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Upon Waking

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*oOo*

“You don’t like coming here.” It is a statement, not a question and he hates those kinds of statements, they are loaded with hidden ammunition, just waiting to throw him back into the nightmares, the images, the freaking horrible places in his mind.

“No, I don’t.” He doesn’t hold his anger back. He knows he’s telegraphing his mood not only in his voice but in his body language. Everything about him says stay away, back off, claws out.

“But you keep coming.” Another statement of the blatantly obvious. Sometimes he imagines his wonderful doctor as some kind of jolly green giant wreaking havoc all over the place, like breaking Harlem or something.

“Pepper makes me.”

“She’s your assistant?”

Finally a question, not a statement, but it is a question that the good doctor already knows the answer. They’ve been through this several times before, Banner just likes to torment him and force him to admit he has a friend in this fucking world.

He doesn’t fall for the bait at all. “Yes, she’s my assistant.”

“What does she assist you with?”

Tony knows that Banner thinks he has Tony now, thinks he so intelligent and clever. He always tries to back Tony into a corner with his little psycho-babble and analysis. He knows this game; he is a genius after all.

“Remembering to come to this damned place three times a week to waste my time and what little money I have left.” Banner smiles at him in that condescending way that means he’s going to patronize Tony at any minute. Tony jumps the gun and comments, “She’s good at making sure I don’t miss my appointments.”

“Is that right?”

Oh the rhetorical question, Tony always loves that one. He launches to his feet like he has thrusters on and paces the office. It is large and airy with a certain Asian flare to the décor. He can’t say he doesn’t like it. In fact, the first time he sat in Doctor Banner’s office he felt comforted by the clean lines that mixed a kind of Frank Lloyd Wright architectural sense with Asian influences. But after a while, it had become apparent that Banner wants the same thing all of the other doctors wanted – to drill into his brain and scoop out all the good parts.

“You’ve missed at least a dozen of your appointments with me,” Banner points out and taps his pencil against his pad. He never actually writes anything down.

“Don’t blame that on Pepper, never blame that on Pepper,” Tony says and throws himself back in the cushioned chair. Thank God or whomever, the chairs are nice. Good height, not too tall so that his feet dangle a few inches from the floor. He hates when that happens.

“I didn’t,” Banner says. “Why don’t you tell me why you missed your last appointment?”

“Why? Isn’t it obvious? You sleep through my sessions,” Tony says and has to admit that was only once, and Tony had nattered on for an hour about practically nothing.

“I drifted.”

“Drifted, with your eyes closed. Is that what they’re calling it now?” Tony says. “You know, what? I don’t think I have to come here anymore.” He stands up. He’s going to make that dramatic exit now, except the good doctor has other plans.

“Not if you want to get your job back.”

“I don’t need my job, I’m rich.”

“You’re also without a means to actually access your own money, aren’t you?” Banner raises his eyebrows in that meaningful, I got you type of expression.

Tony sinks back into the chair. “Fine, I’ll do the session, but on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“We both sleep.”

“What?” Banner scratches his eternally unshaven face. It isn’t quite a beard, but it has more to it than a scruff.

“I come here, we nap, and then I go.” Tony thinks this would be an excellent use of his time.

“Ah no,” Banner says. “I think we have to deal with your post-traumatic stress, I think that if we don’t you’re going to go out and get yourself shit assed drunk again, and try and jump off that ugly building you built. And, for some unthinkable reason, I kind of like you. So shut it and listen.”

“You know,” Tony says as he checks his manicure and then looks up at the good doctor. “You really don’t have the right temperament to be this kind of doctor.”

“Tell me about it,” Banner says.

When he doesn’t elaborate Tony frowns at him and says, “You always do that, you know. Throw out a comment and then you don’t actually explain what it means.”

“See, that’s why I shouldn’t be this kind of doctor,” Banner says but his body inches forward on the chair and he leans toward Tony. “Listen, in order for you to get control of your family’s wealth again from the trustees and for you to go back to work, you need my clearance. We’ve been at this for months, and we haven’t gotten anywhere. Even I –someone you don’t think is very good at his job- can tell you’re strung out and about to break.”

“Strung out, Tony Stark does not get strung out,” Tony scoffs at him. What the hell is wrong with this guy?

“Easy peasy, if you want to get your life back, you pass my tests, I give you a gold star and you get back what was yours,” Banner says. “If you don’t want it, leave now.”

Tony exhales in a huff and then puts his hands up in mock surrender. “Tell me doc, am I gonna die.”

“Yes, in all likelihood you will die, hopefully later rather than sooner,” Banner replies and then adds, “Right now, I’m more concerned about making that later than sooner. Your self-destructive path since you returned from your ordeal-.”

“Why not just call it what it was?” Tony says. “I was kidnapped from the unit I was embedded with, tortured, and held for ransom for three months until the great military machine of the US deemed it necessary, or safe enough, or what the hell else it was to rescue me.”

Banner bows his head for a moment, but then looks up but not at Tony. He stares toward a little garden outside the large sliding glass doors of his offices. It is a rock and sand garden with meticulously drawn lines in the sand. Banner shifts his attention to Tony and says, “You’re a brilliant man, Tony. You decided to do something good with your life instead of making weapons like your father. If you want to continue to do well, then use your brain. Your ordeal as an embedded journalist was horrible, your continued ordeal as a person suffering from a trauma haunts you. There are people out there, waiting to get their hands on your money. You may not have control of your father’s company, but you hold a lot of power and influence.”

Tony drops his retort, just gazes out at the long lines in the sand. There have been so many lines in the sand that he’s drawn. He refused to see to his father’s legacy. How does he tell this doctor that what haunts him started a long time before he’d ventured into the war zone? How does he explain to a therapist that his life has been marred with death and destruction since before he was born?

“I get it,” Banner is saying. “Sometimes you end up where you never thought you’d be. You have a second chance here, take it.”

He meets Banner’s gaze and says, “How?”

Banner scribbles down something on the yellow paper and tears off the sheet to hand it to Tony. “I think you’re a man of action, a man wanting to change the world in different ways. You’re a futurist; everyone knows that from the articles you’ve published. How about you start small this time? How about you go here and change their world?”

Tony looks at the address. It is for a rehab center for veterans out in Brooklyn. He’s not even sure he knew there was a place out there. “What do you want me to do here?”

“It’s a new facility for vets that have long term issues.”

“I am not checking myself into a military crazy house,” Tony says and tries to hand back the paper.

Banner lightly pushes it back to Tony. “I’m not suggesting that. What I am suggesting is that you go there and volunteer.” He stands up then and walks around Tony’s chair to his desk. He opens a few of the drawers on the large mahogany desk, which doesn’t fit with the décor at all. He rummages around, digs out a key, unlocks the center long drawer, and throws the prescription pad on the desk. He scrawls something on the pad and hands it to Tony.

Tony frowns. He already took the paper, which he normally doesn’t do – he was just curious what the doctor wrote. Now the prescription pad that is another story entirely. “Um, no.”

“It isn’t drugs.”

When Tony still doesn’t take the small sheet of paper, Bruce lets it float down to Tony’s lap. He looks at it like it might be a hissing cockroach or something. On the paper is a prescription for him to volunteer at the facility.

Tony smirks. “You cannot make me do this.”

“No, probably not, but it will all go into my report. So, you won’t get your money or your job back.” Banner grins his little half assed cocky grin. “Good luck with that.”

“You know I hate you,” Tony says as he stands up, crumpling the paper.

As Tony starts for the door, Banner calls after him. “I already made an appointment for you to meet the patient advocate there. Name’s Clint Barton, former military.”

“Unless Pepper-.”

“She already has it on your calendar.” Banner smiles and Tony understands that his assistant and his doctor are in cahoots. He thinks maybe he needs new friends, and then realizes he considers the doctor one of his only friends.

It stops him and he glances at the doctor before he mumbles, “Yeah, sure. Thanks.”

“Any day, Tony, good luck.” Banner adds, “See you next week.”

After Tony leaves the offices, he ends up standing in the middle of the sidewalk with his eyes cast to the little sheet of white paper, he watches as his hands shake, as he trembles. Sending him into the lion’s den, that is what Banner is doing. He really isn’t a good therapist. Tony wants his life back, but Stane stole it when he paid the terrorists to kill the unit he was embedded with and torture him.

Stane did it all to try and take control of Tony’s inheritance. The Will and the Trust with its convoluted rules and structure made it practically impossible for Tony to get his hands on the money. He still doesn’t understand to this day why Stane went through so much trouble. The Will as laid out by his father through his trusted lawyer, Justin Hammer stated in very complex and convoluted terms that Tony would never inherit a single dime. The way the Will entrusted the entire estate into the hands of a nebulous board of Trustees who could decide Tony’s fate based on some obscure rules set out in the Will has led to years of litigation. His father hated him, he hated his father. Tony supposed it was only fair, especially since he used the media to play out that hatred, especially since he took it upon himself to show his father how wrong he was, even after his father had been dead these long years.

Deciding to use the media and the 24/7 news junkie cycle as his platform, Tony turned into an amateur journalist. He did reports on everything and anything to criticize the military machine and his father’s industries both before and after he died. He tries not to think about his resentment as a reason why he continued after his father died, he tries not to admit that he did it out of spite.

But what he found as an embedded journalist changed his world. When he’d first embarked on the embedded journalist stint, he never thought he’d come back to the States with anything more than a great story. The soldiers he’d been assigned to had been in charge of building a school for girls in the far reaches of Afghanistan. They were engineers like he’d wanted to be once in his life. They were fucking construction workers. Stane changed all of that when the terrorists attacked, paid terrorists, merchants of death for hire. He wanted to change the world with his daily updates on his website. Now, the website is on permanent hiatus, his finances ruined, and his life in a shambles.

Thank God for Pepper.

He pockets the slip of paper and walks the two blocks to get his car. At least he still has his mother’s mansion. He still has a place to call home. As he walks through the shadows of the parking garage, he shoves his hands in his pockets. It isn’t cold, far from it in the middle of July, but he feels a coldness to his bones when he thinks of his mother’s home, when he thinks of losing her.

If she hadn’t died he might have followed in his father’s footsteps. He might have taken the brash road to become an inventor and turned into the merchant of death. Instead, he listened to her long, lazy speeches of hopes and dreams. He defied his father after she died and turned all of his resources and mental power to making the world a better place.

He hops into the car; it is an old second hand Audi. He can’t afford much else right now. He drives the dozen blocks back to the mansion, parks the car, climbs out. He finds his way to the back door of the estate on Fifth Avenue. Most of the mansion houses the Maria Stark Foundation, there’s a small apartment in the back he keeps for himself. He stays here most of the time and tries to ignore the big ugly building in the middle of Manhattan that mocks him.

Trudging up the stairs, he flips on the light switch and hands his coat to Dummy, one of his robots. Just because he turned away from engineering and invention, doesn’t mean he isn’t a futurist in mechanics. He looks through the mail, not much but bill collectors. He really has to get things under control, he realizes as he settles onto his couch that he still has the balled up paper in his hand.

Opening it, he studies the name, the order, the command.

What the hell?

He grabs his phone from his pocket and presses the buttons. Maybe Doctor Banner isn’t a good doctor, but Tony has a feeling he might be a great friend.

“Brooklyn Heights Rehabilitation and Recovery Center? This is Darcy speaking, what can I do ya for?” It is a warm female voice.

“Um, wow, I kind of expected a recording.”

“Not here, never here. What can I do for you, sir?” She sounds young to his ears, but he shouldn’t judge. He’s barely thirty himself.

“My therapist, Doctor Banner referred me to you.” He cringes. “To volunteer, not as a patient, to volunteer.”

“Is this Tony Stark?”

“The one and only,” he replies and puts a little cocky sass into his response. Why the hell not, she sounds perky.

“Okay, well, we’re happy to have you volunteer. Can you come by tomorrow at noon? We’re having a little get together for some of the vets and you can meet the residents and the outpatients.”

“Don’t I kind of need some sort of orientation, first?” He doesn’t know how to deal with people suffering from their war theater experiences. Hell, he can’t even deal with his own.

“You were in the war, right?”

“Yes, but-.”

“Part of what we do here is bring vets together to help one another,” she says with a laugh that’s not mocking but bright and lovely. “Vets helping vets. Almost all of our outpatients are volunteers.”

“Oh, okay, but I can’t pay for-.”

“Not necessary, we actually exist because of a grant from big brother himself or so I am told,” she says. “Oh, can you come tomorrow?”

Why the hell not. “Sure, noon?”

“Yeah, yeah. Just come on over, you can ask for Clint Barton.”

He nods and realizes she can’t see him. “Thanks, Darcy. See you tomorrow.”

After he pushes the disconnect, he sits in his apartment for a good hour not moving, just staring at the phone and wondering if he’s gone completely mad. This isn’t the swaggering and brash Tony Stark that went on the embedded mission to show the world what can be done by a military that’s good for humanity.

On his website and blog, he’d asked the question: why is the military always about destruction? Why can’t it be about something good?

He received his answer when a Colonel in the US Army contacted him and asked him if he would like to be an embedded journalist with a bunch of engineer and construction soldiers, the US Army Corp of Engineers, rebuilding part of Afghanistan. It was an assignment the soldiers vied for, not because it was any less dangerous, but because it offered a way to improve and give something to the people of a nation still building. Not everything had to be about burning and razing villages to the ground.

The Colonel had been an old gruff man in his fifties and over retirement age for his position. He met Tony and brought him along, telling him that part of winning a war had to do with winning the people’s hearts, as corny as that sounded. The people wanted fresh water, the people wanted a clinic, and the people wanted a school for girls.

Tony jumped at the chance, thinking he would prove to the Colonel how naïve he was being, thinking he could write an exposé on the best of intentions gone wrong. He’d been proven wrong, but he’d also been nearly killed by the hired terrorists. Held captive for three months, tortured and beaten nearly daily, he’d almost died. But his old high school friend found him; leave it up to Rhodey to get his unit obsessed with finding a wayward journalist who’d always been a thorn in the military’s side.

Now, what is there left for him to do or to say. He’s always been quick with the comeback and fast with the incendiary reaction. News stations loved him; he’d been a regular political pundit on CNN, MSNBC, but never Fox. No, Fox hated him. He chuckles a bit, they probably helped finance Stane’s little treasonous act.

It doesn’t really matter that he survived, because Stane won. Stane silenced him. He hadn’t been able to write a single word, there is nothing left to say or to write about – his life ended in that mountainous region of a backwater country. He’s got nothing left to say, but he keeps gazing at the paper with its thinly scrawled letters and it beckons him.

He can almost hear the whispers of his inner voice, and, surprisingly, it isn’t damning him for all time. Surprisingly, he wants to find out what he still has to say about this crazy, fucked up world and how to save it from itself.

*oOo*

He arrives at the address in Brooklyn Heights precisely on time, which is a new experience for him since he tries to be late. He hates to be beholden to anything, or anyone. He looks up at the large brownstone which is a dark brick, with a built out bay window in the front. There are stone steps that lead to ornately carved double doors. The only sign outside the building is something suggesting the neighborhood watch, nothing to indicate a rehab and recovery center resides on the premises.

Climbing the stairs, he peers around the neighborhood. Only a few people mingle outside. It is a Tuesday and the days are hot and sticky in July – no one wants to be outside in New York City where it smells and the air is thick with it. As he confronts the door he wonders if he should knock or just walk in. Not deciding, he does both. He twist the metal knob of the door, leans on it as he swings it open, and calls out a ‘hello’ to see if anyone is home.

“Hey, man, glad you could make it.” A man Tony’s same height greets him. He has a purple t-shirt on with the short sleeves chopped off. On the faded shirt is the picture of an arrow hitting a bull’s eye. “Name’s Clint Barton, thought we had the appointment for tomorrow, but Darcy tells me you called and asked to meet today.”

“Yeah, sure,” Tony says and looks around. The vestibule looks like it might be any brownstone in Brooklyn. The stairs going up are broad and end right near the front door. The newel post is dark wood but has nicks in it. There’s a mechanism added to the side of the stairs to help bring wheelchair bound patients up and down.

“We still have a few minutes, you want a look around?”

Tony feels like he’s chewed on his tongue. His whole adult life has been about sticking it to the man, pushing his own views of the world, and fighting for the right to say no to the damned fucking overseer government. Being in the middle of a place for wounded veterans chews through his nerves like he’s being dragged behind a car at high speeds. He hates it.

He nods his head because he doesn’t know what else to do. He wants to escape as quickly and immediately as possible. Barton doesn’t seem to notice, he just guides him to the main room off of the vestibule.

“The meeting room slash game room slash make out room. We call it the lounge,” Barton points to the living room area of the house. It has two couches in counterpoint to one another and a few scattered chairs here and there. The upholstery on the chairs and couches has seen better days, but there is a familiarity about it that gives the place solace and comfort. He likes it. There’s a slight scent of rose petals in the air and he notices a few jars of potpourri on the mantle above the stone fireplace.

“The dining room is right through the alcove and then in the back we have our kitchen,” Barton says. “Volunteers usually cook for the residents. You interested?”

“I make a mean smoothie,” Tony mumbles.

“Right, well, maybe kitchen duty isn’t your thing,” Barton slaps him on the shoulder. “We got a porch in the back both upstairs and down here. The one down here is the only one open. It has the only wheelchair access to the back alley. The one upstairs isn’t open.”

“Upstairs?”

“You’ll see. Office across from the lounge,” Barton says. He circles around and starts for the stairs. “Follow me, the groupies should be here anytime now, but we have some time to meet some of our residents.”

Tony hesitates. “Maybe not, I’m not sure-.”

“Come on, it’ll be fun, wait until you meet Thor.”

Tony chokes and coughs. “Thor?”

“Real name Don but he likes to be called Thor, looks like him, too. If you know what a Norse god looks like,” Barton skips up two of the stairs. “Come on.”

Tony doesn’t want to be left alone in the house, so he figures he better follow. He looks around once and climbs the stairs, trailing just behind Barton.

“How long, how long have you been doing this?” Tony asks.

“Since I got out of the VA hospital. I had to do something, you know. Give back to the community. Then Coulson had this crazy idea.”

“Coulson?”

“Manager of this place,” Barton says with a fond smile. “He had this nutty ass idea to stop with the letting vets deal with PTSD all alone. Bring ‘em together, get a place for ‘em, and get ‘em well. He applied for some grants and here we are.”

“You’ve been here since the inception?” Tony asks.

“More or less, I was kind of the first outpatient,” Barton leads Tony to the second floor of rooms. “We don’t have a lot of in-patients, because we just can’t afford the care and medical needs. Usually, only a handful are in-patients, but right now we only have Blake and Rogers.”

“Blake?” Tony asks.

“That’s Thor,” Barton says and knocks on one of the doors. He nudges it open and sees the room is empty. “He must be getting ready for the meeting. He always has a lot to discuss. He’s probably showering.”

Tony raises his chin in agreement, like it all makes some kind of strange sense to him – it does not. “Who’s the other patient?”

“This way.” Barton waves to Tony and they cross the long hallway past the staircase to the back of the house. As they do, Barton points up to the third level. “Staff can bed down here. We have at least two nurses on the premises at all times and a doctor. The doctor is not a usual thing, but since Rogers is here, we have to have one. The doctors are volunteers, too.”

What Tony can see of Thor’s room is vastly different from Rogers’ room. This room, as Barton leads him into it, is the picture of a long term hospital room for a critically ill patient. There are monitors and a breathing apparatus hooked up to a young man lying inert on the bed in the center of the room. The heart monitor quietly counts off his heartbeats and the pressure cuffs on his legs continue to massage his limbs to ensure proper circulation.

“Usually, we don’t have patients like Rogers here,” Barton says. “He’s a special case though. His friend, Bucky – you’ll meet him – pulled some strings and moved him here from the long term care he was getting.”

“What’s wrong with him?” The young man is the picture of health, long, muscular, perfect skin. He’s beauty personified. How could anything be wrong with him?

“He took a shot to the head,” Barton says and reaches over to pick up the strands of golden hair. “It wasn’t a serious shot, but he continued to fight and battle his way out to get Bucky out of the zone. Most of the unit sustained injuries trying to free some hostages of terrorists a while back. By the time he got them out, he’d been shot a few other times in different places but the real problem ended up being the headshot. He had a blood clot, no one really expects him to ever wake up.”

Tony gazes down at the young man on the bed. He’s really just shy of being a boy. He swallows down his urge to vomit, and says, “How long has he been like this?”

“Upwards of seven months, now. He has brain activity, but he just doesn’t wake up,” Barton says and his tone is low and respectful. “He’s a war hero. He saved so many people in his time. His unit, they were charged with going behind enemy lines and saving the civilian population. He saved hundreds of Afghan families. POWs, all types. Didn’t care, he just didn’t like bullies.”

“He’s a kid.” The words escape his mouth before he can stop them.

“He’s twenty-three, the youngest person to make field Captain in recent history,” Barton says.

Tony nods and stops himself from reaching out and touching the silent man. It strikes him again, just how beautiful the man is, even with the intubation tube in his throat, even with his pale skin. He looks like he’s sleeping.

“Doesn’t matter now, though,” Barton says and there’s sorrow in his voice now. “Docs finally convinced Bucky to pull the plug.”

“What?” Tony blinks a few times and stares at Barton.

“Hey, I’m sorry, man.” Barton holds up his hands. “Don’t freak out. They think it is for the best. If he’s gonna wake up he has to breathe on his own. They will be taking him off the ventilator to see if he can. Technically, he doesn’t need the vent; if he did they’d do a trach on him and set him up that way. But he’s got bad lungs since the attack and he just went through his third bout of pneumonia. Bucky wanted to keep him on the vent because they have no idea if his lungs have recovered enough and if he’ll breathe on his own.”

“If he doesn’t?” Tony asks.

Barton presses his lips together in a frown. “Nothing good, nothing good, man.”

Tony feels muted almost stunted through the rest of the tour. He doesn’t really listen as Barton shows him the porch outside of the Captain’s room. He half listens to the report on how many others have made their way through the center. It all sounds like muffled words heard from under water.

He keeps thinking of the boy in the bed with a tube stuck down his throat. How much more could he do for him if he had access to his money? But his fucking father put everything in a Trust for him – a Trust with questionable rules about his access to it. Trying to get his money back has been about convincing the Trust members and the Court that he’s accomplished the dictates of his father’s Will, but that’s just impossible, because he’ll never be a warmonger. He’d been fighting that in court for years. Now, he cannot even hope to get his hands on the money to do something.

It is a funny thing; he’s always been called a narcissist, even when he campaigned for greener technology. Everyone has always thought he’s out for something for himself – to make a bigger name, give the finger to his father’s legacy. And while all of them might be true, not one of them hit on the real Tony Stark.

Once he’s downstairs the outpatient and in-patient crew has assembled. Barton waves to Tony to take a seat in a chair in the main lounge area. Some big guy with long blonde hair greets everyone with a slap to the back and a very stilted way of speaking. He especially hugs a guy with long dark hair and a thin pale face.

“I have missed you, my brother.”

“As I have missed you,” the man replies. He settles in and glares at Tony.

Barton shakes his hand and says, “This is-.”

“Loki, Thor’s brother,” the man interrupts. Barton screws up his face but doesn’t correct him.

“They are brothers,” Barton says.

“Yeah, I see the resemblance,” Tony mutters.

“I’m adopted,” Loki responds.

Tony tilts his head, but then a woman comes in the room. She’s all flaming red hair and beautiful pouty lips. She offers her hand to him. He doesn’t take it. She shrugs and says, “Natasha, I’m the physical therapist, but also a vet. I like to sit in and, you know, work out the kinks.”

Tony raises an eyebrow. Kinks, yeah sure, he thinks.

The last one into the room is a guy with startling blue eyes, thick tangles of dark hair which fall over his face like a mask, and a prosthetic arm. He glances at Tony says, “Bucky.”

“Stark, Tony Stark,” he responds and instantly wants to know more about the man who served with the comatose soldier.

Once all the introductions are complete, Barton says, “Well, Tony wants to volunteer like the rest of us. We just have to find him something he’s good at.”

“What talents and abilities do you possess?” Thor asks; he leans toward Tony and smiles. There’s something charming about him and Tony can see why his brother goes along with his little charade.

“I’m good at computers, tech stuff, always have been. Have a degree, several in fact in engineering. But didn’t go into that.”

“I think we all know what you went into Stark,” Natasha says and rolls her eyes. “We know who you are; it’s kind of hard to miss someone who constantly berates the military.”

“Natasha,” Barton says. “Tony’s here as a volunteer. Let’s try and be welcoming.”

She looks off to the stairwell and says, “I’m gonna go see the Cap.” She leaves and there’s a silence that falls over the small gathering.

“Listen, I get that I’m not welcome with your little group, that I don’t fit in.” Tony stands up. “I’m just, I thought I could-.”

The front door opens and everyone looks to the vestibule.

“Sonavu-.”

Banner enters and fanning himself as he closes the door on the sweltering summer heat. “Hey, sorry I’m late.”

“What the hell are you doing here?” Tony says.

“I come here because I like to, plus I kind of have, you know, an obligation.”

“Obligation like what, you working something off?”

Barton interrupts and says, “Tony sit, Bruce, please. We’re just getting started.”

Tony scans the room and shakes his head. This will never work. He’s surrounded by broken people and he doesn’t need any more fragments in his already fragmented life. He needs to piece the puzzle back together, not have someone throw a bunch of unrelated pieces into the mix.

“I don’t think-.”

“Hawk,” a voice calls from upstairs. “Shit, Hawk, where’s the damned doctor?”

Barton jumps up and crosses the room to look up the staircase to where Natasha’s standing. “What?”

“The monitor’s going crazy up here; I don’t know what’s going on.”

Before she finishes, Bucky leaps up and takes the stairs two at a time with Bruce not far behind. The rest of the vets follow. Tony trails behind but also wants to know if the kid makes it or not. Bruce is at the center of the room, bending over the silent figure in the bed with his stethoscope to the man’s sculpted chest.

Everyone holds their breath and Tony finds he also waits, looking at the face of a stranger and hoping to God he’s not seeing another soldier die. Bruce waves his hand a little in the air and straightens up.

“Just a glitch in the monitor, he’s fine,” Bruce says and folds the blanket over the man’s chest. Bucky kicks the monitor and Natasha slings an arm around him.

“Hey, it’s okay. He’s good.”

“Where’s the damned nurse, he’s supposed to be monitored twenty-four seven.”

“She was sick today,” Barton says. “We called in the service but they haven’t responded.”

“I could do that,” Tony says and every eye turns to stare at him. “I could set up a – you know – monitoring system so that you could access it all over the house. It could alert the doctor immediately. I could do it in an afternoon.”

Bucky looks dubious but Bruce gives him an elated look as if he’s finally found something to bring Tony back into the world. Tony only wants to punch him one in the jaw, but rumor has it the man has a wicked temper.

“Then we will make it so,” Thor says. “Welcome to the Brooklyn Heights Rehabilitation and Recovery Center, Master Tony Stark. You are truly sent as a defender of those in need!”

Tony half smiles as the man who could very well be a Norse god grabs hold of his shoulders and hugs him. He doesn’t think he can inhale for the next four hours.

The rest of the afternoon passes in some kind of odd fugue as the crew grills him about the monitoring system he can set up. Bucky and Natasha stay behind in the room while the rest of them exit to the lounge again to discuss the mechanics of the set up. By the time he leaves a nurse has appeared from the service, and a woman named Maria Hill appears to corral Barton into one of the small offices on the first floor, and Bucky takes a moment to stop Tony in the vestibule.

“You can do that, for him?”

“Yeah, it shouldn’t take too much.” Tony looks up the staircase to the light from Rogers’ doorway, streaming in through the doors to the porch. “I can get started on it tomorrow.”

“Yeah, sure, thanks,” Bucky says and turns to go back upstairs.

Tony opens his mouth because he wants to explain the system, but Bucky’s already gone and disappeared into the room again. It is Thor who stops him.

“Do not think him rude,” Thor says. “Neither Captain Rogers, nor James have any family. The good Captain risked his life and suffered a grave injury in order to rescue his brother in arms and heart. Do not think him rude.”

Tony shakes his head and says, “I don’t – I just-.” Finally, he gives into the complete lack of aptitude he has in the area of interpersonal relationships. Sure, he can report and debate with the best of them, but ask him to have a relationship of any sort – well that’s just not gonna happen. He decides his best bet is to pretend he’s Arnold. “I’ll be back.”

The Norse god doesn’t get it. “Of course you will be, brother of the shield.”

Tony just scratches at his beard and says, “Whatever.”

*oOo*
Tony hates the night most of all. He spends a lot of time, pacing and awake. The small apartment in the back of the mansion doesn’t serve him well because it is so tiny and he needs space to get out the anxiety. He fumbles around trying to force himself not to think of the bottle of bourbon he has stashed up above the refrigerator. He’s certain Pepper didn’t find it the last time she did a search and seizure of the place.

If he had a bit of it, a finger or two, he might be able to sleep. But then with sleep comes the nightmares and the nightmares are what makes him anxious after all. The doctors, not Banner, the other ones in the hospital when he arrived home from the horror of being a hostage told him he had heart damage. At one point, his captors punched him right in the sternum and it cracked, but it also bruised his heart. His heart muscle never recovered completely and his anxiety causes the palpitations to get worse, so much worse than they normally are.

Around two in the morning he yanks a stool from the table and climbs up to get the damned bourbon. It’s there and he releases a breath he didn’t know he was holding. A glass isn’t in the picture and he downs several mouthfuls before he settles onto the couch. He doesn’t know what happens; he always gets into some spacey place when he drinks. It doesn’t enlighten his brain; it dulls it, just what he needs.

When the long black snakes worm their way out of his mouth and slide around his throat to strangle him, he jerks awake and falls to the carpeted floor of his apartment. Panting he checks his throat and finds only his tie askew and nothing more. He hadn’t even undressed. He stumbles to his feet, tears off his clothes and collapses on top of the bed. Maybe what he needs is a good lay. He giggles. A good lay. There was a time women and some men fell into his bed without so much as a blink of the eye. He’d been powerful then. Now what the fuck is he?

He smears his hands down his face thinking it would be good if he had some kind of paint to just cover up his face, turn it into darkness, to conceal it so that he can completely disappear. His father was right, build bigger weapons and win. Throw down your weapons and look at what the fuck you get? He should have used his degree. Though he defied his father at every turn, he still received his degrees in engineering because he thought at one point in his life he might invent something for the better, for the good of all humanity. Now what is he but a washed up media star before he’s even thirty.

What good is being a genius if this is where he ends up?

“No,” he whispers. “Not gonna happen.”

He crosses the room, enters the tiny bathroom, and turns the shower to hot. He has a lot to get accomplished. He’ll start now; he might as well, since he isn’t sleeping at all tonight.

*oOo*
Three days later Banner is in the hospital room in the rehab center with Rogers and glowering down at Tony. Tony raises his shoulders to feign innocence. “What?”

“They say you’ve been here for three days, that you showed up at four o’clock in the morning with a box of gadgets and wires and laptops and haven’t left this room since.” Banner looks tired, like he’s been beating back his own beasts.

“I’m working on a monitoring system for them, I had an inspiration,” Tony says and clips together a pair of wires. He strips another pair with his teeth and caps them off. He sits in a jumble of wires with the wall torn open. “I need a server, though, to house it. I have to wire it to the basement; Barton said there’s room down there.”

“Hawkeye is letting you do this?” Banner gestures to the mass of wires and equipment strewn over the floor of the room.

“Barton is, don’t know who Hawkeye is.”

“Hawkeye was his code name during some operations, he’s known for his keen eye,” Banner says and crosses his arms over his chest. “Tell me you’re not cycling down into the pit of despair like you did when Rhodey found you drunk and half out of your mind?”

“I’m not,” Tony says and reconsiders. “I almost did, but then I started this and bam, feeling good.”

“And your current company?” Banner points to the man lying in a coma on the bed.

Tony smiles at Rogers and says, “Perfect company. Very good listener.” He knows the snark will not be well received but he doesn’t expect the ricochet, doesn’t expect that he’ll be ashamed of saying it as soon as it leaves his mouth. He murmurs, “He deserves a good monitoring system.”

Banner regards him and says, “They’re taking out the breathing tube tomorrow, you know.”

Tony drops all the instruments, the wires. “What?”

“That’s the plan, if he can’t breathe on his own; he’ll be transferred to a long term facility. It won’t be good for Bucky because of his job. He won’t be able to see him.”

“Who’s transferring him? Why?” Tony feels the absolute panic, why he doesn’t know, but this project, this monitoring system is the first real thing he’s actually set his mind to in ages.

“The military, he’s actually still military though listed as temporarily disabled. It’s a wonder they let him come here, but Bucky still has some pull with Colonel Phillips.”

“I don’t give a rat ass about Colonel Phillips, he shouldn’t be anywhere but here. Transferred up to a facility where no one gives a crap about him, he’ll never wake up.”

Banner frowns and says, “You met the guy, as weird as that is to say, three days ago, why do you even care?”

He admits it is irrational and stupid, but irrationality is the name of the game for him lately. “Listen, you didn’t see them, hear them these last few days. They never leave him alone.”

It is true. Around the clock, someone sits with the Captain. Bucky likes to sit with him in the early morning from six to eight and then again in the evenings after work. He talks about regular things and reports back on his day. Nothing is too menial to share. He even talks about his attraction to Natasha. At one point Tony was sure Bucky might whack him upside the head to make sure he didn’t blab about his crush, but Bucky just scowled at him and left.

Tony saw it all. He watched as Natasha crept into the Captain’s room and read poetry in Russian and French. He even saw Thor come in with his brother Loki. They sat for a good three hours playing chess together and chattering on and on to the Captain as they did.

Barton took his turn in the middle of the day, he usually read as well. He brought in classics and read their pages with fervor and intent. Currently, he is reading To Kill a Mockingbird and somehow that sounds perfect for the situation at hand.

The Captain receives visitors, too. Soldiers and officers come by and talk with him, the respect evident in their voices and demeanor.

“There’s even a physician from the military hospital where he was first treated when they shipped him back to the States, her name’s Peggy something,” Tony says and paces the small room, letting his legs get snarled in the wiring. “She comes in – it takes her an hour to get here and she volunteers her time. She gives him these leg massages, and talks to him like she knows him. She doesn’t, at all.”

“He seems to inspire people to care,” Banner says.

“He does and more,” Tony says. He recalls remarking about it to Natasha and asking her if she knew Rogers before in the war.

She only indicated a short shake of the head, but then thought better of it and added, “Everyone heard of him.”

“Yeah?” Tony had said.

“Yes, he was pretty damned famous, went charging in saved people, and didn’t want to kill people. Strange in a way that he joined up. He just wanted to make the world a better place, to change the world.”

When she’d said it Tony saw a softness to her that he’d not seen before, and he asked, “But you never knew him.”

“Not one on one, but everyone had heard of Captain America.”

“Captain America?”

“His code name during operations,” she laughed. “Stupid code name, kind of announced everything.”

Tony bowed his head in agreement, and had asked, “Did you have a code name?”

She chuckled under her breath and only said, “You don’t want to know.”

“If they take him away from here, he’ll never have a chance of waking up,” Tony says to Banner. “He’ll be alone twenty four seven. Except for the occasional visitor during the damned holidays, he’ll be nothing more than a bed warmer.”

Banner considers him and then turns to look at the young man in the bed. “I could try to convince them to wait a few days, but Tony it isn’t going to change the outcome. If he doesn’t wake up, even if he breathes on his own, they have to move him. This wasn’t designed to be a long term care facility.”

“Seems to be with Thor or Don or whatever the hell his name is,” Tony says. He can’t stop himself. He knows he’s fighting for something that has absolutely nothing to do with him. But this, building this thing for them, for him, set his mind into the right place, a place he hasn’t been forever.

“Don’s a different story completely,” Banner says. “He doesn’t even really think he’s the Norse god of thunder, it’s a trick his therapist is using with him to teach him to separate himself from his fears, make him stronger, bigger. He used to play at Thor as a child when he was scared. I even think his code name might have been Thor.”

“That guy can’t get any bigger,” Tony says.

“You might be right there,” Banner says. He sighs. “Anyway I’ll see what I can do.”

Tony tightens his lips and nods. He can’t say anything because he’s too grateful, too near the breaking point, and he doesn’t want to admit it. Banner checks over the patient and then whispers, “Take care, Steve.”

It is a full minute after Banner departs that Tony realizes it is the first time he’s actually heard the Captain’s first name. Most of his friends call him Captain – out of respect, an honor, Tony doesn’t know. He drifts over to the bed and looks down upon the comatose man.

That striking beauty still hits him hard in the chest. He studies Steve’s face, the full mouth must be pretty when not distorted by the intubation tubing, the long eyelashes hide the eye color from Tony. He imagines it must be light, a blue or green, who knows. Before he stops himself, he reaches out and sweeps away the fringe of hair on Steve’s forehead. He’s clean shaven, Tony observed as Natasha used a straight blade to shave him yesterday. She only smiled at Tony and told him the captain likes a clean look.

Tony finds Steve’s hair to be softer than he imagined. He removes his hand, knowing he’s overstepped his boundaries. He steps away and spots the book on the side table. Picking it up, he flips it over and looks at the photograph of Gregory Peck. Without thought, he drags the chair over, sits down, and begins to read where Barton left off. He spends the next hour, not thinking about the monitoring system, not worrying about his lost money, not concerned about the nightmares he’s hiding from, but with a quiet man in the middle of a room that disappears into a lazy hot summer with Scout and Dill and Boo Radley.

*oOo*
With little sleep, Tony hooks up the monitoring system, wires it to a proxy server in the basement, and links it to the servers he has in the basement at the mansion. It comes on line two hours before they are supposed to pull the plug on the ventilator for Steve.

“JARVIS, I’d like you to meet your main charge. His name is Captain Steve Rogers of the US Army,” Tony says and waits as the artificial intelligence he invented comes on line.

He installed speakers in the corners of the room along with several cameras and hidden monitoring units. “Sir, it is a pleasure to meet Captain Rogers.”

“And there you go, come to papa, JARVIS, tell me what it’s all about?” Tony smiles and spins around in the one chair in the room.

“Sir, if you could specify-.”

“God, you’re still a little too age of Ultron, the evil robot for me. We’ll have to wash out your mouth with soap if that keeps up.”

“I have no mouth, sir.”

“No need to be a smart ass, JARVIS.”

“I have no ass either, sir.”

“I take it back; you are neither Ultron nor Skynet incarnated. You are truly my A.I.” He gestures to the bed. “Monitor and report.”

“Captain Rogers seems to be in a comatose state caused by the traumatic brain injury in his files. His heart rate and blood pressure are within normal ranges. He is slightly underweight for a man his height, though he hasn’t had only minimal wasting of his muscles.”

“Okay, okay, enough,” Tony says and swallows back the bile. He’s done his work here; he just doesn’t want to leave. He spent every night over the past week with the group, eating dinner, sitting on the back porch with one of the crew watching the lights of the city wink on as twilight descended into night. He found something here he hasn’t had in a long time, or ever. He looks at the man in the bed.

“Not until I know, okay?” He grabs the chair. “Let’s see what Atticus is up to.”

He reads until the doctors and nurses arrive. Everyone is there and the house has a nervous energy about it. Bucky loiters just outside the door, scowling at him, but Tony ignores him. He keeps reading and he thinks the only reason Bucky doesn’t burst in and stop him is for Steve’s sake. Eventually, everyone crowds in the room.

The doctor is an older woman with deep set eyes and short, crisp white hair. She has her glasses perched on her nose. The nurses, one female and one male gather around the head of the bed. The doctor surveys the readouts on the monitors and jots a few things onto her tablet. Tony thinks it is quaint that she uses a stylus.

“Okay, now, who’s the next of kin?”

Bucky raises his hand and steps forward to the head of the bed.

The doctor’s voice is respectful but somewhat harsh at the same time. “Now, young man, this soul should be in the hospital or a more qualified facility.” She puts up a single hand to ward off his protestations. “Don’t want to hear it. He has brain activity and there’s no real damage to the brain stem. With the damage to his lungs due to his injuries this might seal the deal, you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Bucky agrees but keeps his eyes on Steve.

Her eyes are gentle, not unkind. “Not much to do for it. Either he does it himself, or the ambulance takes him away.”

Tony raises his eyebrows at that and Natasha catches his gaze and gestures to the front of the house where he has to assume the ambulance must be waiting.

“Are you ready?” the doctor asks.

Bucky nods.

“Okay, you signed the consent form?”

“Yeah, didn’t have much choice in the matter, but yeah,” Bucky shifts closer to the bed and grasps a hold of Steve’s hand.

Before the doctor moves to detach the breathing tube, she pats his hand and says, “He still has a good chance, he’s very young yet.”

Bucky doesn’t respond just squeezes Steve’s hand so tight his knuckles go white. Tony is surprised Steve doesn’t just wake up from the pressure.

The doctor reaches over and disconnects the tube feeding Steve Rogers oxygen. They watch the meters and monitors as the doctor bends over the bed and slips a stethoscope under his gown.

“Sir, I cannot detect signs of respiration from Captain Rogers.”

The doctor jumps but Tony just says, “Not now, JARVIS.”

“Sir, it would be prudent-.”

“Not now,” Tony says through gritted teeth.

Thirty seconds go by and Tony is sure no one in the room even takes a breath. A minute and Bucky has relaxed his hold on Steve’s hand and Barton swears under his breath. The doctor gestures to the male nurse to inform the paramedics waiting outside. Just as the nurse rounds the bed to follow the doctor’s orders Steve coughs.

“Okay, there you go young man,” the doctor says and flies into action that is precise, graceful and far more youthful than Tony thought possible. With the nurses’ help she removes the tubing from Steve’s throat. He respires in thick audible breathes, his eyes flicker open, but then close.

“Is he?” Tony can’t help himself, he has to know.

“No,” the doctor says. “Probably not, comatose patients may open their eyes or gesture. It is completely involuntary on their part.” She still leans over and presses fingers to Steve’s face. “Captain? Come on, Captain, open your eyes.”

There is no response, no movement. Bucky sways a bit on his feet and Natasha stands beside him, holding his elbow. Bucky releases Steve’s hand and staggers a few steps before Natasha leads him out of the room.

“I’d like to give the patient a full examination before I leave,” the doctor says and waits for them to exit the room.

Tony lingers and says, “The fact that he’s been out for seven months, does that mean?”

“He had a traumatic brain injury followed by a blood clot, not unlike a stroke. He may recover; he may end up regressing.”

“But the longer he’s like this?”

“The less hope, yes,” she says and her words are quiet, almost whispered. “The fact he’s finally able to breathe on his own means his lungs have recovered to a certain degree. He’ll need twenty-four hour monitoring of his breathing.”

“No problem there, that voice you hear, that was JARVIS. He’ll do it.”

“A robot of some sort?”

“Some sort.”

“Well, that might help, but I am instructing a twenty-four hour watch on him,” the doctor says and she has the nurse pull the sheet and blanket away from the figure on the bed. Tony gazes down at the short dressing gown, the long muscular legs with compression cuffs wrapped on his calves, and the beautiful pale skin with an occasional freckle.

“Wow,” he murmurs.

“Yes, minimal muscle loss, so far, but he won’t be lucky if he doesn’t wake soon.” The doctor starts her work and Tony moves off and into the hallway.

He’s surprised to see Thor standing sentinel duty. “How fares our Captain?”

Tony peers over his shoulder and says, “I think he could be better, but I think he made a good step in the right direction today.”

“I do agree,” Thor says and then in a lower tone he adds, “I do not wish to be alone in this madness.”

Tony snaps his attention to Thor’s face, glimpses the dismayed, almost sorrowful look on Thor’s face.

“None of this is madness, Thor,” Tony says. “War is madness.”

Tony leaves him to his duty and ends up downstairs in the kitchen where he finds Banner has joined the small crowd. “You’re here a lot.”

“I like it here,” Banner says. “It’s relaxing.”

“I thought my sessions were relaxing enough since you like to sleep through them.”

“Funny, you’re a funny guy,” Banner says and helps Natasha with the sandwiches she’s constructing – and that is the only word for how that woman makes a sandwich. Tony glances around and notices Bucky is missing.

“Where’s Bucky?”

“Out,” Natasha says and leaves it at that. There’s muted elation in the house, the fact that the ventilator has been removed is one step, the glaringly obvious issue that Steve hasn’t woken up and probably won’t hangs over everyone’s head.

He frowns with a dark fury, and waves Banner out into the empty lounge. “I just want to thank you.”

“Thank me for what?”

“For getting me involved in this hog shit.” Tony wants to throw something; he wants to break everything in the house. He’s not prone to violence, but he likes to express himself in varying ways of destruction. He pokes at Banner. “You got me involved. I didn’t fucking want to be involved.”

Banner smiles and it is that knowing one, the one that pisses Tony off and sends him into the stratosphere of anger. “You can walk away at any time.”

“Oh can I?” Tony hisses. “I have to prove to you and everyone else I’m sane enough to fucking care about this god damned world. I think being here is an emotional manipulation on your part for which I think you should get your damned license revoked.”

“Well, you’re not wrong.”

“That’s my line.”

Bruce chuckles. “Is it? Then tell me I’m wrong that for the first time in months, you’re engaged in a pursuit. You’re back at it, excited to see your disembodied voice monitoring system-.”

“JARVIS, his name is JARVIS.”

“Yes, cute,” Banner says. “That it’s working and you kind of have a soft spot for Thor and his brother, Loki, even though the brother kind of creeps you out. And is it me, or are you spending most of your time sitting in the room of a veggie burger watching him sleep?”

Tony fists his hands so tight he feels the claws of his nails dig into his palms. “What? I thought you were some kind of laid back doctor, now you give me shit.”

“Now, I tell you shit.” Banner isn’t backing down; he even looks like he might turn into some kind of rage monster. “What you’ve done for the kid up there, what you’ve done for this house, just with JARVIS alone is spectacular. And what I see for the first time in months is that you care.” He points at Tony and, through clenched teeth, repeats. “You care.”

Tony wants to snarl at him, rip him into shreds. His life has been consumed by the thought of the young man in the bed and his life, his possibilities. He pushes Banner aside and says, “I don’t, not anymore.”

He slams the door when he leaves and races down the stone steps. He doesn’t even stop to look both ways to cross the street and get into his car. Once he’s in the car, he lays his head on the steering wheel and his whole body trembles. He bashes his hand against the wheel but doesn’t shift to move and start the car.

His phone vibrates in his pocket and he curses. Tugging it out, thinking that it might be the fucking doctor, he sees it is Pepper. Shit, he rolls his eyes. He hasn’t been home in days, hasn’t checked his messages.

“Hey Pep?”

“Tony, oh thank God, you’re alive.”

“Of course I’m alive, why wouldn’t I be alive.” He presses the heel of his hand into his eye.

“I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for two days. Tony, the trustees of the estate,” Pepper begins but then stops, “The way your father structured it, you can’t get at the money, if you’re-.

“Mentally incapable, questionable?” Tony says. “Yeah, I know that, we already know my father screwed me.”

“Tony, you have to get to the meetings when I set them up. You missed two of them,” Pepper sounds desperate and he hates it when she sounds like that.

“Okay, okay, I’ll do what I can,” Tony says. “Tell me when the next one is and I will be there with my tap dancing shoes on.”

“No tap dancing shoes, I just need you to be there, okay?”

“Okay, Pep.”

“Good.”

“Good.” Tony waits. “Are we hanging up now, because I feel this is a good place to hang up?”

“Yes, Tony, this is a good time to hang up.” And she does and he lets his hand drop to lean against the steering wheel. He stares at the phone, knowing he has to do something, has to demonstrate that he’s sane and capable in order to get the money from the Trust. Otherwise, his money will be forever controlled by dirty old white men in some closet somewhere.

He looks back at the brownstone. “Damn it, Banner.”

He jerks open the car door and marches back up the stairs to the door. He doesn’t bother knocking; he just enters and glowers at Banner when he gives him that knowing smile again. He wants to scratch his eyes out. Either that man is a big green monster set to torment Tony or he’s a brilliant doctor. Tony’s bets are on the former. He starts calling him hulk under his breath.

*oOo*
Tony spends the better part of three days meeting with the Trustee board members. They seem overly interested in his mental well-being, asking him to prove that he’s engaged in the outside world and not just sitting in his apartment hiding with his robots. Tony presents a certified letter from his doctor regarding his current volunteer status at the Center. He also has a list of accomplishments including the development of the A.I. to monitor Steve.

The fat old men scowl at him from their perches. He actually imagines them as old ugly vultures waiting for him to lose his mind or to do himself in so they can pick at his flesh and bones. He hates the game but he has to play it. Pepper seems pleased when they meet for lunch. The board has scheduled a visit for Tony with an impartial psychiatrist to assess his current condition.

Tony calls his lawyer and they discuss how to get rid of the Trust once and for all so that Tony can be free of their power struggle over the Stark family fortune. Yet, Hammer and the law firm that holds the money in Trust continues to be a roadblock.

He wastes all this time and therefore misses a key moment in the House as he’s come to call it. When he finally arrives at the House, the group is already gathered in the main room. JARVIS greets him and he shrugs off his raincoat and hangs it on a hook on the wall. He enters the room and everyone greets him like he’s Cliff from Cheers.

“Tony!”

“Thought we’d lost you,” Barton says and crosses his arms. He looks tired, they all do but that’s probably because of the stints they are taking with Steve.

“Just a shitload of crap to deal with,” Tony says and sidles onto the arm of the couch. “What’d I miss?”

“My dear brother has declared that he is not a Norse god,” Loki says and everyone raises their glass to Thor.

“But he’s still Thor or is he Don?” Tony whispers under his breath to Natasha.

“Both, neither? No one knows,” Natasha answers. She smiles and Loki frowns at Tony, so he backs off from any more questions.

“So,” Tony says just to deflect the subject. “How’s?” He lifts a shoulder to the stairs. He notices Bucky isn’t around.

“No real change, Bucky’s been distraught over it. Maybe he thought there would be some magic after Steve recovered this time from the pneumonia,” Barton says.

Tony furrows his brows and says, “No real change, but there’s a change?”

“He opened his eyes.”

“Wh-what?” Tony jumps up. “Opened his eyes?” He missed it, he fucking missed it.

“We don’t know if it’s reflexive or if there will be any more improvement.”

“Did you try any of the Arousal Facilitation Protocols?” Tony asks as he tugs his phone out of his back pocket. He taps in the internet address and pulls up the information.

“No idea what you are talking about,” Barton says but he’s on his feet as well.

A woman walks into the lounge. She has her dark hair pulled back and looks like she eats nails for snacks and maybe puppies for breakfast. “Stark, when did you become an expert in neurology?”

Tony waves his hand and says, “Last night. Am I the only one who did the homework? And who the hell are you?”

“Tony, sorry, this is Maria Hill, she’s been assigned by the military as the official-.” Barton stutters over the words.

“Oh,” Tony says and places his index finger on his lip. “You’re the one who’s going to try and take Steve away.

“I am here as an observer to ensure an American Hero has the proper care,” Hill says.

“Proper care, my ass, what kind of medical training do you have?” When she doesn’t answer, he scoffs at her, and heads up the stairs. He scrolls through the website, hits the link for the pdf. He fucking hates reading pdf’s on his phone, too damned small. He calls down the stairs before he enters Steve’s room. “Anyone got a god damned laptop or a fucking printer I can use?”

It seems Loki has a tablet so he wanders up the stairs and hands it to Tony without a word. In a matter of moments, Tony clicks through to the site and the pdf appears. He walks into the room, head down, studying it. That’s how he misses Bruce standing at the foot of the bed, massaging the Captain’s feet.

That’s weird. But then again, just about everything in his life since he was nine has been weird. Nine was his first kiss (completely consensual with his fellow nine year old, Suzy Mckeen. He kissed her on the lips). Tony notes that Banner really isn’t massaging Steve’s whole foot, more like his toes.

“What are you doing?”

“Eastern Medicine, pressure points on the toes relate to the nerves and the brain. Thought I’d give it a try,” Banner says and continues to rub circles on each of Steve’s big toes.

He shrugs. “I guess to each his own. We need to work on Arousal Facilitation protocols, have you heard of it?”

“Some, intervention designed to increase the amount of time a patient is aware.” Banner lifts his chin to Steve. “Like now.”

Tony snaps to attention and turns to face Steve. Someone propped Steve up and angled the bed. His eyes are open, but bleary with a glossy look to them. He steps over to the young man and examines his gaze. He clicks his fingers a few times.

“He’s not tracking.”

“Early awareness for comatose patients is very rarely immediate.”

“Or it could be just an automated response to your playing footsie with him,” Tony says because they have to be honest with what may or may not be going on.

“I chose to believe in the positive,” Banner says and Tony quirks a smile at him.

“Why, Doctor, I always thought you were the half empty kind of guy,” Tony replies. Without waiting for a response, Tony turns his attention to Steve; flips open the tablet, and scans the protocol

“Deep pressure,” Tony shuffles over to the head of the bed, and balances the tablet on the side table. There are several lines connected to Steve making it difficult to get clear access to him. “Thumb and forefinger, roll back and forth with fingertips.” He glances over his shoulder. “Did you get that? Can you try it with the toes?”

“Sure thing,” Banner says and begins the therapy. “Maybe, we should get Natasha up here. She’s trained in physical therapy.”

Tony reaches over to the fine cheek bone of the man in the bed. He takes the velvet skin in his hand, clasping the muscle, and pinching with a roll to it. He thinks it might hurt, but it keeps Steve from closing his eyes. “I don’t see her as a physical therapist, more of a spy or an assassin.”

He hears Banner laugh and then ask, “What do you think of me?”

Tony stops and says, “You, you I think are hiding all of your rage until one day you pop like a cork from a champagne bottle.” He faces Steve again, observing the line of sight. Tony looks up to the ceiling and notices the crown molding, the architectural motifs around the light set in the center of the room. “Huh.”

“I think you’re a little like Walter Mitty.”

“What?” Tony says and follows Steve as his eyes drift to the window and then back to the ceiling light. “Come on, Steve, wakey, wakey.”

“I don’t think that’s ever worked in the world of comatose patients.” Banner moves up to Steve’s calves, tugging the blanket out of the way. The compression cuffs are currently removed from Steve. Banner pinches and rolls the skin and deeper muscle. “I have to ask.”

“Ask?”

“I know that you’re here because of- well, you want your life back – but really I thought you’d come to the meetings, offer your sage advice on some grants and funding, and that was it. What’s this all about?”

Tony pauses and straightens up. “I don’t know.” But he does, down deep he understands why he’s latched onto Steve’s plight. He won’t admit it to himself, he’ll be damned if he is going to say anything to his therapist. Crap, that would be like baring his soul. “Maybe, I just want to do good.”

“Maybe you just want the story?” Banner says.

“You know what, fuck you,” Tony says and turns back to Steve. “Sorry, sweetheart.”

Banner coughs a little. “Sweetheart?”

He stares at Bruce over his shoulder and wants to explain so much because there’s an honesty and a subtle comprehension in his expression. Instead, he says, “Just leave it, Doc, okay?”

“Okay,” Banner says. “And Bruce, you can call me Bruce.”

Tony nods but keeps his eyes on Steve. For the first time, those impossibly blue eyes skirt over his face searching it, maybe trying to discover who Tony might be. The lashes flutter and he can recognize how difficult it is for Steve to stay aware, even with Steve’s hazy connection with the world.

“Stay with me,” Tony says, not taking his eyes off of Steve while he reaches down to grasp his hand. “Can you squeeze my hand?”

No response, to which Bruce says, “We’ve tried, we only get the eye movements.”

“Well, I think it’s something,” Tony says as he watches Steve’s eyes drift closed again. No amount of pinching or prodding brings him back around. “Damn it.”

“Give it time, it could be a sign.”

“One way or the other,” Tony says and scratches at his beard. He looks at Bruce and says, “You want the truth.”

Instead of Bruce answering him, another voice interrupts, “Yeah, I think I would like to know why the hell you keep coming around here.”

Bucky hangs in the doorway, all rage and pent up hostility seeping off him with his long strands of dark hair tousled in his face, the black leather jacket, and pants. He looks like he’s dressing the part of a villain. Tony frowns, maybe he is slowly turning into Walter Mitty, everyone in this house seems to have some kind of secret identity in Tony’s head.

“I don’t think I have to tell you my reasons,” Tony says and eases up off the bed. He hadn’t realized that he’d actually sat down on it. Bruce moves to cover up Steve, since his legs and feet are bare.

“Maybe you do, maybe I don’t want you hanging around Steve,” Bucky says.

“I think you don’t know what’s going on,” Tony says. “Last I heard you were pretty disappointed because the Captain didn’t jump out of bed and do the hula for you as soon as they removed the ventilator.”

Bucky scowls and says, “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. You’re here for yourself, not for him, not for anyone in this house. We all know who the hell you are Tony Stark.”

Tony crosses the room, shoves himself into Bucky’s personal space. “Oh yeah, who do you think I am soldier boy?”

Bruce jumps in and says, “Hey, now, let’s calm down, talk about this.”

“Shut up,” They both say in unison.

Startled, they stare at one another and Bruce says, “Okay then, at least take it out of the Captain’s room.” Bruce practically pushes them out and closes the door on both of them leaving them in the dark hallway.

It is a long hall with deep woods and small globe lighting along the walls. Tony hadn’t really noticed it until now, when he has to deal with Steve’s best buddy.

“I want you gone,” Bucky says leaving nothing to the imagination.

“Who the hell are you to kick me out?” Tony says and he knows he’s on thin ice; Bucky is officially Steve’s next of kin.

“I’m his best friend; I’m the one who he grew up with, who nursed the poor sap back to health again when he was a ninety pound weakling.” Bucky shakes his head. “You know I don’t have to justify anything to you, get out, and leave him alone.”

“Listen I-.” He’s grasping, he feels like he’s been tossed into a lake and cannot swim.

“No, I don’t have to listen,” Bucky says. “You’re Tony Stark, everyone knows who you are. You’re the brat who defied your father, became his biggest critic. Denounced his war machine factory and went on every damned news station to give your opinion about anyone in the military.

“Now, you’re sniffing around here, looking for the story that will break you back into the game. Well, Steve is not it. You will not exploit him, you will not use him. He’s a war hero; he fucking saved so many lives they had to stop honoring him because it became embarrassing.” Bucky’s face twists with rage and loathing. Once he finishes his tirade he pants with his nostrils flaring out and his face an agony of painful emotions.

Tony stays quiet for a moment, but then says in a low voice, “Okay, if you want me to I’ll leave, but first think of this – I’ve walked in the shoes of the people Steve rescued. I was embedded, sure for the story. But I was kidnapped and held for months. I was one of the lucky ones, I survived and someone rescued me. That changes a man, and if you don’t believe-.”

“How?”

“How, what?”

“How did it change you?” Bucky asks his face is now in shadow as he keeps it in profile.

“I see the differences now,” Tony says, but then his shoulders slump and he throws up his hands in surrender. “Listen, I’ll just get my stuff and go.”

Before he rounds the newel post to descend the staircase, Bucky grabs his shoulder and says, “What differences?”

Tony inhales a cleansing breath and releases it before he says, “I get it, and I understand that the guys on the ground, the soldiers fighting the war are different than the politicians and corporations fueling the war. You’re just doing the job, trying to stay alive, believing in the mission, when those fuckers only care about the bottom line. The buck.” He pauses, looks down at his empty hands, and then back up at Bucky. “You know, you’re right. I came here to get back in the game, I came here to start over, get my family fortune out of scumbags’ hands, so that’s true. I’m a fucker, always have been, always will be.”

He points to the door and beyond to Steve. “But something changed when I went to Afghanistan, something clicked into place when I met, saw, whatever, the Captain. That’s sacrifice, that’s a hero, that’s lying down on the wire for the other guy.”

Bowing his head, Bucky remains silent for a full minute. Tony isn’t sure what to do, or say. He only stands there, perched on the edge of the stairs. For a terrifying second, he thinks Bucky might launch him down the flight.

When he speaks it is mumbled. “Stay, it’s fine. Stay.” He pushes past Tony and races down the stairs to escape. Tony wants to call after him, but he cannot find the right words to say. Just as he starts down the stairs the afternoon nurse appears on the landing and climbs. She smiles at Tony and continues on her way.

She enters the room in a whisper, but he doesn’t follow. He just glimpses the light fixture in the ceiling and wonders how Steve stared at it, why he stared at it. The very next day he brings over cans of paint. He enlists Loki and Barton to help him. The morning nurse is a little put out, when they maneuver Steve’s bed to the side, and bring in a step ladder. It is Loki who ends up having almost a magical skill with the paint brush. He spends a good three hours, painting the Acanthus crest of the ceiling medallion a rainbow of colors. His work is precise and quite beautiful. Meanwhile both Barton and Tony spend time coloring the crown molding in fanciful colors as well. The Spartan hospital room brims with vibrant colors by the time they are finished in mid-afternoon.

As Tony hops down from his step ladder he notices Steve’s eyes are open and the nurse is working with him, speaking to him, her hand clasped in his asking him to squeeze it. Loki gathers up the supplies and drop clothes while Barton and Tony join the nurse at Steve’s bedside.

“Steve,” Barton says. “Squeeze.”

He gets no response. Tony sidles into place, and he knows Barton resents it, but if this is going to work they have to do it right. He starts with the deep tissue pinches and rolls, pressing firmly into Steve’s cheek. Steve gazes up at the light, his full lips slightly parted with a glisten of saliva on the lower inner ridge. Tony knows he’s not getting through, so he pinches a little harder, probably too hard when a hand comes up out of nowhere and bats him away.

“Jesus,” Barton says and hops backward. “Christ, he just hit you.”

“Steve?” Tony says and he doesn’t want it to end so he continues to prod at Steve. Though his movements and gaze are uncoordinated and awkward at best, he keeps trying to stop Tony. He attempts to smack Tony away another dozen times before he gives up and his eyes begin to blink uncontrollably. The nurse warns them off. She’s a little thing with short hair and a perky demeanor.

“Enough with the buzzing around the patient,” she says. “He does need his rest.” She scoots them away with a flapping of her hands which reminds Tony of a bee or a wasp.

“Okay, okay, Jan, thanks.” Barton moves off but Tony lingers. He holds onto Steve’s hand while she checks her patient over and changes his lines and bags. None of it fazes him as he sits there and thinks about why he stayed.

Hero? Yes. Fellow lost soul? Maybe, yes.

He twines his fingers into Steve’s and says, “We’ll get out of this one, we will.”

*oOo*
Crashing on the couch in the lounge, Tony has his tablet perched on his bent knees and scrolls through the news when the door opens and a stiff comes in – and that is the only way Tony can describe him. Barton introduces him to the man in a suit. He looks like his name is permanently manager, or agent or something like that. “Phil Coulson.”

“Really, you sticking with that?” Tony asks.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure.” Coulson offers Tony a grin that reminds Tony of the one where the cat ate the canary, but then coughed it up all over the carpet, and smugly sauntered away. “Clint tells me you been a real help around here.”

“He has, has he?”

“Tells me you installed a state of the art artificial intelligence to monitor Captain Rogers at all times,” Coulson says.

“Beyond state of the art, the art doesn’t even know what the state is, it’s actually in the next state, perhaps the next country over, or probably let’s just say the next galaxy.”

Coulson rides up on the balls of his feet and then drops down again. “All right then, how about you stick around.”

Tony screws up his face. “Isn’t that what I’ve been doing?”

Barton folds one arm around his torso and rubs at his chin with the other hand. “We thought maybe, you might want to, you know, move in.”

“Whoa, wait, I am not an in-patient,” Tony says, warding them off with upraised hands. He chucks the tablet on the carved table in the corner which looks like an elephant.

“No, no, you don’t get our meaning,” Coulson says. “You can do a lot for us when we re-compete for the funding. With your improvements to the monitoring we can get a regular medical staff, not the volunteers – but only if we get the needed funds. But the grant funding agency likes to see the people on staff, not just volunteers.”

“Are you offering me a job?”

“I want you as part of this initiative, if I have to I can bring the big boss in,” Coulson says.

“You need me.”

“We do.”

Tony claps his hands and says, “You need me.”

“Not that much, we don’t,” Coulson never cracks a smile. “Think about it. Staff has rooms on the second and third floors. Barton and Natasha stay here, so do the nurses and doctors as they rotate through. We only have the two patients right now, but if we see more progress with Captain Rogers we’ll be able to spread out our resources a little more.”

“We’ll see,” Tony says and leaves it at that. He doesn’t confess the whole strange encounter to Pepper the next time he sees her at the Trustee board meeting. He starts to wonder if it is all worth it. He could live in the Foundation apartment or go and live at the Center. He only ended up as a half-assed journalist and pundit because of his rebellion against his father. Dear old Howard has been gone for years, he should be able to bury the hatchet.

Following another useless board meeting, Pepper accompanies him back to his apartment at the mansion. When he unlocks the door, the unused musty smell permeates the place. Pepper surveys the room and says, “Tony?” She beelines it straight for the refrigerator and swings open the door. “You haven’t been here in a long time.”

“What makes you say that?”

“The science experiment left in the refrigerator.”

“Oh shit, I did forget about that,” Tony runs over to her and squints his eyes at what’s left of his equipment with the corroded batteries leaking all over the shelf. “Damn it.”

“Tony.”

“Yes, Pep.”

She studies him and then says, “Tell me what’s going on, Tony. You’re unusually subdued today, and I haven’t received a phone call in weeks about your drunken behavior.”

“I’m just following orders-.”

“Whose?”

“What?”

“Whose, you never listen to me, so who?”

“That’s not fair; I listen to you all the time. I depend on you, I would follow you through until the ends of the Earth, you’re my-.”

Pepper presses her two fingers to his lips and says, “Shush, before you hurt yourself. Just.” She considers him, looking at his neat tie and tailored jacket. “Whatever you’re doing keep doing it. You have a very good chance of winning this with the board.”

She leaves him and he falls onto the couch, trying to figure out exactly what he wants to win.

The next morning, Tony has his regularly scheduled therapy session with Bruce. He feels a little uncomfortable as he goes to the offices, like he put on a jacket with too snug a fit. He ends up in the waiting room, staring at his phone and texting JARVIS about Steve. Steve has started consistently to respond to pain stimuli and the doctors are guardedly optimistic. The doctor, who often stops by, Doctor Carter, will be visiting this afternoon. Tony checks his watch; he hopes he doesn't miss it.

The receptionist calls Tony and leads him back to the inner offices. He acknowledges her with a simple head nod and enters the room. Bruce is sitting in his normal chair, waiting. His hands folded over the pad he'll never use.

"Tony."

"Am I supposed to call you Doctor here or can I call you Bruce?" Tony says and eases into the chair opposite Bruce.

"Whatever, doesn't matter." He waves to the seat and gets out of his chair. Crossing over to a small sideboard where a hotpot steams, he pours two cups of tea. He sets them on a tray with creamer and sugar bowl and brings them over. He places the tray on the small coffee table between the two chairs. "Tea?"

Tony frowns and lifts an eyebrow, but accepts the tea. He's not usually a tea drinker, but he has noticed that Bruce rarely drinks coffee at the house. He sips the tea, blanches at its tree bark taste, and puts it back on the tray. "No little finger sandwiches."

"Maybe next time," Bruce says as he tastes his own tea. He seems to enjoy it, which is all kinds of wrong. "Surprised you're here today."

"Why's that?"

"Well, you miss every other appointment we have, and I have to admit you missed the last three."

"You know where I was."

"That's true." Bruce leans forward to place his teacup on the tray. "I just thought you'd be over at the house."

"I have obligations," Tony says, but doesn't look at Bruce.

"Seems to me you might be a little torn by those obligations," Bruce says as he shifts the pad to the side. He doesn't even have a pen to pretend he's taking notes.

"Could be." Tony huffs. "Just spit it out, we're buds here, now, aren't we? Just be straight about it."

"Okay." Bruce nods. "Let me be, I sent you over to the house with the sole purpose of re-engaging you in the world so that you would have a purpose again, because I think part of your purpose was robbed from you when you were kidnapped."

Tony can't argue with that, so he remains silent.

"I think that you're re-evaluating everything, that setting up that monitoring system-."

"A.I., why doesn't anybody see my brilliance for what it is," Tony says.

Bruce does that self-deprecating chuckle. "I think a lot of us already do, Tony." He begins again. "So, with the A.I. you're starting to re-discover your roots."

"I had the basics of the A.I. long before I went to Afghanistan."

"You've been back from Afghanistan for what, a little over six months? Why did it take Steve's situation for you to work on it further?"

Tony swallows his retort and looks to the sand and rock garden outside. There are no lines in the sand today; it's all smooth and serene.

"Getting involved, using your natural talent, your genius, has invigorated you and changed things for you," Bruce says. "You wonder what life would be like if you hadn't just wanted to rebel against your father, you wonder if you'd used your engineering degree-."

"Degrees, multiple."

"Okay, then. You wonder if you wasted multiple degrees because of hatred and spite."

Tony stands up and walks over to the sliding glass door to gaze at the sands, the rocks oriented so precisely in the garden. He finds Bruce standing right next to him. "You're young, you have a lot of life left and, brilliance, I would say."

Tony smirks.

"Well, you are bright."

"Understatement."

"I've been accused of making worse understatement. But what I'm saying here, Tony, is that you are who you invent yourself to be. At one stage, yes, you wanted to give the finger to your father, but now. Are you going to let him create you or are you going to be your own creation?"

The answers bubble and churn like a storm inside. He keeps staring at the sands with no lines, no agitation to them and gets it. He understands Bruce and looks at the man. He's in profile now, gazing at the garden which reminds Tony of solace and solitude all at once.

As he stands there, studying the gentle breezes across the sands, he wonders who the real genius in the room is.

By the time he finishes up with Bruce, the clock strikes noon. He's famished but it can wait, he has to get across town and over to the house in Brooklyn prior to Doctor Carter's arrival. He wants to hear her prognosis once she examines Steve. Carter, Tony discovered, is Steve's main neurologist. When speaking with her, he found out that Steve didn't slip into a coma immediately after his injury. The blood clot at the original injury site combined with his multiple injuries set a path for him that few would have survived, let alone recovered. She presented to him a bright and determined quality, like she was one of the few doctors who wouldn't give up on Steve. Carter and her associate Doctor Erskine landed firmly in Steve's corner.

Tony isn't so sure about half of the other doctors from the military.

Arriving at the center, he sees a commotion outside and hurries to park the car. As he approaches the stone steps to the brownstone, he recognizes Thor at the center of the group. He has someone tiny and slender in his arms and he swings her around with gusto so much so she looks like a puppet without its strings. Tony rushes up to the gathering and hears Thor repeating again and again “My Jane, my Jane."

Everyone circled around the pair claps and smiles at them. He leans into Barton and asks, "Who is Jane?"

"The love of my life, my queen, my lady," Thor answers as he set her back down on the pavement.

"His girlfriend," Barton says with a knock to Tony's arm. "Been gone on a research trip didn't hear about Thor's PTSD until only recently since she was out of telecom."

Tony perks up. "How the hell can anyone be incommunicado these days?"

Barton only shrugs and they all move the party inside. It does turn into a party or, at least, a luncheon as several pizzas are ordered and beer is poured. The entire group gathers in the lounge to listen to Jane's stories and discuss her latest findings. He thinks maybe she was out with Goodall, or maybe on the space station because his mind drifts upstairs. Eventually, he follows it and peers into the room. The nurse, Jan, has Steve's hand in hers. She speaks softly to him. His eyes are open but he's not focusing on her. He concentrates on the colorful medallion on the ceiling.

"Hey," Tony says to announce himself.

Jan turns and smiles. "Tony, you're here, just in time. Doctors Carter and Erskine will be here soon. Could you sit with him a bit while I get lunch?"

"Sure thing, there's pizza and buffalo wings," he says with a thumb over his shoulder to indicate the party downstairs. He doesn't mention the beer.

"Thanks, sounds fun." Jan pats the Captain's hand and says, "I'll be back in a bit, don't you go flying off anywhere." She leaves the room to Tony.

He settles into her place by the bed. He'll try a few deep muscle pinches where he squeezes the cheek muscle, then rolls it between his fingers while talking. Extending his hand, he reaches to Steve's forearm, being careful of the intravenous lines. "Come on Captain, get in line here." He tries to make it sound pissed off but he just thinks he sounds a little like a bully.

He slides his hand under Steve's and decides to bump him a bit and climbs up to sit on the edge of the bed. He puts their clasped hands in his lap and notices Steve is looking directly at him.

"You know with those baby blues, you must be a lady killer."

Steve looks away, almost like he wants to roll his eyes at the suggestion but then comes back to gaze at Tony. "Oh, don't tell me, you're shy. Big muscular guy like you?" Tony scoffs at him. He raises their linked hands. "Probably won all your fights back in the day."

His eyes do that shift to the side and back again. "Oh really, you didn't get into fights?"

Again, his eyes move and come back.

"Steve?" Tony bends closer to the Captain, bringing their hands to his chest as he does. "Steve, are you answering me?"

Steve continues to gaze at him.

"Captain," Tony snaps. "Squeeze my hand." A faint tremor and then his hand, his fingers are compressed. He wonders about his imagination and how active it might be. "JARVIS did you detect movement from the Captain?"

"Yes, sir, approximately 3.2 seconds ago, he squeezed your hand at your command."

He almost drops Steve's hand with the news. He clenches both his hands around Steve's single hand. He grasps it to his chest and yells, “Hey, hey down there, we have lift off.”

Of course, no one hears him; they are all celebrating and partying in the kitchen. He considers releasing Steve’s hand for a second, but then he comes back to himself and realizes what an idiot he’s being.

“JARVIS, please alert the crowd downstairs that Captain Rogers squeezed my hand.”

“Yes, sir.”

All the time Tony talks, Steve gazes on him, and his grip on Tony’s hand never relents. He feels like a lifeline, because he sees something in Steve’s eyes, identifies a fear of loss as if he recognizes he’s been lost for a long time and just waking up.

“You’re here, you’re with me.”

Steve looks away for a moment, and then turns back to Tony. He allows his gaze to scan Tony and then connect again with his eyes.

“Oh, Tony, I’m Tony,” he says just as the entire population of Brooklyn, or what feels like it piles into the room.

Bucky and Natasha lead the crowd and Tony tries to move aside to allow better access, but Steve will not let go. A wild, almost untamed look streaks across his face as if he’s an injured animal facing a hunter or predator.

“It’s okay,” Bucky says and looks over to Tony as he rounds the other side of the bed. “Don’t let him go if he doesn’t want to.”

Tony nods, but is secretly grateful, for some reason losing this contact, right now, would hurt too much.

“Now, what’s all this fuss about?” A British accented voice asks.

Every head in the room turns to see the new arrivals. Tony knows Doctor Peggy Carter but he hasn’t actually met Doctor Erskine. According to the records Tony’s been able to hack at the hospital – and really he shouldn’t have been able to do it considering it was a military hospital – Doctor Erskine is the doctor who performed the surgery on Steve to repair the damage from the blood clot.

“Good afternoon,” Erskine says and his thick German accent is evident. Both doctors join the crowd encircling Steve’s bed.

“If we could, perhaps, have a little room to examine Steven that would be helpful,” Carter says.

Both Bucky and Natasha back off, but Steve doesn’t allow Tony to leave.

“That’s okay,” Carter says with a slight pat to Steve’s shoulder. “We won’t make Tony leave. Just relax Steve, we want to run a few tests to see how things are coming along. Do you understand?”

Steve tightens his hold of Tony’s hand, but at the same time Tony notices his breathing accelerates and he’s glancing about the room, popping from face to face.

“Perhaps, it would be good, no, to clear the room. Just a bit,” Erskine adjusts his glasses and smiles at the crowd. Everyone but Tony, Bucky, and Barton leaves. Natasha leans into Barton’s personal space and whispers to him.

He puts a hand up to ward her off, but nods anyway.

Carter looks at Tony and instructs, “I’m going to put him through a few tests, then we’ll move forward from there. Are you ready?”

“Sure,” Tony says. “Steve, the doctor is gonna do some tests. Okay?” Steve squeezes his hand again. “Yeah, he’s good.”

Both doctors proceed with a number of function and reaction tests. Most of the tests consist of examining consistent movements to commands, reproducible movements, and object recognition. At this stage, Steve moves his limbs with respect to the commands, except that he has some weakness on his right side.

“Why, what’s going on there?” Bucky asks.

“The blood clot was on his left hemisphere, so his right side was affected. The left side of the brain controls the right side of the body and vice versa.” Carter explains as she’s asking Steve to fixate on a small compact mirror she carries. “Very good, Steve, follow the mirror.”

“He is following commands, this is all good,” Erskine says to their unspoken questions. Responses like words or key concepts are still missing.

“He’s not speaking,” Tony says because he has to know.

“Awareness with comatose patients is not an all or nothing state; it is more a gradual state with shades of gray in the middle. Do you understand?” Erskine says.

“Yes,” Tony says. “So he’ll slowly get better?”

Carter shares a look with Erskine and he hems a little before he answers. “It is always unclear at this early stage to truthfully answer this question. Captain Rogers’ progress is remarkable, but at the same time he’s not fully aware, not fully able to respond to every test. At this point he can be classified as no longer in a comatose state but, indeed, a minimally conscious state.”

“That’s an improvement, right?” Bucky asks. “Right?”

“It is, it is, but-.”

Carter takes over for Erskine. “But it may be as far as he gets. Progression will depend on many things.”

“What things?” Bucky asks his eyes as frantic as Steve’s expression.

“Many, but right now, I’d like to move Captain Rogers so that we can get an MRI and a PET scan of his brain.”

“Move him?” Barton chimes in.

“Just temporarily,” Carter smiles and her beauty shines through. “We’re bringing him into the SHIELD research center for injured service members.”

“What the hell is SHIELD?”

“It is a military hospital with specialized top of the line equipment, I’d like to take him there and have the scans done.”

Steve shifts around in the bed as if all the talk discomforts him. “Hmm, no,” Tony says on his behalf.

“Where the hell is SHIELD?” Bucky asks.

“Near Camp Lehigh in Virginia.”

“Nope, not gonna happen,” Tony says and Bucky steps over to Tony to agree. For the first time Tony thinks they are finally operating on the same side.

“It would be best if Steve-.”

“It’s best for him to stay put and to be with his family and friends. We’re his family,” Bucky waves to their tiny group. “He’s not going anywhere.”

Carter smiles at him with a raised eyebrow. “I’d thought you would say that, so I made arrangements to have the tests done locally.”

“What? Already?”

Carter beams as she speaks. “Jan called earlier and told me there had been some fairly remarkable improvement, so I set up the appointments. The ambulance should arrive in the next thirty minutes and we’ll bring him to Mount Sinai.”

For the first time, Steve whines out a noise. Everyone in the room startles and Tony flinches as Steve tugs at his hand. Peering up at the doctor, Tony asks, “How long will it take?”

“It’ll probably end up being an overnight stay. We have to prep him, and then do the scans. It wouldn’t be prudent to bring him back after we’re finished.”

“Just overnight?” Bucky asks.

“I can see to it that you are allowed to stay in his room with him.”

Bucky considers her words and then turns to Tony. “I think it’s okay.” A look of confusion and outright panic crosses his features.

“Yeah, I think it should be okay. I can get my assistant to call the hospital and ensure everything is however you want it to be,” Tony says.

“No, no,” Bucky says, wrapping his hand around his prosthesis. “It’ll be fine, right Doc? It’ll be good.”

“Yes, it will. Now, let me check on the ambulance, and we’ll be underway.”

As both doctors exit the room, it falls quiet with the three of them huddled around Steve’s bed. Steve’s gaze flicks from one to the other, and then finally drops to his hand, still clutching Tony’s. He inches their clasped hands up to his face and then puts their ball of fists to his mouth. He doesn’t do anything, just holds it there, breathing.

“Okay,” Tony says and grimaces. “Do we have a plan?”

*oOo*
It happens that a plan becomes necessary when Steve refuses to let Tony go. The doctors are convinced that Tony represents some kind of security to him and, since Tony was the first person Steve had been able to truly communicate with when he woke up, that Steve does not want to let him go for fear of losing touch again. The doctors are hysterical with excitement, stating this is a very positive sign. Steve is displaying appropriate emotions and not just random ones which would be designated a vegetative state and not a minimally conscious state.

No plan of action fits though, and Tony ends up linked to Steve for the next day and a half. He’s able to get toilet breaks when he says to Steve that if he doesn’t want Tony to take a leak all over the place and sit there smelling like piss he damn well better let go. Steve obliges, but reaches out his left hand in grabbing motions for him to return.

Since the one noise Steve vocalized in the house before the exams, Steve remains quiet and subdued. He opens his mouth occasionally, mouths words that Tony cannot possibly catch. He isn’t a lip reader. When he calls Pepper, she sends him a woman who can read lips that afternoon. The woman leaves with no information gathered. Seems the Captain is just mumbling gibberish.

Tony’s unconvinced but shoos the woman out of the room. Bucky spends the night snoring on the only soft chair in the room while Tony leans against the bed, holding onto Steve. He’s not certain but when he wakes in the morning and sees Steve staring down at him, he thinks Steve might have stayed awake all night long.

He hopes it wasn’t fear that kept him awake, but he thinks it probably was.

When the scans are complete, the doctors report back to Tony and Bucky that the results are promising. The scans are showing that Steve is reviving when they compare it to the scans done two months ago. They are still cautious in their optimism and are worried about Steve’s lack of speech and minuscule voluntary movement.

“But he is doing well,” Erskine says. “I am surprised, to say the least. He has some kind of fortitude to be in such a deep coma for so long and then to awake. Oh, it is like he’s a super soldier with some magical serum pumping through him.”

Tony smiles at that, and then the task of moving Steve back to the House is upon them. It isn’t easy or fast since Steve has a number of lines and tubing connected to him. Other than the catheter and arterial lines, he also has a naso-gastric tube to transfer nutrients directly into his stomach. He pulls at it constantly. He’s at it again when they’re trying to load him onto the ambulance for the trip back.

Tony keeps pushing his right hand away, which is easy since he has a lack of strength on that side. But as soon as Tony looks away, Steve tugs at the tube again. He rolls his head back and forth on the gurney and clutches at Tony’s hand.

Just as Tony climbs into the ambulance and waves to Bucky Steve yanks on him and says, “Out.”

The sound of it stops Tony in his tracks and he nearly tumbles out of the back of the ambulance. “Wh-what?”

Steve jerks at the line again and repeats the word but it is slightly slurred and he opens and closes his jaw a few times like it hurts.

There’s a gurgling noise and Tony calls over the paramedic. “We have a problem here.”

The young man jumps on board the ambulance and immediately captures Steve’s hand to stop him. “No, sir, don’t.”

“He wants it out,” Tony says.

“It’s the only way for him to get any nutrients.”

“No, it isn’t,” Tony says and knows he’s being naïve. “He can eat real food, can’t you?” Steve only pulls at the line again. “Just get it free.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I can’t, not without a doctor’s-.” The kid practically leaps out of his uniform as Steve begins to draw the tube out.

“Shit, Steve,” Tony takes the tube in hand himself and yanks it the rest of the way out. Steve coughs and gags, tears stream down his face.

“Hmm, I don’t think you were supposed to do that,” the paramedic says.

“Go tell the doctors on me; we’re going home.” Tony says and tosses the line to the corner of the ambulance. The young paramedic stands there frozen in indecision. “Let me help you out here, if he doesn’t eat on his own, we’ll get the tube back in. You’re not liable. Come on, get in the day’s a wasting.”

*oOo*
Over the course of the next week, the lines and the tubes are removed. Steve has to take another trip to the hospital but they are able to schedule it early enough in the day, that by twilight the paramedics hoist the gurney up the stairs and back into his room. Exhaustion hits Steve and he falls into a deep slumber even before they're finished hooking him up to the monitors and putting the pressure cuffs on his legs again. His hand relaxes enough so that Tony is able to pry himself free. He stands there, unwilling to leave as he watches the dim light from the balcony stream in through the windows. It is quiet and humbling to look at a man who had been so strong and courageous reduced to such a weak and dependent thing.

It is Bucky who breaks his train of thought, his morose contemplation. "Don't do that."

"Do what?" Tony says but still stays near the bed as Bucky leans against the door frame.

"Don't pity him, Steve hates pity. He was a ninety pound weakling as a kid, beaten up on a regular basis for defending the underdog - never realizing he was the underdog. Once he hit puberty things changed for him, but he never forgot what it was like to be small and sickly," Bucky says and pushes off the wall. "He's good with your support, but not with your sympathy or pity."

"What about empathy, would he accept that?" Tony asks because he's beginning to know, beginning to understand that Steve's plight mirrors in his own in some ways. After Afghanistan, after Stane betrayed him and tried to get him killed Tony returned to the States a different man. Not bitter, not afraid, but changed. He found himself adrift and lost, as if he'd fallen asleep and when he awoke, nothing fit in the right place anymore, nothing worked. For the first time, this house, these people have slowly brought him back to reality, to a sense of being.

"Don't know - depends on-."

A commotion from the first floor interrupts them. Both Tony and Bucky head for the stairs while Tony yells for JARVIS to keep a close eye on Steve.

"As always, sir."

As he walks down the stairs, Tony spies the woman (Hill, her name was Hill) he briefly met the day he learned Steve had opened his eyes. Along with her is a big guy with a patch over his eye and a trench coat. If she eats puppies for breakfast, Tony would bet he eats kittens for snacks. He doesn't want to guess what he would devour for breakfast or any other meal for that matter. When he enters the lounge, the others are in a debate as the big guy and Hill try and wrestle verbally in an argument concerning Steve's care. Coulson is in the middle of the fray along with Barton and Natasha. There's another girl with them, one Tony hasn't met but she keeps leaning over to Coulson to give him more ammunition for his battle. He's guessing she's the assistant he first met on the phone, Darcy.

"You entrusted his care to us," Coulson says. "He has progressed phenomenally since he came to the center."

"Oh you mean the frat house?" the big guy states.

"Who are you?" Tony asks.

The big guy raises an eyebrow and lets out a breath. It almost sounds like he's laughing at them. "Stark, only you would be involved in this. Trying to get the story, trying to take down an American hero."

"Who are you again?"

Coulson gestures to the big bald guy with the black patch over his eye and says, "This is Colonel Nick Fury, director of the SHIELD hospital in Virginia."

"The only story I'm seeing here is that you want to deliver a national hero to a place he'll stop making any progress and be alone without his family."

"Captain Rogers doesn't have a family."

Bucky practically launches off the floor, but Natasha catches him and holds him. He's surprised she can, but then she has some wily moves to her.

The big guy raises his hand as a boundary and says, "Let us start again, shall we?"

"You are not taking Steve," Bucky growls, his face twisted and red with anger.

"And you are not endangering his life and progress by keeping him here unless I'm convinced he will get the care he needs." Fury towers over everyone in the room, except for Thor. But Tony notices Thor and Jane are nowhere to be found. "Believe me, I am not here because I want to be, but because I have to be. There are questions and concerns coming from the highest levels."

"Sir, when Captain Rogers was transferred here, we went through all the proper channels," Coulson says and Darcy hands him a packet of papers with a folder. "In triplicate."

"You could do it until the cows come home, it won't matter to the people who want to handle this situation." Fury studies each one of them, resting finally on Tony. "And there is a serious situation."

Tony narrows his eyes because he's suddenly on the hot plate being stirred to boiling. "Who's trying to handle the situation?"

"Right now, for your information, it's me and my associate. You don't need to know anything more, but I need to know how you are going to manage Captain Rogers' care."

"We've managed it so far fairly well," Barton answers. "He's even improved."

"We are well aware that Captain Rogers has improved, what I asked was how are you going to manage his increased care. Caring for a comatose patient is one thing, caring for a recovering comatose patient requires even more work and dedication than I think any of you knuckleheads even knows or understands."

"I resent that remark, sir. We won a grant."

"Good to know you resent the truth, Coulson. I'll keep that in mind when I consider writing another white paper in support for further funding for this place." Fury flicks a wrist at Hill and she offers him a tablet. He flips it open. "It says here that Captain Rogers has regained a minimally conscious state and is still seeing improvement. All tubing has been removed and he's on a soft diet. It indicates that Captain Rogers has only spoken once or twice."

"So, yes?" Bucky asks. Tony notes that Natasha still has her hand cupped around his prosthetic arm.

"So who feeds Captain Rogers? Who cleans him, bathes him? Helps him to the bathroom?"

"We all chip in and we have nurses and doctors who volunteer their time," Coulson says.

"And when he needs therapy to walk and to talk - who is going to do that?" Fury regards them.

"I give him whatever therapy he needs," Natasha says. "I have a friend who can help him in the speech department as well."

"So, you think you can handle it?" Fury looks at each of their faces.

Before they can answer, JARVIS chimes in and says, "Sir, Captain Rogers has awoken and is agitated. He is calling for you."

"What?" Tony asks while both Fury and Hill jump at the sound of the disembodied voice. "Say that again, JARVIS?"

"Captain Rogers is calling for you, sir."

 

"How?" Bucky asks.

"By name, Mister Barnes," JARVIS states and Bucky responds with a whoop of joy. He doesn't even seem to begrudge the fact that it was Tony's name and not his own that Steve called.

"On my way," Tony says and turns before he leaves the room. "We're not done."

"No," Fury says. "I'm afraid we're not."

Tony glares at him, then to Coulson to telegraph his discontentment, but he can't loiter and fight the good fight. The situation forces him to leave it to the others. He takes the steps two at a time and tries to ignore the persistent nagging in the back of his brain. He ends up bursting into the room faster and angrier than he intended.

Surprised by the thumping of the door against the wall, Steve jerks on the bed. Tony spots it instantly, the moment Steve's thrown into a flashback and he thrashes around in the bed. The monitors squeal and beep their disapproval. Crossing the distance, Tony grabs for Steve's hand, swatting it out of the air and gripping it.

"Shush, Steve, I'm here. You're not there. You're here with me, Tony. Come on, it's okay," Tony says rotating his thumb on the palm of Steve's hand, a motion Steve has come to associate with calm and serenity. He quiets and stares at Tony as if getting a clear look at him for the first time.

"Okay?" Steve says and Tony smiles.

Three words. They are three words into a vocabulary and Tony cannot smile more, his facial muscles hurt from it. "Okay."

"Tony," Steve says.

"Yeah?"

"Stay?"

"Okay." Four, four, four! Tony thinks again and again in his head.

Steve eases down against the pillow and blinks his eyes. "Stay."

"Stay," Tony agrees and hooks a chair with his foot to bring it over to the bed. "Right here, Steve, I'm right here."

*oOo*
Tony takes up the mantle of feeding Captain Steve Rogers, which is not as easy as it sounds. When he enters the room with a tray of soup, apple sauce, yogurt, and milk Steve watches from the bed in silence. Tony thinks of this period as the moments before the storm, because if there is one thing Tony learns is that Steve is fiercely independent. Trying to allow anyone to feed him has become a testament to good will and endurance.

Tony places the serving tray on the table next to the hospital bed, wheels over the tray table for the bed and settles it over Steve's lap.

"How's it going today?"

Steve doesn't answer; he's listening to a game on the radio.

"Who's playing? You know I lost interest in baseball a long time ago. Well, not really, never had a real interest in it in the first place. But I did consider buying a team once – well, tried to convince dear old Howard, but that didn’t go over well," Tony says and transfers the food to the tray table. "Did you know that Bruce is a great cook? Who knew, right? Most of the time he's inscrutable."

Steve screws up his face at Tony.

"He's weird, most of the time Bruce is weird."

Steve smiles at Tony, and shifts in the bed. He's going to try for it, and, while Tony thinks it is okay for Steve to be independent and attempt to feed himself, the results thus far have been disastrous.

"Bruce made the soup, homemade Italian wedding soup with tiny little meatballs and everything," Tony says and he reaches for the spoon, but not before Steve lifts his weakened right hand and goes for it as well.

Tony eases back and allows Steve to fumble with the spoon. He manages to clutch it but the act of getting the soup onto the spoon and into his mouth becomes a trial. Most of the soup spills down his shirt, and he grunts at it.

"You're getting better at it." Tony says and wipes away the soup. God, how is this his life now. But then he looks up at Steve as he dabs at the stains and sees the trust in his eyes, the frustration and the fear as well. He remembers that dark cave, when he had no one, when he was starving and broken and would have begged for the slightest bit of dignity or human kindness. Clearing his throat, he says, "Crackers are probably easier. How about I deal with the soup, you get the crackers."

"Okay," Steve says though he is visibly upset by his lack of coordination and ability.

Tony forges ahead and ladles some of the soup into the spoon and offers it to Steve. Steve takes it, but frowns as he does and then lays his head back on the pillow and looks away from Tony.

"Hey, hey, we're not done yet."

"Done," Steve says and makes a weak effort to push the tray table away. Even though it really doesn't topple the cart, Tony still has to hold it in place and the soup sloshes in its bowl.

"You are not done yet," Tony says. "Eating one spoon of soup and that's it will get the naso-gastric thingie back down your nostril and your throat. Do you want that?"

"No," Steve says but doesn't turn his head.

"Hey, I get you, I get it. You want things back the way they were, but life sucks. It screws you over and leaves you out for the vultures to eat. And you want to know what I say to the vultures?"

Steve turns to face him.

"I say, sure huge fucking bird, try and eat my guts and I'll give you heartburn," Tony says. Steve chuckles and it sounds muted but nice to Tony's ears. "How about this, how about you try with your other hand?"

Tony switches the side of the spoon and stretches to give it to Steve. He doesn't take it right away. Tony reaches over and causes some of the dishes on the tray to clatter and slide but thankfully nothing spills over. He grabs Steve's left hand and says, "Try it. You are a soldier, and you are a brave son of a bitch from what I understand. Prove it. Eat your damned soup."

Steve clutches the spoon without any finesse and, like a backhoe, goes for the soup. He's able to coordinate his effort enough to scoop some into his mouth. After he eats a few of the spoonfuls he looks up to Tony and says, "Bad."

"It sucks? Well, don't blame me, Bruce made it."

"No," Steve says, he points at Tony. "Bad."

"I'm bad? Do you mean bad like in a cool way or bad like an evil way?"

Steve brings up his right hand and with a slight palsied motion slaps at his mouth. "Bad."

"Bad?" Tony says. "Bad?"

He hits his lips again.

"Bad mouth," Tony says. "Are you saying I have a bad mouth?"

"Yeah, bad," Steve says and turns back to the soup. "Good."

"Oh, the soup is good but my mouth is bad?"

"Yeah," Steve says and smiles.

"How do you know my mouth is bad when you never even tasted it?" Tony lifts a brow at Steve and snickers.

Steve smirks at him and says, "Yeah." Then he licks his lips and grins.

Tony startles a bit at that action. "You know the whole damned house is coddling you, and here you are sitting up here with indecent thoughts. You are a devious super soldier, aren't you?"

Steve doesn't listen to him; just continues to feed himself as he hums lightly. Somehow, Tony thinks he's being scammed.

*oOo*

Tony spends time to rig the room with a full console that includes a television, tablet, and radio. Steve seems to prefer the radio and likes to listen to baseball games. The baseball game is on and he spends a great deal of time murmuring lowly to himself. When Tony asks about it, Steve rolls his eyes and doesn't confess what he's saying.

At times though, when Tony arrives at the House darkness shrouds the room and Steve curls in a ball on the bed as the migraines plague him. His traumatic brain injury isn’t over but continues to butcher his health and his well-being. There are long days when he can only barely function and cannot eat because of the headaches. The doctors assure everyone in the House, it is a normal side effect of traumatic brain injuries to have headaches and that those headaches might trouble Steve for weeks, months, or even years to come.

Doctor Carter goes out of her way for Steve, and part of Tony thinks she might be sweet on him, which infuriates Tony to no end and he berates himself for the feeling. But he doesn't like people to take his stuff. When he realizes he thinks of Steve as his, he escapes the House and spends the next few days attending to business with Pepper. He refuses the calls from the House, especially from Natasha and Barton, for him to beat his ass back there because Steve is feeling better and wants to see Tony.

He ignores the messages and finds refuge in his little apartment again, after a full day of meetings with the Foundation and his lawyer. His situation with his inheritance or lack thereof isn’t getting any better and sooner or later he’ll have to find some way to support himself. He can only go on the good graces of credit for so long.

He sprawls out on his bed, one lazy Saturday afternoon, happy for the respite because sleeping half on and half off Steve’s bed can be a killer to the spine. He’d also spent another fifteen hours working on improvements to the green energy he's developing and it drains him to minimally conscious himself.

His phone buzzes again, for the sixth time in as many minutes. Finally, he throws an arm over and grabs it. Pressing the connect button, he says, "Stark."

"Why aren't you here?"

Natasha. "Because I have things to do. I do have a life outside of your little family there."

"Steve's upset; he won't eat because he hasn't seen you in days."

"I told him I had to go away for a while," Tony says, that isn’t precisely true but he figured Steve wouldn’t know the difference. Tony also has no idea if he’ll be going back or not. He thinks his feelings about the situation are getting the best of him, and he needs to tap that down, squash it like a bug. Tony Stark remains aloof, cool and collected, when it comes to other people; that is how he's always operated.

Now, things have changed. It isn’t about proving dear old Howard wrong or showing off to the rest of the world. But Tony hasn’t a clue what it really is all about yet. He’s not sure he wants it to be about anything but money. He suddenly understands his father’s love of the all mighty buck. At least, loving the money, he doesn’t have to risk his heart. But that feels stilted, wrong, and hollow to him.

Afghanistan screwed him over. He wants to change things, change the fucking world. That is why he's spending hours developing green energy in the basement of the mansion. He saw what limited energy and human consumption does. It rips apart countries and kills innocent people. Because, regardless of what anyone says to Tony, he knows that the heart of the troubles in the Middle East lie not only in fundamentally different religious beliefs, but also in the fact that resources are vied for and limited, and people will do anything for those resources. He plans on taking one more instrument of death away from people - he plans on giving them unlimited energy.

He just can't figure out why he gives a flying fu-.

"Well?" Natasha has been speaking the entire time while his mind rambled onward and outward.

"I have obligations. The board of trustees for my own money is meeting again. I'm due in court because I am suing them for control of my father’s estate. I don't have time to play," Tony says.

"Listen, ass, you're coming over here, and I'm not going to hear anything more about it. You come here and you sit with Steve for a while. You promised and I don't like guys who make promises they don't intend to keep," Natasha says.

Isn't that who Tony is? The promises thrown around like confetti kind of guy with interpersonal relationships? Just look at Pepper, she's been his assistant for years and he has promised her the world and never even came through with it.

Plus, the fact that Tony dislikes being manipulated and threatened, he decides on the wrong turn for a reply. “I’ll get there when I get there, okay?” He pushes the disconnect button and tosses the phone over to the side table. He hates the feeling tightening his chest and aggravating his already taxed heart muscle. They have to understand, Steve isn’t his charge, isn’t his. He didn’t even know the guy just a few weeks ago.

“Damn it.”

He rolls over and tugs up the quilt to find some rest. He hasn’t really slept in a while and the warm comfort of the bedroom and the soft quilt eases him into slumber. Most of the time he fears sleep for what it brings, but he thinks this time, as he drifts off, that it won’t be bad, he’ll be fine. Exhaustion is always his friend.

Except when it isn’t.

Of course, the nightmares come, the images of men with hands splitting open his chest, digging through it to yank out his heart, and crush it. He wakes up sweating and panting, clawing at his chest and saying. “JARVIS, heart? How’s my heart.”

“Although your pulse is slightly elevated, your heart is operating within your normal parameters, sir.”

“Brain, is there something wrong with my brain? A stroke?”

“No, sir. You had a nightmare and a subsequent panic attack.”

“Panic? Me?” Tony fumbles with the quilt, gathering it, and pushing it aside. He stands and rubs at his face with both hands. “What’s the point?”

“Sir, if I may say, even though the position leaning on the Captain’s bed made it difficult to attain a full night’s sleep, you never had nightmares and panic attacks at Captain Rogers’ bedside.”

“No, you may not say,” Tony grumbles and ends up in the bathroom, splashing water on his face. “What time is it?”

“Five oh five in the morning, sir.”

“Crap,” Tony says and grasps the sink and hangs his head. What the hell is he doing? Every moment of every day away from the House seems like a million moments. He thinks about Steve and his plight, his crystalline blue eyes, and full lips all the time. What’s the point of staying away in body, if he can’t stay away in mind?

Even Pepper noticed it when they were out to lunch yesterday (or was it the day before – they all seem to stream together in a mixture of colors and shapes that look more like a Picasso painting than reality). She’d mentioned how he never vented or ranted about the Trustees, about the court case, he sat quietly and listened to her.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“Up?”

“You’re subdued; nothing ever good comes out of it when you’re subdued.”

“I’m not sure how to take that,” he’d responded.

“Neither am I,” Pepper said but refused to elaborate.

Tony’s not a stupid man, far from it. He knows too much and stays ten steps ahead of the game, most of time. This whole thing with Steve throws him, though. It changes him. He can’t get a decent grip on it, like he’s deep sea fishing and the line is just too hard to handle.

He sighs and knows the only want to confront the enemy is head on. He showers, drinks a ton of coffee, and sets off. He’s to the house in Brooklyn Heights in a little under an hour. He has to rap on the door and Thor opens it.

“You have returned!” Thor says and offers him a smothering hug.

Tony bats him off and says, “Yes, I’m here.” He carries a box of tools, instruments, and equipment. He needs to do some upgrading on the system today.

“Steve has been asking for you,” Thor says as he follows Tony into the kitchen.

The kitchen is a poor excuse for a pig sty mixed with outdoor grill. There are serious needs for upgrades with their olive green appliances from the 1970s – which cannot be energy efficient, and Formica countertops. He shakes his head and follows his nose to the coffee pot. At least, someone planned and set the automatic timer to fix the coffee. He pours a cup and asks Thor if he wants one.

Thor indicates in the negative with a raised hand, but before Tony can leave, he stops him. “I would like to inquire, Tony.”

“Yeah?”

“If you intend to win the war and not just the battle?”

“What?” Tony sips the coffee but it tastes too acidic and he frowns at it.

“The war is more about the resetting of your world and not just for a moment, but forever. Can you change everything, and every part of you, or will you just play a child’s game and not care for the long term effects?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Why do you come here?”

“I don’t-.”

“Are you a mechanic or a journalist?”

“That depends,” Tony says. “I’m not sure-.”

“No, of course you are not; you deny the battle and therefore will lose the war.”

“And the battle is?”

“The battle is you, Tony,” Thor says and, as he passes by Tony in the doorway to the kitchen, he leans in and says, “Not all of us suffer the same symptoms, but we all suffer.”

He disappears up the stairs to his room. Tony stares after him, the coffee uninviting. After he dumps the coffee down the sink, he trudges up the stairs. He keeps thinking about how it is time to face the music. How seeing Steve after four days without any commitment to come back is cruel and unusual punishment, but he’s just not sure who it is crueler to, Steve or him.

When he opens the door, the night nurse lifts her head and smiles. She’s an older woman with a puff of beautiful white hair and a regal looking face like she might have been a queen in another life. She has her glasses perched on the edge of her nose and she slips her tablet under her arm and joins him in the hallway.

“He’s restless, hasn’t slept well in the last few nights, poor dear,” she says and then squeezes his hand. “But now you’re here, all will be well again. I hope you were able to finish your business, Mister Stark.”

“Yes, thanks.” She disappears down the dark hallway, and he sidles forward in the dim light of day to Steve’s bedside.

He peers down at Steve, who has his face turned away from Tony and something clutched in his hand. He peels Steve’s fingers open and finds a phone. Frowning, he flips it over and slides it on. He fishes through the contact list and finds only two numbers programmed into the phone. Bucky’s and his own.

“Huh?”

“We did it so that he would calm down,” Natasha says from the doorway. “It was pathetic I know, but we told him you would call him.” She wanders into the room. “Don’t disappoint him again.”

Tony considers her, thinks of the other residents (because in a way they all are) of the house and says, “He’s your epicenter, the reason this place exists.”

She quirks a smile. “Took you long enough to figure that one out, Stark. I thought you were smarter than that. Some of us didn’t want the Captain stuck in some military facility for the comatose patients where there’s no hope.”

“You said you didn’t know him.”

“No, I didn’t. But I knew of him.”

“Everyone did, does,” Barton says as he ambles in the room. He’s in his sleeping pants and a t-shirt. “We got together when they wanted to ship him out; we convinced Coulson that this place could be more than a hang-out for disenfranchised vets.”

“Wow, multi-syllabic words, Barton, I’m impressed,” Tony says.

“Eat me.”

“You wish,” Tony says. He eyes Natasha and asks, “So, this is all a set up?”

“No, not a set-up, this was supposed to be a crash place for vets that couldn’t find help any other way, like Don. But Bucky contacted me, he was desperate for something to do for Steve,” Natasha says.

“Nat, called me, I worked with Coulson.”

“And I worked with Bucky to get Colonel Phillips to find a way to move Steve here,” Natasha says.

“So, you knew Bucky?”

“From before, and you don’t need to know,” Natasha says.

“Super-secret spy stuff, huh?”

She rolls her eyes in exasperation but it is half in fun and he’s not offended at all. “Something like that, now get with the program. We want this place to continue for the rest of us, but we need it to continue for Steve.”

“If you are who I think you are, Stark, you’ll get your act in gear and start acting like a hero instead of a prick.” Barton yawns and saunters out of the room, followed by Natasha.

He gazes after them for some time before he hears a call from the bed. “Tony?”

“Steve.” Tony turns around to check on Steve. He’s half moving to get out of the bed, but his right side gives him fits and he’s obviously fatigued from the emotional trauma of separation. Tony never thought he’d play the part of Linus’ security blanket.

Tony rushes to Steve’s side and tries to get him situated back in bed. “Nope, in you go.”

“No.”

“No?”

Steve grabs at his groin a little and then points to the second door in the room.

“Oh,” Tony says. “Oh.” He drags out that one sound and flares open his eyes. There is no way Steve can make it to the bathroom and stand up to take a piss. “Okay, okay, stay where you are.”

He scans the room, and in the corner he finds a wheelchair. When did that get here? He wheels it over and brakes it, then slides his shoulder under Steve’s arm.

He’s able to maneuver Steve into the chair without issue and then directs it over to the bathroom which presents a whole new problem. The damn thing is about the size of a postage stamp. There’s no way he can get the chair in there.

“Oh.” The older nurse, her names is Matilda or Matty or maybe Mary appears in the room and toddles to his side. She’s small but very rotund. “Let me give you a hand with that. Steve’s been insistent on using the little boy’s room. Which is very good.”

With strength Tony would have never guessed she had, Matty (he’s going with that because he needs to call her something) hoists Steve out of the seat and guides him into the tiny bathroom. Steve’s right side collapses every time he tries to put weight on it.

Matty looks around Steve to Tony and says, “Give us a hand there, will you?”

Tony takes up position on Steve’s right side and helps navigate him into the space near the toilet. Without ceremony, Matty yanks down his sleeping pants and helps position Steve.

“Wouldn’t it be easier if-?” Tony looks away as Steve bares it all. “Oh lordy, yep, not expecting that.”

Steve relieves himself and then Matty’s pulling his pants up into position again. She helps him wash his hands and then Tony moves him back into the chair again. Matty busies herself with tidying up the room. When Tony starts to bring him to the bed, Steve stops him and points to the console with the tablet and computer that Tony installed. He changes course, brings them to the console, Steve snatches up the tablet, and then points to the balcony.

“Um, no, it’s raining and cool today, Steve.” Tony knows there’s an overhang, but it isn’t a typical August day. It is one of those days in late summer that harkens to seasons to come, cool, wet, and dark.

He insists.

“Okay, okay,” Tony grabs a handmade quilt from the bed, and Steve smiles.

“Mom.”

“Mom?”

“Mom,” Steve nods. “M-Made.”

“Your mother made this?” Tony looks at the craftsmanship, he’s not an expert on anything concerning fabrics and sewing but the pattern is intricate and weaves curled red and white stripes with white stars on a blue background. “Very patriotic.”

“B-birthday.”

“It was a birthday present?” Tony asks and lays it on Steve’s lap. He opens the sliding doors to the balcony and gets the chair out onto the small porch. “Nice.”

With the chair positioned so that Steve can look out at the small park behind the house and watch the city peeking out through the tree line, he uses one finger to switch on the tablet. He hits one of the applications and what simulates a flash card appears.

The tablet says, “Apple.” There’s a picture of an apple with the word apple underneath it.

Steve repeats the word. “Apple.” He sits there and stares at the word, processing it for over a minute before he says, “Apple, apple.” Then he looks up at Tony and says, “Apple?”

“You eat it, fruit. You had some the other day, the sliced fruit. Yummy.” He feels like a fool at the same time a warmth spreads through his chest and his shattered heart relaxes from its anxiety.

Steve smiles and the light from the room behind him hits his face as he does. He nods. “Apple.”

And so starts the tradition, every morning for the next five weeks, Tony climbs the stairs, meets Steve as he wakes, helps him with his morning routine, brings him tea and they go over the flashcards. Migraines interrupt their days together, and, for those horribly long hours, Tony sits with Steve with a bucket in case he gets sick enough to need it. Medication helps but sometimes, they hit Steve so hard and so face he literally collapses like he’s been shot.

Yet, on the days Steve feels well enough, Tony helps him eat breakfast and then they camp out on the balcony with a tablet and work on Steve’s language skills and his reading ability. He doesn’t think anything of it when Steve starts to cough. It’s cold out on the balcony in the end of a very cool September and Steve has been anything but reticent about his situation of late. Since his vocabulary has jumped in leaps and bounds, and since the doctors have declared Steve self-aware and no longer minimally conscious, he expects more and more from himself.

As they sit out on the balcony, Steve bundled in the quilt his mother sewed for him and Tony with a leather jacket on, Steve gazes out as the sun just begins the crest the tree tops. “Art.”

“Hmm?” Tony asks as he sips the tea.

“Wanted to be artist,” Steve says and looks at his right hand. Progress on his weakened side is slow and minimal. He coughs and looks to the side. “Now.”

“So, you gotta work hard at it. So far what I’ve seen is something of an amazement, you’ve pulled yourself from a hole I would never have bet anyone in your condition would have been able to.”

“Tony,” Steve says and a smile touches his lips.

“What?”

Steve turns away to face the sun and shakes his head. “Nothing.” He coughs a few more times and Tony ushers him back into the room. “Want to go down.”

“Down?”

Steve points to the floor.

“Well, there is a mechanism to bring you down the stairs, I’m just not sure it works all that well,” Tony says.

“Down,” Steve says again and Tony watches as the frustration burns through Steve until he fists his hands on the armrest of the chair and says it again with a demanding edge to his voice.

“Steve, I can’t make something happen just because you want it to, it doesn’t work like that.”

“Now,” Steve says and tries to get the wheelchair moving toward the door which would be comical if it wasn’t so sad considering Steve’s right hand can’t keep up with his left.

“What is so important you have to go downstairs? You can stay here, there’s nothing wrong with staying here.”

“Group, group meeting, today.”

“What?”

“Group meeting today,” Steve says and scrubs a hand over his face. “Today, down, meeting.” He throws his head back and Tony can see he’s blinking back tears of frustration.

“Hey, hey,” Tony says. “Hold on, we’ll figure it out. Just let me check it out, okay?”

“Okay.”

Tony situates Steve in front of the computer, gets his compression ball into his right hand for flexing exercises, and boots up the computer so Steve can practice some reading. He pats Steve on the shoulder and says, “I’ll be right back.” He leaves and enters the hallway, bending over to examine the lift mechanism.

While he’s checking it out, his phone buzzes, and he plucks it out of his back pocket. “Stark?”

“Tony, where are you?”

“Pepper?”

“Yes, Pepper, remember me? Your assistant, the one you haven’t paid in like three months.”

“Yes, about that,” Tony closes his eyes and lets out a deep breath.

“That’s not what this is about, Tony. Don’t worry about that, I can handle that,” Pepper says. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with you; the Trustees have named a psychiatrist to assess your mental state. You’re lawyer has agreed.”

“What?” Tony falls down from his haunches onto the step. “Reed just went ahead and okayed this guy?”

“Yes, seems he has a brilliant reputation.”

“Reed always stretches the truth, you know. He always stretches everything to fit into his definition. Are we sure Reed isn’t in the Trustees’ pockets?”

“Anything is possible, but Tony you have to come in soon.”

“Come in?”

“To your offices,” Pepper says. “You know the ones you abandoned like a year ago.”

“We still have offices, how am I even paying for the rent?” Tony says and he realizes how much he’s let go, let everything go while he’s been tinkering around here with Steve. He looks over his shoulder and, while he doesn’t begrudge any of the time he’s spent here, he has to be more judicious about it.

“They’re in the mansion, Tony, you own the mansion,” Pepper says with sigh.

“Right, right,” Tony nods. He had to move the offices when he came back from the Middle East and the whole thing with the Trust hit the fan. “Listen, can I come by in a day or two and we’ll work out the schedules.”

“A day or two? Tony, what are you doing?”

“Nothing, everything,” Tony says and leans against the railing as he speaks. “I have to tell you about this place I found.”

“It isn’t another strip club and you haven’t been ogling the dancers again have you?”

“God, Pepper, no,” Tony says. “It’s a rehab center for vets, if you must know.”

“Like vets for dogs and cats?”

“No, like soldier vets,” Tony says. “My therapist prescribed it. You have to come here. It’s something else.”

“Something else?”

“Something different,” Tony says and he knows she’s not sold on it, yet. But he’s determined, and will work on it with her soon. He changes the subject. “So, what’s the doctor’s name?”

“I don’t know something like van Damn or von Doom.”

“Oh, both of those sound promising,” Tony says. “Get the appointment set up.”

“Are you ready for it?”

“When am I not ready?”

“Ninety-five percent of time,” Pepper responds.

“You cut me deeply, Pepper, you know that right? Get it set up, you know my schedule better than I do,” Tony says. “And Pepper?”

“Yes, Tony?”

“I’m sorry about the pay. But I do have something cooking that will change everything even if we end up with nothing from the Trust.”

“Always cooking up something, aren’t you?”

“Sometimes,” he says. “See you soon then.”

“Okay.”

He closes the connection and tosses the phone in his jacket pocket when he hears a squeak of a wheel. How the hell Steve managed to get the chair all the way to the door of the room is a testament to whatever weird ass super serum must be running through his veins.

“Tony?”

“Yep?” He checks the wiring of the mechanism and does not like what he sees.

“Leaving?” For all his bulk in the chair, he looks small and discontent as he studies Tony.

“No, yes, I have to go and get some business done.” He’d been eating and practically living in the house for weeks now, not thinking of his real life. He wonders what has become of it, or if this is his life now. “I’ll be back.”

Steve nods. “Good, okay.” He can see it in Steve’s eyes, the resolution not to be a burden on anyone. Bucky had warned Tony about it, how Steve doesn’t like pity or sympathy. How Steve doesn’t understand that being the weak one is okay because others are there you can depend on.

Tony stands and says, “Don’t worry. I’m coming back. I’ll bring Pepper, you can meet Pepper.”

“Pepper, your dog?”

Tony laughs and claps his hands. “No, Pepper’s my girl, well a girl, she’s a girl.”

“Your girl?” Steve watches him and there’s something hurt in Steve’s eyes tinged with an unspoken longing. “Great, good.” He nods and starts maneuvering the chair back into the room with one hand. He’s lucky he’s so muscular and that he didn’t lose much of his muscle mass to the coma. He’s able to do it without any help from Tony; because Tony stands there at a loss as to what he’s just witnessed.

*oOo*
One thing that surprises Tony is the effort and time spent with Steve's rehabilitation. It isn't that he thinks it is useless or futile, but the tenacity and commitment of the staff is overwhelming. Everyone chips in and they do whatever they can. Thor even works with Steve and Natasha supporting the physical therapy that Steve needs to do on a daily basis.

While his progress is amazing in the physical department and even the verbal arenas, he lags behind in the written word and language. The whole crew takes on the challenge with renewed vigor; the intensity of their work with Steve astounds Tony. He even mentioned it to his neurologist at one point when she stopped by.

"He does that to people," Carter said in a fond tone.

Tony had pursed his lips and regarded her. "He's coming along but I don't get the problem with reading and writing."

"The brain is a harsh mistress," Carter had said and turned to look at him from her position in the hallway watching Steve struggle with his daily reading lesson. "Steve had a glancing shot to the left temporal lobe. It didn't do the major damage. The major damage was due to the blood clot and the contusion when his brain was jarred in his skull."

"So the temporal damage isn't responsible for his reading issues?"

"Mostly no, due to what we believe was a concussive force - Mister Buchanan reported that Steve fell from a wall when he was struck by the bullet and hit his head, and due to the ricochet effect of the brain impacting the skull, he has multiple areas of diffuse injury. Thus the frontal lobe coma, the temporal issues with memory acquisition, and his right side weakness, and the occipital damage leads to the loss of academic skills such as writing and reading. We can hardly map all the damage; but it is important to note that each injury isn’t high on traumatic brain injury scale, yet when measured together the damage is more moderate to severe than mild. Steve's progress has been nothing short of miraculous, considering." She searched his face for a moment before she added, "You're very interested in his progress and his well-being."

"He does that to people," Tony had replied as he mimicked her answer. She only cocked an eyebrow with a knowing smile and walked down the staircase. He had watched after her and wondered what she thought she knew.

The whole crew of the house never lets up, never eases the lessons, and refuses to listen to any of Steve's insistent whining when he's had enough. Yet, today his frustration gets the best of him as Tony enters the room and Steve shoves the reader on the floor with a thud. Darcy sits there and stares at him.

"Pick it up," she says. When Tony reaches down she practically snarls at him when he tries to retrieve the book for Steve. He steps back and watches as Steve steams but relents to scoop up the reader (which Tony estimates is a first grade level book).

"Do you want to try again?" Darcy says. Her warning stare at Tony tells him that she probably has a Taser hidden in her hoodie and she's not afraid to use it.

"Not really," Steve says. He flips the book open and the story is about a visit to the Arctic Circle and polar bears.

"Come on, slowly, and sound out the words," Darcy says.

Steve tries and it is painful, and Tony needs to walk out of the room as he watches the man struggle with the simplest of words. He mixes up 'the' with 'a' and drops endings of words. Even after Darcy helps him sound out a word, he forgets it a page later. Tony decides to return to the first level and ends up in the kitchen querying JARVIS.

"Please download applications on reading and writing for Steve. I'd like to see things he might be interested in, like American Heroes, and History, possibly World War Two. I think he likes that kind of crap."

"Sir, his reading skills may not match the applications and materials I can access."

"Then we'll write a new one, get me the data, I'll do it tonight," Tony says. He hears another thump from upstairs and rolls his eyes. How Darcy doesn't knock Steve upside the head is another question entirely. Instead of hiding out in the kitchen, he decides to go back upstairs into the war zone. What he finds is Steve with his tablet open again going through the rudimentary flashcards.

"I thought-," Tony says and Darcy shakes her head to tell him to silence.

The tablet says, "Jet."

Steve glares at Darcy, she points to the image onthe card, and Steve flares out his nostrils as he clenches his teeth and says, "Jet."

"What is a jet, Steve?"

"Plane," Steve says.

"Well, technically," Tony says and Darcy does growl at him this time.

"Good, proceed."

"No," Steve says and hits the button to turn off the tablet. "Can do the cards, can't read."

"I know that," Darcy says. "Look at me; don't you think I know that?"

Tony frowns and thinks, boy, she is a tough cookie.

"Yes," Steve says. "Can’t put together."

She holds his hands as he fidgets in the chair. "I understand, stringing the words together makes no sense. You have to listen to me. You have to find a new path to do it in your head. The only way to do that is to try and do it again and again."

"Again?" Steve says and he rubs at his forehead. "Again?"

"More than once, Steve," Tony says.

"More than one?" Steve answers, trying to understand the concept.

Tony pats down his coat, finds a bag of blueberries and tugs it out. "Here, is one blueberry."

"One," Steve repeats.

"Here are two." Tony places another blueberry on table. "More than one."

"Two," Steve smiles. "Next?"

Tony puts another blueberry out. "Three, more than one, more than two."

"Another?" Steve says. They continue until there are a pile of fifteen blueberries on the table. Steve tilts his head, looks at them, grabs the handful and chows down. "Not more than one," he says with his mouth full.

"Sneaky little bastard, aren't you?" Tony says, looks at his empty bag, and then claps his hands. "You just ate all my blueberries."

"Now, none?" Steve says.

"Now, none, nada, zilch, zero," Tony says.

"Okay, enough with the math lesson, you get it, Steve? More than one?" Darcy says.

"Lots more than one," Steve says and pulls the reader to him again. He pages to the story they were working on. Sighing, he starts it again. When Tony only leans against the arm of the cushioned chair in the room, Steve looks up and says, "Cold, don’t like cold."

"Me neither, pal. I'm working on something more interesting for you, okay?"

Steve brightens the room with a blue stained teeth smile and all Tony can do is to try and stop himself from thinking how he looks like a giant smurf.

Darcy rolls her eyes and digs through a backpack she has stuffed to the side of the console. Pulling out a piece of paper with a rectangular space cut out of the middle of it, she lays it over the page on the line of words. “One at a time,” she says. “Read one word, then move the paper to show the next word.”

Steve smiles, his goofy, smurf grin and tries again. It is halting and a struggle, but he tries and dedicates himself to finishing the story of the polar bear lost in the Arctic Sea. Tony wishes he could sit and listen all day, because it is an accomplishment, because it is something he can see and feel a sense of pride in. He doesn’t know why or even if he should, but it is so much better than the struggle of his own life. Yet, he knows he has to leave, go back to it, fight the good fight. He isn’t smiling when he leaves the House that night.

*oOo*
Pepper sets up an appointment with Von Doom the next week. And what kind of name is that, anyhow? Any patient has to want to slit their throat or run for the hills. That’s like being a doctor and having the name Hurt. Who’d seriously want to see a doctor named hurt or doom? By the time they finish everything Pepper has planned Tony decides it’s best to spend the night in his apartment at the mansion. He calls the house and tells Barton so that Steve is prepared for his absence.

He doesn't sleep that night; instead he spends time in the workshop he fashioned in the basement of the mansion. He has a few ideas he is tinkering with that could help the status of his finances considerably. He checks on the data streaming in from his current experiment, one that has been going on for over a year. He’d set it up prior to leaving for Afghanistan. At least he had something to look forward to when he came back to the land of the living. He keeps the whole thing quiet and only JARVIS actually knows it exists. But the data is so damned promising he wants to share it - he just doesn't know with whom to share it.

He ends up asking JARVIS to patch him through to Steve. Eh, that will surprise him.

The phone rings a few times before it is answered by Bucky. "Yeah?"

"Is that how you answer the phone?" Tony says.

"Who is this?"

"It's Tony, give the phone to Steve," Tony says.

There's a shifting around and then Bucky must whisper something before allowing Steve to have the phone. "Tony?"

"Hey, how are you?"

"Good."

Tony can almost see the smile on his face. When has Tony ever elicited a smile from anyone of late? "I just wanted to tell you that I'll be held up. I have some data I want to go through-."

"Data?" The puzzlement in his voice comes through loud and clear. "For?"

"This is some stuff I've been tinkering with for over a year or so. I played with it before I went to Afghanistan, but then when I came back, I had an epiphany. It'll change the face of the world."

"Writing?" Steve isn't tracking.

"No, I haven't written a word since I came back," Tony says and swallows down the bile. When did it get so hard to admit that? Why is it so hard when he should be happy he's moving on? "My degrees are in engineering."

"Oh," Steve says. "The mechanic."

Tony laughs and he feels his eyes crinkle with a bit of joy to hear Steve. "Hey, I gotta do this, but I wanted you to know - it'll change things and I'm happy about it."

"Me, too." Steve coughs a few times.

"Steve, can you give the phone back to Bucky?"

"Um, sure?" Steve pauses and then adds, "Bye, Tony."

His speech patterns improve daily just with a slight hesitation with stringing words together. The human brain is amazing, Tony thinks. He tries not to allow himself to think, Steve is amazing.

"Yeah?"

"Again with the yeah?"

"What do you want, Stark?" He can hear Steve in the background saying Bucky's name and turning it into a reprimand. Even Tony is impressed. "Okay, okay, what can I do for you, Tony?"

"Steve's been coughing for a while now, can someone check on it?" He knows Steve has compromised lungs since he came back.

"Yeah, we already have a call into the doctor. Might have to bring him in for an appointment. Just waiting to hear back."

"Okay, great, can I talk to Steve again?"

There's more rustling and Steve says, "Tony?"

"Hey," Tony says and finds himself smiling at the sound of Steve's voice again. "Just wanted to say I'll see you soon. Might be a few days, okay?"

"Okay," Steve says. "See you soon, too."

Tony smiles at that, and then quietly whispers goodbye. He decides that now is not the time to analyze his current infatuation with Steve. Even with all the pomp and circumstance of being a media star he knows deep down he has always been an engineer or a mechanic as Steve calls him. Things that need fixing are attractive to him; draw him in like moths to the flame. So he'll get a little burned when this thing with Steve is over, but he'll have done something good and, for once, instead of just being the brat who hates his father, he'll be something else, something more.

In the end he stays at the mansion for over a week. He has meetings to attend and Pepper keeps trying to put off the press, but it's becoming more and more difficult. He manages as much as he can, denying CNN and MSNBC interviews regarding his recovery from his trauma in Afghanistan to what will happen to him if the Trust wins the court case. He's not prepared to talk with any of them, and Pepper can only run interference for so long.

When he meets Doctor Von Doom he makes a mental note to fire his lawyer. The man's office is in the basement of a building, and it looks more like a cave of an arch villain than anything else. Reed told him they'd get along because Doom likes to think of himself as an amateur inventor as well. As Tony makes his way to the pit of despair (that's what he's calling it because you cannot take anything seriously when you have to walk past the boiler room to get to someone's office), he notices a work bench with a few prototypes, of what he cannot tell. He frowns, it doesn't look like Doom knows what the hell he's doing, but Tony finds his way to the door and knocks.

A small woman, who Tony can only assume is the receptionist, opens the door and escorts him inside. "We're very sorry for the inconvenience, Mister Stark. Our normal offices blew up last week."

"Blew up?" What the hell kind of doctor is this Doom?

"Well, the Doctor likes to invent and so on." The woman must be closing in on ninety, and he vaguely wonders if this is Doom's mother.

She proceeds to lead him to a small office in the back of the basement. When he walks in the first thing that impresses him is the smell. The stench of ozone and oil permeate the air. He coughs and thinks he'll have compromised lungs after his session. The man in the corner looks like he's a cross between a mad scientist and an executive, Tony can't decide which.

"Come, come, sit." Doom says and gestures to a chair across from the gray metal desk. "I apologize for the state of my offices." The older lady leaves them with a slight wave of the hand. "We had an accident."

"Your receptionist said you blew them up?"

"Oh, no, no, no," Doom leans back in his chair as he studies Tony. "I did no such thing. Why would you say that?"

And so it begins. Doom baits and Tony defends. It becomes a game really of cat and mouse and, though Tony can see the man's brilliance, he can also detect the malevolence as well. He's sure this guy is in the back pocket of the idiots on the board, and he starts to wonder about his attorney as well.

"So, I'm told you've recently acquired a new hobby?"

"Hobby?"

"It's been reported that you are currently spending quite a large amount of time at a rehab center in Brooklyn."

"I have, yes, it is for veterans."

"It is for disenfranchised veterans," Doom clarifies and his eyes narrow to pinpoints.

"For soldiers, airmen, no longer in the military, who've had a hard time with the system. Yeah, they go there and meet and support one another. My therapist recommended it." As soon as the words come out of his mouth, Tony knows he's made a critical error.

"Your therapist recommended a center for disenfranchised veterans?" Doom steeples his fingers and taps his lower lip with his index fingers. "Now, why would he do that? It's Doctor Banner, if I am correct?"

"Yes, Doctor Banner, the place needed some upgrades, I was willing-."

"Or is it because you are disenfranchised, cut off, disengaged from those around you?" Doom smirks at him.

"Being an aloof billionaire has its moments," Tony says.

"But you aren't a billionaire, are you Tony?"

"Are we on a first name basis now, because I didn't think we were?"

"Mister Stark, then, excuse me. You have no money, and no identity is that correct?"

"I am Tony Stark, that's who I am."

"But who is Tony Stark, the man who belittled his father's work? The media star and darling of the liberal press, or are you the engineer who studied for years and used your father's money to further your education only to throw it back up in his face, or maybe you are just the poor little boy who suffered in silence and was shipped off to boarding school. Perhaps, you are the alcoholic that drowns his troubles in a bottle and tried to kill himself when he returned from his imprisonment."

"You're a great therapist."

"I'm an analyst." Doom stands up and rounds the desk. He sits perched on the corner of the desk and glowers at Tony. "Will you write a little news story or a blog about your time in the rehab center."

"I volunteer," Tony says and gets to his feet. He doesn't like people towering over him - which happens to be a problem since he's short of stature. He hates Doom; the man must be six foot two at least.

"Are you volunteering to do an expose on the rehab center, find out what really goes on with funds from the federal government?" He considers Tony. "Once a media star and now who are you?"

"I already told you, I am Tony Stark, and I define who I am, not you, not the Trustees."

"So who will Tony Stark be? Will you write your expose? Will the media follow you everywhere?" Doom’s eyes narrow to pinpoints, his expression like hard steel.

"I am not going to write an expose, because there's nothing to expose."

Doom laughs but it scratches the air like nails on chalkboard. "The great Tony Stark silenced by a bunch of savages. They won, Stane won, you've been silenced."

Later, Tony will realize he should have kept his head, but at that moment, he couldn't, he didn't. He slams his clenched fist into Doom's jaw, which feels like it might be made out of metal of something. The force of the blow staggers Doom and he clamps a hand to his face.

"You want to know who Tony Stark is? You want to know?" Tony screams at him. "Sure I'm the kid my father couldn't give two shits about, whose father only cared that I had the brains to carry on his life’s work. But you know what? His life's work was worth shit, that's it. The Trustees can take it. I got what I wanted from the old man, in his will."

"You'll regret-."

"I'll regret? I already do regret coming here because you are a sham. But if you want to know who Tony Stark is, why I'm hanging around a rehab center; then here it is. I discovered the truth, that war is hell and that people are changed by it, and that is okay. It's okay to need to walk around and release your anger by being the god of thunder, it's okay to practice archery to relieve tension, or even to have a rock and sand garden to soothe your soul, because that is how you deal with stress and life.

"Life is not easy, because other people shit on you no matter what you do or how you do it. The men and women I was embedded with died trying to build schools for young girls. I was taken prisoner, and it was all set up by the guy the Trustees hired to manage my father's company. Surprise, surprise. He's in prison now, but what about the families who lost their sons and daughters, what about their scars?

"You want to know who Tony Stark is? I'm a survivor, I'm made of iron and steel and fire. I am iron man, that's who I am you god damned piece of worthless shit."

When Tony leaves he hears Doom yelling after him that he can kiss his money goodbye. He knows it, he lost his temper and he's always had a hard time with control issues. If given the chance he would taunt a terrorist with his address to get revenge. That's just who Tony Stark is. By the time he finds his way back through the labyrinth, his heart skips beats and he has to sit in the car and take deep cleansing breathes. He searches his pockets for his medication, but can't find it. Damaged heart. He squeezes his eyes closed and tells himself to calm. He digs his phone out of his pocket. He needs to tell Pepper, he needs to get her to help him.

He can't focus on the phone, but he does manage to hit the icons. In seconds the phone is ringing.

"Hello?"

He chokes a little into the phone. It isn't Pepper, he dialed the wrong number. "Who?"

"Tony? Tony?"

He recognizes the voice but it seems so distant like he hears it from underwater. "Steve?" He dialed Steve's number? What?

"Tony, what?"

"Steve, I fucked up, I really fucked up. I didn't mean to call you, no that's not what I mean. I just, I fucked up." Tony puts his head on the steering wheel and holds back the tears. "Please."

"Tony, I'm here." The voice sounds soft almost soothing.

"I screwed up and now everything is going to hell."

"No."

"Yes," he says and presses his fingers into his eyes until he sees white flashes of light. "I punched the doctor."

"Bruce?"

"No, the one who is going to make a recommendation about my money. I punched him." He cannot believe how much his voice shakes but his whole body shivers with it.

"Why?"

"He said, they won. He said the terrorists who held me won because-." He feels all his strength ebb away.

"Tony, you won."

"No, no, no," Tony says and his chest feels tight and he can't breathe. "I can't - feels like I'm falling through a hole in space. I can't breathe."

"Tony, stay with me. Stay," Steve commands and his voice holds strength that Tony never heard before, yet it is a gentle strength, one Tony can latch onto and hold close.

"Stay," Tony repeats. "Okay."

"You won, Tony. You did."

"No."

"You fix things." Steve has a level voice, quiet and reaching at the same time. "You said, mechanic?"

"Yeah, yeah," Tony agrees. "But they won."

"How?"

"I don't know, I'm not that person anymore, the same from before."

Steve sighs and says, "Want to be that person?"

Tony considers the question, thinks about it. The person he was, as Bruce noted, had been a creation of his reaction to his father. Does he want his father and the images and disappointments from his father to create his life, to mold it forever, or will he craft his own destiny? Will he rightfully take his inheritance, his own legacy, and make it into something of his own. "No, I don't want to be that person, not anymore."

"Who, then?"

"Tony Stark."

"Who?" Steve prods.

"Tony Stark, the mechanic, the engineer, the man of dreams, the futurist. I want to build a new future, see a new future. I want to wake up and see something blazing and beautiful and know I created it and it makes the world a better place."

"Who won, Tony?" Steve asks.

Tears are in his eyes, but this time they are not sorrowful, but ones of joy and acceptance. "Me. I won."

"You won," Steve says. Tony lets out a choked sob and covers his face with his free hand. "Come home, Tony."

"Home?"

"Yeah, come home."

"Okay."

"Okay," Steve says. "See you soon?"

"Very soon," Tony says and closes the connection. He should call Pepper; get her ready for the firestorm of media and press that is going to descend on the Foundation and the mansion. He'll do it soon, but right now, he needs the breathing room. He needs to see family; he needs to be with Steve.

*oOo*
Tony arrives at the house in the late afternoon. The rain pours down and the house is gloomy in the shadowy light. He shakes out his coat and throws it over the hook, anxious and more excited than he wants to admit at the thought of seeing Steve. He still hasn’t called Pepper, and he keeps on telling himself it will wait.

He pops into the office. Tony waves to Barton and he looks up from the desk where he’s hunched with Coulson going over reports or some such. The only light in the room is a small glass lamp on the desk and it shines pitifully on the papers they study. He just hopes that Fury fellow and that Hill chick have left them alone. He’ll need to check in with them about that.

“Hey.”

Barton only raises his head for a second, salutes, and goes back to his argument (because it looks like one even with their very close proximity to one another) with Coulson. Tony ignores it; some things are better left unspoken. He climbs up the stairs, and as he approaches Steve’s room he hears voices. He stays outside the room and listens.

“But you are sad?”

“Yes, my Jane has left me.”

“For good?” Steve asks, his voice trying not to pry but also trying to get at the root of whatever problem Thor currently has.

“No, she must go. She is a dedicated scientist and I cannot hold her here to stay with me.”

“Want to go with?”

“Yes, but-.” Thor heaves in a breath and says, “But I am broken, a shattered man with nothing more than an image to hold onto.”

“No,” Steve replies. “Thor is Don.”

“Yes,” Thor says. “I do not know how you do this, my shield brother, how you fight and struggle each day with every moment a battle. We lived through war and every moment was not a battle, but now it surrounds us, it encompasses us. It is all that we are.”

“No,” Steve says again. “Not a battle, not a struggle.”

“Then what is this that we fight? What is it that we venture through the storms.”

“Journey, life,” Steve says. “During journey be who need to be when needed. You Thor now, Don later.”

“I need to be Don so that Jane and I may be together. I recall as a small youth, I would play at Thor.”

“Then you are Thor, Don is Thor.”

“But is Thor Don?”

“Do you have to be?” Steve says as Tony pushes the door open. Steve taps his forehead and says, “Jane loves you, just you.”

“Aye, my friend, aye.” Thor turns to see Tony peering in. He smiles and stands up. “I must leave you to it then. You have given me much to consider.”

As Thor exits the room, Tony enters. Steve sits in the wheelchair, the tablet forgotten on his lap, and a stress ball in his right hand. When Tony grabs a chair and drags it over he sees Steve smiles, and the smile is different than any he gives anyone else. There’s almost a shy and innocent quality to it, there’s something in his eyes which plays to Tony’s heart.

“So, you’ve taken to being the wise old sage in the house, what are you some ninety year old guy in disguise?”

Steve rolls his eyes and says, “Not anything.”

“It’s a lot, what you said to me meant a lot.” Tony has to be honest, if he’s not honest with Steve, who can he be honest with.

“But still bad news?” Steve fights for the words, even though they come more easily now, he halts and tries to find them. Tony can discern a look of fleeting frustration as he loses the words before he’s able to speak them.

“Yeah,” Tony says. “I still have to call Pepper about it. “I need to make a confession to her, so that she knows what she’s in for.”

“Sorry,” Steve says.

Before Tony can respond, JARVIS interrupts, “Sir, dinner is ready in the dining room.”

“Hmm, what are we having tonight?”

“It seems Doctor Banner put together a variety of Indian foods for the house to partake in.”

“Do you like Indian food,” Tony says as he goes to release the brake the wheelchair.

“Not sure,” Steve shrugs. “Never had it.”

“Well, there’s always a first time.” He goes to wheel the chair over to the single table in the room, but Steve reaches out a hand and stops him.

“Downstairs.”

“But-.”

“I eat downstairs, now.” That almost sounded indignant, and why does that make Tony happy and irritated all at once?

“I’m not sure about that mechanism, and I am not dragging this chair down the steps while you ride your ass down,” Tony says.

“Another chair downstairs,” Steve says and points to the door.

“Oh for the love of-.” Tony shakes his head. “You are a stubborn cuss, aren’t you?”

Steve smiles as he leans back to look up at Tony. “Irish.”

“Figures.”

Tony navigates the chair into the hallway and up to the small seat attached to the mechanism that will allow Steve to ride down the stairs without issue. With Tony’s assistance, Steve transfers from the wheelchair into the seat and then flicks the switch. Before he starts downward, Tony stows the chair and then leads the way. As the seat moves Tony notices an insistent whine of the gears which he does not like, and mentally notes that he has to look at it.

Just as the seat hits the middle of the staircase, it judders.

“Whoa,” Tony says and turns to see Steve wave him off.

“Does it every time.”

“Well, that’s unacceptable,” Tony says and jogs down the stairs just as the mechanism gives. He turns in time to see it jolt the seat, causing Steve to lurch forward. Steve reaches out with his hand, his right hand to break his fall. Racing up the few stairs separating them, Tony throws himself under Steve just as his face is about to impact the wooden rise of the step. The whole of Steve’s weight drops down, but at the same time Steve overcompensates with his left and ends up tumbling into Tony and crushing him in the process.

They end up a mass of tangled limbs on the staircase, but Tony thinks, at least Steve didn’t bash his head or anything.

“Tony?”

“Yeah?” He’s buried underneath a ton of muscle, and while he should be a bit perturbed by it (which he is, he swears) he notices how nice Steve smells.

“Um, he-.”

“You two should get a room,” Barton says as he rounds the doorway from the office to glimpse them on the steps.

Tony wedges his shoulder under Steve’s chest and heaves him into a sitting position with Steve’s help. “Come on, buddy, I’ll help you down the rest of the way.”

He notches his shoulder underneath Steve’s right arm and waves Barton to help. Barton takes up position on Steve’s left side and they slowly descend the stairs. Natasha joins them and parks the wheelchair at the foot of the stairs.

“I was wondering what all that racket was,” she says.

“He is not getting on that thing again,” Tony says as Steve settles in the chair with a few coughs to top it off. “Still? Did you see the doctor?”

“Yes, he saw the doctor,” Barton says. “He’s on antibiotics. It’ll take a few days.”

“Right here, can answer for myself.”

“Sorry, Cap.”

They move off to have dinner. It is a ruckus occasion at the House dinner table. They never stop talking and debating and laughing. Tony doesn’t give a thought to what happened today, and spends a lot of time staring at a closet in the dining room just north of the stairs. He keeps rolling over its location in his head and mapping it to the upstairs. When there’s a lull in the conversation, he indicates the closet with his fork.

“What’s that?”

“A closet,” Natasha says. She sits at the head of the table; no one questions her about it.

“Thank you for stating the blatantly obvious, but what is upstairs from it?”

“Another closet,” Barton says. “Why is this relevant to anything?”

“Gears,” Steve says as he reaches for some more of the basmati rice. “In his head, moving.” Steve smiles as if he’s just read Tony’s mind.

“Well, you’re not wrong.” Tony says, picks up his cloth napkin, wipes his mouth and hands, and then shoves his chair aside to examine the closet. He opens it, looks inside. Reaching up, he feels around and finds what he’s looking for. “This was a dumb waiter at one time.”

Barton shrugs. “Yeah, so?”

“So that means the closet upstairs was a dumb waiter too,” Tony says and Steve chuckles.

“Tony,” Steve says. “You don’t have to.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Can someone tell me what’s going on?” Coulson asks.

“You’re guess is as good as ours,” Natasha replies and looks at Tony and then Steve. “Well?”

“Elevator, right here, right now.”

“What?” Barton jumps out of his seat, followed by Thor.

“I can convert this to an elevator so that Steve or any other vet housed on the second floor doesn’t need that stupid mechanism again.”

“You can do that?” Barton asks.

“Yes, yes he can,” Bruce answers from the kitchen and, when Tony turns around, he sees an expression of smug confidence on the good doctor’s face.

“Yes, I can do that,” Tony says. “It’ll take a while but it will enhance the entire project if you had some easier way for disabled vets to get up and down the stairs.”

“Do it,” Coulson says. “What kind of funds do you need?”

“I’ll need the supplies, but if I can get help here we won’t need any labor. Just some permits and stuff.”

Thor pounds the table and all of the cutlery clatters about. “So it will be. I will lend you my assistance. I am fairly good with a hammer.”

Tony claps his hands and smiles. “I bet you are. We’ll get started tomorrow then.”

The rest of the evening simmers by in a slow almost languid motion of sipping wine (though Steve can’t have any due to the medications he still on), watching a few movies, and chatting until it is nearly too late to call it night anymore. They gather in the lounge with Steve slung over most of the couch except for the corner Tony claimed. As they discuss the likelihood the initiative will continue, Bucky comes in from work. Tony’s not sure what the hell he does, but he works weird ass hours. He peers in on them and frowns when he sees Steve resting his head against Tony’s shoulder fast asleep.

Tony hadn’t even realized he was doing it until Bucky arrived, but he curls his arm around Steve and threads his fingers through his hair, grazing the scar left there by the bullet and subsequent operation to relieve the pressure of the blood clot. Steve has one of this hands lightly clasping Tony’s. And he comes to realize they look like a couple, not just friends, but a couple.

He wonders if he’s fantasizing, he wonders if it is real. He wonders if it can be real. He smiles and ignores the others as he relishes the feel of Steve’s weight against him.

*oOo*
Drawing up the plans for the elevator, Tony spends some time with measurements and schematics before he ventures to contact Pepper. Tony calls up Pepper and asks her to work her magic to get the permits in place for the renovation at the house and the installation of the elevator. Explaining his plan in great detail he tries to fill the space as she remains quiet over the phone.

Once he takes a breather, she says, "Tony, what did you do?"

"I'm not sure what you mean. I mean, I've done a lot of things in my life. Are you referring to something specifically?"

"Yes, I'm referring to something specifically." Her voice rises in pitch and he grimaces. "Doom wants your head. He's going to sue you or something. He's recommending that the money be kept in the hands of the Trust until you go through an anger management program and are physically remanded to a prison until you’re not a menace to society."

"Pepper, none of that sounds legal or possible."

She makes a little eek noise and then adds, "I know that, but he can press charges, Tony. He can recommend to the board that your monetary inheritance be forever out of your reach because of how your father's Will was crafted."

"I know that," Tony says. "And it's okay." He states it before he actually has a moment to think if it is the truth, and he realizes as he contemplates his own statement, that yes, it is true.

"What?" Pepper says.

"Just as long as they don't fight the things that my father gave me directly. And they leave me with anything that I built or invented since my father died.

"Like the mansion and some dusty notebooks?"

"Yeah, especially the dusty notebooks. I don't want them touching anything I invent or anything I built after the reading of the Will. That includes the Tower Is that possible?"

"I'll have to check with Reed."

"Oh, about him," Tony says. "Fire him. Get another lawyer, go into remediation, and we'll get this squared away before the end of the year."

"No big court case?"

"Nope."

"Are you sure about this, Tony. It is a huge amount of money, in the billions." It feels like she's holding her breath.

"Yeah, I'm building a new company from the ground up, gonna be big," Tony says. "So you want a job?"

"Oh, do I get a salary?" She laughs a little. How does she put up with him?

"Yeah, that and more. We'll need capital."

"We can work on that," Pepper says. "But Tony, you have to be careful, the firestorm in the media is going to get crazy."

"Understood, you work on getting the case mitigated and I work on building a new empire."

"And what's this new empire going to be called?" Pepper asks.

"Resilient, of course," Tony says and then adds a bye before he switches off. He just threw that one out there, but he kind of likes it.

Life is like that, full of things that surprise and full of things that resilience is needed for. He understands this now more than he ever has. It is midday and he scavenges lunch from the kitchen which consists of three sandwiches of ham and Swiss on rye, with some cut up apples, and glass of orange juice for Steve. He loads everything on a tray and climbs the stairs to find Steve. When he enters the room, Steve is nowhere to be found.

"Steve?" He goes over to the table, places the tray down, and then knocks on the bathroom door. No answer but he's concerned so he gives the door a light push. It opens and it is empty. "Steve?"

He walks out of the bedroom and wonders if Steve has made his way down to Thor's room. The wheelchair is missing from the bedroom. He hears a grunt and then a curse. Another grunt, as he walks down and peers into Thor's room. No one is there. An almost pathetic groan and a sound as if someone is in pain emanates from the door across the hallway from Thor's bedroom. Tony pushes it open and sees the small workout room.

The entire room is crammed with a number of different types of exercise equipment. Steve sits at the leg extension machine while Natasha stands over him. He's visibly shaking as he strains to lift the round weight balanced on his right leg.

"Come on lift it all the way," Natasha says as she squats near the base of the machine at his feet.

Steve huffs and clenches his teeth, the physical effort apparent on his face. He groans and lifts, his thigh muscle shuddering as he moves the weight.

"Hold it," Natasha says.

Clutching onto the seat with both hands, Steve bites down and closes his eyes. Sweat pours off his face. He's shirtless, and the perspiration glistens on the fine muscular structure of his chest and torso. The sight is absolutely amazing and beautiful all at once, it is like watching Atlas move the Earth.

"Can't," Steve says as he grits his teeth.

Natasha counts out the seconds he holds it, and then she says, "Release slowly down."

"Oh, God," Steve says and he tries, Tony can see the pain of it contort his face, but the weight gets the best of him and Natasha is there to alleviate it. She balances it in her hands, lets him ease off the machine to the side, and then drops the weights down.

Steve grabs for his towel and his shirt. He looks up to see Tony watching from the door. "Oh, Tony." He must suddenly realize he's half naked because he holds up his t-shirt to his chest and looks around.

"Hey. How's it going?" Tony points to the machine.

"Steve's improving a lot," Natasha says as she takes the towel from him and wipes down the machine. "I'll disinfect in a bit, you need to go and rest."

Steve frowns. "I have more-."

"No more, rest," Natasha orders and retrieves the wheelchair from its place near the door. She brakes it in front of Tony and says, "Can you get him back to his room? Jan is here and he needs a bath."

"Hey, I'm right here," Steve says and drops his hand that he's using to cover his chest. As Tony lowers his gaze to take in Adonis or Atlas in all his glory Steve protests by bringing the shirt up to his chest and saying, "Hey."

"What gorgeous? What have you got to be ashamed of?" Tony says with a smirk and a wink of his eye.

Steve flushes a beautiful shade of red and hides his embarrassment by facing away from Tony. "Just give -." When he's flustered he finds it harder to string words together. "Chair, now."

"I can help give you a bath, would you like that, honey?" Tony continues with the pseudo flirting that he’s not even sure fits into the category of pseudo in the first place, and Steve reddens further. Natasha practically growls at him but doesn't say anything.

"Shut up," Steve says and works to shift his weight over to the wheelchair. His right side is definitely getting stronger because he momentarily places his weight on the one side and he doesn't collapse like a marionette without its strings. He struggles into the shirt, which ends up being quite a performance.

Tony pats his shoulder and says, "Hey, don't be that way. Only joking."

"Everyone's a comedian."

Tony gestures to Natasha, silently asking what the hell from behind Steve. She only rolls her eyes and continues to spray down the machine as Steve adjusts himself in the seat.

"I want crutches." He has a mini-coughing fit that Tony hates to hear. Christ, when do the antibiotics kick in? The constant coughing must be wretched for him.

"You're barely walking," Natasha says. She points over to the parallel bars. "When you can do two laps on those without falling on your face or breaking a sweat you'll get crutches."

Tony thinks he actually hears Steve snarl at Natasha. He moves to take the handles of the wheelchair, but Steve maneuvers it toward the door with an almost fierce determination to do it himself. As he leaves the room, Tony whispers, "What gives?"

Natasha raises a shoulder. "All recovering comatose and stroke patients go through this phase. He's frustrated and angry. This is just the tip of the iceberg. He's very much aware of who he was before and now his limitations are an irritant to him. The sooner you get that elevator in the better. He needs to get out and about more."

Tony can't argue with her, considering the thought of being cooped up all day with little to do, and a dysfunctional body as a prison. He nods and ends up going back to Steve's room. Steve is in the small bathroom and, from what Tony can hear, hacking up a lung or something.

Tony taps on the door with a single knuckle. "Hey, you okay in there?"

After a few coughs, Steve says in a breathless voice. "Yeah, yeah."

Tony waits and then says, "Do you need any help with anything?"

"No, I'm good."

"Okay, I'm gonna wait out here for you. Would you like a snack or something?" He already made the sandwiches for Steve.

Jan hustles in the room with her arms laden with towels. She smiles at Tony, knocks on the door, and says, "Coming in, Steve." Without ceremony, she slips inside and closes the door. The water for the tub starts almost immediately, and Tony leaves without his question answered. As he finds his way downstairs he keeps looking back. Some part of him wants Steve or someone to call him, to ask him for help instead of the nurse. He looks up at the ceiling which is directly below the bathroom for Steve's room. He has to get this feeling under control; he's looking for something that isn't there. He wants something he can't have, he realizes.

He throws himself onto one of the counter chairs and rests his head in his hands. His phone buzzes. Tugging it out of his pocket, he answers, "Hey Pepper, don't tell me you worked miracles and we have all the permits we need."

"Well, the inspector will come over tomorrow, but that's not what I'm calling about," Pepper says.

"What's the bad news?"

"Why do you always think I have bad news?"

"When do you have good news?"

"Excellent point," Pepper says.

"They don't call me a genius for nothing. Hit me, Pepper."

"The Trustees and Doom issued a statement. The media is going wild. Have you watched CNN?"

He walks out into the living room and stares at the black screen of the television. He hesitates and then decides not to turn it on. Instead, he strides over to the vestibule, grabs his wet coat, and slings it over his head as he exits the house. "Tell me, I'm coming over there now."

"Might not be the best idea," Pepper says.

"Let me be the judge of that."

"Tony."

"Hey, Pep, it's me."

"That's what I'm worried about," Pepper says as she disconnects. Crossing the street, he unlocks his car and slides in. Before he shoves the key in the ignition he glances at the house and thinks of Steve and the lonely sandwiches and apple slices. He should have stayed, but he didn't. He can't, because he can't deal with the feelings growing in him, the hope that starts the flame. He cannot, not now, not ever. He knows to keep himself closed off and away from everyone, otherwise he just gets hurt.

*oOo*
Construction starts in earnest on the elevator as soon as the permits are approved. Tony doesn't direct or take part in it, at first, because of the wicked firestorm that besieges him from all sides with the media hounding him night and day. It becomes almost impossible for him to visit the House without revealing the location of the center. It is a fairly new place and there aren't any placards out to say what it is - so it is easily lost in the mishmash of the neighborhood.

In order to oversee the progress he interfaces with JARVIS. Both Barton and Thor take it upon themselves to focus on the work. Bucky lends a hand, but without Tony at the house to help out in the entertainment department for Steve, that responsibility lands squarely on Bucky’s shoulders. He hates Bucky for it and knows it is completely irrational and not fair to Steve. Steve is trapped, and Tony should be pleased so many people want to help him and give of themselves for him.

He rubs at his eyes. He’s been staring at a holographic console in the basement of the mansion for a good hour, not really seeing it, but thinking about Steve instead. He really needs to get the work done, if he’s going to raise any capital he has to concentrate on what’s important. As he tells JARVIS to bring up the display of the latest and greatest numbers on his research, the basement door creaks open.

He spins on his stool and sees Pepper’s long legs first as she climbs down the stairs. He often wonders how she doesn’t twist her ankles in those spike heels.

“Pep.” He smiles. “Tell me some good news.”

“Did you know the whole street is blocked with news cameras?”

He scratches at his beard which probably needs a trim since he’s been held up here for a few days. “I did not know that, but I did suspect it. JARVIS has been keeping me up to date on the latest and greatest news stories. At least, I’m in the spotlight.”

“Contrary to popular belief, any press is not good press,” Pepper says. “You said you wanted to find capital for your newest venture, it won’t happen unless we have a way to finance it, Tony. This isn’t it.”

He narrows his eyes at her and says, “How do you get paid?”

“What?”

“I’m just wondering if you are independently wealthy and just do this out of the kindness of your heart.”

Pepper laughs and it causes the ponytail she has her hair swept up in to swing back and forth. She always looks like sunshine when she laughs. “Oh yes, the kindness of my heart.”

“No, really,” Tony says and he picks up some of the notebooks he’s been tooling through from his father.

“I get paid through the Foundation; technically I am their employee to liaison with you to help set the vision and the mission of the charity.”

He nods his head. “Okay – that’s great, that’s good. At least you’re not starving.”

“As opposed to you, who I assume hasn’t eaten a decent meal in days?” She glances around at the scatterings of food left around the room, which is barely any.

“I’m onto something. I discovered some very rudimentary information from my father in his notebooks.”

“Good,” Pepper says and casts it aside. “Tony, something has to be done about the press. It’s getting out of hand.”

He waves her off. “Fine, fine, schedule me on one of the big ones and let’s get it over with. Not Oprah, I do not want to talk with Oprah, she’s too much about feelings and crap.”

“Okay, I’ll see what I can do,” she says, leaning over she gives him a kiss on his temple. “Now, try and be good.”

“I always try,” he calls after her. He sits in silence, the array of holo-visions like a dance of clouds around him. He angles things the way he wants, and tosses others as he strolls through the periodicity of elements.

At some point, he tries to call Steve but only because he’s putting off dealing with the press. He only gets Bucky who informs him Steve is sleeping and can’t come to the phone. He wonders if Steve is angry at him for up and leaving without so much as a goodbye. He accepts what Bucky has to say and continues his work. He shouldn’t begrudge Steve his sleep; the headaches along with his persistent cough must drain him of any energy.

It is surprising when he wants to be alone and work, how so many people keep appearing out of the woodwork. He’s at a local coffee shop because when he’s inventing he doesn’t have time to eat or make coffee. At some point though his blood sugar gets so low he needs to take some action. So he slips out the back and hides in the alley behind the mansion until it’s safe and beelines to his car. He drives the half mile to the coffee shop and that is where the big guy, Nick Fury finds him.

“I’ve been looking for you.”

“Good for you.” Tony feels prickly just looking at the guy.

Fury slides into the booth, his leather coat never looking twisted. Is he allowed to wear a leather coat like that in the service? How can it be regulation?

“Maybe better for you,” Fury answers.

“That depends on your point of view,” Tony says. The blueberry scone suddenly looks disgusting to him. He pushes it aside.

“Colonel Rhodes spoke better of you.”

“I’m not exactly sure how I’m supposed to respond to that,” Tony says. “Why are you here?”

“I’m here because of the initiative, Stark.”

“You mean the center Coulson started?” Tony squints at him. He doesn’t trust this guy at all. He’s not going to give away any of the secrets from the center.

“That we started,” Fury says. “I’m the one who wrote the white paper supporting the application for funding. It is a SHIELD Initiative.”

“I’m not sure how I’m supposed to respond to that other than to say Coulson’s in bed with the devil,” Tony remarks.

Fury lifts that one eyebrow and glares at Tony. “May I continue or would you like to spend the time trading insults?”

“I’m not sure sleeping with Coulson should be considered an insult, but fire away.” Tony gives him the floor.

“What is at stake is the whole initiative,” Fury says. “Do you know how many vets are out there, disenfranchised, not getting help for their PTSD? How many are living on the streets? Too many, even one is too many. These good men and women gave part of themselves to the cause and look how we’ve repaid them. Even if you don’t believe in the cause, they are your fellow citizens; they defend this country with honor.” Fury looks to the side and then back at Tony. “I know you can’t possibly understand because of your deep-seated hatred for your father and anything he was involved in, but I’m here to tell you, you are not the lost child here.”

“I don’t know what you’re getting at.”

“You let the Trustees have his fortune; do you think that’s what Howard would have wanted?” Fury scowls at him. “He wanted you to prove to him and the world that you weren’t a fuck up.”

“That I agreed with everything he did,” Tony says.

“No, that you could change the world,” Fury replies. “I’ve seen the Will, I know what it says. Your claim to the money and the company. You could have it. He saw you as a Futurist, a brat, but also someone who could see ten moves ahead of his opponent and change the game. You could change the world if you had control of the money.”

“They took it,” Tony says.

“You, you are Tony Stark and you let them have it. They just walked away with it, and you didn’t even put up a fight,” Fury says. “That is not what Howard wanted.”

“Since you seem to know Howard so well, why don’t you tell me what you think he wanted?”

“He started to sell off the defense contracting piece of the company before he died. Stane stopped him before he could do it all,” Fury says. “Everyone in the military knew that, we all knew it. Look, Howard wanted to know what kind of man you were. Were you the media star or something of substance?”

“That’s rich; my father didn’t have the time of day for me. He shipped me off to boarding school and never told me he loved me.”

“That’s not true,” Fury says. “Howard set the Will up the way he did to force you to be the man you’re destined to be. Instead of just a flash in the pan celebrity, known only for opposing your father, are you worth something more? Can you be something more? Are you up for the challenge?”

“Why do you care?”

“I care because you are interfering with the initiative. Coulson has a noble idea here; we want to make things better for the vets and other disenfranchised. But if you’re just snooping around for a story, for your next great expose, we don’t want you.”

“I thought you wanted to move Steve.”

“I’m trying to save an idea, Stark. Surely, you as a futurist can understand that.” Fury stands. “Stay away from the House if you don’t have any intention of living up to the potential your father saw in you. Whether you believe it or not, your father was a man of substance, and he helped save the world during World War Two, I suggest you consider that. Can you live up to that? Can you do better?”

He walks away and Tony is left with a cold coffee and an unappealing scone.

*oOo*
He doesn’t know how long he stays in the coffee shop, but the angles of the shadows shift and change as he stares at his murky mess of coffee and thinks about the words Fury just threw at him. How long has he believed in one thing and rebelled. How long will it continue? Finally, as twilight starts to descend over the streets, he leaves the coffee shop with a baseball cap pulled low over his face and ducks through alleys to get to his car. He drives over the bridge to Brooklyn without a thought and finds himself parked close to the house.

He hasn’t seen anyone from the House in days; he even missed an appointment with Bruce. Just as he thinks this his phone rings and he connects with a push of the button. “Stark?”

“Tony, it’s Bruce.”

“Oh, not Doctor Banner,” Tony says. He hopes he’s not going to discuss how Tony rarely goes to his therapy appointments anymore. It isn’t like he ever did it routinely anyhow.

“No, just Bruce. Do you know when you might be over again?”

He gazes at the house, looking at the warm glow coming from the windows. “Not sure, what’s up? Problems with the installation? You can have JARVIS send-.”

“It’s Steve.”

His heart judders in his chest. Placing a hand on his sternum, he swallows and says, “What?”

“Steve, his cough made a turn for the worse.”

“What? I thought he was on antibiotics.”

“Not strong enough, plus the dust from the renovations taxed his lungs. He’s not doing great.”

“How bad?”

“They think he has to go back to the hospital, he’s not taking it well,” Bruce replies. “Can you come over? He needs some support, and he hasn’t seen you in a while. It might help.”

He leaves and the whole place goes to hell, plus this is partially his fault because of the renovations he put into swing. “Okay, be there in a few.”

As he disconnects his whole body collapses. He feels the weight of everything on him at once. He thinks of what he’s done in the past, who he always wanted to be – a better man than Howard – but what does that mean now? He scrubs at his face and hair. Damn it to hell.

Getting out of the car, he jogs across the street and ascends the short stone steps to the house. He tries the knob and it is open so he just walks in. Bruce is there to greet him. There’s a commotion coming from upstairs as Bruce mounts the stairs to follow the noise. Tony trails after him. When they enter Steve’s room, the nurse has Steve in an upright position in the bed. He looks like five shades of death have warmed over and the sixth shade has decided to make its appearance right now.

Jan leans up against Steve with her shoulder to support him as he coughs, a wet ugly sound. She wraps her arm around Steve and hits his back. “Come on, cough it up.”

As he tries to follow direction, his lungs seize up and he arches up to fight for air. Bruce rushes to his side and tells Jan to get the oxygen. Natasha is standing there as well and he directs her to call the ambulance. Steve shakes his head but Bruce is having none of it.

“You can barely breathe,” Bruce says.

Steve tries to protest but his words are strangulated in his throat and he begins to cough again. His skin is pale, almost translucent in quality with a clammy look to it. Tony enters the room and, even as Steve attempts to greet him he arches again for air, only this time he can’t catch his breath.

“Inhaler, do you have an inhaler?” Bruce asks as he races to the oxygen and stuffs a nasal cannula into Steve’s nostrils, wrapping it around his face without any tenderness, just quick efficiency.

“The doctors haven’t prescribed an inhaler; he’s not asthmatic.”

“But his lungs are compromised,” Bruce says as Steve continues to struggle.

Tony joins him at the bed and grabs for Steve’s outstretched hand. “Hey, hey.” His own heart hammers within his chest in a harsh rhythm. Seeing Steve in such distress rams home just how important Steve and the people of this House have become in his life. He’s in the way of the nurse and he tries to let go so she can have access, but Steve uses what little strength he has to hold onto Tony.

“Don’t worry about it,” Jan says. “I can fit into small spaces.” She hands Banner a stethoscope and as Steve struggles for air, Bruce bends over and listens to his lungs.

“Where’s the ambulance?” Bruce says.

“Coming, they should be here in less than five,” Natasha says as she re-enters the room with her phone in hand.

Steve coughs again but this time it overwhelms him and, somehow, Jan is there with a pan. He vomits mucus and fluids from his lungs into the steel dish. Steve moans but Tony pets his hair and cannot, but notice, how feverish he is.

“Definitely pneumonia,” Bruce says. “Steve, listen to me.”

Steve falls back on the cushion of pillows Jan stacked on the bed. His eyes are bleary and he looks tired, exhausted from the fight. There’s something about his whole demeanor that telegraphs surrender to Tony. As Bruce speaks, Steve stares only at Tony his expression contorted between pain and sorrow. Tony’s not sure what is happening in Steve’s head, but he lifts his hand up and touches the side of Steve’s face.

“I’m here, now,” Tony says and he knows it’s a promise not to leave Steve again. He doesn’t understand it, or why – not now. Steve calms to a degree and though his thick breathing is still labored it isn’t as much of a fight.

“Brothers and sisters, we have company,” Thor states from the hallway.

“The ambulance?” Bruce says.

Barton calls from the hallway, “I’m afraid the ambulance can’t get through – the street’s clogged with press and media vehicles. The ambulance is locked up in traffic.”

“What?” Tony says and pulls away from Steve. He strides into the hallway and to the window in the front of the house. “How the hell did they find me?”

“Doesn’t matter now,” Barton says. “We have to get through there; Steve needs to get to the hospital.”

Natasha steps out into the hall. “Tony, you need to get back in here. He’s upset and can barely speak.”

Tony looks between the growing crowd gathered outside of the House and the bedroom. He knows he has to face the music, but the thought of Steve in need drives him. He follows Natasha back into the room and sees Steve is arched off the bed again, pulling in ragged breaths.

“We have got to get him through that fucking crowd,” Bruce says. His anger is brilliant and seething. “What the fuck do they think they’re doing?”

“We’re all right, we’re going to be all right,” Natasha says.

“You think this is all right, you think these people disturbing our peace is all right,” Bruce says through clenched teeth as Steve collapses onto the pillows again.

“Doctor Banner, Bruce-.”

Tony interrupts them. “His lips are turning blue.”

“Damn it,” Bruce says and turns back to his charge.

Thor bursts into the room and states, “I will carry him.” Without waiting for a reply, Thor shoves everyone aside and bundles Steve into his arms. He rips the tubing away. “We go, we go now.” He turns and leaves the room.

Tony follows everyone, knowing full well the media will besiege him as soon as he steps outside. He’ll never get to the hospital and find out if Steve is okay. On the other hand he can’t leave the place surrounded by those leeches. He needs to confront them and be done with it.

He straightens his collar and readies himself, there’s a difference between the persona he shows the world and the real Tony Stark. He jogs down the stairs and ends up following the crew out the front door instead of slipping around the back way.

As Thor manages Steve through the door held open by Loki – Tony had no idea his brother was even around – he’d been so scarce of late. Barton and Natasha are already outside trying to stem the crowd and get a path through to the ambulance stuck a few houses down. Tony blows out a breath, readies himself, and steps into the storm.

“Mister Stark, Mister Stark,” the calls come and they sound like a hive of hornets ready to come in and sting him.

He raises a hand and says, “I’ll answer your questions if you allow access to the ambulance. There’s a sick soldier in need of medical care.”

The flashes of cameras are brutal and he knows he’s not the only target. It is so bright from the camera flashes he’d swear it was the middle of the day instead of the evening. Cameras swing around to capture photos of Thor carrying a passive Steve in his huge arms toward the ambulance. At least, Thor is in his t-shirt and jeans today.

After a few shots of Thor pushing his way through the crowd like a bull through the streets of Spain, the hornets turn back to Tony.

“Mister Stark, Mister Stark.”

Tony raises his hand and stops them. “I’m not answering any questions regarding the veterans or the rehab center.”

“How do you respond to the allegations of your own need for rehab? That Doctor Von Doom says your volatile and cannot be trusted with Howard Stark’s legacy?”

“First, I never wanted my father’s legacy. I never wanted to be a merchant of death,” Tony says. There are calls of more questions but he puts up his hand again and they silence. “But there are things to be learned. I recently experienced an event in my life that did change me, I will confess to that. I learned something; I learned that the people in your life are important. It isn’t the money, or the fame, or even the glory, what it is - are the quiet moments.”

“Are you saying, you’ve retired?” Someone laughs in the back.

“What I am saying is that if you come after the people I love, the people I call family, and I will come after you.” Tony knows he shouldn’t say this, but he’s pissed and he wants to be in the hospital. He wants to follow the ambulance as it departs the heavy mass of people. “My father might have been a merchant of death, but when he was my age, even younger, he helped save the damned world. If he didn’t want me to have his fortune or legacy because I don’t want to live up to his ideals, because of some antiquated notion of how the world should function, fine. I am my own man.”

“And who is that man?” Someone asks from the back.

He quotes from what he told Von Doom. “I'm a survivor, I'm made of iron and steel and fire. I am iron man.”

Without regard to the barrage of questions thrown at him, Tony pushes his way through the crowd. Some of the reporters mock him, trying to get him to respond, others ply him with lucrative deals to come and do an interview. He only wants to get to his car.

A gun shot crackles the air and everyone stops. Standing on the top of Tony’s car, Bucky holds a long range rifle and growls, “Get the hell back.”

Everyone drops and clears away from Tony’s car. As Bucky hops down, Tony opens the door to his car. He quirks an eyebrow at Bucky but doesn’t ask where the hell the gun came from, he just allows him to get into the car and they drive off.

“That is not going to go over well,” Tony says and realizes Pepper is going to kill him.

“No, but it sure did get rid of them,” Bucky says, but doesn’t elaborate regarding the status of the rifle and what the hell he’s doing with something that looks very much like a sniper’s gun. He recalls Natasha alluding to her relationship with Bucky and he thinks that they might be involved in something less straight forward than it seems. For the first time, Tony realizes that Bucky might not be out of the Army, that he might be part of something covert.

Tony looks him up and down as he pulls the car out from the parking spot. “Seems you don’t have much function with that prosthetic.”

“Not much, it serves its purpose,” Bucky says and shrugs.

“What’s its purpose?”

“Hang there and not get in my way,” Bucky says. “You want to just get to the hospital?”

“You want I could look at it?” Tony says as he turns toward the hospital. It should be fairly simple to design a new prosthetic for Bucky, shit for everyone. Even as he drives, he starts mapping out the mechanical arm in his head.

“Do whatever you like,” Bucky says and Tony wonders if he’s always been so sullen and how he could possibly be Steve’s best friend, but then he remembers the stories Bucky told him. How Steve would get the shit beat out of him, and it had been Bucky’s responsibility to save him from himself.

“Uh,” Tony says, and he needs to clear his mind of the bio-mechanics before he enters the parking lot of the hospital. He throws the car in a parking spot – which is a literal interpretation of his parking skills and races out of the car and into the emergency room with Bucky. When they get to the desk, a nurse administrator is there.

“Steven Rogers,” Bucky says.

“He was brought in by ambulance. Couldn’t have been more than ten minutes ago,” Tony says.

“And you are?”

“Next of kin,” Bucky says and glares at the woman.

She frowns but says, “Mister Rogers has been taken to the ICU.”

“Jesus,” Tony murmurs and they follow her directions to the critical care unit. It doesn’t take long to find the floor or the station. What does take a little time is convincing the nurse they belong there, but luckily Tony spots Natasha’s hair and tugs Bucky away from the nurse and towards the room.

A doctor is explaining to Bruce what is going on. “Acute respiratory distress brought on by the pneumonia he developed and the particulate. He’s stabilized for now. We have him on a ventilator, but if he aspirates into the vent we’ll need to trach him.”

“When will we know he’s out of the woods?” Bruce asks.

“The ventilator is used to give his lungs some rest, so that they can heal. With Captain Rogers scarred lungs though, it might take some time. Once he can breathe a little more easily we’ll remove the ventilator and we’ll get him set up for pulmonary rehabilitation.”

Bruce nods and Barton has his head bowed, chewing on his lip. He doesn’t see Thor or Loki anywhere. Bucky disappears into the room to see Steve.

“Thank you, Doctor Barlett.”

“I’ll come by and check on him in a little bit, if you have any questions please have the staff page me.”

The doctor leaves and all Tony can think of is how this could have happened. He turns to Bruce, Barton, and Natasha and says, “What the hell happened? Last I saw him he was fine, coughing a bit, but at least he was doing physical therapy.”

“This really isn’t your business, Tony.” Natasha warns.

“Isn’t it?” Tony says. “I’m a part of the House as much as anyone else. I do my part. He’s my friend, he’s my responsibility, he’s my-.” He stops, stutters over the words and then adds, “I care what happens to him.”

“Do you?” Barton challenges. “Really, because you disappear at the drop of a hat. You barely call him when you do.”

“It seems to me that you come to the House to see him when it’s convenient for you,” Natasha says.

“Seems to me that when you need the House, when you need him you’re there, but the same can’t be said of when he needs you,” Barton says. His hair is a mess, like he’s been up for days, worried and concerned.

“Don’t tell me who I care about and who I don’t-.”

“Tony,” Bucky says as he ducks out the door. “Steve wants you.”

At that moment, Tony wants to stick his tongue out at them, but he bites back his reaction and follows Bucky into the room. There’s a nurse monitoring Steve and he nods to the man and walks over to the bed. Steve has the respirator taped to his mouth again, but he lifts his hand when he sees Tony.

“Hey,” Tony says. “You don’t have to go through all the dramatics just to get me to come over you know. I was sitting right outside, waiting to come in.”

Steve looks at him but cannot answer. His cheeks are red with fever, his eyes weary.

“Why was I waiting? Oh, because I’m a fool, I’ve done a lot of things in my time. Some good, some bad, but I know I can be an ass class fool.” Steve nods a little and Tony smiles. “You don’t have to agree.”

Steve rolls his eyes, but he fails at it and rests his gaze back on Tony.

“I want you to get some rest, I’ll be right here.”

Steve blinks a few times and nods. The nurse comes over and hooks up an intravenous line to feed him stronger antibiotics. Steve drops off to sleep in seconds; his skin looks so pale in the dim light of the hospital room.

Tony stays there, he stays there the next day too and through the night as they all sit vigil waiting to see if Steve’s lungs will recuperate or succumb. He makes a lot of deals with a god he’s not sure he believes in. At one point, he finds the hospital priest and asks him to come and sit with Steve because he knows Steve is Catholic. The priest is an elderly gentleman and agrees. He stops by three times a day whether or not Steve wakes.

When night falls and he should leave to find his own rest, what happens is something strange and frightening. He cannot close his eyes; he cannot stop watching the rise and fall of Steve’s chest even if it is due to the mechanical device connected to him. The thought of that chest still and frozen in death terrifies Tony until he reaches out and touches Steve just to ensure the warmth of the man.

He knows if he loses Steve, he’ll lose everything. He also knows he’s damned because of it.

*oOo*
He has nightmares, numerous ones but they shift from stories about how snakes choke him, how hammers slam into his chest, how guns butt up against his head. They transform into something even more horrifying. They turn into watching Steve, but watching him from within his lifeless body. It feels like his body is a cage and he can’t move, his lungs frozen. No part of him can move and there is ice everywhere, eclipsing his body and paralyzing every part of him. He becomes the ice, he’s buried in it. He’s dying in it.

When he jolts awake, Steve watches him with a soft expression. His hand ruffles through the locks of Tony’s hair since he’d bent over the bed to sleep. Steve strokes the hair in a tender caress as if he knows Tony suffered a nightmare.

He wonders how Steve can remain so persistently sweet and hopeful even when the world has handed him such a crappy outcome. He holds Steve’s hand until the sickness and weakness overcome him again, to drag him away to sleep. Standing, he cracks his back and finds his way to the vending machine. He picks at the sleep in his eyes and digs in his pockets for coins. He doesn’t have any. Bucky saves the day and shoves a few quarters in the slot for him.

“Thanks,” Tony says.

“You don’t have to stay here,” Bucky says. “The doctor thinks it will be a while. Maybe even weeks.”

“God damn it,” Tony says and flushes when he sees the twist of Bucky’s face. “Sorry.”

Bucky only shakes his head and waves Tony over to the waiting area. He collapses into a chair and sighs. His eyes feel like someone marched on them with hiking boots, and he can’t remember the last time he ate.

“Steve really cares about you,” Bucky says.

“Steve really cares about everybody,” Tony says in order to shrug off the feeling that tightens in his chest, the hope that he will not attend.

“Just, just don’t hurt him,” Bucky says. “He deserves some happiness, after – after what happened.” Bucky stands and leaves without another word. Tony watches as he disappears back into Steve’s room.

Tony commits to the vigil, along with Bucky and the others as they watch Steve and hope for his recovery. It will take those weeks for Steve’s lungs to heal and too many close calls when he sees Steve struggle even with the breathing tube.

He observes all of them again, coming to Steve’s side, rallying and trying to offer support. When Bucky is present, Tony often leaves to give them some privacy, but on the rare occasions he’s present Tony is invited into their world. He learns of the hardships of their youth as Bucky replays them out for laughs. As Bucky recalls their adventures and their misfortunes Tony recognizes a kind of adoration in Steve’s eyes as he listens, but he sees the same reflected back by Bucky. In many ways, Steve is Bucky’s hero as Bucky is Steve’s.

Several of Steve’s men and women from his unit appear throughout the month, sitting with him and talking. Over the course of Steve’s hospitalization, Tony has to divide his time between the lawyer’s office, Pepper, and his current invention. There’s little time for Tony and he loses a lot of sleep, but he wants to be with Steve, wants to give him something more than a passing hello in support of his current crisis. So he sits with his hand wrapped around Steve’s and hopes for the best.

Steve turns the corner around Veteran’s Day. He’s been in the hospital for over a month. His lungs clear and it becomes clear he will eventually be free of the ventilator. They’d almost trach’ed him several times, but he’d been lucky and avoided it – again.

“Hey, they think they can take you off the vent today. Your lungs are sounding much better and they don’t want to keep you on it for too long.” Tony doesn’t mention the rest. The medical team wants to get Steve off the ventilator as soon as possible because of his compromised lungs. The longer he’s on the ventilator now, the greater the risk his lungs will lapse back into the condition they were in when Tony first met Steve.

Steve acknowledges this with a blink of his eyes. Normally, Steve uses the tablet to answer, but his writing skills are as primary as his reading skills.

“Okay, I can also inform you that they are trying to get you out of here on time for Thanksgiving.”

Steve raises his hands and gives a little shake of his head.

“Well, a few weeks from now.” Tony stands up and points to the in room bathroom. “I’m gonna, I’ll be right back.”

Nothing, not even the routines of everyday life like taking a piss, erases the images from Tony’s re-occurring nightmare surrounding Steve. The nightmares hang onto him when they are checking Steve and removing the ventilator. Tony keeps his eyes on Steve’s chest, hoping it won’t freeze, hoping to stay the ice from paralyzing him.

Bucky comes and visits after his work. They sit in silence as Steve sleeps. His progress has been excellent and the doctors are pleased with his recovery from acute respiratory distress. Bucky only shrugs and says what do you expect from a super soldier like Captain America. Tony hopes he’s right, but he knows something else isn’t measuring up.

Steve spends long hours while awake, staring out the window and refusing to speak. The doctors assure them that it has nothing to do with his awareness and everything to do with his state of mind. Tony’s not sure if that is supposed to be comforting or if he should be raging at them for their lack of action. They refer Steve to a psychiatrist, but Bruce steps in and claims that position. For some reason, this helps Tony’s frame of mind to know that Steve is in the hands of someone capable, someone he trusts. He hangs his head when he realizes he does trust Bruce, probably always has.

Thanksgiving arrives and they transport Steve back to the house in the morning. He’s been absent from the house for over six weeks and the few times Tony ventured to the House while Steve remained in the hospital had demonstrated how the heart of the House had been missing.

The hospital staff was efficient and worked to get him out the door so that Steve could have a good holiday. Steve thanks them, but his mood continues to be dour. He remains quiet through the ride back to the house, even though he’s not in an ambulance this time. He’s progressed enough that they can transport him in the house’s van. It is handicap enabled and easy for Steve to get in and out. His right side has shown improvement prior to the setback but now it falters and Tony catches a glimpse of anger mixed with surrender in Steve’s expression.

It surprises Tony that he can so easily read Steve since he’s always had difficulty figuring anyone out. Arriving at the house, Tony helps Steve out of the van but it is Thor who sweeps him up and carries him into the house. Steve raises a fuss but no one listens and this stops Tony dead in the water. Thor deposits Steve on one of the couches in the lounge even though he asked to go to his room.

Tony goes to Steve and asks, “Would you like to go to your room?”

“Yes,” Steve says while grinding his teeth, the anger radiating off of him in waves.

“Come on then,” Tony says and brings the wheelchair for Steve. He throws the brake and stands back, not helping Steve get into the seat. He pops the brake, takes the lead, and instructs Steve to follow. Steve frowns at him but carts his own ass over there, working the wheels with both hands, even though the right one is obviously weaker since a lot of his progress in rehabilitation has been lost through the weeks in the hospital.

He leads the way to the newly installed elevator. “Admittedly, the city inspector has not come by. Would you like to risk life and limb and give it a ride or no?”

“Yes,” Steve says without hesitation. He rolls into the lift and Tony follows. He presses the button and glimpses Barton and Thor giving him looks that would kill. He growls a little at them and the doors close.

The doors open again, and Steve leads the way out to his room. He rolls to a stop and reaches down to brake the chair. The place he decided to stop is in the middle of nowhere in the room, and he turns to look at Tony. “Can you leave?”

“No.”

“Yes, please.”

“I think I need to be here.”

“Why?” Steve looks about ready to launch out of the chair and choke Tony to death with his bare hands. Tony has no delusions that Steve could accomplish such a feat, if his strength was a tab bit higher.

“I think you’re about to fall off the edge, if you want to know. I think I know where you’re headed because I’ve been there.”

“Been there?” All the scoff and sarcasm he can muster is in his two word response. “Sure, Tony Stark, you’ve been there.” He smirks. “Take away all the glamour, what are you?”

Tony stares at him and quirks an eyebrow. “Genius, mechanic, sometimes volunteer, and your friend, that’s who.”

This stops Steve and he gazes up at Tony from his chair. The light of day has simmered down to an amber hue coloring the world with an almost glass like quality. The dying sunlight glints off of Steve’s eyes as he concentrates on Tony, as he murmurs words Tony cannot hear. Then Tony sees it, then Tony feels it like a punch directly to the gut. He sees the tears in Steve’s eyes, brimming but not falling as if he won’t admit to the weakness in front of anyone else, as if the tears betray him.

Tony refuses to back down, not now, not ever. “Tell me.”

Steve lowers his head even though it means letting his tears loose. He faces away from Tony and curls his hands into fists as if he’s controlling the anger storming through him. “Nothing to tell.”

“I think there is,” Tony says and drags a chair over from the computer console. He swings it backwards and straddles the seat with his arms folded over the back. He leans his chin on his arms and says, “I think I understand more than you know. Did you know that I was kidnapped, held hostage, beaten and now have permanent heart damage because of my three months at a honeymoon cottage in Afghanistan?”

Steve doesn’t reply but Tony can see he’s listening.

“Did you know that when I got back, I pretended everything was fine? Went around telling everyone I was fine until I couldn’t anymore. Until I ended up with a bottle of bourbon in me and only a bridge between me and the rest of forever.”

Steve looks up and Tony ignores the strains of tears on his face. “You tried.”

“To kill myself, yeah. Very nearly. I was dying anyway, I thought why the hell not.”

“Dying?”

“Slowing killing myself, not taking my meds that help with the palpitations of my heart,” Tony says with a shrug. “There are all kinds of ways to give it up, Captain. I know, I think I’ve tried about a dozen or so.”

Steve nods his head and presses his lips together in a firm line. He begins slowly like he’s uncovering the truth for both of them. “Mom told me, always stand up.” He peers up at Tony, slams his fist on his chair, and says, “How? Now, how can I?”

“Did you ever give up on the hostages you went after, the civilians in those dark dank places? Did you ever throw the towel in fighting to let the clinics get built or the schools?”

“No,” Steve murmurs.

“Then you keep getting up, you remember every fucking morning what it means to be alive. You latch onto one person, and hold tight. You remember you’re living for more than yourself. You have family and friends here.”

“You know, you know-. When I woke, I saw you.”

“Yeah, I remember.”

“You talked, you saw me.” Steve hisses because the words still jumble in his brain and he’s still fighting to get them out. He pauses as if to gather his thoughts and put the words in the right order. “Thought you were an angel.”

Tony chuckles. “Pepper would get a laugh out of that one. An angel?”

“Looked like one to me,” Steve whispers. “Held on, held on tight because-.” Steve looks away and then back to Tony again. “Afraid to let go, afraid of that place.”

Tony prods him. “What place?”

Steve shakes his head and, instead, changes tracks. “Get me crutches.”

Tony raises both eyebrows at that one.

“Please.”

“Okay, but you’re fighting off ninja girl.”

Steve smiles and a small laugh comes out.

“Let’s celebrate Thanksgiving, okay?”

Steve bites his lip and gazes at Tony, meeting his eyes for a long whispered moment before he breaks the contact and says, “Okay.”

*oOo*
Steve tries in fits and starts, Tony observes. He rallies and works on his physical therapy; he gives the pulmonary therapy a work out, and continually attempts the speech therapy with gusto. Yet, there are times when Tony sees how it wears on him. There are times when Steve, a man who’d been under weight for his size due to the seven months he spent in a coma, will not eat. He sits and plays with his food. He’d make a show of it, pushes the food around on his plate and eats a few bites anytime anyone looks at him.

Tony becomes more concerned when Steve drives himself too far, when he walks in on Steve falling off the crutches only to insist he wants to try again. The lengthy hospital stay impaired his progress but he refuses to acknowledge it, he struggles every day and battles off Natasha’s insistence to use a walker. Every moment he forces himself to go further, but when it doesn’t result in a good outcome it propels him deeper into despair. Tony witnesses it when Steve thinks he isn’t looking, when Steve forgets that JARVIS is watching.

The media circus following Tony around doesn’t help the situation at all. Tony wants to be there for Steve, but more often than not he finds himself beleaguered by the press and confronting them at every turn. As it is, the House is embattled and the identity of the ill soldier splashed across webpages and television screens for all to see. Somehow it was leaked that the soldier came home, and now everyone wants his story.

Steve isn’t shy, but he’s not one to seek out the limelight like Tony has in the past. The constant barrage of messages and phone calls drives everyone in the House a little nutty. One afternoon, when Tony’s managed to slip in through the back during a particularly nasty early December snowstorm, Steve sits in the lounge with his crutches across his lap. He taps on a tablet and flips through site after site with his image on it.

“Tony?”

“Hmm?” Tony has been trying not to pay attention to Steve’s internet searches, but it is difficult since they are sitting shoulder to shoulder on the couch, touching, but not. He thinks this is supposed to be a buddy thing, though he wishes it was so much more.

“Could you, could you get me out?”

“Out?”

“Of here?” Steve asks. He places the tablet on his legs, balancing it precariously on the crutches. “I want to give everyone here a break.”

“Break from what?”

“From this?” Steve points to the webpage still flashed across his screen. He holds up the screen and shows Tony. There’s speculation and accusation, there’s theory and conjecture. It all sums up to ugly intrusion into a peaceful place that is now turning into a three ring circus. “I don’t want everyone to have to deal with this now.”

Tony frowns and considers Steve proposition. He quirks an eyebrow. Tony has always had a good head for business. If Howard gave him one thing that Tony’s grateful for it is the art of the deal. He tilts his head and says to Steve. “I’ll tell you what; you eat three solid meals a day from now through Christmas I will take your ass out for a New Year’s Eve party you will not forget.”

Steve chuckles and smirks at Tony. “Knew it, knew you would do that.”

“And yet, you still asked.”

Steve raises both hands in a mock surrender. “Caught me. Will you do it, or not?”

“I said I would, do you accept the terms, Captain Rogers?”

Steve sighs and shakes his head. “Yes.”

“Three meals, not snacks, meals. I want meat on them bones.”

“You are a strange man, Tony Stark,” Steve comments and goes back to his tablet. Tony moves off to get the first of the meals for Steve. He whistles while he helps Thor build the sandwiches. He can’t help thinking he has a date for New Year’s Eve. He knows he needs to squash the idea of it, that it is a silly notion, but he figures no harm, no foul, now while he dreams.

When Tony returns to the lounge with a tray of sandwiches, sliced orange, and hot chocolate, Steve thanks him. It takes some prodding on Tony’s part to get Steve to eat a whole sandwich, but he does and he finishes off the orange and the hot chocolate as well. Tony is infinitely pleased with himself until Steve places the glass down and says, “I want to tell my story.”

“Wh-what?” That came out of left field.

“My story,” Steve says. “All the websites are trying to get my story.” He holds up the tablet again with the speculation and bullshit splashed all over it like a stain. “I want to tell it to you. I want you to write it.”

“Um, no?” Tony replies.

“You get to make requests, but not me?”

“You can make requests but I have to be able to fill them, you’re asking me to do something I’m not equipped to do.”

“I thought you were some kind of genius,” Steve says.

Tony jumps up out of the seat because he’s suddenly not comfortable; he suddenly wants to escape out the door. “I am a genius, but I don’t do that anymore.”

“That?”

“Writing, I don’t do it anymore,” Tony says and he’s more desperate than he first realized to shut down this conversation. “I’m not a real journalist, I never was. I only did it in the first place as a forum to screw Howard. Now, he’s gone and, with him, every god damned thing he owed me in the first place.”

“Owed you?”

“Yeah, he made it impossible for me to get his damned money, or nearly so. Everything is held in Trust and the rules are so convoluted I can’t use the money, not now, not ever. The way it is set up, I get screwed over.”

Steve tsks him, actually tsks him. “Your father owed you nothing but his love.”

Tony leans over and hisses in Steve’s face. “And he didn’t give me that, do you understand? He fucking shipped me off to boarding school as soon as he could. I missed the last year of my mother’s life because he insisted that I go away to school. He was nothing more than cold fish who drank the last years of his life away and didn’t seem to care a shit about his son.”

He should know better, he’s heard the stories at the House dinners that Steve doesn’t back down, never backs down. Bucky related to everyone at dinner about Steve’s tenacity and his ability to get every bully in the neighborhood to beat the crap out of him for some noble reason or another. It was hard to believe, at first, because Steve is a big man with an intimidating height. But Bucky whipped out a photograph of the two of them as kids. Tony gaped at the photo of a thin rail of a guy, standing next to Bucky. The image haunts him because sometimes when he looks at Steve, he sees the sick boy he used to be and that frightens him more than he thinks it should.

Steve finds his voice, finds the words enough to express his disgust at Tony’s self-pity. “I grew up poor, you know. Mom did what she could. I was sick a lot, and she- she died young, too.” He pauses because the words are hard for him even after months of therapy. “Dad died before I was a year old in the Gulf War. You had every advantage, and what did you do with it?”

The question enrages Tony. He’s not certain if he wants to punch the idiot or just walk out. He does neither instead he says through clenched teeth. “Privilege does not translate into a perfect life. The advantages bestowed upon me, I did not ask for. Was I grateful, no. Was I a prick about them in my youth, yes. Did I pay the price, yes. I fucking paid the price. You don’t have to remind me that my own actions led to my demise.”

“I didn’t say that, Tony.”

“I know who I am; do you know who you are?” Tony cringes a little and he rakes his eyes over the man before him. He knows he’s digging in for the lethal hit, but he can’t stop himself. “I know my faults and my foibles. I know I’m a bastard and arrogant, and I have a tendency not to think of anyone but myself, but I’m working on that, ask Pepper. But what about you, Rogers, what have you been up to?”

“What?”

“I know what you do, I’ve seen it,” Tony points to the ceiling as if that’s where JARVIS resides. He hates when other people do that, he has no idea why he’s doing it now. “You think no one sees you, you think no one knows how you want to give up, how you long to give up. How pushing yourself to stand up every fucking day is pushing you over your limit. Because you do have a limit, and you found it, discovered it and hate it. I know this is still going on, even after our little talk. Why do you think I want you to eat three solid meals a day? I told you I knew ten ways to Sunday to off myself, both the subtle and the perverse.”

“Tony, I-.”

“Look at you, who are you? Everything special about you is superficial, is physical, that’s why you’re so broken. It’s like you came out of a bottle of super soldier serum, because you have nothing else to fall back on.”

Steve has the crutches up and he struggles on to his feet, his right side listing hazardously to the side. But he swings enough to the left to compensate and he charges Tony, he actually charges him. Tony takes a step back. “You want to go a few rounds?”

“Yes, because that always solves everything.”

“What the hell are you two doing?” Natasha says as she walks into the room.

They are nose to nose, nearly snarling at one another. Tony snaps his attention to Natasha and then back to Steve. Steve face is red, but not with a blush. The anger thunders through him and he’s prepared to pounce on Tony.

Tony backs down but not out. “You know what, this isn’t worth my time.”

“What is worth your time?” Steve demands. Steve thumps over to him as Tony tries to escape past Natasha into the vestibule.

“Guys,” Natasha says.

Both of them ignore her and continue. “Tell me, Tony?”

“I don’t need to tell you anything, I don’t have to be here.”

“Why not?” Steve says. “You’re a patient like the rest of us.”

Tony scoffs. “Really, you think that, Rogers? Really.”

“I’m not sure what to think,” Steve says.

“Well, I’ll tell you, you think you’re something special, right.” Steve doesn’t answer. Tony pokes at him, his words pointed barbs. “You’d lie down on the wire, well, me? I’d just cut the wire.”

“No,” Steve says. His eyes are large pools of blue and Tony knows he could get lost in them. Maybe that’s why Tony’s decided to self-destruct right here and now. Maybe he’s getting too close. “I don’t believe that.”

“Believe what you want, Cap, I’m no hero. I’m only in this to get my money back.”

“Then why not write my story?”

This stops him dead. “What?”

Tony sees how difficult it is for Steve to maintain an upright position, and he restrains himself from racing to his side to help him to a seat. Instead, he watches as Steve limps over to him, stands over him in the cramped vestibule.

“Why not write the story and get your life back?”

He never gives up, that’s what Bucky said. He always fights the good fight. Tony recognizes it, knows deep in his bones so much that it aches, that Steve isn’t fighting now with indignation, but he’s fighting, grappling with Tony to save Tony.

“If you want your life back, write the damned story.”

Tony jerks his head a little to the side as if to indicate no, but he can’t keep his eyes off of Steve. He can’t stop looking at that earnest expression, that intense need radiating off of Steve to help Tony, to save Tony.

How does he know? Is all Tony can think. How?

He looks down at his hands, how the nerves of his body betray him and his fingers quake and his body trembles. “I don’t have to write the story; I don’t need that life back.” He already told Steve that he wants a new life, not the same one, not the one that devoured him.

“Conquer your demons, Tony, before you tell me to conquer mine.” Steve swivels and thuds off into the kitchen. With Natasha standing at his side Tony watches him go. He hears Steve collapse into a kitchen chair with a huff. He doesn’t know whether to stay or to go, or what he should do.

Natasha saves him. “Cap, doesn’t like bullies, especially not when you’re bullying yourself.” She tilts her head. “Think about it, Stark.”

He thinks he should walk away, he thinks he has too much on his plate, he thinks the man in the kitchen has changed him, is transforming him. And when the transformation is complete, Tony hopes he’ll like himself – because he accepts now that he’s always hated himself.

*oOo*
He spends a week avoiding going back to the House. He has meetings to attend with Pepper regarding the mitigation of the issue with the Trust and von Doom. Luckily von Doom was convinced not to press charges especially after Pepper uncovered that von Doom and Stane knew one another. Even from prison Stane reaches out and touches Tony’s life. Tony’s new lawyer Charles Xavier, or something like that is able to manipulate the situation enough so that von Doom is begging to pay Tony for damages. As the mediation continues they hit another snag when the board members insist that the notebooks and the contents belong to the Trust and not to Tony. He flies into a fury because these notebooks are quintessential to all of his plans. If they get their hands on the nascent scribbles from his father, then they effectively have the basis for what Tony has discovered/invented. After hours of arguments, the meeting breaks up and Tony is disheveled and overwrought. Pepper tries to calm him as they stand in the attorneys’ offices. Ignoring her, he disappears until he finds his way into a strip club and decides the best way to spend the afternoon is with a bourbon in his hand and a girl doing a lap dance on his crotch.

By the time he finds his way back to his apartment (and he’s god damned not sure how the fuck he did that) night slams over the city like a fist to the jaw and he falls up the stairs and bashes his chin on the step’s edge. He lays there like a broken shelled turtle, and stares up at the light in the ceiling, thinking – of all people – of Steve. He recalls the first moments of Steve’s lucidity how he stared at the ceiling, how his focus had been on the intricate patterns of the medallion. How it all mattered, still matters. How he wants to be there with Steve.

How he wants to hear his damned story.

But he can’t, he can’t do it because it means facing who he was, it means reliving who he was. It means hearing the terrorists again, their laughs, and their mocking voices. He scratches at the scars on his chest, thinking about how they rammed fists into his face, into his chest. How he could barely breathe after they thrashed him soundly and completely. The pain when breathing had sent him into dizzying semi-consciousness as they continued to hound him. The barrage of kicks and fists, he begged them to stop. He wished they would just kill him, he never understood why they hadn’t. He was supposed to die. Stane had wanted him dead.

He survived because the terrorists were more sadistic than even Stane understood. They liked to have a living punching bag around, they wanted to have someone to beat and belittle, someone to hammer into the ground daily. It made them feel strong and powerful, it made him into nothing.

Somehow he finds his way up the stairs and into his apartment. He crawls to the bedroom, but doesn’t quite make it to the bed itself. He sprawls on the floor, his arms outstretched and he tries not to want to curl into himself. He tries not to want to, but he does anyhow. He balls up his body as tight as he can and covers his face with his hands. This is who he is, this shattered man. He’s nothing like he used to be, brash and brilliant.

He lets the nightmares take him, he surrenders to them. They come in tides of feelings and waves of terrifying images. It isn’t snakes or ice this time, but something truer than that. It is the face of all evil in him, it is himself. He dreams of death and accepting it. He dreams of blood and splintered bones. He dreams of the hollowed out places inside of him that cannot be filled and echo with emptiness. He dreams of hiding in the dark but hating the shadows. He dreams of the void of death and he smiles in his sleep.

In the depths of his dream something jogs him out of his despair. He fumbles awake and realizes his phone buzzes at him. He stumbles around and yanks it out of his back jeans’ pocket. He doesn’t bother looking to see who it is, he just says, “Yeah?”

“Tony?”

“What?”

“Tony, it’s Steve.”

He rubs a hand across his face and blinks. “What? What time is it?”

“Two-thirty in the morning.”

“Christ, Cap, what do you want?”

There’s a slight pause and then Steve answers in hushed tones. “Do you know that Thor snores?”

“What?” Tony rolls over and decides the climb to the bed is doable, so he heaves his body up to the mattress and hovers there until he drops down like a stone.

“He snores and I can hear it all the way in here.”

“Oh, really?” Why are they having this conversation? “Sorry, is this a problem?”

“Sometimes, when I can’t sleep.”

“Okay,” Tony says and then adds, “Why are you calling me?”

“I thought it was necessary?”

“To tell me that Thor snores?”

Steve chuckles and Tony imagines he can see how he bows his head a little and looks to the side. “Yeah, maybe, maybe I just thought you needed me to call you.”

“I was sleeping.” Tony covers the receiver with his hand and says, “JARVIS, we are having words.”

“So was I,” Steve says. “Good night, Tony.”

“Steve?” Tony says and feels the throb in his chest and it doesn’t exactly hurt, just sets a burn in his ears and throat.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks,” Tony murmurs.

“Anytime, Tony,” Steve says and starts to hang up but Tony stops him.

“Can I come over?”

“Yes, Tony, you can come over,” Steve sighs into the phone but it sounds happy, content.

“Okay, see you tomorrow?”

“Sure, Tony, but wait until you’re not hung over anymore.”

“Right, right,” Tony says and disconnects the phone. He growls, “JARVIS?”

“Yes, sir?”

He stops and stares into the shadowed room. “Thanks, bud.”

“At your service, sir, always.”

Tony puts the phone to his lips, kisses it once before he realizes what he’s doing, and then moves his hand away. “Always looking out for me.”

“I try, sir.”

Tony smiles for the first time in days.

*oOo*
By the time Tony wakes up it is well past noon. He stumbles to the bathroom, strips, and steps into the shower. He closes his eyes and allows the cascade of hot water to pound into him. It feels like a massage of a thousand fingers and he sighs as he releases some of the tension from the last few days. Briefly, he thinks of Steve, his call in the middle of the night to rescue Tony from the nightmares, the sound of his voice so true and lovely. He braces a hand against the tiled wall and tries to wash away the feeling, the need, the desire that grows. He switches the hot water to cold and shivers as the frigid water washes away his want.

Admitting you have a problem is ninety percent of the battle, he thinks. Isn’t that what they say or maybe not. Maybe it is like fifty percent of the battle. He’s not sure and he wasn’t aware there was a war raging, but apparently he’s engaged in one. He tries to ignore his thoughts as he shaves and trims his beard. He finishes up in the bathroom and ends up getting dress in a pair of jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt with a hoodie over it. December marches on and it is getting colder.

As he pads over to the kitchen there’s a knock on the door and then it swings open. “Tony?”

He peers around the corner. “Hey, Pep.”

“Where did you disappear to? I’ve been calling you.”

“Have you?” He knew she had been calling. He has convenient awareness of his phone.

“The attorneys are looking to set up another meeting regarding the notebooks.”

“Tell them to go to hell,” Tony says and sets up the Keurig machine with some Italian roast.

“What?” She walks into the kitchen and says, “You shaved and showered.”

He frowns at her. “So.”

She looks at him dubiously. “Where are you going?”

“To the vet house, why?”

“You seem unusually chipper.” She starts opening cupboards, when she doesn’t find what she’s searching for she disappears into his bedroom.

“You know there is a little thing call privacy.”

She exits the bedroom with her face scrunched up. “You might want to think about doing laundry soon. Your closet stinks.”

“Well, then don’t go in my closet.” Tony presses the button and pure heaven drains from the pot into his cup. “You want one?”

She waves at him. “No, I need you to sign some papers.” She shuffles through her attaché case and digs them out.

“If this is about giving up Howard’s notebooks, no. I am not going to do it. If Xavier is going to recommend that you can fire him, too.” Tony sips the coffee and thinks he might have died and gone to heaven.

“No, this is just for the Foundation. They’re having a big shindig for New Year’s Eve to raise funds.”

Tony smiles. “Are they now?” He flips through the papers she places on the countertop. Scanning them he reads that they are planning some presentations and dinner dance. “Can I come?”

“Of course, but you never go to these things,” Pepper says and points to the date. “It’s New Year’s Eve, Tony. Don’t you usually have other plans, much less formal and more debauchery type plans?”

“You think so little of me,” Tony says and reaches for a pen to scribble his signature.

“You give me so little to work with.”

He gives her a sidelong glance but continues to date the paperwork. He tosses the pen down and says, “No, seriously, can I get a handful of tickets to this thing?”

“Um, yes, sure? But why and for whom?”

He walks over to the cupboard, grabs a granola bar, peels it open, and takes a bite. As he chews he says, “You know the guys – and gals have to remember the gal--- at the House.”

“The house?”

“The rehab center, keep up, Pepper.”

“I will when you decide to make sense consistently.”

“That’s a low blow,” Tony says. “But not untrue. Can you swing it?”

“How many?”

“I don’t know, let me-.” Tony stops and turns around to look at her as he’s picking up his keys. “Why don’t you come over with me now?”

“Over? Over where?”

“Geez, Pepper, the House, the rehab center.” He dumps the rest of the coffee, and throws the wrapper for the granola bar away. “Coming?”

“What? You’re going now?”

“Why not?” He grabs his jacket from the hooks by the door. “Chop, chop, time’s a wasting.”

“I really don’t-.”

“Come on, I’ll introduce you to the God of Thunder.” He waggles his eyebrows at her and bestows upon her his brightest smile. “Come on, you know you’re curious.”

She considers him, smiles with a tilt of her head, and says, “Okay, okay. I’m in.”

He ushers her out of the apartment and they climb down the stairs to his car parked in the garage. He cannot even remember parking the Audi. He hopes to hell he didn’t puke in it from all the damned bourbon he drank last night. His mouth still feels like he ate gravel even though he brushed his teeth. He has to confess the coffee didn’t help.

As he unlocks the doors, Pepper rambles on about something, Tony’s not really listening. He scrolls through his contacts and hits the icon for Steve. When it rings through he says, “Hey.”

“Hi Tony,” Steve says.

“I’m coming by in a bit. You need anything.”

“A new left side of my brain,” Steve replies.

“Very funny, your brain is just fine. We’ll be there soon.”

“We’ll?” Steve says.

“Just you wait. It’ll be a surprise.”

And it is.

Tony doesn’t know what or who Steve expects but when he leads Pepper into the lounge and finds Steve sitting on the couch with his tablet on his lap and a few books spread out around him, things do not go as he planned at all. Tony brings Pepper into the main room and introduces her.

“Steve, I’d like you to me the woman of the hour, the woman who guides my life, who makes me who I am, who I live for day and night, Virginia Potts, also known as Pepper.”

Steve struggles to his feet as Tony makes the introduction using the crutches, but halts just as he states her name. He leans against the single crutch he pulled to a stand. “Oh, Pepper.”

“Yes, this is the famous, Pepper Potts.”

“Oh, I don’t know about famous,” Pepper says and offers her hand to Steve.

Steve gazes at it for a minute as if it might be a piranha. Steve hobbles forward and clasps Pepper's hand; a plastic smile plastered to his face. Tony raises an eyebrow at it, but he can't figure out what the issue is. He knows Steve hasn't had any female visitors other than those from the house or in his unit, but this reaction is just weird. Tony claps his hands together and tries to fill the awkward silence with his own chatter.

"Well, I thought maybe we could," Tony starts but then Steve interrupts, seemingly remembering his manners.

"Ms. Potts, please sit."

Somehow through the thickness of the uncomfortable moments, Pepper always finds a way to smooth things over and tidy up Tony's mess (even when he has no idea how he caused the mess in the first place). "Thank you, are you Captain Rogers?"

"Yes, ma'am," Steve says and falls back to his seat with a visible release of tension. Tony isn't sure if it is from the pain of standing or from the surprise guest.

"Tony told me about the house and the rehab center, he didn't tell me quite so much about the great American hero harbored here."

"What?" Tony says.

She gestures to Steve. "Tony, everyone knows about Captain Rogers. He's one of the most decorated soldiers of the war. I even heard you’re being considered for the Congressional Medal of Honor." She offers him a soft smile which isn't condescending but beautiful and gentle at the same time.

Steve blushes and purses his lips the way he does when he's pleased but embarrassed. Tony finds it adorable. "Yes, ma'am."

"Medal of Honor, damn it, isn't that like the highest fucking honor you can get as a soldier?"

"Tony, watch your mouth, there's a lady present," Steve says.

Pepper giggles and says, "Oh don't worry, I'm used to it with Tony."

"You shouldn't have to be, ma'am." Steve turns to Tony. "Would you get the lady's coat and hang it up, please."

"Since you've learned how to talk again, you've been nothing but trouble," Tony mumbles but complies. Pepper smirks as he takes her coat and goes to hang it up. He sheds his own coat as well and places it on the hook.

"Tony said you had been in a coma," Pepper says. "So you were the mystery soldier they flashed all over the news outlets lately?"

"Yes, ma'am to both," Steve says. "Luckily, they didn't get a clear shot of my face in any of the photos."

"And that's a good thing; you need your privacy to continue to recover."

"Everyone here has been swell. Tony helped a lot, you should be proud of him." Steve looks up at Tony as he walks back into the lounge; a fondness crossed with regret follows his gaze. The expression of sorrow almost reminds Tony of someone who’s lost something valuable to him.

"Well, I'm glad Tony isn't making a nuisance of himself," Pepper says as Tony leans against the door frame and watches them. He's not certain this was a good idea after all. "You've made remarkable progress."

Steve bows his head again but looks back up at her. "Well, not as much as I'd like. Can't walk just yet. And some words are still-."

"You look fit as a fiddle," Pepper says and reaches across the gap and pats his knee. "I'm sure you'll be walking by the New Year."

"That's awfully nice of you, ma'am."

"Which reminds me," Pepper says and she refers to Tony. "How many tickets for the dinner dance?"

"Dinner dance?" Steve says with a pained expression. "I don't-."

Tony goes to his side and slaps his shoulder, keeping his hand there because it feels good, it feels like possession. "Sure you do, we can go dancing on New Year's Eve. Right, Pep?"

Surprise and then a little grin from Pepper and Tony knows she understands. "Oh, yes, Tony, sure thing."

"Then it's settled. We'll all go out to the Foundation dinner dance for New Year's Eve. How many tickets do you think we need, Cap?"

"I don't, I don't know. I don't dance."

Tony hits his shoulder again then squeezes it. "Sure you do. There's Thor, by the way where is Thor?"

"Jane's back."

"Super! He can bring her along." Tony mentally counts it out. "How about eleven tickets?"

"Eleven?" Steve peers over his shoulder at Tony. "What? I don't know-."

"We'll be good, everything's good."

Just as Tony is about to finalize the plans the door in the vestibule bursts open and Thor staggers through singing in some foreign language with his brother, Jane, and an older man Tony hasn't met. It must be snowing out because they are sparkling with flakes and bubbling with enthusiasm. Thor catches the scene in the lounge and throws back his head with a loud laugh. He guides his entourage into the main room without unloading coats or hats or boots.

"Greetings, my friends and family!"

"Thor," Steve says but then back peddles and changes his salutation. "Don."

The older gentleman knocks Thor in the shoulder and says, "Thor is just fine. My son used to play at being Thor as a child. He has inspired me and my company all these years. His service to the military of this country has always warmed my heart and brought great pride to our family. He is the god of thunder!" He jogs his son on the shoulder.

"This is your father, Thor?" Steve asks.

"Yes, my great all father, Odin."

Tony screws up his face at that one.

"No, he is stating correctly. My name is Odin." The older man scans their faces. "Didn't my sons tell you? We are originally from Norway. We spent many years traveling. Both Don and his brother came to America for school and Don decided to stay and become a citizen of this great nation."

Thor knocks his slender brother in the arm. “While my good brother stayed with the frost giants in Norway, didn’t you?”

Loki only laughs and glowers at the same time. It gives Tony the creeps.

"Oh," Tony says and things are starting to fall into place but others are teetering on the edge. It is Pepper who jumps up and puts the puzzle together.

"You're from Norway; don't tell me you're from Asgardian Energy?"

"Why, of course, we are!" Odin states. "I have oil platforms off the northern coast."

"Energy?" Tony says. "You're in energy?"

"My primary company works in energy development, yes. We have always sought out new realms of energy production and development. Exploring power and its sources is our main occupation. I hope one day that I can convince my son to pick up Mjolnir and wield it like any good Norwegian."

Tony shares a look with Pepper. She's not sure what is up, he can tell that. But this is like an early Christmas gift. "We have some things to talk about."

"And you are Tony Stark," Odin says with a critical expression. "I'm not ready to have an expose on my work, sir."

"I'm more prepared to offer you the chance of a lifetime," Tony says. Both Loki (and why does he not know that guy's real name) and Jane have moved off to remove their outerwear and boots which have formed puddles all over the worn carpet and the hardwood floors.

"The chance of a lifetime, young man?" Odin glances at his son and then back to Tony. "And what would that mean?"

"I am the only name in green energy. Others may claim the place but I win it hands down."

"Stark Industries?" Odin asks. "I thought you were embroiled in a court case for the control of your father's company."

"This has nothing to do with my father's company and everything to do with me." Tony offers him his most enticing smile.

"You are an interesting young man, perhaps we may discuss, over something to eat, this delusion you have of being in green energy."

"Perhaps, but I'll need a non-disclosure from you."

"Do we really need to talk business right now?" Jane asks as she enters into the lounge again, carrying some towels to sop up the mess.

"If you don't mind, sir, I'll work with your assistant to set up a meeting," Pepper says and Odin pulls out his phone to share contact information.

From yesterday to today his life has transformed. Tony turns to Steve to share his excitement, but glimpses a troubled expression pass over Steve’s face until he notices Tony's attention. He wipes the disappointment away and brightens with a smile, but it only whispers at the peripheries, like he's hiding, concealing the pain of loss and detachment. Tony lays his hand on Steve's shoulder and says in a low voice, "Hey?"

Steve shakes himself and re-adjusts his outward look as he turns to face Tony. "Yeah?"

"Are you? Are you okay?"

Steve shrugs and says, "Fine, good, why?"

"Just that you seem a little distant," Tony says.

Steve glances at Pepper and then back to Tony. His gaze drifts to Thor and Jane and he smiles. "Just tired, that's all. Can you bring the wheelchair over?"

"The wheelchair?" Tony asks. He's not sure why Steve would want the chair.

"Yeah, tired. Natasha instructed me not to overdo it. I need to go rest," Steve says and opens and closes his hands as he reaches for the wheelchair in the corner of the room.

"Sure, sure," Tony says and pushes through the crowd, and navigates it through the juggernaut. Tony reaches for the brake and sets it.

Steve sets his crutches aside and sidles over to the chair and swings in. His biceps hold all of his weight and Tony notes how very strong his right arm has become. He drops into the chair, gathers up his books, but leaves the tablet on the cushion. He nods to the crowd but there's too much activity for anyone to notice Steve. He releases the brake and swivels the chair to the elevator. Torn, Tony looks at Pepper as she gabs with Jane and Odin, then back to Steve. He decides to follow the wheelchair, but Steve hits the button on the control panel in the elevator and the lift closes before Tony gets there. He stands there staring at the closed doors.

"What the hell just happened?" he mutters and wanders back into the lounge. Jane and Loki disappear as well as Thor, leaving only Pepper and Odin discussing the business possibilities.

He should be responsible and sit down with Odin to give him his usual spiel. He glances up at the ceiling, considering how his intention today had been to come over and set things straight with Steve. Yet, Steve's fled up to his room and left his crutches behind. Tony should do something, but he's not good at this type of interpersonal shit, and it causes a prickly feeling up and down his spine like someone is running barbed wire across his vertebrae. With that in mind, he throws himself into the conversation with Odin. He knows how to do this, he was born to do this. So he plays the game and, while Odin realizes he's playing, he's willing to play as well and they debate and argue over the course of the next hours. When dinner time arrives, Tony has a meeting set up to conference with Odin and his investors on his new energy source.

At some point Barton and Banner appeared and they're in the kitchen preparing the meal. The smells are delicious and they all congregate around the table. As they tuck in for the feast, Tony notices that Steve is not joining them; instead Natasha puts together a tray.

"What's up?" Tony lifts his chin to the tray as she steps over to the elevator.

"Not much, just bringing Steve his meal," Natasha says with a lift of her shoulder.

Tony frowns and joins Natasha. "You mind if I bring it up to him?"

"You have company." Natasha gestures to Pepper and Odin.

Tony spins around and sees Pepper and Odin are thick as thieves. "Hmm, I think they can do without me for a while."

Natasha regards him with narrowed eyes for a moment, but she hands over the tray. Tony accepts it, even with his phobias, and carts it into the lift. He uses his elbow to press the button. Smiling he winks at Natasha as the lift doors close. Once upstairs, Tony enters Steve's room by saying, "Knock, knock."

He finds Steve sitting in his wheelchair at the built in console Tony constructed. Papers scatter around him but Steve doesn't lift his head. He just mumbles something and keeps at what he's scribbling at on the papers.

"Dinner, Bruce cooked up something in the crock pot. I'm not sure what it is, but it smells good."

Steve grunts a little but remains impassive to Tony's presence. He guesses he has to make amends for how they left things last week. They still haven't confronted the main issue. "I'll just put it on the table here."

"Yeah, yeah."

"Might want to eat it soon, who likes cold soup or stew or whatever it is? I have it on good authority that cold potatoes cause strange nightmares." He stands with his hands loose at his side, but that doesn’t feel comfortable, so he shoves them partially in his pockets but still remains at odds.

Steve doesn't turn around but he continues working at the console. Tony wanders over to him and peers over his shoulder. Steve hunches further to hide what he's doing and places his hands over the paper. "I'll eat a little later. Thanks for bringing it up."

"Steve, I-."

"Tony, I just want to finish this up, I promise I'll eat. But-."

"But?" He doesn't understand why but Steve's dismissal of him pisses Tony off, and he lashes out at him.

"Are you still angry about last week?"

"Last week?" Steve grimaces as if he doesn't know what Tony's talking about, but he stays with his head down at the desk console.

"Yeah, last week," Tony says. "The story."

"Oh," Steve says and flips the papers over. He steers the chair over to the bed and stretches to lock the brake. "No issue with the story. The media will eventually leave me alone, when the next big story happens. It'll simmer down. I talked to Bruce; he thinks it'll be okay, the media storm will blow over."

He concentrates on the chair, on the bed; he doesn't look at Tony at all.

"If you want I could do it," Tony says before he even thinks about what he's committing to, something that turns his stomach and leaves him cold inside.

Steve stares at the wall. "You don't have to Tony; I don't want to ask you do anything that will cause you to feel uncomfortable."

"What the hell, Steve, I want to do this for you." He crosses with room and steps in front of the chair. He gasps in a breath at the wrecked look on Steve's face. "Steve, what?"

"Just, nothing," Steve tries to push the chair away from Tony, but it's halted by the brake. "I don't need you to do this for me. It isn't a big deal."

"I think it is," Tony says. "What's going on here, Steve?"

Steve yanks at the brake on the chair and gets it to release. He spins the chair and moves it toward the balcony. "Can you leave?"

"This again?" Tony says and he's having none of it. "What the hell, Steve?"

"I would rather just not have you here right now. I just need some space." Steve says and hunches over in his seat with fisted hands. Tony can practically feel the emotional heat burning off of Steve.

"Tell me what's going on?" Tony races in his brain, trying to figure out what the hell he did wrong. Steve had been so calm and inviting over the phone last night, his words soft and sweet. Steve pulled him from the brink, saved him from the nightmares. "Did I-."

"I'm not going out for this dinner dance, okay?"

"What?" This was about a god damned dance? "You don't have to dance, Steve, that isn't a necessary thing." He opens his hands and tries to offer a silent plea for him to understand.

"I don't want to go to a party, Tony, I don't want to be there," Steve says and mumbles the rest of his sentence.

"What?"

"I don't want to go, why isn't that enough for you?" Steve says seething.

"Because I want you to go, I promised you."

Steve lowers his head and says, "You don't have to do that. You don't have to make things better for me."

"I want you to go; I want you to be there."

"Why?" Steve pounds on the armrest of his chair. "I don't want to be on display for everyone. Look at the soldier, look how he can't get out of the damned chair. It was enough when I was a ninety pound weakling and people would feel sorry for me. I am not going to some big party where people can whisper behind their hands about the poor soldier."

Bucky words haunt Tony and he sighs. "I don't want you to feel that way, Steve, but this is an exclusive affair. The media won't be there, it'll be the donors to the Foundation."

"I don't want to go, okay?" Steve grabs the handle of the balcony door. "I just want to stay here."

"No."

"You can't make me go dancing, Tony. I'm competent," Steve says. "I can make my own decisions."

Tony raises his hands and says, "Okay, okay. You don't have to go dancing, but would you go to dinner with me?"

"It's a dinner dance, Tony, I don't want to go-."

"I'm not asking you to go out to the dinner dance, I'm asking you to go out to dinner with me, just the two of us," Tony says and his mouth feels suddenly parched and it's hard to breathe. His chest constricts and he wonders if he's having one of those panic attacks JARVIS accused him of having.

"Dinner?"

"Yeah, just the two of us," Tony says. He eases back and leans on the foot of the bed. "If you want that kind of thing."

"Kind of thing?" Steve murmurs. Steve’s gaze drops to the floor, and Tony can see the purposeful breathes he inhales and then slowly exhales.

“Hey,” Tony says and when Steve looks up at him, Tony points to his chest and then Steve. "Us."

"Us?" Steve says and something flickers through his eyes. He licks his lips once and in a hushed voice asks, "What about Pepper?"

"Pepper? What about her?"

"She's your girl," Steve says but stutters a bit. "You're, you know, dame, or girl, or woman. I don't-."

"You are not very good with this, are you?" Tony chuckles a bit. "Are you open to going out on a date with me or not, Captain."

"Yes?"

“Are you asking me the question or are you answering my question?” Tony says. He forces his hand, inches Steve to respond to the question without making it gray or vague.

“Yes.”

"Then would you like to go to dinner?"

"Hmm, sure," Steve says. "As long as-."

"Pepper is not my girl or dame or significant other." Tony takes a step closer to Steve; his whole body vibrates with a renewed energy. He hadn’t expected to do this today, to be so bold and brash. He thought with an invitation to the whole group to the Foundation’s party he could persuade Steve to spend some quality time with him, now the thought of a whole date just about causes every neuron in his head to explode.

“Then, I’d like that, I really would,” Steve says and he smiles that special curve of his lips that both emphasize their fullness while displaying how very shy he is underneath all the bravado. He really is fucking adorable.

Tony would confess later that he was not responsible for his actions, who could be with that lovely face, that beautiful smile offered to him? Before he thinks about it, Tony has Steve’s face cupped in his hands and he’s kneeling at his feet, leaning forward and seeking a touch, a brush of lips. He presses his advantage and Steve slowly tilts his head to fit in perfectly to Tony’s angle. He treats this moment like a fragile crystal, like a precious artifact. He licks forward with his tongue and tastes the ridge of Steve’s lip and curls and twists of desire turn over in the pit of Tony’s groin. How he wants this, how he needs this, how he dreamed of it and it’s fallen into place. It seems like it must be a dream or a wish.

The feel of Steve’s mouth against his, the taste of his tongue as they pursue one another, it tangles and weaves into his brain until his body rings with need and want and he doesn’t want to stop, he never wants to break away, because if it does it might not be real. This has to be real, it can be nothing else.

Steve runs his fingertips across Tony’s hand which still holds onto the line of Steve’s face. His gentle caress sets fire to Tony’s nerve endings and he hitches in a breath even as he begs entrance. Steve opens in a slow fall of his whole demeanor, melting forward against Tony. He hates to do it, but he has to and he lets go of Steve’s face to brace against the chair as Steve’s weigh shifts.

“Oh, then I would suppose you’ll want your dinner up here, too?”

Tony breaks away from Steve to see Bruce standing at the doorway. Tony opens his mouth to say something but, for the first time in a long time, he can’t think of a word to put up as his defense. He looks at Steve for assistance, but the man is red to the tips of his ears. “Oh.”

“Yeah, oh, that’s a good one, perfect come back,” Bruce says and rolls his eyes. “Well, I’m not serving you, go get your own.”

“I can wait,” Tony says because he would really like to get back to kissing Steve now. Unfortunately, Steve shifts his chair around and Tony’s left kneeling to the side of the chair.

“If you don’t mind, I have to check on Steve before I leave and I’ve been paged, so-.” Bruce waves at Tony to usher him out of the room.

“Okay, okay,” Tony says and climbs to his feet. “Don’t go anywhere, gorgeous.” Tony winks at Steve and he’s rewarded with that sweet pursing of lips and a roll of those beautiful eyes.

When he leaves and jogs down the stairs he thinks – for the first time in ages – his life actually feels right, looks perfect, and promises even more.

*oOo*
The rush of the holiday season, the fury of the deals he’s attempting to seal, and the stolen moments with Steve fill Tony’s days and nights. Because of his current situation, business ramps up due to his meetings with the Asgardian Energy representatives. He hears from Pepper and Xavier and the news is nothing but horrible. The Trust still wants his money and insists that the Trust owns his father’s notebooks. He threatens to stop the mediation and go to court. All hell breaks loose and he decides to escape to the House again.

When he appears at the House it is nearly Christmas and there’s a large commotion emanating from upstairs. He follows the noises and sees boxes and suitcases lined up outside of Thor’s room. Steve leans forward on a walker he often uses. He isn’t in Thor’s room but off to the side.

As Tony mounts the landing he quizzes the Captain. “What’s up?”

A cacophony of voices from the room tells Tony that Thor isn’t alone. His brother and Jane are with him now in the room, opening drawers and packing away all of Thor’s belongings. Tony peeks in the room and says, “Hey, where you going?”

“We journey back to our home,” Thor says and claps Loki on the back, causing him to stagger a few steps. His brother frowns but keeps dumping clothes into a suitcase.

“You’re leaving?” Tony asks.

Thor smacks Tony in the shoulder and says, "We are going back home. I am ready to forge my own destiny, my own journey in life as the great Captain has advised me to do."

Looking back to where Steve had been standing with his walker, Tony sees he's vacated the hallway. "You'll be here for Christmas and New Year's right?" A sinking weight plummets inside Tony; it feels like something's just yank out his insides.

"We plan on flying out tomorrow," Jane says and she smiles. "We're going back to Norway for the holidays. Odin was insistent; their mom hasn’t seen them in ages."

"To Asgard." Both brothers whoop and it seems so out of character for the dour Loki, that Tony only offers them a weak smile in return.

He should congratulate Thor that he feels good enough to venture out, to continue his recuperation from his post-traumatic stress outside of the rehab center. Everyone knew it was coming; Thor had been a manifestation of his therapy. He became a childhood hero to deal with his own fears and now as time and therapy worked, he accepted what happened to him and all the nightmares that came with it. While he still affects the god of thunder, it is really a game and has little to do with the tricks of his therapy any longer. Thor has essentially become his nickname. Tony should have predicted that Thor or Don, whatever he should call him now, would be leaving soon especially since he'd invited family to come and he started to venture out more frequently. From what Tony knows about Thor, he’d previously kept his family an arm’s length away, nearly ashamed of his PTSD. It had taken all that Bruce and the group therapy sessions could do to convince Thor his family would support him and be there for him. It was only a matter of time, before Thor didn’t need to use the House as his shelter, his hiding place.

Backing out of the room, Tony crosses the hallway to enter Steve's room. He raps on it with two knuckles and peers in. "Hey."

Steve wheels the walker to a chair and slumps down in it. "Hey."

"Don't, don't be like that," Tony says and closes the door once he steps over the threshold.

"Be like what?" Steve shows his devastated expression to him and Tony’s heart thuds hard in his chest, echoing and emptying him. "Be like what, Tony? Like the last one, the last man standing?" He scoffs at the words. "Not even standing." He hits at the walker and it rolls a few feet away.

"I'm sorry," Tony says because he doesn't know what else to say. Whenever Pepper is upset he knows the best strategy is to throw out a sorry because at least he's acknowledged there's something wrong.

“For what?” Steve's shoulders sag and he bows his head. Pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes, he says, "Thanks, thanks for that."

"Steve, you do know that the doctors are wowed by your progress, right?" Tony comes and kneels by Steve's chair. He holds on to the armrest as he speaks. "They keep joking that you have some magical super soldier serum or, what did Erskine called it, vitarays or something shining on you from on high. They said you've made the progress they'd normally see in a year in less than six months."

"Yeah, I know, I know." Steve looks up but he can't hide the pain and what almost looks to Tony as humiliation. "Peggy tells me all the time how surprised she is."

"Yeah, Peggy," Tony says and he forces himself not to clench his teeth in jealousy over Peggy's interest in Steve. He keeps telling himself it is just doctor patient. He focuses on Steve, on the ruin of his expression and the fear of being left behind. Reaching up, he threads his hand through Steve's hair along the ridge with the scar. Steve flinches a bit, but doesn't pull away. "You won't be alone."

"Tony," Steve says and leans forward, his eyes half lidded and what Tony can see darkened with desire. But then he pulls back at the last minute and it jolts Tony right out of the mood. He watches as Steve shuts down, builds his defenses as he must have done all those years ago when he was a sickly youth. Straightening his shoulders, he stretches to drag the walker over and says, "Thanks, Tony, it's good of you."

"Good of me?" He's confused; what the hell? He just saw Steve completely shut down, construct his defenses and disregard Tony completely.

Steve grips the handles of the walker and readies himself as if he's about to go to battle, but Tony's not going to surrender, he knows just what the fuck is going on. He's a genius for god’s sakes. He can identify when someone is pushing him away. He places his hand over Steve's on the walker and says, "Let me hear your story."

This surprises Steve; he jerks the walker and nearly tips over. "What?"

"Not for a publication, not for anything but for you. I want to hear it."

"You don't really have time, do you?" Steve says. The light streaming in from the balcony is the low gray light of winter's threshold. A hollowed out feeling aches through Tony as if he grasping and cannot catch Steve as he falls away. "You have to work with Odin before he leaves."

"I don't care, it'll work out, it always does," Tony says and he scrubs at his beard. "Pepper is meeting with-."

"God, Tony, you don't know when to give up. You have your money on the line, the invention for green energy teetering on the line, and you're here playing footsie with me?" Steve shakes his head. "No, I won't let that happen."

"I have everything under control."

"Do you? Really?" Steve says. "Why? Ms. Potts is running herself ragged. She needs you more than I need you. I can deal with it. I can deal." Steve's voice breaks but he swallows back his frustration. "Let me deal with it."

Tony sees the plea in Steve's eyes; he wants to be brave, to have someone believe he can be brave and courageous again. But Tony knows how fragile Steve is, or maybe it is how very frail Tony is. The thought of walking away, separating from Steve hurts him in a deep-seated physical way. But this isn't about him, it's about Steve. Tony nods and presses his lips together in a firm line. "Okay, I can understand."

"Okay, then," Steve says. "I'll see you on Thursday?"

"Christmas Eve, sure," Tony says.

"For the party," Steve says. "Here, at the house."

Tony stands half in the world where he's kissing Steve, embracing him close to him, feeling the line and strength of his body next to Tony, and half in the world where he walks out and everything fades and disappears. His life shutters away into a place where his old skin grows over him, where he becomes cold and calculating, where he becomes a reflection of his father, his father’s own creation. There's only one action that changes all of that, there's only one thing to demonstrate he's not giving up and giving in. He'll fight all the way, not Steve, but with Steve.

So he crosses the space between them and, without preamble, he slides his hand around the back of Steve’s head, cups his neck, and brings him close to kiss him fully, completely, and totally. He prods and enters with a need, he wants more and Steve relents, leaving the walker behind and clinging to Tony for support and balance. Tony presses up against Steve, the planes of his muscles causes a tightness to clench in Tony's groin and he knows he has to release Steve unless he wants to ravage him now. It's been so long since he's found someone to trust, it's been so long since he's trusted his own body to react, and to not wince in the face of physical touch. Just being wrapped in Steve's strong arms makes him dizzy with want.

He realizes it then, understands it is not Steve who is breaking down and fragmenting if he walks out the door, but himself. Each and every time he leaves Steve his life cycles down into the haunted images, the remembered fear, the horror of his days chained and abused. He grabs hold of Steve, urgent and frightened. Parting from the kiss, he murmurs, "Please, Steve, don't make me go, don't let me go."

The sound of his voice shatters every facade he erected. Steve moves an inch away from Tony, but not far enough so that they are not touching, not far enough that he stands on his own. "Tony?"

"I can't go out there, I can't do this." He places his forehead on Steve's. "I - ever since - I can't sleep, I go down to my workshop, I tinker, you know, because that's what I do. And then I come here and you're here. And it all fades away; all the memories disappear because of you. I can't do this without you."

Steve kisses him lightly on the temple and whispers, "You don't have to, I didn't know. I keep forgetting. Sometimes, I think I'm the only one who ever lost anything in the war."

The fear wells up then bright and burning to sear through him so sharp it stings.

Steve staggers as Tony leans against him and then they tumble down, in a slow motion fall to the floor. Tony tries to brace them, but he fails and they falter backward toward the floor. The only thought that runs through Tony’s brain is to protect Steve’s head and he takes the brunt of it by cupping his hand around Steve’s skull. Tony ends up on top of Steve and he scrambles to climb off of him, but Steve grasps onto him, holding him in place.

Steve blinks several times but then his arms splay out, his breath coming in short pants. Tony clambers to his knees and bends over Steve. He tries to meet Steve’s gaze to find out if any damage was done in the fall but what he sees stabs right through his already damaged heart. Before Tony can jolt him out of his flashback, Steve flips around and ducks, dragging Tony with him.

“Steve,” Tony says.

Just as Steve turns to look at Tony, someone in the other room where they are packing up Thor’s belongings must drop a box because a loud crash sounds. Steve startles and he curls around Tony as if to protect him.

“Hey, hey,” Tony says and pats Steve’s arm. “It’s okay.”

When Steve tries to crawl and his right side refuses to cooperate, he becomes desperate with his nails raking the floor. Tony scurries up and grabs his hands.

“Shh, Steve, it’s okay. You’re home, you’re with me. Tony.”

“Tony?” Steve squints at him, and then rolls to his side in a protective ball.

Tony runs his hand up and down Steve’s arm, feeling the strength of the man at the same time he understands his frailties. “I’m here.” Steve shudders under Tony as he comes back to himself. “You back with me?”

“Yeah,” Steve says.

“Maybe we should talk about the war,” Tony says and continues to lightly caress Steve’s arm and adds a light stroking along the side of his face.

“Maybe we should,” Steve says as he struggles to sit up. Tony slides his shoulder under Steve’s right arm and hoists them up to kneel and then they both get to their feet. Steve wavers but Tony rights him and they shuffle over to the bed. Only recently the hospital bed had been replaced with a normal double bed.

Tony gets Steve to settle on the bed, piling pillows behind his head and then eases onto the bed next to him. “You’re okay, now.”

Steve nods and reaches for a glass of water. He has a small table near the bed where there’s a bottle of water with a cup set next to it. Tony jumps up and pours the water to give to Steve.

“You don’t need to baby me,” Steve says but takes the glass with a murmured thanks.

“Maybe I need to do it for me,” Tony says and tilts his head as a kind of challenge to Steve. Steve only grins and sips the water.

“So how do we do this?” Steve asks and reaches to place the glass on the table. Tony almost jerks to attention to do it for him, but he stops himself and knows that Steve appreciates it. “I think we can -.” He pauses and tries again. “We’re broken people.”

“Yeah, two peas in a pod.” Tony offers only a wistful smile and then peers up at Steve from his folded hands in his lap. “My dad left all this shit around. His notebooks, a creepy model of some future city he was planning on building like he was some weird ass version of Walt Disney.”

Steve doesn’t interrupt even though the topic area is far afield from their wartime experiences.

“So, he leaves me all this shit. He doesn’t give me an opportunity to get to the money, makes it almost as macabre as he possibly could make it for me to access billions of dollars.” Tony sighs. “I’m pissed, you know, been pissed at him since I was a kid. He was a son of a bitch, a real bastard. He was a cold fish as a father. Treated my mom like she was only a trophy wife.” He shrugs. “Maybe she was, she was like thirty years his junior.”

Steve nods but only concentrates on Tony’s story, his facial expressions, and his presence. Tony doesn’t know if anyone has ever paid such close attention to him before.

“I rebelled like all kids do,” he laughs a bit when he looks up at Steve. “Well, most kids do. I rebelled and everyone in the world watched. I used that to my advantage, revolted against everything that my dad and his war machine company represented. Ended up rallying against the war, against the military, saying that no one in the military wanted to do anything but kill people.”

At this point, Steve opens his mouth to protest, but Tony raises his one hand. “I know better now. Christ, I knew better then. One of my best friends had joined up, Colonel Rhodes. He saved me, you know.”

Steve doesn’t comment but waits as Tony continues. “I went to Afghanistan with a chip on my shoulder. My father put in motion, before he died, a process to either convert the company into an IT research and development company or sell off the war machine parts. Stane had other plans. So when the opportunity arose for an embedded stint, Stane pushed it, really forced the issue.”

“But you didn’t have control of the company?” Steve says.

“No, Howard made it nearly impossible for me to have control. While in his old age he had a come to Jesus moment about his part in the arms race and the military war machine, he still had a lot of resentment to yours truly.” Tony finds it difficult to actually explain their hate and more hate relationship with its flavor of mutual respect for one another’s genius. How can you explain the love you have for your worst enemy because of his brilliance? “He gave himself one out, one way to bequeath something to his son, through his notebooks.”

“And the notebooks.”

“Brilliant, Howard was beyond his time, and I pieced together and made the leaps he couldn’t see because of his limitations,” Tony says. “But that was before Afghanistan.”

“And Afghanistan?” Steve asks in a whisper.

Tony doesn’t meet Steve halfway or even look up from his folded hands. Normally, when talking about his experience he remembers to be all kinds of arrogant and haughty as if something so ridiculous as being abducted and tortured is beneath him to even leave a mark. But it left too many marks, too many ruts dug into his soul.

“Changed things.” He laughs a little but it sounds more like a whine. “You know when they have you go on these embedded missions, you have to have this training. Just in case.”

He inhales and dives in to tell Steve, to reveal all that has been held inside for too long. “You get this training just in case you are kidnapped.”

As he peers up at Steve, he sees he is nodding, agreeing with the protocol. He probably knows the strategy inside and out.

Licking his lips he says, “I had to choose a code-.”

Thor bursts into the room and says, “It is decided, we will not leave until after the holidays.”

“What about your mother?” Steve says.

“My dear mother will travel here,” Thor says. “We will all be united for the holidays and then we will leave for our homeland.”

“I don’t want you to change your plans on my account, Thor.”

“But you do not, my brother in arms. I have discussed this with my father and he agrees. We should stay. My mother comes on Thursday.”

“Great, great,” Tony says and knows the mood is broken and he hops up and stands. “Anyone for food, because I’m starving.”

Steve frowns but doesn’t say anything to disavow Tony’s statement. He points to the walker and says, “Could you bring it over?”

“No crutches anymore?” Tony says as he wheels it to Steve.

“This is easier on my arm,” Steve says and positions himself on the bed to slide down to the floor. “Natasha thought it would be a better fit. My arm is getting stronger, but it fatigues pretty quickly. This helps out.”

“Perhaps we may all go out for sustenance?” Thor says.

Tony whizzes around to look at Steve’s reaction. He stands leaning onto his walker frozen with the idea. “Out?”

“Maybe, we’ll just stay here?” Tony suggests. Even though it hasn’t been a difficult day overall for Steve, he did just suffer a flashback, and he’s tenuous at best.

“Everyone goes, though,” Thor says and gives them a downcast look.

“I’m not good, I’m seriously in need of some, you know, down time,” Tony says.

Thor considers him and then thumps a hand onto his shoulder. “I understand, I would not tax you if you do not want to go out.” He regards Steve and then says, “I will miss you both.”

When Thor leaves Steve eases back onto the edge of the bed and says, “Thanks, Tony.”

“Nothing to it.” He waves him off. “Besides, I haven’t finished regaling you with my life story, yet.”

“I heard it’s a best seller,” Steve says and hoists himself up on the bed.

“Oh, no, we’re going downstairs once everyone leaves,” Tony says. “JARVIS, delivery from my favorite Bella Donna’s restaurant?”

“As you wish, sir.”

Tony doesn’t know why he decides it is necessary to have a formal dinner with Steve at the table in the dining room. As Steve shuffles off to the bathroom, Tony races downstairs and bids everyone goodbye – he kicks them out the door. Even though Barton doesn’t have plans for the evening, Tony helps Coulson and Barton out the door and tells them not to come back until midnight at the earliest. He winks at Coulson who flushes – damn the man does have emotions--and shuts the door on them.

As he rummages through the sideboard he finds old candles and holders. He sets them up on the table with a nice lace cloth he found laid out underneath. The china in the cabinet is obviously from an antique store because not all of it matches, but it is still gorgeous and reminds Tony a little of his mother. He sets the table, with guidance, of course, from JARVIS. Who knew you were supposed to place the knife there?

He giggles and claps his hands together when the doorbell rings. Tony directs the delivery guy to put the bags on the floor and then he shoves a couple of twenties into the guy’s hand. “Thanks.” He ushers him out the door without further ceremony.

Picking up the bags, he unloads them on the sideboard. Steve exits the elevator and smiles.

“Something smells good.”

“All for you, big boy,” Tony says and reveals lasagna, antipasto, manicotti, eggplant parmesan, and a bowl of meatballs the size of his fists.

“That’s a lot of food.”

“That’s not even dessert,” Tony says and gestures for Steve to sit at the table. He slides out a chair for Steve and waits as he transfers from the walker to the seat.

“So,” Steve says and picks up the napkin on the table. “We went from you leaving, to kissing, to me having a flashback, to you telling part of your story today. And now dinner?”

“A romantic dinner,” Tony says. “I even have candles.”

“I think I have whiplash,” Steve says but serves himself some of the lasagna and the antipasto.

“This is me, this is how my life is,” Tony says. He accepts the slice of lasagna but dishes out his own eggplant.

“Kind of ADD, if you ask me,” Steve says.

“A little, but-.” Tony tastes the food and it is divine. If there is one thing Tony will stop for, it is food from Bella Donna’s. “I don’t want to lose you, and I keep feeling like we’re walking on a tightrope.”

“A tightrope? Steve says.

“Yeah, like you and I are good for a bit and then life intrudes and everything falls apart,” Tony says. “And I don’t want that.”

In the soft amber light, Steve’s eyes look more green than blue, but his smile still touches on an innocence that shouldn’t be there for someone who has seen such horrors as war.

“I’m impatient, and I’ve been pussy footing around this in my head for too long, letting everything and everybody get in the way,” Tony says.

“This?”

Tony understands that Steve knows what he’s talking about, that he’s testing the waters just as much as Tony is. “Yeah, us.”

Steve does that little head bow and the pursing of his lips into a small smile that sets Tony into a tailspin of desire.

“I want to know if you’re interested, and if you are interested, I want to start this thing, right here, right now.”

“What about our date?”

“Consider this a prelude to our date,” Tony says and tastes the wine he’d poured. It isn’t the best, but it is a light chardonnay.

“I’d like that,” Steve says. “And not just because-.” He stops and then re-negotiates what he was going to say to start again. “When I went to the Army, I didn’t want to kill people.”

Tony starts to open his mouth to protest, to tell him he understands that now, but Steve pre-empts him and says, “I get it that lots of people think that’s what you do in the Army. You learn to defend, and you learn to kill. I joined the army to defend the little guy because I don’t like bullies. I was lucky, what I trained to do, what my unit did, we focused exactly on what I always wanted to do. Save the people who couldn’t save themselves.”

“I don’t-.” Tony starts because he doesn’t know where this is going, or how it relates to their date.

“I want to tell you this because you told me about your experiences, I want to share with you how this happened to me,” Steve says. “I’ve talked a little about it with the Bruce, a bit with Peggy, but never with someone I care this much about. I think it’s only fair for you to understand what you’re dealing with.”

“I think I know what I’m dealing with, you forget I was there when you were still in a coma,” Tony says.

“But you weren’t there when we were surrounded in Kandahar province, near the border with Pakistan. It’s one of the riskiest places; back in 2010 before any of this happened, the city of Kandahar was known as assassination city. Every side took a lot of casualties. But if you’re going to win the war you can’t leave out parts of the country. There was significant revitalization going on in the south, and we did a lot of the patrols for the building and the schools while at the same time we went in and saved hostages taken by the opposing side, mainly financed and enforced by the Taliban.” Steve speaks in low tones; he slowly flips over his fork again and again as he talks.

“We were called up on this mission to rescue some hostage, some high ranking hostage; we didn’t even have his real name, just his code name.” Steve’s hand begins to tremble as he speaks but he doesn’t stop. “The site was hot, highly militarized and weaponized. Not only did it include a camp for the terrorists, but it also served as a training area. It crossed borders, and messengers from the Taliban holed up in the Pakistani mountains would filter through there. It would be our toughest mission.”

“Sounds like a suicide mission to me,” Tony says even as he tries to swallow the wine and the memories starting to rise to the surface.

“Dum Dum thought so too. He was certain we were going in to do the first strike, try and see what they had before the real mission would come in and do the job,” Steve says. “I don’t know, I just did the job. We parachuted in before dawn. Our ride back would be three miles outside the gates. So we had to get in, get the hostage, and get out, and then meet up with our evac outside.”

“It meant you needed to fight your way out.”

“We didn’t get that far,” Steve says, then reconsiders. “I suppose we did. In some ways. They parachuted us in, but we were spotted almost instantly. The intel we were working with was wrong. They were a lot more high tech, like someone was supplying them with surveillance equipment and weapons they shouldn’t have. We didn’t make it to the hostage before we took heavy fire. Bucky went down first.”

Steve pushes his nearly full plate away. “I tried to catch him, but he fell from the side of the wall. The gun fire felt like damned hail, it was so thick. My commandos told me not to go after him. I called evac, I told the rest of the team to disengage and get the hell out, but I wasn’t leaving Bucky.”

He reaches for Tony’s wine (since he doesn’t have any) and downs it. Tony raises his eyebrows but doesn’t say anything. He just pulls out a glass for Steve and fills up their glasses.

“I went in, scaled down the wall, took a glancing hit to the head.” He taps his temple on the side where he has the scar hidden by his hair. “That kind of knocked me for a loop, but I got there, got Bucky. His arm was shattered and his backpack was torn. I took it off and we had to make it through to get out. That’s when they set the burn pits on fire. Luckily, I still had my gas mask, and I made Bucky put it on while we huddled behind a wall of one of the shacks. He was out of his mind in pain.

“We had only one choice, we had to make it through the front door. Really not my finest hour. I got hit a few more times, took a lung full of the pit smoke. I think I went into some crazy fighting zone or something because I just went for it. I threw things at them when my ammo ran out. We were pinned down, but, thank god Gabe got the damned copter pilot to come in closer. Otherwise we would have been dead.” He chuckles a bit. “You know Bucky said at the end I even tried to go back for our target. Our hostage.” He shakes his head. “I don’t remember too much about it, the last parts anyway. They say I’ll probably never regain the memories. Bucky supplied most of the info I have anyway. Most of what I remember is really just chopped up images and feelings.”

“Did the hostage ever get out?” Tony says.

Steve lifts a shoulder. “Don’t know, no one ever told me. I didn’t even know his real name. All I knew was his code name. You never -.”

“You never use real names in a hostage situation, I know. When I was embedded I had to pick a code name that any rescuer would use to identify me – so a terrorist couldn’t pretend to be me,” Tony says.

“Yeah, I don’t know if Iron Man ever made it out or not,” Steve says.

Tony stops breathing; he stops the act of breathing. He cannot physically take a breath since his diaphragm freezes in place. He tries to swallow but that’s impossible as well. He cannot get the words out to ask, to say Iron Man? Because it was his pseudonym, it was his code name. He used it as a joke but then he latched onto it as a quiet unspoken scream out to the world to tell everyone he survived. He keeps using it as his tag line, he yelled it in von Doom’s face. He used it as a call name to the reporters asking him who he was. He’s a survivor, he’s iron man.

He’s the reason Steve was wounded.

He comes to his senses, if only for a moment. It can’t be right, the time line isn’t right. Is it? “You were injured when?”

“We went in about a year ago, right around Christmas time, last year. I think that’s right. Time’s still a little fuzzy in my head,” Steve says.

“Christmas time,” Tony says and he knows he’s right, but he stumbles up to his feet and pats his pockets for his phone. His heart skips and dances in his chest and sweat lines his temples. “I have to, I have to make a phone call.”

“What?” Steve says as Tony rounds the table and staggers his way into the kitchen, ignoring Steve’s calls.

He presses the buttons and hopes to hell he can get through. He does. “Rhodey?”

“Hey buddy? Haven’t heard from you in forever. I’m State side for leave, we should get together, how’s it going?”

“Were you the first team to go in and rescue me, Rhodey? Were you the first?” He can barely hang onto the phone since his hand quakes.

“What?”

“Were you the first, I thought you were the first to attempt a rescue?” Tony squeezes his eyes shut and tries not to remember the dark cave, the fortress around him, and the mountains in the distance of Pakistan. “God damn it, Rhodey, tell me if you were the first strike team to go in for the rescue or not.”

“No,” Rhodey says. “I shouldn’t be telling you this, I’m gonna get in a crap load of trouble, but they sent in another team earlier. There was a lot of flak because they didn’t have any decent recon. Team took casualties and the leader, Captain Rogers, ended up severely injured.”

Tony clasps a hand over his eyes. “Oh Jesus, oh Christ.” He drops the phone and can hear Rhodey asking him to answer. He can’t; all he can see are the shadows of the cave, the men hitting him, trying to fucking kill him before the rescue occurs. He remembers calling out, and somehow breaking free. In the confusion he fled and the fire around him, the gun fire and the smoke and the dying men and women all collide in his brain like some kind of obscene kaleidoscope – but it isn’t colors mixing and changing but lives and deaths.

He fumbles around, picks up the phone. Mumbles something into it, he’s sure, and disconnects. He searches around the kitchen, he isn’t seeing anything here, and he only glimpses flashes of that time before, the world in which he lived for three months – forever.

He hears something on the periphery of his world and he starts to spin around. Steve stands there, leaning heavily on his walker and asking Tony what’s wrong. But he can’t hear him, not truly. All he can hear is the bitter sound of the monitors that had been hooked up to Steve.

Steve moves forward and Tony steps back. He doesn’t want him anywhere near him. He knows he’s at fault. He wanted to prove everyone wrong, he wanted to show the damned world how Tony Stark was right and his fucking father with his war machine company had always been wrong. But look what that did?

“Look,” he whimpers.

“Tony?”

“No, no,” Tony says, and he realizes he should leave. Steve doesn’t need him in his life; Steve has had enough of Tony Stark in his life. “I have to- I have to go.”

“Captain Rogers, Sir seems to be suffering a panic attack.”

“I got that one, thanks JARVIS,” Steve says and turns back to Tony. “Can you tell me what happened? Tony, can you-.”

“I have to leave,” Tony says, and it becomes as necessary as breathing to him to get the hell out of the house and out of sight of Steve. He tries to push past Steve, but the soldier grabs him and hauls him to a stop. He’s too strong for his own good, a testament to just how much of a super soldier Captain Rogers must truly be. “I have to leave.”

“I heard you the first time,” Steve says and Tony can feel his fingers dig into his bicep. “What the hell happened, Tony? Did I say something to upset you?”

“Upset me? Say something? Shit, why would I be upset because of a war story?” Tony scoffs and tries to yank free but he fails. “A little story about death and near death. Oh, and I loved the part with all the injuries and the burn pits, that was a nice touch.”

“What?” Steve says and he looks hurt as if Tony is accusing him of lying, fabricating what happened to him.

“That was a great story, a fabulous story, you could sell it, make a million bucks,” Tony laughs and he knows he sounds more than slightly hysterical. “In fact, I could get you in touch with my publicist, if she’s even talking to me anymore. She could get you a deal with one of the big publishing houses; probably even sell the movie rights.”

“Tony, what?” The hurt grows on Steve’s face; his grip on Tony’s arm slackens until Tony’s able to jerk away from him. The action tilts Steve dangerously since he was holding onto Tony with his left hand and balancing all of his weight on his right side. He adjusts and latches onto the walker. “What the hell? Tony, I don’t want that, I just wanted to tell you about what happened to me so you’d be prepared, so you’d understand.”

“Well, maybe the poor little rich boy’s heard enough sob stories-.”

“Sob story, Tony?” Steve asks.

“Yeah, you want to hear a good fucking sob story, you want to hear a god damned joke of a sob story?” Tony hisses. “Poor little rich boy goes off on a crusade to crucify his father and ends up in some dark cave in the middle of butt fuck nowhere. The god damned terrorists get off; they get fucking off from beating the poor little rich boy. How’s that for a sob story for you, but it gets better, so much better.

“Because the damned rich boy he sits in the dark and get abused and threatened every day, they don’t give him anything, not a fucking thing so that he can fashion any kind of tool or weapon. He sits alone in a cave for three months, but you know what- here’s the grand part, here’s the part that is fucking ironic, he was nearly saved, two months into his ordeal. He was nearly saved in time for god damned Christmas last year-.”

“Tony?” It hits Steve in slow degrees, but Tony can see he’s trying to deny what Tony is saying.

“You want to know the best part, the absolute perfect part of this?” Tony says and he throws it out like it is a challenge.

“What, Tony, what?” Steve says and there are tears in his eyes.

“The perfect part is I- yes, I am Iron Man,” Tony says and the weight of his confession feels like it lifts off of him and at the same time it crushes him. “I’m Iron Man, it was me you came after, it was me that left you the way you are, it was me who’s responsible for your coma, the bullet to your head. It was me who ruined your lungs. Me, I am Iron Man, and I fucking tried to kill Captain America.”

Steve stands there, teetering and swaying a little after the onslaught. He opens his mouth as if he might speak, but closes it with not even an utterance of sound. Steve grasps the door frame and blinks as if he’s trying to clear the words from his memory.

After the outburst, the pain and the honesty boiled over and burnt out, Tony can hardly keep upright. He needs to get out of the house now, he needs to escape. Yet, suddenly, Steve’s hand is on his arm again and when he goes to lash out, there’s a look in Steve’s eyes which stops him, which implores him to listen.

“I need,” Steve says and Tony can tell his mouth is dry because of the hoarseness. “I need you to help me sit down, help me to a chair.”

Tony does a little stuttered step, but realizes he has to help Steve. He’ll leave right after he gets Steve in the chair. It doesn’t take much to guide him to the dining room table and situate him in the chair, but then Steve asks for a cup of tea. Tony does a double take but mutters an okay. What else can he do? He busies himself in the kitchen, all the time confused and angry but the fury burns off and he’s serving Steve the tea only to have him ask for help getting back up to his room.

Tony frowns but goes ahead and helps him. By the time he has Steve upstairs in his room, he’s asking for his meal to be brought up to him as well. Tony nearly protests that he’s not a servant but stops, knowing he owes Steve so much more than a few little favors along the way. It is an hour later when Steve is resting in his cushioned chair and Tony is sitting across from him with a cup of coffee in his hand, his steady hand.

“How’d you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Calm me down, get me to stay?”

Steve taps his temple and says, “The man with the plan, the man with the plan.”

For not the first time, Tony admits that he’s a better person with Steve in his life, and because Steve is in his life. “It was me; I was the hostage you went in after.”

“Yeah, I got that.” Steve stares down at the cup he has in his hand, the cold tea Tony made him over an hour ago. “None of what happened was your fault, none of it. And I wish we had been able to save you, extract you, Tony. I wish it hadn’t all gone to hell.”

“It did go there, didn’t it?” Tony says.

“Yeah, it went there and we went with it,” Steve says and places his tea along with his untouched food on the table. “But we’re back and that’s what matters.”

“Yeah.” Tony wants to believe it.

“I’m sorry my story brought back the memories for you,” Steve says. He folds his hands and leans forward toward Tony.

“No, don’t be. You needed to know just as much as I needed to know. I’m fucked up. What they did-.” Tony stops because he really hates to think of it, he hates to consider what Stane paid them to do, and what they did just for the pure sadistic enjoyment of it. “I guess I survived.” He still doesn’t know.

Steve stretches out to grasp Tony’s knee. “You did, and you’re not fucked up. You saved me. What would have happened if you hadn’t been there for me? If you hadn’t found a way to communicate with me?” He glances up at the medallion in the center of the room, adorning the light fixture. “What would I have done?”

“There would have been others,” Tony says.

“But they wouldn’t have been you.” Steve slowly melts to the floor, on his knees at Tony’s feet. “I want this holiday, this new year to be different for us, for both of us.”

As he gazes at Steve, on his knees, holding onto Tony’s legs to keep upright, the rest of the room funnels away until the only thing he can see is Steve. The only thing that is important in the world is Steve. When they kiss it isn’t tentative or with any askance but bolder, brighter, and hungrier than before. The kiss shreds away the shackles of the memory, discards it, and destroys it. He plunges deeper and wholly into the kiss, not holding back, not hiding anything because if there is one thing Tony knows how to do is to hide his feelings, conceal them tightly away. But this man before him, this man in his arms, balanced and braced against him means so much, expands so much of Tony’s soul he cannot deny him.

“Tony, Tony,” Steve whispers into his mouth.

Words don’t come to him, fail him, and he touches his forehead to Steve and pants.

“Promise me,” Steve says.

“Anything.” Tony finds his voice.

“Good,” Steve says and seeks out Tony’s lips again. The kiss is complete and encompassing, it steals Tony’s breath and clenches deep in his groin and all he wants to do is grab hold of Steve and strip him bare.

Before he does something he’ll regret, Tony pulls away and says, “Good?”

Steve smiles and says, “Yeah, good.”

“I just promised you anything, didn’t I?”

“Sure did,” Steve says and does these little fluttering kisses up and down Tony’s cheek line and then to his eyes.

“Should I be worried?”

Steve looks at him and says, “Should you be?”

Tony smirks. “Maybe I should.”

“Maybe,” Steve says and then grimaces. “But maybe you could help me back up into the chair; my leg is starting to cramp.”

“Oh,” Tony says and feels like an ass. He joins Steve on the floor, and then slides his shoulder under his right arm to help lift him to the chair. When he deposits Steve in the seat there’s an audible sigh and Steve rests back into the cushions. “You okay.”

“Yeah, just, tired. Been a tough day,” Steve murmurs as he closes his eyes.

“Don’t go to sleep there, you’ll get a kink in your neck,” Tony says and slips onto the arm of the chair.

“Tired,” Steve says and scoots to the side. “Sit with me?”

“This is hardly a two ass chair.”

Steve giggles a little and says, “That’s the point, Tony.”

“Oh,” Tony says and finds his way onto the chair, half on Steve’s lap. “Is this okay?”

Steve murmurs his assent. His eyes drift closed.

“Today, really did take a lot out of you?” Tony says, noting it is just after eight in the evening.

“A bit, yeah. Emotions are still hard to process.”

“You said, you said you were hit, shot in other places?” Tony says and tries to remember if he saw the scars.

“Yeah, right leg, left arm, according to Bucky,” Steve says but doesn’t open his eyes. He curls his arms around Tony and lays his head on Tony’s shoulder. “Don’t really remember it.”

“Right leg?”

“Hmm, yeah, part of the problem with the rehab.” Steve stops and he tucks in closer to Tony.

Tony’s heart sinks a little more. “Does Natasha think you’ll-.” He can’t finish the sentence.

Steve peeks open an eye and says, “Don’t be that way. It isn’t anyone’s fault.” He corrects. “That’s not true; it’s definitely fault of the guys who shot me. But Natasha doesn’t know. I’m lucky my muscles didn’t waste while I was out. Everyone thinks I should be in much worse shape.”

“Much worse,” Tony mutters.

Steve kisses his temple and says, “Shush, let me hold you while I rest.”

Tony doesn’t know if he deserves it, but he allows it because it is the least he can do. He realizes then, that he will allow anything for Steve. His promise isn’t a lie, but a truth that’s set in his very bones.

*oOo*
Eventually they find their way to bed and, when Tony wakes the next morning, he realizes it is the first time since he was a child he ever slept with someone and it didn’t involve sex. He looks over at Steve, who is still sleeping, and while his mind lingers on the idea of sex and the physicality of their relationship, he cannot stop himself from just admiring Steve in restful repose. He witnessed Steve in a comatose state, but on the edge of that state always loitered the idea of loss. Now, there’s something safe and precious about Steve in slumber’s cradle.

He reaches out but just as he does his phone on the table near the bed buzzes. He frowns and considers not picking up, but then Steve’s words ring in his head. How Pepper runs herself ragged for him, for little compensation, but his snarkiness in return. Stretching over he retrieves the phone, sees it is indeed Pepper, and jumps out of bed. He slips out into the hallway so he doesn’t disturb Steve.

“Hey, Pep, how’s it going?”

“Tony, you need to be here in an hour, there’s big news. We’re going to close this whole thing down,” she says and sounds out of breath.

“What? What thing?”

“The whole case, Tony, they don’t have a leg to stand on,” Pepper says. “I found a file.”

“A file?” Tony says.

“Yes, not only were there files of Stane’s relationship with the terrorists who held you, but there are files on Stane’s relationship with Justin Hammer.”

“Hammer? Wasn’t he some hot shot attorney that Howard hired right before he died?” Tony says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Stane and Hammer knew one another. Stane was Howard’s right hand man for years.”

“But would you be surprised to know that your father filed a different Will with Hammer?”

“What?” Tony says and nearly drops the phone. He lowers his voice and says, “What?”

“There is evidence of impropriety and fraud, Tony. They are going to open the Will today in one hour,” Pepper says.

“Today?” Tony says. “Shit, I’ll be there. Pepper, you know I love you, right.”

“Just like I love you. I’m sending Happy over to get you,” she replies.

“Your boyfriend? I don’t need your boyfriend to chauffer me around,” Tony says.

“Yes, you do, you need a bodyguard, Tony, especially if you are going to walk out of the judge’s chambers a billionaire.”

He does drop the phone that time and, as he bends to pick it up, he hears a shuffling and looks over to the doorway to Steve’s room. He has the walker but no shirt on and his sleeping pants are slung low on his hips. He’s every inch Adonis personified. Tony licks his lips and swallows as he hears Pepper calling for him.

“Tony?” Steve says and rubs some sleep from his eyes.

Tony scoops up the phone and says, “Pep, send him. I’m at the rehab center over in Brooklyn. Can you-.”

“He’ll have a suit ready for you,” Pepper says. “See you in a bit.”

“Take care,” Tony says and clicks the connection off. For a second, he cannot concentrate; his head reels with the news and the possibilities. His focus comes to rest on Steve, and his stuttering heart calms and he smiles. “Hey, I gotta go.”

“I figured,” Steve says but it has no resentment in it. “Can’t sit around all day and just hang out, huh?”

“Not today, not today,” Tony says and claps. “But very soon, sweetheart, very soon.”

“Sweetheart?” Steve says and smiles.

It is the one that causes Tony’s heart to thaw and turn into a puddle. He crosses the space between them and his energy cannot be contained. Everything is changing and everything will be different after today. He knows it, but he doesn’t want his hold on Steve, on this thing developing between them to fray or fly apart.

“There’s a chance everything is going to change, and for the good, Steve, for the good,” Tony says and can’t help but snicker. “I cannot wait to tell you, but I’m going to. Don’t want to jinx it or anything.”

“Well, I won’t ask then,” Steve says as Tony goes back into Steve’s room to get his shirt. He’d slept in his boxers and t-shirt last night – and wasn’t that an adventure considering the freaking hard on he had to deal with half of the night because of Captain Rogers.

He tugs on his pants and shirt, buttoning and zipping as he goes. “Happy will be here soon.”

“Happy, you’re going to be happy soon?”

“No, no, Happy Hogan, a person, and Pepper’s boyfriend.”

“Pepper has a boyfriend?” Steve says as Tony races around the room, going to the bathroom, and grabbing Steve’s toothbrush.

“Do you mind, of course, you don’t mind,” Tony says and smears some toothpaste on it before he hears the groan of protest from Steve. As he brushes he sputters out, “I’ll buy you a new one, ten new ones.”

He spits as Steve screws up his face and leaves the bathroom. Tony splashes some water on his face and fingers it through his hair. It looks a mess when he checks it in the mirror, but his goatee and mustache are still okay. A little scruffy but he can do scruffy.

Tony finishes up and enters the bedroom again. Steve settles in near the console where he has the desk pulled out from the cubby and a load of papers strewn over the surface. He’d like to know what Steve is up to, but he doesn’t have the time.

He leans down and kisses Steve’s jaw. “I’ll be back tonight, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve says and turns to face him. The wide open expression, the earnest look eat away at Tony’s heart and he fumbles a bit.

“I promise, I just have to go do some business,” Tony says.

“Good, good,” Steve says. “I’m okay, I swear it, go.”

Tony nods and goes to the door. As he opens it, he turns and peers over his shoulder to say, “Be back tonight, sweetheart.”

“See you,” Steve says with a wave.

It pops out of his mouth before he can stop it, before his head can catch up with his mouth, “Love you.”

Steve stops what he’s doing and opens his mouth to reply but Tony halts him. “See you, okay, bye.”

Cursing himself, Tony jogs down the steps and whispers, “Where the fuck did that come from?” He grabs his coat and is out the door before he can make any more of a mess of things. As luck would have it, Happy is sitting right outside and Tony concludes that Pepper already knew where he was thanks to JARVIS. He both loves and despises his A.I..

“Hey boss, your suit is in the back,” Happy says as Tony climbs in the car.

“I’m not your boss, Happy,” Tony says as he starts to unbutton his shirt.

“That’s not what Pepper told me,” Happy says with a satisfied look on his face. “I’ve been in security for fifteen years now; I can send you my resume.”

“I’m not sure I need security.”

“That’s not what Pepper told me,” Happy says and sniggers.

He’s not so certain he wants to have a guard who actively finds his state of confusion laughable. But then he should probably take a page out of Happy’s book and just trust in what Pepper says. “In Pepper we trust.”

“Whatever you say, boss,” Happy says as he pulls away from the curb and looks in the rearview mirror as Tony shrugs on the pressed shirt.

It takes some finagling to get into his pants and jacket, but as he’s finishing the double knot for his tie, Happy pulls up to the court parking garage and Tony squints in the dark underground lot.

“Where exactly are we going?”

“Pepper said you have a meeting on the fourth floor, boss. Said you would know?”

“The mediation room,” Tony says and looks around. Shit, he doesn’t have his sunglasses, how can he make a proper entrance without his shades.

As Happy parks the car, he flips something over the seat and says, “Looking for these?”

“Ah,” Tony says with a smile. “Thank you.” His sunglasses, how does Pepper always know?

“In Pepper we trust, right, boss?”

Tony grabs the shades, opens the door, and before he leaves the car leans back in and says, “Thanks, Happy.”

“You want I come along?”

“No, I’ll have Pepper call you if we need you, okay?”

“Sure thing,” Happy says and he’s already concentrating on his smart phone, playing with it while muttering.

Tony makes his way to the elevator, waits impatiently for it, gets on, and presses the button for the fourth floor. Pepper had mentioned a judge’s chambers, but he doubts a judge will be brought in right away, but he isn’t sure. As he exits the elevator, his phone buzzes and he checks it to see a text from Steve.

Good luck.

He smiles, and he tries not to admit to himself how very warm and happy he is just to receive a simple two words from Steve. He stands in line for the security check, gets his visitors pass, and then finds his way to the mediation room. Pepper stands outside the room and meets him with a quick peck to his cheek.

“We don’t have much time; we have to meet the judge upstairs.”

“Judge?”

She strides away and he still thinks there must be some laws of gravity she breaks with the fact she never topples over on those stiletto heels she wears. When they arrive at the designated chambers, his new attorney Charles Xavier is there waiting in his wheelchair with a self-satisfied look on his face.

“Mister Stark,” Xavier greets him. “I believe today will change your future, and, perhaps, change your perception of your past.”

Tony frowns at that, he’s never been one hundred percent on board with Xavier, since the attorney likes to announce sweeping generalizations, yet he does have a tendency to make predictions that turn into gold. Seriously, the man could play the horses and come out on top, Tony swears.

“Not sure my past perceptions are in question here.”

“We will see, Mister Stark, we will see.”

They are called into the chambers after that and Tony is confronted not only by Justin Hammer, but also Obadiah Stane, in his prison orange. Later, when Tony thinks back on the moments, he probably could have reacted better. Calling Stane a sniveling bastard, a fucking traitor, wasn’t the best thing he could have done. But it happened, and he isn’t ashamed of it. Even though the judge tolerates his tirade, she quickly gets tired of it, and tells him to pipe down, sit down, and listen.

The evidence is irrefutable. It helps that Stane offers evidence and his own version of the story. Hammer has a lawyer present and keeps denying everything. The judge calls for an investigation and Hammer is escorted out under guard. After further discussion regarding the evidence which also includes video from his father which Tony tries not to pay too much attention, but is riveted. Howard, who stands in front of the weird ass model city, tells Tony that he is bequeathing his entire estate to him.

He rambles on and, at one point, he states that Tony is his greatest creation which strikes a chord with him since Banner cautioned against allowing his father to define Tony and his life. But this, this is different. Howard speaks of his notebooks, how he’s limited not only by his time, but also by his knowledge. He believes Tony’s brilliance is beyond him, beyond everything and everyone. What Tony will do for the world, Howard cannot guess and he believes Tony will redeem every mistake and error Howard has committed in his lifetime.

Once the recording completes, Stane confesses that yes, the entire estate was to go to Tony, that Hammer and Stane worked together to instate a Trust that would be so convoluted in its rules that Tony would never be able to inherit the funds. The money would stay in the hands of the Trust with Stane as the chair and also the CEO of the company.

A debate breaks out with all the attorneys in the room on whether or not the entire board of the Trust was in on the deal as well. The judge decides more investigations are due and orders it. In the end, five and a half hours later, Tony is awarded the entirety of Howard Stark’s estate. There’s still paperwork and documents to be filed. It will take months to actually clean up all the legal mess, but Tony leaves the courthouse a billionaire.

“How does it feel?” Pepper asks as they descend in the elevator. Xavier stayed behind with the rest of the attorneys to work out the legalities of the final judgment.

“Feel? Feels like justice, feels like I deserved it.”

She raises an eyebrow at him, gives him that Pepper-lookm.

He lifts both shoulders and says, “I don’t – it feels weird. I’ve been fighting this since Howard died, since before Afghanistan. Now this little file you found along with Stane’s confession, we find out Hammer was in Stane’s pocket all along. It seems too convenient. I feel like I should be waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“It isn’t convenient, Xavier is an excellent lawyer. He seemed to know where to dig, to look for more under the surface.”

“And Richards is a dick. How the hell could he have missed everything?” Tony says, and still doesn’t trust him even though Xavier assured Tony that Richards wasn’t a player in the entire scheme.

“Well, he didn’t miss everything, he’s the one who mentioned how your father made all the recordings before he died,” Pepper says. “But we all thought he was stretching the truth.”

“He likes to stretch crap, we all know that,” Tony says. “But really this is amazing, truly. I can’t. Pep, how would I do this without you?”

She gives him a smug little smile and says, “You wouldn’t?”

“You got that right,” he says and taps his index finger to her nose. “I love you, you know that?”

“I love you, too,” she says. “Now, you’ll have more responsibilities, so I hope this isn’t your way of getting out of them.”

“What? I would never-.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” she says as the elevator opens and they exit to the parking garage.

He leads the way to the car only to find Happy snoozing in the front seat. “Difficult job your boyfriend has.”

“Saving your ass,” she says.

“Really?”

“He keeps me happy so by association he saves your ass every day.”

He surrenders. “Concede to that point.”

As Happy jolts awake and unlocks the doors, they both slide into the car with Pepper in the front seat. “We should consider making appointments with Stark Industries’ board of directors. You should be ready to deal with the press and media outlets. Once the decision gets out, it isn’t going to be pretty.”

While she talks, Tony pulls out his phone and checks for messages. There are a few miscellaneous texts but also several phone calls. Two are from bill collectors which he just snickers at, and three are from Barton. He considers them and then holds up the phone to listen to his voice mail.

He holds up a finger to quiet Pepper as she looks back at him.

Stark, there’s bad news over here. Steve is taking it hard. Can you give us a call as soon as you’re free?

What the hell? Tony checks the date just to make sure Barton isn’t referring to the old news that Thor is vacating the house. But no, it came in today. He checks the second message.

Barton here again, Stark. Steve said you were in some business meeting, or something and not to call you, but he needs someone here other than me and Nat. Banner talked with him for a couple of hours and we think it helped, but this is life changing for him. We need someone here that will ground him, tell him it’s all worth it. Fuck it, Stark, get your god damned ass over here and help him.

Leaning forward, he grasps the front seat and says, “Happy, take me back to the house in Brooklyn.”

“Tony, we really should make an app-.”

“No, there’s something wrong with Steve,” Tony says. The swing from elated to concerned causes a near sensation of dizziness to turn over in his stomach and he swallows back bile.

“Steve?” Pepper furrows her brows but says, “Bring Tony back to the house in Brooklyn, I’ll deal with the media outlets.”

“I love you, Pepper.”

“Hey,” Happy says and peers at Tony through the rearview mirror.

“No harm, big boy, no harm,” Tony says and settles back in the seat. He texts a message to Clint but doesn’t get an answer, then he tries Steve’s phone – opting to call him instead. No answer and it goes straight to voice mail. He curses, and tries the house phone but only ends up with the answering machine. He connects through to JARVIS. “Tell me what’s going on JARVIS?”

“From Ms. Potts information, I would gather a congratulatory celebration should be in order, sir.”

“No, no, at the house with Steve?”

“I’m sorry, sir, I am not at liberty to discuss Captain Rogers’ state at this time.”

“What?”

“According to your protocol installed for protections of personal information at the rehabilitation center any personal or health information that the house staff or the patient deems secure and personal I am not able to share without express permission,” JARVIS reports.

Tony mutters and curses to himself. He can’t remember programming that, but it is possible. Barton and Coulson were adamant about privacy issues when he installed JARVIS in the house. He huffs a little and says, “Can you tell me if Steve is injured in anyway?”

“Captain Rogers is physically the same as he was this morning, sir.”

Tony deflates a degree and releases the breath he held. At least, Steve didn’t take a header down the stairs again. It just means it is something subtler, more difficult to manage though. It means he has to use those interpersonal skills that he always feels fits like a coat from when he was a child. Too snug and too out of date. He never learned enough interpersonal crap to deal with the subtler stuff. He just knows the big picture.

Considering Pepper, he says, “So, how come I can never tell when you’re on your period?”

“What?” Pepper yelps and Happy jerks the wheel a little. Another car screams its horn at them. “Tony, what kind of question is that?”

“I don’t know; I’m just trying to figure out emotions and crap like that, and you seem to always have them under control or at least to a fine degree of management. I figured being on the ra-.”

“Do not say being on the rag, that is disgusting and rude,” Pepper says.

“Okay, so is it a tampon, do I say being on the rocket because that just seems like all kinds of wrong.”

“Listen, this entire conversation is wrong,” Pepper says.

“Is it?” Tony slumps down in the seat. He can never anticipate what’s completely inappropriate and what’s sane, and fine to discuss. It seems to change by the day and, sometimes, by the hour. “Okay, fine, but what is it, how do you deal with you know, trauma.”

“I have you in my life, Tony. I deal with trauma and drama every day. You get used to it.”

“This is not helping at all,” Tony says and scratches at the scruff of his beard. He’s wrong, he really does need to trim it. “How much longer?”

“We’re almost there, boss,” Happy says.

“Stop calling me that, I am not your boss.”

“I just hired him, and you’ll get the paperwork soon to sign off. He’ll be your main bodyguard,” Pepper says.

“I don’t even know his experience, this is ridiculous,” Tony says. “I don’t need a bodyguard; I’ve been to a war zone.”

Pepper turns and looks at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Okay that didn’t turn out too well,” Tony says and concedes by shutting up. He thinks Pepper runs roughshod over his life, but she tends to build his life in better ways so he shouldn’t complain.

In a little over forty minutes they drive up to the house. Tony tried to phone a few more times and just ended up dumped in voice mail. He jumps out of the car, and both Pepper and Happy seem content to wait on him.

“Don’t wait, I might be here a while.”

“Happy will wait, I’ll take your car,” Pepper says and sticks her hand out for his keys.

“What?”

“I’ll be here, boss.”

He throws the keys to his crappy Audi at Pepper and shakes his head. “I might not come out for days.”

“I’ll be here, boss,” Happy repeats.

He sighs, he thinks he is not getting rid of that encumbrance soon enough. He glares at Pepper before he goes to the brownstone and climbs the steps to the door. Opening it without knocking, he lets himself in and searches around. The place is quiet, but he hears someone talking in the office. He heads there and finds Barton with his ear to the phone and his hand in his hair. He looks worn thin. When he notices Tony standing at the entrance to the office, he quickly finishes up and disconnects the call.

“Where the hell have you been?”

“At a meeting, Steve knew. What the hell Barton, no need to shoot me,” Tony says, and to think just an hour ago he was floating on the moon. He doesn’t need Barton’s crap. “What’s up?”

“Fury and Phillips-.”

“Phillips?”

“Colonel of Steve’s unit,” Barton says. “Anyway can I finish? Fury and Phillips came over and told Steve the Army was going to give him a medical discharge.”

“A medical discharge?” Tony shrugs. “So? Wasn’t that expected?”

“Can you grow a freaking heart or something, Stark? The kid has been dreaming of being in the army like his dad all his life. He’s one of the most decorated heroes of the war, and he’s still recovering from a fairly vicious and horrible injury. Having his one dream-.”

“Taken away leaves him with nothing,” Tony says and looks into the darkened hallway where the stairs lead up to Steve’s room. “Damn it.”

“You got that right,” Barton says. “I’ve been on the phone trying to work the whole fiasco, and Bucky went back to discuss things with Phillips. I don’t think they’ll get anywhere. The board made the determination and it’s kind of difficult to get them to change their minds.”

“How is he?”

“Taking it like someone killed his puppy, how do you think he is Stark?”

Tony nods. He steps into the hall, letting the shadows take him and his thoughts are swallowed by it. He’d been so pleased and excited to tell Steve the news. How everything changed and how everything would change for them. It occurs to him then that he has an out for Steve; for fuck’s sake he’s a god damned billionaire. He can take care of anything Steve needs or wants.

Of course, Steve has no idea about the outcome of his meeting. He raises a hand to Barton and says, “Let me handle this.”

Barton mutters, “I was afraid you were going to say that.” But Tony ignores it and ascends the staircase to find Steve.

The sight of Steve surprises him. The balcony doors are open and the cold wind from late December sweeps in. Steve is in the wheelchair, and he’s out on the balcony with only a long sleeved t-shirt and his workout pants. It looks like he had been in the workout room because there are sweat stains along the center of his back that Tony can just glimpse. He must be freezing.

“Steve?”

He stays put, not moving, not answering Tony. The wind whips in and the papers on the console flutter about spreading over the floor like discarded dreams. He catches sight of a few drawings that are rudimentary at best. He’s not sure what some of the more official documents say, but he’s certain it has to do with Steve’s medical separation from a job he loved, still loves.

“Steve?” Tony tugs his coat closed and joins Steve on the balcony. One of the documents flitters by Tony’s feet, and he bends to pick it up. It describes Steve’s bravery, his repeated heroism, but what does it matter when fate has ended what he loved. Tony reaches out and touches Steve’s hand. It is ice cold, like he’s turned to ice. “Steve, let’s go inside now. You’re freezing.”

When he meets Steve’s gaze he only sees pools, icy waters in his eyes reflected back. His face is pale, drained of all color, and Tony wonders how long Steve has actually been out on the balcony, sitting in the frigid air, allowing the cold to eat into his bones.

“Steve, you need to get inside, before you get sick. It’s too cold to sit here with-.”

“Too cold,” Steve says and there’s bitterness in those two words. “Sometimes, sometimes I feel like I’m in the ice, like it’s captured me, like I drove a plane into the Arctic Ocean because it’s swallowed me up and caught me, netted me like a fish. I’m frozen and cold and there’s no way out. Because I can’t use my strength, can’t use my training, can’t use my brain to get out of the damned chair. I’m stuck here, I’m frozen and the ice won, Tony. The ice won.”

His words throw Tony back to the dream, the nightmare he had about Steve being covered in ice, being a prisoner of the ice. It was so many months ago, Tony cannot remember why or how he had the dream; he only remembers the terror of it. Without preamble, Tony grabs the handles of the wheelchair and steers it back in, even as Steve attempts to force him to stop. He doesn’t know where he gets the strength but he shoves the chair indoors, flings the balcony doors shut, and locks them or good measure.

“What the fuck are you trying to do, get sick or better yet, kill yourself? Should I call in Banner again?”
He never expected to be this angry, to feel this fury of frustration and rage pent up inside of him. He releases it all, right now with Steve. He’s held most of it in check for months during the fight for his money and now it overflows like lava from a long dormant volcano. “What the fuck? I leave you and you can’t deal with a little bad news for an afternoon?”

“A little bad news?” Steve says and his lips are tinged with the slightest blue color.

How the fuck long was he sitting on the damned porch?

“Yes, it is bad news,” Tony corrects. He absolutely hates doing this, he’s bad at it. Pepper should have confessed her secrets to him. He goes to the bed and yanks off the quilt made by Steve’s mother and throws it at him. Steve has respect and love for the quilt so he clutches it close to his chest and doesn’t just discard it to the floor. “I heard, I might not understand it all, but I can understand someone taking something away that you earned, that you deserved.”

Steve bows his head and says, “They didn’t want to, but I failed the tests.”

“What? What tests?”

“I had to take some tests to check on my disability. I scored too low, because I’m still having trouble with written language.” He points to the reams of papers all over the floor. “Sure I can talk and everything, but-.” His lips shiver and Tony puts it down to a reaction to the cold more than anything else. “There’s some connection that’s not-.”

“What does Peggy say?”

“It’s coming along, I should have regained most of my skill by next year at this time, Darcy’s helping,” Steve says. “She’s been helping-.” He presses his lips together in a firm line. “But you know, it doesn’t matter, I’m not that guy anymore, I don’t know who I am anymore. I’m not the same that I was. I’m in some strange world and I can’t even figure out what the heck I’m supposed to be doing. I feel like I went to sleep for seventy years, not seven months and I woke up to a place and people I don’t-.”

Tony’s right there, by his side, grasping for his hands buried in his mother’s quilt. “Oh no, no you don’t, Capsicle. Seriously you are freezing right now. But I digress, you don’t get to say that. You know us, you know all of us. You’re with us and you aren’t getting off that easily. You are not giving up that easily.”

“I’m not,” Steve says and squeezes Tony’s fingers a little harder than he expects. “I just don’t know what’s next. I’ve been here for so long, since the beginning. Now what? I don’t – I can’t pay for my own care, Tony.”

“You don’t need to worry about that, sweetheart, I got the bucks,” Tony says. “I got Howard’s entire fortune at my fingertips. You don’t have to worry about anything else.”

Steve releases his hands like he’s been shocked. “I don’t need or want your charity, Tony. I’m not some poor urchin on the streets of New York during the Depression, you know. I can make my own way, one way or another. I can do it.”

“I wasn’t suggesting-.”

“Then what were you saying?” Steve says. “Poor crippled guy can’t pay his own way, poor brain damaged soldier needs help because he’ll end up on the streets.”

“Christ, no,” Tony says. “I get that you’re angry, that you need to blow off some steam, but don’t put words in my mouth. I never said you were crippled, or that you’d end up on the streets.”

“But you think so little of me that you’d throw money in my face like that’s the answer to everything?”

“Fuck, you know, I don’t need this crap, I came here to share my good news and my good fortune with you, with someone I care about, someone I lo-.” He stops himself before he throws the word out again so casually and so easily. It has never been easy before why is it always popping out of him now?

Steve stares at him with wide imploring eyes, asking and betraying everything all at once. Tony’s first instinct is to run; it always is when it comes to intimate, personal relationships. He isn’t good at baring his soul and offering it up to the world. He likes to keep things under wraps because that way no one can hurt him or set him up for a world of pain. He’s already done that game with his father and he never liked it.

“Okay, I get it,” Steve says and nods. “Okay, I’m sorry. I jumped the gun, I might have misjudged you, misjudged everyone.” He curls his body over the quilt and whispers, “Do you know she made this for me for my birthday?”

“Yeah, you told me,” Tony says and, relaxes, at least they’ve wandered off topic for a moment.

“For my birthday one year. She made it for me.”

“You must be very patriotic to want one with the red, white, and blue motif,” Tony says.

Steve chuckles down deep in his throat. “I was born on the fourth of July, Tony.”

He gags a little. “What?”

“Yeah, the fourth, kind of ridiculous. I think that’s where they got my code name from – Captain America,” he says but there’s a slight bitterness in his voice. “Now I get a couple months back pay and that’s it.”

“If it’s the money-.”

“No, Tony, no, you still don’t get it,” Steve says and collapses back in his wheelchair. “I’m not him; I’m not Captain America, not anymore. Maybe I never was, but if I’m not a soldier than who am I?”

“You only ever wanted to be in the army?” Tony says because he recalls Bucky telling him how weak and sickly Steve had been as a child. Someone like that had to have a backup plan. He vaguely remembers something about art.

Steve stretches down and scoops up the drawings off the floor. It isn’t the best he’s seen but it isn’t terrible. “I wanted to be an artist, once. But now-.” His hands do tremble and he fights for control, Tony remain quiet. “Now, I can’t draw anymore. I’ve got right side weakness, and it’s too hard and maybe that part of my brain is damaged too. I don’t know, but I can’t make it work anymore.”

Tony gathers up the papers strewn all over the floor and realizes as he does that Steve probably tossed them from the console which is hidden from the balcony, and wouldn’t have been directly affected by the wind. He flips through the drawings again. He shows a few to Steve and he only cringes at the artwork.

“It’s terrible,” Steve says and looks away.

“Hmm, you’re not wrong,” Tony says as he examines the first few in a line of sketches of the park outside the balcony window. “But as I see it, it gets better and better as your fine motor controls get kicked back into gear.”

“Darcy said something like that,” Steve says.

“Then I can’t be wrong, but who ever doubted me in the first place?” Tony says. He chucks the papers on a side table and gives his full attention to Steve. “What I see is someone who’s made remarkable progress and who’s still improving. You are not a patient man, are you? Have a tendency to jump in where others fear to tread, perhaps a little hot headed?”

“Are you describing me or you?” Steve asks.

“Maybe both?” Tony replies. “What I’m saying is that you can’t let a slip of paper documenting your ability to serve your country as the yardstick to measure your progress. It’s only one parameter of a bigger equation.”

“You don’t sound much like a journalist.”

“That’s because I’m not, I never was. I might be a media junkie, a celebrity, but in the end I’m a mechanic, and an engineer, I love to build and create and tinker. All we have to do for you, my dear, is find out what you love. You’re more three dimensional than serviceman for your country. You’re more than just Captain America, you’re Steve Rogers.”

Steve studies his mother’s quilt and then looks up at Tony. “But what if I’m not, what if this is all there is?”

“I don’t accept that,” Tony says and points to the quilt. “Tell me what your mother say?”

“You really know how to go for the soft spot on a guy, don’t you?” Steve rolls the wheelchair over to the bed and places his mother’s quilt at the foot. Without turning back to look at Tony, Steve says, “She would tell me to stand up, to always stand up.”

“And what, are you telling me you’re giving in, and giving up now?” Tony asks.

“I didn’t say that, I just-.”

“Well, it damned near looked like it. Look, if you want to turn yourself into a Capsicle, be my guest, but you are not allowed to drag me along with you. Do you get it? I don’t want to have my heart frozen out there, the damned terrorists did enough damage to it already,” Tony says, and can’t control the heat of his argument, not when so much is on the line. “You’re not leaving me, not like this. You are not giving up because you know what?”

“What?”

“I love you, I fucking love you, and I’m god damned Tony Stark, and I get what I want.”

“That sounds an awful lot like a tantrum and not a confession of undying love,” Steve says and furrows his brows.

“Well that’s as close as you’re going to get,” Tony snaps. “So, what’s your move, Captain?”

“I’m not at all sure what my response should be. I just found out I’m being dumped by the army, I still have residual brain damage and right side weakness that makes it impossible for me to walk without assistance, and a crazy man just confessed his love for me. What do you think I should do?”

“Kiss me, feel me up, celebrate because said crazy man is a billionaire, and you hit the jackpot?”

Steve whistles low and loud. “Wow, I have absolutely no idea how to respond to that.”

“That’s because you think you were born in the 1920s and are bound by conventions that don’t exist anymore,” Tony says. He grabs a chair and sits down. “Are you done with this now?”

Steve doesn’t look up at him right away, but he does say, “Yeah, I think we are.”

“So?”

“So?”

“What, I say I love you, and I don’t get anything back?” Tony says. “I take it back, now I feel like a pauper instead of a billionaire. You really know how to hit a guy in the soft spot, Captain.”

“I-,” Steve says and lowers his gaze. “I do.”

“Hey,” Tony says and reaches over to lift Steve’s chin. “You do what?”

Steve steels himself by straightening his shoulders and says, “I love you.”

Tony decides this is the best day of his life, and he intends to make it a better day for Steve. He starts by thoroughly and completely kissing the object of his affections. He tastes and nips and follows a line down to his throat and elicits a moan and feels the easing of tension from Steve’s shoulders as he grasps him and pulls him close into his arms. For the first time, he lets his hand wander across the expanse of Steve’s well-built chest, and farther down his torso to the taper of his waist until Steve groans and hitches a bit.

“I love you, I do,” Tony whispers and nibbles at his ear. “I want to make things right for you, let me make things right for you.”

“Tony.” Steve says it like his breath has been stolen and there’s no air in his lungs. He arches up and Tony stills. It reminds him a little too much of when Steve had the acute respiratory distress.

“Steve?”

He settles down in his chair and sighs, then takes in deep breathes. “I just, I just-.” He leans his head against Tony’s shoulder and mumbles, “I’m just not ready, I’m not ready.”

“Oh,” Tony says and thinks it might be about scars or some such, but that’s silly. “You do recall I’ve seen you au naturale, right?”

He feels Steve smile into his shoulder. “God, Tony, yes. It’s just I’ve-. I haven’t.”

“You’ve never had sex before?” Tony startles away from their embrace.

“God, no, I mean, yes I’ve had sex before. I just usually don’t kiss and tell,” Steve says. He runs his finger along the inside of Tony’s coat, lining his shoulder with this touch. “I just haven’t with a fella is all.”

Tony jerks further away, out of Steve’s reach. “Wh-what?”

“Not with a guy, I just haven’t,” Steve says and peers at Tony with a bit of curiosity mixed with abashed fear.

“Are you telling me this is because you want to experiment?” Tony says.

“What? No, Tony, no. Sure I had a few times with the girls from the USO tour-.”

“They still have USO tours?”

“Yeah, they do. Bob Hope didn’t have a corner on the market,” Steve says.

“And you got it on with the girls in the tour? You are the man with the plan, aren’t you? Mister Star Spangled guy himself.”

“Tony,” Steve says with a hint of a whine to his voice that speaks to his exasperation. “I just, it never really.”

“What?”

“I kind of wasn’t all that into it, I knew I wasn’t. I knew I liked guys and all,” Steve says and looks away. “But you know, I got curious and wanted to try it out. Didn’t want to-.”

“Oh Christ, you didn’t want to die a virgin?” Tony says. “Wow, that’s, that’s like so old fashioned I think I might choke on my own disbelief. How can you be real?”

“I just, I was waiting for the right partner to come along, okay?” Steve says and pointedly looks at Tony.

“Oh, oh.” Tony says the second syllable with a long drawn out airy sound. He fiddles with Steve’s collar, letting his hand drift down over the bulge of his bicep. “The right partner, huh?”

Steve tugs him closer and brushes his lips against Tony’s mouth. “The right partner.”

This time as they kiss it is a dance of choices and guesses as well as testing the waters. It streams like electricity through his nerve endings, prickles his skin and flesh until he’s hyperventilating with excitement. The idea, the thought of Steve with him, for him tantalizes and stokes the desire. He only wants to murmur I want you, I want you again and again. But he stems the need, the craving because he wants this to be special, because it is something unique. Tony may have lain around a lot and played the game until he’s the winner, but this, this touch of lips against lips, this touch of flesh against flesh is something different, and extraordinary. It is something he can trust in and expand his wishes and desires and passion. It is something he wants to nurture.

“Okay, okay,” he mumbles as he pulls away from Steve. “We do this right, we do this right.” He closes his eyes because he knows, feels it strumming through him that he’s made the correct decision. “We do this right.”

“Okay,” Steve says and pants into Tony’s shoulder as he hangs onto him.

Tony drags himself away and says, “I want to take you out for New Year’s, will you do that?”

“Tony, I don’t. We talked about this before.” Steve eases away from Tony.

“You need to start going out, Steve, you need to move forward in your life. I want you to move forward in your life so that you can be with me.”

“I want to be with you.”

“Then do this one small thing for me. Just the two of us.”

Steve hesitates, but finally gives in and says, “Yes, I can do that.”

“The new year,” Tony says and leans in for another kiss. “The start of the rest of our lives.”

Tony doesn’t allow Steve to answer; instead he kisses him and lets oblivion take him.

*oOo*
The next few days before Christmas are a mish mash of business with very little pleasure mixed in. Tony spends as much time at the house with Steve as possible, but the legalities of the company and all of the media makes it nearly impossible for him to sneak away. In the midst of all the chaos, Pepper announces that the Foundation wants Tony to speak at the New Year’s Eve party. Since he is now the head of Stark Industries and the billionaire of the moment, there’s no way to get out of the commitment. He owes it to the memory of his mother.

Deciding to put off the inevitable, Tony spends some time roaming up and down Fifth Avenue looking for a gift for Steve for Christmas. It is a little more than irritating to have Happy following him in the limo. When Happy can’t find a spot to park, he ends up leaving the car double parked and trailing Tony around the stores. He feels like he has a lost puppy lapping at his heels. He finds nothing. Eventually, he gives Happy the slip and ends up in Soho to wander into an art materials store.

With a little consultation from one of the clerks with purple hair and a ring in her nose, Tony stockpiles Borden & Riley pads with a number of different charcoals both in thickness and hardness. He also buys pastel pencils both a French kind and another foreign kind that purple hair girl assures him is top of the line. She also convinces him to purchase soft pastels because if he wants to do it right, he’ll do it like the Dutch Masters, do the under drawing in charcoal and then layer the pastels on top of that. He screws up his face in confusion, but concludes he has no idea what he’s doing and she probably does – at least, she looks the part if he’s going to be stereotypical about it.

He wonders if Steve will dye his hair red, white, and blue and stick a flag pin in his eyebrow. The thought of that just makes him giggle as he checks out. He’s lucky because there’s a storefront run by the City Mission right down the street looking for donations for simply wrapping up gifts. He goes there and gets everything prettied up and then drops a thousand dollar check on their heads.

He loves feeling like Santa Claus.

Thankfully by the time Christmas Eve rolls around, the media looks elsewhere for its next big story and Tony can depart from his apartment at the mansion on Fifth Avenue without an entourage. He knows it is ludicrous for a billionaire to be holed up in a tiny apartment, but he’s planning on moving just as soon as he finishes up some of his plans with Steve and the rest of the gang at the house.

He’s not sure how to dress so he fishes out a pair of jeans and a long sleeved t-shirt with a weird vest thing over it. He’s not sure where the hell he got it, but it looks stupid and dorky, and he loves it to pieces. He slaps on his shades and skips down the staircase to the door. Happy has disappeared so he can take his old car from days gone by and drive his own ass over to the house.

Entering into the house, he hears a ruckus coming from the kitchen. There’s a huge live tree in the front window with large lights on it that look like they are from the 1940s. When he passes through the lounge and into the dining room he spots a stack of gifts on the table along with a crystal bowl with eggnog. He wonders if it is spiked. He leans over and takes a whiff to see if he can tell, and then straightens only to come face to face with a large, hairy, angry looking man.

He opens his mouth to say something, but Barton steps into the room and says, “Oh Tony, I see you met Logan. Logan, Tony.”

Logan growls at him but doesn’t stop and moves off into the lounge. Tony turns to Barton for an explanation.

“New resident, lost all his memories in the war. Completely wiped.”

“Wow,” Tony mouths but then asks, “Where’s Steve?”

Just as he asks, the elevator doors open and Steve shuffles out using his walker. He looks delicious enough to eat. He wears a blue shirt that, thankfully, isn’t his usual plaid and a pair of jeans. The blue highlights his eyes, and Tony leans over for a kiss. Barton only clears his throat.

“Shut it, Barton, I get to greet my boyfriend with a kiss on Christmas Eve,” Tony says.

“Tony,” Steve says but doesn’t add anymore to his admonishment. He peers around Tony’s back to catch a glimpse of the bag Tony carried in. “What’s that?”

“Nothing for you to know about,” Tony says and scoots over to the lounge to tuck the gifts beneath the tree.

Steve tries to follow him, but there’s a lot of crap in the way from chairs and tables to boxes of donated decorations. Tony hurries over to his side and clears a path to the couch. Logan or whatever his name is has already taken up residence in one of the recliners with a beer. With Steve settled on the couch, Tony eases in next to him, and slings his arm around his shoulders, making it perfectly clear who Steve is with. Logan only flicks an eyebrow at him and rests back on the recliner.

The evening moves in slow waves of motion. As the house fills with people and noise and food, the lights dim and they decorate the tree. Barton and Natasha, along with Banner and Thor, work on the tree. Tony picks up a box and with a lift of a chin to Steve, he says, “Call it Cap, tell us where the ornaments go.”

Steve directs as Bucky enters, and Thor’s family piles into the small lounge area. Even the new guy cracks a smile. It turns out that the eggnog is spiked but Steve still isn’t drinking it. His meds still preclude imbibing, even though he has broken that rule on at least one occasion Tony knows of. By the time they’ve devoured the dinner and listened to Thor bastardize numerous carols; Steve is listing to the side and more than slightly tired. With Bucky’s help, Tony starts to guide Steve back to his room, but stops to scoop up his gifts and follows Steve up to the bedroom.

Closing the door behind them, Tony faces Steve and says, “Finally.”

“Finally?”

“Finally, alone with you. I like the whole crew, but Thor really needs to learn acoustics and the new guy, pretty scary.”

Steve drops down onto the cushioned chair and says, “I thought you’d spend time with Thor’s dad tonight. Weren’t you working on some deal?”

“Yep, still are. Except now I have Stark Industries. Along with Asgardian Energy, we’re going to forge an entire new future in green energy.”

“Green energy, how come you never explained it to me,” Steve says with a yawn. He still gets overly tired and the long night must have been taxing.

Tony hitches a hip onto the arm of the chair and bends over Steve to kiss his temple. “Because I think you’re trying to distract me.”

“Distract, why would I do that?”

Tony reaches for the button of Steve’s lovely blue shirt. “Because, sweetheart, you want to tantalize me with your beautiful smile and leave me crazy for you.”

“Do I?” Steve asks and reaches up to guide Tony down to his mouth. He presses his advantage and prods open Steve’s mouth.

Licking and nipping, Tony murmurs through his kisses as he tastes the mint of the chocolate mint cookies Steve ate. “You are trying to distract me, put me off course.” With every phrase he either licks and tastes, or nips and bites. “Because I don’t think, I know I can’t wait any longer.” He elicits a distinct moan from Steve as he suckles a line up Steve’s throat. The rough stubble on his jaw and the salty taste of his skin shivers spikes of pleasure through Tony.

Steve collapses back into his chair and Tony clambers on top of him, perching on his lap and working at buttons and shirt. “God, I want you.”

In response, Steve only shudders beneath him with a groan of need mixed in his breathy pants.

“It’s been so long, Steve,” Tony says, and he’s drunk with the sensations, the salt and musk of Steve overwhelms him. “I haven’t been with anyone, since. I haven’t even tried to touch myself. God, I need you to touch me.”

“Anything, Tony,” Steve says and runs his hands up underneath the vest, hiking up the shirt as well.

It feels so good to have someone he trusts touch him again, caress his flesh and send spears of yearning through his spine straight to his groin.

“Anything you need, Tony, anything,” Steve murmurs into his mouth as they kiss again.

Tony breaks away because he wants all of this, he wants to experience everything deep in his flesh, and nerves, and muscles, and bones. He wants every cell in his body to feel the need and desire. He searches Steve’s face, finds the pure beauty in it and suckles his neck again, mumbling as he does. “So, so good to touch like this. So good to erase their hands, their touch from-.”

“Wh-what?” Steve says and parts from Tony. The look on his face horrifies. “Tony, what did you say?”

Steve’s words jar him back to reality, to the reality of what he just revealed, or didn’t reveal. “Just, nothing, don’t worry about it.” He moves in for another kiss, but Steve prevents him with hands to his chest. His eyes seek answers from Tony, and there’s a keen sense of his muscles tensing under Tony’s hands.

“What happened, Tony, what did they do to you?” Steve asks.

“I – it’s not what you think,” Tony says and tries once more to brush it off with a kiss to Steve’s temple. “Don’t think about it.”

“No, Tony,” Steve says and with a gently push stops him. “What, what did they do?”

Tony slumps down, his desire and need slightly cooled. He straightens up and huffs a breath before he says, “They beat me just about every day. There was another hostage there; I don’t suppose most people knew about him. He’d been there forever and a day. He tended to my wounds when I first got there. They killed him in front of me when I tried to escape.” He does a little laugh which isn’t joyous but pained. “Then they put me in the cave, chained up, and in the dark. Beat me daily. Tortured, you know – humiliation, the whole nine yards.”

“But did they?” Steve tries to meet his gaze but fails, and Tony doesn’t blame him; he only finds him all the more beautiful for it.

“Early, before I tried to escape. They tried, they did, but I bit him so hard I think I might have done some damage.”

“You bit? You bit – it?” Steve says and his cheeks are a bright red but his eyes are wondering, and brimming with pride.

“Yeah, yeah I did. They beat the crap out of me after that. That’s when they broke my sternum and did the damage to my heart. Still surprised I survived that one,” Tony says. He figures it’s probably time to get that little nugget of truth out of the way. “Yinsen did some surgery on me. This all happened before Yinsen died. He did the surgery, fixed things as best he could, but doing chest wall surgery without general sedation, not what I’d call a walk in the park. I know something about tugging out your own naso-gastric tube thingie.”

Steve looks stricken and Tony quickly finishes up the story because he didn’t mean this to go so far off the rails. “Anyhow, after that they never tried again. I found out they were keeping me alive because they were blackmailing Stane. If anyone found out what he’d done well, he’d get in a heap of trouble, which he did in the end.”

Steve runs a hand up along Tony’s jaw; within his eyes there are hints of sorrow. “I’m so sorry that happened to you, Tony.” He graces his thumb along Tony’s lower lip and when he raises his lashes, Tony glimpses unshed tears in his eyes. “I wish, I wish we could have saved you then, I wish I-.”

Tony grabs Steve’s hand, holds it to his chest and says, “Listen, I’m not good at this metaphysics stuff, I think Bruce has a better handle on it then I do. But I do know this; I know that I wouldn’t change anything, anything if it meant we wouldn’t be here together now.”

“Anything, that’s a tall order Tony,” Steve says. “Considering the memories you have, the broken boyfriend you have.”

“I wouldn’t change it at all, nothing,” Tony says. He lifts Steve’s bowed head with two fingers under his chin. “Nothing will ever be perfect, but some things work out for the best.”

He leans in, breathes a heavy sigh against Steve, and before he grazes his mouth against Steve’s parted lips. “Let me show you how much I want you, Steve.”

In a low, yearning voice, Steve says, “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure, I want to feel you next to me, I want to feel your skin against my skin,” Tony says and slips his hand underneath the collar of the shirt. He lingers on Steve’s collar bone tracing it all the way to the jut of his shoulder. “Let me feel your skin against mine.”

“You’re sure?” Steve says and nearly stifles a moan as Tony suckles against his throat.

“Does it look?” Tony draws his tongue up Steve’s throat. “Like I’m sure? Does it feel?” Tony slides his fingers along Steve’s arm, clasps his hand, and then guides him down to his very uncomfortable pants. “Like I’m sure?”

Steve pants several times as he explores Tony’s taut jeans, feeling the outline of his erection. “Tony, I want to, I want you.”

His long fingers search upward and under Tony’s shirt and vest. Somehow he manages to yank apart the button fly and caress his soft underbelly. Just Steve’s fingers wandering, teasing his tangle of hair causes Tony to groan and bare his teeth to bite into Steve’s shoulder. If they continue this on the chair, Tony’s going to come in his pants.

Pushing away, he whispers, “Let’s get more comfort?”

“Bed?”

“Please,” Tony says with a little whine to the last of it, because Steve decides at that moment to slide his fingers lower into his jeans.

“Help me up?”

Tony wrestles Steve’s hand free with a little bit of jockeying between them. He stands up, but then crouches as Steve leans forward to sling his arm around Tony. With a grunt he hoists Steve to his feet and they hobble over to the bed.

“Sorry,” Steve says as he lands on the mattress.

“No need, no problem,” Tony says as he throws off the vest and shirt, and then kicks away his jeans leaving only boxers. “I kind of like the idea of having you at my mercy.” He crawls up onto the bed, and like a predator prowling, he joins Steve. “You are wearing far too many clothes.”

Steve doesn’t say anything; he only reaches forward to touch the circular scar at the center of Tony’s chest. “Is it? Is it okay if I do?”

“I would say it’s only fair, I saw you in a coma with drool coming out of his mouth,” Tony says.

With the gentlest of touches, Steve graces the edge of the scar with his index finger. He traces it and says, “It’s so symmetrical, and somehow beautiful.”

“You are weird,” Tony says. “You’re still wearing far too many clothes.” Reaching, he finishes unbuttoning Steve’s shirt and he pushes his hands into the sleeves and slides it down Steve’s arms. He casts it away and then takes off the t-shirt as well. Steve’s chest is a modern miracle, itself. In the months he’s been awake, he’s built muscle mass and breadth. As Tony studies his perfect skin, he notices how the flush of his desire warms the skin and sets his nipples erect. Without thought, Tony bends down and takes one in his mouth as he rolls the other between his fingers. Steve clutches onto his head, holding him in place and gasping at the air for breath.

The feel of Steve next to him, like a mountain, like a wall encapsulates Tony to surround him in an embracing feeling of warmth, and security. One he thought he’d lost so many months ago. He wants so much of this man; he wants to hold him, to have him as his shield, to have him as his protection, but then to protect him, too. He can only think of it as working in concert with Steve, holding, shielding, supporting while being held, while being shielded, while being supported.

Steve rocks them as Tony kisses and pinches at his nipple with his teeth. “Tony, I-.”

He runs his hand up and over the smooth line of Steve’s shoulders until he encounters the roughened skin, the thick knot of a scar. He pulls away to look at the deep rivet in Steve’s left shoulder.

“This is where the bullet hit you?”

“Oh so they told me,” Steve says. “Don’t really remember.”

“And the other bullet?”

“The other one, not the head one? In my thigh.” Steve hits the muscle of his right leg. “Did some damage to the muscle.”

“Well then, I think I need to kiss it and make it better.”

“I’d like that,” Steve murmurs and then bows his head. “I need you to help me a bit with my pants.”

“You do not have to ask twice, honey.” Tony goes to work on his pants. Steve eases down on the pillows and straightens out as Tony yanks them over his hips and down his long sculpted legs. He spots the divot where the bullet passed through Steve’s leg. Close up, he can see the slight variation of the right leg to the left; there are definite differences in muscle mass and strength. Steve places his hand down on his leg as if to conceal it from Tony.

“Oh no, sweetheart, no.” Tony peels back Steve’s hand and leans down to lightly kiss the past injury. He finds his way back up to Steve’s lips and places his hands on either side of his face, holding him, keeping him. “You are beautiful, you know that right?”

“I don’t think anyone ever called me beautiful before, Tony,” Steve says with a smile.

“Then I have to say, you have been hanging out with the wrong crowd, because, hell, have they looked at the masterpiece of human perfection you are?” Tony doesn’t allow Steve to answer; instead he dives in and devours Steve’s mouth, lets the want and passion and need flourish and overwrite every thought process in his head. Before he knows it, he’s able to tear away their boxers and he’s lying on top of Steve flesh against flesh.

It sizzles through his nerves, blazes bright and hot in his head and groin. With every stroke of Steve’s hand down the length of his back, to the curve and rise of his ass, Tony burns. He groans into the crook of Steve’s neck as their erections line up and he feels the hot warmth of semen as it leaks over him.

“Steve,” Tony pants and presses fingers into his shoulders harder than he intends, clawing at him because he knows he won’t hold out, he cannot hold out. There’s so much sensation, of Steve with him, the beating pulse of him next to him, under him. The heat of his breath against his throat and thetaste of his mouth, and skin, and chest on his lips, there is just too much.

“Wh-what, Tony, what?”

“I need, I need you to touch,” Tony says and jerks his hips against Steve which elicits a hiss of pleasure and a cry of want from Steve.

Steve snakes his left arm down between them and glides his fingers around Tony. With the pressure comes a renewed sense of craving and need to release, to release all the tension, the pain, but also to gather all of the man below him and press him close and keep him. He thrums a rhythm into Steve’s hand and the burden of his life, the images and nightmares that lurk along the periphery melt away and, as the want builds, his climax becomes his single purpose. He wants this more than anything; he needs this freedom, this break from the past and into the present toward the future. Thrusting up and into Steve’s hand he balances his grip against Steve’s shoulders and hangs his head to watch, to glimpse Steve around him, holding him.

Nothing but this, the density of his physical need, matters. He loses himself in the feel of Steve beneath him, the grip of Steve’s hand around him, the sound of their rasping for air. He finds just watching Steve hold him, provide for him, so gut wrenching it coils like a twisted spring of passion low and deep in him. He digs down, his nails scraping flesh and he cries out a warning, compelled to say something, anything, but words don’t form. He comes and his life washes away and he can’t catch his breath or force himself to inhale until it fragments away and he falls, his muscles and tendons disjointed and relaxed on top of Steve.

After a moment, Tony realizes what he’s just done. He never wanted this, he wanted to make this special for Steve, and what did he do? Got off and left Steve.

“God, Steve, I’m-.”

“Tony,” Steve says and nudges him with a kiss to his collar bone. “I need you, please.” He’s kissing and tasting Tony along his throat down to his scar where it borders on numbness and tingling at the same time. “Please.”

The plea is so quiet and urgent that Tony backs off and guides Steve onto the pillows. He takes in the sight of him, smeared with Tony’s own come and glistening with his own pre-come. He hates that he’s already spent, but he still licks his lips as he gazes down at Steve.

“Tony,” Steve says and reaches for his own erection.

“Oh, no,” Tony says and threads his hands around and over Steve’s. “Not without me.” He scoots himself between Steve’s legs so that he might have a better angle and access. With his fist wrapped around Steve’s hand they jostle and move together. Tony slicks up his other hand using his own spilt semen from Steve’s belly and, as he does, Steve arches and groans from Tony’s light flickering touch. He slips his hand along the base of Steve’s erection, caressing him and stroking him all at once.

Steve’s movements become more purposeful, tighter, tenser, and he’s crying out to Tony, begging Tony for relief. He has his left foot planted on the bed as he thrusts up into their entwined hands but his right leg doesn’t give him balance or friction like he needs.

“I’m right here, I’m right here,” Tony says and picks up Steve’s right leg with his free hand and lifts it over his shoulder, grasping it and steadying him. With Tony has his anchor, Steve’s movements become more furious and wanton. Tony’s own need ratchets up as he watches Steve fall into a maelstrom of the sensations battering him. Tony follows Steve’s lead with his motions but breaks away and lines the edge of his nail along the base and underside of Steve’s erection. It pitches Steve into full orgasm; he yells out and comes all over their hands. Stilled and arched, he doesn’t settle back to himself for several minutes until he crashes down to the mattress and blinks a few times as if he’s been blinded by a bright light.

Tony releases his leg and crawls up on top of Steve. “Hey, hey,” he says punctuated by kisses. “I love you.”

“Love you,” Steve says as he pants. “Love you, too.”

Tony drops to the side and says, “I wanted that to be a little different, more special. I just-.”

“What? It was great,” Steve says.

“Well, if you think that was great, wait until I introduce you to some other moves,” Tony says and kisses Steve’s mouth, paying attention to every detail of the kiss. The taste -minty still, the smell – musky with sex mixed in, the feel – soft but rigid and strong, the sound – breathless and light, the sight – (he pulls away to look at Steve) dreamy and lovely.

“Other moves?” Steve says.

“There are more ways than one to corrupt Captain America,” Tony says and notches his body underneath Steve’s arm.

Steve curves his arm around Tony. “I don’t need to be corrupted Tony, you’re not going to corrupt me. I was in the army.”

“That is true.”

“Hmm,” Steve says and then adds a yawn.

Tony keeps forgetting Steve is still very much vulnerable to fatigue. “Oh no, no you don’t. We haven’t done your Christmas gifts yet.”

“I don’t need gifts.” He murmurs. “I need sleep.”

Tony jumps up and says, “First, you do not want to go to sleep all sticky, because in the morning, yuck. And second, I spent a lot of time with a purple haired girl with a ring in her nose for you, so you will have to open up some of your gifts.”

“Tony, I don’t need-.”

“Yes, you do,” Tony says. “Plus, I need this. What do you think I did last Christmas?”

Steve doesn’t answer.

“I got this,” Tony says and points to the scar on his chest. He turns to the bathroom, retrieves a few wash cloths, wets them with warm water, and grabs a towel on the way out. “See, I get to have new memories here, and you are one of them.”

“Okay,” Steve says and takes the offered warm cloth to clean up. “I don’t really remember last Christmas. I fell into a coma just a few days before it. I think; I’m not sure. There were a few days, according to Bucky that I was just teetering where they thought I would come out of it, but didn’t.”

Tony balls up both of the cloths and tosses them in the hamper in the bathroom, then goes back to the bed with his gifts. “Open, please.”

Steve frowns at the half dozen boxes. “I didn’t get you this many.”

Tony waves him off. “Open.”

Steve scoots up on the bed and picks up one of the several boxes holding the different art supplies. Before he opens the first one, he bends to try and reach the quilt folded at the foot of the bed. “Could you?”

“Oh,” Tony yanks it over Steve and decides to snuggle in next to him. He moves all of the boxes on top of the blanket.

One by one Steve opens the different art supplies. He grows quieter and quieter with each passing box until finally he looks up at Tony with silent eyes and parted lips. “This is too much, Tony.”

“No, it isn’t enough,” Tony says and gives him the last box. This one isn’t wrapped; it is something that Tony just threw in a box this morning. He wanted something personal to give to Steve. “Open it.”

Steve picks up the little white box and pops open the top. He lifts up the key.

“Technically, it really doesn’t work but symbolically it gets the meaning across.”

Steve furrows his brows and says, “It does?”

“Yes.”

“And that is?”

“I want you to move in with me,” Tony says. “Well, not right this minute, because right now I live in a small apartment in the back of a mansion but I’m going to be living in the Tower I designed and built for my father before he kicked me to the curb, soon.”

“Tower?”

“Yes, big monument in the sky.”

“You mean that big, ugly bui-.” Steve tries not to smile but he fails. “That’s your Tower?”

“It says Stark in big, huge letters,” Tony says. “How could you not know?”

“I thought it was your dad’s,” Steve says.

“Okay, okay, just tell me you’ll move in with me.”

Steve considers the key, as if it might tell him some secret which could help him make the decision. “I don’t know, I still need help with some stuff and physical therapy, reading tutoring, occupational-.”

“I will cover it all. Plus the house is gonna move too,” Tony says.

“What? When?”

“As soon as I tell them,” Tony says. “Listen, I am a billionaire now, I am moving this whole operation to a more handicap, physically challenged, or whatever you want to call it, to a building with a lot more space and equipment and amenities.”

“Tony, I just-.”

“Tell me, you’ll move in?”

“Yes?” Steve says and Tony throws himself at Steve, clasping him and kissing him. “Wow, what would you have done if I said no?”

Tony sits back down and says, “You’d never say no, it’s me.”

“You’re awfully confident of yourself.”

“I’m Tony Stark; it kind of comes in the genes.”

Steve stretches over to the nightstand and pulls out a small box. He hands it to Tony and says, “I couldn’t really think of what to give you. So I decided that this might be the best thing.”

Opening the box, Tony discovers Steve’s Purple Heart. He looks up at Steve and then back at the medal. “I can’t take this.”

“I wish I could give you something better, something more, but this is all I really have, Tony.”

“You can’t give me this,” Tony says and hands it back to Steve. “You earned that, you were wounded and fought through it to save your buddy. Shit, you deserve a Medal of Honor.”

Steve picks up the Purple Heart, reaches for Tony’s hand, lays it in his palm, and folds his fingers over it. “It’s all I have Tony. I want you to have it.”

Tony clutches it and holds it close to his scarred chest. “Okay, I’ll hold it for you.”

“You’ll accept it.”

He drops his hand open for a moment to study the medal. It symbolizes Steve’s sacrifice, it shows the world what Steve did, it reflects the best and worst moments of Steve’s life. “Okay, okay.”

“I love you,” Steve says, and it is tentative and seeking.

Tony glances up at him and then back to the medal. He curves an arm around Steve to embrace him. “I love you, too, darlin’. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

In a slow descent, they both lie down onto the bed and huddle close together. “Stay,” Steve says.

“Always,” Tony says and knows he means it forever.

*oOo*
As awareness comes to him, he feels the nuzzling of an unshaven face against his throat. The brush of the beard lures him from sleep’s embrace but he fights it, tries to struggle down into the warmth of the blankets and the arms that hold him. Following the rasp of stubble against his tender throat is the grace of lips as they kiss in soft fluttering motions along his jaw, then up to his lips and finally to his eyes. He blinks once but decides against fully opening his eyes. He luxuriates in the physicality of the moment, consumed by the sense of touch, intensified by his denial of his own sight.

A hand drifts downward, teasing his nipple even as the mouth engages his lips and he opens to tongue and exploration. As he plays with his nipple and the devouring kiss, he moans into Steve’s mouth and jerks his hips against his thigh. Steve breaks for air, but plunges right back lifting himself over Tony, leaning onto his stronger side. He grasps both of their erections in his hand and begins a slow, almost painful rhythm.

Tony hitches his hips to get a better angle and Steve moves with him, his grip tight and steady, yet enticing and firm. He knows he won’t last; he never can in the morning. So he lets the feeling and the sensation conquer him and he surrenders to it until he’s breaking down and breaking apart. He tries to give a warning, but his mouth is dry from panting and groaning into Steve’s shoulder. He bites down as he comes and then feels the warmth of Steve following him.

Steve lets out a small groan, and then promptly topples onto Tony. He grunts out a huff and rolls Steve off of him. “Good morning to you too, sweetheart.”

“Sorry, couldn’t hold myself up any longer.”

“Well, even though I love a bundle of muscles for a Christmas gift, I still enjoy breathing, darlin’.”

Steve snorts and says, “You are demanding.”

“Sometimes,” Tony says and then considers his answer. “Well, all the time. Ask Pepper.”

Steve smiles and kisses Tony’s shoulder. “What time is it?”

“Too early. If we’re going to live together, you’re going to have to understand that I do not open my eyes until it is lunch time.”

“That’s only because you never sleep,” Steve says and scoots up on the bed. “You always tinker and play in your basement workshop.”

“How do you know that?”

“You forget, you gave me the perfect window into your soul, Tony.” Steve pulls the blankets off and sits on the edge of the bed. Peering over his shoulder, he winks at Tony. “JARVIS likes to tell stories, did you know that.”

“JARVIS, you rat bastard.”

“I only wish to emulate my creator, sir.”

Steve chuckles again and then says, “Can you get my walker, please?”

“Shit, yeah, damn it. I have to learn to remember stuff like that,” Tony says and leaps out of bed to wheel the walker to Steve’s side.

“We both do, I still forget my limitations,” Steve says and murmurs a thank you as Tony slides the walker into the place.

He places a hand over Steve’s as he grasps the metal bar. “It’s still difficult, isn’t it?”

Steve glances up at him, but then concentrates on shuffling over to the bathroom. “I’m not going to lie to you, Tony. Every single day, I struggle with it, I hate it. But this is my life, the one I was given, I can’t complain. I have a lot to be grateful for.”

“You must have been made from a bottle or something,” Tony mutters as they enter the bathroom. The walker barely fits but Tony is determined to help Steve.

“Okay, since you’re here, you can help me take a shower. I have to get ready for Mass.”

“You’re going to church?” Tony says. “I thought you still had a hard time with the idea of going out?”

“I’ve been lucky, Father Connelly’s been coming by, but now that I’m more mobile I think I should try, at least on Christmas, I should try.” He shoves back the curtain and reveals the small tub with a stool placed in it. He goes from the walker to the edge of the tub without a thought, and then swings over to the seat in the shower.

Tony starts the water for him, making sure it is warm enough. “Do you want me to come?”

Steve shakes his head. “Not if you don’t want to Tony, I’m good with that. Bucky and Natasha are taking me.”

“I could take you,” Tony says.

“You don’t have to; both Bucky and Natasha are going.” Steve pulls the shower on and sits in the rain of it as Tony tugs the curtain into place. “Do you want to wash my hair?”

“There’s not much room in there,” Tony says.

Steve peeks out of the shower curtain, gives him alluring look, and says, “No, there isn’t.”

“Oh Baby, how can you talk about sex and church in the same breath?” Tony hops into the shower and reaches for the shampoo. “I think you might be the death of me.” He pours some of the shampoo out as Steve massages his thighs and ass.

“I certainly hope not,” Steve says as he leans into Tony scrubbing his head. The water hits Tony in the back and Steve isn’t in the water stream at all.

“So do I,” Tony says. “But if you are, then I will die happy.” They kiss and touch and caress as they shower.

After, Tony assists Steve with getting dressed, he finds it somehow relaxing, how he assumes Bruce finds his sand and rock garden relaxing, almost like a meditation. As he works the buttons of Steve’s plaid shirt, he says, “You know, I’ve never tried to do something like this before.” His tone is quiet, respectful like he’s the one in Church.

“Like what?”

Tony shrugs as he flips down Steve’s collar and straightens his tie. “Like helping someone, like this.”

“That’s not true,” Steve says and stills Tony’s hands by holding them to his chest. “You want to change the world with green energy; you want to make things better for everyone.”

Tony stares into Steve’s eyes, recognizes the earnest expression and says, “I want to make things better because of you.”

“You want to make things better because you can,” Steve says and reaches up to kiss him. It is honest, and open, and brings everything to a warm simmering place within Tony’s heart. It feels like he’s found home, it feels like he’s finally home.

Steve breaks off the kiss and says, “I gotta go, Bucky will be here with the van.”

“Okay,” Tony says. “I have to go over to Pepper’s for a bit. I promised to see her and Happy on Christmas.”

“See you in a bit then,” Steve says as he moves the walker toward the door. He’ll ride the elevator out and then leave the house via the back alley since it is handicap accessible.

“Hey, hey,” Tony says to stop Steve. He snatches Steve’s winter overcoat from the closet. “Don’t forget this.”

“Thanks.”

Tony helps him into the coat, kisses him on the cheek, and then says, “I’ll miss you.”

“You too.”

Tony smiles as he watches Steve leave.

*oOo*
By the time he leaves Pepper’s, it is well into the afternoon and he hates himself a little for leaving Steve for the entire holiday practically. But then again he also hates the fact that he has to break it to Steve that he’s expected to make more than just an appearance for the Foundation on New Year’s Eve. Pepper even bought him a tux for the occasion as well as one for Steve. It is not only expected, it is a requirement.

When he arrives at the house, it is congested with people. All of Thor’s family including his girlfriend minglein the lounge while Coulson and Barton are in the kitchen with Bruce who is currently putting the finishing touches on his turkey. Natasha and Bucky cuddle on the couch while the new guy sits with a beer in hand and watches the television. Tony tries not to double take the action going on with Natasha and Bucky.

“Where’s Steve?” he says as he roams around the downstairs.

Natasha looks over the back of the couch and points upstairs.

“He’s not moping, is he?” He feels entirely too responsible for causing Steve’s mood.

“No,” Bruce says as he enters the dining room and starts to set the table. “He’s resting. Really crashed after lunch.”

“He still needs a lot of rest, Tony, you know that right?”

Tony nods to Natasha. “Yeah, yeah, I should probably tell you, I asked him to move in with me once I get all the paperwork figured out on the Tower.”

Bucky sits up straight and turns to look at Tony.

He puts his hands up immediately and says, “I also plan on moving the entire house to the Tower. It’s much more friendly to the disabled, or physically challenged or what-not. I have a lot more room and we could really make a difference.”

Coulson crosses his arms and quirks a smile at him. “You think so, Stark?”

“I know so,” Tony says. “The Tower has huge ass amount of space, a ton more amenities, and a beautiful view of Manhattan.”

“This place is cozy, some vets leave the whole VA system because it feels like an institutionalization of them and their problems,” Barton says as he stands next to Coulson. Tony doesn’t fail to notice how close they stand.

“I get that, but we can make the Tower cozy, and whatever the hell else you need. Free rent, no need for grants, you have the Stark fortune at your disposal, what else could you ask for?”

“Another beer?” Logan says.

“We can have beer; we can have all the beer you want.”

“I still think we should keep this place, as sort of a go between. Some of the vets might feel intimidated by the Tower,” Barton says but Tony takes it as a plus that he’s already considering it as a plan.

“Hey, whatever floats your boat, I just want Steve to feel comfortable, and if bringing you losers along is what does it, then I will,” Tony says. “Plus we could have movie night.”

“With beer,” Logan says.

Tony frowns at the new guy. “Yeah, beer.”

“And if the famous playboy Tony Stark gets tired of Captain Rogers, where does that leave us then?”

Something about Coulson’s demeanor tells Tony he had better chose his words carefully, very carefully. “I don’t plan on getting tired of Steve.” Tony crosses the room to the elevator. As he presses the button to call the car, he says, “And if it makes you feel better, I’ll have a contract drawn up.” The lift arrives. “So, if you don’t mind, I’m going to see if my boyfriend needs anything before dinner.”

Bruce lifts his chin to Tony. “Dinner in about ten minutes.”

Tony nods and the doors close. He exits the elevator and walks into the quiet room. Steve is still in his shirt and tie from this morning, but is slung out over the bed in a heap. He’s on his stomach and his face is turned toward the balcony doors. Tony rounds the bed to catch a glimpse of him. His mouth is slightly parted and his hair is a tangled mess. It looks like he tugged his tie loose but gave up and just collapsed on the bed. Tony sidles a hip onto the mattress and threads his fingers through the soft hair.

“Hey,” Tony says as Steve slowly lifts his eyes to him. “You okay?”

Steve blinks a few times and presses a hand to his face, then heaves himself over on to his back. “Yeah, yeah.”

Tony knows Steve still suffers horrible migraines, the doctors told him headaches and migraines could plague him for years. “No headaches?”

Steve shakes his head. “No, just tired. Too much activity lately.”

“Are you all right for dinner? Bruce is putting it on the table in about five minutes or so,” Tony says as Steve hoists himself to sit up with his legs dangling over the side of the bed. Tony shift to sit next to him and clasps his hand.

“Yeah, just need to wake up some more,” Steve says.

“You’re sure?” Tony says.

“Fine,” Steve says and leans over to drag the walker to him. “Just let me clean up and I’ll be right down.”

Tony doesn’t allow Steve to straighten up by himself. He’s there, standing next to him, helping him steady himself at the sink. By the time he’s ready to go downstairs and join the others for dinner; he’s more alert and has more energy. Yet, he concedes to his fatigue and quietly settles into his wheelchair without a word. Tony keeps his remarks to himself and steers him out of the room to the elevator.

The dining room is by far too small for the gathering. Bruce set the table for a few people but the sideboard has the plates piled high and the serving dishes heaped with food. Steve and Tony are two of the designated people to sit at the table. The dinner is lively and lovely and there are toasts and calls for stories of holidays from their youth.

He learns that Natasha grew up in Russia and that Barton was a circus brat. Logan doesn’t remember anything but enjoys all of the stories even though he tries to put on a stink face at all of them. It is nearly nine-thirty by the time dinner and desserts are finished and Tony finds Steve slumped in his chair again, too exhausted to beg for relief.

He brings Steve back upstairs and helps him to the bed after a quick trip to the bathroom. He strips Steve down and as he removes his own clothes he glimpses the flash of wetness in Steve’s eyes.

Crawling into the bed, he says, “Hey, hey what’s going on?”

He reaches for the quilt and folds it over them as he wraps an arm about Steve.

“I just- I’m -. I don’t want to be a burden,” Steve says but straightens his shoulders even as he’s lying down. He fights back the emotion, the threat of shattering in front of Tony.

Tony moves forward on his elbow and kisses Steve with a soft, gentle brush of lips. “I told you, I like it. You will never be a burden to me.”

“You’re the head of a fortune 500 company now, Tony. You don’t have tim-.”

“I will make time, you are my first priority.” Tony cradles Steve’s jaw in the palm of his hand. “I’m thinking I’m going to have Pepper take the position of CEO.”

“But Tony-.”

“I am not fit to run a company, I’m not a business guy, I’m a builder.” Tony kisses him and says, “Look at me, only me.”

Steve shifts his gaze from the window to Tony.

“I’m going to touch you, I’m going to show you how much I love you, but you’re not going to close your eyes, you’re going to look at me the entire time, so you know, you feel it, too.”

“Tony, I-.”

Tony presses his index finger to Steve’s lips. “Watch me.”

All the time Tony moves and touches and caresses Steve never takes his gaze from him. His lips parted, his eyes search and find Tony’s as they shift and line up against one another. Tony keeps his gaze fixed on Steve’s face, on his eyes with every motion. He wants to memorize each fleeting expression, he wants to analyze what causes Steve to open his mouth wide in anticipation and what makes him clench his teeth in yearning. Mainly, he gazes upon Steve’s eyes. He remembers a time when Steve slept in the clutches of a coma; he had no idea what color the eyes of the stranger would be. He wondered if they would be the color of the ocean, or if they would be the color of a grassy meadow. Yet, he sees now they are no other color on this Earth, they are Steve, they are Steve.

He hitches and thrusts as they move together in joint fervor to find release. He keeps his eyes on Steve’s face; they never falter in their focus. Tony sees the small rim of blue along the edge of black, the pool of darkness that has become Steve’s eyes. It doesn’t frighten, but it does overwhelm. Tony shoves hard against Steve as they work toward some fruition. Steve grips Tony’s shoulders hard and topples over the precipice and Tony follows him, only closing his eyes for a second and then flashing them open to see Steve’s head thrown back as he arches into his orgasm. It draws out his and he cries with it. When it releases him he feels like he’s found a certain freedom in Steve’s arms and he pants against his shoulder.

“Never say you’re a burden again, Steve, never,” Tony whispers and drags his fingers up and down Steve’s arm.

“Okay,” Steve murmurs.

“You’re mine, okay? Mine,” Tony says and hopes that he’s not over stepping his boundaries, hopes that Steve understands how much this means to him.

“Yours,” Steve says as he grapples to hold Tony close.

They lay like that, entwined until Tony starts to droop and needs sleep. He realizes they have to clean up and he does a quick job with a retrieved wash cloth from the bathroom. It doesn’t take much and they are entangled with one another again. Steve spooned behind him, enclosing him within the sanctuary of his arms.

*oOo*
Over the next few days Tony conveniently forgets to tell Steve about the impending New Year’s Eve party. He should, he knows that, but the thought just shuts everything down in his head so that he doesn’t actually know how to act and behavior like a human adult male. He screws up his face.

Business tears him away from the house, which is not something he wants since the heightened activity and long days send Steve into a migraine to end all migraines. He ends up in the dark with a warm cloth over his face and Bruce tending to him. Tony has to admit, they are all lucky to have one another. It is a weird little family, but it is a family. He hates the fact he needs to leave Steve in such a state, but there’s little he can do and he has to sign papers and whatever else needs to be done to get the ball rolling and to make his status as his father’s only heir signed in stone.

Steve forgives him before he even leaves, just waves him off, and lies on the bed in the dark. Tony wonders as he settles into the backseat of the limo Happy drives, if he is ready to deal with Steve incapacitated. It isn’t that he would ever give Steve up, but the stress of seeing someone he loves in such dire condition does things to his heart he’s not sure is healthy or wise considering his condition. He decides the best plan of attack for his worry is to ignore the worry and attack something else.

The lawyers have figured everything out and Tony has nothing to actually worry about when it comes to his inheritance. The entire Trust set up had been a sham by Hammer and Stane. There are still questions about the board members and whether or not they were in on it. Tony doesn’t even care. He has everything he wanted and deserved. Xavier hands over the documents, that make Tony an official billionaire and head of Stark industries, on December 28th.

Pepper tells him he has to plan a tour of the main headquarters out in California as soon as possible. He immediately fires her from her liaison position with the Foundation and rehires her as his personal assistant with the goal of installing her as the CEO as soon as he gets the manufacturing of the arc reactor underway.

“Arc reactor?” Pepper says as they drive away from yet another meeting with lawyers.

“Yes,” Tony says.

“You mean that big monstrosity your father had in the middle of the lobby for Stark Industries?”

“Well, that’s a huge model, but I’m talking about a real life, working arc reactor, one that has been miniaturized and has been supplying the energy for the Tower for months,” Tony says.

“The Tower, you mean Stark Tower?” Pepper makes a little eeping noise. He always likes to surprise her.

“Yes, the Stark Tower,” he says. “It’s shown great data over the months. I think I still have to stabilize the core. Palladium, while great doesn’t last as long as I want, and is a bitch to produce in an oxygenated environment.”

“You have a working arc reactor?” Pepper says. Her eyes are luminous and disbelieving.

“What did you think I meant when I talked about green energy?”

“Solar, wind, I don’t know,” Pepper says. “Does Odin know?”

“Sure he does, he wouldn’t agree to be my partner in Europe if he didn’t know. He isn’t the kind to just invest in magic, you know,” Tony says and pours himself a drink. He has to admit, he likes the limo.

“When are you going to announce it?” Pepper says. “You know, to the world?”

He shrugs. “Doesn’t really matter.”

“It does,” Pepper says and he can see the gears turning in her head. “We could have some press coverage at the New Year’s Eve party, that would be perfect, Tony. A great coming out party and setting down the Board of Directors at the company. They are all up in arms since they heard you inherited.”

“Yeah, and not some outside weird nebulous board. They should be licking my ass.”

“Tony,” Pepper says but chuckles all the same. “So the party?”

“No,” Tony says. “I haven’t even convinced Steve to come. He’ll never come with press there.”

“Tony, we can’t sit on this,” Pepper says. “We have a limited time to convince everyone that you are the right person to have control of one of the largest companies in the world. If we don’t, your stock is going to plummet and then where will you be?”

“I’ll have Odin and Asgardian Energy to back me up.”

“Odin can only back you up if his board is backing him up; it’s all dominoes, Tony.”

He rubs his forehead. He hates the politics of business. “Okay, okay, limited, very limited press Pepper. I don’t want this to turn into a three ring circus.”

“Whatever you say, Tony.”

He curses under his breath and looks at his watch. He has three days to figure out how to break the news to Steve. Even as a genius he has no clue how he should do it.

*oOo*
In the end, Tony falls into his normal routine, the one where he avoids, and obfuscates as much as possible so that he doesn’t have to deal with conflict. In some ways, he’s fortunate because Steve’s migraine last through the 29th, which isn’t to say he’s happy about it, but it does divert him from confessing the truth. But the moment of truth does roll around and he jogs up the stairs at the House with two wardrobe bags and a large bundle of shoes under his arm. It is approximately six in the evening on New Year’s Eve, and he still hasn’t said a word to Steve.

The other members of the house are milling about because it is Thor’s last night in the House, and he will officially be moving out. The whole family is going back to Norway for some time, but Thor keeps telling everyone that he will return. Thor, Jane, Loki, Barton and Coulson are in the middle of the lounge laughing and playing some obscure card game. He hasn’t a clue where Bucky and Natasha disappeared off to, but he knows that they’ve becomes as inseparable a pair as he and Steve are.

Entering into Steve’s room, Tony peers around and sees the walker is notched up against the bathroom door. He hears the water running and knows that Steve must be getting ready for their date. He hooks the tuxedo on the hanger on the back of the door. There’s a pile of dirty clothes, sweat soaked, on the top of the hamper. Tony dumps them in farther and puts the lid on it. Steve must have been working out; he’s bound and determined to walk again unassisted.

The shower turns off and he hears the grunts as Steve swings out of the seat to the tub. Tony frowns, how the hell is he going to get the walker; it isn’t close enough. He crosses the room to help out only to see Steve standing in the center of the small bathroom with only his left hand braced against the door frame as he reaches for the walker.

“Getting a little brave, aren’t we?” Tony says with a quirked smile.

“Just testing myself,” Steve says and settles onto the seat of the walker as he pats himself dry. He tosses a towel over his groin as he sits to shave and brush out his wet hair. “I didn’t know what to wear, since we’re going out.”

“No worries, I brought you a tux.”

Steve winces as he hits his jaw with his straight-edged razor. Tony doesn’t like that he uses a blade and with his left hand to boot. He flinches as he dabs it with tissue. “I don’t need a tux, Tony.”

“I think you do. I’m wearing one.”

“Where are we going that I need a tux? You said this was going to be quiet and private. You know I don’t want to go somewhere-.” He stops and narrows his focus on Tony. “We are going somewhere you know I won’t approve.”

Tony raises his hands. “I don’t know where you got that idea.”

“Where?” Steve shakes his head. “Look at you, Tony, you can’t even look me in the eye. Tell me we’re not going somewhere public; tell me this isn’t some big party.”

“It’s not somewhere public,” Tony says but tries to keeps his eyes at the furrow between Steve’s brows.

“Now, look me in the eye and tell me that again,” Steve says.

“Well, I’m not lying. We’re going to my family home,” Tony says and walks over to the wardrobe bags to unzip them. He knows he has to face the music; he’s just not ready for it.

“Your family home, you mean the Stark Mansion on Fifth Avenue?” Steve says as he pushes the walker out of the bathroom, a towel slung low on his hips. “The one where the Maria Stark Foundation is housed?”

“JARVIS, you rat,” Tony says. “Yes, we’re going to the Foundation party, I promise it won’t be anyt-.”

“Tony, you promised,” Steve says. “I don’t want to go somewhere there are a lot of people.”

“You went to church the other day; there’s a lot of people there,” Tony says and tugs the bags off the tuxedoes.

“Mass is different.”

“People still look at you; don’t tell me just because they’re walking around praying and kneeling they don’t notice that you’re there.”

Steve faces away from Tony for a moment and then looks right at him, his expression cool, and resolute. “I know this is important to you, Tony. But my privacy is important to me. I don’t want to be the center of attention.”

“You won’t be.”

“I’m going with you, and you’re the center of attention, Tony. You.”

He considers Steve, he can either accept it or go without him, or he can force his hand, lay his cards out, and play a very unexpected hand. In the end, he wants Steve there with him – anyway he can get him. “Do this for me, Steve.”

“I can’t, you know I can’t.”

“Please, Steve, do this for me,” he says and waits. He waits for Steve to piece it together, because he wants to be innocent, he doesn’t want to be the guy who blackmails his boyfriend, or better yet emotionally blackmails him.

Steve looks at him, swallows hard, and Tony sees the moment when it hits Steve that he owes Tony, that he should do this because he’s the part of their equation that doesn’t add up, that falters, that divides by zero.

“If it means that much to you,” Steve says in a low voice and Tony can tell he’s hoping for a way out.

Tony can’t give it to him. “Yeah, it does.”

Steve straightens as he stands with the walker and says, “Okay, if it’s that important, I’ll do it, for you.”

It’s a small victory, one he should be glad he succeeded in winning, but as they finish getting ready and he ties Steve bowtie, checks his cummerbund, he feels like a shit.

“Shoes,” Tony says and pulls out the boxes. Steve sits down in his chair and gets his socks on and the shoes. He looks gorgeous as he stands up; the powder blue cummerbund offsets his eyes.

“Ready?” Steve says and straightens down the lapels.

“Nearly so,” Tony says and opens up the last box with the corsages. He pins Steve’s to his lapel and places the blue silk pocket square in the breast pocket. “Perfect.”

“And yours?” Tony has a white cummerbund and a white pocket square. His flower is white like Steve’s. He smiles at Tony. “You look wonderfully handsome.”

Tony grins. Maybe, this isn’t such a bad idea after all.

His notion falls apart when they arrive in the limo at the mansion and the entire block is riddled with press and media. He leans forward to Happy and says, “I told Pepper not a lot of press.”

“These things get out, boss. Don’t worry I’ll be there to protect you.”

“I’m not worried about protection, Happy,” Tony says and turns back to Steve. Steve has his hands folded in his lap. He peers out the shaded windows into the flash of cameras. Now, as they drive up to the front of the mansion, as the roped off media surge forward, Tony feels every bit the heel. He glances over to Steve, who seems resigned to the fact he’s going to have to do exactly what Tony promised him he wouldn’t have to do. “You don’t have to get out.”

“What?”

“I said, you don’t have to get out,” Tony says and lays a hand on Steve’s knee. “You can stay in the limo; I’ll go in and deal with everything.”

Steve leans forward, there’s a smile on his face but it isn’t welcoming, instead it feels cool, almost calculating to Tony. “Oh, no, Tony, I wouldn’t do that to you. You had no idea that you set me up to lie down on the wire.”

At that moment, Happy decides it’s a good idea to open the car door and offer Steve his walker. Tony scrambles for anything to say, to get this god damned disastrous night under control before it even starts. But there is nothing to say because he avoided the conflict only to be thrown into the middle of the war.

Steve slides to the edge of the seat and then hoists himself out of the limo while bracing his weight with the walker. He gets situated fairly quickly as the flashes go off in a lightning storm. Steve keeps his demeanor, waits to the side of the car as Tony emerges with sunglasses on. Tony tries to focus the attention on himself by using every trick in his celebrity status book. He waves and smiles and calls out names of reporters he knows. It does nothing to distract them; it does nothing because Tony Stark, newest billionaire on the block arrived with a known wounded veteran.

While the media craze surrounding Steve had abated, it never really stopped. Tony knows this will just fan the flames and cause all kinds of havoc at the House. He wants to look over to Steve and apologize but people are yelling to him, asking him questions.

“Mister Stark, Mister Stark, now that you’re a billionaire will you dismantle your father’s company?”

“Howard Stark had already started to halt all production of war machines before he died.”

“That’s not what the company information says,” one reporter says.

“That’s because up until now, the company Howard built had been stolen from me by malicious people.”

There’s another barrage of questions in that area until one question pops up over the top of all the rest. “Sir, Mister Stark, sir, the military veteran who is with you tonight, is he Captain Rogers aka Captain America, the most decorated soldier of the war?”

Turning Tony looks to Steve in order to get a read on him, and how he should respond. All of the cameras angle to Steve and the flashes blind and white out the world. Steve squints at it and Tony tries to halt the cameras. “Please, please, a friend has agreed to attend a New Year’s Eve Party in memory of my mother and her foundation, nothing more.”

“Sir, Captain Rogers, sir, is it true you were injured when you rescued Mister Stark?”

Tony is about to jump in and stop the direct questions to Steve, but instead the floor is taken away from him.

“Unfortunately, no. My mission to rescue Mister Stark failed, and I was injured during that mission. My failure led to another month of captivity for Mister Stark, and his own brave escape assisted by my fellow service member, Colonel James Rhodes.”

The craze of the cameras starts again, and they haven’t even made it half way to the doorstep of the house. As they travel up the pavement, Tony sights both Pepper and Rhodey standing at the wide steps to the house. He curses, because he never thought of how Steve would be able to access the front door, or any door for the matter.

He moves to assist but at the same time Rhodey bends down and pulls out a board that will serve as a makeshift ramp. The angle is a little steeper than is useful but, with both Rhodey and Tony helping, Steve is able to ascend the half-dozen steps to the main entrance of the house.

Once inside Tony physically deflates but then he catches a glimpse of Pepper and flies off the handle. “I thought this was going to be a quiet affair. I said limited, limited press, Pepper.”

“Tony,” Steve says.

“No, Pepper, what the hell?”

“You know, sometimes I can’t get everything to go your way, Tony. Sometimes the miracles are in short supply. I tried to keep it under wraps, but you know how many people knew you would be the keynote speaker tonight? One too many, but that doesn’t matter.” She looks to Steve and says, “I’m sorry, Captain Rogers, no one should have to deal with that.”

“That’s fine, Ms. Potts, I’m going to have to get used to it since my boyfriend is a media junkie.”

“Hey,” Tony says and when Rhodes, Pepper, and Steve raise eyebrows at him, he straightens his lapels. “I represent that remark.”

“You sure as hell do,” Rhodey says.

When everyone bursts out smiling, Tony finally really does relax and then Pepper says, “Come, I’ll show you to your table.”

The main room of the mansion has been cleared out and there are ten tables with six place settings a piece. They are directed toward the only table with four place settings. It is near the corner and the fireplace. Pepper shows them to the seats and then a small screen is set up to wall them off from the crowd. Tony notices an impromptu stage where he’ll give his speech – which he should have prepared and never did.

Steve finds his way to a chair and eases into it while pushing the walker to the side. It is still within his reach, but out of the way of any waiter. Tony picks a chair right next to him, on his left side while Pepper and Rhodey round out the table.

“No Happy tonight?”

“He’ll be here, but he’s on duty tonight,” Pepper says and nods to the corner of the room as other guests file into the dining room. Happy does appear and ends up stationing himself right next to Steve’s walker. “You’ll need to make the rounds once you’ve given your speech.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea.”

“You did prepare a speech, Tony, right?”

“He didn’t even prepare me for coming here tonight, I’m not so sure a speech would be high on his list.”

He glowers at Steve. “Actually, it was high on my list, my list of things to avoid doing.”

“Very clever, Tony,” Pepper says and sips her water. “You still have to give a speech, doesn’t matter if it isn’t prepared.”

“You’re sure you want me going up there without any notes, any approved words in my hands?” Tony says.

She snickers at him. “Doesn’t matter to me, it’s your company Tony.”

“Of which, you will be CEO by the morning,” Tony says and smirks right back at her.

“What?”

“You two are really rather funny together,” Steve says as the bread it placed on the table.

Rhodey smiles at Steve and says, “Why do you think I stick around these two? By the way, I’m James Rhodes.”

“Steve Rogers,” Steve says and offers his hand. Rhodey stands up and stretches over the table to shake hands.

“Sorry about that, not introducing you and all,” Tony says and frowns at Pepper. She’s supposed to take care of niceties like this.

“Oh, I think I enjoy watching you squirm, Tony,” Steve says and grins, but it is one filled with a sharp touch of sarcasm.

It goes about in that flavor throughout the dinner. Over the different courses, Tony is called away several times by the Foundation staff to greet a donor and to discuss future endeavors by the Foundation. He never turns them down and continues to be cordial and witty with all of the donors, even though it can be tedious. He does it for his mother and her memory.

Over the desserts, the screen that partitions them off from the rest of the tables is removed, and Pepper excuses herself to head toward the stage. Steve has been polite, sweet, but somewhat distant during the evening. Tony drops his gaze to his folded hands, trying to remember why he didn’t tell Steve in the first place. As Tony stares absently, Steve leans over to him.

“I’m not saying I hate this part of you, the part who chooses to spring something like this on me at the last moment, but I am aware that you’ve emotionally manipulated me to get what you wanted, Tony.”

He looks up to meet Steve’s keen focus.

“We’ll need to talk about this.”

“Clearly,” Tony says through clenched teeth. He doesn’t like to be called out on the carpet about his weaknesses; he especially loathes the idea of someone forcing him to face his flaws. Before he realizes what’s happening, the gathered crowd breaks out in applause and Pepper, standing at the podium, motions for him to take the stage.

He glances once at Steve who’s plastered that smile on his face like he’s hawking war bonds or something. He nods and stands as the crowd awaits his speech. Climbing up on the stage, he gives his thanks to Pepper and she moves off.

He gestures toward her and says, “The incredibly brilliant Virginia Potts, everyone.”

Another round of applause and it helps him to collect his thoughts. Pepper signals with a small wave of her hand, and then finds her place back at the table. He watches as she speaks in Steve’s ear and he smiles – but it is a genuine and true smile. When he notices Tony watching them, Steve offers him one of his adoring expressions that it true and honest and beautiful.

Clearing his throat, Tony starts by saying, “A little over a year ago, I learned a lesson. It was a hard, harsh lesson, even brutal at times. Before that I had become something of a media darling, a pundit criticizing my father’s life work. One of the things I think that has been dismissed by the great majority of the press and myself included is that my father had a large part in helping win one of the most horrible wars of his generation, maybe of any generation.

“He was a weapons manufacturer. Was he proud of that? Probably. Would he have done what he did all over again? I think so. He believed in this country, in the right to protect this country. Maybe one of the faults my father had, that I saw as a young rebellious man was that he was single minded in his pursuit of this protection, these weapons. The fear that the generation, the greatest generation, had to endure was something this generation or any generation since hasn’t dealt with, not on the globally massive scale.

“Well, maybe not, until now. I’m not going to get into the wrongs and rights of the wars over the last decade. What I am going to say is that my father saw a different road, a different path in his waning years. I wish, I wish he’d shared his epiphany with me before he died. Maybe things would have been different between us, maybe not.

“What I do know is that he wanted to change the world, for the better. He took strides to completely switch his industries to something different, and his partners stopped him. He died and his real Will had been hidden until its recent discovery. Howard, my father, wanted something better for me, for his son. He called me his greatest creation, but what he really meant, I think, is that together we could change the world for something better.

“He didn’t want to be known as the merchant of death and, in the end, he didn’t want that for me. That is why he left notebooks with his research; that is why he left a Will asking me to further his research because of his limitations – he couldn’t do it alone. What could we have done together if I had seen him, if I had confronted him and confessed to him my fears, my needs? What could we have done together?”

Tony pauses and looks at Steve, his eyes are fixed on Tony. He never falters in his gaze. Continuing, he says, “Over a year ago, I almost died. I was kidnapped and tortured due to the very men who would take over my father’s company, so that he could not see his dream of the arc reactor and green energy fulfilled. Today, I am happy to announce that with Asgardian Energy, Stark Industries will develop and manufacture a new energy source through the use of the arc reactor.”

The crowd bursts out in cheers and the cameras flash. He waits a bit and then continues, “While that is all wonderful and reveals a bright future for Stark Industries, I want to tell you something a little more personal. I want to explain to you that life is about the people in it, the present, and how you affect the people around you. Life isn’t a parade of accomplishments to be published online and in the news. Life is really about who the people around you see. I hope the people around me see how very important they are to me.”

He stops and the crowd waits for a few seconds before someone in the back calls out, “Do you see the development of the arc reactor and green energy as your revenge against the people who tried to steal your father’s company from you?”

Tony smiles and shakes his head. “No, I see the arc reactor as the future. I have my family to support my vision of the future. My family is an assembled group of people from all different backgrounds ready to throw down the naysayers of the past, the people who cannot dream, who hold us back, who think life and love has to be defined in a certain way. What I see is that Stark Industries, myself, and my friends, my family will avenge the dreamers, the visionaries, the futurists of the world. We’ll take the disenfranchised, the little guy with the heart of a soldier, or the guy that comes from the circus, the freaks, geeks, and whatnot, and together we’ll see a better future, together, we’re an initiative, we are the future.”

“You’re the avengers, sir?”

“We’re family,” Tony says.

“And who are these people?” Someone else calls from the back.

“We are among you,” says a booming voice from the back.

Tony turns to see Thor standing up at one of the tables, and then Natasha and Barton, Banner stands up next to Thor and then there’s Bucky and Coulson. Finally, Steve rises using the table as support with Pepper and Rhodey as well.

The place quiets and Tony coughs into the microphone. “If all your life is about being a playboy, a celebrity, and tearing away at the work of other people, you will never learn the worth of life. I learned something when I was kidnapped and tortured, but it took a bunch of freaks.” He laughs low in his throat. “To wake me up. I’m awake now, and along with the support of my family, I’m ready to rock and roll.”

The crowd reacts in an explosion of cheers as Tony flicks on his sunglasses, gives everyone the peace sign, and says, “I am the man of iron, I am Iron Man.”

The survivor, he whispers to himself and jogs down the steps of the stage. He joins Steve at the table, wraps his arms around him, and kisses him. He hears the cameras, hears the whoops, and questions. He doesn’t care and, as Steve sinks into the kiss, he knows, feels that Steve doesn’t either. The only thing that matters in the world is this – the kiss, the transcendence of their faults and frailties to triumph with one another.

*oOo*
“I thought you were done with coming to see me,” Bruce says as he ambles through the corridor of his offices and apartment in the Tower.

“I didn’t come to see you, I came to check on you,” Tony says and follows him. “I like what you’ve done with the place.” Bruce’s wing of the Tower has a decided eastern flare to it. Most of the space is open and welcoming.

“So glad you had the time in your day,” Bruce says – showing that he’s still a little angry inside and that he enjoys sardonic wit a bit too much. “Come on, I’m getting some tea, want some?”

Bruce opens the door to his kitchen area. Most of Bruce’s apartment is kitchen. The man loves to cook. Tony raises both of his hands and wards him off. “Nope, not in the mood for a cup of sticks today.”

Shaking his head, Bruce places the tea kettle on the glass stovetop. “What can I do for you, today?”

“I’m throwing Steve a birthday party,” Tony says.

“He mentioned that,” Bruce says as he retrieves a cup.

“Are you supposed to tell me what he’s saying in his sessions with you?” Tony says and leans against the granite countertops. Bruce picked a dark green color. Tony thinks he could spend a lifetime analyzing the colors everyone picked for their places at the Tower.

“This wasn’t a session, it was at movie night,” Bruce says. “What’s going on, Tony? You two have been doing great for months now, what’s up?”

“I want to, I want to ask him to marry me, but I’m not sure he’s ready.” Tony yanks off his sunglasses. “I don’t do well with rejection.”

“I would assume not.”

“If you’re going to be like that I can just leave. I can go ask Pepper or Rhodes, or the new guy Sam what he thinks,” Tony says, maybe Sam is a good idea. He’s one of Steve’s old friends from the army.

“Don’t get your panties in a bunch-.”

“My panties are just fine, thank you very much.”

“I’m sure Steve thinks so,” Bruce says with a chuckle, and then pours his tea. “Why don’t you think Steve’s ready?”

Tony considers the last months with Steve, that have been nothing short of wonderful and everything he’s dreamed, but he knows that Steve still feels useless, at loose ends. “I think he doesn’t want to sit home and be my little woman.”

Bruce gags a little on his tea and has to spit it out over the stove. “Little woman, of course not, what the hell are you thinking?”

“I’m trying to be more sensitive to his issues, you know like you told me. He’s been working on his recovery, solely focused on that for so long, I don-.” Tony throws his hands in the air. “I tell you what, just forget it.”

Bruce races across the space between them and grabs Tony’s arm. “Tell me, what?”

“He’s finally walking with just a cane, a huge improvement and I can see, I can see how he’s dying to do something more, that his life has like taken this turn.” Tony doesn’t know how to explain what he sees in Steve now, how Steve will sit on the balcony in their penthouse apartment in the Tower and stare out over the Manhattan cityscape with a lost look in his eyes.

“Like he’s wondering what the next stage is?” Bruce says. “All recovering vets or any survivor will have this moment of crisis. You need to just be there for him and guide him into something that will be fulfilling for him but at the same time won’t throw him back stages in his recovery.”

“I got him some art lessons,” Tony says with a shrug of his shoulders.

“But how is that going with his right side weakness?”

“He’s actually quite inventive when it comes to art. He’s been interested in welding and art – so I’m not sure what he’s doing with it, but he spends a lot of time creating stuff. He’s also spending a lot of time learning computer generated stuff,” Tony says. “He likes it, I suppose.”

“Have you asked him what his end goal is?” Bruce says.

“End goal?”

“End goal, is he doing it as a kind of therapy, or just to relax or as a hobby, does he want to explore it as a lifelong pursuit? Is this what he wants to do as his life’s work, a career?” Bruce says and sets about preparing another cup of tea since his first one was ruined.

“He really doesn’t need to do anything, he’s got me. I have billions.” Tony shrugs.

“But you still build; you still tinker, always designing stuff, right?” Bruce says and when Tony nods he continues. “I heard you designed a new prosthetic for Bucky.”

“Yeah, pretty neat too, will revolutionize the entire orthopedics community. The individual motors in each articulated joint with the computer interface-.”

“Okay, now see you have billions but you still do stuff to fulfill you, Steve has to have the same thing.”

“I get that, I do, that’s why I’m worried about asking him,” Tony says and folds his arms across his chest. He feels like he’s a toddler in a stink so he releases his grip but then just feels at odds. “Damn it, Bruce, tell me what to do.”

“Maybe you need to ask him?” Bruce says. “He’s a big boy; he might have the answer, but might not be ready or just needs support.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Tony says and snorts. “Christ, I don’t know.”

“You do, Tony, you do,” Bruce says and pours his tea again. “Now go away, I need my meditation time or else I turn into a big green rage monster.”

“Yes, with anger management issues, we know,” Tony says and bids him goodbye. Tony knows his advice is sound; he’s just not ready to point out the big hairy beast in the corner of their room, that Steve Rogers has little to fill his life and Tony has tons. The inequality off balances their relationship and he knows it.

He doesn’t approach Steve right away on the issue. Instead, he decides to wait until the birthday celebration. Steve still spends a good amount of time in Brooklyn at the rehab center. It happens that they didn’t move the entire center to the Tower. They kept the outpatient center in Brooklyn to have group meetings in a less formal setting. The inpatient center is in the Tower. It isn’t as formal as a hospital but more like an assisted living place for recovering vets. It has three floors and although Steve is the only soldier who went through the system with such devastating injuries, the Tower still has some very up-to-date and state-of-the-art facilities for the more grievously injured veteran.

The big celebration of Steve’s birthday occurs, and Tony invited all of their family to the Tower for the party and the fireworks. The balcony is decked out in red, white, and blue and Steve hangs close to Tony most of the night. Tony’s thankful that Steve’s migraines have abated somewhat and he only suffers them once or twice a month. At the same time, Tony’s always cognizant of Steve’s state and what he asked of him or not, he’ll never forget the lesson of New Year’s Eve.

Fireworks explode in the sky as they sing happy birthday to Steve, who leans heavily on his cane but can’t stop smiling at Tony. Once the night display quiets, the cake is served and everyone settles into the main lounge of the penthouse. Coulson and Clint huddle together on a chair in the corner. Tony cannot believe it took him ten months to realize the two were a pair. Natasha and Bucky leave early, with Natasha offering a kiss to Steve, and Bucky slapping Steve on the back nearly knocking him over. They are leaving for Russia in the morning. They will be gone for over a month. Thor and Jane, with Loki trailing behind them are leaving as well. The party dwindles as Sam and Darcy disappear and then Coulson and Clint finally make off to their floor of the Tower.

Tony grasps Steve hand and guides him back to their bedroom in the penthouse. It is grand and open and in the middle of the room is a large bed.

“Tired?” Tony says. He doesn’t have to ask it. It’s been a long day for both of them.

“A bit,” Steve says and drops down on the bed. He yanks off his shoes and tosses them to the side. “Thanks for the party, Tony, it was great.”

“Glad you liked it,” Tony says and goes to the drawer in the nightstand. He fishes out what he looking for and throws some items on the bed and then walks over to Steve’s side. “I wanted to tell you something.”

“What’s that?” Steve looks delicious enough to eat. His skin isn’t pale but warmed with sun; he has a bit of a scuff today from not shaving. His hair is shorter, but glows with the sun’s highlights.

Tony takes a breath, nods to himself, and then gets down on one knee. He pulls out the box. “I want you to marry me, would you do that?”

“Tony, I-.”

Tony places a hand on his knee and says, “I want you to stay with me, and I want everyone to know, you’re mine.” Opening the box, Tony shows Steve the ring – a thick platinum braided band with a diamond sunk deep in the middle to symbolize the arc reactor. “Please.”

“I’m -.” Steve reaches out and touches the ring and then slides his hand to cup Tony’s jaw, to lift his gaze to his eyes. “I want to stay with you, Tony. You don’t have to marry me, to make me stay with you.”

“But I want to marry you, do you, would you?” Steve pauses a moment and he regards Tony with a soft gaze and a thoughtful expression. To pre-empt any rejection Tony says, “I want you to be whoever you want to be, this doesn’t stop that. You can become an artist, a welder, a damned comic book nerd, I don’t care, I just want you to be mine.”

Steve hangs his head and, for a moment Tony thinks he might be crying, but then realizes he’s actually laughing. “Comic book nerd? Tony, really?”

“Whatever, I just. Don’t laugh at me,” Tony says.

“I’m not, I would never,” Steve says and becomes serious with a smile charming his eyes. “I will, I will marry you and I will be your biggest fan, I will be your support and your husband. I will love you and I will be whatever the hell I also want to be, Tony. You know that right?”

“Right, right, wait you did say you’ll marry me in that answer there right?”

“Yes, yes I will marry you.”

Tony jumps up and topples Steve over as he pummels his mouth. They fall back onto the bed and Tony lifts up only for a second and says, “I promise I will respect you, I will let you do whatever you need to do for you, I promise.”

“Just promise me to be honest, Tony.”

“Honesty, honesty, I can do that,” Tony says while he holds Steve’s face in his hands.

Steve smiles and says, “Then come here and let me make love to you.”

Tony picks himself off of Steve by bracing an arm to the side. “Are you sure, it’s been a long day, I know that sometimes it isn’t-.”

“I think I can make love to my fiancée.” Steve leans up and lightly brushes his lips over Tony’s mouth. He whispers, “Let me make love to you, tonight.”

The words form a tight coil down low in Tony, and he swallows back his want to say, “Yes.”

Steve doesn’t wait, he never waits, he’s a man of action. He takes on his plan; he takes on his strategy to make love to Tony by starting with a full and lingering kiss. He loiters as he plays with his tongue in Tony’s mouth, he tastes and nudges, and nips as he merges the kiss into something more, something lasting and holding all at once.

Somehow their clothes are abandoned and they spoon against one another with Steve behind him lying on his left side with his right leg slung over Tony. He leaves a line of long kisses on Tony’s neck, to his back as he works his lubed finger into Tony, preparing him. When Steve makes love to Tony, it is always this way, because it is easiest. Trying to kneel or balance them has always been difficult, though Tony longs to watch Steve’s face as he’s penetrated.

As Steve slips another finger inside of Tony, he snakes his other arm around him and strokes his erection. Tony pushes back with his body, both in need of hitching his hips and steadying them as Steve works and nuzzles at his throat.

Tony groans as Steve pulls out of him and then climbs over him to settle on him. The new position startles Tony and he opens his eyes and murmurs, “Steve?”

“I want to see your face when we make love,” Steve says with kisses.

“You want to me do you?” Tony hopes not, he’s desperate to feel Steve inside him, filling him, showing him how much they are connected and how much he cares. He wants Steve to ground him.

Steve lifts up momentarily, nips a bit at his throat to send a spear of fire through his neurons straight to his groin. “No, I’m gonna do this for you.”

“You don’t have to,” Tony says, because he doesn’t want Steve to feel his injury in bed, he never wants Steve to feel inadequate while they are making love because of his injuries.

“I do, I want to, I do,” Steve says and begins to tantalize Tony with his tongue, inching down to his sensitive nipples. He flits his tongue against one as he tugs and twists a little on the other. Tony arches up and groans in response.

As Steve rolls his nipple in his mouth and pinches the other with his hand, Tony pants and rubs against Steve. He wants it so much, he’s hard, deliriously so, and he needs release and relief, but he doesn’t want to come until he feels the fullness of Steve inside of him.

He moans out as Steve works lower, as he takes Tony in his mouth and teases him. This is one of those positions they rarely do because Tony has trust issues to this day. He still hates that he cannot do this for Steve, but Steve tells him again and again, he feels special that this is something he can give to Tony.

Steve relaxes his throat and urges Tony to pump into his mouth as he licks at the thick vein along the base. Tony cannot stop, he needs to pump, his hips involuntarily thrust and he’s groaning and begging Steve.

“Want you in me,” Tony says but he doesn’t know if he can stop himself. He wants to grab Steve’s hair and shove him forward and spill into his mouth, but he fists his hands in the sheets and holds on, and back until Steve lifts his head and crawls upward on Tony’s body again. He kisses Tony so that he can taste the musk of his leaking semen.

At the same time, he plunges into Tony with three fingers so much so that Tony cries out and arches again. “Please now, please.”

Taking his time, Steve glides inward and Tony gulps back his cry at the intrusion. It always takes a while for him to adjust since they don’t do this very often.

“Okay?” Steve says as he waits, only rocking in slight motions.

“Yeah, yeah, move Steve, please, move.”

He does, and it is tortuous and wonderful and tightens so much in his belly that he thinks he might burst from his heart ramming in his chest. Grabbing at Steve’s arms to balance him, Tony follows the rhythm Steve sets up. It is languorous without a trace of hurried impulse. It throws Tony into another zone as he pitches and cries and needs more, begs and pleads for more. He goes to stroke himself, but Steve bats him away and takes his erection in hand and brings him along in the leisurely pace. It feels decadent, almost debauched as he draws out every feeling, flames every nerve ending, prickles every millimeter of flesh and Tony cannot hold it any longer.

He stills and, in that moment of perfect silence, Steve hangs his head down and says, “I love you.”

Tony whites out as everything but Steve drops away and the sensations gripping him tense, coil, and release and he’s overwhelmed, he cannot find his way back as Steve fills him and he’s fevered with the feeling, with the need, with his desire. Finally, he’s able to breathe again and he notices Steve’s right arm quakes above him and he rolls them to the side as they groan and sigh.

“That was good,” Tony says.

“Glad I could be of service,” Steve says and wipes the sweat from his temple.

Tony notches his head on his bent arm and looks over to Steve. “You know I love you, right?”

“I’m pretty sure I got that one.”

He leans over and kisses Steve’s temple. “I know we still have a long way to go.”

“Yeah, we do.”

“But I want to do it with you,” Tony says. “Whatever you want, I want to go there with you.”

“What if I want to build tricked out motorcycles?”

“I’m there.”

“How about paint large murals all day?”

“I’m there.”

“How about teach English as a second language?”

“Well, I’ll help you since you still have to get it down yourself.”

Steve smiles. “I’m getting better, you know. Darcy says I’m up to an eighth grade level, now.”

“And that is better than most of the people in this great nation, so congratulations to you,” Tony says and kisses him.

They continue to kiss for a long moment until Steve pulls away and says, “What if I want a baby?”

Tony coughs a little. “I don’t-.” He looks down at his spent penis. “I don’t think I have the right parts for that.”

Steve throws his head back and laughs. “Tony, adopt, we could adopt or get a surrogate.”

“One thing at a time, we get married, you get your vocation in life, and we get to know one another better.” Tony kisses with each point.

“Sounds like a plan,” Steve says.

“Yeah, it does, doesn’t it, mister man with a plan?” Tony says.

“And you’ll consider a baby at some point?” Steve looks at him, his eyes are open and wide, and Tony would have never in a million years have guessed this was one of the things Steve would want to pursue in his life. He knew Steve liked kids, how could he not, the guy loves kids. He’s just surprised at Steve’s desire to have children.

He regards his husband to be, searches his eyes, and says, “Yeah, I think the answer to that is yes.”

They kiss in a long quiet way that sets fires that will burn but not burn out. After, they lazily clean up and fold into one another’s arms. Tony finds his way to sleep because he listens to the soft rhythm of the man next to him, holding him. It lulls him and his eyes droop, and he can only think of how his journey brought him here as he fades off to slumber.

Upon waking within the shelter of loving arms, Tony considers the past days, the weeks, the months. He recalls the moment he held the crumpled slip of paper from Bruce in his hands after that therapy appointment, and decided to call the rehab center. He lies there and thinks on that day, how he did it, why he did it. He's still not sure but something compelled him. Maybe it was fate, maybe it was serendipity, and maybe it was something more.

Steve lies around him, huddled over him in a protective ball. His left shoulder slightly turns in toward Tony, his left leg slung over Tony's thigh to tangle with his legs. He cups his hands over Tony's chest, as if to shield his chest, his heart. He knows it is an unspoken worry of Steve's, that Tony's heart is damaged, chipped and shattered in the way a precious artifact might be. Steve doesn't voice his concerns, only does these subtle, soft things that give him away. It amuses and touches Tony that, in his sleep, Steve is still the soldier, still the protector, and that Tony is the center of all that Steve would protect.

Yet, waking with Steve wrapped around him, about him offers him a kind of peace he never thought he would attain again after all that had happened. This peace, this serene affection he holds for Steve, and for everything in his life mellows and completes him. He sees who was as someone immature and foreign to him, now. He doesn't resent his father, though he may never come to love the man. He doesn't wish away anything that has happened to him, for to do so would jeopardize what he found.

All those months ago, a full year ago, he met Steve for the first time, lying in a bed and silent. He remembers the startled breath he took as he looked upon the soldier in a coma. The memories still haunt him today, but they are sweetened in their pain because he would never have attained this place, this love with Steve, if he had not walked into that house in Brooklyn, if he had not ventured into the room with the injured man.

Tony may not have awoken that day, or that week, or in the months that come after, but he's awake now.

Upon waking, the world is right and everything he will need is within this embrace.

Upon waking, he smiles.

Upon waking, he knows he is loved and loves.

THE END