He was standing in the ruins of a lot of hard work, a lot of hard work that had just gotten up and running less than a week ago, and for once, Tony Stark was exhausted by the idea of rebuilding. All he really did was rebuild, anymore, and there was an enormous pile of rubble in the floor where Hulk had decided to smash Loki around a bit and there was glass broken where Loki had decided to smash Tony around a bit and when he crossed to the bar and sniffed at a few open containers, he detected the hint of plaster. Plaster. In his favorite whiskey. He stared at the glass mournfully and gave the arc reactor an absent-minded tap, a reminder to himself that, yes, he had lived, it was still working, the armor was fine. Everything was fine. His CEO was on the west coast avoiding him and the remains of New York, and everything was fine.
No, he corrected himself, Pepper wasn’t avoiding him. Pepper was cutting her losses. And that was smart of her. If he’d been able to see the stunt he’d pulled before everything went dark, he would have scrambled the hell out of dodge, too. He was sure it hadn’t looked pretty from where everyone else was standing, since it hadn’t looked particularly awesome from where he’d stood, either. They’d be back to normal in no time, but it wasn’t a surprise to him and probably hadn’t been a surprise to her, either, that this could never work. That as long as he lived in the suit—as long as he was part of this team of assassins and demi-gods and monsters and super-soldiers, jesus god—no one could be expected to watch him half-die every week and be okay with it. Fuck, he wasn’t okay with it, most of the time.
And he and Pepper had been good, really, in the time they’d had, but Tony Stark was Tony Stark, and there were some things you could put up with from your boss or your former boss or even your friend, but not from your significant other. His lip curled in derision at the word. That had been the mistake, right there. Choosing to apply the initials S.O. to anything involving a Stark. What a shit idea that had been.
Plaster or not, he poured himself a drink. What the hell, right? Maybe he was imagining it. He leaned against the bar and stared again, unseeing, at the damage, wondering if he should just knock the whole damn tower down and start over.
“I don’t think the damage is that bad.”
Tony jumped and only saved his drink with the power of exceptional balance. “Hey, Cap,” he said, turning toward the elevator banks. “Guess super-stealth is part of that whole super-soldier thing. Give a guy a heart attack.”
Steve’s eyes tightened at the corners, aging him instantly, and Tony regretted the comment already. His blue eyes had a tendency to get the pinched look about them whenever he was reminded of how close it had been, and you’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play echoed between them, words that seemed long ago now. “Tony,” he started quietly, taking a few steps forward, but Tony held up his drink in warning. He definitely didn’t want to have this conversation. He’d managed to skirt it for days and he wasn’t going to stop now.
“Don’t, it’s water under the bridge, why don’t you have a drink, oh, and I should probably ask you why you’re here,” he added, squinting at Steve. “People usually come looking for other people when they want things, right? Only I can’t imagine what you’d want except to be left alone, and in order for that to happen you’d have to stay the hell away from me, safely in wherever you live and it’s probably good I don’t know where that is, because, you know me, boundary issues—”
The tightened look had relaxed; the corner of Steve’s mouth was up in a smile, amused by Tony’s rambling, he assumed. “To be honest, I have a better chance of being left alone here than I do at S.H.I.E.L.D.,” he admitted, crossing to the bar. Tony poured him whiskey that had been unaffected by the plaster, conscious that not everyone had his martyr tendencies when it came to good alcohol, and Steve couldn’t get drunk, anyway, that metabolism of his, so it didn’t matter how good the liquor was, not really.
“At—wait,” Tony said, interrupting himself with a frown at the other man. Now that he really thought about it, really considered it, he could practically smell S.H.I.E.L.D. on Steve. He was pretty sure all his clothes were standard-issue something-or-other, half-uncomfortable and maybe slightly too small for a super-soldier, and Steve had that discomfort about him that reeked of being around people whose first names were all Agent for days. “You’re not living there, are you? Please tell me you aren’t living there, because even Captain fucking America can only take so much.”
“My apartment got hit during the invasion,” Steve explained, and made a face that was halfway between pleased and strained after a sip of alcohol. “Didn’t have much of a choice. Only thing that survived was my bike and my sketchbook.”
Tony stared at him until he shifted, uncomfortable. “Get a new one!” he exploded, and Steve jumped, stared back at him in shock. “You’ve got, what, seventy years of back pay, surely you can afford—”
“Oh, sure,” Steve replied, almost embarrassed. “I could, I just…haven’t gotten around to it.”
The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them; this was a stupid, errant, half-formed plan that had only been kicking around during the last caffeine-fueled seventy-two hours, while he’d been manic about remodeling in his workshop, but what the hell, it couldn’t be that bad.
“S.H.I.E.L.D. sucks,” he said flatly. “And I don’t think you’re far enough up to speed on this century to really handle the apartment thing totally well. Maybe it’s better if you don’t wander too far.” He lifted his drink again when Steve opened his mouth to protest. “But it’s also better for you not to stay so damn close to S.H.I.E.L.D. None of us should be. Move in here.”
Steve choked on the gulp of whiskey he’d taken. “Sorry?” he coughed, eyes streaming.
“I could have bridged that gap better,” Tony mused, thumping him on the back. “Look, it’s not totally ready yet, but I’ve got more space than I know what to do with—well, no, that’s not true, give me another seventy-two hours and I’d figure out what else I could do with it, but really, this is a better idea—and I’ve already got floor plans. It was just going to be for when we’re all, you know,” he made a face, “fighting alien invasions in the city, so we’d have a home base, but I’ve been told that my idea of a temporary living arrangement is a little elaborate, so it could be a more permanent base, if, you know. You want. I could show you,” he added, flapping a hand toward the elevator banks. “The basic layout is there already, I had a crew get in here this week, I was sick of looking at the empty space. If you can stand the big ugly building,” he finished, mockingly, “then it should suit you.”
Steve was staring at him with an expression he didn’t really recognize. It was a bit of surprise, a little taken-aback, but also sort of floored, as if he was…impressed, or really genuinely grateful. Tony ducked his head back to his drink, wanting to stop looking at that expression, because heaven forbid the day Captain fucking America was grateful to him, they were all in trouble then.
“Tony, that’s really great of you,” Steve said in a low voice, and if he didn’t know better it was because he’d actually given Rogers emotions, oh God with a capital letter and everything.
“Don’t, it really isn’t, I’ve got the extra space, and just, it’d be good to have us all in one place, and away from S.H.I.E.L.D., Christ, whenever everyone gets back from their little—their—vacations, is that the thing they’re doing, or are Widow and Hawkeye just off assassinating people? I mean, I have Bruce down in R&D and I know Thor’s off...putting Loki away but...Here, just—J.A.R.V.I.S., call me an elevator,” he said, already striding off toward the aluminum doors, brushing past Steve without meeting his gaze again.
“Certainly, sir. Floor ninety-two?”
Tony smiled. “Oh, baby, it’s so sweet when you eavesdrop.” He glanced behind him when he didn’t hear footsteps, and realized Steve hadn’t moved, was rooted to the spot, in fact, and was staring around wildly, his hand tight on his glass.
“Where…where is that voice coming from?” he asked carefully, slowly, and Tony had to fight not to laugh.
“You’ve heard J.A.R.V.I.S. before,” Tony said.
Steve looked uncertain. “Over the comm, sure, but is he—is he in the walls, or something—”
“Or something, Captain Rogers,” J.A.R.V.I.S. said kindly while Tony dissolved into guffaws, unable to help himself. “I am Mr. Stark’s artificial intelligence. I run his…well. Everything. I run everything.”
Tony frowned in the direction of the ceiling. “Don’t flatter yourself. I run some things.”
“As you say, sir.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have made you so snarky.”
Steve looked slightly less unnerved. “Artificial intelligence?” he repeated. “Guess I thought J.A.R.V.I.S. was a person.”
“Thought you did the reading,” Tony said. “Or was he not in the reading? Because I’d rather S.H.I.E.L.D. didn’t know about my extremely advanced A.I., honestly.”
Steve looked abashed. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “I didn’t read…everything. There was a lot of information on you and Bruce. You’ve both done a lot of things I don’t really understand. I’m just a soldier,” he added in a mutter. “Not a scientist.”
“Well,” Tony said bracingly, “you don’t need to be. It’s not a crazy concept. I’m sure there was some anxiety about robots in your day, it can’t have been just recently.”
Steve gave him a look—half-amused, half-grateful. “Sure, Tony.”
“Right. Robots taking over the world, yeah?” Tony stabbed a finger at the ceiling. “That’s J.A.R.V.I.S., he’s practically a person, just without the body. I made him to be like us. Human-level intelligence. He can order pizza and everything. Speaking of which, I could use pizza.”
“Spinach and mushroom, sir?”
“You got it. Cap?”
Steve looked lost for a long moment, and then put forward, tentatively, “Pepperoni? Do they still have—”
Tony barked a laugh. “Sure they do. That stuff’ll never go out of style. It’ll kill you, though.” He looked Steve up and down and sighed. “Guess it wouldn’t kill you. Lucky bastard. Now come on. Enough chatter with the hired help. Except—J.A.R.V.I.S., be a pal and scan Rogers here for his measurements and please, please order some clothes that don’t smell like S.H.I.E.L.D.”
“As you wish, sir. Captain Rogers, please stay still, this will only take a moment.”
Steve, clearly bemused, waited while the scan finished, then drained his drink and followed Tony into the elevator. They plummeted to floor ninety-two. The hardwood floors were shiny and new; even Tony hadn’t been down here yet, to see how the crew had done, but it looked like he’d envisioned it, so far. Steve stared out at it soundlessly, his jaw just slightly open, and Tony, unable to bear even looking at him, swept out of the elevator, gesturing around.
“There’s the kitchen, and, uh, you’ve got a few rooms, but this one’s got the best light, and the balcony, oh, and there’s a gym back down that hallway, figured you might want a space of your own, that’s probably the only area that’s furnished right now, I’m pretty sure I came up with a punching bag you couldn’t just rip apart at some point in the last few days, but there’s also the main gym on the eighty-seventh floor, you’re free to use that too, obviously. In a few more days I’ll have the place furnished, if you want, or if you want to do your own thing, that’s good too, whatever is fine by me…”
Steve finally stepped out of the elevator, his eyes sliding over everything, and Tony, aware that he was babbling and that he hadn’t slept more than five minutes at a time in the last three days, finally shut his mouth.
“You did this,” he said finally, and if that was a voice steeped in awe then Tony was going to eat a repulsor beam as soon as he got to his suit, because really, he couldn’t take all the inflections in that voice right now. He fidgeted, drained his drink, set his glass down, and immediately regretted no longer having something to do with his hands.
“Uh, sure,” he said, pulling out his tablet. “I mean, no, well, I designed it, sure, but the contractors did all the heavy lifting. Here, this is the—this is the furniture I imagined, let me know if you don’t like it, we can change things, everything, if you want.” He dragged the blueprint from the screen and tossed the hologram, the same white-blue as the arc reactor, over the new landscape of the rooms.
Steve stared at it so long, so hard, that Tony started fidgeting again; he couldn’t help it. “If you don’t like it—” he started, in tones of reassurance, but Steve swiftly cut him off.
“No,” he said hoarsely, a grin flickering over his face. “Keep it just the way it is. It’s perfect.”
“Oh,” Tony said, half-relieved and half-horrified. “Good.”
“I was wrong,” Steve said suddenly, and Tony realized that if he’d wanted to stop Steve from forcing this conversation on him, this was the wrong time to show him the ninety-second floor or invite him to move in. Christ.
“Please stop,” Tony muttered under his breath. “Didn’t anyone ever evade things where you came from?”
Steve turned to him, frowning again, and yeah, maybe muttering didn’t work around Captain America, super-hearing and all. “Is it that hard for you to hear?” he asked, frowning, and he looked a little irritated now, as if Tony’s continued interruption of his attempts to apologize for behavior that felt like a lifetime ago and was, after all, excusable, was bothering him at a really fundamental level. “I just want to apologize. Clear the air. Are you so arrogant that you can’t take that, or do you have that low an opinion of yourself?”
Tony opened his mouth and closed it again, and his eyes darted down to his tablet, deciding this was a question better left unanswered. In fact, maybe if he stayed silent long enough, Steve would just forget about the whole conversation.
Steve seemed to hear the answer anyway, though, because he said, “Oh, Tony,” in a voice that was a little sad and guilty and horrified.
“Pepper’s gone,” Tony said, before he knew he was saying it. “There is plaster in my favorite whiskey, I haven’t slept in three days. I don’t want to talk about this. Just leave it alone. I’m good, you’re good, we’re all good, so just…”
But Steve just came closer. “Pepper’s…gone?” he repeated, confused.
“Not gone, gone, she’s still my CEO, she’s just not…it wasn’t working,” he blurted, and he didn’t know why he was telling Steve, for fuck’s sake, he wasn’t even sure that Steve knew that he and Pepper had even been a thing, but the words spilled like he had a self-control problem, which, hey, he did, but not usually in this particular area. “I can’t make shit like that work. After this week, couldn’t even beg her to stay. Can’t keep her attached to a guy who’s just gonna go out like that, if not now then someday. Soon, probably. She deserves better. Stability, normalcy, and she’s right to take it, she’s got enough to deal with just trying to clean up my corporate messes, and I don’t have the space anymore, anyway,” and he tapped the arc reactor, glowing through his grease-stained shirt, “if I’m doing this, it’s always gonna be too horrible for anyone, anyone stupid enough to get attached to me in the first place—”
“Tony,” Steve tried, but he just kept going.
“You saw the footage, and you were right. This thing is to save my skin and everything else is just surplus. Hell. If I hadn’t been kidnapped in Afghanistan I’d still be an arms dealer. Took nearly dying to stop me blowing things up, and even after that I still fuck things up, every day.” He flashed a smile, bright but brittle, he could feel it in his muscles, and he caught another glimpse of Steve’s face, so still with agony that he couldn’t stand to look at it for longer than an instant. “You were right,” he repeated. “I’m a selfish bastard, but at least I’m perfectly aware of it.”
Steve’s hands closed hard around his shoulders and his head jerked back up again, surprised at the contact. The expression in those blue eyes was fierce, now, unnerving. “Listen to me,” he said, and his voice brooked no argument; it was an order, the special Cap-voice he brought out to direct his troops. “Being on ice for seventy years made me real quick to judge, and that was wrong, and I’m sorry. You don’t help yourself, either,” he added ruefully. “You make a horrible first impression, make everyone think you like them to see you that way, like it’s great to be seen as callous and rude and arrogant, so I was just reacting, and I should’ve known better. I’m supposed to know my team,” and his mouth turned down at the corners, “but you threw me, you all threw me. You didn’t even hesitate, Tony. You thought you were going to die and you just went with it. That’s the opposite of selfish. And this,” Steve let go of one shoulder to gesture around the apartment, his expression tipping toward disbelieving again, and that was fine because Tony was still a bit in shock that Steve had deigned to touch him at all, “your file said, explicitly, that you did not play well with others, and you’re inviting all of us into your home anyway.” He scrubbed his free hand over his face. “Whoever did your evaluation—”
“Natasha,” Tony interrupted with an offhand smirk. “She infiltrated my company during a really bad week, it wasn’t her fault, she was just doing her job, which S.H.I.E.L.D. made her do, and we should really get her and everyone else out of the bowels of their offices, honestly—”
“She was wrong,” Steve said, cutting him off, “and I bet she thinks so, too. We really got off on the wrong foot, and I want to start over.”
Tony blinked at him, trying to absorb the sheer earnestness in his features, and said, slowly, “Okay?”
Steve nodded. “Okay.” He stepped back, held out his hand. “Steve Rogers. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Tony, still shell-shocked, shook his hand. “Tony Stark. I’ve…you know, dad never shut up about you. Never stopped looking, either.”
Steve smiled, and it was genuine and open, pleased. “Really?”
“Yeah. He scanned the ever-loving fuck out of that damn ocean, every year.” Tony stuffed his hands in his pockets, tucking the tablet away. “I even went with him, once. It was...” He searched around for the word he wanted to use. “Disappointing, I guess. Could tell he didn’t expect to find you, but he kept looking anyway.”
Steve stuffed his hands in his pockets, too, looking vaguely remorseful, and Tony thought he might be able to grit his teeth and bear it through a diatribe on how wonderful his father was when Steve surprised him by saying, “Howard always was a little odd.”
Tony choked and then coughed to cover up the fact that he was choking on nothing, and then J.A.R.V.I.S., bless his mechanical heart, informed them that the pizza delivery was waiting by the elevator. They sat on the floor and ate pizza in companionable silence, and once in a while Tony caught Steve grinning absent-mindedly around the apartment, a real gosh-gee-whiz grin that made him feel really weird to be witnessing.
“When are you going to tell the others?” Steve finally asked around a mouthful of pepperoni.
Tony shrugged. “Thought I’d wait till I got ‘em all furnished,” he said. “Not much use moving into a suite without furniture. This is the first thing the contractors have really gotten done.”
Steve shot him a surprised look. “The window in your penthouse is still broken, Tony.”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “You try being caffeine-fueled and sleep-deprived for seventy-two hours. Sometimes things get a little out of order. Speaking of which, J.A.R.V.I.S.!”
“Can you tell the guys to just put my window and my floor back to the way it was? I’m out of the energy to re-imagine the place. It was fine before.”
“Certainly, sir. It will be done tomorrow.”
“Thanks, buddy.” Tony leaned back against the breakfast bar, content. “There’s a garage under the Tower,” he added to Steve. “For your bike.”
Steve got that surprised look on his face again, and Tony stuffed his face with pizza in reaction. “Thanks, Tony,” he said, and he sounded like he really meant it.
“This is great, Tony. You really didn’t have to—”
“Shut up!” he snapped, because a man could really only take so much gratitude, but Bruce just looked at him with a little bewilderment and a little amusement, and Tony deflated. “Okay, sorry, I’m sorry, I realize that was an overreaction. It’s just...” And he went on to mutter a lot of incoherent things under his breath, things even he couldn’t really pick out, but Bruce just nodded sagely and went to examine the gas range in his new kitchen. Apparently, he liked to cook.
“Steve talked to you, huh.”
“Talked is not the verb I would have used,” Tony answered, pained. “Forced to participate in a very awkward conversation about things that were said long enough ago to be safely forgotten, yes. He’s...” He flapped a hand, dismissing the thought. “Anyway.”
Bruce was the last to move in, though, like the rest of the Avengers, he didn’t have much to move in with him. They weren’t the type of people to build up a lot of stuff, when it came right down to it, and the stuff they had, they really weren’t attached to. All of Thor’s stuff really stayed in Asgard, Natasha and Clint only owned what they could carry, Steve’s apartment had been blown up, and Bruce really only had a handful of shabby suits to his name. They were a weird little group.
Tony suddenly noticed that Bruce’s hair was sticking up at all angles and that it was, after all, four in the morning, and since he had just rescued him from R&D, the guy could probably use some sleep. As far as he knew, Bruce had been down there since Tony had cleared up the space for him after their little alien invasion problem.
“I’ll let you settle in,” Tony said, waving over his shoulder as he headed back to the elevators. “Feel free to get acquainted with J.A.R.V.I.S.”
“Thanks, Tony,” Bruce called after him, and he just nodded as the elevator doors closed. For a moment, he considered heading back to his workshop on level ninety-three, or even up to the penthouse to go to sleep, but the psychological aftermath of his last cup of coffee was still working its will on him, and he had problems sleeping as it was. He keyed in the code for the eighty-seventh floor and let the elevator take him down.
Inside the gym, he carefully skirted around Cap’s punching bag—the thing wouldn’t hurt Steve Rogers, but it would break a mortal man like him—and found one that wouldn’t snap his fingers. He didn’t do this often; he much preferred the give and take of an actual opponent, a personal trainer, but those tended to not be available at four in the morning, and even if they were, he wasn’t sure he was enough of an ass to endanger sleep schedules like that.
He let his body take over, punching and kicking the bag until his hands became comfortably numb. It wasn’t until he was breathing hard, soaked in sweat, that he felt someone watching him. “Don’t hover,” he muttered, because if it was who he thought it was, they would hear him anyway.
Footsteps, light and easy, tapped across the practice mats. “You have a weird sleep schedule,” Steve’s voice commented, as Tony landed another kick on the punching bag with a grunt.
“Speak for yourself, Cap. You’re awake, too.”
“Sure,” Steve said, amused. He leaned against his own punching bag, watching Tony pummel his own.
It just wasn’t that simple, sleeping. It never had been, but it was so much worse after being through the portal, waking in the middle of the night in a cold sweat from another nightmare where the last thing he saw was the end bearing down on him, forces that he could never hope to fight off on his own.
Tony was willing to bet it wasn’t that simple for Steve, either. Guy had gone down in a blaze of glory a few months and seventy years ago, had seen death and destruction World-War-II-style, you didn’t just shake that off without a few flashbacks and panic attacks.
“You know it’s five in the morning, right?” Steve ventured finally. “This is an acceptable time to wake up. Not to be...you know. Another forty-eight hours deep into avoiding sleep.”
“People get up at this time?” Tony finally stilled the punching bag, turning to look at Steve. “Oh, god, you’re one of those people.”
Steve appeared blatantly unruffled by his criticism. “When was the last time you ate?”
At that, Tony turned back to the punching bag. “I live on coffee, mom,” he said pointedly. “I’m fine. Not hungry.”
“There are bagels upstairs,” Steve offered.
Despite the fact that he had given each and every one of them kitchens, mostly, the Avengers all still trailed up to the penthouse for food. They even had their own food in their own kitchens, but they had this annoying habit of coming up to his level and huddling around to steal his coffee and eat his bagels. More than once in the last week, he had staggered into his kitchen to find Clint perched on top of his refrigerator eating cereal and Natasha at the breakfast bar with her hand wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee, reading the paper (an actual physical copy, who did that anymore besides Steve anyway). Sometimes Thor was on the couch across the room, laughing heartily at cartoons, and Steve himself usually came in from his morning jog at some point and Natasha silently handed him the front page and the Arts section. Tony would stand in the doorway, frowning, and wonder why all these people were in his kitchen.
Oh, right. He’d invited them there. Well, not there, there, but he could see how they’d gotten the impression that they were allowed into the penthouse if they wanted to be there. He’d given them all access to that level, after all. In retrospect, maybe that wasn’t the best idea.
Even worse, after everything, it was good to have them there. To have them close. Most of the time he wasn’t really sure why he trusted them, but they were a reassuring presence in his tower, warm at his back, something like safety.
“Tony.” Steve waved a hand in front of his face. “Come on. Bagels?”
Predictably, Tony’s stomach growled. “Traitor,” he muttered.
“When was the last time you ate?” Steve asked again.
Tony gave him a flat stare. “Honestly, Cap, I don’t keep track.”
Steve raised his voice. “J.A.R.V.I.S.?”
Tony’s mouth might have dropped open a bit. “No,” he said heatedly. “You will not coerce my own A.I. into giving evidence—”
“Fourteen hours ago, Captain Rogers.” There was a note of faint irritation in J.A.R.V.I.S.’s tone.
“Right,” Steve said firmly, just as Tony muttered, “Traitor,” one more time, with much more feeling. “Come on. Food.” His hand closed gently around Tony’s upper arm and he started towing him to the elevator banks. Suddenly too tired to resist, Tony went along with it. Bagels were good, anyway. The idea of cream cheese made his mouth water.
“Coffee?” he said hopefully while the elevator took them up.
Steve sighed. “Tony, I’m going to ask you a question, and I’m going to expect you to answer it honestly, or I’ll just ask J.A.R.V.I.S. again.”
Tony stared at him balefully.
“How long have you been awake?”
“You’re actually probably going to have to ask J.A.R.V.I.S. for that one, because I honestly don’t know,” Tony said peevishly. “I’ve been working on a redesign not only for my suit but also for some of Barton’s arrows and for your uniform, because S.H.I.E.L.D. sucks. I lose track.”
“Fifty-six hours, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. supplied helpfully. Tony glared; Steve sighed a second time.
“I appreciate your hard work,” he said, and when Tony snorted, he pressed on earnestly, “really, I do. And so does the rest of the team. But you need to go a bit easier on yourself, don’t you think?”
“Why?” Tony demanded viciously. “Because I’m only human?”
Steve didn’t rise to the bait; instead, he led the way out of the elevator. Tony followed reluctantly. “Yes,” he said, in a tone that bordered on gentle and made Tony want to pull his hair out. “Look, even I need more sleep than you get.”
Tony leaned a hip against the kitchen counter, watching Steve pop a few bagels into the toaster and pour two glasses of orange juice.
“And definitely more food,” Steve went on, ripping a few bananas away from the bunch hanging next to the refrigerator.
“Are you always this much of a mother hen?” Tony grouched, accepting the orange juice and banana reluctantly.
Steve half-smiled. “I take the health of my men seriously. And half the time I get tired just looking at you.”
“I’m a high-functioning insomniac. It doesn’t hurt me.” Tony took a bite of the banana and, instantly, he was ferociously hungry. He devoured the rest quickly; by the time he was done Steve was handing him a bagel, amused.
“But it can,” Steve pointed out, leaning back against the counter opposite Tony. “That thing in your chest doesn’t make you invincible, Tony.”
Tony snorted into his orange juice. “I’m aware of that, Cap. The thing in my chest is more likely to kill me than make me live forever.”
When he looked up again, Steve was staring at him, brow furrowed. “What do you mean?” he asked slowly.
“Did no one else do the reading?” Tony muttered, and then, louder, “Do you know what this thing does?” He tapped the arc reactor questioningly.
Steve blushed and ducked his head. “There was a lot of technical jargon,” he mumbled. “I get that it’s the power source for your suit. Like a battery.”
“Right,” Tony answered, wondering how well this was going to go over. Probably not well. “Well, er, there’s shrapnel in my chest.”
Steve’s head snapped up so fast that Tony felt the symptoms of whiplash from just watching him. “What?” he demanded, taking an automatic step forward, as though to inspect Tony himself.
“During the kidnapping,” Tony continued calmly, remembering how much he disliked this story, “I got hit, and this thing is all that’s keeping me from having some serious internal issues. Cardiac arrest, you know. Good stuff.” He took a bite of the bagel, wondering in the wisdom of divulging this information to Steve.
Steve stared at him with mounting horror. “And you use it to power your suit? When its primary function is just to keep you alive?”
“In order to escape from my kidnappers, I had to build the first suit,” Tony pointed out. “So, uh, in that way, it did keep me alive, because they were going to, you know, kill me. Double-edged sword, Cap.” Steve did not particularly look reassured. “Look, something happens to it, I replace the core. No big deal. But if I don’t get to the core in time, yeah, I’m fucked. At least it’s not powered by a car battery anymore,” he added in a mutter.
“I...” Steve hesitated, went on quietly. “I didn’t realize it was like that.”
“Chin up,” Tony said bracingly. “As long as there aren’t any new problems with the core, I’ll live a long time. Palladium was not the best idea. Got a better one now. Should be fine. Barring supervillains, of course.”
Finally, Steve smiled, but the expression was wan. Tony took the opportunity to stuff the rest of the bagel in his mouth.
“Can you show me how to replace the core?” Steve asked suddenly, and Tony coughed around his bagel. “Or anyone,” Steve added quickly, “maybe Bruce would be better, or—I’d rather that we all know—higher probability of keeping you alive—but you probably don’t want...” he trailed off, half-red again. “It would make me worry less,” he finished.
Tony scrutinized him for a long moment. Steve didn’t shift, didn’t back down, and finally, Tony relented. “Fine,” he gritted out, but the menace of the tone was ruined by a yawn. “Next time I have to replace it, I’ll let you know.”
Steve’s smile was brighter now. “Thanks, Tony. You should get some sleep.”
Tony glared at him. “This was your evil plan all along.”
“You crash when you eat,” Steve said lightly, plucking the glass out of his hands. “And you need it. Look, it’s not just you. With the exception of Thor, this entire team needs to take better care of themselves. We run ourselves into the ground, it’s not good for us. But you,” and Steve sighed heavily, “you need more encouragement than everyone combined.” He set their glasses in the sink.
Tony eyed him suspiciously. “That’s it, then.”
Steve looked blankly at him. “What’s it?”
“You’re just going to trick me into sleeping and eating. You’re not going to try to keep me out of the field.”
“I need you in the field,” Steve said emphatically. “No one else can be Iron Man. Without you, Manhattan wouldn’t still be standing.”
Tony squinted. “Fury doesn’t think so. He initially approved Iron Man for the Avengers Initiative, you know, not Tony Stark.”
“He approved you eventually,” Steve pointed out.
“When a demi-god broke into our dimension and flattened a S.H.I.E.L.D. base of operations,” Tony said, exasperated. “He just couldn’t get someone else to operate the suit that quickly. Emergency situation, and all.”
“Stark.” And he did that thing again, brought his hands down on Tony’s shoulders and squeezed. “The suit’s nothing without the man inside it. It’s part of you.” Steve tapped the arc reactor with a fingertip and Tony’s heart jolted. It had nothing to do with the functioning of the thing. “It’ll never be part of anyone else. Now, go to sleep,” he said firmly, and made for the elevator.
Tony stared after him and, because he didn’t do emotions very well, he muttered, “Ah, fuck” as soon as Steve was gone.
The Avengers spent very little time doing anything related to fighting crime in the following weeks. Steve slowly coaxed the team into participating in normal activities, with Tony’s grudging help for more future forms of entertainment than cards. He was aware that he had started functioning as Steve’s lieutenant and couldn’t bring himself to stop. His sleep schedule would never be normal, but he was at least getting more of it, and depending on when he woke up he could almost always count on a cup of coffee and a full meal made by something other than a machine. He could also count on Steve coming into the workshop if he had been there longer than six hours, bearing food. Tony suspected that J.A.R.V.I.S. was informing on him.
“You should come up,” Steve would say sometimes. “The team is assembled for dinner.” He would smile at his own joke, even when Tony groaned at it.
But he would go. They had a few surprisingly good cooks living in the tower.
They all started drilling together—with and without weapons, plus or minus suits, Hulks, and Mjolnirs. Steve ran the schedule for it and, slowly, their fighting styles came to reflect one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Steve kept the training sessions short; they all trained on their own, regardless, and Tony thought that he seemed loathe to exhaust them.
“We need to be fresh,” Steve said, blocking every blow Tony attempted to land with the hand pads covering his fists. Tony recognized that these were more for his sake than Steve’s; without his suit, he ran the risk of breaking his fingers or his feet trying to hit the man. He tried not to feel too patronized by that fact, which they had never bothered testing, anyway, so it wasn’t really a fact. “You never know when—”
“When aliens will invade New York?” Tony sniped back with a smirk. “Yeah, you really never know. Maybe next time someone will make things easier for us and not, you know, interrupt our perfectly good plan with a nuclear missile. Okay, come on, I’m tired of the hand pads.”
Steve blinked, and Tony snuck in a hard jab to his side. It hurt just about as much as hitting a normal person, with the difference that Steve didn’t move much with it, just grunted quietly and stared at him. “Huh,” Tony said thoughtfully. “I’m serious, I’m sick of hitting the hand pads, it’s boring. Let’s spar.”
“You won’t break me,” he interrupted, annoyed. “Just don’t try to break me, and we’ll be fine.”
Steve sighed—he sure did that a lot—and stepped back. “What’s it going to accomplish?”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “It’ll help with me being bored. Just don’t do your whole...I’ve read your file, don’t deliberately be all super-soldier on me. I don’t want to die. Bring it down to a normal level and we’ll have a great time.”
He expected Steve to resist, but since when did this man ever do what he expected? He ditched the hand pads and stepped back and Tony smirked again, stepping up.
“Why do you bother running?” he panted twenty minutes later, dodging another perfectly-executed kick. “Why do you bother training at all?”
“Gotta stay sharp.” Steve flipped backward, avoiding the side kick Tony had attempted. “I feel better if I’ve been training. I never want to take this for granted.” Something flickered in his features, old, deep. “The serum changed me for a reason. I want to honor that.”
“Cap,” Tony heaved, sloppily ducking under a punch and nearly losing his balance, “pretty sure your middle name might legally be honor. In the sense that, you know, it’s a fundamental part of who you are.”
Steve smiled—he looked pleased, and grateful, and all those emotions Tony had a hard time handling when they were directed at him—and this time his kick hit Tony right in the hip, forcing him to stagger back and regroup. They each landed a few hits successively—and being hit by Captain America, even lightly, still hurt, god damn him—and Steve finally called it. “Enough,” he said, holding up a hand. “You’re done, Stark.”
“Can’t argue with you there,” Tony said with a groan, sitting down hard. “You know, I think the only one of us who really stands a chance against you is Natasha. That thing she does with her thighs. Would totally take you down.”
Steve looked over the rim of the water bottle he was drinking out of, clearly disgruntled.
“Oh, come on, I’m not insulting her honor,” Tony said scathingly, waving a hand. Steve tossed him the water bottle. He took a grateful sip. “It’s this crazy strangling move. You haven’t seen her do it.”
Steve smiled at him, blue eyes amused. “Sure, Tony. Whatever you say.”
Footsteps sounded near the elevators, and they both turned. Natasha, hair raked back, wearing sweats and a tank top, approached across the practice mats. “My turn, boss?” she asked Steve.
“You ought to show him that thing you do with your thighs,” Tony said as he got to his feet. “The strangling thing. It’s nuts.” She stared at him blankly while Steve valiantly tried to hold down a chuckle. “Fine. I’ll be gorging myself on bagels.”
“Get some sleep, too, Tony,” Steve called after him. Tony waved over his shoulder in acquiescence.
Sometimes, Tony liked to actually make use of the nice deck of his penthouse, especially on sunny days. Or at night. It was a good view of the city from up there, all pretty and removed, so far gone that the lines of everything fell into place and looked simple, clean. He’d bring a tablet out and work on simpler, mindless designs—creating a particularly unique coffee pot, a blender DUM-E could actually handle—and sometimes Steve would find him like that and bring him something warm to drink or something good to snack on, and they’d sit, Tony with his tablet and Steve with his sketchbook, for hours, barely talking.
And sometimes, Tony would see Steve out there like that. He would inflict his company on the man because there was something even more reassuring about Steve than about all the rest, a warm, solid bulk of understanding that he wasn’t sure he wanted, let alone deserved, but that he craved nevertheless.
“Hey, Cap, have a Hot Cap.” Tony snickered, holding out the mug. Steve looked up, bemused. “Get it? It’s a Hot Captain, and you’re Captain...oh, never mind,” he huffed, when Steve continued to look at him, eyebrows raised. “It’s good. Spiced rum, apple cider, cinnamon stick. Know you can’t get drunk, but it tastes good, anyway.”
Steve accepted the cup and finally smiled. “That’s funny, Tony,” he said, and took a sip, promptly made a surprised face. “That’s good,” he agreed.
Tony sighed. “Better late than never.” He settled into the lounge chair next to Steve’s, pulled the blanket at the end over his bare feet, and pulled up his latest design on the tablet. It was going on midnight, which wasn’t even suitably late for him, and the city beneath them was muffled by distance and the confinement of a weekday.
After a few minutes of companionably sipping—and who knew, Tony thought wryly, that he could do companionable anything with Steve—the other man turned and asked, “What’re you designing?”
Tony glanced over, looked back down at his tablet, and sighed, sticking it out. “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
If Steve colored up at that comment, Tony was willing to let it go. They swapped, sketchbook for tablet, and while Tony amused himself laughing at the comical portrait of Clint sleeping with his damn eyes open, Steve was silent, staring at the design.
“What is this?” he asked, even though the tone of his voice made if fairly clear that he knew what it was.
Tony flipped back a page in the sketchbook and found Natasha looking up at him, eyes unfocused, stretching idly on the practice mats. “Boots, Steve,” he said. “Boots with enough repulsor technology to jump a little further and maybe not let you go splat if you fall off a building. You won’t be able to fly,” he added sharply, “that’s my thing, but, you know, maybe glide would be a good term.”
Steve just smiled. “That’s great, Tony. Thanks.”
“Yeah, well. There are heights even you wouldn’t survive a fall from.” Tony turned back another page in the sketchbook and could have been looking in a mirror; he was on the page, slumped across the workbench, hand curled around a steaming mug of coffee, eyes focused on the diagrams beneath him. “Hey, that’s me.”
Tony saw the blush this time; it was vivid. “Yeah,” Steve said, holding out the tablet, and Tony reluctantly returned the sketchbook.
“You’re good,” Tony replied, nodding at it.
Surprise flickered across his features. “Thanks.” He looked back down at the sketchbook, flipped to a new page. “This is what I did, when I was a kid. Before...everything.” His dog tags clinked together as he leaned forward, putting pencil back to the page.
“Have you seen any of the art supply stores around here?” The words were out of Tony’s mouth before he could stop them. “There’s probably—well, there’s probably a lot more stuff than you had access to, or even existed, back in your day. I could show you,” Tony said helpfully, because god help him, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
Steve looked up, smiled uncertainly. “I’d like that,” he said.
Unfortunately—or maybe fortunately, Tony didn’t know anymore—plans of raiding the nearest art supply store were stalled by a visit from Loki.
“I know not how he escaped,” Thor confided unhappily.
“Not much like his last trip down, though, is it,” Bruce pointed out. “No aliens, anyway.”
“Need I point out to you,” Tony gritted out, “that as charming as it is to be free of aliens, we still have a thousand replicas of the brat to deal with, and no idea which one is the real one.” He gestured angrily out the penthouse window where the team was gathered. Lokis were swarming the city.
“It’s okay, Tony,” Steve said soothingly, and Tony resented that even if he didn’t resent the gentle shoulder-pat, because he didn’t need to be calmed.
“He destroyed my tower,” Tony said, scowling.
“Okay, team,” Steve said, already moving away to find his boots. “Suit up.”
Tony made for the lab, still scowling and muttering to himself, and only when he stepped inside did he realize that something was very wrong. The crunch of broken glass crushed beneath his boots. He paused, listening, and was already contemplating running for it when he finally noticed the green-clad figure lurking near his many suits. An explosion ricocheted upstairs, and his jaw clenched.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., now would be a good time,” he muttered.
“Iron Man,” Loki greeted, not turning around; he faced the old marks, contemplating them. “It’s good to see you again.”
“Can’t say the same, pal. You keep fucking up my tower.” The suit clinked, lined up with the silver threads on his wrists, and unfolded around him. Even now, the armor felt something like coming home, felt like accepting his own skin to be molded back around him.
Loki turned, and Iron Man fired, knocking the demi-god back into a wall. Loki had a new weapon, not the same old spear that had failed to turn his arc reactor into a willing slave, and it was powerful; as he straightened up, recovered, Tony ducked a blast and avoided the blunt end of the gold staff—seriously, what was it with this guy and phallic imagery?
The fight was fast, but not without damage. Tony put him down for the count with a final repulsor blast, but not quick enough; the gold (not gold, his internal dialog supplied helpfully) staff crashed through the layers of protection surrounding the arc reactor and snapped something inside, making him gasp with pain as he fell back against his workbench, scrabbling.
Steve’s shout was loud in the comm and in the room and he winced, flipping the face plate up. “Right here, boss,” he rasped out, “can you—I need—”
Steve hauled him upright, pulled him to the bots that would dismantle his armor with ease. “Tony—the arc reactor,” he said, an unfamiliar note of helplessness in his tone as his eyes trained on the flickering blue light.
“Damaged,” Tony grated, “needs a replacement, that stupid staff of his—” and he staggered away from the dismantled suit, stumbling, let Steve catch him and hold him up. “Drawer,” he managed, “under the workbench.”
Steve let him gently down in a chair and hurried to the bench, coming up with the metal container almost immediately. Tony tried, and failed, to stay upright, and the floor moved up to greet him. He flailed onto his back, gasping at the ceiling, as Steve knelt at his side.
“Okay, no pressure,” Tony said, the familiar, horrible tightness in his chest mounting, “but you do this wrong and I’m toast, so pay attention, it’s pretty—hey, if you’re going to violate my honor I want to be conscious for it!” Steve had ripped open his shirt in one clean sweep and was already twisting the reactor out of the casing. “Okay, yeah, but—ow, god, ow,” he supplied helpfully as—efficiently, as if he’d done it a hundred times before—Steve twisted the new core into the socket and pushed, clicking it into place.
A breath like salvation ripped through him, clean, not free of pain, but the reactor was running and he was safe. His heart thundered in his chest, in his ears, and Steve's face was white as bone, blue eyes blazing, as he pulled Tony upright to sit and lean against him.
"'m fine, Steve," he muttered, though funny black spots still danced in his vision. He let his head fall against Steve's shoulder and thought, blankly, that it was really comfortable, for a super-soldier. "You did good. How did you..."
"Read the file. More thoroughly." Steve's voice was strained. "After you told me..."
All Tony had the strength to do was lean, bonelessly, against him, let himself be cradled in the warm safety of Steve's arms. "Thanks," he croaked. "Hope...Loki's down."
"He's down," Steve said, and now he was smoothing Tony's hair, and didn't that feel funny. And nice. It was nice. "Thor's taking him."
"Wouldn't trust...Thor...with Loki. He's as likely to...hug 'im...as put him back in prison."
Steve laughed, strained but relieved. “Thor is very upset.”
“The Man of Iron does not fall so easily!” the demi-god in question bellowed; Tony wondered when the team had come in and out, because his voice echoed from upstairs, but he smiled.
“Make sure he...keeps that...stupid staff. Need to figure what it’s made of. Smashed through my armor like...” Tony tried to think of a suitable metaphor, but he was tired, really, very tired.
“I will,” Steve promised, and now his soothing tone didn’t bother Tony so much. “I think right now, though, we should get you to a hospital. Or at least to S.H.I.E.L.D. medical.”
“No,” Tony protested, “no, I’m fine, see, I’m—ow.” He’d tried to pull away, to demonstrate that he could stand if he wanted, but sharp pain laced through his ribs. Steve pulled him gently back and then, one of Tony’s arms draped over his shoulder, he pushed up, bringing them both to their feet.
“Some of your ribs are broken,” Steve informed matter-of-factly. “You’re going to medical.”
Tony made his feet shuffle, resentfully, letting Steve support him to the smashed door of his workshop and toward the elevators. “I hate S.H.I.E.L.D.,” he grumbled.
Steve’s voice sounded like he was stifling a laugh. “I know, Tony.” With his free hand, he pressed the comm in his ear; Tony realized it had been turned off. “Thor, keep Loki’s staff here. Tony wants to examine it when he returns from medical.”
Tony heard Thor’s tinny confirmation through Steve’s comm; his own was back in the suit. “J.A.R.V.I.S.?” Steve called. “How’re we doing?”
“S.H.I.E.L.D. medical transportation is waiting in the garage, Captain.”
“Oh my god,” Tony groaned, slumping against Steve in defeat when they finally reached the elevator. “My A.I. has turned against me.”
“I was never with you, sir,” J.A.R.V.I.S. answered matter-of-factly.
“Great,” Tony muttered, and promptly passed out.
When he woke up again, he was staring at an anonymously white ceiling, tucked into a bed with equally anonymous white sheets. In fact, the only color in the room came from the people sitting around in it.
Natasha, still in her jumpsuit, was curled up in a chair, eyes closed, breathing softly and evenly; her head was braced on Clint’s shoulder, and his eyes were open, but Tony was sure he was asleep. Bruce was the first to notice that he was awake, and smiled from behind his glasses before going back to the tablet he was holding. Thor was slumped with his head back against the wall, snoring loudly, hammer draped across his lap.
Tony cringed as he registered the pressure on his ribs and let his head loll to the side, to observe Steve, still red, white, and blue, his cowl pushed back, asleep on his folded arms at the edge of Tony’s mattress.
“How long’ve I been out?” he asked, and it came out a croak.
“About a day,” Bruce replied, laying the tablet on his lap. “A few of your ribs were broken. You’ll be out of the field for a month or two while they heal.”
“Hopefully Loki can stay inside for that long,” Tony muttered venomously. Then he sighed—it hurt his tightly-bound ribs—and ruffled Steve’s hair, because he felt he should be allowed to do that if delusional on pain medication. And, what a surprise, Steve’s hair fell perfectly back into place as if he’d never touched it, because everything about Captain America was just stupidly perfect.
He blinked awake and lifted his head and a perfectly heartbreaking smile split across his features. “Tony,” he said with a yawn. “How’re you feeling?”
Tony stared at him. “Can I go home?” he said, trying not to whine.
Steve laughed. “Better, then. Hang on, we’ll check with the doctors.”
Tony turned a petulant stare on Bruce. “Bruce is a doctor,” he said, even as the other man shook his head, clearly amused. “Bruce can give me permission to go home.”
“S.H.I.E.L.D. is higher authority than me, Stark, sorry.”
Steve squeezed Tony’s shoulder and stood up. “I’ll go find someone.”
Bruce gave him a knowing look as Steve left the room. Tony stared blankly back, feigning ignorance.
“You aren’t subtle, you know,” Bruce mentioned lightly.
“Shut up, Banner,” Tony replied, and Bruce just smiled.
Tony was released from medical. When he was returned to his tower, he promptly locked himself in his workshop and went on his worst no-sleeping binge in weeks—or was it months? It was hard to remember. He worked on designs that were useless or designs that Pepper had been bothering him about or designs that the team needed, he took apart Loki’s staff to figure out what made it so hostile to arc reactors, and he tried not to think about the overbright memory of Steve replacing his arc reactor, of Steve holding him after that brief battle with Loki. But, truth be told, it was all he really thought about. Steve’s hand smoothing his hair, Steve’s shoulder offering refuge, Steve’s scared blue eyes in a bloodless face.
If he sensed that something was wrong—if he was worried about Tony never meeting his gaze when he brought food or coffee, if he was worried about how monosyllabic Tony had become—he didn’t mention it. He just paused, waited a moment, as if hoping to be addressed, and then turned and left the lab again when it was clear that Tony wasn’t going to look up from whatever he was doing.
On the third day, though, Steve’s patience ran out. He didn’t bring food. He brought folded arms and a hearty glare that Tony could feel even if he wasn’t looking at it, but his voice was cajoling instead of threatening.
“Busy,” Tony muttered.
“You’ve been down here for three days. You need rest, not...”
“‘m fine, boss, I swear. Good as new. I was out for a whole day, figure that gives me some time to be conscious.”
“Tony.” Steve’s hand came down on his shoulder and Tony’s chin jerked up automatically, meeting the earnest and sad gaze that was being directed at him. And, god, he really couldn’t deal with that. “Are you angry with me? Have I upset you in some way?”
“What? No,” Tony said immediately, blinking. “What makes you think that?”
Steve frowned. “You haven’t looked at me—or anyone,” he conceded, “since you left medical, but since I’m the only person who’s seen you since then, it sort of feels like it has something to do with me, so...”
Just Steve’s hand on his shoulder and the look in his eyes was enough to make Tony painfully relive the sensory overload that had been Steve saving his ass.
“No,” Tony said, hoping it would convince the man to let go, hurrying to respond so that Steve would stop looking so put out, was he really that opposed to having less contact with Tony? “No, I just, you know me, I get wrapped up in—stuff—in work—sometimes, no offense, but sometimes I don’t even know you’re there, you’re very—stealthy—and, uh, this thing that Loki had...”
A wave of understanding passed over Steve’s features. He sat down on the bench, letting go of Tony’s shoulder but sitting close enough that Tony could still feel his slightly-unnatural warmth, anyway.
“I understand,” he said quietly, his voice soothing. “It was a close call.”
Tony flashed him a brief, bright smile, but it was still brittle, the way it had been that first day; he felt close to breaking apart. “Nah. Not really. Not with you watching my back.”
Steve was quiet, watching him work, until he said softly, “I know how it is, you know. I still...I still dream about the ice. The crash. The war. Sometimes I can’t sleep, either. It’s good, always...finding you awake. You always feel like you understand.”
“I haven’t let anyone replace the arc reactor besides me since Obie ripped it out of my chest,” Tony said, not knowing why he was saying it. “I dream of what I saw beyond that portal and of half-drowning in Afghanistan but really, those memories aren’t the worst ones. It’s the feeling—the feeling of a hand I knew, a hand I trusted—tearing my heart out.” Tony tapped his fingers idly against the keyboard, feeling the weight of Steve’s sympathy like a drift of snow trying to bury him. “Sometimes I just don’t want to sleep, because I don’t want to remember. Even if the caffeine is literally burning out of my system faster than I can take it in, even if I’m drifting off every few seconds, I just...”
“You don’t have to work through that,” Steve pointed out, voice low.
“What else would I do?” Tony snorted.
“There’s got to be more...popular culture...you’re just dying to inflict on me,” Steve said, and Tony looked up to see his hesitant smile. “That’s got to be better than sitting down here alone for hours and hours.”
“Not alone,” Tony protested. “I’ve got J.A.R.V.I.S. and DUM-E.”
“Well, I don’t,” Steve said, standing and holding a hand out to Tony. “So keep me company?”
He looked so earnest, so sincere, that Tony had no hope of refusing; he just accepted the hand up and followed Steve upstairs.
“J.A.R.V.I.S., I want something amusing,” Tony said, falling into the couch. Steve sat down beside him, close but not touching. The familiar discordant noise of the opening for The IT Crowd played as the television came to life. “Sometimes I think I made him too smart,” he muttered, already feeling as though he was going to drop off now that he’d been removed from the workshop.
Steve chuckled. “You made him perfect,” he murmured, and then, as though he’d done it a hundred, a thousand times before, he reached out and curled an arm around Tony’s shoulders. Tony leaned into him, his eyes half-closed, and fell asleep before the first scene wrapped, warm and peaceful and feeling strangely safe.
When he woke up, Steve was on his back, sprawled out on the couch, breathing deeply and evenly, and Tony’s arms were snaked firmly around Steve, his cheek pressed into the super-soldier’s shoulder. Tony let his head tilt up enough just far enough to get a good look at Steve—his face still and peaceful in sleep—before full-blown panic lit up his brain. Almost as if he’d sensed Tony’s sudden tension, Steve cracked an eye open, tilted his jaw down to look at him, and smiled sleepily.
“Mornin’,” Steve said, his voice slurred a little from sleep, Brooklyn heavy in his voice.
“Uhm. Morn...ing?” Tony tried, half his brain bent on getting up and away from Steve right now and the other half hanging on for dear life.
Steve brought his free hand—the one not still curled around Tony’s shoulders, holding him firmly in place—up to eye level to check the time. “It’s eight o’clock,” he mentioned.
“Uh. I don’t feel like I only slept five hours.”
“You slept for twenty-nine hours,” Steve confirmed, amused.
Tony shifted, his patched ribs creaking. Steve’s grip on his shoulders didn’t loosen.
“Sorry I fell asleep on you,” he said, trying to make his voice light and joking, but it came out all wrong.
Steve’s eyes were soft. Tony’s heart beat frantically against his ribs, violent and desperate. “You needed it,” he said, half-stern, half-fond. “Your ribs aren’t going to heal if you don’t rest, and you’re not setting foot back into that armor until you’re healed.”
His pulse faded almost instantly; it was impressive, how quickly it could go from full-steam-ahead to slow, steady, weak. He pulled away from Steve and to the opposite side of the couch, sitting up, running a hand over his face, already missing the warmth. “Right,” he said, his voice half-joking, half-dull. “I’m no good to you injured.”
Steve sat up so quickly that Tony had to stand to avoid him, the world spinning momentarily as his brain registered the dozens of hours without sustenance. He stumbled a bit as he headed toward the kitchen but righted himself with a steadying hand on the countertop. Steve followed, his footsteps quiet, his presence introducing new kinds of tension in Tony’s shoulders.
“Is that what you think?” Steve asked, his voice strained, while Tony turned on the coffee pot and searched out a bagel, though he didn’t really feel hungry at all. “That I’m only anxious to get Iron Man back in the field?”
“Aren’t you?” Tony said lightly. “Tony Stark is useless; Iron Man is—”
Steve’s hand closed on his shoulder, yanked him around to face the super-soldier, pressed his back into the countertop. “Tony,” he said, and he didn’t look angry at all, just a little appalled, a little horrified again, and god but that expression, Tony hated it as much as he had that first day that Steve had set foot in his tower. “Is that really what you think of me? That I don’t worry about your wellbeing at all? That I just want to keep that hunk of metal in the field?”
Tony blinked, half-offended. “Yes?” he tried.
Steve was shaking his head. “No,” he said. “Tony—we’re friends, aren’t we?”
Tony squinted up at him. “I got the impression you just tolerated me, actually,” he said. “For the sake of the team, and everything.”
Steve’s features fell. “You think I don’t like you. At all.”
“No,” Tony said slowly. “I think you like me about as much as you should. In a periphery way. In a, he’s a useful asset so I should try to keep from pissing him off kind of—”
“You’re an idiot,” Steve interrupted, and when Tony opened his mouth to argue, he pushed forward, free hand coming down to bite into Tony’s other shoulder, pushing the shorter man against the counter. “No, you are. For a genius you are really, really stupid.”
It happened so fast that Tony couldn’t think to prevent it; his brain was already short-circuiting from the proximity of their bodies, incapable of dealing with any additional information, when Steve leaned down into him and kissed him, hard. Tony just reacted, wrapping an enthusiastic fist in Steve’s shirt and giving as good as he got, already drowning in the half-clumsy, half-fierce press of Steve’s mouth on his. By the time Steve pulled back, Tony was shaking.
“I watched you dying,” Steve bit out, his face flushed, “and it was so much worse than the first time, because all I could think was that if I didn’t get it right you would never bring me another stupid drink with a horrible name again and I would never come down to your workshop and find you half-asleep again and you would never groan at my terrible jokes, ever again, and—”
This time Tony cut him off, hand firm on the back of his neck, bringing Steve down an inch to press their lips together, and when Tony pressed his tongue against the seam of Steve’s mouth he opened with a strangled groan, his hands falling to Tony’s hips and pressing in with desperation.
“You got it right,” Tony murmured when they separated, breathing hard.
“And you would have died thinking I tolerated you,” Steve said, clearly stricken by the thought.
“You got it right,” Tony repeated, a little louder. “And I’m clear now, thanks, I get it, you—”
Steve’s features had cleared a little. “I like you,” he said firmly, lifting a hand to cup Tony’s jaw. “A lot. More than I’ve liked anything since I woke up.” His eyes were soft again, even if his voice was low and insistent, and Tony stared as if hypnotized, his heart beating violently against his broken ribs and the arc reactor. “And I...I want you. More than I’ve wanted...anything...maybe ever. And you’re confusing and abrasive and strange but you’re also genuine and generous and brave and I just—I want—”
Steve interrupted himself, mouth covering Tony’s, lips gentle, a little more chaste, less urgent but still full of feeling. Tony felt fingers carding up through the hair at the nape of his neck, and his hands clutched so hard into Steve’s shoulders that on a normal man, it might’ve bruised, but this was Steve, gently pulling him closer, kissing him deep and ragged until his mind blanked out under a wave of bliss.
“Okay,” Tony said blankly when Steve finally pulled back, his brain still swimming, “I get it, you like me, which is, that’s great, I’m glad we’re on the same page...”
Steve was smiling. “You’re rambling.”
Tony blinked up at him and smiled, wolfish but sincere. “So stop me.”
Steve blushed, quick and bright, and seemed ready to take Tony up on that offer until a delicate cough sounded somewhere from behind the breakfast bar. They turned simultaneously, following the noise to Natasha, hair rumpled and wearing sweats, sitting with her newspaper and eying them with a strange combination of approval and distaste.
“I am sincerely happy that the two of you have finally pulled your heads out of your asses,” she said, one eyebrow arched. “But not in the kitchen. We eat here.”
Steve was, if possible, an even brighter red than before, and Tony grinned at the sight, reaching up to touch the heat of his skin.
“Stark,” Natasha said firmly. “I do not want to watch you defile our fearless leader before breakfast.”
“Leaving,” Tony said, his voice sing-song, and pulled Steve still stammering apologies from the kitchen. “I feel like donuts, anyway. Donuts, Steve? I know a great donut place.”
He was still red, but he was smiling down at their intertwined hands. “Sure, Tony,” he said, and Tony’s heart jumped in his chest, nothing to do with the arc reactor at all. “That sounds great.”
“Pay up,” Natasha ordered Bruce, her voice carrying as the elevator slid shut behind them.