Actions

Work Header

Ready, Fire, Aim

Work Text:

Tony leaves the meeting before he’s supposed to—because he is a busy man and he has things to do and anyone who has a problem with that can just shut their mouths, can’t they—without saying goodbye to anyone. He stalks down the hall and into the elevator and out of the lobby and up to the car (where Happy is courteous enough to let him slam his own door) and fumes the whole ride over to Stark Tower. He sketches out schematics for two new models of repulsor boots and a pocket water filtration system on the back of a napkin—he’s nothing outside of the suit, is he, well fine, he’ll show that frosted-over Americana has-been douchebag--and gets out of the car in a whirlwind of irritation and almost-but-not-quite falling on his face.

“Those curbs’ll sneak up on you, boss,” Happy says, a hand on Tony’s elbow to steady him, his face perfectly straight.

Tony doesn’t pitch a fit in the middle of the street, but only because Happy keeps a chart for that kind of shit and Tony’s over his quota for the month. He turns on his heel and marches inside instead, eyes narrowed, and rides the elevator 40 floors up.

“Where’s Pepper?” he demands, when he gets to her office to find it empty. Her secretary—small and competent and utterly unimpressed by him, why is everyone so unimpressed with Tony today, Tony is a very impressive person—sighs.

“She’s in the conference room, Mr. Stark,” she says, “but you can’t—”

“Nope, nope, I can, my building, it’s fine,” says Tony, and he dodges the woman, strides down the hall, throws open the conference room doors, and clears his throat.

“Captain America," he says,  "is a dick.”

Then he notices the table full of investors.

“Uh,” says Tony, “wow, okay. Uh. Well then. Good morning--is it morning? It's hard to tell in the whole, you know, basement of doom they've got going on at--uh, nevermind. Right, so, great to see everyone, any chance I can convince you this was a training exercise?"

Pepper sighs, pinches the bridge of her nose, and waves a hand in Tony’s general direction.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she says, “Tony Stark.”

--

Tony goes home—well, no. It’s not home, is it, it’s just a mansion that he happens to own and have spent significant portions of his childhood in. It’s his father’s house, looks and feels and, impossibly, even kind of smells like him, and Tony wishes again that he’d had the place renovated years ago, instead of waiting until it looked like he’d be spending a fair amount of time in New York. As it is, the workshop and his bedroom are safe, and the rest of the place is either under construction or far too full of memories to set foot in.

So: pissed off investors, residence in the House of Insecurities Past, and Pepper on the warpath, all for a team of superheroes led by a guy who doesn’t even like him. Great. Fantastic. Tony’s life is so awesome.

“Jarvis,” he says, “the playlist from last week, you know the one, crank it,” and goes downstairs to be a brilliant innovative billionaire genius prodigy amazing human being where no one can bother him.

Which works, until someone decides to bother him.

“Sir,” comes Jarvis’s voice, crisp over the sound of Highway to Hell blasting from every speaker in the house, “there is a Captain Rogers is at the front door. I believe he would like to see you, though he reacted rather badly when I asked him to state the purpose for his knocking.”

Tony grins, getting a little bit of perverse pleasure out of that fact; he laughs outright when Jarvis pulls up the security footage of Steve jumping about a foot in the air and whipping around, looking for the source of the voice.

“Dick,” says Tony vindictively, and Jarvis makes a noise that, if he wasn’t an AI, would be a sigh.

“Yes, sir,” he says, “so you’ve said. Several times, in fact. Would you like me to send him away?”

Tony opens his mouth to say “Yes,” and, surprisingly, what comes out is, “No.” Puzzled, he tries again, and produces, “Yeah, no, don’t, I’ll get it, it’s fine, thanks—the Armanis are in the closet in the far wing, right? Wait, where did I put those sunglasses, I need the sunglasses, don’t let him leave.”

Ten minutes later, he opens the door in a pair of Armani trousers, a hand-tailored button down left open over this morning’s Black Sabbath tee, no shoes, and mirrored sunglasses. Even to himself, he has no explanation for this behavior.

Steve focuses on the lack of shoes, because of course he does.

“You rang?” says Tony, ignoring the furrow-browed look of confusion Steve is giving his feet. “Did you want something, or is this some kind of weird 40s hazing thing? You stand on my porch looking confused until I, what, try to fight you for dominance or something, and then there’s like, uh, brass bands and shit, that was the 40s, right—“

“Stark,” says Steve, and Tony hates that, hates it, “What are you talking about?”

“I live here,” Tony snaps, “and I’m busy, I’m allowed to not make sense if I want to. What do you want?”

“Oh,” Steve says. He winces, and then actually flushes a little, puts a hand to the back of his neck. Tony would be endeared despite himself, except that this guy is a tool. “I, uh. Well, I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. And since we are going to be…well, teammates, I guess, I thought maybe we should…work on it.”

“You came all the way out here to apologize?” Tony says. “Have they not taught you to use the phone, like normal people?”

“I’m not apologizing!” Steve snaps, and then visibly reigns himself in. “No, you know what, I am apologizing. I’m sorry. I’m just…not adjusting all that well, I guess, and then there’s you, and you look a lot like--”

“Get out of my house,” Tony says, instinctive, automatic, before he can finish that comparison.

Steve jerks back, stunned, and then narrows his eyes. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” Tony says. “Look, Rogers, you want teammates or whatever, fine, great, you’ve got a whole gaggle of SHIELD cronies waiting to bust out their guitars and sing Kumbaya with you, have fun, but I told you, I don’t play well with others, okay? So you and your…apology or whatever, you can just go, I don’t need you to do me any fucking favors.”

Steve stares at him with his mouth open for a long minute. Then he says, “What’re you—no, you know what, I don’t care. Fine. If that’s the way you want this to be, that’s just fine with me. Have a lovely evening, Mr. Stark.”

“Fine!” says Tony. “Good! Great! I will!”

“And turn down that racket,” Steve yells over his shoulder, storming down the stairs, “I can hear it from all the way up the street!”

“AC/DC IS NOT RACKET,” Tony…well, yeah, okay, he screams it, before slamming the door on Steve’s rapidly retreating back.

“I believe that could have gone better, sir,” says Jarvis.

“Captain America is a dick,” says Tony, “and I want that written on my fucking tombstone.”

--

Of course, Murphy’s law being what it is, the next thing Tony does is save the stupid bastard’s life.

It’s not even supposed to be a mission, not really. Tony knows from the encrypted emails he certainly hasn’t been hacking that it’s a more of a training thing, meant to see how well the Avengers function as a team. They’re just supposed to be doing recon, but trouble follows Tony everywhere, so it’s a full-scale melee within fifteen minutes, bullets ricocheting wildly. Tony isn’t really fighting, just snatching civilians from the street and depositing them on nearby rooftops—Clint’s firing a crossbow with terrifying accuracy, Hulk’s all Hulked out, Natasha is doing her circus acrobat of death thing, and Steve’s more or less playing human bowling with his shield as the ball.

Thor, being Thor, is smashing people in the face with the hammer and laughing about it. He’s Tony’s favorite, really.

Anyway, the point is, Tony shouldn’t even be in any position to save Steve’s life; he should be punching someone in the face, or blasting someone with the repulsors, or doing something useful. But, as it happens, he’s on a rooftop, so he sees the grenade being thrown behind Steve’s back that no one else notices, sees the gasoline leaking out from a shot-through Toyota, puts one and two together to makes explosion with the ease of long practice.

Tony would like to think that, while he doesn’t like Captain America, he’s above wanting to see him blown up, and that’s why he does it. He’d like to think that, but the truth is much less flattering—he just sees the eventuality of it all and acts without thinking about it. He's as surprised to find himself with an armful of all-American hero as, presumably, Steve is to find himself in the air.

“What the hell is your problem,” Steve yells, struggling until Tony drops him unceremoniously on a balcony, “you can’t just—”

The explosion cuts him off, rocks the whole street, and Steve looks down, blinks, and visibly puts the dots together. “Oh,” he says, “I…oh. Uh. Thank you.”

Tony sneers, remembers he’s got the mask down, and settles for waving a hand instead. “Just a guy in a suit, remember?” he says, and doesn’t wait around for Steve’s scowl.

--

He takes Pepper to an expensive dinner, a seven course dinner, with the wine and the little fork and the works, and she doesn’t even have the decency to wait for the cheese plate before she says, “Tony, just tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“Oh no,” Pepper says, pointing her fork at him, “don’t you try that with me, either you’ve wrecked the company—“

“Why is it always that? Why do you always think I’m going to wreck the company, you run the company and anyway I’ve only done that, what, two, three, four times—“

“Six times, you’ve nearly wrecked the company six times that I know about, and if it’s not that then you’ve murdered someone—“

Pepper--“

“Or you’ve developed some kind of emotional attachment—“

“Don’t say emotional attachment, god, now I’ve said it, I'm going to break out in hives—“

“Or you’re trying to get us started again,” Pepper finishes, taking a sip of her wine, “which, as we both know, would be a terrible idea.”

“But not worse than if I murdered someone, right?” Tony says, and is a little horrified to discover it comes out as an honest question. “I mean, obviously the murder would be worse, which I didn’t, you know, do, nobody’s been murdered and I’m not trying to sleep with you again, you can rest easy and stop looking at me like that—Pepper. Can’t I just, you know, take a friend out for a meal?”

Something soften almost imperceptibly in Pepper’s face; Tony only recognizes it from years of watching her, trying to figure her out. He smiles, grateful for it, and she smiles back, and Tony loves her for liking him still, even after he turned out to be a predictable train wreck of a boyfriend.  

“You don’t have to try so hard, you know,” she says.

“You say that,” Tony says, “I hear the words coming out of your mouth, I do, I hear them, there they went, but if I showed up at your office with a pizza you’d CEO me right on out of there.”

Pepper laughs. “CEO isn’t a verb, Tony.”

“Then you’re not doing it right.”

“Is that so?”

“Am I awful to work with?” says Tony, which isn’t what he means to say at all. For a long moment he seriously considers covering his mouth with his hand, like that’ll force the words back inside of it; then he winces, over-exaggerated, trying to play it off.

Pepper lowers her fork, raises her eyebrows.

“Oh, Tony,” she says, which, really, is answer enough.

--

It turns out that, while Steve doesn't like Tony, Captain America gets on great with Iron Man. Tony should probably have seen that one coming; one of the problems with having a second identity, regardless of said identity's utter lack of secrecy, is that it makes it easy for people to draw a dividing line. Nick Fury had done it--"Iron Man yes, Tony Stark not recommended," god, that was never going to stop rubbing him the wrong way--and Steve is clearly, visibly, doing it too. Never mind that all the good Iron Man does is because Tony is, you know, running the show; Iron Man gets smiles and camaraderie and "Nice work, buddy," and Tony gets flat looks and carefully maintained distance.

Which is fine, really. Two can absolutely play at that game.

Iron Man and Captain America save the day in Bloomington, then Queens, then Spokane; Tony and Steve snipe across the table and avoid each other's eyes. Iron Man and Captain America grace the cover of Time Magazine, arms over each other's shoulders; Tony and Steve sit in the car together in stony, frozen silence. Iron Man and Captain America fight together, fly together, banter easily over criminal's heads together; Tony and Steve, if at all possible, don't even breathe the same air.

"You're being ridiculous," Pepper tells him from LA, her voice fond and exasperated. Tony misses her; the house is echoing, empty, and he hasn't slept in a couple of days. In his exhaustion he's taken to cleaning out the place himself, separating items into "keep," "donate somewhere," and "burn, for they reek too much of my father," and it would be nice to have Pepper bursting in and out, yelling at him to sign things, to eat.

"I'm always ridiculous," Tony says, digging through a box in his father's study. "That's like the whole point of me, Pep, where you been?"

"Running your company, maybe?" Pepper says. Tony can hear the smile. "Honestly, Tony, you could just talk to him."

"And say what? 'Sorry you only like me when I'm encased in metal, I'll try to work on being encased in metal more?' I'd like to think I'm above groveling."

Pepper snorts, and Tony scowls.

"I said I'd like to think that, you could let me think that, that would be a…kindness…"

He stops talking, because the piece of paper in his hands--yellowed, curling at the edges--demands all of his attention. He stares at it, mouth open, until Pepper says, "Tony? Tony, are you there?"

"No," says Tony, "I mean, yeah. I, uh, something came up, I'll call you back, okay?"

"Tony," Pepper starts, but Tony reaches out and pushes the button on his tablet to end the call, then holds the worn paper up to the light.

It's a photograph, which is strange in and of itself. Howard Stark was not a sentimental man by any estimation, rarely kept mementos. What's stopped Tony in his tracks, though, is the content of the picture--it's Steve, looking exactly as he did three hours ago, with an arm around Howard's shoulders. There's a man on Steve's left, shorter, with dark hair, leaning into him and laughing, and behind them a motley crew of guys in Army greens.

"Me and the HC, '43," is scrawled across the back in Howard's familiar handwriting, and Tony knows, knows in his bones, that he can't just burn this.

He doesn't sleep again, but it's not like that's anything to worry about.

--

Tony waits for Steve outside the meeting, trying not to look like he's loitering suspiciously. He fails; Natasha gives him the evil eye, Clint circles him warily before walking away, and Coulson sends him a text message that says, "Still looking for an excuse to taze you and watch Supernanny; think twice, Stark."

Thor claps him on the shoulder, leans down, peers at him, and grins. "You look tired, my friend. Were we in Asgard, I would invite you to my bath; I believe you would find it most relaxing."

"This is why you're my favorite," Tony sighs, because yeah, okay, you know what, Tony mostly doesn't think of Thor like that, but the mental image of him in the bath is definitely going to help him through the day.

"Truly, your kindness knows no bounds," Thor says, and Tony laughs.

"Oh, no, believe me, it knows bounds. Intimately, even--look, buddy, I've gotta talk to Steve real quick and I think he's coming, do you mind--"

"Oh!" says Thor, and then, in a complete departure from sanity, actually winks at Tony. "I will leave you to your task, my friend. May luck be with you this day!"

"…Um," says Tony. "Right. Thanks?"

Thor nods cheerfully and ambles away, which turns out to be perfect timing; Tony has half a second to recover from that little display of before Steve rounds the corner.

"Hey," Tony says, "hey, Rogers, wait up."

Steve turns, stops, flushes faintly and frowns at Tony. Typical.

"Stark. Did you need something? I thought we'd settled the strategy for the next mission, but if you'd rather--"

"No," Tony says, waving a hand, "no, no, we're good, covered that and recovered it and covered it again, I'm all set. I just. Uh. Here."

He shoves the photograph at Steve with absolutely no grace, and winces internally. He's got more poise than this normally, he knows it, he's witnessed himself in action first-hand and he's downright charming, but for whatever reason Steve seems to shut down the normal interaction part of his brain.

Of course, then Steve looks down at the photograph and back up at Tony, and there are actual fucking tears in his eyes. Tony is more than sure that, even at his best, he wouldn't know how to deal with this; thus, he resorts to an old, faithful strategy, and panics.

"Oh, Jesus," he says, "look, I know I'm not your…favorite person or whatever, you don't like me, I get it, fine, but please don't--oh, god, just don't, don't cry, okay, because then I'll have made Captain America cry and I do not want Coulson to watch Supernanny while I drool, don't, please don't, I just figured you might want it, I swear I didn't do it on purpose would you stop that--"

"I'm not crying," Steve says, blinking hastily. Then, softer, "Where did you get this?"

"You know the guy in the middle who looks like me was my father, right?" says Tony, who is really going to have to work on his filtering skills. "That's registered for you, hasn't it?"

Steve doesn't take the bait. He just nods, still blinking, and Tony sighs.

"I'm just…cleaning house. Trying to get rid of his shit, donating it, burning it, whatever, and I just thought--"

"You're burning Howard's things?"

"Burning them," Tony says, waving a hand, "throwing them in the ocean, bathing them in acid, whichever you like. Getting rid of them, that's the point. The last thing I need is more memories of my old man, I'm full up, thanks."

Steve looks back down at the photo and doesn't say anything for a long time. Tony's bracing himself for a punch in the face or something--it'd be about part for the course, given their history--when Steve clears his throat and says, "I…thank you. He was my friend."

"Well, lucky you," Tony snaps, furious suddenly. "He was my father; I didn't get that luxury."

He turns to go, so fucking done with good deeds for today that he could kill something, and he's almost made it to the door at the end of the hall when Steve says, "Hey, Tony?"

And really it's probably just that it's the first time Steve has called him anything but "Stark," or maybe the tone in his voice--wondering and unsure, less hostile than it always is--but Tony feels something warm unfurl in the pit of his stomach as he turns.

"Yeah?"

"What was he like?" Steve's still looking down at the photo, but his voice carries. "I mean…later. After I knew him. As a…well, as a father, I guess."

Tony stands very, very still, swallows against the sudden constriction is his throat. It shouldn't sideswipe him, that question; he's answered it in interviews enough times, has practiced his smooth delivery in the mirror, never stumbles over it in public. Steve looks up at him, though, eyes still wet despite his efforts, piercing blue even at this distance, and honesty wells up in Tony like a floodgate is breaking.

"Disappointed," he says finally, and runs.

--

Moving the Avengers into Tony's mansion is a complete accident, and, like most things currently going wrong in Tony's life, is also completely Steve's fault.

It starts with a dressing down for the rest of the team that is, if Tony might says so himself, hilarious. It turns out Fury's been keeping all of them housed in SHIELD headquarters, which, hey, Tony could have told him that was a bad idea, but whatever, the explosion is worth watching. Clint has apparently been camping out in the drop ceilings, waiting for people to scare--"It's practice," he protests, hands in the air, when Fury turns a vengeful eye on him--and Bruce has broken six doors, a three beds, and a fridge. Thor’s taken to walking around the place naked, and seems entirely confused as to why Fury would have a problem with this; Cap, looking shamefaced about it, nods and looks away when Fury says the words “punching bags.”

When he gets to Natasha, Fury just sighs and shakes his head, a hint of a smile playing around his mouth. She raises one eyebrow—which, for Natasha, is practically a peal of hysterical laughter—and says, “It’s not my fault I make everyone nervous.”

“Be that as it may,” Fury says, “either you guys are going to have to shape up or we’re going to have to find you other accommodations, and let me tell you what, the budget we have for housing you all? It’s not large. So, hey, you wanna live in the kind of boarded up rat traps we can find for you, that’s great, but—for fuck’s sake, Stark, what are you smirking about?”

Tony grins beatifically, fanning his fingers out and locking them together to place behind his head. “Don’t mind me, I’m just really enjoying this. There’s a problem and I didn’t cause it!”

“Oh, good,” says Fury, rolling his eyes, “so glad I interrupted this meeting for your smugness—”

“I’m not even involved,” Tony continues gleefully, clinically incapable of passing up an opportunity to gloat. “While you all have been here terrorizing SHIELD’s best and brightest, I have been living quietly in my mansion, causing no problems, with enough bedrooms for all of you—“

“That’ll solve the problem nicely, Stark, thanks,” Fury says, and flips his portfolio shut. “Meeting adjourned.”

“You’re welcome,” says Tony, and then what Fury’s said actually processes. “Wait, wait, hold on, what--no, come back here, I didn’t mean, what did you think I—“

And then Steve, fucking Steve, with his big stupid eyes and his sculpted goddamn cheekbones, Steve who doesn’t like Tony at all, looks up at him with surprise on his face and says, “That’s really big of you, Tony.”

Three days later, Tony’s got two SHIELD agents, a Norse god, the Hulk, and Captain goddamn America living in his house. Some days—most days, lately—he really hates his life.

--

The worst part about shacking up with a team of lunatic superheroes, Tony realizes quickly, is how much he doesn’t actually mind it. They drive him crazy, of course—how could they not drive him crazy, Clint alone is enough of an asshole for six people and having Natasha around makes Tony jumpy, like she’s going to stab him in the neck with lithium dioxide again—but it’s kind of nice, actually, not being alone. The house still feels too much like Howard, but some of the renovation is done, and having more people around keeps the sickening empty feeling at bay.

Also, Thor decides he wants to help with the renovation, which turns out to go a lot faster with Mjolnir involved. He’s definitely Tony’s favorite; accept no substitutions.

Anyway, it’s awful because it’s not awful, because Tony wants it to be awful and finds himself enjoying it instead. He’s not sure what that says about him—some sad combination of “doesn’t play well with others” and “secretly desperately lonely,” probably, which is not something Tony wants to spend any time considering—but he knows that any therapist worth their salt would have a field day. He spends even more time than usual in his workshop or at Stark Tower, trying to avoid thinking about it, and finally gives it up and heads to his gym for a 3 AM workout session.

Where he finds Captain America, beating the living shit out of his punching bag.

Tony stands in the doorway, mouth open, transfixed, because yeah, alright, this is a pretty nice view. Steve may be a lot of things, but there’s no arguing the fact that he’s gorgeous; sweat-slicked and breathing hard, almost blurred with speed, he looks like something that walked directly out of Tony’s reptilian hindbrain. His face is screwed up, clouded over with some emotion Tony can’t read from this distance and probably wouldn’t be able to read up close, either, and he’s taking swings like he’s fighting for something.

Which, okay, that’s Tony’s punching bag; that thing is designed to withstand in-suit practice sessions, and Tony would know, because he’s the one who designed it. There’s no way Steve, powerful as he is, should be able to move it that much, let alone rip it in half. But that’s what he does—three more punches and a roundhouse kick and it’s flying backwards, spilling sand everywhere, leaving Steve cursing bitterly under his breath.

“Uh, think you won that round, champ,” says Tony, and Steve jumps.

“Oh! Tony, I didn’t. Um. I didn’t know you were there.”

“I wasn’t,” Tony says, slipping into the room and crouching over the mutilated remains of the bag. “Just got here. You know this was enhanced with Kevlar, right?”

“I didn’t,” Steve admits. “Sorry.”

He’s still breathing hard, and Tony hands over the water bottle he’d brought in with him absent-mindedly, running his fingers over the torn fabric of the punching bag. If Steve has this kind of capability normally, Tony’s going to have to design something considerably stronger to keep up with him—not to mention something that moves, probably, since his agility is where he really needs the work.

“I do not,” Steve says, capping the water bottle and alerting Tony to the fact that he’s been speaking out loud.

“You do,” Tony says, because he might as well, now. “I watch you. Or, okay, that’s not as creepy as it sounds, I mean, the suit tracks that kind of data anyway, but you’re the one I keep an eye on, mostly, because—well, no, I do it for everyone, I guess. Clint’s a little weaker on his left side—“

“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” Steve says, sounding surprised. “I’ve been running him through drills when we get the chance, but he’s not great about, you know, listening.”

Tony nods. “It’s all the crouching, I think. He puts his weight on his right when he’s in sniper position, so those muscles get worked more; I was thinking about doing the redesign on his bow with that in mind, adjust the specs a little, so he’s got to distribute more, but I don’t want to over-balance him.”

“If I can get him to run the drills, you won’t,” Steve says speculatively, taking another swig of Tony’s water. “And a bow redesign’s a hell of a carrot, he’s been pestering you about that for ages.”

“I’m a busy man,” Tony says, which, really, he intends to delivery with a tone of derision and superiority. Instead he just sounds like he’s joking, and Steve grins at him, easy and relaxed.

Tony is warm suddenly, the tension he came down here to relieve draining out of him only to be replaced with a headier, buzzier variety. He smiles back, because he’s helpless not to, because he wants Steve to keep looking at him like that, like it’s good, like they’re friends.

“I guess so,” Steve says, mock-serious, “but then again, you found time to decide I’m not agile enough—“

“You’re not,” Tony says, and Steve scowls, but it’s a good-natured sort of scowl. “Seriously, you’re not, I can pull up the footage from our last fight and show you—“

“Or you could just spar with me,” Steve says, shrugging.

Tony raises an eyebrow and gestures to the mutilated remains of the punching bag. “Really? You think that’s the best sell for a little play fighting? I don’t know about you, Cap, but I am deeply and sincerely attached to each and every one of my limbs, and, as I believe you know, I do most of my fighting in a big metal suit.”

Steve’s smile slips a little, but doesn’t vanish entirely, and he doesn’t take the obvious bait. “I promise not to treat you like a punching bag, if it helps. I could use the practice, and so could you—suit or no, there’s always the question of form, right?”  

“You just want to try to prove that I’m wrong about the agility thing,” Tony says, sighing and stepping up onto the practice mats. “Which, for the record, I’m not.”

“We’ll see,” Steve says, and Tony has just long enough to relish his smile—to think, oh, fuck, I like him, don’t I, how could I like him--before he’s being thrown.

--

They save the world together, once, twice, six times, argue bitterly over what music to play, drive one another up the wall. Clint takes showers that go on for far too long, and half the time Thor doesn’t shower at all; Natasha vanishes for days on end and comes back looking smug, satisfied, and though they all tease her mercilessly about it, she won’t crack and tell them where she’s been. Bruce takes a dry erase marker and writes all over the windows, equations Tony finds fascinating until he smashes through them as the Hulk, and they all casually try to catch Steve up on pop culture. Twice a week, Tony and Steve toss each other around in the practice room, sometimes with the suit, sometimes without, and it’s…okay. It’s good.

It’s not quite home, but it’s not quite anything else.

--

In August, about a month into the whole communal living experiment, Tony finds Thor sulking in the living room. Thor is not normally one for sulking; he'd pouted for about six minutes when Tony had told him "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," was not allowed under his roof, but he'd gotten over it quickly enough. Tony eyes the long line of his frown, the way his shoulders are slumped, and considers sneaking away before he can be dragged into whatever it is.

Teamwork, a voice in the back of his head reminds him. It sounds a lot like Steve, because that's just what Tony's life is like.

"Oh, fine," he mutters, and Thor looks up. "What's eating you, buddy?"

"I do not know," Thor says, mystified, lifting an arm and looking around. "What does the creature look like? Where on my body do you see it? Are you sure it is really there and not an illusion, for my brother--"

"Uh," says Tony, holding up a hand. "No, it's not--it's a figure of speech, what's eating you, it's like--it means what's wrong, okay, stop looking around, there's nothing actually eating you, you're fine."

"Oh," Thor says. He actually looks kind of disappointed, and slumps back against the couch in defeat. "Well, then. It is nothing, my friend. Do not trouble yourself."

Okay, awesome, I'll just be going now, things to do, people to see, great talk, thinks Tony.

"Doesn't look like nothing," says Tony, and curses the fact that Steve Rogers apparently freelances at night as Jiminy goddamn Cricket.

Thor sighs, deep and long. "It is only…at home, in Asgard, it is a day of great celebration, wherein, with respect to Yggdresil, the world tree--"

"Whoa," says Tony, holding up a hand, "Reader's Digest version, please."

Thor scrunches up his nose--between him and Steve, Tony is starting to wonder if he shouldn't just program Jarvis to produce some sort of voice-activated dictionary--but he seems to get the message.

"It is a day for me," he confesses. "To celebrate my existence, what I have learned, and what more I have to learn. I fear I have rather more in the latter category than the former, and it would be incomplete without my brother; nonetheless, I would have liked to be there. It is impossible with the current state of the Bifrost, however, so I shall have to weather it with solemnity, as befits a warrior."

Tony takes that sentence, strips it of its inherent Thor-ness, parses it, and grins.

"Thor," he says, "is it your birthday?"

"No," Thor says, frowning. "Although I suppose that would be the closest Midgardian equivalent..."

"It's your birthday!" Tony crows, because this? This is a problem he can deal with. "You should've said, I throw a great party, everyone knows that, even Pepper knows that--hey, you know what, I'll call Pepper, I'll call everybody, and you, you stay there, try to just, you know…frown…less, and I'll be back. Whiskey, maybe, you like whiskey, right? Or mead, I can get mead, I know a guy with mead, Jarvis, get me the mead guy--"

"I would not want you to go to any trouble," Thor starts hesitantly, and Tony grins wildly at him. A party is good news. A party is great news; Tony's been behaving lately, intends to behave still, but it'll be nice to cut loose a little.

Just in case, though, he walks to the bar, pushes the little red button under the sink. There's a faint whirring noise, and then Jarvis's quiet, "Duly noted, Mr. Stark," which Tony knows means his suit security measures have been activated. He won't be able to operate any of them if his BAC goes above .08; he'd repurposed his morbid little blood toxicity death scanner to test for it, made the whole thing impossible to override.

It's probably paranoid, but it had just seemed like a good idea, after the…last time.

"Trouble?" he says to Thor, running his hands over the assortment of liquor choices. "Trouble, buddy, believe me, a party is not trouble when you're me--hey, you know what, let's just ease you into it, get you in the party mood. Highlander or Highlander? I think, you being who you are, we should go with Highlander."

"I do not understand your reference," Thor says, but some of his good humor is starting to come back.

"That's great," Tony says, "it'd only offend you anyway," and pours three fingers each into two glasses, passes one back to Thor. "Right, uh, toast, happy returns and all that--"

"To the great dignity and triumph of all those who stand with me this day!" Thor booms. Tony looks around, mostly just to confirm the room is empty except for them, and then shrugs.

"Right," he says, "okay, what the hell, I’ll drink to that. Cheers!"

--

Five hours later, Tony is much, much more drunk than he intended to become.

It was just…whiskey, right, all that whiskey, and then Clint and Natasha showed up, and Pepper, and Bruce. Cap sent him a text message--he isn't good with those yet, but has at least figured out enough to be functional--that said “DEAR TONY, I AM IN A MEETING WITH DIRECTOR FURY. THANK YOU FOR INVITING ME! I WILL ATTEND, BUT MAY BE QUITE LATE. SINCERELY, STEVE ROGERS.”

And, well, anyone would need a drink after that. Several drinks, even, and Thor'd never had a sake bomb before; that obviously had to be rectified. Tony forgot, in pouring them, what sake bombs tended to do to Pepper--after three she said, "Tony, I've been meaning to tell you…" and then promptly listed all the way over into Natasha's lap.

Natasha stroked her hair, a fond smile on her face, and then gave Tony a look that dared him to say something. Tony remembered her stabbing him in the neck with a needle like a kidney thief, saw the honest warmth in Pepper's eyes, and bit his tongue. At least it explained where Natasha'd been slipping off to lately. Tony felt pretty good about figuring that out; at least, he felt pretty good until he examined that thought, pushed it to its inevitable conclusion, and felt more to drink was definitely required.

Then the guy with the mead showed up. Thor, as it turned out, was not kidding about that stuff.

Point being, by the time Steve gets to the house, things have gotten…fairly out of control. Clint is perched on top of the entertainment set, painfully still, with a mostly-empty bottle of vodka next to him; Bruce is sitting in front of the television, entirely captivated by Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, because everyone agreed that the best thing to do with a trashed Bruce Banner was to leave him in plain sight with something to keep him very happy. Pepper and Natasha are making out in the corner, which Tony is fine with, really, he's great, he's so fine, and Tony himself is teaching Thor the bump and grind.

Well. Tony is trying to teach Thor the bump and grind. Unfortunately, Thor choses the exact moment that Steve enters the room to say, "My friend Sif has taught me many exotic dance moves; I shall demonstrate!"

This is why Tony is hovering three feet off the ground, upside-down and being held by one ankle, when he is confronted with the face of Steve Rogers.

"Hmm," says Thor, "I believe I am doing it incorrectly."

"Steve," Tony says, scrabbling for purchase and then remembering he's dangling in the air. He settles for crossing his arms over his chest instead, tries to decipher the expression on Steve's face. His mouth is curved, but Tony is upside-down; he can't actually gather his wits or spacial reasoning enough to figure out if it's a smile or a frown.

"Hi, Tony," Steve says, and he doesn't sound like he thinks Tony is the worst person in the world or anything, so that's something. "You guys look like you're having fun."

"Yes, yes, another!" Thor cries, and throws Tony violently at the ground. Tony flails, yelps, and manages not to land on his face by the skin of his teeth; he rolls, aching, and groans into the carpet.

"My friend," Thor says frantically, "I apologize, I intended to throw the bottle, only--"

"I know," Tony moans, "I know, I get it, shut up, god, fuck," and then he's being rolled back over.

"Oh my god, Tony," Steve says, and he's definitely frowning now, "are you okay? How many fingers am I holding up?"

Tony squints at him. "Uh. Is this a trick question?"

Steve looks terrified for a second, and then seems to realize that both his hands are on Tony's shoulders. He shakes his head, rueful, and waves two fingers in Tony's face.

"Peace!" Tony says cheerfully. "That's like my whole thing now, peace and love and…and…Intellicrops…oh, two."

"Okay," Steve says, and releases a breath. Then he releases Tony's shoulder, which is a tragedy. "Okay, good, sorry, I should've caught you--"

"Agility," Tony says, tapping his face where he thinks the side of his nose might be, and Steve laughs.

"Yeah, so you keep telling me. Think you can get up?"

"Can," says Tony, "maybe…shouldn't."

"You're not going to lie on the floor all night," Steve says seriously. Tony is not sure what to do with this information; he is quite certain he has spent many nights in exactly this condition, and the floor is a better place for him to be than, say, in the Iron Man suit inside of a giant doughnut.

The truth is, Tony is drunk enough to know he's too drunk; the truth is, Tony hates being in this place, feels like a failure, doesn't want to remember his last several trips down this road. He wants to crawl inside something and die, wants to be miserable about Pepper and his assorted bad habits and Steve, who is just being nice because Tony is a trainwreck. Even though Tony's not a trainwreck, not always, just sometimes, and a couple times a year he's actually a decent human being, things just got out of control and he's probably, he should probably stop drinking entirely, he mostly has, he was responsible about the suits but this is still…not good. It's not good, and he should stay on the floor.

He would explain this to Steve, but Steve's already grabbing his shoulder again, his hand, hauling him to his feet with the ease of someone with ridiculous super strength.

"It's Thor's birthday," Tony says, as though this explains everything.

"Incorrect but well-meant, my friend!" Thor bellows,  and slaps him on the back. Normally this would fine, but it's Thor; the force behind the slap shoves Tony forward again, directly into Steve's chest.

It's a nice chest. Tony likes it here. Maybe he should stay.

"Ow," he says plaintively, as Steve curls an arm around his back to steady him, "hey. If you're gonna go slapping people slap, uh, Captain Muscles here, because, you know, with the serum, and the…muscles."

"Captain Muscles?" Steve says over his head. He sounds amused, which means he's probably just humoring Tony.

Given the fact that he hasn't shoved Tony away from him yet, Tony's gonna go ahead and take it.

"Captain Muscles," Tony confirms. "'s better than Captain America, because of--the French thing. I know French! What's the thing--PEPPER!"

In the corner, Pepper breaks away from Natasha and looks around. Drunk as she is, she manages to lift an eyebrow that speaks entire paragraphs; Tony stands his ground, mostly because Steve is still holding him up.

"Yes, Mr. Stark?"

Oooh, the burn of bitter sarcasm. Tony grins, because he really has no other option.

"What's the thing," he says, "you know, the thing, the French one, the words. That I mean."

Pepper purses her lips, tilts her head, sighs and says, "Je ne sais quoi, Tony. I'm busy."

"That's totally it," Tony crows, "the thing Pepper said, that's what…uh…I meant about…whatever we were talking about. You're tall. I'm gonna go now."

Steve is laughing at him. Tony can tell, because his big stupid soft comfortable chest is moving. He steps back, because he totally should have done that awhile ago, and Steve says, "You okay to be walking?"

"I'm not that drunk," Tony protests, and then winces at the implication that he knows what being that drunk is like, and then laughs--he's not sure why.

"I meant because Thor threw you at the ground," Steve says, slow and concerned, giving him a strange look. “You don’t feel concussed, do you?”

This, Tony feels quite sure, is the kind of question people who aren't superheroes don't ever have to ask each other.

“No,” he mutters, “’m good, ‘s a thing—Thor, buddy, hey, hey, Thor, Thor--“

“Thor,” Steve says, calmer and, naturally, much less whiny than Tony, and Thor turns his head away from the silent communication he’d apparently been exchanging with Clint.

“Steven! Tony says that on a birthday it is customary to exchange greetings in kind. Happy birthday, my friend!”

“That’s not,” Tony says, while Steve visibly bites back a laugh, “that’s just, that’s so not, I bet I could figure out dictionary into a Jarvis for the—wait. Hold on. Wrong order. Has anyone ever told you about your hair, man, because you, I mean, just, that’s a lot of hair, I need you to…uh. Uh. Shit.”

“I think you’ve probably had enough to drink,” Steve says. His voice is as warm as his chest was; Tony wants to wrap it around him like a blanket, which doesn’t make sense.

“Mmm,” he agrees, “Captain America, oracle of truth, I’m just gonna...” and he stumbles away, past Thor and Bruce and Clint and Pepper and Natasha, to snatch a bottle of whiskey from the bar and sulk by himself on the back porch.

Or, at least, he means to go sulk on the back porch. He overshoots a little bit, and is leaning up against the side of the house, the bottle tucked between his thighs, when Steve finds him.

“Are you always such a,” Tony says, and waves a hand, looking for the right word. “Boy Scout, I guess, did they have those in the 40s? I should probably know, I was one, hilarious, right? Three whole weeks and then they kicked me out because I, uh, you know what, you probably don’t want to know that story--”

“The Boy Scouts were founded in 1910, and I brought you some water,” Steve says, sitting down next to Tony and deftly removing the whiskey bottle from between his legs. “And some, uh, Advil? Pepper said you might want it.”

“Thought Pepper’s mouth was occupied,” Tony says, and snorts. “Ooh, sorry, sounded a little bitter, didn’t it, maybe I should build like...voice modulation, right, wouldn’t even be hard, I never sound how I mean to sound. I think that’s a good plan.”  

I think you should drink the water.”

“You would,” says Tony, and takes a pointed sip of it. He’s not sure what point he’s trying to prove, but he’s proved it, goddamn it. “I’m good now, thanks, you can go, there’s a party. Go enjoy the, uh, Thor, Thor’s very enjoyable, you know it’s his birthday?”

“I’m good where I am,” Steve says, and shrugs when Tony gives him what he hopes is a questioning look. “Not much for parties, never have been.”

“I can turn the music down--from right here, I totally can, hey Jarvis--”

“It’s not the music,” Steve says, “it’s just...I like people one on one better. I always feel like I’m breaking some sort of social rule at parties, like there’s some code everyone else has read. Bucky used to say I was allergic to fun.”

“Who’s Bucky?”

Steve’s face goes dark and closed off for a second, but then he smiles. “He’s...he was a friend of mine. My best friend. We grew up together, fought together during the war. He knew me better than anyone, I think.”

“Then maybe you are allergic to fun.”

“Definitely to Bucky’s idea of fun,” Steve agrees readily. “He liked things fast; I was always a slower kinda guy. I don’t know why he liked me, really.”

“Everyone likes you,” Tony slurs, because it’s the truth. “Like...like, everyone, you’re just. Uh. Very.”

“Very,” Steve repeats, dry like the Sahara. “Drink your water, Tony.”

“Maybe I will,” Tony says, pointing a finger in Steve’s direction. He takes another long swing, swirls it contemplatively in his mouth. “Y’know, you’re a good person.”

“Uh,” Steve says, blushing bright red, “thank...you?”

Tony should leave it there; he should definitely leave it there. So, naturally, he adds, “Sorry I thought you were a dick, before.”

What?”

“Bad judge,” Tony says, gesturing at himself and spilling water all down his shirt, “of character. Like. Always. Thought Rhodey was a dick too, felt like an ass later--liked Pepper from the beginning, she was always good, she’s like. The exception. And fucking Obie, I always get it wrong. People’re hard.”

“So I should...take it as a compliment?” Steve says, sounding completely at sea. “That you thought I was a dick?”

“Smarter,” Tony says. “If I’d thought you were good you’d probably be like. Uh. Plotting...things, are you plotting things, no one has tried to kill me in awhile, but I don’t think you would. That’s a compliment, sorry I called you a dick. You’re not. A dick, I mean.”

Steve stares at him for a second, then sighs and shakes his head. “You’re a complicated guy, Tony, has anyone ever told you that?”  

“No ’m not,” Tony says, “just...tired. Yeah. That’s...yup.”

“Hey, you can’t sleep out here,” Steve says, apparently correctly interpreting Tony’s closed eyes and slumped posture.

“Wanna put money on that?”

“Come on,” Steve says, and then there’s an arm under Tony’s, lifting him to his feet. Tony’s too drunk and shameless to help himself; he tucks his face into Steve’s shoulder, shuffles his feet in a sad approximation of walking, and lets Steve more-or-less haul him through the house and up the stairs.

“Gonna be sorry,” Tony manages, when he’s collapsed face-fist onto his bed, “in the morning.”

Steve says something, but Tony can’t really understand it, and forgets it at once. He registers being rolled over, the soft brush of fabric against his arms, a brief pressure on each of his feet, and then warmth slides over him and he abandons consciousness entirely.

He dreams of Steve’s hand in his hair, stroking lightly, for what feels like a long time.

--

Tony wakes up to a headache that is dwarfed only by the ache in the rest of his body. He mashes his face into the pillow, tries to will himself back to sleep, and fails. After a moment, Jarvis says, “Good morning, Mr. Stark,” in a voice that would be hesitant if he wasn’t, you know, a computer.

“Fuck you,” Tony mumbles into the pillow.

“What was that?” says Jarvis, in sunny, bordering-on-homicidal tones, and really, one of these days Tony is going to get around to giving him a little less personality.

Eventually. Probably. At some point.

“Fuck,” Tony groans, “fuck, fucking motherfucking fuck.” He rolls over as gingerly as possible, but apparently not gingerly enough. Even the smallest motion sets off a world of hurt, creeping up his arm, his ribcage, his left thigh, and that’s when Tony hazily remembers being thrown to the ground by Thor.

“Oh, hell,” he mumbles, and pushes back the comforter to reveal the mottled canvas of bruises that is currently his body. “That’s gonna be a bitch to spar with, fucking Thor, I swear to god. Maybe…padding, Jarvis, could you…padding. Uh. After coffee.”

“Of course, sir,” Jarvis says, apparently over the “fuck you” business. “I’ll begin rendering some theoretical schematics for your approval. Shall I schedule an appointment with a doctor to see to your bruising?”

“No,” Tony says, “no, it’s just, uh, hangover and, and, divine battery, no doctors, I’m good. If you could maybe just kill me, though? That’d probably be for the best.”

Jarvis doesn’t even dignify that with a response, which is fine. Tony was sick of talking anyway.

It takes him another few minutes—long, dizzy minutes, in which he can’t help but poke at his bruises, regret it, and then stubbornly do it again—to realize that he’s in bed. His own bed, in his own bedroom, on the second floor, which…Tony is pretty sure he was too drunk last night to pick his bed out of a lineup, let alone climb the stairs and get under the covers.

Now that he’s thinking about it, he’s not wearing shoes, either. Or most of the suit he’d had on last night, just the undershirt and the pants.

Huh. Maybe coffee, Tony thinks, and forces himself out of bed over the strenuous protest of his entire body. He walks down the stairs feeling older than he’s ever felt in his life, creaking and aching with every step, and when he reaches the landing he peers into the living room and sighs.

Bruce is Hulked. Tony’s not sure when or how that happened, or where he’s going to find the latest round of consequential structural damage, but at least he seems to be sleeping peacefully. Granted, Tony’s going to have to replace the couch, but he’s sleeping peacefully. Thor’s sprawled out on top of the bar, grinning in his sleep, and Clint—wow, Clint’s still on top of the entertainment set, looking right at Tony.

“Morning,” Tony says, “you’re not planning on moving in up there, are you? Because I don’t think you really match.”

Clint says nothing. After a minute, he snores, which is when Tony realizes that he’s asleep with his eyes open.

“Well that’s not terrifying at all,” he mutters to himself. He looks around for Pepper and Natasha, doesn’t see them, and, riding a hunch, says, “Jarvis, call Pepper, will you?”

“Certainly,” says Jarvis. A second later, the Jaws theme starts playing from the direction of Natasha’s bedroom.

“That’s not nice, Pepper!” Tony yells, and winces at how much it hurts to draw the breath to raise his voice. “I told you to change that!”

“Not now,” comes Pepper’s voice, followed immediately by Natasha’s more insistent, “Fuck off, Tony."

Tony scowls and walks into the kitchen.

“The world better hope it doesn’t need saving today,” he mutters, and then Steve says, “My thoughts exactly,” and Tony jumps about a foot in the air.

"Jesus," he says, "give a guy a little warning, fuck, is super sneaking one of your powers, oh my god, you know I have a heart condition, right? Or, well, not a condition but a…er…."

He stops, because Steve has one eyebrow up, and his mouth is quirked at the corners; this is his I'm laughing at you but too decent to do it out loud expression, and Tony knows it well. He narrows his eyes and turns to the coffeemaker.

"Fine," he says, "be that way."

"I already started a--," Steve starts, and then he makes a strangled, choking sort of sound. "Tony, your arm."

"Huh?" Tony says. He's trying to piece together what he remembers about last night into a picture that makes sense; he's pretty sure he should be mortified right now, he just can't remember why. "Oh, yeah, that. As it turns out, playing hacky-sack for a Norse god is a bad idea, who knew?"

"Me?" says Steve, and before Tony can stop him, he's reaching out to lift Tony's arm with gentle hands. They're warm against the surface of his skin, warm like Tony is under Steve's sudden, careful scrutiny, and Tony doesn't shiver, but it's a close thing. "This looks really bad--god, you hit on your side, is it like this all the way down?"

"Kind of," Tony admits, because it's hard to lie to Captain America. "I've had worse, though, it's not a big deal."

"Your ribs could be bruised," Steve says, brow furrowed. He reaches for the hem of Tony's shirt, and that's about the extent of what Tony can handle this morning; he twists away, trying not to wince too obviously at the movement.

"I'm fine, Cap. Coffee and some Advil, maybe lay off the sparing for a couple of days--"

"A couple of days?" Steve repeats, raising his voice, and then lowering it back to a furious whisper when Tony groans and makes a shushing noise. "A couple of--Tony, your arm is blue. For all I know you've cracked a rib, you need to see a doctor."

"But I hate doctors, so, uh, no, I'm thinking it's a no, definitely a no," Tony says, and pours himself a cup of coffee. Something is itching at the back of his mind; hopefully the caffeine will help. "Seriously. It's fine, I'm fine, everybody's fine, forget about it."

Tony's not fine, actually; he feels like he's going to keel over or throw up, like his head is going to fall off his neck, like half of his body is on fire. He wants to curl up somewhere and lick his wounds, and--oh, oh, there it is, last night's memories in stunning technicolor, the mortification he's been waiting for. Steve saw Tony drunk, drunker than he's been in months; Steve listened to Tony whine, pathetic and maudlin. Steve, shit, Steve carried him to bed, and now he's standing in front of Tony with his arms crossed, concern on his face.

And the thing is, Tony knows it's just that he's part of a team now, part of Cap's team, for all he doesn't play well with others. He's part of the team and that should be enough, but it's not, only makes everything else worse by comparison. He wants to misinterpret what's happening here, wants to read Steve's concern as interest in Tony instead of the Avengers, wants to walk forward into Steve's arms, the warmth there, and let the tension drain out of his own shoulders. Hell, he even wants to talk about what happened last night, wants to believe that Steve's inherent impossible decency would overcome the judgement Tony knows he deserves, but Steve is his coworker, not even his friend, and he can't.

"Let it go," Tony says, and looks away. "It's really not your problem, anyway."  

"You're so goddamn frustrating sometimes," Steve snaps, "would it kill you to just swallow your pride a little and-- "

"Yes, yes, okay, it would, it would kill me, because I have so much pride to swallow, don't tell me you haven't noticed--"

"You know you're not the only person who--"

"Is affected by my injuries? I think I am, actually, and save me the 'There's no I in team,' speech, because really, you know what, I get it, I've heard it, but I fight in a giant metal suit, so a couple of bruises aren't going to--"

"You think this is about-- "

"Yeah, I fucking do."

Steve glares at him, and Tony glares back; Steve breaks first, huffing out a long sigh and looking away. "Okay, fine. If you want to be a stubborn ass, I guess it isn't my lookout."

"Cheers," Tony says, raising his coffee mug.

Steve throws his hands in the air and walks away, and Tony's chest feels tight, heavy, until he's gone.

--

Tony Stark has been in love twice in his life, and the first time was with a circuit board. He never got over that one, never even tried; it’s still there, humming under his fingers while he works, the heady stream of how things fit together. Tony has never been able to fathom reality without the picking it apart and building it a different way, and he sees no reason to start now. For all he pits himself against commitment, the steady rush of home has always been clouded thick around his work, and he’s long since resigned himself to the fact that he’s better with machines than people.

The second time, with Pepper, was less about stability, more about surprise. Tony hadn’t known it was possible to fall headlong into something he’d been feeling for years; he scrambled and scrabbled to catch up, to touch every loose end, to figure it out. And Pepper...god, those first few weeks, tangled up with each other and their own mortality, Pepper was a dream Tony’d been having for years. She splayed herself across his sheets, thighs cream-pale and bruised with kisses, red hair spilled along the pillow, and quirked her eyebrows at him like nothing had changed at all.

“Will that be all, Mr. Stark,” she panted one night, wicked as Tony shook against her. She smiled during sex, slept the night next to him, laughed at him over morning coffee; Tony traced the curve of her spine with his eyes when she moved, woke up curled around her, a hand in her hair. She was just Pepper, warm even when she was cold, hands soft where her voice wasn’t, and he loved her, he loved her, he’d always loved her.

But Tony would be Tony, had always been Tony, couldn’t ever seem to manage being anyone else. Tony was himself in love or out of it, and Pepper knew him better than anyone; he’d thought he could be better for her, and she must have done too, and they were both wrong. Scrambling and scrabbling were all well and good, but Tony fucked up more than he did anything else--too little time or too much affection, absent and smothering by turns.

She’d changed her mind about quitting as CEO; he’d agreed to the Avengers Initiative. Half the time they were on opposite sides of the country, Tony knee-deep in some consulting project while Pepper put out his fires, and when they did see each other Tony couldn’t control himself at all. He bought her diamonds and hung up on her; he missed board meetings and hid his eyes when he fucked her; he said “I love you” once, twice, a hundred times, but kissed her silent before she could say it back.

One month became two, became four, and they fought whenever they weren’t fucking. Pepper tried for maturity and Tony tried to bait her, hoping she’d reveal in anger what it was he was doing wrong. She never did, just looked at him with eyes that spoke volumes in a language Tony didn’t speak, and he sent flowers, cards, suggested Venice for the second time. He tried so hard it seemed like he wasn’t trying at all.

They were on the way to the airfield--Venice after all, and Tony knew he was being humored, but at least it was something--when the truth of it stumbled out of his mouth.

“This isn’t working, is it?”

“Of course it’s working,” Pepper cried, exasperated, “you haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, have you, we don’t have military funding anymore, it’s natural that the numbers don’t meet what was projected a year ago--”

“No,” Tony said, “not that, I, uh. Us. You and me. It’s a no-go, isn’t it?”

Pepper’s eyes widened and her mouth snapped shut, and god, even that was enough; Tony swallowed against the swooping crash in his stomach, took her hand.

“C’mon, Pep,” he said, “how long have we known each other? I mean, god, remember when I made you replace the arc--”

“I am not doing that again,” Pepper said, and her eyes were wet, and really it was wrong that Tony had to go through having this conversation; it’s not like they didn’t both know where it was going.

“I know,” he said. “I know you aren’t. But I...look, I meant what I said, okay? About it being, uh, you. Pretty much...only you, and if this isn’t for us, then you know what, I can deal. Right? I mean, I can totally deal, of course I can deal, but if it flames and burns and you hate me--”

“I don’t hate you, Tony,” Pepper said, and there it was, the fond exasperation, the fact that she found the idea ridiculous, and what the fuck was Tony supposed to do without that, go live alone in a treehouse in the woods?

“Yeah, now,” Tony said, rolling his eyes, trying for flippant, “but in three weeks I’ll have burned down Stark Tower or knocked all the walls out of the mansion--I’m remodeling the mansion, by the way, the New York one, not the one here, the one here is yours, I mean, it’s mine but it can be yours, if you want it I can sign the whole thing over to you, no problem, I’m good at that--”

“Tony--”

“Fuck, fuck,” and that was all Tony was going to let his composure slip, it really was. He took a deep breath, faked a smile, and Pepper smiled back. She wasn’t crying, but she wasn’t quite...not crying, either. Tony thought it must be nice. “See? I can’t even do a breakup right.”

“Is that what this is,” Pepper said, but there was no question in her voice. She reached up, touched the side of Tony’s face--probably right where a bruise once was, Pepper’s funny that way--and sighed. “I do love you, you know.”

“But it’s too much,” Tony said, “right? It’s too much, isn’t it, I know, it’s okay, I’m sorry, let’s just quit while we’re ahead, right? That’s the right call, I think that’s the right call.”

“Tony, I--”

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Tony said, and meant it for the first time in his life. He wanted her to tell him he was wrong, that they were fine, that she was happy; it was selfish, but he wanted it anyway, tried to keep it out of his voice. “Tell me I’m wrong and I’ll drop it right now, see if I don’t, go on, tell me.”

Pepper sighed and shook her head and it was over, over even before she said, “You’re all I have too, you know that, don’t you? I’ve told you enough times that it’s processed? If there was any way to make it work--”

“You would’ve found it already,” Tony said, and ran a hand through his hair. “Forget about me, you’re the genius in this car--no offense to Happy--and I know you tried, okay, I’m a hard problem to solve--hey, hey, you wanna give me a smile? Please?”

She gave him a scowl instead, and when Tony laughed, it only sounded a little hysterical.

“You know what,” he said, “tell you what, you should go to Venice anyway--no, no, don’t start--”

“I haven’t even said--”

“You were going to, I just mean for the weekend, blow of some steam, enjoy yourself--”

“I know this escapes your attention constantly, but as CEO--”

“I was never this responsible as CEO, there’s already a precedent and you’re just--”

“Yes, I know exactly how irresponsible you were, that’s not exactly a selling point and--”

“--making it more difficult this way, Pepper, c’mon, just for the weekend and then you’ll come back and--

“Find the entire company in complete-”

“--things’ll be normal,” Tony finished. That shut Pepper up; she gave him a horribly doubting look, and Tony was scrambling again, would maybe always be scrambling for her. “Or as normal as things ever get for us, come on, let me have this, let me think that we can--”

“We can,” Pepper said, and her voice was firm, no-nonsense. “We can, stop looking at me like that, of course we can. It just...it might take more than a weekend, Tony. You have to be prepared for that.”

“When am I not prepared?” Tony said, “Tell me one time I wasn’t prepared,” and that, at least, got Pepper to laugh. Tony grinned at her, dug his fingernails into his thighs, and hoped. “See, there it is, that’s a smile, we’re going to be fine.”

The car drew to a stop; Tony could see his plane through the tinted windows, fueled up and ready to go, and as endings went, this wasn’t a terrible one. He climbed out of the car before Happy could come around to open the door, offered Pepper a hand out.

“So...that’s it, then,” Pepper said, and the tears were back, unshed but still visible. In ten years, Tony had never once seen her cry.

“That’s it,” he said, and hugged her, pretended not to see the terrible relief in her eyes.

It took him three hours to get home, get the suit, and get to New York; he stormed through the SHIELD hallways in full gear, ignoring the panicked glances from various agents. When he got to Nick Fury’s office, he flipped up his mask, slammed the door, and said, “I want in.”

“You are in, Stark,” Fury said, without looking up from the folder he had spread open across his desk. “Made it down the hallway without getting shot, didn’t you? That’s more in than most people ever get, you got a reason for bothering me today?”

“No,” Tony said, “no, not in the building, not in as a consultant, I want in on the Avengers.”

Fury did look up at that, one visible eye narrowed. “And when did I give you the impression that that was up to you?”

“Would you just listen,” Tony said, and slammed an armor-clad fist into the desk. It left a two-inch dent in the metal, and Fury just raised an eyebrow.

“I’m listening.”

“I will do anything, okay? Anything, is that what you want to hear? When I first started with this shit there was the next mission and nothing else, and I know I’m a pain in your ass, and I know you and your goons got up close and personal with me during a really bad week, but for the record? The time before that? The last time I thought it was the end of the line? I built a fucking arc reactor in a cave with a box of scraps and a goddamn car battery hooked to my chest, so I think it’s safe to say I’m normally good under pressure!”

“Look, Tony-- “

“No, you look.” Some part of Tony’s brain--probably the small, scared, undeveloped corner that handled his self-preservation instinct--wailed in terror at that, but he ignored it. “I don’t know what you want from me here, I don’t know if there’s some kind of psych eval I’m supposed to pass or an obstacle course I’m supposed to run, maybe you want me to flick out one of my eyes so we can match, whatever. I know I’m not a team player, okay, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do my goddamn job, and if you keep me locked up in here running tests on god knows what I am going to lose my mind. I will do the job, you know I will, you have to know that, I will do anything, you just have to give me a fucking chance. “

He was breathing hard when he stopped talking; Fury gave him a long, measured look, then sighed. He looked back down at the folder open on his desk, made a check mark, and flipped it closed again.

“Fine,” he said.

“I knew you were going to say that, and I have prepared a--” Tony paused, let that process. “Wait--wait, fine? Did you say fine?”

“I was gonna call you in anyway,” Fury said, shrugging, “figured I’d let you say your piece first. Turns out we’ve, ah, unearthed someone, and I’m pretty sure he can keep you in line.”

“Oh,” Tony said, and tried not to feel too ridiculous about the fact that his entire set of dramatics had apparently been unnecessary. “Uh, okay. So I guess you’ll just...let me know when I’m needed, then?”

“Mmhmm,” Fury said, and Tony had turned to go when he added, “Oh, and Stark?”

“Yeah?”

“Gonna need you on premises,” Fury said, voice perfectly flat, eyes on his work. “Right here in this building for the next...week, let’s say, though I reserve the right to need you for longer. Shit for you to get done, it’s non-negotiable, you got that?”

Tony thought of the empty house in Malibu, of Pepper’s face in sharp relief, of the Scotch sitting on the bar in his living room.

“Yes, sir,” he said, because ‘thank you’ would have been pathetic, and slipped into the hall.

(Five weeks later, the big blond hero in the armor Tony made him hates him on sight. Tony...well, shit, Tony doesn’t blame him at all.)

--

If Tony's honest with himself--which he rarely is, actually, but whatever--he's missed New York. There was a certain appeal to Malibu, sure, the beaches and the sunshine; there'd been panache in the seedy, smoggy roil of Los Angeles after midnight, and Tony had been looking for panache. The East Coast had felt thick and smothering at 21, at 31, haunted with echoes of his father's Brooklyn accent, always hard with disappointment. Now, a few months shy of 41, he watches the end of a thunderstorm out the window of what was once his father's study and very nearly smiles.

He's healed, mostly, from the whole tossed-around-like-a-drunken-ragdoll episode. One of his ribs had been cracked after all, a fact which he wasn't ever planning on mentioning to Steve; still, time and carefully hidden bandages have done their work. All that remains of the incident is a faint yellow tint to Tony's arm, and even that’s mostly faded.

Well, that and the fact that he and Steve have been circling each other like wounded dogs for two weeks, avoiding eye contact and exchanging as few words as possible. At least it's familiar, Tony thinks ruefully, for all it's harder to weather now.

Tony is, maybe, kind of, sort of, in what he would call a "mood." Pepper would call it a sulking fit, but Pepper's in LA right now, so Tony is free to define things however he likes.

The rain stops abruptly, a shuddering sort of stillness settling over the house; in the absence of the pounding beat of the downpour, Tony can hear Clint trying to teach Thor to work the Wii. It's a losing battle--Tony knows from long experience--but it's not like he's getting any work done anyway. He slips out into the living room, his tablet tucked under one arm, and leans in the doorway to watch.

"You just wave it," Clint says, exasperated, "don't they wave things in Asgard? Is there a no-waving policy? Is it too ungodly or something--hey, don't you dare throw it--"

"But why should I wave it?" Thor says, dangling the WiiMote in front of his face by the strap. "Is it not a weak man's task, mimicry and imitation of a real fight? This is a plaything for children! For cowards!"

"Thor, it's bowling," Clint says. "Hey, Tony, make Thor understand the Wii, give him an upgrade or something."

"Tony has abandoned attempting to school me in this folly," Thor says cheerfully. "He insists I am a hopeless case, and should remain restricted to swinging the mighty weight of Mjolnir."

"Fat lot of help that is," Clint mutters, "I want someone to bowl with."

"You could ask Bruce," Tony says.

Clint, without looking away from the screen, just sighs and beats at his chest like Tarzan. "He's a sore loser, it's bad for the walls."

"Hey," Bruce says mildly, looking up from the textbook he's reading, and sighs when they all tense up. "Oh, honestly--I'm not feeling green, you guys can relax, I was just registering my offense."

"Your offense ended in a viewing of your giant green dong last week," Natasha says, looking extremely bored. "Which, for the record, offended me."

"You could bowl with Clint," says Tony; Natasha gives him a flat look that speaks volumes as to how much that is not an option. "Or you could try Steve, he's getting better at it."

"Can't find him," Clint says. "He's been kinda scarce since you two went all cage-match on each other the other day."

"We didn't--wait, you--I--you know about that?"  

"It is not so large a house as you perhaps imagine, my friend," says Thor. He's got the WiiMote balanced on his head now, and is moving his body to control it; surprisingly, it seems to be working for him. "Also, you and Steven have not been particularly subtle about your discomfort with one another of late."

"Oh, right, because they're normally so discreet," Natasha says, her mouth quirking up, and Clint snickers as Thor lets out a guffaw.

"Hey," Tony snaps, and Bruce glances up again to give him a long-suffering look.

"See?" he says. "Not nice when they're all talking about you, is it?"

"I'm going upstairs," Tony says loftily, "because I am--"

"A busy guy, yeah, Tony, we know," Clint says. He does a controlled little fist-pump as he lands a strike. "Maybe say it a little less, whaddya think? Be more convincing if it wasn't like your catchphrase."

"Agreed," says Natasha.

"Here too," says Bruce, already looking back to his book.

"Tony may speak to his work level if he so chooses," says Thor, securing his place as Tony's favorite once again. Then he ruins it by adding, "Though I will concede that he chooses to do so perhaps more than is required for the understanding of others."

"Yeah, well," Tony says, which is…really, really lame. He's saved from having to elaborate when Clint lets out a whoop of satisfaction and yells, "Eat it, bitch!" in a Norse god's face.

"You insult my people and my kingdom," says Thor, laughing on it, and reaches out to give Clint what's probably the worst noogie of his life.

Tony's life has gotten very strange.

He watches them for another minute, the easy camaraderie that's flowing between them, and then sighs and takes his tablet up to the roof. It's slanted and tiled over, not really designed for sitting on, but Tony had spent hours up here as a kid, staring out at the distant glow of the city's lights. He'd had a stairway built when he took over the mansion, a little door, because he felt like 40 was probably a little old to be crawling out the window, but he hasn't had the chance to take advantage of it until now.

For a moment, it's as good as he'd thought it would be. The air is cool, damp still, heralding fall; Tony takes a deep breath, enjoying the taste of it, and then chokes on it a little when he notices that he's not alone.

"Steve?" he says to the silhouette, really hoping it's Steve and not some supervillain with a lurking fetish.

Then Steve turns around, bites his lip, and says, "Tony, hi," with no inflection in his voice at all. Tony takes it back--he'd take the supervillain any day of the week. At least the megalomaniacs they normally deal with would have the decency to actually stab him in the heart, instead of making him feel like they had.

"Sorry," Tony says, putting up a hand. "I didn't mean to, to, intrude, fortress of solitude, probably, right? That's a thing that people do, I get that, so I'll just, you know--"

"Tony, it's your house," Steve says, furrowing his brow. "You don't have to go just because I'm here."

"Not interested in crashing your party," Tony says warily, and Steve sighs, shakes his head.

"Party is definitely the wrong word. I'd like the company, actually. Stay?"

Tony tilts his head, and then shrugs and shuffles over to sit next to Steve. Apparently they're done not talking; that's fine. That's good. Better for the team and everything. Tony will just let Steve call the shots, and--

"Hey, is that a sketchbook?" Damn his fucking mouth.

"What?" Steve says, and then glances down at his lap. "Oh, this? It's nothing, it's just…I used to do this kind of thing, back before the war. Didn't really have time for it once things got heavy, though, and now I just do it to…unwind, I guess. Helps me think."

"Can I see?" says Tony, which is a stupid question, since he's already snatched it out of Steve's hands. For a second, he thinks he can see Steve blushing, and finds it endearing--well, more endearing than usual, which is actually getting kind of difficult to imagine, that’s probably not good--despite himself.

Then Steve says, "I guess my answer's irrelevant, huh?" in his driest, most deadpan voice, so, hey, maybe not.

Tony looks down at the notebook rather than replying, angles it towards the house for better light. A bustling street spills out across the page in charcoal; shopfronts fit together seamlessly, and there are rough outlines of people leaning out of upper windows, gossiping in the street. The detail is uneven--the drawing is obviously unfinished, a work in progress--but the skill in it is almost breathtaking.

"Is there anything you're not good at?" Tony says, and then, when Steve's face twists a little, backpedals. "Uh, sorry, I just--this is really good. Is it based on somewhere specific, or--"

"It's my neighborhood in Brooklyn," Steve says. He sounds wistful as he takes the notebook back, sad, old. "Or, I mean--was, I guess. I'm sure it's different now. I keep meaning to go see, but it's. I don't know."

"Yeah," Tony says. He waits for Steve to elaborate; when nothing else comes, Tony turns his head, really looks at the guy. He's staring down at the sketchbook, his thumb stroking lightly over one corner, and his shoulders are slumped in on each other.

Tony's mind, never good with staying still, flits from scoliosis to lumbar support to charcoal quality to the fact that he probably needs to get the roof re-tiled before it settles, strangely, on the word Atlas. He frowns.

"Hey," he says, "you okay?"

“Sure,” Steve says, shrugging a shoulder. It’s about the least convincing play-off Tony’s ever seen, and he’s watched himself in the mirror. “I...yes. Yeah. It’s fine.”

“Uh-huh,” says Tony, unconvinced.

He doesn’t push for once in his life, though, not sure it’s his place, and they fall into an easy enough silence. Tony’s got his tablet out again, balanced on his knees, projecting a combination of stock figures and a blown out view of R&D’s latest tragic attempt at creativity; he’s absorbed enough in his work that he almost doesn’t register the sound of Steve clearing his throat.

Almost, but not quite. His fingers still, and he slants a sidelong glance to his left. Steve’s not looking at him, but his face is twisted up like he’s steeling himself for something.

“Everyone I know is dead,” Steve says finally. It’s flat, monotone, none of the visibly held-back emotion Tony remembers from the day with the photograph. “Or, uh, knew, I guess, would be more appropriate. Even--I had neighbors, there was a girl who lived in the apartment across the hall from me, she was pregnant when I left, and her son’s dead--Vietnam, I guess. You know how weird that is?”

“I...don’t,” Tony admits, blinking. Honestly, it hadn’t even occurred to him, and isn’t that a bitch--Tony’s never felt like more of an asshole in his life, and that bar is pretty damn high. But here’s Steve, quiet, steady Steve, Steve who genuinely likes people, who’ll give (almost) anyone a chance; Tony tugs a hand through his hair and can’t fathom how many people he must have loved, how many must have loved him, how many lives he must be mourning.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, and he’s selfish, he’s always been selfish, so he doesn’t mean I’m sorry for your loss. He means I’m sorry I was such a dick to you and I’m sorry I didn’t see you and I’m sorry, I should have done better. He means I’m sorry you don’t like me, but god, I don’t blame you at all.

Steve sighs and shrugs, catches the palm of one hand with the thumb of the other and rubs a steady beat into his skin. “I’m not. Or, I mean, I am, of course I am, but it’s...I don’t know. They all lived such full lives, had families and...and...and lives, I know I said that already, but that’s, really, that’s it. They lived. How could I begrudge them that just because I missed it?”  

Tony doesn’t know what to do or say here, has never had any skill at navigating these kinds of waters. The last time anyone trusted him in a conversation with this much emotional depth, he’d ended up getting (deservedly) punched in the face. On the one hand, there’s probably not anything Tony could say that would lower him in Steve’s esteem at this point; on the other, more important hand, he wants to help.

“I don’t think it’s begrudging them their lives to miss them,” he tries finally, hoping it’s the right thing. “Because that’s not, I mean, if you want to look at the logic of the thing--which maybe you don’t, that’d be okay, I could work with that, we could try philosophy or, uh, math, I’d probably be great at this if it was math--but, my point being. You can be sorry you missed it without being sorry they had it, right? Those are two separate things, aren’t they?”

“Sometimes they are,” Steve agrees, sounding thoughtful. “Sometimes...geez, I don’t know. I woke up and it was the future and everyone expected me to just...be glad we won the war, I guess, and get back to work. And some days that’s great, because god knows what I’d be doing without it, and some days...I guess some days I wish they’d just leave me alone.”

Tony, wondering if that was a hint, makes a vague gesture towards the house. “I can, I mean, if you want alone time, I can provide, it’s a big house--”

Steve actually laughs, a low, honest chuckle, there and gone again. The expression on his face is exasperated, maybe a little fond, too; that’s probably wishful thinking, the fond thing, but Tony’s not going to kick it out of bed. “I didn’t mean you, Tony.”

“Just checking.”

“Mmm,” Steve says, taking a breath. “Least the air’s the same, right? I always did love New York after a storm.”

“Me too,” Tony says, smiling down at his knees. “I used to come out here as a kid when it rained, just to watch. Or, well, I did, until my dad caught me building that lightning-powered bottle rocket--”

“Bet he loved that.”

“You can still see the scorch marks, if you know the flight pattern to look for,” Tony says. He’s a little proud despite himself, and he grins at Steve’s raised eyebrows. “What? It worked; they don’t just throw the words ‘child prodigy’ around, you know.”

“You must have been a terror,” Steve says, and Tony laughs.

“I’m still a terror.”

Steve opens his mouth, and Tony suddenly, definitively does not want to know what’s going to come out of it. Always good in times of stress, his brain connects a few threads it’s been working out and Tony leans forward, intent.

“Hey, can I see that drawing again?”

“I--what? Oh. Uh, sure, why--”

“I want to try something,” Tony says. He lays the drawing flat against his tablet, raises a hand when Steve makes a noise of protest. “I’m not going to hurt it, I’m just...trying something. I’ll be done in a minute, I promise. Jarvis, you up?”

“For you, sir, always,” Jarvis says, voice echoing into the darkness, and Tony quirks a smile.

“Aww, baby, you don’t have to wait up like that--no, I’m just kidding, you totally do, do me a favor and scan this in, would you? To my personal server, not the Stark ones, and don’t auto-edit, I know how you get--it’s charcoal, it should feel like charcoal, yeah?”

“Absolutely, sir,” says Jarvis. “Did you want me to simply store it, or...”

“No, no,” Tony says, flicking through a couple of screens and absently handing Steve’s notebook back. “Manipulatable file, maybe 75% just so I can work with it, and then axe the bells and whistles--don’t need the spiral imprints, don’t need the bent corner--actually, you know what, could you just clear the paper and leave the lines, the whole thing should be--yeah, like that, that’s good.”

“Tony, what are you doing?”

“Working,” says Tony, “give me a second. Jarvis, do you recognize the location on the--oh, hey, look at that, ten seconds or less, Steve, check it out, your artwork translates into the Matrix! Definitely don’t ask me what that means, you won’t like it--okay, right, good, can you take the lines, there, that's it, make the concentration a little darker--okay, that’s great. And now just--yeah, Google Earth would work but I'd rather you use the stuff from our satellites, I hate giving those Silicon Valley nerds the traffic--let's say 33% opacity to start with, just ease it in--”

“Seriously, Tony, what--”

“Trust me,” Tony says, which isn’t something he’d ever ask Steve to do if he was really paying attention. Steve goes quiet, though, so that’s something. “Jarvis, darken the line art, a little lighter on the--yeah, that's good, okay, can you render that so it's a little smoother--perfect. Right. Project it up for me, bigger, brighter too, Jarvis, it’s night, I want him to be able to see--good, good, okay, aaaand...there. Right there. Done.”

He leans back to display his handiwork, trying not to be too obvious in watching Steve’s face for a reaction. It’s not like it’s any big deal, not really; Steve’s sketch is laid on top of a photo composite of the same area of modern-day Brooklyn, charcoal meeting with faded-out color. The sketch is darker and in the forefront, the buildings behind it are more of a haze--Tony had left them nearly see-through on purpose, making them the ghost. The storefronts have changed, of course, but a number of the buildings are the same; looking at it, it’s easy to see how it fits together, past and present.

Steve stares at it, mouth parted slightly, and says nothing. He’s quiet for long enough that Tony has to resist the urge to fidget and drop the tablet entirely; he sits on his hands to quell the urge and waits.

Finally, Steve says, “You know, it’s not so bad, when you look at it like that.”

“Of course it is,” says Tony. He’s surprised by the harshness in his own voice, the honesty threaded underneath it, but he’s gotten on this train now, so he might as well ride it to the end of the line. “You know the thing in my chest, glows blue, looks real pretty--it’s there because if you took it out for ten minutes, the shrapnel hanging around in there would lodge in my heart and kill me.”

“Wait, what? I didn’t--” Steve starts, and Tony waves a hand.

“No, don’t, it doesn’t matter. It’s not the point, and it’s fine anyway, so long as I’ve got the thing in my ticker’s fine and dandy, and look, the point is, it never gets boring, and it never gets better, either. But if it hadn’t happened, I’d be...war profiteering, probably, or dead. And instead I’m Iron Man. And you know what, sometimes that doesn’t fucking help at all, but it’s another angle, isn’t it? And this, uh, whatever you wanna call this little Photoshop experiment, or hell, just look out there, you can see the lights. That’s New York, and it wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t done what you did back then, and it definitely wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t punched Doom out last week, I was there, I can personally attest to that fact. So maybe that’s your angle, or maybe it’s just knowing that the team wouldn’t work without you--because we wouldn’t, you know--or maybe it’s something smaller, but it’s...you’re...fuck, I don’t know, please say something so I’ll stop talking, I told you I’d be better if it was math, you want me to do some math?”

“No,” Steve says, quiet, “no math.”

Tony clamps his mouth shut, because it’s really high time he did, and swallows hard. He looks anywhere but at Steve for a few agonizingly long moments, and then his resolve breaks; when he glances to his left, Steve’s got his head cocked slightly to the side. He’s looking at Tony with sharp, appraising eyes, like he’s a puzzle Steve’s trying to figure out, and Tony has to look away again.

“Seriously, you’re starting to freak me out a little, even just a little nod or something, you’re--”

Thank you,” Steve says. The sincerity in his voice--how do people even sound that sincere, how can human vocal chords even do that--makes something in Tony crack open, leaves him tingling all over, unsure.

He’s wanted to do unspeakable things to Steve for some time now, has recently become acquainted with the fact that he wants to do much less vulgar, but decidedly more terrifying, things with him as well. Just now, Tony looks at him and aches, for him and over him. He wants to know everything and nothing, wants to stay right here and spend the rest of his life running, and Steve...Jesus, given a choice, Steve probably would have chosen anyone else for company.

“No problem,” Tony says, clapping Steve on the shoulder and clambering to his feet. His voice is even, because he’s always been a good actor when he sets his mind to it; he feels splayed open, wrecked. “You should come inside--Clint’s killing Thor on the Wii, or maybe killing him over the Wii, hard to be sure. He could use a new partner.”

“Think I’ll stay out here a minute,” Steve says, smiling up at him. “Do you mind leaving the, uh...what is that, a computer glass?”

“Something like that,” Tony says, feeling his own smile go lopsided. “Tell you what, you keep it,  god knows I’ve got more of them. I’ll show you how to work it properly later; for now, just tell Jarvis what you want it to do, he’ll figure it out for you.”

“Tony, you don’t have to--”

“Least I can do, really,” Tony says, which probably doesn’t make sense to Steve, but is true all the same. “I’ll see you in there, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve says, and Tony makes it into the house, down the hall, and into the bathroom before he collapses against a wall and closes his eyes.

--

Four days into another insomnia jag, Tony gives up on the engine he’s rebuilding and wanders up to the main floor. The house is middle-of-the-night deserted, no mission or madness to keep them up, and Tony grabs a stick of string cheese out of the fridge and munches on it contemplatively. He walks the house, absently tracking changes; Mjolner half-buried in a coffee table, one of Natasha’s throwing stars embedded in the wall. There’s a pair of Clint’s boxers near his door, probably slipped off the top of the laundry, and Bruce’s textbooks are tucked into Tony’s bookcases. Steve’s on a health kick, so there are signs of that too--apple cores and fruit leather wrappers, a clear message that they’re all getting too used to having a cleaning staff.

Tony sighs and smiles, all one breath, and makes a mental note to buy a Roomba to improve upon. Then a flash of movement catches at the corner of his eye; he steps back, cocks his head, and rounds the corner.

Steve’s in the gym again, going to town on his punching bag. It’s new and improved--titanium in the center, under six solid inches of Tony’s personal version of Kevlar, with an inch or so of sand around the edges so Steve doesn’t actually break his fingers. Repulsors in the top and bottom, tucked into the sides, let it fly around the room when Steve wants it to, and he’s usually gasping and clutching his side when he’s done with it. It’s voice-activated to respond to Steve and Steve alone, and no one else is allowed to touch it. This is because, in all likelihood, it would kill them.

Tony’s really proud of it, actually. It’s always nice, making something that works.

He didn’t build the thing for this, though, hadn’t intended it to enable Steve’s late-night workout habits. Tony hadn’t actually known it was a habit until just now; for all he keeps odd hours, he generally keeps them in the basement. He remembers that expression on Steve’s face, though, the one that looks like he’s fighting for something, and he wonders how many nights find Steve here, beating on a punching bag alone. The serum means he doesn’t need as much sleep as normal people; Tony’s known that from the start, but he’s never thought about it.

He wonders how many things about Steve he’s going to realize too late, how many little pieces he’s missed in being the most self-absorbed asshole on the planet, and then he runs a hand through his hair and goes into the gym.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” Steve says, after a moment’s pause. He brushes sweatsoaked hair out of his eyes with one glove-covered hand, delivers a quick kick to the punching bag to send it off the other way.  “Sorry, did I wake you?”

“Nah, wasn’t sleeping. This room is soundproof anyway, you don’t have to worry about that.” Tony eyes the freeweights in complete disarray, the slightly erratic, low-battery flight pattern of the punching bag’s movements, and sighs. “How long have you been down here, exactly?”

“Not sure,” Steve says. He gives Tony a narrow-eyed look. “How long has it been since you slept?”

“Point,” Tony says, because he’s too sapped of energy to have this fight. “C’mon, then, we might as well be cranky bastards in the same place.”

He expects Steve to argue with him; Steve just shrugs and strips his gloves off, follows Tony back out into the house. They end up in the living room, sprawled over opposite ends of the couch, watching Pretty in Pink because Tony’s in charge of the 80s.

“Thanks,” Steve says after half an hour, and Tony smiles at him sideways, doesn’t say anything at all.

--

Thanksgiving Day, Doctor Doom (and really, Tony thinks, couldn’t he have named himself something more apt--Doctor Crazypants, maybe, or Doctor Jesus Fucking Christ Don’t You Ever Die) brings every float in the Macy’s parade to violent, unrelenting life. The Avengers are on the scene from the beginning, because parades are good publicity stunts--Tony’s actually pretty sure Steve’s relieved when the balloons start trying to eat them, he really hates the pandering--but the Fantastic Four show up in fifteen minutes, the X-Men five minutes later.

“This is why we can’t have nice things,” Clint mutters into his comm link, climbing up the scaffolding of a nearby building to get a good firing angle, and Tony laughs.

“What, you mean this isn’t how you wanted to spend the holiday?”

“Better than going to see my family,” Clint says, firing three shots from his crossbow at the gigantic turkey wandering by, “although seriously, I think at least one of these fuckers is actually my sister--”

“Cut the chatter,” Steve says, but cheerfully enough. “Iron Man, can you get Black Widow in position for the, uh, creepy king thing?”

“I’ve said for years the Burger King’s a menace. Widow, on your six, ride the updraft,” Tony says, and fires a repulsor at Natasha. She jumps gracefully into the air, pulling daggers out of her mysteriously invisible thigh pockets, and stabs them into the balloon’s neck.

“Too on-point to say eat shit, right?” she asks to general agreement, as Thor grabs her gracefully out of the air and throws her towards Mr. Potato Head.

“Hulk smash Hulk!” the Hulk says victoriously; Tony has a terrible moment of confusion before he remembers there’d been a Hulk balloon.

“Oh, hey, that reminds me, we’re so done parading,” he says, and fires a missile into Spongebob Squarepants. “Because, seriously, this is not worth it, I had to rip that Iron Man balloon to shreds--whoa, Cap, watch it with the shield.”  

“Knew you’d move,” Steve says. Tony can see his grin even from the air. “Can someone tell the X-Men to quit with the theatrics? It’s bad for crowd control.“

“I suspect they are unaware of their behavior,” says Thor. He sounds put out; Mjelnor turns out not to be as useful as usual in a balloon fight. “Although it has come to my attention that he with the eyes that shoot fire is unpleasant to interact with. I have not challenged him to combat for his insolence, but I may yet, the day is young.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Tony says, and ducks around a sudden projectile. “Shit! They can throw things now? What the fuck, are they learning balloons?”

“Be advised that the enemy is solidifying,” Cap says, voice strained slightly. “Getting hard to--punch--through--okay, there we go. Somebody find Doom already, this is getting out of hand.”

“I will seek him out,” says Thor, and swoops away.

“He’ll have a control box with him,” Tony says. “Don’t touch it, just call me, I can probably rewire--shit, Clint, drop low--yeah, okay, there we go.”

In the distance, Reed Richards is giving Kermit the Frog a long-limbed, strangling bear hug; beyond him, Miss Piggy is on fire, though Tony’s not sure if that was Johnny Storm or Cyclops.

He remembers a time in his life when this would have fazed him, but it’s kind of been a while.

“Top ten reasons they should’ve let the Muppets die out in the 90s,” Clint mutters, clearly on Tony’s wavelength. Tony hears Natasha’s snort of laughter, at odds with the fact that’s she’s just choked out an armed thug with her thighs.

“You like the Muppets, Hawkeye, don’t lie.”

“Yeah, the old Muppets, the classic Muppets--”

“Seriously, the chatter,” says Steve, “Iron Man, jumping in three--”

“Roger, Rogers,” says Tony, even though he really shouldn’t use Stve’s real name on the comm, just to see Steve smile as Tony catches him.

“Don’t do that,” Steve says, and Tony grins behind his mask as he lowers Steve to the ground, says, “Don’t do what?”

All in all, it’s an hour before things are settled down. The street is littered with balloon shreds and float parts, and Doom’s being led away in handcuffs--Tony’s seen that enough times to know it won’t last, but it’s still satisfying. The cleanup is going to take ages, but that, luckily, is not really Tony’s problem.

He drops to the ground, flips up his mask, and grins at Steve. “More fun than waving and signing autographs, am I right or am I right?”

“I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, I’m just glad for the safety of the people of New York,” Steve says, eyes wide, too-innocent, and Tony’s still choking on his laughter when Cyclops and Wolverine find them.

“Hey,” Steve greets them, nodding, “good fight.”

“No kidding,” says Cyclops, shaking his head at the mess. “Someone’s gonna have to put Doom down one of these days; some days I wonder if he and Richards don’t have some kind of, y’know, thing going on.”

Wolverine mutters something that sounds a lot like, “Prof and Magento,” and Cyclops snorts; Tony’s not touching that with a ten foot pole.

“Anyway,” Wolverine says, “you nutjobs move like a well-oiled machine. Ain’t so bad, fighting with you.”

“Yeah,” Cyclops says, “impressive show all around, thanks for the help.”

“The help?” Tony says, bristling, “I’m sorry, the what--”

Steve’s hand lands on his shoulder, hard enough that Tony can feel it through the armor. It means stop, and Tony’s mouth snaps shut more or less against his will. He’s furious--the help, honestly, like they hadn’t won the damn thing practically by themselves, fucking X-Men with their superiority complex--but then Steve smiles.

“Thanks,” he says, “we make a great team,” and maybe Tony’s not so annoyed after all.

--

There may be a lot of things Tony doesn’t know--where Rhodey keeps the porn stash Tony knows he’s got, Pepper’s inexplicable knowledge of whatever Tony’s thinking of saying, how to make Thor understand that google is a verb--but he knows how romance works, at least for him. He’s not a stupid man by any stretch of the imagination, and he’s aware that his feelings for Steve are stupid and self-destructive, that they’re never going to come to fruition. He’s entertained a couple of fairly compelling fantasies--crazy sex-drug attacks, passionate we-almost-died-oh-no-wait-it’s-you-shit-yuck make-outs, end of the world with no other options scenarios--but even in his fantasies, he can’t let himself look at the possibility that Steve would want him normally.

He’s self-destructive, but he’s not that self-destructive. Steve doesn’t even like him; Tony’s too smart not to take what he can get.

They’re on the couch in the living room again. It’s become kind of a thing for them, these late-night rendezvous--Tony’s hours are erratic even when he’s managing to sleep, and Steve, as it turns out, never needs more than four hours rest a night. Tony’s got the footage from the Macy’s fiasco playing on the television, is flipping back and forth from it to Ghostbusters, because he’s always been of the firm belief that Bill Murray movies should be watched out of order.

“Natasha’s favoring her left side there,” Steve says, frowning at the fight footage. “Jarvis, can you freeze that?”

“Shit,” Tony says, staring with his head cocked. “You think she’ll listen if you tell her to report her injuries?”

“She hasn’t the last ten times,” Steve says, and sighs. Tony flicks back to Ghostbusters absently, reaches into the popcorn bowl. “Maybe you can upgrade her jumpsuit?”

“You say that like she’ll let me anywhere near it,” Tony says. “Too underhanded to use Pepper?”

“Yes,” Steve says, and scrubs his face. “No? I don’t know.”

“Pepper’s very scary,” Tony says, and then grins at the screen. “Almost time for ‘Don’t cross the streams,’ god, I bit that back like fifteen times during the whole Macy’s thing, you’ll see why--Michelin Man, I mean come on--”

“You’re not making sense again,” says Steve, “and quit switching the feed, I want to make sure we didn’t miss anything.”

Tony warms at the “we,” enough that he risks giving Steve a cheeky grin. “This is classic film history, Rogers. The feed will still be there after this scene, I recorded it, it’s only playing when we watch it, are you maligning my technology--”

“You need to sleep,” Steve says, laughing, “you’re talking too much again, give me the remote.”

“I never talk too much,” Tony says, which is just a boldfaced lie. “I talk just enough, and what do you mean the remote, there’s no remote, what remote are you talking about?”

That remote,” Steve says, reaching around Tony to grab it. Tony ducks and weaves, trying to snatch it before Steve can. Their shoulders knock, and then their chests, and then suddenly Steve’s face is right over Tony’s, his hand braced on the cushions behind him.

“Um,” Tony says, because he’s hard, suddenly, and that’s probably something he should get on top of hiding, “hi there?”

“Hi,” Steve breathes, and then he’s bringing his head down and pressing his lips to Tony’s.

It’s not the best kiss of Tony’s life; it’s not even in the top ten, which isn’t really Steve’s fault. Steve’s soft and hesitant and tastes like buttered popcorn, but Tony can’t even begin to enjoy it--Tony can’t do anything, really, except lie there and try frantically to process what’s happening. He fails spectacularly at it, and in the end he shoves Steve back by the shoulders and scrambles to the other end of the couch.

“Oh my god,” Steve says, flushing bright red, “oh, god, Tony, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I just thought--”

“But you don’t even like me,” Tony says, shell-shocked, and regrets it the instant it comes out of his mouth.

“I wouldn’t ever want to make you--” Steve starts, and then he stops. His eyes widen and his mouth drops open and he stares at Tony like he’s never seen him before. “Wait, what?”

“Never mind,” says Tony, “definitely never mind, such a big never mind, never and mind combined is the way to go, I didn’t say anything, hey Jarvis, can we maybe figure out some memory erasing in the next two seconds, that’d be--”

“You think I don’t like you?” Steve says, his voice cracking on it. “Tony, why?”

“Because you don’t!” Tony says, throwing his hands in the air. “You never have, the first time we met--”

“But that was,” Steve says, his brow furrowed now, “Tony, that was months ago--”

“And then you’d only talk to me when I was Iron Man--”

“You’d only talk to me when you were Iron Man!” Steve cries. He looks...horrified, Tony registers through his own mortification, and wonders what that’s about. “I figured you were one of those guys who didn’t like mixing off-duty with on, I’ve served with guys like that, I wasn’t going to push it, we had to work together--”

“Right,” Tony says wretchedly, because he’s always known that Steve tolerated him for the team’s sake, but it’s a little rough to hear it confirmed. “We had to work together, I know. And it’s--I mean, it’s really good of you to have...swallowed it so we could be teammates, and look, don’t worry about it, it’s not--I mean, most people don’t like me, I don’t exactly make myself easy to like, it doesn’t change anything, I know--”

“Tony, what are you talking about?”

“The team,” Tony says, and oh, he’s babbling, maybe Steve was right about the sleeping and the talking too much, this is really, really awful, “you had to, for the team, we had to work together and I just got a little, but you’re just--I mean it, you’re just a good person and you could have made it really obvious but you didn’t, and I appreciate it, and we can just go back to me appreciating it, can we stop having this conversation now?”

“No, we can’t,” Steve snaps, and grabs Tony’s wrist when he tries to physically flee the room. Damn Captain America and his damn super-strength. “God, have I really been that bad of a friend to you?”  

“No,” Tony says, “hey, no, that’s my whole point, you were great, you--wait, friend?”

“Jesus Christ,” Steve says, and scrubs at his forehead with the hand that isn’t holding Tony in place. “Tony. Tony. I don’t...it was awful before I met you, half the time you’re the only thing that makes this century bearable. You’re, I, how could you not know that?”

“But I,” Tony says, “I’m obnoxious and I never listen and I’m not a team player and--”

“Right,” Steve says, and takes Tony by the shoulders. “Okay. Look. I know you’ve got some--uh, issues, for lack of a better word, please don’t take that the wrong way--so I’m just going to lay it all on the table, alright? And stop looking at me like I’m going to kill you, Tony, that’s not really helping me feel better about my friendship skills.”

“I’m not looking at you like I think you’re going to kill me,” Tony says, “I just want you to kill me, or let go of me so we can stop talking about this, you’ve just got my faces confused--”

“You are,” Steve says, “a complete pain in my ass some of the time. You never do what I tell you to do and you never admit when you’re wrong, and sometimes I think you’re going to die from not sleeping enough, and sometimes I think you’re going to literally run yourself into the ground. You say hideously inappropriate things to very important people and some days I want to shake you--”

“Okay,” Tony snaps, and tries to wrench himself out of Steve’s grip again. “I get it, thanks, I don’t need the fucking list, believe me--”

“And you’re also,” Steve says, tightening his fingers on Tony’s shoulders, “the kindest, funniest, most thoughtful person I’ve met since I woke up, once you get past the whole...outer shell of being a defensive ass thing. You make it easy for me to be myself; you listen to me and fight with me and understand that I have a sense of humor and you never make me feel like I’m stupid because I don’t know what Jersey Store or whatever it’s called is. I was wrong the first time I met you, okay? Can you hear that? I didn’t know you, and I’d been in a basement for two months being poked by scientists and everyone I knew was dead, my judgement wasn’t exactly something I want to be held to for the rest of my life!”

“Um,” says Tony, blinking, “what?”

“I like you, Tony,” Steve says, and his voice breaks on it again; he shakes his head like he’s trying to clear it, rubs one thumb unconsciously over Tony’s collarbone. “I like you very much. I’ve liked you for months, and I can’t believe you didn’t know that, and I’m going to keep telling you now because I never want to have to have this discussion with you again, do you understand me?”

“Oh,” says Tony. “I...yes?”

“Great,” Steve says, and then all his steely composure slips, and he blushes bright red. “Uh, also, sorry about...about kissing you like that, I just, um. It won’t happen again.”

There’s something funny happening in Tony’s chest; he’d think he was having a heart attack if he wasn’t intimately familiar with how that felt. He feels warm all over, awash with something he’s too much a coward to quantify, and he’s not processing much, but he’s processing enough.

“Like hell it won’t,” he says, and grabs Steve by the back of the neck, drags him in.

The kiss is better this time, because Tony’s actually an engaged participant; Steve’s soft at first, careful, hands still on Tony’s shoulders. Tony angles himself forward, insinuates himself between Steve’s arms, between his lips--he wraps his legs around Steve’s waist and Steve groans into his mouth, his hands stuttering their way down Tony’s back.

“Probably shouldn’t, uh,” Steve mumbles after a minute, “I mean, right here--”

“No exhibitionism kink?” Tony asks giddily, and has to bite a kiss into Steve’s neck when he blushes. “God, you blush everywhere when you blush, did you know that, it’s so distracting--”

Tony,” Steve says, more firm this time, and Tony laughs because he can’t help himself.

“Okay, okay. Bedroom it is, you got it, anything you want, coming right up--”

“We don’t have to, uh,” Steve says, and waves a hand. “I mean, if you don’t want to, I don’t expect--”

“If I don’t want to,” Tony repeats, “see, okay, if you’re worried about your friendship skills then I’m worried about my seduction skills, lemme show you how much I definitely want to.”

He grabs Steve’s hand, drags it down to his crotch, and presses it against the tented fabric there. Steve’s blush goes impossibly deeper, but his pupils are blown already, and when he takes a breath, it’s ragged.

“Oh,” he says, “oh.”

“Yeah, oh” Tony says. “Let’s see how far down that blush goes, betcha I can get you to keep it up--you didn’t expect me to shut up during this kind of thing, did you, I hope you didn’t, this is the least effective way to do that--”

“Tony,” Steve says, and there it is, that’s the voice he uses in the field, insistent and in charge. It’s at odds with the flush on his neck, at the tips of his ears, but when he drags Tony into standing and pulls him into another kiss, Tony can’t bring himself to devote much attention to that dichotomy. Steve guides him backwards towards the stairs, hands on his hips, and it’s all Tony can do to keep from blowing him in the middle of the hallway.

“I want to blow you right here in the hallway,” Tony says, because he figures that’s the kind of information Steve should have, and Steve’s whole body shudders.

“God, Tony, you can’t just say things like that,” Steve groans, and kisses him again, mouth open and working like his life depends on it.

They make it up the first few stairs painfully slowly; every time they break apart to take a step, one of them leans in again. After the fourth time this happens, Steve says, “Oh, hell, this is ridiculous,” and lifts Tony off the ground, slamming their mouths together with a gracelessness that probably shouldn’t be hot. Under normal circumstances, Tony would object to being carried around; under these circumstances, he’s glad of the chance to wrap his legs around Steve’s waist, to grind, hard, against his stomach.

“Goddamn it,” Steve gasps, and doesn’t stop kissing Tony the whole way up the stairs. His hands are on Tony’s ass, and Tony would be willing to bet Steve’s not aware of the fact that they’re flexing and squeezing every time he presses forward.

It...makes it kind of hard to focus. Or think. Or breathe, actually, not that Tony’s particularly worried about it.

They’re in the bedroom before Tony can even process that the stairs are gone. He kicks the door shut behind Steve’s back, reaches down with one hand to cup Steve’s dick over his pants as they approach the bed. Steve sucks in a sharp breath and drops him, and Tony falls back onto the sheets, laughing a little.

“Oh, god,” Steve says, and the blush is practically a permanent thing, isn’t it, Tony hopes he never stops, “sorry--”

“I’m not,” Tony says, “I meant it about blowing in the hall, let’s get those pants off,” and he scrambles forward and undoes Steve’s flies.

Then he has to stare for a second, because...well. Because damn.

“Packing some heat, aren’t you?” he says, voice hoarse, and Steve puts a hand to the back of his neck.

“Uh, maybe?” he says. “I mean, I never really had any basis for...I saw other guys in the showers and stuff, but it’s..it’s the only part of me that didn’t, uh, you know. Grow. After the serum.”

“It didn’t,” Tony starts, and stops. He’s seen Steve’s file, seen photos of Steve before the serum; the idea of Steve, short and scrawny and hung like this, sends a white-hot spark down Tony’s spine.

“Oh, I am going to,” Tony says, and licks his lips. “I’m gonna just, you just stay there, you don’t move, Steve, Jesus, gonna give you the orgasm of your life--”

“I don’t, uh,” Steve says, “I don’t have...much, er, experience with--”

“I think I’ve got enough experience for everyone,” Tony says faintly, and then thinks, meets Steve’s eyes. “But, hey, look, if I do anything you don’t want me to do, you stop me, okay? I can do slow, if you wanna do slow I can do slow but you’re gonna have to say so, because I really want your dick in my mouth--”

“Oh, god,” Steve says, and it’s more a groan than anything else. Tony grins, licks his lips again, and slides off the bed and onto his knees.

“Taking that as a yes,” he murmurs against Steve’s hipbone. When Steve nods, Tony wraps his hand around the shaft and pulls Steve’s dick into his mouth.

Steve bucks forward instantly, clearly without meaning to; he’s apologizing before Tony has a chance to stop him, pulling back.

“Don’t,” Tony manages, trying to spend as little time as possible with his mouth free, “don’t you dare hold back, I’ve got it, god, you’re so good, just--fuck, Steve, don’t go anywhere, don’t apologize.”  

“Tony,” Steve says, thick and hungry, as Tony draws him in again. This time he doesn’t pull away, just fists one hand in Tony’s hair; the other, Tony realizes after a minute, is braced against the wall, holding him up. His knees are shaking--Tony rubs his free hand against the back of Steve’s thigh and is rewarded with a full body tremor, and Steve’s fingers tighten in his hair.

“Tony,” he says, “oh, god, Tony, Tony,” and Tony can’t help it; he slides a hand into his own pants, wraps his fingers around his cock. He’s too old for this kind of shit, he knows it, too well-versed in this kind of thing to be working towards coming in his pants, but Jesus Christ, he’s not sure he has much choice. Steve bucks again into his mouth, says his name a fourth, a fifth time, and Tony’s so hard he’s sure he’s going to die from it, wants to come like he’s never wanted anything in his life.

“I,” Steve chokes, “I, I, god,” and then he tenses all over and comes into Tony’s mouth, trembling knees very nearly giving way. Tony swallows and swallows and thinks there’s a chance he’ll hold out, be able to wait for Steve’s hand on him, but then Steve runs his fingers through Tony’s hair and he just loses it, comes without even meaning to, his hands still fisted around both of their dicks.

“Uh,” Steve says, voice shaky, after a second, “did you just--”

“Still kinda,” Tony chokes, and lets his face settle against Steve’s thigh. Steve drops to the ground--whether out of intent or necessity, Tony’s not sure--and Tony gasps into his chest, waits for his head to clear. When it does, Steve’s hand is still in his hair, and he’s making a soft, amused sort of sound.

“If you are laughing right now,” Tony manages, “I swear to you, I swear to you I will take drastic action.”

“It’s just,” Steve says, and yeah, he’s laughing, Tony’s going to kill him, “I just can’t believe we didn’t, uh, use the bed. It’s kind of right there.”

“Oh,” Tony says, blinking; when he lifts his head, Steve’s smiling at him, eyes half-lidded and content. “Next time?”

Then he freezes, because he’s assuming there’s a next time and that’s a stupid, silly thing to do, and who is he, exactly, he thought he was Tony Stark, he should know better that anyone that assuming only gets you a sad, pathetic morning after--

--and then Steve’s smiling, so big and wide that Tony worries a little for his cheeks, and leaning in to press a soft, easy kiss to the corner of Tony’s mouth.

“Next time,” he says, so that’s alright.

--

Even after Pepper, the sensation of waking up next to someone--of waking up next to someone and wanting them there--is still more or less foreign to Tony. He blinks against the strangeness of it, the arm pinning him to the bed, and then he brain catches up to his body and he lets his head loll to the left.

Steve’s spread out over the sheets, face slack with sleep, hair in his eyes. Tony’s not really sure his heart can take it; he’s not sure he even wants it to.

“Jarvis,” he whispers, “let a little light in, yeah?”

There’s a soft, mechanical whir, and then the blinds open slightly, faint slats of light falling over Steve’s back. Tony traces one of them with a fingertip, not quite awake enough to be horrified at himself, and smiles at nothing.

“Hey,” Steve says, without opening his eyes. “Tickles.”

“Yeah it does,” Tony agrees, because his higher thought processes aren’t really online. “I can stop.”

“No,” Steve says, and yawns hugely, back arching to Tony’s hand. He cracks one eye open, and smiles. “Nice to know you sleep sometimes.”

“When no alternative presents itself,” Tony says. “Is that what this was? A drawn-out ploy to knock me out? Because seriously, they sell sedatives and stuff, you didn’t need to go through the trouble of--”

“Shut up, Tony,” Steve says, nothing but amusement in his voice, and puts his hand on Tony’s cheek. He leans forward and kisses him, an easy, half-awake thing, and Tony’s so relieved he could actually choke on it.

“Guess that answers the question of whether you’ll still like me in the morning,” he jokes when Steve pulls back. Like always, it comes out upsettingly honest, and he winces into the pillow. “Ugh, Jesus, let’s strike that from the record.”

“Nope,” Steve says, and kisses him again, yawning into his mouth this time. That should be gross, Tony thinks distantly; there’s definitely something gross about that, he’ll come up with it later. For now he just kisses back, enjoys the sensation unwinding in his stomach, the soft, strange warmth of doing this without any intent behind it.

When Steve pulls away, his hand is still on Tony’s cheek, and he smiles.

“Good morning, Tony,” he says, “I still like you.”

Tony would say something to that, he really would, except he’s pretty sure anything he could say would be appalling one way or the other. He moves closer instead, presses a kiss into the top of Steve’s shoulder, and Steve just sighs and shifts against him, running a hand along his spine.

“Maybe a little more sleep,” he says, slurred a little, already half out.

“Sure,” Tony says, “whatever you want, you got it.”

Steve’s hand lands on his ass--he squeezes once and Tony almost laughs, because he’ll be horrified if he remembers that--and then he lets out a long snore. Tony waits him out, just to be sure, lets the minutes creep by until his whole body is slack. Then he glances up at the ceiling, takes a deep breath, and grins.

“Hey, Jarvis,” he says, “if you could strike the whole, uh, ‘put that Captain America is a dick on my tombstone’ thing, I’d appreciate it.”

“That seems prescient, Mr. Stark,” Jarvis says. “Is there anything else?”

“Nah,” Tony says, “think I’m good. Wake us if we need to fight crime.”