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one hundred percent skill, fifty percent luck

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No one knows how the Thursday night poker nights start, but everyone knows who to blame for the stakes.

*

Tony knows it’s probably his fault that he and Steve Rogers get off on the wrong foot. He knows because Steve is lost, surrounded by people he doesn’t know and he looks so damn relieved to see Tony, says oh my god Howard in this completely heartbreaking way and looks crestfallen when Tony shuts him down, quick and cold.

Tony's having a bad day. They dig up Captain America on his dime without telling him and to then to be called Howard on top of that?

To put it mildly, Tony doesn't react well.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize your new hobby was kicking puppies,” Pepper hisses at him, horrified as Agent Coulson hustles Steve away. Tony doesn't miss the way Steve throws glances behind him, hurt and confused.

“I’m not my father,” Tony hisses back, already knowing deep down that it was an asshole thing to do. Steve must already feel like the mother of all rugs has been pulled out from underneath him and he doesn't exactly deserve to have the one familiar person turn on him. “And I don’t pretend to be him to time-traveling soldiers who don’t need to be lied to again,” Tony says anyway.

Fury narrows his one good eye, says, “We were planning on easing him into the idea, didn’t want to drop a bomb on his head so we improvised.”

“How’d that work out for you?” Tony sneers, eying the ragged hole Steve has punched through SHIELD headquarters.

He leaves then because he’s seen what he’s come to see and that's the end of it.

*

Except it isn’t.

*

“Who gave Thor pop tarts?” Tony demands, glaring at Clint and Natasha who are trying to look innocent which is what they always do when they’re guilty. “You know he gets all... weird.”

“He likes them,” Natasha huffs.

“Kids like fireworks too,” Tony snaps. “I think we can all agree that not everyone likes things that are good for them or innocent bystanders.”

“What do you think it is about pop tarts specifically?” Clint asks around a mouthful of his own.

“I don’t know, something about the artificial whatevers,” Tony says with a wave of his hand. Right at that moment, Thor himself comes sliding into the room in a too-big button-down and a pair of Ray Bans perched on his nose.

He’s wearing socks and no pants.

“Why recreate Tom Cruise movies?” Natasha asks as Thor does a little twirl and they get to see that he is really wearing no pants.

“Oh my god, Tom Cruise was wearing underpants!” Clint protests, smacking a hand over his face.

“I could not find the correct kind,” Thor actually sings and slides right back out of the kitchen. From somewhere towards the left wing Tony hears what he assumes to be Bruce yelling, “My god, no, my eyes!”

“Pop tarts are on the banned list,” Tony says and Clint and Natasha nod solemnly.

*

It’s not like Steve and Tony don’t talk. They talk all the time.

On comms.

When they’re on a mission.

Tony calls Steve Cap and Steve calls him Iron Man and when they’re working they get along famously, almost inhumanly in tune with each other. Tony thinks that Steve likes the suit more than the contents because Iron Man’s blank metal face is a little less... Tony. Steve gets this shut-down look to him whenever they run into each other sans hero-wear.

He’s not really sure how to apologize for that first day and I’m sorry doesn’t seem to quite encompass it.

*

They might not remember exactly when the poker nights started but everyone remembers why. They have a lot of downtime between missions and need something to occupy it because Natasha, Clint and Thor become like destructive teenagers when they're bored. Tony tries not to feel like a camp counselor but he’s pretty sure he’s one incident away from instituting macaroni art nights and wallet making.

Steve doesn’t need that kind of distraction to behave, which is why Tony’s surprised to see him plunk down into the chair next to Thor’s. Thor beams at him and claps Steve on the shoulder with enough force that he probably would have broken anyone else’s collarbone.

“What are you doing here?” Tony asks and then winces inwardly when Steve freezes. He’s not sure why he can only speak asshole when Steve is around him.

“It’s a... team thing. I’m part of the team, right?” Steve says. His jaw has firmed, mouth a stubborn line but his eyes are unsure. Tony’s come to understand that despite the muscle-bound Adonis exterior, inside Steve is still a skinny kid from Brooklyn walking around with a big 4F stamped on his forehead.

“You don’t have anything to bring to the table,” Tony says and boy he is really fluent in asshole tonight, possibly throwing a bit of dickwad into the mix just to spice things up.

“I’ll cover him,” Natasha volunteers, eyes narrowed. Apart from Pepper, she’s the scariest woman Tony has ever met, yet like everyone she has a soft spot for Steve.

“I have money,” Steve protests and bless him, digs a wad of bills out of his pants pocket.

“We do not play for currency,” Thor intones. “Considering the vastness of dear Tony’s resources.”

Steve’s eyes go round when Natasha splits a pile of scraps of paper that she was holding and hands him half. “Goods and services only big guy,” she says and that’s probably the most diplomatic way of putting it. “You lose my cupcake maker and we’re going to have words.”

“I’m more worried about the...um... foot massage?” Steve says, plucking one piece of paper out of the pile and holding it up gingerly.

“That’s on the banned list,” Clint pipes up, snatching the paper out of Steve’s hand. When Steve looks confused, Bruce leans into him and says, “We ban items that have proved to be... a bad idea.”

“Like pop tarts,” Tony says and Thor makes a noise of protest.

“How can I endure without such Midgardian delights?”

“We’re worried about your... integrity when you eat them,” Clint says and Thor nods, still looking tragic.

“Rules?” Steve asks, watching Tony’s hands as he shuffles.

“We keep to the standard Five Card Draw,” Natasha says. “We tried one night of calling different hands and Bruce-”

“I didn’t hear the Lowball call,” Bruce interjects, flushing red. “Are you guys ever going to let that go?”

“We’re just lucky the mansion has more than one game room,” Clint says with a grin.

“Yeah, well, maybe play conservative to start out with,” Tony says, eyeing Steve.

“Me? Why?”

“He doubts your ability to bluff,” Natasha says, patting Steve’s hand. “Can you actually lie?”

“Of course I … y’know what? Forget it,” Steve snaps, pushing away from the table. Tony stands too, knows this is Steve reaching out and if he lets him go then he really is an asshole.

“Sit down,” Tony says, more a barked order than a request and Steve responds automatically but looks pissy about it. Tony grins at him. “If you can’t bluff then you are definitely staying.”

*

Tony is not a sore loser, despite what JARVIS may think. He also didn’t instruct JARVIS to lock everyone out while he hid in his workshop which is why Steve is now standing right in front of him, holding a piece of paper under his nose.

Wait, he did order JARVIS to lock everyone out, which is why he’s more than a little peeved that Steve is standing in front of him holding a piece of paper under his nose. When Tony steadfastly ignores him, Steve makes an impatient noise and says, “I came to return Dummy.”

“You won him, fair and square,” Tony says. "That's you down to your shiny red boots right?" Tony takes a moment to look Steve up and down. "Fair and square."

"I'm just not sure what I'm supposed to do with a sentient robot arm," Steve says, eying Dummy.

"He responds to simple voice commands, he's not actually sentient," Tony says. "I guess I can see why you'd think he was though." Tony's not one hundred percent sure of that because he suspects JARVIS may be upgrading all his various gadgets when he's not around so they can be suitably unimpressed with him.

"Would you just take him back?"

"That's not the way it works. Besides, I was going to reinstall him in your room. He can gently nudge you awake in the mornings, hand you... stuff."

"Why are you like this?" Steve finally asks, sounding exasperated. Tony knows Steve isn't referring just to the acquisition of Dummy but he doesn't think he's really ready to examine why he feels the compulsion to needle Steve like he does.

"Fine, how about I buy him back, alright?" Tony relents because Steve is staring at him in a way that's doing something uncomfortable in his gut.

"I don't want your money," Steve snaps and Tony blinks at him. Steve flushes, color high on his cheekbones and around his neck when he says, "I don't mean your money... I mean I have some... probably more than I know what to do with. There was something about back pay and interest and... it's really more than I've ever seen in my life."

"Given relative inflation, that's probably not very much," Tony says with a smirk.

"Natasha assures me that it's more than most people see in their lives, even these days," Steve sniffs and he's not gloating, he sounds more confused about the fact. Tony's sure that, knowing Steve, he's already looked into donating it somewhere, to kittens or orphans or someone equally needy.

"Alright, I'll trade you something for him," Tony says, raising his eyebrows. "I give a mean remedial massage."

When he's not being an asshole, he flirts. Tony's pretty sure he gives poor Steve whiplash.

"Um, no... that's... wait, really?" Steve says, suddenly looking keen and Tony kind of gapes at him until Steve says, "There is something you could do for me."

"I'll only be performing services that are of equal or lesser value than Dummy," Tony warns. "I'm telling you now, that's not much." Tony ignores the way Dummy slumps. He's not sentient no matter how dejected he looks.

"How about a hand and foothold on your suit?" Steve asks and that's not really what Tony was expecting. "After you nearly dropped me last-"

"I was hit by an anti-aircraft missile," Tony interjects, wincing at how shrill he sounds. "Excuse me if I lose my grip on you for all of eight seconds when that happens."

"It barely grazed you," Steve counters and now he's smirking and Tony's starting to wonder just what the hell is going on here. "If I was able to get some kind of a grip on you then it wouldn't have mattered that you let go."

"Let go?" Tony splutters, incensed. "Maybe if I didn't have all the aerodynamics of a flying brick when I was carrying you I could have avoided getting hit in the first place."

"So, work out some way for us to do it better," Steve prods. "And give me something I can hang on to. I know one of the features of the suit is that you can't hold onto it but it's a little inconvenient for me."

"I'm sorry it's so inconvenient. Maybe we should give Thor the Captain America backpack instead, huh?"

Steve opens his mouth, looking like he's going to argue more but then his eyes narrow and one side of his mouth lifts. "You're already thinking about how to do it, aren't you?" he says.

Damn him, but he's right.

"No," Tony snaps, but he doesn't sound convincing, even to his own ears. "Get out of my workshop," he adds, disgruntled.

"Sure," Steve says, and now he's out-right beaming. "I mean, I wouldn't want to hold you up since you have a lot of work to do."

"Shut up," Tony grumbles as Steve makes his way back up the stairs.

*

Tony's not sure how Steve talked them all into a blind card hand but he definitely knows by the way Steve smirked at him that whatever he's got stuck to his forehead is no higher than a five of anything while Steve is sitting with an ace of hearts attached to his brow.

Tony is trying to remind himself again that he's not a sore loser, but his competitive streak is making it difficult to remain calm in the face of such thorough ass kicking.

He'd liked playing with Thor who didn't really understand the rules, Clint who'd made hilariously ill-advised bets with nothing in hand and Natasha who had turned out to be surprisingly conservative when it came to her plays. Bruce tended to fold whenever he had something even resembling a good hand because if he was surprised about being beaten he didn't tend to take it that well, but if he saw it coming he was a lot more philosophical about it.

Steve has that clean-cut all-American boy thing going for him and will slit your metaphorical throat while flashing pearly whites and dropping the puppy eyes at you so you don't really know what's happened until all your stuff is sitting in a pile in front of him.

Steve's also pretty brave because he's currently holding onto Natasha's waffle iron and Tony has actually seen her take someone down with a playing card, it isn't even a theoretical risk.

"I have a lab too, you know," Bruce is complaining. He's got the eight of diamonds on his head and he's been betting steadily so he mustn't have anything good in his hand. "I'm just saying it would have been nice to have a chance to win a robotic arm that would do my bidding."

"Dummy's off the table," Tony says. "Steve would be the one to win him again and I don't want to have to pay for him twice."

"I could've..." Bruce starts to say, stares at his cards morosely for a moment before he sighs and slumps back in his chair. "Yeah, fine."

"I don't like these shady deals away from the sanctity of the poker table," Natasha interrupts.

"Steve gave you your crimper back," Tony points out and when Natasha glares at him, he says with a grin, "It disturbs me more than I can tell you that you have a crimper."

"I wasn't talking about my stuff," Natasha says archly. "Obviously."

"We're not that scared of you, y'know," Clint says but he's saying it from the opposite end of the table so Tony thinks that he loses some points for that. Besides, Tony isn't the one who sleeps with his eyes open so he is scared of Natasha and prudently keeps his mouth closed when her ire thankfully switches to Clint. "Not now that we know you crimp your hair."

"It's a good blunt weapon," Natasha sniffs, gaze dropping to her nails. "No one expects to be attacked with a crimper."

Tony calls for them to show their cards and look at that, Steve was holding onto two more aces and a pair of kings.

Tony's convinced he's cheating somehow.

*

Tony's used to being edited, Pepper pulls him back from all kinds of outlandish ideas. What he's not used to is being shot down completely.

"It isn't what I wanted."

Tony just stares at Steve, trying to fathom a world where a red-blooded guy doesn't want rocket-boots. Tony's holding boots out modelled on his own because he figured that instead of carrying Steve, he could just fly his own damn self around.

"How am I supposed to get around in those things on the ground?" Steve asks, eyeing them and refusing to take them off Tony's hands. Tony finally sets them aside, smacking them down a little harder than was probably necessary because Steve frowns at him.

"I'd make you some kind of-"

"Suit?" Steve interrupts. "That's where this is going, right? I'd need the guantlets to steer and probably a breast and back plate so my internal organs don't get liquified and then suddenly I'm Iron Man."

"Every kid in America wants to be Iron Man," Tony says, feeling inexplicably hurt by Steve's dismissal.

"There are those that wish to be Captain America Sir," JARVIS interjects and Tony rolls his eyes.

"Don't make me load the Mr.T voice program again," Tony threatens and grins to himself when he gets back nothing but silence.

"I'm not you," Steve says, sounding impatient, like he really needs to explain this to Tony. "I don't really need..." he makes a gesture that encompasses his entire body and Tony suddenly gets what he's alluding to.

"Oh, right, sorry," Tony snaps and Steve blinks at him and then seems to get what he's just said.

"No, I meant-"

"Oh, I know what you meant," Tony says flatly.

"Tony..." Steve starts again, makes a helpless gesture with his hands. He's wearing the exasperated face that seems to be his default expression when he's dealing with Tony.

"I have... errands," Tony finally says because the silence is getting a little stifling. He hates how he flails around Steve, unable to find the right thing to say, to even find footing. It's easier when he's in the suit because they're equals, but out of it Steve must see him as fragile, something less than.

He's very aware that he, Natasha and Clint are all on a very different side of the hero fence than Thor and Steve are. He doesn't need to be reminded quite so blatantly.

"I'm going to start taking you kicking me out personally," Steve says and it sounds like he's trying to lighten the mood, but Tony's not really up for that.

"Here's me kicking myself out instead," Tony says with a faux-grin that he knows doesn't touch anything but his mouth. He grabs a sweatshirt that was flung over the back of a chair and heads out, ignores the way Steve calls out to him when he's halfway up the stairs.

*

Steve and Tony don't talk that whole next week, right up until poker night. Tony's a little surprised Steve has shown up, is surprised that he's gone himself but he didn't want Natasha telling everyone that he was in his room, crying into a pillow like a thirteen year old girl even though at that very moment he kind of wants to.

The game is tense, even Thor sensing something amiss and remaining silent. They play hand after hand, everyone throwing caution to the wind to make it all go faster and not folding when they should. There is a hand eventually though where only Steve and Tony are left in and everything they'd brought with them is in the pot.

Tony has a pair of tens so he's pretty sure he's about to eat it big time, the way Steve is betting, he must have something amazing and Tony with his stupid stubborn competitive streak can't fold. He doesn't have anything else to throw in but there is a stack of blank papers by Natasha's elbow and he snatches one, writes a word and throws it on top of the pile.

Steve plucks it off the top, eyebrows raising when he reads, "Cars?"

"All of them," Tony says with a self-satisfied little smirk. "Call."

"I can't... I don't..." Steve rubs a hand over the bare piece of table in front of him, probably trying to indicate that he has nothing left when Natasha leans over and whispers something in his ear.

Steve goes absolutely pink and his mouth drops open as he swivels his head to look at her while she grabs a piece of blank paper herself, writes, folds and tosses it on. Steve goes to snatch it back, says, "Don't be ridiculous," but Natasha grabs his hand and sets it back on the table in front.

"It's valuable and trust me, he wants it," Natasha promises with a smile that unsettles Tony. Steve goes to elbow her in the side but Natasha deflects it in such a complicated way that Steve ends up poking himself in the eye.

Tony reaches for the paper himself, wanting to know what it is but Natasha grabs his reaching hand with her free one and raises an eyebrow at him. "Trust me, if you don't win it, you don't want to know," she says.

"Fine," Tony says. "Show 'em." Tony fans his hand out on the table without preamble and waits for Steve to crow in triumph or laugh or something.

He doesn't. Instead he slowly lowers his own hand and he's got... nothing. Tony just stares at the cards like they'll magically reform into a straight or a flush or something but it doesn't happen. Steve doesn't look at Tony as he reaches across and pushes the pot in Tony's direction.

Tony plucks the paper off the top that Natasha had contributed. "Wait, is this the shield because that would be awes-" Tony unfolds the scrap as he's speaking and stutters to a halt when he sees nothing but the letter 'V'. "Whats-?" he starts to ask but suddenly Tony's brain catches up and he realizes what he's holding.

Steve lunges across the table but Tony slides back out of his reach, pressing the piece of paper to his chest, right over the arc reactor where he's always warm. He wants to frame this. "Oh no way," he says with glee. "Remember what we talked about. I won this fair and square."

*

Steve abandons the table, Tony shortly after when Clint starts to explain to Thor what has happened with metaphors that involve deflowering and cherries. Tony catches Steve's elbow right before he gets to his room, starts to say, "Look, you can have this ba-"

"Natasha just thought she was being funny," Steve snaps, high and hectic color still in his cheeks.

"I know that," Tony says slowly, looking at the way Steve is not looking at him. "Why do I feel like to you I'm only maybe a step up from tying someone to a set of train tracks and twirling my mustache?"

"I know you're not a bad guy," Steve huffs, shoulders slumping and Tony definitely hears the unspoken but in that statement.

"You do, do you?" Tony asks. Tony is starting to get the feeling that he's disappointing Steve somehow just by existing.

"I'm sorry I'm not Howard," he says because maybe all this time that's been the problem. Tony's a living, breathing reminder of a time Steve lost, people he cared about that are gone. To everyone else all those people died years ago but to Steve the wounds are still fresh. He lost everyone that mattered to him all at once like they were in a plane that crashed into a mountainside and Steve had missed boarding purely by chance.

"I don't want you to be Howard," Steve explodes and Tony takes a step back, completely thrown by his outburst. Steve opens his mouth like he's going to say something else, but then snaps it shut so firmly he gets a white line around his lips. He turns on his heel and flees, not looking back.

Tony watches him go, puzzled.

*

Tony likes driving by himself, it's mostly why he makes Happy follow him to the airport in another car. Happy won't let him go alone so it's a compromise they'd reached long ago. Sometimes he sneaks out without letting Happy know, which drives Happy hilariously insane and Tony knows JARVIS tattles on him as soon as he's able anyway, but on a very few rare occasions he manages to sneak out when Happy is otherwise occupied or say, at a dental appointment and then he has a solid hour or maybe even two of freedom.

Tony likes the winding roads that lead up to the mansion, doesn't have cause to use them the way they were meant to be used quite enough. There's hardly ever any other traffic so Tony takes the turns at high speed and isn't expecting to come around a corner and find a truck jackknifed across both lanes.

Tony screeches to a halt, thank god for brakes he modified which means he can stop on a dime, and leaps out of the car. He can see a man lying on the road, unmoving and he makes for him, about halfway to him before something pings wrong about the whole situation.

Two guys come at him from the treeline as soon as he hesitates, were probably going to wait till he reached the guy playing possum and got startled prematurely into action. One of them is loading something as he runs which means Tony has a small chance to actually get out of this intact and he races back to his own car, actually gets a hand on the door when he's hit with something sharp in his neck.

Tony gets the door open, already feeling a worrying tingle in his extremities and he hits the panic button Happy had insisted on by the gear shift. He had hated the very idea of it, not wanting to be a damsel in distress but there's something Steve's very right about.

Outside of the suit he's about as vulnerable as the next guy.

Tony's vision whites out and he goes down, feels hands grabbing at him before he's all the way out. He flails wildly, has a second of satisfaction when his fist connects and something gives under it with a crack and a warm squish but then what feels like a rock but is more likely a fist smacks him in the temple and he's gone.

*

Tony finds it in himself to be disappointed when he comes to and he's tied to a chair with four men in ill-fitting suits looming over him. Tony doesn't want to appear spoiled, but there's a certain pizazz with the enemies the Avengers face that's missing with these garden-variety thugs.

Tony's gotten used to a better class of villain and is actually feeling faintly embarrassed about his predicament.

Tony blinks, his right eye sticking a little which means he's probably got blood down his face. He thinks maybe the smack to the forehead opened his scalp and he's feeling a little fuzzy from whatever they used to bring him down but he's alright otherwise, hasn't been smacked around any while he was out which is comforting.

"Any of you guys want to let me in on what's going on?" he asks, not holding out much hope. The guys in front of him have hired muscle practically stamped on their foreheads, so Tony's surprised when one of them steps forward and hunkers so they're eye to eye.

"We want you to make us one of these," he says, reaching out a stubby finger and jabbing Tony in the chest with it. Tony looks down, can't help it, it's instinctual and the guy snorts and knocks Tony's chin with his hand. "We understand you made one in a cave with a stockpile of munitions." The guy steps away so Tony can see past him, see crates heaped around the walls of what looks like a warehouse. "We figured this was a little more comfortable than a cave."

"I'm sorry guys," Tony says. "It's Stark patented technology. I'm afraid I'm going to have to decline."

"Oh, I was hoping you would say no," the head thug says with a grin Tony doesn't like at all.

"Why is that?" Tony asks, wary.

"Because if we don't have one ready in three days, we get to yank the one out of you."

*

Tony's left with two of the thugs holding guns on him and he's set to work. He knows he just needs to buy enough time for whatever rescue is coming, look like he's doing what these guys ask, but he also knows he isn't going to be left alone and only monitored by closed-circuit cameras like the last time this happened so he has to make it look good.

He's pondering mindless busy-work, moving bits around and making the guys with guns hold things just to be annoying, but then he thinks about using the time to actually do something useful, maybe get Steve to forgive him a little. He starts working on the Captain America flight problem and at the same time thinks about a subtle way to build himself a weapon to take these guys out with.

Tony's philosophical about his chances here. The crates are clearly marked Lucwood Group so either these heavies were hired by one of Stark's main competitors in weapons manufacturing or Lucwood Group were daft enough to have a whole shipment of heavy munitions get lifted.

Either way they don't look very good and so might think it more prudent if Tony permanently disappears when he's done.

He thinks that SHIELD and the Avengers will be really dragging their feet if they can't find him in three days so Tony just needs to convince these guys that he's doing what they want for as long as humanly possible, buy them the time they need to get their asses in gear.

Tony thinks about it as he works, drawing up plans for Steve's own flight modifications and confident that his technical specs will be indecipherable to the four guys he's seen so far. He's overestimated their gormlessness though because when Tony's flattening out a prototype for the idea he's had when it comes to Steve, one of them eyes him, suspicious.

"That doesn't look right," the guy says and he's reaching for something, probably not a gun but more likely a phone.

"Sorry, what about it doesn't look right?" Tony snaps, affecting an air of impatience.

"Well..." the guy says, suddenly uncertain. He waves a hand in the general direction of Tony's chest. "That thing's a lot smaller."

"I'm fashioning a containment device at the moment if you must know," Tony huffs. "Unless of course one of you wants to donate your chest cavity."

"What?" the guy says, skittering backwards and clutching at his chest like Tony's offering to gouge a hole in him right at that moment.

"The arc reactor is very unstable," Tony says, advancing on the guy, pressing his advantage. The other gunman is watching with his eyes getting steadily rounder and wider. "It needs proper containment and this one," Tony continues, indicating his chest with a screwdriver he's holding. "Is being contained by a human body. I mean, if I was supposed to be just popping it in to one of you fellas then your boss should have said."

"N-no!" the guy squeaks, going a milky color. The other guy backs up when Tony manages to encompass him in his emphatic gesturing. Tony just stares between them for a few more moments, before he nods and returns to his makeshift worktable, pretty sure he won't be asked any more questions by these guys at least.

*

"That doesn't look right," the head thug says when he returns. He's got what smells like a burger wrapped in brown paper in one meaty fist and Tony can see a mushy ball of it tucked into the guy's cheek when he talks.

"He's building a containment device," the guy who'd questioned Tony pipes up and the head thug turns a glare on him.

"Did I ask you Terry?" he snaps and finally Tony has at least one name. Terry swallows and shakes his head quickly. The head thug turns his lizard-gaze on Tony and says, "That true?"

"Yes," Tony confirms even though what he's building doesn't really resemble a containment device for anything. He's had an idea from Steve because he kept talking about grip, about incorporating a back piece into the Captain America uniform that would adhere to the Iron Man suit and disconnect with different frequency pulses.

It would mean some pretty spectacular acrobatics on behalf of Steve because he'd basically have to leap and land blind against Tony's back but Tony's seen Steve in action, believes he could do it.

Tony also likes the idea of them dropping into a fight already back to back and having Steve flat against him would reduce the drag problem. He'd have to think about a way for Steve to carry the shield but one thing at a time.

In any case, his prototype is definitely taking shape, which is probably bad for him. He figures he should smelt something, look impressive and showy about it.

"Look, how about I save us all some time and just yank that one outta you now, huh?" the head thug says, advancing and Tony backs up, thinking they were probably very stupid to give him tools because he can definitely wield-

Something breaks through a window high above and skitters to a stop in the middle of them all. It takes a moment to register what the object is because it's such a weird thing to appear out of nowhere.

"Is that an arrow?" Terry pipes up and then the world goes white.

*

"Ow, ow, OW!"

"If you'd hold still, this would go easier," Natasha scolds him and Tony pouts because currently his face feels like it's on fire and he shouldn't be getting told off. He should be getting coddled. That's how it should work.

"Pepper would be a lot nicer about this," he grumbles and the water washing his eyes out ceases for a moment before it resumes and honestly, Natasha's probably being the nicest and gentlest she's ever been with him which should count for something.

And probably would if his face didn't currently feel like it was peeling off.

"Can you tell Hawkeye thanks for the save, maybe next time don't maim me?"

"Tell him yourself," Tony hears Clint's voice behind him and then what must be Clint whacks him in the back of the head.

Definitely no one should be hitting him.

"What was that, anyway?" Tony asks. The burning in his skin is easing back to a sting which is more bearable. Tony's finally able to open his eyes and he looks muzzily about for a moment. He's outside which is a nice change of pace. He puts a hand to his chest and the arc reactor is still well and truly in place so everything is right with the world. "I have Bruce to partially blame for the maiming, right?"

"It's like if a Flash Bang and pepper spray got together and had an illegitimate kid," Natasha offers.

"Very effective," Tony allows, squinting at Clint's fuzzy profile. Natasha gets his chin in hand and forces his head back around. The bottle she's washing his face with doesn't have water in it if the yellow color is anything to go by and Tony really doesn't want to know what's in it. "Maybe not so close to my face next time?"

"You looked like you were in imminent danger," Natasha says crisply. "It was the only thing we could do that didn't involve risk of permanent injury."

Natasha lowers the bottle and Tony looks around again, sees the area is vaguely familiar, that he's driven through it before. "We're ridiculously close to the mansion," he says.

"That's how they were able to catch you by yourself. They had surveillance in place, were able to get to the bottom of the mountain in time to set the trap."

"It took you long enough to find me," Tony grumbles and this time it's Natasha's turn to give him a gentle smack.

"You were only missing for nine hours," she says.

Tony spots Steve standing rigid by the doors of the warehouse, watching SHIELD agents loading the bad guys into a waiting van. "He was worried," Natasha says when she sees where Tony's attention has snagged.

"Oh yeah, he really looks like he was tearing his hair out," Tony snorts. Steve isn't even looking in his direction. Natasha and Clint are bracketing him, Bruce and Thor hovering close by and looking about as pensive as they both ever look but Steve is apart from them all, too worried about what's being done with the hired goons to spare Tony even so much as a look.

"Don't be intentionally dense, it doesn't suit you," Natasha says, rolling her eyes. Tony can't quite see that much detail yet but he can hear it in her voice. "He was quite... scary."

"Steve's a lot of things but he isn't scary," Tony says, but he looks at Steve again, takes in the way he's glaring at the now loaded van, like he's thinking about punching it into the stratosphere. He's still not looking in Tony's direction, but now that Tony's looking for it, he can see the strain in Steve's neck muscles as he fights the urge.

"Listen, this is the only time I've ever going to give you anything even remotely resembling relationship advice," Natasha says and Tony's attention snaps back to her. "Give the guy a break. Buy him a coffee and try to see past your own nose for once."

"He looks tense, he could do with a-"

"Clint!" Natasha thankfully interrupts whatever Clint was going to contribute.

*

Tony gets taken to the hospital despite the epic tantrum he throws about it so he doesn't get to see Steve until he's let go early the next morning. He's sporting a very fetching bandage to the forehead and enters the kitchen in the hopes of coffee when he spots Steve sitting at the wraparound bench wearing pyjama bottoms and nothing else.

Steve startles a little, nearly knocks his fruit loops to the floor but snags the bowl at the last minute.

"Hey, when did you get in?" he asks, curling his cereal back into himself.

"A few minutes ago," Tony says, making his way over to the coffee machine that he tweaked and therefore meant no one else could figure out. He hits a few buttons and the machine starts whirring to itself quietly, a sound that automatically soothes him.

"You should've... I would have come and..." Steve trips over whatever he's trying to say, makes a gesture with his hands that threatens his breakfast again.

"It's fine, I got a cab," Tony says. "They wouldn't let me drive myself for some reason," he adds, passing a hand around the overlarge bandage.

"Head wound, right," Steve nods. "I mean it wouldn't be good to... drive."

"Yeah," Tony agrees, lacking the necessary energy to contribute more than that. Tony has kept himself upright mostly on adrenalin and annoyance but that's now all fast draining away, leaving him feeling like an exhausted husk. He blames being tired on saying, "So, you wanna go for coffee sometime?"

"You've got coffee," Steve points out, waving his spoon at Tony's newly filled cup that he's now clutching.

"I meant... no, right, sure," he says, takes a huge swallow and tries not to show in his face that he's just burnt his tongue. "I should... bed."

"Tony," Steve says, slides off the stool he was perched on. "Wait, did you mean...out for coffee?" His face is open, hopeful and painfully vulnerable.

"Or pie. You like pie right?"

"I like pie," Steve agrees, grinning almost dopily and Tony finds it frustratingly endearing.

"Well, I'm going to go sleep for about three days, but after that? Like... right after that?"

"Sure, yes," Steve says, nodding.

Tony turns, totters towards his room, knowing that he's got a dopey grin on his own face.

*

When Tony wakes up, there's no one in the house.

He slides out of bed, unsure of what day it is or how long he slept. "Jarvis, where is everyone?" he hollers, or it could be a whisper but it echoes around his sore head like a scream.

"There was something about sewer bears," JARVIS says and Tony nods, heading towards the kitchen before he halts.

"Wait, sewer bears?"

"Yes sir, bears in the sewers. From the sounds of it, it's all very exciting."

"Do I even want to know?"

"Possibly not, sir," JARVIS agrees.

"How long since they left?" Tony asks.

"One hour ago."

"Right," Tony says. "Then they'll still be in the thick of it. Get the suit ready."

"Sir, I hardly think-"

"Jarvis," Tony huffs, heading for the underground garage.

"But Mr. Rogers was very explicit in his intructions."

"Who's your daddy?" Tony says. JARVIS makes a noise that would be a put-upon sigh if he was actually a person.

"You are, sir," he finally relents. "Loading the coordinates."

"Thank you Jarvis."

*

When he gets close, Tony is hit with something that's large, furry and stinks. He's lucky that he was flying in low because when he hits the ground the impact is absorbed mostly by the armor and whatever it was that hit him. Tony manages to gather himself enough to roll over and then he's looking up into Steve's furious face.

"What are you doing here?" he demands as Thor appears by his side.

"I offer a thousand apologies dear Tony," Thor says, looking more contrite than Tony has ever seen him. "Hawkeye made me a wager on how far I could throw the monster and unfortunately I did not see you until it was too late."

"Yeah, we'll talk about that later," Steve says over his shoulder at Thor who actually looks down and shuffles his feet. His attention shifts back to Tony and he just glares for a moment before Tony remembers he was asked a question.

"I thought you guys might need some help," he offers, sitting up slowly.

"I thought there was no driving with a head injury," Steve snaps and Tony grins because Steve is worried about him and it's adorable.

"Jarvis was driving, hence the crashing," Tony says and hears JARVIS make an indignant noise over his comms.

"I hope you don't think you won just because you nailed Iron Man," Clint says, dropping in from god knows where. "That was a total accident."

"I would hope so," Tony grumbles. "I really wouldn't like there to be a pool started on who can hit me with overlarge monsters." Tony retracts his face plate and offers Steve his most pathetic look. "Wanna help me up?"

"You're going back in the bus," Steve says, jabbing a finger in the direction of the SHIELD van that's arrived for general clean up before he offers Tony a hand. "I don't think either you or Jarvis are fit for flight today."

"What are you guys doing?"

"We've got to go back into the sewers and make sure there aren't any more of those bears," Steve says and Tony sees Clint make a disgruntled face behind him.

"Wow, I love this job. There is nothing that isn't fun about that sentence." Usually Tony would be pissed about being banished but when it gets him out of sewer duty, he really doesn't mind. "Make sure you shower before you come get me later," he adds, smacks his faceplate down when Steve blushes.

*

Steve has indeed showered when he shows up at Tony's bedroom door, being all gallant about picking him up. It looks like he's done more than that, or at least had more than that done to him if the way he's tugging uncomfortably at the snug-fitting black shirt and dark-wash jeans is any indication. Someone's hit him with hair product but it looks like Steve's tried to fix it himself so the hair's been left a bit of a disaster.

Which is fine because Tony finds it completely endearing.

"Lemme guess, Natasha or Pepper?" he hazards.

"Both," Steve says, then manages to shudder delicately which is an achievment for a guy of his impressive frame. "I feel violated."

"Can I?" Tony asks, waving his hands towards Steve's head and he nods gratefully, ducks down so Tony can tame whatever was done to him in two clearly separate stages. Tony takes a chance and leans in to sniff at Steve's neck, feels Steve stiffen and suck in a breath when he does. "Good," he says. "They didn't mess with the cologne. I like the way you smell already."

Steve groans, reaches down and cups Tony's face in his large hands, says, "Were you determined to go out?"

"I think it's always good business acumen to keep one's options open."