Chapter 1: not as the calm heart knows
Before his injury, Tony had been a fast, intuitive flier: agile in the air, as those of his wingshape usually were; able to tumble and swoop, convert height to speed and speed to lift and somehow always come out on top.
That was how he referred to it; not 'abduction' or 'captivity' or 'maiming' but injury, the most neutral word possible. Though Steve had never, not once, heard him call it an accident.
The metal plates were larger than feathers, though they slid over each other in a similar way; light and flexible and ever-so-slightly sandpaper-rough on the trailing edges. And sharp enough to cut, as Steve discovered when he was allowed to touch for the first time.
He didn't say anything, just stuck his finger in his mouth and half-spread his own wings wider, mantling to shield Tony from view. Tony was holding still, but that wouldn't last. He was right when he said they needed to be out of here five minutes ago. Steve kept his touch light and impersonal, tracing the sweep of metal and carbon fiber all the way back to where it turned to harness fitted to the heavily muscled stubs of Tony's natural wings.
"Found it. There's a lengthwise crack in the underside of this strut here, feels like ricochet damage. Don't think it'll break, but it's mushy, it'll bend." Tony stuck his hand back, and Steve grabbed it and set it on the problem.
"Oh... Yeah, that's..." Tony drew himself in further and scrabbled at something with his other hand; when he passed a leather shoelace back a few seconds later Steve realized he'd taken it off. "You know the constrictor knot, Cap? Doesn't matter, you get the idea: strongest knot you know, tight as you can. Start at this end of the crack," he pinched the tip of it closer to his body, "and tie one every inch or so until you run out of cord."
It was a laughably small thing to lay Tony's life on, but they didn't have time to argue. Steve did as he was told. The twisty grating-floored corridors looked all alike no matter how far they got from the cells, and a few minutes later they still hadn't found an exit, despite the slow swoop in his stomach that told him the zeppelin had lost another thousand feet. Tony didn't have to tell him with that maniacally elated look in his eye that a HYDRA airship was a bad place to be especially right now--Steve wholeheartedly agreed--but somehow they ended up arguing anyway, when Tony darted half-shod ahead of him and took a bullet on his wings again.
"I'm not fixing you again!" Steve yelled. The spang sound of the ricochet together with Tony's grunt of impact was way too distinctive for his peace of mind.
"You heard nothing! Nothing happened!" Tony yelled back, breathing hard. "I'm just gonna...take this gun off this guy who won't be needing it anymore..."
The three dark-uniformed goons Steve was pinning down at the far end of the corridor got sudden overwhelming reinforcements.
"Besides, Cap, don't get ruffled, I have a whole 'nother shoela-ACE!" Tony yelped as Steve bowled into him, got the engineer's midriff settled on his shoulder, and upped his speed.
Tony spluttered on feathers and lifted his own wings out of the way, covering Steve's back. The muscles of his stomach and chest tensed under his silk shirt as he braced an elbow between Steve's wings and--BAM! BAM!--used the gun he'd taken. Steve winced at the sharp noise and skittered into a hard left, snapping one wing out to help corner and leaving a bootprint five feet up on the wall.
There, up ahead finally, a hatch that had to lead to the outside. A soldier was just coming through it, his feathers windblown. Steve let off a burst of machine gun fire and the soldier either dodged or fell right back out, the hatch swinging open. "Tuck in!" Steve yelled, and launched them out into the cool night air.
They tumbled for a hundred feet or so in the eerie windswept silence of freefall. Tony's grip tightened warningly, but Steve remembered the dangerous edges of his wings and stayed tucked tight while Tony reached back and adjusted something, first on his damaged wing and then the other. Then Tony gathered himself and kicked off hard, and the whole sky lit brighter than day above them as part of the zeppelin blew up.
They both flipped on their backs in reflex; Steve wasn't sure, but he thought he heard Tony whooping. More parts of the zeppelin blew up, which he watched with a sense of regret. They hadn't found his shield or Tony's palm repulsors; more than likely, they were still somewhere on the vessel meeting its end in fire up there. It was lighting up the nearby cloud-towers like sunset, but the sharp-edged shadows the clouds cast on each other at crazy outlandish angles layered the whole scene in surreality. He wanted to look longer, try and memorize the colors against the deep velvet blue of the night sky, but he could make out debris falling their way and some of it would catch up to them quickly. He turned back over in time to see Tony go into a deep dive upwind to the zeppelin's course, shook himself together, and followed.
One thing about metal wings: they made Tony fast in dives, especially for a smaller fella. Even with his greater weight it took Steve a long five seconds to catch up, and he was flying on the very tips of his primaries. When he pulled level he could see Tony was doing the same, his spans half-furled in a way that might take some stress off the damaged strut.
"How're you going to stop?" Steve called.
Tony shot him a quelling look. "Let's just get away from HYDRA first, mom!"
The dark land below looked indefinably fuzzy. If Steve had to guess he'd say it was a forest. "Where do you think we are?"
"Not Latveria! Other than that, don't care!"
Steve took a moment to think about it, but Tony was right: even if Doom allowed a HYDRA zeppelin in his airspace, he'd have put escorts on it--but in that last well-lit glance he'd taken, the zeppelin had been alone.
They arrowed through an almost-invisible layer of haze, and what was now definitely a forest spread out wide and dark below them.
Afterward Tony wouldn't remember the landing. He woke up when he was already on the ground, with the muzzy feeling that he had actually been awake for some time. "Tony?" someone--Steve--was saying worriedly.
"Umnh. Steve," Tony said with a sense of accomplishment. "What's up?"
"Let me get out…" There was a sense of fumbling or rustling, and then Steve's voice much closer. "Tony. Tony. Hey, can you open your eyes again?"
"Uhhhh…" Tony saw a wash of glowstick-blue light and shut his eyes, clutching the ground. "Dizzy. Nope. Not a good idea." The jolt of pain had also not been a great sign, and unfortunately that was sticking around, a sickening, grinding ache from just behind his eyes all the way down to the middle of his back, between his wings. He was on his back, which was all kinds of wrong, and his flight muscles were cramping down his right side, stabbing with every breath. Had he pushed too hard and crashed again?
"Hey, no, JARVIS isn't here but it's okay." Someone followed his hand and found the cramp, rubbing along the lines of muscle, pressing it out gently. "I think your right wing is strained, and you've got bruises all over."
"Steve?" Tony said again. This was very confusing.
"Shh, it's okay, we're down and we can stay right here for a while. Oh yeah, you're all hot along this line, the harness must have bruised you good. I didn't think any ribs were broken but I'm going to check again, all right?"
Warm hands felt along his sides, easing the trembles of fatigue and shock. It would have felt nice except the twisting, pounding spikes in his head were getting worse, and bringing nausea with them.
"Gonna throw up," Tony gritted out, and warm arms helped him onto his side, supporting his head and neck, but the dizziness violently disagreed with the change in orientation and everything shattered into a bright kaleidoscope of pain as he retched.
When he came back to himself a few minutes later, his throat and nose burned from the acid and he concentrated on holding as still as possible. Shivering hurt, but he couldn't seem to stop.
There was shifting around and above him, and a worried voice that swam in and out of hearing. "Nnnn, nonono," Tony said, grabbing at cloth and dirt and trying to explain his adamant policy of not moving.
The warm bulk at his back stilled, then stretched, muscles shifting against Tony's feathers, and covered him from neck to toe in a huge wing. Tony took a breath and held very still. He hadn't been covered like this since he was a kid, and it was so warm.
Hard plastic bumped his lips gently--the mouth of a bottle. "Rinse," someone said, and Tony got a mouthful, dribbling into the dirt, and swished and spat. The bottle came back and he drank a little at a time. They paused often, letting him breathe, maybe waiting to see if he would throw up again. As long as he didn't have to move, Tony didn't care.
Something else touched his lips: fingers holding a pill. "Painkillers," the person holding him said, "but only if you can swallow."
He'd hold it on his tongue until it dissolved if he had to. Tony opened his mouth and took the pill. It stuck painfully in his scratchy throat and took two gulps of water, but he got it down on the second try, then rasped "Yinsen?" Yinsen had shared his blankets, his antibiotics, his mind--
--Yinsen had spread his wings as he died, and for the first time Tony had seen that his long elegant pinions were clipped, and Yinsen had never planned to fly away from here by the same door as Tony at all.
But Yinsen was dead, years dead, and old Mr Jarvis longer still. This couldn't be them. Tony shivered, but he was getting warmer, the shivers trailing off. This must be Cap; even he admitted his wings were huge, or yuge when he said it, Brooklyn bubbling up thick and sudden in his voice like he was quoting someone he'd known back then. Tony half-laughed half-hiccupped, remembering, and the wing covering him shifted, tucking over his head too. Tony relaxed, the pain slowly receding and something else lifting him up as the pill worked, like swimming at night in the long slow off-season rollers at Malibu. His hand was beside his face, already here; he cleared a space on the clean dry pine-needley dirt Cap had laid down until there was a little draft of cooler air, tucked his nose between two long soft-edged secondaries, and fell asleep.
They were closer to the ground than they realized. This was why Steve had never liked flying at night: even if you got your team pointed in the right direction you had to keep checking on them to make sure they didn't fall asleep on the wing, and diurnal types were terrible at judging distances in the dark. If Steve could have whatever he wanted, he'd never do a night mission without Natasha (and IR goggles, but mostly Natasha) again.
When an updraft brought them the smell of pine needles and the creaking of branches, Tony pulled up in a long swooping curve, dumping speed and gaining altitude again as he pushed it nearly to a stall before spreading his span out fully and starting another swoop. Steve stuck close, watching Tony's damaged wing, but it held.
He couldn't dump enough speed this way though, not quickly enough. Steve could backwing to a vertical drop, but without his repulsor bracelets Tony needed at least a hundred yards, straight and flat--a hundred yards of meadow or pond they weren't going to find in this forest in the dark. Steve beat up enough to get above his teammate, then dropped in synchrony and closed the gap between them by inches.
“Steve, what are you--Steve, stop! You can’t brake us like th-- STOP!”
Steve dug his fingers into the harness straps and backwinged softly; four or five beats would slow them--fuck. The tip of his right wing shuddered and crackled as he lost aerofoil. Four white specks spiralled off into the distance: the tips of his distal flight feathers, shorn clean off by the trailing edge of Tony’s carbon fiber wings. Steve let go and scooped his wings, trading speed for height and stability.
“Shit, Steve? Steve, you all right? Fuck--”
Tony had to pull up into another velocity-shedding swoop, and Steve struggled to stay stable and keep his position. “I’m fine! I’m sorry! I should have listened!”
“It--it’s fine, Steve. I’ll just...see you on the other side, okay? Don’t come too close, don’t try to help. They’ll just cut you to pieces.”
“I thought you had another bootlace!” Steve shouted through the roaring wind; too fast, too low.
Tony laughed, daring a look over his shoulder. Steve could see the fear in his eyes, the resolve. “You’re just too damn big, Steve, and we're too low. You can't carry us both down through this in the dark. I’ll be all right!”
The trees loomed higher and Tony made one last rise, scooping air into his wings until he was flying nearly straight up, slowing, slowing--stalling.
He tucked his arms and legs in while Steve watched aghast; curved his wings down with the tension in his back, spilling loft and sideslipping like a knife through butter or a maple seed falling. Tumbling as slowly as a skilled flier could manage.
Steve couldn’t watch as Tony hit the first branch; he dived instead, uncaring that the pine needles scraped at his skin, anything to be there when Tony landed, to take some of the strain.
It was almost pitch-dark under the canopy, but live with the whoosh and creaking of trees like the forest breathing. Steve's eyes adjusted quickly to what light there was. He didn't have the night acuity of someone who was born to it, but the serum let him see better than most. He backtracked, running only half on the ground and careful not to crack his wings on a tree, to the area where Tony had gone down.
He hadn't made it to the ground. Steve called to no reply, found a broken branch dropped on a bush and felt bits of bark and debris dropping from above. He followed the line up and picked out a glint of matte silver: Tony was there fifty feet up, tangled in his harness and his metal wings caught on the branches. The damaged one had broken again and come partially apart. It looked like that was the reason he hadn't fallen all the way to the ground.
Steve took a moment to thank SHIELD for the tread on his boots, found two sturdy trunks that were straight and bare as pool cues for the first hundred feet, and zigzagged up them, pumping his wings as he jumped back and forth like he was working up to tenement rooftops from an alley too narrow to take off from properly. His trees shook, dropping needles and pine cones, but they didn't disturb the branches holding Tony.
Once up, Steve worked his way over to a limb that was thick enough to take both their weights, found another that would do to belay from, and anchored the line from his duty belt to both of them and to Tony's harness so he wouldn't fall farther.
Tony was breathing; Steve could hear it. He was limp, though, head down, and didn't respond when Steve called to him and touched the harness. With the design of his wings, it looked like the sharp edges all pointed away from him; at any rate, Steve couldn't see any blood. Steve felt carefully around his head and neck without moving him, and found a lump on Tony's forehead to one side just above his hairline, oozing blood into his hair. There was a line of heat down one side of his neck; a strain, at least, and painful. Tony moved slightly at his touch and a neatly sliced bunch of pine needles tumbled down, far down to the bushes below.
"You know, we'll have to go down together," Steve said, keeping up a low, constant stream of thinking aloud. "I need to stabilize your head and neck. Nothing around here to use as a brace, but leaving you where you are really isn't better--not stable, and a lot of your weight's on your right wing…" They could belay down together; he had enough line for that, as long as it didn't saw through the branch. He patted around very gently, feeling how Tony was tangled, and came quickly to another conclusion, though he didn't like it.
"I need to take you out of the harness. We'll leave it up here for now, okay?"
Beneath his silk shirt a series of straps went around Tony's chest, shaped to lie along his keelbone with flat, flexible buckles and padded by an undershirt that felt like kevlar and impact gel was woven in. Two straps ran up over Tony's shoulders--he'd leave those for last--and another set ran under the waistband of his fine slacks. Apologizing, Steve patted there too, and was relieved to discover it fastened around Tony's thighs along the same lines as the high-speed drag chute harness built into his own regular uniform, and could detach from the chest harness without needing to come off entirely.
Steve checked again that the belaying line was fast to both of them, then pulled Tony's shirt up and undid the buckles of his chest harness one by one. Tony breathed a little deeper as it popped open, and stirred slightly, his hand coming up to bump limply against Steve's. Steve took it and squeezed gently. "Hey, hey Tony, can you hear me? I'm taking off your harness, it's stuck in this tree. Squeeze my hand?" He carried on talking softly, craning to see Tony's face. Some eye movement under the lids, which was good, though his hand stayed relaxed; he'd really taken a knock. Steve swallowed down his worry. If they could get out of the tree before Tony was awake enough to really feel it, there was that. "Don't worry about it. I'm gonna keep going. I'm takin' your right wing out of the harness socket first, let's get that weight off it."
Trying to keep his mind off the intimacy of the touch, he ran a hand up Tony's natural wing, finding the more slender straps that ran under black feathers, and loosened them until he could pull the stump itself out of its padded socket. Tony sucked a breath through his teeth and drew in reflexively, disordering his feathers where they still caught on the straps, then made a sound of pain. Steve untangled him--there were permanent gaps in his feathers where the straps went--and gently folded the wingstub up against his back. It didn't tuck naturally in a counterweighted package like a full wing would, but he snugged it under the silk shirt and that seemed to work.
His left wing went more easily; the right had been stiff, maybe hurt in the fall. Steve hooked his belt to the back of Tony's hip harness and gathered him in, holding his head against his shoulder, then slithered the last two straps off Tony's shoulders and swung them free.
Tony jerked, wings straining to spread against the silk, and said "Uh?" Steve couldn't shift his one-armed grip while his other hand was occupied with the carabiner; he snugged Tony a little closer and patted his chin and ear awkwardly, then wrapped one wing around Tony's front, giving them a slow spin and flaring the other stiffly to counterweight.
"I've got you, it's okay. I'm rappelling us down. We're both hooked in good, I just gotta--make this smooth--" He let out rope as fast as he dared, hoping the twist Morita'd shown him decades ago would still work, with this modern carabiner and line, to slow them gradually at the bottom.
Tony subsided, though his pulse was beating fast in his throat, and eyelashes fluttered against the edge of Steve's hand as he blinked a little. "Cap?" he said, then "Nnnnnn, J'VIS, let me, c'mon."
"No way, Iron Man, you're staying right here," Steve snapped in pure battlefield reflex. "I need you at the bottom. Hold still, we're nearly there."
"Kay, jeez," Tony sighed. Steve could feel him starting to shiver. "Fuck are we, J--" Tony cut himself off with another hissed breath as Steve braked them, then just panted "Fuck, fuck, fuck," his pulse jumping, and tried again to spread his wings.
"Shhhh," Steve said, and "Sorry, sorry," but he held Tony's head and neck still against his shoulder while he got his feet fully on the unmoving ground and walked them over, still letting out line, to a sheltered spot that turned out to be the half-cave under the roots of a fallen tree. Once they were laying down Tony's struggles petered out into waves of trembling.
Tony was a tough bastard. Steve had seen him faint silently as a dislocated shoulder was put back in, and carry on sass contests with the SHIELD medics even while they were stitching him up. This time when he threw up there was a hoarse whine of pain in his throat on every gasp, a sound like begging for it to stop without air or words, that made Steve frantically dig through his duty belt for anything that could help.
If he thought about it, he had the incredibly fuzzy impression of recently exiting a tree, so this was just extra confusing. But about par for the course, really.
He was pretty comfortable, sitting mostly upright in the V between two large branches; his legs around a wide limb with some padding, the trunk at his back--or maybe the other one was the trunk?--and a blanket rolled up around his neck like a travel pillow. He shifted a little, finding the perch more secure than he realized...his hip harness was tied to the tree.
His hip harness was tied to the tree, a rope around the limb behind him looped through the anchor point at the base of his spine. He spent an embarrassingly long couple minutes feeling out the knot before realizing it was just a hitch; the real knot was somewhere else, out of his reach.
There was something taped to the palm of his hand. He squinted at it: a pill, tucked under the sticky side of the tape, and a note in big black capitals. PAINKILLER, it said, and EAT TOO, and directed him to his left breast pocket.
He had Steve's dress uniform jacket on over his own shirt. It had pockets, pockets, pockets, an acceptable number of pockets; in the left breast pocket was an energy bar and down at his hip there was the weight of a bottle of water, counterweighted on the other side with something...decidedly more lethal. A Russian-made pistol, knockoff of a classic SI design. He should take out the clip, count his ammo, but right now he'd be more likely to drop it. He left it where it was after triple-checking that the safety was on.
His depth perception was so screwed it took several tries, but Tony focused hard on making his fingers go where he wanted and eventually managed to button the jacket collar up higher against the wind, then resettled it on his shoulders and poked his wings out the slits in the back.
They slid out easily, too easy, and he froze; he wasn't wearing his prosthetics, as if they would have fit under the jacket. He wasn't even wearing his chest harness and oh fuck oh fuck he was stuck out in the open--
Tony shoved back against the tree, hiding his hands in the cuffs of the jacket and ducking his head, trying to blend with the natural colors. He held very still, ignoring the jolt of pain that came when he jarred his neck, and just watched and listened over his own hammering heart, long enough to hear a wind coming through the trees from hundreds of feet away, making them move and sigh like a slow ocean wave for tens of seconds before air stirred where he was, ruffling his hair.
His tree was a leafy one--he had no idea what kind--and wide and old. In addition to the jacket there was green-and-brown netting strung around him, and the branch was spread with a drab woolen blanket. He drew his legs up slowly and tucked his feet into it. He was missing a shoe. No wonder his toes were cold.
The blanket was charred at one edge, which didn't smell that great but would camouflage his own scent well. The whole forest smelled faintly of char. That's right--they'd set a zeppelin on fire. The panic threatened to come back and he breathed deep: synthetics, mainly, no smell of wood burning. Steve wouldn't have gone far. If there was a forest fire or they had to move fast for some reason, Steve would come back.
God, his head hurt. He wasn't hungry but he ate some of the energy bar anyway, keeping the bright wrapper hidden inside the jacket cuff and scanning above and below every few bites, then drank deep from the water bottle.
After shadows had lengthened by an hour or so, he was hurting enough that he gave in and took the pill. He couldn't really tell himself that he was alert when he had to keep closing one eye to focus the other. It took effect like a warm blanket settling down over everything, making the pain recede to a tickle at the edges of his mind. He relaxed a little, and stretched his stiff legs, and resettled himself against the tree at his back.
It felt good, the solid bulk pressing between his wings in nearly the right way, protecting and concealing and supporting him even though it was just a tree. Why not, he figured, and rubbed back against the trunk a little, feeling delightfully jaded. Even in his fucked up life he didn't get tied to trees that often. Might as well enjoy it. He missed being touched like this. It just didn't work out so well, now.
Ask Steve, who he was sure had gotten sliced by the new fuckoff alloy prototypes, and hadn't said a thing. Steve had seen his real wings now, too; Steve had taken the harness off and seen how little was left when you took the tech away from Tony Stark. Tony tucked his wingstubs tighter and curled into the jacket.
Had Steve held him last night? He couldn't remember.
It took Steve longer than he expected to find the main zeppelin debris field, salvage what he could, and make his way back. Lighter things like the blanket he'd found this morning were blown for miles, and even the heavy debris was scattered widely. He kept his eyes open and didn't run into any HYDRA soldiers or other scavengers. Nor did he find his shield, though he came across two sites with several-hour old bootprints and cigarette butts.
He moved carefully as he came in sight of the tree where he'd left Tony, making himself obvious. It had been a gamble, splitting up like that with one of them injured and so vulnerable; he'd left the gun in Tony's pocket. It was hard to be sure through the camo netting, but he thought Tony was awake and tracking his approach. When he got close enough he whistled the old Commandos' birdcall and Tony raised a hand in response.
Getting himself up to the limb with the equipment he'd salvaged was a bit difficult, but he figured he could carry it and power up without needing to get the rope, and turned out to be right. The weights Captain America could carry in flight had always astounded people back in the war. He landed heavily, though without whacking anything or stepping on Tony, and Tony just blinked owlishly at him while Steve unhooked the camo netting and inserted himself under it, hunkering down with a sigh to keep their silhouette slim.
"There a Walmart out there or something?" Tony said, eyeing Steve's armful of assorted finds.
"Nope," Steve said cheerfully, "but I did bring you a present." He dumped the light stuff--more blankets, netting, extra jacket and socks--then set the heavy cabinet of his best find down in front of Tony, nearly in his lap. It was clearly communications equipment, and Steve had brought all the nearby pieces too.
"Ooooooh," Tony said, and immediately tried to unscrew the cabinet with his thumbnail. Steve watched just in case he was successful, then turned out the scrap in his pockets when Tony got that look of "what in my vicinity can function as a screwdriver." Tony abandoned his speculative appraisal of a sharp-edged piece of bark and dug through the handful of metal bits, made a pleased noise, and attacked the cabinet again.
Several minutes later Tony was wrist deep in the innards of the cabinet, pulling out specific wires and arranging them on his lap by a logic known only to him. He shifted, trying to peer down inside, but flinched back upright with a loud "Fuck! Ow, ow, ow."
"Take it easy," Steve said. Tony should probably be keeping his head and neck still, given how much he'd been hurting last night. "Can I hold it up for you or anything?"
"You're blocking my light, Rogers," Tony snapped. "Getting out of the way would help."
Steve sat back a little. He was blocking the light, but there simply wasn't much choice of places to go. "Okay, I'll move, but--hold still for a second first." He pushed Tony gently back until he was leaning against the tree trunk again and looked at his eyes, ignoring the glare this got him, then held up his finger and had Tony focus on the motion. "You've got a concussion."
"Oh really," Tony said. "I thought I felt like shit just from missing my coffee."
"Unfortunately no. I couldn't get a good look last night. I think you've also got a sprain in your neck and right wing. Is that mostly where it hurts?"
Tony looked aside, moving just his eyes. "Feels like a monster case of whiplash, yeah."
"How much do you remember?"
"Getting dolled up for the 14th Annual Foundation Extrava-giva-thon, or as I like to call it, congrats you gave some money to kids here is a massive back-patting orgy with the other snobs where we try to get you drunk and happy enough to donate some more. I wore the new prototypes because they're the lightest and I knew it would be seven hours of standing and someone always tries to feel me up at these things, and then there's all the touching oh god all the touching, I swear to god I would rather meet with an entire school of kindergarteners. Don't give me that look, Rogers, I wasn't going to slice their arms off. It's just, you know, having that as an option. But I don't remember if we actually made it there or what happened to Happy because then I was waking up in a holding cell with my repulsor bracelets gone."
"We did get there," Steve assured him. "As far as I know Happy is fine. I last saw him go off to park the car. We were at the gala for a couple hours--you were so right about the old ladies--and then HYDRA's goons nabbed you by luring you off to a separate room, I don't know how, and they got me when I went looking for you. Some kind of gas."
Tony frowned unhappily. "Don't remember that. But I woke up, you had the adjacent cell, I broke the cell door locking mechanism and we snuck out and you found most of your stuff, but they had mine separate, and then the zeppelin blew up, so, oh well. Win some, lose some, I guess. Wait, the shield. We didn't find the shield, did we?"
Steve rubbed his face. "If it's somewhere in the debris, it'll turn up sooner or later. Your repulsors are what touched off the explosion, aren't they?"
"It's like you know me so well."
"Do you habitually carry anything else that might explode? Just so I know."
"Only my opinions. But Cap, you can't throw stones about preparedness. You fully stock the duty belt on your dress uniform with something besides condoms, which would scandalize those old ladies, by the way. You've got what, water, and heavy-duty drugs, and, and Batarangs--"
"Okay, okay," Steve interrupted gently. "I'll stop blocking your light now. I think--if I sit with my back to the trunk, you can sort of lean on me, and have plenty of room to work on this radio thing."
"It's a radar receiver," Tony corrected, leaning forward as Steve stretched around him to work at the knot securing Tony to the trunk. "But it doesn't have to stay a radar receiver. Mmnph," he added as he got a faceful of Steve's feathers.
"Sorry," Steve said. His wings had been ridiculously oversized before Rebirth, and even though the rest of him was now oversized to match, it was still clumsy sometimes.
"No, no," Tony mumbled, and skipped gears the way he liked to do. "You'd rappel us down a sheer rock face with dental floss. Don't lie."
"I never lie about the truth. It'd serve as fishing line too. Ah, there."
The knot came loose and Steve steadied Tony as he scooted forward on the branch, then awkwardly crab-hunched over him and turned around, long primaries scraping against the trunk. Several feathers caught in the netting during this maneuver and Steve shook them free, resettling himself and hand-combing his upper wings a little, before leaning back with a sigh.
Tony was sitting stiffly, leaning slightly forward with his hands clutching the radar cabinet and his wings drawn in tight. Steve braced his legs either side of Tony's hips, for security. "Can I help you shift back?"
Tony started to twist around, then stopped and faced forward again with a hiss, his feathers raising in--if it were anyone else, Steve would guess embarrassment. "Yeah. Okay," he said, and Steve half-lifted him by the hip harness and drew him back until their hips were flush.
"Lean back against me?" Steve said hopefully. From the silence he thought Tony would be giving him a very long, very hard look if he could turn his neck enough to see Steve's face, but eventually he did lean back, in fits and starts, and Steve used one shoulder to brace Tony's head, letting him relax his neck if he wanted. Otherwise Steve held still, keeping himself as relaxed as he could, until he heard the metal scraping start up again and saw that Tony had gone back to the work.
He dozed for a while. The tree felt good at his back, along with the very slight sway of their perch; he didn't need to sleep yet, but he'd gotten enough physical activity in the last twenty hours for the rest to be welcome. Tony's feathers sleeked back down as he got absorbed in what he was doing and his wings relaxed enough to push against Steve's chest through his shirt.
Tony's wings. Steve had seen him without the prosthetics on before--mostly getting into or out of the armor--but never for long and never where he could just look. He'd been curious; who wouldn't be? A man with both wings amputated, pinioned, saying fuck you to the world and the doctors and making himself a way to fly again. At a time when Steve had been doing a game impression of walking and talking and generally convincing SHIELD he was okay to face the future, that had actually gotten through the haze of information overload and brought him up short, made him think about who this prospective teammate was. And then they'd met and Tony had said fuck you thoroughly, comprehensively, to everyone on the team, and Steve had shot right back, but they'd been able to work together.
The next time Iron Man and Cap got something done, it was easier, and the next after that. Maybe they'd both needed to get it out of the way. During their first press junket Steve had seen why Tony was so good at striking back and striking harder, and that made a guy more willing to cut him some slack.
Without the prosthetics it was easy to see that Tony had lost more than half of each wing; more like two-thirds, by area. They were amputated evenly, symmetrically, partway down his forewing, just below where his wing wrists would have been. Steve didn't want to think about the neatness of it, what that said about the likelihood of it being accidental.
But the stumps had healed cleanly, and Tony had kept mobility in his wing elbows and the ability to rotate his forewings, and his wingstubs were strong. He powered his flight with nothing but his own flight muscles, with as much fine control as was possible without having primaries he could spread and twist individually; where truly fine control was needed he used his palm repulsors as well.
It was clear, though, that the heavy activity took its toll on his natural feathers. There were no feathers left on his stumps themselves where they fit into the sockets of the prosthetics, and his remaining long secondaries were frayed and notched--especially the leading edge of the first one, which rubbed against unforgiving metal on every downstroke and upstroke. But the fact those feathers were left at all meant Tony must have dulled those edges of the prosthetics. At least he had taken a little bit of care.
Steve tucked his free hand into his pants pocket to keep himself from touching, smoothing out the frays, lifting and straightening the flattened down, but it hurt deep in his chest. Tony always refused offers of grooming. Steve hadn't pressed once he realized that even people grooming too near him tended to drive Tony out of the room.
But Tony was an adult and he'd moult once a year, if that. Steve ached to see him after moult, all glossy and sleek and full, but new feathers were soft for the first couple weeks. What if they barely had a chance to grow in before they were as battered and worn as these?
His coverts caught on the netting again and Steve realized his own feathers had raised in sympathetic itchiness. He half-unfurled and self-groomed distractedly, careful to stay out of Tony's light, keeping watch while the engineer tinkered.
"Hold this?" Tony said after a while. Steve took the cabinet's weight by threading his arms under Tony’s, holding it up while Tony stripped wires and reconnected them with finicky precision. Elbows jostled and Tony swept Steve in the face with his coverts, but Steve just stuck with it until Tony worked it out. Then the wind shifted the tree under them and blew Tony’s hair into his face, despite the camo netting, and Tony’s precision suffered. It took him four goes to catch the end of a trailing wire and get it through a gap in the casing, so Steve mantled on the windward side to give Tony a bit of cover.
Tony stiffened, the wire pulling out of his fingers despite the extra shelter, and Steve sat up a little straighter. Tony was staring intently at the sharp-cut edges of Steve’s first four primaries.
“I knew your wings were sharp. I should have listened when you warned me off. I'm sorry.”
Tony shook his head and bent back over the work, fingers quick and rough with the errant connection. “It shouldn’t have happened.”
Steve’s heart sank and he mumbled another apology, head drooping.
“I hope you threw them far away,” Tony snarled, stripping a wire with his teeth and an angry jerk of his head. Steve kept his nose intact by dint of turning the other cheek and letting Tony’s head hit his jaw muscles instead. It was softer, but not that soft, apparently, because Tony’s hand went limp and he curled in on himself with a little whimper.
“No, no... I wouldn't throw away your prosthetics. Easy...” Steve muttered soothingly.
“I don’t want them, I don’t want them, destroy them, leave them in the fucking tree, just--” Tony’s ribs jerked against Steve’s arms, fluttering too fast and too shallow. Steve tried to get a look at his face, but he was turned away, resolutely not looking at the cut feathers.
“They’re down on the ground, under cover. They’re pretty busted up. I won't--” Steve swallowed nervously, because seeing Tony grounded was horrible. “I won't make you wear them, please just breathe, Tony. I'm not injured. And they saved your life, you would've fallen all the way to the ground--"
Tony shook his head violently, which must have hurt, because he took a breath that sounded an awful lot like a sob. Steve cast around. "Okay. You don't want to hear how they saved your life, well, it'd be hard to number up all the times they've saved your life anyway. How about my life? Your wings saved my life three times over yesterday. You took bullets for me, Tony, and you try to pass that off as an armor reflex but it really isn't."
Tony sniffed, breathing a little easier. "Just bullets. No big deal."
"Anyone can get lucky. If your wings weren't strong and sharp enough to slide through the grating and reach that cell door mechanism, we'd still be their prisoners. Or we'd be dead, since I have the feeling your repulsors were gonna go off no matter what."
Tony didn't deny it, just burrowed deeper into his borrowed jacket, his uninjured left wing creeping up to cover his face as he got himself back under control. The self-imposed darkness would help. Steve let him be until he noticed his own hands fastened on the hem of the same jacket, unconsciously kneading the tough cloth. He forced himself to let it go, survey their surroundings, fuss with spreading and respreading the edge of a blanket instead. Tony hated when SI products hurt anyone, and his own wings damaging someone else's wings--Steve could see where this was coming from.
"I can grow back feathers in a couple days, anyway," he offered.
"If you pull them out," Tony said thickly, horrified. "I really--" he cut himself off and took a shaky breath. "I really don't like that. Is there any other way?"
"I only lost an inch or so length," Steve said more slowly. "That doesn't ground me. I can compensate for a couple months until a moult takes care of it."
"That's right," Tony said, sleeking back down a little. "You're moulting all the fucking time. I forgot."
"Not all the time," Steve protested. He wasn't unhygienic.
"Who in the Tower do the cleaner bots come to when something like say, an ultra-durable superfeather, has gummed up their works? I have some knowledge on this topic. I swear someday a villain is gonna get one and clone you and then we'll all be in deep shit."
"Not as deep as if they got one of yours," Steve said fondly.
"Good thing that's not so much of an issue," Tony said. His voice was even but he was sticking up again, and Steve abruptly couldn't take it anymore. He reached out and straightened two mis-lapped feathers, neatening up their edges where they'd frayed against the harness strap, then slipped his hand into the gap where the strap itself would run and ran his fingertips through the underdown.
Tony jerked and made a squeaking noise. "What are you doing?"
"It's growing every which way," Steve said forlornly. "I can't just leave it like this. I have to do something." Tony poofed even more, opening up access to his underfeathers, but Steve stilled his hands for a second, fingertips rucked deep into his down and resting on warm warm skin, feeling Tony's heartbeat in the tiny movement of shafts and tines against his wrist. "If you want me to stop I will, but I don't think Dummy can do this for you very well." Some of the tines on that little one had actually broken, and the rest were squashed into disarray. Steve hummed unhappily and stroked it back together. "If you have help when you put on the harness, some of this damage might be avoidable. This one should lie over the strap, but it got caught underneath..."
"Oh god, that one itched," Tony said, pushing back unconsciously, insistent rocksteady strength under his hand, and Steve tried to keep it silent when the breath caught in his throat. "Don't stop. I mean. If you want to, I won't stop you, but--"
"But?" Steve said when Tony didn't go on.
"Why," Tony said, and there was a world of self-loathing in his tone. "You have to tell me why you want to. I don't take pity."
"Because you smell good," Steve tried, and Tony snorted. "Sure, we've both smelled better than we do right now," Steve amended, "but I like your scent." He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Because this is a problem that's right here in front of me, and what I do right now will help, in a little way, and it'll make you feel good." There was more--he knew what he wanted to say, if he could get it out. "I don't know what you go through. I can't. But I was bedridden for months of my life. The fact, the evidence, that you were hurt doesn't scare me. You aren't ugly. I want to touch you."
Tony was quiet and still, though his breathing had sped up. "I know you look at me," he said.
"I'm sorry, I don't mean to stare. Your prosthetics are really eye-catching though, and you have all the different ones..." Tony sleeked a little; apparently that had been the right answer. Steve thought back to his own experiences, before Rebirth and after; how confusing it had been when nearly every aspect of peoples' reactions to him had changed, but how some interest had always struck him as more like...adding him to a collection, than anything else. And that had been the same when he was little as when he was big. "Ah," he said very carefully. "The fact that you were hurt doesn't scare me. And doesn't--fascinate me either, except that I want to understand more about you. I want to touch you because you're you, not because you were hurt."
Tony shivered all over and didn't stop, even when Steve pulled him a little bit closer. "Some people have a kink. For wing injury, for h-how I look now," he said, like it was being pulled out of him with rusty nails. "I really, really don't. JARVIS screens my fanmail and my searches, makes sure I don't--see any of that."
"Shhh, it's okay," Steve said, floundering between the not-new urge to reach through the internet and strangle somebody, and the sick apprehension that Tony would never have said so much if he wasn't drugged and in pain. "You don't have to explain yourself, you don't have to tell me anything unless you want to."
"Doesn't matter," Tony croaked. "Gonna take you at your word. Do whatever you want, Cap."
He leaned back hard, the full length of his spine and the base of his wings pressed into Steve's chest, shocking a huff of air out of him. Steve's wings, huge and shaggy and barred honey-brown, rose up without his volition and enfolded Tony by reflex, and Steve could feel how Tony was still shaking, how his strong, small, battered span folded up meekly in the hold, so vulnerable and so safe.
It took several minutes for Steve to realize he was blocking the light again. He cleared his throat and Tony stirred, not shaking any more so much as bonelessly limp with exhaustion.
"Wonder how long it'll take them to get here," Tony said.
"Is it not a radar receiver any more?"
Tony snuggled back into him. "No. 's been something else for a while."
Steve gave way, gathering him in, and Tony stretched against him and sighed, his breaths deepening after a while into sleep.
It took about an hour for the soft high hum of the quinjet's engines to reach them on the breeze, and then Natasha was landing lightly on the tip of their branch. Tony watched slit-eyed through the netting as she swooped down, her rounded silent wings back to camouflage colors today and perfectly suited to an environment full of obstacles like this. She didn't comment on their position except to ask Steve right away how injured they were.
He turned his face back away and tenaciously clung to sleep, drifting in and out of a doze while Steve rumbled into the comm, working out logistics. He was warm, okay, and if he stayed still he could just about ignore the sick headache and hot heaviness down his neck and right wing, making themselves known again. Steve's feathers smelled good, like musky sandalwood and baby powder, and he felt safe right now, in a way that was so goddamn rare in his life he wasn't going to give it up before he had to.
Soon enough he had to. Clint maneuvered the 'jet down through the slot in the canopy left by a fallen tree and left Natasha in the cockpit, hovering a dozen feet or so above the brush, while Clint and Steve wrapped Tony in a flyable stretcher. Laying down on his stomach in the stretcher was hard, even with a mini backbrace stabilizing his neck; he couldn't turn his head or curve his back the way he naturally would. It didn't feel great to be on his stomach either, leaving his back open to threats from above, but Steve gently folded up his right wing when it flapped outside the stretcher lip and Clint tucked a crinkly silver-on-the-inside blanket around him, and that helped.
They launched into the air, best haulers on the team, and Tony watched the little saplings down around the nursery log, whipping in the wind from the quinjet's engines. But no broken branches or stripped needles. No permanent damage. When Natasha was done scouring the scene, there'd be no sign for HYDRA that they were ever here.
Bruce was in the jet and he was all up in Tony's space right away, directing the stretcher to a reclined bunk-chair and helping Tony shuffle himself off it one limb at a time, wrapping the blanket more securely around him and shining a light in his eyes. Tony wound up half-sitting, propped up on his chest in the gently reclined chair with a drink in one hand and stern instructions to take a sip whenever he noticed it was there. Cherry and minerals, ergh.
"Keep drinking and you shouldn't need an IV," Bruce said, "though we will have to wake you up every couple hours. Concussion."
"Figured," Tony rasped. "Head hurts. Hard to focus."
"I'm cutting you off of the morphine pills in Steve's kit," Bruce said ruthlessly. "Finish that and eat some real food and you can have a Tylenol PM."
Reminded, Tony took a gulp of cherry stuff. "Okay, mom."
"I thought I was mom," Steve interjected.
"You can both be mom. No fighting," Tony muttered and rested his forehead on the headrest, too tired to tease. "Oh hey Cap, your shield."
Steve brightened and fished it out of the footwell of the first row of seats, testing the straps and running his finger along the edge to make it sing. "The leather's a little charred, but not too bad. Where'd you find it?"
"We tracked the vibranium," Bruce said, glancing over guiltily. "JARVIS says he and Tony, ah, figured out a way to use Stark satellites for that a few months ago."
"Whoops," Tony murmured. Steve didn't look too bothered though. He'd turned the shield around and around and now it was in his lap like a puppy.
"That's how you were nearby," he said, cocking an alert glance at Bruce.
"We tracked it to a HYDRA plane running like hell back to base," Clint called. "Little disappointed you two weren't with it. A little. We captured it really nice."
"We didn't let it get back to base, but I think JARVIS knows where to look now," Bruce said. "Touch your nose," he added to Tony. "Wait, wait, let me take the bottle for a second. Okay, go...okay, now other hand... Hmm. Take this back and take another drink."
'Real food' turned out to be sandwiches from a cooler; Tony recognized them from the Tower's employee cafeteria, and recognized JARVIS' foresight in stocking the 'jet. They must have been out looking since last night, when Tony and Steve went missing from the ball...unless he'd lost a day somewhere...
"What day is it?"
"I asked you that a few minutes ago," Bruce said.
"Oh." Tony processed this. He'd probably said it was Tuesday. "'Still the same day then. I can work with that."
"Whatever you say." Bruce sounded amused.
"So nice to me. Luring me into a false sense of security. Evil. Don't deny it." He ate another bite and took a drink--he'd moved on to gritty orange stuff--and if electrolytes were tasting this vile he'd had enough for now. He tried to pawn it off on Bruce, but Bruce made him drink more to wash down the Tylenol. Bastard.
Tony was glad Bruce had made him eat and drink first, no doubt about that, but he still started shivering again when Bruce peeled up the blanket, one side at a time, and very gently examined his wings. Tony wrapped his arms around the back of the chair and dug his forehead into the headrest, and put up with it as long as he could; Steve's fingers tracing out the sprain, warm and feather-light, followed by Bruce's cooler surer touch, and his blood was rushing in his ears loud enough that Tony couldn't hear a word if either of them were talking to him. He dug his nails into his palms and counted his breaths, concentrating on not throwing up, not passing out. Two people and an open space behind him, ohgodohgod, they could hold him down and he couldn't fight and couldn't get away, they could-- He flinched hard at Bruce's touch, though he didn't mean to.
And then Bruce had decided to be done and he was covering Tony back up, reclining the chair all the way down flat, pushing a long thick foam pad into Tony's chest and wedging another between his wings. Tony found himself on his side with his back safely to the cabin wall, breathing hard. He clutched the foam pad to his chest and burrowed his face into its fabric cover, pushing back into the matching firm pressure down his spine. They were wing-support pillows from the med supplies locker, but he didn't care; besides, the one behind him was keeping his left wing folded between the bunk and the wall, softening the engine vibrations, and it was at the proper angle for his right wing to just relax out on top of it, no effort and no pain. He hadn't realized how tired he was of holding it stiff, the attempt to make it hurt less becoming part of the problem after a while.
Tony shivered and rubbed his face on the pillow and let himself drift, head slipping and floating on relief over the remains of fear. That had been a bad one.
Warm touch, after a while, on his shoulder, on his arm where it poked out from under the blanket; Steve was still here.
"Bruce okay," Tony mumbled, feeling the words bubble up and above him like they were reaching for a cloud layer that could be a hundred feet higher or ten thousand feet, no sense of distance. He'd meant to make it a question but he couldn't remember how he'd sounded now.
"He's okay. He's up in the front with the others. I'll go check on him in a bit, if you don't mind Nat or Clint sitting here."
"Nat," Tony decided. He thought about adding more but it turned into a long sigh instead, words too slippery to catch and put in order. "Don't mean to be afraid. Can't help it."
"Shhh, don't worry. It's all right."
Tony drifted again, back down into sleep, feeling Steve gently combing and re-combing the hairs on his arm, grooming the only part of him he could reach.
Chapter 2: lured by the gleam
“And you threw a fit over me pulling damaged feathers,” Steve grumbled. “You could have called someone.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The clack-hiss of the cauterization gun was gonna turn into a trigger, any time now. The click of the bolt arming was just far enough in advance of the cauterization for his entire body to tense up, his stomach to roll and the grip he had on the gun to tighten until his palm ached.
Deep breath --clack-hisss-- “Holy fucking mother of JARVIS. Shit.”
Tony hunched over, forehead pressed to the mirror as the burn spread sickening pain up his upper wing. He pulled the bolt out of the feather follicle before it could stick to the burn, which at least felt like good pain, and scrambled for a pad of antiseptic-soaked gauze. It didn’t bleed much, this process --sorta part of the definition of ‘cauterization’-- but the burns would weep enough to cause problems if he didn’t dress them, so he dropped the bolt gun and replaced the antiseptic with a non-stick band aid.
Or at least, as non-stick as a wound dressing could get, which was never quite what they promised. That was number five out of nineteen; fourteen left to go.
His right wing was always gonna be hardest because he had to hold the gun left-handed, so he’d started there. The harness-damaged feathers were twisted and broken even under the skin; there was a hint of heat in one or two places that implied infection. But the cauterization would probably take care of that, and if not, the antibiotics would. He despised pulling feathers, it was wrong and horrible and he never wanted to see it happen, and absolutely refused to ever feel it again. He’d burn them out, like Yinsen had, and get it over with permanently.
He wriggled around, tucking his wing elbow under his arm elbow and twisting what was left of his forewing over his chest for better access. There were more straps on the forewing of the prosthesis but he’d been-- there were fewer feathers left there. Two broken on this side, and he pulled them out with soft-nosed pliers; that didn’t hurt a drop compared to the gun, but only because the first round of cauterizations had his brain swimming with endorphins. The sight of the feather’s root pulling out of his skin still turned his stomach.
deep breath, Stark.
He pushed the bolt against the hole left behind and clack-- “Aaaaaaaw fuckfuckfuck.... ow.”
“Tony?! What--!” There was a crash from the vicinity of the stairwell, followed by a tumbling of over-large feet down the stairs. Tony banged his head against the mirror with a whimper; he really did not want Steve to see this, but there wasn’t anywhere to hide either.
“Go away, Steve!” he panted. “I don’t want you here!”
“Tony, what are you doing?” Steve asked, hovering close behind him. Tony met his eye in the mirror, then looked away again at the expression he found.
“Fixing a problem. Needed more strap space.” He lined up the next shot and pulled the trigger with his teeth clenched. His groan was short and sweet, at least, hissed out between his front teeth.
Steve swore and pulled the gun away, careful not to pull the bolt out sideways at least, and Tony let him have it; he didn’t exactly want to inflict more pain on himself, thank you very much. He’d finish up later.
“And you threw a fit over me pulling damaged feathers,” Steve grumbled. “You could have called someone.” The supersoldier slathered antiseptic on the two most recent burns and covered them up with jerky urgency. It felt good to have someone else do it, Tony realized muzzily.
“Can’t. Don’t like doctors.” His entire upper wing was throbbing with his heartbeat, now, the two newer burns on his forewing soon to follow.
“Liar,” Steve said, not giving an inch. “You don’t like plumists.”
Tony grunted; that was true. “It’s the chair. Don’ like it.”
“He says, swaying on his feet,” Steve retorted. Tony hadn’t noticed, but the room was indeed swinging around, making Tony stretch his left wing out to balance and overbalancing into Steve’s palm.
“This is why people use anesthetics, you idiot. You’re all hopped up on pain.”
A chair hit the back of his legs and he folded into it, his wings flopping against Steve’s hands as they wheeled him in front of a workbench.
“I’ve gotta finish...'s gettin infected,” Tony confessed, letting Steve manipulate his body forward to rest his wing elbows on the workbench. “This is highly undignified,” he muttered into his arms, which he proceeded to drop his head onto.
The ache was spreading down his back, and down the outside of his thigh; transference. He was not fine, this fucking-- “Do the last few, I don’t wanna do this again. Endorphins’ll protect me.”
“Lidocane will protect you, you ass. Numbing creams and the rest don’t work on me, you could at least have the decency to use the one thing I miss after Rebirth.”
“That, is not fair. No one should go without painkillers, fuck. Oh.”
“Yeah, idiot," Steve repeated for good measure. "Now shut up and let me numb these.”
The ache receded under the icy spray of anesthetic, then the prick of a needle Tony had given up on being able to use, and Tony’s eyes shut of their own accord; that felt fucking fantastic. Steve’s hands were hot in contrast, even with the plasticy gloves catching at his down, but he never touched the burns with them, so, so careful.
Tony didn’t feel pain when the next batch of feathers came out, but he was surprised that Steve had pulled them at all. It wasn’t...wasn’t something you did, pull young, otherwise healthy feathers from the root like that. It was just wrong. But Tony needed it, he’d tried everything else...and Steve was just getting on with it.
He drifted in a haze, trying to distance himself from the clacking of the cauterizing gun. The rhythm paused only once, when Steve had to pull out a shard of broken quill out with tweezers. Tony tried not to whine at the delay, or the painless but still sickening pull, and probably failed. Steve was right; he was high as a kite.
“There you go... Nineteen out of nineteen.” Steve’s hand, gloveless, landed on the back of Tony’s neck, sending a rolling shiver down his back that lifted what was left of his feathers on end. “You must be freezing, come on, let’s get you something hot. I’m pretty sure you’re in shock.”
Tony thought about this, watching the far edge of the workbench wobble, and figured Steve was probably right. But that didn’t mean Tony wanted to be anywhere near the rest of the hyper-fit, shiny-plumage’d Avengers. He knew he was drab and dull, even where the antiseptic and anesthetic hadn’t stuck his feathers down in nasty, wet clumps; he hadn’t been able to get a proper bathing flap going since they’d got back from the HYDRA Ball and the shower just wasn’t the same.
“--ome on. Up you go...”
Tony found himself pulled upright and staggered to keep his feet, wings flaring then seizing under the combined abuse of sprain and burns. At least it didn’t hurt as much as it had before the lidocaine. Steve didn’t say anything, despite the wing wrist threatening his collarbone, and helped Tony gather his ill-balanced wings back against his back. Keeping them there was such an effort without a properly balanced prosthesis, but even the thought of the straps against his skin right now made his stomach turn.
“Hey, hey, no. Stop thinking about it and just walk, okay? Eyes fixed on something vertical...uh, there, the door frame. I’ll keep you going straight.”
Tony fixated and the world steadied to something approaching grav-normal. “Thanks,” he muttered, putting one foot in front of the other until walking didn’t feel like flying in a gale anymore. Steve’s hand on his shoulder had nothing to do with the plum-straight line he was pacing, nothing at all, nope.
“--shouldn’t have locked JARVIS out, he got sneaky. I dropped your dinner though.”
“Hmmwha...?” Tony said, blearily entering a code into the workshop door.
“He said you hadn’t eaten in a while, which I assume is true, but the timing is a little suspicious.”
“He doesn’t like pain.” The door locked and Steve started steering him towards the elevator. The workshop didn’t go dark though; JARVIS reengaged with his workshop sensors and started overclocking the fab units. Tony watched for a second, wondering what the AI was so passive-aggressively making, but Steve steered him away. There was a broken plate halfway through being cleared up in the hallway to the elevator. Tony wanted to nudge it with his foot and check how the cleaner bots were dealing with the larger shards, but Steve pulled him onwards.
“Yeah, you’re going to roost. Come here.”
Tony dropped his forehead against the offered leaning post --Steve’s chest-- and Steve’s arms wrapped under his wings to keep him up comfortably. “Thanks.”
Steve hummed and sneakily pressed his hot palm against the base of the sprain in Tony’s flight muscles. “I wasn’t going to make you do the rest yourself.”
Tony had been talking about the warm place to lean, where he didn’t have to watch his reflection in the elevator walls wobble, but that worked too, even if it made his chest blush under his clothes.
To Tony’s surprise, Steve led him straight to his nest, rather than the kitchen or rec room. Tony almost protested, because Steve had promised him coffee, but there was a warm hand on the back of his neck, and that wasn’t worth arguing with. His everything ached, but the back of his neck ached least.
Natasha was standing by his nestroom door, inscrutable at the best of times but even less comprehensible when Tony was feeling like this. Steve thanked her for something Tony was too busy being confused about her existence to process.
Inside, Natasha at their backs, it was warm and dark and wonderful, and Tony didn’t need any direction to clamber up the handholds into his nest, wings flaring just enough to keep his balance on the lip. There was a duvet and memory foam mattress and stuffed edges and --hello-- something warm right in the middle. Tony pressed his face against it, a churr starting deep in his chest, and let it warm some of the sickly feeling out of him. It was some kind of rubbery round thing filled with water and stuffed inside a fabric wrapper. He wriggled over it and squashed it against his chest with both arms, soaking up the heat.
“Sit up for me, for a second?” Steve asked, his bulk dipping the lip of the nest at Tony’s back. He had something in hand, which didn’t smell like coffee, but was steaming in the dim light, and Tony sat up, hot thingy held close and wings very carefully draped over the edge of the nest behind him. They weren't long enough to hook over the edge like proper wings would, but it was still more comfortable than leaning on his wing elbows.
“Drink up, then go to actual sleep, okay?”
Tony made grabby hands for the mug, ignoring the sleep comment because it didn’t need saying that, yes, he was roosting four hours before even Steve went up on a normal day because he was that fucking tired, alright? He didn’t need anyone pointing that out. Steve didn’t let him hold the mug completely on his own, because his hands were shaky and uncoordinated, but Tony could ignore the indignity in favour of drinking down the hot meaty soup.
“Bruce?” he asked, half way down.
“Yeah. He made it the day before yesterday, after we had that roast for dinner. Thought we might need a pick-me-up.”
Tony manfully ignored the reference to his dulling plumage; it’d get better as soon as the burns sealed up and he could have a proper bath. Once the soup was sitting heavy and warm and satisfying in his stomach, Tony pushed the mug back at Steve and curled sideways into his nest, the curve of the lip helping him tuck his wings comfortably against his back. Steve didn’t leave, even when Tony pointedly pulled the duvet over himself, so Tony gave up and curled half on his breastbone with the duvet snug around his chilled back and a pillow shoved under his chest, under the warm rubber bottle thing.
He woke up much later, shivering. The rubber thing was cold and his shirt was sweat-damp and chilly and he was freezing. He'd been dreaming...something formless, hard to reconstruct...materials fatigue? Something about the repulsor lenses cracking, and the old terror of being caught on the ground, flightless and vulnerable, that some days was like a haze he could still move through and some days came down like a sickening curtain.
It was that, the constant apprehension of being in danger, that made stress disorders so prevalent among survivors of wing injury. It was why the groundbreaking prosthetics development SI was doing was quite literally saving lives. It was why Tony hadn't stopped after making Iron Man, even though Iron Man let him fly; he couldn't wear the armor everywhere.
He couldn't wear the armor everywhere, and it was literally easier to become a recluse than to try--except, as he was rediscovering now, becoming a recluse didn't actually help. He'd have to suit up and go for a flight tomorrow, if JARVIS could compensate for the sprained right wing, tune up the control sensitivity high enough to pick up microtwitches but not so high he'd accidentally bounce himself off walls.
Only a few more days, a week maybe, before he could put on working wings and be safe wherever he was. If he wasn't healed enough to flap, if he could only glide for a while, he'd just stay up high. The workshop, the penthouse, he could do that. Oh god a week was so long.
Tony dragged in a breath, held it, let it leak out slowly, unable to stop himself kneading the pillow. He was keening, a thin high sound no one would ever hear, but the burns hurt and everything hurt and it was just too much, too much like those first weeks after he came back when he'd known he wasn't safe, nowhere was safe, and surprise, he'd been right.
He kept his eyes closed for a while, but the next time he blinked JARVIS had projected text on the side of the nest; his delicate way of conveying information without waking Tony if Tony wanted to stay asleep.
Sir, Steve Rogers requests permission to enter.
Tony closed his eyes again. Shit, Steve must have heard him. He wiped his face and reshuffled his wings a little, and they reminded him in no uncertain terms that there were nineteen new cauterization burns, some possibly still infected, and the lidocaine had long worn off.
"J, how'm I on meds?" he whispered.
Two hours overdue for diclofenac, for pain management and to reduce soft tissue inflammation of the sprain in your wing and neck. You were sleeping and I judged that provisionally more important than medication. Additionally, I recommend an antibiotic, and checking of the bandages on your burns when you get up.
"Steve has some?"
Yes. Some hot cocoa as well.
JARVIS had assured him that diclofenac wasn't addictive, and yes, he was well past the 'grudgingly accept drugs' threshold of pain, though it was stupid, just for a sprain and some burns. He tried to think about that, but his traitorous hindbrain kept dwelling on how warm Steve always was, how big his wings were. "He can come in," Tony mumbled into the pillow. “Lights, five percent.”
JARVIS was silent, but the lights came up incrementally and the bass notes of Steve’s voice rumbled through the door. It creaked a bit, like Steve had been leaning against it waiting for him to wake up. Jesus.
Steve knocked, barely audibly, and Tony grunted in what he hoped was a vaguely irritated way. (It was not a whine, or a keen, or a pain noise. Not at all, fuck.) Light from the hallway spread across the floor, and Tony ducked his head behind the jumbled bedding until Steve shut the door softly behind him.
“‘lo, Tony. How you feeling? Can I come up?”
Tony gritted his teeth to keep quiet because shifting to sit up hurt, but made it upright anyway and set a hand on the lip of the nest. "Yeah." It felt more like the middle of the night than morning, but either way he was depressingly sure they wouldn’t let him have coffee on top of the meds. Steve would have to suck it up in the face of Tony’s ire.
The nest bobbed gently on its counterweights as Steve swarmed up and balanced on the edge, holding the cocoa carefully, one bare foot tucked shyly in the bedding and the other still outside braced on the frame. He'd used the recessed handholds instead of jumping, and he'd only flapped a little to make up for having one hand full.
"Jesus, Steve, you don't have to stay awake because of me."
"It's okay, I left and slept for a while after you dropped off."
Tony gave him a narrow glance. While Natasha was at the door, he meant. They'd probably traded off. "I don't need 24-7 guarding, especially not in my own home. Get that through to your backbrain right now."
"I know you don't," Steve said calmly, turning the mug handle toward him and nestling it in the duvet a little precariously, so that Tony had to grab it or risk it spilling. The thick ceramic was warm, soaking right into his fingers, and he lifted it up and rested it on his chest to inhale the chocolate steam while he dry-swallowed the pills Steve shook into his other hand.
"We're not guarding you, not really," Steve went on, and Tony looked away to disguise the little pang of...hurt, or disappointment, maybe, that he had no business feeling. "This is one of the most secure buildings on the Eastern seaboard. JARVIS, and the security systems and layout of the spaces you made here, are your first, second, third, I don't even know how many lines of defense. The presence of me or Nat at the door is negligible after that, so really, we're just doing what makes us feel better," Steve explained cheerfully.
"What makes you feel better," Tony repeated, feeling himself sleek back down but still unaccountably suspicious. That was way too logical, had Steve ever used logic on him before?
Actually, last week when Iron Man had to defuse that bomb --and the mission before that, with the robots-- damn, on the field he'd been doing it more and more. "JARVIS, take a note, I should stop listening to this man, he's dangerous."
"I calculate a statistically significant decrease in danger when you listen to him, sir," JARVIS said, the snitch. "Sample size is, as yet, unfortunately small, but the trend is very strong: 3.1 standard deviations, plus or minus 0.78--"
Tony slurped loudly to cut him off, feeling his face heat. From JARVIS, quoting that kind of statistic was practically a declaration of undying devotion. The cocoa was almost hot enough to scald, going down, but it was rich and delicious.
"Seriously, Steve," he said, turning back, "if it makes you feel better to sit on the floor in the hall instead of on a chair like a normal human--"
"I sat in a chair," Steve said, eyes dancing.
"--it's a free country, I'm not going to stop you, god knows I might decide to sleep on the stairs or something at any time so I'm all for doing random shit in strange locations. But if you ever decide it'll make you feel better to stop me from going out and living my life, your visa is fucking revoked. I have to fight enough people. I'm not going to put up with that."
"Yeah," Steve said, and it was his turn to look away. Dammit. Tony was about to push harder when Steve spoke again. "We're not at the point-- I know what I can ask Iron Man for, and what I can depend on him for without needing to ask, but I don't think I have the right to ask Tony Stark to do anything. I would never want you to stop living your life, though."
"So what would you ask for, if you thought you had the right?"
Steve met his eyes. "If me or one of the others wanted to come along when you go live your life, I'd ask you to consider letting us. Not necessarily to agree, but to just consider it, seriously."
“You know I have an entire department for that, right? Happy’d be pissed if you guys took over.” But that wasn’t quite what Steve meant, and they both knew it. Tony drank his cocoa and considered. "If I ever want to get away and I put on the suit, you can't fucking stop me."
"I don't want to stop you," Steve said, and his eyes danced again. "Besides, then you'd have the suit. And JARVIS."
"You count JARVIS in your posse, do you?" Tony raised an eyebrow. "J, are you in his posse?"
"More accurately, sir, he is in mine."
Tony raised his other eyebrow. Steve had talked about this to JARVIS on his own. Well, well, well. He finished off the cocoa, thinking hard now, and Steve didn't interrupt him. Cap had always been surprisingly good at being quiet.
Having Steve under JARVIS put a different spin on the cocoa, and the soup and the everything. It also put Tony under J, when he’d usually been over, unless J was worried about him...working too long, or not eating. So, pretty much status quo, then. Huh.
When the mug was empty Tony handed it back to Steve. The painkillers had kicked in, and Tony was starting to feel Steve’s closeness, his close attention. Instincts he mostly ignored had started sitting up and telling him that right now was a great time for certain options he hadn't...not truly...realized were on the table until now. The brush of Steve’s fingers against his jolted them both--maybe because he'd been staring appraisingly at Steve for the last few minutes, enjoying how the other man periodically forgot his manners and stared back in that calm just try it way. Tony knew what to do with that.
"So I can't help wondering," Tony said, and his voice was a little lower, a little huskier. "What point is it that you'd like us to be at, before you think you'd have the right to ask to be part of my life?"
Tony rolled to show his back, and looked over his shoulder at Steve, the display just as much a part of the question as the actual words. Eye contact was important, and he held it while he spread his wings and flattened them to the sheets, chin tilted to bare his neck. He knew his eyes would be wide and dark in the low light; the invitation was about as unsubtle as it could get. "Can you tell me more about this point? Or maybe just show me. I'm very hands-on, you know."
Steve audibly sucked in a breath. He set down the empty cup and leaned forward, resting his hand at the small of Tony's back, between the thick ridges of muscle at the base of his wings. Tony shivered at the touch there, so good, and something in Steve seemed to snap. The nest bobbed as he straddled Tony and put his other hand in the same place, then slid them forward, up his spine, adding weight and laying himself down with his keel fitting perfectly against Tony’s back in a sensation older than the concept of humanity. Tony chirped, honest-to-god chirped as the breath was driven out of him, then froze; he wasn't into ageplay, he hadn't meant to do that.
"Too heavy?" Steve asked, breath hot on his shoulder.
"No," Tony huffed, dazed. "Feels good, really good, more?"
The muscles down Steve's front rippled as he shifted his arms --he was still taking some of his weight on his elbows, Tony knew it by the dents in the mattress-- curling them under Tony's wings, matter-of-factly pushing long secondaries apart to insert his arms in the gaps where straps would go, and getting his fingers into the intimate never-touched down on the underside, along Tony's ribs. Using the modifications Tony had made, no hesitation, no damage, no shame-- Tony gasped and tipped his head further, and Steve nipped him lightly on the thick muscle that went down to his shoulder, then harder on the thin skin of his neck and harder again right under his jaw. Tony felt his spine go to water in a long shudder; his wings fluttered and flattened more, trying to dig under the bedclothes in what was real reflex now, not a display.
"I've got-- There's lube and stuff in the drawer, over to the left," Tony gasped out, trying to think straight. Steve wasn't really undressed yet, but the drawer was hard to find unless you knew it was there.
"No, don't need it," Steve said through a deep, almost subsonic churr starting in his chest.
Tony tensed. "Lube isn't negotiable, Cap."
"No!" Steve eased off, spoke more clearly. "Of course I'd use-- It's to slick things up, right? Of course I'd use that."
"Short for 'lubrication,'" Tony said, relaxing again. "If you don't know that term yet, you really haven't been using the Internet for porn."
"I wouldn't say that," Steve admitted. "There's so much of it. Just, um, pictures of displays, though."
"Ohh?" Tony wiggled a bit. Steve's shirt was thin, he'd be able to feel Tony's feathers rising and settling against him. "Like what you see?"
"You're so beautiful," Steve said fervently, which was really not what Tony was expecting. He opened his mouth to say something witty or defensive or distracting, but nothing came out. "I don't-- I'm just so glad I can touch you now," Steve went on. "It hurt not to touch you. Any time you want me to, I will."
Tony took a silent breath, took another, then rocked his hips back. "So, sex," he said hopefully.
"No, not sex," Steve said, and bit him hard again, which was unfair and made his body liquid and pliant and warm. Tony wasn't quite able to object when Steve licked the mark and explained, "Not sex right now. Maybe, maybe sex later, if you want to."
"When later," Tony said, voice thin from the angle and the bites.
"When you're not in pain. When it's not a distraction. I…I don't like it when sex is a distraction from something else."
Tony whined, but his feathers were slicking down. Steve Rogers, squicked by dishonesty. It made too much sense for him to take offense. "Making me wait. That's wholesome and kinky at the same time, Cap, just so you know."
Steve’s weight and high body temperature --and the drugs presumably-- were squashing the cold out of him, thrumming through his body. As much as he fancied a full shot of sex endorphins to finish it off, he was drowsy and almost content, and the touch alone was so good. He wound his fingers into the duvet as Steve snuffled his way along the arcs of neck muscles, easy and explorative. The supersoldier's breath was hot and dry --his system was efficient like that, could go for days without drinking-- and then there was hotter, as Steve pressed his cheek to the healing strain, just below the halter of Tony's open-spined sleep shirt.
Tony sighed in surrender and settled his cheek into the pillow. “Y’know, whatever you wanna do... I’m... cool with that.” Tony yawned, his whole chest expanding with the inbreath, then slumping into the mattress with Steve settling against him. “‘m not ticklish...”
Steve hummed against his spine, lips still trailing down the line of his avis flexor superior, the one he’d wrenched in the botched landing.
“Should I sleep more?” Tony mumbled as the idea got more and more attractive.
“Yeah, Tony, go back to sleep.” Steve’s voice was like those chairs in the airport lounge, that massage using vibrations, and Tony huffed in private amusement. Steve’s wings bumped against his shoulders as Steve settled in for the morning, all brown and gold highlights in the corner of his eye. It’d be a hell of a sight, from above; Steve’s primaries were almost three feet long, and his secondaries weren’t much shorter. He must be filling the entire nest, edge to edge, Tony not visible at all to the camera in the ceiling...now there was a recording to get from JARVIS later...
The coverts against his shoulder were silky soft over a core of hard-trained muscle, and Steve’s wingtips were mantled around, touching Tony’s ankle. He was heavy, but most of his weight was across Tony’s hips and glutes, and keeping his legs pinned to the mattress. It was comfortable. Safe.
Steve nestled his head down between Tony’s wingshoulders, and that was that, Tony felt him go still and slip into perch. Not quite sleep, or even roosting doze; Steve’s perch was alert and restful and ready to move whenever he was needed, but nothing short of daybreak or an emergency would wake him up. Tony, on the other hand, hadn’t perch-slept since... oh... college? He’d grown out of it, since he’d had his own... own house...
Mmm...Real sleep was way more satisfying.
When Tony saved the recording later, the audio transcript after that point just read (whuffled snoring).
szzzt: shortish chapter also means there will be more than 3 chapters XDD
ARE YOU SURPRISED
MountainRose: NOT EVEN SLIGHTLY
Chapter 3: an incommunicable thing
FIVE YEARS EARLIER
Please note, wild and strange tags have been added. And chapter estimate upped again! XD
Chapter art by the fabulous MountainRose! :DDDD
Last but not least--
Though this fic is not A/B/O, it should come as no surprise that this fic is deeply influenced by Born from the Earth, and would probably not exist without that fic bouncing around in our hindbrains. If you have not read it, please do!
It is wonderful!
FIVE YEARS EARLIER
They didn't have a hope in hell of hiding it. Tony knew that, even though Rhodey had taken the suit that Pepper had expressed over and helped him put it on while they were still on the plane, and then Rhodey had loaned him a thin summer-weight greatcoat to go over his shoulders and conceal the sling. And his wings. Anyone who looked could still tell his arm was in a sling, both the coat sleeve and the suit jacket sleeve hanging loose on that side, and anyone who looked could tell that his wings did not have the right bulk in the right places to be all there anymore.
Tony wasn't feeling ready, but that was just how it went. He nodded when Rhodey checked in with him, hearing the tone more than the words, and he told the medics exactly what they could do with their wheelchair, and then they walked out on the tarmac and met Pepper. She looked him over, whole-body, twice, and then knuckled her eyes and focused on his face and told him exactly what they needed to do to get through the next ten minutes, thirty minutes, an hour, as if he'd never been away. He was so grateful he could have hugged her. He hoped it didn't show on his face. They were already under the cameras.
And then Obie, who of course had scheduled a press conference right there in the airport, and didn't have to tell Tony what kind of rumors would swirl if they backed out. But they'd made one mistake: there was a podium, even if he couldn't have reached it from the wheelchair, and it was only big enough for one person. Tony made a beeline for it, leaning heavily once he got there, but podiums were made for that --the nervous people, the fainters, the ones who forgot what they were going to say-- and no one would be able to tell. He adjusted the microphone and gave a wide, surprisingly sincere smile to his new captive audience.
Everhart raised her hand and they were off. She said something and he said something, and thirty seconds later he couldn't have reconstructed either one of them, too overwhelmed by relief. All these people spoke English. No one was brandishing a gun. This was easy. He just had to watch their eyes.
Right now he was scoring about a three on the crazyperson scale. Excellent, good, higher than five and they'd stop listening to him, but no one expected him to be quite the same after ninety-four days held by terrorists; it made a better story this way. He couldn't stop himself from smiling again. No-one flinched, so it didn't mismatch too horribly with the current topic.
More of them had come than he would have expected just for a five-minute show-and-tell, but he'd give them a story, all right. He'd make it worth their while.
He finished whatever he was saying --some compliment to the Air Force, the kindness of the staff at the base in Germany, a joke about the accommodations of the troop transport plane they'd hitched in across the Atlantic, a flight he'd slept through almost entirely-- then tapped the mic authoritatively. This part was actually important, and he'd had months to think about what he was going to say.
"Before I take any more questions, I have a short announcement." He felt more than saw everyone sit up a little straighter. In his peripheral vision Obie took an abortive half-step closer, forestalled by Rhodey guarding his back.
"You all know of Stark Industries' longstanding contracts as a military supplier, how our rifles have an unimpaired service record and our engines power everything from the workhorse transport that brought me here today to the most cutting-edge jets. I am sorry to say that the Ten Rings, the terrorist group that held me, also had a stockpile of Stark munitions. Their use of those weapons directly or indirectly led to the deaths of the brave servicemen and -women of my convoy, as well as my own capture."
He leaned on his elbows and waited for the murmur of shock to die down, for the reporters to give him their absolute attention. He could have heard a pin drop when he went on. "No reparation I can make to their families, or to the families of allies, civilians, and innocents killed by the Ten Rings, would be sufficient. SI maintains a cradle-to-grave tracking system of all our munitions, and sells only to peacemaking organizations recognized by the UN, which needless to say the Ten Rings are not. Somewhere, our system has a leak." He took a deep breath. Here was the part Obie would have tried to stop.
"As of today, Stark Industries is beginning a thorough and exhaustive investigation of our distribution system, in full cooperation with the United States government and Interpol. Pending completion of the investigation, we will accept no new contracts for weapons or munitions. Our products are among the most effective and lethal in the world. I would rather not produce them at all than see them in the wrong hands. Thank you. I will now take questions." He risked a quick, neutral glance at his entourage while everyone was shouting; Obie had a hand over his face, managing to look like he was just rubbing his chin. Rhodey and Pepper had weathered the bombshell with no more than slight widening of their eyes, though Rhodey was looking noticeably grimmer than before. Putting some pieces together in a new shape, maybe.
"Mr Stark! After three months of legal limbo, are you still chairman of the board at Stark Industries? Do you have the authority to make this decision?"
Obie perked up and so did Tony, mantling a little at the verbal challenge. "Are you suggesting a cover-up is a valid course of action under state, federal, or international laws and treaties? If the board were to commit a crime by deciding to violate the law after I have provided this actionable knowledge, the government would be well within its rights to dissolve the board and dismember SI. The lion's portion of patents and other intellectual property would revert to me, but consequences for our organization and employees would be severe. I'd like to avoid that. Thank you, Mr Leary, next question."
"Mr Stark, are you saying your convoy was attacked by your own weapons? How were you able to recognize SI weapons? Do you have proof?"
No rest for the weary. He'd known the tone the questions were going to take after his announcement. "Yes, Ms Sanderson, that's exactly what I'm saying. But it's a valid question to ask how I know, because if they'd simply been using rifles I would not have been able to tell. You can't tell one bullet from another while they're coming at you." Maybe he was showing something on his face; the room had gone pin-drop quiet again.
"The Ten Rings also used Stark antipersonnel mortars when they attacked my convoy. I know this because I was caught by one, and I was close enough to see the logo on the side before it blew." He rubbed his chest, at the shallow, twisted white scars and the fresh white bandages. "I was injured by the shock wave and the shrapnel. However, the doctors at Landstuhl Air Force Base were kind enough to remove the remaining shrapnel for me, and Interpol will find that these samples are an exact match to the alloy used in Stark mortar casings. It's quite likely that we'll be able to trace batch and lot number as well." Tony grinned viciously, wondering what activity that announcement would set off. "Later on, I was able to see the Ten Rings' munitions storage. Details are confidential for now due to the investigation, but it was not just SI antipersonnel mortars." He smiled again, remembering. "They really weren't careful enough with their storage practices. Mortars wouldn't have made an explosion that large."
There was an actual shocked pause before the next question, which was some boring follow-up about his legal status. He shrugged and deferred his answer with a joke: cheeseburgers before lawyers. Pepper would have a summary, but he'd still need some face time with the Legal department before speaking about it, and no fucking way that was happening today.
No one wanted to be the first to ask about the way his coat hung from his wingstubs. They could all see it well enough to guess, anyway, and there'd be no reason to cover up his wings if they were fine. Tony shut down the trashy ones who wanted "details of his experience," when they asked for that--let them make shit up, they would anyway. But he looked over to the side, at Obie's stony face, and thought about the paparazzi shots and speculation that would already be swirling, and how it would distract attention from the revelations about SI weapons.
And about how he didn't want his own story, the Tony-Stark-human-interest-gossipfest, to be separate from the SI story this time. Because this time he'd done nothing to be ashamed of. Had he? Was refusing to die by his own weapons like a Danish prince, or be burned on the same pyre like a Viking one, something to be ashamed of?
Let them fucking look.
Tony reached for the greatcoat's lapels, sliding it off his immobile left shoulder first, ignoring a few sudden shouted questions, and then shrugging and wiggling it off his right until he could lay the whole thing on the podium and draw his arm fully out of the sleeve. The room had gone into another hush the second it became clear what he was doing.
"There are several new directions for SI to explore," Tony said, and fanned his wings out deliberately. He waited long enough for black blotches to eat into his vision, then tucked them up neat and tidy and polite. "In the initial attack, I was near more than one explosion. I covered myself with my wings, and they took the brunt of the shrapnel from that SI mortar I mentioned. Otherwise it would have gone into my throat or chest, and I doubt I'd be standing here today." There, more than enough story, and it had the advantage of being all true.
"The doctors I've seen --all but one of them-- have said I won't fly again." Tony smiled tightly. "I will tell you here and tell you first, my doctors are wrong. But that's a topic for the future. Thank you all for your attention today…" The end of his sentence was lost as the room dissolved into chaos, seven or eight reporters shouting over each other to get one last question in, others around the periphery grabbing their bags and pulling out mics and lights in a manic hurry to deliver breaking news to their channels.
Tony leaned hard on the podium, white-knuckled. He couldn't collapse now and change the headlines, couldn't slide down and finally get something solid at his back. But Pepper was there on one side, and Rhodey on the other, spreading the coat back over him. He could have cried at the sense of security provided by the weight and heft of one stupid layer of cloth, even though it was an illusion, even though he'd shown the world what was underneath and now the world would know, and the weight of how they looked at him almost buckled his knees.
He didn't remember much of the rest of the trip home, but he still had the greatcoat wrapped around him when he woke up in the workshop and relit the forge.
The physical therapist came three days later, in the morning. Pepper went out to meet him while Tony watched the driveway, but the only person in the discreet Land Rover was a woman, young and slim and almost perky. She parked it, got out and handed Pepper a folder with a subtle, understated design. "Ms Potts."
"Oh, we met at the clinic. I didn't realize you'd be the one they sent over." Pepper looked over her clothes, a durable-looking button-up and khaki shorts, and smiled. "Pleased to meet you again."
The woman smiled, shook hands, and came up the walk. "Mr Stark."
Tony held his ground on the top step of the portico and slid his sunglasses down his nose. "You're not Paul Stoor, physical therapist to the stars."
She grimaced. "Paul broke his ankle Saturday, while working with another client. He'll be on crutches for two months, so they called me in to get you started. Natalie Rushman."
She didn't move closer, so he didn't have a chance to refuse her handshake. Tony seized at the diversion. "Is physical therapy that hazardous?"
"Only when you're exercising Alf, the Friskees Dog Chow mutt, along with his whole pack of stand-ins."
They all laughed politely, or at least Pepper and Rushman did. The therapist still made no move to enter, so after a moment Tony stood aside and gestured toward the main living room. "Come in."
"Can we get you anything?" he said as they walked, Pepper leading to the small informal dining table tucked between the kitchen and the open-plan living room, where the entire western wall was a seamless floor-to-ceiling window out on to the ocean. Going to her favorite table instead of the couches; she was thinking of this as a working visit. "Coffee, tea, soda, water, whiskey?" Tony continued, then shuffled his feathers against a wave of unreality and subtly brushed his hand against the wall. He hadn't played host since the last time Rhodey came over, before the Jericho demo.
"I would love some coffee," Rushman said firmly. She'd noted the vista but hadn't fixated on it; she was looking around, taking in the whole room: the bar in the corner, the positions of the furniture, the large retractable skylights that were closed now. He bet that woman didn't miss a trick.
The coffeemaker was in the kitchen. Tony had scrounged a filter and was scraping fresh coffee out of the grinder into it before it occurred to him that any of the other beverage options could be made at the bar. Not only did a new pot of coffee take the longest, but it was the only one that took him out of their sight. Of course it was a gamble that they wouldn't have an old pot on hand, but once in the door anyone with a nose could tell they hadn't made any yet this morning.
Tony dropped the spoon on the counter, steel ringing against marble, and spun around irrationally convinced that Rushman --an intruder-- someone would be behind him, sneaking up on him.
No one was. He realized he'd thumped against the cabinets, rattling the dishes inside as he mantled. The kitchen was a cul-de-sac, an utterly terrible place to be caught in and now they'd know where he was, nice going, Tony.
At times like this it was like the mind split in half. His breathing was loud and harsh in his ears, the world starting to pulse bright and dark at the edges. He slid down to his heels on the tile, gripping the edge of the counter from underneath, the kitchen island at least blocking view of him from the entryway. The knife block was...way up on top of the counter in the corner, but there should be a big adjustable wrench under the sink and that was right behind him. He'd get that as soon as he could move.
Sound, movement from the entryway. "Mr Stark? Are you all right?"
The stimulus sparked along his nerves. Tony jumped, bare heels slipping on the tile, and kicked the kitchen island. He strangled the sound that wanted to rise into his throat and pushed back against the cabinets so hard he heard the wood creak.
Pepper's voice now, drawing Rushman back, saying not to block him in. The soft sound of a low conversation. Tony dragged in breaths, one after the other after the other.
Movement, but not at head height. It was Rushman and she'd put herself down on his level, matter-of-factly sliding on hands and knees toward him over the tile. Tony's wings worked, clumsily thumping the cabinets behind him again. She stopped where she was, still well out of reach, and waved a small penlight back and forth. Tony fixated on it helplessly.
"Mr Stark, you're in the kitchen in your house in Malibu, in the house you designed. You're safe, there are no threats. I'm Natalie Rushman from Downtown PT. Do you remember meeting me? Do you know where you are?"
He nodded, keeping eye contact, staring her down even while he tried to push away. She looked aside, not challenging, and softened her posture. "Do you know what triggered you?"
Tony nodded again. Paranoia and the kitchen design, one entrance one exit. This was getting so fucking old. He squeezed his eyes shut but just as quickly opened them again, the omnipresent sense of threat spiking.
"Will it help to get out of the kitchen?" she asked, shooting him little glances. "Okay, that's a definite yes. Alright, Mr Stark, take my hand."
She scooted forward, ignoring his reaction, making herself neutral, and stopped just within reach, holding out her hand. He didn't let himself think too much, just peeled up his grip from the counter and made a grab for it, catching her around the wrist instead of in a handshake because he didn't want to hurt her. Her hand closed around his wrist and she backed up, pulling him forward gently; not trying to break his posture, just sliding him on the tile the same way she'd scooted in.
He let go as soon as they were through the entranceway and scuttled sideways, between the couch and the barstools. She followed, a comfortable meter out of range. "This as far as you'd like to come?"
"Yeah," he said. "Just...give me a few minutes."
She looked around and nodded approvingly.
"What," he demanded.
"This is the most defensible position in the room," Rushman said. Behind her at the table, Pepper made a sound of sudden understanding and stood up slowly, padding into the kitchen to finish making the coffee.
Tony goggled at Rushman. "How d'you know that?" His voice scraped in his throat.
"I did a tour before I got my degree," she said calmly. "If Ms Potts brings cushions, we can all sit here, if you don't mind."
"I don't mind," he said, knocking his head gently back against the wall. "Clearly I like sitting on the floor. Far be it from me to prevent my guests from doing whatever the hell they want. Don't mind me."
Pepper came back out and tossed him a pillow from the couch. He caught it, no problem, but then just held it to his chest instead of sitting on it the way Rushman did with hers. The therapist looked aside, not staring, and made small talk with Pepper while the coffee machine burbled. As if this was some sort of normal social call.
Slowly his feathers settled; slowly he was able to close his eyes for a few seconds at a time, breathing deeper and slower as the weight of anxiety lifted. When Pepper brought him a cup, he let her get into arms' reach, let her give him a one-armed hug and leaned into the touch, even if he couldn't reciprocate quite yet.
"So," Rushman said after they all drank some and even Tony had joined the conversation to describe the design and installation of the semi-covered bathing pool on the roof, "Mr Stark, Ms Potts, I think now would be a good time to discuss goals, and go over the provisions of the contract. Then, Mr Stark, if you're amenable, we'll discuss methods."
"There'll be discussion first then," Tony said. He tried for sarcastic but it came out more tired than anything else.
"There will always be discussion first." Rushman looked him in the eye. "Trying exercises without forewarning the client is more likely to backfire than be therapeutic. Our firm is aware that work in this field has not always had the best reputation, but our work, and our client relationships, are impeccable. That's why you chose us."
Obie'd chosen them for the star power, Tony was pretty sure, but he tilted his head to concede the point. Service companies didn't tend to get a good reputation among the rich and famous unless it was deserved, either for the results or the experience itself. Tony was hoping more for results.
"You're retaining me. You set the goals," Rushman said. "What is your goal with physical therapy?"
Tony took a deep breath. "I want to fly again. I'm going to fly again."
Rushman nodded thoughtfully, not surprised, and her eyes flicked to his shoulders and the stumps he wasn't trying to conceal. "I haven't seen you spread your wings in person, but I saw the press conference. You've lost a large portion of your lifting surface."
"I have some thoughts about that." Tony shrugged, mentally reviewing the prosthetic designs he'd doodled in the caves and the concept workups he'd done since, in spare moments--too many variables for any of them to have gotten far. "But I need to know what I have to work with. I've lost muscle mass. I don't really know my range of motion." He rubbed his chest, where the atrophying flight muscles had made his keelbone jut out, like it did on little kids.
"Flight prosthetics have made great strides in recent years," Rushman murmured, "but no one's managed to make one that'll do what you need."
"You're talking to Tony Fucking Stark, lady. I can do it, just, tell me what I can do, I'll tell you what I need, and we'll bridge the gap with wax and chickenfeathers if we have to."
"All right, Icarus." Rushman sat back and looked hard at him again, not just his wings but his whole body. "If you want flapping flight, you need the strength to support your weight. It'll be hard; replacing the atrophied mass, let alone the transected forewing muscles, will take hours of work every day for months. Upside of that is, you'll be building aerobic stamina back up too.”
“Done deal. You bring the feathers, I’ve got the wax.” When he looked up, he spotted the back end of a smile and huffed at himself as he looked back down; he was ridiculous, he could acknowledge that.
Rushman nodded decisively.
“Your goal is the strength, flexibility, and stamina to support your own weight in assisted flight. To decide what exercises to do in what order, I'll need to closely monitor the strength and condition of your entire avimuscular system. And right away I need a good look at the anatomy of your stumps; see what’s still connected to bone, and what isn’t. This means I'll have to touch you. Not just once, but at every session.”
Tony flinched but managed to control the new instinct to protect his healing stumps before he tucked them under his arms like an idiot. “That... uh, ‘discussion’ on that.”
“Of course. Everything is up for discussion.” She gestured at the paper contract she’d brought with her. Pepper had been reading, unobtrusively, the whole time, and didn’t look too pissed.
He'd been prepared for the therapist to balk, to need convincing or threatening or old-fashioned bribery. If that failed, despite JARVIS' misgivings he'd been prepared to take WebMD and go it alone. He hadn't been prepared for Pepper to find the craziest professional PT practitioner in the state of California.
"Pepper," he stage-whispered, "can I keep her?"
"Read the contract," Pepper whispered back.
Rushman held another copy out for him and he suppressed the tilt of his inner ear, that tiny bit of nausea, and took it straight out of her hand. He skimmed through it, looking for headings and summaries to give him an idea of where it was coming from.
It was laid out a little like a lease or construction agreement, with a whole bunch of short sections, each with a space for both his and Pepper's initials. Tony roused with interest; if he was interpreting the declarations correctly, any one of the individual sections could be disputed or not agreed to, and only the other agreed sections would have force. That was how it worked when the big dogs negotiated, of course, but seeing it built into a little services contract like this was another thing he hadn't expected. "Does your firm expect us to rewrite some of these provisions? How do you archive the amended contracts?"
"Yes, renegotiation is normal," Rushman nodded. "I assembled a default template for you, but the extra space below each provision is for revisions. The customized contracts are stored separately in each client's record, as highly confidential medical information."
"It's between us and you, specifically, not Downtown PT," Pepper said.
"If your folder passes to Paul once he's recovered, you'll renegotiate a new contract with him. Text based off this one, but new and separate, legally. Do either of you need a pen? I brought some--"
Pepper grinned as Tony stood up, a little wobbly, ripped the contract pages out of the staple and laid them out on the bar-height kitchen counter. "Scan and OCR, both sides please," he ordered absently, remembering in time to leave JARVIS' name out of it. JARVIS played a pleasantly generic beep in acknowledgement and lifted holograms off the pages when Tony crooked his fingers, shuffling them into order and splitting off copies that Tony pinched down and flicked to the other two like glowing poker chips. Pepper caught hers and spread it out in midair while Tony leaned against the breakfast bar and pushed his copy to the window glass, making it huge.
Rushman looked back and forth between the holograms, eyes widening; she watched Pepper and tried a few pinch-and-zooms herself, then discovered that a brushing motion flicked through all the pages to the end. And again back to the beginning. "This is really neat," she said, sounding floored. "How do you edit--?"
"Provision 2a, here," Pepper said, zooming in and tapping the hologram to place a cursor. "I like the idea of setting the time for the next session at the previous session, but let's make it the first item of business, not the last."
"Let's pay one in advance too," Tony said. "Why isn't that written in?"
"So you can switch therapists at any time," Rushman explained. "That's in 10b--"
"And give you no real incentive to stick with us? That's no good. Pay one in advance," Tony said. The text was being edited as he spoke, filling in the amalgam of his and Pepper's ideas, and he wondered if Rushman would catch that neither of them were inputting the exact words. Well, if she stuck around, she'd end up seeing some of JARVIS' capabilities no matter what, and very few people would extrapolate from "able to summarize concepts into new text" to "full AI," even if sentience was the only feasible way to create language.
“And let's change the appointment interval from ‘weekly’ to ‘within seven days’.”
“No, Tony, you'd stretch that to nine day intervals, you know you would, if something bothered you and you could get away with it."
"It's better to renegotiate immediately or cancel the contract than leave an unsatisfactory contract in force for any length of time," Rushman agreed. "And cancellation at any time, for any reason, is 10a. You are under no obligation not specifically agreed to in this contract, which I suppose means you'll pay me for the next scheduled session with no one attending the session, and that's it. My firm will ask why you cancelled, but you can tell them to stuff it. You don't have to give me or them any reason at all."
Tony looked away and schooled his expression. JARVIS and he had done the research, and--well, he understood why that provision was required by law in the state of California. And several other states.
"Are you all right, Mr Stark?"
Well then. Tony looked her in the eye. "What would you do if I said I wasn't? Your firm does have a good reputation, but where do you draw the line between therapy and abuse, Ms Rushman?"
She didn't seem angry or surprised, but she was paying him very close attention. Her posture was neutral but not soft.
"Doing you harm, either physical or mental, is abuse. But that line is different for every person. I won't decide where your boundaries are; you do. What I will do is make very, very sure to discuss everything with you beforehand, and watch you closely as we go. You may not know where your lines are when we start. It's on me to help you set them, and to keep up if they move day-to-day."
Her eyes flicked over him, checking his face, his posture, his wings, catching how something in her words had reassured him. Tony looked away again, feeling his chest ache like he'd swallowed a coal, then dug his nails into his palms to remind himself that was a metaphor and there were no fucking visuals needed. "It's just physical therapy," he said. "Jesus. Just some exercises for my wings."
"Living with a wing injury is traumatic stress," Rushman said bluntly. "Even people with no memory of the injury, who are never in actual danger in their regular life, develop PTSD-like symptoms within half a year."
"That's--" Tony put his coffee on the floor and sank back down into the highly defensible arc on the floor, between Rushman and Pepper but with his back to the safety of the latter. He put his head between his knees, feeling dizzy. "Yeah, okay, say the Internet agrees with you. So what? What difference does it make?"
"You were in real, immediate danger for months. That's a double whammy, Mr Stark. Body and mind don't just bounce back, not immediately." Her tone was interesting; not clinical or dryly intrigued like some of the doctors, but not cloying like someone trying to feel the way they imagined he did. She spoke like she was giving directions through a place where she'd been. Maybe not a place she liked very much, but one she understood. "I wish we could jump into that series of exercises and just do them, but it's more likely we'll have to work up to it."
She hadn't actually asked whether he remembered the injury, but it was only a matter of time before someone did. Tony stared at the floor and swallowed back nausea.
"Can you take my hand?"
Tony startled and looked at her. She wasn't any closer than she'd been before, but her hand was out, just within his reach.
"I just said some blunt things. Contact can help root you in the present."
He thought about it and reached out partway, putting his hand on the floor. She didn't move. "You decide what kind of contact. I'll grip back the same way you do. It’s called mirroring, it’s common across the profession--”
Tony reached a little further, just to touch her index fingertip, then the shock of human contact had him clutching for a proper grip.
She gripped back hard, squeezing the bones of his hand together. He thought ‘mirroring’ and tried to loosen his grip but when she eased off, he felt dizzy again, like he was going to fall. He hung on a little stronger, until she was tethering him and keeping the stomach-turning at bay.
Someone else's hand. It was narrower and thinner than his, and he could feel the bones and tendons clearly, though she was very strong. Her skin was hot and a little clammy at the palm, and her nails were short. It was strange to touch someone else for so long, but it was distracting, as she'd said it would be. He tried easing off again and managed it this time, shifting his grip until he was just circling her wrist loosely and she was doing the same to him, her pulse beating under the pad of his thumb.
Pepper was watching intently when he looked up and Tony felt the hot rush of a humiliated blush up his collarbones. He looked back at Rushman’s hand, but caught Pep standing up in the corner of his eye.
“Good luck, Ms Rushman,” she said, brushing wrinkles out of her skirt. Tony liked that skirt; it was part of a cream suit set, silky-napped, a subtle compliment to her ginger feathers. “Tony, be good.”
He swallowed, throat dry and sore now, but nodded anyway. This would be hard enough. He didn’t need an audience, even if it was just Pepper.
"Can you tell me what triggered you in the kitchen?" Rushman asked once Pepper’s footsteps faded. "You nodded when I asked if you knew what it was."
"The smaller space? Or the shape of it?"
Tony blanched, trying to imagine how he would deal if he was afraid of small spaces. Pepper did say she liked open-plan kitchens, but… "God, not the small space, that would have been-- I have lots of those in my workshop.” He shook his head clear. “Number of exits, and you asked me to make coffee."
She looked surprised. "Does the taste or smell bother you?"
"I love coffee, coffee is the elixir of life," Tony said in a rush. "There wasn't any, over there. But. Anything else, I could have made at the bar, where, you know, I can see everyone. And I thought, what if she asked for that specifically because…? And then I was sure someone was behind me, and I backed into the cabinets, and then I was trapped there. Because." Tony gestured with his free hand. "Cul-de-sac."
Rushman looked appraisingly at the kitchen design. "You could come out over the breakfast bar," she said. "Shall we practice that? We can move the stools and put the couch underneath as a landing pad, for the first few tries."
"Are you seriously suggesting alternate escape routes from my kitchen?"
She was unimpressed. "Your mug is empty and the coffee is in there, Mr Stark. Are you telling me you're willing to go without? I dare you to get yourself and a mug of coffee over the counter without spilling."
She seriously was.
Half an hour, some marble-countertop knee bruises, a couple spectacular spills (of a stand-in plastic mug of water so for once JARVIS couldn’t sigh meaningfully at him) and over a dozen gradually-more-graceful flops into the couch later, he was panting while feeling rather pleased with himself, and had realized that the dare was also a warm-up.
"Paranoia and hypervigilance are symptoms of PTSD. But they're also part of what kept you going, and no afternoon of work is going to persuade you down deep that they aren't necessary anymore. What we can do in an afternoon is make the kitchen an easier place for you to be."
It turned into a theme, and Rushman followed him through the house, analysing the layout. Just the ‘public’ side, for now, but they found two more cul-de-sacs: the steam room, and the small bathroom off the gym.
At one point, Rushman tapped on the wall of the steam room and asked, completely seriously, what was on the other side. She had Tony use chalk, and then a claw hammer, and then a joist cutter. The physical labor was a direct contrast to the flighty, leaping-over-furniture variety they’d been doing before, and it made Tony aware of the powerful muscles still there in his shoulders and arms. Each strike of the hammer felt good; the rattle of the power saw was under his control, bucking in his hands, but nothing he couldn’t control.
Rushman was grinning: tiny, and showing no teeth, but still grinning.
“Your posture’s improved.”
He turned the power saw over in his hands, wood dust puffing off his gloves and the scent of fresh-cut oak strengthening. “Feels good.”
“Environmental optimization. Your needs have changed since this place was built; you’re fixing it. The exertion doesn’t hurt, either.” She pushed her goggles up her head, red hair curling everywhere. “Besides, as illuminating as the incident in the kitchen was, I don’t think it needs to happen twice.”
Tony looked at the new doorway, undressed and frameless, and then through to the stairwell beyond. It was better, and once there was a door to keep the steam in, he’d be able to roast the lingering smell of cave mildew out of his bones.
“I want this room up and running by our next session; you’ll need the heat once we get started.”
“...this wasn’t ‘starting’?”
“Oh no, Mr. Stark, this was just making you comfortable.” Her smile should probably fill him with more foreboding than it did.
She led him back to the living room, ripped up a piece of newspaper she found somewhere and laid the large half-sheet in the middle of the table.
"I want you to move the paper from where you are," she said, and folded her arms.
He stood still and looked at himself. He was about a meter from the edge of the table; call it seven or eight feet from the piece of paper. He couldn't reach, and he sure wasn't going to do it by blowing.
He shuffled his wings and didn't look at her, then spread them, stiffly, slowly. She'd be watching how he moved. No doubt it would be all kinds of fucking instructive diagnostic data.
At first it was terrible. He braced too hard and nearly fell over when a hard, fast beat didn't generate nearly as much force as it ought to, so he backed off and fluttered clumsily, already red-faced and breathing hard, and it was like the fucking paper was glued down.
Fuck this, he decided, forgot the paper and just beat the air, ignoring that these were his wings and they were wrong, and ran them through the powerstroke from different angles like he'd do for any engine and any control surface. Finding where the bite was deepest, where they gripped the air and where they slipped and slid on it, and ignoring that they were different from how they'd been before.
Then he looked back at the paper, cupped his wings and beat once, hard, so that the shockfronts from each wing would layer over each other roughly eight feet away. The paper skimmed up and blew over onto the floor somewhere on the table's other side.
Tony hung his head, blowing hard, letting his wings droop half-spread. Rushman retrieved the paper and shooed him another two steps back.
"Do that again," she said. Not you did it or I know you had it in you, just do that again.
"YOU do that again," Tony shot back, grinning, took one warm-up flap, and blew it off the table again on his second try. She hmmed and got a larger piece of paper, a full-sized sheet this time.
"Seriously, if you don't want it on the table, stop putting it there."
"I only said to move it, Mr Stark, not spread it all over the floor." She raised an eyebrow challengingly.
Tony huffed and did his best to blow the fucking newpaper right out onto the balcony. She smiled placidly and gave him a piece of heavy, stiff construction paper as his homework.
He took it back. She was evil incarnate. He knew there was a reason he liked her. Pepper was going to have to get used to her hair blowing around.
He slept like a baby that night, which made it all the more jarring when he met with Obie and the lawyers the next day, and the nightmares came back with a vengeance. They would start with Obie or Rhodey crowding him into a corner, clapping him on the shoulder, but then-- no. Just no. Not sleeping at all was better than that.
Interpol, the CIA, and the FBI did not appreciate being listed as fait accompli on international news channels and told to play nicely together. To be fair, when Tony implied that Interpol was already on board with the SI investigation, that may have been a teeny tiny bit untrue.
Although it became true very quickly, just as he assured Rhodey it would. The hard sell combined with advanced delegation techniques. Tony didn't have time to go about this the old inefficient way.
The CIA were dicks, though. He had a tiny bit of sympathy for their surprise bedpartners, so he let the Interpol rep complain for nearly two minutes before he cut her off, explained that the investigation was going to be airtight because that was the only goddamn way to make it stick, brought his stumps into the camera's view, and asked her to imagine just how many fucks he gave.
It made him feel sick, but it got them to shut up and do their fucking jobs.
It was a doll. Floppy and genderless but with rag-jointed legs, arms and wings. Anatomically correct for him. Pinioned. Stark stared. It had a face, even; little lines, half the perimeter of a circle for eyes, and a smile. He looked worn down, face lined with exhaustion that belied his manic energy, and Rushman wouldn't be surprised if he ripped the three little bits of black thread out.
"That's an instruction doll," Rushman said. "They all have happy faces, sorry. It's better than no face or a sad face." He flicked a look at her, not reacting to the joke beyond his slightly appalled are you kidding me expression, but picked the doll up and flopped it around, looking at the stitching, finding the weights in the hands and feet. The wings on this doll were extraordinarily detailed, with more attention given to anatomy there than on the rest of the doll's body. He ruffled the strips of fabric cut and layered into three ranks of coverts protecting the stiffer secondaries, then touched the doll's featherless stumps, face shuttered.
Rushman went on, not letting the moment last too long. "Before we do an exercise, I’ll demonstrate on the doll and we’ll talk about it. Some exercises might work out of the box, but some we'll have to adapt. Everything we do will serve your purposes and your goal. I'll be especially looking for independant ones, that you can do on your own and use to measure your own progress." Relying on his own motivation for strength exercises was a risk, but Stark's determination and Rushman’s equally challenging confidence could carry it through. If Stark was paying enough attention to do them correctly. "As much as possible, I'd like to concentrate on partner exercises during our sessions. Things that give you a real benefit, but that you can't do on your own."
"Like ripping up my sauna?"
"For that, you just needed someone to give you the excuse. But if that's what you need? Yes."
Stark put the doll down on the couch and returned to pacing back and forth along the wall, avoiding the lamps with tight little sidesteps that were only slightly unbalanced by the missing flare of primaries. He kept an eye on her, tracking her either directly or by watching her shadow when his angle was poor. She gazed back placidly and didn’t move.
They were in a large upstairs study. A pleasant enough room, but it didn't show much trace of habitation by either Stark or Potts. "Do you spend a lot of time in this room?"
He snorted. "No."
"Is it secure? Do you feel safe here, or is there another place that's better?"
Stride, spin. "We're not going there." He kept brushing the wall, as if he didn't have enough space, then visibly forced himself to step out away from it a foot or so, closer to her.
"It's not safe." She raised an eyebrow at him wryly and he explained: "Too many sharp edges, too cluttered. Hazardous materials, concrete floor. Also, highly confidential projects. It's where I work. But this room is a secure as the rest of the house, which is...pretty secure."
She nodded. That made perfect sense. "We'll use this space, then. The carpet is soft, and we can shift the furniture so it's not in the way. If you move all the lamps and the side tables over...hmmm, over there, I'll push the couches and chairs to the wall. Sound good?"
He nodded tightly, so she turned around and got a good grip on the couch sectional. Stark might want to prove he was capable of heavy lifting, but he could carry lamps and little tables without ever turning his back on her. It seemed he was savvy enough to admit that to himself, too.
This, having Stark as a client --(she didn't ever think 'target' while she was in character)-- this could be interesting.
"All right, listen up. We'll start with stretching, then some slow --very slow-- takedowns…"
The doll was surprisingly useful, as was Rushman's willingness to let him practice everything on her first. She wouldn't let him keep his distance, but on the other hand she very quickly taught him six ways to ruin someone's day if they grabbed him, and he could feel how that and the continued exposure together actually helped reduce the stress. They set contact levels, they set what targets were acceptable and what were off-limits, and talked for fifteen minutes about neck grips and holds before she gradually, very gradually, introduced those as well.
She could have touched his wings at any time. She didn't; they were still off-limits. Over lunch she talked about how, and why, that could change.
“It’ll take a long time for you to be able to just let someone touch them--”
Tony opened his mouth to tell her he’d fucking handle it, her job was to work on his amputated wings, not-- but she rolled right over him.
“But we don’t have that kind of time. The ligaments will shorten and stiffen as the incisions finish healing, and we need to start work on them now. You’ve had a week, you’re familiar with me, you’re in as good a condition as I can reasonably request...”
“For what?” Tony asked, eyeing her with sincere trepidation. The morning’s work was starting to feel less like work and more like softening up. She'd told him it was a personal space exercise, and that part was certainly true; she'd been nothing but professional, and maybe he was oversaturated, but he hardly jumped when she came near him now. The fact that she'd been giving him structured self-defense tips instead of dancing or yoga or something made less sense, but he'd figured that was addressing the anxiety too. Anything that helped him not back himself into walls when people entered the room was a plus, really.
“For a trust exercise.”
He blinked. This wasn’t exactly paintballing-with-the-R&D-team territory, and trust-falls were-- out, very out. “I’m sorry, was letting you take my ass to the mat not good enough for you?”
“Mr Stark--” Her voice was hard, deep and honest and holding his eyes to her face by sheer intonation. “You were captured and held against your will; you were hurt while you were powerless to stop it. I don't know the details, but I can tell your captors were physical with you. If you’re going to let me hold your wings in time for it to do any good, we’re going to have to rewrite that script. Convince your backbrain once and for all that you're safe with me even when you're vulnerable.”
Tony pushed to his feet, muscles left weak and achy by the morning suddenly fueled with adrenalin. “Define vulnerable. What are you saying?” He'd put No blindfolds. No handcuffs. right in the contract, but she was right when she admitted the field didn't have a great reputation. There were plenty of horror stories on the internet.
“You saw how some of the takedowns ended in holds?”
He nodded warily, remembering the initial panic at being trapped, then the release and relief when he tapped and she let him out.
"You've been tapping immediately, as soon as you test the hold. That's fine; that's how it normally works in partner sparring, where we take tapping as a substitute for physical surrender. What I'm talking about is different. I want to hold you down even if you tap, and if possible I want you to not tap. Let it happen. Choose, consciously and with full disclosure, to let me hold you down. You’ll struggle, maybe try to hurt me; that’s fine, you won't be able to. But if you can, don’t tap out.”
Tony paced, feet scuffing the carpet hard enough to remind him where he was. "Physical surrender. That's a nice euphemism." He turned at the window and came back again. "You're asking for something I've never done outside of sex."
"This is not a sexual relationship, nor will it be. I'm here to help you meet your goals."
“You might, I’ll handle it.”
His stomach churned, but he nodded, and stopped pacing. His coverts trembled, and the tiny muscles in his fingers wouldn’t stop twitching, but... This was what she was here for, this was why they had a contract with so many clauses.
She looked at him for a long moment, sympathetic but firm, then nodded back. “Alright.” Rushman stood up, brushing herself down. “It works by pushing through panic into the exhaustion on the other side. Your body and brain are keyed up by the situation to expect pain, and it won’t come.”
“Like a fall exercise,” he guessed, “but using the threat of violence, rather than a hundred stories. This is going to be...”
“Not sure that quite covers it.”
She conceded the point with a shrug. “Take your time to decide; you can still refuse.”
He shook himself violently, driving a crack of air between two secondaries. “No, you need to evaluate the muscles to do your job, I need the flexibility that will provide. I consent.” His wings had pinned back, stumps pressing into his shoulders in an alien and actually rather painful way. They weren’t healed yet, and that was rather the point. “That’s what you’re waiting for, right? Do you want that in writing?”
“No, I think that’ll do. Try and remember to breathe, Mr Stark.”
They didn't jump off the deep end right away --she reviewed several of the earlier drills first for warm-up-- but down on the floor his sense of time stretched like taffy. He might have fought for five minutes or more like forty-five, the first time she pinned him until he didn't need to anymore.
He was flat on his stomach and she was kneeling astride him, her weight on his mid-back and her legs folded underneath his wings, hugging his ribs. If he could get a hand under his shoulder, just one, he might push up and shake her off, could almost certainly turn them over--but his arms were pinned too, elbows caught under her knees in a way that didn't actually hurt but gave him no leverage to try and muscle his way out of it, hands palm-up somewhere uselessly far down by his hips. He could just about get a grip on her sock. Fat lot of good that did when she had an arm around his neck.
Tony made a noise of frustration and hunched up further, protecting his neck as well as he could with his shoulders. It drove her arm harder up under his jaw, but he couldn't help the reflex; he'd turned his chin into the crook of her elbow so at least she wasn't cutting off his air. He braced his feet against the floor, toes digging into the carpet, and pushed hard with his legs, trying to unseat her or get enough room to curl up. She rode the motion and kept his hips and shoulders flat against the floor.
His heart was beating wildly in his chest, throbbing in his neck, and his breaths were loud and harsh in his throat, but he didn't quite panic, didn't flashback; there really had been advantage in working up to this slowly, and she'd picked a hold that was different enough from anything the Ten Rings had done, different enough from the nightmares--he wasn't thinking about that.
He kept not thinking about that, and tried all his options again. Again. Again.
Fatigue burned hot and aching in his back, his shoulders; he could feel his legs shaking. The base of his wings hurt, just either side of his spine, where he was keeping them drawn in tight and still. He could beat at her with them --they were his only limbs free that could reach her-- but something in him quailed at the thought of trying to hurt anyone with his damaged wings, of drawing any attention to them when he was helpless, so he kept them furled as tight as he could.
Oh god, oh god, oh fuck, now he was panicking.
Yinsen held down, forced to look at the coal in front of his face-- Tony closed his eyes and tucked his chin and made a noise, trying to physically deny the flash of memory. Fuck conserving energy. He bucked hard with his whole body and felt Rushman slip, but he couldn't capitalize on it; as soon as he slowed a little, she snaked back into position and pulled up, putting some muscle into the hold for the first time. Tony resisted, but he was tiring, and his neck by itself wasn't as strong as the two shoulders and one wing she was calling on. Slowly, steadily, she pulled his chin up, baring his throat, and then her other hand slipped into the space and gripped just under his jaw, blunt fingertips clamping on like teeth.
Tony shook, instincts warring. She had him--he couldn't--he had to--he used his wings at last, prying at where she was plastered on top of him, trying to shift her weight enough to make himself room to move. She grunted in surprise as he levered her several inches to the side, then clamped down hard with her hand and tensed her arm around his neck, bicep and forearm squeezing from either side and making the blood pound in his head, making his vision tunnel down red and gray and the sense of his body recede.
He struggled distantly for a few more heartbeats, then joint by joint his body went limp.
Blood roared in his ears as she let up pressure immediately. He lay there gasping, wings and hands and face tingling, mind calm and numb like the first moments after the bombs had stopped, before he'd felt the blood soaking through his feathers. "You done?" Rushman said softly, making him blink and pull back from the memory. "You need to fight any more?"
He tried to move and couldn't. He was too tired, wrung out and trembling deep in his chest like he'd flown eight hours without stopping. He thought he should move, but it was a distant thing, not the all-consuming need to get away that it had been before.
Her arm tightened around his throat; not choking again, just affirming, and her other hand 'bit' harder under his jaw. He let it move his head, breathing hard, heart hammering, but neck loose.
"Good," she said, "Good. You're safe, Mr Stark, I'm not going to hurt you. You're in your house in Malibu." Her arm loosened and she laid his head on the carpet, transferring that hand to the back of his neck, fingertips cradling his skull. He blinked and swallowed but didn't otherwise move. "Mr Stark, Tony," she said gently, "can you tell me where you are?"
"Malibu...upstairs study." He cleared his throat. He was calm, but his heart was still in overdrive. It was an odd frame of mind, like the clarity in the middle of a firefight. "Not flashbacking. I'm oriented."
"Do you hurt anywhere?"
His neck hurt a little where she was gripping, and he said so. "...Otherwise, I don't think so? Did I hit anything? You?"
"Just the carpet, as far as I saw, but I'm sure you'll be sore later. I'm going to let go now, but I won't let up contact."
Her hand loosened and lifted from its bite on his neck, and that did hurt, with a dull ache. He wondered if he had bruises. He swallowed again and she rubbed his neck, pressing and working along the line of the muscle. That hurt a bit too, but he forgot it when she worked over to the base of his skull and revealed that it was actually held onto his neck by iron rods, but she was going to persuade them into rubber bands. He saw sparkles, honest-to-god white sparks, and flattened a little further into the carpet with a stuttering exhale.
"You're doing fine. Any time you want to move or talk or make a noise, you can. If something hurts, if something doesn't feel right, I want you to let me know. Here…" One hand lifted and found his hand loose on the carpet, wrapping it around her ankle where her leg was snug against his hip. "Squeeze your hand if something hurts or doesn't feel right. You won't hurt me. You're safe. Your heart will slow and your breath will get deeper in a little while, as you catch up to the feel of that."
He tried to consciously slow his breaths, but her hand flickered back to his neck and took hold with calm authority, a little offset from the sore spots. She'd grip him just as hard again, no hesitation. "No. Just feel. Don't make yourself do anything. Your body will calm down by itself, and it'll take as long as it takes. Just feel."
He didn't want to move, ever. She rubbed the back of his neck until the tendons relaxed, then his shoulders, then the base of his wings. The muscles were limp, but when she picked them up they felt strained and stiff, resisting the movements anyway. Her blunt grip, cushioned by his down and coverts but firm, brooked no resistance as she pulled on joint and tendon. First shoulder, then wing-elbow, then finally the neatly scarred remains of his wing-wrists. First the left, the worst of the two, then the right.
Horror gripped him momentarily, the phantom remnants of his amputated bones screaming to be protected even though her touch didn't actually hurt, but her weight came down on his back and time stretched again.
Each touch was purposeful and evaluating, but too similar to Yinsen. Pictures of his shattered wingfingers flashed, and the sound of the bolt cutter on bone was--
Her grip returned to the back of his neck, pinning him down, and the sound stopped echoing. Better, full of relief that he hadn’t had to hear the ‘snap!’, Tony tried to ignore how his body was disconnected from his mind and his mind was disconnected from everything, even the adrenaline that kept sparking down his spine, raising his feathers. He pulled his free arm under himself, dug his fingers into the carpet and breathed. Just breathed.
Natalie stopped, completely lifting her hands and setting them outside Stark's shoulders, when she smelled the salt tang of blood. It was a good smell, one that said prey deep in her hindbrain, but not at all expected in this situation. Wrong.
"Mr Stark?" she said softly. "Tony? Can you make a noise?" He was breathing deeply underneath her, almost shuddering with it, and she took a moment to gauge whether his hand had tightened on her ankle. He had a firm grip on it, but if so, he'd tightened so gradually she hadn't noticed. Damn.
No response. "Mr Stark, I stopped. I won't start again until I'm sure you're okay. Can you open your eyes?"
She cupped his throat gently and turned his head--he swallowed and blinked, eyes unfocused and glassy with shock. A bit of blood showed at a split in his bottom lip, alongside the white mark of his teeth.
"You're a quiet one," she said, keeping her tone light. "I can see I need to check in more actively with you." She'd known a few before, who by nature or training wouldn't make a sound as they dropped off a cliff.
He hadn't eaten much at lunch, either. She craned around, looking for her bag, and found it on the couch a good ten feet away. It remained stoically unmoved when she brushed it with a wingtip.
"Computer?" she said, feeling like an extra on Star Trek. "Is Ms Potts in the house?"
"Ms Potts is not on the premises," the pleasantly bland voice answered. "Ms Potts is in Colorado. Do you require emergency services?"
"Um," Natalie said, somewhat taken aback by the show of initiative. "No, I don't think that would be helpful, thank you. I just want to reach my bag."
"Understood, you just want to reach your bag. One moment," the computer said.
In the... slightly beeping silence after this statement, ‘Natalie’ frowned down at her patient, while Natasha rolled the behavioural response around in her mind. There was the possibility that this was old, from long before the kidnapping; Stark was known for any number of antics, perhaps he’d been overcompensating for a submissive tendency. Or, this was the result of hard, fast behavioural training under the brutal hand of the terrorists. One would be familiar, not particularly triggering, and the other would be so triggering it would be catastrophic.
It was the kind of thing Natalie’s pre-treatment questionnaires were supposed to pick up on, but Stark hadn’t rated high on any of the standard scales.
“Computer?” she asked, ‘nervously,’ when the elevator built into the graceful stone curve of the inside wall started to hum with an arriving car.
“One moment," the computer repeated, its intonation identical.
Stark’s lip was bleeding sluggishly, and her sleeve was better than taking her stabilising weight off his back, so she dabbed the drop away before it could stain the wool carpe--
The opening elevator whirred loudly, in a way that did not sound healthy, and disgorged a one-armed ... welding robot? It looked like an assembler arm, strapped to a toy tank with rubber caterpillar tracks. Natalie got shoved aside, her carefully crafted behaviour set suddenly completely inadequate for the situation, and Natasha feigned shock until the threat/no-threat assessment was complete:
1. no actual welding torch
2. no... sharp bits
3. not approaching directly
Good. "Stay back," Natasha snarled, going for the deep subharmonics that made even Clint shut up and listen for a few minutes. She realized she was mantling over Stark protectively, wing-wrists down and flight feathers fanned up huge and bristling behind her in the most aggressive threat-display she'd ever done at a robot, and dropped back into persona with a shiver. This was right. Natalie would protect her patient.
Any closer was too close. The robot stopped when she hissed at it, but then advanced again in clumsy fits and starts, almost crowding them away from the couch. Natalie didn't budge.
"Good boy," Stark muttered. Natalie dropped down low, checking him without dropping her guard. He'd tensed at first, mirroring her tension, but now he was relaxed again, his head turned to focus on the robot. He knew it, and he didn't think it was a threat. Natalie eyed the obvious power of its hydraulics, the obvious weight of its treads, and decided to reserve judgement, though she let the threat-display lower a little.
It headed slightly left, then veered more firmly right on some internal prompt, its camera sweeping around and scanning the floor. A Windows 95-esque tone marked the end of the search pattern and it sped up, motors whining.
She flared up again, but the bot made a wide circle around Stark’s limp feathers and her mantled wings, its camera pointing at her bag on the other side of the room. Natalie took a little longer to lower her guard, but it was clear that the house system was just fetching her things with its...servant...robot. Creepy, perhaps, with its glass eye, but probably harmless. (Natasha, a little more experienced with normal house security systems versus the kind that included clawed robots, still reserved judgement.)
The robot came slowly closer, and held out her bag in its claw. Stark’s eyes were closed and his skin less pallid, but she reached out for the bag with caution anyway. It rustled with the papers and packaging inside, and the robot backed off a precise six feet, going inert as she stared warily. "Okay, um, thank you, computer," she said, pulling out the care kit and focusing back on her patient. "Your house is very strange," she told him, and held a square of chocolate just under his nose.
Chocolate. The deep rich smell was all around, filling his nose and throat, and something was touching his lips, melting a little. Tony roused just enough to pull back slightly, rediscover carpet pressed to the side of his face, before instinct had his tongue flick out and then the taste was all over his mouth too. He floundered, trying to place the scent and taste in any context remotely similar to this, and failed. They hadn't had chocolate in the caves.
He licked his lips again, then nudged forward to taste the rest. A solid square of chocolate, heavy with cocoa butter. The fingers holding it let him bite the corner off, and he pulled back, letting it melt on his tongue. Nothing but chocolate there.
It was good. Though he didn't normally care much about sweet things, he could maybe start to understand Pepper's high, high standards for her occasional indulgence. The way she would take her chosen caramel or truffle or whatever it was and curl up on the couch to savor it, exuding contentment. Something about this was really, really good.
The weight on his back, all the way up his spine. The hand cupped under his jaw, against the pulse in his neck. He sighed and stretched just a little, feeling out the boundaries of fear, feeling distress slowly recede as he remembered where and when he was. It left him sharp-edged and fragile inside, like always.
"More?" Rushman asked softly.
Tony turned his face away. No. "Thirsty," he managed after a moment.
"Here." She uncapped a plain bottle of water and held it for him, and he drank. A little sparkle of pleasure at not using his arms, still being pinned. She hadn't left him alone.
"How do you feel?"
"Cold. Shaky," he said.
Dummy whirred and brought over the throw from the back of the couch, while Rushman escalated right back up into boss fight mode. Women very rarely appreciated being called 'broody,' but it was touching, really, as well as terrifying.
"He responds to the word 'cold,'" Tony mumbled. "Also F-I-R-E, so. Don't say that word."
"He does? Oh, I mean, of course he does."
"Foam in your feathers for days."
She crackled something in the corner of his vision and offered him a chunk of protein bar, the same kind he kept down in the workshop. It tasted different without the omnipresent ozone, oil and solder scents he'd been working and sleeping in.
"You tense when I lift too much of my weight," she observed, and slowly laid her whole upper body down on his back. "This is better?"
"Yes," he whispered. Lying, even to protect a weakness, was beyond him right then. She was solid with muscle; not so heavy it was uncomfortable, but that wouldn't have mattered.
She nodded and tucked the throw around them. Tony flinched his wingstubs away from the blanket, expecting rough wool against healing incisions, but it was as soft as his own feathers. She didn't comment, but moved more slowly, and went back to rubbing his neck when she was done. Under the weight and warmth, his eyes hooded and his wings spread out heavy on the carpet, relaxed in the elasticity of the blanket with the vulnerable stumps safe against soft fabric. He was going to have imprints on his face, but he really couldn't make caring stick.
Time drifted in and out of synch with his heartbeat, sometimes slower but then speeding up to fine detail when the therapist shifted her weight. At one point she let up pressure one-sidedly and pushed his wing-elbow into a more comfortable place, then tucked it there with the throw, like a sling. It felt strange, the angle, but old-familiar; from before.
He let out a small sound in relief and surprise and shifted to offer her the other.
She was smiling at him, he could tell, and her hands were sure and precise.
"There we go; exercise one, finding the natural fold angle."
"Thank you," Tony replied, hoarse, cutting off any sort of honorific because it was wrong place safe person wrong person. "Feels...stretched and relaxed, both."
"Good. The tendons will change shape if you let them, due to the loss of the retractor alvunaris, which would act in a..."
The vibration of her voice transmitted keel to spine to ear, resonant in his lungs and curling through the air spaces in his bones. He wasn't listening, not really, until her tone went soft.
"...ark? I'm sorry for not tracking you; I wasn't alert enough. I should have backed off and-- we could have tried again later."
Tony growled and tried to push her off with a pump of already exhausted flight muscles; she wasn't supposed to back off, that wasn't the-- the deal? There was supposed to be... Good things, warm and promised.
Her weight shifted violently, pinning his wings down between heavily muscled thighs. "No."
He stopped, temple thumping to the carpet.
"Better." She rubbed the back of his neck, and that was more like it; warm and firm. "I'm sorry I triggered you. I didn't read you as a subspace type, but now you're here and I'm not going anywhere."
His throat ached, and he had to speak, something bitter and proud and ashamed and angry cracking out as a half-laugh. "I'm not usually. Can't afford it. And if you're wondering, I didn't, I wouldn't, I never once subbed for them."
She tensed, but her voice was calm and even. "For the terrorists? I'm not surprised. I'm guessing you never felt safe there. Never trusted them."
Though he didn't do it often, before his capture he'd sometimes let himself go down, sweet and easy --Rumiko-- not always for the right reasons, and not always feeling safe. But he hadn't in the caves. He was a mess of conflicting emotion for a fractured second, seeing Yinsen stare at a glowing coal from inches away, then flicking sideways to a conversation over the fire about family. A snarl bubbled up again, cut off by fingers in his hair tightening in warning. He slumped, contained.
"Should have, maybe. Easier that way, s-safer, if they thought I'd do what they wanted."
She shook his head, just a little, for emphasis. "No. There is no easy way to survive a hostage situation. There is no right way. Listen to me, Mr Stark. You kept your wits, and you escaped, and you're here now, and you're alive. You're going forward. You're making plans for the future. That's good, Mr Stark, that's right. You can't make plans for the future if you're dead."
"Futurist," he mumbled, eyes closing. This time, there was no Yinsen waiting for him in the dark.
"There you go. Would you like to talk about your plans? Your ligaments and tendons are strong, still; you got me here in good time. You have more range of motion than I expected, and we can improve what you have."
Tony hummed something affirmative into the carpet. He wanted to know how to transmit force from the ventral face of his stumps to the structural ribbing of the prosthesis. The stumps weren't just sensitive; they hurt when he prodded them, the bones still sheared and sharp against what closure Yinsen had found to sew over them. They weren't able to provide much force. He wanted to ask whether they would heal, what shape the bone callus would end up, should he look into titanium posts, like for foot prosthetics-- But the ideas splintered into fragments somewhere between visualisation and vocalisation.
"Okay, oookay, shhhh, Mr. Stark. Maybe not just yet."
She pulled back, taking her weight away, and he shuddered with something shocky and cold. She tucked his wings for him again, wrapping the blanket close so she could prompt him to roll over. He curled onto his left side, that wingstump cradled in her palm, until she pulled the blanket tight and pushed the ends into his palm.
Clumsily, admittedly, he grabbed hold and tucked in. The slightest draft felt like ice and he leaned into her hands wherever they touched, even though they were wandering back to the muscles under his shoulderblades, either side of his spine, and he was startled to realize just how sore he was there.
"These muscles tuck your wings," she said. "You can feel it, now that you're relaxed. They've been overworked. I'm sure the doctors tried to interest you in flightless prosthetics?"
He hissed into the carpet. "Backpacks with feathers stuck on. Don't fucking care if they're real feathers. Don't fucking care if they're colormatched."
"Yes, well, you're not wrong. But one advantage they offer is an approximation of counterweighting. Because of the length of your stubs, that's a particular consideration for you. I'd keep it in mind."
Tony sighed heavily. The Landstuhl medics had given him a wing-sling too, which he probably still had since Rhodey kept fishing it out of the trash. Maybe he could wear it in the workshop, where he was safe, maybe. He'd talk to J later.
Meanwhile, the massage really --ow-- really felt good...
He woke some uncertain amount of time later, the room dim and lights turned down low. It had gotten dark. He shifted, heartrate kicking up at the blankets wrapped tightly around him, and calmed when a warm weight behind him shifted too. She was still there.
"Earning your overtime," he said rustily, but drank the water she gave him and let her peel him up off the floor onto his feet and shuffle him down the hall, past his nominal bedroom and into the workshop stairwell, then vanished with a quiet see you next week.
Tony turned around and around in the darkened 'shop, hitched the throw tighter around himself and pulled out several drawers in the heavy-duty tool cabinet, then climbed up them softly, quietly to the nest he'd made up above, completely concealed from the floor of the 'shop. Dummy gave him a boost for the last stretch without footholds, then whirred back to his charging station just beside the cabinet and haphazardly docked himself. He'd be ready in the morning to help Tony get down.
In the quiet and the dark, Tony curled up. The hulking shoulders of the Mk 2 were just visible from here, suspended above his worktable. He watched them, thinking about the wingpieces. Short, swing-wing for extreme forward sweep, granting high-speed maneuverability at high angles of attack… His dad had been one of the last few holdouts still working on fighter plane technology after the whole concept proved unworkable.
When Mk 2 was done the Ten Rings wouldn't even know what had hit them. He grinned in the dark.
"Wake me up when it's light enough to weld," he ordered, ignoring the fact that the 'shop was mostly underground.
"Very good, sir."
Chapter 4: as if a wing beat at the portal
Tony hit the water wings-first, the screamer’s ringing cut off by the shock of impact and cold. For a second, the only thing running through his mind besides the need to not breathe was JARVIS' surf report from this morning: calm, but a strong current down from Alaska bringing lower temperatures. Only the truly dedicated surfed in February.
As soon as he went numb, the inhibited nerve pathways wouldn't be quite so inhibited and he should be able to --yes-- he could move again. He couldn't feel that he was moving, of course; his wings were so cold he couldn't feel a thing, but he really wanted to be on his back, recovery position, could envision every single flap and twist to get himself there, and then he was. He was never complaining about muscle memory again.
He gasped, coughed, gasped, coughed, and listened hard to the crash of waves against the rocks at the base of the cliff. That way. He needed to go that way. His head was spinning dizzily, the screamer or the fall or the concussion-shock of hitting the surface, or maybe just icy cold water messing up the delicate hydraulics of his inner ears, but adrenaline was keeping him from feeling any pain yet.
This would be so much easier in the daytime when he could see. He blinked hard against the dark and the urge to curl up and be still, but there was literally no light, just the formless ghost gray of the spray and the sense of the cliff, blacker than the cloudy sky. No lights from the house; the balcony was recessed too far. Obie would have to take off to even see where Tony hit the water, and it didn't look like he was bothering.
That fucker. If he'd pushed Tony the other direction instead, into the heated pool, Tony would have drowned.
Slowly, he got the sound of waves behind him, and started moving. Backwards was easier; the angle of his flailing kept his face mostly above water. But not completely. A wave lifted him up and then broke a little too soon, rolling him over instead of rushing out from under him. He held his breath, but didn’t dare close his eyes completely; he needed to know which way was up, and his sense of orientation was useless. The salt water stung less than chlorinated pool water, more than bathwater, and filled his nose and ears with shocking cold again. He had a lungful of air, he was buoyant, no one was holding him down; he just had to wait out the rolling tumble and the backwash--
He came up sputtering, on his side rather than his back, arms smacking the surface --inefficient, Stark, get a grip!-- and blew water out of his nose and mouth so he could take a bre--
The next wave caught him with only half a lungful, less buoyant, and his wings caught the flow shorewards with too much loft. The bones creaked in their sockets, muscles straining to twist and spill water, and he flipped right over, tumbling deeper and hitting sand. He was too close in, his wings were more of a liability here, especially when his muscles were only half under his control--
(one) He pulled his limbs in tight, waited, (two) lungs screaming for air and Pepper’s voice in his ears. (three!) The sea cleared, chaotic rills of water turning into the steady flow of the next building wave, and he kicked with numb, clumsy legs straight up into it.
It carried him in three or four meters before he had to stop kicking to rest; oxygen-deprived and with muscles full of CO2, he needed to breathe and steady himself. He filled his lungs in a lull, and topped off his secondary lungs as full as they would go, then breathed in again. There. He was buoyant again, floating high in the water and no longer at risk of being thrown against the hard sand. He panted carefully, never emptying his chest more than halfway, until the next wave beat him towards the dark beach.
It left him behind and started rolling back out, and he felt the backwash try to pull him back into the breaker zone. Undertow.
He gritted his teeth and rolled onto his front, wings smacking the surface like a waterlogged pigeon. He had to touch bottom, or he’d never get enough power to resist undertow like this. His feet were numb but the bone-deep sensation of hitting sand was still detectable, and he dug his feet into the shifting substrate. Water roared past; the wave coming up behind him was a big one, and he slid backward as much as he pushed forward, but the water was getting shallower, moving faster. He took advantage and dragged himself forwards while the wave lowered the water level, then spread his wings and let the crashing wave push him the rest of the way.
He hit sand --shoulder, then hip, then knees-- but managed not to tumble ass-over-top. It was shallow enough to let him walk, and he pushed to his feet, wings weighing a hundred extra pounds with seawater. He dragged himself up the empty pitch-dark beach with numb legs, going to hands and knees when the support of the water was gone, the waves battering his arms and legs but never quite knocking him over, as much as they tried. He still couldn't feel any pain, but he was stiff with cold. He knew the breeze was leeching even more heat out of him, enough to evaporate the water on his skin, but he couldn't really tell; it felt more academic than real.
It was high tide --the moon was overhead somewhere above the clouds-- so when he hit dry sand, he was only meters away from the asphalt of the beach road. Looking up the winding cliff-stairs to the house’s front door, he could have laughed. He was alive, the crippling paralysis of the screamer was just an electrical buzz in his ears and fingertips, and Obie didn't know he'd sunk the elevator shaft all the way to a concealed freight door in the cliff. Pepper had been dubious, but look at him now, calling his beach elevator.
Fuck you, Obie, I got this.
Rhodey, frantic, was covering the elevator door with his service pistol when it opened onto the dark workshop level. The lights were out, that was important-- it meant J was still down, though basic house security was active. Tony didn't budge from his sand-covered sprawl on the elevator floor, but then, he didn't have to; Rhodey was on him as soon as the doors were open wide enough, smacking the button to lock the elevator on this floor.
"Shit, Tony, are you hurt?!"
"Obie's the weapons leak. He p-pushed me off the balcony," Tony said, voice rough and grating from the water he'd inhaled. He had sand in his mouth, beyond the overwhelming taste of salt. He made a face and tried to spit it out and wipe his lip, but his hands were so rimed in sand he probably picked up more. "Be a good bro and rinse me off? I d-don't want to get this shit all over the inside of the armor."
Rhodey nodded grimly. "Stane. We were closing the net tonight, but something tipped him off. You're going after him?"
"He's going after Pepper. I know where. He said something about the big arc reactor on the old SI campus, he's going to do s-s-something with it--overload it, or--he took my spare miniature one, I had it with me out by the pool like an idiot where anyone could see."
"Shit," Rhodey repeated, crouching down and pulling out his phone. "Pepper's still on campus." He texted furiously. "Sending out an all-points alert now. Most of our guys are spread all over the city, staking out Stane's house and the other board members." He froze, then folded a little in relief. "Pepper acknowledged. She says I know."
"S-she always figures things out before I do," Tony said. Rhodey's hands were on him now, patting gently, checking that his sodden clothes were wet with nothing darker than seawater, then snaking around him and hoisting him up unceremoniously.
Tony swayed, not one hundred percent sure where his feet were, though he felt Rhodey's arm tighten around his ribs, under his wings. Rhodey hissed through his teeth. "You didn't tell me you were fucking freezing. You're shaking, man."
"Not the best time of year for s-swimming," Tony said, getting his legs in gear. "Obie used a screamer on me before he pushed me off --remember those? Yeah, fucking hurts-- but the cold water c-counteracted it, partly, and-- Should be worn off now. If I can get warmed up." He dragged them to a halt by the main powerswitch bank, flipped up the clear plastic cover and hit the emergency crash restart sequence.
The pause let Dummy drop a towel on them, half over his wings and half over Rhodey. Tony laughed, short and hard. "Good boy. Dummy, listen. Get your little big brother back online, then prep the Mark Three and stock it with some juice and a five-hour. Got it?" JARVIS disapproved of energy drinks, but Tony was going to need it.
Dummy bobbed and sped over to the server cabinets, hitting the reboot button for JARVIS’ logic bank, then disappearing into the vault to do the same to RAM. Tony watched him go, eyes lingering on the vault door while a full body shiver worked its way up his legs.
“C’mon, let's get some heat into you,” Rhodey said, dragging him towards the no-Tony-get-clean-before-carpets shower.
“Say that again, baby," Tony groaned. "I want it as hot as it’ll go.” He got his feet back under him, using Rhodey for balance and, if he was forced to admit it, impetus.
The shower was large enough for both of them, barely, and though Tony was barefoot Rhodey didn't bother with stripping their clothes or his own boots off. If he wielded the shower wand he'd probably stay mostly dry; Tony really wasn’t going to complain about expediency right now. The lip on the edge of the stall was a challenge, but Rhodey hauled him over it by his hips and then took charge like he did this all the time, which wasn’t as hot as it sounded. No really.
“You're too cold to lift your legs, you're not getting it as hot as it goes. Thirty-seven please, JARV.”
The first whirrs of JARVIS’ processes coming online were overlaid by an acknowledgement beep and the hiss of the water. Verbal interfaces for basic house functions were low-level for J, like breathing; after a hard restart he wouldn't be properly 'conscious' yet for a few minutes. But he'd know immediately, on waking, that Tony was in the shower and safe.
Thirty-seven degrees C was plenty hot enough, and Tony turned his face to the spray and got rid of the sand with relief (and a messy spit into the drain, but Rhodey didn’t say anything, so Tony wasn’t going to fuss). Rhodey was up to his elbows in the water, fingers skimming over Tony's feathers and knocking the worst of the sand off, then gently taking the collar of his tank top and ripping the sodden cloth around its wing holes to pull the fabric away and dump it in the corner of the shower. His pants and boxers got a similar fate, though with less ripping, and Tony could swear entire cups of sand washed down the drain as his legs were bared.
So here they were, Rhodey in his boots and fatigues, Tony soaking wet and naked and no longer shivering as hard.
"You know--" Tony started.
"Don't even," Rhodey tried to cut him off. "I know you, and this--"
"--this is LITERALLY steamy," Tony said with great satisfaction.
"We are never speaking of this again," Rhodey vowed. "This is the last time I save your hypothermic ass. Next time you're turning blue, you are going down like the Titanic, I swear."
Tony started snickering, which didn't leave as much room for breathing.
"The Titanic," Rhodey repeated more softly, taking most of Tony's weight again, chest-to-chest in an almost-hug, angling the shower wand to sluice down Tony's back and over his wings. So much for Rhodey staying dry.
“So, Rose, you gonna help me take down the iceberg?” Tony managed through the snickering, once it had mostly let him go and he'd gotten a few deep breaths. He'd fall apart later, he didn't have time right now.
“You’re a cheesy motherfucker, Tony. Head back.”
Tony obeyed. Oh god, hot water through his hair was heaven. It felt like his head was melting.
“I can’t fly in one of the crazy tin cans you're making,” Rhodey said soberly. Tony tensed up, because he had god-damn-well offered, and Rhodey had-- well, alright, Tony’s head hadn’t been on straight, and there were solid, unassailable reasons that plane cockpits and cabins had to be roomy, but still--
"Flying in the armor isn't anything like flying a plane, Rhodey, it doesn't need--"
“But build me one I can actually fit into," Rhodey continued, "and I will. Next time, baby.”
Rhodey’s shoulder came up to Tony’s chin and his wings were-- This was in fact a fair point, although there was just enough give in the Mark Two, prototype and all, that Rhodey might fit, if he clamped his primaries in the joints… Not ideal. He'd be liable to panic, unable to extend his wings all the way, and even though military pilots trained for years to control their flight instincts, it would still affect his reflexes. He needed armor for his full span.
Not the supersonic half-sized airfoils Tony had made for himself, that his flight tests these past few weeks tentatively indicated would make him the fastest living thing in the sky.
“If you're gonna be some kind of vigilante here," Rhodey said, poking the shower wand right into Tony's feathers and washing out yet more sand, "and I still think that's gonna bite you on the ass, by the way-- you can't call in backup for this yourself. You need me to be the bystander, the one who contacts the rest of the players here, keeps the bombers off your ass and brings in the SHIELD guy.”
"The SHIELD guy," Tony complained. "I have never met this elusive SHIELD guy. There was no such agency until two months ago, honeybunch, you have no idea how unnerving that is. I can't even find any record of what it stands for, and this black-hat--"
"He doesn't wear a hat," Rhodey said helpfully. "Starting to lose his hair. Smiles a lot."
"--just invited himself to my investigation, like Dick Tracy going after HYDRA conspiracies in every shadow--"
“You invited half the security community into ‘your investigation.’ Which you then abandoned--”
"--I couldn't run it when I damn well had to be one of the people under investigation, and does he expect a supervillain here? It’s not like Obie’s had long enough to build a suit."
Rhodey groaned. "You just had to say it, didn't you?"
"What, oh, I'm sorry, did my off-hand comment change the course of immediate history?" Tony lifted his head to catch Rhodey's face and the unexpectedly serious look there, and ordered "Spill. What do you know?"
"Pepper told me the old decommissioned Lab Three has been running hot since you got back. He's been doing something down there."
"Lab Three? That's right under the reactor."
"If he has built a suit, which I doubt by the way --although if he wanted a Jericho or anything else SI already makes, he could have just misplaced some, no need for lab space, shit-- if he's built something really stupid, we can backvent the--"
"--reactor, scour that lab right down to concrete, then vent the plasma back up through the reactor the way it was triple-overdesigned to do. Bam. Problem solved. As long as no one's doing an overflight. Have you locked down that airspace? I would lock down that airspace--"
"OR, we could arrest him without danger to life or destruction of evidence. The nice SHIELD agent has a warrant for obstruction, the Feds are bringing some kind of capabar charge about theft of government property and even Interpol has agreed on something to arrest him for."
Tony mantled. "If he's made a suit, it's not government property, it is mine. So what I'm hearing is, I go fly around above the reactor, and when he comes out you tell him nicely that he's arrested."
He could almost feel the moment that Rhodey gave up. "That's about right, yeah."
Tony shuffled his wings into the water, smug and rapidly warming up enough to feel even the tips of his fingers. “Well then, you gonna shift and let me flap dry, or are we going to stand here hugging until the villainous super-villain breaks my entire company?”
“What? Ohhh-- nonono, no. No, you started this. JARVIS was down, I couldn't find you, I thought I was gonna have to start looking for a body, man. And then I thought I found one, for a second.” Rhodey rubbed his forehead tightly. "You've used up all my fucks. I am officially out. No more to give."
Tony bumped Rhodey with a stump, deliberately. It hurt, a bit, but the limb was strong enough to make a point. “It’ll take more than this to punch my number, Rhodey.”
Tony slid back the shower door and jumped out, flapping energetically as he left a second set of wet footprints across the floor. "Dummy! JARVIS! Snap snap!" His undersuit was draped on the workbench; he grabbed it, sprayed sports lube everywhere, and started skinning it on. The material was absorbent enough not to matter that he was still dripping. His stump socks were gone with the arc-powered prosthetic Obie had taken, but there was no use crying over that; he was lucky enough to have the old original reactor to slot into the Mark Three. He stepped up and the assemblers built the armor around him in record time, servos almost overclocking, himself and JARVIS in perfect agreement. When his arm was free he pointed a finger at Rhodey, the helmet closing and voice modulators kicking in halfway through. "You lock down that airspace, and get Pepper out of harm's way first. You see a chance, you take it! Interpol agents do carry guns, don't they?"
"Godspeed, Tony!" Rhodey yelled after him. "You idiot! Don't die!"
“You can have my hotrod!” Tony yelled, locking his legs and hitting the thrust before Rhodey could reply. He roared straight up through the hatch and into the open sky with a whoop, heart pounding and ready for anything.
The next morning, after debrief, Natasha cleaned and oiled all her weapons. Then she did her nails.
“HEY CLINT!" she yelled when the idiot box showed something that was low-quality, grainy, and still entirely too steady to be the new Transformers movie. "The new category eight’s on Fox!”
Clint stuck his head around the kitchen door, pasta spoon dripping in one hand. “Yeah? Press conference or re-runs?”
Natasha checked the ribbon, waiting for it to scroll around again. “Both!” She waited for the next line to appear and read it out for Barton's benefit. “Fighting robots on freeway traffic cams cause record backup, 8-hour commute. Live in five from Stark Industries.” This was worth unmuting. She wanted to hear how much the inane commentary had in common with the points of this morning's precis.
"...MIT expert Dr Randhi Ravasthi. Dr Ravasthi, how are these robots doing what they did? Is there room for a human pilot?"
"In the larger one, yes; its joints are hydraulic, which takes up a lot of room, but there could also be space for a human inside. And of course the reactions and smooth motion they both exhibit goes far beyond any existing robotic programming. The smaller one, though, doesn't use external hydraulic cylinders; the mechanism --the motors that let it move, and in at least one case lift an SUV, as you see there-- must be within the limbs.”
“So no pilot?”
“There’s just no space. Added to its completely novel propulsion technology, the fuel reserves alone would fill up any extra room inside. It must be a remote-operated drone, similar to the the 'Doombots' that attacked Cape Cod last summer, although considerably more advanced."
Clint vanished from sight again, the pot clanking against the stove burners and then the strainer clattering against the sink. “You think it’s Stark?”
"What about a superhuman?" the announcer persisted. The expert on the other side of the split screen sighed; he looked like he'd been bundled into a lab coat at the last second, to look sufficiently scientific.
"Both robots left contrails, and both left scorchmarks where they hovered. Their propulsion systems produced exhaust, and were operating by Newton's second law. Superhuman abilities just break that law, so whatever else we find out, 'Iron Man' was not using such an ability to fly. I suppose if there were a super-strong, indestructible person inside, there would be no need for limb motors or cushioning, but more than half the space would still be required for fuel tanks."
"So you're saying a super-strong, wingless, indestructible midget," another commentator broke in, minimizing the original announcer's window to the corner of the screen. She looked disgruntled under her heavy makeup.
The MIT expert looked constipated. "Stranger things have happened," he said, as if he couldn't help arguing against the newcomer, "but as I stated, a remote-controlled drone is a much stronger explanation. And just at the edge of the possible, with current technology."
Natasha snorted and muted it again, squinting at the looped cell footage. “Cameras caught the Big Bad coming out from under the old arc reactor on the SI campus. Whatever they were, they were too fast for feathers, and the talking heads agree the good guy was too small to be manned. Could be Stark, remotely.” The footage switched over to a garbled report, live from the press conference. “Oh, hey, Coulson spotted!”
Clint swore. “I’m not even watching, you don’t get a point for that!” Plates and cutlery clicked as Clint rushed to bring out the food, and Natasha reached up from her spot on the sofa to grab hers before it all went tits up.
“Man up, Barton, you had a thirty-second warning.” The plate was piled high with bacon arrabiata, which was bound to stain anything it touched. It also smelled worth the risk. She poked it dubiously. “This looks delicious. Are you sure you're responsible?”
Clint snorted and flopped into the sofa next to her, eyes fixed on the screen. “ ‘s one of those TV show recipes. Impossible to fuck up.”
“I take it Phoenix had daytime TV then.” It tasted good, too; good level of spice, and plenty of onion to offset the bacon.
“Well, I wasn’t sitting around eating celery with the secretarial staff of ‘Physio*R*Us’ and conversing with real humans like you got to do, so, daytime TV-- got him. Wow, how’d you get him to wear such a shitty suit?”
Nat looked up from her plate too late; the shot was already panning past Coulson to the podium. “Damn. One-one.” She stuffed her face with penne, then answered out of the corner of her mouth. She was hungry; her exercise regime and her cover really hadn’t meshed, as far as calorie intake. “Wasn’t me, I just tagged him in at the airport. If that--” she jabbed her fork at the next half-clip containing their handler, “--was orders, it’s Fury’s ass on the line, not mine.”
“Or he’s doing inconspicuous.” Clint announced, voice more garbled by his mouthful than Natasha’s had been. “I don’t think I’d know his inconspicuous if I saw it; too used to recognising his ass, backwards and in heels. And also in the rain.”
“Clint, if you ever manage to do anything backwards and in stilettoes, I will personally polish your bow for the rest of my life.”
She heard Clint’s eyebrows shoot up, but he managed to avoid sputtering or choking. A shame.
On screen, the podium was back in the center of the shot, and Stark’s familiar outline shouldered its way through the double doors behind it. He was wearing a new set of prosthetics today, just like he had at every single public appearance since his first Q&A about them. The struts and plates of this set were a dull gunmetal black, blending with his natural feathers everywhere but at the bright copper gears of the joints.
“Your attention plea-- oh, thank you. That was quick. Did I keep you waiting?” Stark asked. Natasha recognised that smile; Tony was hurt, but damn pleased with himself. Showboater. The press would lap it up, probably without ever suspecting --his wing hitched as he put his elbows casually on the podium-- the giant bruise he was sheltering on his left side.
The journalists' polite laughter died down and Stark rearranged his cards.
“You’ve all seen the footage; yes, that was my factory and power generator attacked during the incident. We believe at this time that the attack was triggered by the Interpol investigation; as the investigation closed in on the leak, the attack robot seen on the footage emerged from an unused cooling silo beneath the arc reactor.”
“Attack robot? Really? I prefer ‘Iron Monger’.”
“You would, shut up.”
Clint hmphed, fork clacking obnoxiously against his half-empty plate.
“At this time, we believe that Obadiah Stane, and a small group of scientists and middle managers, created the robot in direct response to the investigation, in an attempt to-- fuckit. They built a giant killer robot, that’s what villains do. I don’t want to read any more of this ‘at this time’ crap.”
The reporters, who’d been quiet and industrious in the foreground, burst into a flurry of raised hands.
“Yep, Christine! Lovely to see you.”
“What about the smaller robot, ‘Iron Man’? Several scientists have theorized that it's remote-controlled, can you comment on the identity of the controller? How long has SI been working on--”
“One at a time, please. As for Iron Man: we would formally like to thank the powered individual and/or remote drone pilot who saved the campus from Obadiah Stane’s final mistake, and invite them to come forward for appropriate compensation. They saved lives, and capital, last night. I want to shake his-or-her hand, and not just because those rocket gloves, but seriously, rocket gloves? Everyone’s gonna want some of those.”
Stark paused long enough (half a breath) and the flurry of questions started up again.
“What happened to Mr Stane?”
The conference room was quiet while Stark shuffled his cards again. “All persons known to be on-campus last night are accounted for; due to the late hour, no regular employees and none of the others currently suspected of building the robot were present, though there were several minor injuries among the investigators and first responders." Stark cleared his throat and widened his stance slightly. "I regret to announce the death of Obadiah Stane in last night's incident. During the chaos surrounding the activation of the ‘Iron Monger’ robot, its subsequent altercation with the 'Iron Man' robot, and the controlled venting and shutdown of the old reactor, Mr Stane was killed by electrical discharge from damaged infrastructure. His body was found at three AM this morning, after the removal of the Iron Monger from the rubble. Evidence found in his personal records will be brought to bear in a posthumous hearing in the course of executing Mr Stane's will, and regarding the final receipt of his company shares.”
The press needed a moment after that, and Stark gave them just enough time to make appropriate notes, and/or get over the shock before asking for the next question.
“Where were you during the events at the factory?”
“Ahh...if I say I was making time with a lovely redhead, would you believe me? --No, seriously, Stane’s first stop last night was my house up on the point. He threw me off the balcony. Fortunately, it was high tide, and I splashed rather than splattered. I was pulled from the beach by Colonel Rhodes, who as part of the investigation and as SI’s military liaison, was covering the house as one of a list of places they thought Stane might visit. But the water was cold, the beach is not easily visible from the house, and I’m told I was at the mercy of Pacific crabs, and gulls, for at least an hour.”
Stark lifted his chin and pulled down his collar to expose a livid red mark, grimacing expressively. “Gull beaks are sharp.”
“Gulls are diurnal...” Clint muttered dubiously, “Must have been the crabs. But no one wants to say they almost got eaten by crabs on live TV.”
Natasha privately thought it looked like a burn from hot metal, rather than a nip. She frowned. The story about being thrown off the balcony was so specific it had the ring of truth, and Tony had told it in an offhand way that made her even more certain he wasn't lying. "Something happened with Stane that he's not saying," she murmured.
"You have no idea how much stagecraft it took to get me looking pretty today," the Tony on screen continued. "But here I am, alive. And not dead. So, I’m counting that as a victory against corporate espionage and psychopaths!”
“Is he drunk?” Clint asked, incredulously. "I'd get it if he was, but when you're richer than God aren't there people whose job is to keep microphones away?"
“Painkillers. Look at Potts; she’s grinning like he's hilarious. Broken wrist. I think she was at ground zero.” Natasha frowned more. "Why do you expect him to be drunk?"
"He's so punchy it's either that or he's coming off more than one close call in the last twenty-four hours," Clint said bluntly. "And come on, he just said the guy tried to kill him. Not just badly, theatrically. His own mentor did that, of course there's something he's not saying."
Natasha pursed her lips and tilted her head, conceding. Some things Clint saw more clearly than her, even off the battlefield.
"Anyway! We would like to invite Iron Man to apply for the job of bodyguard to...my body. Seeing as he’s given us such a great resume. Great benefits, six figure salary. You start yesterday!”
The journalists laughed obediently.
"And free medical, if he --or she-- will share their alloy formula with the SI bodyarmor division. Alright, that’s it, the PR folks are making threatening hand gestures. No more questions! Thank you for your time. Stark out.” Tony raised both hands in a V sign and backed away from the podium. Despite the stiffness of concealed injury, he really was moving more naturally than when she'd first met him.
The camera switched to a shot of a reporter, and Natasha muted the irritatingly perky voice and looked at her partner. Clint was making time, cleaning his plate with a fingertip, then his fingertip with his tongue.
“You’re disgusting. Ask.”
“You debriefed Stark. Sort of. Is Iron Man one of his?”
Natasha shrugged. Yes, yes he was, but Clint didn’t need to hear that out of her mouth. "I wasn't actually there to debrief him, you know." It had been sort of...nice, to have a clear mission with no bodies at the end. Like a training mission, but with just one snarky, crazily brilliant student. Someone SHIELD rated irreplaceable enough that they would directly ensure he got the care he needed. It was the kind of assignment she hadn't been sure what to make of, at first, but it wasn't so bad.
"Yeah, I know, but you must have heard stuff. He'd have told you things."
"He told me about those prosthetics he wears. They're not for show. They work," she said offhandedly, and enjoyed the stunned glance Clint sent at the TV, even though it was just more talking heads now. "I’d be shocked if he wasn’t involved with this somehow. Coulson said the recovered pieces of Iron Monger are all off-the-shelf tech, but those ‘rockets’ on Iron Man... Category eight. A new player. Whether they're natural or mechanical, I've never seen anything like them; not at Stark's, not anywhere.” Technically the truth. "Did you hear they were both clocked at over 500 miles per hour during parts of the fight? Nothing that small should be able to go that fast."
Clint’s eyes bored into the side of her head for a second, then he chuckled and the pressure eased. “He have any allergies I should know about?”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“Of course you don’t. Foresight is officially my job. You think Coulson’s worked it out?” Clint mused.
Nat shoved her plate in his direction, raising an eyebrow. You’re kidding, right? "I still have no idea what you mean."
“He wasn’t even there until the last bit,” Clint defended doggedly.
“And I never saw Stark with a red-and-gold remote control rig. He knows. Ten bucks and another dinner.”
Clint deflated. “No bet.”
“But you’ll make this again, right?”
"Only if you admit you liiike Star--hrk!"
The plate went over the side of the couch, thunking into the thick carpet without breaking, as she made sure the record was set straight. And that Clint could still get out of a choke fast enough for her satisfaction.
“Oh Tony, you’ve rubbed them raw. What did the paramedic say?” Pepper asked, her hands clenching on his shoulders. She wouldn't touch without warning, but he could feel how much she wanted to. She must have known something was wrong from how much he fidgeted in the limo on the way home, unable to settle down even long enough to be belted in. Neither of them had had any chance to sleep yet, though Tony knew he wouldn't have been able to.
Tony peered over his shoulder at his stumps, swallowing down nausea at the sight of them red and bloody again. The faint smears of red flashed into the lurid purple of Yinsen’s best work, and he looked away again, holding on to the floaty feeling of strong painkillers. “Obie stole the newest prosthetics and took my padding with them. The armor chafed without that." There'd been some sand in his feathers still, and no way to prevent it collecting in the tips of the wingpieces, where it tore up his skin. "I didn't even feel it until I got home. Are they gonna scar? I asked. Will I be pretty again? I said.” He rolled his wingshoulders over his shoulders, and stretched his neck forwards until the tendons creaked. “There’s some cream, stuff, in the bag. Put it on for me?"
She rustled with the paper prescription bag he’d been given after he'd made it home, hidden the suit, gotten in the shower again to rinse off blood, soot, and sweat, and let Rhodey call in the paramedics for verisimilitude. Serivimilitude. Tudesimilivude. Tony half-laughed at himself and bit his lip when Pepper first touched his stump.
Thankfully, the injuries of fighting in a robot armor suit were pretty damn similar to the injuries of being bounced off a bunch of rocks by the surf. The EMTs had been, overall, so impressed by his survival that he'd actually felt like a poser for a minute, until he realized fuck that, they'd be twice as impressed if they knew how'd he really been about to die.
His hands were shaking.
“Do you want me to call Natalie?” Pepper asked, wrestling with her cast and his stiff left wing and smoothing something lovely and cold over the sore stump with her good hand. “You’re as stiff as a frozen carrot.”
Tony blinked. “That’s what she said--” he blurted. Pepper hip-checked his shoulder in retaliation, and didn’t retreat again; convenient. Tony used her ribs as a resting place for his swimmy, floaty head. “She was a temp... original guy... Peter? Paul? Not worth my time. Clause 10a. Sooooo fired. Fired, fiiiirrred. She went back to grad school, can you believe it?”
"I knew she was passing your folder along, but...grad school where?"
"Dubai," Tony said. "She's gonna...do things. I don't know."
"I'm sorry," Pepper said, and she really was, he could tell. It was eerie. "So Paul struck out. If he couldn't handle a pack of dogs, I'm not surprised he couldn't handle you. Should we look for another therapist?"
"No... I'm gonna go it alone for a while. She taught me enough I can do on my own." He'd miss the massage and some of the joint manipulation, but he could keep gaining strength and muscle mass, graduate from the gliding prototypes he had now to true self-powered flight. He nuzzled the creamy silk of Pepper's sleeve.
He'd really miss the exposure therapy. He could only just barely let Pepper touch his stumps right now, and that was thanks to the painkillers.
"The funny thing is, I knew Obie was a dick," he mumbled, his hands roaming around Pepper's waist and blindly searching for her wing. Her sigh when he sunk his fingers into her underside tertiaries ruffled his hair, and cool fingertips came to rest on the back of his neck, rubbing over the bumps of his spine, as she laid her cast and her good hand on his shoulders.
"But he was my dick," he explained. She huffed a laugh at him, her wings flexing down into a ‘yes, please’ display. "...Um. That didn't come out right. You know." He tugged the feathers through his fingers and let a loose puff of down drop to the floor.
“He was lethal in the boardroom. That kind of psychopath...” she said thoughtfully, pushing her wings into his hands again. He took another handful of short feathers to comb. “He was dangerous, but we used it, he used it. He covered his tracks so well for so long, Tony. If I'm not allowed to blame myself, you're not allowed to blame yourself either. And he's paid for it now,” she concluded on a note of dark satisfaction.
Tony snorted --she might usually prefer vegetarian, but she wouldn't have lasted a week as his assistant without pragmatic, bloodthirsty focus as well-- and ruffled in agreement, face squashed into Pepper's stomach. He dropped another piece of tickly down and stroked through her undercoverts, zipping up the tines by feel. “He’s not the only one. It wasn't just me and you and SI that he hurt, Pepper--”
Pepper hushed him by squashing him a bit more, literally muffling him, and scritching her fingertips through his hair. “I know, boss. You’ll fix it. When you set out to fix something, you do.”
Tony’s chest lurched with her confidence, which he didn’t feel was entirely justified, and he laced his arms tight around her waist.
“Yeah...you’re all right," she murmured. "You want to roost together tonight?”
He made a creaky door noise, clicking deep in his chest, and shook his head. Sometimes he wasn’t safe at night, there were too many things that could hide in the dark; he needed to sleep in the sun and warm, but then the blinding sun-on-sand feeling kept him awake--
“I’ll get Rhodey, we’ll pile into your ridiculous nest, fill up all that empty space, okay? I've seen his miserable excuse for an off-base apartment. None of us three would roost alone if we had a choice. I think we deserve it tonight.”
Pepper’s hands combed through his hair, safely away from his feathers despite his fingers deep in hers, and he struggled to keep himself from saying yes, or no, or just running scattered into the workshop and his tiny, makeshift, hidden nest. The workshop, where the armor was waiting with blood in the wing sockets.
“Okay.” Pepper’s phone keyboard clicked, but she made a frustrated noise and he heard it power down. “JARVIS, text Rhodey for me? We need some company.”
“Of course, Ms Potts. Shall I contact Mr Hogan, as well?”
Happy had the short, sharp wings of a hunter, fast in dives and tackles. Unlike more gregarious types he roosted alone, and would until he found the imaginary woman he mournfully described as Mrs Hogan.
"He won't want to--"
“He can have the couch if he wants it.”
Tony made a disgruntled noise and tugged on Pepper’s primaries in protest.
“Tony, it’s his decision. Unless you want him gone, he can guard you how he likes,” she reprimanded, tightening her fingers in his hair. It satisfied an itch deep in his hindbrain. "Between you and me, it helps to give him something to guard. I know he loves that Rolls Royce, but he's going to polish the paint right off it one of these days."
At the moment Tony couldn't care less. “Nest?” he offered, pulling back enough to look up at Pepper entreatingly.
Her face was all soft and goofy with painkillers for her arm, and her hair was pulled back in a plait for sleeping, rather than the harsh ponytail that matched her suits. He whimpered and hugged her around the waist again, ducking his head to stay well out of bra-less boob territory; that was a bad idea, they had tried that, bad Tony.
“Yeah, up you go.”
She untangled him from her waist, gently, and pushed him towards the nest he hadn't tried to sleep in for a week at least. It was raised, but not so high he couldn't make it up while drunk or carrying a breakfast tray, which was handy now.
The blankets hanging over the edge felt warm under his hands, and he lumped himself over the edge. Just like that, the world was a smaller, safer place. He tucked his wings against the lip, letting the curve compensate for all the missing pieces, and all he could see was the ceiling, a comfortable distance away and creamy white. JARVIS’ eye faced away, into the room, and the nestside console was warm yellow with a reading light, just enough to keep away the dark without casting shadows on the ceiling.
“Tony, you’re supposed to go under the blankets.”
He grumbled but wriggled them out from under his hip anyway. “Only if you come with me.”
“Sure. You want the middle, or the edge?”
Tony actually had to stop and think about that, because he wasn’t balanced anymore; he couldn’t lie comfortably with his wings over his back, he needed the pressure of the edge. But also, there was being in the middle, which was Prime Sleeping territory. “Middle.”
She slipped in behind him, and he clamped his wings down and his knees together without actually giving anything permission to move. But Pepper lay down with her limbs loose and half over him, and there were feathers against his neck, and his muscles eased out of lock again.
His jaw ached as he un-stuck it, with the help of the lovely hazy painkiller feeling. Pepper let him get himself sorted, not interfering with his stiff wingstubs even when they threatened to get out of his control. He wrapped the blanket over them, tucking it around his back --which put a barrier between him and Pepper-- but she was still draped over him enough to feel her weight and her warmth, so he wasn’t too unsettled.
Rhodey sidled in just as the projected clock ticked over into night mode, and Happy’s voice followed. Against his black feathers, Rhodey’s bright red-orange wingshoulders made him just about visible as two warm-coloured patches in the gloom. Tony blinked languidly down at him; there was no way he'd come all the way from the base just now. He must have been on the way over already.
“Hey, Pep, Tony. You mind if I...?” Rhodey asked softly, half up in the nest and one hand on Tony’s knee.
“Get in here, Sugarbun, ‘s cold.”
Pepper made an agreeing noise, one slate-grey and ginger wing mantling into a warm, welcoming gesture, and Rhodey skimmed out of his button-down shirt and pants and tipped over into the nest. He laid his clothes over the console and tucked his holster into the second drawer, then slotted his longer legs around Tony’s, their knees bumping, and nabbed a pillow.
“Hey, Tones, blanket hog, pass me some of that.” Rhodey spread out, stretching wide enough to interleave his primaries with Pepper's, down by their feet.
“..’s climate controlled, you’re fine,” Tony grumbled, scrunching the sheet up stubbornly. Rhodey’s elbow knocked his side and he tucked his uppermost wing under his arm to protect the stump, letting Rhodey toss some of the blanket over himself. Pepper's feathers were stiff-soft all down his back, Rhodey's legs tangled with his. He could feel them both breathing.
Warmth and companionship were the best sedatives; so sue him, he was a gregarious kind of guy, and he fell asleep while Rhodey was still arranging his wing over Tony’s shoulder.
FOURTEEN MONTHS LATER
Victor Von Doom had shitty taste in separatist movements. He made up for it with vast stockpiles of old SI weaponry and not-half-bad Latverian knockoffs, and kept his borders tighter than a post-recession budget. Even Iron Man wasn't going to venture into that tinderbox; there were those who worried that Latveria could start WW3, and the trouble with also being Tony Stark was knowing beyond a doubt that some doomsday worries were well-founded.
Thankfully, the same safety did not apply to weapons that Doom provided in his attempts to destabilize his neighbors. Iron Man took great satisfaction in wiping those caches right out of existence.
Today's battlefield was especially messy. Separatist forces had massed right on the Latverian border, claiming 'refugee' status, and were rumored to be hiding local civilians as hostages; Latverian artillery were sporadically covering them from across the border, and the U.N. peacekeepers weren't even trying to conceal their SHIELD uniforms.
But Tony had left a plume of gray smoke behind him, and the separatists would find very soon that they were out of ammo, supplies, bargaining chips, and Doom's patience. He was blasting victory music as he topped a rise and the HUD zeroed in on a single soldier on the ground, stranded and surrounded behind enemy lines, but still rather impressively holding their own. A soldier with a very familiar draggle of red hair.
She was in SHIELD colors and one wing was dragging, but it was Rushman. It had been over a year, but the jolt of recognition was bone-deep.
His ex-therapist was in the middle of a firefight. Actually, actively participating. She had a gun and a utility belt and her wings had changed colour, but that was her. He flew a circle around the gunnery emplacement, but they weren’t shooting at him-- they were aiming for SHIELD and she was right under the firing arc. She was outmanned and outgunned by soldiers in the air and entrenched on the ground behind outcrops of rock and tree root, and unable to take off herself; there was no cover to fly through even if that wing would support her, and too many enemies. She really needed to leave the firing line.
"Oh my fucking god, what the hell," Tony said, and dived. He scattered the circling troops, making a few of them nosedive right into the dirt and forcing the rest to take cover on the ground from the shockwave of high-speed superheated air, then took out the three who looked like they still remembered they had guns and how to use them. Rushman leveled a pistol at him, which couldn't have gotten through the armor even if it still had bullets. He did her the courtesy of ignoring it while he took two running steps, tacked her to him by the various straps on --wow, her outfit-- and got them the hell out of Dodge.
He stayed low for the first leg of the way to SHIELD's lines, taking cover from the separatist and Latverian artillery which so far hadn't fired on its own allies, and spinning barrel rolls in a way that might look terrifying in a flying robot armor, but which he knew and she'd feel was the best shelter for her dragging wing-- a little pocket of null wind in the turbulence he was creating. “ARE YOU INSANE?!” he yelled through external speakers.
Whatever answer Natalie might have had was lost in the roaring of guns and wind as they breached the safezone and tumbled into the crossfire between SHIELD and the nutcases.
Anti-aircraft artillery started tracking them from the side of the angry people who had not made good choices today, and JARVIS flashed a red streak across their trajectory. He flipped broad-side-on, rounds pinging off the armor and shaking them in the air, wind buffeting her for as long as it took him to target the gun and send a little missile to light it on its way.
With that big gun silent the lighter fire from the separatists' lines redoubled; the armor could shrug it off, but he had to jink around increasingly erratically to shield his passenger, until there was abruptly a space, a clear void in the flac lighting up the HUD on all sides.
"SHIELD has started covering you, sir."
"About damn time!"
It wasn't just covering fire; they'd cleared a whole approach lane. Tony took it like a pinball slamming into the high-score chute, through SHIELD's perimeter and right past the force-down landing zone they'd made for him, vaporizing the electric netting with a single wide-angle repulsor blast, and kept going. Right up to the fucking front door of the medical tent and next to what might just be their field HQ, to judge from the number of grizzled-looking militant catsuited middle managers suddenly pouring out of it.
He set his passenger down lightly, her wingtip dragging in the mud for all his care, and staggered to his own landing a few feet further on, steam rising from the flash-baked mud around the jetboots. Tony rocked his feet free and spun to face her, ignoring the clack and whirr of weapons arming from their entourage.
"What the hell, Rushman?!" he shouted, wishing the helmet modulators didn't flatten his tone so much. "What the fucking hell are you doing here?"
Her eyes flared, but she raised her hands slowly and spoke clearly. "Sir, I recommend you stand down."
JARVIS filtered out a low running commentary from somewhere behind him, right where Rushman was facing: a balding oldish youngish man in a suit and tie, speaking tightly into a comm. "...not a robot, I repeat not a robot. May be immersion controlled or live. Appears damaged. Hold your fire."
"What the fuck are you even wearing," Tony said helplessly, gesturing at all her...molded surface area. "Ninja spandex? Black is the new khaki? Is your wing broken?"
"I could ask you the same question," she said, watching him with head cocked.
"My wings are fine," Tony said, confused.
"I meant about what you're wearing," she said, and yes, she was the same person because that was almost, almost the same smile.
"Did you fucking set me up," he demanded, voice high even through the modulators, and suddenly couldn't breathe. "Did you--" intend to help me at all, "--was it--" all a plan all a lie--
"Shh," she said, getting closer, "you're bleeding, breathe--"
He swung a hand up, warding her off.
"Object inbound," JARVIS said, and concurrently there was a peculiar resonant thunk. Tony looked down and there was an arrow partially puncturing the armor's outer layer, right at the edge of a damaged plate between his ribs and his hip. It broke apart as he watched, the shaft detaching from the head with a puff of thick mist, coating the armor's surface like the particulate was magnetically charged.
And shit, he was bleeding.
"Fuck, not the arrow guy again," he said. "Thought we ditched him. J, where--" whoa, swinging his head up made the HUD roll in a way he was not expecting, an unpleasant sensation like oiled gimbals, doubly unwelcome when he was absolutely sure that was not how his head connected to his neck.
"Sir, psychoactive chemical identified. Exposure through armor breach."
"Shit. Harmful?" Tony looked up, adjusting for spastic overcorrection. Suit-and-tie was next to Rushman now, with a shoulder under hers, supporting her since she seemed to be in no hurry to walk over to the medic tent herself. His gun was out, pointed somewhere between his feet and Tony's but not in an actively threatening way, and he was watching Tony, bright and alert.
"Why don't you sit down?" Suit-and-tie said.
"You're so ingenuous you almost sound unrehearsed," Tony informed him. "If I sit on the ground it's a bitch to get back up again."
"You're too heavy?" The man cocked his head the same way Rushman had done, and shit, she'd taken the mannerism from him.
Tony went down on one hand and one knee, fighting waves of dizziness. "No, it's a center of gravity thing," he gasped, and toggled back to internal speakers only. "Any time, J..."
"Working... It appears to be a paralytic and a tranquilizer. You are also losing blood volume."
He was. Bright oxidized red against the darker dirt and the streaked and charred enamel of his leg. His whole side was heavy and hot and aching.
He fell on his other side, his good side, and curled in the mud, catching his breath. "...Okay...new plan..."
The fine control to toggle the external speakers was getting a little difficult, but he managed it one more time, and bumped the volume up too. "Sorry to...fall down so inconveniently right here but...STAY BACK. I have an automatic defense system and it hasn't," he took a breath, head spinning, "really gotten the hang of warning shots." Lying through his teeth of course; JARVIS would use warning shots only unless his hand was forced. All these agents opening fire at once might do it.
"You need medical attention," Rushman-or-whoever snapped.
"You ‘attend’ to me then," Tony snapped back. "Or how about not, because...your wing is broken! Someone fucking...treat her!" he appealed to the larger audience.
She squared her shoulders, jerked her chin at someone who'd just come out of the medic tent with a big duffel, and said, "You, check me over and see if it's broken while I deal with him. Don't touch him, just hand me supplies." Then she marched, or more accurately, repositioned Suit-and-tie where she wanted him until she was close enough to kneel beside the armor. Suit-and-tie came along without protest, looking bemused. He'd holstered his gun, Tony noticed, and he stabilized Rushman's wing when she knelt down, keeping it straight and elevated, his attention half on the medic and half on Iron Man.
"Private channel 34," Rushman mouthed, bending over him so her hair blocked the view. "What brought you here today?" she said at regular volume. "Latverian neighbor-states are way outside your usual sighting zone."
"Th'had...stuff. Weapons stockpile. Chemical agents. Violation of Geneva CWC... 1993? Bugged me, so I blew it up."
"We wondered if it was something like that. Hard to tell, since you blow up all their other stuff too."
Tony closed his eyes. The common factor would be clear enough if you knew what to look for, and Rushman --if she'd really been working for SHIELD the whole time-- must have had her suspicions. Was she implying she hadn't identified him until now? Or that she hadn't told?
Cameras didn't lie. She was clearly wearing the uniform of the Black Widow --Natasha Romanoff, who had a fat file but no photos in SHIELD's database-- a known asset of SHIELD, and a loyal, ruthless, only-barely-good-guy. Natalie was supposed to be going to grad school; this was not grad school, this was a battlefield. Two tours in Iraq, his ass.
He switched to channel 34 anyway.
“What can I...say. I have a gift.”
“For pyrotechnics? Sure, let’s run with that until I get the bleeding under control.”
Tony would have nodded, but the HUD was already moving and his neck muscles felt distant. “So… How much do you ...know? And do they know...how you know me?”
Romanoff tsked. "Not yet," she said under her breath, quietly enough that the armor had to amplify it. "Are you willing to take the helmet off? You need fluids, so the medics will try."
There were twenty people, half of them with guns, the rest with syringes and paperwork and phone cameras, and he'd hacked SHIELD just enough, after Obie, to know that he'd rather stay the fuck away thank you. No. “If you don't want me to blow up half the crisis zone, tell them not to.”
Romanoff-- Natasha shrugged, though she clearly wasn't worried about the threat. “Alright. Then I don’t know who you are, but I’m going to try and find out.”
Tony’s eyes crossed, sending his confused and drugged brain into a tailspin. So... Natalie didn’t know who Iron Man was, nor did the Widow, but Natasha did. SHIELD didn’t, though in the absence of anyone claiming responsibility they were smart enough to theorize in secret files that Iron Man was a Stark weapon, a drone or a robot or even his own bodyguard, but that guy with the bow and the purple looked suspiciou--
Tony groaned and screwed his eyes shut. “If you want access to the bleeding, take off the belly piece, left side, three segments down. Latch’s jammed, but manual should work. Also, ‘Paul’? Sucked. Sucked so bad, thanks, I dumped him after about a week, your wingman qualification is revoked. Was his busted ankle even-- Did you break his ankle?”
Natasha chuckled humorlessly. “There may have been extra E numbers in Mr Friskee's--” She stuck her fingers into the latch, and Tony felt the piece give. “--kibble.”
Tony was prevented from retorting to this heinous use of drugs, by virtue of starting to bleed out in earnest. It hurt, a bit. Less than it should have, but more than he liked. Natasha stuck her hands into his undersuit and squeezed.
“Jhesusfuck... warn a guy,” he groaned, half the air knocked out of him as distant pain became much more immediate.
Her fingers probed and compressed and-- “You’re lucky," she announced at normal volume. "Hasn’t gone past muscle. You’re not gonna lose your guts. Congratulations.”
Tony stayed on the private channel. It didn't suit Iron Man's reputation to be yelping in pain. He enjoyed being mistaken for a robot, dammit. “Thank you?” He twisted his head enough to get a look at her, one wing held straight by a medic wielding splints and tape. Her face didn’t show pain, so, not broken? But, maybe she was just that... that was disturbing...
“You won’t be thanking me later,” she warned.
“What? What are you doing-- OW. Owowow, fucking hell--” The rest of his air hissed out between clenched teeth as something automatic stamped stitches into the gash with very little consideration for --fucking OW-- local anesthetic.
“Computer, left hand please.”
JARVIS folded back the gauntlet and Tony growled as a needle slid into a convenient vein.
“How much? .... Okay, Put it all on one line, and keep your distance,” she ordered the medic, then twist-locked a tangle of tubing onto the needle. Tony felt the trickle drugs begin with the now-familiar morphine tingle.
“So...you an’ J, huh...” he mused, watching his own hand flop curiously from a distance.
"J?" she repeated curiously. “The computer? It’s good to have allies.”
With the pain receding and the morphine still kicking in, Tony pulled his unruly thoughts into some semblance of order. “And the guy in purple, he yours?”
Natalie glanced up, over Tony, to the crowd behind him. Tony groaned; Purple was probably standing right there. “Not exactly.”
“Shucks, honey; you know I’m yours forever,” an unfamiliar gravelly voice replied. Suspicion confirmed.
Tony resisted rolling his eyes because the world was still tilting on its axis. “...’th’ fuck’d you shoot me with?”
“Pixiedust. He gonna bleed out, or can we get him inside? There’s mud.”
Tony didn’t want to die of sepsis, he really didn’t. Especially not Latverian sepsis, separatist or partizan. Also, how the fuck was Purple hearing their conversation?
“I’m your Secret Keeper. How much do you weigh, exactly?”
Tony’s head spun, trying to track what he had and had not said out loud, and the archer crouched by his shoulder. Natalie chose that moment to pour something alcoholic and harsh into the hole in the armor and Tony groaned.
“...’s rude to ask a girl what she weights. Why don’t you make any sense?”
“It’s a talent.”
“Clint, stop flirting. How long will the arrow last?” Natalie asked. Her hands were busy inside the edges of his armor, packing something soft around the sharp bits and pulling them away from his hyper-sensitive injured side.
“Couple more minutes. Shouldn’t affect morphine, or his BP.”
Tony squinted up through the HUD, confused by this person. By all rights, he should be freaking the fuck out by now. Not one but two people, in a highly dastardly organization, who knew his identity.
“I’m not afraid of you, Paleolithic,” Tony grouched with more truth than sass, though he vaguely mistrusted his sense of safety, right now. “...’m too heavy for your skinny ass.”
“I figured. SITWELL!” ‘Clint’ bounced to his feet and strode off towards one of the tents, a small gaggle of agents crowding around him.
Natalie tapped on the faceplate to get Tony's attention and he swung his head back on straight. The world topsy-turvy’ed again for a second, then stabilized. She was bent low over him, a roll of mylar-backed tape in hand. “This good enough?”
He gauged the thickness of the metal, the fabric backing, and made an affirmative sound. “Four or five layers, should hold up for flight. Better than duct tape.”
“Good. You want to keep your cover? You don’t come home with us. At least, not all the way.” She replaced the belly side panel she’d taken off and latched the clips that were still aligned, then tacked it in place with short stretches of tape. “You think you can sit up?”
Tony considered this. He was still on his side in the dirt; he could probably get to hands and knees, then to just knees. “Help me balance, and we’ll see.”
“Clint!” Natasha called. The archer, who Tony wasn’t going to call by his first name until someone appologised for drugging him insensate, muscled back in with a big guy, equally muscled. The combined weight of Tony and the suit was up in the 300lbs range --slightly less when he’d used up his ammunition-- but the pair hauled him up onto his knees without incident.
His side burned, squeezed by the stitches, and he choked even with the morphine. Half of it was the sickening swoop of whatever the pixiedust had done to his inner ear, though. That shit was horrendous. He kept his palms turned in, unthreatening. Armored or not, tranked or not, two burly guys hoisting him to his knees would certainly have triggered a flashback six months ago. He was getting better.
Nat smacked the end of the roll of tape secure against his good side, then wound it tightly around the damaged panel, like wrapping a broken rib. “..’s good. Lower,” Tony croaked.
She wound the next loop lower, covering below the fissure before winding back up over it to seal him in, without gumming up the articulations for his wings or chestplate. It wouldn’t be airtight, but it’d keep him warm at fifteen thousand feet. Upright felt more stable by the time she was done, and he gave the medic holding his IV bag of glorious morphine the side eye; the bag itself was just labeled ‘isotonic’, so presumably the morphine had come in a syrette, and was nearly empty. Liter bag, open on full bore --he’d read something somewhere, hadn’t he?-- an equation floated up about blood loss and emergency blood volume boosting, and he pulled the unsecured line out of his wrist. Carefully. No one tried to stop him; he didn’t need it anymore.
Even JARVIS didn’t protest, just resealed the gauntlet over his naked and chilly hand.
“Sir, the blood on the ground.”
Most of it had soaked into the undersuit, but there was some --not a lot, but enough for DNA-- sprinkled over the mud. He had J target it, find every last drop, while Clint and his buddy helped him to his feet.
“Holy cow, man. You were not kidding. You’re gonna have to walk. Exfil is thataway.”
Tony wasn't passing out, so if J helped, he could walk. “Alright, I got this.” His balance was shot, so he let Clint’s shoulders brace him up as Natasha led them through the chaotic after-conflict camp. A few meters out, he turned his hand over and JARVIS neatly ablated every last trace of his DNA with a broad spectrum repulsor burst.
“Okay, time to go; Fury did not like that," Clint chanted. "Go, go, go.”
Tony stumbled faster, each step missing the ground a little less than the previous one. They left Clint’s buddy behind once Tony could stride properly, and piled into the back hatch of a jet. Clint left him in back, holding the cargo webbing for balance, and kicked the engines on with a switch ignition and a roar that Tony recognised. So that’s where these turbines end up.
Natasha took the stick, and before they could lose plausible deniability, took off into the blue. Tony let the several-gees acceleration crumple him down into a crouch, made graceful by JARVIS, and jumped as much as it was possible to jump inside the armor when his eyes fell on Suit-and-tie, calmly strapped in and watching him from the other side. He'd noticed but hadn't really noticed before-- the man had batwings, right now neatly wrapped around himself like a trenchcoat. He just did not take up as much space as he ought to.
"My name is Agent Coulson," Suit-and-tie said gravely, but half-smiling. "I admire your work. I've always wondered-- I realize you didn't choose the name, but do you prefer to go by 'Iron Man'?"
"It fits, it's catchy, it's grown on me," Tony said carefully, wishing he could shrug. Shrugging was probably a bad idea.
"While we have this opportunity, I'd like to ask you a few questions."
Tony recoiled visibly this time, scanning the interior of the jet, but the agent just nodded at the cargo hatch release a couple feet over his helmet. "You're under no compulsion to answer. I would prefer, however, that you use the door to leave when you're ready, and avoid damage to the plane."
Tony scanned again, checking specially for recording devices. Just the black-box ones, turned on and functioning normally. Who was this guy?
Coulson leaned in, smiling conspiratorily. "Our best guess up to now was that you're a remotely-operated drone, but from today's events it's clear you have some organic components. Would you mind discussing, in general terms, your composition and requirements as a cyborg? In case we're able to ally with you again."
"Um," Tony cleared his throat, head spinning. This man couldn't be serious.
A way to salvage his cover, right there on a silver platter. He'd always like cyborgs.
"I'm about 60% organic," Tony said. "Vat-grown. I escaped from Latveria and Star-- shit, I shouldn't have said that--"
"Tony Stark?" Coulson nodded benignly. "His interest in Latverian technology is well-known."
"He upgraded me-- saved my life-- said he'd gotten his hands on a Doom Dog, before, and hated what had been done to it. Um. Don't tell him I'm telling you any of this, okay?" Tony said faintly, still deeply suspicious about who Nat had told, despite this guy's ignorant act.
"Do you know if you're a clone?" Coulson said compassionately.
Oh god. "I've always suspected it. He thinks I don't know." Tony covered his faceplate with one gauntlet. It was time to get suspicious. "Look, who are you? I'm not telling you anything else. You already know I bleed red. I don't have any allergies and my blood type is AB-neg. Glucose and saline drips don't hurt me, but don't touch my helmet, I need it to breathe. In fact, just hands off, hands off is best."
"I'll put it in your file. If you ever have problems with Stark Industries, drop by. I know a few people who can help troubleshoot."
Tony squinted through the eyeslits. That was...actually useful. What with the Senate's position on his everything. "Noted." But Tony Stark couldn't disappear at the same time Iron Man teamed up with government sneaks, not unless Tony wanted to be infamous in the intelligence community. And that was only if they didn't out him. The blackmail potential was surprisingly small, half the senate just wanted their Hammer shares to go up.
"Is that what 'Natalie' was? Troubleshooting? The boss is going to be pissed," Tony said, channelling Happy and trying not to lose it at playing his own subordinate. At least Barton's sedative had worn off. Mostly. He switched to internal mics only.
"J, how'm I looking?"
"Inner ear appears to be stabilising, sir. Strength test, please."
J froze the left gauntlet and Tony pushed against it to test the paralysis.
"You could call her that. Mr Stark needed someone the investigation wouldn't endanger, and she's our best," Coulson was saying.
"And what about quality of service? If you fucked him up, I'll shoot you out of the sky," Tony growled. JARVIS' numbers came back good; he was flightworthy.
"That's between Mr Stark and Natasha. She doesn't do anything halfheartedly."
Tony grumbled but...didn't argue. It felt like she'd done good work. He could fly, with a little help from his tech. Besides, he needed to bail before they hit level, or opening the hatch would decompress his new allies.
Allies sounded good.
He pulled the release for the ramp, revealing the first cloud layer, and took stance on the edge.
"Tell Stark I say 'hi'!" Natasha yelled over the wind, and Tony gave her a mock salute before pushing off and angling carefully out of their turbulence.
"I'll do one better, and tell Potts!"
"He's got you there," Clint muttered, still audible over the comm.
"Oh, you have no idea," he heard Natasha reply, just before he stopped listening in and hit the thrusters for home.
AVENGERS INITIATIVE, THE HELICARRIER
THREE YEARS LATER
"Eyes up here while you're talking to me," Tony snarled.
Spots of twin color shone on Rogers' cheekbones, but he didn't back down. "You had a problem from the minute you got here. Tell me why anyone puts up with you."
"Genius, billionaire, stop me if you've heard the rest. Oh, maybe, inventor? 'Tesseract detector' ring a bell? I'm the guy who points you; you just pull the trigger. Or maybe Fury does!" Tony made an expansive gesture, at Thor, at Bruce. "He's collecting all the triggers after all! Works out the same in the end."
"Big words, Stark. Guess you've got a lot to compensate for." Rogers' eyes widened, like he knew he'd crossed a line, but his jaw clenched too; he wasn't going to take it back.
Tony recoiled, jerking himself up taller, hearing the plate-edges of the half-spread prosthetics rattle against each other. "I made my wings, and I remade my company. Name one thing about yourself that you made. Your body, your shield, your image, your name? You were assembled, Cap. Other people made you."
Rogers' turn to flinch. His eyes were icy blue, like the hottest part of a flame. "They were good men. Every one a'them worth ten of you. I look at you and all I see is the shadow of a dead friend."
Tony went cold. "You know what? Fuck you," he breathed. "You can't disappoint me, Cap, because I never expected a thing from you."
"Beat it, Stark. Whatever you're selling, we ain't buying."
"You can go begging," Tony said, feeling himself mantle. It was scary how Rogers was getting under his skin like this. He was baited by professionals for a living, but he hadn't been this angry in a long time. He didn't want to leave, he wanted to rip Rogers' face off, and if the man crowded him any more--
"You know what I know?" Bruce growled from off to the side, at Natasha. Tony tensed, ready to jump in with a hard defense. "I know you bribed a child, a CHILD!, to come after me, to bring me as far out of safety and any sense of control--"
"Banner, I need you to think about--" Rogers started, but Tony slapped down his raised hand and butted in.
"No, why don't you shut up? What do you know about modern warfare? Things have moved on, Capsicle, while you were taking an ice nap; we use children as spies now; the world is a beautiful place."
"Stark, children have been spies since people were eating mammoth--"
"That doesn't make it okay to send her to me to be KILLED!"
Tony shifted his attention away from Nat and back to Bruce just as the whole room fell still. The spear glowed virulent blue, darker but more intense than the reactor in Tony's chest harness, and cast shadows over Bruce's face despite the bright lights. Behind Tony's shoulder the captain was tense, up on his toes, but frozen in place.
"Doctor Banner, put down the sceptre."
"--Banner, you might wanna remove yourself from thi--"
The roar of a distant detonation hit Tony's wishbone moments before a gout of fire and exhaust gasses blasted out of a vent in the floor under Natasha's feet, in Bruce's direction.
Tony was knocked back, prosthetics flaring to try an keep him on his feet, but failing when they met resistance. For a second, the image imprinted on his retinas by the flash of the explosion lingered while he covered his eyes against the scorching heat; the grating separating the lab from the floor below had blown out. Natasha and Bruce would fall.
He hit something with a meaty thud and they went down in a tangle.
"Engine three is down! Repeat, engine three is down. All hands to emergency stations. Prepare for boarders--" Hill's voice echoed through the groaning of twisting girders and infrastructure, over the crackle of fire.
"Iron Man--" the captain gasped, scrambling to right them.
"On it; he'll meet you there! Go!"
"What about you?" Cap asked, one hand over his head to ward off flames and the other pulling Tony up by his shoulder.
"I--" The question was absurd, in the context, but that didn't stop Tony from making something up on the fly. "There's a panic room, in his crate. Just go!"
The captain finally nodded and they skidded in opposite directions, the carrier pitching under their feet.
A panic room... It was a good thing Rogers didn't know him very well.
Steve Rogers waited as long as he could before giving the order to close the portal. He could see the flash through it, bright white light that cast Stark's tower in sharp relief, ebbing slowly for a long five seconds and --he hoped-- not blinding anyone who happened to be looking straight up at it, or dooming them to the terrible wasting death his own countrymen had visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to end the war. If Iron Man was able to bring himself back, he would have by now.
He wondered what reason the world security council had given themselves for what they tried to do today. And why the one death they'd managed to accomplish was still hurting so Goddamned bad.
Natasha Romanoff didn't hesitate when the order came through. She took the staff and did what Erik Selvig had shown her, and she throttled the flow of energy to the portal like cutting off the rush of life in a human body. She didn't look up --couldn't, in that light, that maybe ought to have burned her to a shadow on the balcony stone-- but the unnatural light dimmed faster and faster until their double shadows were gone, and she was left with a near-opaque mess of purple afterimages and the roar of blood in her ears. With a shaking hand she dug out the standard-issue SHIELD radiation badge from the folds of her vest and angled it in the dim, dim midday sunlight until she could make out the color.
Green. It was still green. She showed it to Selvig and he squinted and lifted one hand from the stones. "It was a portal to an inhabited world," he said, thick with disbelief. "If our atmosphere couldn't cross, hard radiation couldn't cross either."
As he spoke there was a sudden welter of shouts over the comm --Clint, Rogers, Thor, even the Hulk's roar-- and Natasha ran to the edge of the platform and leapt off, blinking madly to pick out the tiny dark shape of the armor, falling fast. Too fast.
"He's not slowing down!"
Steve's gut lurched, triumph turning sour as Iron Man plummeted, tumbling. His wingpieces caught and dropped air, uncontrolled, and his other limbs were loose; he was unconscious.
He fell below the level of the tallest skyscraper and Steve didn't stand a chance of getting off the ground in time. Thor spun his hammer, but too slow; their teammate was too low, too fast--
Before Steve's third wingbeat the Hulk, wingless and too heavy to ever fly, leapt like a three-ton grasshopper and caught Iron Man, absorbing his momentum easily and landing in a thud of broken pavement further up the street. Steve corrected his course, banking hard and beating air to get there before-- something.
The armor slid off the Hulk's chest, like its joints were connected with elastic, and landed on its wings on the asphalt.
Thor made it there seconds before Steve, not shy of the Hulk for a moment, and reached for the armor. He jerked back as Steve landed and spun to keep Steve away.
"The iron burns, it has taken the nature of the device it wielded, do not touch it!"
Steve flinched, bringing the shield up, his horrified lesson on the Hiroshima massacre leaping to the front of his mind, and the Hulk bawled and beat his chest in rage. "We have to get him out of there!" Steve ordered, pushing Thor aside.
"He and the suit are one; who is to say that would not kill him as quickly?"
"Me, that would be me! Get him out of there, now!" Black Widow barked, a welcome sound of certainty. Steve lurched forwards pushing his cowl back to see better.
"I concur, my pilot is barely breathing," said a new voice over the comm. "The armor is radiation-hardened, but once cracked, you must remove him as fast as possible to reduce exposure." It could only be the armor speaking, dark and unpowered as it looked.
The Hulk beat the pavement again, then gathered Iron Man back up and sat down to curl around him like a child with a doll, his tree-trunk arms and legs nearly covering the armor entirely. Steve gritted his teeth and took a step forward, but Romanoff stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "The Hulk absorbs radiation," she said. "It's been three minutes since Iron Man entered the portal. Give the Hulk twenty seconds."
"Exposure dropping… 55 milliseiverts per hour, 42 milliseiverts per hour… this dosage acceptable at less than ten seconds' exposure. Hulk, please lay Iron Man on the ground." The Hulk grunted and did so, still hovering a hand over the armor. Did he or Banner know this voice?
"Unlatching now. Ms Romanoff; rostral plate, gorget, chest piece, then collarbone guards."
Widow's gloved hands showed him the clasps on the armor, reaching over and around green fingers, and pieces of gold and red shell cracked away. They pulled them off the black inner layer and dropped them at Hulk's feet, Steve following Widow's lead and touching the metal as briefly as possible. She pressed her fingers into Iron Man's neck and shot Steve a tight grin; alive. He put his head down and worked as quickly as his gloves would allow, their job all the more urgent for the hope.
When the hip plates fell free and the leg pieces slid open, Steve stripped his gloves off and wasted no time hauling the pilot out of the shell left on the asphalt, letting the upper body of the armor lift to pull his wings straight out of the wingpieces. As a black-covered chest bowed backwards, the pilot gasped violently and a flailing arm hit Steve's back and held on convulsively. Widow took a quick hopskip back and stripped off her own gloves, then her shin guards, tossing them into the pile.
They had to get away from the armor, get it contained somewh--
The engineer's face was white, his eyes blown wide and streaming with tears as he gasped in air. Blood stained one side of his face in a vivid spray of droplets, from his ear but in a pattern Steve had never seen before. His nose was bleeding too, red over his mouth and chin.
"Mantle, Cap; don't let anyone see his face," Clint said in his ear, and Steve's battle-ragged wings came up automatically.
"Get me a stretcher, someone," he said through gritted teeth, backing away from the armor as the pilot --Stark-- started to cough his ragged lungful back out. He could take the weight, but Stark needed to be flat, where he could breathe properly and get someone to look at his head, because in every battle Steve had ever been in, bleeding from the ears and nose was not good.
Steve flinched, looking up at the Hulk. His massive hands were held out, and he was kneeling on the tarmac, eyes sharp and focused. It took Steve five long seconds to trust that face, but it was smart and fierce and had caught Tony in the first place.
“Alright, Doc.” He stepped into the Hulk’s space, feeling the heat radiating off his green skin in contrast to the cold of Stark’s, and let bigger hands than his cradle Stark against a massive chest. The Hulk’s fingers spread between Stark's ruined wings, carefully supporting neck and shoulders and back all in one handful, and then Steve couldn’t see much, because Hulk's other arm was hiding Stark from view, from his distinctive stumps to his goatee, while he traced a giant finger along Stark’s face and tilted unseeing eyes out of the light.
“--eve what are you doing-- Cap! Oh holy shit... how did that work? How is this actually working?!”
“Clint, get down here and get us a ride,” Natasha interrupted. She was stripped down to the inner layer of her jumpsuit, nothing metallic left on her.
"What just happened?" Steve heard Stark rasp weakly, black feathers poking into view against Hulk's green skin. "What…Hulk? What--" he trailed off into coughing, then muttered something that sounded like tell me you didn't.
"Hulk not do CPR," the Hulk sneered. "Puny lungs."
"Okay, that's...good. Good decision," Stark said, and his feathers stilled, except for the tiny motion of his breath. Steve considered jumping up and perching on Hulk's shoulder for a better view. Now that Stark was out of his sight he couldn't quite believe it; he looked back at the empty shell of Iron Man on the street, in the crater of the Hulk's landing. They'd have to cordon that off until they could--until Stark could send someone to store it safely, he'd surely want to oversee that...
“C’mon, Cap. Get out of your armor,” Widow said, tapping his bicep.
“What armor? I think it’s all one piece,” he mused, rolling his shoulders against the zips. The stomach panel was all torn up, and the skin underneath felt numb, which was actually vaguely worrying. “We need to get off the street, patch up enough to get back out here.”
“Yeah, I’m on it. SHIELD sent down a replacement for Bertha.” There was a thrumming noise over the comm, then in the street. “I give you! Quartermaine’s baby; J2D2. Make a space, coming through…"
"Ms Romanoff, Captain Rogers, what is sir's condition?" the same voice that had opened the armor said tightly over the comm. "I have contacted SHIELD and appropriate authorities, and arranged medical response to the Tower's landing pad, ETA five minutes, if you would care to proceed there."
"Jarvis?" Widow said. "He's conscious and talking. No gross trauma, though he's bleeding from nose, ears, and eyes. Did he experience head or spinal impact?"
"The armor protected his head and spine throughout the fight, with no severe impacts recorded. On the other side of the portal he experienced extreme cold and rapid decompression, injuries consistent with barotrauma, and witnessed the nuclear explosion. He may be flash-blind."
“Okay, copy. We’ll talk through everything. My rad badge is still green,” Natasha told the person who must be Jarvis, and Steve stood helplessly while she rummaged in his belt pouches. He had no idea what was in half of them; it was a new uniform, and Coulson hadn’t had a chance to brief him. She pulled out the green disc she’d called a ‘rad badge’ from the second to the right. It had a black scorch spreading from one corner, but was otherwise green.
“Cap’s had a dose, a third coverage. Might have been the energy weapon.”
“I have?” he muttered, but she hadn’t been talking to him anyway, and the response she got didn’t reach his earpiece. The bird Clint was piloting touched down behind the Hulk, and Stark’s head appeared above Hulk’s bicep, hauling himself up by a grip around a giant green neck. His head swung loose, like he was dizzy, or blind, or both, possibly.
The Hulk just grunted and gathered the clumsy, amputated wings into a palm, holding the engineer against his shoulder. Steve was glad to see them covered; even a brief glimpse of bandage-covered stumps was enough to turn his stomach, thinking about what he'd said to Stark on the 'carrier earlier.
Stark slumped down over the Hulk's expanse and patted it clumsily, muttering something Steve didn’t catch.
“Hulk negative radiation,” Hulk replied, looking really...satisfied.
“Alright, Avengers; everyone on the jet,” Steve called. “Hulk, how heavy are you?”
“J2D2 can take it, Cap. We’re cool. Everything is cool. OK, big green? ‘s cool,” Clint yammered over the comm. Hulk didn’t have an earpiece, but that didn’t seem to hinder his ability to hear Clint over the roar of turbines. Stark’s bloody ear was tipped towards Steve now, and he wondered whether the loud noise was causing him pain.
It took Hulk a surprisingly long time to get from his knees to his feet, his hands carefully bracing his passenger. Steve gave in to temptation and jumped up to his other shoulder, backwinging and stirring their hair.
Stark squinted at him and shifted, pulling his wings in tighter. "Mind giving me a ride back to the tower? I'd get myself there but Big Green doesn't want to let go."
"Apparently we're radioactive," Steve said. "He seems to help. I'd let him do it."
The Hulk grumbled under them and Tony patted him some more, mostly missing the top of his head. “Hey, I’m not arguing.” He squinted around Hulk’s neck, eyes red and wet. “You all right?”
Steve had no idea, but the badge had been mostly green, so. “I’m fine. Got a bit of a burn, is all. Should be asking you that.”
“My mother told me not to look at nuclear reactions. Everything's sort of low-contrast purple silhouettes, can’t hear in one ear. Otherwise; not bad for going head to head with space. And also a nuke. Where did that come from, anyway,” Tony grouched. He’d slumped back down against Hulk’s shoulder, his sore eyes closed and the hand looped between Steve’s thigh and Hulk’s neck was trembling faintly. “Should yell at Fury. He’ll know.”
"You're in no shape to get anywhere by yourself, Iron Man. Mind hosting debrief in your tower?"
“Secret identity--what secret identity. Ask Pepper. I’m tired.”
“Yeah, I bet.” He slid off Hulk’s shoulder as he made it up the ramp; Hulk had to duck, and there wasn’t any room for Steve’s ridiculous span up there, but he stayed close. Just in case he was irradiating at all. And because Stark looked like he needed...something. Steve wouldn’t know what, but...he couldn’t make himself move away.
“...’n then shawarma?”
Chapter 5: speak the common tongue again
A round of clapping to MountainRose, who wrote a scene that has lurked in the doc for MONTHS I say MONTHS, which now at last has the backstory to be posted.
Tony woke up occasionally during the early morning, to the warmth and weight of Steve’s body, but didn’t stay awake for more than a few seconds each time until the weight lifted. The cooler air between his shoulders was refreshing after hours of sleeping hot-- and then there was the truly satisfying sensation of someone lifting each of his remaining secondaries, pulling their fingers along its entire length, and letting it slip back into place.
Steve’s thighs were close on either side of his hips, denting the mattress and holding him secure, and he’d fanned his halfwings out in his doze; begging pose.
The soft, spicy smell of Steve’s feathers surrounded him, and...there wasn’t any anxiety. That was shocking enough to raise his heartrate all on its own, but the rub of Steve’s fingers against his skin, followed by the stroke along the feather, tugging at the root a little but not pulling... Tony calmed back down without actually deciding to, feeling his breaths deepen, his heart slow.
He let himself slip under, just a little, just enough. A shell of safety six inches outward from his skin.
Covert, down, secondary, covert, down, secondary...
“ ‘tol you it was th’chair...” Tony mumbled without bothering to move his head.
“Yeah? Feels good?” Steve asked. “I started slow, so you could wake up easy if it...wasn't good.”
Tony could feel the bass notes against his waist. “I displayed, you could...anything you want. ‘m good.”
Steve’s hands shifted to his bare back, a good few degrees hotter than his skin. Okay, maybe anything wasn't the best way to phrase it, but Tony wasn't going to regret what fell out of his mouth before coffee.
“I-- We, know that there’s something about grooming that you don't like.” Steve shifted restlessly, nervous maybe. “But I didn’t want to leave them so out of place--”
Tony flapped a hand. “Steve. S'okay. Feels... better than expected.” He squinted over his shoulder, finally lifting his head off the pillow only for the damn sprain to twinge at him, making him ease it gently back down. “I'm okay with you. You...brought me cocoa. And I took, hmmmmmm, diclofenac. See, cogent.” He really should have the flashbacks-and-triggers talk with the guy, in more detail than the glossed-over summary he'd sort of given the team, but please god not before coffee.
“And still sore, despite the drugs. You’re due more soon, I think.”
“As little as ten minutes, Captain,” JARVIS interjected. “Ideally, taken with breakfast.”
Tony watched out of the corner of his eye as Steve perked up, and mourned the loss of his body weight when the stupid big doofus launched himself out of the nest. The nest bobbed and the backwind blew Tony's hair all whichaway, and was cold. “Steeeeeeve, why...”
Tony subsided and scrunched his face into the blankets. Maybe they could eat in the nest...but then, crumbs. “Urrgh...”
He heaved himself up to hands and knees, folding his stumps safely up by his shoulders. His right wing was monumentally sore. The left, not so bad, but still burnt and bruised from the feather ablations. Hopefully he never had to do that again, because holy fuck that was traumatic. And Tony was an expert on wing-related trauma.
There were voices rattling around the floor, Steve’s most recognisably, and the silences between sentences that meant you were hearing Steve listen to Natasha speak. The rest were a rumbling mix of Bruce-and-Clint. After his brief rest (to listen, of course, not because he was dizzy and sore and needed a second, not at all) he kicked off what was left of the blankets --they hadn’t needed much, not with Steve’s span filling the damn nest-- and clambered out backwards. He clung to the rim, the bouncy stuffing giving him a place to leave his head while it remembered which way was up, then got his feet safely down to the floor and fumbled for a robe.
Steve had made him soft; his climate-controlled room felt cool without that warm bulk at his back.
The white bandages weren’t looking quite so white anymore, a combination of pink and the blue of the burn ointment having seeped through overnight. They needed changing, and he needed a bath jhesus... His feathers were almost grey with dust and grease where they weren’t stuck down with ointment and Steve had been grooming these?
There were waterproof dressings somewhere, it’d be fine.
“Good morning,” he said, yawning as he followed the well-trodden path to coffee.
“Good morning, Mr Stark,” Natasha replied, wearing a tidy but unremarkable suit jacket and skirt that Tony muzzily categorized as a Rushman outfit, if Rushman had ever needed to go for the ‘unthreatening office professional’ look.
“You look nice. Mission?” he said, squinting. She didn't have the about-to-go-do-things air, more the smugly satisfied sense of someone who'd already done things today. Tony collapsed into a chair, and considered pillowing his arms and faceplanting onto the table. God save him from morning people.
Steve, bless his star-spangled a--attitude, handed him a cup of thick, creamy coffee with the stirrer standing upright in a head of foam while Nat shrugged off the question, focused on her tablet. Tony poked at the foam, looking at the bubbles. Someone had been playing with the steam wand on the espresso machine again.
“Just an interrogation. You slept in,” Nat said, raising her head and looking pointedly at Tony.
“Not my fault! Blame tall, blond, and keeled-over here.”
Steve flashed him an unrepentant smirk. “I roosted with him; he went out like a light.”
“On me, roosted on me, and excuse you, Rogers, you were asleep before I was.”
“I was in perch and you know it, don’t try and kid yourself--”
Tony settled onto a stool with a disgruntled huff. “Did you need a consult?” he asked Nat, allowing the change in subject with grace, thankyouverymuch.
“Not so much. She was expecting a female interrogator to be a negotiator." Nat smiled. "A patsy. The shock was enough to get her talking.”
Tony winced. “Put that in my file; it’d work on me too. You are a shock, Romanoff, don’t even try to deny it.”
He sipped his coffee meditatively, watching Steve’s back as he puttered about getting food out. He wanted a shower. He had dressings that needed replacing. He had a strain the entire length of his avis flexor sup.
Natasha made an inquisitive humming sound without looking up from flicking through a report.
“Can I-- uh... could you be Natalie for a bit? I need a hand with these,” he said, shrugging his wings to make the bandages stand out.
Nat looked them over with a sharp eye. “It went to plan?” she asked, barely glancing at Steve.
Tony shrugged. “Medically, yeah. Personally? I wasn’t expecting EagleCap to barge in bearing anesthetics.”
“JARVIS filled me in on the basics; I’ve done some research, so if you really want Natalie, I’m here.” She looked considering, all that knowledge she’d gathered on him ticking away behind her eyes. Fortunately, it was just behind her eyes, and his file was mercifully thin.
“That’d be great, I just need waterproofing, want a shower.” There was no point trying a bath, he’d never get the water down between his feathers without the water pressure of a shower head, even though it wasn't nearly as satisfying as a good flap that got water everywhere and made your skin buzz. But either way, oiling afterward would be such a pain, he’d have to...ask Steve. Steve who had shown genuine interest in grooming Tony at least five times since they’d crash landed in a forest.
Nat was still watching him intently when he looked up from his coffee (now foamless, but still delicious). “When was your last bath?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. Steve, even armed with a skillet of pancakes, froze at her tone.
Busted. Tony was supposed to use water-resist physio twice a week to keep his muscles strong enough for flight. It had been two, give or take, since the HYDRA dirigible, and he was sure there was something he was supposed to be doing to help the strain heal right. He’d been distracted by the infection in his broken feathers, and planning the ablation, which was probably AMA all by itself.
She sighed and cuffed him across the back of the head. Gently, of course, but it was enough to make him droop in apology. “You’re an idiot, we knew this. The big first aid kit has waterproofing supplies. Meet me at the gym bath once you’ve had time to digest, we’ll see what you need. Steve, lots of carbs and protein.”
Tony wasn’t going to argue, partially because good food, and partially because Nat genuinely did do her research.
Also: bacon pancakes. Demonstrating that Steve really did use the internet, at least for adorably softcore porn and recipes, content with truly universal appeal. Tony snickered and went easy on the maple syrup because sugar made him sleepy, but slathered on the butter without restraint.
Steve hovered (metaphorically) while they ate, barely putting away two servings himself. He was nervous about something. Tony could make a couple of guesses, and most of them revolved around Steve’s fingers deep in his feathers.
“I... Hmph.” Tony started to ask, then stopped. It didn’t feel right in his mouth, too sharp and fragile. “You can help. After.”
Steve slumped, his feathers sleeking back towards something approaching flat. “That obvious, huh.”
Tony shrugged, the phantom sensation of Steve’s keel still hot against his backbone. “If we’re gonna...” he made a vague gesture between them with his buttery fork. “Do this, I can’t leave you hanging. I am...” Tony took a deep breath, and it burned all the way down, so he stuffed his face with another bit of pancake. “I’m disabled. I have physio. I’m an idiot, and I forget, and it's not a reflection on you or anyone else but some of my exercises need a partner, and that means when I work with Natasha I let her put her hands...anywhere. All over me. She has, well, she has a visa, so if you're worried about that, don't be.”
He watched Steve, a little worried himself. If Steve had a problem with that, though, he wasn’t the Cap he knew and-- yep, nope. That sentence was not due for some time.
“I’m...glad she helps. She’s sharp, trustworthy. I know you’ll, uh, between you, you'll do the best job, um. Possible.”
Tony had to smile, though maybe it was more of a smirk, and reached out to nudge his ruffled feathers against Steve’s elbow.
"Yeah, when SHIELD started sniffing around me way back when, they sent her to be my physical therapist, can you believe that? Of course, I knew she was lethal, I just didn't realize she was an actual assassin. Talk about a surprise." The whole catastrophe was in his file, but by the hand of Coulson it was the dryest single sentence ever. That was a story to save up for Steve sometime later. Before Clint told it first.
“Dames these days," Steve remarked, looking like he was trying to square the job of a '30s-era masseuse with the concept of SHIELD professionalism, and still keep it separate from the unsavory things they couldn't help suspecting Natasha had done before she found her way to SHIELD. Then he heard what he'd said and winced. "Sorry--"
“She’s not actually in the room, and anyway we know what you mean when you say ‘dames’, Steve,” Tony let him off. The guy hadn’t soaked in the feminism of the 21st yet, so his language was dated sometimes, but he had the right ideas; none of the chivalry crap or ingrained prejudice that Pepper had dourly proclaimed as the worst possible outcome. Just surprise at the changes, and mostly pleased surprise at that.
Steve blushed, just the tips of his ears, and pushed around his breakfast. “Uh... ‘ladies’ can be plenty scary, that's not a ‘here is an assassin’ tipoff all by itself. And she wasn't there to assassinate you, was she?”
"No. She was really just there to give me physical therapy. Well, and gauge my mental state for Fury, I'm sure." Tony looked up and gave him the point easily, with a shrug. “She wouldn’t be the lady we know and fight with if she wasn’t both lethal and trustworthy at the same time. That was all I needed.”
“And you trust Fury with that?”
Tony smirked. “She didn’t tell Fury shit. Just confirmed the stuff I wanted everyone to know. I didn't have any secrets at the time, Steve-- it's easy to give the press a consistent message when it's the truth.”
Steve obviously had more questions, but JARVIS prompted him about Tony’s drugs and diverted the conversation. The antibiotics tended to make him a little nauseous, but not on a full stomach; the diclofenac was a total bastard, but it was better after food too.
Tony rolled the pills around his palm while Steve solicitously got him water, then tossed them both back in one lukewarm swallow. Cold water was no good, because the big gulp he needed to get the tacky horse pill of the antibiotics down was really chilling with cold. As in, brain freeze territory.
That done, Tony wandered off while Steve was washing up. The really big first aid kit was more like a walk-in closet, but he should have time to dig through it for waterproofing supplies for the burns before he got into his physio shorts.
He still wasn’t sure what constituted ‘digesting’, but by the time he’d ended up in the gym’s bathing pool, he felt like the painkiller had kicked in, at least.
Natasha was waiting, the physio doll perched ceremonially on the edge of the pool next to her, though it was listing steadily sideways. He didn’t find it curious that she wore an almost victorian bathing suit anymore; he’d seen her scars now. For most things 'Natalie' did, bulletholes were part of a past she wouldn’t have had, and over-sensitive besides.
The nearly-fully-clothed costume made him feel less weird about the trust exercises anyway, so he was grateful. He'd wear a shirt himself if it didn't get in the way.
Tony was, or as good as. The gym pool was hot, steam rising to loosen sore muscles, and carrying the smell of feather conditioner. He’d left Steve at the free weights, not doubting that he’d meander around the gym aimlessly until Natasha handed Tony over for a good grooming. Now the thought gave him an antsy, trapped feeling; in half an hour, it wouldn’t bother him, and a bit after that, he’d positively purr for it; Nat was that good. He knew she’d turn him into putty, and that was okay. There wouldn’t be as much pain when he was like that.
“How do you want me?” he asked, pausing at the padded edge of the bath.
He held up the liquid dressing sealant Bruce had found him and Natasha plucked it from his fingers on the way past. She had tape and scissors in her mysterious black bag, which she demanded he hold up for her.
“What are these for?” he asked fiddling with the roll of tape and seeing how fast he could spin it on the tang of the scissors.
“Do not launch that tape into the water; it's for pasting down the edges. You slept on them.”
He jerked his head back in indignation and gave her a stinkeye over his shoulder. “Not all of us sleep standing up; that is just creepy.” She didn’t respond, but she was knuckle deep in his feathers and tugging on the cotton pads, so he rambled on to fill the silence. “Barton had better keep that shit to his room, I am done falling over him in the middle of the night. Not that I, y’know, wander at night, much, I’m not--”
He cut off a strip to match the space indicated by her forefinger and thumb, and passed it back. “-- like some people I could mention.”
She grunted in vague agreement. Or at least, he chose to interpret it as agreement.
“And Coulson-- do you know he has a hanging perch? Of course you do, what am I saying. I thought that was a myth, but nope.” He turned his best mischievous look on her. “How does that work? You sleep opportunistically but you're nocturnal when you get the chance, Clint sleeps standing up, and Coulson sleeps upside down. Logistics.”
"I never betray a confidence," she said, but a Rushman sort of smile was hovering around the corner of her mouth. "It might mean that we've at least once roomed all three of us in a broom closet for a week while we were doing short-term infiltration, I couldn't say. But if you ask Clint or Coulson what their nest looks like so you can then propose to improve it, I'd like to be in the room."
"No," he said, delighted. "A broom closet? Are you Fury's favorite team because you're cheap? That breaks so many laws, he's basically a slumlord."
"Tape," she said, snapping her fingers, and he passed several precut lengths back. "That should do it," she said after some busy rustling and the odd feeling of his feathers carefully parted in several places. "The rest of them will hold until we're done, and then we'll replace them all with clean dressings."
Tony swished his legs in the water. "What's first?"
“I think we’ll take it easy, for now. Hop in and get good and soaked. What did the medic say about the sprain? I read your chart, but it was a little lacking. When I asked Bruce, he said he treated for shock and concussion and otherwise just confirmed that no bones were broken.”
Tony huffed, dropping into the water and wading to just below his hips. Deep enough to kneel up to his shoulders, but not so deep as to cover his throat. “I can’t remember. They didn’t pick up on the broken feather quills, so I--” He paused, swallowing and suddenly feeling guilty. Nat was one thing, but this was Natalie-and-Natasha, and he hadn’t gone to her for help.
“Hey, it’s alright. You didn’t lock me out, I could have come and helped. We sent Steve, instead. You know you can come to me, it’s my own fault you forgot for a bit.”
Tony didn’t quite see how that followed, but he wasn’t going to argue. Even though he felt like it. “The medic said something, rest maybe, but I’m-- I didn’t listen.”
“We’ll work it out as we go, then.” He heard her slip into the water behind him, which wasn’t the Big No it had been at first. That was years ago now, in the rooftop pool of his late lamented Malibu house, and those lessons had saved his life more than once. He watched her at first, mastering the impulse to get the edge of the pool at his back, then deliberately looked away.
He dunked his left secondary-tips first, to check the artificial waterproofing over his grubby bandages. It held nicely, and would come off easily once he was done thrashing about. Water soaked up the feathers quickly enough to be damning; the rest of him wasn’t even slightly waterproofed. He sighed and eased down to his knees, letting his halfwings stretch out on the surface with the water holding them up, still slightly buoyant while they were dry and could lay on the water's surface tension. The lifting of the weight of his arms and wings both was a relief, which he hadn’t quite expected.
Slowly, not trying to beat down so much as let them drift, he submerged his wingstubs. The black feathers turned inky as they became waterlogged and an embarrassing cloud of old blood and workshop grime curled off in grubby, rust-red vortexes, along with what bubbles he was able to gently shake out of his down. He could feel more though, the tiny tickle of pockets of air against his skin.
The flow of the bath soon pulled the loosest muck away, but there was no avoiding the fact that he was filthy. There was no way he was going to flap himself clean, either; the gentle down-sweep was making his wings ache, the sprain a line of warning stiffness that could trip over into pain at any moment.
Natasha clicked her tongue. “I’m sorry, Tony, I didn’t realise it was this bad.”
Tony gave her a baffled look. “How is this on you? Once the sprain clears up completely, I’ll get clean. It’s fine.” He shook his shoulders to get a little more loft in his tertiary coverts, loosening bubbles and burn ointment.
“We can do better than fine. Give me a downstroke stretch,” Natasha said, nudging into his space and putting her hands on his shoulders in a now-familiar pose. The extra weight of her hands kept his knees on the bottom while he levered his wings forward by using his breast muscles. The motion pulled at the injury without actively using the sprained muscle, and he raised his eyebrows.
“Oh, hey, that feels good.”
Natasha hummed, her fingers exploring his anatomy, then set her feet so her knees bracketed him a little. Her belly just touched the back of his head when she pulled his spine straight with gentle pressure on the corner of his jaw. “Like you’re hanging from a wire...”
“Attached to the top of my head,” Tony finished. He let his shoulders droop and his palms drifted up a little with the resistance of the water, before sinking again. Next, he let his ribs drop on an exhale, breathing from his stomach and feeling down with each relaxed breath.
Wingshoulders were harder, as buoyant as his feathers were not, because of the lack of give in the muscles. Damn, he was stiff.
“I’ll help. Focus on the breathing while I rotate the joint until it loosens.”
He focused down, which wasn’t as easy as it had been when they stopped having regular PT sessions --he must be slacking, he should fix tha-- oh boy
The joint creaked and he struggled to keep the long exhale from turning into a whine at the relief of pressure. Nat’s hands always felt good, but he was starting from a bit further down the scale from ‘good’ than usual. She had his wing-wrist, what was left of it, firmly in one hand, and pulled his entire stub away from his shoulder. His wing-elbow straightened with another creak --he’d been holding it stiff since the HYDRA zeppelin-- and the tendons all down his spine stretched out with a deeply satisfying burn.
The strained muscle gave in to the extension without much fuss, as long as he didn’t exert any strength with it; the burn of the stretch was stronger there, but still a positive sensation. He fanned and lapped his secondaries, twitching the feathers themselves through their tiny arcs of motion like wiggling his fingers, keeping himself focused on the limb without letting the long muscles tense against the pull. Nat’s slow rolling of the bone in the socket spread the stretch across his back in waves: extensor, elevator, flexor, depressor, and then round again.
It was the upstroke that was truly compromised, and each time she worked her way around to stretching it, the pain was less and less. The muscle gave up its spastic tightness to the heat of the water and pressure of skilled hands.
Tony was only half present by the time she moved to the other wing. It was a dull ache, without the sharp twinges of the injured side; he could tell now that he’d been holding it just as stiffly for balance and because of the pain in the damaged feathers. He was grateful that she was standing so close; when his head lolled back, she tilted her hip to let him rest it against her stomach.
She was warm, and his headrest moved when she did and let him know when the next stretch was coming. “Good, Tony. Beat down, on a four-count.”
He pushed his halfwings through the water and there was no pain. The looseness in his right wing felt uncertain, almost risky, but Nat’s hands were firm around the joint, pushing the muscles into spine-meltingly nice positions.
“And backstroke, four, three, two...”
The hauling back was harder, shaky, as the complex of flexor muscles struggled to work in smooth concert. There were muscles missing from his backstroke, ones that folded his wing-elbow and pushed his secondaries parallel to primaries that were long since gone. With the injury as well, the arcs described by his imaginary wingtips were erratic and messy, and lopsided enough to make him tumble out of the sky.
She made him do it again, four-count. Then three, and two, until he was beating at shallow-glide pace and kneeling upright to fight the resistance of the water. Natasha was pressed against his back, stability and command implicit, and he stopped at her gesture, rested for a few breaths, then started again at a word.
“Good. Now, banking left, one-two-three, one-two-three--”
He curtailed the spread of his left secondaries with a tired groan, bracing his knees to keep the force from knocking him left for real. The pace picked up to powered-flight, and the tight cup of his left wingstub pulled, while the splay of his right pushed, and his thighs burned from resisting.
“Now right, easy on the backstroke.”
He switched, resting briefly at the quelling touch of her hand between his shoulderblades, then picking up the pace on a right bank maneuver to her count. He barely made it to ‘not falling out of the sky’ pace before the demands on his injury were deemed too much and she had him move on.
“It’ll do. Slow backwing, now, shed as much ‘velocity’ as you can.”
He grumbled, wishing they could go back to the blissful stretch-and-release of the warmup, but cupped his wings and beat them forwards. A wave of bathwater --finally showing clear as it ran between his feathers-- hit the far edge of the pool and sloshed over with a musical plink into the drain around the rim. Natasha's hands were both on his right wing for the backstroke, compensating for the sprain as he slatted his secondaries open to the water and drew back and up.
“Okay, shed more area on the backstroke, you’re drooping on the left. Too much thinking about the right.”
“This...should not be surprising,” he panted, glancing over his shoulder with eyes that didn’t quite focus before he had to turn and stabilize the flapping pattern. The next downstroke lifted water over the pool's rim for half the length of the far edge, as did the next, and the next. The plink-plink of overflow echoed through the bath and he was blowing hard, chest moving like a bellows, when she had him start winding down. He felt good, his whole body buzzing, the satisfied ache of use in his flight muscles, and so tired he was pretty sure he'd need help getting out of the pool. The endorphin haze made that not matter so much.
Nat's hands guided him to fold both wings, wet feathers sticking together, and steadied him up the steps and over to the sunning area. Clean towels were already spread over the heated tiles that some architect had formed and sculpted into a stylized conception of air currents, with long clean lines and billows ergonomically suited for spreading out one's wings. Tony laid himself down on his stomach with a groan, dripping all over and feeling like his entire body was made of lead. Nat must have decided that flapping off the excess water in the air wasn't a good idea after acclimating to the water's resistance, and feeling the shakiness along his back he had to agree. He would beat too hard, need to compensate too much with the sprained muscle, reinjure himself. Drying off this way was fine too. He had plenty of towels and hey, he wouldn't have to move.
It was warm and peaceful in the sun, his black feathers positively steaming as they soaked it up. Natasha’s hands around the bandages were a surprise, but only briefly. He lifted one wing off the warm tile and she slid scissors under the dressing. The metal tines were also warm, like she’d left the scissors in the sun.
The sensation of air across the newly naked, burnt skin was like picking off a scab, only with less pain. Satisfying and good. She snipped and swabbed with clean-smelling medicated oil, then left the wounds in the open to dry, but not dry out. She told Steve --stevesteve hello-- to make sure they stayed moisturized, and left with one last cool touch of her palm between his shoulderblades.
And now it was Steve's hands, big and warm and dry, and Tony turned his head and opened one eye, staying aware. Everything was whitish. He blinked his inner eyelids open --ergh, too bright, too many colors with the sun blazing down through the skylights-- and let them slide closed again.
Steve had a bowl of regular feather oil, scentless and light. His hands ran gently up Tony's spine, then unhesitatingly outward along the leading edge of his wings, the tiny soft fan-shaped feathers and thin skin over hard tendon and bone, all the way to the last tufts of down on his stumps. Tony ruffled at the first touch, exposing his feather roots, fanning out just a little into begging pose.
"Shh, I'll get there," Steve said, and dabbed oil at the base of the feather shafts of Tony's long secondaries, working right to left, letting it wick up and down the shaft while he got the others. Four or five feathers at once, like a piano player; he really had big hands. Tony relaxed, lifting just his lowest rank of coverts and then his second rank as Steve finished dabbing his flight feathers and moved up, clicking softly under his breath the way he did when he polished his shield or got deeply focused on a drawing.
The oil soaked in, soothing the dry, brittle feeling Tony had been only half-aware of for the last few days. With his blood pumping from the exercise, he felt settled in his body, aware of every centimeter of skin, the pitch and yaw of every feather. The tile vibrated softly against his keel as Steve started lifting and grooming his smallest coverts, pulling gently from the shaft down to the tip to spread the oil and zip all the tines in place, fussing over each one as he worked outward. Tony realized he was churring, and didn't try to stop; the careful, affirming touch felt so good. Steve liked him.
The hands paused after a bit, and Tony blinked both eyes open at a featherlight brush on his cheekbone. Steve drew an oily line over his skin with one fingertip, back behind his ear and then down the line of his jaw; Tony tipped his chin up, showing his throat, letting the display turn into a yawn and then a full-body stretch, warm and loose. His wings were close to dry, only the undersides damp now.
"I'm done with your uppersides," Steve rumbled. "Would it hurt to lie on your side and spread out so I can get your unders?"
"Mmmm, my unders," Tony all but purred, making fun of the old-fashioned term. He half-furled his left wing and hitched himself over onto his shoulder on that side, then offered his right stump to Steve's hand. "Try it."
"You tell me if it hurts," Steve said, eyes delightedly bright against a flush on his cheekbones and ears. He very gently pressed the stump outward in an arc to touch the towels behind Tony's back, pushing the wing to full extension. Tony felt his flight muscles pull taut as a drum under the skin of his chest. He breathed into it and relaxed, letting Steve fold him in half.
"Holy smokes, you're flexible," Steve said.
Tony half-closed his eyes again and preened. "Doesn't hurt. But if I had to hold this angle myself, it would," he admitted. "The sprained muscle is one of the ones that lifts my wing on the upbeat."
"Does this feel good?" Steve said thoughtfully, his free hand rubbing Tony’s chest to feel the tension there.
"Yeah. 's a good stretch." Tony closed his inner eyelids again, all the way, feeling Steve's hand dip back into the oil and start dabbing the undersides of his flight feathers, no less meticulous for having to work one-handed. "I'm not in pain now," he pointed out, just in case that hadn't gotten through yet, and added a little wriggle against Steve's folded leg. "Now is later."
"You are the most obnoxious, obstreperous, incorrigible teammate," Steve said, the slow motions of his hand massaging with the words. "I'll consider it when you're not slipping into perch like someone with a sleep debt the size of the Empire State."
"I never," Tony protested, and fluffed reflexively, all over, when he yawned. "I never sleep in perch. I sleep for real, or I stay awake."
"Well," Steve said as if he was familiar with this idea, "there's nothing else you have to stay awake to do right now."
Soldier-advice. Tony nodded against the towels; he'd have to turn up a tablet screen awfully bright against this sun glare, he'd get it covered in oil as soon as he preened, and focusing on anything sounded like way too much work at the moment.
"You know I like sex, right? I like sex," he said, to himself or to Steve he wasn't sure. "You can already touch me. Sex is all plus-plus-plus, for me. Sex would feel good. You'd like it too?"
Steve's hand paused, hesitated; instead of continuing up to Tony's coverts he touched Tony's ribs, then the soft underwing down in the crease between his ribs and wing, where torso transitioned to stiff feathers. The underside of Tony's wingshoulder, thick with wiry muscle and blood vessels, humming with his pulse just under the skin.
The touch was electrifying, soaking into his spine, ratcheting up his heart rate. Tony fanned his secondaries, his wing already held at full extension, and arched his back. His arm landed on top of Steve's without his really intending it, elbow and wrist and palm pressing down and trapping Steve's hand there between ribs and underwing.
"Jesus, Steve," Tony panted, still arching at the sensation, at the sharp pleasure of letting someone touch him there. His feathers were lifting all over, goosebumps running down his back and arms. "Was that a yes? Don't stop."
Steve let go of his stump to hold him down firmly by the wing-elbow instead, and bent over Tony, bracing with a wing he tucked up to Tony's chest. How he could even keep his balance--
Steve breathed on Tony's neck, on the pulse in his throat from where he'd thrown his head back, and set his teeth under Tony's jaw, lightly, gently, just hard enough to leave an imprint. Tony felt his heart beat against Steve's lips, and let out all the breath in his body in a shuddering sigh.
"I've got you," Steve said. "I've got you."
He actually did, all of him. And they weren’t even naked. Steve was haloed by the sun, sundrenched in all the best ways, and Tony could see all the way down the length of his back, the naked skin where his haltertop gaped, and the vibrant gold that hid in the rich brown of his feathers. Tony bent backwards more, presenting, fanning as fully as he could while folded in half against the tile.
Steve shifted on his neck, nuzzling at the tendons and tasting his skin, where he’d left the invisible brand of his teeth thrumming in Tony’s blood. His back bunched, muscles shifting in symphony as he pushed himself up with that wing, his hands occupied with Tony’s skin and feathers.
“There's nowhere you have to go, nothing you have to do. I want you. I like having you here, just like this.”
Tony nodded wordlessly, mouth dry and vision hazy, and Steve dipped his fingers back into the oil. Tony’s wing arched, opening the base of his feathers for Steve’s fingers, begging shamelessly for more touch there, and Steve’s breath hitched.
Tony blinked languidly, waiting for Steve to pick up the sentence again, but the look on his face was as good as words, and Tony’s stomach heated.
“Soft. And warm, and...” Steve laughed, deep and secretive. “If this is how you are for grooming, I don’t know if I can bear to move on to anything else.”
It was Tony’s turn to laugh, and it came out slow and treacle-y through the warmth. “This is more,” he murmured, forgetting the object and tilting his face towards the heat of the sun to show his throat.
“More what, Tony?” Steve asked, just as his fingers pressed into the meat of his wing.
“Close. Together. Than sex, than sleeping.” Oil pushed away the ache at the base of his feathers, along with warm fingers, but the fingers stilled at his reply. Tony whined from under his keel, his second voicebox turning the sound into the resonant thrum of a cello before it left his chest.
“You... Hah.” Steve was laughing, incredulous and amused. “You haven’t been doing it right, then.”
Tony huffed a little, too warm to get annoyed, and suddenly shivery with the promise in Steve’s tone. “What would you know, anyway...”
Steve’s breath came back, ghosting over his collarbone and preceding a smirk pressed against Tony’s throat. “I know every scar and every missing feather,” he churred into Tony’s jawline. “I know that you’ll display for me, whenever I want, despite. And now, beyond a doubt I know this makes you feel good. I can do this for you, whenever I want.”
It was true, Tony could feel it in every shift of muscle and every tremor in the air between them, where there was any.
“I know you’ve never been like this for anyone else, no matter how many people you’ve been with. This...” His fingers firmed up against Tony’s skin. “This is all mine now. To enjoy.”
"Maybe you have figured a few things out," Tony allowed, lifting his hand to run along Steve's ribs over the hem of his shirt, just brushing his underdown. "Not quite as dumb as you look. I can have sex anytime I want, but I can't let just anyone touch me like this."
"You don't have to settle for that anymore."
“I’ve never ‘settled’ for anything in my life,” Tony grumbled, turning his face into his shoulder.
“Sure. Except for the Twelve-for-Twelve twins on that calendar.”
Tony laughed despite himself and Steve’s fingers started moving again. “That was a good year. Nice girls; not many physicists in that business, but there were two on the calendar that year. Two!”
“Really? Good for them.”
Tony hummed in pleasant recollection of younger, more sprightly sex, including drunken flights over the bay with not enough clothes on. “They wouldn't take anything from SI, but the calendar sales got them funding for their nanomaterials. Very cool. ‘s used in prosthetic knees.”
Steve hummed at him inquisitively, and Tony rambled on while a big warm hand dabbed oil, then fussily lifted and neatened and combed, making him shiver once or twice when Steve tended the undercoverts near his shoulder.
“January had this tattoo...”
Steve finished off the wing with a gentle coating of ointment on the burns, which made Tony go quiet, and then nudged him to roll over. Tony was warm and loose and comfortable, but Steve was insistent. Facing the other way, Steve’s hip was against Tony’s stomach and he curled around it with a pleased sigh while Steve very carefully pulled his left wing out and back to splay the feathers.
“How about you, Stevie? Everyone knows what I’m like, but you... you’re a regular man of mystery.” He tilted his head against Steve’s thigh, and got a view of Steve’s flank and underarm rather than his face, because of the leaning he had to do to reach Tony’s wing.
“Oh... I know a few things, met a few gals here and there.”
He felt Steve chuckle. “Some of those too. ‘specially when I was smaller. There wasn’t much to display, before the serum, but a back-alley fuck is a back-alley fuck.”
Tony choked and twitched all over, making Steve hold his wing down or get smacked in the face. “Can you go back to being big and simple please? Stevie? For me? I don’t think I can take that image, holy mother of god.”
Steve’s chuckle sounded like the noise forge coal made when you stirred them to white hot. "I liked flying out over the harbor the best. We used to call it skylarking, or distracting the sailors, you know how kids are. If I kept out of the smoke plumes, I could stay up forever. Lotta interest in a little guy with big wings, up there."
Tony didn't think his eyes could get any wider. He reached for words and came up with a phrase so dated he couldn't believe it was coming out of his mouth. "You dallied on the wing?"
"People still say that?" Steve said, pleased. "Such a dumb phrase. Sex on the wing isn't a dally."
"It's 'dangerous indecency'-- it's illegal! In all five boroughs! Wait, 'skylarking'??"
"That's why we flew over the harbor, sheesh. It'd be dangerous to do it over land."
Tony draped his arm over his face. "Oh my god, Steve, your juvenile delinquency is showing. You're Captain America. Can't...unsee."
"I'd like to fly out with you someday," Steve said, his tone almost wistful, but the look on his face pure mischief when Tony peeked. I haven’t shown you anything yet, it said.
"That's it, I'm shelving this topic," Tony declared. "I can't handle this right now. You." He poked Steve in the ribs. "Don't think I haven't noticed. You have not been holding up your end here. You have been skipping a very important part."
"Yes?" Steve said, smiling.
"Yeees," Tony drew it out. "Just because you're pretty all the time does not mean you can skip the look-at-me-I-so-pretty parts. I want proof, I will not rest until I have it." He stroked over Steve's underdown, then lightly over the long, long leading edge of his furled wing. "Show me how a little guy with huge wings would show off."
Steve lowered the wing obligingly and Tony followed the movement along the larger wrist joint and into the wing-hand, where the very roots of Steve's primaries spread under his palm, covered and protected by coverts for another half their length. Tony could feel the primary feathershafts through them, like lengths of rebar under layers of cloth; Steve's coverts were tougher than normal feathers too, but still pliable and sinfully smooth.
Everywhere his feathershafts were big, abnormally strong, but his feather vanes were smoother and sleeker, the barbs denser and zipped together by such tiny hooks that they might as well have been a sheet, a single component rather than millions. They felt more like silk than feather, under his hand. His fingertips were too roughened to feel them, so he turned his hand over and let the coverts flow over the back of his hand.
“My wings weren’t always quite like this," Steve said, eyes hooded. "But they didn’t grow much.”
“So your body prioritized wings over everything else. Chicks die if they don’t fledge.”
Steve shrugged under Tony’s exploring fingers. “Heart was weak, lungs were weak, but I was supposed to be six foot two, and Erskine said--” Steve huffed and snuffled into the crook of Tony’s neck. “Said I just had some catching up to do.”
“I’m glad. That this is all you. Spread them out for me?”
Steve’s face was soft and his eyes suspiciously bright when he pushed himself upright. Tony swallowed and looked away, because this was too many feelings and they couldn’t actually go on a show-off flight right now; the best display they were gonna get was sunlight off Steve’s gold streaks until Tony could wear a prosthetic again.
When he looked back, Steve was spread to full-span, all four point five meters of it. His unders were lighter brown dashed and barred in places with white, but the majority was chocolate brown and gold. The sun shone through his flight feathers, picking them out with richer, more saturated color.
He couldn’t see them all at once; they overflowed his field of view and cast warm, ruddy shadow over him. Steve flapped loosely, just once, and the breeze was slow and massive, a huge chunk of air pushed gently across Tony’s skin. Steve folded again, and it took four gestures, to Tony’s one, to get all those feathers aligned and back into a compact mass. The primaries still reached the floor beside them and draped across Tony’s legs.
“Let me finish this, okay?" Steve said, holding his eyes. "Then we’ll... I don’t know, get each other lunch, or something.”
Tony nodded wordlessly, dropping his head back onto Steve’s thigh and churring again, quite involuntarily.
The dressings for his burns were different this time, some kind of permeable bio-polymer that he remembered Bruce talking about. They would keep the ointment on and nearby feather-edges out, while still letting the wounds breathe and heal faster, or something like that. For now, none of them hurt when he folded himself back up again, his outstretched wing-wrist getting a slight boost from Steve. He could maybe wear a wing-sling later today, but for now Tony took a towel and draped it around his neck, catching his stumps in it and holding it with one hand while he sat up.
"Hoo, that's a rush," he said muffled into Steve's warm chest, waiting for the black splotches in his vision to clear. "Blood pressure is a little low. Okay, got it back now." He lifted his head and peered around muzzily. "How about you and me have a date with the couch?"
Steve liked that idea. "I bet I can scrounge up something from the kitchen. Your stomach's been growling for the last five minutes."
"Supersenses are cheating," Tony said firmly. "I might, possibly, eat." He hitched the towel and ran his free hand through his feathers, preening, not needing to spread the oil so much as make sure it was all spread nicely, with no feathers sticking. It felt lovely, like scratching an itch.
Steve didn’t rush him, which was nice, even though Tony was sure Steve hadn’t let him up until he was completely satisfied. “Okay, shirt. I have a shirt somewhere. I gave you my bag, didn’t I?” Tony asked, peering up at Steve dubiously. He was blushing. “Unless you want me to stay without, I mean, that’s cool too.”
“I think ‘cool’ is the right word for once, I just...forgot.”
"I'm in favor of shirtlessness," Tony carried on. "Though it does get drafty. I might need a supersoldier draped around me." He was still a little bit wobbly, and being draped in Steve was very nice.
The gym bag in question was sitting halfway across the open-plan floor, next to the weights Steve had tried to distract himself with. Tony didn’t think it had worked very well; he had a fuzzy impression of quiet stillness from over there, and an audience of one sitting on the bench and staring. Tony fluffed a little, smugly.
“Sorry, right." Steve shook himself and let go. "Just stay there.”
He pushed --pushed-- Tony back onto the tile lounger and hopped across the room. And by hopped, Tony meant that he flapped twice and then glided, with his feet barely touching the top of a weight machine and then the low divider by the pool. “Showoff,” Tony grumbled, and scrubbed the towel through his hair, then finger-combed it, momentarily wishing for a mirror. But Steve had seen him when he'd been in the workshop for days, and if unkempt was a good look on him (it was), unkempt-but-clean had to be even better. Heck, Steve could groom his crest if it bothered him. That was about the only spot he'd missed.
“Here, sorry.” Steve held out a shirt apologetically.
Tony poked his head through the neck hole, then buttoned the tails under his wings with a practiced twist. He liked the tighter shirts; pop-throughs had to be a little baggy for there to be any chance of maneuvering one's wings through, and they just weren’t the same when it came to showing off abs. To be fair, Steve wore button-tail t-shirts too; they were practical. And only a little indecent.
Tony shook out a jacket as well --he’d brought the softest one he had in his closet because he’d been hoping that there would be some version of close-to-Steve-- and zipped it up the small of his back.
“Okay, now we can eat.”
Steve’s hand landed in the small of his back, and his wing half-bracketed Tony’s. It wasn’t subtle, not even a little bit, but it didn’t feel threatening either, and Tony headed for the elevator. Steve followed his lead and even matched step as easy as he matched wingbeats, which made Tony wonder about going dancing. And all the other things dancing could lead to.
“How does that even work, anyway?”
Steve made a polite enquiring noise, and Tony pushed the call button with a vigorous stab.
“The whole on-the-wing business.”
Steve considered this, making hmming sounds halfway to the communal floor and distracting Tony by running one hand down his side and letting the other wander scandalously up between his wings, where the t-shirt didn't cover. Cuddles. “It’s a raptor thing, mostly. Sorry, I know that's not very politick to say these days.”
If you believed wingshape dictated personality, raptor things applied to half the team, more or less. “I’m sure I’ll cope. It’s the naturally flightless types you have to watch out for, on the wing-race front,” Tony said, bumping shoulders with Steve, or rather, shoulder-to-bicep. “They’ve had it bad.”
“It's not just that, though," Steve said, still focused on the question with the ease of over a year's practice at dealing with Tony, "I guess it’s about how long you can soar for, whether you’ve got the midair pass in your display. That kind of thing.”
Tony led them off the elevator again, feeling floaty, and beelined for the kitchen. “Sounds risky,” he commented. He’d had drop-catch in his dating display when he was younger --made takeout more interesting-- but never the ‘talon clutching’ of an actual midair pass, and he hadn’t felt the urge to throw things for people to catch since he was in his twenties. Dropping things for himself, now that was different. That was fun, as well as a great way to get to know a new set of prosthetics.
"Whether you trust your partner enough to lose a lot of altitude together," Steve added. "It is risky. I'm not saying everyone went home dry from the harbor, or smelling like roses, but we never left anyone in the drink. You did eventually learn the right timing to let go…"
“What about the guy on their back? How’d you get the right way up again?”
“It’s all in the timing.”
Steve left him at the breakfast bar; Tony squinted after him. “You--... You will show me. I decree it.”
“You do, do you? That's nice.” Steve was rummaging for something, and Tony was starving, and was that smoked salmon?
“Oh hey, there’s cream cheese in the fridge?” Tony said, perking up.
“How would you know? You haven’t cooked for yourself --or even made a sandwich-- in at least a week.”
Tony rolled that over in his mental callendar, and couldn’t contradict it. “There’s always cream cheese. I like cream cheese.”
Steve looked up at the stove hood. “Thank you, JARVIS, for your sterling service.”
Tony grumbled and sank down onto the counter with his remaining feathers drooping all the way to the floor in floppy relaxation. He should probably put a sling on, they’d stiffen up.
But then, Steve was making food, so he didn’t want to move.
He made exaggerated groaning noises when Steve sent him to the couch, and made grabby hands at the food Steve was holding hostage. But Captain America was a benevolent kidnapper, and let Tony stuff himself once they were settled to his satisfaction on the couch. It kindled a deep glow of pleasure to take the plate --food just for him-- and he'd felt something similar last night, at the soup and the cocoa and the way they'd watched his door, but it was a relief to acknowledge it.
More than a little terrifying, too. The rumbly feeling of needing to make Steve something was getting stronger, but he really couldn’t cook. Buying someone food felt good, but this was a bit more than takeout and movie night. Fuckit, the food in the tower was technically all his anyway, he thought with resignation, and crunched into his salmon and salad sandwich.
But hey, Tony was great at casual sex; whenever Steve got around to wanting it, he could provide. If Steve wanted grooming, above and beyond the team bonding and getting at Tony specifically, it seemed he was even up for that now. It wasn't a hardship. He was gone on the guy, had been for months. Maybe that was the truly terrifying thought.
The grooming...really wasn't a hardship. It had been so long, and it felt so good. Tony stretched out, basking in the fragile new/old association of pleasure with touch, then twisted to finger-comb the parts of Steve he could reach. No oil on his hands now, and Steve didn't particularly need it; this was just because he wanted to. They both sighed, and Tony commended his own foresight at purchasing an extra-deep couch.
Steve wiped his hands off on a napkin before reciprocating the grooming, and Tony had a moment of horror when he thought about crumbs and cream cheese and butter in Steve’s feathers (the squared-off tips of the four longest feathers on Steve's right wing); he’d fucked up already, what an idiot--
“Hey, Tony, hey, hey, shhh... What is it? Did I touch something?”
Tony felt Steve’s hands go still and it didn’t feel good anymore. His shoulder rolled into Steve’s hand without a thought, and then it really did hurt; he’d misjudged the nearest burn, one of the ones Steve had dressed and Tony was less familiar with. Tony curled forward, pulling his dirty hands to his chest and ducking his head to hide.
“Shit. I’m sorry,” Steve said. He leaned back into the couch, arms going to his sides with little twitchy movements. “What did I--”
“Nothing! Not you! I just, I forgot to wipe my hands, sorry, I think there’s mayonnaise or, something anyway. Crumbs.”
Tony made a small, warm space against Steve’s keel by tucking his stumps up over his head. It left his back cold and open, but at least he could breathe. Apple, Banana, Cucumber, D, D... Doughnuts, Eggs, F...Flour--
“Hey, look, it’s fine, there’s nothing there,” Steve rumbled. The shadow of his wings twisting and turning for inspection made Natasha’s ‘safe place’ exercise way more effective than Tony’s meagre feather cover and he let the alphabet soup go at ‘Grapes’.
Steve hesitated, tried to cross his arms and stopped, then tucked his hands down behind him against the couch, and tentatively cupped a wing behind Tony, his primaries brushing the carpet. It was warm.
That was good, felt safe, and Tony let his well-exercised wingmuscles go loose again. His stumps slid down over his shoulders, but he didn’t let them touch Steve, just in case it turned his stomach over. “Okay.” His voice was shaky, but acceptable. “Alright, you can touch now. I’m okay. Pass me a napkin?”
Steve did, supporting the small of Tony’s back with one hand and leaning over a little to grab the napkin with the other. Tony rubbed his already clean hands, just in case he’d gotten something he couldn’t see on them, then sunk his hands into Steve’s shoulder feathers, trapped between his back and the couch.
Steve kept his hand still, and Tony realized he was mantling a little.
Shit. He really didn't want to talk about it. But he really ought to. Cap was sharp, and Cap wouldn't appreciate mixed signals any more than anyone else.
"Sometimes I," Tony blurted, maybe a little too loud given how close they were sitting. Steve turned his head, slow and calm. "Sometimes I can't stand my wings being touched. By hands, I mean. Especially my stumps, they're really-- the nerves are sensitive. Sometimes I-- if something else is bothering me already, I might not be able to handle it."
If Steve had been still before, he was tense as a bowstring now. He stayed absolutely still, aside from a deep breath. "Just hands?"
"Well, um. Legs or elbows probably wouldn't work out either. But other peoples' wings touching mine has never bothered me." Not that that had happened very often, but he’d slept so well under Rhodey’s wing on the way back to LA the second day out of captivity, he was pretty sure it was fine. He trusted Cap almost as much, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
Steve’s wings closed down over him. They were genuinely heavy, the bones super-soldier dense, and it felt just fine. Tony let them push him into Steve’s chest, his arms tucking further around Steve’s shoulder and finding a nice bit of deltoid to rest his cheekbone against. Yeah, that worked.
“This morning--” Steve shifted, but didn’t move his hands from their safe spot on Tony’s back. “I was touching before you woke up. I shouldn’t have, should I?”
Tony closed his eyes in frustration and tried not to tense up irretrievably. “No... Probably not...but I knew who you were, I knew you were there all night; you weren’t a surprise, I didn't have a problem, it was fine.”
“But it was a risk, wasn’t it.”
Tony slumped. “If I’d been in REM sleep, yeah. But I think JARVIS would have stopped you, right?” He raised his voice enough to grab J’s attention, and the AI responded with a distracted but positive ‘bding’ sound. “He’s good with all that--” Tony lifted a hand out of Steve’s blanketing to make an all-encompassing gesture, “--stuff.”
“But he doesn't wrap you in cotton wool. I think I’ll ask, next time. Just in case.”
Tony snorted at the thought of J attempting to baby him one millimeter past his carefully-negotiated, ferociously-defended limits, then looked away and nodded.
They went quiet. Quiet enough that he could hear the little noises Steve’s shoulder made when he shifted, and the sound of air through his lungs. “You wanna watch TV?” Steve asked, just as the quiet was starting to sound like their combined heartbeats and awkwardness.
“Oh god yes,” Tony replied. He shuffled inside Steve’s blanketing until he could see the screen and still squash Steve enough to keep him in one place. “Give us something nice, J.”
That was plenty of open-heart surgery for one day.
They were giggling over a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek nature documentary, and Tony was personally disproving any resemblance to a bowerbird --No, Steve, they think way too small, and besides, can they do this?-- when a sudden sense of silence and tension near the door made Tony raise his head. Steve made a disappointed noise, then raised his head as well and went just as still as Pepper.
Pepper, who was in the door. She looked at the TV, at them, at their plates on the coffee table, at them again. "What are you doing?" she said, and yeah, that was Pepper shocked enough that her brain-to-mouth filter was down.
"Necking?" Tony suggested.
"We can move--" Steve said. "I'm sorry, Ms Potts, we should have picked somewhere more private--"
Tony hushed him without taking his eyes off Pepper, who shook her head and said "No, stay right there." She toed off her heels and stepped out of them, wings flaring slightly, and padded over to look Tony in the eyes.
It was a Serious Look. Tony attempted to communicate telepathically that he was fine, Steve was fine, it was fine, they were all fine here, and then just gave up and looked back.
Pepper went down to her knees by the couch, back straight, and brushed her knuckles along his cheekbone. Tony turned his head, allowing the touch, enjoying it, and shivered a little when she got back toward his ear. That was close to Steve's bites from last night, and if he'd left any marks Pepper was getting to see them right now.
He was concerned at Pepper's concern, a little worried about her approval--Captain America was a slam dunk from just about everyone, approval-wise, but if Pepper of all people had a reason to object, she wouldn't let Steve's fame or her personal respect for him stop her. The worry was a current in the back of his mind and still damn it felt good, being touched by both of them at once. Two people he trusted, and his back covered by Steve's wings, safe as houses, his half-span folded close under other feathers. Talk about showing off. This was a rush like losing a thousand meters altitude all at once, just barely in control of the dive. He shivered again, and let his inner eyelids slide half-closed. A thick pearly-white haze over everything.
Pepper's hand paused half a second in her stroking. Unlike Natasha or Clint with their darkly transparent inner lids like built-in sunglasses, Tony's were noticeable; with his coloration, they were the brightest natural signal he had. "Oh," she said, sounding floored. "I've never seen you like this."
Tony churred, with a deep resonant knocking in his chest, and Pepper rubbed her own cheek along his and cooed back at him. It was nice, but Steve was shuffling himself agitatedly, poofing up to twice his regular size, and Tony turned back to him and rubbed his cheek along Steve's, then nipped at his neck under his ear. Give him a hickey, yes, that would be truly satisfying for the five or ten minutes before it healed.
Pepper backed off --which Tony protested, putting one ‘whine’ and one ‘irritated churr’ on the record-- then leaned over the back of the couch to rub her cheek all over the other side of Steve’s face, ignoring his spluttering, and messing his hair up with her free hand. "That display was for you, you know," she told Steve softly. "It used to be my job to throw people out. He never once staked a claim before." Tony wriggled down into Steve’s mantling with a smug grin as the tension dissipated like mist.
"Tony, be good," Pep said, running her hand through his hair, and Tony huffed as she padded back for her shoes and left them alone.
"You want a warning before anyone else walks in?" he muttered into Steve's skin. "J's doing that thing, that unless-explicitly-instructed-I-will-simply-arrange-you-for-my-amusement thing. But he'll give warnings, to them or us, if that's better."
"No," Steve rumbled, "I'm fine." His eyes were half-lidded in possessive satisfaction, and his wings were snug around Tony's back.
Tony laughed at him. "Now you're getting it, Rogers. I may like having other folks around, but the public spaces in the Tower are all already my territory. Only took you a few months to catch on." With a supersoldier wrapped around him he could act like it, too, even when he was grounded.
But Steve might have had a point --a tiny, infinitesimal, minor point-- about the sleep debt, because they barely got back to second base before Tony fell asleep on the couch, on Steve. Steve didn't move for hours, shielding his back, until Tony groggily extracted himself around midnight and wandered off muttering about the bathroom.
Fifteen minutes later Iron Man tapped on the living room window and lured a surprised team captain out to the balcony. ”Hey there, Cap," Tony crooned over the intercom. "Chop chop, I'm not getting any younger! Time to really show you what I can do." He danced a little in midair, fanning the repulsors in his wingpieces so they shone like primaries made of fire and air.
The lights of the city were gorgeous that night, but Steve didn’t have the attention to spare; his eyes were on Tony.
Chapter 6: who has trodden stars
"I don't CARE if your signal's overpowered every AM radio station in the US, Europe, and north Africa and replaced them with a nice clicky buzz," Tony projected through his external speakers. The ship overhead hadn’t reacted to any of their radio signals so far, and was transmitting on a wavelength too long for Tony to break into using the suit’s transmission antennae. It didn’t stop him yelling at the fucking thing as he blasted into the shadow of its underbelly. “NO INVASIONS ON A MONDAY.”
“That’s assuming they even have Mondays, I mean, interstellar travel kind of reduces the whole ‘day’ thing, and blows ‘weeks’ out of the water,” Rhodey observed. Too much sci-fi novella, Tony was going to cut him off.
“They could have looked it up! Decided on a day that was not IN DIRECT OPPOSITION TO GOOD SENSE,” Tony said, yelling the last bit up at the behemoth over the bay.
“Any luck on picking up his tracker?” Natasha asked from down among the skyscrapers. “I’ve jacked the interference through the central beams, but I’m not getting much feedback.”
Tony flipped onto his front, taking a second away from his barrage of the insectile swarm guarding the entrances to the ship. A thick network of cables had been hauled between the top deck of the Chrysler building and Stark Tower, and Natasha was just launching back into the fight. The makeshift antenna was blasting out very long wavelength radio in an attempt to jam the coordination signal the ship was using. Without that, Steve’s tracker was too weak to penetrate the mass of constructive and destructive interference the ship's multiple aerials were generating.
“No pips, sorry. JARVIS, keep the good assassin updated on back EMF readings and pickup voltages. Standalone mode in five minutes.” Tony flipped back into combat, blasting away the skitters that had been crowding at his back. They didn’t like heat; whatever their exoskeleton was made of, it was primarily protein, or at least a nitrogen-carbon nanostructure equivalent to protein molecules.
Bruce had had his own field day before the Hulk had gotten his; a quick blast with the mass-spec had given them the chemical composition of the goop Tony had come back from his first scouting trip covered in. Their shells were strengthened by metallic nanowires, organically extruded into hexagonal crystalline structures that aggregated into pentagonal dodecahedron within the proteinaceous matrix--
They had metallic shells, with the impact resistance of kevlar, but not the heat resistance.
Which was as far as Bruce had gotten before Hulk time. They’d need at least a week to refine out the equivalent of restriction endonucleases for PCR analysis anyway, and Steve had been missing more than long enough already.
The opening, which couldn’t be called a hatch because the door appeared to be made of the dorsal plates of some really fucking large skitter-aliens, was well guarded by the aforementioned skitters. The big ones were slow, but less vulnerable to heat. Their back shields were higher density and scorched without breaking when his repulsors made even prolonged contact.
“NOW Natasha, DIVE. Rhodey! On my mark!”
He pulled to a stationary hover facing the heaving mass of alien shells and Rhodey pulled up behind and just above him, War Machine’s enormous armored span covering them both from weapons fire from behind. All over the fight, wings folded and started plummeting for safety in the buildings of New York
“Target acquired. On your mark.”
“Three.” Tony opened up his missile ports, readying a good half of his payload, and balanced on his bootjets and wing repulsors to free up his forearm silos. He’d been locked on to the target for a while.
“Two.” Rhodey’s guns spun up and his shoulders opened out into a bristling array of NIR-guided missiles tipped in red light.
“One.” The field telemetry went red as the last friendly bird dropped out of the hot zone.
The missiles took three seconds to arrive, and Iron Man and War Machine needed to be no more than a hundred meters away when they struck, so they raced in after the magnesium-white tailpipes at leisurely half-speed. The shockwave of the detonations rolled them over and stripped them of altitude --particularly Rhodey, with his full-length aerofoil-- but he turned the turbulence into an advantage with practiced skill, leaving the skitters gathered to intercept above and behind them as they kicked into full speed in the direction of the clearing fireball.
The flying skitters gathered in a furiously clicking tail behind them, but rockets were faster than wings even if you had six wings, and Tony and Rhodey left them well behind. Ahead, the ‘hatch’ was gaping open, a black hole into the ship ringed by the jagged remains of armored door guards. The shrapnel from the blast was raining down on the city in razor-sharp shards, sending even the aliens into wild climbs to avoid them. The human fighters had had enough warning, and Tony could hear Natasha counting off the estimated time he’d given her for safe-skies.
“Going comms-dark, be good while Daddy’s away!” he sang to the command team. Coulson and Nat and Clint would hear it, along with the Helicarrier’s control room; let them sort out who he was talking to.
Rhodey folded his span behind Tony, his shadow racing Iron Man’s slim silhouette to the edge of the hatch, and they blasted through the opening before defences could form up. Real-time IR and echolocation telemetry was all that kept them from crashing to a speedy and painful death on the hordes inside; Tony had expected running lights, some way for the skitters to not get in each other’s way, but the tunnel was pitch black with aliens crawling along the walls in chaotic disregard for the direction of gravity. Outlined in JARVIS’ blue wireframes, the disgorging army was completely disordered, but disturbingly efficient.
In the three or so seconds it took to get their bearings and even think of looking over their shoulders, a new team of shield-bug shaped aliens had crept out of giant lateral tunnels and arranged themselves over the hatch. Reinforcements spewed out from between them unimpaired, making the only light in this place flicker at high speed.
Behind, ranks of flying-type aliens took off from the rippling flow of bodies and turned to pursue, while ahead, the tunnel narrowed with a barricade made entirely out of hard-shelled bodies. “Shit, shitshit--”
“JUST GUN IT!” Rhodey yelled, overtaking him and flashing repulsor-light in his face.
“FUCK YOU, THESE THINGS ARE DENSE! LIKE YOUR HEAD!” Tony yelled back, external speakers cranked to max.
“WE CAN MAKE IT!” Rhodey insisted, his wings coiled as tight as they would go in the suit, given the extra four feet in span added by the armaments.
“YOU’RE TOO BIG--”
Rhodey smashed through the narrowing hole in the barricade, sending winged skitters and armor-plated dome-shaped drones tumbling. Tony was tight on his heels and squeezed through the tumble of falling skitters with the tight jinking evasion that Iron Man was uniquely able to do. His palms flashed on the corkscrew spins, and he burst out into open darkness right on Rhodey’s heels.
JARVIS’ telemetry rippled outwards as the suit gathered data, revealing a concentric-shell design bridged by giant struts: they were in a narrow, hundred-meter-wide space between the outer hull and an inner hull, bridged by quasi-organic beams covered in the heaving bodies of the alien force. Given that the outer layer had been two hundred and twenty meters thick, and the ship was almost two kilometers across, that left the inner ship with a kilometer and a half.
The inner surface of the hull they'd just come through was thick with aliens, a solid sheet of moving bodies, equipped with projectile weaponry and some kind of hive sense. It boiled as they hovered, and with unanimous agreement, Rhodey and Tony took off around the inner circumference of the ship.
“Tracker, Iron Man, now, maybe?!”
Tony had been running active scan for Steve since he’d gone missing, so thank you Rhodey, THAT WAS SO NECESSARY. “I’ve got nothing! Keep flying, I can still use your sensors!”
They swept the sharp bend at the end of the ovoid ship, and started back along the long side, keeping as far apart as they could in the interference and still use infra-red comms effectively. It was line of sight only, but the interruption of the beams was brief enough that the onboard JARVIS subset managed to keep things together.
“There!” The grid of blue lines resolved up from two points a meter to six as he pulled up short, JARVIS’ IR map gathering data on the surface structure of the ship. A few hundred meters in, Steve’s tracker was pinging.
The tunnels in were only a meter or two in diameter; Rhodey had a wingspan of four. He wouldn’t fit, not even walking. “Rhodey! I need you to run triangulation from here! I’ve got straight-line telemetry, but no depth. Also; don’t let them close the tunnel behind me!”
Rhodey had time to yell: “Aww hell no--” before Tony was out of range of the IR transmissions and their connectivity plummeted to the measly three-bit ping of their respective trackers.
The tunnel was obviously organic, grown and moulded rather than built, and larger caverns split off at irregular intervals. It was quieter than the tunnel they’d breached, but not deserted. A skitter, outlined in heat signature and crude blue telemetry, barreled out of the first opening he passed and grabbed his ankle. He turned onto his back to try and twist it off, spine repulsors firing to keep him aloft, but it twisted with him. A harsh kick to the...mandible knocked it off with a crunch just audible over the reflected roar of repulsors. He had to jink to avoid meeting the tunnel wall, knocked off balance, but he righted himself in time to meet the next defender with another crunch, shoulder first.
So far there were fewer in here than out there. It made sense that they'd all have boiled out to defend their...nest-ship from humanity's own self-defence. In the absence of any other species that had made the ship --and so far he'd seen absolutely no signs of anything but various skitters-- they were either individually a lot smarter than they appeared, or they really did have a hive-mind...
Or a queen.
Tony blasted through a soft-shelled alien, paler and with more...appendages, and shuddered; a queen would be the worst explanation, but it would explain why Steve had been taken. A tactical understanding of leadership-- he crashed through a turn and braked hard as Steve's signal swung across his screens. He was the other side of the corridor wall, less than thirty metres away given the parallax when Tony moved his sensors.
"JARV, margin of error on that position?"
A dozen meters. JARVIS couldn't tell Steve's condition or what else might be in the space with Steve, but if he totaled up all the vector changes he'd made and added a bit of guesswork to estimate his speed down the tunnel, they were...pretty close to the center of the ship.
"Warm up the unibeam, J. Divert propulsion, just leave me enough juice to toast the shells on the smaller ones."
"Twenty-four seconds to full power, sir."
The walls were disturbingly moist; Tony dropped to a landing, saving the jetboots to build up power faster, and took a moment to be glad he was on internal air when the uneven floor squished under him. Another one of the pale skitters popped down out of an oval trapdoor and he blasted it reflexively, slime spattering the faceplate. EWW EW EW EW. He scrubbed the faceplate against his armored wingtip with a skreetchy metallic sound.
"Biohazard warning, the slime appears to give off fumes. Recommend staying on suit air only."
Tony hesitated to open his mouth after that, and made sputtering noises just in case something had gotten in the hermetically sealed faceplate. “Engage crampons, J, and lock the servos.”
The armor’s toes and heels splintered off and stabbed into the ground--deck--bioship stuff to hold him steady, and the armor locked in place.
“Ready in three, two--”
Tony braced and armed the unibeam, just as JARVIS said “One.”
The particle beam hit the wall with a solid burst of light and heat, cracking the substructure and tearing the surface away, burning it into thick black smoke and continuing on further. In the sudden illumination, Tony could finally see what he was standing on and then wished he hadn’t; the fleshy ‘hive’ was organic, very organic, with veins of black fluid flowing just under a membranous skin. EWW. Tony mantled under the armor in an atavistic reaction to being inside something alive; on the other hand, the unibeam should pierce for at least a hundred meters through the softer parts of this.
The burst cut out, the darkness blinding after the brightness, but the main features had printed on his retinas in a fetching turquoise and yellow afterimage. Tony lit up the repulsors and blasted the substructure out of the wall to make the hole passable. The other side was a chamber bigger than any of the ones he’d passed, smooth-walled but studded all over with...
Oh god. Cocoons. Fucking hell. And in the shadows next to them, something big.
There was no ambient light, just the intermittent glare of the repulsors and softer shadows of the reactor’s blue, but whatever that thing was, it could see. Huge and fat and white, but with sharp-edged glinting faceted eyes that turned on him, not flinching away from the unaccustomed brightness he brought with him.
A screech on the comms matched its furious rearing, but it didn’t make a physical noise. Eerily silent screams warped its body, heard only in a radio frequency too long to decode, and skitters burst out of side chambers and tunnels on every surface of the chamber.
Time to...go, somewhere. Tony was low on power for the next 40 seconds, give or take, but he had half his blasting arsenal left, he should be able to get back out if he could find Steve before they closed off his route. He wouldn’t have long; the skitters moved fast and the pale-shelled versions trailed thick layers of slime that JARVIS told him was solidifying fast over the fractures left by the unibeam.
He blasted across the chamber, guided by JARVIS’ telemetry and the flashes of outlines from repulsor light, and homed in on the blinking signal. It pinged every few seconds, which felt like a long, long time at jet-speed. He overshot between one ping and the next, and had to brake to a screeching halt while he waited, boiling the air in front of him with the momentum he shedded and using repulsor fire to keep back the queen’s guards. Three seconds ticked by and marked the end of more skitters than Tony had time to count.
JARVIS fixed the ping onto his telemetry, giving Tony a much-needed map, and he shot through an aggregate of fliers, sending them scattering. Steve was in the coolest of the cocoons; JARVIS switched over to infrared cameras, and the pinging cocoon was finally clear as a paler oval amongst bright, yellow-hot ones.
Tony cleared himself a space with fire and three precious rockets. He had to hope he had enough to get out of the living hatch again, because the crowd around his goal was too dense for anything else.
His landing was rough, crashing gauntlet- and wing-first into the wall of the chamber, but the rent it made in the biomechanics gave him enough of a grip to perch there; this architecture didn’t care about ‘down’ and Steve was cocooned to the wall, where solidified slime, skitter exudate and some kind of polymer thread formed a tough case filled with veins and arteries. Tony hesitated, looking for a heartbeat, but the casing was too thick to see Steve inside, and the organics muddled up his sensors completely.
He swung his wingpieces forward out of flight-ready configuration, dug the supersonic-sharp tip of an airfoil into the casing, and ripped it lengthways, grabbing the edges of the gash with hands and crampon toe-tips and pulling with all the servos the suit could muster. Membranes tore and blood vessels ruptured blue-black over everything, and he dug deeper, gauntlets gouging into a final tough layer and hitting Steve’s scale mail. He pulled and the cocoon popped. Thick fluid gushed out over his arms and chest, dimming the light of the reactor, and then Steve was tumbling out in a wet mess of blue scale, blond hair, and bedraggled acres of feathers. His helmet was missing, and the shield was down on the rooftops with Coulson; he was terrifyingly unprotected, but in IR he was bright, bright, and his heartbeat was loud and clear.
Tony could barely see, the cameras a mess of light and shadow, but he could make out veins crawling all over Steve’s face, doing god knows what. Tony couldn’t get him out without ripping them off, and there was no time for finesse. He wrapped the worst in a fist and pulled as steadily as he could with skitters landing and striking at his back.
Veins slithered out of Steve’s mouth, mercifully whole, and Steve started to retch. Tony’s heart beat double in relief as Steve pushed the last of them out and away and gasped in an enormous breath, blinking rapidly although his eyes stayed filmed-over, inner lids shut tight against the light or the shock. Tony couldn’t wait any longer; the mass of aliens would be too many to escape soon.
He pulled back, balancing on his boot repulsors and letting them burn any aliens crawling up the wall beneath them, and pulled the rest of Steve, still coughing, out of the cocoon. Wings and then legs came loose with a slippery wet rush, sodden through, and Tony fastened his arms around Steve’s chest and booked it for the nearest open air. He had one last thing to do before he could get Steve home.
“JARVIS, go over to secondary power, jettison Main.”
“It’s enough! Straight to medical, I promise.”
The suit’s arc reactor clicked and twisted out of its seating, JARVIS’ silent horror matched by the jackhammer in Tony’s chest. The suit’s onboard batteries would keep him in air and repulsors for minutes, at most.
No time to hang around. Tony tore off a shard of scale from Steve’s vest, trying to ignore Steve's gasping breaths and obvious distress while he finished the job. He pulled the reactor out of the chestplate and, fitting the scale over the base contacts, slammed the construction against his thigh.
The emergency break shattered, leaking blue superconductor over the piece of scale, and shorted out the central rotator circuit. The revs started building, the current surging through the short and welding the scale to the reactor as its light built from blue to white. Time to go.
JARVIS threw up a countdown, three minutes until it blew, four and change until the suit lost power, while Tony shook off the barricade forming around them with a blast that dropped the power counter down by seven seconds.
“All power to forward thrust; get me a way out.”
JARVIS’ vector sum sent him into a tunnel, sharp left, then right, then Tony knew where he was and took over, pushing the repulsors and sweeping his wings back in a move right out of Falcon's playbook.
Steve’s span dragged behind them, held tight against Steve’s legs by the force of the wind, and he kept his naked head tucked close against Tony’s shoulder. He wasn’t holding on; his hands were limp.
Tony knocked aside armored guards and drones, and blasted out into the intership void in a flurry of tumbling skitter-parts. The light of Rhodey’s suit was like a beacon, headed straight for them, guns blazing.
“You got him?” Rhodey yelled over the roar of jets.
Tony didn’t bother to answer; the stripes on Steve's uniform and the mottled white bars on his underwings were like a flag, even in the darkness. He put all power to the boots, not even using his stabilizers. He had to rely on his own stubby jetwings to counter Steve’s dead drag; the instability vibrated through his whole airframe as JARVIS coaxed every last erg of thrust from the jets, and his wing servos strained against the force, on the edge of what they could stand.
Rhodey fell in just ahead of them, arsenal bristling as he shot skitters out of the air to keep the way clear, and then they were in the tunnel again. The sharp corner almost sent them careening into the skitter-covered wall and Steve’s wings beat ineffectually, but Tony managed to kick off the broad armored back of an angry shield bug and get them back on track.
The air inside the armor was getting thin, the recycling gear at its limit with the reduced power, but Tony didn’t dare divert power from propulsion or open the external vents. He was covered in potentially toxic slime and blood, with JARVIS’ biohazard warnings going off about Steve, about the slime, and now even set off by the atmosphere out here between the inner and outer hull.
He tried to breathe deep, and focused on following Rhodey.
“You ready, Tones?! Boom time!”
Tony couldn’t answer, but opened up the rocket housing and queued up every ounce of his reserve explosives. On Rhodey’s cue, he fired the entire salvo and followed the explosion of hatch skitters outwards into the daylight.
Steve hung limp, his chest heaving against Tony’s arms, and Tony didn’t wait around to see the ship die.
Medic stations had popped up quickly all over the top level of the city during the fight with the alien ship. Tony dove for the one on Stark Tower, leaving Rhodey to cover their retreat. Braking was difficult --the precision required was a bit beyond the roaring in Tony’s ears-- but he got them down on the landing pad. He stumbled to one knee and focused on keeping Steve from hitting the concrete.
Steve looked vacant, blue eyes fixed on the sky overhead and his head loose on his neck. His limbs and wings sprawled loosely where they’d landed, wet with whatever had been keeping him in that cocoon, and Tony didn’t doubt for a second that it was drugged.
Someone was saying something, tinny and faraway, about holding still and hosing them off, and that sounded like a great idea; he needed clean air, right the fuck now. Dummy nudged Tony in the helmet with a nozzle and he turned his head into a jet of water. It was cold, chilling the few pieces of metal that touched skin, and seeping into the undersuit through the breach left by the missing reactor. Tony shook his head to get the vents on either side of his throat clear; his lungs were burning and brain losing processing power as he breathed in dangerous amounts of his own CO2.
One by one, the biohazard warnings blinked off and JARVIS cracked the faceplate. Tony turned away from Dummy, the water spraying down his back, and retracted it completely, letting it slide into the helmet at his temples and under his chin. Fresh air was life, and he breathed deep. The sound of the world around him washed over him as white noise, then started to clear into the hiss of water and the many voices on the open comm.
“--ptain Rogers! Can you hear me?” asked a medic, kneeling in the growing decon puddle. Tony hoped he was wearing hazmat rated pants, but couldn’t tell. His attention snapped back to Steve, returning oxygen lighting up his brain and kickstarting his mouth.
“Found him in a cocoon; this slime stuff was everywhere. He was sedated, there was something down his throat--”
The medic startled and leapt forwards with a penlight, shining it into Steve’s mouth. A faint frown turned Steve’s vacant face grumpy and a vague twitch of his hand might have been an attempt to swat the medic away. Tony gathered the hand up in a gauntlet, pressing the instantly-recognisable armor against Steve’s palm. Steve didn’t grip back, but the frown did go away.
Dummy’s water beat down on them all indiscriminately, so Tony made sure none of it went into the Captain's slack mouth while they tried to get as much of the dangerous slime out of his hair as possible. Tony’s hands were too big and too strong in the armor; he shied away from the thought of touching Steve’s skin, but he wouldn’t take it off until Steve had the shield back, or they were somewhere safer than an open-air landing platform. Steve was too vulnerable here, his naked throat bare to the world and his eyes blank and trusting. On top of him being grounded, that was wrong. Tony's legs shook with the need to get him under cover and he went from one knee down to two; he settled for not getting in the medic's way so this whole process could go quicker.
The worst of the alien membranes and slime sloughed off easily, though Tony had a suspicion that Steve’s feathers wouldn’t be the same until a long appointment with real soap and hot water. The medic was listening to Steve’s chest, the scale-mail and fabric splayed open on bare unmarked skin. There were no breaks in the uniform, no bullet holes or burn marks, and Tony’s mind took a break from imagining the worst to focus on the steady thrum of Steve’s pulse in his neck.
“Captain, I need you to cough, hard as you can?” the doctor asked, trying to get Steve’s attention.
Steve gave a vague nod and Tony helped him curl onto his side, wing folded awkwardly under his shoulder, so he could cough into a wad of gauze. The stethoscope reappeared and the medic looked up, saying to someone out of Tony’s attention span that Steve’s lungs were clear.
A shudder ran through Steve, and Tony thought he was going to cough again, but it settled into a faint, full-body tremor. He was shivering.
“He’s going into shock, someone--” Tony heard, barked from one paramedic to another.
Tony remembered the brief infrared footage of the one cold cocoon, and the feeling of Dummy’s cold water.
“We need to get him warmed up,” Tony said, half questioning. He pulled Steve against the armor again, close and safe with his head tucked against Tony’s neck. The medic protested, but Tony didn’t need help to lift even Steve’s bulk. Someone folded Steve’s wings up, but they drooped again and Steve whined in quiet distress; he couldn’t move, something was stopping him from really moving, and Tony would bet it was the sticky residue left all over his skin, and deep in his feathers.
“There’s a bathing pool--” Tony started, standing up and bearing Steve’s weight with the last of the suit's power.
“Perfect, go, get decontaminated; we’ll get a chemical neutralizer down to you as soon as we can,” Coulson said, from somewhere Tony couldn’t see. He sounded clear, like he was standing next to him. The interference from the alien ship was gone.
“Go, Mr Stark; you’re blocking the landing zone.”
Tony went, dropping over the edge and straight down to the veranda of the 80th floor sky lobby, zipping past the entrance and the elevator banks to the hot steam of the gym in a brief blast of repulsors and a hastily popped fire exit.
“Thanks, JARVIS...” Tony said, as he landed on tile. “Protocol?” The world was fuzzy and bright with sunshine, warm but indistinct.
“Keep his face above water, you will be fine. Remember how Ms Romanoff assists you.”
Tony walked over the tile, probably cracking a few, straight for the steps down into the water. Steve's wings dragged, but they wouldn't take any harm from the smooth tile. Their crazy flight out of the bugship was more likely to have-- Tony cut that thought off. "J, scan him for broken bones, swelling, cuts, anything the medics didn't have time to check for."
Steve took a deeper breath and flared his eyes at the first touch of water on his dangling legs and wings. He was just being carried, he couldn't see there was a pool below him. "Shh, it's okay," Tony said, impressed at the steadiness of his own voice. "We're just in the bath, it's warm. Need to get this crud off you."
He stepped down into the shallow end and lowered Steve until the water took most of his weight, then laid him out on his back so that he was fully submerged, his sodden wings sinking immediately into the bath’s slow current. He kept one hand under Steve's head and the other rock-solid and reassuring at Steve's mid-back, between his wingshoulders, while Steve flapped weakly. It was disorienting enough to be on your back at all, without being paralyzed as well; he had to be stable and strong, reassuring. Warm water washed over everything but Steve’s face and chest, and Tony went to his knees on the bottom of the pool so that he could keep a hand under Steve's head.
The water was only about a meter deep here; kneeling, it came up to the level of the chest RT on the suit. A little lapped over into the hole and spread damp warmth through the armor's underlayers, making Tony realize his whole midsection was squelching from Dummy’s cold jetwash under the chestplate and cuirasses. "J, did I get any bugslime on me?"
"Let me know as soon as the concentration in the water is low enough for bare skin. Or Coulson brings that neutralizer. We really ought to have a spotter for this." Tony took a deep breath and released it slowly at the thought of getting paralyzed himself and letting Steve drown. That wouldn't happen. JARVIS would alert someone, get them pulled out by the scruff of their necks first.
"Toh…" Steve said, barely more than a half-voiced breath.
"You're safe, Steve, you're all right, it's okay, I got you out."
Steve screwed up his face as if he was in pain, then tipped up his chin, baring his throat. "Got me. Knew you would."
"Ohhh," Tony said, "I am so taking you up on that." He hunched closer over Steve and spread the armor's stubby jetwings, angling them to cast as much of Steve in shadow as he could. "You missed some fancy flying, Cap. But I suppose I could be convinced to repeat a few of my moves for you. Show you what proper skydancing looks like, in case you forgot."
Steve raised an eyebrow but tipped his chin further, eyes hooding. "Show-off," he breathed. "You do that. Dance for me. Love to see you dance."
It was a pretty nice moment, and Tony had a second to wonder whether Steve's lips were still coated in bugslime and how much of a dose he could receive that way, and then whether sneaking a kiss with someone paralyzed by alien secretions was the sort of thing JARVIS or Pepper would have grave moral reservations about, and then like many nice moments in his life it was broken by a welter of approaching worried voices and footsteps from the gym entrance, overlaid with an echoing "Come, friends!" Without really thinking about it Tony was
hunched over, the suit’s armored wings between Steve and the entrance, bristling as much as he could to belie the whopping 0.32% percent power he had left. That was about enough to make the repulsors glow menacingly or let him lift Steve back out of the pool. Probably not both.
Natasha strode in first, ushering Thor carrying Clint, attended by Bruce and Coulson, trailing no less than three scurrying SHIELD lackeys, and Tony figured fuck it and stopped paying attention, abandoning his pose and glancing down at Cap to check on his breathing. "Is this a goddamn parade?" he demanded rhetorically, still feeling defensive over Steve’s naked throat and pained faces. "Is it finally time for the pool orgy? What's wrong with Hawkguy?"
Clint made an expressive grimace but didn't otherwise move. Tony finally noticed his wings were loose, and would have been dragging except that Bruce had bundled one up and Thor the other.
“Barton’s been hit. We’re not sure he’ll have the same reaction as Cap, but he’s cooling down fast. Bath was expedient.” Coulson took a box off a lackey; “Got you a neutralizer. After extensive testing, someone knocked over a flower stand...and a bakery.”
“Baking soda? Really? And-- is that fertilizer?”
Coulson blithely ripped open the box of ‘Orchid Booster Pro’ and dumped it straight into the bath, turning the water bright blue. “Chelated trace elements, and Ph buffering solution. So, yes. It should remove the slime by carbonic acid action, and cation exchange should take up the unidentified metallic component of the paralytic agent.”
Tony peered at him suspiciously. “You have no idea what you just said.”
“Not a clue. Yourself or Dr Banner can fill in, I'm sure,” Coulson said, dropping the box of fertilizer and switching to the bicarb, which turned the water milky. Still blue though. CuSO4 blue, hydrated. Probably not harmful, or dying to feathers. Tony eyed it suspiciously. Blue dye plus the gold highlights on Steve's wings would create green.
JARVIS, ever in league with Coulson’s nefarious plans, revved up the bath, spreading the blue haze throughout the warm water, which was dissolving it without much hesitation.
“Alright, get Clint in here. You too Thor, you’re contaminated,” Tony ordered, waving Thor forwards.
Natasha jumped in without a word or any attempt to strip off her jumpsuit; probably the best approach if she'd been tending to Clint. Thor got to his knees and lowered Clint into the water, straight into her arms, then stepped back to strip off the more jingly parts of his costume.
Clint didn’t show the same trepidation Steve had on hitting the water; he sank into it with a grateful moan and a weak shake of his shoulders. Natasha let his wings hang in the water column, deeper there, and lowered him until his ears just touched the water. Tony watched her sidelong, shifting his hands on Steve to copy her, and Steve made a vaguely-positive ‘hmmm’ noise as more of him was covered in the warm water.
Thor pulled the last of the metal plates off his leathers and arranged them carefully on a towel before spreading his scaly red Asgardian wings and flapping over Nat and Clint into the deeper middle of the pool with a huge splash. Tony lifted Steve just enough to stay out of the wash, sharing an apologetic nose-wrinkle with him and feeling a deep pang in his chest when Steve half-laughed at him. Tony didn’t know whether to grin or kiss him, and ended up wobbling something like a smile instead.
Thor came up streaming milky-blue over his hair. "Eugh, this water stings the eyes.”
“Suck it up, it’s good for you,” Tony sniped, but he did take special care with Steve’s eyes, all the same.
“How fares the Captain?” Thor asked, scrubbing at his jerkin with an open hand. “Were you likewise doused in the gore of our enemies, Iron Man?"
“Steve was in the center of the ship. Which was fucking crammed with them like sardines in a can, so yeah, I wasn't trying to make friends.”
“Debrief time. Tell what you saw,” Phil said, and slid into the water behind him. Tony considered how to even start while Phil slipped around the armor’s stiff wings to help with Steve’s, which spread across their half of the pool in an ungainly, sunken mass. Tony nodded a grudging thank-you. He couldn't reach very far while instinct and necessity kept him glued here, holding Steve's head up out of the water.
“He was in a cocoon, rather than a cell. Fluid filled, providing oxygen by some kind of organic vascular system in his throat, and cold, uh... five, six degrees C; there’s telemetry in the suit, but no visuals.”
Coulson leant down, wet up to his shoulders, and rubbed fertilizer water through the slime coating Steve’s feathers. He had latex gloves on; ever-prepared. “None?”
“Well, some, but there’s only so much you can get in repulsor-flash. The inside of the ship was pitch-dark, I'm talking like a cave dark. There were no running lights, or any internal illumination. Not even buttons and dials.”
“You expect aliens to have buttons and dials? They don’t have fingers,” Natasha said over her shoulder.
“No one asked you! But seriously, however they see, and even the workers have eyes, it’s not in the visible spectrum.”
“Workers?” Coulson chirped.
“Yeah, uh…" Tony thought of the queen and mantled, feathers pressing against the inside of the armor. "Look, can we do this later? They paralyzed Cap, and Clint, and--”
Coulson bumped him on the shoulder. “Calm down, Stark. Anything important. The rest can wait.”
Tony nodded, considering. Steve was rubbing his own hands against his feathers, frowning and clumsy, but starting to hold his head up more. It was working. He told himself that, took a deep breath, and let his feathers settle. “There was a queen, big, fat, too big to fit through the tunnels I saw, and soft-bodied. No metallic shell."
“Was it in control?”
Tony laughed bitterly. “Fucked if I know, I just got in, got Steve, planted the bomb, and got out. It was loud though, in broadband RF; I think it shorted out my comm for a minute or two.”
“Oh, so the ship exploding and then falling slowly into the water was you,” chimed in a new voice, from the same fire door Tony’d used to get in. Rhodey. “I wondered where your arc went.”
Tony cringed, a little bit, subtly. “Can we just not, right now? Steve’s hurt.”
Knuckles knocked against his thigh underwater, and he looked at Steve, who was being reassuring-faced. Not helpful, when he couldn’t really move.
“It can wait," Coulson allowed. "Thor, a little help?”
Thor was happy to, of course, and Tony carefully shifted behind Steve so Coulson could get one wing and Thor could get the other. Steve’s head lolled against the gorget of the armor, wet hair slightly slimy against Tony's chin, but the motion seemed more deliberate than it would have been five minutes ago.
"Sir," JARVIS said softly through his earbud, "the buffering solution has indeed lowered concentrations of the slime. If you wish to remove the armor now, it is safe to do so."
“Oh thank fuck. Left first.” He shifted Steve’s weight to his right side, and the left gauntlet and plastron folded and flew off. The chestplate went next, its propulsion sputtering with low power and dragging it across the tile into a pile with the glove. He sank his fingers into Steve’s uniform with unexpected relief, finding warm muscle and blissfully little slime as he helped Steve settle back against his chest. The rest of the suit managed to pile up with only a few pieces stuck at the bottom of the pool, and then he was able to finally wrap Steve in his wings, short as they were; hold him close and feel Steve's heartbeat on his skin, twining with his own.
"Ahhh," Thor sighed, watching. Tony jerked his head up, automatically mantling, challenging everyone in reach of Steve. He'd just revealed his weakness; if anyone thought he was an easy mark grounded and armorless, standing here in nothing but the undersuit and bright blue stump-socks on his halfwings, they were welcome to try.
Coulson and Thor didn't exactly soften their posture, but they looked aside meticulously. Behind them on the lip of the pool, Bruce was cleaning his glasses, seemingly unaware. Tony swiveled to check Natasha and she was also looking away, a smug half-smile floating around the corner of her mouth. Alone of them all Clint was staring avidly, nearly dunking his eyes under the water as he craned to look. Tony curled his lip at him and let his feathers subside, heart still beating fast.
Steve twitched and wrapped a clumsy hand around Tony's forearm, his fingers not gripping yet, but strong enough that Tony could feel the tremors in his bicep and shoulder. For a guy who'd been captured, buried alive, paralyzed in the cold and dark in what had to be his personal nightmare, he was holding up suspiciously well. Or maybe he wasn't, because when Tony curled back up around him, Steve offered his throat again.
Tony set his nose just under Steve's ear, mouth on the pulse in his throat above the rubbery Kevlar collar of his uniform, and worked at the concealed catches and zips on his back, over his shoulderblades. "Let's get this off," he murmured, his breath washing over Steve's throat. "Then I am going to sit in the non-slimed non-fertilized Jacuzzi for a while, and if I ask Thor nicely enough, he'd probably princess-carry you over too. Since he's making soap opera noises."
"I am privileged to witness the courting of two proud and doughty warriors," Thor averred. "Cornerstone of the best sagas!"
"You can witness without commentary," Tony said. "I'm not sure I'm okay with this. What does 'doughty' even mean."
"Shhhh," Steve said, but he was smiling. “They like us. Jacuzzi?”
“That's right, you just want me for the hot water.”
He got a grip on the hidden zipper over Steve’s wingshoulder and pulled, the tough fabric pulling open under its own elasticity. He’d made it tight, like compression supports, and then put the armor plates in the next layer, then knife-proofing on top of that. The zippers were just as tough, so the teeth didn’t warp under impact and never jammed. Steve rolled his shoulders, more and more control coming back every minute, and the armor came off that side while Tony went for the other.
“Mmm, better,” Steve grumbled. “Off.”
“Demanding. You got underwear on?”
Steve raised an eyebrow. They'd had a conversation about padding and chafing in certain sensitive areas not long after he moved in, ending with Toy making him an ultrathin pair of shorts for under the uniform, and Cap finding Iron Man in the aftermath of the next several missions to give him a solemn, unexplained handshake.
“Right, sorry," Tony said. "A guy can always hope, right?” Like peeling a banana, the uniform came off easily after the zips were down. Steve’s upper body was a clear, soft pink all over, healthy and warm-looking.
On the other side of Thor (still rubbing at his clothes, and Tony didn't envy him getting slime out of all that leather) Clint was griping and draped over Nat like a particularly pale show python, while Coulson and Bruce discussed something. “Team’s good, you’re good, Bruce is gonna clear you any minute. Privacy?”
“Jacuzzzziiii....” Steve grinned and tightened his grip around Tony’s waist.
“Yep, okay, loud and clear, comfort snuggles in the Jacuzzi. No...” Tony made an ‘all of this’ gesture with his free hand. “Funny business.”
Steve’s face was precious with disbelief and self-confidence. Tony narrowed his eyes and wagged a finger at his face, before tackling his pants. Coulson discreetly pulled off his boots and it took the three of them pulling in opposite directions to peel the suit the rest of the way off and confirm that Steve did have his beloved shorts on.
Tony braced himself as Steve twitched in the water, clumsily folding up his wings and arms. Thor and Coulson helped, and then Thor was right there, lifting Steve out of Tony's hands and walking straight-backed up the steps, though he stuck his own wings out stiffly to balance. A princess carry, as promised.
Tony let out his breath and sank a little in the water, his hands brushing the bottom. He'd stand up and follow in just a second, but first he wanted to get his stump socks off. He should have made black ones; bright blue was incredibly eye-catching. It even caught his eye, and he was used to weird things happening in the corner of his vision where his wings were concerned.
His hands hesitated on the hem of the left one. If he pulled it off, everyone would see the pink and white scars, the exposed nakedness of the skin without feathers, and whatever purple bruises he'd picked up out there. He didn't want people continually distracted by the bright blue, but the way they'd carefully not-stare at his bare stumps would be--
He watched Thor’s back as he and Steve crossed the room, his scaly wings crimson and glossy with water. Steve was dripping everywhere.
Fuck it, Steve was putting up with being manhandled, he could take off his damned socks. He was Tony Stark, and they were the Avengers, buck the fuck up. Everyone but Thor and maybe Coulson had seen him already, anyway.
He pulled on the loop sewn into the end and popped the elasticated bandage off. He swished it through the water, just to be safe, and then took the other off and dunked it, his wings, and his head under water to rinse. The water did sting a little, but it got rid of the slimy feeling he’d had since taking his armor off. Probably psychosomatic, but he was beyond caring about that.
Standing up out of the water, without the armor, was hard. It felt like gravity had doubled since this morning. Tony hauled himself up the steps by the handrail, and ran into Bruce at the top. Bruce looked him over quickly --checking for damage to the undersuit as well as looking hard at his face-- then offered his shoulder in a move so indisputably Rhodey that Tony looked around for him, finding only War Machine in a heap of discarded silver shell and gun barrels. He took the support automatically, though, and Bruce walked him over to where he was going anyway, the lip of the Jacuzzi with Steve and Clint spread out almost completely flat in the middle, Thor and Nat at the edge, and there was Rhodey at the far side with only his head poking up, the red patches on his wings obscured by bubbles under the surface but coloring them orange.
So much for stretching out. Bruce nudged Tony down the steps and made him sit with just his legs in the water.
“Bruce, Brucey-goosey, no--”
“Tony. You’re the only one I haven’t checked out, sit.”
Bruce peeled the undersuit off him, and checked his ribs and eyes, and the muscle he’d strained last mission, and the places the suit rubbed no matter how much he adjusted it-- and that was JARVIS, telling tales right there.
By the time they had soaked off the chemical bath and any last traces of slime, they had all sunk as deeply as possible in the foaming water and even Natasha had half-closed her inner eyelids. Tony drifted, feeling the layers on layers of wings relaxed out under the water's surface in the light brush of feathertips against his side, his leg; bubbles worked up through his feathers only to be caught by someone else's.
Bruce had bathed earlier, not noticing the slime's paralytic qualities; like Thor, the Hulk was immune. But the Jacuzzis in Stark Tower were big enough for everyone, and after only three or four reminders of this he'd relented and joined them, starting to snore a few minutes later. Tony and Thor made sure he was well-braced against the side, and left him to it while they lounged in the muscle-soothing heat.
Bruce startled awake when his glasses dropped off his nose into the water, fumbled around until he located them in his lap, then looked around at the near-flattened Avengers in their exhausted silence. "Right," he said, and pulled himself up out of the Jacuzzi to pad off in the direction of the snack bar. Water rolled right off the natural waterproofing of his wings, dripping a surprisingly small trail behind him, and he was almost completely dry when he came back, scrubbing a towel over his head. Tony sighed in envy.
“Alright, I’m pruning up. C’mon,” he muttered at Steve, who was draped over his chest. “How’re your legs?”
There was a low thrum in the water, inaudible through the bubbles, but palpable in Tony’s chest. “...think ‘m good, actually.”
Steve proved it by standing straight up. Tony missed his weight immediately, and the water felt colder, but hey! Steve was standing! He was sopping, though; something between the cocoon and the bath had stripped the oils out of his feathers. Everyone with feathers except Bruce was in the same boat, probably.
It also meant that for once, Steve was just as bedraggled as Tony. Tony didn’t particularly feel good about that, though he felt like he ought to. Or at least find it satisfying.
Tony clambered to his feet too, and they shook some of the water off onto their teammates, Steve leaning ridiculously far forward to balance the extra weight of his wings. Clint made a rude gesture in their direction until Natasha started bullying him upright too. Tony set Steve's hand firmly on his shoulder and steadied him up out of the Jacuzzi and over near the edge of the pool, where Steve unfurled his span and tentatively pumped his wings twice, testing his muscle control. Then he gripped Tony's shoulders and flapped for real, not quite lifting off, but making a breeze that spread deep ripples over the cloudy-blue surface of the pool, and flinging water everywhere like a dog having an enthusiastic shake. Tony shielded his face and spread his own span, grinning.
"What?" he asked when Steve subsided, breathing hard. "That's all? Keep going, I'm not air-dried yet." He shook his halfwings for emphasis.
"You," Steve said, "have perfectly good actual fans for that. And balconies. Can you flap off too?"
Tony worked his right wing, angling it gently through the full range of motion. Downstroke was no problem; upstroke had a bit of a twinge, but nothing like last week. As long as he didn't try to beat shallowly he'd be okay.
He beat deep, his wingstubs curving around his body to the limits of bone and ligament and springing back up almost of their own accord, back in position so quickly it always surprised him. Even now, after years, he had to be careful not to get going too fast when he was working without prosthetics. Again--again--againagainagain, and all right, maybe he was showing off his speed a little. Speed training and intervals were great for stamina.
Steve appreciated it, watching with lively interest while he furled himself back up. “Living room? I need to preen, I really do,” he rumbled, holding his own wingwrist in one hand and rubbing at the base of his feathers. Natural oils wouldn’t be able to fix this though. "I'm glad the fertilizer water got the other stuff off, but it did a number on my feathers. It feels like they're curling."
Tony had to agree, because even flapping hadn’t lightened his wings that much. “I’ll grab us some oil.”
"Everybody eat something. If you feel lightheaded, there's a cold water hose you can dunk under," Bruce called after them.
Tony waved a hand over his shoulder. “No. You’re kidding, right? Just no.”
Bruce laughed at him, the cheek. “No, I’m serious. It closes up the peripheral capillaries, counteracts BP drop.”
Tony considered this; he was in fact looking really pink, but aww hell no. The thought of a cold shower right now was excruciating and he was actually quite liking the pink blush down Steve’s chest. Call him selfish but... “We’re fine, Brucie-baby, I’ll make sure he lies down.”
He followed Steve into the elevator via the lockers to grab oil and towels, and turned his pair of bottles over to read the ingredients. “Ah, this one’s yours, right? ‘Oil of patriotism’ and ‘Aqua fidelitas’,” he joked, sneaking a glance at Steve from under his eyelashes.
“Jerk. What do you use, motor oil?” Steve replied. He’d put his back to the wall of the elevator, and was dripping from the hem of his shorts, his hair, and all his feathers.
“You got a problem with clean motor oil, tall-blond-and-handsome? It actually is from Texas,” Tony managed, once he dragged his eyes away from the drop creeping down Steve’s thigh. “You should probably get dry clothes on.”
Steve’s eyes were closed, and his head back against the elevator wall, but he grunted in a vaguely assenting way. “Think you can keep your hands to yourself long enough to help out?”
Tony, in a rare fit of self-defeating honesty, blurted out; “Nope! No, sorry, I can send Dummy, but swear-to-god, Steve, I'm seriously regretting making you those shorts right now.” Steve laughed at him without looking, and Tony felt himself get hot around the collarbones with a not-blush. He spoke quickly to cover it up. “Alright, you, go, get dry clothes. JARVIS has LifeAlert installed, just-- yell if you, need, uh. Me.”
Tony fled out of the elevator and into the big shared living space, realising he was leaving as much, if not more, of a dripping trail behind him as Steve was only after the elevator doors closed. He had towels and he could use the armor stripper to change, but there was a medstation still set up out on the platform and the big windows only covered the view so much. The floppy arms of the undersuit were hanging from his hips and slapping unpleasantly around his knees when he walked, and he actually wasn’t wearing underwear.
“JARVIS, did I--”
“There is a change of clothes on the couch, sir, and your housecoat is behind the bar, as always.”
“Thanks, J.” He headed for the couch, which was sunken enough to feel secluded from the impressive view, and changed into clean soft gym clothes before the undersuit could get any more cold and gross. The housecoat was the old brocade style JARVIS had gotten him for Christmas in ‘07, which was actually quilted silk and really excellently comfortable; its back was cut in the 1900’s style that snugged tight around his shoulders, both wing and arm. There were buttons for the between-wing flap that he couldn’t reach, so he left them undone, feeling like an old-time pin-up girl. He wouldn't mind Steve copping some feels, that was for sure.
Wrapped up warm, with his hair towel-dry and his feathers no longer dripping, the reality of actually being groomed in a public space started to creep in. The irony that he felt fine with being naked here, but not with being fully dressed and preened, didn’t escape him.
He wanted... He wanted it to be fine. He wanted to watch Natasha and Bruce walk in after Rhodey, and to not bristle all over. He wanted to see what Thor and Coulson would do while everyone else was doing feathery things. He wanted to know that Clint was all right.
So he sat himself down in the curviest part of the couch, with his back to the cushions to make himself feel safe, and checked exits. He could leave if he needed. He could walk away, any time he needed, he wouldn’t make a scene, no one would mind even if they noticed--
A few of Natalie’s strategies later, and he was shivery but not on the verge of bolting (why knowing he could made him less likely to was a mystery to him).
Bruce came up first, waving on his way to the kitchen and disappearing again, and Tony's tension ratcheted up incrementally with each clatter of crockery. The elevator’s next ‘ding’ made his hair stand on end, a shaggy black crest that he squashed down in mortification. His wings were just as bad, but he only had two hands--
“Rhodey!” Tony greeted. War Machine was in pieces jumbled up in Rhodey’s arms, but nothing was broken that Tony could see, and Rhodey had survived the various bathings without getting waterlogged. “Honeybear, you look fabulous, do you need dry clothes-- ah, no you don’t I can see that, coffee? Oh! Cocoa!”
Rhodey leveled a long look at him, and dumped the armor on JARVIS’ platform without a care in the world. “Calm your quills, kiddo. I’m fine, you’re fine, your boy's fine--”
“I was gonna tell you, honest, but, heat of the moment, new relationship--”
“You thought I’d disapprove of Captain America banging my best friend? Man, priorities. There was that thing in Baku--”
“Nope, lalalala-- there was nothing, nothing happened--”
Tony went still, a towel twisted between his fingers and his crest and feathers sticking up prickily. Rhodey thumped down onto the couch beside him and the weight smushed the cushions sideways enough that Tony could let himself topple into Rhodey’s side. “...’m tired,” he admitted, because Rhodey would have it out of him one way or another.
“Nope. Try again,” Rhodey demanded, nudging him off his shoulder long enough to drape his arm around Tony’s neck.
“... exhausted? Worn down?” Tony tried, probing at Rhodey’s knee and slouching under the weight of his arm.
“Better. Steve scared the shit out of you, and now you’re doing...whatever this is? Give yourself a break, Tones.”
“I want it, I’m ready,” Tony grumbled, pretending to try and shake Rhodey off.
Rhodey paused for a long, long moment, and Tony could feel his eyes on the side of his head. “Alright then. You want me to start?”
Tony nodded briskly, but made no move to show Rhodey his still-soaked feathers, just crowding close to his familiar bulk. Rhodey had always been safe, and Tony would always be crushingly grateful that his phobias didn’t stretch that far, but he still didn’t want to move. Rhodey understood, anyway, and bopped Tony on the crest. Tony’s hair hadn’t stuck up like this since oh... ‘99? But Rhodey remembered how to get it to lie down.
"Eat something, okay," Rhodey said, finger-combing through his hair. "Or do you want to wait until Steve brings you food? Never thought I'd see you accepting presents. Gotta say, I like it."
"No," Tony said, almost roused by this and voice climbing. "Did you see the guy? After a day like he's had I need to give him food, shit, I'd better--"
"I've got it," Bruce said, bringing three mugs over. Two he set in front of Tony with authoritative clunks. "You can give him this one, and he can give you the other." The third he set in front of Rhodey with no ceremony whatsoever, and vanished back to the kitchen.
Rhodey gave Tony a spooked look. "Did he just--?"
"We don't tell Bruce he can't give everyone food," Tony said seriously. "When the Big Guy likes you, that sort of thing happens."
They listened to Bruce humming happily to himself in the kitchen. "Uh," Rhodey said. "I'd better drink this, then."
Tony patted him on the bicep as they untangled from each other. “Welcome to the Avengers, War Machine.”
Rhodey choked and shot him a betrayed look over the edge of his mug. “This?! This is your initiation?! It’s miso soup!” he hissed. "Not gonna lie, I thought there would be 100% more strippers. Who are you and what have you done with Tony Stark?"
"The stripping was earlier," Tony pointed out absently. "You could strip again, though." He favored Rhodey with his best leer and Rhodey pushed him one-handed into the cushions.
The very busy elevator was rumbling again, this time down from the apartments above, and Steve reemerged just as Rhodey was wiping soup off his chin with his thumb. Tony’s feathers bristled slightly again, because grooming, so he focused on the concept of soup and got up to meet Steve halfway.
“Bruce made food, here,” he offered the mug, feeling itchy and nervous. Steve looked fine, he looked good even, all pink and warm and awake, but there was still something that Tony didn’t like.
“Thanks,” Steve said. He had that focused-hot look in his eye, staring right at Tony as he took the first sip, then making a happy churr as he looked around. “Bruce wouldn’t have-- ah. Here.” Steve picked up the other offering, and held it out to Tony in turn.
Tony’s chest warmed up before he’d even swallowed, at the brush of their fingers during the exchange. "C'mere," he said, and pulled Steve over to the couch. "Sit. Here, in front of me." Steve got the idea gratifyingly quickly and sat nearly in Tony's lap with no protest at all, leaning back against him with a sigh. Tony oofed, squished into the cushions, but wormed his wings under Steve’s arms and hooked his chin over Steve’s shoulder, sipping miso from his mug amongst the tangle of limbs and feeling warmth spread all through him.
"With all due respect, you two are disgusting," Rhodey said. "Sir," he added to Steve, "I'm very happy for you both."
"That means a lot to me, Colonel," Steve said. His hand not busy with a mug stole to Tony's feathers, combing down through the ones he could reach just for comfort, no oil on his hands yet. Tony paused his own obsessive finger-combing of Steve's left wingshoulder and groped around for a bottle, squirting some on directly and feeling Steve relax further against him.
"You have some big wings, Captain," Rhodey said, watching the byplay. "Tony says I'm an Avenger now. May I join you?"
"Be my guest," Steve sighed, and unfurled his right wing over the rest of the couch. "It takes hours to finish by myself. You groom me, I groom you, though. It's only fair."
"Yessir," Rhodey said, setting to with a will. Tony didn't expect the matter-of-fact way his hand occasionally went aside to stroke reassuringly through Tony's black feathers instead. He was warm, and soup inside was doing a lot to soothe the internal shakes, and it felt so damn good to be touched again. Similar, but something different again to when it was only Steve's hands on him. He'd missed this for a long, long time.
Tony dug his fingers into feathers and drifted off, just a bit, to a soft-voiced argument over who outranked who.
He woke with a jerk when Thor came in laughing loudly at something Coulson had told him, then scanned the room reflexively and nearly levitated off the couch when he noticed there was a solid warm presence against his left side now, too. It was Nat, Clint draped across her front and Steve's wing stretched out awkwardly over both of them, unders showing and okay, that was okay, it was just --Bruce had come back in too, and Nat and Clint like silent jerks, and now Thor and Coulson-- there were a lot of people in the room.
Tony realized he'd gone stiff and still, trying to remain unnoticed, heart pounding in his ears. Paralyzed as effectively as the slime would have done. His chest hurt, and the colors in the room blurred slowly, sounds going distant, shapes going fuzzy.
Steve pushed back against him, the groove of his spine against Tony's keel, inexorable gentle strength driving the breath out of his lungs. Tony let it all go, let his air whoosh out until his chest was flat and his vision sparking black and white, and then the pressure let up.
Tony whooped in a breath as quietly as he could, trying to get a hand up to cover his face. He couldn't afford to get water in his lungs-- couldn't afford to hold his breath against the vacuum-- couldn't make a sound, shouldn't make a sound while he was trapped.
"Good, good, Stark, now let it out, one set at a time, come on.” The voice was close, too close and jarringly inappropriate; didn’t belong. Air was pushed out of him again, gently, yes, also inevitably.
“In and then out, in and then out. You can do both. You're safe. That's enough ‘helping,’ Steve, steady."
His throat burned when too much air filled his lungs and nothing pushed it out and he was supposed to be doing that, but if he lost his lungful, who knew where the next would come from? Except there was no water, and the smell of Steve’s feather oil was thicker than the rusty, stale smell of the trough, and he managed to hitch a little breath, just on the offchance--
Oxygen trickled through, then came in a flood as he did it again, deeper, and broke the cycle. His keel sank back to its normal place, and the ache up and down his sides faded away as he emptied his second lungs. His next gasping breaths came easy, circulating clarity and perception back into his blood.
Steve was settled on his chest... right where he’d left him. Tony’s keel hitched again, this time in relief, and he tightened his grip on the day’s kidnap victim. A low, angry churr started in his chest and he just couldn’t seem to swallow it back down, so he buried it in Steve’s hair.
Other hands were close, so close to Steve, but also close to his stumps. He had his wings wrapped around under Steve’s arms, keeping him safe, but there were hands over them and it was wrong on so many levels. In his stumps the warmth burned like cold where the nerves weren’t right and one wrong squeeze could drop him to his knees, if he weren’t already...sitting...down.
On his favorite couch. With a faceful of Steve’s dandelion-fluff hair and Natasha’s voice rumbling at him from his near left. Tension washed out of him and left him limp and light-headed against the cushions.
"Tony, can you say anything?" Steve was saying, soft but serious. "Did I hurt you at all?"
"He passed out on me once, in a pool," Natasha said. "This is better. It matches the flashback too well if you pass out."
Tony made a noise of agreement, just enough to give her his status, and she rambled on with her hands light and oiled on Steve's wing where it was drawn up defensively. Tony was shaking, he noticed, which was normal after one like that. Steve was shaking too though, shit, fine tremors coming through the thick muscle of his back where he was still pressed lightly against Tony.
And Steve's wings were drawn up around Tony, he realized. Up and back to shield Tony as well as he could while Steve was still being the little spoon. If he looked up, he wouldn't see his team staring, just honey-brown feathers.
"'m all in working order, Cap," he got out hoarsely, and buried his nose in Steve's neck, wingshoulder coverts tickling along his collarbone. "We're just a mess tonight, aren't we?"
Steve took a shuddering breath, twisting to tuck Tony's head under his chin. "I'll be fine tomorrow."
"You don't have to be fine tomorrow," Tony said sharply. "No one has to be fine right away."
"No, of course not. I just...don't want you to worry.”
Tony squashed Steve against his chest, arms jittery with adrenalin but strong, fingers digging in to his ribs. “I’m gonna do that anyway, Steve; you got taken right out from under us.” He swallowed and took a deep breath of Steve-smell. “You dropped your shield.”
A low whine forced itself out of Steve, and he wasn’t okay, Tony had known he wouldn’t be, under all that serum bullshit.
“I got it for you. It’s in your locker.”
Steve went limp again, and his mantling slowly lowered. Tony tucked his wings carefully behind himself, replacing his stumps with a hug, and managed to stay calm as the rest of the team came into view. No one was looking their way, and Natasha was working on Clint’s feathers, so Tony’s anxiety didn’t rear back up. Clint was either asleep or so blissed out he didn’t care what was going on, and Rhodey was on his other side working on a crimped covert, his prized wingshoulder patches already sleek and gleaming.
Being in the middle of the flock like this was manageable. And maybe comforting, if he kept his head, but even though his personality belied it Steve wasn't a gregarious type and right now Tony just wanted to squash their skin together until they were one entity.
Platonically or not, he wanted to do better than guard against panic attacks, be better for Steve.
“Can we--” Steve asked, and Tony didn’t need more than the length of his pause to know what he was asking.
“Sure. My workshop?” Tony agreed-slash-asked. "It's secure. And really more comfortable than it looks." The ‘shop would be good; the bots and JARVIS made a good posse, and he could give Steve whatever he needed without embarrassing him.
Tony fidgeted, because he had fallen asleep and only the outers nearest his stumps had been in Steve’s reach. He was crispy-dry everywhere else, but Steve was done, glossy and preened down, which was the main thing. “I’ll bring some oil with us, you can finish it up in private, it’ll be--... easier.”
Steve nodded and shifted his weight off Tony, and Tony loosened his grip to let him go. Natasha, on his left, held out a bottle of oil without saying anything. Tony paused in peeling himself out of the dent their combined weight had put in the sofa, took it, and tried to remember Natalie’s coping strategies.
Free access to exits, protected back, but no cul-de-sacs.
He was pretty sure this was tacit approval of his plan to bed Steve down somewhere safe. He nodded his thanks and struggled to his feet through the jungle of Steve’s fluffed and newly preened primaries. Somewhere in there was Steve’s back, and Tony wormed forwards until he was pressed all up against it.
“You want me to take point?” he asked, only barely loud enough for Steve to hear.
Steve twisted, one wing raising up so Tony could duck under, and pulled Tony to his chest apparently just so he could nod into the crook of Tony’s neck. Tony took a moment to run his hands over Steve’s head and down his neck, keeping him secure against skin for as long as he needed.
A quick, worried glance at Natasha got him a gentle shooing motion and an encouraging smile.
Well all right then.
He wriggled around once Steve relaxed a little, and tugged him towards the elevators. Steve could match steps with him by shortening his stride a little and swaying his hips, and he bothered now; keeping his face close against Tony’s neck and back and breathing deep enough to feel through his shirt.
“Lockers, J, then the workshop.”
Steve made a guttural sound, almost aggressive, when the maglocks opened and revealed the freshly polished shield. Tony couldn’t have held Steve back even if it was still covered in paralytic slime; the super soldier’s speed was just too much for Tony to compute.
The shield slid neatly onto Steve’s arm, his posture strengthening and widening to prevent the shield from fouling on his hip or wing, and there was Cap. Even if Tony didn’t do anything else to help, or he screwed it up, the look on Steve’s face made his heart settle; Steve was going to be alright, just like he’d said.
The workshop door slid closed behind them, and Steve followed as Tony walked straight to a tall tool chest against the back wall. Each drawer was three or four feet wide and maybe a foot tall, and folded down like the tailgate of a pickup truck as well as pulling out. He tested them to make sure they were latched, then climbed up with no hesitation, half-wings fanning out for balance. The very top shelf was open. Tony crouched there and pulled out the drawer below, which rattled out emptily, then dropped down inside.
"Tony?" Steve said. The drawer was deep, certainly big enough to fit Tony, but… "Are you all right?" Two long steps brought him to the tool chest, and he hopped up six feet to get an angle down into the drawer, grabbing the same hand- and footholds Tony had used. The tool chest took his weight like nothing, like he'd perched on a girder.
The drawer was empty. "Tony?" Steve said a little louder, thinking confusedly back to every magicians' trick he'd seen in his USO days. His heart sped up, and he felt coverts lifting along his shoulders. He didn't want to be in here alone, or for Tony to be alone right now.
"Just a second, let me turn on a light," Tony called back, his voice muffled like he was inside a closet. A soft click, and light shone down into the drawer from somewhere above and inside.
Steve blinked. The drawer had a false back, or maybe it just ran into the wall. He compared to the depth of the concrete-backed shelf above, and yeah, the drawer was over twice as deep. It went through the wall to something on the other side.
"Can you fit?" Tony said, sounding closer again. His shadow crouched in the pane of light at the bottom of the drawer.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Steve angled himself in shoulder-first, tucking that wing tight and pushing himself along the bottom of the drawer until he had room to draw in his other wing. His primaries scraped the edges of the drawer, but the bare metal was scrupulously clean.
He wiggled deeper, past the back of the tool chest, and Tony was there blocking the light, his arms corded with muscle as he pulled the drawer itself closed, sliding Steve further in and giving him room to sit up.
It was a secret room. Steve looked around wide-eyed, then had to revise his first opinion: it was a secret nest, the room itself as round as Tony's nest in the penthouse above and dipping in the middle like a bowl, floored with a precision-cut slab of --he poked it with a finger-- cotton-covered memory foam, and lined with brightly-colored pillows and blankets. The domed ceiling was just high enough that Steve could probably stand without stooping in the middle, and it was covered in recessed hatches.
"Egress points," Tony said, laying back and pushing a neatly-folded pile of excess blankets into the drawer pan as Steve hoisted himself up out of it. "They lead various places in the superstructure, or outside. A few stashes. This is all supposed to be solid concrete, but I designed the building, I knew where the blueprints could be jiggered without making compromises."
“Locked?” Steve asked, pressing a palm against the nearest hatch to judge its scale. Big enough to get out of even for Steve, and an easy fit for Tony. The foam under his knees was warm already, bouncing back his bodyheat through his slacks.
“Only during actual lockdown. C’mon, sit.”
"It's like a bubble," Steve said, slowly folding down and taking off his shoes to leave in the drawer pan. The space was too small to open his wings in; he hadn't been in a living space this small since the tents the Commandos had used sometimes, and unlike a fabric-walled tent this was solid concrete. Nowadays, even plane cabins had to be long enough that passengers could spread their wings.
"Nothing can get you from above, in here. That was a big design consideration."
Tony did look relaxed. He'd let down some edge, some guard that he usually had, and he was openly sprawled back and half-burrowed in a blanket he'd already shaken out.
"You took me to the safest place you have," Steve said. Because it did feel safe. Just on the edge of too small, but sheltered, in a way he abruptly couldn't remember the last time he'd felt. It'd been his job to shelter others for a long, long time.
"Uh, yeah. Of course? I mean, you need it, I have it? One to one correlation."
Tony was right; Steve was tired, shaken and feeling the need to crawl under a wing and just stay there, so he didn’t so much sit down as burrow into the blankets shoulder first and curl up on his side. He dropped the shield in the drawer to guard the entrance when it got in his way, then flailed his newly-freed hand out to Tony and caught him by the thigh.
“That is not sitting.” Tony’s voice was slightly muffled by the blankets around Steve’s ears.
“No. It’s better,” he mumbled into a faceful of fabric. Tony’s thigh bunched and shifted under his palm, and he tugged it, and its owner, towards himself. Tony obliged, straddling his hips and rearranging the blankets with fussy precision before tangling a foot in them and pushing, then laying himself down.
Steve huffed in the sudden clutch of the blankets, tight around his shoulder and wings with Tony's body weight. He shuffled himself a little, feeling the fabric creak; he could get free easily if he rolled, but he didn't want to. "That feels really good," he said, blinking inner lids and realizing he'd pushed his head back, baring his throat to Tony again.
Tony shimmied against him, his wings coming up to shield their faces as he bit Steve precisely, once on each side over his pulse, then kissed up to his temple, rumbling deep in his chest. Steve mantled reflexively at the touch, then flexed at the sensation of his feathers pressing against tight fabric, trying to raise with no room to do it. "You're right," Tony said judiciously, "that is better than sitting. Are you doing okay? You're okay with this?"
"Bite me again?" Steve asked, unable to answer the questions directly and hoping his plea would make things clear.
"I bet you said that to all the suitors," Tony said. "So polite." He pushed Steve's head back further and bit him harder, longer, sucking and nuzzling in between. Steve sighed as black feathers spread gently over his eyes, and felt himself go limp, finally relaxing into the sort of peace he usually felt after finishing a mission, his team all together and injuries treated, nothing he needed to say or do.
Tony's feathers were rough, though. Steve's hand twitched, and Tony pressed a bottle of oil into it. "You know what to do with that, soldier," Tony murmured at him. "You don't have to get up, I'll spread over you. You can stay on your side, or get on your back if you like that."
Steve shivered. "On my back, on the ground? Is that something people do nowadays?"
"No," Tony said, amused. "Doing it on the wing is considered kinky as fuck these days, and on the ground it's still kinky. A magazine called me 'cosmopolitan' once, for making a nestframe with rails that raise and lower."
Steve pondered this for a second before grasping the point. "Oh, for spreading."
"Mmm, yes, all the new egalitarian sex positions. I used to like it, but then I had wild tastes. Whatever you're comfortable with."
"You don't any more?" Steve said sadly, freeing a hand to stroke down Tony's side. Every time he thought he'd gotten a handle on what Tony had lost, there turned out to be something else.
Tony went still for a moment, maybe checking for pity, then relaxed. "I'd have to tread very carefully. And not tonight. I wouldn't say being on my back was mindblowing, Steve, just good in the right situation. There are other things I know I enjoy, so don't worry about that."
Steve didn’t know quite how to feel about that; Tony taking the time to explain for him, slowly and clearly, that was good, but the way he spoke about his own feelings like they were...academic... That bothered him. Tony hadn't put his feelings at a distance before.
He shook himself. Maybe 'academic' wasn’t the right word, but he was glad the discussion had moved in this direction, anyway. “What about just... normal? Is that good? Spread this way a bit.”
Tony huffed and settled a little more of his weight on Steve’s hip, spreading his near wing for oiling. Steve obliged, despite the weird angle, ‘cause there was no way he was moving; Tony’s weight felt like the only thing holding him down. Which was technically true, he supposed, but there was something comforting about it.
“Any kind of sex with you is going to be good," Tony said dryly, but low and husky too. "Normal is fine, great, even. I’m...getting accustomed to hands again, case in point.” He broadened the spread of his secondaries for a second. “We’ll see how much touching I like, but I gotta say it’s appealing.”
Steve paused half way through re-oiling his hands for another sweep through Tony’s secondaries. “You mean you-- on the bottom?” He felt his collarbones heat with not-embarrassment, and that was a distinct reaction in his groin. He liked the sound of that, but...
“You sound surprised, why are you surprised?” Tony asked, laughing softly.
“I-- well, no, not surprised. I was always-- Little guy, big wings, you can uh... imagine.”
"Would you like to switch? I can do that," Tony said seriously. "I bet you haven't been on the bottom in a long time. Oh, I can definitely get behind that." He worked his hips a little at the horrible pun, as if to make absolutely sure Steve didn't miss it.
Steve groaned, tugging a little more firmly on his handful of feathers and making Tony twitch in silent laughter, the same way he did when he laughed at them in the suit with his mic turned off. “I am ninety years old, get off my lawn.”
Tony’s hand landed on the back of his neck, thumb rubbing into hard muscles. “I imagine it was different, huh. Going from twink to hunk.” Steve liked to pretend he didn’t know what those words meant, but Tony knew he did and made no allowances for the ‘old man yells at cloud’ phenomenon.
“It was an adjustment," he said wearily. "For the better, mostly… But when I tried to go out looking, I think I just confused people.”
“No offense, Rogers, but I don’t blame them. All-American hero, wanting topping? You could make doe-eyes all evening and get jack-shit. You are terrifying.”
Steve clicked angrily. “The bars in Europe were different, I had no idea how to, uh... advertize, even though I had this whole new body! And then even when I thought I had a thing going, for the longest time I'd do something wrong in the middle and scare them off. I knew the dance, or thought I did. Turns out Paris ain’t Brooklyn, 'cept for the workin’ folk, and people don't like to tell a big foreign Capitaine what he's doing wrong. I had to relearn it all.”
Tony leaned over him and Steve submitted to a kiss on the temple with a huff. “I am going to manfully ignore any hints of Captain America engaging in solicitation,” Tony said, and Steve choked, because he’d never, but especially not in uniform. “Any ladies?” Tony added.
Steve turned his head, memories of the most embarrassing conversation of his life coming to mind. “Didn’t want to risk it.”
Tony wouldn’t let it go, though. “I thought you had prophylactics in your utility belt? I swear there was a poster about that in the sixties.”
Steve fwapped Tony on the thigh with an elbow and focused really intently on Tony’s feathers; he was nearly done. “The doc said... aw jheeze. They said I had super-sperm, all right?” He felt himself actually go red, the blankets feeling too hot. At least he wasn’t thinking about being kidnapped anymore. "I wasn't going to give anyone a kid she didn't plan for, that I'd probably never hear about, much less be around to help raise. With the missions we took, the risks that were acceptable, I wasn't all that sure I'd survive the war."
“...wow, awkward. I hate to ask but, was Dad involved with testing any of--”
Steve jerked in horror. “No! God, no, just the tech, and they looked at samples with a microscope. Please don’t mention your father in bed?”
Tony kissed him again, sweetly and apologetically. “Roger that, Rogers. Not exactly a plus for me either.”
They fell silent for a while, and Steve let the spectre of Tony's old man fade out of mind by digging his fingers into Tony's last dry coverts. The little naked patches where the straps passed were smooth and healed, but he paid special attention to rubbing oil into the skin, because J said it helped with scarring.
Tony made a gentle happy thrum when he got it just right, then roused, struck by some thought. “Oh my god, I’m gonna pop your cherry.”
Steve twitched and looked up, slightly incredulously; there was no fruit left to pop, nope. Tony had laughed and called him a delinquent, but he had a suspicion the man would be surprised if he knew how experienced Steve had really been, going into Rebirth. The thought kindled an old, old glow of pride he'd mostly forgotten; he may not have been much to look at, but by God no one had ever complained.
“No, don’t look at me like that. You haven’t got any scars, you got a fresh start after Rebirth; ‘whole new cherry, Rogers. And you didn’t even get to try it out.” Tony made an over-exaggerated ‘such a shame’ expression and Steve snorted disbelievingly, shaking his head and going back to his finishing touches.
"Everyone I saw often enough to know they'd be willing was either my direct superior or direct subordinate. Sure I missed it, sure I was curious, but I wasn't going to put them in that position."
“So what ‘position’ would you like this evening, mm Stevie?” Tony asked in his ear. Steve expected it to be lascivious, but there was a big bunch of chest-aching gentleness in there too. Both were plenty welcome.
Steve capped the bottle one last time and sunk his hands into the last coverts, more gentle because they were nearer Tony's stumps. “Just... normal, together, and... safe.” Steve’s chest felt heavy and too full. “I have to know you’re safe.”
Tony pressed down on his upper shoulder reassuringly. “...know I’m safe? How about you, big guy? Has it soaked through your head that you're safe here too?”
“I feel pretty alive right now. That's good, right?” He didn't say that's a hell of a lot better than earlier today, but it wasn't a lie to grin up at Tony’s concerned expression and watch it melt into the same ‘insufferable punk’ face that Tony shared with Buck.
"I thought I'd have to talk you into letting your guard down," Tony said, keeping one hand on Steve while he preened with the other. "I had a whole story queued up. And here you are ahead of me."
"I'll listen to any story you want to tell me," Steve assured him. Tony's hand had wandered and was stroking between his wings now, down the line of his spine, and he couldn't keep himself from making a little noise of pleasure.
"Maybe later," Tony said. "Because I mean it, you know. You don't have to be fine right away."
Two could play at that game. Steve slid his hand under the between-wing flap of the robe Tony was wearing and stroked down his back twice, long and slow, just to watch his eyes go heavy-lidded. “What if I am?” Steve asked, then regretfully let go, nudged Tony with his upper wing and lifted it over Tony's head so he could turn onto his chest and snug his wing into his side again.
Tony was still sitting on his hip and didn't budge, though his palms slid over Steve's shoulders with the movement, smooth and coordinated. “You’ve bared your throat to me a lot today, Steve. Do you know what that’s asking for?”
Steve hmphed and rocked his hips to shift Tony’s weight a little. “Reckon so. Reckon that’s what I’d like.”
“We’re...usually the other way ‘round, Steve. I go fuzzy, spacey, you look after me. Hell, even Natasha does. This is...unusual.” Tony let him roll completely onto his front, his weight lifting enough for Steve to settle into the mattress before bringing back that almost therapeutic pressure.
Steve liked it when Tony went fuzzy, when he got all soft and trusted them to be protective, but that wasn’t exactly sexual. Though Tony was right, it wasn't completely possible to draw a line either. “I think...we’ll switch on that, too,” he mumbled, face in the pillows and a settled feeling of warmth flowing down his spine at the decision.
“Oh we will, will we. And you know this how?”
Steve laughed, spreading his wings and pressing them into the bedding to beg. “Because I like it. And you like giving me things I like. And remember, I watched you challenge Natasha, Coulson, and a god of Asgard for me today." Tony gave an unconscious churr of satisfaction at the reminder, and Steve smiled to himself. "Don’t worry, I like the other way around too.”
“You said... you didn’t want to have sex until I was fine, no pain, no injury. Until sex could be more than just a distraction. You wanna tell me you’re fine, right now? You’re not in some weird, post-kidnapping headspace?”
Steve thought about that for a second. “You know I’m the most dangerous thing in this tower, right?” His shield was less that a yard from his hand, he could touch it with his foot if he wanted to. And Tony was...only human. Fragile in Steve’s big hands.
Tony snorted. "You're the most persistent, I'll give you that."
"Like I said," Steve repeated, unruffled. “And it cuts on more than one level. I'm bigger than almost everyone now, and when I said that you weren't just in pain; you were injured, and grounded, and having a bad night." Tony shifted and Steve spoke hurriedly to head him off. "My point is you were pushed. Further down than you should have been without...” Words were hard. “Yes, I'd love it if you are on top. At first. To balance things out.”
He felt Tony tense, and steamrollered the rest of his stumbling speech before Tony could see that as an insult.
“You might not believe it, but I took both roles when I was small, too. So I wasn't much to look at? No one could beat me in the air. But in this body-- I’m big, too strong, I need you to be all here, and using instinct to our advantage? Letting you say ‘stop’ and it having that kind of instinctive power?” He swallowed, belly full of nerves. “That makes me feel safe.”
“Safe...Safe is good,” Tony agreed, mouth completely on autopilot.
Steve was begging, his huge wings flat to the mattress, and it was so hot it was making Tony dizzy. He should go slow, no matter what; he wasn't so sure his own judgement was unimpaired after the panic attack earlier, but the cold hollow feeling inside was starting to go away, and there was only so long a guy could hold out against this. He'd been ready to defend Steve against all comers for hours, ready to take down that ship with his bare hands to get him back.
And Steve wasn’t kidding about being the most dangerous thing in the Tower, holy fuck. That only made it better. He shivered, a little bit, at the control Steve wanted to put in his hands, and spoke softly with his mouth just behind Steve's ear. "You want me to hold you down? I could, in here. Drive some concrete anchors…"
Steve shuddered, fanning and mantling around his shoulders, his wings rucking up the blankets.
"Get a net," Tony continued. "Or a harness, like mine, let you beat against the padding all you want. After all, it's not like you can go anywhere in here." Steve twisted with a popping rip of blanket fabric to turn his head and bare his neck to Tony again. Tony bit him, hard, over the almost-gone mark where he'd done it earlier. "Hold still," he said, and felt Steve's muscles ripple as he locked himself in place, trying to relax while quivering in excitement.
The supplies cupboard in here was a little more obvious; more than half of it was long-storing food, water, and the capacious medkit that JARVIS insisted on, but it was well-stocked with the other kind of supplies as well. Tony pulled out the bottle of lube by touch and followed it with the strip of condoms Dummy had snuck into the clean linens last week, gave the bitemark one last lick, and sat up, resting all his weight on Steve's hips while he got rid of his own shirt and opened his robe, though he left the fabric snug around his wingshoulders.
There was a right way and a wrong way to go about disrobing someone under you. He popped the buttons on Steve's soft halter-top one by one, working up until he reached the last one under Steve's wings, then laid his cheek as low on Steve's back as he could get and rubbed a day's worth of scruff and stubble all the way up the gloriously long curved dip of his spine, backbrain blissing out on the heady scent of feather oil and clean skin and Steve. Steve convulsed under him, making a sound like he was inhaling and exhaling at once. Tony rode the motion up to the shirt's collar string, which he untied, then dragged his face over the back of Steve's neck until he could rub his chin and both cheeks against the bitemark, hard and soft and rough all mixed together. Steve made the same sound again.
Tony smiled to himself and rubbed his other cheek on the way back, nuzzling his nose and cheek in the soft between-wing down until he found the smooth skin underneath, along the line of Steve's spine.
Steve's shirttails slipped out of his way as he ran open palms up Steve's sides until his wrists were buried in stiff, soft-edged feathers and he could slip the fabric off Steve's shoulders. Acres of bare skin under his hands, and the smooth curve of muscle and spine right there for the touching.
"You're gonna spoil me, it's only you for me now. That's it, I'm done. Ring a bell and say I'm cooked."
Steve shook as he laughed, which meant he didn't notice Tony's silent but fierce battle with the condom ribbon, or the click as he opened the lube. "Those website articles all did say you like to talk in bed, but funny enough they never said what about."
"Oho, you have read about me!" Tony crowed. "In between the recipes and the softcore porn? Though I seem to recall a few establishments that run all three--"
"Maybe," Steve said primly.
"I'm touched, you ungrateful punk. That was grade-A Tony Stark bed babble. Legs together."
Steve scissored his legs gratifyingly quickly and Tony gently worked the pyjama pants off his hips, then pushed them down to his ankles to bare long lean muscle and yes, a fabulous ass. Steve pushed his hips up again and Tony patted it absently. "Silk boxers? Oh no, those stay on for now, you man of unplumbed depths, you. I'm going to make this feel so good."
He tugged them down just far enough to uncover Steve’s pretty, pretty butt, and left them hooked under his magnificent glutes. From the way Steve twitched and his hips pushed forwards, the waistband was still right where Steve needed pressure right now; hooked over his cock and cradling it in silk. Tony knew how that felt; he had silk boxers and a penchant for quick fucks with scandalous mixtures of clothed and naked. Admittedly, usually with his own toys these days, he mused, picturing his bright blue bullet vibe disappearing into Steve’s perfect little ass.
Steve shuffled agitatedly and Tony realized he'd paused a long time, one hand caressing around the dip of Steve's tailbone and the bottle of lube forgotten in the other. He cleared his throat and poured a little pool of lube into that dip, watching the shiver ripple up Steve's back while he stirred it warm, then set the bottle aside where it probably wouldn't get knocked over... he had to confess, he wasn’t particularly sparing brain for that right at the moment, but still, they might need it again. "All right," he said and had to clear his throat again, "legs apart, but don't spill any of that."
Steve shifted shiveringly slowly, letting Tony fold up his own legs between Steve's. He was still on his knees for now; prep was important. And the wait would make it better when he did cover Steve, keel against spine. He left that hand reassuringly on Steve's lower back and bit his lip, shoving his own soft gym pants down just far enough to get the condom on.
Steve spread for him so nicely, wings flat and hips canted, the muscles taut in his legs. The lube made a shining trail down over the rose-pink pucker of his asshole, down to his perineum and balls, gleaming a little in the shadow of his boxers. Tony was mesmerized. A thick drip ran down the cleft of Steve’s ass just ahead of his trailing fingers and Steve looked over his shoulder with a despairing whine.
“They didn’t say you were a tease, Tony, stop messing around!”
Tony gave a firm rub over Steve’s hole, and grinned. “The fact that you think this is a tease, Cap, just lets me know that no one ever devoted the time,” he pressed three fingers over Steve’s hole without penetrating, “to tease you,” it spasmed against the pressure, “properly. I can't imagine no one wanted to,” he went on conversationally, spreading the lube gently, feeling the ring of muscle flutter. "You were so small, and so strong. I bet they really just didn't have time; it's hardly something you could do in a back-alley, or a dally on the wing. I bet they always regretted that…"
Steve let out a low growl, his hands fisted in the sheets, and pressed back against Tony’s hand. He crooked his middle finger and Steve’s supersoldier muscles gave way, letting him slip the tip of his finger into Steve’s scorching hot body. Tony watched the progression of muscles up Steve’s back twitch like they didn’t know what to do, and pressed that finger in slowly and steadily. He rubbed up between Steve's shoulders with his free hand, coaxing and smoothing out tremors.
“Never been fucked in this body, have you? Look at you, all twitches, so conflicted.” He leaned over, easing his finger in and out enough to be felt but not enough to burn, and kissed a line up Steve’s vulnerable spine. “Bear down for me, honey, you know how this goes. Little Steve Rogers, king of Brooklyn, knows what he wants. Don’t you, Steve? Want me in you, filling you up, pushing you open like you miss? Like you’ve never felt before?” Or at least not with muscles this strong, fuck.
“Full of yourself--!” Steve managed. His flush was full body, but Tony was sure it was darkening, getting richer and hotter with each word he murmured into Steve’s skin.
"Soon enough, you too will be full of me..." Tony crooned, gratified at Steve's unconscious snort of laughter even though it made him tense up again.
"Waits 'til I can't get away, then shows his true sense of humor," Steve accused. "Can I return you? Trade you in, maybe? Colonel Rhodes is --oh!-- nice."
"You can try, honeybun. Rhodey was wrapped around my thumb long before you met him, and I've got you right where I want you--there. Good, babe, perfect, just like that..." Tony twisted and soothed and worked at Steve until the pressure eased up, and slipped in a second finger before another shudder could ruin all his hard work. There...Tony sat up straight to watch his own fingers and, feeling triumphant and not a little bit ruthless, turned his hand and felt out Steve’s inner walls for his prostate. The extra reach of two fingers was just right to--
Steve’s breath went out of him in a rush, his hips flexing against Tony’s hand as he ground down on that sweet spot. The pressure on Tony’s fingers fell away again, and he slid in a third, heading straight for the prostate again, to cover up the burn. Steve certainly seemed to appreciate it.
Tony knew --he had done Tests, valuable tests, worthwhile sexy tests, shut up JARVIS-- that his four fingers together were roughly the same circumference as his cock. He was perfectly proportioned to model as a linear progression. Thus, the jump from two fingers to three was similar to the jump from three to cock and--
“Fuck, please, c'mon you brass-bound bastard what are you waiting-- ” Steve groaned, appropriately breathless and with his throat bared, but still too cogent for Tony’s tastes. He slid his free hand into the boxers, rolling Steve's lube-slick balls in his fingers and enjoying how Steve's wings thumped the pillows, his hips jerking forward and back again like he couldn't make up his mind. Tony kept it up, varying his motion just enough that it wouldn't get predictable, and watched as Steve went open-mouthed and panting, his eyes unfocused. Then Tony circled back to his perineum, just behind his balls, and gently pressed in, stroking Steve's prostate from both sides.
Steve clenched around him, rippling and drawing his fingers in, and Tony slumped against his back, panting as a zing of pure lust went down his back, tightening his balls and making his half-forgotten cock twitch. Steve was ready for it, but Tony had promised he'd fuck him, not come like a teenager, untouched, Jesus. He pulled his fingers free of Steve and circled the base of his own cock hard enough to stave off. "Okay, okay," he gasped, dimly registering that he'd been saying things this whole time.
Steve was making desperate, back of the throat noises, and his asshole was slick, red and drenched in lube. There was such a thing as too fucking hot, and Tony knew he was done for, so done for.
There was only one thing left to do. He lined them up and pressed the head of his cock against Steve’s ready hole. Prepped with strong hands and every ounce of Tony's skill --not loose, though, fuck. He squeezed himself to stave off coming, and pressed in, watching the pucker stretch and give, and feeling every tiny increment as it submitted to the pressure.
Steve’s muscles gave, and gave, and then he was inside, and jhesus fucks on a bicycle. Steve was so hot, and there was slick everywhere, but he was still tight. A shudder shot through them both as Steve’s hole clenched around Tony’s cock, and it was all Tony could do to hold on, hold out. He curled forward, the skin of his chest sliding against Steve's back in leftover lube, stuck his hands under Steve's wings and held on tight to his ribs.
Steve, apparently, had no such restrictions; he thrust his hips back onto Tony’s cock. Ohh, and there it was, there was the Steve who’d been so good at this that he’d done it in the air; Steve had the angle perfectly right, and the thickly-padded muscles of his back flexed and rippled as he pressed Tony’s cock against his prostate. Tony ground his keel down and bit Steve again, hips starting to work, his wings open and beating haphazardly for extra force.
It felt great, so good, and Tony concentrated on breathing and let instinct take over. They worked the angle relentlessly, and each thrust made Steve clench up in ecstasy, making the drag back out Tony’s downfall; he was gonna come, and there was nothing he could do to hold it off, and Steve needed--
Oh god, what if he came before Steve and Steve needed more, needed Tony to get out the toys and keep going, take care of him until --bad thoughts, not conducive to stamina, fucking hell--
Breathe. Everything was hazing out, a little bit, but he needed to stay present, stay aware.
Tony dug his teeth in, hard enough to leave a proper bruise, and reached for Steve’s cock, much neglected and still wrapped in now-sodden silk. The rub of the silk against Steve’s cockhead would be perfect, just what was needed, and Tony didn’t hesitate except to time it with the bump of his cock against Steve’s sweet spot. He could feel it throbbing through the fabric, hard as Tony was and just as ready for release.
Too slow for Steve; Tony half sobbed as Steve’s hand closed around his, using him to jack himself off. He lost his bite, too overwhelmed for anything but messy, sloppy mouthing as Steve eeled underneath him, fucking back onto his cock, and the rhythm faltered. Tony grabbed for it, trying to catch it again, but his blood was roaring in his ears and it slipped away from him; his own wings were full-spread and digging into the blankets now, pressing hard against Steve's.
Steve's hand firmed on his wrist and pulled it away from Steve's cock. Tony made a confused, wordless sound of protest --how would Steve come if-- it had to feel good, why?-- but Steve was implacable, his other hand fastening on Tony’s other wrist, gently peeling up his clutch on Steve's shoulder and pulling both wrists forward and up, above their heads; pulling Tony hard against Steve's back, no space between them now. Steve's ankle twined over Tony's, holding him down, not letting the force of Steve's backward thrusts lift him off the padding.
“Yes!” Steve hissed, lung noises and growls building in his throat as Tony’s groans turned to gasps. “Harder--! That's right-- You can do it, so good, Tony--”
Tony did his best, driving into Steve hard enough to make his muscles burn and make his balls smack the silk boxers still clinging just right. “Steve, Steve, I can’t--”
“You can do it, keep going, just a little longer,” Steve ordered, voice reaching down into Tony and making it very, very difficult to obey. Steve’s hands were like iron around his wrists, but his thumbs were circling on Tony's palms, soothing and gentle and just enough to make Tony shudder down to his toes. He let out his breath like he'd been punched, clinging on in the face of a rising tide of white sparks and the desperate thrum of energy in his gut.
“There, there, that's it, that's right, that's just right, fucking-- Tony, ah--!”
Tony gasped, hips working without the rhythm Steve had set, pumping into him until he snapped, shuddering and overwhelmed and coming so hard he couldn’t see. Couldn’t hear. Excruciatingly wonderful pressure around his cock and his name in Steve’s voice penetrated the white-hot shock enough to leave him boneless on Steve’s back, his whole body going slack as white overwhelmed him.
Hazy and indistinct, an almost-painful wash of pleasure, aftershocks tremoring his muscles, and the trembling arch of Steve’s wings keeping him from tumbling to the bed like he felt like he would, given half a chance. Steve had both of his wrists, thumbs still circling gently on Tony's palms, and the sweetness of it sank down into his chest under his keel, to go with the pleasure still lifting his feathers. Tony felt a twinge shoot up his forewings as he tried to spread nonexistent primaries, but the sting was good, everything was good.
“‘s good, Tony, you’re so good, that was perfect...” Steve’s words filtered through, all sparks and heat, and Tony wanted to rise to the occasion, stay in Steve until Steve was just as fucked out, but he was already slipping out. Awww, Steve, no... he thought with an amused huff.
Steve shimmied forwards, off his over-sensitive cock, and let him down gently to the bed before flopping half his weight over Tony. He even dealt with the condom, his grip on Tony’s wrists slacking only long enough to sort them out and push Tony’s limp limbs where he wanted them.
Tony felt safe, cocooned under Steve’s span, and there was a delicious rumbling noise, contented and chipper both, coming from Steve’s chest.
Steve didn’t try to stifle his just-fucked purring; one look at Tony was enough to tell him that that had been just as incredible from the other side. Admittedly, when Steve had said he'd like to switch he hadn’t thought it’d be during sex, but he’d felt the dynamic shift when Tony went quiet and couldn't seem to catch his breath, and now it was his turn to look after Tony.
Not everyone was awake and energetic after sex like that, and even Steve would have had trouble following his own natural buzzed-up post-sex inclinations if he hadn’t got the serum.
Tony’s gaze drifted to follow his hands as he stripped out of the come-soaked silk boxers, and Steve’s persistent half-erection was on full display and caught that roving gaze like a magnet. He’d put the boxers on after all the bathing and the possessiveness he’d seen in Tony had sparked off his instincts. Waking up after the alien kidnapping had been tough, but Tony’d been right there, blazing through the disorientation, the pain in his throat, the paralysis that threatened to sink him back into icy terror whenever he realized he still couldn't move. The relief that was almost worse, when he still hadn't been sure Iron Man was there, was real-- Steve felt the urge to flatten and lift his chin whenever he thought of it, and he was pretty sure he always would.
And Tony had been sweet and ruthless and utterly in control, until the day caught up with him too. Like he'd said, they were both a mess tonight. That was all right.
Steve flushed; more than alright. He’d definitely gotten the first time he wanted, satisfaction coiling warm enough in his chest to drive out any lingering chill. He hadn't lied when he told Tony he'd be okay; he would be. Not instantly, but soon.
A light, loose, touch on his knee drew his attention to now-Tony, over past-Tony, and he scooped the loose limbs together and pulled him to his chest. Tony was easy to bundle up in a wing; Steve used his wingwrist to scoop Tony's wingstumps into a comfy angle and tucked his arms around his chest for security.
They'd have to look into tying Steve down; he'd liked the sound of it, the thought of being able to use all his muscles, without having to rein it in. Not that holding himself still for Tony hadn't felt good, really good.
A sneaky, fiendish hand slid along Steve's half-hard cock, and Steve's shocked look at Tony's face revealed, instead of the lascivious grin he'd been expecting, a soft, pleased smile and enormous guileless eyes.
"How are you feeling?" Steve said softly. He rubbed his thumb along Tony's cheekbone, and Tony closed one eye and turned his head, pushing into it, making Steve very aware of how his other hand had instinctively closed on Tony's wrist at the unexpected touch to sensitive flesh and how Tony had let his hand fall open, his whole arm and back going limp and relaxed.
"Good," Tony breathed.
"That was incredible," Steve told him seriously.
"Yeah," Tony agreed, sounding astonished and disbelieving and shyly pleased, and then ducked his head. "Sorry I…"
Steve hushed him with a rumbly nuzzle, pressing him against the bed. “It was lovely, Tony, we should do it again sometime.”
“I certainly hope we do,” Tony slurred, somewhere above Steve’s left ear, because he had his face pressed into Tony’s throat.
"You made it so good," Steve said. "So good." Over the years of leading small, fractious strike teams, he'd learned to never underestimate repetition, and it worked now; Tony sighed and relaxed more, starting to churr. Steve nipped and tugged on the skin of his neck --not nearly hard enough to bruise-- and the churr ramped up, but Tony was soft against Steve’s thigh where their legs were entangled.
"You're not ready for round two, Tony, why don't you sleep a bit? Then we can go again."
Tony looked blearily amused, then really close, and soon they were kissing with the sleepy languidity of post-coital trust. "Gimme five minutes, soldier. Noooo problem..."
'Round two' proved to be perfect. Admittedly more like five hours than five minutes after round one, but they'd had a busy day, with aliens and monsters and not all of them on their side. Tony had gone down for him, his halfwings pressed into the mattress and truly begging for Steve's everything.
And then there was debriefing, with the flush of nestsex still high and earning them a few rounds of congratulations, and a cleanup mission to tow the biggest pieces of alien ship out of the Hudson to shallower water in Jersey, and then Tony had science to do on the unknown alloys in the ship.
Steve stood in the doorway to the combined 'Avengers Lab', where Bruce and Tony, by mutual agreement, didn't do any science except mission science. Something about not having to upset their own work if the alarm went off. Inside, Tony was diligently avoiding the flames of a blowtorch wielded by Dummy as they cut up a sample to be dispersed amongst the various analysis machines. The smoke was enough to keep Steve and his oversensitive nose out of the lab, but it was just...perfect, to stand and watch his rescuer and lover and broken little bird in his element; not so broken after all.
Not so battered, either. His feathers gleamed with health and care, all but the biggest nicks and notches groomed out. So he had another reason to stand here and admire Tony's unconscious dance, and any yahoo that told him to pull his eyes off his lover's plumage would deserve a wake-up call right in the kisser.
Steve knew it was partly because Tony hadn't worn prosthetics in three weeks. He was looking forward to it, actually; to another set of show-off flights, and the tight-wound springs inside Tony loosening, and with a small, secret anticipation he was looking forward to Tony coming to him with his everyday damage, the nicks and crimps and bruises he picked up in a world that was never accommodating unless people made it so.
Looking forward to pulling off the prosthetics, and doing what he could to make it better.