Tony Stark is not a hero.
He knows this. He has had it told to him many times, by many people, in many different places. His father told him that heroes don’t exist, that the only way to become something similar to one was to work, so Tony worked. Tony has spent his whole life trying to impress a dead man, trying to be better, to shake off the shadow of his own father.
It hasn’t worked. It never worked.
Tony, for a long time, didn’t believe in heroes. Sure, the idea was a nice one, but the only real superhero America had ever seen was dead and gone, lost beneath thousands of layers of ice.
Until suddenly, he wasn’t.
“I can’t be that person,” Tony admits. He is pretending not to see Pepper, sitting next to him in the workshop. He keeps his hands busy with the piece of tech before him, not entirely sure what he’s making but hoping it doesn’t turn out to be anything explosive, trying to forget where he is and possibly who he is, but that will probably come later when he opens the vodka.
“He’s Captain fucking America,” Tony continues, and, wow, did his voice actually just shake, that’s embarrassing. “He doesn’t have time for little ol’ me.”
Pepper doesn’t say anything, but that’s okay, because her disagreement practically suffocates him. She reaches out and places her small hand on top of his, and he looks at her, finally, just looks, desperate and pleading.
“It’s okay, you know,” Pep says, and she doesn’t look angry or disappointed; she just looks sad. “It’s okay to have feelings of doubt.”
Tony lets out a bark of a laugh at that. “What’s this, a soppy romance novel? No, I’m not a thirteen year old girl and I will survive without Captain America to warm my stupid bed at night because he has better things to do and beautiful women to date and I will just be here making myself miserable but that’s okay, right, because that’s what I’ve always done and I’ve turned out okay – well I guess that depends who you ask, but the point is –”
“Tony,” Pep says, and levels him with a look.
He shuts up. She knows him too well, one of the three people in the world who actually know that Tony Stark has chinks in his armour – metaphorical, not literal; he’d never let his suit stay damaged like that.
And that’s the story of his life, really, isn’t it? Tony is obsessed with fixing things, making things better, improving them, and yet he doesn’t even know where to start with fixing himself.
“Tony,” somebody is saying.
“Tony, damnit. Knew I shouldn’t have gone. Knew I shouldn’t have left you here by yourself. You’re going to drink yourself into a coma, you idiot. Why do you do this to yourself?”
And then there are hands, lifting him effortlessly, like he’s a child and of course he knows the only person this could be, the only person who is actually brave enough to carry him bridal style because they know, damnit, that Tony won’t be able to bring himself to complain.
Tony turns his head into the warm body, breathes in the smell of laundry detergent and cookies, because of course Steve fucking Rogers would smell like cookies, and smiles a little. “What are you doing here?” he mumbles.
“I left the benefit early. Pepper called me,” Steve added, and that was that.
“You shouldn’t have come, dunno why Pep always calls you, should know better, really, should know that you have better things to do,” Tony rambles. He would be embarrassed if he weren’t so drunk, except maybe he wouldn’t, because he’s Tony Stark and he may be broken and a drunk and tired but one thing he’s not is easily embarrassed. “Don’t care, you don’t care, you have better things to do,” Tony whispers into Steve’s t-shirt, almost to himself.
There were a few moments of silence, the only sound Steve’s feet moving gracefully across the floor, up the stairs, up, up, up, and then Tony is being dropped onto his bed and finds himself face-to-face with a very tall and worried looking Steve Rogers.
“Steve,” Tony says, dragging the man down into his bed. Steve, looking bewildered, topples onto the mattress, diving head-first into the silk pillows. Tony would have laughed if he could think through the murkiness of his brain.
“Tony –” Steve begins.
And it’s just typical that Tony’s voice sounds so desperate, so needy and sad, like a man calling into a dark house even knowing that he will get no response. But then Steve turns over, and his face quickly goes from concerned and a little frustrated to understanding. He looks at Tony for a few moments, and then settles down beneath the covers, says, “Okay” and snuggles up against Tony.
“Of course I care,” Steve says after a few minutes. And then, “Of course I care,” and his voice breaks a little.
It doesn’t matter. Tony doesn’t hear. He’s already asleep.
Tony is not a hero, but he tries anyway. Not because he wants the glory, he’s had enough glory for his whole damned lifetime, but he feels like he needs to wipe his slate clean, save a life for every life he’s taken.
It doesn’t work. It never works.
But he tries anyway.
You see, Tony may not have believed in heroes for a long while, but he believes in them now. He believes in them because when he’s fighting, when the Avengers are called and the world is a mess and New York City is falling apart around his ears, when he’s about to die because some idiot’s got him cornered and he can’t escape this time, damnit, he looks up and suddenly the weight’s gone and he’s staring into Steve Roger’s eyes.
And he knows that heroes do, damn him, exist.
Tony and Steve are on the roof. It’s cold, and Tony’s tired because he hasn’t slept in 38 hours (not a new record, but close enough) and his mouth is being stupid.
“Thanks, you know,” he says finally, his voice sounding too loud as it shatters the silence, “earlier. Earlier today. I would have – er – died if it wasn’t for you. If you hadn’t saved me, I mean. Not that I couldn’t save myself, I was totally on that shit, I –”
And of course Steve doesn’t get offended, because he’s Steve, for God’s sake; he understands perfectly well that that’s a thankful apology. “It’s fine,” he says, smiling. “That’s what friends are for, right?”
Tony realises with a start that that is, in fact, what they are. Despite all attempts, he’s become friends with Steve, with Captain America.
Of course Tony knows that he’s in love with the guy, but it’s one thing to be in love with somebody, another to actually be friends with them. And Tony looks at Steve, at the curve of his smile and the easiness that clings to him when he’s around Tony, and thinks, Friends. You know what, I’m okay with that.
And he is.
But of course that never lasts, because Tony is an idiot and Steve Rogers is confusing and of course it doesn’t last, of course it doesn’t.
“You idiot!” Steve is yelling at him. “You could have died. You could have –”
“I was saving your life –” Tony snaps, slamming the door to the workshop closed behind him. Steve follows him in, because he’s Steve.
“And you risked yours in the process!”
Tony feels the anger bubbling up inside of him, the anger and the grief and the love and the weeks and weeks of just sitting and trying not to tell the stupid hero that he’s in love with the guy, for God’s sake. He turns to Steve, fists clenched, and says, “You don’t get it, do you? Me saving you wasn’t me being selfless, it wasn’t me being stupid, it wasn’t me being suicidal – it was me being selfish! Because if you died, I really don’t have a fucking clue how I’d survive, damn you!”
Steve stares at him. Takes a step forward. “Tony, I...”
“I need you. I tried not to,” Tony rambles, his voice shaking. “I tried not to, okay? But it just happened, I just – fuck’s sake, Rogers, say something!”
Steve does not, in fact, say something, but that’s okay because suddenly he’s kissing Tony and there’s fire running through Tony’s body, making him lightheaded and weak and it’s so perfect he wants to cry because, fuck, he’s kissing Steve Rogers.
“You can’t possibly,” Steve pants against Tony’s lips, warm and honest and bright, “need me as much I need you, you idiot.”
So no, Tony Stark is not a hero, but that’s okay, because Steve is a big enough hero for the both of them.
“Sometimes I think I made you up,” Tony mumbles sleepily. “Sometimes I think you’re just somebody I thought up, because you’re so goddamn perfect and it’s not fair, it’s not fair, really –”
“Tony, you should sleep,” Steve mumbles into Tony’s hair, but his tone is affectionate. “I’m real and you’re real and you really need to stop staying awake for three days at a time.”
“Two and a half,” Tony begins, and then stops. Because he really can’t bring himself to argue, which, wow, yeah, that really says something, doesn’t it.
“Sleep,” Steve laughs. And Tony does.