Blood and metal and cave-damp, forced down into the barrel, water in his lungs and sparks through his ribs but he's holding the battery to his stomach, lines of pain digging into his fingers, don't drop it in don't drop it in and he just wants to live—
Tony wakes breathing water, and opens his eyes to his bedroom. He collapses flat in bed, drenched in sweat and gasping, puts a hand against his chest to feel the hum of the arc reactor and the pounding of his heart beneath it.
Jarvis responds, as he has so many times before: "Sir, you are in Avengers Tower in New York City in the United States of America. Your symptoms are solely the result of adrenaline. The chest piece is functioning normally. There is no new damage."
"Time?" Tony says, barely audible and swallowing around the memory of water. He looks around. "Pepper?"
"The time is four twenty seven in the morning. Ms. Potts is in Los Angeles."
"Right," he says, because she left last night. He knows this.
Lights come up around him, slow and tinged in blue, so different from the cave lights. Workshop light, always the best kind of light.
"Are you with us, sir?" Jarvis is a machine; he can ask this question.
Tony runs his fingers in a circle, smooth metal under his fingertips, wipes his forehead with his other hand, and gets out of bed.
"Always," Tony says.
Forwards into the spray of glass and snow, blood and sharp and ice around his arms raised to protect his face, the cracking underneath shaking everything and the wave is inescapable, explosions behind him and water in his lungs and freezing—
Steve wakes breathing water, and opens his eyes to his bedroom. He flings himself out of bed, half-tangled in bedding and drenched in sweat, arms out and flailing.
He stumbles and hits the wall and forces himself to stop. "Jarvis," he says. "What year is it?" Jarvis doesn't judge or pity, no matter how often he has to ask.
"Two thousand and twelve," Jarvis says, just a statement of fact in a calm voice, and Steve slides down the wall to rest his arms on his knees. He can still feel the pressure of it, the ice around him. He digs his fingers into his biceps.
"Are you with us, Captain Rogers?"
Steve looks over his arms at the room, the lights coming on around him to highlight everything in soothing gold.
"I don't know," Steve says.
They all live in Stark Tower now – Avengers Tower – whenever they're in the city, at least. Clint and Natasha leave on missions fairly often, though they never last long, and Thor balances his time between New York, New Mexico, and… outer space. Even Tony travels regularly, to business meetings and industry events around the world, or to be with Pepper in California.
Steve and Bruce are always here. Bruce likes routines, and the lab space, and the fortified walls; Steve's got nowhere else to go.
It was Tony's idea, actually, to have them all live here, which Steve found surprising at the time. Tony designed quarters for each of them without consulting them first, then gave everyone the most casual and flippant invitation possible to move in. Steve's not sure if he'll ever understand Tony Stark, but he's grateful to be out of his SHIELD-provided apartment.
Besides, his quarters are pretty unbelievable. His bedroom is huge. The gym is amazing, built to handle Tony in the armor, and the library is extensive, both the collection of normal books and what's accessible through Jarvis. Steve's been working his way through decades of history and fiction. He even tried some science, and was somewhat surprised to find it enjoyable to read, though he had to take notes during some of the more technical parts. He'd like to at least be able to follow along with some of the conversations Tony and Bruce have, even if he can't contribute.
He also spent some of his completely ridiculous amounts of back pay and special pay on a bunch of art supplies (and boy, are art stores ever different in the future). He felt guilty for days about the sheer expense of it, but, well, he has a lot of time on his hands in between missions, and he does have the money now. He recognizes the need for an outlet for himself, because mental health is as important as physical health, right? He's always used art to get his head together.
The Avengers complete a few missions, all of them together or sometimes minus one or two, and it's shocking how easy it is to work together in a crisis. When push comes to shove, they just click and they get it done. It's one of the most perfect combination of skill sets that Steve's ever seen.
And now that they have some downtime, now that they see each other around the dinner table and wandering the halls in street clothes, they've sort of grown on each other as people too. They have their friction, sure, but it reminds Steve of the Howling Commandos, the way that camaraderie between wildly different people is forged through shared experience, though he tries not to dwell on the past.
It's good, living here. If Steve still wakes up convinced this was all a dream and ends up spending half the night shaking with grief, well, it's better than it was before, and that's something, isn't it?
Steve wanders through all of the areas of the Tower he has clearance for, and it's pretty incredible all around. The research labs are interesting sometimes, though most of it is either over Steve's head or involves a lot of looking at computer screens where nothing much seems to be happening, or into microscopes and other equipment, where again, nothing much seems to be happening. And they aren't really places that Steve feels comfortable just hanging out in anyway. Too much sterile white. Bruce tries to make him feel welcome, but he can tell he's only getting in the way for the employees who are just trying to do their jobs.
Tony's workshop is something else altogether. It's this bizarre combination of metalworking shop and high tech showroom, with images made out of light floating in the air and the sharp heat scent of molten metal and electricity.
Steve's used to Jarvis, who is really just a person without a body who watches over the house. Jarvis has assured him that he doesn't watch them all the time; Steve doesn't really believe him, but he doesn't want to insult Jarvis by questioning his motives. Tony trusts Jarvis, and that's enough for Steve. He's got nothing to hide anyway.
He doesn't meet the robots until the first time he goes into Tony's workshop and a robot comes over to him and… says hello. "Hi," Steve says, as it bobs up and down and makes whirring noises.
"That's Dummy," Tony says, running his hand through his hair. "The most ridiculous, useless – are you petting him?"
Steve pats the robot on what seems to be its – his – head and Dummy moves some of his parts in acknowledgement and then turns and rolls over to the coffee machine. Steve just smiles at Tony's incredulous look.
"Right," Tony says. "You're converting them already. Soon they'll be bringing you snacks and following you around like puppies instead of doing their jobs. Nobody can resist Captain America, can they?"
Steve ignores this in favor of gawking at the images floating all around the workshop. At first he thought they were screens, like on the windows and the TV and computers all over the tower, but there's nothing physical to some of them at all.
"Wow," Steve says, turning in a slow circle to look at it all. "This is… incredible. All of these are things you're working on?"
"Yup." Tony sticks his hands in his pockets. "Some of it's proprietary Stark Tech or experimental stuff for… other people. You can keep a secret, can't you?"
"Of course I can." Steve holds up a hand; his fingers pass right through the image. "How do you work with them? Or are they just visual?"
"Jarvis, pull up something other than the most recent – sure, Mark V, why not. And explode – yeah. You see? I use them to see all the layers, fit them all together." Tony starts poking at the little image of his armor that comes up, and it responds to his touch by moving and enlarging and expanding to show all of the systems inside of it.
"There's so much going on inside," Steve says, leaning in to look closer. "I hadn't thought about it."
"Yeah, that's where I earn my genius cred, all the moving parts. Here, go ahead and look at stuff. You pull it like this. You can even enlarge it and wear bits if you feel like trying it on. Jarvis, run this in a sandbox so Cap can play."
"Done, sir," Jarvis says.
Tony nods at Steve. "Try it now."
Steve pinches air between his fingers and moves light. The little Iron Man spins and the shoulder piece comes off to follow his fingers. It's amazing. "I don't want to… hurt it."
Tony grins at him. "It's a hologram, Steve, you can't hurt it. It doesn't have feelings."
"You know what I mean," Steve says, echoing the smile. He's pretty sure that Tony's genuinely amused and not making fun of him, although it's still hard to tell for certain with him.
"Jarvis is babysitting, he won't let you do anything permanent," Tony says with a wave of his hand. "And it's the Mark V anyway, I'm on to bigger and better things, or better at least because bigger is not always better. Here, I have shit to do, the auto-assembly is having a hiccup and Rhodey's been after me for weeks, even though it's his own fault for letting anyone else – anyway, go ahead and poke around, I'll just be over here."
"Are you sure?"
Tony looks at him with his head tilted to one side. "Course I'm sure. I wouldn't have brought you down here if I didn't want – if I minded you having a look around. Go nuts."
"Thank you, Tony," Steve says, trying to put his sincere appreciation in his voice. Tony looks away and shrugs, pulling on a pair of goggles and opening a drawer to grab tools. Steve watches him for a few seconds, and then starts to dismantle the Mark V with his hands. He's completely absorbed in it almost instantly. It reminds him of making art, or rather, deconstructing how someone else's art is made, which is even more interesting in a way.
"Can I get something to compare this to?" Steve asks after a while. Tony doesn't seem to hear him, bent over a piece of the understructure of the armor and muttering to Dummy or himself, but Jarvis answers.
"This is the Mark IV and the Mark VI, if you'd like to see the progression of the designs." The two new armors appear to either side of the first one in front of him, then rotate and come apart to match the Mark V. Steve walks around them to see from all angles and leans in to look at the fine detail.
The Mark V is lighter and apparently becomes a suitcase, which is mindboggling. He's seen the Mark VI in action, so he just pulls apart the outer shell to see the pockets where all the weapons and other systems fit. Comparing the Mark IV to the Mark VI is the most fascinating part, because both are full battle armors and so he can really see what was discarded and added and modified along the way.
He glances up when he pauses to stretch, and catches Tony looking at him strangely, goggles on his head and a tiny blowtorch in his hand.
"You're actually really interested, aren't you?" Tony says.
How long has Tony been watching him? Steve rubs the back of his neck and tries not to feel awkward. "Well, yes. I wouldn't be down here if I wasn't interested."
"You're not an engineer."
"I couldn't put this together myself but I can appreciate good design," Steve says. "These are beautiful, the form and the efficiency… the way everything fits. I can admire how well they're put together."
"Um," Tony says. "Thank you?"
For all that he's constantly hailed as a genius and for all his seeming arrogance, Tony has no idea how to take a sincere compliment sometimes. It sort of hurts when Steve thinks too much about it.
"I mean it," Steve says instead of verbalizing any of that train of thought.
Tony sets the blowtorch down, leaning on his elbows on the table. "Everyone thought you'd be freaked out by technology. Glad to see them proved wrong."
"Everyone forgets that I saw a lot of technological advances in my time, and I worked with front of the line equipment in the war." Steve shrugs. "Plus, I've fought Red Skull and an alien army, among other bizarre things. I'm adaptable. I guess it's more the cultural stuff that gets me."
"Like what?" Tony asks, and he actually seems interested.
"Reality TV," Steve sighs. Thor loves reality TV, but Steve can't stand it. He gets embarrassed on behalf of the people on it, even when they're completely shameless themselves.
Tony laughs, and Steve smiles and continues, encouraged. "The commercialization of Christmas. Also, paparazzi and tabloids."
"I can't imagine a life without tabloids," Tony says. "You had gossip published in your day though."
"It's not that it's gossip, it's how vicious it's gotten. Like the things they write about you."
Tony winces. "You've been reading my press? And you're still here?"
"What? Of course. It's not… it makes me angry," Steve flounders for a moment and tries to explain while Tony stares at him blankly. "That they… they want to tear you down when you're trying to do good. They follow you around and try to catch you failing, at anything, and then gloat about it. It's sick. People are allowed to make mistakes. You're a good man, but all they want to write about is your faults." He stops, flustered.
"I—" Tony cuts himself off with a shake of his head. His one hand comes up to tap on the arc reactor. "I don't get you, Rogers."
"It's Steve," Steve says, and then the alarm sounds and they both jump, look at each other, and head in opposite directions to suit up.
Steve's in the gym at 3 a.m. again, according to Jarvis.
It's not like Tony's tracking the guy's sleep patterns on purpose, but this is the third time this week. He drums his fingers on the desk, and then goes to put on his workout gear. It is his gym, after all, and he's well known to keep strange hours. It won't seem like creepy stalker behavior if he just so happens to drop by.
"What'd that bag ever do to you?" he says when he gets there, leaning against the doorframe.
Steve grabs the punching bag to stop it swinging and turns. "Hey, Tony. You're up too? I thought it was just me." His genuine little smile is kind of endearing.
"Just finishing up something in the shop, thought I might try and physically exhaust myself until my brain shuts off." Tony pushes off the wall and heads toward Steve.
Steve sighs. "Wish I could still do that." He glances at Tony, then continues after a second. "I don't need as much sleep as most people. Serum. And it's… difficult sometimes."
"I get that," Tony says, because what he was working on was better protection for the suit against the vacuum of space, and that leads to bad, bad thoughts. He pauses, and then says ever so casually: "Want to spar?"
"Sure," Steve says, and Tony lets out a breath.
"You remember what we did with reflecting my repulsors off your shield? Want to practice actually aiming it?"
Steve steps away from the punching bag and gives him that little 'I'm secretly delighted by controlled violence, but I'm too polite to say so' smile. "Let me go get suited."
It is just so easy to work with Steve, whether it's sparring or fighting aliens. Always has been, even when they were in the middle of tearing each other to shreds on the helicarrier – as soon as they had a problem to solve they fell in and fixed it. Tony would be suspicious, but you can't be suspicious of Steve.
Tony's never been good at taking orders – well, except in the fun way – but Steve is worlds better than him when it comes to battle tactics and the details of strategy. He can respect that. He's got Pepper to handle the boring parts of the company, and now Steve to handle the boring parts of superheroing.
Okay, that might be a little dismissive. But when the alternative is 'how are you actually everything good I've ever heard about you?' he's going to go with being a little dismissive.
Nobody's ever been able to keep up with Tony, not in anything he cares about. Besides Jarvis, of course, but Jarvis was built for that. And now in battle or when strategizing, Steve's either right beside him, right behind him, or right ahead of him. It's… refreshing. And intriguing.
Also, Steve leaping and spinning all around the gym laughing like a kid and reflecting repulsor blasts all over is a hell of a thing to see. That is, until he flips Tony, in the suit, and that's it, it's on.
Two nights later, Tony's in the gym lifting weights and trying to get his brain to shut up when Steve appears in the doorway.
"Want to spar?" he says.
That's where it starts, really.
It becomes something of a pattern, and other people start to join in. Clint's in there one night shooting arrows over and over and looking the kind of exhausted that Tony knows too well, and the three of them take turns making each other dodge deadly projectiles. And then there's the time that Natasha and Steve have the kind of breathtakingly fast and agile sparring session that makes Tony feel like he may as well be wearing the War Machine suit and charging into battle like a tank. Humans shouldn't be that bendy.
A dejected-looking Thor joins Tony and Steve one night, wandering in wearing a pair of plaid pajamas and clearly just looking for someone else awake to talk to. "All is not well on Asgard," he says, "but I cannot return at this time without aggravating the situation further." He sighs. "And I miss Jane."
Tony and Steve look at each other over Thor's shoulder and change their plans. It's obvious that a moping god of thunder calls for junk food and late-night TV. Funny what he and Steve agree on.
They end up watching infomercials, because that's what you do when you can't sleep and are up so late that it's early. Tony had underestimated the hilarity of watching infomercials with Thor and Steve; watching them with anyone else is never going to be the same again.
"Why would anyone need that?" Steve groans, and covers his face with his hands. "It only does the one thing! And it takes up so much space on your countertop. What's wrong with standard kitchen utensils and a little bit of elbow grease?"
"I need one," Thor announces, and Tony laughs and smacks his bicep, then pats Steve on the shoulder in consolation when Steve looks wounded.
"Aw, don't do the puppy face, Cap, I wouldn't allow that travesty in my kitchen." Tony turns back with his best apologetic expression. "Sorry, Thor."
Thor tries to look disapproving but then just grins. "You insult it, but is this not the pinnacle of Midgardian convenience technology?"
"Since when did convenience trump quality or sense?" Steve says. "Or good taste. Who designs this stuff? And the people showing these products are just disturbing. I've seen mannequins with realer looking smiles."
This is when Bruce walks in, rubbing his eyes. "Oh, hello." He squints at them. "What are you all doing up?"
"Hey buddy!" Tony calls and waves. "This is becoming like a club. Join the club, Bruce. We have the good snacks."
Bruce raises an eyebrow. "Do I even want to join your club? What is it, the pre-dawn junk food club?"
"It's the insomnia club," Steve says, and pops a chocolate covered pretzel into his mouth.
Tony turns and points at Steve. "That's good. I like it."
Tony finds him that night out on the balcony, sipping a milkshake and looking out over the city.
"Hey, Tony," Steve says without turning. "Gorgeous sunset, isn't it?"
"Yup," Tony says. Steve hides a smile; Tony hates small talk about the weather. "I have a present for you."
Steve turns to look at him. Tony practically bouncing with suppressed excitement is a little terrifying. Steve's still skittish from the time when Tony just threw a phone to him and told him to keep it – a phone which later turned out to be an unreleased, customized-for-Steve prototype worth several thousand dollars. "A present?" he says, a bit nervously.
Tony pulls a piece of paper out from behind his back and hands it to Steve. "Check it out!"
It's a poster. Which Tony has apparently, at some point today, designed and had printed.
'Avengers Insomnia Club,' the poster says. 'Most of the night, most nights, except if we're avenging stuff.' There's a row of pictures, one shot of each of the Avengers looking exhausted. They're very unflattering. Steve can't help laughing.
Under the pictures there's smaller text. 'Sparring, late-night TV and B-movies, inappropriate drinking games, amateur therapy, etc. Extended Avengers family can come too. Ask JARVIS where the party's at.'
Steve runs a finger along the poster. Family. He looks up to meet Tony's eyes. Tony's feigning nonchalance, but Steve can tell the difference now. "This is great, Tony," he says. "It's… Thank you."
"I… No problem. You're welcome." Tony rubs his chin and shrugs. "Kinda ridiculous, but fun. Team-building and all that. See me making an effort? I got Jarvis to put it up in the kitchen; everyone goes in the kitchen. Thought you might want to see it in paper first, being an old-fashioned kind of guy."
"You wanted me to see it first because you're a show-off," Steve says, not fooled for a second, and Tony grins.
"You wound me."
"The truth hurts."
They both laugh a little, and it's so good to banter with Tony without it turning into a constant guessing game about Tony's intentions, without having to guess and second-guess his own reactions. Steve looks down at the paper in his hand, at the six of them, looking just like regular people who don't get enough sleep.
He wonders what the others dream about, what thoughts keep them up and drive them out of their beds. He remembers his own relief that first night when Tony showed up, so obviously to check on him, how much it had helped, has helped again and again, just to have someone else there.
"Sir, Ms Potts is on the line," Jarvis says, breaking Steve's thoughts.
"Coming, dear," Tony says. He hesitates for half a second, then reaches out and grips Steve's shoulder before he turns and goes back inside.
Steve looks down at the poster again and smiles to himself.