It was like waking up from one of those dreams where he thought he was in the cave again, that his chest was a gaping hole with nothing to fill it, rusty parts all around him, abandoned just like him.
Then he saw Pepper, sensed her.
And then she fell and was gone. Dead.
But she had never said those words, Tony recalled that. Only her eyes…
It was Rogers, not Pepper. The words jarred him, shoving at him hard and he struggled back to the surface, finding that the Tesseract wasn’t paying attention, too focused, not believing Tony had the fight left in him to challenge his control over the body they had shared for long weeks.
He saw Rogers – Steve – his face bloody, bleeding all over, suit torn, just… standing there like he was going to fall down, blue eyes staring at him although they didn’t see Tony, but Tony could see him, clearly, and heard the finality in his words.
Like he was saying goodbye.
Like Yinsen, in the cave. Yinsen who had wanted it, craving death when he had nothing else left, his family dead and gone, but Steve had so much to live for, a new family growing around him, and frankly, they would all be fucked without him.
“It is time to die, human.”
He heard that too, but didn’t feel his lips moving. It wasn’t his body, not really, and he couldn’t stop it when the blue light began to engulf them both, searing through Steve’s skin, burning, destroying, and he cried out in pain, a sound so pure and horrifying Tony wanted to go back to that dark corner of his mind and never come out.
Only, he never did what may have been the easy way, contrary to what he said to other people. Sometimes simple things were better than elaborate ones – and this was very simple indeed – but at the same time it was the hardest thing he had ever done. An impossible thing: to save Steve when his own body wasn’t his to command.
That was the beauty of it, in the end. Tony didn’t think he could do it, which meant he tried even harder, quietly absorbing the pain, enduring and surviving, slipping to the surface after counting the steps he didn’t know or hadn’t seen before, but which resembled closely the pattern out of the cave – and with a gasp he let Steve go, watching him fall to the ground, the severed contact making the energy simmer and fade.
‘This body is mine,’ the Tesseract announced.
“Too bad I’m cutting the lease short,” Tony managed, then lifted a hand to his chest, refusing to think about it in case he would be too afraid not to. But it wasn’t about fear anymore. It was about Steve standing there, bleeding and being fried to death, not lifting a hand to hurt him. Choosing Tony’s life over his own.
A twist, a tap, a jerk and the arc reactor clattered to the ground.
Sharp pain exploded through him, then an intense, growing discomfort he had known a few times before, his legs giving out on him, body too tired to move, going into shock. The arc reactor glowed, pulsing with energy, then from it and his body rose a blue glow, the Cube emerging once again in its usual form, crashing to the floor a moment later.
Tony kicked it further away for good measure, then jerked his head, looking at Steve. “Hey, Rogers?” he asked, voice cracking.
The blue eyes were open just a little, bloodshot and tired, his chest barely moving while Tony’s own was moving too much. He couldn’t feel the shrapnel moving, of course not, but he could imagine them luring their way into his heart, which made it worse. Now that he was here, he decided he didn’t want to die alone.
“Steve,” he gasped, inching closer, reaching out an arm – when had he gotten hurt? there were small bleeding cuts all over him – and touched the gloved hand. Some of the material had ripped or burned away and he found skin, raw and bloody and stained but he didn’t care; it was human contact and Steve’s fingers curled against his own, holding him while their eyes locked until Steve’s eyelids began to droop.
“Steve. Rogers. Cap!” Tony tried luring him out of it, to keep him with him. “Hang on. The others will… I don’t want to do this alone,” he admitted, voice breaking.
Steve didn’t open his eyes and Tony decided there was no point keeping his own open, his body jerking faintly, perhaps going further into shock. He would black out which would be nice compared to being awake while his heart stopped beating.
He heard steps once the world had gone dark beneath his eyelids. Maybe it was the moment he closed them, or hours or days later, but there were voices, and someone touched him, calling his name – Rogers’ name – and he would have loved to reply but he was starting to fall into that corner again, far away from everything and everyone, and he no longer felt Steve’s hand gripping his.
Tony came to with a gasp, hating every second of it. There was that pressure in his nose, in his throat, that uncomfortable feeling as he swallowed and swallowed again. He tried to sit up, tried to take it out, but it was too bright and warm and it didn’t smell like rock and earth and blood –
“Tony!” Bruce’s voice called out, making him jerk. “You need to lie back, you’re not ready to… move around so much.”
A hand on his shoulder, pushing him back, and Tony blinked several times to make sense of his surroundings. His eyes flew to his chest, though, no matter how much Bruce tried to hold him back. He grimaced, but it wasn’t bad.
“We’re still trying to locate a spare to replace the arc reactor you took out,” Bruce said, hurried but calm. “We were… leery of putting back the one you had in you while the Tesseract was around.”
Tony nodded jerkily, leaning back. It was just the empty ring of metal and some wires stuck down it, probably to serve as a electromagnet in the absence of the actual arc. He took a moment to look around, recognizing S.H.I.E.L.D. quarters immediately. “J.A.R.V.I.S.?” he called out shakily.
“Sir, I am most relieved at your recovery. May I congratulate you on your success for removing the alien entity from your body?”
“Later, J. Right now I need you to tell whoever is at my place trying to dig for another arc reactor where to find the spare unit,” Tony told his AI.
Bruce looked at the ceiling where the speakers were located with a half-smile. “I was wondering whether he had already hacked his way into this building as well,” he mused after he deemed Tony was done.
“Payback for their continuous visits to my private property,” Tony shrugged, wincing a little. His body hurt all the way, like some dull ache that didn’t actually bother him before he moved. As if someone had completely drained him and then had him run a marathon anyway. “How’s… everyone?” he asked next.
“What do you remember of the fight?” Bruce asked in return.
Tony cringed. “There was a fight?”
Bruce nodded. “Well, I didn’t think you were actively involved… The other guy got knocked out in the beginning. I think he’s a bit resentful about that but is glad that you’re back now; Thor is fine with some of his pride battered; Clint had a minor injury to his left eye and its surroundings but it will be healing well; Natasha has some bruises and injured ribs to nurse.”
Tony could easily count he had not included one member of the team – the only part Tony could remember. “What about Steve?”
Bruce sighed and sat down on the edge of the bed. He looked worn out and had that tension in his brow that spoke of a nasty headache – no doubt thanks to the Cube. “He’s recovering. You can see him later if you feel up to it.”
“I feel up to it now,” Tony reassured him.
Bruce smiled tiredly and shook his head. “Not before the new arc arrives, at least.”
Tony knew Bruce would just tie him down or sedate him so he didn’t press it. He actually drifted off again, awakened by Thor’s unmistakable voice. He stirred, looking up, finding the God of Thunder standing there with Loki.
“I see you have awakened,” Thor announced needlessly. “How do you feel?”
“I’ve been worse,” Tony admitted. His eyes moved to Loki. “Why is he still here?”
“We wanted to make sure you were all well before we returned home,” Thor replied.
“Thor had a liking to spend some more time with his… lady friend,” Loki added, clearly editing whatever he had originally planned on saying to please his adopted brother more.
Thor nodded enthusiastically, a dreamy look on his face, but he wiped it away while regarding Tony once again. “The Tesseract will be in safe hands, Tony Stark.”
Tony swallowed and nodded. “I… appreciate that.” Thor didn’t look like he had gotten a beating but Tony felt like he still should apologize. He got as far as opening his mouth before Thor clasped his shoulder in his mighty grip.
“Worry not, my friend; it was not you who attacked us. We all know this to be true.”
“Thanks,” Tony said.
“Oh, look who’s here,” Barton’s voice snapped from the door and he moved in, half of his face bandaged.
Tony grimaced. “I’m sorry?” he offered because forgiveness might not come so quickly from this guy, especially if his eye didn’t heal as expected.
“You owe me arrows, Stark,” Barton told him. “I’ll give you some ideas once you don’t have tubes going into places people shouldn’t insert things in.”
“Very creative, Clint,” Romanoff commented from somewhere behind Thor’s broad shoulders.
“He looks disgusting,” the archer defended his observation.
“Come on, ray of sunshine,” she ordered and Barton stalked out, stopping once he was almost out of Tony’s line of sight.
“Glad to have you back, by the way,” the archer added and disappeared.
Loki had raised an eyebrow, looking somewhat amused, then offered Tony a wry smile when their eyes met. “I can see where my presence isn’t desired,” he noted.
“We should leave you to recover,” Thor nodded. “Banner said you should rest.”
Tony didn’t argue just to see Loki leave. He hoped he would be okay to suit up before they left, just to give the god one more ass-kicking even if this may have not been his fault; even so, Tony had no intentions of not blaming him.
He laid back only to see Bruce come in a moment later, a box in hand. “This is it, I hope. J.A.R.V.I.S. told the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents you would know the code to open it.”
Tony motioned him to bring it over. Lying his hand flat over one blank side, another revealed a digital panel and he punched in the code. It opened to reveal a perfectly operational spare arc reactor, fitted to go into his chest. It was slightly different from the ones in his suit, but only in ways Tony could understand.
Bruce carefully maneuvered the wires out of Tony’s chest and slid the arc reactor in place, then watched him closely for a minute.
Tony breathed deep and sighed. “Better. Can you take this off now?” he pointed at the NG tube. He hadn’t liked the sensation the first time, nor did he now, but he wasn’t about to cry over it. Once the tube was gone and he couldn’t taste bile in his throat, he sat up a bit, flexing toes and fingers, feeling a bit more alive. “So, Cap?” he reminded the other man
“If you can stand,” Bruce told him.
“First you said I could see him when you brought me a new one of these,” he said, tapping at his chest. “You just keep making things up.”
“I can always put you in a wheelchair and push you,” Bruce offered.
“I’ll walk,” Tony grunted.
It was easier said than done. It took him almost an hour to get to his feet with the way the room kept swaying around him and Bruce made him drink a horribly large glass of water which Tony didn’t want since he had a thing about germs and if it was from the tap it would have them. There were also some other tubes that needed removing, a catheter among them, which usually would have given Tony a chance to comment, but he chose to leave it for later; he wanted to see Steve because his last memory of him wasn’t comforting, so he soldiered on, dressed in a robe Bruce provided him with since the hospital garments were sexy only in porn flicks.
They went down a hall and then stopped outside a room. It had blinds in the window which were slightly open, allowing them to peer in. Steve lay there, unconscious or asleep, very still and looking like he had just crawled out of the battlefield.
“The serum kicked in last night,” Bruce said. “Until then, we weren’t sure if he would make it. Whatever the Tesseract did seemed to affect his healing.”
An uncomfortably large object was inserting itself in Tony’s throat. “He’ll be okay?”
“We expect him to wake up in a day or two if this keeps up,” Bruce nodded, relief on his face. Tony could suddenly picture him dashing back and forth between their rooms, trying to help, trying to will at least one of them to wake up.
“How long has it been?” Tony asked since he had no idea.
“Four days. We were worried about you –”
“Bullshit,” Tony muttered angrily, lying one hand against the cool glass, still staring at Steve’s unmoving face, willing the eyes to open, bloodshot or not. To just look at him and not leave him alone…
“We were,” Bruce disagreed. “The scans showed we got you hooked up in time, that the damage to your heart was minimal at best.”
“No,” Tony shook his head. “That shouldn’t have mattered next to Captain America lying in bed, not healing.”
Bruce was quiet then suddenly Tony felt his hand against his own, the one hanging at his side, limp and weak. Bruce gripped his hand, strong and desperate. “We had half of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s doctors and specialists working on him around the clock, make no mistake. He was in perfect physical condition. You, however, were a wild card, with the Cube and the arc missing…”
“You found it at the scene, right?” Tony suddenly jerked.
“Yes,” Bruce said quickly, knowing what it meant to Tony. They had talked about it once, how Tony didn’t want his tech – that tech – ending up in anyone’s hands but his own. “But we couldn’t risk putting it back into your chest without possible contamination.”
He didn’t ask what kind of contamination he meant; Tony half expected to still hear the Tesseract whispering in the back of his mind. He would probably expect that for a long time still.
“Mr. Stark,” Fury’s voice called from behind them. “I see you’re up and feeling better.”
Tony looked at him, feeling kind of naked dressed in robe and some garments that didn’t count as clothing at all. “Been better. How come there’s no one keeping an eye on Rogers?” he asked then.
Fury peered in. “I thought J.A.R.V.I.S. was taking care of that?”
“He is,” Bruce confirmed. “The others are taking a much-needed break and this is a rare moment when someone isn’t in there. You don’t need to worry.”
Tony sure hoped not. Well, at least he could trust his AI to make a scene if something started going wrong – that much J.A.R.V.I.S. had learned from him.
“I need to talk to you. Now,” Fury went on.
Bruce slowly let go of Tony’s hand with a brief stroke of fingers against the back of his hand.
Tony unwillingly and with zero enthusiasm followed Fury into what seemed like someone else’s office. Maybe Fury didn’t have his own space here – wherever ‘here’ was – or he thought Tony might not survive a trip further away.
After the door closed Fury looked at him, not unlike any of the other staring contests, only today Tony had even less patience for it than usual. It was almost the same as that time at the diner with a killer hangover and palladium poisoning… “What?” he asked in a quick snap.
“I’m glad you’re finally yourself,” Fury said.
Tony raised an eyebrow, leaning against a wall but unwilling to sit down. “Could have told me that in the hallway.”
Fury nodded. “I didn’t think you had it in you, to snap out of it,” he confessed then.
“I’m offended,” Tony quipped then looked to the side. “Frankly, I didn’t… have it in me.”
“Then how did you do it?”
“I figured that Captain America shouldn’t bleed for anyone, and certainly not for me.” That was the truth and while he didn’t always tell Fury the truth, the man must have recognized this as what it was because he nodded and his face looked a bit less tense, if possible.
“The doctors are certain Mr. Rogers will make a full recovery now that he’s finally on the mend.”
“And if he weren’t?”
“No one would have held you responsible.”
Tony scoffed at the words. Right. No one.
“Life’s too short to live based on what ifs,” Fury told him and started back towards the door.
“This was it?” Tony asked, turning much slower than usual.
“I still expect your full cooperation in the repairs of the Helicarrier you almost destroyed, and you also owe me one facility.” And with a whirl of his coat, Fury was gone.
He guessed it could have been worse.
So much worse.
Steve had gotten used to waking up in an instant, his senses on board with his mind, snapped out of sleep. He was usually full of energy and liked to use the quiet morning hours to go for a run or work out in the gym.
This time, however, it felt like he had been ran over by a truck – or what he imagined that would feel like – and all the willingness to even get out of bed, much less go running, were zapped out of him. Feeling so lethargic signaled that something was wrong, reminiscent of the time he woke up after the ice, and he forced his eyes to open to see his surroundings at least.
There was a violent shift beside his head and the scrape of a chair against the floor. He watched as Tony settled himself back down in said chair, looking like he had almost fallen off it. “You shouldn’t scare people like that, Cap,” he told him, holding his chest. The blue glow was visible even through the clothes he was wearing.
Steve moved his eyes upwards, away from the blue – it would take some getting used to – and just stared for a moment.
“Cap?” Tony asked. “Rogers… are you with me? Bruce, is he okay? He doesn’t look okay.”
Another shape moved past Tony and he smelled Banner; spices and tea, the smell of coffee less sharp. It was all coming back to him slowly, sounds and smells, the touch of the hospital bed that made him miss a real mattress.
“He’s been out for almost a week. Give him a moment,” Banner was saying.
“He’s just… staring,” Tony said, his eyes wide, almost afraid.
“Brown,” Steve managed.
“What?” Tony frowned.
Steve shifted his hand – it shouldn’t have been so hard but it felt like it was encased in lead. He managed to lift it towards Tony’s face, then allowed it to fall back down. “Brown,” he repeated. Talking was just at hard as moving his hand.
“I think he means your eyes,” Banner observed. Steve tried to give him a smile of thanks.
“Oh. Right. Yeah, they’re… brown,” Tony shifted uncomfortable. “Do you think he wants me to leave?”
Steve tried to shift, tried to talk, and it really shouldn’t have been so hard.
“Tap your finger,” Banner said. “One for no, two for yes.”
Steve managed the one tap easily.
“No?” Tony observed.
“I don’t think he wants you to leave,” Banner mused. “I’m sure he’s been worried like the rest of us.”
“I almost…” The brown eyes looked accusing for a moment, bright with unshed tears. Steve had seen Tony like this once, when Coulson died. It also reminded him of the time he comforted Tony after he learned about Pepper’s death, only then there were tears, and now Tony was holding back with iron resolve. “What were you thinking, almost getting yourself killed?!” Tony asked then, and it was almost as if he were shouting with the intensity in his voice.
“Saved you,” Steve managed.
“Damn near killed us both,” Tony said, looking away at the medical equipment in the room that had played too big of a role in all their lives recently.
“You can just go back to sleep if you feel like it,” Banner said then. “You’re still recovering, slower than usual.”
Steve looked at Tony, hunched over on his seat, resolutely not looking at him. He remembered that moment dimly, now that he thought about it; Tony pulled the arc reactor from his chest, the sound of it hitting the hard ground and his body collapsing. The Cube materializing above him and falling down – and Tony’s fingers searching for his, asking…
“Stay,” Steve said, voice trembling from something that didn’t have anything to do with the sheer effort of saying the word.
Tony looked at him again, studying his face, then very slowly he reached out and took his hand, hooking their fingers together.
Steve closed his eyes, feeling the small touch – and it was still there when he woke up the next time, feeling much better.
He looked to the side and found Tony slumped down in the chair, asleep, but his hand was still on the bed, holding Steve’s. Banner was seated next to him, glasses on his nose, reading a book. “Banner,” he said as quietly as he could, making the man look up. A brief smile met him and he shut his book and put it to the side along with his glasses.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“Yes,” Steve admitted. “How long was I out?”
“Six days before the first time you stirred. Tony woke up after four. It’s been…” he glanced at a clock on the wall, “nine hours since you last opened your eyes.”
Steve felt a bit bad about that; a small nap should have been enough. “You were here the whole time?”
“Tony was,” Banner told him. “I had to stop by for food, make him eat before he passed out. He’s still recovering. Either the stress, the Tesseract inhabiting his body or the violent way of pushing the Cube out left him with plenty of catching up to do, but I’m sure he’ll be willing to sleep for more than two hours at a time now that you’re awake. We were worried.”
Steve attempted to nod then started testing if everything was working. His flesh still ached all the way down to the bones to be honest, but it was better and he could feel and move everything. “It would seem I have been well taken care of,” he reassured the doctor.
Between them, Tony stirred suddenly, with such a start he almost fell from his chair again, his fingers jerking around Steve’s. He steadied himself fast – something a person with recurring nightmares learned, Steve knew from personal experience – and looked between them, eyes finally settling on Steve. “Feeling better?”
“Good.” Tony shifted, uncertain. “Uh… Bathroom.” He got up slowly then exited the room. He didn’t look like himself, not really, but he was getting there just like the rest of them. Banner looked wearier than he had when they first met, but they had all been through so much, not to mention the last battle.
“How’s the rest of the team?” Steve asked and listened as Banner gave him a list of injuries. It seemed they had been lucky and with the Tesseract carefully contained and soon on its way towards Asgard, Steve felt he might actually be able to relax.
Tony returned, giving a quick rant about the lack of style in S.H.I.E.L.D.-operated hospital bathrooms, then sat down in his chair, fidgeted for a moment to find a good position and settled down.
“We need to talk,” Steve announced then. He knew it could wait, should probably wait, but it was the three of them in the room so it was too convenient to pass up on. Who knew when the next disaster might strike?
“Talk about what?” Banner asked, looking like he expected he should leave.
“Us,” Steve motioned at them all. “I think we all know about what.” Maybe it was the ongoing healing process but he finally felt like he wasn’t blushing at the mere idea of it all.
“Oh,” Banner started then sighed. “Look, guys, I’m just going to gracefully bow out –”
Tony was looking away again, resolutely.
“I think it’s not up to you,” Steve replied.
“No?” Banner asked, sitting up straight. “Then whom?”
“Tony. He started all this.”
“Uh, actually it wasn’t me,” Tony finally looked at them although he seemed to have a hard time deciding which way to go with this.
“The feelings are yours. You just didn’t have the guts to tell us,” Steve reminded him.
“Decency,” Tony argued, “decency to tell you! There’s a difference. Not every wet dream should become reality…”
“Are they just that?”
Steve, frankly, was surprised to hear Banner ask that.
Tony almost flushed, looking uncomfortable. “It wasn’t really me the last few weeks.”
“I think those were the only moments you were yourself,” Steve gave him his opinion.
Tony looked at him, eyes all brown; Steve hadn’t realized how much he missed that, had probably never even realized what color his eyes were before now. “So maybe I was leaning on you two to keep my sanity. Abusing our friendship.”
“You held up pretty well,” Banner noted. “That was the problem; you didn’t want it to end.”
Tony jumped at the slight change of subject. “No. I… wanted it: all the possibilities and chances suddenly within my reach, not to mention understanding something that baffled even our god-like friends – and the power… that was pretty awesome.” He looked at the far wall for a moment as if remembering, his expression falling and his voice with it: “I never wanted to hurt you two. Any of you, but especially you two.”
“We know,” Steve reassured him.
“That was the only thing I was certain about,” Banner agreed.
“So…” Tony hesitated.
“We should give it a shot, now that the Tesseract is gone,” Steve offered, looking at Banner. “Aren’t you tired of running, of being alone?”
“It’s dangerous,” Banner repeated the old warning – which didn’t answer the question, and Steve had seen how he was with Tony.
“Once you start running, you can’t stop,” Steve revisited an old phrase of his. “You have an excellent chance to stop running for a while. You’re part of this team. You could be part of something else, too.”
Banner gave him a look. “You up for that? Polyamory isn’t easy, and you and me would have to… learn to like each other, on a more intimate level, I wager.”
“Well, we have a lot of things in common, one of them being Tony. We could start with that,” Steve nodded. Being with Tony at this point might be easy but he knew he didn’t have the man’s whole heart and he could not push Banner away just because he didn’t feel comfortable with sharing. If they all started this together, there would be less of that.
“Do I get a say in this?” Tony asked.
“You kissed us,” Banner jumped to Steve’s defense. “You started it. Would you please try to enjoy this while we haggle?”
Tony rolled his eyes then sighed, shifted, and took both their hands in his. “You’re making this entirely too difficult. Over-thinking, in my opinion, is a sure way to destroy what would otherwise come naturally.”
“Yes, because I have heard you have such an excellent track record with relationships,” Banner started then seemed to bite his own tongue to stop. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think before I said it.”
“It’s okay,” Tony responded softly, eyes a bit brighter. They both had to be thinking of Pepper, Tony’s one true relationship with another person as far as Steve had understood it.
He squeezed Tony’s hand. “We’ll be here for you even if this thing between us doesn’t work, because there are no guarantees about anything – we’ve all seen that lately. But we can promise each other to give it our all, to try and give each other something we’ve been missing… some longer than others.” Steve, who had never had the chance to be with another person; Banner, who drove himself away from human contact in fear of hurting the ones he cared about; and Tony, who had unintentionally destroyed the person he had tried to love and cherish for the first time in his life.
“Okay,” Banner finally nodded. “I suppose we could give it a shot.”
Tony looked undecided still, gazing down at where he was holding each of their hands in his own. Steve squeezed the one in his and guessed Banner must have done the same since Tony lifted his head to look at them and smiled. “If the man with the plan thinks it’s worth a shot…”
“You’ll owe me a kiss for that,” Steve snapped, but only half-heartedly.
Tony leaned in to pay his debt right away. “I’ll give you so much more than this after you’re out of this bed.”
Banner chuckled beside them then sighed as Tony sort of curled against him, getting comfortable.
It might not be what he had had in mind when he joined the Avengers, and certainly not what was within the realm of possibilities when he first met Tony Stark, but Steve had to admit it could be much, much worse.
Central Park, New York, NY, USA
Bruce watched a very familiar scene unfold, although it had been slightly revised since last time; Thor and Loki were preparing to leave, the Tesseract safely in another capsule. Thor and Jane were extending their farewells, and Loki, unshackled yet still without his powers, kept rolling his eyes like a petulant child while Selvig smiled fondly and Darcy snapped pictures and made comments about how cute they looked together.
Fury had joined them this time, standing off on the side with Agent Hill. S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were spread around – to hold the perimeter no doubt since people hadn’t been strolling by for quite some time.
Bruce, for once, wasn’t wearing Tony’s clothes, although this pair of pants hadn’t been patched from any spot yet. Tony seemed to appreciate that although he wasn’t as immaculate as he had been the last time they stood there to see their Asgardian ally back home; he was dressed smartly in a leather jacket and jeans, a much more relaxed outfit.
Steve stood on Tony’s other side, just as close to him as Bruce on his other, watching with a small, fond smile at the farewells.
“I shall return,” Thor promised Jane, then stepped closer to the strange circle of interesting, complicated ornaments that would help them to get home safely. “My friends,” he nodded at the Avengers, then his eyes rested on the three of them, “I wish you all the happiness.” And with a grin he offered the other end of the capsule to Loki, who took it with as much disdain as last time, and then they were off in a flash of blue.
Steve looked up at the sky, frowning, but seemed happy they were gone. Bruce could agree; blue flashes made him uneasy these days. He might have to meditate for a few weeks to get rid of that edginess.
“So,” Natasha spoke up.
“How does it work, exactly?” Clint chorused.
Steve looked a bit uncomfortable.
Bruce wasn’t sure what to say but it seemed something had given it away.
“We’re still working out the details,” Tony shrugged. “Would you like a memo?”
“Oh, god, no,” Clint backed off in mock horror, shielding his eyes. His face had healed as nicely as could be expected, only small scars visible.
Natasha just nodded before the two of them got into a car. Fury and Hill were already making an exit of their own.
“Well,” Bruce cleared his throat. “Shall we?”
“Anyone in the mood for a little California sun?” Tony asked suddenly. “I want to go to Malibu. We should go to Malibu, right now. Tonight. We could surf in the morning. Have you surfed?” he asked no one in particular, although it was just the three of them present.
“I would like to try,” Steve offered.
“I could just lie in the sun and relax,” Bruce admitted. “Meditate.”
Tony nodded happily and strode back towards his car.
Bruce and Steve exchanged looks before following. There were worse things than flying in a private jet to spend time in Malibu with Tony, learning about this new relationship of theirs that hadn’t really kicked in just yet but was getting there, more each day.
They were starting to act like a team while simultaneously it was beginning to feel like home – a family. Bruce hadn’t had the luxury of a family for a while now and he guessed that part of the reason why they were doing this was that both Tony and Steve shared his longing for one.
Malibu, CA, USA
They arrived late in the evening. Happy Hogan drove them from the airstrip to Tony’s Malibu home – which was more than a house, of course. Steve was looking out the window as they drove through the main gate and up the winding road. There were no trees to obstruct the view once they could see the buildings.
“You used to live here, on your own?” Steve frowned. He probably had some issue about wasting land and living space.
“Pepper lived here, too,” Tony replied in a voice that dropped dangerously by the end of the sentence, making him clear his throat. He had feared this, dreaded it might come up, and when the car stopped and they all piled out, he took a deep breath as he just looked at the house.
“Everything alright, Mr. Stark?” Happy asked formally.
“Yeah, thanks, Happy,” Tony gave him a quick smile and turned around to see that Bruce and Steve were already at the trunk of the car, getting their things out, rendering Happy completely useless.
Once the car had disappeared down the road they walked over to the main doors. J.A.R.V.I.S. opened them before Tony could even think of keys – did he have keys? He was pretty sure Pepper used to have keys. Tony just never used them because he had J.A.R.V.I.S. for that.
Bruce and Steve looked around for a moment, admiring the view. Tony just hung back watching the two of them, feeling a strange weight shifting around between his stomach and throat. Anticipation, for sure… Things were finally starting to feel normal which meant they could focus on their polyamory issue.
If it were only sex… But no: it was two people who were important to him and there was no room for errors, especially where Bruce was concerned. Steve might be able to take some bumps and bruises that were guaranteed on Tony Stark’s Rollercoaster of Romantic Entanglements, but Bruce was already looking spooked, sensing what coming out here entailed.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. acknowledged his arrival. “Welcome home.”
“Thanks, J,” Tony mused. “Guys,” he called out to the other two, “I’m gonna head down to the workshop for a moment.”
“It’s late,” Steve hurried to reply before he could turn and run down the stairs. “Shouldn’t we eat and go to bed?”
Bruce nodded his agreement although surely he wasn’t hungry after the take-out they had scarfed down on the plane. Steve, on the other hand, was always hungry between his super-fast metabolism and compulsive exercising.
“Okay, fine,” Tony said, turning back around towards the kitchen. He trusted that someone had ordered food so that they wouldn’t starve.
“We’ll go and see your workshop tomorrow,” Bruce told him as he followed Tony into the kitchen, knowing exactly what it meant for Tony to be back to his roots here.
Steve dug into the fridge and sure enough pulled food out and over to the table and made them all sandwiches – of which he would end up eating most since Tony and Bruce just couldn’t put away that much food.
“Who did the shopping?” Steve mused while he was slicing some red pepper.
“I did, Captain Rogers. Is there something missing? I shall have it delivered tomorrow morning.”
“No, it’s fine, JA.R.V.I.S. Thank you,” Steve smiled a bit bashfully. “I was just about to say that whoever did the shopping has an excellent idea of what we like to eat.”
Tony rolled his eyes just a bit. Of course Steve would be thankful to find anything at all waiting for them here, and that J.A.R.V.I.S. had kept track of everything they – or Steve – ate back in New York. He wasn’t sure but perhaps his AI would be blushing if his programming allowed it.
“You are most welcome, Captain Rogers.”
Steve smiled and went back to decorating the bread with veggies then carried three plates to the table and put everything away before seating himself beside Tony and Bruce. They ate in silence, staring out the wide windows to the sea that had swallowed the sun a few hours ago. When Bruce and Tony had stopped eating and allowed the rest of their portions to sit unattended, Steve finished his and then continued to wolf down the leftovers.
“Stuffed?” Bruce asked with a fond smile when Steve finished with a satisfied sigh.
“For a while,” the super-soldier nodded.
“Shall we get settled?” Tony asked and they got up. Steve insisted on putting away the dishes before they left the kitchen area, so Tony had to show him to the dishwasher or otherwise the man would be washing the dishes by hand. That had been known to happen. How he ever had had time to go to war with all his housecleaning habits was beyond Tony’s comprehension, but he guessed Steve had also had a lot less stuff to keep clean back in his time. Or maybe it was some kind of stress thing now that the war was over and they didn’t fight bad guys around the clock.
Tony showed them to the master bedroom then suddenly hesitated. “Did you want your own rooms? That can be arranged, I’m just not sure if they’re ready.”
“They are, in case you require them,” J.A.R.V.I.S. supplied.
“Okay, good,” Tony shifted. “Or you can have guest houses. It doesn’t matter. Whatever you want and are comfortable with.”
Bruce turned and sat down on the bed as if testing it, then lay down with a satisfied sigh, hands crossed beneath his head as he looked at the ceiling, then moved his eyes to them. “I’m comfortable here.”
“It’s a big bed,” Steve agreed, putting down his duffle bag.
“Okay,” Tony parroted himself. He had never been so nervous in his own bedroom before, but then, this wasn’t just some random person he would kick out in the morning – or would have Pepper kick out, or J.A.R.V.I.S.
The empty ache in his chest threatened to make him sick.
“It’s okay,” Bruce noted from the bed. “We can just sleep.”
Tony’s attention perked up at that. “You were planning on something other than sleep?” he asked suspiciously.
Bruce allowed an uncertain smile to cross his face. “I know we’re all tired from the trip, but this is also the first chance we’ve had at having complete privacy, away from prying eyes and wandering teammates. And we’ve waited long enough.”
Steve looked around the room and nodded absently, then seemed a bit uncomfortable. “Is there some kind of thread we’ll follow?”
Precious Cap, wanting a plan even in bed; Tony would have laughed if he didn’t feel so giddy. After all, not in a million years had he expected Bruce to make the first move, but maybe it was fitting since they had been waiting for him to get comfortable.
Bruce raised an eyebrow at Tony, issuing a challenge for him to move, and Tony slowly got on top of the bed, straddling Bruce’s waist, then leaned down to kiss him. Bruce’s arms moved around him into a loose embrace, one hand sliding under the hem of his shirt to tease the skin. Tony returned the favor by undoing Bruce’s pants. Body heat met his questing fingers and Bruce’s hardness strained against the touch.
“Wait,” Bruce sighed, trying to roll to the side. “I brought something…”
Tony scooted up so that Bruce could reach his bag. He pulled out a cardboard box – condoms. “I would have had a few lying around,” Tony noted.
“Yeah, but I went for extra thick and strong – my blood is dangerous, so I’m not taking any risks,” Bruce announced then handed one of the foil packets to Tony. “That doesn’t mean I’m willing to go all the way, mind you, but… I would love your hands.”
“You can have any part of me you want, Doc, including my hands,” Tony promised as he leaned in to kiss him again, then had to draw back to slide the condom on him.
Bruce’s eyes flew over his shoulder. “Steve,” Bruce said calmly, voice warm, “you don’t have to stand there all night.”
Tony could sense Steve jerking into movement without even directly looking at him; he felt the man’s warmth behind him, the bed dipping. Bruce scooted farther onto the mattress, toeing off shoes and socks, and Tony followed him, condom in place, hand caressing. He felt Steve’s hands on his hips, uncertain but wanting to touch.
“Do you want him to?” Bruce asked Tony, and he was not the least bit confused as to what he meant.
“Yes, if you don’t mind,” Tony replied.
Bruce kissed him briefly then looked at Steve. “Would you like to make love to Tony?”
Tony rolled his eyes at how romantic Bruce had to make it sound, but perhaps that was what Steve needed to hear in order to comprehend what he was being asked to do.
“If he wants me to, I would love to,” Steve answered as if he hadn’t already heard Tony’s answer.
“This is starting to sound like one of those cheap women’s novels,” Tony complained. “Rogers, take off my pants. Bruce, lie back down,” he ordered.
Bruce leaned back, grinning, then changed his mind and pushed his hands under Tony’s shirt to tug it off him, then pulled off his own. Steve took that moment to almost completely unbalance Tony as he tried to get his pants off and Tony had to get off Bruce in order to get rid of the constricting clothing.
“Better,” he huffed, settling back down. Bruce had kicked off his own pants, flushing a little under the scrutiny, but they had all seen him naked in his post-Hulk state so it wasn’t anything unusual. Only he was aroused; that was new, and Tony liked it.
“Easy,” Bruce huffed in his ear as Tony resumed his strokes.
“What should I do?” Steve asked from behind him.
“Lube’s in the bedside drawer, I think. Get busy,” Tony instructed.
Steve located the tube but looked undecided as he hovered next to them.
“Let me,” Bruce said. “I can do that.”
Tony’s breath hitched just a little.
“Just tell me what to do,” Steve insisted, clearly not wanting to be left with nothing to do.
“Do what I do,” Bruce told him. “Tony, move a bit, will you?” he said, tugging his hips further up his body, making it a bit awkward for Tony to reach his cock but they managed.
Bruce’s fingers were certain – a doctor’s fingers.
When joined with Bruce’s, Steve’s fingers stretched him a bit too fast and made Tony stop moving other than to breathe carefully, riding out the initial discomfort. Then Steve kissed him, turning his head with his free hand – he had a bit of lube on his fingers which smeared around Tony’s ear and in his hair – and breathing wasn’t the key after all when it came to relaxing, the pain turning into relaxed pleasure.
Bruce moaned then guided Tony’s hand back to his flesh. “Don’t hurry it, but… touch me, please,” he whispered as Tony shifted to reach him better and Steve drew away from his lips to move behind him. Tony wasn’t sure what he had imagined would happen once he got past kissing, touching and humping, but it hadn’t been this. Not Bruce beneath him, watching his face as Steve joined their bodies together, gentle yet firm, clearly not knowing his own strength for once and Tony loved that more than he could put into words. He simply moaned and Bruce kissed him while Steve’s hand settled on his chest, probably trying to find his heart but connecting with the arc reactor instead.
Tony froze then bucked back.
Steve’s hand stayed there for the rest of the sex, only to be joined by Bruce’s when the man came undone beneath them, drawing in careful breaths of air to hold onto that thread of control. There was not even a single flash of green in his eyes.
Steve had stamina, no one could doubt that, but this was his first time and he perhaps got a little excited inside although he kept it cool on the outside, puffing air against the back of Tony’s neck, one hand tight on his hip. He tried to time his own climax with Tony’s and got pretty close, freezing for a good ninety seconds before Bruce asked if he was okay and he withdrew, a reverent smile on his face as he asked if Tony was okay.
“Ask me in the morning,” Tony murmured, collapsing beside Bruce because he knew no one wanted an imprint of the arc reactor on their skin.
“Mr. Stark’s vital signs show no cause for alarm,” J.A.R.V.I.S. noted, making them all jump a little until Tony started laughing uncontrollably against Bruce on the bed.
Steve chuckled and went to the bathroom to clean up, then returned and got settled beside them. “Is it always like this?” he asked then, voice low and intimate. Tony had to remind himself again that Steve hadn’t done this before, that he probably had a lot of questions. They had better wait till morning.
“No two times are alike,” Bruce mused, clearly having no problems answering them now, his fingers tickling low on Tony’s back, just above the curve of his ass. “But it gets easier when you get to know the people you’re with.”
“I don’t think it was bad,” Steve confessed. “It wasn’t even very strange.”
“Thanks,” Tony muttered into the bed.
Steve rolled over to kiss his shoulder-blade. “You were very nice,” he commented into his skin.
Tony felt like his skills in bed had definitely gone underappreciated by Steve, but he would have time to set him straight later; all he wanted to do now was sleep. Before he could drift off, Bruce forced them to move on the bed so that they were at least lying the right way and beneath the sheets. Tony noted sleepily that for once he didn’t feel cornered resting between two firm, warm bodies.
Yeah, he was home…
The morning sun was glaring down from the sky with a pleasant wind blowing. The waves crashed against the beach and Bruce sat high above the water, a mat beneath him and his body already relaxing as he breathed in deep and slow.
Maybe it was that Tony was finally safe, or the beautiful setting of Malibu – or his favorite, last night’s pleasant activities – but he felt calm and centered. No hint of tension in his mind or body, no tiptoeing on the edge of transformation. The other guy seemed completely fine with sleeping this one out.
Beneath him Tony was yelling at Steve as they dove into the water and paddled out on their boards. Wetsuits looked flattering on them both, although Steve’s had been a bit small so they had gone with shorts for him. His upper body flexed as he fought against the waves then calmed as he copied Tony when they started coming back, riding the waves.
Just like most things he did, Steve excelled in this, balancing on the board and getting better with every run back and forth. It had clearly been a while for Tony since he had gotten to enjoy himself like this and he kept shouting commentary at Steve whenever he wasn’t underwater.
Bruce hadn’t actually gotten any closer to meditation when the two of them climbed back up, faces grinning, pushing at each other over some joke. Tony tasted of salt water when he knelt to kiss Bruce and smelled of the sea, wind and sun.
Steve sat down beside them, carefully putting his board to the side. “Did we interrupt you?” he asked, picking at the neoprene shorts with his fingers.
“I haven’t even started,” Bruce confessed.
“Were we too loud?” Tony asked in return, actually sounding kind of apologetic for once, perhaps thinking that Bruce had really wanted to meditate.
Bruce simply shook his head; he had all the peace he could possibly want at this moment in time.
Author’s notes: The final Malibu scene(s) were written upon my beta’s request (yes, the ending felt a bit incomplete).
I hope everyone enjoyed the story! Feel free to drop me a line with your thoughts on the matter ^^