Turn back the page to the Forward

 

 

Title: A Matter of Extremes

 

Story and Plot:  ellyr_in_ink, ani_bester (LJ | LJ | Comment | Author’s Feedback Thread)

 

Manuscript: ellyr_in_ink

 

Pairings: Steve/Tony; normal canon couples

 

Universe: Ultimates (1610)

 

Rating:  This story is rated R for adult situations and language.  Adult.

 

Warnings:  Sex under the influence of alcohol.

 

Disclaimer:  All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.  Believe me, Marvel owns everything.  I just...  well, read on and see.  :)

 

Word Count: 37,173

 

Beta: jazzypom 

 

Forward and Acknowledgements

 

Summary: Steve and Tony have issues, and things between them get a little... rough; also, Ultron intervenes, as it's wont to do, and only complicates things further.

 

Cover art by Red Rahl (1)

 

Art by Iambickilometer (1)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Matter of Extremes

 

Prologue

 

"He had to save Steve.  Too many people needed Steve, and Tony Stark might have been a vain, alcoholic, dying playboy with no evident moral fiber or ethical beliefs, but he would have given his life in that moment to save Steve Rogers."

-Alex Irvine, The Ultimates: Against All Enemies 

 

***

 

Tony Stark had failed and now he wanted to die. 

 

Even after the explosion, as Tony drifted through the darkness of the Weddell Sea, he could only think the same thoughts over and over, as the cold began to seep through the tough paneling of his armor.  Tony felt more than heard the thud as he hit the silt and sand over a mile below the Vinson Massif peak of Antarctica. 

 

One thing dominated his thoughts even as he selfishly diverted the power from his remaining systems to sustain his oxygen nano-conversion system for one more, measly hour. 

 

Breathe in, breathe out.  Each measured exchange counting down to the one certainty he now faced.  With each unfailing rise and fall of his chest, he heard it over and over and over... 

 

I'm sorry, Steve.  I'm sorry. 

 

Steve... 

 

He should have died that day.   

 

It would have made things so much simpler.    
 

 

Chapter 1 

 

Trinity Church.  Manhattan.  Two days after the Ultimates' victory over the Liberators. 

 

Tony checked his pace as he exited the towering doors of the church. He didn't want to look as though he was leaving the memorial service with an improper amount of haste, but truth be told he couldn't get out of the building fast enough.  In fact, he couldn’t get out of the zip code fast enough. If Steve hadn't wanted them to meet up afterwards, he'd be on the Stark PDEX-01 Pulsejet to Europe.  Or the Moon. 

 

He squinted against the mid-afternoon sun and stepped down onto the corner of Broadway and Wall Street.  The funeral services for Clint's family had finished right before the daily guided tours of the church started at two.  Tony glanced from the group of camera-clad tourists to the hot dog vendor parked right next to the bottom of the stairs.  Most of the time, he loved New York.  Today was not one of those days.

 

The whole event had forced him to confront facts he'd sooner leave buried.  If Tony had to look at Clint's face one more time, he was just going to slit his wrists and be done with it.  "God, Clint," he whispered.  "I'm sorry."

 

Everyone kept saying he couldn't have known what Natasha had planned (or some backhanded version of that sentiment), and yet... Tony cut the thought off before he could finish it. He jammed his hands into his pockets and kept walking, brushing past an elderly couple who had stopped to take a picture of him.  

 

"You're in a hurry."  The voice behind him was tinged with disapproval.  Tony turned to see Steve standing behind him arms crossed and mouth turned down.  Of course, he was standing at the top of the stairs when he said it. The  better to look down the tip of your nose at me, Tony thought. Steve looked as though he were waiting for an apology.  

 

"Bad reception," Tony said, flashing Steve his cell phone.  He leveled Steve with an insubordinate stare, daring him to say otherwise. Or, maybe he was daring Steve to lose his temper and say all the things Tony was already thinking about himself.  

 

Steve just shook his head and descended to street level, brushing past Tony without so much as a glance over his shoulder. 

 

"Self-righteous bastard," Tony mumbled under his breath. 

 

"No kidding." 

 

Tony looked to his left and saw to his surprise that the comment had come from Jan, Steve's 'adoring girlfriend.'

 

"But lovable none the less," Tony added, turning to watch Steve work his way through the crowd on Wall Street.

 

"Most of the time," Jan said, fishing her sunglasses out of her purse.  

 

"Why, Janet," Tony said, flashing her the cheerful grin he used to pacify his board of directors.  "Trouble in paradise?" 

 

Jan shrugged.  "Sometimes, you can't help but get sick of him.  His old friends, his old-fashioned tastes..."  She made a dismissive noise, a nerve-grating tsk sound.  "Sometimes I wonder if he's worth it." 

 

Tony felt himself bristle but kept his game face on.  Something about her casual dismissal of Steve struck a nerve, but for the life of him, he couldn't reason out why.  "Well, my dear, that's what we have ex-husbands for, isn't it?  Who needs to worry about making a relationship work when you can just keep something on the side?" 

 

Jan stepped back.  "What did you just say?" 

 

Tony started walking again, not even bothering with a response.  He knew he'd probably have to face her wrath within the next fifteen minutes when they all met at the bar, but for now, he wasn't going to satisfy her with a response.  Instead, he glared at the cloudless blue sky.   

 

It was supposed to rain on days like this.  It was supposed to be grey and wet and miserable.  No one should be happy on a day like today. 

 

*** 

 

The Irish Rose.  Manhattan.  Later that evening. 

 

Tony glowered over at the heavy wooden door with the stained glass window as yet another group of revelers piled inside the establishment.  The number of people per square inch already violated several occupancy codes , and the sound of people celebrating reverberated off the paneled walls, increasing rather than absorbing the barely controlled bedlam within.  Tony would rather be celebrating in his maid's walk-in closet.   

 

He was currently wedged between Thor, who was making short work of his third beer, and Steve. Across from Tony, Nick looked ill at ease, as though not quite sure what to do with himself. From the corner of his eye, Tony saw Nick checking his wristwatch, straightened up slightly, and dipped a fry into some ketchup but didn't eat it. 

 

Tony suppressed a sigh and tried hard not to look at his teammate on the other side of Nick.  

 

Jan hadn't said another word to him since the outburst on the front steps of the church, choosing instead to flit about Steve like a school girl in lust.  She  carded her fingers through Steve's short blond hair, kissed him full on the mouth at least three times since they'd arrived, and found every excuse to press her body up against Steve's imposing bulk.   

 

Currently, she had her hand over Steve's and was giving him one of those revolting, private glances. 

 

Tony's stomach did an odd flip as he stared at Jan. Her expression was completely different from what it had been less than an hour ago. None of that fawning idiocy had been reflected in her eyes when she blithely agreed with Tony that Captain America was a self-righteous bastard.  Ah, Tony thought, as he stared at his untouched burger, the devious power of hormones

    

The thought was emphasized when Tony glanced over at Steve and saw the man retuning Jan's amorous gaze.  Suddenly feeling sick to his stomach, Tony downed his entire martini in one swill and turned to Thor.  "Mind letting me out for a second, big guy?"   

 

Thor shook his head and stood, letting Tony pass.  Tony stalked over to the bar and sagged against the marble counter top.  Steve could be so stupid, so naive...  How could he not see that Janet was just your typical woman?  Superficial, bitchy, only interested in what she could scavenge from your bloody corpse...

 

The bartender slapped a coaster in front of him, startling him from his thoughts.  "What'll it be, mac?"  

 

"Do you have anything stronger than vodka?" 

 

The bartender shook his head, bald head a dull shine under the weak light.  "Bad day, huh?  I'll just keep 'em coming." 

 

"Thanks," Tony sighed, settling on one of the bar stools. 

 

He'd hardly gotten through his third drink when he saw a shadow appear on the table in front of him. He didn't have to turn around know who it was. Only two men in the restaurant were large enough to cast that shadow, and one was still at the table reciting heroic battles against things Tony had thought were myths until a few days ago. 

 

"Steve," he muttered, not bothering to turn around. "You're blocking my mood lighting." 

 

The shadow moved to one side.  "You've been over here a while." 

 

Tony glanced over his shoulder.  "I needed some breathing room." 

 

He watched Steve stiffen slightly, as though not quite sure if he'd just been insulted or not.  Tony found himself wanting to ask Steve how many times Jan had called him stuffy. 

 

He glanced back at the table. Nick still looked uncomfortable.  Thor still looked loudAnd Jan?  Jan had pulled out a copy of Scientific American and was perusing its contents the way some women perused Cosmo.

 

Tony tilted his head in the direction of the stool beside him. "Care to join me?  If I'm going to be lectured about my alcohol intake, I prefer it be done by people who do not tower over me." 

 

Steve sat down before continuing, a beer clutched between his two massive hands.  "What makes you think I came over here to say anything?" Steve's blue eyes were wide and curious. Tony wondered if Steve was really that unaware of his ability to break into sermon at the tiniest of infractions.

 

Tony slumped further over the bar.  He was tired of bickering, of fighting, and of losing.  "I would really prefer not thinking about anything right now."  He turned halfway so he could look Steve in the eye; he had to make sure his point was idiot-proof.  "That includes not thinking about what other people are currently thinking about me.  So if you've got something to say, don't." 

 

"We all feel bad about—" 

 

"Steve."  Tony was facing him fully now.  "Just.  Don't." 

 

Steve's mouth worked uselessly for a brief period before he turned back to his own drink. 

 

They sat together in silence, which was made even more surreal by the clamor around them.  The silence grew until it threatened to create an atmosphere conducive to thinking thoughts that Tony had been trying to numb with drink. He cleared his throat a few times, trying to find something to say, but his mind seemed determined to linger on subjects that were strictly verboten.  Anything else he dredged up sounded forced and awkward.  Before he could come up with conversation, however, someone else beat him to it. 

 

"Steve?"   

 

Tony winced at the way Jan purred his name.  He watched as Steve finished off his beer then stood and smiled. Had the bar stools moved, Tony knew Steve would have pulled out a chair for his girl. He had more old fashioned chivalry than all of New York combined.  Tony's lips twitched upward, amused by his own thought.  

 

"Steve, I'm about ready to go, I think."  

 

Tony glanced back at the table. Nick and Thor were gone. Scanning the room, Tony saw them at the door. He knew Steve saw them, too. 

 

"Okay."  

 

Tony's stomach lurched. Everyone was leaving, going home.  Home...  He didn't want to go home. He didn't want to go anywhere near home.  In fact, he was currently thinking about turning his penthouse into an aircraft hanger so that he never had to go home again. Tony polished off his drink and latched on to the first thing that came to mind to say. Anything to keep them from leaving...  

 

"Where are you headed?"

 

"To Steve's." 

 

"To see Bucky." 

 

Tony raised an eyebrow.  Lovers' quarrel?  Do tell. 

 

Jan rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "Steve, c'mon, they're fine. It's late. Wouldn't they be in bed anyway?" 

 

Tony's eyes flicked from Jan to Steve and he noticed that Steve was no longer smiling. "Jan, I told you I wanted to stop by." 

 

"That was before we were here until nine o'clock.  Steve—" 

 

When Tony thought he wouldn't be able to stand the silence for a second longer, Jan broke it with a heavy sigh.  "Look, sweetie, I've got to go home.  If you've really got to drop by to visit your friends, then I'll see you when you get home, but I promise you they're asleep." 

 

Steve folded his arms across his chest and widened his stance. Narrowing his eyes, he shook his head once.  "They won't be. We've had this discussion before, honey." 

 

It always amazed Tony how terms of affection could sound like a curse if you angled the inflection just right.

 

"Right, they don't sleep until ten o'clock at night except for last Sunday, and the Monday before that, and..."  Jan threw one hand up in the air, the other clutching the strap on her purse.  "Steve, I'm going home.  I'm sorry, but I am." 

 

"Gail is expecting us."  

 

It was then that Tony said something that could only be accounted for by the fact that he had, at last count, eight drinks in him.  "I'll go."  

 

 

Both Steve and Jan whirled to look at him as if he had grown another head and begun speaking in German.  He quirked a brow.  "What?  They have got to be more interesting than anyone here," he said, gesturing expansively.  Maybe a little too expansively, he thought, as he felt himself lose his balance.  Before he could try to correct, however, Steve's hand was at his shoulder. 

    

"You shouldn't be allowed to go anywhere," Jan scoffed. 

 

Tony turned to Steve and held up three fingers.  "I promise to keep my boorish behavior to myself, especially since there will be a lady present.  Scout's honor." 

 

"Because you've been so well behaved up to this point..."

 

Tony's grin widened, becoming more genuine.  "I have yet to actually be in the presence of a lady." 

 

Tony felt Steve's grip on his shoulder tighten ever so slightly in silent warning, but before he could say anything about Tony insulting his woman, Jan 'spoke' for herself. 

 

*** 

 

Cedar Street.  Brooklyn. 

 

Tony stumbled along next to Steve, his head cocked back and Steve's handkerchief pressed to his nose.  "You know," he grumbled, "for someone so small..." 

 

"She packs quite a punch," Steve finished.  He gave Tony an askance  look.  "Although, you were out of line." 

 

Tony laughed, the noise sounding muffled from behind his hand.  "I suppose I was.  But only by the tiniest of fractions." 

 

Steve gave a disgruntled grumble and a tiny part of Tony's brain advised him to drop it.  Perhaps it was the tumor making up for killing him by giving him good advice.  Tony snorted and regretted it as the throbbing in his nose redoubled.

 

Steve looked over at him.  "What's so funny?" 

 

"My tumor is giving me counsel."  

 

Tony laughed out loud at Steve's horrified expression and wondered if perhaps Steve's friend would be more appreciative of the black humor. 

 

Steve was still shaking his head when he turned from the sidewalk and headed toward one house in particular.  Tony paused, feeling apprehensive.  Steve must have noticed Tony's absence because he stopped as well.  

 

"Are you okay?"

 

Tony waved, gesturing at Steve to step back.  "Fine.  Just... pulling myself together."  Tony took a few deep breaths and then walked with care and concentration down the small path.  "I figured I'd show your friends the same sobriety I show my board of directors.  More if I can muster it."  

 

Steve shifted position and held up his hand as if he expected Tony to topple over. 

 

In his mind's eye, Tony saw Steve's hand pressed against the small of Jan's back as she and Steve danced together.  For one insane second, Tony was tempted to fake a stumble just so he could feel that connection.  

 

 

What the hell is wrong with me? Another deep breath and Tony straightened, stuffing the bloody handkerchief into his inside jacket pocket.  "Ready when you are, Cap." 

 

Steve seemed to take a moment to assess the situation, then nodded and climbed the four wooden steps to the door.  He knocked gently, and Tony heard a woman's voice from inside. 

 

The door opened, a shaft of soft yellow light spilling out onto the porch.  An older woman stepped out, wiping her hands on her apron before grabbing Steve's face and planting a big kiss on one of his cheeks.  Steve's blush was instantaneous. 

 

"It's so good of you to come by, Steve," she said while giving Steve a once over.  "We were starting to get worried that you weren't going to make it."  Gail looked around.  "Where's Janet?" 

 

Steve fumbled for a bit before saying, "She, uh, had some business to take care of.  You know how busy she gets." 

 

Tony didn't know why he was lingering on the street in the dark, but he couldn't shake the fact that he felt like he was stepping into the middle of something so intimate that he shouldn't be allowed.   

 

He suddenly found himself wishing he were not drunk-he was acutely aware of just how much of an idiot he was about to make of himself.  He half hoped that if he stood there in the dark and said nothing, he'd be forgotten. 

 

"I know eyesight is the first to go," said a second voice, "but I'm pretty sure that's not your lady friend." 

 

Steve chuckled and motioned for Tony to come up onto the porch. Facing the predicament caused by his own drunken spontaneity, Tony walked heavily up the stairs and into the light.  

 

"Gail, Bucky, this is one of my teammates, Tony Stark."  Steve grabbed Tony's forearm, pulling him up the steps a bit faster.  Once at the top, Steve kept a hand between Tony's shoulder blades to steady him. 

 

Tony reached out to shake both their hands.  Gail was beaming at him and Tony was unsure of what he'd done to deserve such adoration.  She moved out of the way and Steve pushed Tony gently into the living room.  From behind him, he could have sworn he heard Gail whisper something about 'finally making friends' to Bucky. 

    

"Make yourself at home," Bucky called after them. 

 

Tony leaned into Steve's warm hands a little more than was necessary as he was maneuvered onto the couch.  

 

Home, hmm?  Maybe this wasn't so bad after all. 
 

Chapter 2 

 

The White House.  Washington, D.C.  Three days later.    

 

Tony stirred the small sword in his martini glass. An olive remained steadfastly on its end. Tony fought the urge to hold up the sword with the impaled olive; given how tight security had become, he would probably be shot on sight for possessing a possible weapon of mass destruction.  His mind then drifted as he began to think of real world applications for turning the cocktail favor into a weapon. 

 

He stopped himself before he started drawing schematics on the napkins.  "Yes," he muttered as he began reviewing his own bizarre impulses, "this soirée really is that boring."  

 

He wished that Thor hadn't been so adverse to the fact the party was being held in the "architectural symbol of neo-capitalistic oppression."  He could have used the company.  Thor had instead taken his Asgardian merrymaking to a large field somewhere.  Of course. 

 

Being as discreet as possible in an open room filled with people, Tony sighed and rubbed at his temple with his thumb.  He didn't want it to seem as if Tony Stark was having anything less than his usual bon temp, but he couldn't help wondering how long it was going to take Thor to forgive him for the whole paranoid-schizophrenic... misunderstanding.  The thought only lasted for a second, however, as he killed it and any other neurons in its vicinity by downing half of his drink in one desperate swallow. 

 

Eyeing the entertainment, he took a firm hold of his drink and staggered out of his chair at one of the center tables.  He ignored the busty blonde in a shirt-length dress that had just sat down next to him and walked as straight as he could over to another blond.

 

"You're dateless," Tony accused as he put a hand on Steve's arm to steady himself.  If he maintained the contact a bit longer than normal, he dismissed it as being a side effect of his sixth martini. 

 

"Tony," Steve's voice was low and strained as he shrugged off Tony's touch . "Please don't start. Not tonight." 

 

"Start what?" Tony asked, swirling his drink in his glass. "I meant I haven't seen Gail. I want you to know I am blaming you for leaving only twittering, twenty-something bimbos for me to talk to at this 'celebration.'"  

 

"Bucky, he isn't..."  Steve looked away.  

 

Tony clamped down on another odd impulse, this time to put a supportive hand on Steve's shoulder. Instead, he tilted his head toward table away from the main crowds. "C'mon," he said tugging at the lapel of a jacket that Jan must have picked out. "Let's sit. Maybe if we look grumpy enough, people will stop coming over and thanking us for saving America."  Tony lead Steve to a more private spot. 

 

Later, as he slouched in his limousine, clinking the ice in his whiskey glass, Tony tried hard to come up with reasons why he had talked all evening with Steve 'stick-in-his-ass' Rogers for the second night in less than a week.  

 

And maybe he might have even possibly enjoyed it.  

 

To distract himself, he pulled out his phone and looked up the hospital Steve had mentioned was treating Bucky. Of course it was one of those low-end care places: the kind that said they'd make you comfortable while you died, but left out the part where they only cared about you when relatives or money were present.  With only a moment's consideration, he began to make some calls. He figured he could use the good karma.  Besides, he owed Gail for making those addictive cookies the last time Steve had dragged him over. 

 

*** 

 

Tony Stark's Limousine.  Three weeks later. 

 

Steve had been called away to save some small country or the world or who knew what, and Tony had found himself promising Steve he'd make sure Gail and Bucky were okay in the interim.  When he tried to find out where Steve had gone, Nick Fury had informed him that all the mission specs were were above his security clearance.  

 

Then, because things never seemed to go smoothly when Tony had a vested interest in them doing so, he had received an odd call from Gail at three o'clock in the afternoon.  As much as Tony would have liked to have put the whole thing off, something in the way she said Bucky's name worried him.   

 

As Tony headed out to meet with Gail, he considered putting actual time and effort into subverting Nick and figuring out where Steve had been deployed. He'd promised to look after Steve's friends, sure, but he hadn't expected anyone to call him on that promise.

 

He frowned, stealing himself for whatever sentimental blitz was about to ensue. Meeting his own needs had never been his strong suit, let alone the more human emotional needs of other people. To distract himself, Tony made a mental note to send another gentle reminder to Nick Fury that, technically speaking, Steve was an Ultimate, not a U.S. soldier, and, technically speaking, Steve no longer worked for Nick. 

 

"Mr. Stark?"    

 

"Just tell me when we get there, Happy."  

  

He heard Happy shift across from him and looked up just in time to catch his head of security exchange glances with the driver. "We've been 'there' for 10 minutes now. I was going to ask if you wanted to leave." 

 

Tony frowned and debated the proffered escape route; instead, he just shook his head. 

 

"Love to, but duty calls. Watch the wheels for me, will you, Hap?" 

 

"Sure, Boss," Tony heard as he slid out of the limo.  

 

*** 

 

Lenox Hill Hospital on Park Avenue.  Manhattan.  Private wing. 

 

The hallway could have belonged to anyone of Tony's opulent homes. The carpet was plush, well cleaned, and expensive. The walls were decorated with paintings, not prints and not from artistic nobodies.  But nothing could hide the smell of disinfectant and medicine. Once, lying in bed exhausted after a round of treatment, Tony had wondered just how much money it would actually take to make a hospital not smell like a hospital.  He'd decided it was as impossible as paying for a stairway to the moon.  

 

The hallway was as quiet as a mausoleum, appropriate given that most people left this wing in a bag.  

 

Tony shivered involuntarily. Nice train of thought, Stark, he berated himself. As he turned the corner, he saw Gail standing next to a doctor. The doctor was speaking but it was clear she wasn't listening to him. Tony had to admire a person who knew when nothing important was being said and didn't even bother to pretend.  

 

"Gail," he called out as he put on his game face.  

 

She looked over at him, her smile weary. "Tony, thank you so much for coming." She took his hands in hers, and Tony noted they were cold, the skin paper thin. "I hope it wasn't too imposing a request to bring you all the way here." 

 

"A request from an exquisite woman is never an imposition, my dear," he answered with a wink. 

  

Gail gave him a mildly exasperated look as something close to amusement flickered in her eyes. Tony found himself reminded of Steve when Steve thought he was about to verbally outmaneuver him.  

 

"Actually, Bucky made the request.  I just relayed it." 

 

At that, Tony sobered. It wasn't that he didn't like the man, it was just he hated the visual reminder of the death that waited for him. Unless he could cheat it, of course, by getting splattered inside one of his suits. 

 

"Bucky wants to talk to me."  Tony cringed at how stupid he sounded.  Gail, however, acted as though he'd not parroted her and just nodded.  

 

He bit down on the inside of his cheek to keep himself from coming up with any lies about urgent business meetings or crazy super villains. Instead, he nodded back, and with a shaky hand, opened the door.  

 

"Well, hello there," Bucky called out.  For one so emaciated, his voice was robust and hardy.  

 

"Barnes," Tony answered, shaking Bucky's hand while trying hard not to look at the tubes that trailed from it.  

 

"How sad is it when the third richest man in the country is easier to get to visit you than your old war buddy?" 

 

Tony pretended to hear only the joke in the words. "Well, Nick can't have me showing up his super-soldiers all the time, so I'm sitting this mission out.  Wouldn't want the military to feel like all that million-dollar medical research is for naught." 

 

Bucky managed a faint smile before a coughing fit seized him. Tony's hand snapped out to steady him; he withdrew it almost as fast. 

  

"How is he?"  

 

"Steve?  He's... well, he's Steve.  You're probably a better judge of his mood swings than I am." 

 

Leaning back against his pillows, Bucky gave Tony an odd look. Tony simply stared back, refusing to be put off his game by a dying old man.  

 

"When he comes over, he, Gail, and I talk like we did back in the day. With him looking so young, it's almost easy to pretend the war just ended and he and I came home like we said we would." Bucky frowned a little.  "Or at least it was before I got..."  

 

He coughed and made his point better than words could.  Tony averted his eyes. 

 

"I don't know that he's adjusting though. He says he is but--" 

 

"You can't trust him to tell you he has a problem," Tony finished. 

 

Bucky chuckled, and for a second, Tony saw a 23-year-old man eager and ready to take on any and all enemies for his country. "See, you are getting to know him already. He could have his arm missing and still insist he's okay.  And growing up like we did, he learned to depend on himself a lot.  He doesn't like to ask for help." 

 

Tony waited patiently for Bucky to get to the point.  

 

"Steve won't have me around much longer. Gail neither. We both worry about him and what he'll do when we're gone." 

 

Tony narrowed his eyes a little. "It's nice that you worry, but Steve's whole world doesn't revolve around the two of you."  

 

He expected some angry retort for his rudeness.  Lord knows Bucky had never felt inclined to hide his reactions when he thought Tony was out of line.  But instead, Bucky merely gave him the same look he'd given him earlier.  

 

"We were hoping you'd make sure it didn't."  

 

At the sound of her voice, Tony turned to see Gail had entered the room. He hefted a deep sigh and buried his face in his hands. He'd taken part in eighteen mergers and five hostile takeovers in the past eighteen months alone, but he'd allowed a pair of elderly homebodies to maneuver him exactly where they wanted him. 

 

"Why ask me? Why not..." Tony stopped. He knew why Jan was out of the question, and the fact that he couldn't come up with anyone else pretty much answered his inquiry for him. 

 

Bucky gave another answer anyway.   

 

 

 

Chapter 3 

 

Trinity Church.  Manhattan.  Twenty-seven days later. 

 

Now, this, Tony thought, is funeral weather. The sky had gifted them with a bleak, overcast day. The clouds seemed to suck the color out of everything, leaving a dull gray shroud over the towering church and its guests.  

 

He looked up to where Steve was giving the eulogy. Again. He didn't know how Steve kept doing it, or why, for that matter.  Why they kept asking him to speak...   

 

First for eight hundred strangers, then for Bruce (who was actually very much alive).  Steve spoke when Hawkeye couldn't and again when Tony had been struck silent at Jarvis's funeral.  

 

Steve's baritone was strong and even as he recounted the time Bucky had saved his life during the Ardennes-Alsace campaign.  Tony had already heard the story three times before, so he used the moment to take in the room.

 

There had to be twenty-five people here, thirty tops.  Most of those attending were widows who had outlived their husbands.  Tony swallowed and glanced over to Gail in the pew in front of him.  He couldn't see her face, but her shoulders were square and proud like always.

 

The few older men who were there in uniform looked exactly the same: their heads were bowed respectfully, but their shoulders were set, not a single tear to be seen.

 

Tony's gaze was pulled back to Steve when the tone of the eulogy dipped into something more somber.  Steve began reciting something by Tennyson.  God's finger touched him, and he slept.  Tony frowned.

 

Steve's features were drawn, but, just like his counterparts in uniform, his eyes were dry.  No, that wasn't right.  Tony studied Steve closer.  Every now and then, Steve would turn his head just right to catch the light, and Tony could see the faint sheen of unshed tears in his eyes.

 

Oh, Steve. This life's a raw deal, old boy, especially when you're doomed to outlive everyone you're close to.

 

Bucky and Gail were Steve's oldest friends, but how many things had Gail and Bucky told him that had been just as new to Steve as to Tony?  The poor guy knew only twenty odd years or so of their eighty years of life.   

    

"Look out for him, would ya?  He'll bury himself in Captain America if no one stops him." 

 

"Why me?" 

 

"You're the only one other than Gail who wants just plain ol' Steve around." 

 

Tony closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. See, this was exactly why he tried not to get close to people.  They always ended up needing something from you.  

 

He looked at his watch. It was two o'clock in the afternoon. Again. That gave him plenty of time before meeting Nick to take care of his pounding head. 

 

And after Nick, he had the whole night to work on forgetting.  

 

***

 

Nick Fury's Office. The Triskelion.  Upper Bay Manhattan.  Later that evening.

 

"I still say you passed on the perfect way to improve the team image." The sharp tone in Betty's voice caused Tony to pause just outside Nick's office. It must not have been a planned meeting between the two, though, partially because Tony's meeting with Nick was scheduled for four minutes ago, but also because the door stood slightly ajar, which meant Betty had let herself in. 

 

"Betty, just this once, don't think of the PR." 

 

Tony could imagine the disdainful looks Betty would be throwing like daggers at the SHIELD XO.  

 

"Besides," Nick continued, voice so low Tony had to strain to hear it. "We just saved the United States. Isn't the team image good enough?"  Now Betty would be rolling her eyes. 

    

"It was decent," she muttered, the last word slipping past her lips like an insult, "until people realized we would have to rebuild the nation. Now they want a scapegoat for what happened, and who do you think they've chosen? This isn't American Fucking Idol, Nick." 

 

There was a sigh and a pause.  "All I'm saying is one or two photos from the funeral would remind the public that The Ultimates lost people, too." 

 

Tony clenched his jaw and swung the door open. It hit the wall with a loud bang, causing both Betty and Nick to jump.  

 

"You know, The Ultimates' public image isn't really even Nick's call at this point," Tony said as he made his way over to a bottle of scotch Nick had on a shelf. "And I would personally hate to see any photos of Bucky's funeral hit the press."  He poured four fingers of the scotch into a highball glass and spun around to face the room. 

 

Betty slicked her hair back into place. "Don't tell me you've suddenly put Rogers' privacy above everything else." 

 

Tony knocked back the drink in one fluid motion. "Not at all."  He began to pour another drink.  "You see, it's just that I would have to get anyone who leaks those photos and anyone who then decides to publish those photos blacklisted from their respective careers for the rest of creation. Being that much of a wicked bastard takes a lot of work."  Tony shrugged.  "I just don't have room in my day planner." 

 

Betty just stared at him, brown eyes wide.  Tony only smiled around his drink and continued, "I gave him my word, Betty, and I'm sure it will hurt team morale more if Captain America decides I have no integrity." 

 

Betty looked as though she wanted to say something, but in the end, she just stormed from the room.  If looks could kill, Tony would be a bloody Rorschach splatter against the bookcase.

 

Tony took a few steps and shut the door with a solid kick, highball glass still in one hand and bottle of scotch faithfully in the other.

 

"You gonna keep her?" Nick asked, amusement evident in his voice.

  

Tony shook his head. "I'm not the government. I don't need positive public opinion to get something funded.  You, however, will probably need her for whatever project you take on after this." 

 

Nick Fury made a noncommittal sound as Tony dragged a chair over.  Nick was staring at him oddly. 

 

"What?" Tony asked, finishing the rest of his second glass. 

 

"You know that single malt scotch is about 50% alcohol by volume.  That ain't beer you're chuggin'." 

  

Tony grimaced. "I know."  He began to pour himself a third glass.  "So let's talk about the important stuff before I'm so blisteringly drunk that I do something dim-witted, like sign the rights to my tech over to you."  

 

Nick laughed and pulled a couple of files out of a locked drawer.  The two got down to business, discussing exactly what government clearances Tony still needed in order to privately "own" a group of Persons of Mass Destruction.

 

***

 

The Deck of the Triskelion.  Eleven Minutes Past Midnight. 

 

Steve looked up at the night sky, focusing on the point where the horizon seemed to meet the water. Even out on the Triskelion, he could make out faint noises from the city. He had just begun to adjust to the strange sounds of the modern metropolis and now they were completely alien again. He didn't hear the cars and the trains but rather the whirr of machinery as people worked through the night to repair the destruction those anti-American bastards had caused.  

 

Steve clenched his fist and tried not to think about the horrific events of several months ago, but the only other thing on his mind was worse in its own way.  He'd spent most of the day in the gym trying not to think about the funeral that morning.  He'd wanted to sit with Gail and talk with her after Bucky had been laid to rest but her daughter, Sharon, had politely told him the her mother needed at least a night to herself. Steve had been hurt but not truly surprised. She had always wanted a moment to herself to work out how she needed to adjust. Closing his eyes, he could still see her sitting against the window after he'd told her about his decision to go ahead with Project Rebirth. She'd asked him to go out and get her a soda. He'd waited three hours before he came back with it.  Steve sighed heavily.  Three hours he'd spent talking with Bucky in a soda shop long since demolished.    

 

"Damn it," Steve murmured.  He turned to look out at the city, trying to push his current train of thought away.  At least the city was repairing itself, rebuilding.  

 

As he stared at the lights, though, something else caught his attention. A tall, familiar form teetered along the ledge of the Triskelion deck.  Steve watched as the unsteady person repeatedly threatened to tip to the left and into the dark water below.  With a start, he realized it was Tony.  When Tony finally did lose his balance, Steve was already at his side, hoisting him back onto solid ground.

 

Tony stared up at him with bloodshot eyes and then gave Steve a crooked smile. "My hero." 

 

Steve bit back his initial response. He wanted an explanation for this stupid behavior, but from the overpowering smell of alcohol on the Tony's breath, Steve doubted Tony could offer any justification what so ever. 

 

Tony wrinkled his nose and moved further away from Steve's underarm. "You smell like the gym," he accused.   

 

Steve ignored him. "Why are you on base?"  He let go for a moment to see if Tony could stand on his own, but Tony just toppled against him.  

 

"I had to talk to Nicky about some stuff." He paused, as if considering his own words then nodded. "We finished, and I'm going home now."

 

"I see you were trying to take a direct route," Steve answered, nodding towards the ocean. 

 

Tony's laugh was loud and obnoxious.  "I'd be okay. I swim with sharks all the time." He patted Steve on the shoulder. "You're still my hero, though.  I think." 

 

Steve gave a resigned sigh and began leading Tony away from the edge of the deck.  "So, you came here to talk to Nick.  Why are you drunk?" 

 

Tony attempted to turn to look at Steve, but his head only rolled to rest on Steve's shoulder.  "'S'been a bad day.  You would drink, too, if it didn't take a keg to get you buzzed,"  Tony paused and hiccuped.  "And if you weren't such a stick in the mud." 

 

Steve's scowl deepened.  Why did Tony always have to be a jerk?  "It's been a bad day for me, too, y'know.  You don't see me wandering around deck acting like a drunken idiot and almost getting myself killed." 

 

Tony laughed, but the sound came out sounding more like another hiccup.  There was a moment of silence, and then, "Three coffins." 

 

"What?" 

 

"Three coffins in the ground in three months." 

 

"Tony--" 

 

"Tasha, Jarvis, and now Bucky."  Tony nodded to himself before turning a disparaging look on Steve.  "That makes three." 

 

Steve punched his access code in at the nearest entrance and pulled Tony inside.  "You're coming home with me tonight."  It sounded a little more like an order than Steve had meant it to. 

 

At those words, Tony broke into a positively lascivious grin.  "Why, Steve, doesn't that violate, like, ten of your policies?  Fraternization--" 

 

"Tony!"  Steve's glare was vicious enough to stop Tony's inebriated tumble of words, but not enough to wipe that damn grin off his face.  Steve sat Tony down on a bench in the open lobby of the building and crossed his arms over his chest.  "Fine.  If you're going to be vulgar about it, I'll just call you a cab and you can go home." 

 

For whatever reason, that phrase seemed to do the trick.  Tony's grin faltered, then disappeared.  His eyes slipped out of focus.  "I can't."  It was a hoarse whisper, easily lost in the ambient noise of the building around them. 

 

Steve leaned over, arms still crossed over his chest.  "What?" 

 

"I can't."

 

Steve huffed out a sigh.  "You can't what?" 

 

"Go home." 

 

"For Pete's sake, why not?" 

 

Tony swallowed, and for a moment Steve worried that Tony was going to be sick.  After hesitation, Tony brought his eyes to meet Steve's.  "I can't go back there.  Too many ghosts." 

 

Steve began to ask what Tony meant but stopped. The statement really didn't need that much explanation. Steve had more than a few places like that.  

 

His silence seemed to worry Tony, and Tony's grip was on his arm, pulling at the fabric of Steve's white shirt. "I can't go back there," he repeated as if he thought Steve hadn't heard him. 

 

Steve might have left Tony then, despite the danger he posed to himself, but looking at Tony...  

 

Tony looked young. Hell, he looked like any number of privates who'd suddenly realized the odds were against them seeing their families ever again.  Steve looked at Tony's wide eyes and knew then that he really was going to take Tony back to his place. 

 

"Alright, alright.  I won't make you go.  Sheesh," he murmured, giving Tony an awkward pat on the back. "You can stay the night at my apartment, even if you are crude about it." He muttered the last part under his breath because he doubted Tony, sober or drunk, could refrain from being crass.   

 

Steve became so engaged in steeling himself for against the inevitable flood of Tony's babble that he was completely thrown off guard when Tony punched him in the shoulder.  "Ow!  What the--"  

 

"Ok, I've decided," Tony declared, "you really are a superhero."  

 

Steve sighed, rubbing the spot.  "Tony, we're both superheroes."  He wanted to be irritated, but there was something unguarded in Tony now that inspired an odd sort of protectiveness.  Before Steve could respond, however, he found himself trying to deal with a very uncoordinated Tony climbing into his arms.  "What are you doing?!" he squawked. 

 

 

"You are my hero.  You saved me, so you need to carry me." Steve was too well-trained to be thrown off balance by Tony's eccentric maneuvers, but for a moment, he debated dropping him just to make a point. If he'd come up with the exact point he'd wanted to make he probably would have done it, but instead he shifted Tony in his arms. 

 

"I'll carry you to the helicopter, but when we get to the city, I expect you to be sober enough to at least walk." 

 

"'course."

 

*** 
 

Brooklyn.  Half a Mile from Steve Rogers' Apartment. 

 

"So how many people have you given piggyback rides to?" 

 

"This is not a piggyback ride!" Steve growled. They'd gotten back to the main land, but because of the fallen buildings and other debris, the chopper had to land a way out from Steve's apartment.  And since Tony had given up on trying to sober up long before the chopper had touched down, Steve had been forced to scoop him up and hoist him onto his back. 

 

Tony had been thrilled with the arrangement and had spent most of the walk home commenting on it one way or another.  

 

"--since I'm on your back, it is, except you're not a pig, but shuper sholdiar back ride is really hard to say right now." 

 

Steve groaned and shifted Tony to fish for his apartment key.  The noise was more for theatrics than anything else.  

 

"Are we there yet?" Steve sighed and ignored the heat of Tony's breath against his ear.  

 

"Almost, and that is the two hundred and sixth time you've asked that."  

 

"You've been counting? I'm flattered."

 

Steve felt Tony rubbing the top of his head, his fingertips applying just enough pressure to feel really good...  Steve tried his best to ignore the sensation. "You know, you waste good hair with this boring buzz cut. Not that I do much with my hair, either, which really makes what I pay Alfredo for the cut outrageous--" 

    

Steve attempted to tune Tony out and concentrated on getting Tony to his apartment without having to fend off one of the many gangs that infested the area.  Once there, hopefully, Tony would pass out.  But then, Tony's hands started going elsewhere.

 

"Tony," Steve warned as those fingertips drifted lazily down to his neck. 

 

"What?" Now, Steve felt the tip of Tony's cold nose nuzzling on the other side of his neck. 

 

Steve stiffened.  "Tony, stop." 

 

He could feel Tony's lips curve into a smile against the skin right behind his ear.  "What?" 

 

"I swear, I will drop you and leave you in Brooklyn to fend for yourself." 

 

Steve heard Tony's chuckle, felt the hand behind his ear drop to his shoulder before sliding down to join the other wrapped around his neck.  "That's not very chivalrous." 

 

Steve pushed his way into his building.  "Well, you're not being very lady-like, now are you?" 

 

Tony's hold tightened.  "I love that you don't put up with my bullshit," he sighed, nose still warming in the crook of Steve's neck.  

 

Steve sighed and tromped up the six flights of stairs to his apartment.  When they reached the door, however, Steve stopped.  "You're going to have to stand for a moment." 

 

Tony roused and looked around.  "'Kay."  He slid off of Steve's back and managed to stumble his way between Steve and the door.  Tony flung his hand out for balance and grabbed onto Steve's shirt for purchase.  Steve's hands were at his sides, steadying him. 

 

"Now you're just in the way." 

 

Tony's hand tightened its grip. "Lost my balance," he whispered, the other hand moving to Steve's chest. 

 

"Yes, well...  Now you're balanced, so..." 

 

Tony's hand slid up to Steve's neck, his drunken tilt pulling them backwards until Tony's back bumped against the wooden door.  

 

Steve swallowed hard.  "Tony." 

 

Tony's face moved closer to his.  "Steve." 

 

"Wait--" 

 

Given Tony's clumsy drunkenness, Steve didn't expect the next move to come off as graceful it did.  Warm lips were pressed against Steve's mouth in the gentlest of kisses. 

 

Steve took a step back but checked himself and tried to break the kiss as if this were Jan. He didn't want to hurt Tony. As Steve pulled away though, Tony's hands tightened around the back of his neck and he pushed his mouth against Steve's with more force, leaving Steve with no choice but to either deepen it or push Tony away. 

 

He pushed. "What are you doing?" he asked, hoping he sounded more surprised than bothered or that Tony was too drunk to tell either way. 

  

Tony gave him a confused look. "Making sure Jarvis is spinning in his grave.  You know, one of the last things he asked me was when you were coming over for dinner again?"  Tony chuckled.  "Oh, if he could only see me now."  

 

 

Steve ducked away and Tony's arms fell to his sides.  Tony's gaze slid to the ground and Steve waited for a moment before moving forward again.  "I need to open the door," he said, his voice cautious.  He pushed Tony away from the lock.  

 

Tony turned and leaned his forehead against the door jamb.  There was silence between them.  Now that he had it, Steve wasn't sure that he wanted it.  It was too empty.  Wrong.  Steve twisted the key in the lock and pushed the door open. 

 

"Come on, Tony.  Let's go inside."  His own voice sounded strained.  Tony didn't move. 

 

Steve lifted a hand but paused inches away from Tony's shoulder.  He could feel the warmth radiating from Tony in the slight chill of the autumn air.  Suddenly, the concept of touch had so many different meanings.  Would Tony understand the right one? 

 

"I never told Jarvis that he was right." 

 

Steve's eyes narrowed.  "What?" 

 

Tony shook his head, the movement rocking him slightly.  "That I--  When he said--"  Tony's hand moved to his forehead and Steve could see it trembling in the barely-there light of the hallway.  "And now, it's too late..." 

 

Steve didn't say anything; instead, he stepped beside Tony and pulled him closer, letting Tony lean against his chest. He placed a tentative hand against Tony's back and began to rub when he felt Tony's entire body shudder against him.  

 

They stood there a moment like that just outside Steve's apartment until Tony sniffled loudly and wiped at his nose with his sleeve. "Shit," Tony muttered, "I should have drank the other bottle."  

 

"Come, on."  Steve guided Tony through the doorway, letting go only long enough to latch each of the five locks.

  

He turned to find Tony looking about the apartment but not really taking anything in. He'd thrust his hands deep into his pockets as though he were afraid of taking them out again.  

 

"So," Tony said as he stared at a crack in Steve's wall, "I don't suppose you have any vodka." 

 

"I think you've had enough," Steve answered, tossing the keys on the coffee table. 

   

"I'm not unconscious."  Tony grumbled, as he collapsed onto the couch.  

 

Steve sighed and went to the icebox to see what he had. The wall clock said five minutes to one.  When he came out to ask Tony if he was desperate enough for a beer, he found Tony passed out on the couch, drooling on one of the beige pillows.  

 
 

Chapter 4 

 

The Next Morning. 

 

Tony groaned as light assaulted his eyes. "Windows dark," he mumbled, and waited for darkness to engulf his room again. The light remained. Irritated now, Tony gave the command again, but nothing happened. The nanites chattered back at him in something akin to irritation. 

 

He opened one eye, curious at the non-responsiveness of his automated devices and found himself looking at something that was most assuredly not his window. Rather than a floor-to-ceiling, panoramic bird's eye view of New York, the sunlight filtered through a dirty single paned window that had a charming view of some low-end rubble across a noisy street.  

 

Tony tried to sit up and felt his stomach lurch. He paused a moment, waiting to see if he was going to have to play 'find the bathroom,' but long fostered tolerance for overindulgence prevailed and his stomach settled.  For now. 

 

He put a hand to his head and wished his headache would be as obliging. He contemplated walking to the window and tugging on the blinds he saw hanging there, but it seemed like too much of an effort. Instead, he flopped back down and rolled over, pulling the cheap quilt around him.  

 

Just before he closed his eyes again, though, he noticed an oddity he couldn't ignore. Sitting on a well-worn dresser was an antique turntable.  The antique itself wasn't unusual. Plenty of his set bought them and displayed them with their other expensive trinkets. This particular antique, however, could politely be called 'functional' rather than 'decorative,' an impression underscored by the records that were neatly, but again, not decoratively, stacked next to it.

  

Bing Crosby, Perry Como, the Andrews Sisters... 

 

No one he knew actually used the antique turntables; in fact, no one he knew used one at all except... 

 

Tony sat up and looked around the room with fascination as he forced his throbbing head to confirm where he was despite just how unlikely it seemed.  

 

He closed his eyes, giving the unexpected scenery a chance to change into something more understandable.  When he opened them again, the turntable remained, sitting next to a few photographs of soldiers in World War II-era uniforms. Despite the wealth of evidence, he still couldn't quite believe where he was. After all, if anyone had asked Tony to list beds he would never, ever wake up in, Steve Rogers' would have been pretty high on the short list .  

 

Tony peeked under the comforter and let out a sigh of relief as he realized he was still partially clothed.  He was, however, missing his shirt and pants.  He scowled and glanced around the room.  When they were nowhere to be seen, Tony slid from the bed and padded his way over to the dresser.  Steve had probably seen almost everything there was to see last night, but Tony refused to give him an encore performance.  At least, not sober. 

 

Tony pulled open a drawer and scowled.  Everything was folded military style.  Leave it to Steve to bring his basic training home with him. Tony grabbed a pair of tartan pajama pants from the top of the nearest pile and slipped into them.  Steve was a big man, and Tony took a moment despite himself to admire the obvious difference in their waist sizes before pulling the drawstring tight to cinch the pants around his hips.   

 

He opened another drawer and grabbed a t-shirt, tugging it over his head.  He turned to stare at himself in the mirror.  The heather grey shirt had 'ARMY' printed across the front in big, black letters.  Tony sighed and rolled his eyes heavenward.  "Of course.  How superbly... Steve."  

 

Tony made his way over to the door and paused, hand resting on the brass knob.  His head spun with a thousand dizzying possibilities, none of them igniting even a spark of recognition from his alcohol-addled memory.  What had he done last night?  More important, what had he said? 

 

Tony took a deep breath, stealing himself for what he might find in the next room.  "If all else fails," he muttered, "make up some prior engagement and jet."  He twisted the knob and pulled the door open. 

 

To his horror, the door's hinges creaked loud enough to notify Staten Island of his movement.  He gave in and swung the door wide, only to find that he had opened the door to the bathroom.  He sputtered a curse and turned to the other door next to the bed. 

 

He almost suffered a heart attack when it swung open partway, Steve's head and shoulder popping out from behind it.  "Good," Steve said, sounding almost cheerful and ignoring the fact that Tony was doubled over in a valiant attempt to keep from passing out.  "You didn't asphyxiate in your sleep." 

 

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Tony grumbled, straightening slowly, his heart still thudding in his ears. 

 

"I made oatmeal," Steve said, disappearing behind the door again.  Tony moved to follow and found himself in what had to be the smallest combination living room/kitchen in the Lower East side. 

 

Steve was already seated in an armchair, his face hidden behind the morning's Times

 

Tony went over to the stove and stared down at the lumpy substance in the pot for a full minute before making a face. "I'm not sure your idea of oatmeal and my idea of oatmeal are the same thing."

  

He didn't turn around; he just pictured Steve rolling his eyes. 

 

"It's food, Tony." 

 

Tony looked again. "I'm not sure your idea of food and my idea of food are the same thing." 

 

Steve glared at him over the top of the paper. "Your idea of politeness isn't the same as mine either." 

 

Shaking his head, Tony chuckled.  "No, I'm sure it's not." He consulted with his stomach for a moment and decided that he might be able to hold down the colorless gruel. Looking over at the counter, he saw a clean bowl and spoon had been set out. He scooped out a small helping and went to sit down on the couch across from Steve. 

 

He shoved the spoon in and got it as far as halfway to his face before his insides changed their mind and threatened to rebel at the mere thought of food intake.  

 

Tony set the spoon back down, took a moment to compose himself, and looked over at Steve. 

 

"Got a Bloody Mary?"   

 

Steve's expression darkened.

 

"Er... Coffee?" 

 

Steve nodded at that and set his paper down.  He went over to a small pot next to the stove that Tony had missed.  

 

"So, do I get to learn how I came to be sprawled out in your bed?" Tony babbled, "because that has got to be an interesting story."

  

Steve poured two cups of black coffee and shook his head. "Not really.  I came across you on deck at the Triskelion as I headed out and noticed you were too drunk to be left alone. I figured you being sick in my bathroom was a better option than you stumbling off into the ocean." 

 

"Or throwing myself into it," Tony said with a wink, setting his bowl down on the small end table next to him. 

 

Steve didn't dignify the comment with a response; instead, he crossed the room and handed Tony one of the mugs before settling back into the arm chair. Tony returned Steve's gaze for a moment, desperate to discover what was going on in Steve's head, but to no avail. He wanted to see something accusatory, but the blue eyes were too soft for that.

  

Tony shifted, uncomfortable under the scrutiny, and distracted himself with the small, spare room.

  

"So, you're a minimalist?" he asked before taking a sip of his coffee. 

 

Steve shrugged. "I've just never had a lot of stuff and everything is... seems so expensive now." He frowned and Tony caught a sheepish look before Steve used the coffee mug to hide it. 

 

"Steve, you make six figures easy."

 

"Drop it, okay?"

 

"You could--"

 

"Tony, I said drop it." 

 

Tony found himself making a note to see if he could have Pepper accidentally send a decorator out this direction.   

 

While the conversation lulled, Tony cast his attentions on the only thing interesting in the whole room. Sitting on the coffee table, surrounded by tools, wires, and parts, was an antique radio.  

 

Without asking, he leaned over the broken appliance, studying for a moment. Behind him, he could hear Steve explaining what it was. A 1930's Montgomery Wards Airlines telephone radio dialer. Bucky had given it to Steve on Steve's first birthday after the freeze. 

 

Tony plopped on the couch and began taking it apart with the tiny screwdriver that had been next to it. 

 

Steve coughed as he got up. "Tony, do you... do you know what you're doing." 

 

The look Tony shot Steve was full of unintended venom.  "I do more than ride around in a shiny, high-tech suit, Steve."   

 

Steve scowled.  "Yes.  You also get drunk and climb into even bigger suits that destroy half of Manhattan." 

 

Tony silenced him with a glare and began fiddling with the machine's guts.  He clenched his jaw in irritation.  He didn't usually allow Steve to get under his skin.

 

The silence filled the room until Steve grunted.  "That was... rude of me," he muttered.  

 

Tony didn't even look up from the electronics. "Is that an apology?" he asked as he worked at an ancient screw. 

 

"You wouldn't be the first soldier I saw get drunk." 

 

Tony felt his stomach sink.  "Aren't you magnanimous."  

 

Steve rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "I didn't mean to be condescending.  I meant that honestly. Sometimes you remind me of some of the soldiers. Not the really young ones. You aren't that... naïve. But the older ones, the ones that had seen a lot of battle and were trying to..." 

 

"You know," Tony said, finally putting enough force behind the screwdriver to budge the uncooperative screw. "You are really putting your foot in it."

 

Steve stopped talking and sank back into his chair. When the silence seemed too long, Tony glanced up and saw Steve looking across the room at a worn photograph surrounded by books about the ending of WWII.  

 

Steve must have noticed Tony watching him because he nodded at picture.  "I trained with them." Tony looked away.  

 

He crossed his legs on the couch and set the radio in his lap.  "Are they some of the ones you meet with at those dinners?" 

    

"No one in that particular picture lived past the war." 

 

"You regret your decision?" Tony asked, trying to mask his surprise with a skeptical look. 

 

 

Steve shook his head. "No, not at all.  I just..."  He rested his chin on his hand and sighed.

  

Tony pulled out some wires that would need to be replaced. "Do you want that?" he questioned, angling his head toward a modern radio that was still sitting in its original box on the bookshelf.   

 

Steve shook his head. From the expression on his face, Tony wasn't convinced Steve fully understood what had been asked but that didn't stop him from making grabbing motions at the radio.  Steve frowned, but got up to get the box for Tony anyway.  "How old are you?  Three?"   

 

Tony ripped open the packaging, pulled the radio out, and tossed the empty box to the floor.  Steve scowled and snatched up the box, walking over to the kitchen to throw it away.

 

"They like to honor us," Tony heard Steve mutter as he came back over the the couch. 

 

Tony was quick to gut the new machine, and he paused, holding a length of wire in his hand, and looked over at Steve. "Sorry, what?" 

 

"They have movies, TV shows, whole days dedicated to the soldiers of the war." Steve rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment and Tony was reminded of Steve's own monument in Greenwood Cemetery.

 

Tony sighed as he replaced the frayed wires with new ones. "Is there a point you're going to be making soon, or can I tune you out?" 

 

He felt Steve's glare on his back, but Steve answered his question anyway.  

 

"I don't understand how they can build statues to honor me if they find what I believe in so easy to mock." 

 

Tony frowned down at the liquid Steve called coffee, wire strippers hovering over the radio. "It's complicated, but, well, your brand of patriotism went out when Kennedy took one to the head and one to the chest. And, after all the accounts of governmental fraud and corruption that appeared with the dawning of the new millennium, I guess your outlook seems archaic."

 
Steve snorted. "Archaic? Have you ever heard of Pendergast, Tony?" 

 

"Yeah, I think he had a falling out with a great uncle's cousin of mine or something when he ran for governor of Missouri in the 1930's." 

 

"Wait, what?!"

 

Tony's eyes narrowed as he poked around in the machine's guts.  "A 6A8G mixer/oscillator. Jesus..." 

 

"You're changing the subject." 

 

Tony glanced over at Steve and shrugged.  "The radio parts are more interesting."  He ducked his head, pretending to examine a wire more closely, but really he just needed to hide the grin that Steve's spluttering provoked. 

 

"Look," Tony began, speaking around a screwdriver now clenched in his mouth.  "I'm just saying supporting the government isn't a fashion right now and society tends to mock what is unfashionable."  He removed the screwdriver, tossed it onto the coffee table, and began to twist together some of the more delicate wires.  He was pleased to note it didn't look like he needed to solder or crimp anything back together.  All in all, it was an easy fix. 

 

He looked over at Steve again and felt a rare pang of guilt.  He was used to upsetting people, but he wasn't used to their response bothering him.  That was something to think about later, Tony decided, letting his hands move automatically over the simple repair job.   

 

 

"Well, one of the nice things about statues is that they don't actually tell you what their beliefs are." 

 

"I fought in World War II, Tony." 

 

"Oh?  Are we stating the obvious? Okay, I'm rich." Tony looked down at the shirt he was wearing and shuddered. "Though maybe that doesn't count as obvious right now. Should I go again?" 

 

He twisted around on the couch, reaching behind it to plug in the antique.  The radio sprung to life, spewing static, the tuning eye glowing a gentle green.  Tony turned back around and grinned up at Steve.  "How about, I'm a genius?" 

 

Steve eyed him for a moment then smiled in a way that Tony was rarely on the receiving end of from Steve.  "You're a genius."  

    

Tony felt a swell of pride akin to the first time he'd shown his dad his crayon-drawn schematics for a suit of armor that would be able to fly.  Yes, this day was definitely going to be something to consult his therapist about later.

 

Chapter 5 

 

Stark International Corporate Offices.  One Week After Arnim Zola's Escape.  

 

"What do you mean you don't know where he is?"  Tony pulled his cell phone away from his ear to make sure he had actual called Nick and not Tim from Accounting on the third floor.  He put the phone back to his ear and stopped walking.  "How does Captain America fall off SHIELD's grid?  Don't you have some spy chip in the back of his neck or something?"

 

He put his hand on his hip and waited for Nick to finish his explanation.  "Now, now,  Nick, that's not very polite.  It's not my fault I'm the fifth person to call you today about this, but Sam saying he saw him a week ago is no longer a viable excuse."  He started walking again.  At this point, whatever Nick was saying was bullshit.  All that mattered was that Nick hadn't a clue where Steve Rogers had wandered off.

 

Tony pulled his phone away from his ear again and pressed the 'end call' button in the middle of Nick's line about National Security.  He slipped the phone into his jacket pocket and stormed into his office, his mind focused on reports of people claiming to have seen Captain America. 

 

"Damn, damn, damn," Tony chanted as he flipped through report after report. After another curse about the general stupidity of all human beings, he noticed that another person sat in the room with him. Looking up, he saw Thor lounging on the overstuffed couch, beer in hand, grinning. 

 

"I often share that sentiment, Tony, but can I ask what event has brought such an American success story to the same conclusion?"  

 

In a fit of pique,  Tony threw some of the reports on the table and across the desk and watched them skitter over its edge and onto the floor.  "What kind of soldier doesn't report in?!" he snapped, gesturing at the papers that now littered the floor.  

 

"I would guess one who was no longer officially part of the U.S. Military Industrial Complex and who simply doesn’t want to report in," Thor offered, holding up his pint.

 

Tony just glared at Thor. 

  

"Given who this is," Thor said with a raised eyebrow, "why worry so much? He probably just got caught up helping people or something. As much as he tends to venerate his corrupt masters, his heart's in the right place when left on his own." 

 

Tony rubbed his temple. "His heart's in the right place," he agreed, "but his head's full of military discipline. He'd have called someone to report that he was going to be held up walking small children to school." 

 

"Would you like me to find him?"  

 

"He's not coming up on any of the satellites.  I don't know what you think you can--"  A flash of thunder and light interrupted Tony's train of thought. 

 

For a second he stared at the space where Thor had been. "Right. God-like powers trump modern machines. I have to work on that."   

 

 

Tony fell into his chair and stared out the floor-to-ceiling window.  After a few minutes, he turned and pressed the green button on the LCD panel built into his desk.  "Jarvis, can you--"  He caught himself and pulled his hand back from the button.

 

"Mr. Stark?" 

 

Tony leaned back over the desk.  "It's nothing, Terri.  Just have them send up a few bottles of the '45, will you?"  Tony rubbed the bridge of his nose.  It was going to be one of those days. 

  

 

*** 

 

The Beer Bucket.  Somewhere in Middle America. 

 

Steve rubbed his shoulder, working out a sore muscle he'd injured days ago fighting Zola with Sam Wilson. Usually, it would have healed by now, but that assumed he rested and didn't continue to put strain on the injury. 

 

Steve sipped at the tasteless light beer, the only thing available in the poor, post-invasion bar. He drained the glass then carefully set it on the table. He'd not slept in several days and miscalculating his strength had already led to a damaged guard rail.  

 

He didn't want to be any more trouble to these unfortunate people. 

 

Steve rubbed his eyes for a moment and then switched back to his shoulder.

 

He could still see the massive tangle of sinew and circuitry that had towered over him, the swastika emblazoned on its right shoulder.  All those people clicking their heels and raising their submachine guns in a Nazi salute to that... that thing.

 

He tried to get his thoughts back on the task at hand.  After this breakI'll see if they need help dragging their lake or--

 

Something at the entrance caught his eye, so he angled his spoon to get a better look at the person in the doorway.  "Damn," he sighed.  Steve hoped that the crowded bar would somehow render him invisible, but he knew Thor had seen him.  Why else would he be here?

 

"Ho there, friend," Thor called out as he made his way to Steve's table. "You know," he said, pulling out a chair and sitting next to Steve. "Your irresponsibility has panicked Tony into almost being a responsible human being."  Thor looked up at the ceiling and smiled.  "There's an interesting sense of balance in that."

 

Steve stared blankly at the glass in his hand. 

 

"Are you okay?"  

 

Steve said nothing. 

 

"Steven?" Thor pressed. 

 

Steve gave serious consideration to getting up and walking away. Of all the people, it had to be Thor that walked through those doors.  If Thor was bothered by Steve's silence, he didn't show it. Finally, Steve sighed. "God moves in mysterious ways." 

 

 

Thor lifted his pint to that and knocked back about half of it. "So does that revelation mean you're okay?" 

 

Steve closed his eyes and pinched his nose.  "Maybe...  No." Steve knew his bitterness had leaked into his voice. 

 

"Your country beat back an invasion and can once again do no wrong in the eyes of the world, and you are disillusioned?" Thor said, quirking his head. "Truly these must be the end of times." Thor beckoned a waitress for a refill of his drink and Steve's.  Steve waited until she had come and gone.  

 

"When I fought in World War II, I saw things that..." Steve took a shuddering breath, "...that I never imagined one human being could do to another. People were killed in unspeakable ways and for nothing more than damned curiosity!"  

 

He clenched his fists. "I assumed they would be punished. I assumed there would be justice for those poor people who were tortured for some sick bastard's curiosity." 

 

Thor shrugged.  "But they weren't.  Not all of them. Not the ones who were really good at what they did." 

 

"I just defeated a man who shouldn't have been allowed to live. But not only was he still alive, my government was funding more of his research. They allowed him to practice the sick torture he calls science. My government!  They practically condoned his atrocious actions!"  Steve looked up at Thor and knew the horror he felt was visible in his expression. "No, not practically.  They did condone it!" 

 

Thor nodded and patted Steve's hand.  "My friends and I don't just protest because we want to cause trouble, Steven." 

 

 

Steve jerked his hand back and gave Thor a dirty look.  "So, no 'I told you so?'" he demanded angrily. He wanted Thor to be obnoxious about this.  He wanted a reason to start a fight.  Instead, the damn beatnik just kept that infuriating grin in place. 

 

 

"I'm not a man to gloat.  Besides, you seem the type to rationalize this as an isolated event." 

 

Steve shook his head. "He wasn't alone!  I spent all last week going through records of what happened to Nazi and Jap- Japanese scientists. We gave them pardons. Pardons!" 

 

Zola's voice over the flat screen monitor came back to him.  "They will isolate me until another of my children finds me.  Perhaps a general this time, ja?"

 

Steve hadn't wanted it to be true.  He wanted someone from the government to shut down the Zola A.I.  Sam's response was indifferent. 

 

"I doubt they will.  Not as long as it's designing weapons for them."  That nonchalant tone!  He heard it everywhere he went these days.  A verse from one of the books he'd borrowed from Tony came back to him.  We must not be frightened nor cajoled into accepting evil as deliverance from evil.  We must go on struggling to be human, though monsters of abstractions police and threaten us.  Why didn't anyone understand that that's why he started fighting for this country in the first place?  Why he was still fighting? 

 

Steve smashed his fist into the wall beside him and just stared at the plaster as it crumbled to the floor. The bartender hovered nervously at the far end of the bar, unsure of whether to be offended by the property damage or to just let the two, very, very large men be. 

 

Thor set a giant mug in front of him, startling him from his thoughts.  A dark, amber liquid sloshed over the rim to puddle on the table next to him.   Steve looked at the drink, suspicious and still seething. Intricate carvings decorated the mug, and the scent of the frothy beverage inside was like nothing he had ever smelled before. 

 

Clearly, neither the mug nor the liquid inside had come from the bar.  

 

 

Steve turned a questioning gaze to Thor, who was already drinking from his own glass.  After draining half the draught, Thor raised his glass, foam clinging to his mustache.  

 

"Asgardian honey mead," Thor crowed, clapping Steve on the shoulder.  "It makes thinking about difficult problems significantly easier." 

 

Steve glared at the table in front of him.  "I can't get drunk, Thor.  My metabolism won't let me." 

 

Thor chuckled, deep voice rumbling like thunder, and gave Steve one of those looks that Steve was beginning to hate, what Tony had once called the 'silly mortal look.'  "Try it." 

 

Steve rubbed at his tired eyes with one hand then shrugged.  "What the hell."  He reached out and picked up the drink. 

 

*** 

 

The Empire Suite of the Carlyle Hotel.  New York. 

 

Tony was caught between the desire to go put his armor on and start looking for Steve himself, and the impulse to put the man's face on milk cartons, because that would at least add an interesting surreal aspect to the whole mess. He pulled off his wool crêpe Armani jacket and tossed it over the back of the sofa.  The TV had already been turned on for him by the turndown service and he scanned the headlines that scrolled along the bottom of the screen, loosening the knot on his silk houndstooth tie.  Nothing about Steve's actions flashed on the ticker, good or bad.  He sighed and leaned against the couch, crossing his arms.  Steve was going to be the death of him. 

 

Before he could reconsider getting into his armor, there was a loud crash and Thor materialized before him, one arm supporting Steve Rogers.

  

"Whoa!"  Tony cried, as he scrambled to stand up. "What happened?!" 

 

"No worries, Tony," Thor said with a chortle. "He's just a little intoxicated. Though he holds his drink better than any mortal I've ever had the pleasure to sit down with, alas, he is still just a man." 

 

"Well..." Tony started. Anything he was going to say died on his tongue when Steve managed to look at him, wave, and give him perhaps the most ridiculous smile Tony had ever seen.  

 

"He wished to be taken here," Thor explained.  

 

"And you listened to him?" 

 

Thor nodded, and Tony decided that Thor was having no small amount of fun at his expense. "I thought that would be best.  Neither of us had a cell phone and my word that Steve was all right wouldn't really have be enough given your state of... aggravation."  

 

Tony shook his head in disbelief. 

 

Thor shrugged.  "Sorry Tony, but your obsessive mannerisms left me no choice." 

 

Tony rolled his eyes then gestured toward a high-backed leather chair next to the couch. "You are not sorry, you big oaf."  Tony's eyes scanned the room .  "Just... Dump him there while we work out what to do with a drunken Super Soldier."  

 

"Actually," Thor said, his eyes twinkling with mischief. "I've got an urgent matter abroad that demands my attention. As much as I'd like to stay and watch events unfold here, I simply can't." 

 

It took Tony a moment to realize his mouth was hanging open.  Thor broke into a belly laugh, which in turn caused Steve to start laughing.  Tony was not in on the joke.

 

"So, wait.  You're abandoning me to Steve? A drunk Steve?  A condition which, I might add, appears to be totally your fault?!" 

 

"I'm okay," Steve slurred. Tony turned and saw Steve making an uncoordinated effort to pull away from Thor.  

 

Thor's smile widened and Tony gave serious consideration to give into the urge to try throttle Thor, despite the likelihood that he would be struck down by lightning inside his suit before he could even take two steps in Thor's direction.  "I am afraid so, Tony," Thor said, pushing down on Steve's head to get him to sit in the chair that Tony had pointed to earlier.  Steve made some disgruntled sounds but sat.  

 

 

"Wonderful," Tony muttered as Thor vanished from sight with a crack of thunder.  The room was filled with the acrid smell of ozone.  Immediately, Steve was back on his feet, his gestures so wild that Tony feared for the breakables around him. 

 

Steve stared wide-eyed at the spot where Thor had been. "People can't do that!" He looked over at Tony then gestured again at the spot and looked as though he were going to try and walk over to it. Try was the operative word. He moved a little, but couldn't quite get everything coordinated. Tony watched as Steve pitched forward then overcompensated and leaned back. Finally, he fell over backwards, toppling the chair as well.  

 

Tony stared at Steve. Closed his eyes, rubbed his eyes, opened them, and stared some more.  

 

Steve stared up at him from where he was lying on his back on Tony's floor and began to laugh again.  

 

"Steve Rogers," Tony said walking over to stand at Steve's side. "Are you drunk?" 

 

Steve shook his head slowly then looked up at Tony. "I'm not supposed to get drunk." He tried to prop himself up on his elbows, got halfway there and then, with a lack of coordination that impressed Tony even after the falling off the chair, tumbled backwards again. 

 

"But maybe I am." 

 

"Steve," Tony said, offering his hand. "As an expert on all things ethanol, you're drunk." 

 

"Okay," Steve agreed, reaching for Tony's hand and missing. "Captain America is drunk." 

 

Tony debated calling in Happy to help him move Steve but figured Steve would be mortified enough that two people had seen him like this, let alone if Happy, a near stranger to Steve, saw him as well. 

 

When Steve missed Tony's hand for the third time, Tony withdrew it.  "Just... stay there."  Tony sighed and tucked his hands into his pockets.  When in Rome...  He walked over to the wet bar, but as he reached for the half-drunk bottle of vodka, something gave him pause: a small note with very large, looping handwriting. 

 

Now, my dearest friend, we are even.

 

"Thor, you son of a bitch."  Tony let out a short bark of laughter and poured himself an extra tall glass before plunking down on the floor cross-legged next to Steve. 

 

"I'd forgotten what this was like," Steve mumbled, managing to get himself propped up on an elbow. 

 

Tony took a swig of vodka and eyed Steve. His blond hair was mussed, his cheeks flushed.  He didn't look like he could string more than few words together.  Tony felt his own cheeks grow hot a little too fast to blame it on the liquor and cleared his throat.

 

"You used to know what this was like?" Tony asked. He knew it was unfair, but he also doubted he'd ever get the chance to pry secrets from Steve again. 

 

"Oh sure," Steve said.  He paused and became cross-eyed for a moment. "Well, okay not that much, but a couple of times Buck and I had too much. A few times with Gail, too."  He lowered his voice and tried to move closer to Tony. "I was so tiny, they could both out drink me." 

 

 

"Sad," Tony said, his expression solemn.  

 

Steve nodded then laughed. "Captain America is drunk."  He rolled over and tried to stand, but begin to topple forward as soon as he got on his feet.  

 

Tony grabbed the hem of Steve's t-shirt and pulled him back down onto the floor.  "You don't have permission to fall on anymore of the nice hotel's things," he chided, but kept his voice as gentle as he could manage.  Tony quickly finished the his drink and set the glass next to a lamp.

 

When Steve looked up and gave a sloppy salute, Tony was reminded of just how young Steve was. Nineteen plus four made twenty-three.  Add the two years out of the ice...  

 

 

Most kids his age were still drinking beers at frat parties while trying to pick up sorority girls.  

 

Steve had been through a war.  

 

His age.  Tony snorted.  My age, too.  

 

"What'cha thinking, fella?" 

 

"That you're young."  

 

"I'm older than your pop."

 

"Not if we take out the ice years."

 

Steve's brow furrowed as he contemplated Tony's last statement.  Tony took the moment of silence to study Steve's strong features.  I have got to get some of this stuff from Thor.  

 

"Even if I'm not so old," Steve muttered, drawing Tony's attention back to him. "I still don't fit in." 

 

Tony chuckled. "Try being blue." 

 

Steve suddenly pushed himself up onto hands and knees and crawled over to Tony, bearing down on him until they were almost nose-to-nose.  A little intimidated by the sudden invasion of his personal space, Tony leaned back on his hands.  "What are you doing?" 

 

"You," said Steve, concentrating hard on what he was trying to say.  "When you were drunk, you kissed me."

 

Tony froze, the blood draining out of his face.  "I what?" 

 

Steve moved closer, his breath hot on Tony's cheek, and suddenly, there was no way Tony could pretend he didn't know what Steve's intentions were: he could smell them, the tang of sweat, dirt, and testosterone.  Tony's mouth went dry.

 

"I-I--"  Tony shook his head, trying to clear it.  The alcohol and Steve's musk had brought the blood back to his face and his cheeks burned.  "Really, I don't think--" 

 

Steve crawled closer.  He lifted his hand, fingertips brushing over Tony's thigh before setting down next to his hip.  Steve was centimeters away now.  "You don't remember?"  The alcohol on Steve's breath was sweet and strong.  Tony felt himself getting drunk off its fumes.

 

Tony instinctively moved his legs apart to make room for Steve to come even closer.  He swallowed, his eyes fixed on the crook of Steve's mouth.  Steve's lips were chapped from being outside for days on end, and there was about three days worth of stubble along Steve's jaw. Tony wondered how it would feel against the skin of his inner thighs as Steve's mouth... "Steve."  He could only manage a whisper.  "You're drunk."

 

Steve's smile was slow, intense.  "Uh-huh."  

 

Tony shivered. There were things he was supposed to say now. Things like, stop.  You'll regret this in the morning.  I didn't even think you liked guys.  All those points were moot as Tony felt the heat and lust rolling off Steve, and -  Steve's other hand moved to Tony's hip.

 

Every last rational part of Tony's brain screamed at him to pull away, to put time and distance between him and Steve before he did something that everyone involved would regret.  Tony did what he always did with voices that told him to do what he didn't want to do: he ignored them.  He leaned forward, straight on, desperate for the taste of Steve's skin.  The bridge of his nose bumped against Steve's but he pressed their lips together anyway. 

 

Steve froze, his eyes closed.  On a quiver of breath, Tony leaned back just enough to break the contact between them.  He was hoping that the kiss would smack some sense into both of them so they could have a good laugh, sleep off the alcohol, and go back to sniping at each other in the morning.

 

Steve's eyes were open now, the blue of his gaze intense, pinning Tony beneath its weight.  Steve surged forward, his mouth making contact just to the right of Tony's.  Steve's stubble scraped against his lips and Tony parted them, his tongue slipping out to taste salty sweat and dirt and Steve, and Jesus, he was done for.  He angled his head to the left to find a better fit between them, and Steve's mouth trailed over Tony's cheek, leaving his skin wet and tingling as his lips sought Tony's again. Holy Mother of G- was Tony's  last rational thought as Steve's mouth brushed against his skin.

 

The second time their lips met , Steve's mouth was open, and hot.  Tony nipped  Steve's bottom lip with his teeth; his mind now totally short circuited by Steve's tortured moan, he reflexively jerked his hips forward.  He could only gasp at the fleeting press of Steve's arousal against his, blindsided by the raw need shuddering through him. Jesus, he wanted-  "Steve."

 

Tony's world shrunk to the scrape of teeth and grate of stubble on his neck; Steve's tongue was a- a brand- on his skin. Tony momentarily squeezed his eyes shut, focusing on nothing but levels of sensation.  The heat of Steve's broad hand on his shoulder, pushing, the movement clumsy and rough. The tilt and shift of his surroundings as Tony lost his balance, his back and shoulders against the carpet. The urgent press of Steve on top of him, and suddenly breathing was not important.

 

Breathing was not important, because Steve licked his way into Tony's mouth, and Tony tugged at his shirt, the movement frantic, while sucking on Steve's tongue, tasting honey and liquor, wanting to feel skin, needing to feel skin, to know that this was real. 

 

Only for Steve to break contact, a smooth shifting of shoulders and muscle as he shucked his shirt off, and Tony got an impression of sleek muscle, acres of skin dusted with fair fuzz. Well, hello there, soldier. Was the thermostat working, was -shi-  none of it mattered, as Tony's fingers skimmed along Steve's shoulders and ribcage, feeling skin and muscle slick with sweat. The thatch of blond hairs that were almost invisible in the low lamp light. For the first time in a damned long while, Tony remembered what greed felt like; just this unchecked want, to be filled with sensations to bursting.  The hardness of Steve's body, the heat of their erections as they rutted against each other though material, their actions frenzied, desperate. Nothing but the scent and feel of Steve, filling Tony's senses, soaking into his skin. 

 

"Steve," and it was a rasp, because the moisture in Tony's mouth became powder as he found himself in the crosshairs of Steve's stare. His eyes although half-lidded, were still a bright blue, his mouth half open and his breath coming in short puffs. This was another first, seeing Steve Rogers winded, and Tony heard the wild drumming of his heart in his ears. As they took in each other for that short time Tony found himself falling back on another habit he thought he had been well rid of.  Begging. 

 

"More, Steve - please." Tony was shameless, as he rolled his hips up against Steve's once, twice, and Steve shifted, his hips falling in rhythm to match Tony's. "Oh fu- yes," Tony hissed, his fingernails scrapping against Steve's side, feeling the tremors they left in their wake, only for his hand to be captured by broad fingers, his wrist pinned to the plush pile of the carpet underneath him. 

 

Undeterred , Tony moved his free hand from Steve's shoulder to the waistband of Steve's fatigues. Tony's hand, normally sure with the steadiness of a surgeon's touch, was trembling and clumsy with need as he struggled with the catch of Steve's belt; half palming Steve, half unlatching his belt. Steve arched his hips, throwing his head back, rivulets of sweat rolling from his forehead down to the column of his neck, settling in clavicle and at the dip of his throat. It was all instinct and need for Tony now, as he strained forward against Steve's weight, using his tongue to taste sweat and mead and him. Unable to reach Steve's mouth, Tony trailed sloppy, open mouthed kisses along Steve's neck, and nipped and sucked at his collarbone.

 

He was rewarded with Steve's rocking of hips, harder and faster this time, and his name torn from Steve's mouth. Harsh and raw and desperate. "Tony."

 

"Yes, oh God, Steve." Tony was babbling now, as Steve's mouth was hot on his neck, the delicious scratch of stubble along the sensitive skin of Tony's chin and jaw. The firmness of Steve's thighs against his, Steve's hips going only faster and oh God more, more, more.. before Steve stilled. Only a few seconds... yet infinity, before Tony felt Steve's shudder , his choked, guttural cry in Tony's ear. 

 

Steve's head was on his shoulder, and Tony felt the stickiness of Steve's discharge through his own thin dress slacks. Steve pressed sloppy wet kisses against Tony's neck.  

 

"Sorry," he mumbled, his body becoming heavier and heavier. Tony blinked, trying to clear his thoughts.  It took him a moment to stop the instinctual pound of his own hips, for his head to clear.  "Steve?"  Tony tried to shift beneath Steve's bulk, but Steve was simply too big.

 

Tony lifted his hips one more time and half hoped that Steve would rouse and help him take care of his... problem, but Steve's breathing was heavy and even against his neck.

 

"Wonderful," Tony said, trying to push Steve off with one hand.  The gesture was half-hearted and Steve didn't budge.

 

"And in international news..."  Tony angled his head so he could see the television, the fingers of his free hand drifting absently back and forth across the expanse of Steve's sweat slicked back.

 

Tony sighed and closed his eyes, as he bumped his head against the carpet.

 

Apparently, it was also going to be one of those nights.

 

 

*** 

 

When Tony stirred, for one glorious instant he had convinced himself that everything that happened the night before was all a drunken hallucination.  Tony groaned as he got to his feet.  He ached - all over - and tried to work a few of the kinks out of his neck.  His shirt was wrinkled and stained with sweat. Sighing, he pulled at the tail of his shirt and stared at the stiff stain on his slacks.  I wonder if I can get a hold of Marc this time of year.  I'm going to need new clothes.

 

Tony looked over at the chair.  It was sitting upright again, but was set too far over to the left of the couch.  Damn.

  

"Steve?" he called out.  He moved through his suite as if Steve might have set booby traps for him along the way.  When he rounded the corner in the full-sized kitchen, he found Steve sitting at the island, staring at his clasped hands on the counter before him.

 

"When I woke up, I was on top of you."

 

Tony came further into the kitchen but made sure to stay on the opposite side of the island.  "That detail was a little hard for me to miss, Steve."

 

Steve stared at him, expression blank. Tony sighed.  Somehow he'd been foolish enough to think that the morning after talk would go differently. 

 

"Look, what happened, happened," he said, a trace of irritation slipping into his voice.  "Please don't self flagellate or whatever it is you do when you feel you've personally failed somehow." 

 

Steve continued to stare at Tony for a moment then his eyes narrowed.  "Why didn't you stop me?" 

    

"Stop you?  Steve, I couldn't have stopped you if I'd wanted to." 

 

Steve's face turned beet red and his eyes narrowed. "I was drunk!" 

 

"Drunk, and huge, and pumped full of crazy chemicals," Tony said, waving his hands for effect.  "I had no chance, Steve." 

 

At that, Steve jumped to his feet and pointed a finger at Tony, but no words came out. Instead, he just stood there, jabbing his finger in Tony's direction. 

 

"Oh, you always make such a convincing argument," Tony said with a smirk.

 

Steve ran his hands through his hair and Tony almost thought he might start pulling it out. Instead, Steve backed up to the wall and slammed his forearm against it. 

 

"Hey! Watch what you hit.  You can't afford to break anything here."

 

"You were drunk at my place," Steve bristled, "and I did nothing to you, no matter how much you begged." 

 

Tony froze, disbelieving.  "I did what?" 

 

"You kissed me.  You- you threw yourself at me, and I did nothing!" 

 

Tony felt his ears grow hot.  He needed something to drink.  Now.  He reached behind him and snatched the half-empty bottle of cooking sherry from beside the oven range and took a healthy swig.  He slammed the bottle down onto the counter.  Steve flinched, startled at the noise.

 

"You did nothing, Steve? Any particular reason for that?" 

 

"Yes," Steve yelled, glancing from the bottle to Tony's face. "I don't take advantage of drunks." 

 

"Take advantage?" Tony said, voice growing cold. "I did not take advantage--" 

 

"You take advantage of everyone and everything!"

 

Tony swallowed against the taste of bile and cooking sherry at the back of his throat.  He carefully pulled his emotions back and let go of the bottle.  He stepped fully away from the island and gestured towards the door.  "Seeing as you don't have a keycard to get into the elevator, Mr. Rogers, you'll need to take the emergency exit door to the stairs."

 

"Tony--"

 

"You should probably get started."  Tony glanced at his Girard-Perregaux watch before slipping his hands into his pockets.  "We're twenty nine floors up and your schedule seems to be dreadfully full - people to save and even more people to judge."

 

Steve surged to his feet, the stool clattering to the ground with the violence of his movement.  "And I'm sure you have people to screw." 

 

The smile that Tony gave Steve could have frozen mercury in free fall. He only pointed to the large wooden entryway, just in case Steve needed help.

 

Steve glared at Tony and then stormed out of the room.  When Tony heard the front door slam, he picked up the bottle and finished it without taking a breath.

 

 

Chapter 6 

 

Tony Stark's Fifth Avenue Mansion.  Headquarters of the Ultimates.  Manhattan. Eight days later. 

 

Tony had called a meeting of all active Ultimates members, but the way things were going, he was spending most of his time promising himself he would never do anything so stupid again.  

 

The problem with having embarrassing sexual encounters with people you worked with was the "working with" part afterwards. Tony could avoid seeing Steve socially, all that took was practically living in the office at his suite, but he couldn't avoid Steve all the time.  

 

This particular day went exactly as the last few days had gone. Tony said nothing to Steve, Steve said nothing to Tony. Steve hardly even looked at Tony unless it was to scowl at him.  

 

He had, however, been spending more and more time with Jan. In fact the day after the incident, Steve had spent the night at Jan's for the first time in weeks. 

 

Tony's empty hand twitched as he remembered the nasty fight that had followed that. He'd said something to Steve about the tactless drive to preserve his heterosexuality. 

 

Steve had yelled again. Loudly.  

 

That little argument would be fueling water cooler gossip for weeks. And of course, Steve had only redoubled his efforts with Jan.   

 

Just as he was doing now. Tony managed to keep his expression neutral despite the grimace that kept threatening to pull at the corners of his mouth.  Steve hovered needlessly close to Jan, smiling brightly down at her and paying far too much attention to everything she said. 

 

"God," Tony whispered to himself, "there is never enough to drink.  Anywhere." 

 

"Excuse me people," he said to no one in particular. "We might want to, oh, I don't know, talk about team things at this team meeting." 

 

He looked around the half-empty conference table and noted who were in attendance. Steve and Jan continued to flirt.  Wanda and Pietro were there in body, but were too busy fawning over each other to counted as fully present.  Hawkeye was no where to be found.  Thor came and went as he wanted and today didn't appear to be a 'want to' day. How Nick Fury had never committed justifiable homicide, he did not know.  "This is a swell team," he hissed, pushing himself up from his chair. 

 

Tony looked around then shrugged. "You know what I was thinking," he said to himself. "We're missing scientists.  We used to have one, a pretty good one, but he turns giant, green, and eats people. That poses a problem. We also had another one, but he turns giant, does not turn green, and beats people. Also a problem, but a lesser one than the eating people." 

 

Tony wandered around the room, looking for something to drink.  

 

"Anyway, I was thinking of rehiring him as a full-time consultant to the Ultimates.  Don't know how I'd get Fury to let him out of his little, glass Hulk box, but..." Tony opened the cabinets, hoping a hidden panel behind all of the state of the art equipment.  "Since no one objects," he glanced over both shoulders to emphasize his point, "I'll get right on that" 

 

Tony looked back at the spot where Steve was still flirting with Jan.  

 

"Bastard," he said under his breath. "Let's see how you like this." 

 

***

 

The great thing about Steve ignoring him was that it meant the idiot hadn't noticed Hank was rehired until it was too late to do anything about it. Of course, when Steve found out, he had reacted like a mature, well adjusted adult.  Well, Tony was sure there was some universe out there in which Steve had reacted like that; in this particular universe, however, Steve had been sulking in the gym for days.  

 

"Are you planning to ever come out of here again?" Tony called up to Steve from the doorway. Steve didn't even bother to acknowledge his presence; instead, he just stayed in the Iron Cross position on the gymnastic rings, arms stretched out to either side of his body. 

 

Despite his irritation, Tony couldn't help but admire Steve's form, hard ridges of muscle visible beneath the blue tank top and red gym shorts.  The open lighting in the gym was harsh and yellow, but when it hit the slick skin of Steve's shoulders and the blond fuzz that ran along Steve's arms, it became softer.  Small tremors ran along the muscles of Steve's arms and a thin sheen of sweat covered him from forehead to flank.  Tony ran his tongue along his lips, aching for the taste of salt.  He pushed off the door jamb with his elbow and picked his way around several pieces of equipment to stand in front of Steve.  Steve kept staring straight ahead.

 

"You have to come down from there sometime."

 

Steve didn't dignify his comment with a response, so Tony sighed and leaned back against the balance beam, hands in his pockets, and crossed his legs at the ankles.  "Fine.  I'll just hang around here until you feel man enough to come down and talk to me."  Tony considered a few other taunts for good measure, but they ended up being completely unnecessary.  Steve's internal battle played out easily across his features until he finally shook his head, his mouth a tight, thin line.  Steve swung back and forth a few times before he released the rings and tucked into a somersault , landing lightly on his feet.  As soon as he hit the ground, he stalked toward Tony.

 

"What do you want?"

 

"You keep disappearing, and, as one of Jan's first official acts as Ultimates Team Leader, she told me to find out where you go. Not one to shirk my duties, I told her I'd try."  Tony shrugged as if it was never an imposition to help a teammate stalk other teammates.  "I'm being helpful."  

 

"Helpful?" Steve asked, skepticism dripping from every word. "How are you helpful to anyone but yourself?" 

 

"Oh Steven, Steven," Tony sighed, a hand splayed over over his heart. "Do you really think those words will wound me? Have you picked up a tabloid lately?  You're too much of a boyscout to come up with anything that could really get under my skin."  

 

Steve pushed past Tony and grabbed a towel, draping it around his neck and shoulders. "You think so?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. "I recall upsetting you pretty badly last week."  

 

"You're proud of what you said to me then, are you?" 

 

Steve's expression faltered for the smallest of moments and Tony took that as a check in their little game of testosterone-riddled chess. It was also a confirmation of what he expected all along: Steve felt guilty about what he'd said and was just too damn stubborn to admit it.

 

Tony smirked and left his perch against the balance beam, making his way over to where Steve was trying his damnedest to go back to ignoring him.  Tony stopped at Steve's shoulder, just close enough to feel Steve's heat begin to seep through the fabric of his shirt.  He leaned in, his eyes fixed on Steve's face, aching for a bigger reaction.  "You know, Steve..."  His whisper was soft, conspiratorial, and he watched Steve suppress a shiver as it brushed against his damp skin.  "If I'd have been thinking past your dick against mine that night, I'd have thought to be surprised that you were so forward."

 

Tony didn't even have time to register Steve's movement before Steve slammed into him with brutal force, knocking him sideways onto the mat.  The padding was thick but he could still feel the slam of the concrete floor against his shoulder.  Steve was on top of him, one hand at his wrist, the other holding his head to the mat.  Tony tried to move his other arm, but it was pinned soundly beneath him. Steve's chest was heaving against his side, each exhale hot against the side of Tony's face.

 

Steve had been ignoring him for so long that all Tony could feel anymore was a tightness in his chest; the raw, ugly need to have Steve reciprocate something, even if it was hate.  The anger Steve was displaying right now wasn't enough; Tony wanted him to explode.  "Tell me why you're really so mad at me, Steve.  Is it because you liked what happened between us that night and you want more?"  Tony winced in pain as Steve's grip tightened. 

 

"The hell I do."

 

"Really?"  Tony squirmed against Steve, his hip brushing against Steve's pelvis.  "Well, then you might want to have a talk with, uh... the little captain down there. He seems to be pretty interested from where I am." 

 

"Do you not have a decent bone in your body?" Steve cried out in disgust, but his hips jerked against the electric contact of Tony's anyway, and Tony's lips spread into a slow, cruel smile.  I win. 

 

Steve's grip on Tony's wrist loosened just enough and Tony wrenched his hand free, reaching behind him, the heel of his hand rubbing rough against the pulse and heat of Steve's erection through his gym shorts. 

 

"You want to play this game?" Steve hissed and Tony felt the fumble of Steve's hands at the front of his pants , floundering with the button.  Finally, Steve made a frustrated noise and ripped the button off, yanking the zipper down.  

 

"Hey!  This suit is exp-"  Tony's protest turned into a groan as Steve's fingers slipped under the elastic of his boxers and wrapped around his cock.  Tony's breath hitched at the dry heat coming off of Steve's fingers as he stroked him, the jolt of skin made almost velveteen by chalk.

 

Tony's hips jerked and he thrust into Steve's hand a few times before his brain could register what he was doing.  God, he wanted to just close his eyes and...   He felt the rumble of Steve's growl against his shoulder as Steve's thumb brushed across the tip of Tony's cock, chalk mixing with precum.

 

Steve leaned in, and Tony shivered as teeth scraped against the tender flesh above the collar of his shirt.  Tony bit down on his lip, swallowing his moan, and slid his hand up the leg of Steve's shorts so he could lay his hand on Steve's cock.  He gave a few ruthless pumps and the rhythm of Steve's hand faltered, the fevered rise and fall of his hips picking up to meet Tony's grip.   

 

They struggled there like that, Steve on his knees over Tony and Tony on his side until Tony heard Steve let out a growl, plant a foot on the mat behind him at the small of his back and, with an arm around his waist, tried to roll him onto his stomach.  "No you..."  Tony squirmed against Steve but he felt as if he were pushing against a wall.  Steve was bigger and stronger and had that damned serum running through his veins.  Tony let out a snarl and jerked his hips away from Steve's grip, every muscle in his back and thighs screaming against the movement, enough that he could twist around.  As soon as he was on his back, he threw his fist against Steve's chest and there was a dull smack as his knuckles made contact.  There was a sharp bloom of pain in his wrist  and Tony hid his wince as the vibration of his movement traveled up to his elbow.  Tony looked up at Steve and he was frozen, his mouth hanging open.  The blow may not have hurt Steve, but it shocked him enough that Tony had time to move.

 

Tony wrenched his hips out of the way before Steve could pin him again and rammed Steve with his shoulder, knocking him sideways and onto his back.  He quickly scrambled into a front mount position, his thighs straddling Steve's hips, and locked his feet between Steve's legs to keep him from being able to roll to the side.  Tony's chest was heaving, his heart pounding wildly against his ribcage, and he could feel the thick heat between them, white hot.  Part of him wanted to just to sit there astride Steve and gloat, but from this angle, Tony could almost feel the curve of Steve's cock against his own and his hips ached for movement.  He smashed the heels of his hands into Steve's shoulders and had just fixed him with a cocky grin when he felt the tug of Steve's fingers tangle in either side of his shirt. 

 

Tony felt the stretch of material against his skin, the seams and thread giving way with a torturous ripping sound. Heard the buttons pop, saw them skittering across the concrete floor. 

 

They both froze, the noise deafening in the open acoustics of the gym.  Tony looked down in disbelief for a brief second before his eyes narrowed at the sight of his charcoal silk shirt hanging in shreds between the wide fingers of Steve's clumsy, strong hands.  

 

"You son of a bitch," Tony growled, anger and lust pounding through him, causing his vision to blur.  Reaching between them to take hold of Steve's cock, he stroked Steve hard, the heel of his other hand still digging into the pad of Steve's shoulder.  Steve threw off the ribbons of Tony's ruined shirt and Tony felt Steve's fingers dig into his hips, the grip rough and meant to bruise.  The more Tony tried to control Steve's rhythm with the movements of his hand, the more Steve's fingers bit into his flesh and pushed to stop his rocking.  Tony dropped to his elbow, panting, and he could feel the sweat begin to trickle down the back of his neck.  Steve's eyes were wide, pupils blown, and a single shudder went through him, his cock twitching in Tony's hand.

 

"Oh, no, not this time," he grunted, pulling his hand away and trying to change the angle of his hips to feel more friction and heat.  Steve's hand clamped down around his wrist and they tugged back and forth before finally settling on a stalemate, neither one letting go.  Tony leaned forward just a little bit, and there, that was it, that spot.  He ground his hips harder against Steve and tried hard not to break his stare, but Christ, that spot.  Tony dropped his head, chin to his chest, and felt his thighs tighten reflexively around Steve's hips.  Two more thrusts and he stiled, a moment of silence before his body was wracked with several quick spasms, his breath coming in bursts as his muscles contracted and relaxed against Steve's powerful body.  His eyes squeezed shut, but no matter how hard he tried to shut Steve out, he could still hear him, smell him, taste him.  Tony gritted his teeth and stifled a sob, refusing to give Steve the satisifaction of... anything. 

 

Steve let go of Tony's wrist and was shoving at his hips now, trying to knock him off his mount.  Tony lifted his head, breath still coming in gasps, but he wrapped his hand around Steve's cock with firm fingers, the cum that had splattered across Steve's belly providing more lubrication.  "You're the one that wanted to play games, Steve," Tony hissed, his fingers pulling and twisting and he stroked Steve fast and hard.  Steve's expression was pained but his hips were jerking faster and faster until he heard Steve's breath hitch in that now familiar way and he shuddered, spilling all over Tony's hand and biting down on his own cry.

 

Tony rolled off Steve and onto the mat, facing the door he had come through not fifteen minutes before.  His eyes slid to the floor in front of him and he could see one of the charcoal buttons of his shirt.  Tony dragged himself upright, trying to still the trembling in his hands, to ignore the bruising on his knuckles and the ache in his wrist.  He rolled up off the floor and pulled the zipper to his pants closed.  Steve was still on the mat, and Tony couldn't see his face, but he could see Steve's chest heaving.

 

"So," Tony spat, pulling a handkerchief from the pocket of his slacks to wipe his hand.  "I'll just go tell Jan that you're hiding in here to avoid walking around the with a perpetual hard on."

 

"You know what?  Fuck you."  Steve lifted himself up onto one elbow and fixed Tony with a heated glare, breath still quick between his words.  "You talk really big for someone who's only good for a drink and a fuck."

 

The tightness in his chest was back, spreading to his throat, and the air was still too thick to breathe.  Tony's teeth clicked together as he clamped his mouth shut, struggling to keep his expression neutral.  His mind reeled as the scenario looped in his head again and again.  A drink and a fuck?  It took him a moment to come back to himself, his hand still half way to his pocket with the soiled handkerchief.  He slid his hand into his pocket and turned on his heel, the click of the soles of his Italian shoes against the concrete the only soundtrack between them now.  

 

If anyone needed him, he'd be in the wine cellar.

 

    

Chapter 7

 

Tony Stark's Fifth Avenue Mansion.  Headquarters for the Ultimates.  Three weeks later.

 

Steve walked through the halls of the mansion hoping he could make it to the outdoor gym without running into anyone. Sure, Rogers, 'anyone.' Steve squelched the image of Tony that flashed in his head and redoubled his efforts to get outside.

 

The main gym was closer, but he hadn't wanted to go in there since...

 

Since you and Tony had sex. Sober. 

  

Ever since that confusing experience, they'd been avoiding each other.  For weeks now, Steve had always made sure he was on some SHIELD side mission or in the Black Panther outfit. Tony, for his part, avoided Steve by never being remotely sober, especially when Steve was around.  Steve had suggested to Jan once that Tony's drinking had gotten worse but Jan had never addressed the issue, or if she had, Tony hadn't listened.

 

Steve thought about talking to Tony himself, but he'd never had the gumption to follow through.

 

The only time I've really said anything to him was when I needed him to help me double-cross Nick. Steve felt his cheeks flush at the memory of what he did and knew he was ashamed, but not for what he'd done to Nick and Jan. As far as Steve was concerned, he'd been in the right when he sent T'Challa home and took up the Black Panther mantle in his place.  Keeping the 'Black Panther' on as an active part of the Ultimates just meant that SHIELD would be stalled that much longer.  And Jan?  Well, he didn't really trust her to keep the secret.

 

What Steve regretted was that by asking Tony for help and accepting that help, he'd shown Tony that he trusted him. Tony now knew that Steve would come to him first.  Steve could say it was because Tony had the tech, the skill, and the dubious morals to skate around a multibillion dollar supragovernment agency.  All of it was true, but the main reason would always be much simpler.

 

Steve trusted Tony. Oh, he knew Tony could lie with the best of them, and when they did make these deals, Tony's intentions were never fully on the table, but Steve trusted Tony to make good choices because...

 

"Damn it, has anyone seen Steve?  He's gone over my head again!"

 

Steve froze at the sound of Jan's voice. To add one more problem into the mix, he and Jan had been drifting apart for months. The post-invasion on again, off again status had become almost entirely off. Both he and Jan had found their interests moving in separate directions. 

 

Thank god for small favors, Steve thought. He didn't hate Jan, but between her nights with Hank and his... well, his whatevers with Tony, he hadn't been able to hold onto what they thought they'd found in each other. She had been trying to talk to him recently, but the conversation had undercurrents of 'friend' more than 'lover.'

    

Right now, Steve really didn't want to play 'follow-the-leader.'  Ducking into T'Challa's bedroom, he quickly changed into the Black Panther outfit and exited just as Jan came by.

 

"T'Challa? Ok, fine.  At least you follow orders, unlike your mentor.  Follow me back to the main room.  We've got a fucking mess to deal with."

 

Steve sighed and followed Jan.

 

As they entered the room he saw Hawkeye, Wanda, Pietro, and Tony all looking at the TV.  Hawkeye was inscrutable under his mask, Wanda and Pietro looked more than a little fascinated, and Tony had turned an ugly shade of green.

 

Steve looked up to see what had them all so flummoxed and felt a little ill himself. There, on the giant screen, was Tony's tongue gliding along the curve of Natasha's lower back.  The lighting was muted and mellow, bringing out just enough definition, highlighting the brush of flesh against flesh.  Steve recognized the large panel window as the one in Tony's room; the window was open, and a night breeze was blowing, billowing the curtains around the bed as Tony's fingertips danced across the skin of Natasha's belly.  Within seconds, Steve's mind was providing him with an overload of phantom sensations, and he could feel what it would be like to have the chill of the New York winter outside and the heat of Tony's body beneath him....  Steve's mouth went dry.

 

"This hit everywhere a few hours ago," Jan announced.

 

"It can't be... real?" Wanda asked, giving Tony a sly look when Pietro wasn't paying attention.

 

Steve prayed Tony would laugh and declare the whole thing a joke, but instead, he swallowed and began looking around for something to drink.  One of the mechanized butlers was immediately at his side with a tumbler full of whiskey. Tony snatched the drink from the tray, and muttered, "Oh yes, dear, this is all very real."  

 

Steve could not drag his eyes away from the screen.  It was the next frame, Tony's mouth now on Natasha's neck, sucking on the skin right behind her ear.  Every now and then, Tony would stop to whisper something in the shell of her ear; stray crimson strands of her hair sticking to his lips, and each time Natasha would shiver and undulate against him with just a little more force.  Steve's fingers drifted to the place on his own neck where Tony had left that damned hickey and he was very glad that no one could see his face.  

 

Steve was now hyper aware of Tony's noises; how the low vibration of his voice tingled on Steve's tongue as he sucked on the thin skin of Tony's throat. His hands would be everywhere, fingers scraping along the sensitive skin of Steve's sides, bumping along the ridges of his abdomen before dipping down lower...  Steve tried to swallow, and his mouth tasted like dust.  Somehow, these images were different, less fantastical, and suddenly Steve could taste the sweet tang of mead on his tongue.  Oh, God...

 

Steve quickly looked down at a potted plant, a slow burn creeping up the back of his neck.  As the tape looped again and again he began to feel embarrassed for Tony.

 

Clint leaned back against the brick wall of the living room.  "So, uh, are we going to be seeing any of the profits from the DVD sales, Tony?  Or is that something else that's just going to be routed to your private, off-shore account?"

 

Steve's head snapped around so he could gape at Clint.  Clint had been lashing out at everyone since Natasha had killed his family, but Tony had become his main target.  Steve wanted to put his hands to his ears, but forced himself to listen to his teammates as they debated the security issues the video presented, all while Tony knocked back more than Steve had ever seen him drink in one sitting.

 

Steve was about to do something foolish, like walk over to Tony, but that thought was cut short as the wall exploded in a din of noise,  bricks and chunks of wood.  

 

It took Steve a few nanoseconds to register that Thor had just come sailing through the north wall of the mansion.  He rolled out of the way and onto the balls of his feet as the potted plant exploded, a casualty of the shrapnel.

 

Steve looked up to the hole in the wall and saw two monstrous hands appear on either side of it.  They pushed in opposite directions and the mansion's bricks and mortar just moved.  Its black muscles shifted and coiled as it lunged over the remnants of the wall into the room followed by a lashing, red tongue... 

 

"WHERE IS SHE?!" Steve recognised the menacing shriek. It was Venom, all dark and malevolent. "Tell me where she is or I kill every last one of you!"

 

It was then, amid the ringing in his ears and the ricochet of Clint firing off several rounds in Venom's direction, that Steve heard Jan's voice.  "Tony...  If you're sober enough, armor up."  Steve hesitated as he weighed all the ramifications of his decision before ducking away from the fight.  Tony wasn't sober enough and they all knew it.

 

He hurtled over the fallen couch, narrowly avoiding pieces of the second floor as they rained down around everyone's ears.

 

Through the plaster dust in the air, he could see Tony sprawled on the ground, an expression of drunken belligerence on his face. Steve heard Tony shout and was on top of him, pushing him out of the way as heavy wooden support beams came crashing to the ground.

 

"Let me go!" Tony ordered, trying to punch Steve in the arm.

 

"I'm moving you somewhere safe," Steve said in a harsh whisper. Before Tony could protest, Steve had pulled him from the room and shoved him into an adjoining hallway closet.

 

"Stay here," he commanded. "I don't want you getting yourself killed."

 

He expected protest or a string of fowl-mouthed curses.  He did not expect Tony's eyes to roll back in his head.  Tony slumped to the ground.  It would seem that he had finally drank enough.

 

"Good grief," Steve grumbled, shutting the door and sprinting back to the battle.

 

***

 

The next morning Steve stood outside Tony's room, fist drawn back, prepared to knock.  He had been standing there for four minutes now.  Steve willed himself to be a man and finally rapped his knuckles against the thick door.

 

"The hell do you want?" he heard Tony bellow, his voice sounding scratchy and tired.

 

"To talk, Tony!"

 

"Big Monster attacked.  Lots of fighting. Tony is sleeping now if it's okay with the stick in your butt, Steve."

 

Steve went to try the handle but noticed the door hadn't been latched properly. He pushed the door open and he found himself staring at a bedraggled Tony, still in his dust-covered clothes and holding a shot glass of who knew what in his hand.

 

"Damn.  I hate being too drunk to shut the door."

 

"Tony," Steve said, stuffing his hands into his pockets and hunching his shoulders slightly. "I... wanted to talk."

 

"You don't need my permission for that," Tony snapped. "Maybe Nick or Jan's, but not mine."

 

"I didn't come here to fight."

 

"Why not?  Last time we fought it was so much fun!  We both got off then you ran away."

 

Steve clenched his fist and tried to keep his temper in check. "You're pushing me."

 

"I am?" Tony asked in that syrupy 'who me?' tone Steve hated. "Maybe you need it."

 

"Maybe you need to have your butt kicked," Steve countered.

 

"Ow! That comeback!  That clever repartee!" Tony mocked, sliding from the bed to get another drink. "How shall I ever recover? You've cut me to the quick."

 

Steve bit down hard on his lip and concentrated on that pain until his thoughts were something other than red with fury.

 

"I came here to say that..." Steve paused and closed his eyes.  Maybe this would be easier if he couldn't see Tony.  "That I enjoy your company, that despite our... arguments, I stupidly enjoy your company. Take whatever you want from that."

 

Steve waited for Tony to respond. For once, Tony said nothing at all. He just stared at his drink.

 

Steve left before he said anything he'd regret later.  He let the door slam, too angry to worry about being childish. 

    

As he strode down the hallway, he looked up to see Pietro and Wanda coming down the stairs. At the sight of the nearly-naked woman, Steve felt all his frustration and annoyance with this godforsaken century bubble to the surface. They were headed outside in the middle of December; Wanda was going to step onto the streets of Manhattan in twenty-four degree weather wearing lingerie,  and her brother was fine with it.

 

Steve wanted to lecture Tony on morality, wanted to tell him that he was wrong and a coward and enslaved by his drink, but he couldn't, so he attacked Wanda instead.

 

"I may be overstepping my boundaries, but my feeling is that we should be setting an example."  Steve burned with embarrassment at his own hypocrisy but pushed forwarded when prompted by Pietro.  "I'm of the opinion that Wanda might want to wear something less revealing out in public."

 

He knew as he said them his words sounded old-fashioned, but damnit, he would speak his mind about something.

 

"You're right, Captain."  Steve blinked in surprise at the unexpected agreement from Pietro; before Steve could say anything, however, Pietro's expression soured.  "You have overstepped your pathetic boundaries."

 

Steve ignored the insult and reached out for Wanda, hoping to appeal to her sensibility. Suddenly, getting anyone to agree with him had become a necessity. "Be reasonable, Wanda."

 

Steve felt something tighten around his wrist and almost lashed out, barely managing to control his self-defense reflex. Pietro stood there, eyes icy and full of contempt.

 

Steve tuned out the man's threats. He didn't understand why Pietro not only didn't mind his sister walking outside so exposed, but became enraged when Steve expressed his concern. He didn't understand why Wanda let Pietro smother her. He didn't understand why everyone and their damn dog felt like they needed to watch Tony's sex tape.

 

Pietro was gone now, he and Wanda having slipped out the front door.

 

"I can't see from this angle, but I know the look on your face."  Steve turned at the familiar voice and saw Jan behind him. She, too, wore a new-and of course- more revealing-uniform.  "It's what happens when your 1940's brain can't process present-day anything." 

 

Like why all the women on this team suddenly don't want to wear clothing, Steve almost said, but he held his tongue. They'd had that fight one too many times, too.

 

He tried to latch onto any other part of his train of thought that he could bring up without starting an argument, so he made the mistake of asking about Wanda's unusual closeness to her brother.

 

"You don't get it, Mister Rogers, do you?  They love each other."

 

Steve snorted.  "Of course, they do.  They're brother and sister."

 

Jan fingered the ridge of her costume at her neck, a soft, silly smile playing at the edges of her lips.  "No.  It's more than that.  They're in love."

 

In love?!

 

"But--"  Steve's eyes narrowed.  "They are brother and sister." 

 

Steve wanted to rail at Jan, to make her understand that it wasn't him that was screwed up, it was the rest of the world. He was spared making a fool of himself when Hawkeye appeared at the top of the stairs, holstering one of his guns.  "If you think we've got a problem with that Tony Stark sex video, just wait until somebody in the media figures them out.  And someone will."  Clint began to tromp down the stairs, making what Steve was sure was more noise than was necessary.  He paused at the foot of the stairs to give them both a passing glance.  "Unless we do something about it."

 

Steve didn't want to think about it anymore.  Wanda, Pietro, Jan, modern fashion, modern manners, Tony, anything. He just wanted to retire for the day.  He had turned to leave when--

 

"While you two generals talk it to death, I've got work to do.  The Panther never made it back.  I'm going to need his help to track Spider-Man.  See what that kid knows about Venom."

 

Damn it.  Steve glared at Hawkeye's back as he left the room.

 

"So, what's your deal, Steve? You're hardly ever around here anymore."  Steve turned back to face Jan.  "Could've used your help last night."

 

Steve felt a pang of guilt but kept his face impassive. "I had to get a life of my own, Janet."

 

If his use of her full name stung, Jan didn't show it; instead, she stepped toward him, a stubborn set to her jaw. "Really, you want to tell me about it?"

 

"Actually..." He considered telling Jan for a split second, just to get the whole Tony thing off his chest and out into the open. The urge only lasted that second, and Steve shook his head.  For better or worse, his thoughts and memories were private.  He turned away from her and began the slow climb up the stairs to the Panther's bedroom.  "No, I don't."

 

***

 

Two days later.

 

Tony sat in his room, door firmly latched this time (thank you very much).  He was staring at a Christmas list and drinking scotch by bottle. He picked up his pen, looked at the list, and wrote "coal" next to Clint's name. He squinted, turned the list sideways, and noted it in fact said coal for everyone.

 

"I should probably branch out," Tony said with an overdramatic sigh.

 

He wrote 'and a brain' next to Steve's name.

 

"Now, who on this team needs a heart more?"

 

The sudden blaring of the mansion's perimeter alarm caused him to jump in his seat. Cursing, Tony staggered to his feet and stumbled over to the wall, pressing in the sixteen digit access code that opened the panel containing his armor.  He began to try and pull the equipment on, the process unfamiliar with the newer model.  He had made this new suit faster to get into, something that required only a few people's assistance instead of his normal launch team of twelve.  He hadn't quite figured out how to make one that allowed a very inebriated pilot to put the ensemble on alone.  After latching the chest plate, he proved his own point by falling over.

 

Note to self, he thought as he tried to work out the latching mechanism for one of his gauntlets from his awkward position on the floor, find a way to make suit self-assembling.

 

"Darling."

 

Tony froze.

 

"I knew you'd fall to pieces after I... left. But I never imagined it would be so dramatic."

 

Tony looked up to see Natasha's silhouette in his bedroom window.

 

Every inch of her, down the placement of each strand of hair, was exactly as he remembered it.  His mind railed against the impossibility of what he was seeing. His stomach heaved and threatened to return every drop of liquor he had consumed that day.

 

He didn't know if she was real or some kind of hallucination. He didn't know if he wanted to kiss her or kill her.

 

Tony hated himself for being conflicted.

 

"No," he said more to himself. "I've been drinking and..."  Natasha moved closer to him, the fruity notes of Chanel wafting in on the frigid air and mixing with the smell of firewood and scotch.  "You...You're dead."

 

Natasha caressed his face with a hand that was too warm to be a ghost's.  "See, Tony, we were so close that sometimes you got us confused. I'm not the one who is dead--"

 

Whatever she had planned to say was cut off by her short, sharp scream of pain. Tony blanched as Natasha fell backwards, her skin slowly turning blue.  In seconds, her body had taken the shape of another woman entirely: Mystique. 

 

"Sorry Tony. But, I always thought your taste in woman kinda sucked."

 

Tony stared at Jan's tiny form as she buzzed in front of his face.   He gave serious consideration to squishing the insensitive minx.

 

"Look," Jan said to him in her 'I-am-in-charge-damnit' tone, "I think it's all related. Your sex tape hitting the internet. Venom's attack. Hank's overdose. Wanda's assassination."

 

Tony's head whirled from an overload of information.  Hank? Wanda? He couldn't have heard that right. He couldn't have heard half that right. He'd only been in his room working on that damn list for a couple of days.

 

"Damn it, Stark, we're under attack, and could use your help, but not if you're a liability! How sober are you?"

Tony was sick of hearing that question. Bone-tired but determined to prove that he wasn't useless, he pushed himself to his feet and looked toward his helmet.  "Sober enough."

 

Jan stared at him for a long while and Tony could tell she didn't believe him.  "Fine, just get your ass downstairs before it's too late." With that, Jan flew from the room.

 

Tony reached for his helmet, and as he did so, a shadow fell across his hand.

 

"If you want to lecture me, Janet," he said, trying to pry the helmet from its station, "could you let me finish putting my clothes on?"

 

He turned around and startled when he saw Hank instead.  "Damnit, Hank, Jan had just said you were--"

 

Hank slammed Tony back into the wall, Tony's head smacking against the metal paneling.  He felt Hank's fingers tightening around his throat, the pressure on his windpipe increasing in increments with every second that slid by.

 

"I've run the tests," Hank said, cocking his head to the side.  "Your genetics are perfect for both my endeavors." 

 

The world began to bleed gray in Tony's periphery as he tried desperately to pry Hank's fingers away.  In a last ditch effort, Tony kicked out, his foot landing square in the middle of Hank's shin with a dull thud.  Despite the advantage that being in the armor should have afforded him, the blow didn't even cause Hank to shift.

 

Tony's vision began to fade to white.  Something wasn't right.  Tony's grip loosened and his hand fell to his side.

 

Steve...  Where the hell are you?

 

***

Steve ran into the razed mansion fuming at the orders Jan had given him.

 

Stay here?! Steve thought to himself. He couldn't believe Jan's decision to leave him behind as the others went to the Savage Land to fight Magneto. Jan hadn't even had a good reason.  She just wanted him to babysit Tony and to handle the vultures from the papers.

 

As though he'd ever been good at handing the media. It would serve Jan right if they get back and the government has disbanded us because of something I said, Steve thought with venom as he ran through the hall toward his room.

He had no intention of staying behind. Tony could solve the problem of the bullet that killed Wanda on his own. For all of Steve's knowledge of DNA seeking bullets, he'd be as much help to Tony as a caveman. That went for the PR, as well. He might as well just grunt at the TV cameras.

 

Steve grabbed the black costume and looked around for somewhere to change. His room was too risky. He'd irritated Jan and she might come looking for him just to make sure he obeyed her. Tony's room, then. That would be safe.

 

He felt bad bursting as he did, but he was in a hurry. Tony stood in the corner in full armor.

 

"Sorry, Tony," Steve said, "but this was the closest place I could find to change and since you already know..."

 

Steve waited for some blithe comment about him barging into Tony's room in such a desperate manner, but Tony stayed silent.

 

Well, Steve reasoned, Tony has a lot on his mind. Tony stood there staring at his hands. And probably a lot of drink in him.

 

He stripped the blue costume off in seconds, and again, paused, waiting for Tony to say something.

 

Nothing came.

 

"Are you okay?" Steve asked, walking closer as he pulled the black shirt over his head.

 

"Yes," Tony answered, raising his armored head to look at Steve. "Why wouldn't I be?"

 

Steve shrugged. "Well I just barged into your room and took off my clothes." He pulled on his pants and gave Tony a quizzical look. "You didn't say... anything."

 

Tony stared at him for a moment and then shrugged. The gesture seemed off, as though it had come a couple of beats too slow to be a genuine Tony response.  "Oh Steve, not everything revolves around you. I know that concept is a massive blow to your ego, but I can have other things on my mind."

 

Steve bristled, but couldn't come up with a response. He gave Tony another searching look then shook his head and glanced over his shoulder. "I... I didn't mean it like that, Tony.  I didn't mean..."

 

He paused and chewed on his bottom lip. "I'll see you later, okay. Cover for me if Jan shows up before we leave."

 

Tony didn't move. "Yes," he responded, his voice distant. "I'll see you later."

 

Utterly baffled, but without any time to contemplate their terse exchange, Steve rushed from the room to catch up with the others headed to the Savage Land. 

 

 

Chapter 8

 

Tony Stark's Fifth Avenue mansion, headquarters of the Ultimates.  Sub-basement level four.

 

He wasn't sure how long he'd been stuck in the sub-basement.  There had been creepy people without faces and needles and...  Tony blinked as he watched two tiny shadows slip out from between the slots of the air vent.

 

Tony closed his eyes.  When he opened them again, he saw Jan, her hands pressed against the glass that was holding him prisoner.  Her head was turned, and then Hank was there, staring at the machinery around him.

 

Tony watched with little more than mild anxiety as Hank punched in a series of numbers at the panel next to his test-tube prison.  A gut-wrenching vibration rolled through him as the evacuation system began to suck the green fluid from the containment chamber, the walls of the tubes sliding down with a mechanical hiss.  The sudden reintroduction of gravity pulled Tony to the floor of the chamber.

 

He couldn't breathe, couldn't move air in or out.  Tony pushed himself up onto one elbow and retched, the viridian electrolytic fluid splashing onto the alloy beneath him.  His head pounded and his vision blurred as his body tried to purge the fluid from vital spaces.  He felt small, warm hands at the back of his neck, a sharp contrast to the frigid air of the laboratory.  The disparity seemed to be too much and Tony's muscles seized before breaking into a bout of shivering.

 

As he coughed the remaining gunk out of his airway and drew in several breaths of institution air, the thudding in his ears began to die down enough that he could make out Jan's soothing tones. 

 

"--easy, Tony."

 

Teeth chattering, Tony rolled over onto his side, resisting the urge to curl into a tight ball of screaming nerve endings.  His insides thrummed with a marvelous ache.  Jan's hands were on his face now, pushing his hair off his forehead.

 

"Tony, you're burning up."

 

"Gimme...  a second."

 

He could hear Hank's fingers clacking on a keyboard.  "It looks like they're prepping the other jet in the hanger for flight.  Destination..."  More clacking.  "The Savage Land."

 

"Damnit."  Jan again.  "Where the hell is Steve?  With Wolverine, Thor, and the Black Panther in the Savage Land, we're a little short on power here."

 

Panther in the Savage Land...  Steve...  Shit.

 

Tony reached up and pulled at the tubes around his face, gagging as he dislodged a nasal canula.  In his blind grab, he also pulled out a long, small-gauge catheter that had been threaded into his jugular vein.

 

"Tony!"  Jan slapped his hand away before putting pressure on the small wound.  "You don't know what the hell you're doing.  Just stop before you kill yourself."

 

"We need you to get to the Savage Land," Hank concurred.  He sounded closer now.  "We'll need to leave soon if we want to catch up to them."  Hank's voice was all business and bravado.  Tony wanted to throttle him.

 

"Mother of Jesus," he groaned, rolling back over to push himself up onto his hands and knees.  He slid off the platform onto the ground, his knees threatening to buckle under his weight.

 

Hank's hand was at his shoulder now, but Tony brushed it away in annoyance.  "I said, give me a second, goddamnit."  He cracked one eye open.  The photons of light pierced his retinas and seemed to explode in his brain.  The throbbing in his head redoubled and Tony resisted the urge to vomit again.  "Need to sober up," he muttered, lurching off in the direction of the lift.

 

As he made his way down the hall towards his room, he began to feel a little more coherent.  Why did he feel so miserable?  He pressed his hand against the panel next to the door.  "Access code Delta Seven Two."

 

"Identity confirmed," the computer said, female voice low.  "Welcome back, Tony."  The door slid open and Tony stood in the entryway for several minutes. 

 

His room was a mess.  The table and chair had been overtuned, shot glasses and scotch bottles shattered on the floor.  The window was still open, curtains whipping in the night breeze and making the security protocols at the door seem absurd.  And there, in the middle of the king-sized bed...

 

Tony stepped over a few stray pieces of the armor and picked up the uniform.  The heft of the Kevlar-based material was impressive despite its compact design.  His fingers brushed over the white star.

 

"He got on that plane, didn't he. It was more a statement than a question.  Tony's eyes didn't move from the uniform in front of him.

 

He heard Hank pick his way gracelessly across the room to stand at his side.  There was an awkward silence between them.  Tony could feel Hank's gaze burning a hole the side of his head.

 

"For Christ's sake, Hank. What?!" He spun on Hank and immediately regretted the action.  Vertigo seized him and he sunk down onto the bed, cradling his head in his hands.  The material of Steve's uniform was cool against his forehead.

 

"You look awful," Hank whispered, and Tony recoiled at the palpable concern in his voice.

 

"I was the olive in some kind of egomaniacal android martini," he sighed, his anger dissipating in the face of actual human emotion.  "You expect me to look anything but pickled and pissed?"

 

"I don't know," Hank admitted.  "I-I don't know what Ultron might've done to you."

 

Tony's stared at the floor.  "I think..."  He rubbed his temple with his free hand.  "He said something about my genetics."  Tony tried to recall what the machine had said, but it kept degrading into useless mental static.  "I can't remember."

 

"Ultron was bonding DNA to the android mainframe alloy to preserve its integrity.  I'll have to go through his files later to make sure that's all he was doing."

 

Tony sighed and stood back up, moving slow enough to avoid another bout of vertigo.  "We have to get the Savage Land.  I'm not going to let some can opener with an ego wipe out my new team."  He forced a grim smile.  "Bad for Stark International's stock prices, you know."

 

Hank glanced down at the uniform still clutched in Tony's left hand. 

 

"You didn't rehire me just because I was a brilliant scientist... did you."  It wasn't a question.

 

Tony continued to be preoccupied with the white star emblem on the front of the uniform.  "You do good work," he muttered.  "Even when that work comes back around and tries to replace us all with mechanized pod people."

 

Hank scowled.  "I'm not dumb, Tony.  Neither is Jan."  He paused, and Tony watched as Hank seemed to try to find the courage to put his point into words.  "But Steve is."

 

Tony narrowed his eyes and pinned Hank with a look before plucking up his helmet from the floor and spinning on his heel to walk quickly toward the jet hanger. "Meaning what?" he demanded without turning around to see if Hank was following.

 

Hank picked up his pace to try and match Tony's. "Meaning you wanted me around to distract Jan from Steve."

 

Tony smirked. "She seemed distracted enough by you before I subjected us full-time to your sparkling personality, Hank."

 

Hank slowed down. "Okay, fine, then to distract Steve from Jan.  Either way you cut it, I come between Steve and Jan."  Hank caught back up with Tony. "You figure you can get Jan away from me that easily?."

 

Tony came to a dead stop, causing Hank to smash his face into Tony's armored back.

 

"Fuck!" Hank cursed, holding his nose as he staggered backwards.

 

Tony just laughed. "You can have all the evidence right there in front of you and still not get the right answer. I have to admire that level of stupidity."  He scrubbed his hand through his wet hair.  "NO, Hank, I do not want your wife. In fact, I will pay you to never say that I want her again." Tony doubled his pace to make up for lost time.

 

Hank wiped a small trickle of blood from his nose with the back of his hand and ran to catch up.

 

As they reached the hanger, Tony turned to Hank. "I'm going to hate myself for this suggestion, but get in my helmet."

 

Hank stared at him.

 

"You can shrink," Tony said as if he was speaking to a slow witted four-year-old. "So shrink and get in my helmet so I can carry you.  Jan can do the same when she gets here."

 

Looking less than thrilled, Hank began to shrink down; before he had finished the transformation, however, a rather large flying insect came in for landing on the ground beside him.  Tony took his own step back and bumped against a launch control panel.  "Oh, no.  Tommy the Termite there cannot come with you.  No pets allowed on this ride."

 

Hank put his hand on the bug's back, patting it as if it were a gallant steed.  "First of all, she is a Tetramorium caespitum, an ant.    Second, you remember our last battle with the Chitauri, don't you?  Antarctica is the one place in the world that doesn't have ants!  How am I supposed to get around once we get down there?"

 

"It's the Savage Land.  They have dinosaurs.  I'm sure they have those fiendish little creatures, too."

 

Hank sighed, but the ant flew off and Tony let out a tiny sigh of relief.  It was bad enough he was going to have Hank Pym crawling around his ears.  He shuddered and tried not to think about how long it took to fly to the South Pole.

 

Hank walked over to him and Tony bent down, picking him up and setting him in the helmet still under his arm.  There was a moment of silence, then Tony heard Hank gasp.  "Oh my god!"  Hank's voice was comically high pitched. "You want Steve."

 

"If you ever share that hypothesis, I will spray you with bug spray."  

 

Once Jan was also inside his helmet, Tony placed it on his head and switched his armor into stealth mode, taking off after the Robo-Ultimates.  When he caught up to the jet, he hitched a ride by grabbing hold of a wing tip.

 

We have got to work on flight accommodations, he thought to himself as they got under way.

 

***

    

The Savage Land.  Antarctica. 

 

By the time they got to the Savage Land, Tony thought his arms were going to fall off. To add to his pain, Hank and Jan were on their fifth argument.

 

Tony sighed loudly. "We're clear," he said to shut them both up.  As the PDEX-02 tore through the sky, he looked down at the rugged canopy of the evergreen trees, and every now and then he would catch sight of something much more sinister and reptilian moving beneath their cover.  Give me the urban jungle any day. 

 

"Stay in stealth mode, Tony, at least until we find Steve Rogers."

 

"That idiot Steve Rogers," Hank added.

 

"Hank!"

 

"Jan!"

 

Tony winced. It was like having angry Disney cartoon characters shouting in his head.  "Look, I appreciate you two getting me out of that green tank of goo, but while I've got you inside my helmet, could you both keep it down!?"

 

That successfully ended the sixth argument.

 

"Look," Tony said.  "Let's split up. We'll find Steve faster that way."

 

"That sounds okay," Jan agreed. "Hank and I can't do much in here anyway."

 

Keeping stealth mode on, Tony dipped down into a clearing so Jan and Hank could get the hell out of his helmet.  He hovered there for a moment, watching as they flew off in the direction that Ultron had gone.  He pulled up a tracking program with a thought and moved it into the lower corner of the HUD.  The image flickered on and off like it was encountering a strong, competing signal.  Tony frowned and tapped the side of his helmet.  I know you can't pick up The Playboy Channel here, but cut me some slack.  The image finally steadied.  Good girl.  Now find Steve Rogers.  

 

Just because SHIELD wasn't big on microchipping their operatives didn't mean that Tony couldn't have built a teeny, tiny little GPS unit into the microfiber of Steve's Black Panther outfit.

 

Steve's signal showed up as a blue blip on the display, pulsing steady and strong.  Tony took off, heading away from the main skirmish.  He veered to and fro in between the irregular array of tree trunks at a breakneck speed, dodging rocks and a herd of bewildered Edmontosaurus.  On the surface, his mind was busy coordinating the signal relay between all his teammates' communicators, the strange atmosphere of the savage land making radio frequency a logistics nightmare; he fed the incoming signals into a digital interface and sent them out again, hoping that at least seventy percent of the messages were getting through.  On the level below that, he was keeping track of everyone's position relative to the PDEX-01 and the PDEX-02.  About twenty three layers below that, his mind was focused on one primal thought, over and over.  Steve.

 

The landscape plunged down into a ravine and Tony hurtled over the edge.  Without so much as an audible warning, the battery bar flashed red twice and the jet boots spluttered.  For half a second he could only gasp in shocked horror, trapped in his own suit as he careened toward the ground, his thoughts bouncing back to him from his navigational control center.  He couldn't get the systems to respond, couldn't switch the suit over to reserve power.  

 

"Come on."  Tony worked some of the nanite signals around to a back door control and the data feed from his armor burst back to life, the nanites in the suit screaming at him in the galvanic equivalent of panic.  His jet boots ignited and all Tony could do is set the system to auto-correct and pray that the gyros got through to navigations fast enough. 

 

The suit jerked up in a frenzied attempt to stop the wrench of gravity, Tony's stomach lurching as it still tried to continue on its original flight path.  His vision went black from the sheer amount of force required to pull out of his impromptu death dive.  When he came to, head spinning and chest heaving, the suit was sitting patiently in hover mode.  The blue spot on his radar had somehow ended up right below him.

 

He could just make out Steve's motionless form as the Juggernaut yanked him from the ground with one hand, and all of a sudden, Tony couldn't think the right sequence of thoughts to get the suit to move forward fast enough.  The Juggernaut cocked his fist and Tony was still nine hundred meters too far.  A red warning popped up on his HUD, obscuring his visual of the scene, but before he could minimize it, a rogue Triceratops came barreling through the clearing, Wolverine astride its back, claws deep in its hide like a primitive steering mechanism.  The monster's horn slammed into the Juggernaut and Steve went flying in the opposite direction.

 

Steve seemed to have gotten more of his senses about him, because he ducked into a roll, landing on his knees just shy of a boulder.  Tony inhaled sharply, his lungs begging for oxygen; he didn't know at what point he'd started holding his breath.  Slow and steady, Steve got to his feet.

 

"Airmail for Captain Rogers!"  Pulling the shield from his back, Tony chucked it like a frisbee and it flew in a tight arc straight to Steve's waiting hand.  With his shield on his arm, Steve's entire frame shifted, his shoulders pulling back into a strong, taut line.  With his other hand, he reached up and ripped the Black Panther mask off his face.

 

Tony quirked an eyebrow even though he knew the gesture would be lost behind the helmet.  Steve stood there for a moment- just a few seconds really- all black leather and blond hair.  Well, hello there, what's a nice man like you doing in a filthy mind like mine? 

 

"Logan, let me."  With one swipe of his shield, Steve knocked the Juggernaut to the ground.

 

Tony pulled the rest of the Captain America costume from the khaki knapsack he'd used to secure it and tossed it to Steve. 

 

"Brought you your laundry," he said, smiling behind his mask.  Now let's see if you managed to fit any underwear under all that skin-tight leather.

 

Jan was there now, barking out orders in her Jiminy Cricket voice.  Steve looked up at Tony then, ignoring the buzz of Jan at his ear, and though it didn't register on his face, his eyes were softer somehow.  "Thanks.  And for the shield too."  Tony swallowed and gave the nanites a brusque 'down' command and the armor dropped to the ground noiselessly.  

 

The look was fleeting and soon Steve was back to business, pulling the tattered shreds of the Panther shirt over his head.  Tony's mind shifted through all of the incoming data feeds from every piece of his equipment in the Savage Land, but his eyes stayed fixed on Steve and those glorious abs.  A little chime in his ear told him that his respirations had exceeded the programmed limit and he shooed it away.  As Steve pulled the star and stripes over his head, the costumed top clinging to every sinew and muscle of his body, everything that Tony had been paying attention to faded into static.

 

Steve's deft fingers were at the buckle of his belt and Tony felt his ears grow hot.  Lord, have mercy.

 

There was a flash of light and a crack of thunder that sent a wave of painful feedback ringing in Tony's ears.  He blinked and turned away.  Thor's voice reverberated in his helmet.  "While I hate to interrupt..."

 

Tony sighed and kicked on his jet boots, opening himself to all incoming frequencies.  Clint was going to need medical attention.  "I know, I know.  Duty calls."

 


Chapter 9

 

Stark International Building.  The next day.  Seven a.m.

 

It had already been a long day. Tony rubbed irritably at his temples, trying to ease the growing ache in his head.

 

Had anyone asked him, Tony would have said nothing could have been harder than yesterday. Being pickled by an angry robot with a daddy complex had not been his idea of a good time.  However, picking up the pieces afterward turned out to be even worse. He'd been sitting in his office for three hours doing everything but look at the report Jan had filed on their little adventure. The report that Carol Danvers -the new Director of SHIELD- would demand to see in no small amount of time. In fact, Happy had bet him there were already requests waiting for him in his inbox.

 

Rubbing his forehead again, Tony reached down  to open the bottom drawer, but stopped after remembering that he finished the bottle of scotch he kept tucked away there for emergencies; like dealing with people who were neither interesting nor attractive.  Tony stood up and headed for one of the bottles he had Terri bring up earlier. He felt so run down he actually contemplated going to see his doctor, but once he had the scotch in hand, he dismissed the idea.

 

This was fatigue and stress: symptoms he couldn't afford to indulge in. Stumbling back to his desk, he collapsed into his chair.

 

He reached for Jan's report and tried to focus on what she'd written.  "Let's see what Wasp has to say about evil robots and--"

 

"STARK!"

 

"And grumpy soldiers," Tony finished as he tossed Jan's report over his shoulder and linked his fingers across his stomach.  He smiled at Steve as he burst through the double doors into the office.  Tony could see Pepper in the background, phone in hand, and she gave Tony a pointed look .  For a moment, he contemplated letting her call security; at least it would be amusing.  When Tony shook his head, Pepper's eyes narrowed but she laid the phone back on its cradle.

 

"You can't let Hank back on the team!" 

 

Tony quirked an eyebrow.  "I can't?"

 

Steve slapped his hands on Tony's desk and leaned forward. "It's bad enough we had him hanging around under house arrest as a consultant.  He can't be trusted and he definitely shouldn't be allowed full-time Ultimates status. Tony, you can overrule Jan's decision."


"No."

 

Tony watched as red blotches colored Steve's cheeks and spread down his neck. "No?"

 

"Yes, Steve.  No. It's a word expressing the negative. It means I don't intend to do what you just asked me to do."

 

"And why," Steve asked, jaw clenched, "is that?"

 

Tony hooked a finger around the knot in his tie and worked it loose.  "Well, for one thing, you've been rude. The second, you're threatening. I don't negotiate under either of those conditions. The most important reason is that if I start overruling Jan on every decision she makes, I have no chance of her ever sleeping with me. Plus, that would put me in a position where I might as well be in charge of this team, and I don't want that job."

 

The smile he aimed at Steve was poisonous.  "So, Captain America, no. No, I will not make Jan un-hire Hank because you can't play nice with others."

 

"You are doing this just to spite me." 

 

"Believe it or not, not everything is about you. I'm doing this because I agree with Jan. We need him. We needed him against the Chitauri when they came back.  We needed him against Ultron.  Hell, he even helped during the Invasion."

 

"After working for the other side!"

 

"Unproven."

 

Steve stayed his ground and glared at Tony until Tony held up his hands and did something he had never done before. He backed down. He simply could not take an argument at this point.

 

"Fine.  Make your case. Convince me."

 

"You were there, the same as I was.  He created..."  As Steve began to argue against Hank, Tony worked to concentrate on what he was saying, but following Steve's logic made his migraine worse.  He wanted nothing more than to drink until he blacked out. 

 

"That's enough," Tony snapped, getting to his feet so that he and Steve were now eye to eye. "I fund this team. I am sorry you were too busy dicking around with Jan to care when I did rehire him, but I am supporting her decision to reinstate him."

 

The edge of Tony's vision began to fade to black.  He blinked, but the void continued to expand, bringing his field of vision down to a narrow tunnel.  Steve had started to argue again; the sound was muffled as if his ears were stuffed with cotton wool .  Tony felt himself tipping too far to the left. He made to grab the desk for balance, but when he reached out, his hand touched nothing. 

 

Well, he thought, this may be bad.

 

 

***

 

Steve tried to fix the disconnect in his head.  One minute Tony was yelling, the next he had disappeared from sight.  There had been a disturbing thud as Tony's head caught the edge of the desk. Steve's first thought was that Tony had been shot.  He swallowed against a wave of nausea as he realized there had been no crack of gunfire, no shattering of glass.  All he could see from his vantage point was Tony's hand on the floor behind his desk.

 

"Tony!" Steve rounded the desk and dropped to his knees.  He leaned over and pressed his fingers under Tony's chin; it took him a few tries to find a pulse.  It wasn't until he saw Tony's chest move through a complete rise and fall that he let out his own breath.  Tony just lay there as if someone had turned a switch off somewhere.  Now that he knew Tony was still alive, Steve pulled his hands away.  He quickly ran through his first aid training.  He was pretty sure Tony's spine was intact, but other than that, he had no idea what had happened. 

 

He let his hands hover over Tony's torso as he tried to think past his initial panic. He hesitated then brushed his hand against the side of Tony's face.  "Tony."  He tapped Tony's face a with a little more force.  "Tony!"  When Tony didn't respond, he sat back on his heels and forced himself to go over the options of this era . 

 

The phone. 

 

He reached into his back pocket, pulled out his cell phone, and dialed 911.

 

"911.  What's your emergency?"

 

"This is Steve Rogers.  I'm at the Stark International Building.  Tony Stark's collapsed in his office."

 

"And you're at the Stark International Building?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Okay."  Steve could hear the operator typing over the line.  "I'm going to dispatch the paramedics to your location.  Are you with the victim now?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Is he breathing?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Is he conscious?"

 

"No."

 

Steve stayed on the phone until the paramedics had arrived at the building, his attention still on Tony.  Just as Steve was slipping his phone back in his pocket, Tony let out a low groan and shifted.  Steve put a hand on Tony's chest, feeling the heat radiating through Tony's thin shirt.

 

"What do you think you are doing?" Tony mumbled as he struggled to sit up.  "Where am I?"  

 

"Stay still," Steve insisted, applying firm but gentle pressure to keep Tony laying down.  "We're in your office.  You passed out.  The medics are on their way." 

 

Tony's hand was on his wrist; Steve felt the fingers tighten.  Okay, Steve thought, keeping the weight of his own had gentle but steady, this is the test.  If Tony pushed his hand away and called him an idiot then he was going to be okay.  Steve waited, Tony's heartbeat fast and frantic beneath his fingertips, but Tony's hand never moved.

 

Five EMTs rattled out of the elevator and into Tony's office.  One of the paramedics came and knelt down on the other side of Tony, snapping his latex gloves on.  "Mr. Stark?  I'm James.  Do you know what happened?"  

 

Steve felt a hand settle on his shoulder and he looked up at one of the older EMTs.  "We'll take it from here, son."  Steve wavered, but he knew he wasn't a medic and that he couldn't do anything more for Tony if he was in the way. He nodded and eased his wrist out of Tony's grip before stepping back away from the scene, pressing his shoulders to the wall.

 

James produced a pen light from his pocket and began to shine it in Tony's eyes.  Tony winced and tried to block the light with his free hand. 

 

"That hurts."

 

James frowned and slipped the pen light back into his pocket.  "Feels feverish and he's got a weird PLR.  Almost like--"  His frown deepened.  "Mr. Stark, did you hit your head?" 

 

When Tony didn't answer, Steve spoke for him.  "He did when he fell, but it's not why he passed out."

 

One of the paramedics set a large machine on the ground and stuck a digital thermometer in Tony's mouth, and Tony begin to shiver.  The paramedic began to unwrap a blood pressure cuff, glanced at one the screens on his contraption, and did a double-take.  "We've got a hot one," he said, withdrawing the thermometer as two of his partners lowered the gurney to the floor.  "105 and climbing.  We need to be on the road, like, yesterday."  Steve watched as the paramedics lifted Tony onto the gurney and rushed him to the nearest elevator.  He didn't think to go with them until the doors had already closed.

 

"Damn."  He whirled around and ran into Tony's private elevator.  With a swipe of his Ultimates ID card, he was taken directly to the lobby. As soon as the doors opened, Pepper was in his face.

 

"What did you do?" she shrieked. "Why is Tony being wheeled through the lobby? Do you have any idea how bad this is going to look?  There is already speculation and pictures on the internet! What were you thinking!"

 

Pepper pulled her phone from her purse and began dialing furiously. "I don't care if he's bleeding out on the goddamn floor," she hissed, covering her phone's mouth piece. " Next time you buzz me, buster!"

 

Steve muttered an apology and began to walk toward the exit.

 

"Where are you going?" 

 

"To get a cab."

 

"Oh, no.  We're getting in the car.  Now."

 

***

Lenox Hill Hospital on Park Avenue.

 

Steve paced from the hospital lobby to the end of the nearest hall, then back again. As the hours had ticked away, Steve had grown desperate for news on Tony. Nearing the lobby again, he saw Pepper in the corner, still barking instructions into her phone. 

 

Steve stopped and rubbed the back of his neck.  He'd yelled at Tony.  Seven o' clock in the morning less than twelve hours after a brutal fight in the Savage Land, and he'd chosen to bust into Tony's office and pick a fight.  Maybe I should have just...

 

Steve clenched his fists and started walking away from the lobby again when Pepper's voice stopped him in his tracks. 

 

"Steve!" Pepper's voice echoed down the hallway. There was a nurse standing next to her.  Steve moved fast as he could without running.

 

"He's been asking for you both," the nurse said. "He's insistent about it, and refuses to cooperate unless one of you is in the room."

 

Steve and Pepper looked at each other. Pepper shook her head. "I have got to be on the phone.  There's too much I need to do. You have to go."

 

Steve gave her a curt nod and followed the nurse.  When he got to Tony's room, he paused just inside the doorway, shoving his hands deep into his pockets.  

 

Tony was laying there propped up by a couple of pillows, his bed pulled into a reclined sitting position. Even in profile Steve could tell that Tony was haggard and drawn, a fever flush the only color to his face.  His short hair clung to his forehead and the nape of his neck, his hair darker than normal with sweat.  Tony's clothes were gone, replaced by a blue hospital gown, and at least three different tubes trailed down from bags and into the back of his hands.  Steve quickly shifted his eyes away to focus on anything else.

 

The room looked like a hotel suite.  The lighting in the room was soft and the room was decorated with paintings and flowers, and Steve's eyes were almost fooled into passing over the machines entirely. 

 

"They won't let me drink," Tony said in a tight voice, startling Steve from his thoughts. He made a sound like a laugh but there was no humor there.

 

Steve took a few steps into the room.  "I'm surprised you haven't found someone to bribe yet." 

 

"Working on it." 

 

When Tony fell silent, Steve took a few more steps closer to the hospital bed.  Now he could hear the rhythmic whirring noise of the motors on the two IV pumps that hung on a metal pole attached to the head of Tony's bed.  The digital numbers clicked by at a steady rate, drawing fluid from the bags hooked next to them, and Steve counted at least four hundred drops go go by.

 

The attending physician walked through the door.  He looked up from his chart and paused as though surprised to see Steve. Steve took a step back to let him by before turning to leave.  

 

That's when Tony let out a terse mumble that sounded vaguely like 'stay.'  Steve swallowed hard and turned back around, trying to shove his hands even deeper into the pockets of his fatigues. 

 

The doctor looked down at the chart in his hands.  "Mr. Stark?"

 

Tony turned his head to face the attending.  "Doctor...?"