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***

As it turns out, saving the world was the easy part.

Though Tony is prepared to admit that he might be the only one with that particular opinion, mostly because he has to be the one with the most fucked up personal life out of all of them, and in comparison making things explode and flying a missile into space seem fairly straight-forward.

That is, until he nearly died and woke up to everyone gathered around him, looking vaguely concerned, and everything went from straight-forward to Oh god why do I have to deal with this? He didn’t even stop to think about his ridiculous suggestion to eat Shawarma after – anything to break the awkward moment of ‘Oh hey, I don’t really like Stark, but he shouldn’t snuff out on us either’ (maybe with the exception of Hulk, Bruce is a real champ that way, and possibly Thor, whom he hadn’t managed to get a good read on yet). He would’ve been more surprised that they actually end up doing just that if he hadn’t been so tired.

He can deal with silent team Shawarma eating session. He just isn’t so sure about the part where, once the clouds of war have calmed, he finds himself alone again. It’s mostly unsurprising, but he can’t deny that a small, usually carefully repressed part of him had enjoyed the company while kicking ass and wouldn’t have minded having the team around for a little longer.

Of course the others had had other ideas. Barton and Natasha had retreated to Shield HQ, presumably with the Captain in tow, and Thor was with Loki (and truly, Tony would rather not know exactly what they’re doing – he’d thought he had family issues). And Bruce…Bruce had taken off quietly, basically when no one was looking, which, to be entirely honest, smarts the most, since he genuinely likes the guy.

It all ends up with him standing in the mostly ruined top level of Stark Tower, a glass of scotch in his hand and already well on his way to maudlin.

Nothing new there then.

He takes a sip of his drink, barely tasting the burn as it slides down his throat, too busy trying not to think about Pepper still in Washington, or last phone calls, or falling through space, or righteous soldier assholes. He isn’t very successful.

“Sir, might I suggest that drinking yourself into oblivion is not the wisest course of action?” JARVIS comments, the AI’s voice perfectly dry.

For a moment Tony considers chugging the rest of his glass just to be contrary. “Who told you to meddle anyway?”

“You did, sir,” JARVIS responds calmly, “In one of your exceedingly rare sensible moments.”

Tony sighs a little sourly, staring down at the liquid sloshing lazily in the glass. Leave it to him to build an AI with attitude and sass, who also happens to be almost always right. After all he had programmed him to warn him after a certain amount of alcohol intake. He doesn’t really remember the occasion anymore, but he’s reasonably sure it had something to do with Pepper.

“What did I do to deserve you?” he murmurs quietly, not even aware that he isn’t differentiating between Pepper and JARVIS. For once the AI remains silent, maybe recognizing the question as (mostly) rhetorical, or maybe simply exhibiting a sense of tact that belies his creation by one Tony Stark.

With nothing else to focus on, his thoughts return to less pleasant topics. He knows he should just go down to the workshop in order to avoid making the rest of this already sucky day even worse, should immerse himself in repairs for the Mark VII or take a look at the alien tech and invent some anti-Chitauri stuff, but he finds he can’t bring himself to move. He feels drained in a way that distinctly reminds him of poison coursing through his body, a riddle of dark veins staining his skin. It’s not a comforting thought.

Snatches of conversation ghost through his mind, words that he has tried his hardest not to remember, which, naturally makes it impossible not to. Apparently there isn’t enough alcohol in his system yet to drown out the sound of the dear Captain’s cutting words.

Stop pretending to be a hero.

Tony’s lips pull into a mirthless smirk. That’s the crux of this whole problem, isn’t it? Steve Rogers is a hero, a true hero, one of those exceedingly selfless types, to the point that he’s nothing else. So can he really be surprised that he wouldn’t see Tony as one? That Rogers’s somehow managed to both see through his walls to hit far too close to home and paradoxically not bothered to look past them at all? The worst part is that even he can’t completely disagree with the Captain, and he’s him – if anyone is going to defend him it’s himself. But he is in the whole hero business because of selfish reasons, he is nothing without his armor, and he certainly isn’t a good person.

Sure, the glowing magical staff of destruction had probably made them all say things they wouldn’t have said otherwise, but Tony isn’t stupid enough to believe that it simply put the words into their mouths. He’s been to enough enforced therapy sessions to know that even under some kind of influence one doesn’t just come up with hurtful concepts one has never considered before. Whether those ideas had just been in Roger’s subconscious, or whether he had thought them anyway and the staff had just given him the push to actually voice them, he’ll probably never know – and however cowardly that may be, he’s quietly glad of that, too (this way at least he can still pretend that it’s the former).

Such unpleasant thoughts coupled with the coldness of space that still seems to crawl all over his skin (and, God, the feeling of the arc reactor failing, and falling), he reasons, as he eyes the minibar that’s miraculously still in one piece and the crystal decanter of scotch resting oh so innocently on the counter speculatively, are enough to drive anyone to drink.

After all, if he’s so volatile and self-obsessed, why not act like it too?

Fuck it all, he needs a drink.

He moves towards the scotch.

*

The moment Pepper steps through the door, small traveling bag in hand, and catches sight of him, she knows.

“Oh Tony,” she murmurs, disappointment warring with worry and sympathy.

He musters up a strained smile. “Hi, Peps. How was DC? Company business all taken care of?”

She just gives him the look she’s perfected, the one that says, ‘I know what you’re doing, stop changing the topic, we are going to talk about this’ (she has a talent, she really does). It never fails to make him squirm.

“So about this clean energy thing we’re doing…”

Tony.”

He shrugs, wincing as the motion amplifies the already distractingly painful pounding in his head. “What do you want me to say? I mean, yeah, so we had an alien invasion and I might have died just a little, and Fury now wants me to run around with that team-thing, but that doesn’t mean there has to be something wrong.”

Pepper sighs, regarding him seriously. “Even disregarding how many things are just plain wrong with that sentence, JARVIS pinged me that the alcohol alert had gone off.”

“Traitor,” he accuses, glaring for good measure, already regretting ever having put in that stupid alarm in the first place. “You’re supposed to be on my side!”

“I am, sir. As always my mainframe is only looking after your best interests,” JARVIS responds, and Tony could’ve sworn there was a hint of warmth in his electronic voice.

Pepper sighs again, ignoring their byplay with practiced ease. “Why didn’t you stop drinking after the alert?”

For a moment he considers denying it, but Pepper is fixing him with that look and damn it, she knows him too well.

He suddenly notices that his fingers are tapping a nervous rhythm on the rim of the only partially hidden arc reactor. He forces them to stillness.

“What gave me away?”

“…the sunglasses are something of an indicator. We’re inside.”

“Oh,” Tony says, patting his head in slight confusion, and yep, there’s a pair of sunglasses perched on his nose. He doesn’t even remember putting them on, but it does explain why the world is tinted an admittedly quite fetching shade of purple. “Right.”

He decides the only way is forward so he leaves them on. The damage is done (not that she wouldn’t have figured it out anyway). Besides his head really does hurt and he would rather not add bright light in his eyes to the equation.

Pepper is still watching him patiently, but now something so close to resignation has entered her eyes, resignation with him, with him ever fully opening up to her, that his heart squeezes painfully. It’s Pepper, he loves Pepper, he doesn’t want to hurt Pepper - even if it means talking about things he would rather bury deep in his mind where he can freely forget about them, thank you very much.

Everything bubbles out of him in one big confusing gaggle of words and Pepper… Pepper understands it because, hell, that woman does impossible things every day, like actually understanding Tony Stark when he isn’t even making sense to himself.

 As soon as he’s started, he finds – to his faint horror – that he’s unable to stop talking, so the Captain’s words follow the usual esteem issues and nearly dying in the biting cold of outer space. He barely has the presence of mind to keep back his relationship doubts. That’s one topic he most emphatically does not want to broach with Pepper, seeing as she’s the one he’s in the relationship with.

He regrets having talked as soon as he shuts his mouth. He’s the seen the look on Pepper’s face before. It says ‘Oh god, Tony you’re a mess’ when it isn’t busy saying ‘I don’t know how to deal with this’ or expressing both pity and resignation. He should know; he’s seen it before, on her face, on Rhodey’s face, even on Bruce’s face, once on the helicarrier. It goes without saying that he absolutely loathes it.

Fixing her clear blue eyes on his, she says, “You’re a good man, Tony.”

He’s surprised by her statement, doesn’t even try to hide it. He’s even more surprised by the apparent sincerity in her voice.

“Pepper, I sure as hell don’t know what definition of ‘good’ you’re using, but you definitely don’t mean me here, seriously I’m no more a good man than Battlefield Earth was a good movie and you know that it absolutely sucked ‘cause I forced you to watch it and that was just a complete asshole move and do you see why I can’t be a good person now?”

“Tony,” she interrupts him, mercifully before his mouth can run further away with him, “you do a lot of altruistic things, you – ”

“Huh, I’m pretty sure I accidentally watched a documentary on that once. Like one of those wildlife shows about endangered species. I don’t think I was mentioned.”

She’s frowning now, as if he’s the one who’s being stubborn here. “What do you call working on providing clean energy for the world then?”

“I can hardly call that altruism when it’s my company profiting the most from it, now can I?” he points out reasonably, for while he can occasionally be dishonest, he does try not to delude himself about his own motives at least. “Real good men are people like Rogers, Peps. Becoming a hero to protect other people, rescuing kittens out of trees, helping little old ladies across the street, that kind of thing. And I’ve literally seen him do all of that, believe it or not – imagine my shock.”

He doesn’t mention that he’d seen at least one of these instances on a hacked SHIELD security camera (so sue him, he’d been curious what Captain perfect Rogers does in his free time – turns out that he is just that perfect; Tony had been depressed for days afterward).

“Tony, why does Steve do what he does?”

He stares at her. “I just told you! Kittens, grandmas - ”

“And do you think doing all that makes him feel good?” she interrupts, before he can go off on a tangent.

“Well, yes, of course, but – ”

“So is it truly altruistic of him if it makes him feel good?”

He blinks, then stares at her some more for good measure. “Here I thought I was the cynical, world-weary one. With that definition there isn’t anyone who’s completely altruistic.”

“No, there isn’t,” she agrees quietly. “So either you are, or no one is. Your choice.”

When he doesn’t say anything, Pepper adds, looking at him in what might be a challenge, but probably is just an attempt to get him to really think about what she’s saying, “You don’t need the approval of Steve Rogers to be a real hero, Tony.”

He knows that the words are supposed to be encouraging, but it doesn’t make them any less hollow. Not when his fucking childhood hero (and damn it if he hasn’t tried to forget that as much as possible) thinks he’s no better than the lowest scum and for some stupid reason he still cares about his opinion.

Faced with the look of Pepper’s light eyebrows drawn together as if she’s going to say something else, he decides that he definitely can’t deal with this anymore right now and, hey, doesn’t he have things to do anyway?

“Uhh, I’ll just go to the workshop then, if that’s all, okay? Make yourself at home, Pep.”

Retreat in the face of emotions is, after all, one of the things he does best. So he doesn’t give her the time to respond and convinces himself that he can’t feel her gaze burning into his back as he makes a beeline for the elevator.

*

The top level of Stark Tower – or Avengers Tower, as Tony has very secretly started calling it in private – is a mess, since Loki had decided that he personally didn’t like Tony and staged his little taking over the world coup directly on top of his prized building. Which is a little inconvenient, what with it only having been finished a few days beforehand in the first place and all. That, however, doesn’t stop Tony in the least from including a complete remodeling of more than just the top floor in his plans to rebuild.

Staring at his sketches of possible floors for all the Avengers, Tony still isn’t quite sure what had possessed him to go and decide to put in accommodation for his conspicuously absent so-called team members, when he can’t even be sure that they would ever move in.

Maybe he is just a lonely old soul. He winces at the thought.

The elevator opens and Pepper steps up to him with a faint rustle of clothes, abruptly reminding him that, no, he isn’t actually alone, not with this perfect woman beside him. She’s taken to walking around the penthouse barefoot, which he supposes is a testament to how clean his floors are – and if they aren’t he can still blame her twelve percent, naturally.

They haven’t talked about their conversation the other day, much to Tony’s relief – her sometimes pointed glances are enough of a reminder, thank you very much. They hadn’t talked about his failed call during the Invasion, either, both unwilling to face the implications. In fact they haven’t talked much at all, except for him forcing himself to tell her about Phil, and there hadn’t been much talking involved after that information, shared grief doing a much better job of communicating than words.

Pepper places a lingering kiss on his cheek, leaning forward to look at his projection hologram of the tower and his scattered notes. She raises a brow. “All of them, Tony?”

“Well,” he says, resolutely squashing his faint embarrassment, “I couldn’t very well just invite Bruce, now could I? That would be rude.”

Pepper gives him a look that clearly says ‘and when have you ever cared about that’, but thankfully doesn’t comment further. Instead she drags the nearest panel, which happens to be Steve’s floor, closer to her.

“I read somewhere that he used to be an art student, or at least wanted to be one,”  she says, as if she doesn’t know that he knows she’s read Rogers’ not quite so official file same as he has. “You might want to consider including an art studio or something similar.”

Tony balks a little at the notion of doing something nice for Rogers after he’s done nothing but put Tony down – well, until the end anyway – but Pepper’s looking at him reproachfully and it’s only money anyway. “Sure, why not. Since it’s your brilliant idea, why don’t you handle that? I know nothing about art whatsoever.”

“You do realize I actually have a job, don’t you? One that happens keeps me extremely busy no less?” she sighs, but it sounds very much like agreement to Tony, who just grins at her cheerfully, ducking the retaliatory swat at his arm with practiced ease. He’s always been good at selective hearing.

“Now, what about Dr. Banner?”

It takes them well into the night with the skyline and a few dim lamps providing the only illumination to finalize the plans, now including very much personalized floors for all the Avengers. It even distracts him from his wallowing for a few hours, even if only in the short term.

*

The call for the next mission a few days later comes as a relief. He hadn’t expected it to be one of his automated alarms, triggered by sightings of illegally acquired SI weapons, however. He’d thought he’d obliterated all of them by now, but apparently that wasn’t the case. By now he can’t even manage to feel anger at the abuse of his inventions anymore, just a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach that in the past he’d only managed to allay with at least one well-placed explosion. The larger the better.

It’s moments like these, when his armor fits itself around his body, when the reality of his past catches up with him, that he remembers Natasha’s analogy of red in a ledger and has to fight the urge to laugh. One wouldn’t think that Tony Stark of all people would have problems with that. Of course people rarely bother to look beyond the obvious and notice that he, personally, has more blood on his hands than either Clint or Natasha, simply by virtue of them not having been an unaccountable (stupid – naïve) genius weapon inventor.

Sometimes he wonders at a world in which the actual soldiers and spies take less lives than a single person, sitting safe and snuck behind the home lines.

At least he can lose himself in flight.

“Okay, JARVIS, hit me up. Where’s this party gonna be?”

“There have been two reported sightings of weapons at nearly synonymous times yesterday evening, indicating that they were sold on the black market at the same time, sir. One is located ten miles north of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the other in Azerbaijan.”

“Huh. Azerbaijan,” he says as the HUD flickers to brilliant life around him. “Never been there. Set course for the freezing cold tundra, JARVIS.”

“As you wish, sir.” A beat of silence follows. “I do feel obligated to inform you that Azerbaijan does not feature tundra, as the country is located too far south. In addition it is currently summer. Temperatures should be –”

He sighs. This is what he has to put up with nowadays, smart-mouthing AI’s. “Point taken, JARVIS. Now would you please concentrate on giving me relevant details?”

The weapons depot in the middle of nowhere – also known as the Caucasian Mountains – turns out to be nothing more than a slightly larger than average wooden shack. Why people invest in high tech weapons when they can’t even afford a sophisticated place to store them is entirely beyond him.

As he spirals away from the golden burst of exploding weaponry, Tony reflects that, if one has a mind for such things, the mountains here are kind of pretty.

Colorado, on the other hand, turns out to be as similar to the technological prowess of the Azerbaijani hut as a pea is to a sky scraper.  Hovering just out of reach of the warehouses scanners, Tony can’t help but be just a little bit impressed. Naturally they’re nowhere near as advanced as any of hishouses, but it seems they at least get the importance of defense systems. Their scanners reach farther out than his missile system can efficiently target weak points of the structure – it almost seems like they’re prepared for him. Or maybe that’s just paranoia talking.

For all of a second he seriously considers calling SHIELD to try and get more information about whoever’s squatting down there, but that course of action would have serious drawbacks in the form of them meddling in his business (plus he still doesn’t trust any government agency and would rather not find that his weapons mysteriously appear to be stockpiled by SHIELD all of sudden – he totally wouldn’t put that past them – instead of properly destroyed).

So he does what he always does and arguably does best instead: straightforward attack – and trusts in his armor to buffer any hits he might be taking in the meantime.

It takes exactly 2.5 seconds after he breaches the parameter for warning lights to start flashing on his HUD. He doesn’t need JARVIS’ unnaturally calm voice informing him that about ten missiles have locked on to him to know that now there’s a slight chance of things turning unpleasant.

Quickly coming up with and discarding possible plans of action, numbers, and chances flying through his mind, he comes to one conclusion. He estimates the chance of completely evading the ten missiles is less than seven percent, as their course was obviously programmed for maximum blanketing of air space, which leaves him with no other option than to trust in the blast-absorbing capacities of his armor. He puts on a burst of speed, heading straight for the compound, not wavering as the missiles explode in violent light behind him.

“Sir,” JARVIS’ voice sounds urgent, “there are shrapnel missiles-“

The blast hits him before his AI can finish his sentence. Next thing Tony knows he’s hurtling towards his intended target in a not really controlled tumble until a very solid wall finally robs him of his velocity. Well, it’s certainly one way of breaching the security. Maybe he should thank whoever runs this place for the free ticket later.

“JARVIS, damage report,” he croaks as soon as he’s gotten his breath back. He feels mostly fine, if a little banged around – once he ignores the sharp pain in his elbow, that is.

“There’s no major damage to the suit, all systems are still running, but there’s a shrapnel puncture at the joint on your left arm, sir.”

Huh, that could’ve been a lot worse. Tony isn’t quite sure if he should be insulted that they actually thought this would be enough to take him out, or proud that his suit really is the most advanced piece of technological bad-assery to ever grace the planet.

“Make a note for me to look into improving the joint durability without losing flexibility,” he instructs, pushing himself to his feet.

“Noted. Calculations for the warehouse’s most structurally weak spot completed. There are no detectable life-signs in the building.”

So at least they were smart enough to abandon ship once they saw him coming. Tony squints at the readout on his HUD for a second, noting the target (okay, so maybe his head was bounced around a little), then says. “Seems fine. Blow it.”

He doesn’t need to stay around to know the results of one if his personally invented and built missiles hitting a bunker full of explosives, but he does it anyway, memorizing every burst with grim determination. It’s no way to redemption, but it’s still a hell of a view.

He’s right above Indianapolis when he remembers that he was supposed to inform Pepper before leaving on a mission. Because she calls. It would take a far braver man than him not to experience an overwhelming feeling of dread and start planning his own funeral. Boy, shit is going to hit the fan now.

“Tony, where are you?! You were supposed to be at a shareholders meeting an hour ago!”

He winces at the truly impressive volume. On the chart of pissed-offness she’d definitely passed epic proportions by a landslide already. “Uh…The shareholders meeting. Right. The one that you’ve harangued me about for weeks now? That one? The one that, you know, I seem to kinda have forgotten?”

That’s the one.”

Tony’s reasonably sure her voice could cut ice, never mind the physical impossibility. Even science has its limits when it comes to scary and enraged redheads.

“Tony, I’m trying to run your company here –” and she does, really effectively too, maybe he should mention that more often? “ – but I need you to get off your ass and work with me a little. I’ve already cut down your involvement in official meetings to the bare minimum because God knows you’re unable to handle more, but it’s still your company. Your name on the building. As CEO I really don’t have the time to constantly run after you, I’m not even your PA anymore.”

Tony winces slightly because, hey, this isn’t getting any better at all, and they’re entering really dangerous waters when Pepper starts ranting at him about the company. “But you’re the only one who’s any good at it,” he points out reasonably. “Getting me to do something that is. Though you’re an awesome CEO too, did I mention that lately? Definitely awesome.”

“Apparently not,” she snorts, “if you can’t even be bothered to show up to one of the most important meetings of the year.”

“Do you want a raise? I could totally give you a raise,” he offers, mostly ignoring her statement – in his defense, he’s getting slightly desperate now, and his injured arm chooses this moment to remind him that it exists.

“No, Tony, I don’t want a raise!” she retorts, managing to sound angry and disappointed all at once. “I already earn more than enough and you should know by now that throwing money at it isn’t going to make the problem go away!”

Even he has enough prudence not to mention that there are, in fact, quite a lot of problems that can be solved with money – just usually not the pertinent ones.

Tony hears Pepper take a deep breath at the other end of the line, and when she starts talking again her voice is calmer. That would encourage him, if there wasn’t also a note of steel underlain by suspicion there. He winces again.

“So is there any reason that you can’t show up now?”

A beat of silence.

“Tony, where are you?”

He’s still debating the merits of lying, when she snaps, “JARVIS, what’s Tony’s exact location?”

Alarm shoots through him, but JARVIS has already answered before he can shut him up.

“Mr. Stark is currently approaching the airspace over Pittsburgh, Ms. Potts. He should arrive in New York in under an hour.”

Jesus, will you two ever stop ganging up on me?”

JARVIS is definitely in urgent need of some reprogramming, since he apparently seems to think handing him to the metaphorical wolves in Pepper-form is a sound decision.

The silence stretches, a heavy silence, full of unspoken hurt.

“You’re on a mission,” she finally says, her voice carefully even. He wishes she’d had least framed it as a question.

“You’re on a mission and you didn’t tell me.”

And to think he never used to feel guilty about anything. “Pepper, Peps, honey, I’m sorry, I know I should’ve called you, but I kinda forgot. I’d been cooped up for so long…I’m sorry.”

Another thing he never used to do. Apologize – there’re so many things Pepper, being with Pepper has taught him. Too bad it’s not helping him right now.

“This is the one thing, the one thing I asked of you and you ‘kinda forgot’?! I can put up with you risking your life on a weekly basis because I know how important it is to you, how much being Iron Man is part of you now, never mind that it makes me sick with worry every damn time, but you can’t even give this one little thing to me, so that I won’t have to find out about your death from the news without even having known you had been in danger?”

Her voice is still frighteningly devoid of any and all inflection, concerning him much more than any raised voice would have. He can deal with shouted accusations (does it on a nearly daily basis), even from Pepper, but this coldness tears at him, a physical manifestation of the hurt he’s caused her – again.

“Pepper –”

“No, Tony, I don’t want to hear it. Come home. We need to talk.”

The beep of a disconnected call fills his ears, somehow managing to sound accusing and disappointed all at once.

He stares sightlessly at the energy readout on the HUD, a far too familiar feeling of dread and self-loathing curling in his belly.

Before he has the time to get his act together completely JARVIS interrupts his thoughts. “Call from Director Fury, sir.”

He doesn’t bother to try to stifle the groan passing his lips. The absolute last thing he needs is to talk to Fury right now. On the other hand he knows the other man well enough to know that if he really wanted to talk to him he would.

“JARVIS, take the call,” he sighs.

“We need to debrief you at headquarters as soon as possible, Stark,” Fury’s permanently dour voice rings out.

“Hello to you too, Fury,” he bites back. “I really don’t know if my schedule permits that. This day is already rather packed, you know.”

“You managed to find the time to gallivant around the world and blow shit up without authorization, so you can damn well make time for a debriefing. Just get your ass over here, Stark. And no detours!”

“Hah! Since when do I need authorization?” he grumbles, but Fury has already hung up on him, the bastard.

He contemplates his choices. Either he can return to the tower to face a furious Pepper, or he can go to the damn debriefing and get yelled at for a really long time. It’s really not a particularly difficult decision to make.

*

The grey hallways of the SHIELD headquarters are mostly deserted, safe for the occasional scurrying agent, as Tony, still in the armor, makes his slow way towards Fury’s office – unfortunately he already knows the way a little too well. At least the small droplets of blood dripping through the small puncture whole in the crook of his elbow leave a satisfying trail on the far too pristine ground. When it comes to SHIELD Tony really doesn’t try to reign in his occasional pettiness anymore.

Besides, Fury’s face when he comes through the door in his armor sans helmet, a cut over his eyebrow and his arm still dripping blood is definitely worth it.

“Hey, Nick!” he says, putting as much false cheer in his voice as humanly possible. “How’s it going?”

Fury stares at him from behind his desk for what feels like a minute, in that creepy penetrating way he has which totally shouldn’t be possible with just one eye. “Stark,” he finally sighs, “care to explain what exactly you think you’re doing blowing shit up in the middle of nowhere and Colorado without informing SHIELD?”

“Oh, just taking care of some personal stuff,” Tony answers, his smile razor sharp. “None of SHIELD’s business.”

Fury raises a dark eyebrow. “You really think it’s none of our business when you start blowing up secret bases all over the world?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I do,” he returns easily, standing his ground. Tony Stark couldn’t waste his time being (openly) intimidated by the likes of the Director of SHIELD. “Besides, they can’t have been that secret since I found out about them, now can they?”

The ‘Don’t go all smart-ass on me, Stark’ remains unspoken, but not unregistered. Instead Fury leans forward, one eye fixed on him with even more intensity than usual. “You’re part of a team now, Stark. You don’t get to go running off alone anymore.”

“Oh really?” he asks, that biting smile resurfacing. “And where’s this precious team now? I haven’t seen any of my so called teammates for months, Fury. Not exactly encouraging team spirit.”

Fury just shrugs, unfazed. “We’re not keeping you caged up here, you aren’t even officially under SHIELD jurisdiction. Besides I unanimously decided that everyone deserved some downtime after the whole Loki disaster. That doesn’t mean you’re continuing your lone gun-slinger act, Stark. Do you think they would be happy if you got yourself killed while on a mission you didn’t deign to inform anyone of?”

“Why should they care?” he snaps, unconsciously moving into a slightly more defensive position. “I’m just the consultant who’s around for providing shiny toys and money. After all I’m unsuitable for any serious operation. What was it? Volatile, self-obsessed, and doesn’t play well with others?”

A short pause follows.

“I thought someone told you,” Fury finally says, as close to surprised as the man ever gets. “You’ve been officially instated as a member of the Avengers.”

Oh, and doesn’t that make him fucking angry. “So now it takes nearly dying while saving a whole city to meet the requirements?! Is that it? Because I can tell you now that that’s absolute bullshit and if you think that I’m going to just dance to your tune now you’re sadly mistaken.”

He leans forward slightly, eyes narrowed on Fury’s bland face. A face that’s already lied to him at least once, probably a lot more than that.

“I’m not stupid, and neither am I as gullible as Rogers, Director. I know there’s no way in hell Coulson had those trading cards in his jacket pocket. The man adored those things and keeping them on his person wouldn’t have been a particularly safe place to store them. Besides Coulson is,” he pauses for a split second, before recovering, “was above all professional. You know that.”

Tony absolutely hates the fact that Coulson’s memory was used like that, effective method or not. Yes, they needed a push, but in the end they would have fought anyway, without having to have the death of a friend – or close to it at least – thrown in their faces; especially not when it was just Rogers and him there.

Tony’s voice drops to a heated whisper. “Now, I don’t know why you’ve been pushing so hard for the Avengers Initiative, I don’t know what your game is, but believe me, I am going to find out at some point – and you better hope I like it.”

Fury sighs. “We need you, Stark, all of you. You think I like being so dependent on a team of superheroes? You’re our first, and depending on the threat, only line of defense. Ever since Thor appeared we’ve been facing foes normal agents just can’t handle.”

Tony nearly snorts at the thought of Fury classifying himself as normal. He narrows his eyes at the other man. Fury seems almost painfully sincere, something weary in his bearing that has no place in the usually alternatively stoic, pissed, or gloating man. Plus, he sounds like the words have cost him a lot to say; never let it be said that Nick Fury likes to be dependent on someone else, much less admit it.

“Fair enough,” Tony finally says, unable to keep his own weariness completely out of his voice, and maybe Fury notices, for he doesn’t push the issue. “Now, what did you want to debrief me about?”

“What do you know about AIM?” Fury asks, tone back to his normal no-nonsense professionalism.

 “The HYDRA splinter group?” He frowns. “Not much, they’re pretty much flying under the radar right now. I’m pretty sure I only know about it because I routinely hack your files.”

Fury glares at him at the reminder. All of SHIELD’s attempts to keep him out of their system had failed to date.

“The base you destroyed in Colorado was one of theirs. They’re planning something big, have been for at least a year.”

“What’re they after?”

Fury’s one eye twitches. “World domination.”

“Ah. The usual then.” No originality to be found with the criminal populace anymore these days. “What does that have to do with me? The base was deserted, yet sported a high standard defense system. Stands to reason it was a trap.”

Behind the desk Fury sighs, obviously restraining himself from inquiring why exactly Tony had thought it was a good idea to go ahead with his attack when he had known it was a trap.

“We don’t know,” he admits grudgingly. “Our intel on AIM is sparse. But you are an Avenger and the leading mind in new technology in addition to a former arms developer. That’s enough reason to either kill you, or kidnap you.”

Tony’s expression clouds over. He’s so not doing that again. Not a fucking chance.

Following his train of thought, Fury quietly says, “I’m just saying that it might be wise to be more careful from now on. Keep a watchful eye out.”

“Or two,” Tony smirks, but it doesn’t mask the weariness that descends on him again. The world can be a heavy burden to bear, and with a pissed Pepper waiting for him at home, he can scarcely find the energy to keep up his devil-may-care façade around Fury, who, in a rare show of tact, ignores his comment and just says, in a voice that comes surprisingly close to gentle, “Go clean yourself up, Stark, and stop bleeding all over my fucking floor.”

Tony automatically looks down at his arm, and realizes with some surprise that there’s still blood dripping from the gash in his armor. Huh. He might need to have JARVIS take a look at that later.

He’s nearly out the door when Fury’s voice rings out behind him. “Oh and Stark? If you ever call me Nick again I’ll tell Agent Romanoff that you called her a cute-ass chick that one time. And I won’t be held accountable for her actions. Are we clear?”

Tony beats a hasty retreat out the door. Fury he might fuck with, but that’s one threat he’s willing to take seriously.

*

Instead of immediately facing Pepper, Tony opts for landing in his workshop to clean himself up first (he’s definitely not stalling, nope, no stalling involved at all). He’s grateful for the armour-sized door that leads to his lab thought up in a stroke of brilliance one late night. The benefits of being able to slip in unnoticed, surprisingly, sometimes outweigh the flashy entrance of a roof-top platform.

He emerges a full half hour later, a shower and change of clothes having done nothing to soothe his apprehensions. Pepper is waiting for him in their living room, or what passes as one at least (your average living room doesn’t have a fully stocked minibar, a sofa big enough for at least ten people, and a huge plasma TV that might as well adorn a cinema), her mouth set in a thin line.

His heart sinks even more, if possible. He’s no fool, and he knows that look. Whatever she’s planning (not that he can’t guess, but right now he’s trying to contain the kind of blind panic that he so hates falling into) she’s fully determined to go through with it.

Her eyes narrow and when he follows her gaze to the bandage on his left elbow he promptly curses himself for his newest bout of monumental stupidity. He should’ve known better than to wear a wife beater when his arm is injured, that’s just tempting fate.

Gaze still fixed on the startlingly white bandage, Pepper says, “I can’t do this anymore.”

No amount of mental foresight could’ve prepared Tony for the icy feeling spreading through his veins that follows her words. He can’t even manage to feel appropriately grateful that she isn’t beating around the bush on the issue (not that Pepper ever does, but still).

Tony tries to fashion his face into something approximating a smile and fails horribly. “I understand, Pep,” he says hoarsely, trying to sound supportive and accepting and probably failing at that too. “I mean, it’s not as if no one saw this coming. Even I saw it coming and I’m usually the last to get that I’m doing something wrong. This was basically like the Titanic sinking.”

“Did you just compare our relationship to the Titanic?!” Pepper asks, a familiar mix of amusement, fondness, and incredulity creeping into her voice alongside the sadness.

“Yeah, well. If the Titanic had sank ahead of schedule that is. JARVIS, what was my initial calculation?”

“You estimated Ms. Potts would stay another two months and one week, sir,” JARVIS responds.

Tony frowns. “I think I failed to include ‘alien invasion’ as a variable, remind me to fix that later.”

“As you wish.”

Only then does he turn back to Pepper, unsurprised by the note of outrage on her face. He shrugs. “You try to make everything work, Peps. That’s just what you do.”

You had an estimated date when our relationship would end?!

“It was a pretty complicated algorithm actually –” he starts to say, but thinks better of it when her expression morphs from only dangerous territory into ‘run for the hills if you value your life’ territory. “Pepper, you know me, when have I ever managed not to fuck up a good thing in my life? Yeah right, never. Sooner or later something happens and everything takes the exit into shit-land. It’s not your fault, I just figured I might as well be prepared.”

And now Pepper’s looking at him with a horrible mix of pity and anger, and all he wants to do is get this over with so he can lock himself in his lab and avoid everyone for a year. Or years, preferably (who needs human interaction anyway?).

Pepper sighs, and he realizes that he’s probably looking a little wild around the eyes. “Tony, I will only say this once because if you don’t believe me now you won’t after a hundred repetitions either: this is not your fault. Sometimes two people just don’t work out together in the long run and I certainly don’t regret the time we shared together even if you do manage to drive me crazy at least once a day, so please stop blaming yourself, okay?”

He doesn’t believe her, and she knows that he doesn’t, but this is what they do, how they work, always trying to save the other from the train-wreck that’s their lives – well, mostly Tony’s life to be honest, but it has a nasty habit of taking over everyone else’s by sheer power of proximity.

For the first time during the entire conversation Tony meets her gaze squarely (and god, he’s going to miss this, miss her), and asks, “Will I have to search for a new CEO?”

And Pepper, bless that amazing woman, understands what he’s actually asking (what he can’t articulate into words), whether he would have to let her pass completely from his life and give up her friendship as well as her love because she’s still the person who knows him best in the world.

“No, Tony,” she tells him gently, only her rapidly blinking eyes giving away her inner turmoil, “you won’t. After all, you need someone to make sure you don’t accidentally kill yourself.”

She smiles then, a small, tremulous little twitch of the lips, a peace offering of sorts, and he does his best to smile back, even though his face doesn’t seem to be too keen on cooperating.

He only allows himself to fall apart when the door has firmly closed behind her and the last echo of her high heels striking the floor has faded down the hall.

***

It has been three months, seven days, and four hours since the man Steve Rogers now knows as Director Fury had turned his whole world upside down with a few simple words. Only one month after that he’d stopped the Chitauri invasion as part of a team of superheroes. Superheroes – just when he’d thought the future couldn’t get any stranger. Since then Steve’s spent his time painstakingly trying to catch up on the seventy years he missed, beating punching bags to a pulp, and sketching.

The former, he finds, is probably the work of a lifetime. He’s worked through the historical facts, from the end of World War II to the Cold War, to the Vietnam War, to the baby boomer generation, to the fight for equal rights. He’s been amazed, horrified, and unbelieving in turns, as he read through the advancement of the human race in the years he’s missed and all the new problems they’d faced and are facing now. Throughout his studies, his sense of displacement had only grown.  He’s missed so much, and while he can read about events, even watch some of the later ones on TV, Steve simply cannot imagine most of it in a way that would make it real. And how can he fit in a world that sometimes seems as alien to him as a different galaxy would? So far he’s avoided the cultural aspects of things, mostly because he doesn’t deem them as important and they’re mostly confusing anyway, if not outright consternating (he’d nearly destroyed the radio the first time he’d turned it on when a sound much like wailing cats with a fighter plane in the background had emerged – he hasn’t tried it again since then).

The punching bags…well, his energy has to go somewhere, and he has yet to find anyone who’s on his level and willing to spar with him.

Most days he finds his only solace from a world he doesn’t know anymore, which doesn’t know him anymore, in drawing, light pencil sketches, fleeting yet permanent. The first time he sets a pencil to paper after being defrosted, a feeling like home flowing through him, he doesn’t even realize that he’s drawing Peggy’s face until he’s halfway done. Steve freezes, staring at the soft angles of her face, his heart beating painfully. After that it’s as if a dam breaks loose. Each drawing brings forth faces and scenes from his past; Peggy, Bucky, Howard, Dum Dum, General Phillips, Brooklyn, and even scenes from the war, immortalizing his memories, which he’s so afraid the flow of time will dim and smudge.

Only one drawing is different. It shows all the Avengers, arranged in a semi-circle while fighting the Chitauri. He looks at it often, but avoids trying to read too much into it.

Sometimes Nick Fury drops by, usually unannounced (if he’s trying to prove a point, Steve still isn’t sure what exactly that point would be), but he never stays for long, and Steve gets the distinct sense that he’s simply checking up on him. He does sometimes bring information on his scattered team mates. For that at least, Steve finds himself grateful, even if he isn’t in direct contact with any of them.

Considering his routine, Steve’s surprise at the loud ringing interrupting the silence of his room is predictable, especially since it takes him a second to remember that that would be his ‘cell-phone’, as Director Fury had called it when he’d given it to him. As with every device he deems possibly helpful, he’d taken the time to learn how to use the gadget when presented with it, memories of much more inferior field equipment cluttering his thoughts. They drove him to master this piece of technology in case there ever is an emergency in which he might need it. He’s certainly no fool, and it would be more than foolish to ignore this new technology, even if it is mind-boggling in its complexity.

He presses the appropriate button, dimly wonders if there’s a protocol to this, and says, “Hello, Steve Rogers here.”

“Mr. Rogers, I hope I’m not interrupting anything. My name is Pepper Potts, I’m one of Tony Stark’s oldest friends,” a female voice, which he’s certain he hasn’t heard before (though that’s not much of a surprise these days) answers, and though her voice is pleasantly mellow, he thinks he hears underlying tension in her tone.

“What can I do for you, ma’am?” he asks politely, putting down his pencil.

“I’m worried about Tony,” she says (and somehow, Steve isn’t surprised that this is about him). “He’s refusing to talk to me or anyone else, which is historically not a good thing, and you’re the only one in the area I could get a hold of.”

Steve takes a moment to mull that over. He hasn’t seen the other man since the invasion and his feelings on the topic of Tony Stark are…complicated. Regret mingles with residue anger (though he isn’t entirely sure if he’s angry at Stark himself or more like what he stands for), newfound respect, and even admiration. It turns out that it’s really quite impossible not to end up being charmed by Tony, once one gets over his brash attitude – it’s entirely possible that the billionaire is an acquired taste (either that, or just one taste with a second left untried). Now, when he thinks back to the time they spent around each other, first at the Shawarma place, then sending Loki and Thor off to Asgard, and the one mission debriefing Director Fury had insisted on having, Steve can’t help but wish to make amends. Though Tony had still been loud and obnoxious during their third meeting, Steve had found himself watching him closely thus noticing signs of an entirely different man underneath. Steve can’t forget the short moment during the debriefing when their eyes had met; there’d been something lost in Tony’s dark gaze, and every single one of Steve’s instincts had suddenly screamed at him to somehow help the man. Maybe he has that chance now.

Steve also still owes him an apology.

“What do you need me to do?” he asks.

Her exhale is almost worryingly relieved. “Thank you, Mr. Rogers. I really am sorry to bother you with this. Could you go to Stark Tower and make sure that Tony hasn’t accidentally killed himself? That’s all I ask.”

“Yes, of course Ms. Potts. And it’s really no problem.” He hesitates. “I’ve been meaning to talk to Mr. Stark anyway.”

“Thank you again. Oh, and Captain Rogers?” she says, voice deceptively pleasant, “If you cause Tony pain again, I will have to hurt you.”

She reminds him very much of Peggy.

*

Stark Tower still, well, towers over its midtown Manhattan neighborhood, still as ugly as on Steve’s first sighting, but somehow also reassuring now – a constant in this ever-changing world.

The ground floor proves to be the same kind of modern and sleek, though a little mellower, probably on account of it being a Stark Industries space and not just a Tony Stark space. Smiling politely at the woman at the desk, Steve heads toward the private elevator to the side, as instructed.

He is really grateful that Ms. Potts had warned him about the scanner beforehand because he can’t say that living in SHIELD HQ has quite prepared him for the glowing lights that appear practically out of nowhere and disembodied voices saying, “Identity: Steven Rogers. Status: accepted,” before being able to enter an elevator. He would call it overkill, but then again, he’s seen aliens invading Manhattan, and nothing much stands up to that. Besides, Steve isn’t one to discount the idea of personal safety lightly.

Only then does he realize that he has no idea whatsoever which floor to look for Tony, which poses something of a problem in a building consisting of more than fifty of them.

It’s probably a good thing that the elevator starts moving before he’s had the chance to press any buttons. Probably. The idea of a near sentient house is a little bit off-putting, especially if it seems to magically know where one wants to go.

After a few minutes, the doors open again to a short, brightly lit hallway with a soft chime. Squaring his shoulders, Steve marches up to the glass door at the end, only to find it locked, a near-transparent number pad appearing in one corner.

“Um – ” he says, unsure how to proceed. And then jumps violently when the same disembodied (and British, he can’t help but note with some confusion) voice speaks again.

“Thank you for coming, Mr. Rogers. Mr. Stark is currently refusing to open the door. Based on similar cases it will take at least ten minutes to convince him otherwise, so I suggest you make yourself as comfortable as possible.”

“Thank you?” Steve ventures, after a momentary pause. “How did you know I was here to see Mr. Stark?”

“Ms. Potts has already informed me of your arrival, Mr. Rogers.”

“Ah.” That makes sense. She seems like a competent woman through and through. “And if I may ask, who are you exactly?”

“You may indeed. I am Mr. Stark’s artificial intelligence,” the voice responds, and Steve could swear he hears amusement in its inflection. “His butler, if you will. I’m called JARVIS.”

“Nice to meet you, JARVIS,” he says, ignoring the fact that he’s only marginally more informed now than he had been before. At least he has a name to put to the voice, even if it isn’t, in fact, human.

“Likewise, Mr. Rogers.”

Thankfully the door swings open before Steve can really start to feel awkward, leaning against the wall in a deserted hallway in a building he’s never before set foot in.

The workshop is dimly lit and cluttered with all sorts of tools and mechanical…things, one more outlandish-looking than the other, but Steve’s gaze is immediately drawn to the slumped form of one Tony Stark who is leaning against a curved desk full of computer screens in the middle of the room.

He looks very unlike the loud, brash Tony Stark he had first met on the Helicarrier; weary, beaten-down, even defeated, and Steve may not know him very well, but it still strikes him as intrinsically wrong to see such a striking man brought low with an aura of misery all around him.

He clears his throat awkwardly. “Mr. Stark?”

Tony doesn’t even turn around, his gaze steadily fixed on the monitor in front of him as his fingers fly over the keyboard. “Rogers. What’re you doing here? Fury need us to save his ass from some invasion again?”

“I thought I told you to call me Steve,” Steve returns. “And no, there’s no mission.”

“Yet you still call me Mr. Stark.” Tony finally turns to face him, dark, tired eyes meeting his. “Which is a total no-go by the way; makes me feel old.”

His tone is a little too flippant, suggesting that there’s more to the issue, but Steve is wise enough not to push it.

After a moment of silence Stark, no, Tony, sighs. “Pepper sent you, didn’t she?”

Steve doesn’t even consider lying. “Yes. She’s worried about you.”

Tony snorts. “Hah! Nice irony she’s going on there!”

“What?” Steve asks with a frown. Tony isn’t making much sense, and while that seems to be the default setting with him, this seems more so than usual.

Tony stares at him, blinks, and stares some more. “She didn’t tell you? She didn’t tell you why she sent you here in the first place?”

“I assume she figured it isn’t any of my business,” Steve tells him calmly, raising an eyebrow, and pretending not to have heard the way Tony’s voice had slid into slight hysteria at the end.

For a moment it looks like Tony is going to explode into action, but then he just slumps on his workbench even more, mumbling, “Shit, shit, shit what am I doing? I’m not nearly drunk enough for this, why am I not drunk? JARVIS where’s the booze? I could swear there was a bottle of scotch around here somewhere.”

“Your instructions specifically stated to keep you away from all alcoholic beverages, as quote ‘I don’t deserve to get drunk right now’ end quote,” the AI responds dryly, much to Steve’s relief. He doesn’t deal well with drunk people – never has.

Tony, however, winces.

Before he can stop himself, completely blindsided by his sudden urge to protect and comfort the other man, Steve has reached out to him, gently touching his arm. He feels Tony’s entire body stiffen in reaction, his tired eyes going wide.

Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. He might not really know the man, but everyone deserves comfort.

Keeping his motions deliberately slow, since Tony looks like he’s caught between frozen shock and bolting, Steve edges closer until he sits on the bench next to Tony and gently draws the other man into a sideways hug until he’s leaning against his chest. He can feel the tension thrumming under Tony’s skin and for a moment he’s torn between worry that his actions were too forward and sadness that Tony seems completely unaccustomed to the simple kindness of an embrace. Then Tony goes limp against him, melting into the support Steve’s offering, a stifled noise of distress escaping his mouth.

“Shh,” Steve says, now that Tony’s given in, painfully aware that he isn’t exactly well-versed in the art of comforting someone. “It’s alright. Everything’s okay.”

Tony laughs hoarsely. It would’ve been more reassuring if there’d been any trace of humor in it. “No, Steve, it’s really not.”

Steve has the definite suspicion that if Tony wasn’t in such a vulnerable state, due to both obvious tiredness and emotional upheaval, he would never be telling him this. Would, in fact, never allow him to come so close.

“Pepper is gone. She left me,” Tony continues, voice suddenly smaller, and when Steve looks at his face he seems both younger and far too old for his years. “Why do you think she isn’t here herself, kicking my ass into tomorrow to get me to eat and sleep?”

Steve’s heart falls. “Pepper is your dame?” he asks quietly.

Was,” Tony whispers, his voice choking on the word.  All defenses down, he slumps farther into Steve’s chest. “Everyone leaves at some point.”

Steve suddenly notices that his hand has unconsciously been rubbing soothing circles on the parts of Tony’s back which aren’t mashed into him, and now that he has he can’t think of a reason to stop. Tony certainly doesn’t seem to mind, though that might just be the fact that he’s so buried in his misery that he doesn’t even notice.

They stay like this for a while, just the rhythmic movements of his hands and Tony’s breaths, and Steve nearly jumps when the other rasps, “Talk to me.”

“What about?” he asks, confused.

“I don’t care, just talk. Please.”

So Steve does. He talks about his life before the war, growing up with Bucky, the Brooklyn of old. He tells him of his repeated failures to enlist and his first meeting with Doctor Erskine. He talks, and through it all Tony doesn’t say a word, just listens, doesn’t judge. It’s the first time, Steve realizes, that he’s voluntarily told someone about himself, about the part of his past that isn’t connected to the war effort. No one else had asked him.

He talks until Tony’s eyes droop lower and lower and they finally drift shut completely, his head coming to rest on Steve’s shoulder, his dark mop of hair a stark contrast to his pristine white button down.

Gently, as to not wake him from his much needed slumber, Steve straightens with the slighter man securely cradled in his arms.

“JARVIS,” he whispers, for no one can claim that he’s a slow learner, “could you direct me to Tony’s bedroom, please?”

“It would be my pleasure, Mr. Rogers,” the AI responds, volume lowered. Using the private elevator, it doesn’t take long to reach Tony’s room.

Steve carefully lowers Tony onto his bed, ignoring the slight pang at the loss of the other’s warmth, the soothing feeling of another’s heart beating under his hands. He very much doubts that Tony would appreciate the thought. He turns to go, but hasn’t even reached the door before halting, casting a look at the peacefully sleeping man. Tony’s face and his graceful lines look relaxed in his slumber, even more so in the warm afternoon light that streams through the wide window. It’s a stark contrast to the active, bordering on manic man on the Helicarrier, who had always been in motion. For a moment Steve wishes he had his sketchbook and a pencil with him, then winces at his own breach of privacy.

But he does take off Tony’s shoes and tucks him under the sheet before quietly leaving.

***

When Tony wakes up, he feels suspiciously comfortable and warm.  It takes him an embarrassingly long time – then again, he freely admits that mornings aren’t his forte if he actually slept – to realize that he’s lying in his bed. Huh. He doesn’t remember leaving the workshop.

He spends a few minutes trying to reconstruct the last evening? afternoon? until it clicks.

Oh no. Oh hell no.

And apparently he said that out loud because JARVIS starts talking, sounding obnoxiously cheerful. “Good morning, sir. You slept for seventeen hours, it’s eleven AM, the weather is cloudy, and you have no pressing engagements today.”

Either his AI just completely missed the point, or he’s doing this on purpose.

“JARVIS,” he starts, a slowly dawning feeling of horror in his gut, “how did I get into bed yesterday?”

“I do believe Mr. Rogers carried you, sir.”

The AI even has the nerve to sound smug about it. Tony wants to bury his face in a pillow and never resurface. Or possibly die, that option is always open. There’s no way he’s going to live through Steve Rogers having carried him to bed like some blushing damsel (only more asleep). The man doesn’t even like him, for fuck’s sake!

Of course his traitorous brain choses exactly this moment to recall that it hadn’t seemed that way in the workshop yesterday. Actually he vaguely remembers Steve being nice, and, good grief, holding him and comforting him.

Yeah, back to the dying.

“Where is Steve now?” Tony asks, torn between desperately hoping that he’s left so that he doesn’t have to deal with this, and kinda sorta wishing that he hasn’t. Because he still remembers the way it felt to be cuddled against Captain America, and it’s definitely not a bad feeling. He hasn’t felt entirely safe outside the armor in a long time. Ugh. He also needs to get a grip on himself. Whatever Steve was thinking yesterday, it probably wouldn’t happen again anyway, and Tony Stark is not dependent on anyone else ever because that never ends well. Pepper is just the latest case in point.

“Mr. Rogers is currently in the kitchen, sir. It appears he’s preparing pancakes.”

“Pancakes,” Tony repeats blankly. “We have pancake ingredients?”

“No, we hadn’t before. Mr. Rogers left the tower around seven thirty this morning and returned with the necessary ingredients for pancakes and other edibles besides. He maintains that no kitchen should be so empty, especially when it is such a nice one.”

Tony thinks about that for a moment, but his brain refuses to go past the whole ‘Steve went and bought groceries’ domestic type stuff, so he gives up in favor of actually dragging himself out of bed and taking a shower. He needs coffee, coffee is in the kitchen (damn Pepper for vetoing his idea of coffee machines in every room, including his bedroom, when designing the tower), and there’s no way in hell he’s facing Steve Rogers in his rumpled, dirty clothing with bedhead.

It’s around that point in time when he notices that – good god – Steve had even removed his shoes before tucking him in. No, the thought doesn’t make him feel traitorously warm and fuzzy at all, nope, what are you talking about.

When Tony enters the kitchen a good twenty minutes later, Steve is indeed standing at the stove and he can’t do anything but stop, stare, and blink because Steve’s wearing an apron and there’re just all sorts of things wrong with that. Even if it’s a nice, blue one.

And because he’s Tony Stark and his brain to mouth filter is shit, he blurts out the first thing that comes to mind. “Where’d the apron come from?”

Well. At least it isn’t as awkward as a ‘Hey, Captain America is in my kitchen, there’s something wrong with the world’ would’ve been.

“Good morning to you too, Tony,” Steve says, shooting him a smile. “I found it in one of the drawers.” He pauses, then nods to the countertop. “There was a note attached.”

Tony’s snatched the note up before he can stop himself. It reads, in a gut-wrenchingly familiar elegant script:

In case you ever, however unlikely, stray into the kitchen for more than just coffee.

PS: There’s no red and gold for a reason, Tony!

Tony swallows past the sudden painful lump in his throat. The note is so Pepper, it physically hurts. There’s a list of reasons why he spent the days since her departure hiding in his lab, and that it’s the most Pepper-free environment in the tower is pretty much at its top. He doesn’t need – doesn’t want – to deal with all the little reminders of what she meant, and still means, to him, what a big hole she’s left in his life.

When he looks up, eyes sandpaper-dry, Steve’s watching him with concerned eyes. Which, coupled with what he remembers from the day before, is really quite confusing, seeing as the man isn’t even supposed to like him.

“You all right, Tony?” Steve asks gently.

He paints on a smile, as fake as they get. “Sure, Cap, I’m just peachy. Everything’s fine.”

Steve doesn’t look convinced – Tony’s little breakdown the day before probably doesn’t help with that, damn his sleep-deprived mind – but lets the matter drop in favor of mixed incredulity and amusement. “Cap?”

“Well, unless you prefer Capsicle? I can totally go back to that, no problemo ,really,” Tony smirks, trying (and failing) not to be too grateful for the change of topic.

Steve is openly smiling now, and Tony can’t remember the last time someone has been amused by him rather than annoyed for more than a few minutes. “No, Cap is fine. Though you could always just call me Steve.”

“But that’s boring,” Tony whines. “And speaking of boring, why’re you in my kitchen making pancakes?”

“Because I was hungry,” Steve answers carelessly, totally missing the point. Tony isn’t sure whether he does it on purpose or not. JARVIS and Steve could form a club. Or not – the notion is vaguely terrifying. “Besides you looked like you needed some food in you.”

Which is probably his polite way of saying that Tony looks like he might fall over from malnourishment if he keeps only consuming liquids, which in turn reminds him of his original goal: coffee.

Tony ambles over to the coffee machine to start a batch, all the while watching Steve working at the stove. He looks more than slightly ridiculous in his white button down shirt, khaki slacks, and navy blue apron and suddenly Tony has to fight the insane urge to laugh. It’s all so frightfully domestic that a younger Tony Stark would probably already have turned tail and run.

He is, however, the older Tony Stark with issues, so he says, “You should come live here,” before his brain can fully inform his mouth what an absolutely horrific idea that is.

One look at Steve, whose face is frozen in shock, has him babbling. “Or you could, you know, not do that and forget that I ever said anything. I have poor impulse control, it’s a problem, and it’s in the morning too and I haven’t had coffee yet, so you should probably ignore anything that comes out of my mouth anyways. Jesus, I’m babbling again, I do that when I’m nervous” – oh shit, he did not just say that, where’s his coffee? – “and could you please shut me up? That would be – ”

“Sure,” Steve says, as if it’s nothing in the world, stopping Tony cold. “When should I move in?”

Wait, what? Tony’s pretty sure his eyes are bugging out of his head as he stares at the other man, trying to decide whether his hearing’s gone funky, Steve has gone completely nuts, or he’s in some kind of alternate reality. “But…but you don’t even like me!”

And now is really not the time to notice that a tiny crease – which is actually kind of cute – forms on Steve’s forehead when he frowns

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, actually.” Steve’s voice is serious. Like serious serious. “I’m sorry about what I said on the Helicarrier. I was wrong, I judged you before I even knew you.”

Tony makes no effort to disguise his disbelieving snort. “If I remember correctly, I gave as good as I got, and if you want me to formally apologize for that, well, let’s just say that it might take some time. Me and apologies, we don’t mix well, really. I’m sure you’ve already noticed. Also, I know that we’re doing this whole team thing, but believe me, you don’t need to apologize to me because of that. I’m perfectly capable of working with people without them singing my praises from the rooftops, whatever Fury might’ve told you. Actually Fury is a pretty good example of that.”

“But, Tony, that’s not it all,” Steve says, frustration having joined his consternation – oh look, that crease actually deepens, too – “I’m not apologizing because I think I need to. Well, that too, but mainly I’m doing it because I mean it. You’re nothing like the man I described then, no matter how much you make the public believe otherwise. You’re a good man, Tony.”

Tony just stares at him, searching those impossibly blue eyes for a hint of untruth. What is it with people saying that lately, when it’s so blatantly wrong?

Steve meets his gaze, holding it firmly, and adds quietly, “Even though you can’t see that yourself. I would like to start over.”

There’s a sudden tightness in his chest that has nothing to do with his arc reactor, and when he nods, if a little jerkily, such a bright, warm smile breaks out on Steve’s face, that he forgets all his worries and troubles for a blissful moment. Jesus, that grin should be classified as a weapon.

“So, how about those pancakes?” Steve asks, still smiling slightly, waving around his spatula for emphasis. This time Tony doesn’t try to contain his laugh at the ridiculous image.

“Sure,” he gets out between hiccups. “Do you have chocolate chip?”

Steve immediately points to a plate piled with at least five pancakes, even though he looks slightly askance at Tony’s laughing fit.

“And eat all of them,” he warns, mock-stern. It suddenly dawns on Tony that he might possibly just have invited his new nanny to live in his tower – well, if nannies usually were six foot two, cute supersoldiers, that is.

“What are you, my mother?” Tony asks, rolling his eyes, though it comes out garbled around a mouth full of delicious pancakes. His next sound is an entirely unabashed moan. “These are awesome, Cap. You’re like a pancake god.”

Steve doesn’t blush per say, but the tips of his ears do turn a little red. “Thank you, Tony. I asked JARVIS what you’d like.”

Tony whistles. “Two months ago you barely knew what a cell phone was and now you’re shacking up with my AI? Way to go, Rogers.”

“JARVIS is really nice.” Steve shrugs. “And quite helpful.”

“Thank you, Mr. Rogers. As the saying goes, I aim to please.”

If possible, JARIVS sounds even more smug than usual at the praise. Huh. Steve’s been here no more than a day and already his AI likes Steve more than him. Munching on his pancakes contentedly, watching Steve as he finally abandons the stove to sit opposite him to starts eating a ridiculous amount of breakfast himself, Tony can’t say that he minds it too much.

Later, when he shows Steve the floor he furnished for him, Steve is surprisingly appreciative and honestly seems to like it.

(Except for the little event in which:

“Are those Captain America bed sheets?!”

“Well, it was either that or the Hulk ones, and I figured this would be less awkward.”

“…This is plenty awkward, Tony.”)

Tony hardly manages to contain his self-pride. He also makes a mental note to thank Pepper for the art studio idea at some point.

*

Of course it doesn’t stay that way. Only five hours later they’re facing off in the kitchen shouting at each other. To be entirely honest, Tony isn’t quite sure how they got to this point (he hadn’t thought his comment about the dishwasher had been that offensive), but since Steve is currently yelling something about advanced technology not being a stand-in for doing at least some work yourself, he’s starting to believe that maybe Steve’s issues don’t only stem from Tony but from the fact that it isn’t the 1940s anymore as well. And he just happens to corroborate the problem by being his usual asshole self.

So instead of dragging it out and making things worse through some ill-timed comment or other, he retreats to the workshop in mid-salvo, which also just happens to be his usual coping strategy anyway.

It also means that he spends the rest of the day worried that Steve will take the opportunity to get the hell out of a dodge and leave the tower without coming back.

When Tony shuffles upstairs to the kitchen in the middle of the night on a sorely needed coffee run – if ever there were people claiming that scientists don’t run on caffeine they would be lying – he finds out two things. The first is that Steve apparently keeps equally ridiculous hours, though presumably for different reasons. The second is that he apparently isn’t always reasonable, as evidenced by the fact that he’s still there.

Tony stares at him in the dim light and says intelligently, “Uh.”

Steve sighs. Or at least Tony thinks it’s a sigh.

“I’m sorry, Tony. I shouldn’t have gone off on you like that,” he says, sounding so honestly contrite that he might as well be wearing a golden halo.

“Why are you apologizing? Whenever there’s an argument it’s about 99 percent guaranteed that it’s my fault.”

Steve gives him a reproachful look. “I don’t think that’s true. Besides it does take two people to argue.”

“Okaaay,” Tony mumbles, “but that doesn’t explain why you’re still here.”

And now Steve just looks stricken – way to put your foot in your mouth, Tony.

“You… don’t want to me to be here?”

“No, no, no, no, that’s not it at all,” Tony reassures him hastily, “I just thought, well, I thought you’d leave after this perfect demonstration of what living in the same building as me is going to entail on the average day.”

For a moment there’s only silence, then Steve says, “Oh.” He smiles. “Do you really think I give up that easily?”

Tony grins back, feeling stupidly relieved. Both that Steve is apparently insane and staying, and that he went for humor instead of emotional drama.

“Is that a challenge, Steve?”

*

After that, it takes Tony completely by surprise, this, their new positions, the way it actually works well, Steve and him. The ease, with which they adjust to living with each other. Together, they form a routine. Steve gets up at some unholy hour in the morning, takes a run and a shower after, and then eats breakfast. He then comes up to Tony’s floor to wait for him to either emerge from the lab – which usually earns him at least a reproving glance – or stumble out of bed if he actually made it there the night before. Steve always, without fail, has a pot of coffee waiting for him, still warm. Then Tony vanishes into his lab, or to some SI-related function, until Steve comes to find him with lunch, claiming that Tony would forget if he didn’t (he would).  In the afternoon Steve works out some more and draws, Tony tinkers and lets himself be dragged upstairs for dinner – his meals have become disgustingly regular. Sometimes he joins Steve in the gym and allows himself be thrown around for a bit, just to keep up pretenses (he doesn’t even notice his body slowly hardening, the muscles their bouts add), sometimes they watch movies in the evening, companionable on the couch.

Sometimes, though rarely, they talk shop. Steve isn’t much more informed than Tony, but Fury does occasionally tell him stuff. Natasha and Barton are apparently busy with SHIELD business, and there was a little bit of an uproar when they lost Bruce’s trail somewhere around Newfoundland. Thor’s still in Asgard, so there’s no way to keep tabs on him. There’s no information about AIM being divulged at all, which routinely makes Tony uneasy, but Steve always makes sure to distract Tony when he’s brooding, usually with a movie night.

It’s… comfortable, and that’s not a word Tony uses lightly. He pretends not to notice the way Steve starts to smile more and more, the way his constant tension drains away a little more day by day until he even manages to fully relax, sometimes, the way his grief at a lost past never goes away, yet lightens with time, the shadows in his eyes becoming less pronounced, but it makes Tony oddly gratified to see it nevertheless.

The void Pepper’s departure had left in his life and in his heart doesn’t disappear overnight, but it, too, is soothed by time.

And when Tony comes stumbling into the kitchen or the living room in the middle of the night, awoken by the nightmares that still plague his sleep far too often, oftentimes Steve is there, calming and not judging.

Sure, he still frustrates Steve a lot with his snarky comments, and devil-may-care attitude, but he tries, and it seems like Steve can respect that.

Three weeks after Steve had moved in with his one little box of belongings (seriously, one, what is wrong with SHIELD? They uncover a national icon and don’t even give him enough stuff to fill more than one box? Except for his uniform and the shield that is, but that hardly counts as belongings. Naturally, Tony had set out to remedy that situation immediately after, much to Steve’s chagrin), their new status quo gets interrupted.

Tony has just exited the shower when the call from Pepper comes. For a moment his brain is caught in an entirely irrational fight or flight instinct, before he forces himself to calm down. He’s faced down terrorists, aliens, and his own death – he can deal with this.

“Hey, Peps. Isn’t it a little early in the morning to be calling?” he says, keeping his voice intentionally light.

“Well, I figured you’d just be out of the shower and that’s when you’re the most relaxed without being distracted by some gadget or other,” she returns, chuckling lightly.

“Sneaky, Potts. I like it. So what’s up?”

“Can’t I call to find out how you are? Besides you know all the juicy gossip about the resident supersoldier now. Captain America sheets, Tony? Really?”

There’s a smile in her voice, and Tony finds himself relaxing without thought.

“Sometimes I really wonder how you get your information,” he grumbles. “I’m sure JARVIS would tell me if you kept pestering him. Or else I’d have to have words with him.”

“Leave poor JARVIS alone, Tony, he just gives me the general updates on your health, nothing more.”

His eyes narrow. “But that means… no, Steve isn’t still talking to you, is he?”

She has the gall to laugh at his indignation. “The more people managing you the better. Besides he’s a really sweet man, unlike some people I know.”

“Conspirators,” Tony mumbles under his breath, not even bothering to be insulted by her barb. After all, Steve really is kind of sweet, can’t argue with that.

“Which brings me back to my first question; how are you, Tony?” Pepper asks, voice serious once more.

He shrugs, despite the fact that she can’t see him do it. “I’m fine. I’m having regular ‘Had a nightmare? That sucks’ parties in the middle of the night now. You should join in sometime.”

She sighs, knowing that he’s well aware that that wasn’t really her question, but lets it slide, a testament to the fact that things between them aren’t quite back to normal yet. “Though you do occasionally give me nightmares, Tony, I don’t think I qualify for that club. I’m assuming Steve has them too?”

“Yes, well, if anyone has a cause to have nightmares it’s him. If it was anyone but Steve who’d just woken up after being frozen in ice for seventy years since World War two, they’d probably have him locked away with psychiatrists for months. It’s a miracle he’s adapted as well as he has, really.”

Tony barely tops himself from saying more. It really wouldn’t do to alert her to how much time he spent thinking about Steve and Steve-related issues lately.

“Anyway, now that you’re all caught up, what is the real reason you called?”

It’s not the most subtle distraction from a certain topic he’s ever provided, but apparently it suffices.

“I don’t know why it’s so hard for you to accept that I worry about you, Tony,” Pepper replies. “Though there is one thing I have to talk to you about – ”

“I knew it!”

She ignores him. “The annual Stark Gala for the World’s Exceptional Minds is next Saturday, as I’m sure you remember. You, need to be there. No excuses.”

“Jesus, please tell me I wasn’t the one who came up with that title,” Tony grumbles with a wince. He had, in fact, managed to forget about the event till now.

“You did,” Pepper informs him, very matter of fact (cruel woman that she can be), “I believe it was eleven years ago and you were very drunk. And don’t try to distract me. You are coming, if I have anything to say about it – which I do. It’s one of the few events that you, as major shareholder and former CEO absolutely have to attend…. besides everyone calls it Stark Gala anyway.”

Tony groans, resisting the urge to bang his head into the mirror in front of him. “Right, got it Pepper. Now will you please let me get my coffee?”

“I’ll have JARVIS remind you. And wear something nice!”

Before he can work out an appropriately stinging remark to that blasphemy – as if he ever wore anything that wasn’t nice – she hangs up on him. Pepper definitely knows him too well.

Sighing, Tony allows himself to rest his head against the pleasantly cool mirror. The annual Stark Gala. Dammit.

By the time he enters the kitchen, his bad mood has by no means evaporated.

Steve looks up from his morning newspaper (having resisted every one of Tony’s numerous attempts at getting him to read the digital equivalent) at his entrance, opening his mouth to deliver a cheerful good morning, and immediately stops at the sight of Tony, a worried crease forming on his forehead.

“Tony? What’s wrong?”

Having glimpsed the words ‘Stark’ and ‘Gala’ on the cover, Tony takes the newspaper from Steve’s hands and taps his finger on the front article in lieu of an answer.

The Eleventh Annual Stark Gala!’ the headline proclaims. ‘Who’s hot and who’s there?’

And a little further down, ‘Tony Stark – still dateless?’

Steve skims the article, mouth pinched a little in automatic distaste, then asks, sounding slightly confused, “Okay, and what’s the problem here?”

“The problem,” Tony begins dramatically, waving his arms around a little for emphasis, “is that I’ve got to go, or Pepper will have my head. More literally than you’ll ever want to imagine.”

Steve’s confusion doesn’t seem to have abated. If Tony were less annoyed at recent developments he probably would’ve found it cute.

“… And?”

Tony sighs. “And, I need to have a date. Which I don’t, seeing as Pepper is... unavailable now.”

“Why do you have to have a date?” Steve asks.

“One, because I’m Tony Stark. And two, because that’s how these things work. No one shows up alone. Doesn’t mean you can’t ditch your partner later on, but for the entrance? No way. That’s just the way things are. And don’t even try to tell me to mix things up a little – this is high society, comprised of the most stuck-up traditionalists imaginable.” Tony has to grimace just thinking about it. Right now he has a hard time remembering why he used to like going to these events. Well, actually he doesn’t, but he’d rather not regardless. “And while I don’t give a fuck about their opinions, the stock price and investors unfortunately do.”

 Steve looks thoughtful. “I could come with you,” he offers, smiling tentatively.

Tony stares at him, wondering not for the first time while around Steve if he should have his hearing checked. “What?”

“I could come with you,” Steve repeats, more uncertainly now, “if that’s alright. I’m obviously not female, but –”

“That’s not the problem,” Tony interrupts him hastily, “and don’t think I don’t value your offer, but it’s still really not a good idea.”

“Why?”

Jesus fucking Christ, Steve could probably not be any more naïve if he tried. “Why? Because everyone will assume we’re dating, that’s why. Or at least having wild, mind-blowing sex, but with you I assume that would amount to the same thing.”

Steve, bless his heart, only looks rebellious. “I can deal with that. The people who matter would know that we’re not actually, um, doing that.”

“Steve, you’ve never dealt with the modern media,” Tony says gently. “This would put you right into the spotlight and people will exploit that. Privacy is a myth where reporters and paparazzi are concerned. I’m not going to throw you under the bus just to avoid some discomfort.”

The change is subtle, but where there’d only been plain Steve sitting at the table a moment ago, now there’s a hint of the soldier in the set of his shoulders and the stubborn glint in his eye. “And maybe I’d feel better if there was someone there to watch your back, Tony.”

“I’ve been doing this practically since I’ve been out of diapers, Steve. I’ll be fine.”

“I’m coming,” Steve says, refusing to back down and entirely unconvinced by his assurance. “I’ll have to deal with the media sooner or later once Avenger business starts up again.”

Point. Tony looks at him for a long moment, brows furrowing in thought. There are some obvious upsides to the whole idea. For one he actually does enjoy Steve’s company – not something he can say of most of his usual dates, save for Pepper. For another, he had been wanting to get Steve into a suit for some pretense or other.

“Fine. But don’t tell me I didn’t warn you,” Tony says, all business as he continues, “Let’s go get you a suit fitted. Or two or three.”

Steve’s smug face at Tony’s capitulation immediately morphs into alarm. “What?”

Tony’s smirk is nothing short of evil. “A suit Steve. Or maybe a tuxedo. You didn’t think you could just show up to the Stark Gala in street clothing, did you?”

*

Saturday evening, sitting in the back of a limo with Steve, Tony has to admit that maybe he hadn’t thought this through entirely.

Steve, as it turns out, looks absolutely scorching hot in a black and white tux – the kind of scorching that makes Tony have completely irrational urges, like wanting to get his hands all over Steve’s body. Which, yeah, really wouldn’t fly. Steve is pretty much everything that is good and kind in this world –he’s coming to a party he would normally avoid like the plague to spare Tony some discomfort, for heaven’s sake! – and not the kind of person Tony can just jump and have surprise sex with. The last thing Tony wants to do is drive him away.

Unfortunately, there’s only a space of about three feet between them (three point one five, his treacherous mind immediately supplies). This is probably the first time in recorded Stark history that Tony whishes the limo’s back seats to be bigger, not nicely scrunched together. Look at that, miracles do happen.

Ignoring certain things just got a hell of a lot harder.

Also, Steve’s constant fidgeting with his tie is more than slightly distracting.

After ten minutes Tony breaks. “Okay, come here and let me fix your tie.”

Without waiting for Steve’s agreement, Tony leans over and deftly unknots the tie. He keeps his gaze fixed on the silky piece of cloth as he loops it around Steve’s neck again and ties a perfect Windsor knot. Retreating to his part of the seat, he looks at Steve critically, desperately ignoring the slight flush on the other’s cheeks. It’s there for the wrong reasons anyway. “There, that should do. Try not to mess it up again.”

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve says, still looking a little embarrassed. “Why aren’t you wearing a tie? Isn’t that the usual apparel?”

“Because, my young Padawan,” Tony waggles his brows, “bowties are cool.”

In retrospect, he probably should’ve remembered that Steve wouldn’t get either of those references.

Two minutes later, Steve starts fidgeting with his suit cuffs.

“Steve, could you try and relax a bit?” Tony asks, keeping his voice light. “If you arrive at the party looking like you really don’t want to be there… well, people will assume that you don’t want to be there. Which is not hot, I’m telling you.”

“Why?” Steve asks, sound slightly strained.

Tony puts on his best winning smile. “Because you’re coming with me, obviously.”

Steve sends him an amused smile and Tony congratulates himself on a comment well placed. Some of the panic has left his friend’s features.

“You’re impossible,” Steve says fondly.

Tony grins. “Yep. Impossible, that’s me. Now, are you ready to face the music?”

***

When they enter the ballroom, Steve breathes a quiet sigh of relief. Of course he hadn’t thought Tony had lied when he described the horror that was the press at such galas, but experiencing the real deal had been nothing short of nerve wrecking. He’d thought the press had been bad seventy years ago, but in comparison to these people they appear all but tame – they certainly didn’t use to shout as much.

He sticks to Tony’s side religiously, very well aware that if he lost the other man he would be completely lost and even more out of his element. Steve smiles and shakes hands when he’s introduced, and tries to avoid most conversation, despite a lot of people’s rather disturbing interest in his persona. Thankfully Tony seems to notice when he’s starting to feel especially uncomfortable, for he always skillfully steers the conversation away from the topic of Captain America and reclaims everyone’s attention. Steve resolves to do something really nice for the other man soon – or at least as soon as he thinks of something a billionaire might appreciate, which, come to think of it, might not be that soon. It’s hard to believe that just a few weeks ago he’d thought that Tony was at best a jerk, at worst a bully. It’s not until Steve is able to peek below the layers Tony slaps on for the public that he realizes with shame how wrong he was in those early days.

Now, watching Tony move in and out of groups smoothly, always with a witty comment on his lips, looking as if he’s completely comfortable and relaxed whilst schmoozing with everyone and everything, Steve can’t help but wish he’d been around Tony for longer. The other man is unduly fascinating to watch – and quite easy on the eyes as well, but Steve isn’t going to go there even mentally, even if it’s hard to ignore with the way Tony’s strutting around, looking ridiculously handsome. He hurriedly aborts that train of thought. Steve’s more than glad to have a friend right now, and Tony probably isn’t interested anyway. It would be pushing his luck, really.

Steve’s so absorbed in his thoughts that he jumps when Tony suddenly materializes next to his elbow.

“Oh look, there’s Pepper,” Tony says, his face a peculiar mix of barely hidden sadness and honest happiness at seeing her. “You’ve met her, right?”

Steve nods that he has, but allows himself to be dragged over to her corner anyway. Pepper looks radiant in a low cut white dress, with a matching necklace and earrings.

They’ve just managed to get through the usual pleasantries when Steve turns to Tony only to find him gone. His face must’ve portrayed his disappointment and slight horror well enough, for Pepper says, “For once this isn’t Tony’s fault. It’s the Stark Gala. Everyone wants a piece of him.”

“He’s really good at,” Steve waves his arm to encompass the whole room, “all this.”

“Tony’s been doing this for a long time, Steve. He even used to like it once, but nowadays you have to practically drag him to these things.” At Steve’s questioning look she adds, “Becoming Iron Man changed him. His priorities shifted from booze and sex to… other things.”

He smiles at her. “I don’t think you lost priority for him though. He misses you, you know.”

Her answering smile has that same little edge of grief Tony’s so often does. “I’ll try to be around more now that things have calmed a little. Thank you for helping to look out for him.”

“It’s no problem,” he tells her sincerely, shaking his head. “Tony isn’t really like I thought he would be.”

She snorts. “I’m not surprised. Anyway I – ”

Someone waves at her from across the room. Pepper sighs again. “I’m sorry, Steve, I need to go. Unfortunately this is practically like work for me, only disguised as a party.”

He only brings out an embarrassingly plaintive “Sure” before she’s gone.

Within minutes a small crowd has converged on him, some standing far too close for comfort, and all asking a slew of questions Steve would rather not answer

For one irrational moment he wishes he had his shield with him.

“Hey, gents. Sorry to break this little party up, but I need to borrow Mr. Rogers for a moment.”

Trying – and probably failing – not to show his crushing relief at the sound of Tony’s words, Steve turns and quickly follows him away from his group of admirers.

“Thanks, Tony.”

“No problem, Cap,” Tony says cheerfully. “They looked like they were about to eat you alive.”

Steve shudders at the thought. “I don’t know how you can stand doing this regularly.”

“Lots and lots of willpower” is Tony’s surprisingly grim answer. “How about we get out of – ”

The ballroom’s closest wall shatters inwards in a shower of debris and dust. Steve reflexively raises his arm – before realizing that his shield isn’t on it. The second hesitation is all it takes to cost him the chance to act. Stone and plaster rain down on him with enough bruising force to send him to his knees despite his super-strength, which means that for the normal human – oh god, Tony. As soon as he’s capable, when only dust is still swirling in the air, he’s moving towards the dark shape of a man, half-buried beneath small pieces of rubble, all his senses screaming protect.

“Tony!” he calls frantically, dragging away bits of plaster and rocks.

A low groan sounds from the vicinity of his head and Steve internally collapses in relief.

“Ugh, why do I feel like a bus ran me over? Or possibly a freight train?” Tony asks, voice groggy, slowly and gingerly sitting up.

Steve represses the mad urge to laugh. Only Tony would make jokes at a time like this. “A wall fell on you.”

“Oh,” Tony says, a little vacantly. “Why did it do that?”

“That… is a good question.”

One that is immediately answered when armed men swarm through the hole to the outside world the blast had left. Clad in black and yellow jumpsuits and wearing strange masks, they definitely look like hostiles and Steve is less than thrilled by the way they’re surrounding him and Tony. He doesn’t have his shield or his uniform, but that doesn’t mean he can’t act. His tactical mind tells him clearly that his chance of successfully defending them both if he stays at Tony’s side is near zero.

“Tony, stay down okay? I’ll take care of this,” he whispers, hoping that he isn’t going to make a liar of himself.

He doubts Tony could go anywhere in his current concussed state, but Steve waits until Tony’s fuzzy nod before springing into action anyway. The nearest two attackers go down immediately, far too surprised by Steve’s sudden burst of speed to even start defending themselves. After that his element of surprise is gone, forcing him to spend far too much of his precious time dodging bullets instead of incapacitating his attackers. Nevertheless men three and four join their comrades on the ground – three, flipped over shoulder, four elbow rammed into stomach – before a shout stops Steve in his tracks.

“Stop! Stop or I’ll blow his brains out!”

Steve turns, heart sinking – he had hoped they wouldn’t think to do this – and grimly forces down a flinch at the sight of one of the black-clad men holding Tony up with one hand and holding a gun to his head with the other.

“If you’d wanted to kill him you’d already have done so,” Steve challenges him calmly, keeping an eye on the other attackers in case one of them plans to catch him unawares.

Steve can’t see the man’s face, but somehow Steve’s sure he’s smiling. “Possibly. But are you willing to take that risk?”

No, no he isn’t, but Steve sure as hell isn’t going to let them get away with Tony either. He’s not that far away from Tony, if he can jump fast enough to disarm the man before he can shoot – his head whips around in surprise when his target suddenly slumps, a black arrow protruding from his masked forehead.

Steve’s gaze finds Hawkeye on the far side of the room, who gives him a lazy salute before shooting another attacker. Steve is smiling when he turns back to take care of the rest of the men, this time standing over Tony’s still prone body in doing so, trusting that Clint would have his back.

It feels good to have people he can rely on again. Even if one of them is currently lying on the floor all but unconscious.

*

Clint, it turns out, has been grounded in New York ever since the invasion and had apparently taken to patrolling the streets at night to stave off boredom. It had been pure luck that he’d been in the vicinity this particular evening and had decided to investigate the noise, but Steve isn’t complaining.  He doesn’t comment on the slightly pinched look in Clint’s eyes when he agrees to come back to the tower with them after Tony had been checked out by the medics because he ‘doesn’t have anywhere better to be anyway’ either. Steve’s also pretty glad to have someone else help herd a slightly loopy Tony up the elevator – apparently his concussion and two cracked ribs in addition to all sorts of colorful bruises had warranted some pretty strong painkillers. It’s during times like these Steve is especially thankful for his superhealing.

They’ve nearly reached the penthouse floor when JARVIS speaks up, “Sir, you have a guest waiting for you.”

Steve glances at Tony, who seems as confused as to the identity of their surprise visitor, which is telling since as far as Steve knows not many people would even get to this floor without Tony knowing about it or the security alarm going off.

 “Who is it, JARVIS?”

In answer the elevator doors slide open to reveal a very scruffy looking Bruce Banner sitting on one of the couches.

“Hello,” Bruce says in that sheepish way he’s perfected. “JARVIS said I was on the approved visitors list so I came up?”

“You are,” Tony confirms, his eyes a little more alert – Steve half suspects some of his loopiness had been for show to fool Clint and him – despite the painkillers, “though I was considering deleting you since you’d run off to god knows where without so much as a goodbye.”

Tony doesn’t ask what that was all about, but the question is strongly implied. Apologetic joins sheepish in Bruce’s expression.

“I had some business to take care of. Business best dealt with as far from civilization as possible,” Bruce says firmly.

Tony seems to have picked up on that too, for instead of arguing he just asks, sounding more weary than upset, “And you couldn’t just have told us that?”

Bruce studiously avoids eye contact with any of them. “I thought you’d try to stop me,” he says quietly.

Steve winces a little. He’s very well aware of Bruce’s history and the fact that more often than not people had tried to imprison him instead of giving him his free will, but he’d hoped that they’d been clear enough in showing that they wouldn’t do that, wouldn’t even consider it. Especially not after Bruce had helped them save New York City, maybe even the world.

“It’s not that I don’t trust you guys,” Bruce adds hastily, probably having seen Steve’s reaction and correctly interpreted it, “but you made it pretty clear that you’d like me to stay here, stay on the team. I just thought it would be easier for everyone if I just left.”

“But we wouldn’t have forced you to stay, Bruce, never that,” Steve says, and something of the grief for Bruce, for the fact that life hast taught this nice, calm, intelligent man that running is easier than having a simple conversation must’ve shown in his voice for Bruce deflates even further

“I’m sorry, I really am. I just came back here because I heard about the attack and wanted to make sure you were all alright. I’ll be out of your hair –”

“That’s bullshit!” Tony snaps beside him, face hard. “You look half starved, tired, and in desperate need of a shower. You’re staying the night and then we can talk about this. If you still want to leave after that, fine, be my guest, but there’s going to be no needless running away this time, okay?”

For a long moment Bruce just looks at Tony, face unreadable, and then he nods once. “Fair enough, Tony.”

“Your floor is right above your future lab, number 47,” Tony tells him, as if it’s nothing particularly unusual to have entire floors prepared for people who might not even stay (and now that Steve knows him a little better, he’s aware that for Tony it really isn’t). Tony turns to Clint, who’s been standing off to the side, silent, during the entire exchange. “You too Barton. You’re on 52, the highest except for the penthouse. You’re welcome to stay any time you want.”

Clint somehow manages to convey doubt with just his face, even though he’s barely moving a muscle of it.

Tony sighs. “Yes, you’re invited too. People, I thought the huge A on the side of the tower would clue you in. Plus Steve’s already living here, so if you’ve got a problem with me, you can either stick to him, or just avoid me – the place is big enough for it. You can also tell your deadly girlfriend the same – I’m certainly not braving her company long enough to do that. And now please, I’m doped to the eyeballs and still have a killer headache, so leave me in peace.”

And with that he makes his unsteady way back to the elevator to vanish to his own floor.

Bruce, Steve, and Clint exchange a look. Bruce and Clint cock their eyebrows at Steve.

“Fine, I’ll go after him and make sure he doesn’t kill himself,” Steve sighs. “Make yourselves at home.”

And they do, judging by the fact that they’re still there the next morning, begging breakfast off him with differing pouty faces and puppy dog looks.

Clint never does outright say why he’s staying, but given what happened with Loki, no one has to ask, and not even Tony is tactless enough to do so anyway.

And Bruce, well, they do have that talk, though it mostly consists of Tony yelling at Bruce to stop being so goddamn stupid and just accept that they don’t think of him as a green killer machine and he really is welcome to stay, never mind his huge green buddy – with a few fervent nods from Steve on the side – until Bruce finally gives in and agrees to give it a try (knowing Tony the ‘try’ is never going to end). It also turns out that he’d sequestered himself in northern Canada for the express reason of trying to get the Hulk to agree to a peace offering. The Loki Incident had finally shown Bruce that the Hulk really isn’t all bad, and as soon as he’d come to that realization, there’d been ways to work out their metaphorical differences.

Steve’s pretty sure life isn’t going to get boring any time soon.

***

Tony wakes up to a very irate voice mail from Pepper (again) demanding that he better keep his superhero life separate from his company life and not die on her watch, but her ire as usual only masks her worry. Seeing as he currently feels like one giant bruise with a pounding head to top it off, it might actually be warranted, not that he’s ever going to admit it.

He’s also starting to really want to know what AIM’s deal is. He decides that that one might be answerable and institutes step one: getting to the penthouse kitchen where the others are presumably hanging out already. He starts to move and immediately wishes for more painkillers.

When Tony finally makes it to the kitchen, shuffling slightly in order to aggravate the least possible amount of bruises, he’s halted in his steps by the scene in front of him. Steve, Bruce, and Clint are all sitting at the table, deep in discussion. What’s strange about it, however, is that Bruce looks uncommonly relaxed and Clint’s sporting a small smile, the first Tony’s seen on him – it suits the both of them. Apparently Steve’s inherent likeability works wonders on people other than himself too. He’s loath to interrupt this moment, but it has to happen at some point, and anyway, coffee’s calling.

Tony’s just removed a wonderfully full pot from the coffee machine when the intruder alert goes off. In case that isn’t implied, the intruder alert is loud. And shrill. And Tony can’t really remember why he made it this obnoxious.

A second later the sound of breaking glass adds to the pandemonium as more of the black and yellow jump-suited guys swing in from a helicopter. A freaking helicopter – maybe Tony should really build that anti-air missile on top of the tower.

Tony throws his coffee pot at the first attacker’s head before anyone else has moved. Then, being the very occasionally prudent man he is, he dives for cover because, well, because he’s unarmed and doesn’t fancy getting made into mincemeat.

Save for the occasional stray shot, it turns out, he really needn’t have bothered. Clint appears to be nearly as paranoid as him and has produced his bow and quiver from somewhere and Steve is easily decimating any attacker foolish enough to let him get too close (which, granted, wouldn’t have been a problem for them if they’d managed to figure out a way to stop him from doing just that).

It ends up being one of the shorter attempts at house invasions in history.

“I wasted perfectly good coffee on that?” Tony grumbles in disgust surveying the downed attack team. “And I only just renovated this entire level!”

Bruce and Steve sigh in unison, while Clint barks out a startled laugh. “Jesus Stark, your priorities really are screwed up.”

Tony grins. “You’ll get used to it.” He directs his next question to Steve, who’s crouched on the floor next to one of the men. “Anything useful?”

“Well, we know that they’re AIM now for sure,” Steve returns, pointing at the small logo on the prone guy’s chest (Tony’s never understood the logic behind small logos; either one wants to hide one’s identity, ergo no logo, or one doesn’t, ergo big logo – small logos just seem pointless). “We should probably call Fury.”

“Oh, not another briefing,” Tony groans, but his resistance proves depressingly futile, as he still finds himself sitting at a conference table with the whole Avengers team (minus Thor, who’s still successfully avoiding everyone in Asgard, and Natasha – God knows where she is, Tony certainly doesn’t want to) at SHIELD HQ half an hour later.

“So, AIM,” Tony drawls, since no one seems to be too keen on kicking the meeting off, “what’re we gonna do about it?”

As if on cue, Natasha silently slips through the door – he wouldn’t even have noticed her if he hadn’t been sitting facing it, so yeah, creepy – and sits down next to Clint.

“Unfortunately there isn’t much that we can do,” she says. “We don’t know where their base of operations is. There’re ways to find out, of course, but we’ve been looking and it would take too long.”

“Agent Romanoff has been on assignment trying to locate AIM’s main base,” Fury adds. “I don’t have to tell you what it means that she hasn’t found it yet.”

The faces all around the table turn exceedingly grave. That is, except for Tony’s. “If anyone’s interested, I have a plan that would both clear up the confusion about their goal and, assuming that my theory is correct, lead us to their base.”

Fury glares at him, clearly unhappy about the fact that Tony Stark is actively contributing to a briefing – the hypocrite, usually he chews Tony out for not paying attention. “Your theory being?”

“Their goal is me,” Tony says simply, and continues before there’s more of a protest than a muffled snort from Clint and an eye roll from Natasha, “There’ve been three attacks, counting the one time with the warehouse in Colorado, and I’m the only common variable. While Steve was there during the last two attacks, I assume they would’ve killed me if they wanted him, plus this is a group calling itself Advanced Idea Mechanics – as the resident technological genius that makes me the most logical target.”

Fury’s scowl deepens. “As much as it hurts me to admit it, Stark’s got a point.”

A murmur of agreement ripples through the room, though, for some reason, Steve looks more than unhappy with the conclusion.

“What is your plan then?” Fury asks, sounding like he’s sure he’s going to regret ever having asked (really, people just have no faith in him anymore – or ever, but still).

He grins, slow and sharp. “I say we give them what they want.”

Half a second of silence follows as everyone figures out what exactly that would imply.

Then Steve says, “Absolutely not!”

All heads swivel to look at Steve, even Natasha looks surprised. Tony stares at him. Where had that come from? It’s not that Steve doesn’t speak up when he has something to say – he always does, actually – but usually not this… forcefully.

Suddenly finding all eyes on him, Steve clears his throat, looking a little embarrassed, but his voice is steady and strong when he says, “It’s far too big a risk. If you’re wrong and you aren’t the target, they’re going to kill you, Tony, and if you’re right, we still don’t know what they want with you.”

“And if we don’t act, AIM will just keep attacking, and at some point there are going to be casualties, that’s just how it is,” Tony counters, equally evenly. “And I’m not saying you should let me go unprotected. The team would only be a step behind and as soon as we know where the base is, they can bust me out. Easy.”

Natasha raises an eyebrow. “And how do you expect us to follow you without alerting them? I doubt the base is anywhere near, so air travel is a given.”

“With this.” Tony taps his chest. “Every arc reactor has a tracking device built in, just a failsafe in case someone actually manages to steal one. It’s, shall we say, very precise.” His eyes cut to Fury, gaze cold. “And before you’re thinking it, there’s no way in hell I’m going to trust SHIELD with that data, which is why,” he pulls out a sleek phone with a flourish, “JARVIS is going to do it via this little baby. I would advise you not to try and hack it, Fury, believe me, you’d regret it. Any questions?”

To his left Steve still looks a cross between disapproving and rebellious, but Fury seems intrigued, which is good because if Fury vetoed the plan it would be a lot harder to go through with the whole thing anyway.

*

As soon as they’re outside the SHIELD building, Tony draws Steve aside. “I need to talk to you.”

Steve immediately looks worried. “Is something wrong? Did you do something bad again?”

Tony foregoes being insulted that everyone always assumes the worst when he asks to talk – seriously, it’s not as if he routinely blows himself up or something – for the moment, in favor of actually having the intended conversation without getting sidetracked (it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that he really doesn’t have a leg to stand on with this argument; he does tend not to tell anyone something’s wrong until it’s reached a critical state).

“No, everything’s fine, really it’s fine Steve,” he says, ignoring the other’s extremely doubtful look. “I just need to discuss a little detail with you.”

“Okay.” Steve still sounds dubious, but he follows him when Tony starts walking. He’s not going to do this directly in front of SHIELD HQ, Tony knows exactly what kind of security cameras Fury has on the place. No one can in all seriousness call him paranoid after having gotten to know Nicholas Fury.

“The tracker isn’t the only ‘special feature’ I built into the arc reactor,” Tony says quietly, once they’re about a block away. “I also added a… well, a kind of failsafe if you will. Just in case something goes wrong and I’m not just talking about this mission, but in general. If something happens to me in the permanent, definitely dead way, there’s a command that, if relayed to JARVIS, melts down every arc reactor I’ve ever built, including the one in my chest. With me so far?”

Steve nods silently, a faint look of horror at the notion alone on his face.

“Now,” Tony leans in close, “the code is 11743A4T219S. Got it?”

Now Steve only looks bewildered. “Yes, but Tony, why’re you telling me this? And why do you even have such a failsafe?”

Tony’s features darken. “I’ll be damned if anyone gets their hands on my tech without my permission again and once I’m dead I won’t exactly be in any position to enforce that, now will I?” He meets Steve’s questioning gaze head on. “Do you have any idea how much damage someone with less than savory goals could do with an arc reactor? This technology is the closest earth has come to the Tesseract, and it’s more than capable of powering weapons far more destructive than anything else we have right now. I’m not seeing any more innocent people killed with my tech, I’m not.”

Steve nods, something like respect glinting in his eyes. “I understand.”

And he probably does, too. After all he’s Steve Rogers, the pacifist who’s been pushed and molded into a weapon, forged in all the unfairness and agony of what humans do to each other habitually, on a daily basis.

Tony smiles, pained and humorless. He used to be such a prime example of humanity at its worst.

“As to the second question?” His smile turns genuine, as he regards the man in front of him. “I trust you. It’s as simple as that. I trust you to do the right thing.”

And despite the weight those words must’ve settled on his shoulders, Steve smiles back, bright and warm, leaving Tony to pretend that his stomach did not just do an embarrassing flip flop.

Trust. Yes, that is one word for it.

*

The hit is all but perfectly textbook. An abandoned parking lot, late at night, seven masked men against one unarmed victim. The obligatory scuffle and the resulting aches and bruises (Tony really could’ve done without those, thank you very much), then the fine pinprick of a needle – and oblivion.

What’s not quite so textbook is the careful set-up, the sniper hiding on the next roof to keep a keen eye on the proceedings, and the fact that the victim is pretty much the opposite of unsuspecting and actually planned and wanted to get kidnapped. If the people doing the kidnapping had known that, they probably would’ve been less enthusiastic about how smooth the operation had gone, and far more busy panicking over the fact that the earth’s first – and for the moment only – team of superheroes is coming after them.

*

Tony wakes up, strapped to a chair in a small, bare room and with someone looming over him, which, incidentally, is also pretty textbook. The only thing missing is the head villain posturing all over the place like he owns the world.

“Ah, I see you’ve decided to grace us with your full presence at last, Mr. Stark,” the looming person says, oily satisfaction fairly oozing from his every word.

Ah, there we go with the posturing.

Tony makes the mistake of moving his head a little, trying to get a better look at his surroundings, and immediately has to fight down the urge to vomit – those really weren’t the nicest knock-out drugs he’s ever come into contact with. He swallows a few times and thankfully his stomach settles down a little. Tony 1, gut 0. Good.

“So what is it this time? Guns, bombs, the Iron Man suit?” Tony asks, infusing his rasping voice with as much insulted boredom as he can manage, even though he’s aching all over, tied to a goddamn chair, and could kill for a drink of water (in this case he wouldn’t even mind the latter being literal).

Villain Honcho, or whatever the guy’s actually called, smiles slightly, and it’s not a happy-nice smile, more like a hello-I’m-a-shark-in-a-human-body smile; Tony would know, he’s seen it far too often and rarely do pleasant things follow. “Oh no, Mr. Stark, we already have the bombs. What we need is a really good power source. The only thing you have to decide is if you’d rather build us what we need, or have it taken out of you. Believe me, we get what we want either way.”

Fuck. Miscalculation, thy name is Tony Stark. Why hadn’t he thought of the possibility that they might want the arc reactor? Calculations immediately start running at the back of his mind. There’s no way in hell he’s going to just build them an arc reactor, but if he flat out refuses they’d simply take the existing one, which would kill him too soon for the Avengers to arrive in time. It’s Afghanistan all over again… except that it’s not. This time they’re giving him a different choice: die, or build.

“How do I know you won’t just kill me anyway once I’m done building what you want?” he asks, since giving in too easy would probably be more suspicious than outright refusal, coming from him.

Villain Honcho’s smile widens. There’s still nothing nice about it. “You don’t. But, how shall I put it, AIM always looks for new potential – and no one can deny that you’re brilliant, Mr. Stark.”

He pretends to think that over for a moment, then says, “I’m going to need tools, materials. And the use of my hands.”

That damn smile morphs into a full grin. “I knew you were smart.”

Tony wants nothing more than to wipe the smugness from his face, but for the time being contents himself with imagining the way the rest of the team is going to be wiping the floor with him later. Maybe he’ll ask Natasha to personally ‘deal’ with Villain Honcho.

Five minutes later Tony finds himself in a very well stocked lab, directed to work, and left alone with the tools, though he quickly finds that there aren’t any of the more lethal variety he might use to break out of there. Certainly nothing that would get rid of the damn shackle they slapped around his ankle connecting him to the work table without several hours of work. He has to grudgingly admit that these guys might actually know what they’re doing after two more minutes of searching for a solution.

There’s nothing left but to start building the dummy reactor to hopefully fool them long enough to keep him alive till the team comes. He doesn’t have a watch, but it must be soon; they shouldn’t be that far behind and hopefully they’ll manage to infiltrate the base without further endangering him.

He’s twisting wires in a circular shape when the building suddenly shakes with a resounding boom, sending a fine rain of plaster down on him. Tony only just catches the edge of the table before the shaking floor would’ve sent him sprawling. Great. So much for a covert operation – now they owe it to him to get him out before Villain Honcho decides he wants to use his arc reactor after all.

Hope flares when the door bursts open – and is immediately dashed at the sight of Villain Honcho. At least the other man is looking ruffled now, a streak of blood on his cheek and plaster in his hair. Tony slowly tries to edge backwards, trying very hard not to panic because that would so not help his situation right now, but the chain around his ankle prevents him from moving any significant distance.

“It seems you were not as careless as I thought,” Villain Honcho spits, breathing heavily as he advances on Tony.

“Can’t call me brilliant and not expect me to act like it,” Tony agrees with a bland smile.

Tony manages to dodge two blows despite his limited range of movement, but the third attempt sees a fist colliding with his already bruised face, sending him to the floor, stunned. There’s no holding back the dark tendrils of panic encroaching on his mind anymore when Villain Honcho leans over him, pinning him to the ground and ripping open his shirt. Reality fractures into memories and for a moment it’s Obie standing over him again with that predatory smile that still haunts his dreams.

He struggles, hips bucking, legs flailing – to no avail. With every second that the other man’s hands are touching his arc reactor, probing, invasive, he sinks deeper into mindless panic. He doesn’t know what sounds escape him when Villain Honcho finally twists his wrist and yanks the device keeping him alive out of him, but they’re ones that should never have to leave anyone’s mouth.

The pain sets in, burning and biting, as he’s left alone to die. The door falls shut with a dull finality.

Tony Stark is never one to just give up. When he’s beaten down, he gets up again and again and again. He survived three months in a cave in Afghanistan, without hope of rescue. He survived being ambushed in his own house. He survived friends and foes trying to take him out alike. He survived an alien invasion and flying a nuke into space. Except – he’s tired, tired of this happening, of wearing his heart on his chest and his brain is still rational enough to know that he has no chance of catching up to Villain Honcho, who’s running away with his life support, by crawling after him on all fours.

The only thing that’s left is… trust.  And it takes him by surprise that that option is actually there, that he does feel some extent of trust in his team, and more to the point in Steve. That he believes they will come for him.

Tony doesn’t know how long he lays there, prone on the floor. Shivers are starting to wreck his body as he slowly edges towards cardiac arrest and death, when the door bangs open again. He can’t even muster the energy to tense up further. Relief does register, however briefly, when Clint’s drawn face enters his field of vision, the lines around his eyes deepening in worry.

Clint’s mouth is moving and after a moment Tony can make his senses work enough to pick up on what he’s saying.

“- shit, Cap, you need to get here now.”

Ah, earpiece then. Clint turns his full attention back to Tony. “Stark, come on. Hang in there. Steve is going to kill me if you die on me now.”

“You?” Tony rasps painfully. “Just think what he’s going to do to me!”

Even through his slightly blurring eyesight Tony can make out the suspicious twitch of Clint’s lips.

“Hey,” he says weakly, so hatefully weak, “I’m dying. I can be irrational.”

That was probably the wrong thing to say as Clint’s face reverts back to the pinched, worried look. Great, so Tony’s still an asshole even when he’s dying, no surprise there. The tremors are getting worse.

“Why do you care so much anyway?” Tony asks tiredly, squinting up at Clint’s face.

After a moment, Clint says seriously, “You saved my life, don’t think I would forget that this easily, and you don’t look at me with fear or suspicion even after what happened with Loki. Besides we’re a team now, aren’t we? Steve has this way of looking at you and making you want to impress him – quite bothersome.”

Tony laughs, but it comes out weak and bubbly. “Yeah, that’s Steve for you. He always worries about everyone.”

“More about you, though, I think,” Clint says, snorting a little.

“Huh?”

Clint sighs. “Jesus you two are the most oblivious guys I’ve ever met. And I’ve only been seeing you together for like a day.”

It’s getting harder to concentrate through the pain, which is totally the reason why Tony has no idea what Clint’s talking about. Sure, he likes Steve, but it’s hardly reciprocated. “What? Is this some weird bro bonding thing?”

Before Clint can do more than roll his eyes, another wave of pain rolls over Tony. He groans, vaguely aware of Clint’s voice sounding more and more frantic above him, but the pain is slowly dragging him down into darkness.

His resistance fails. Surprisingly his last thought is regret that Steve will have to live with another friend dying on his watch.

*

Steve’s tired. He’s been watching over Tony for nearly a day now, hadn’t left his side ever since they’d retrieved him from the AIM base and brought him back to SHIELD medical. They’d nearly been too late. He shivers a little, thinking of Tony’s prone body, white as a sheet, barely breathing. So close to death. Too close.

He doesn’t know when Tony had become such an important part of his life, can’t pinpoint the exact moment he had decided that Tony is the one he wants to spend his life with, platonic or not. He doesn’t really want to either, doesn’t want to think about the fact that he’s only really known Tony for a few weeks because it shouldn’t matter. Tony’s practically his best friend, he trusts him and knows him despite their relatively short acquaintance. He knows the type of food Tony likes to eat (mostly things like cheeseburgers that should be horribly bad for him, but somehow don’t show), he knows his favorite type of alcohol (though the whole world probably knows that), he knows his favorite clothes (wife beaters in the workshop, jeans and comfortable t-shirts in the tower). But he also knows how Tony looks after three days in the workshop, all manic energy and brilliance, knows he has nightmares, knows how much Tony wants to escape himself sometimes.

And now this man is lying in a hospital bed, pale and unmoving. It’s enough to make Steve’s heart hurt all over again.

Steve hasn’t even noticed that his hand is resting on Tony’s until the other man’s fingers suddenly give a twitch. His eyes fly to Tony’s face, and indeed Tony’s eyes have opened, though they look more than a little bleary.

“Tony!” he exclaims, smiling in relief. “How do you feel?”

Tony turns his head to look at him. An almost radiant smile breaks out on his face. “Steeeve! Feel good. Everything’s… what’s the word, bubbly!” He giggles lightly. “Bubbly. Lots of bubbles.”

Steve stares at him. God, those must be some seriously heavy-duty painkillers. Though that doesn’t mean that he protests much when Tony tugs him closer with his hand, happily babbling about ‘comfy Steve’. He thinks he even catches the word ‘adorable’ in there somewhere, which given the fact that Tony’s currently all blissed out and now rambling about pink pudding, seems somewhat ironic. But his heart still warms, even though he knows with a deep ache that it’s just the painkillers talking, that Tony would never say these things if he were actually aware of himself.

It becomes increasingly hard to remember that though, once Tony has reeled him in enough to snuggle up to him and quietly mumble something that sounds suspiciously like ‘love you’ into Steve’s shirt.

Steve looks down at Tony as he slips back into slumber, thinking that for all the longing, there’s also belonging, and he wouldn’t give that up for anything. He doesn’t move for the rest of the time Tony spends asleep.

*

When Tony finally manages to escape the nurses’ clutches – after a lot of threats and shouting – and returns to the Tower, he finds that everyone has moved in while he had been out of commission. No one deigns to tell him why. Which means that they’re either tired of the shitty SHIELD apartments, or Fury told them to ‘make sure that that idiot Stark doesn’t kill himself’ – and it’s probably the latter (he resents that, he really does, just because one of his plans didn’t quite work out the way he’d thought doesn’t mean he can’t take care of himself).

Bruce has found his lab and had immediately fallen in love, sensible man with good taste that he is. He hasn’t been sighted since, though JARVIS reports that he’s having fun with the state of the art particle accelerator Tony had hand-built on one of his ‘insomnia let’s invent all the shit’ binges.

Clint has found the archery range Tony had installed on his floor and has made it his new goal to pound all the targets into submission. It’s probably how he deals with stress. Tony can relate. Though Clint also somehow manages to take the time to cook in between his training bouts. If the reports are anything to go by, he’s actually a good chef. Good thing Tony has long since given up on trying to figure out the whys and wherefores of any of the agents’ actions.

He firmly sticks to not even wanting to know what Natasha’s doing.

And Steve – Steve’s been hovering near him protectively ever since he had woken up. Not that Tony minds Steve snapping at people on his behalf, but if he keeps that up it’s going to start getting on his nerves; Tony likes his independence, thank you very much, no mother-henning needed. There’s also the small issue of a vague recollection of him blabbering absolutely mortifying things at Steve while being higher than a rainbow on drugs. Steve hasn’t mentioned anything, but then again, Steve’s always the gentleman, so he probably wouldn’t bring it up, despite the blackmail potential. Not to mention that Steve’s probably still traumatized from trying to fit the arc reactor back into Tony’s dying body. When Tony finally gets the whole story of how they’d intercepted Villain Honcho on his way to the missile he’d wanted it to power, incapacitated the bastard, taken the arc reactor, and rushed back to Tony and Clint, only to find that no one was actually quite sure how to put it back in, out of him, he has to wince slightly in sympathy. It really doesn’t sound fun, and if Steve hadn’t had the brilliant idea to call Pepper… well, things might’ve ended on a less pleasant note. One more thing Tony owes him for.

As soon as he’s back at the Tower, and feels he can stand up without falling over, Tony calls everyone to the penthouse kitchen to lay some ground rules. Or rather, to try and lay one ground rule.

“Okay, there’s only one rule for living here – well, actually there are more, but they all in some capacity involve reasons why you shouldn’t destroy any of the Tower, but there’s only one that’s really important.” He pauses a little for dramatic effect. “Do not mess with my coffee. If I don’t get my regularly doses I get very cranky and inevitably start blowing things up. Got it?”

Most of them at least nod politely, though Clint looks a little too intrigued by the notion of things blowing up than is reassuring. Tony makes a note to start planning possible punishments for the inevitable experiment.

At least he doesn’t have to worry about enemies sneaking in unnoticed with that many people in residence now. And maybe, just maybe the Tower will start to feel even more like home and less lonely after Pepper’s departure. Steve’s company is great, but the Captain is a private guy, and not prone to leaving proof of his existence lying around all over the place, sometimes making it look like he isn’t there at all.

A few days later, looking at his empty workshop, he figures that as much as things change, they also always stay the same.

*

Tony doesn’t expect his greatest – if never voiced – wish to come true by means of catching a face full of vibrant blue, sticky goop. Not that he’d expected it to be fulfilled at all, but the blue goop still comes as a surprise.

They’re fighting villain X – Tony has given up on trying to remember all the different ‘demonic names’,  since a) most of them are either horrendously stupid or very unimaginative or both, and b) there’s just been too many of them; the last few weeks it’s been as if every villain, from small-fry to supervillain has come out to destroy/subjugate/annex New York City and it’s frankly getting ridiculous, even Tony needs  to sleep sometimes – with really no difficulty at all, but Steve calls the all-clear too early and when Tony opens his faceplate he gets a face-full of this yucky goop stuff for his trouble. And there goes life again, proving that one should never underestimate scrawny scientist people who cobble together glob-throwers in their spare time.

He would be insulted, if he wasn’t desperately trying to breathe through the sludge sticking to his whole face. Complete blindness doesn’t help the sudden onslaught of panic, though at least he managed to close his eyes just before impact. Scrabbling at his face with the gauntlets isn’t really helping and if it wasn’t for the armor keeping him upright he would probably be lying on the floor already.

Through the haze of ‘need AIR, need air NOW’ he barely notices the presence of someone at his side, until Steve’s calm but commanding Captain voice breaks through his panic.

“Tony, hold still, I’m going to get this off, okay? Don’t shoot me.”

Strong hands guide his gauntlets away from his face, hook beneath his jaw, and pull. The thick glob over his mouth tears away, taking skin and what must be most of his poor goatee with it, but Tony can suddenly breathe again. Breathing has never been so much fun, what a great sensation. Thankfully he’s still gasping for air a few seconds later when it comes to mind that he really should put up a token protest against Steve ruining his looks.

“Seriously, what did my face ever do to you,” he wheezes, trying for comic relief, but despite being essentially blind he can still feel Steve radiating disapproval. Well, Steve’s always a little touchy after Tony gets himself into trouble.

Somewhere behind he hears Clint snicker. Tony really does have better things to do than be laughed at, like trying to get off the rest of damned slime and vanishing from the public eye before his pride takes a fatal hit. ‘Iron Man Conquered by Blue Goop’ would make for such a smashing headline.

“JARVIS, fly me home,” he instructs, taking off before Steve can protest. “See you all at the tower.”

Ten minutes later Tony finally has to admit that ‘seeing them’ might’ve been a bit of an optimistic statement.

He’s standing in his bathroom in front of the mirror peeling away at the goo still stuck to most of his face, but it just doesn’t want to go. Apparently one needs super strength to get the damn stuff off.

He’s seriously starting to consider doing something stupid like fetching a blowtorch, when a light knock sounds on the door.

“Tony? JARVIS said you needed assistance,” Steve calls, sounding worried. Before Tony can reply, the bathroom door opens.

He sighs. “JARVIS, what did I tell you about being too proactive sometimes?”

“I’m sure I will remember it when duly necessary, sir,” JARVIS replies, far too smug. “I merely called for help before you manage to permanently damage yourself.”

“Sometimes it’s a good thing to admit to needing help, Tony,” Steve adds, and of course he would say something like that.

“Fine,” Tony concedes – it’s not as if he has to be gracious about it. To be honest, most of his grumpiness is due to the fact that he can’t fucking see anyway.

A moment later Steve’s hands are touching his face, gentle for all their size, and Tony tries not to startle as Steve slowly begins to peel back the slime around his nose. An involuntary shiver runs down his spine at the sensation of Steve’s careful fingers moving all over his face, just touching. It even takes his mind off the stupid goop.

The heat stirring in his belly shocks him back to reality. God, this is not the time to have a growing erection. Part of him screams at him to pull back, to do something before Steve notices and Tony does something he’ll regret later. A part that’s a lot more vocal counters that if this is the only thing he can get he should damn well take it and worry about possible consequences later. Also he does sort of need Steve’s help to free the rest of his face as well.

So he stays still, trying to enjoy the moment while tamping down on any especially inappropriate urges, and lets Steve work.

When the last of the blue sludge finally leaves his eyes, and he blinks against the sudden brightness, he realizes that Steve hasn’t said a word the entire time. And his cheeks are flushed, his breathing a little staggered, and an undeniable spark in his eyes.  As if in slow motion Steve leans forward, until his lips meet Tony’s, in what’s unmistakably a kiss. Without conscious decision Tony leans into it, parting his lips just a little –

With an almighty jerk Steve stumbles backwards.

“Tony, oh God, I’m so sorry!” he mumbles, face all red and hair mussed. He carefully avoids meeting Tony’s eyes, who’s still trying to reboot his brain from both the shock and the sensation of Steve’s lips on his.

It takes a moment for what Steve’s said to really register, but when it does, Tony feels the something that had just bloomed in his chest wither and die. Of course Steve didn’t actually mean it. Of course it had been stupid of him to believe, if just for that moment, that Steve could want someone like him.

“I understand,” he says stiffly, “Can’t fault you for being smart enough not to want to be any more… involved with me than you already are.”

Steve’s eyes go wide. “No! No, that’s not it at all!”

Tony resists the urge to cross his arms. “If that isn’t it, why did you apologize?”

“Well, um,” Steve stutters a little, face flaming, “I sort of jumped you? I didn’t mean to just… do that. Not if you don’t want it.”

Now it’s Tony’s turn to stare at Steve, incredulous. “Steve, I kissed you back. Besides, this,” he waves his hand towards his quite interested crotch area, “should give you a more than accurate hint to whether I might want this or not.”

Steve still looks torn, not quite believing him, so Tony adds, “I’ve wanted this, wanted you, pretty much since I first laid eyes on you and we promptly started shouting at each other. You turning out to actually be a really nice guy really didn’t exactly hinder that.”

“You do?” Steve asks and Tony is gratified to hear a hint of wonder in his voice now, instead of disbelief. “Why did you never say anything?”

Tony gives a one-shouldered shrug in answer. “I didn’t want to risk our friendship with my advances. Figured you weren’t interested.”

“Oh,” Steve breathes. Then, “Can I kiss you again?”

Tony doesn’t try to stop the smile blooming on his face. “Only if you promise to never ask me that again.”

“Deal,” Steve breathes, the distance between them disappearing with almost magical speed, and then their lips are smashing together again and this time Tony lets himself feel it completely, sinks into the sensation of Steve’s lips sliding against his, hot and smooth.

When they break apart for air – he does not moan at the loss of contact, he does not – Steve grins at him, radiant. “Will you come to dinner with me?”

“Sure,” Tony answers, still a little breathless. “But you do know that that’s usually supposed to come before the impassioned making out session?”

“I think I’ll live.”

Steve leans down to kiss him again. Tony’s far from complaining.

*

When Pepper calls two days later and the whole story just spills out of Tony, there’s none of the awkwardness he’d dreaded, much to his relief. She sounds genuinely happy for him (it probably helps that she likes Steve, him being exactly the kind of guy she gets along with splendidly). Her reaction reminds him that Pepper really is far too perfect with a little pang, yet also is assurance that they will be fine, which is an even greater relief. Possibly even more than fine, he thinks, listening to her talk about her current life for once and scheduling to get lunch together some time.

They always had worked better as friends, and now they can work at being equals as well.

*

The late morning light finds Tony blinking at the still warm dip in the bed next to him. A small piece of folded paper lies directly in his line of sight. He smiles. Ever since his major freak-out the first time he’d found himself alone in bed the morning after first sleeping together – about two weeks ago now, and he can still feel residue panic just thinking about that moment – and had immediately jumped to entirely the wrong conclusions, Steve starts leaving these little notes on the bed before vacating the room. Just a few sentences, an assurance Tony hadn’t known he needed – or well, he had known, just not wanted to face it. Tony’s issues aside, all the new tradition proves, really, is that Steve is quite possibly the sweetest guy to ever have walked the face of the earth.

This morning’s note says ‘I still haven’t come to my senses, as you call you it. Dinner reservations at eight today – Steve’ in Steve’s neat, but slightly loopy hand-writing. More the artist than the soldier for once.

Tony most definitely does not admit to having kept every single one of these unassuming slips of paper – the same way he’s not admitting to having an entire closet dedicated to Captain America paraphernalia tucked away in one of the storerooms, and voice recordings of all the times Steve’s been down in the workshop, and all seasons of the Addams Family, and a folder with anime porn on his laptop (though he might admit to that one, now that he thinks about it).

Glancing at the clock, he realizes that Steve must be back from his morning jog already and Tony might as well make an appearance in the kitchen. Steve’s been forcing him into – more or less – normal sleeping hours with the result that Tony’s sometimes actually fully awake in the morning and before nine o’ clock no less. The horror. Though Tony has become a lot more fond of his own bed lately, especially when it also houses a certain supersoldier; let it be known that Steve is not above playing dirty when he wants Tony to do something, be it taking better care of himself or actually reading mission reports instead of just binning them on sight.

When Tony enters the penthouse kitchen, his gaze comes to rest on the table. He blinks.

“Why is there a miniature stone garden in my kitchen?” he asks no one in particular. There’s even one of these little rakes, resting next to an especially elaborate swirl of white sand.

“It’s Bruce’s I think,” a voice sounds from behind him. “Jane brought it with her – he finds it soothing.”

Tony slowly turns around, taking in the young woman with chestnut hair and an odd assortment of clothing. “And who’re you?”

He isn’t too worried, JARVIS would never let anyone potentially dangerous – well, dangerous to him anyway – inside the Tower, but he does wonder how it comes that he’s no idea who this new and baffling person in his kitchen is.

“Hi, I’m Darcy,” she says cheerfully, waving at him. There’s a muted shuffle from behind her. She rolls her eyes. “And that zombie is Jane. There’s really no point in trying to talk to her before she’s got her morning coffee.”

She waves at the petite brunette who’s just entered the kitchen, looking half-asleep. And indeed, her first words are, “Is there any coffee?”

Tony motions over to the coffee maker, frowning slightly – the name sounds familiar – and is rewarded with a mumbled ‘thank you’. It clicks. “Oh, you’re Thor’s buddies from New Mexico, right? Is he here?”

“Nah, he’s still in Asgard,” Darcy shakes her head. Jane’s too busy inhaling coffee to even take notice of his question – a girl after his own heart apparently. “Heimdall just sent a message that he’d make it back soon and we should wait for him in New York. Clint invited us here.”

“How do you know Clint?” he asks curiously.

Darcy’s full-blown grin is a little disconcerting, he finds out. “He was there during Thor’s first stay. Took us out to a bar after the whole thing went down.”

Tony contemplates that for a moment. “I probably would’ve paid money to see that – fuck that, I would’ve paid money to see that.”

“Yep,” Darcy agrees, making a very good impression of the cat that got the canary, “quite the buff guy for his age.”

“Ugh, not what I was talking about!” Tony protests, pinching the bridge of his nose, “Thanks for giving me these mental images I really didn’t need! Or want!”

Strong arms wind around him from behind, and only their familiar feel keeps Tony from jumping violently – for a man that huge Steve can be unfairly quiet sometimes.

“Are you mentally cheating on me with Clint, Tony?” he asks teasingly, and Tony, in the process of melting into the embrace, immediately straightens in rigid indignation.

“I was not! And even if I was I would have better taste than Clint!” He points an accusing finger at Darcy. “It’s all her fault anyway.”

Darcy just grins at them cheerfully from behind a box of fruit cheerios, not in the least intimidated.

“She’s a guest, Tony,” Steve chides mock-sternly, but Tony, flare of indignation extinguished, has given in to the temptation of snuggling up to him and can feel the silent rumble of Steve’s repressed laughter.

Tony harrumphs. “If you keep this up, I’m never going to believe your ‘stern leader who doesn’t have a sense of humor and is incapable of having fun’ act again.”

And now Steve really is laughing, a loud, joyous sound that can’t even be drowned out by the rumbling thunder heralding the imminent arrival of a Norse God on the roof. What is his life even, that he can think that kind of sentence with a straight face?

Tony twists a little in Steve’s arms to be able to gaze into his familiar face. “You know,” he says quietly, “Hemmingway once said that happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing he knew.” He smiles up at the man who makes him happier than anything has ever quite managed to in his life – or well, at least differently happy than Pepper had. “I think you’ve just proven him wrong.”

Steve just kisses him gently, understanding in his eyes. He doesn’t point out how profoundly random Tony’s statement seems, just quietly and heart-breakingly sincerely says, “I’m glad.”

For a moment they stand together, heedless of anyone else in the room, enjoying their intimate moment, then Steve grins at him mischievously. “Does that mean you read Hemmingway, Tony?”

Tony huffs playfully. “Way to ruin the moment Steve. And I was in high school too once, you know. I even remember some non-science related things.”

“I’m sure you were adorable,” Steve says, ruffling his hair, despite his protesting yelp. “I wonder if anyone has pictures… I should go and call Pepper to find out.”

“You wouldn’t!” Tony yelps, ignoring the muffled snicker from Darcy in favor of chasing after Steve out of the kitchen. “Don’t you dare, Steve!”

Their laughter echoes down the hallway.

***