"You can't just bring someone along," Tony hisses, sneaking a look over Clint's shoulder at the red-haired girl curled up on one of the recliner chairs wearing a Chicks with Dice t-shirt.
Tony had purchased an entire warehouse, converted it into apartments and moved his friends (Barton and Banner) and frenemies (Coulson) in so he didn't have to deal with this exact scenario.
"Don't have a heart attack, geez," Clint says, looking unrepentant. "You'll like Nat once you get to know her."
"That'll be a first because I don't actually like anyone," Tony says, raising in eyebrow. "Especially you right now."
"She's cool. She provides a dynamic which we're sorely lacking."
"You're a dick, actually. But that's okay because so am I."
"Remind me again why I let you live here rent free?" Tony asks archly.
"She's into gaming but she hasn't had a regular group for years. She was really interested when I told her about your campaign. She's a little bit scary but in a nice way. Plus, it's always good to have a girl on the team at cons."
"Are you implying that her gender will be advantageous when it comes to procuring gaming trophies?" Tony asks, then throws a hand out behind himself to the wall that is basically covered shelves of gaming trophies of all types. "It's because you don't like playing the girl characters, right?"
"Every game! I get stuck with being the chick in every game."
"That's because you're the pretty one."
"Please," Bruce huffs, scooting past them into the kitchen, talking around a sherbert straw he's chewing. "Everyone knows I'm the pretty one."
"Everyone knows you're the deluded one," Clint throws at him and Tony rolls his eyes, then catches Natasha tossing something from hand to hand.
"That giant plushie D20 is not regulation!" he shrills.
"What's wrong with it?"
"It's got arms and legs."
"Relax. We just picked it up from the bargain bin in the Tin Soldier when we were getting her real dice. I got a plushie Cthulhu and a plushie Ebola." Clint holds up something that looks like a fluffy brown worm with big cartoon eyes and bats Tony's nose with it.
"I'm still vexed."
"Who uses that as a word in a real sentence?" Clint asks, shaking his head.
"Just let her play," Bruce interjects, bypassing them again, this time balancing a huge bowl of popcorn on top of a six pack of cola. "We've had a gap in our team since Steve left and I'm sick of the weird ringers we keep getting lumped with at cons."
"We don't even know if she'll want to go conning with us or just wants to come to the Friday nights," Tony gripes, sensing he's losing which he never likes.
"She'll come," Clint says, grinning. "She was in when I told her our team name was The Drunken Dwarves."
"Fine," Tony grits out between his teeth.
"One caveat though. She does her own character sheet. I don't want Phil helping her. He's such a rules lawyer and he's always way too powerful. I don't want two of them."
Art by lutin
He just likes the routine.
He also likes making the angry vein pop out in his boss' forehead because Fury by name, Fury by nature.
"You got time to lean, you got time for me to kick your ass!" Fury calls from the kitchen, spotting Tony using the counter to prop himself up in the lull between the before-work zombie rush and the mid-morning crazy eyes crowd.
"I don't think that's the saying," Tony calls back, smirks to himself when he actually hears Fury growl. The bell over the front door tinkles and Tony straightens, slumps again when he sees it's just Phil, looking harried but pristine as usual.
No one actually knows what Phil does for a living. Tony would like to think that he puts a suit on everyday to panhandle but that's probably not the case.
"Coffee," Phil says. "I'll take it in an IV if you have one so it reaches my veins sooner."
"I'm a misfiled report away from nuking the site from orbit." Phil nods, scowls when Tony dawdles over to the coffee machine. "Or a slow coffee," he amends and Tony throws him a yeah, yeah hand wave over his shoulder.
"Hold your horses. Hill called in sick so I'm dealing with everything on my own today." Tony has to grin to himself when Phil passes an incredulous gaze around the nearly empty shop, one booth taken by an elderly gentleman who's nursing a tea and doesn't look to be needing anything else for a few hours at least.
"Whenever I'm actually away from you I start thinking you're not as bad as all that, then I see you again and am reminded that you are." Phil's the only one who actually pays Tony rent, his idea. Tony thinks it's just so he doesn't have anything to hold over Phil or stop the insults.
"Did you get the letter about the upcoming apartment inspection?" Tony asks mildly, watching Phil fume through the reflection in the coffee machine.
"The one you tacked politely to my door with my replica Gimli axe? It was a little hard to miss."
"If you signed the same leasing agreement as Clint and Bruce, you wouldn't have to have inspections you know?" Tony says, turning and offering Phil the large mug. Phil takes it, sniffs it suspiciously, but there is one thing Tony won't mess with and that's a man's coffee.
"I read Clint's leasing agreement. There's no way I'm ever signing a document like that."
"Spoil sport," Tony grumbles as he watches Phil inhale half the coffee he was handed, no thought for delicate mouth skin apparent. "Wow, do you have a giant coffee callous in your throat? Even I can't shotgun it like that straight from the machine."
"If I thought it would reach my brain faster, I'd pour it into my eyeballs," Phil says, hugs the remaining half of his coffee in the takeaway mug to his chest like Gollum with the one ring. "Hey, isn't that Natasha?"
Tony's gaze jerks over Phil's shoulder as the door tinkles again and Natasha enters the place, clutching a folder. Clint was right, Natasha was the kind of cutting that Tony could appreciate and he did find himself grudgingly liking her despite himself.
That didn't mean he wanted her invading every part of his life.
"Coffee?" he asks, as Phil says hello and scrambles out, sipping at the last of his coffee a little more sedately.
"No. I came in because there was a help wanted sign in the window," Natasha says, waves a hand vaguely in the direction of said sign then looks back at Tony.
"That's been there since two thousand and three," Tony says, which might not be exactly true but it has been there since Tony started two years before and other than himself and Hill, no one else has been able to survive the interview process. He figures his charisma and Hill's stubbornness got them through but he's seen at least a dozen college students actually crying after meeting with Fury, never to be seen again when they fled.
"So, there's no job?"
"There is," Tony says, ignores Natasha's confused look in favor of yelling for Fury that he had a visitor. "May the force be with you," Tony says cryptically when Natasha makes her way towards the kitchen and Fury's glowering countenance.
Art by lutin
"I think you'll find yours says pretentious dickwad," Clint grumbles, leaning over the glass case with the collection of dice bags. Tony watches him eying a black leather one, so predictable, then move across to the dice themselves.
Tony has spent years putting his dice collection together. They are a perfect balance of color, weight and wear to give him maximum chance for critical successes. Clint, however, every time he loses one or three of his dice, which he manages to do every game, mostly because he resorts to throwing them at the others or Tony when a roll doesn't go his way, just grabs the plastic tube with a full set.
"-so it'll be good to have Steve back, right?" Clint is saying and Tony thinks maybe he missed a part of that sentence.
"Steve? His Nana's sick or something. You know he's coming back, right?" Clint finally drags his attention away from the dice case and his eyes narrow. "We just all assumed you guys were writing flowery love letters to each other while he'd been gone."
"I... what?" Tony repeats, blinking and wonders if the weird rushing noise he's hearing is the first sign of a stroke.
"Y'know, tiny, blonde, always with a cold Steve? He's only been gone a year, man. Even someone as self-absorbed as you couldn't have forgotten him."
"I... no, I didn't forget him," Tony says, grimaces when he sounds a little more fervent about that than he would have liked. Of course he hadn’t forgotten Steve. He just... after a couple of emails and a letter he'd re-written about a thousand times that he never sent, he'd kind of broken off contact.
It had been too... something. He hadn't really wanted to analyze it.
Clint's looking at him funny. "It's good that he's coming back, right? You didn't say anything you couldn't come back from when he was leaving, did you?"
"What are you talking about? He moved away, end of story. He's coming back, awesome. Maybe I'll get someone that won't stiff me when it's time to pay for pizza."
"Oh my god, it was an off-pay week. Are you never going to let that go?" Clint demands, peeved, and thankfully distracted. Tony breathes a small sigh of relief when Clint stalks away.
Clint never stays mad for long. He comes back a few moments later gripping an expansion pack, reading the back. "Bruce said he ran into him about a month back when he went to that convention in Kansas. Said he got bigger."
"Who?" Tony asks.
Clint rolls his eyes, looks up. "Steve. Bruce said he didn't even recognise him."
"Oh, well, I suppose he was due a growth spurt sooner or later, poor guy," Tony muses, still a little thrown by the whole topic. He'd been slowly but surely resigning himself to the fact that Steve Rogers was out of his life, that he wouldn't hear Steve's wheezy little laugh ever again, see his big earnest blue eyes.
That it was probably all on him didn't escape his attention.
"Man, I honestly thought you'd be the first to know," Clint continues, oblivious to Tony's inner guilt. Steve had tried maintaining contact, his emails getting less jovial and more confused the longer Tony ignored them until Steve had stopped writing altogether, the silence telling.
"He might be mad at me," Tony admits glumly.
"He'll get over it. It's Steve. The guy's a walking marshmallow." Clint nudges Tony towards the register with his expansion pack.
"I was a bit of a dick."
"Imagine my shock."
"I mean, I thought he wasn't going to come back, like ever."
"So you, what? Had a tantrum about it?"
"You're hopeless," Clint says sagely, before smiling and handing his money over to Hannah behind the register.
"Steve!" Clint crows, looking delighted and leaping at him. He wraps arms and legs around Steve's body like a velcro monkey and Steve, who last time Tony had seen him had been a foot shorter and delicate enough that a strong breeze sent him stumbling, hoisted Clint off the ground. When he was set down Clint was blushing and chuckling, trying to negate his complete ridiculousness by punching Steve heartily in the bicep.
Steve is smiling, large and beautiful but it dims a little when he spots Tony hovering in the doorway.
"So, steroids?" Tony blurts, because of course that's the first thing he'll say when he hasn't seen the guy in a year. Clint's right, he's a dick.
"Nah, horse tranquilizers," Steve says and bizarrely, it's the right kind of horrible to break the tension between them and have Steve smiling again, like it's a relief that Tony's exactly the way Steve left him, eternally inappropriate. "Long time no see."
"We were right here." Tony winces, because he sounds bitter. Steve just kind of huffs and shakes his head like he expected this kind of treatment and then drops back onto the couch next to Bruce, showing him god knows what on his phone.
Clint takes the opportunity to punch Tony in the arm as well, then shuffles over to join Steve and Bruce, making appropriately interested noises at whatever Steve is now showing them both.
"So, pictures of the boyfriend?" Tony asks, can't really understand why he's ramped up to Defcon Ten on the dick scale today.
"The art at a show I got to work on," Steve says without looking up, still dismissive of Tony like you'd ignore a kid having a meltdown on the floor. Fair enough too, since that's kind of what Tony feels like he's doing, just in a more dignified, passive-aggressive adult way.
"In New York," Tony says, waggles his hands, then tucks them in his pockets. Now all three of them are ignoring him and he puts up with it for about three seconds before he flounces, no wait, strides manfully out of the room and heads for the kitchen and precious coffee that will never, ever leave him without so much as a by your leave.
Tony tries to bite down on the disappointment he feels but he mostly fails by the way Bruce is looking at him over his glasses.
"You want to tell me what that was about?" Bruce asks, tilting his head. The main problem with being friends with the same people pretty much your whole life is that they can tell when something's up, will call you on being a brat if they need to.
"No," Tony says peevishly, crossing his arms and staring at his shoes.
"I know we joke about it a lot but... was there something, y'know, between you and Steve?" he asks so very carefully.
"God no," Tony chokes out, swipes his coffee cup off the counter and tries to hide his face in it. "Nothing, no, nothing like that ever happened."
"Did you want it to?" Bruce asks, which is a whole other question. Tony must take too long to deny it because Bruce's expression goes all soft and sympathetic. "Tony, maybe you should-"
"Do absolutely nothing about it. Yes, that's an excellent plan and what I intend to do."
"Tony, that's not-"
"Bruce, honey bear, brain of my brain. Please stop trying to have a heart to heart with me before I break out in hives."
"Yep. Still doesn't change the fact that I don't want to talk about this, with anyone, ever."
"Maybe you should talk to Steve. He's been gone a year and all the extra terrible one-night stands you've had in that time, yes, we noticed, haven't gotten whatever this is out of your system which means it's serious." Bruce is frustratingly reasonable when he wants to be.
"Like a heart attack," Tony gripes, which is basically true. He'd thought maybe distance and time would heal whatever damage Steve had done to his delicate places, had even been a tiny bit relieved that Steve had left because he'd been nursing this whatever it was since they were both sixteen and it had left him more than a little weary.
Tony remembers lying next to Steve on his crappy narrow bed in his Nana's apartment, their shoulders pressed together and Steve talking with his hands, making sweeps in the air with fine, delicate fingers. Tony remembers feeling the urge to just roll over and kiss Steve soundly.
He remembers being scared to death by the impulse.
"You don't know what he feels."
"I know Steve left which means he probably feels exactly nothing."
"You could try asking him."
"And have him be all sweet and sympathetic and earnest at me? No thanks, I'd rather do without that."
"You could at least be civil. Steve thinks you're still mad at him for going," Bruce urges and Tony scowls and huffs but finally relents.
"Okay, alright. I'll send him an invite to next week's game."
"That's a start," Bruce says magnanimously, then steals the rest of Tony's coffee because his friends are awesome in some ways but also completely suck in others.
"Stark," Hill greets, nodding efficiently, her laughter drying up.
"Queen Scarypants," Tony greets in turn and Hill rolls her eyes and turns back to the coffee machine, Natasha's attention on her as she runs through the various settings. Tony, thoroughly ignored, what is it with that lately, meanders into the kitchen where Fury is kneading dough.
Or, more accurately torturing the ever-living hell out of dough.
"Are you losing your unsettling mojo?" Tony asks, watching Fury work. Everything he makes tastes great, but he's apparently never heard of having love as an ingredient. Instead, Tony can practically taste a little bit of anger in everything Fury produces.
"Meaning?" Fury grunts.
"We have a new employee instead of someone moving states and changing their name so you are never ever able to track them down again."
"You're a funny guy," Fury says without inflection or looking up.
"No, really. That means we're at full staff capacity doesn't it? That's just... I don't think we can take the Help Wanted sign down, it's been in the window so long I think it's fused with the glass."
"We still need someone to wash dishes," Fury says after an actual thoughtful pause.
"Oh well, that's alright then. The balance is restored," Tony says and wanders back into the main shop area to start flipping the chairs upright and set the sidewalk tables outside.
He's struggling with one of the outdoor umbrellas when another set of hands appears, helping to click the stubborn thing into place. "Thanks," Tony grunts as Natasha steps aside for Tony to drop the sandbags onto the umbrella's feet to keep it in place.
"No problem," Natasha says, looks at Tony with her head tilted. "Is this okay?"
"Me being here," Natasha says, her hands fluttering around herself then towards the store.
"Of course," Tony says immediately, a little uneasy that he's been unreasonably rude to someone that is, well, a little scary, but also perfectly nice.
"I'm sorry about crashing your game the other night," Natasha continues. "I thought Clint had cleared it with you."
"No, it's really fine," Tony says, feeling like a bigger douche by the minute as Natasha basically apologises for existing. "You were good, you fit in well and you accidentally killed Clint your first game. All positives in my book."
Natasha chuckles, squeezes Tony's arm. "Thanks. I was thinking maybe I'd overstepped or something."
"Nah, I got other stuff going on," Tony dismisses. "You want to learn how to use the coffee machine?"
"Maria just showed me." For a second Tony blanks, then realises Natasha is talking about Hill. Sometimes he forgets she has a first name like everyone else.
"On the contrary, Hill just showed you how to be frustrated by a machine that will not give you what you want, if the way she swears at it every day is any indication. I will show you how to coerce Dummy into giving you the goods."
"The coffee machine's name is Dummy?"
"Seemed appropriate at the time."
"No way." The others are all staring at him as he bends the DM screen in his hands back and forth, scowling.
"Tony, just this once," Steve says.
"You go. We've already got plans, set in stone," Tony says, sweeps a hand towards the door and also sidesteps Bruce's attempt to kick him.
"Everyone agreed to go," Clint says, hesitant, looking between Steve and Tony with concern plain on his features.
"Every Friday night, every Friday night, we game until dawn. You're allowed to skip it if there are family obligations, work obligations or you submit a request in writing at least four weeks in advance. We don't just decide to go out drinking halfway through instead to meet up with your new work buddies. This is not a democracy, it's a cheerocracy and I'm overruling you all."
"Do we have to ban you from Kirsten Dunst movies again?" Bruce groans, smacking a hand over his face.
"We've already played a few hours and I didn't think it would be a huge thing to wrap up early. Thor and Bucky are good guys and I thought you all would get along-"
“What kind of person is named Thor?” When Tony sees everyone start to shuffle around and pack up he shrills, "No one's going anywhere." He blinks because even he can admit that that might have been a tad too much.
"Can I see you in the kitchen a moment?" Steve asks, hooking Tony by the elbow and not really giving him a choice when he tows him from the living room. Clint, Phil, Bruce and Natasha watch them go with wide eyes.
"I forgot what an inflexible bastard you are." It's weird hearing Steve curse. He was raised in the time warp that was his Nana's apartment and became bully fodder not just because of his size, but because he said things like gosh, darn and swell unironically.
"I'm not inflexible," Tony says. "There was that unfortunate episode when we were eighteen that we shall never speak of."
"What... Tony! It's not like we killed someone. We played Vampire: The Masquerade."
"Never speak of," Tony repeats with a delicate shudder.
"As I said, it's not like we didn't play. I just wanted us all to go out and do something social."
"This is social," Tony grumbles.
"This is the opposite of social."
"This has been our Friday night plans since we were twelve. It's... reassuring and absolute. You can't just come back here and start changing everything."
"I'm not changing everything. I'm just trying to get you guys out of this place to meet new people before you find yourselves all attached to each other with mould."
Tony pulls a face, because that is not a pleasant image. "Yeah, so, what? Tonight it'll be playing for three hours then going out. It's a slippery slope. Before you know it, everyone starts thinking that their Friday nights are free and makes other plans and we never play again."
"So's your face."
"Tony... that doesn't even make sense."
"Neither does your face."
"Tony, it's just this week, I swear. It's the only night both Thor and I have off work together for a month. C'mon, please?" It's completely unfair the way Steve's eyes go big and liquid like that.
Tony crosses his arms, uncrosses them, scowls and finally throws his hands up in defeat. "Fine!"
“Just stay for an hour, reassure Steve that you’re making at least some effort,” Bruce leans into him to say.
“I feel like I’m the only one making an effort,” Tony grumbles.
“I think Steve deserves it since you basically cut off all communication with him,” Bruce says, rolls his eyes when Tony’s mouth drops open. “Are you really surprised that Clint told me?”
After a moment, Tony has to admit to himself that no, he’s really not.
They follow Steve moving through the press of people, confident that his size will encourage people to move out of his way. Steve used to have to be sandwiched between him and Bruce or Clint whenever they went somewhere with a lot of people. Now crowds part for him like Moses parting the sea and Tony is left trailing in his wake.
They reach a table with a couple of occupied chairs and Steve grins, claps an impressively big man on the shoulder who beams and stands to hug him roughly. There’s another man, dark and handsome in a movie-star way and two small, pretty women.
There are introductions all around and Tony finds himself shuffled onto a stool between Natasha and one of the women, Darcy. On Darcy’s other side is Thor’s girlfriend Jane, then Thor and the movie-star, who turns out to be a Bucky. Clint and Bruce head for the bar when they get everyone’s drink requests and Tony watches them go, thinks sourly one hour and I’m outta here.
“I’m fine,” Tony says, mostly without slurring which just goes to prove his point. When Natasha moves her head, he can see that Steve and Bucky are still leaning into each other like they’ve been doing for the past hour. Steve looks serious and Bucky has a hand resting on his shoulder and Tony really, really wants to go over there and smack it off.
If he thought he could get up without falling on his face he might just do it.
“C’mon buddy, time to go home,” Bruce says and Tony’s tugged away from the table, propped up by Bruce on one side and he finds Darcy under his other arm.
“Has it been an hour yet?” Tony asks blearily and Bruce frowns for a second, before he huffs, apparently amused.
“It’s been four.”
“Oh good, wouldn’t want Steve to think I was aban...ab... leaving him all alone,” Tony says, flails a resentful hand in Steve’s direction, who’s managed to drag his attention away from tall, dark and annoying for a few precious seconds.
“You guys need a hand?” Steve asks, starting to rise.
“Nah, we got it,” Darcy says and Tony wants to protest about being manhandled but he doesn’t quite manage it. Steve lowers back to his seat, but slowly, something undefined on his features.
Outside Darcy hails a cab while Bruce holds Tony upright. Bruce carefully lowers Tony in when one pulls over, hesitates about getting in himself and Tony watches Darcy smirk and then pull a pen from somewhere and write something on Bruce’s palm.
“You stud,” Tony burbles when Bruce finally shoves him over enough to follow him into the cab.
"Darcy's not my... wait, you think maybe she is?" Bruce is totally missing the point in his obvious excitement.
"We made the No Girlfriend rule when we were thirteen, and also before we knew that seventy five percent of us were gay. I feel a little discriminated against," Bruce says, throwing his hands out and his voice going shrill.
"We'll amend the rule."
"Darcy made food."
"You can't... what kind of food?" Tony asks, because made food isn't really something he's familiar with. They have take out most nights, eat leftovers of said take outs during the day. Sometimes Tony will splash out and get them a bunch of catered meals they can freeze and nuke later to stave off stuff like scurvy but the warehouse kitchen is basically used as a meeting point and for coffee but not any actual food preparation..
"I don't know, she brought breads and made dips and stuff."
"Dips? Is she trying to sneak vegetables into us? She looks like the kind of person that would try to infect others with the food pyramid."
"I'm pretty sure one of the dips is made from melted down toblerones."
Tony's a little derailed at that. "Oh, well, that's... okay. If she doesn't make a peep and her food is delicious I will think about, don't look that excited, I said think about adding a Darcy caveat to the NGF rule."
There is a dip that turns out to be made of toblerones, which is awesome, but there's also some that look suspiciously healthy and are horrifying colors like green and orange. They turn out to be delicious too so Tony just ignores the fact that there is some kind of plant derivative in them and uses corn chips as a spoon to cancel out any kind of health benefits.
Darcy does peep, but she seems to have a natural knack for picking the appropriate time to do it, asking Bruce questions or chatting amiably to Clint or Phil when there is a break in the action, never interrupting a scene. She even gets Tony talking about the little robot that has been rolling around the warehouse that he'd been tinkering with in his spare time when the others are discussing strategy.
It probably helps that Steve’s there and doesn’t seem inclined to have them do anything but game which improves Tony’s mood greatly.
Best of all, she falls asleep about three hours in with her head on Natasha's thigh and Clint's plush Cthulhu clutched to her chest and doesn't wake up no matter how much noise they make.
When the dawn light is filtering through the windows, Darcy smiles fuzzily at them all as Bruce tucks her under his arm and leads her out to put her in a cab. She pauses on the way out, leans over to tug at Tony's sleeve so she can reach his cheek to kiss and says, "I had a nice time, thank you."
When Bruce gets back inside, Tony rolls his eyes and says, "Yeah, okay, she can stay."
Steve rises and stretches, the only one not able to just stumble to bed in the same building. “Suppose I better head out too,” he says. Tony wrenches his attention from the way Steve’s shirt is pulling across his chest.
“Oh, right,” Tony says, swears under his breath at Bruce who nudges him with a pointed elbow in the back as he heads for his room. “I mean, you’re welcome to... stay?”
Steve hesitates with one arm in his jacket. “Stay?”
“Y’know... on the couch? Catch a couple of hours sleep.”
Steve’s eyes search Tony’s face for a second, before he gets his other arm in his jacket. “Nah, that’s okay. This place is pretty close to my Nana’s apartment. I think I’ll walk it.”
“Sure, yeah,” Tony agrees, watches Steve shuffle out, looking bleary and achingly adorable.
When Tony shuffles back to his own room, he rips the post-it off his door that says wuss with maybe a touch too much vehemence.
Art by lutin
Basically, Darcy, Jane and Thor are in his living room with Clint, Bruce and Steve having the regular Wednesday night Thai food.
Tony takes himself and a bot he's been working on up to the warehouse roof. He's trying to program it to hunt down stray dice before Tony steps on them in the mornings. A D4 is not a fun thing to have embedded in your instep before you've even had your first coffee of the morning.
It's an hour before the door that leads out onto the roof from inside creaks open again and Tony looks up, small flashlight wedged into his cheek and bot bits scattered all around him to see Steve approach. "Your food's getting cold," Steve says, hunkering down, balancing on his toes. Steve's a lot more graceful than he used to be, probably got more control of his body with muscle definition. Tony feels a strange pang for the Steve that knocked over stuff he wasn't even near.
"That's what microwaves are for," Tony says around the flashlight.
"Darcy's protecting your peanut noodles from Thor because she knows you don't like other people touching your food."
"She's a keeper, that one," Tony huffs, drops the flashlight into his palm and picks up a small screwdriver.
"Is this... are you okay with the others being here?" Steve asks after a silence that stretches a little too long.
"Clint and Bruce are allowed to have friends over."
Steve's expression does something funny at that. "I want... they should be your friends too. Not that I'm trying to force them on you or anything. If you don't like-"
"They're fine," Tony says and they are is the thing. Thor's like a golden retriever, impossible to dislike and the girls are much smarter and funnier than their propensity to devolve into giggles would allude to. Tony can do without Bucky but he doesn't seem to be a part of the core group, or maybe just someone Steve's getting to know a little slower because...
Tony could pretend he doesn't know why he's having a problem accepting the others, but he does. He feels like he's only just gotten Steve back, only to lose him all over again in tiny increments the more people Steve adds to his life. Tony knows it's ridiculous but it feels like the portion of Steve left over for him is becoming smaller and smaller.
Tony doesn't like the careful concern that's on Steve's face so he does the only thing he can think of to change it. "Let's have a party."
"What?" It has the desired effect, Steve gapes in surprise.
"We haven't had a decent shindig since it was cool to say shindig."
Steve still looks a little thrown, but seems to decide to just go along with Tony's enthusiasm because it's apparently better than his standoffishness. "Hootenanny got removed from the dictionary this year."
"That's a crime."
"Cassette player as well."
Tony snorts. "What am I going to play all those super mix tapes you made me on if the humble cassette player no longer exists?"
"You don't still have those," Steve scoffs, his eyes widening when Tony just ducks his face. "Oh my god, you do."
"Shut up, it's a reminder of a simpler time," Tony says, is very glad that it's too dark for Steve to see him blushing. "What else got taken out?" It's a feeble attempt to change the subject but Steve allows it, perhaps not wanting to upset the fragile peace that has sprung up between them.
"Millenium bug," Steve says, after a thoughtful pause. "I guess we really had no use for that even in the year two thousand."
"I'm thinking costume party," Tony says, circling back to the original point.
Art by lutin
"Tony got distracted when he was making party arrangements and decided he needed to sign me up on an internet dating site," Phil supplies.
Clint makes an interesting choking noise as he drops into the recliner chair near Phil's. "Why?" he manages to get out when it sounds like he's done inhaling the soda he was sipping through the wrong pipe.
"It's an attempt to turn Phil's frown upside down."
"He doesn't want your help with that," Clint says incredulously.
"Besides, I'm sleeping with Clint," Phil interjects without even looking up from his Monster Manual.
Tony thinks this is one of Phil's funny, funny jokes, but then he looks at Clint, who's gone a bright, tomato red and sunk down in his chair and... "What?"
"Clint didn't want to tell anyone because he's embarrassed."
"I'm not embarrassed, babe," Clint immediately splutters, tone one that suggests they've had this argument before numerous times.
"You call Phil babe?" Tony wheezes, caught on that small detail because if he looks at the bigger picture here, something fundamental in his brain might break.
"I've tried to get him to stop." Phil's lip tugs up at the corner and Tony knows, to the bottom of his soul that he doesn't want to hear what Phil is going to say next. "He mostly uses the endearment mid-coitus so I've developed an unfortunate Pavlovian response to it."
"Can you stop scarring me for life?" Tony whines, gets up and tries to beat a hasty retreat out of the room. He's stopped by Steve, literally. Time was, anyone running into Steve would've knocked the poor kid flat, maybe broken a few of his bones. Now, Tony just rebounds and lands on his own ass on the floor.
Steve just looks at him for a second before he rolls his eyes and offers Tony a hand up. "What are you doing?"
"Clint and Phil are sleeping together," Tony says and doesn't get the shock and horror he was expecting. Instead Steve just keeps looking at him, mild as ever. When he obviously realizes he's not giving Tony the response he's looking for he spreads his hands.
"That means Phil, has sex," Tony presses, wondering why he's the only one who knows how wrong that is.
"Frequently," Phil pipes up from the other room and Clint lets out a groan of mortification.
"There's something to be said for opposites attracting." Steve crosses his arms. He's looking a little peeved which Tony doesn't really understand.
"There's opposite and then there's different species."
"They're both just guys, Tony."
"No, Phil's an android."
"I can hear you, y'know," Phil calls.
"That's because you're an android!" Tony yells back at him. "With super android hearing!"
"You're being a little dramatic."
"You're being a little... here. Why are you here all the time?"
"I can leave-"
"Did I ask you to leave? I was just asking a question," Tony grumbles and Steve's looking at him with that careful confusion again. It's an expression he's getting a lot of use out of lately.
"Why are you mad at me?"
"I'm not mad at you."
"I don't think you've ever stopped being mad at me. You just have periods of hiding it better," Steve says, rubbing at the back of his head. "I took an internship. What else was I supposed to do?"
When Tony doesn't answer him, Steve throws up his hands and stalks away. It’s only after the sound of the warehouse's entrance door slamming shut has stopped echoing and Tony is really sure Steve's left that he answers that particularly loaded question.
"You were supposed to stay."
Tony looks up at Natasha who's just entered Bean Man, struggling with an umbrella and the vicious wind that's trying to steal it back out the door. "Are we playing the State The Obvious game because I really suck at it," Tony says, scooting over the counter so he can yank Natasha all the way through the door before the wind can throw napkins and paper everywhere.
Natasha dumps the umbrella in the stand by the door then pushes hair out of her face. "No, I mean, I knew you were a Tony Stark but I didn't know you were the Tony Stark."
"I got your facebook party invite."
"Ah yes, personally delivered to three hundred of my closest social media friends."
"Okay, the first thing that weirds me out is that your Facebook is full of baby goat and sloth videos."
"Oh, that's Sinbad."
"I outsourced my Facebook to someone with a pirate name in London."
"You outsourced your Facebook?"
"Yep, my twitter too. I'm a busy guy."
"You and Clint played Worms: Armageddon for six hours last night," Natasha says incredulously.
"See? Very busy."
"Don't you own a company?"
"Ugh," Tony grunts, crosses back to the counter with Natasha in his wake, shrugging out of her coat. "There are shareholders and a board of directors and meetings. We have an arrangement. I invent something revolutionary every six months and they leave me the hell alone unless there's something that needs my signature."
"I love that you say that like it's normal," Natasha says. "You just invent something revolutionary every six months, huh?"
"You say that like it's a hard thing," Tony counters, smirking.
"You invited three hundred people to this party you're having."
"Technically Sinbad did, but yes."
"Isn't that a little large?"
"It's no big deal. The warehouse is huge, we have three floors we never use that can be party central, it's catered and I've hired security."
"You've hired Thor and Bucky," Natasha says, narrowing her eyes.
"They're bouncers. Why wouldn't I?"
"They're Steve's friends. You should be inviting them to the party, not making them work it."
"They could have said no."
"Bucky has student loans and Thor's saving for an apartment with Jane. Of course they weren't going to say no. I'm surprised you didn't ask Darcy to waitress."
"She's not..." Tony bites at his lip, cuts off what he was going to say but Natasha's expression is shrewd. Turns out, he doesn't need to just worry about the people he's known for years calling him on his behaviour.
"Competing for Steve's attention with you?" Natasha guesses, lets out an aha of triumph when Tony scowls and looks away.
"I think I might have to get Sinbad to revise our friendship status."
"Tony, I'm sure at the very least Bruce has told you to just get off your ass and tell Steve how you feel."
"I feel nothing, zippo, nada. I have no idea what you're talking about."
There's two floors of party filled with people that he really doesn't know and then a floor reserved for the select few he does. He meanders around the larger party for about an hour, greeting people, getting photos and trying not to be appalled at the sheer number of Catwomen and Batmen in attendance, damn Nolan's oily hide anyway, then makes his way to the quieter party where he plans to drink to excess and then fall asleep while playing old school Mario Kart on a projector screen with Clint and Bruce.
Steve stalks toward Tony as soon as he spots him enter the restricted party, is actually a little aggressive about it which means Tony backs up a few steps, sloshes whiskey over his knuckles. "Um, hi? Where's your shield?"
Steve is dressed as Captain America, down to his cute red fuck-me boots. What's fascinating is that Steve doesn't need the fake padding most of the super hero costumes come with. He fills out every nook and cranny of material stretched to bursting quite nicely himself. Tony takes the opportunity to ogle openly on the pretense of checking out the costume. The way Steve's nostrils flare, he might not be fooled.
"Thor confiscated it to make paella. Apparently it's the perfect size," Steve says, then narrows his eyes and leans in just enough to make Tony back up another step, confused and lustful which is basically normal for him whenever Steve is around these days. "Just what are you supposed to be?" Steve's looking a little thrown and angry and something else Tony can't identify.
"Isn't it obvious?" Tony asks, strikes a pose. He's wearing one of the three criminally expensive designer suits he owns for those rare occasions when he has to attend shareholder meetings for Stark Industries. He's also got red-tinted sunglasses perched on his nose and Darcy helped his hair strike the perfect balance between stylish and disheveled.
When Steve just glowers at him some more, Tony relents. "Billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist. Duh." He grins and sets his whiskey aside, flips his tie over his shoulder to get at the buttons of his shirt. "That's not the best part."
"Isn't Superman a little cliche for you?" Steve asks.
"Of course it is, which is why I went in a different direction." Tony parts his shirt enough that Steve, when he leans a little closer, can see the Wonder Woman bustier Tony has on under his clothing. Tony smirks and Steve swallows hard and goes an interestingly hot color.
"Have you got on the whole outfit under there?" Steve sounds a little strangled which makes Tony frown.
"Well, no. Unlike some people," Tony says, looks pointedly at Steve's boot-clad feet. "I couldn't source go-go boots that fit me on such short notice. I have the lasso of truth tucked against my inseam though. Want to see?"
Tony's appalled at himself as soon as he says it, especially when Steve's mouth drops open and his eyes go wide. He doesn't know what possessed him to just hit on Steve so casually, without thought like that. He wants to immediately take it back because awkward but before he can, Steve kind of swings an arm behind himself.
"I have to go...um... rescue my shield," he says. He's backing up fast, kind of shaking his head like he can erase Tony's blunder from the air. "If Thor burns it I lose my deposit."
Steve turns and beats a hasty retreat through the smaller press of people on this floor and Tony's so thrown by the whole thing that he doesn't even take the opportunity to check out Steve's ass in the figure-hugging suit.
Art by makowe_pola
Tony stumbles in the direction of the corner where Bruce and Clint have set up various gaming systems, but reroutes when he spots Natasha, Jane and Darcy on a cluster of bean bag chairs that he had no idea he even owned and thinks Bruce might be responsible for. There's not a pair of cat ears among them, bless them. "I'm an idiot," he announces when their small circle shuffles around so that he has space to drop into.
Jane immediately cranes her neck, looking around the room. "What did you do to Steve?"
"Ugh, why does everyone know?" Tony grumbles.
"Steve doesn't," Darcy supplies, not very helpfully.
"Nah, he knows," Tony groans. "He just ran away from me like his ass was on fire." Tony swallows the remainder of the scotch he had in hand, spots Bucky and fights his way out of the bean bag chair. "I might as well go and give my blessing to the guy he actually is attracted to, be the better man," he says, ignoring the girls calling out from behind him as he makes his way across the room.
Tony is not drunk enough for this, but figures he might as well get it over with. He catches up with Bucky who isn't in costume, just a pair of black jeans and a fitted black t-shirt, bouncer du jour all the way. Bucky spots Tony out of the corner of his eye, turns when Tony gets closer. "Oh hey," he says, smiling and it's really unfair how he and Steve got similar old timey good looks. They're going to be ridiculously, sickeningly attractive together. "Just checking this floor for illegals. People have found out you're having a smaller, separate party and keep trying to sneak down here."
"It's not really a party unless there's a VIP area people are dying to get into," Tony says.
"Anything you need?"
"No, I just..." Tony belatedly wishes he had another drink in his hand. "I just wanted to give you the break his heart and I'll hurt you talk," Tony says, kind of looks Bucky up and down and adds, "Y'know economically, because I'm pretty sure you can kick my ass, loathe as I am to admit it."
Bucky blinks, confused. "Who's heart?"
Tony frowns. "Steve. Look, he's a one-fella guy so if you're playing around on him-"
"Woah, hang on. You've got the wrong end of the stick, pal," Bucky says, holding up his hands. "I mean, I have a girlfriend."
"As well as Steve?" Tony asks, feeling furious.
"No! Just... just the girlfriend. Steve's a great guy but we're friends."
"Oh, that's..." Tony feels a little, no, strike that, a lot foolish. "Um, forget I said anything."
"Hey," Bucky calls when Tony turns away. He spins back, giving Bucky an expectant look. "Look Stark, I'm pretty sure I need to give you the break his heart spiel. Just think about it." Bucky gives him a very meaningful stare before he retreats.
"Hey," Steve says. He's tossing something small across the roof and then there's a whirring noise. Tony can only see when he gets closer that Steve is playing fetch with Tony's dice-retrieval bot. Steve has one of Clint's cheap, plastic dice containers and is tossing the dice inside for the bot one by one. Every time he throws, the bot scampers away, uses a small claw to scoop the dice into a bucket on its back and zips back.
It's rudimentary but it does the trick.
"There's two different parties, you know. If you got bored with one you could have gone to the other one."
"I prefer it up here," Steve says. He hunkers down to retrieve the dice out of the bot’s bucket and feeds them back into the plastic tube, then resumes tossing them.
"You wanted us to do more social stuff remember? I think this classifies."
"This is a little over the top."
"I can't win with you."
"Not everything's a competition."
"Would you just tell me what it is I'm supposed to do then, exactly?" Tony demands, flinging his hands out.
"Maybe just try not treating me like crap," Steve says, tosses a handful of dice a little too hard and some of them go bouncing over the edge of the roof. The bot zips after them, bumps against the safety rail and then turns in place, frustrated.
"How am I doing that exactly?"
"What you did downstairs. That was really shitty, for one," Steve snaps.
"I'm sorry if me hitting on you is so offensive!" Tony yells, incensed.
"It's not fair when you don't mean it!" Steve barks back, eyes wide and nostrils flaring. Tony blinks, because what? "Just throwing it in my face like that. I never thought you would do that, it was a really-"
"Wait, I think we're getting our wires crossed here," Tony says, holding hands up, then making a T for time out with them. Steve's still breathing hard like he's just waiting for his turn to shout and not really listening to what Tony's saying. Tony takes a deliberate step backwards, because they've been advancing on each other while arguing, neither realizing it. He waits Steve out, because he knows if he's the next one to talk, they'll just end up screaming again.
He waits for Steve to work it through, rewind their argument and play it back, maybe even back further, all the stupid little things Tony did over the years, how hurt and pissed he was that Steve left, how he never really got angry at anyone because he didn't care enough but Steve could drive him crazy in next to no time at all.
Tony can practically see the wheels turning in Steve's head, leaves him to puzzle it out because Tony knows that Steve has to come to this on his own, he won't believe Tony if he just says it.
"Wait... you..." Steve's hands come up, scrub through his hair that's been left standing in weird spikes by his costume’s cowl. "You meant it?"
"Of course I meant it," Tony says on an exhalation. "I've always meant it."
"But flirting is like a reflex with you. It's like someone tapping your knee with one of those little hammers."
"You've seen me flirt, Steve. You can't tell me that what I do with you is the same."
"I don't know what you do with me."
"That's because you've never seen me really try, from the outside anyway."
Steve's gaze is level, searching Tony's face like he's looking for the lie, the facial tic that will tell him that it's all just some elaborate joke.
Tony realizes, with the benefit of hindsight, that Steve never actually knew about his epic crush. He was completely unaware that Tony's feelings of platonic friendship had abruptly and apparently permanently jumped the tracks into helpless infatuation a long time ago. Tony balked at telling Steve every time someone brought it up because he'd always thought that Steve was good at politely pretending that it all didn't exist for the benefit of Tony's pride, that he didn't need to be told because he already knew.
Turns out, maybe Tony isn't the only dense one.
"How long have you wanted...?" Tony flails his hands, can't really bring himself to articulate yet, just in case there's still a chance that he's wrong, that Steve isn't saying what he thinks he's saying.
"I dunno," Steve says, ducks his face, scuffs his feet. "When did we meet?"
"We were twelve," Tony says, not really getting what Steve is saying for a few precious seconds, before he does. "Wait, from then?"
"There were three guys, pushed me over in the street on the way back to my Nana's. I remember it clearly because it was only a few weeks after my parents were in the car accident. I never thought I'd be able to be happy, ever again. I couldn't even imagine it. So these guys push me down, kick me and I think yes, this is my life, this is misery-"
"Jesus," Tony chokes out, appalled.
"You just ran up, screaming like a lunatic. Those guys were running before they even realized that you weren't much bigger than me, that there was only one of you." Steve chuckles at the memory, eyes bright. "You picked me up, marched me back to your place. You made Jarvis get us ice cream."
"You were laughing at me. All afternoon you were laughing."
"I just kept picturing it, seeing you running at those bullies with your hands waving and your eyes bugging. I couldn't stop and I thought maybe, just maybe if there was someone like you in the world, maybe I could be happy again, or at least I could try."
Tony feels like Steve has just punched him in the heart, like he's just reached in and squeezed. There's a cloud passing over Steve's features, the hesitant hopefulness dimming and Tony's not sure why until Steve says, "So, how about you? Just since I got back right?"
Steve doesn't say, because I look different now but he might as well have. This time Tony feels punched in the gut, that Steve would have it so wrong. Tony reaches out, grips Steve's hand and tugs. "Come with me."
"If I want to live," Steve quotes back at him, automatic and Tony huffs a laugh.
"If you want to stop being a delusional dumbass and want to see the depths of my patheticness."
"There are depths?"
"It's pretty much an abyss of pathetic at this point," Tony says, tugging Steve towards the door that leads from the roof down into the warehouse.
His name is said on an exasperated sigh, because Tony tugged Steve all the way to his rooms, ignoring the catcalls and enthusiastic thumbs up from their so-called friends on the way. Tony just waves a dismissive hand at where Steve is hovering, uncertain in his doorway. The steady thumping of the music from the public party matches Tony's rabbit-quick heart as he drops to his knees and then digs under his bed.
"What are you-?"
"Patience, grasshopper," Tony says, muffled because he's now halfway under his bed. He has a California King and what he's looking for is pushed all the way up against the wall so Tony has to shift stacks of miscellaneous cables and spare computer parts just to get to it. His fingers finally hook on a familiar box and he tugs, unearthing it and himself with an Aha.
Steve's shifted a little way inside the room, fingers running over a stack of science journals heaped by Tony's desk. "What's this?" Steve asks, when Tony hands over the box, a completely nondescript thing, about the size of a shoe box.
"Why do people ask that when they could see for themselves?" Tony says, rolling up to his feet and then dropping his butt on the corner of his bed while Steve lowers himself into Tony's desk chair, holding the box on upturned palms like he's almost scared of it. "It's nothing bad, I swear. Embarrassing but not bad."
Steve hesitates for another minute before he looks like he steels himself and opens the box. He's dead silent while he cards carefully through the contents, not looking at Tony until he's done. He closes the lid and sets the box aside carefully, folds his hands in his lap and takes a shaky-sounding breath.
"You have a Steve box."
Tony nods. "I have a Steve box."
"It's..." Steve picks the box back up, flips it open again. "How long have you had a Steve box?" he asks, this time taking items out and setting them on Tony's desk reverentially. Tony can see ticket stubs, scraps of paper Tony knows hold some of Steve's discarded drawings, the mixtape. It's just random detritus from their lives, a collection of odd little keepsakes that Tony couldn't bring himself to part with, even though after Steve left he'd tugged the box out with the express purpose of doing just that.
Every time he'd just put it back, further and further under his bed.
"Sixteen I guess?" Tony says, can't really bring himself to tell Steve that he knows the very first piece, the exact date. Buried under everything else is a program for a terrible student production of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window that they'd been forced into attending because it was Clint's first leading role. Tony remembers it vividly because it was the day after he'd had the first impulse to kiss Steve, had become super-aware of Steve in that way so being jammed together in the cramped and hot school auditorium, watching Clint be hilariously bad was a special kind of torture.
Steve finds the program, of course he does. Picks it up and holds it tweezed between careful fingers for a long time. "Wow, I remember this. Clint did that horrible James Stewart impression through the whole play."
Tony chuckles dutifully. He honestly can't remember the play at all, so distracted by the warm press of Steve against him for two hours that night. He only vaguely recalls downing copious amounts of tepid soda and Steve fanning his face and both their sweaty necks with the very same program that Tony had then secreted away, feeling a little bit like a creeper.
"Y'know, it's really stupid, but I almost kissed you that night."
Tony blinks hard. "W-what?"
"You were sweaty, gross and your eyes got dark underneath like they do when you're tired and I still thought you were the hottest thing I'd ever seen in my life. I didn't know how people who looked like you existed in the real world. I still don't."
"Look who's talking."
"Then too, Steve. I'm talking about then. You had these huge blue eyes and this mouth, god-"
"Tony," Steve groans, pushes off the desk chair and Tony gets with the program, fast, lets Steve push him back onto the bed and crawl after him.
When Steve was away, Tony got very used to fast and messy sex and he tries to go that way until Steve makes a frustrated noise and flattens Tony to the bed with his body, pausing proceedings. “Tony, I’m not going anywhere,” he huffs.
“I didn’t think you were, not in the next twenty minutes or so anyway,” Tony says. He kind of likes being blanketed by the entirety of Steve’s body, could probably get worryingly addicted to it if given half a chance.
“What I’m saying is, we have plenty of time. I’m not here just for hand jobs and a slap on the ass.”
Tony doesn’t know what to do with that. He’s usually racing to the finish line by now, while simultaneously plotting the best way to get the guy out of his room right after. He’s a little thrown because he doesn’t want Steve to leave, possibly ever again and that’s a lot to process.
He’s attempting to take control because the lack of control scares him to death and he gets the feeling that Steve knows all of this.
“I know,” Tony finally huffs and manages to make himself relax, which seems to be what Steve was waiting for, his whole body to surrender because Steve goes back to sucking on his neck. “Okay, yes please,” Tony manages to get out on a long exhale.
“Well, I must admit I’m a little disappointed,” Steve says when he backs off enough to get Tony’s pants open.
“What?” Tony splutters. “I’ll have you know I’m above average!”
Steve is biting down on a laugh, the bastard. “No, it’s... not that. I was just... y’know, hoping that the Wonder Woman costume did go all the way down.”
Tony’s mouth unhinges. “Um, we could revisit that later,” he says and Steve’s eyes gleam before he curls back down into Tony’s body.
Art by lutin
Steve had been with the program up until he realised what Tony had pressed him up against on the way to the kitchen the next morning. Tony doesn’t stop trying to push Steve’s shirt out of the way.
“Why not? It’ll make me happy and Phil crazy. Practically two of my favorite things.”
“Practically?” Steve asks with a raised eyebrow.
“Well, we have a new contender after last night,” Tony admits, grins into the kiss Steve lets him get away with until-
“I can hear you!” Phil yells from behind his closed door.
“That’s the point!” Tony sing-songs back. “Y’know, if you signed a lease one of the clauses could be that I can’t make sweet love against anything of yours.”
Phil’s door yanks open and Tony has to grab Steve’s forearms so he doesn’t fall straight backwards into Phil’s room. Instead of Phil on the other side of the door, it’s Clint wearing nothing but boxer briefs and a scowl.
Tony catches sight of Phil, sprawled naked and decadent across his bed and that’s enough for him.
“Oh my god, you win this round of coitus chicken!” he yells, beating a hasty retreat. He hears Steve making apologetic noises to Clint but he’s too busy in the kitchen looking for bleach to drown his eyes with to make out what Steve’s saying.
His friends are the worst.