picked up something from one of the nearest table.
He didn't jump but it was a near thing and turned around with a guilty look. "Yeah, sorry," he said as he put the electronic device back down on the table.
Tony Stark stared at him emotionlessly and Bucky stared right back.
The man wasn't tall, he was rather small actually, lean and athletic. His face was young—thirtyish, and Bucky knew from what Steve told him, Stark was actually more than fifty—but his eyes were old. And neon blue, like small planets. They didn't look human and Bucky guessed he was one of those mutants with a visible side that gave them away. It wasn't blatant like some with colorful skin Bucky had seen in his years, but it was still there.
He was dressed in a pair of tight jeans, gold and red Nike shoes, and white tank top with a blue round circle shining through the material. The Arc reactor, Bucky's mind provided. He remember reading Stark's meager file; it was something only a man with his genius could create, with a new element he discovered in his basement, something keeping him alive.
Bucky didn't know if he really wanted to understand all the technology behind the thing, or more like knew he wasn't up to understand it. He went to the Internet to get a feel about the 21st century, and between that, Steve and the other Avengers, he now had a firm background on the actual world. But by experience leaving in this tower, even he was conscious about how Stark's technology was miles ahead of the current world.
"Came for the arm," he said after a moment.
Stark blinked and nodded, a silent signal for Bucky to follow him.
He led him in a back room set up like an operating room and took place in the dentist-like chair at the center when Stark waved at it.
"I'll have to remove the arm and reconnect the new one to your nerves. It'll hurt like hell."
Bucky grimaced but nodded, taking off his shirt. Couldn't blame the guy for sugarcoating the truth. "How will it work compared to this one?" he asked curiously while mentioning his silver one with the red star.
Stark hummed and jingled the fingers of his right arms. "Like this one. I have the latest model of the Graft."
Bucky stared in bafflement. "That's—"
Tony nodded and pressed a long series of symbols on a keyboard and Bucky suddenly felt like going up the mountains. His ears popped and his stomach flipped. "What the hell," he muttered.
"I sterilized the room. It's now completely germ-free," he explained as he put on a pair of leather black gloves.
Bucky stared at him skeptically. "Are you even a doctor?" he asked, eying the rolling plate with medical tools sitting on it Stark just rolled with his foot next to him.
Tony's mouth twisted in a brief pout before he grabbed a syringe filled with something yellow. "I have seven doctorates. I don't get why people always seem to think I don't know what I'm doing. Bruce only has three and everyone calls him 'doctor'. What about me?" he ranted, "I mean, it really should be Doctor Stark every time someone even looks at me. But do I get recognition? Nooooo sir, nothing, nada, zilch. Rien."
Bucky felt like he had just stepped into the twilight zone. Here was Stark, a man that hadn't said more than ten words to him since his arrival at the tower, and now he was rambling on and on and on without even stopping to take a breath. And then, the noise started to fade back into the background and his vision was definitely going gray on the sides…
"Here. Done. Didn't hurt, did it?"
Bucky blinked, staring at the ceiling sluggishly and licked his strangely dry lips. He felt a cup being pressed against his lips and sipped thankfully. "Whu—"
He heard Stark snorted. "Eloquent. You're okay. You did well. Let the Graft adjust."
Bucky gingerly lifted his head and stared at his left arm. It wasn't silver anymore and he had to concentrate to reconnect the dot. There was skin, pink, new skin on his fingers, his wrist, his forearm. It was like…
"God," he muttered in bewilderment, flexing his fingers and wrist and tracing the fingers of his right hand on the new appendage. "God, I canfeel…" he shocked up on his words and took a trembling breath.
"It's okay," Stark gently soothed while cleaning up his medical tools. "Take a deep breath and release it slowly," he instructed. "Normally people who get the Graft have a shrink with them when they wake. It can be overwhelming."
Bucky nodded wordlessly and sat, still cradling his new arm with his real one. "Man, it's—it looks so real. Is it real skin?" he asked musingly.
Stark pursed his lips. "Synthetic skin. It doesn't have any regenerative capacity. If you hurt your arm we'll have to apply new skin. It doesn't grow back." He shrugged awkwardly. "I haven't perfected it yet. We can still see the delineation between your real skin and the Graft," he exclaimed calmly, tracing his fingers along the edge of real and fake skin at his shoulder. The color was slightly different but it was invisible if you didn't know what to look for.
Bucky shook his head. If Stark thought the arm wasn't some kind of masterpiece because it supposedly wasn't perfected, then the man was the stupidest genius he'd ever met. "It's great," he blurted out.
Tony blinked at him, face blank but eyes a storm of emotions. "Alright."
Bucky nodded, more than just the new arm unfolding between them. "Alright," he repeated.
"You should have told me," Steve muttered as he banged the cupboards more than was necessary. As it was his turn to cook for them all tonight, it was the perfect occasion to make noise to translate his unhappiness. "I would have been there."
Bucky shrugged, still wiggling his fingers in bemusement. "I didn't need you there. And Stark surely didn't need you there. He just started babbling about this and that, and then the next thing I know, I'm waking up and I have a new arm."
He saw Steve's brief smile at the mention of Stark's incessant chatter, before the blond glared again. "Still, moral support is important."
Bucky suddenly stood and walked to Steve. "You know, I think your husband did better than even you could have done." Steve opened his mouth to interrupt but Bucky wasn't finished. "He was the perfect person to have after waking up with a new arm. I mean," he shrugged uncomfortably, "he told me about his arm, the right one, and he was probably the only person in this tower that could get me through the first freak out of having this," he mentioned to his new arm with a nod, "attached to my body and looking so real after so many years of feeling disgusted but the silver one."
Steve pinched his lips together and his shoulders slumped. "Yeah, you're right," he said in a breathy voice. "I just—"
"You thought I was gonna behave like a dick with him," Tony suddenly said as he entered the kitchen to grab a glass of apple juice. "You wanted to make sure Barnes would have someone who cared with him."
Steve blushed and looked pained. "Tony," he pleaded. "It wasn't like that. I know you wouldn't have—"
Tony shrugged and gulped the entire glass of juice. "It's okay. I get it. I haven't been…nice to him. But I wouldn't do that to someone getting a Graftfor fuck's sake."
Steve stepped in Tony's direction but was stopped by Bucky's new hand on his shoulder. "That's not it, Stark. Steve and I…back in the days we were always there for each other for things like that. I mean I was often in the hospital with him when he was sick or taking care of him…"
Tony tilted his head on the side and nodded. "I know. I just wish people would stop believing I don't have a heart."
Bucky grimaced and frowned slightly at Steve, because since getting out of the brainwashing, he'd seen Steve behaving like a jerk with his husband more than once. "I don't want to get between you two."
Tony actually smiled at him. "You don't. Sometimes Steve just likes to remind me the differences between Steve Rogers and Captain America." He glared at Steve one last time and exited the kitchen.
Steve hissed and hit a cupboard, putting his fist through it. "Damn it," he raged.
Bucky sat back at the kitchen island and grabbed his newspaper. "You broke it, you fix it."
Steve tracked down Tony after a few hours and located Tony was in their bedroom. He was getting dressed after showering; hair still damp, and Steve sat on the bed, waiting patiently and taking his time to find the correct words.
Tony was adjusting the neck of his white J. Crew Jaspe short sleeve Henley when Steve pressed the heel of his hands in his eyes. When he opened them, Tony was sitting on the chair next to the dressing room, quietly lacing a gray pair of well-worn leather Stacy Adams Madison shoes.
"You, uh, you look good," Steve finally breathed out, returning Tony's stare.
The man was still sitting on the chair facing the bed, and Steve felt more exposed than ever under the intense blue gaze.
Tony rubbed the palm of his hands on his black jeans and shrugged. "Thank you."
Steve sighed in frustration and racked his hands in his hair. "I'm sorry, Tony. I—I've been an idiot."
Tony leaned forward putting his elbows on his knees and rubbed his forehead. "I think you don't trust me."
Steve froze and paled dramatically. "Tony—" he breathed out in agony.
Tony waved his hands powerlessly. "Sometimes I feel like I'm the one that betrayed you."
Steve bit back a sob and got on his knees in front of Tony. "I'm so sorry," he whispered brokenly.
Tony sighed and looked away from Steve. "Do you think I'm less human now that I have Extremis? Is that it? Do you think I don't…feel anymore? I had my arm cut off in a jungle for god's sake!" he gritted out between tightly clenched teeth, "I'd never get nasty with anyone in the same situation, not even my worst enemy."
Steve made a pained nose, head falling down on his chest and shoulders slumping. They stayed silent for a very long time, their breathing and the slight hum of the Arc reactor in Tony's chest the only sound in the room.
"I think you wish I hadn't taken Extremis."
This time Steve sobbed harshly.
"Was it…because when I was still human it was your guarantee I'd die? And you could…" Tony waved his left hand vaguely, apathetically. "Enjoy other people after me without cheating. Again?"
The sound was harsh, the grunt more from surprise than real pain, but Tony's head was still thrown on the side with the force of the slap Steve gave him when the soldier realized what he'd done.
"You don't get to say shit like that," Steve hissed bitterly.
Tony licked his bleeding lower lip and gently dabbed the tip of his fingers on the cut. "I told you I'd get cruel. I warned you."
Steve took a calming breath, stood and put some distance between them. "I know, and I told you I accepted it."
Tony hugged himself. "Except when you can't hear it."
Steve sighed in pure frustration. "What? Should I feel happy to hear you say that?" he snapped.
Tony flinched and rocked slightly back and forth and suddenly yelled, "I don't understand!"
Steve reeled back from the sudden, unexpected emotion his husband displayed. It was the most he'd showed since Extremis, and as horrible as the situation was, Steve could feel such relief, such pure, and unadulterated thankfulness he felt his legs grow weak and had to sit at the end of the bed.
And like the sudden shock, Steve burst out laughing, feeling tears fall down his cheeks. It took several minutes for him to begin to calm down, and when he could finally look up at Tony, still shaken by stray giggles he dissolved into harsh sobs. "I missed you," he choked out. "I fucking missedyou, baby."
Several months later, after the team came back from a mission in Russia, Steve pressed a gently hand against Tony's chest. "I wished you'd get rid of the Arc reactor," he whispered into the night.
Tony snuggled closer to Steve, tucking his head under the blond chin and hummed. "That's the only guarantee I have you'd be able to stop me if I'm compromised."
Steve tensed and wrapped his arms tightly around the smaller man. He didn't want to hear those words but he knew they were the truth.
If, one day, Tony was compromised for whatever reason, he'd be nearly unstoppable. Taking out the Arc reactor like a battery would be their only chance to neutralize him.
Steve shuddered praying that day never came.
"We need to find Bucky a girlfriend," Steve declared one morning in his Captain America voice. The whole team—minus Bucky, of course—was having breakfast; Clint still in his sweatpants, Natasha still elegant in a silky red bathrobe, Bruce and Thor the only ones dressed. Tony was sitting sideways on his stool, bare foot on the bar of Natasha's stool, drinking his cup of coffee while quietly checking his mail. Steve had to do a double take and swallow with difficulty at the sight of his husband in nothing but black boxers and one of his own shirts.
The all exchanged exasperated and indulgent glance, before Bruce started cleaning his glasses with the corner of his shirt. "And why is that? I'm sure he's capable of finding himself a girlfriend, Steve."
Steve grimaced and shrugged sheepishly in one same movement. "Well I'm sure he's having the same difficulties I had adapting to this century," he began calmly, trying to plead his case, "and doesn't know this time dating method. So we need to help—"
He was interrupted by the sound of female giggling followed by Bucky's deep chuckle. Steve swift around and his mouth fell open at the sight of his best friend, an arm wrapped around the waist of a petite brunette, still giggling madly at what Bucky was whispering in her ears.
Tony looked up at the sound and huffed. "That's the new girl at the tower's reception." He suddenly broke out laughing madly. "Oh Steve, he sure didn't wait for your intervention. He didn't even have to leave the tower."
Tony stood and the sound of his mad laugher melded with the brunette's giggling.
Steve wasn't normally pessimistic during a fight. He tended to always think no issue was a dead-end, never thinking about a no-win situation, but today, fighting an enemy using each and any of their weakness was making Steve inadequate. He felt like a failure for not being able to lead the others correctly during the fight and protect the powerless people still running and screaming around.
Their enemies were everywhere and used a kind of hive mind. There were giant robots everywhere, and Steve knew enough to say the technology was not of earth and that they were from the same kind as the Chitauri. He wished Tony was with them.
His husband had been in Japan for an important business transaction and couldn't join the team until an hour. Steve grunted as one of the alien fired at him and sent him crashing through a wall. He gasped for a moment, flat on his back, staring at the ceiling and trying to get his breath under control.
And that's when he heard it. The sound of a deep rumble, the engine of a powerful car. He stood gingerly, coughing at the dirt and dust falling from his uniform and climbed back out of the hole in the building he'd made when going through. He gasped at the sight of a black mat Lamborghini parked right in the middle of the street facing the fight.
And he knew. He just knew Tony was driving.
"Damn, Stark sure knows how to make an entrance," Bucky grumbled breathlessly through the speakers.
"Tony," Steve snapped through his comm. "What the hell are you doing?"
Of course Tony didn't answer and when the aliens finally noticed the unmoving car. They all swirled in one movement and rampaged toward the car. As Steve yelled for Tony to move and irrationally started to run in the car's direction, he suddenly froze in shock at the sight of what was coming down running the street behind the car.
He took an involuntary step back and watched in fascinated horror as a giant robot looking like a running dinosaur jumped above the car and met the aliens in one great crash of grinding metal. Steve gasped when another blue and red robot that had been riding on the back of the dinosaur jumped in the air with a sword and started slashing through the enemies in movements Steve knew, just knew, deep inside his bones, were some he had taught Tony for hand-to-hand combat.
The fight didn't last long before all of their enemies had been destroyed and slashed through by the red and blue robot, the dinosaur roaring in the back angrily.
Steve watched in avid anticipation, as the blue and red robot walked back to the Lamborghini and sat on its rear next to it, waiting eagerly for its master. When Steve decided to approach and made to step toward the car, the Lamborghini suddenly groaned and literally transformed in front of them all, getting taller and taller until an entirely other robot—this one black—stood towering above the red and blue one and reached to pet the dinosaur on its scaled back.
Steve licked his lips nervously but the glowing blue light embedded in the breastplate of the black robot was proof he needed not to fear approaching the robots.
He ignored the calls from his teammates and walked to the foot of the black robot, ignoring the sharp glowing eyes of the dinosaur and the red and blue one, before looking. "Well, Tones, you outdid yourself this time."
The black robot turned its head slowly in his direction before the faceplate opened and out came Tony in the Iron Man suit—all shiny black and gold, the one Steve called the Bleeding Edge armor because it came right out of Tony's bones—and jumped next to Steve, booted feet clanging on the road.
"I think so too," the mechanical voice of his husband answered from behind the mask.
Steve looked up at the three robots, the black one staring at Steve intensely while the blue and red one was looking between him and Tony, and the dinosaur was sniffing out the ground like a dog and was even wagging its robotic tail.
The rest of the team arrived and stared warily. Bruce, now de-Hulked, walked to the robot with a shaking head. "Seems General Ross got his target wrong," he dead-panned wryly. "I don't think Senator Stern will be thrilled to have those…creatures roaming around the streets."
Tony didn't answer but shook his head once and the three robots suddenly transformed back into cars. The black Lamborghini, a blue and red Audi R8 and a silver Bugatti Veyron.
Clint and Bucky whistled and started petting the car hood in appreciation, but Steve turned to glare at Tony. "Lift up the faceplate," he ordered.
The emotionless face of the Iron Man stared at him for a moment before the suit retreated back into Tony's body in the blink of an eye. Steve mentally prided Tony for how quick he'd came to be able to transform since Extremis, before crushing the thought. "Tony," he started, trying to calm himself, "Tony, what the hell was that?" he gritted out.
Tony looked at him sideways eyes narrowed. "They're a project I've been working on and off for years."
Steve pinched his lips and took a deep breath. "Tony, the last project you've been working on and off for years is Extremis," he snapped.
Tony bared his teeth at him angrily. "What's your problem now?" he asked crossly. "Does it bother your perfect little sterilized world?"
Steve clenched his jaw and took a step closer to Tony but the man stepped back. "Are you gonna hit me again?" the genius hissed.
Steve froze and shook his head. "No, I won't, Tony," he answered calmly, the fight bleeding out of his body. "But this," he said as he waved at the three cars, "this is too much. Way too much."
Tony took another step back until his back was against the black car. "The Chitauri were too much, Magneto was too much, the Winter Soldier was too much. This," he said and rapped his knuckles against the roof of the car, "this is just the next step in our defense."
Steve opened his mouth to reply but Tony waved an impatient hand. "I built the Helicarrier and it's the most powerful battleship in the world, Steve, it carries ten nuclear bombs, didn't you know?" he snapped.
Steve paled and turned to stare at the others. Bruce didn't know if the paleness of his face was any indication, Clint looked highly disturbed, Thor and Bucky worried and Natasha mildly shocked.
"So, me building a few more robots is nothing. Nothing if it can keep us and the world safe." He rubbed his forehead and Steve noticed the slightly trembling hands for the first time. "They're just like the Marks, except…bigger and autonomous. They've got a small AI and can…interact with people."
Clint was still patting the hood of the Audi. "Like JARVIS and your bots?"
Tony nodded curtly. "Yeah, but with a bit less leeway. And I control them with Extremis."
Steve nodded in sudden understanding and was quick to walk to Tony just as the man's legs buckled out under him. "You exhausted yourself," he muttered, wrapping himself protectively around Tony and lifting him in his arms bridal-style like he weighed nothing.
Tony hummed against his neck, arms tightly locked around the soldier's neck. "I can't stop making things, Steve. I can't. Why do you always scream at me when I'm doing the right things?" he asked sadly.
Steve sighed and barely acknowledged Coulson and the SHIELD cleaning team before starting to walk toward the Quinjet—another one of Tony's brilliant invention. "Oh baby," he sighed, "it's because every time you put yourself at risk. And you're mine to protect."
After the fight, Steve wasn't surprised about Fury convoking them all for an emergency meeting on the Helicarrier. Thor, Bruce, Natasha, Bucky and Clint boarded the Quinjet while Tony and Steve went flying with Tony's suit, the three robots following.
When they landed on the bridge of the carrier, Steve still wasn't surprised to see half of SHIELD's agents trying to get a glimpse of the latest Stark folly with different degrees of discretion on their faces; most of the youngest agents stared openly, the veterans only stealing covert glances.
Fury was waiting for them, standing tall and proud with his hands crossed behind his back, eagle eye sharply staring at Tony's creations. Steve couldn't decipher any emotion on his ageless face, but he could guess at the degree of annoyance by the grinding of his jaw.
Maria Hill was standing behind his right shoulder, looking angry—her mostly default face when it wasn't pure irritation—and glaring openly at Tony. Steve glared back at her, relishing in the small victory when she glanced down momentarily but squared her shoulders to glare back.
Coulson was on Fury's other side, smiling slightly at the corner of his mouth, more exasperated than angry at Tony for this new turn of event.
"Well, Stark," Fury began slowly, eye on the three robots turned cars, "can't say I'm surprised. More like totally speechless."
Steve blinked at the admission and had to do a double take to insure it was really Fury standing in front of them.
The man never praised Tony. Ever. Steve didn't know if it was because Fury rarely acknowledged good work with everyone, or simply because Fury didn't like to be one of those who praised Tony's genius for the simple fact of sucking-up.
Steve never really got their relationship, but he knew somewhere down the road, Fury knew Tony as a child and—here Steve knew Fury'd popped his remaining eye before admitting it—felt guilty for not getting the child out of an abusing household.
And he knew from Tony's words his husband sought Fury's approval since officially getting tagged from consultant to full time Avengers. Steve didn't know if it was a good idea for Tony to see Fury as a surrogate father, he suspected it had something to do with the fact the SHIELD director was the last remnant and link to Tony's childhood. Howard and Maria Stark, Edwin Jarvis; the old butler who raised him, Obadiah Stane, Peggy Carter…they were all dead leaving Tony alone in the world.
Steve couldn't fault him from hanging with tooth and nails to some small thread of his past. After all, before Bucky's return, he'd done exactly the same thing; sometimes forgetting the current world to lose himself in the past.
"Let's get inside," Fury's sharp voice interrupted him out his volatile thoughts.
The walked behind the man in silence toward the conference room they always used when they were all assembled. Once sitting, Fury planted himself in front of the window pane and stared at the many SHIELD agents operating in the control room down the elevated conference room.
"Alright, let's start simple. What are they? Suits like the Bleeding Edge armor?"
Steve startled at Fury's words. He'd thought he and the Avengers were the only one who used the colloquialism to refer to Tony's armor fused to his bones, and he had to admit to a certain feeling of approval of Fury's use of their slang. The term was far from scientifically accurate when Steve called the black and gold armor in those terms the first time but they had all taken to calling it that, even Tony.
Tony shook his head curtly. "They're not suits. Well…you can go inside but you won't be able to operate it. Only I'm able to do that. They use the Arc reactor tech and my nanobots. Nothing in this world can ever operate them apart from me. I made sure of that. And even if I werecompromised, I made just about a hundred fail safes for Steve to stop me from using them."
Steve nodded slowly at Tony's vehement words and smiled gently at him in reassurance. Despite his previous freak-out down in New York, now with a clear head he should have known Tony would have thought about every single scenario to counter his tech being compromised. If he was surprised Tony had made sure he would be the one to be able to stop his tech from arming anyone, well, he didn't show anything, even if his guts were freezing in fear of that happening, but also warming at the thought Tony trusted him this much.
Fury nodded sharply. Apparently, he and Steve were on the same page about trusting Tony to have done anything in his power to avoid putting the world in danger. "So, not suits, then. Robots?"
Tony tilted his head on the side and grimaced. "They're more than robots. They're sentient like JARVIS, capable of making choice in combat…talk, interact with us…I called them Autonomous Robotic Organisms; Autobots for short."
Fury pinched the bridge of his nose. "How many are there? Only those three?"
Tony shifted in his seat and pursed his lips momentarily before looking at Steve, then each Avengers, then at the ceiling. "Well…"
Fury groaned. "Jesus, Stark, how many?"
Tony hummed. "The black Lamborghini is Lockdown, the blue and red Audi R8 is Teletraan II and the silver Bugatti Veyron is the Dinobot…it's Sky-Byte."
Clint laughed loudly like the sound just couldn't be stopped. "I'm sure you spent more time naming them than actually building them."
Tony chuckled. "As a matter of fact…I did."
They all blinked at that and Steve exchanged an exasperated but fond look with Bruce. They had all stopped to be weary of Tony's genius but the maddening brilliance would never stop to flabbergast them.
"How many, Stark?" Fury pressed, leaning over the table to glare at the blue eyed genius.
"I choose to plead the Fifth Amendment."
Steve choked and coughed while Clint just burst out laughing, the others smiling or looking at Tony with keenness and slight frustration.
"Tones," Bruce finally said calmly, calm eyes soft as they stared at Tony. "No one will be mad."
Steve licked his lips and looked away. Because, yes, Bruce had totally grasped the reason Tony kept stalling and avoiding Fury's question.
Tony stared at Bruce silently before turning to look at Steve in reassurance. The soldier nodded with an encouraging smile he hoped transcript his love for Tony before the genius looked sideways at Fury. "All my cars."
There was a long pregnant silence before Fury took several steps back thoughtfully.
"Are you out of your mind, Stark?" Maria Hill finally hissed like an angry adder.
Tony flinched minutely, the reaction so quick Steve doubted anyone but him—and Natasha—had seen it, before shifting once more in his seat. "How do you intend to fight the growing number of alien attack, Agent Hill? With guns?"
Steve turned to stare at the woman and he saw the deep flash of hatred crossing her black eyes before she pinched her lips angrily. "The Avenger Initiative doesn't need a show-off like you, Stark. They were all doing fine before you came with your shiny new toys."
Steve turned swiftly to glare at her. "What do you mean 'they were doing fine'?" he snapped, "Tony's as much an Avenger as any around this table."
Hill gritted her teeth before turning to stare at Fury. "It can't be allowed. Stark is becoming more and more dangerous! He's a loose cannon! He must be evicted from the Initiative!"
Steve stood violently. "What the hell are you saying, woman?" he nearly yelled, ready to snap her neck for her hurtful words.
Tony stood swiftly and pressed a hand against Steve's chest to stop him from doing anything they'd all regret, and it didn't escape the super-soldier that every Avengers was now standing in different poise of defense, ready to jump in the fight.
Steve really shouldn't have been surprised, but to see the team all stand-up like that ready to defend Tony made his heart flutter happily.
Coulson was standing next to Fury, frown directed at Hill while the woman was standing still glaring at them all.
Fury put his hands in his pocket and turned his back at them all, resuming his observation of the deck. "Everyone out," he ordered sharply. "Except Stark."
Steve froze and he could feel his fists trembling at the pressure of his nails digging in the flesh of his palms. "Sir," he gritted out painfully, "with all due respect—"
Fury turned and nodded at the door. "Out."
Tony gently caressed his cheek and smiled reassuringly. "I'm okay," he whispered, ignoring Hill's triumphant smirk. "Trust me," he added only for Steve's ear.
Steve pressed his lips together and shook his head adamantly at Tony. "I won't leave you."
Tony touched his cheek softly. "You're not leaving me. Trust me," he repeated.
It was a test, Steve knew.
In a way Tony was using the situation to gauge Steve's level of trust in his husband. After all they went through, sometimes he couldn't believe Tony was still waiting for him to fail those tests, but he could understand. With his past indiscretion and his blatant way of not trusting Tony, he'd settled a deep fear inside Tony they were still working on to break and would probably still work on a decade from now.
"Alright," he conceded after a long emotionless glare directed at Fury's ever watchful eye. "Alright. We'll be waiting in the hall."
Tony nodded and stepped away from Steve, watching them all exit the conference room with a blank face.
Steve felt like he was abandoning him all over again.
"You changed, Anthony."
Tony snorted. "You're not making a point at all here, Veidt. Any news?"
The man hummed through the phone before answering. "Heard a few things here and there. Nothing concrete though. But…that assassination attempt, it's way more than what you're used to deal with. It comes from very high up the sphere."
Tony was the one to hum pensively. "Government high?" he asked.
Veidt clucked his tongue. "Way more up."
"Way more up?" Fury repeated as he sat at the table.
Tony nodded, sitting silently facing the black man. "I'm thinking World Security Council."
Fury grimaced. "And that sort of AI you're feeling?"
Tony tilted his head on the side twice. "They developed their own kind of JARVIS. I've been able to do some serious digging thanks to Veidt's help and some of my contacts through the world. They call it GENIE. Basically it's their way to deal with the growing number of super-powered being or what they call Ultras," he explained calmly. "The scientific division created a program using a synthesis of organic brain tissues and computer systems. GENIE means Genetically Engineered Neural Intelligence Experiment. Long story short, after playing with some alien material they recovered during the Vietnam War, GENIE developed sentience and grew into a true fusion of organic and mechanical tech."
Fury pinched the bridge of his nose. "Let me guess; they lost control?"
Tony nodded sharply. "Quickly. They tried to cover up the case and forgot about what happen. My guess is GENIE wasn't very powerful at first but grew in the shadow. Today he's powerful enough."
Fury nodded pensively. "That's what tried to kill you?"
Tony grimaced. "Could be. But it also could be the WSC wanting to get rid of me because I'm the most likely to unravel what happened."
Fury snorted. "Too late obviously."
They exchanged a sardonic smirk and fell silent. "You might want to watch your back," Tony quietly advised, breaking the long contemplative silence. "Hill is up to something."
Fury chuckled and smirked wider at Tony's puzzled stare. "She's probably working for them. She's been nosing around for quite some time now."
Tony froze. "Has she—"
Fury shook his head promptly interrupting him. "She's not good enough to break into your tech. No one is. She was only able to get surface information, but nothing about the Avengers and Extremis."
Tony nodded and sighed in relief. "What's the plan?" he finally asked, more in a wondering tone than really addressing Fury directly.
Fury shifted in his seat and tapped his fingers on the glass table. "You're not gonna like it."
Tony looked up and dreaded Fury's plan.
When Steve blinked his eyes open he knew something was wrong. It wasn't his ceiling, it wasn't his normal surrounding and it wasn't his usual smell. And the cold concrete floor he was lying on surely wasn't his usual mattress.
He took stock of his body for a moment, wriggling his toes in his boots, then his fingers. He knew the super-soldier serum pretty much kept him from any lasting long time injury but he wanted to make sure.
Then dread filled him and he jerked up violently. "TONY!" he bellowed.
He gasped slightly. He was standing alone in a dark grey cell, concrete everywhere and an entire wall of the cell leading to a corridor shimmering with some kind of blue shield. A force field probably there in order to contain him in the cell, foregoing the bars.
"Tony!" he called again. He had to be here. They were together during the battle, fighting back to back when one of the enemies' agents released some kind of gas with a small bomb. If the force of the explosion hadn't been enough to knock Tony and Steve down, the sickly black cloud of smoke spreading around them afterwards had been.
He knew Tony's suit wasn't always hermetic during battle, to allow the cooling system to work faster and not use as much power as when it was fully air-tight and going on recycling air, so it explained why his husband should have been rendered unconscious too. If only he could find him.
"He's here," Natasha's voice answered from down the hall. "He's in the cell facing mine."
Steve sighed in relief, then berated himself. If Tony was there, then it meant their enemies had taken him. Nothing to feel grateful for.
"Black Widow, status?"
Natasha didn't answer immediately. "I can see Iron Man and Hawkeye who's waking up."
Steve nodded to himself. "Hulk, Thor, Buck?" There a moment of tense silence before he heard Thor groan. "Thor?"
The blond man grunted. "Yes, Captain. What is our situation?"
There was a snort. Definitely Tony. "Locked up, Honey." It caused Clint and Bucky to snicker and Steve couldn't help a small grin.
"I don't think that's the right time for jokes, Tones," Bruce said calmly, but Steve could hear the smothered mirth in his voice.
"Everyone okay?" Steve finally asked in a commanding tone. He was met with all their approval and felt a weight lift from his shoulder.
"Are you okay, Steve?" Tony asked quietly after a while.
Steve smiled gently at nothing. "Yeah, sweetheart."
The sudden sound of static echoed through the speakers aligned in the corridor in front of the cells and a deep voice started to speak. "Very touching," it crooned. "Welcome my friends."
Steve glared at the speaker. "Who are you?"
The voice chuckled. "My name is of no importance. What is, is what you will have to do to get out of here. Alive."
Steve clenched his fist until his knuckles turned white and gritted his teeth. "And what is that?"
There was a pause before the voice started again. "Oh, it will be very simple Captain Amerika."
Steve froze. The voice was very familiar—in a distant kind of way—like déjà vu.
"I felt something wrong with you," Tony suddenly sneered. "Did you get crazy on your island with only cyborgs as company Marsh?"
Steve frowned heavily. "Marsh?" he asked in disbelief.
Tony hummed pensively. "We're in the Vault."
Marsh chuckled in the speakers. "You were always a very intelligent being Anthony Stark. And let's just say…I do not work alone."
Steve backed away from the field wall of the cell when it crackled and disappeared. He frowned in suspicion and the fact that his teammate didn't exited theirs to walk in the corridor was further proof that something was up.
"Things are very simple. You will have to escape the prison. To do so, you will be faced with challenges. With all of your very bright brains put together, I am sure you will not take long." He chuckled loudly for a long moment before the speakers cracked a last time and went silent.
"Well," Bruce sighed. "We need to step out of those cells."
Steve's insides went frozen. "Don't! Nobody moves! We don't know if the force fields are still there or—" he cut himself off abruptly when he saw Tony walk up to him with an annoyed face. "Or nothing," the soldier sighed in frustration. "Damn it, Tony, that could have been a trap."
The smaller man snorted. "Oh please, Steve. Bad guys cannot think beyond one trap at a time. We all know that. The fact is, we're here, and Marsh wants to play so he won't incapacitate before we can even start his stupid challenges." His tone was patronizing and dripping with condescending sarcasm but Steve had to admit Tony was right.
He turned indulgent eyes on Tony, knowing getting angry now was a waste of energy and nodding with a small smile at the corner of his mouth. "You okay?"
Tony nodded silently, slightly leaning into Steve's side, forehead against his chest. "I can't reach the suit," he said flatly.
Steve hissed between his teeth. "Is it painful," he asked seriously, husband turned Captain in a flash.
Tony shrugged. "It itches. It's like millions of tiny ants crawling under my skin. My nanobots aren't happy right now."
Bruce hummed behind him. "I can't reach the Hulk either."
They all started at Bruce in surprise but Tony nodded. "That makes sense. We're in a high security prison conceived to host the most dangerous super-humans on Earth. It had to have some kind of field to dampen our powers."
Steve hated it.
They walked in silence for a good twenty minutes after that, exiting the room where they were held prisoners to walk down endless grey corridors. They met no one and heard nothing; only the sound of the ventilation somewhere above and a strange resounding hum seeming to come from under their feet.
Steve kept close to Tony and he could see the other adopt similar position. Natasha next to Clint behind them, and Bucky, Thor and Bruce closing the walk.
They were standing in a totally empty atrium, when a sharp clang stopped them all on their way and two thick metallic door at the end of the hall they were in opened slowly. Steve took a small step in front of Tony, more from instinct than anything else as he saw at least a dozen or so armored guardsmen in uniforms. They wore the same emblem as Marsh on their chest plate and Steve tightened his fist.
"Son of a bitch," Clint muttered behind. "Those are Iron Man suits."
Steve could feel the tension grow in Tony, feeling the slight tremor of his body against his arm and had to clench a gentle restraining hand around his husband's wrist. "Calm," he whispered.
"I disagreed," Tony spat out lowly, "I refused the WSC to use my work. It happened before. They had unauthorized Stark tech and I forcibly removed all of it from this place," he seethed.
Steve heard what Tony wasn't saying. "WSC own this place? I thought it was SHIELD?"
Bucky groaned. "No time for chatting," he interrupted, "they seem like the first challenge."
Steve exchanged a quick look with Bucky and they nodded simultaneously. "Ok, we'll have to adapt our fighting technique," he said seriously, tightening his fists. "We can't count on the Hulk or Iron Man, so…let's get into a good brawl."
Bruce snorted. "Not sure I'll be of great use," he said ruefully.
Natasha gently caressed his cheek. "Stay close to me," she smiled. "I'll protect you."
They smiled at each other for a moment while Clint made as if he was throwing up before Thor exchanged a look with Bucky. "Don't go all Prince Charming, Blondie," Bucky sassed, "I bet I can take out more than you."
Thor huffed humorously. "We shall see, Lieutenant."
Steve tilted his head on the side in bafflement and shook it. "Ready sweetheart?" he asked Tony.
The smaller man grinned at him and took a fighting stance, as if ready to bolt in a run. "Don't forget," he instructed everyone as they all took position, "suits weak spot is in the neck joint."
They all agreed before Steve yelled, "Avengers, attack!" and they all started running toward the suits.
The suits only reacted when they came half way through the large hall, and separated in three groups of two suits each. Perfect, Steve thought internally, always the strategist. Every couple of fighters took two of the suits and started to fight.
Steve barreled straight into the first one while Tony slide under it to reach the second one waiting behind.
The fight was gruesome, hard and long. The suits were hard to beat with few weak points and the joint at the neck was hard to reach. Steve couldn't have thought less of a thing Tony had conceived, but here, in combat, it was hell. Not for the first time, he thought about how lucky they were Tony wasn't a villain because he had everything to become one of their most powerful opponents.
After a good hour, Steve managed to wrench the head of the suit off its shoulder, and could use the ripped head to throw it into the armor Clint was having trouble with. The momentum of the head impacting with the suit allowed Clint to jump on its back and rip the head off with a few good wrenches.
Steve nodded at him as the archer jumped to help Natasha who had to fight her own suit and protect Bruce at the same time. The man was hell when Hulked out, but was actually a liability in close combat when human. Seeing that Natasha, Clint and Thor could manage their suit, Steve turned to search for Tony just as said man and Bucky took position to attack the armor. Bucky knelt and linked his hands together, and Tony put a booted foot on it for Bucky to hoist him in one great throw. The force of the Winter Soldier projected Tony in the air and the man crashed his linked fists into the suit head, spark exploding around them. Tony used the motion to slide around the neck of the armor to twirl around it and put his feet on its back, pushing his legs with all his might and taking the head off the armor.
He fell back on the ground with a grunt and Steve felt his entire body freeze as the armor toppled back and crashed toward Tony. Even withExtremis, taking a hit by the dead-weight of a several pounds suit of armor would hurt him badly. Just as Steve made to run to him, knowing perfectly well he was too far to help, he saw Bucky grab Tony's ankle with his robotic arm and pull at it with all his might. Tony glided away from the armor just as it fell on the ground with a loud thud at the exact place Tony had been laying.
Steve reached them both, assuring himself all threat was dealt with, before kneeling next to Tony still lying on the ground, winded by his fall with Bucky still holding his ankle. "Baby, you okay?" he asked breathlessly, "Buck?"
Bucky nodded, gently patting Tony's shin before standing to join the other and make sure every suit was well out of order.
"Tony?" Steve asked again as Tony kept silent, staring at the ceiling.
The man blinked and took a deep breath before nodding and sitting gingerly, hands grasping for Steve's forearm for help. "Yeah," he breathed out, "I'm okay. Just…winded."
Steve nodded, patting his body absently, assuring himself Tony wasn't hurt too badly. "Yeah, you took a bad fall. Nearly got crushed."
Tony snorted. "Yeah, well, I wouldn't have been badly hurt."
Steve shrugged and gritted his teeth. "Not your bones. But you still have flesh, Tony. And blood."
Tony chuckled. "Don't remind me," he said as he lifted his left arm and stared at the deep gash gushing out blood. "You okay?" he asked Steve after examining and pocking the wound for a moment.
Steve clucked his tongue and batted Tony's inquisitive fingers from the wound and nodding. "Yes, I'm okay. Happy you designed the suits with the neck flaw thought. We wouldn't have been able to take them out otherwise."
Tony grinned and leaned toward Steve, rubbing his cheek against the soldier's. "I always knew it would come back to bite me in the ass one day. See, I'm a futurist."
Steve chuckled and shook his head. "Yeah, I see that. You really okay?"
Tony nodded and patted his cheek gently. "Yes, you too?" he asked quietly.
Steve pressed his lips in a thin line. "Marsh's starting to piss me off," he confessed angrily.
Tony eyed him briefly before turning to look at his arm. "Is it serious?" he asked strangely.
Steve frowned and blinked out of his murderous thought to stare at Tony. His eyes travelled down the length of Tony's sweaty face, covered in grim, blood and soot from the exploding suit before traveling down and following the direction Tony's blue eyes—so much like the Arc Reactor and the Starkium running through it—staring at the gash on his arm.
It was the left one.
His still human, flesh, and skin, and blood arm, even if the bones inside were covered in Adamantium Beta.
Steve turned to hail Bruce who was gently dabbing at Clint's face and the cut he had on the forehead before waiting for him. The Doctor said something to Clint quickly, instructing Natasha to finish cleaning the wound before walking to them. He smiled briefly at Steve before looking down at the still bleeding arm. "Hey, Tones, how do you feel?"
Tony pursed his lips and grimaced. "Is it serious?" he repeated, holding his arm to the Doctor to inspect.
Bruce gently took the arm, poking and prodding before shaking his head with a reassuring smile. "It bleeds a lot but it's just the fleshy part. Don't worry, we'll just wrap it up and it'll be okay."
Tony looked at the doctor sideways, a strange untrusting gleam in his eyes that made Steve swallow painfully and his guts twist viciously and flashback to those horrible moments in that faraway Vietnamese jungle. Tony's pleading, Tony's anguish cries, Tony's tears echoing through the walls of his mind imprinted forever like dark stains impossible to wash away.
Bruce didn't seem to see the look, or more like totally ignored it. Steve watched the Doctor rip a part of his already tattered shirt, his white tee-shirt underneath not so white anymore and gently but efficiently dress the wound with expert hand. Despite Bruce's insistence that he wasn't that type of doctor, he had become pretty efficient in dressing the simpler and less serious wounds of the Avengers after missions.
"Here, you're okay, Tony."
Tony watched his arm, blinking slowly for a moment, totally immobile and seemingly reminiscing the past. Steve gritted his teeth and reached a hand to caress his husband's cheek lovingly.
Tony revisiting the past was never a good thing.
Extremis was such a blessing in many ways, but like Tony's nightmares about that hypothetical parallel universe plagued by some kind of Civil War had proved, Extremis was also a curse. It was so potent Tony had only to think about a past situation to revisit it like it was happening in the moment, sur-imposing it with reality.
"Snap out of it, Iron Man," Steve growled reluctantly.
Tony startled badly and looked at Steve, blue eyes still faintly lost in the past but more focused than before.
"We have to move," Natasha said suddenly.
They all nodded, Steve helping Tony gently and they started walking down the corridor, taking the way the suits had come from.
Steve didn't know what awaited them and he didn't like it one bit.
They must have been walking for an hour when Steve heard Natasha yell out a warning. By pure reflex, Steve flattened himself to the wall and watch in horror as their small party was suddenly split in two by the fall of a powerful force field wall.
Steve, Bruce, Natasha and Thor were on the same side, while Tony, Clint and Bucky were on the other.
They all approached the wall in apprehension, the low humming made by the red force field and the slight cracking coming from it enough to make them avoid touching it.
Steve saw Tony examine the wall with rapt attention, eyes processing at light speed. He walked to the wall, patting it gently with his hands, probably in search of a command control hidden in the wall panel, using his fist to lightly hit the metallic wall.
He hummed and shrugged helplessly. "I don't think I can break it down," he said after a moment.
Steve gritted his teeth and glared at the wall, before rubbing his forehead. "Okay," he snapped angrily, hand tightening around the handle of his shield, "Okay, we can't stay here. We're too exposed," he said, and it costed him to say his next words. "We need to go on."
Bruce made a sound at the back of his throat but nodded when the others turned to look at him. "We don't have a choice anyway."
They nodded grimly and Steve looked painfully at his husband. "You won't do anything stupid?"
Tony smiled crookedly and lifted an eyebrow before sobering. "You won't do anything stupid?" he repeated, eyes unflinching. "No self-sacrificing act, no showing mercy to the first crying guy pleading at your good heart?"
Steve winced but shook his head. "We don't have time for that."
Tony nodded sharply and turned around, starting to walk away. Steve felt his heart stop but refrained from calling after him. No words were needed. They knew, they both knew.
I love you, his brain, heart, lungs, brain, screamed at the smaller man's back.
I know, I love you too.
"We need to do something about those superheroes names. I mean, Starlord? Hawkeye? Batman? Captain America? Even my name isn't relevant. My suit isn't made of iron. I mean, it wouldn't even be possible to make it out of iron. Those media people totally got it wrong…granted, Adamantium Beta Man doesn't ring as well as Iron Man, but come on, guys…you agree with me, don't you?" Tony asked, the fingertip of his right hand trailing slowly along the wall of the corridor.
Clint and Bucky exchanged a quick look between them, before Clint smiled at his friend. He loved when Tony got into one of those rants, even if he didn't always listen to the words as much as his voice. At one point in their lives, he'd thought those moments were definitively lost to them all. But he also knew it was a way for Tony to calm his nerves and his worry for what was happening with Steve and the other group. "Yeah, yeah…we totally agree. Two hundred percent!" he assured, feeling Bucky nod vigorously next to him.
Tony eyes them suspiciously before baring his teeth. "You don't even know what I'm talking about," he muttered in a huff.
"Who's Starlord anyway?" the WWII soldier asked under his breath.
Tony's head jerked in his direction. "You've been with us for what? A year now, and you still don't know who Starlord is?" he said, "Starlord," he grumbled, "Legendary outlaw," he sighed. "Forget it."
Clint chuckled. "Peter Quill…he's what? Totally fangirling about our Cap," he laughed.
Tony narrowed his eyes at the archer. He sometimes wondered how often he'd have to beat people up for daring flirting with his husband so outrageously even if poor Steve always seemed totally obvious.
They stopped when they found themselves at a junction and looked right and left. "Well, I always heard the best way to get out of a maze was to always turn in the same direction," Bucky said with a shrug.
Tony stared at him, lips pinched in concentration. "It's a bit more complicated than that, but basically, yeah."
Clint chuckled breathlessly, and stage-whispered to Bucky. "I'm pretty sure he's got a thesis or a hundred about mazes somewhere in that big brain of his."
The genius lifted an eyebrow at the archer but stayed mute, still running his hand up and down the metallic wall. "There's a humming coming from that direction," he said, nodding in the left direction.
Bucky grimaced and started walking in the right direction decidedly. He stopped and turned when Tony whistled after him. The former Winter Soldier glared at him. "I'm not walking with you into a trap, Stark. Steve'd have my hide if something happened to you. So, we're not going in the direction that's sure to be a trap set to kill you."
Clint was halfway to Bucky, when they saw Tony ignore them and walk down the corridor on the left. The archer huffed in annoyance but slapped Bucky's arm, before they started following the genius. "If you die, Stark, I'm bringing you back to life so Steve can kill you himself."
Tony only laughed quietly at that.
"Why do you think they want to test Anthony?" Thor asked Bruce.
The doctor looked pensive for a moment. "It probably has something to do with that GENIE artificial intelligence," he answered after a while.
Steve sighed, hands clutching nervously, the leather of his gloves creaking. "For what?" he snapped nearly to himself.
Bruce hummed and for a moment, the sound reminded Steve so much of his husband that he nearly crumbled under the pressure of worry and fear.
"Maybe we're taking it the wrong way," Natasha suddenly said after the silence became too long. They all turned their head in her direction, prompting her to continue. She shrugged slightly, "maybe they want to test GENIE against Tony, rather than the contrary."
Bruce looked startled at her, a small smile crooking the side of his mouth. "That actually makes a lot of sense," he said with an admiring look in his eyes.
Steve turned his head away with a grimace. He loved that his friends had found each other. Loved that Bruce felt so good in his own skin now that he wasn't so frightened of the Hulk anymore, loved that Natasha was so open and smiling so freely, but watching the love between them, the complicity, it made him ache for Tony.
He wished he had Tony in his arms right now.
He wished they were home.
"What is it?" Clint asked, dumbly staring at the wall.
Tony tapped the tip of his fingers on his lips. "The Fibonacci sequence."
Bucky hummed. "Never heard of that."
Tony sighed and rubbed his forehead. "What I wouldn't give for my suit right now."
Clint punched his arm none too gently. "Forget the suit, Shellhead, right now we need Tony Stark."
The man nodded faintly and traced his fingers on the wall, touching the numbers painted in red paint. "The Fibonacci sequence is endless," he explained under his breath, not really talking to Clint and Buck. "The first two numbers in the sequence are either 1 and 1, or 0 and 1, depending on the chosen starting point, and each subsequent number is the sum of the previous two…" he licked his lips and clucked his tongue.
"What does it do?" Bucky asked.
Tony turned to look at the man briefly before staring at the numbers once more. "Fibonacci numbers are closely related to Lucas numbers in that they form a complementary pair of Lucas sequences. They are intimately connected with the golden ratio."
He hummed and racked his hand through his hair. "Fibonacci numbers appear unexpectedly often in mathematics. Applications of Fibonacci numbers include computer algorithms such as the Fibonacci search technique and the Fibonacci heap data structure, and graphs called Fibonacci cubes used for interconnecting parallel and distributed systems. They also appear in biological settings, such as branching in trees, the fruit sprouts of a pineapple, the flowering of an artichoke, an uncurling fern and the arrangement of a pine cone bracts. Hell, I put them somewhere in the algorithm to create JARVIS…"
Clint sighed in annoyance. "Sooooo…" he trailed off.
Tony shrugged helplessly. "So, we're probably looking at some parts of GENIE's DNA core, but that doesn't give us any more clue as to what to do. Except, the humming is stronger behind that wall," he said, flattening his palms against the far wall, making the corridor a dead end. "Meaning, there's a door, and this is the key."
He groaned and let himself slide against the wall facing the numbers, sitting on the floor in a heap. "The sequence is raised to the power of 367 billion."
Clint wasn't a mathematical genius, but he still knew that was a heap of number, then suddenly, he looked at Tony in bewilderment. "367 billion?" he said, "doesn't it ring any bell to you?"
Tony looked blankly at him and shook his head. "No."
The archer turned to stare at Bucky but the soldier only shrugged in incomprehension. "367 billion, Tony, that's the estimated weight of your wealth last year. Don't you read Forbes magazine?"
The man in question blinked several times before standing up and looking at the sequence with renewal. "367 billion in 2019. What was it in 2018, Clint?"
The archer pondered for a moment. "Uh…298."
Tony nodded fiercely, "Yeah, yeah, that makes sense! And before?!" he asked frantically, fingers tracing the Fibonacci numbers fervently. He pushed something on the wall suddenly and a small tablet with a keyboard slid out of the wall. "Clint, before?!"
The archer shook his head. "I can't—I can't remember. Steve knows those numbers by heart, he's got a book compiling it all!"
Bucky pushed against Clint's chest rather angrily and got in his face. "Concentrate! Steve's not here! Think, Clint!"
The man stepped away from Bucky and tugged at his hair, deep in thought, "I don't remember," he muttered. "Fuck—"
Tony tapped his fingers on his forehead. "I can make an estimation, but I can't give the exact number. Why would they even use Forbes's numbers?"
Bucky grimaced. "Maybe they've got a sense of humor," he said, "I remember Howard always talking about Forbes magazine and—"
Tony suddenly made a choking noise and looked in horror at the soldier. "Howard?" he hissed. "Don't—don't fucking—"
Clint stepped between them, and put a gently hand on Tony's cheek. "Calm down, Tones. Okay, he didn't mean anything by it!"
Tony wrenched himself away from Clint and closed his eyes, trying to center his thoughts. "Best estimation is 202 billion…does it sound legit?" he asked the archer.
Bucky ran a frustrated hand through his hair. "Don't you know your own worth?" he snapped. The situation was getting to him and the best way the ex-Winter Soldier had to release some of the pressure was to snap, and the best target happened to be Tony right this instant.
The genius snarled at him and pushed him against the wall. "Shut up," he growled.
Clint put himself between the two angry men and glared at them. "This is not the time to play Alpha male here," he barked.
Before any could answer, a hissing sound made them all turn in one swift movement and a keyboard appeared under a flat screen. The image blinked in and out of focus for a moment, before sharp red numbers appeared on screen.
"Thirty second before shutdown."
Clint and Bucky exchanged wild looks while Tony started taping at the keyboard at inhuman speed. "That's not good," Bucky muttered, walking to Tony and staring at his fingers in awe.
He knew—virtually—he knew Tony wasn't human, but sometimes it was easy to forget. When Tony bantered and joked during battles or downtime, when the man stumbled after days in the workshop to walk mechanically to the coffee machine, when the man cuddled to Steve during movie nights, when the man talked to Bucky in the middle of the night when the soldier couldn't sleep because of nightmares…
Bucky didn't know if he's consciously rejected Tony's mutant abilities, or if he'd just chosen to ignore them, or if the man's personality was so big it literally eclipsed his 'abnormality', but to find himself face with it right now…it was a cold wake up call.
"Ten seconds," the mechanical voice coming from the screen announced flatly.
Bucky saw a sharp shudder run up and down Tony's entire body before a million of Tony's tiny scaly ants crawled down Tony's arm, wrist, hands and fingers before overrunning the keyboard and crawling through the cracks of the keys.
Tony stepped back, face frozen and eyes unblinking on the screen before the red numbers froze at 2 seconds before the end.
Clint and Bucky sighed in relief, but Tony bit his lip. "There was a bomb," he said thickly, voice shaky. "It was in the area where the others are trapped."
Clint touched Tony's arm gently. "You okay?"
The smaller man turned to stare at the archer. "Do you think Steve's alright?" he asked, a tinge of panic in his voice.
Clint smiled. "Of course he's alright. He's Captain America," he assured in his strongest voice.
The uncertainty in Tony's face was palpable and painful to witness, but Clint kept smiling and gently stroking a hand up and down Tony's arm.
Tony nodded and slammed his fist on the keyboard, destroying it, and the wall with the numbers suddenly opened.
They all exchanged wary looks before stepping down the dark corridor.
Going forward was all they could do.
The fight was gruesome, the fake iron men—cyborgs—Tony insisted—weren't strong per se, but there were a whole lot of them. Without a weapon, Clint felt naked but knew enough close range combat to fight them with all his might. Next to him, Bucky was faring well, but it wasn't surprising. He'd seen the video footage of the Winter Soldier, and knew the man was powerful and ruthless. On the other side, Tony was holding his own, Steve's lesson in combat really coming to use here.
Suddenly, Clint was thrown away, crashing against a wall. He felt his ribs crack sharply, cursing his inattention and stayed on the ground for a moment, trying to get his breathing under control.
He looked up when he felt Tony's hand on his shoulder and nodded at the man with a grimace. He felt a moment of panic about the fight, tried to stand but fell back on his ass, Tony's hands pressed against his shoulders. "It's okay," the genius soothed. "We won."
Clint hummed and wrapped his arm around his waist with a sigh. The carcasses of the cyborgs stared at him with empty eyes socket, dismembered and sparking in places. He nodded with pinched lips and lifted a hand to Tony's face, where a deep cut was crossing his face from forehead to cheek. The man grinned at him. "Hey, scars on the face give a rug look. Steve might like it."
The archer snorted and groaned in pain.
He wanted to go home.
The next sick challenge Marsh had for them was a second bomb.
A bomb that wasn't going to explode near Steve's group, but one suddenly strapped to Bucky's chest after some sort of mechanical creature fell from the ceiling and gripped itself to the former Winter Soldier, claw like pincer piercing his flesh.
He grunted, groaned and cried out in pain when both Tony and Clint tried to get it to let go. If nothing, the creature clawed itself in deeper. Then, the countdown started, and Tony started to frantically scan the robot from every angle.
At five minutes before the end, Bucky grabbed Tony's hand. "Leave."
Tony snapped his hand away and glared menacingly at the soldier. "You can shove your heroics, asshole," he muttered, letting a wave of nanobots run smoothly down his hands to surround the bomb.
Bucky grabbed his hands back and shook Tony almost violently. He ignored Clint's outraged cry but ignored the man. "I'm not kidding, Stark. You get out of here."
Tony leaned threateningly toward the soldier and sneered. "And to go where? We're trapped in a fucking maze. And if you die, Steve will never be the same. So, it's not going to happen."
Bucky grabbed Tony's face. "If you die, Steve will die too. Me, he can get over. But you're his life and heart."
Tony shook his head, biting his lip, trying to ignore the man's words. Time passed and Bucky stepped back from the genius and the archer as far as possible. "You'll be okay. All of you."
Clint stood shakily, shaking his head. "Tony, do something," he ordered.
Tony shook his head, tugging at his hair violently. "It's no use, the robot is too deep. I'd have to rip it out."
Clint stumbled to the smaller man. "Then do it. Better him bleeding than dead."
Something beeped on the bomb and the countdown accelerated suddenly. "Oh god," Bucky whispered. "Stay back," he ordered them. "Stay the fuck away from me."
Tony was shaking and Clint watching him in desperation. But then, suddenly, the genius ran toward Bucky. At ten seconds from the explosion, Tony jumped on him, wrapped arms and legs around the soldier, and released so much nanobots at once that Clint lost sight of them before the bomb exploded.
The blast was so strong and violent that Clint was thrown back.
Then, all went black.
Steve startled almost violently when he heard the explosion of a bomb. He froze and let out a gasp of breath as he felt his heart squeeze almost painfully in his chest. His mind was blank, stuck on one word 'Tony'.
What was the explosion? Was his husband alive? What was happening? Surely, he'd know if Tony was dead, wouldn't he?
He felt a hand fall on his shoulder and squeeze, making him look up Thor's serious face, but kind eyes. "I am sure Anthony is alright, Captain."
Steve took a deep breath and was about to speak when a grinding noise came from the right. He tightened his hand on the handle of his shield and stepped closer to Thor and Natasha, the group putting Bruce between them to protect.
A panel of the wall opened slowly and they quickly caught sight of the creature standing behind. At first, Steve thought it was a cyborg crouching down, but understood soon after that it was some kind of robotic animal. A lion maybe or a tiger. It felt like something right out of Tony's mind; it looked like the Autobots, but not as sophisticated. It looked like someone had tried to copy Tony's work, but the result was far less flamboyant.
"Okay people," Steve whispered. "Bruce stay in the middle. Black Widow?"
Natasha stepped to the right, her heels clicking on the ground and took a ready combat position.
Steve swallowed and gritted his teeth. He really hoped Tony and the other were faring better.
Because he wouldn't accept losing his husband. They'd fought too much and too hard to die now.
As more creatures started to appear, he started to pray.
He had a very bad feeling about the whole situation.
Tony didn't know what was happening.
He tried to blink, but all he could really make sense of was the grating of his boots being dragged across the floor, and two people flanking him right and left as they hauled him through the corridors.
All he could hear was the painful ringing of his ears and the sound of boots bouncing against the metal walls. He tried to call for Bucky and Clint, but his voice was gone. It felt like his lips were paralyzed, and he didn't know if sounds came out of his throat.
Blood was flowing from his face and into his eyes and his nanobots were crawling slowly from one wound to another, as if trying to find a place to repair but not knowing what to do. They were screaming and hurting, nearly as much as Tony's entire body.
He groaned and whimpered when they threw him on the ground harshly, one of them kicking him in the ribs. He pressed a hand unconsciously on the Reactor, old fear of having it torn from his chest awakened by the situation, and for a moment, he wasn't somewhere down the Vault, he was back in Afghanistan; people tearing at him, laughing, spitting on him and torturing his body until he couldn't take anymore.
Curled up on the ground it took him a long moment to regain his senses, and the moment he did, he nearly wished for unconsciousness. Steve's voice—Steve!—was frantically yelling his name, his voice merged with the others, and to his greatest relief, Clint's was among them. He still didn't know Bucky enough to immediately recognize his voice in the sea of several others, but he really hoped the man was alive.
Because surely, Steve would never survive to losing him a second time.
Marsh was standing next to a huge tank filled with water holding a creature so disgusting and frightening that Steve had actually shook at the sight of it. It looked like a brain, an off-sick grey color, connected to hundreds of cable and a huge computer spreading along an entire wall. The sight of it was so gruesome he had to turn away, just at the moment when they bought Clint and Bucky into the vast room.
Steve strained against the binding holding him to the wall, horrified at the two men covered in blood, Bucky's—and thank god for that—mechanical arm ripped off and hanging uselessly at his side. They were both unconscious, and the brief disappointment, the quick flash of hatred about the fact Tony wasn't with them, seized Steve's body and took him completely by surprise.
Of course he was happy they were both alive…of course, but…
He didn't have time to ponder on the thought before others dragged Tony in and threw him in the middle of the room under Marsh's crazy eyes and sick grin.
His husband was curled up on himself, taking a beating with grunts of pain, and it didn't take him long to dissolve into small whimpers. Steve knew where he was right now, could almost feel the harsh desert sun on his skin and smell the lingering sent of death and decay from a cave he'd never been to but knew by heart.
They left two mindless cyborgs with Iron Man faces but no familiarity on them. It felt horrible to look at suits they all knew so well but see them give so much pain to their creator. Those suits were supposed to help people, protect people, never hurt, and never kill.
It felt like throwing Tony's entire life work down the drain.
Steve felt sick. "Tony," he called. "Tony!"
The man was motionless for a long moment, too hurt to move and Steve startled when he heard Bruce let out a deep groan next to him. His skin was shifting between flesh and green, as if the Hulk was just underneath the surface and fighting to break free but unable to do so.
Steve really hoped it wouldn't happen, because they couldn't have the Hulk rampaging in a room so cramped with three of their member unconscious on the ground. "Bruce," he heard Natasha hiss under her breath, "Breathe, love, just breathe."
Bruce gasped out and closed his eyes, entire body taut and rigid in barely controlled violence.
"WELCOME!" Marsh suddenly cried out, "Man of Iron." He walked slowly toward Tony, long leather coat flapping against his high boots, and his uniform looked so much like a Nazi officer's that Steve couldn't help the sneer that crossed his face.
"Don't touch him," he growled when he saw the man crouch down and grab Tony's head by the hair.
Tony blinked sluggishly, lips moving but no sound coming out.
Marsh laughed. "So finally, I am the one who brought the great Tony Stark to his knees." He dragged the genius toward the tank and slammed his face against the glass. "You see this, Iron Man? This is the future. This is where you failed."
Tony lifted his bloody hands toward the glass, trying to push away and free himself from Marsh by grabbing feebly at his hands, but the man was too strong and Tony too weak and hurt. His nanobots where crawling along his skin, too much to do in too little time, and Steve knew the overload of information could cause Tony to shut down if his body decided it needed rest to repair itself.
"This is GENIE."
And suddenly, Steve howled as Marsh lifted Tony in the air and threw him in the tank. Water splashed everywhere and sparks blinded them for a moment before they could see Tony struggling in the water, trying to escape the creature and the cable fastening themselves tightly around him. Steve let out a sob as one of the tentacles coiled itself around Tony's throat and several others slithered around the tank before piercing Tony's body. Blood erupted from the points of contact, the water becoming red tinged, and even in the water, Steve could see Tony yell in pain, bubbles bursting out of his mouth.
His struggle was quick to stop, and Steve and the others could only watch and yell in denial as their friend became limp and unresponsive.
"And here is the end of the pathetic Tony Stark," a voice suddenly came from the door.
They all turned and Natasha was the first to regain her bearings. "Hill, what the fuck are you doing here?!" he spat, venom in her voice.
The woman smirked at them, walking to the tank with a sick gleam in her eyes, and they all shuddered at the sultry look she sent Marsh. "What I'm doing here is take my rightful place," she started to explain, "No longer hiding in the shadow of the big fearless Fury, no longer weak. I am in power here. I control Aladdin."
Knowing they had to keep her talking but feeling unable to do so with his eyes fixed on Tony in the tank, Steve was thankful for Bruce taking the reign. "What is Aladdin?"
Maria Hill sneered, sharp nails tapping against the glass of the tank, her face twisted in an ugly scowl. "A project started a long time ago, in the 40s. It was a secret branch from WSC, designed to protect in the shadow, do the dirty work, so to speak, when no States wanted to have their hands dirtied." She snorted, and walked to them, a finger trailing down Thor's cheek in an almost romantic way. "To protect people from abnormal creatures, like aliens, and mutants," she spat, swirling around and walking briskly to Tony.
The genius was unmoving, neon blue eyes wide open and staring unseeingly at GENIE, cables protruding from his head and different parts of his body.
"Why single out Tony?"
Hill laughed, and it was tinged with craziness. "Stark is poison!" she shrieked. "Has been since his birth." She froze, black eyes widening in glee. "And now, thanks to Howard I became the most powerful person in this world!"
Natasha was frowning, exchanging a puzzled look with Steve, as they both thought the woman had literally lost it and couldn't even make the difference between Tony and Howard, but Bruce prompted her to continue talking. "What does Howard have to do with that?"
Hill smirked. "Oh but he created GENIE with the help of Henri Sorel," she gloated, "and he created my darlings cyborgs, and that creature…"
Steve frowned, shaking his head. "What creature?"
She smiled; walking to him in what she was probably thinking was a sultry and sexy way. "That creature…in Vietnam."
The soldier blanched. "What?"
She nodded. "Oh yes, and who do you think helped Doctor Doom in creating all his robots? The man surely isn't capable of such genius; he's a total failure in everything."
She walked to Bucky, slapping his cheek to wake him and she snapped her fingers at Marsh. The man walked to Bucky, grabbed him by the hair, and the pain must have been enough to wake him, because he groaned and blinked his eyes open. "And who do you think help create the Winter Soldier?"
Bruce was shaking his head. "That's impossible. Howard Stark died thirty years ago; all those things couldn't have been created prior to his death. There are too many of them."
Maria Hill hummed delightedly. "And wouldn't that be the cherry on top of the cake?" she cackled, and they watched Marsh walk to an adjourning room, to come back almost as quickly followed by a man they could have never imagined was alive in their wildest dreams.
Howard Stark in the flesh.
"Oh my god," Bruce breathed out.
The shock of the realization was testament by the complete look of surprise on Natasha's face, so blatant she couldn't even hide it behind her habitual cool and distant mask.
Steve was mute. Feeling so out of his depth that he couldn't even begin to start to react. There wasn't anything to do or say. Just blink at the ghost standing next to Marsh.
The exact same man who stood next to doctor Erskine as he injected Steve with the Super-Soldier serum and submitted him to the vita ray treatment to make him Captain America. He looked the same, around fifty, Tony's age if he hadn't stopped aging around his fortieth birthday before Extremis.
He was pale, sickly looking as if he hadn't seen the sun in a long time. At first he looked toward Bucky with something akin to fear in his eyes. Clearly he wasn't seeing Bucky Barnes, but the Winter Soldier. Then he looked up and watched around; eyes trailing over Thor, Natasha, Bruce—with some lingering scientific interest—and then Steve. He looked wretched as they stared at each other.
It felt strange to Steve. Images of Howard and Tony tried to overlap, but all he could see were the differences. The nose, the chin, the shape of the body…the eyes, god the eyes. Howard's black were nothing compared to the beautiful blue of Tony's.
"God is that…" Steve blinked out of his staring contest with Howard and looked at Bucky, gingerly trying to stand but only able to kneel painfully on the ground, holding his broken mechanical arm.
Hill chortled sharply, "Surprise!"
Bruce was shaking his head. "How is that possible?" he questioned.
At that point, Steve didn't know if he was trying to distract Hill and gain time, or if his scientific curiosity was just too much.
The woman walked to Howard and caressed his cheek in a pale imitation of comfort. "Stark men seem to share a common goal toward immortality," she cooed. "Those delusions of grandeur had always been their loss…and my gain."
Bruce was shaking his head negatively. "You're too young to have been at the head of Aladdin since the beginning." He paused, wheels in his brain clearly turning at crazy speeds. "Marsh was the head of Aladdin," he said flatly.
She nodded and walked back to the tank, staring at Tony floating in the liquid. "Oh yes. He has his uses," she said almost absentmindedly, as if Marsh wasn't standing next to Bucky, frozen like a robot, and Steve had to wonder about that. Was he a cyborg now too? Or was he hypnotized or brainwashed like Bucky had been? If Howard had been around for so long, it wouldn't be surprising that Hill had made him control Marsh with some kind of experiment.
"What are you doing to Tony?" Steve asked after swallowing painfully. He couldn't stand the sight of his husband inside that tank. He didn't even know what was happening. What was GENIE doing to him? To his mind? Was he ever going to get Tony back?
Hill turned back and stared at Steve with a frown. "Well," she started slowly, walking to Howard to stand next to him. "There's one thing Howard never managed to recreate."
The man standing next to her grimaced and rubbed his forehead and temples as if in pain. "And what's that?" Bucky rasped.
Hill slowly turned her head to him, "A body of course."
Steve felt his heart stop in his chest. What better body was the one of Tony Stark?
Immortal, virtually indestructible and with regeneration powers.
Hill smiled at Steve as if sensing his understanding. "Your dear pathetic husband," she spat, "gave me the perfect reason to put my plan in motion. Fury was too scared of him, and would have never risk antagonizing a freak like Stark."
Steve struggled against his bindings and growled at her. "Shut up," he snarled, "Tony's a hundred times better than you. He saves people, he—"
She stepped closer and put her hand on Steve's face, sharp nails clawing at his face.
"He is a monster," she said in a low, sibilant voice. "But you are too blinded by your cock to see it," she continued, her hand suddenly taking hold of Steve's genitals in demonstration. "This is not a man," she stepped back, waving at the tank, "But enough with words."
She smiled sweetly at the team and the bindings suddenly fell down and they were all free. A door leading to a long corridor opened and she stared at them. "Go on," she said flatly. "You are all free. You can even take that weakling Howard with you. I don't need him anymore."
Steve could see Natasha and Bruce getting closer to each other, Thor tightening his fist and Bucky helping Clint to stand. He rubbed his reddened wrists and saw Howard cautiously walk toward them, as if afraid Hill or Marsh was going to stop him.
"You know what lady," Clint said after taking position next to Thor, and Steve felt a gush of such affection, of such love for his team that he couldn't believe how lucky he was to have woken in that century. "You can go to hell, and give us back our genius."
Hill's face was frozen in shock, as if she couldn't fathom why they weren't running for freedom and staying behind to save Tony. She clucked her tongue, regaining her posture, and shook her head. "Are you ready to die for him?"
Steve stood tall, back straight and eyes cold in fury.
"Are you?" a voice interrupted behind them, and the gunshot was so loud, Steve startled violently.
Marsh crashed around the wall, bright red arc of blood splattering the wall behind him, and they all watched him slump down in a heap on the ground.
A swarm of armed SHIELD agents quickly filled the room, and Fury walked in the room with a gun in his hand, and Coulson right behind him. Hill stepped back, quickly pressed herself against the tank holding Tony and sneered at them all. "Even if you stop me now, it's too late!" she gloated. "I killed Tony Stark! You will never be able to stop GENIE! He is perfection!"
The crazy gleam in her eyes didn't disappeared even as several agents dragged her away, or after Natasha broke her nose with a well-aimed punch that rocked the woman on her heels.
Steve didn't waste time and ran to the tank, palms flat on the glass, and eyes fixed on Tony inside. His eyes were open, and the soldier couldn't keep the shudder from running down his spine as the neon blue eyes stared at him fixedly. "We're getting you out of here, baby," he said. Tony probably couldn't hear him, but he knew he could read lips. But seeing the creature and the hoses and tubes piercing Tony's skin, he didn't know what to do. He turned and looked for Bruce, watching the man talk quickly to Natasha and Coulson before running toward Steve.
"What do we do?" the soldier asked immediately.
The others came closer and the all stood before the tank, exhausted faces grim as they watched their friend watch them.
Bucky pushed against the glass with his flesh hand and rattled his finger on it. "I say we just break that thing and get Tony out of here."
Bruce shook his head and rubbed his forehead, deep in thought. "That's not a good idea. GENIE's fused to him I think. And nothing can tell us what that liquid is."
Howard walked to them and his eyes were so huge, it felt like they were nearly bulging out of his head as he stared at his son. "It's amniotic fluid," he murmured. "Is—is that Tony?" he asked faintly. "Is that my son?"
Steve nearly felt moved by the man seeing his after so many years, but he didn't want to ponder on the situation too long. He didn't know why Howard was alive, what happened, why—why—why?! Too many questions, not enough answers, and they were so fucked he couldn't believe it himself.
"What do we do?"
Fury joined them and grimaced at the sight, neither of them missing Tony slightly shifting his eyes to take in the new arrival. "Ah damn, this wasn't part of the plan!"
Steve turned swiftly and glared at him. "What plan?" he barked.
Fury gave him a contemplative one eyed stare, before nodding in Tony's direction. "We knew the threat was coming from above. While you were trapped down here, my men and I did some cleaning up. Turned out many WSC members knew about Aladdin and were actually financing it…as well as just about half the biggest lobbyists of the country."
Bruce rubbed his face. "We don't care about that," he interrupted rudely. "How do we get Tony out of here?" He turned to give Howard an aloof, apathetic glance. "You created GENIE. What is it?"
Howard's jaw trembled as he kept staring at Tony, and it was Natasha's harsh slap on his shoulder that woke him. "It's—it's—he's an artificial intelligence. A mixture between organic and robotic." He sighed and grimaced painfully. "GENIE is trying to absorb Tony and take over his body."
Steve slammed his fist against the glass and it cracked under the force of the assault. Bruce pushed him none too gently, his face ashen. "Don't. We don't know what'd happen."
Steve pushed him back and didn't apologize when the man stumbled into Natasha. "What will happen, is Tony getting swallowed by that thing," he only said and started slamming his fists against the glass harder. Thor soon joined, and the both of them hit the glass until it shattered in one great burst, liquid splashing everywhere under a grinding noise and sparkles.
Tony hung there, breathing harshly, and Steve couldn't tell if he'd literally held his breath that long, or if GENIE was responsible for Tony not drowning. His flesh arm and head were bleeding profusely, struck by dozens of cables, and his eyes were shifting from one of them to the other, before stopping on Steve. His lips twisted in a sick smile, and before anyone could move, his hands were wrapping around Steve's throat and squeezing.
Squeezing, and crushing…
And Steve almost welcomed the darkness.
He couldn't stand to look into those familiar blue eyes staring at him without recognition.
Natasha stared in horror as Tony walked towards Steve and grabbed his throat. Even Fury was surprised by the turn of events, but he quickly shook himself out of his shock. "Thor! Barnes! Get Stark away from him!"
The two quickly rushed towards Tony, who completely ignored them, intent on choking the Captain. Thor pulled as hard as he could, straining against the smaller man, but nothing happened. Bruce watched as Bucky tried to help, metal arm useless at his side, and face twisted in pain and fear. Suddenly, Natasha turned towards Bruce.
"If we don't get Tony off of Steve soon, he's going to die. I think we're going to need the Hulk."
Bruce stared at her, worry creasing his brows. "I can't reach him," he answered nervously.
Natasha gritted her teeth, "Bruce, Steve's going to die if you don't help. Fury deactivated whatever was blocking your powers. It's a miracle Tony isn't using the Bleeding Edge armor."
Bruce slowly nodded and closed his eyes. Slowly, he grew in size, shirt coming off in shreds, and muscles bulging. His skin took a green hue and he roared, first at Natasha who didn't even blink, then at Tony, whose azure eyes flickered in his direction; blank and lifeless.
He lunged at Tony and together with Thor, tugged, and grabbed the genius. He let go of an unconscious Steve and stood there, unmoving and completely indifferent. The Hulk roared again, finally managing to toss Tony away from Steve. He crashed against the wall without a sound, and before he could make another move, the Hulk jumped atop of him tearing Tony's robotic arm away as he tried to hit him back, before punching the genius once, twice in the face until he fell unconscious. Once the Hulk was certain that the man was incapable of moving, he dropped him.
It took another moment and then the Hulk shrunk back down and Bruce stared unseeingly at the scene in front of him: Fury, Coulson, a number of SHIELD agents unfamiliar to him, Steve lying unconscious on the floor, Bucky kneeling on the floor holding his damaged arm, Natasha standing off to the side against the wall, relying heavily on her left leg, the other one broken during the fight against the robotic animals, Thor panting off to the side, Clint helping restrain Hill…
It was a terrible scene.
Fury himself, scanned the scene before ordering, "Everyone. Medics, take care of the Captain. You," he said as he pointed to three still agents, "take Ms. Hill into custody. Dispose of Marsh's body." He turned to another team. "Take Howard Stark to the Helicarrier. Give him a room, keep him under surveillance. Someone call Dr. Woo to take a look at Tony." He glanced at the remaining Avengers, "Let's get your injuries treated. Afterwards you can either go back home or stay on the Helicarrier and keep an eye on Tony, until we understand what happened to him." The Avengers glanced at each other before nodding.
Fury approached Tony, and reached into his chest. He glanced at the Avengers when they started protesting violently, "just a safety precaution until Dr. Woo gets to him. I don't want him to wake up and go on a rampage." Natasha nodded, lips pinched, while the other Avengers remained silent but pasty white.
With that, Fury pulled the Arc Reactor out of Tony's chest.
Steve blinked his eyes open and stared at the ceiling.
He felt movement on his left and turned his head gingerly, trying to swallow and wincing as he did.
Natasha was sitting on a chair, right bandaged leg stretched in front of her. Steve couldn't remember what had happened, if she'd broken it during the fight. She was eating cookies from a plate held on her uninjured knee, and by the smell of it, they were freshly baked.
At Steve inquisitive glance she shrugged slightly. "It's been a hectic three days," she murmured, and the soldier sat up in horror.
"Three days?!" he gasped, throwing the covers from his body and moving his legs to the side of the bed. "Tony, my god, how's Tony?"
She held a hand on his shoulder, putting gentle pressure and smiled uneasily. "Doctor Woo, remember him?"
Steve nodded immediately because there was no way he'd ever forget the man who took care of Tony and put the first Graft on him. Doctor Woo was one of Tony's most trusted associates, and Steve knew that if something was to happen to the genius, Woo would be the first to try to save him.
"Of course," he murmured.
Natasha ran a hand through her fiery red hair. "Tony grabbed you at the throat, do you remember?" Steve put a hand up and started massaging his aching throat, nodding mutely. "But it wasn't Tony," she continued, "GENIE had started to take over his body. It took both Thor and Hulk's combined force to have him let you go. After that…" she trailed off, hesitating, and Steve put a hand on hers, prompting her to continue. "After that, Fury took the reactor out."
Steve paled and swayed, gaping at her. "The Reactor…that means Tony's—"
She shook her head, grabbing his hand gently. "He's not dead. It's not like before Extremis. Do you remember? Tony explained what'd happen to him if he took it out."
Steve was nodding as she talked, trying to grasp at any reassurances he could find to tell himself Tony was going to be okay. "Yeah, like a battery."
She nodded. "Just like that," she confirmed. "It gives us time to undo what GENIE has done to his mind and body."
The soldier stood, helped Natasha up and rubbed his forehead. "I need to see him."
She nodded and both of them stumbled through the corridors of the Helicarrier. They walked to the medical section, and met with the others in front of a large pan of glass opened on an operating theater. "How is he?" he asked Bruce, because he was surely the most apt to answer.
Bruce pursed his lips and started twisting his glasses, his tell on how nervous he was. "It's complicated because GENIE fused with Tony. The doctors have to separate what really is Tony, and what isn't, basically."
Steve grimaced and nearly threw up when he saw Doctor Woo lift some sort of flesh like glob from Tony's brain. He had to quickly turn away when the implication of the doctors mucking inside Tony's open skull was suddenly registering, as well as the fact that his robotic arm was missing. "What of—what of his brain?" he breathed out, leaning against the wall, and grateful for Bucky's helping hand on his back. He stumbled to a chair facing the medical room and had to put his head between his knees, taking a deep breath. "Tony's. What of his brain?"
Bruce sighed shakily. "Apparently there was enough of Tony inside to tell his nanobots to wrap themselves around the 5%."
Steve let out a sob. Those damn 5%. So much—Tony, Tony in his entirety was in those 5%. Those cherished 5%. "So…is Tony going to be alright?"
Bruce sat heavily next to Steve. "I don't know Steve. I really have no idea."
Steve tried to hold them in. He really did, but the sobs were too strong to keep inside.
He'd taken Extremis for granted, thinking that nothing could happen to Tony because of it. When he'd told himself Tony was safe, was able to protect himself, he'd only thought of his body…he'd never stopped to think about what could happen ton Tony's mind.
Sometimes he felt stupid.
Stupid and small in a world so much bigger than him.
Doctor Woo and his team worked on Tony for eight more days, trying to flush out all of what was GENIE, with the help of JARVIS, Tony's contingency plans, Howard's notes and Bruce's insight. They couldn't tell if they were successful because they didn't really know what they were doing. It felt like operating on someone while being blind and it was nerves raking.
Steve had refused to sleep at first, but in front of his team's continued harassment had finally yielded after the fourth day. He fell into an exhausted sleep, face smashed in some detergent smelling pillow.
After that, he fell asleep, and didn't dream.
Steve was watching Doctor Woo holding a scalpel and slowly cutting out the synthetic skin of Tony's robotic arm. One of the nurses dragged the skin down, freeing the mechanical structure of the arm in a sudden gushing of blood. Steve reeled back, hand slapped against his mouth, and gasped.
"Steve, man, you shouldn't see that," Clint said, an arm wrapped around his still tender ribs.
Steve took a deep breath and hummed. "I'm okay, I'm okay. I just—I need to be there."
Clint snorted. "You need to punish yourself, you mean," he muttered, and his insight in Steve's head was so creepy at times, the soldier felt uneasy.
"I need to be there for Tony," he insisted, teeth gritted and eyes averted from his husband.
Clint shook his head. "Well, you won't do him any good by puking on yourself."
Steve pointed his chin at him. "And what are you doing here?"
The archer stared at him as if he was dumb, and he probably wasn't far from the truth at that moment. "It's like you said, man," he deadpanned, "Someone needs to be there for him."
They lapsed into silence, Steve trying to look at the scene in front of them from time to time, but feeling the overwhelming crush of guilt and need to retch as each piece of Tony was taken from his body.
"Where's Howard?" he asked out of the blue, eyes trained on the floor.
Clint leaned back in his chair, arms crossed. "They took him to have him evaluated. They're surely going to make him pass a series of test…like for Bucky after the Winter Soldier program."
Steve hummed quietly and gritted his teeth. Just as he was about to say something, his and Clint's phone beeped, indicating an alert to Assemble. The soldier sighed, standing shakily and walked to the glass pan. "I'm coming back quickly, baby," he whispered. "Wait for me."
Howard looked better…somewhat. He had a bit more color on his face, he was less thin, less tired, and his clothes actually fit this time. He had shaved and the sudden familiarity was nearly too much for Steve to stand, and he turned away from him.
Fury was walking up and down the aisle of the lab they were crowding, Howard sitting on a hospital bed, and staring at Steve and Bucky owlishly, as if he couldn't believe what he was really seeing and what was happening.
Coulson cleared his throat and gestured for everyone to sit, but Steve was too jittery, too wrung up to actually sit, and rubbed his head as he unconsciously started pacing like Fury. He stopped when he realized everyone was looking at him, but didn't sit. He pressed himself against the farthest wall from the bed and averted his eyes.
"We now know Howard has been subjected to some derivative version of the Super-Soldier Serum. The only component similar is the slow aging agent," Coulson started to explain, eyes on the tablet he was holding and showing them algorithms and charts on the screen placed in the room.
Steve didn't even look at them, knowing he wouldn't understand and refusing waste his time for scientific data that were way above him. He saw Bruce nod at some things he was looking at on the screen, and Steve guessed it all made sense to him in a total obscure way it wasn't to the soldier. Tony would have known, would have actually pointed out the flaws in the science that wasn't his. This made Steve feel the ache in his heart as if he was missing a part of it and never going to get it back.
"But the agent isn't as potent as the one Captain Rogers and Lieutenant Barnes have been injected with," the agent continued to explain.
Clint blinked. "Meaning…?" he trailed off, waving his hand in front of him.
"Meaning he will age," Bruce said sharply. "From the numbers I can see I'd say about half the speed of a normal human."
Coulson nodded with pursed lips. "That's what our scientists estimated."
Bruce crossed his arms. "What of GENIE and why you were in the Vault?" he asked Howard sharply.
The man on the bed seemed to wither under the combined stare of the Avengers and closed his eyes tiredly. "I started creating him in the 50s. At first he didn't do anything. I thought it was a failed experiment, so I abandoned the project and concentrated on strengthening Aladdin. I built the Aladdin Assault Squad in response to the growing number of rogue Ultras. It never really took, and once again, the project was abandoned. I believe the Avengers is a bastardized version of the AAS." He sighed and bit his lower lip. "I didn't know GENIE was getting stronger until about a year after Tony's birth. I started to uncover a number of strange movements coming from the WSC. Bank accounts under fake companies gaining money, Ultras disappearing…"
He closed his eyes and fisted his hands. "I got taken, dragged to the Vault…I met Marsh. Back then he was the leader of Aladdin. He used to be a good man…but greed and power made him lose his mind. He forced me to create all sort of things for him…made me create—" he stopped and had to take a deep breath, "made me create the Winter Soldier, using a soldier recovered from the ice. At first I thought it was Steve, but soon discovered it was Bucky." He laughed darkly and grimaced. "I can't start to remember how many Ultras' mind I twisted to become Super Villains."
Natasha narrowed her eyes at him. "Doom?"
Howard shrugged. "Among others, yes. I intensified his hatred for Reed Richards, and pushed him over the edge."
Bucky snarled and strode to him only stopped by Thor's hand on his arm. "Do you have any fucking idea what it's like to be brainwashed and have people play with your brain?" he spat.
Howard looked at him, eyes brimming with tears. "I didn't have a choice."
Bruce snorted and they all turned to him. Since discovering Howard was still alive, the man had been strangely hostile to him. Nearly violent. "Of course you had a choice," he sneered, "Instead of building weapons and twisting people around…you could have killed yourself."
They all feel silent, staring at him with mixed expressions. From his corner, Steve refused to take part to the conversation, but felt like Bruce had a point.
"What—what do you mean?" Howard asked shakily.
Bruce stared blankly at him. "You could have killed yourself," he repeated, "or built something to help you escape."
Steve froze at the clear path that the doctor was taking and looked down. Afghanistan was still fresh in his mind. Always will be, even if Tony and him hadn't been an item back them, hadn't even known each other…He refused to even think about the terror, the horror Tony had been submitted to in that desert.
Howard was looking at Bruce with unseeing eyes, the face of a defeated man that lost everything. "I—I—"
The doctor stepped back, shaking off Natasha's comforting hand with a snarl. He looked conflicted, as if fighting to keep the Hulk inside but truly wanting to let him out and unleash him on Howard. "Tony got taken," he started explaining, "a few years ago. He got taken by terrorists."
Steve gritted his teeth and tightened his fists. "Bruce," he hissed, "shut up!"
But Bruce was shaking and glaring daggers at the man on the bed. "He got tortured and they did the most terrible things to him to get him to build weapons for them. But he didn't," he snapped. "Instead he bid his time and let them hurt him so he could build his way out."
Steve wasn't feeling protective at all of Howard, but he refused to have Bruce spreading one of the darkest chapters of Tony's life for all to see, even if all the Avengers and Fury and Coulson already knew what happened in the desert and what led to the birth of Iron Man. It felt improper, insulting even, to talk about Tony when the man wasn't even there to do it himself, especially to Howard.
Howard who was supposed to be dead. Howard who was Tony's most terrible nightmare.
A man who hurt him for years, destroyed his childhood and shaped him into the man he was today.
Steve felt something break in chest and pushed away from the wall angrily. "We don't care about that," he snapped at Bruce, startling the entire team. "What I care to know, is who fucking raised Tony?!" he yelled.
They turned to Howard for an explanation and the man literally crumbled in front of them. "Aladdin had some ties with Johann Shmidt."
Bucky snarled and punched a hole in the wall not far from Steve and they both exchanged furious looks.
"Who?" Clint asked, seeing their reaction.
But Coulson was the one who answered them. "The Red Skull."
Clint shook his head. "What does that have anything to do with—" but he stopped when he saw a thundering look on Bucky and a sickened one on Steve. For a moment, he they all thought their Captain was going to pass out.
"What—what you're saying is—" Bucky stammered after assuring himself Steve wasn't going to fall down.
Howard was nodding, tears streaming down, and he answered as he buried his face in his hands in shame. "Yes, yes," he nearly yelled, "a skrull of me raised my son!"
It was too much for Steve.
After that all he saw was Howard and his need to hurt the man.
Hurt him so much he'd never move and never get his hands on Tony.
Strangely enough, the Hulk had other ideas, and before Steve lost consciousness, he heard his friends yell and the roar of the big green creature.
The sight of a ceiling was starting to get old for Steve and he nearly wished for unconsciousness to take him back down. But then, fear seized him, because his mind was suddenly invaded with thoughts of Tony, then everything that happened came crashing down on him, and he sharply twisted on the side of the bed, throwing up the meager content of his stomach on the tiled floor.
He felt sorry for the nurse who was going to have to clean it, and then he shook the thought away, because who cared?
Who cared about puke when his husband was no more than an empty robotic shell with what was left of his brain scrambled, and a man everyone they thought was dead, was alive and innocent?
Howard Stark was innocent.
He wasn't an abusive asshole, because he actually never raised a hand to Tony. Never touched him. Didn't know him at all. Howard had only known his son for a year before he was taken away by Aladdin and held captive.
Those thought filled Steve with shame and guilt. Here he was finding excuses for Howard, while Tony had lived his all life cringing and flinching from people with that innate fear of being touched and hurt.
Steve could still remember a time Tony rebuffed compliments, rejected kind gestures. And even now, after all they had been through, after the struggles and the fights, even after all that, Tony still showed signs of having been abused. They were small things; his way of refusing to be handed things, his refusal to look people in the eyes when they were clearly mad at him, his tacit law forbidding anyone from talking about Howard.
Even Extremis hadn't been able to heal that part of Tony's psyche.
And if a super futuristic, engineered bottled technological serum that could heal a shredded heart and a shopped off arm couldn't heal that nothing could.
"You hate me now," Howard whispered.
The light in the room was dim and it was almost cold. Steve couldn't feel it, but he could see Howard shiver at the corner of his eyes, trying to drag the covers over his body.
Steve was sitting in a chair next to him; legs sprawled in front of him, arms crossed. He couldn't look at Howard, so he was staring out the window. It was night, so he couldn't see anything, but it was still better than looking at the man in the bed.
He shrugged tiredly and dragged a heel on the floor, his boot squeaking and disturbing the silence.
"I don't know," he answered flatly. He was too tired to spare Howard's feelings. "All I know is that Skrulls enhance personality traits already existing. So, you had to be predisposed to violence for it to become what it did."
Howard was silent on the bed, looking like an old man hunched on himself, nearly trying to disappear. "God, Steve," he breathed out, "we knew each other during the war. We were friends. Do you really think I am the kind of man to beat his child?" he asked furiously.
Steve turned swiftly and stared at him, face blank and eyes cold. He pointed a finger at Howard and sneered. "I don't know what I was supposed to think," he snarled, "all I saw was a man self-destructing, shying away from human contact and covered in scars." Howard shuddered and bit his lip. Steve looked away and rubbed his forehead. "People knew. The press knew what was happening behind closed doors, but no one did anything to put a stop to it."
They lapse into silence, before Howard took a deep breath, hands twisting the covers on his lap. "You—you seem close to Tony," he rasped, voice nearly gone.
Steve looked up and started at the ceiling. "We've been married for twelve years now," he answered.
Howard gasped. "M—married?"
Steve glared. "You have a problem with that?"
The man shook his head. "No!" he blurted out, "no, of course not."
The soldier stared at him and stood, walking to the door. "I need to go check on Tony," he muttered, ignoring Howard's voice trying to stop him.
He didn't need the man's approval, and he sure as hell couldn't care less if he was disgusted by their relationship.
And the pain he was feeling in his heart wasn't caused by Howard fucking Stark.
Steve had long time ago mourned him right next to Peggy, and Doctor Erskine. And Bucky.
When Steve pushed open the door to the restroom, he frowned when he heard the sobs quickly followed by retching. He pushed the toilet doors cubicle till the last one and his face crumbled at the sight of Bruce hunched over the bowl.
"Hey," he whispered, voice soft. He didn't want to spook his friend, but Bruce still startled and turned swiftly toward him. He quickly dropped his eyes down and looked away, rubbing his face furiously. Steve knelt down next to him and gently touched his shoulder. "You okay?" He blinked and pursed his lips, because his question was thoughtless.
Bruce chuckled wetly and sighed, flushing and slumping against the toilet wall. "You're going to find it stupid," he muttered, rubbing his forehead
Steve shook his head and continued patting Bruce's arm comfortingly. "No, of course not. Tell me," he pressed.
The scientist smiled, but it felt more like a pained grimace to Steve. "I keep seeing what happened," he started, "when Tony grabbed you by the throat." Steve nodded silently, encouraging Bruce to keep going. "We had trouble getting him to let go…Thor and Bucky couldn't do it, so…I had to Hulk out."
Steve licked his lips and unconsciously touched the skin of his still bruised neck. He didn't remember what happened, and Natasha hadn't been very forthcoming about what happened, so it was the first time he heard the truth.
"I managed to get Tony to let go, but I—" he stopped and sobbed, hiding his face in his hands, "I—I ripped his robotic arm off," he confessed in a breath.
Steve's face crunched in complete sadness at the confession and leaned over, hugging Bruce tightly. "I understand," he whispered, closing his eyes as Bruce sobbed harder and harder into his chest. "But Tony won't hold you responsible. You saved me," he insisted.
Because at the sight of the bruises, Steve knew a few minutes more would have meant a crushed throat, and Tony actually killing him. Bruce had saved him, and if ripping his arm off was the least Bruce could do to stop Tony killing him, then, Steve would never be mad at him for that.
Now, right now, after years of guilt and shame, and guilt…he could say it without a doubt.
Tony would never survive if he died.
Bruce suddenly chuckled, and the levity in the sound made Steve smiled slightly. "What?" he questioned.
Bruce snorted, grinning. "So many years ago…the both of us, we didn't think much of Tony…" he explained, "look at us now, crying like babies."
Steve gave a wet chuckle and nodded, hugging Bruce tighter. "He's special like that," he whispered.
Bruce hummed in agreement. "We wouldn't have him any different."
When Steve entered Howard's room, the man was reading on a Stark tablet, face dark and brow furrowed. He looked up and waved at the empty seat next to his bed.
Steve sat with a nod and pressed his lips together. "They let you have it?" he queried, pointing his chin at the tablet the man was holding.
Howard looked down; face unreadable before he looked up at Steve. "I doubt anything could get passed SHIELD nurses, and you Avengers," he said with a rueful smile and a lifted eyebrow at the soldier. "I'm rarely alone. Are you watching me?"
Steve blinked once before answering. "Yes."
Howard gasped quietly, startled by the blunt confession. Clearly, he hadn't expected him to answer that. He bit his lower lip, and Steve turned his head away because he looked too much like Tony at that moment. "Find anything interesting?" Steve asked after a while, hands crossed between his knees, and face still averted.
Howard sighed. "I—I was looking for information on Stark Industries," he started but stopped abruptly when Steve stood angrily, his chair screeching on the floor noisily.
"Really?" Steve growled, "Really?!" he yelled. Howard was gaping at him, mouth open and face ashen in surprise and disbelief. "You finally see your son after more than fifty years, and all you care about is the fucking company?" he hissed, face twisted in revulsion. Howard looked down sharply, tablet forgotten on his lap, and face unreadable, but before he could justify himself, or say anything at all Steve continued. "I shouldn't even be surprised," he ranted, "back then your image and money were all you could think of, I shouldn't have expected you to care about your own son, because really, you don't know him. You don't even acknowledge him as yours."
His face was thunderous and he felt so much pent-up rage inside him that he couldn't hold it in anymore. "I shouldn't feel betrayed," he growled, racking his fingers through his hair. "You haven't even asked about Tony since you woke up. You don't fucking care that your screw up with GENIE nearly destroyed his body and everything that made him your son, the one you don't even know!"
Howard was mute, face turned down and pale. He was trembling slightly, and didn't seem able to form words to answer Steve.
"We know Skrulls are based on the person they impersonate. But for that, they need material. The rage, the violence, the abusive behavior, it was all there, muted," he conceded, "but still there. The Skrull who raised Tony was based on you. Did you ever think about him when imprisoned in the Vault?"
At that, Howard looked up so sharply Steve thought he got whiplash. "Don't you dare," he breathed out menacingly, "don't you dare tell me I don't care when all that kept me going for years was my son!"
Steve glared at him; lips pinched tight and face unreadable. "Really?" he spat. "So instead, you kept building things that Tony had to fight against?!"
Howard snarled. "And how was I supposed to know he had become some kind of—of—"
Steve leaned over threateningly, fists tight and trembling under the pressure. "Some kind of what?" he snarled, "Say it!" he ordered. "Some kind of monster?!"
Howard reeled back, pushing the covers away and standing shakily, pointing an accusing finger at the soldier. "Don't put words in my mouth!" he yelled.
"But that's what you think, isn't Howard?" he asked mockingly, "Your son is not really your son because you don't know what he is! And all you see is one of your fucking cyborgs staring at you with the face of your dead wife!"
The man stepped away from Steve, face contorting in revulsion and hatred. "Don't you dare," he said, voice devoid of any emotion.
And at that precise instant, Steve saw the man Tony had had to grow up with. The barely controlled violence, the cold fury, the need to be in control every second of his life.
He could barely stand to see that man. He wasn't afraid, because nothing short of Tony disappearing could scare him anymore, but he could imagine what a small boy must have felt facing that kind of person.
He didn't want to say this Howard was evil, because from what he knew of Tony's childhood, a beast raised him, but they were getting close to the real nature of the man who sired the most important and cherished person in Steve's life.
And he didn't like what he saw.
Didn't like to think he could have ever been friends with a man like that.
Steve was standing in front of the glass, watching Doctor Woo and his team work on Tony. They had been at for two weeks now. And it felt like forever to Steve who only wanted to get his husband back in his arms.
He crossed his arms on his chest, biting his thumb anxiously and didn't acknowledge Bucky when the man walked over to him, robotic arm in a sling. While the arm had been easily replaced by a new Graft, his shoulder had been hurt in the process and needed rest to heal properly.
"Hey," Bucky greeted, the others filling the small observation room quietly and sitting in the seats facing the glass pan.
Steve had wondered about that room, but Bruce had explained it served an academic purpose. Interns could sit in the observation room while other doctors operated in the operating theater.
Steve only spared Bucky a quick glance before turning his eyes back on his husband.
"Heard you had it with Howard," Bucky said quietly.
"He's an ass," Steve muttered, pressing against the glass, and leaning his arm above his head.
Bucky snorted. "Yeah, well, Peggy and I told you that at least a thousand times back then."
The Captain huffed slightly. "Yeah, well, I was always slow on the intake," he muttered.
Bucky hummed but didn't say anything, just as Doctor Woo turned toward them. They all stood at attention, crowding the glass, Howard in a far corner at the back but eyes riveted on what was happening beyond the transparent wall.
"Sensors have resumes functioning," Doctor Woo announced, "connection check to backup brain okay. Visual sensors are back online."
And just as he said that, Tony's blue eyes opened sharply, staring unseeingly at the ceiling. They had closed his skull, a sharp scar around his forehead indicating where they cut, the nanobots still too weak to properly heal right now.
"And the body functions?" Bruce asked at his right.
"Output is normal," Woo answered. Bruce nodded sharply, eyes on the screen next to him. "All ready to connect. Shall we?"
There was a pregnant pause before one of the doctors working with Woo pressed a series of keys on a keyboard, and suddenly, Tony's body arched on the bed, shocked by the electrodes attached to his body, electricity running through his limbs at high voltage.
"That's enough," Woo, said, eyes on Tony and grabbing the Reactor from a nearby table. "Stop. Log off now. Good," he nodded.
He looked exhausted to Steve. Exhausted but determined, and Steve knew the doctor he held a lot of affection for Tony and admired him for his genius and compassion. Doctor Woo had a son who lost a leg in a motorcycle accident. Ten years ago, he had been a star baseball player in college and had a ready-made career in front of him when it had all come to an abrupt stop. While Doctor Woo's son couldn't resume his sports dream career, he now held an important place as a sales and marketing exec in Tony's pharmaceutical branch of SI and played baseball passionately with the company team.
Suddenly, an insistent beeping started shrieking on one of the computers and one of the doctors frown at the screen. "Wow, wow, wow," he said, "there appears to be every indication that a ghost is present in the backup brain."
Steve knocked on the glass. "What's a ghost?" he called.
A blond woman looked up and answered. "It resembles the simulated ghost-line that occurs when a real ghost is copied. But there's no evidence of the degradation that's usually incurred. In any case, we won't be sure until we chart the ghost sector and dive into it. Otherwise, all of this is simply speculation. Well, that's all we know."
Steve fisted his hand against the glass. "I don't understand what the fuck you're saying!" he snapped angrily.
A young doctor, probably an intern, was nearly buzzing with excitement. "Man, oh, man. This is too farfetched. Nobody really believes there's aghost in that body, do they? Has he really done it?"
Steve gritted his teeth and slapped his palm against the glass. "HEY!" he yelled. "Answer me!"
The blond woman turned to them again, staring at Steve from behind her white mask. "Consider all the neuro-med devices the machining cell crammed into that body. I wouldn't be surprised if there was some sort of ghost in there too."
Before Steve could lose it, Doctor Woo looked up from where he was concentrating on the charts fluctuating on the screen. "For God's sake," he muttered and stared at the Avengers, Howard, Fury and Coulson crowding the observation room.
"By injecting himself with Extremis, Tony's body become more machine than human," he said, "his brain also changed, but he kept what we all refer as the 5%." Steve nodded behind the glass, indicating he was following so far. "Tony invented a whole new vocabulary for explaining his body modifications. The word ghost is colloquial slang for his individual consciousness. He redefined the ghost as the thing that differentiates him as a human being from, say, a biological robot. Regardless of how much biological material is replaced with electronic or mechanical substitutes, as long as Tony retain his ghost, he retains his humanity and individuality."
Bruce was nodded sharply. "It's the fine line between Tony and one of his suits," he said rather gloomily.
Doctor Woo nodded, one of his fingers unconsciously tracing along Tony's cheek. "Exactly. So, that's why there's a ghost in Tony," he snapped at the young enthusiastic doctor, nearly bouncing on his heels.
"I don't want that kid near Tony," Steve growled.
Doctor Woo spared him a glance before returning to his data. "I know Doctor Cruz can act far too juvenile about the situation, but he is one of our best engineer at hand. Tony himself instructed him on some of the intricacies of Extremis, and the ghost programming."
Cruz was nodding with a smile. "Mister Stark never told me the ghost programming was real and in his head. I thought he was trying to build one."
Steve snorted, because it was so typical of Tony to instruct someone something by making them believe just the opposite of what really was. In making Cruz think he was trying to build a ghost programming, he was instructing him, in a roundabout way, how it worked and what to do in case something was to happen to Tony.
Woo cleared his throat and they all retook position. The man was staring intently at the screen and nodding slowly. "Encephalogram looks right," he said, and Steve saw the female doctor nod in response, her eyes riveted on her own screen. "Alright people, one more shock."
Steve jumped at the same time as Tony as the electrodes sent another shock through it. Tony's eyes were still open and staring at the ceiling, and they all leaned over when the fingers of his viable arm started twitching.
Woo straightened and watched him closely. "Tony?" he called, "Tony, can you hear me?"
When there was no reaction, Woo nodded at the woman, and another shock ran through Tony's unresponsive body. "Captain Rogers," the man suddenly said, looking up, "talk to him, please."
Steve licked his lips nervously and leaned over, hands flat on the glass window. "Tony?" he called, "Tony, please, baby, can you hear me?" Nothing happened, so Steve continued, prompted by Woo's nod. "Tony, hey, can you move?"
Steve started losing hope but then Tony blinked. Once, but he still blinked.
Sobbing, the soldier sagged against the glass.
The situation felt unreal.
The sheer relief Steve felt was staggering, and for a moment, his whole vision went white. He felt lightheaded, faint, and didn't know what was happening until Natasha pushed him into Tony's room and forced him into the seat at his husband's bedside.
Tony was staring at him, face ashen, deep rings under his dull blue eyes, a deep laceration running down his forehead, but a small exhausted smile on his pale lips. "I say we go for a long holiday," he whispered, his voice so broken and slurred, Steve wouldn't have understood if he hadn't been able to read lips.
He chuckled, reaching a trembling hand to run through Tony's sweaty hair. "Yeah," he breathed out, "good idea."
Doctor Woo gently approached them and smiled at Tony. "We need to stop meeting like this," he said softly, "now, when you feel better, I need to ask you a series of questions Tony."
The genius nodded with a grimace and closed his eyes tiredly. "Are you going to do the Voight-Kampff test?"
Steve tensed at that. They already talked about submitting Tony to that test back when he'd just injected himself with Extremis. Steve had flat out refused to have Tony exposed to it, but now it seemed unavoidable. "What does it entail?" he asked quietly, one hand on Tony's chest—on the Reactor—and the other one still caressing his brow.
Doctor Woo sat on a stool he dragged next to the bed with an ankle and rubbed his eyes. "The Voight-Kampff test is a very advanced form of lie detector that measures contractions of the iris muscle and the presence of invisible airborne particles emitted from the body," he explained. "The VK is used primarily to determine if the subject is truly human by measuring the degree of his empathic response through carefully worded questions and statements."
Tony's eyes shifted and he stared at Steve. "I built it," he said proudly, a bit more awake, but still drained. "A few years ago, when the threats of humanoid cyborgs became too great. We didn't even know each other back then."
He grimaced suddenly and shifted, as if his body was in pain, and Doctor Woo was quick to watch the screens and different machines still linked to Tony. "What is it?" he asked.
Tony hummed before taking a deep, calming breath. "The nanobots are waking up. They're starting to repair some of my organs and brain."
Steve gritted his teeth and hunched over protectively, as if he wanted to wrap Tony in his arms. "You're gonna be okay, sweetheart."
Tony smiled at him, eyes drooping against his will. "'f course I'm gonna be—" and before he could finish, he was asleep.
Steve looked up sharply at the doctor, eyes wide and terrified. "Is he okay?"
Doctor Woo nodded slowly, smiling briefly. "He's just asleep, Captain Rogers. He's in a lot of pain, and deeply exhausted. Now, we can only let his nanobots do the work." He saw Steve's eyes on Tony's missing arm and stood, putting his hands in his pockets. "We'll put on a new Graft when he's stronger."
Steve nodded his thanks at the man, but didn't say anything more.
He just wanted to be left alone with his husband.
"Maria wasn't a mutant. And I'm not either," Howard said that evening.
They were in the mess hall for the officers, and as it was quite late, they were alone around the table at the far end of the room. Steve didn't feel really hungry and he'd rather be with Tony, but knew the importance of keeping his strength.
Bruce was absently twirling his spoon in his mug of tea, Natasha holding onto his arm with her head on his shoulder. Those two weren't the most demonstrative couple Steve knew, nothing like his and Tony's relationship where they always seemed like they needed to touch the other, but the love and adoration was clear in those small gestures.
"It's been established the X-Gene isn't hereditary," he said coldly. He was still hostile to Howard, hadn't even made any effort to get to know the man, but Steve couldn't really fault him. The situation was too serious and they were all just too tired to make any effort.
Howard bit his lip. "What kind of mutant is he?"
Bruce looked up. "Tony is a mutant with the superhuman ability to convert the tissue of his entire body into an organic steel-like substance. This substance resembling steel is of unknown composition but appears to be analogous to osmium and to carbon steel. He is able to transform into the Iron Man suit—the process is virtually instantaneous now—and remain in that form for an as yet undetermined amount of time. Once in his armored form he remains so until he consciously wills himself back to normal."
Steve blinked. The explanation was swift and explained everything that was Extremis in a nutshell.
Howard was looking at his linked hands in front of him on the table. He looked deep in concentration, probably processing what Bruce had just explained. "Was he—was he born like that?"
Bruce's face suddenly twisted, but Natasha was quick to calm him. "Yes. He was born with technopathy. Extremis only served to exacerbate it and give him a few more—"
"Assets?" Clint playfully suggested, mouth full of sandwich.
They chuckled, but Howard didn't seem to get the joke if his stunned face was testament.
The man had to seem isolated.
It didn't matter to Steve.
Steve knew Tony was disappointed his nanobots had healed the scar on his face.
He'd left a lot of vanity behind after embracing Extremis, but Tony wouldn't be Tony if he didn't care about his physical appearance from time to time.
Tony was staring at his face in a small mirror Natasha had managed to dig out for him, shifting his face right and left and staring at his reflection. Steve could only watch with a small peaceful smile. They really needed to stop these crises. He felt like his heart wouldn't be able to survive any more stress and fear of losing Tony.
"Tones," he said gently, a hand reaching for the mirror and putting it on the bedside table. He stood from his chair and sat on the bed, taking Tony's face gently in his hands. "Baby, can you tell if GENIE is completely gone from your head?"
The genius leaned into the touch, his face still ashen from exhaustion, but his eyes clear and relieved. "No residue. What Doctor Woo couldn't get, my nanobots absorbed."
Steve tensed, caressing Tony's face lovingly. "When you say absorbed, do you mean to tell there are still parts of GENIE inside you?" he questioned.
Tony dislodged Steve's hand gently by turning his head and pressed his lips together. "That robot. Did we seem similar to you?"
Steve blinked, taken aback by the question. "Of course not." Then he frowned. "You don't look anything like GENIE. It didn't even have a body…" he stopped when he saw Tony's frustrated face and took a deep breath. "Just what do you mean then?"
Tony pursed his lips, pushing up to sit higher on the reclined bed. "No…I don't mean—physically." Tony closed his eyes. "Well, I guess cyborgs like myself have a tendency to be paranoid," he smiled.
Steve grimaced. "You're not a cyborg, Tony."
The blue eyed man laughed quietly. "Sometimes I suspect I'm not who I think I am. Like maybe I died a long time ago, and somebody took my brain and stuck it in this body. Maybe there never was a real me in the first place, and I'm completely synthetic like that thing."
The soldier grabbed Tony in his arms. The movement was probably too forceful for Tony's healing body but he didn't care. He couldn't stand hearing him talking like that and putting his own existence into question. "You've got human brain cells in that titanium shell of yours. You're treated like other humans, because you're human," he hissed. "The body doesn't make the person. Otherwise, I'm not human either."
Tony snuggled against his chest, voice muffled as he spoke against his neck. "But that's just it. That's the only thing that makes me feel human: the way I'm treated. I mean, who knows what's inside our heads. Have you ever seen your own brain?"
Steve sighed and leaned back, still holding Tony but staring at him with kind eyes. "It sounds to me like you're doubting your own ghost. Doctor Woo explained what it was. Why didn't you tell me?"
Tony, once more, chose to ignore the question. "Did you know that there has been discussion amongst SHIELD personnel over re-classifying you as a meta-human?" he asked.
Steve shrugged. "Yeah, Coulson mentioned it." It didn't matter to him. He'd never struggled with his own identity after taking the Super-Soldier serum. Unlike Tony who questioned nearly everything little thing he did since injecting himself with Extremis.
For Steve, Tony was already classified as mutant. And mutant didn't mean mindless empty cyborgs like his husband seemed to think.
"What if a cyber-brain could possibly generate its own ghost, create a soul all by itself? And if it did, just what would be the meaning of being human then?" Tony wondered, rubbing his forehead.
Steve breathed out in frustration. "Baby, GENIE wasn't human. It didn't have a ghost. It was just an AI designed for industrial espionage and intelligence manipulation. The whole point of that thing was to hurt people, to maximize the strategic advantage of certain organizations and selected individuals." He paused, rubbing at his mouth nervously. "Sweetheart, do you know who built GENIE?"
Tony froze. Neon blue irises staring past the side of Steve's head, not meeting his eyes. "Aladdin," he answered after a while.
Steve shook his head sadly. "No, baby."
Tony curled up on himself as if trying to disappear. He looked half his size, so small and so vulnerable, Steve's eyes filled with tears, and a few escaped unbidden down his cheeks. The soldier leaned on the bed and spooned him, his chest against Tony's trembling back. "That asshole won't touch you," he whispered, kissing the back of Tony's neck, too long hair tickling his nose. "I promise."
Howard grimaced when he read the files Fury had conceded to lend him concerning Tony's…changes. He couldn't even start to understand why a man—a human—would consciously be willing to go to such lengths.
"Read anything interesting?" the redhead woman asked him as she entered the common room they had been given for their stay on the Helicarrier.
Howard looked up and shook his head. "Why did he do it?" he asked, "I read here the Government was going to take his tech, but…it seemed to me like a very selfish way to get one over everyone and become more powerful."
Romanov stared at him for a long silent moment before walking to him and sitting on the couch facing him. "You strike me as a rather peculiar individual," she started, "and since recovering you from Aladdin, all I hear coming from you is about money, image and power." She pursed her lips. "I know you, well, I know the man who raised Tony," she conceded, "but he was still you; absent, cold, egocentric, violent, abusive, alcoholic, workaholic, selfish. Every one of those words makes you a monster."
She ignored his sputtering and remained motionless. "Tony is more human than you. Has always been, even since Extremis, and from there…maybe even more so. He didn't inject himself with it to gain power. He did it for love. So Steve wouldn't have to watch him grow old and die."
She stood swiftly, absentmindedly readjusting her leather jacket. "When have you ever done anything for love, Stark?" she asked, before walking out of the room and leaving the man to his thoughts.
While he heard her words…
He still didn't know if he liked the person his son had become.
"The bellows were designed to give the machine the menacing air of a sinister insect," Tony explained at rapid speed, walking around the machine and speaking quickly.
A clear sign of his nervousness, Steve knew.
He'd never seen the Voight-Kampff machine before. He hadn't even known Tony had designed it because the man had never talked about it. It was strange, because Tony tended to brag about his inventions for days before shifting to the next.
"Fear is one of the first factors to determine if a person is a cyborg," he continued. "Normally, it takes twenty to thirty questions for the test to give a clear answer, but sometimes it takes more, it's—uh—" he stopped and stared at Doctor Woo.
The man smiled and turned to look at the team assembled behind the one way mirror. Steve knew he couldn't see them, could only see himself and Tony in the small dark room reflected in the mirror with the machine hissing on the table, but still the man smiled, wanting to reassure them. "The first time Tony did the test, it took six cross-referenced questions to distinguish his humanity," he said, almost proudly.
Next to Steve, Clint hummed. "So, he did take the test after all."
Bruce was twisting his glasses nervously. "Probably right after Extremis," he said quietly. "Tony surely did it to reassure himself."
Steve shuddered. "Why didn't he tell me?" he whispered.
Natasha scoffed. "Because he wasn't sure of the results," she answered as if it was obvious.
And knowing Tony, it was.
Because there was no way in hell Tony would have stayed with them if the test had told him he wasn't human anymore.
"Are you ready, Tony?" Doctor Woo asked once the machine was ready, and Tony was facing it. His right eye was projected on a screen in front of the doctor, serving to determine pupil reaction to the questions, and at that close proximity, Steve could see the small electrical fluctuations in the blue, like tiny scales running around Tony's eyes as his nanobots shifted.
"Yes," the genius said quietly. His robotic arm was gripping his flesh one anxiously, and all Steve wanted to do was take him far away from here and go back home. He wished everything was over, and that whole GENIE fiasco was put behind them.
"Alright, Doctor Woo," started, "you're watching TV. Suddenly, you realize there's a wasp crawling on your arm. What do you do? Swat, squash, savour or trap?"
Steve shuddered. "What the hell are those questions?" he asked Bruce angrily.
The man looked at Steve from the corner of his eyes. "They're designed to measure bodily functions such as respiration, heart rate, blushing and eye movement in response to emotionally provocative questions," he explained.
Bucky hummed. "But if Tony designed the test, doesn't he know the answers to the questions to sound human?"
Bruce shook his head. "No, Doctor Woo told me he and his team wrote those questions. They're not in any computer, only on papers, so no cyborgs—or Tony—can access them using Extremis. They're hidden somewhere under mechanical locks, no tech involved."
Steve sighed. "One more contingency plan."
Bruce nodded. "Our Tony thought of everything."
On the other side of the mirror, Tony answered. "I swat it."
The doctor wrote something on his file and read another question. "You pass a homeless person. Cold night. Big city. You fumble for change, but a ten dollars note drops into their lap…What do you do? Leave it, swap it for small change, say it was deliberate or double it?"
Tony blinked, and his pupil on the screen retracted slightly. "I double it."
The doctor's face remained neutral. "Now and then you contemplate life alone. It is: independent, inconceivable, insulting or intriguing?"
The answer was swift. "Inconceivable."
There were ten more questions before Doctor Woo stopped and turned off the machine. He was looking at his notes silently while Tony was staring at him anxiously, sometimes looking up as if seeking Steve's reassurance through the mirror.
Finally, the doctor wrote something more on his files before closing it sharply and looking at Tony. "You passed the test, Tony," he said with a small smile. "I'd say 28% of your personality has been affected by GENIE."
Tony was pale and biting his lips. "I was at 21% with only Extremis."
Doctor Woo nodded. "Yes, but remember 28% is a very low score, and is in the human standard. My team combined is at 23% average."
Tony sagged in relief. "So, I'm—I'm still me?" he asked.
Doctor Woo smiled. "The one and only."
In the common room of the tower, there was a hole in the form of a fist in the wall next to the kitchen, an arrow in the ceiling, a missing chunk of flooring next to the couch, and a long part of the floor in the corner of the living room was burnt down and melted from a repulsor incident when Tony was still testing Extremis.
Steve smiled briefly at the sight of Tony sitting crossed legged on the kitchen table eating chocolate biscuit; breaking them in two parts and licking the middle. Normally, he'd scold his husband for sitting on the table like a child, but it was the second week they were finally home. Tony had nearly slept all the time since leaving the hospital. It was also the first time he'd shown interest in food, so, Steve didn't feel like reprimanding him for finally looking alert and happy, quietly humming to himself.
Howard was standing awkwardly next to the loveseat, looking around and looking out of place.
Out of time.
He walked to a shelf where several pictures of the team were shown and stared, fingers ghosting over the picture of their wedding day. Then he blinked at an old black and white picture of Steve and Bucky standing in uniform, mute and face unreadable.
Steve observed him. Watched for something on his face…maybe…something that could make Howard more human. Give him back what Steve thought he'd seen in him so many years ago. Some kindness, some…humanity.
And wasn't that the story of their lives?
They all battled for their humanity at one point, had more frights than reasonable with Tony taking Extremis, with Bruce every time he changed to the Hulk, with Natasha having disappeared on them for more than a year and coming back completely changed, with Clint getting older and older while they all stayed unchanged, with Thor coming from another universe…with Steve losing his wits with Rhodey, and then with Bucky coming back from the dead.
Having Howard into their lives now, changed nothing…but everything at the same time.
The man picked a snow globe and shook it gently, the flamingo inside disappearing under small flakes of false snow.
The door of the elevator suddenly opened, and out came Pepper, regal and beautiful in her navy black suit, high heels clicking as she strode in. Her eyes flicked over to Howard, dismissing him in one glance, before walking over to Steve, greeting him with a small kiss on his cheek, before she walked to the kitchen, smiling at Tony. "Mr. Stark," she said, her face gentle.
Tony didn't say anything at first, kept his eyes on his biscuit, before tilting his head on the side and looking at her intensely.
Pepper hummed, leaning over and kissing him on the forehead, gently running her fingers through Tony's hair. "Really, Tony, you need a haircut." The man shrugged one shoulder and handed Pepper a biscuit in response. She snorted and lifted an eyebrow. "No, Tony."
Steve walked to the kitchen, and sat on the barstool facing Tony, accepting the half of the biscuit his husband fed him with a smile. He munched for a moment, swallowing and turned to Pepper. "So, why are you here Pepper?" the soldier queried, ignoring Howard as he walked into the room, leaning against the kitchen counter.
She kept staring at Tony for a moment before straightening her jacket. "The Maria Stark foundation gala is next week," she started, "I came to remind you." Steve blinked and grabbed another biscuit.
"Already," Tony muttered above him, and the soldier looked up, saw Howard tense at the corner of his eyes, and Pepper pinch her lips.
"Yes, already. The same day every year, honey," she said with a small smile and took her Stark phone out of her attaché case. "As this year is a bit…different," she paused, looking at Howard for a second, "we thought it important that you made a speech. The press is starting to ask questions…of course, as Mr. Stark's presence is supposed to be top secret knowledge," she quoted with her fingers, nodding in Howard's direction, "the whole world knows…"
Steve grimaced at that, because he still couldn't understand how the info had leaked. They'd planned to pass Howard as some distant cousin of the Stark family, but before they could put the idea into motion, the press was already publishing everything about Aladdin, WSC and Howard Stark being very much alive.
SHIELD had nearly been dismantled by the scandal, and only Fury, Coulson and Tony's attorney had been able to save it by proving SHIELD had nothing to do with it and only the WSC was concerned as SHIELD remained an independent force. It had really been touch and go for a moment, but the crisis had been averted.
Now, the press was starting to make noise around Howard's presence. The man hadn't been really popular in his time, and they feared he'd take over SI, take it from Tony and start the weapon manufacture once again.
Pepper asking Tony to make a speech was a mean to reassure the general population that SI was very much staying in Tony's hands and still carrying on with its incredible technological progress, and still away from weapons of mass destruction.
"Okay," Tony finally said.
Steve pressed a biscuit against the genius's lips and smiled as he took it all in his mouth. "I'll finally be able to take you to a dance."
Tony hummed and leaned over, rubbing his cheek against Steve's in affection.
Steve huffed a breath of laugh. "Yeah, baby. Me too."
Howard had to blink into the harsh white light of the corridor leading to his son's workshop. The simple idea of this man; strange and alien, being the small baby he'd held at the maternity fifty years ago or so, was still mind blowing and had him reeling.
He stopped and stood in front of the glass door, obscured by some blinds and knocked. When nothing happened after a moment, he pinched his lips and looked up at the ceiling, feeling stupid. "Uhm…voice?"
Then he jumped, not expecting an actual answer. "I am JARVIS, sir. How may I be of assistance?"
Howard froze. "Jarvis?" he breathed out.
The man blinked. "No, I—I mean, your name is Jarvis?"
The voice answered. "Yes. I am named after the late Edwin Jarvis. The man who Mr. Stark considered a father."
Howard tensed and sighed, rubbing his forehead. "Yes, I guess," he said. "May I come in Anthony's workshop?"
The voice—Jarvis—was quiet for a moment before the door slid open and music reached Howard's ears. He felt his gut tightened when he realized the music was some of the 40s famous standard, some he even remembered listening back during the war. He stepped into the shop, looking around and taking it all with amazement. The tech in this room was amazing, clean, sleek and so out of his reach and knowledge he felt like a complete heathen.
He walked to a workbench and picked a piece of equipment, twisting it in his hand. "I wouldn't touch that," a voice drawled behind him, making him jump in fright and swirl around, "if I were you," Tony finished staring without blinking. "It's a bomb."
Howard put it back on the table, running his hands down the lapel of his jacket. "I thought you shut down the weapon manufacture," he said, and it wasn't a question.
Tony stared hard for a moment longer, making Howard look away momentarily, before stepping closer to him, until they were nearly toe to toe. "Yeah," he nearly whispered, "I did." And then he passed Howard and grabbed the component, starting to work on it.
Howard frowned, hating to be dismissed and reduced to nothing. He was used to being important, to have respect from other people. "I talked to the voice. Jarvis."
Tony hummed. "It's not Jarvis. It's JARVIS," he said, as if it made sense at all for Howard. "Just A Rather Very Intelligent System."
Howard nodded briefly, putting his hands in his pockets. "Oh, JARVIS." He got it now. "A computer I presume? To manage your house?" he asked.
Tony nodded. "He's a multifunctional software program capable of managing the local environment of my houses interior."
Howard felt the corner of his mouth lift in a small smile. "How does it work?"
"It employs a highly advanced user interface with holographic peripherals and voice input, and communicates data back to its user via speech audio, holographic displays and conventional LCD monitors. It also controls a number of robotic appliances. Like the coffee maker," he explained.
The door opened and Steve stepped in, blinking at Howard's presence before making a beeline for Tony and kissing him lovingly on the lips. "And most notably an armory unit concealed in the floor's home that facilitates entry and egress of most of the Iron Man armor suits," Steve added. "JARVIS has also been adapted to be loaded into the Iron Man armor for use as a system control program. In this capacity it governs the complex computational requirements needed to interface the wearer of the armor with the various subsystems, as well as provide life support control."
Tony suddenly laughed. "You do listen when I say science things!"
Steve grinned at Tony's sudden good mood. "Of course I listen. I just don't understand it." He looked at the ceiling and nodded as he recognized the song. "You feel nostalgic?" he asked.
Tony shook his head. "I knew you were coming down," he simply answered, and Steve felt so much love and fondness at that instant that he could only lean over and hug Tony in his arms.
Howard watched them for a moment, feeling out of place at the sudden show of affection. "Do you have him in all of your suits?"
Tony looked above Steve's shoulder before the soldier released him and sat on the bench next to him, wrapping an arm around his waist. "Not anymore, the suit is not made in series. Each one is unique, and it was starting to get a bit too much for JARVIS's circuit. I use FRIDAY with the suits now, JARVIS needed a well-deserved retirement for his Avenger work," he explained with a peaceful smile on his face.
Howard frowned. "Who's Friday?"
Howard swirled around and choked on his breath when finding himself face to face with a tall, blond woman, wearing only smirk and a towel.
He blushed madly and looked away quickly, suddenly facing the dual smirks of his son and old war friend. He snorted and cleared his throat in embarrassment, because to his ultimate shame, he suddenly felt himself tightened in his pants and had to shift around to hide his…sudden interest. "It's—just been a while since I—" he stopped and cleared his throat again. "God," he muttered.
Steve snorted and stood, walking to the woman. "FRIDAY. Put on some clothes for god's sake. He's gonna have a coronary. Can you imagine how long it's been since he saw a naked woman?"
Tony burst out laughing, and typed something on his keyboard. "Maybe I shouldn't be giving so much leeway to my AIs."
Howard turned around quickly, staring at the woman in bewilderment. "She's—is she…she's not real?"
Tony tilted his head on the side and resumed working on his bomb without looking at what his hands were doing, eyes on FRIDAY twirling around Steve in mischief. "Oh, she's very much real," he told Howard, same peaceful smile on his face as before. "She's just a hologram though. Limited to my workshop in physical form, but she's everywhere like JARVIS. And she's the one who control my suits."
Howard nodded in understanding. "But not the one you use?"
Tony looked at him strangely. "Of course not. The suit's inside me," he said. "Bruce already told you. About the Bleeding Edge armor?"
Howard winced. "I just don't know what it—" he stopped and jerked away from Tony sharply, crashing into the workbench behind him and staring in horror and shock at his son, now standing fully suite in a sleek black Iron Man armor in front of him. The transformation had been immediate. He hadn't even blinked before the skin, hair, clothes, eyes had disappeared, seemingly swallowed by a black mass of metal.
"My god," he breathed out, stepping away further.
Steve and a dressed FRIDAY walked to Tony, eyes on Howard as if waiting to see what he was going to do now.
"It's just—it's a lot to take in," Howard finally managed to say, running a trembling hand on his mouth.
Steve hummed and gently caressed the faceplate of the black Iron Man. "I wish it weren't black," he said quietly, and laughed when the suit suddenly became bright pink. "God, you're something else." He shook his head in disbelief, so happy to have that life back.
That life where he and Tony could be so close, so tactile, so playful…
It felt home, even with Howard standing behind looking pale and uneasy when confronted to his newfound son's power.
He lifted an eyebrow at Tony and the suit resorbed in the blink of an eye. "So, did you write your speech for the press?" he asked conversationally, ignoring Howard's presence.
The smaller man shook his head. "Pepper did it. I can't guess why…" he muttered, once more lost in his project and choosing not to react to Steve's snicker.
Steve ran his hand up and down Tony's back before sitting on the bench next to his husband, facing Howard. "Did you want something?" he asked bluntly.
He wasn't really trying to stop Howard from seeing Tony, but clearly, the man wasn't their last night, or all the nights since Tony woke up, to calm him down after nightmares and panic attacks. Tony might look unaffected, even aloof with Howard's sudden appearance in his life, but Tony was a master at hiding his feelings.
Howard eyed FRIDAY a moment, before shrugging awkwardly, pressing his hands in his pockets. He was dressed in a suit that didn't really fit him; something SHIELD gave him, and Steve wasn't used to see the man wearing something so common. Back then, Howard had always been perfect in every side; his hair combed back, his shirt neatly pressed, his shoes shining and polished.
In that aspect, he was really different from Tony. His husband didn't care for his appearance: he would wear oil stained tank tops and ripped blue jeans to meetings if no one reminded him to put on a suit. The physical differences were clear too. Howard was taller, pudgier, but really, it wasn't hard, as Tony's body had been so changed by Extremis and years of hard working and combat.
And biased or not, Steve felt Tony was way more beautiful than Howard had ever been, even in his youth. Howard looked cold, uncompromising. Tony looked…rugged, beautiful, inside and outside. He also looked inhuman now, which gave him a mysterious air; the kind of abnormal beauty that had people turn around when they passed him in the streets, and gave them a hard time looking him straight in the eyes.
"Just… to talk," Howard said, and Steve had to blink out of his thoughts.
The soldier pressed his lips together, looking over his shoulder at Tony working on his project. "Now's not the time," he told the man. "Tony's not easy to talk to when in his lab."
Howard looked annoyed. "When then?" he pressed. "Every time I try to talk to him, someone is always here to interrupt."
Steve was about to say something when Tony bumped his shoulder gently and turned on the bench to face Howard. "Okay," he drawled. "Talk then."
Howard sighed in exasperation and ran a hand through his disheveled hair. He looked harassed, sad, angry, out of place.
Out of time, Steve thought.
Like him not so long ago, like Bucky. He didn't know what to make of it.
Howard shook his head. "Maria. Your mother," he started and Steve closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, because really, apart from the Skrull who raised Tony, Maria Stark was one of the other unspeakable subjects in the tower. "How—how was she?"
Tony leaned against Steve in comfort and the soldier wrapped an arm around his waist. "Cold. Distant. Dangerous. Addicted to power. Ambitious. Tyrannical. And she loved y—the other Howard," he answered tersely.
Howard pursed his lips, looking away and sitting down heavily on an opposite bench. "Did she—did she—" he trailed off and Steve guessed that just by his protective embrace on Tony, and Tony's hunched form curled up against him, was enough to answer Howard's question.
She hurt Tony.
"With Bucky back…" Howard's quiet voice said in the calm night, "I'd thought you'd be with him."
Steve waited for the irrational anger. For the guilt to come rear its ugly head back, but it didn't. He kept staring at the night lights of the city, the boat gently rocking under his feet in a gentle sway. He lifted the can of beer to his lips and shifted his eyes to the dark water.
"Howard," he started, slight exasperation in his voice. "I'm married to Tony. And me and Buck weren't meant to last," he said. He didn't know how many times he'd have to remind the man Tony was his husband, and was it for him.
The man drank for his can for a long moment, before turning against the railing of the boat to stare at the city, police car alarm, general night traffic and night time sound suddenly becoming loud in the silence between them.
Steve shifted to sit on the railing. Anyone else would fall in his position, but he'd long accepted that with the Super-Soldier serum running in his blood, he was a bit different from the average human. Extreme balance was a plus in certain situation. "Or is it because it's me?" he continued, and then snorted. "No, actually, I think it's because it's Tony, really. Tony being with me."
Howard didn't answer, and Steve chuckled darkly. "You know, Tony grew up thinking he'd never be as good as me. He grew up compared to me every damn day. And we both know the Skrull couldn't have possibly made it up on his own."
The man cringed, and let his head fall between his arms leaning against the railing of the boat. "After the war…after we lost you, lost Bucky…" he shook his head, "Peggy and I…we knew you had to be alive. It was just so hard," he breathed out forcedly. "We'd won the war, but it didn't feel like victory at all."
Steve gritted his teeth. "Don't put that on me," he hissed. "Don't even try to justify years and years of abuse on your own son!"
Howard backed away angrily, face twisted in anger. "But it wasn't me, goddamnit, Steve. It wasn't me!"
Anything Steve could have answer was interrupted by Tony breaking to the surface, swimming calmly to the deck and hosting himself on the back of the boat. Steve glared at Howard one last time to join his husband and help him out of his diving gear.
Howard slumped down on the deck, sitting with his back against the side of the boat and watched Tony grab a can of beer from the cooler and hand it to Steve who drank it almost in one go.
"A cyborg who goes diving in his spare time. That can't be a good sign. How long have you been doing it? Aren't you afraid of the sea? What if the floaters don't work?" Howard asked. He wasn't purposely antagonizing, but the conversation with Steve left him reeling.
Tony leaned into Steve when he reached for something in his hair and they both smirked when Steve pulled out a small crab. "I supposes I'll sink. Or would you dive in after me? No one forced you to come out here with us," he drawled.
Howard nodded curtly. "I—"
Tony pursed his lips and stood, taking off his diving suit, not caring that he found himself completely naked in front of his father. Howard chocked out and looked away in embarrassment, catching Steve hand Tony a pair of jeans at the corner of his eyes. When Tony had the pants on, Howard turned to watch them; the easy companionship, the conversation just with the eyes, as Steve helped tony into a checkered shirt, clearly too big and belonging to the soldier.
"What's it like?" Howard asked, once Tony was comfortably sitting in the cradle of Steve's legs, back against chest.
Tony leaned his head back against Steve and closed his eyes. "I feel fear and anxiety, isolation and darkness. Sometimes I feel hope…"
Howard lifted an eyebrow and saw Steve wrapped an arm loosely around Tony's waist; not constricting or possessive, just loving. "Hope? In those deep, dark waters?" he grimaced.
Tony shrugged. "When I float back to the surface, I imagine I'm becoming someone else. It's probably the decompression," he said almost as an afterthought.
"Are you even human anymore? Are you drunk or something?" Howard asked in bafflement, dangling his can of beer in front of him.
Tony shook his head. "I can't get drunk anymore," he explained, and gently patted Steve's thigh, including him in the conversation. "The chemicals in our bodies can sober us up in seconds. No stupor, no hangover. That's why he could drink while waiting for orders from SHIELD that one time," he said with a chuckle, and Steve playfully bit his jaw.
The soldier looked up at Howard and pointed his chin to Tony. "He's got an almost instinctive drive to realize any possible technological advances. Controlled metabolisms, computer enhanced brains, improved reflexes and muscle capacity…" he trailed off when Tony butted his head against his sternum.
"C'mon, I already told you; it's human nature to want to fight death. The ability to process vast amounts of information at increasing speeds all due to electronic brains and a cybernetic body, enabling the acquisition of ever greater powers: that's a bonus. It's all there. My body, your body, Steve… Who are we to complain? Our lives are satisfying. We're happy and good as we are, we help people, save people. I feel good in my body," he said pointedly, and Howard knew Tony was speaking to him as much as he was speaking to Steve.
He didn't really know what went down with the Extremis debacle, but he could guess it had a huge influence on their lives and on their relationship.
"So, doesn't it mean you signed your bodies and souls away to SHIELD?" Howard questioned.
Tony shook his head. "We can quit. Extremis is mine. The Super-Soldier serum was Dr. Erskine's. After the war the patent fell to public domain before I bought it. So…technically," he trailed off and Steve chuckled. "I own my husband," he cracked up. "Steve can't be dissociated from the serum, he can't give it back to the government, or all the components that make up him as an individual. There are countless ingredients that make up the human body and mind. A face and voice to distinguish oneself from others, the hand you see when you wake up, your childhood memories and feelings about your future. And that's not all. All of that blends to create a mixture that forms humans, and gives rise to their consciences. At the same time though, it gives the continual feeling of being confined within boundaries…" he mused.
Howard looked at the sky and the stars. "So that's the reason you risk your body diving in the sea? What the Hell can you see at the bottom of darkness?" he muttered.
Tony hummed. "It's like looking through a mirror. And what you see is a dim image."
Steve nuzzled his neck and pressed his lips against his pulse.
Steve could tell Tony was annoyed.
The man was a master to hide his thoughts and emotions, but sometimes, he didn't make the effort and his eyes told Steve everything he needed to know.
And right now, his husband was annoyed, maybe even angry, if only marginally. The TV was on, the Avengers were sitting in the large couch in front of the screen, eating take away Thai, as candidates to the next presidential election were tearing into each other.
Most of them were clearly avoiding anything that remotely touched to the Mutant and Super case. Steve felt better in this century knowing mentality were changing and had greatly changed since the 40s, but fear of the unknown was a recurrent flaw in human nature, and until one of those men or women would take a firm stand on the matter; things were bound to stay stale.
"Bullshit," Clint muttered, chopstick held in midair, as one of the most conservative candidate started his rant on how dangerous and uncontrolled mutants and supers were, and what a risk they represented for society. "Utter bullshit."
Natasha slapped his shoulder. "Language," she snapped, sharing her food with Bruce.
Clint glared at her. "What? And what about them?" he asked indignantly, waving at the screen. "Are you even listening? That Monroe idiot is almost rehearsing the debate on the Mutant and Superhuman Registration Act!"
The redhead woman nodded slowly. "Yes. But we all know that won't pass."
Clint pursed his lips and Steve felt a wave of uneasiness pass along them all, some clearly having doubts about what Natasha just said.
Bucky hummed at his right. "She's right you know, mutants and supers represent, what—30% of the population now? Can you imagine how many electors that represents?"
They all unconsciously turned to Tony to have the number but the man was too engrossed on his tablet, a frown twisting his face. Steve leaned against him, running his hand through Tony's disheveled hair. They really needed to do something about it, it was starting to get ridiculously long, but Steve couldn't deny how attractive he found it. He'd heard Natasha say it made him look like the actor they saw in the new Sherlock Holmes movies.
"The best idea would be to build schools and institutes for mutants and supers," Howard said suddenly, eyes on the TV.
He was sitting straight, legs and arms crossed. Steve never could shake the air around him that made him look so out of place. He really didn't belong here, among them. He looked—old, too different. Even if he was around Tony's age had he not taken Extremis, Howard felt outdated.
Bruce snorted and lifted a derisive eyebrow at Howard. "And further keep us apart from 'normal beings'?" he asked mockingly. "That's apartheid all over again. Painting a target right on the children's forehead."
Steve pressed his lips together and tightened his arm around Tony, nuzzling the top of his head, deep in thoughts. He had had a very ardent opinion on the Register Act, but for the rest, he had no idea what to think.
He saw Natasha grab the remote control and the screen turned to some TV game. The atmosphere remained heavy, but nothing more happened.
Steve threw a glare at Clint drinking from the milk carton and grabbed a glass from the cabinet, giving it to the sheepish archer. Sitting at the table, Howard was quietly observing the exchange before Clint nodded at him. "So…Howard," he trailed off, "what do you plan to do?"
Howard frowned. "Do?" he asked with a raised eyebrow.
Clint shrugged a shoulder and started eating the pancakes Steve had served him. "Yeah, like, do, for a living."
Steve stared at the archer for a moment before throwing Howard a glance above his shoulder. Howard shifted awkwardly. "I—didn't know I was expected to do anything."
Bucky entered with a snort. "Well, living here's not rent free. You gotta do something or another," he told the man, serving himself a tall glass of fresh orange juice.
Howard opened his mouth to answer but nothing came out.
"SHIELD's looking for some new engineers in R&D," Steve informed without turning. "I'm sure Tony can do something about that."
The man frowned at the soldier's back. "I thought Fury was the Director. Does Anthony have so much pull?"
The three men stared at Howard for a moment, and he shifted, before Clint snorted. "Fury's only warming the big boss seat for Tones."
Steve frowned. "Clint," he muttered in admonition.
The archer lifted his hands in the air. "It's true, though," he sniffed.
Howard frowned. "Meaning…what? Tony's getting to head SHIELD when Fury dies?"
Bucky nodded and Steve winced at the blunt question. "Basically, yeah," the former Winter Soldier confirmed.
Howard shook his head. "Why would Tony do that for me?"
Clint hummed. "Well…" he started but Steve cut him sharply with a glare.
"—because Tony doesn't actually want you in his house," Bruce said coldly as he entered the kitchen, followed by Natasha.
Steve sighed, but didn't correct the scientist. "I'll let him know you might be interested.
Howard didn't say anything.
Probably knowing his best interest was to stay quiet.
The three lawyers facing Howard probably made ten grands per months working for Stark Industries and SHIELD as an extra, but they had nothing on actually being intimidating.
Not like the man standing behind them in the corner making them visibly nervous.
Tony was silent, completely still, and his eyes were closed, his arms crossed tightly across his chest, his immaculate black suit, black shirt and black tie nearly making him disappear in the poorly lit room.
One of the lawyer grabbed his suitcase and took several sheet of paper, spreading them on the table in front of them. "Before we start," the older one said laconically, "know that being Mister Stark's…biological father doesn't give you any right or privilege in SI. The company is legally Anthony's and you have no legal pull on it. Do you understand?"
Howard looked up at Tony, before turning to the three men, nodding sharply. He knew he had no right on the company, knew his assets were all legitimately Tony's and that he couldn't pretend to anything concerning money or share or anything related to SI or the Stark heritage.
"Alright," one of the lawyer said, "answer honestly."
Howard nodded and tapped the tip of his fingers on the glass table separating him from the men.
"This is for legal record," the man continued, "False answers put you at risk of perjury. Do you understand?"
Nodding once more, Howard rubbed his forehead, but the lawyer cleared his throat. "I'm sorry, you have to answer 'yes' or 'I do'," he said.
Howard inclined his head. "Oh, yes. I do," he sassed, somewhat sarcastically.
The man didn't even react. "Have you ever attempted to disassemble or reconstruct any product manufactured by Stark Industries?"
Howard opened his mouth before closing it sharply. He didn't know how to answer to that. The lawyer took pity of his hesitation and sighed. "Just say 'no'," he instructed.
Howard gave Tony a look before answering. "No. I have not."
The man nodded, writing something on his pad. "Have you ever attempted to reverse engineer any product or equipment made by Stark Industries?"
Once more, Howard hesitated too long and the lawyer shook his head in the negative. "No. I haven't."
The man wrote something else on the sheet of paper. "Have you ever attempted to reverse engineer any microchips, microcode, or any computer hardware made by Stark Industries?"
Howard answered quickly. "No."
The three men exchanged looks before Tony pushed himself from the wall, walking to the door. "Welcome to SHIELD," he said without turning.
And left the room.
Howard walked into a part of Tony's lab he had never been before. By the time he had spent into the elevator, he guessed they were very deep under the tower, and the parts of the lab he'd just stepped in were dark and cold.
He walked along a very long bleak corridor, metal and grates surrounding him before arriving before a door. By the thickness of it, he knew it was armored against probably even a nuclear attack. He walked through the entry and marveled at the sheer size of the room. Tony's lab tended to be big, clean even, clear and bright with holograms floating everywhere. There generally was a sense of order in it and Howard appreciated the work environment Tony built in his lab.
Here, Howard felt nearly sick. Afraid mostly. The atmosphere was thick and sad. It felt like it had known death and pain. The walls were a dirty dark metal color, rusty in some part because drops were leaking down some walls and parts of the floors was moldy.
Howard felt cold here.
There wasn't life here, only…
He froze when he stepped into the far room. So big and high his steps echoed and bounced against the walls. The middle of the circular room held a big tank with some bluish liquid in it that immediately threw Howard back to the Vault, and GENIE and Aladdin. He almost expected to see a giant mass of brain and cables float in the tank, but no.
He walked around to a bank of computers that looked old and out of date and startled at the sight of Steve sitting in one of the chair, staring listlessly at the tank of water. His face was closed off, cold, hard. Howard recognized the soldier who killed hundreds of German soldiers during WWII, who fought HYDRA, who lost Bucky…
His head was leaning against a fist propped against the arm of the chair and he was barely blinking. He didn't move when Howard turned to look into the tank and recoil in horror at what he saw inside and stumbled backwards until his back hit the row of computers. Howard shook as he fell heavily into the chair next to Steve and watched in fascinated horror as Tony—his son—was being deconstructed and put back together in front of his very eyes.
There wasn't anything even remotely human in his appearance. Not like it'd been when he'd been put into the tank with GENIE. Here, cables were connected to every parts of his body, arms, legs, stomach, spine, and most of all his head. His face wasn't human anymore, there wasn't any skin left on his body. It felt like looking at Tony in the Bleeding Edge armor, but most of the parts and plates constituting the armor were open to show circuits, constructed and robotic nerves and muscles.
It was technologically perfect. Utter Perfection.
And terrifying. It confronted Howard with things he'd never wanted to consider while working with Aladdin; create human bodies and tweak DNA to make creatures and beings. He'd always refused that part, it had been his limit; working on GENIE had already been way too much for him to stand.
What he was seeing in that tank was all his nightmares came true and he didn't know if he could live in this century if it went this far. Tony might be his son, but what did remain of him when he could take himself apart like that? He'd read the press, saw the interviews; the general people knew Tony was some kind of mutant, but clearly they never saw the darkest part of what constituted one of their national heroes. They never stopped to consider what was actually happening underneath Tony's perfect smooth synthetic skin, the gears that were turning, the liquid that was running through his veins that could be blood, but could also be something else.
Did they ever wonder what Tony Stark actually was now that he'd gone to such length? Could he even be categorized as human?
He leaned forward in the chair, pressing a hand to his mouth to stop himself from throwing up, and closed his eyes tightly when Tony's voice started speaking through the speakers. "You feel really disgusted, don't you?"
Howard buried his face in his hands and swallowed deep gulp of air, knowing his son's consciousness was connected to mainframes, workstations and servers and was talking to him not through his body but through a computer.
"I can understand that," the voice continued, the cyborg floating in the water staring at him with empty blue eyes.
A ghost in a shell, Howard thought in revulsion. He chanced a glance at Steve still sitting still in his chair next to him and met his gaze. The man didn't react, didn't say anything to ease Howard and what was happening. He looked used to the situation. He didn't even look disturbed by the sight of his husband being anatomically opened and missing bits like his arm…and his entire face and skin.
It seemed like he didn't even care that under his husband's skin there were only gears and bolts and plates and tubes. "Muscles and blood are mostly human," Steve said after a moment, lips tight. "Bones, skin…it's a human copy now."
Meaning it hadn't always been that way and the doll floating in the tank used to be a human being.
"The doubt that what looks alive is actually alive…" Tony's voice continued, nearly in a whisper, but oh so loud in the big, nearly empty lab. "Contrarily the doubt that things without life might be alive. The reason why dolls are creepy is that dolls are models of human, and it means they are nothing but humans themselves. The fear that humans might merely be the sum of simple clockwork tricks and substances. In other words the fear of the phenomena called 'human' essentially belongs to vanity."
Howard grimaced and felt a shuddered run up and down his spine and turned to look at Steve. "How can you stand it?" he hissed.
"The science that tried to explain the phenomena called 'life' played a role in producing this fear. The belief that nature could be calculated leads to the conclusion that humans can be resolved into simple machinery," Tony continued fatly. "You fear me, because I am perpetual now and throw your mortality into your face."
Steve shifted slightly and changed position, leaning his chin against his other fist, eyes on Howard as if gauging his reactions.
"The human-machinery theory has been revived by the technology of implanting artificial limbs and creating cyborgs like me…Since the time when computers made it possible for me to externalize the memory in order to extend the limits of their functions as a creature. I kept actively machinalizing myself."
Howard stood shakily, leaning heavily against the bank of computers behind him and turned away from the vision inside the tank. "It's—it's horrible," he breathed out. "Are you even human now?"
The voice was quiet a moment before starting again. "It's a sign of the intention to get over the natural selection and try to win the fights of evolutionary theory on their own."
Howard turned briskly and glared at the cyborg body floating in the blue water. "Above all, it's the intention to conquer the nature that made you!" he yelled. "How selfish is it of you to dare even change what you've been born into just to become that—that creature!" He shook his head. "It's all an illusion. Life isn't equipped with hardware. It's complete madness!" He stumbled against a wall and nearly fell to the ground, feeling so weak he could barely stand his own body under the weight of all those revelations. "You're crazy," he mumbled, and turned to glare at Steve. "This is crazy," he said to his once friend. "I don't understand people trying to a put a soul into a doll and imitate a human!"
Steve stood and walked to the tank. Howard didn't know if his pale, closed off face was because he was unaffected of this all or if he was thinking back to the Vault. When Tony had tried to kill him and had been nearly swallowed by GENIE. The soldier put his hand on the glass and the cyborg inside did the same, robotic hand flattened against the glass wall above Steve's.
"Alright, baby?" Steve asked quietly.
Suddenly, all the parts of Tony's cyborg body closed and a heavy arm of machinery plunged into the water to surround his arm. It worked on him for several minutes before gears and suction noises bounced against the walls, and the machine liberated Tony's freshly created arm. Then, every cables disconnected from him and retracted into the floor. The water changed color, from blue to a deep murky green, before becoming white and syrupy like paint.
Despite himself, Howard stepped closer to the tank. "It's recreating skin and hair," Steve explained calmly. "It's some sort of bio-organic fluid that's gonna surround him and create some kind of…chrysalis. Then when he'll be out of the tank it's gonna crack and fall off him. And he'll be as good as new," he said with a small smile.
Howard shuddered at Steve's explanation and watched the process silently. He almost felt like a voyeur, like he shouldn't be witness to such intimate moment, and that what was happening was only a shared secret between two lovers. He knew the team had probably never been to those parts of the tower, and never seen Tony in such a way. The closest they'd come was in the Vault, but even then, they couldn't have possibly guessed that what happened was similar to the way Tony repaired and maintained his cybernetic body.
Steve walked to the computer and taped a sequence of number on the keyboard. "In twelve seconds, you'll be in contact with the picket radius sensor," he said. "It'll run the virtual signal on the live."
Howard watched as another heavy noise of machinery started from under them, and the ground started to vibrate. The white liquid started to descend down a drain at the bottom of the tank, a body started to emerge from it, covered in white substance.
The body remained still for several minutes, Steve walking calmly next to him and they both waited as the white slowly started to crack before completely disintegrate to reveal smooth new skin underneath. The head and face was last, and a shock of dark hair appeared as the white fell to reveal Tony's head.
Tony looking human again.
Howard felt his heart stop, because as disgusted as he was with it all, with what his son was now, it almost felt like watching him being born again. Because Tony like that in front of him could only be described as a rebirth; the man had completely remade himself in so many ways possible.
Howard looked at Steve, then back at Tony and looked down. He knew why Steve had insisted he come see this, be there. Howard wasn't stupid, far from it, Tony would have never wanted anyone being there, seeing him like that apart from his husband. But Steve had wanted Howard to see, to witness, to understand.
He didn't know if he could.
Or wanted to.
"Internalizing synchronization," JARVIS said suddenly, and Steve walked to one of the screen, glancing at it as if he understanding the thousands of code lines running down the screen. Knowing him, he'd probably asked Tony to explain and teach him anything about the whole process.
Steve nodded once. "Good. J, how is he?" he asked calmly.
JARVIS answered immediately. "Searching the terminal with memory activity matching the size of the virus. Searching for incubating virii at the same time. Performing system reboot." There was a pause. "System reboot completed. Security two level initialized. Setting up detour into the invader. Rebuilding the firewall. Loading antivirus definitions."
Steve pinched his lips and gnawed on his thumb. "How is it?"
JARVIS answered swiftly. "Virus scan in progress. Tracing. Equip decoys. Incubating virus pattern found in the firewall. They have all become active the last few months. Firewall 032 has been breached, error number 005 occurred. Quarantining infected areas. Surrounding firewall. Rebuilding at level one. Enemy attacking firewall. Movement pattern identified. Starting virus transfer into outside server."
Steve watched the screen in tense silence before the computers bipped. "Operation completed," JARVIS informed. "Updates and recalibrations ran perfectly. There is no trace of the virus left. Sir, has become fully operational again."
Steve smiled in relief and turned back to the tank for Howard to realize it had disappeared into the ground, just to leave Tony lying naked on a metal table. Steve walked to him and pressed a gentle hand to his forehead. "GENIE left a few more behind than we expected," he started to explain. "We thought Doctor Woo got everything, but…" he stopped and smiled down at Tony, "Tony started detecting strange things happening. There was irregular input in his processing system. We presumed it was some kind of pattern that could be attributed to an incubating virus GENIE would have left. The only thing he could do to completely erase it was to transfer himself—his consciousness—into a new body. He'd been working on it for months now, years actually. Even before GENIE happened. In the eventuality of his body and brain being corrupted."
Steve paused and ran his fingers on Tony's face; tracing the new but same traits of his face. "Before, his body was still somewhat human," he continued. "This time, he's entirely cybernetic, except for his ghost."
Howard shrugged. "But the ghost isn't organic, or tangible. It's only speculation. What tells you now that what you have isn't a super computer in the shape of a man? That what you think is Tony isn't some lines of data and codes transferred from his brain and copying him?"
Steve chuckled, and to Howard surprised, there was mirth here, not dark, twisted, bitter laughter. "Oh Howard, you've always been so logical about everything. You've never let yourself be led by your heart…always preferring to follow your brain." He turned his head quickly to watch Howard a second before turning back to Tony. His hands were now smoothing Tony's wet hair. "I know what we did. We didn't do it on a whim. But we knew that if we didn't do anything, then I'd be left with nothing but GENIE controlling my husband's body." He paused and threw Howard a gaze so powerful, the genius staggered slightly. "And believe me Howard, no one on this planet would ever be able to stop an out of control Tony."
Howard pinched his lips and rubbed his forehead. "I don't understand. If he's so dangerous, why go through the process in the first place?! I know he used to be human before Extremis. I read on it. I know what the formula did to him. I just don't understand why he did it!"
Steve slowly took Tony's face in his hand and caressed the underside of his eyes with his thumb. "And that Howard," he said lowly, "is why Tony will always be a better man than you'll ever hope to be."
And Tony's eyes opened.
Steve winced when Bruce banged the cupboard a bit too hard and added a bit too much paprika to his chicken. "Do you need the Hulk chamber?" he asked, trying to lighten the mood.
Bruce turned to glare at him and pointed the sharp kitchen knife he was holding at Steve's face. "You stupid asshole," he swore, and Steve blinked in surprise because it wasn't often for the man to completely lose his usual calm countenance and actually swear. "It's like you going alone after Bucky all over again," he hissed and turned back swiftly because his skin started shifting and turn green. It was as if the vision of Steve was the cause of the Hulk to want to break free. "Goddamnit!" he yelled and slammed his fists into the kitchen counter, pulverizing it in anger.
Steve stood and stepped back, face unreadable. "I'm tired of you people always accusing me of something!" he answered, not afraid of the Hulk if he made an appearance. He'd stopped being afraid of the great beast a while ago now.
Bruce turned. "Oh yes?" he asked venomously, "then start thinking with your fucking brain instead of your dick for once!"
Steve froze, face unreadable before gritting his teeth and launching himself at Bruce. He hit him square in the jaw, sending him reeling before the scientist regained his bearing and attacked back, punching Steve in the gut and throwing him through the kitchen wall.
Steve fell down the ground with a grunt, crouching slightly at the punch and the debris of the wall around him before standing and readying himself to throw himself at Bruce. He was about to jump the man when he felt a pair of arms wrap around his waist and push him backward toward the living room. He yelled and tried to free himself from Bucky's hold, seeing Bruce being held back by Clint and Natasha trying to calm him down, when he suddenly snapped out of it and slumped into his friend's arms.
He sighed and gently patted Bucky on the arm, telling him he wasn't a threat anymore and could be freed. "What the hell, man," Bucky muttered as he let him go, but pushed him to the couch.
Tony was curled up in one of the love seats, watching the scene anxiously, his bright blue eyes wide and huge. Steve rubbed his face and sighed, raking his fingers through his hairs. "I'm okay," he breathed out, "I just lost my temper." He reached a desperate hand toward Tony and looked at him with an agonized face. "I'm sorry, baby," he pleaded. "I didn't mean to scare you."
Tony quickly stood and grabbed his hand, coiling himself around Steve tightly, tucking his face into his neck. "You can't fight because of me," he whispered desperately. "Not again," he begged. "Please, not again," he sobbed.
Steve tightened his arms around him and buried his face into Tony's hair, breathing in the familiar smell of lemon and oil. He felt guilt twist his gut painfully at the sound of Tony's sobs and pleading. He's sworn he'd try to never be the cause for Tony's pain again. But all he did was hurt him in some ways it seemed.
Tony suddenly pushed against Steve's chest angrily and stalked to the kitchen in a right fury, face drench with tears and eyes flashing dangerously. Steve could see the nanobots shimmer under his skin and he didn't even have time to run to the kitchen before Natasha and Clint's cries of warnings were quickly followed by the sound of the repulsors and the roar of the Hulk.
The kitchen exploded, Natasha and Clint barely had time to run out aided by Bucky, before the Hulk was thrown into the living room, the black mass of Tony's armored-self slamming into him painfully. The Hulk snarled in rage, grabbed Tony by the leg and smashed his fist into his head. The helmet clang noisily but held while Tony brought a shining repulsor to the beast's head and fired, followed by a quick succession of punches. He was thrown again, taking half of the wall's partition in the living room before standing and arming several missiles on his shoulders and arms, repulsors ready to shoot again, and the Hulk ready to kill.
"TONY!" Steve yelled. "BRUCE!" Natasha howled at the same time, the two of them positioning themselves between the two warriors to prevent either of them from attacking. The Hulk growled down at Natasha baring his teeth but she held her ground and glared up at him, while Steve lifted his hands at Tony, showing he meant no harm. "Hey, baby. I'm okay," he smiled gently. "I know what you were trying to do. But I'm okay."
The black armor didn't move, still ready to fire and hurt as much as possible. Steve had always been divided about the Bleeding Edge armor. He wasn't shy to say he'd largely preferred the red and gold armor. It had more flair, more Tony into it. The black one looked mean, and he knew journalists and experts had long rightly speculated about the color of the armor and drawn the conclusion that it had been changed to black and was testament of a new Tony; right after he'd gotten back with the Avengers. It reflected a more serious, more powerful, more jaded Tony. After Steve, after Rhodey, after Harry.
Steve smiled again and felt movement behind him. Bruce had transformed back and was holding his face in his hands. "God," he breathed out, looking at Steve then Tony. "Steve I'm so sorry," he said, "Tony."
Tony shifted slightly, repulsors still bright, but missiles gone now. "Say it again," he hissed, the mechanical voice inside the helmet taking on an almost sibilant tinge.
Bruce's face crumbled. "I'm sorry!"
Steve stepped closer and placed his hands flat against the repulsors, ignoring the slight burn. "Say it again," Tony yelled raising his hands slightly to dislodge Steve's, "LOUDER!"
Bruce took a step toward him. "I'M SORRY, TONY!" he roared, not unlike the Hulk.
Steve glanced quickly above his shoulder before turning back to Tony, face resolute. "Alright now," he said seriously, using his commanding voice, "Tony, take off the suit. Now."
Tony didn't, of course, he'd never do what was asked of him at the first try, and Steve was about to repeat himself when he felt Bucky's hand on his shoulder, calm and supporting. "Hey, Shellhead, it's okay. This punk needs more than a few shoves to go down, right Steve?"
Steve nodded firmly. "Tony." Asking now. Softly.
The black helmet shifted slightly to look at Steve before the repulsors disabled as Tony lowered his arms. The shift of the armor was slow, probably because Tony wanted them to know he was still reluctant, and Steve watched with a small found smile as the nanobots did their work and the armor bled back into Tony's body. He stepped closer and pressed his cheek against Tony's gently rubbing them together and relishing as Tony went on his tiptoes to kiss him.
They separated and Steve put himself slightly between Tony and Bruce, but at the sight of the man's guilty face; eyes too wide and cheeks pale, Steve could feel his annoyance and anger fade away quickly.
When no one seemed ready to start talking, Clint cleared his throat. "Alright. Let's talk about what just happened," he said, gesturing at the destroying kitchen and half of the living room. "Calmly."
The all walked to the long dinner table and sat. Tony quickly sat himself on Steve's laps, Bucky next to them, while Clint, Natasha and Bruce sat facing them. "Okay," Clint sighed, "what just happened?"
Bruce shifted, glasses twisted between slightly trembling hands. "It's my fault. I lost my temper. I'm sorry."
Bucky snorted but stopped quickly at Steve's glare. "I'm sorry too. I also lost mine," Steve confessed. Everyone's eyes turned to Tony, waiting for him to apologize too, but the man didn't even blink. Steve sighed and licked his lips. "I know we should have talked about what we did," he continued, "it was too important not to tell the team. And…I'm sorry for not telling you."
Natasha frowned. "But not for doing it?"
Steve shook his head. "No. We had to. Tony's body was starting to get more and more compromised and we didn't want to wait. The new body was ready, and the tech was foolproof."
Bruce's face twisted. "Foolproof," he muttered and looked up at Tony. "Couldn't you ask for help? Let me know so you could have a second pair of eyes on your data? Just to be—to be sure?"
Tony narrowed his eyes at him and leaned over the table. "I didn't need you. I had JARVIS, and FRIDAY and my own god damn brain."
Steve tightened his arm around Tony's waist before turning to Bruce. "It wasn't really like that. Tony's been on this project for years now, and even without GENIE, he would have—"
Bruce snorted. "Yeah, he would have done it anyway. Doesn't it sound familiar?" he asked bitterly.
The super soldier pressed his face between Tony's shoulder blades and stayed mute, vision of Tony sitting on the floor of his lab, rivulets of blood trickling down his arms and small pinpricks piercing his skin where his husband injected himself with Extremis without telling anyone and without being sure of surviving.
"'t's different this time," Steve finally said, looking at Bruce around Tony. "This time there weren't any—"
Bruce pushed back and stood, his chair screeching loudly on the floor. "Any risks? Goddamnit, Steve, how can you be so fucking naïve? Of course there were risks! It wasn't just fiddling with his Graft, it was transferring his consciousness to a brand new body! It could have killed him. It could have made Tony completely disappear! It could have erased him!"
Steve froze but Tony was quick to stand, meeting Bruce's enraged glare with his own furious one. "Shut the fuck up!" he ordered. "Steve isn't naïve and he isn't stupid, you damn twit. He knows what we did. He knows what would have happened if it hadn't work. But we decided together, as husbands, to do it. And anyway it would have been worse if we hadn't done anything. The body was failing again, GENIE helped accelerate the decay and the fossil organs started rotting, even my brain," he said, tapping the side of his head and the sound was metallic. "We did it together," he repeated.
Bruce opened his mouth but closed it when Natasha touched his hand. "We understand," she said with a nod.
Bruce looked ready to protest but finally slumped back into the chair, closing his eyes. "I just—I wish—" he trailed off and shook his head.
Steve heard Tony sigh slightly before he leaned over the table to pat Bruce's hand gently. "I understand," he finally said, smiling awkwardly. "But Bruce, really, it's been a long time now. I'm not mad at any of you anymore."
They all pondered on his words for a while before Bruce sighed. "So…if you weren't mad at me. Why didn't you just tell me?"
Tony pursed his lips and linked his fingers with Steve, leaning against his chest. "We needed to do it together," he said for the third time. "As husbands. Not as Avengers, not as teammates. Just as lovers."
Steve hugged him from behind and closed his eyes.
He wished life wasn't always so hard. Wasn't so corrupted by pain and tears and blood and gears and oil.
Sometimes he just wished they were normal.
The silence was heavy as they got lost in their minds. Naturally, it didn't last as Clint looked up at Tony with a strange grin. "So...you make yourself a brand new body but you don't have the presence of mind to make it taller?"
The burst of laughter taking over the entire team was very welcome.
"Who's Harry King?" Howard asked one morning, fingers hovering above the tablet he seemed to never let go.
Steve looked up from his gun he was cleaning on the kitchen table and narrowed his eyes at the pictures he could see upside down on the tablet. "He used to be Tony's fiancé," he answered defensively.
He couldn't remember exactly when he'd started feeling protective of Harry King. Not long after he had died, he gathered. Because as hard as it had been for him to accept, he owned Harry King everything, because he had kept Tony sane, he had kept Tony happy, and hell, he had kept Tony alive period. He had saved him. So, in his world, Steve owed the man his life, because Tony was everything for him. And in Steve's book, the least he could do now was defend the man when he came up in a conversation that was sure to turn ugly.
Howard wasn't antagonizing him on purpose, he didn't think so, but he wasn't making any effort to sound even remotely nice regarding anything related to his son or get close to him. It should have been a gift. Tony getting his father back. But as time passed, Steve could see where he'd been wrong in assuming.
Howard frowned, and for a moment he looked so much like Tony that Steve had to do a double take. Howard was around fifty five; Tony's real age if he hadn't taken Extremis. It was useful, Steve thought, to have someone he could compare his husband's physical appearance to. The cybernetic body Tony built looked about thirty years old, so it was good to be able to keep track of Tony's physical age. Not that he'd ever say it to Tony's face, because even Extremis and everything he went through hadn't been enough to totally wipe out some of Tony's bigger personality traits and his vanity had always been a bit on the exaggerated side, especially when it came to his face.
Steve knew Tony had been scared of the age difference between them that had started to get more and more noticeable along their years of marriage. He had been scared of Steve still looking in his thirties and him going down the wrong side of forty. Now thought, Steve didn't know if it was intentional or not, but the cybernetic body looked younger than him. Tony had probably done it purpose; it was typical Tony, get over his fear of getting old while Steve stayed young, and definitely knocking that fear away by making an entire body that was bound to never alter. Steve wouldn't have him any other way.
"I thought you and Tony had been married for more than ten years now."
Steve pursed his lips and shrugged slightly, eyes trained of his gun. "We are. There's just been—" he paused, frowning and looking for the right words, "there's just been some rough patches down the road."
Howard hummed pensively. "Well…Stark men have never been easy to deal with."
Steve looked up sharply and glared. "And why would you just assume Tony was at fault here?" he hissed, ignoring Howard's startled face.
Howard shrugged. "I know by my own experience, and Tony has always been a difficult child."
Steve felt such anger rise in him that for a moment his vision flashed and he nearly wasn't able to breath. "You conceited ungrateful asshole," he growled, standing slowly and leaned over Howard, crowding him like he knew his incredible stature could do on smaller people, "you never knew Tony. You only knew him for a year. He was just a baby. Babies are difficult, they're not born docile and up to the crazy expectation you set before they were even born."
Howard pressed his lips together. "I know my son."
Steve snorted and shook his head. "You're deluded. You don't know Tony. At all. I've known him by heart for far longer than you knew him." He chuckled darkly. "Hell, you finally got the chance to learn about him, to get to know him, but you never did anything. You never talk to him. You talk about him, you criticize him and what he did with SI, but you never talk to him. You're fucking scared of him and what he is."
Howard stood and pointed an accusing finger at Steve's chest. "And what is he?" he snapped in return. "He's not human, and you're deluding yourself in believing he is. Even if he still had a flesh body, he's just a—a—"
Steve pointed his chin sharply in Howard's direction. "A mutant. Fucking say it!" he yelled. "Open your eyes, no one is human in this tower, Howard," he said with a wave of his arm, "look around you. You fan over Natasha because she's a pretty face you'd like to bag, but do you really think she hasn't got any mutant gene in her for her to do the things she does in the field? And what about Bucky, uh? You drink beer and exchange buddy war stories, but the man is eighty years old and looking like he hasn't aged since the war! And what about me?!" he asked, slapping a hand on his chest, "are proposedly forgetting what you and Erskine did to me? I'm not human either!"
Howard looked away and rubbed his forehead. "I wasn't meant to be a father," he muttered.
Steve narrowed his eyes. "What," he said flatly, and he wasn't sure it was a question.
Howard looked up and grimaced, waving his hands loosely. "Tony wasn't supposed to be born. I wasn't supposed to be a father. Maria and I were supposed to do our things our separate way. We couldn't divorce, the scandal would have been too big, but we weren't supposed to have a child. I think she…she did it on purpose. To make sure I wouldn't change my mind about the divorce."
Steve was leaning against the table heavily, shaking his head in disbelief and disgust. "I can't believe it." He opened his mouth to say more but he was interrupted.
The soldier turned around so swiftly he felt a few nerves creak in his neck but blinked at Tony and felt himself pale. "Tones, baby—"
But Tony was shaking his head. "Stop," he ordered calmly, "stop it. Come," he said, right hand outstretched in his direction. "Come," he repeated in a whisper.
Steve took his hand and let himself be led to their bedroom. He let Tony push him on the bed, take his shoes, socks, and pants of, then his shirt until he was only in his boxers. He watched Tony do the same, then push him on the bed until they were both lying in the middle, Tony's entire body completely covering his, hands buried in his hair and face tucked in his neck, skin against skin. Steve wrapped Tony tightly in his arms, inhaling his unique fragrance, before closing his eyes and just relishing the quiet.
The moment was perfect but unfortunately his thoughts slide toward the scene that just happened in the kitchen and he felt himself tense. "Stop it," Tony said, voice muffled in his neck. Steve shivering at the feeling of those lips on the thin skin of his throat, and only tightened his arms around his husband. "Us, Steve," Tony continued, "just us."
Steve sniffed and nodded shakily, hands trembling up and down Tony's spine. "Yeah," he breathed out. "Just us. Yeah." He sobbed suddenly and moaned. "I'm so sorry," he whispered wetly. "I just wanted—I just wanted you to have your dad back. I don't get it! Why aren't you mad?"
Tony sighed. "Because, once again, I'm not even right to hate him…because he never did anything to me." Tony leaned back and they both moved to the headboard, Steve curled up around Tony's body, gently hand caressing his face and hair. "It's okay," the smaller man whispered, peppering his face with small kisses. "I don't need him."
Steve sobbed again and buried his face in Tony's chest. "I know…but I just wanted you to have him. It was so perfect, it was a gift!"
Tony hummed calmly and rubbed their cheeks together. "Some things aren't meant to be."
Like me, was unsaid and Steve sobbed harder and harder until he couldn't even breathe properly, but Tony still held him, murmuring small loving words to his ears and Steve cried himself to sleep, feeling loved and secure and peaceful.
Tony was sitting crossed legged in the middle of his lab, the remnants of one of the robots they'd just been fighting scattered everywhere. He didn't react when he felt someone walk in the workshop and sit silently next to him.
"Hot damn, we've only been back an hour. That's one mess you made," Bucky chuckled.
Tony hummed, staring at a small circuit board, sending a few nanobots to examine it. Bucky grabbed a piece of the robot and twirled it in his hands. He didn't feel awkward sitting in the quiet lab, watching Tony work.
They'd formed a satisfying friendship, and to Bucky's surprise, they quickly became best friends. It wasn't like with Steve, who was more like a brother now that any romantic feelings had died down.
Most of the time, Tony was a lot easier to talk to than Steve. The genius had no expectation concerning Bucky; no memories of before, of the 40s. He didn't look at Bucky, waiting for him to react like the Bucky Barnes of back then would have and how Steve sometimes expected him to react.
Tony was strange in that way. He sometimes acted rash, cold and quietly violent, but other times, he was open, caring and so understanding of Bucky and his past as the Winter Soldier that Bucky could only cherish their relationship.
It had started in pain and tears, and at first, Bucky shamefully relished in the pain he had inflected on the man. He had just found Steve, thought they could get back together…but really, it hadn't been long before Steve set him right and made him understand their wasn't any future for the both of them.
He blinked out of his thought when he felt the tip of Tony's fingers touch his arm and blinked when thousands of tiny little ant-like creatures started running up and down his Graft. "What are you doing?" he asked with a small smile, still mystified by the nanobots and always baffled by the sheer genius of Tony.
Tony wiggled his fingers and the nanobots retracted back to his hands before completely disappearing under his skin. "Nothing, just checking the arm. How is it?" he asked.
Bucky made a fist and rotated his wrist. "Perfect, as usual," he said with a smile.
Tony grinned at him and pointed his chin at his shoulder. "How's the pain?"
Bucky chuckled. "There's no pain in the shoulder," he said. "Some small tingling in the tip of my fingers some days, but it's usually after a fight."
Tony nodded. "Yeah, Grafts aren't supposed to stand that much pressure and force, repeatedly. But I made a new one. It's stronger and more flexible. I should be able to put it on you in a few days."
Bucky chuckled and watched Tony go back to the piece of the robot. After several long moment of silence, he saw Tony's face darken and gently bumped his shoulder with his. "Hey, what's on your mind?"
Tony frowned at the circuit board. "Those robots. Did we seem similar to you?"
Bucky scoffed and shook his head. "Of course not. You didn't look alike at all."
Tony looked up at him, blue eyes glinting in the light of the workshop. "No, James. I don't mean physically."
Bucky shrugged. "Just what then?" he asked gently, noting in passing that Tony never called him Bucky and always James.
Tony sighed. "I dunno," he muttered. "I'm just—"
Bucky shook his head. "I don't know what to tell you. Since I came back from the programming, nothing can surprise me anymore. This century…" he laughed a bit ruefully. "It's crazy like that. And maybe we're all a little bit crazy too."
Tony pursed his lips and stayed mute. Bucky looked at him with a grimace and rubbed his forehead. "Have you talked about that with Steve?"
Tony shrugged and shook his head. Bucky sighed and reached a hand to touch Tony's shoulder. "Steve was there when you transferred your ghost into this body. JARVIS and FRIDAY too, they wouldn't have made any mistakes. You gotta trust the people around you. Your body might be cybernetic now, but not your consciousness."
The genius let out a shaky breath before turning his body in Bucky's direction and gently bumping his forehead against the soldier's chest. "Thanks…" he whispered, "I just don't want to worry Steve. He's been through a lot recently. I put him through a lot. He doesn't need to hear me doubt my own existence on top of everything."
Bucky grabbed the back of Tony's neck and gently squeezed. "Anytime," he said gently, "you know you can talk to me. I know you helped me a lot with the whole Winter Soldier thing…you know you can trust me."
Tony nodded and stayed put a few more seconds before straightening and turning his attention back to the robot's corpse. "I know. Thank you."
A lot happened.
Steve couldn't say his life had been calm and peaceful since waking up. Sometimes he even got brief flashes of impressions of being in the ice; it used to be tranquil, slow and quiet.
Now his life was loud, quick and always in movement. He guessed it came with marrying an actual genius who couldn't stay still for two minutes even when asleep. He wouldn't change his life for anything in the world, not Peggy, not the 40s, not even the Bucky Barnes of before the Winter Soldier.
It probably was selfish and self-centered, but if Steve learnt something in this century, it was to grasp whatever you could and keep it as close to your heart as possible. And Tony was those things. He meant everything to Steve, and no quiet, no silence, nothing could change the pure and clear adoration and love he felt for the man.
They'd gone through too much now. They went too far for Steve to let go. He'd fought too hard and he'd burn the world if Tony asked it of him.
So, he was content, happy. So damn happy he sometimes felt his heart about to burst.
He blinked out of his thoughts at the bottle of beer dangling in front of his eyes and caught it with a grin up at Bucky. He watched his friend sit next to him on the balcony chair, the view of New York in the sunset breathtaking in its beauty, and swallowed a long gulp of beer.
"Had to smuggle it in," Bucky said with a snort, "can't get a single drop of alcohol in this tower without JARVIS or FRIDAY kicking a fuss."
Steve nodded slowly. "They're protective of Tony," he said with a fond smile. "And they don't really understand what he did. They don't differentiate him from the Tony of before."
Bucky pursed his lips. "You mean they don't know Tony's a cyborg now?"
Steve shook his head. "They know. But as amazing as they are, they're still only programs, Buck, they only know what makes a human hypothetically."
Bucky groaned and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his cool bottle of beer against his forehead. "Oh god, you're starting to sound like Tony."
Steve chuckled. "Yeah, well, his madness is catching."
They laughed and Bucky turned to look at him. "Can you believe it? Can you believe us, here today? Talking about your cyborg husband as if it is totally normal?"
Steve looked uncomfortable for a moment as he turned to Bucky. "Is it how you see him, now? Do you only see the body rather than the brain and what really makes Tony what he is?"
Bucky snorted a laugh. "Nah, I love the guy. He's great. And he makes you happy. In my book, that's pretty much perfection."
He threw him a luscious stare and Steve choked on his drink. "Are you saying my husband's perfect?"
Bucky laughed. "Well, he sure as hell is sweet on the eye, and you know, if he wasn't your husband—" he started laughing crazily as Steve, mortified, slapped a hand on Bucky's mouth to shut him up.
"Stop right there," he ordered. "Please, I have enough of Tony's ex-lovers sniffing around, I don't need to punch my best friend."
Bucky looked affronted. "You'd punch me?"
Steve lifted an eyebrow at him and finished his beer, wedding ring clicking against the glass of his bottle. "Hey, I'm taking Tony to the range later. Wanna come with us? We bet a pretty neat sum."
The dark haired man stared at him. "You mean, he thinks he's a better shot than you?" he deadpanned. "And why would you bet money against a billionaire?"
Steve looked at him as if he was stupid. It felt like the glare he gave Bucky in the first days he came to live in the tower and insulted Tony's ability to fight. "The man was a weapon dealer and manufacturer for more than twenty years. Do you really think he doesn't know how to shoot a gun?"
Bucky opened his mouth to reply but snapped it shut.
He hadn't thought of that.
And from Steve's mocking grin, the punk knew it.
Steve smiled up from his tablet when Tony entered the bedroom and watched him undress before disappearing into the bathroom. He let the door open as he showered and came back flushed and smelling of soap.
Tony slide into a pair of black running shorts before crawling into bed next to Steve who immediately abandoned his tablet to run a hand down Tony's smooth back and chest, stopping at the blue light of the reactor. "It's amazing," he whispered in awe.
Tony blinked at the ceiling before his eyes shifted slightly to stare at the soldier. "What?"
Steve ran the tip of his finger along Tony's collarbone gently. "Your skin. It's synthetic, but it got flushed with hot water."
Tony shrugged slightly. "Yeah, Bruce did some breakthrough discoveries with the components I was using. He tinkered with them a bit and got something much more realistic. We got it patented and the new grafts are going to get it from now on."
Steve snorted. "The wonder twins strike again. Pretty soon, you're gonna find the cure to cancer," he joked.
Tony wriggled around until he was tucked against Steve's side, face hidden in his neck. "Give me twenty years, and that'll be true."
Steve breathed out a laughed and kissed Tony deeply, adoringly. He had no doubt of that being true. And the warm, fuzzy feeling he felt at the thought of having twenty years, and then hundreds of years more with the man in his arms was enough to make his head swirl with happiness.
They kissed for long minutes, slow and passionate, hands roaming on smooth, warm skin. They laughed and talked through the night until the first lights of the morning where Steve blinked sleepily, exhaustingly at the grey scale of color coming from the bay window with Tony's naked body satiated in the protective circle of his arms.
Tony's body was off. Like he was sleeping. Extremis had taken away the need, but the cybernetic body still needed upgrades and downtime. It felt good to feel Tony breathing against his side, his heart beat slowly, his lungs expand, his eyes shifting. It was so realistic Steve didn't even care the body of his husband wasn't human anymore.
Tony still felt pain, the cybernetic sent pain signals to the remnant of the brain still residing into Tony's skull, and for Steve whatever creature felt pain; then it was real. Tangible.
Tony may not have a human body anymore, but that didn't matter.
Humans weren't bodies.
They were a lot more.
The day Clint got his leg shattered in four places in a fight, signed the end of his days as an active Avenger.
He woke with the whole team standing around his bed, worried but happy smiles breaking on their faces as he blinked and tried to make out what happened though the haze of painkillers. "Whu ha'ned?" he slurred.
He heard Tony snort on his right, but felt too tired to turn his head. "Eloquent as always, of course," the genius muttered.
Clint smiled when he heard a metallic clang, and knew Natasha had just slapped Tony on the back of the head.
He knew he wouldn't be able to go out to fight with them anymore, but it was okay.
They were a family.
They'll get through it.
After that, things started to change.
Steve sometimes felt like it went too fast, but in reality, he knew it had taken years.
Being virtually immortal and not aging made time go fast, and ten years seemed like only a year had passed.
People grow old, people change, but the most important one in Steve's life didn't, at least, not so fast.
Bucky had some bastardized super-soldier serum running in his veins and didn't age. It wasn't as pronounced as Steve; the former Winter Soldier did actually age, but it would take centuries for him to die of old age if he wasn't killed during a fight.
Bruce and the Hulk couldn't die period.
Thor was an immortal god.
Natasha had some strange modified DNA, no one knew what had been done to her, even her. She was a bit like Bucky in that aspect. She would die of old age too, but not before a long time.
Tony. Well, Tony was in his own category. He was permanent.
Life went on.
Pepper got pregnant; Tony grimaced at the wrinkled, screaming baby in the hospital cot, not seeing the appeal.
Clint never really got mobility in his leg back and started training recruits at SHIELD, and later on, the new Avengers at the academy Tony built.
Bruce and Natasha decided to take a well-deserved retirement the day Clint celebrated his sixtieth birthday. The day after the party, they embarked one of Tony's jet to France, and went on a world trip from here. They send postcards, letters and they regularly chatted on Skype.
Thor married Jane, pleaded his father and got her Asgardian status, making her a goddess. Clint joked it was the Avengers' trademark; make people they loved immortal, like Tony did for Steve.
Time seemed the key to their lives now. Steve had always felt scared of it since waking from the ice, then the day he married Tony. As he slipped the ring on his finger, he'd felt happy, content, but also terrified, because he knew Tony would die one day.
Then, his wonderful, genius and resourceful husband had literally shattered everything that was science and made himself immortal, thus offering them eternity.
Tony and Steve became directors of SHIELD after Fury died. They become legends. Captain America and Iron Man; every new mutant or super who joined the Academy looked up at them with awe and even fear.
Life felt finally tranquil.
Not fighting so much made Steve realized how precious what they built was. He felt, for the first time in decades, like every little cog of his life had finally aligned themselves.
He felt powerful in a sense no muscle or super-soldier serum or gun in his hand could make him feel.
He felt proud and confident. Empowered by the shine of the wonderful people surrounding him, basking into Tony's solar presence.
He felt like the happiest man in the universe.
Through the years, Tony being a cyborg never got out. It remained one of the best kept secret of SHIELD in the way only Tony, Steve and the original Avengers knew.
Media and general public continued thinking of Tony as he's always been. A mutant now (which, even now years later, still tried to ignore), but still somewhat human.
When it happened, Steve couldn't have imagined how Tony's body not being human now could have gone well. And later, when technology become so entwined with people lives; they preferred to keep it low key and secret. It wouldn't do any good for their enemies to learn about it.
Humanity wasn't ready to be immortal, and probably never will. It was too dangerous. The only good thing that had really been able to stop evil forces was time; making people incapable of dying was a risk no one was ready to take.
In the year 2060, Stark Industry was so powerful and big, 79% of the world population worked for the company; either directly or as subcontractor. In any case, everyone owned at least one piece of tech built by SI.
Tony was so rich, his fortune was estimated to represent a third of the western world PIB. The numbers were so staggering, most days, Steve didn't want to think about them.
Even if they spent a million each day for ten years, it wouldn't even start to put a dent in the money they owned.
Thinking back, Steve felt himself very far from the small, sickly teen he'd been during the Depression, and never would have imagined himself being one of the richest man on the planet, married to the richest man on the planet.
"Earth to Uncle Steve," a voice startled him out of his thought.
Steve blinked and swatted Edward's hand out of his face as Pepper Pott's son grinned cheekily at him.
"What are you doing here, brat?" he asked, "I thought you were in Japan or something."
The forty year old man rolled his eyes, looking so much like Pepper when witness to one of Tony's antics, that Steve laughed quietly, just as the boy answered. "It was Italy," he answered, "really, it's a wonder how someone with so little attention to details can lead an organization like SHIELD. Do you also forget where you send your agents on mission? Is old age catching with you?"
Steve shut him up with a slight shove and smiled in satisfaction at his quack of surprise. He smirked as Edward's straightened himself, righting his suit with a sniff. "I don't know why I put up with you," he muttered, grabbing his suitcase and taking out a brand new Starkpad. "I need you to sign several forms. The board is breathing down my neck because for some unfathomable reason, dear old mother forgot to make you sign those years ago."
Steve hummed and grabbed the pad, quickly reading through the document before apposing his index finger on the screen for a scan. The pad biped, signaling it had accepted Steve's identification, and handed back the tablet.
"Your mother did the best she could, you know that," he said with a reproachful frown.
Edward grimaced and sat in the chair facing Steve's desk. "I know," he sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. It was strange, Steve thought, to see him looking so much like Pepper, looking forty when Steve still looked the same as when he got out of the ice.
When Edward used to be the small boy who trailed off behind Tony like a lost puppy, holding his hand, looking proud to build things with his favorite uncle. Playing football with Steve and Bucky, going to baseball match with some of the students in the Academy.
Losing Pepper had been hard. Tony had cried. And cried and cried. Closing himself off for days, before seemingly remembering the small boy she left behind. Edward had been raised by his father; a good man working for the SI Florida branch.
A few years back, Clint died in his bed surrounded by friends and family. It had been a hard time that had left them all reeling and unsettled for several months, but life had went on.
Thor stayed in Asgard, taking care of his kingdom, his wife and seven children. They came sometimes to visit.
Natasha and Bruce kept travelling; they built orphanages, hospitals. They helped a lot of people in the world. They stayed heroes, even if it wasn't by fighting like they used to. But they still fought for the good reasons.
Bucky trained the recruits at the academy and SHIELD. He basically took on what Clint hadn't been able to continue due to old age. He found himself happy doing it; he liked being the reason people learnt to defend themselves. Steve suspected he was also glad he wasn't fighting anymore. That he wasn't the reason for more people dying, even if it was enemies. They all had too much blood on their hands already.
Steve lost sight of Howard a few years back. He knew Tony kept close track on the man somewhere in his mind of his, but Steve didn't care. For him, the man died before he went into the ice. There was no reason to lose sleep about it. Last time he heard about him, he was in Miami; leaving surrounded by pretty girls and money in a lascivious villa. The man never tried to build his relationship with Tony. He didn't just disliked Tony. He feared him. Feared the intelligence that reflected Howard's powerlessness. He was a genius, Steve knew, but when even a genius feared another man's brain…then it became a problem. And Howard was too proud and too selfish to accept his son being superior.
The door opened and Edward turned in his chair to look at the newcomer and grinned. "Hey Uncle Tony!" he exclaimed high fiving the man as he passed by him to make a beeline for Steve to promptly sit on his laps. "Brat, what are you doing here?" he asked, gently pecking Steve on the lips.
Edward groaned. "Would you knock it off with the 'brat' thing?" he moaned, "I'm forty. Older than you!"
Tony chuckled. "Older physically, sweetheart," he said gently, "but you're always be our baby."
Steve chuckled and ran his hand through Tony's hair, rubbing it back to kiss his forehead.
Edward moaned again and stood. "You two are disgusting," he said, grabbing his suitcase. "Anyway, Miranda wanted me to invite you for Carrie's seventh birthday." He walked to the door and turned as his hand touch the doorknob. "You'll be there." And with that he left.
Steve laughed quietly, smothering the sound against Tony's shoulder. "He's so much like Pepper it's almost frightening."
Tony leaned back and burrowed into Steve as he wrapped his arms around him. "I know right." He was silent for a moment, before he turned and looked Steve straight in the eyes. "I'm ready," he announced calmly.
Steve blinked, a small smile appearing on his lips. "Let's go to Malibu then."
It was warm, the sun was high in the sky, and Steve leaned against the car, black shades hiding his eyes.
Tony was walking down the path of long rows of head tomb, stopping and kneeling in front of one, gently putting the large bouquet of flowers he was holding against his heart. He watched his husband kiss the stone, smiling softly as he heard the words floating to him. "Hey, Harry, I told you I'd be back."
Steve looked at the sky, the blue so blue it felt like looking into Tony's eyes.
"We made it, Rhodey," he whispered. "We made it."
He knew it was just his imagination but he felt something brush his shoulder, and as he looked right and left he saw nothing but empty space, but he still smiled contentedly. "Thanks for watching over him, guys."
After years in darkness, they had finally become monuments of light.