It's not that Tony is pissed Clint and Thor got Steve drunk. He's mostly pissed that he wasn't around for it.
And really mostly he's pissed that he wasn't around for it because he was off being a responsible adult. He never does that, so it's unfair they chose the one time he indulged Pepper's whims and went off to be a grownup to get Steve trashed.
The thing about Steve is that you can get him drunk if you load him up with enough alcohol to overwhelm his metabolism. The problem is that if you overwhelm his metabolism, you get more or less instant alcohol poisoning. So Steve would get maybe a minute of really good buzz and then thirty of puking.
The scientists at SHIELD wanted to try it anyway, but Steve said no. Steve rarely says no, so when he does, he is immovable. It didn't hurt that he had Tony backing him up, because Tony will argue with people for hours for the sheer joy of it, and Tony is not interested in any procedure that ends with Steve throwing up.
Tony has taken to calling the science division "The Frat House". Coulson, for once, has not looked disapproving about one of Tony's nicknames.
He's not actually sure what has happened, at first, when he walks into the mansion after the investor meeting and sees Clint and Thor playing the new holographic video game Tony's been programming, Bruce reading a science journal in the corner, and Steve napping on the couch.
Here is what's wrong with this picture:
One: The video game isn't open code yet. Which means Clint must have hacked into his gaming server, and then Clint and Thor must have taught themselves to play. Tony's a little pissed about this, but on the other hand he supposes a sniper and a Norse god make pretty good beta-testers.
Two: Steve doesn't nap. Certainly not on the couch. Steve is the kind of man who sits upright on the couch with posture so good it makes Tony's neck hurt in sympathy, and if he needs to sleep he goes to his room.
Three: On closer inspection, Steve isn't napping.
He's laid out on his side, one arm tucked under a throw pillow under his head, the other splayed on the cushion by his face. His long body is loose, weirdly relaxed, and his hair is ruffled. He looks like a bored cheetah. His eyes are slitted but still open, lazily following Clint and Thor's game.
"Hey!" he says, when he sees Tony, but he doesn't move or get up. "Hey, Tony."
"Uh oh, dad's home," Clint says, elbowing Thor.
"Do not distract me," Thor replies, concentrating hard on the game, which is a combination first-person-shooter, roleplay adventure, and Tetris reboot, because Tony never does anything by halves.
"What did you do to Steve?" Tony asks, shedding his Being A Grownup outfit -- coat off, jacket off, tie off, waistcoat unbuttoned, phone out of his inside pocket, tablet out of his coat pocket, two flashdrives out of his jacket's inside pocket, headphones out of his pants pocket, bluetooth off his ear -- it occurs to Tony he has a lot of stuff.
"Got me drunk," Steve says. He's not slurring, but there's a certain soft roundness to the words.
"I thought we couldn't do that," Tony says, looking at Bruce.
"Didn't mean I didn't want to," Steve replies cheerily. He stretches, hips shifting, bare toes curling.
Tony picks up a glass from the coffee table and sniffs it. It smells like gold looks, and that's as far as his brain gets before he knows who to blame.
"Your hooch?" he asks Thor, who nods.
"A gentle but efficacious brew," Thor says. Clint shoots one of Thor's L-pieces, and Thor retaliates with the Sword Of Justice, which you have to get five four-clearances in a row and charm a princess in order to win. Tony's impressed.
"Please tell me you supervised the children while Daddy was at work," Tony says to Bruce, who smiles gently.
"It's interesting, really," Bruce says. "There's no alcohol content in the Asgardian...liquid, I checked."
"Tell that to the lush on my couch."
Steve looks up at him, placid, serene, totally off his head. Unsurprisingly, it's a good look for him. Tony has yet to see anything that's not a good look for Steve.
"It seems to work on an almost psychological level," Bruce continues. "I had JARVIS scan him -- "
" -- tickled," Steve murmurs.
" -- and he's definitely impaired, there's something physiological going on there. But the liquid seems to get you, oh, about as hard as you want to be gotten. Clint had almost as much as Steve and he's only a little buzzed. Clint?"
Clint starts to recite the alphabet backwards. Tony cuts him off at V-U-T.
"You got Steve drunk with magic," he says.
"Pretty much," Bruce shrugs. "I'm doing some more analyses. I'll copy them to your server when I get through with them, but you can't send them to Richards. And if you publish before I do I'll push you through a wall."
"Publishing is boring, you can have it," Tony replies. He sits down on the edge of a cushion, the small of his back up against Steve's chest. "You feeling no pain?"
"Nope," Steve says cheerfully, while Tony uses a friendly hair-ruffle to subtly check his eyes. His pupils aren't fully focused, but that's not too worrying. "This is great."
"I bet," Tony says, leaning back on him like he's a couch. Steve laughs, scooting a little to give Tony more room. His fingers hook in the back of Tony's waistcoat, curiously.
"Investor meeting," Tony says absently, watching Thor and Clint circle each other and the holographic game. "Hey, Clint, if you shoot Thor with a Z-piece, he'll drop the Helm of Valor."
"Unsportsmanlike!" Thor complains.
"Sorry, I want to see the animation when it happens, there's something buggy with the drop command," Tony replies, making it obvious he's not actually sorry at all. Clint aims and fires; Thor drops his Helm of Valor but also explodes, taking Clint out in the process.
"You're an ass," Clint tells him. Tony notices, in a sort of second-hand way, that Steve is petting the seam of his waistcoat, fingers drifting up and down his side. Natasha flops down next to him on the other side, startling them both; Steve cranes his neck around.
"Hi!" he says.
"How's Operation Unconsciousness?" Natasha asks.
"Rollin' along," Steve answers. She pats his thigh, then sits on it, feet on the couch cushions, to get a better view over Tony's head of Clint and Thor's characters respawning.
"Did everybody know about this project but me?" Tony wonders aloud, unsettled by the fact that he now shares a home with other people who aren't his employees, which is weird to begin with, and they all seem to tolerate if not outright like him, and they're all here in one room, doing...bond-y things like playing video games and getting toasted.
"Don't be mad," Steve says earnestly, looking at him. His head drops back, eyelids lowering again. "Avengers shouldn't fight. Except evil. Out there," and he tries to wave an arm, but it knocks the pillow out from under his head; he thumps forward, Tony is almost pushed off the couch, and Natasha would fall to the floor except Tony's secretly convinced she can fly, so she lands on her feet and settles comfortably, gracefully even, on the coffee table. Steve looks surprised by all of it.
"As amusing as you are," Tony says, "I think maybe it's time to sleep it off a little, huh?"
Steve nods and lets Tony help him upright on the couch; he stands a little unsteadily and leans forward.
"Thank you," he says over Thor's shoulder.
"Rest in the fullness of your pleasure!" Thor replies, which sounds kind of dirty, but probably just means sleep well. Tony peels Steve off of him, though Steve's like two of Tony and kind of unwieldy. Steve slides an arm around his shoulders and leans, and Tony considers building himself a new spine. Clearly this one's about worn out.
"Don't be mad," Steve repeats.
"I'm not mad," Tony answers.
"Well, good then."
They stagger together towards Steve's room; he leans him up against the wall while he keys it open, and then Steve seems to need help getting to the bed. Tony eventually manages to dump him, sitting, on the edge.
"Maybe I had a little too much," Steve says.
"You feel sick? Because if you puke on my shoes I'm not going to be the one cleaning them," Tony replies. He's pretty sure this is the line people are supposed to say to him, and it feels very surreal to be on the other side of the codependent-friendship-with-a-drunk divide.
"No. Tired," Steve mumbles.
"Water first," Tony advises, going into the bathroom. He fills a cup and comes out to find Steve settled more solidly on the edge of the bed, elbows on knees, chin in his hands. He takes the water and sips it.
"Thanks," he says.
"You shouldn't let Thor get you hammered -- oh hah, I'm going to remember that one -- he's not very responsible. Bruce just wants to poke your metabolism. You're lucky I'm a great friend, in fact, and know exactly what to do in these situations."
Steve smiles at him. "Should've waited for you?"
"Well, yes, but then we'd both be drunk, because I hate to see a man drink alone. Maybe it's just as well."
"Sorry. I just...thought it would be nice. Been a long time," Steve says wistfully. His head drops. "Last time I tried was after Bucky." He rubs his face with one hand. "He died."
"I know, buddy," Tony says. Oh God, here comes the maudlin, he can't handle the maudlin. He doesn't even like being the maudlin.
"I just wanted to forget it for an hour or two. I don't think that was much to ask," Steve continues. "Couldn't do it. Stupid serum. So I just..." he sighs, lets his head fall, rests his hand on the back of his neck. "I just missed him. And missed him and missed him. And he was never coming back."
Tony is quiet, because platitudes would only annoy, and he hasn't got anything else to offer.
"Sometimes..." Steve says, his voice thick, "I think, when I go back. When I go back Peggy's going to laugh so hard, and I can tell the Commandos, hey men, good job, we're gonna win the war, and they'll all think I'm off my nut. And then I remember I'm not going back. Ever."
He sniffles, and a tear falls into his glass of water; he sets it aside.
"I miss Bucky so much. I miss Peggy and my men. I miss General Phillips and Howard."
It takes Tony a second to assemble Howard and dad, but Steve's still talking.
"I miss my motorcycle and the streetcars in New York, the old ones, you know, and the way clothes looked. None of the food tastes right and the cars are all ugly and -- " he breaks off, hands over his face. "I hate it here. I hate it so much."
Tony sits down next to him, brushes their shoulders together.
"I just want to go back. I'd rather be dead."
And that's an alarm bell, because even if he's drunk, he's not incoherent. He knows what he's saying.
Tony reaches up to smooth his hair. He doesn't say it'll get better, because for all he knows it won't, and he doesn't say he gets it, because fuck if he could even begin to comprehend the loss Steve's talking about.
"Sorry," he says quietly.
"Not your fault," Steve replies. "I don't hate you. Just everything else."
"I don't think..." Tony chooses his words carefully, which is practically a first for him. "I don't think anyone knows. You seem pretty cheery most of the time."
"I'm a soldier. I go where I'm told."
"Nobody signed you on for a life hitch, Cap."
Steve seems to curl further into himself. "I'm never going home."
"Try not to think about it," Tony says.
"Why do you think I was drinking?"
Tony sighs. "I know. That, believe me, I know. How about some sleep, okay?"
Steve nods, lets himself be manhandled under the blankets, wipes his nose on his wrist. Tony clears the stray tear-tracks off his face, pats his shoulder, and leaves.
He goes to his own room, where it's quiet and dark, and calls Coulson.
"Stark," Coulson sighs. "What did you blow up, and how much is it going to cost?"
"I think Cap's suicidal," Tony replies.
There's a long silence on the other end of the line.
"Depressed, at the least," Tony adds.
"What are you basing these conclusions on?"
"The fact he just told me he'd rather be dead than live in the twenty-first century," Tony says. "He's miserable. I don't know that he'd kill himself, that's not how he was talking. But -- "
"I'm familiar with the urge."
"We thought he was doing better," Coulson says, which is surprising. "He's socialized well with the team, he's adapting to the technology. He seems happy."
"Not just now, he didn't." Tony pauses. "What do we do?"
"Nothing we can do. He's either going to adapt or he's not."
"That's not acceptable to me."
"Fine. Then your job, until he pulls through or gives up, is to keep him alive in the field."
"That's not enough."
"It's going to have to be. Believe me, I'm open to suggestions."
Tony's got nothing. He can't reprogram this.
"It's good he's talking about it, I guess," Coulson says dubiously. "Give him time. And Tony?"
"No more Asgardian benders for a while."
"How did you -- " Tony asks, but Coulson has already hung up.
Tony throws the phone across the room. It dents the wall but doesn't break (well, he designed it, after all).
He swears, picks up the phone, and sits heavily on his bed.
The next morning, Steve is up at the ass of dawn, per usual. By the time Tony stumbles into the kitchen, he's clearly back from a morning run and making himself breakfast. Four eggs and a bowl of pasta. Steve eats a lot, and it's usually some hideous combination of foods that should never touch.
"Morning," he says, passing a mug of coffee to Tony.
"I hate morning," Tony announces. "You look displeasingly awake."
"That stuff Thor has is great. No hangover. You want an egg?"
"I want to -- " Tony is going to joke that he wants to die, because mornings generally make him want to die, and then he thinks better of it. " -- go back to bed."
"Well, you're the billionaire, nobody's stopping you," Steve answers easily.
"You have no sympathy for us captains of industry."
Steve drops a fried egg in front of him anyway, and then settles in with his bowl of twisty noodles and scrambled eggs.
"How much do you even remember from last night?" Tony asks, careful in his head, casual in his voice.
"Mm. The couch. Hey your new video game is pretty neat. And then...you put me to bed, right? I remember that. Did we talk?" Steve squints at him. "I think we talked."
Tony is a coward.
"Nope. You fell asleep," he says.
"I always was a mellow drunk. Thanks for looking out for me."
"You're taking this pretty casually, for a boy scout."
Steve shrugs. "Before the serum, I drank sometimes. After too, just couldn't get very far. Thor says he'll bottle some of that stuff up for me."
"Not too much."
"That's a little pot and kettle. Nah," Steve says dismissively. "Once in a while is nice, but last night'll do me for a while."
Steve smiles over his eggs, shoveling his horrible breakfast into his mouth. And if Tony hadn't seen him crying over his entire world last night, he'd never know.
He has no idea how to fix this.
The problem is it's very hard to tell when a superhero is recklessly endangering himself versus when he's accepting the very real dangers of the job. Tony, who is the embodiment of reckless on a good day, doesn't know if Captain America is throwing himself into his work because it's his work, or because secretly he wishes he were dead.
It scares him. And the fact that it scares him also scares him. Tony is used to being a shallow jerk; he's very good at it. Caring about Steve to the point that he worries if the guy goes off his own personal radar for more than an hour is seriously fucking with him.
He watches, all the time. When they're fighting Earth's latest menace, he has a monitor on Steve, and twice he pulls him out of harm's way, but he just can't tell if it's a death wish or a Tuesday.
Out of the field, he has JARVIS watch when he can't, and that nets him only one piece of information which could in any way be defined as useful: that Steve cries himself to sleep about twice a week.
He builds Steve a motorcycle, because he can't think of anything else he can build, fabricate, invent, or conceptualize that will make things better. He knows better than this, even, because he's been there -- not the precise there, obviously, but his parents died when he was a teenager and he was tortured in a cave in Afghanistan and for a while the only thing keeping him alive was also slowly killing him, so he's had his moments. He knows nobody else can help with these things.
He reaches into bad memories. His father might have been a hard man and his mother sort of...confused by her only son, but they did love him and he loved them, and the aching, yawning loneliness their deaths left is something he's avoided his entire adult life. He only goes back into it looking for answers, and comes out with the memory of holding one of his dad's wrenches in his hand, turning it over and over for hours, any time he didn't have to be doing anything.
And Steve misses his motorcycle, and Tony has never built a motorcycle before. It all makes sense in his head.
He goes a little vintage, a little modern, not trying to replace the motorcycle Steve had but just trying to fill in the spirit of a motorcycle. It's street-legal, unassuming, surprisingly powerful, and painted blue and white. Tony digs out the old logo from when his dad owned a car company and adds the Stark Motors imprint on the gas tank. He's been playing around with the idea of building Steve a set of armor like his -- Steve would never go for it, but it's fun to dream -- and he paints the helmet with the design he was planning to put on the armor's helm.
When he shows it to him, Steve looks baffled for a while, and then touches the seat of the motorcycle cautiously.
"You know the great thing about having your own wheels?" he says, which is not what Tony was expecting.
"Chicks?" Tony ventures. He's always been into cars because they're awesome. Cars qua cars. But he can appreciate that women dig on slick wheels.
"Freedom," Steve says. "You can go anywhere and nobody can stop you."
"Tell that to the NYPD," Tony says.
"This is amazing, Tony. Thank you."
Hacking the DMV is child's play, and Steve doesn't even object, conscious as he is that he's probably the safest driver on the road. In two days he has a license. Two days after that, it's eleven at night and JARVIS tells Tony that Steve isn't in his room; he went to his room, then left again and took the motorcycle out of the garage.
Tony frets and watches the bike's GPS until, just past one in the morning, it's back in the garage and he can hear Steve in the hallway.
"Captain Rogers is asleep, sir," JARVIS reports, fifteen minutes later.
Steve doesn't cry himself to sleep much after that. He just...sometimes takes the bike out around midnight, and comes home and falls exhausted into bed an hour or two later.
Tony hopes it's better, but he really isn't sure.
Clint's birthday comes about a month after the bike is finished and, surprisingly, he wants a party. They have to spend some time pinning down what kind of party, because there is no common Avengers consensus on this. Thor is thinking feast, Tony is thinking -- well, probably better not to vocalize that -- and Bruce is thinking dinner out somewhere; Natasha has only ever been to parties where everyone's a spy and out to kill each other, like some kind of James Bond thing, and Steve's idea of a party is cake and maybe something on the record player. Clint hasn't really ever done parties, which is heartbreaking and must be rectified.
Tony is the only one of them with experience throwing parties that fall anywhere on the spectrum other than "eight year old's birthday" or "Asgardian orgy", so he starts culling music off everyone's servers and orders a lot of alcohol and a couple of kinds of cake (okay, he has JARVIS do that) and makes Clint make a guest list. Lo and behold: a party!
It's an interesting mix. There's the Avengers, of course, and a ton of SHIELD agents, and Tony took it upon himself to invite some starlets and models, and then some guys Clint knows from some firing range he goes to sometimes, and a couple of scientist buddies of Bruce's (none of the frat house SHIELD scientists, Tony put a ban on) who cluster in a corner with Bruce until they loosen up a little. It's mellower than most of his and Thor's past experiences, way more exciting than Steve's, and a lot less lethal than Natasha's. Clint likes it, he supposes that's what matters.
He's been doing the host rounds, having a few drinks, listening in on conversations about firearms and Gaultier's new lookbook and particle physics, stealing cake from people, when he catches sight of Steve. He's sitting on the couch, watching everyone with an amused and slightly baffled look on his face. He's got a flask tucked in his pocket -- just the end sticking out -- and he's a lot looser than normal.
"Having fun?" Tony asks, dropping onto the couch. Steve smiles easy and wide.
"Yeah! I like the cake," he says, gesturing at an empty plate nearby. "And..." his eyes drift over the room. Tony follows his gaze. "These millennium girls..." Steve mutters, and his smile turns shy. He's taken to saying millennium for twenty-first-century, which is less of a mouthful and makes everything sound futuristic. Millennium sports and millennium technology and millennium girls.
"Anyone you want me to introduce to you?" Tony asks. "Or should I pick one?"
"Aw, no, I'm fine," Steve replies. "Awfully nice to look at, that's all."
Tony taps the head of the flask sticking out of Steve's pocket. "Thor?"
"Yeah. I thought, you know, it's a party. It'd be nice to feel like a part of it."
"Sure. Don't worry, though, no pie-eyes tonight," Steve says amiably. He takes the flask out of his pocket and offers it to Tony. "I don't want to fall asleep in the middle of things."
Tony takes a nip off the flask. It smells like gold looks and tastes like cough syrup -- the artificial sweet cherry flavor without the bitter medicinal afterbite. It makes no sense.
He holds up the flask and notices that it's Army issue. Such a boy scout. Steve accepts it, then leans on the couch cushion, cheek pressed into it, looking over the back to where Thor is chanting something that Tony suspects is the Asgardian answer to "Baby Got Back".
"It's nice to hear soldiers singing again," Steve says.
"Thor's not exactly a soldier."
"No real difference," Steve replies. Then, warmly, "He's one of mine."
Tony frowns. Steve catches it and smiles, head still tipped sideways.
"I'm the Captain. He's one of mine. You know my men used to make up songs? It was like a contest. Sometimes to see what would get a rise out of me," he adds, laughing a little. "Most of them were filthy. My favorite was Rogers' Raiders' Dance Hall Girls."
"They had all kinds of names for us. The Howling Commandos, of course, but we were codenamed the White Star Line," Steve says, tracing a five pointed star over Tony's chest, finger not quite touching. "Rogers' Raiders or Captain's Raiders was a common one. The Blue Army -- like the Red Army, right? Anyway." He hums a little, a swingy kind of tune. "Dance Hall Girls was about how when a Raider dies he doesn't get an angel coming for him, he gets a dance hall girl. Everyone had their own girl. Bucky's was a scrapping Free French, one of the other guys had...something about Princess Elizabeth -- queen now, of course. One of the men had a man in drag, that was a joke, in pretty bad taste now. Mine -- "
He breaks off, and his eyes go absent, distant. Tony's seen that look before in men coming off tours.
"So, let's have it," he says, and Steve snaps back to the present, looking at him. "Gimme the chorus."
"Sing 'By The Window' and I'll help you out," Steve murmurs, a mummified old joke Tony's dad used to make when his mother played the piano. "How did it go..."
Tony waits, listens to Steve hum to himself, and patience is, for once, rewarded; Steve sings quietly, under the chatter of voices, but in a steady key.
There's no damn angels coming for the men
Who been out there and back again
Rogers' raiders don't want no halo
Send me a dance hall girl to usher my soul
Play me that song I heard when I shipped
Send me a girl with a swing in her hip
No white robes and no thorny crown
To take me up, when my arms is down
"And then you -- " Steve breaks off his explanation, because the room has fallen quiet; the last few lines he was singing softly, but in complete silence. He looks around, then takes a breath.
The Captain's girl is English Peggy
Not too tall but plenty leggy
And don't he blush, and won't he dance
She says she won't till we liberate France
So when he goes there'll be a soldier girl
In drawn-on nylons and victory curls
And if he ain't die when the war is through
Guess there'll be plenty of dancing to do
Steve coughs, looks down. "The other verses were pretty dirty."
Slowly, the chatter of the party starts up again; Tony glances up to see Natasha standing by the couch, and she rests a hand on Steve's head, scratches her nails through his hair comfortingly. Steve's eyes close.
"I think I'm done," he says softly. "Tony, can you -- "
"Yep," Tony says, standing, and Natasha helps him haul Steve up. She gives him a quick look -- Need help? -- and he shakes his head, walking unsteadily with an arm around Steve's waist towards the doorway. He's not sure Steve strictly needs it, but he doesn't mind.
"A fine song," Thor says, stopping them with a hand on Steve's shoulder. "Worthy of a warrior."
"Got us by," Steve answers. "Thanks."
They stumble down the hallway together towards Steve's room; Steve's still humming the tune, but he's with-it enough to key open his door.
"I'm fine from here," he says, turning in the doorway, leaning against the frame. "Sorry to crash early."
"Well, you were the belle of the ball, I think that means you have to leave by midnight," Tony answers. Steve grins, head tilted against the door frame.
"They would have had such fun with you," he says fondly. "They'd have written a verse about how you'd get a whole chorus line."
"I'd be a shitty soldier," Tony says, because it's true.
"Sure, no argument here. But most of us were. That's why we were good raiders." Steve hums again, eyes on him.
Sergeant Stark wouldn't take just one,
Never in the same bed when he sees the sun
So when he goes, strike up the band
And send in the chorus with the can-can-can
Tony cracks up laughing. "Did you make that up right now?"
"You get the hang of it. I was going for something about Iron Man, somewhere in there. Lost the thread." Steve shrugs. "There was one about your dad, now that I think about it."
"Ugh, no, don't -- "
"Something about the size of his -- "
"Bad! No!" Tony covers his eyes. Steve pulls his hand down, and Tony twists gently out of his grip, touching his chest, over his heart.
"You okay, Cap?" he asks.
Steve's eyes close slowly, then open.
"I miss 'em like nutso," he says. "It's strange to miss the war." His eyes shift sidelong, thoughtful. "It hurts a lot. All the time. Here," he says, and puts his hand to his heart, covering Tony's hand already resting there. "Nothing to be done, though."
"If there were -- "
"There isn't," Steve says, and his voice is a little sharper, more flat than it had been. "Thanks, Tony. See you tomorrow."
He pulls away and closes the door; Tony's hand hits it as it closes, rests there. He leans against the wall, forehead pressing into the plaster, and mutters, "Fuck."
When he checks his email the following day, there's one from Steve sent at five in the goddamn morning.
The clever civvie missile man
Builds 'em bigger than the Germans can
Rumor says his guns the biggest
Send him a swinger with great wide hips
Sorry it doesn't really rhyme. They weren't exactly Tennyson.
Tony stares at it for a while. "I'm scarred for life," he says.
There's a day where Coulson shows up to collect Steve, which is a little odd, but Steve just goes off with him in one of SHIELD's dark sedans, and returns about two hours later, seemingly unconcerned.
"Meeting with Fury?" Tony asks, when Steve wanders into his workshop.
"Mm, no, magazine interview," Steve replies. "Weird, though. They ask really personal questions in those things. And no photos this time."
"Hm, maybe it's prep for something bigger," Tony replies. They're all used to having to do PR by now, or watching each other do it. He doesn't think it's so unusual, until Coulson comes back that evening, catching Tony alone.
"Did Rogers talk about where we went today?" he asks.
"Yeah, some magazine interview?"
Coulson fidgets. Tony looks up from his CAD program.
"What?" he asks.
"Your reports and Natasha's -- "
"Hey, whoa now, I made no reports," Tony interjects. "I expressed concern about a friend to a...Coulson," he settles on, because he has no other way to identify the man's position in his social circle.
Coulson gives him an eyeroll. "Your concerns seem to indicate Rogers still isn't fully settled. Natasha's not happy about it. You seem the same."
"And we took him to see a therapist, and he gave her a magazine interview."
Tony blinks, then bursts out laughing.
"Did you explain to him what you were doing?" he asks.
"Not in so many words."
"Oh man, this is rich. Poor kid. You have to explain shit to him, Coulson. He's not dumb, but he doesn't have any historical context for crap like therapy."
"She's a very -- "
" -- good therapist, I'm sure, but let me tell you: therapy is bullshit."
Coulson looks offended.
"I speak as one who knows," Tony says. "The guy's running around in kevlar-lined spandex fighting monsters with his roommates, smiling about it and dying inside. What makes you think he's going to tell a stranger his secrets? He won't tell me his secrets without being nearly blackout drunk first."
Coulson exhales. "What else do you expect me to do? You think medication would help?"
"Wow." Tony blinks. "Laying aside the fact that medicating America's national icon is a kind of fascinating metaphor, that's really, seriously not your call and if I find out you've started feeding him Lexapro without telling him what it is I will end you, Coulson. I'm not fucking around. Natasha would help."
Coulson takes this in stride. "You didn't answer my question. Do you?"
"The man's grieving," Tony replies, looking back down at his work. He hasn't really admitted it -- that Steve is in mourning, the hardcore, struggle-all-day kind of mourning that changes a person forever -- and it hits him broadside. "You were right. We can't do anything but make sure he doesn't get himself killed."
"Are you on board with that?"
"Have been. Will be," Tony says.
Tony and Steve are the only people in the house who really have any concrete associations with Veteran's Day. Tony grew up around the military, worked with soldiers most of his young life, is still friends with a lot of them (for a very Tony-identified value of Friend). And Steve is a soldier.
So most of the house is planning to goof off for Veteran's Day, maybe have a cookout in the sun room Tony tricked out with a gas grill, air filtration, and heating system so that one room of their house is, in fact, an endless summer. Tony's the only one not surprised when Steve appears in the morning in an Army uniform, with little bars on his chest and his medals below, Captain's rank on his arm, a hat tucked crisply under it.
Actually by the time Tony makes it down, Steve is already explaining his insignia to Thor, and why he's wearing it.
"A day to glorify warriors!" Thor says, sounding awed.
"I don't know about glorify," Steve answers uncomfortably. "Honor, maybe."
"Very just and proper," Thor agrees.
"We have two," Tony says, and then claps Steve on the shoulder and murmurs in his ear, "We'll get you very drunk for Memorial Day."
"So are you wearing that getup all day, or what?" Clint asks, and it's strange not to be the biggest asshole in the room for once.
"I'm marching in the parade," Steve replies.
"No. I'm walking with the others, no costume. I'll be back in time for the barbecue."
"A parade and a feast!" Thor looks like he's died and gone to wherever gods go instead of heaven. "Shall I walk with you and your brothers, my friend?"
"Um, you don't have to," Steve answers.
"Will there be trials of arms?"
"No! No," Steve says hastily. He glances at Tony. "You could come down and...watch, if you wanted to. Everyone, if you want to. You don't have to."
Thor's face lights up.
Which is how Tony ends up standing on a chilly streetcorner, watching generations of soldiers walk past, while Thor applauds loudly and occasionally yells, "HAIL, BROTHERS AND SISTERS!"
And there's Steve, just a guy in uniform back from the war, walking along. He looks terribly proud and terribly broken, but he's by far not the only soldier with that look on his face.
When they get back to the mansion, Rhodey's there, and he and Steve share a brief nod before Steve bounds up the stairs to change. They have a cookout in the Room Of Endless Summer, and it's nice, and if Tony notices Thor pouring out a glass of something clear for Steve, he ignores it.
"We are in need of a toast!" Thor announces, when they're all lying around afterwards, having eaten too much and maybe had a few too many beers. "To our comrades, and the valor of Midgardian warriorhood! Who will you toast, friends?"
Rhodey glances at Tony, who shrugs, but Steve is standing, glass upraised.
"The Howling Commandos," he says, voice surprisingly clear. "The Hundred and Seventh, Private First Class Joseph Rogers, and Sergeant James Barnes."
The others lift their glasses.
"Whatever else happened," Steve says, with a sudden grin, "At least we beat the Nazis."
The others grin back, and go back to chattering and bickering; Steve drops down in the chair next to Tony's.
"And to Howard," he adds quietly, offering his still mostly-full glass to Tony. "Who screwed us both royally, God rest him."
Tony clicks the neck of his beer bottle against Steve's glass, and drinks.
It's three weeks later, on an ordinary everyday evening (twenty-three shopping days until Christmas!), when JARVIS pings gently for Tony's attention.
"Captain Rogers is in the garage, sir," he says.
"Oh? Is he taking the bike out?"
"I sincerely hope not."
Tony frowns. "What's up?"
"You instructed me not to control the ignition on the motorcycle, sir, but I don't believe Captain Rogers should be riding at the present."
Which is about as close to clear as JARVIS is going to get on the subject, so Tony groans, gets up from his work, and goes down to the garage to see what the hell is wrong.
Steve's bike is parked at the far end, past the row of Tony's favorite cars, the ones he simply can't be without (all nine of them). Steve is parked there too, sitting against a wall next to the bike, knees drawn up to his chest, arms folded across them. For a big guy, he knows how to make himself small when he wants.
Tony settles down next to him, silent, and then because he's really bad at silent, he says, "So, I was thinking of repainting the Ferrari. I know red cars supposedly go faster, but midnight blue looks classier, and I'm trying to improve my image. I wouldn't call it turning over a new leaf of anything, but I just settled the last of my speeding tickets and it seems like a good time to stop getting speeding tickets, especially since I'm verging on being a role model now. Really they should be ticketing Iron Man, but I guess that falls under the FAA's authority, or maybe the Air Force? I'd ask Rhodey but he'd probably put me on some kind of watchlist."
Steve is quiet, but his eyes are red.
"Hey, so do you have the keys to your bike?" Tony asks casually.
"Upstairs," Steve murmurs.
"Not taking it out, huh?"
"No." Steve's jaw works. "Not like this."
He actually is slurring, which, shit, it's not like Tony hasn't flirted with serious alcoholism, but he doesn't want to see anyone trip down that path after him. "You okay?"
"I shouldn't have done it," Steve replies.
There's a bottle sitting nearby, upright and empty. Steve nudges it with the toe of his boot.
"Welcome to the shame spiral?" Tony tries. Steve snorts. "So, you want to talk about the reason you did do it? Or at least the excuse?"
Steve glances at him.
"Habitual self-medicator," Tony reminds him. "Been there."
"Denial! Awesome, I spend a lot of time there, I could be a native guide."
That earns him a snort of laughter, and then Steve leans on him, face pressed to his shoulder.
"Tell me," Tony says, tangling a hand in his hair.
"Talking keeps the nausea at bay."
Steve shrugs against him. "I forgot about Bucky."
"I didn't think about him at all. For almost a week. Sometimes I go days without...remembering. Then it comes back. And I don't know if I should just...enjoy it, that some days I actually feel happy, or if I should be guilty that I'm not remembering them. Every day it gets harder to hate being here."
Tony sighs. "You could try liking being here."
"No, soldier, that's adaptation. Nobody's pissed at you for getting used to it here."
"I don't want them to think I abandoned them."
Tony thinks, they don't, they're dead, but doesn't say it.
"So I got the bottle Thor left for me in the kitchen and..." Steve shakes his head. "I thought, I want an hour where I don't have to care so goddamn much, either way, and I'm owed that much. But it just makes me sad. And kind of sick."
He sighs into Tony's shoulder. "You're good at fixing things. Fix me."
No pressure, Stark.
"This is the world you have to live in," Tony says, because he's always been crap at pulling off the whole they'd want you to be happy routine. "You have to spend the rest of your life living from this point in time onwards, unless I invent a time machine. And while my genius has no limits, I'm not sure the world is ready for a time-traveling Tony Stark."
Steve laughs a little.
"So for now, you're stuck moving forward. And that bites. I can't even imagine how bad. But given that you have to move forward from here, I think...if you don't stop looking back, you're gonna fall off a cliff." He pauses. "That metaphor might have escaped me momentarily but I'll catch up to it. Anyway, the point is, the ideal in this situation is that you would be happy when you're happy, and when you remember them, be happy that you still get to keep that with you. Or something. But I don't know how you get there. I'm not cut out for life advice. If you have a failing investment portfolio, or a TV that needs fixing, then I'm much more your guy."
Steve snuffles. "Tony?"
"I don't hate you."
"So you've said."
"Okay." A pause. "I don't think I can stand up."
"Not to worry. We'll just sit here for a while."
Things start to get better after that, he thinks. Not immediately, because in the immediate he's too old to sit around on garage floors for hours at a time and then haul a half-conscious superhero to bed, and his back aches for two days.
It's hard to tell, because Steve has never really given any sign of what's going on inside his big star-spangled head, but he takes fewer bad risks, and he seems to sleep more. He doesn't go near the other bottle Thor left in the kitchen for him. Tony would have discreetly removed it, but hiding it wouldn't really help in the long run, and nobody knows that better than Tony Stark, king of self-destructive tendencies.
Sometimes Steve comes to Tony's room and sits on the floor, reading quietly while Tony works at his desk. Tony finds work to do he didn't know he had, just to stay there. They don't talk much.
Some evenings, the strain actually shows on his face. He looks tired and unhappy and he never did that before. The thing is, he looks unhappy more, but he is unhappy less, at least as far as Tony's any judge.
They all survive Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's without killing each other or getting killed by Evil, which is pleasant. January is boring, February is hell on Earth (blame Evil), March is...mostly very cold.
Steve comes to Tony's room and reads more often. The tight, tense lines around his eyes ease a little. The bottle in the kitchen is still there; it's not like Tony's checking, but it's visible whenever he goes to get any other kind of alcohol. Which is less than he used to.
Maybe he's maturing. What a fucking awful thought.
Clint's attempt at an April Fool's joke backfires and lands Tony in the hospital with an arrow in his arm.
That's seriously unfunny. It's like the least funny thing that has happened to Tony in any April, ever.
They do two minor surgeries over the course of two days. Steve sits in his hospital room and reads for six hours a day, eats Tony's food when he doesn't want it, and generally makes it known that Clint is going to get the grownup equivalent of a permanent place in the time-out corner. And that's after Clint says he's sorry without any sarcasm at all and Tony says it's okay, fucknuts, I hate you forever but I'm not going to devise a machine whose sole purpose is killing you.
And then it's May. And in May is Memorial Day.
Steve actually does have PR duties this time around; he's in uniform again, and he has to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, after which there's a luncheon he's supposed to attend. He comes in after the luncheon looking weary, and Tony and Rhodey are in the living room. Tony holds up the bottle.
"Yeah," Steve says, and drops his hat on the table, takes off his army coat and then, deliberately, pulls his dog tags off and over his head, setting them next to the coat. He falls down between them on the couch. Tony cracks the seal on the bottle and passes it over. Steve drinks, offers it to Rhodey, then drinks again when Rhodey's done. Tony sips a little, but he's not a soldier, after all, and he's never lost a loved one to that duty. Today is for Steve and Rhodey to mourn their dead. So for once, he listens instead of talks. They tell war stories, compare the way battles have been fought, remember people who died.
At some point, Rhodey falls asleep; Tony is slouched in a corner of the couch, and Steve's head is on his shoulder. The bottle's almost empty.
"Okay?" Tony asks, and Steve nods.
"The men used to tease me about Peggy," he says, seemingly at random. "I don't know why we...Peggy said when it was all over we'd go dancing, but why did we wait? Why did people keep saying when the war's over, like it was all going to be okay after?"
"What people do, I guess."
"Bucky really did have a French resistance fighter. I don't think he was very faithful, but I think he loved her. I did love Peggy. She's dead, Bucky's dead, Howard's dead..." he inhales sharply. "Sorry, I know you don't -- "
"It's fine. We're not talking about my dad. We're talking about your friend."
"The thing is, the...the thing is," Steve says, mumbling into Tony's neck, "There's, there's Rhodey and Clint and Natasha, and Coulson and Fury and...Bruce and Thor and Pepper, she's a hell of a dame, Tony, and there's...you. And you're all mine, sort of, well, most of you, I'm the Captain, that means you belong to me, and I have to look after you all, and -- "
"No! No, it's nice. I like it. I'm not lonely that way. I miss them, but I have you. You make me happy. So everything's hard, but it's okay."
Tony feels a vast, rolling swell of relief, and he ducks his head to press his forehead against Steve's.
"You don't hate it here," he says, because asking is too dangerous.
"No, not anymore. I..." Steve laughs a little. "I'm drunk, I should..."
He lifts his head and presses a kiss to Tony's lips, dry and gentle.
"I'm alive," he says. "I survived."
Tony cups his head and kisses him back, a hint of cherry-medicine taste between them. Steve sighs and drops his head to Tony's shoulder again.
Two hours later, Natasha and Clint walk in to find Rhodey and Steve both asleep, Steve sprawled over Tony's chest, and Tony playing games on his phone with his one free hand. They take in the scene curiously.
"Memorial Day," Tony says.
"Right," Clint answers, nodding. "I'll take Rhodey to a guest room. You two take Cap?"
"How are you breathing with him on top of you like that?" Natasha asks, as she gets an arm under Steve's back.
"I'm not sure. I think one of my lungs fell asleep. Oh, pins and needles," Tony moans, as Steve is hoisted off of him. He stands up, taking his other side, and together they limp and stagger and drag until Steve's out cold in his own bed. Natasha creeps out; Tony closes the door behind them quietly.
"We should talk," he says.
Natasha nods. "Food?"
Tony doesn't cook often, but that's not to say he can't. Natasha gives him a handful of vegetables to chop while she digs around for a wok and takes out some chicken from the fridge. There's always a ton of food in the kitchen; Tony and Bruce are irregular eaters at best, but Natasha and Clint burn through calories, Thor loves feasting, and Steve has to keep up with his metabolism.
"I think he's out of the woods," Tony says, seeding peppers. Natasha pours oil into the wok and flicks the gas on.
"He's been better. Kind of? I don't know, I'm not a shrink or anything."
Natasha shrugs as she chops up the chicken. "You know him better than most of us."
"Maybe. He said it's not as hard now. He likes taking care of us," Tony adds, and catches Natasha smiling briefly. "I don't know, what do you think?"
"I think you should dice those onions." Natasha points with her knife.
"Seriously, I made reports because I was seeing an awful lot of smiling for a guy who just lost his whole life, but I don't have an inside track. You're the one he goes to. You should tell Coulson," she adds.
"You can make the report. All official that way, right?"
"Sure. But I can tell you what anyone would say about it."
"Yes. Don't back down now."
He stops, looking at her, puzzled. "Back down?"
"Out of the woods is relative. You pull back now, who knows? You're his best friend. Just keep on being that, I suppose."
Tony passes over the plate of chopped vegetables, sets down the knife, grips the counter tightly.
"It's exhausting," he says. "When it happens. He wears me the fuck out. I wouldn't -- it's not about him or me, I mean, I wouldn't back down, but I hope I don't have to do this again. I would. I just hope I don't have to."
The weariness slams into him with sudden force, all the impotent worry and the struggle to say the right things, the pressure of someone else's life depending, even if only temporarily, on his ability not to fuck up. He can feel the muscles in his hands straining where he's holding onto the counter.
"Christ," he says, and breathes hard through his nose, because heat's prickling under his skin, at the back of his eyes, and the tears gathering there are the worst, most humiliating kind, self-pitying. He's not the one who's spent half a year wishing he were dead. He's just so tired.
Natasha comes to stand behind him, resting her hands flat on his shoulderblades. Tony allows himself one sharp, low sob, and then lets go of the counter. He shrugs her off and gestures at the stove.
He can feel her step back, see her out of the corner of his eye. Natasha busies herself with the stir-fry, sending steam and smoke up from the pan, and Tony washes his hands, pulling himself the fuck together.
"Where's Clint?" he asks, when he's sure his voice will be steady.
"He'll smell food and come down, he always does," she answers, and about thirty seconds later Clint wanders in. Natasha passes him a plate, then one to Tony.
They make him feel old sometimes, the two of them, because they're so blatantly young -- never lived in a world without computers, can barely remember one without cellphones. But then he sees their eyes and remembers they've seen more than -- well, more than perhaps they ought, certainly more than most. They talk quietly about the practice op they ran earlier in the day, and Tony eats and tries to stay awake.
"That report," he says, when they're almost done eating. They look at him, eyebrows raised. "Natasha, the one we were talking about?"
"Yes?" she says.
"I'll talk to Coulson. Don't worry about it."
"What report?" Clint asks.
"Team status audit," Tony lies, half-lies, it's almost the truth. "It's been a while since I pissed off HQ, about time I went down and raised some dust."
Clint grins. "I like that about you. You keep 'em from being too polished. Of course you're an unprofessional asshole, but I guess those have their place."
"Aw sweetie-buns, you say the nicest things," Tony replies with a leer.
Steve comes with him to HQ the next day, he says to check in, but Tony knows what it is. Steve likes to inspect the troops. He wanders the halls, talking to all the agents, remembering everyone's name, inspecting weapons and asking tactical questions of anyone too slow to escape. It's a hobby, Tony supposes.
Coulson's office is sparse and professional, but Tony's not fooled; Coulson is a badass, and probably as effed up as any of the Avengers or he wouldn't understand them so well. Tony seats himself, fidgets, looks at Coulson warily.
"How's Steve?" Coulson asks, without preamble. Thank God.
"Better," Tony replies. "I think he's on the upswing."
"That's good to hear," Coulson says, and it looks like he genuinely means it. Tony wonders how much Coulson has worried. "Any particular reason you think that?"
Tony shrugs. "Things he's said. Confidences I'm not eager to break. Natasha agrees with me, though."
He's about to go on, give sketchy details, talk about where they might go from here, when Coulson asks, "And how are you?"
Tony doesn't even bother pretending that he doesn't understand. "Tired," he says. "Relieved."
"It's not easy. So I hear. Soldiers coming home..." Coulson shakes his head. "Tricky. And different for everyone."
"Well, this has been great, I'm gonna go now," Tony says, and starts to stand.
"Tony," Coulson says. Tony hesitates. "It's not easy on the people they come home to, either."
"Believe me," Tony replies, "I know."
He finds Steve in the physics lab, keeping company with Jane and Darcy. Darcy is propped up on some piece of equipment, her feet resting on the arm of the chair he's sitting in. He's grinning at her, friendly and indulgent; Tony suspects Steve knows Darcy has a crush on him and is willing to be her distant hero until she falls out of love. Girls in the forties used to hang pinups of him in their bedrooms. He's probably used to it.
"So what are you going to -- hi, Mr. Stark! -- what are you going to do for your birthday?" she asks, swinging her legs so that his chair turns a little.
"That's two months away," Steve says. "I wasn't thinking about it yet."
"Is it true you were born on the fourth of July?"
Tony drops into the chair next to Steve and picks up a headset. "Mission control to Darcy," he says into the inactive mic. "Beware propagandists, salesmen, and public relations agents. Do you copy? Over."
"Aw, Mr. Stark," Darcy blushes.
"Ignore him," Steve says.
"Mission Control here. Was that Captain Rogers? I only heard static. Over."
Steve turns back to Darcy with a smile. "No, I wasn't. That was put around by the bond salesmen. It was the sixth."
"Born on the Sixth of July just doesn't have the same ring," Tony agrees. Darcy scoots over and takes the headset out of his hands.
"Darcy to Mission Control," she says, grinning at him. "Stop ruining the magic. Over."
"How's this for magic -- we have a party at the mansion for Steve's birthday, you're invited," Tony says, casting a teasing look at Steve, who gazes back serenely.
"Seriously?" Darcy asks, dropping the headset.
"I don't see why not," Tony says. "Steve probably wants a magician and a pinata."
"I am so going to tell everyone I know that I'm partying with Tony Stark and Captain America," she squeaks.
"Uh, try to make it sound a little less like we're robbing your virtue," Tony cautions. Darcy blushes again. "Remember, beware of propagandists! That includes the newspapers." He stands, kicking Steve's chair gently. "Come on, lump, I'm done here. I'll buy you lunch."
"That was nice of you," Steve says, as they walk towards the car. "Inviting Darcy, I mean. I think she feels a little stuffed in with the SHIELD agents sometimes."
"Just doing my part," Tony replies.
"She has a crush on you," Steve leans in confidentially.
"No, hero, she has a crush on you," Tony says.
"No, she told me. She thinks you're, uh." He hesitates. "Old guy hot?"
Tony laughs. "I guess I'll take what I can get."
"She's awfully young, Tony."
"Please, I'm not going to seduce Darcy. Even if I wanted to date someone who's surgically attached to their Twitter account, Thor would rip my arms off. Nice to be admired, though. Are you sure?"
"Sure. She follows me around because she knows I follow you around," Steve says with a grin, getting into the car. When Tony's settled, he continues. "Maybe she just wants you for your money?"
"Is that teasing? You're teasing me. Great." Tony starts the car. "Hey, have you ever noticed when someone talks about us, it's always Captain America and Tony Stark? Never Iron Man."
"It just shows what an interesting life you've led," Steve says loyally.
And then he kisses Tony quickly, darting over the gearshift and back again, settling in for the ride. Tony glances at him, shrugs, and pulls out of the parking lot.
It happens again, twice.
Tony doesn't really understand it, but Steve doesn't seem to expect anything from him. The first time, they've just come out of battle and they're all running on high adrenaline, cheerful that they managed not to destroy any property (or people -- hey, it's a valid concern). They're heading for debriefing; Clint is clapping Thor on the back, Bruce is cheerily talking some kind of bullshit with Natasha, and Tony has retracted his helmet because while Iron Man looks good, and Tony looks good, there's nothing better than Tony Stark in Iron Man's armor, like a football captain who just ran the winning touchdown.
Cap slams a hand into Tony's shoulder, laughing. "Good job, Tony," he says, and the door to the debriefing room closes momentarily on the rowdiness in the hall. Steve leans in, kisses the corner of his mouth, and murmurs, "Good job," again, pulling back just in time for Clint to burst in with a whoop of triumph. Steve goes to his chair (it's Steve's Chair; they don't have assigned seats but nobody else will sit there) and Tony drops into the nearest one, puzzled but not displeased.
The second time, they're sparring. Avengers fight hard, and Tony is sure sooner or later the sparring is going to get one of them killed, but it's probably not going to be him, so that's fine. He's suited up but with one arm deliberately paralyzed, to practice fighting in a damaged suit; Steve's working on his agility, fucking backflipping over and around him, bouncing off the damn walls, and frankly while it never gets old it also has to be seen to be believed.
Steve slams into him from behind, pulling the shield over his helmet in front and using the leverage to drag him backwards. Tony tries to flail at him but with only one arm it's tough going; finally he twists his whole body, but Steve goes with it, throws his weight over Tony's head, and pulls them down. They end up on the floor, Tony on his back, Steve pinning him with the shield. It's hard to get up off his back in the suit even when he doesn't have a supersoldier holding him down.
"Gotcha," Steve says, knocking on Tony's helmet, and Tony retracts it so that Steve can see his eyeroll of whatever.
"Go again?" Tony asks, and Steve shakes his head. He leans down, kisses Tony, and for the first time touches him as well, one hand on his cheek. After a few seconds, Steve laughs against his mouth and rolls off, bouncing to his feet.
"Sparring's done. I'm starving. See you in the kitchen," he yells over his shoulder, and Tony is left to stare at the ceiling and wonder what the everloving fuck is going on.
They end up holding Steve's party on the fourth anyway.
SHIELD thinks it will be good publicity, very patriotic, America's heroes celebrating the birth of their country and of their leader. Steve insists on no reporters or photographers, but SHIELD makes some kind of subtle press release about it, and there are a couple of magazine items. Every caterer in New York tries to submit a bid for it.
It's difficult to get Steve to say what he wants, until one evening after communal dinner Tony plops down a tablet with all of the offers lined up on it and says, "Decision time."
Steve looks skeptically at the bids, almost like they confuse him, and then says, "Can any of them do an ice cream cake? And maybe some hot dogs?"
Thor laughs. Clint, from the corner of the room, remarks, "Hell, Cap, I could cook hot dogs."
"Oh," Steve says thoughtfully. "Problem solved, then."
"I wasn't volunteering. I was just saying."
"Roof of the mansion?" Tony suggests. "Get a big grill set up, franks and burgers?"
"Steaks," Bruce adds hopefully.
"Definitely steaks," Natasha agrees.
"Sure. Beer, margarita pitchers...no body shots," he adds to Natasha, who looks unrepentant. "Nothing more American than watching you lick Bruce's neck."
"That was one time -- " Bruce begins.
"Yeah, whatever, stud," Tony says. "Seriously, though, this is all grade-A patriotism. Hot dogs and beer. And an ice cream cake," he adds, and Steve looks pleased.
"Mint chocolate chip," Steve requests.
"JARVIS?" Tony asks.
"Noted, Mr. Stark. I'll place the appropriate orders immediately."
The thing about the Avengers is that they shouldn't work. They didn't, at first. They have nothing really in common except fighting; Bruce is shy to the point of reclusiveness, Natasha is cool and analytical, Clint and Tony are assholes, Thor and Steve are barely integrated into modern society. Jane and Darcy and Coulson are the normal ones, which says a lot about the baseline of normality. Rhodey and Pepper just find it all hilarious.
But they do work, now, they move like a team, fight as a team, have injokes and eat meals together. It might have taken him a couple of decades, but Tony discovers he finally has a group of people, of friends, who put up with his shit and actually make him want to give them less shit to put up with.
And here he is now, on the roof of the mansion, with the smell of grilled meat still in the air and mint chocolate chip ice cream cake melting slowly on his plate. It's like everything he would have been horrified by ten years ago. It's domestic.
It's really nice.
The music over the speakers is practically bipolar; Steve's mp3 collection is a mixture of old songs he knew from the thirties and some club-beat pop music he usually uses as workout tunes. Pink is keeping company with Billie Holiday. Tony doesn't ask what Steve sees in Don't Let Me Get Me.
"So?" he asks, as Steve sets his plate down, sipping from the little Army flask he's been carrying in his back pocket but not drinking from much. "Good birthday?"
"The best, Tony," Steve says. "Thank you. You want some more cake?"
"I'm good," Tony answers, though he'd be better if he didn't now know that Steve has La Vida Loca in his workout playlist.
Benny Goodman starts up though, Sing Sing Sing, and Natasha swings up to Steve, offering a hand. "Come on!"
"Oh, I never learned -- "
"Improvise!" she orders, and pulls Steve around into a simple step, the kind of hold-hands-and-move-around shuffle to be found anywhere bad dancers are. Steve laughs, goes with it and manages to twirl her; Thor has Jane out on the floor, and Clint's cajoling one of the SHIELD agents into joining him.
Tony watches, pleased and amused, until Steve spins Natasha again and turns away from her. The man can throw people around like dolls, so when he grabs Tony it's either dance or be pulled off his feet. It's the same klutzy shuffle, and people are laughing, but Steve seems happy.
"If you twirl me, I'll hurt you," Tony warns.
"What'll you do if I dip you?"
"Fall down and sprain something?"
Pepper cuts in then, and Tony moves out of the way, back into the crowd, ending up at Darcy's elbow.
"Hey," he says, leaning in to make himself heard over the music. Darcy looks up at him. "You were around for the retro fad, right? You know how to swing dance?"
"Not well," she answers, but she looks hopeful. Tony offers her his hand and pulls her in, and she's not bad; he can't do this very well either, and it's not especially athletic, but they're totally owning Steve and Pepper, at least. Darcy looks like it's her birthday.
The song transitions into some club mix with a bass beat; Tony leads Darcy casually around to Jane and Thor, who make a fuss about her dancing while Tony gets himself another drink.
"That was fun," Steve says, when Tony finds him sitting at one of the tables, amiably watching the crowd. "Hey, you're a good dancer, I saw you with Darcy."
"Dance lessons as a kid. I hated them at the time," Tony replies, pulling a chair up. "Most of my twenties were spent forgetting how to foxtrot. Comes in handy sometimes, though."
"I never danced much. Asthmatic," Steve says, gesturing at his chest. "And not very popular, back when. I had a date for a dance after the war, but..." he looks sad for a moment, but only a moment; he shrugs and glances at Tony again. "Things change. Finally got my dance, anyway."
"Technically you got three," Tony points out.
"Only one of them mattered," Steve says quietly.
"If you marry Pepper, dibs on Best Man."
Steve glances at him and then starts laughing, head thrown back. It's not that Tony's oblivious to what Steve meant; not at all, and it thrills him a little. It's just that he's still not sure how to handle this, so he laughs too. It occurs to him that Steve's a little tipsy, but then, so is he.
His phone beeps in his pocket; Steve groans, but Tony takes it out and then turns it around to show him. Email from Darcy, a photomessage of him and Steve dancing.
"That's nice," Steve says, as Tony turns it around again and begins typing a reply. "Hey, what are you doing?"
Tony glances up with a grin. "Telling her to Facebook it."
Steve laughs again and slings an arm around his shoulders, face turned towards him, breath ruffling his hair.
"Don't wander off after the party, okay?" he says, and then claps Tony on the back and goes off to socialize.
Tony doesn't wander -- this is where he lives, where would he wander to? -- but he does the good-host thing again, shakes hands as people leave, has JARVIS summon cabs for a few of the guests. By the time dark has fallen it's just the team left, watching fireworks go off over the city. Steve's face, turned up to the light show, flickers red and blue in the darkness.
Most of them are at the railing; Steve's sprawled on the ground, propped on his elbows, and his dog tags are just barely visible as shadows under his shirt. He sits up when Tony sits next to him, tosses him a smile, and turns back to the lights. They're silent for a while, listening to the boom-crackle of the fireworks.
"Back in the war," Steve says, quiet enough that only Tony can hear him, "Soldiers shipping out used to ask their girls to wait for them. I always thought I had a better deal, because my girl was a soldier too. But I get that -- knowing someone was waiting for you, knowing someone was thinking of you. To wait years for a boy to come home, that must have meant you really loved 'em."
"Or didn't know them at all," Tony puts in. Steve laughs a little.
"Well, maybe. But I didn't ever get...I guess a lot of guys like me didn't get to come home even when they did go home. Maybe that hasn't changed. You fight the war, and then there's another one to fight out with yourself, and nobody else can fight that one with you."
He turns to Tony, reflected light still flickering on his face. "Someone who waits that out, someone you know is waiting for you when you get done with that, that's something special."
Tony accepts the kiss when it comes, the same as it has been -- chaste and undemanding.
"Thank you for waiting," Steve says. Then, with another kiss, "You want to ditch the fireworks?"
Tony nods, then glances at the others; none of them are paying the slightest attention. They slip back inside the mansion, down the stairs, and at the landing Steve pins him to the wall, kisses deeper now, drunken laughter slipping out as they fumble for where to put their hands, reaching for each other in the dim light.
"In the interests of not seeming better than I am," Tony says, as Steve kisses his jaw, "I wasn't consciously waiting."
"Doesn't matter," Steve mumbles into his skin, then tugs him away from the wall and down another flight of stairs. "You didn't have to stay -- didn't have to watch me be a mess."
"Been there," Tony reminds him.
"Like that's an excuse?" Steve grins, stumbling back down the hallway with him, neither of them steady on their feet. "Tony, come on, accept a little gratitude."
"Is that what this is?" Tony asks, amused. Steve stops and holds his head still, kisses him wet and open, completely artless.
"No," he says, hands sliding under Tony's shirt. "Thank you was gratitude. This is -- something I've wanted."
"Yeah, I didn't think you'd just randomly started kissing people," Tony remarks.
"Sometimes it takes me a while," Steve admits, pulling him close. "When I like someone, really like them."
"Well, take your time, champ," Tony replies, nipping his earlobe. "Apparently I'm a patient man."
"No, that's done. No more waiting," Steve breathes.
They bump into a door -- Tony's room and not someone else's, thank God, because there's no way Tony's spending any longer than absolutely necessary getting to a bed. Steve appears to be in agreement. He's already pulling off his shirt, trying to get Tony's off, and when they kiss again his tags clatter against the arc reactor. He grabs them, stills them, and then tugs them off, letting them drop carelessly into his discarded shirt. Tony staggers back, laughing when he falls onto the bed. Steve just rests a knee between his spread thighs and leans over him, one hand sliding along his shoulder, up his neck.
"I wouldn't call myself experienced," Steve says, his voice a low rasp, his other hand working Tony's pants open. "But I'm very eager."
"And sort of dirty," Tony offers, as Steve settles in his lap, hips making lazy little thrusts against his thigh.
"Not a saint," Steve reminds him.
"No," Tony answers, "I know," and boy does he, because Steve's hand is in his underwear, fingers exploring, palm maddeningly slow against his cock.
"Never been with a man," Steve murmurs, as they struggle out of their remaining clothing, but he doesn't seem especially ashamed of it. "Barely been with a woman. Tell me if I mess up."
"Hard to mess this up," Tony grunts, and then has to catch his breath when Steve licks along his collarbone.
"Can you," Steve starts, and then tumbles over onto his back, looking up at Tony with hazy blue eyes. Tony runs a hand down his chest, palm flat on his stomach. "I mean, would you like..."
"I'll give you a pass on full sentences," Tony says, and Steve grins. He's pushing up into every touch, no matter where -- arm, shoulder, thigh, like he's dying for it, like he's suddenly remembered he's alive. Tony straddles him and runs both hands down his body. Steve whines.
He doesn't want to spook him, but after all, this is Steve. He's not easily spooked. This is so easy, so much easier than so much he's done, and Steve just accepts what he offers -- twists into his touch, gasps when Tony strokes him, tips his head back and moans full-throated when Tony rubs them together. He's not coordinated enough (won't last long enough) for much more, so he doesn't bother with it, just angles his hips against Steve's and enjoys the ride. It's simple, but it's so good. So good -- and he seems to slip along the edge forever before he comes, Steve writhing under him, Tony -- Tony, I want -- oh, I want --
Tony has had a lot -- a lot -- of sex in his life, but he's not sure anything has ever been better than Steve, flushed and sheened in sweat, coming under him, wordless, dazed.
Steve lifts a hand like he's not sure where to put it, fingers wavering, then manages to find Tony's wrist and hold on like it's an anchor.
Tony is not a morning person by any stretch.
When he wanders into the kitchen in the morning, blearily searching for coffee, Clint is at the kitchen table, chair tipped back, feet up, flipping dry cereal into his mouth. He gives Tony a knowing grin.
"And what did you give Steve for his birthday?" he asks, as Tony sits down and focuses on caffeinating. "Nicely done, disappearing on us like that."
"Get over it," Tony suggests, because it's too early to think of swear words.
"No, honestly, I'm proud of you both. By the way, that picture of you two dancing already has two hundred thousand likes."
"Well, the people have spoken."
Clint laughs. "Sure. Thank God, anyhow, he was as bad as Darcy about you. Was it good? I'm not into it myself, but he looks like he'd be flexible."
"Clint, seriously, Jesus."
"That good?" Clint looks impressed. Tony glares. "Here's what I want to know though, how come you get the hot ones? No offense, but I can't even get Natasha to make time with me."
"It's my natural charisma," Tony replies.
"That and a nickel will get you a cup of coffee," Steve says, smacking him on the back of the head gently as he enters. He's wearing a pair of pyjama pants, his dog tags, and some pretty impressive bedhead.
"Three bucks now, get with the times," Clint corrects.
"What were we discussing?" Steve inquires, taking the ice cream cake's sad remains out of the freezer.
"You," Clint says unabashedly. "Nailing the playboy here."
"Oh!" Steve grins, goofy and just as unabashed. Tony really needs new friends. "Well, I guess we weren't subtle."
"I got news for you, lovebird, you haven't been subtle for months. Anyway," Clint says, letting his feet fall, chair tipping forward as he stands. "I'm going to the firing range. Seeya."
Which leaves Tony slouching over his coffee on one side of the table, and Steve with a bowl of ice cream cake for breakfast on the other. He looks at Steve; Steve looks back; after about ten seconds Steve lets his head fall into his arms and laughs. Tony grins.
"Clint," Steve says, shaking his head. He glances at Tony. "No regrets?"
Tony sips his coffee. "I'm doing Captain America. Believe me. No regrets."
The goofy smile slips out again, and Tony isn't sure but he doesn't think the tightness in his chest is the arc reactor.
They shouldn't work. None of them should, barely functional separate and combative together. But they do, and Tony doesn't know why, just lies in bed with Steve snoring into his shoulder and breathes and wonders. Still, he's learning to live in the moment, to be happy.
They fight, fuck, drink sometimes, kiss often, and there are bad days still -- Memorial Day is never easy, never will be -- but they're few and far between. Once in a while Steve cries, quietly, ashamed of it, but after all that's what you do when you mourn.
Tony is Iron Man. He can carry this easily enough. If it makes him weary, it's never so weary he would give it up, not even close. He didn't know he was waiting, but he was, and now he doesn't have to.
It's not perfect, but then nothing worth having ever is.
Steve says sometimes that Tony saved him, and Tony doesn't like that -- it makes him uncomfortable, embarrassed, makes him wonder how long gratitude will reach. But it's not just gratitude, and in time he'll accept that.
The secret is, and someday maybe he'll even say it aloud, that Steve saved him too.