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description = {‘an idea for a project will be carefully examined to determine whether or not it benefits the client. During this phase, the project manager will identify if the project can realistically be completed.’}

 

 

It was one of those days.

Tony neither loved nor hated those days. It was just another span of twenty-four hours that he kept himself occupied so his mind couldn’t convince him to do something stupid like call Pepper and beg her to come back home.

Only this place wasn’t home. There was no home anymore. He hadn’t been in Malibu for almost a year, and with the mansion gone, and Pepper gone as well, there honestly was no reason to. Instead, Tony had moved to New York. Into Stark Tower. And he planned to stay indefinitely, even if it meant subjecting himself to a mainstream of tedium between working in his SI office and tinkering in the workshop.

Once upon a time, Tony would’ve deemed a life like this intolerable, but there was simply no motivation left in him to do anything about it. He didn’t give a fuck about what Rhodey kept trying to tell him—he didn’t want to make time for ‘self-reflection’. He didn’t want to ‘clear his head’, thanks very much, Happy. And whatever philosophical guidebook JARVIS had secretly downloaded on his servers, he would not ‘allow the metaphorical and physical scars marring his past time to heal’.

It didn’t matter that everyone kept telling him that he was diving head first into depression. This—whatever this was—wasn’t just a matter of time. He was stuck. And instead of doing something about it, Tony took everything with a grain of salt and a tight smile. Forty-four years had schooled him to do whatever he felt like doing, and now… he was usually biting his tongue when every instinct told him to snap a witty rejoinder to those who drained his not-so-infallible patience.

Patience. Over the last months, he’d learned this was the secret to surviving one of those days. And that was what today was. What yesterday had been. What tomorrow would be.

Once, Tony had considered time an enemy; he had always had too little of it. The day his parents had died, he’d first realized—truly realized—that his life expectancy had been stamped with an expiration date. And every day since then had been a fight to make the most of it. Between going to obnoxious parties, fucking his way through the upper 10,000 and inventing the future for SI, there had never been enough time.

It wasn’t that way anymore. All Tony had was time. And every single day, he awoke with a literal and not-so-literal hole carved in his chest, and with desperation to which he’d long grown numb.

“You sure you don’t need me to drive you home?” Happy offered, sporting the usual look of concern slash guilt whenever he didn’t want to let Tony out of his sight, these days.

“I’m good,” Tony said. “And you shouldn’t be late for your date, Casanova.”

Happy valiantly tried to fight down a smug smile, and Tony rolled his eyes at the absurdity of it all. Happy deserved a few days off, and he damn well deserved to spend time with his new potential nurse-girlfriend. After all, it was the single good thing that had resulted from the whole Mandarin fiasco, so Happy better made it count. And… how low must Tony truly be, if his friend couldn’t even show how, well, happy he was about his first date in years?

After another minute of consideration, Happy patted Tony’s shoulder and gave him a long and stern look. “If you need anything, just call me, alright? Or James. Pepper even told me to—”

Tony groaned, holding up a hand to stop him right there. “I’m not an invalid. Jesus Christ. You guys have to stop treating me like one. There are plenty of parties I’m invited to. And plenty of people to have some fun with afterwards. I’m fine.”

He wasn’t going to attend any party, which Happy knew, of course, but was tactful enough not to call Tony on the bluff. Or he was just glad about the easy way out. Whatever.

On his drive back to the tower, Tony decided to make a little detour to the next foodmarket. The penthouse was always well stocked with all sorts of seasonal foods and drinks, but that was only the standard delivery, and Pepper had excluded all kinds of hard liquor after their break-up. In doing so she had probably saved his liver, if not his life—he wasn’t stupid, okay?—but if he was going to survive this particular day, he needed something a little stronger for once.

Exactly one year ago, he’d been busy hunting down the world’s most giant stuffed bunny. And now, he was alone, which didn’t look like it was going to change any time soon.

As soon as Tony stepped out of the car, he shoved a cap on his head and propped a pair of sunglasses on his nose. The winter air was chilly—and the sky looked like it was about to snow any second, reminiscent of the Christmas he’d spent in Rosehill last year.

He still remembered holding Pepper in his arms so vividly, the Iron Man suits exploding all around them. He’d believed in it then, believed it was worth it to destroy this part of him to get his normal life back. To finally give Pepper what she deserved.

He wasn’t so sure anymore. And he was beyond believing in saving grace.

Pepper had left. The one person who’d always managed to deal with his crazy had left. And Tony had aged so much so quickly. Barely forty-five and he already felt like an old man.

Inside the supermarket, Tony brushed a few snowflakes off his jacket and started the journey up and down the aisles. There wasn’t much he needed. Just a bit of liquor to make sure he remembered nothing of the season once the new year hit. Enough to make him forget that he didn’t want to be alone, but there was nothing he could do about it.

Ten minutes later, he watched as the teller rang up his purchases. Watched the bottles of some low-budget scotch disappear into brown paper sacks. The cashier reported the total and Tony handed over his credit card. Once his name popped up on the display, the cashier did a double-take, really looking at Tony’s face for the first time. And all Tony could think of was how tired and old he must look these days. How aged. How thoroughly hollow.

The boy was opening his mouth, and Tony knew exactly what was coming next, and managed to brush past the paperboy in record-time. No way he was going to do this now. No fucking way. He was too tired for autographs, or any sort of photo. It didn’t matter anyway. Now, there would be news on him buying booze on Christmas, sad and alone, and he really didn’t need to give the press any more fuel for that particular fire.

His image was already burning, after all.

Before he could reach the door, though, he felt a tug on his jacket sleeve, and turned around sharply, ready to give the guy a piece of his mind on touching people without their permission. Though for everything in the world, Tony was hardly prepared for who stood right in front of him.

That… definitely wasn’t a scrawny cashier.

“Rogers?” Tony said, fully aware how far his mouth was hanging open.

God, Cap looked different. Long gone was the guy Tony had made old man jokes at during their brief stint as a superhero team. His features were still as sharp as Tony remembered, as were his blue eyes. Everything about him was the same except that he’d gotten a new and much more modern haircut, and wore a black hoodie and jeans.

Rogers’ face broke into a smile, and while it was warm and welcoming, it also struck Tony as suffered and worn—the face of someone who had fought his demons and was a better person for it. Well. Given what had happened in Washington two months ago, that was exactly what had happened.

“Stark,” he said in greeting, and… tried very very hard to look surprised.

No coincidence, then.

As though on command, Natasha stepped up next to Rogers, wearing a dark hoodie and sunglasses of her own. She looked up at Tony with her trademark smile that was half assessment and half criticism.

“Fancy meeting you here,” she said, which was a lie she didn’t even try to mask, and continued, “How are you?”

“I’m…” Tony broke off and decided to play their little game. Smalltalk he could always do. “Exceedingly surprised to see you here. It’s been… how long?”

“Almost two years,” Natasha said with a short, non-committal nod. “One and a half since New York.”

“Really? What about that. You look good,” Tony told them both, and that was true, at least. A bit too hipster for Tony’s liking, but good nevertheless.

“Thank you.” Rogers flashed an amused grin. “You look… interesting.”

Tony looked down at himself, and… right. He still wore one of his more expensive Armani suits, a blue Patriots cap, his red Nike AF1s and yellow sunglasses. “Err…” he said with a noncommittal shrug. “Christmas shopping was kind of a last minute decision.”

“I see,” Rogers said with a tight smile. “What are the odds of bumping into each other here, right?”

There was a long beat of silence. Tony glanced at Natasha—who obviously fought hard not to roll her eyes—then back at Rogers. Then he burst out laughing.

Hard.

He just couldn’t help himself. The guy was easily the worst liar of all times. And he was trying so hard, shifting uncomfortably on his feet, a tight expression etching his face.

It was kind of cute, to be honest.

Rogers’ faux-surprised mask fell into a scowl. “Really?”

“I-I’m sorry,” Tony said with a little hiccup, gaining composure. “I am… well… I suppose I just find it ironic. That Fury would send you of all people out here to get me back on track, or whatever it is that he told you to do. The two people of the team who hate me the most.”

“Fury’s dead,” Rogers supplied, face very serious.

Tony just snorted. “Yeah, sure he is. So what is this—his special Christmas gift?” He leered at Natasha. “Got another needle to jam in my neck? News flash: I’m not gonna build him anything. Not after that Helicarrier fiasco.”

Rogers opened his mouth to say something, but Natasha held up a hand to stop him. She’d probably known all along that Rogers and his lousy pokerface would give them away. Either she hadn’t cared, or she’d brought him along for this exact reason. “We’re not here to do anything with you. Or ask anything of you, for that matter,” she assured him. “This isn’t another mission. We left DC to get away from all that.”

“But you did come here on purpose,” Tony pointed out. “Seeking me out at Christmas of all times. For what if you don’t want new tech? If it’s Iron Man Fury’s looking for, I gotta tell you, he’ll be really disappointed. Better just go back to your boss and tell him that.”

Rogers’ scowl was firmly in place while he jutted his jaw forward, looking for all the world like a stubborn five-year old. “Our days of acting out Fury’s orders at a drop of the pin are over.”

“Aha!” Tony cried, pointing triumphantly at Rogers’ chest. So Fury was alive. He’d had his suspicions, of course, but with Fury, there was no way to know for sure. After a blink, though, Tony’s expressions fell into a frown. “But… if it’s not—what do you want from me?”

“Nothing,” Rogers said and raised his voice over Tony’s disbelieving snort. “It’s just friends visiting for the holidays, if you’ll have us. We’re kind of… stranded. And from what we’ve heard, you don’t have a lot of people to spend Christmas with, either.”

Tony smiled grimly. The ‘Millennia Break-up’ had been all over the news of course—in great detail—and a few gossip magazines were still doing front pages. “I see word still travels fairly well.”

Rogers’ face remained impassive. “Look, we haven’t heard from you in a while, so we thought you’d like the company—”

“I don’t.”

Rogers blinked. “Don’t what?”

“Like the company. I’m good on my own. Always have been, always will be.”

Rogers didn’t look impressed. “It’s Christmas.”

Tony rolled his eyes, waving a hand at the decorations around them. “Really? Gosh, I wasn’t aware of that, thanks so much Captain Perceptive.”

“Play nice, boys. This isn’t the place for this,” Natasha said, nodding to the grocery store around them. A bunch of people had already stopped to take photos of them. “Can we at least invite ourselves to your place for dinner?” she asked.

“Dinner,” Tony echoed. “Why would you want to have dinner with me?”

Natasha smiled innocently. “Well, you do have a tower around here somewhere, right? I’m pretty sure it has a kitchen.”

Tony rolled his eyes and glanced at the bag in his hand, silently saying goodbye to his plans for this evening. He couldn’t very well get wasted in Captain America’s presence. Or Natasha’s.

Especially not in Natasha’s.

“Steve was planning to make spaghetti with meatballs for all of us, if that’s helping in any way. They’re delicious,” Natasha offered. “Clint cried a little.”

“I… God, whatever, fine,” Tony said on a long exhale. “Mi casa e su casa.”

Natasha’s smile almost turned a little smug at that. She’d probably expected this to be his answer eventually.

Rogers beamed, satisfied now that he got his way. Tony’d always had the feeling that there was a calculating little shithead underneath all that patriotic virtue. “Great,” he announced. “The others are already waiting.”

“The others,” Tony echoed and pinched his nose.

Natasha grinned at him in a way that made Tony want to crawl under the pyramid of mashed potatoes-cans. “A little bird told us there are five furnished floors in the tower, and couple of guest suites. I’m sure you can accommodate a few guests for one night, right?”

If Tony had to guess, the little bird had red hair and usually wore six-inch high heels.

Rogers patted his back, ever-so-gently moving him forward, before Tony could do something like run away. Which seemed like a solid option right then.

“Why guest suites?” asked faintly when he spotted all of the other Avengers outside, where they were casually leaning against some black SUV. “Last time I counted, there was only six people on the team, me included.”

“Oh, right,” Rogers said, the corners of his mouth ticking upwards in an entirely not-so-innocent way. “I’ll introduce you to Sam. I’m sure you’ll like each other just fine.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Tony had stepped into someone else’s life.

The penthouse was bright and harsh and deafening, a fact not aided by the loud pop music and Thor’s constant jeering and laughing. Barton, Natasha and that Sam-guy were sprawled in a heap on the couch, while Rogers, Bruce and Thor had invaded Tony’s kitchen, drinking one beer after another.

And Tony? Well, he sat on one of the bar stools, a tumbler of scotch firmly cradled between his hands, and simply stared at his surroundings. Apart from a short greeting, no one had really said much of anything to him, and that was more than fine. A room full of people was constrictive as it was, and he hated feeling pressed for conversation that, after so long since he’d done something like this, seemed awkward.

“I want ice-cream,” Barton called over suddenly. He spoke with a firm tone of authority, leading Tony to believe the he had thought this point over with comical seriousness. The next instant, he rose to his feet and traveled across the room, looking a little helpless as he inspected the large kitchen area.

“There’s always some Ben and Jerry’s in the freezers,” Tony offered slowly as though he was talking about desserts all the time and this was not at all an unusual occurrence.

Barton stopped in his tracks for a second, casting Tony a pensive look. “Uh, thanks,” he said.

Tony arched a brow at Natasha. “Did I say something wrong?”

She shook her head. “No. He’s still not used to not having his every action dissected. For a while, everything he said came with a Q&A.”

Loki. Right. Tony’d almost forgotten about that. “Because he liked ice cream?”

Rogers walked over to them. He met Tony’s eyes and said in a flat deadpan, “When I got defrosted, SHIELD called in a meeting after I said I wanted a burger.”

The part of Tony that wanted to laugh was trampled by disbelief. “You’re trolling me.”

Natasha shook her head with a fond smile. “Phil only tried to figure out what would make him happy and… recreate that. There were extensive lists on what Steve liked and what he didn’t.”

Rogers made a face. “Strange how I thought my wanting a burger was just because I was hungry.”

Tony scratched his neck as he watched Thor and Bruce laugh at something. They looked like they’d been cooking together all their life. When had that happened anyway? “This is very weird. You’re all weird.”

Rogers cast him a long look. “Still better than you. It’s Christmas and your best friend’s a bottle.”

Tony froze. Rogers’ brows perked. “What? You think I didn’t catch that?”

Tony swallowed. “No, I just thought you had more tact.”

“That’s a myth,” Natasha supplied with a low smile.

Rogers chuckled quietly, then looked back at Tony with an intense sort of expression that made Tony feel strangely bare. “Is it so hard to believe that we’re all a little lost, after everything that happened last year? That we might be in need of company just as much as you are?”

A pang struck Tony’s heart. “It’s not that you’re lost, I can understand that. It’s…” He trailed off, not knowing how to put it that he simply did not understand why they wanted to spend time with him without sounding like a huge-assed cry baby.

“We’re right where we want to be,” Steve said, looking way too serious for a guy currently wearing a red-and-gold Iron Chef apron.

Tony snorted, openly amused for the first time in what felt like years. He was thoroughly overwhelmed—a feeling so foreign. It seemed that years had passed since he’d known acceptance. He almost felt as though he had been pardoned by a higher authority for all the wrongs he had done. Eventually, he cleared his throat and said, “If you say so, Capsicle… I don’t suppose I can refuse now, anyway. Not before I taste those legendary meatballs.”

Out of nowhere, Barton put a hand on Tony’s shoulder as he walked by. “Trust me, buddy. Those fuckers ruin you for every other meal.”

Rogers blushed a little at that, and for a weird out-of-body-experience-second, Tony thought that he looked really pretty with flushed cheeks. “Not my recipe, really,” Rogers said. “It was my Ma’s.”

Peace touched every nerve in Tony’s body, and he was captured with a wonderfully cheesy, however uplifting thought: So this is Christmas. “I’m sure they’re great.”

“Excellent,” Natasha told them, taking the spoon Barton offered her and dipping it into the huge can of Cookie Dough between his hands. “‘Cause we agreed that we’d tie you up and gag you, if you’d tried to kick us out on Christmas.”

Next to her, Barton nodded, and Steve was smiling at him entirely too pleasantly.

These people were very frightening.

Somehow they managed to spend the entire rest of the evening cooking and eating. By the time the pasta was done, and the sauce made, Tony was on his third glass of scotch. His words probably turned a little mushy, and his smiles were a bit on the dopey side, but the others weren’t exactly faring much better, so he was probably okay.

True to Natasha’s promise, Steve’s spaghetti was easily the most delicious thing Tony had eaten in a very long time. It wasn’t the gourmet, fashionable kind of delicious, maybe, but the sort of homemade, down-to-earth food that you remembered from your childhood. At first there was the rich flavor of tomatoes, then a hint of basil, and a touch of cayenne. After that, the flavor was much more complex and Tony might’ve let out a few involuntary groans as he finished his plate.

After Rogers meticulously put the leftovers in the fridge, it was already well past midnight, and all of them had settled onto the huge couches to watch a movie. Tony had scoured the video selection, and after some debate, he queued Return of the Jedi, because apparently Rogers still needed to see the conclusion of the saga.

The entire team, Tony included, was asleep within minutes. And if his head dropped to Rogers’ shoulder at some point, well, no one had to know.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Morning brought with it an awakening, both physical and mental. As the sun filtered in through the curtains, bathing Tony’s face in light, his splintered memory rushed back. The haze lifted completely and the events of the night before came back to him.

God, that had really happened, hadn’t it?

“JARVIS?” he breathed into the quietness of the room.

“Sir?” came the immediate answer.

“Are there currently five people asleep on my couch?”

“It does seem like it, sir. My sensors detect six life signs in this room. However, may I remind you that you have cleared their presence personally?”

“Right,” Tony said, rubbing his forehead with two fingers. No way to pretend that his world hadn’t once more rolled off its axis, then.

It was still early—way too early for him to be awake. Tony took in the chaotic appearance of the room with a quick glance, then stared down at the sleeping figures all around him. Natasha and Barton lay entangled on the other couch, with Bruce huddled to a tight ball right at Natasha’s feet. Thor was sprawled all over the right side of the couch, while Rogers was sleeping in a sitting position right next to Tony. His left arm was draped over his eyes, hair a little sleep-mussed, chest heaving with even breaths.

Tony’s thoughts drifted back to the events of last night. If it hadn’t been for Cap, he might never have brought all of them here. Strangely enough, something in him—despite their rough start on the Helicarrier two years ago—had trusted Steve implicitly.

Tony’s lips tugged into a small smile as he leaned back on the sofa, overcome with an odd sense of contentedness. It had been so long since he had cause to be happy—not that he was entirely happy now… but he was okay. And there was something strangely unsurprising about all of their presence, as if it had been meant to be that way.

As if they had been meant to be there at Tony’s side all along.

Tony knew, of course, that this wouldn’t fix anything. This—all of this—was temporary. He wasn’t so naïve to think this could last. He knew better than to grow accustomed, even for a day or so, to be depending on others. He had made that mistake before. He might have once believed in miracles. Now, though, his life was too shaded with darkness. And he refused to ask any of them to ease his loneliness.

Next to him, Steve murmured something and shifted. His left arm subconsciously reached for something and ended up grabbing a pillow in his sleepy haze.

Tony smiled at that. Steve sure looked comfortable, peaceful, even. His features were almost boyish in relaxation, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. As though he had not slept a night through until curling up on Tony’s sofa.

Is it so hard to believe that we’re all a little lost?

Tony heaved a long sigh, reveling in the warmth that emitted from Steve’s body. At this point, it was fruitless to force himself to conclusion. For once, he would simply lean back and see how things played out. Patience had been his only driving force for so long… he could wait a little while longer.

 

 

* * *

 

 

No one had openly acknowledged it so far, but Christmas was long over, and within a week, the floors at Stark Tower, which Tony had designed two years prior, were occupied. On the common floor, clothes were now strewn all around, new books and kitchen supplies were popping up out of nowhere. Steve and the wonder-twins had claimed the gyms twenty-four seven, while Thor and Sam were either joining them, watching movies or playing some PS4 game. And Bruce, who had only occasionally spent a few weeks here and there in the tower before, made himself at home in his own new lab.

Honestly, Tony still didn’t understand any of it. How things could change so much in such a short time was beyond him. He simply didn’t know why they had all simultaneously decided to give this Avengers-thing a new try, but for some reason, he didn’t question it. Like all things in his world, some ends were simply inevitable. After DC, after SHIELD’s collapse, Steve and Natasha must have contacted everyone, and Tony simply had been the last on the list.

Which was fine, really. He hadn’t exactly expected to make it on that list at all.

What he hadn’t expected either was the sudden wealth of affection he felt for these people. An affection that had originated, it seemed, from nowhere at all. They were on the road to something. Not friendship, maybe, not yet. But it was already more than Tony would have ever expected to get.

Thor was far more insightful than anyone gave him credit for. Certainly more than Tony had given him. It wasn’t always easy to figure out the deeper meaning behind his booming voice and kingly words, but more often than not, he brought things into perspective in a way that spoke volumes of how old Thor actually was.

Clint and Natasha were scary as ever, although Tony was slowly getting used to them popping up from out of nowhere. Natasha had changed a lot in the last year—that much was clear. She was still calculating, still hard when it came down to it, but there was softness now, too.

Bruce spent most of his time in the lab, working on his own projects when he wasn’t up in the kitchen to brew himself a new can of tea. From time to time, though, he’d come down to Tony’s shop and they’d tinker for a while. Bruce was a good man, even if he didn’t want to hear it—a good, complex man working hard to rid himself of his own demons. He was their strongest ally as well, and everybody knew it.

Sam… well, it was easy to see why Steve had chosen him to become his new best buddy. They had the same sort of dry humor, there were lots of shared war experiences and Sam was the only one who’d actually get up as early as Steve to join him for his morning runs.

To say Tony had been wrong about his assessment of Steve’s character would be the understatement of the century. He might be the embodiment of everything Tony was not—everything Howard had always made sure to tell Tony he could never be. He was unrepentantly good, and he flaunted it every chance he got. He was every bit the selfless and brave hero history made him out to be. He drank a glass of whole milk in the mornings, helped people around the city whenever he could, and Tony was almost sure he had once heard him hum Star Spangled Banner under the gym’s shower.

But.

But Steve could be such an ass, too. He was obstinate and self-righteous, sarcastic and so sassy it sometimes even put Tony in his place. He was constantly letting his stuff lie around—clothes, dirty socks, you name it. The guy didn’t even do his dishes half of the time. Steve was… in a word… a masterpiece. He was complex and imperfect, and still larger-than-life in everything he did. He was humble, a little rough at the edges… and Tony might have never been more wrong about anything or anyone in his entire life.

It was hard to tell what Steve thought of Tony these days. Tony wasn’t part of his team, so they didn’t necessarily have to get along. And whenever they were in the same room, Steve’s eyes often followed Tony as he crossed a room, like he was still trying to figure out if he even liked him or not.

Tony had expected to be unnerved by Steve’s constant presence. As the Avengers’ leader, he spent a lot of time down in Tony’s workshop to give him suggestions for whatever upgrades Tony had agreed to do on their gear. And it had turned their distrust in each other into begrudging acceptance. Then to acknowledged respect. And now this.

Steve usually sat on one of the couches, reading his history books or drawing on his new Stark tablet. They talked about everything and nothing, always talking, always sharing their thoughts. And no matter how confused these times together had Tony, there was some measure of solace in them as well. While, only a month ago, Tony had been fighting the current, now he was floating upon it, letting the warm drift carry him where it would. Having Steve around slowly seemed to heal the wounds in his heart, and it felt like he could just, for once in his life, let himself fall without fearing to crash and burn in the process.

His life had been molded into the fabric of self-constructed tedium so long that he had completely forgotten that life could be like this. Effortless. He was so used to struggling, fighting to stay afloat. Fighting not to let it show how bad he felt.

But here, now, was a life worth living.

“That’s a travesty,” Tony said, as he inspected the material of Steve’s stealth uniform. How the guy had managed to even survive so long with so little protection was beyond him. “No wonder you took SHIELD down all by yourself. If they force their people to wear this, all bets are off. Just… look at it,” he said in disgust.

Steve only shrugged, amusement written all over his face. “I’m aware. That’s why I asked for your help, remember?”

Tony leered. “And here I thought you only spend the day here to see what good I can do with my hands.”

Steve rolled his eyes, grin still firmly in place. “That, too.” He batted at him dismissively, while he turned around, looking at the workshop for a long thoughtful moment. “I wish I could’ve seen the suits in here, you know? Just once. It sure must’ve been a sight.”

Tony didn’t know what to say to that, so he merely flashed an easy-going smile. They hadn’t really talked about his retirement up until now. The topic of the missing aerial support had come up at one point, but they had successfully tiptoed around it. That Steve would eventually just breach the subject like this, wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it still caught Tony off-guard.

“I mostly tinker for SI, these days,” Tony said eventually. “Communication tech, clean energy, that kind of stuff.”

Steve hummed, as he rounded the corner where Tony knew the empty Iron Man display cabinets were. “So… you’re serious? There really won’t be any new suits?”

“Nope,” Tony said, popping the ‘p’. “Retired, remember?”

“You’re not considering it?”

“No,” Tony repeated, frowning.

Steve just smiled again, damn him. Tony hated that smile. It had a condescending feel to it, and an annoying ‘I-know-something-you-don’t-know’ touch.

“To be honest, I’d kinda hoped you might change your mind,” Steve said. “Once we’re all here, you know? Apart from everything else… fighting with you came easy. Felt like we clicked somehow, right?”

Tony swallowed thickly, nodded. “Right.”

“It’s not gonna be the same without you.”

Tony snorted. “Less chaotic, you mean?”

“Maybe.” Steve shrugged, like he couldn’t care less. “Sometimes a little chaos is the best strategy.”

Their eyes connected only for a fleeting second—a second that felt like hours. And all it really took to decide the truth from Steve was the look on his face. He was open and earnest, his eyes imploring Tony for trust. There was nothing deceitful in any stretch of his expression.

Tony sighed as he looked back down at Steve’s uniform. If he forged the vibranium’s molecules thin enough, Steve wouldn’t have to make compromises on agility and have a rough six hundred percent better protection, easy. Same should work for Nat’s cat suit. “For now, I’m just gonna make you something we can actually call a uniform. Sounds good?”

Steve smiled softly as though reading Tony’s thoughts, but didn’t comment. He pushed both hands in the pockets of his sweat pants and his blue eyes were so close that Tony could have counted every single one of his long lashes. “Sure, Tony.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Watching the Avengers sparring was definitely something else. Tony sat on one of the gym’s long benches, tablet in his lap as he made notes on all of their strengths and weak spots, rearranging the blueprints of their armors when necessary.

Mostly, he was ogling.

Clint was teaching Bruce some complicated looking Asian martial arts, and Thor was holding up a punching bag while Sam went to town on it. The punching bag didn’t move once.

The real show, though, happened on the boxing ring.

There, Steve squared his shoulders and resettled into a fighting position, waiting for Natasha’s next move. They flew at each other the next second, and Natasha managed to dodge one punch as Steve landed a kick on her legs, sending her flying. Natasha laughed and ducked under Steve’s arm as he threw a punch at her. But Steve already lashed out at her again—and this time, Natasha was a nanosecond too slow. The blow made her stagger backwards but she righted herself quickly.

For a while, it looked like Natasha was getting her ass handed to her. Steve had the upper hand all the time, and instead of sending her to the mattress, he only jabbed her a few times, then stepped back again, prompting Natasha to try just a little bit harder.

Then, however, something entirely unexpected happened.

Natasha ducked another hit. Steve spun into a kick, but was clearly surprised when it didn’t hit the target. Taking advantage of his momentary distraction, Natasha managed to get a leg between Steve’s. In the matter of a second, she squatted down, grabbed Steve’s left arm and put her other arm underneath the back of his knees. Then, she braced both feet on the ground while pressing her back against Steve’s chest and—lifted Steve right up onto her shoulders, pushing his legs into a position that made it impossible for him to move.

The room fell silent.

While Tony’s mouth dropped open on a surprised gasp, Steve didn’t seem to be phased at all—at least it didn’t look like it… from where he was hanging face down over Natasha’s shoulders. His expression changed into one of annoyance, while his white shirt slid downwards, exposing his stomach, and his ridiculously toned muscles.

Jesus, the guy must weigh about 240 pounds easy, Natasha shouldn’t just be able to lift him like that, and to keep carrying him on her shoulders without any kind of strain, that was…

It wasn’t that she was a woman, okay? It was… she was just so tiny. From a scientific perspective, she simply didn’t have enough muscle mass to lift that much weight. 150 pounds maybe, 180 tops, but Steve?

“Nice one, Tasha,” Clint called over as Steve tried valiantly to break free, without much success. After a couple of tries, he simply went loose and started to chuckle, waving his hands in defeat. “All right, all right. Give,” he said, eyes shining with amusement.

Tony cleared his throat. “Lookin’ good there, Cap,” he called with a mocking tone. “Shame you’re not wearing your costume. You’d make a perfect American flag impression.”

Steve rolled his eyes at him, just as Natasha set him back on the ground.

“Don’t be jealous,” Natasha quipped at Tony with a sly smile that hit a little bit too close to home for Tony’s liking. “If you’d spar with us, I might even teach you how to do that lift.”

Tony huffed, not even gracing that with a decent answer. “Pass,” he drawled instead. Carrying a big sweaty man in his arms really wasn’t all that appealing. Especially when Tony would likely break his back in the process.

Steve only cast him one of his annoyingly contemplative glances, then grabbed for one of the towels hanging from the robes of the boxing ring and made to move for the gym’s showers.

 

 

* * *

 

 

The first time the Avengers needed to step up again happened about three weeks after New Year’s Eve. They were an official team by now, and the government had a direct dial to their comms.

They just hadn’t made use of it until now.

The alarm started to blare in the middle of their weekly movie night and at first, they all just looked at each other with confused glances, until they finally grasped what was happening.

“Avengers,” JARVIS called. “There are reports of a small group of robots infiltrating Lower Manhattan. So far I cannot disclose their origin, but their interaction indicates a basic model of Artificial Intelligence. Surveillance says they are shooting at random targets, including citizens.”

“All right,” Steve called. “Everyone move. I expect you at the Quinjet in five.”

For a millisecond, Tony forgot that he wouldn’t be suiting up to fight the good fight. He jumped to his feet, just as the others, ready to storm for the elevator. It was reflex, plain and simple. Only after a few steps, his thoughts caught up with reality—and ultimately, it was the apologetic look in Steve’s eyes that made Tony remember.

Right. He wasn’t Iron Man anymore. This wasn’t his mission.

It was theirs.

“Uh, right… Good luck everyone. Go team,” Tony called after them with a cheery voice and Steve quirked a little amused smile, just as the elevator’s doors closed in front of him.

Tony’s heart tried to lodge itself in his throat, and he quickly swallowed it back down. He’d known this moment would come eventually. He just needed to stay calm. That was all.

Clenching his jaw resolutely, Tony made his way to the staircase. The first thing he needed to do was to make sure the others would be safe by checking their status. Then, he could start formulating a plan on how to survive just sitting at the sidelines with nothing to do but watch.

“JARVIS,” he called, “queue up all security feeds. I want each of their vitals on display. And connect me to their comms, ASAP.”

“Already done, sir.”

Tony nodded in acknowledgment, but didn’t speak again. Time no longer held meaning. It wasn’t until he took a seat in the workshop, staring at the holographs in front of him, that it truly sank in.

He wasn’t an Avenger anymore. He’d made that decision himself. And if something went wrong, truly wrong, he’d never be able to forgive himself.

Something hard fell within him and had he not been sitting down already, he would have collapsed in anguish.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Tony tried not to let it show how much being left behind was wearing on him.

One mission was followed by another, and soon enough, hearing the alarm blaring and slowly shuffling down to his workshop to passively watch the action from afar became something of a routine.

And there were a lot of new routines going on.

The others had their little insiders now. Cute little battle stories they kept bringing up at Every. Possible. Fucking. Chance. Whenever the alarm went off, silence would settle over the room for a few awkward seconds, accented with uncomfortable glances in Tony’s direction and uncertain fidgeting.

And, yes, Tony was annoyed, okay? Not because he felt left out, just… the topics irritated him. After Natasha had proven how easy it was to carry Steve on her tiny shoulders, the guy was now apparently the team’s little Hug-Me-Monkey or something. Since Steve always fought right at the frontlines, he often needed to be evacuated on a last moment’s notice, before the villain du jour exploded, imploded, evaporated, melted, froze, etcetera, etcetera. Most of the time it was Thor, Sam or the Hulk who would fly into the thick of it and carry Steve to safety. And then Steve would just hang in their arms, face flushed with adrenaline and exhilaration, until his carrier-of-the-day threw him right back into the battle.

‘Carrying Steve’ had obviously become the team’s new favorite bonding-activity. So far, JARVIS had counted a whole of fourteen different ways in which someone had carried Steve around the battlefield. It was also the new favorite subject in the media and had effectively killed whatever interest had been left on Tony’s and Pepper’s break-up.

The newspapers were having a field day with the photographs of Captain America being carried around like some stern looking handbag dog. Twitter, Instagram, Facebook—Steve’s face was everywhere. Weeks had passed, and hashtags like #teamflagbearer, #givecaparide #carrythecap and #dailycap were still trending. And to top it all off, the ‘Team Flag Bearer’ thing had caught on and spread like a wildfire, like the name wasn’t all kinds of stupid.

There were even bets going on in which position Steve would be ‘damseled’ out of the way, next. Thor did the bridal carry most of the time, balancing Steve in the trunks of his arms. Hulk just grabbed Steve in whichever way first sprung to his mind; either in what JARVIS told Tony was called an ‘Effortless Amazonian Lift’ or simply grabbing for Steve’s hand or foot and drag him upwards. Sam usually hugged Steve to his chest. Rationally speaking, it might be the best way to insure his maneuverability with the new wing-set, but it still looked completely absurd.

Clint and Natasha only rarely came into play when it came to ‘bearing the flag’, but even they had both proven at least three times by now that they were capable of carrying Steve, even when he was in his full uniform and probably weighed around three hundred pounds. Clint had once piggy backed Steve and that particular photograph had stayed on the front covers of every known national and international newspaper for a full week straight.

Tony didn’t particularly care about the whole affair, of course. Let them carry Steve all they wanted, wasn’t like it mattered to him. If Steve liked to be thrown around—it was his reputation, right? And if he didn’t care that he’d likely break his neck in the process one day, then it clearly wasn’t Tony’s place to interfere.

As if on cue, the doors of the workshop opened, and yeah, wonderful—of course it was Steve. They’d just defeated another group of those annoying white-masked robots—or androids, apparently. It hadn’t been much of a fight, though, and all in all lasted only about an hour.

Steve looked freshly showered and still had a towel around his neck, as he walked into the room. “Hey,” he greeted Tony with an entirely too cheerful expression.

“If that isn’t our damsel of the day,” Tony mumbled without looking up. “You’ve made number one on Twitter. Again.”

Steve stopped for a second; obviously trying to figure out what Tony was talking about. When he did, he huffed lowly and proceeded forward. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were awfully bothered by this.”

Tony tried to keep his attention on the device in his hands, but it wasn’t easy with Steve staring over his shoulder like that. Steve was always staring at him these days. Well, not exactly staring. More like glancing. Frequently. His eyes were bright with curiosity, and often burning with an intensity Tony found more than unnerving.

“Not bothered,” Tony said shortly. “It’s called secondhand embarrassment. You ever see your piggy back picture with Clint?”

Steve leaned against Tony’s table, looking down at him with a raised brow. “You ever see ninety percent of the pictures in your SHIELD file? I think the one with you in silver glittering pants was my favorite.”

A surprised snort slipped from Tony’s mouth. “Fair enough.”

“It gets the job done,” Steve went on, unfazed. “If I can trust my team to get me out in time, I don’t care how they do it. It’s practical. And I don’t care what people are saying about that.”

The tines of Tony’s welding torch screeched against the metal surface as he dropped the implement and picked up a rag to rub the oil off. He couldn’t work like this—not with Steve looking at him.

“What are you making?” Steve asked, tone stupidly curious, as he sat down next to him.

“New explosive arrow heads for Clint,” Tony mumbled, looking down and—stopping there. That… wasn’t an arrow head. Actually, that looked a lot like the beginnings of a repulsor-emitter.

“Damn it,” Tony muttered, turning the device over before shoving it away. He sat both elbows on the table and buried his face in his hands.

This was all getting out of hand.

Steve leaned over his shoulder, and a soft sound escaped his lips. “That looks vaguely familiar,” he said with an entirely too smug tone.

“Keep it to yourself, would you,” Tony warned.

Steve put a hand on Tony’s shoulder and kept it there. It was very warm and for a second, Tony had to stop himself from leaning in. “I really don’t understand why you’re fighting this so hard.”

“I made a decision,” Tony said. “Just because the result blew up in my face doesn’t mean it was the wrong one.”

“You really want to tell me you don’t miss it at all?” Steve’s voice had a catch in it, something shy and almost sad.

Tony closed his eyes. “I don’t know.”

“Tony,” Steve called softly and actually knelt down before him. His large blue eyes met Tony’s expectantly. “You are a hero. What I said back then, I couldn’t have been more wrong. You kept going even when it would’ve been easier for you to give up. And you’re one of the strongest persons I’ve ever met. I wouldn’t bother you about it over and over again if I didn’t see the longing in your eyes every time we step out as a team. I… knowing that you were up in that sky lifted a weight off of my shoulders and… And I want that. I want you there with me.”

Tony looked up at that, his heart beating faster. “You do?”

Steve cleared his throat, glancing sideways. “Well, we all do… of course we do. You’re one of our strongest assets. It’s not that we don’t manage out there, but… I think we haven’t found our balance yet. Something’s missing.”

Tony knew where Steve was coming from. He’d analyzed the data of every Avengers fight so far and the team did well out there. Everyone who hadn’t fought with them before would think it was all a well-oiled clockwork. Tony, though, he knew better. It wasn’t Iron Man’s firepower missing—at least not first and foremost—it was the absence of his and JARVIS’ combined insight, the loss of an overview of the battlefield that made them struggle more than Tony had anticipated.

Thor and Sam tried to compensate, but when it came down to it, they were too occupied with what was happening around them to give the others useful feedback.

“I’ll think about it,” he said softly, not quite meeting Steve’s gaze. His heart was hammering in his chest, and every part of him that was still in love with Pepper screamed in protest. But there was a sense of duty coming forth, too… and the longing to be part of the team again.

Above all, he missed flying.

God damn it, he couldn’t even put in words how much he missed flying.

Steve beamed in a way that told Tony that nothing he could have said—or done—would have pleased him more. “You do that.”

The potency behind Steve’s gaze startled Tony. It was a little frightening how fast his heart was pounding. How hard his pulse was racing. The depth of Steve’s eyes was continuously dragging Tony into a light that was still a little too bright for him.

The thought of Steve trusting him like that, wanting him out there with him, both excited and scared the shit out of him.

 

 

* * *

 

 

In the end, the decision wasn’t Tony’s to make. The conclusion had always been inevitable. Tony had known it was only a matter of time before one of the team would get hurt and the guilt that was already eating up his heart would swallow him whole.

He simply hadn’t expected it to happen so soon.

And he’d dreaded for it to happen like this.

For the first time, none of the Avengers had been able to carry Steve out before things went downhill. His injuries weren’t fatal, but after the battle, he had to spend over three days in the hospital before he was able to even support his own weight again.

It had been those goddamn robots. The ones with the black armor, and the single red eye in the middle of their white helmets. They did look a bit like those Hammer Drones Vanko had created all those years ago, just… they were much better than that. More evolved. Weeks ago, there had only been a small group. They hadn’t been much of a threat, and Tony had been sure they’d just been some experiment gone wrong, or some new villain trying his hands at engineering. During the following missions, however, they’d crossed the Avengers’ path so often… and with increasing opposition. Where there had been two dozens, there were now hundreds. And they fought back harder—and seemed to adapt to the Avenger’s fighting style.

Steve had been in the thick of it when things started getting out of hand, because he always fucking was, and before Thor had managed to fight his way towards Steve’s position, he’d already been beaten to a bloody pulp.

Tony had watched it all. Watched the video feed of Steve falling to his knees. Watched as his vitals had made the transition from being in pain to falling into unconsciousness. Tony had cursed the holographs, then cursed himself, knowing—even before the thought registered in his mind—that this would never happen again.

At medical, they told him that Steve’s improvement was remarkable. They told him that they had never admitted a patient with that amount of excessive blood loss and had such immediate results. They told him that Steve was doing extraordinarily well and that the entire healing process was progressing beautifully. They told him that it was just minutes shy of a certified miracle. That Steve was going to be all right. That Steve was one lucky, lucky man, and that he would be just fine.

Tony heard none of it.

He only stood numbly and nodded when nodding was called for. Despite the glowing report of success, Steve was still unconscious. And Tony had absolutely no grasp on how much time had passed. He knew it couldn’t have been too long, since the Avengers brigade had not yet arrived. Natasha had checked on him over the comm line many times, but apart from that, Tony was still alone.

He didn’t even know if they were still fighting. He didn’t care.

There was nothing he could do but sit at Steve’s bedside and wait. And he did nothing but watch him. The same as he’d done all those last weeks. Watching Steve. Watching them all. Sitting at home and doing nothing while the world was in danger.

God, how had things come to this? Steve was right—he had been a hero, once, a defender of earth. And he failed them. All he had done was wait; wait and fucking watch.

The room’s whiteness was blinding to his eyes. Hospitals were like that, he supposed. Illuminated with false light. Tony licked his lips and neared to brush a thumb over Steve’s forehead, his own eyes falling shut at the feel of his soft skin against his fingers. “You gotta wake up for me,” he said softly. “Come on, Cap. It’s time now.”

There was nothing. He hadn’t been expecting something, but it felt like a failure all the same. His head dipped with gentle reverence. “We can’t do this without you. I can’t… You were right. I was a coward for leaning back and letting you go out there alone. I’m gonna do better. I promise. From now on, I’m gonna have your back. You just need to wake up for me.”

Minutes ticked by and nothing happened. Steve lay there, dead to him, unreachable by circumstances he himself had created.

“Tony.”

Natasha was standing in the doorway, a worried look marring her brow. Tony didn’t know how long she had been there—in his current state, he was only in tune to the man at his side, so there was no way he could tell the time—and he didn’t care to ask. He merely nodded and attempted a weak smile. “Hey,” he murmured in greeting.

She smiled halfheartedly. “How is he?”

“Fantastic, from what the doctors tell me,” Tony retorted. “It’s a wonder he’s not already running laps.” He glanced down with sadness that he hadn’t known for a long time. “Are the others here?”

Natasha nodded. “In the hall.” Her eyes drifted to the unconscious blonde. “There are some things we need to talk about.”

Tony glanced to his hands. Things. Yes. He had seen this coming. It was only fair that they’d blame this on him. They had every right to do so.

“Right,” he agreed.

The whole merry lot of them was there. Bruce, Thor, Clint and Sam. All of them battle-worn and with different stages of exhaustion etched onto their faces.

“What happened out there?” Tony asked. “JARVIS said you were doing fine, until—”

“We were,” Clint replied harshly. “Until we weren’t. They came out of nowhere. We didn’t even see them coming. And Steve took the brunt force.”

Tony sighed. “We underestimated their threat.”

They all nodded their heads simultaneously.

“I was sure they were drones,” Natasha said. “But they are far too clever for that. Whatever we bring out against them, they adapt within seconds.”

Tony bowed his head in shame, voicing the words that were gnawing at his insides. “I know. Saw it. And I should’ve been out there to warn you.”

“But you weren’t,” Clint bit out, earning himself a light push from Thor.

“It’s not his fault,” the god said.

Tony’s eyes fogged over. “If I’d known he would—”

“We know that, Tony,” Natasha’s words were so soft he thought them nonexistent until he read the sincerity in her eyes. “We’re not blaming this on you.”

He exhaled deeply, looking up at them, meeting every single pair of eyes with squared shoulders. “It won’t happen again. From here on out I’m… I’m gonna be there. With you.”

The silence that settled over the corridor was all compassing. Thor grinned, looking a little shaky in the aftermath of the battle, but overall pleased with himself. Bruce cast Tony a warm little smile while he clutched a blanket around his naked torso, and Sam gave him a respectful nod.

“About time, man,” Clint mumbled, ignoring the glare Natasha shot his way.

So here they were, standing at their respective posts. Eventually, they all walked back into Steve’s room and settled down next to his bed. Tony took the rocker, Natasha assumed a folding chair across the bed, flipping idly through a magazine that she had seemingly brandished from nowhere. The others dropped down on the spare bed next to Steve’s. They stayed like that for several hours, before Steve finally—finally—opened his eyes.

This was his team, Tony realized then and there. His friends, however long it had taken him to admit that. And he wouldn’t let them down again.

Not as long as he had any breath to keep fighting.