Diamond in the Rough

Chapter 3

In the end, Tony still decided to join the traveling party despite the argument with Steve the night before (and he even completed the improvements to Clint's bow!). He could get his priorities straight and be mature, contrary to what Pepper and Rhodey liked to say about him. Shutting down HYDRA was not going to be achieved with just the trio, no offense to their capabilities. He was, yet again, unsurprised that Natasha had elected to go along as well, though that was because he suspected that Pepper and Rhodey would not have been as accommodating of his decision if their spymaster wasn't going to be present. No matter how many times he had insisted that he could take care of himself, his two closest friends still worried.

Pepper, perhaps, was more worried than usual since she had managed to squeeze the truth out of him regarding the confrontation between him and Steve the previous night. But Tony had the feeling that as long as he and Steve weren't left to their own devices, they'd be okay. He highly doubted that Natasha hadn't gotten wind of the situation and would thus know not to leave him alone with Steve as far as was possible.

Thus, it was a group of five (six, if he counted Clint's hawk companion that he was introduced to) that left Tony's mansion, with Pepper and Rhodey bidding them farewell and good luck. In private, Pepper and Rhodey had made him promise that he would return in one piece and not pull reckless stunts. Tensions in the group had been somewhat high in the initial days, and it had not been just between him and Steve. There was a definite strain between Clint and Natasha because there clearly had been issues left unresolved between them when they'd parted ways. It seemed that little talk the night before they left had not been a cure-all. Comparatively though, they'd worked it out quite fast. Tony had privately speculated whether sex had been involved but knew better than to voice it aloud.

In the end, Tony wasn't sure what had actually changed over the days he'd spent journeying to HYDRA's northern base with Steve, Peggy, Clint and Natasha. After the disastrous turn of his workshop meeting with Steve, they had stayed barely civil at the best of times and outright squabbling at the worst – even in the presence of mediators. He supposed that he should be grateful that Steve hadn't punched him again.

It really smarted.

What was honestly incredible, though, was how he and Steve worked together flawlessly in combat even when they normally couldn't get along. It was like, in battle, all their hostility towards each other melted away and they were able to naturally work side-by-side, effortlessly moving to cover each other with barely any verbal or non-verbal cues. One of the more spectacular moments of their teamwork had led to a group of HYDRA soldiers, who had been attempting to sneak up on Tony, being knocked out by Steve using his shield to reflect Tony's blast of power behind the warlock's back to hit the soldiers. So somehow, that ability to work together in combat started to translate out of battle.

Honestly, Tony found it hard to stay mad at Steve when he wasn't deliberately bringing up Howard. The good paladin was really just that good and honest and sincere. It was hard to dislike Steve, much less hate him, even if Tony sometimes wondered how the man was actually real. Other paladins that he'd encountered (and thank goodness there hadn't been many) had taken a look at him and instantly wrote him off; and they were all pompous assholes in Tony's opinion.

Therefore, to conclude, only the truly evil would be unable to stand any aspect of Steve. Since Tony wasn't truly evil, he therefore did not fall close to any category of people who would dislike Steven Rogers.

While it was reasonable for Tony to be unable to dislike Steve, the converse was not at all true. Tony was well aware of his character flaws (even if he acted like he was above the rest of humanity most of the time), had heard them all from Howard far more times than he'd like to admit. Not many people liked him, and even without his reputation or the stigma of being a warlock, Tony's personality wasn't easily likeable. The fact that he had Rhodey and Pepper as his only friends for the longest time spoke volumes. And he still didn't understand why they stuck with him.

Especially Rhodey who had seen him at his worst, entirely drunk and a general wreck on the night they'd first met. He could understand why Rhodey had saved him from being mugged; he just didn't know why the man stuck around after. As for Pepper, she'd stayed after he and Rhodey had saved her from being mugged or worse. Pepper had insisted on repaying him at the time, but by this time, years after that incident, Tony knew that she'd more than repaid her debt. She had all the right to leave, and yet she hadn't. She had instead chosen to stay beside him and help him manage his town and his business with such efficiency that Tony sometimes felt as though she ought to own them both.

In short, Steve had the right idea in disliking him and Tony didn't understand why that notion was changing on Steve's part. True, Steve was still more formal towards him than he was towards any of the others in their traveling party. He'd stopped calling him "Lord Antonius", but unlike the others, Steve still wasn't calling him "Tony" and persisted with calling him "Antonius".

Then came the day when he realized just how far Steve's thoughts had changed with regards to him.

Natasha and Clint worked well together, a fact that Tony hadn't been overly surprised about. What he had guessed about Natasha and Clint's history hadn't been confirmed by either of them, but he was fairly sure they'd done some work together in the field of subterfuge. Clint may claim to be a hunter (and it was probably true), but nobody could be able to shoot to incapacitate as well as Clint could without having training, experience or both. It was far, far easier to just shoot to kill. And when Clint did shoot to kill, he never had to waste a single arrow.

Anyway, this meant that their little party was pretty well-rounded in terms of skill sets, and that made them all the more effective for it – even if Tony was probably a little rusty, not that he would acknowledge that aloud, compared to the rest of his party.

It had been a while since Tony had used his warlock powers so often in such a relatively short period of time. He had never told Rhodey or Pepper about why he wanted to retire from the battlefields. Well, he hadn't lied per se, but he hadn't told them the complete truth either. He had been getting tired of life on the battlefield, although it had undeniably been quite profitable and was something that he did well almost effortlessly. Not to mention it gave him the opportunity to freely experiment in creating weapons and armor.

But one day, during the lull between finding, well, waiting to be found by another lord or nobleman who required his services (he'd gotten that good), he had gotten… cursed. A curse which would weaken his heart the more he used his warlock powers and would, in the end, be the death of him. It had been a more fast-acting curse, but due to a timely intervention and sacrifice by another wizard, the effects had been partially mitigated. To this day, Tony still did not understand why Yinsen had done this for him, made such a sacrifice for a near-stranger.

For a time after, he had searched for a way to fully break the curse, but to no avail. Therefore if he couldn't break it, he decided that he should retire from the frontlines and push up his plans for the future to the forefront. He was not planning to waste Yinsen's sacrifice. It helped that he met Pepper soon after that particular decision, and she was the perfect person to help in the administrative side of setting up his business and the eventual management of the little town he'd acquired.

Leaving the battlefield had been a good decision though, even ignoring the reasons that had to do with the curse. Tony had always been an inquisitive person, always wanting to figure out how things worked. His interest was largely in magic and weapons and armor craft, largely due to the fact that he'd been exposed to these two aspects of knowledge since birth. But he'd also been interested in engineering and would generally study most scholarly things. Therefore settling down in one spot gave him plenty of time to engage in these side pursuits even as he started his main blacksmithing business, which eventually included being the mayor of a town that just grew up around him and his business.

Still, it hadn't been a difficult decision to make to join Steve's group in journeying up north to thwart HYDRA. Much as scholarly pursuits and inventing filled up Tony's time, he could admit that part of him greatly enjoyed adventure and exploration, which he'd gotten during his time as a wandering mercenary. There was also the fact that he had been hearing more and more about HYDRA, or incidents that could be linked to the shady organization, with greater frequency lately. Much as Tony had made the bulk of his own fortune due to profiteering from battles, HYDRA's actions did not seem to be merely due to human greed and arrogance being put in action.

Well, perhaps arrogance was a given seeing as he was almost sure that HYDRA was also the cult of a powerful devil. Anything to do with underworld creatures walking on Earth was not a good thing as they usually meant to destroy, conquer or do a bit of both. The people who were involved with such cults were usually ambitious, arrogant, idiotic and generally a combination of all three. It was not anything Tony was looking forward to, and so if there was a way to weaken or eradicate HYDRA, Tony was quite willing to help in any way he could. He had seen haunting images in wars waged by humans with worldly desires and it was more than enough. He had no interest, not even on an intellectual level, to witness the scale of horrors a cult that worshipped a devil could unleash.

The strain of using his powers more frequently and for more strenuous purposes had been slowly building up over the past few weeks of traveling. But Tony was loath to make it known. It wasn't debilitating (yet) and he'd always hated admitting any sort of weakness. But logically, Tony knew that he wasn't going to be able to keep up much longer. So of course, with his luck, it had to happen when they were in the middle of storming another one of HYDRA's bases.

It was a small base but they decided to shut it down to slow the cult down. Regardless of HYDRA's motto, destroying any of their bases would definitely hinder their progression, if not revert it. The plan they'd worked out was to let Natasha and Clint infiltrate the base first to see if they could obtain any more information on the larger northern stronghold as well as anything that could help them in general. Then, the rest of them would only begin their frontal assault once the signal was given or when all hell broke loose.

All hell broke loose.

He'd felt it, a sudden tight feeling in his chest as he was flying above the rest of them. He considered temporarily refraining from using his powers, just until the feeling subsided. He had always been more comfortable with using his warlock abilities than firing actual ranged weapons, despite being proficient with most types of the latter category. But he quickly shot that idea to hell (no pun intended) when he spotted Clint surrounded by a group of enemies.

Clint could handle close-quarters combat, they had all witnessed it, but Tony wasn't taking any chances. There was also the fact that he couldn't see Natasha, Steve or Peggy anywhere near Clint's chosen perch, nor did they seem to have noticed Clint's predicament. That left it up to Tony to go to Clint's aid.

He swooped closer, gathering chaos energy in his hands and resolutely ignored the growing tightness that was morphing into pain. Releasing the bolts of energy, he picked off a few of the men surrounding Clint while diverting the attention of some of them towards him. He weaved around the arrows sent his way and then countered them. With lesser enemies to deal with, Clint soon cleared away the rest.

"Thanks!" the archer called up to him.

"Choose a less enemy-accessible nest next time!"

"This spot gave me the best angles and view. Gotta compromise sometimes," Clint replied with an unrepentant grin even as he loosed three arrows into the backs of three HYDRA agents without actually glancing in their direction. Show off.

"You just want to give us heart-"

It was at this moment that the pain in his chest abruptly intensified and he felt a sudden shortness of breath. Irony was a bitch. He could feel himself starting to lose altitude and forced himself to make it seem controlled. Ignoring Clint calling after him, Tony tried to concentrate on finding a safe spot to land. His actions, however, attracted the attentions of some of the enemies and arrows started flying in his direction. It was getting harder to maneuver in the air with the pain and blackness edging into his vision.

Just as he barely dodged an arrow, another burst of pain erupted from his chest and he couldn't maintain enough concentration for the invocation that was keeping him aloft.

Steve is going to be pissed.

Then everything went black.

"Tony!" Clint's loud, frantic shout drew Steve's attention immediately.

A quick, hard swing of his shield took care of his opponents and Steve turned around just in time to see Tony fall from the sky.

For a moment, Steve was no longer in the present. He was back on the icy mountain ridge, watching Bucky fall into a deep, deep ravine, unable to move, unable to save his best friend. Then he snapped back to himself in the present, and without further thought, started sprinting towards Tony.

Logically, there was no way Steve would be able to make it there before Tony hit the ground. But logic wasn't driving Steve at this moment. It was fear. The fear of seeing yet another friend fall to his death while Steve was unable to do anything but watch the inevitable happen. That gave him speed he didn't know he possessed even after his body had changed. Still, every second that passed felt like too much time, precious moments that could be the difference between catching Tony before he hit the ground and failing to do so.

Steve did not realize it in his single-minded desire to reach Tony, but his path towards the warlock was unusually clear of enemies. Clint's shout had also alerted both Peggy and Natasha to Tony's predicament and all of them had seen the horror-struck look on Steve's face before the paladin started to run. Only Peggy understood just why Steve's reaction was what it was, but all of them made the decision to take out all the enemies between Steve and where Tony was falling towards. Not a single HYDRA man managed to get anywhere near Steve between arrows fired with deadly accuracy from Clint and Peggy, and swift lethal strikes from Natasha.

Tony disappeared from sight and Steve could hear the sounds of snapping tree branches, indicating that Tony was falling through the forest of conifers. They were slowing Tony's descent and while that was good, the snapping sound was making Steve think of breaking bones. That was not really something he wanted to contemplate right now. He put forth another burst of speed and reached a small clearing, in time to see Tony fall into the arms of another man.

Immediately, Steve tensed. The man wasn't dressed in typical HYDRA garb, in fact, Steve didn't think the man was wearing much of anything save a tattered green cloak, but that didn't mean he wasn't a danger to Tony.

The stranger looked up at him. "Is he your friend?" he asked slowly, his voice a rasp like he hadn't used it in a while.

"Yes," Steve replied cautiously, inching closer to the duo, still ready to react at any sign of hostility.

"I think you should come over and take a look at him. I'm not a healer," the man said. "And I don't bite," he added with a wry, perhaps even self-depreciating quirk of his lips.

Sensing nothing but honesty from the stranger, Steve went forward, slinging his shield on his back as he did so. With the other man's help, he carefully laid out Tony on the ground. He absently noted that the other man moved a distance away after that, but most of Steve's attention was on Tony's unconscious form.

Tony's face was unnaturally pale and his skin was clammy to the touch. There were scrapes and cuts on the unarmored parts of his limbs, the branches having ripped holes in the fabric of Tony's clothes. Steve couldn't see any sign of major external wounds, but that said nothing about possible internal injuries. A spike of panic threatened to overwhelm him but he squashed it down ruthlessly. Tony didn't need him panicking. Panicking was the last thing he should be doing.

I have him. Tony's here and still alive. It won't be like…

Taking a deep breath, Steve called up the strongest healing spell he knew, with a few softly murmured words, his hand began to glow a soft pale blue and he hovered them over the abrasions on Tony's limbs. When they closed, he slowly worked his hands over to hover on top of the warlock's chest and set about sending the healing magic into the man's entire body.

Steve watched Tony intently, praying for him to regain consciousness soon. Yet when the spell had run its course, Tony was still unresponsive and only the barest of color had returned to the man's face.

Steve wasn't an expert on healing – that was Peggy's area – but this definitely wasn't a good sign. He hadn't seen what had caused Tony to fall, and perhaps that was the key. Or maybe… he just wasn't good enough. The panic he'd pushed to the back of his mind threatened to break out again and Steve hurriedly slammed a tighter lock onto his emotions. What he needed to do now was to get Tony to Peggy, she would know better.

"You're a paladin, aren't you?" the other man suddenly spoke.

Steve looked up from Tony, a little startled. He'd all but forgotten about the stranger who'd caught Tony. "Yes, I am."

"Paladins have another way to heal injuries that doesn't require spells, don't they? You should try using that, and focusing it on his heart."

"How do you know that that will help?"

"I'm not a healer, but I can sense magical energy. When you were using the spell earlier, the magic met with… resistance around his heart. So I would think that's where the most damage would lie," the man explained calmly.

There was no harm in trying what the man suggested and Steve really didn't know if Tony could wait until Peggy arrived. Or even if it would be wise to move Tony. He was also more than a little embarrassed that he'd forgotten about the other way he could heal people. Perhaps emotion was still clouding his frame of mind more than it was probably acceptable when they were still in a tense, battle situation.

With no further hesitation, Steve worked on removing Tony's chest armor and unbuttoning the shirt the warlock wore underneath. For this to work, he needed skin-on-skin contact nearest the most damaged area since it was an internal organ he was healing. Then placing his bare hands on Tony's sternum, Steve concentrated.

Using this aspect of his paladin abilities had a limit to how much damage he could heal, although Steve hadn't found his yet despite having healed others before. He was basically taking the damage from Tony unto himself and letting his own enhanced healing handle it. He didn't take note of how long he stayed in that position, crouched beside Tony with his palms on unconscious man's chest, but he did start noticing a gradual but definitely increasing pain building in his own chest. Still, Steve persisted in maintaining contact with Tony. The heartbeat he felt beneath his palms had been weak at the start, and thought it was getting stronger, it was still too weak for his liking. He wasn't going to stop until everything was set to rights.

"…hey, you should stop."

"-eve! Sto-"

"-it, he's not-"

Please, please let me not be too late again.

Tony came awake slowly, and everything felt fuzzy and soft around the edges. It felt like he'd been sleeping for a long time and there seemed to be a gentle, soothing pulse flowing through him. Then the last memory he'd had flashed to the forefront of his mind and his eyes snapped open instantly.

He was greeted by the surprising sight of Steven Rogers bent over him. Before he could marvel at that surprisingly welcome sight, other sensations began flooding in. He noted that Steve's hands were on his chest and a white glow was surrounding the paladin's hands, and that appeared to be where that soothing pulse was originating form. Tony wasn't feeling any debilitating pain, or much of any kind of pain really. Taking in the paleness of Steve's face, his tightly scrunched shut eyes and how the other man was breaking into sweat, Tony realized with a fair amount of shock at what exactly Steve was doing.

"Steve! Stop! You're going to kill yourself!" came Peggy's worried voice.

Steve didn't even twitch.

"Shit, he's not hearing us," Clint said.

Even so, nobody tried to physically remove Steve from Tony. Tony recalled reading that contact shouldn't be broken abruptly as it would cause a backlash that would harm both the paladin and the patient. Well then, it looked like Tony had to do something before he had Steve's death on his hands. It wasn't a thought that he wanted to entertain in any capacity.

He raised a hand to grasp Steve's arm. "Hey, Captain."

Steve's eyes snapped open instantly (which was yet another surprise) and Tony read a brief moment of astonishment in them before relief overwhelmed that emotion in the paladin.

"Tony, you're…"

Tony put aside his own wonder at Steve actually calling him "Tony" to focus on getting the paladin to let go of him. There were better times for him to dwell on the name issue.

"I'm fine now, Ca- Steve. You can stop."

"You're… sure?"

The slight waver in Steve's voice along with the intense yet open look the blond had on him made Tony's stomach do a strange flip, and logically, there was no part of Tony right now that should be capable of acrobatics. Swallowing the little lump that seemed to have formed in and clogged up his throat, he replied to Steve's question and was impressed with himself at how his voice was actually completely steady.

"Very sure."

Steve gave him a careful, assessing onceover and if this moment wasn't so unusually intimate, Tony would've made a couple of wise cracks that would likely scandalize the other man and make him blush bright red. As it was, his brain was utterly devoid of even such thoughts. Instead, he stayed silent and fought against the urge to hold his breath. Wouldn't help him achieve his goal if Steve thought he wasn't breathing, would it?

Then as if he was finally satisfied that Tony wasn't lying and was truly all right now, Steve finally removed his hands. The glow surrounding them faded and then Tony started feeling a little ache in his chest. It was nowhere near blackout levels, but it was still there. He looked down at where Steve's hands had been and was very rudely reminded of the reason for his slowly failing heart. He wasn't sure if Steve had noticed, but the paladin's hands had been right on top of the circular curse mark.

Well, on the slightest chance that Steve hadn't seen it… Tony quickly covered it up while making it look like was just sorting his clothes out.

By this time, the other three of their group had finally come closer. Peggy was fussing over Steve, chiding him for overextending himself. Clint, with Artemis perched on his shoulder, looked for all the world like he was standing guard over them all and Natasha was looking over Tony with a slightly pinched expression. Tony was getting the "I-see-through-all-your-trickery-so-you-better-not-have-been-lying" vibes from her and he really, really hoped her sharp eyes hadn't seen the mark during the short period when it was exposed. When Natasha's expression relaxed marginally, Tony felt that luck was probably on his side this time.

He began to sit up slowly, still feeling weak in his entire body. Almost instantly, Steve's hands were on his shoulder and back, steadying him. Tony wanted to be offended that Steve felt that he couldn't even manage to sit up on his own, really he did, but he just couldn't. Not when he'd witnessed how Steve had almost killed himself trying to heal Tony from what Tony was pretty sure was un-healable even with Good and Holy forces doing it. Even now, Steve was looking a little pale and he was hunched over slightly, an unnatural posture on the paladin. Steve had never looked this bad even after a hard day's travel peppered with skirmishes from HYDRA agents.

"You should lie down," Steve said.

"On the forest ground near HYDRA's base? Not even if you order me, Steve," Tony replied. Then he realized what he'd just said. "Wait, so you guys got the rest HYDRA? How long was I out?"

"We dealt with HYDRA," Clint replied, indicating himself, Peggy and Natasha. "Steve took off after you pretty much the second you started falling. You're lucky that he got to you in time."

Well, that was… even more surprising.

"I didn't really get to you in time," Steve said quietly, even as his face started turning a little pink. Then he turned a little, looking off to the side.

Tony followed the paladin's gaze and finally saw that there was a sixth person. The man looked as if he'd been caught slipping away, which he probably had been trying to do. He wasn't wearing much of anything other than a scruffy green cloak that had definitely seen better days, and if Tony wasn't mistaken, the man also had a number of faint scars on his limbs. There was also something vaguely familiar about this man…

"Um sir? I'm sorry for not saying this earlier, but thank you for catching Tony and your advice," Steve said.

The man gave a little laugh, "He just literally dropped on top of me. I didn't really have much of a choice."

It was at that point when Tony realized why he found the man familiar.

"You're Bruce Banner!" he exclaimed immediately. "You're a prodigy amongst wizards and also an esteemed scholar in both the divine and arcane arts. Then four years ago, you disappeared suddenly and haven't been seen since. Well, until now."

Banner appeared startled to be recognized but nodded, although wariness returned to his mien and he appeared a little tenser.

"What were you doing before becoming my cushion? Which, by the way, thank you very much for that," Tony asked, curiosity getting the better of him as he pretty much abandoned any last semblance of tact.

He was lucky that the others (well, not Natasha because she knew) hadn't started asking how he'd recognized Banner, though he could've probably given a reason that wouldn't give away Tony's own true identity. Tony had heard of and read about Bruce Banner as a child, seeing as the Starks were a wizardry clan. He'd actually seen Banner once from afar at a Stark ball cum wizards conference when he was in his early teens and Banner was just over twenty.

Tony remembered that the young man (at the time) had been the cause of quite the buzz amongst the old wizened mages, and well, everyone in attendance. Banner had been very young when he'd graduated from his school with top honors and everyone who was anyone important had been dying to meet him. Banner had stood out amongst the large gathering of people to Tony because the man had a vague air about him that said that he would rather be somewhere else, perhaps with his books so that he could study and not bother with such social gatherings.

The sight had reminded Tony of himself a little, though Tony's reasons had been different. He would rather be tinkering with mechanics and metals or reading to expand his knowledge, and not being in the stuffy ballroom where his only purpose was to smile and be polite whenever he had to be introduced to some important wizard or another by his father.

Besides, he was sure Howard never really wanted him there. It was just bad for the Stark name if the heir to the clan did not turn up, even if said heir didn't even have a single smidgen of magical finesse in him. Tony occasionally wondered how the clan had reacted when he'd ran away from them, but he never bothered to check what his official status with them was. He was sure Pepper still kept tabs on the Starks, but he never found the need to know about how they were faring and what their stance on their missing heir was. They certainly hadn't bothered to look for him when he'd pulled his vanishing act.

"…being HYDRA's prisoner. Your attack gave me the chance to escape."

"You spent four years as HYDRA's prisoner?!" Tony cried out in shock and outrage.

"No, I disappeared of my own will four years ago. HYDRA got me about a year ago," Banner clarified.

"Well, that's still not very nice. Glad the distraction we caused let you out as well," Tony said. Giving the man a critical glance, he asked, "Is that all you have?"

"HYDRA wasn't overflowing with hospitality, as you would imagine," Banner replied with a wry quirk of his lips. "They may have hidden my spellbook somewhere in the base, but I wasn't really thinking of it at the time."

A wizard's spellbook was literally the wizard's life. Tony knew that to be pretty much an absolute fact. Only really, really experienced wizards could survive without their spellbooks for an extended period of time. Even so, all wizards were extremely protective over their spellbooks and even if they could survive without one (or many), to Tony's knowledge, none of them ever willingly did so.

"Alright then, since we've cleared out the base of all its pests, let's go and see if we can find your belongings. It's the least I can do to thank you for breaking my fall."

As he spoke, Tony attempted to stand up. Steve's hand came up immediately to help him, but he saw that there was a tiny frown on Steve's face. Probably because Tony wasn't being a good nearly-died person and not exerting himself. But there was no way Tony was going to let himself be carried around by Steve, or anyone else for the matter.


Mentally, he rejoiced at Steve once again calling him "Tony", but he did not let that sway his decision. "I'm not going to be carried around, Captain. I'll take it slow, but that's it."

"Fine," Steve acquiesced.

Tony only had a second to think that that went easier than he expected before Steve had moved to sling an arm around Tony's waist. Then, he was pressed up against Steve's side with most of his weight leaning onto the other man.

"Uh, Captain…?"

"I'll help you along, Tony. If you so much as try to object, I will not hesitate in picking you up and carrying you the rest of the way to the next town. Are we clear?" Steve said in his commander's tone that brooked no argument.

Perhaps it was because he was so close to Steve that he saw that behind the stern expression currently on Steve's face, there were lingering traces of fear still present in Steve's eyes. Reflecting on how Steve had almost died trying to heal him, Tony wondered just why Steve was being uncharacteristically worried and protective of him. It wasn't the first time any of them had gotten injured, though certainly nobody had come as close to dying as Tony did. Nevertheless, this behavior from Steve was a little foreign.

"Steve, I-" His words were cut off at a deceptively light touch to his right arm and he looked away from Steve to see that Natasha had come up next to him.

"I'm in agreement with Steve, Tony," Natasha said. Then with just the slightest but pronounced (to Tony's eye at least) sharpening of her gaze, she continued in the same quiet tone, "Pepper would be worried, otherwise."

That meant that Natasha would report back to Pepper about Tony's condition and the last thing Tony needed was having Pepper worry about him. Or perhaps even decide to come out to find him, if not, she would send Rhodey out and Rhodey was currently needed to make sure nobody decided to take advantage of Pepper without Tony around. He was sure that Natasha kept Pepper and Rhodey updated about their travels, and her presence was probably the only reason why Pepper and Rhodey had let him depart with Steve's party in the first place. Knowing Natasha, if Tony did not comply with Steve's admittedly not outrageous demands, she would definitely raise alarm bells with his two friends that did not need to be raised. Tony was fine. He was all sorts of levels of "fine".

"Right, no overexerting myself and I'm to let our fine paladin help me along. I understand," Tony said, giving way as graciously as he could manage, which wasn't really all that much, but hey, at least he wasn't throwing a tantrum or whining.

Once they started moving though, Tony directed his attention fully onto Banner and started engaging the reserved wizard in conversation. He was still curious about the circumstances surrounding Banner's disappearance and his capture by HYDRA, but he was even more interested to know more about the man and find out if they shared any common interests in the wide fields of knowledge.

He could admit to himself that a tiny part of him, a really tiny part of him was also seeking refuge in conversing with Banner so he wouldn't have to pay much attention to how Steve was holding him firmly to help him along, and yet still gently enough that it was like Steve didn't want to accidentally injure Tony. Today was a day full of revelations about Steve, and Tony decided that right now, it was just not the time for him to dwell on those shocking revelations.

Later would be a better time… a lot later.

As the group made their way back to the now-deserted base, Steve took the time to compose himself again. He probably looked fine, but his heart was still beating at a far higher rate than usual.

Tony was alive; Steve hadn't been too late. Part of him had even been glad for Tony's protests because that was normal, unlike when Tony had been too still, too silent before. Tony was now chattering away at Banner, sounding genuinely pleased to have found someone who shared his interests. Steve took comfort in listening to Tony's voice even if he did not understand all the magical theory that was being bandied about, as he did with how he was supporting Tony. He hadn't believed for a second that the warlock was fine, not when he could feel his own body still working to heal the injuries he'd taken upon himself from Tony. He was almost sure he hadn't removed all of Tony's damage to his heart, but there was no way to deal with that right now. Perhaps he'd try to convince Tony to let him check him over when they settled down for the night.

Soon, they were at the entrance to the HYDRA base and they let Natasha lead the way, with Clint bringing up the rear. Banner was beginning to look tense again, compared to when he'd relaxed a little as Tony was talking to him outside. Bad memories had to be rearing their heads for him. When the wizard had said that he'd been HYDRA's prisoner for close to a year, Steve too had felt shock and then outrage for Banner. He could guess why HYDRA had sought to obtain Banner's services – willingly or not – from Tony's earlier proclamations about the man's genius.

Natasha led them downstairs and through various corridors before stopping outside a nondescript-looking door. "This is where HYDRA appears to be holding all their valuable items and information from our scouting," she announced before pushing the door open.

Banner stepped inside and then instantly made a beeline towards the furthest corner of the room, as if drawn by something. It could very likely be the case. Tony made to follow the wizard, which left Steve going in the same direction. The rest of them fanned out across the room, seeking for more information that would be useful in finding out more of HYDRA's plans and thwarting them.

Banner then reached out to take hold of a thin book in a gleaming, metallic casing that was resting on a relatively empty bookshelf. When the man's fingers touched the case though, he hissed and snatched his fingers back as if burnt.

"Are you okay?" Tony asked, even as he reached for the book too.

Before Steve could warn him against handling the book due to what had happened to Banner, Tony had taken a hold of it and was perfectly okay.

"This is si…" Tony trailed off as he looked at Banner.

Glancing at Banner himself, Steve found himself tensing up instinctively. The aura around the soft-spoken wizard had changed, and Steve found himself in a situation akin to staring down a cornered wild predator.

Then wordlessly, Tony extracted the leather-bound book from the case and held it out to Banner. Banner stared at Tony for a long moment, his eyes wide. Then haltingly, the wizard reached out to take back his spellbook, his eyes never once leaving Tony. Once the book was safely with Banner, a flare of light came from Tony's palm and both Steve and Banner watched in surprise as the metal case disintegrated in Tony's hand.


"Don't worry about it, Bruce," Tony said airily. "I can call you Bruce, can't I? I'm Antonius, but you can call me Tony."


"No protests! Unless you object to me calling you Bruce?"

"No, no that's fine. Thank you… Tony," Banner replied with a slight smile that seemed to be the most genuine one that had appeared on the wizard's face since they'd met him.

Steve had no idea of what just transpired. He wasn't sure why Tony was able to hold the metal case without getting shocked, but figured that HYDRA had enchanted the case to prevent Banner from being able to access his spellbook on the chance that he escaped. That still didn't completely explain Banner and Tony's exchange though. As short as that had been, Steve felt that a very significant thing had occurred. He just didn't know what it could be.

"Well then, we've gotten Bruce's spellbook back," Tony said. "Anyone knows where his clothes could be?"

"Here," Peggy answered, walking up with a bag. Then to Banner, she said, "I'm not sure if it's yours, but it isn't HYDRA's uniform either."

Banner took the bag and peered inside. "Yes, these are mine. I'm surprised they kept them. Thank you, ma'am."

"Call me Peggy, Bruce." Then Peggy introduced the rest of them to the wizard.

Tony, having grown up experimenting and working with metals, had instantly identified by touch that the case Bruce's spellbook was in was made almost purely of silver.

"This is si…"

It hit him like a lightning bolt as his eyes widened in realization.

Bruce Banner was a Were.

This… this had to have been a relatively recent development and Bruce's own admission to having made himself disappear four years ago suddenly made terrible, terrible sense.

He looked at Bruce who was beginning to give off an aura of a wild animal a threatened and cornered one. He also vaguely noted that Artemis had been staying as far away from Bruce as possible since they entered the base while still attempting to keep close to Clint. Surely Artemis had instinctively taken note of the were-animal side of Bruce and it had to be a prominent predator for the hawk to be so wary.

A wave of sympathy and understanding washed over Tony. Bruce was waiting for Tony to drop the other shoe but he was doing no such thing. He understood all too well how prejudice affected people. Tony's own family had shunned him as soon as his warlock abilities manifested and he was met with fear – and even hatred – once other people knew about his powers.

Tony had gotten used to it eventually; gotten used to being feared and hated because of something he couldn't control and hadn't asked for. Bruce hadn't managed that, it was all too clear. Four years versus a lifetime. The wizard must have run almost as soon as he knew about his change. Tony wasn't about to let Bruce disappear again and live in fear and isolation though.

Much as he had insisted to Pepper and Rhodey that he'd be fine being alone, he knew it would've been a lie. Certainly he'd survive, but their presence had hit it home that it was really very nice to not always be alone. He'd also acknowledge that if not for Rhodey, and then Pepper, he might have given it all up the day he was cursed and decided to go out in a blaze of glory. Maybe it would've even been literal.

Wordlessly, Tony removed the spellbook from the silver case and held it out to Bruce. He kept his eyes on Bruce unflinchingly, hoping that the other man would read his sincerity in them. Tony was not good with words, not those meant to comfort and reassure anyway, so he hoped that in this case, his actions would speak louder, clearer. He was cheered when Bruce, albeit tentatively, reached for the proffered book. Then making sure that Bruce was still looking at him, Tony blasted the silver case into nothingness. The action caused a twinge of protest in his chest, but the happiness he felt at the look of wide-eyed surprise on Bruce's face eclipsed that minor ache.


"Don't worry about it, Bruce," he cut in smoothly in a nonchalant tone, hoping this would further reassure the man that Tony would keep his secret. "I can call you Bruce, can't I? I'm Antonius, but you can call me Tony."

Bruce still didn't seem all that convinced. "But…"

"No protests! Unless you don't want me to call you Bruce?" Tony put in a deliberate, plaintive note into his voice.

"No, no that's fine. Thank you… Tony," Bruce replied with a small smile.

Tony read the wonder and gratitude in the man's eyes and couldn't help but grin as well. "Well then, we've gotten Bruce's spellbook back. Anyone knows where his clothes could be?"

Peggy stepped forward with what turned out to be actually Bruce's clothes and then introduced the rest of them to the wizard, something they hadn't managed to do since Tony had occupied Bruce's attention all the way to HYDRA's old base of operations. As they stepped out of the room to let Bruce have his privacy to change, Tony made a quick decision.

"Hurry out when you're done, Bruce! Then we can finally leave this forsaken place together!" he called over his shoulder as he exited the room.

"I… Okay."

Tony felt the grin on his lips widen a little further. He was fairly sure Bruce wouldn't pull a vanishing act immediately and if Tony had any say in it, he was going to make sure that Bruce wouldn't have to be alone again. Perhaps he'd be interested to stay with Tony when this was over. The mansion was certainly large enough to accommodate the wizard and the library was extensive…

"Tony, you're thinking of asking Bruce to join us, aren't you?" Steve spoke, breaking into his musings.

Tony blinked, turning to look at Steve. He was also abruptly reminded of their forced proximity when Steve's face showed up far closer to his own than usual. Nope, this was still not the time to contemplate the weird flip-floppy feeling in his gut.

"How did you guess?"

Steve shrugged, the action unwittingly drawing Tony closer to the paladin and no, Tony was not focusing on that, not at all.

"Gut instinct mostly," Steve replied. "But there's also how the two of you got along almost instantly from the start."

"Well, it'd be useful to have a proper offensive spellcaster on the team too," he hedged, unwilling to prove Steve right so easily.

"That may be true but I think all of us saw it coming when you wouldn't stop talking with Bruce," Peggy added with an amused smile.

Tony was saved from thinking of a suitable reply when Bruce came out of the room, dressed. It wasn't as though Tony could really refute Peggy's words either. He briefly wondered when he'd become so easily readable to these people (Natasha not included), before quickly abandoning the thought and turned to Bruce instead.

"Done primping, Bruce?" he asked as he took a look at Bruce's attire.

The shirt and pants on the wizard had definitely seen better days, and there was no need to mention the green rag of a cloak. Tony couldn't decide if the state of Bruce's clothes was due to HYDRA's negligence or the years Bruce had spent in hiding. It was probably both. Tony tsked.

"Right, the first thing we need to do at the next town is get you proper clothes, big guy," he announced. "And shoes," he added after glancing down at Bruce's feet.

"Tony, there's no-"

"Don't worry about the money, Bruce. I won't even miss it. Just ask any of them, they've seen my town."

"And his mansion too," Clint piped up. "I was disappointed at the lack of a golden throne though."

"In due time, my good man," Tony replied easily. Then to Bruce, he added, "Bruce, you need hardier clothes and shoes when you travel with us. The mountain ranges we're heading to require sturdier stuff."

"You want me to travel with you?"

"Of course! The others are all for it too. Unless you don't want to, in which case you can stay at my mansion and be pampered by luxury."

Bruce blinked, and then slowly replied, "I'll join you."


And that, was a job well done, if Tony didn't say so himself.

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