It's not a particularly great day to be an Avenger. Spider-Man is limping as they board the quinjet and Spider-Woman's favoring her left hand. Power Man and Wolverine aren't hurt, at least, but neither of them exactly came out of the fight looking like winners.
Tony's glad for his helmet as he guides the quinjet back to Stark Tower. The new team wouldn't benefit from seeing his face right now, and Steve probably already knows what he's thinking, given the way he's determinedly not glancing over at Tony, even though he's sitting in the copilot's seat.
Steve's shoulders are so stiff and straight Tony's a little worried for his back muscles, and he hasn't said a word since the UFoes slipped out of their grasp.
With even the sound of the engines buffered, the silence is suffocating. It’s their first real failure as a team (not counting the initial Raft riot, because he’s not holding them responsible for that), and they’re not taking it well. Not that they ever do; if there's one common thread among superheroes Tony’s noticed over the years, it’s a tendency to take anything less than success as defeat.
"Well," Spider-Man says as Tony finishes the landing procedures and starts shutting down the systems, "That sucked." He’s applying butterfly bandages to a gash on his foot, spots of blood staining his suit a darker red. Tony makes a note to call the Night Nurse as soon as Peter agrees to an appointment. His arm's only just healed from the fight during the prison break, and they need everyone at their best.
Luke snorts. "That's one way to put it." He’s got his arms crossed, his shoulders hunched up near his ears.
"It was sloppy is what it was," Logan says, scowling at everyone. It’s not too different from Logan's usual expression though, so Tony's not going to attach too much importance to it.
"No one wins every day," Jessica says, still cradling her hand. They'll want to get that looked at too, probably. Tony spares a wistful thought for the days when they had Hank McCoy on the team, or even Hank Pym. Someone with a little more medical knowledge. Tony's the only one on this team without powers but they're still going to need more than basic first aid sometimes.
They're all looking at Steve, he realizes, even Logan. Looking for hope or a pat on the back or some kind of validation, maybe. It's an expression he knows by heart.
"We'll have to be better," Steve says, frowning, and there's a collective slumping of shoulders.
"Everyone get some rest," Tony says when it becomes obvious Steve's not going to say anything more. "I know you all have a change of clothes here somewhere, and Jarvis can send out for anything else you need. Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, get yourselves a medical opinion on those injuries. If you don’t have someone to go to I’ll make a call to the Night Nurse. We'll need you both at full strength when the next call comes in."
It's a dismissal, and they all know it. They file out of the passenger compartment silently, Spider-Man glancing over at Cap once or twice as he hops out awkwardly, and Tony hangs back, waiting for Steve to shake himself out of whatever funk he's fallen into. He's frowning, his eyes unfocused, hands running back and forth over the rim of the shield over and over, like just the feel of it could give him the answers he's looking for.
I did try to tell you, Tony thinks. It's so tempting to say it. Maybe it would shock a reaction out of his friend. Maybe it would just make things worse.
He sighs and takes off the helmet. His hair is damp on his neck and forehead, and he could really use a shower, but apparently he's doing the team leader thing again, and that means hashing out the next steps now, while they're still glaringly aware of their failings.
"Agility training for Power Man and Wolverine," he suggests, setting the helmet down on an empty seat and pulling at the manual catches for the gauntlets. "Tandem flight for the Spider-people. Some combo drills in two and three-man teams, maybe simulations against some of the escapees we have personal experience with."
He sets the gauntlets next to the helmet and reaches up for the chest plate. At least Steve is looking at him now, even if he doesn't seem to be entirely present yet.
"We can invite MJ and Jessica Jones here maybe, get Xavier's help with Logan. Convince everyone to spend a few weeks actually living here. Shake some of the kinks out."
Steve shakes his head, still frowning.
"They shouldn't have fallen apart like that," he says.
"They're still new to this," Tony reminds him. "It took a while to get Wanda, Pietro and Clint into shape too."
He doesn't mention that Wanda and Pietro had already been used to working together. That Clint's hero-worship of Steve had towered even above Spider-Man's. They'd all been looking for redemption. This new team is a whole different challenge.
He tries not to think about what happened to that team, in the end.
"You're unusually calm about this," Steve says, a hint of a smile on his lips. "You're stealing all my lines."
Tony quirks an eyebrow at him. "I've been at this even longer than you have, Winghead. I know this dance. Besides," he leans the chest- and back plates against the seat and starts working on his boots. "None of this is the part of starting up the team I had reservations about, if you'll remember."
There's a twist of bitterness there, he can't help it. He'll never say that Steve was wrong - the city does need them, and Tony had been drifting a bit without the anchor of the Avengers in his life, but it does rankle that he's still bearing the brunt of the team's support.
Steve at least has the grace to look apologetic.
"I'll tell Jessica to call SHIELD as soon as I can, give them an update," he says, but Tony's already shaking his head.
"Did it while we were still on the ground. Rang the Foundation too, to see about the property damage." He steps out of the boots and piles the leg armor carefully. The undersuit is stuck to his skin, pulling uncomfortably under his arms and over his knees now that it's exposed to open air.
Steve frowns at him. "You didn't have to—"
"Yeah, I did actually," Tony interrupts. "The sooner we give notice, the less time the press has to speculate. But the Foundation can't keep doing this." He spreads his hands helplessly. "There just isn't enough money, Steve. Even without wages, without the UN breathing down our necks, there's still property damage to take care of and jets to repair and SHIELD to fence with. And if we don't do those things we're just a handful of vigilantes, and the public will eat us alive eventually. Like they did with Daredevil. There are people out there that still think re-forming the team is just painting a bigger target on New York."
Steve looks pained, but Tony knows he can't help but see this too.
"So what do we do?" he asks, looking back at the shield, his frown more sad than frustrated now.
Tony sighs. They can't disband the team. Even if all the Raft escapees were back behind bars, he couldn't do that to Steve again. He doesn't want to.
"We get better. We train, we get some good press, and if we have to, we straight-up ask people for money. The Foundation's having a fundraiser in a few weeks. If we make an appearance and press the flesh for a few hours we might actually be able to make a dent in the costs we're racking up."
Steve rubs his hand over his face.
"You know I've never been very good at that," he says, and Tony can't help but snort.
"You're excellent at it, people love giving you money just because you show up and smile at them, you just don't like taking it. But I'm gonna need you to get over that because I can't run this whole campaign by myself." He catches Steve's gaze and holds it. "I need you to be there, in uniform if necessary, in your mess dress if not. My name doesn't carry nearly as much weight as it used to."
Steve nods, reluctant, but Tony knows it's as good as a promise from anyone else.
"Just let me know when," Steve says, "For now I'll draw up some training scenarios and talk to the others about being here for practice."
"Great." Tony sighs, tension bleeding out of his shoulders. "You'd think, after ten years of this we'd have it down. I don't remember it being quite so tiring. I feel like my bones'll creak if I move too fast."
Steve smiles at that.
"You must be getting old, Shellhead. Stiff and forgetful."
"Har, har, old man. Not everyone can be a perfect specimen of humanity all the time." Tony says. “Armor: Assemble. Return to the lab.”
Steve stands to walk beside him, shield in hand. "We could always work on that, you know. You've stayed in good shape, but a little more training never hurts." His smile turns to a grin. "Want to meet me in the gym after you change out of that thing?” He gestures at the undersuit.
Tony lets himself be tempted for a moment. One-on-one time with Steve is something to be treasured, the memories stored up against his bad days, when nothing goes right and he's so close to crawling inside a bottle that he has to lock himself in the workshop and cut the communicator channels until he's able to subsume the yearning into a project, a new design, anything he can do to keep his hands busy.
Steve is a lifeline he clings to, especially after Rumiko. He’s a talisman to remind Tony that he can be better, that he should. That there's something worth more to him than the oblivion that comes with drinking.
But then, hand-to-hand training is pretty one-sided, and he can never quite keep himself from getting distracted by Steve's shoulders when he should be watching for tells, or his chest when he should be blocking blows.
He shakes his head.
"I'll have to take a raincheck on that one, Cap. I need to get over to the office and make sure no one's found a new way to run my company into the ground."
And it's not even a lie - he'd promised Pepper he'd do his paperwork, promised the board he'd have specs for a new phone upgrade by the end of the week. But he could've blown that off a little longer, if he'd wanted to. It's just ... He's only just gotten this part of his life back - no need to risk it over his continuing crush on America's favorite icon. It would be just the sort of bad decision he's best at.
Steve looks disappointed, but he just claps a hand to Tony's shoulder on his way out of the quinjet.
"I'll hold you to that, Shellhead. We've got some catching up to do ourselves."
Yeah, Tony thinks, You got it, Cap.
Tony's elbow-deep in microchip blueprints when his phone rings. It’s Steve’s ringtone, so he digs it out from under the jumble of folders covering his desk.
"What do you need, Cap?" He pins the phone between his cheek and shoulder and goes back to searching through the blueprints. He'd had it right here, not too long ago—
"Are you going to be back for dinner?" Steve asks, his voice slightly distorted by the electronics. Better microphones and speakers for the new phone, Tony makes a note. Then he looks around for a clock.
"Uh, I—" According to the display on his laptop it's just after 6:00. "Probably not," he admits, "why?"
"I thought we could make it a team meeting, talk about training and the moving idea you mentioned."
Damn. He really should be there for that. Maybe if he takes some of this home, spends a few hours after they eat—
"What time, do you think?" he asks, finally finding the missing print and rolling it up quickly. "I'm still at the office, but I can wrap things up here, get there by—" he squints at the clock. "—7:30." He winces.
"It's not a worry Tony. If you're not here when we start we'll wait before we talk about the serious stuff."
Which is nice of Steve to say and all, but Tony’s one of the leaders of this thing. He should be there.
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he says.
Just over an hour later Tony debates changing into the armor, but it’s really not the most comfortable thing to eat in so just takes the elevator up and ditches his jacket in his rooms, rolls up his sleeves and shows up in the common area as Jarvis is clearing away the food. Peter’s wearing his costume with his mask scrunched up over his nose and Steve’s got his mail on under a jacket, but the rest of them are in casual clothes. Neither Luke nor Logan looks happy to be there.
“Tony,” Steve gets up to clap him on the back. “Glad you could make it.”
"Sorry I'm late," Tony said. "Looks like I missed a good meal."
"We saved you a plate, Master Anthony," Jarvis says as he passes them.
"I'll get it," Steve offers, disappearing into the kitchen.
"Thanks," Tony calls after him. There are still a few empty seats at the table (he's putting it down to nostalgia, but a table for 10 in a dining room he was never expecting to share isn't as easy to explain as the quinjets), so he picks one where he'll have a decent chance of meeting most of his teammates eyes. It puts him on the opposite end of the table from Steve with empty chairs between him and anyone else, but it can't be helped.
Possibly he should get a round table up here, but Luke and Peter would probably never let him live it down.
"Did you get that hand checked out?" he asks Jessica.
She shrugs and holds up her hand, showing off a light splint. "SHIELD took care of it."
"I wish my job offered that kind of medical coverage," Peter complains. "Nurse Carter’s going to get tired of seeing me at this rate."
"SI has openings in R&D, if you're interested," Tony offers. "We have excellent benefits packages."
"It used to be the Avengers had a pretty good benefits package." Luke points out.
He’s probably thinking about Jess and the kid on the way. They’ll deal with that when the day comes. For now, Tony just shrugs. "Believe it or not, I am not actually made of money."
"And yet, you've still opened your home to us," Steve says, setting a plate of steak and potatoes and a full salad bowl in front of him. "For which we're grateful."
"It wouldn't be the same without a secret hideout," Jessica says, smiling.
"It's not gonna stay secret for very long, not if we keep meeting like this," Logan says.
"You're right," Steve says, taking his seat. "It won't. But we'll deal with that when we have to. For the moment we have more pressing concerns."
They all turn to listen, and Tony concentrates on eating. There'll be a point when Steve asks for his input, but for now Tony's happy to stay in the background.
Steve talks about teamwork, about what happened with the UFoes. He pulls up diagrams and points out weaknesses, shifts in the battle that could've been avoided. Moments they should've taken advantage of. He highlights moments of cohesion and how they fell apart and outlines a training program that Tony could've designed himself—agility, endurance, powers applications, duo and trio cross-training. Tony watches their teammates. Luke settles back into his chair, crossing his arms. Jessica leans on her elbows, looking more like a SHIELD agent than she's seemed since Steve recruited her.
As Steve's winding down, Peter leans forward.
"So, what you’re saying is that basically, we suck and you're going to take us back to school so we can try again," he says.
"No, what I'm saying is that it takes practice to create good teamwork and we could all use some practice," Steve says, patient confidence practically radiating from him.
"Every team has a different feel to it," Tony adds, trying to catch Jessica's eyes. "We have to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses instinctively, we have to know what we can trust each other to do and when someone might need help. It's just part of being an Avenger."
"So I assume you and Cap will be joining us in these 'exercises'?" Luke asks, leaning over his crossed arms.
"Of course," Steve assures him. "Tony and I need to get used to working with all of you just as much as you need to get used to working with us and each other."
Luke raises an eyebrow, and Logan snorts.
"What?" Tony asks.
"You two act like you're the only ones on the field, sometimes, you know that?"
Steve shakes his head. "We're used to working together, that's not—"
"Hey, I get it.” Luke holds up his hands, placating. “Captain America and Iron Man, founding Avengers, ten years of building a legacy—you guys have fought some serious people together and God knows you're practically joined at the hip, but it does seem to make you a bit blind to the rest of us sometimes."
"Steve's not actually a founding Avenger," Tony says before he can stop himself.
They all stare at him.
"Sorry, sorry, old, ah, inside joke, don't worry about it, please continue."
"You have concerns, Luke?" Steve says, ignoring Tony's fumbling.
"I just want to make sure that when we do these drills, we include some where you guys aren't on the same team or gunning for the same objective."
"Agreed," Steve says. "Let me know if you have any specifics you'd like to work over—Tony's got a pretty sophisticated system set up. There are a lot of scenarios we can simulate."
"Ok,” Jess nods, “So what's the second thing you wanted to talk about?"
"I think it'd be good for our teamwork if we all lived here for a week or two at least," Steve says.
"Uh, no." Peter raises his hand. "Can I vote no? I vote no."
"I agree with him," Luke jerks his thumb in Peter's general direction. "No way. I've got a pregnant wife, I'm not leaving her alone to play families with all of you."
"You can bring your families, if you like," Tony offers. "I have plenty of space here."
They’re hesitant, all of them. Steve meets his eyes across the table. He’s frowning a little, the lines around his eyes a little tense, but his shoulders are straight and his hands are hidden by the table.
“I’ll do it,” Jessica says, and Tony flicks his gaze to her. She leans on her elbow and tucks her hair behind her ear.
“Your guest rooms are probably better than my SHIELD apartment, anyway,” she says.
Tony smirks. “I’ll see what I can do,” he tells her.
“Me too,” Logan says, leaning back in his chair, arms crossed. “I don’t know what kind of deal you worked out with the Professor, Stark, but he’s on board with me being here 24/7 if that’s what it takes.”
“Thank you, Logan,” Steve says, his frown lifting a bit.
Tony glances between Luke and Peter, waiting.
Luke breaks first, heaving a long sigh and settling his elbows on the table.
“I’ll talk to Jess. See what she wants to do.” He stares up at Tony, turns to Steve. “That’s not a guarantee. I’m not moving her up here if she’s not comfortable with it.”
They all look to Peter. He wrinkles his nose.
“Come on guys, stop, I’ll talk to people, Ok? But I’ve got a day job to go to, and my identity to protect. It’s alright for you,” he nods at Tony, “Tony Stark and Iron Man both live here. But there’s gotta be a pretty airtight reason for Peter Parker to be going in and out of Stark Tower.”
“I really could hire you,” Tony offers. “I know you’ve got a brain in there somewhere. I could hire your wife too. SI always needs more competent people.”
Peter shakes his head. “I happen to like my job, thanks.”
“Just think about it,” Steve says, placating. “It doesn’t have to happen overnight.”
Peter nods, and that seems to be it. Steve looks around at everyone.
“Ok then. We’ll have the first training session tomorrow at 17:30 to allow for Tony and Peter’s schedules. Everyone good with that?”
They all nod, and the tension at the base of Tony’s neck eases a little. It’s not like it was, of course, but it’s not a disaster, either. They’ll pull it together. And with Steve leading them they’ll do it quickly.
He smiles through the pleasantries as they get up to leave—Jess will move her stuff in over the next few days, Logan grunts something about bringing a duffel bag over next time they have a mission—and then they’re filing out the door and Tony’s left staring at his mostly-empty plate, trying to decide whether he’s disappointed or relieved that they didn’t all just take the offer immediately.
“Thanks for doing this, Tony.”
When Tony looks up, Steve’s standing by the stairs, apparently just waiting for him.
“Doing what?” Tony asks.
“Inviting the team here. You didn’t have to do that, you—” Steve pauses and Tony cocks his head at him. Steve shrugs. “I know you’re short on time, and I know you’ve got a lot on your plate, and I just—thank you.” He smiles, and Tony finds himself smiling back. He’s probably smiled more over the past week in conversations that involved Steve and the new Avengers than he had in the month previous.
“We do need a place to meet, and even if I can’t really bankroll the team right now, I do have the most space to offer," he says.
“This is a lot more than just a place to meet, Tony.”
Tony shrugs, uncomfortable. Steve gives more of his time and energy to the team than Tony could ever manage to. Money and space are sometimes the best he can do.
“It’s stuff I had anyway, Steve, it’s really not a big deal.”
Steve shakes his head.
“Tony, you just opened up your home to us. You gave us places to sleep and train as well as a place to plan. That’s—” He stares at the floor for a moment. “Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. It’s the second time around for me, after all.”
Tony swallows, his throat clicking in his ears. He still visits the mansion sometimes. The garden’s mostly intact. He can’t quite bring himself to walk the halls.
“Speaking of,” he says as casually as he can manage, “Are you staying? Did you want to pick out a room?”
Steve chuckles. “I’d love to.”
There are, admittedly, a lot of rooms for Steve to choose from. There are some by the hanger, or the gym, or the training room. But Tony’s pretty sure Steve, being Steve, is going to want a room close to the common areas, where he can interact with the team and check in on whoever’s there.
And with this new team, Tony can’t blame him. There are probably going to be more than a few flaring tempers as they all figure out how to work together, but Steve was right. They need to do this. Still, at least they've already all seen each other naked. After the incident in the Savage Land that's one Avengers milestone they won't need to be surprised by.
"You remember your override, right?" he asks, leading Steve down the first hall off the living room. If he doesn’t like anything here they’ll try near the kitchen.
Steve nods. "Of course."
"It'll work for pretty much everything in the Tower, if you need it," Tony tells him. “Here, try this one.”
There’s a balcony in this room, the décor all soothing shades of blue and cream with warm hints of yellow.
“Are you living up here?” Steve asks as he inspects the bedside table.
“Sometimes,” Tony admits, leaning against the doorframe. “Most of my equipment for the armor is over at the Coney Island offices, but I’ve got a basic lab here.”
He rubs the back of his neck, trying to ease some tension there and Steve gives him a knowing look.
“How’ve you been sleeping?” he asks, quiet. The moonlight through the window casts stripes over his face and chest.
Tony gives him a wry smirk and shrugs. “Well enough, considering. What about you?”
“I'm fine,” Steve says, fluffing the bedspread. Of course.
“Right,” Tony sighs. “Hopefully neither of us will collapse on a mission anytime soon.”
Steve shakes his head, walking back to the door. “I’m good, Tony. But I worry about you. You lost more than most of us.”
“I’m handling it,” Tony insists. His back is stiff. He shifts back to balance on his feet instead of the wall.
Not that he doesn’t have his bad days, but Steve doesn’t need to listen to Tony’s problems. He’s got problems of his own.
Steve nods. “Ok. But if you ever want to talk, you’ll tell me, right?”
“Sure, Cap.” He isn’t going to talk about it. If he hadn’t done it after Rumiko, he’s pretty sure he never will.
“You’ve spent an awful lot of time listening to my problems, Shellhead” Steve says, his expression serious. “Listening to a few of yours seems like the least I can do.”
“Nah,” Tony smiles, spreads his hands, tries to shift the mood. “The least you can do is pick a room so we can move on to planning our villain-fighting strategy. You don’t need to spend a long time on this, Cap. It’s just a place to crash; I know you’ve got your own place.”
Steve ducks his head.
“I was thinking I might really move in, actually, for most of the time.” He admits, and Tony freezes.
“If that’s alright,” Steve looks up quickly.
“Of course,” Tony reassures him. “That’s what it’s here for.”
It’s probably better, really. In the long run. Tony’s not always going to be available, even if he does live and work in the Tower most of the time. He’s just—surprised.
“Great,” Steve smiles. “I’ll bring some stuff up in the morning.”
Tony blinks. “Don’t you want to see any more rooms?” he asks.
“This one’s fine,” Steve insists. “I like it. And I know you wouldn’t offer it if you didn’t think it would work.”
Which is true, but still. There are four more floors of empty rooms Steve could choose from.
“Ok,” Tony says. “If—” he shakes his head, runs a hand through his hair. “I guess if you change your mind later it’ll be easy enough to move.”
Steve claps a hand to Tony’s shoulder.
“It’ll be fine,” he says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, sure,” Tony replies. Steve’s steering them back toward the elevator. He stops in front of it, presses the call button.
“You should get some sleep tonight,” he says as the doors open. “That’s an order, Avenger.”
Tony snorts, but he can help but smile at the curl of warmth in his chest. Avenger. Yeah.
“Whatever you say, Cap.”
Steve gives him a mock-stern look as the doors close, and then Tony’s alone.
He stares at a painting of the old team, one of the handful of portraits that hadn’t been damaged by smoke or weather exposure when the mansion went up in flames.
Jan grins at him, Steve and Thor at her shoulders, Hank and Iron Man finishing out the frame.
His eyes ache. Maybe he should sleep.
He makes his way to his rooms slowly, nods to Jarvis along the way and just puts one foot in front of the other, his body on autopilot while his brain works.
He's still not sure how he's going to manage all the responsibilities he's taken on. Joining the Avengers again is big enough, especially given the way the board at SI is breathing down his neck, but it's something else to house them, to lead them, even if Steve's giving most of the orders. It's not a commitment he would've taken on for anyone else. There are so many details to take care of, so many fires to put out, and he can't just leave it all in Steve's hands either.
It's not going to work. At some point, it's going to fall apart. Maybe it'll be the team, maybe it'll be the company. Maybe it'll be him, stretched too thin and too vulnerable to react quickly enough. God, he hopes it's not him. He'll have to redouble his efforts on armor mods and innovations he can release to the public at the same time—he needs to be faster, stronger, tougher.
All he can see anymore are breaking points. Luke's family commitments. Jessica's secrets, whatever they are. Peter's identity conflict. Steve's stubborn unwillingness to bend his point of view. Logan's dual loyalties. The old Avengers didn't have half those problems, and they still fell apart in the worst way possible.
They're still missing something, too, even with Logan. There are too many heavy-hitters on the list of escapees, and Tony allows himself a moment to wish they knew where Thor was. He'd be a lot more confident of their chances as a team if they had someone closer to Thor's level. Someone like Sentry, but he’s been missing since the prison break. As it is, Tony himself is their biggest source of firepower. They're going to have to train for that, and train doubly for the times he won't be able to be there. Because there will be times. He has conferences and business trips scheduled months in advance, the chance that nothing will happen those days and weeks is too small to be significant.
Maybe he can talk to Carol. She could fill in for him if they needed it, even if she's not willing to be on the team full time. Maybe Rhodey’d be willing to help out too, either as Iron Man or as War Machine.
He sits on his bed and makes notes for a while—contingency plans, emergency procedures. Wanda burned most of their safety net when she destroyed the team, but he’ll do what he can. Stage some fundraisers, a series of press conferences, sound out the others on ideas that might be good for the Avengers PR.
It’s not going to be easy, but he can do it. They can do it.
He never could resist anything Steve asked of him.