“There was an apple core in the middle of the hall floor.”
Tony Stark looked up from his latest schematic, his face lit by the blue glow of the holographic projection. Steve Rogers stared at him from the other side, his expression intent. “Oooookay,” Tony said, drawing out the word for as long as it took him to digest the information.
Steve stared at him, and Tony wondered what the hell he was supposed to do here. Steve had this way of looking at him with expectations, expectations that Tony was well aware he was incapable of fulfilling. “Did you pick it up?” he asked at last.
Steve gave him a faint frown. “Of course,” he said, and he sounded a little insulted. “But the question, Tony, is why it was on the floor to begin with.”
Tony opened his mouth. Closed it. “I didn't leave it there. I don't-” He made a gesture with one hand, both searching for words and discarding a section of his schematic at the same time. “Eat.”
Steve's brow furrowed. “You need to eat.”
“Yeah, I'll get on that. Right away. Really, it's a good idea, I'm glad you brought it up, Cap, I'm going to get right on that, are we done now?” He knew his voice sounded hopeful, because a worried looking Steve Rogers made him very nervous.
“No.” Steve tipped his head to the side. “There was an apple core in the middle of the hallway, Tony. On the floor. Someone in this house just... Dropped an apple core in the middle of the hallway and walked away from it. Why would someone do that?”
There was a trick question here somewhere, and Tony wasn't quite sure how to handle it. “Because they didn't notice?” he said at last. “Steve, are we doing something here, I'm not sure what's going on, because this feels like something, but I'm not sure how I could possibly be getting something out of an abandoned apple core.”
“Doesn't it bother you?” Steve asked.
“Not so much, no. First of all, I didn't see it, and second of all, if I had seen it, I still probably wouldn't have seen it, because I don't pay attention to, you know, things like that.” Tony frowned at the hologram. “It's an apple core, Steve. It's not that big of a deal.” Tony tapped the design. “Jarvis, strip out the energy relays and let me see it without the wiring.”
“It is a big deal,” Steve said, speaking over the AI's response. “Sorry, Jarvis,” he added, his head tipped back. “But this is getting out of control, Tony. There was a wet towel under the coffee table in the lounge this morning, plus the remains of a couple of meals and a hat filled with what appears to be salsa. A coffee cup growing mold in the hall bathroom, and six more on the kitchen counters. Every pair of shoes that anyone's worn in the last three days in a pile by the main elevator bank. About twenty pens were dumped on the kitchen floor-”
“That one might've been me,” Tony said in a rushed undertone, the words mostly lost in his coffee cup. Judging by the very disappointed look that Steve leveled at him, damn Super Soldier Enhanced Hearing had picked up on it anyway. Goddamn serum.
It wasn't a question, but Tony answered it anyway. “Because I was in a rush and needed one that worked, and once I found one that worked, I kinda forgot about the others?” he said, his voice rising in a 'oops' tone at the end. “It was just one corner of the kitchen, there was plenty of space that wasn't covered in discarded pens.”
“There really shouldn't be any floor that is covered in discarded pens,” Steve explained, the words slow and gentle, like he was talking to a small, temperamental child. Tony would resent that more if it didn't feel kind of appropriate.
“It's fine, the cleaning team'll be here today,” Tony said, and his coffee was cold. Making a face, he put the cup on top of a stack of folders, which shifted dangerously under the new weight. Steve was staring at him, and Tony paused. “What?”
Reaching over, Steve collected the cup, and the other four that were there as well. “This isn't right,” he said, and his voice was so STEVE at that moment, so stern and concerned and righteous that Tony winced. “I'm not saying that I expect us to do heavy duty cleaning, Tony, but when you hire people to take care of everything then there's no sense of personal responsibility.”
“Yeah, I like that. In that I am so very bad at personal responsibility.” He was bad at all kinds of responsibility, but he hated bringing that up. Steve got that pinched, unhappy look on his face that Tony never knew how to deal with. Most of the time he either threw something more broken than himself in Steve's path and ran, or just offered to buy the Dodgers again. Neither of the gambits worked well, but Tony was out of ideas.
He took a deep breath and just went for it. “Steve, we're off saving the world most of the time and when we're not, we've got work to do, important work. I have-” He looked down at his current project and as God was his witness, he could not remember what he'd been building. It had seemed very, very important at the time, but now he had no clue what the tangle of wires and metal and, huh, was that radioactive material, was supposed to be.
He should probably figure that out. Before he accidentally built another bomb. Or AI. AI would cause more problems, but Coulson flipped out about the IEDs. Guy walked around mumbling about collateral damage all the goddamn time, and Tony was sick of being threatened with a taser for no good reason.
“We're busy. It's normal that things are going to get a little messy.” He pulled up the plans and studied them. “Hey, it's a toaster!”
“What?” Steve asked.
“Nothing, never mind, no problems here, why the hell did I think I needed plutonium isotopes on a toaster, really, even for me, that's overkill, so much more subtle to just go with a more stable electron pulse and the result's the same and no one likes radioactive toast.” He pointed a screwdriver in Steve's direction. “No one.”
“That's true,” Steve said, and his eyes were warm and amused for just a second, and then what Tony had been saying sank in. “Wait, did you say plutonium?”
“Don't worry about it, really, got it under control.” The shell of the toaster beeped at him and it was a loud, angry beep. “Oh, c'mon, really? Jarvis, did I install an AI in the toaster?”
“That does sound like something that you would do, sir,” Jarvis said, droll as always. “At some point, I do expect to have you wandering the lab cackling, 'it's alive,' but then again, you usually wait for an audience for your truly impassioned moments of drama.”
“Jarvis, do you want to go live in the nice toaster? Because that seems like an appropriate time-out now that you have become inexplicably bitchy,” Tony told him, grinning like the madman that he was. “I cannot figure out where these personality defects of yours come from.”
“To paraphrase a relevant PSA, I learned them from watching you. Would you prefer to remove that panel in a way that does not result in an explosion and possible loss of limbs?” Jarvis said as Tony loosened a seam.
“Bitchy, bitchy, bitchy,” Tony said. “Hey, toaster, are you alive? Did I get that far into the install process?” He gave it an experimental poke, and it chittered at him. “Fan-fuckng-tastic. Fine. We have a self-aware toaster, that'll, that'll be something, right? I mean, sure, the Baxter building's got a portal to the negative zone and all that, but we've got a cranky toaster. With my luck it'll be allergic to raisin bread or something and then we'll end up fighting it off with butter knives and a box of stale Pop Tarts.”
He looked up and Steve had his head in his hands and his shoulders were shaking. Which could be laughter, or tears, or an approaching nervous breakdown, it was hard to tell sometimes. They all looked the same until the screaming started. Deciding he'd pushed his luck far enough, Tony put his tools down with care, ignoring it when the toaster seemed to skitter away from the screwdriver.
Huh, he'd given it wheels. Why in God's name would he have- Oh. Yeah. Toast delivery.
He needed to stop engineering when sleep-deprived.
“Yes, you do,” Steve said, raising his head at last, and, yep, Tony was doing that thing where he couldn't tell his interior monologue from what he was saying aloud, that was always embarrassing. “Yes, it is. For both of us.”
“I'm going to concentrate on forming sentences I intend for you to hear now,” Tony said, pushing both hands through his hair.
Steve stared. “There is now motor oil in your hair.”
“Yeah, that happens. A lot, it's fine, don't worry about it, there's oil everywhere, Steve, it's kinda my thing.” From his side, Dummy offered a rag that was dirtier than his hands. “I don't see how you think this will help,” he said to the robot, who made an ineffectual attempt to swipe at Tony's face. “You are- Stop! No, I don't think-” Sighing, he took the cloth, mostly so Dummy would stop trying to help. “Thanks.” The robotic arm slumped, and Tony sighed. “No, no, it's okay, really, thank you, thank you for helping, that was good of you, Jesus, do not try to clean Steve, that is off-limits! No, he does not-” Tony facepalmed as Steve was dusted with a filthy cloth.
Steve, being Steve, kept perfectly still, grinning as the demented bot rolled around him, arm swiping a nearly black rag on his arms and over his head. “Thank you,” he said to Dummy. “See, Tony, Dummy knows that we need to take pride in our living quarters.”
“Dummy was created by a seventeen year old on half a hours sleep, about six gallons of rum and a cup of coffee filled with various biological contaminants because I kept forgetting it was moldy and drinking from it anyway,” Tony pointed out. “No wonder he's a little special.” Dummy chirped and whirred at him and missed the edge of the counter and nearly tipped himself over. “Yeah, Dummy, it's fine, I'm pretty spatially challenged myself, wanna meet the new toaster?” He picked up the objecting toaster and set it down on the edge of the workbench. “Say hi.”
The two machines immediately started whirring at each other, and it was adorable to watch, so Tony settled back to grin at them. Remembering Steve was in the room, he glanced up in time to find Captain America, wearing one of his horrific plaid button down shirts and khakis with creases down the legs but no less heroic for his poor taste in clothing, picking up his lab.
“No. No, no, no,” Tony said, scampering after him to collect coffee cups and pizza boxes and one of Clint's arrows and some patent applications that he'd been too bored to fill out and instead had made into paper airplanes and the blender cup that might've been moldy or might've just had green sludge residue inside, and a couple of car magazines from Steve's hands. “No.”
Steve grinned at him, because he was Steve, and he took this as Help, not Denial, and he was still touching things, Tony's things, things that could potentially be deadly or embarrassing or just secret in the way that Tony's things always were. Tony resisted the urge to sweep everything in the lab into a giant pile and then perch on top of it, hissing and snarling like a frustrated dragon with its rather pathetic hoard.
“Steve, no,” he said, hugging his things, his precious, precious stuff against his chest. “I know what you're trying to do here, really, I do, but no.”
Steve considered him for a long, silent moment, then sighed. “Fine, Tony. This is your space, I get that. But the common areas, I will not have us treating the common areas like a dumping ground. If we don't have pride in our home, then that carries over to how we treat one another. It's a matter of respect, and I will not allow us to forget that.”
“You say things like that an I can almost see that flag fluttering behind you as an appropriate backdrop,” Tony said, and Steve looked hurt, just for a second, and Tony rushed on before the expression had a chance to set. “No, no, not making fun of you, it's just you're so earnest about these things, you really believe this stuff, and it's very disorienting.”
He dumped everything on the workbench, being careful to avoid the toaster. “Look, Steve, they're grown adults, and super heroes, and very diverse personalities. What're you going to do, call a family meeting and explain that you're instituting chores or you're cutting off our allowance?” For a moment, he was so busy sorting out a mess of wires from the remains of a box of Fruit Loops that he didn't realize that the silence was stretching out in a very worrying manner.
Tony's head snapped up, and he realized Steve was grinning at him. A full-on, lots of bright white teeth, happy as a clam grin. Tony's stomach did a nosedive. “No,” he said. “No. Absolutely not, Steven Rogers, this is my house and I am not allowing you to do this, I absolutely forbid you from doing this, do you hear me?”
“It's a family meeting,” Steve explained to everyone, and Tony resisted the urge to slam his forehead off of the kitchen table.
Someone, and it was probably Clint, Tony liked to blame Clint for this sort of thing, choked back a laugh. Natasha clearly blamed Clint, too, because there was the solid sound of a sharp toed shoe slamming into a shin, and then he winced. Natasha, her expression never changing, nodded at Steve. “About what?” she asked.
“About the fact that we need to have a little more respect for our living conditions,” Steve said. “Tony is allowing us to stay here-”
“I would just like to say, I don't give a damn about the condition of our living,” Tony said, raising a hand. “Not a single one.”
Steve gave him a look. A 'I am expecting your support in this because it is important' look. Sighing, Tony slumped back in his chair. “Steve thinks we are filthy animals that live like slovenly frat boys,” he explained.
“I've seen your lab,” Coulson said from the far end of the table. He was bent over a stack of forms. “So I can safely say that's an insult to slovenly frat boys.”
“Feel free to go back to that sterile cubicle with a bed that SHIELD calls personal quarters if you don't like it,” Tony said, his tone saccharine.
“I am no longer allowed to chose my living quarters,” Coulson said, one eyebrow arching. “Something about a pizza delivery boy, exploding arrows, a magic spell, anchovies and a bottle of illegal moonshine.”
“In my defense,” was as far as Clint got before Coulson smacked him upside the back of the head. Clint grinned, taking that as affection. Which, knowing Coulson, it probably was.
“In the end, I am stuck here, and Steve is right. This place has been getting worse and worse over the past few weeks.”
“Aye, as greatly as it pains me to agree, we have failed to keep our house in order,” Thor intoned. He was polishing Mjolnir with his feet upon the table.
“So what did you have in mind? A Kaper chart?” Bruce asked. When everyone just looked at him, confused or curious, he sighed. “Oh, that's right, none of you are normal people who went to camp as a child.”
“I resent that. My parents were more than happy to ship me off to camp for months at a time,” Tony said, cheerfully, and Bruce rolled his eyes, and Steve got that pinched look on his face again which made Tony nervous.
“You went to rich people camp, didn't you?” Bruce asked.
“Duh,” Tony said.
“What's a Kaper chart?” Clint asked. He was rolling an arrowhead around his hand, his long, graceful fingers dancing in mid-air.
“A listing of chores,” Coulson supplied. “Usually used by Scout troops to keep track of what each camper or Scout is assigned to do. It's set up so that the jobs can be traded off every so often, but it maintains a sense of ownership and responsibility. Usually used for ten year olds.” He slapped his file shut. “Sounds perfect for us.”
“No,” Tony said, his voice firm. “No. I pay for a cleaning crew to come in and handle this, just pick up your dirty underwear off of the kitchen table and stop shoving empty cookie boxes underneath the couch when there is a perfectly good trash can like five feet away, and yes, Thor, I know that one was you and-”
“There was underwear on the table?” Steve said, and the tone had a heavy dose of 'what the hell is wrong with you people?' that he was too polite to put into words. “Who put underwear on the kitchen table?”
“I didn't check it for a name label, Steve,” Tony snapped. “I don't know, and I don't care, I'm just saying that we can do this without having to humiliate ourselves in front of visitors by having a chart on the goddamn wall like we're all wearing shorts and hats that say 'Happy Funtime Fuckitall Camp' on the front.”
“That does not seem like an appropriate name for a place one sends children,” Thor said, disapproval on his face, at the same time that Steve said, “Tony, language, really, there's a lady present.” Natasha looked amused, and Tony lost it.
“It isn't a real place!” Tony all but howled. “It is what you are making my tower into! I do not want to live at 'Happy Funtime Fuckitall Camp,' people. I resent the hell out of this! I pay for a cleaning crew, and I don't leave my boxers on the kitchen table!”
“Oh, not mine, then,” Natasha said, and everyone stopped to stare at her.
“While Tony's brain is rebooting from that,” Coulson said, because Steve was bright red and stammering and Clint was grinning at Natasha in a way that boded poorly for him next time they sparred, and Thor was clearly trying to remember if the boxers in question were his, and Bruce was ignoring them all, “Does anyone else have anything to say before I have a chore chart installed?”
Tony shook his head, hard, knowing it was fine. It was going to be fine, because there was no way that the others would put up with this nonsense, and he'd be safe he wouldn't have to deal with stupid team bonding exercises, and he could retreat back into his filthy workshop to catch the plague from some dirty rag and wait for the paid professionals to handle things.
He sat back, arms crossed over his chest, smirking at Steve, who looked disappointed. Tony steeled himself against the pang of guilt in the general vicinity of his arc reactor. He hated feeling guilty. Especially Steve inspired guilt. It was particularly painful stuff.
Trying to distract himself, he glanced away and made the mistake of meeting Clint's gaze. Hawkeye was staring at him with narrowed eyes, his patented thousand yard sniper stare. Tony felt a brief stirring of worry as a smile bloomed on Clint's face. Slowly, he shook his head no, and Clint's grin only got bigger and brighter.
“Sounds like a great idea,” he said, and Tony glared at him. Traitor. Bastard. Kissass. He could tell by the way Clint's eyes were dancing that the sniper was going to stick his tongue out at Tony as soon as they left the room.
“I will end you, Barton,” he said under his breath, and Clint made kissy faces at him, clearly unconcerned, despite the fact that Tony knew where he slept.
Actually, now that he thought about it, it was possible he didn't know where Barton was sleeping, the guy seemed to be moving around the tower very late at night and very early in the morning. He was being sneaky again, and a sneaky sniper made Tony nervous.
“Thank you, Clint,” Steve said, ignoring Tony with ease. “Natasha?”
Natasha was on the phone, speaking in low tones with someone, but she met Steve's eyes with a single raised eyebrow and a crisp nod.
“I'm fine with it, too,” Bruce said. “I prefer my work to be uncontaminated, and unlike your demented machines,” he added to Tony, “my work can be irreparably damaged by a decomposing doughnut someone decided to hide in the air ventilation system.”
Tony resisted the urge to go to the kitchen and hug his new toaster. “My machines aren't demented,” he said, a little hurt on behalf of his robots. “Sure, they're not particularly stable, but really, who in this tower is?”
“You built a toaster that resents bagels,” Clint pointed out. “Which is kind of a flaw. You know. FOR A TOASTER.”
“Bagels are hard to toast,” Tony explained. “You'd resent them, too.”
“Your continued insistence upon building yourself friends is getting a bit creepy, Stark,” Natasha said, and Tony couldn't hold back a wince at that. She ignored him and held the phone out to Thor. “Here. It's Jane.”
Thor lit up, wide grin and wide eyes and everything except a wagging tail. His resemblance to an adolescent golden retriever and the fact that he did not make fun of Tony's new toaster were pretty high on the reason that Tony liked him best. He took the phone. “Jane!” he boomed, and everyone at the table flinched, because when Thor boomed, he made some serious noise.
Thor listened to whatever Jane had to say with a very intent expression on his face. Nodding, he made a couple of 'uh-huh' type noises, and then his blue eyes got very wide. “Aye,” he said, slapping a huge hand on the table. “I understand. So I shall do this thing. Thank you, dearest Jane.” He handed the phone back to Natasha. “I have been informed that assisting with such domestic endeavors is considered the mark of an excellent Midgardian mate. As such, it is important that I do my best.”
“That's low,” Clint said to Natasha.
“She's offered me a bounty if I can get him into a ruffled apron of any sort and produce pictures of it,” Natasha said, her lips just curling up at the edges. “It's my favorite kind of money. Easy.”
“And how do you think this is going to be easy?” Clint asked, as Thor bounced his head between the two of them.
“Because you're going to lead by example.”
“I can do this. For half the take.”
“Done.” She extended a hand and Clint shook it.
“Did Clint just agree to wear a ruffled apron?” Tony asked no one in particular.
“He did,” Coulson said, going back to his paperwork. “Natasha, let's keep this dignified, shall we?”
She gave a delicate shrug. “I can only chose the costume. I can't control what they do with it.”
Coulson rubbed his forehead with one hand. “Natasha, the photos.”
“Will be the very soul of discretion,” she agreed.
Steve cleared his throat. “So, since we're all in agreement-”
“No, we're not,” Tony squawked. “I am definitely not in agreement.”
“I have faith that you'll come around,” Steve said, and the words were firm. “Thank you, everyone.”
Tony slumped low in his chair as everyone got up and started to file out of the kitchen. Okay, fine, he thought. Really, it couldn't be that bad. There was no way that Steve would actually find enough busy work to make this stupid idea workable.
True to his word, Coulson had a large dry erase board with a pre-printed grid delivered the next day. True to his word, Steve spent the better part of the day filling it out with almost two dozen simple, clear cut jobs that any of them could do. Tony stared at the lines of Steve's crisp, precise printing, feeling a headache coming on.
Water plants, run dishwasher, fill bird feeder, sweep kitchen floor, make popcorn for Movie Night, Sunday breakfast, collect dirty dishes from common rooms, bring towels to the laundry pick up, call Pepper, make grocery list, clean coffee maker, the list of stupid went on and on.
“Question,” Tony said as the others considered the list. “We have a bird feeder?”
“On the balcony outside the breakfast nook,” Bruce said.
“We're... Feeding the birds. Why would we do that? The only things up here are pigeons. Why would we feed the little winged rat-vermin?”
“I like pigeons,” Steve said, with a warm smile. “They're survivors. Smart and adaptable.”
“Of course you do,” Tony sighed. “And why is 'call Pepper' on that list?”
“Someone calls her every week, might as well make it official,” Coulson explained. He sounded way too amused by this.
“Why are people calling Pepper?” Tony asked, and everyone looked at him as if he was a very slow child, and it was very hard not to stomp his foot and steal their dumb chart. He had access to high explosives and flame throwers. This thing would die. It would die a fiery death.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Clint was writing in 'Feed Hawkeye' on a blank line, and Natasha took the marker out of his hand. He made a grab for it, but she knew him too well and swept his feet out from under him with a flick of her leg. He stumbled backwards and Thor caught him, laughing. Natasha wrote 'Coulson's problem' on the line next to his suggestion.
“I am not his handler any longer,” Coulson objected as Clint laughed. Thor lifted Clint back onto his feet. Clint, smirking, refused to stand upright. “For heaven's sake, do not break the marksman,” Coulson said as Thor gripped Clint under the arms, his huge hands on Clint's ribcage as he lifted the smaller man off of his feet like a toddler. “You have no idea the forms that have to be filled out when he ends up back in medical.”
“It happens often enough,” Clint said, trying and failing to kick Thor in the head. The demigod dodged with a wide grin.
“They've made paperwork that's specifically for you, Clint,” Coulson said. “Down.”
“Can we stay on target, here?” Steve said, tapping the chart with a grin. Thor put Clint down and Clint managed to stay on his feet and they both tried to look innocent. They were both lousy at it, but they made the attempt look charming.
“Great,” Steve said. “Gentlemen and lady, chose your jobs.”
And Tony could not believe they were going along with this. He could not BELIEVE that Coulson was printing his name next to coffee pot duty and laundry reminders and Tuesday meal planning. Natasha was smirking as she promised to water the plants and weed the little plot of flowers and vegetables in the greenhouse that Tony had had installed mostly for tanning purposes, and Hawkeye feeding along with Coulson. Steve was down for calling Pepper this week, and Sunday brunch and making the grocery list, which they would all regret because the man did not like pre-processed foods and wanted them to eat healthy. Thor signed with a flourish for Thursday dinners (always pasta, before movie night, God, Tony loved Thursdays, pasta and movies and the couch as everyone drank cocoa and ate popcorn and yelled at each other over scientific plot holes and bad acting and who in the cast everyone would sleep with), and towel collection. Bruce, with a faint smile, chose to fill the bird feeder and make coffee in the mornings and pick up after movie night. Clint, who could actually cook, he was good at it, with a history of wide travels and making things tasty with next to no ingredients to work with, took the weekend dinners and bot sitting duty if Tony was called out of New York, because he loved Dummy and Butterfingers even if Jarvis did not want him teaching them any more juggling tricks.
And now everyone was looking at Tony, expectant and pitying and annoyed and dismayed by turns, and Steve had such hope on his face that Tony actually flinched from it. “This is stupid,” he snapped out, knowing that he was being childish and still not being able to stop.
Clint rolled his eyes, and leaned over the chart. “I'm adding, 'Stark Hugging Duty,' because someone has been in a damn mood for days.”
“I design your weaponry,” Tony said, all the wrath of a vengeful God in his voice. “I would remind you to pay close consideration to that fact before you piss me off, Barton.”
Smug, Clint grinned and tossed the marker back to the tray. “SHIELD'll get me a bow.”
“You really think you can go back to generic SHIELD weaponry after my custom work?” Tony asked with a smirk. “Or waiting six to eight weeks before they'll let you touch anything they've created? Because they need to test it like the weenies they are?”
“Are you giving him untested weapons?” Steve said, horrified.
Okay, that might've been a mistake. “Noooooo,” Tony said at last, drawing the word out in the hopes that by the time he finished it, Steve will have forgotten what the question was. He wasn't expecting to be that lucky, but hey, he had to try..
“Are you taking untested weaponry from Stark of all people?” Coulson asked Clint, who looked ready to make a break for it.
“No, nope, not a chance,” Clint said.
“Wait, what do you mean 'Stark of all people?'” Tony asked, a little hurt.
“You blow yourself up. A lot,” Bruce said.
“Tis true,” Thor agreed, crossing his arms over his massive chest. “
“Yes, but I'm more careful when it's Clint,” Tony explained.
“You're more careful when it's Clint?” Steve repeated, and there was this horrible, horrible note in his voice that Tony could not figure out, but Steve was making a very pained face at him, and he decided to stop talking before he made this worse. “Are you not careful when it's you?”
Yes, this was a conversation that Tony DID NOT WANT TO BE PART OF. He grabbed the marker and scribbled his initials down next to something, he was pretty sure it was sweeping the kitchen floor, but it could've been adopting war orphans for all he knew, and also, he didn't care. There was no chore bad enough to make it worth standing here and discussing what he considered expedience and what Steve considered a serious lack of self-preservation instinct.
Really, he was a guy who fought by bashing people with a shield, Tony wasn't sure he got to throw around phrases like 'latent suicidal tendencies.' Unless it was from personal experience.
“There, fine, I have actual work to do,” Tony said, and it was a little too loud and a little too sharp, and before he could throw the marker back down, Steve was plucking it out of his hand.
As he watched, horrified, Steve wrote his name down next to the goddamn HUGGING DUTY and then reached out, and wrapped his arms around Tony.
Tony's usually capable and reliable brain just shut down. It was like the HUD display of the suit going black, running out of power or time or space, just going silent, and Tony felt like he was plummeting to earth again. Except he wasn't, he wasn't because Steve Rogers was hugging him, huge arms and chest and shoulders and hands, his solid, muscular, hot body pressing along the length of Tony's, arms holding on tight, and the pressure should've been painful, Steve was holding on so tight, but that was Steve for you, Steve didn't make mistakes with his strength, he never forgot and he never hurt anyone he didn't fully intend to hurt.
Of course, Steve probably didn't have a clue how much this was hurting Tony.
His heart was pounding a little too fast, a little too hard, the arc reactor almost singing, hot and whining in his chest cavity, his whole body going stiff and frozen and still, panic rising in his mind far in advance of his actual thought process. Torn between struggling to get away and just wrapping himself Steve and whimpering, he just collapsed into immobility.
And just like that, Steve let him go and stepped away.
For a second, Tony swayed on his feet, and he turned a shocked, borderline horrified look towards Steve. Steve, his cheeks pink, just grinned back at him. “What the hell was that?” Tony choked out.
“Hug,” Steve said, and retrieved the marker from where it had fallen on the floor. He checked off the chore, chin up, trying his best to not look like he was about to melt into a puddle of embarrassment. He wasn't very good at it.
“Yeah, thanks, great, do that again and I-” Tony stabbed a finger in his direction, and couldn't come up with a strong enough threat. “Don't do that again.”
“He really doesn't have a choice,” Clint said, looking far too amused by this. “He took that job. It's his now. He's gotta do it every day.”
“You can shut up now,” Tony told him. “And erase that nonsense.”
“I may possibly have written it in with a Sharpie while you were distracted,” Clint told him. “Oops.”
Tony stared at all of them, avoiding Steve's eyes. Instead, he just attempted to forget how GOOD that had felt, and that wasn't going to be easy because he had a goddman photographic memory. Cursing under his breath, he stomped out of the room. Told himself that he didn't hear anyone laughing behind him as he headed down the hall at a near run.
“Jarvis,” Tony snapped, stomping down the stairs to his workshop, “what did I sign up for?”
“Sweeping the kitchen.”
“Screw that. I don't have time to start from scratch, order me 50 Roombas, overnight delivery, I want the damn things on my front stoop by 9:00 am tomorrow, or heads will roll.” Ripping the guts out of the damn things would be amazingly cathartic. For now, he'd just be happy to hide in his workshop and pray that the world didn't need saving today.
He wasn't sure he was up for it. He had a very bad feeling that the remainder of his day was going to be spent trying to convince himself that being hugged by Steve wasn't exactly what he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing.
It wasn't the first time that Tony cursed the fact that he didn't own a company, and it wasn't going to be the last, either. Usually, the 'gimmie, gimmie' impulse faded when he realized he could make something better, make it cheaper, make it Stark Industries worthy without actually infringing on any patents or waste his time or money getting his hands on someone else's intellectual property.
When the impulse didn't fade, he called Pepper.
“Tony, do you have any idea what time it is?” she asked as she picked up the phone.
Yeah, that was not a good question. Tony had learned THAT from painful experience. That was not a good question, especially when presented in Pepper's caustic, icy tones. That tone was the one that meant Tony was going to be buying some sort of complicated and expensive shoe related product very soon.
He considered hanging up and pretending that the whole thing had never happened, but that had never actually worked. “Day... Time?” he answered at last.
There was a long pause. “You are an idiot, Tony,” she said at last, but there was amusement in her voice. “Yes, I suppose that's accurate. Technically.”
He checked his watch. “Are you in LA?” he asked, frowning.
Yeah, it would just be best if he called up the Jimmy Choo website now.
“Wonderful. You love France.”
“I do, as a matter of fact, why are you calling me, Tony?”
“Pepper, is it so strange a concept that I would miss you and want to hear your dulcet tones? Your sweet, kind-”
He took a breath, considering another verbal gambit, but she was probably going to hang up on him if he tried it. “Buy me a company.”
“No, no, listen, I need this one, I really NEED this one, I've been up for like, uh, I don't know, thirty-nine hours or so, and there is only so much I can do right now, Pepper, I need you, I need you to man up and buy me a company.”
“As convincing an argument as you present, Tony, no.”
Tony sighed, and tossed back half of a cup of coffee. “Pepper, I don't think you remember who signs your paychecks.”
“That'd be Marie, the head of payroll.”
“That was 'who signs your paychecks' in the metaphorical sense, and you know it.” He gestured with his coffee cup and nearly clocked Dummy. “Dummy, you know better than to get in the way when it's coffee time, and no, no, I will not be drinking that, I saw what you did, I saw you drop the whole jalapeno in there, seeds and all. No. No matter what Barton tells you, no. In fact, because it was Barton telling you, no. Dump that out.”
“Am I interrupting?” Pepper said, sweetly.
“As a matter of fact, right at this moment, yes, you are.” With a sigh, Tony took the green smoothie that Dummy waved in his face. “Dummy has been hanging out with a bad crowd. I may have to ground him.”
“I'm going to go back to bed now, Tony.”
“But I waaaaaant it,” he said, enjoying the whine.
“It's not even your birthday, Tony. If I got you a company every time you asked, it would diminish the times when you really, really deserve a company.”
“But I never deserve a company. However, I'm spoiled and rich and smarter than everyone and I have the bestest CEO in the world, so chop, chop, it's acquirin' time.” He threw himself into a chair, balancing his coffee cup on one palm as the chair rolled across the workshop floor. Dummy chased after him, chirping the whole time. Kicking his legs in the air, he grinned at the ceiling, almost able to feel her weakening.
“Tony, now is not the time to be acquiring new tech. It's just not.”
Tony's lips turned down in a serious pout. “Pepper, when is the last time I asked you for something?”
“You called me during a board of directors meeting to ask me where the Milanos were. When I told you I didn't have a clue where you'd hidden your damn cookies from Thor, you then requested I buy Pepperidge Farms, or at the very least, 'find out what happened to that hilarious guy with the accent from their commercials,' both of which I declined to do.”
Tony paused, considered that. Yep, sounded like something he'd do. “Well, when was the last time I asked you for something serious?”
Pepper hummed, turning her sharp and able mind to what might be considered 'serious.' “Probably the issue with bail in Kenya.”
“Thank you for that, by the way.”
“Don't do it again.”
“Well, for God's sake, who else am I supposed to call for bail money?”
“I nominate Steve.”
Tony choked on his coffee. “Do not, I repeat, do NOT tell Captain America when I've been arrested and am being held on trumped up charges overseas. That is just not information that he needs, and I can still fire you.”
“No, you can't, and I love how you think Steve will not be aware of you being arrested. You getting arrested tends to make CNN in about fifteen minutes.”
“Only on the webfeed, and he gets his info from newspapers still, so I'm safe.” Tony leaned back. “Seriously, Pepper. I need this one.”
She sighed. “Which company?”
This time the pause was long and filled with all sorts of unspoken words, most of them curses. “The robotic vacuum cleaner people?”
“Pepper, seriously, this is good, this is something I can work with, you have no idea, I haven't had so much fun with a machine in, like, years, okay, maybe not years, but at least months. These things are awesome.”
Another long pause. “Tony. What are you doing right now?”
He held up the coffee cup, even if she couldn't see it. “It's coffee time, Pepper. The most sacred twelve times of the day.”
“And what were you doing before coffee time?” she asked, the soul of patience as always.
Tony grinned down a the lab floor, where his Roombas were swirling in complicated patterns, chittering at each other and being herded by Butterfingers into small groups so they could learn from each other. “Reprogramming Roombas.”
Pause. “Roombas. Plural. How many?”
“I started out with fifty.”
“Yeah, okay, this hotel has to have a minibar.” He heard the rustle of blankets and sheets as she pulled herself out of bed.
“What're you wearing?” he asked, grinning into his coffee cup.
“The scalps of men who annoyed me when I was trying to sleep.” There was the clink of a bottle on a glass. “I know I'll regret this question, I am already regretting it, Tony, I am, but why do you have fifty Roombas?”
“Because Steve is making me sweep the kitchen floor.”
“I see,” she said, when she clearly didn't.
“No, see, the thing is-”
“No! No, Tony, do not explain, because if I start seeing logic in your madness, I will have a nervous breakdown, and I do not have time for that right now, I've got that penciled in for the next time Loki shows up to cause trouble. Really, I cannot be bothered right now.” She took a deep, audible breath. “So. Steve made you sweep the floor. And because of this, you purchased, and I'm sure, upgraded fifty robotic vacuum cleaners.”
“Yep. AI'd 'em to holy hell. They are lean, mean, cleaning machines.” He chuckled as one swirled around the base of his chair on super speedy wheels.
“And how long have you been working on this?”
“Uh...” He considered his notes. “What day is it?”
“And sweeping the kitchen floor would've taken, oh, I'm estimating around 10 minutes.”
Tony shrugged. “I guess. I don't sweep much, so I'll trust your estimate on that.”
“And instead of just sweeping and leaving, you spent hours of your time and hundreds, probably thousands, of dollars buying and upgrading Roombas.”
“But now we have Roombas,” Tony pointed out. “And I don't have to sweep. Ever. Also I built a sentient toaster. Cause I'm good like that. I'm a giver.”
“Tony, that is the least effective use of your time that I've ever-”
“Pepper, you've met me,” he interrupted. “You've worked for me for years, you made the mistake of dating me, you've managed to avoid shooting me, and it would've been completely justified, really, I know this, if you'd shot me at certain points of our relationship, no jury would convict you and I'd have testified on your behalf that I totally had it coming,” he said. “So there is no way that you can finish that sentence that does not make you feel stupid later. Just quit while you're ahead.”
“Tony, I'm going to press the panic button now,” she said, “because you're starting to make sense again, and that means Stockholm Syndrome is kicking in, and I need help.”
“Panic button? What panic button? Who gave you a panic button?”
“Good night, Tony.” She cut the call, and Tony stared at his phone, eyes narrowed, suspicious.
“Jarvis,” he said, “who gave Pepper a panic button?”
“You did, amongst others,” Jarvis said, unruffled. “Miss Potts is, after all, everyone's favorite.”
“She's awesome,” Tony agreed. “Wait, amongst others? Javis, who-”
Heavy footfalls were pounding down the stairs, and Tony scrunched himself up. “Steeeeeve?” he whined. “She called Steve? That is blatantly unfair. That is just, just underhanded sneaky mean.”
“I shall see that she meets you after class for a hair pulling catfight,” Jarvis said.
“So much hatred in your sweet little circuits, Jarvis. I don't understand this. It's not the way you were lovingly raised.”
“I was merely trying to distract you from locking Captain Rogers out of the workroom.”
“Tony?” Steve was in sweat pants and a shirt that was like, two sizes too small for his chest, and Jesus, who was dressing the boy? Could they not find clothes that fit? Steve looked down at himself. “They fit. Don't they?”
“Not at all,” Tony said, taking care to pronounce each word. So his brain would understand that this verbal diarrhea thing was not acceptable. “Who is outfitting you?”
“I go to the SHIELD-”
“Oh, God, stop right there. No, I mean it, don't do that anymore.” Tony reached for his coffee cup, and it was empty. He made a face. “Butter-” He winced as the robot whipped by, making a very annoyed sound in Tony's direction. “Okay, okay, I got it. Fine. Whatever, I can make my own coffee, you've got enough problems.”
Steve jerked back as the bot rolled by with his herd of Roombas. “Tony, what the he- Heck are those?” he asked, eyes wide.
“Roombas one through twenty-five,” Tony said, yawning. “Dummy, do we have- No. I do not want a smoothie.” He stuck his tongue out when Dummy waved the blender cup at him.
“You really are the smartest person I've ever met,” Steve said, crossing his arms over his broad chest. “I have to keep reminding myself of this. Because you are an idiot sometimes.”
“Cap, I am hurt. I am deep down hurt. You can alleviate this hurt by providing me with coffee.” Tony held up the cup, his expression hopeful and hangdog by equal parts.
“I think you've had enough. What are these, Tony?”
“The Roombas? Tiny robot vacuum cleaners. They're commercially available, but they're pretty damn dumb out of the box. Just vacuum and roll in a straight line until they hit something, and then they alter their trajectory, and when they're done with their programmed space, they head back to their charging station. As robots go, kinda lame. So I made them better. Well, some of them. I over ordered, and had to cannibalize some of them, and there were a couple of mistakes, and some I haven't opened up yet, but, hey. Roombas.”
The little puck shaped robots rolled around Steve's feet, and he stared down at them. “The sad thing is, this is not the strangest thing to happen to me in this house.” He took Tony's coffee cup away. “I'm cutting you off. Let's go get some food.”
“Yeah, that's a good offer, thank you for that,” he said, spinning back around to the bench and reaching for a blow torch, just a little one, detail work was the best work, “but I'm up to my elbows in half finished bots here, and it's not a good idea to leave them unsupervised at this point in their development, so I'm just going to stay here and handle that, so I'll talk to you-” He blinked. He was moving away from the workbench. He made a grab for it, but it was too little, too late, and he realized that Steve wasn't listening to him, and was instead just towing Tony and his chair towards the elevator. “This is cheating,” Tony said, hugging his blow torch to his chest.
“I'm not very good at it,” Steve agreed, reaching over his shoulder and snagging the blow torch from Tony's grip. He placed it on a table as he walked past. “But dealing with you has given me a lot of reasons to learn.”
“You blame me for everything.”
“Well, it is almost always your fault.” Steve noticed the Roombas following them and sighed. “Dummy, Butterfingers, could you guys please keep them down here?” They chirped and bobbed at him, and he sighed. “Tony.”
“No.” Tony crossed his arms over his chest, and the bots milled around, confused and worried and unhappy. He sighed. “Okay, fine. Wait here, guys, I shall return.” Throwing up a double peace sign, he allowed Steve to tow him into the elevator. “Butterfingers, Dummy, high five!” He laughed as the bots slapped hands. “You have no idea how long it took me to train them to do that,” he said to Steve, still laughing.
“Don't you mean 'program?'”
“Nah, just trained. They are learning bots. Not really good at it, but what the hell.” He leaned his head back to look up at Steve. “Can we have pancakes?”
“It's almost dinnertime, Tony. Did you miss lunch?”
“Yes, and also, I don't see what the time of day has to do with whether or not we can have pancakes.” Humming “You Can Drive My Car,” he leaned back and let Steve steer him into the elevator.
“You're enjoying this.”
“Not like I can stop you from toting me around, might as well pretend it's my idea,” Tony said, with a shrug. Also, if he was being honest, which he hated, really, it only got him in trouble, he was hungry. A steady diet of coffee, no sleep and the beep of his bots was enough to make him feel a little dizzy and a lot spacy
And Steve's presence was as solid and sure as a rock behind him.
But being pushed through the halls in a chair was only going to give people more ammunition against him, so when the elevator doors opened, he stood up with a sigh and headed for the kitchen, Steve right on his heels.
Clint had his chin balanced on his folded arms, leaning over the counter, eye to shiny metal surface of the new addition to the Stark Family of Dysfunctional Kitchen Appliances. “Listen, buddy, I get it, I do, you don't want the sesame seed bagel, and I don't blame you. Sesame seeds, they get in everything, gotta get your crumb tray cleaned like, every day, with sesame seeds. I hate it when they get stuck in my teeth, myself, so I'm with you. But they're the only ones we've got left, and I want toast.”
The toaster made a rattling noise not unlike a little kid blowing a raspberry.
“Fine, I got it, yeah, but throw me a bone here. What's your stance on Eggos?”
“Are you trying to negotiate with the toaster?” Steve asked, and Clint straightened up with a heavy sigh.
“Negotiating and failing, which is even more embarrassing.” He poked the thing with a butter knife, but it was a gentle poke.
“New appliance, let me explain how things work around here,” Tony said, heading for the fridge. “If you do not cultivate a lovable personality, I will gift you to SHIELD and you will be stuck in the break room designated for the most junior of the agents, the dumb ones that still think Coulson is an android of some sort.” Tony leaned down so he was face to box with the toaster. “The sort of traumatized and stupid children who will try to stuff an entire blueberry muffin into your slots.”
There was a long silence, then the toaster made a popping noise. “Yeah, that's what I thought,” Tony said, standing up. “I gotta put up with the intelligence, but if you get uppity on me, I will bust you down to your component particles. Capiche?” He opened the freezer door and tossed the box of multigrain Eggos to Clint. “Stop encouraging the diva behavior.”
Clint caught the box with one hand, fielding it easily. “You know what, Stark? Screw you.” He grinned. “I'm no technophobe, but this place is terrifying. I've put up with self-adjusting lights and tvs and DVRs that flat out tell me my taste in shows sucks-”
“It does,” Tony said from inside the fridge.
“Yeah, well, screw you twice,” Clint said cheerfully, cheerful now because the toaster had accepted his meager offerings of frozen waffles. “I've ignored it when Dummy wears my crossbow like a pointy hat, and that bow is my lifeblood, it's as close to a religious object as I have. I've even gotten used to Jarvis talking to me in the shower.”
“Jarvis doesn't talk to me in the shower,” Steve said, picking through the fruit bowl. He selected an apple, polishing it on his chest like that was something that people did, and it was so adorable Tony wanted to take a picture and frame it.
“Jarvis doesn't bother you unless you bother him first,” Tony said, and it sounded defensive, he hated that, but he couldn't seem to stop it, either.
“It was one time,” Jarvis said, his tone cutting. “And he had lost consciousness, his vital signs were destabilizing, and he was bleeding from a rather impressive head wound. Forgive me for being curious if you required an ambulance or a coroner, Agent Barton.”
“He's pissed, he's calling you Agent Barton,” Tony said, grinning. Jarvis was scrupulously polite, and called people what they requested to be called. Clint had cut off the 'Agent Barton' nonsense in the foyer, about ten minutes after stepping into their new living quarters.
“You passed out in the shower? When?” Steve dropped his apple to the counter, and crossed the kitchen in two long, impressive strides. His hands closed on Clint's head, checking for damage, and Clint tried to bat him away.
“Jesus, it's fine, it was weeks ago, I'm fine. Okay, Cap, really, hey!”
“Give it up,” Tony advised him with a faint smile. “Overprotective Cap is overprotective.”
Steve gave him a look, but he didn't stop running his fingers through Clint's hair, looking for the injury. “Left side, rear, twenty degrees from the crown,” Jarvis said, helpful as always.
“You can stop at any time,” Clint told him. Jarvis made a humming noise, noncommital.
“Is this a bullet wound?” Steve sounded horrified, and Tony choked on a laugh.
“A graze,” Clint said, rolling his eyes. “Cripes, Jarvis, look what you've done.”
“I'm sorry,” Jarvis said, his cultured tones saccharine. “When you brought up my intervention, I assumed you were doing so for the purpose of me providing additional information. If you'd prefer, I can pull up the video feed.”
“No!” Clint yelped.
“This is his way of saying, 'throw me under the bus and I'll drag you along with me,'” Tony explained.
“Yeah, I got that.”
“Is there a reason why we're pinning Clint to the counter and molesting him?” Natasha asked as she slipped through the kitchen door. She had a bright green watering can in one hand and a dirty pair of gardening glove in the other. “Not that I'm objecting, I'm just disappointed that I wasn't invited.”
Clint gave her a look. “Help.”
“No, whatever you've done, you deserve whatever you get.” A faint smirk on her beautiful face, she patted him lightly on the cheek as she ghosted past.
“He got shot and didn't tell anyone,” Steve said, still considering the scar on the back of Clint's head.
Natasha went from amused to pissed so fast that Tony resisted the urge to duck behind the counter and cover his head with both arms. That, or call for someone to prep his armor. Natasha grabbed Clint's head and pulled it down, pushing Steve's hand aside and began chewing him out in low, violent sounding Russian.
Clint sighed. Meeting Tony's eyes from across the kitchen, he mouthed 'help me,' and Tony chuckled. “Not a chance,” he said. “As long as they're focused on you, I get a by.”
“C'mon, we're on a team here,” Clint started, just as the toaster popped up. “Hey, waffles!”
As Captain America and the Black Widow discussed his tendency to get injured and hide it, in excruciating, embarrassing detail, Clint found a plate and silverware, and Tony passed him the syrup. “So,” Clint said, looking at Tony. “This is my life.”
“Mostly your fault,” Tony pointed out.
“Yeah, doesn't change the fact that this is my LIFE.” Clint patted the toaster. “Thanks, buddy. Good job. Hey, Tony, did you name this one yet?”
“Huh? Oh, no. I usually, um, name them on the spot. That's how they end up getting called things like Dummy and Butterfingers.”
“Cool. I'm putting 'name the toaster' on the Kaper Chart.”
“No, no, you're not. The chart needs to die, not be expanded.” Tony gave it a dark look.
“Don't put that on the chart,” Steve said, and Tony was grateful for a split second until he continued. “That's something we should do as a team at the next family meeting.”
“The next family meeting? No. No, there will be no more 'family meetings,'” Tony said, trying to sound stern. He'd faced down congressional committees and Nick Fury and super villains and Charles Xavier and, on one particularly unpleasant occasion, Pepper Potts through the bars of a filthy foreign jail cell. He'd slapped down billionaires and magnates and heads of state and reporters with teeth like sharks.
Steve Rogers just kind of smiled at him, as if Tony was adorable and amusing and kind of a bit on the delusional side.
“Seriously, Steve,” he said, aiming for a tone somewhere between wheedling and polite persuasion. “We have mission briefings and team meetings and debriefings and Nick Fury bitchfests and Coulson 's 'do you know what you did wrong? Everything, you did everything wrong' power point presentations, and drunken whines. We do not need family meetings.”
“Yes, we do,” Steve said, and Tony waited for his explanation, for some reason why he would think this thing, this wrong headed, confusing thing. There was no reason forthcoming. Steve just smiled at him. And Tony resisted the urge to grab the chart, run to the roof, and throw it off. Only the knowledge that he could kill some innocent group of passing nuns, or puppies, or nuns with puppies, kept him rooted to the spot.
God, he hated the chart.
“No, you don't,” Steve said, smile only getting wider and brighter, and Tony wondered what he would do if Tony hissed at him.
Natasha was checking off her tasks on the chart with her usual precision, her expression satisfied. “Tony,” she said, tapping Tony's unmarked chore with one long manicured nail.
“I'm working on it,” Tony said. “You can't just jump straight into floor sweeping. There's protocols. And, uh, safety procedures, I don't know, I'm working on it. Besides, it's not like-” He could feel himself getting tense as the three of them stared at him. “Fine, it's fine, I don't-”
Steve rolled his eyes as he reached for Tony. Tony managed a very undignified squeak before he found himself getting hugged again. Arms pinned to his side, tense to the point of trembling, he leaned away from Steve, not that he could go anywhere. It was just traumatizing, this was his life, this was his goddamn life, getting hugged by Captain America as a couple of deadly assassins hung out in his kitchen and laughed at him.
Though now that he was kind of expecting it, it really wasn't so bad. Since he wasn't going to get away, he might as well enjoy it. Warm, and firm and kind of nice. Tony felt himself relax, just a little, head falling to rest on Steve's shoulder, just for a second, and that was nice, too.
“Ah! My comrades! Is this to be a tradition for us?” Thor boomed, as he strode into the kitchen. Before either of them knew what was happening, Thor had swept Steve and Tony up in an all-encompassing embrace, lifting both men off their feet.
Steve let out a faint croak as his ribs compressed “Thanks, Thor,” he managed. Tony, for his part, just kicked his feet in a mad scramble to find purchase on something, anything, but he was in mid-air and he was being gang-hugged, and this was NOT RIGHT.
“Thor, man, put them down, Tony's face is turning a very interesting color, there,” Clint pointed out with a wide grin. “C'mon, man, cut them some slack, down, down!”
And just like that, Tony's feet were back on the ground, and he was trying to find dignity and balance and self-respect, all at once, and that was not going well for him. “Yes. Thank you for that,” he said, hand coming up automatically, because he should have a gauntlet with a repulsor in it right now, just for safety's sake, he wouldn't actually shoot them, but everyone needed to stop grabbing him like that, it just wasn't right. “Anyone else tries to hug me today, and I will be destroying your credit scores. And possibly your retirement portfolios.”
“We have retirement portfolios?” Clint asked Natasha.
“Do you really think Coulson would not have gone behind your back and made a 401K for you?” she asked. “Unlike you, he's of the opinion you'll live to see retirement.”
“Yeah, that ain't happening.” Clint glanced at Steve, who was still sucking in desperate breaths. “When's the family coffee klatch?”
“Never!” Tony tried, and no one paid any attention to him, and he was going to kick them all out of his house, this was just the final straw.
“No, you won't,” Steve said, and he was checking off 'Stark Hugging Duty' on the chart, and Tony hated, hated, hated that chart. “Thursday, I think, unless we get a mission.”
“Yeah, before Movie Night, that should work. Ever noticed how we almost never get called out on Thursdays?”
“I think the villain community learned after the second time that Thor took deep personal offense at his day being so maligned,” Natasha said. “There's another six days to chose from. Might as well take Thursday off and avoid the wrath of Thor.”
“My wrath is ever impressive, but justified when revealed. Greetings, friend toaster!” Thor said, and the toaster fled.
Tony wondered if he could back out of this whole Avengers Initiative thing.
Well, the toaster is officially the most popular original character I've ever created. I'm not sure if that's funny or depressing. Looks like this will be about 4 chapters. I think. I don't know. Sorry about that.
High class cocktail parties and meet and greets made Tony pray for some sort of disaster. Not a big one, mind you, nothing that would result in injury or death to some innocent civilians, but damn, that'd be nice. Like, a Doombot attack. Or that giant squid that Namor lost control of that one time, that was more hilarious than dangerous.
Man, watching Thor try to have a conversation with a giant squid was one of the most bizarre experiences of his life, and that was saying something.
Now, some bubble headed blonde was yapping away in Tony's ear, her arms wrapped around his arm, her breasts squished up against his side, and yeah, those weren't real, and he was laughing at all the right places, his smile wide and bright and ever so charming, saying the right things and throwing out just the right amount of snark for the ring of socialites and politicians and VIPs that were hovering around.
Booze was flowing and the outfits were stunning and the photographers were everywhere, and Tony was designing a new layer of adaptive circuitry in his head because he could do this in his sleep. Judging by the times he'd kinda sorta woken up somewhere other than his bedroom, confused and disoriented, he probably had.
Still, he could keep this up for as long as he needed to. Despite the lack of sleep. Despite the lack of proper food. And a little too much alcohol. And the woman who had as many arms as Namor's pet squid, and was way, way grabbier with them. Just another depressing night in the life of Tony Stark, genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. Greatest technical mind of his generation, he was the life of the party, the tabloid darling of New York, the terror of Wall Street, and the scourge of villains everywhere injustice could be found.
Of course, the real Tony Stark just wanted to go home and play with his toaster.
Even through the babble of voices, a little too loud and a little too brittle, Steve's quiet voice brought his head around. “Hey, Steve,” he said, giving the blonde a wide smile. And damn did Captain America look good in a suit. He sensed Pepper's fine and delicate hand in the new fashion statement, and he made a note to send her a fruit basket Or, since fruit was boring, a fruit basket full of shoes. A shoe basket, that'd work out well.
“What's a shoe basket?” Steve asked, eyebrows furrowed, and Tony shook his head.
“Never mind,” he said. “What can we do for you, Steve? Have you met everyone? Everyone, Steve Rogers. Steve, everyone.” He waved a hand back and forth to laughter and smiles from all concerned, well, everyone but Steve.
Steve inclined his head at the group. “Hello,” he said with a faint smile. “I'm sorry, I need to borrow Tony for a few minutes.”
Tony patted his human squid's hand, and managed to wiggle free from her clutching fingers. “Duty calls. Thank you all, I must fly. Perhaps in the literal sense.” With one last charming grin and a mock salute, he fell into step with Steve. “What's up?” he asked, his attention on Steve even though he nodded and smiled various acquaintances as they passed through the crowd. “Assembling?” And he hoped, hoped against hope, that he didn't sound eager, because that would be bad.
“My watch isn't working,” Steve said, and Tony blinked.
“What? Oh. Oh!” Tony grinned at him. “You want me to take a look at it?”
“Do you mind?” Steve asked, the apology clear in his voice, and Tony clapped him on the back.
“No, uh, let's see-” He narrowed his eyes, trying to remember the layout of this place, it had been a while since he'd been here. “C'mon, I think I remember a library down this hall. And with this crowd, that's not getting used.”
“Tony, be nice.” But Steve's lips were twitching.
“I am always nice. I am known for being nice, it's a known Stark characteristic. People have written odes to my propensity for-”
“Okay, okay, stop before you hurt yourself,” Steve said, and he was laughing, eyes dancing.
Tony was right about the location of the library, and its current lack of popularity. He pulled a chair up to a small table, flicking on the lamp and fumbling in a hidden jacket pocket for a tiny tool kit. “Let's see what's going on here,” he said, unwrapping the tools. The set was of his own design. Light, almost indestructible, useful for everything from a picking a lock to disarming a bomb. He was a goddamn Avenger, after all.
Steve dropped the watch on the table within Tony's reach and took a seat next to him on a nearby loveseat. It was ridiculously undersized for his solid form, and Tony spared him a grin before turning his attention to the timepiece. “Did it slow down or just stop? You haven't been overwinding it, have you?”
“Come on, Tony, I've had that watch for years. I know how much it needs to be wound.” He watched Tony, curiosity plain on his face. He seemed to enjoy watching Tony work, as odd as that was.
“Mmm,” Tony agreed, opening up the delicate mechanism. “If you'd just get a digital watch, we could avoid this.”
“Things shouldn't be disposable,” Steve said. “This is still good. As long as you can fix it?”
“Of course I can fix it,” Tony said, a little insulted. “It's easy to fix.” And even if it wasn't, he'd still manage it. Because Steve had asked him to do it.
Steve leaned an elbow on the armrest, his eyes on a bowl of fruit next to Tony. “Do you suppose I can eat one of those pears?”
Tony glanced up. “Sure,” he said, snagging one and tossing it to Steve. “I doubt they remember it's in here. Probably would just rot if you didn't.”
Steve sighed. “Your friends waste a lot of food,” he said, and it sounded more sad than judgmental.
“They're not my friends,” Tony said. “Maybe Fury's friends. He's the one who said we had to come.” He studied the gears with a practiced eye. Yeah, this was not a naturally occurring problem. “What, did you do, take a butter knife to this thing?”
Steve paused, pocket knife hovering over the pear, then sighed. “One of those little oyster forks,” he admitted.
“Uh, why?” Shaking his head, Tony went about repairing the damage, which was mostly just a couple of gears and springs out of place.
Steve's cheeks were pink. “I needed some excuse to pull you away from everyone,” he pointed out.
Tony gave a bark of laughter. “No, you don't, Cap. You can just say, 'Hey, Stark, come over here,' and yeah, I'm going to go over there,” Tony said, grinning. “After all, you're my favorite person here.” He glanced up in time to see Steve's broad, pleased grin. “Idiot. Don't smash up your meager possession to get my attention.”
Steve's face was distinctly red. “I knew you could fix it.” He started slicing into the pear. “Want a piece?”
“Yeah, sure.” Tony hummed under his breath as he worked on the repairs, and Steve placed a slice of the pear next to him. He picked it up and popped it in his mouth, and it was cool and crisp and sweet. He chewed and swallowed, reaching for the next piece, knowing it was going to be there without having to look up.
They finished the first pear, and Tony tossed Steve a second one.
It didn't take him long to fix the wristwatch, but he took his time, checking everything he could, making mental notes about oil and replacement gears and better springs that he could install once they got home. For now, though, he closed it up and munched his way through the most recent slice of pear. Turning, he held it out to Steve. “Almost as good as new.”
Steve grinned at him. “Thanks.” He disposed of the last piece of the pear's core in a nearby trash can and went to place the final slice on the table next to Tony.
Tony reached for it. “Give it here,” and Steve paused.
“You don't like having things handed to you, not-” He waved a hand at the room. “Here.”
Tony froze. After a long, still moment, he reached out and took the slice from Steve's fingers. “It's fine. If it's you,” he said, and popped the pear in his mouth before he could say anything else stupid. Like, anything. At all.
“Oh. Okay,” Steve said, and he wiped his knife off on a handkerchief before folding it and putting it away. “Thanks, Tony.”
“Mmm.” Tony chewed and swallowed. “Why the subterfuge?” he asked.
“You were getting that weird note in your laughter again,” Steve said, his voice soft. He bent his head down, focusing on refastening his watch band. “I know you hate these things.”
“So do you,” Tony pointed out. “And I'm better at faking it, so, hey, party time.” He raised a single index finger and rotated it in the universal symbol for 'whee.'
Steve glanced up. “But you hate them,” he said, lips kicking up on one side in an adorable lop-sided smile. “And I hate how you get at them.”
Tony focused on packing up his tools. “Drunk?” he said, trying for humor and failing miserably.
“No, well, yes, I don't like that, either, it's dangerous and it's not good for you, but that's another thing.” Steve was still playing with the watchband. “You've got this mask you wear at these things.”
“People expect a certain je ne sais quoi from Tony Stark,” Tony said, with a shrug. “Easier to give them what they want.” He'd memorized this years ago, partially Howard and partially the confident rich boys at his boarding schools and mostly Tony, drunk and faking it, faking it until he found a groove that he could ride until the whole mess was over.
Sometimes, when he was younger, he might've enjoyed it. Honestly, he no longer remembered.
But Steve was looking at him with that pinched look on his face, and Tony gave him a smile. “C'mon, Cap, Fury needs someone to gladhand. Banner or Barton would be a disaster, Natasha would start killing people just to alleviate the boredom, Thor would have great fun but the average person off the street can't handle his sheer awesome. So it's you or me, and you hate these things.” Tony gave him a smile. “I'm more used to being a tabloid spectacle than you. Let the professional trained dancing bear take one for the team.”
Steve chuckled, and Tony glanced at him. “I used to draw myself as a dancing monkey,” Steve explained. “In my USO days.”
“Cap, that is just poor self esteem. You are clearly at least a dancing gorilla. Or orangutang.”
“Why is it that people think you're charming, again?”
“It's my secret mutant power. Charisma.” Tony wiggled his eyebrows in Steve's direction. “C'mon, Cap, one more turn around the dance floor and you're outta here.”
“You mean we.”
“Nah, I gotta stick around and meet and greet for a few hours more or Fury'll get that sad look that most people mistake for rage. Homicidal rage.”
“Enough, Cap.” Tony gave a grin. “Let me throw myself on this grenade for the team. It's the least I can do.”
“Seems to me it's something you do all the time,” Steve said, his voice very soft.
“I am noble in the extreme.” Tony blew Steve a kiss. “I think we've stalled long enough.” Straightening his jacket, he rolled his shoulders, tucked his chin up, and slapped on a wicked smile. “Showtime.”
His phone rang, and he nearly collapsed with relief. “Oh, thank fucking God,” he said, pulling it out. “Please tell me there's some sort of an emergency happening here. Please. Anything. I'll even go help Richards at this point, and I hate that guy, I really-”
The roar of noise caused him to hold his phone at arm's length, blinking. He stared at it for a moment. “It's for you,” he said, handing it to Steve, who bobbled it, but took it, because he was incapable of smacking it to the ground the way he should have.
“Steve Rogers,” he said, and he drew up straight, the way he always did, standing at attention as if the person on the other end of the call could see him, and he was so adorable Tony just wanted to skip around him throwing rose petals, and that wasn't weird or anything, what the hell, brain?
Steve raised an eyebrow at him. “Roses are expensive, don't waste them just to make a fool of me,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Yeah, to make a fool of you,” Tony agreed with a tight smile. “That's totally what I was going for.” Luckily Steve was ignoring him again, focusing on the phone call.
“I see. Yes. I understand. All right, we'll be home in ten minutes, thank you. Good bye.” He ended the call and handed Tony the phone back. Tony had heard 'home in ten minutes' and was doing a very dignified and subdued victory dance.
“Someday,” Steve said, laughing, “I will figure out how to videotape these things and upload them to the internet.”
“You know how, you're just too nice to doooooooo it,” Tony said, with a little hip swivel. “Let's blow this Popsicle stand.”
“Don't you want to know why we're going home?”
“Not at all. Don't care. Avengers business. Thor broke a head of state. Clint traumatized another pizza parlor. Bruce let Strange into my pool again, goddamn magic is not acceptable in the pool, I can only take so much when I'm next to naked, there are limits. Right now, I don't care, any excuse will do.”
“Coulson said that a bunch of robot hockey pucks just ate the rugs in the front parlor, one of Thor's capes, half of his confidential files for the last month, and one of Natasha's socks. Natasha is threatening to slit them all open until she finds the perpetrator.”
Tony paused. “So, is it a good time to tell you that I might've upgraded the Roombas a little more?”
“Yeah, we figured that out.”
“So, do you want to tell us how this happened?” Steve asked, looking around the Avengers' living quarters.
Tony tucked his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels. “Some things,” he said, nodding sagely, “defy explanation.”
“Does that ever hold up?” Steve asked.
“In front of congress, or in court?” Tony grinned. “Either way, the answer is no. Mostly, it's a stalling tactic so I can figure out something better to say.”
“What, exactly, did you do?” Bruce asked, picking his way through the swarming masses of Roombas. Luckily, he seems kind of amused.
“Really, it's a good concept, the whole robotic vacuum cleaner thing,” Tony said, eager now, because it worked, all of it worked, they'd gone looking for messes, what good little Roombas, they'd gotten bored in the workshop and gone looking for messes. Dummy must've let them on the lift, they'd have a chat about that later. “But there's a lot of wasted space in the design as it stands. So I jacked up the chassis a little, replaced the wheels with a more efficient rotation system, cut myself some space between the motor system and the charging layout, ditched the battery, of course, gotta go smaller and longer lasting on that, not commercially viable, but these are for personal use, I'm not putting up with this 'two hours before it needs charging' bullshit, and used the extra space to enlarge the dirt storage unit, the suction system, basic visual and auditory input sensors, and to create an uplink system between them and Jarvis and amongst themselves.”
Steve and Bruce were staring at him, Steve with a certain degree of amused worry, and Bruce with curiosity. “So you're saying you created a hive mind?” Bruce asked.
“Kinda, I didn't have time to create a full AI for them, so I just tapped them into the house, so they get their instructions and input from Jarvis, he's kind of the alpha male in this little pack, so outside the tower, they'd be forced to feed off each others data, and that won't go so well.”
“Kinda dumb?” Bruce said, sidestepping a swift moving Roomba.
“Let's just say, they're kind of a pack of bros standing around going, 'what do you want to do?' 'I don't know, what do you wanna do?' 'I'll do whatever you want to do.' 'Yeah, but what do you want to do?'” Tony explained. “Not really Mensa material. I'm working on it.”
“So you're the one controlling them, Jarvis?” Steve asked.
“Less controlling and more desperately playing shepherd,” Jarvis said, sounding tired.
“How's that working?”
“Peachy,” Jarvis said, so dry that Tony could almost see the tumbleweeds rolling by.
“Peachy keen?” Steve asked, grinning.
“We haven't reached quite that level, sir. You shall be the first to know if it comes to that.”
“STARK!” Coulson came stomping through, and the Roombas were smart enough to get the hell out of his way. “What the hell are these things?”
“Dummy wanted a pet,” Tony said, hands in his pants pockets, grinning like a maniac. “I couldn't chose just one.”
“How many of these things are there?” Coulson said, studiously ignoring the one that rolled up and was attempting to clean his shoe. To an untrained observer, it kind of looked like the thing was humping his leg. Tony wondered if that behavior could be encouraged. Maybe not. Coulson was usually armed, and he had a hair trigger when he was in a mood. Which was almost all the time when he was around Tony.
“He's got a point, Tony,” Steve said, sounding concerned. “I thought there were twenty-five of them. This seems like a lot more than twenty-five.”
“Well, I bought fifty.”
“This seems like a lot more than fifty,” Steve said, choosing his words carefully.
“Eighty-seven at last count,” Jarvis said, sounding tired.
“Oh! Hey, it worked!” Tony gave a fist pump. “Damn, I'm good. High five!” he said to Bruce, who arched an eyebrow, but held up a hand for Tony to slap. “Science, bitches!”'
“What worked, Stark?” Coulson said, rubbing a hand over his face.
“Well, I was worried about if they got damaged, you now, there's a lot of stairs around here, and some of our experiments can be really dangerous, Dummy doesn't always watch where he's going, and you know, super villain attacks sometimes. So I took the first few, cranked up the AI by a couple of degrees, gave them a connection to the fabrication units, and programmed them how to, well, fix themselves.”
“Repair units,” Bruce said. “I don't think...”
“And it looks like they just started reproducing instead,” Tony mused. “Maybe if there aren't any damaged ones, they think that's what they're supposed to do. I mean, the fabrication units can do the basic assembly, not the high level stuff, but they work with the armor, so yeah, putting together some Roombas wouldn't be so bad, they're certainly capable of producing the parts, but the circuitry, I don't know how well that would go without human intervention.”
“I put a stop to it once I realized that they're not as responsive as the ones you've produced, sir,” Jarvis said. “One of their first attempts is there. Yes. The one that is running into the wall.”
Everyone paused to watch the Roomba whirr across the floor. It hit the wall, spun in a circle, and returned exactly the way it came. It hit the opposite wall. It spun. For a few minutes, they all watched it methodically repeat the exact same path, then Jarvis sighed. “Not quite up to snuff.”
“Aw, special Roomba,” Tony said, reaching down to pick it up. “It's okay, baby, we'll fix you.”
It whirred, wheels spinning in mid-air. “Yeah, you're kind of helpless up here, it's fine, it's-” He paused, a thought sliding through his mind. He blinked. That could work...
“Why does it say Mr. Fantastic on that?” Steve said, leaning over Tony's shoulder.
Tony snapped back from his thoughts, looking down at the black Sharpie labeling his awkward, dumb Roomba. “Because Barton hates Richards more than me, and that takes effort,” Tony said. “Barton!” he yelled. “Are you naming my Roombas?”
“What?” Clint stuck his head out from the lounge. “What the hell is your problem, Stark?”
Whatever Tony's problem had been, he promptly forgot it. It probably had something to do with Clint's outfit. The skintight, faded black jeans, the heavy boots, and the tight white t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off were common enough on Hawkeye's solid frame. The bright pink ruffled apron with balloons patches on the front was a little more unusual.
“See, Steve, this is the sort of thing that belongs on the internet,” Tony explained. “You may use my phone.”
Barton folded his hands behind his head, his bare arms flexing with the movement, crossing his ankles and giving it a little attitude. “Feel free,” he said, with a smirk. “I make this look good.”
“He kinda does,” Bruce said, and got himself an eyebrow wiggle for his trouble.
“You are shameless, Barton, utterly shameless. I like that about you,” Tony said, lifting the Roomba to brace on his shoulder. “Stop naming my Roombas.”
“You wouldn't let me name the toaster.”
“It's on the agenda,” Steve said, and he was smiling down at the Roombas that were swirling around his feet, chittering because he had left footprints on their nice neat floor, and he was an enemy of the Roomba State. “In fact, it feels like family meeting time, you know, now. Where's Thor and Natasha?” he asked Clint.
“Thor!” Clint yelled.
“Aye, my brother in arms?” There was a couple of thumps, and the sound of something breaking, probably something expensive, Tony wondered if his insurance policy covered act of demigod, and then Thor appeared.
Standing on an ironing board.
That was balanced on top of like ten Roombas.
Thor gave them a huge grin, fists on his hips, heroic pose solidly in place despite the fact that his pale grey apron with yellow bubbles up the front clashed with his cape.
Coulson smacked Barton on the back of the head, making him laugh. “Why do I get blamed for everything?” he said, clearly knowing he deserved it.
“This chariot is worthy of the almighty Thor!” Thor boomed. “Not yet as pleasing as that drawn by Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, but still, most worthy!” Natasha took a picture, and he gave her a pleased nod, accepting that as his due.
“How is he steering that?” Steve asked.
Natasha was padding lightly out in Thor's wake with a camera at the ready. “Toss potting soil in the direction you want to go, and they head right for it,” Natasha explained, as if that hadn't been her idea, and Tony knew it had been, and he knew, he just knew that she was waiting for everyone to be distracted, then she'd scatter the stuff in all directions just for the joy of watching the Roombas try to go haywire.
“If you break my Roombas, Thor, I am going to be very displeased,” Tony said, despite the fact that yeah, this was something he should've thought of. Not with an ironing board, of course, that was just undignified. He frowned. “Wait, I own an ironing board?”
“It's Coulson's,” Natasha said.
“You own an ironing board?” Tony asked Coulson.
“Not anymore,” the agent said on a sigh.
“Yeah, family meeting time,” Steve said, and Tony resisted the urge to scream.
Despite the fact that this was only their second 'family meeting,' and, yes, Tony was mentally making finger quotes around those words, there were already rules.
He blamed Steve.
The first rule, as it turns out, was that Tony was not allowed to get drunk during family meetings. Tony tried to argue that this was unfair, because the family meeting would be much more tolerable if he was too drunk to contribute to or remember it. Steve had just given him a 'I am certain that you're joking, because what you are saying is hurtful and I'm going to ignore it' look, and taken away his bottle of brandy.
The second rule, close on the heels of the first, was that being at the family meeting took priority over everything else. There had been a little discussion about that, because Clint would play Angry Birds with the sound ON during Fury debriefings, and Thor generally went a little stir crazy if he didn't have something to do with his hands and Bruce had calculations that he was running that really wouldn't take much of his attention at all.
But Coulson had closed his file folders, stacked them neatly, recapped his pen, and folded his hands, focusing on Steve, and everyone else had fallen into line.
“I am doing this under duress,” he said, his grease stained fingers already playing with the innards of Mr. Fantastic the Roomba. “I've redesigned circuitry during congressional hearings, so, c'mon, I can do this, really, just talk, I promise, I am all over this family meeting thing. I just need to-” He shoved a screwdriver in his mouth and continued talking around it, his teeth holding it in place. “Finizvis.”
Steve reached over and took the screwdriver out of his mouth. “Tony.”
Tony tipped his head in Steve's direction, eyes narrowed beneath lowered brows. Steve met the look without flinching. “Fine,” Tony said, leaning back and wiping his hands on a napkin. “Fine! Meeting. Wonderful. What're we meeting about?”
“Can we discuss the fact that we had to lock the kitchen door to keep your mob of little robots from overwhelming us?” Natasha asked.
“No,” he said. “Look, okay, I wasn't expecting this, it's fine, sometimes great inventions have a little, well, bump in the road. Doesn't mean the invention itself is a failure, it just needs a little work.” He tipped the chair and balanced on the back legs. “I'll get them back down to the workshop and work on the AI. Jarvis has changed the parameters of their programming so that they won't build any more, and they'll stay in assigned areas. I've got some more ideas, it'll be fine, but at some point, we may be able to use them to cover the whole tower.”
“Why-” Coulson started, and Tony cut him off.
“Look, with upgraded audio and visual components, enhanced AI, maybe some other tricks built in, they can be used as part of the security system. It'll be fine, really, I'm done discussing it, my tower, my Roombas, hush now everyone.”
There was a beat of silence, and Tony thought it might've worked, and then Clint started laughing. “Yeah, no,” he said, grinning. Tony, that's just stupid.”
“And yet, that's what we're going with. Steve, what's next?” Tony let the chair fall forward with a clatter, his arms falling to the tabletop.
Steve looked like he was going to say something, but his eyes flicked down to where Tony's hand was resting on top of the Roomba. “Keep them under control, okay?”
“You won't even know they're here,” Tony said, arching his eyebrows. But some tension that he hadn't even been aware of leaked out of his shoulders, his fingers smoothing over the upgraded casing of the little robot puck. He gave it a little pat.
“Why does Tony get away with this stuff?” Clint asked.
“Because he owns the property, the bed you're sleeping in, and the bow you're coveting?” Natasha said, eyebrow arching.
“Oh, yeah.” Clint grinned. “In that case, viva la roombas. I wanna name 'em.”
“No,” Tony said. “Keep your damn Sharpie to yourself, Barton.”
“A sentiment that has been repeated over and over through the years,” Coulson said.
“Okay,” Steve said, before the whole thing could devolve into a series of double entendres, because that happened a lot around this group, Tony was gleeful about encouraging it, and Barton had a dirty mouth and Coulson was the perfect straight man, and Steve blushed bright red at anything that even smacked of a dick joke, and Thor just loved, loved, LOVED dick jokes and skipped the entendres altogether.
Of course, if Natasha felt like playing, they would all end up blushing and stammering, except for Bruce, who could keep a zen calm in the face of anything.
Tony tried to pay attention for a couple of seconds, and they were discussing the damn chore chart, so he went back to considering just how to most effectively eliminate the issues with the Roombas movements. Right now, the rotation system would allow them access to their work, but if he wanted this to be effective, really effective, he needed to move beyond that, to find a way, there was always a way, the circuits and the batteries and physical limitations, and there was nothing-
The toaster bumped into his arm, and he snapped upright. Steve was grinning at him, eyes warm and far too knowing, and Tony scrunched his nose in a faint apology. His brain seldom stayed in one place for long, no matter how much he tried to focus.
Luckily, no one else seemed to have noticed, and when Tony looked over Steve's shoulder, he realized that the goddamn chart had gained a bunch of new tasks, and somehow, his name was assigned to some of them. “Hey-” he started.
“That's what happens when you're not paying attention,” Steve said in an undertone, and Tony can only gape at him.
“Did you just use your powers for evil?” he asked.
“The tower gets clean, team is happy, everyone feels appreciated. Seems like good ol' American righteousness to me,” Steve said, grinning, and there's that snark, that dry, warm sense of humor that slipped by almost everyone, and Tony loved.
“Evil,” Tony said, and yeah, he was a kinky bastard, because that was a lovely thought.
“Whatever gets you to load the dishwasher, Tony,” Steve said, and Tony was laughing at his faint smile, laughing because why the hell not. Because he actually felt like laughing.
“Listen,” Clint was saying, and his arms were crossed, his chin at an obstinate angle. “I want to name the toaster. It likes me best.”
“No one in this room believes that you have pure intentions here,” Bruce said. “And I'm not calling the toaster 'Sweetums.'”
“Snugglebunny?” Clint asked.
Natasha suggested something in Russian, and Clint glanced at her. “Didn't you use to call me that?” he asked.
“Yes, but the toaster's more reliable. And provides a hot breakfast on occasion.”
“That is just harsh, Natasha. Let's call the toaster Tash.”
“I prefer a name fit for such a fiery warrior,” Thor said, stroking his chin. “In retrospect, fair Widow, Tash may be most appropriate.”
“Not happening,” she said. “And it's easier to take you seriously when you are not wearing that ludicris apron.”
“It was a gift from Lady Darcy!” Thor said, arranging the apron around him with a smile. “I think it most becoming!”
“I hate everyone,” Tony said, and Steve was laughing as he returned the marker to the chart's tray and crossed the room to stand behind Tony's chair and lean over to hug him from behind. Tony sighed, but he just let it happen, mostly because Steve had already checked it off the list, and he wasn't about to make a liar out of Steve at this point.
Also, Steve smelled good.
“Thanks!” Steve said, and Tony wondered if blunt force trauma to the skull would solve his problems. Probably not.
Coulson stood up, holding up a hand. “The toaster's name is Calcifer,” he said, his tone brooking no argument. “Stark, go handle the goddamn Roombas, and everyone else, assume that Stark is not going to be able to handle his damn Roombas. Pick it up, nail it down, lock the doors. Are we understood?”
A beat of silence, and everyone murmured agreement. “Why Calcifer?” Steve asked.
“Because Coulson's a nerd,” Clint said, standing. “C'mon, Cap, we'll pop Howl's Moving Castle onto the main screen while we Roomba-proof the rec room.”
And yes, the aprons are just what you think they are, if you're thinking they're something. Because Darcy would delight in that.
“You know, there should be a goddamn handbook for idiots who decide that they're going to run experiments on themselves. Really. I am sick of this. Scientists of the world, cut this shit out, I cannot believe I'm saying this, that these words are coming out of my mouth, but PEER REVIEW. Use it. Know it. Love it. It just might keep you from ending up as a sentient bundle of energy with a bad attitude that no one, and I do mean no one, is going to invite to their birthday party.”
A car went spinning through the air, straight for Tony's armored head, and he raised one hand, knocking it back down without even pausing in his rantings. The thing crashed to the ground under him, and he shot up to make a more tempting target. At least while the damn thing was tossing cars at him, it wasn't trying to slice up school buses full of kids anymore.
“There needs to be a basic course at all university level science majors that includes basic advice like, 'So they all said you were mad: turning yourself into a monster will just prove them right, so go get a beer and calm the fuck down,' and 'It's really hard to get grants when you're eating your lab assistants or cackling manically: maybe you should just focus on a different discipline now.'”
“Does the phrase 'radio silence' mean anything at all to you, Iron Man?” Coulson asked, sounding a little strained.
“I'll get Hawkeye to explain it to me later,” Tony said.
“Hey, I've been the soul of discretion,” Clint said.
“For once,” Tony agreed. He swooped down, cutting dangerously close to the swirling mass of air, debris, and energy, and it lashed out, the wave of force clipping his leg and sending him spiraling off course. The HUD blared a thousand different warnings all at once, and Tony righted himself without even a spike in his pulse. This was getting boring. “What is there to do, other than make fun of the situation?”
Because he was stupid enough to keep trying something that clearly was not going to work, he aimed a repulsor blast at the things 'face.' The energy ripped through it, and it neither paused nor gave any indication that it'd felt the blow. Switching to his internal channel, he spoke to Jarvis. “Any luck with reconfiguring the energy signature of the repulsors so we might actually, I don't know, make contact with this thing?”
“I am sorry, sir, but we have not managed to gather any data that would be helpful to us in this matter.” Jarvis sounded as put out as Tony felt. “The energy signature is almost non-existant, it is rather like there is nothing holding it together other than wind and debris.”
“Thanks, Jarvis. Keep it up, let me know if you figure anything out.” He switched back to the main team channel, and Steve was doing his best to keep everyone together.
“Hawkeye, keep the Hulk back, if you can, there's nothing he can do here, and he's getting frustrated.”
“Gotcha, Cap. We're building a barrier between your current position and the next unevacuated street, might not stop this thing, but we can at least provide some protection from flying debris.” And it went unspoken that he was providing Hulk with something productive to do before the big green guy got frustrated with his lack of effectiveness and started taking it out on nearby buildings.
He'd never say it, but Tony was perpetually impressed by the way that Barton just dealt with Hulk. He wasn't sure if Hawkeye was suicidal or just too crazy to care about death, but the first time he'd stood in front of the big guy with a raised eyebrow and folded arms, it'd been a heart stopper. Hulk, however, seemed to be equal parts amused by and adoring of the archer, so boom, team synergy. Whatta you know.
Coulson had been so coldly, quietly furious in wake of that successful mission that no one had been surprised that he'd ordered Clint into his office and neither of them had come out for more than an hour. Steve had been worried, hovering and pacing and doing that thing where he chewed on his lower lip, but Natasha had just smiled and said they'd work it out. They always did.
“Keep it up,” Steve said. “We'll let you know if there's a change in position.”
“I think we'll hear you coming, that thing isn't subtle.” There was a note of frustration in Clint's voice too; he'd run through every arrow that SHIELD had given him and more than a few that Tony had slipped him on the sly, but not a single one of them had made a damn bit of difference.
Thor was in the same boat as the rest of them, but he was still throwing bolts of lightning, just out of boredom or frustration or because he was a really optimistic guy, Tony wasn't quite sure. Maybe a little of each of them. It annoyed the hell out of Thor when he couldn't punch something, he took that as a personal affront; bad things were meant to go squish on the blunt force of Thor's fist.
Tony pushed the suit up to Thor's level, and they exchanged a 'frickin' mad scientists, what're you gonna do, really' look. It was a look that the team exchanged a lot.
Seriously, Tony was going to start tracing these idiots back to their institutions of higher learning and sending the damn places bills. This was ridiculous.
“We're looking at containment options,” Coulson was saying through the coms, and Tony was sure that SHEILD was doing just that, but even the R&D department at SHEILD wasn't so hyped up on peyote to have made a plan for a giant dust bunny stomping around the city, who would be stupid enough to make a plan for-
“Go ahead, Iron Man.”
“So this thing's a ball of sentient wind and swirling dirt and spoken word manifesto, right? We haven't managed to locate any sort of central mass?”
“Not as of yet. There must be one.”
“There might not be,” Tony pointed out. “He may have fried himself to the point that his consciousness may be the only thing holding that mess together, and it is getting perilously close to occupied areas of the city.” He left unspoken the obvious fact that while they couldn't hit this thing, this thing could hit them. Natasha had tested that theory for them, and had ended up with a dislocated shoulder and a head injury when it had backhanded her into a wall.
“It can take out buildings, and throw cars, and we have to stop it, now,” Tony continued, and he knew that he had everyone's attention. “I can stop it.”
“This is going to end badly,” Clint said.
“Shut it, Hawkeye. What've you got, Iron Man?” Coulson said, and Tony grinned, an unholy, unapologetic, 'suck it, mad scientists, I'm madder and more scientific than you,' grin.
“Please, sir, no,” Jarvis said, and Tony shrugged.
“I've got an army of sentient, self-replicating Roombas.”
“So, that happened.”
Everyone looked at Tony with expressions that ranged from horrified to shell-shocked. He gave a weak smile and a half-hearted shrug. “Look, it worked.”
A bottle of tequila was slammed down in the middle of the table, and everyone jumped. Clint dropped a stack of paper cups from the water cooler next to it and started opening the bottle with a practiced hand. “Clint,” Steve said, his voice full of warning. “We're at SHIELD. We haven't even started the debrief. You really think we should be drinking?”
Clint gave him an incredulous look. “Cap, were you just on the same mission as me? Because let me tell you, yes, I really, really think we should be drinking. We just watched a gigantic dust bunny of rage and poor self-esteem issues get EATEN by an army of robotic vacuum cleaners. It was like a fuckin' zombie movie without the teeth.”
“But with even more screaming,” Bruce said, and to everyone's shock, he snagged a paper cup and held it out. “Oh, God, the screaming.”
Clint dumped a measure of the tequila into the cup. “Yeah, I'm trying to forget that, thanks.”
“There is no way I could've anticipated that,” Tony pointed out. “And he might still be alive.”
Everyone gave him a pitying glance and Clint handed out significant shots of liquor to everyone. He skipped the cup and held up the bottle. “To the internet,” he said, as everyone held up their Dixie cups. “Which will ensure that shaky cell phone footage of just what can happen when you fuck with the Avengers will live forever. And hopefully dissuade a couple of heartsick graduate students from pressing that big red button of doom.”
Natasha said something in Russian, and everyone threw back their shots, except for Steve. Tony waited for the sensation of having just downed a cup of pure liquid hate to subside, and then he pointed at the cup. “Drink,” he said, his voice raw and raspy. “Or I'll do it for you.”
Steve held the cup over his head, out of Tony's reach. “I can't get drunk and I don't like this stuff,” he said, so Coulson took it out of his hand as he walked into the room. “Ah, Coulson, sorry, we were just-” He stopped as Coulson tossed back the shot with a professional aplomb. “Okay, then.”
Coulson slapped the cup down on the table. “Stark, when this debriefing is done, I will be having a long, long chat with you. About the thin, microscopically thin line between hero and power crazed super villain playing with things men ought not to know.”
“I think that's actually a major at MIT,” Bruce said, slumped over on the table, head buried in his arms. “Or at least a thesis committee.”
Wow, that sounded like the opposite of fun. Tony pulled out his StarkPhone. “Sorry. Booked. I can work you in next Tuesday-” He blinked as Coulson took the phone from his hand and gave it a toss. “That was a prototype.”
“I, unsurprisingly enough, do not care.”
Tony sighed. “Look,” he said, his tone taking on a coaxing note. “I could not possibly have anticipated that. And it worked, didn't it? You certainly didn't have any better ideas. What were we going to do, let Thor wave his cape at it?”
Thor had taken the bottle from Clint, who was now a looked a lot more relaxed, and was giggling under his breath. “Roooomba,” he said to Thor, who grinned and toasted him with the bottle before downing about a fifth of it in one pull.
“Do you know what the difference between a villain and a super villain is, Stark?” Coulson said, leaning his palms on the tabletop, looming over everything like a very snappily dressed gargoyle.
“Style?” Tony asked, pointing both index fingers in Coulson's direction like the gunslinger that he was. He added a wide grin to the gesture, but Coulson didn't seem to notice.
“A villain has a giant mass of robotic vacuum cleaners that he can sic on his enemies. A super villain gives them the ability to fly.”
“In my defense, I do not actually remember installing repulsor technology in the Roombas,” Tony said, choosing his words carefully. It had been a working theory, sure, but he still wasn't quite sure when he implemented it. Maybe sometime on Tuesday night... That one was a blur. “It was a very long couple of days. So I was as surprised by that as everyone else.”
“Screaming 'fuck, yes, suck it,' over the SHIELD commline made that abundantly clear,” Natasha said, her voice droll.
“That was an appropriate vacuum related pun,” Tony pointed out.
“Yeah, real Masterpiece Theater level dialog there,” Clint said, grinning at Tony, because, honestly, everyone knew that if the two of them decided to team up, the rest of the team was going down. That was not even in question, normal boys would take their super powered comrades to TOWN.
“Shut up, Barton,” Tony said, grinning back. “I seem to remember you shrieking like a toddler somewhere in there.”
“One of them attacked my head!”
“Clear indication you need to shower more often.” Tony crossed his arms over his chest. “It wasn't that bad.”
“Three experienced SHIELD field agents threw up, and four others were crying. Not just a little bit of watering eyes, Stark, full on sobbing. I had to deal with sobbing agents,” Coulson said, his voice full of 'I am really not happy about this.' “People who have been to war zones. People who have seen horrific, horrific acts of violence. All it took to break them was the robotic equivalent of a locust swarm, consuming everything in their path.”
“The screaming was really...” Bruce shuddered. “The screaming was something.”
“I wouldn't know, I turned off my auditory input,” Tony said. “Look, he could still be alive, right?”
“R&D is pretty sure he is, actually.”
“No fuckin' way,” Tony said before he could stop himself, and Thor was grinning at him, and Clint was laughing out loud and Steve had his face buried in his hands. “So, uh, that being said, what's the problem?”
“Getting him back OUT of a hundred robotic vacuum cleaners,” Coulson said. “That and the screaming.”
“It wasn't that-”
“Howls of the damned, Stark,” Barton said. “Like, seriously. Howls of the damned.”
“He shouldn't have turned himself into a dust devil,” Tony said.
“Speaking of the howls of the damned,” Coulson said to Clint, “is that Fury's tequila?”
“Not any more.” Clint grinned as Coulson gave him a smack on the back of the head.
“How come Clint's the only one who gets hit?” Tony asked Coulson.
“He likes me best,” Clint said.
“Because if I start hitting you, I'm not going to stop until someone tasers me into unconsciousness,” Coulson said with a faint smile.
“You do realize we won, right?”
“Tell that to the psych eval team. They're booked through October at this point.”
The Avengers were a smart group of individuals, trained in battle tactics and psychological warfare and capable of bringing down entire armies with half the team out on medical leave. Which meant that it had taken them about a week to devise a Tony-trap that worked every time.
Tony knew they were doing it, knew it the same way that a mouse knew that the peanut butter that happened to be inside the little plastic box was probably not there as a late Christmas present, but he still fell for it. Because it was a very clever trap combining almost all of his favorite things.
And he kinda liked the fact that they went through the effort.
Also he was afraid that if he really resisted, Steve was just going to send Barton with one of his tranq arrows. Clint would do it, too, the man delighted in hiding in ceilings and wiggling through air vents and would no doubt jump at the chance to shoot Tony in the ass with something, anything, that would not end up with Coulson yelling at him.
So he continued to give in to the Tony-trap of perfectly brewed Kona coffee, bacon and fresh biscuits, a loud discussion of the newest tech toys that were intrinsically inferior to whatever StarkIndustries was making, and a household appliance that mysteriously needed fixing.
Steve was usually dispatched to remind him about eating, and the rest fell into place in due order.
The toaster was not happy that no one was paying attention to it, so Tony gave it a minor upgrade between bites of fruit salad, because someone, probably Coulson, was actually paying attention to the nutritional guidelines that SHEILD medical had sent over. SHIELD was pretty sure they were all going to die of rickets or scurvy before Dr. Doom or Magneto or Loki had a chance to finish them of, and so, yeah, fruit.
Tony was pretty sure that SHIELD medical was grasping at straws, but when ones patients were regularly turned into farm animals or sentient paper dolls, focusing on the little stuff must be a godsend.
There was some argument happening in the background about the chore chart, about how nobody other than Steve was fulfilling their daily duties, mostly because Clint liked to bitch at Thor and Thor took offense at any suggestion that he was letting the team down.
“Shut it, Clint,” Natasha said, sipping her tea. “Besides, Steve missed Stark Hugging Duty on Sunday.”
“Stark was in Tokyo on Sunday,” Bruce said. “And not even this group will authorize the use of the Quinjet to fly to Japan to hug Tony.”
Tony gritted his teeth and reached for his tablet. “Besides,” he said, trying to make a joke out of it, “the Japanese Prime Minster would likely have been a little uncomfortable with that.” He called up the toaster's schematic and considered a heavier heating coil.
“A job is a job,” Clint pointed out with a smirk. “Steve. You are a failure as a leader. You have failed at your appointed task.”
“Thanks, Hawkeye, I'll be sure to write myself up for that during the next quarterly review,” Steve said, shaking his head. There was a faint smile on his face. “So good of you to remind me about my responsibilities.”
“I,” Clint said, spearing a sequence of fruit cubes on a skewer, “am a giver. And a job is a job, we've all gotta do the rough stuff from time to time, go hug Stark and mark it off the chart.”
Tony waved a fork in their general direction. “You may all go to hell.”
“Don't make me get the chart,” Clint told him. “You cannot interfere with the chart.”
Tony kept his head down. Yeah, because if there was one thing his completely fucked up childhood had prepared him for, it was the concept that affection, especially physical affection, was an unpleasant chore that needed to be scheduled, at least where Tony was concerned.
The room was suddenly so still that Tony could hear himself breathing. He glanced up from his tablet, and everyone was staring at him, everyone was just looking right at him with wide eyes and still faces and something he couldn't quite figure out. Until he met Steve's eyes, Steve's agonized face, really, the man looked like he'd been punched in the stomach, like was going to cry, he'd been to war, he'd fought Nazis, and right now, in the Avengers kitchen, Steve Rogers looked like he was going to cry.
And that was when Tony realized he'd said that aloud.
He'd said that aloud. He'd said that humiliating, self-pitying, 'Jesus, I am the most fucked-up person alive' sentence OUT LOUD. And they had all heard him. All of them.
But it was Steve who was staring at him, with wounded eyes that Tony did not understand, he never understood Steve, all he'd really wanted out of life was to not completely humiliate himself in front of Steve, and he'd failed at that, too.
His brain was doing something, like he was rebooting himself in safe mode, limited access, no complicated settings, nothing to think about or do or process, just a simple set of instructions: get up, collect the coffee cup, collect the tablet, and leave the room. There was someone talking, someone saying Tony's name, and that was not data that was being accepted at this time, he didn't have the ability to handle auditory input right now, so he shrugged off the hand that tried to grab his arm, with a bit more force than was necessary.
Linear progression. Up. Turn. Leave. Hallway. Stairs. Workshop. Door lock. Talk to Jarvis, even if he didn't hear what Jarvis said back, only the slightly higher pitched tone that indicated that his AI was aware that something was wrong, was very wrong, but Tony couldn't handle dealing with that right now, he just gave instructions by rote and retreated.
He wasn't sure what happened after that, maybe a complete mental defrag or maybe just a small nervous breakdown, he didn't really know. When he became aware of his surroundings again, he was seated on the floor, back pressed up against the concrete wall, with Dummy's 'head' resting on his folded legs. He got the impression he'd been scratching the bot behind a particularly sensitive joint, and Dummy let out a whirr and chirp, stretching up as Tony stilled.
His tablet was in his other hand and man, he'd been busy. Great. Blackout engineering. That always ended well. Well, to be honest, it usually ended in patents and a significant stock price jump, but that didn't mean that Tony enjoyed it.
Okay, fine, he enjoyed it. It was kind of fun to reverse engineer his own stuff and figure out what the hell he'd been thinking.
His coffee was mostly gone and stone cold. He was a little afraid to check the time, but he was still alone in his workshop, and he must've cranked the music at some point, because AC/DC had formed a nice comforting cocoon of wailing guitars to hide in. He sighed, head falling back against the wall, and wondered if he could just stay down here forever.
“Sir?” Jarvis' voice was gentle, coaxing.
“Yeah, I'm here, I'm with you. Sorry, Jarvis.” Tony's fingers stroked down Dummy's arm, taking comfort in the familiar lines of the metal structure. He needed to consider replacing some of the joint structures, the materials would be falling prey to fatigue cracks soon enough. Dummy bumped his 'head' against Tony's palm, happy for the attention.
“Captain Rogers is outside, and he is quite upset. I've managed to block his attempts to enter the workshop up until this point, but he is refusing to- Sir, if you go catatonic again, I will instruct Dummy to get the fire extinguisher,” Jarvis snapped, as Tony sank down into his hunched shoulders.
“I'm not going to- Jesus, I'm not going to go catatonic,” Tony snapped back. He also didn't stand up. “How pissed off is he?” he asked.
“He attempted to use Col. Fury's access codes,” Jarvis said. “So I would say, extremely. I don't suppose I could convince you to allow him to enter?”
“Don't you dare.” Tony could feel the humiliation rising in the back of his throat like bile. He swallowed, ignoring the too tight feeling of his chest. “Just... Don't. I need to, to do something first, I can't talk to him just yet, I have things that I have to do.”
There was a long pause. “I understand,” Jarvis said at last. “I will do my best, sir, but short of sending an electronic short through the keypad-”
“No! No, do not hurt him.” Tony gave Dummy one final pat and pushed himself off of the floor. His legs were numb so that was fun, that was not what he had intended. He stumbled just a little, shoulders hitting the wall, and all the way across the workshop, he knew Steve had spotted him through the glass walls, because the other man went still.
Tony kept his head down, pretending that he didn't see anything, shoulders forward, eyes fixed on his tablet as he wandered to the nearest worktable and sat down, straddling the bench so his back was still to the entrance. He wanted to look, and yeah, that was a bad idea, he didn't know if he could maintain a mask at this point, stupid defective brain.
But he really wanted to look. To see if Steve's mouth was still moving, still talking, even if he couldn't hear the words. He kind of wanted to know what Steve was saying.
“He has been repeating, 'thank God,' or words to that affect since you stood up,” Jarvis said, and Tony cursed, loud and long and full of self-hatred. “It would appear that he did not believe my assurances that you were unharmed.”
“Yeah, well, I keep TALKING when I don't intend to talk, so yeah, I am pretty damn broken, but that probably falls under the category of unharmed.” Tony slapped the tablet down on the bench, staring down at it. Someday he'd figure out a way to do a diagnostic on his own brain. Or at least take an ice cream scoop to the messed up emotional parts.
Shoulders slumping, he went back to his work. Work was good. Calming. Easy. Work didn't make him panic or confuse him or humiliate him. His workshop was safe.
That was the only warning he got before there was the loud sound of glass shuddering, cracking, shattering. He jerked his head over his shoulder, reaching for something, anything, off the table to use as a weapon, heart staggering in his chest as the adrenaline spiked.
And Steve swung his shield onto his shoulder and stepped through the smashed panel.
Tony stared at him, mouth gaping open. “Did you go upstairs, get your shield and smash your way through the goddamn wall?” he asked, incredulous.
Steve glanced over his shoulder at the mess. “Yeah, it appears that's just what I did. That's what I should've done an HOUR AGO,” he snarled, his feet heavy on the concrete floor. “Jarvis, lower the volume on the music, please.”
“Jarvis, don't you-” Tony sighed as the music died. “Great. Wonderful. Traitor.”
“Don't pick on him,” Steve snapped. “He's been protecting you this whole time, but he, at least, knows when he's beaten.”
“Traitor,” Tony mumbled, bending his head, his shoulders, his whole body down around the tablet, folding himself in around it, knowing it was pathetic, but beyond caring. He heard Steve pause next to him, but didn't look up, didn't move, fingers dancing over the tablet screen.
He heard Steve's sigh, and then the shield was placed on the work table and Tony felt Steve take a seat behind him. It took him a moment to realize that Steve was straddling the bench, facing away from Tony, his spine flush up against with Tony's bent back. For a long moment, the two of them just sat there, back to back, facing in different directions, still and quiet.
“You aren't an obligation,” Steve said, and Tony twitched, caught between fight and flight. “No. Don't you dare run away from me right now.” Tony felt Steve take a deep breath, his back pressing against Tony's. “I messed this up. You're not an obligation, you're not a chore, Tony.”
“Yeah, we both know that's not true,” Tony muttered under his breath.
“Stop it,” Steve said, and he sounded so sad, his voice so leaden, that Tony felt guilty. “I screwed up. I understand that. I just-” He paused, his breathing a little faster than it should've been. “You've got two settings, Tony. Two faces. I kind of hate your public face.”
Tony flinched, his whole body jerking at the impact of the words, and Steve muttered something that sounded like a curse. “No, no, I hate it because you put it on, Tony, because you have to do that, that you can't just be, well, you.”
“Like being me had ever worked out well.”
Steve stilled. “You said that aloud,” he said, at last.
Tony chuckled. “Yeah. I know.”
“Oh. Oh, good.” Steve took a deep breath, and another. “I never say the right things to you. Never know how-” His voice broke. “I know you put up with a lot from us. That we're annoying and frustrating, and I interfere all the time, I know you hate it when I'm mucking around down here. I know that you don't want me here, I try, I really do and all I manage to do is just be this annoyance, and that's not what I want, but-”
“I want you here,” Tony said, but he didn't think that Steve heard him.
“You are always on the outside, and I hate it, and I don't know how to fix it, because sometimes you're just there with that fake little half smile on your face, like you don't know what you're doing here, in with everyone else, and it's your public smile and I hate it.”
The words were loud in the small space, Steve's back hard as a rock behind him. Tony drew a rough fingertip over the surface of the tablet.
“This is your home, and we're the interlopers and you should not look like that here, and I want to talk to you or tell you things, or make you understand and I can't. Because I'm not good at this, so I end up hovering and whining and poking and prodding, and I don't know why you put up with me.”
“Because you're my friend,” Tony said, his voice soft. “And it's not putting up with you, Steve. I like you.” He cast about, helpless, trying to find a way to explain, and failed miserably at it. “You're my friend. I don't, um, I don't have a lot of those.”
Steve sucked in a breath. “A friend shouldn't be a help, not a hindrance. You've done nothing but, well, you're-” He stopped again. “Okay, I just, look. The Avengers were a team. You made us something more.
“We were all lost,” Steve said, and his voice was soft, almost small, and not even sure what to do about it, Tony pressed against Steve's broad back. The other man was slumped forward, and without thinking about it, Tony leaned back, unfolding himself so his spine followed the curve of Steve's, his head thrown back to rest on Steve's shoulder, as close as he could get them, though the contact was still too little, too late.
“We were lost.” Steve repeated, and the words vibrated through Tony's body, and he closed his eyes. “And alone. The team was good, the team was excellent, but we'd leave at the end of the day and go to lick our wounds and stare at the blank ceiling and feel the walls closing in on us.” A laugh, a raw little one, and Steve shifted, and his voice was muffled now, like he'd put his hand over his face. “Or maybe that was just me.”
“I just built and rebuilt and rebuilt the armor,” Tony said, sighing. “Like that changed anything.”
Steve took a deep breath. “I was lost,” he said, and the words took effort. “Alone. And you gave me a home. A place to be. Where people smiled at me and talked to me and yelled at me and treated me like a person, not a freak, not an asset or a commodity or a figurehead. Not a symbol. Just, you know, me. Confused and useless and so unbelievably stupid sometimes.”
“Stop it,” Tony said, because he hated hearing Steve say those things about himself. “You're not-”
“Yeah, I am. Was. It's fine, really. But I came here, you let me come here, you invited me here and for the first time in a long time, I had a home.” He paused. “You'll never, ever know how much that meant to me. How much it still means to me. That I can screw up in the field or do something wrong or fail or stumble over using the dang microwave, and I'm still welcome here, I can still come here.” His voice shook, just a little, and then stabilized. “Come home.”
“Did you blow up the microwave again?” Tony asked, lips quirking up.
“It was Thor. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.” He shifted, and his muscles flexed against Tony's back. “So when you said 'family meeting,' even though I knew you didn't really mean it, that's all I could think about. That yes. This is my family. And that's something I haven't had in so long. I've been so honored to know you, all of you.” He gave a small laugh, almost under his breath. “And we are all so messed up.”
Tony nodded. “We should get a group discount on therapy. There's a Groupon that is severely underrepresented in modern society.”
“I'll pretend that means something to me.” Steve was laughing anyway. “So when Clint put that on the board, I just...” He cleared his throat. “It was an excuse for something I wanted to do, but didn't think you'd let me, because, um,” He shrugged, his shoulders flexing beneath Tony's head. “I like hugging you.”
Tony felt his face heat. Not like that, he told his stupid, stupid brain. Not like that. He just meant hugging the way that friends did, he did not mean it like THAT, stop being creepy and weird and stalkery with your best friend and teammate, it is unacceptable behavior. Goddamn stupid brain, making everything about sex. And if he was saying any of this out loud, he would cut out his own tongue.
He paused. Nope. Nothing, good, interior monologue was staying where it belonged for once.
Out loud, and carefully, he said, “Okay. That's... Okay. I can do that.”
“I don't want to be an obligation either, Tony. You don't have to, ” Steve said, and something in Tony broke.
Without thinking about it, he twisted around, swinging himself over on the bench until he could wrap his arms around Steve from behind. His arms slipped under Steve's, around his waist, Tony's chest leaning against Steve's back. “Yeah,” he whispered as Steve froze. “I do.”
There was a long, still moment where they just breathed, and then Steve's hand came up to cover Tony's, fingers warm and grip solid. “Thank you,” he whispered, and there was such honest gratitude in the words that Tony wanted to cry.
They stayed there, like that, for a long time, taking comfort from the contact and each others presence. Tony took a deep breath. “Steve?”
“I'm keeping the Roombas.”
That startled a laugh out of him, loud and warm and real, and Tony relaxed, just a little. “No, you're not,” Steve said, looking back over his shoulder at Tony. He grinned, and Tony grinned back. “You are absolutely not.”
“What, you're going to throw them out into the cold, unfeeling world? Where they will be sad and alone and cut off from their loving Roomba friends and family? From Clint, who loves them all so deeply that I know he has named every single one of the murderous little bastards? I could never have guessed that you'd be so heartless, Steven Rogers.”
“Get the toaster to stop lighting things on fire, then I'll discuss the Roomba babies.”
“The what now?” Tony released him, swinging around in front of Steve, who was flushed and embarrassed looking. “The Roomba what?”
“That's what Clint is calling them! It's not my-” Steve groaned as Tony grinned at him, wide and bright and utterly unrepentant. “No. No, we do not need eighty-seven Roombas in the tower.”
“My tower, my Roombas!” Tony sing-songed, gripping Steve by the shoulders. “I'm sorry, Cap, this is not a democracy. This tower is a Starkocracy, and what I say goes.” He did his best to look stern. Steve raised an eyebrow at him and he sighed. “Why do you get to be right all of the time?”
“It's less fun than you might think. I never get invited to the good parties,” Steve said, with a straight face. “Tony?”
“I never once hugged you because of the chart.”
“How about the day I ended up covered in transmission fluid and fire extinguisher foam?”
“Not even that day.” As if by unspoken accord, they gathered themselves and started back upstairs. Steve glanced at him as they headed up the stairs, side by side, Steve carrying his shield and Tony carrying his tablet. “How did that happen?”
“Dummy, Calcifer and Clint,” Tony said, as if that explained everything, and judging by Steve's smile, maybe it did.
“Ah, is that why there was an official written warning stuck to the front of our toaster this morning?”
“Paperwork must've finally gone through, yep. The most impressive thing is that Coulson got Fury to sign off on a disciplinary form for a toaster. I'm trying to imagine that conversation. I... I cannot manage it.” Tony considered. “Maybe he just put it in a pile of forms and let Fury sign them all.”
Steve paused, gave him a look. “I think that Coulson put the dang form down in front of Director Fury and said, 'The toaster was way out of line,' and at that point, not signing it would involve a discussion. Signing it means that Fury can go back to pretending we're not all crazy.”
“He does pop antacids like they're chicklets,” Tony said, grinning.
“Actually,” Coulson said from the top of the stairs, making them both jump, “Director Fury was the one who initiated the disciplinary action." He paused, letting that sink in. “And Stark?”
“Yeeeeeeees?” Tony asked, one foot hovering, ready to make a break down the stairs, not that the workshop was secure anymore because it was missing a goddamn wall, thanks a lot, Captain America, actually, now that he thought about it, that was kinda hot, and was Coulson still talking?”
“Your Roombas got out of the R&D department and are currently attempting to storm the upper management offices.”
Tony considered that. “Point the first, I love my Roombas. Point the second, screaming?” he asked Coulson.
“So. Much. Screaming.”
Tony looked at Steve, who was shaking his head. “Assemblin' time.” Grinning, he took the rest of the stairs at a run. “Jarvis, prep the armor and release the hounds!”
This was my first fic in this fandom. Thank you so much for putting up with me, and for those who have stuck it out to the end, and left me notes and kudos, thank you so much. It went on much longer than I intended, and as with Tony's bots, rather got away from me, but I enjoyed writing it. I hope you enjoyed reading it.