He'd sent an email to Coulson (still his unofficial handler, much to Tony's chagrin) the moment he'd gotten his hands on his nurse's poor excuse for a personal tablet, but S.H.I.E.L.D. hadn't even so much as sent a carrier pigeon. With three broken ribs, a bruised torso, and what was probably written down as a heart attack there wasn't much else he could do. He could thank Captain America for it all. Fury probably gave him a raise.
Yet it wasn't Coulson who showed up at his door all those hours later; it was Pepper, clothes in one hand and food in another. Of course it was Pepper. Coulson must have ratted him out not wanting to deal with yet another Tony Stark Problem. He was probably still cleaning up from the last stunt Tony pulled. So was Tony.
"Tell me you have real food in that pizza box," Tony greeted her. "If there's real food in there and not, I don't know, pudding cups and aspirin, I will love you forever."
"You already love me forever, Tony," Pepper reminded him, stepping inside and closing the door behind her. "But for what it's worth, yes there's pizza. Agent Barton had suggested I bring 'that soup with balls in it,' but I don't think he was thinking matzoh. I got you meatball pizza instead, as a compromise."
Tony eyed the box hungrily as Pepper placed it on the overbed table. "You're a beautiful creature. I don't deserve you," he said, reaching in and stuffing an entire slice into his mouth. Then, in an afterthought, he asked "Barton? Since when do you talk to Barton?"
"Since I was informed you'd been hospitalized because your suit and the device powering it had malfunctioned after you made a stupid decision out on the field."
Her point was valid, but it wasn't the point Tony took away from her words. "They called you in because I had a bit of an accident?"
Pepper raised an eyebrow. She didn't look happy.
"You don't look happy," Tony said, and he offered her a slice.
She gave him another look, crossing her arms as she did so. Tony decided to stuff the previously offered slice into his mouth and shut up – not that Tony could ever shut up. "Speaking of happy...." he muttered around a chewy crust.
"Tony," Pepper warned.
Tony swallowed his food and then did with Pepper's warning what he did with all other warnings: he ignored it. "How's Happy?"
Pepper, in turn, ignored him. "I shouldn't even be here," she said, fussing with the blankets on the bed. Eventually giving up on the pointless task, she threw her hands in the air. "Why am I here? I've got a pile of paperwork on my desk taller than you, a meeting with the shareholders on Friday, and a benefit to speak at on Sunday. I can't waste time here fussing over you. You can't keep wasting my time like this, Tony. It's bad enough you demand my attention every hour of the day when you're not out on a mission or in your workshop, but this is the third time in as many months that I've been called out across the country for you. You can't . . . keep almost dying on me."
"This again?" Tony looked up but quickly looked back down when Pepper pulled that face.
"'This again?' Tony, you shouldn't be throwing your life away like that."
"So I just let the bad guys win, is that it? The greatest good to the greatest number of people, Pep. It's what heroes do." Tony resolutely ignored the look on her face (He didn't have to see it to know).
He chewed his next bite carefully, measuring out his words before he spoke them. "Captain America does it, he gets canonized as the patron saint of the free world. Iron Man does it, he gets a lecture from his ex about how not to be suicidal."
Pepper sighed. She shifted the bag she'd had on her shoulder and told Tony to stop comparing himself to Steve.
"Why shouldn't I? He certainly left an impression on me." Hand-shaped bruises were a thing for cartoons, but Tony still expected Steve's meaty paws to be mottled all over his torso. "He broke my ribs."
"That's supposed to happen when you do CPR properly."
"That's just something they say so you don't look bad when you do something wrong."
"If you'd actually attended the Health and Safety training and not forged your certificate, then you would know how to properly perform first aid." Pepper looked a think smugly. He countered with his typical response when Pepper was nagging him about doing things.
"If you were still my girlfriend, you could've made me go."
"I was your girlfriend at the time, Tony."
He knew the exact date Pepper called them quits, down to the hour and minute. He didn't know the date for the Health and Safety training, so cross referencing would be impossible. In a panic, he did the next best thing he could think of: he dropped the pizza box on the floor. "Whoops. My bad," he said, then fiddled with the IV on his hand.
And of course Pepper said, "You bet your ass it was your bad!"
Tony lifted his hand and grabbed on to the medical tape with his teeth. "Yeah," he said, as he tugged it up and off his skin. "Let's get out of here."
Pepper, beautiful and caring Pepper, asked if he had been cleared by the doctors.
"As my no-longer-girlfriend and no-longer-personal assistant, you can't nag me for checking out AMA." He swung his legs off the bed and glanced down at his gown. "Tell me that bag has my clothes in it."
When she rolled her eyes, Tony felt at ease. She shrugged the bag off her shoulder and pulled out an old pair of jeans and a zip-up sweater. "The nurse told me to bring you something comfortable that you wouldn't have to lift your arms for." She placed the clothes on the bed next to Tony. "I know you're above asking for help, but--"
"I'm fine," Tony cut her off, and he was fine. He pulled his arms through the sleeves, ignored the small twinges of pain the cut through his chest, and gathered together his dignity in a breath. It had been a long day. He wanted to go home. He wanted to sit in the car with Pepper and listen to her tell him all the things he did wrong and how he could do things right -- just listen to her talk. He could lay his head in her lap and she could run her fingers through his hair and complain that he used too much product and things could be normal again. And normal was good. He could use a bit of normal right now. He hated hospitals. He did too much thinking in hospitals.
He was relieved, then, when Pepper asked, "Shall I walk you to the front desk, Mr. Stark?"
"I would love nothing more, Miss Potts," he replied and held out his arm. It was all Steve's fault, Tony told himself. He'd be fine as soon as he got home.
He wasn't sulking in the kitchen, no matter what Steve thought. There wasn't anything to sulk about. Pepper was a busy woman, a powerful busy woman who was in charge of things, and when things went wrong, she had to leave to take care of them because Stark Industries would fall apart without her and so would Tony but that was okay because Tony had Steve now so he'd be looked after – not that Steve would ever straighten Tony's ties or kiss the end of his nose when he was being particularly cute, but Pepper thought Steve was Responsible and having Pepper's approval was a crowning life achievement.
It was a shame Pepper hadn't consulted him in approving Steve. Tony would've rejected the idea immediately. Shining beacon of hope for the American Dream he might have been, but the patron saint of patriotism was not the sort of person Pepper should have entrusted to look after Tony.
Why was it that all of his handlers handed him off to someone else? Coulson gave him to Pepper whenever he was off the clock, Pepper handed him off to Steve whenever she had to switch back to her coast of choice. Steve hadn't realized that he could hand Tony off to JARVIS or someone, not because Steve was stupid – Steve had joined forces with JARVIS on more than one occasion to make Tony do things – but because Steve had this air-tight sense of duty and responsibility that was so admirable it was downright disgusting.
No, Captain Rogers, Tony wasn't sulking at all.
"I've known you for six months and I've never seen you eat alone," Steve remarked as he hovered over Tony's shoulder. (They didn't have the words "Go away" in the dictionary in the Forties apparently. Perhaps Tony should elected for "Scram" or "Beat it" or something, but he thought that's make him sound old.) "I've never even really seen you eat. I thought you just drank all your sustenance."
"I was hungry," Tony explained, electing to ignore yet another smart-ass remark from golden boy Steve Rogers. "Also? Not drinking now."
"I'm surprised. You're practically crying into your sandwich."
"Fuck off,"' he said, which was bad because no one cussed around Steve (except Clint, but Clint did whatever the hell he wanted.) It was one of Tony's greatest pleasures in life to watch Fury censor himself around Captain America. And if the slight lift of the corner of Steve's mouth when it happened was anything to go by, Steve was amused by it, too.
Steve wasn't amused now. Neither was Tony. "Pepper mentioned you left—"
Pepper probably mentioned a lot of things on her way out the door that morning. Don't let Tony work too hard. Make sure he takes his medication. Keep him out of the liquor cabinet. Take him out for his walkies. Change his diaper when he gets cranky. This, that, and the other thing. She'd barely stayed a day, Tony still didn't feel better not that he'd ever say that out loud, and she left him to be alone with Steve fucking Rogers.
Tony had had enough. "Yeah, if you're gonna continue this conversation, I suggest you do that elsewhere. Where I can't hear you."
The problem with Steve was that he was just as stubborn as Tony. He moved so that his back rested against the edge of the island counter. "How are you feeling?" he asked, trying to get Tony to make eye contact. Tony ignored him, taking a large bite of his sandwich.
"Like a super soldier decided to flatten me," he answered.
"Personally," he amended. "Not just physically."
Tony brushed him off, but Steve stood his ground. "People don't just throw away their lives like that, Tony. Not even heroes. If this is about Pepper, then I can't have you being liability to the integrity of the team. I want you in bed rest for the remainder of the week."
It was funny, the way Steve threw out orders even when he wasn't in uniform. They just didn't hold the same weight. "You'll have to get in line, I'm afraid. I'm quite popular. Also worth it."
Steve ignored him. "I can lock you out of your lab if I need to." The thing was, Steve could. All he needed to do was team up with JARVIS again.
"Don't you think you did enough damage already?" Tony didn't need a doctor, nurse, or a babysitter. He didn't need Steve poking his nose in business that wasn't his concern. "I'm fine. My ribs are taped, I'm hopped up on the strongest painkillers I'm allowed, and Pepper's texting me every hour to make sure I'm being a good boy. I'm fine, Cap. Go. Away." He failed to mention that Pepper's last text was something along the lines of "I'm working, Tony. Grow up and fix yourself a sandwich if you're hungry."
Normally, Tony would come up with a funny quip. He'd slink off his stool, put his plate in the sink, and sidle past Steve with a grin and a pat on the shoulder. He'd charm his way into his workshop and disappear for hours until someone dragged him back into society. But Tony wasn't feeling himself. Not at all. He had someone else's muscles pump his blood and someone else's breath inflate his lungs.
And, maybe, just maybe, he was still bitter about the whole Pepper thing. Tony didn't share well, even with things he forfeited his rights to claim. Not that Pepper was a possession, but that was part of Tony's problem, as Pepper had told him: he didn't discern between his people and his inventions. To him, they were one in the same: Things he could manipulate, could craft, and could ignore for days on end without offending.
Tony was upsetting himself. His chest was starting to hurt. Steve wasn't helping.
"If you're not going to leave, I am," he said, and got up off his stool. Tony could feel Steve tracking his every move, so he decided to retreat to the confines of his bedroom. He figured he would play around with some schematics on his tablet and wait out the storm (i.e., wait for Steve to go to bed).
Tony didn't mean to fall asleep, but it happened anyway.
When Tony lumbered into the kitchen in the morning, moving stiffly from him aching torso, Steve wasn't anywhere to be seen. By the clock, Tony could guess that Steve, who (almost) kept to a regimen, was a dozen or so floors down out at the gym or down in the Park having an ice cream cone. Tony had caught him there more than once.
Steve was the only one of the team who made a permanent home of Tony's penthouse. Most of the Avengers treated Tony's personal residence as a stopover for team gatherings and Tony's game consoles. Tony hadn't exactly extended an invitation. Steve managed to wriggle his way in from a combination of pressure from Fury and Pepper to "be nice." Steve had expressed interest in getting on in the world, Tony had needed a live-in babysitter since Pepper quit and Coulson refused to live under the same roof, so Fury thought it the best possible solution. Surprisingly – and Tony would never admit this to anyone – Steve wasn't so bad to live with. He kept to himself, except when he didn't, and for the most part Tony was okay with that. So long as Steve didn't deny him access to his workshop which, due to his current absence, he wasn't doing now.
Without Captain Buzzkill there to guard the path, Tony fixed himself some coffee, grabbed the bottle of painkillers, and happily ascended the staircase to the wonderful world of Stark above. He had a suit to repair.
"Good morning, sir," JARVIS greeted as Tony walked into his inner sanctum. "You have a voicemail from Miss Potts and an email from Agent Coulson. Shall I relay the messages?"
Tony figured it couldn't hurt.
"Miss Potts wishes you a speedy recovery. She'll be available up until this evening at which point please don't call unless you're dying again. Agent Coulson's email states nothing of much importance but does contain a video which may be of interest."
Video from Coulson which might have been of interest could be a trap into doing Avengers work, or could be Thor doing something hilarious. Tony decided to take a chance. "Play it, Sam," Tony commanded.
The video played. It was Avengers business. Tony's interest waned. It was footage of the previous battle with the robots of indeterminate origins, the aftermath, starring none other than Iron Man, out of commission. It wasn't anything Tony wanted to see.
"Whatever happened to funny cat videos?" he said, turning away and searching for the proper tools to begin work on the suit. "I like funny cat videos. JARVIS, stop this crap and pull up some funny cat videos."
When he tipped his head back a couple of hours later to wash down his painkillers with a fresh mug of coffee, he noticed the surveillance footage from Coulson back on the screen. "JARVIS, what's that's still doing up?"
"I was going over the damages to the suit still in need of repairs, sir."
"Yeah, you don't need to have it up to view it. Get rid of it." Tony regarded what was left of his suit. It was mostly scraps, so he tackled the project mostly by cringing. Covered in dust and grime, the torso pieces were just that – pieces. The small bits of gold-painted carbon fiber pieces of the helmet were the only parts that stood out in the dun-colored wreckage. Tony fished them out of the pile laying them on an adjacent clean table. He shook his head at their condition. "He pried me open like an elevator door, didn't he?"
The footage began playing. Tony momentarily glanced up at it. "JARVIS, I've got the damage reports, I've got the suit, I can fix it. Or build a new one. I should build a new one, at least from the chest up."
The footage continued to play. Tony glanced up at the screen again. JARVIS had isolated a corner of the screen, then zoomed in and focused on it. It was Steve, running towards him, sans cowl and even shield.
"What are you doing?"
"You have yet to read the reports from the debriefing, sir?" JARVIS asked.
"You know I haven't."
"Then perhaps you should attend," JARVIS insisted. But Tony didn't want to attend.
"Ah, JARVIS, c'mon, get that out of here. I don't wanna see it." Steve had torn the helmet apart (like an elevator door, really) and was currently mangling the neck braces. "I was there. I know what happened. Tony does something stupid. Cap saves Tony. Tony gets cracked ribs and a ruined suit. There, I've seen it."
But Tony hadn't seen the panic on Steve's face, the bob of his throat, the grimace of his mouth. He hadn't seen exactly how Steve pressed his hands against Tony's chest, compressed his ribcage, how those same hands cradled Tony's skull and tilted it, how his mouth fit around Tony's, breathed in and breathed out. He'd seen it now, of course, thanks to JARVIS.
Tony knew he was resuscitated. Waking up in the hospital had made that pretty clear. CPR was what boy scouts did, right? They probably had a merit badge for it or something. Several. CPR. Saving lives. Keeping relatively calm while one's teammate was dead on scene. (It was only a few minutes. No permanent damage. It was no big deal. Steve was fine. Tony was fine. It was fine. They were all fine.)
But then there was the patented Rogers look of constipated worry. It reminded Tony of the way Pepper looked at him in the hospital. Tony considered the footage with more interest. "What point are you making here, JARVIS?"
"Not a point, sir. Merely an observation." JARVIS was good at making observations, it was part of his programming. Tony sniffed, then turned back to the table with the remnants of his suit. He dismissed the video entirely. "JARVIS, if I look at that any longer, more ribs are gonna explode. Replace it with something more useful, like the schematics for the Mark 6. This baby's a jigsaw puzzle I gotta put back together."
He kept his thoughts on the suit, and the suit alone. Eventually, he forgot all about Steve.
Two weeks later, there was an emergency and Captain America had to let him back on the team. There was the stipulation that Tony had to get the all-clear from a doctor, so Tony got Banner to check him out in exchange for some nifty lab equipment. Steve never said it had to be a medical doctor and, if Steve had been in touch with Pepper at the time, he would have known that Tony had ways around wishy-washy wording like that. Tony knew that he felt better and what better Tony didn't feel would be compensated for by the suit, newly repaired and better than ever, so one way or another, Iron Man was joining the Avengers in some ass-kicking.
Steve had somehow found out that Tony's doctor moonlighted as mean, green anger machine, for he was there to confront Tony on the roof.
"Hey, hands off the equipment, buddy," Tony said as Steve grabbed him by the shoulder. "You cost me a fortune in labor last time."
Steve, in full Captain mode, stared Tony down, which was impressive considering Tony had the faceplate down. "I don't need a repeat of last time. You go out there again, I need you at one hundred percent, no stupid heroics."
"Sir, yes, sir!" Tony mocked, giving Cap a salute.
Steve didn't back down.
"I'm fine," Tony reassured him. "Weird little goopy zombie things won't get me down. My ticker will keep on ticking. Stop trying to be my mother."
"I'm not your mother! I'm your leader! You're my responsibility, Tony. You walked out of the hospital AMA and got cleared for action by a physicist."
"He's a doctor, isn't he? Hey, if I get a boo-boo you can kiss it better. Again." Tony reached up and grabbed hold of Steve's wrist. "Now hands off."
"We can go without you," Steve insisted.
"You couldn't go a day without me." Tony pushed Steve away and, with the added support of suit, Tony was able to force him a few steps back.
Tony took advantage of the freedom and started to jog away. "I'll try and save you a piece of the action, but no promises," Tony sent over the comms system as his jets engaged and he took flight.
"See?" Tony commented as he sidled up to a battle-worn Steve. (There wasn't anything quite like adrenaline to take the lingering aches and pains away. Behind the helmet, he was smiling.) "I'm still in one piece."
Tony had been on the receiving end of a lot of Steve's dirty looks; they seemed to be reserved exclusively for Tony. He was used to them, for the most part. Except for the one Steve was giving him now. Tony nearly felt like he did something wrong.
"But for how long?" Steve asked, and began walking away.
So they'd gotten off on the wrong foot earlier. That was water under the bridge as far as Tony was concerned.
"Hey," Tony shouted, jogging to catch up. "Where you going?"
"Back to HQ," Rogers answered.
"We're way the hell up 34th. You're gonna walk the whole way?"
Tony didn't like to be shrugged off. He could do it to other people, sure, but that was different. "I'll join you," Tony explained as he stayed in step with Steve. He ignored the way Steve rolled his eyes and settled in for a long, quiet walk back to base.
Steve was quiet in that way he usually was after an altercation. He walked quickly and efficiently, eyes straight ahead. Eventually, Tony stopped trying to make small talk about Natasha's new haircut or Coulson's affair with a stapler. Steve hadn't really talked to him since the "little stunt." He'd been amiable, certainly. He'd made dinners, kept the place up, and occasionally spent a pleasant evening with Tony in the same room. The lack of distraction allowed Tony to build the suit from the waist up, which was a good thing. The bad thing was that Steve hadn't really talked to him: no fighting, no arguing, no sniping, no griping, no words whatsoever. It wasn't like them at all.
"Hey," Tony said pausing in the middle of the sidewalk. "You hungry?"
Steve squinted at the liquor store to his right and frowned disapprovingly. Tony rolled his eyes. "No, Cap. There," He placed a hand on Steve's arm, and pointed next door. "Wanna grab a cheeseburger?"
"We're in uniform, Iron Man," was Steve's response – but it came with a little foot shuffle and any sort of shuffling on Steve's part meant Steve was lying. Internally, Tony celebrated a small victory.
Tony took off his helmet. "And so we'll eat for free." He held the door open and announced, "Ladies first."
Steve stood his ground. "We should head back with the team."
"I'm hungry. Aren't you hungry?"
Steve looked at him, looked into the restaurant, and unfolded his arms. Game, match, and set. Tony'd won. "Fine," Steve said. "But no longer than a half-hour." He grabbed the door and made Tony go in ahead of him. "And don't schmooze."
They ended up at a table by the window, one of the few seats available in the crowded lunch hour rush. They only ate for free because Tony told them to bill Stark Industries. No one asked them for autographs. No one even so much as blinked.
"You know what I love about New York City," Tony asked as glared up at the counter worker from his (ridiculously small and wobbly) seat.
"What," Steve asked with his mouth full. He'd loosened up as soon as the smell of food hit him. He must have been starved. Honestly, the kid had no manners. It was one of the things Tony liked about him.
"Two national heroes walk in to a crowded lunch stop, and no one gives up their seat."
All of the booths had been taken in the small eatery. Most of the tables were, too, but they'd managed to grab one by the window. Cheeseburgers and drinks in tow, they sat as children pointed, teenagers pretended not to be impressed, and young adults snapped pictures that were surely going up on Facebook (Tony's have to look for them later. They'd no doubt be ridiculous.) A similar crowd was forming outside.
"Don't even get asked for autographs."
"You sound insulted," Steve said over a handful of fries.
"I should be! What? No one likes us anymore?"
"Maybe they're being polite in letting us have lunch in peace?"
Tony made a face to show just what he thought of that idea.
"You really thrive off attention, don't you?" Steve commented. "Is that why you do such stupid things all the time?"
"Hey," Tony said, tossing a french fry at him. It would have been perfect if Steve had caught it in his mouth and ate it (like some circus seal or something) but Steve's brain was apparently not on the same wavelength as Tony's just yet because he deflected the projectile and it hit the ground behind him. "Spoilsport."
It was as if the very word summoned the man himself.
"Don't make me arrest you for assault with a deadly weapon, Mister Stark," Coulson remarked out of nowhere, causing Tony to nearly fall out of his seat. Steve, the jerk, didn't even blink.
"Found you on Facebook," Coulson continued when he had Tony's full attention. He held up the taser in his hand. "Guess what I have tivo'ed?"
"You can't tase me in the suit," Tony quipped, annoyed at having a babysitter again.
"No, but I can tase your head. Pack it up, Iron Man. You are on an unauthorized lunch break and I'm bringing you in. There's a debriefing going on. Captain," Coulson regarded Steve, "I'm sorry you've been subject to the poisonous influence of Tony Stark. I'll scrape him off your windshield for you and let you return to the nice responsible leader we all know you are." It was the closest anyone would ever come to criticizing Captain America (Tony didn't count.)
Coulson dragged Tony away and Steve obediently followed. "Later, losers," Tony remarked as he made his escape.
There was no way Coulson had a Facebook. Tony said as such as he made his way back home. (Of course he wasn't actually going to show up for that debriefing.) It was a comment made mostly to himself, but he was never alone while in the suit.
"He was linked to the picture via Twitter," JARVIS answered, simultaneously pulling up the photo. "Might I add that you two look charming together?"
Tony didn't bother mouthing back. He studied the way Steve was staring at him when Tony wasn't looking and decided to take the long route home.
Fury stole Captain America for two whole days, no doubt giving him the low-down on how not to be corrupted by Tony Stark and how cheeseburgers were Red Skull's invention or something.
"Daddy finally let you out of Time Out," Tony greeted Steve as he finally made an appearance in the living room.
Steve awkwardly turned around, preferring to look a person in the eye when he spoke to them. "Hey, wanna watch something?"
"Fury got you reviewing battle tapes and training sessions again?
"So like, you wanted to watch a movie or something?" Tony had plans to disappear into the workshop again, he'd even just poured himself a nice mug of coffee for the occasion, but Steve rarely asked to do things with Tony even though they spent most of their free time in each other's company (when Tony felt like company, that is.)
"Happy suggested something named Rocky. He said it was a classic."
Tony couldn't help the slight bodily twitch that came at the mention of Happy's name. It was a reflex, one that hadn't been tested for quite some time (he'd been doing so well) but that's what guys did when people mentioned the person who was currently dating their ex with a reasonable high degree of success for over a month. Tony liked Happy. Tony still employed Happy and would be happy (ha!) to ride in a car driven by Happy were he to find himself on the opposite coast once more, but that didn't mean Tony couldn't be bitter. "Talking to the enemy, Rogers?"
Steve apologized, and not very genuinely. It was a low blow at Tony's childishness, Tony could hear it in Steve's tone, but it was also Steve genuinely asking for Tony's company which – was an improvement to say the least. Steve asked for Tony to come sit with him and watch something, and Tony decided to do the grown up thing for once and ignore the Happy thing. He parked it next to Steve on the couch a bit too forcefully and grabbed the remote. "Fine," he said, "but I pick first movie."
Tony's pick didn't go over very well ("It's a kick ass movie. Got cars, explosions, badasses being badass." "The guy's heart was replaced with a battery and he needs to do stupid things to stay alive. No, Tony. It is not a kickass movie."). Steve insisted they watch something more agreeable ("I'm not watching any of Darcy's rom-coms, Steve. I'm just not. You want to watch them, you can join the little woman's group. They meet every third Thursday of the month so they can sync up their cycles for the optimal emotional experience. You'd fit right in. It's Matthew McConaughey month." "For a guy who wants no part of it, you sure know a lot about it." "Gotta prepare for the apocalypse, my friend. You gotta be prepared.") They ended up watching Mary Poppins. It was Clint's DVD, Tony suspected. He also suspected Barton left it in the room on purpose because he'd guessed how much Tony hated it.
Tony found his eye twitching on the first musical number and soon discovered that burying his face in Steve's shoulder made the pain of "A Spoonful of Sugar" go away. "Wake me up when the torture ends." Steve's shoulder shook. "Amused at my pain, Rogers? I'd've never taken you for a sadist. Whatever would Uncle Sam say?"
"He'd tell you to keep quiet and let Captain America watch his movie."
"He probably would. You're his favorite." Tony rolled his face slightly over so that he could breathe better. "You enjoy this, old man?"
"I'm not sure. Someone keeps talking over it."
"Like you weren't ragging on how implausible Crank 2 was throughout the entire thing. Your whole life is a movie stunt, Cap. It's not that implausible."
Steve was silent for a while and, if it wasn't for the fact that Tony could feel the lack of tension in his body, Tony would've thought that'd he'd said something stupid and angered him. Eventually, after another excruciating musical number, Steve commented that "If you don't like the movie, you can go to your lab. I don't mind."
Tony didn't like the movie, but Steve liked it or was trying to like it, and that was just enough to convince Tony that the right thing to do was to stay the course. "Nah," Tony said. "I'm comfortable. Just, don't poke me if I snore." Pepper used to do that; Tony though it was probably retribution for him getting drunk.
Some indeterminate time later, Steve shook him awake and told him it was safe. He also grimaced at the obscene amount of drool Tony behind. "Tony, that's gross."
"What? Don't wanna swap spit with me again?" It probably wasn't the best response and, in hindsight, Tony would blame it on still being groggy. But groggy or not, it wasn't a response Steve appreciated. He less than gently extricated Tony from his shoulder and retreated to his bedroom, shoulders set and stiff, stride hard on the floor. The television, now showing an infomercial for a super duper mop, droned on in the background. It was the mop that could mop up mud, blood, and cat vomit.
Tony dropped down on the couch, the seat still warm from where Steve had been sitting. "Wow. Way to ruin the mood, smart guy," Tony berated himself. He buried his face into the couch cushion and forced himself back to sleep.
Barton woke him up by emptying the popcorn bowl over his head. "Meeting in an hour, grampa," he said. "Coulson sent me personally to remind you. I'm gonna raid the kitchen while you ignore my message." Tony pitched him the finger and rolled over.
The next time Tony was brought into the waking world, it was by a hand on his knee. Tony flexed automatically and the hand went away. "Meeting's in twenty," Steve said. "You should show up for once."
When Steve showed no signs of leaving, Tony opened his eyes, yawned, stretched, and rolled over on to his back. Steve didn't budge, so Tony ended up with a leg draped over his lap and another resting against his back. The warmth that radiated from Steve was comfortable; in his sleepy haze, Tony pressed his leg closer. "I got kicked out of the last one I bothered going to."
"You weren't kicked out, Tony. It ended by the time you finally got there."
Same thing. Tony shrugged.
"We could get some lunch after." Steve leaned back as he spoke. Tony thought of the way Steve had pressed against him last month and felt the ghost of the ache in his chest. Tony noticed how still Steve sat against him, and focused he was on Tony. Tony knew a thing or two about focus; he knew how to stare at something and take it apart without ever lifting a finger. Assemble, disassemble, and select the parts that matter. What parts of him did Steve think were so important?
Tony sat up. Steve didn't move.
Tony had a mind for details. Once he saw something, he didn't forget it, if it was important enough. With some things, he didn't get to decide what was important and what wasn't. He could remember every single one of Pepper's facial expressions, but none as vividly as he remembered the frown on her face as she was disappointed one final time before calling them quits. He remembered the exact words his father said to him when he graduated at the top of his class (there weren't any.) He remembered seeing the way Steve's mouth closed around his own on the streets of New York, remembered the way JARVIS found it important, the way Pepper smiled at Steve when she left Tony in his care.
It was then that Tony realized why Steve was the only Avenger who lived with him.
"Are you in love with me," he asked before he could tell himself not to and in a flash, Steve's eyes rounded.
Everybody loved Steve, including whoever was the deity of opportune exits, for Clint walked by, arm buried in a box of sugary cereal, and shouted "MEETING!" before disappearing out the way he came.
Steve smiled sheepishly and shrugged. "Meeting," he repeated quietly, then shuffled off after Barton.
It was the first meeting Iron Man had attended in over three months, or so the minutes would read once Natasha transcribed them. Tony didn't contribute much, but he wasn't there to contribute, he was there to observe. He didn't care if Coulson gave him a poor participation grade, he was failing the class anyway. He took the seat next to Bruce, who was sat directly across from Steve, and spent the duration of the meeting staring. He didn't even bother to open the folder they provided him with. For his part, Steve sat poised and politely attending to Agent Hill. Only once did Steve's eyes stray slightly over right. Tony had smiled and Steve had quickly looked away. Tony watched Steve's fingers on the table and, not for the first time, wished he was taller so that he could reach out and kick Cap from under the table.
"So what's wrong with you," Tony asked once their lunches had been acquired. On second thought, it wasn't the best question to open with, but Tony rarely employed his brain-to-mouth filter. He decided to take a bite of his hot dog and chew very slowly.
But the silence also gave Steve the time to think and, sure enough, Steve countered with a question that hit too close to home. "Tony, is this about Pepper?"
"No!" Tony defended, gesticulating a fit too forcefully to seem sincere. Steve paused, moving over closer to the building to allow for pedestrians to pass by. "Not buying it?" Tony asked. Steve leveled his gaze. "Yeah, I'm not buying it either to be honest."
Tony regarded the remains of his hot dog. It was better than looking back at Steve. He wasn't very hungry anymore, unfortunately, and there wasn't a bum to charitably donate it to. He considered tossing it to the ground, but Steve would probably fine him for littering. Tony really didn't want to hold it anymore, though, so he did the next best thing he could thing of: he shoved it at Steve. "Here. Hold this," he said, and then, after Steve obediently held on, he stuffed his hands into his pockets.
"Did Pepper say anything to you?"
"About," Steve looked down at the hot dog in his hands. "Nothing. Never mind. Are you gonna finish this?"
"Why? Are you?"
Steve made a face. "I don't like relish."
"Have you been talking to Pepper?"
"What would I talk to her about," Steve asked as he turned around and walked a few paces to deposit Tony's half-eaten hot dog into the trash.
"Me. Everybody talks to Pepper about me."
"That's not very nice of them."
"But, were you to be unconscious at the time or, hypothetically momentarily disposed and in the hospital and Pepper were to ask about you . . ." Steve trailed off, and then, mirroring Tony, he shrugged.
Against better judgment, Tony took two steps forward into Steve's space. "What did you tell her?"
"That I was worried about you."
Steve's mouth set into a thin line. "When I asked you out to lunch, I didn't think you'd be given me the second degree."
"No, but you'd like second base, wouldn't you?"
The thing that Tony hadn't learned to do yet was not take a threatening tone with Steve. Any sort of condensing authorial tone activated some defense mechanism in Steve that had been fine-tuned over years as a sickly kid from Brooklyn. Steve immediately squared his shoulders and leered down at Tony. "I don't think this conversation is best had out on the streets."
"Let's take it inside then."
If the penthouse had a door that could slam, Tony would have slammed the door. "You're crazy for seeing anything remotely interesting or likable in me. I'm the guy you hate, Steve. I'm rich, spoiled, arrogant, flashy, selfish, loose, narcissistic, and self-destructive. Also possible still recovering from some post-traumatic stress injury from three years ago since my way of dealing with said emotions was to build a suit of armor, kick ass, and take names. Surely this came up in your consultations with Pepper. She could barely stand me and we've been inseparable for, oh, eight years or so. How long have you been thawed out? Six months? Eight?"
Steve followed closely at his heels. "You think I can't handle your antics? I led armies, Tony. I can put up with your irresponsible stupid heroics."
"You were pissy for weeks," Tony dismissed, ducking into the kitchen.
"I'm serious about this, Tony." Steve paused in the doorway. He sighed loudly and ran a hand through his hair. He was calming himself, switching tactics. "You – You like spending time with me don't you?"
"Yeah, sure." Tony rooted through the cupboards absently.
"We always do things together, right?"
"Yeah, sure." He selected the cute little frog mug Darcy left behind from one of the girls' nights and poured himself a cup of coffee.
"Yeah, Steve, I get where this is going."
"And I think you're an idiot," Tony answered with his head inside the fridge looking for the half and half. It was hiding behind Steve's giant quart of orange juice. He made a pleased noise and added a healthy amount to his cup.
"If you don't want to—"
"I didn't say I didn't want to," Tony cut in, adding in honey (because processed sugar isn't healthy for you, old man). "I just said you were crazy."
"You want to?"
Despite being the obvious response, the question caught Tony off guard. "I, uh. Hmm." Tony took a tentative sip. It was hot, but a burnt tongue was better than having no answer. He looked over at Steve, taking another sip to buy himself time. "You don't think it'd be weird?"
Steve shook his head. "Not any weirder than what we have already."
"It might be weird later."
"That's thinking too far ahead."
"That's what I do, Steve. I think about the future. I live in the future. I make products that you're going to want to buy in the near future. I've got to be a step ahead or I fail." Tony could see it now, it ending as they began, on the wrong foot with caustic words, inflated egos, and a broken team.
So maybe it was about Pepper, but that didn't make it any less real of a concern now did it?
"I know I'm not exactly the future these days, but do you think you could give me a thought?" Steve shifted uncomfortably. It was an awkward look for a man who should have all the confidence in the world – not just because he was "smoking hot" (drinking out of Darcy's mug made one think in Darcyisms, apparently.) but because all that goodness on the outside was just a reflection of the goodness inside. (And that wasn't just from knowledge of Erskine's formula, either.)
So maybe Tony had thought this through and maybe there were a few options. Steve should probably know. Leaning against the counter space closest to Steve, Tony answered, "Already did, weeks ago. When you kissed me while I was unconscious and JARVIS wouldn't let me forget it."
"Okay, then," Steve said, and then he was smiling, the kind of smile he got when the Dodgers won a ballgame, or some artist Tony'd never heard of had a gallery showing downtown.
If this ended up like Pepper and him, Tony would never forgive himself.
Rhodey was in town for some military presentation. Tony got a text three days ago, then a voicemail yesterday. It wasn't like he was ignoring Rhodey or anything. It was that Tony had been busy at the time. The text came in the middle of dinner with Steve at some greasy diner joint that had been around when Steve's grandparents were in diapers. The voicemail was in the middle of Movie Night Friday in which Steve collected everyone's phones and put them in a locked drawer. Team building, Steve called it. Tony called it the two hours he could make Steve blush in front of everyone.
Tony would catch up with Rhodey sooner or later. He was in town for a week, after all.
And then the mysterious robots showed up for round two. They made one hell of an entrance, too, flooding Times Square like it was New Year's Eve, blowing stuff up, demanding things, the typical bad guy lines really. The Avengers didn't find it very funny, though.
"There's at least triple their number this time," Black Widow reported from her preliminary scout of the perimeter.
Hawkeye confirmed from his position, adding that their shells were more durable than last time, with fewer weak points for his arrows to pierce. "Doesn't mean I can't take 'em down, just gonna be tougher. Someone rile up Banner yet? I'm thinking a good old fashion' Hulk smashin' 'd do the most damage."
"These robots are smart, though. They could easily outrun and avoid the Hulk." That was how Tony had gotten into his little mess last time. "Maybe Thor could go bowling, though."
"I want everyone on full alert. Let's be smart about this. I've called in reinforcements. They should give us the extra push we need to get this done without any damage like the last time."
"That was directed towards me, wasn't it?"
"Just get us some reading on these guys, Iron Man."
"Eye in the sky. Got it, Cap. So who's the third wheel? Not the kid with the arachnid problem, please. He's gotta hit puberty before he can take out bad guys."
It wasn't the kid. It was, as Tony should have expected, Rhodey.
As soon as the suit showed up on his rader, Tony loudly complained to Steve. From the look of things, he'd gotten his suit upgraded again and not by Tony .
"Someone needs to keep you in line while I'm busy saving the day," Steve explained.
There was an explosion, presumably Cap did something impressive, and Tony started heading towards it. "I don't need a babysitter." It was obvious that Steve thought Tony was going to play martyr again. Please, like he would pull the same stunt twice; how passé.
There's a smaller explosion to his left: a robot had been blown up. "Tell that to your babysitter," Rhodey buzzed on his comm.
"I hate you," Tony said.
"You're welcome," Rhodey said.
Tony couldn't get Rhodey out of the suit fast enough. It was terrible, absolutely terrible, and it just wouldn't do. He told Rhodey as much, and then promptly kicked him out to have some alone time with the suit. "Come back in an hour," he'd told him. "You'll either find a shiny new suit or me crying with my head down despairing for humanity."
He'd managed to keep it together, but barely. With each layer he took off, each knockoff projectile he uncovered, a little piece of him died inside. His poor suit, his poor beautiful suit. He'd set her to rights, of course, in due time. An hour really wasn't going to be enough. He'd just gotten to the roots of her problems (An hour? What was he thinking?) when, like clockwork, Rhodey returned.
"How many times do I have to tell you?," Tony began as he heard the entrance code being punched in and the door opening. "You want upgrades, I'll give you upgrades. Whoever the hell your weapons supplier is now isn't worth shit. Fire his ass."
"It's me, Tony," Steve said.
Whoops. Tony decided to ignore everything he'd said and looked up in false cheer that quickly become genuine when he saw the box of pizza in Steve's hands. "Gimme!" Tony eloquently articulated, complete with grabby hands motion.
Steve shook his head and told Tony to wash his hands first.
"What are you my mother?"he asked. In response to the rather ticked-off-motherly-look Steve leveled at him, Tony placed his hands on his hips. "You know people do relationships differently in the twenty-first century. Just because we're dating doesn't mean you can treat me like your trophy and expect me to do every little thing you tell me like a good little housewife."
The twitch of Steve's lips told Tony he was amused. Tony mentally played back what he just said and winced. "For the record, I am operating on very little sleep and physical exhaustion so I cannot be held accountable for what I just said."
Steve cocked his head to the side.
"Fine. You get one retort, because I'm nice like that. Now hand over the pizza." Tony hopped up on the workbench and, when the pizza wasn't forthcoming, wiped his hands on the nearest thing that could be used as a towel. Which was incidentally his own t-shirt. Steve did not approve. "Come on, you're killing me here. Don't be a tease, you're bad enough of one in bed."
Two months was still apparently not long enough to make these sorts of jokes. Steve wouldn't meet his eyes. Tony grinned. "Could you be any cuter? Seriously. You're killing me. Hand over the grub and c'm'ere." He patted the space next to him after doing a quick calculation if the bench would hold their weight.
Steve finally relented. "You know this is to share, right?" he said as he approached Tony, holding the box away from his reach.
"Of course," Tony said, but he ended up eating most of it anyway.
"You're fixing War Machine, then?" Steve nodded at the disassembled armor.
"Like I said. The modifications are shit. Army thinks they can do tech better than I can. Just because Stark isn't playing with the weapons deals any more doesn't mean I'm gonna leave my baby in the dust."
"Didn't you donate the War Machine to the military?"
"Rhodey stole it."
"That's not the story I heard."
Tony stuffed an entire slice into his mouth and chewed loudly in protest.
"It's a good suit, whatever the other guys did to it. Rhodes managed to keep up in training."
"When did you train with Rhodey in the suit? I took it off him as soon as we were done on scene."
"He's been in town for nearly a week, Tony, and he's a satellite member of S.H.I.E.L.D. It was kind of my duty to see what he was made of."
How Steve managed to find time for Rhodey before Tony had, Tony couldn't figure.
"Rhodes is a good man. I can see why you like him so much. He's good to you."
"Whatever slander he spread, it was all true but I contest it." Tony grabbed another pizza slice and dug in. "What did he say?"
"You always assume people speak negatively of you."
"That's because they do. If it's not inflation in the press, it's the hurtful truth. You get used to it." Steve was giving him a look; he could feel it. He ignored it with more pizza. Steve compensated by pressing closer, touching him from shoulder to elbow. He watched Tony devour the pizza without a word, and it never occurred to Tony that he might want more than the two scrawny pieces he managed to scuffle out of the box while Tony was busy licking his fingers until after Tony had finished off the stray pieces of cheese that'd been left behind in the box.
"Oh," he said when he saw Steve's puppy face. "Guess I was hungrier than I thought?" He offered the last bit of sauce that was running down his thumb. Steve shook his head. "See what I mean about being a tease?" Tony said, licking the marinara off himself as Steve rolled his eye at him.
That's when Steve's stomach rumbled. "Right," Tony said, hopping off the bench. "I'm going in the shower, you're changing, and then we're going to Katz's."
"I don't have to change," Steve argued, pointedly not turning down the offer for food. "I'm not the one covered in pizza sauce and elbow grease."
Tony refrained from pointing out that elbow grease was metaphorical and therefore impossible to be covered in. "I will not be seen with you in public in that sweatshirt," he said instead, and promptly shushed Steve out.
Tony had showered, dressed, and was ducking in to sneak just five more minutes with the War Machine when he ran into Rhodey.
"Just the man I was looking for," Rhodey said. Tony inwardly groaned. He didn't like Rhodey's tone. "Don't give me that," Rhodey chastised. "You've been holed up in your shop for days. I'd thought you and I should have a catch up chat. Pepper tells me you nearly killed yourself again. Don't tell me your were acting out because of the break up."
"Way to cut to chase, sweet pea."
"I'm your unofficial babysitter."
"Don't need one. I have a Coulson."
"Don't give me that look. It makes me feel bad about myself."
"Pepper told me–"
"You know you don't have to talk to me through Pepper, right?"
"It's usually the only way I can get any information about how you're doing. You don't answer my calls."
"You don't call me."
"I do, Tony. You're too busy to notice."
"Listen, Rhodey." Tony held up a palm. "Let's not get into this, okay. I'm sorry that I'm ignorant that I've been ignoring you, I'm glad to have you on the team for a little while until you're called back to Washington, but I was just on my way to lunch--"
"Great. I'm starving," Rhodey said before Tony could finish his sentence. "And we do need to talk. The great Tony Stark doesn't apologize unless held at gunpoint." Rhodey looped an arm around Tony's back and pressed him forward. They passed by the kitchen where Steve had been sitting waiting for Tony. Steve, bless his little patriotic heart, didn't say a word at Rhodey's offer for him to join them for lunch besides "Gee, thanks. I'd love to."
Tony ordered only a coffee, having eaten an entire large pizza. Steve told him to get a hot dog at least, but Tony said he'd be fine. Steve ordered a Reuben and chocolate egg cream for himself and Rhodey'd asked for the Brisket and orange juice. He'd volunteered to scout out a table in the afternoon rush crowd – the thing about Katz's was that not even Tony Stark could buy himself a permanent table: Too many stars were as regular as the city dwellers, tourists, and Food Network crews.
Still, there were perks to being Iron Man. "It's on the house," the owner said as he handed over their meal. "Thanks for the work back at the Centre, Captain." Okay. So there were perks to being with Captain America. Except that Steve would never accept such a thing, and paid the man anyway, plus a fifty dollar tip. Rather, Tony paid him after receiving an elbow from the patron saint of independent small business owners.
"The place has been around since before I was born, Tony. I'd prefer if they stayed in business long after I was dead."
"One free meal isn't gonna cripple them, Steve; and don't talk like that."
They settled into the table Rhodey'd held for them and Tony did some work on his phone while his two best soldiers stuffed their face as if they were deprived of food for a year. He didn't give food a second thought until he registered the look on Steve's face. It was a face that said Oh yeah that's so good and More, Tony and Tony knew he just had to have a bite. Steve always knew when Tony was looking at him. Today was no different. With a grudging sigh, Steve leaned over and held out the remaining half of the hot, dripping piece of goodness. Tony didn't even think before he steadied Steve's hand with his own and took a bite.
"Oh. My. God," Rhodey said, and Tony chalked it up to him being really impressed with the french fries.
"I know," Tony said. "Wow that's a good sandwich, are you gonna finish that?" His question was directed at Steve, who had a lovely smudge of Russian dressing on his cheek. Tony wanted it.
"Oh no no no no no."
With Tony being distracted by Rhodey, Steve saw his opportunity to resume eating his sandwich. Which he did. Tony frowned and stole his coleslaw in retribution. "What?"
"Me and Steve?"
Tony watched as Steve lowered his sandwich, hand hovering over the top guarding it from Tony fingers. "James," Steve started, but Rhodey wouldn't let him continue.
"Don't need a word from you, Captain. I'd like one with Mr. No-nothing-new-going-on-here Stark. No, don't you start with me. I have one thing to say to you, Tony, and you better listen hard: You hurt him and I will kill you."
Tony was confused. "Shouldn't you be saying that to Steve? As my best friend, I think you should be saying that to Steve."
"Seriously Tony, you mess things up with Captain America and I'll find another weapons tech to upgrade my suit again. It'll be so tacky, you'll die of embarrassment on the spot."
Tony rather thought Steve would have been the one dying from embarrassment, but Steve wasn't embarrassed at all. In fact, he was downright defensive. "I don't think that'll be necessary, Colonel," he said.
Rhodey leaned back in his seat, the initial shock wearing off (or rather, Steve having intimidated it elsewhere). "So do I get to hear the story or what?"
Tony looked to Steve, who shrugged. "Well," Tony said, twirling his fork in the cup of cole slaw, "it all started with a little friendly CPR between friends . . ."