Tony was not a big fan of distance.
Not in the physical way (he could think of a lot of people he liked having far away from him), but in a way he'd never admit to, no matter who asked: an emotional way, an interpersonal-human-connection way.
He certainly recognised the irony, there.
But everyone was distant, he figured, even just a little bit, and he supposed that was healthy. Tony Stark knew he could be a bit much. Everyone kept him at an arm's length,and clearly, that was the way it had to be. First Howard (though that was more like a bodily length than an arm), then Obie. Rhodey was always a little closed off, something that kept them from acknowledging that this was brotherhood, that this was family. And that was discounting literally every other human being in his life, who never made attempts to get close, to become close.
But god, he wanted it.
And then Pepper, lovely, blazing Pepper, and he'd thought that finally, she was someone with whom he could have no distance. But that wasn't what she'd wanted. After the palladium poisoning, the gaps between them grew. Tony should have known that they were through (but he'd hoped, he'd hoped as hard as anything under the sun could, but he wasn't enough and never had been), and her gentle breaking off from him had felt anything but.
After that, he sat down one night, with a bottle of fourteen year old scotch and his head, and thought it through.
He was good at variables and percentages and odds. That was how he'd survived as long as he had. This could be distilled into a simple problem, one he could understand, since he couldn't solve it (he was arrogant and he knew it, but even he couldn't fix Tony Stark where no one else could).
He started with the most inconsequential interactions he had with people, and worked his way up. The one night stands where he'd been pressing close in more ways than one, where his partners had him for a brief moment and were happy to leave him where they found him, no matter who left first in the morning. The short flings with actresses and models that disappeared the first time he was lost to a project and missed calls for a week. Friendships that were more business acquaintance, R&D coworkers who tweaked his designs and said hello in the halls, Obie who tried to kill him and before that pretended to love him, Rhodey who came after him and then came after him, Pepper who loved him and then chose to leave him.
It was a lot, he realised. A lot of cumulative distance, and in everyone's case, a distance they wanted.
Well then, he thought hazily, looking at the bottle of scotch in what felt strangely like distaste, that sealed it. Emotional distance was something other people needed. And hell, Tony was a giving kind of guy.
So he built his tower (more irony, that) and did what was best for everyone involved; distanced himself. He'd been trying so hard in the other direction for so long that for a time, he had no idea what to do with himself. But then - as if by a miracle, as if sent from on high - SHIELD's Agent, the one who'd given him the cue cards and had been less than surprised to have Tony ignore them - arrived. Jarvis said his name was Phil, but somehow Tony doubted it.
Regardless, they needed him on the Initiative. And that? Iron Man (Tony) could do.
His team? Clinically bonkers, all of them. No wonder they'd finally relented on the whole ‘Iron Man yes, Tony Stark no’ thing.
First, there was Natalie. Or, rather, Natasha. Or maybe even that was wrong, because there were layers and layers of crazy on this chick, and all of them could kill him in her sleep. He didn't bother to put up a fuss about the neck-stabbing thing, to prevent a less life-saving re-occurrence.
Then, Thor. And pause just a moment, because the god of thunder thing needs its own moment of appreciation for how kickass that is. As for the reality of it, the job clearly came with daddy issues to rival Tony's and an arrogance to match, along with self-righteousness and - yeah, Tony was going to stop while he was ahead, because the similarities were sort of depressing. And that was without looking at the guy's brother.
Speaking of brothers, Tony was seriously considering adopting Bruce as such, because goddamn, the man was smart. It was so good to have someone around who thought at his speed, and he hadn't realised what he'd been missing. There were abandonment issues and self worth issues and some breath-taking anger issues, yeah, but at least he was a decent guy.
Of course, there was Captain America, but Tony didn't like thinking about him. Didn't like thinking about his temper that he should have expected, the stubbornness, the way he'd look so ridiculously young and lost sometimes and then he'd just grit his teeth and turn into the wind like it was a breeze and not a fucking hurricane. Tony didn't like that he wanted to get along with the guy, but something about him made his mouth run off without his permission.
He didn't like that he noticed the way the Captain tensed every time that Tony called him some patriotic reference. He didn't like that he could always tell where in the room the guy stood. He didn't like that he twice already almost called him Steve, as if he was a friend, someone who would want Tony do so.
There was a lot not to like about Captain America.
Later on, they acquired another teammate, the same guy who tried to take out the Helicarrier, and Tony went with it, because why not? Everyone else on the team was a basketcase.
It wasn't because Cap seemed to trust him. Or seemed to trust Natasha, who trusted him. It was a complex trust tree, all right, and Tony had no part in it whatsoever.
They fought as if they'd been training all their lives, against goddamn aliens like it was a normal day's work, and traded jokes and banter like everyone's lives didn't depends on them.
Cap had used his shield to turn Tony's beam into a wide damage ray, taking out more in a single movement than either of them could take out at once, and god, if Tony didn't laugh in delight before taking off again, he had no idea what else it could have been.
He tried to call Pepper when he flew into the portal, warhead heavy like the end of the world and weighing on his shoulders. He wasn't sure why; he was glad she didn't pick up.
With the cold creeping in and Jarvis' voice dying away in his ear, floating in the vacuum of a galaxy he would never know the name of, he wondered if he was finally distant enough to satisfy everyone.
He woke up to a loud Hulk shriek, and his heart was so skittish he was surprised the tired old thing didn't just give out then and there.
The sky was blue, and empty of anything resembling a portal. The only sound was the echoes of the Hulk's roar off of ruined buildings and a tiny sigh of relief from his left.
He looked over, and Steve was watching him the way one watched a dead man.
‘Tell me no one kissed me,’ Tony said, exhausted, and Steve cracked a grin that was just as tired, and no less exuberant.
Shawarma happened. Tony had no idea how, but it happened, all of them near collapsing, barely able to chew their food, but leaning on each other, relieved to have made it through.
No one leaned on Tony, and that was a good thing, he told himself.
Medical gave him the okay to leave (and wasn't that weird, a medical service that didn't bat an eyelash at burn marks and lacerations and alien blood. Tony never wanted to go there again.) So he left, holed himself up in the ruined tower, and started to fix his life.
He reassured Pepper that he was alive and that the stocks wouldn't suffer while he put in new structural beams. He called Rhodey for the first time in months, and got yelled at for two hours, while he sketched out new floor plans. He built and built and built the suit, newer, stronger, faster, over and over again, until Jarvis had to beg him to sleep.
He put Bruce up in a lab and let him order whatever he wanted for it, and got to share in the glee of discovery with someone else for the first time since he was at MIT.
He pretended he didn't have screaming nightmares of vast blackness and distant, impartial stars.
He built suite after suite for a team that he wasn't sure would ever accept them.
He survived at what for everyone else was a comfortable distance, and told himself it was enough.
The first to come was Hawkeye. Well, technically, Bruce was first, but that didn't count, because Bruce had been there from the beginning.
Tony just walked into the communal kitchen six months after he'd helped save the world, and there he was, blinking owlishly (ha, bird puns, this was going to be great) at a bowl of cereal.
‘Morning, Hawkeye,’ he said, aiming for the coffee pot with a nonchalance he hoped would hide his excitement.
‘Ugh, who told you to be cheerful before noon,’ the man said piteously, and made grabby hands at Tony's coffee.
Tony, to his own surprise, actually handed it over.
‘Oh, that's the stuff,’ the man said, downing the boiling cup as if it was ice water. ‘And don't call me that off the field,’ he added after a ridiculously long swallow. ‘I'm just Clint.’
‘Tony,’ Tony said, gesturing to himself with his cup, ‘but you already knew that.’
Clint snorted and stood. ‘Hey, so, I have a dog, and I'm not leaving him behind if we're doing this whole summer camp team building hoo rah thing.’
Tony made a face, but nodded.
And that was that.
Tony didn't find out for two days that Natasha had come with Clint, but when he did, he shrugged and passed over the carton of beef lo mein, careful to hold it over Lucky's head - he didn't care what Clint fed the damn dog, but he sure as hell wasn't going to give his food to him.
Steve came next.
To be honest, Tony had kind of expected it to be awkward - for Steve to come in and ask permission to use the rooms Tony had built with the team in mind, like he wasn't entitled to them, like he wasn't welcome. Tony knew they hadn't exactly gotten off on the right foot, here, and had been bracing himself for the awful and ultimately inadequate apology he'd have to make.
Instead, Steve walked in on a Thursday afternoon, juggling a duffel bag that was too small and what looked like four pizzas.
‘I don't remember placing an order,’ Tony said, shooting up from his seat on the couch, and he would have felt embarrassed about how wide his grin was if Steve hadn't grinned back.
‘Peace offering?’ Steve said, setting down the stack. He straightened up and looked Tony dead in the eye, grin smaller but no less sincere. ‘For before.’
‘I have no idea what you're talking about,’ Tony said loftily, and for a second, he was worried that he'd missed the mark, but Steve was laughing now and Tony might have laughed a little bit too. ‘Welcome home, Rogers,’ he said. ‘Mi casa es su casa, and all that jazz.’
‘Thanks, Stark,’ Steve said, and it was so much better than Tony had hoped for.
Thor came last, and the most that could be said about that was that he had the best entrance by far. Or, at least, most dramatic - massive lightning bolt, rolling thunder, all the works.
Pizza was pretty good though, in Tony's opinion.
(He was so, so biased, and he knew it.)
Sometimes, Tony was wrong. Actually, he got things wrong all the time, but maths? Those, he almost never fucked up.
And when he'd calculated the variables and judged the odds and decided that everyone else needed distance, he'd completely forgotten something really, really goddamned obvious.
He knew a lot of people, but he didn't know everyone.
And the Avengers definitely weren't anyone else.
‘Haven't you heard about space?’ Tony asked, and his voice was perfectly annoyed, but that was mostly to cover the absolute confusion over why Clint had flopped onto the couch, his top half spilling over Tony's lap like it was something they did every day.
‘Not my thing,’ Clint said breezily, turning his head to the TV. ‘Should have read the Owner's Manual that came with your nifty new Hawkeye. Or not sit in the middle of your massive fucking couch, because this couch is large enough to be its own country. What are we watching?’
‘...nifty?’ Tony said blankly, trying to process what had just happened. It was a new kind of data, and he wasn't sure what to do with it.
Natasha wandered in and, in one smooth movement, picked up Clint's feet, put them on her lap, and snagged the remote. ‘We're watching the Discovery Channel,’ she announced. ‘Deadliest Catch is on.’
‘What the - no, we are NOT, my tower, my television,’ Tony protested.
‘Come on, Nat,’ Clint whined, ‘you've watched that a million times -’
And they were off, dragging Tony along until he realised he'd been sitting for three hours with Clint on his lap and Natasha's hand on his arm, arguing the logistics of crab season in Alaska.
They were crowding in on him, the three of them (the three of us, Tony thought with giddiness) in a tangled heap, and it was the best feeling in the world.
‘What's on?’ Steve asked, and he sat down on Tony's other side and set his arm around Tony's shoulder, fitting in seamlessly, and that somehow made the best feeling in the world even better.
Everyone started doing it - this fantastic jumble of living in each other's pockets, in each other's lives. Bruce was constantly walking from his lab to Tony's, and each time it was like a gift, to hear Bruce's voice say ‘Hey, Tony, I was running this simulation and -’ or ‘Tony, I found this anomaly in one of my readings, and thought you might -’ or ‘Let's go to this convention in town, Dr. Kaku's giving a joint talk with Dr. Foster, and Thor wants to go.’
Thor and the Trouble Twins grew closer and closer, until one day it wasn't weird anymore to see Clint firing at targets in the gym while sitting on Thor's back, who was doing push ups. Natasha was a joy to argue with, Tony found, and more than once they stayed up the entire night discussing Russian literature (they both loved Master and Margarita, but had very different opinions on what the ending meant.)
And Steve was - goddamn, Tony had known from the beginning how much of his attention the man could command, but he'd never thought Steve would be just as fascinated with him. Steve came to the workshop to watch Tony work, for Christ's sake. They rebuilt a 1941 motorcycle engine together, made it run cleaner, smoother. Tony kept finding himself designing things on his tablet in Steve's rooms while Steve painted, chattering back and forth around different kinds of paints, how neat acrylics were (since they hadn't been around when Steve had last painted), drying times for oils and different light angles. They found ways their lives intersected, and made them fit.
Tony was selfish for wanting more. He wondered if this was what being in love was like, because even being with Pepper had never felt quite like this. He wondered when Steve would begin to want his space back, when Tony would finally become too much, when this beautiful thing with the Avengers would come to an end, because all things ended, he knew that, physics ensured that.
He wanted so badly that he wasn't sure how he managed to fit this much emotion in his body, and was so happy he was terrified to try and change it.
Sometimes, he thought Steve might feel the same way, the wanting and the wonder, and the terror.
Mostly, he thought that finally, this might be enough.
It was early morning, and most everyone was asleep, as far as Tony knew. He was just venturing upstairs for coffee, since he'd spent an unknown count of hours designing a new quinjet engine, since the old ones were too inefficient for his tastes. He hadn't expected anyone to be sitting in the kitchen - even the most sleepless among them tended to have tried returning to bed by four in the morning.
Instead, he found Steve, staring into an empty mug.
‘Hey,’ Tony said softly, and Steve tilted his head in Tony's direction. Tony ran an absentminded hand down Steve's back, and as always, revelled that he could do that now. That he could do it to Steve. ‘You need the green tea or the mint?’
Coffee didn't have an effect on him, but Steve and Bruce had bonded over the many teas Steve had never tried, and now there was an entire cupboard dedicated to their looseleaf blends. Steve had two teas he drank in the morning - green tea if he felt alright, and mint if for whatever reason he did not.
Steve was silent, and when Tony turned to look at him, he had a look on his face that Tony didn't recognise. ‘Steve, are you okay?’ he asked, and immediately went for the mint, setting aside the need for coffee. ‘Give me your cup.’
‘How do you...’ Steve began, but lost the sentence to a stare as Tony heated the water. Tony could feel his gaze and it felt like it came from so much nearer than across the room, but when he turned, Steve hadn't moved.
‘What, make tea?’ Tony said, and grinned at Steve's chuckle. He put his coffee on to brew.
‘No, you just...’ Tony turned again at the sound of the chair scraping on the floor, and watched as Steve stood. ‘You have no idea you do it, do you?’
Now Tony was confused. ‘Do what?’
‘You reach out to us,’ Steve said, and it sounded like a confession. ‘You take care of us. Who takes care of you?’
Tony hasn't had his coffee yet, and it wasn't even five o'clock, and those were the only reasons he could give for how he tilted his head and said with a voice so honest he'd wince to remember it, ‘What are you talking about? You do, Steve. You're the best goddamned thing to ever happen to me.’
Steve stared at him, eyes wide and getting wider, and Tony could hear his words through his own ears, and felt himself go red.
‘Uh,’ he says, and is interrupted by the whistle of the kettle. He turned and removed it from the heat, preparing the cup of tea through now-familiar motions, and tried to pretend he hadn't just destroyed everything. ‘Here,’ he said, and set the cup on the table. ‘I'll, uh, I'll just -’
‘Later, Steve,’ Tony said, and hurried into the hall, because the distance was closing, what little distance there was, and Steve would run so far if he knew just how deep this goes.
‘Tony,’ Steve said, and his voice sounded so hurt that Tony had to turn, had taken a step back before he'd realised what he'd done. ‘Tony - god, you're the - I don't know how to say it the way you deserve,’ Steve said, his face contrite, as if he was somehow failing Tony.
Steve stepped nearer, and was still halfway across the room. ‘Tony, if I had known what was coming, that you were on the other end of me setting that plane down, I would do it over again. No hesitation, without fail.’ He took a deep breath, and it felt like all the air in the room went out. ‘If you're at the end of it, I'd walk any road.’
Tony held still, because there was nothing he could say to that, there was too much under his skin, and if he had ever made anyone feel a tenth of this then no wonder they had wanted the distance.
‘Jesus, Steve,’ he managed, and then, because he could, because he so clearly could, ‘Jesus, just, get over here -’
Steve was moving before Tony finished speaking, and Tony met him halfway, hands grabbing on to his arms. Steve just wrapped one around Tony's waist, dragged him closer, and that was a first, wasn't it, someone wanting him nearer. His other hand he buried in Tony's hair, tilted his head back, and kissed him like no one ever had.
Tony was groaning deep in his throat, and plastering himself against Steve's front, and Steve was answering him, noise for noise and grip for grip, like he thought Tony was going to back off now, like Tony wasn't a sure thing.
‘Thank god,’ Steve was muttering between kisses, ‘I thought - it was just me, thought you didn't -’
‘Of course I do,’ Tony murmured back, kissing the corner of Steve's mouth, dragging his lips to the right in order to taste the sharpness of his jawline. ‘Of course I do - you're Steve, you're you, how could I ever not -’
Steve pressed him against the wall, and Tony was so hard he couldn't see. He lifted his head and let Steve kiss down the column of his throat, nose at his beard, and parted his thighs easily when Steve pressed between them. Steve's hands slid down and caught behind his knees, and Tony didn't think, just slung his arms over Steve's shoulders and pulled himself up, hooked his ankles behind Steve's hips.
Steve's breath hitched, and his hips ground forward of their own volition; Tony knocked his head back into the wall by accident, then did it again on purpose, breathing hard and rutting into Steve for all he was worth.
‘Tony,’ Steve moaned, sounding wrecked, and it was all Tony could do to hold on after that. Steve pinned him to the wall with his weight, mouth warmer than the sun and wet where he kissed Tony's throat mindlessly. His hands were shaking where they held Tony up by his thighs, but not from exertion. Jesus Christ, Tony thought, his mind like a hazy summer morning, all that focus and not a speck of distance between –
Tony knew he could be loud, but when he came, he shouted Steve's name hard enough to echo.
‘Oh, god,’ Steve whispered breathlessly, ‘Tony -!’
They were pressed so tightly together that Tony felt Steve's dick twitch through his orgasm in his jeans, and that was almost enough to make him come again.
‘Steve,’ Tony said after a moment, Steve still leaning him into the wall and letting Tony take the weight, ‘what was wrong?’
Steve huffed out a weak laugh, face buried in Tony's neck. ‘Nothing you couldn't fix,’ he said, and kissed Tony's collarbone.
‘Come on,’ Tony said, slow and dazed by the implications of that, ‘I've got a perfectly good bed we could be using right now, get a move on.’
Steve laughed again, and the sound reverberated in Tony's ribcage, bounced off the arc reactor, and settled like sunlight in his heart.
‘Fucking finally,’ Clint said. ‘Hurt him, and I'll shoot you dead, Stark.’
‘Congratulations,’ was Natasha's reaction, and an aside to Steve that Tony couldn't hear but made the super soldier go grey and nod.
‘I am glad you have at last acknowledged your bond,’ was Thor. ‘It has been obvious for many months.’
‘Oh, Tony, I'm so glad you're happy,’ Pepper said. ‘Do you think he'll agree to be in the wedding? Only, it would make Happy so, well...’
‘Wait, you're dating Captain America? Oh my god,’ Rhodey laughed over the phone, ‘I can't wait to show him the MIT pictures!’
‘Hold on,’ Bruce said, and peered at him over his glasses. ‘You weren't already...? But - I thought - huh. Okay. We still on for the conference on Saturday?’
Nothing changed, and everything changed.
Distance was relative, Tony figured, to a few different variables; how well you knew someone; how well you wanted to know someone; and how well that person wanted to know you.
There were different levels, too, of what people needed. Some people needed a lot of distance, some not so much. He needed as little distance as possible, and sometimes that could be overwhelming.
But Steve needed the same thing, and if it was something Tony could give, and receive, then it wasn't unhealthy, or overwhelming, it was just how they were.
Finally, finally, he thought, watching Steve sprawl out on the couch, Clint's head in his lap, Natasha curled up with Clint's feet in hers, Thor on the floor beside Bruce with his head pillowed on Clint's middle, and Clint's damn dog puddled in Bruce's arms, this is enough.
‘Tony? We're putting on the Magnificent Seven,’ Steve said, shifting over so that his knees were pressed to Thor's back and Clint's head dangled off his lap.
‘What he means to say is,’ Clint interrupted, ‘'Get over here my totally-not-husband, our pet Clint needs a pillow for his head.' Which I agree with. Hurry up.’
Tony laughed, and slid perfectly into place.