It must be Tuesday. This week that means that Steve and Tony are hiking through the Savage Land, getting progressively sweatier. Tony is walking backwards in front of Steve, undeterred by the uneven path, and complaining extravagantly.
“Let’s just go see if we can find the plane wreckage, Tony. It can’t be farther than over that ridge, Tony. Okay, Tony, maybe not this ridge, but the next one. No, there won’t be a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Tony,” Tony says, jabbing Steve occasionally in the chest with a metal forefinger for emphasis.
“I didn’t expect you to believe me when I said there would be a Neolithic coffee hut on the other side of that creek.”
Tony makes to poke Steve in the star again but Steve grabs his hand before he can. Tony immediately tries with the other hand, so Steve nabs that one as well. Tony struggles half-heartedly, not actually engaging the armor’s strength to shake Steve off. Steve laughs and spins Tony around, hooking an arm around his golden waist and hoisting him over a tree root.
They stare at each other, a little breathless.
“I still feel manipulated,” Tony says, and disentangles himself.
Steve pats him twice on the shoulder — good, that’s a normal friends-and-teammates gesture — and tries to stifle his grin. This is serious, actually, despite Tony whining to minimize the situation.
“Sorry about the big lizard,” Steve says, as they tromp forward again.
Tony tsks. “Big sauropod, if you’re going to comfort me about getting bitten in the head at least respect the terminology. Totally different hip structure than a lizard. That’s how it runs so fast — fast enough to, again, chomp holes in my helmet and give me a good rag-doll shake.”
Steve takes in the row of teardrop shaped holes in the side of Tony’s helmet and feels bad again. The faceplate of it is currently jammed awkwardly into Steve’s shield harness, bent enough that Tony had to unscrew it completely to get it off. The eye slits are almost too warped to see out of; Tony had finished the fight mostly blind. Steve has no idea how he did it — Tony’s incredible like that, capable of things Steve never expected.
Unfortunately, the aggressive sauropod had bitten through Tony’s flight controls, so despite perfectly functional thrusters, Tony is grounded. They decided to keep heading towards where they expect the downed jet to be on foot. Steve expects they made it more than halfway. They’d radioed the team to let them know the situation, gotten Logan on the line, and been soundly grunted and harrumphed at.
“Are you sure you don’t have a concussion?” Steve asks. Tony shakes his head — apparently possible concussion means nothing to him — and raps the side of his helmet twice with a metal fist. It makes a dissonant bong.
“All good,” he says, with one of his thousand-watt making-the-best-of-it grins. “Like I could be stopped by some giant fugly lizard.”
They walk for two more hours, making decent time until the deer path they’ve been following dead-ends into a gully. It’s slow going the hour after that. Neither of them has a convenient machete; Steve’s shield is drafted into the ignominious duty of vine slayer. They have to ford more than one creek, and Steve falls down in the second one, getting wet up to the hips. It’s not his proudest moment, but it made Tony smile and take his hand to lift him off the slimy rocks.
Steve notices when Tony starts to flag. His cheerful attitude gets more and more determinedly chipper. He trips on a tree root and gets a face-full of spiderweb in quick succession.
It’s time for a break.
Steve keeps an eye out for a good log that’s not too slimy or mushroom-y that they can sit on. It’s not too far until the perfect spot comes up: a nice dry freshly-fallen tree, snugged up against a moss-covered burm. For the Savage Land, it’s practically a sofa.
Steve plops down and fishes around in his pouches for a snack. Tony sits more gingerly, checking that the log will bear his weight before committing butt to bark.
Tony leans his head back and shuts his eyes. “Did you know that before I got chewed on, my awesome rocket boots were waterproof?” he says, lifting one of them to demonstrate. A stream of muddy water drips anemically out of a tooth hole. “Do you have dry socks in that utility belt?”
“Sorry,” Steve says, as he finally finds the belt pouch containing a ziplock baggie of trail mix. “I do have homemade salty fruit-and-nut mix courtesy of Jarvis, if it’s any consolation.”
He pours out a handful for himself, then gives the rest to Tony, who tips some into his mouth and chews with his cheeks full like a hamster.
Something much too close for comfort makes a high, squealing howl. Another howl answers it, and soon the trees are echoing with hweeee-tch-tch, hweeee-tch-tch, gok gok hweeee! Tony freezes with his trail mix halfway to his mouth. Steve slides his hand very slowly to the catches on his shield harness.
A chipmunk skitters across Steve’s feet, followed by another, fleeing whatever is making the horrible noise. Steve gets his shield free and slings it carefully onto his arm.
“Hweeeee-tch-tch-tch!” sounds shrilly, not six feet away.
Steve leaps up, ready to throw himself between Tony and the noise. He searches the treetops, looking for something toothy and horrible, and is startled when he hears Tony laugh.
“What?” Steve asks, spinning around.
“Look,” Tony says, pointing and resuming his trail mix consumption.
On the ground, a little ways away from their feet, the chipmunks — although on closer inspection they don’t quite look right, their toes are too long and their eyes point forward — are facing each other, hackles raised in rodent-y aggression. Then one stands up on its hind legs, and a flap of skin under its jaw blows up like a balloon.
“Hweee!” it scolds, baring its teeth at its rival.
Steve sighs massively. He’s spilled peanuts and raisins all over the muddy ground.
“Buck up, Winghead,” Tony says, patting the log beside him. “You protected me from the danger mouse.”
“Next time it’s going to be something with horrible fangs,” Steve grumps, but he sits and holds a hand out for Tony to give him some more trail mix, now that his is adorning the dirt.
The little creatures engage in a furry tussle, and the defeated one scurries off into the trees. The remaining chipmunk-thing hops boldly over to where Steve’s dropped a peanut and proceeds to stuff its face. At least it’s not going to waste, Steve thinks. Tony looks happier, at least, now that Steve’s distracted him from his sore head and his wet feet by making a fool of himself.
They catch their breath, going over the damage to Tony’s suit and trying to triangulate how far the quinjet wreckage should be from their current position. Steve thinks Tony is almost ready to push a bit farther — he’d like to be somewhere better than this by nightfall, that’s for sure.
At their feet, the chipmunk thing runs out of peanuts.
“Bok,” it says, putting both front paws on the toe of Tony’s boot.
“Shoo,” Tony tells it.
Its beady eyes lock onto the leftover trail mix in Tony’s hand.
“No,” Tony says. “If I feed the wild animals in the Savage Land who knows what the park rangers will do to me.”
The creature climbs all the way onto Tony’s foot, then has a go at scaling his shin.
“Uh-uh, not happening,” Tony says, shaking his leg to dislodge the thing. “My peanuts.”
It shrills at him in annoyance and holds on. Everything that lives in the Savage Land is extra stubborn and seems to lack a sensible amount of fear. Tony sighs and reaches down to swat it away. This serves to annoy it. It rushes up Tony’s arm and straight into his face.
“What the fuck! Christ! Get off!” Tony swears, slapping at it. Steve tries valiantly not to laugh. It’s not nice to have a chuckle when your best friend in all the world is being assaulted by a mutant squirrel.
“Ow!” Tony yelps. He finally gets a grip on the horrible little thing and flings it off into the underbrush. “It bit me! On the nose!”
“Maybe we should get a move on again,” Steve suggests. “We can try to follow that creek bed up ahead for a bit.”
In a stroke of spectacular luck, they come upon the wreckage of the quinjet just as night begins to fall. It’s not going to fly any time soon — the wings are in pretty bad shape, and also resting about a hundred meters away from the rest of the craft — but it will be decent shelter, and in the morning they can get to work salvaging mechanical parts and putting together a plan. With Tony by his side, Steve’s confident that any engineering problem can be put to rest in under twelve hours.
At Steve’s shoulder, Tony lets out a groan of relief. “Made it,” he whispers, and promptly collapses into a heap.
“Tony!” Steve shouts, dropping to his knees beside Tony.
This earns him a weak bump on the elbow as Tony tries to bat him away. “I’m fine,” Tony gasps, levering himself up so he’s supporting himself on both hands. Steve waits for him to rise, and he doesn’t. He’s flushed and trembling, staring at the ground with unfocused eyes.
“Tony?” Steve asks, yanking off a glove to feel Tony’s forehead. It’s damp and hot, more than can be accounted for by the muggy jungle atmosphere. Tony leans into his hand, his head heavy against Steve’s palm.
“‘M fine,” Tony repeats. With visible effort, he hits the release catch for his left pauldron, letting it fall to the ground. “Just gotta get outta this.”
“Uh-huh,” Steve says. “How about I give you a hand there.”
This isn’t the first time Steve has helped Tony out of the armor. Tony gets into all sorts of scrapes, and some of them require real quick changes to keep his secret identity intact. Steve more or less knows where the catches are, and where he doesn’t, he can intuit from his knowledge of Tony’s design sense.
This is, however, the first time Steve’s helped Tony out of the armor with Tony so dazed. Tony looks like he’s moving in slow motion as he works on undoing his left side catches. Steve gets the other side open, and carefully puts the breastplate on the ground where it won’t get dinged by other pieces of armor falling off. The more armor Steve removes, the heavier Tony leans on him.
Under the armor Tony’s wearing one of his fancy flight suits. Moisture-wicking, impact-absorbing and great protection against deep-vein thrombosis during long flights, Tony had said, the first time he took the armor off and caught Steve staring at it. The jumpsuit’s designed like running tights or an olympic racing swimsuit. Black spandex covers Tony from neck to foot; the sleeves end at mid-forearm because the gauntlets are too close-fitting for even a sixteenth of an inch of extra bulk. Tony can’t fit shoes under the armor, but the flight suit has soft rubber soles at the bottoms of Tony’s feet.
Steve silently curses whoever provided the Avengers with a bulk discount at Spandex World. The jumpsuit might as well be painted onto Tony, and Tony might as well be painted onto Steve.
He must feel terrible, Steve tells himself sternly. I don’t need to make any assumptions here. My job is to be professional and make a plan.
First step: get both Tony and the pieces of Tony’s suit into some kind of shelter. It’s not raining now, but it’s only a matter of time. The passenger bay of the jet is sitting at a thirty degree angle and pretty banged up, but the doors are accessible and, hey, it’s got a roof.
Steve gently disentangles himself from Tony and sets him on a clear spot of leaf litter. When Steve steps away, Tony makes a stifled agonized sound and curls his knees into his chest.
This is bad. Steve doesn’t usually panic when teammates are injured — for one thing, most of them are a bit more than human — but seeing Tony like this is throwing him. He’d been fine for hours after the dinosaur fight. Then suddenly he’s down. That’s not what Steve expects from a concussion and it’s scaring him. Tony’s horribly pale and there’s a fine tremor running down his arms.
Steve moves the armor at a run, trying to minimize how many trips it takes. He’d be able to lift all 400 pounds of it no problem if it wasn’t in such unwieldy pieces, but without Tony inside it the suit is clumsy and bulky.
Finally Tony’s suit is a bright pile in the jet’s equipment cubby, and Steve can go get the man himself.
Steve scoops Tony up under the knees and shoulders, bundling him close to his chest. Tony’s hot forehead finds the crook of Steve’s neck, and he seems to get smaller, despite being Steve’s height when he stands. Tony is tall, and people who meet him assume he’s even taller. How could they not? Tony’s personality pushes past the boundaries of his body, like the person inside is too much to be contained.
Inside the topsy-turvy passenger bay, Steve swiftly dismantles several seats until he can make a pile of cushions approximating a bed for Tony.
This time when Steve sets Tony down, Tony seems a bit more cogent.
“Sorry,” he says, wiping his sweaty forehead with a hand and frowning at himself like his body is an unruly mechanical instrument. “I feel like I have the flu and an all-over allergy attack. I don’t know…” Tony trails off. He sits quietly for a moment, just breathing, and then shakes his head as if to clear it and speaks quietly, almost to himself. “There’s something neurological as well, but not concussion. It’s always like this some, but this is more than normal. This has to be more than normal.”
Steve doesn’t ask Tony to clarify. He’s afraid it won’t make sense. Without his suit, Tony’s still a formidable foe. Without his mind, Tony is crippled.
Step two after shelter: make a fire. That’s wilderness 101. Steve pats around his belt pouches for his matches. He comes up with a pack of tissues (wet), a couple of business cards (wet), his guilty pack of cigarettes (also wet), and finally a book of matches. It’s wet.
Tony wheezes a small laugh. “I knew you had to have at least one bad habit,” he says, raising his eyebrows at Steve’s cigarettes.
“Would you believe me if I said I keep ‘em so I can share them with traumatized civilians and have a Captain America bonding moment?” Steve asks.
Tony chuckles weakly. “No. I’ve seen those war photos of you and your beloved pipe.”
“Only once in a while,” Steve mutters.
Steve scrambles around what’s left intact inside the jet, and finally turns up a zippo lighter in with Logan’s kit. It’s a relief; he’d been starting to worry he’d be stuck rubbing two sticks together for an hour.
By the time Steve coaxes the fire to a nice self-sustaining burn, Tony is shivering.
He can’t help himself — Steve reaches out and takes one of Tony’s hands in both his own, rubbing at his chilled skin to warm it. It seems to make things a little better; Tony relaxes some, his body losing its rigid fetal curl.
“When you touch me it’s like I can think again,” Tony says wearily. “Isn’t that stupid?”
Steve tries not to have a reaction to that. Tony is obviously whammied by something — it’s not fair to make conclusions from what he says in this state. Tony’s brow furrows in exaggerated concentration. Steve waits for Tony to come to a conclusion and keeps a hold on his hand. No harm in keeping him warm.
Nice stab at justification, Rogers. Steve swats the sarcastic thought away. He’s helping his friend, and perfectly happy to sit like this for a bit.
Tony, however, has different plans. He pulls his fingers away and starts counting seconds with what Steve expects is stopwatch accuracy. Steve waits and hopes Tony’s got a reason for this and isn’t losing his marbles. He sounds a bit like a bomb ready to go off.
When Tony gets to ten, he grabs Steve again and sighs with relief.
Steve raises an eyebrow.
“That was an experiment,” Tony explains unhelpfully.
“Find anything useful?” Steve asks, in hopes Tony will magically become good at explaining his thought processes. Tony in the grips of the scientific method tends to forget that other people can’t follow his internal logic without at least some explanation.
“Don’t know,” Tony says. “Gotta replicate the results. I’m going to stop touching you for thirty seconds now — if I go all vague and floaty just take my hand, okay?”
Tony goes through the routine of dropping Steve’s hand, counting seconds, and grabbing it again several times. Then he tries it touching different parts of Steve’s body — clothed chest, boot, even his hair.
Steve humors all this, and doesn’t think about Tony touching him in those places in a less scientific manner, maybe with fewer clothes on.
Which is, of course, why Tony says, “I think I’ve figured it out, and this will work better with fewer clothes on.” He then reaches behind himself and unzips the back of his flight suit with a hiss of plastic teeth.
“Um,” Steve says, then runs out of brain power as Tony peels the skin-tight fabric off of his chest. If Steve thought the clingy black spandex was bad, the expanse of Tony’s bare chest is much worse. Do not look at his nipples, Steve tells himself. No, don’t look at the dark hair leading from his navel to his groin. Face. Look at his face.
Tony waves impatiently at Steve. “C’mon, shirt off, I’m starting to feel awful again.” He stares at Steve with hot intensity until Steve decides hell with it, if Tony is delirious and thinks Steve shirtless will make him feel better, Steve can take it. He can handle feeling Tony’s eyes following his hands with naked, inexplicable hunger.
At least this isn’t a concussion or sudden brain hemorrhage — that’s some solace.
As soon as Steve has his top off, Tony clambers into his lap and throws both arms over Steve’s neck, pulling their chests together from throat to navel. Tony is clammy with sweat and smells a bit like a gym sock that’s been sitting in a rusty coffee can for a week. It still takes all of Steve’s willpower to not become aroused when Tony sighs, “Oh my god. That is so much better.”
Steve has no idea where to put his hands. Helpfully, Tony grabs one of them and puts it firmly against his side.
It’s the most confusing hug Steve has ever received, and Steve’s been embraced by some truly strange things, including all manner of tentacles.
“Hm,” Tony says eventually. “Did I explain any of this before demanding you strip and draping myself over you like two hundred pounds of wet laundry? Because thinking was like holding a dozen snakes for a while there, and I think the telling-Steve-the-plan snake may have, uh, wriggled away, so to speak.”
“It was a bit of a surprise,” Steve says, hoping he sounds dry instead of strained.
“Shit,” Tony says, with feeling. “Major boundary-crossing! I swear I meant to ask — I’ll get off.”
Steve grabs Tony by the hips to keep him where he is. He doesn’t think about Tony getting off. He absolutely doesn’t think about pulling Tony closer and grinding Tony’s hips against his abdomen. He’s being ridiculous, and Tony would never want Steve to think about his body like this. Tony isn’t just an Avenger like Steve — he’s Iron Man, and a genius engineer, and a savvy billionaire all at the same time. All Steve’s got is a lot of muscle and an impressive hundred meter dash. Tony wouldn’t be plastered against him without some mystery jungle reason.
“I noticed that I felt better whenever your skin touched mine. I thought it was just — um — just the fever. But it seemed like a lead, so I did some experiments.” Tony starts drawing diagrams on Steve’s back with his index finger as he begins to explain. “That was the whole hand-holding and counting thing. Sorry again, really. I must have looked like a complete loon, no wonder you were so confused. But I did find that the severity of my symptoms correlated with how long we were in contact, and with the surface area of touch. The longer and the more skin-to-skin contact, the more I felt like myself. The obvious solution was to, um, aggressively cuddle you.”
“Makes logical sense,” Steve says.
“I really did mean to explain first,” Tony says, apologetic. “You can tell me to go away.”
“It’s making you feel better, right?
Tony nods. He’s still drawing mindless little circles between Steve’s shoulderblades. His soft touch feels maddeningly good. “I’m practically back to normal right now,” Tony says. “Still got the blisters and the dinosaur-fight bruises, but all the weird fever stuff — gone.”
“Then I’m not telling you to go away. I’ll do whatever helps.”
Steve’s going to need some spectacular self control. He can do this. It’s the same as any of the other times Tony’s gotten injured and needed help. Steve’s not going to let himself enjoy Tony feeling terrible. He’s a professional, for Christ's sake.
It turns out that Tony can stay upright as long as Steve keeps a hold of his hand and they don’t stay apart for too long. This lets Steve get some ration packs open and some calories in both himself and Tony, while Tony makes a plan to build a drone that’ll carry a distress beacon far enough away to escape the Savage Land’s long-range signal blackout zone.
The slanting floor is awkward, but Tony figures out how to make a mostly flat workspace. He picks apart the jet’s navigation electronics while he sits in Steve’s lap, his ass tucked up against Steve’s hips and his spine pressed against Steve’s chest. Steve’s saved from considerable embarrassment by the fact that the top half of Tony’s flight suit is bunched up around his hips, and the bulk of the fabric provides a bit of a barrier. Tony shifts and stretches more than seems necessary, but at least Steve isn’t bored.
It’s not that long before night falls and the light from the fire isn’t enough for Tony to work by.
“I guess we should figure out sleeping,” Tony says, patting Steve on the leg. “Which leads to an unavoidable question: big spoon or little spoon?”
“Little spoon,” Steve says immediately. He needs some relief from worrying that he’s going to get hard. With Tony against his back, a little wood in the dark won’t hurt anyone.
Tony twists to raise an amused eyebrow at Steve. “Not what I expected, Winghead.”
“What can I say, I like knowing I’ve got someone covering my six.” Steve’s pretty sure that sounds like a convincing explanation, even though he actually prefers being the big spoon. He knows it’s paternalistic, but he likes feeling like he’s protecting whoever he’s sleeping with. It helps him relax, having someone safe in his arms.
“I’ve always got your back,” Tony promises, and Steve aches with how much he’d do for the man pressed against him.
Tony is a pleasant sleeping companion. He doesn’t kick or put cold feet on Steve’s calves, and he stays relatively still. That doesn’t keep Steve from staying awake deep into the night.
Outside the ripped-up cargo bay, the jungle sings with nocturnal insects and frogs. Steve hears a few familiar, scolding hwees from the little critters that bit Tony on the nose. Tony’s nose, is, notably, pressed into the hair at the base of Steve’s skull, so that his breath tickles across the back of his neck. He’s got one arm slung over Steve, and his hand rests in a loose curl next to Steve’s bicep. Steve wants to take Tony’s hand and lace their fingers together, then tuck their joined hands under his chin, maybe dropping a kiss onto Tony’s knuckles on the way.
It’s a good fantasy. In the dark, Steve can indulge himself. In the fantasy, they’re in a crisply made bed instead of on a lumpy pile of disassembled flight seats. Tony’s skin isn’t slick with sweat, sliding against Steve’s back on each breath. They’re not getting eaten alive by Savage Land-sized mosquitos, and Tony is there because he wants to be, not because it’s this or burning up from mysterious jungle fever.
The fever makes no sense. Concussions don’t present like this. If it’s some kind of pathogen, it’s awfully fast-acting, and doesn’t line up with any infection Steve knows about. Tony hasn’t eaten anything that Steve didn’t share, and if it was some kind of spore Steve should be whammied too — Steve’s well-acquainted with malignant pollens, and sick to death of them.
He tries to sleep and stop cataloging the sensations of lying next to Tony in sort-of-bed. Steve pulls up a memory of a dull morning jog. Innocuous. Boring. No Tony. Imagine jogging. Running in comfortable sweatpants, working up a good sweat, just like the sweat beading on his hot skin and prickling across his back where Tony’s cuddled up to him. After his run he’d find Tony in the kitchen, drinking coffee and nose in a hardware catalog, and strip off his shirt so he was just wearing soft sweats and gym socks, and Tony would smile and grin up at him and throw his arms around Steve’s neck, bare chest to bare chest, just like Tony had been in Steve’s lap, and when Steve asked him what he was looking up Tony would explain it while illustrating his points by drawing quick lines across Steve’s back with his forefinger.
He can imagine it so perfectly, he can imagine —
Steve can imagine a morning jog in the rain. The cold rain. With a rock in his shoe. While late to a meeting, which Tony will not be attending, because Tony looks too good in a suit and if Steve thinks about him right now he’ll never get to sleep, not while he’s this acutely aware of Tony’s skin.
Steve groans and wishes he could scooch away to curl up on his own, to sleep without the maddening itch of Tony so close and still so unobtainable.
Tony shudders in his sleep with a small, pained sound. He presses his thigh against Steve, a little helpless motion like he’s still hurting and his body doesn’t know what to do about it.
Steve immediately feels like a scumbag. He doesn’t need to sleep every night.
He lies carefully still and spends some time — not brooding, Captain America does not brood — strenuously pondering.
Just before the sky should start lightening with dawn, Tony twitches against him. Then he goes still, rigid with wakefulness. Steve’s muscles tighten up in sympathy. Tony’s breaths quicken, then abruptly turn unnaturally slow and even. He’s counting them out, trying to calm his body down.
“Tony?” Steve asks quietly.
“Hell, it’s dark,” Tony whispers. The fire has burned down to ash-covered coals, not nearly enough for Tony to see by. Tony hates the dark.
Without thinking about it, Steve rolls over to take Tony in his arms. Tony shivers and melts into him, his fingers finding Steve’s hand and squeezing hard.
Steve bundles Tony close, and catches himself almost dropping a kiss on Tony’s shoulder. He freezes just in time, seizing control from his stupid, smitten reflexes. He quickly recovers and lays his cheek against Tony’s soft hair, safer ground.
Tony notices Steve’s twitch and makes a nervous, inquisitive noise.
“It’s okay,” Steve says, low and reassuring. “It’ll be dawn soon.”
Tony nods jerkily, in a way that indicates he’s hearing but not agreeing. Maybe the fever is getting worse and Tony needs more contact, and it’s heightening his nerves.
“Will more skin contact help?” Steve asks. “I can take off these pants, if it helps.”
Tony seems to think about that for a while. Steve takes the time to realize what a stupid thing he’s said. He’s going to have all of Tony laid out against him, a hot naked stripe from throat to ankle. There’ll be nothing between them but Steve’s briefs and whatever Tony wears under that flight suit. Steve hopes Tony wears something under the flight suit. Too late to take it back now — Steve’s going to have to live with the consequences. He waits for Tony to decide, stomach in knots.
“Yeah,” Tony says. “Yes, please.” He sounds almost guilty.
Steve doesn’t know what to make of that — Tony’s not doing anything wrong. He’s sick; Steve is the one taking advantage of his illness, secretly enjoying every touch and hoarding memories that he’ll take out whenever he wants to imagine Tony loving him back.
Awkwardly, Steve shoves his pants down, kicking them over his ankles. Tony does the same with the lower half of his thin black bodysuit. Tony wiggling to get the stretchy fabric over his hips and thighs is almost beyond Steve’s ability to cope.
Luckily, Tony does seem to wear undergarments with his getup. He shivers as Steve tucks his knees up against him. Steve, unable to help himself, insinuates his thigh between Tony’s, earning himself a sigh of satisfaction and relief.
“Shhhh,” Steve says, gentle against the curve of Tony’s neck. “I’ve got you.” He’ll have Tony any way Tony will allow. And if he treasures this more than he should, at least Tony will never know how he feels.
Steve wakes up to more shrieking from those goddamned little squirrely things.
He’s surprised he managed to sleep, but he must have drifted off soon after pulling Tony into his arms. Tony’s still dozing, but starting to stir thanks to the squabbling animals outside. He sighs and snuggles closer to Steve, inadvertently making Steve’s heart clench.
Tony turns his head, eyes sleepy and still mostly closed, just a glimmer of blue peeking through his lashes. “Mornin’, beautiful,” he says muzzily.
Steve can’t breathe — the endearment on Tony’s lips is sweet and easy, the kind of automatic, comfortable thing you say when you’ve been going steady for a long time. More than anything, Steve wants to kiss Tony; he could, Tony’s so close and relaxed, he’d barely have to tilt his head. If he tricks his brain into ignoring the consequences for one disastrous, impulsive second, he could just —
Tony comes awake fully and claps a hand over his mouth.
“Sorry, sorry!” Tony says, scooting away. “Uh — reflex, morning brain, stupid — I really didn’t mean to say that.”
Tony didn’t mean it. Steve knows that — knew it before Tony even apologized. Tony would never want to wake up tangled up with Steve; they’re teammates, co-leaders, and that’s it. It has to be enough for Steve.
Steve forces himself to smile and sit up, clapping a hand on Tony’s shoulder to keep contact so Tony doesn’t make himself sick.
“It’s okay,” Steve says. “Honest mistake. It’s been a pretty confusing twenty-four hours.”
“Yeah,” Tony says quietly, blowing out a shaky breath. “Confusing.”
Tony feels significantly better now that it’s morning. A few tests confirm that he can be left alone long enough for Steve to take care of his personal business without Tony tagging along. Steve’s even able to make a few trips across the field they’d crashed in to collect firewood. Maybe whatever it is is starting to wear off, or spending a whole night pressed up against Steve let Tony build up a surplus. No matter the reason, it’s a relief. Tony’s not as sick, and Steve gets a break from feeling like Tantalus in the underworld.
Steve returns with one last armful of firewood to find that Tony’s put the undersuit back on, although he’s left it unzipped in the back.
“Could you — keep a hand between my shoulder blades or something?” Tony asks tentatively. “I don’t think I’ll need much more than that. I’d say we could just hold hands, but I’m going to need both of mine to work on this drone.”
“Sure, of course,” Steve says, sitting down next to Tony and spreading his palm against Tony’s spine. Tony’s muscles unclench under Steve’s hand, and Steve suspects Tony is overstating his recovery rate to save Steve from having to cuddle him all morning. Little does he know.
“It’s going to be boring,” Tony says, apologetic.
Steve shrugs and makes himself comfortable, deciding to sit cross-legged, facing out towards the jungle. Maybe he can do some birdwatching. Tony mutters to himself, occasionally swearing at the bits of electronics he’s piecing together, a comforting background murmur. Steve’s used to sitting in Tony’s workshop, idly drawing while Tony fabricates.
Steve ends up watching the noisy squirrel-creatures. Now that he has more time to consider them, they look more like a cross between a guinea pig and a marmoset. They tear back and forth across the clearing, squalling.
There seem to be two tribes of them warring over possession of a fig tree. One troop of creatures occupies the branches, while the other lays siege. The invading troop advances, sneaking through the tall grass, bok-ing small instructions to each other, until the other troop notices swarms down the tree trunk after them.
Steve notices a particularly valiant critter on the attacking side. He has white stripes on the sides of his face and a scar over one eye; Steve decides to call him Fury.
Fury climbs a nearby tree and shimmies out along a branch as far as he can get. Then he leaps, just barely catching the tip of a branch on the fig tree. The tree’s residents don’t notice Fury until he’s almost to the trunk. Then there’s a pitched battle. Fur flies, hwee-tch-tches echo, and even Tony looks up to see what all the fuss is about.
Thirty seconds of fuzzy violence later, the fight abruptly quiets. Fury’s still in the fig tree, but the other creatures back off, watching him from a few feet away. He licks his paw, cleaning a small wound.
Below, his friends go bok in concern, but are too cowed to rescue him.
Fury wobbles and makes a sad little cry. The fig-tree troop advances on him again, and Steve winces, expecting a massacre. Instead, they cuddle up to him, grooming his head and chittering softly. Fury chitters back.
“Huh,” Tony says.
A few minutes later, Fury’s troop tries to rush the tree again, but this time Fury joins forces with the fig tree’s residents, chasing his old pals away.
“They — converted him,” Steve says.
“He got bitten on the foot, did you notice that?”
Tony had also been bitten. It makes a weird sort of sense. “Do you think these things have, what, cuddle venom?” Steve asks.
“Psychochemical warfare,” Tony says, his brows knitting together. “Could be a smart strategy. Make your enemies into friends by biological brute force.”
“So you — “
Tony nods. “Explains a lot, really. I guess I’m lucky it’s not species-specific, or I would have spent last night snuggled up to a tree-tribble.”
“Better than the world’s weirdest concussion,” Steve says. He’s not sure if he’s thankful they’ve figured out the cause or worried. The venom changed rodent-Fury’s allegiances; what if it affected Tony in more ways than just needing some skin-on-skin time? Steve doesn’t want Tony to be coerced into friendship with him because of jungle-rat chemicals.
“I expect it’ll work through my system on its own,” Tony says. “You’ll be free of me soon.”
I don’t ever want to be free of you, Steve thinks. But it’s not like he can say that.
Tony’s busy and quiet until Steve chivvies him into eating lunch.
They have to eat one at a time, because either Steve needs to use one hand to touch Tony’s back or Tony needs to touch Steve somewhere. While Steve works his way through some lackluster chicken teriyaki, Tony’s hand rests on the back of his neck, which is one of the few places left bare by his uniform.
Tony’s telling Steve something about the drone, but Steve isn’t able to pay more than cursory attention because Tony’s fingers keep brushing over the buzzed hair at the base of his skull. If Tony were to kiss him, he would pull Steve close with a touch just like this. All Steve can think about is Tony’s mouth.
Tony doesn’t even know he’s doing it. He’s describing the helicopter blades on his spectacular flying radio gizmo. There’s four of them. That’s pretty much all Steve has the presence of mind to gather.
A particularly delicate caress of Tony’s thumb over the soft skin behind Steve’s ear makes him shiver noticeably.
Tony stops explaining instantly and pulls away with a guilty flinch. “Did I — I’m sorry, you’ve been quiet this whole time, I thought you just really liked heat-stabilized chicken and rice — I didn’t realize you were uncomfortable.”
Steve doesn’t know how to correct Tony without giving himself away completely. “It’s fine, I promise,” he says.
“It’s really not,” Tony says wretchedly, because, of course, he’s miserable over having to touch Steve this much. Of course he assumes Steve feels the same way. Tony is being a professional and dealing with this predicament without complaint, and it’s just Steve’s useless feelings messing it up.
Tony rubs at his forehead, avoiding the big bruise at his hairline. He hasn’t been getting enough contact while they eat, Steve suspects, and is paying for it with a headache. Tony’s trying to spare Steve by gritting through extra pain.
If only he knew.
“Fess up, Stark, it’s not going to get easier,” Tony mutters to himself. Then he drags both hands down his face and sighs.
Steve stabs his plastic combo-utensil into what’s left of his MRE. It sags slowly from vertical to horizontal, gravity winning against glop. Here it comes — Tony’s going to tell him how uncomfortable this whole thing is and apologize for the entire thing.
“Last night,” Tony begins, avoiding Steve’s eyes, “when I said more skin contact would help and made you take your pants off, I was taking advantage.”
That’s not right — Steve’s the one taking advantage. Why does Tony think —
“You’ve been so damn decent throughout this whole thing; you deserve the truth. You were right there, and I’d had a horrible dream, and I’m so weak. So I lied. I wasn’t feeling feverish, actually — I just wanted you to touch me more.”
Tony swallows. Steve doesn’t understand. Why — why would Tony — and then it clicks into place.
“That’s not your fault,” Steve says, reaching out to rub Tony’s back. “It’s got to be another side effect of the venom. It doesn’t just make you need touch, it makes you like the person touching you. That’s how they keep their converts from just switching sides again when the effects wear off.”
He expects this to make Tony relax, but instead Tony’s jaw clenches and his lips thin. Tony stares out into the jungle for a long moment, then comes to some sort of decision. He lets out a breath — a soft little hah — and sags forward, tucking his knees up so he can rest his elbows on them. Steve lets his hand drop as Tony pulls away.
Tony turns his head towards Steve, bites his lip, and then looks down at his feet again. “That’s a pretty good hypothesis,” he says. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t align with the data.”
“What data?” Steve asks.
“Well,” Tony says ruefully, “I got bit less than 24 hours ago, and I’ve wanted you to hold me like that for years.”
Steve’s heart freezes in his chest. Tony doesn’t — he can’t — but he’s looking up at Steve now, face a complicated mix of sadness, shame, and stifled desire.
“Embarrassing, right? Local man nurses crush on national hero for a decade, secret outed by venomous Furby. I’m aware that it’s stupid and unwelcome.”
Unwelcome isn’t the word Steve would pick right now. If Tony is saying what Steve thinks he’s saying — that changes everything. But he has to be sure. “So this whole time — you were enjoying this?” he asks.
“It sounds even worse when you say it like that,” Tony groans. “God, this is mortifying.”
Steve welds his courage to the sticking place and touches Tony again, lightly resting his hand over Tony’s shoulderblade. Tony’s head whips up, mouth still screwed up in embarrassment.
Steve strokes down Tony’s spine, staring into Tony’s eyes and searching for permission. Steve trembles with the desire to shuck Tony out of his jumpsuit and touch him everywhere. Steve can’t help himself as his hand reaches the top of Tony’s half-undone zipper. He unzips Tony, slowly enough that he hears the click of individual zipper teeth as he goes.
Tony’s expression falls open. His lips part, cheeks flushing, and takes a small, halting breath. Steve dares to dip his fingers under Tony’s jumpsuit. He skates up over Tony’s ribs, making his intentions more than clear.
“Steve?” Tony whispers, barely audible.
“It’s been torture, being able to touch you everywhere knowing I could never have you like this,” Steve says roughly.
Then he leans in close to Tony and tips Tony’s face toward him with a hand on his jaw. Tony’s eyes are bright and wide. Steve ghosts his thumb over Tony’s lower lip, which is plush and vulnerable under his touch. Steve feels like he’s made of spun sugar.
Tony strokes up Steve’s chest and grasps the back of his neck with both hands. Then he’s turning his head so their noses don’t bump and fitting his mouth over Steve’s.
Steve kisses him back. Tony’s mouth is soft and insistent, and Steve melts into him. All the other thoughts in Steve’s head are drowned out by amazement that he has Tony in his arms, for real this time.
“We’re so stupid,” Tony tells him, in between kisses. “So unforgivably, monumentally stupid.”
“No, you’re brilliant,” Steve disagrees, pulling Tony into his lap.
“I spent years not kissing you,” Tony says. “It took being bitten by a wild animal, Steve. I’m as dumb as a poisonous chipmunk.”
Steve isn’t having this argument when he could be touching Tony. He manhandles Tony until he’s settled straddling Steve’s hips, and Steve can finally do what he wanted to do the night before. He pulls Tony close by the waist until his pelvis is tucked up against Steve’s. He grinds up a bit, and Tony shuts up. Usually Steve loves Tony’s voice, but he appreciates the silence because it means Steve can kiss him more.
Steve peels Tony out of the top half of his undersuit, turning the sleeves inside-out as they roll down Tony’s biceps. Tony yanks his hands free of the spandex and sticks them up Steve’s shirt, rucking it up to expose Steve’s stomach. Then Tony kisses him wet and open, and Steve arches, gasping inarticulately against Tony. Tony’s making up for all the chaste touches earlier, hands hot on Steve’s skin, and Steve thinks he might dissolve.
They neck like that, cramped and awkward on the slanted floor of the crashed jet, for probably half an hour. Steve’s lips are scraped tender from rubbing against Tony’s beard. He knows what Tony’s mouth tastes like, knows the texture of the back of his teeth.
Tony pushes Steve back until he’s lying flat-ish on the lumpy nest of dismantled seats, then stretches out on top of him like Steve is a sweaty mattress. One of his knees tucks between Steve’s legs, and he rests his cheek on Steve’s pecs, sighing in contentment.
“How’s the headache?” Steve asks, then drops a kiss on one of Tony’s cowlicks, because apparently he can do that now.
“Mmmmmm, gone,” Tony says. “Cuddle-poison satisfied. We really should get up and do some wilderness survival activities — you know, boy scout stuff — boil some water, make a bow and arrow out of a branch and a shoelace, practice knots.”
“I wasn’t a boy scout, you know,” Steve says. “Everyone always assumes, but if I had an extra quarter a month I was gonna go see the pictures, not pay troop dues.”
Tony traces circles on Steve’s chest with a fingertip, looking up at him through his lashes. “Well, if you’re not going to go put that log in your campfire —”
Steve feels himself blush all the way down to his collarbones, and kicks Tony gently in the ankle. Tony chuckles and smushes his face into the crook of Steve’s neck. “Okay, okay,” he says, still laughing.
“Maybe...later,” Steve says, which makes Tony tip his head up and kiss him, smiling the whole time.
Steve knows that Tony’s truly set back to rights when he starts complaining again. He scolds the motor he scavenged from the jet’s windshield wipers for being inefficient. The Savage Land’s upsettingly large bug population gets thoroughly groused at, and then threatened with chemical warfare.
It’s hard for Steve not to feel like he’s digging a hole without calling the municipality to check for pipes and live wires first. The rules around Tony are all new now. He’s been evaluating every touch for how appropriate it was between friends for so long that now he has no idea what to do with his hands.
Tony doesn’t seem too bothered. He bumps shoulders with Steve while he works, and uses him as a step-stool whenever he needs to reach something in the overhead cargo bins.
At least Steve no longer feels bad for sneaking looks at Tony’s ass whenever he bends over.
Tony bends over more than Steve thinks is strictly mandated by the work he’s doing, and also does a lot of long stretches. The only thing that saves Steve from saying hell with waiting for later is Peter’s voice crackling over the downed jet’s comms system, and contact with the rest of the Avengers is restored.
While Steve was snuggling with Tony, the other Avengers had fallen into a pit trap and were having a spirited fight with what Peter describes as weird, smart eels that could scream, like, so many eels, Cap.
Steve gives them bearings to the jet’s location. It might not fly, but it’s shelter, free from booby traps, and Steve wants his team together again.
Also, having Wolverine nearby will dissuade me from thinking about anyone in a carnal fashion.
“Do you think anyone is going to ask about the damage to my handsome nose?” Tony asks, prodding at it as he tries to see his reflection in the warped metal of the jet’s fuselage. It’s a bit swollen, with four pinprick scabs from the creature’s canines.
“It’s fine,” Steve says. “Everyone will assume it’s just another one of those vile mosquito bites everyone gets out here.”
“That everyone gets except you,” Tony says, flicking Steve in the bicep. “I can’t believe even bugs don’t dare to mar your perfect skin.”
“Do you want me to kiss it better?”
“Yes,” Tony says, pouting.
It’s not like Steve has the heart to deny him.