He manages not to break his not-suiting-up streak for a solid three and a half months.
In his defence, there were civilians at risk, not to mention tiny, helpless puppies, due to his being cornered in the middle of a Puppy Parade, which is apparently a thing.
The guy- who insists on being called ‘Fires of Hell,’ which Tony makes a face at before he blasts him out of the road- directs a missile at Tony, who ends up having to call on the suit in mid-jump from a nearby building while trying to lead the ‘Fires of Hell’ away, gets a broken ankle for his troubles and a screaming match with Pepper, but manages to save the day. Not that the ‘Fires of Hell,’ AKA Jerry Kessler, broke attorney who had apparently had enough of Tony Stark being Tony Stark, is much of a threat, but the news reporters are already churning out the headlines.
Which leads, ultimately, to him coming back to Stark Tower and powering down the suit, stepping out of it with a long sigh, because God, he’s missed this, missed keening through the sky at a hundred miles an hour until everything blurred, he’s missed it every time he said he didn’t.
He sighs again, louder, reaching back to knead out the kinks in his neck before turning around to shout a swear loudly and clearly into what he thought was his empty lounge.
‘Thought’ being the key word here, because it is very definitely not, and is instead filled with all the Avengers in varied states of bloodied disarray, plus Fury, who has what looks like to be a broken nose. Tony wishes good luck to whoever gave it to him.
“Jesus Christ,” Tony grates. “Warn a guy. Hey, Bruce.”
Bruce nods and says, “Tony,” in that exhausted way that means he’s Hulked out recently and would like nothing better than to collapse on the floor and sleep for the next couple of days, and will not hesitate to Hulk out again if someone tries to stop him.
“Nick,” Tony says, making his voice as flat as possible. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Don’t push me today, Stark.”
“Whatever.” Tony breathes out heavily through the side of his mouth, stepping closer. “So, if I turn on the news, will I see another alien invasion mixed in with my spectacular save?”
“You won’t,” Fury says. “What you will see is how the Avengers are officially announcing their regrouping.”
“Announcing their what now?” Another step, landing on his right leg and Tony notices absently that it should really get looked at, there’s a gnash through his jeans that is bleeding kind of worryingly. “When exactly did I agree to this? And why the hell does everyone look like they’ve just been twelve rounds with Thor? Good to see you, by the way, buddy.”
Thor inclines his head. “Likewise, Man of Iron.”
From beside him, Steve thumbs at his cowl, which is in his hands. He has a black-blue ring around one eye, his knuckles are swollen, his uniform is nearly shredded, and shit, are those the marks from the Widow’s bite ringed around his neck? “It’s sort of a long story.”
Tony looks around at each of them, all bloody noses and grazed knuckles and ruined hair from where their sweat has matted it. “Yeah, I can see that, Cap.”
“Stark,” Fury says, “Whether you like it or not, the Avengers Initiative is back on. Are you in, or are you out?”
It takes Tony less time than it should for him to grudgingly say it.
The three and a half months had been surprisingly non-brutal. Non-brutal as in nobody tried to kill him any more than they usually did, he didn’t end up in the ICU for anything Iron Man related or otherwise, Pepper and him were on semi-stable ground, and things, as they always did, moved forwards.
The night after he came home (home being Stark Tower, now, since the mansion was sitting in pieces on the ocean floor, which he was still pissed about) after the shrapnel surgery, Tony was asleep five seconds after his head hit the pillow and he woke up over ten hours later.
He blinked, his gaze catching on Pepper, who was reading one of those Oprah-recommended books in the mid-morning light. “Hey.”
“Hi,” Pepper said, and smiled, because she had been smiling more lately. Her eyes creased. Every time one of them had a near death experience, there were always those few weeks of relieved thank-god-you-didn’t-die-horribly that seeped through whenever they came into contact. “You were out for a while.”
“Yeah,” Tony said after a moment. “Yes, yeah, it was, actually. Huh.”
Her smile widened, and Tony felt it when she pressed her mouth into his hair in a kiss, and that was how it was for a while.
Then, of course, there was the touching up of DUM-E and the rest of the bots, who JARVIS acted all haughty over, saying their absence only made the workshop tidier without DUM-E spilling milkshakes all over it, but Tony could hear the layers underneath it. God, leave it up to him to make AIs who get worried over other AIs.
The media, as media does, had always done, and Tony knew will forever do, went batshit insane over absolutely everything. The president being kidnapped, the Mandarin being a fake face for the camera, the Iron Patriot getting highjacked, blah, blah, and when it finally rolled down to Tony, he was in the middle of it all and trying to keep his head down for once in his life.
They screamed, practically clawed cameras in his direction, asking him about Happy again and about Miss Potts and Rhodey and why Tony isn’t suiting up anymore, did something happen to the arc reactor, what happened, what happened, what happened?
Tony dodged and flashed strained smiles and he’s not that guy anymore, he can’t pull fake grins out of his pocket and glide around in them like he used to, so he made himself as small as he can and got out of there with as the least number of cutting remarks he could get away with.
Their beatings had been separate, according to the half-asleep stories he gets at breakfast tomorrow morning, because apparently they’re all sleeping in Tony’s tower now- it’s still Tony’s tower, nevermind that there’s still only an ‘A’ stuck to the side of the building and also that he may have already started designing their floors a few months back.
Thor had been through some major shit with Loki at his side, dragging him through several realms, saving Jane a few times, getting betrayed by his brother- Tony found it impressive how everyone managed to keep their faces blank through that part- and then coming back to Migard, however temporarily, to help with everything he’s accidentally screwed up.
Bruce doesn’t say much, just mumbles something about Betty and some overseas country and that SHIELD got them off his tail and hey, Thor, could you pass the oaties, please?
Clint, Steve and Natasha all remain tactfully silent, and with the look in their eyes and how they all talk to each other like soldiers in the trenches, Tony thinks it might be just as well. He can always hack SHIELD’s database later if he needs to know.
Pepper stays silent at him for a full ten minutes to find that, as Tony and Fury and everyfuckingone had explained, there was now a group of superheroes living in their house, eating their food, showering in their showers and occasionally breaking their stuff, which both Steve and Thor apologize profusely for.
“You could have said no,” Pepper tells him that night, when they’re getting ready for bed. She says it through her shirt as she’s lifting it over her head to get into her PJs, and Tony watches the curve of her back, how the shadows hit it before curling away.
“I could’ve,” Tony says. “I just- no, Pep, I really couldn’t. I’m sorry. I can-”
“No, don’t,” Pepper says, and then sighs, the short, familiar one he used to get back before Afghanistan. “Don’t, Tony. We’ll see how this goes for a while, okay?”
Tony says, “Okay,” not really knowing what he’s agreeing to but dreading it all the same.
The media welcome them all back with open arms, some hugging, some squeezing the life out of them and demanding they get their Communist, terrorist, alien asses out of here and stop fucking with our country.
They ask questions, jabbing ones, at press conferences and out in the street and everywhere, always, a constant stream of them, and one day someone shoves a microphone in Tony’s face and asks him if Iron Man is coming back for good.
“He never left,” Tony says finally, right into the cameras and their unblinking eyes, and remembers back to nearly two years ago, when his mouth had been forming the words I am Iron Man for the very first time.
In the first month of being back on the team, Tony realizes some things that he never thought he would have to. Like, Thor’s hair clogs the drain like nobody’s business. Everyone yells at him to pick it out after he showers, but more often than not Clint stalks out of the bathroom, towel optional, and shoves a wet clump of blonde hair in Thor’s face to kindly let him know that he had forgot to pick it out this morning. Bruce has a habit of eating nothing but cereal unless someone shoves something under his nose and tells him to eat it. Natasha has a pet hate for the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ to the point where she throws her shoe at the screen when she walks in on Steve trying to watch it.
All of that and more, and somehow, for some reason, and Tony has to think this to himself a number of times before it actually resonates: he is actually, for the moment, one of the least screwed up members of the team.
Seriously. He’s calculated this. He’s done the tests, he’s run the numbers, and, even with his occasional anxiety attacks, he is considered a balanced, sane individual when he’s grouped with these people. That alone should worry him.
Everyone else- god, everyone is sort of a mess right now, even though most of them are obviously trying to hide it. Natasha slips up rarely, maybe once or twice that Tony has been able to identify, and Clint only a few more times than that. Thor ranges from raging to the most serene guy in the history of the planet, and Bruce is Bruce, with added twist of fuckery.
Then there’s Steve.
The first time Tony really notices that something’s up is- okay, to be honest it’s five seconds after seeing the guy again, come on, Tony has spent the latter of his life being the dictionary definition of hot mess, he recognizes a kindred spirit.
But the first time he realizes they might have to do something about it is when Brooks- he doesn’t catch her first name, something like Irene or Ilene, she’s one of the new agents who don’t look too excited by the prospect of working in a secret organization- walks into the briefing room with a clipboard and starts skimming down it with her pen.
She looks up at Steve as she talks. “Okay, you have a photoshoot uptown tomorrow, and an appointment with one of the SHIELD therapists just after noon today.”
Steve stiffens, only slightly, so small that Tony almost writes it off as his eyes playing tricks on him, but then Steve is trying some pathetic excuse for a smile. “Thank you, Miss Brooks.”
“Mm.” Brooks doesn’t leave, instead just stands there, clipboard in hand. “Which means you’re going to have to actually, you know, go to this one.”
“Well, for the past three weeks running, you seem to have forgotten the appointments with your therapist.”
“I’ve been- busy,” Steve says lamely, like he’s holding his breath.
Tony’s eyes flicker down to the table, pretending to go through his tablet, thumb gliding across the screen in short flicks. Yeah, Steve’s been busy. He’s been busy avoiding everyone, and talking long walks to places he lies about, and not eating as much as he should and all the time he’s not doing the above he’s spending in the gym, beating the shit out of the new reinforced punching bags.
Brooks says, “I bet,” and Tony half wants to cheer her on and half wants to drag her bodily from the room, because shit, can’t she see the guy isn’t exactly in his best mind right now?
But Steve is Steve, polite as he always is, and Tony has to bite down on a sick desire to laugh when Steve says, clipped, “I apologize, ma’am. It slipped my mind. I’ll make sure to go to this one.”
“Mm,” Brooks says. “And while you do that, I’ll go ahead and name three things that every Avenger has, excluding Thor. One: great hair. No, sorry, Thor, I can’t do that to you, your locks are glorious and you belong in a lifelong Pantene ad. Two: some type of abusive father.”
Everyone who hadn’t been looking up is sure as shit looking up now.
“Again, Thor is sort of leaning over the line on this one, due to his dad also raising Loki.” Brooks remains undeterred, delivering this despite being fresh out of college, despite having barely any training, despite facing down a national icon in a room of superheroes.
“And number three of three things that all the Avengers have excluding Thor is, drumroll please: extensive post-traumatic stress. Please note my usage of the word ‘extensive.’ Every single one of them is getting enrolled in weekly therapy, not just for Psych eval, which is scraping the bare minimum, but to get all of them to the point where they’re actually okay.”
She turns, casting her voice through to the rest of the room. “Keeping in mind that I have video proof of each of you getting mortally wounded and insisting repeatedly that you’re fine through mouthfuls of blood, while you’re holding your innards in with both hands and limping. At one point Clint was literally crawling when he said it, and I would not put it past any of you to say you’re completely fine while you’re pulling yourself along the ground with your bloodied freaking hands. Whatever you guys classify as ‘okay’ is from this moment on scrapped. You hear me?”
She turns again, lips thinned, voice on the border of being uncontrolled. Steve isn’t meeting her eyes anymore, is instead heavy-lidded and staring down at the table, jaw locked, fists clenched, but Brooks powers on.
“Look at me, soldier,” Brooks says, in a measured tone that Tony never knew she could access, and Steve’s head doesn’t snap up, but comes up slow, careful.
“You will go to therapy. This doesn’t make you weak. This doesn’t make you less. This means that you’re, surprise, a human being who has been through some shit and needs to deal with it healthily. You will not bullshit everyone and say you’re okay, and we will not believe you just because you’re Captain America. You are not excused from this because you are an icon. You will go to therapy and deal with things, or at least attempt to, even if I have to get someone stronger than me to drag you. Got it, Captain?”
Steve says, “Yes, ma’am,” with the air of someone taking an order from someone he respects, and Tony finds that he might actually mirror it.
Again, Brooks turns, surveying the rest of them. “Everyone else?”
Varying ‘Yes, ma’am-s’ come from each of them, and Brooks nods, fast, a small tuck of her chin. Tony makes a mental note to look up this kid’s background.
“Oh, and you have a five o’clock with Fury,” Brooks says, eyes on her notes before going up to meet Steve’s, eye-to-eye with Captain America after more or less telling him off and not giving an inch.
She walks out, hair swishing, high-heels clicking, and Clint mouths, wow, raising his eyebrows, getting a murmur from everyone in agreement.
Steve sits like that, tight and bunched, like he’s preparing for war, for the rest of the meeting.
They continue like that, stumbling along, and when the time comes to save the world everything falls away and they execute it perfectly, communicating the way they never do when earth isn’t in peril and fighting around each other the way they don’t when they’re training. When it’s over, they’ve all been kicked around, they’re tired and want nothing less than to sit through a debriefing, so when Bruce breathlessly suggests shwarma, it’s met with a unanimous ‘yes.’
It’s heavier than last time, somehow, with all the added weight of the shit that they’ve all been collectively dragged through, but they find themselves talking anyway. Talking about the battle, about what a close shave it was, about how Tony pulled an excellent manoeuvre back there and Natasha killed that guy in an even more awesome way than usual.
Then the topics spread, and they’re leaning on their elbows with food dripping onto the table and laughing as the conversation jumps from subject to subject. Natasha lobs a balled-up wrapper at Bruce, which she wouldn’t have done even a few weeks ago, just in case. Thor’s booming laugh echoes the way Tony’s only heard about from Darcy. They order another round of food, and the host grins and jokes something, and Steve claps him on the back, his tone is light, laughing as he answers.
Tony watches his eyes crease and thinks that maybe things will sort themselves out.
Happy’s healing, or healed, even, his face scarring over, the lines turning pink before starting to fade. Tony still gets a cinch of guilt in his chest whenever he sees them, even though Happy has told him repeatedly that he doesn’t blame him in the slightest and treats him just like it was before everything happened. Still the same old Happy, tapping his Head of Security badge to the point of uselessness and knocking Tony to the ground when a threat presents itself even though a) he’s not his bodyguard anymore and b) Tony has an Iron Man suit, which, no offence to Happy, is about a billion times more helpful.
The reporters had been confused about that, about Tony having a suit, but come on, Tony’s been too paranoid for too long to not leave at least one backup when he blew up the suits that they caught on camera. What was he supposed to do, walk around like before, all squishy and fleshy and non-bulletproof all the time without knowing that there was a suit he could call on?
Like he said, he’s Iron Man, and that’s not just a gimmick that Tony used so they would allow him to keep the suit. He’s Iron Man, and he was going to suit up eventually, he just thought it would take more than three and a half months. Which, he supposes, was a decent run, considering how fast things are happening nowadays. One week there’s no proof of alien life existing and the next he’s fighting an army of them next to a demigod from another dimension.
You learn to roll with these kinds of things after a while, and Tony is nothing if not adaptable.
Speaking of adaptable, Coulson gets officially revealed as Very Much Not Dead the Tuesday after things starts rolling along semi-smoothly, which kind of throws a wrench into things. Fury gets punched, three times, by three separate people, one of whom isn’t even on the Avengers team. Coulson also gets punched, twice, once by Natasha and once by Brooks. Regretfully, Tony gets held back because he’s not in the suit and is hence no match for Steve’s super strength.
Like Tony knew it would, the group of superheroes living in his tower puts a considerable strain on his and Pepper’s relationship, to say the least. The honeymoon phase of not being dead is gone, replaced by the usual bordering-on-exasperation, and Tony can safely say that he’s a changed man and he’s been a lot more mature than he has been in the past, so he tries, many times, to sit down and talk it out rather than screaming at her until she slips up and reveals something useful.
So he might be growing up, finally, at the ripe age of forty-three. Go figure.
Not that he’s successful, a lot of the time, with the whole being mature thing, but it’s the effort that counts, right?
It’s always the same things, and Pepper starts smiling less, and a couple of months have passed since Fury showed up with five beat-up superheroes in his lounge, and Tony knows by now that he’s only forestalling the inevitable, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to give up, not after all that they’ve been through, and certainly not when it’s Pepper.
So he overcompensates, he splurges on flowers, bouquets that get delivered to Pepper’s office by the bucketload, on expensive jewellery and dresses and whatever catches his eye, whatever he thinks she would like, and it’s a slow spiral downwards for their relationship, but at least it’s steady.
They save the world, once, twice, eight times over, and save New York too many times to count. Tony thinks that it had to be New York, because only here do you find people stubborn enough to withstand multiple alien invasions and still come into work that day, grumbling about how their car got exploded.
The Avengers, one by one, are healing, scar tissue or otherwise. The therapist, Dr. Bradburn, is surprisingly helpful, and Tony’s anxiety attacks are down a good 73%. Which still isn’t enough, he’d like them to be gone permanently and never darken his doorstep again, but for now he focuses on working on his tech and making sure his team members don’t completely fuck themselves over with their own damaged psyche.
Steve finds him one day, about five months since he moved in, and leans on the balcony next to him. “You seem different,” he says after a few minutes of silence. “Not in a bad way, just-“
“You too,” Tony says. “I, ah, heard about Bucky.”
“I heard about the mansion,” Steve says. “That must have been awful.”
Tony hums in agreement, not wanting to go over the gory details, but Steve’s tone is open enough to let him know that he can talk about it, which is an upgrade from how Steve’s been for the past few months, so.
He shrugs, his fingers tapping over the balcony’s frame in binary. “Bruce with Betty, the whole thing with Thor, Natasha’s old brainwash buddy coming back from the dead, Coulson coming back from the dead- it’s been a full on few months for all of us.”
“It’s been a full on few years for all of us,” Steve says, reverent. “God, not even five years ago I was a foot shorter, in a different century and couldn’t run a block unless I got carried halfway down it.”
“Five years ago I was up to my neck in booze, chicks and weapon engineering,” Tony tells him, looking out over the city, lit up like a Christmas tree. “Don’t know about you, but I kind of prefer this gig.”
There’s a pause, and Tony hears Steve inhale a few seconds before he speaks. “Did I ever apologize for being wrong about you?”
Tony turns his face just enough to look at him. “What?”
“Back on the helicarrier, I said some- things.”
“That was a billion years ago, Cap, it’s water under the bridge. Besides, I said some not very nice things right back at you. I might have even yelled them, if we’re getting technical.”
“Yeah. But, uh.” Steve raises a hand to scratch at the back of his head. “I just wanted to let you know, officially, that I don’t think that anymore. What I thought of you back then, I mean. You more than proved yourself, Tony, and you keep proving yourself. It’s an honour to be on a team with you.”
Shit. There’s the Steve that Tony hasn’t seen in a while, the one who stands tall not because he has to but because he wants to, the one who cracks dry jokes and always meets his eyes. “I,” he says, and clears his throat. “Uh, thanks. You too.”
They stand there like that, leaning on the railing, listening to the sharp sounds of New York and watching the lights, and Tony wants to say, hey, you’re okay, right, but chews on the inside of his cheek instead.
And Steve is- calmer, sort of, more settled, after that, and Tony finds out a few weeks later that the day before Steve had come out to talk to him, Bucky finally got his memory back.
Bruce barely manages not to Hulk out on a talk show, and the only thing that stops him is Tony dragging him offstage. He pulls him into the wings and starting to talk about the science project he’s been working on. He keeps it calm and methodical, listing the stages of the experiment, but Bruce is still shaking, green working its way up his neck, and Tony is pushed out of the way to make room for Natasha, which makes absolutely zero sense and if Natasha attacks him there is going to be hell to pay.
But Natasha doesn’t attack Bruce. Instead, she takes both his hands into hers and starts singing under her breath; rusty, soft notes rolling in Russian from her tongue. Tony watches, surprised, as Bruce looks at her, his eyes glazing. Natasha continues on, her voice steady as she looks into those eyes which are filtered with green, and after a few minutes of this, Bruce’s shuddering stops completely. Natasha stops singing a while after he does, but keeps a hold on his hands. “We good here, Banner?”
“Yes,” Bruce says weakly. “We’re fine. Thank you, Nat.”
“Don’t thank me,” Natasha says, and Tony sees her give his hands a little squeeze before letting them drop. There’s a hint of a smile on her face, tiny and private. “I was just helping out a teammate.”
They’ve all been doing that for a while, Tony realizes. Helping out their teammates, asking casual questions that can be avoided if they want to, offering to watch TV with them at 3 in the morning when they can’t sleep, either, nevermind that it’s only infomercials at this time of night. They’ve been on coffee runs and they eat meals together and manage not to throttle each other a good portion of the time, and they’re actually sort of functioning. Badly, stiltedly, but functioning.
He remembers, again, his conclusion about being one of the stable members of the team, and thinks that maybe he’ll have to re-evaluate his hypothesis, because the other Avengers all seem to be getting better.
Another month moves by and the Avengers are a force, less stumbling and more powering forwards now, and Tony gets so distracted with the suit’s new design and fighting monsters and being on a team with people he doesn’t actively dislike, that when Pepper breaks up with him it wrenches him completely off track.
“We both knew this was coming,” she tells him, and her eyes are shiny but her voice is tender-firm. “I’m not going to make you choose between me or the suits. God, at this point I’m the distraction-”
Tony says, “Don’t say that,” and he’s leaning forwards with his arms braced against his knees, his hands in his hair. “You were never a distraction, Pep, I’m so sorry if I ever made you think that.”
When it comes, her smile is sad. “You didn’t, Tony. I just don’t want to pretend anymore. I love you, but I can’t be Iron Man’s girlfriend, and like it or not, you’re always going to be Iron Man. Even when you’re not wearing the suit.”
Tony is grasping at straws here and he knows it, his head shaking stupidly, his tech forgotten behind him. “I can miss out on a few fights with the team, we can have more date nights, I can-”
“Tony,” she says, and the touch of her hands startles him so he jolts. She’s cupping his face, her achingly familiar hands sliding over his cheeks, stroking. “This isn’t either one of our faults. This is just… how things are.”
Tony watches her eyes move, how her mouth ticks downwards in that telltale way that means she’s trying not to cry, and sags in her hands. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” she replies, and God, she was always like that- she never said I love you, too, even when Tony said it first she would always just reply I love you.
And things, as they always do, move forwards.
Pepper moves out of the tower but stays on as CEO, Rhodey and Happy are supportive to both of them and always take Tony’s calls late at night when even he’s not sure what he’s saying anymore. He drinks enough to end up being carried, bridal style, out of his workshop, before coming home to find the Tower turned inside out and every last ounce of alcohol poured down the drain, including the minibars.
They don’t keep the bottles, which Tony is thankful for, because he doesn’t think he’ll be able to live down the sight of that much proof of his stupid fucking weakness piled up over multiple sinks.
He stops drinking, more or less, which is partly because every single person on his team and some off of it have openly threatened Tony’s balls if he makes a move towards a bottle, but sometimes they’re out in public and his team isn’t around and Tony is just going to take a sip which more often than not turns into a lot more.
Brooks corners him after a press conference, nearly eleven months after officially re-grouping, and Tony starts to say, “Shit, what did I do, I promise it wasn’t me, it was totally Sitwell,” before she interrupts him.
“So I notice you’ve been drinking apple juice in whiskey glasses at press conferences for the past few weeks.”
Tony freezes, said glass in his hand, and has to take a second to reply. “Uh. What?”
“Apple juice,” Brooks repeats. “Unlike your non-alcoholic teammates, I can actually tell the difference.”
And fucking god, Tony would rather battle the Chuitari again than have to sit through his team’s disappointed stares as that glass that sits next to him at press conferences.
“Oh,” Tony says. “Well, that’s. Nice. For you.” He’s hunching, kind of sinking into his shoulders, and babbles, “So I’ll just be leaving now, thanks for reminding me about my appointment-” but she stops him, again.
“I just wanted to let you know you’re doing really well.”
Tony stares. “Thank… you?”
Brooks raises her eyebrows at him before she laughs, a short peal of it which Tony startles at. “Jesus, I’m not going to bite, Stark. Breathe.”
“I’m breathing,” Tony says. “I’m breathing, look, deep breaths, lungs definitely moving-”
“God, this team is full of fruitcakes,” she sighs, and reaches into her pocket.
The last thing Tony is expecting to be held out to him is a poker chip, marking six months of sobriety, and his brain sort of goes offline for a second, because, what?
“I haven’t, ah, made it to six months yet-”
“Give it back to me when you hit it.”
Brooks rolls her eyes. “It’s mine, you won’t get in trouble, I promise. I’m not telling you to give it back to me in six months, I’m telling you to give it back to me when you hit the six-month mark, which might be six months away or six years away. Either way, I’m expecting that back at some point. We clear, Stark?”
Tony says, “Yes, ma’am,” and feels the urge to salute, which has been a weirdly reoccurring thing ever since he’s come into contact with both Cap and Brooks. He takes the chip tentatively, like it’s going to burst into flames if he holds it long enough, and slips it into his pocket with the hand that isn’t holding the fifth of apple juice.
“Don’t thank me,” she says. “I get it.”
Tony looks her up later, like he’s been meaning to for a long time now. She’s not ex-military like he expected, but instead grew up an heiress, surrounded with wealth and shitty parents and shitty people. Her file is a mess of what Tony’s life was like from age nineteen to thirty-nine, and then suddenly, when she turns seventeen, she checks into rehab. The next few years are a jumble of attempted kidnappings and her catching SHIELD’s attention, which leads her to being recruited two years ago.
Closing the tab, Tony thinks to himself that their files, without the decade long gap in between them, are kind of, sort of, really similar.
Tony meets Bucky Barnes over a plate of scrambled eggs and a suspicious look.
“You’re the other Stark.”
Tony sets his face in a shit-eating grin. “I’m the only Stark. Only living one, anyway. You must be the Winter Soldier.”
“He’s Bucky,” Steve corrects him, like he’s discussing the weather. He slides Tony’s plate further towards him before turning back to the stove. “Eat your breakfast. Bucky, stop pissing Tony off.”
Both Bucky and Tony look up at Steve, surprised over the same reason, but Steve remains oblivious, humming to himself as he separates the scrambled eggs in the pan with a metal spatula.
“Right,” Tony says. “Okay. So, Bucky, how are you liking this century?”
“Tony, stop pissing Bucky off,” Steve says without turning around, and Bucky chokes on a laugh.
Natasha comes in, trading that look with Bucky that Tony doesn’t know about and doesn’t want to know about because it probably involves Russian assassins, and sits down gracefully between them. Tony squints at her shirt. It doesn’t look like hers, or Clint’s, and Bucky smiles softly when he sees it, so he puts two and two together.
Natasha pulls her hairtie out, lets it fall over her shoulder before scruffing it up with her fingers, running them through it. “I see Cap is making his two favourites their breakfast.”
Something about Bucky makes Natasha crack jokes more often, and Tony doesn’t want to know, he doesn’t, he so totally doesn’t.
“I’m making everyone breakfast,” Steve says, over the sizzling off the eggs. “Nat, you want a plate?”
“No thanks. I’ll just sit here and chat with both your charming, cocky playboys with matching shit-eating grins and the ability to piss me off more than most people in existence.”
That shakes a laugh out of Tony and Bucky simultaneously, and Steve mutters something into the pan, a flush creeping up his neck that Tony nearly misses.
Tony is flipping Brook’s chip through his fingers when the doorbell rings at quarter to midnight.
“JARVIS,” he yells at the ceiling. “Door. Who. Why.”
There’s a pause, and JARVIS’ response is surprised. “I do believe it’s an old friend, Sir. Harley Keener.”
Tony’s up in an instant, and his team look at him with varying levels of interest. “What? Why? Is he okay?”
“He seems to be fine, Sir, just freezing and soaked to the skin. It is quite cold out tonight, and the rain is only getting worse. I advise we let him in.”
“You’re just saying that because you have a soft spot for him.”
“I am based off of your brainwaves, Sir,” JARVIS replies curtly, and Tony feels a squirm of unease at that.
“So you say. Okay, let him in and bring up the screen.”
“As you wish, Sir.”
A screen appears out of thin air in front of Tony, and he thumbs it open to see a feed of Harley closing the door behind him, shaking himself like a dog and flecking water all over the hall.
“Hey, watch it,” Tony says. “That vase is more expensive than the price you’d get if you sold yourself on the black market.”
Onscreen, Harley jumps, whirling around. “What? Huh?”
“Camera, genius,” Tony says, and his mouth twists as he stops the smile when Harley looks up at the camera underneath his sopping hair. True to JARVIS’ word when Tony checks him over, he looks intact, just dripping everywhere.
“In the flesh,” Tony says. “Or, hey, not. What the hell are you doing here?”
“Uhhhh,” Harley says. He tries for a grin. “I was in the neighbourhood?”
“Uh-huh. Last time I checked it was kind of a long way from here to your house, kid.”
“What. Are. You-”
“Okay, okay, jeez, don’t have a cow. My school offered to bring me up here to meet some TV chick to look at my science project, and I thought, y’know, since I’m here, I might as well go see Tony.”
Tony nods to himself for a few seconds. “And do your teachers know you’re here?”
Harley says, “Uhhh,” and Tony lets out a breath.
“Right. I thought so. Come on up here so you don’t get frostbite, your mom would never forgive me. JARVIS will tell you where to go.”
Harley’s shivering, his arms wrapping around himself, and Tony knows he’s not faking it this time, juddering so hard his teeth chatter as he says, “Thanks.”
Tony closes the feed with a flick of his hand, and when he sits back down, everyone is staring at him.
“Hi. Not my illegitimate kid, guys, I can hear you thinking it.”
Coulson says, “Thank god,” not looking up from where he’s flipping through his paperwork.
Clint stretches out from the position he’s been in for the past three hours, which looks like a weird combination of yoga and being forcibly drowned with no water involved. “You gonna tell us why a ten year old who apparently isn’t your child is making his way up here as we speak, or do we have to start guessing?”
“He helped me out, I helped him out, it was a mutual helping thing and now I’m giving him lodging for the night because otherwise he’d freeze to death. Happy?”
“Confused, actually,” Clint says. “How exactly did he help you when he doesn’t even come up to your shoulders? What could he have possibly done, built you a potato clock?”
“Shut up,” Tony tells him, and then the elevator doors are sliding open and Harley steps in, trailing water as he does.
Tony ends up on the receiving end of a very worried teacher for over half an hour, and after he hangs up he goes to sit back down on the couch to find that Harley has overtaken most of where he had been sitting.
“You move,” Harley says, trying to careen sideways to see the TV screen that Tony’s blocking.
“That’s my seat. Move.”
“You live here. You probably sit here every day. I never get to sit here, so I should make the most of it while I should.”
“You’re very, very sure this isn’t your illegitimate kid, right,” Natasha says, her smile smug from where she’s sitting beside the little shit, and Tony scowls at her.
“Yes, I’m sure, his dad ran out on him six years ago after he won some scratch tickets.”
Steve snaps, “Tony,” in that mix of appalled, angry and horrified that he gets way too often around him.
Tony looks back at him. “What? That was how he phrased it, word for word!”
“He told me not to be a pussy about it,” Harley says, his mouth full of popcorn that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, and Tony can’t even bring himself to defend himself at the glares he receives.
“Tattletale,” he says, shoving Harley’s knees out of the way as he goes to sit next to Bruce, who is great and awesome and doesn’t care about anything happening right now.
Harley sticks his tongue out at Tony. “Meanie.”
Steve says, “Tony, for god’s sake, stop aggravating the middle schooler,” in a voice that he reserves for when Tony’s been an absolute and utter dick. Which, again, happens far too often.
Tony sticks his tongue out at Steve and nearly bites it off when he gets one in return.
Harley shows Tony the schematics of his science project, and Tony feels a pitch of something freakishly akin to pride that he hurriedly beats down and covers with a hasty, ‘you did good, kid,’ and an aborted pat on the back.
“Yeah, I know, right,” Harley says distractedly, and goes on to show Tony the wiring.
He stays the night, falls asleep at four in the morning sprawled over Natasha and Tony’s laps, and Natasha manages to slide out without waking him, but Tony knows that if he tries he’ll fail miserably and the kid is only getting a few hours of sleep, anyway, so instead he sits there and lets him sleep and gets two dead legs for his troubles.
“I hate you,” he tells Harley when he wakes up. “So much.” Harley just grins and pokes Tony’s right leg and is rewarded with a pained yelp as Tony is flooded with pins and needles.
They had stayed in the lounge that night, watching TV on mute and talking quietly over their battle plan for next time giant Something Or Rather-s attack the city, and Harley’s body had been small and terrifyingly warm in Tony’s lap.
All in all, it’s a pretty good night. Which is abruptly ruined over breakfast, while Harley is talking full-speed about something Tony keeps losing track of, taking breaks only to breathe and shovel scrambled egg into his mouth, and Tony is half dozing but tunes right the fuck back in when Harley asks if he still gets anxiety attacks if someone mentions New York.
And then everyone is looking at him, and he’s one of the unstable guys in the team again, and the people who aren’t looking at him are carefully avoiding his eyes and fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
“Sorry,” Harley says immediately. “Shit, are you going to have one now? I take it back, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”
“Sometimes,” Tony croaks. “I, ah, don’t get them much anymore, thanks for asking, I actually live in New York now if you haven’t noticed, kind of hard to get away from people talking about it, due to the whole living here thing, which I do. Live. In New York.”
But it’s happening, he can feel it ignite, feel the previously dormant burn that sits in the back of his head most of the time, and now everyone is looking at him and he’s babbling, trying speak over the gasps: “Which is fine. It’s fine. I’m fine.”
And his breathing is coming in short pants, and his limbs feel like jelly around him, and Harley is saying his name and saying sorry and the wormhole is swimming in front of him, swallowing him whole again and his chest is on fire and god, he’s been talking this over with the therapist, he’s been making progress, he hasn’t had an attack in over four months, he’s fine, he’s supposed to be fine-
He’s dimly aware of his hands fumbling uselessly at the chair as he slumps off of it in an attempt to get the hell out of here, then his hands are shaking and everything is shaking and he’s clutching the leg of the chair, bent over on the ground, wheezing. His vision is fading in and out, bright stars jumping into his eyes and out of them as he watches the endlessly bright stars of another world, watches the brightness get engulfed by the pinprick of flame which swells and swells.
When it starts to fade, his breathing is all over the place, there are hands on his back and on his shoulders and shit, is he sobbing, that’s definitely a half-sob, Tony hates it when that happens during this, hates how his voice cracks when he says he’s fine, hates how people look at him like they’re doing now.
“It’s fine,” he rasps, when he can piece together that it’s Steve’s hands at his shoulders, trying to get him to look at him, and it’s Clint’s hands on his back, rubbing circles. “I’m fine, that doesn’t happen much, that’s the first time in months-”
“Sorry,” Harley blurts, almost scared-sounding, unlike the other times. “I didn’t- I looked it up on the internet it says they’re panic attacks but I could be wrong and I looked up what to do for both of them just in case and I’m really sorry I didn’t mean to-”
“Kid,” Tony says, the trembling subsiding, the sob nearly gone from his voice but not quite. “It’s fine. See? Coherent. Can make a proper fist.” He stands, nodding at both Steve and Clint to let them know they can let go, making a fist in front of him. It doesn’t shake.
Harley apologizes a few more times, all of which Tony brushes off, and in the next two hours Tony nearly forgets, with Harley laughing loud and long over Thor’s impression of Donald Trump and asking Natasha if he can try her throwing knives and basically being a kid in a room full of superheroes doing typical things kids would do in a room full of superheroes, but there’s that underlying tension that Tony knows is going to resurface when Harley leaves.
When Harley does leave, it’s in the back of his teacher’s car, waving out the window and yelling that he’ll try to come back at some point. Before he had got in the backseat, Tony had done the quick dance in his mind of do-I-hug-him-shit-no-should-I-fuck-how-do-people-deal-with-tiny-humans and ends up ruffling his hair instead and telling Harley that he can visit anytime, but only if he has something cool to show Tony. Or, y’know, if he just wants to drop in.
“Cute kid,” Steve says when they get back inside. His arms are folded over his chest, which he seems to notice because he quickly unfolds them, which means he’s going to try to talk about things, which is Tony’s cue to make a strategic exit.
Steve says, “Tony,” and the rest of his team are in the room and looking at him, not in a worried way but not in any other way, either, and Tony smiles grimly.
“I said I was fine. Yes, I get anxiety attacks-”
“Panic attacks,” Coulson corrects.
“I get anxiety attacks,” Tony repeats, suddenly exhausted. “And they suck, and I’m getting a handle on them, I swear. I’ve been going to therapy and talking about things like a good little boy, and I should be fine in a while. Today was just a slip-up. Won’t happen again.”
Steve’s arms hang at his sides, like he wants to cross them but can’t. “Tony-”
“If you get Brooks in here to scare me to going into therapy twice a week then you’re out of luck, buddy, I’m busy enough as it is and I can hardly get the time to get just one hour a week for it-”
“It’s not a big deal-”
“Tony,” Steve says, louder, and Tony falls silent. “We just wanted to make sure you know it’s fine that you have panic attacks. Anxiety attacks. Whatever. They’re not- they don’t make us respect you less, it just means you went through something. And that you-”
“Need to deal with it,” Tony continues. “Brooks would be proud, Cap. And I am dealing with it.”
Natasha nods, says, “Okay, we trust you,” and Christ, that’s enough to make Tony want to schedule in that second therapy session a week.
Steve starts disappearing again, going off and neglecting to mention where he’s going, and since Bucky’s been hanging around more lately, that cancels him out.
When Tony calls him on it, Steve just blinks at him for a few seconds before saying dryly, “Hen’s night.”
“I’ve been going to the museum with Sharon, Darcy and Miss Po- Pepper,” Steve says, his eyes on whatever he’s drawing, scraping charcoal downwards. He glances up at Tony, sort of reluctant. “Should I have asked you first about Pepper, or-”
“Depends, are you having a fourway, or just hanging out?” Due to how the tips of Steve’s ears go red, he’s guessing it’s the latter. “I’m not going to slap you with my glove and challenge you to a fight to the death because you’ve been spending time with my ex, Steve.” He pauses. “But, uh, if you are thinking of seeing her in that way, I’d prefer if you, uh, ran it by me first.”
“No!” Steve’s voice is shrill, and he has to cough a few times to get a grip on it. “No, it’s not like- that. With any of them. We’re all just talking. I mean, Sharon and I were-”
Steve stops, shifting, his charcoal stilling. “But that, uh, wouldn’t have worked, so we broke it off before anything happened.”
“Ooookay. Sure. Have fun with that, I guess. I was just checking to see if you had another amnesiac best friend that you were sneaking off to.”
Steve huffs a laugh. “Only one of those, sorry.”
Tony watches him for a while, the snick-snick-snick of paper rustling as Steve draws, watching as the sketch takes to life in front of him before saying, “Sharon Carter, right?”
Again, the charcoal stops. “That’s right.”
Tony nods. “I, ah, knew her aunt. Peggy. She talked about you sometimes.”
Steve looks up at him with an expression that Tony’s getting kind of used to. “You knew Peggy?”
“Oh, yeah. She was great. Punched my dad in the face once.”
To Tony’s surprise, Steve laughs instead of taking offence, or making a face, or a range of other less nice things that Tony had expected. Steve laughs, and it’s not a good laugh. “Sounds like Peggy. Why did she?”
“Punch him. Why’d she punch him.”
“She was pissed at him.”
“Obviously, but what about?”
“She disapproved of his parenting method of giving a glass of whiskey to a four year old,” Tony says, as casual as he can make it while also getting it over and done with, and then, mostly for something to distract Steve with, “According to my mother, Peggy marched into the hall and asked her where Howard was. My mom told her, and asked her what it was about, and Peggy said, I’m going to punch the bastard in the face, and my mom put a hand up and Peggy started to argue and my mom took one of her heavy rings off her finger. Then she gave it to Peggy, told her to put it on and then to punch him in the left cheek because he was already tender from where my mom slapped him.”
Oh. Wow. Bad decision. That story sounded a lot better in his head, and now Steve has that stormy face, the one he gets just before he breaks a Hydra agent’s nose with his shield. Or better yet, his bare fist.
Tony used to do so well with the not-being-the-screwed-up-one-in-the-team. He’s losing so many well-earned brownie points for this. Brownie points gained for not being the number one mess on his team. Which he is slowly losing status of and is rising to fulfil the aforementioned position of Number One Mess, which may in turn be his rightful place.
“Aaaanyway,” Tony hedges, “Yeah, if you want to hook up with Pepper, tell me first so I can- do nothing. I don’t know. Prepare myself, or something. I’ll just go down to my workshop now, have fun with the charcoal-”
“Do you want to go watch a movie,” Steve blurts, and Tony pauses long enough for Steve to continue with, “I saw a trailer for a new action movie, we could go and laugh at how bad their battle strategies are?”
“Uh,” Tony says, because this wasn’t the behaviour he expected when unveiling a piece of his relatively shitty childhood. “Sure.”
Pepper picks up on the fourth ring. “Are you okay,” she says, rushed.
Tony blinks. “To the extent of my knowledge, yeah. Why?”
“You’re calling me,” Pepper says after a moment. “I mean, not that you never call me-”
“No, that’s fair, I don’t, sorry,” Tony breathes. “My fault. I just, uh. Heard you were hanging out with Darcy and Sharon and Steve, and Steve said you seemed happy but also kind of sad and I don’t want you to be sad, so I was just calling to see how you are.”
There’s a long pause on the other end. Pepper says, “I’m, I’m having a really good day today, actually, how are you,” sounding pinched and awkward and Tony fights the urge to bash his head into the wall.
“God, this is bullshit. Look, can we go back to being friends? Please? If we even were friends at some point? And if we weren’t, I’d like to. Because you’re great, and even though we’re not together anymore I’d like you to be in my life and I know I’m an asshole and I’m sorry and could we please just reset everything and try the whole friend thing?”
There’s a silence in which Tony regrets his entire existence before Pepper says, “I’d love that, Tony,” in a soft voice that has Tony so relieved he has to sit down.
“Great. Great. Uh. How are things.”
A long-suffering sigh from Pepper, heavy with sarcasm. “Well, right now I’m looking forward to going home and watching a bad romcom for a while because my boss is a tyrant and has me working double shifts to get the paperwork done.”
“Sounds like an asshole.”
“He’s actually kind of wonderful,” Pepper says, and he can hear her smile through the phone, “If you get past the whole asshole thing.”
Tony isn’t paying attention when it happens, which is turning into somewhat of a pattern nowadays. He’s talking, and Steve’s listening, and Tony’s saying something about the constellations and then suddenly Steve’s leaning in and Tony’s leaning backwards with the feeling that this has happened before.
And it has, on a balcony, again, with the same confused-terrified soup of emotions, with Steve leaning in instead of Pepper and this time Tony steps back instead of just leaning, making that extra space, putting even more distance between them and no, no, this is all wrong-
And then, of course, Steve backs off, reddening around the ears, saying, “I- I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”
“It’s fine,” Tony says, fast as he can. “I was- I don’t know why I-”
“I’m sorry,” Steve says again, blush crawling down his throat, visible even in the dark, “I’m so sorry, I should have asked.”
“Asked,” Tony repeats. “Asked? You were going to ask if you could kiss me? Who does that? No-one does that,” he blurts, fucking this up all over again, shit, shit, shit.
Steve says, “Sorry,” looking like he would genuinely prefer hurling himself off this balcony than continue this conversation.
“No, no, it’s-”
“I hope I didn’t-”
“You can ask.”
Steve stumbles from where he had been walking backwards. “What?”
“To kiss me,” Tony says, and he’s sweating, had it been this hot a minute ago, “You can ask to kiss me, I mean.” He scrubs a hand over his face. Yep, definitely sweating. “Fuck, can we have a do-over? Can we just do that? Okay, you go. Ask.”
Steve says, “Uh,” and it half-dies in his throat, unsure.
Come on, Tony thinks, because he flat out refuses to do this again, his only serious relationship was a disaster and they’ve only just managed to maintain a shaky friendship and all his blunder of confused, screwy feelings for Steve are mounting one on top of the other.
He feigns casual, knowing it’s an awful effort and Steve can see right through it but doing it anyway. He takes a few steps forwards and Steve stays where he is even though he’s obviously fighting against it. “Come on, ask away. Promise I won’t deck you. Ask.”
Steve still looks uncertain, his eyebrows creasing, and they’re both kind of really, really fucked up to the point where therapists look at them judgingly and people in the street sometimes ask if they’re okay, and they’re both getting better but it’s a long, long road, and Tony just wants this, just wants Steve and wants to kiss Steve and wants all of Steve, more than he realized, more than he ever let himself think about.
“I, um,” Steve stammers, totally and utterly that little kid from Brooklyn that would only come up to Tony’s shoulders, and Tony wants to drag him in, and in, and in.
But then Steve’s steeling himself, pushing his chin out and meeting Tony’s eyes even though he’s blushing furiously, taking a bit of that Captain America courage and saying, “May I kiss you, Tony,” and he sounds like an idiot and Tony can’t get over how he actually said ‘may I,’ Jesus Christ.
“Damn straight you may,” Tony says, and then he’s closing the gap and kissing the goddamn hell out of him, and Steve’s mouth is soft and wet and pressing hotly against his, his lips parting.
For a moment they stay like that, breathing in each other’s breaths, before Tony’s tongue skims Steve’s lower lip and that has Steve biting down on Tony’s mouth like he’s hungry for it. His hands clench in Tony’s hair as he breaks away, just enough so they can rest their foreheads together.
Tony has to tilt his chin up, to cant himself upwards so their mouths meet, and Steve gathers him close with both arms before slanting their mouths together again.
They stay like that for a long time, kissing each other to breathlessness, all soft edges and warm mouths.
The Avengers save the world on a fortnightly basis, squabble over who gets the seat with the ass-groves and all have a turn calming down Bruce when they try to watch reality TV. It’s been over a year of this now, over twelve months of learning how to be around other people and slowly gaining their trust, their respect, and, for some reason, their friendship.
Tony finds himself bonding with the weirdest people in the weirdest ways- him, Darcy, Brooks and Clint get arrested in a foreign country over a complete misunderstanding and then get bailed out the next day by an unamused Pepper, which is followed by all five of them getting trapped in a hotel room for seventeen hours while it slowly caves in.
He’s transported to another dimension and is stuck there for a week with Natasha, Bruce and Steve, not knowing the language of the locals and spending most of the week running for their lives and shooting people in the head when they prove to be the same as the next town, who try to kill them on sight. Apparently humans are kind of frowned upon in that dimension.
He gets trapped inside of Thor’s head for eight hours, which he’s not going to rule out as a pleasant experience, but not as a bad one, either. He spends a few hours tied up to a chair with Coulson in his office. And then Tony, Happy, Bucky and Rhodey get kidnapped together, held captive for two days before Tony busts them out less than fifteen minutes before the Avengers come bursting in.
And then there’s Steve, and Steve is new, at least this version of Steve, the one who washes shampoo out of his hair with careful fingers and has laughable bedhead and kisses Tony awake most mornings.
When Tony pulls Brooks aside after a meeting, her face is impassive, giving nothing away. She stays silent, betraying nothing, as Tony slips her the six month sobriety chip back, just as promised.
“Thanks,” he says.
She smiles. “What did I say about thanking me?”
She says, “You got it, Stark,” sort of fondly, and neither of them mention it again.
Tony’s never really had much of a family, but.
Natasha starts sprinkling berries in her cereal, Steve continues to go on hens’ nights to the museum, Bruce gets sunburned so badly that Tony helps peel it off him in strips a week later. Christmas passes, along with birthdays that mostly go by as casually as they can make them. Thor tries to celebrate Hanukah, and makes just as much as a mess when he tried to host Thanksgiving, and Brooks continues to be a relentless pain in the ass while also kind of awesome. Coulson continues being Coulson, which is self-explanatory.
Having backup still feels new, but Tony could definitely get used to this.
One night, after a particularly bad fight in downtown Manhattan, Tony wakes up in the middle of hyperventilating. He’s soaking the sheets, drenched in sweat, and Steve is right there and Tony curls away from him on default. When he’s on the tail end of it, getting his breath back, his cheeks wet with something other than sweat, Steve says, “Is it okay if I touch you,” like Tony isn’t coming to pieces in front of him, his voice soft and steady.
“Yeah,” Tony chokes, and tries to make a fist, does it with both hands and can’t quite do it. “Yeah, yes, sure, please.”
Steve’s hands, large and warm and big enough to cover the arc reactor if he tried, come around Tony’s back to pull him close. At first Tony flinches, stilling, and the next moment he’s clinging like a baby fucking koala.
And it’s okay, it really is, because Steve does this sometimes, even though the episodes are getting less and less frequent. He wakes up screaming, harsh gulps of it, and Tony holds him until he stops shuddering.
They hold each other until they’re convinced they aren’t anywhere but here, until the shaking stops, until the sobs quiet down and they can fall back to sleep again, bracketed by each other’s arms.
Nowadays, when they wake up, they smile.