Tony doesn't sleep through SHIELD meetings as a rule, but only because he seldom attends them. He claims – not without reason – that he's too busy, and so far he has come up with half a dozen new inventions to prove it, ranging from homing arrows to thermal armour to a prototype “invisi-suit” which, okay, didn't actually work out but was a good idea while it lasted. The point is, Fury should be happy that he's even turned up; keeping his eyes open and actually paying attention is asking far too much from someone who spent the last thirty-two hours neck deep in the guts of the Iron Man suit, attempting to improve its maneuverability, and also its imperviousness to slime.
He's leaning back in his chair listening to Fury de-brief the team and contemplating other possible uses of the word “de-brief” (hey, it's not his fault he belongs to a team of freakishly attractive superheroes whose costumes leave little to the imagination) when his eyes close, and it's only supposed to be for a minute except that he kind of maybe sleeps through the rest of the meeting. Whatever. The next thing he knows, someone's hand is on his shoulder, shaking him gently.
“Tony. Wake up.”
Tony cracks one eye open. Steve is looking down at him, a slight smile of indulgence curling his lips, and Tony blinks, wondering when he'd gotten so familiar with the variations of expression on the Captain's face.
“Hey Soldier,” he mumbles, unable to muster the energy to sound annoyed. “I see you drew the short straw.”
Steve's hand drops away and his eyes widen, but it's not until consciousness fully returns that Tony realises the rest of the team is also staring at him in utter silence.
“What?” he says. “Do I have drool on my face or something?”
“Do you realise what you just – “ Clint begins, only to stop with a suddenness that makes Tony suspect one of the Black Widow's heels just impacted heavily with his shin. Natasha is looking at him with a speculative expression, which might mean he does have drool on his face, or it may just be that she's contemplating how best to kill him using only her pinky and one of the little hair-clip-thingies currently holding back her auburn curls.
“Tired, Stark?” she asks, smiling sweetly.
“I'm not answering that. You might use it as an excuse to steal a kidney while my guard is down,” Tony informs her, pushing his chair away from the table and stretching out the kinks in his neck. “Where's Fury?”
“He left,” Steve says. “The meeting ended ten minutes ago.”
“So that means we're free to go, right?”
For a second, Steve just watches him, the same considering look in his eyes that had been on Natasha's face. Tony swipes instinctively at his chin, then at his cheeks in the hopes of removing whatever the hell it is that's making them all act so strangely. Then the Captain shrugs. “Yeah. We're free to go.”
“Excellent,” Tony says. “Let's blow this popsicle stand.”
Seriously, the sooner they get out of this room the better because the way Coulson is looking at him is starting to give him the creeps.
At first Steve is convinced it's a fluke – they were all a little punchy after the mission, he thinks, Tony was probably just kidding around – until it happens again.
In the few months since he and the other Avengers had moved into the newly renovated Tower, Steve has grown used to the fact that sleep is apparently one of those things Tony believes only happens to other people, along with similar mundanities like speeding tickets and choosing your own tie. So it doesn't surprise him when, after spending the past forty-eight hours holed up in his workshop, Tony reappears in the kitchen with grease in his hair and makes a beeline for the coffee machine without bothering to say hello.
“Morning, Tony,” he says around a mouthful of scrambled eggs. “Long night?”
Tony appears not to hear him. He's standing in front of the coffee-maker with his head bowed, his eyes reduced to tired slits in his puffy face. It's an open question whether or not he's aware of what he's doing at more than a subconscious level, but he seems to believe he can make the water boil faster simply by glaring at it.
“Tony is not a morning person,” Clint comments drily, watching him from his perch on the kitchen counter. “My latest theory is that he's a vampire.”
“I vote for zombie, myself,” Natasha says.
“You're both wrong,” says Bruce. “He's a cyborg.”
When the others turn to stare at him, he shrugs. “What, I can't have an opinion? The man works even harder than I do; he has to be part machine.”
Thor, of course, takes this literally, and begins to speculate as to the extent of technological-dependence in Midgardian society, while the others try alternately to explain (Bruce) and to further confuse him by bringing up fictional examples of artificial intelligence gone awry (Clint). Steve gets to his feet, gathering their abandoned dishes, and moves to join Tony by the sink.
“Let me get that,” he says, taking the mug from Tony's slack grip and nudging him out of the way. He fills the cup with coffee – black with a ridiculous amount of sugar, the way Tony likes it – then puts it back in Tony's hands and wraps his fingers around it. “It's hot,” he warns. “Be careful.”
Ignoring him, Tony takes a large gulp of the steaming contents, tipping his head back in ecstasy.
“Coffeeee,” he sighs.
“Right,” agrees Steve, amused. “Tony, this is coffee. Coffee, Tony. I can leave now if the two of you would like to be alone.”
Tony's eyes fly open. “Steve.”
“Yes, Tony," Steve says patiently. Trying to have a conversation with Tony after a string of all-nighters is almost as bad as trying to talk to him when he's in the middle of an inventing binge, but the routine is familiar enough that his general obliviousness doesn't bother Steve any more than usual. At least, not until Tony smiles – a heartbreakingly sincere smile that hits Steve like a punch to the gut.
"Hey Soldier," he says, like Steve's the best thing in the world and he's just found out about it. "Good coffee. Coffee's good. Nearly dissolved my tongue, but good."
"I'm serious. Have you ever thought of becoming a barista? You could save people's lives with coffee instead of with your muscles. Much safer that way. Right guys?”
Nobody answers. Conversation at the table seems to have come to a stuttering halt in the face of this unexpected gregariousness, and Tony shrugs, apparently not understanding that he's done anything unusual. He shuffles out of the room with the mug still clutched in his hand, wiggling his fingers at the other Avengers as he leaves.
The five of them stare at each other in silence.
“What just happened?” Bruce asks at last, turning to Steve as if for explanation. Steve can only shake his head.
“Has anyone else considered the possibility that Tony may be a pod person?” asks Clint.
So, uh, this took way longer than I intended, mostly because I've written about 50 different versions trying to decide where I wanted to go with the story and re-connecting with the tone (my life has not been light and fluffy lately, okay). Sorry about the wait, guys. If it's any consolation, this is way longer than the previous two chapters?
It's not that Steve and Tony aren't friends, because they are. And it's not that Steve thinks Tony is incapable of being nice to anyone, because Steve is a good guy who usually assumes the best about people, leastwise when they're not actively trying to kill him, and he's sure Tony could be nice enough if the mood struck. It's just that Tony's idea of demonstrativeness typically involves giving someone expensive gifts or loaning them his private island; or, on one memorable occasion, attempting to buy an entire baseball team as an apology (it didn't end well). So this new...whatever-it-is, the thing he keeps doing when Steve wakes him up – it's far enough outside of his normal behaviour patterns that Steve isn't entirely sure what it means, or how he's supposed to deal with it. So he decides to consult an expert.
“Tony has a pet name for you?” Pepper asks with some surprise. “It isn't Captain Tight-Ass, is it? Because I told him he shouldn't – ”
“Uh, no,” Steve says, interrupting before she can get too upset. “No, it's not...that. It's, uh. He calls me Soldier. Sometimes. When he first wakes up.”
“When he first wakes up,” she repeats.
“Yeah. He fell asleep during a briefing the other day, and when I woke him up, he said – and then yesterday in the kitchen, too. Only he's not really – it was kind of – I was just...wondering. If he's said anything to you about it.”
There is a long silence, and Steve begins to wonder if maybe he's committed some kind of accidental faux pas. The future can be a strange place sometimes, and he's still not familiar with all the ins and outs of social etiquette. In the end, though, Pepper just smiles a little, a tiny twist to her lips that looks like it hurts, and pats him on the arm.
“Tony doesn't really talk about his feelings much,” she says. “It was one of the reasons we broke up.”
“Oh,” Steve says. Then, “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to bring up unpleasant memories. If you'd rather not talk about it – ”
Pepper waves it away with one hand. “Ancient history,” she says, though he can tell it's not. “And we don't hate each other, which is a miracle in itself, what with Tony being Tony and all, but it does mean I can't help you. He hasn't said anything to me about – that sort of thing. For, uh, a while, actually. Sorry.”
“It's okay,” Steve assures her. “Thank you anyway.”
“You're welcome.” For some reason, Pepper is looking at him closely, as if trying to gauge something from his expression. “You know, I can tell him to stop if he's bothering you. If he's just woken up, he probably doesn't even know he's doing it. You know what he's like. It's practically a reflex.”
Steve thinks back to Tony's sleep-smudged, uncharacteristically open face, the raw affection in his voice. He's pretty sure Pepper's right, that Tony doesn't know he's doing it, but that's what makes it so intriguing; it's like getting a glimpse of what's really going on inside his head before the filters slip into place, and instinct tells him it's more real than 90% of the other stuff that comes out of Tony's mouth.
“It doesn't bother me,” he says.
Pepper pats him on the arm again and gives him another smile, a real one this time.
“That's the spirit, Captain,” she tells him. “And don't worry. You'll get used to it.”
There's something off about the whole exchange, but it's not until he's already left the office and is waiting for the elevator that he begins to understand what it was. Pepper's expression had reminded him of the way his own face used to look, when girls would come up to him asking if his handsome friend Bucky would like to dance, or whether Bucky had a girlfriend yet. It was the face of someone who'd been put in the middle unexpectedly and was finding it really, really uncomfortable, in ways they had never thought possible.
Steve is abruptly struck with the mental image of himself as a child going up to child-Pepper and asking, “Does Tony like me? As in, like me like me?” the way kids sometimes do. Which would be kind of funny except he can't help thinking maybe Pepper had gotten the same impression, and the whole conversation was her way of letting him down gently.
And he's not entirely sure how he feels about that.
One thing he does know, however, is that whatever Tony may feel when he's half asleep or running on coffee fumes, it certainly doesn't seem to bleed over into his waking life.
“Have I done something to offend you?” he demands, advancing on Steve with intent after their latest mission goes pear-shaped. “Pissed you off, maybe? Or is it that difficult for you to share the glory with the rest of the class?”
“What?” Caught off guard, Steve can only blink at him. “What are you talking about?”
“I'm talking about you sticking me out in left field like I'm some delicate little buttercup who can't even catch a lousy ground ball!” Tony exclaims, finger jabbing him repeatedly in the chest. “I hate to break it to you, Cap, but I am not made of fucking porcelain, and I don't appreciate being sidelined for absolutely no reason.”
Steve stares at him, dumbfounded. “I wasn't – “ he begins, but Tony just keeps going, steamrollering right over any explanation he might care to give.
“One time, one time I get slimed by monsters and you seem to think I'm a liability. I upgraded the suit, it's working fine, I know how to handle myself and you need to stop sending me where all the action isn't before you end up getting someone killed.”
“Me?! You're the one who decided to mess up the plan,” Steve snaps at him, stung. “If you'd just stayed where you were supposed to – “
“It was a bad plan. I came up with a better one. You keep forgetting you're not the only one with a brain around here, Captain Stick-Up-My-Ass.”
Steve reminds himself to take deep breaths. It was true that Tony's idea had been effective, and the way the two of them had worked almost perfectly in sync had been exhilarating. It had also been reckless, foolhardy, unnecessary and borderline suicidal, all of which he has no qualms in telling Tony in the firmest, most no-nonsense tone he can muster. The memory of Iron Man swooping directly into the creature's path when he was supposed to be well out of harm's way is one that still makes the bottom drop out of his stomach.
“I ran the numbers,” Tony protests, looking affronted. “It was perfectly safe. Well, for a given value of safe. There was a slight risk of my getting a limb bitten off, but what's a missing arm between friends?”
“This team does not just revolve around you,” Steve growls. “Don't you understand that? You have no idea the destruction you could have caused – “
“It's called adaptability, Captain – “
“ – there were civilians, did you even stop to think – “
“ – considered it a virtue, but I guess back in the Dark Ages they preferred soldiers who couldn't think for themselves – “
A loud whistle interrupts them, and they turn in unison to see Natasha standing in the doorway, both eyebrows raised and one hand on her hips. For an instant, Steve is forcibly reminded of his mother, who used to stand at the top of their stoop in just the same attitude, scolding him and Bucky for getting too rowdy when they played in the street outside. They'd been fighting then, too, only with fists and cardboard weapons, not with words.
“It's a little late in the day for open warfare, don't you think?” Natasha asks. “At least let the rest of us eat something before you start in with the heavy artillery.”
“Yeah,” Clint agrees, stepping into the kitchen behind her and making a beeline for the fridge. “It's bad for the kids to listen to Mommy and Daddy fight.”
“We're not fighting,” Steve says wearily, just as Tony says, with biting emphasis, “He started it.”
“Very mature,” says Natasha. “No, really. How is it you two run team of elite superheroes again?”
“I have no idea,” Tony snaps back. “Why don't you ask Steve? He's the Star Spangled Man with a Plan, after all.”
Steve won't go so far as to say Tony flounces, but there is definitely a kind of petulant exaggeration to his exit that might, had he been less irritated, have made Steve laugh. He rubs a thumb up the bridge of his nose and sighs. Sometimes it occurs to him to wonder how the two of them manage to get along at all, let alone save the world on a regular basis.
Tony is a marathon sulker – he skulks off to his workshop for days at a time, whether or not he's mad at anyone, so he's had plenty of practice with the silent treatment – but he seldom holds a grudge for very long. Steve keeps to himself and worries, coming up with half a dozen different attempts at apology and rejecting all of them, but when Tony re-emerges three days later (just in time for the Avengers' movie night, which is so not a coincidence) the billionaire behaves as if everything's fine between them. Maybe it is.
“Move over, road hogs,” he demands, depositing himself onto the cushions between Bruce and Steve without waiting, his shoulder against Steve's and his feet in Bruce's lap. Bruce makes noises of protest, but Steve just shifts to make room for him, wondering if this means Tony has forgiven him, and if he even wants to be forgiven. After all, he hadn't done anything wrong exactly. Tony's head is heavy against his side, and he's obviously exhausted. He can't keep his eyes open for more than a few minutes, and by the time the plot actually starts to get interesting he's fast asleep on the cushions, sprawling across both Steve and Bruce with typical abandon. Steve watches him more than the movie, noting the furrowed brow, the down-turned mouth. The on-screen mystery is far less compelling than the real live enigma sitting right beside him.
By the time the snacks run out about half way through the film, Steve's left arm has gone numb and he's fairly sure his hand has fallen asleep, so it makes sense for him to volunteer to make some more popcorn and attempt to regain the feeling in his limbs. He has to push Tony off to do it, though, and while he does his best not to disturb him, Tony's eyes are open as he stands up.
“Hey Soldier,” he says softly. Steve glances down at him, at the tousled curls and eyes heavy with sleep, and there it is again – that look.
“Hey yourself, Shellhead,” he says, striving for normalcy. “Sorry I woke you. You want anything from the kitchen?”
“Bring me some M&Ms?”
“Thanks.” Steve turns to go, but Tony catches hold of his sleeve.
“We good?” he asks, more seriously than Steve would have expected. “About the other day, I mean.”
Steve looks at Tony's hand on his wrist and then back to his face, a helpless flutter starting up at the base of his throat. “Of course,” he says. Because really, it's a foregone conclusion. “As long as you admit I was right and promise never to disobey an order ever again.”
“You're such a spoilsport.”
“I do my best.”
“Oh my god,” Clint complains from the armchair. He throws the last of the popcorn at Steve, who straightens, and it bounces off him onto the floor. “Why don't you two get a room already, you're ruining this for the rest of us.”
“Speak for yourself,” Natasha says.
“No, don't,” says Bruce. “Some of us would actually like to hear the dialogue.”
“Why would Tony Stark want to obtain yet another chamber?” asks Thor. “He already has plenty, does he not?”
Steve, who privately thinks Thor understands much more than he lets on about Midgardian idioms, but likes to watch them make fools of themselves trying to explain, catches Tony's eye and the two of them exchange a grin of perfect understanding.
“Silence in the Peanut Gallery,” Tony orders imperiously. “Or Captain Crunch over here won't bring us back any food. You can't watch a movie without popcorn and chocolate, it's sacrilegious.”
“I'll be good!” Clint promises at once.
“Will you please,” Bruce says, with a kind of desperate patience. “Be quiet?”
Which, Steve thinks, is his cue to leave the room.
Uh, so...I'm sorry this took so long, guys! For those of you who have stuck around, thank you, I hope this chapter is worth the wait. I'm fairly sure I know where I'm going with the story now, so hopefully the next two chapters won't take so long :)
Escaping to the kitchen gives Steve a chance to calm down and try to think. At least, in theory. He locates a bag of popcorn and shoves in the microwave, then hunts through the cupboards for the other snacks, his heart still doing the weird butterfly-thing in his chest. He's pretty sure his pulse shouldn't be going so fast when all he's done is get up from the couch and walk across the room, but it isn't showing any signs of slowing down and that's...well. Distracting. As is the conversation he can hear drfting in from the other room.
“Why do you call him that, anyway?” He hears Natasha ask, her voice audible over the hum of the microwave. She sounds blandly disinterested, but with Natasha it's difficult to tell. “I thought you were the one who said that we're not soldiers.”
“We're not. But Steve is,” Tony says. “Super serum? World War II? I know you know this, you were at the briefing.”
“Nat and I were spies and assassins, but you don't call us 'spy' and 'assassin.'”
“That's because you'd kill me if I tried.”
“That still doesn't explain why he has a nickname and we don't.”
“Aw, are you jealous? Sweetcheeks, all you needed to do was ask – “
“Shut up, Stark.” Steve winces at the sound of Tony's yelp, and guesses Natasha probably pinched him somewhere sensitive. “You didn't answer the question.”
“What's with the third degree all of a sudden? Can't a guy call his teammate names without it becoming an international incident?”
Steve doesn't hear Natasha's reply, because at that moment the popcorn kernels begin to pop, and the sound drowns out the voices from the living room. When he goes back in, though, bowl of buttery goodness in hand, Tony's sitting bolt upright on the settee and Thor is looking from him to Natasha and back again, a thoughtful expression on his face. Onscreen, the killer dispatches another hapless victim, but no one other than Bruce appears to be paying attention.
“What did I miss?” Steve asks, handing the popcorn to Clint and passing Tony his promised M&Ms.
“Nothing,” Tony says, tearing open the packet and shaking the chocolates into a bowl. He automatically starts separating the green ones, which he insists are the Other Guy's favourite. “Natasha is evil and almost everyone with a name is dead, but that's not news.”
“Merely pointing out the obvious, Stark.” The assassin says smugly.
Tony makes a face at her and slouches lower into the cushions, but although Steve re-settles himself and the movie goes on, the atmosphere in the room is nothing like the comfortable intimacy he had felt before he left. Tony remains firmly in the middle of the couch, arms folded, and doesn't touch Steve or Bruce for the rest of the night.
Which is fine with him. Absolutely fine. Why wouldn't it be?
Things are kind of weird, after that, although not in a bad way. While Tony never explicitly promised to behave, he seems to be making an effort to do so anyway, even going so far as to pay attention in meetings and refrain from making fun of Steve's control-freak tendencies, as he calls them, which Steve suspects is only achieved through considerable exertion of will. He is, in fact, noticeably subdued following the Movie Night Incident, although when Steve tries to ask him about it he just shakes his head and changes the subject.
The only other person having difficulty with the whole concept of normalcy is apparently Steve himself, who can't seem to stop looking at Tony. Even when he's thinking about something else, he finds himself darting little glances at him whenever he's nearby, as if in catching him unawares he might surprise the truth of Tony's feelings as it crosses his face. He doesn't, of course. The whole point is that it's not something Tony demonstrates outwardly in any visible way, except for those few moments when his guard is down. But Steve finds himself unable to resist checking anyway, even though he tries to tell himself that it isn't anything out of the ordinary. They're friends. Teammates. It would be strange if they weren't affectionate with one another.
That is, so he thinks, until Clint bluntly bursts his bubble one afternoon in the gym.
“So, what's up between you and Tony?” he asks casually, pausing to watch Steve's work-out on his way to the archery range. “I mean – how long has this thing been going on?”
Steve blinks away sweat and glances at him. “What thing?”
“You know! The thing!” The archer waves a hand. “The thing thing. Don't try to kid me, Rogers, it's obvious Tony's got it bad.”
It takes Steve a second to understand what Clint means, and when the penny drops he can feel the heat rising up his entire body, until his cheeks are flaming like a furnace. He ducks his head a little, concentrating on the punching-bag.
“Don't be stupid,” he mutters. “We're just friends.”
“Sure you are,” Clint says. “And Budapest is just a city. We all heard him. I don't think he'd mind saluting the flag with you, if you know what I mean.”
Even Steve can't miss the obviousness of that metaphor. He misses a punch, recovers, and tries to ignore his teammate's snickering in the background as he struggles to get the bag back under control.
“Firstly,” he says, timing his words in between punches. He still doesn't dare look up at Clint. “Budapest is just a city. And secondly – “ punch, punch, “Just because Tony happened to call me a nickname a few times when he was half asleep doesn't mean we're...stepping out together, or whatever you want to call it.”
“That was more than just a nickname, Cap. When have you ever heard Tony Stark sound like that? Ever?” He shakes his head, looking mildly impressed. “I mean, don't get me wrong, I like the guy well enough, it's just usually he's all snark and no something-something.”
“Something-something,” Steve repeats.
“Call it what you like,” Clint says. “Soul, romance, whatever. You have to admit, when he's not schmoozing women in bars he's about as cuddly as the Hulk.”
“The Hulk isn't so bad, when you get to know him.”
“Okay, I'm not even going to touch that one. But you get my point.”
Steve stops punching and catches the swinging bag, leaning against it so that he can regain his breath. He's not sure if it's the conversation or the exercise that has left him so winded, and he'd rather not stop to think about it. “I get it, but I still don't see what that has to do with me. Tony and I aren't together.”
“Really?” Clint cocks an eyebrow at him. “Would you like to be? Because I think you're in with a chance, that's all I'm saying. But if you're not interested, you might want to let Tony know you don't swing that way, so he won't get his hopes up. Only – tactfully. You're good at being tactful, right?”
Leaving aside the strangeness of receiving relationship advice from Clint, of all people, the entire conversation is starting to make Steve very uncomfortable. He turns back to the punching bag and starts hitting it again, mostly as an excuse not to have to answer the question. He doesn't have a problem with...that sort of thing at all – he never did, even if he does find the twenty-first century's openness about sexuality disconcerting. That doesn't mean this discussion isn't making him decidedly nervous.
“Don't you think you're jumping to conclusions?” he asks Clint finally, keeping his eyes resolutely fixed on his own clenched fists. “I mean, even if I was interested – and I'm not saying I am – have you ever seen Tony romantically involved with a guy?”
“Well, no,” Clint admits. “But I've never heard him talk to any of his dates the way he talked to you, either. Which, just so you know, was extremely sickening to hear and if he does it again I may have to throw up on you.”
Steve tries to look unaffected. “We're friends,” he repeats. “Of course he's going to sound different when he talks to a dame.”
He aims one last punch at the punching-bag, just to underscore his nonchalance, but to his chagrin the bag explodes under the impact, sending the reinforced hide and a ridiculous amount of sand spraying across the polished wooden floor.
“Uh huh,” Clint says, looking down at the shattered remains of the punching-bag. “Welp. Looks like you're doing really well with that denial so far, Captain. Let me know how it works out for you.”
He pats Steve on the shoulder and strides whistling out of the room, leaving Steve to stare at the mess on the floor, his heart pounding, wondering just what it is that he's so afraid of.
He figures it out a few days later, when Tony goes down in the middle of a fight and for a terrifying five minutes Steve can't get to him to make sure he's all right. It's not as if it hasn't happened before – they've all of them been injured or out of commission more than once – but the horrible plummeting feeling in his gut never gets any easier to bear.
“Tony!” he yells into the comm. “Dammit - Widow, Hawkeye, get to Iron Man. I'm caught in a bottleneck here.”
To their credit, none of the others questions the order or Captain America's sudden desire to resort to profanity. He's been trying to convince them that he's really not the innocent Boy Scout the media painted him as – and continues to paint him as, much to Tony's delight and Steve's annoyance – but until now he hadn't been sure if it had sunk in. At any rate, nobody's arguing, and he can see Clint dropping gracefully into the street near Tony's body out of the corner of his eye before he's forced to bring his shield up and concentrate on the robots in front of him.
When he finally manages to extricate himself from the villain du jour's mechanical minions, Steve finds the two assassins standing over Tony, whose armour is still smoking, the faceplate lifted. He isn't moving.
“He's unconscious,” Natasha tells him, somewhat unnecessarily, shifting so that Steve can crouch to take Tony's pulse. The steady beat beneath his fingers is reassuring. “I think he just hit his head, that's all. We've got medical on the way.”
Sure enough, a team of paramedics is picking their way through the debris, a stretcher clutched between them, although whether it's going to be strong enough to carry Tony in the armour is an open question. At least they don't have to worry about jostling his neck or spine, Steve thinks, somewhat dazedly. The armour is locked in place, clearly some kind of protective mechanism designed for just such an occasion.
It should probably be worrying that this has become such a regular occurrence even Tony has a contingency plan.
“Steve?” Natasha puts a hand on his arm. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah – yes,” Steve gives himself a mental shake, and turns to smile wanly at her. She's watching him with wary eyes, her expression unreadable, but he thinks there might be a hint of sympathy in her face. “I'm fine. Where's Thor?”
“He's tracking down Banner,” Clint says. “The Hulk got a little over-enthusiastic with the robo-smash game. He may or may not have broken Harlem for the second time.”
Steve winces. Bruce isn't going to be happy. “Great. Have him take Bruce to medical for a once-over, will you? In fact, you should probably meet him there.”
Clint has a rather nasty burn across his forearm and he's holding his right wrist at an awkward angle, but he still shoots the Captain a look of disdain before nodding and turning to follow the trail of destruction that is the Hulk's calling card. Steve turns to Natasha.
“Would you mind checking this lot is well and truly out of commission?” he asks, gesturing to what was left of the world's latest robotic menace lying scattered over the pavement. “Oh, and make sure you snag an intact one for Tony. He'll want to take it apart when – when he wakes up.”
Natasha squeezes his shoulder, her way of communicating support as well as agreement, and moves off. Steve looks down at Tony's still face, watching as the paramedics work to lift him onto the stretcher. He'd offer to help, but they seem competent enough, and his own muscles feel strangely drained, like he's been holding up something heavy for far too long. He scrubs his face with his hands.
Tony is fine, or he will be. It's himself Steve isn't so sure about. When he'd seen Tony go down, something had twisted in his gut, a sharp, painful something he didn't remember feeling since the day that Bucky died. His body had reacted on auto-pilot, kicking and punching his way through the remaining robots, but for one dangerous minute he'd been unable to think through the fog of fear clouding his brain. It was just lucky the battle had been winding down already – had he been called on to make any kind of tactical decision, Steve is by no means certain he would have been able to do so.
Blinking, Steve turns to one of the medics who has been trying to get his attention.
“Do you want to ride in the ambulance with us?”
“Oh. Um,” Steve hesitates, because he really should help Natasha make sure the bots are no longer a threat, but a large part of him doesn't want to let Tony out of his sight. “That is, I – “
“Sir!” another medic calls, interrupting. “Sir, he's coming round!”
Steve easily beats the other man to the ambulance, and he has a split second to wonder whether he ought to feel embarrassed at making his concern so obvious before Tony opens his eyes. For a moment, he looks confused, his brow furrowing as he takes in the medical equipment and the three worried people staring down at him, but the frown clears as his gaze focuses on Steve's face.
“Hey Soldier,” he croaks. “Did you catch the guy who dropped that building on me? 'Cause I wanna sue.”
Steve doesn't say anything. He's too busy trying to remember how to breathe.