The instant Steve stepped through the elevator doors was a much-needed reprieve. He sighed, allowing himself a moment to stand and bask.
The living room of Avengers Tower was empty, and flipping on the lights didn't attract any of its current inhabitants. Steve settled into his favorite seat, leaning his head back and letting his eyes fall closed. When he'd called this place home, the couch had been a surprisingly common place to find napping Avengers.
Only a twinge of wistfulness came with the thought. He wasn't planning to run an entire country's worth of operations indefinitely. It was a matter of time before he could entrust the reins to the head of a newly-minted S.H.I.E.L.D. and return to Avenger life, where his duties to the country came in at a close but undeniable second. Once an Avenger, always an Avenger.
Steve didn't understand what about this couch made it so much more appealing than a proper bed, settling one of the throw pillows under his neck.
He hadn't slept much lately. That was hardly surprising. Heading world-ending catastrophes off at the pass was par the course, but having to carefully oversee and catalog each of them, including the ones without any personal involvement, was nearly as overwhelming in scale. Not to mention, there were no distractions from work with his personal life. Being kidnapped as leverage against him had nipped his and Sharon's tentatively renewed relationship in the bud.
What was surprising was how he reacted to the lack of rest. Physically, he was fine—if pressed, he could run on fumes for longer than fully-rested men. But this bout of insomnia had been accompanied with an aggravating round of restlessness. His mind raced, all the time, a clamorous tumult that made it almost impossible to blank his thoughts enough to sleep. Physically, it couldn't be a migraine, but the rest of the symptoms were a neat fit.
Steve Rogers officially had enough stress in his life to experience psychosomatic headaches. He massaged his temples. Entering the tower was the first time in over a week his headache was dulled enough to relax.
But not enough to lull his work ethic, as he mentally composed reports. There was the ongoing mess with the Shadow Council and Max Fury. He hadn't quite finished the write-up on the Infinity Gauntlet debacle, yet, either. Trying to explain the situation in dry, detached terms was difficult enough, and he knew Hill would see right through it. If they'd had more options, he should have taken himself off the case for being emotionally compromised.
It would be better to take his tablet out and begin typing these up. In ten seconds.
Five Mississippi, Six Mississippi, Sev—
Steve startled awake, his heart racing. He had no idea how long he'd napped for, but hopes of a few lost minutes were dashed by the staleness of his mouth. Worse yet, the buzzing at the back of his mind had started again.
Even the minimal sleep he got nowadays wasn't much help.
His name was called, and Steve realized he hadn't come to on his own, but had been woken up.
“Hey,” he said to Bucky, who smiled back in puzzled amusement as he leaned against the couch. The mug he held smelled of chamomile.
“I know Stark says he's broke now, but the day that Steve Rogers is forced to couch-surf at the Avengers'...”
“No, no. I didn't mean to fall asleep.” Steve stole a glance at the clock, not happy to confirm he'd been out for nearly two hours to little effect. “Nice to see you, though. I figured you'd be with Natasha.” He hadn't sent her on any missions, so she should be in town.
“Nat's taking care of her own things. I wouldn't have minded if she'd invited me along, though. Getting to work with her is great.” Bucky leveled a glare at him, like Steve was at fault for not assigning Black Widow to the Avengers. He wasn't mistaken on that part, but if it was up to Steve there would be plenty more roster changes in store, starting with himself.
“Is working with the Avengers not good enough for you?”
Bucky waved his free arm. “Everyday, the Avengers punch out threats that could have started a world war back in our day. And when the job's done, we go back and drink beer while watching CSI in our PJs.” He shook his head. “They're all nuttier than fruitcake. Besides, if I'm Cap now, where's my sidekick?”
“You have Spider-Man,” Steve informed him.
Bucky glared in mock affront. He balanced the mug in his hands and took another sip. When he emerged, he still looked unhappy. “This is getting cold,” he said abruptly. “I can heat more water if you want some—were you waiting up for something?”
His approach could use some work on its subtlety. Although, he hadn't need it as a kid in the war, and he couldn't have needed it as the Winter Soldier. Steve felt chastised for thinking it.
“No, not really. I figured it'd be a good idea to check up on everyone.” It didn't sound like much when said aloud, but Steve refused to be self-conscious about it. He'd learned early on that the superiors he'd respected the most were the ones who would stop by and chat with the quote-unquote ordinary men.
But he wasn't a distant figure to the team. The majority of the current Avengers were people he'd worked with for years. It was part of why he'd chosen the members as he had.
“Hmm. Right then.” Bucky accepted the answer easily enough, precisely because it was as simple as that. “Anyway, I'm headed to bed. You staying the night? You'd have better luck checking in on everyone when we're not all asleep. The third door from the left should always be ready for guests.”
Steve lingered on that last word, feeling lost in his own skin.
“Or,” Bucky watched him from the corner of his eye, “we're not all asleep. Stark's probably awake. He's actually been in the city recently, but you wouldn't know it from all the time he spends holed up in his lab.” He excused himself with a wave. “Night, Steve.”
When Bucky left the room, Steve pushed himself off the couch. Knowing perfectly well where the guest rooms were, and despite his body's protests for a good night's sleep that wouldn't come, he veered away from the staircase leading upstairs.
The lab doors opened obligingly to his passcode.
No response, though the lights were on. Steve quickened his pace, fully prepared to find Tony asleep at his workbench.
He found Tony in a more alarming position. Tony sat hunched over, but awake, a screwdriver held limply between his fingers. He stared vacantly at his worktable.
Steve approached gingerly. Maybe Tony had finally mastered the art of sleeping with his eyes open like he'd wanted to, and be just like Gandalf.
“Stark?” Steve crouched down beside him. “Tony?”
Tony turned toward him carefully, unlike someone jerked out of a fitful sleep. He blinked at Steve, and Steve tried for a reassuring smile. So had Tony, who sat upright and grinned. Steve hadn't thought it was possible for Tony to fall into the awkward smile trap.
“I thought I heard someone come in,” Tony spoke too fast, like he'd been caught red-handed, “but I was just imagining it. I thought.”
“I made myself pretty obvious.” Steve stood up, very aware he couldn't turn around and back out now.
He scanned Tony's work space, hoping to strike up a conversation from the table's contents. Tony didn't seem up to starting one himself, leaving Steve feeling oddly bereft. Talking was always so natural for them, or at least, it had been, once.
Tony was holding a screwdriver, but there was nothing to screw. The tablet's screen had gone to sleep. There was a mug with dregs of coffee left in it.
“Bucky says you've been busy, lately?”
He'd said the right thing—Tony's face lit up with gratefulness. “He'd be right.” He swiped his hand over his tablet, bringing it out of sleep mode. “Meet Alpha.” He ran his finger over the screen, and a 3-D hologram of a car appeared above the tablet. Tony spun in his chair to face Steve, enlarging the image between them. “You don't know it yet, but Ally's going to revolutionize the world soon.” He quirked an eyebrow. “You might want to take a seat. C'mon, c'mon.”
As Tony gestured, sending bits and dashes of the car into thin air, stripping away layers of virtual coating to show its underbelly, recreating engines and suspensions and transmissions with a few words and a wave of his finger, Steve couldn't hold back his smile. In the minutiae of his life, it was easy to forget how awe-inspiring people could be. The future before Tony seemed so endless and full of possibilities.
He wondered how many of the team had heard Tony's pitches before. Even if someone managed not to find it inspiring, Tony's excited babbling was strangely soothing. Steve could see himself falling asleep to the sound of Tony's voice, in the good way.
Tony would never let him forget it if Steve managed to nod off in his chair.
It took until that thought for Steve to realize Tony had fallen silent. At first glance, he was transfixed on the hologram, until it was obvious he was looking right through it. How long had it been since he stopped talking? Steve wanted to reach out and anchor him, and he was halfway there before he thought better of it.
Geez, he really needed to rest.
“Your poor armor must feel so neglected,” Steve said, startling Tony out of his stupor. “'The biggest thing that ever came out of the Stark name?' Really?”
Tony took a moment too long to react, smiling and tapping on his chest. “Impossible. She already knows half of this is hers. We're soulmates.”
Through the thin t-shirt, the light of the RT shone brightly. Steve's gaze lingered.
No matter how often he saw it, it made him distinctly unsettled. This pale blue light was the line between the Tony in front of him who reminded him why he saw the best in people, and brain death.
Steve shook his head. It was keeping Tony alive. It wasn't so different from all of Tony's other contraptions he'd used to keep his heart ailments at bay. This time, Tony didn't have to hide his condition, either. They were in a better place than they had been in a long time, in more ways than one.
Tony shifted, and Steve snapped his eyes away, embarrassed at being caught and hoping Tony assumed Steve was just taken with the prototype.
“So that's why you're spending all your time holed up in here, even at,” Steve checked his watch, “2 AM.” He didn't mean to sound so critical, but he couldn't regret his tone too much when Tony shrugged off his concerns with a scoff.
“You know how it gets. When inspiration strikes...” Tony trailed off. “However that quote ends.” He squirmed under Steve's level gaze. “It's true I haven't been sleeping much lately,” Tony blurted out suddenly, like he didn't mean to.
It wasn't a new or unexpected confession. But, before, Steve wouldn't have needed to ask, or to be told. It was part and parcel of his day's observations—the dark circles under Tony's eyes, the muffled sniffling, the ever-present, distant expression and smile he aimed at nothing in particular. Now, those little ups and downs of daily life were smoothed over, brushed off with a “things are alright” or “I'm doing fine.”
“It's fine, though,” Tony continued, signaling his coffee mug. “It's great, really. I'm actually ahead of work at the moment. These finalized designs aren't due until next month.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “I'll trade you. You want to do some write-ups on the half-dozen HYDRA cells they found in the past two weeks?”
Tony made a face. “Right, right. The investors will fall over themselves. Nothing says sexy, sleek, and environmentally conscious like red, white, and blue.”
They were both grinning now. Tony shrugged a shoulder. “Well, the little headwings might be popular.” He stifled a huge yawn, immediately looking surprised and guilty.
“I should leave you to it and get some shut-eye myself,” Steve suggested.
Tony pressed something to make the floating prototype vanish. “Good idea. I'll just finish up some modifications, then. Can't just sleep off my latest idea for Ally's suspension.”
Steve wanted to reply that sure Tony could, but he held his tongue.
“Okay.” Steve reached out and rested his hand on Tony's shoulder like he'd wanted to earlier. Tony tensed under his touch. “Take care of yourself,” Steve said, his hand trailing off Tony. “Good night.”
In the moment, it'd been fine, like things between them were as usual. But here, as he was about to step back, he knew, and Tony knew, that he'd overstepped his boundaries.
The reply came when Steve was half-way out the door.
Steve was almost back to his room before he realized his headache was gone.
“I can web your head upright if that'd save your waffles,” Peter offered. Tony ran a hand over his face, correcting his previously precarious position at risk of nodding off into his plate.
“I'm good, thanks.”
“I mean, you don't seem to be eating them. They might be upset that you prefer coffee. Did you drink, like, twenty cups last night, because the container was half-full yesterday and I had to refill it this morning.” Peter sighed. “Those poor, cold, lonely waffles.”
Tony glared at him between his fingers and pushed the plate across the table. Peter made a delighted noise as he dug in.
Steve watched as Tony tapped his fingers on the table, ignoring the coffee mug. He had barely taken more than a few sips of coffee his entire breakfast. Steve had been watching him the whole time, and not discreetly either, if Bucky occasionally elbowing his side meant anything.
Tony hadn't noticed. He looked even worse off than he had the night before, gone straight past slightly loopy exhaustion to walking zombie. It was especially egregious, with Steve getting his first full night's sleep in what felt like ages.
Steve had heard obligatory greetings from Tony, but little else. He was sitting at least one empty place from anyone else.
The rest of the team members were happily chatting away, complaining about B-list villains, the comments section on the latest Daily Bugle news article, and the cliffhanger from TV last night. That was the usual breakfast fare, so it couldn't be that the new team hadn't quite settled in with each other, yet.
Was it Tony himself? But he'd known Clint for longer than Steve, and had gotten on well-enough with Peter and Jessica the last time they'd been on a team together. Then again, he'd also broken Peter's trust in him, and he'd gotten to know the Skrull-queen-impersonating-Jessica-Drew rather than the woman herself.
Thor and Logan weren't present today, but there shouldn't be any problems there. Thor and Tony were close friends, and Logan wasn't the warmest person, but Steve wouldn't have asked him to join if he truly believed he wouldn't be able to cooperate well with the rest of the team.
This was pointless. They were all adults. There was no reason to fret about who was invited into the inner circle like a worried parent.
Steve cleared his throat in Tony's direction, earning himself a flick of Tony's gaze. “He has a high metabolism,” Steve reminded him gently.
“Yeah, I paid for a household of Avengers for a decade. I know what it's like.” Tony frowned at the empty table before him, then settled for a banana from the fruit bowl.
"I'm never leaving the team,” Jessica was saying. “So many more perks than being a PI. Seriously, these waffles.”
"We'll see how you feel once you're the one facing down Thanos," Clint responded.
Steve passed the jug of orange juice, whirling his head back when Tony swore softly. A third of the banana had toppled to the floor. There was a startled giggle from behind Steve. When he reached under the table to pick it up, the table jumped as Tony smacked his head against the bottom. The giggling had turned into snickering.
“Maybe you should save the fruit from him too,” Clint told Peter, as Peter stole an inquisitive glance at the apples. Clint plucked a grape, tossed it in the air, and easily caught it in his mouth. “Or him from himself.”
Tony shot a glare at Clint, whose marksmanship had been right on the dot.
“If you need it, I could use my powers to get you to bed.” Jessica groaned and buried her face in her hands. “And I mean that in the most literal sense, it's way too early, shut up, Peter.”
“I can get you more waffles, if that'd help,” Peter said after he stopped giggling.
“I'm fine, thanks,” Tony snapped. “You can lay off pretending to care, Spider-people.”
The conversation ground to a halt, as everyone either glared at Tony or were entranced by their plates.
Jessica picked up her plate. “Well, I think I'll finish this in front of the TV.”
“I'll come with,” Peter piped up quickly. “Good Morning America is calling my name.”
After they left, the rest of the team finished their meals at lightning speed, even by the ravenous standards set by a team of superheroes.
Tony's fingers twitched. “Sorry about that," he said to no one in particular.
“I don't know if we're the ones who should hear that,” Steve said.
Tony sighed. “Yeah. I should have left instead,” he admitted. “Not much of an appetite, anyway.”
That much was obvious. But the part that Steve couldn't shake off—this was Tony. He was the person who became scarily efficient in his duties when he shouldn't be able to. Stress, injury, grief—too many situations that he would have been benched for, and he responded by becoming as impenetrable as the armor.
Which meant, if Tony's self-control had slipped this much, things were more serious than Steve had originally suspected.
“Did you get any sleep last night?” Steve asked. Tony didn't immediately answer, confirming Steve's suspicions.
Tony stared at a pear. “I think I made a breakthrough,” he fumbled through the words.
That was a lie. If Tony really had gotten inspired, he would have been elated this morning. Almost manic, even. The only times Steve could recall Tony acting like this was when the exact opposite had occurred. A problem Tony faced that he had yet to solve, and for a while, from the looks of things.
Tony cleared his throat. “So, I should get back to that. I'll see you later.”
Steve's eyes followed Tony as he made his exit.
“How long has he been like this?” he asked.
“Oh, so he's not always this charming, I take it.” Bucky frowned. “Like I said, he's been holed up in his lab for the past week. I've only seen him in passing.”
“Pretty sure he made the effort this morning because you were here,” Clint said, watching Steve carefully.
“There's something on his mind. He wasn't doing work last night, as far as I could tell.” Steve shouldn't go after him. Not right away, at least—Tony was obviously not in the right mindset for it. “He mentioned not getting much sleep.”
“That could do it. Really, he doesn't strike me as rock-solid even on the best of days.” Bucky sounded sympathetic enough, which wasn't helping Steve.
He couldn't get rid of the sinking feeling in his stomach. Tony was hiding things. Steve's fingers clenched around his glass of juice. They had just gone through this with the Infinity Gems. Yet, even after everything that had happened between them, Steve thought Tony could have taken something out of the experience. Even if he supposedly couldn't remember what he'd done.
But he'd known enough to apologize to Steve after their foray to Vanaheim, and it had been sincere enough to convince him back then.
Steve startled at a loud noise, and at first feared he'd crushed his glass. But the shrill alarm continued, and Steve realized he needed to go for his pocket.
He blinked when Bucky and Clint pulled out their identicards, Steve's own communicator silent.
An Avengers alert. Well, then. His blood was pulsing, the familiar rush of adrenaline flooding his systems at the call, but he stayed in his seat out of propriety as he heard the rest of the Avengers start heading toward the briefing room.
“Hey, what're you doing?” Clint was at the doorway, looking over his shoulder in plain disapproval.
Despite his worries, a ghost of a smile flitted over Steve's face as he stood up and went, like this was where he belonged.
“Shouldn't this be a job for Luke's team?” Peter flipped sideways, flinging out a web to catch a streetlamp and spin dizzying circles around it. “I thought being on the 'Avengers' Avengers meant no more dealing with the street fry.”
“Who are you calling street fry, bug brain?”
There was a sharp thwip followed a loud thud as Wrecker's hand got webbed to the nearest fire hydrant, sending the rest of his body toppling to the concrete.
“It's a great thing, isn't it? That proportionate strength to an arachnid.”
Arachnid-level-strength or not, the fire hydrant definitely wouldn't hold the Wrecker in place. Steve clapped some power dampeners on him and nodded at Peter, who saluted him before swinging himself in another direction.
“Not digging the new look,” Wrecker told him. “The weirdos are always those who don't even try to cover up their faces.”
“I'll let Thor know what you think of him.”
Steve made sure that Wrecker wouldn't be going anywhere soon. He decided it was safe enough to leave him when a few cars worth of NYPD showed up on the scene.
“The other team's busy with magic hooey, I'd rather be here instead,” Clint was saying.
“Okay, but have you seen Doctor Strange's beard?”
“Hawkeye, cover me," Bucky called out. "Spider-Woman, get up high—I'll get his attention and leave him open for you.”
“He'll never know what hit him,” Jessica replied.
Steve couldn't resist a smile as pride welled up in him. It would be easy to join the front lines of battle, as familiar with the team dynamic as he was, but there was no need. Making sure that civilians were safe and providing support was being part of the team, as well. The Avengers had things under control, clean and efficient as clockwork, and they knew it.
“I've got the red one handled,” Jessica chimed in a moment later, proving Steve's point.
“The support structure wasn't compromised, so the foundation's stable. Don't throw any more supervillains into it, please,” Tony reported.
“I really want to guarantee that, but Bulldozer has always been a wildcard,” Peter shouted. “You want to give a hand, here?”
Steve stopped to watch Iron Man pass above him on his way to Spider-Man's location, and the sight gave him pause.
Tony was weaving strangely, the repulsors keeping him afloat flaring up at odd intervals, like someone who kept tapping the gas to keep a car running. It was a jarring picture—Tony exemplified sleek and effortless, his flying almost as enjoyable to watch as to experience. He was bottled lightning, one of the most beautiful fliers Steve had witnessed.
Steve had the sudden urge to call out to him. If there were malfunctions in the armor—the rest of the team could handle it, they weren't in dire need of Iron Man's assistance.
“Incoming, fliers!” he heard Peter shout, as shots were fired. They hammered into nearby buildings and sent birds on rooftops scattering with offended squawks. Steve sprung into action—if they had turned to guns versus the Avengers, there was something worrisome about those bullets.
Iron Man was closing in, dodging the shots a bit clumsily. Even if the armor could withstand a shot, surely Tony had also realized something was off here.
Tony raised a repulsor and shot a round at point-blank range. The explosion flooded Steve's ears, and he'd gone into a full sprint by the time he saw the armor falling.
He'd only been fast enough to watch. The armor crashed and bounced in slow motion.
Steve leaped over an overturned car, his entire world narrowed into that one instant.
“Iron Man, status report! Iron—Tony!”
He stumbled over newly formed rubble—rubble—before he could kneel beside the armor. There was a shallow crater in the concrete where the armor had landed, making it appear to be the victor in that impact. Steve couldn't find any complex-looking punctures, or joints twisted where they shouldn't be.
But this wasn't about the armor. No response came, the only telling difference from an uninhabited armor was the bright blue light of the RT.
Which meant, Steve realized with a rush, that whatever Tony was, he was breathing. The weight eased from Steve's shoulders marginally as he ran his hand down the chestplate and rested his hand over the RT. It was precisely as cold as the rest of the armor.
There was a little jerk, but the armor hadn't moved at all. It was the same feeling as being caught by surprise, Steve instantly aware of his pulse and heartbeat.
The armor shifted, onto its elbows, and the helmet swiveled to meet his eyes.
“Tony.” Steve's shoulders dropped, and he sat down hard on his bottom. “You okay?”
No immediate response came, and Steve was about to demand one when Tony moved one arm, the way he'd worked out how to shrug in the armor.
“No bodily injury, looks like.” His voice sounded doubtful. “Unless massive headaches can kill.”
“Okay, don't move.” If Tony was concussed, then—
“Not concussed,” Tony told him when Steve grabbed his shoulder. “Here, listen to the armor.”
“No concussions, brain hemorrhaging, or other forms of cranial damage detected.”
“You think they'll give me some painkillers, anyway?”
Tony hated painkillers. “Don't joke like that.”
“Not a joke. Those things could take out an elephant.”
The way he said it, wistful, made Steve clench his teeth. Was this about the sleep, again? That was the third time in the past twelve hours Tony had complained. He waited until Tony had confirmed his status with the rest of the team over the comms before speaking again.
“If you're that desperate for relief, you shouldn't have been here.”
The armor was dead silent. “I helped,” the words came out in a rush, “and I'm not injured, there's—”
“Not injured out of sheer luck.” That wasn't fair. It was purely Tony, his diligence and care for his armor, the never-ending project that he poured himself into, that was the reason he could walk out of this unscathed. “You should have easily dodged that. The armor would have taken that hit. Shooting an unknown object is the height of foolishness. You would have realized that, if you'd been in top condition.”
Tony stood up, slowly, and Steve had to rise to meet him. He felt embarrassed, too conscious of how Tony refused to argue back and defend himself.
“You're an Avenger, there's no room for amateur mistakes like that.”
There was a soft thud as Peter landed beside them, breaking the long silence.
“I—uh, I got Bulldozer contained. Hey, are you okay?”
“Things are fine.” Even from the armor, Tony's voice was flat.
“Right. That looked pretty ugly, though.” There was an awkward pause, Peter glancing back and forth between Tony and his own hands. “Glad to see you're okay. Imagine if after everything, you got shown up by the Wrecking Crew.”
“Anything can happen. All it takes is one dumb mistake.”
“We should head back,” Steve said, pushing his hair back. It felt odd to run his fingers through it while in uniform—he missed his cowl.
“Yeah, see how much property damage was done this time around,” Peter joked, voice thin.
Steve turned to Tony out of instinct, ready to jump on his boot to go back to the Tower together, only to find that Iron Man had already taken off.
"Guess I'll walk," he said to Peter, who shrugged sheepishly.
Steve found Tony lingering outside in the hallway after the debriefing. He was still in the full suit of armor. It unnerved Steve that he hadn't seen Tony's face since breakfast.
Tony had been pointedly tight-lipped during the meeting, speaking only when directly addressed. Part of it, Steve suspected, was out of fear that Steve would say something against him.
The rest of the team hadn't seen what happened. Moreover, no one else had noticed Tony's carelessness, or exhaustion, or whatever it was that led to it. Steve only knew because he'd resolved to keep an eye on Tony, and for good reason.
The Avengers always assumed the best of each other. Their confidence in each other's abilities made them work. If there was someone who couldn't be counted on, couldn't be trusted—
There was a line of thinking that led nowhere. Steve couldn't say Avengers believed in each other, and then condemn Tony without having the whole story. That was a path that they'd taken too often before.
It ached, how long it could take Steve to remember that.
“Are you free?” Tony asked, not waiting for Steve's answer. “Can you meet me in my lab in a bit?”
“Yeah, sure.” Steve focused on the wall past the armor's shoulder. “About earlier. I overreacted, and—”
Tony stopped him with a hand. “Look, Steve. I don't want to start this yet. You might want to wait until we've talked.”
“I didn't mean it like that,” Steve insisted, the hurt making itself known. “I just wanted to—”
Tony shook his head, which made Steve want to spit out the apology faster.
“Until we've talked, Steve.”
Tony nodded shortly at him, and turned away.
Watching the armor leave, Steve felt compelled to run after and demand some answers.
Which was pointless. Tony had already agreed to talk to him. Steve needed to get over—whatever it was. Tony's caginess, Steve's migraine flaring up again, countless sleepless nights.
Looking past the spike of fear that was the armor lying motionless in the street, a trepidation already fanned by his worry, Steve had to admit Tony had a point: no one was hurt.
People, even Avengers, were allowed to make mistakes. Speaking from experience, they couldn't always be in the best physical condition to respond to an alert. Maybe Tony hadn't realized things had become that bad. Willful denial of bodily limits was practically a superhero mantra, one that Tony Stark ascribed to like it was a law of physics.
Steve slipped into his guest room for a shower, turning the water up high. He tried to take his time, but even the sleepy haze of heat seeping into his skin wasn't enough. He toweled off and found a seat on the bed to stare at the wall.
With the events fresh on his mind, he could get a head start on today's report, but by the time he went to retrieve his tablet, his feet decided that if he was standing he might as well go find Tony. If he was too early, then Tony shouldn't have been so vague. In a bit, really?
Steve felt ready to storm into the lab, driven by nerves and frustration. He was through the door and only feet away from Tony when he stopped in his tracks.
Tony's expression was wiped clean of its usual animation, dull and dead-eyed. His face was sickly pale. It was a stark contrast to his eyes—bloodshot, puffy, looking well on their way to developing bruising. Had he suddenly developed an allergy? Some aftereffect of the battle?
Tony looked exhausted in a way that he hadn't even that morning, when Steve could have written it off as the result of an all-nighter or two.
Steve realized he'd been staring agape at Tony for several moments when Tony chuckled under his breath.
“You don't have to tell me, I look like hell.” He ran a hand over his face with a bone-weary sigh. “You came just in time to see me with a bare face.”
The only times Steve knew Tony to wear makeup were under duress, namely to cover up Iron Man-inflicted injuries in his day job. These didn't look like injuries, but considering how positively sunny Tony had appeared this morning in comparison—
Tony's chuckle was loud this time, eerily high. It made Steve's skin prickle with cold. “Before we get into that, I wanted to tell you I need to resign from the Avengers.”
“Resign—what? Is this about what happened today? Tony, that's not important right now, not with your face.”
A pointed pause followed. “Wow, that was actually mean.”
“Fine!” Tony snapped. “Yes, this is about what happened today, and it is important and has everything to do with my face.”
“You said you weren't injured!”
“Just—let me finish!” Tony looked ready to snarl, and this wasn't right, they argued but it was never like this.
Tony pulled out his chair, collapsing onto it. He leaned forward, kneading his forehead with his fingers.
“I haven't been able to sleep.”
Tony scowled. “I haven't been able to—I can not—sleep.”
Steve took a breath, processing the words. “How long has this been going on?”
“It's been.” Tony's shoulders drooped, and Steve wanted to reach out, knead Tony's shoulder like he was working at his head. “Since last Monday.”
Ten days. No wonder he was so short-tempered. For all Steve was familiar with Tony's insomniac tendencies, it had never been this extreme.
“And the thing is,” Tony's voice was quiet, his demeanor turned subdued and vulnerable, “I've tried. I got pills from Hank—Beast—the heavy stuff. The stuff that used to knock me out dead for 8 hours straight, which I hated because I didn't feel an ounce more rested when I woke up. I even got the experimental stuff for supers because I bullshitted him. I implied that Extremis might still affecting my system and I'd take a few of those with me too, just in case." He hunched away from Steve's look of horror. "What, he's never seen the code for it, and my addictive personality's never extended past drinking! Won't now either, all it did was make me feel disoriented."
Tony paused, pointedly looking away from Steve.
"I debated taking one after I left breakfast this morning, because—” Tony shrugged, short and defeated. “Well, it wouldn't have made a difference."
Steve's blood ran cold. That was why Tony was impaired during the mission. He wanted to get angry, because that was reckless and dangerous and if he'd known back then when he'd seen Tony injured about the state Tony was in... It welled up in his throat, set to explode before he noticed Tony watching him, fearful, his body as tense as a spring.
It took more effort than it should have to nod. Tony clearly regretted the decision to go out into the field, and nothing would come out of yelling at him. Or maybe Steve was just tired of it, and Tony looking the way he did—
“Am I the first person you told about this?”
“I mean, obviously I told Hank, but he assumed it was regular insomnia. Reed assumed the same thing when I asked him to look over the code again.” Tony's eyes slid off to the side. “Yes,” he amended.
Steve didn't know what to say, that Tony hadn't felt comfortable, hadn't trusted his teammates enough to share this with them first. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if he really should have asked Iron Man to join the Avengers.
Another, smaller part of him was elated, whispered to him that of course it was Steve. The team had always felt the most right with the two of them, even from the beginning. Thor had his own life, as Donald Blake and the crown prince of Asgard, and Hank and Jan had each other from long before the Avengers came into their lives. But, him and Tony, Cap-and-Iron Man, it was always them, and it always would be.
“You should have told Reed how serious it was,” Steve said. “This obviously isn't natural. I mean, isn't your RT supposed to take care of sleep?”
“That was my first thought,” Tony said. “I came back to New York to meet up with him to look over the code.”
“And you couldn't find anything?”
“Do you—” Steve thought of how dangerous life could be for superheroes, how much more so for someone who was human underneath the physical manifestation of their genius. “Do you think there isn't some supervillain that could interfere with your circadian rhythm?”
Tony breathed out through his nose, slow, which told Steve he'd also considered the possibility.
“We can get a telepath,” Steve suggested. “Or maybe we can ask Doctor Strange, if it's related to—”
Tony was shaking his head, and Steve didn't understand.
“You told me. I didn't think it'd be that hard to tell someone else.”
“I told you because I asked to resign from the Avengers. I didn't tell you because I wanted your help.”
Steve took a short intake of breath. It didn't distract from how the words stung.
“I can handle it on my own,” Tony added with a desperate edge to his voice.
“Is this your idea of 'handling it'?”
“I need to work more on the company, anyway. The Stark name doesn't mean as much as it used to. And maybe it's the stress of Iron Man, or—” the chair creaked as Tony shifted. “Just let me do this. Let me resign from the Avengers."
"Tony, the Avengers—"
"I can't. I really can't. Because the last time,” Tony's voice wavered, “the last time I felt like that, in the armor, was when I was drinking.”
“Tony,” Steve said softly. “Of course you don't have to be Iron Man if you don't want to. I just want to say that we can fix this.”
Tony shook his head. “Not 'we'. You don't need to force yourself into my business. Honestly.”
“You're being irrational,” Steve said. “I know you're exhausted, but that doesn't mean you can't think clearly.”
“I'm headed out to Seattle tomorrow, anyway,” Tony snapped. “So I'll be out of your hair soon enough. Telling you just means I don't need to come back anytime soon. I can spare you having to dole out the punishment that's been coming. No more favors, no more special treatment, was it?”
Steve flinched at his own words being thrown back in his face. He wouldn't have any leverage over Tony's sleeping habits in Seattle. A small part of him wondered if Tony really needed to go there. Didn't he say those designs are due in a month?
“Then," Steve said, "why did you call me here? Why not someone else on the team? I'm not even an Avenger, anymore.”
“Because—because.” Tony let out a frustrated growl. “I don't know! When you were here last night, it was the first time since this all started I'd felt like things would be alright. I thought, after you left yesterday, that I'd try going to bed after all, and I wouldn't want to rip my own hair out overnight.”
Steve thought of how his headache had disappeared last night after talking with Tony, and being able to sleep.
“But last night didn't work out, and then today things got even worse,” Tony finished. “I didn't even believe that could happen.” His voice gentled, surprisingly, like he suddenly decided he'd rather soothe Steve's feelings. “I won't leave you out of the loop. Must be illegal now, besides. I'll—tell Reed, Stephen, I don't know, and get to the bottom of this. Just..." he waved a hand at Steve, "not—you and false hope isn't something I can take much more of."
Steve blinked rapidly. “Okay.” His voice came out hollow. “I'll let Hill and the rest of the team know you'll be taking extended leave in Seattle. You'll have to fill something out, but I'll make sure it's short.” He took a step back. “Good luck. I'll—see you around. Have a good time in Seattle.”
Then he beat his retreat, not even catching if Tony replied to him. It really wasn't like Steve, ready to barrel down any sort of obstacles, but he couldn't force people. That had never worked with Tony. And this Tony, and his subsequent anger and kindness, like the world's cruelest game of ping-pong—at that moment, there was nothing to convince. Another time, another place, Steve told himself. He'd get through to Tony, for once in his life.
His head hurt.
Steve should have called another meeting right then to inform the team. Instead, he shut up in his room (not his room, the guest room at Avengers Tower) for the rest of the day. Ostensibly, it was to work his way through reports without distractions. He could have done it at his office on the Helicarrier, or his apartment, but he couldn't bring himself to get off his bed.
Maybe, he told himself, it'd be better to tell the team after Tony left.
That night, he tried almost everything; tossing and turning himself and his pillow, stripping to the nude, trying on silk pajamas for the first time. Of course, none of it worked, not against the migraine plaguing him again in full force. He should have just gone back to his apartment, rather than spend another night in the Tower.
At the coldest time of night, just before the sun would rise, Steve gave up. He couldn't tell if he'd fallen asleep at any point. There were a few times his body jerked him to alertness, but whether he'd been asleep or not, he wasn't certain of.
He went for a run, instead. His mind began to wake up with the rest of the city, the sky going from just a hint of pink at the beginning of his run to a soft blue by the time he'd returned to the Tower. He was juggling how to delicately break to the Avengers that one of their heavy-hitters and the team benefactor needed personal leave for an unspecified amount of time and how to approach Tony to offer his help when he walked into the kitchen, only to find Tony leaning against the counter.
“Good morning,” Tony replied, shifting his weight. His arms were crossed, and despite what had transpired the last time they met, he appeared and sounded quite pleasant.
Tony looked much better than yesterday, but now Steve knew that if he rubbed his thumb over Tony's cheek, it'd come away smeared with makeup. He had the sudden urge to try, and his hand had raised before he stopped himself. Heat flooded his cheeks, and he hoped it would come across as exertion from his run.
“I thought you would be gone already,” Steve blurted out, and flushed even harder.
Tony's expression froze in place, and Steve was ready to apologize when Tony sighed. “Trip got postponed. The investor I wanted to court's son broke his collarbone from playing hockey. Good on him for wanting to stay with him—I know a lot of fathers who would have left the poor kid to their nanny and their painkillers.”
Steve wasn't sure how to answer. Tony was standing up straight now, twiddling his thumbs, and Steve's eyes were drawn to the movement.
“I realized,” Tony began, and Steve's gaze snapped back up to his face, “that I wasn't exactly being fair yesterday.”
“And since it seems like I'll be staying in New York for the time being, then,” Tony didn't meet his eyes. “Having Capt—Commander Rogers on my side wouldn't be a bad idea.”
“Ah.” Was he dreaming? Because Steve was smiling so hard it hurt, and the best was that Tony was smiling back. “Yes. I mean—yes. Why the sudden change of heart?" He had to know.
Tony shuffled, smile fading, and Steve wished he hadn't asked. "You were right. I was being irrational. It's just, the armor, and then, you. You're just—I don't know. I said it was irrational, right?"
And right, as personable as Tony was this moment, he was still critically sleep-deprived. Honestly, it was unsettling in itself that Tony was so functional on so little sleep.
"Okay," Steve said gently, even though he felt anything but, wound up with feelings he couldn't think about yet. Ever. "Okay. Where do we start?”
“First things first. I've attempted to monitor myself when I tried to go to sleep. Of course, when I'm trying to sleep, I can't just stare at the monitor." He grimaced. "Not right away, anyway. It'd be nice to have a spotter.”
Steve nodded. That seemed reasonable enough.
“Alright,” he said. “Your bedroom?”
Tony's face paled. “Er, now?"
"Is your sleep cycle really your main priority right now?"
"Right." Tony breathed out. "Right. Uh, can we try somewhere else?”
Steve considered it. After so much trouble there, of course Tony wouldn't feel much inclined to attempt sleep in his own bed.
“The monitoring equipment is actually in the lab right now, next to the cot, there,” Tony suggested tentatively.
“What about my bed?”
“Er, not my bed, but the guest bed,” Steve amended, feeling uncharacteristically nervous. It was like he was a teenager again, the only times people bothered looking at him when he outright spoke to them. “I doubt anywhere you've tried sleeping since this started would have good associations. It might be better to try somewhere that you haven't yet.”
Steve felt like he was sweating more in this pause than he had during his hour-long run.
“...Yeah,” Tony finally said, “we can try that. I'll go get my stuff. Meet you in 20?"
Twenty minutes later, Steve was frowning at his bed. He'd made it up again, fluffed the pillows and smoothed out the sheets, but all he could remember was how he hadn't been able to sleep in it last night. And he was hoping it'd work out better with Tony?
Tony entered then, carrying a screen and mumbling a greeting. Steve watched as Tony set up the monitor, absentmindedly wondering if there were any wires that needed to be attached. It didn't look like it, and Tony pulled out some small, flat circles from his pocket.
Then he removed his shirt, and Steve barely kept his jaw from dropping. Tony offered him the circles.
“This really will be easier with you around,” he said, as Steve tried not to stare too openly.
Tony directed Steve on where to adhere the monitors. When he pressed them onto Tony's warm skin, they flattened and expanded with a beep of acknowledgment from the computer. Steve tried not to focus on the RT, which meant his eyes were on Tony's toned muscles, wiry and lean. Rather than solid and sturdy, it suggested hidden, explosive power, which could easily be more dangerous. Tony's body fit him perfectly. Steve felt compelled to run his hand over it and admire the strength beneath.
He was careful to touch two fingers at most to the skin as he placed the last of the monitors.
“Alright,” Tony said, slipping into bed and closing his eyes. His bed, a part of Steve's mind he didn't want to acknowledge noted.
All Tony wanted, and all Steve wanted for him, was to sleep.
It wasn't even five minutes, Steve keeping an eye on the monitor, which hadn't changed any, before Tony spoke up.
“It's kind of cold.”
Steve raised an eyebrow. “I can turn up the thermostat.”
“That's the thing though.” Tony was staring up at the ceiling. “Whole Tower's temperature-controlled, and it never bothered me before. I've messed with the temperature too often this past week, and nothing helped.” He rubbed his hands over his eyes. “It has nothing to do with anything else. This is all on me.”
The way he said that—before Steve could think it over, he'd pulled the covers back, settling in next to Tony.
“You're cold, right? Don't worry.” Steve turned his body so he wasn't facing Tony. He watched the lines on the screen zigzag. “I'm still keeping an eye on things.”
Tony's answer was quiet. “Right. Thanks.”
Steve nodded, not knowing if Tony saw him.
The bed that had been too hot and too cold last night, too hard or too soft, was finally just right. Saying that aloud might make Tony laugh and offer to braid Steve's golden locks of hair. But Steve didn't want to break the silence.
Tony was perfectly still next to him, and Steve resolved to monitor his activities. His eyes drooped, and he curled his hands underneath the sheets, to have something to focus on so his mind didn't drift off.
The little spikes on the monitor's screen were slowing down, he thought. Or maybe that was just him seeing things. It was warm now, in the most perfect way, and when he finally gave in and closed his eyes, he hoped Tony felt the same way.
Steve came to slowly. His body was enveloped, his mind swaying gently, like he was floating in a sea. It washed over him.
When he thought of how he didn't want to wake, he opened his eyes.
He promptly froze, not having realized why he was so comfortable.
Tony's breath was warm on his neck. It soon wasn't the warmest part of Steve, as the rest of his body caught up with proceedings and blood rushed to his face. He stared pointedly up at the ceiling.
The last Steve remembered, they'd been a safe arm's length apart. Not anymore, as Steve glanced over, with Tony's face snugly sharing Steve's pillow. He was drooling a bit. Steve tried to work up something like distaste or even annoyance at the sight, but came up with nothing. His first real rest in over a week—Steve should be surprised Tony wasn't slobbering like a dog over him. This was outright reserved, really, and Steve spared a thought for the fact that Tony Stark even drooled in his sleep handsomely.
The sunlight was strong. It must be well into morning, maybe even early afternoon at this point, so at least they hadn't slept the whole day away together.
Everything was warm and fuzzy in the aftermath of waking. He wanted it to last longer at the same time he wanted to sink back into the warm bed and catch up on hours of lost sleep, side-by-side with—
Tony stirred, and Steve froze in place, shutting his eyes and taking careful, deep breaths. It wasn't convincing to his own ears, but Tony stilled again and smacked his lips.
Steve hoped Tony didn't wake up, as he was sure his face would be a dead giveaway. Did people blush in their sleep?
There was a grunt, and Steve couldn't resist looking.
Tony wriggled back to his own pillow, burrowing his cheek against the fabric. The covers slipped from his shoulders and Tony, Steve remembered faintly, wasn't wearing a shirt. His eyes skirted across the line of the sheets, barely making out the top of the muscles that defined his pecs.
Tony's eyes opened, lidded, and Steve followed how the light caught on his eyelashes as he blinked. Tony smiled sleepily, and something in Steve's chest backflipped.
He definitely couldn't get back to sleep now.
Then Tony froze, and Steve could see him evaluating the very new, unexpected situation and how to react in the space of seconds.
“G'morning,” Tony finally said. His eyes were clearing, and he frowned. “Or, afternoon. Shit. Did I have anything today?” He sat up, and Steve quickly averted his gaze when the covers slid the rest of the way down, grateful Tony hadn't stripped down to his boxers.
“Probably not,” Steve answered tightly. “Your meeting was unexpectedly canceled, so I don't think even Pepper could have scheduled you for anything else on such short notice.”
He felt Tony relax beside him. "You underestimate her," he said with such fondness that Steve suddenly felt a rush of guilt for how he was acting.
Tony fell back on the bed.“Great,” he said. “I'd say that we should go check the readings now to see if they tell us anything, but to be honest,” his voice was almost giddy, and Steve grinned widely to match it, “I could stand to catch up on some sleep.”
“Uh..." Tony froze up beside him. "If you want. You're fine. I think I'll be okay from here out.”
Steve made a wishful gander on what Tony really wanted. “Mm. I think I'll be okay here, too, for the time being. Someone has to watch your readings.”
“Well.” Steve could hear the smile in Tony's voice, and knew he'd chosen correctly. “You were doing such a great job earlier, and it's always nice to have my bed partners keep me company.”
Steve found it hard to believe they didn't. Those women didn't know what they were missing. He was glad he had the sense not to say that aloud.
“My sleep cycle is going to be so bad,” Tony's words trailed off.
“It's the weekend tomorrow. Don't worry about it.”
“What is Commander Rogers saying to me now,” Tony laughed, and that was the sound that echoed in Steve's mind as he closed his eyes and drifted off again.
After they'd woken again mid-afternoon, they went down to Tony's lab to examine the data. It was exactly as innocuous as it felt, the brain waves slowing down when Tony fell into the deep stages of sleep and speeding back upon reaching REM sleep. That was the one where you dreamed, but Tony said that whatever dreams he had, he didn't remember. Steve hadn't dreamed, either. It was a strange thought, so many dreams every night that vanished upon waking, although Steve imagined too many of theirs would be nightmares to really regret the idea.
It was the normalcy of the readings that made Steve suspicious. Sleep was a bodily need that couldn't be ignored, just like food or water. When someone had gone without those for too long, they needed to monitor and regulate their intake when it did become available. There wasn't a miracle cure reached by, what, sleeping in a new bed?
But Tony was so relieved and cheerful, declaring that he was off to bed after they'd wrapped up their discussion of the readings, promising in the next breath to talk things over with Hank and Reed, that Steve didn't push the topic.
It went the same, when Tony told him after his second afternoon nap that he could meet with his investor as soon as tomorrow.
"On a weekend?" Steve asked.
"Oh, please," Tony said, "talking about Ally is a vacation."
He was happy for Tony, of course. Ecstatic, even. But now that things were back to normal for Tony, so they were between the two of them. There would be no more waking up besides each other.
Tony had come to Steve in his time of need, just like Steve would for Tony. Steve dwelled on that show of trust. Tony had said as much to him before, how much Steve meant to him, but then Steve remembered the look in his eyes as he admitted to Steve what was wrong, and he understood the immensity of Tony Stark's trust.
Waking up next to Tony had been... nice.
And Steve was being ridiculous. He was just lonely and wanted company. It was unfair to ask that from Tony just because he'd been a warm body sharing a bed with Steve.
Tony was off to Seattle anyway. His time of leave still stood, and Steve had been very insistent about that. His body needed ample time to recover. So Tony would be away for a good long while, and Steve would get over whatever this had become.
This bed had been so comfortable when he'd shared it with Tony, but now it felt like a trap, his body returning to its prior migraine-prone, insomniac state.
He hoped Tony wasn't experiencing the same.
Steve gave up the usual way, going out for a run before the dawn broke.
So it was déjà vu when he entered the kitchen and found Tony again. Or, more accurately, it was a shock, Steve entering in and getting halfway to the fridge before he noticed someone else was there with him.
“I hope that's not coffee,” Steve said. Tony startled visibly, whirling around, clutching a mug in his hand.
“Uh,” Tony's eyes snapped to Steve's, fingers tightening around his mug. “No, it's not. Hot chocolate.” He raised the cup, and the heady, rich scent of chocolate filled Steve's senses. “With marshmallows. Want some?”
Steve smiled. Tony held a pointed disdain for adding anything to coffee, so it was always surprisingly adorable to see his sweet tooth show itself.
“No thanks,” he said. “I was thinking of tea, myself.”
Tony raised an eyebrow, stepped aside and gestured toward the cupboards. “All yours.”
“Warm drinks were always a comfort, especially when I was young,” Steve told him as he dropped the bag into his mug of hot water. “And tea is hard to mess up.” It was also the cheapest option, which from Tony's answering nod meant he'd picked up on that.
"Tony, why are you back? You were supposed to rest up, stay out of the superhero business for a bit." Stay away from Steve for a while.
"I'm back for the same reason you're standing with me in the kitchen at 5:30 AM on Monday morning."
“You couldn't sleep either, huh?”
Tony shook his head.
Steve gripped the edge of the countertop. "I guess this couldn't be solved as easily as that."
“Maybe,” Tony said. “But we might have narrowed down some possibilities." He laughed thinly. "I tried sleeping in every guest bed at my place in Seattle. When they didn't work, I tried calling up some old friends to see if they wouldn't like to share my bed for the night."
Steve's blood ran cold.
"Don't look like that, I took her out to dinner beforehand," Tony said. "But I was more looking forward to the aftermath. And then I...faked an Avengers emergency to fly back to New York in the suit."
"You shouldn't have done that sleep-deprived."
"Auto-pilot, no worries there, Steve." Tony shrugged. "You know, what else can it be? Maybe your bed is just magic, but considering you didn't have the most restful weekend...”
"Maybe it's,” Steve began "we should—"
“Do you want to try sleeping together again?” Tony blurted, and they both paused, staring at each other. Steve really hoped he wasn't blushing too hard, or at least, that he wasn't blushing as much as Tony.
Probably a moot point—Steve was paler than Tony.
Tony giggled, soon turning into full-blown laughter. Steve joined him soon after. Tony reached out, lightly punching Steve on his shoulder. “I'm not propositioning you or anything. I just figured, hey, if it worked the first time....”
“That doesn't sound like hard proof.”
“Exactly.” Tony was still grinning. “You need to test the hypothesis multiple t—more than once, that is. Or else it was just coincidence.”
“Guess we'll have to find out,” Steve said.
After they'd finished their drinks, Tony went to retrieve his equipment as Steve went to his bedroom.
“It'll be awkward if this doesn't work out and both of us just end up staring at each other,” Tony said upon his return.
“Or one of us,” Steve said, and thought of how he'd watched Tony in his sleep after their first time together. It hadn't felt awkward, then, but he wasn't the judge of that.
Tony settled at his side beneath the covers, a safe distance away, but Steve could still feel his body heat even with the space between them.
Somehow, he knew, and he was sure Tony did too, that they wouldn't have a problem.
They were right.
Once they started, it was hard to stop. Not that there was any reason to stop—Steve was sleeping, Tony was sleeping and looked much happier than he had since—a long time ago. Which was just more incentive to continue this.
When Tony woke up, he'd find Steve and smile like he was his entire world. Steve made a point of waiting until Tony noticed he was leaving before he'd slip out with a hasty parting, not daring to reach out and run his hand through Tony's hair, or lean down and kiss him good morning, or goodbye.
The rest of the team was none the wiser. Steve was careful to slip out in the early morning, which wasn't so out of the ordinary. The team was used to his early morning runs segwaying into breakfast. When Steve entered the kitchen, he'd meet Tony's eyes, and Tony would offer a knowing smile. The team seemed happy enough to have him stay over. One morning, Logan walked into the kitchen, raised an eyebrow at Steve, and promptly ignored him in favor of taking a few bagels from the box and pointedly leaving all the sesame seed ones alone, which was about as much acceptance as Steve was going to get.
It didn't help, Steve thought as he gazed at Tony one morning, that Tony always managed to breach the distance between them sometime though the night. He was definitely a cuddler. Steve had never been much of one, but it wasn't a hardship to find that out about Tony.
But even a sleeping Tony seemed to understand boundaries, and there was never anything so awkward as waking up curled around each other. If they really were here not just for expediency's sake, then maybe Steve would wake up with Tony's arms around him, his face pressed against the hollow of Steve's throat.
The idea hurt more than it should have, and Steve really needed to get over his hang-ups. It was nice to have someone, but his experiences weren't that expansive. It'd been a while since he had missed it so badly, and usually he assumed that he'd just wait out reuniting with an old flame.
Tony probably didn't have his problem. It wasn't just the overblown rumors. Tony was devilishly attractive, with the brilliance and charm to back it up. It was a rare woman who would refuse his bed. There weren't daily Avengers orgies, or superhero sex dungeons, or whatever other crackpot conspiracy theorists spread on the Internet, but there was no denying that Tony was someone very comfortable with his own body and the pleasures one could derive thereof.
With a soft gasp, Steve realized that one, his own body had betrayed him, and two, he really needed to get out of this bed right now. Tony didn't wake when he extricated himself, and Steve gave silent thanks. There was barely even a mumble from Tony, and he looked just as comfortable cuddling the blankets, wrapping his arms tightly around them.
In the bathroom, Steve hesitated as he was about to pull on his pants. The door was safely locked, and he knew he could be dead quiet in the act. Years of the army did that to a person. It'd be so easy, and he felt so wound up that he was sure it would be over quickly. The other occupant of the suite would be none the wiser, and Steve ached.
He shook his head, and had half a mind to undress entirely, just so he could run the shower on freezing cold. He hadn't even had a sex dream, but his judgment still felt so clouded in the warm haze of the early morning. Just because no one would ever know didn't mean that it was okay. Steve roughly pulled his pants up and zipped himself up tight.
Steve lingered in the doorway, watching Tony sleep for those last few seconds, before quietly closing the door. There was a scuffing noise behind him, and he spun around, fists raised.
Peter was stuck to the wall, hands up. He bore a distinct deer-in-headlights expression.
“I'm sorry! I just wanted to grab something to eat,” he whispered loudly.
“Ah—” Steve looked back at the closed room, half a mind to retreat after all. “This isn't what it looks like.”
Peter's eyes darted frantically between Steve and the door. “Yes, I didn't just see Stark in your bed.” He gave Steve a once-over. “And I'm not entirely sure that's your shirt.”
Steve's mouth went dry, and all he could think about was how he'd left Tony, bathed in sunlight, his muscled arms wrapped around the blanket possessively.
“Fine. It is what it looks like. But it's not what you're thinking.”
Peter scurried higher up the wall. “You can't know what I'm thinking. Like how you've been spending a lot of the time in the Tower later.”
“Here, just come with me,” Steve insisted, and led Peter down the hallway on the way to the kitchen.
“Okay. I believe you,” Peter declared.
Steve searched him, but there wasn't a trace of humor in his expression. “You do?”
Peter shrugged. “You sharing a bed with a male friend to help them sleep better at night because it's possible their mind got whammied by magic sounds...uh, exactly like what you would do.”
“Huh,” Steve said. He suddenly felt silly for hiding it from the rest of the team, but Tony hadn't seemed open to telling anyone else about their arrangement.
“Isn't that weird, though?” Peter leaned his face on his hand as he munched on an energy bar. “Both of you having trouble sleeping, and suddenly when you're together you sleep like logs?”
“We meant to look into it more closely,” Steve admitted, “but as long as we have a working solution to the problem, then it hasn't exactly been highest priority.” Steve had been astonishingly on top of his paperwork for the past week, and from how Tony talked, Pepper seemed pleased with his work ethic as well.
“Uh, okay. I'm not touching that. I'm just saying, that whenever I have to deal with people getting weirdly clingy, it's because of some weird pollen. Or something they drank. Is this just a sleeping thing, or can you like, not stand to be separated from him?”
“Just sleeping. I feel better when I'm around him, but...” Steve didn't think that could be attributed to this.
“Well, you know. Geniuses can't find something if they don't know what they're looking for. We've been involved in some weird stuff lately. The time stuff. And I had no idea Tony owned Area 51.”
And Peter had reached the obvious conclusion not even a minute after hearing the situation. Steve had reached the obvious conclusion when Tony had first told him. Then he'd given into selfishness, wanting to be the only person Tony relied on and having it be enough.
Of course it wasn't. He was supposed to be better than this. Steve hid his frown behind his hands, his breath warm against his palm.
“Are you okay?”
There was no right way to answer this. “I'm not sure.”
“Oh. If you need to tell the rest of the team, I can totally vouch for you.”
“Let's not do that yet. I'll need to call some people, now.”
“I should leave you to it, then,” Peter said, obviously having wanted to leave a while back. “Well, I hope you and Tony work out all your—I mean, these issues,” he added gingerly.
Steve resisted the urge to sigh and nodded. “Thanks, Spider-Man.”
"You're clear, Steve," Stephen finished, and the weight over Steve's mind, that made him itch and fidget, was lifted.
"Are you sure?" Steve asked, and hoped he didn't sound too eager.
"As far as I can ascertain, you are not the recipient of any love potion, spell, or any other means of inducing fixation or obsession on another being or concept."
"And the same goes for the opposite? I'm not the object of anyone else's desire?"
"That's correct. Nor hatred, for that matter—if how they interact in magical properties is any indication, love and hate really are two sides of the same coin." Stephen trailed off, then pursed his lips. "It'd be easier to tell if I could check the other person you believe is affected, but magic begets magic, so you would have traces of it on you if it were true."
Not magic, Steve told himself with a rush of relief. Whatever it was between him and Tony, it wasn't induced.
"I'm curious why you, of all people, came to believe this might be the case. Charisma makes up much of what magic can only imitate, and you can't deny how people view you."
"It's not like that," Steve said. He'd had his share of embarrassing, if flattering, fan letters over the years. "It's someone who I've known for a long time, and has never acted like this before."
"What about you? Have you acted this way toward them before?"
Steve fought a flush. "That's none of your business."
Stephen hummed under his breath. Steve knew Stephen's natural curiosity was quickly narrowing down the possibilities.
And if he found out the answer, he'd know exactly why Steve had come to him. Tony had never shown interest in him before, and they were both public icons and therefore obvious targets.
And who would go to such great lengths to do this to them, besides a supervillain? A supervillain who believed that falling in love with Tony Stark was something dangerous. That it'd tear them apart. Steve would prove that wrong.
But there was no villain behind this. Their list of explanations was getting even shorter, and even though they'd found a temporary solution, it didn't mean this was natural. That they could live out the rest of their lives like this.
Every morning, Steve debated giving in, leaning in and kissing Tony in exactly the way that would communicate all of his feelings. But if he did that, and Tony didn't feel the same way, they'd still have to sleep together out of necessity. He couldn't force that on Tony.
And then Steve would lose those small things he lived for, Tony's half-asleep smile, his breath against Steve's cheek, their shared secret smiles. It was so much less than what he wanted, but more than what should have ever been possible.
"Anyway, thank you, Stephen. For this and the Avengers."
"My pleasure, Commander." Stephen paused pointedly. "If you could pass a message on to Iron Man, tell him I'm perfectly happy to impart a surgeon's knowledge into how he maintains his Bleeding Edge armor."
Steve's cheeks heated. "I—I'll do that. Thank you." He quickly bowed himself out, Wong impassive as he closed the entrance to the Sanctum Santorum and making Steve feel like an idiot.
Steve didn't get the chance to talk to Tony for the rest of the day. That was usually how things went, now. They'd part ways in the morning, and the only time they could reliably meet up was at night when they climbed into Steve's bed together. So, he resolved to tell him the next day.
Steve wondered what would have happened if their shared insomnia had never occurred. He would have gone days, weeks, without seeing Tony. The thought hurt to linger on, like a tender wound.
He woke up in the morning with a start, phantom dream memories of muscled skin against his. His palm gripped his thigh. He felt ready to sink into the mattress as he realized he'd unconsciously ground against whatever surface he could in his sleep. No wonder his dream had been so vivid. He was assured of that fact, although he couldn't remember a single detail besides all-consuming desire.
His half-asleep erection was quickly waking up along with the rest of him, so much so that it took him a moment to realize what was off.
The room was far too quiet, the comforting, deep breaths that felt like a heartbeat were missing. Steve dared not to look. He wanted desperately to vanish from the spot, and the best he could do was roll over and hide himself. But even doing that would be an admission of guilt.
There was a rustle, and Tony cleared his throat. “Do you—maybe—need a hand with that?”
Steve stopped breathing.
“There's nothing to be embarrassed about. Your body is just used to—you know, when you wake up in bed with someone else. It's Pavlovian, like those dogs.”
Steve didn't know if he appreciated being compared to an animal right now, because it wasn't going to be far off the mark, especially if Tony didn't stop talking. His voice was soft and coaxing as it reassured him.
This wasn't how Tony would sound if he actually wanted Steve—then his words would be deeper and gravelly, rough against Steve's skin, delighted and heady.
“I've slept with others plenty of times.” Steve's voice came out low, its tones interlaced with desire. His skin burned. “During the war, and we never—”
“From what war documentaries told me, there was much more going on at camps then anyone let up. Better options than your own hand, right?”
Not for Steve. He was the leader of the Commandos, and he never would have taken advantage of his men like that.
Tony gulped, and Steve didn't think he was meant to hear it. “I—never mind. There's 'better than nothing,' and there's—”
Steve couldn't resist a snort at the idea, that Tony was simply better than nothing. Tony curled in on himself, not watching Steve anymore.
“Yes,” Steve said baldly.
Tony stilled. “Agreeing with me? Or answering my question? What are you saying yes to?”
Better than nothing. It would be everything, and that was what scared Steve.
Tony moved faster than Steve anticipated, and Steve felt his stomach flip.
He longed for the halfway consciousness, where his mind and body drifted to warmth and comfort and arousal, clinging without any regard. But now, his skin prickled with awareness. He refused to be humiliated by his feelings, but the vulnerability made his cheeks burn.
Tony smiled into his shoulder as he shoved Steve's pants down. Steve couldn't understand how this was so easy for him. Then again, this was Tony, and no matter how Steve's body had been molded to perfection, it was so easy for Steve to lose out in this area.
Steve couldn't resist a gasp as Tony's fingers curled around the base of his cock, his eyes fluttering shut. The pad of Tony's thumb was an aching pressure as Tony rubbed it up and down the length, periodically pressing into Steve's skin. Insistent, unrelenting, like he was desperate for his one chance. It was a matter of quick moments before Steve's cock was rigid against his stomach, every swipe of Tony's hand stiffening it, sensitivity on the fritz.
Need and the frustration at it clouded Steve's thoughts as he licked his lips. He realized he'd unconsciously tipped his head to the side. He opened his eyes, and Tony quickly looked away, his fingers around Steve squeezing to almost painful levels for an instant. Steve gasped involuntarily, and Tony's fingers gentled, one finger rubbing in slow, comforting movements in apology.
His attempt at comfort was anything but, Steve's body winding up with every movement, and maybe it was because it was morning, maybe it was because it'd been a while since he'd been intimate with someone else, maybe it was because of who it was.
He came with a soft exhalation, as soundless as he prided himself on. His body trembled with the aftershocks, like it needed more air than Steve could give it.
“Jesus,” he heard Tony whisper, followed by the telltale sounds of Tony stroking himself. Steve laid on his side, his afterglow rapidly evaporating as he listened.
He reached out, extricated Tony's fingers from his cock, and wrapped his own fingers around it. Tony's mouth parted, and Steve could only steal a glance before it became too much.
Tony didn't come quietly. He came with a heartfelt groan that flared up Steve's skin, searing and dangerous, and Steve knew he wouldn't ever forget the sound. It was already replaying in his mind, his eyes squeezed shut as Tony's body stilled beside him.
“Wow,” Tony said. Steve didn't have anything to add. It was followed by a high, nervous chuckle. “Sure way to give a hand,” and when Steve opened his eyes, Tony's gaze had slid to somewhere over Steve's shoulder. “Not what I ever imagined doing.”
“Right,” Steve said, and felt very, very stupid.
“It's okay,” Tony added quickly, “first time for everything, right?”
Steve froze, a slow horror beginning to creep over his skin. “I'm just...going to need to go for that run now.”
It took until 59th Street before Steve realized he hadn't even kissed Tony.
A fine layer of dust had settled over his things, and an untouched bunch of bananas had gone overripe too long ago. Steve felt a stranger in his own apartment.
He resisted the urge to put away the few things littering the table, heading straight for his bedroom and its closet. The faint itch beneath his skin grew harder to ignore. He pried open the secret compartment behind the drawer in his closet, running his thumbprint over the pad, then slinging the shield over his shoulder.
Bucky had been wary when Steve had suddenly asked for it.
“But, you do what you need to, Steve,” he'd told him, offering it over without any further questions.
There was a quiet ding, and the reinforced cover opened, revealing what was inside.
The orange gleam of the Time Gem was subdued, though Steve could feel its power lurking beneath the surface. He gingerly cupped it in his palm, rolling it one way and then the other.
It felt unreal to imagine how much he could do with this thing. If he concentrated, he might be able to tap into its power, but mostly, holding it made him feel light-headed. He remembered how pleased Tony had been when he'd told him that. Apparently, Steve wasn't strongly affected by the Infinity Gems. Tony had declared to the rest of the Illuminati that was what made him a perfect candidate to entrust one of the gems to for safekeeping.
“You wouldn't be that great at wielding it, probably,” Tony had told him, “but that's not really the important thing.”
Steve had wondered how much Tony was affected by the gems. Considering the man had wielded the Infinity Gauntlet seamlessly, he suspected he already knew the answer.
He thought it'd be more awkward, thinking of Tony after what had just transpired between them. He tried to summon something up, but his mind was clear as day.
But that was just it, wasn't it? When things were going well, it was so easy. At Avengers Mansion, at Avengers Tower, wherever Tony was felt like home. Even sleeping with him, both definitions of the term, was the most natural thing in the world.
How much of that was them, and how much of it wasn't?
Steve closed his hand around the gem.
“I... think we haven't had this issue before, if only for the fact that everyone else that possessed an Infinity Gem stored theirs in more—appropriate— measures,” Stephen said carefully.
Steve fought the blush.
“Don't worry about it, Steve,” Tony assured him. “You got yours a few weeks back, and, well, there are multiple kings on our council.”
“I—in my hiding place, you needed the shield to open it.”
Tony let out a low whistle.
“That's a good start.” Stephen nodded. “However, the containment itself should be held up to similar standards.”
How was he going to get enough vibranium to make a whole safe out of? Or something on the same level as that? Steve ran a hand over his face. “And, do you think, that our sleep cycles will be fixed after I take these precautions?” Steve asked.
Stephen pursed his lips. “I can't think of any other reasons. We already went over the other possibilities.” He raised an eyebrow at Steve, while Tony looked back and forth between them, not happy about being left out of the loop.
“On the bright side, at least it only affected Steve and I, since we've been in direct contact with the gems,” Tony said. “Just imagine if you'd kept everyone in your building from sleeping. Worst neighbor ever.” He rocked back on his heels. “Or you could have invested in a very, very large bed?”
Stephen gave Steve a curious look. “This really should have only affected your respective circadian rhythms. Anything else that has occurred has simply been an opportunity capitalized on.”
Steve nodded tightly, while Tony seemed more put-out at being ignored. He slapped Stephen on the back. “Thanks, Stephen. So, we'll figure out a way for Steve to store his gem, and then I'll finally be able to get back to sleep in my own bed!”
After they left, Steve couldn't stop replaying Tony's words. Right, finally he wouldn't need to share a bed with Steve. It'd been such a hardship, after all.
He needed to stop this. It was his fault, anyway, that Tony had suffered through this. Like Tony had said, the Illuminati was made up of kings, geniuses at the top of their fields, with access to all the physical resources they'd ever need. Not just material either—between them, all the potential of human intelligence could be reached. Steve wondered why they'd even bothered with him.
Tony walked quietly besides him, much less animated than he'd been just a few minutes earlier. Steve wondered again if they shouldn't have driven, but Tony had readily agreed when Steve had offered to take to the streets instead.
“For someone who hates magic so much, you seem oddly attuned to it,” Steve tried to tease.
“Oh, shut up,” Tony said. “There's about as much magic in those gems as there is science—in short, none. It's not my fault the goddamn manifestation of time destroyed my sleep cycle, when it let you off with perfectly reasonable insomnia. You're one to talk though.”
“Aforementioned manifestation of time, just lying around your apartment? Because I know it wasn't on the Helicarrier.”
Steve opened his mouth when Tony cut him off. “No, no, don't tell me where it really was, we can't do that.” He cocked his head at Steve. “Although considering it wasn't shielded properly, I'm going to guess it was in a safety deposit box in the back of your closet?” He snapped his fingers. “Wait, no, you love that mystery stuff. I bet it's hidden in a secret compartment. In the back of your closet.”
“Now it's your turn to shut up.” Despite his words, Steve tried to hide his smile. Things were still easy with Tony, and it was only when they were apart that Steve second-guessed everything.
When they'd arrived back at the Tower, Tony stopped in his tracks.
“When I said I could sleep in my own bed—” he began, shoulders hunched. His eyes flicked over to Steve as he shoved his hands deep into his pockets. “We can do my room tonight.”
Steve's mouth formed the “we” again, his heart pounding fiercely.
“Think of it as another opportunity to be capitalized on,” Tony said, and after a long moment, removed his hands from his pockets in favor of putting them on Steve's arms. Steve's heartbeat sped up impossibly faster. “Billionaire speaking here.”
“Well,” Steve said, feeling like his smile would break his face, “who can refuse advice from the best?” and leaned in for their first kiss.
They fell into bed in a flurry, but their kisses were indulgently slow. Steve savored the sensations he'd only begun to get a taste of, Tony's beard against his skin, a delight of contrasts against his warm lips.
When they parted, Steve's arm was wrapped around Tony's body. Tony shifted, and Steve's hold tightened. Tony raised an eyebrow at him as he tried to wiggle out to little effect.
“Oho.” A predatory grin spread over Tony's face, despite being trapped. “So, we've found something that works for you.”
Steve schooled his features to blankness, although he felt his cheeks burning and Tony wouldn't stop smirking. The easiest way to stop both was more kissing. Tony didn't seem to mind.
He didn't try to escape afterwards this time, propping his chin high on Steve's chest. “I'm looking forward to finding out just what makes you tick,” he said, the suggestive words softened by the tender look in his eyes. He turned his face, rubbing his cheek against Steve. His goatee was soft one way and rough the other, sparking and smoothing little points of contact against Steve's skin.
“You need to sleep,” Steve told him. All of Stark Resilient's meetings and projects had been put on hold that day as they holed themselves up in Tony's lab, working on options for containing the gem. And the frequent necking sessions that served as interludes hadn't been helpful for their productivity.
“Mmm.” Tony's easy acquiescence was proof enough of Steve's words.
Steve combed his fingers through Tony's hair, tugging on the strands on the end. He should probably gently encourage Tony off his chest, to avoid a dead arm for Steve and a terrible crick for Tony.
He stroked his fingers against Tony's hair again, willing the movement to keep him awake. His fingers slowed, and soon stilled. Tony was warm against him, breathing evened out into a familiar rhythm. Steve's eyes drifted closed.
For the matter, Tony's bed was way more comfortable than Steve's.