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He hasn't thought about it in months.

(Okay, that's a lie.)

He hasn't thought about it in...a while. But it takes him by surprise anyway, because he's never been claustrophobic, was always a strong swimmer, even has a few good memories of when Howard and Maria had tanned by the pool and Tony had ventured for the first time into the deep end and had kept his head proudly above water.

(He'd shouted as much, but only Maria had made encouraging noises at him from the poolside. He was six years old and already knew that his father drank too much to notice something as trivial as his son’s swimming capabilities.)

The suit is watertight, every panel sealed and snug. But that doesn’t do much against a massive crack in the shoulder plating. No amount of hydrophobic chemical coats and oil-based sealants could counteract that. Never mind the fact that his actual shoulder is screaming protest at this point.

Seriously, fuck HYDRA and their underground bases.

His power's running low, the arc reactor flickering. Cold, rancid sewer water is rushing into the fissure at his torn up shoulder, filling up the gaps, rising along his neck in frigid fingers. Broken slabs of cement are pinning him along with the current, and they feel like restraining arms around him.

He shouldn’t breathe, should conserve air. He can't breathe.

He’s breathing anyway, he doesn't want to but he is, too fast and too shallow and he can smell the sewer for the first time since getting down there, cloying and rotten. There are explosions somewhere off to his right, and if he could just move, he could get loose and pull off the helmet and maybe manage one last repulsor blast, but it's dark and he can't move and oh fucking god he can't see and the water is up to his mouth—

He's been like this before.

He hasn't thought of it in days. (Not since he'd last slept.)

He's there like he never left.

 

 

***

 

Steve hasn't seen Tony in three days, four hours, and 37 minutes.

Normally, this would be a blessing.

Steve casts a baleful look at the elevator, and Natasha raises an eyebrow at him. "No," she says.

"What?"

"Don't go down there unless you want to get things thrown at you."

"I'm pretty good at dodging."

She shakes her head. Steve frowns, and belatedly wonders why Natasha knew what he was considering doing. Then again, he supposes he had cast the same look at the elevator several times now.

Maybe more than several.

"This is still just one of those things he does?" he asks eventually.

"I call it 'giving us a goddamn break'," Clint says as he emerges from the kitchen, cradling a mug of coffee. He sits down at the table next to Natasha and bumps her shoulder. "Surely you're at least appreciating the reprieve from his usual brand of assholery."

Steve has mostly gotten used to the prevalence of cussing outside of the military, so he disregards it in favor of mulling over what was making a difference this time. It's true that normally he would be somewhat guiltily relieved at the absence of Tony from the common rooms—Tony, who talks too fast and drinks too much and wears entitlement like some sort of impervious cloak (like Howard and yet so much not, it makes Steve's head spin). Tony is hard-headed and impulsive and isn't a soldier in any sense of the word, and more often than not it infuriates Steve that such incredible power and genius is wielded by someone who seems to take the responsibility so lightly. He wants to think that Tony's heart is in the right place, but it worries him that he doesn't often find evidence to support that.

It had been different this time, though. One of HYDRA's mechs had thrown Tony across the cavernous base, straight into the sewage system. It was a bad impact, but Iron Man had taken far worse in the past and brushed it off. Yet when Steve had finally gotten over there and dragged him bodily out of the cascading river of bilge water, Tony hadn't stood on his own, but had sagged against Steve as if boneless.

"You okay, Iron Man?" Steve had shouted over the rushing water.

Tony had taken a few seconds to answer, and then it was only with a terse, "Fine," and then finally he'd staggered away from Steve, towards the fight.

Steve had brushed it off and followed.

He plays the memory back in his head once more.

Water had sluiced off of Tony in pints as he'd headed back to send a blast at one of the HYDRA tanks. Steve remembers slipping in the pools he'd left behind him.

"I think he got water in the suit when he got thrown," he says aloud, chewing on his toast.

He feels more than sees Natasha still, her shoulders tightening just slightly. "Hm," she says noncommittally, and doesn't look his way.

He waits to see whether she'll elaborate, but it becomes clear soon enough that she won't. He sighs and gets up to put his dishes in the sink.

He hadn't particularly wanted to be subject to Tony's workshop projectiles anyway.

***

Four days, eight hours, 14 minutes.

Normally, Steve would be annoyed at this point. The last time Tony disappeared into his workshop, it was because he'd screwed up a mission, and they'd snapped at each other the whole way back to the Tower.

Tony had stayed downstairs for 36 hours, and then he'd emerged like nothing had happened, all sharp smiles and sharper words and clapping Steve on the back like they were pals.

As far as he can tell, however, Tony actually managed to act with the team at the HYDRA base. And so, barring annoyance, Steve is left with worry.

Steve has always been a worrier.

He means to go down immediately, Natasha's warnings notwithstanding, but then Fury calls him upstairs and he's swamped in paperwork for the afternoon, and after that he ends up training with Natasha and going over modern firearms with Clint, and then it's late in the evening and he becomes acutely aware that five days have passed, and Tony still hasn't come out of the workshop.

He gets as far as the lobby when the elevator pings open and Pepper Potts steps inside, looking immaculate as seems to Steve to be her constant state. She looks at him and then at the floor he's selected, and her lips thin out.

"That's not a good idea, Captain."

Steve sighs. "Excuse me, Miss Potts, but what is he doing down there?" he asks, as the doors slid shut.

"I've learned not to ask," Pepper replies.

Steve makes an involuntary noise of frustration in the back of his throat, and then immediately flushes. Pepper looks sidelong at him, and he stares straight ahead and bears it, feeling like he's being dissected. She seems to come to a decision, though, because she leans over and presses the emergency stop button. "He hasn't been down there this long since he got Back," she admits.

Steve can just hear the capitalization in her voice, and trepidation wars with his curiosity. "'Back'?" he repeats cautiously.

"Hasn't he told you about...? Oh right. You two don't really get along, do you?"

Steve tries not to take offense. He'd like to think that it hasn't been from lack of trying on his part; Tony is just...

Pepper looks at him with a frightening level of understanding. "He is difficult, I know," she says. "But he's a good man."

"I don't disagree," Steve says, and is somewhat surprised by his own sincerity. Pepper seems surprised as well, but her eyes warm in response before anxiety pulls her features tight again. She checks her mobile phone, (Blackberry, Steve reminds himself), and then looks back up at him.

"Fury's been refusing to brief me. What happened before he came down? At the HYDRA facility?"

He tells her, with as much detail as he can recall. By the time he finishes, she has a hand pressed over her mouth.

"Are you all right?" Steve asks.

Pepper blinks rapidly and nods. "I really, really don't like that he does this sometimes," she says. She takes a breath and lets it out slowly. "I don't know why he's down there, but I don't mind having backup to find out."

Steve nods, Pepper presses the emergency stop again, and the elevator lurches back into motion.

***

Tony is fine. He's fine.

The arc reactor glows warm and steady in his chest, but if he looks away from it for too long he's certain he can catch it flickering. He knows exactly what's going on, this is all familiar territory, except for how for some reason this time it is particularly troublesome, and so basically he isn't leaving until it's not anymore.

He has shit to do anyway.

He tastes sewage at the back of his throat, but doesn't vomit, just swallows it down. He knows it's not real, so it doesn't matter.

"Sir, Miss Potts and Captain Rogers are approaching from the elevator."

"Tell them to go away, Jarvis. You know the drill."

"May I suggest that some company might be of use to you?"

"No, you may not. And since when are you not company? You're selling yourself short, Jarvis, and you know I don't tolerate that from things that I've built. Dummy, come here, I need you to hold this, and hold it still for god's sake." He ignores the tremor in his hand as he waves a circuit board in the robot's direction.

"Miss Potts, Mister Stark requests--"

"Override oh-two-eight-alpha-six-tango."

Tony refuses to look up, but he's always managed to project his voice no matter how hunched over a worktop he is. "That is for emergencies only, Miss Potts, so if the world isn't crumbling under the weight of nuclear holocaust or alien invasion I suggest you get yourself and Mister Stars and Stripes over there back into the elevator from whence you came. I have takeout in the fridge and a full pot of coffee, you have no excuse to be here."

He doesn't hear the distinct and dangerous click of Pepper's heels across the cement floor, which he takes as a good sign, so he keeps his eyes on the soldering iron in his hand. It still isn't steady. Damn.

He isn't expecting the warm hand that closes around his wrist while another plucks the iron out of his hand and sets it down. He flinches hard, and the hand lets go of him like it's been burned. "Jesus, Cap, what are you, some sort of ninja? Not very patriotic if you are, and neither is giving us mere mortals heart attacks with your sneaky ways."

"Will you at least look at me if you're going to make accusations?" comes the dry response from somewhere over Tony's head.  

Tony takes an uneven breath, and then sits back in a rush to look up. "What do you want, Cap? I thought you'd appreciate a break from the upstart in the metal suit."

This time it's Cap who flinches, which is kind of a laugh, in Tony's opinion. "You've been down here a while," he says.

Not helpful. Not even remotely so. Tony looks back down, and plucks the circuit board back out of Dummy's clutches. "I'm busy," he says, as neutrally as possible.

There's a pause, and then he hears Cap shift uncomfortably. "Can I get you anything?" Cap asks eventually. "The takeout? Water, maybe?"

"No," Tony snaps, and then winces internally. Cap is smart, surprisingly so; he won't miss the flare of panic that's making adrenaline spike through Tony's system. He takes another deep breath. "No, thank you. Your pretense at caring is charming, but no."

Cap sighs, possibly in frustration. "At least turn the iron off," he says. "You'll burn your hands at this rate."

"Thank you, mother," Tony says, and stays stock-still until footsteps recede, the elevator dings, and the doors slide shut.

Then he hunches over the table and closes his eyes.

But he's fine, really.

***

Pepper looks pale in the elevator. Steve glances at her. "It's bad?" he says, already knowing the answer.

"I've never seen him like this," she says. "I mean, I have, but he flinched and I...dammit, I'm going to have to cancel his meetings for the next week, there's no telling how long this is going to go on—"

"What happened to him before?" Steve interrupts. There's a growing feeling of unease in his stomach, and worse, he recognizes it. Ever since he walked away from Tony he's mentally been cataloging the way Tony hunched around his injured shoulder, favoring his arm, and the unsteadiness in his hands, and the way he swallowed like there was some sort of sour taste lingering in his mouth. He recognizes the symptoms—not precisely, but close enough.

Pepper looks at him, and tells him briefly of Afghanistan. When she finishes, she adds, “He was so quiet for weeks after that, I didn’t see him do anything except work and drink coffee. He was different. Driven. It scared me, to be honest. But this isn't the same.”

Steve nods agreement. He tries to imagine Tony in captivity for weeks and weeks, and it makes him feel ill.

“He might listen to you, you know,” Pepper says, after a second. “I know he doesn’t act like it, but he does respect you.”

Steve doesn’t entirely believe her, but he just nods again. “I’ll see what I can do,” he says finally.

She smiles, and for the first time he notices very slight shadows under her eyes. “Thank you.” She gets off on one of the R&D levels, giving a quick nod to Steve in farewell. Steve rides up the rest of the way to the Avengers floor in consternation.

He could tell that Pepper had left out important details in her story—she hadn’t mentioned the arc reactor, even though he’s pretty sure Tony didn’t have it before building the armor, because none of his other inventions seem to feature it, and she was vague about what went on while he was there other than that he was meant to build missiles but broke out instead. Steve figures that she did it out of respect for Tony’s privacy, or maybe because she just doesn’t like to think about it, which is fair enough. Steve gets the gist.

Dread is lodging itself in his stomach, but he pointedly tamps it down.

He has to fill in the gaps before he does anything rash, and he’s pretty sure he knows who to ask about it.

"I need to see Natasha," he says, spotting Clint, "Do you know where she is?"

Clint must see something on his face, because he doesn't even make a smart remark, just points down the hall.

Natasha is in the study surrounded by dossiers, looking intently at a series of surveillance photos and jotting down notes on a legal pad. Steve figures she probably has already noticed him and has chosen not to order him out, so he starts right in.

"You know something about what happened while Tony was in Afghanistan."

A slight twist in her lips is the only sign that she heard him. "I don't," she says, after a moment. "I just know what happens to people who are in those sorts of situations."

"What sort?" Steve prompts, wanting to be absolutely certain.

"The sort where the captors want something out of the captured," Natasha says, finally looking up at him. She looks momentarily tired. "Stark doesn't have the training that we do. He wasn't prepared to deal with torture then, and he isn't now."

Steve had thought he was prepared to hear his suspicions confirmed, but he’s is taken off guard by the anger that slams into him. His hands tighten into fists and he can feel his jaw already beginning to ache with how tightly he's gritted his teeth. "The water—" he starts, reduced to a growl.

"We call it waterboarding nowadays," Natasha says. "But it was in use in your time, too."

"I know," Steve says. "I remember. The Gestapo—" He has to stop before he breaks something.

Natasha looks at him, and then back down at her notes.

"In retrospect," she says, pursing her lips, "He's actually dealt remarkably well."

Steve has heard about the Stark Expo, and has seen the drinking and the partying. He hates that with all that, he can't actually disagree.

He nods his thanks at her and leaves as slowly as he can, trying hard to control his breathing and not put his fist through a wall.

Tony annoys the hell out of him, but he didn't deserve that. He doesn't deserve it haunting him. No one does.

Steve tries very hard to ignore the fact that the protective outrage that's flooding his system is more than just the blanket anger at violated human rights.

He thinks about the water gushing out of the crack in the armor as Tony darted away towards the fight, and knows that there isn't much space between Tony's skin and the suit. Knows that that amount of water would have filled every inch of the suit easily, with Tony still inside.

He shudders, and heads back to the elevator.

***

Tony has managed to get drunk in the twenty some-odd minutes that Steve's been gone. Steve would be impressed if he wasn't also horrified.

"Cap! I have something to show you, it's going to blow your mind, like seriously I'm blowing my own mind over here, this program is going to revolutionize communication systems globally if I can actually convince Pepper to sell it to the board, but who am I kidding, that's not going to be a problem because while it might be ridiculously expensive it is so awesome that the gray flannel suits won't even care. Oh damn, that's not even a reference you'll get, 1950s not 40s--"

"Tony," Steve says.

"--I don't think you'd even find it interesting, it's all post-war angst about getting lost in the crowd, and you definitely don't have that problem, well, at least not anymore and--"

"Tony."

Tony pauses mid-gesture, but doesn't quite manage the transition between moving and not moving; he lists slightly to one side and stumbles, banging his hip on a table. He snorts at himself and brings the glass in his hand to his lips having not spilled a drop during the entire tirade. "Yes, Cap? Come to play mother at me again?"

Steve looks him over and settles on saying, "Did you see a doctor about that shoulder when we came back?"

"Just wrenched it, it's fine. Suit took most of the damage."

Tony's probably right. That isn't the point, though. His shoulder's a mess of ugly green and yellow, but he's still holding it like he wants very badly to hide that he was ever slowed down by something so trivial as physical limitations.

Steve's starting to understand why Pepper and Rhodes always look so worried and intent around Tony. As soon as you felt any concern for Stark whatsoever you were apparently in for a world of carefully compartmentalized anxiety.

He walks forward slowly, feeling sort of absurd, like he's approaching a skittish horse rather than a sozzled billionaire. Tony doesn't watch him, just stares into the middle distance, draining his drink steadily in concentrated sips. He murmurs something about fiber optics and efficiency levels.

Steve takes the glass out of his hand.

Tony stops, and glares at him. "That is mine, Boy Wonder," he says lowly. His breath is eye-watering with the smell of whiskey.

Steve considers the nearly empty glass, and drains it himself before setting it down on the table. "You know my friend, Bucky?" he says after a second. "From before."

He didn't consider until now the way both he and Tony have some kind of before. It makes this a little easier, but not much.

Tony frowns, glazed eyes focusing. "He was in your file. You guys grew up together. You saved him--"

"From a HYDRA lab," Steve nods. He swallows. "I thought he was fine, afterwards. Injured and underfed, sure, but...fine. A few months later though, we were on a mission and we broke into a medical facility. Bucky took one look at a cart of scalpels and threw up. We had to abort before we got caught."

Tony blinks slowly, eyes narrowing. "What're you trying to say, Cap?"

Steve exhales. "I'm saying that this isn't just going to go away. You can't just hide down here and expect it to pass."

"And why not?" Tony snaps. "I'm not exactly useful right now, am I? Might as well try to do something productive while I'm hydrophobic and dysfunctional."

Steve stares at him. "That's...that's what you think?" he asks blankly.

Tony shrugs, like Steve has asked a stupid question. And that's just...unacceptable. All of the anger that's been clawing at his gut ever since Natasha said the word torture is turning on him, because if Tony thinks his only purpose is to be useful, then Steve needs to re-evaluate every arrogant barb and eccentricity that Tony has thrown at him since he came out of the ice.

He doesn't much like the result. "Tony," he says carefully, "I don't want you to be useful. I want you to be okay."

Tony looks at him incredulously. "You're about twenty years too late for that, Cap."

"My name's Steve."

"Steve," Tony repeats, and he sounds vaguely surprised that Steve would let him take the liberty, which just makes it worse, and leaves Steve wondering what in Tony’s past had blinded him so thoroughly to his own value. He finds himself studying Tony, taking in the gaunt skin across his cheekbones and the sinewy strength of his shoulders and back. He’s grease-stained and smells of dry fear-sweat and booze, and Steve has the sudden overwhelming impulse to wrap his arms around him just to get him to soften all of those sharp, taut angles if only for a brief moment. Tony is kind of beautiful, and Steve doesn't like seeing him in this state.

He doubts that such a gesture would be welcome, though. He bites his lip, and then says, "I'm going to get a bottle of water. If you want a sip, let me know."

Tony's lip curls. "You're not my therapist."

"No," Steve agrees, "I don't think I'd be too good at that." He pauses. "I'd like to be your friend, though."

He means it. If nothing else, he wants to join ranks with Pepper and Rhodes, because Tony should have as many people at his back as he can, and has clearly gone without for far too much of his life.

He tries not to think about Howard, and where he was in all of this.

Tony is looking at him like he's some sort of mystery, which he doesn't really know what to make of, so he goes over to the mini-fridge where the takeout cartons look barely touched, and pulls out a bottle of spring water. He uncaps it and takes a sip—clean and crisp, the opposite of sewer water.

Then he walks back over to Tony.

***

Dummy whirs at Tony's side as Steve comes back, and Tony pats him absently, feeling far more sober than he wants to be at this point. Cap...Steve is being complicated again, dodging all expectations, and frankly that's the opposite of what Tony needs right now, when his control is already slipping. Steve's looking at Tony with a worried sort of care that doesn't look right at all on Captain America's face, and now he's close, smelling of aftershave and pomade and leather, and he really needs to leave Tony alone before he does something regrettable.

"Do you want some?" Steve asks, gesturing slightly with the bottle.

What Tony wants is more whiskey, but he's clearly not getting that if Steve's planning on sticking around. He already knows how water will taste; he's taken panicky, fast showers in the past few days and every time the water hit his face he'd had to turn off the nozzle and sit with his head between his knees, soap dripping off his hair. It's better than baths, though, better than being submerged.

He knows he's looking at the bottle of water like it’ll attack him at any moment, and he knows that it's fucking pathetic. He also knows that he should take a sip, if only to make Steve stop looking at him in that earnest patient way that Tony is very certain he doesn't deserve to receive.

He takes the bottle and nearly drops it.

"When's the last time you ate?" Steve asks quietly.

Tony has no idea, so he shrugs. He's busy staring at the bottle of water. It's out of context, there's no flashback lurking behind his eyes, he should be fine. This is totally different from the sewer.

He's fine.

He takes a sip. It hits the back of his throat, and he gags but doesn't get sick, just swallows it down and clearly a part of his brain and body have been in need of it, because even as his trachea rebels his stomach eases with the addition of liquid that isn't coffee or alcohol. It doesn't really feel like much of a victory, but he leans back on the table in relief anyway, handing the bottle off to Steve again.

"Okay," he says, looking at the floor. "Right. Thanks. I can hydrate myself without vomiting now. You've done your good deed for the day, you can go."

Steve makes an exasperated noise. His boots come into Tony's line of sight. "You're very frustrating," he says, sounding oddly warm.

"One of my selling points, I'm told," Tony quips automatically.

He doesn't expect the hand on his shoulder, warm and steady. He stills, and takes a slow breath.

***

Tony doesn't flinch when Steve touches him this time, but it's a near thing. He goes piano-wire tight, but doesn't move, his jaw flexing slightly, eyes trained on the middle distance to Steve's left. He looks tired, but mostly composed, not really fragile at all except when studied with a trained eye, and Steve realizes that most people look at him and think that nothing can touch him, and that they’re wrong.

They stay like that, silent, for what feels like hours. Steve is prepared to wait for days.

Finally Tony shifts, and looks down.

"It wouldn't have been a problem," he says at last. "I mean, I've been in water before, in the suit, even had leaks before, wouldn't have made it watertight if it hadn't happened, so you know, worth it in the name of learning experiences. It was fine, it was just, you know." He taps the glow under his shirt.

"The arc reactor?" Steve prompts.

"Yeah.” Tony is picking up speed now, though his eyes never leave the floor. “It was running low. Not bradycardia low, but just low enough that it reminded me of when I was still hooked up to the car battery, and I think it was maybe a combination of that and the water. So, you know, it's a highly specific set of circumstances that really don't happen all that often so—ow, fuck, what the hell, Steve?"

Steve lets go of Tony's shoulder abruptly, realizing that his knuckles had gone white. "I'm sorry," he says quickly, abashed but also nearly choking. He can feel his whole face flushing. "Just. Back up. Bradycardia? A car battery? Tony—"

"No one's told you this one, have they? Huh. Guess I wasn't expecting to have to go over it, what with you being on far better terms with Fury than I will ever be, and Fury knowing everything in the most inconvenient ways possible. And, you know, what with how I sort of assumed you were going to continue to annoy the shit out of me instead of doing...whatever you're doing now." Tony shoots a glance accusingly at Steve's hand, which remains a fist at his side. Steve tries very hard not to be offended as he forces it open and waits.

Tony works his jaw, gestures again at the reactor and says, "Bum ticker. Got blown up in Afghanistan, end result is shrapnel sitting there just waiting to punch holes in my aorta. It's fun times, believe me. For the first couple of weeks I had them, this doctor, Yinsen, he hooked me up to a car battery to keep them from hitting home. After that, I built the reactor." He pauses again, and then adds flatly, "He saved my life. I couldn't save his."

He finally, finally looks up to meet Steve's eyes, but it's only one sharp, almost challenging glance before he looks away again. "That's all there is to it, the whole sordid mess."

Steve doesn't move, despite being aware now that he's still deep in Tony's personal space. He can't bring himself to step away. He has an image in his mind now that he can't shake—of Tony clutching a car battery while being forced down into cold, dirty water, feeling like he was going to die, if not by drowning, then by one stray wire fraying, one yank in the wrong direction.

If anything, he wants to be closer, just to check that Tony is warm now, warm and alive and not lost in memories.

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone about the car battery part,” Tony muses, “I don’t know what everyone thinks happened, do they just assume that I was in good enough shape to make brilliant scientific breakthroughs within the first ten minutes of getting blown up and kidnapped? They probably just don’t want to know. Hell, the fewer people know, the better. I’d rather it not be common knowledge that the best way to kill me is to just pull this—actually you know what, that’s careening towards some even more unpleasant memories, so I’m just gonna stop there.”

Steve wants to know, but he also really, really doesn’t. He recalls seeing somewhere in a file something about someone stealing arc reactor tech and using it for nefarious purposes, and he doesn’t like at all what Tony’s now implying about that.

When he can finally work saliva into his mouth again, he says, “Why did you tell me?”

“Honestly? Dunno.” Tony shrugs, leaning away. “Maybe because the last thing I want at this point is pity? And I’m pretty sure it’s Captain America’s duty not to pity war-profiteering industrialists who got a taste of their own medicine.”

Steve can’t actually listen to this anymore. He takes a breath, and gives in to impulse. Raising his open hand, he reaches forward, and then flattens it over the arc reactor, blocking out its glow. The reactor hums slightly, and beneath that he can now feel the very slight arrhythmia of Tony’s heartbeat, and the way his breath stutters in surprise. “Tony,” he says, and then waits.

Tony takes a few more uneven breaths before meeting his gaze. His expression is wary.

“I really hate,” Steve says, carefully and firmly, “That that’s how you see yourself.”

And then he leans forward and down, just enough to tilt inward and press his lips to Tony’s.

It takes a moment for Tony to respond, and when he does it’s with a faint air of disbelief, which Steve hadn’t actually realized was possible to transmit in a kiss. He doesn’t deepen it, doesn’t even lean much farther forward, not wanting to crowd Tony; he just keeps one hand over the arc reactor, the other tracing the bristle along Tony’s jaw.

When he finally pulls away, Tony follows just slightly, which makes something in Steve’s chest expand with warmth. He chances a small smile, which Tony blinks at when his eyes slide open again.

“Oh. Um…well. Hidden depths, Cap, hidden depths,” Tony says eventually. He looks more taken off-guard than Steve has ever seen him. “Though I don’t really know what you’re trying to prove here.”

“It’s Steve,” Steve reminds him. “And I kind of just wanted to do that. But also, I meant what I said before—I want you okay more than I want you useful. Can you wrap your genius billionaire philanthropist brain around that?”

“Playboy, you forgot playboy.” Tony rakes a hand through his hair, leaving it askew in greasy spikes. “I don’t…you just…wanted to do that?”

Steve flushes. “Well. Yes. But the second part was more important.”

Tony stares at him. “Jesus. How are you even real? You’re ridiculous. I don’t…okay. Okay, fine. You want me okay. Give me…give me two days? Shit, Steve, you said it yourself, this doesn’t just go away by itself.”

“I know. That’s why I want to help. I want you to let me help you. Please.”

“Why?” Tony asks, bewildered, “Are you just so goddamn perfect that you have to rescue every fuckup you see from himself? Because—”

“I don’t think I was clear enough last time,” Steve interrupts, and kisses him more firmly. Tony makes a muffled noise and then finally uncoils, just slightly, one of his long-fingered hands tentatively closing over Steve’s biceps.  When Steve pulls away again, he has to pause to wait for his heart rate to slow before he speaks.

“You’re kind of an asshole, and we didn’t get off on the right foot,” he says eventually, “But I’m starting to like you, and I want to help. Please let me, Tony.”

Tony keeps studying him like he’s grown a second head. Steve can’t really blame him—this isn’t how he saw today going either. He feels hopeful about it though, more hopeful than he has since Tony first disappeared into the workshop.

“Sure,” Tony says at last. “Sure, perfect. I mean, you can’t exactly make it worse.”

Hardly a vote of confidence, but Steve will take it for now.

***

It takes three days more for Tony to come upstairs. But Steve’s seen him every day, and Tony has tolerated sips of water in between coffees, and taken two uninterrupted showers.

Most of the team is in the living room when he emerges looking too pale and too thin, but also clean and clear-eyed.

“Shieldbrother, you have rejoined us! Welcome!” Thor booms from the armchair, bounding up and clapping Tony on the shoulder. Tony manages to stay upright, barely, and smiles in return.

“Hey, big guy. Long time no see.”

“Well, well,” Clint says, “If it isn’t the prodigal son.”

“You don’t even know what ‘prodigal’ means, Barton,” Tony replies breezily. “And don’t look so excited; now I’m having doubts as to whether I should give you the extremely awesome compound bow whose plans I just stole off of SHEILD’s mainframe and improved by about 250%.”

Clint sits up straighter and flutters his eyelashes. “Tony, I missed you with all my heart, please give me badass presents in appeasement for your long absence from my life.”

“‘Appeasement’? Nat, stop playing Scrabble with him.”

“Don’t call me Nat,” Natasha says, though she’s wearing a sliver of a smile.

Bruce emerges from the kitchen and greets Tony politely like he hasn’t actually noticed his absence, and then Tony’s sauntering over and planting himself next to Steve on the couch. “Hi,” he says.

Steve smiles at him. “Hi.”