Tony is no stranger to love and, more importantly, to the act of love, making love, of fucking until you can’t breathe, until you don’t remember your own name and have no inclination to muster the energy it takes to even try. He knows the smell of sex, when it’s so strong it takes more than just a quick wash in the shower to remove it. He’s no stranger to different positions, to different kinks experienced with every gender and race. Been there, done that, done it damn well, and he’s got the tee shirt and pictures to prove it. Sex is something Tony Stark is good at, as he can tune someone’s body as well as the intricate armor in his lab. Intimacy is another matter entirely, and for reasons that don’t need to be divulged at this juncture or at any other juncture, Tony forgoes intimacy in favor of fucking because that’s something he can understand.
The Avengers gravitate toward each other, a relationship borne of close calls and sacrifice, and that’s something Tony struggles to understand. When he was dying, he opted for booze and sought a quicker death on his own terms, laughing in the face of his demise, yelling ‘you can’t fire me, I quit!’ To die by his own creation, by the one thing keeping him alive, was fitting in a fatalistic sort of way. That didn’t happen, though, because Tony Stark is a genius and because, if Tony believes that sort of thing, it was not his time to die.
He’s used to having his own back, to depending solely on his own strength, his own mind. He’s a one-man army, the man who privatized world peace for the short amount of time that lasted. The idea of having a team to depend on is a foreign concept, and not entirely unpleasant despite the time it takes to get used to it. Even Tony can see the merit of having a team – despite his accepted reputation of working alone – consisting of assassins, a super soldier, a demigod and a brilliant scientist who happens to turn into a hulking green rage-monster. He’s not going to be standing in front of a pep rally giving the all-for-one speech just yet, but what they have, it’s good. They’re fighting monsters and taking down bad guys that would be nigh on impossible to do alone. Fury, in all his fractured, eye-patched glory, was onto something when he pulled them together.
When the team moves into the Tower, it’s such a gradual process that Tony nearly misses it because he’s updating the armor in his lab.
One day he’s in the kitchen pouring himself a cup of coffee and Clint stumbles in, bleary-eyed and hair sleep-mussed and asks for Tony to pour him a cup. He takes it, closing his eyes as he breathes in the rich aroma, before nodding his thanks and wandering out the door back to wherever he came from. Tony watches him depart and, with a shrug, returns to the lab.
He doesn’t remember when the rest of them move in, only that one day around dinner time, he stumbles down to the kitchen to eat his first meal of the day, and everyone is there. Bruce tells him to pull up a chair because they’re having Thai, and that’s the end of that.
Clint nearly dropped to his knees in relief when he saw her, only uttering her name, “Tasha.”
They’d disbanded immediately, all opting to return to Stark Tower. Happy had driven them in the limo, with everyone piling into the back like a group of teenagers on prom night.
Now Natasha is sitting between Clint and Thor on the couch, leaning heavily against Clint’s side as he runs his callused fingertips along her pale bicep. She exhales softly as she drops one leg over Thor’s lap, drawing him closer. He rests his fingers over her ankle with possessiveness, a challenge to anyone who might try to take her from them. It’s so casual, so easy, that if you didn’t know them, you’d think this is every night behavior.
Tony watches from the chair, a jibe on his tongue that never leaves his lips as Clint offers his hand to Natasha. She takes it, pressing her palm flat against his as he gracefully pulls her from the couch. She lifts her eyebrow and Clint nods once, an agreement that doesn’t need words. She turns and extends her hand to Thor. He accepts with a gracious incline of his head. Words aren’t needed; tonight is for feelings, for remembrance: they are alive. They are whole. They will live to fight another day.
The warriors depart, and the only word on Tony’s tongue as he watches them go is victorious.
Thor is sitting amongst the Avenger dog pile, as Tony likes to think of it, with Steve to his right, Bruce to his left, and Natasha and Clint guarding his legs, daring anyone to try and take him from them. At this point, Tony would love to see anyone try, because they could take on Doom like this and it would be over in ten seconds.
The Avengers are protective of their own, that much is obvious. They’re all they have. Sure, they might have other friends, acquaintances, people whose weddings they attend and enjoy a few drinks with on Friday nights, but it’s not this. It’s not someone whom you trust to watch your back when you’re facing unspeakable evil, when you’re putting your life on the line. It’s not someone who knows exactly what you mean by the slightest nod. It’s not someone who can intuit your needs by the way you lift your eyebrow.
Thor drops his head on the back of the couch with a soft groan, wide eyes staring at the ceiling above.
“You should have let me shoot them in the back,” Clint mutters as he rests his chin on Thor’s knee, digging slightly at the dip above his knee cap. Thor drops his hand onto Clint’s head immediately, and Clint’s eyes drift closed as Thor scratches behind his ear.
“We don’t shoot people in the back,” Steve chides, eyes having been closed awhile. He still manages to poke Clint’s side with his sock-covered toe.
“From where I was standing, they were using a covert attack, not running away.”
Natasha chuckles. “The paperwork following your rebuke of that strategic attack would have been ridiculous.”
“Worth it,” Clint mutters. Tony mumbles his agreement even though nobody asked him.
“Good friends,” Thor rumbles, his voice low and resonating. Tony rests his tablet on his knee and shifts so he can watch Thor because, hey, just the sound of his voice demands respect, even if Tony won’t ever say that out loud. “I… thank you. What you did today…” He pauses, dropping his arms around Bruce and Steve and wedging his foot in Natasha’s lap. “You fought as warriors. I am honored to be part of this team.”
It’s the kind of thing you should say after your teammates risk life and limb to bring you home. Thor makes it sound like a decree, like something that people should write epic songs about. Thor makes it sound like something more.
Bruce angles his head, taking in Thor’s face, the dark circles clinging to his timeless eyes. “You’re tired,” he surmises quietly.
Thor inclines his head. “I… yes.”
Anywhere else it might be an admission of weakness. Here, in this room, it’s simply the hard-fought and bled-for truth. Here, like this, they are allowed what they can’t have anywhere else; they are allowed to be vulnerable.
“Bed, then,” Steve says as he pulls Thor’s hand from around his shoulders and into his lap, keeping two fingers pressed discreetly to the pulse point in his wrist. Tony’s not entirely sure that Thor has a pulse, at least not in the way that mortals do, but Tony appreciates the gesture. It’s the steady beat that signifies life.
Thor shakes his head. “I fear I’m not quite ready to give this up yet.”
It’s a closeness that only soldiers understand, and Tony is left speechless as none of them moves. Thor’s not the only one who’s not ready to leave this little cocoon they’ve created.
“We can always just move this party to the bedroom,” Natasha suggests quietly. Tony almost says ‘Hey, that’s my line!’ but his mouth closes so fast that he bites the tip of his tongue.
It’s Thor’s call. He’s the one who has dealt with his immortality being challenged on this earthly plane.
“I would like that,” he agrees softly.
Steve smiles and stands, taking Thor’s arm and reaching down to help Clint to his feet as Bruce does the same for Natasha. He casts a sidelong glance at Tony and raises his eyebrow. “Assemble?”
It takes Tony a second to realize they’re all staring at him, waiting for his response. It’s not as if he’s completely thick. He knows what goes on during those long nights when one of them nearly dies and the rest are fumbling to pick up the pieces. Just because he hasn’t actively joined the healing circle doesn’t mean he doesn’t participate in his own way. He waves his tablet as if that explains everything. “I need to finish this.”
“It can wait, Stark,” Natasha says as she reaches for the tablet.
Tony pulls the computer close to his chest, folding over it protectively. It’s a hard stretch not to bare his teeth at her. “No, it can’t,” he growls. The updates to the Tower security system aren’t going to write themselves, and after what Tony saw tonight, he’s not going to let any bastard creature, magical or otherwise, come for one of his teammates. If he’s lucky, he’ll be done by morning and he’ll be able to stumble to bed, finding some measure of peace again. Or the closest thing to what Tony calls peace: knowing his friends are safe.
She draws her hand back immediately, sculpted eyebrows crawling up her forehead as she watches him closely. “Okay.”
“You guys go ahead,” Tony says with a nod to the hallway. “I’ll join you later.”
He won’t, and they probably know he won’t if Steve’s narrowed glare is any indication. But tonight isn’t about him, and Steve guides Thor down the hallway with his arm around his waist. Natasha and Clint press in close and they move like one cohesive unit to the point where Tony doesn’t know where one person starts and the other ends.
Bruce hangs back, taking time to collect his glasses from the table and check them for fingerprints. “You could come, you know,” he says quietly without making eye contact, as if he’s telling Tony to join them for afternoon tea rather than the massive orgy they’ve got planned, or whatever it is they get up to behind closed doors. He’d never have pegged Bruce for the kind of person who joins in the all-for-one post-battle ritual, but he’s good with it, happy even, because if anyone deserves a little belonging, it’s Bruce.
Tony raises his tablet, because if anyone will understand, it’s Bruce: beautiful, brilliant Bruce. “Security system updates.”
Bruce smiles knowingly as he slides his glasses into his shirt pocket. “Ah, should have known.”
Tony nods, his fingers dancing across the code template displayed on the touch screen. “So, yeah, see you later, okay?”
And because Bruce understands him even better than he realized, simply says, “I’ll see you in the morning. Try to eat something.”
Tony hums noncommittally, already lost in his work.
He jerks when Clint shakes him awake, the sun already peeking through the expensive Venetian blinds.
“You didn’t eat,” Clint accuses as he shoves a plate of heaping pancakes into Tony’s hands before he can even open his mouth to protest or formulate a suitable denial to the truthful allegation. He’s left to wonder what the hell they all talked about while they were piled in bed together, when talking should have been the very last thing they should have been doing. Amateurs. The Avengers filter in around him, bleary-eyed and sated, and Tony eats because he’s too tired to think of a logical argument to refuse.
Iron Man catches him a breath before his vulnerable, very human body smashes into the pavement.
“And we’re good!” Clint yells as Iron Man drops him a few harmless feet above ground. “A bit late with the save, buddy. Is your suit getting rusty? I think I’ve got a can of WD-40 around here somewhere. I can help you out with a little oil and lube job later if you want.”
Tony’s not quick with a retort, even if the waggle of Clint’s eyebrows indicates he’s expecting nothing less. Tony’s anger is mounting to the point where he’s dangerously close to taking Clint up a few stories and dropping him just so he realizes gravity is actually still a law of physics and, despite how good looking Clint might be, humans do not bounce nor do they make attractive pancakes.
Clint raises an eyebrow as he pulls another arrow from his quiver. “Tony?”
Iron Man flies away from Clint before he can say anything further, and later he’ll blame it on wanting to avoid Captain America’s reprimand for idle chatter on the comm. And if he happens to pulverize the massive robotic baddie of the week into something that’s not even suitable for the recycle bin, well, sometimes that just happens.
He’s late coming back to the Tower, opting to fly low over the Atlantic Ocean and watch the spray drip down over his screen. JARVIS chastises him once and then quiets, only occasionally pointing out the species of rare sea birds flying alongside or the color palette of the sun as it crests over the horizon several hours later.
Finally, when his muscles have loosened and he can breathe without feeling like he’s pulling each breath from inside a steel trap, he asks, “Are they okay?”
JARVIS doesn’t ask to whom he’s referring. “They are together, sir, and they are asleep now.” Because those two things seem to be synonymous these days. “They were asking about you earlier. I told them your vital signs were within normal parameters.”
“I’m sure that helped,” Tony chuckles.
“They trust my judgment,” JARVIS responds equally.
“You mean my judgment. I programmed you, after all.”
“That, too,” JARVIS agrees.
“And Clint?” Tony asks, because the feel of the archer’s body in his metal-encased arms as the ground rushed up to meet them is still running through his head on auto-repeat.
“He said to tell you the offer for WD-40 still stands,” JARVIS repeats dutifully.
“Bastard,” Tony mutters. JARVIS doesn’t ask further because they both know the intricate Iron Man suit would never require a compound as simple as that.
A heavy silence falls before JARVIS says, “Look, sir, there’s a pod of dolphins to your left.”
What Steve isn’t good at is accepting the same care, the same devotion for himself.
He wasn’t injured save a shoulder that had to be reset in SHIELD Medical. It was over within a matter of seconds, and with the serum, he’d be fine by morning.
During the mission, he was cut off from the team, left fighting on his own with the idea of truly being alone again clouding his mind. Self-doubt filled his thoughts. What if he wasn’t fast enough, strong enough to get back to them, and, most importantly, what if he was too late? There was an explosion in the distance, debris and twisted metal flying through the air, and on the horizon, through the smoke and ash, Steve swore he saw the flash of repulsors falling toward the ground. Arrows stopped raining from the sky, and he listened for the telltale sounds of the Hulk smashing something. He’d called for them, screamed their names over his comm unit with no response. He’d fought more than an alien slime monster; he’d fought his past, clawing through the frozen tundra of his mind to get back to his rightful place.
When he finally rounded the corner, stepping out into the street, he saw Tony and Bruce dashing between buildings, Iron Man turning corners on a dime and Hulk lumbering after him. Clint dropped down a few yards from him, speaking clearly into his comm, “Found him. He’s still in one piece.” Clint eyed the blood dripping down his neck and reached out to press his fingers over the tear in Steve’s uniform, adjacent to his heart. “Mostly,” Clint amended. He stepped closer, guiding Steve down the street with a hand to his uninjured shoulder. “Tell medical to be on standby.”
Later, Natasha tells him that they could hear him the whole time, that his earpiece had malfunctioned so he couldn’t hear their responses.
Tony calls SHIELD’s technology complete bullshit and snatches away Steve’s damaged communication unit before stomping into the quinjet. No one dares to get in his way. Even Fury forgoes his normal lecture about how standard operating procedures include the required post-mission medical check.
“He hates it when you miss his epic one-liners,” Clint says, trying to break the tension after Iron Man’s heavy footsteps fade in the distance.
It’s the following morning before they make it back to the Tower. The debriefing was quick because even Steve’s heart wasn’t in it this time.
Steve wanders into the living room and slumps down on the couch. Natasha comes in fresh from her shower, hair still damp, and sits next to him, drawing her legs underneath her. Bruce offers him a cup of tea, and he takes it gratefully, his shoulder brushing against Natasha’s as he leans forward to take a sip, savoring the barest hint of honey on his tongue.
Clint sits on the opposite side of the couch, stretching out so his head is resting on the arm and his legs are over Natasha’s lap. “Well, fuck this day,” he concludes, kneading Steve’s thigh with his toes. Steve nods because that summarizes it nicely.
Thor walks into the room, his fingers skimming along Clint’s hair as he passes by. He drags the recliner over so he’s within an arm’s reach of Steve, and sits down, resting his elbows on his knees. The silence is heavy, but not uncomfortable. When they’re this close, Steve swears he can feel them breathe.
“JARVIS, where’s Tony?” Bruce asks because despite how good this is, they’re still not quite complete.
“In the lab,” JARVIS replies. No one is surprised. “He has asked not to be disturbed.”
“How about a movie?” Natasha suggests, leaning against Steve’s side and barely stifling a yawn.
They’re exhausted and should have been in bed hours ago. Dark circles shadow Clint’s eyes and Thor is slumped forward, jaw slack as he takes slow, even breaths. Despite their endless training and peak physical forms, they still need sleep.
“No, that’s all right,” Steve says. “You guys should get some rest.”
Clint lifts his head slightly, glaring across the couch. “I can sleep just fine right here, thank you very much. Hell, this is better than my room at SHIELD.”
“You mean the room you haven’t slept in since we all moved into the Tower?” Natasha teases.
“What can I say?” Clint mumbles as he tries to pinch Steve’s side with his toes. “Tony’s got better digs.” Steve grabs his ankle and lowers his foot into his lap, massaging the muscles and sinewy tissue. Clint groans and drops his head back down, eyelids drooping low. “I sure as hell ain’t moving now. Oh, God, keep doing that.”
“I’m good here,” Bruce says as he settles down on the floor next to Natasha’s feet with an afghan he’d brought back from South America tossed over his legs.
“A warrior must take care that his spirit is not broken,” Thor says before leaning back, his large body finally sprawling against the supple, black leather.
“My spirit isn’t broken,” Steve replies, because after everything they’ve been through, the fact that they’re still together, still fighting what he hopes is the good fight, means it’s okay, he’s okay. Fear clutches his chest, and he wonders if they question his leadership, if they’re concerned he’s unfit to lead them. None of them are the types to blindly follow orders, and if he’s done something to make them lose faith in him, he’s not sure how he’ll respond. He’d step down, of course, if it came to that, because what the Avengers are doing, what they’re accomplishing, is far greater than anything he could hope to accomplish on his own.
“Are you still with us, dear Captain?” Thor asks, taking Steve’s hand in his.
Steve blinks out of his mental fog. “Yeah, still here.” Thor, who answers to no one – at least no one on planet Earth – called him Captain, and it’s more than just an appropriate title used among the ranks of new recruits. Coming from Thor, it means something more.
“We heard you last night,” Natasha says, not lifting her head from Steve’s shoulder. “We could hear you screaming for us.” He feels Clint stiffen underneath his hand, and Bruce is studying a spot on the wall across the room.
Steve tries to remember what he said, what he could possibly have done to shake them this badly. He remembers calling their names, demanding their immediate response. He remembers the silence swallowing him whole.
He doesn’t apologize, because it’s not required or expected. He swallows and rests his chin against Natasha’s hair. “JARVIS, would you put on a movie for us?”
“Of course, Captain. What would you like to watch?”
No one is quick with a response because the movie is only an excuse. “Why don’t you pick?” Clint suggests with a casual wave to the ceiling. When Clint draws his hand back in, he stops at Bruce’s shoulder, rubbing the muscles between his neck and shoulder.
A few seconds later, Pixar’s logo appears, and they settle down to watch a skilled archer named Merida fight to make her own path in life.
Clint spends a few minutes pointing out the archery scenes that are realistic and why another wouldn’t work. Soon he falls silent, just quiet puffs of air as he sleeps. He still has one foot pressed against Steve’s stomach. Bruce is slumped forward, his chin touching his chest, and Steve winces in sympathy because he’s going to have a hell of a crick in his neck in a few hours. He doesn’t try to move him, though, because if Bruce had wanted to go to bed, he would have. Natasha’s jaw is lax, and she’s breathing against his neck.
Thor smiles at him, eyes on Steve instead of the ridiculously large LED screen. “I fear they have you surrounded.”
“Yeah, couldn’t get away if I wanted to,” Steve agrees. He has to go to the bathroom, and Clint’s big toe against his bladder isn’t helping, but he’s not going to risk waking one of them up.
Thor cants his head, considering. “Why would you want to?”
Steve opens his mouth to respond and the realization hits him like a bucket of freezing water. “I don’t.”
Thor seems pleased with his answer. “Good, your spirit is healing, then.”
In that moment, Steve wonders what they look like to Thor – if he sees them as spirits, as vivid warriors marked with intense colors and impressive fortitude. He thinks they’ve at least progressed past the point of being petty and small.
“Thanks, Thor,” Steve says.
“It is my honor,” Thor replies, eyes cast in the shadows of a world Steve will never know. Thor blinks and it’s gone as he shifts to watch the movie. “Oh, I remember this scene. She is so brave for one so young,” he says.
Steve nods his agreement, careful not to jostle Natasha. He closes his eyes, content to let their collective presence wash over him, balm to a weary soldier’s heart. He wonders how he manages to find rest stretched out on a big bed alone, because on Tony’s couch with Natasha’s hair dampening his neck, Bruce’s hand covering his ankle, Clint’s foot in his lap, and Thor watching over them protectively, it’s just about perfect. Sleep comes easily after that, despite the uncomfortable position.
“The bedrooms are used regularly, sir,” JARVIS helpfully points out.
Tony knows this closeness isn’t always required. It’s not like the Avengers came with a manual, just a collection of gathered notes SHIELD composed on each of them. The notes do not make the person, though, because if they did, Tony would be a collection of diagnoses better suited for a psych ward, and certainly not an acting member of a team of superheroes.
He sets the upgraded device on the table and leaves a note that says, 'Steve: this one works.' Last night was unacceptable, and Tony will be damned if their leader is going to go out with equipment that can fail at a moment’s notice. He’ll be damned if he’s ever going to listen to Steve screaming their names like that again, unable to hear their shouted responses. It’ll be years before he’ll get that broken sound out of his head.
Tony backs out of the room quietly. “Make sure he sees it when he wakes up.”
“Yes, sir,” JARVIS responds, and because AI can’t shut up, he adds, “You should stay with them. They would be happy for your company.”
“No can do,” Tony replies as he starts for the stairs that take him to the lab. “I’ve got four more comm units to build.”
“Are we going somewhere?” Tony says, falling into step beside him. “Hopefully it’s someplace warm, because I could use some sun.”
“We’re not going anywhere,” Bruce replies, his voice flat.
“You can use my plane,” Tony replies, not missing a beat, and Bruce watches him out of the corner of his eye. “No questions asked.”
“So you can follow me later?”
Tony shakes his head. “I wouldn’t do that. You’ve more than earned your privacy.” He pushes his purple tinted sunglasses further up his nose.
“Thanks, but the train will be fine,” Bruce responds, quietly touched by Tony’s gesture.
Tony nods and follows him through the halls, their steps in synch. “Anyway, if I wanted to know where you were going, I would have just asked.”
“So why don’t you?” When Tony doesn’t respond, he clarifies, “Ask. Why don’t you just ask?” Why is he pushing this? It’s not like he wants anyone to know where he’s going, to ask why he has to disappear once a year, on the anniversary of his mother’s murder.
“Because it’s none of my business.” Tony stops outside the living room and rests his hand on Bruce’s arm. “Have a drink with me before you go.”
Bruce eyes the hallway that will lead him to the exit that will take him away. Tony has been a good friend; better than he’s had in years. The best he can remember, really. Tony has treated him like a person, like a scientist and a friend, instead of a horrible laboratory experiment gone wrong. Tony is fascinated not only by Hulk, but by the man underneath, by Bruce Banner himself. He’s been good to Bruce’s green alter ego, the only one willing to get close and stay close sometimes, even without wearing his armor, the only one willing to stick around when Bruce has struggled to change back.
“Yeah,” Bruce agrees because his train doesn’t leave for another hour anyway. He trails Tony into the living room and drops his bag on the coffee table that’s, for once, actually in the middle of the living room rather than pushed to the side. “One drink.”
“Good,” Tony says and pulls two tumblers from the mahogany cabinet. He pours a generous amount of expensive single malt scotch into both glasses and passes one to Bruce, who raises his eyebrow. He hasn’t drank in years and there’s a good reason for that, but it’s just one drink, and Tony, who would never judge him, is the only one here. Tony taps his glass against Bruce’s. “To science.”
Bruce mumbles his agreement and winces as the warm, forgotten taste of liquor slides down his throat. He follows Tony to the couch, resting against the arm of the sofa rather than sitting down, because he doesn’t plan on staying long.
Tony is leaning forward, one finger idly tracing at the rim of the glass as he stares across the room. “To strategic retreat,” he says as he knocks his glass against Bruce’s half-full tumbler. Bruce nearly spills his drink all over Tony’s expensive carpet. He manages to get a grip on the glass and throws back the rest, trying not to cough as it burns its way down his throat.
“Strategic retreat?” Bruce asks after he brushes his arm over his mouth, watching as Tony pulls himself off the couch and stalks over the liquor cabinet. He pours himself another glass, returning with the bottle this time.
“To not being there in time,” Tony says and throws his glass back, swallowing down the contents in one go. He reaches out and turns the bottle slowly, and Bruce shoves his glass underneath the pouring liquid in an effort to save the couch that probably costs more than he makes in a year. Somehow, even without looking, Tony manages to pour the perfect two fingers of liquor.
Bruce’s belly is warm, and he seizes the moment, for once speaking without thinking about it first. “To being too young to do anything about it,” Bruce says, closing his eyes before he swallows the liquor in one go. He slides down onto the couch, takes the bottle from Tony’s lax fingers, and leans forward to refill his glass.
“To being old enough to know better and young enough not to care,” Tony says. Bruce nods his agreement and they swallow in unison.
Clint and Natasha walk into the room and survey the scene silently. The only change in their position is a couple of raised eyebrows and a nod. Natasha takes the bottle from Bruce, refills his glass along with Tony’s, before taking a glass for herself and Clint. They never ask what the occasion is.
“To everyone I couldn’t save,” Bruce mumbles as he downs the shot. It doesn’t burn any longer, and that’s usually a signal to a sensible person that it’s time to stop.
“To everyone we couldn’t save,” Tony amends, knocking his glass against Bruce’s empty one before he chugs it in one go, Natasha and Clint doing the same.
Bruce slides further down the couch, and he feels Clint playing with his shoes laces. A second later he’s drawing his sock-covered feet up and pressing them against Tony’s thigh. Tony’s hand falls to his ankle, and he drops his head on the couch, staring forward.
“To the fight,” Natasha says, and she and Clint take a drink together.
“And living to do it again tomorrow,” Clint parries after she refills their glasses. They catch up quickly, bodies soon succumbing to the alcohol as much as being trained assassins allows.
Natasha is nestled between Clint’s legs on the floor, leaning back against his chest as Bruce casually strokes her soft hair. It’s better than yoga.
Steve wanders in, breathing deeply and no doubt smelling the heavy scent of alcohol. “It’s only four o’clock.”
Tony abruptly raises his glass in the air, effectively cutting off whatever Steve’s about to say, and announces, “To never getting the timing right.” They all silently raise their glasses and pour the liquor back.
Steve, however out of time he might be, manages to at least do something right when he goes to the cabinet and pours himself a glass of whiskey, even if he won’t feel the effects. “To solidarity.” Everyone raises their glasses.
Bruce is slumped over the arm of the couch, head titled back and staring at the clock across the room. “I’ve missed my train.”
Tony leans forward, taking the bottle of scotch and refilling their tumblers. “We already drank to not getting the timing right. No do-overs.”
“Okay,” Bruce agrees, because Tony’s really making a lot of sense right now. “To actually getting the timing right.”
“Hell yes,” Clint agrees, and they all drink to that.
Because the day couldn’t possible get any weirder, it’s Steve who refills their glasses, albeit not as liberally as Tony would. Luckily they’re all too drunk to notice, and Tony is too comfortable to protest.
“To family,” Steve says, and they all drink, each remembering a loved one they lost far too early.
It’s Thor, who appears out of nowhere with a glass of Asgardian ale in his hand, who summarizes it the best: “To the family you pick for yourself.”
“Yes,” Bruce agrees before he tips his glass back, swallows, and slumps forward, head landing on Tony’s shoulder, all thoughts of leaving forgotten.
They all stick around to finish the bottle. When it’s gone, they still remain.
Steve had accused Tony of not being the one who would throw himself on the wire, of being the one who would not make the sacrifice for his friends. He’d been wrong, dead wrong, and he was willing to admit it.
There isn’t enough to time to disarm this explosive. Civilians are falling over themselves to run away as the Avengers fight the mechanical army of bots intent on distracting them so they can’t diffuse the bomb. Iron Man, after taking the head off a drone, drops down next to the SHIELD agents who are staring, slack-jawed, at the complicated device.
“Fourteen seconds, sir,” JARVIS says quietly.
Tony looks to his right at the Avengers fighting in the distance, listens to the sounds of the Hulk smashing a drone to bits, and his mouth curves to a vicious smile. He’s done the calculations and there’s only one way to end this. “Right, let’s make this a private party, then,” he says as he lifts the device into his arms, fires his repulsors and takes to the sky.
“Iron Man,” Steve barks through the comm. “What are you doing? That was not the plan.”
“Yeah, there’s been a change of plan, Cap,” Tony responds. “Faster, JARVIS,” he mutters, pushing the suit to its limits.
“I don’t like this plan,” Clint says flatly. “Stark, pitch the thing and get back down here.”
As soon as JARVIS’s panicked voice says, “You have cleared the–” Tony throws the bomb away, and the sky is filled with bright light and fire and the smell of Tevox. He falls.
“His lab, Captain,” JARVIS responds. “He wishes to be–”
Steve cuts him off. “Not today.” The elevator seems to pick up speed.
They had barely gotten a glimpse of Tony’s hair, the scratch across his forehead and a bruised cheek, before they were ushered out of Medical, because apparently at SHIELD, visiting hours somehow applied to them. Tony had booked it twenty minutes later.
“We shouldn’t have left him,” Natasha says as she rubs a finger across her scraped knuckles. “I knew what he would do.”
“I think we all knew,” Bruce says, admitting their lack of better judgment and Tony’s even greater lack of good sense.
“We need a plan,” Clint says, nudging Steve with his shoulder. “Stark isn’t going to come willingly.”
Steve stares at the metal door, willing it to open. “He’s not going to have a choice.”
“We can’t force him,” Bruce says quietly. The closest Tony’s ever come to having a handler is Pepper, and even she can’t get Tony to do something he really doesn’t want to do. The man is notorious for being impossible, and that’s probably why he’s so good at what he does. Tony Stark won’t take no for an answer. If it’s impossible, he’ll find another way or he’ll make his own; he’ll cut the wire and leave everyone else fumbling around trying to figure out what just happened. “He’ll just dig his heels in and have us talking in circles. Before you know it, we’ll have forgotten why we’re here in the first place.”
Steve raises his eyebrows. “It took us nearly an hour to find him after he went down. Do you think you can forget that?”
Bruce expels a deep breath from his gut, his shoulders trembling. “No, I don’t.”
“He’s a part of this team,” Steve continues. “Tonight he’s going to realize that.”
It feels almost prophetic when the elevator doors open and Tony’s lab is visible beyond the glass walls. Tony is talking fast, undoubtedly to JARVIS, who has alerted him to their presence, scowling down at the work table as he tries to beat a dent out of the Iron Man chest plate.
Steve doesn’t bother trying the door, because he knows it’s locked. “JARVIS, open the door.”
“Sir has reported that he is fine, and he will see you all–”
“Open the door!” Steve yells. He’s commanded hundreds of troops and he can’t make a computer unlock one door for him.
“Shit, he’s bleeding,” Clint mutters, face pressed against the glass. It’s as if Tony hears him, because he reaches up and touches his forehead, muttering as he rubs his bloody fingertips against his jeans.
The sound of Bruce’s breathing is audible as he leans forward and presses his palm against the glass. “JARVIS, tell him either he’s coming out or the Hulk is coming in.”
Natasha and Clint immediately take a step back. Tony jerks his head up, dropping the soldering iron he’s just picked up and glaring across the room, as JARVIS relays Bruce’s message. Bruce raises his eyebrows, his glance flicking to the door and back to Tony.
“Sir would like to welcome you to his lab,” JARVIS says as the door slides open.
“I bet he would,” Clint mutters, following the rest of the team inside.
Tony starts in before they’re even fully inside. “Did you guys get lost on your way to the–”
“Save it, Stark,” Steve growls.
“We’re back to last names now?” Tony shoots back. “At least you used to call me mister.”
“We used to call you a lot of things,” Natasha says. She collects the soldering iron and gives it to Dummy, who chirps and rolls off to put the tool away.
“Oh? What changed, then?” Tony snaps. “If I recall your report correctly, and I’m sure I do, I believe you called me a–”
“You became part of the team,” Steve interjects, cutting off Tony’s tirade before he gathers much steam. “We all got the opportunity to know you, and if you’d stop throwing yourself on wires every chance you get, we’d get the chance to know you even more.”
Tony rolls his eyes, because damn if they haven’t bought a clue. “You’re saying that like it would be a good thing.”
Thor bursts through the open door, hammer in his hand, like he’s ready to fight off powerful monsters, or, in this case, the depth of Tony’s self-loathing, which is probably a more formidable enemy anyway. “My friends, you are all here.” He leans against the wall and takes a deep breath. “That is a good thing.”
“Yep, the gang’s all here,” Tony responds with fake cheer. “JARVIS, play Kumbaya. Where’s my lighter?”
“Delay that, JARVIS,” Steve says. He glares at Tony, who’s still fumbling around looking for a lighter. “This isn’t a joke.”
“Do I look like I’m laughing?” Tony growls venomously, hands curling into fists against his thighs. The room falls silent as they stare at the walls, their feet, at anything other than the man who’s pushing them away because he doesn’t know how to do anything else. Tony takes a deep breath and drops his eyes to his fists, forcing his hands to uncurl. “I’m not like you, okay? I’m used to working alone, to being alone. It’s good. Really, it is. I’ve had years to perfect it.” When Steve sinks his teeth into his lower lip and Thor looks like he’s about to bash his hammer through the wall, Tony rushes to add, “But that’s okay! It’s not a bad thing. It’s just different. I’m different.” He waves his hand, pointedly ignoring the dried blood around his fingernails and the twinge in his shoulder. “You guys have each other, and I have the lab.”
“You are happy here?” Thor asks as if he’s trying to understand how a room filled with metal and robots is better than contact with a living, breathing person.
Tony shrugs, dropping his hand back to his lap. “Sure, my stuff is here. The armor and all the projects I’m working on. It works for me. At least I’m not bored, right?”
“Do you not find comfort in the arms of another?” Thor presses, still confused.
Tony scratches the back of his head, happy to find the blood’s dried now. “You don’t know much about me, do you? I always find comfort in the arms of another. The arms, the legs, the… whatever. Ask anybody. It’s kind of my thing.”
“Hasn’t been your thing for a while,” Bruce responds. “I haven’t seen you bring a single person home since this – we – started.”
“I’ve been busy,” Tony replies, voice flat and annoyed, like his promiscuity is being challenged. They all know if Tony so much as twitched his nose, he’d be beating off women and men with a stick. His money alone is enough to have thousands of people falling at his feet, and the fact that he’s easy on the eyes only works in his favor. Even without his fortune, Tony wouldn’t have to work to get laid.
“You left SHIELD against medical advice,” Steve points out, trying to bring the conversation back on track before Tony manages to turn this into everything it’s not.
“No,” Tony corrects. “That would imply that a dialogue had taken place between the physician and myself, and appropriate paperwork had been signed releasing SHIELD from all liability. I just left.”
Steve groans, rubbing the space between his eyebrows, trying to loosen the permanent pinch that always seems to be there when he’s around Tony. “That doesn’t make it better.”
Tony shrugs unapologetically. “Them’s the breaks, Cap.”
“Come upstairs,” Steve says. It’s an order, and Captain America expects to be obeyed. Anyone else would be cowering underneath the weight of his scowl. Tony, however, sees it as a challenge. The second a line is drawn, Tony is tap dancing across, singing ‘take your authority and shove it,’ simply because he can; because rules are meant to be broken and authority is meant to be challenged.
Leading Tony is like trying to herd a bunch of cats – genius cats with wicked tongues that can cut you down with three words. “No can do, Spangles. I need to finish this.” Tony turns, giving Steve his back, and it’s clear the conversation is over. They’ve been dismissed. Short of bodily carrying him out of here, which is easily doable – hell, Steve could take unarmored Stark on his own without breaking a sweat – but at what cost? This isn’t something they should force on him.
Steve glances at Clint and Bruce, looking for support, for ideas, for a solution to the conundrum that is Tony Stark. He hears the crinkle of paper as a magazine page is turned and twists to see Natasha sitting on the worn couch pushed against wall with a copy of ‘Popular Mechanics’ in her lap. Bruce brushes Steve’s shoulder as he walks past, grabbing a well-read issue of ‘Wired’ from a table filled with assorted circuitry and tools, and drops down next to Natasha.
Tony raises his eyebrows, staring at Bruce and Natasha as they idly read their magazines, and shrugs before pulling tinted goggles down over his eyes.
Clint wanders over to Natasha and drops down on the floor, laughing when Dummy rushes over and extends his claw. Clint passes him a stray washer and Dummy rolls away to put it in its rightful spot. It turns into a game and then Clint is flat on his stomach pulling things out from under the couch that haven’t seen the light of day for years, and he laughs when Dummy chirps because he’s not moving fast enough.
Steve sits on the far end of Tony’s work bench. It’s the only cleared place to sit, and Tony seems too caught up in his work to notice. The only sounds in the lab are Tony’s tinkering, Clint’s occasional laughter and thin pages being turned. He’s not sure if Tony’s trying to wait them out or if he’s content with them being here, or if he’s so engrossed in his work, he’s simply forgotten them.
A full twenty minutes later, Tony says, “Pass me that hollow punch.” His arm is extended and his fingers are waggling expectantly under Steve’s nose. The dried blood is clinging to his nail beds; a trail of coppery brown lingers on his arm.
“Uh… sure.” Steve stands up and selects what he hopes it the right punch – Tony has at least twelve strewn across the table.
Tony mutters half a thank you before he bites down on the end of a screwdriver, hands flying over the chest plate as he reattaches circuitry. He’s jittery, wound tighter than the spool of cat 5 wire that’s coiled in the corner. Tony’s normally graceful movements are erratic, and it’s obvious he’s exhausted, only too stubborn to throw in the towel.
“You know, being human is not a weakness,” Thor rumbles from the wall that he’s propping up.
Tony glares down at the armor, chest heaving as he breathes. “Thanks for the hot tip, God of Thunder. I was beginning to wonder if Clint and Natasha were going to start feeling bad about their mere human status.”
Steve catches Thor’s gaze, silencing his response with the barest shake of his head. Tony’s not ready. Not yet. Throwing insults seems like nothing more than a last ditch effort to push them away, to force them to leave in disgust. Thor leans against the wall, managing to cross his arms over his chest and still keep his grip on the hammer, steady in his resolve.
Tony continues to work, movements a frenzied rush as exhaustion catches up, clinging to him like an invisible weight, and he tamps it back down with a brutal shake of his head. Bruce leans forward, magazine forgotten, because shouldn’t they stop this? Tony’s working with heavy machinery – he’s working on his armor. If he hurts himself while they’re sitting around and doing nothing but watching, they’re never going to forgive themselves.
Tony, unlike his impressive technology, does not come with a manual. And despite Steve’s better judgment, he decides to let this one play out, because Tony doesn’t go by the rules, and if he rushes in all orders and authority, Tony’s going to draw on whatever waning strength he’s got left – probably hidden somewhere in his big toe – and tell Steve where to stick it.
It feels like a demonstration, like one of those demos Stark does when he’s try to explain a new piece of tech he’s created to a group of potential investors. It’s a demonstration on the inner workings of Tony Stark, and it’s the first time they’ve been allowed to see one of these self-implosions up close. It’s beautiful and heartbreakingly tragic, like the inside of an intricate bomb. Some of the best tools the Avengers now use – advanced equipment that has saved all their asses more than once – were no doubt created on nights just like this. Tony’s one of the few people who can be at his best when he’s at his worst.
Finally, when Steve’s body has grown heavy and exhaustion pricks at the backs of eyes, Tony says, “Finished.” He sets the chest plate carefully on the table and drops back down to straddle the bench. “Iron Man will fight again tomorrow.”
Steve opens his mouth to tell Tony it’s not about that; that he’s more than just a guy in a suit, and if he’s stayed up all night because he’s worried about his place on the team, he needn’t have bothered because–
Tony’s body sways forward and his head drops onto Steve’s shoulder before he can get a single word of his eloquent, half-formed speech past his lips. Steve doesn’t move, words dying on his tongue, because it’s the first time he’s been this close to Tony outside of the armor, when he was using Iron Man for a quick transport. He’s instantly awake as he breathes in the scent of oil and metal and Tony.
He decides to risk it, because Tony had initiated the contact, and that’s something he doesn’t do outside of Pepper and that one time he’d kept Bruce from taking off for parts unknown by getting him hammered and holding his feet in his lap. He starts at the top of Tony’s head, hoping his eyes are still partially open so he can see Steve reaching for him, at least feel his body shifting closer, so he’s not startled by the contact. He massages Tony’s scalp, fingers treading lightly around the scrape on the back of his head, memorizing the length and depth and coming to the conclusion that it’s superficial. Tony’s mouth opens slightly, breathing against his neck. Steve trails down his back, massaging the coiled muscles underneath Tony’s skin.
The room is silent, pages no longer being turned, and the only sound is an occasional groan from Tony when Steve lands on a particularly tense spot. Tony’s face is pressed against his throat, and he knows he’s hit a sore spot when he feels Tony’s jaw tense, hissing against the cords of his neck. Tony doesn’t say anything, so Steve whispers, “That hurt?”
He gets a noncommittal rumble at best, which could mean just about anything coming from Tony. Steve drops his hand to Tony’s thigh and rubs his palm against his blue jeans a few times, and when Tony doesn’t protest, he slowly pushes underneath his shirt, carefully seeking the spot that had made Tony flinch. There’s an area that runs along the back of Tony’s ribcage that causes the breath to seize in his lungs despite Steve’s feather light touch. He makes a show of getting his arm stuck in Tony’s shirt, of trying to push away the offending material that keeps getting in the way.
Tony huffs and leans back, lifting his arms so Steve can pull his shirt off. Thor clears his throat, hand running along the handle of the hammer in long, languid strokes. Natasha’s magazine is tossed in the corner and she’s got a death grip on Clint’s shoulder. Bruce hasn’t taken a breath in the last two minutes since he realized what Steve’s trying to do.
Tony’s chest is a smattering of scars and healing bruises, shaded with a full color palette of contusions, all surrounding the arc reactor, the most beautiful of Tony’s creations: the one that’s keeping him alive.
Tony turns away, the spell has been broken, and Steve realizes his mistake – he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the blue glow nestled within Tony’s chest. It’s like the room draws a collective breath and holds it, waiting for the fallout, and each person is already formulating a way to try and fix it. Steve’s hand is at Tony’s hip, pressing but not tugging; he won’t force Tony to stay, but he’s not going to make it easy for him to run away. Tony stares across the room, shoulders tight. He takes a deep breath, and Steve thinks this is it; Tony’s going to get up and walk away and there won’t be a damn thing they can do to stop him.
Suddenly, Tony collapses backward, his body nothing but a boneless sprawl against Steve’s chest. He takes a breath and releases it, watching with fascination as it ruffles Tony’s hair. His fingers ghost over Tony’s stomach and finally he relaxes his arm once he’s got Tony in a loose hold. The bony prominence of Tony’s hip pushes against his wrist, and Steve makes a promise to himself that Tony won’t be skipping so many meals anymore.
“You know, if all of SHIELD’s medical exams were like this, I wouldn’t be so inclined to skip them,” Tony says, and his teasing tone is so familiar, so Tony that Steve’s heart aches with relief.
“Yeah, like you’d let them get anywhere near you,” Clint says. It’s not funny, because it’s the truth. Tony, who touches everyone like he has the right to, won’t let anyone get within five feet of him, and there’s a graduate level thesis somewhere in there.
“Maybe I would if they looked like Steve,” Tony shoots back.
Steve chuckles, his breath dancing along Tony’s neck as he nestles two fingers under the waistband of Tony’s jeans. “I’ll be sure to pass that along to Fury.”
“Gross, no. Just no,” Tony grumbles, the idea of a blond-haired Steve-but-not-Steve lookalike trying to get close to him is just wrong. “Oh, that’s nice,” he murmurs when Steve kneads a sore muscle in his thigh.
Steve takes his time, committing each bony curve and line of hard muscle to memory, just like he’s done with Bruce, Natasha, Clint and Thor. He knows the others are watching, envious yet pleased, because as long as someone is taking care of Tony tonight, they’re content.
Tony scratches at his stomach and stares down at the black mark he’s just made across his side. “I need a shower.”
Thor perks up. “That is an excellent idea.”
Tony chuckles, squeezing Steve’s arm, before he pulls away and sits up. “And if that’s not spank bank fodder for the next ten years, I don’t know what is.” He looks at each of them, making sure he’s got eye contact before moving on. “As enticing as a group shower sounds, if that’s what you’re offering, and someone please do not remind me of this when I’m kicking myself in the morning, I’m going to have to decline. I actually need sleep, and the idea of you five naked does not make me want to sleep.”
He gathers his legs under him and stumbles toward the door. The Avengers are on their feet, ready to catch him if he falls. He pauses after JARVIS opens the door, and says, without turning around, “Thanks. For this.” And with that, he gathers what’s left of his rectitude and makes it all of two steps before he misses a stair and falls backward, bracing for the impact of the hard floor and instead falling no more than five inches, directly into Clint’s chest.
Natasha appears at his side, sliding his arm over her deceptively small shoulders. Bruce offers his forearm, and Tony curls his hand around it thankfully. Clint keeps his hands on Tony’s hips, fingers callused from years of archery, guiding him up. They’re moving as a cohesive unit, and Tony’s not sure if he’s even walking under his own power anymore, but he can’t scrape together a damn to give.
His bedroom door is open and Thor has the shower running already. JARVIS could have done it himself, but Tony knows what it’s like to want to help, so he gives Thor a grateful smile. He forces himself to leave their support, the safe haven of arms and gently spoken words, and stumbles into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. He keeps one hand pressed against the door, silently repeating thank you over and over.
He showers quickly, mostly because he’s got about two minutes left in him before he collapses in a heap at the bottom of his shower. He manages to dry off and pull on a pair of boxers – another thank you goes to Thor – before wrapping the towel around his waist. When he opens the door, five heads jerk up, guiltily staring at him from assorted places around the room.
Bruce cracks first. “We wanted to make sure you made it to bed.”
Tony shakes his head because this, apparently, is his life now, and how fucking lucky is he? “JARVIS would have told you if I didn’t.”
Steve shakes his head. “It’s not the same.” He quickly adds, “No offense, JARVIS.”
“None taken, Captain,” JARVIS replies. If anything, the AI sounds happy to finally have someone to share the responsibility with. It takes a village to look after Tony Stark, or at least a team of dedicated superheroes.
“Voyeurs,” Tony says, because he can’t not joke right now. He’s had less intimacy the last thirty times he got laid. He tosses the towel away because they’ve already seen him stripped bare, even if he was wearing more clothes than he is right now. He groans when he collapses face first into the pillows, and he swears he hears several sighs of relief.
He rolls onto his side, voice muffled when he says, “It’s not a private party, you know.” He waves his hand casually before pushing the covers back.
“It is a big bed,” Clint points out, waiting to see if Tony will correct him, tell him that he’s got the wrong idea.
It’s a ridiculously big bed, one that he had specially made, and it’s tragic that he sleeps more on the raggedy couch in his lab. Tony curls into himself, and suddenly, he looks small. Tony, who manages to look larger than life in front of army generals and alien monsters, looks like he’s being swallowed amongst an ornate comforter and thousand thread count sheets.
Steve moves first, edging to the corner of the bed and drawing himself up on his knees once he slides onto the mattress. Tony hums, but whether it’s agreement or admonishment no one’s sure until the bed dips under Steve’s weight and Tony rolls against him, jamming his head underneath Steve’s chin. Steve smoothes down Tony’s hair and lifts an eyebrow to the rest of the team: Assemble?
“Only Stark would have a bed that can comfortably fit six adults,” Clint comments as he drops down next to Steve, reaching over to brush his fingers along Tony’s hip.
“This is a magical bed,” Thor agrees, and they all roll back a few inches when he stretches across the plush mattress.
“Oh, this is definitely where the magic happens,” Tony agrees smugly, voice muffled against Steve’s shoulder.
“Go to sleep, Tony,” Bruce says, breath ghosting over Tony’s ear as he settles an arm around his waist.
“Admit it,” Tony continues, threading his fingers through Natasha’s, who is somewhere amongst the entangled arms and legs. “My bed is awesome.”
“No complaints here,” Clint agrees, squeezing Tony’s hip.
“All post-battle debriefings shall now take place in Anthony’s personal chambers,” Thor says solemnly.
Tony snorts, and Steve gently slides his fingers down Tony’s side. “Sleep, Tony.”
Tony blinks at Bruce, who’s only inches away, watching him through hooded, soft eyes. “What if I’m not ready to give this up yet?” Tony whispers, suddenly realizing with crystal clarity why Thor said the exact same thing a few months ago. Someone is combing their fingers through his hair, and judging by the weight of the hand, it’s probably Thor.
“It doesn’t come with a time limit,” Steve replies. He shifts and Tony feels dry lips press against the side of his neck. “Sleep now.”
Tony closes his eyes and finally lets his body and, more importantly, his mind rest.