Tony doesn’t hear about the accident the way everybody else does; through the news, three weeks later, a single line in the news ticker on the evening broadcast. No, he hears about it the morning it happens.
Because he’s there.
He’s here at all of these.
To make sure they don’t work.
He doesn’t know much about the guy who put in this proposal. Just another would-be victor to his father’s failures back in World War II. Technically, that super soldier project is supposed to be classified, but the story’s gotten around. It’s become something of a grail discovery in the scientific community, like anti-gravity or cold fusion, in the five years or so since dad’s been gone. A serum that super-charges the human body. Fascinating stuff, sure.
But dad failed at it. And frankly, Tony hates the idea of anybody succeeding where dad failed. It may be petty to give a shit about it, but dad’s only been dead a few years and maybe the grief still hasn’t settled, or maybe it’s just kind of fun to fuck with people, or maybe Tony wants to save this discovery for himself later on.
At any rate, it means he’s at the lab the day that Bruce Banner damn near kills himself. And if he wasn’t there, watching from the outside observation room along with all the military observers, if he didn’t recognize the signs of a reactor breach, didn’t know the override codes for the doors, didn’t act right before it was too late, didn’t get him out of there before the whole thing exploded, Bruce Banner would be dead right now.
Instead of yelling at him in some back room.
“Goddammit, man! You know how fucking long it took for me to put that together! You know how much I had riding on this?” the other man demands, storming around, grabbing at his hair. “Fuck! This was my one chance to...”
“Get yourself killed?” Tony yawns. He’s leaning up against the hard, cold, brick wall of the room. Just watching. “Fucking ungrateful, if you ask me. You really need to...”
But he gets no further, because Bruce tries to hit him, he dodges, and the scientist’s hand connects with the wall instead of Tony’s face.
He takes him to the emergency room. Waits with him until the doctor’s able to set his hand. Banner is strangely quiet through the whole thing, so much different from the raging, mindless thing he was after the accident.
When Tony asks him if he’s got somewhere to go, someone to call, he just shakes his head, and won’t meet his eyes. “You can just drop me off at my hotel, I guess,” he mumbles, and scrunches into his loose purple oxford that’s just as tired-looking as he is.
“My ass,” Tony tells him.
He takes him home with him instead. It’s a four hour drive to his place in LA. Banner doesn’t say a word that entire time.
He doesn’t protest, at least, when Tony bundles him out of the car, up into his very small, very expensive beachfront house, past all the various, half-finished projects that litter every horizontal surface, up to the only bedroom.
“Stark, look, I don’t usually, you know,” and Banner gestures with his good hand around the room as Tony pushes him down on the bed, works on unbuttoning his shirt.
“Call me Tony, okay?” he says, grinning. “And don’t worry. I do this all the time.”
“What, help out stupid would-be doctorates who almost get themselves killed trying to get that one last scholarship?” And he sighs. “If you hadn’t gotten me out of there, the gamma radiation might have...”
“Shh,” Tony soothes, and goes to work on the other man’s pants. “You should be more worried about those anger issues of yours.”
“Yeah, I guess I can kind of... do that... sometimes.”
“I kinda like the big rage monster.”
They end up kissing that night, snugged together in bed. It’s more than Banner’s probably comfortable with, Tony knows, and for once, he doesn’t push it. He wants to help, he finds, more than he wants to take.
Which is actually kind of cool.
So in the morning, when his guest is out sitting on the beach, watching the waves crash along the shore, he calls around. Finds Banner’s student loan company, his university, his records, his last master’s capstone. Poor guy’s got nearly $50K sunk into schooling at this point, but if the faxed copy of his thesis is right, he’s a fucking genius. Physics and medicine. The Army was going to send him to get his PhD, but now that his proposal's gone bottom-up...
Tony pays it all off. All of it. Including the Cal Poly doctorate that hasn’t started yet. And goes out to sit on the sand with Banner.
He half-expects Banner to turn into the rage monster from yesterday when he tells him about. Better to beg for forgiveness, he figures. Instead, he just looks like he’s going to cry. Says that’s not necessary, that he can’t possibly accept that kind of charity. Tony puts an arm around his shoulder and pulls them together and tells him he’s always welcome, no matter what.
Bruce stays with him for another two weeks. Until the semester starts. And despite promises that he’ll visit often, Tony doesn’t see him again until Thanksgiving.
“Got caught up in my work, I guess,” he says sheepishly, when he shows up on Tony’s doorstep with a small suitcase that look as battered as the clothes inside it probably are.
“You know, I do have a pretty sweet shop in the basement,” Tony replies, and takes Bruce out for a very, very expensive dinner.
They fuck that night, and twice the next day, and a few more times over the weekend, and once in the shower, right before Bruce has to drive back to school. Tony extracts more promises of visits from him, but knows he might not see him until spring break or something like that.
That vacation, too, gets taken up by some kind of Peace Corps bullshit. Bruce comes home - even more sheepishly - and explains this and that about a very worthy program and I just think it’s our duty to give back to the poor and all that. He needs a thousand bucks for the program fee, he explains, adorably awkward, flustered. Like this is the last thing he wants to be asking for right now.
Tony tells him not to be an idiot and digs the necessary cash out of his sock drawer.
Bruce looks aghast. “You’re an asshole. You know that?”
“Why?” he asks, hurt, making no effort to keep that hurt out of his voice. “I can’t take of you now?”
Something shifts in his friend’s eyes, like he’s seeing something he’s never seen before, and then Bruce hugs him, kisses him, says he was the one who was being an asshole. The sex is really, really good that night.
But it doesn’t mean Bruce is going to stay.
A pattern, a dance, is established then, one that’ll last for the next fifteen years or so. Bruce goes off on his one-man mission to save the world, India, Kenya, Burma, Colombia, Papau New Guiene, wherever. Tony funds his little trips, and maybe flies out when he can, steals Bruce away for a week, takes him to the nearest five-star hotel, spoils him rotten, and sends him back out there, into whatever bad thing he's dealing with this time. Sometimes Bruce comes home for a while, works on physics papers, on his own research, or assisting Tony with his.
They never say goodbye. Tony never really thinks of Bruce as gone.
Because he always comes back.
After Afghanistan, though, Bruce is there when Tony gets off the plane. There with him in the limo on the way home. There to help him into bed. There to curl his reassuring bulk against his side, to run a careful finger around the edge of the new arc reactor.
Tony likes having him around.
It's so much easier to take care of him that way.
He meets them at the Stark Industries executive retreat. Loki’s the night’s entertainment, one of those high-risk magic acts that are so popular these days. He’s supposed to be an up-and-coming star here in Los Angeles, highly recommended. Still, Tony didn’t book it, wouldn’t have chosen it if he’s worked the planning committee for this - magic shows are usually so predictable, after all - but he’ll be damned if it’s not a good chance to embarrass some of the older guys in the audience. So he takes a sheet of paper with some names backstage, and finds them.
A sleek, elegant, dark young man with his legs up around the waist of a tall, long-haired blonde, who’s got him pressed back against the wall, kissing him languid and slow.
He watches them for a moment, admiring the ease they seem to have with each other, how in tune they are, and then clears his throat. Loudly. “Which one of you is Loki?” he asks, holding up the note.
The two of them look at each other, and the blonde lets the brunette slide to the ground. “I apologize, Mr. Stark,” he says. “I did not know we had neglected to lock the door. I know how men are in your country about... this.”
The smaller man just shakes his head. “I am Loki,” he says, coming over. “Take no notice of Thor. He can be so...”
“Voracious?” Tony quips back, and grins at the huge blonde. “I can’t say that I blame you, big guy. I’d probably have my hands all over him, too.”
Thor growls a bit - which would be hilarious if the man wasn’t built like a truck, and scary as hell - and Loki rolls his eyes. “How can we help you, Mr. Stark?”
“I’ve got a few co-workers out in the audience I’d like you to volun-tell to come up on stage. Hypnotize them, saw them in half, make their pants disappear, whatever. You know, the usual magic show shtick.”
“I prefer to think of myself as an illusionist,” Loki explains, with just a trace of heat. He takes the proffered note anyway. There’s the faintest trace of some Scandinavia accent in those words. It has to be the sexiest thing Tony’s heard all year. “But thank you for the names. I hope the show meets with your approval, Mr. Stark.”
His show turns out to be one of the better that Tony’s seen - funny in an understated way, genuinely interesting, the tricks a bit above par for this sort of event. He can’t even figure out how most of them work. And, of course, Loki manages to embarrass almost everyone on Tony’s list. Thor doesn’t make an appearance - the magician’s got some pretty assistant, Sif, instead - but Tony can see him waiting, just off-stage in the auditorium, smiling proudly.
Young love, Tony thinks with a smile. Ain’t it just the cutest thing?
After the show, and the conclusion of day two of the four-day conference, he takes them both out for drinks. A nice, exclusive, out-of the way bar where nobody’s going to find him. And sure, maybe he’s thinking that a threesome with these guys would be great - he hasn’t met a gay man yet who’s turned down an offer like that from him, and Bruce is in the Philippines right now - but then they get to talking, and the idea evaporates.
They’re from Norway, an increasingly drunken Thor explains as Loki just leans against him, not saying a word. They’d both had a lot of demands put on them as children, too many expectations as adults.
“His father decided to throw us out of his home when he found out we were sleeping together...” Loki grumbles bitterly.
“...so we came out here. To America. Make a fresh start for ourselves,” Thor declares, and power-chugs his beer.
“But it hasn’t been all so easy as we might have imagined back home,” Loki adds, looking at his lover. “Thor here wants to get into modeling...”
“Of more the athletic breed,” Thor qualifies quickly, and smiles proudly. “Or MMA. I would prefer MMA, honestly...”
“...but this town...” and Loki trails off, and then gives his lover a Look. “Plus, he keeps getting himself arrested for bar fights and I have to just keep bailing him out.”
“And you know I love you for it, broder...”
And the whole conversation between them descends down into Norwegian or something.
Tony goes to get another round for them all, mind working on that information. Boys like this, this town, those sorts of goals... there are a hundred wrong ways to step, a hundred ways it can all go horribly wrong, and he doesn’t want to see that happen to them. Especially Thor, who seems like a sweet guy under all that brash, loud exterior of his.
When he comes back, beers in hand, the two of them are talking, low, hushed. Loki looks up from that little conversation as Tony sits down, lips pursed. “Mr. Stark,” he says, “I know what you probably want from us tonight, but...”
“I don’t want anything from you boys,” he tells them carefully, and digs out his wallet. He drops a fifty-dollar bill on the table as a tip, and pulls out a business card, flips it over, starts writing his private cell number on the back. He hands that over to Loki, whose brow is creased with confusion. “This is a rough town. You ever need help with anything, you call me, okay?”
Loki just stares at it. “I was not asking...”
And Thor yanks the card away, and tucks it in his own wallet. “Thank you, Mr. Stark. We will not refuse your kindness.”
He calls Hogan to come pick them all up. His old friend and driver gives him a weird look when he tells him that they’re be dropping these two off at their own apartment. Tony almost feels bad about that order when they arrive there. Such a pathetic building, such a terrible part of town that they’re living in right now.
He doesn’t hear back from Loki or Thor for a few weeks, and chalks the whole thing up to the loss.
Then he gets a call at damn near two AM from, of all people, Loki.
“Mr. Stark, I am sorry to call like this, but my fool of a brother got himself arrested again, and I’m afraid I haven’t the money to...”
“Your brother?” Tony asks, mind still bleary, half-functional. He didn’t just hear that, did he?
“Ahh...” and Loki lets that hang for a moment. “Thor.”
“What about the his father thing?”
Another long pause. “I was adopted. We only just found out before coming here to America. Mother told us that right after father threw us out. Are you going to help us or not now, Mr. Stark?”
Oh. Ohh. Okay. Good. That explains a hell of a lot. And Tony pulls himself out of bed. “Give me the address, I’ll be there as soon as I can be.”
He finds Loki, sleepless and frantic, half an hour later. Smiles at him. Tells him it’s going to be okay. Bails a battered and bloodied Thor out of lock-up.
Takes them both home. His bed. No arguments.
“Do you live with someone else?” Thor asks him over breakfast the next morning, on his fourth plate on pancakes. He’s got one of Bruce’s shirts on - his own was ruined beyond repair, and he's too big to fit in any of Tony's.
“Sometimes. When he’s in town, he stays with me.”
“That an arrangement?” Loki asks, sharper than his brother. It’s amazing that they’re brothers. Kind of hot, but...
“I take care of him,” Tony counters levelly, getting to work on another round of pancakes. He stares down at the griddle. What the hell can he say about this, about himself, that doesn't make it sound like what Loki's accusing him of being?
“And you want to take care of us now, too?” Loki tosses back. He sounds mad. “Is that what this is all about?”
“You didn’t seem to mind last night, when I was bailing your brother’s cute ass out of jail.”
He hears a chair shove back from the table, and turns to see Loki standing there, fury in his eyes. “I will not be somebody’s kept boy, Mr. Stark.”
Tony sighs. Shit. “Look, Loki, all I meant was...”
Thor, though, just laughs, interrupting, reaching for the syrup. “Broder, stop harassing the man. Accept his kindness, and have another of these pancakes, which are most pleasing, Mr. Stark.”
“It’s just Tony,” he says, and smiles. Loki’s still fuming, but it looks like he’s doing what his brother’s telling him to. Sitting down, going back to eating. “Let me get these off, make some coffee, and we can talk.”
Tony doesn’t go in to work that day. Just stays with the brothers. Convinces them he’s not looking for anything specific. That they can have as little or as much as they want. That they have a home here, with him. No strings.
“Nobody does that,” Loki says suspiciously.
“I like to take care of people,” he tells them.
“I trust him,” Thor declares, and beams. “I think we should stay with him for a while, brother.”
So they move in. Sort of. Until they can find an apartment that’s not in a shit district of town, Tony tells them, and can afford to pay the rent on it. He helps them both with promotional stuff - Loki for his act, Thor for the amateur fighting circuit in town. It’s everything in a place like LA to have connections, and Tony uses them to help his brothers out. Loki scores a couple of big celebrity gigs thanks to Tony, headed right up. Thor lands a few sponsors, a few magazine shoots. Tony goes to every performance, every fight, and never says a word to them about it. Pretends, in fact, like he’s uninterested in it all.
Loki sees him, though. Catches him one night.
After they all get home... it's the first time he lets Tony touch either of them.
Tony makes damn sure that he makes it the best goddamn time of their lives. But for him, the best part of the whole evening is after. Having them curled up around him, holding him like they've only been holding each other so many of these nights past. Including him at last..
Bruce unexpectedly comes home for Christmas that year, a few weeks before his Odinssons are due to move out to Las Vegas. Loki has himself a big, Wagnerian-themed magic gig at the Bellagio, starting in February, and Thor’s going professional on the MMA circuit. Big changes. Tony’s going to miss them. He’s made them promise to come visit. He hopes they do.
The three of them are playing Mario Kart when Tony gets in from last-minute shopping, whatever conversation they had about the living arrangements in this house already over and done with, all of them laughing and yelling at each other like old friends already.
Thor holds out the final controller to Tony, and asks if they can order pizza.
They’re getting coffee at one of the little Starbucks kiosks, on break from one of the endless design review briefings the Pentagon contracting bubbas demand Tony hold on a quarterly basis, when Tony first hears about the captain.
“He’s a good kid. Just woke up from a ten year coma, and he’s having a really hard time adjusting to everything,” Rhodey finishes up.
“And you said his name was Steve Rogers?”
“Captain Steve Rogers,” Rhodey confirms. “Can you imagine that? Waking up, finding yourself ten years older, hearing that everyone you worked with is dead? Fucking terrible.”
“And having to find out what happened to the music scene?” Tony jokes with a little shudder, and the nice Indian lady behind the counter hands him his latte.
But he can’t stop thinking about the man that night, and has JARVIS hack him the personnel record the next day.
Captain Steve Rogers.
One of the most highly-decorated Green Berets back in the 90s, headed straight to the top, cut down in his prime. Last week’s psyche profile says he’s struggling with PTSD. Unmarried. Both parents deceased, no siblings, no aunts or uncles. Nobody’s been to see him yet, nobody except Rhodey, and he’s been awake for eleven days.
So Tony makes the drive out to Walter Reed the next day. Tells Obie to take the next briefing, and heads out.
Rogers is, objectively, a big, tall guy. But he’s also lost a lot of muscle mass over the course of his coma, been out of the sun for all that time, so he looks fairly pale and scrawny when Tony finds him in his room, a cheap sketchpad on his lap, a pencil resting on its surface, unmoving. There’s something heartbreaking about it.
“Who are you?” he asks, wariness registering in his incredibly blue eyes.
“Colonel Rhodes is a friend of mine,” Tony replies. “Said you might need one yourself.”
“Yeah, well, when you wake up after ten years and hear that your girl’s married someone else and you got your whole platoon killed on some stupid milk-run op...” and he shakes his head and looks out the window. “He mentioned he might send somebody by. You... Tony Stark?”
“That’s me, captain.” And Tony smiles a little to himself. Of course that’s what Rhodey was up to, telling him about this guy.
Rogers just breathes out, hard, and doesn’t say anything more. He looks miserable.
“They got you walking yet?” Tony asks.
Those blue eyes snap back to him. “Why?”
“Cause I’m taking you out of this shit hole.”
Rogers puts up something of a protest - I don’t need your fucking charity, I can take care of myself, honestly, it’s not necessary - but Tony ignores it. He also ignores the nurse who says that the captain’s not done with his physical therapy and can’t be discharged. Just goes and grabs a wheelchair himself, calls Pepper to tell her to have a wheelchair waiting at the tower for him in a few hours, to start working on getting a physical therapist lined up for tomorrow morning.
It’s a quiet drive from DC to New York, and Rogers doesn’t say much more over dinner.
He does wake Tony up, though, later that night. Much later that night, off in one of the guest rooms here in the tower’s penthouse. He’s thrashing around in bed, screaming, and Tony has to physically hold him down to keep him from hurting himself.
Eventually, he calms, and cracks his eyes open, wet with moisture. “I...” he begins, and stops, as a tear slides down his cheek, and he closes his eyes, clearly embarrassed.
Tony eases down next to him, keeping one arm across that wasted chest, just in case Rogers starts fighting him again. “This a thing?” he asks quietly.
He nods, eyes still shut, and Tony can feel that he’s shaking, struggling to keep his breath even. “I keep hearing them screaming,” he replies slowly. “They said... I don’t remember it, I went down first, so it can’t be a memory. But I just... keep hearing it...”
Tony sleeps with him that night, and every night for the next few months. Steve closes his arms around him and clings to him, like a little kid trying to keep the nightmares away. There’s nothing sexual about it. Tony just wants to help.
It’s not quite so easy as that, though.
Steve does his physical therapy when Tony’s at the office, fills his rooms up with gray-black charcoal drawings, sees the shrink that Tony finds for him. He doesn’t talk much at first, not about anything. He finds a gym up in Brooklyn that Tony takes him to in the mornings, where he does nothing but beat the shit out of heavy bags for hours on end. Those car rides back, that’s the only time Tony ever hears about his old life. About his team, about the Army, about Peggy, the girl he was planning on marrying.
“We weren’t engaged,” he says softly, “but I was thinking about proposing after that run we had in Colombia. I wasn’t going to be in the field much after that. Figured it would have been a good time to start a family.”
The nightmares don’t stop, not really. They seem to get better for a while, to the point where Steve says he doesn’t need Tony sleeping with him anymore. It’s probably pride, Tony knows, but gives the man his space regardless.
At least until the night about a week later, when Tony wakes up to the sound of him crying from down the hall.
He goes and collects his soldier, and brings him back to his own room, where you’re going to stay until I say otherwise.
Steve doesn’t argue it at all.
A few days after that, Bruce comes home again, fresh off a malaria-vaccination stint out in the Congo. He looks like shit, his clothes destroyed - the man does seem to have that effect on his wardrobe - and Tony’s got him up against the wall, kissing him hello before either of them even have a chance to say it to the other.
“So all those tabloid rumors about you are true, Tony?” Steve says from behind them. He sounds more broken than usual. “You really are gay, then?”
“Bi,” Tony replies automatically, and Bruce smiles at him encouragingly, right before he turns around. “You got a problem with that, Rogers?”
It comes out a little too harsh, but the solider doesn’t flinch. “Forget it,” he says, and heads back to his room.
Tony looks at Bruce, feeling a little desperate, and his old friend just shrugs. “I’ll go talk to him,” he says.
Steve still comes to bed that night. Balking at a little at seeing Bruce already there, reading a book, but the scientist just scoots over and makes room. And then does what Tony's sort of been aching to do for the last few weeks, once Steve haltingly climbs in beside him.
Pulls him in, and kisses him.
Steve gets better after that.
Gets out more, talks more, comes back from his therapy sessions a little more shaken and a little more calm both. Makes a few friends around the neighborhood, which Tony’s grateful to see, even if it is a little weird for his Green Beret buddy to be chumming with Coulson, the crazy fanboy who runs the Midtown branch of the AGENT OF SHIELD comic book store. Steve’s drawings improve, get more detailed, lighter, happier, and he burns all the black, depressing ones that were cluttering up his room.
Then one day Tony catches him working on panels, like for a comic book.
“Phil’s got some ideas he’s been trying to put together for a while, but he just writes, he can’t draw,” Steve explains as Tony pulls one of the sheets from the thin stack. “I thought, what the hell, I’d give it a try.”
“What’s it about?” Tony asks.
“Nazis, World War II, a super soldier, like the one he says your dad was trying to create,” and Steve smiles. “Says he’s going for a very Rocketeer kind of feel to the whole thing.”
“Sound kind of old-fashioned,” Tony says, without really meaning to, and then realizes how terrible that must have sounded.
But Steve just laughs. “I said the same thing. But he said people could use a little old-fashioned these days.” He takes the current page away from Tony, and hands him another. “I had some ideas for the guy’s uniform. You like?”
It’s Tony’s turn to laugh. “It’s all very spangly, isn’t it?”
“Well, Phil did name this guy Captain America,” Steve grins back, and shrugs, going back to his drawing. “We’ll see how it goes. I can’t be your house boy forever, can I?”
And that... that’s not the point of any of this. Sure, he’d love if they were... if they could... but it’s just not the point.
“You can’t be my house boy,” Tony says quickly. “We haven’t even had sex yet.”
Steve stares at him, some kind of interest, maybe, flicking behind those eyes. But it passes quickly, and he just shakes his head, going back to his work.
“You’re welcome for however long you want to stay,” Tony tells him.
“I know,” Steve says.
At first, Tony thinks it’s kind of silly. But Bruce says it’s good for Steve to have something to do - and I’m a doctor, so I’m right. And as the book progresses, Tony’s forced to admit that it actually looks pretty good. Amazing, actually. Like something he would have read when he was a kid. And that’s the whole point, Mr. Stark, Phil tells him on one of those days when Steve drags him down to the AGENT, there’s a simplicity in this character, in this world, that you just don’t get out of DC these days. Everything with them is over-dramatic and hyper-sexualized. Completely ruins the story. I mean, come on, what’s the point of bothering calling them superheroes if...
The geek talk gives him a headache. But Tony still gets them a literary agent, and a professional editor, and a meeting with Dark Horse.
He even throws a party for them down at the store, when CAPTAIN AMERICA - THE FIRST AVENGER, is released six months later. We’ve got a whole series planned, Phil says, and Steve looks really, really proud.
Like he's finally starting to pick up the pieces.
Steve still sleeps with him, every night, regardless of who else is home, and who else is in their bed. He even lets Tony suck him off every once in a while, lets Tony teach him how to do it to Bruce.
Which isn’t everything Tony wants between them, but is still pretty goddamn good.
After Afghanistan, after he gets this thing in his chest and finds out that Obie was dealing black-market behind everyone’s backs, after the old man tries to kill him and in the struggle gets his worthless ass tossed off the balcony, after Tony makes his very public announcement that Stark Industries is no longer in the weapons business, after he and Steve retreat back to New York for a few days, to Steve’s apartment for a break from all the bullshit, he gets a visit from somebody.
A very, very worried somebody.
“Look, Mr. Stark, I hate to ambush to you like this, but your secretary told me I couldn’t get an appointment with you for at least a month and it’s really important and this is the only place I could get to you...”
Tony’s brain chooses to catch up at that moment with what’s going on. It’s like six in the morning, he just woke up alone, and there’s somebody in the room...
He shoots up then, not bothering to care about the fact that he’s completely naked - seriously, where did Bruce and Steve get off to? - and just stares at this guy. Stares. Because how in the hell...
“Personal assistant,” he says, his brain latching on to the first thing it can, trying to make sense of this entire bizarre situation. “Pepper’s a personal assistant, not a secretary.”
The intruder just looks confused, off-balance. “Umm...”
Tony shakes his head and runs a hand back through bed-shaggy hair. The arc reactor’s aching a bit in his chest, the skin around the site not quite yet healed up from the second surgery he’s had to implant the medical-grade stainless steel collar. Or maybe it’s something else. After all, Bruce is normally here to rub this awesome cream into it with his big, wonderful fingers, Steve kissing him, telling him it’s okay...
“Who are you again?” he asks, trying to ignore the sting, play this thing as cool as possible. “And what did you want to talk with me about?”
“Umm, I, uhh... right, umm, talking...” And he looks at Tony, slightly desperate. “Did you want to put some clothes on or something, Mr. Stark?”
“Why?” Tony asks blandly, crossing his arms in front of his chest, feeling an irrational urge to be childish right now. “You’re the one who broke in to my friend’s apartment. Am I supposed to be taking your feelings into consideration right now?”
Now the guy looks completely off balance, and Tony chuckles a little to himself - mission accomplished - and pats him on the shoulder. “Come on,” he tells the guy, “I make you coffee and you tell me why Pepper wouldn’t get you in if it’s this damn urgent.” And without a second look back, he pads off towards the kitchen.
Tony likes to think his hearing’s pretty good, that he’s a perceptive guy, but he honestly doesn’t notice the man following him until he turns around from where he’s fiddling with the distressingly low-tech coffee maker, off to the fridge for milk, and sees him sitting out the counter. It’s startling, somebody being able to move that quietly...
“So, Mister Breaking-and-Entering,” he says, not letting his surprise show as he starts measuring and scooping and pouring and tamping, “you wanna tell me what you want?”
He does. Introduces himself as Clint Barton, US Olympic Archery Team, and lays out a story about how Obadiah Stane sent them a letter a few weeks ago, right after the announcement about the discontinuation of Stark weapons manufacturing, saying that the company wasn’t going to be able to supply the team with equipment this year like it usually did, we’re so sorry for any inconvenience we might have caused...
“...but it’s not like we can just go buy the stuff off the shelf! The Japanese team gets the drop on us every single goddamn time, and we’re going to get stuck with the tech they were playing with last year at the Sydney Invitational if we can’t get the latest from your company, and...”
Tony stops the frustrated stream of consciousness with an open palm, and pours them both a cup of coffee, goes over to sit down next to Clint at the counter. “Obie was an asshole. He’s been pulling all kinds of shit for the past few months,” he says calmly. “Look, he tried to kill me a few days ago. I assure you, he doesn’t speak for the company anymore.”
Clint just looks pained. “But we need it now so we’ve got enough practice time to get used to it all, and we still haven’t gotten...”
“No buts,” Tony says firmly, and sips at his own coffee. “You guys’ll have your stuff. I do everything I can to support the geeky sports, after all.”
“Curling’s a geeky sport,” Clint retorts. “Archery’s an art.”
“Oh, we make curling stones for the team, too,” Tony agrees, and pats him on the back. “How’s next week sound? Even if I have to hand-machine every piece for your team myself, Stark Industries will help you kick ass in Beijing, okay?”
Clint smiles a little, the first one of the morning, and that’s about the time that Bruce and Steve come home, Phil - who is sort of becoming a fixture in everyone’s lives here in New York, as his graphic novels keep winning national awards - on Steve’s arm, who asks why Tony’s drinking coffee with a total stranger, naked.
“I was kind of wondering that myself,” Clint shrugs, and grins at him.
As it turns out, Clint doesn’t have anywhere to stay that night. He only barely was able to scrape together the money to fly out here from Colorado Springs, and hasn’t been able to work for the past five months as training’s been ramping up.
“So what are you living on?” Steve asks, all of them sitting around in his little living room area, after Tony’s been cajoled into putting on a pair of boxers, at least, fuck, don’t you have shame in my home? and Tony’s repeated himself about you really should just move in with me, you can have that huge studio on the thirty-second floor; he’s not a huge fan of Steve having his own place. He doesn’t get to see him as much as he wishes he could.
The archer flushes a little. “Mostly Stark Industries sponsorship money.”
“Well, as your team sponsor, I refuse to pay for a hotel room,” Tony says, and grins at him. “You can stay at my place at Stark Tower. It’s more comfortable anyway.”
Clint looks dubious. Bruce just nods. And Tony takes them all home.
It takes exactly two days for Clint to break and show up at the threshold of his room at night. Tony welcomes him in. He’s got the man’s bow done three days later, matched to his exact specifications, the grip perfectly fitted to his hand. “We’ll have the rest of the team done next week,” he promises again when he presents it.
They stay in touch. Tony makes damn sure the entire US team is kitted out properly for the games. He even flies out to Beijing for it all.
Clint takes gold in his category.
Tony couldn’t be prouder of him.
After the whole near-death and near-death-again experience of the first few months of 2008, Tony finds himself re-evaluating his priorities. All of them.
The company’s not happy with him about closing down the weapons development section, something he’s increasingly insistent upon in the face of mounting opposition to his decision. It gets nasty - very nasty - and Tony finds himself drinking a hell of a lot more, just trying to block out all the damn vitriol that’s being thrown his way. Steve finally intervenes, sits him down one night, takes the booze away and gives him a hard lecture on how goddamn important your tech is to our boys out there, how many people you’ve saved with it all, you self-indulgent bastard.
“I can’t keep killing people,” Tony says, and his hands are shaking.
Steve just takes him to bed, where Phil’s already half-asleep but wakes the second he hears them come in, and the night gets better.
So Tony shifts the company’s military contracting expertise into aerospace development, into planes and spacelift vehicles and that sort of thing. Non-violent. Still necessary. It seems to be a good compromise, everybody mollified to a certain extent. But the whole thing leaves a bad taste in his mouth, and he decides to step down as CEO.
Pepper moves up to his old place - beautiful Pepper, the woman who’s always been there for him but never really had any need for him to take care of her. And everyone else is doing so well, too, all his boys. Like they don’t really need him anymore, like they’re off making their own lives, away from his, no longer needing him to take care of them, either. It leaves Tony in a bit of a vacuum, sort of floundering, lost for something to do.
He takes a bit of a sabbatical. Goes to Las Vegas and stays with Thor and Loki, who are doing well, even to the point where they’re trying to reconcile with their father over everything that happened. Tony tells them he’ll fly their family out - it feels good to be able to offer somebody something - and Loki smiles and thanks him. He heads back to California, hoping to catch Bruce, but the man’s gone off on some emergency call to Haiti. Tony pays his bills automatically, and, feeling rather empty in his big, big house, none of his friends around at all, heads downtown.
The next morning, Tony can’t remember what he was doing last night, what party he ended up at, how much he drank, anything about it. Except he wakes up with a woman in his bed, a gorgeous redhead with the kind of curves you just can’t find here in the Sunshine State these days, and a soft little smile, just for him.
“Hi,” she says, and kisses him good-morning.
Her name’s Natalie, she says, and over a leisurely breakfast - he refuses to let her leave without feeding her, I pride myself on being a gentleman, after all - she tells him a bit about herself. It’s the typical story. Teenage years in Smalltown, USA, dreams of Hollywood, unable to make it just yet, too many things in the way...
It’s sad. And she obviously needs somebody.
So he tells her he wants to see her for dinner, and she smiles, and that’s how they start dating.
Tony can’t help himself. It’s sort of a hell of a lot of fun, and she’s great in bed, and it’s been so long he’s had a woman for more than one night, somebody who was more than just a game he and one of his boys played together, some random hook-up in those dry times when he was alone. He starts to get glimpses of another personality, too, underneath the sweet, loveable shell she wears - somebody biting and tough, cynical and hard - and he thinks he likes that woman even more.
So maybe he dotes on her a bit more than he should, and so what if he wants to take her to Bora Bora for a week, spoil her rotten, make love to her with the sound of the surf filling the cool tropical nights?
He can be happy with her, right? While everyone else seems to have taken off on him...
And then it all breaks apart.
She asks about New York, and says she’d love to see it and go to the museums and do some shopping, and Tony tells her he thinks she’d look beautiful in a burlap sack. She laughs, and tackles him down into bed.
Then he comes home to New York, to the penthouse, to find Bruce and Clint, back from wherever the hell they both were, laughing, piled up on top of each other in the big main living room, watching some old movie, and Natalie freezes up on his arm.
They both look up, and Bruce’s jaw literally drops open.
Natalie bolts, flying away, but Bruce - who’s fast when he’s pissed - gets to her before she reaches the penthouse elevator, grabs her by the throat, and slams her back into the wall.
“Bruce!” Tony snaps, storming over. “Bruce, what the fuck do you think you’re...”
“She’s a fucking whore,” his old friend growls, and slams her back into the wall again as she tries to wiggle out. “You have any idea what she did to my hospital in San Paolo?!”
“I didn’t,” Natalie whispers brokenly. “Tony...it wasn’t...”
“Stop lying!” he roars, and thrashes out at Tony as Tony tries to yank him off, knocking him back. Mindless, like he always gets when he’s angry. “Tell him what you are!”
“Please... you’re choking me...” Natalie gasps.
It takes both Clint and Tony to get Bruce off of her. And the second they do, her neck around ringed with rising bruises, she catches Clint with a back-handed slap across his face, a ring tearing his cheek open, and turns to run.
Clint grabs her arm, almost too fast for Tony to follow, gets her in a sleeper hold, and her body collapses in a matter of seconds, boneless, into his arms.
They both look at Bruce, who’s crumpled down on the ground, a big hand working slowly through his hair, shaking. Tony stares at him for a moment, the spike of adrenaline from the moment draining, leaving him cold, and offers Bruce a hand up.
They lay the woman - whoever she is - out on the sofa, and Tony just glares at Bruce. “You owe me a goddamn explanation,” he snaps.
But Bruce doesn’t say anything. Like he’s too ashamed of himself to speak. Just hangs his head, and Clint wraps an arm around Tony, and says they can just wait until she wakes up.
She’s surprisingly docile when she finally does. Takes the tea that Clint offers her and tells the story in sips. That her name’s Natasha Romanov. That she was born in Russia, grown up in Boston, her dad part of the Russian mafia there. That she was an only child, no brothers, and it had just been expected she’d go into the family business. That she did, for a while, just to keep her dad happy. Grew up into...
“Into a what, Miss Romanov?” Bruce asks pointedly.
She just stares back blandly. “I have a particular set of skills,” she says, voice cold. “And I didn’t care who I used them on.”
“So you set my hospital on fire for a job?”
“It... it was that job that I realized... I had to quit. I couldn’t... I couldn’t be what daddy wanted me to be.”
She’s been bouncing around the country since then, she says, trying to stay off the family’s radar - Tony asks her how she’s accomplished this, and her face just goes dark. Working odd jobs here and there, stealing when she has to, trying to stay out of the whole prostitution black hole, she says. And finally, it all sort of slows down, stops, and Clint reaches out for her hand.
“And?” Tony snaps, aching inside, hating himself for being taken in by this woman’s con. “And what about me? You planning on stealing from me, too?”
She shakes her head, somber, sad. “It wasn’t like that, Tony, I swear. I just needed a place to go, and you were so nice...”
“Oh, right. Just looking for some sugar daddy, huh?” he retorts, hard, his emotions calcifying in his gut. “Looking for some sucker to take care of you?”
“Well, you do sort of have a reputation for doing that, and I figured it wasn’t going to really be taking advantage if...” She trails off, looks at Bruce and Clint. “I mean, come on, isn’t that what he does? You guys let him fuck you and he solves all your problems? I just... I needed some of that.”
Tony feels cold inside. Is that all he is to everyone? Is that how they see him? He looks at his friends - his lovers, although he’d never tell the that’s how he thinks of them sometimes, some precious and dear - the men he'd gladly do anything for. But neither Bruce nor Clint say anything. They're just far, far too quiet.
And that’s when Tony shoots off the sofa, heads for his bedroom - his, because he’ll be damned if he’s going to share with ay of these ingrates right now - and locks the door behind him.
Natalie - Natasha - is still there in the morning. In Clint’s room, Clint wrapped around her. Bruce is still in the living room, where he must have fallen asleep, because he sits up and looks at Tony with some kind of apology in his eyes, and Tony just walks right by him and wishes the elevator had a door he could slam on his way out.
That Steve, of all the damn people, should be standing right next to him right now.
“Gay bar,” his friend observes, so quiet it seems loud against the noise of the place. The words sound empty, though. Without emotion. Completely neutral. Flat. Like he doesn’t care. Tony just sighs, and goes back to whatever it is that’s he’s drinking. Bastard, he thinks to himself. “Nice. Lot of cute boys here...”
“Go away,” he grumbles. His head’s starting to hurt and it has to be late, really late, and he’s really not in the mood for this. Not with everything that’s happened with Nat... Natasha. With Clint and Bruce, who don’t care, who never have, the rest of them who have to be thinking, feeling, the same damn things...
“What? Why would I do that?”
Tony gestures around, his hand loose from whatever it is he’s been drinking tonight. “I could have anybody in here, you know,” he says, hearing the words slur a bit, as if he’s listening to himself from outside his own body.
Steve’s normally taciturn expression flickers a bit, and a big hand grips the bar-top next to Tony’s elbow, effectively blocking him in. “We not enough for you anymore, Tony?”
Fuck him, he thinks to himself. “Anybody would be happy to have me take them in. That’s what I do, right? Take you little ungrateful bastards in.” And he reaches back behind him for his drink, finishing it, waving down the bartender for another. “Let you all take everything you want.”
“All I want is the sex, right?”
The next drink appears in front of him, and disappears just as quickly. Tony grimaces at the burn in his throat - really, at this point in the evening, he shouldn’t even be able to feel that, he would think - and slams the glass back down on the bar. “That’s all I get from you guys, all any of you want to give me. All I get in exchange for everything I do...”
Steve slaps his hand down before he can order another drink, and his eyes are like ice in the harsh darkness of the club. “Why did I get a fucking frantic phone call from Bruce? Why is everyone out looking for you right now? ” he snaps, holding on tight to Tony’s wrist, and pulls the other man close as he tries to tug away. “You think I’m here because I don’t love you? You think any of us stick around for any other reason than we love you?”
Those few little words crash through him. Nobody - none of his boys, nobody he’s ever been with - has ever said that to him. It can’t... “Steve, you’re a good guy,” he tries to joke, trying to keep his own uncertainty out of his words. “Don’t start lying to me now.”
Steve wraps his arm around Tony’s waist then and pulls him away from the bar, takes his weight, kissing him with everything he’s got. He’s so much more confident, so different from the broken, withdrawn soldier Tony pulled from the VA almost five years ago - the one who’d insisted he could never be with another man. And here he is, in the middle of a gay bar in New York City, completely...
“Please come home, babe,” Steve murmurs against his temple. “Tony, come on, let’s go home.”
And Tony, caught somewhere between alcohol and shock, the world starting a slow, weird spin, finds himself nodding back.
He passes out in the cab on the ride back, but it’s to the feel of Steve’s hand, so comfortable and warm on his chest, and he holds onto that as the rest of the world drifts away.
The next morning, Tony wakes with a pounding headache, tangled up in the sweaty mess of his own sheets. There’s nobody else in here, not even Steve, which is sort of a disappointment.
To the point where Tony stares up at the ceiling for a few minutes, wondering if he imagined - dreamed, hallucinated, whatever - the man coming and getting him from the bar last night. Did that happen? Why would Steve do that anyway? Tony doesn’t really want an answer - well, he does, but he’s sort of afraid of what it might be, and he’s not really sure he wants to go looking for it. So he just stays there, staring up at the ceiling, wondering if he can just spend the rest of the day in bed.
But his throat feels like Death Valley and his head really is starting to pound now and there’s that familiar ache starting up around the edges of the arc reactor collar - damn thing still hurts sometimes, mostly when he feels like shit - and he knows how bad he must stink right now. He manages to get himself vertical, though, and braces himself on the edge of his nightstand as his head swims from the sudden change in altitude.
There’s a glass of water. Right next to a little cup of pills. With a note stuck on it.
He doesn’t bother to read the note. He’s really not in the mood to deal with that right now. Just crumples it up and tosses it on the floor and takes the pills and heads into the bathroom. Twenty minutes later, as he’s drying off, feeling almost human again, he catches a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror. Still foggy, the light from the arc reactor’s smearing the image, obscuring the details, rendering him nothing but an outline cast in dull blue light.
It hits him wrong, somehow. Like that’s all he is. Just an form, a figure. Nothing to him at all. Two dimensional as that reflection. Empty...
“You gonna stare at yourself all day, Tony? Or were you planning on coming down to breakfast any time soon?”
It’s Bruce, standing in the door, arms crossed above his chest, staring right at him, level and without any kind of judgment in his eyes at all. It’s the same kind of expression Steve was wearing last night, and for some reason, that really pisses him off.
“Why?” he snaps back, feeling wet and old and horribly, horribly exposed. “You kids all need me to feed you or something?”
Bruce smiles a little and steps into the room. “You do know how Thor tends to ruin kitchen equipment...” he begins, jovial, and trails off into that familiar hesitation. “Tony, look, about the other night...”
“You don’t have to say it,” Tony says, not wanting to hear whatever this is going to be. “I’m... it just hit me wrong. It’s the way it is. It’s o...”
“What’s the way it is?”
“You guys,” he starts, and gestures helplessly around. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
“What doesn’t? You taking care of us?” And Bruce holds out a hand. “Means everything in the world, Tony. Where would I be - where would any of us be - if you hadn’t believed we were worth taking a chance on? You taking me in was the first kind thing anybody’s ever done for me. You showed me how...” and he falters again, right in the middle of the longest thing Tony’s ever heard him say that didn’t involve science somehow. Bruce reaches out for Tony’s hand, tugging it off the arc reactor, twining his fingers through Tony’s own. “You’re a lot more important than you think you are.”
“Yeah?” he shoots back, unable to help himself. “Then what the hell was that whole thing?”
Bruce, sheepish now, shakes his head. “You just... you sleep around a lot. Even considering, uhh, us. I don’t... I don’t wanna see you get hurt like that. I... you’re better than that. You’re so much better than that. Even Natasha thinks that. She cried when you took off.”
“She’s a con-woman.”
“I didn’t say I was ready to forgive her just yet,” Bruce replies slowly, like this is painful but he’s going to say it anyway. “But I believe her when she says she... she feels the same way about you the rest of us do.”
Tony swallows then, hearing in the silence of his mind the words that Steve said last night, we love you. “Bruce...”
But his oldest friend just smiles and moves in to kiss him gently, elegant, clever fingers sliding into his still-wet hair, cupping the back of his head as he kisses him gently. “Thor really is going to destroy the kitchen,” he murmurs against Tony’s lips, and leaves.
Thor? When did the Odinssons get here?
Still, it’s another ten minutes before Tony’s able to work up the courage to get dressed and go downstairs, just because I was curious about you boys being here, he brusquely tells a startled Thor and Loki, not because any of you deserve waffles this morning.
He ends up making them, though. Whips up a huge batch - because Thor eats a lot, and yes, Thor around kitchen equipment is never a good thing, and maybe he just likes the way Thor smiles at him when he feeds the man and he doesn't have to be ashamed of himself for liking taking care of his boys, dammit - while everyone stands around and drinks coffee and steal bites off each other’s plates and pester each other like siblings and talk up over the top of each other.
It's unusual but nice.
Steve and Phil - Phil, who’s not really part of the team, but got picked up along the way and Tony realizes for the first time he’s just fine with that. Steve wants to know if they can move in, rent’s getting ridiculous, and you’ve got that great studio set up for us downstairs and it would just make working easier.
Loki and Thor, the latter of whom is pestering the former about how much coffee he’s had already this morning and how wired he’s going to be later, and do you think that’s a good idea, honestly? and I like this drink, brother, cease your needless complaining, you sound like an old woman. They’re trying to explain that Loki’s recently gotten himself a job in New York, off Broadway somewhere, and they’d like to be able to stay here, too. Just for now, Thor adds hastily, and Tony just nods his head and passes him another waffle.
Bruce, too, with some kid who barely looks twelve, but Bruce insists is nineteen, and some kind of genius. Peter Parker, best student in my lecture series over at NYU, he says, and tells Tony about how the kid’s aunt and uncle just died and he can’t really afford the dorms, and wouldn’t it just be better if Peter could stay here for a while? Tony nods and then Loki asks the kid point-blank if he understands what the arrangement around here is.
“You guys are like a family, right? Who all sleep together occasionally?” he says slowly, looking at Bruce, who rubs the kid’s shoulder and smiles encouragingly at him. The kid smiles back. “Sounds like fun.”
“You’re turning into a dirty old man, Bruce,” Tony jokes.
“I’ve learned from the best, dear,” Bruce deadpans back, and reaches for the paper.
Clint, who’s got his arm around an almost scared looking Natasha, asking if she can stay. There’s a coach here I’ve been wanting to work with for the nationals, he says. I mean, we could just get an apartment or something, but...
“I don’t want to play Wendy to your Lost Boys here,” she says quickly, and drops her eyes into Clint’s shoulde, in a way that clearly says I don’t have anywhere else to go and I feel like shit for asking.
It gets everybody laughing. Even Tony - who suddenly realizes that this isn’t some random happenstance, everybody asking if they can stay. They’re not just asking for some place to crash so they can be in the city, don't all have perfectly reasonable and unconnected reasons for wanting to be here.
It almost feels like they’re asking if they can come home.
Tony looks over at Bruce, who shrugs, and he figures that if his friend can forgive her... if this is what it feels like to have a family, that if they all really want to come and live with him, if they’ve all gone ... maybe...
“You can be Tinkerbell,” he says, clipped, short, not wanting to let everything brimming up in him right now spill over into some grandiose emotional display. “I think Pepper already counts as Wendy.”
She smiles at him, a true, grateful smile, and he just winks back, heart light for the first time in as long as he can remember, and asks if anybody wants another round of waffles.