They're not even doing anything, just acting stupid, like strangers assigned to the same dorm room who haven't quite figured out each other's quirks and tics yet. Tony wishes he could say they were fighting some Villain of the Week and it was because he'd pulled some awesome heroic maneuver that'd saved his team's collective asses and maybe Manhattan too, but it's just Clint being a dick and Steve busy pretending that he isn't the leader of a team of five-year-olds. Clint and Tony are snarking at each other like they're slinging arrows and stones, voices echoing off the tiles of the mansion's indoor swimming pool, when Clint huffs with frustration and shoves Tony against the shoulder.
He doesn't mean anything by it, of course, just a bit of roughhousing, but Tony's attention is split between coming up with creative insults on Clint's everything and silently working out possibilities to both strengthen and lighten the asshole's bow. He isn't prepared for the sudden force and ends up tripping over his own feet straight into the swimming pool, Armani suit and all.
Everything sort of slows down under the water. His heart thumps once, twice, three times, the pauses between each beat getting longer as it waits for that thunderbolt of electricity to arc through it like a live wire. It's silent, as though the world is holding its breath along with him, and all he sees is a wash of color and flickering light.
A hundred years later hands grab at him, but instead of holding him down they yank him up and drag him onto cold tile. Sound and sensation come rushing back like the sudden pounding of blood in his ears.
"Tony!" someone's yelling, "Tony, are you all right?"
Tony grasps at his chest first, has to feel a hard circle of alloy breaking the line of his sternum before he can talk. "Peachy, fucking awesome, I take spontaneous swims all the time, don't go a day without."
It's Steve making him sit up, Steve demanding, "What just happened?"
"Yeah, what the hell, dude, why'd you just stay under?" asks Clint.
"Liked the scenery," says Tony, "Jesus, Steve, it's not like I went diving in the Mariana Trench, I'm fine." Totally fine, and if he's shaking a little and can't quite bring himself to stop touching the arc reactor, whatever, no one's perfect.
"All right," replies Steve neutrally, backing off as Tony gets to his feet. "You want to change clothes before we go down to the shop?"
Tony wonders why they'd be going back there. The lighting was shitty, the cots grimy, and it was a miracle to get any work done when you had a bunch of angry assholes who couldn't even curse you in English breathing down your neck and occasionally pulling at the wires to the car battery just to see you flinch from the shocks. The Human Resources department would have a shitfit.
Then he remembers. "Oh, the shop. Yeah. Yeah, I'll just. Go change."
He doesn't run, he just walks very quickly, hand over his heart, and spends the next four hours actually doing the paperwork Pepper is forever trying to force on him. When he sees Clint and Steve again, he grins an apology and says he got kidnapped by this one CEO he knows and blackmailed into being productive on pain of death, so, who wants pancakes and never mind that it's almost midnight?
The thing about Bruce is that he's so damn calm and unassuming that it's easy to forget he's there. If you'd asked Tony at the very beginning of this boy-band initiative whom he'd get along with best he'd probably have said...well, none of them, actually, because Tony knows what he's like, he really does, even Pepper sometimes has to let out a few choice words so she doesn't choke him with his own robots. Which is fine, it's all good, even great. But if Pepper sometimes has the patience of a saint, then Bruce is a Zen master, he's the friggin' Dalai Lama.
Tony's helping him in one of the mansion labs he converted to better suit a biochemist than an engineer (because why have one lab when you can afford several, it's all about priorities, people). Tony may have made some noise about nanites' potential in the medical field when he saw the Bluetooth hooked over Natasha's ear in the kitchen, Thor trying to make them all a Breakfast of Champions, and then Bruce may have wondered aloud about radiation therapies, and then he and Bruce might have left the others sitting in their confusion and/or exasperation to wander down to the labs.
"So when you go all green and raging, where does that extra mass come from? Because I think the seriously amazing thing is less all the gamma bullshit and more the complete violation of basic principles in physics." Either there's a whole lot of mitosis going on in the span of a couple seconds or, and far less likely for a number of very good and science-y reasons, Bruce's preexisting cells get bigger, but the question of where all that mass comes from rather than how is the currently pressing matter. If it's possible to pull a Doctor Who and fit more mass into an impossibly smaller space, the applications –
"Hey, does everything stay proportional? Because those pants don't hide a lot and inquiring minds want to know."
– would be endless in today's society, screw Reed and all his parallel dimension crap anyway. Except with Tony's luck, making things bigger on the inside than they are on the outside will require some sort of pocket subspace thing anyway, but whatever, he could invent something that would –
"Insecure?" Bruce asks, dry and mild after months of hiding in shadows, finally over the shock of the existence of people who would rather skip the awkward dance and go straight to poking at the Hulk issue. It's stupid, there's a difference between ignoring an Issue that isn't immediately relevant (Tony's very well acquainted with those) and then ignoring an Issue that's also the reason you spend years running from the world's most powerful government and eventually join a superhero troupe. If you can't live ignoring an Issue, then the alternative is to drag it kicking and screaming into the light so you can beat it from a weakness into a strength that no one can use against you. Own that fucker. Put that weakness on the costumes of hot dancing chicks if you have to.
It takes Tony a moment to realize that not only did he ask a question but that Bruce is also replying. He says, "JARVIS, make a note, subspace dimension things to make a Whovian weep and don't tell Reed, okay. Bruce, Brucie, darling, the day that Tony Stark feels insecure is the day the American government admits it might have some control issues in its relationship with the rest of Earth."
"You might want to reconsider the parallels in that metaphor," says Bruce. "Hand me that dish, I need to switch out the cultures now."
Tony hands over the Petri dish. "How do you find condoms big and strong enough? Huh, I bet I could synthesize something, polymerize styrene with a better monomer," and it's not like Tony wants to encourage the Hulk into humping random skyscrapers, but there's probably a practical use for shit like that somewhere.
Bruce's response is a flat look. He's the master at loaded silences, the Dalai Lama with a deadpan. It makes Tony's job as dish-and-pipette gofer a little more tolerable while he waits for Bruce to finish the biochemistry side of things (which he could totally do himself, he's sure, no really, but he's trying to be a team player here). Thinking about Bruce's unflappable, superhuman (ha) self-control and distracted by the readouts he sees starting to pop up on the computer, Tony starts, "You would've really liked this guy, Yins – "
Explosion. Sliver of silence, then gunshots. He snaps his mouth closed so hard he bites the tip of his tongue, tasting coconut and iron. Bruce had obviously only been listening with half an ear, but in the sudden quiet he looks up and furrows his brow in Tony's general direction. "Tony?"
"Still here, just got distracted. What can I do you for?" Keep busy, keep making shit, remember, nothing but the next mission. Been a while (the start of the Initiative) since he's sent himself to the edge of alcohol poisoning, but he's always got a bottle of Johnny Walker's finest calling his name in the third-floor library.
Bruce's attention drops down to Tony's hands, and Tony belatedly realizes that they're shaking. He casually tucks them into the pockets of his grease-stained jeans and says obnoxiously, "You gotta buy me dinner first, big guy."
Bruce doesn't take the bait, just keeps up that long stare before turning back to the cultures in the Petri dishes. Tony takes a moment to slap on a metaphorical Band-Aid.
"So, about that synthesizing – "
"Does arrogance really, truly exist?"
"Wait, what?" asks Steve, who'd been drawing in a sketchpad in one of the mansion's living rooms when Tony unexpectedly slunk in. Tony doesn't have much patience for his confusion, however, because c'mon, why are people so slow.
"Because I'm thinking it doesn't. Like, look at Thor, everyone looks at Thor and goes, 'Wow, he can be kinda arrogant.' Even Thor looks at Thor and says that, remember what he said about his dad being a dick and stranding him down here with us mere mortals? Not that I know what that's like, well, sort of, I mean, it's not like being cast down from heaven or whatever but the casting down part, yeah."
"Are you talking about – "
Tony barrels on. "But what if Thor did one of his things, y'know, a lightning-and-thunder thing, an end-of-the-world-oh-shit thing, and someone said, 'Wow, you're amazing.' Most people think he should be all, 'Aw, shucks,' or something stupid, like, modest or whatever, even if it's true, even if he really is amazing, right? But of course Thor would say yeah, or actually he'd say INDEED I AM, KIND MORTAL, VERILY, and then people would think he's being an arrogant asshat. Thing is, he's just saying a fact, he's actually being very positive about himself, so really, shouldn't arrogance be considered a sign of personal mental health?"
He tries not to fidget while Steve processes this barrage of words. Maybe he should've gotten some sleep last night, but he'd barely walked into his bedroom before he had a sudden brilliant idea because he is a brilliant person, okay, he's a genius, so what could he do as a favor to the world but run back to his lab and put that idea to paper. And maybe putting it to paper had led to putting it into metal and wires which led to a small rough skeleton that looked like something out of a sci-fi horror film but would totally revolutionize the water purification systems for communities that weren't white, middle-class, or suburban. Innovative, undoubtedly useful as hell, and good for company PR (but absolutely nothing to do with late-night memories of sickly wide-eyed children and desperate parents in barren mountain regions). Then his armor had looked at him forlornly with dark eye slits from its stand, so Tony had had to give it some attention too, it was only fair, and suddenly it was morning.
"What brought this on?" Steve asks carefully, which doesn't make sense because Tony isn't a frightened animal or anything.
"You saying I can't have deep thoughts, Cap? How judgmental. Shouldn't judge a book by its cover."
"I never said you were incapable of them," Steve replies, gentling the words with a slight smile, "you just don't seem like the type to appreciate impractical ones."
"What are you talking about? I do impractical things all the time, I know you're not blind. Wait, that's not what I – stop laughing, why are you laughing, turn that smile upside down, damnit."
"Stick to robots, Tony."
"Fine, see if I ever make you newer and better armor. You'll rue this horrible day when you take an arrow to the knee."
"Never mind, scratch that, moving on."
"Tony, when was the last time you slept?" Steve's back to that talking-softly-like-he's-trying-to-coax-a-cat-from-a-tree, which he's probably done, probably rescued some little girl's kitten because he's Captain America and he farts Independence Day fireworks.
"JARVIS, make a note, heat-seeking fireworks," Tony says, then realizes he said that aloud. Fortunately, Steve's learned to take it all in stride with the grace of a man who's been forced to take things in stride or risk seriously fucking up his chakra points.
"Are you okay?" Tony asks suddenly, which is something he usually makes a point of never asking, and Steve goes, "Uh, yes, unlike some people I've actually had some sleep in the last forty-eight hours, if that's what you mean."
It isn't, and Tony tells him so. "No, I mean, with all this," and he waves an arm around in a vague gesture meant to encompass the whole of the twenty-first century, "all the…computers, and the international space station, and Black Sabbath."
Steve looks down his sketchpad, silent for a long minute. "Not really," he finally says.
Huh, maybe Steve knew what he was doing with that calm voice. Tony inches farther into the room, sits gingerly on the arm of a couch catty-corner to Steve's armchair. Steve's still staring at his sketchbook, but his pencil isn't moving.
"Sometimes I think I'm still in Afghanistan," Tony admits, knowing Steve had read everyone's files, very carefully not looking anywhere in particular because this is the first time he's ever said that. Abruptly he realizes his fingers are tapping nervously on the arc reactor and he freezes, but then he figures that Steve is thinking about cold and ice and, possibly, he isn't going to judge Tony for it. He lifts his hand again and presses his fingers against the concentrated warmth of the reactor. Steve's eyes track the movement, but he just looks…sad, or a little angry, or maybe just understanding.
It's probably the first time he's been able to take a breath since he woke up hooked to a car battery.
"You want some coffee?" he offers, and Steve says, "Yeah, that sounds grand."
It isn't that Tony isn't ever attracted to men, he can (sometimes) admit that in the privacy of his own head and, hey, he went to all-boys' boarding schools for years, his gag reflex died by the time he was fifteen. The problem is that when his eyes get caught on the curve of Rhodey's ass in fatigues, or the flex of Steve's arm when he throws the shield, it's all to the soundtrack of a voice hissing pussy, sissy, a shot of whiskey shoved into small young hands underscored with this is a real man's drink, bigger hands yanking his head back by the hair, a sharp Stark men are made of iron. Not that…not that anyone knows, at least no one still alive, and if something sounds like a joke – aww, Rhodey, sourpatch, honeybear, Froot Loop, darling – then no one, not even Tony, is going to go peeking underneath.
So, there's that.
Billiards was always Tony's kind of game. It's basically geometry with the added bonus of innocently suggestive leaning-over-table-edges and running-long-thin-rods-through-fingers, an excuse to prowl around and brush too close past an opponent while mentally running the numbers without people looking at him strangely for it. People know, abstractly, that Tony Stark is a fucking genius, but they always seem weirded out when he's able to slide smoothly from social charm to the obstacles blocking his way to cold fusion.
So billiards was always Tony's kind of game, except Steve is kicking his ass at it in the rec room. Clint's catcalling from the sidelines and Thor watches with a furrowed brow, probably trying to figure out why an activity lacking battle cries or lethal weapons could be considered competition, while Steve makes a shot that should've been impossible except he somehow manages to bounce the cue off three balls to flawlessly land two in the pockets and set up the third for a perfect shot. Tony knows he's gaping a little, but he's honestly too impressed to care.
"Your turn," Steve finally says after he clears practically half the table. His voice is perfectly calm, his smile mostly friendly except for an edge of challenge, a little bit of smugness, and Tony absently rubs at the arc reactor. He could've sworn his heart twinged. He makes a mental note to check the insert made of badassium, whatever, it's his fucking element.
"How the fuck," he manages, and yeah, that's definitely smugness lining Steve's grin. Asshole.
"How do you think I manage to throw my shield all the time without losing it?" he asks, and Tony could smack himself. Trajectory, he thinks, geometry, and also, artist. He's a little mollified, even though the temptation to shove the stick down Clint's throat is steadily growing.
He makes Steve work for it, but in the end Steve stands as the victor. He holds out his hand, shakes Tony's as he says with textbook-perfect sportsmanship and bright blue eyes that don't fool Tony for a goddamn second, "Good game."
Tony wants to make some remark about rematches, or blind luck, or inventing an algorithm that next time will make Steve eat his unexpectedly-awesome-but-totally-just-lucky victory, but all he manages is, "Uh, yeah. Yeah."
Later, Tony thinks of Steve's single-minded focus as he runs his own numbers, of sharp blue eyes, and then says to himself, "Oh."
At one point the Avengers are called in to the Pentagon for something about national security, Tony isn't entirely sure since he ignored the brief in favor of tweaking the armor's surface sensitivity, and they're all subjected to metal detectors. Steve gives up his shield for a few minutes' inspection with barely hidden protectiveness, Bruce doesn't have much more than some spare change and a forgotten mini Geiger counter in his pocket (seriously, there's practicality and then there's paranoia), and Thor watches with amusement as the security personnel try to figure out what to do with a giant hammer they can't actually move. Natasha and Clint both surrender a truly disturbing number of knives, garrotes, and god knows what else, which probably still isn't everything they're carrying. Tony hands over his armor briefcase and his watch, then walks through the standing X-ray, which promptly starts screeching.
"Goddamnit," he sighs when he realizes why. The security personnel pat him down, Natasha rolling her eyes, before they order him to remove his shirt.
"Aw hell no."
"Mr Stark," says the guy in charge. His nametag says DOBBS, RICHARD.
"It's a pacemaker, well, it's more than that, but let's call it a pacemaker for everyone's sake. It isn't coming out."
"Mr Stark – "
"Look, Dick, if I promise not to commit an act of terrorism with it, can we just skip the interrogation?" No one needs to know that the act reactor could take out the whole of Arlington County, let alone the Pentagon, if it ever decided to blow.
Dick doesn't like that, but the clock's ticking and Tony forgot to sleep again and Pepper scheduled a conference later with investors that make Magneto's Brotherhood look like small-time neighborhood hoodlums, so he unbuttons just enough of his shirt that the reactor peeks through.
"See? Terrifying, I know, but I'll try to restrain my anti-American extremism."
Dick's a polite few feet away, but his stare makes Tony feel like bugs are starting to crawl over his skin. He stands his ground anyway and finds himself almost wishing that Dick would say something that'd give him an excuse to – well, do something, maybe give Dick a right-hook to the face, maybe tell him that this is the tech of a man backed into a corner and a better man's life and if that isn't good enough for the US of A then the government can go shove the Washington Monument up its ass.
Instead he twitches his shirt closed, picks up his briefcase, and raises an eyebrow with an imperious, "Well?"
Dick waves them all through with a sourpuss face.
It turns out the Pentagon is trying to get UN sanction for the Avengers but the UN isn't cooperating. Steve, as team leader, isn't exactly pleased that the Avengers weren't notified of the Pentagon's actions at the very beginning. Neither is Tony, since he hadn't predicted this happening for at least another six months, but today the petty politics just seem too damn petty to be worth the effort.
Later that evening Steve comes down to the shop while Tony has his head buried in holograms and an immaterial ball being tossed from hand to hand. Steve keys in the passcode, says, "JARVIS, music, please," and Styx immediately fades into silence.
"Why is it always the music," Tony mutters, and pitches the ball blindly over his shoulder. "Here, catch."
"What – oh."
Pepper usually throws it back with the amazing speed of her exasperated scolding, but the newness of Tony's tech, years beyond even the rest of the modern world, hasn't worn off for Steve yet, and he rolls it around his hands a few times before gently tossing it in return. It's one of those things that make the arc reactor sit a little more heavily in Tony's ribcage.
"What am I even doing," Tony asks rhetorically, "I know I'm missing something here. I invented a new element, y'know, well, I mostly invented it, but it was great, you should've seen it. I know there's something I can do to magnify its effectiveness, but it's not talking to me right now, you'd think I'd slept with its sister or something – "
He's dimly aware that Steve's being too quiet, whatever that means, but he's more concerned with the way his brain just isn't working with him. It's preferring to think of freezing filthy water and the taste of gunmetal, blood, coconut instead of useful shit, like alloys and isotopes. He irritably flicks his fingers, part of him debating if it's worth Pepper's wrath to construct a newer and better particle accelerator in the lab, another part mulling over the logistics of managing a group of mercenaries who probably speak sixty-seven different languages and none of the same ones, a third bit wondering where his coffee cup wandered off to, and yet another starting to think that maybe he'd imagined Steve walking in. Wouldn't be the first time.
"Tony, what is this?"
And lo, it lives, he thinks distractedly. "What's what?"
Steve's arm suddenly appears in front of his face, waving a shadowed sheet of film. Tony glances at it disinterestedly.
"It's an X-ray." He twirls a finger and a bright green molecular structure turns 140 degrees to its side.
"It's the arc reactor, isn't it?" Steve's voice is weirdly soft, like he thinks someone's going to overhear them, even though it's just the two of them plus DUM-E and U and Butterfingers and JARVIS. Whatever.
"Yeah, well, can't be too careful."
"I didn't realize it was so…big."
"The word you're probably looking for is 'invasive'," Tony says dryly. There's a distinct five-degree downturn to each corner of Steve's mouth.
"Does it ever hurt?"
Tony glances at the X-ray. Behind the external ring is a web of wires, outlined in vivid white, running the lengths of his sternum and top four rows of ribs except where bone had been removed to make room. The dimmer shades of muscle bulge in odd places, displaced by the extra mass, everything held together with metal and pins and a desperate prayer.
"Could be worse," he replies. "Was there something you needed?"
"Why are you so afraid of it?"
"Why are you so afraid of ice?" Tony retorts, unthinking. Considers apologizing, says quietly instead, "We both lost something to 'em."
It's impossible to say who leans in first. It might be Tony, who has the impulse control of a kid with ADHD (funny story, that), or it might be Steve, whose stubbornness can make a donkey hang its head in shame. Unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. But whoever starts it, they both finish it in post-battle adrenaline outside the quinjet, Iron Man's helmet on the ground and Captain America's cowl shoved back. SHIELD is too busy with cleaning up the mess and the other Avengers too concerned with returning to the mansion for some goddamn sleep for anyone to see the way Steve's fingers tangle roughly in Tony's wild hair, the way Tony's hands curve almost too tightly in their gauntlets over Steve's hips.
There's this idea that superhero-ing is all straightforward morality and kissing babies, but thirteen minutes ago Steve had had to choose between the deaths of fifteen civilians versus fifty, actually make a conscious decision which energy beam he'd be able to deflect, and Steve's the kind of guy for whom this sort of shit doesn't get any easier with time. He's seen Nazi concentration camps, bodies piled twenty, twenty-five deep in holes they'd dug in their last few hours of life, seen bodies in all stages of mutilation and decay and starvation, and Tony – he knows this intellectually, he can see the signs that sometimes slip out from behind Steve's otherwise staid demeanor and they're some of the same signs he sees in Rhodey every so often. A guilty part of him thanks God that it wasn't him but another part is reminded that this is why he puts on the armor whenever and for however long he needs to. He puts his broken heart in the literal spotlight and he has to believe it's enough (has to believe that, the alternative means trying to find the answers in mindless sex and the bottoms of bottles until the answers don't seem so important anymore).
So yeah, Steve is their captain and their icon and this means he has to make the decisions that other people can't, or won't, or pretend don't exist in this modern civilized world. Tony puts his gauntlets on Steve's hips as though it'll anchor him in the correct era, in the here and now with Tony himself and the consumer capitalist soulless nation that America's becoming, where the American Dream has become the Wall Street Dream. Tony holds himself solid in the face of Steve's hard, bruising kisses, imagines himself taking in what Steve needs to give him and tucking it close inside the harsh light of the arc reactor because he's too cynical to let Captain America bear the weight of all their sins himself.
Or maybe it's just because it's Steve, who the fuck knows, Steve with his big hands and bigger heart and the way he holds onto Tony in a way no one else has, as though he actually needs Tony to be who Tony is and not what Anthony E. Stark is. In the back of his mind he hears, in between the constant hum of calculation and recalculation, Stark men are made of iron, but Stark men also helped make the atomic bomb. Whatever, gold titanium alloy is stronger than iron anyway.
"No but really, how do you control it?"
"I just do it because I have to," Bruce says, hands steady as he pours a highly caustic chemical into a narrow vial, and Tony leaves the lab before he says or does something stupid.
He ends up playing Bayonetta with Clint, who just looks at him and challenges him to a few hours of mindless competition with leather-studded witches pole-dancing as they slaughter angels. They mock each other as well as the sexism so blatantly exploitative it's practically a parody of itself before moving on to Mario Kart.
"Textbook narcissism, huh?" he asks Natasha one morning, cradling coffee in a mug large enough to be a salad bowl and pretending he doesn't have a consulting appointment in half an hour, which everyone knows is just code for being such an asshole that five-star generals and five-term senators would rather give up politics than deal with him.
She looks at him over the top of a fruit smoothie way too healthy to be healthy so early in the morning and says, "Look it up, Mr Stark."
He says, "Clear the browser history, JARVIS. If anyone asks, I'll be in the shop being an amazing indispensable futuristic genius."
One day Tony wakes up from the darkness of a cave into the dim, still hours of a Manhattan morning. Steve is a living furnace at his back, a heavy arm draped over Tony's ribs and palm resting over the arc reactor, softening the glow.
He takes a deep breath, and lets it go.