Through the gap between door and frame, Steve saw the flash of orange that was Pepper, waiting for them in Tony's bedroom. Gone ahead to prepare things, as she'd said. Steve had missed her at the hospital, bustling through the corridors, the visitor's lounge and Tony's room, like it was home territory. Whenever he'd gone to visit Tony, there was Pepper and Happy, both of them seemingly practiced at it; old pros at visiting ailing friends in the hospital.
Happy, on Tony's other side, reached the door first and pushed it open lightly, gently. Tony had joked that he must have been a nurse in a past life. Neither Happy nor Pepper had even bothered to pretend that was a good joke, just looked at him like he'd lost more of his mind than was really advisable. For as long as Steve had known Tony - and Happy and Pepper - he was still sometimes surprised by how comfortable they were together. How self-contained a unit. Steve might have felt awkward if the two of them hadn't made it clear how glad they were to have an extra set of hands on this one.
"You should lie down," Pepper said, frowning.
"I just got sprung, Pepper. Let a guy live a little before jailing him again."
Pepper frowned at Tony again. Watching him so closely, she reminded Steve both of his mother, and his drill sergeant. "You should have used the wheelchair."
"I got here just fine." The words were perfectly even, heavy with unspoken frustration.
Tony had protested Steve and Happy double teaming him, bracketing him on the walk from the hospital to the car, and from the car to his apartment, but there had been a couple of moments where Tony had, not stumbled, because he hadn't shown any kind of weakness since the doctors agreed to cut him loose, but tensed. Steve could see the pain written in the lines of his body - across his shoulders, in his clenched fists - but only because he knew the body so well. He'd been glad to be there with Happy, even if Tony resented their presence.
"Yeah, no trouble at all. Pepper, why don't we let the boss get settled in. Didn't you say you had some contracts to look over?" Happy had all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, but it worked - the tension building between Tony and Pepper deflated instantly. Steve couldn't help but feel like a spectator, watching them in what was clearly a practiced dance.
Pepper gave a small almost-sigh of pure motherly frustration, and nodded. "Sure, we'll just let him work on popping his stitches."
"Thanks Pepper," said Tony. "You're the best." Tony turned to him, cocking an eyebrow. But no, Steve wasn't going anywhere. He crossed the room to Tony's bed and sat down. Tony didn't react, just walked over to his dresser. Steve watched as he opened the clear plastic bag containing a cheap wallet, not even leather, a handful of change, a USB drive that was a toy, compared to the stuff Tony had in his workshop, and a tiny screwdriver. He watched Tony line them up on the dresser, beside his usual things: his titanium money clip and favourite cuff links. The only clutter in a room as ordered as a five star hotel.
He kept watching, silently, as Tony, equally quiet, opened his closet, a monstrous walk in, and started to undress. The scrubs - gifts from the hospital after they'd cut Tony's t-shirt and jeans off of him - went into the hamper, beside silks and linens. It was weird to think that there actually was laundry, though Tony hadn't been here for weeks. Strange that no one had taken care of that mundane chore for him. But then, neither Pepper or Happy had brought Tony clothes from home, and Steve hadn't thought to ask about that. Jarvis wasn't living here with Tony, and Steve had no idea who was taking care of him these days.
Clad only in boxers - Steve didn't know where they'd come from - Tony stared into his closet for a minute. Two. Eventually settling on a pair of cotton sleep pants. He had to lean against the closet door to pull them on carefully, one leg at a time. After the pants he hunted around for a t-shirt.
His back was still the same back, unchanged for Tony's adventure. His legs, inside the pants were still the same legs. Steve though, was still unused to how smooth the skin was. The first time he'd seen Tony without a shirt, the skin of his chest and back had been ridged with scars from one mishap or another. Tony took stupid risks, he always had.
It was the sight of Tony's blond head, pushing through the neck of the t-shirt that cracked through the shell that Steve hadn't even realized was there. For two weeks he had been - in whatever spare time that fighting supervillains and international terrorists allowed him - busy dealing with SHIELD, with Luke and the others, with Tony's doctors, and navigating the minefield that was a convalescing Tony. But the floppy, badly dyed surfer hair, brought everything he'd been ignoring, back up to the surface. Steve knew how to push aside the things he couldn't help but feel, in order to get the job done. So for two long weeks he'd done just that, while some other part of him worried at it.
Tony turned to him, his unshaven face, under a mop of pale blonde hair, was strange and young looking, and Steve wanted, very badly, to break something.
Tony looked away from him, quickly.
The phone rang, breaking the silence. After only one ring, it stopped. There was no outward sign, but Steve knew that Tony had answered it.
"Who is it?"
"Jan." Tony answered immediately, but didn't turn back to Steve.
"Is she yelling at you?"
"Yeah." Tony didn't grin, although it somehow felt like he should have. "She says I don't have the right colouring to pull off blonde. Or at least, not this blonde."
Jan was right, Steve thought. The brassy platinum that Tony had gotten out of a bottle didn't suit him. He looked like a different person. Tony's bemused frustration, with him since he'd first woken up in the hospital, only added to the strangeness. Guilty, like he was waiting for the hammer to drop, but innocent enough to be surprised that it was still hanging over him. As if Tony didn't know exactly how far he'd gone this time; didn't know exactly how much trouble Reed, Steve and even Nick, had had to dig him out of.
Tony stood by the dresser, one hand resting casually on top of it, and stared at the darkened window; maybe through it. It was blacked out by some technological miracle that Steve didn't understand. Given Tony's newfound abilities, it was possible that where Steve saw a slick, black wall, Tony was seeing the jagged New York skyline that was the usual view from his bedroom window.
Tony could carry on two conversations at once now, but Steve would wait. Instead of watching him say and do inaudible, invisible things - bidding on another auction? - he looked around.
He'd been in Tony's bedroom a few times before. It seemed like every time it got a little more empty. Rhodey used to joke that at one point, he'd actually had stripper poles in his bedroom. Now it contained a bed, a dresser, a bedside table and a closet. The window, and a long, calligraphed scroll hanging over the bed, were the only decoration. The lights were recessed into the walls, and screened by panels that kept them from being too bright. It felt like being in a science fiction movie, rather than a place that someone actually slept. Steve couldn't quite stop himself from wondering what Tony's girlfriends, the ones who only lasted a handful of nights, thought of it; if they wondered what it said about the man whose bed they were about to get into.
Steve didn't read kanji, but it was obvious even to his eyes that the scroll was old. He glanced over at Tony, still by the dresser.
He was turning his hand, palm up, palm down, working the wrist as if he'd just hurt it. Tony was tired, and a little uneasy on his feet, but he wasn't hurt, strictly speaking. Extremis had taken care of that, while the doctors watched, wishing they could glean some kind of insight into the enhancile by seeing it in action. They couldn't, or else Tony would have insisted on being removed from the hospital right away, rather than just whining about being held captive.
Somehow it was obvious that he was no longer talking to Jan. There were no physical... symptoms of his using extremis, but Steve knew when he was feeling something, even if he didn't know exactly what it was. Talking with Jan, he'd had this almost-grin, almost-grimace that twisted his lips subtly. Now there was nothing, just Tony staring at his hand.
"Did Rumiko give that to you?"
Tony looked up, startled. His eyes went immediately to Steve, and then past his shoulder, to the scroll. There wasn't much else in the room Steve could have been talking about.
"No, her father did." A trace of sadness?
"After she died?"
Tony looked at him, his eyes wide. "Yeah." His voice was maybe a little rough.
It was harder to read him now. Steve just paid more attention.
"Look," Tony said tentatively. "I'm grateful for the assist, but Pepper aside, I do want to go to bed." As he spoke, Steve could hear him straightening his shoulders, if not see it. In a way, it was heartening, that he could still find Tony in there, but that only served to remind Steve of why he had to look for Tony, when Tony was standing right in front of him. Not that he could forget for a second this latest disaster, but he could now, literally see it happening; he could see feeling brighten, then leave Tony's eyes. Just like watching Tony's body remake itself, in a hospital that had been rendered obsolete by an untested technological wonder. He could literally see extremis writing out Tony's previous existence.
"You're grateful for the assist?" Tony tensed at the anger in Steve's voice; the anger that he hadn't even bothered to control. He shuttered it up tight.
"What exactly is it you're thanking me for Tony?" Steve could see the faintest trace of what Tony's reaction should have been, in what it actually was. Instead of angry, Tony got quieter; somehow larger, as though his body contained more than it should be able, even while he withdrew. Like he was gathering power.
"For... everything," Tony tried.
"I don't need you to thank me," he said, softer than he'd intended.
"I guess not," Tony laughed. Dropped his gaze again, seemingly bashful, all of a sudden. "Friends don't need to thank each other for being friends." Steve's words; one of a million attempts to get it into his rich-boy head that he could, and did, have people who really cared about what happened to him, without his having to pay them to do it. Steve didn't trust it. He'd always known how capable Tony was of dissembling, of lying outright, when he decided it was necessary. It was something else to know that he was doing it, to see him cover himself, machine logical, with what Steve might expect.
"No, they don't."
This, this was something new.
Steve could remember, with perfect clarity, Tony looking him in the eye and lying about his private wars. He could remember too, what it was like to find that Tony had betrayed him, had gone behind his back to do something Steve hadn't thought him capable of: a deliberate, measured, killing. Tony had done all that with total confidence; the familiar arrogance that Steve even managed to find charming. But never with the ease he had now.
"You don't need to thank me, Tony." It wasn't gratitude Steve was looking for. It wasn't penance either.
"Still, you've been great. You, and Pepper, and Happy."
"They've had a lot of practice with watching you heal."
"I guess they have." Tony rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, and slitted his eyes closed, his expression saying headache, and tired. Both of which were probably true - the doctors had told them to expect both - but they were also easy ways to get rid of Steve. Tony had been trying to do that for two weeks, but Steve wasn't going to let him.
"Steve, I.." Tony looked expectant, but still friendly. What was he looking at, doing, while talking with Steve? Where else was his mind?
"We need to have this conversation. It's up to you if you we do this now, or later, but I'm not going to wait much longer."
This wasn't about Steve, or about his feelings. His feelings didn't factor into it, no matter how much he was feeling - anger, frustration, something too much like fear - but remembering what it had been like the last time Tony had gone rogue, helped keep things clear. The only feelings that were important, were the ones that Tony was experiencing less and less. He was going somewhere not even Reed could follow. All so he could process things a little faster, so he didn't have to 'overclock the wetware' anymore.
There was a flash of real anger then, like Steve had punched him, rather than just said straight out what hanging around his hospital bed for two weeks must have communicated. This isn't over, and we are going to talk about it.
"Look, I know I could have handled things better-"
"You broke out of a federal prison and went on the run, while a vengeful kid was controlling your body." Not that he'd known it at the time, but Nick had been clear - Tony knew something was wrong, he'd known that he was out of control.
"I had to figure out what was going on," Tony snapped.
"So clearing your name was more important than the people you put at risk?"
"The people holding me were at risk. You know what I did." There was actual anguish in his voice - Steve believed it, but it wasn't enough.
"You turned yourself into a living weapon."
"Is that what this is about? What do you think Iron Man is, Steve?"
"There's a difference, and you used to know that - but you don't know anymore, do you?"
Steve came out of Tony's bedroom, heading for the elevator like a quarterback determined to earn a few more yards. Steve. Happy almost laughed to himself. In the hospital, Mr. Rogers had insisted they call him Steve. He worked for one of the richest, smartest men in the world, and he was on a first name basis with Captain America. Happy's life had taken some weird turns.
Mr. Rogers- Steve, looked like he'd been fighting a war, which he supposed he might have been. Tony and Steve hadn't been friends for as long as they'd been comrades, but long enough for them to have had some really bitter fights. That's how it was. Fights with strangers, whether they were over money or honor, didn't matter nearly so much as the ones you had with the people you cared about. Fighting with Pepper felt ten times worse than even the worst blows he'd taken in the ring. And Tony, well, he always did make things more difficult than they had to be.
He nudged Pepper. She looked up from the cup of now lukewarm coffee she'd been nursing. "Steve."
Steve was clearly startled to see them, but he recovered quick. "You're still here."
"Well, I... can look over contracts anywhere."
"Yeah, and we wanted to see how things turned out," Happy said, knowing it had to sound a little guilty in spite of himself.
"Tony must know you're still here." Steve looked around the living room. Looking for the cameras he knew were there, but couldn't identify. Happy knew where some of them were, but Tony being Tony, there was always one more that he didn't tell you about.
"Oh, because he used a billion dollar experiment to turn himself into the world's best peeping tom?" Happy ducked Pepper's smack. It wasn't like it wasn't true.
"Yeah," Steve smiled. "Because of that."
"He just got out of the hospital," Pepper said. "Someone needs to watch over him." Steve looked doubtful at that. Happy couldn't blame him. Tony was one of the worst patients he'd ever seen.
"He knows it could be worse. Last time he died we hired a full time babysitter."
Steve's eyes widened a little at that, but he didn't ask. Happy figured either he already knew, or he wasn't surprised.
"Is Tony sleeping?" Pepper asked.
"I doubt it."
"Good, I need to talk to him about-"
"Go ahead," Happy said. "I need to get home to water the plants."
"Oh, right." Pepper rubbed her temples absently, her exhaustion showing.
"Come on, I'll walk you to your bike." Happy nodded to the elevator. "It's a big building. We wouldn't want you getting lost." Steve smiled at that, his doubt obvious.
Happy leaned against the side of the elevator, trying to seem casual. Even after tripping over each other for two weeks in the hospital, it was still strange, scratch that, downright weird, to be alone with Captain America. Steve stood beside him, utterly at ease in his skin. It was sort of like parade rest, only more relaxed. Not that he actually was relaxed, because he was obviously far from it. He looked like he was spoiling for a fight.
"You want to go for a beer?"
To his unending surprise, Steve said, "Sure."
"Follow me." Steve did. Happy in his car and Steve on his bike, they made their way to a bar that Happy didn't really go to anymore. It was a bar that he couldn't picture Tony going to, even at his worst; the kind where everybody knew you, but not your name. They knew your type; they were your type. There was a hardbitten camaraderie to the place. One that Happy knew all too well, being as he spent years as a down-on-his-luck fighter, before he became chauffeur, assistant and all around flunky to an international playboy/mad scientist.
Steve, though, fit in just fine. He was just another big, hardworking guy. Maybe a little more polite than some of them, but there were mama's boys as well as hard cases in every dive bar in the world.
Happy nodded at a booth that had the advantage of having enough space for both of them. He wasn't a small guy, but Steve was ultra heavy weight material by virtue of his height and shoulders alone. The vinyl of the seats was old and worn; brown but it probably wasn't brown originally, and stained with decades of spilt drinks and use. It creaked when they sat, but Steve didn't seem to notice. He just sat down and got to the business of waving down a waitress. Which wasn't hard for him, Happy noticed with amusement. The waitress was all too pleased to bounce over to their table and hit Steve with a megawatt smile.
"You guys ready?" She gave Happy a quick once over, and then was back to ogling Steve.
"Bottle of Bud," Happy said.
"Just a water."
"You sure that's all you want?" The waitress put a hand on her hip and cocked it, in the process leaning forward enough that her cleavage was the biggest thing in their field of vision. Waitress to centerfold in under thirty - it was one of the most obvious come-ons Happy had ever seen.
Steve just smiled politely. "I'm fine, thanks."
"Coming right up."
"Thank you," Steve said, with absolute sincerity. He said thank you the way your mother wished you would.
Then Steve turned a look on him, expectant.
"You're worried about him. Maybe you should be."
"Worried? People are dead."
"And it's Tony's fault."
Steve frowned, but didn't deny Happy's characterization of things. The boss had souped himself up with barely tested technology, and when things started going wrong, he tried to deal with it himself, instead of going to Director Fury or Doctor Richards like he could have. There had been opportunities. Tony hadn't taken them. He was right to fear extremis falling into the wrong hands - look what they'd done with his armor - but he hadn't had enough fear about what extremis meant in his own hands. Maybe now he did.
"You're angry, but that doesn't mean you're not worried. He changed the way his brain works - who wouldn't be worried?"
"He doesn't see it that way."
"Course not." He smiled. It took a couple beats, one-two one-two, where he looked to be deciding on how to feel, but Steve smiled back.
The drinks came. The waitress flirted with Steve, and then shared a bit of that shine with Happy. No way was he telling Pepper.
"You know how we met?"
"He said that you saved his life," Steve said.
"Tony was racing one of his prototype toys. I was there with some friends, down with the pit crews. About the third lap in, something went wrong, the car started jittering like it was trying to shake itself apart. He was jerking the wheel from side to side, trying to shed speed in a long S. Maybe the brakes were cut - I didn't know at the time. The other cars pulled out of the way as best they could but it wasn't enough. He was tearing up the track, all over it, and the car was out of control.
"Tony steered into the best roadblock he could find - the wall - crashing himself instead of someone else." Happy took a long pull from his beer, remembering it. He could still smell the burnt rubber and plastic. "He got the angle just right. Didn't roll at all, just scraped the side off his car entirely. There was barely a door left when the wall was through with it."
"You pulled him out."
"If it wasn't me, it would have been someone else. I was the only one stupid enough to go in while the car was still on fire."
"Didn't it blow up?" Steve grinned.
"Yeah, but there was a thirty second window where we could have done it. But I knew something was wrong. Turned out I was right." He'd been half dragging Tony away from the wreckage of his car when it blew up, knocking them both down to the hot asphalt, Happy on top. When he could hear again, he asked the idiot rich boy if he was alright.
"Great," Tony said. "You should see the other guy. Wait - is the other guy ok?"
"The other guy's fantastic." Then Tony passed out.
A few days later he'd come by with a job offer. Happy had been in no position to refuse, no matter how crazy the guy obviously was. He was working part time in a gym, and fighting whenever he could, but that brought in barely enough money to cover rent. Tony was offering a substantial pay increase, and steady work.
"It wasn't his fault - the car was sabotaged. He could have road-tested it more, I guess. But when things went wrong, he did what he had to, to make sure the other guy was safe, even if it meant killing himself."
Steve stared blankly into the vinyl beside Happy's head, holding his sweating water in one hand, but not turning it. Steve didn't fidget. He hadn't fidgeted in the hospital either, just sat in the observation area and then the visitor's chair beside Tony's bed like a statue, but without the stiffness.
"Tony's brain might work differently, but the insides look mostly the same." That got him Steve's full attention back. His eyes slid to Happy's, laser-sharp like Tony's could be, but there was something sheepish in his expression. "He's still the same guy. He can just get away with more."
"You've known him a long time."
"So have you, man."
Steve's phone - probably not a phone, but it looked like one - beeped. He checked the screen. "I have to go. Thank you Happy, for the drink." He stood, pulling out his wallet and dropping a ten on the table.
Happy pushed Steve's money back at him. When Steve didn't take the bill, he handed it to him. "It was just a water. Anyway, I have to take care of the plants, before Pepper tears me a new one."
They walked out together, to their respective vehicles. Happy paused at the door to his car. "Be seeing you," he told Steve. He hadn't meant it to sound like a question, but it did, to his ears.
"Yeah," Steve said. "Thanks again." He secured his helmet, turned the key and pushed off. The bike's engine was a soft hum, not the brash grind of a Harley. Happy watched him ride away until his lights faded to dark, before starting his car.
"What does the driver think?"
"I didn't see your eyes, Nick. Satellite?"
"There's nothing like Starktech," Nick said, his voice crackling over the comm. It was Starktech too, specially made for SHIELD and it usually delivered crisp, clear tones no matter where Steve was. Only a few hundred feet of dirt or water could deteriorate the signal.
"Happy isn't Tony's driver," Steve said. Nick knew that, but it was always worth frustrating him. "He seems optimistic."
"Enough to convince you?"
"I don't know."
With Tony hospitalized, and movers and shakers the world over up in arms, Nick wanted someone with him that he could trust. Steve would have stayed with Tony and seen him home from the hospital, regardless. Tony was his friend. On its own that was enough, but Steve needed to know: who Tony was now, and what Tony was. He didn't need Nick's encouragement to worry - he'd already seen enough. The fallout from Yinsen was enough, and Tony himself was. Bidding on auctions in the middle of a fight. Stopping people's hearts; stopping his own. Where was the line between enthusiastic embrace of new technological toys, and allowing those toys to change you?
"Happy thinks that Tony is just Tony: pushing the limits of what he can get away with."
"Stark's always felt he was above the rules. Sometimes that's been to our advantage. Sometimes it hasn't."
"I'm heading in. I'll switch to the land line."
"It's not any more secure than this one. We're better off with the comm.The boys in the labs are wetting themselves over what Stark did with extremis." Which meant they couldn't stop Tony from listening in - yet - but they trusted Tony's work to keep anyone else from doing the same.
"Five minutes, Nick," Steve said.
"I'll give you ten." The line went dead, a soft click in his ear.
Steve's bike rolled to a stop in his usual spot. He wedged the helmet under one arm, and shouldered his bag on the other, keys in hand. Despite the age of the building, and the worn out look of the surrounding neighborhood, the lock was smooth and new, the elevator to the loft equally new. Old on the outside, brand new on the inside. The apartment came half-furnished, with all the amenities that Steve could possibly want. It didn't quite feel like home yet, his last place a burnt out husk, and this one spotted with characterless furniture, exercise equipment, and a few photographs he'd salvaged.
One of the pictures stuck to the fridge was a Polaroid of him and Tony, taken in Central Park by a tourist. She'd asked him to take a picture of her and her girlfriends. Tony had her to take one of them in turn. Tony's nose and brow were pink and his hair was messier than usual. Steve had a smudge of dirt on his cheek. It was a bad picture, with lens flare whiting out the top right corner and Cindy the tourist's thumb making a smudge of the bottom left. Tony brought it home and Pepper saved it, like she did everything. It came out of a tidily filed storage box, the first time Tony had Steve over, after he'd moved.
He tapped the comm, speed dial four. Before he could say hello, Tony said: "What are you making for dinner?"
"How did you know I was home?"
"Happy told me you guys had a drink. Nothing big is lighting up the SHIELD or Avengers switchboards, and not even Nick is enough of an asshole to drag you into work after the week you've had. Therefore you're home or on your way, give or take how fast you drove. I'm betting fast, pushing the speed limit the whole way." Tony was right. The bike was fresh from a tune up and Steve hadn't had a chance to ride it in too long, and then there was his bed, which called to him from across the city.
"You're wondering if I peeked." Also right. "I didn't. I can't say that I don't keep an eye on things, but I haven't been listening in." Not in the last half an hour, at least.
"I'm going to have a sandwich," is all Steve said in response.
"Better than hospital food."
"It wasn't that bad."
"It really was. There's a reason I always make an early break for it, and it's not my paranoia."
"You keep telling yourself that, Tony." Steve stared into the fridge, not even half full, but full enough to make a sandwich. He pulled out the fixings and set to it, wondering - not absently - if Tony was watching him lay out slices of bread. He could let the conversation continue, all empty banter; it would take no effort at all. Or he could drive straight to the point. Chances were the line was secure, unless there was someone listening that even Tony hadn't anticipated. Within two questions they could be yelling at each other again; Steve could be yelling, which would be easy, a relief even. He could say everything he'd saved up, every dodged question, ignored but obvious answer. But that would get them nowhere. Nowhere at least that he couldn't already predict: not talking, with accusations on both sides, and no clear way to bridge the gap. He needed the middle road.
"We need to talk," he said.
"You can call me back after you talk to Nick."
"I wasn't listening. But there's no way you're getting off without a full debrief."
Steve exhaled, hard. "Not tonight. We can... borrow the Quinjet." Silence. He waited for Tony to protest, maybe say that Steve wasn't his keeper, that he'd said all he would.
"Tomorrow is good," he said finally. "Steve, I... I don't..." For a too long moment Steve waited. It felt like Tony might say something; even his silence heavy. "I'll see you in the morning."
"Right," he said to a dead comm. Steve stood in his new-old kitchen, eating a cheese and lettuce sandwich. He hadn't turned on the lights when he came in, the half light from the windows was enough. In the dark, the industrial smell of cleansers and new plastic was strong. Forget walking, it was like dancing on eggshells, not knowing how Tony would respond because so many things were subtly different about him. Not knowing which things they were. Needing to know the shape of Tony's plans and past intentions. Needing to know how to read the man, and not knowing if he still knew how.
"He's still the same guy. He can just get away with more."
Maybe Happy was right and Tony was just the same as he'd always been. The thought wasn't comforting - extremis was a fact, something that couldn't be ignored by SHIELD, the government, or Steve himself. If Happy was right, then it came down to trust. Steve didn't know if he could manage it this time. He gulped down the last of his sandwich, texted Nick about the meeting tomorrow, and headed to bed.