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An Interlude in the City of Angels

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"Drop me at LaGuardia?" Steve asked. He was second seat in the Quinjet, and the edge of the Eastern Seaboard was just coming into view behind the grey sprawl of the North Atlantic.

"Where you headed?"

"L.A.," Steve replied, knowing that he didn't have to specify who he wanted to see there.

"I'll fly you," Natasha answered. "Let me drop everyone off first."

Steve knew he should protest, but he only wanted to deal with commercial air travel if the other alternative was staying in New York. He didn't think he could go back to Brooklyn Heights right now, and the Mansion was even gloomier. He suspected Natasha was offering the lift for similar reasons. The team still wasn't over losing Dane, and hadn't yet had a good mission to rebuild cohesion.

He napped lightly most of the way to California, trying to recuperate from the fight with Zemo, and to not think about the failing serum destroying his body, or Rachel's letter, or what the hell he was going to do.

Natasha let him be until they landed, then pushed him out the door into the blistering heat. She'd gotten clearance to drop Steve off at the Stark Enterprises heliport, and as Steve walked through the industrial complex, he saw signs of recent damage, even a few fires still smouldering as the clean up crews worked to put them out and assess the damage.

"Mr. Stark in?" Steve asked one of the foremen, suddenly worried. He should have called ahead. Who knew if Tony was even there? His impulse to just drop in suddenly seemed silly.

"Far as I know, Captain," the man said, and turned away. His tone struck Steve as distinctly chilly.

That stood nothing to the waves of icy disapproval radiating off Mrs. Arbogast when Steve asked her the same thing in the reception area. "You could say that, sir," she replied.

"I'll just..." Steve waved toward the door to Tony's office, and when Mrs. Arbogast shrugged, he continued through.

He stopped dead as soon as the door closed behind him. "Tony?"

Tony Stark was slumped forward onto this desk, face buried in his folded arms, breathing shallowly. The phone lay untidily off the hook next to his elbow. The whole office reeked of liquor, with an undertone of vomit, but didn't show the same damage Steve had been seeing in other parts of the complex on the way up.

"Oh, God," Tony muttered, words muffled by his sleeve.

"Are you hurt?" He closed in on the desk and would have put a hand on Tony's shoulder if Tony hadn't levered himself up and looked at Steve blearily before blinking hard.

"Steve?"

Steve circled the desk to crouch on the plush rug at Tony's side. "Tony, are you okay?"

"Would you believe that it's not actually my fault?" Tony asked bleakly. His voice was small, and his words slightly slurred. "I mean, it is, but I wasn't drinking."

His breath smelled of whisky, and Steve was glad he was still wearing his mask, though he knew Tony could read his expression through that by now. "If you tell me it's true," Steve answered, "I'd believe it." Then, unable to contain himself, he demanded, "but, Tony, what the hell happened?"

"I fucked up," Tony said, and then reeled out a tale of hedonistic AIs, body snatching, being trapped in cyberspace, fighting his own body while downloaded into a robot, with concluding break up with his current girlfriend and screaming argument with Jim Rhodes, which Steve had just missed. "I don't know why I came in," Tony concluded. He was curled in on himself by now, arms folded tightly over his chest, and Steve had a feeling that his body had taken more hits than he'd admit to. "I guess I had to know the worst of it as soon as possible."

It certainly went a ways to explaining the frosty attitude of SE's employees, especially Mrs. Arbogast, who'd weathered more than one of Tony's lapses into alcoholism.

"I'm sorry, Tony," Steve said. He pushed back his cowl and hoped Tony saw how deeply he meant it when he asked, "Anything I can do? To be honest, throwing myself at your problems instead of mine sounds pretty good right now."

Tony slid down until he dropped off his chair onto the floor next to Steve. "Could you... could you just sit here until I sober up a bit?" He rubbed his brow. "I got Bambi to pour out the booze, but I'm not sure I..." Tony sighed. "It'd be easier with you here."

"Sure thing." Steve shifted so that he was sitting cross-legged next to Tony, their backs to the desk, looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows across the Stark Enterprises complex. It'd grown since the last time Steve had come here, looking for reassurance as even his body failed. "I wish we were on the same coast," he said wistfully. "I miss being teammates." It seemed like Natasha was the only one on the Avengers he could really talk to.

"Heard you moved out of the mansion, again," Tony said. Their knees were touching, and when Steve didn't answer, Tony leaned sideways until his head rested lightly on Steve's shoulder. "I liked thinking of you being there."

Steve sighed. He knew that Tony wouldn't be as openly affectionate were he sober, and felt a pang of guilt that he might be taking advantage of his friend. But Tony sitting next to him—his body warm and relaxed—felt good. Steve got the same glow of affection that he had over dinner with Tony a few months before, and during their long talk in this very office, when Steve had admitted—as he'd admitted to no one save Rachel and his doctor—that his serum was failing. That same feeling was what had led him here now. "It wasn't the same without you there," he said, almost too soft to hear. "I thought I'd spend more time with Diamondback too, but I guess she didn't figure it that way."

"We've both had a week," Tony said, chuckling. "I think I win though."

"I haven't told you about Family Zemo yet," Steve answered just as lightly. "There's a horror unfathomable."

But Tony was even more mercurial than usual, and said with absolute sincerity, "You've been a constant, you know?"

"Oh?"

"I look back at what I had when I started this Iron Man thing, and there's not a lot left: no Avengers, no fiancée, no Happy and Pepper. Rhodey hates me. SE's more Stane than Stark lately, no matter how hard I try to clean it up. It's the armour and you."

Tony's head was still on his shoulder, and Steve wrapped his arm around Tony's waist and tugged him closer. "That's why I came," Steve told him. He leaned his cheek on Tony's perspiration-soaked hair. He wanted to kiss Tony, as he had so many times before, but that would be taking advantage, and how could he risk it, anyway? Would Tony be the one who stayed if he knew what Steve really wanted from him?

Beside him, Tony shifted slightly and relaxed into the half embrace, seeming to fall asleep against Steve. "I wish I could kiss you," he murmured, but Steve didn't think he realised that he'd said it aloud.

If he said it again when he was sober, Steve promised himself that he'd hold Tony to it.