Tony is explaining something extremely complicated at extreme length. Steve wouldn’t mind so much if he believed that Tony thought he could understand it. But Tony knows perfectly well that what he’s saying might as well be in another language for Steve. It’s something about the jet, but mostly about the effort Tony has put into it. Tony seems to just want someone there while he talks.
Clint looks over at Steve. “What do you think are the chances we could get him to shut up for a while?” Tony glares at them half-heartedly.
Thor laughs. “It is not a wager I would take.”
“I’m not saying permanently,” Clint says. “Just a little power down so the rest of us can get a break.”
Steve smiles. “We could borrow the-.” He taps his chest. “Would that work?”
Thor’s laughter almost covers up the sound of Tony dropping something. Steve turns to look at Tony, because that’s far more unusual than Thor being amused (gratified as Steve is to be the one to cause it). Tony makes a face and threatens, “I’ve got more than one of these now. How many shields do you have? Or hammers, for that matter.”
“You could not lift-,” Thor starts to explain.
Tony waves that thought away. “Anyway, better things to do than stand here and be insulted et cetera, et cetera. Call me when the world’s in danger.” He gathers his things and disappears out of the room.
Steve says, “That was strange.”
“Perhaps Tony is unaware that it is in the nature of the warrior bond to joke at each other’s expense?” Thor says.
Clint scoffs. “Can dish it out but can’t take it, you mean. He’ll get over it.”
Steve wouldn’t have thought that of Tony, who is usually the last person to take something seriously. And Steve has spent so much of his time among soldiers that he can’t fathom not just shrugging something like that off. Although Tony can be a little temperamental. In any case, Clint is right – Tony will be over it by tomorrow.
Tomorrow, the Mansion locks them out.
Natasha taps her foot. “What’s going on?”
Steve takes out his cellphone. Tony had programmed it for him, with himself as the first button, so it’s not difficult to make the thing call him. “Tony?”
“What?” Tony sounds mostly asleep.
“We can’t get into the Mansion.”
“Did you try asking nicely?”
“Jarvis runs the house. Maybe you insulted him.”
“Why would I…?” Steve looks around to where Natasha was standing, to see the door close behind her. He tries the door again. It still refuses to open. “It let Natasha in.”
Tony hums thoughtfully. “I don’t know what to tell you, Cap. I guess you’ll have to get your workout at SHIELD Headquarters instead. Say hi to Fury for me.”
The facilities at SHIELD are impressive – certainly more impressive than any of the boxing gyms Steve used to get laughed out of in Brooklyn. The one at the Mansion is still better. And it’s set up to withstand the abuse dealt out by Thor, never mind Steve. He’s already torn two punching bags from the ceiling.
Clint slams the door on his way into the gym. “What’s wrong with keys?”
“Did the house lock you out too?” Steve asks.
“Yeah. Also, I’m pretty sure Stark’s driver tried to kill me.”
“His car came barrelling round the corner, pulled up about a half-inch away from me.”
“Tony’s cars have pretty good brakes.”
“If they didn’t, I’d be a pretty good splatter on the asphalt.”
Steve thinks Clint is probably exaggerating. Still: “And the house?”
“Did you ask Tony?”
“Oh, Tony wasn’t in the car. I guess his guy was just driving it around for him? How am I supposed to know what goes on in that man’s head?”
“Tony’s not in the city?”
Clint shrugs. “He’s better at keeping tabs on us than we are on him. But I think he’s back in California.”
Steve had been pretty sure Tony was planning on being in New York through the weekend. He had said something, right before yesterday’s exercise, about buying a club in Manhattan for them to visit. Tony doesn’t take Steve’s claims about not being able to get drunk seriously. Steve calls Tony again, but there is no answer.
Tony doesn’t resurface until the middle of the next week when Coulson calls him in to consult on the design for the new Helicarrier. When Tony gets to the meeting, Coulson glares at him. “I can buy you a watch.”
“That’s a nice offer, but I couldn’t possibly accept. What would the other girls think?”
Coulson waits until he gets closer and then sighs. “Do we need to have the conversation about sleep again?”
“I see we’ve progressed from girlfriend to mother. Interesting.”
Coulson rubs his temples. Steve looks across him at Tony, who does seem as though he has missed some sleep lately. He could just be hungover, but there’s tension in the lines on his face. Steve reaches across the table to tap Tony’s arm. “Are you okay?”
Tony looks coolly at Steve’s hand until it is removed from his jacket. Tony says, “I’m fine.” He opens his briefcase and slides a folder across to Coulson. “We’re looking at seven billion, and that’s my conservative estimate.”
“You already have the design?”
“What can I say? I had some free time at lunch.”
Tony exhales, bored or pretending to be. “Look, Coulson, it’s done and I did it. Now can I go, or would you rather talk to me about my sleep habits some more?”
“As you’re all so fond of reminding me, this is only my part-time gig. I’m not a SHIELD agent or a soldier – I still have a multi-billion dollar company to run in the rest of my extensive spare time.”
Coulson protests but the words skim off Tony’s surface. He heads back out and Steve meets Clint’s eyes across the table. Something isn’t right with him.
Steve used to like planes. Or at least, he had no particular negative feelings about them. They got him where he needed to be, and that was as far as his thoughts went. Then he crashed one into the ocean, and they stopped being transport and started being coffins.
Steve keeps his mind off the vague disquiet most of the time. Tony wouldn’t take it well if Steve started insulting his tech. And the jets do tend to be a smooth ride.
Today, though, on the way into California, the jet wobbles once and Steve grabs the arm of the seat. “Tony?”
“The plane? That was a little unsettling.”
As predicted, Tony huffs and runs his hands over the controls. “I built this, Cap – it’s not going to crash with me in it.”
It’s just the two of them flying out today. Tony is meeting up with the Air Force out there, and Steve is supposed to be talking to a general about his vision for their team’s place in the US Defence strategy. This isn’t helping his nerves. Steve says, “I’m sure you’re right, I’m just-.”
The plane jolts sharply from side to side.
And then drops in a dive.
Tony taps the stick. “JARVIS!”
“Sir?” The all-knowing voice fills the air.
“Have we actually taken damage, or what’s going on here?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.”
“JARVIS,” Tony bites out, “we’re rapidly moving into psychopath territory. Or that would be HAL territory, to you.”
“I don’t care if you think that this is you helping - give me back control of the plane.”
“As you wish, sir.”
The plane levels out, just in time for them to start their final descent.
“What was that?” Steve asks.
Tony’s mouth is a grim line. “That’s what happens when you put a little too much ‘I’ into your AI. In both senses, I guess. Anyway. No harm done.”
“That didn’t answer the question.”
“Really? Well did you want me to answer the question, or fly the damn plane?”
They land safely at the Air Force base. Tony is greeted halfway to the buildings; Steve recognises Colonel Rhodes. Rhodes asks, “What happened?”
“What do you mean what happened?” Tony says.
“I mean I was watching you on radar when you came in.”
“You can’t see my plane on radar.”
“Fine, whatever you want to call your shiny new system, Tony. I can see your planes whenever the hell I want, and that one wasn’t flying right.”
“JARVIS pitched a hissy fit.”
“Because?” Rhodes asks.
“Because I managed to create the world’s first overprotective supercomputer?”
“Because Steve’s not a fan of turbulence, I guess.” Rhodes keeps looking at him and eventually Tony shakes his head and mutters, “And because JARVIS isn’t a fan of people threatening to unplug me. He’s touchy that way.”
Rhodes turns on his heel, walking towards Steve. “He did what?”
“Rhodey,” Tony says.
“Three times now, you’ve nearly died because of that thing being yanked out, or failing, or spreading crap through your system and he-.”
Tony paces after him. “Rhodey. Rhodey. I can safely say that whatever you’re thinking about doing, it’s dumber than anything I’ve ever managed. Do you really want that on your tombstone?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure that I outrank him, so I don’t really see the problem.”
“‘Captain’ is really more of an honorific and your righteous indignation will be a lot less comfort to you in the hospital. Rhodey!”
Rhodes stops a few feet away from Steve. He looks back at Tony and sighs at whatever he sees. “Fine. Come on, I want to show you what I was thinking about for an upgrade to the shoulder missiles.” He throws Steve another threatening look, and then allows Tony to wrap an arm around his shoulders and lead him away.
Steve is still processing ‘unplug me’. He thinks if Rhodes had gone for that punch he was contemplating, Steve might not have reacted in time to stop him.
Tony is supposed to be meeting him back on the plane, so they can both head back to New York. Steve gets there first, and cautiously opens the door. “Hello?”
Nothing talks back to him. That doesn’t mean it’s not there.
There is still a heavy silence. Maybe JARVIS goes where Tony does, although that wouldn’t explain the situation with the Mansion doors last week. Or, for that matter, the coffee maker or the ice machine. Steve probably should have put this together sooner. He tries talking to the computer anyway. “I’m sorry? If that helps. I didn’t realise.”
He’s still not entirely sure what he said. But Tony wasn’t being pissed off or unwilling to take a joke. He was upset. Steve hadn’t known that was something he could do to Tony. And it’s not something he knows how to fix.
Tony opens the door. “Ready to go?”
“Tony… I’m sorry about-.”
Tony cuts him off. “Okay. Ready, yes or no?”
“Yes, I’m ready, but- Tony, I didn’t mean to hurt you-.”
“And you didn’t. Rhodey overreacted. I explained things to him. And,” he says pointedly, “I explained things to JARVIS. Smooth flying all the way to New York, okay?” He climbs back down the steps.
“I’ve got a SHIELD guy flying you back, don’t worry. I have things to do here.”
“We’d really like to see you in the Mansion,” Steve says. “We miss you out there.”
Tony rolls his eyes. “Subtle. Real subtle, Rogers. And I’m busy. Go home. Try not to wreck my plane.”
A SHIELD agent replaces Tony in the doorway, nods at Steve once, and then makes them ready for take-off. He doesn’t talk. So that leaves Steve alone with his increasingly unhappy thoughts, all the way back to the city.
Tony can’t avoid the Mansion forever, seeing as how they still do have to fight super-powered criminals every now and then. His suit takes a knock in the fight, so he’s forced to use the workshop there to look it over. Steve follows him in.
Tony’s hands move quickly, sliding computer versions of the blueprints over the desk. Steve doesn’t understand any of it. And Tony always seems to enjoy explaining things. It feels like as good a place as any to start.
“Tell me how this works?” Steve touches the hand piece of the suit, which seems sufficiently non-threatening.
Tony stares at him. “That’s very cute. Now go off and play with your toys or something, some of us are working here.”
“Tony. I’m serious, I want to know.”
“And I want to discover the secret of teleportation, but unfortunately at the moment I’m ploughing all of my not-inconsiderable genius into redesigning Clint’s tracker-arrows. Nobody gets what they want.”
“What if something happens, and we need to know how to-.”
“If something happens with my suit, you guys will have to deal with the crisis on your own. You’ll manage. If something happens with the Arc Reactor, which I suspect is what this is really about, thank you for that Rhodey… If something happens to that, well then I’ll die horribly when my heart gets torn to mincemeat by pieces of slowly moving shrapnel. Either way, there won’t be anything anyone else can do about it. Let alone you, buddy, so can you give me some space to work here?”
“I’m fine, Steve. But I’m busy. Go be heroic somewhere else.”
Steve has nowhere else to be. And Steve does have one quality that Tony definitely lacks: Steve has patience. He sits on the floor at the other side of the workshop, and spreads today’s newspaper out in front of him.
Tony huffs an annoyed breath, but doesn’t try to make him leave.
When Bruce comes down to work on one of Tony’s computers, he stares at Steve a little bit. Steve is used to being stared at. He doesn’t let it move him. And now that Tony has someone there who might understand him, he starts speaking. Steve tries to follow it for a little while, but it’s easier just to let the physics-talk wash over him.
He must drift off for a moment; he’s startled awake with a bang, confused on the cold floor.
Tony says, surprisingly quiet, “You’re fine, it was just a hydraulics hiccup.”
“This is why we don’t encourage falling asleep in the workshop.”
“Go away, Steve.”
Attempts three through six involve varying combinations of alcohol, loud music, and offers to go with Tony to the kinds of places which fill Steve with dread. He recruited Clint and Thor after his first suggestion for a Tony-appropriate bar was met with bewildered laughter.
Clint pinched his lips together mulishly for a moment and then said, “I still don’t see- fine, okay, yeah, that was probably a line-crosser. But we couldn’t have known that.”
Steve said, “I was the one who said-. Not you.”
“Well, we started it,” Clint said. “And in his defence, for all the blowing his own trumpet shit, the new arrows are pretty spectacular.”
Thor nodded solemnly. “We must show Tony that we are grieved to have offended him.”
When they attempt to relay this information to Tony, through two invites to join them on nights out, and a final, desperate ‘throwing a party in the Mansion’ ploy, he shrugs. “No one’s offended.”
Clint says, “You make it really difficult to apologise, you know that?”
Tony’s smile is brittle. “And I’m really very sorry about that. Look: easy. Now for the love of God will you leave me alone?”
The circles around his eyes are darker than usual.
Natasha appears from nowhere. “Tony, you promised me a sparring session.” This seems like a terrible idea to Steve – Tony is already swaying on his feet - but he knows that protesting about it will get him nowhere.
An hour or so later, the two of them emerge out of the gym. Tony still looks exhausted but the tension he was carrying has dissipated. He mumbles, “I’m going to lie down.”
Steve waits fifteen minutes before going to stand outside the door of Tony’s room. There is no noise: he must really be asleep. Natasha must have known that would work.
Steve was better with things like this once. Not women, or romance, but with friends, like he and Tony were starting to be before all this happened. He would have known how to fix this once. Everything about Tony is more difficult than it should be.
Steve wakes up at two a.m. with an idea. He finds his cell phone, glowing in the dark of his room.
Tony programmed this thing. This meant that it didn’t originally have the numbers of anyone at SHIELD, so Coulson’s number was impossible to find and yet still had its own ominous ringtone. It also had Ms Potts number programmed in, because anyone who might need to call Tony might need to call her first.
Steve presses the button and waits.
A tired-sounding female voice asks, “Tell me why I shouldn’t hang up on you?”
“I’m sorry about the time, ma’am.”
“Oh, that’s not why I should hang up.”
“Yes. Oh. Your only saving grace right now is that I was somehow the last to be told about what was going on in his screwy little head. So as my punishment for not fully investigating why Tony was in one of his moods, I will allow you to say your piece. Although I still reserve the right to respond by hanging up on you.”
She sighs. “Ms Potts is fine. We may even work our way up to Pepper one of these days. So. Why are you calling me, Captain?”
“I need to apologise to Tony.”
“Did you try saying sorry?”
“Yes, of course. More than once.”
“Well, clearly he’s decided that he’s not ready to forgive you yet. Maybe you should just accept that.”
“And why is that?”
There’s a squirming feeling between his shoulder blades, like the guilt is worming its way through him. Steve doesn’t know how to explain that on the telephone. “I didn’t mean to upset him.”
“I’m sure you didn’t. But there are things that you don’t- there are things you don’t joke about with Tony. Just like there are things Tony would never joke about with you.”
“But if he… if he hit against one of them by mistake. He wouldn’t just wait. He would try to fix it.”
She is quiet on the phone for a long moment. “Tony doesn’t deal well with waiting. He’s not your best example.”
“But he’s the only- I can’t just sit and wait while the two of us are so…”
“You know I can’t help you with this. I’m still pretty mad at you.”
“So why did you call?”
He shrugs, even knowing she can’t see it. “I had to try everything.”
There’s a small sound that could be laughter or a sigh. “You’ll figure it out.”
“Do you really think so?”
“Yes,” she says. “I really do.”
Tony is due back at the Mansion tomorrow morning. Steve is determined to have come up with an appropriate plan by that time. He decides to examine the problem from all angles, and starts to make a list. It helps him to see things on paper.
Unsuccessful attempts to fix things with Tony:
- saying ‘I’m sorry’
- showing an interest in his work
- spending more social time with him
- listening to him talk about his work
Need to be more proactive?
Things I haven’t tried yet:
- presents? (Con: Tony has everything he wants, and lots of money. What could I buy him that he doesn’t have/I can afford?)
- saving his life in battle? (Con: Tony is currently winning the ‘saving each other’s life’ count by two. Would need to save him three more times. Con 2: would prefer not to endanger his life in my efforts.)
- talk to Ms Potts again? (Con: she has made it clear I am not to do this.)
Steve stares at the page, looking for more inspiration. He doodles idly, trying to think of an idea with some prospect of success. But he’s tired, and running the same plans endlessly through his mind has the same effect as counting sheep.
When Steve wakes up, pre-dawn light is breaking through the window, and Tony is watching him from the breakfast bar. Tony takes a drink of his coffee and then waves a piece of paper at him. “This was interesting reading.”
Steve half-rises from his chair, meaning to snatch the list from Tony. Except that, while he could certainly do it, it won’t fix anything now.
Tony says, “The flowers, I thought, were a particularly nice touch.”
“I didn’t write-.”
“No. That was one of the illustrated sections. Nice detailing on your glove. And on my repulsors, actually. I know it’s in your file but I keep forgetting about the whole artist thing.”
“You get that it’s not really about you, right?”
“Sorry?” Steve isn’t awake enough to be following this conversation. He feels that a lot in conversations with Tony, even when he hasn’t been woken unexpectedly from a four-hour nap on the kitchen table.
“See that right there?” Tony says. “If it was about you, sorry probably would have done it. Everybody’s happy. But this is about me, and I was still- it’s not pleasant, being pushed back into a memory you don’t like. Especially when you’re not expecting it, and there’s nothing you can do about it – we’ve discussed my control issues, right? - and especially when it’s coming from someone who-.”
“I really am sorry.”
“I know you are. And it’s been a while now, so let’s draw a line, okay? Metaphorically speaking this time, although I’m not adverse to some more of your illustrations of our misadventures.”
Steve flushes. “Those really weren’t for...” He trails off, because Tony is looking at him.
“I genuinely can’t believe you’re real, some days.”
Steve doesn’t know what to do with that expression on Tony’s face, but it’s so much better than the other one. So he just smiles back.
Tony’s eyes widen and then he hides them behind his red-tinted sunglasses. “Right then. Time to get to work, I guess.”
“We’re okay,” he says. “You and me, we’re going to be fine.” Tony had said that dozens of times in the past two weeks, to every inquiry Steve had made. But he looks like he means it this morning. He means something else too, but Steve hasn’t quite worked that one out yet. He has some of the pieces, but not enough to risk a question.
“I should…” Steve says. “Go and get washed up, I guess.”
“You do that,” Tony says. “I’m going to stick around here for a while. Barton’s been talking about showing off the new designs for me, so I thought I’d take a day. You should come.”
Steve nods. “I’d like that. We can discuss tactics? And maybe you can try and explain how they work again?”
Tony grins down at the table and mouths something that looks like another ‘unbelievable’ before smiling up at Steve. And that feels like another piece, falling right into place.