After Tony quits the Avengers, Pepper breaks up with him. It's cool but not cold. She says it's not about Ultron, not really, but Tony can read between the lines. She says something – he can't remember all the details because his ears were ringing with the rush of his own blood pressure – about the difficulty of trying to manage her mental health between the calling out of psychotic super villains and the imminent destruction of the planet by artificially intelligent alien code hybrids that he himself invented and unleashed on the world, and she goes.
He tries to muster up some surprise, but she's spent the last few years convinced he was going to die a horrible death, and he guesses after a while anyone would give up. He doesn't blame her, but he won't admit she's right when she argues that he's never not going to be an Avenger.
So Tony goes drinking instead. He takes Rhodey out to some fancy club and sits on a VIP sofa with a steady stream of servers delivering shots, and he parties.
He takes a night. And then, in the morning, he fights through his hangover long enough to call Steve and un-quit.
Steve doesn't even give him a hard time about it. Tony appreciates that.
The Avengers facility is a weird goddamned place. Tony leaves training the new kids to the likes of Natasha and Steve, because he can't spend too much time talking to Vision when Jarvis' voice comes out of his mouth, and Sam's hero-worshipping of, just, all of them grates on his nerves. The Maximoff kid looks sad, and what she can do scares the shit out of him, so that's out. And what the hell is he going to train them to do anyway? Tony can do a lot of things, he can't teach shit. He's not a hand-to-hand fighter, he doesn't have a handle on spycraft or war games or drills. Tony does tech. So he spends his time in R&D, blocking off his own little lab and ignoring all the interns in favour of fiddling with new equipment and wishing Banner hadn't taken off so he'd at least have someone to talk to.
And then one Monday afternoon, Steve barges in.
“Are you done?”
Tony looks up from his holo screen and blinks owlishly at Steve. Takes a second to recalibrate his brain from “lost in thought while redesigning Sam's Falcon wings” to “having to talk to another person” and shakes his head.
“I still need to figure out a better way to give full range of motion to the wings. Gliding is great, but they've gotta be able to make tight corners.”
“I'm not asking about Sam's equipment,” Steve says, crossing his arms and holding Tony's eye in a most uncomfortably piercing way. Tony, whose natural state is to buck authority, crosses his arms and mirrors Steve's gaze back at him, silent. “I'm asking if you're done hiding down here, feeling sorry for yourself.”
“I'm sorry, feeling what now?”
“You've been down in this lab moping for two months,” Steve says. His biceps bulge a little more than normal, and Tony's pretty sure that's a sign that he's clenching his fists behind those crossed arms. Show off.
“I have not been moping, I've been mechanizing.” Tony rolls his eyes. “And I didn't hear you complaining when I gave you those new concussive force discs.”
“You have been moping. You don't come up to mess for meals, you don't come up and watch training sessions, or engage in training sessions, you don't even socialize with anybody.”
“Mess? I'm a billionaire, I don't eat mess –“
“Tony, that's not what I –“
“I have no desire to watch Wanda and Vision make goo goo eyes at one another while you talk to them about strategy and forbearance,” Tony continues, his mouth working even while his brain reminds him to watch his tone, he's starting to get a little pissy. He softens a little. “I take the suit out once in a while, that's training for me.”
“You haven't taken the suit out for five weeks,” Steve says, and if Tony were into thinking too hard about how people said stuff, he'd think Steve almost sounds sad.
“No, it's only been three – four – well, okay, five weeks, sure, but I haven't had any reason to –“
“And you're not socializing.”
“I don't need to socialize. I don't know if you know this but I spent my entire life socializing. I know how to do it, I just don't need to right now.”
“Okay, tell you what,” Steve says, uncrossing his arms. He slips his hand into his back pocket, and Tony's eye follows it. “Let's go for a ride.”
Steve pulls out a single key on a Magic 8 Ball keychain. It's the key for Steve's motorbike – the Ducati Tony 'customized' last month. Or last week. Okay, maybe the days are starting to bleed together a little down here.
“Bike's a single-seater, Cap,” Tony reminds him, arching an eyebrow.
“Who said I was letting you on my bike?”
So Tony agrees. He slips into the Mark Stopped-Counting-Seven-Marks-Ago, and Steve hops on his bike, and they tear down the road – Tony about 30 feet in the air, of course – with their comms set to a private channel.
They don't talk about anything. It's mostly Steve calling out directions – left, right, right – and goading each other into more dangerous breakneck speeds, but it feels good. Steve was right, Tony hasn't been out of the lab in an embarrassing length of time, and he needed to get out. It feels good to have Friday run calculations on curves and turns, and to watch the road zoom by below them. When Steve hits a curve too hard, too fast, and the bike starts to tilt a little too far to the left (even farther than Tony had customized it to allow), it feels really good to dip down and right the machine – and the man – before something terrible happens.
Four days later, Steve comes down to the lab again and drags Tony upstairs for a beer. Two days after that, Tony comes up of his own volition and sits down to dinner with Steve and Natasha, in the mess hall and everything, and spends the whole evening chatting and laughing and generally having a good time.
The next morning, Steve brings him a coffee down to the lab, and asks what he's working on. Tony's working with a new repulsor cannon design on the holo screen, so he starts to point out some of its features, and Steve leans forward, over his shoulder, to get a closer look.
That's when it all goes to shit.
Tony can smell him – spicy-sweet scent of deodorant and musk, shampoo that smells like cinnamon. The effect the scents have on his body is instantaneous. He goes from concentrating on tech to half-hard in no time, and his whole body tenses.
“It looks like a good grip,” Steve murmurs, pointing over Tony's shoulder – over his goddamned shoulder – at the schematics hovering in front of them.
Tony wants to crack a joke about the shaft, and blow-back, and rounds per minute, but all he's got is Steve smells amazing so he says nothing.
Steve puts a hand on Tony's shoulder, and its warm weight brings “half-hard” to “fully hard,” and Tony's mouth goes dry.
“You're doing good work down here.” And then he leaves the lab, and Tony just sinks down onto his stool and runs a hand over his face.
“You've gotta be kidding me.”
Tony tries not to think about it, so of course he does nothing but think about it. The repulsor cannon goes no further, he can't work out how to fix the trigger mechanism and he's past any hope of concentrating. What he does do is take the suit out and go for a zip around the countryside, repeatedly. Finds himself at a party in the Hamptons, picks up a rather buxom brunette, if he does say so himself. She's not a bimbo – Tony hasn't done the bimbo thing in an awful lot of years – but she's not particularly interesting, either. He still takes her to bed, and in the morning he leaves her hotel room without leaving a phone number.
He doesn't feel guilty – he never made it out to be any more than casual sex. It's not a foreign concept to either of them.
No, he doesn't feel guilty. But there is a feeling he's not sure he can identify. He's never been good with feelings.
He goes back to the base still smelling of her perfume, and he runs into Steve before he can get to his quarters to shower. Steve looks him up and down, rolls his eyes, and doesn't say a word.
The feeling intensifies.
Tony continues like this for three weeks. Every other night, he skips out and finds a party, somewhere. He's Tony Stark, he can find a party anywhere, and he's never not invited. Sometimes he finds someone to fuck, sometimes he doesn't. When that unnamed feeling (he knows, by now, that the feeling is regret, but he refuses, goddammit, to name it) nips at his heels, he brushes it aside. He's single, he's on the rebound, he can do what he wants.
One night, he ends up in the bed of a tall, muscular blond man. They're going to town – the guy is sucking Tony's dick with enthusiasm, and Tony's got his fingers threaded through his (Mark's? Matt's? Something like that, he thinks) hair, when the beefcake opens his eyes and looks up at Tony.
He's going for sultry, obviously, and Tony wants to believe it, but the eyes that look up at him are brown, not blue, and he feels... regret. Cuts it short, feels like an asshole, but he's not into it anymore.
He goes home, and he jerks off in the shower without any shame, thinking about tall, broad shoulders and blue eyes that bore into his like they know every secret he's ever kept.