Interim (page 1)
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers (MCU)
Genre: Drama, action
Characters: Steve Rogers (Captain America), Tony Stark (Iron Man). Also: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), J.A.R.V.I.S. (Other Avengers, Nick Fury, Happy Hogan, Pepper Potts and James “Rhodey” Rhodes (War Machine) mentioned.)
Pairing: Steve/Tony (also: implied Happy/Pepper, implied past Pepper/Tony)
Summary: An explosive incident leaves Steve and Tony believing that they are dead. However, there seems to be something holding them on Earth, instead of allowing them to move on, and until they figure out what that is – at least in Steve’s case, because Tony doesn’t think he deserves anything better – they’ll have to work together. They also discover they may have been oblivious to each others’ feelings while they were still alive.
Written for: Avengers Reverse Big Bang, summer 2013. Based on the fantastic art by LePeru.
Also fills the “friends to lovers / friends with benefits” square in my card on Trope Bingo’s Round 2.
Warnings: Canonical violence, sexual content (m/m, frottage, kissing, oral), language. Also contains light abuse of religious terms/facts/beliefs. (Notice: not entirely Iron Man 3 compatible (slight canon divergence), but includes spoilers for the movie.)
Disclaimer: Iron Man, Avengers and Marvel Cinematic Universe, including characters and everything else, belong to Marvel, Marvel Studios, Jon Favreau, Shane Black, Joss Whedon, Joe Johnston, Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. In short: I own nothing; this is pure fiction created to entertain likeminded fans for no profit whatsoever.
Feedback: Most welcome.
About Interim: This takes place after The Avengers and Iron Man 3 – but let’s pretend that Tony kept his arc reactor, okay?
‘Ghost’ movie reference was made by my beta. (Thanks, darling!)
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
Written for Avengers Reverse Big Bang’s round in summer 2013.
Also fills a square in my card on Trope Bingo’s Round 2. (Square: “friends to lovers / friends with benefits”.)
There was Classic Rock blasting from the car stereos and the vehicle left a cloud of smoke in its wake on a deserted road. For miles and miles around them there was nothing but sagebrush standing against the sun. They hadn’t seen another car in hours, but that had been the point of choosing a small side-road that led to no place special.
Tony craned back his neck, wind whipping against his face and exposed skin. The car slowed at the curve then accelerated again, creating a delicious twist in his stomach.
Opening his eyes and looking to the left through his sunglasses, Tony regarded Steve Rogers at the wheel. Wearing one of those plain gray t-shirts and simple jeans, there were spots of dampness on his skin. However, there was a relaxed expression on his face – one that was usually related to the man driving his motorcycle – so he couldn’t be feeling too hot. Besides, if he did get too hot and decided to remove his shirt, Tony had nothing against it.
Not that any sane person would, but Tony had always been appreciative of the finer things…
His own dark jeans had long since begun to make him sweat, but then, the plan had been to drive to Vegas and stop there. Leave it to Captain America to come up with a new, improved plan.
“I don’t think we can make it to Vegas in time for the Cirque du Soleil show,” Tony shouted over the noise of the wind and the music.
“Did you really want to go?” Steve asked, giving him a brief look, both hands on the wheel. At the speed he was going, it was a good thing he had a solid grip.
“Nah,” Tony shook his head. It had been something he’d thought Steve would like, since circus acts and acrobatics took discipline and a lot of practice – which the man was notorious for – plus the costumes, lights, sounds and sets were an art form of their own. “We can go another time.”
Steve focused on the road again and put the pedal to the metal; Tony felt like he was experiencing his first flight in Mark II all over again, with a certain lack of control over what was unfolding. He had built the engine, though, and every sound it made was something he understood. Much like with the suits.
They drove on.
Tony checked the readings from the car computer build into the dashboard, to see how the new power cells were faring. The levels were exactly as expected – not that he doubted his own genius – and even in the heat of the desert, all levels were within acceptable limits.
“Something wrong?” Steve asked.
“Do I look like I think something’s wrong?” Tony asked in return.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell with you,” the blond admitted, eyes on the road again. They were still going fast, but there was no one to ticket them out here – if they could catch them. Tony had a feeling no one was going to pull over Captain America unless he wanted to be pulled over.
“Sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S.’s voice cut him off, the music turned down as the AI began to speak.
“What’s up, J?” Tony asked.
“There is an unauthorized entry in progress at the Dushon facility.”
“And why are you calling me and not their security?” Tony asked with a frown, pressing at the screen to get a map open.
“Because you personally flagged that facility as a top priority location during its shut-down,” the AI replied.
Tony found the map which showed the facility’s location in the middle of nowhere, and then opened the data package that came with it. His mood plummeted instantly. “I recall,” he mused. The fact that he remembered that place, amongst hundreds of other locations he had ordered to stop production when he halted weapons manufacturing in his company, meant Dushon was special. Located in an unpopulated area, the closest structures being a few ghost towns long since abandoned, there was nothing out there but land owned by SI – and the testing facility with minimal production and storage areas. “Who’s trying to gain access to it?” Tony asked.
“There is a break-in in progress; they have disabled surveillance in the area, which is what triggered the alarm.”
“Any tech on site that we need to worry about?” As he asked the question, he opened a file detailing the materials located at Dushon. He frowned and once again told himself he really should do more spring cleaning with his facilities, or stuff like this would happen. “We’re about fifty miles away; we’ll check it out,” he decided, closing the file.
Steve gave him a look but didn’t slow down.
“Take the next right,” Tony told him.
“What’s in there?” Steve asked.
“Some tech I would rather not have anyone get their hands on, especially if they’re going through the trouble of breaking into a sealed Stark Industries facility.”
“Would you like me to send out a suit, sir?” J.A.R.V.I.S. inquired.
Tony threw Steve a look. Neither of them was prepared for this. All they had was Steve’s shield on the backseat. On the other hand, it would be more than plenty. “Nah,” Tony decided. “I’ll let you know as the situation progresses.”
“Shall I inform someone else of the situation, before it progresses?” That mostly meant Pepper, who was still the CEO of Stark Industries, but after she and Tony broke up, soon after the Extremis mess – and especially after she and Happy found themselves in a new and improved, highly unprofessional relationship – Tony wasn’t certain whether he wanted to throw this kind of mess onto her desk.
“Let’s… keep this under wraps for now.”
“Very well, sir.”
Steve took the right turn once they came to it and kept speeding down the road, following Tony’s instructions. The last stretches forced them to slow down due to the poor conditions of the road that hadn’t been used in years – save for the persons who were busy breaking into the facility.
“So, they’re stealing weapons,” Steve spoke up as they drew near.
“More like weapon parts,” Tony corrected, then guided Steve to park the car at a sheltered spot. They continued on foot, Steve with his shield and Tony carrying a pair of binoculars.
“Dangerous weapon parts,” the blond guessed, continuing on topic.
Tony supposed he would have to tell Steve what they were walking into, although he doubted most thieves would even comprehend what they were getting their hands on. However, on the black market, someone smarter might find themselves in possession of the stolen parts. “Let’s just say they tested some of my personal designs here. Future warfare – something not intended for this generation. Advanced tech, most of it mere theories.”
“But there’s something here worth stealing, other than theories,” Steve noted flatly.
Tony nodded, refusing to feel guilty. “Back in the day, when I was cleaning up my act – my company’s act – I didn’t trust anyone to handle the transaction. Trust issues were a mild word for it. At the same time, I was busy flying around in a metal suit and attempting to achieve world peace, so places like this got shut down, sealed up, and have waited for spring cleaning ever since.”
They walked to the top of a small hill and Steve crouched down, shield angled so that the rays of the sun wouldn’t catch it. He made no comment to imply that Tony deserved what was coming to him; those days were long past between them. Steve had told him, many a time, that he respected what Tony was trying to do – had done, to ensure his legacy would be more than just body bags.
Tony lay down on the ground and raised the binoculars to his eyes, seeking the main entrance of the facility. Most of it was located underground, but the above-ground structures stood behind tall fences. Crates and containers were lined up, waiting to be filled and taken away. All of them had been waiting since the closing of the facility, so they couldn’t be considered as signs of intruders.
Beside him, Steve looked down at the scene with a steady focus, probably mapping out buildings in his head. Tony thought, belatedly, that maybe he should have pulled some blueprints from the computer to show him – which was why he was a genius and fished his phone from his pocket, opened the right file and shoved the device at the other man. “The good stuff is underground,” he explained.
Steve took the phone and started scrolling. “That’s where they’ll be?”
“Most likely. And the loading docks, but I don’t see any movement from up here.”
“So, we get closer,” Steve decided, scrolling back up before handing Tony his phone back. Knowing him, Steve had already memorized the entire layout of the place.
“Yeah,” Tony agreed and rose to his knees. He debated calling J.A.R.V.I.S. and have the AI fly one of his suits down, but there would be plenty of stuff to use as a weapon inside the facility. Besides, Steve looked like he could use a little exercise after sitting in the car for hours.
They moved downhill until they reached the fence. The facility sat in a basin-shaped area, gentle slopes with a few higher peaks rising all around it. The rising terrain gave the facility a sense of privacy from prying eyes, but it also left them pretty vulnerable during their approach. There was no movement amidst the buildings, crates and containers, however, and Steve looked up and down the fence, no doubt plotting a way in.
Tony, on the other hand, walked slightly to the side like he owned the place – because he did – and found a side-gate, firmly locked and the hinges and lock welded shut for emphasis. “Your shield, Captain,” he called out, and Steve came over, adjusted his hold on his trusty shield, then slammed it down first at the lock, then at the hinges, and the gate fell spectacularly flat on the ground before either of them could catch it.
Even at the sound of the crash, no one came to investigate, and Tony started to wonder whether it was a false alarm. Perhaps they could have just entered through the main gate.
Steve moved in ahead of him, walking over the fallen gate and onwards towards the cluster of large buildings. He was hunched a little lower than usual, and Tony knew that pose well enough from all their battles together; Steve was wary, every muscle ready to jump into action at any given second.
As they neared the main buildings, they could see no one. Tony slid out his phone, checked the records sent to him by J.A.R.V.I.S., and an update suggested the alarms had been cut off. Someone was definitely on the premises, but keeping quiet about it.
Steve veered off to the left and discovered a door. He glanced back at Tony, then broke the lock with a single swing of his shield. Not for the first time Tony hoped there was a way to synthesize vibranium; there were so many ways he could use it in his suits.
With the door open, they slipped inside. The air was musty and still – save for a very faint draft coming from somewhere. There were no voices, not even when they had walked all the way through the building to a control room that Tony made Steve break into. “If they heard us come in, they’re taking their sweet time coming to investigate,” Tony noted as he sat down in front of a control panel and checked it for power. Just as it should be, the main power was turned off, so he moved over to peer out through the side window and tried to locate something useful among the machinery around them.
There was no way Tony was letting anyone walk out of here with his tech in tow. He might not have a suit to stop them, but that hardly made him powerless. With a grin, he noticed something useful and exited the control room in favor of walking over to a series of pipes running across the floor and then disappearing as they headed towards the lower levels.
“You’re planning something,” Steve observed.
“A little farewell gift to our friends, should they not want to surrender and leave when they’re told,” Tony mused and forced open a grill on the floor, leading into a small access tunnel that followed the pipes down. He started lowering himself into it, then looked up at Steve. “Coming?”
The super-solider looked left and right, searching the large, abandoned space with his eyes, then strapped his shield to his back and proceeded to climb down after Tony. The shield barely fit in the hole, but they made it down to the maintenance level and Tony made himself busy, rigging a few of the power generators to overload at a signal from his phone. The plan was to overheat the system before any of the safety functions – which Tony disabled to the best of his ability – had time to respond.
It was crude and clunky, but Tony was convinced it would work. Blowing up the entire facility sky high would be the last resort if he and Steve couldn’t take on the intruders.
“There,” he finished, cutting a few more wires.
Steve gave his work a doubting look. “Did you just sabotage your own factory?”
“Pretty much,” Tony grinned. “Let’s go greet our visitors.”
They set off, Tony in the lead although Steve probably had an idea where they were headed, after going over the blueprints. It was all going according to plan as they moved down a few more levels and exited the maintenance area – only to finally spot their companions.
Tony swore and pressed himself to the nearest wall.
“Who are they?” Steve asked, voice low. He kept looking at the group of people who were loading equipment onto heavy-duty carts.
“AIM,” Tony whispered.
“The people who blew up my house. And gave Pepper Extremis,” Tony confirmed. He knew Steve knew more than the basics about the whole AIM/Mandarin business. While Pepper had been fixed and there had been no further sightings of Advanced Idea Mechanics, there was no mistaking the faint orange glow of one of the men who appeared to be a look-out, and the very knowledgeable way the others were selecting what to take and what to leave.
Steve shifted his shield to a better battle-position.
Tony looked around, wondering if there was anything useful lying around; it was a little late now to call for the suit.
“I can take him,” Steve noted, as if thinking Tony doubted his prowess against someone with Extremis enhancement.
“No doubt, Cap,” Tony agreed. “But, while you two butt heads, it leaves me dealing with all the rest of them.” There were close to two dozen people moving around, lamps set to give them light as they proceeded to rob the abandoned tech.
“Can’t you take them?” Steve asked, a small tease in his voice.
“Not on such short notice.” Tony took another look at them, then around the space. “Then again…” He slid quickly from one wall to another, sliding along it and then looked at the shelves where several items were stored. Clearly the AIM goons hadn’t gotten to this side of the room yet.
Steve followed him, moving quickly and silently, not making such a big effort to blend in as Tony did. Well, he probably knew what it took to hide from enemy eyes, plus he didn’t have a glowing circle of light beneath his shirt. Belatedly, Tony considered that maybe he should have put on a jacket to cover the arc reactor, but right now it was their only source of light since the AIM lamps weren’t directed this way.
“Can you make some of this work?” Steve asked in a hushed tone, looking at the gadgets. He didn’t ask what they were, or what they would do; Tony would give him a technical answer, just to piss him off, and it would be a waste of time.
Tony just hummed and picked a few things from the shelves, then pulled open a tool box that was sitting on another shelf nearby. It seemed that when this place was shut down, people didn’t even bother to pack their things. They had just left them there. At the same time, Tony knew these were just prototypes of actual models, and without detailed instructions or knowledge about the devices, they couldn’t be used. After all, people had been trying to reverse-engineer his suits for years and they weren’t any closer than on day one. These weapons here were so futuristic that Tony himself had to take a pause to recall how exactly he had planned they would work.
“Be patient, old man,” Tony told his companion.
“It’s not my stuff they’re trying to steal,” Steve feigned indifference.
“Good point,” Tony agreed and worked a little faster.
In five minutes he had combined two weapons into one that would accept his arc reactor as a power source. The end result was a little like a Star Trek phaser, which was amusing, but the reference would be lost on Steve so he didn’t bother. He took the cables and brought them up to his chest, sliding the arc reactor out a little. At first it seemed the pieces wouldn’t fit together, but with a little cramming, the weapon powered up on the table and Tony grinned.
“Is that safe?” Steve asked, looking at the wires disappearing under the edge of his tank top.
“Genius, remember?” Tony challenged him and turned to go and greet their guests.
“That’s not an answer,” Steve complained but followed him.
“Trust me,” Tony offered instead.
He heard a sigh and then Steve moved slightly ahead of him, shield in position. The sigh didn’t mean Steve didn’t trust Tony; it was merely an expression of slight frustration towards Tony’s unforthcoming, sometimes careless, attitude.
This time they advanced without an attempt to hide, and Tony picked up the pace to be at Steve’s side when the AIM lookout noticed them. Clearly they hadn’t expected company, which was a little insulting. Where did they think they were breaking into?
“Alright, people!” Tony called out boldly. “I’m sure you all noticed the ‘closed’ sign sitting outside. Drop whatever you’re holding and maybe we can settle this without troubling the authorities.”
Steve gave him a look which clearly said, ‘really?’.
Tony responded with a shrug.
Sure enough, the AIM goons dropped what they were doing – in favor of picking up their guns. None of the goons glowed an ominous shade of orange, save for the one man, which was a relief.
“Guess we’re not just going to talk this out,” Tony murmured, then launched to the side when he was shot at. He rolled over his shoulder, arms stretched in front of him – in a pretty good imitation of what Natasha had taught him, he might add. Before he was even properly back on his feet, he fired the gun he had put together, a beam of light leaving the barrel and cutting through one AIM goon and hitting another behind him. Both of them fell down.
“Oops,” Tony murmured and looked down at the gun, supposing it had a bit too much kick in it. He didn’t have time to adjust settings, however, before he was being shot at again and had to seek refuge whether or not he planned on returning fire.
Off to the side, Steve and Mr. Glow-stick were butting more than just heads. Steve seemed to be hard-pressed to keep up with his adversary, which made Tony feel a little smug – for about two seconds before the crate next to him exploded in a shower of wooden pieces and he had to move and shoot, no matter how brutal the outcome. The beam from his gun cut through a few more adversaries, but also bore deep, smoking holes in the far wall.
After finding another safe location, Tony crouched down, trying to spot Steve. He spotted him just in time to see the vibranium shield slamming against the Extremis soldier’s face, bones crushing and the glowing body slamming into a container, denting its wall beneath the strength.
As much as a futurist as Tony was, in this instance he appreciated the old-fashioned version over the new one.
Steve halted, panting hard, steadying his breathing. He appeared unhurt, a few bloody scratches already fading on his skin, the battle speeding up his healing due to the adrenaline rush. The blue eyes soon sought out the room at large, looking for something, and Tony waved his hand – only to almost have it shot off.
As Tony drew his limb back from the line of fire, he lost sight of Steve – but heard him soon enough, bullets bouncing off the shield and grunts following soon after. It was followed by the familiar sound of something flying through the air and the vibranium shield bouncing off several solid surfaces on its way to embed itself into a wall, cutting a group of pipes neatly in two, releasing steam into the air.
Tony straightened, peering around the machinery he had been hiding behind. All AIM goons were down and Steve was striding over to retrieve his shield. “See? We did okay,” Tony told him.
“You almost had your arm shot off,” Steve argued, wrenching his shield free of the concrete and narrowing his eyes against the steam.
“I thought you were looking for me,” Tony defended himself.
“I was,” Steve admitted and walked towards him. He looked Tony over, more thoroughly than when Tony was wearing his armor. He supposed being in his civvies made a difference, because no one could really ever tell how badly he was injured inside his suit. “Shall we –”
Steve was cut off by a bang and the sound of running. They both looked towards the sounds, seeing an orange glow disappear, and then something like an industrial elevator starting. Steve frowned, as if not believing the guy was still walking, much less running after the beating Steve had given him.
Tony supposed he could save the tale of how his armors had beaten up a whole lot more of the Extremis soldiers for another time. “We should get topside, see if there are any more of them hiding up there.”
“Good idea,” Steve agreed. “Stairs are that way,” he pointed and started striding over. He didn’t look twice at the bodies on the floor – that had to be a habit from the war, where there were a whole lot more bodies involved – but he did regard the smoking holes in the walls. “I would say your gun worked fairly well.”
“Too well,” Tony noted. He held onto it, though, just in case there was a surprise party waiting for them upstairs.
“What were they trying to steal?” Steve asked as they jogged up the stairs. He didn’t sound winded, but he wasn’t running, probably so that Tony wouldn’t fall behind.
Although he would have preferred to focus on breathing, Tony had never been particularly good at admitting defeat, so he opened his mouth: “A few of them looked like prototypes for frontal and temporal lobe manipulation through auditory weaponry.”
Steve slowed down minutely, looking down at him in the dark stairwell. “Controlling the brain through sound?”
“Yeah,” Tony confessed. “Mostly envisioned to cause a controlled, catatonic state to suppress any hostilities in the affected area. Imagine dropping a weapon like that in a hostile city and then just walking in to contain the situation. No civilian casualties, no cross-fire victims…”
“Why wasn’t it finished?” Steve asked.
“Well, we created a smaller, close-range device that actually went into manufacturing. At the time, the military or the government didn’t like it well enough, and…” He remembered how well the device worked, from personal experience. Lying on the couch in his own home, with Obie leaning over his paralyzed body… “I haven’t looked at those plans in years. I’m not about to, either,” he noted and kept walking, forcing Steve to continue ahead of him.
“But it sounds like a non-violent method of subduing the enemy,” Steve pressed. “Or are there side-effects?”
“We didn’t really get that far. I knew the world wasn’t ready for that kind of warfare, and I’m glad I was right.”
“But these AIM people are looking for it.”
“Probably looking for scraps. They know to lay low after the last time they crossed my path,” Tony scoffed. “Can we focus on the mission?” He wasn’t usually one to request that, but he didn’t want to talk about the weapons he had designed in the past. The genius behind this invention hadn’t been its non-lethality, but its effectiveness. Of course the lack of civilian casualties had been a big plus, but Tony’s main concern had been the safety of the American troops – something he had failed to ensure, in the end.
They got back to ground level and Steve opened the stairwell door carefully, listening to any sounds that might suggest their enemies were waiting for them. “The coast is clear,” he finally decided and slipped out, leaving Tony to follow. The door almost slammed him in the face, falling heavily, and Tony shoved it further open to let himself through, then remembered to slow it down as if fell shut again, muffling the sound.
Around them, the building was quiet – deceptively so. Tony didn’t think AIM would just hightail it out of here like common crooks. Most likely they were looking for bigger, badder weapons. Well, let them: it wasn’t anything Steve and Tony couldn’t handle.
Empowered by those thoughts, Tony followed Steve through the dim hallways between machinery, observation rooms, testing rooms and crates. He could barely hear the blond ahead of him, and Tony tried to hold back his own breaths, not wanting to be the one to expose them to their enemies.
He needn’t have worried: as soon as Steve slipped out from another tight space, shots were fired at them, rapidly, and Steve threw himself backwards. All Tony could do was raise his weapon hand out of the way and hope they didn’t both fall down. One shot ricocheted off the shield while Steve was still finding his balance and almost took out Tony’s right eye. The shot hit a valve on the nearby wall and steam began spreading out, the temperature in the enclosed space rising by a few degrees almost instantly.
“Uh,” Tony started, looking at it, then slid his free hand to his pocket to find his phone. The signal he had built to blow up the facility hadn’t been accidentally activated, but it was clear pressure was building in the pipes – some of which were beginning to tremble.
“Not a good ‘uh’?” Steve asked him, daring a look out at their opposition and then pulling back again before they could fire at his face.
“Not so much,” Tony agreed. “We need to leave. Now.”
“I thought you had it on a timer,” Steve looked at him in alarm, then at the spreading cloud of steam.
“Something we did downstairs must have amplified the chemical reaction. No big deal. We just need to find an exit,” Tony summarized the situation.
Steve gave him a dirty look, as if Tony were holding back vital information.
Well, none of the details would do Steve any good, so Tony just arched an eyebrow and started to look for a way out. When he found none that didn’t include the shooting gallery, he aimed his weapon at nearby crates and fired. All it did was cut chunks out of them like a laser – and set one of them on fire.
Steve gave him a quick look that may have been amused if not for the situation itself. He then looked at the gun. “Does it store a charge?”
Tony frowned at him.
“After you remove the cables,” Steve explained further.
“Yeah, I think so. Enough for one shot at least. Why?”
“Give it to me,” Steve demanded and stepped a bit further away from the burning crate.
Tony did as he was told. “You know, I’m a fairly good shot,” he complained; it just always happened he was paired up with someone who was an amazing shot.
“I’m not going to use it to shoot,” Steve reassured him – or was it criticism?
Tony disconnected the cables and threw them to the floor, then reluctantly gave Steve the modified weapon. “What are you –?”
“Prepare to run,” Steve told him, then stepped out to the open, threw the gun into the air – then slammed it towards their hiding enemies with his shield. It may have been the impact of the shield, or one of the shots fired at the projectile, but the gun exploded mid-air between them and the AIM goons, the pressure wave almost blowing Tony off his feet as everything that wasn’t nailed down or didn’t possess sufficient mass was picked up and slammed away from the explosion. He felt a hand around his arm, a vice-like grip pulling him forward, and he hoped it was Steve.
When the smoke and debris cleared, there were no more shots fired. Steve kept moving them towards the nearest door. For a moment Tony wasn’t sure why they were still in such a hurry – surely they could have stopped until his ears stopped ringing – but then they ran past a pipe that was positively vibrating and glowing hot from the inside. Right: the big explosion was just waiting to happen.
Tony made an effort to run a little faster.
They were a hundred feet from the door when the Extremis enhanced soldier appeared in front of them. His clothes were torn and burnt, and he was still healing from the blast. He also looked determined to go another round with Steve, but they didn’t have time for it. The floor was shaking, just a little, and Tony tried to count how long it would be before structures would begin to crack beneath the pressure and it would all release itself in one mighty eruption.
Steve let go of his forearm. “Soon as you have an opening, get out and keep running. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Can we –”
“Go!” Steve ordered and launched himself at the last standing villain. The man met him half-way and they slammed to the floor, rolled, then kept grabbling. Knowing that he had no business getting between them, Tony ran to the door, opened the lock and then found the door jammed. He shoved his weight against it, then slammed harder against the door, but it wasn’t even shaking.
“Shit,” Tony swore, taking a step back and looking for an alternative. The AIM people had come in from somewhere, and… One of the loading dock doors was slightly ajar; so little that it couldn’t be seen from afar. He looked back at the fight, hoping Steve saw him take off in another direction, then picked the quickest path to the door and ran out through it, temporarily blinded by the bright sun.
Eyes stinging and watering, Tony struggled to see where he was going. He tried to walk carefully, but suddenly there was nothing beneath his foot and he almost fell forward until someone grabbed him by the shoulder and hauled him back from the edge. Blinking, he looked over his shoulder, dreading that it was a villain, but in that case he would have been shoved forward, not pulled back.
It was Steve, blond hair sweaty and shining in the sun.
Tony looked forward the way he had been going, finding that had he taken that last step, he would have fallen off the loading dock and at best sprained an ankle when coming down.
Inside the building, something blew up.
“We need to keep moving,” Steve urged, then jumped down with the agility of a cat and offered to soften Tony’s fall with a hurried gesture. Tony took it, although he leaned as little on Steve as possible: he was no damsel in distress.
Behind them, the door they had used came off its hinges and the AIM soldier seethed at them, eyes burning. Inside, another explosion sounded, and something flew up through the roof, arching high before falling back down; Tony thought it looked like a piece of a pipe, or a valve.
He took a step away from the building, signaling to Steve that they really had to get going. To the Extremis soldier, he said: “As our esteemed colleague Hawkeye would say: tick, tick, boom.”
The man frowned, then looked behind himself just as the entire building blew up, cocooning him in flames and debris.
Steve, moving fast, pressed Tony against him and sheltered them with his shield to the best of his ability. Ten seconds later the blond lifted his head and looked around. “That wasn’t so bad.”
“That was just the first layer, releasing some pressure; it will keep on building below ground as the power generator stores too much energy, until the entire place goes boom and probably leaves a rather impressive sinkhole behind.”
“Start running, then,” Steve suggested, and Tony nodded, taking off towards the fence in the distance.
The ground trembled beneath them. Tony could hear Steve running behind him, not urging him on but a constant pressure at his back, telling him to go faster. They had gotten past all the structures, just dodging between crates and containers, when they ran out of time: the ground seemed to ripple and the facility was pushed upwards from below, like a fist shoving through.
Tony lost himself for a moment. He wasn’t sure whether he was running, falling or flying. His brain felt like it had been forced to shut down and reboot, and by the time it all cleared, all five of his senses were still ringing, blinded or blocked, leaving him disoriented. Once things began to clear, several slow seconds later, something like an adrenaline rush washed over him and he spotted Steve beside him, looking equally messed up.
“Phew!” Steve breathed, coming to a halt. “That was too close!” he observed, sound barely carrying over the continuous ringing in Tony’s ears. “I’m glad we’re both fine,” the blond added, looking at him.
Tony bent over at the waist, leaning his palms against his knees, trying to catch his breath and give his head time to get with the program. “We succeeded in getting some people really pissed,” he noted – mostly meaning AIM, who had probably thought a closed-down facility would be easy pickings.
After his ears had calmed down a little and he could hear more than the rush of his own blood, Tony straightened up and took a few careful steps. On his right, there was a lone crate standing in the midst of destruction, and he went over to it, planning to sit on top of it until he properly found his legs. They could both use a break. “First, let’s –” His hand moved to touch the crate, to help settle his body on top of it, but instead of touching the rough wood, his hand sank through it like a projection. “What the…!” Tony stared at it – at his hand disappearing inside the fairly real-looking wooden container.
“Tony… look!” Steve’s alarmed exclamation made Tony pull back from the fairly disturbing vision of his hand rising back out of the crate. He raised the hand up, clutching it, feeling that it was very real and there was nothing at all wrong with the limb. “There,” Steve pointed, and Tony followed his finger further ahead of them with his eyes.
There, on the sand, in the midst of rubble and debris, lay two bodies.
Their bodies, to be exact.
“Oh, shit!” was the first thing that came out of Tony’s mouth.
“My feelings exactly,” Steve echoed beside him.
Tony took a step forward, then stopped. He looked back at the crate on his right and tried touching it again, first with his right hand, which had already gone through it, then his left, and finally his foot. “You touch it,” Tony ordered, stepping aside to let Steve move towards the crate. He hadn’t been this nervous in a long time and became even more so as he watched Steve reach out towards the wooden surface – then witnessed his fingers sinking through it.
Steve jerked his hand back as if he’d been burned.
They stood there for a moment, in mutual indecision. Then, as if to break out of it, Steve circled the crate, poking and prodding at it – or trying, because you couldn’t poke or prod something you couldn’t touch in the first place. Tony guessed the other man had the right idea, and he leaned down in an attempt to pick up a stone from the ground. Just like with the crate, his fingers passed through it. There was no sensation of cold or hot, wet or dry. It was like touching air, without a draft forming against his skin.
To do another kind of test, Tony pinched his own arm, starting a little at the sensation that followed; he definitely felt that.
In growing dread and confusion, Tony moved around, trying to touch anything: pieces of metal, wood or stone, a lone dead plant. None of it made a difference and he finally stopped, hugging himself, watching as Steve slowly and resolutely arrived at the same conclusion:
“Something’s wrong,” Steve stated as he stopped and looked at Tony.
“You think?” Tony arched an eyebrow, then slowly looked over at where their bodies lay in the sand. Steve lay on his back, like a rag doll someone had just tossed there, and Tony lay half on top of him on his stomach. From a distance, Tony couldn’t see any blood, but both figures were awfully still. He was starting to come to a rather horrible conclusion about all this. “I think we’re dead,” he finally said it out loud, testing the word. It didn’t fit, didn’t feel natural, but then, if they were dead, was it supposed to sound right?
Steve shifted uneasily, looking at the bodies and then at Tony. “Maybe we should go over and make sure.”
Tony’s eyes flew from him to their unmoving copies. “Okay,” he replied, and they started in unison, but the closer they got, the less Tony wanted to touch his dead, cold body, and finally he stopped. “I changed my mind,” he blurted out, and Steve halted, a few steps ahead of him. “I don’t…” Tony pointed at himself and shook his head.
“Do you want me to?” Steve asked.
“I would rather you didn’t,” he replied, although it was stupid and ridiculous. He took a few shuffling steps back – shuffling, because it didn’t matter whether he dragged his feet or not, and suddenly he realized something else and his entire body froze. “Oh my God!”
“What?” Steve asked, alarmed, taking three steps towards him as if something were wrong with Tony.
“Don’t move,” Tony ordered.
“I think… I mean, we can’t touch anything, right?”
“So, one wrong move, and we might sink.”
“Sink where?” Steve frowned.
“Anywhere!” Tony exclaimed. “To the core of the Earth, to the other side – I don’t know. But it stands to reason…” He felt like hyperventilating, but if he was dead, what was the point of that?
“Tony,” Steve called out, moving towards him, “we’re not sinking.”
“But we don’t know if we will,” Tony reminded him. “We can’t touch anything; we shouldn’t be able to touch the ground, either,” he reasoned.
“I think we would have sunk already, if we were going to.”
“Yeah…” Okay, so that made sense, a little. It didn’t calm Tony down more than a little bit, but he did dig the toe of his shoe into the dirt. It sort of happened. He didn’t start sinking uncontrollably. “No sudden moves, though, okay?” he pleaded. “No jumping or running.”
“Okay,” Steve nodded. It looked like Tony’s irrational fear was getting to him a wee bit, and he looked at the ground suspiciously, like it was going to swallow him, literally. “So, if we’re dead…”
“I’m pretty sure we are,” Tony agreed, casting a look at his prone form on the ground before moving a bit further away, biting his thumb thoughtfully. “This must be Limbo.”
“Say what?” Steve frowned.
“The in-between. Not life, not death; the bus stop before you’re shipped to Heaven or Hell. We’re stuck, for some reason. We’re ghosts.” That was why they couldn’t touch anything. He’d seen Ghost enough times with Pepper, he knew how this worked. They were neither here nor there.
Steve cast their bodies another look, like he was debating going over and checking, just in case. “I though you didn’t believe in that stuff,” he finally said, looking at Tony instead.
“Well, I don’t think out-of-body experiences usually happen to two people at once, and…” Tony looked at himself, then away. “Great. Just fucking great,” he muttered and walked away from the bodies. He wanted to kick something, but that outlet for his frustration was no longer accessible to him.
“I think we need to look at this rationally,” Steve said behind him, and by the sound of it, he followed Tony.
The genius stopped and whirled around, looking at the blond. “Rationally? You want to… Okay, fine. I killed us. Are you happy now?” Tony cringed at his own words. He didn’t want to take the credit for this, but it had been his idea to rig the place to blow, and something had backfired very badly.
“That’s not what I meant,” Steve stated. “I just…” He cut himself off and looked to the right, then started jogging. Tony opened his mouth in alarm, but Steve didn’t sink into the earth, instead running smoothly, quietly – was it quieter than usual? – over to something in the dirt and stopped by it. His shield. It must have rolled over there after the impact from the explosion. The blond crouched down and reached out to touch it, but just as with the crate, rocks and debris, his fingers couldn’t touch the vibranium.
Tony felt something clench in his chest. For some reason he believed that if they weren’t dead, Steve would have been able to pick up his shield. It wasn’t rational thinking, since there was no logic to it, but his logic was lying face down in the dirt on top of Steve Rogers’ body and Tony was ready to flip out, just a tad.
Steve rose back to his feet and gave his shield one last mournful look, then walked back to Tony. “Okay, so… we’re dead,” he finally agreed. “Why are we stuck?”
Tony frowned. “Well, the usual crap suggests that there’s some unfinished business to attend to; that a spirit can’t find peace before the score’s settled.”
Steve nodded slowly, looking thoughtful. He was awfully calm for someone who had just figured out he was dead, whereas Tony was screaming internally. It was like a bad joke. “What haven’t we finished?” the super-soldier asked at length.
“I have a very long list of things I haven’t finished,” Tony offered.
“I don’t think those would hold you here,” Steve noted dryly.
He was probably right, the bastard. “Whatever it is, for me… I don’t think I’ll do it.”
“Why?” Steve frowned.
Tony gave him a rueful smile. “Because the only place I’m going to spend any form of afterlife in is Hell, and I ain’t going there. I’d rather stay here, thank you very much.” Tony may have dedicated his life after Afghanistan to cleaning up the mess he had made, but no good deed erased his past. He had always known that, but had hoped it wouldn’t matter when the day of reckoning came. Here he was, though. What a cosmic fucking joke. “You, on the other hand,” he pointed at Steve, “are going upstairs in first class. What do you think it is that’s holding you back?”
Steve blinked at him. “I have no idea,” he confessed.
“Think harder,” Tony ordered. “It has to be something significant. Something deep and meaningful.”
The blond appeared to think about it, but eventually shook his head. Tony was getting frustrated. He started pacing back and forth, decidedly not looking at their sprawled bodies in the dirt. Steve stayed still, like the calm fucking saint he was, thinking deep thoughts no doubt. “Stop moving,” Steve ordered at length. “You’re starting to bother me.”
“Bother you?” Tony stopped and stared at him. “You’re not bothered by any of this?” he motioned around them.
Again, Steve shrugged. “It is what it is.”
How he was so calm, Tony would never know. And since he didn’t possess that wisdom, or whatever, he resumed pacing, just to give himself something to do while he tried to plot a way out – or back. But, if they were dead, there was no going back, was there?
Eventually Steve reached out and grabbed him by the arm, bringing him to a halt. At first neither of them realized what had happened, but eventually both stared down at where they were touching each other, gaping at the connection. “Okay,” Tony said slowly. “So, we can touch each other.”
“Clearly,” Steve agreed. To test it, he released Tony’s arm and dragged his hand up to his shoulder.
“I can feel that,” Tony told him.
“So, we cannot touch anything else, but we can touch each other? Figures.” Secretly, Tony wasn’t sorry about it. Not by a long shot. And, from where he was looking, Steve didn’t seem upset either. Both of them were probably pretending it was some kind of test that Steve’s hand remained on Tony’s shoulder long after they had established that both of them could feel the touch.
They were still standing there like that when a Quinjet arrived and landed at the edge of the debris. Both of them perked up at the familiar sight, especially when the other Avengers moved out.
“Guys!” Tony started and grinned, then froze. He had spoken, quite loudly, but none of them seemed to hear. Bruce spotted their bodies on the ground and ran over, kneeling by them. He looked deeply unhappy. “Um…” Tony started walking closer and Steve followed hot on his heels. “Bruce? Big guy?” Tony waved his hand, raised his voice, but nothing happened. The others gathered nearby, faces grave and pale.
“Thor?” Steve called out. It was a good choice, since the Asgardian might hear them, being an alien and all. Tony moved over to the tall blond and tried to touch his arm, but his fingers went right through him. He tried again then stepped back, frustrated and a little scared. Clint had returned to the aircraft and came back with two stretchers.
“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere,” Tony clapped his hands together and moved back as their limp bodies were maneuvered to the stretchers.
“What do you mean?” Steve asked, a confused frown on his face.
“When they move our bodies, we’ll have to follow,” Tony explained a bit smugly.
“Because they’re our bodies, and even in death we’re bound to them,” Tony added impatiently. “You’ll see. We’ll feel some… weird power forcing us to follow.”
The stretchers were lifted off the ground and carried into the Quinjet. Tony made a point of standing still so that he would feel it when the pull came.
“Now?” Steve asked, looking at him and then at Natasha who came back, fetching Steve’s shield from the ground and running to join the others.
“Soon,” Tony replied.
The ramp of the Quinjet rose.
“How about now?” Steve asked again.
“Wait for it,” Tony snapped. “Any minute now… Wait… hey!” he shouted as the Quinjet took off. There was no pull, inexplicable or magical. They weren’t teleported to the Quinjet, to stand beside their bodies, nor dragged along. The aircraft hovered for a moment, then flew over to where the sides of the basin rose up. It flew lower, then someone – Natasha – got out. After a moment they could see their car appearing, briefly, before it drove off. “She took my car,” Tony frowned.
“Is that what you’re worried about?” Steve asked, voice a bit higher. “They just took our bodies! And we’re not with them!”
“Okay, I…” Tony felt a tide of panic rise in his chest, which was still annoying as hell because he was dead, dammit! “Why are we still here?”
“I don’t know,” Steve snapped, flustered. “You said we couldn’t leave our bodies.”
“I don’t exactly have a manual on how to handle this!” Tony snapped back at him.
“Then stop making wild assumptions!”
“How is it my fault that this isn’t going according to every ghost movie I’ve seen?”
Steve opened his mouth, then heaved out a lungful of air and turned away from him. “Now what?” he asked after a bit.
“I think we’re still stuck between worlds,” Tony ventured to guess. “There’s something holding us back.”
“What is it?”
“I don’t know,” Tony growled and started walking, then stopped and looked back. “Maybe it’s something in there?” he pointed at the crater where the facility had stood a while ago.
“I’m not going back there,” Steve said flatly.
“Fine,” he glowered for a few seconds, then looked up. “Maybe we should start walking.”
“Let’s,” Steve agreed, and they started off in tense silence.