Tony was tired.
Really, really tired.
As he stepped off the elevator to the penthouse of Stark Tower, he could feel his phone vibrating in his pocket. Again. The damn thing had hardly stopped buzzing since his private jet had landed at JFK and Happy had picked him up. It was like the second it had re-established a connection to the cell network, it had become intent on bothering the hell out of him. He very much wanted to ignore it, ignore whoever was calling now or texting or emailing. It was almost midnight, and he was exhausted after a week-long business trip practically around the globe, and severely jet-lagged, and the whole irritating, demanding world could give it a rest.
It wasn’t, though. No rest for the weary. He sighed as he fished the phone out of his suit pants pocket. “Hello,” he groused as he held it up to his ear.
“Tony.” It was Pepper. Of course it was. He hadn’t been glued to her hip for all of fifteen minutes, so that meant it was high time for her to call him. Frankly, he was tempted to simply hang up (and maybe toss his phone back in the elevator where the doors were closing behind him so that it could be taken far, far away), but he didn’t. He knew he shouldn’t be so pissed off at her. It wasn’t her fault his life had been an utter disaster of late. Hers was a disaster, too. Launching a new, massive clean energy initiative was an unexplored, huge endeavor, and she was really doing amazing things. She was handling the marketing, the news media, the stockholders, the patents and implementations, the sweeping logistics of making this whole plan work. Tony was incredibly lucky to have her.
But right now he just wanted to collapse. “What.”
Over the line she sighed. “We need to talk about the press conference tomorrow night. We had so much stuff to go over on the flight that I forgot to cover the agenda.”
Tony groaned. He set his bag down. Everything hurt. His eyes were burning from lack of sleep. His head was pounding. He didn’t think he could manage a coherent thought. “I thought you said you were going to do it yourself.”
A reluctant sigh answered. “They want you there.”
Tony just closed his eyes, tipping his head back. There were times… God. There were times when he longed for his younger days, when his biggest concerns had been drinking, having a good time, spending money, and inventing. He’d been wild and carefree and able to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted (and lonely and spoiled rotten and a mess emotionally, but it was hard to admit about that, even now). His parents had died right after he’d graduated early from MIT, and with his father’s position as the world’s leading industrialist and successful business man, with the empire of Stark Industries looming in front of him like a cage, a collar, a weight on his back that would only drag him down… Well, he’d tried even harder to ignore it all and just have fun. Processing his grief had been impossible (and stupid – he was fine on his own). Accepting the troubled relationship he’d had with his father had also seemed stupid (couldn’t fix it now – so what was the point?). Doing anything other than exactly what he’d always done – partied and slept around and building stuff for the sake of building – was pointless (he wasn’t cut out to be his dad’s living legacy, so there was no need to change). He was who he was, and he did what he did, and that was all he had and all he needed.
Until his accident. It was sickly ironic that he’d nearly killed himself the same way his parents had died. Five years ago, he’d been running Stark Industries (which was to say, he was CEO; he’d had no idea and hadn’t cared in the slightest that the company was developing dangerous weapons and selling them to the highest bidders) and he’d been intently creating a pretty bad reputation for himself as a drunk and a narcissistic jerk. He’d been rich without measure, expanding the company far beyond what his father had managed no matter the morality of it, and numbing his loneliness with booze and sex. He’d been speeding home after a party late one night in February outside New York City in one of his (many) sports cars – the Lamborghini Aventador – probably a little too buzzed to be driving when he’d hit an icy patch on a curvy stretch of the Palisades. The last thing he’d thought was that he’d wasted his life before the car had plowed into a tree and everything had gone dark.
He’d woken up in the hospital, fresh from emergency surgery to repair the damage he’d done to his heart and save his life, to the most remarkable pair of blue eyes he’d ever seen. They’d drawn him in instantly, and even though he’d been in pain and groggy, he hadn’t been scared. He couldn’t be, not when those eyes had been so beautiful, so calm, so powerful. Those eyes had drawn him in, and the voice with them had lulled him even as it had asked what seemed to be dumb questions like “can you open your eyes?” and “can you try to squeeze my fingers?” and “do you know where you are?” and “can you remember what happened?” And the hands attached to the body that owned those eyes and that voice… They’d been so gentle and so strong and sure. As Tony had lain there in recovery, doped to the gills and disoriented and reeling with everything, he’d been utterly entranced by this angel at his bedside, completely swept away. This angel who was apparently an ER nurse who’d followed his case up to surgery and recovery. Tony had fallen in love instantly.
So, needless to say, that accident had been rather life-changing in more ways than one.
But, needless to say, it had taken him some time to fully realize that, the life-changing part and the falling-in-love part. Of course, it didn’t help that he ended up in recovery for weeks. The accident had done a fair bit of damage to him, some of it a bit long-term. He’d been in the hospital for a while, which had been seriously discouraging. He’d really despised the whole thing, slowing down and being stuck there and treated like a damn invalid. Getting back on his feet had been a long, arduous prospect, particularly given the fact he’d pretty effectively pushed away everyone who’d cared about him with his assholishness. Sure, Pepper had come, and she’d tried to help, but he’d been in a serious funk about feeling bad for himself and basically taking that crap out on anyone who got too close. That had caused her and everyone else to (rightly) keep their distance. Tony hadn’t blamed them in the slightest; he’d been a real dick to everyone, and he’d realized it at the time, but he simply hadn’t cared. The dark place in which he’d found himself had been too consuming.
It had taken that angel sent from heaven – a young guy who worked in the ER of a major metropolitan hospital but who looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model or a superhero or a literal Greek god – to rescue Tony from himself. That young nurse had been the only one regularly involved in Tony’s care; doctors and therapists came and went, but this guy had been there from start to finish. He was determined to do his job, despite Tony’s less than welcoming demeanor. He’d never been fazed by Tony’s cold shoulder, never been hurt by his acidic tongue (making fun of him for being a male nurse had been strictly mean but a major source of entertainment), never been dissuaded from returning even when Tony did his best (cruelly and selfishly) just to get rid of him. The guy always had a smile, and he had always said the same things. “Feeling sorry for yourself isn’t the answer” and “recovery from something like this is as much mental as it is physical” and “being a jerk to everyone isn’t going to get you out of here any sooner” or “maybe this is a sign, and you should listen”. That one had been the worst. Who the hell had the right to tell him that? And Tony had snapped at him, sworn at him, told him to leave him alone and let him fail in recovery. One of the guy’s favorites had always been: “I can do this all day.” He brought that out whenever Tony was particularly nasty to him, like he could just keep taking the verbal hits and bad attitude and keep going no matter what. As physical therapy had gotten more and more demanding, that annoying phrase had gained an addition: “I can do this all day, and so can you.”
It should have been annoying, and it had been at first, deeply, deeply annoying, but then Tony had let himself really recognize the warm feeling that crept inside him every time the nurse had come to change his bandages or check his vitals or swap out his medications. He let himself embrace the fact that the other man dropping by became the highlights of his days, something he looked forward to. The guy was sharp, and slowly their little verbal spats had turned lighter and fun, and Tony had really begun to appreciate how this guy saw right through his walls. Granted, he’d pretty much been at his most vulnerable, but there was something about how the young man talked, how bright his eyes were and how no-nonsense yet caring his tone always was, how he seemed to see Tony in ways that no one else ever had. After all, there in the hospital bed he hadn’t been Tony Stark, the billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, and daredevil. He hadn’t been the media sensation, the bad reputation, the party animal and the charismatic entrepreneur and the callous weapons designer. He hadn’t had the armor of any of that to protect him.
Somehow, though, it hadn’t mattered. Having this guy, this kid, look at him like he did, with only genuine care and concern, with the capacity to cut through his bullshit and get to the heart of things, started to mean so much more. He wanted this guy to come in with his stupid, placating sayings and encouragement. He wanted him to put him in his place. He wanted to feel that grounded, that normal, that human. And with all of this, that euphoric, blissed-out sense of attraction slowly overpowered the anger and depression. As Tony’s convalescence had reached the point where he could be released from the hospital, he’d finally recognized the truth: he didn’t want to leave this place he’d done nothing but hated and tried to escape for weeks. The relationship he’d developed with his nurse… This wasn’t just stupid lust for a gorgeous nobody. He’d really, really fallen for this guy.
So he’d found himself actually trying to woo him. That had been so damn out of this world that he’d wondered not a few times if he’d awoken from the surgery to save his life after all, if he wasn’t back in the hospital having some sort of intricate dream about chasing after this hot nurse and winning him. But it hadn’t been a fantasy. All the sudden he’d been finding reasons to go back to the hospital. He’d had therapy, of course, physical and psychological (he’d wrapped a million dollar car around a tree half drunk, so that had been something of an emotional red flag, a sign as the nurse kept telling him). Those sessions brought him there, but he might have – maybe – tried other things, because frankly being mostly recovered and visiting for rehab hadn’t taken him to the emergency room too often. He’d of course come down for no reason, enjoying just a bit how flustered this guy got when he showed up unannounced. The ridiculously hot nurse (how did ugly blue scrubs make someone’s ass look so good?) never much let Tony flirt with him when he’d been on the job, always claiming he had patients to see and things to do. The way he’d blush, though… Tony had been so enamored. He’d come again and again, possibly bribing a shift manager to find out what his nurse’s schedule was (that was only moderately stalker-like, but Tony couldn’t help it – he was madly in love with this guy) and showing up when he got off work with a smile and candy and invitations to dinner. The nurse had seemed so interested, but he claimed he really shouldn’t date a patient, to which Tony had reminded him he wasn’t his patient anymore, so it was really okay. This had gone on for a bit, long enough that Tony had feared the guy just wasn’t interested. Maybe it had been his tenacity or the fact the man had seen him at the absolute lowest or the enormity of being involved with a billionaire or his reputation and baggage (so much baggage). Maybe it really had been this guy’s morals and scruples. Tony had never once in his life thought he wasn’t worthy of something or someone, but he was sure he wasn’t worthy of this man, this angel who’d saved his life in pretty much every way.
But then, after Tony had pretty much given up all hope, the guy had tracked him down at his tower (not that it was hard to do that). Tony had been buried in work at the time, and he’d nearly ignored Jarvis when the man had announced he had a visitor. Then Jarvis, who’d been rather uncertain about this entire prospect, had described the person who’d come, and Tony had practically raced down to the lobby (defying orders from his doctors not to over-exert himself) and found the young man there, blushing again and nervous and sweetly hopeful. After that, things had quickly fallen into place, and in no time at all, he’d found himself married to one Steve Rogers.
That had been five years ago. Since then, Tony’s life had been transformed and had grown incredibly. Steve was far and away the most amazing, perfect, wonderful thing that had ever happened to him. Steve had helped him settle down and abandon his wild ways. Steve had helped him truly find his own voice and his own purpose. Steve had made him see the truth about his company, not that Steve had known anything about weapons and telecommunications development but he’d instilled a sense of honor and integrity in Tony that had opened Tony's eyes wide. Tony could never go back to burying his head in the sand about from where his fortune came, about how his company made its tremendous profits, about how the dangerous technologies and deadly weapons they made ended up in the hands of evil men who used them on innocents. So he’d taken control, fought to make things right. He’d fired the people in charge and cleaned house. He’d assumed leadership, becoming CEO and redesigning Stark Industries from the ground up. He’d changed the direction of the company from weapons to green energy and affordable telecom. He’d restored pride and honor to his family’s name.
However, with all that came responsibility. And duty. And long hours and traveling all the time and managing everything from the stockholders to the marketing department to R&D (he was constantly in contact with them, feeding them ideas and revising the ones they developed on their own). With this new green power initiative, things had been even crazier than normal. This was his first day home in more than a week, and this was only the latest in a slew of trips. His workload at the moment was unbearable, and even when he was home, he was distracted. No matter what he did, he didn’t seem to be able to get his head above water. So, yes, longing for easier times was something he’d been doing more and more.
But he wouldn’t trade his family for anything.
Therefore, Pepper’s request was nothing but irritating. “I don’t think I can do it,” he said, still standing in the front entry of the penthouse, feet leaden and body aching with exhaustion.
That wasn’t what she wanted to hear. “Tony–”
“Pep, I’ve hardly had a second to think in days,” he whined. The urge to just hang up and go inside and ignore this all got so strong again. “I haven’t spent any time at home in weeks.” I’ve hardly even called, hardly talked to Steve. “I can’t leave again.”
She was silent a moment, like she was weighing her options against her guilt. She was a good person and a wonderful friend, but she tended to put the company first, particularly when things got really hectic like this. It was easier for her. She wasn’t married. She didn’t have responsibilities at home. She was dating Happy, which was convenient because Happy was with them all the time by virtue of his job as Stark Industries head of security. Still, though, her situation had freedom built into it. His didn’t. “At least can we talk about Killian?”
Damn it. Tony rubbed the bridge of his nose. “No?”
“We have to do something about him.”
Why is it always we? He supposed in this case it was. Aldritch Killian had been his hire, back when he hadn’t cared at all who he hired. He’d run into the man a couple months before his accident at a Tech Expo in Houston. The guy had been desperate for recognition, vying for attention, practically begging for a chance to share his ideas with Tony. Tony had been drunk enough to basically give him a job in R&D to get rid of him. That had been the start of their troubles. As it turned out, Killian had really extreme ideas about developing biotech and chemical weapons. He’d disguised that under a veil of trying to study wound healing and accelerated regeneration, but in the end, that was what he’d been doing, and he’d been taking Stark Industries’ resources to do it. When Tony had discovered that, Killian had pitched the world to him in a desperate attempt to hang on. He’d promised Tony huge profits, even greater success, a ton of power in biochemical engineering, if Tony just joined AIM, Killian’s project. Tony would create his own legacy of changing health care the world over forever.
Tony knew bullshit when he saw it. This guy wanted the clout and prestige and the sense of accomplishment. He wanted to be taken seriously, wanted the reverence and popularity (and all the fame and fortune that came with it, of course). He wanted to be friends, it seemed, to be seen as an equal. And he was willing to do whatever it took to get that, stealing and lying and using Stark Industries to sell his own project. To sell what was essentially a bioweapon. On the heels of Tony ridding the company of the stain of war-for-profit weapons development, this was a scandal they couldn’t afford, not to mention the fact it was just plain despicably wrong, so Tony had fired him on the spot.
That had been almost a month ago. Since then, Killian had been making a fantastic nuisance of himself. He’d tried to steal his work, so security had had to throw him out of R&D’s campus in Malibu. He’d contacted the media and tried to paint the company in a negative light, slandering Tony in particular left and right. He’d used his own vile research to sully the company’s efforts at the worst possible time. He’d shown up at press conferences, at expositions, at business functions and dinners and lunches. He was vacillating between trying to shmooze his way back into Tony’s good graces and acting like a total, raving lunatic, furious at Tony for casting him aside or begging maniacally for Tony to take him back. There didn’t seem to be any end in sight, and though he hadn’t technically broken the law yet, he was escalating more and more.
Thus Pepper was entirely right. They had to do something about him. Frankly, though, Tony was sick and tired of thinking about it. “Can we talk about it in the morning?”
She sighed again. “So he can crash the event in LA tomorrow?”
Tony grimaced. “Have Happy put more security on it.”
“That’s not going to be enough.”
Tony knew that. What he was suggesting was like slapping a band-aid on a huge gash and praying it stopped the bleeding. Killian had already pretty fantastically demonstrated that he had zero interest in letting this go. The guy was a certifiable nutcase under the guise of social awkwardness and nerdy genius, and he was bound and determined to dog Tony until Tony capitulated or went crazy. At this point, all bets were off on which would happen first. He’d even tried to tell Tony last week that settling down and having a family had ruined him, softened him and distracted him from the true goals of science and technological discovery. This had been in the bar of Tony’s hotel out in LA. Happy had left Tony to get a drink, and Killian had zeroed in like a hawk. Needless to say, Killian had been lucky as hell that Happy had come back in time to stop Tony from decking him.
So it was a serious problem. And Tony knew what Pepper was going to say before she actually said it. “Let me report him to the police, please. The FBI.”
Tony went from pinching the bridge of his nose to rubbing vigorously at his eyes. “He hasn’t really done anything wrong.” The second he said that, he couldn’t help but wonder if Killian was right, if he had gone soft. Back in the day, he’d been ruthlessly callous, caring so little for people’s feelings, rarely thinking about consequences. If someone slighted him, he’d been harshly dismissive. If someone had been so disgustingly clingy and utterly pathetic as Killian had been, he’d have dropped that person like a hot potato and done everything imaginable to kick him or her to the curb. Now even he thought he was going out of the way to spare someone who’d caused him nothing but trouble.
Pepper clearly thought so, too. “Tony, he stole company property. Trade secrets.”
“Yeah, but he hasn’t done anything with it. He could have gone to Stone or Hammer or any other of our competitors and seriously done damage, but he didn’t.”
“Because he has some kind of crazy obsession with being your business partner!”
Tony winced. “He knows that’s never going to happen. I’ve made it abundantly clear.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not so sure he’s getting the message. He’s stalking you. At least let me report him for that.”
For a second, Tony considered it. It certainly would put a stop to this crap. Intentionally or not, Killian had the worst timing when he chose to go nuts on the eve of Stark Industries launching a new green energy initiative. Life would be much easier if all of this went away, and Tony knew Stark Industries (and Pepper) had enough favors that could be called in to make sure they got what they wanted. Still, it just didn’t feel right. Five years ago? Yes. Now? All he could think about were all the times when Killian had worked for him that he’d tried to talk to him, that he’d wanted to show him his ideas and progress, that he’d tried to strike up a conversation and be, well, his friend… And all the times Tony had ignored him. You make your own demons. “Let me think about it, okay?”
Pepper didn’t like that, but there wasn’t much she could do without Tony’s say-so. No matter how close they were, he was still her boss and the owner of the company. “Alright. We can talk more tomorrow morning. And we need to discuss the press conference.”
She wasn’t taking “no” for an answer on that. He tipped the phone away from his mouth to heave a sigh. “Fine.” Whatever it took to get rid of her.
“Fine. I’ll call first thing in the morning.”
The call ended before he could wish her the same. He stood there, mind blank and body frozen in place, for what felt like a long time. He knew he should be thinking about everything he needed to deal with: the press conference and work he still had to do and the Killian issue and all that, but he just couldn’t manage it. His brain was utterly blank, and he just stared at the doors of the penthouse with a silent phone still held to his ear.
Tony jerked and turned. Jarvis was there. Edwin Jarvis, his faithful British butler, who’d served the Stark family for as long as he could remember, who’d been part of his life through it all, and who’d obviously been waiting up for him. He was wearing silk pajamas, a red silk robe, and black slippers, but his thinning hair didn’t look sleep tousled and he was quite alert. Of course he was. He’d been more of a father to him than his own father ever had been. “It’s good to have you back, sir.”
Tony sagged. “Ugh. Hey.” He managed half a smile. “Good to be back.”
Jarvis frowned worriedly. “You look exhausted, if you don’t mind me saying so. Shall I take your things?”
Tony was too tired to come up with any sort of comeback, let alone a sassy one, so he just nodded. Then he winced and shook his head as Jarvis reached for his suitcase. “No, just leave it for the morning.” Particularly if he needed to go again. “Steve still up?”
Softly Jarvis frowned. “He did try to wait, but I believe he fell asleep in the living room.”
That wasn’t all that surprising, considering how late it was. When he’d talked to Steve earlier, Steve had promised to wait for him, but the flight had been delayed and all the usual crap associated with traveling struck, and… “Damn it,” Tony groaned.
Jarvis offered a sad nod. “You should sleep as well, sir.”
Yet again his brain just disconnected, and he stood still like a useless lump. “Yeah,” he finally managed. “Yeah. Good idea. Uh… Good night.”
“Good night, sir.” With that, Tony started walking toward the penthouse, pulling open the doors. Jarvis’ voice stopped him. “You should… rest, not simply sleep.”
Tony closed his eyes and then nodded. “Yeah. Right.” Then he went inside.
The lights had been dimmed in the penthouse. The place was huge, very open, very swanky, and filled with modern décor and expensive furniture. Tony dragged himself up the stairs to the main living areas and then through the spacious hallways until he reached the living room closest to their bedroom. In there, the lights were off completely, though the massive television was still on and bathing the room in a pale glow. It was playing Disney’s WALL-E with practically no sound. Sure enough, as Tony rounded the side of the big, plush leather couch, he spotted Steve sprawled atop it, barefoot and dressed in jeans and a rumpled Yankees t-shirt. He was deeply asleep, breathing slowly and evenly. Of course, the reason why he was so conked out was immediately obvious in the tiny body curled on its belly atop his chest.
Their son, James.
The scene was pretty perfect. Amazing. Tony just stood there, taking it in. Jamey was wearing his favorite feety pajamas, and his small, fleece-covered butt was up in the air, his face nestled into Steve’s neck and shoulder. As Tony came closer, he could see pink lips parted with steady breaths, plump cheeks soft and round. His thick brown hair, with even more of Tony’s curls than Tony had, had dried funky after his bath into an adorable mess. Jamey was two now, and even though he was absolutely tiny against Steve’s six-foot frame, he was already so much bigger than he had been even a couple months ago. Tony’s heart ached, both at the awesome sight before him and the fact that he’d missed that.
That brought a flood of insecurities pouring forward. After some discussion, they’d had Jamey via surrogacy. Steve had been absolutely on board with the idea; it had been his to begin with. And that wasn’t to say he’d been pushy about it at all. No, he’d been very patient (and sweetly understanding, as he always was) as Tony worked through his feelings on the matter. He’d never imagined himself like this, as a husband and a father, and the whole concept was just so not him. He’d been untethered, free to do whatever he wanted, for so long. And his relationship with his own father had been strained, to say the least. Howard Stark had worked all the time and had rarely paid much attention to him, so it wasn’t like he’d had the best of role models.
But Steve had believed in him. And Steve had wanted a piece of him, so he’d suggested for their first that Tony be the biological father. Despite his doubts (and terror), Tony had agreed, and in no time at all, they’d brought James Rogers-Stark into their lives. Nothing had been the same since. Steve had (momentarily, he claimed) abandoned his dreams of following in his mother’s footsteps and working in healthcare. He’d been so poor growing up, and he’d fought tooth and nail for everything he’d had, particularly after his mother had passed away during his teenage years. She’d been a nurse, so after high school, Steve had put himself through nursing school to get his foot in the door. He’d been working towards medical school with aspirations to become a doctor when they’d gotten married, and with Tony’s money, he’d finally had the chance to really live up to his incredible potential. He’d been accepted into Columbia. With his grades, smarts, and drive, he could have really made something of himself if he’d tried.
But he hadn’t. Without a second thought, he’d given it up to stay home and be a dad. Medical school would still be there in a few years, he’d said, but Jamey would only be a baby once, so he’d never even attended a single class. That was… God, Tony couldn’t describe what that made him feel. Love, yes, and gratitude and so much appreciation, but a fair amount of guilt. Steve was younger than he was, a fact that hadn’t really bothered him until the media had started making a stink about it after they’d gotten married. Steve was younger, yet Tony was the one with the career, a huge, sprawling, powerful career. He was the one making waves, getting stuff done, fulfilling dreams and legacies, and Steve was home, day in and day out, with a toddler.
Never once had Steve complained, at least not about the choices he’d made. The most he’d ever said was that he missed Tony.
So there was something very bittersweet and modestly upsetting about this, about his young husband who’d fallen asleep watching a Disney movie with their child while they’d been waiting for him to get home. His young husband, who was obviously exhausted because of said child even though he refused Tony’s repeated offers to hire him help in a nanny or at least more hands around the home. Steve was real big on self-sufficiency; he didn’t let people do his laundry or clean up after him (though he had embraced the concept of personal chefs, probably because he’d lived a life of Ramen noodles, boxed macaroni and cheese, and hamburger helper. Even still, he did his own (and Tony’s) dishes). Tony found that endearing and constantly worthy of teasing, but it did bother him that Steve refused more so often. It bothered Jarvis as well. Jarvis was about the only person Steve let look after him.
And then there was Tony himself, who didn’t even think about starting his day without a personal stylist and traveled with an entourage of assistants. Steve poked fun at him about that, too, but the differences were really striking. They were like night and day. That was another thing Tony had kind of realized before they’d married but had become more and more apparent recently. The concept of opposites attracting made sense (particularly from a scientific sense), but he and Steve really didn’t have much in common. Steve grew up poor in Brooklyn, the son of a dead soldier and a nurse who barely made ends meet. Tony had grown up with wealth and privilege all around him, and there’d never been any doubt about the caliber of his future. Aside from the both of them being raised essentially fatherless and then officially being orphaned in their teenage years, their upbringings couldn’t be further apart. And that wasn’t all. Steve was exceedingly neat, and Tony had no idea how clean up after himself. Steve was overly mature for his age, somewhat quiet and a tad solemn (though he did have a sassy, sarcastic side that never failed to make Tony laugh), and a simple guy. Tony was loud and extravagant and eccentric, and he flourished in complexities. Even with a fortune at his fingertips, Steve didn’t like to spend money. Tony never thought twice about the cost when it came to pampering those he cared about. Steve was slow to anger, slow to cool, and he could bottle up crap that bothered him like no one else Tony had ever known. Tony was emotional, quick to burn and flighty, and he had very little patience.
Tony knew things. He knew science and technology. He knew engines and computers and programming, knew how to mold perfection and predictability from chaos. Steve knew people. He understood others. He was a quiet, unassuming leader, the sort to whom others automatically deferred, and he had an abundance of compassion. That was why he’d been such a good nurse and why he was such a good father. That was what had drawn Tony to him in the first place. They couldn’t be more different.
The media had latched onto that, too. And they’d caught onto the fact that Steve was home with Jamey while Tony was off gallivanting around the world for work. Despite their best efforts, the press had caught wind of Jamey almost instantly. It was impossible to go anywhere without the paparazzi all over them. In the beginning, it’d been pictures of the three of them, Jamey in a stroller or in their arms as they went out shopping or to lunch or to the zoo or whatever. Now it was just Steve, and the pictures were of him and Jamey at the park or library or on a walk, and the headlines were not very flattering. The constant attention and speculation from those jackals only heightened Tony’s guilt and this internal fear that he was keeping Steve at home like his little wife, raising the children and there only for his gratification. It was utter bullshit, but he couldn’t stop himself.
And he couldn’t stop himself now. He sighed, lowering his hand to Jamey’s little back, feeling the calming tempo of his breathing. Then he lifted the two-year old into his arms. Jamey squeaked a little but didn’t wake. Steve didn’t wake either; he’d always been a terribly light sleeper, so the fact that he was down so deep was again pretty telling. Tony gathered Jamey against his shoulder, cuddling him close and inhaling that soft, baby scent. It wasn’t as strong now that Jamey was a little older, but it was still there, this smell of lavender night-time baby wash and warm skin and something so sweet and comforting and uniquely him. Tony closed his eyes and let it take him over.
Then a groggy voice interrupted his basking. “Hey, you’re back.” Tony looked down and saw those gorgeous blue eyes sleepily blinking at him. Steve grimaced, trying to lean up a bit and wincing. “What time izzit?”
“Late,” Tony whispered. He smiled. “You didn’t have to wait up.”
Steve smiled too, full lips turning into an adorable grin as his eyes slipped shut again. “Wanted to.”
Tony leaned down and kissed him. After days and days apart yet again, it felt so good. When he kissed Steve like this, he could forget everything, all the stress and pressures and expectations just falling away. Again he basked in feeling good for a moment – feeling at home – before leaning back. “Gonna go put him to bed.”
Steve leaned up fully and rubbed at his face. “I can do it. You’re tired.”
Pot calling kettle. “No, it’s fine.”
With that they headed to the bedrooms. Jamey’s was adjacent to theirs, a huge space that put most nurseries to shame. They’d excitedly designed it together when they’d discovered they were having a boy. The walls were a soft Robin’s egg blue. Steve had spent weeks painting a mural on them, a sprawling picture of a town with a train, cars, trucks, and airplanes in the sky. Despite having been together for a couple years before then, that had been the first time Tony had really discovered just how talented an artist Steve was. The work looked professionally done, a perfect combination of baby-themes and a slightly cartoonish feel with color and detail. He’d mentioned a couple of times since then that Steve could always do art instead of medical school; he was certainly good enough. He didn’t think Steve had really explored the prospect much, although he’d bought a sketchbook he was using more and more in his free time.
Free time. That was laughable.
At any rate, the room was spectacular. The mural was one thing, but the furnishings were the best money could buy. The sheer number of books, toys, and stuffed animals was overwhelming, each meticulously located in its proper place. Well, normally they were. Right now it looked like a pile of blocks and cars and puzzle pieces had just been shoved in a bin in lieu of sorting it all and putting it away. Another indication that Steve was exhausted. Tony sighed, carefully carrying Jamey over to his crib. He just turned two a month ago, and Steve had mentioned that maybe they should think about transitioning him to a bed, but frankly Tony hadn’t had the time to really think about it. If it even mattered what he thought. If Steve waited for his opinion to make a decision, the kid would probably be in a crib until he was eighteen at this rate.
Carefully Tony laid Jamey down on his back. Thankfully he didn’t stir. Somewhere in the blur of new parenthood, Jamey had grown out of his disinclination to sleep. Slightly. When they’d newly brought him home, they’d both (understandably) had no idea what they’d been doing. It had been an endless series of bottles and diapers and soiled baby clothes and rocking and late, late nights. Jamey had apparently inherited Tony’s night owlish tendencies. Tony had always been capable of working into the morning without really even noticing the hours slip away, but taking care of a baby was like nothing else. Fortunately Steve functioned better on no sleep, and fortunately, somewhere during all that, Jamey had decided sleep was an annoying necessity.
Which was good, because Tony didn’t have it in him to sing or rock or whatever the little guy back to the land of Nod. Heaving another sigh, he tucked Jamey’s favorite blue blanket around him. He rubbed his fingers lightly through Jamey’s hair, smiling again, before leaning back out of the crib. As he did, he caught sight of Tiggy, Jamey’s little stuffed tiger. His Uncle Bucky (his namesake, in fact) had given him it for his first birthday. Jamey had instantly fallen in love with it, and he took it with him everywhere. The thing was totally bedraggled at this point after being dragged around for a year, dirty and its fur flattered and its one glassy, black eye loose and hanging down a bit on its threads. Every time Tony saw it, it looked worse. Right now it was staring at Tony from the corner of the crib. Tony stared back. It was just creepy. Truth be told, he’d never liked that thing.
He checked on Jamey one more time before creeping out of the nursery and softly closing the door behind him. Then he went to their bedroom, where the lights were already off. Steve’s jeans were on the floor at the foot of the California king, and Steve himself was sprawled on his stomach on his side (and somewhat on Tony’s as well), wearing only his t-shirt and his boxers. He was snoring softly into his pillow. Tony smiled fondly before taking off his suit coat and working his tie loose. He undressed the rest of the way, leaning down to collect Steve’s jeans and dropping everything in a pile by the bathroom entrance. Then he climbed into bed.
Moving the dead weight that was his husband was practically impossible, so Tony just snuggled up close, tugging the duvet free as much as he could to get under it. Steve groaned and rolled over so that he could wrap himself around Tony. That felt so unbelievably good, and Tony melted into it. It was like his muscles were finally relaxing after days and days, the tension at long last fading. “Missed you,” Steve murmured into the nape of his neck. Tony shivered a little in relief. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Tony whispered. He rubbed his hand over Steve’s arm where it was draped over his chest. “Yeah. I just missed you, too.” You have no idea.
Steve hummed. His lips pressed in a weary kiss. “How was the trip?”
As if there was a simple answer to that. Or as if Tony wanted to talk about it. He didn’t, not now when he was warm and comfortable like this. “I’ll tell you in the morning.”
Steve didn’t press. He kissed again at Tony’s neck before exhaling slowly and deflating completely against Tony. It got so quiet that Tony thought for sure he’d fallen asleep. Then, though, there was a mumble against his throat. “Love you, Tony.”
Tony craned his neck a bit to press a kiss to Steve’s head. “Love you, too.” He wasn’t sure Steve had heard him; he was already snoring softly, having conked right back out again. Tony sighed. He caressed Steve’s arm more, trying to fall asleep himself, but despite the damned bone dead tiredness that had settled into his core in the last couple minutes, he just couldn’t let go. His mind was moving, slipping through thoughts languidly, hazy in that way things could be on the edge of wakefulness. How much he did miss this. How much he’d been missing lately. All the crap he was leaving behind just to be at home. The mess his job had become and how he longed for simple answers, for fewer demands on him. Simpler times, but not the carefree days of his youth. A life where he could be here.
God, he couldn’t even remember the last time he and Steve had fooled around in bed.
And that sucked. This whole thing sucked. The stress and tension released from his body settled in his brain instead, creating this random, stormy mess of unpleasantness. Worst of all, though, was the question emerging from the maelstrom he was finally forced to ask himself: how in the world was he going to tell his husband and son that he had to go again tomorrow?
There was no answer to be had, and he didn’t want to think about it, so he cuddled closer to Steve and closed his eyes. Oddly enough, as his mind continued to flit and drift between more and more random thoughts, he ended up pondering Jamey’s Tiggy and picturing its loose, creepy eye and its forced smile and beaten-up appearance. It was weird and vaguely upsetting, and he winced and held Steve tighter as he finally went to sleep.
Despite being woken a couple of times, Tony slept pretty late. The first interruption was most definitely Jamey bouncing on his chest (he’d obviously escaped his crib again – this was another reason to dispense with it and get him a bed). Tony barely remembered the ball of energy climbing all over him, though Steve had must have collected their rambunctious two-year old before he could wake up Daddy all the way because Tony went back to sleep pretty easily. That felt slightly selfish, but he was just too worn out to care. Later on, he was pretty sure he heard something buzzing, but he was able to ignore that too. Later still the sun was brighter, a bit in his face, but he managed to roll over and bury his head into Steve’s pillow and doze off yet again.
It was finally Jarvis who got through to him. “Sir? Sir.” Tony grumbled and burrowed more into the duvet. There was an irate sigh, the soft sound of someone coming closer, and then the light got even brighter as the curtains on the huge bank of windows beside the bed were pulled open. “Sir, you must rise. Ms. Potts has been calling.”
Tony groaned and tugged the duvet over his head. “No,” he whimpered.
The next sigh was softer and far more sympathetic. A hand fell to his shoulder. “Sir, please. She seems rather irate.”
Tony wasn’t sure he gave a crap. He hadn’t slept terribly well last night. He wasn’t sure why exactly. Nothing in particular stood out, like a nightmare or a bad dream or anything like that, but there was just this general sense of unease. Stress and anxiety and all that. God, he needed a vacation, somewhere far away from all this nonsense with only his husband and his son for miles and miles. “Don’t care.”
“That may well be the case,” Jarvis said, “but young Master James has been asking for you as well.”
That was far more of an impetus. He opened his eyes fully and pushed the covers back. Even still, sleep was slow to release him, and he sat up with a wince. Everything ached like he’d been in a fight. Or running across the world nonstop for weeks on end. “What time is it?” he said, rubbing at his eyes.
“A little past ten o’clock.” Jarvis was dressed in his customary suit and as well-groomed as ever. He went to the massive walk-in closet. His voice was muffled. “Master Steve is preparing breakfast for you.”
Master Steve. Steve had never liked the way Jarvis stood on formality with him. He was first Master Rogers, and since they’d wed he’d become Master Steve. He’d tried for years to get Jarvis to just call him by his first name, and Jarvis refused. Eventually Steve had given up, claiming it was more bothersome for Jarvis to change how he operated than for Steve to tolerate it. Besides, respect was respect, and Tony got the impression Steve just wasn’t used to it. “He didn’t have to do that,” Tony replied, swinging his legs out of bed.
“You know how he is,” Jarvis declared.
Tony did know. He smiled fondly as he sat there, at least until Jarvis returned with a clean pair of jeans and a blue t-shirt. “I need a suit.”
Jarvis paused, and a look of distress crossed his long face. “Sir?”
“If Pepper is calling, it’s because she wants me back in LA. Which means I need to eat and run.”
The distraught look became an angry frown. Jarvis would never be so bold as to say exactly what it was he was thinking, but Tony knew all the same. “Ms. Potts has been asking quite a bit of you.”
That went to the heart of Tony’s insecurities. He grunted and stood, stalking past Jarvis to the closet. “No kidding,” he muttered.
“Does Master Steve know?”
The walk-in was huge, and all of their clothes were neatly hung and arranged. Tony was too angry to even consider which suit he took, grabbing the closest with enough frustration that he nearly ripped it from the hangar (which wasn’t all that smart, considering these were thousand-dollar pieces of clothing). He could practically feel Jarvis wince, and in his effort to not look at his oldest caretaker and see the disappointment and disapproval in his eyes, he found himself staring at Steve’s side of the closet. Even after being married for more than a few years now, there wasn’t nearly the amount of stuff Tony had. Jeans and t-shirts and a few nicer slacks, dress shirts, and suits. It didn’t seem possible, but that made Tony feel even worse. “What do you think?” he murmured.
Jarvis was quiet. Then he came closer. “I think you are working too hard,” he offered in that tone he had, that gentle, fatherly voice that Tony associated so much with his youth. It was the one Jarvis had always used whenever Tony had been too hard on himself, lost in Howard’s rejection or his own at times deplorable self-esteem. Jarvis had never been able to tolerate him beating himself up, not over a failed test or an invention that wasn’t working or even this. “I also think people expect too much of you.”
Tony shook his head, staring at Steve’s clothes, at the mixture of the few things Steve had brought with him when he’d moved in and the vastly larger amount that Tony had purchased for him. “Except the only person who should.”
Jarvis considered his words. Tony had maybe thought about it once or twice before, but it was undeniable right now that Jarvis had spent more time with Steve in the last few months than he had. Accepting that didn’t feel good in the slightest. “Has he been okay?” he finally asked.
For a moment Jarvis hesitated, like he wasn’t sure he should break Steve’s trust. That more than anything made Tony’s heart wind tight in fear, because it had to mean the worst, that Steve was starting to resent him. That wasn’t it at all, though. “He misses you. And he is lonely. Caring for a child on one’s own can be isolating.” Jarvis spoke like he knew from experience, and Tony supposed he did. During his own youth, his mother and father had been gone for days at a time, and the butler had been left alone with his young master in his charge. “He does find great satisfaction in the day, but I know he wishes he could share this with you.”
God. “I know.”
“I believe he worries for you. And for Master James. Master James misses you as well.” Hearing that hurt. Jarvis hesitated slightly. “I admit that the impact all of this is having on Master James does concern me. I am all too well acquainted with the effects of such…” He didn’t finish, and Tony’s mind filled in the blank all too easily. Neglect. That hurt even worse, hitting far too close to home. Jarvis recognized that, face softening with compassion and sympathy. “However, Master Steve and I both take solace in the fact that what you’re doing is extremely important.” Tony grunted to that. He wasn’t so sure. “And that all of this is temporary.”
He was even less sure of that. Sure, this marketing blitz would end, but would it matter? There’d always be another project. The workload would ebb and flow, of course, but it’d never go away. He was CEO of Stark Industries. He was never going to be able to live the simple, domestic life. “Yeah,” he managed, feeling like total crap.
Jarvis seemed to realize what he couldn’t say. He took the suit from Tony. “Sir, allow me to handle this. Go and shower. If you must leave, you should spend what time you have here with your family.”
That was the least he could do, and it was nothing. Disgusted with himself and this whole situation, Tony followed Jarvis’ advice. He headed out of the walk-in and to the bathroom. There he went through getting himself ready as fast as he could, frustrated and angry enough not to feel the slightest bit soothed or refreshed by the scalding hot shower. Then he quickly dressed in clean boxers and an undershirt, brushed his teeth, trimmed his goatee, and gelled his hair for another day in front of cameras and the press. He finished up and returned to the room to find his suit waiting. He got dressed quickly. After that he took a second to appraise himself in the multi-way mirror in the walk-in. He looked… He sighed in submission. He looked good. Expensive gray, Italian silk three-piece. Dark blue dress-shirt. Silver tie that matched his silver cufflinks and Rolex. Leather shoes. Rich, suave, and powerful. He played the part all too well.
The only sign it wasn’t the whole story was the silver wedding band on his left hand.
Out in the living areas, the smell of breakfast was undeniable. Tony caught wind of coffee and bacon the second he came down the massive staircase. A few seconds later, he heard Jamey laughing before giving a high-pitched, delighted squeal. That made him grin, and his spirits immediately soared despite his mounting anxiety about having to tell Steve the truth (Pepper had called his cellphone twice in the last twenty minutes – Tony was about ready to flush the damn thing down a toilet, plumbing bill be damned). The second he walked into the kitchen, Jamey shrieked again. “Daddy!”
All his troubles disappeared yet again, and Tony was running across the spacious kitchen to where the toddler was reaching for him. Jamey was in his booster seat at the table, strapped in at the moment, with an array of toys and a sippy cup full of milk if the drops of white all over the space in front of him was any indication. He was dressed in little khaki shorts and a blue-striped seersucker button-down shirt, and he looked absolutely adorable with those huge brown eyes and his plump cheeks and his hands outspread. “Hey, buddy!” Tony wasted no time in unstrapped him from his seat and swept him in his arms. “Morning!”
“Daddy,” babbled the toddler as Tony rose to his full height with Jamey. “Dada making eggies!”
Tony turned to Steve, who was busy in the kitchen with wrapping up breakfast. Steve grinned at him. “Well, at least it’s kinda different?”
Tony looked at his son, bouncing him a couple times and not giving a damn if it rumpled his suit or if Jamey’s perpetually sticky fingers mussed him up. Ever since Jamey had started talking a few months back, they’d been trying to get him to differentiate between his two dads. Of course, he hadn’t had two dads around much lately, so the fact that he’d managed that much was pretty remarkable.
That bitter thought didn’t last long with Jamey clinging to him. “Want eggies, Daddy?”
“Oh, I’d love some,” Tony said. Jamey roared and shoved Tiggy into his face, and Tony recoiled just a bit before he could stop himself. Somehow since last night, the stuffed tiger’s eye was even looser, practically dangling by a thread. “Wow. Looking rough there, pal. Maybe we should put Tiggy away for a bit? Find something new while he takes a rest?”
“No,” Jamey said, shaking his head emphatically. He picked at the loose eye. “Dada fix it.”
Steve came over to the table with a plastic plate for Jamey with eggs, toast, and applesauce. He set that down in front of the toddler’s booster seat and righted his sippy cup that had gotten knocked down. “Probably wouldn’t be too hard to sew it back on.”
It was so dumb to be disappointed, but it would have been nice to throw that thing away when Jamey wasn’t looking. Plus the idea of Steve sewing, even to repair their son’s beloved toy, was not something he wanted to ponder right now. “Also wouldn’t be hard to… you know.” He didn’t want to say it with Jamey listening, so he waited until he had Steve’s attention as his husband went back to the kitchen and mouthed, “Buy a new one.” Or buy anything else. Jamey probably wouldn’t notice, or if he did and got upset, they could just weather what would likely be a quick storm of crying before he got interested in something else. Kids didn’t hold grudges.
Steve smiled and shook his head, and that was Tony needed to know he wasn’t going to win here. Steve scooped scrambled eggs onto a plate and reached for the bacon. “Want some coffee?”
“Please, but you don’t have to wait on me.” Tony set Jamey back in his booster seat, strapping the wriggly toddler in place and nudging his plate and cup closer. When he turned around, he saw Steve already at the thousand-dollar coffee machine, making Tony the promised brew. He poured in the sweetener and milk just as Tony liked it and delivered it not a moment later. “Damn it, Steve…”
“Language,” Steve lightly chided, handing Tony the cup. Now that he was closer, Tony could tell he was a little tense, a little tentative in the kiss he dropped to Tony’s hair. “You sleep okay last night?”
That seemed a bit awkward, too, like chit-chat. They never did chit-chat. “Alright,” Tony replied after a moment, deciding on a lie. He put his coffee down far away from where Jamey could reach, not that the little boy was paying attention. He was clumsily spooning eggs into his mouth while trying to drive a car around his plate. As usual, breakfast was turning into a full contact experience, and food was getting everywhere. “Sorry if my phone woke you.”
“I’m used to it,” Steve replied, and he came back with Tony’s plate, which he set before him. It was loaded with eggs, bacon, toast, and fresh fruit. Steve wasn’t a gourmet chef, but he was solid, and the meals he made, while simple, always tasted great. Tony had never experienced such down-to-Earth cuisine until they’d begun dating, and he really liked it. There was love and care behind every bite, and that was more than he could say about some of the best, most expensive meals in the world. “Besides, this little sneak found his way into our bed again.” Steve stopped on the way by Jamey to tickle his sides. Jamey squealed and giggled, and Steve took the opportunity to wipe his face and clean up some of the spilled egg. Tony watched his son resist being cleaned, shaking his head at the ridiculousness of it, before digging into his meal.
A few seconds later, Steve was back with his own plate and cup of coffee. He sat down across from Jamey. Jamey rolled one of his cars vigorously across the table, nearly knocking into his mug, but Steve just caught the speeding vehicle and set it aside. Tony could feel him watching him, and it was obvious he wanted to say something. Tony knew exactly what it was. Tension worked its way up and down his spine, tension mixed with even more guilt, and he could hardly stand the scrutiny.
But Steve didn’t ask about the obvious. Not yet, anyway. “How was LA?”
“Long,” Tony answered, relaxing slightly. “Exhausting. A general pain in the ass.”
Steve nodded. He took a sip of his coffee. “Everything went okay? It seemed to. I watched some of the press conferences on the news.” That was touching, although of course Steve would. Steve quirked a playful grin. “You looked good.”
Tony grunted a chuckle. Jamey banged his plate, and more food got on the table. “Daddy looked hot!” he commented.
Steve blushed. “Hot, as in temperature-wise, because it’s hot in California. And you repeat too much.” He eyed their child with a touch of exasperation. Of course, two-year old Jamey didn’t catch onto the joke, but he smiled with the attention.
Tony reached over and ruffled his hair before righting his plate. “It was all fine. Speeches went fine. Conferences went fine. Negotiations were good.”
“Yeah. The Department of Energy’s going to follow through on their end of things, so Pepper was really happy about that. So are the lawyers and the stockholders, those weasels.” Tony poked Jamey’s nose, and Jamey squealed in glee. “It was an unequivocal success.”
And that led right to the eight-hundred pound gorilla in the room, to the thing that Steve very clearly wanted to talk about. They ate in silence for a bit before Steve worked up whatever emotional fortitude he needed to actually ask it. “Then what’s with the suit?”
Tony sighed and set down his fork with a soft clank. He didn’t know what he’d expected in those long, quiet moments. It wasn’t like he could lie. And it wasn’t like Steve didn’t have the right to discuss this. More than anyone else, he did. But Tony still tried to soften what was definitely coming. “Steve, please–”
“You’re leaving again.”
It wasn’t a question. It wasn’t even said with shock. No, the calm, even, unsurprised quality of Steve’s tone made that statement so much worse, because he’d very clearly seen this coming. Held out for something else but predicted the most logical outcome. Hoped for something better but prepared for the worst.
Tony’s lack of an answer (he was such a damn coward) was an answer in and of itself. Steve sighed and pushed his plate back. Tony couldn’t even bring himself to look at him. “Tony, come on. You just got back. You promised last time that this trip was going to be it for a while.”
Tony wanted to tuck his tail between his legs and run. As it was, he dropped his posture in defeat. “It was supposed to be.”
“Then what happened?” Steve asked, and even he – with his boundless propensity to put himself second or third or even last – couldn’t hide his frustration. “If the trip went well, then why?”
“Pepper needs me back for another press conference this evening.”
Steve wasn’t buying that. “Why?”
Tony sighed. “Steve–”
“Can’t she handle that herself?”
Tony didn’t want to say what he knew needed to be said. It was a lame excuse and patently unfair, but it was also the truth. “I’m CEO of Stark Industries. I’m the face of the company. Even when I was screwing things up left and right and making a mess of everything, my name was the one with the weight. The company begins and ends with a Stark.” Pepper had told him that days ago, when he’d been complaining about all this crap and so desperate to go home to his family. It was bullshit then, and it was bullshit now, and it didn’t do anything to make anyone feel better.
Steve was silent. Tony still wasn’t brave enough to actually look at him, to see the impact of this life he’d dragged this wonderful, giving, caring young man into. The fame had never bothered Steve. Tony’s past and his reputation and the rumors had bounced off of him like he carried a shield. Dealing with Tony himself, his demons and his past hurts and his troubles, had never fazed him. But this? Tony could see for the first time that his fears about Steve not actually wanting this weren’t so unfounded.
But he didn’t say anything about it, if that was the case. “There’s a special tiger event at the zoo today. I thought you’d be here, so I promised Jamey.” He, too, wasn’t looking at their son. “If you can’t, you can’t, I guess. I’ll take him alone. Well, Jarvis already said he’d come if I wanted. But... I don’t know, Tony. I thought we could make a day of it, you know? Take him there. See the animals. Get lunch. Maybe go swimming afterward here. Just us, like things were last year. No entourage. No security. No fuss. Just our family.” Like before their lives had turned into this, into Tony constantly working and Steve basically raising their child alone. Tony finally met Steve’s gaze, and Steve met his, and he offered a sad smile. “It’d be real nice.”
Yeah, it definitely would be. Just thinking about it made Tony’s heart ache. He hadn’t spent time – quality time – with Jamey in what felt like forever. Or with Steve. He hadn’t spent a moment in weeks not sleeping, eating, or working. Going out for the day as a family, seeing Jamey experience the zoo, enjoying his delight… He was really into tigers now, tigers and other exotic animals, so he’d absolutely love it. And Steve… God, he wanted to spend the day with Steve. A flood of thoughts raced through him with just that idea. Seeing Steve smile and hearing him laugh and listening to him talk, holding his hand and kissing just like they always used to. And if Jamey went down for his nap or after they put him to bed that night… It hadn’t been that long ago, not really, but it felt like a lifetime, and he wanted it back.
A hand cupping his cheek drew his attention. He focused on Steve, who’d leaned across the table. “Tony, you’re rundown. You can’t work this hard. It’s not good for you.”
Tony sighed and reached up to take his hand, kissing at his palm before squeezing his fingers. “I wish it was that simple.”
“It is,” Steve insisted. “Come on. Take a break. Come to the zoo with us. Stay with us for the day.”
“Come, Daddy!” Jamey demanded, banging on his plate more and more until it was falling. Eggs and globs of applesauce went everywhere on the floor. What a disaster.
Tony leaned over to grab the fallen plate. “God, Jamey, come on.”
Jamey just shouted, “Come see Tiggy, Daddy!” He rubbed his tiger into the glop on the table before throwing it into the mess on the floor. “Tiggy!”
Tony couldn’t quite reach the plate or the toy, so he gave up. He scowled. “The company–”
“Will be just fine without you for a day,” Steve said firmly, totally uncaring of the sticky food getting everywhere. Tony grunted, trying to reach the plate again, but Steve didn’t let him and didn’t back down. “Leave it, okay? Listen. Listen.”
“I know how important this project is, but you’ve worked hard on it, and everything is in place, and this just…” Steve pulled Tony closer, forcing his eyes back onto him. “It just seems like unnecessary anxiety. Everything is going to be fine. You’re too smart for it not to be. And Ms. Potts is, too. You two have everything locked down, and the launch is going to go off without a hitch. No one needs to worry.” Tony opened his mouth to argue, but Steve didn’t let him do that, either. “I know, I know. What the hell does a poor guy from Brooklyn know about running a tech conglomerate?” Steve offered that adorable, genuine, self-deprecating smile of his. “Not much, I admit. But I know a lot about you, and I know you don’t need to do this. You don’t need to work yourself to death.”
Tony bit his lip. Hearing Steve say that made it seem so real, so simply possible. The weight of his phone in his suit pocket, of the calls he’d ignored to have even these few minutes with his family, felt crushing. It’d be so easy to just throw it away and let it all go, if only for a day. As if to defy him, the device buzzed with another message. Steve seemed to sense that as well. He gathered Tony’s hands in his own on the table. “You don’t have to prove anything, not to Ms. Potts or the board or the stockholders. Not to your competitors and not to the world. Definitely not to me or Jamey. And definitely not to your dad, Tony.”
That hurt. All these shitty insecurities bristled inside him, his father’s lack of faith in him and constant dismissal of his skills, of his own talents. The fact that Howard had died so suddenly and before he’d been able to make any peace with him. The legacy Tony had been left, and the sudden expectations from everyone else, but never the person from whom he’d wanted that trust and acceptance. That more than anything had driven him down that dark path of self-destruction, and Steve knew that. Steve smiled comfortingly now. “You really don’t. You know that, right?”
Tony bit the inside of his lip until it hurt. He wanted to tell Steve he did, but he was pretty sure that it would be a lie. Normally he could do that; in fact, he used to be damn good at it. Lie and ignore things and delude himself. But he couldn’t now. He never had been able to with Steve.
His phone buzzed again. This time it was ringing with a call. Tony tried to hang onto this, to Steve’s brilliantly blue eyes and gentle hands, but he couldn’t. With a heavy sigh, he stood and reached into his pocket. Annoyed, he jabbed his thumb to the touchscreen to accept the call and quickly walked away. “What?” he snapped.
It was Pepper. Of course. She sounded stressed out and very irate. “Tony, where the hell are you? I’ve been calling all morning!”
“Taking a minute to myself,” he hissed into the phone. Beside him Jamey banged his cars and shrieked. The racket made him wince. “I assume I’m still allowed one!”
His harsh tone made her pause, and for a second, the phone line was quiet. That made Jamey’s noise all the noisier, but Tony let it continue. Maybe a reminder that he had a two year-old son at home who needed him would get her to lay off a bit.
It softened her tone at least, but it introduced a bunch of hurt, which made him feel stupidly guilty. “I’m sorry, Tony. This is just… an insane amount of stress.” For her of all people to be admitting that said a lot. “I just need a decision on the press conference today. If you’re in, the jet’s leaving in an hour.” An hour. God, that was nothing. He wouldn’t have even been home twelve hours. “If you’re not… I can handle it.”
Was she giving him an out? Was that too much to hope for? “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” she said after a hesitant pause. “But I don’t think it’s a good idea.” There went that. What good was an escape if it came with more guilt? “These people want you. I’m not going to be an adequate replacement.”
Tony sighed, shaking his head. He didn’t know what to say. Behind him, Jamey was talking loudly about Daddy coming to see the tigers. He kept asking Steve, and Steve was dodging the question, and Tony had no idea what to do.
“I need an answer, Tony.”
“Yeah!” he said loudly. “Yeah. Just…”
“I’ll call you back.” He didn’t wait for her response, just ending the call and returning to the table. Steve had taken a roll of paper towels from the kitchen. Obviously he’d been trying to clean up the mess, but now he was holding Jamey as he squirmed and reached for Tony. In that second, when he saw his son, the spitting image of himself with his big brown eyes and brown hair, and his husband, who was trying to hold the struggling two-year old back and watching him with those blue eyes that had saved him so completely... Everything just went still, and this sense of having everything he needed right in front of him washed over him in a blast of warmth, but then came this equally sudden rush of ice, because they seemed so far away and he was losing them–
Feeling sick, he went toward them, rounding the spot where Jamey had been sitting, and as he was holding his arms out for his son, his foot slipped, and he lost his balance, body tipping to the side, toward the hard corner of the table, and his head was going to smack into it–
Only he didn’t. “Tony!” Steve cried, and a fist curled into his suit and yanked. Everything was a blur, and this horrible sense of panic and wrongness assailed him. The world shifted rapidly. The next thing he knew, he was buried in Steve’s side, his husband’s arm securely around his back and Jamey’s knee in his face. “Tony, God, are you okay?”
Tony remembered to breathe. He hauled in air, panting against Steve’s shoulder, shaking with the close call. His chest hurt. “Yeah,” he finally gasped. He blinked back the shock and twisted in Steve’s embrace to look. There was a huge streak of applesauce on the floor. He’d stepped in it, stepped on Tiggy, too, and the combination had almost killed him. “Jesus. Yeah.”
“You sure?” Steve held him tighter.
Tony gathered himself, shaking away the terror. “Yeah, I’m fine. C’mere, buddy.” He reached over for the toddler.
“Daddy!” Jamey giggled. Steve let him climb into Tony’s embrace. “Daddy, Daddy…” Jamey was smiling and totally content to be where he was, completely oblivious to what had just happened, to everything that had happened. Of course he was. He was a baby, and he had his fathers, his family. There was nothing more that he needed to be happy.
Except Tiggy. Steve left them standing there to pick up the stuffed animal. Grimacing, he wiped the goo off and handed it to Tony. Tony felt a bit unsteady (physically and emotionally), but he was okay, taking the toy and offering to Jamey. “Yay!” Jamey cried, and Tony hugged him tight and breathed in his calming scent again. Then he watched as Steve took the paper towels and crouching by the mess on the floor.
“James, this is why we don’t make messes like this,” Steve admonished quietly. Even he seemed a little shaken as he picked up the now empty plastic plate. “It can cause accidents. Daddy almost fell and hit his head.”
“Sowwy, Daddy,” Jamey mumbled, but he was already playing with Tiggy again, picking at the loose eye.
“It’s alright, bud,” Tony replied, a tad breathless yet. “No harm, no foul, right?” Jamey didn’t answer. Tony kissed his head and stroked his hair before turning and seeing Steve start to really clean up the mess. “Babe, let someone else do that.”
“It’s fine,” Steve said. He set a sticky, sopping paper towel to the table before grabbing a new one. “Just let me–”
Steve’s head popped up above the table as he leaned up from where he’d been cleaning under the chair. “What?”
Tony exhaled slowly, lifting Jamey higher. Suddenly it seemed so clear. “I’ll stay today.”
Steve said nothing at first. Clearly he was surprised, and that should have probably been upsetting, but it wasn’t as the sunniest of smiles came to his face. “Yeah?” he asked, rising from the floor.
Tony nodded. “Yeah.”
“You really mean it.”
Again he nodded. “I really mean it,” he said with a smile.
Steve still just stared. Then that sunny smile went supernova, and he was coming over to kiss Tony. “Thank you!” he said, and the relief in his eyes was so bright and overwhelming. Again, that should have been disturbing, but Tony was so damn happy to see Steve happy that he couldn’t care. This was the right course, the right thing to do. What they all needed.
And it’d be fun.
“I’ll get him ready,” Steve said, taking Jamey back from Tony. “You go get changed?”
Tony nodded. He cupped Jamey’s cheeks. “We’ll go to the zoo, okay?”
“Now?” Jamey asked.
“Yep, sweetheart. Right now. I’m coming.”
“Uh-huh. And we’ll see Tiggy.”
Jamey was so happy. He squealed with joy, waving his little, stuffed animal wildly. “Tiggy!”
Suddenly so excited about the stupid zoo of all things, Tony kissed his forehead and ruffled his hair again. Then he leaned over and kissed Steve, harder and deeper. “And maybe find a replacement?”
Steve rolled his eyes, hoisting their son a little higher, and headed out of the kitchen. “There’s no getting rid of Tiggy,” he commented at the hallway, and Tony chuckled before going too and getting ready for what promised to be a perfect day.
It was perfect. The sky was a stunning cornflower blue, dotted with cheery, white, puffy clouds. The summer breeze was sweet, just strong enough to provide a cool balm on this hot, hot day. The trees were thick and full of verdant leaves that rustled in the wind, and the grass was lush and green, lined with well-maintained landscaping that was full of colorful flowers and neatly trimmed shrubs. Everywhere people were having a good time, walking and laughing and chatting, eating ice cream cones and sno-cones and popcorn. It was the idyllic summer scene, families out enjoying each other, and in the midst of this it was impossible not to be happy. Tony had never been one for saccharine, overly sentimental junk, but the good cheer was downright pervasive and infectious, and he was feeling better than he had in weeks.
Of course, it was always a little weird to be out in public, in such a busy place no less, without his retinue of support staff. No security. No assistants. No media hounding him. For all intents and purposes, he was just a normal guy out with his family. Thanks to the touristy Hawaiian shirt he was wearing (light blue with flowers), he blended in pretty well. No one would guess that one of the world’s richest men was wandering the zoo like a common visitor, and the anonymity was nice, if not a little novel. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to go anywhere without people all over him.
Right now the only person all over him was Jamey. In typical toddler fashion, the little guy was insisting he rode on Tony’s shoulders while Steve pushed an empty stroller next to them. They were ambling around despite Jamey’s impatience to see Tiggy (the stuffed animal version of which having secured a safe place in the diaper bag hanging on Steve’s shoulder after Jamey had nearly dropped him down into the rhino enclosure from the observation deck above). In addition to the rhinos, so far they’d seen the elephants, the giraffes (Steve had lifted Jamey way up for those; he was a few inches taller than Tony, and to a two-year old, that seemed huge), the flamingos, and the monkeys. Jamey particularly liked those. Steve got him really close, and he got a very good view of them, giggling as they ran about. He just loved it.
Tony had lagged a bit behind when they’d first arrived as they’d moved from enclosure to enclosure. He’d watched the two of them, entranced by how Steve held Jamey close and pointed out animals and talked quietly to him about them. They weren’t related, not biologically at any rate, but there was no denying the relationship between them, the depth of it, the love and strength and purity. It was simultaneously the most amazing thing Tony had ever seen and a tad upsetting, that Jamey was so connected to Steve and not so much with him. He knew that wasn’t true and definitely not fair, not to Steve (of course Jamey would be close to him; Steve was just as much his father no matter what DNA said and his principal caretaker no less) and not to himself (he couldn’t be in two places at once, for crying out loud). And Jamey was far more aware, involved, and interactive than he had been even a couple months ago when they’d last done something like this. He was asking questions (so advanced for his age – he was Tony’s son, after all) and beginning to listen to the answers and engage in his world. He was growing up so fast, so this was another sharp reminder of how much Tony was missing.
Stop, he admonished himself. He hadn’t taken the day off to feel like crap or beat himself up. After the monkeys, Jamey had wanted to walk, so he had for a bit. That was how Tiggy had almost ended up down with the rhinos (and holy hell that kid had energy; chasing after him in this fairly crowded place was a nightmare). When Steve and Tony’s collective patience had run out, they’d tried to get him back in the stroller, but he’d refused (of course). So now he was riding atop Tony’s shoulders. “Ice cream, Daddy!” he cried, gripping Tony’s hair a little too hard as he pointed at the booth at the corner.
Steve frowned beside them. “We haven’t had lunch yet.”
“Please?” Jamey begged, bouncing on Tony. “Please? Please? Please?”
Tony looked at Steve. Of the two of them, he himself was the bigger softie, and he knew it. Part of it was just his nature; he had so much money so there was never a financial reason to say no. Part of it was because he was gone so much, and therefore maintaining structure, rules, and discipline fell to Steve for the most part (which again sucked for Steve, but he never complained). And part of it was that he was just wanted to spoil his child rotten. “C’mon. It’s our day out.”
Steve hesitated a moment, which was filled with Jamey pleading and whining at Dada and Tony practically sticking his lower lip out at him. Finally, he sighed. “You two. Good God. I don’t stand a chance.” He reached for his wallet. “What do you want?”
“Nilla!” Jamey said.
Tony grinned. “You know what I like.”
“Chocolate with more chocolate.” Steve smiled, too, and acted long-suffering. “Alright.” Off he went.
Tony stood there with Jamey squirming atop him for a moment. All around him people were walking, and they were kind of right in the middle of it, which wasn’t too convenient for anyone. He gripped Jamey’s leg tighter and took the stroller Steve had left behind and pushed it to the side of the path. Then he stood a moment, squinting through his sunglasses as he watched Steve stand in line to get their treats. The day was getting hotter, so he was sweating a bit. When a cool breeze brushed by, thought, he felt really chilled. This weird sense of disquiet prickled over him.
“Daddy, what’s that?”
Tony turned around to look through the glass barrier behind them. It took him a second to realize what Jamey had seen. There was a huge snake hidden in the trees and bushes, camouflaged among the brown and green. It was easily ten feet long, truly a massive thing, and although Tony didn’t have a fear of snakes specifically, the sheer size of it was pretty disturbing. “It’s a boa constrictor, baby.”
Jamey was silent a moment, like he didn’t know what to make of it. The humongous snake was very slowly slithering on ground. Tony glanced up to see him watching with a grimace on his face (a really cute one, but a grimace all the same). “I don’t wike it,” he finally said.
An animal Jamey didn’t like. That just didn’t seem possible. “That’s cool. I’m not a big fan of snakes either.” That seemed to make Jamey feel better, like he was realizing he didn’t need to like every animal simply because he liked animals. Tony gripped his little feet firmer. “Yeah, snakes are just… snakey.”
“Yeah. They slither around and they’re creepy and gross. Lots of people don’t like snakes.”
Jamey didn’t answer, and Tony studied the enclosure more. Like all the exhibits, there were numerous signs and placards about with facts about the animal. Tony glanced them over, reading such interesting tidbits such as boa constrictors giving birth to live babies and that they were solitary snakes and that, in the wild, boas helped control rodents and disease. But one particular thing caught his attention. Boa constrictors are ambush hunters. They often swoop down from trees. Once they bite with their strong jaws, they loop their bodies around the prey with two or more strong coils that constrict – or squeeze – their prey to death. Boa constrictors will eat their prey whole!
Gross. And somewhat upsetting. Again, he didn’t know why, but this just… bothered him. Something about the words. Something about the predator, the way it killed its prey, the constriction. It made his gooseflesh prickle.
But it came and went quickly, like that cool breeze again, and he turned around just in time to see Steve on his way back. He had three ice cream cones, two big ones and one smaller. “Here we are,” he said with a smile. He handed the two bigger cones (chocolate and mint chocolate chip – Steve’s favorite) to Tony so he could lift Jamey from his shoulders. He set the toddler to his side and handed over the vanilla cone. “How about you ride in the stroller while you eat this, huh?”
Jamey was too intent licking his already melting cone to respond. Steve set him back into the stroller and strapped him in while he was happy, adjusting the canopy to give him some shade from the hot sun. Then he took his cone from Tony. “You okay?” he asked. “Someone call or something?”
“No. Yes!” Tony sighed. “I mean, yeah, I’m okay, and no, no one called.” He licked at the creamy goodness slowly dribbling down the cone. Steve was watching him in concern, letting his own cone melt a little. Tony sighed and leaned over to kiss his cheek. “Sorry. No idea what’s wrong with me today.”
“Too much work and no sleep come to mind,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. He wiped at his cheek. “You got chocolate all over me.”
“Not nearly in the way or to the extent I want, sweets,” Tony replied, waggling his eyebrows.
Seeing Steve blush was never going to get old, no matter how many years they were together. “Tony, don’t say stuff like that in front of Jamey!”
“What? Like he knows? Or is even paying attention?” Tony peered around the canopy of the stroller and found their son making a mess of himself delightfully. Then he nudged his hip into Steve’s, put his arm around his lower back (for a quick, surreptitious squeeze of his butt; their backs where to the godawful killer snake, so no one would see), and kissed his lips this time. Steve tasted sweet and minty.
And Steve seemed nervous, pulling away to glance around. “You sure this is a good idea?”
Tony had always been the one to be concerned about the paparazzi getting shots of them like this or of them with Jamey. Them kissing during a daytime activity with their child in a stroller would be a veritable goldmine for those jerks. But Tony couldn’t care. “No one’s watching. And so what if they did? Let them tell the whole world what I feel about you. Rather have everyone know that than all the BS Pepper constantly has me peddling.” Rather be this – your husband and a father – than a CEO.
Steve looked a little surprised; being blunt and open with his feelings had never been a forte of Tony’s. But then he smiled like Tony was the moon and the stars to him, and that was like nothing else in the world, and they shared a longer, deeper kiss, their son right there and ice cream melting and other people watching be damned. Steve leaned back first again, grinning. “Come on. Tiggy’s waiting.”
Oh, right. Tiggy. Tony inwardly groaned as Steve started pushing the stroller down the walk toward this massive tiger exhibit. Apparently the zoo had recently received a litter of tiger cubs from another zoo, and this warranted a huge event. The second they entered the section of the zoo devoted to the big cats, the crowd impossibly thickened. They walked under a special archway that signaled they’d entered Asia (at least, a replication of Asia in the middle of the Bronx Zoo), where Bengal tigers made their home. The whole area was much more elaborate than a typical zoo exhibit, with music, more shops, and food stands. It reminded Tony a great deal of a theme park, executed to create the wonder of stepping into a different world (like the rainforest) while carefully extracting money from said awestruck travelers. He could see it working immediately on their son, who excitedly pointed from the stroller. “Dada! Daddy! Dada!”
“What, honey?” Steve asked. He’d finished his ice cream, and now he was crouching in front of the stroller to clean up the sticky mess that used to be a little boy with a handful of wet wipes.
Tony followed Jamey’s pointing to finger to the store across the big plaza, one that was tiger-themed. On the stands outside there were tiger hats and tiger banners and tiger stuffed animals. Tiger bags and tiger books and tiger memorabilia. A Tiggy utopia. “Lord,” Tony groaned, shaking his head.
“Aw, c’mon,” Steve said, pulling Jamey out of the stroller and into his arms. He grinned deviously, knowing just what buttons he was pushing. “You did say it’s our day out. Besides, look at how excited he is!”
Jamey was excited, pointing and reaching and babbling. “It’s Tiggy! Daddy, it’s Tiggy!”
“And it’s for a good cause,” Steve proclaimed.
Tony saw what he meant, a sign near the door proclaiming that a portion of all the proceeds went to the protection of tigers in the wild and the conservation of their habitats. “I could just send them money. Loads of money. It’d be easier.”
“Less fun, though. Let’s go.”
Before they could, though, Tony’s phone began buzzing in his pocket. He sighed heavily, thinking anew that he should have left the damn thing at home. He wasn’t sure why he hadn’t. It had been vibrating now and again since they’d left the Tower, but he’d been able to ignore it. Now it was ringing with an incoming call. He couldn’t not answer. For crying out loud, he’d never even called Pepper back after their last conversation. “Go on ahead with James,” he said, fishing his phone out.
The second Steve saw it, he frowned. “Tony…”
“It’s fine. I’m not going to work, okay? I’ll just tell her I’m not going to LA.”
Steve didn’t seem convinced, but Jamey was getting fussy and the crowds around them made it hard to stay put. “Alright. But if you leave me in charge of souvenirs, it’s not gonna be good for you.”
Tony grinned. It felt forced, stressed, and he fumbled to answer the call. “I trust you.” Steve hefted Jamey over his shoulder and headed toward the shop. “Don’t forget to buy a new… the new thing we talked about! Hello?”
“Tony, where the hell are you?” Pepper sounded pissed off. Probably rightfully so.
But Tony was pissed, too. He sighed, pushing the stroller off to the side again. God, couldn’t he escape for one damn minute? “Out,” he said. “With Steve and the baby.”
“I take it that means you’re not joining me.”
That wasn’t exactly said with any accusation, but that was all he heard. “Sorry. I should have called. Just got busy and forgot.”
Over the line she sighed. “Alright. At least tell me you took some security with you.”
Tony sighed and looked around. “Don’t need it. We’re just at the zoo.”
“I’ll send Happy back. We haven’t taken off yet.”
“No, it’s fine.” The last thing he wanted was Happy fretting over him and prohibiting him from doing this or that. Happy was amazing at what he did, but one of the reasons he was so good was because he was all over every situation. The fun, free day would turn into another circus. “It’s just the zoo.”
“What could possibly happen? One of the animals gets loose and attacks us? Come on. We’re fine.”
The silence over the line was uncomfortable, and despite himself, Tony looked around. There was nothing there, of course. Families and school kids and zoo employees and the like. No one was paying him any attention. “Alright. Are you willing to read over some things tonight? Your opening statement. We have the hearing next week.”
Tony had forgotten about his testimony before Congress about the company’s green energy initiatives. He was flying down to DC in a few days. Steve already knew about it; it had been weeks in the making. Tony felt a jolt of stress just thinking about it, like something was coiling around his heart, but he soothed himself by realizing that it was a really good thing he’d taken today off. If he’d gone with Pepper to LA, he quite possibly might never have come home at all. “Yeah, sure,” he said. He owed her that much at least. “Just send everything to me. I’ll take a look tonight.”
“Okay.” There was another tense pause. “You’re sure you don’t want security? It’ll take nothing for me to send some people over.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “I’m sure, Mom.”
“It’s not just me worrying about you, you know. You’re something of a vital asset to the company.”
She was cheeky about that, not entirely serious, but, then again, she was serious enough. He shook his head to himself. It was always nice to be reduced to an asset. “I know,” he replied. “Everything’s fine, okay? Talk to you tonight.”
It was becoming patently obvious that there was nothing he was ever going to say that could convince her of anything. “Alright. Tonight. Make sure you catch the press conference.”
“Yeah, I will.” Not. “Bye.” He hung up and lowered the phone from his ear. That uncomfortable, trapped feeling came back. Not even a freaking minute. He had no idea when his life had gotten so out of whack. He’d gone from living the high life to crashing hard to flying even higher when he’d met Steve and had Jamey to this, this aggravating balancing act between being a businessman and being a father and husband. He was here, and he needed to be there. He was there, and he should be here. There was no answer and no way out and–
Frustration had him crossing the plaza toward the pond on the other side. Then he threw his phone into the water. As he watched the resulting plop, a bolt of horror and dread and regret went through him, but it was quickly overrun by this sensation of empowerment. He stared at the spot a moment more, and then he settled into it, nodding to himself and smiling. He could get another phone the second they got home, but for now (at least) he was free. That tight feeling loosened.
He waited there, looking around a bit more without thinking too much, until Steve was back. Steve set Jamey down not too far away (he didn’t have too much of a choice; Jamey started wriggling to get down the second he saw Tony), and the little guy ran toward him. He had tiger ears on now, and he was carrying a stuffed animal tiger that was nearly as big as he was. “Look, Daddy! Look!”
Tony swooped him up. “Whadja get?”
“Tiggy Two!” The toy was shoved in his face, and Tony laughed. “Dada found Tiggy Two!”
“It’s not a replacement,” Steve clarified. He was smiling, and the sun caught his eyes just so, shining in them, and Tony just melted. He hardly even noticed when Steve slid another pair of tiger ears on him. “There you go.”
“What?” Tony frowned, grabbing for the ears. “Aw, no way.”
“Yes, way,” Steve said. “Told you it wouldn’t be good for you if you leave me in charge.”
“Wear them, Daddy,” Jamey said. “Pwease?”
Like Tony could ever turn down that face, no matter the embarrassment. At least it’d probably help him blend in; a ton of people around them were wearing the tiger ears, too. Like Mickey Mouse ears at Disney World. “Alright. For you.”
Jamey grinned. Then he clambered to get down. He went to the diaper bag to get his Tiggy, searching for the ratty little toy. Steve helped him, crouching by the stroller. He had a bag on his back, one of those drawstring numbers that also had a cartoonish tiger on it. “What’s in there?” Tony asked.
“Some kind of wildlife light for kids,” Steve replied. “Push the buttons and it projects animals on the wall? He wanted it for his room.”
“That sounds like something Stark Industries could make,” Tony commented. “And make better.”
Steve smiled and shook his head. “And the bag’s for you. Jamey wants you to start taking it to work with you, right, Jamey? So that you can have a picture of Tiggy with you.”
That was sweet. Creepy, but sweet. “Aw, I love it, buddy.”
Jamey was holding Tiggy close again, struggling as Steve lifted him. “Wanna walk, Dada.”
“Too many people here,” Steve replied. “Come on. Let’s go see Tiggy.”
They made their way deeper into the area. The enclosure with the new tiger cubs was ahead (if the massive crowd was any indication). As they headed closer, Tony felt positively ridiculous with the ears on and carrying the stuffed tiger and all the tiger gear around them, but it didn’t matter too much. Jamey was unbelievably excited.
And he only became more so when they passed a line for photos. There was a guy in a ridiculous tiger costume standing against a wall and surrounded by leafy greens and forest-like backdrops. A professional photographer was taking pictures of families (mostly children) posing with the tiger. Again, it seemed like a scene right from a theme park, with excited young fans experiencing the magic of meeting a favorite character, princess, or hero, only this was a tiger of all things. That didn’t seem to matter in the slightest. The line was pretty long.
Jamey didn’t care at all. “Dada, Tiggy! They get to see Tiggy!”
Steve stopped near the entrance to the queue, clearly uncertain. “It’s almost time for lunch, and we haven’t even seen the tiger cubs yet.”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t you rather do that, buddy?” Tony asked, stopping the stroller at Steve’s side. A bunch were parked just to the side of where they were, obviously left there while families did the picture. “That’s what we came to see.”
“No, that’s Tiggy!” Jamey pointed at the guy in the costume. “I want to see Tiggy!”
As Tony glanced between the little stuffed animal clenched in his son’s fist and the character, he had to admit they looked strangely similar. Uncannily so. Same godawful dead eyes. He wasn’t sure when the freaky eyes had become so weird to him. “The line’s huge,” he complained instead. “And I’m hungry.”
“Daddy, please,” Jamey begged. He was squirming hard to get down, and they’d likely have a tantrum on their hands if they didn’t do this. Jamey was hot, hungry, and probably getting tired and a bit overstimulated. “Please!”
Tony sighed, turning to Steve. It was obvious Steve wasn’t thrilled with the idea, either. It was hotter than it had been a couple hours ago. Plus, standing in line was not something that they did (and not just because Tony was rich; it could be difficult with his fame, trapped in a queue with people noticing him left and right). The line was moving fairly quickly at least. It’d probably only take fifteen or twenty minutes. “Your call,” Steve finally offered uselessly.
This is what I get for spoiling this kid rotten. “After we do this,” he said firmly, “we are getting lunch. Got it?”
“Yay!” Jamey cried, ecstatic.
Steve set him down and he ran into the line. “Hold up! Wait for us!” He sighed. “I can take him by myself if you want.”
That seemed unfair. “And miss the chance to see Tiggy?” Tony said with some exaggerated bouncing and clapping. Steve chuckled. “Come on.”
So then they were in line. Jamey was wild about it for the beginning, jumping around and trying to push ahead and whining. Then he ended up back in Steve’s arms, the heat having gotten to him, and he settled down with his thumb in his mouth and head on Steve’s shoulder and Tiggy secure in his hand. It actually seemed like he might fall asleep before getting to the tiger guy. Despite the pain of waiting, Steve quirked a private smile at Tony, and Tony smiled back. He reached over and surreptitiously took Steve’s free hand and squeezed it.
Thankfully, the line moved more quickly than Tony thought it would. In about ten minutes (ten minutes spent quietly, with Tony trying not to be conspicuous as he looked around to make sure no one was noticing him), they were getting close to the front. From here, he could see the tiger costume wasn’t so bad, friendly-looking and cute, smiling and sweet despite its creepy eyes. Whoever was inside must have been a saint; it had to be ungodly hot in there, and he (Tony assumed it was a man – who knew, though?) was taking the time to silently interact with every child. It was pretty adorable, how the little tikes looked up at him with huge, awe-struck eyes, how they talked to him, how they hugged and interacted and played with him.
Maybe this would be nice.
Steve’s phone buzzed. He shifted Jamey to his other shoulder and fished it out of his jeans pocket. “Hello?” he said, lifting it to his ear. “Oh, hi, Mr. Hogan.” Tony tensed, gritting his teeth. He shook his head. Steve’s expression crunched up in dismay. “No, he’s in the bathroom.” Steve paused, and Tony felt like a total jerk for now making his husband (who already did everything for him) run interference. “I don’t know what happened to his phone. No. No, I… Yeah, we’re okay. Having a nice time.” Steve’s forehead furrowed. “N-no. I don’t think…” He looked around, confused. “No, no one’s…”
Tony stiffened. They stepped up closer to the front of the line. There were just a couple families ahead of them now. When the next group moved forward, the tiger guy turned, and… There was a weird glint behind the tiger’s back? What the hell? It was just a silver wink, and then it was gone.
“Yeah. Okay.” Steve shook his head. “Yeah, sure, Mr. Hogan. We’ll check in later.” He ended the call, looking puzzled and somewhat uncomfortable. “That was weird. Why would he call me?”
Sheepishly Tony suggested, “Maybe because I threw my phone in the water feature back there?”
Steve sighed. “Tony…”
“What? They were hounding me.”
After a second of looking at him, Steve put his free arm around Tony’s back. “That’s littering,” he said with a peck to Tony’s cheek, obviously a bit touched. Tony rolled his eyes, shaking his head with a grin. “Everything okay, though? He sounded worried.”
“They’re just freaking out because I’m not, you know, two feet from them and directly in their line of sight,” Tony grumbled. “Come on. It’s almost our turn.”
They waited another moment. Jamey had nearly fallen asleep against Steve’s shoulder, the heat and his own excitement tuckering him out. Steve prodded him back awake, and when it was finally their turn to step up, the little boy was blinking and then watching. Tony watched the tiger get down on one knee to hug a small girl, and Jamey actually got nervous. “Don’t wanna,” he mumbled into Steve’s shoulder, turning away.
Steve leaned back to look down at him. “You don’t want to see Tiggy? After all this?” Jamey shook his head, clutching Steve tighter. Steve sighed, turning to Tony. “We can just step through, I guess.”
Toddlers were notorious for stuff like this, for changing their minds at the last second or on a whim. However, there was something fundamentally irritating about waiting to get something and then simply giving it up. Plus Tony had worked himself up to wanting to do something this dumb. Turning back now seemed like a waste. “Ah, c’mon, James. We’re here now.”
Jamey shook his head more emphatically, pressing his face totally into Steve’s shirt. The family ahead of them was finishing up. It was going to be their turn in a moment. Tony rubbed Jamey’s back. “You want Daddy to take you?” Yet again the toddler shook his head, clinging even harder to Steve. “Want Dada to?”
Now Jamey nodded. That hurt, though it shouldn’t have. Tony dropped his hand from his back. “Maybe we really should skip this,” Steve said. He spoke in a hushed whisper. “Besides, we don’t want them having his picture anyway, do we?”
It was irrational as anything, but Tony just didn’t want to give up on this. Somehow it seemed to be tied to the entire purpose of the day: going out and doing normal, domestic things as a family. Jamey wanted to see Tiggy, and he was going to make sure that happened. So as the family ahead of them left, he took Steve’s phone from his hand. “You just hold tight to Dada, honey. I’ll get the picture.”
Jamey didn’t respond. Steve didn’t seem so sure of this, but after a moment, he relaxed a bit and slowly headed to the guy in the tiger costume. There was no chance they were going to get through this without being recognized, so Tony boldly went over to the photographer and the tiger’s handler. “Hey, folks. I’m just going to come out and say the obvious, okay? I’m Tony Stark.” The young woman and the guy behind the camera seemed confused and then shocked and then overwhelmed all in the space of a second. The photographer simply dropped the ticket he was holding to help them find their picture at the sales booth over to the side. Tony picked that up. “And, with absolutely no disrespect intended for your fine system here, I’m gonna take the picture. Not to worry, though. I’ll still buy the picture that I’m going to take. In fact…” Tony pulled out his wallet and produced three crisp hundred dollar bills. He handed one to the flabbergasted photographer and two to the handler. “One of those is for tiger guy. Wait–” He pulled out another hundred dollar bill. “He deserves extra for putting up with this stuff on a day this hot. You know, for pain and suffering.”
The photographer seemed to snap out of his stupor. “You’re…”
“Yep.” Tony stood beside him, lifting Steve’s phone. “Holster your camera there, cowboy.”
The handler shook her head. “Sir, you don’t need to–”
“It’s fine.” He gave her a charismatic grin, and she backed up with an uncertain smile of her own. Then he turned to Steve.
Steve came closer with Jamey. Jamey himself was still not sure, and when they got close to the tiger guy, he tucked his face even closer to Steve’s neck. “Hey, Jamey. Jamey, it’s Tiggy! Tiggy!” Steve turned a bit so the tiger could see the little boy over his shoulder. The tiger, with his perpetually smiling face, waved and pet him (all with his left hand – that was kind of weird). Jamey wasn’t convinced, even as the guy in the suit went out of his way to play peek-a-boo with him. It was cute and caring, and despite the people still waiting, the actor continued with this game to get their son feeling comfortable.
And, to his credit, it worked. Tony snapped a couple shots with the phone as the tiger got Jamey laughing, as he pet Steve’s hair and gesticulated until the toddler was comfortable. Tony grinned, stupidly pleased at this seemingly silly triumph. “Okay, awesome. Let’s do this!”
Steve smiled too as the tiger took its place beside him and put an arm around him (which was also somewhat strange). He turned Jamey around in his arms, the little guy’s back to his chest as he sat and faced Tony. “You want in after me?”
“Smile,” Tony said instead, and he lifted Steve’s phone to catch the shot. “Smile, Jamey!” He ignored the tiger’s dead eyes and frozen, kind of creepy face and focused on Jamey’s face instead, which was beautiful and cherubic and alight with happiness again, and zoomed in. “Smile!”
“Oh, my God, he’s got a knife!”
That didn’t make any sense. Nor did the fact that Steve was dropping Jamey, twisting around, as the tiger’s right arm shot toward him. The tiger was clenching a freaking chef’s knife, which it stabbed at Steve. Steve caught the attack, locked in a desperate contest of strengths for an endless moment. Tony watched, shocked, horrified, frozen in place. The blade glimmered the sunlight. It was already covered in blood as it was thrust downward. There was a shout, a scuffle, a rough cry, and then Steve shoved the tiger back. The tiger hit the wall behind them, stumbling, and the knife clattered to the ground. The guy in the costume stood there, staring at Steve, and Steve was staring back. Then the guy grabbed the blade and bolted.
Time seemed to stop. Everything was still. Then Jamey screamed where he was laying on the concrete. That got Tony moving, and he rushed forward, dropping Steve’s phone to get the little boy. “Oh, God,” he gasped, scrambling toward him. “Are you hurt? Are you hurt?”
Jamey was wailing, eyes squeezed shut, face red as he cried fat tears. Frantically Tony looked him over, lifting his clothes and hunting for injury. Aside from some bad scrapes, there didn’t seem to be any. Tony lifted him, holding him tightly, shielding him with his arms. “What the hell?” he whispered, looking around and seeing a rush of people now. The photographer was shouting into his walkie-talkie, and other guests were crying and shouting and fleeing in panic. The handler was at Tony’s side, asking and babbling and demanding, trying to ascertain if the baby was alright. Security was coming.
And Jamey was safe. The little body was shaking wildly in his arms, screaming at the top of his lungs, but he was okay. He was okay.
Tony blinked back tears and sweat. Terrified, he pivoted and saw Steve. Steve was still standing where he’d fought with the tiger, with his back to them. Slowly he turned. There was this strange look on his pale face, terror, yes, and panic, but mostly shock. Tony stared at him, and he stared back, and everything seemed locked in place again, held in this odd, awful stasis.
Then Steve blinked loose a couple tears. He looked down, looked to where his hand was trembling as he held it over his abdomen, and when he dropped it away…
Red. There was dark red on his shirt, spreading, seeping through the cotton. It was blood. Blood from Steve, because that tiger had stabbed Steve. That tiger had stabbed Steve.
Steve’s been stabbed.
Steve looked back up, pain contorting his features. “Tony?”
Tony tucked Jamey to him, helplessly shaking his head. “Steve… Steve!”
Steve took one step toward them and fell.
Ironically they ended up at the same hospital. The one where Tony had been taken after his accident. The one where Steve used to work. That seemed strange.
Not that Tony was noticing much. He’d been in a haze since they’d taken Steve from him. Not that the time before was terribly clear, either. Sheer panic had driven him, adrenaline and fear and desperation, and now the memories were all blurry because of it. Vaguely he recalled staggering over to Steve after he’d collapsed. He recalled trying to peel Jamey off him, shoving his hands over the gaping, bleeding wound in Steve’s body. He recalled sobbing, begging his husband to hang on even as Steve rapidly faded away. This part was frighteningly clear, the feel of the hot, sticky blood between his fingers, the metallic stink of it in the air, Jamey screaming as he clung to him still and Steve’s lips shifting around a breathy, indecipherable word. His eyelids fluttering shut.
The whole thing was unimaginable.
After that, the hazy memories became even more indistinct. Security coming and zoo staff rushing over. People shouting at the crowd to stay back. Other people trying to get him to let Steve go so they could see to him. Tony hadn’t wanted to move; he remembered that quite clearly. Not even for a second had he been willing to leave Steve’s side. The wound had been pulsing against his hands, and that had been the only real sign that Steve was alive. His skin had gone pale, his breath barely coming, his body limp and lifeless. There’d been so much blood. So much.
It was all over Tony now, coating his hands and staining his clothes. Somewhere during everything he’d taken off his Hawaiian over shirt. He had another faint impression that he’d put it over Steve’s injury, trying to use it to stop the torrent of blood spilling from Steve’s body. It hadn’t done much, and Steve had cried out in pain when he’d pressed hard, whimpering a question about Jamey. He’d barely been clinging to consciousness, but obviously he’d heard Jamey screaming and screaming. Tony had promised him their son was fine, and Steve had gurgled out that Tony should take care of him. No matter what Tony had said, he hadn’t been able to convince Steve that he needed Tony’s attention far more than Jamey did right now.
That continued when the EMTs had arrived. They’d finally pushed Tony out of the way, rushing to stabilize Steve. Steve hadn’t been able to speak much, particularly with an oxygen mask over his face, but he’d kept murmuring and mumbling that Tony needed to help the baby. He’d done that as they’d loaded him onto a stretcher, as they’d raced him away to get him to the ambulance. Tony had lurched to keep up with him, to keep his hold on Steve’s hand, but he hadn’t been able to. Steve had wanted to him to take care of Jamey, so that was what he’d had to do.
And he was doing a pretty poor job of it. The police had come, and the zoo people had whisked him and Jamey from scene to somewhere private. Somewhere during all the chaos Tony had managed to call Jarvis on Steve’s phone. That was about the extent of his parenting, that and holding Jamey close and trying to be silent in his crying so as not to upset him further. Jarvis had come with Happy (thank God he hadn’t gone with Pepper to LA) and a bunch of Stark Industries Security. They then escorted Tony and Jamey out of the zoo, flanking the two of them like the Secret Service or something. Tony had been so damn out of it that he hadn’t realized why at the time.
Now he did. The tiger – the person in the tiger suit – had stabbed his husband, tried to kill his son, and then run off.
He choked on a sob. “God damn it,” he moaned, scrubbing a hand down his face.
Jarvis sighed and came closer. He’d been draping a blanket over Jamey’s slumbering form on the couch opposite from Tony in this little office. The hospital had kindly afforded (or been force to give up – Tony wasn’t sure which, with Happy all over the situation like a wolf) this private space in which they could wait. Happy himself was gone at the moment; he’d been going back and forth, checking in with Tony and the security detail he’d left here to protect them before going to work with the NYPD. Thankfully, there’d been a ton of witnesses to the attack, so the cops had enough to get started without needing to speak with Tony. That was coming, though.
Which was why Jarvis was about to say the same things he had a few times already. “Sir, please let me help you clean up. And allow me to take Master James home.”
Tony looked wearily toward his son. After crying so hard and so long, Jamey had passed out in his arms on the way from the zoo to the hospital in the back of Stark Industries’ security SUV. He’d been peaceful since then. He was alright, too. Tony’s cursory check of him in the seconds after the stabbing matched what the EMTs on the scene had found; aside from a few abrasions and bruises, he hadn’t been hurt. Tony had held the screaming, struggling toddler in one of the zoo’s offices while an EMT had bandaged up his scrapes. Jamey had been utterly inconsolable, despite the efforts of the zoo staff and the EMT herself in trying to calm him. He hadn’t let anyone touch him other than Tony, and even then Tony knew he was a poor substitute for who Jamey really wanted.
Jarvis’ hand on Tony’s shoulder made him jerk in alarm. His butler frowned worriedly. “Sir, please. You are distraught, and rightly so, but you must think of James. This is no place for a child, and he has surely been traumatized–”
“No.” Tony was up before he thought about it. He walked across the small room and knelt in front of his son. He wanted to grab him and haul him close and make sure he was okay all over again, but he didn’t dare. Jamey looked so blissfully calm. God, he had been traumatized. He’d seen his father be attacked. He’d watched as his father had bled out all over the zoo. He’d seen his favorite animal brutally stab his father.
How was any of this possible?
Tony dropped his reaching hand. He bowed his head, fighting for his composure. It took all his strength to keep the pain inside. He didn’t know how Steve was, what was happening with him, if he was okay, if he was going to be okay… They’d taken Steve away, and he hadn’t seen him since. All he knew was that he was in surgery. The nurses and doctors who’d interacted with Tony (well, with Happy – Happy wasn’t exactly letting too many people close at this point) claimed they couldn’t say anything at this point. That was terrifying and frustrating, but Tony couldn’t connect with those emotions to feel anything too deeply. He was so damn numb.
At least, he was until he saw Tiggy. Jamey still had his little stuffed animal. Apparently Jarvis had tucked it under the blanket with him. The thing looked about the same, though as Tony glared at it through teary eyes, he saw a streak of red on the toy’s back. Disgust, horror, and rage burst through him, and he grabbed Tiggy and stood. “Where’re the clothes?” he demanded.
“The clean clothes!”
Jarvis wasn’t frightened by Tony’s sudden outburst. Grief shone his eyes, grief and helplessness. “Here,” he quietly replied, handing Tony a bag he’d brought. “Do you want my help?”
“I can goddamn do it myself,” Tony snapped, and he snatched the item and stalked to the door. He knew he was being a bastard; this wasn’t Jarvis’ fault in the least. But the abrupt fury had him running, trying to get away from this. He ignored the call of the security guards Happy had put on him, snapped at them as they followed him to the bathroom. They weren’t deterred of course, but he ignored them as he shoved his way into the men’s room down the corridor of the hospital’s surgical floor. Thankfully, the two guards didn’t follow him in.
Which maybe wasn’t the best thing. The second the doors slammed behind him, he just stopped. The white tiles and fluorescent lights spun, and he thought he might vomit he felt so sick. All he could do for a few long, seemingly interminable moments was stand there and breathe. Everything just hit like an onslaught, that a guy in a goddamn tiger suit had stabbed Steve just like that, and now they were here, in a hospital, waiting to hear if he was going to be okay. Just like that. This was supposed to be a simple, fun day, a day of domestic bliss, the first day off he’d had in what felt like forever, and now it was this.
How is this possible?
Tony choked on a sudden sob, looking down. The horrifying sight of all the blood staining and crusting his clothes made him nauseous anew. So did Tiggy, still clenched in his hand. The dead eyes stared at him, the loose one dangling even more, the dirty fur matted down even more. And the blood of course. Steve’s blood. There really wasn’t that much, but what was there was undeniable. Tony squeezed Tiggy harder and harder until his fist shook. Their son’s toy stained with his husband’s blood.
Fury burned through him like acid. He dropped the bag of clothes and rushed to the trash with a cry. Grasping Tiggy’s head, he pulled. He pulled as much as he could, but nothing gave. He yanked and clawed and tried to rip. The fabric keeping the animal’s head on was too strong. After a few wild, aggravating moments, he gave up with another wordless shout. He couldn’t break it, couldn’t destroy it, even though this damn thing had caused all this. Furious, he flung it into the trash and kicked the can for good measure.
To hell with Tiggy. He’d get Jamey a new toy. A goddamn replacement.
Then he staggered into the vanity. He braced himself against it, curling his fingers into the counter top to steady himself. The vertigo came back hard, and again he had to stop himself from puking. The vertigo nearly took him down.
Nearly. When he could focus again, he found himself staring at his reflection in the mirror. Now the mess of his clothes was really right before his eyes. God. He turned on the tap and rapidly pressed the soap dispenser, vigorously working up a foam before just as roughly washing his hands. Quickly the suds turned red, spilling down in a crimson rain into the sink, Mechanically he washed, rubbing harder and harder, picking at the blood around his cuticles until it hurt, scrubbing all the way up his arms. Then he ripped off his bloodstained t-shirt. His hands fumbled for his belt, undoing it to get his ruined pants off. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing that he was doing this in the middle of a public restroom, but the security guys were probably keeping everyone else out, and he frankly didn’t care. Disgust nearly had him sobbing as he saw the blood had actually soaked through his shirt to wet his chest. He washed that away as fast as he could.
Then it was paper towel after paper towel, drying himself and mopping up the splattered mess around the sink. It wasn’t that he felt bad for leaving such a disaster for someone else to clean. It was the blood again, like wiping it away meant something. It didn’t. Like dressing in clean clothes meant something. It didn’t, either. Yet as he stood there, now in clean jeans and a black t-shirt and looking at himself in the mirror, he felt moderately better. He’d straightened his hair and wiped his face, and he looked alright. Normal. Like he deserved to feel normal.
Suddenly that strange feeling returned, a constrictive ache around his heart. This time it quickly turned into more, a tingly whisper of something not being right that raced up his spine in a chill, and he looked around at the trash can. For a second – just a split second – he thought he saw Tiggy there at the top of the can, watching him. Watching with that dangling, grotesque eye and blood all over him. Tony gasped, blinked, and then it was gone, and the trash can was just there like it should be.
That was… weird.
Frozen to his core, Tony just stared for a long time. Then he remembered to breathe, to swallow down the awful lump in his throat, to move. He gathered up the mess of his ruined clothes and considered stuffing them back in the bag Jarvis had given him. No. He didn’t want that with him either, so he scooped up the bloody mess and stuffed that into the trash can, too. His hands shook as he did, and this creepy image of Tiggy jumping up from inside and biting him stampeded through his head. Shaken, he shoved the bag (to hell if it was a real bag and Ferragamo, no less) in on top, pushing it all down as far as he dared, before rushing out of the bathroom.
Happy was waiting for him outside, like right outside the door. Tony gasped and nearly plowed into him. “Shit!”
“The cops are looking for you, boss,” Happy said. He frowned at Tony’s appearance. “You okay?”
Tony had to swallow down his pounding heart. He felt dizzy. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Then he realized what he was saying. “No. God, what the hell do you think?”
Happy’s frown got even deeper and more concerned. “You want me to tell the cops to wait? They don’t need to talk to you. Not sure that I want them to have access frankly, not until we get a handle on stuff.”
“No,” Tony said firmly. “No. They need to catch this asshole now.” That was the reason security was here. Steve’s attacker had run off, and who knew if he’d make a try for Steve or Jamey again. “Any news on that front?”
“We’ll find out now I think,” Happy said grimly. He walked to Tony’s right, keeping him between his larger body and the wall. The other two security guys followed, their sharp eyes continually scanning. “Though I doubt it.”
“What about Steve?”
Happy sighed, like he was trying to choose his words. “Nothing yet. I have guards outside the surgical ward as close as the hospital would let me. They’re not happy, but we’re not giving them much choice. Honestly, I think they’re as freaked out by what’s happening as we are.” Tony clamped down hard on a sob. “It’s going to be okay, boss. We’re here. No one’s going to hurt you.” Happy grasped his shoulder as they reached the private room where he’d left Jamey. More security was protecting the door, and the police were there waiting. Happy tugged him to a stop and looked him in the eye. “Still, you should have known better than to go out without my guys. You’re a CEO. You can’t do things like this.”
Tony didn’t want to hear this right now. He pushed Happy off and headed to the police. There were two. One was dressed in a black suit with a black leather long coat on. He was bald, fierce, and also had an eyepatch, which made him look like a super spy or Bond villain more than a cop. “Mr. Stark,” the man greeted with his hand extended. “I’m Sergeant Nick Fury. This is Detective Coulson.”
Tony shook Fury’s hand and then glanced at the other guy. He was smaller, a little younger, with neatly combed brown hair, a banal face, and calm eyes. He had a notepad out and a pen at the ready. That made Tony nervous, probably irrationally so. Pepper and the company lawyers always told him to never talk to anyone on the record without the company say-so. When the hell had he become such a puppet? He’d never used to care. “Hi,” he finally managed.
Fury’s hard expression softened a moment as his good eye looked Tony up and down. It was a tad unsettling. “I realize this is a difficult time for you–”
“Have you heard anything about Steve?” Tony blurted that out before he could stop himself.
Fury shook his head. “Not yet. I’m sorry.”
“Can you tell us what happened, Mr. Stark?” Detective Coulson asked, pen already scrawling.
Tony swallowed thickly. Get your act together. “There’s not much to tell,” he softly said, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “A guy in a tiger suit attacked my husband.”
“That seems to be the only detail everyone can agree on,” declared Coulson with a touch of frustration. “We’ve spoken with dozens of witnesses, and nobody can provide any further identifying information. You notice anything about this guy?”
Tony just didn’t understand. “Notice? He was a guy in a tiger suit! If you need pictures, you can ask the zoo. Or here, for God’s sake. I got pictures myself.” Happy handed him Steve’s phone, which he’d been safekeeping as evidence since Stark Industries Security had arrived on the scene. Tony unlocked the phone with Steve’s passcode (Jamey’s and Tony’s birthdays mixed together), and found the photos. He hadn’t realized before, but he’d caught the seconds before the stabbing, the very moments leading up to it. Most of the pictures were of Jamey’s smiling face, but behind him, behind Steve holding him, the tiger was shifting, drawing something from behind his back. The knife. The bloody knife. “Jesus…”
“Whoever was in the suit killed the zoo worker meant to work the photo op,” Fury tensely supplied. “We found the worker’s body in the bushes behind the picture setup. He was stabbed to death, the coroner thinks about an hour before the attack.”
That made this worse somehow. As unlikely as it was, Tony had wanted to believe this was somehow some random, isolated incident, one of those horrible things that just happened. He’d wanted to think this didn’t have anything to do with who Steve was and who Jamey was. Now… He swallowed hard, shut off the phone, and shoved it into his pants pocket. He couldn’t hide the truth. If the person meant to be in the tiger suit had been murdered, this was very clearly premeditated.
The cops had come to the same conclusion. Coulson squinted, appraising him. “Did you notice anything out of the ordinary that morning? Anybody strange at the zoo? On the way to the zoo?”
Tony could hardly think. Focusing was too hard, but he tried to flip through his memories. “No, I don’t think so. I don’t remember… No. I…” He had to concede the truth. “I wasn’t paying enough attention.”
“Damn it, boss,” Happy said beneath his breath. “You know better.”
He didn’t want to hear that right now. “I wanted to take my family out for a nice day, okay? I have the right to do that! I have the right to turn off for one freaking morning!”
“No, you don’t.” The head of Stark Industries’ Security was not backing down, despite Tony’s fiery, teary glare. Happy shook his head and went back to the same crap. “You can’t stop being a CEO, no matter how much you want to. As bad as it is, this could have been so much worse.”
That was a cruel thing to say, and it cut Tony’s heart. He was so shocked at it that he couldn’t manage a rebuttal, couldn’t say a goddamn thing in fact. A silent moment crawled away. Detective Coulson finally cleared his throat. “To that point, Mr. Stark, do you know of anyone who’d want to hurt you or hurt your family?”
Tony was still reeling. “I, uh…” he stammered. “I…”
“Mr. Stark has quite a few enemies, to be frank. Competitors. Former employees. Random wackos. People from his past life,” Happy supplied, sounding condescending and judgmental. To Tony, anyway. Tony flinched. “I can give you a list.”
Fury nodded. “That would help.”
“And those are just the ones we can stick a name to. I have a whole second list of anon crazies who send letters or email threats or show up at one too many expos.”
“Considering this guy’s MO, anonymous crazy might fit the bill,” Fury said.
Happy nodded. “I can give you that, too.”
God, Tony had had no idea. No idea. He’d always had security around him, always lived fairly aloft and separated from the rest of the normal world. Even when he’d been so hurt in his accident, he’d had people protecting him (in fact, when he’d first started dating Steve, he’d had to jump through hoops to get Happy and his lot to back off and let Steve in). It had never occurred to him the extent to which his fame, celebrity, and power had generated enemies. And the extent to which the bubble around him altered his perception of things.
“Anyone specific that you can think of, though? Anyone more recent?” Coulson asked. “Maybe violent or with an axe to grind?”
Happy considered a moment. That was good, since Tony’s brain was still completely malfunctioning. “Aldritch Killian,” the head of security offered.
That got a knee-jerk reaction out of Tony, one that kicked through the shock of everything. “No, I – I don’t think he’d do this.”
“And who is that?” asked Coulson, writing quickly.
Happy sighed, like he was trying to decide how much to divulge. “He’s an ex-employee. Mr. Stark hired him, figured out he was nutso, and then fired him.”
Fury narrowed his eye. “Nutso how?”
“He just wants me to listen to his ideas,” Tony said quietly.
“Yeah, ideas that you told Pepper were absolutely insane,” Happy tersely replied. Tony had wondered once or twice before how much Happy and Pepper talked to each other about him. The answer to that was a lot, apparently. “You were right to fire him.”
“And he didn’t take that so well?” Coulson inquired with a cocked eyebrow.
“He’s been making a nuisance of himself since,” Happy explained. “You know, lying to the press. Showing up everywhere. Shouting at Mr. Stark. Causing trouble.”
“But you don’t think he’s responsible,” Fury said, incredulous. “He seems like a prime suspect.”
Happy looked torn, glancing at Tony like he wanted to base his response off of his employer’s reaction. Tony shook his head. “The guy’s a wimp, I’m telling you. He’s just desperate to get me to treat him like an equal. Like we could be business partners. That’s it. I don’t think he could have managed this.”
“Plus he’s disabled.” Fury cocked an eyebrow to Happy’s statement. “He gets around, but he’s got a serious limp. Uses a cane. I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but there’s probably no way he could fight Steve Rogers. Mr. Rogers is… Well, you have probably seen pictures in the media. He’s… specimen-like.” Tony glared at Happy, but Happy just shrugged. “Tiger suit or no, knife or no, I don’t think Killian could have beaten him in a contest of strength.”
The argument gave Tony pause. He hadn’t even really thought about it, but Happy was absolutely right. Killian had been born with scoliosis. He did move quite adeptly with his cane, surprisingly fast and capable of following Tony basically everywhere, but there was no way he’d win in a fight against Steve.
“Plus he was in LA as of yesterday,” added Happy.
“And he didn’t have any way of knowing I was coming back here,” Tony argued, snapping from his thoughts, even more certain. “He didn’t do this. He couldn’t have known I was home, and he couldn’t have known we were going to the zoo.”
“Who could have?” Fury asked.
Tony was at an utter loss. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out, so he raised his arms helplessly. “It was a spur of the moment decision. They wanted me back in LA, and I didn’t go. I didn’t even tell anyone! We were at the zoo before I even told Pepper.”
Coulson jotted down even more. The scratch of his pen on the notebook, as soft as it was, seemed deafening. “What made you decide to go there?”
Tony shook his head, trying to think back to that morning. It was only early afternoon, yet it felt like their breakfast had been so long ago. “Steve was already going,” he said, grimacing. “He knew about the tiger exhibit, and James – our son – loves tigers. He was going to take him. I joined at the last second.”
“If Mr. Rogers had plans, who would have known about those?” Coulson asked.
“I don’t know! No one really. Steve doesn’t have other family, and he doesn’t…” Talk to much of anyone really. It didn’t feel good to admit this. Tony bit his lower lip and glanced at Happy, dropping his hand nervously to his hips. He changed the subject. “He drives himself everywhere. He never uses the car service unless we’re together. But we took the Range Rover this morning.” He thought about that, how they’d gone down to the Tower’s garage, how Steve had strapped Jamey into his car seat in the back of the SUV while Jarvis had handed Tony the diaper bag with a proud smile on his face. “My butler knew, but he’d never, ever be involved.”
“Edwin Jarvis,” Happy again supplied.
Fury declared, “We’ll still need to talk to him.”
Happy tipped his head toward the private room behind him. “He’s here, looking after Mr. Stark’s son.”
“What about Mr. Rogers’ friends?” Coulson asked. “We’ll need their names, too.”
“Stark Industries Security has already vetted them, but sure.”
“And if we could retrace your steps through the zoo that morning, maybe figure out where you were when–”
“I’m sorry,” Tony gasped, cutting through the chatter, “but how exactly does this help catch this guy? I get it that the why and how are important, but you should be out looking, not here digging into my personal life.”
“This is personal,” Fury reminded curtly. “Whoever did this knew you were going to be at the zoo today, which you claim was a last minute decision. Not only that, that zoo is huge, but the attacker knew you were going to the tiger exhibit and knew you were going to be in that photo line. Either the person has ESP, or they’ve been following you somehow. They know your husband, your son, what your son likes.”
“A stalker,” Happy grumbled. “You’ve had no shortage of them.”
Coulson lifted a shoulder. “You’re one of the most famous men in the world, the biggest name in business and technology that there is. Sadly, your family is a way to get at you.”
A liability. The thought came out of nowhere. It was awful. A tool. A means to an end. The end being hurting him or threatening him or using him. His heart shuddered in his chest, the beat of it odd and troubled as it was sometimes after his accident. The pain felt crippling, and he was speeding through darkness again, lost and racing toward nothingness, crashing–
Happy’s hand fell to his shoulder protectively, and that anchored him. “We want to work with the department on this,” the man said. “So how can we help?”
“By getting us the information we requested and allowing access to the people who usually interact with Mr. Stark and his family,” Fury evenly replied, folding his arms over his chest with a crinkle of leather.
“Otherwise, no offense, stay out of our way,” Coulson added. There was a hint of a challenge to his otherwise even, nonconfrontational tone.
Happy wasn’t daunted. “We’ll handle protecting our own. You guys just mind the manhunt. Where are you with that?”
“Working on it. The zoo’s been on lockdown since the attack.” Coulson shook his head. “We have units on the scene, combing the area. So far there’s been no sign of the weapon, the suspect, or the tiger suit. I don’t see how he could have escaped, but, as Detective Fury said, the zoo is huge. It’s taking a while to search.”
“It’s not likely the suspect could have escaped,” Fury added.
“Yeah, we can’t rely on that,” Happy dismissively said. He turned back to Tony. “My guys are all over this hospital, boss. No one is going to be able to get at you.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about me!” Tony snapped. Happy’s face tightened ever so slightly. What the hell? Why was he so focused on Tony’s safety when Steve was the one who was hurt? When Steve and Jamey were the attacker’s targets? Tony sighed shortly. “I want Steve and James safe. Don’t you get it? This maniac didn’t hurt me. He hurt them!”
Tony whirled and saw Jarvis in the door of the private room. The older man looked anxious, glancing among the police officers before settling his gaze on Tony. “Master James is asking for you.”
Sucking in a tense breath, Tony pushed through the group toward the room. “Just find whoever did this,” he ordered, like he had any authority over the NYPD. Well, maybe he did – he was a CEO, as everyone kept feeling the need to remind him, and he had an awful lot of influence and money at his disposal. Fury looked sufficiently tense at his demand at any rate. Tony turned from him and glared at Happy. “And protect my family!”
Then he stalked into the room. Jarvis closed the door behind him the second he stepped inside, like that could seal out all his problems. Jamey was curled up on the sofa where he’d been sleeping, sobbing rather loudly. Tony’s heart just broke all over again, and he went right over to him. “Jamey, I’m here.”
“He only slept a brief time,” Jarvis said sadly. “I tried to console him, but he wouldn’t have it. I am sadly not a replacement.”
You can’t get a replacement. What Jarvis said hurt so much, made all Tony’s grief and terror that much sharper. He struggled to keep his cool. “Jamey, sweetheart.” He touched the child’s quivering back. “It’s Daddy.”
Jamey curled tighter into himself. “Want Dada!” he got out between sobs so loud and deep it seemed like he’d hyperventilate. “Want Dada!”
Tony’s eyes burned with fresh tears. “I know, baby, but he’s – he’s not here right now.”
“Where?” Jamey cried.
God, Tony didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know how much Jamey understood about what happened. If he didn’t know how serious and scary this truly was, Tony sure as hell didn’t want to teach him. Besides, how do you explain to a toddler that his father had been so badly hurt that they’d had to rush him into surgery? That he’d bled so much he’d lost consciousness? That Tony still didn’t even know if he’d be alright? He has to be. “He’s just down the hall, okay?” he finally managed around the lump in his throat. “He’s right here, and you’re going to be able to see him soon. Really soon, I promise.”
Jamey finally gave into the need for comfort, flinging himself at Tony as hysterical crying once again overcame him. It was loud in the small space, and Tony winced, though that was more from his own emotions than the noise. He hugged Jamey tightly as the little boy climbed into his lap and threw his arms around his neck. Like he had before, Tony just let him cry. He was too overwhelmed and distraught himself to do much else, squeezing his eyes shut as hot tears bled from them, rubbing Jamey’s back in soothing sweeps. “It’s going to be okay,” he promised. “Daddy’s here. Daddy’s here.”
Eventually that worked and Jamey calmed down (or just wore himself out again). Tony sagged in exhaustion as the toddler slowly began to settle. Jarvis’ hand on shoulder pulled him from the steady rhythm of his useless rubbing and equally useless promises. “Sir, please. I’ll bring him back to the Tower. This is truly no place for him, and you must focus on Master Steve–”
There was a knock on the door. Fear jolted through Tony, chasing away his fatigue, and he opened his eyes. Jarvis was already crossing the small room, and Tony just watched, frozen with this irrational terror. It was crazy, but he half expected a bloodstained, knife-wielding tiger to come busting through the door the second Jarvis opened it.
But it was only Happy. “Doc’s here,” he said softly to the butler. He sent the doctor forward without asking, and Jarvis stepped aside to allow their visitors entrance closing the door behind them.
The doctor was a short, Asian woman dressed in green scrubs. She was very pretty, with clear, pale skin, pink lips, and sharp brown eyes. Dark hair, nearly black in fact, was tucked under her surgical cap. She seemed even younger than Steve, too young, in fact, to be a decent doctor. That was the next irrational thought stampeding through Tony’s head, that this woman couldn’t be the best, and Steve deserved the best, and Tony had the money to buy the best so he would and–
“Mr. Stark, I’m Doctor Cho,” the woman declared. She eyed the toddler wrapped around him and still shivering with quiet sobs. Then she offered a compassionate smile. “Don’t get up. I can just sit here with you.”
That was considerate, so much so that this tiny spot of niceness in all the terribleness utterly dashed Tony’s stupid concerns that she wasn’t good enough for them. “Is Steve okay?” he blurted, hugging Jamey harder and not caring at all that his cheeks were wet and he probably looked like he was crazy and he had no idea if this woman or any of the hospital had signed NDAs or anything (Happy had no doubt forced them, but Steve used to work here, and these people knew him and knew who Tony was and the media would pay a pretty penny for a story like this one). “Is he? Is he okay?”
Doctor Cho’s smile was as sweet and kind as she was. “He will be, Mr. Stark.”
Tony visibly crumpled. His eyes shut of their own accord, and the air rushed out of him, and relief just pummeled him until he thought he’d collapse, baby in his lap and all. “Oh, thank God,” he moaned, shivering. “Jesus.”
She let him have a moment to collect himself before continuing. “The surgery was a success. The damage was serious but not so much that there should be any long-term complications. Our biggest concern was that he lost a great deal of blood, but with a transfusion and some time and rest, he should make a full recovery.”
A full recovery. This was too good to be true. “You hear that, buddy?” Tony said, too giddy with the prospect of Steve being okay to stop himself. He ran his hand over Jamey’s brown curls excitedly, trying to peel him off a bit to look into his face. “Dada’s going to be fine. He’s alright!”
Jamey didn’t really seem to understand that, pressing his little face back into Tony’s shoulder. Tony just let him, cupping the back of his head. “When can we see him?”
“Soon,” the doctor replied. “He’s in recovery for now and probably will be for a while yet. It might be quite a few hours before he regains consciousness.” Tony closed his eyes again. Soon was the only part of that he heard, the only part that really mattered. He was going to be able to see Steve soon. Steve was going to be okay, and they were going to be together.
The doctor went on a little longer about the damage the stabbing had done, that Steve’s liver and a few of the large blood vessels in that area had been hit, but the surgeons had contended with it. He could be weak for some time, and he’d need to stay in the hospital for a few days more for monitoring, and he’d probably need some support at home for the first days or weeks of his convalescence, but the bottom line was he’d been incredibly lucky.
“Which is good,” she said with a soft smile. “I think I’d have a riot from the nurses and staff here if we lost one of our own. I worked with Steve quite often in the past. He’s a fantastic nurse, as you well know.”
He did know, because Steve took care of him here. Steve used to work here. Used to have a life here, with friends and peers and colleagues and dreams. Belonged here, maybe, and was being returned to fix the damage. Tony grimaced. “So you’ll come then when it’s time for us to go back.”
Now Doctor Cho frowned. She’d been so quietly pleasant and supportive that it seemed strange. “I’m sorry, Mr. Stark, but children aren’t permitted in recovery.”
Happy had been silent this whole time, a sentinel between them and the door, but now he spoke up. “Surely an exception can be made in this case.”
Doctor Cho looked a little disgruntled. “It’s hospital policy.”
“Can’t Mr. Rogers recover in a private room? That would allow Mr. Stark to bring their son to him, and it’d let me get security on him.”
“Hospital security is handling the situation at the moment.”
Happy shook his head. “Yeah, that’s not going to be good enough.”
Cho frowned. “Preferential treatment is not generally something we–”
“You go ahead and authorize it,” Happy said firmly. He folded his arms over his large chest, basically turning himself into a barrier that she couldn’t cross without his permission. Like he was blocking her inside until he got his way. “I’ll clear it with the hospital administration. Like you said, Mr. Rogers was a former employee here, and Mr. Stark has already given a generous donation. He’d be willing to do so again. Plus I really don’t think you’d want to have this place and all the great work it does get on the bad side of someone like Tony Stark.”
The way Happy was leveraging Tony’s notoriety was somewhat disgusting. Not to mention he was doing so and Tony was right there, for crying out loud. But all Tony wanted was to be with Steve, was to show Jamey that Steve was okay, and he didn’t particularly care about the morality underlying how that happened.
Eventually Doctor Cho nodded. She didn’t look happy, though watching Jamey snuggling and sniffling into Tony’s throat was probably easing her displeasure. “Alright. I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks, Doctor,” Happy said nicely, and he opened the door for her to leave. She did.
The second they were alone again, Tony tried anew to pry Jamey free. He went more easily this time now that the stranger was gone. “Hey, did you hear that, Jamey? Dada’s okay. We’re going to be able to see him soon.”
Jarvis sighed heavily. He’d also been silent this entire time. “Sir, again, allow me to take Master James home. This is no place for him, and seeing Master Steve sick might not be the best for him.”
That seemed to be in direct contradiction to what Tony thought. “He needs to see that Steve’s okay. And Steve’s gonna want to see him.”
“I gotta go with Jarvis on this one, boss,” Happy added. “If this wacko is trying to get to you through them, removing them from you might be the best option.”
That made absolutely no sense. “How does having James not physically with me remove him from me?” Tony clutched his son’s small body tighter. Possessively. “They’re my family! It’s not like taking him back to the Tower undoes that.”
“I’d send security with him,” Happy said, slightly affronted. “Of course I would. Actually, to be honest, I’d like it if you weren’t here at all. I’d like you some place where I can protect you better. Both of you.”
Tony just stared. “You want me to leave Steve?”
“Boss, we’ve got things secured here for Mr. Rogers–”
“It’s Rogers-Stark,” Tony hissed. No one, not the police or the hospital staff or apparently Happy, seemed to remember that.
Happy looked only moderately contrite. “He’ll be fine here, but my biggest concern has to be getting you somewhere safe.”
That sounded… What the hell? “Are you not listening to me? If this guy, whoever he is, is trying to hurt my family to get at me, you need to protect them.”
“We are,” Happy replied, uncaring about the acid in Tony’s voice. “But getting you away from them might remove the temptation in and of itself. It protects you and them. It’s best for everyone.”
“Yeah, that’s bullshit,” Tony hissed. “I love Steve. He’s my husband. We’re a family. We stay together. My safety is not more important than his, not now and not ever. So you drop this right now, and don’t ever suggest it again.”
Happy didn’t look all that cowed. “Sure, boss.”
Things got quiet after that, quiet and tense. Tony stewed. Getting me somewhere safe. It was one guy in a tiger suit with a goddamn knife of all things, not a bunch of terrorists. Happy was acting like he needed to be whisked away to a panic room or safe house or something. That was the most ridiculous nonsense Tony had ever heard. Part of him wanted to fire him for being like this. And what was with calling him “boss” all the time? Happy had once or twice in the past, but this was just… weirdly obsessive.
This whole thing was weird.
Jarvis reached over and rubbed Jamey’s head where it was pillowed on Tony’s shoulder. “At least let me get him something to eat, sir. And you as well. You haven’t eaten since breakfast.”
It had been hours and hours. Despite being hungry, Tony didn’t feel like he could stomach a thing. “Thanks,” he murmured all the same, and Jarvis nodded sadly before taking his leave.
Happy stood at the door, just like that sentinel again. And, again, this time it felt more like he was blocking Tony from getting out than preventing anyone from coming in. Tony sighed. “You don’t have to keep an eye on us. We’re okay in here, and I’d rather you make sure Steve’s okay.”
For a moment, Happy didn’t budge, like he was going to disregard Tony’s request directly, boss or no. Then he nodded. “Ms. Potts has been calling. You want to talk to her?”
Jesus. Pepper. The press conference. The stuff she was going to send over for the Congressional hearings. The Congressional hearings themselves. “Not yet.”
Clearly displeased, Happy frowned. “Okay. I’ll have her call back later.” Then he was gone, too.
Now it was just him and Jamey. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been totally alone with their son, and not just to set him back in his crib or kill time at the zoo. He was there as the only parent. Jamey was calmer now, again probably because he’d worn himself out. Tony was tempted to tell him more about how Steve was going to be okay, but he just didn’t have the energy. Instead they sat in the relative peace of the silence. Tony found himself rocking just a bit, a gentle sway on the couch, a natural thing parents simply began to do when they became parents of a baby even though Jamey strictly no longer was one. Tony managed to resettle him a bit so that Jamey was sitting in his lap, head tucked to his shoulder. Jamey’s thumb was in his mouth, face red and wet with tears, eyes glassy.
Just like that, Tony found himself beginning to hum. The whole thing was so reminiscent of caring for Jamey when he’d first come into their lives, when he’d been so tiny. Tony hadn’t gotten up with him at night as much as Steve had he was embarrassed to say, but he’d done it, and he could remember this, rocking in the rocking chair in the nursery and singing an old Italian lullaby that his mother had sung to him. It was one of the few truly wonderful memories he had of her, that she’d done this so many nights of his early childhood whenever he’d been scared or sick or even just because. Held him or sat on the edge of his bed, sometimes in whatever glittering formal wear she had on for whatever occasion she’d needed to attend, and sung him to sleep.
His mother had known how to be his mother and live a life of fame, obligations, and responsibilities.
“Want Dada’s song,” Jamey murmured after a minute.
Tony stopped. Even though he clearly remembered signing this lullaby to the little guy, Jamey himself didn’t. And why would he? Tony hadn’t been the one to do this in what felt like forever. Steve had. So of course Jamey would know Steve’s lullabies far better than his own. That hurt so much. And what hurt even more was the sad fact that Tony didn’t even know what Steve sang to their son. He was never there to learn.
Before he could even think to respond, though, something buzzed in his pocket. It took him a second to realize what it was. Steve’s phone. Shifting Jamey more to one side, he reached down and pulled it out. Shit. It was Bucky calling. Steve’s best friend from childhood. Tony stared at the device a moment, paralyzed by his horror. Frankly, that was all kinds of stupid. Sure, he didn’t think Bucky had ever particularly approved of his relationship with Steve. Bucky was something of a big brother to Steve, his self-appointed protector, and that role went back into their youths. So it was understandable that Bucky had been leery, considering the bad boy, selfish, reckless reputation Tony had had when he’d started pursuing Steve. Bucky had never been overly outward about his disdain, but Tony’s own insecurities had driven him to wonder many times what Bucky said to Steve behind Tony’s back, if he’d tried to convince Steve not to marry him or even be with him.
Of course, there’d been the damn shovel speech. That had come right as Tony had begun realizing how deeply in love with Steve he was, right when he had become pretty sure Steve felt the same. The fact that Bucky had approached him pretty much signified that, that Steve had said something to Bucky about it or Bucky had figured it out on his own from Steve’s very noticeable happiness. Steve had invited Tony over to dinner at his apartment in Brooklyn one night, and Bucky had dropped by unannounced, and as Steve had been clearing away the dishes, the soldier had cornered Tony in the living room and very plainly told him that if he ever, ever hurt Steve, there’d be hell to pay. Steve’s willingness to see the best in people tended to make him vulnerable, and Bucky wanted it to be very clear that should Tony use him or abuse him or leave him, CEO and billionaire and fame or no, the consequences would be severe.
In that moment, with Bucky’s gray eyes sharp and his significant size in Tony’s space and all that deadly talent honed by years of military service on display, Tony absolutely believed him.
But that had been the one and only time Bucky had ever spoken to him about it. Shortly after James had come into the picture, Bucky had left for a brief tour in Iraq. He’d been back a few times now, lately more on a permanent basis, and every time they crossed paths, Tony always felt a little nervous. Surely Bucky thought it was complete bullshit that Steve had basically given up his career and his dreams to be a stay at home dad while Tony continued on in his life without much interruption. Surely Bucky didn’t like the fact that his best friend had been reduced to this. And surely Bucky told Steve that whenever he came over or when they talked, which if Jarvis was to be believed, was somewhat often these days.
At any rate, Bucky was calling now, and Bucky deserved to have someone answer him. So Tony took a deep breath and swiped his thumb across the touchscreen of Steve’s phone. “Hello?” he said quietly after lifting it to his ear.
“Stark? Stark, what the hell is going on?” Bucky sounded equal parts furious and frightened. His voice had that same Brooklyn drawl that Steve’s did sometimes, although Steve put more effort into curtailing it than Bucky did. “Why do you have Steve’s phone?” Tony opened his mouth. He didn’t know what to say. “Stark?”
“Yeah,” he gasped. “Yeah!”
“Where’s Steve? It said on the news something happened at the zoo today, and I know he was there. Steve said he was taking Jamey, and the reporters said there was an attack, and nobody will tell me anything. What’s going on?”
The thought of answering was unbearable. There was a knock on the door, and then it opened. Jarvis came in with an array of food: a couple sandwiches, chips, a cookie, and water bottles and juice bottles. He looked at Tony quizzically, but Tony simply shook his head and stood, leaving Jamey on the couch. Jarvis immediately tended to him, speaking softly about the food, and Jamey seemed fairly okay with that. Tony almost wished he wasn’t so he wouldn’t have to take this call.
But he had to. Bucky was getting angrier and more upset. “Stark, goddamn it, talk to me! I have called and called and no one–” Tony pulled the phone away from his ear and checked the notifications. Sure enough, not too long ago Bucky had called and texted repeatedly. Not one of the calls or texts had been answered. That meant Happy had ignored him. Bucky’s loud voice over the receiver had Tony listening again. “–why no one will talk to me. Your people are being assholes, to be frank. Just tell me what’s going on!”
Tony shivered through a breath, pressing the heel of his palm to his forehead. “There was an attack,” he finally managed in a throaty voice. “That’s true. At the zoo today. There was an attack.”
Bucky was silent for a moment, like he’d hoped for another answer. Of course he would have. “Is Jamey okay?”
Tony looked back at his son, where he was sipping juice and nibbling on a bit of an apple. “Yeah, he’s fine,” he assured. “He’s okay.”
“What about Steve?”
Tony closed his eyes. There was no point in lying. Whatever he felt about Bucky, Bucky deserved better than that. “He was stabbed.”
That soft whisper seemed thunderous. Bucky was quiet again. Then he hissed a quiet, “What?”
Suddenly it came out in a flood. “But he’s alright! He’s going to be fine. He had surgery, and they patched him up and put him on a blood transfusion–”
“– a blood transfusion?” Bucky snapped irately.
“So everything’s alright! Doc just came to tell me they’re getting him out of recovery and into his own room. We’re going to go see him in just a few minutes here, okay? We’ll see him, and he’ll be fine. He’ll be back on his feet in no time.” That was all true, so why the hell did he feel like a screw-up trying to hide his latest mistake?
Because Bucky would jump on him. Of course, he would. “Tony, don’t you dare goddamn lie to me. What happened?”
Tony didn’t know what to say. Once again, there was really nothing to be gained from hiding the truth or trying to sugarcoat it. He had a feeling Bucky already knew the answer, knew it in spirit anyway if not the details. “They think someone is after me. Someone set this up to attack Steve and Jamey to get to me.”
Despite having just heard that minutes ago, saying it himself, truly admitting it, was terrible. And Bucky did jump on him. Not just jump, in fact. Attack. “Jesus, Stark. God Almighty. I knew it. I freaking knew this would happen! Goddamn it!”
The blood drained from Tony’s face. “Bucky, I–”
“I told him. I warned him. You might be reformed, but you’re still you. And you’re a goddamn CEO, aren’t you. You’re important, and Steve’s just a poor kid from Brooklyn, and he’s nothing and no one compared to you, right, nothing but a way to manipulate you. I knew he’d get hurt. I knew it! I just didn’t figure it’d be with an actual knife.”
It felt like an actual knife now, jabbed up between his ribs, and Tony looked down. He really expected to see blood. Of course there wasn’t any. “That’s not fair,” he mumbled weakly in his defense. “Steve loves me. He–”
“Never fit in your world,” Bucky said, “and never stood a chance. He and Jamey are just pawns in whatever corporate bullshit you have going on around you. They’re sheep. And you led them to the slaughter.”
God. What could he even say to that? He wanted to be angry, furious. He wanted to tell Bucky to shut the hell up. He wanted to hang up and never talk to him again. He wanted to throw the phone and curse everything, but what was the point? It wouldn’t fix anything. It wouldn’t end this. This was a nightmare, and he couldn’t wake up.
“I’m coming down there,” Bucky said after what felt like forever. “I need to see Steve. I’m coming. Which hospital is it?”
Tony heaved a trembling sigh. “Steve’s.” He answered before he thought better of it. He did not want Barnes here. That was selfish, but it was true. “But my security guys are all over. The guy who did this is still on the loose.”
Bucky’s fury felt almost tangible. “That’s all the more reason I should be there!”
“You probably won’t be able to get in,” Tony said, and he felt like a monumental jerk for saying it, but it was true. Bucky wasn’t technically family, so there was no guarantee he’d be able to get to see Steve anyway. Plus, if hospital policies and security didn’t bar him, Happy’s people certainly would. “I’m really sorry.”
“That is horse shit!” Bucky snarled. “Steve is my friend. You can’t just keep me away!”
“He really is okay,” Tony assured again, trying to stay calm. “He’s safe here, and he’s going to be fine. My people are all over it. There’s no way anyone can get to him or to Jamey. And the second I can get him out of here and home, I will. You’re welcome to come then and stay – stay as long as you want. But right now it’s just too dangerous to let people in.”
“It’s not safe! Not until they catch the guy who did this.”
“Not safe for you? Or for Steve?” Bucky’s voice was cutting. Tony pressed his palm to his forehead again. “Because it seems to me the safest thing possible is to get Steve and Jamey away from you. You should have never let this happen. It’s your fault!”
That was brutal. “That’s not true,” he hissed himself. “It’s not!”
“Yeah,” Bucky snapped. “You just keep telling yourself that.”
The line went dead. Bucky had hung up on him. Tony stood there with the phone to his ear, waves of fury and grief pounding over him. The room seemed like it was spinning. He felt like he was shaking, yet when he finally lowered the phone, he wasn’t really. Steve’s home screen wallpaper was looking back at him now. It was a picture of Tony and Jamey, taken months ago. Months before all this craziness had started. They were both smiling at the camera, and while Tony wasn’t one to belabor or even notice the similarities between himself and his son, they were pretty undeniable. Same sharp, brown eyes. Same dark, thick hair. Same face.
My greatest creation.
“Sir, who was that?” Jarvis asked quietly. His voice was laden with concern.
“Nobody,” Tony said, sniffling. He went to shut Steve’s phone off, but before he did, he couldn’t help but notice. Steve had taken this picture at the Arboretum, so everything around them was lush, green, and colorful. Tony was holding Jamey in front of a tree, and Jamey was hugging him tightly, their cheerful faces pressed together.
But in Jamey’s hand right over his shoulder… Tiggy was there, smiling and staring with his dead eyes.
Tony shut the phone off and stuffed it into his pocket.
Not too long after that, Happy returned to let them know Steve had been settled in his hospital room. It took another couple minutes before Happy was ready to escort Tony and Jamey down to see him. Tony wasn’t too pleased with that, but honestly, after his argument with Bucky, he didn’t have it within him to debate. He felt so damn low, so freaking guilty. He knew Barnes wasn’t being fair, but it was true in a way, everything he’d said. There was no other explanation. That tiger had to have attacked Steve to get to Tony, and that would never have happened if not for Tony’s position. Steve was just an average guy. No one would want to hurt him, no one other than Tony’s enemies trying to hurt Tony. A means to a goddamn end.
No. Steve was not just that. And Steve wasn’t an average guy, a nobody, someone who’d only gained importance through his association with Tony. Tony loved Steve like he’d never loved anything or anyone before. Steve had saved his life. And Jamey might not have been Steve’s biological son, but Steve had given him Jamey. Steve had been the one to suggest, the one to gently coax, the one to support and the one to believe and the one to persevere. Steve was everything.
So he wasn’t going to let Bucky or anyone else tell him what he had – what he was doing – was wrong. It was just as he’d promised. The cops would catch this maniac, and Steve would come home, and everything would be fine.
That was what he was thinking as he walked down the hospital corridors with Jamey in his arms, Jarvis at his side with all of their things, Happy in front talking quietly over his comm line with his guards, and two other burly guys behind them. This wasn’t the first time Tony had been whisked from one location to another; it was actually a fairly common occurrence in his life. This time, though, felt strange, and he was scared to be out in the open. It was completely irrational. No deranged monster in a tiger costume could get to him, as flanked as he was by security and in the middle of a major metropolitan hospital no less. Plus the attacker was probably still trapped in the zoo, so being afraid was so stupid.
But he was, glancing at every person they passed like he or she was a threat. Like anyone could have been in that tiger suit (which was true and a problem and the whole damn point, when he thought about it). Like the freaking tiger suit itself was going to fling itself at them from that room they passed or jump at them from around this corner or just attack from anywhere, bloody knife at the ready. Tony had never felt so unsettled despite the protection, and he clutched Jamey tighter and tighter until Jamey quietly whimpered into his chest that he was squeezing him too hard.
At any rate, the walk was tense and torturous but in reality okay. Tony was almost shocked and definitely relieved when they reached the private room Steve had been assigned. He looked at the glass windows, the view blocked by the blinds within, and the door that was shut. The Stark Industries Security guards right outside the door. The name written on the board by the door that said: “Doe, J.”. That made it seem so unreal, but the fact was that Steve was in there, and Tony was about to see him, and suddenly his heart was pounding and his skin was breaking out in a cold sweat for another reason entirely.
Tony sighed and turned away from the door. Jarvis was watching him. The butler looked a tad ridiculous, carrying that stupid bag Steve had purchased at the zoo (why didn’t the cops have that as evidence?) and the diaper bag plus Jamey’s blanket and all the things he’d brought from the Tower for them. His face was tight with disapproval. “Sir, please. Do not take Master James in there. He has no need to see his father this ill. It would be devastating.”
Tony tucked Jamey’s face even closer to his shoulder. What choice did he have? Send Jamey home alone to the Tower? Where Tony couldn’t keep an eye on him, couldn’t know he was safe? And where Jamey couldn’t have either of his fathers? Or Leave Jamey here with a bunch of strangers. Out in the open corridor in a place he didn’t know, with only Jarvis who was safe and familiar. And it wasn’t that Tony didn’t trust Jarvis, but…
There weren’t always the best choices, but he was doing the best he could, and he needed to protect Steve and Jamey both. They were a family, and they had to be together.
So he kissed Jamey’s head and murmured, “Don’t look yet, okay? You just look at me, and I’ll tell you when it’s okay.”
Jamey gave a little nod, and that was enough for Tony. He gripped the door handle, turned it, and went inside.
Whatever horrors he’d imagined, this… was okay. Not good, not by any stretch of the word, but not so bad, either. The place was spacious, nicer than the average hospital room, and Steve was the only person in it. He was laying in a hospital bed that was inclined slightly, dressed in the standard-issue gown with a blanket covering his lower half up to his belly. The lights were dimmed, but Tony could see thick bandages there, protecting the place he’d been stabbed and whatever other surgical incisions he had. There was equipment around the bed, monitors and an IV machine. Bags of saline, blood, and medicine hung on the pole, slowly dripping down into the complicated collection of tubes running into Steve’s arms. A screen was displaying Steve’s vitals, too, all stable but maybe lower than Tony would have liked. Those were the most upsetting parts.
What was okay was the fact that Steve looked surprisingly decent all things considered. He was unconscious in the bed, which was worrying, but he was breathing nicely and evenly, and his face had color to it. His expression was lax and free of pain. Of course, that was probably from the anesthesia from the surgery or morphine now or both, but Tony found he didn’t care. Steve was there, and he seemed alright. The terrible sight he’d expected wasn’t so terrible.
Like that somehow made any of this okay.
It made Tony feel a hell of a lot better, though. “Okay, honey. You can look. But you can’t touch Dada right now, okay? No climbing on him. No touching anything. And you have to be quiet. Can you do that, James?”
Jamey didn’t seem to want to look, even though he gave a small nod against Tony’s shoulder. Tony was pretty sure he was staring at Jarvis behind him, Jarvis whose disapproval still felt like a potent force against him. Tony rubbed Jamey’s back. “It’s okay. It’s all okay, Jamey, I promise. You can look.”
It took another moment for Jamey to do that. Tony spent that softly coaxing and promising more and comfortingly rubbing his back. Finally Jamey did turn, and his little face went lax as he looked at his father. “Dada sleeping,” he finally commented.
“Yeah,” Tony answered. He came closer to the bed, shifting Jamey to his left side so he could reach for Steve’s hand. Touching Steve after all this was powerful, a combination of such relief, of so much normalcy and rightness, with novelty and this sense of not being allowed. Taking a deep breath, he grasped Steve’s hand more firmly, Steve’s left hand, and he ran his thumb over Steve’s wedding ring. “Steve? Steve, sweetheart, it’s Tony.”
Steve didn’t answer. Despite how much Tony wanted to see him open those gorgeous eyes, wanted to hear that perfect voice, he didn’t push him. Steve probably needed rest above all else, and Tony definitely didn’t want to interrupt that.
Seeing Tony touch Steve emboldened Jamey some. “Dada,” he whimpered, reaching for Steve. “Why he sleeping?”
Tony didn’t know what to say for a moment. He sighed, sitting on the end of Steve’s hospital bed. Jamey squirmed, reaching for Steve. “Easy, sweetheart. Dada got hurt, but he’s alright. The doctors made him better. He’s just going to sleep for a while. Like when you get sick, it feels good to sleep, right? You wake up, and everything’s better.” Jamey nodded, settling in Tony’s lap. “So that’s what this is going to be like. He’ll wake up, and everything is going to be fine.”
“And we go home?” Jamey asked meekly.
“Sure,” Tony replied. “Then we go home.”
Tony closed his eyes, exhausted by just the sound of someone talking to him. “What.”
“I can take Master James home now.” Jarvis was turning into some kind of obnoxious broken record. “There’s no reason he needs to be present for this.”
Like he needed to justify that it was okay for Jamey to be here, that he needed to be here, Tony let him onto Steve’s hospital bed. Jamey squirmed, and Tony set him up to Steve’s side (violating every rule he’d just made) and let him nuzzle a bit between Steve’s arm and his hip. “Careful, honey.”
“Jarvis, stop!” Tony snapped quietly, turning a hot glare to his butler. Jarvis looked surprised, eyes wide and frowning. Frankly, Tony was shocked, too. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d raised his voice or spoken crossly with Jarvis. Definitely before Steve had come into his life. Back then Jarvis had been pretty much been the only sane voice around him. Tony hadn’t exactly been willing to listen whenever the older man had spoken out against his poorer choices.
But that wasn’t what this was. Christ, James needed Steve, and Tony needed them both. “Just stop, alright? I know what I’m doing. This is fine. And I need some support now, okay, not people constantly second guessing me. For God’s sake, someone tried to hurt my family today!”
Jarvis’ expression just sort of closed up. “Yes, sir,” he said, and his tone was dead and cold, and it hurt hearing it. “I shall leave you to it then.” He set their junk to one of the chairs in the room and then silently took his leave.
Tony felt terrible and angry but most of all betrayed. What the hell… Why was keeping Jamey here so against his best interests? Was it wrong to want to keep their family intact? That made him think of the crappy things Bucky had said, which in turn made him feel worse, and he just wanted Steve to wake up so this ordeal could end and they could go home. They could hole up in their penthouse, in their bedroom, snuggling on their bed with Jamey between them like they’d done a lot when Jamey had been smaller. They’d cuddled and wrestled and played and watched TV and listened to music and read aloud. No work. No interruptions. Nothing but the three of them enjoying the day, safe and sound and happy. It had been heaven.
And this was as close to hell as Tony had ever been.
There was a knock. Tony’s heart leapt again, sending his chest muscles into a horrible spasm, and he groaned through the pain. He looked down at Jamey where he was burrowed into Steve’s side, panicking irrationally until he realized they were both fine. Of course they were. Swallowing through a dry throat, Tony turned to the door.
But whoever was on the other side just opened it. Tony froze. The tiger rushed inside with the bloody knife raised, rushed toward his family on the hospital bed–
And he almost screamed. But he was just seeing things because there was no tiger, no attacker, no knife. The only person who came in was a nurse. “Mr. Stark, I’m here to check on your husband’s vital signs.”
Before Tony could suck in a breath, let alone think to answer, Steve’s phone was buzzing in his pocket again. He shuddered, reaching for it and swiping across the screen to take the call. “Hello?” he said in a shaky voice.
“Tony? Tony, God, are you okay?”
It was Pepper. Pepper was calling him on Steve’s phone, because why the hell not? Everyone else had. Steve was an extension of him, wasn’t he? That made Tony angry all over again, and he snarled an irritated, “No. I am not okay.”
“I heard what happened. I am so sorry,” Pepper said, though that seemed somehow perfunctory. “Is he alright?”
Tony pivoted to look at Steve. The nurse was writing a few things in his chart. Jamey was right where Tony had left him, clutching at his father and sucking his thumb. “Yeah, he’s going to be fine.”
“I’m glad,” Pepper responded. “Good lord, what a disaster. You should never have gone out alone!”
The ache from Tony’s chest was settling behind his eyes and at his temples. He rubbed his forehead again. “Spare me the lecture, okay? Happy already made it abundantly clear how much I screwed up. Steve’s friend called to tell me I screwed up too, for added shits and giggles. And Jarvis is making it even clearer that I’m screwing up now by staying at the hospital.”
“Yes,” Pepper said simply, and Tony dropped his hand, grimacing. He hadn’t expected her to actually agree with that. It hadn’t been a statement seeking agreement, for Christ’s sake, more a litany of how everyone was treating him like crap when he needed solace and support. “It’d be better for everyone if you were home. The Tower is far safer. When can Steve be moved?”
“I don’t know. He’s still out from the surgery, for crying out loud!”
“We can get all the medical support he needs back at the Tower. Plus there we’re in charge of the security. Plus we can more effectively deal with the media issues. You probably haven’t heard, but the news of the attack is everywhere. Steve’s name and the details weren’t released, but the press is putting two and two together.”
Tony went cold. “So the news of the manhunt is out there, too? That might make it harder to catch the guy!” Or easier, if all of New York City was on the look-out for him. Hell, if it was Killian, releasing his picture into the public sphere as a suspect would get people on him real fast. That didn’t feel right, but Tony couldn’t muster much sympathy, not when Steve’s attacker was still at large. “I want you to help the police with anything they need. Okay? We need to catch this guy. We have investigative teams on staff, and we have media people, and–”
“That’s not really our concern,” Pepper reminded. She did it gently, but it still seemed so harsh to Tony’s ears. “Look, Tony, the only thing we need to worry about right now is damage control and getting you secured. You’re too important to lose.”
Jesus. Not her, too. Tony didn’t have the energy to repeat himself. “We’re not moving Steve yet, not until the doctors say it’s alright. And not until he says it’s alright, because he’s his own person, and a nurse, and what he thinks matters more than what you or I think.”
Pepper sighed, sounding long-suffering yet again. Tony was frankly getting sick of it. “I didn’t want to be blunt about this, but maybe that’s the best way. You have to be back at the Tower at the very least where we can be in constant communication and where you can work, but, frankly, you should be here with me. You can’t possibly expect a hospital full of Steve’s ex-coworkers and friends from his past to be quiet about this. The fall-out might be awful. Plus the company needs you right now. We still have the press conferences next week and the Congressional hearings to deal with, not to mention all the reports and approvals R&D still needs from you.”
This was unbelievable. Barely restrained anger poured out of Tony. “My husband was just stabbed, and you want to talk shop? And you’re blaming Steve’s old coworkers for stuff they haven’t done yet!”
“Tony, I don’t have a choice here! The timing is truly poor. We’re on the verge of this company’s biggest public product launch in decades! We’re riding or dying on this green energy initiative, and you’re the brains behind it and the face of it! We can’t afford a media circus, and you can’t just disappear right now into hiding. And you can’t be distracted. You are due to testify before the House in less than a week!”
Tony was silent, staring at the shadowy wall across from Steve’s hospital bed. He felt utterly defeated, like all this frustration and defiance and certainty in himself just had nowhere to go, no point at all. No one was listening to him. No one cared.
“I know this is a terrible situation, and you’re in an unimaginable position. It’s not ideal, but I think the easiest thing for everyone would be to have you back at the Tower for the time being. I realize asking you to leave Manhattan isn’t feasible right now, so getting Steve home is the quickest way to get you functional. I’d like your permission to hire a medical team for him to ensure he gets the best care possible.”
“And to free me up, right,” Tony muttered. “So I can focus on work.”
Pepper was silent, and that was all the answer Tony needed to know he was precisely right. “You know we need you on this. I also have the list of nannies you had me assemble for Steve a couple months back. They’ve already been vetted, so it would be pretty easy to bring one or two on.”
Tony did not want strangers around, the security issues aside. “Happy gonna be okay with that?” he asked bitterly.
“He’ll have to be,” Pepper replied. “There’s one more thing. Your publicist wants to release a statement about the attack. Like I said before, the media is all over it, and it’ll only be a matter of time before people at the hospital start talking. Rumors are already running rampant. It’s everything from people inventing enemies from Steve’s past to you hiring the attacker yourself to get out of the marriage.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, that’s ridiculous.” Tony’s eyes burned, and he felt physically ill again.
“Yes, which is why we need to say something to at least set the record straight. People are concerned about your solvency right now as CEO, and we need to get a hold on that ASAP.”
Tony sniffled, looking up to the ceiling to keep himself calm. God, that was all that mattered. How well he could still function as the head of Stark Industries when his husband was laying unconscious in a hospital bed with a hole in his body and blood being pumped into him because he’d lost so much. The company had to remove his weaknesses and his liabilities and control whatever damage could befall his image thanks to this. It was disgusting. Pepper had always been so supportive of his relationship with Steve, of his choice to become a father. Tony had been grateful for that, the way she’d been so sweet to Steve, so complimentary of him, so accepting and understanding. So what the hell was her deal now? Was this because of the stress of the press conferences and expos and product launch? Was this her trying to hold everything together when things were at their toughest and craziest?
Or was there something else going on here? Something more underhanded and malicious. It was probably pure paranoia, but he couldn’t ignore the abrupt thoughts filling his head. Maybe her support of Steve had been rooted in more… Well, pragmatic reasons was one way of putting it. A nicer way. Selfish was another. Maybe she’d liked the fact that Steve helped calm Tony down. After all, she’d handled Tony’s chaos and messes for years before Steve had come into his life. Or maybe she’d appreciated that settling down had matured Tony, had helped him become a better leader and worker just by virtue of the responsibility of love. Or maybe, just maybe, she’d wanted Steve in Tony’s life, wanted Jamey in the picture, because it fixed Tony’s reputation.
Ergo, her primary concern was his reputation now.
Realizing that infuriated him. He didn’t know if that explained her strange, cold, freaking cruel behavior now. He didn’t care. “Do whatever the hell you want,” he snapped, and then he hung up on her.
That didn’t feel as final or freeing as Tony had hoped. In fact, he just stood there, increasingly exhausted from all this madness. He didn’t think. He didn’t feel. He was numb and drifting with his eyes closed and his head empty.
“Are you alright, Mr. Stark?”
With a great deal of effort, Tony turned. The nurse was there. She’d been there this whole time, and she’d heard all that, and he flushed with embarrassment and worry.
But it was hard to think about the potential privacy implications with her watching him the way she was, with expectant blue eyes that seemed so familiar. In fact, a lot of her face seemed really familiar. The lines of her cheeks, the strong shape of her jaw. The thick, dirty blonde hair gathered into a bun. She was maybe in her late fifties, far older than Tony himself, wizened with years of hard work behind her eyes and in her hands. But the way she looked, the way she watched him, the way she moved…
Tony just stared, flabbergasted. “Yeah,” he murmured. He shook his head, confused. “Do I know you?”
She was adjusting Steve’s IV medicines, but she turned and offered a smile that… Wow, he could have sworn he’d seen it before. “We haven’t met,” she replied.
Tony nodded, not certain as he pocketed Steve’s phone and came closer. Maybe she’d worked here when he’d been hurt himself years ago. That had to be it. As she shifted around Steve’s bed, Tony spotted Jamey and jolted with panic, having totally forgotten Jamey wasn’t supposed to be here. “Sorry! I just… He wanted his dad.” He rushed over to collect the sleeping toddler.
“No, it’s alright,” the nurse assured. “He’s not causing any trouble.” She glanced down at the little body fondly, a certain affectionate gleam to her eyes that seemed misplaced given the fact she was a total stranger. “Besides, after what he went through today, it’s perfectly understandable.”
Hesitantly Tony let that be a comfort, that someone just seemed to be okay with what he’d decided. He studied Steve, who was still peacefully asleep. “Is he going to be alright?” he asked in a timid voice.
The blonde nurse had Steve’s chart in her hands. She was flipping through the pages and making notes, glancing between the clipboard and monitors. “Sure, he will,” she swore, giving Tony an encouraging smile. “He seems like a fighter.”
Tony nodded. He came closer to the bed, to the other side, and took Steve’s hand. Just feeling the familiarity of Steve’s fingers laced with his own, the press of his palm to his, was so grounding. “He’s so much stronger than I am,” he murmured, looking down. His aching eyes stung anew with tears. “Always has been. He wouldn’t have let this happen.”
Swallowing the rock lodged in his throat was nigh impossible, but Tony kept trying. “He always puts the right things first, you know? Knows the right thing to do. How to take care of other people. How to be what other people need. And I just…” He sighed, trying to find a way to put what he was feeling into words and failing like he seemed to be failing at everything lately. “I just screw up. I’m not there for him. Not there for our kid. Not there at all.”
She said nothing. He could feel her watching, patiently waiting. Eventually he found the bravery to keep going. “And the one time I try to be what they want, try to spend time with them and take them somewhere fun and enjoy them…” This happens. He gave a rueful grunt. “You know, when my old man passed, I swore to myself I was never going to be like him. God, I hated him. He put the entire concept of a shit father to shame. The guy was never home. He never paid attention to me. Never paid much attention to my mom outside of the fact that she was beautiful and she made him look good. We were status symbols at best, inconveniences at worst. Yet, even though he hardly ever took any interest in me, somehow he still had these ridiculous expectations. I had to take his place, even though I was never going to be good enough to do that. The only thing he accepted was freaking perfection. A whole childhood spent wanting a decent father and then resenting the shitshow that was your actual father tends to turn you off the idea of ever being one yourself.”
His voice died. He didn’t know why he was saying all of this, to a complete stranger no less. Concerns about the privacy implications? Yeah, this was making that way worse. But this woman felt… safe. Her eyes were motherly – that was what it was. Motherly. Caring and understanding and loving. And talking felt good. He hadn’t realized how long it had been since he’d confided in anyone. So he went on. “Then Steve came into my life. And he has so much faith in me, much more than I deserve. He wanted a family, and all the sudden we had a baby, and he’s volunteering to get up at nights and change diapers and handle the bottles, and then he’s volunteering to give everything he wanted up to stay at home, and I’m working and working, and the company needs more and more…” He sighed. “All the sudden, I’m the one who’s never around. I’m the one who’s not paying attention.” Tony shook his head and looked down. That defeated feeling got so tight, squeezing him. Fear spilled out. “I’m doing what I promised myself I wouldn’t. I’m turning into my dad.”
So there was the truth, the thing he hadn’t even really been able to admit to himself until now. James was growing up in his absence. Steve was alone all the time. He was putting work first, and they were second. And he supposed he could quit his career. He could leave it all behind and be with them. It wasn’t like they needed the money. Tony could walk away here and now and they’d be set for the rest of their lives. But he hadn’t, even as things had become so difficult. He knew in his heart that he didn’t want to, and he wasn’t quite sure why. The company needed him, sure, and part of proving his worth to himself was tied to making the Stark Industries an even bigger success than his father had and being certain that success couldn’t have been obtained without him. He had his ego, and his had his dreams, and he wanted to spite Howard Stark something fierce. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder, when he really made himself think about it, if he didn’t want to be a businessman. It was independence, freedom in a sense, a touch of what he’d used to have. Granted it wasn’t nearly so reckless and selfish and wild, but he loved building and designing and inventing. He loved showing it off and selling it. He was proud of what he did, and he enjoyed it a lot. Maybe he just wasn’t cut out for a domestic life.
The thought made him sick to his stomach. He couldn’t be more like Howard if that was the case.
“I don’t think so.”
The nurse’s soft words pulled him from his distressed reverie. He raised his head, focusing on her. Those familiar, knowing eyes – eyes that were so deeply blue – filled with compassion. “If you didn’t care, what’s been going on wouldn’t hurt so much. This conflict inside you… It wouldn’t exist. You’d just do whatever it is you want to do without another thought.” Tony just stared. “Wouldn’t you?”
His mouth fell limply open. He didn’t know what to say. Just because he felt bad didn’t absolve him. Or fix anything. “That’s not an answer, though. That doesn’t make this work.”
“Who’s to say it’s not working now?” she offered quietly. “In my experience, there’s no right or wrong answer. And the only opinions that should matter, frankly, are yours and his.” She tipped her head to Steve’s unconscious body. Jamey was still snuggled deeply into his side. “Has he ever said anything to make you think you’re not doing enough?”
“No! No,” Tony quickly replied. “But that’s just the thing. He wouldn’t complain. He’d never do that.” He sighed. “He’s only said he thinks I’m overworking myself.”
“I don’t think you give him enough credit. And maybe you are. Overworking and overthinking.”
No. No, it just couldn’t be that simple. Everything that was happening couldn’t be boiled down to that. “But this is all my fault. Steve wouldn’t have gotten hurt today if it wasn’t for me! None of this would have happened!”
The nurse gave another soft smile, this one a tad more amused like she knew him well enough to see something ironic in the situation. Tony couldn’t imagine what. “It’s amazing the lengths we’ll go to blame ourselves sometimes.” He still didn’t get it, shaking his head again. She sighed around a small chuckle. “You can’t be held responsible for things beyond your control. I’d say a wacky attacker in a tiger suit spontaneously coming after you falls under that.”
“Which would not have happened if I wasn’t who I am!” Tony insisted.
“And he might not have married you or fallen in love with you if you weren’t who you are.” She shook her head firmly. “You can’t start analyzing what-ifs. You’ll drive yourself crazy and only be left with your insecurities.”
Tony opened his mouth to argue further, but the words just wouldn’t come. It was like when his mother had spoken to him in his youth or when Jarvis had offered advice on the few times he’d asked for it as a young man. When he’d been too consumed with his own issues and doubts, they’d always cut through to the core of it.
It was silent then. The nurse finished up checking on her patient, marking down a last thing or two in his chart before sliding the clipboard back into its spot at the foot of the bed. Then she turned to Tony with a gentle smile. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she said gently. “If you don’t mind me saying? I raised a kid while building a career for myself. I did it without anyone to help me.” A look of grief passed over her face, not angry but peaceful. “My husband passed away when my son was just a baby. He never knew him.”
Tony frowned. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It was hard, and my job… Well, it was never just a way to bring in money to me. I wanted to be good at what I did. I wanted to help. Taking care of people was always what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to sacrifice that if I didn’t have to. And there were definitely times that it seemed impossible. I worked long hours. I missed school events and activities sometimes. When I was at work, I worried about not being at home, and when I was at home, I thought about work. I couldn’t be in two places at once, and there were lots of late nights where I prayed to God to invent some way to make that happen, or give me some magical time turner so I could have enough hours in the day to get everything done…” She gave a rueful smile. “But my son always knew how much I loved him. He knew how hard I tried, how it gnawed at me that I couldn’t do more. He knew that that was love at its core, when you’re so tired and overworked but you still come home to ask how a day went or give a kiss or a hug or help with homework. When you do this for your family. That’s what love is.”
She came closer, setting a hand to Tony’s shoulder. Normally a stranger wouldn’t have dared doing something like that (wouldn’t have had the chance, really). This seemed so familiar, though, that Tony welcomed the gentle touch. “Doubt and fear about parenthood… Well, it’s the nature of the beast, no matter who you are or who your father was. And there is a way to balance everything. The secret to it is not holding yourself to impossible standards. Don’t worry so much. Just relax and take things as they come.”
She nodded, smiling more firmly as she saw her message sink in. Then she turned back to the bed, appraising Jamey fondly before dropping a hand to his head. Again, normally Tony wouldn’t let just anyone near his son like this, but there was still that something about her. “Sweet child,” she murmured, and that seemed less like a passing compliment from a stranger and more a term of endearment. She moved away toward the door.
Before she could leave, though, Tony called out to her. “Your son… He’s happy?”
That was paramount to everything, to the weight of her parenting advice. She might be right about it, but only if the child she raised ended up okay. That was the point, after all. To be a successful parent who raised a happy, successful child.
The warm smile on her face seemed to suggest his question was silly and obvious, even if it couldn’t be. “Very. Take care, Mr. Stark.” Then she left, closing the door behind her.
Now Tony was alone again. He turned back to the wall opposite Steve’s bed, staring blankly at the things there. The posters about patient rights. Information about the hospital. It was all generic and mundane and not particularly interesting. On the whiteboard, the nurse – it had to have been her – had written her name at some point in red dry erase marker beneath the title of “YOUR NURSE FOR THIS SHIFT:”. “Sarah,” he whispered, perplexed.
Tony ripped around to find hazy blue eyes opened to slits and watching him. Steve was awake. Steve’s awake. “Oh, God,” Tony whispered, rushing to the bedside. “Steve. Steve!”
Steve’s long lashes fluttered. He licked dry lips, seemingly sinking into the bed. “Tony…”
Tony brushed a hand through Steve’s hair. “You’re going to be okay, sweetheart. It’s alright. You’re in the hospital.”
“What… What happened?”
It was hard to tell how he remembered. “That guy… In the tiger suit. He attacked you.”
Pain flashed across Steve’s face, so Tony held his hand tighter. “Jamey…”
“He’s right here,” Tony promised. “Right down at your side.”
Those blue eyes filled with tears. “He get hurt?”
“No, no, darling. No, he’s fine. He’s absolutely fine. You kept him safe!” Steve shivered a bit, eyes closing again. Tony caressed his hair more. “You’re going to be fine. The doctors patched you up. Okay? Nothing to worry about. You don’t worry about anything, love, not me or Jamey or even about yourself, because I’m taking care of him and you and me and everything is going to be alright, I swear.”
A ghost of a smile flitted across Steve’s lips. “Never… never been too good at takin’ care of yourself.”
Tony gave a hoarse chuckle. “Not nearly as good as you are, but you have taught me well, sensei,” he quipped. Soft, blond strands slipped through his fingers. Steve’s breath hitched and he squirmed in the bed a bit. “Is the pain bad? I’ll call the docs, get you more morphine.” Energy pulsed through him, and he reached for the call button near the bed. “Just sit tight.”
“No, no. You… you okay?”
“Yeah, Steve. I’m fine. I’m fine.” It tasted like a lie, felt wrong in his bones, but he said it again. “I’m fine.”
Steve grimaced just a bit. “Tiger?”
That was so damn ridiculous that Tony barked a rough laugh. “Got away. But don’t worry about that, either. The cops are going to catch him. That bastard… He’s not getting away with this, and he’s not going to hurt us again. I’m going to protect us, protect you and our baby.”
To that Steve said nothing. He let loose a long, shuddery exhale as he reached down his other hand to touch Jamey’s head. Jamey sniffled, lips moving as he sucked his thumb in his sleep, and cuddled closer. Steve closed his eyes, that tiny touch of energy abandoning him as he slumped in consuming relief. Tony’s own eyes burned anew. He clenched them shut, fighting not to cry. “I’m so sorry.” He raised Steve’s hand carefully, the hand Steve had used to save their son and fight the person who’d done this, and kissed his knuckles. “God, I’m so sorry!”
Steve didn’t answer. Tony looked up to see he’d passed out again. Sighing, Tony lowered his hand and set it gently to the bed. This… reversal of things, with Steve hurt in the hospital and Tony at his side to provide comfort and solace… It didn’t feel right or good. Once Steve got better, he’d take him home. He would take him and their son and hide in their home, their bedroom, as long as they needed to, work and Stark Industries and Congress and whatever fallout there was from this craziness be damned. He didn’t care what Pepper or Happy or anyone else wanted or needed from him. Steve’s health came first.
Family came first.
There was another knock at the door. Tony wiped his eyes in irritation and went to open it. Jarvis was on the other side. “Sir, I took the liberty of getting you more to eat, as well as some toiletries since I assume you and Master James will be spending the night here.”
Tony dropped his gaze to the proffered bag of food and another overnight bag no doubt loaded with essentials. “Thanks. I, uh, really appreciate that.” How he’d snapped at Jarvis before crept around the back of his mind for a moment before surging forward. Jarvis was always so considerate, so pragmatic, so unwavering. He hadn’t deserved Tony taking this shit situation out on him. “And, um… I’m really sorry for being so short with you before.”
Jarvis nodded. “Thank you, sir. I must say, though… Well, I realize this is not the best time, but I find I cannot remain with you.”
Tony looked through the bag of food. There were two Styrofoam containers, one smelling of garlicy pasta. It seemed unlikely those could have come from a hospital cafeteria. All the sudden he felt famished. “You mean you want to go back to the Tower? Have a decent dinner and sleep? It’s fine, J. You don’t need to stay here.”
Jarvis’ sigh seemed strange. “That is not what I meant. What I mean is…” He hesitated, and that was beyond bizarre. Jarvis had never once, not in the many, many years Tony had known him (his whole life in fact), acted this way. “I cannot in good conscience continue to serve you.”
The shock that burned over Tony was excruciating. He had to have heard wrong because that was… That couldn’t be… No. “What?”
“You are systematically and unabashedly putting your needs above those of your son,” Jarvis declared. “I thought I could convince myself that your absence at home was necessary. Extremely necessary, I said to you. But I see now that I was lying to you and lying to myself. I was complacent, fooled by my own desire to think the best of you. This experience has shown me that. At every opportunity you have kept a two year-old in a place that is traumatizing if not dangerous. You have taken this poor child to see his father, the man who cares for him day in and day out, who changes his diapers and sings him lullabies and holds him when he cries and plays with him…” Jarvis bit his lower lip, clearly watching Steve over Tony’s shoulder. He looked down, shaking his head. “You let him see his father like this. After he witnessed his father being stabbed by his favorite animal.”
Tony forgot how to breathe. “That’s not my fault,” he whispered.
“I begged you not to keep him here, but your own selfish desire to have him close overrode what a good father should do over and over again.” Jesus. There was a knife in Tony’s chest again. “I know better than anyone what this sort of abuse and… neglect does to an innocent child.” A blade, digging right between his ribs, scraping at bone and slicing into his organs. “And I will not be party to it. Not again.” The knife was twisting, cutting, ripping, yanked from him. “So goodbye, Mr. Stark.”
Jarvis turned and left, pushing through the ridiculous number of security guards Happy had outside the room before quickly striding away with nothing but certainty in his steps. Tony watched and watched, horrified, until he couldn’t anymore. His eyes burned, filling with tears all over again.
Happy had watched Jarvis leave, too. He turned and regarded Tony with confusion all over his face. “What gives, boss?”
Tony didn’t answer. He just shut the door, sealing himself in the hospital room where he could bleed out in peace.
Only the peace didn’t last.
For a while, though, it reminded him of his accident. That should have been distressing; after all, he’d nearly died, and the damage he’d done to himself had been permanent. But the accident had changed him and so much for the better. Of course, at the time it hadn’t been so pleasant. The pain. The emotional upheaval of the fact that he’d nearly killed himself with his partying and recklessness and self-destructive tendencies. The frustration of his long recovery. Still, as he looked back on it now, he did so fondly, because wrapping his Lamborghini around a tree in New Jersey had given him Steve Rogers.
And Steve Rogers had given him a new life.
Therefore, this wouldn’t be so bad. The last time he’d faced a crisis like this, something incredibly good had come from it. He’d changed the way he’d viewed the world and viewed himself from that hospital bed with the young nurse who had the most angelic eyes and gentle hands taking care of him. He’d emerged from that hellfire stronger and braver and better, sure of himself and what he wanted and needed in a way he never had been before, so this could be the same. Thinking that was enough to soothe the pain of Jarvis quitting – Jarvis quit on me! – and the pain of what Bucky had said – he hates me for what I did to Steve – and the betrayal on Pepper’s part – all I am to her: a workhorse – and Happy’s constant admonishment – I can handle this without someone watching over me! Thinking this was all part of some bigger picture made it possible to relax just a little bit. So he did that, pulling a chair up to Steve’s side where Jamey was still sleeping, and let himself be lulled by the beeping of the monitors around Steve and Steve’s soft breathing. He dozed.
Only to be woken by a toddler screaming. “Dada! Dada!”
Tony lurched in his chair. He choked on a breath, flailing forward and frantically blinking the sleepiness from his eyes. Jamey was a squirming lump on the bed, clinging to Steve’s leg, trying to climb onto him more. Panicked, Tony stood and scooped the little guy up. “Shh! Jamey, Jamey! Shh!”
Jamey wailed, struggling mindlessly. Tony held him tight, hushing him, turning him away from Steve before he could wake him (although Steve seemed pretty deeply unconscious). The shrieking filled the hotel room, as loud as painful as it ever had been. Tony just floundered, rubbing Jamey’s back, murmuring the same comforts, trying desperately to quiet him. This reminded him too much of when Jamey had had colic as a newborn, how useless he’d been at comforting him, how he’d paced the nursery rocking and swaying and bouncing just as he was now, begging the baby to stop. “Come on, buddy. You’ll wake Dada. Shhh. Shhh. It’s alright! Please, honey! It’s alright!”
“Tony?” Steve had always come to rescue him back then, waking and coming into the nursery to take over with boundless patience and understanding no matter how exhausted he’d been. Apparently he was trying to now as well, even if he was barely conscious in the hospital bed and definitely in no state to move. His voice was a slurred mumble. “Tony, why’zee cryin’?”
Jamey just howled louder, utterly inconsolable. Tony’s own control was slipping as the meltdown went on. Steve shifted weakly in the bed. “Got him, Tony,” he murmured, and Tony didn’t know if that was a statement or a question. He wasn’t even sure Steve knew were he was right now, or that this wasn’t another night of no sleep and multiple interruptions due to a screaming child. “Tony?”
Tony took a deep breath to calm himself. He knew he could handle this. He had to. He spared a hand to rub Steve’s leg, hoping that would comfort him at least, before turning to Jamey. “What is it, Jamey?” he asked, turning Jamey away even further so he couldn’t see Steve. “What is it? Tell Daddy.”
“Dada,” Jamey gasped between sobbing gulps of air.
Tony shivered through a sigh, aching so bad inside that he nearly lost his composure again. He didn’t. “He’s right here, but he’s not feeling good. What can I do, sweetheart? Tell me.”
Jamey cried and cried for a few more seconds. Tony started to worry that the hospital staff would come in and read him the riot act for the noise. There was a reason small children weren’t typically allowed in places like this. “Where Tiggy?” Jamey finally managed.
Oh, shit. Tony swallowed through a dry throat. “Do you want some juice? Some cheese puffs or a cookie? I have some.” Tony carried him to the other side of the room where he’d put the food. With one hand, he fumbled through the bags. “Milk?”
“No!” Jamey wailed. “No! Want Tiggy!”
Tony sighed, bouncing a little harder and rubbing Jamey’s back more vigorously. His mind raced yet went nowhere. All he could hear was Jarvis, condemning him for putting his needs before his child’s. “Tiggy’s not here.”
“Tiggy!” Jamey cried. He struggled mindlessly, wanting to get down and run to find his beloved toy most likely. And he wouldn’t, because Tony had thrown it away. Selfishly. Because he’d been angry and hurt and he’d wanted to take it out on something. “Tiggy! Tiggy!”
“Tony,” Steve whimpered from the bed. “Can you get Tiggy?” The way he said that… God, it sounded like a sleepy moan from their bed at home when Jamey got up in the middle of the night and he was too tired to handle it. He obviously had no idea about what was going on.
And Tony had no idea what he was going to do. He couldn’t get Tiggy. Tiggy was in the trash in the men’s room two floors down. Even if it was still there – how long had it been since he’d thrown him out? – how the hell was he going to get him? He couldn’t very well take Jamey with him; carrying a screaming kid through a hospital was going to get them thrown out for sure. And he couldn’t leave Jamey here alone with Steve, not when Steve was this hurt and out of it. Plus he didn’t want to do this. Maybe it was totally irrational, but he didn’t want that damn thing here. He didn’t want it!
“Tony,” Steve groaned again, “where’s Tiggy? He wants Tiggy.”
“Tiggy!” Jamey shrieked like a banshee. “Tiggy!”
“Alright, alright,” Tony said, peeling Jamey away from him and very firmly standing him on the end of Steve’s bed so they could almost see eye to eye. “Alright! I’ll take you to get Tiggy, but you have to quiet down, okay? I cannot take you if you don’t stop screaming!”
Surprisingly, that got through to the seemingly comfortless toddler. He stopped hollering, staring at his father with huge, teary, brown eyes, face flushed and little body shaking. Tony held his gaze a moment. “Okay? Everything’s fine, but you have to calm down.” Jamey nodded slowly. “And no more crying.” He nodded again. Tony released a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding, trying to think. “Okay. Okay.” He lifted Jamey into his arms. Jamey immediately stuck his thumb in his mouth and burrowed close to Tony’s neck. Tony dropped a hand to Steve’s leg. “Steve? I’m going to take Jamey for a bit. Okay?”
Steve didn’t answer. He was asleep again, which was equal parts upsetting and a relief. Tony watched his face, disliking the few creases of pain about his eyes and marring his forehead. Then he pulled Jamey closer and headed to the door.
It was later now, well after nightfall. One would think that would reduce the amount of commotion out in the hallway at least a little, but it hadn’t in the slightest. The second Tony opened the door, he was greeted by more than a dozen cops, hospital security guards, and Stark Industries personnel. The sheer number of them was pretty surprising and harsh considering the little cocoon in which they’d been the last couple hours. Tony tried to slip to the left towards the bank of elevators, but Happy spotted him instantly even though he seemed to be deep in conversation with those two cops from before. “Hey, boss? Boss! Boss!” Tony snuck faster, trying to find a hole in the crowd of men through which he could escape. It wasn’t happening. “Boss, stop! Where the hell are you going? Stop!”
Happy grabbed Tony’s arm and forced him to turn around. Tony stiffened, pulling Jamey closer. “Where do you think you’re going?” Happy asked, brow furrowed in confusion and irritation.
Tony sighed, mildly affronted that he couldn’t even leave for one goddamn second. “Taking Jamey somewhere. Okay?”
Happy sighed. “No, it’s not. Not right now. I need you and your son back in the hospital room.”
“What?” Tony shook his head, taking in anew the huge array of guards and police present. Coulson and Fury came closer, obviously interested in their interaction. That made Tony’s hackles rise further. “What’s going on?”
Fury glanced at Happy, like he was seeking permission to reveal something. Happy gave a little nod, and that was beyond belittling. “We’re fairly certain at this point that whoever attacked your husband has escaped the zoo.”
The second Tony heard that, his anger vanished. Fear had him frozen in place. He glanced among Happy, Fury, and Coulson, who still had his pad out (though what the hell he could be writing, Tony had no idea). “What do you mean, escaped?”
Coulson sighed. “One of the security cameras caught sight of a man in a tiger suit climbing one of the retaining walls inside the giraffe enclosures. He was gone before our officers could get to him.”
That just didn’t make sense. Tony shook his head, shocked and angry and terrified. “How the hell does that happen? Huh? Weren’t you guys supposedly all over it?”
Fury’s one eye flashed. “The zoo’s a big place,” he offered again, like that was some kind of excuse. “We did everything we could to hunt him down.”
“But the tiger escaped our snare,” said one of the other cops hanging around, and the men around him sniggered.
Tony could have screamed. “You think this is goddamn funny? My husband is lying in that room with a hole in his stomach!” The group of them paled, at least having the decency to look down.
Fury cleared his throat. “We’ve got uniforms watching the likely routes between the zoo and here. Where Mr. Rogers is being treated isn’t public knowledge, not yet, so it doesn’t seem likely he’d be able to track you, but then he did this morning. We’re not taking any chances.”
This was unacceptable and horrifying. “What about who did this? Do you know anything?”
Clearly displeased, Fury sighed. “Unfortunately, no, not yet.”
“We have everyone we can working on this,” Coulson assured evenly, like his calm voice and words meant something. “But there’s not much evidence to go on. No DNA. No weapon. And you do have a lot of enemies to sift through. It truly could be anyone, Mr. Stark. It could be multiple people working together.”
God. “Are we in danger here?”
“I highly doubt it,” Happy said. “The hospital’s as close to locked down as we can get them to make it. The chances of this one guy getting through the cops and hospital security and our own security is low, but, boss, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’d be better if you were back at the Tower.”
“Don’t,” Tony warned. He held Jamey tighter. “Don’t.” Happy frowned, clearly frustrated. Tony didn’t give a crap. He turned on his heel and tried to head down the hall again.
“Whoa, boss,” Happy said sharply, grabbing his arm and stopping him anew. “Boss, where are you going?”
“I said I’m getting something for Jamey,” Tony replied, turning and scowling outright at his head of security. “He needs his Tiggy.”
It seemed pretty unlikely that Happy would know what that was or how important it was. He looked exasperated, shaking his head. That was all he seemed capable of doing. Shaking his head. “Boss, you can’t leave right now.”
Tony was rapidly losing his patience. He could feel Jamey getting upset again, sobbing into his neck. “I’m going to get something for my son. Let me leave.”
Behind them, Fury’s face filled with irritation and utter puzzlement. He was staring at Tony like he’d sprouted an additional head or something. “There’s a madman on the loose coming after you! I think you should listen to us.”
“And I think the lot of you can just piss off,” Tony snapped. He didn’t give a crap either if that sounded petulant and stupid; he had to get what Jamey needed. “I’m just going down a couple floors, okay? It’ll be fine.”
The stern frown on Happy’s face was plenty indication of how he felt about that. “I told you: you can’t go anywhere right now. We have gone through a lot of trouble to secure the hospital and keep you and your family safe, and we can’t protect you if you’re not in a controlled space.”
“I’m not something that needs to be controlled,” Tony hissed. “You get that? I’m a husband and a father and my child needs something and I am going to get it for him, no matter what you say. It’s your goddamn job to guard us, so guard us. But I am not giving up my life or ignoring what the people I love need just because I’m being threatened.”
Happy glowered. “At least let me send a bodyguard to escort you.”
And have that guy all over him, watching everything he did? Watching him dig through the trash for his son’s toy? “I don’t need an escort. It’s just a couple floors down.”
“Boss, you’re not listening. That’s not an option. You’re not going without someone with you.”
Tony glared back. “Lay off,” he snarled.
Happy looked like he was about grab Tony again, manhandle him and force him back into Steve’s hospital room for his own good. Before he could do that or tell his men to, though, there was some kind of ruckus down the hall. Fury and Coulson and Happy all turned and tended to it, to some sort of issue about someone wanting to come up and see Steve. Said person was down in the hospital lobby, arguing with the staff and security, demanding he be let in. Tony caught the name Barnes, and he turned and ran.
With Jamey held tight in his arms, he swiftly went down the corridor. He passed people, but he didn’t dare look at them, that feeling of disquiet curdling in his stomach. He felt exposed, ridiculously so, and everything could be a threat. Paranoia had him tucking Jamey close and moving as fast as possible without sprinting. The elevator might be easier, but he rushed past it, the thought of being trapped in such a small place with strangers all around for even a few seconds too upsetting. Thus he took the stairs, bursting into the stairwell and bounding down the steps. Even here, in this empty, echoing place, he felt like someone was watching him. Like there could be danger. His heart pounded, and he kept his eyes down on his racing feet. Get Tiggy and get back. He shouldn’t have been so stupid and let Happy send someone with him. So stupid and so stubborn. Get Tiggy and get back.
He made it onto the floor where they’d been before, where he’d waited for Steve to come out of surgery. Yet again he kept his head down, walking fast, because the sooner he got there, the sooner he could get back. As he reached the bathroom, anger and frustration mixed with the relief. Just get the damn thing and get out.
The second he stepped inside, he realized he’d made a terrible mistake.
Immediately Tony froze on the other side of the door. Aldritch Killian stood there at the vanity. Apparently he’d been washing his hands, just as casual as anything, and now he was flicking his wet fingers at the stainless steel sink. The man was dressed as haphazardly as he always was, in tweed pants and a mismatched sweater over a t-shirt that said AIM. That stood for Advanced Idea Mechanics, the company he was trying to form and get Tony to be part of. He was hunched oddly as he always was, his cane next to the counter. His stringy blond hair looked unwashed, framing his unshaven face with its beady eyes and not entirely pleasant complexion. He grinned, revealing those crooked teeth, and pushed his glasses up higher on his nose. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“What the hell,” Tony breathed. A cold sweat washed over him. He turned automatically, shielding Jamey. “What’re you…”
“Well, guess it’s not so fancy,” Killian said, reaching for a paper towel. Tony backed up, watching with wide eyes and a booming heart, as the other man scrunched up the towel and tossed it towards the trashcan. That was the same trashcan where he’d left Tiggy. The paper towel hit the rim and fell to the floor. Killian took his cane and limped forward to pick it up. “I came here on purpose.”
To kill Steve and Jamey. Tony’s horrified eyes raked over the intruder, searching for signs he’d done it. Maybe he’d denied it before, but now… This was too coincidental. Still, there was no blood on Killian’s rumpled clothes, no red on his hands, no glint of a knife. Tony even frantically looked about the bathroom for signs of a tiger costume. Nothing.
“Well, I followed you to talk about the project again,” Killian declared. He bent down with a grunt to get the trash and stuffed it into the can. Then he stood in front of it like some kind of weird, lamed sentinel. He took a deeper breath. “But then I found out your husband got hurt. You know, that kind of puts a damper on things.”
Tony just shook his head, numb with shock. He gripped the back of Jamey’s head in his hand, pressing his face down. Killian noticed that subtle movement. He grinned broader. “That’s the little guy, huh.” Another step forward had Tony recoiling. He could have run back out the door, but that’d require losing a hand on Jamey to get it open, and he was too freaked to do that. He was too freaked out to do much of anything in fact. Killian smiled, trying to see Jamey’s face, completely oblivious to how Tony was hiding him. “Cute.”
“What do you want?” Tony snapped, backing up even more.
Killian shrugged quite nonchalantly, and that was about creepiest thing Tony had ever seen. “I said I wanted to talk to you about the project. About putting our great brains together for the good of all humanity. About eradicating disease and building a better world and–”
“How the hell did you find me?”
“Not that hard, Tony.” Killian grinned. “I have always been such a fan. I know where you go, what you do.” That grin turned smug and malicious and a little maniacal. “Haven’t you figured that out by now? We’re really meant to do this together.”
This couldn’t be happening. “Did you...” Tony swallowed stiffly, his mouth too dry to speak. “What did you do?”
“Nothing.” Killian seemed insulted, eyes widening and shaking his head. That smirk didn’t budge from his lips, though. “You think I had something to do with what happened? God, how could you think that?”
Tony just stared, like he could somehow glean an answer if he looked hard enough. His heart was positively racing, and he felt faint, the ache in his chest worse and worse. “I…”
“Just because I told you having a family was slowing you down? I mean, the facts are the facts. You’re a scientific genius, my friend, you and me both. We’re one in a billion. We can do things that no one else can. We’re meant to, destined to.” He clenched his fist and looked up, like he was proclaiming that to a higher being or something. It’d be comical, if Tony wasn’t scared out of his head. “That’s our gift and our curse. There’s no denying it. The more you try, the more it just makes everything harder and you crazier.”
“I’m not crazy,” Tony hissed. “You’re the bastard who won’t take no for an answer. You’re stalking me! And you… You came after Steve! You stabbed him! I know you did!”
“Actually, I did no such thing. Come on. We’re friends!” The bastard actually pouted. “It’s not my fault if someone else came to the same conclusions that I did and actually acted on them.” Tony just shook his head, trapped in his disbelief. Killian kept smiling. “And, you know, once all this is over, maybe we can sit down and talk. Really talk, Tony. Like friends. Like partners. No stupid business crap. No kids or significant others. No distractions. Just you and me and all of our amazing, incredible, extraordinary ideas flowing.” Killian reached for him like he wanted to offer a friendly hug or a pat on the shoulder or something. “Doesn’t that sound super awesome?”
Tony clenched Jamey tighter and lurched away, moving along the counter to avoid him. “Get the hell away from me!”
Killian’s face tightened into a scowl. “Really? Really? For a genius, Tony, you can be pretty damn stupid sometimes. You’re always telling me how wrong my ideas are and that they’re not ‘safe’–” He air-quoted that. “–or ‘financially sound’ or ‘cruel’, even. What’s cruel about the pursuit of science? Anyway, you’re always judging my mind. For once how about you listen to me judging yours. Friends can be blunt with friends. So here it is.” He grabbed his cane and limped closer, eyes dark and intense. Tony shivered and backed up even more. “You’re an inventor, right? One of the best ever. You can make some of the most outstanding, unbelievable, inconceivable things. You’re a legend, born from another legend, the heir to the ultimate scientific legacy, but you just don’t get it. This… domestic life you invented for yourself, with the looker husband and the precocious kid and all this sugary garbage… It doesn’t work. It’s fundamentally flawed. You know why?”
Tony was so terrified that he actually shook his head. “Because you’re not a family man, and you never will be, and if they have to die to show you that, well…” Killian sneered. “Then that’s the cost of greatness.”
It was silent. Tony couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. He could hardly breathe. Jamey whimpered against him. “Daddy…” Vaguely Tony realized he was squeezing him too tightly, but he couldn’t make himself let up. He felt squeezed himself. Like the bright, fluorescent lights of the bathroom were even harsher, and the tiles were pushing up against his feet as the gray walls closed in, like he was being crushed. Constricted.
Killian’s cane thunked on the floor like thunder, and Tony jerked, pressing back onto the counter. The edge of it cut into his lower back. There was nowhere left he could run. “But it’ll be okay, Tony. Like I said, when this is all over, we can hang out. I’ll help you get through it.” He grinned again, putting a hand on Tony’s shoulder. Tony pulled away, turning to hide Jamey. His skin was absolutely crawling, and he clenched his eyes shut. “What are friends for?”
Tony kept stock still until the awful touch was gone, until Killian sighed in disappointment, until there was a swish of clothes and the thunk thunk thunk of the other man limping away. Until the door opened and then shut. Another couple seconds passed before he managed to breathe and open his eyes. He was alone in the bathroom. Jamey was crying into his neck. “Shhh,” Tony whispered, rubbing his little guy’s back again. “Shhh, honey.”
“Who was he?” Jamey mumbled.
Tony shivered, peeling Jamey off of him for the first time in what felt like forever and setting him to the counter to look at him. Nothing had happened to him of course; nothing could have. Still Tony frantically checked him over before wiping away the fat tears rolling down his cheeks. His little eyes were so red from crying and so afraid. “No one,” Tony promised. He pet the mess of brown curls, smoothing it. “Just someone Daddy knows from work.”
Jamey was so smart, so perceptive. “He hurt Dada?”
And Tony was shitty liar. He used to be so much better at it. “I don’t know,” he gasped. “I just don’t know.”
Jamey’s eyes filled with tears. Tony had to get him out of here. Back to the safety of Stark Industries Security. Back to Steve. He picked their son back up and tugged him close. Jamey hugged him tightly. “It’s alright,” Tony promised, forcing himself to sound calmer and more certain. “It’s alright, okay? Let’s go back to Dada. He’s probably missing us.” Tony went to leave, heart pounding. He was even more confused than he had been. What the hell was going on? He truly didn’t know if Killian had hurt Steve or had had anything to do with it. He sure as shit wasn’t going to vouch for the guy anymore. He had to get to Happy, tell the cops, do something–
But Jamey stopped him first. “Tiggy, Daddy!”
Right. The whole reason he’d come here. Tony set Jamey to the floor before rushing to the trashcan. He practically kicked it over, frantic as he ripped the top off and pulled the trash out. Papers towels and a couple papers and – ugh – something sticky. Behind him, Jamey stood with his arms around himself. “Why Tiggy in the garbage?”
Tony went down on his knees to dig more. “I, uh… wanted him to be safe. So I told him to hide here for now.”
“In the garbage?”
Tony looked over his shoulder at his son. He felt sweat all over his face, and he was breathing hard, and he probably looked crazy, but he broke out in a huge, goofy smile. “Yeah! I mean, who thinks to look in the garbage? Nobody! Because it’s silly.” Jamey smiled a little. Tony grinned broadly. “So it’s fine. Let’s just find him and get going back to Dada.”
That got Jamey smiling again, and Tony rushed to his task. It was downright shocking how much freaking trash was in this can. His bag and clothes from before were easy to spot, though. He stuffed the dried, bloody mess into the bag before Jamey could see it and kept digging. A couple more seconds passed, fruitless seconds, before Tony really started to worry. That worry turned to fear almost immediately thereafter. He couldn’t find Tiggy. Tony distinctly remembered throwing him in, pushing him down under the bloody clothes and the bag, probably all the way to the bottom…
But Tiggy wasn’t there.
Tony’s hands shook as he pushed the trash around more and more frenetically. His heart was booming all over again, that disgusting, chilly perspiration spreading, the tight feeling of pain in his chest getting worse and worse. “Where is it?” he whispered, panicked. Paper went flying. The bag he’d just filled with the clothes was opened again and dumped out. He stood, moving things with his sneakers, hunting and hunting. He even upturned the trashcan again, shaking it in case the stuffed animal was somehow stuck inside. It wasn’t. It simply wasn’t to be found.
Horrified, Tony stood above the mess and panted. What the hell? This just didn’t seem possible. He was certain he’d stuffed Tiggy in that trashcan! Granted hours had passed, but who in the world would come in here and dig in the garbage for a child’s rundown, blood-stained toy? Who even knew he’d done it? How?
Suddenly there was a creak behind him, like a door squeaking on its hinges, and what sounded like a low chuckle. Tony gasped, twisting around, but there was nothing there. They were alone. Just looking wasn’t enough to quiet his panic, though, so he rushed over, rapidly and noisily checking each stall. Nothing. No one. He stood at the last one, shaking, barely breathing. Slowly he turned and looked at the mirror.
There was only his reflection, nothing else.
And his reflection winked at him.
Tony choked on his breath. He ran, barely slowing down to pick up his son. Jamey screeched as Tony raced out into the hallway. Tony turned sharply, sprinting back down to the staircase. Ripping the door open, he bounded up the steps, taking them two at a time to get back to Steve’s floor. He was beyond terrified, and this was crazy, but something was after him, and keeping a tight hold on Jamey while running like a madman was all he could think to do. He didn’t know what it was he’d heard or seen. He didn’t know what the hell had just happened. All he knew was he felt like something was trapping him, like these walls were collapsing too, like the world was simply imploding. Everything was falling apart.
He needed Steve.
He ran out of the stairwell with a gasp, pivoting and looking around. There was nothing. That awful feeling of being pursued quieted when he saw that, but he didn’t stop much longer, walking rapidly down the corridor. It took him a few seconds before he realized no one was around. It was nighttime, sure, but that seemed odd. And ahead the are where Steve’s room was… A lot of the lights were off or dimmed. That wasn’t how it had been when he’d left minutes ago. Again, it was late now, and maybe patients were sleeping, but this was a huge, busy hospital, and especially with this situation, that seemed…
Tony stopped dead in his tracks where the lights in the hallway ended. It was dark, and no one was around. Not the flock of Stark Industries Security. Not Fury or Coulson or the NYPD. Not the hospital guards. Not even hospital staff. The nurse’s station was completely empty, and it didn’t look like anyone had been there. The computers were dark. There were no coats or files left open or cups of coffee on the desks. It was like nobody had ever worked there, and considering the throng of people who’d been there just minutes before, that was horrifically disturbing.
Where the hell was everyone?
He couldn’t answer that. He couldn’t even think. He just stood there, frantically scanning the upsetting scene, reeling in the deep silence. This didn’t seem possible. It wasn’t right. Shock held him captive for what felt like forever, until his brain finally got into gear and came to the one and only inevitable realization: Steve wasn’t being protected.
Tony sucked in a horrified breath, moving without thinking as he ran into the empty area. It was like a goddamn tomb, dark and cold and eerily empty. Even the other rooms spread around the ward were vacant, and that couldn’t be correct. Hadn’t there been patients there before? That only made the sick sense of fear worse, because something very wrong was happening here. Maybe Steve wasn’t alone at all. Maybe someone had taken him, too. Maybe–
He burst into Steve’s room to find him fast asleep in the hospital bed, just as he’d left him. Tony gave a sob, rushing forward. He set Jamey on the bed and reached for Steve’s hand, needing to touch him and feel him and know he was safe. He collapsed to his knees, lifting Steve’s hand to his mouth and kissing it frantically, nearly dissolving in relief. He’s safe.
Behind them, there was a clank. Then the lights went out completely, even the dim lights in Steve’s room and the few others back around the nurse’s station. Emergency illumination came on, spilling red everywhere. Tony’s breath locked in his throat, and he stood again, looking around wildly. He fumbled for Jamey, pulling him close again. “Daddy,” Jamey squeaked.
“Shhh.” It took a second for Tony’s eyes to adjust, a second he spent shaking in fear. Another clank, distant and heavy, shook through him. He peeled his son off and set him to Steve’s bed. “Stay with Dada,” he whispered. Jamey shook his head, obviously terrified. “Stay! It’s fine, okay? Daddy just needs to check something…” Jamey clutched at him. Whatever meager bravery that had been keeping him calm through all this seemed about ready to snap. Tony forced a feeble smile, loosening tiny fists from his shirt and planting the toddler closer to Steve. “It’s okay. Just gotta check something! Just gotta…” He rushed to the door.
Outside it was silent. There was still no one present. With the lights completely dead and only the crimson hue of the emergency system bathing everything in blood, the motionless scene was grotesque and horrifying, like a shot from sort of splatter movie or psychological thriller. That was so stupid but true, and Tony swallowed through a dry throat, barely breathing, eyes darting everywhere. This was all wrong. This is wrong.
There was another clank, this one even louder and closer.
He didn’t spare another thought. Barrelling back into the room, he stumbled toward the bed. “Steve,” he gasped, reaching for his husband’s pale face. He patted it, gently at first but then harder. “Steve, wake up. Wake up!” Steve didn’t move, eyes still closed, though a hint of a wince crossed over his expression. Had Tony not been terribly panicked, he would have felt terrible for causing Steve even the slightest hint of pain. And this was going to get so much worse. “Come on, baby, please. Wake up!”
Steve moaned. Still, his eyes remained shut, though more clenched now. Tony panicked, shaking him by the shoulders more vigorously. “Steve! Come on! Come on!”
It was Jamey who finally got through to him, though it wasn’t clear if that was because he was crying (Tony couldn’t even tell which of them he was crying for he was so upset) or because he jabbed his knee into Steve’s wound climbing on him. It didn’t matter. Steve cried out and weakly rolled to the side, and after he got through the pain, he blinked blearily and focused on Tony. “Tony?”
“We have to go,” Tony gasped. He jabbed a thumb into the bed’s control panel, inclining it as much as possible, before pulling the blanket aside. “He’s coming.”
Steve sobbed, in too much pain and too weak to resist as Tony helped him sit up. Tony could feel him shaking. “Who?” Steve whimpered. “Who?”
The tiger. It was ridiculous, but it was absolutely true. “Whoever’s after me,” Tony said. He took the blanket and wrapped it around Steve’s slumped shoulders. Steve was breathing hard through clenched teeth, eyes glazed in agony. Tony crouched before him, trying to keep him upright and steady, trying to think. Everyone here to take care of them and protect them was gone. Happy and the cops. All the hospital staff. Did that mean they were all in this? Some sort of massive conspiracy to get at him? What the hell kind of altered reality was this?
Tony couldn’t even manage to consider it. All he knew was he had to get Steve and Jamey out of the hospital, and Steve was so hurt... “I need you to walk,” Tony murmured, rubbing his husband’s thighs through the flimsy hospital gown covering him. “We have to get out of here. Steve?”
Steve was quaking much more violently now. “Can’t,” he slurred. His eyes slipped shut. “Go without me.”
No chance in hell that was happening. Tony stood, glancing around wildly until he found a cart full of hospital supplies. He reached over and yanked it closer. Then he set to pulling the IVs out and getting the sensors off. He didn’t really know what he was doing, but they couldn’t go with Steve still tethered to all this stuff. He pressed some sterile pads he found to the bleeding holes in Steve’s arms once he removed the needles. He couldn’t find band-aids – what the hell kind of hospital didn’t have band-aids? – so he wrapped up the pads with gauze and tapped it. It wasn’t going to stay, but there was nothing else he could do. He grabbed a bunch more pads and bandages. “Jamey? Jamey, buddy, go get the bag. Over there.”
Jamey shook his head, clinging to Steve’s side. Tony sighed, glancing between the pile of their stuff that had been set to the chair earlier and their son. He was pretty sure if he left Steve alone Steve would just topple over, and he couldn’t reach what they needed. “Jamey, please. Daddy needs the bag.”
Still Jamey refused, burrowing in between Steve’s arm and his side. Steve gathered himself for a second before murmuring, “Do what Daddy says, James.”
That got Jamey moving. He peeked out from beneath Steve’s bicep only to be met with Tony’s firm stare. Then he slid down and went over to the chair. Steve slumped forward into Tony’s chest in the seconds that passed. Tony wrapped his arms around him and took just a moment to rub a hand up and down his shuddering back, shutting his eyes and trying to be strong, whispering that everything was going to be okay. This was going to be okay. He could do this. Then he turned to find Jamey bringing back the bag Steve had bought at the zoo today. Of course it had to be the bag with the tiger on it.
But Tony just pushed Steve back slightly in order to reach down and lift Jamey back onto the hospital bed. “Good job, big guy,” he breathlessly praised, leaning down to kiss Jamey’s head while he opened the bag. Sloppily he stuffed the bandages in there. “Just gotta pack, huh? Then we’ll go.”
“Where’re we going, Daddy?” Jamey asked in a tiny voice.
“Home,” Tony replied simply. “Right now.”
Against him, Steve shook his head. “Can’t,” he whimpered.
“Yes, you can,” Tony promised. Another loud clank echoed in the hallway outside, this one closer still, and Tony knew it was coming. Whoever it was, whatever it was… It was coming. Tony tried to not to let his terror show. “You can, love. Remember? I can do this all day, and so can you.”
Steve grunted a strained laugh. Tony shouldered the bag and looked at Jamey. “Sweetheart, I need you to be the biggest boy, okay? In order to get home, we have to walk fast, okay, and Daddy has to help Dada, so you need to hold my hand and walk on the floor.” Jamey wasn’t at all pleased with that. He started crying. “No, come on, honey. I can’t carry you. Come on.”
With Tony’s help, Steve slipped off the bed. The second his bare feet touched the tiled floor, his knees buckled, and he nearly went down like a ton of bricks. Tony barely caught him in time. Steve jabbed his teeth into his lower lip in an attempt to stifle his cry for their son’s sake, but it was obvious and terrible. He was weeping, bent with pain, and Tony could barely keep him upright. “Leave me,” Steve whimpered, clutching Tony’s shirt for support and dropped his head to Tony’s shoulder. “Go. Take care of Jamey.”
Still no chance in hell. “Come on,” Tony gasped. He got to Steve’s side, slinging the stupid bag on before lifting Steve’s right arm over his shoulder. This time Steve couldn’t restrain his moan as the wound was stretched, and he wrapped his other arm protectively around his midsection. “Sorry, love. Sorry. Gotta go. Gotta go now. Jamey, come on.” Jamey didn’t budge from the bed. Tony held out his hand. “Come on. We have to go.” Jamey still didn’t move, shaking his head. Tony’s desperation nearly spiraled out of control. “Come on!”
“James,” Steve gasped, head hanging down. He was nearly limp, maybe even flirting with unconsciousness. “Take your father’s hand.”
Obediently, Jamey slid off the bed and put his hand in Tony’s. Tony ached inside; couldn’t he do anything right? “Gonna get you out of here,” he whispered in answer to that question. “Gonna get you home. Nothing’s going to hurt you guys again.” With Steve firm against him and Jamey’s hand tight in his own, he led them to the door.
Outside there was still nothing and no one. Tony paused there, Steve wheezing and Jamey weeping quietly, and listened. No clanking. No sound of anyone coming. “Come on.” He held Steve up even firmer as he led them into the hallway. Steve groaned, stumbling, but he kept his feet beneath him as Tony pulled his family out towards the nurse’s station. He paused there, trying to think of what to do. They couldn’t make it back to the stairs, not with Steve like this. The elevator was the only option.
But as he spent a second there, he realized he was being a stupid moron. He let go of Jamey’s hand to fish in his jeans pocket for Steve’s phone. He could call for help. He could call the police or Jarvis or Pepper or even Bucky or anyone. He could–
No. He stared at Steve’s phone in horror, at the tiny red light blinking in the upper righthand corner. Out of battery. “Shit,” he breathed. Had it been low before? He couldn’t remember!
“Daddy?” Jamey whimpered.
“Hold on.” He leaned Steve into the tall counter of the nurse’s station, praying he could grab that and stay upright. Stuffing the phone back into his pocket, he raced around to the phones and computers on the desk on the other side. Lifting the closest handset, his blood went cold when he heard no dial tone. It was dead. Frenzied, he tried another one. And a third one. None of them were working. The computers were all off as well. Tony stood there, shocked. He didn’t know why he felt that way. All the power was well and truly out, so the computers being this way made sense, maybe the phones too.
But why was there no power?
The tiger’s coming to get me.
“We have to go,” Tony declared, scrambling back around to the front to collect Steve and Jamey. Steve choked out a harsh sob, staggering against him as Tony tried to get him moving again. Tony noted with horror that there was blood seeping through the hospital gown at his stomach. Had he torn his stitches? Would that be surprising? He’d had surgery just a couple hours ago! He should be sleeping! “Stay with me, sweetheart.” Tony’s voice broke in dismay as Steve slumped. “Come on.”
“Jamey,” Steve whimpered.
“Got him here, love. You just focus on staying with me. Come on, Jamey.”
With Steve barely walking and Jamey’s hand back in his, Tony led them down the hospital’s hallway. The polished tiles seemed glassy in the paltry light, and shadows hung over everything. Tony couldn’t catch his breath, glancing everywhere. He was the only one capable of looking out for them, so he was doing just that, checking every hospital room they passed. A cursory scan wasn’t much, but it was all he could manage. There was still no one anywhere. No patients. No doctors. No families. Nothing about this made a lick of sense. The level of conspiracy required to get rid of everyone to get him alone… Could all these people be in on this? Helpless terror churned in his gut, and sweat stung in his eyes. Just get to the elevator. Get them out. It’s going to be fine. Just get there.
Finally they turned the corner that led to the bank of elevators. Tony paused there, breathing hard with exertion of basically bearing all of Steve’s weight (and Steve was a big guy). Jamey hid behind his legs, probably traumatized beyond speaking. The lights were a little brighter down by the elevators, a few of the overhead fixtures on. Did that mean the elevators had power? He hadn’t even considered the possibility of them not working. “Come on,” he whispered, hauling Steve up against him. “Come on.”
They limped and struggled down the hallway. It seemed to stretch long before Tony’s eyes, again like this was a scene out of some wacky horror movie, and no matter how fast he tried to move, he couldn’t seem to close the distance. Which was, of course, nonsense. They were getting closer, but it was taking forever. “Come on, Steve.”
Steve choked on his breath and staggered. He went down hard, suddenly slipping from Tony’s grip and crashing to his knees with a rough thud that sounded painful. Tony ripped around, stumbling back to his husband. They were only a few feet away now, so this was maddening. “Steve,” he gasped, letting go of Jamey to take Steve’s shoulders. “Come on. You gotta get up!”
“Can’t,” Steve gritted out, arm around his belly and shaking even worse. He was still on his knees, but he was leaning heavily to one side like he was collapsing. “Take – take Jamey out. Go.”
“I’m not leaving you,” Tony hissed. He took Steve’s arm and lifted him, but he was tired and Steve was heavy. “James, go push the button for the elevator.” Jamey just stared, so scared at seeing his fathers like this. “Go, sweetheart, please.”
That got Jamey running. He went as fast as his little body would take him to the elevator. He didn’t quite reach the button, so he was leaning up on his tip-toes when Tony turned back to Steve. “I’m not leaving you. Hear me, Steve? I’m not.”
“Make sure Jamey’s safe,” Steve ground out. “Just protect him!”
“I will,” Tony promised in a strained voice, pulling his husband’s arm over his shoulders and hefting his form from the floor. He shook with the effort, but he succeeded in getting Steve standing again. Steve cried. “But I’m protecting you, too. So stay with me.”
“Daddy!” Jamey cried.
Tony turned and blinked through sweat to see the light on the DOWN button light up. The elevator was working. It’s working. He could have screamed in relief. Jamey was jiggling there, crying softly as he did. “Hold on, honey,” Tony called, voice cracking in gratitude. “We’re coming!” He moved faster, dragging Steve with him. Steve seemed hardly capable of walking, but he was trying, tripping over his own feet as much as he was successfully taking steps. Tony tightened his grip and kept going. “Come on, love. We’re almost there.” The elevator dinged. “Here it is.” The doors opened. “Almost – Jamey, come to me now!”
Jamey didn’t do that, but it didn’t matter too much. The monster emerging from the elevator – the attacker in the blood-stained tiger suit with the knife raised and black eyes somehow filled with malice – stalked right past him. The little boy wailed, and Tony screamed, and the tiger leapt at them. The person in the suit collided with Steve and Tony, and they all went down.
To anyone watching this, it probably looked ridiculous, two men grappling with someone wearing a damn tiger costume. There wasn’t anything even remotely funny about it, though. Tony gasped, twisting and trying to free himself from the tangled mess of bodies. He barely did, mostly because the tiger – the freaking tiger – was on top of Steve, trying to crush him. Steve was prone, choking on his own breath and feebly struggling. The tiger sat on his legs before lifting the knife with the clear intention of driving it into Steve’s back, bare and heaving where the hospital gown was open.
“No!” Tony shouted. He caught the tiger’s arm as it thrust the blade down. The tiger was surprisingly strong, and Tony didn’t have the best leverage. And Jamey. Jamey! “Jamey, run!” Tony hollered, pushing up with all his strength. The tiger snarled and shoved down harder, and the knife quivered as they battled for dominance. God, this guy seemed evenly matched with him. “Jamey!” Tony’s scream was twisted with terror and panic. “Run and hide!”
Out of the corner of his eye, Tony saw his son still standing near the elevator. He was sitting, curled into a small ball of baby fat and tiny limbs, and crying. The tiger twisted and spotted him, which was damn horrifying, but it gave Tony the chance to strike. He shoved back on the knife, getting it away from Steve’s back, and then punched the tiger across the face. The tiger roared and fell to the side, freeing Steve.
But the reprieve didn’t last more than a second before their attacker scrambled toward their son, still clutching the knife. Tony lurched forward, snatching the tiger’s goddamn striped tail of all things. It felt like fake fur, falsely velveteen, with some sort of wire structure inside to maintain its shape. He held tight, and the bastard couldn’t reach Jamey. “James, run! Right now! Go!”
Jamey finally obeyed, his father’s commanding voice tearing him from the wall and sending him running down the hallway. The tiger lunged at him, but Tony yanked him back. Not just Tony. Steve had his hands in the costume, pulling too. His face was pale and waxy with sweat, and his eyes were loaded with pain and terror, but he was fighting with all his might. Together the two of them hauled the tiger back and kept it from stabbing at Jamey as he ran by. The costume ripped, but it didn’t give. “Hide!” Tony ordered. “Hide!”
It was terrifying, but Jamey disappeared into the shadows back down the hallway, back into where they’d come. Tony watched until he couldn’t see him anymore, until the tiger was rounding on them again.
And attacking Steve with renewed fervor.
Steve cried out. The tiger yanked away from his fingers all too easily, breaking his meager hold before stabbing at him. It was pure dumb luck the strike missed, the bloody knife jabbing into the tile floor between Steve’s legs. Steve’s eyes were wide with horror, and he squirmed, trying to get away. There was blood on him, and Tony couldn’t tell if that was new or from him tearing his stitches more. It didn’t matter. “Get off him!” he screamed, throwing himself onto the tiger. “Get off!”
Again the tiger roared, a cry that seemed inhuman for how furious it was, and elbowed Tony in the face. Pain exploded along Tony’s nose, and he ended up flat on his back from the force of the blow, staring up into the shadows. He tasted blood where his teeth had gashed his tongue. For a second that was all his mind could handle, that and the pain and shock of his head smacking into the floor.
It was a costly second.
Steve’s scream ripped him from his haze. Tony rolled over and choked, scrambling forward in a panic. The tiger was on Steve again, crushing him to the floor beneath its sizeable form, and the knife was held high. It glinted in the dim light, dripping fresh red. Terrified beyond thought, Tony yowled, tackling the bastard. It didn’t do much good. The tiger was knocked to the side, but he seemed to anticipate Tony’s efforts, countering a few punches before getting to his feet and ramming Tony head on. Tony lost his balance, sliding back helplessly. His back impacting the wall knocked the wind right out of him, an immovable weight crushing him, and he saw the knife – the knife! – winking more in the light. The tiger had pinned him. He wasn’t getting free. His attacker had him exactly where he wanted him. Oh, God! He was going to die.
But the tiger didn’t stab him. He just socked him right in the stomach and let him fall. Tony had no air in his lungs to cry out as he doubled over and slumped to the tiles. He blinked, trying to clear tears and focus his vision. He tried to move too, but nothing seemed to work, not his hands or his arms or his legs, not even his lungs. Not even his brain. All he could do was watch. No. The tiger was stalking right over to Steve again, its perpetually smiling face hideous and hateful as it did. Steve had been crawling away, sliding himself forward on his hands and knees. He wasn’t well enough to move, not really, not quickly enough. No. The tiger reached down and grabbed his hair. It seemed to happen in slow motion. No, no, no. It dragged him upward, and Steve sobbed loudly, and there was nothing he could do – nothing Tony could do – as the tiger stabbed the knife into his back.
Steve screamed again, arching against the tiger’s lower half. Hurting him like this wasn’t enough, though. No, the monster pulled the knife free with a squelch, and yanked his head back by its grip on his hair to expose his neck. Tony’s blood turned to ice, and he pulled himself up, but it was too late. It was too late.
“No, don’t! Steve!”
The tiger slit Steve’s throat.
And then it dumped him on the floor like he was nothing. Steve fell, and he didn’t move. The monster turned, staring at Tony, and it wasn’t possible – it's not goddamn possible! – but Tony could have sworn it smirked at him, that it winked at him. Then it just walked away, knife still in its hand, heading back down the hallway to where Jamey had run.
For what felt like forever, nothing happened. Everything had been so fast, occurring a split second, and now time seemed infinite and grotesquely stretched. Tony just stayed there on his knees. His body tingled with horror, his mind lost still, and nothing felt real.
But it was real.
Steve gurgled and choked. Weakly he tried to move, to turn over, and that was what finally broke Tony’s stasis. He clambered over, sobbing in threatening hysteria. Steve’s back was to him, the blood spilling nearly black in the paltry light. Tony crawled around to his front. “Oh, God,” he whimpered. “No!”
Steve was still alive, but the damage to his throat was extensive, a deep slice that had cut into vital things if the amount of blood was any indication. He was barely wheezing through lips going blue, his teeth stained red and thick crimson slipping from the corner of his mouth as he tried in vain to drain his own airway. Tony snapped out of his horror, reaching behind him for that stupid tiger bag and all the bandages he’d stuffed into it. “Hold on,” he begged, pulling out a couple pads. “Hold on!”
A bloody, panicked gasp was Steve’s only answer. Tony pressed the bandages to Steve’s throat to try to stem the flow. He pressed as hard as he dared, as hard as he could manage with his hands shaking and his heart dying inside him and panic turning everything excruciating. “You’re gonna be okay,” he promised, watching Steve struggling to breathe with teary eyes. “It’s going to be okay! Help! Somebody help me!” He tore his gaze away, glancing around frantically. This was a goddamn hospital! Where was everyone? “Somebody help me, please!”
Steve’s bloody hand grabbed onto Tony’s shirt, pulling him closer with what had to be the last of his strength. His blue eyes were wide, filled with pain and fear and love. Those things were bright and vibrant, but the shadows were there, and they were coming quickly. “Don’t leave me,” Tony begged. He pressed harder, warm stickiness coating his fingers. It wasn’t doing any good. He felt heat at his knees and glanced down to see a puddle of blood spreading under Steve, probably from his back. No. He wasn’t giving up. He wouldn’t! “Come on, Steve, please. I can’t do this without you! I can’t do anything without you. Please don’t leave me! Please!”
Steve could barely speak. His lips moved, and his voice was hardly anything. Yet what he was saying was so him. Even like this, he was Tony’s strength. “Can,” he whispered. He lifted a bloody hand and took Tony’s where he was trying to stop the bleeding. That he held, and there was still strength in his fingers, in his touch. He held Tony’s gaze, and there was still so much faith there, so much love. Those angelic blue eyes. Lips quirked into a faint smile. “You can.” Then the light faded, and his eyes closed, and he slumped to the floor.
Tony didn’t move for a long moment, just staring at Steve’s body in shock. “Steve?” he whispered. He swallowed down his breaking heart and leaned closer to his husband’s bloody, pale face. “Steve? Steve, please. Please wake up.” Steve didn’t. He didn’t do anything. Steve didn’t move. He didn’t speak, and he didn’t stir. “Steve, please. Please, baby. Please wake up. I can’t…”
You can. You can do anything.
Tony lifted Steve’s hand and kissed it before laying it over his still chest. He kissed his forehead, his cheek, his slack lips. Then he hauled in a deep breath. He grabbed the bag and slung it back over his shoulder before staggering to his feet. He had to get Jamey. Find Jamey. Get him out and take him home. “I can,” Tony promised. “I will!”
Blinking away tears, he turned and ran back down the hall. He kept his steps light and quiet, despite how much everything hurt and the booming of his pulse in his ears. Ahead the nurse’s station was still quiet. The rooms all remained empty, just as they’d been minutes before. Tony checked each one. “Jamey?” he whispered, trying not to be any louder than that. The tiger was down here somewhere. How a man in a freaking ridiculous costume could be stealthy, Tony didn’t know. How that bastard could have done any of this, he didn’t know. All he was certain of was that he was being hunted, and even the slightest sound was too much. “Jamey! Jamey, it’s Daddy!”
There was no answer. Tony stood in the doorway of one of the hospital rooms, frantically scanning the empty bed and dark equipment and vacant furniture. He couldn’t help but remember the times he and Jamey had played hide-and-go-seek before. Even at this tender age, Jamey had been awfully good at concealing himself. He’d been hardly capable of walking, and he’d managed to find the smallest nooks around their penthouse. Tony had always found him, though.
And he’d find him now.
“James!” he hissed, checking another room before slipping down the hallway back to the nurses’ station. “Jamey, where are you?” He looked around again, over and over, darting his gaze to every shadow and shape. There was no sign of Jamey. Tony shook his head, panic twisting his innards even tighter. That constriction came again, like he was being suffocated, suffocated with a damn knife in his chest that was being drilled in deeper and deeper as the invisible coils around him tightened. “Jamey–”
Out of the corner of his eye he saw something move. He gasped, turned, and stepped closer to the nurses’ station. If that motion hadn’t been some sort of apparition, it had definitely been too large to be a two year-old. That monster was here. Of course. And it was hunting, searching. It had killed Steve, and now it was after Jamey. He had to get to Jamey before it did. He had to stop this from going any further. He’d been stupid, wrong, so terribly myopic and self-centered that he’d missed the truth entirely. Killian had said it, but it hadn’t sunk in. This bastard wasn’t trying to use his family to get to him.
Whoever it was wanted to remove his family entirely.
He wasn’t going to let that happen. With a burst of bravery, he darted around the nurses’ station to check the places behind it. Under the desk. Behind the cabinets. Any place small enough to hide a toddler. “Jamey, come to me now. I’m here! I’ve got you.” Quietly he pushed the rolling chairs aside, crawling deeper beneath the huge counter to its darker corners. “Jamey?”
There was no sign of Jamey, nothing but dust, cords, and shadows. In the silence as Tony strained to listen, he heard footsteps. He froze, terrified. The footsteps were getting closer and closer, a soft swish of cloth mixed in, and then a growl. That same inhuman, predatory growl. Tony didn’t dare move or even breathe. The goddamn tiger was right there on the other side of the counter. He knew it. He could feel it. And when he heard that knife scratching – shrieking – across the counter top…
It was toying with him.
Tony squeezed his eyes shut and stayed perfectly still. He didn’t know if the asshole was trying to lure him out or frighten him into submission or what. He clenched his muscles to keep from shaking so hard and forced himself to be calm, using his anger to steel himself. And he waited. The sound of the knife trailing over the surface just above him was shrill and loud. Keeping motionless through it was almost impossible.
But he did it. A few moments later, the knife being dragged across the counter went silent, and the footsteps faded as the predator quietly headed off in the other direction. Despite the panic pulsing through him and the consuming need to find his son, Tony waited a few seconds longer until it was totally silent again save for the thundering of his heart. He chanced a deeper breath before quietly crawling out from beneath the counter and peeking over its top.
There was nothing there of course, aside from a slice in the laminate desktop. Blood lined the gouge. Steve’s, most likely. It couldn’t be Jamey’s. It couldn’t be! Tony forced down another dry swallow, trying not to be sick. Then he crept away from behind the nurses’ station. He had to find Jamey. He had to now and get him out. He didn’t dare call out anymore, not with the tiger prowling around the area. He couldn’t risk the bastard finding him or drawing Jamey out in the open. The best thing was to search himself.
And he should probably start with the room Steve had been in. Thus he crept back that way, fleet and keeping to the shadows as much as he could. It didn’t feel good in the slightest to be back where they started and back without Jamey, without Steve. God. He got so dizzy with panic that he lost his bearings for a moment. Which room was Steve’s? He turned around and around, completely disoriented. They all looked the same, a circle of similarity, and he couldn’t… It was just a blur, and again it stretched and stretched, and he didn’t know which was the right one, where Jamey might be. He didn’t know–
There. The name on the panel beside the door. “Doe, J.” Heaving a relieved sob, he rushed there. Bingo. The room looked exactly as they’d left it, with the rumpled bed and the mess of the cart and all their remaining stuff. Tony stood in the door, panting and looking around wildly. “Jamey?” he whispered, praying his son would answer him. There was nothing, though, and the silence felt damning. Tony ran inside, picking up the blanket that had fallen from Steve’s shoulders somewhere during the trek from the bed to the door. Of course Jamey couldn’t have been under that, but he looked. And he checked under the bed and over by the dark medical equipment and in the bathroom and near the chairs. Frantically he tore the room apart. “Jamey?”
A low laugh resounded, a chilling, wicked chuckle. Tony lifted his head, frozen in horror. That had come from outside. He crept back to the door and looked into the nurses’ area. Everything appeared the same. This is insane. Tony shivered, taking a slow step out. This is a nightmare. It’s insane. Wake up wake up wake up–
To the left another big shadow shifted. Gasping anew, Tony twisted, but the shadow was gone. Again. He was frozen in place, and he just stared. He had no idea what to do. How the hell could he win this horrific cat and mouse game? Slowly he crept back out into the central area, trying to look everywhere at once. He made his way around the nurses’ station toward where he’d seen the shadow, bending over and keeping low, glancing into the rooms as he passed. Please, let Jamey be okay. Let me find him. Please!
Tony froze again, heart lurching, chest locked in a spasm. Christ, that… that sounded like him. But that couldn’t be. He hadn’t…
“James, it’s Daddy,” the voice sing-songed.
No, no, no. Tony shook his head in shocked denial. This couldn’t be! This was wrong! “James, it’s okay now. Come on.” Tony clapped a hand over his mouth, terrified he was somehow talking and not realizing it, that he was calling to Jamey and too out of it to stop. It wasn’t him, though. He’s got my voice! He recorded me! Had he ever said anything like this before? Could Killian have gotten a hold of it? Could–
“Look what I have, James.”
Tony stopped. He stayed still a moment before peeking around the corner of the nurses’ station. “No,” he whispered.
Right there, right on the floor in the center where the hallway met the ward, was Tiggy. The little stuffed animal was sitting on the tile, like it was waiting. Like bait. Tony could see from here that the loose eye was gone completely, and there was more blood on it, but there it was.
“Here’s Tiggy, James. I promised you I’d find him, right?” How could it know that? “So come get him.”
Nothing moved. The eerie stillness seemed unbreakable, going on and on. But it wasn’t endless. And Tony could only watch as a little shadow shifted in one of the patient rooms on the other side of the nurses’ station. As a tiny body stepped out of the door and toddled forward. As Jamey emerged from his hiding spot, lured by his father calling and the promise of his lost toy. And while Tony’s heart leapt in relief at seeing his son safe…
He felt more than saw the big shadow move. The tiger emerged from its own hiding place. It was to the left somewhere; Tony didn’t care where. He was already running, charging forward, throwing himself bodily into the tiger. The collision was brutal, and the momentum had them colliding with the wall. Tony was far more prepared this time, though. He used his body to slam the tiger into the sheetrock, grappling with him and driving him down. Then he twisted, keeping his balance and scrambling back to his feet and staggering forward. Jamey was right there, partway between the room and Tiggy, and Tony kicked Tiggy away before he scooped Jamey up and ran.
Through the hospital they flew, heading toward the stairs. Tony held Jamey tight. He never once loosened his grip, never looked over his shoulder, never slowed, barreling down the maze of corridors. They had to get out, had to get away, and there was no other way to go. The stairwell they’d used before was right ahead. Tony nearly sobbed in relief as he forced all the speed he could from himself, as he clutched Jamey and swore to himself that he’d die before letting that monster hurt him like he’d hurt Steve, as he threw his side into the stairway door–
It didn’t budge.
“Shit,” Tony breathed. He backed up, shocked. “No, no.” He pressed the bar down again, and it went, but the door didn’t open. It felt like it was sealed or locked from the other side because it didn’t give an inch. They couldn’t get out this way.
That laugh came again, and this time Tony recognized the voice. His voice. He cupped Jamey’s head, covering his one ear as he pressed the other to his shoulder, and turned to look down from where they’d come. The red lights hardly pushed back the darkness, but they did enough for Tony to see the tiger, right there at the end of the hallway. The knife was glinting at its side, still clenched in its hand, and it was staring at the two of them with that menacing smile and those deadened eyes. “Don’t you get it?” asked his voice. “There’s no getting rid of Tiggy.” And it stalked toward them.
Tony gasped, tucking Jamey into his arms and sprinting further down the hallway. Hide, hide, hide! He could barely think above his panic, barely function beyond this blind horror, but he knew he had to do that. Hide! They flew passed exam rooms, conference rooms and offices, utility closets and storerooms, but so many were either locked or too small to maneuver inside them. He couldn’t trap himself and Jamey in a tiny spot with the tiger after them. It would find them. It would.
There’s no getting rid of Tiggy.
Finally he stumbled upon a laundry area. It wasn’t huge, but there were shelves, cabinets, and large custodial bins inside, so there was plenty of cover. He barged inside and closed the door, locking it behind him with one fumbling hand before racing deeper into the dark room. It was pitch black, and his eyes weren’t adjusting fast enough. He blundered into a rack, and something crashed to the floor, something that sounded like it was full of liquid. He cringed at the sound before side-stepping the mess and racing towards the room’s corner. A couple rolling bins were there filled with soiled linens. Tony tugged them closer and tucked them into the dark space, praying the protection didn’t look too obvious.
Then he set Jamey down and crouched in front of him, patting him all over for signs of injury. There weren’t any. The tiger hadn’t gotten him. Thank God. Jamey’s eyes were full of tears and exhaustion. “You okay?” Tony mouthed to the little boy, trying for a smile despite everything. Jamey seemed totally out of it, but he managed a little nod. Tony raised a finger to his lips emphatically, and Jamey nodded again. Tony pulled him close and kissed his head repeatedly, basking for one peaceful moment in having him close. Thank God.
I have him, Steve.
A loud rattle at the door ruined it. Tony’s heart jolted. Quickly he pushed Jamey behind him, rising just a bit to peer over the containers. The door rattled. The bastard had obviously figured out where they were. But the tiger couldn’t get in. Tony had secured the door. He wasn’t getting in!
The monster got right in.
The door just opened, and the shadow stepped inside. Tony choked on his breath and turned, squeezing his eyes shut. How was that possible? How was any of this possible? What was this thing? Who was it? This wasn’t a random psycho out to get them. It had to be Killian. Maybe he’d hired someone to do this. Everything he’d said before couldn’t have been some sort of coincidence. The bastard was trying to remove Tony’s family, silencing the distractions.
Or maybe – God. Tony’s mind raced. He could hardly stand the sudden paranoid thoughts swarming in his head, but he couldn’t deny them, either. Maybe… God, Bucky was furious with him. Could it be Bucky out to get him? Bucky wouldn’t hurt Steve. But then nothing was making sense. Or Happy. The guy was pissed off that he was acting this way as a CEO. Or Pepper? She certainly had the means to track him, to follow him, to record him. Could she and Happy be in on it together?
Jarvis. No. Jarvis quitting today of all days was suspect, wasn’t it? Too coincidental. Everything was so goddamn wrong, upside down and out of control, and everyone was out to get him, to blame him for the mistakes he’d made, to condemn him for not being a good enough businessman or husband or father, to take away the things he loved to protect them or punish him or – or–
“Jamey,” called his voice. It was coming from inside the room. “Jamey…” Tony opened eyes he’d clenched shut. Jamey was right where he’d left him, cowering in the corner. He was curled into a ball, shivering. “Come out, come out wherever you are…” Tony shivered, too. He could hear the monster come inside, footsteps and swishing cloth. It wasn’t trying to be quiet. It didn’t need to. It knew it had them cornered. “Play time’s over, buddy. We need to get going now.”
God. Tony didn’t dare breathe. The tiger was walking slowly, taking its time. Then it lost its patience. “Come on now,” it called sternly. “This is enough. You come right here, James Rogers-Stark.” Jamey whimpered, shaking his head. The voice was quiet a moment, like it was listening. Considering. Luring.
Then the voice was soft and sing-songing again. “Dada’s waiting for you.”
That was it. Tony saw red. Every muscle in his bod went taut with fury. He bit his lower lip roughly because that was the one thing he could do to stay still. His mind started racing again, but now his only thought was that he needed to end this. He couldn’t just attack; he had to protect Jamey, and the tiger had had the upper hand this entire time. And the bastard had effectively trapped them here. There was only one way out of the room, and they had to go through the tiger to do it.
Tony was going to do it. He just didn’t know how.
Staying here wasn’t an option, though. Tony could see the tiger now, moving along a set of tall, metal racks that divided the room in half. The knife scraped on them, dragged against one of the shelves the entire way as the tiger strolled along the width of the room. Then it pivoted and returned, the blade shrieking again. Back and forth, like a real animal stalking its prey. There was no way they could sneak past that.
Maybe it wasn’t time to sneak anymore.
Silently Tony shifted, crossing the small distance to his son. He pulled Jamey closer, meeting his gaze and pressing a finger to his lips again. Then he pointed to Jamey himself and the corner. Jamey nodded, understanding the silent instruction to stay put. Tony turned back, mind spinning but finding no traction. He had to do something. He had to get Jamey out, stop the tiger, put an end to this. He had to–
As he turned back, his back – the stupid tiger drawstring satchel Steve had bought at the zoo – snagged on the adjacent rack. Tony lurched, almost gasped, as he was pulled back. The edge of the rack was a little sharp, and it had ripped the side of the bag. That small noise was thunderous, and Tony winced, terrified, and listened. The tiger was still walking with that slow, taunting pace. Chancing a breath, he detached himself, grateful he hadn’t taken the whole rack down, and pulled the bag off. Then he noticed there was something inside. Curious, Tony pulled the bag off and loosened the draw strings. There were more of the bandages he’d hurriedly stuffed in there before and a receipt from the zoo earlier that day. Below all that, though, was something else.
The animal flashlight Steve had bought for Jamey. Tony had completely forgotten about it. It was right there, still with the tags on it.
And it had batteries already.
Tony couldn’t believe his good luck.
“James, you come to me right now. I need to take you to your father. You belong with him.”
He took a deep breath, pulled the little tab out of the battery compartment that kept the flashlight in demo mode, and slipped to the side. He caught Jamey’s gaze once as he did and nodded, offering a stronger smile. Jamey hid himself more completely in the shadows.
“I’m a very busy man, and you’re wasting my time. I don’t have time to waste.”
He crouched and crept rapidly, slipping between the rolling laundry bins he’d pulled close. On the other side of them, he was more exposed, but he could see the tiger better. It was still there, walking the room back and forth and waiting patiently for them to make a move, taunting them. He gripped the flashlight tighter.
“You come out, James, right now. Don’t make me come back there. If I have to, you’ll be in very big trouble.”
Those last words were low, seething, full of threat. Tony gritted his teeth, thumb poised on the button on the neck of the flashlight. He kept low and waited, watching until the tiger was as far from where Jamey was as possible.
“You need to be gone.”
Tony set the flashlight on the rack beside him and took deep breath.
“And I’ll be the one getting rid of you.”
Then he flipped the light on. Immediately a fuzzy (what a piece of junk) image of a snake in a jungle appeared on the opposite wall, right where the tiger was prowling. The quality of the picture wasn’t too relevant. The light was all that mattered.
And, just as Tony hoped, the light hit the monster right in the eyes when it turned, disorienting it something fierce and buying Tony just a split second. That was all he needed. With a roar of his own, he leapt from his hiding place and charged across the room. He rammed the tiger with all his strength, shoving him into another of the racks. The metal gave with the force, denting and bending, and everything spun dizzily in the blackness. Wildly they tussled. Tony was ready, though, and he snatched the wrist with the knife. Holding the stunned tiger to the shelves, he banged and banged, hard and fast and brutal, until the attacker dropped the weapon. It clanked onto the tiled floor and skittered into the shadows.
Tony shoved his knee into the tiger’s midriff. The person inside the costume gave a very human, very shocked cry, staggering even more. There was something wet beneath their feet – whatever Tony had spilled before – and that only added to the wild flailing of their struggle. Tony didn’t let up for a second, letting his anger and grief drive him, throwing punch after punch, fisting the costume, the thick, fake-feeling fur clenched tightly in his hands as he slammed the tiger into the shelves again and again. The tiger slipped, all of its weight going back, and the rack of shelves collapsed completely. Linens went flying, and things tumbled down left and right. With a howl, they both went down.
Landing on the bent metal hurt, but Tony didn’t let up for a second. He fell on top of the tiger, hitting and punching all the way. And he gave a ragged cry, letting all that rage flow through him like liquid fire. This whole crazy thing. This goddamn tiger. It had tormented them. It had stabbed Steve, taken Steve from him, tried to take his son. His family. His life, ruined. This monster had done that.
It wasn’t a monster, though. It was a man. Someone was behind this. Tony landed a final brutal punch into the tiger’s face, and that had ripped part of the head of the costume away. He grabbed that, suddenly desperate to know the truth. He should have run. Should have taken Jamey and gotten him out. Should have gotten away now while he had the chance.
But he didn’t. He ripped and pulled and yanked. He had to know. He had to know! “Who are you?” he screamed. “Who are you?” He ripped the costume off.
Nothing in the universe could have prepared Tony for what he saw. He was straddling the man’s chest, panting loud and hard, staring because he couldn’t believe it. It didn’t make sense. The face, the features he immediately recognized… The shape of the nose and the high cheekbones and the mussed brown curls and the intense brown eyes. The goatee. The lips, bloody now. The face.
Tony shook his head, slowly at first but then more desperately. “No,” he whispered. No, no, no. The pain in his chest turned agonizing. His heart was being shredded all over again. His ribs were breaking. That awful constriction around him, this invisible feeling of being crushed… It got so much worse. He was being crushed. Smothered. Destroyed. This wasn’t real. It couldn’t real. It just couldn’t be!
But it was. And the man below him – him – grinned a hideous, evil grin. “There’s no getting rid of the truth. And the truth is, Tony–”
Reality shifted. Like a pipe bursting under too much pressure, the pain in his chest exploded all over him. Everything went dark, out of focus, twisted, and the agony slamming into his head was unbearable. The world was pushing him down, pushing harder and harder until he had no choice but to go, until he closed his eyes tight and dissolved into the misery.
That didn’t last, though.
“Tony? Tony! Open your eyes, Tony.”
Tony couldn’t. His eyelids felt unbelievably heavy. He had to, though, because he knew that voice. Where was he? What was going on? Everything was hazy, blurry, strange and discordant with what he’d just been experiencing. Except for the pain in his head. That was still there, ugly and throbbing, and… Was this after his accident? The hospital? Was he somehow back there?
“Can you open your eyes? Come on, Tony.”
No, this couldn’t be then. As disoriented and overwhelmed as Tony felt, he knew that. Still, though, he had to wake up. He’d done this before, so he knew – he knew – he had to do as he was told. So he fought, swimming up from the nothingness, climbing through the vertigo, the darkness, the dissociation, and when he emerged and finally blinked himself awake and made sense of what he was seeing…
There were those angelic blue eyes, still so beautiful, so calm, so powerful. And that voice. And those hands. “Steve?” he whispered.
Steve smiled tenderly. There was relief deeply set into his gaze and so much fear. “Tony, thank God. Thank God.”
Steve had been calling to him. Steve was there, brushing his hair from his brow, holding his hand, leaning over him. Steve was taking care of him. And those simple realizations – those sensations – tore through the haze, ripping it all away, and the real world snapped back into place.
He was on the floor. There were dark wooden structures behind Steve. A breakfast table? Painfully bright light was streaming through the huge bank of windows in the room. Vaguely he noticed dark blobs over there. Chairs and other furniture. Even as scattered as his mind was, he knew where he was. The penthouse. Home.
And there were other people huddled around him. He didn’t recognize a couple, but Jarvis was to Steve’s left. He had the same pinched expression of intense worry melting into tentative relief on his face that he always used to have when Tony hurt himself. What? Confused, Tony tried to sit up.
“Whoa, whoa,” Steve said, placing a hand on his chest and guiding him back down. “Easy.”
“Stay down, Mr. Stark,” one of the other people said. The man was dressed strangely in a dark blue uniform with a radio clipped to his shoulder and latex gloves on his hands. There was a familiar emblem on his shirt, a white star with a rod that had a snake twined around it. Tony recognized it easily from Steve’s text books and other paraphernalia from his former career. The Rod of Ascelpius. An EMT? “Don’t move.”
“What…” God, his voice sounded weird. It was hard to speak, too, like things were jumbled up inside. “What…”
“You fell,” Steve said, leaning a little closer. He brushed Tony’s hair back more. “You remember?”
Tony didn’t remember. “Huh?”
Steve looked incredibly concerned. “We need to do a full assessment,” another voice said. She was also dressed like an EMT. “Vitals look good, but there are obvious signs of a concussion.”
Concussion? With this crazy juxtaposition of the dark world he’d just left with this glaringly bright place, that didn’t make sense. He couldn’t recall hitting his head. Had he? How was he back here? How was Steve okay? Where was the tiger? Where was Jamey?
What the hell had happened?
“Tony.” Steve’s soft call drew his attention, anchored him in this discombobulated tempest of thoughts. “Hey, sweetheart. Can you look at me? Focus on my voice.” Tony did. It was surprisingly difficult to, just like how it had been back when he’d come to in the hospital after his accident. But Steve made it possible. “You fell, and you hit your head on the table. Okay? You slipped on the applesauce Jamey spilled. And Tiggy, I think. I tried to get you–” He cut himself off, and there was so much pain in his voice. “You’re alright, though, okay?”
He’d fallen? When? Then it snapped into place. That morning. At breakfast. This was that morning, before they’d gone to the zoo, before he’d decided to take the day off, before anything had happened. Jamey had thrown his toy and his bowl on the floor, and Tony had gotten up to take Pepper’s call, and when he’d come back… He’d slipped.
Only Steve hadn’t caught him in time. Tony had fallen. He’d whacked his head against the table – God, now he remembered that – and lost consciousness.
But that meant… “You’re okay?” Tony whispered, reaching for his husband with shaking hands. He felt nothing but firm, solid, warm skin and muscles. There was no blood. Steve’s face had vibrant color, his eyes full of vitality and emotion.
But his expression went lax in alarm. He smiled weakly and nodded. “Yeah, of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”
Tony’s brain was throbbing in his skull. He closed his eyes. “Jamey…”
“He’s in the other room. Bucky’s here. He came right over,” Steve said. He was looking into Tony’s eyes intently, and Tony didn’t get why for a second until he realized he was checking his pupils. Assessing his patient. “He’s going to stay with him while we go to the hospital.”
Hospital? Jarvis mistook Tony’s confusion for worry and nodded. “Master James is absolutely fine, sir. You need not worry. The second you fell, I came and took him out. He is playing happily.”
None of that made sense. “He’s okay?”
“We should go,” one the EMTs said. Tony winced, moving his head just a bit, and saw them bringing a stretcher closer. Then he realized he wasn’t laying directly on the floor. The hard thing beneath him was a backboard, and he was strapped to it, and there was medical equipment around him. The EMTs had obviously been here a while, and they had to have had time to get here too, so how long… How did this… What?
They made to lift him, but Tony whined and shook his head. Part of that was from the pain and dizziness assailing him anew, but more than that he didn’t want to go. “No hospital,” he groaned.
Steve went with him, helping the EMTs get him transferred to the stretcher. “Yes, hospital,” he said firmly. “You were unconscious for more than fifteen minutes. You’re clearly disoriented. You’ve got a laceration to your temple that requires stitches. And you’re having a CT when we get there. I already called in. So it’s a done deal, and we’re going. Right now.”
“No. I admitted I know nothing about running a tech conglomerate, but this is my territory,” Steve declared. That didn’t make sense for a second, but then Tony remembered. What they’d talked about that morning. Steve telling him he needed to rest, that he was making himself too stressed and anxious. That had really only been fifteen or twenty minutes ago, not hours and hours.
And clearly Steve was right. He finished securing Tony before coming back to lean over him and checking everything again. “You’re going, and that’s it.”
Despite everything, Tony couldn’t help a smile. “Alright,” he mumbled.
“Alright,” Steve agreed. He tucked Tony under a blanket before wrapping Tony’s hands together with his own. He kissed his forehead. “It’s okay. It’s all okay. And no thinking about work, okay? No worrying about anything. Now you’re definitely taking a break.” A small smile graced his lips. “Not sure I believe in signs, but this sure seems to be one.”
As they rolled the stretcher out, Tony closed his eyes. You have no idea.
It proved to be only a mild concussion. By all accounts, Tony was ridiculously lucky. He could have cracked his head open, and he very nearly had, but numerous neurological assessments, a CT scan, and an MRI revealed no significant damage. Steve had insisted on an in-depth workup, and he’d stayed with Tony the entire time, pretty much taking over for the nurses there at the ER. Since they (coincidentally) ended up at the same hospital where Steve used to work, he was quick to fall into his old position. He’d been the one to do his intake (with a couple of his old coworkers, of course), to place his IV and get him situated in the ER. He’d been the one to stitch the gash in Tony’s scalp with steady, tender hands. He’d given him medication (more than he probably needed, but Steve didn’t want Tony in even the slightest pain). He’d waited on him hand and foot.
Which was fine. Steve’s loving attention served as a really firm reminder that that whole wacky… thing Tony had apparently dreamed or hallucinated or he didn’t even know what… It hadn’t been real. Realizing that was pretty mind-blowing. No trip to the zoo. No crazy tiger stabbing Steve. No betrayal by all their friends and family, Happy admonishing him and Pepper controlling him and Bucky tearing him apart and Jarvis quitting. No isolation. No Killian in the bathroom. No terrible cat and mouse game and Steve getting his throat cut in the hallway and Jamey being chased by that monster… No one trying to get Tony’s family out of the way. That had all been his own brain going haywire.
Which was apparently not due to the knock on his head, too. There was no sign of internal bleeding, no swelling or damage, no altered mental state. Tony had realized in the ambulance that he was okay. He’d quickly reoriented himself, so much so that even the EMTs seemed pleasantly surprised. He was so goddamn lucky. Of course, he hadn’t told anyone, let alone Steve, about his dream. The hours he’d not actually lived during the fifteen minutes he’d been unconscious. It was too weird to describe, too utterly impossible, and the more the real world reasserted itself, the stranger the fake world seemed. Frankly, he didn’t want to dig too deeply into the nightmare it seemed he’d barely escaped. There was… shit to unpack there. He knew that. He just didn’t want to unpack it.
It was easy enough not to. He spent the day a little out of it thanks to the pain medication, dozing while he waited, waking for tests and assessments and flirting with the hot nurse taking care of him. Later that evening, once it became obvious everything was okay and the concussion wasn’t very serious, Tony had immediately sought discharge. Steve argued he should stay the night for observation, and the neurologist and the attending ER doctor seemed willing to do that, but Tony refused. There was no need. He was fine, and he wanted to go home and be with Jamey.
He won that fight, though not without some concessions (including sticking to the doctors’ recommendations that he take it easy for awhile, that Steve be allowed to complete concussion protocols on him, and he follow-up with a neurologist in a few days, just in case). Oh, and he had to leave the hospital in a wheelchair, which was all kinds of unnecessary and embarrassing. Nonetheless, the muscular mass of his husband refused to budge until his butt was in the chair, and once it was, he wheeled Tony out of the hospital through the back entrance to avoid the media.
Right there waiting was Happy in the Range Rover. “Hey,” he said sympathetically. “You okay?”
Tony sighed. He stood the second Steve let him, and one of the orderlies came over to get the chair. Steve helped him to the car. Despite all his bravado about being fine, he still felt a little wobbly from the concussion and the lingering effects of analgesics. He squinted a little, appraising his long-time bodyguard. There was no annoyance in his eyes, no spite or aggravation or admonishment. Happy looked just as he always did, only concerned and a tad regretful. Comforted, Tony said, “Yeah, I’m okay.”
“You don’t have to be here, Mr. Hogan,” Steve said. “I could have gotten him home.”
Happy opened the door for them. “I know you can, but it’s alright,” he said. “Came over as soon as Mr. Jarvis and I finished baby-proofing the penthouse. You know, above and beyond what we did when James was born.”
Steve chuckled. “Hardy har,” grumbled Tony as he clumsily got his aching body into the car.
“It’s my job to protect you,” Happy reminded, and his tone was a little softer with sorrow. “Didn’t manage that so well today.”
“Can’t protect me from my own furniture,” Tony declared, sagging wearily into the cool, leather backseats of the Range Rover. Maybe he’d been a little overly dismissive of Steve’s suggestion that he stay overnight. He felt like crap. “Or from myself.” That self-deprecating bullshit came out before he even thought twice. Maybe Steve wouldn’t notice.
Of course Steve did as he slid into the car on the other side. Quizzically he eyed Tony before pulling him closer. All Tony’s energy fizzled away, and he sank gratefully into Steve’s chest. Steve was warm and solid and familiar, and Tony breathed him in and relaxed. Ahead Happy climbed into the driver’s seat and turned the car on after locking all the doors. “Home?”
“Please,” Steve replied. He rubbed an arm up and down Tony’s back. “You okay, love?”
Tony hummed his contentment and let his eyes slip shut. Like this, he didn’t have to think. He didn’t have to do anything other than rest. He felt like he’d gone through such an ordeal, which he had, but he hadn’t, too? It was weird. The horror of the dream… It had been so real, so vivid, so utterly consuming, but the distance forged throughout the day by time and reality… Well, it all really did seem like a nightmare now. A tiger stabbing Steve. Everyone acting so not like themselves, like twisted caricatures. The stuff at the end where the all the security had vanished and power had gone out. And, not to mention, the fact that he’d been in the tiger suit…
Tony cracked open his eyes. Steve was looking down on him. “Did you hear?”
Grunting, Tony barely managed to lift his head. “Huh?”
From the driver’s seat, Happy glanced in the rearview mirror. “Pepper’s calling. Do you want to take it?”
That didn’t make sense at first. It felt like a lot of time had passed, but that couldn’t be because they weren’t that far from the hospital. He’d just drifted. Steve frowned, rubbing his back soothingly. “You don’t have to,” he reminded quietly.
“She said she’d call later,” Happy added. “Tomorrow.”
Tony considered that for a second. After everything he’d gone through (well, that he’d imagined he’d gone through), talking to Pepper felt… wrong? Like it’d be akin to walking with a bone out of its joint or something to that effect. Wasn’t that dream trying to tell him to stop caring so much about work? And Pepper had come to symbolize that. Work and obligation and stress and… “No, I can talk to her.”
Steve frowned. “You sure?”
Tony untangled himself from the security of Steve’s embrace with a groan, trying to right himself. God, his head was pounding now, and everything was spinning. “Yeah,” he managed. “It’s fine.”
Steve made sure he was steady in his seat before collecting the phone Happy was handing back. He gave that to Tony, worry plastered all over his face. Tony offered a meager smile before lifting the phone to his ear on the undamaged side of his head. “Hello?”
Pepper’s voice was teeming with worry. “Oh, thank God, Tony. Are you okay? I mean, I know you’re okay. I talked to Happy and to Steve and I know, but I don’t know. Are you?”
Unbridled relief had Tony closing his eyes. “I’m fine.”
“What happened? Happy said you fell this morning.”
He grunted. “Took myself out. How’s that for irony? Probably should have my head insured after this. You know, since it’s the brains behind the whole operation.”
“Not ironic, and not funny,” Pepper quickly replied. She sighed over the line. “This is my fault.”
Tony grimaced, forcing his brain to work. It wasn’t all that easy. “Come again?”
Another long breath answered. “I asked too much of you. I’ve been all over you, demanding, guilting you, and…” Tony could picture her, eyes welling and biting her lower lip the way she did when she was upset. “Steve told me you were on the phone with me right before you slipped, and you were upset, and… All this stress isn’t good for you. You have a family. You have heart problems.”
Tony shook his head, even if she couldn’t see him. “My crappy heart did not make me slip on Jamey’s toy and bang my head on the table,” he reminded, even if hearing her say this – in such direct contrast to the perversion he’d dreamed – loosened another knot inside his chest. “And you’re not to blame.”
“I can’t convince myself of that,” Pepper replied. “I just can’t. I knew yesterday you were spent. I knew days ago. But I kept on about the press conference today and the hearings next week, kept pushing and pushing, and it hurt you, and–”
“Pep, come on,” Tony gently interrupted. “Yeah, it’s been rough recently, but this isn’t your fault. Shit happens, huh?”
That didn’t quite appease her. “I’m going to fly back to New York. I can help you more, take more on my plate. Bring the administrative team with me.”
“No, it’s alright,” Tony said. “Do what you need to out there. I’ll… I’ll get to what I have to do. I promise. The doctors said take it easy for a couple days, and I will, but after that, I’ll be good to go.” He caught Steve’s unhappy, cautionary scowl and managed a smile. What the hell was he doing? “Besides, got my own private nurse. He’s pretty damn good at a lot of things, I have to say.” That scowl tightened. “It’s alright. Okay? Let’s talk more about it tomorrow.”
She didn’t seem entirely convinced. “You’re too important to everyone to lose,” she finally said. “I want you to take care of yourself, first and foremost. Just… let me handle everything. You focus on getting better.”
“I am better.”
There was a pause. “I know, Tony. Get some rest. Can you give me back to Happy?”
“Yeah.” Then he thought of something. “Actually, Pep, I, uh… I was thinking about what we said last night? About you-know-who.”
It took her a moment to orient herself to the change of topic. “Killian?”
Tony swallowed thickly. “Yeah. Go ahead and talk to the cops. Or the FBI. Or whoever. You said he broke the law, so let’s do something about it.”
Her surprise was practically palpable in the pause that followed. “Are you sure? You seemed pretty against the idea.”
Tony swallowed through a dry throat, trying not to think about the nightmare. And maybe it was dumb to have a change of heart this big over a stupid, weird-ass dream. But he wasn’t going to give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Not anymore. He wasn’t sure he believed in warnings or premonitions or whatever the hell all of this was, but he was too smart to ignore the obvious. His subconscious brain was trying to tell him something, and if his subconscious brain was as smart as his normal brain, he should probably listen. “Yeah.” He glanced at Steve, who now only had love and concern in his eyes. “Gotta protect what’s important.”
Pepper’s shock turned to relief. “Alright, I’ll get on it right away. He won’t bother you again. Don’t worry about it.”
“Thanks, and I won’t.” Not anymore.
Tony lowered the phone and thought about leaning forward to hand it up to Happy, but that was too hard. Thankfully Steve took the phone and passed it forward. Then he frowned harder. “What was that about?”
Tony let go of a big breath, shaking his head. “Nothing. Just… dealing with a problem.”
“You really do need to take it easy,” Steve reminded. He didn’t look at all convinced by Tony’s answer. And why would he be? Already Tony was offering to work, to take the bare minimum of time, in effect, to get better and be with his family before jumping right back into it. And Pepper hadn’t even asked him to do that. She hadn’t demanded or guilted or anything. What the hell was the matter with him? Apparently this lesson from his nightmare he was content to simply disregard.
Exhausted and not wanting to think about it (or anything), he leaned back into Steve’s chest. “Take care of me?”
Steve’s tension melted pretty quickly. He kissed the crown of Tony’s head. “Always.”
The rest of the drive was spent in silence. Tony drifted again. It was pleasant enough. His head hurt. His whole body hurt, in fact, but it wasn’t too hard to detach from it. It also wasn’t hard to dismiss the dream still drifting around the edges of his consciousness. He could just listen to Steve’s heartbeat and not think or feel or do anything.
When they made it back to the Tower, Happy parked in the garage beneath the massive building. Then he was helping Steve get Tony out of the Range Rover and over to the elevator. Tony was more awake again, and consequently in more pain, but Steve was slow and gentle as he guided him where he needed to go. With Steve’s arms around him and Happy protecting them both, Tony knew they were safe (and they were safe, because even though there were shadows about, there couldn’t be tigers lurking in them. That was crazy). They took the lift all the way to the penthouse, not one of them speaking. The silence was fine. Tony didn’t feel quite right in it, but it was okay.
But then the elevator doors opened at the penthouse, and Jamey came running. There was a cry for the toddler to stop, but Jamey didn’t hear or care. He threw himself right at Tony’s legs. Tony nearly buckled with an oomf, might have gone down if not for Steve’s arm around his back. “Easy, Jamey,” Steve chastised gently.
“Daddy,” Jamey said, and Tony managed to bend down without things spinning too much. He hugged the little guy, pulling him close. “Got scared.” Jamey whimpered, and it occurred to Tony then that he’d probably seen Tony fall, witnessed him whacking his head on the table and not waking up afterward. That weirdly mirrored all the unpleasantness from his nightmare with Jamey watching Steve go down when the tiger stabbed him, which made things feel worse.
But not enough for Tony not to summon a smile. “I’m fine, buddy. Just got a boo-boo on my head. See?” He showed Jamey the bandage on his temple. “Dada fixed me up, and I’m good as new.”
Jamey didn’t look entirely convinced for a moment, checking out the bandage with a doubtful look on his face. Then he smiled. “Okay!”
“Okay.” Tony kissed him and hugged him tight. God, it felt so good.
There was a bit of a clamor, and he opened his eyes to see Jarvis. And Barnes. Bucky was dressed in jeans and a gray army t-shirt, his shoulder-length hair drawn back into a sloppy bun. “Hey, Stark,” he greeted in a soft voice. He smiled. “How are you feelin’?”
Honestly, Tony didn’t know. The second the man spoke, the harsh argument they’d had in the hospital – no, in the nightmare – echoed through Tony’s head. All these details were spilling out in a flood. “Okay,” he said after a beat. He turned to Steve as much as he could without feeling like he was going to puke. “Thanks to this guy.”
Steve’s smile was soft and still worried. “Let’s get you settled. Here, Edwin.” He handed Jarvis the pharmacy bag the hospital had given them full of painkillers and discharge instructions.
Bucky came closer, and Jamey happily traded in his father for his uncle. Bucky was a bulky guy, stockier where Steve was lean muscle, and Tony could just picture him kicking the crap out of him. Of course he never would, but the way Bucky had torn into him in the nightmare… “Mr. Jarvis and I ordered pizza. Didn’t know when you guys would be back, but we have awesome timing apparently because it just got here.”
Steve helped Tony further into the penthouse. “You want to eat or just go to bed?”
Vaguely Tony was aware that it was getting late. The night sky beyond the penthouse was dark, and it was summer, so it had to be past nine. And he wasn’t exactly hungry, even though he hadn’t eaten all day. The nausea from the concussion was getting worse and worse. Still, though, he didn’t feel… settled. And it was just because he’d nearly cracked his head open. “Let’s eat?”
So they did. Steve deposited Tony at the table, the same table that had nearly killed him. Obviously the cleaning folks had come in because the place was immaculate; there wasn’t even the slightest sign of anything having gone wrong. Steve made sure he was steady (hovered, really) before helping Jarvis get plates and drinks to the table. Then they all sat, save Jarvis, who said he would get things ready for Tony in the bedroom.
Tony was getting too tired to care, though. As they ate, Steve and Bucky led the conversation. Bucky talked about the things he and Jamey had done all day. They mentioned rescheduling the zoo trip; apparently the tiger exhibit would still be open for another couple weeks. Glumly Jamey ate his pizza, getting sauce on his face and in his hair. He didn’t seem overly excited about the chance to go. Bucky seemed to sense that, and he changed the topic, teasing and tickling him, making everything better, and this was… nice. To be honest, even though it was obvious that Bucky must have been there a lot while Tony had been away, Tony hadn’t really let that fact sink in before now. That Steve did have support. That Bucky didn’t mind doing it. And Steve still had friends at the hospital. More than once today as Tony had dozed, he’d heard people come in and chat with Steve, friendly talk rather than medical-related business. Catching up with each other. That was comforting, too. Bucky even asked Steve about it, if he’d run into so-and-so or talked about such-and-such, and Steve had been happy to answer. The whole dinner was actually nice, despite Tony’s aching head and body. This was probably the most time he’d ever really spent with Bucky, and it felt surprisingly… normal.
The meal didn’t last very long, though. Jamey was tired, and in short order Steve was getting up to bustle the little boy to bed. “I’ll be right back, okay?” he promised after getting a pizza-covered Jamey out of his booster seat. He kissed Tony on the head. “You’ll be okay for a little bit?”
“Sure,” Tony swore, even though he wasn’t sure with Steve leaving.
Steve left all the same, and then Tony was alone with Bucky. Bucky had already been cleaning up from dinner, just like Steve always did even though he didn’t have to. That brought a mountain of insecurities back; how Steve was more similar to Bucky than he was to Tony, how Tony had taken Steve from what he’d known and plunged him into all this, the money and the fame and the media adulation. How Steve and he had truly come from different lives.
And how Steve had given everything up to adopt Tony’s life.
Bucky finished at the sink, drying his hands on a cloth, before coming back to the table. He wiped that down, cleaning up the mess of pizza from Jamey’s spot, before crouching to deal with the floor. “You don’t have to do that,” Tony blurted, unable to stand this.
“Not a problem,” Bucky said. Was his tone terse? All the light, fun notes were gone from it now that Jamey wasn’t there, but did he sound angry? He went back to the kitchen and rinsed off the cloth. Then he returned, letting his hands fall to his sides. “Guess I should get goin’.”
Tony nodded. He looked at Bucky through bleary eyes. “Thanks.”
There was an awkward moment of silence then. Bucky seemed like he wanted to say something, but he didn’t, just standing uncomfortably by the table. Then he turned to leave. “Hey,” Tony called. It made the room spin a little to rotate toward the door, but he did. Bucky stopped in his tracks and met his gaze. Tony was silent a moment, hesitant. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing or saying. “I, uh… You don’t hate me, do you?”
To Bucky, that probably seemed to come out of nowhere. He looked confused as all get-out, brow scrunched up and shaking his head. “Huh?”
It was too late to turn back now, even if this was utterly pathetic. “I just… I want to know if you… hate me.”
“Why would I…” Bucky didn’t finish, and his puzzlement faded. That was pretty good evidence of the fact that he knew exactly why he would hate Tony and why Tony would think that. Tony’s heart ached, and his head throbbed, and everything from the nightmare came back. He looked away. This was all his subconscious trying to tell him something again. A fairly blunt something, no less. It was pretty violently and unimaginatively symbolic, his life as a CEO getting Steve stabbed and killed, but he’d never been terribly inventive when it came to creative story-telling.
There was a heavy sigh. “I don’t hate you. I gotta be honest: there are times I don’t like you too much. I wasn’t… happy, I guess, when Steve started with you. And I wasn’t happy when you two got hitched. And it’s been shitty lately, with you gone all the time and him doing all this by himself. I can see it wear on him. I was and still am worried for him, scared you’d… Well, that he’ll get lost in all of this. And I don’t handle worrying about him well. Never have. My natural inclination is to kick the ass of anyone causing him trouble. Call it a bad habit.” Or a very good one. Bucky looked down. “So I admit I haven’t been the nicest to you.”
Tony thought back to the shovel speech and to the times Bucky had made his displeasure silently known. To the nightmare. “Yeah. You can be kind of an asshole,” he murmured.
Maybe that should have been insulting, but Bucky just grunted. “Been takin’ care of that punk his whole life. When his ma was dying, I promised her I would make sure he’d be okay. Took a lot for me to realize you make him okay. I wasn’t thrilled that he gave up medical school and everything he’s always dreamed of doing, but… I get it now. I get why.” He gave a shrug. “He loves you. And I can see you love him. And that’s what it’s all about, right? Why we do what we do. Giving everything for your family. That’s what love is. So that’s why I’m trying, why I’ve been trying. He’s my family, too.”
Tony quirked a smile. “Glad that he is. Glad that he’s got you.”
Bucky grinned, too, this one an understanding one, maybe the first genuine one Tony had ever won from him. “Plus you gave him that kid. And that kid… What a gift.”
Tony nodded, warm inside. “Yeah.” What a gift.
Bucky lingered another moment, one that became awkward again. Then he nodded. “G’night, Stark.”
After that, Tony sat there a while. The penthouse was quiet. The night was dark outside, the starless sky a sharp contrast to the golden glow of the city below them. He stared at that for a bit, feeling better but still a bit strange. Still not quite like himself, like he needed to reconcile two very different outcomes for this odd day even though it was impossible.
“Are you alright, sir?”
He turned at Jarvis’ soft question and immediately regretted it. The room pitched, and he nearly puked. “Ugh. Yeah! Yeah, I’m fine.”
Jarvis didn’t look convinced as he came closer. “Allow me to help you to your room.”
Tony was too exhausted to argue. He let Jarvis aid him in standing up, let him support some of his weight and guide him through the penthouse to their bedroom. As they passed Jamey’s room and bathroom, he could hear Steve talking and water splashing in the tub. That made him smile despite how lousy he was starting to feel. Once they reached the bedroom, Jarvis wordlessly took care of him. He helped him into the bathroom. Stripped off the clothes that had been brought to the hospital for him. Jarvis had drawn him a warm bath, and he helped Tony get into it. Then he set out Tony’s pajamas and a robe. “Shall I stay?” he asked as he finished up.
“No, it’s okay. I can handle this.”
“You are certain?”
“Yep.” Jarvis watched him a moment before nodding and slipping outside the bathroom.
Tony pretty much melted into the hot water. It felt stupidly good. He wasn’t sure why everything was so achy. Again, it wasn’t like he’d actually lived through those traumatic events he’d imagined, the running and the fighting. But it had felt so real, and he’d done a real number on himself with the knock to the head, so maybe it made sense. Washing off the staleness of the hospital, inevitably planted there by only the twelve hours or so he’d spent in its confines, felt so good.
The bath didn’t do much to wash away this lingering sense of wrongness, though. The constricting pressure was gone, but it had left him feeling different. Weird and not quite the way he had that morning. He stayed in the bath, drifting in this strangeness, before the cooling water had him uncomfortable. His legs were a tad wobbly, and for a second he thought about calling for Jarvis, but that was too embarrassing. So he took it slowly and carefully as he climbed out, drained the bath, and got himself dressed.
Jarvis was waiting for him when he emerged from the room. He’d dispensed with Tony’s dirty laundry, and he’d turned down the bed. There was a warm cup of tea and two of the painkillers on the bedside table. The room was spotless, but things weren’t quite the way they had been just minutes ago, like Jarvis had rearranged the chairs in the seating area and shuffled the things on the tables and dressers just to be useful. He was quick to come and take Tony’s arm and lead him to the bed. Tony sat there. “Take these, sir,” Jarvis said, handing Tony the pills and the cup of tea.
Tony did. The tea tasted really good, hot and loaded with honey. He’d always liked his tea this way, and he was pretty sure it rankled Jarvis’ British sensibilities to make it like that, yet here it was, delicious and sweet. He sipped more. “Thanks.”
Jarvis dropped a hand to his shoulder. “Of course, sir. You gave us all a fright today.”
Tony swallowed another mouthful, the heat warming its way down his throat and settling into his chest. “Never a dull moment, right?”
Jarvis offered him a small grin. He helped Tony get his legs into bed, and now Tony just let him. Then he pulled the blankets up and over his charge, tucking him in, and this took Tony back to hundreds of times before this, times all through his life. “Get some rest,” Jarvis advised.
“You’d never… You’d never quit on me, would you?”
Jarvis’ eyes filled with concern. He’d taken a few steps away, but now he was coming closer again. “Sir?”
Tony felt like a moron. Once more he wondered what the heck he was doing. “I just… You know, I screw up a lot. And I know you worry about that.” He swallowed down the knot in his throat, the pain from Jarvis turning away from him in that stupid dream right there. It was ridiculous. “You wouldn’t just get fed up and leave.” He managed a feeble smile to hide how dumb he felt, how dumb and needy and wanting for acceptance and support. “Would you?”
Jarvis seemed flabbergasted a moment. Then his expression softened, and he gave a cheeky smile. “You must have hit your head harder than anyone thought for you to wonder about such nonsense.”
Relief had Tony grinning widely. Of course he had. And of course Jarvis would never abandon him. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.”
Jarvis nodded. He looked nothing but fond. “Sleep well, sir.” Then he left.
It wasn’t long after that that Steve came back. Quietly he slipped inside the bedroom. He came over and sat on his side of the bed to take his shoes off. “He’s out,” he announced quietly, turning over his shoulder to glance at Tony. His smile was warm. “And you’re going down, too.”
Tony grinned. The hot tea and the warm bath and the pain pills were going their job. “Yeah,” he said muzzily.
“Awesome,” Steve said. He stood and came over before kissing Tony’s mussed hair. “Head not too bad?”
“Nah,” Tony replied. It wasn’t. He could handle this. And his bed was soft and this was nice. After all this stuff, this was really good. “It’s fine.”
Steve nodded. “Alright. You need anything? Because I was going to go take a shower, but I can grab you something before I do.”
“Alright.” Steve stood. Barefoot, he made his way toward the bathroom.
“Steve?” Tony called.
Steve turned. “What?”
And now, now came the question. He’d had a lot that evening, as the nightmare untangled completely from reality and left him unsettled, and getting answers to the ones he’d asked so far had certainly eased his mind. But this… This was the only one that mattered. If his brain had subconsciously come up with such a weird, wacky scenario to teach him something, he hadn’t learned it. He still didn’t know the truth.
So he had to ask. “Do you want me to stop?”
The question wasn’t very specific. Steve wouldn’t know what he was talking about. Like before, he didn’t have any context for what was bothering Tony. Still, the tone of Tony’s voice, so soft and desperate and worried, had him coming right back. “Stop what, love?”
Tony took a deep breath. “Do you want me to stop working?” Steve’s face fractured. “Quit being a CEO. Leave Stark Industries.” Steve shook his head, eyes filling with confusion. He sat on the side of the bed. Tony chewed his lower lip. “Or at least scale back. I don’t know.”
“Tony.” Steve took his hand and tugged it close. “What are you talking about?”
Tony’s eyes welled with tears. He didn’t know if it was the concussion or the meds or the weirdness that had been his reality for the past twelve hours, but whatever the cause, his control over his emotions was all the sudden failing him. “I’m gone so much. You said it yourself this morning. I’m working too much, too hard, and it’s causing all this stress and anxiety.”
“Tony,” Steve said.
Tony didn’t stop, though. “I’m turning into my dad. I didn’t see it before, but I am, and, God, I hate it. I hated him for never being around. For working so much. For treating my mom and me like we were just there for him when he wanted us. And I’m doing it now. I’m doing it to you, and I’m doing it to Jamey.”
Steve shook his head. “You could never, Tony. Never.”
“He’s going to need me, and I’m not there. I’m missing everything. I’m doing the same damn thing to him that was done to me.”
“No, you’re not. Tony, you are not your father, and you never could be.” Steve leaned closer, squeezing Tony’s hand tight. “I know he was a crappy dad. I know what that did to you. I hate it, too, that he made you feel neglected all your life and how he had these lousy expectations for you. Now he’s making you feel like you’re not enough or doomed to failure. But you are enough, and you’re doing great. And you are not doing what your dad did to you to our son. You love Jamey, and he knows it. He does. I know you’d do anything for him.”
Tony stared into Steve’s eyes, searching for any signs of doubt or mistrust. Of course there weren’t any. Just as Steve had been so certain when he’d told Tony that he could be a father three years ago, he was certain now that he was one. And not just a father. A good father. “Even if that’s true,” he said after a moment, “I’m making things harder for you. I’m dumping all of this on you. And that’s not fair to you. It’s not fair to us and Jamey and–”
Steve put a finger to his lips. “Stop,” he gently commanded. “Just stop. I don’t know what’s gotten into your head.”
Through tears, Tony offered a twist, self-deprecating smile. “Near death experience, I guess.”
“Yeah, well, it’s making you think things that just aren’t right. All this… doubt and insecurity. Whatever lies your brain’s telling you. Whatever fears you have. None of it’s true or real, Tony. None of it.”
Tony sighed. He wanted to argue more, but he just didn’t know what to say. He couldn’t explain how he’d failed in his nightmare, how nothing he did was right, not as a CEO, husband, or father, how he’d wanted his own family dead. He’d never want that. Christ, he wasn’t some kind of monster. These things his subconscious was trying to make him believe… They were lies, weren’t they?
What the hell kind of game was his brain playing with him?
“You know,” Steve began, breaking a long silence and pulling Tony from his thoughts, “when we went to the hospital today, it was weird. I was really surprised by how easy it was to fall back into it. I hadn’t really been there since we got married, but it was like I never left? And that was… strange, I guess. Because everything else was the same, but I wasn’t.” He sighed, rubbing his thumb over Tony’s knuckles before running it across Tony’s wedding ring. “And it made me think of my mom. She always wanted me to be a doctor, because she loved being a nurse and helping people and doing what she could for someone. She always wanted me to go all the way, get that degree, be a leader, be the best I could be. She worked so hard to make that happen for me.”
Steve paused a moment. It seemed like he was wrestling with his own emotions. “Things didn’t work out that way. I never regretted giving it up to be a parent, Tony. You know that. But if there was one thing that made me feel bad about it all, it was the thought of not living up to what my mom wanted for me. So as I was back there today, back in this life I maybe should have had, would have had if I’d never met you… I was kind of scared I’d feel guilty or something. Or that I’d regret what I decided. You know what, though? I didn’t. I didn’t at all. I loved being a nurse, Tony, and I still love it. But I made the right choice. I felt it. And… it’s strange, but I felt like mom was there today, watching over me and you, and telling me it was alright. I made the right choice, because this, being with you and being Jamey’s dad and having our family, even when it’s hard and it doesn’t seem like we can make it work… It makes me happy, so happy. And she wanted that most of all, for me to be happy.”
Tony went still. Something suddenly made sense. The nurse in his nightmare… The blonde woman with the familiar face and the striking blue eyes. With the calm voice and the sage advice. With the acceptance and understanding. The nurse named Sarah.
“Your son… Is he happy?”
Steve leaned over and kissed him sweetly. His lips were so soft, his touch so familiar and perfect, and Tony sank into it. “I don’t want you any other way than the way you are. I knew when I married you that I was marrying the fame and the fortune and the job. I knew what I was getting into. It’s not always easy, alright? It’s a lot, and it’s hard sometimes. But I never regretted that, either. So do I want you to quit? To give up your career and your purpose and your legacy? Stop being who you are? Never, Tony. Never.”
God. Tony couldn’t believe how lucky he was. He hadn’t once since the moment this angel had descended into his world to make his life better. Brighter. Perfect. “I love you, Steve.”
Steve grinned, pleased with himself. “Love you, too. Now enough freaking out. No more stress and anxiety. Get a good night’s sleep.” He kissed Tony’s nose. “We’re a team. We can do anything when we do it together, right?”
Tony smiled. “Right.”
Steve gave another firm nod, smiling so brightly, before standing. “You’re not working tomorrow, though. I mean it. This is my territory, and I make the rules.”
Tony chuckled. “I know.”
“And I have plenty of ways to keep you in this bed.” Steve waggled his eyebrows, and Tony laughed louder. “Don’t test me.”
“I would never dream of it, babe,” Tony said, and Steve beamed. Then he went off to take his shower.
Tony laid there a moment more, grinning like a loon and blinking away tears. This definitely could have been the drugs, because he really didn’t believe in things like God or fate or the supernatural. Still, who had inexplicably shown up in his dream to bestow her blessing upon him was pretty undeniable. Maybe his subconscious was a little bit cleverer than he’d thought, conjuring up the one person who could actually soothe his spirit. He’d never met Sarah Rogers, never even seen more than a couple pictures of her, and he respected the hell out of her. If anyone could put his fears to rest…
He grinned up at shadows. Well played.
A rustle by the bedroom door had him sitting up a bit. Steve had left it cracked, and there was a little body there, dressed in feety pajamas and sucking on his thumb. Tony chuckled, meeting brown eyes so much like his own. Jamey waited, like he needed permission to come in. Like he’d ever needed that. “Well, get over here,” Tony finally said.
Jamey came running. He went to Tony’s side of the bed, and Tony leaned down with a wince to lift him up. The toddler smelled like his nighttime baby wash again, and Tony just held him close and breathed it in. “What are you doing out of bed?” he whispered, trying to sound a little cross but just infinitely happy.
“Can I sleep with you?”
Tony grinned. The thought of it… Steve would come out of his shower warm and bare chested, and he’d climb into bed with them, and he’d hold them both so tight. They could snuggle, sleep, be together just as Tony had dreamed. It’d be like heaven. So he set Jamey in his lap and tried not to smile too brightly. “Ugh. Yeah. Naughty boy.”
Jamey’s sleepy face looked a little sad. Worried, Tony checked him quickly, patting his bottom, touching his forehead to look for a fever, stroking his hair. “What’s the matter, buddy?” Then he noticed what was missing. “Where’s Tiggy?”
“Don’t wike Tiggy anymore,” Jamey mumbled. “He hurt you.”
Memories of the tiger hunting them, of Tiggy tormenting him, skirted around the edges of his thoughts. He brushed all that aside. Oh. “You mean when I tripped on him?” Jamey nodded, lip stuck just a bit out, eyes welling with tears. “Oh, big guy. No, no, no. It’s fine. It wasn’t his fault, and it sure wasn’t yours. Accidents happen, right? I mean, we have to be careful, but it’s okay. I’m fine.” Jamey nodded. Tony wiped a few wayward tears with his thumbs. “And sometimes accidents actually end up being a good thing.”
“Well, they can make you appreciate things. Help you figure things out sometimes.” He kissed Jamey’s head. “So it’s all good. No tears. No reason to be afraid. Everything’s fine.”
Jamey nodded after a moment and then threw his arms around Tony’s neck. “Love you, Daddy.”
Tony breathed, feeling completely at ease. “I love you too, James.” For just a moment he basked, doing nothing more than feeling the peace inside him and all around him. Then his mind started going again. “But if you’re really done with Tiggy, and that is one-hundred percent okay with me, kiddo, maybe we can find something new. A new favorite toy, huh? How about an elephant? Or a bear? Or… Animals are cool, but tech is way cooler. So how about a robot, maybe? Like WALL-E?”
Jamey pulled away, settling against Tony’s chest. “I wike robots,” he answered, putting his thumb back into his mouth and closing his eyes.
“Me, too. I could make you an iron man guy. How’s that sound? Daddy’s good at that stuff.”
“Yeah. Want that.”
“I’ll get on it tomorrow,” Tony promised softly, “because your daddy’s an inventor. You know that?” Jamey didn’t answer because he was asleep again. Tony cuddled him close. “Your daddy’s an inventor and a scientist and a futurist. All that.” And a business man. And a husband. And a father, a good father. “And you can be all those things, too. You can be it all. You can be anything you want.” He closed his eyes and smiled. “No doubt about it.”