Someone had spilled paint in the front hall.
It was the first thing Steve noticed when he stepped off the elevator, a splash of bright purple paint on the wall opposite him. He blinked at it for a moment, half asleep and bone-tired after two weeks in “Classified” doing “that’s above your paygrade” twenty-four seven. He had no idea why someone would have been flinging purple paint around the hallway outside the communal living room, but he was almost completely certain it was probably Clint’s fault.
“JARVIS, is Clint in the Tower?”
“I’m afraid not, Captain. Agent Barton departed for SHIELD HQ forty-seven hours ago and is not expected to return in the next few days.”
Right. Well, they couldn’t leave it looking like this. Steve mentally calculated how many coats it would take to cover up a color that vivid, and absently ran his fingers over the tacky splotch. Maybe this was one of the times he’d just let Tony throw money at a problem until it went away. That sounded like an excellent plan. And it meant that instead of painting the front hallway, Steve could drag his partner to bed and fall asleep on him.
“Would you contact a contractor to come in and paint over this?” Steve asked. He rapped his knuckles against the stain, then hefted his go-bag over his shoulder and started toward the living room.
“Of course, Captain. However, may I suggest we wait until-”
“I will end you.”
Steve came to an abrupt halt in the door to the Avengers communal living room and eyed the gun pointed at his face. “Excuse me?”
Natasha, currently curled up on the couch in the dark, glanced over her shoulder. “Oh, hey, Cap. Welcome back.” She waggled the gun she held in her right hand - a paintball gun, he saw, the same type as the ones Tony kept down in the workshop for stress relief. “You’re not playing, are you?”
“Playing what?” Steve eyed the gun - still aimed unerringly at his center mass - warily. “Are you having a paint gun war inside our home?”
She made a noise that indicated she had serious doubts about his intelligence. “Of course I’m not.”
“All right.” Steve eyed her a little cautiously - Natasha was really very good at ambushes, after all, and he felt like he was walking into one. But she was just watching a documentary about yetis, wearing a hoodie that he was fairly certain she’d stolen from Tony and a pair of Bruce’s old purple sweats. There was a half-eaten pint of Ben and Jerry’s in the hollow between her knees and an empty bowl of popcorn on the cushion beside her. The floor around the couch was liberally decorated with empty Coke Zero cans. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”
She waved the gun at him. “Neutral territory is your friend, Cap. Just saying.”
It was entirely possible that this conversation would make more sense if he’d had more than four hours of sleep in as many days. “Right.”
He had planned to go straight to bed. At this hour of the morning even Tony should have been in bed - probably - and Steve wanted little more than to crawl into bed beside him and fall asleep with Tony’s skin beneath his hands and the light of the arc reactor throwing shadows against the ceiling. But the kitchen lights were on and his stomach chose that exact moment to remind him that he’d been living off protein bars for two days straight.
He cast a glance down the hall toward the private elevator that would take him straight to Tony’s suite and the bed they’d shared for months now. But his stomach growled loudly and the mental image of Tony’s face if he was awakened from a sound sleep by Steve’s digestive system had him turning toward the kitchen instead.
Just the idea of cooking dinner was enough to make him feel even more exhausted so he dropped his go-bag by the door and considered his options.
Tony’s protein shakes were unsatisfying but would certainly fulfill his caloric needs. Or he could just get a spoon and a jar of peanut butter and not sacrifice his taste buds.
Come to think of it, he was almost positive he knew where Thor was keeping his chocolate stash this week.
Mind made up he strode across the dining room toward the kitchen and that’s when he saw the feet.
Stockinged feet, on the floor, sticking out from behind the breakfast island.
For a minute he thought one of his teammates must have dropped something. Or maybe someone had just fallen asleep on the floor. And then common sense kicked his exhaustion in the face and he hurried across the room to make sure whoever it was hadn’t hurt themselves.
He came around the corner of the island and froze at the sight of Tony, sprawled across the floor. His face and chest were spattered in blood, and a thick puddle of it was pooling on the floor beneath his head.
Something hot and heavy caught in Steve’s throat and he couldn’t breathe for a moment.
It was too much blood. That was the only thing he could think, the only thought that managed to push itself through his head at first. Too much - he’d seen head wounds, they bled a lot, but this was too much.
The second thought was how had this happened, less than thirty feet away from where Natasha was watching bad television, how had no one-
His throat hurt, like he’d already been screaming for hours.
Tony, he said, but no sound came out.
And then it spiked, something worse than fear, something that tasted like terror and helplessness at the same time. It tasted stale and brittle, like old ice-
-Bucky falling, his Ma’s breath gurgling in her throat, Peggy’s clouded eyes staring through him as the heart monitor began to shriek-
-and it kicked him like adrenaline, like electricity, and all of a sudden his heart was racing and his blood was rushing in his ears. Tony. Tony, Tony, Tony-
He lunged across the few feet seperating them and dropped to his knees beside Tony’s still form. His hands were shaking as he reached out, hesitated to touch. He knew what skin felt like when it had gone cold and lifeless and he didn’t want to think of Tony like that, didn’t want the sense memory of him gone cold beneath his fingers. Tony had been so vibrant, so full of life, even in his darkest moments and-
Steve had been falling in love with him and now.
His breath left him in a rush, a shaking exhale that left him feeling empty and cold. “Tony,” he said and he let his hand rest against the arc reactor.
Tony’s body was warm beneath his hand.
There was a blur of movement, a popping sound and the spatter of liquid on his chest and throat. For the second time in ten minutes, Steve found himself staring down the barrel of a paint gun.
Tony propped himself up on one elbow with a shit-eating grin. “Oh, hey, Steve. Oops.”
“Oops?” Steve repeated. He glanced down at his chest, his pulse pounding in his ears. He could feel his face growing warm. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Tony frowned at him. “Hey.”
Steve shoved away from him, jumped to his feet. He felt unsteady in a way that had nothing to do with tiredness. “What the hell-” He rubbed a hand against his chest and it came away coated in bright purple paint. “A game? This was part of a game?”
“Deathmatch,” Tony said cheerfully. “Scientists versus military. Me, Bruce and Jane against Rhodey, Thor and Sam.”
Steve swallowed the first words that came to his tongue and made himself clench his fists at his side. “You made me think you were dead for a game? Do you ever fucking think before you do something?”
Tony’s eyes went wide. “What?”
“What do you think,” Steve said in a low voice, “it looked like when I walked in here and found you lying in a pool of blood on the floor.”
Tony scrambled to his knees, the paint gun forgotten on the floor. “Oh shit, Steve.”
“Did you think this would be funny?”
“Did you just want to see what I would do?”
“I didn’t even know you were back,” Tony said hurriedly. “I wasn’t trying to trick you into anything, Steve, I promise.”
“Oh. So you just thought it would be a good trick to make one of our friends think you were hurt? Dying? Did you think anyone on this team would find that funny?” He started to get up, but his knees didn’t seem to want to obey him so he just sat back on his heels. “How can someone so brilliant be so thoughtless? Or did the cruelty of it just strike you as amusing? Did you want to watch them panic - were you getting some kind of thrill out of listening to me while I tried to-” He scrubbed both hands over his face and dragged in a deep breath.
“I’m sorry.” Calloused hands circled his wrists, held on loosely enough that Steve could have shaken them free if he wanted to. Tony’s thumb rubbed over the soft skin inside his wrist for a moment. “I scared you. I’m sorry.”
“I’ve been scared,” Steve said quietly, letting his hands fall to be held loosely in Tony’s lap. “This wasn’t - I wasn’t scared, Tony.”
“I was going to ambush Rhodey,” Tony said. “I was hiding behind the counter to ambush him and Natasha came in for her third pint of Save Our Swirled and almost tripped over me. She pelted me about a dozen times.”
“Paint,” Steve said. He lifted one hand, Tony still holding onto his wrist, and swiped his thumb along the line of Tony’s jaw. The red paint was already drying to Tony’s skin and was obviously not blood when seen up close. “I thought-”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, babe, I swear I didn’t - I don’t know what I’d have done if I thought-” Tony blew his breath out in a heavy gust. “Steve, if I were hurt that bad, JARVIS would have raised the alarm.”
Of course he would have. JARVIS regularly updated the Avengers on their teammates health and medical conditions - he’d ratted Clint out for his broken ribs just last month. He’d never have let Tony lay bleeding on the floor. “I didn’t think of that. I didn’t think at all. I saw you and I just-”
“I don’t know what I would have done,” Tony repeated softly. He leaned forward, pressed his forehead to Steve’s. “Are you okay?”
“I’m just tired.” Steve pulled his wrist free from Tony’s hold so he could grip Tony’s hand. “I’m sorry. You’re not cruel, or thoughtless, I know that.”
“I can be both of those things sometimes. Don’t worry about it.” Tony pressed a quick kiss to Steve’s cheek, then stood, tugging Steve up after him.
His legs obeyed him better this time, though Steve still felt unsteady, even with Tony’s hand held in his.
“Come on. You look wasted and I don’t really feel like playing anymore. Let’s get cleaned up and go to bed. Okay? Or-” Tony glanced toward the refrigerator. “Were you hungry? I can make you something.”
A laugh bubbled up in Steve’s chest and it only felt a little strange. “If you try to cook then one of us really will be dead.”
“I can cook!” Tony insisted automatically. “I keep telling you people this but no one believes me.”
“Because you’ve yet to provide us with proof.” Steve smiled, and if his legs were still a little rubbery and if his chest still felt a little hollow, he could mostly ignore it. “I’m not hungry. I just want to lie down.”
“Right. Come on.” Tony grabbed his gun off the floor and tugged on Steve’s wrist, leading him out of the kitchen and back in to the living room. “Hey, Tasha, I need a favor.”
“Sure thing, Tony.” Natasha didn’t look up from her show for even a minute. “I can give Steve a welcome home bang for you if you aren’t feeling up to it.”
“No,” Tony said firmly. “Bad Natasha. I will be handling all the banging Steve requires. I just need you to go shoot Rhodey for me.”
Natasha popped a chocolate in her mouth. “Did you tell them I was stepping in for you?”
“What do you take me for?” Tony asked.
“In that case, yes. Gimme your gun and go somewhere I can’t hear you through the walls.”
“My bedroom is two floors and three corridors away from you. If you can hear me it’s because you’re a creep.” Tony tossed his gun to her and she snagged it out of thin air. “Good hunting.”
She saluted him with the gun. “Good banging.”
Steve tried glaring at her, but she just gave him a toothy grin and slid off the couch. “I’m gonna get Wilson, too.”
“Bruce does not approve of double-crosses,” Tony called after her.
“Why are you having a paintball war in our house?” Steve asked.
Tony frowned at him. “Where else would we have it?” He tugged on Steve’s hand. “Come on. Bed.”
“Shower first,” Steve corrected him. He leaned in to press a kiss against Tony’s mouth, soft and quick. “Then bed.”
“Anything you want,” Tony promised, and he smiled bright enough to chase the last lingering trace of cold from Steve’s chest.
Maybe not falling so much as fallen.
“I want you,” Steve said, and he followed Tony to bed.