Another battle, another attack, another plan that goes pear-shaped when they don’t quite manage to pull themselves together in time. Steve wants to throw down his shield—literally and metaphorically—standing in the rubble of one of New York’s smaller parks. Iron Man stands across from him, and the damned suit hides all body language, but Steve knows Tony well enough after half a year of covert, careful watching to know that he’s defensive right now.
“Why?” he snaps, temper pushed nearly to breaking, and he’s always had this problem, always lost it too easily when those he cares for are on the line.
And he cares for Tony. God, does he ever.
“Why?” he repeats, throttling the urge to break something further. “Tony, you can't do this. You can't come to battle tipsy. It will get one of us killed.” The cowl is in the way, but Steve drags his hands over it in lieu of his hair. “Tony, why? You could be better.”
There's no answer from the man of iron, just the burn of repulsors firing and taking him away.
But that’s fine. Steve wasn’t expecting one, regardless.
Tony drunk is something Steve's had practice dealing with. All of the Avengers have, after late nights out or parties or life going to hell—though Tony's only once been truly, dangerously drunk, and that was after the disastrous, fiery end of his and Pepper’s relationship. They all know how to pick Tony up and herd him into his room, chivvy him into bed without get pulled along after him. They know when it’s better just to let him fight tipsy, and when they need to bench him; when to go down to the workshop and make sure he hasn’t drunken himself into a coma. Steve can handle Tony drunk.
Tony sober is something else entirely.
The first clue that something’s changed comes on a Friday night. Steve is in the kitchen, watching Clint make goulash and argue with Natasha about whether it constitutes Russian food. Bruce is next to him, scribbling frantically at his pad—the only way they were able to drag him out of his lab, even though Steve's fairly certain he hasn’t eaten in over eighteen hours. It’s peaceful enough, though, with the warm smell of tomatoes and paprika filling the air, loaves of reheated bread cooling on the counter and a nice glass of zinfandel at his elbow. Steve is…happy.
And then Tony wanders into the kitchen, hair chaotic and face smeared with grease. He’s wearing an ancient AC/DC shirt that’s more holes than cloth and a pair of extraordinarily ratty jeans that are just about falling off his hips, and his feet are bare and oil-stained.
They all stop what they're doing and stare at him, a little stunned, because it’s nine o’clock on a Friday night and Tony Stark is at home.
Tony gives them all a vague wave, snatching a couple of paper towels and making a vain attempt to get the grease off his skin, and then asks, “Is there enough for one more, or are you going to stiff your landlord and let him starve to death when he’s been working his ass off to keep a roof over your heads?”
That, at least, is entirely the Stark that Steve is familiar with, and he rolls his eyes a bit. Clint beats him to speech, though, huffing out a snort. “Well, with that humble appeal, I don’t see how we could ever refuse,” he drawls, but there's no heat to it—they're all still clearly off balance in the face of this disruption of their routine. Tony's gone out, partying and drinking and…and carousing (no matter how much it makes Steve feel like a crotchety old grandfather to use that word) every Friday since they moved in.
Trading a silent but loaded glance with Bruce—who’s actually put his pad down and stopped working in the face of this development—Natasha heads for the cupboard that holds the glasses and glances back at Tony with raised brows. “Red or white wine?” she asks politely.
Tony waves her off and pulls open the fridge, choosing a pitcher of iced tea. “Nah, just a juice glass is fine,” he says casually, as though he isn’t upsetting the entire order of the natural world in doing so. “I’m working on some stuff in the lab I need to get back to. Caffeine’ll do me good.”
Natasha’s brows come down in a deep frown, and this time they're all trading looks. Natasha slowly takes down an elegant blown-glass cup and hands it over, and Tony takes it and fills it, humming something Steve vaguely recognizes under his breath.
“‘Tiptoe Thru the Tulips’, really?” Bruce asks incredulously. “What happened to the mullet rock?”
Tony pauses and lowers his glass, narrowing his eyes at the other scientist. “I resent that,” he says with a great deal of wounded dignity. “My horizons are very broad, I’ll have you know.”
Natasha snorts the way she always does when she’s turned an innocent remark dirty in her head, and Steve feels his ears grow hot by reflex, even though it’s not directed at him for once.
“Hey!” Tony protests, pointing a finger at her in a way he likely thinks is menacing, but standing there in his bare feet he’s just about Natasha's height, and the loose clothes make him look scrawny, despite the muscle that Steve knows is there.
(Not that Steve's been looking, he’s just—he needs to know the physical capabilities of all the Avengers, he’s team leader and that’s the kind of thing a team leader knows, right?)
“Hey, that remark was totally innocent, and I won't stand for you twisting the words in my mouth,” Tony protests, taking a seat next to Bruce with an offended huff. “I'm behaving myself, okay? Bad assassin!”
“I resemble that remark,” Clint says solemnly, settling the pot in the middle of the table, and Tony cracks up. Bruce chuckles, Natasha rolls her eyes, and Steve smiles as the tension dissipates.
None of them ask Tony when he’s there. They don’t offer him wine again, and instead of breaking out the vodka after dinner the way she’d mentioned earlier, Natasha makes them all hot chocolate with chili powder and marshmallows.
It’s great, and Steve can't remember the last time one of their nights was ‘great’ rather than merely ‘nice.’
Four days after the dinner, Steve surfaces from a novel—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, because he’s trying to catch up with the literary greats that have come since his time—to find that the main room is dark and everyone else has drifted off, the movie long since over. He puts his book down with a sigh, and is just about to ask JARVIS to turn on the lights when he realizes that he’s not quite as alone as he’d thought. Tony is on the other couch, head bent over a tablet as his stylus moves frantically. He’s muttering under his breath, strings of incomprehensible statistics and percentages and equations, doing math almost faster than the answer can appear on the screen in front of him. There's a plane coming together under his pen, something sleek and elegant and beautiful, even to Steve, whose knowledge of planes encompasses how to crash one and goes little further.
Steve can't quite manage to look away from him.
But there's a bottle of water sitting next to Tony instead of his usual glass of scotch, and it catches Steve's attention more than anything else about the scene. Tony always has a glass of scotch, or bourbon, or whiskey, or vodka, or…just, always.
But now he doesn’t. In fact, Steve can't remember seeing him gravitate towards the bar once in the last few days. Can't even remember him looking at it.
Something’s changed, and Steve doesn’t understand what it is.
With a soft huff that’s equal parts carefully contained frustration and smug satisfaction, Tony drops his pen and leans back into the cushions, flexing his fingers. He looks vaguely surprised at the darkness around them, and orders, “JARVIS, lights.”
The sudden brilliance leaves them both blinking, and Steve asks, “Done?” with a nod towards the tablet.
Tony visibly perks up, the way he does whenever anyone asks him about an invention—anything but the arc reactor in his chest—and he grins. “Almost,” he says. “’Cause, you know, it’s great that Thor and I can fly, and the Big Guy certainly has no trouble getting around, but it’s a pain to have to wait for one of my private planes when we’re going as a team, and the Board of Directors keeps giving me dirty looks for using SI’s. Plus, all of SHIELD’s stuff is, like, from forty years ago and cleverly repurposed, only not so cleverly, and anyway, hey, why use this year’s model when I can create one that makes everything else look like Kirk’s Enterprise compared to Picard’s? Not that I'm supporting TNG in regards to anything except the Borg, but, you know, clear advantages and all that. Right?”
“Whatever you say, Tony,” Steve agrees, amused—and a little relieved, because this is the same manic, brilliant Tony he’s used to, but minus…well, a buzz, for starters. And a drunk Tony is a vicious Tony, who knows exactly where to aim his barbs so that they do the most damage but doesn’t have enough self-control to keep his mouth shut. Drunk Tony would have made some remark about relics of the past and picked at Steve's lack of pop culture knowledge, while this one just grins at him, high with the thrill of his work and more than ready to share it. Steve smiles back—can't do anything else, because Tony's eyes are like chocolate in the low light, and his hair is falling over his face, softening the angles into something almost sweet. Still…
“Are you going to sleep?” Steve asks sternly, even though he might as well not, with Tony on the verge of a marathon inventing streak as he is.
But, to his surprise, Tony cocks his head and considers for a moment, then nods. “Yeah,” he says, fingers flying to save his work and shut down the tablet. “Yeah, I think I will. Can't do any more with this until I start a prototype, and JARVIS will probably lock me out of the lab if I go down there right now.”
“I wouldn’t dare, sir,” the AI drawls from somewhere above them, but there’s something so smugly satisfied in his tone that Steve suspects he’s only saying that because he’s gotten his way.
“Ah, JARVIS, you lie so sweetly,” Tony bemoans, but he’s smiling as he tosses the computer to the side and gets to his feet, stretching. “I'm certain I never taught you that, you sneaky bastard.”
“I have impeccable role models,” JARVIS demurs, and Tony barks out a laugh.
“Keep it up and I’ll have you belting show tunes whenever someone asks for you,” he threatens, even as he tosses Steve a smile and a wave and saunters out of the room.
Steve doesn’t watch him go, and he doesn’t watch the sway of those lean hips or the curve of that ass.
He certainly doesn’t jump when Natasha leans in from behind him and murmurs, “Hate it when he leaves, but just love to watch him go, hmm?”
Steve feels like his face is about to spontaneously combust. He stutters out something that might vaguely resemble a goodnight and hightails it from the room, trailing tattered dignity behind him all the way.
The next day, Tony catches Steve in the hallway, beautiful in a tattered tank top and stained jeans the way he never is in those bespoke suits he hides behind. Steve smiles at him as he passes, bright and friendly, and Tony falters. It’s uncommon enough that Steve pauses too, beginning to frown with concern.
“Tony?” he asks. “Are you—?”
“Steve,” Tony cuts him off in a rush, his words all but blurring with speed—not an over-caffeinated kind of speed, but nerves and anticipation and a verbal way of bracing himself for a blow. “Steve, I'm…I'm better now, right?”
It’s only then that Steve remembers his words that day, sharp with frustration and regret, because he can't yell at Howard anymore for what he did to his son, can't take out his grief on a dead man, but Tony's always there and…
Regret chokes him up, settles in his chest and wraps itself around his throat, but he manages a strangled, “Tony, of course—”
Tony doesn’t let him finish that, either. “Steve, I’m—trying.” He twitches and looks away, drops his gaze to the side before snapping it back, and his dark eyes are wide and entreating, a plea he’ll never let himself speak. “The bar is empty,” he says abruptly, and with anyone else it would seem like a non-sequitur.
But Steve understands, knows, and in that moment all of his restraint is gone. He takes a step forward, hands rising to cup Tony's face, and kisses him. Not hard, not desperate, but sweet and soft and careful, and Tony answers with everything, meets him halfway without a hint of hesitation.
“God, I love you,” Steve breathes as they separate.
Tony grins up at him, brilliant and gorgeous and so much more than Steve's ever really thought he could have, was allowed to have. It’s not Peggy in dancing shoes, not a date at the Stork Club, but it’s Tony Stark, who gave up drinking, just because Steve told him he could be better, and that’s somehow a world beyond anything else. He changed his life for Steve.
How can Steve do any less than the same for him?