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Theory vs Practice

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Tony thought seeing everyone again would be a lot of things: maddening, tense, a struggle, painful. He was prepared for all of those things. He’d been feeling all of those things since crawling back to the near-empty Avengers compound to lick his wounds.

It turns out to be horrendously awkward, is what it is. And that’s not entirely true either because it’s Natasha who comes back first. She shows up on his front step three months after Siberia and it’s all of those things. Tony gets angry and his skin feels askew. All at once he wants to slam the door in her face and sweep her up in a hug.

He does neither. He moves back half a step to let her in, she doesn’t apologize but she does enter, and they dance around each other for four days before Natasha decides enough is enough. It’s well after midnight and well before dawn when she shows up in the workshop, eyes growing wide when her old codes still get her in (Tony knows, there’s video proof, he’s seen it). Tony turns to meet her and she’s brought coffee, doesn’t even try to hand it to him, just sets it on the nearest workbench, and Tony’s heart warms despite himself. Probably because he’s had no other human interaction in those four days, but still.

“You were just trying to help us,” she says then, and it should sound like pointing out the obvious, but Tony’s been so afraid that nobody could tell, all he feels is sharp relief. “It might’ve even worked, too.”

“Probably not,” Tony says, a little breathless but steady.

She closes the gap between them and puts a hand on top of his. After a moment, he flips his hand and squeezes her fingers, eyes averted. She beats a hasty retreat seconds later, and Tony asks FRIDAY to scan the coffee, but it’s clean, and they both show up for breakfast the next morning, so it’s okay on some level. Rhodey’s in the city for physical therapy and Vision doesn’t eat, so Tony even appreciates the company.

Two weeks later, Natasha convinces him to start woking on the pardons for the rogue Avengers. Tony screams, and a few tears might even spill down his face, and Natasha just stands there and takes it. That part's pretty terrible.

Exactly one month after the pardons have been issued (because of course he goes through with it), the world almost ends again. This is when the rest of the (no longer technically rogue) Avengers show up and they kick ass and take names and it’s glorious up until they’ve actually won and then it’s just…horrendously awkward.

They’re all standing around the compound because there’s no SHIELD to report to anymore and there’s available medical for anyone who needs to be looked over. Everyone’s here from the rogue crew: Clint, Wanda, Scott, Steve, Sam, T’Challa (who never was one of the rogue Avengers, but Tony’s not an idiot and it takes someone rich as Tony or T’Challa to feed a super soldier). Everyone but Bucky. But, to be frank, Tony’s tired. He has bruised ribs and he’s exhausted physically and emotionally, and he’s not going to ask where Barnes is. Vision’s here too, but he never left, and so is Natasha. Rhodes is doing better but nowhere cleared for active duty yet.

Tony’s jarred out of his mind by Clint, who’s suddenly very very there and taking up his field of vision all at once. Tony starts badly but he recovers quickly. Clint has the decency to look sheepish.

“Stark.” He nods and doesn’t say anything scathing, which is actually a huge improvement over the harshness of the civil war and the cold quiet of this last mishap.

“Barton.” Tony raises an eyebrow at the hurt look he gets in response. Once upon a time he would’ve said “birdbrain” or “Legolas” or something witty. God, he’s tired.

“I was…” Tony can actually see the moment Clint realizes how ridiculous this whole thing is, and shakes himself a little. “I need a jet, I need to go home to my family,” he says resolutely, all-in. Tony still respects him. He thinks the others might be watching from where they’re all sitting around in the living room and kitchen, but he doesn’t look.

“No,” Tony says. Instead of getting angry, Clint looks like his heart is breaking. Tony definitely doesn’t have the patience for this shit. He rolls his eyes.

“Look—“ Clint starts.

“Nope,” he says.

“Tony…”

And there’s Steve’s disappointed voice. It makes Tony want to throw a chair. That voice has never once made him want to be calm or rational. Tony whirs around to face the man, and only just keeps from balling his fists up or baring his teeth.

“Everyone’s staying here tonight,” he grinds out. “Except T’Challa. You’re free to go whenever you wish, Your Highness,” he adds to the man beyond Steve’s shoulder where he’s sitting on a plush chair.

“You can’t—“ Steve starts to say, and Tony is done.

“We’re all due to debrief with a UN representative in the morning,” Tony says, eyes still locked with T’Challa’s surprisingly understanding ones. “You may have all been pardoned, but the Accords are still in place, and you will follow them. We can talk amendments tomorrow afternoon when debrief is over, or you can crawl back to Wakanda. I don’t give a shit.”

When Tony looks, Steve is watching him steadily. Tony doesn’t back down and Steve doesn’t move to challenge the statement.

“Why should we?” And that’s Wanda, sitting at the kitchen island. Tony moves his gaze to her but keeps his body squared towards Steve. “If they’re just going to let us come back and help when there’s real trouble, why should we stay? Why do we need to deal with the Accords at all?”

“I never said you should,” Tony says evenly. Wanda seems to shrink in on herself even as she sits up straighter, and Tony feels a little bad about that, but not bad enough to take it back. He turns back to Clint. “You can take a Quinjet tomorrow. Until then, they’re all locked down. FRIDAY?”

“Already done, Boss.”

“Thanks, doll.”

There are things that need to be dealt with. The others need to sign the Accords or there are going to be problems. He should tell them that their rooms are still intact. He should ask T’Challa if he can stay until tomorrow or if he needs to get back to running his country. He should call to tell Rhodey he’s okay. He should sit Steve down and explain the changes in the Accords, the safeguards in place. But, for God’s sake, he’s still in the suit sans the helmet, and there are a couple of plates bent inwards and jabbing at his fucked ribs, so he turns on his heel as smoothly as he can and gets in the elevator.

“To the ’shop?” FRIDAY asks.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “We’re gonna need to take the suit off carefully.”

“Understood, Boss.”

***

Half an hour later Tony’s stretched out on the workshop cot. One of the panels had sliced him pretty good, and he had his shirt off, a cloth held to his ribs, and bruises forming over the rest of his torso. That’s how he’s lying when the elevator dings and FRIDAY announces Clint’s arrival.

“Hey,” Tony says when Clint doesn’t. Clint stops in front of the cot and puts his hands on his hips.

“Our rooms are the same as we left them,” he finally says. It sounds like an accusation.

“Why,” Tony says, turning his head to look at Clint without sitting up, “wouldn’t they be?”

“Why would they be?” Clint shoots back. Tony blinks. He didn’t loose that much blood at all but he’s in an adrenaline drop and a little slow on the uptake.

“You know…What the fuck, Barton, you know Nat and I got the pardons pushed through a month ago. We were planning on bringing you back.”

Clint stares at him and he just stares back. What kind of a person does Clint think he is? What the fuck? Eventually Clint just mumbles his thanks and retreats. Tony closes his eyes.

***

When he opens them, he’s freezing. Must’ve fallen asleep. He wonders what woke him up and almost jumps out of his skin when he hears Steve calling his name softly. Unfortunately, when he jerks in surprise he must twist wrong, because he can feel the blood start to flow from his side again and he curses to himself.

“Tony?” Steve asks hesitantly.

“FRIDAY, lights, please.”

The lights come up and Steve’s there, in the workshop, about four meters away, and it’s still too close. Tony isn’t afraid of the man, but he hates the distance between them now. He closes his eyes.

“You’re bleeding," Steve says. He sounds hurt and Tony, for the life of him, can’t figure out why.

“I fell asleep,” Tony explains, but that doesn’t wipe the look from Steve’s face. “It’s not deep,” he tries next, because it’s really not. He’s not sitting down here bleeding out, it doesn’t even need stitches.

Steve’s still frowning, though, and his eyes dart around the workshop before settling to the left. He starts walking so determinedly and so quickly that Tony’s system gets another tiny shock of adrenaline. He tracks Steve across the room to a cabinet where he pulls out the first aid kit and starts walking toward the cot.

“Rogers…” He’s wary of this, of Steve, helping, pretending nothing’s wrong, but he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s supposed to say, and neither does Steve.

“You’re bleeding,” he says again, popping the kit open and kneeling in front of Tony. Tony sits up and looks down at Steve as he sorts through the supplies. His hands are gentle the way Steve is always gentle, hyperaware of the serum, of the strength in even the very tips of his fingers. He doesn’t ask Tony if what he’s doing is okay, just gets to work because it needs to be done.

“I don’t think you should be doing this,” Tony says and, huh, he doesn’t sound angry or bitter or scared at all. Just…tired. Kind of flat. Steve huffs out a fast breath.

“It’s too high on your ribs,” Steve explains, dabbing slowly at the fresh and caked-on blood. “If you keep twisting to clean it, it’ll keep bleeding.”

“I know.” And Tony doesn’t know why he sounds so soft all of a sudden, like he’s letting Steve down easy. Earlier he’d wanted to scream the words in his face, stuff them down his throat, give him a taste of his own medicine. “But it’s not a scale, Steve.”

Steve’s movements stutter, so Tony thinks he understands.

“Each cut you patch up doesn’t undo one you made,” he continues. Steve takes a deep breath and picks up the disinfectant spray. Tony doesn’t stop him. “This isn’t how it works.”

“I know,” Steve says.

“No,” Tony says, “you don’t.”

“I do, though.” Steve’s hands are so gentle, so careful. Tony can’t decide if he wants to bury his face in Steve’s hair or choke the life out of him, so he does neither. Steve’s voice is gentle, too, sad. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” Tony says vehemently, and he promptly wants to smack himself for even hinting at the emotional wound he’s carrying. He hates, despises feeling so volatile, so unsteady. Steve’s hands have frozen against Tony’s ribs and the silence rings around them. Steve finishes quickly then.

“You shouldn’t need stitches but you’ll need to be careful about it for a few days,” he tells Tony.

“Awesome,” Tony deadpans. Steve’s fingers linger, trail down, settle on his knee and squeeze.

“I’m sorry,” Steve says with feeling. Tony sighs.

“What did you come down here for?”

Steve’s hand falls away and he stands.

“We ordered pizza,” he says. “There wasn’t a crumb in the entire compound.”

“Right,” Tony says. “I could eat. Hey, hand me that shirt?”

***

Seeing the crown king of Wakanda eating pizza in his living room is one of the stranger sights Tony can remember walking into. It shouldn’t be considering the Chitauri and the wormhole and thawing out Captain America, but it is for some reason.

“King T’Challa,” Tony greets and shoves half a piece of pizza into his mouth. T’Challa and Natasha are sitting around a coffee table in the living room, and they look like the most neutral group, so Tony flocks to them.

“Dr. Stark,” T’Challa returns and Tony half chokes on his slice. Natasha pounds him on the back and T’Challa looks bemused.

“Please, God, call me Tony.”

T’Challa hums and pops another pepperoni in his mouth.

“Please, Tony. T’Challa is sufficient. I’m no God.”

“You got it, kitttycat,” Tony says around his tears of laughter. He likes this one.

***

Truth is, it’s all those things. It hurts and it’s hard and spectacularly frustrating, but those are things he knows how to deal with. He has some experience with being uncomfortable in his own body what with Afghanistan and all, not to mention being in the media spotlight for his pubescent years. Betrayal isn’t even a new feeling for him, but he’s never opened his house up to someone after they’ve left him for dead. He’s never had to pretend everything’s okay, force things to be okay for the good of the world, for the good of people he’s not even sure he likes anymore. He’s a mechanic, he itches to fix things for real instead of this emotional crap.

***

T’Challa regretfully has to leave after dinner. He shakes Tony’s hand before he goes and promises to call in for the debrief. Tony doesn’t know anything about the man, not really, but he feels like he’s loosing an ally. Which is ridiculous. Tony doesn’t need allies in his own home. (He shouldn’t need allies in his own home.)

When he gets back to the communal area, everyone looks dead on their feet. Tony claps, and a few pairs of eyes roll to look at him.

“Right-o, chaps.” He points at Scott. “Lang, pick any unoccupied room for tonight. After debrief tomorrow, same rules as Barton. You can either keep the room or go home to your family. Or both.” He sweeps his gaze around the rest of them before settling on Natasha. “The rest of you, your rooms are still yours. The Avengers Compound doesn’t belong to me, I couldn’t take them from you if I tried.”

“Are you living here?” Sam asks, not harshly, but his eyes are sharp.

“Off and on,” Tony answers vaguely. “And I can’t disappear altogether. No offense, Wilson, but the UN doesn’t trust a single one of you besides T’Challa, and the man has responsibilities beyond…this.”

“Ah,” Sam says, nodding. “So you have been living here.”

Tony rolls his eyes.

“Is this about the fridge again? I’ll have food delivered by morning, I promise. Just, nobody attack the delivery person in the middle of the night.”

“I think we can manage,” Clint says.

“Alright.” Tony claps his hands again. “Break!”

***

When he gets to his room, Tony asks for the standard “last minute updates” from FRIDAY, even as he peels back the covers and tosses his clothes toward the basket. FRIDAY’s gotten better at filtering priority information, especially at night. She shows him a report from T’Challa already, and Tony thinks he must’ve been working on it beforehand. It tells him who their UN delegate will be in the morning, where Barnes is (Tony wishes he’d been drinking something just so he could’ve done a spit take, because what the hell, Rogers went to all that trouble to stick his friend back in the freezer?), and which Avengers have shown the most animosity when speaking of him during their time in Wakanda. Clint and Wanda are at the top of the list, and Tony’s not surprised, but he is grateful towards the king.

Chapter Text

Tony wakes early and lies in bed for far longer than he should. He doesn’t feel rested at all. By the time the sun is up, he’s peeling himself out of bed and to his bathroom. If he wants to pretend he’s an adult with any authority today, he’s going to have to look the part. Brush teeth, meds, shower, re-bandage, shave, and makeup for the bruises. The routine hasn’t changed since Afghanistan when he added the injury care and concealer for the ever-present nicks and dings, but it’s been around in some iteration since he took over SI. Tony can forget to sleep, to eat, safe drinking limits, but he doesn’t forget The Routine, ever. Tired as he is, though, he almost chooses to skip over it.

He doesn’t.

The universe rewards him. When he gets to the kitchen, there’s already coffee in the pot. Tony notices the other people in the room, but ignores them to have a stare down with the coffee pot.

“Morning, Tony,” someone says. He waves at whoever it is but doesn’t look.

The pot doesn’t explode for three and a half minutes, so he pours himself a cup, which he then carries to the dining table with a StarkPad.

“Gimme a sign here, FRI,” he says eventually, still staring at the mug. There’s a pause where FRIDAY presumably scans the coffee.

“Green light, boss.”

Tony knocks on the table twice in acknowledgement. He’s the slightest bit disconcerted. He’s never had this problem with accepting drinks before, not from his team, but maybe it’s a one-time thing, like when Natasha first returned. He decides not to worry about it.

He takes a sip and doesn’t immediately die. (Win!)

“G’morning,” he mumbles to the room at large.

Eventually he realizes he’s sitting at the opposite end of the table from Sam and Steve, damn military type early risers. They both keep stealing glances at him. Tony’s pretty sure there’s something different between the looks Sam’s shooting him and the one on Steve’s face, but it’s really not worth trying to parse before he’s even finished his first cup of coffee.

Wanda’s not awake yet, so Vision is on the couch in a semicircle with Clint and Natasha. He’s wearing the perturbed expression he usually adopts when human nature doesn’t follow logic, so Tony decides to leave them be.

“Magic fridge!” Scott yells when he comes in, amazed by the sudden appearance of food in the kitchen. Tony snorts.

“Lang,” he says, “that is the last kind of appliance you’ll find in the compound. Rule of thumb: consider every Sherlockian possibility before you assume magic.”

“Hey, man,” Scott says, hands raised in surrender, “I don’t care how it happens. A miracle’s a miracle.”

He surveys the contents of the fridge for another five seconds and takes one lingering look at the people gathered before he starts scooping out ingredients.

“I’m making waffles,” he declares. Sam whoops and Clint trudges into the kitchen like a man on a mission, mumbling about the army needed to feed a super soldier, Vision trailing in his wake.

A low rumble overtakes the kitchen, and a nostalgia kicks up in Tony’s chest. He checks the news on his tablet and moves on to his second and third cups of coffee. Fox News is displeased, but it’s mostly nitpicking at this point. Tony seriously doubts anyone’s going to break down their door and haul them off to the RAFT over a few insurance claims. The rest of the major news networks are tentatively positive about the returning Avengers, and Tony honestly feels like he should be doing a touchdown dance.

He’s broken out of his reverie when a plate of waffles is set at one elbow and a platter of fresh fruit at the other. He twists in his chair, but the kitchen’s still a flurry of activity. There’s no telling who it was that served or made the food, and that…bothers him, more than it rationally should.

“Green, boss,” FRIDAY says, unprompted. Tony’s proud somewhere underneath all the relief; she's a faster learner than JARVIS was at the beginning, but then again, she was born into a bigger shitshow. He pulls the blueberries closer and starts fixing his plate.

“What’s up with the traffic light?” Scott says, sliding into the unoccupied seat next to Steve.

Damn, Tony thinks. Cat burglar, scientist. Smarter than he looks.

Sam, who’s already shoveling food into his mouth, lifts his eyes, looking strangely innocent. Tony shrugs and doesn’t meet Steve’s eyes even though he can feel the weight of his gaze.

“Just making sure you’re not fixin’ to poison me,” Tony says, willing it to sound like a normal worry.

“I think I should be offended,” Scott says easily as he reaches for a fork, not sounding offended at all.

“Okay,” Tony says, “while I’m sure your culinary skills are nothing to sneeze at, you just made food with Vision, who doesn’t actually ingest food. The traffic light was originally intended for robot-made smoothies, to tell if they were going to end me without offending the little guys.”

“Wait,” Scott says, “you have smoothie-making robots here?”

“Not on your life, Lang.”

Conversation turns then to safer grounds, idle chatter more fitting of the hour. Everyone filters through eventually for caffeine and food and company.

“Boss,” FRIDAY chimes in, “debrief in the conference room in ten.”

Tony sighs into the sudden hush of the room.

“You heard the girl,” he says. “Let’s get this over with.”

Everyone files out in groups of two or three, some more reluctantly than others, but they’re all heading in the right direction. Tony watches them go until only he and Steve remain.

“I do not want to have this fight right now,” Tony says.

“I’m not here to fight,” Steve says quickly.

“Rogers, please. Let’s just make it through the next—”

“FRIDAY gave you a color for the coffee too,” Steve says, tripping all over the words in his haste. Tony is too tired for this. “Vision doesn't make coffee.”

“Yeah.”

“Then why…” And Steve sounds so desperate, Tony wants to spit, to scream, you did this to us, this is your fault, you don’t get to sound so sad. Even his smile is heartbreaking. “I know our coffee’s not as practiced as yours, but it hasn’t killed anyone yet.”

When you kill me, I’m pretty sure it won't be an accident, Tony doesn't say. At least Dum-E brought me my heart when I was dying instead of breaking it with the worst metaphor ever.

“I’m working on it,” Tony says instead, which doesn’t even answer the question. Steve nods anyway, and Tony turns to duck through the door toward the conference room.

***

“And where’s the last of the pardoned?” Mrs. Young, their UN representative of the day, asks from her screen at the head of the table. Instead of sending someone in, and since T’Challa was making it a video conference anyway, they decided not to bother. “Barnes wasn’t involved in the altercation, but has he returned?”

The table quiets and tension descends like a curtain upon the meeting. Tony wants to roll his eyes but that sounds like the thing that’ll get him picked up by the throat.

“Jesus, who do you guys think I am?” Tony asks. And then, before anyone can actually answer that question (yikes), “Barnes has been pardoned as well, but it’s up to him if he wants to remain in cryostasis. Though, maybe we should, I dunno, wake him up to let him know his options.”

“That doesn’t—” she begins.

“He’s not here,” Sam says, glancing at Steve, probably to make sure he’s not going to bolt or punch someone (Tony) in the face. Tony thinks it would be a nice gesture if he thought Sam was looking to protect his teammate from physical harm, but Tony’s pretty sure Sam just doesn’t want Steve to get in trouble right away.

“He is with me,” T’Challa says from the other screen. “He remains in cryogenic stasis in my facilities and under my guard. Though I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Stark, and we shall speak more on the matter later.”

Mrs. Young nods at the king.

Also, Tony doesn’t say, even though he’s been holding it in for hours now, you can’t let the brain heal if it’s frozen. I’m not a medical doctor or even a biologist, but I’m pretty sure it’s not helping.

But, no. They’re supposed to be proving they’ve got a handle on the in-fighting. United front, and all that.

Debrief goes well aside from the mention of Bucky. Steve participates just as much as he did in SHIELD debriefs, everyone is thorough in their recounts, and Mrs. Young is exceptionally diplomatic, asking the nitty gritty questions without sounding condescending and directing the conversation expertly.

“She’s lovely,” Tony says to Natasha and Sam later when everyone’s milling around the rec room.

“Picked her myself,” Natasha says.

“Not surprised,” Sam says.

“Nat, have I ever told you how much I adore you?” Tony asks.

“You latch on to the nearest redhead,” she says. “You wouldn't even be saying that if Pepper was here.”

“Ouch,” he says, all faux cool, “but true.”

“You guys still on the fritz? Steve said something about that,” Sam admits.

“That’s not quite the right term. More like…dead and gone,” Tony says. “I think we might be on our way to becoming friends again though. Y’know, someday. Eventually.”

“Fingers crossed.”

“I texted her last night,” Natasha says. “Just to let her know we all have our heads. Let’s just say the two of you have a much better chance than she and Steve do. I think she wants to kill him.”

“Damn,” Sam says, “really?”

“She may have said something about stabbing him with a heel when she came to visit after Siberia,” Tony says.

“That bad?” Sam asked, and he looks more serious now, so Tony shrugs.

“Gave as good as I got,” he says vaguely.

“And Barnes came back missing an arm,” Sam muses.

Another shrug.

***

T’Challa, to his credit, doesn’t seem surprised when Tony calls to figure out the logistics of moving Bucky.

“I just want to make sure it’s an option,” Tony assures the king.

“I am well aware,” he replies. “Even at the time, I knew your desire for blood would pass.”

“Then you literally have more faith in me than anyone I know.”

“Tony, you and I are both men of great passions, but we are also both men of great burdens. You could no more abandon your duty than I.”

After a moment, Tony says, “Thank you.” It’s awkward and too honest and he hates it. Thankfully, T’Challa must sense his discomfort, or be too busy to talk about feelings and duty with Tony Stark all day, because he moves on.

“I’m not sure I am entirely on board with the notion of moving Barnes while he’s unaware,” he admits. His face on the video feed doesn’t look tired, but Tony thinks the king is radiating the kind of long-suffering exhaustion that Tony uniquely inspires.

“Total breech of trust, I hear ya, I do,” Tony says. “Moving an unconscious man without his permission while he’s in what amounts to a medically induced coma. Barnes has had more than his fair share of decisions forced on him.”

“I would be much more comfortable waking him for his consent.”

“Yes,” he puts his hands up and makes a frame like he’s a director on set, looking straight at the king, “but, you see. If I want the Avengers to stay together, all on the same continent even, I need Steve.” He drops his hands and smiles helplessly at T’Challa. “And if I want Steve, I need Bucky, and if I unfreeze Bucky without Rogers there, I’ll get thrown through a window.”

T’Challa sighs, and Tony silently agrees.

“So ask the captain,” T’Challa says. Tony shakes his head.

“Can’t be me. I’d say ‘he trusts me about as far as he can throw me,’ but he can throw me pretty damn far.”

There's a knock at the door to his office, and Tony looks up to see Steve standing on the other side of the glass. True to his word, after the debrief, the team had sat down and voiced their respective hangups about the Accords. It had been surprisingly…civil. Tony had felt like a schoolteacher assigning homework, but decided it would go better if everyone went through a copy on their own, marking parts that sound suspicious or confusing. He also promised his door would be open to anyone and everyone if they wanted to discuss something or ask any questions, so Tony waves Steve in.

“Rogers,” he says pleasantly when the door opens. T’Challa watches on silently.

“Tony,” Steve says, just as kind, “hi.”

“We shall continue this conversation another time,” T’Challa says.

“Of course, thank you,” Tony says. T’Challa smiles as he cuts the connection. Tony swivels in his chair to face Steve fully. “What’s up?”

“Not a lot,” Steve says automatically. “Sam and Nat are cooking, and I just, I wanted to see if you’d eaten yet.”

Tony stares at Steve for a moment, until he blinks. He blinks twice before Steve blinks once, and only then does he realize that he’s having a stare-down with Captain America.

“Nope,” he says finally, popping the ‘p.’

“You could join us,” Steve said. “If you’re not busy?”

“I’m always busy,” he throws back, more as a sad imitation of their old verbal sparring than any kind of truth. Steve sighs and gives Tony a once over that makes his skin prickle uncomfortably.

“We’re gonna put on a movie, I think,” Steve says with his stupidly sad eyes, looking like Tony’s just hurt him or some shit. It makes him want to growl and hiss, but he can see the effort Steve’s putting in here. Why now, he wants to ask. Why put in so much effort now when he put in barely any before the Accords? When Tony’s mouth opens again, it’s just as automatic as the last reply.

“What movie?” he asks. Steve shrugs, even as his shoulders unwind the tiniest bit.

“Something Disney? They were in the middle of picking when I came down.”

The thing is, Tony really, really doesn’t want to go upstairs and stare at food while his ex-ex-teammates stare at him. The thought of a movie makes it almost bearable because at least that promises minimal social interaction. Plus, he can’t help but mock himself internally: isn’t this what he wanted? For the Avengers to be together?

“Disney roulette,” Tony says. “Place your bets, old man. Who’s gonna end up crying this time?”

“My bet’s on Lang,” Steve says right away, like he’s already been thinking about it. There’s a smile playing on his lips for the first time since he got here, and Tony already knows his answer.

“My money’s on Nat.”

Steve actually laughs at that, like he does every time—like he did every time before. Tony’s stomach twists, two parts bitter and one part sweet.

“You’ll never win if you always bet on Natasha,” Steve points out, like it’s been written into a script for him. Tony smiles, easy. This is always the easy stuff, the lighthearted words that make him feel like he belongs. He knows better now—he was my friend—but that doesn’t mean it’s not so easy, so natural to get swept up in Steve’s energy.

“I’m bound to win at least once,” Tony says, and he turns to shut down the monitor he’d been working on manually so Steve doesn’t see the way his good mood’s withered and died. “This is Disney we’re talking about.”

***

No, Tony realizes halfway through The Aristocats and two bites into his tortellini. No, his wish was never for the Avengers to be together, but to stay together. And maybe it’s a petty distinction, but he’d wanted it to stay whole and unscarred, but that’s not what happened. They shattered and nearly everyone who could leave, did. Tony knows who they would choose now, who they did choose, who they followed when push came to shove. And it’s not that he’s surprised, but it’s one thing to have fears, to doubt himself, and another thing entirely for those fears and doubts to come true for the entire world to see.

He’s sitting on the love seat next to Natasha, and they don’t normally instigate any kind of meaningful touch, but they don’t shy away from it, either. Her knee is on top of his thigh and their forearms rest on each other occasionally. Sitting close to her, feeling comforted but not coddled, he can admit to himself that he feels rotten, like he doesn’t belong, unwanted in his own goddamn house. If Nat can feel how tense he is, she doesn’t say a thing, but she does sing along to “Everybody Wants to Be a Cat.” Scott joins in and Sam buries his face in his hands and groans through the whole thing, but Tony keeps his eyes on the TV and his mind on Natasha’s fingers where they tap against his hand and thinks, she came home first, all on her own. Maybe she doesn’t mind Tony’s presence so much as the others.

He starts to cut apart another piece of tortellini, slitting it length-wise and separating the cheese inside. It takes only a couple of minutes of staring at it from the corner of his eye and shifting it around before he scoops it all onto his fork and puts the bite into his mouth. It’s cold by then, but still tasty.

***

Clint’s eyes go glassy when Thomas O’Malley meets Duchess and her kittens, but that’s it. Tony drops the five dollar bill on Steve’s crotch as Tony books it back to his office. Nobody wins today, so nobody loses either.

Chapter Text

Tony lasts two more days.

Most of that time is spent in his office, and precious little of it is spent in the workshop. He tries to make good on his promise to be available to the others, though, so far, only Sam has wandered in with the occasional question. Tony would be pissed if he didn’t see Steve with his head bent over his packet every time he passes the living room, and Natasha helping Wanda with her copy at the breakfast table. If he didn’t know better he’d think Sam was asking Steve’s questions for him and reporting back the answers he gets from Tony.

Too bad Tony knows better. God, he wishes Steve would ask questions, would admit he doesn’t understand something, because Tony’s imagination is running wild with all the interpretations Steve could be coming up with, all the assumptions Steve could be making. Each and every one of these scenarios in Tony’s head end in hellfire.

Anyway, only Sam actually comes by; Steve seems intent to suffer through the reams of legal jargon on his own, Wanda’s got Natasha, Scott flew the coop the morning after The Aristocats along with Clint, the only difference being that Clint came slinking back not even twelve hours later to lick his metaphorical wounds. He’s spent every waking moment since on the phone with Laura going through the most rigorous “negotiations” Tony’s ever heard of.

Part of Tony rages and thinks you deserve this, this is what you chose, and the rest of his energy is spent skirting around Clint and making sure they’re never alone together in a room. He has no idea if Barton’s reading the Accords or not and, right now, he’s not going to hound the guy about it.

***

So, Tony’s resorted to avoiding people in his own home, and maybe he wishes Scott hadn’t left because, okay, the guy jumped on board with Captain America in the heat of things, but Tony hadn’t known he’d even existed, so the comparative grudge is nothing. He’s glad things seem to be working out with the guy’s family though. They’ve exchanged a couple of emails about the Accords, and the last one even had a couple pictures of a kid, Scott’s kid, who’d apparently just put her Captain America plushie in the corner for time out for “making Daddy leave again.” Tony laughs out loud at the sight even as it makes his core ache. Lang could’ve lost this forever, this wild little kid and her heart and her antics all because he blindly trusted Steve Rogers.

Maybe he’s a little tightly wound and maybe there’s a headache building behind his eyes and down his neck and into his chest where headaches definitely shouldn’t be, and maybe he’s stayed up later than he logically should’ve if only by a couple hours, and maybe he’s even on his way to bed when he passes through the kitchen and sees Wanda there, sitting at the island.

Maybe he imagines her faintly glowing too. (He doesn’t think so.)

“Maximoff,” he says when she doesn’t even seem to register his presence. “Wanda, hey.”

He takes a couple of steps closer, knowing he can’t leave her here like this but also knowing that he definitely shouldn’t touch. Halting his approach, he starts to circle around so the island is between them even though that means he’s coming at her from an angle instead of straight on. Normally, he knows, it’s better to let the person know you’re there, to stay in their line of sight, but Tony really does have a couple self-preservation instincts lying around. Right now, his hind brain is telling him to get some shelter.

This, unfortunately, is the thing that captures her attention. Wanda’s head whips around and she stares, hot and fiery, at Tony, who’s frozen on the spot.

“No,” she says, low and vehement.

“Okay,” Tony says easily, “okay, no. Fine.”

“What do you want?” she demands, wild-eyed and the air around her is more obviously snapping with energy now.

“Mostly to go to bed,” he says, “but also to make sure you’re alright.”

“I’m fine.”

“Trouble sleeping?”

Very, very suddenly, Wanda’s standing, her hands curled into claws and her hair floating just the tiniest bit.

“Whoa,” Tony says, going for calm but ending up closer to shocked.

“You left us there,” she accuses him, her voice low and dangerous, but it wobbles at the end.

“I know,” he says, because he does. There’s only one place he’s ever seen her in need and left her, and it’s late enough now that she could’ve been to bed already and been woken by the violence in her own mind. He knows, logically, that he’d been on the clock back there, but he truly wishes he could’ve damned the consequences and blown the RAFT to smithereens. He knows why he couldn’t do that, but reasons aren’t useful to Wanda right now. “I’m sorry that happened to you.”

“I don’t care!” she wails. Tony knows she’s not a kid, not really, but she’s also so much younger than him, doused in so much heavy grief. Tony remembers what he was like at her age, volatile and burning with it. He just wasn’t ever so dangerous. “You were supposed to be our teammate! You left!”

“How could I have gotten you out?” Tony says, raising his voice to match hers and cursing himself as he does it. It’s not that he doesn’t think he has a right to be angry—he well and truly believes he’s entitled to his share of bitterness here—but more just that he wants to live, and yelling at Wanda is not a good way to ensure his own continued safety. But fuck. If he could just get one person to understand maybe they’d talk sense into the others, because they clearly don’t even speak the same language anymore.

“I had a helicopter!” He gestures excessively, desperately. “The five of us on a chopper? We never would’ve outrun their aircraft!”

“You’re Iron Man!” she screams, and Tony doesn’t know if it’s the last thing she screams, but it’s the last he hears. He doesn’t know if it’s panic-in-response-to-Wanda or magic-induced panic, but time halts for the briefest expanse of time and he swears he can feel his pupils dilate, and then the moment shatters.

Tony’s knees hit the ground with a sick-sounding thwack.

The next thing he knows, Vision is kneeling in front of him and his chest is on fire, the flames licking up his neck and down his arms. His breath wheezes in his throat and he can see Wanda beyond Vision’s shoulder, colorless without the makeup she wears during the day like she hasn’t been getting enough sun. Has she always been this pale? Tony can’t remember.

“Mr. Stark,” Vision says, pulling his gaze back. Tony gasps as another spasm ripples through his torso.

“I didn’t do that,” Wanda says, no longer yelling, a loose lid back on her emotions.

“Fuck,” Tony says eloquently, and Vision’s eyes roam methodically, taking in everything there is to see before settling firmly on Tony’s face. The vice grip around his heart releases all at once and it hurts anew, in a much less worrisome but still sharp way, like the pins and needles of moving a limb after it’s fallen asleep.

“Should I call medical?” Vision asks.

Tony shakes his head a little frantically despite his sore neck. He reaches forward with both hands suddenly to grab for Vision and ends up gripping the junction where his skull meets his neck. It’s a strangely intimate gesture, and not quite what he’d been aiming for, but Vision accepts it readily and slides forward, tractionless on the smooth floor, and folds his own arms around Tony’s shoulders. The pain is ebbing and the terror feels washed out, but he’s exhausted and doesn’t know if he could get off the ground even if the desire were stronger.

“Wanda,” Vision says, and ignores the way Tony stiffens in his arms, “perhaps it’s time for you to retire for the night.”

There’s a long pause where Tony rests his face against Vision’s shoulder and pretends it’s as soft as a human’s. He doesn’t know if he should be reassuring Wanda or not. For one thing, that’s not something they do. For another, he has no idea if it actually was her fault, consciously or unconsciously.

“Yes,” she says eventually, tremulously, “goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Vision says kindly, and Tony listens to the retreating footsteps.

“Mr. Stark?”

“I didn’t even know the RAFT existed,” he admits in a rush of breath. “I didn’t have a finger in that pie, V, I didn’t even know the goddamn pie was there.”

“I know.” Vision lifts one of the fingers resting on Tony’s back and taps it two, three, four times, almost like he’s patting Tony’s back, but not quite. “Is there anything you need?”

“I think I’ll live, though I might have to crash on the floor.” He tries to laugh, to make that sound more like a joke, but he can’t tell how close he gets to the mark. “That honestly doesn’t even sound like such a hardship at the moment.”

Vision doesn’t answer and if there’s one trait he got from JARVIS it’s that they can insert smugness into silence so that even Tony can hear it, so he lifts his head and finally notices that they’re in his bedroom, Vision’s floated them across the floor and through the walls like the world’s sneakiest air hockey puck. Tony huffs a laugh that ends in a yawn.

“Bastard.”

“Technically, I suppose. That depends on how you look at it.” Tony rolls his eyes at the superior smile on Vision’s face. Who gave this guy so much confidence in the first place? He sure as hell doesn’t get it from Tony.

“Yeah, yeah, 3PO. I think I can brush my teeth on my own, though, so…” Tony wiggles his way out of the hug and stands. He half expects there to be blood on the knees of his pants when he looks down, but of course there’s nothing there.
“Of course,” Vision says wryly. He floats up to standing, and there’s a power Tony’s jealous of.

Tony pretends to be busy getting out a pair of pajamas and lingers at his dresser, trying to guess how long it’ll take for Vision to float out the door.

“Now don’t you forget this,” Vision says gravely from the doorway. Tony’s blood runs cold at the steel he sees in Vision’s eyes. “Why I should stick my neck out for you is far beyond my capacity!”

With a smile he’s gone and Tony, dizzy with the relief of the joke—a goddamn joke, for Christ’s sake—slowly sinks to the floor again.

***

He’s very calm about it, really. Mature. Jarvis is sporting that proud, crooked smile in his grave somewhere, Tony thinks.

He has FRIDAY call for his private jet instead of just taking the suit; the gash in his side is still healing and sustained flight isn’t going to help right now. The crew even has time to file a flight plan. Pepper used to give him shit about that a lot, especially between Afghanistan and their breakup. She’d point out how often he seems to go missing, and at least he could fly IFR and give them a viable starting point when he inevitably drops off the face of the planet again.

And, okay, he and Pepper aren’t exactly speaking right now, but he thinks she might be upset if he disappeared. And Rhodey would definitely have things to say about it. Nobody needs a Fun-Vee: Part II.

Tony even makes it the rest of the way to bed, and then, somewhat mechanically, to sleep. When he wakes up in the morning, he still can’t stand the thought of staying, so he starts packing a couple bags.

What it comes down to is this: Tony doesn’t know if what he experienced last night falls under the category of Mental Manipulation Gone Awry or if it’s more of a Cardiac Event. He doesn't know and he honestly doesn’t expect anyone’s help either way.

Wanda’s terrifyingly powerful and also out of control. Tony’s opinion is that she’s not equipped emotionally to be on this team, but he knows that’s a fight he can’t win. There aren’t many fights he can seem to win lately (against the Avengers, that is; he can win fights against Ross and the UN and the entirety of the United States, but the Avengers are a different story). He can foresee the defenses, or at least some of them; she’s part of this team too, Tony; she doesn’t have anywhere else to go, Tony; if she’s not on the team they’ll try to hold her responsible for Lagos, Tony; you killed her parents, Tony, she didn’t mean it. Each and every one punctuated by a disappointed sigh, all in Rogers’ impatient voice or snapped out in Barton’s, sharp as ice.

After he has a bag full of toiletries and clothes, there’s still a couple hours to kill, so he sets out for the kitchen. Thankfully, it’s a little later than he’s usually up, and everyone seems to have been through for breakfast already. The coffee pot is even empty. He takes a breath so deep it reaches the bottom of his lungs for once and goes about making his own.

“There you are,” someone says behind him. Tony doesn’t jump, but he does turn his head sharply, just enough to see Steve with his shoulder against the doorframe, casual as he pleases.

“Here I am,” Tony agrees. Steve’s already in casual clothes, out of the sweats he wears for his morning workouts. He’s smiling too, so Tony smiles back in the hazy, honest way he can before he’s caffeinated. These are the easiest times between them since Steve’s come back, Tony’s found, when it’s too late or too early, and reality’s warped.

“Did you just wake up?”

“More or less,” Tony says, shrugs, keeps his back to the coffee machine so he doesn’t stare at it.

“Do you want some breakfast? I was just about to make a snack for myself.” Steve pushes himself upright and walks into the room, toward the fridge. Tony leans back against the counter, one elbow on either side of the coffee machine.

“I’m good. I’ve got a couple things downstairs I wanna get to today. Really shouldn’t have slept so long.”

Steve’s torso-deep in the fridge, probably looking for something specific that’s already been eaten, when he speaks again.

“You stretch yourself too thin,” Steve tells him. Tony’s almost amused by the sentiment, even though he knows he should be annoyed with Steve for thinking he knows anything about Tony’s life. Actually, he is sort of annoyed. The smell of the coffee is starting to reach his brain.

If anyone’s stretching me too thin, it’s you, Tony doesn’t say.

“Cap, I’m fine.” He makes sure it’s a drawl and not a snap, and Steve emerges from the fridge frowning, carrying half an onion, a carton of eggs, and a mango. Tony almost wants to ask what the hell he’s planning on making with that.

“Are you though?” And Steve even pauses in getting out a cutting board to look at Tony with his super blue eyes.

Tony has the sudden urge to overturn the carton of eggs onto Steve’s head. Instead, he snorts, and Steve’s frown twists, the side of his mouth turns sour.

“I’ve been sitting in my office for days,” Tony says, “and even then, Wilson’s the only one who comes to see me.”

Steve’s mouth flattens out again as he purses his lips.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been by, but—”

“Oh no, no, no,” Tony cuts in. Steve tries to talk again and Tony raises his voice just enough to talk over him. “You don’t need to apologize for not coming to see me. You just, you realize I’m there for a reason, right? That shit’s like a different language and I’ve gone over every point at least a dozen times with an entire team of lawyers. Legalese doesn’t always mean what the individual words translate to, and some of that developed when you were taking your ice nap.”

Steve’s gotten out a knife and a bowl to go with the cutting board, but he’s just staring at them on the counter now. Tony turns his back to get a mug and the sugar down from the cabinet.

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve says quietly. Tony wants to take his name from Steve, wants to tell Steve that he doesn’t get to have it like that anymore, soft and insecure, like a friend.

“Of course, you can have the team of lawyers if you’d prefer,” Tony says.

“I don’t think you want me in a room filled with lawyers for anyone’s sake,” Steve admits, no longer quiet. Tony’s mixing in his sugar but lets out a laugh, too loud to be only polite.

“Okay, point,” he concedes. When he turns around, Steve’s still facing him, his back to his gathered ingredients. “And if you’re afraid we’ll fight, you can always email me your questions.”

Steve rolls his eyes at that, as if the idea of them fighting is outlandish.

“You know,” Steve says, “I don’t actually mind the fighting if at the end we’ve cleared things up or reached a compromise or, I don’t know, something.”

“Yeah, well.” Tony holds his mug close to his chest. It’s too hot to drink, but he breathes in deep to ground himself in the familiar smell. “I do. I mind it.” Tony thinks he should sound more bitter, but he doesn’t have the energy for it yet today. “Here’s the compromise: no more broken bones and let’s keep it off national news.”

The look on Steve’s face is horrible. It’s like Tony’s kicked Barnes in the face (again) but also like Steve’s trying to make light of it or something, like the smile people always get right before they burst into tears. Tony takes a long sip from his coffee, temperature be damned. He burns his entire tongue, but obviously is in need of the caffeine.

“I would never,” Steve says. “Tony, you know—you have to know that wasn’t intentional. I would never hurt you.”

“No,” Tony says quickly, before Steve can start another half sentence or dig them any deeper into this conversation Tony doesn’t even want to be having. “All I know is what you did.”

There’s a pause in the conversation then. Tony takes the opportunity to drain his coffee cup and refill it. Fuck it, he won’t be able to taste anything for a week anyway. Steve doesn’t answer until Tony’s facing him again.

“I wasn’t the only one, you know. It takes two to fight,” he says quietly. The words are bullshit. Tony’s pretty sure even Steve knows how irrelevant a thing it is to point out at this stage in the game based on his voice; he sounds absolutely dejected, like he’s resigned himself to another screaming match or even another physical fight. Tony looks him square in the eyes when he answers.

“Keep up. That’s why it’s a compromise.”

He sees his opening to leave and takes it, striding toward the elevator only to be stopped by Steve’s hand on his shoulder. Or, Steve’s hand in front of his shoulder. Tony more runs into the flat of Steve’s palm than he’s actually grabbed by the man. It knocks the breath out of him ever-so-slightly, but it gets his attention.

Steve squints at him, looking a little constipated. Tony takes the opportunity to look for “the green in the blue” of Steve’s eyes and comes away with nothing. Lighting must not be right.

“Are you okay?” Steve asks. Tony snorts and Steve says, “I’m serious.” His fingers aren’t holding Tony in place; Steve’s palm is still open, lingering lightly against Tony’s shoulder and it makes Tony focus in because Steve means that. There’s a crease between Steve’s eyebrows but not in same way as when he’s angry or disappointed. It’s frustration, Tony thinks, and something else.

“I know things got bad there with the Accords,” Steve continues, “and they’re still bad because of it, but I didn’t design any of it. Christ, I’m so sorry I hurt you. I’m sorry I made you think I would ever do it on purpose.”

Tony doesn’t realize his cup’s tilting until he starts pouring coffee on the ground and it splashes onto his own socks and Steve’s pants. They both jump, and then stare at the ground even after Tony’s stopped spilling.

“I’m gonna go downstairs now,” Tony says. Steve blinks at him and Tony turns to look at Steve’s hand where it’s somehow still touching him, though it’s slid down to rest against Tony’s bicep.

“Right.” Steve steps back and pulls his hand away finally. He looks back down at the half mug of coffee on the ground and gestures to it. “I’ll just…”

It’s probably rude to let Steve clean up his mess, but Tony doesn’t protest, just turns and walks away, his face burning from some kind of emotion he certainly doesn’t want to be feeling.

***

Tony’s wheels up by three.

Chapter Text

Tony happens to glance at the clock right around the time when Steve would normally pop his head into the office, already looking like a kicked puppy, to let Tony know there’s food and that he’s welcome to eat with the rest of the team, really, they want him there.

There’s something approaching guilt that pulls in the pit of his stomach. A twinge that reignites the spark of ever-present anger, refreshingly aimed at Steve more than himself.

Why now? Why should Steve start pretending to care now after Tony’s worked up the courage to leave?

The twinge turns into a growl and Tony realizes that he’s hungry . It’s just enough of a shock to make the spark of anger flicker—right into a blaze. Like one of Pavlov’s fucking dogs, he’s hungry and a little anxious. Like clockwork. He raises an eyebrow down at his stomach.

“Really?” he asks it. “This is how we’re going to deal with this?”

“FRIDAY?” Tony whistles like he’s calling a dog. (The image is stuck with him now.) “Girlie, no sleepin’ on the job.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” comes the wry response.

“Let’s have a Hawaiian pizza waiting at the house when I get there.” He picks up a tablet and starts looking around at the in-progress projects and which ones he can work on in the Malibu workshop. “And some soda.”

“Done.”

“Thanks, darling,” Tony says, already distracted. His to-do list is massive. Is this because he spent a couple days in the office or is it always like this? Rhodey’s physical therapist uploads notes after each session and shares them with Tony so he can improve the braces. He’ll have to work on components or materials out here and modify the braces themselves when he gets back to the east coast, but that’s not too much of a hardship.

He goes through the files, adding his own notes here and there, and resolutely pretends that going back to the West Coast feels like going home.

***

Tony doesn’t want to fight. Nobody alive would take him seriously if he said so, but this is the thing:

Tony never wanted to fight.

He spent a good twenty-odd years actively, forcibly at play to escape the reality of fighting all around him. He narrowed his field of vision down to the circuits in front of his face and distracted himself with beautiful people and beautiful things and beautiful code and substances that make all of those beautiful things downright heavenly. He did this for years, and only allowed Pepper and Obie to pull his attention away for as long as it took to find the answer to the problem he was given, and not a second more.

This went on until he found himself in a cave in Afghanistan and sort of had to confront some of the truths of his life.

What the Ten Rings taught him was the lie of neutrality. If you aim for Switzerland, the closest you’ll land is gleefully ignorant, maybe powerfully, destructively arrogant. He found himself suddenly living the all-too-real consequences of his own non-action, the difference being that he deserved those consequences and none of the other recipients had. This has been his philosophy since, evolving at times (from the realization of the lie of neutrality in Afghanistan to the lie of apoliticism when the government tried to step in that first time) but always clinging to that first thread, the visceral disgust at zero-accountability systems.

So he knows he can’t fuck off to Malibu forever like he wants, can’t just disappear from the world stage no matter how tired he is. At this point, the Avengers are his consequence. A dozen books, countless podcasts, and half the population of the US have uttered the words “since Tony Stark put on that metal suit…” Like it or not, he was a major catalyst for the entire shitstorm of the Avengers Initiative. Not to mention, he funded the Avengers fully after the fall of SHIELD. He held charity fundraisers and employed an entire team of PR gods to ensure people kept their faith in world’s mightiest heroes.

The new Malibu house seems dead, like a thing he built and left, unused, mostly a backup plan. It’s all newly designed, so memories of Pepper’s smile don’t linger around the corners and Obie’s ghost doesn’t haunt him, but it’s a double-edged sword because there aren’t any of his bots here and he didn’t fish anything out of the Pacific he couldn’t salvage but, God, sometimes he misses his mom’s piano.

Tony’s never actually been here before, in person. His first impression is that it’s spacious and echoey and it feels fitting if not necessarily right. FRIDAY’s not installed here yet, so Tony’s as alone as he’s been in months, maybe years. It’s a massive relief to be able to take a full breath.

About halfway through his first pizza, his phone chimes. He’s sprawled across a stylish but still somehow comfortable couch in a classic draw-me-like-one-of-your-French-girls pose, and his shoes have been thrown to the other side of the room. In short, he is living and doesn’t want to look at the message, but he stuffs the last half of his current slice into his mouth and goes to dig his phone out of his pocket because he’s not actually the piece of shit people think he is.

It’s Sam, and the knot in Tony’s gut that’s always expecting a fight loosens.

tf is this §9c crap and why do these jokers hate the english language?

Tony laughs. He knows what Sam’s talking about, too, because section 9-C is a doozy, an absolute mess of legal language, but also an important one. He types out a quick reply:

where’d you get that symbol? is that an emoji?

It only takes a couple seconds for the reply to come.

stark, pls. i just want to know what i’m reading. this is so frustrating i might cry

He grins to himself and reaches for the bottle of Dr. Pepper by the leg of the coffee table. It only takes a couple of minutes for Sam to text him again.

no it’s not an emoji, i had to google it

sam wilson, going the extra mile since 1978

He keeps typing right after sending the first message.

9c is good, it basically translates to ‘the un can authorize missions but it can’t order us around.’ we can still say no

Sam sends a thumbs-up emoji and that’s the end of that.

***

Steve calls the next day. Tony’s not really sure how he feels about it. He kind of expected Steve to call him five minutes after his plane took off or not at all. The show of common sense throws Tony for a loop.

He accepts the call. The last thing he needs is a rescue party showing up on his front lawn.

“Howdy,” he says.

“Tony?” Steve sounds a little breathless. There are few things outside of an Avengers situation that would make Captain America winded; none of them are things Tony particularly thinks Steve should be doing while making calls.

“Everything okay over there?”

“Huh?” Steve says, his voice suddenly sounding much steadier. “Yeah, of course. Why?”

“You just sounded kind of ou—you know what? Never mind. No reason. What can I do ya for, my man?”

There’s a pause on the other side of the line that definitely does not bode well for Tony. Even straining, he can’t hear Steve breathing or anything. He’s just about to pull the phone away from his face to see if Steve had actually just hung up on him when Steve responds, hesitantly.

“Are you okay?”

“Always,” he says easily, knowing it’s a bit of a dick move. Thankfully, Steve barrels on like he hasn’t heard Tony at all.

“FRIDAY said you were gone but she didn’t say you weren’t coming back—”

“Of course I’m coming back, I already—”

“—but I swear to God, Tony—”

“—told you—”

“—never meant to drive you away like—”

“—heh, a little late for—”

“—and I spoke with Vision,” Steve cuts in, louder and with intent. Tony’s mouth snaps shut because he remembers a nightmare, he remembers ending up crouched on the ground with Vision’s arms around him, clinging, and he remembers not being able to remember if it was real. Now, hearing Steve’s voice, he thinks it must’ve happened.

“So?” Tony says. “Kids say the darnedest things, Cap. Plus, he’s not actually technically my kid so you can’t come crying to me every time he says something worrying.”

“I sat down with Wanda, too. We had a nice, long talk.”

“I’m not quite sure I want to know how it went,” Tony says faintly. He can hear it this time, how Steve takes a deep breath before speaking.

“Can we please have a conversation about this?”

“Will you listen to me?” Tony snaps back.

“Yes,” Steve says immediately. It resounds through the phone and Tony swears under his breath, says a couple of unsavory (unfair) things.

“What was that?” Steve says, sounding pissed. Part of Tony rejoices at breaking through some of Steve’s shell of control; the rest of him rails against it and reminds Tony that Steve has to be careful for a reason. Where Tony’s frustration might one day break someone’s nose, Steve’s might punch a hole in someone’s skull (or chest).

Thoughts conflicting, when Tony opens his mouth, what comes out is, “Why now?”

“What?” Steve’s probably blinking on the other end of the connection. Tony can almost hear him straightening up over a little jolt of genuine surprise.

“Why now?” Tony throws one hand in the air for emphasis Steve can’t see anyway. (It still makes Tony feel better though.) “Why couldn’t we ‘have a conversation’ when there was still something left for us to salvage! What makes you care now!”

“I—That’s not true,” Steve tells him firmly.

“It is.”

“No it’s not!”

“Christ, what are we? Five years old?”

“No!” Steve roars down the phone. Tony squeezes his eyes shut for an instant and Steve takes it as permission to go on. “I’m trying here. You could at least let me try.”

“I am,” Tony whispers. Then, louder, angrier, “I’m trying. You know I’m not just being difficult for the sake of it, right? I was there and I was trying. Hell, I still am, Rogers, I just needed to breathe.”

“Okay,” Steve says on a rough exhale. “Right.”

“Right,” Tony says.

“Wanda was—”

“Rogers, Cap, Mon Capitan,” Tony says, throwing a nickname in there because what he really means is Steve, please, please stop. “Later, okay? When I’ve had my fill of breathing.”

“Stark,” Steve says, the warning barely covering his panic. Tony backtracks in his head and—oh.

“Not,” Tony says. “When I get back to New York. You know what I mean.”

There’s a pause on Steve’s end. Too long, Tony thinks.

“Well, if you’re sure.” To Tony’s relief, Steve sounds lighter, amused. Maybe it’s a little forced, but Tony doesn’t even give a shit. Forced ease is better than panic as far as he’s concerned.

Tony breathes, thinks, interesting. He does it again and can hear Steve’s breaths puffing against the receiver on the other end. Steve knows how the phones work, but sometimes he gets distracted and holds it a little too close to his mouth, like a radio. Tony really wishes he didn’t know such random shit about Steve.

“Was that all you wanted to talk about?” Tony asks eventually.

“Yeah.”

“Well, okay the—”

“No!” Steve says.

“No?”

“Technically, yes, that’s all I called for,” Steve says in a rush. “But now I’m trying to say something else so please don’t hang up.”

Tony raises his eyebrow at nobody, but he thinks Steve can maybe hear it through the phone.

“Okay,” he says slowly.

“What do you need?” Steve asks, and now he’s talking slowly too, hesitantly, like he’s wading into water he knows is piranha infested.

“What do I need?” Tony asks, and he picks up the pace to a normal cadence. Surefire, quippy. “I’m not sure who you think I am, Captain, but I’ve already got more than enough—”

“I don’t mean money or things,” Steve says, and he hasn’t let it drop, but at least he’s let go of that tone. “What can I do to help you?”

“To help me?” Tony says. He has no idea what his voice is doing right now—if it’s incredulous, angry, quiet, amused. No idea. Any or all or none. He feels all of those things, he feels how can you want to help me now, where were you when I needed you, why is my entire life this one big, cosmic joke, is this how you plan on fixing—

“I need you to listen to me,” Tony says.

“Of course,” Steve says. “Anything.”

Jesus Christ on the cross, this is maybe the most circular conversation he’s ever had, and that is impressive in its own right. What he wouldn’t give to get his point across right now. He thinks some scotch would help, maybe loosen his tongue, but he also knows that he and Steve only ever end up in screaming matches when he drinks.

“No,” Tony says, “I need you to listen to what I say and then to think about it, and not just react right away.”

“Okay,” Steve says, firm, like a vow. Tony pinches the bridge of his nose.

“Steve,” Tony says, and Steve is so, so quiet on the other end, “what I need from you right now is for you to leave me alone. Unless the world starts to end again. Capiche?”

It’s quiet for so long that Tony actually does pull the phone away from his ear to make sure he hasn’t been hung up on. When he sees the call is still connected he decides to wait Steve out. It’s another thirty seconds before he gets anything.

“Alright,” Steve says, softly but with conviction. “Okay, Tony. I can do that.”

“Other than that, all I need from you is what I needed from the beginning. Read the Accords. Keep us together, like you said.”

“Tony,” Steve says again, his voice thick, “I’m so—”

“Nope,” Tony says. “I’ll talk to ya later, Cap.”

Tony hangs up, and he breathes.

Chapter Text

He ends up with a routine pretty quickly. That first week is spent emailing Scott, texting Sam, and starting to get FRIDAY set up. It’s not hard but it is time consuming since none of the hardware is installed yet. He’s doing it right this time around too, which means prepping all the rooms and setting up the servers before switching her on. Normally, the first thing he does in a new space is make some room for his AI. This time around, he—well, technically, he’s doing the same thing he always has, just slower. He’s tired of talking, of finding new ways to say what he means, and he knows that has nothing to do with FRIDAY, knows she understands him better than most, so he is working on getting her space in the new Malibu house, but just. Slowly.

She can still call him on his cellphone at any time, of course, but she must sense his desire for privacy, or have her hands full running the compound, because she doesn’t.

So, Tony starts out in one corner of the house, in a smallish living room—he doesn’t know what to call it, a sun room maybe?—and knocks out parts of the wall to install receivers and sensor panels. Most of the cameras are already in place; he thinks he’ll just have to add more in the larger rooms.

There’s no need to hurry. He’s not on the clock with this project, it’s not designed to keep him or anyone else alive. It’s extraneous but the kind of task Howard would’ve called “good, honest work.” Tony really must be getting old because he enjoys the pace, finds it comforting.

He wakes up every morning (in the actual, AM morning), goes through The Routine, drinks at least two cups of coffee leisurely before even touching a tool, goes to work for a few hours on FRIDAY’s hardware, and then alternates between working on Rhodey’s legs and projects for SI while he orders food. He listens to his usual music while he works, and the rest of the time he either has the TV on or the sliding glass doors open to let in the sound and smell of the sea. It’s sappy and a little romantic, but Malibu has always been Tony’s place. Even if it feels incongruous right now, it’s still his coast the same way it was when he was twenty-one and unable to feel like his own person in New York, standing in front of Howard’s old desk in Howard’s old office. Malibu is his and sunny and glitz and glam and, more importantly, not Howard’s, not Fury’s, not Steve’s. This is his life, and nobody, not old ghosts or new monsters, is going to tell him how to live it right.

***

It takes Tony almost two weeks to realize he’s stopped speaking altogether.

He doesn’t panic when he realizes. It’s pretty anticlimactic, really. It’s day thirteen in the new Malibu house, and he’s about halfway through setting up FRIDAY’s stuff in the second bedroom, just putting his tools away for the day, when he stops to think about it.

Of course, he knows he hasn’t been talking much. It’s not something that’s exactly easy to miss from him, after all. He just hadn’t quite understood, before, that he’s stopped talking completely. And, okay, it’s not like there’s anyone around for him to talk to, but when has that ever stopped him before?

He thinks it might be worrying. On the other hand, most people would throw their hands up and proclaim it a miracle, wouldn’t they? Tony snorts to himself and thinks it’s a little eerie, how loud the sudden sound is.

Get a grip, Stark, he tells himself. Just because you’re only now catching on, doesn’t mean this hasn’t been going on for weeks now. Don’t make it weird.

So he snaps his fingers and makes a super swaggy exit from the bedroom to go find himself some dinner while pointedly not making it weird.

***

He was still talking to the appliances when he arrived in Malibu. It’s just kind of…tapered off. The next morning, he catches himself patting the top of the coffee machine, which isn’t exactly strange for him, but it’s usually accompanied by words—sleepy grumbles or explanations or complaints. At some point, though, part of that communication just dried up and left the physical.

And it’s obviously not that he can’t talk, because of course he can. And he can still communicate with language. He hums to himself while he works and he both receives and sends emails and texts. He simply doesn’t feel the overwhelming need to talk, to fill the silence, so he doesn’t.

It’s fine. It’s probably even good.

***

Tony gets an email from Scott five days into the whole knowing-he’s-stopped-talking thing. It’s not unusual, because they’re exchanging emails every other day by this point at a nice, unhurried pace that’s refreshingly underwhelming.

The message itself isn’t even strange, but he’s been sitting here in his living room in the chair that’s bordering on overstuffed but still looks sleek and fashionable, and he’s been staring at his phone for five minutes.

Wondering if i could stop by finally - Cassie’s going to see her grandparents next week so I've got some time to spare.

And this isn’t out of left field or uncalled for. Tony asked about three weeks ago, while he was still in New York, if Scott wanted to see the workshop. Because, here’s the thing, Scott Lang is incredibly smart. And not only that, but he’s creative too. Kind of a dolt in social situations but, then again, some people would say the same about Tony, and they’ve exchanged enough emails by now for Tony to see what a good guy Lang is. The man’s in this for all the right reasons, and he wants to make his daughter proud of him, and each time Tony hears another story he gets that now-familiar flare of anger for Steve.

More than that, they’ve gotten into a contest of sorts. Pretty early on they started trading stories from “the good ol’ days,” meaning pre-prison for Scott and pre-Iron Man for Tony, and each man asserts that he got up to the craziest hijinks. They still haven’t resolved that particular issue, but Tony has decided that it would be a grand time to get Scott into a fully stocked workshop. If nothing else, they’d make some pretty fantastic explosions.

***

sorry, im swamped next week. maybe some other time?

***

It’s not that he can’t talk. He just doesn’t want to, doesn’t feel like he has to. There’s no one out here to hide from, not even JARVIS, not even Pepper or Obie. It’s been years since he’s even tried to take a vacation, and there was that period of his life where he treated everything like it was his, where he pretended everything was just how he liked it, that he was in control. He never was, though, not after Iron Man and certainly not before. He could play his part well, though, and put a haze over everything dig his heels in just enough to give him the illusion of choice, but he’s never had it, not really.

He knows he has responsibilities, but he finally feels like he can breathe. That’s what he told Steve he’s out here to do, and he meant it. Even if he’s still up-to-date and working on projects for everyone else, he’s not in a state of constant performance. This is the most freedom he’s ever had. He just doesn’t want it to end.

***

Captain Rogers’ requests are outlined below, reads the email Tony gets from his lawyers’ office. They’ve sent it as an anonymous entity. If Tony were feeling hopeful, he’d even venture to say they sent it at Steve’s request so that Steve wouldn’t have to break his vow-like agreement to giving Tony some space.

Skimming the rest of the letter, Tony clarifies and summarizes as he goes.

1. Steve’s fine with the idea of making Avengers complete a training regimen before being considered field ready, but he wants the Avengers to be in charge of both the training and the decision as to who’s fit for field work. (Tony thinks they can swing this if they can come up with a standardized rubric for the training and actually stick to it.)

2. He’s outlined what he thinks constitutes “unlawful detention” (aka the RAFT) and calls for protection of their Fourth Amendment under the US Constitution. The letter indicates that, yes, they understand that the Accords are international law and not subjected to the constitutionality of the United States, but they agree nonetheless that it’s a viable goal if only because of the fiasco of the RAFT and the sympathy of the general population. (Tony agrees, it’s best to strike while the iron’s hot for this one.)

3. Steve cites the World Security Council and thinks they should have one active duty team member on the UN committee that discusses and ultimately decides where the Avengers go and don’t go. (Tony nominates Natasha.)

4. The last thing he wants is an emergency clause to satisfy his sense of duty. If they see street-level crime or a situation where there’s no time to alert the committee and wait for a decision, they should be able to step in and do their jobs. (Tony doesn’t know how to make this one work, but he sends back something that sounds like a broadly worded self-defense statute—if they do X, Y and Z, they should be allowed to engage the threat mindfully, following protocol, and still let the UN or appropriate authorities know. Basically, Tony sends back his general agreement and crosses his fingers.)

All in all, it’s a sensible list. It was probably a good thing that Steve sat with the lawyers first, so that someone other than Tony could explain why they can’t do certain things and why certain restrictions have to be in place. They even seem to have made Steve understand the ‘sign now, amend later’ part of the process, which Tony should really give them all raises for. He tells himself that it’s good they’re on the same page now, at least, even as part of him sets up a pity-party in a not-so-far-off corner of his mind, asking why Steve couldn’t have just asked Tony about this from the start, why Steve always assumes that Tony’s just trying to piss him off.

This is good, a step in the right direction, and Tony wills himself to believe it. It’s ridiculous to feel like he’s unwanted because Steve didn’t email him personally. This is what Tony asked for, explicitly. The fact that Steve finally seems to be showing the barest hint of respect for Tony shouldn’t feel like this, but it’s only highlighting how much Steve would trust literally anyone over Tony—whether it be a team of lawyers, a stranger he met on a morning run (yes, he means Wilson; he’s a good man, but Tony can admit to still being hurt he didn’t even get a call during DC), the girl who willingly joined HYDRA and volunteered for experimentation on the off chance she’d get revenge on Tony.

***

The biggest kicker about the Malibu place is that there’s no alcohol laying around. To drink, he would have to go out and purposefully buy the booze with the intention to get drunk. And he doesn’t want to do that. Sure, he wants to get drunk. Hell, he even wants to be drunk. But what he doesn’t want is to have been drunk, or to have to have gotten drunk. He’s tired of the dependence, of the crutch that drinking is for him. He’s tired of people rolling their eyes at him when he’s trashed like it’s so typical of him.

***

At least he can eat now. That’s got to be worth something, he tells himself, even as he rejects Rhodey’s call. And maybe it’s worth something, but he still has to upgrade this whole thing from Not An Issue to Kind Of An Issue.

Tony breaks his newfound routine that night and finishes the lighter weight struts for Rhodey’s legs. He mails them out the next morning with an apology note. Rhodes is an aerospace engineer, he literally has the qualifications of a rocket scientist, and he can screw the new struts into place himself.

He breaks routine that day, too. Instead of working on FRIDAY’s hardware, he gets two separate designs done for SI and sends them off to Pepper’s PA, just for good measure. When Sam texts him, he’s been awake for over twenty-four hours for the first time in months.

idk if steve called u (i told him to) but he's officially ready to sign. nat says theres gonna b a public signing on the 25th

Tony’s throat itches like his gears aren’t meshing. There’s a hollow grinding somewhere deep inside, deeper than his weak heart and ruined ribs. Psychosomatic, he knows, so he keeps drinking coffee, cup after cup. It doesn’t stop the itch but it keeps his hands busy, keeps him from taking the Audi to the nearest liquor store, so he keeps drinking.

i’ll be there

The twenty-fifth isn’t for another two weeks. He’ll have this figured out by then.

***

Life goes on. Partly because that’s what life does, but mostly because he’s Tony Stark. No rest for the wicked and all that junk.

He’s got FRIDAY fully installed but not uploaded yet. All he has to do is flip a switch and she’ll be live, in his private space again. To keep him on an even keel, to hold him accountable. And Tony just…he’s not stupid and he knows it’s not a sustainable way to live, but he doesn’t really want to face anyone else yet. And he knows—he knows that if JARVIS were still around, he’d flip that switch, but it’s not JARVIS, it’s FRIDAY. Tony loves FRIDAY because she’s his kid too, but it’s not the same, it can’t be the same. It’s petty and unreasonable, but he’s just not close enough with FRIDAY for her to understand what’s going on with him right now, and he doesn’t have the words to explain it.

Rhodey seems to have caught on that Tony’s not answering the phone, but that texts are fine. That’s a godsend because Rhodey doesn’t even require word-based texts. So Rhodey sends out a text every once in a while (every couple of days?) and all Tony has to do is send an emoji or two his way and they’re good. The purpose of Rhodey’s texts aren’t for information. If they spoke at all it would be comforting-if-ultimately-meaningless banter. It’s all just leftover guilt from the palladium thing and the Mandarin thing, so Rhodey has a habit of making sure Tony’s still alive, especially if Tony’s not around anyone else. Now that he’s given himself away by sending parts of the braces up to NYC instead of just dropping by himself, Rhodey’s either figured out that Tony’s gone AWOL or he’s spoken to someone up at the compound. If Tony had to guess, he’d say that either Sam or Vision tattled on him. But that’s fine, because this is Rhodey, and if Rhodey tore the earth apart and lost his mind every time Tony was acting strangely, the man wouldn’t have made it out of MIT in one piece. They have an understanding. So Rhodey gets to know that Tony’s alive and kickin’ and Tony gets to be reminded that someone out there cares enough to check in on him without demanding anything at the same time.

***

There’s this project Tony’s been thinking about for months now. Years, even, but only seriously for a few months, since he and Pepper broke it off for good. It’s called the AVALON Protocol, and it’s a little morbid, even for his tastes. Necessary, but morbid.

It’s not specifically that Pepper leaving made him that much more willing to take risks with his life, but he just doesn’t think he could’ve enacted such a protocol with how much he knew the waiting stressed Pepper out. It would’ve (metaphorically) killed him to know he’d given her false hope like that just to finish out a battle. Logically, he knows that saving the world, finishing the fight, is more important than even Pepper’s feelings, but he was selfish. He’d taken on an obligation to put Pepper’s feelings first when they started dating, and that was always fundamentally flawed from the get-go, because he knew his life belonged to Iron Man and would be spent making up for his sins.

So, Tony knows what he needs to do and he knows why he has to do it. He figures that now is as good a time as any to do it, while he has this strange privacy. Because he may not be a stranger to his own mortality, but it has a tendency to weird other people out when he confronts it like this. Acknowledging the fact that you’ll die one day is fine if you do it quietly in the back of your mind and if you don’t bring it to anyone else’s attention. Planning for it is another matter entirely. Pepper cried when she figured out how often he updates his will.

This is better.

The starting code is sleek, efficient. It almost looks callous, even to Tony. JARVIS would’ve understood what Tony’s doing. He thinks even Vision would get it, at a fundamental level, but Vision doesn’t always get why some things should be kept a secret. The man-kid-android is bluntly honest, which Tony both appreciates and has to be aware of.

FRIDAY would be okay with this too, Tony’s sure. She’ll have to know—there are things here that she’s going to have to help him with. They might even need to design a smarter armor if they want to pull this off, one that can not only analyze his fighting style but emulate it against hostiles. That’s the second step after he figures out the code and sets the parameters.

The third step is praying he never has to use it but knowing he will.

***

This feels like what he’s been missing, like the reason he came to Malibu in the first place and it just took him a while to figure it out. This is what he needs in place in the field if the world’s going to try and end again. The haunting images of his teammates linger, the sense-memory of cradling War Machine against the Iron Man armor takes over sometimes still, and the phantom-Steve remains after all this time, that man who used his last breath to tell Tony he could’ve done better, could’ve saved them all.

Sometimes Tony gets caught in these thought loops still. Other times, he does everything right, even that breathing exercise Bruce taught him back in the day, and the memories come at him in his nightmares, vivid and terrible.

These days, though, Tony almost laughs, and he thinks, a little maniacally: over my dead body.

***

The phone rings and it isn’t Rhodey. His phone says it’s FRIDAY of all people. She can hijack his cell’s speakers, Tony knows, but she’s calling him anyway.

He wonders what his girl knows (or thinks she knows) about his self-imposed solitude.

“He—” Tony says into the receiver.

“Boss?” FRIDAY asks, sounding startled.

But Tony’s already doubled over, vomiting onto the ground between his sneakers. He has enough sense to hold the phone away from his face while he pukes, down by his hip. He spits when he’s done (whatever, he’s going to have to clean the floor anyway), moves the phone back to his ear, and stumbles a couple steps back from the mess.

“Hi,” he says, and he sounds breathless and a little gruff, but not like he hasn’t spoken in however long it’s been now.

“Mr. Stark?” she asks, oddly hesitant. Tony can’t remember her sounding hesitant before, not even in the thick of the Ultron debacle. He clears his throat and winces.

“Yep.”

“Do you require medical assistance?”

“Nope.”

“A ringing endorsement,” FRIDAY says, voice closer to its usual dryness.

This, Tony realizes, is about the time to bullshit his way out of this conversation or, hell, even just figure out why his girl called in the first place. The silence goes on a beat too long before Tony finally opens his mouth.

“I’m gonna need you to give me a minute here, sweetpea.”

She replies, but Tony’s marching to the bathroom and not exactly listening as he carefully sinks to his knees and gags into the toilet, bringing up every chunk from his stomach that isn’t currently on the living room floor.

He fishes for his phone again when he thinks he’s done and finds it on the floor.

“How’s our little band of misfits doing?” he asks, going for chipper. Thankfully, FRIDAY’s never known him as anything other than a glorified hot mess, so she rolls with it.

“Apologies. Are you referring to the Avengers or the bots?”

“Oh, Fri,” Tony says easily enough, even if his voice sounds worse than before, “I know the bots have burned the ’shop down. No, there’s no use in covering for them, what kind of fool do you take me for?”

“The kind who thinks he’s pretty clever.”

Tony grins at that, but it makes a chunk of something slide around between his lip and gums, so he has to lean forward and spit into the toilet.

“So you just called to say hi, then?” Tony teases. He leans back and scoots around until his back is propped up by the bathtub and his legs are loosely criss-crossed in front of him. “Are those big, mean Avengers neglecting my poor baby?”

“If by ‘neglecting’ you mean letting me breathe, then yes.”

Tony huffs a laugh. Yeah, me too, he doesn’t say.

“So what can I do ya for, honey pie?”

“Tomorrow is the scheduled signing of the revised Accords,” FRIDAY says.

“The twenty-fifth,” Tony says. Yeah, duh. He remembers that. Who does FRIDAY think—wait. Talking. Talking’s a thing. It’s kind of his thing.

“Yeah, duh,” he says. “I remember that. Gimme the where and the when, I’ll bring the will and the way.”

“The signing will take place at the UN headquarters in New York City at 4 PM,” FRIDAY says.

“I can do that,” he tells her, himself, and the entire universe.

“There is a celebration afterwards.” At least FRIDAY has the good sense to sound sorry about it. “A gala to mark the symbolic return of the Avengers.”

“Why the hell not,” Tony says.

Chapter Text

Tony pukes (or dry heaves, really) three more times by the time Natasha gets there.

He’s still camped out on the bathroom floor. His phone is propped up on the lip of the tub, and he’s been talking to FRIDAY for almost four hours. Tony’s still nauseous despite having already emptied his stomach entirely, which is just ridiculous. This whole thing is a joke. He’s Tony Stark.

But whatever. When has his anxiety ever given a shit about who he is? It’s a little insulting, if you ask him.

And Natasha, because she’s still Natasha, doesn’t knock. Despite never having been here before and a complete lack of access to the blueprints, she just waltzes on into his house. He wants to blame FRIDAY, but seeing as he’s been dragging his feet in inviting his girl in, it’s pretty impossible for her to have unlocked the doors.

He hears Natasha before he sees her. She doesn’t bother being quiet, so he hears the front door open and shut. Part of his brain tries telling him that he should be worried about that, but then she calls out.

“Stark?”

He can even hear her footsteps echoing in the entryway. She sounds hesitant, but Tony knows she’s just trying not to spook him.

“Yodel-ay-he-hoo,” Tony calls back.

And then she’s there, somehow taking up all the space of the doorway with her small frame. She takes in the bathroom for a second, wrinkles her nose, and then straightens out her face into an almost neutral expression when she looks at him.

“Hey, Tony,” she says. Her eyes flicker to his phone briefly. “You okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” Tony says easily. “Sure.”

“FRIDAY?”

“Ms. Romanoff,” FRIDAY says.

“We’ll be there tomorrow. Let the team know?”

“Boss?” FRIDAY says. She’s got about as many trust issues as Tony himself, which is downright impressive, and he regrets it greatly. Where JARVIS was much more willing to listen to people Tony was close with—mostly Pepper and Rhodey, and even the other Avengers later on—he doesn’t know if FRIDAY will ever get to that point. Certainly not anytime soon.

“We’ll talk some more tomorrow,” he says, and the connection cuts out. His stomach twists and Natasha leaves without another word, just pivots on her foot and walks away, much more soundlessly than her arrival. He’s half willing to admit that she left-left, but she comes traipsing back in ten minutes later with a banana of all things. She marches right over to him where he’s slouched against the bathtub and sits on the lip so that her feet are by his thighs and his head is next to her hip. She drops the banana in his lap and dangles a bottle of water Tony hadn’t noticed before in front of his face.

“I’m pretty sure,” Tony says, ignoring the water bottle and dropping his head back to look up at her, “that I don’t have any bananas.”

She relents after a moment and puts the water bottle down by his hand, and he picks it up.

“Bananas are pretty easy coming back up, too,” she tells him. Tony snorts.

“I’d actually rather just not puke at all, but thanks.” When he tests the lid on the water bottle, it gives slight resistance. Sealed. He opens it fully and pours some into his mouth, swishing, and turning to spit into the tub behind him. Come to think of it, the banana’s “sealed” too. Not that he doesn’t think Natasha couldn’t tamper with a banana, but she could just as easily tamper with a sealed bottle of water. Either both are safe or he can’t trust either, and he’s thirsty, so that solves that hangup. He takes a sip and Natasha’s foot bumps into his leg.

“If that’s an option, then fine,” Natasha says. “If it’s a question of vomiting and dry heaving, you might be better off with something to give up. Just saying.”

Tony picks up the banana with the hand not holding the water bottle. It’s a promise to try. He’s not going to eat it at this moment. Water first, and then he’ll give the banana a go. It occurs to him that he should say that out loud, but Natasha hardly needs him to spell it out. The silence is fine for now. Tony’s so busy breathing through the nausea that he doesn’t notice if it’s awkward. Every few breaths, he takes a sip. The rhythm of the whole thing is soothing.

“Have you been drinking?”

Tony snorts, and it makes his stomach turn. He takes one, two more deep breaths into the silence.
“I wish,” he says.

“That’s fair,” Natasha says. He can’t tell if she believes him or not. Surely the world-renown super-spy should be able to tell when a billionaire’s drunk off his rocker. Then again, he’s always been a showman and an exceptional liar. And this? This is his trademark lie, the one where he’s three sheets to the wind and giving keynote speeches.

Tony thinks it’s no wonder the two of them never managed the easy openness she had with the others. Between his trust issues and acting abilities and her untrustworthiness and constant vigilance, it’s a miracle they’ve managed “grudgingly respectful teammates” for so long.

***

“It’s only the twenty-fourth,” Tony tells her with a straight face just to prove that, yes, he’s aware of the date (even if that’s only because FRIDAY told him—it counts).

“Yep,” Natasha says. “We’ve got an entire day.”

He looks at her, wants to believe she’s here as a friend, another olive branch, and not as the glorified babysitter who drew the short straw. Finally, he nods, accepting it at face value. Either way, it would be good to acclimatize himself to people again probably. Like when you win a goldfish at the carnival and have to put it in a fishbowl gradually unless you want it to go into shock and die. Tony’s not exactly sure when he became the goldfish in his own simile, but he’s not a huge fan of it.

“You’re not dying again, are you?” Natasha asks.

“Nah,” Tony says. I’m pretty sure it’s just a mental break this time, he doesn’t say.

Natasha nods slowly. Tony can only see it out of the corner of his eye; they’re both still sitting against the side of the tub, facing the door.

***

He eats the entire banana. Pukes it up, too, but his stomach does seem to calm down after that. In the following hours, he eats four pieces of dry toast and watches seven hours of some new fashion competition show Natasha’s into.

***

Steve’s face is red and not because of Tony for once.

They're at the press meeting some idiot thought to jam between the signing and the gala. A reporter’s asking Captain America if he doesn’t think he’s a sellout for signing (not in so many words, but that’s the gist of it).

“—for the security of America if the leader of our greatest protection is going to be so fickle with that power?”

“Fickle?” Steve asks, and his feet spreading into a wider stance behind the podium, and Tony’s bracing himself for whatever’s coming. The podium is wide with three microphones. Steve’s stood at the center with Tony at his right and Natasha on his left, the rest of the team (sans T’Challa, the self-proclaimed protector but not official Avenger, who signed his dotted line and promptly split) standing behind them in what’s supposed to be a supportive cluster. It’s gone well up to now with general unity and geniality all around. Tony delivered a rather cordial introduction to the returned Avengers and declared how happy he is to have them back, Natasha cracked a couple of charming jokes and is providing points of clarification for any blank spaces Steve leaves, and Steve himself has outlined a very sterile account of the signing and hints to the amendments in the works.

And then the questions had started, and isn’t that where it always goes to shit?

“I’m sorry that’s what you think,” Steve says, head held much higher than the insult calls for. “I assure you it’s not the reality. The Avengers are fully committed to our continued mission, and we’ve only learned from the past few months.”

“Speaking, then, for the world rather than the States, you caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in public and private property damage in Leipzig and Bucharest just to aide and abet an international criminal. Right after, it should be noted, you refused to sign the Accords the first time. Sure, we’re all glad you’re back to singing around the campfire, but if this is what has to happen for your quote-unquote team to work together? I think we can find someone else to fight for us. Someone who’ll, y’know, fight for us.”

And—right there. Steve’s gearing up for his Bucky-was-innocent speech. Tony catches Natasha’s eye and she glances quickly to his mic and back. He’s talking before he’s even registered leaning forward.

“Well I would hate to get into an argument over semantics,” Tony says, smiling with his mouth and crinkling the corners of his eyes, “especially in this room. But I think I’m gonna have to call you out on this one, Tom—”

“—Tim—”

“—Terry, Torrence, Tiger, whatever. I think the word you’re looking for is, dunno—hey, Cap?” He angles his head so he can look up at Steve, and Steve’s looking back already, half-smiling a genuine-looking half-smile.

“Yeah, Tony?”

“What’s that thing you do when handed a thousand-page legal document three days before the incredibly public and binding signing called?”

“I think that’s called reacting,” Steve says, definitely smiling now. Tony snaps and points at him, and then swings so he’s pointing at Tim-the-reporter.

“Right, that. Reacting!” He puts both of his hands back down on the podium but keeps smirking at the sea of media reps. “What happened was a mess of reactionary thinking and, as it turns out, we’d all react differently to something like that. What matters is that, when we have more than three days and access to people who’ve gone to eight-plus years of school just to understand things like the Accords, we come back together.”

There’s a murmur in the crowd, and another reporter asks how the Avengers are to be trusted with snap decisions if they take months to agree on anything. Thankfully, though, Natasha steps in to answer.

Tony swallows three times in quick succession to keep the bile down, and Steve smiles at him in open gratitude. Tony smiles back in what he hopes translates to solidarity-slash-amusement.

***

Tony’s got sparkling, nonalcoholic something in a champagne flute, and it doesn’t even feel like a sacrifice. Sure, he wants to drink, but he wants to drink in a dark hole far away from this well-lit hell.

They’ve all paired off, more or less. Steve’s with Wanda, chatting with whoever comes up to them and glowering at anyone who makes a less-than-kind remark; Natasha’s with Scott, and the both of them seem to be mingling fluidly through the crowd, and Tony assumes Natasha’s steering the conversation and letting Scott charm the masses; Clint, strangely enough, is in the corner with Vision, and the both of them seem to be outside the circle of the party, watching and occasionally talking to each other; and Tony’s floating through the room, being passed around and, somehow, Sam’s managed to keep up with him. He’s a calming presence in the familiar dance of schmoozing and laughing. Not only does Sam keep up, but he inserts himself into conversations in ways that sound natural, and not totally like he’s on Tony-babysitting duty.

“How much did you have to pay ‘em to sign, eh, Stark?” a man will say. Tony thinks they might’ve done business together at some point.

“Hey, man,” Sam will say, “how much you pay to get in here tonight, huh?”

“I guarantee he paid more,” Tony will say.

“You paid the others to sign?” Sam will ask in mock offense. “I see how it is.”

“You’re just a cheap date, Wilson,” Tony will say, and the nameless man will have either left or gotten brushed to the back of everyone’s minds.

“Long time, no see,” a reporter will say. “How much longer you think you’ll keep the superhero thing going? What’s next?”

“A nap?” Sam will say.

“A vacation, ideally,” Tony will say, and they laugh it off.

And then there’s this woman. Tony doesn’t notice her until she’s practically under his nose. She’s fairly short, and wearing an expensive dress designed for someone of average height. He takes a step back but doesn’t offer his hand.

“Evening, little lady,” he says. “Tony Stark.”

“Rachel Lee,” she says.

“Sam Wilson,” Sam says. “A pleasure.”

“Oh, the pleasure’s all mine,” Rachel Lee assures him. Her eyes are piercing, first on Tony, then on Sam, and back again. “And how are you boys tonight?”

“Wonderful,” Sam says.

“Elated,” Tony says. She doesn’t even pretend to look at Sam this time. There’s a pressure building around Tony’s head like a vice. He swallows. The girl’s eyes squint she’s beaming so hard.

“I don’t believe you,” she says. She’s downright gleeful. Tony blinks.

“Well…” Sam says, looks at Tony, and the both of them back away.

They continue as they have been, but the chain reaction seems to have started. Tony’s fingertips tingle, and he smiles at a man in a three-piece. His jaw clenches, unclenches, clenches, and he loses his half-empty glass on a passing tray. He can’t get enough air, but Sam says something in a tone that suggests a joke, so he laughs because he knows, Tony knows it’s not real—he can breathe, even if he feels like he can’t. It’s just too bad that knowing the difference doesn’t actually help in any practical way.

Sam gets stolen away by some leggy brunette named Cameron, and Tony shoos them off with words like scamp and vamoose. And then they’re gone and Tony scans the room for a way out because he may be a fool but he knows his hard limits when he hits them. He catches Clint’s eye by mistake, because of course Clint gets to see this. And see he does, in the sharp way he does in the field, sharply and thoroughly. Tony holds his gaze for all of four seconds and shakes his head twice slowly, leave it alone, then turns the complete opposite direction and walks the perimeter of the room a couple dozen yards until he finds an exit.

The door leads to a balcony, which happens to be the only place the door could’ve lead that has nowhere for Tony to vomit peacefully. He clutches at the railing and leans over as far as he can to get to the fresh air, desperately hoping he doesn’t puke. Been there, done that, about twenty years ago and all he remembers from that night is that sometimes there are people underneath the balcony when you throw stuff overboard.

Fuck, Tony thinks. He’s been here for not quite an entire hour, and knows at least another hour’s expected of him. It’s not a hard thing; he can do this in his sleep, with his hands tied behind his back, blind drunk—and, hey, maybe that’s the problem here. He takes a deep breath in and tells himself to hold it until he comes to his senses.

“Not thinkin’ of jumping, are ya?”

Tony breathes out in a rush. Clint’s followed him after all. He didn’t hear the door open, but that’s Clint’s voice, a good couple paces behind him, but he doesn’t turn around.

“Not ’til you said something,” Tony says, “but now that you mention it…”

“Oh,” Clint says easily, “well now you’re fucked. Can’t do it now or I’ll get blamed.”

There’s a joke about Titanic in there, something about how Tony refuses to be the Kate Winslet in this scenario, or, hell, even something about how that would just be a bonus for Clint if he really were to jump, but none of the words are coming out, and the silence has gone on for too long and now he’s not even sure if he—

“Stark?” Clint’s saying, taking a distinctive step forward. Tony swallows, swallows, swallows, and turns around so he’s gripping the rail behind him. He meets Clint’s eyes and just lets him see because where the fuck is he going to go? Tony’s more or less trapped, and thank the gods Clint’s in the mood to use that near-superhuman eyesight of his tonight, he’s so glad he doesn’t have to scrape for the words. Clint looks at him, and Tony knows Clint knows. He breathes, swallows again.

“Yeah, okay,” Clint says. He runs a hand down his face. “Do you want me to go get someone?”

Tony thinks of Natasha showing up and pulling bananas out of thin air, of her believing or disbelieving him at his word. He could use that, some of her crisis management, he thinks, and then he remembers the ridiculous, “Of course—anything,” over the phone, like a promise because he just doesn’t know when to stop, and Tony’s mouth is open before he even completely decides, but when he speaks, it’s to say Steve’s name.

He misses Clint’s reaction if there is one, and then he’s alone on the balcony again. Tony lowers himself a bit by the arms, and then drops onto his butt on the ground. It’s nice out, the evening’s cooling off into nighttime, but the air’s still tacky the way it always is when NYC isn’t frozen. The air passes in and out of his lungs smoothly, and he’s fine, he really is. He also knows that he won’t be okay if he goes back in there, if he has to spend one more minute with somebody in a suit or a gown.

The door cracks open, and then swings, and Steve’s stepping out and shutting it behind him. They’re facing each other, and Steve only pauses for a moment before he appears to accept the situation at face value.

“Tony?” he says. Tony realizes after a moment that he’s waiting for a reply.

“Hey,” he says.

“Clint said you were out here,” Steve says.

“Yeah.”

Steve sweeps his gaze around the small balcony and his eyes end up back on Tony’s face. He’s not sure what Steve finds there, but a moment later he slides his back against the door and ends up sitting criss-cross opposite Tony.

“What’s up?” Steve asks. He’s watching more carefully now, with tight eyes. Tony just shakes his head sharply, once, twice, and then stops abruptly when it makes his nausea spike.

“I know I said I’d listen,” Steve says after a minute, “and I will. Whatever it is.”

I’m so mad at you, Tony thinks. I hate you, and I want you to fix that, and I know that’s unfair, and I don’t really give a shit if it is or not. I ran out of words until this exact moment, or I thought I had, so what the fuck is this? Why won’t you stop haunting me? I know I have a huge karma debt, but why is this how I have to pay it? I’m so hurt, and it’s because of you, and I thought you were supposed to be better than this. How dare you be human, how could you be everybody else’s hero while stomping me into the ground. I wanted, so desperately, and I thought we actually were friends for a while there—I actually thought. I can handle that, Steve, I can get shit on and smile all the while, what I can’t handle is the pendulum effect: friends—enemies, hero—villain, wanted—disgusting, speaking—screaming—begging—fighting—fighting—fighting—

Steve just waits him out, and Tony swallows.

“I need to go home,” Tony says, feeling immeasurably tired, and sad and angry and hurt and grateful, but mostly tired. He smiles over at Steve and lets his head roll against the short wall behind him. Steve nods, a crease between his eyebrows. He nods, but he doesn’t get up. Instead, he pulls out his phone and taps on it for a few seconds. When he sets his cell down on the ground by his hip, he looks up at Tony and gives the smallest smile.

“Then we’ll go home,” he says. Tony looks away, back down to the phone, and he’s just about to ask about it when the thing vibrates against the metal floor. Steve snatches it up and relays, “Nat says there’s a back entrance down the south hallway.” He looks back up again. “Think you can make it?”

“Of course,” Tony says. He’s pretty sure, at least, and that’s always been good enough for him.

Steve stands up gracefully and reaches both his hands down to Tony. Honestly, he’s a little stiff from sitting on the ground and his ass is sore from his less-than-gentle landing, so he lets Steve haul him up. They stand there for a second, hands clasped, but it’s not exactly a Moment; Tony’s ass really does ache, and he needs to take a couple breaths before he can clear his throat and drop his hands. Steve lets him go but holds out an elbow. Feeling slightly surreal about it, Tony links their arms together and gives the rest of the balcony shifty eyes.

“So where exactly does ’Tasha keep her phone when she’s wearing those dresses?” Tony says. “She always seems to have it, even when there’s no room for underwear in there.”

“You know,” Steve says, and Tony can see him smiling out of the corner of his eye, “I’ve been trying to figure that out for years now. I think she knows I’m watching for it.”

Tony grins, drops his shoulders down. “Clint probably knows.”

“Betcha ten bucks he’s just as frustrated as us about it,” Steve dares. They’re standing there still, facing the door and not each other.

“I’ll take that bet,” Tony says. They stand for a beat, saying nothing.

“Shall we?” Steve asks. Tony takes a step forward and tugs Steve along by their linked arms.

“If you wanted to get me on the dance floor, you only had to ask, Rogers.”

Tony keeps his eyes forward still as they slip inside and start skirting their way around the room, Steve on the inside, closer to everyone, and Tony on the outside, walking by the wall. Instead of the flustered silence he expected to sense from Steve’s direction, he gets distinctly eye rolling vibes.

“Actually, I’m pretty sure you woulda just punched me if I asked you anything like that,” Steve says. Tony shrugs so that Steve can feel it, and he falls silent until they get out the south door, down the corridor, outside where Steve retrieves the car, and out of the city. It’s somewhere passed Kingston but before Albany that Tony takes a deep breath. The speed limit up here is 55mph, and even though Steve’s speeding a fair amount, the roads up here are winding and there aren’t streetlights for the most part. The drive to the compound takes a good while, especially after dark. (And of course Steve heard “home" and interpreted it as “the compound,” but not even Tony’s quite sure what he meant when he said it, so he’s not going to make a fuss.)

Chapter Text

“Do you want some music?” Steve asks, already reaching for the radio. Tony reaches out and catches his wrist. Steve blinks at the road, but puts his hand back on the steering wheel when Tony lets go.

“Not really.”

“Okay,” Steve says. He glances over at Tony like he wants to say something, but changes his mind. Tony lets it go and rolls his window down a crack. Wind roars through the car and stirs up the air. Steve glances over again, then looks back at the road quickly, which is frustrating because Tony knows the man doesn’t even need to look at the road to drive this stretch safely, and he wishes Steve would simultaneously drop it and spit it out.

They’re almost at the compound when Steve finally rolls up the window. Tony kind of wants to roll it back down just to be petty, and he kind of wants to jump out of the moving vehicle to avoid Steve.

“I know I said I would listen,” Steve says, crease between his eyebrows and toothy smile on his face, “but that means you have to talk.”

Tony snorts, and it’s not an entirely pleasant noise.

“That’s kind of the problem,” he says. “Believe it or not.”

He doesn’t have to look to know Steve’s frowning at him. He looks anyway and—yep, right there. Steve’s given up pretending to watch the road, and he’s looking at Tony like he’s trying to parse his words.

“Tony—”

“Nothing to worry about, Cap.”

Steve stares at him for another minute, and then scoffs, turns back to the road, and starts up the ridiculously long driveway to the compound.

“Right,” he says. “‘Course not.”

***

Parking is on the first level of the compound, and an elevator goes up to the rest of the floors. They file into it after Steve parks, and an awkward silence is firmly in place. Steve presses six for the living quarters, and Tony’s embarrassment wars with his gratitude wars with his irritation for the role of Prominent Emotion.

When the elevator doors open Tony follows Steve out and thinks talk. Steve walks through the living area and is angled like he’s going to bypass the kitchen too, so Tony reaches out and grabs the back of his suit jacket. Steve pauses, so Tony tugs firmly, and Steve turns. Tony lets go and steps back.

“I stopped talking,” Tony says all in a rush. Steve scoffs again, but with less of an edge this time.

“I noticed,” he says, and it’s exasperated, almost fond.

“No, I.” Tony pauses, looks to the side and then back again. “Never mind, it’s nothing to worry about, but I’m not trying to be a dick about this. Really. Thanks for the ride.”

Steve watches him evenly for a few seconds, and then tilts his head.

“What’s nothing to worry about?” he asks.

“What?” Tony says, blinks.

“You said ‘it’s nothing to worry about,’ ” Steve says. “What’s nothing to worry about?”

“I—” Tony snaps his mouth shut. Distrust flares up his spine, makes his shoulders hike up. He goes for a smile, but all Steve does is return it. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to do with that, what the fuck. He drops the smile again.

“Why do you want to know?” Tony asks eventually. There’s another beat of silence, and Tony thinks this isn’t how their conversations used to be, filled with so much dead air, but maybe it’s for the best.

“I’m starting to get that learning to listen to you is more than learning to listen,” Steve says, and he looks a little stupidly proud of himself.

“That still doesn’t—”

“Part of listening to you is asking,” Steve says, and Tony supposes that does explain it; Steve’s nothing if not the most all-in, stubborn bastard Tony’s ever met. If he said he would listen he’s at least going to try. “Historically, we’ve danced around these conversations and let each other get away with it. That obviously hasn’t worked for us.”

“That’s one way to put it,” Tony says. He leans his hip against the island counter and sizes Steve up. He looks…really fucking uncomfortable, actually. His posture is stiff and he’s looking straight into Tony’s eyes like he’s bracing himself.

“Tony,” Steve says again, jaw clenched and shoulders square like he’s ready for a fight, and Tony tells himself it’s not a physical fight, calm down a little maybe, “what’s going on?”

“I stopped talking,” Tony says again, and then grimaces because, right, again. “At the Malibu house,” he amends before Steve can get sarcastic again. His speech is halting, even to his own ears, and he pauses to click his teeth together and swallow. “Even to FRIDAY, for almost a month? I didn’t talk until yesterday.”

“Are you okay?” Steve asks, no hesitation. Tony laughs a wet-sounding laugh, and he half wants to tear his way out of his skin for how exposed he feels.

“Obviously not,” he says, shrugs. Steve clenches his jaw, sways forward.

“How can I help?” he asks.

Tony stares at him, and stares, and stares, even though he knows his answer.

“I don’t know,” Tony says. And then he’s running his mouth, and he doesn’t know he’s going to say it until he’s saying, “Listen? Let me talk and ignore me? Stay the fuck away from me? Be there?”

“That’s not—”

“I don’t know what’s going to set me off until it’s already happened!” Tony throws his hands into the air and takes a step to the side because he feels like he should be moving, like he’s trapped, but not by Steve for once. “I don’t even know what sets me off half the time, even after.”

“I don’t know how I’m supposed to help,” Steve says a little desperately.

“You’re not!” Tony says, feeling more than a little desperate. “You’re not responsible for my bullshit, Rogers. The only thing you’re responsible for is yourself.” He takes a step forward, and then two backwards, and then he slams his hand palm-down on the countertop. “Fuck’s sake!”

“Forget about who’s responsible for it!” Steve says, and his voice is raised to match Tony’s. “What if I just don’t want you to feel like that?”

“Then get in line!” Tony says. “I want you to tell me the truth! I want you to feel like we’re friends, but I guess that’s just too damn bad for me!”

Steve rolls his eyes, and Tony straightens up from where he’s started to curl in on himself.

“We are friends,” Steve says.

“Are we?” Tony asks, half bitter and half curious. He takes a deep breath, feels like he’s burning from the inside out. Steve huffs and his eyelids flutter.

“I wanna be,” he says. He’s not looking Tony in the eyes and that, more than anything, convinces Tony that he’s being sincere. Steve’s almost as shit at emotions as Tony himself. “We were, for a while there. Or we were on our way. And.” Steve leans a hand on the counter and his eyes flicker to Tony. “I miss it—you. I miss you being around.”

Tony watches Steve for a moment as Steve watches the countertop.

“Fuck,” Tony says, softly but with feeling. He swirls his fingers through the air in a vague gesture. “Fuck.”

“I know,” Steve says, and he doesn’t look up. “I know, I’m sor—”

“Stop,” Tony says, orders. It’s too loud, it echoes, but he can’t go in circles forever. “Cap, I’m tired.”

Steve looks up, and Tony steps closer. He knocks twice on the countertop, right next to Steve’s hand. Steve looks devastatingly young and heartbroken like this, when they haven’t turned on all the kitchen lights, when neither of them know what to do or how to fix it.

“Me too,” Steve says, and Tony wants to cry.

“James Bond,” Tony says, like word vomit. He and Steve both blink a couple of times. Tony grimaces.

“What?” Steve says, still looking like he wants to cry a little bit.

“I don’t think I’m sleeping anytime soon, and I’m tired of staring at the wall,” Tony says. Steve takes a visibly deep breath. “Go turn on a Bond movie and I’ll make the popcorn.”

“That’s not gonna fix anything either,” Steve says, but he looks better already.

“Neither is this conversation,” Tony says. “Look, Rogers—I’m tired, you’re tired. Let’s, I dunno. Rest.”

“Okay,” Steve says. Nods. Tony turns to rummage for the oil and Steve calls from the other room, “Extra butter!”

***

The last thing Tony wanted at the beginning of all this was to act like nothing happened, but that’s not what this is. They really are getting there, at least on a professional level. Steve signed the Accords, they’re going to amend them. Screaming matches just don’t solve anything. Steve can say he’s sorry until he’s blue in the face, but Tony’s starting to learn that Steve’s pain and guilt don’t actually make him feel any better. Maybe at first, but this continuous despair feels like it’s suffocating them both.

Tony throws the kernels in with the oil and gets out a stick of butter. He can hear the previews coming from the TV, and it doesn’t feel like they’re pretending nothing happened. He knows, more than anything else these days, that they’re both hyperaware of their shared history. It eats at Tony, and it seems to get to Steve just as much. He breathes, and gets out a couple bottles of root beer.

***

Steve looks like he’s about to bolt from the couch when Tony walks in, but he still smiles a polite smile. Tony rolls his eyes and reaffirms the decision he made in the kitchen. He plops down by the arm of the couch, puts the popcorn in his lap, and holds out an arm in Steve’s direction while the other holds the sodas.

“Okay, that’s enough, I’ve had it, come here, Cap,” he says. If Tony expected Steve to look surprised, he was wrong. Steve scoots closer, to the middle seat of the couch, and Tony tugs on the collar of his shirt. “C’mon,” he coaxes.

They end up, for just a moment, in the dark, the movie’s menu casting them in blue-white light, with Tony’s palm against the side of Steve’s head, holding him so that Steve’s head is pressed to Tony’s shoulder. One of Steve’s feet is curled up on the couch beside him, and Tony bets it’s uncomfortable. He lets Steve up after about thirty seconds there, and Steve just reaches for the remote and settles in with his shoulder pressed to Tony’s.

***

Turns out Steve hates root beer. They have to pause the movie two minutes in when Steve takes a swig without looking and then struggles not to spit it out in the popcorn. Tony watches in horrified silence as Steve bolts to the kitchen to spit it in the sink and wash out his mouth, and then he laughs for ten minutes straight, even after they turn the movie back on and Steve drinks three cokes to get rid of the taste in his mouth.

“Who doesn’t like root beer?” Tony asks when he catches his breath, and he’s wiping his eyes on his shirtsleeve when he says it. “It tastes like vanilla!”

“I hate vanilla,” Steve says petulantly—god, the man’s even pouting. It just sets Tony off again.

***

The movie’s comfortable, and they alternate between banter and silence. Steve complains when he gets popcorn kernels stuck in his teeth. They’re both still wearing suits, but ties were loosened on the car ride. Their jackets are gone now, the first few buttons undone on their shirts, and their shoes have been kicked off. Halfway through, Tony’s socked feet are on the coffee table and Steve rearranges himself so he’s lying across the couch, and his head lands on Tony’s lap. Not even five minutes later, Tony’s hand is in Steve’s hair. There’s about half an hour left in the movie when Tony opens his mouth.

“I know it doesn’t matter how I want you to feel,” Tony says. Steve stays looking at the TV, but he reaches a hand up and grabs onto Tony’s leg. “For what it’s worth, though. I don’t get off on your misery.”

“A touching sentiment,” Steve says, but he’s smirking. Tony hums, and Steve lets go of his leg to reach up and take Tony’s hand instead, and they end up holding hands over Steve’s heart. Tony’s arm is stretched so it’s awkward, and if they stay like this long it’ll be asleep. “I want you to be happy too.”

An explosion goes off on the screen a couple seconds later and—

“There is no way,” Tony says, gesturing with his free hand. “Oh, my God, kids are watching this. No, Steve, don’t laugh, this is scientific sacrilege. That’s not how that works!”

The feeling of Steve’s laughter underneath Tony’s fingertips feels like a wholly different kind of karmic retribution. He settles back into the couch feeling at home for the first time since…at least before Ultron.

***

When Tony wakes up in the early morning, he feels a foreboding sense of doom historically reserved for particularly ill-advised one-night stands. Which is frankly ridiculous. He and Steve, what, held hands? Admitted they didn’t outright enjoy each other’s pain? Or, that’s all Tony confessed; Steve went further with I want you to be happy too.

He wants to bolt, but he takes his time with The Routine because fuck if he doesn’t need a moment to think. Too bad it doesn’t help anything. There’s static in his head. His thoughts are all a mess of happiness and wariness and the weight of Steve’s head in his lap and the way he radiates heat and the way Tony’s face burns when he remembers who Steve chose and the way Steve seemed to trust him, to lay against him, to want to be there.

Tony walks into the kitchen wearing some designer t-shirt with a pug on it and a blazer over top. It’s too early for even Steve and Sam to be awake, but Clint’s sitting, fully dressed, at the island with an open box of cereal.

“Coffee?” Tony asks, already aimed that way.

“Haven’t made any yet,” Clint says. He’s watching Tony go, popping Froot Loops into his mouth one at a time.

“Hnnn,” Tony says. “I meant, do you want me to make enough coffee for you to have some?”

“Oh,” Cling says, “sure, yeah.”

Tony does. He makes about three-quarters of a pot, pours both cups, and sets Clint’s in front of him before speaking again.

“You’re waiting for the early bird joke, right?” Tony says. Clint quirks a grin at him. “‘Cause I wasn’t actually gonna go for it. Too obvious.”

“Never stopped you before,” Clint says. Tony hums and takes a seat kitty-corner to Clint, lets the silence settle. Clint’s wearing jeans. Tony looks down and, yeah, he’s also got work boots on. Clint sees him looking and half-smiles.

“Heading up to the farm for a day trip,” he says, looking down at his own feet for a second. When he looks back up, his smile is bittersweet. “Laura’s not ready to take me back, but she’s ready to let me see my kids again.”

“Baby steps,” Tony says, praying to God it’s not offensive in some way. The weirdest things piss off parents, and even weirder things seem to get under Clint’s skin.

“Yeah.” Clint scoffs, runs a hand through his hair. Tony takes a sip from his coffee and burns the tip of his tongue. “What about you? Sticking around for a while?”

“Back to Malibu, I think,” Tony says. “After breakfast.”

“Breakfast?” Clint laughs and holds out his box of cereal, gives it a good shake. “It’s only breakfast if you eat something.”

“Coffee’s a viable breakfast, but thanks,” Tony says. Clint puts the box back down and takes a quick drink of his own coffee.

“You know,” Clint says a minute later, “I think Steve’s getting lonely up here.”

Tony pulls a face at the counter. FRIDAY isn’t the only one he’s dropped the ball on, apparently. Surprisingly, Tony’s hardly even thought about Barnes over the past month. He and Steve are probably even at a point now where they could talk about the man without someone getting murdered. But didn’t T’Challa say he would bring up the possibility to Steve? But—no, they never quite got to that point. They shelved the conversation, and heaven knows it isn’t T’Challa’s job to track Tony down and figure out a solution. On top of it all, they even saw T’Challa yesterday, but he took off so quickly from the signing that Tony didn’t even get a chance to talk to him alone.

“I’m working on it,” Tony says, because he will be at least. He can figure this out. If nothing else, they’re finally in the position to bargain for Barnes’ freedom. Sure, they might have to negotiate on some of the points they agreed on for the amendments, but Tony thinks they can probably get everything eventually.

“Are you?” Clint says. He’s got an eyebrow arched and his elbows on the counter now.
“Yeah,” Tony says, and it’s only a half-lie. “There are things that can be done, of course. I’m not a squishy-parts doctor, much less a psychologist, but there’s—therapy, and maybe even the BARF tech if we’re careful about it. And I’ve got a couple ideas floating around for the arm already—”

“Wait,” Clint says, “what?”

“Huh, what?” Tony says.

“Arm?” Clint says. “I was talking about Steve.”

“Me too.” Tony feels his eyebrows pinch together, and Clint’s frowning now. “You said he was lonely.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Oh, fuck off.” Tony drains the second half of his mug and lets it hit the counter like a shot glass.

“That’s really not what I meant,” Clint says.

“Whatever,” Tony says. “It’s a good idea anyway.”

Clint’s head drops onto the counter and he mumbles something Tony can’t hear.

***

Tony doesn’t take a plane this time; he just hops into the suit and flies to Malibu.

Chapter Text

It goes like this: Tony gets to Malibu, turns FRIDAY on, and starts working on Barnes’ new arm. He videoconferences with T’Challa about fMRI scans and neurological pathways and temporal lobes, and then with Helen Cho about all the same things, just to be safe. It makes him miss Bruce terribly.

He sets up camp down in the shop. There’s a couch, new but stained in places, and while he doesn’t sleep in his bed, he does sleep. And eat. But mostly he works. And talks. When Sam texts him, he texts back. When Clint calls, he picks up and tells the Barton children very seriously that, yes, he and Daddy have made up, that they’re friends again, that they can probably let Dad into the house now. Steve sends a text that reads whered u disappear to?

Malibu, Tony sends back. Steve’s reply takes less than thirty seconds.

anything you can’t do in ny?

Tony sends back the YouTube link to “Wide Open Spaces” by the Dixie Chicks and tells FRIDAY to intercept anymore incoming communications from Steve and only let them through if it’s for an emergency.

***

It last for two days until FRIDAY informs him there’s someone pounding on the front door. Which is interesting considering how few people have access to this address.

“Who’ve we got?” he asks, wiping his hands with an oil rag.

“It appears to be Captain Rogers, Boss,” FRIDAY says.

Tony takes off up the stairs, two at a time.

***

Steve looks wild-eyed when Tony opens the door, and he knocks on air for a second before he realizes the door’s gone.

“Tony,” he says, sounding like he’s in pain.

“Are you okay?” Tony asks. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”

Steve looks beyond Tony’s shoulder for a couple seconds like he’s scanning the room for someone else. When he focuses back on Tony, he braces his arms in the door frame and slumps a bit.

“Can I come in?” Steve asks.

“What’s going on?” Tony asks again. He plants his feet wider and thinks of the suit down in the workshop. Steve sidesteps him and is suddenly inside.

“Hey, Rogers!” Tony reaches out and catches Steve’s arm. It’s not enough force to stop a super-soldier, but thankfully Steve stops anyway.

“Just,” Steve takes a shallow breath and huffs it out, “listen, okay?”

“What—?”

“—Wanda’s off the team,” Steve says, “I’ll talk to her—”

“Christ,” Tony says. “That’s not what I—”

“—whatever you need.” Steve looks frankly terrible. Manic, like he did that first month after DC, when he thought every idle moment was another nail in Bucky’s coffin. “Whatever you need to come home and feel safe there.”

“You can’t keep doing this!” Tony yells.

“Doing what?” Steve says. “I—”

“This.” Tony gestures at Steve, and Steve only blinks back in confusion and for the love of everything holy, he really doesn’t get it, does he? “This thing, where you sabotage your entire life and everyone you care about for someone who isn’t even around.”

“I’m not sabotaging anything,” Steve says.

“Like hell you’re not,” Tony says. “Kicking Wanda off? Making grandiose promises of anything, whatever I need?” He throws his hands into the air and walks in a circle.

“But I mean it,” Steve says.

“Sure,” Tony says, “of course you do. That’s the problem.”

“Tony,” Steve says, stepping forward with his hands out, palms up like a beggar. “It’s not a problem, I mean it—what do you need to feel safe at the compound? I’ll make it happen.”

“No,” Tony says quietly. He’s so tired and he wants and Steve's making offers he could never follow through on, not even if he really does mean it now. And Steve just smiles at him, sad and reassuring.

“Shellhead,” Steve says.

“No!” Tony says. “I’m not gonna be your self-fulfilling prophecy, Rogers. You want a reason to fuck up the entire team we just brought back together? You can have Barnes back!”

“No,” Steve says, “this isn’t about Bucky—”

“Get out of my house,” Tony says, not yelling, not yelling, low and tired and fierce. He knows he’s the one who brought up Bucky, but it makes him ill to hear Steve calling the man by his nickname, which is ridiculous, Tony’s being ridiculous, but this is his home, his safe space, and Steve just flew all the way to Malibu to say Bucky’s name in his voice inside of Tony’s living room, just to ruin everything.

“Would you just listen to me,” Steve says.

“No!” Tony yells. He feels just as manic as Steve looked a minute ago, but now Steve just seems kind of worried. Tony makes himself take a deep breath that doesn’t help at all, but he’s not screaming when he opens his mouth this time. “Look, it’s already in place, mostly. I’m making Barnes a new arm, T’Challa and I have been talking about different therapy techniques he can try. Just—call His Royal Kittiness and give the go ahead.”

“You didn’t need to do that,” Steve says quietly. He takes a step forward and Tony takes three back.

“I need you to leave,” Tony says, and he points towards the door for good measure.

“No, we need to talk about this,” Steve says, orders.

“Not right now we don’t,” Tony says. “Why in God’s name do you think I flew to the entire other side of the country?” He laughs, and Steve’s shoulders stiffen. “You need to get the hell out of my home. You can’t be here. And you wanna know what else?” Tony pauses, and Steve says nothing. “You need some fucking help, and you need to get it away from me.” Something in Steve’s mask breaks then, his eyebrows crease together, and the corners of his mouth turn down.

“I don’t need help anymore than you do,” Steve says.

“You know who really needs help? Precious little Bucky.”

Steve takes another step toward Tony and Tony triggers the signal for the armor.
“And why are you suddenly so ready to jump on board with helping him?”

“Suddenly?” Tony laughs like he's drowning and the armor bursts into the room. He doesn’t assemble the armor around him, just has it stand sentry beyond his right shoulder and stare Steve in the face. Steve’s eyes flicker from man to machine and back again.

“We’re not doing this again,” Steve says.

“Not without your tag team partner we’re not,” Tony says. Steve blinks hard—close, open—like a flinch. “I’m not looking for a fight. Just leave.”

Steve raises his hands like he’s surrendering and Tony thinks, no, that’s not right. Steve doesn’t do that, doesn’t back down, especially not from Tony.

“Okay,” Steve says, and Tony can feel himself shaking.

***

Steve leaves.

“Make up your mind, Stark,” Tony says to the empty room. “You told him to, you told him to.”

***

Tony has no idea when Rhodey shows up or how he made it back down to the workshop, but both things happen at some point. Tony’s sitting on the ground in front of his couch, legs drawn up to his chest, when FRIDAY announces his arrival.

“Hey there, honey bear,” Tony says when the elevator slides open. He flashes a quick grin when Rhodey just looks him up and down critically.

“Hey, Tones,” he says. Rhodey gestures to the side where the armor appears to still be standing sentinel. “You can probably call off the guard dog, y’know.”

“Right," Tony says. “Fri?”

“Sure thing, Boss.”

The armor puts itself back in the display case and powers down, and both Rhodey and Tony watch until the eyes and reactor go dark.

“So,” Rhodey says, “just hangin’ out?”

“Eh.” Tony shrugs. “And you? Just…in the neighborhood?”

They stare each other down for a good minute before Rhodey sighs.

“You look like hell, man.”

“Then you should probably leave,” Tony says. “You’ve got that whole reputation to worry about. Can’t be seen with the riffraff.”

“Trust me,” Rhodey says, “it’s too late for my reputation. How long have we been friends?”

Tony smiles up at Rhodey and Rhodey must see something in it, because he changes tracks.

“Rogers called me, actually.” Rhodey makes his way over the the couch and drops down to Tony’s level, balancing on the balls of his feet. “So I’ve been laying with the dogs all day.”

“Ah,” Tony says. And then, “I might’ve overreacted.”

Rhodey snorts.

“In my defense,” Tony says, “Cap freaked out first. Flew all the way from New York to beg me to come home.”

“Good,” Rhodey says.

“No,” Tony counters, “not good. The leader of the Avengers really shouldn’t be flying off the handle like some sort of….me. Like another Tony Stark. Christ, the team can hardly handle one me. Some would argue that the team can’t even handle one me. The man better get his head out of his ass and start leading or I’m gonna have to stage an uprising.”

Rhodey wobbles where he’s crouching and Tony snaps out a hand to steady him.

“I’m too old to be sitting on the floor this long,” Tony says, and he groans theatrically has he stands up and holds out a hand for Rhodey to take.

“Says the man who flies around in a hunk of gold-titanium alloy for shits and giggles,” Rhodey says. He lets Tony pull him up, and it takes them longer than either of them are strictly happy with, but they do get up and start making their way to the elevator, elbows linked.

“Next version? Next version should be able to go through airport security in under three hours,” Rhodey says. The elevator doors close behind them, and Tony plants his feet, pushes the button, and takes a little more of Rhodey’s weight when the elevator starts upwards.

“Next version?” Tony says. “Oh, damn, nobody told you. This is it, sour patch. Final product, no refunds.”

“Cheapskate,” Rhodey mumbles.

***

The thing about Rhodey is that he’s no mediator. He doesn’t go around looking after Tony like Tony’s some kind of little kid or kicked puppy. Their friendship would’ve been over years ago if that was the dynamic. Their friendship revolves mainly around being there for one another, around talking about how stupid everyone else is, or how much of a dick everyone else is, or, until recently, serving each other drinks.

They order Thai food and drink root beer because Rhodey’s a normal human being like that.

“Man, I knew Captain America would be a jackass,” Rhodey tells him. They’re eating in the living room, watching reality TV because apparently that’s what Rhodey’s up to these days. (Tony’s never going to let him live it down, never.)

“Did you now?” Tony says.

“Dude,” Rhodey says. “He was in the Army. In the 40s. And technically he’s part of the generation that raised the Baby Boomers.”

Tony grins. “You’re not wrong.”

“And he got along with Howard,” Rhodey says. “Howard.”

“Yeah,” Tony says, “Howard.”

“I honestly can’t believe anyone thought being on a team with him was going to end well.”

“Well,” Tony says. “Maybe if SHIELD gave a fuck about people or had gotten him help of literally any kind when he came out of the ice.”

“SHIELD’s the worst,” Rhodey agrees. “It’s not that I’m glad they’re gone because it was nice when they dealt with the bureaucratic bullshit, but also good riddance.”

“Amen to that,” Tony says, and they both lean forward enough to clink their bottles together.

The trick with Rhodey is that you don’t even need to get him drunk to cut loose with him, you just need to hand him a glass bottle and he’ll act like he’s a little drunk. It’s a game of association—make Rhodey feel simultaneously safe and wild, and his tongue will loosen up, and they’ll eventually be sitting on top of one another if there aren’t any women present. It’s nice. This is the trick that makes sobriety work for him. Forget all the sparkling apple juice in champagne flutes and having something to do with his hands, if bottles of soda didn’t play mind games with Rhodes, he wouldn’t even bother.

“What made Rogers lose his mind? Any idea?” Rhodey says.

“Not really,” Tony says. “I stopped answering his messages a couple days ago.”

“Yeah,” Rhodey says, “no idea what could’ve gotten him so worried then.”

“Oh, please,” Tony says. “I told FRIDAY to let through anything that sounded like an emergency.”

“You’re really a jackass sometimes, anyone ever tell you that?”

“Only you, sugarplum.”

“And you’re letting FRIDAY decide what constitutes an emergency now?” Rhodey says.

“She’s a big girl.”

“Yeah but her perspective might be a little skewed, don’t you think?” Rhodey glances toward one of FRIDAY’s sensors. “No offense, Fri.”

“Offense pending, Colonel,” FRIDAY says. “I reserve the right to become offended.”

“Of course.” Rhodey grins. It’s taken him a while to warm up to FRIDAY, but she likes Rhodey in a way she doesn’t like nearly anybody else. “I’m just saying that most people consider small personal crises to be emergencies, but you’ve been aware for a short time and seen some pretty extreme situations.”

“Fair,” Tony says, and wonders what Steve might’ve sent him in the past two days before jumping on a plane and booking it to Tony’s front door. He wonders what might be going on in Steve’s head besides guilt and realizes he has no idea.

“Aw, crikey,” Tony says. Rhodey looks at him with that superior smile that says ‘I understand people and social situations better than Tony Stark!’ and Tony rolls his eyes. Like that’s something impressive.

“So, you said better airport time?” he prompts.

“God, yes,” Rhodey groans. “It was awful. And I think we need to reimagine the coolant system because it started overheating again, and maybe that’s a nice feature in the middle of winter when I’m stranded outside, but mostly it’s just going to give me some wicked burns.”

“Hey, Fri, baby, let’s bring up that coolant system for a sec,” Tony says, and a hologram pops up over the coffee table. “Fantastic. What is it we’re using now?”

***

Rhodey says he’s got nowhere to be, just physical therapy and, hey, since Tony had a set of equipment installed in the Malibu house too, isn't that just great? So he’s going to stick around for a few days maybe, and that’s cool because Tony misses him, he does, even if that does mean a lot of social interaction.

“You’ve been kinda quiet, man,” Rhodey says after they’ve eaten. And Tony started out pretty strong, lots of banter and easy chatting, but he’s starting to get tired and, yeah, a little queasy. They spent hours working on Rhodey’s legs.

“That’s what I came out here for was some peace and quiet,” he says, but his heart really isn’t in it. “I just didn’t wanna be rude and kick you out right away.”

They’re sitting pressed up against each other on the couch by this point and it’s all comfort and safety and a heavy tiredness and Tony’s so grateful that Rhodey’s still here, even at the price of his functioning legs, and he hates himself for thinking so. He can’t help but compare the feeling to sitting next to Steve on the couch back at the compound. They were pressed together similarly, but that had felt revolutionary, somehow, reckless and inevitable and like finally coming home.

Steve and Rhodey both feel like coming home, but—it’s different. What he feels for Steve is obviously different than what he feels for Rhodey, but not just the same feelings of friendship to a different degree. Just—different feelings, altogether. Rhodey’s his brother, and they’ve fought side-by-side, and he’s unconditional, familial love, the kind he’s only ever really felt from his mom and the human Jarvis and his wife. Knowing Rhodey’s there is knowing he has someone no matter what, like knowing that at least someone will move hell or high water when he goes missing.

Steve’s different. Has been for a while. They’ve fought side-by-side too, and it feels just as natural to anticipate each other’s moves on the battlefield. But they’re not brothers. Steve and Tony don’t run as deep as Tony and Rhodey do, not yet, but they burn hot. Rhodey’s a moat, deep and wide and surrounding, protective, a buffer against the rest of the world, and Steve’s a channel of molten lava, blazing a path, making scars.

So, not brotherly feelings. There’s an endless, terrifying potential there, though. The passion’s obviously there already; you don’t start a quote-unquote “war” with someone unless you feel a lot for them, a lot and powerfully. There’s understanding, too. The things that had always felt like a compromise with Pepper, those are things that Steve does everyday too, because they’re wired the same and they get it. That’s not anything against Pepper, of course. She’s just too good. She’s seen the ugliest parts of humanity, but she’s never been one of them. For how purely good Steve is, there’s a violence in his blood, the same need to fight that pumps through Tony’s heart, that keeps him alive, day after day.

When Steve and Tony had sat on the couch, it wasn’t one person comforting the other; it didn’t feel like giving anything up or taking anything away. It was breathing and understanding each other, and living despite the violence they’ve committed, and allowing themselves to live, and to be comforted and, more impossibly, to comfort. Tony doesn’t think he’s ever felt that before. He wonders if that’s the definition of love, or if he’s just really fucked up. He remembers seeing Steve tormenting himself for things that happened, and he remembers knowing that feeling exactly, but he also remembers knowing that Steve’s a good person, a person who’s fought and been fought against, who everyone expects to keep fighting and to figure it out, because he’s Captain America, that’s what he does. He remembers how young and vulnerable Steve looked in the kitchen, and how Steve drove him all the way home.

Despite how he keeps running from Steve, how he keeps pushing him away, he can’t imagine life without him. He thinks he might understand Steve’s panicked cross-country trip a little better, thinking of it like that.

“So what room’s mine?” Rhodey asks.

“You’re the first one,” Tony says. “Any room you want is yours.”

“Fuck yeah,” he says quietly, and neither of them move.

Chapter Text

Tony and Rhodey end up falling asleep on the couch together, and their bodies hate them in the morning. There’s a crick in Tony’s neck and Rhodey’s hips apparently didn’t enjoy the angle they were at, but Tony resolutely does not care. He comes awake slowly, with Rhodey’s elbow against his thigh and Rhodey’s head on his chest. Tony’s warm too, even his toes which are freezing numb more often than not these days. He hangs onto the floating feeling until consciousness pull him the rest of the way up, and even then he’s not disappointed, because his brain registers RhodeyRhodeyRhodey and he feels safe.

It’s the start to a good day, he tells himself, and then wills himself to believe it.

They eat what Rhodey calls “actual breakfast,” meaning Tony makes coffee and Rhodey fries up eggs and bacon. Rhodey eats his with tabasco and Tony with just salt and pepper. It’s more delicious than it has any right to be. Rhodey laughs at him when he goes for seconds.

“I’m gonna tell our concerned party you’re not eating up here,” Rhodey says, eyes bright.

“I’m pretty sure it’s ‘down here,’ rubber duckie, Malibu’s much farther south than New York.” Tony shoves an entire piece of bacon into his mouth and talks around it, says, “Besides, I eat. Food is food even when it’s not a hot meal, it just doesn’t taste as good.”

“You live on the top of Point Dume, I can say ‘up here’ if I want.”

It doesn’t take them long to migrate back to the living room. Tony would just take them down to the ’shop, but all of the stools down there are backless, hard metal. He’s got holo-interfaces in just about every room now (except the guest bathrooms, even he knows that’s excessive) so they just settle back on the couch there and Rhodey asks what he’s been working on.

AVALON flashes through his mind, but he dismisses the idea right away (even if he does need to finish the finer points of the protocol), and he brings up the schematics for Barnes’ new arm. It’s almost complete, really, he’s just about ready to throw together a prototype, but Rhodey’s is always a welcome opinion.

Usually, that is. Usually Tony considers Rhodey’s input invaluable. But this time Rhodey pokes around at the hologram for almost ten minutes before he says anything.

“Solid,” he finally says with a final flick of his wrist, sending the image spinning, spinning, spinning. “You’re building him an arm?”

“Must not be that solid if you can’t even tell what it is,” Tony says back. Rhodey just looks at him. “C’mon, we all know it wasn’t Barnes’s fault. Okay, so maybe he has awful taste in best friends, but I bet Rogers was even cuter when he was a hundred pounds soaking wet. Like a feral kitten, or something.”

And Rhodey’s grinning now, his eyebrows climbing even higher, and Tony thinks, fuck, wait.

“Cute-er?” Rhodey says and, yeah, Tony really should’ve seen that one coming. “Aw, man. You always did go for the assholes.”

“I’m telling Pepper you said that.” Tony loves deflecting, really, it’s his favorite thing to do.

“Oh, you go for angel-women,” Rhodey allows, “but the men? Do I need to remind you about Tiberius Stone? He exists, he was a thing.”

“God, no.” Tony shudders. He was young and dumb, but neither of those things excuse the train wreck that was the Tony-and-Ty show. There aren’t many things Tony’s well and truly ashamed of, but that so-called relationship makes the list. “And I think it’s fair to say I’ve gotten better. Y’know, wise in my old age.”

“Right.” Rhodey laughs at him openly now. “Not if you’re into the Asshole Extraordinaire.”

“No, really,” Tony says, and it’s as good as an admission. “Cap’s only about half-asshole, and he’s definitely half-angelic, just not with me. Besides, he’s hot as hell. Peak of human perfection and all that. You saying you wouldn’t tap that?”

“Oh, given the chance? Yeah, I’d tap that,” Rhodey says, “because he’s hot. And you said cute. You don’t call people cute unless you’re a goner.”

“What? No,” Tony says. “Give that back. That knowledge isn’t yours. I don’t have tells, Rhodes, I’m serious. That’s not for you to know.”

“Hell, man,” Rhodey says. “What’m I going to do with you?”

“Sell me as a trophy husband to the highest bidder?” Tony says.

“I’m not caffeinated enough for this,” Rhodey declares, and then he gets up and walks out of the room. He comes back a couple minutes later with two mugs of coffee and sets one in front of Tony.

“So,” he says, sitting down with his own mug. “The plates in the shoulder are too wide, it’s gonna fuck the entire range of motion.”

“Yeah, I know,” Tony says, and takes a drink from his coffee. Piping hot, Rhodey even reheated it. “Any thinner though and I’m worried I’ll compromise the socket. T’Challa sent me scans of the anchor still implanted in Barnes’s shoulder, and I really don’t want to have to replace that if I don't have to, but it looks finicky at best, sloppy at worst.”

“What materials we talking here?” Rhodey asks, and they’re off again.

***

Rhodey stays another night (in an actual bed this time, neither of them are nineteen-year-olds anymore), they reduce the bicep places by a couple millimeters and it’s fantastic progress. Rhodey does go home then, and Tony’s back to thinking.

Steve still thinks he’s losing Tony, that Tony’s trying to leave his life for good because Tony hasn’t said or done anything to contradict that theory. And since he’s realized it, he’s only become more and more acutely aware of how he just doesn’t know anything else about what’s going on in Steve’s life. He supposes Steve’s been at the compound this entire time, but what he’s doing is anyone’s guess. Training Wanda? Keeping busy? Being upset? The only thing Tony knows for certain is that Steve’s emailed their lawyers a couple times about the amendment proceedings, and he only knows that because Steve’s cc-ing him.

He sits down and tells himself it’s time to seriously consider if he’s ready to talk to Steve again, talk for real, about how he feels, what he wants. Five minutes later he realizes he’s mentally tweaking the parameters for AVALON and making a checklist of the things he still needs to do for it to be optimally functional.

“Crap,” he says, and decides the answer must be ‘no.’

Instead, he implements those new parameters and takes his suit down to the gym to teach FRIDAY more of his fighting style. She’s seen videos before and studied the way he moves from afar, but he’s never had her record the movements while he’s in the armor. Maybe in the next couple weeks he’ll go out and fight some minor crime, just so she gets a better feel for it. Or just the next time he’s called out, there’s no rush really.

By the time he’s done down in the gym, it’s fairly late, which means it’s past midnight in New York anyway, he couldn’t call even if he wanted to now.

***

“Tony?”

Tony takes a deep breath, spins his swivel chair in a circle.

“Hey, Sam-Sam the dragon man,” Tony says down the receiver.

“What’s up, man?” Sam says. He sounds half-suspicious and half-worried. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, no, of course,” Tony says. Sam’s reaction isn’t out of place, they’ve only really been texting each other memes for a couple weeks now. “I just wanted to make sure Cap was doing alright.”

“You’re checking in on him now?” Sam asks, seven shades of exasperated.

“Okay,” Tony says, “I was kind of an asshole when he came to my home unannounced and acted like I was the one being unreasonable but to be fair he came to my home unannounced and acted like I was the one being unreasonable.”

“Point,” Sam says.

“And, yeah, I’m willing to accept that the kind of person who’s doing that is maybe not in the best place emotionally, which all brings us very neatly back to my original question.”

“I mean,” Sam says, “he’s pretty torn up recently, to be honest. But it’s not new—maybe since they put Bucky under, but I’m guessing it was earlier. Look, man, I really don’t know how much I should be telling you here. This isn’t my shit to tell.”

Tony takes a second to sit with that information. He’s known, of course, that Steve’s been having a hard time. Except, maybe he didn’t—whenever he thought about Steve in Wakanda, after Siberia but before coming home, he usually imagined Steve and Bucky, together, sometimes sharing a beer, sometimes laughing about fighting Tony. And it’s not entirely realistic, but that’s how it always was in his head. Logically, he knows Steve’s about as mentally stable as he is himself—PTSD, depression in place of Tony’s own anxiety. Steve puts on a brave face but in all honesty, Steve’s been a mess since he was unfrozen. This is more of a confirmation than anything else, and the knowledge that Steve’s been in worse shape since they refroze Barnes, or since whenever “earlier” was. The start of their disagreement, Tony thinks. Peggy dying, probably.

“That’s enough, I think,” Tony says. “Listen, Wilson, I said something to Steve when he was here, and I said it in a way probably not conducive to any real progress—”

“Dude, dude,” Sam says, and at least he sounds amused, “what did you say to him?”

“I told him he needs to get some help. And I really think he should.”

“Okay,” Sam says slowly. “And, what, you think that if I float the idea he’ll be any more receptive to it? Please.”

“Well maybe if his good friend floats the idea right after his pissed-off teammate screamed it in his face, maybe we’ll get lucky and something will sink in.”

“Anyone ever tell you you’re too optimistic?”

“Nope,” Tony says, laughs. “First time for everything. Thanks for sharing this moment with me.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sam says, “I can float it at least, but no guarantees.”

Tony takes a breath through his mouth and thinks, all-in, what’ve you got to lose?

“Listen, wingman, there’s something else I need you to do.”

“Okay but why does it sound like you’re about to ask me to murder a man?” Sam says, and he still sounds lighthearted about it, but suspicious, and rightfully so.

“Quite the opposite, really. I want you to call T’Challa.”

“That’s promising. Can’t murder a man through the phone, far as I know.”

“I could make it happen,” Tony scoffs. “No, but I need you to tell him to unfreeze Barnes.”

Sam gets quiet for a minute then. Tony thinks, here it comes.

“Have you talked to Steve about this?” Sam asks then, which. Not as hostile as it could’ve been. In fact, it’s downright generous considering—well, considering.

“It’s another thing I said not-so-nicely,” he admits. “But I’ve been talking with Helen Cho and T’Challa already, we’ve got a few treatment plans outlined. T’Challa just doesn’t wanna thaw the guy out on my word alone.”

“And Rogers—”

“Rogers thought I was trying to…I don’t know. Make something up to him? Give him Barnes back as a conciliatory prize? You’d have to ask him.”

“And is he wrong?” Sam asks.

“Does it matter?” Tony says. Sam doesn’t say anything, just waits him out.

“He is wrong,” Tony says then. No getting out of it. Sam’s always surprisingly willing to help as long as Tony gives a bit of honesty, he just doesn’t think Sam knows what that honesty costs Tony to give up. “I’m making it up to Barnes.”

“Right,” Sam says, a little resigned and a little amused in that perfect balance he has.

***

“Let’s lift all restrictions on Cap’s communications,” Tony says.

“Restrictions lifted,” FRIDAY says. “Would you like to see a log of attempted communications during the restricted period?”

“No,” Tony says, and it’s not even a real temptation.

That feels like an invasion of privacy. Tony knows any messages were meant for him, but considering how desperate Steve seemed for a hot minute there, it doesn’t feel right to review the buildup.

“Delete them.”

***

“Thirty percent,” Tony says.

“Boss,” FRIDAY says.

“Bump it down to thirty, Fri,” he says again, and he’s already scrolling through the rest of the percentages.

“Sure thing,” she says icily. “Even though I’m the one who’s gonna be stuck explaining that decision, by all means. Thirty percent it is.”

Tony sighs. The thirty percent is the probability for success at which FRIDAY will take over the suit in the event of Tony’s imminent death. In other words, if Tony gets hit too badly but there’s a thirty percent or higher chance that Iron Man can still contribute to a successful mission outcome, FRIDAY will take control of the armor. The specifics depend on the situation: probabilities and subprotocols for where Tony himself is put, who’s notified and when, etc.

Honestly, Tony’s of the opinion that thirty percent is rather high, but FRIDAY had thought that even forty percent (where they’d set it previously) was too low. He doesn’t know, really, there aren’t social norms that dictate how high a chance of success you should have before your AI has permission to drag around your corpse as a posable doll (at least, not the kind of social norms you can google).

***

Tony texts Steve first this time. He can’t say exactly why. The tide’s been changing, slowly and far too surely for Tony’s peace of mind. He’s found that it’s much easier to stomach the thought of talking to Steve when he focuses on Steve’s guilt, that awful vulnerability he saw in the kitchen back at the compound, rather than his own misery and hurt. Focus on the intention rather than the outcome; while Steve’s intentions hadn’t been exactly pure, they hand’t been particularly malicious either. The outcome was hurt and betrayal and so was I, so getting away from that is at least a step in the right direction.

And when Tony’s not watching his own slowly bleeding wound, it’s surprisingly easy to admit that he misses Steve and is rather concerned for him.

so it turns out we’re shit at this whole communicating thing

He puts his phone down, under his thigh on the couch, and returns to his tablet to work on a new design for Clint’s arrows. It’s been too long since he’s had an upgrade, and with some of the tech he implemented into Spider-Man’s uniform he thinks he can make them smaller while still packing the same punch. Hawkeye’s great to have in the field, but Tony’s also secretly glad for the never-ending dilemma of the-archer-always-runs-out-of-arrows. If it comes down to it, and it always does, Tony’s got something to work on.

Twenty minutes later, the phone buzzes under his leg. Tony’s mature enough to admit that Steve was probably in a meeting or the gym, but the thought of him pulling a petty move like “can’t reply right away, gotta wait so Tony doesn’t get the satisfaction” is highly, highly amusing.

i’m sorry, *we’re* bad at communicating?

Tony grins.

pls cap- maybe i run from conflict but u jump into it like it’s a battlefield

you only seem to run when im involved.

Tony types, only cuz u don't seem to have any issues making it into an actual honest-to-god battlefield, but then he deletes it. This isn’t that conversation, and he shouldn’t turn it into that conversation, not when they’re texting and on opposite sides of the county. Talk about running from conflict.

Instead, he sends, u ever ask nat how we met?

The reply takes a couple minutes this time: she was undercover at SI, right?

lol ask her about the non-report aspects of that story sometime.

***

“Let’s see that priority list again,” Tony says. FRIDAY wordlessly pulls up the list of Human Lives: Which Take Precedence? That’s not what it’s really called, of course—someone would bring him back to life just to kill him if he did that he’s pretty sure—but that’s what it really is if you look at it. He’s not sure why he’s looking at this. He knows it’s right, that he won’t change it.

He looks at it anyway.

Civilians first—he has some semblance of duty, still. He may not dream of Yinsen much these days, but his voice echoes whenever Tony’s making these kinds of decisions. Children first-first if there’s a choice, and then anyone else unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time or stupid enough to be filming on their phones.

Next is his team, all of them weighted equally. He debated, at first. Wanda’s the youngest (not counting Peter, who’s technically not a teammate), Scott and Clint both have children, Steve is the undying symbol of hope and unity (and he’s Steve, and Tony simply can’t fathom the thought of him being in trouble and not helping), but in the end, he can’t do it. They all deserve to live because they’re people and because they’re his teammates, and it stings too much to try and boil it down to a few variables. It’s cowardly, is what it is, but he also thinks it may be the right way to handle this. The priority here is whoever’s closest and in the most need of help. That is, unless someone happens to be key in finishing the mission and saving the world (or at least a good chunk of it). Then, depending on just how big of chunk of the world they’re talking here, they key teammate could even take priority over civilians.

Third is any allies they may have acquired for the fight. Same rule applies if there are any key players. Fourth is any enemies they can save. It doesn’t happen often and when it does it’s mostly goons surrendering when they know they’re outnumbered. The parameter is mostly there for the sake of thoroughness.

The list feels like something final. Here’s Tony, after advocating for the Accords for a year now, after vying for the belief that the most powerful don’t get to decide what’s right and who they help, and now this list, this list ranking the value of human life. He knows it’s a decision he makes in the field every time he goes out, but it’s never felt so clinical.

Howard would probably be proud in this moment. It’s efficient. Preemptive even. Fury might even be impressed with the mechanics of the program; he would nod, Tony thinks, but be secretly horrified by the power and the implications. For how much Tony and Nick don’t get along, they’re on the same page with surprising frequency. Peggy Carter, from what Tony remembers as a small kid watching her interact with Howard, would sigh. She wouldn’t explain why, but she would sigh if she saw this, and she would look sad. Frankly, Tony has no idea what Yinsen would say. The man managed to surprise him to the end, and Tony never quite got a grasp on him like he thought he did. He likes to believe Yinsen would take him by the shoulders and smile like he did when he found out Tony didn’t have a family to go home to, smug and knowing, and he would say, “All I asked of you is that you not waste your life, Stark. That doesn’t make you responsible in the afterlife. Do you always take a man’s dying words so seriously?”

He hasn’t thought it in years, at least not so concretely, so front-and-center, but it pops up, unbidden: What would Mom think? The Maria Tony likes to remember would probably just give him a hug, one hand cradling his skull and one hand and squeezing his neck. She would call him “bambino,” even at this age, and she would tell him not to carry the weight of the world like this.

Tony wishes he knew the right thing to do. He wants one of them to show up and tell him what to do. Ultron was a complete failure. If he hadn’t been brought online too soon, maybe it would’ve worked out, but nobody cares about how great Ultron almost was. Vision comes close, he certainly is astounding, but not the shield around the world Tony was going for. Vision’s a person, a being, and that certainly is a miracle, but an entirely different kind. Tony’s getting older, no matter how well he takes care of himself, and he needs a solution, several solutions, he needs to know they’ll be okay. This is only one contingency, a stopgap at best, but it’s all he’s got so far.

***

Somebody got ahold of T’Challa, either Sam or Steve, and Tony doesn’t ask which. All he knows is that he gets an email from T’Challa informing him of the decision to thaw out one James Buchanan Barnes. The only response Tony sends is the completed design for Barnes’ new arm.

He doesn't want to know if Barnes is being shipped back the States, or what treatments, if any, he chooses to try first, or if he decides to retire quietly on a diary farm in Wyoming. Sadly, the luxury of ignorance isn’t something Tony’s granted often, and this is no exception. Tony will count his blessings when they come, though, and thankfully all the information on Bucky comes from T’Challa in that calm, respectful tone, and not a peep comes from Rogers on the subject. Tony simultaneously wants the recognition, because he knows Steve knows this is hard for him, and also that he knows how much work Tony personally put into this outcome. At the same time, he logically knows that if Steve decided to say something, Tony wouldn’t be able to handle it, not yet. But that’s besides the point.

The point is that Barnes decides he will come to America, to New York, to the Avengers compound. Barnes has decided that the BARF tech might help him in the future, but it’s too soon for him to try that yet (Tony grudgingly agrees with him). He’s starting with sit-down-and-talk therapy, and Tony has to admit he’s rather impressed by that choice. Stupidly, Tony hopes this is the final push that convinces Steve to get his own shrink.

***

There’s an email from Pepper today. Apparently there are spreading rumors that he’s died. Again. She’s worried about him. He’s only been back in Malibu for about a week and a half, but with the kind of reputation Tony’s procured, this is how fast the public’s willing to jump to conclusions. Plus there was that entire period before the re-signing ceremony where he was AWOL, but whatever.

Tony googles “tony stark news” and it’s right there, third option down: speculation. There are timestamped pictures of him before the Avengers reunited (mostly headed to and from meetings, a couple shots of him walking into the hospital Rhodey was staying at), and they’re side by side with photographs from the second signing of the Accords and the beginning of the gala that night, along with explanations as to why that second row can’t be real. In the first photos it points out his injuries, one of which may have, the author reasons, been responsible for his demise. Even his body shape is compared; in the first row of pictures, he looks ill but also like he’d been stress eating, he’s got a bit of a belly and hollows under his eyes. In the second, he looks like a manic version of his younger self, a bit of a slimmer waist and more color, hair carefully styled (but that last part’s all Natasha). Tony figures the physical renovation he did to the Malibu house was good for something, and getting rid of the alcohol didn’t hurt either.

The conclusion is that Tony’s been missing for a good while, since right after the rogues returned, and that whoever was signing the Accords was either a LMD or someone in a photostatic veil (the existence of those little buggers came to light when Nat dumped the SHIELD files and now nobody trusts anything—it’s getting on his nerves a bit). He’s apparently been dead (or missing, the author is willing to allow), for a couple of months.

Tony’s grinning like a loon when he copies the link, sends it to Steve, and asks, c’mon, spill, where’d u hide my body

the hell is this? Steve sends back eventually. It’s taken him almost ten minutes to reply even though he read the message right away; he’s guessing Steve spent the time staring at the article and checking to see if it was a satirical website. (Tony suspects Steve doesn’t know his read receipts are on, but Tony’s sure not going to be the one to tell him that.)

proof of my demise. my funeral better have been awesome, rogers. there was supposed to be black sabbath, was there black sabbath?

pepper nixed it but rhodes burst into the church with a boombox on his shoulder anyway. clint swung from a chandelier, you’d’ve been proud.

pepper party pooped on my death party? oh she’s so fired.

oh yeah good luck. i think at this point you’re stuck with haunting her

Tony’s smile melts into something a little more genuine and he swings on the couch so he can kick his legs up too.

oh please, Tony sends back, if im haunting anyone its u. and that’s mostly so i can show up in your head during firefights to tell u to trust the force

you’d make a poor obi-wan and you know it, stark

okay then who am i?

Then Tony rereads Steve’s last reply and types out another message before Steve can get a word in: (idk tho i haven’t screwed the pooch too horribly w the spider kid)

Steve’s typing bubble disappears after that, pauses, and begins again for all of five seconds.

you’re doing fine with the kid! And then Steve’s typing again, and Tony waits. He swings his feet up even farther until he’s upside down, hair nearly brushing the floor and, wow, he needs a haircut maybe. and maybe you’re even the kind to stay behind as the distraction so everyone else can get away but you'd at least be FIGHTING when you did it.

Tony’s not entirely comfortable with Steve knowing him so well—and when did that happen, anyway? But also who cares because that’s not the point of the conversation.

youre avoiding the q, rogers.

oh you’re leia.

Tony laughs, and it’s only a small huff of air but it’s a genuine laugh; no one’s watching, and it feels good.

and who’re u? luke skywalker i assume?

han solo obviously

And Bucky makes a good Chewbacca, but Tony doesn’t quite want to say that out loud. He’s pretty sure they’re both thinking it anyway. He thinks walking carpet and Barnes’ mane of hair, and that’s it, that’s perfect. Even though it’s supposed to be Chewbacca ripping off people’s arms, not Princess Leia ripping off Chewy’s—and there, his good mood’s dissipating already. Because Barnes killed his parents and Steve knew, and, God, this is such old news. He feels so disjointed lately, and the air whenever he’s around Steve is just so heavy, and he thinks it could’ve been so much better than this. He has no idea if it can ever be more than this, now. Forgetting for a short time and then getting hit by a brick wall of distrust and hurt and you chose him. So Tony types and he wants and he tries desperately not to think too much beyond those simple facts.

hey ya stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-lookin nerf herder

who’s scruffy looking? Steve sends back right away. It lets Tony breathe, think, right choice, Stark. And then, what’s up?

can we meet up?

Tony lowers himself to the floor, down on his shoulder blades and then swings his feet around until he’s lying parallel to the couch. Steve just sends back a sure, tony that proves he doesn’t really get what Tony’s trying to say.

i mean to talk, he sends quickly.

id love to, is Steve’s immediate reply. Tony just stares at it, and then he stares at it some more. Tony wouldn’t love to. In fact, the idea of meeting up specifically to talk fills him with absolute dread. Then again, so does the idea of never talking to Steve again. And the idea of continuing like this, faking friendship until it’s real for fleeting moments just to feel it all shatter all over again? He can’t do that.

Somebody has to save our skins, he thinks a little hysterically.

i’ll come by tomorrow? we can get a coffee or something

***

Of course, four hours later is the call to assemble. Tony closes his eyes briefly. Just for a moment.

“Into the garbage, fly-boy,” he mumbles. He opens his eyes.

Chapter Text

There are aliens in Chicago. The aliens have apparently been working with humans on the ground to gain inside intel for months. And by “humans on the ground” he means gang members and all of their corrupt friends in high places. And, Christ, Chicago’s a mess. A horribly cliche, predictable mess somebody should’ve seen coming. But that’s not a problem for the Avengers; their problem is the giant bug alien things who’ve already started killing people on the ground, even as they try to take over the city. They’re a parasitic species, according the brief Maria Hill sent over, and they lay their eggs in human-sized hosts. The term “raping and pillaging” comes to mind.

The brief also says that once the embryos grow, the host will become “effectively dead.” Tony doesn’t want to find out what that means, but he has a feeling he won’t be so lucky.

They’re all on an open comm channel as they flock to the site: Clint, Steve, Wanda, Scott, Vision, Sam—all except Natasha, who’s on a conference call with a UN rep and at least three people from the White House, getting special permission to engage. Normally they would try to bring in the mayor of the city being torn to shreds, but in this instance they think he might’ve been in on it. Tony holds his breath, but not even ten minutes later, Vision informs them that special permission has been granted.

Happy has Peter on his way to Illinois, too, but he’s on standby only until they figure out what kind of threat this is. T’Challa’s aware of what’s happening, and he’s on his way, but even in one of his jets it’ll take hours.

“They have stingers, too,” Steve’s saying. “Reports differ, but the poison will either kill you or paralyze you, so let’s all agree to steer clear.”

Natasha chooses that moment to turn on her own comm. There’s a slight fitz when she opens the channel.

“I’m a goddess,” she tells them. Tony smiles. “Bow down to the mighty powers of the diplomat extraordinaire.”

“You’re a superstar, Nat,” Tony says.

“Thanks, Black Widow,” Steve says, all business. “When everybody’s on the ground, I want one of the flyers to get Hawkeye up nice and high. Iron Man and Falcon, I want you to make the perimeter as tight as you can, watch our six. Ant-Man, Black Widow, and myself with start taking these things out on the ground. Vision, I want you to incapacitate one long enough for the Scarlet Witch to get in its head. See if their fears can tell us anything about their weaknesses.”

“Local authorities are expecting us,” Natasha says.

“Good,” Steve says.

“Have they made any headway on evacuations?” Sam asks.

“No organized attempts have been successful yet,” Natasha says.

“Vision, Maximoff,” Steve says, “after you’ve gotten all the intel you can, start sweeping buildings, top to bottom. Sam, Tony, and Clint will give you the locations of any civilians they see.”

There’s a series of agreements from the entire team, and then they all quiet down and focus on getting there, Tony in the suit, Scott on an ant (and yes, he actually makes good time doing that, go figure, but that doesn’t mean Tony’s going to stop teasing him about it), the rest in a Quinjet. Tony switches over to a private comm channel and pings Steve.

“Iron Man,” Steve says.

“Cap,” Tony says, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

“I’d be worried if you didn’t.”

“Guess this is a raincheck on that coffee, huh,” Tony says, going for lighthearted and not quite managing.

“No can do, Stark,” Steve says. “We should be done with this by tomorrow. We can even fly back to New York together.”

The sun is setting over…Kansas? The sun is setting over Kansas as Tony flies east, and it’s going to be dark in Illinois by the time they start the battle. Battles take either half the time or triple the time in the dark. Tony knows this, and Steve knows this, and Tony knows Steve knows this, and Steve knows that Tony knows that Steve knows this.

In short, Steve’s lying, and Tony has mixed feelings about that. But it’s one of those lies people tell to make you feel better, and it’s a nice enough thought that Tony doesn’t call him on it.

“It’s a deal,” Tony says, that ball of dread still sitting in his stomach.

***

The bug-looking aliens have tentacles because of course they do. They have creepy crawly legs that look deadly sharp, but where a human would have their arms, these freaks have tentacles. The good news is that it’s hard for them to get a decent grip on a person. The bad news is that once they get a grip on a person, it seems to be nearly impossible to get away.

Scott got to the scene first, and then Tony only seconds later. The rest of the Avengers are still a few minutes out, so Scott and Tony do a flyover and start relaying observations to everyone. They look frankly disgusting, but that information isn’t particularly helpful. He sees what looks like a National Guard member caught in an alien’s grip, trashing and struggling, and Tony’s about to swoop in when the man goes still and limp—only for the alien to go down, hard, loosening its grip as it starts to writhe in pain. There, across the street, the cop that just shot the thing cleanly in the eye. The National Guard officer rolls swiftly away from the dying alien.

Tony tells the Avengers about the tentacles, to be careful of them.

“They have jaws like humans,” Scott says, “instead of mandibles.”

Scott makes that sound significant, but Tony has no idea why. He’s right, though. The bug things have jaws that open up and down instead of the sideways jaws of ants.

“If our baseline for alien invasions is the Chitauri,” Tony says, “then this is a relatively small attack. I’m estimating a couple hundred hostiles based on what I can see from the sky.”

“Good,” Steve says, and he sounds about as relieved as Tony feels. “Let’s do this quick and clean, Avengers.”

And then the Quinjet’s there, and Tony relaxes that much more. This is good, they’ve all got each other’s backs. This is so far from the biggest thing they’ve faced together. Hell, there was a time when they were dealing with lunatics in Central Park almost on a weekly basis.

Hawkeye jumps out of the ‘jet, and Tony pulls a quick figure eight so he can catch the archer.

“Warn a guy,” Tony says, but it’s an old argument.

“Aw,” Clint says, “you do care.”

“Why can’t we do trust falls on the ground like the good corporate monkeys we are?”

“Shut up,” Natasha says, putting on a bored tone even though everyone here knows her better than that. “We talked about this, boys. If you’re going to jump out of a plane, use the buddy system. Let someone know.”

This is, of course, the moment Steve jumps out of the Quinjet without a parachute or a warning. The sun has officially set, but the CPD has set up floodlights along a couple of streets already, and Steve’s shield glints as he tumbles down to the earth.

“Oh, my God,” Tony sighs. None of the other flyers come to catch Steve, which means he did tell them and he’s actually trying to give Tony a heart attack. Clint laughs, even as he clings to Tony’s side, and Tony could drop him right now, it would be so easy.

“Your two o’clock,” Clint says. Tony turns his head and sees the building. Not quite a skyscraper, but it’s a high rise and definitely has the best vantage point. Tony deposits Hawkeye and gets back to circling high. Sam steps off the back of the Quinjet finally and glides in a giant arc. He deploys Redwing, too, and the little bot takes off into the broken window of one of the closer buildings, probably checking for people.

“Captain America’s bullying me,” Tony says. “Didn’t you do a PSA about bullying? You should really know better.”

“Okay,” Steve says, pretending to be all serious again, but Tony’s onto him, “focus, people.”

The ‘jet touches down on one of the skyscraper’s landing pads and the rest of the team starts making their way down to street level.

“Cap,” Tony calls, “285 degrees.”

Steve’s turned and thrown his shield before Tony’s completely done talking. The alien staggers back, but isn’t down for the count. Tough little fuckers.

“Hey, my sweet little cherubs,” Clint says, “we’ve got some strays at the northwest corner of the street. One of you wanna wrangle ‘em back in?”

“My sweet little what now?” Sam says, but he’s already heading in that direction, so Tony just laughs. He feels high on adrenaline, and like he’s home, like he’s alive and engaged in the world, like the gang’s back together. And he just might commission a massive, renaissance-esque painting of a cherub rodeo for Clint’s birthday.

The battle continues on like this. Steve, Natasha, and Scott are all making steady if slow progress on the ground; Clint, Tony, and Sam calling out positions and warnings and angles from up high; Clint picking them off with arrows; Tony and Sam circling low to keep the perimeter; Wanda’s got one pinned up against a brick-faced building, and Vision’s at her back, keeping her clear.

It takes a few minutes for Wanda to pull back. In that time, Steve’s taken a slight blow to the head but swears he’s fine, and Redwing’s found an injured woman in a stairwell, so Natasha takes off to retrieve her. Sam starts flying lower after that, firing on the aliens in clever little dive-bombs.

“They’re afraid of one of them dying,” Wanda says. She sounds strained, tired.

“Any one of them or a specific one?” Clint says.

“A specific one,” Wanda says. “The queen? There’s…it’s hard to work out because it’s their fear. All of them.”

“What does that mean?” Steve says.

“Hive mind?” Scott says, and then lets out an oof as he rolls to the side to avoid a tentacle.

“Yes,” Wanda says.

“So where’s the queen?” Steve says.

“I don’t think she’s here with them,” Wanda admits.

“Fantastic,” Tony says. “Cap? Plan B?”

“We kill the ones here as a message to the queen,” Steve says.

As a plan, it’s not exactly foolproof. But it’s just about the only option they’ve got.

“Aye-aye, Cap’n,” Tony says.

***

The aliens have endoskeletons in addition to their exoskeletons, which is the primary reason they’re so hard to kill. They’re fast and strong too, and this is taking too long.

Vision and Wanda have moved on to evacuation, methodically making the rounds through the surrounding buildings. Natasha’s rejoined the guys on the ground, and she’s being tight-lipped about the injured woman. Nobody asks a second time.

Steve’s beating on one of the aliens, swinging his shield forward and then back. These things can walk off just about anything short of decapitation which, even for Steve, is becoming quite the chore. Tony spots another alien coming up behind Steve, and Steve’s just getting ready to go for the kill with the one in front of him. Instead of calling it out, Tony swoops low and fires a repulsor at its unarmored tentacle. The thing howls as Steve’s shield goes cleanly through the other one. A missile launcher pops out of the suit’s shoulder and he fires a projectile straight into its gaping mouth just as Steve turns to see what’s going on. They both watch as the aliens implodes and goes down, gurgling low in its throat.

Steve nods, and Tony takes off again.

Nat’s widowbites are exceptionally ineffective, but her and Scott seem to have teamed up. Scott gets captured while Natasha sneaks up from behind, and then he shrinks down to safety while she slits its throat or shoots its brains out from the soft, unprotected underside of its jaw.

***

Vision finds at least three hundred more holed up underground, and they all come streaming out when their hiding place is exposed.

“Awesome,” Scott says.

If Tony was more inclined to crying he would be in tears. They’ve been fighting already for a couple of hours, and are quickly growing exhausted. They’ve almost all taken hits. Most of them are small, minor things, but it’s adding up. Scott’s shoulder was almost dislocated when he got caught mid-shrink by a tentacle. Sam rammed into one of the aliens from behind as it was closing in on Natasha, and he landed hard enough to sprain his ankle; it’s fine as long as he stays in the air, but if he has to land again he’s going to be in trouble. One of the newcomers had a scythe, of all things, and it sliced Steve right under the collarbone. Went through his uniform like warm butter, and Tony would be impressed if he wasn’t so pissed. It’s done bleeding now, he thinks, but only after the blood soaked through Steve’s uniform top, all the way down to his navel. Tony himself got caught by a tentacle around his knee when he flew too low. It didn’t last long, but just long enough to compromise the joint and warp the metal. It doesn’t even hurt if he keeps his leg straight.

“I’m running low here, guys,” Clint says. “The explosive arrows were the only ones doing any good and I’m just about out.”

Tony curses. Any other arrow and he and Sam could go collect them from the ground, but the explosive arrows are a one-and-done kind of deal.

“Might be time for you to join us on the ground, Hawkeye,” Steve says.

“Copy that,” Clint says.

Sam scoops Clint up and glides him down to the ground.

“And then there were two,” Tony says.

“The only two that count,” Sam says, but it doesn’t fool anyone. Clint has the best eyes—they don’t call him Hawkeye for no reason—and even with Sam and Tony in the sky, it’s a loss. Sam and Tony are flyers, and Tony’s one of the heaviest hitters here. They call out what they can, but they also fly low to fight their own share of the aliens.

“Captain,” Wanda says a few minutes later, “advise. I have a man here—human, but he appears to be…infected, somehow.”

“Define ‘infected,’” Steve says. There’s a beat of silence, and then another. “Scarlet Witch, report.”

“It looks like the alien is wearing him as a second skin,” Wanda says. She sounds ill, like she’s trying to detach herself from the situation. Nobody quite knows what to say to that.

“What’s your location?” Steve asks.

“Building 1480, south end of the street,” she says.

“Iron Man—”

“On my way, Cap,” Tony says, already angled that way. “Where in the building, Wanda?”

“Second floor.”

Tony busts in through a wall on the third floor after a scan reveals no lifeforms on that level and he flies down the stairwell. It doesn’t take him long to find Wanda, in what looks like a destroyed office, red energy holding the thing suspended a foot and a half above the floor.

It’s bad. It does indeed look like one of the aliens put on a human as a second skin, but it’s worse than that. Effectively dead, Tony thinks, and shudders behind the steady facade of his armor. His working theory is that one of the embryos grew inside its human host and sort of…exploded outwards. The tentacles grew through the human’s arms, and the bug legs are protruding from the person’s flanks. The face still looks more like a hybrid, though, alien eyes and a jaw that opens too wide, a blue-grey tint to the whole thing, but still human enough to make his stomach roll.

“Hey, doc,” Tony says, going for casual. “You requested a second opinion?”

Wanda looks from the alien to Tony and then back, arms held up to keep the thing in place. Tony can tell, they’re both going to be having nightmares about this for a while. Yay for trauma bonding.

“Tony,” Wanda says. This might be the first time she’s called him by his given name, this horror show must really be bringing them closer together. It makes Tony hate himself all the more for what he has to ask.

“Have you tried getting in its head yet?”

“I can’t,” she says. “It’s taking too much concentration to hold him.”

“Right.” And yeah, now that Tony looks, he can see the thing’s muscles bunching and rippling as it tries to buck its way out of Wanda’s hold.

“On my mark, I want you to release it,” Tony says. Wanda looks at him like he’s lost his mind. “I’ll hold it while you get a look. ’Kay?”

“Yeah,” she says, sounding a little dazed, “okay.”

Tony moves around the perimeter of the room to stand behind the thing. The only sounds are his heavy, clanking footsteps and the infected’s struggling hisses. He sets his feet wide, brings his arms up, and takes a deep breath.

“And…mark!” he says. The red energy dissipates, and Tony steps forward as quickly as he can. He gets his arms around its torso and suddenly has the thing in a full nelson. Wanda takes a faltering step towards them, holds her outstretched hands closer together, and starts spooling out energy that wisps towards the thing’s head. It throws its head back, but it doesn’t connect, just narrowly missing Tony’s nose. The tail reaches up, but it’s not designed to reach its own back, probably a defense against sticking itself with the stinger. It takes a few seconds, but the tentacles start snaking backwards, alien flesh and ribbons of human arms clinging on. They wind up around Tony’s arms, around his neck. He knows Wanda’s working as fast as she can, that begging her to hurry up will only slow her down, but then the tentacles start squeezing like a python, and alerts start flashing red on the HUD.

“Maximoff,” he says sharply. Her eyes close tightly and she lets out a pained noise on the exhale. He shouts when the rerebrace folds in over his bicep. The pauldron goes a few seconds later, and he doesn’t scream this time; the air feels like it’s been sucked from his lungs. That’s my collarbone, he thinks helplessly.

“Wanda,” he says as soon as he can.

“The hive mind,” she gasps. “I can’t find a person in there, but that doesn’t mean he’s not there.”

Tony swallows and grits his teeth. Wanda’s not a kid, but she’s young. Tony thinks he knows how this has to play out, whether there’s someone still in there or not.

“Okay,” he says. His neck and shoulder pulse with pain. “You’re out.”

There’s a second, two, where nobody says anything. Wanda opens her mouth like she’s going to argue, but Tony’s still wrapped up nice and tight in alien tentacles, thank you very much, and he does not have time for this.

“Go on to the rest of the building, keep the evacuation going.”

She looks at him helplessly, and then at the alien-person hybrid. Miraculously, though, she turns and runs out of the room.

The thing hisses again and wrenches its torso around. Tony’s arm flares in response, red-hot under the armor in a way he’s come to associate with blood. He grits his teeth. His hands are still holding firm on the back of its head, but he manages to angle his shoulder enough to fire a small laser at the thing’s tentacle of an arm where it’s wrapped around his bad arm. Its grip tightens at the sudden, unexpected pain, but the other tentacle loosens and starts blindly groping for the laser. It’s just enough for Tony to get his good arm free, and he put his palm against the unarmored, squishy tissue of the tentacle and fires a rupulsor. It goes through parts of the human arm still hanging on to the larger alien. Tony knows there’s no way he can smell anything through the suit’s filters, knows he must be imagining the burnt skin smell, but he suppresses a gag anyway. He flips the transmission off on his comm so he can hear everyone but they can’t hear him.

“Come on,” he mutters as the infected person howls and stumbles away in pain. And, interesting, it walks on the human legs. Then louder, “Anybody home in there?”

The only response is a shriek and a swish of the tail.

“Give me a sign,” Tony says, pleads, hands out to look nonthreatening. “Just gimme a reason not to kill you, that’s all I need.”

It lunges. Tony tilt his wrists just enough to fire the repulsors, more out of reflex than anything. It only burns some of the human skin over the thing’s armored chest, but otherwise glances off. The alien collides with Tony, then, sending him back into and halfway through the wall of the office. He shakes his head to clear it, but then the alien’s on him, screaming and gripping the shoulders of the armor. His shoulder screams and he feels something deep inside him grind at the rough movement.

“I’m sorry,” he gasps through the suit’s speakers.

“FRIDAY, reroute power to reactor.” He stops, listens for the whine of it powering up. Then he fires when the thing’s face is aligned.

He tries to roll out from under it, but he’s still in the middle of a half-demolished wall. Bits of the hybrid fall onto him, and he has to use both arms to push the bulk of it off, yelling as he does so. He uses the repulsors to propel himself to standing again, instead of putting any more weight on his arms.

Deep breath, he tells himself, and assesses. His arm is bleeding, he thinks still, and his collarbone may or may not be broken. Neither of those are life-threatening, not unless his collarbone is really fucked up, anyway. He doesn’t think it is, though. His neck still rotates, and he can move that arm. Nothing’s numb, at least. Which he admits kind of sucks, but is also a good sign. Another deep breath, and he flicks his comm back on, making his way back onto the street slowly.

“Welcome back to the party,” Sam says when he’s visible again.

“Iron Man,” Steve says, and it’s a command in and of itself.

“Hill was right,” Tony says, and hates himself for making this call because there’s a chance, there’s a chance someone was still in there, still trapped. But he remembers the skin torn to shreds, how pained Wanda sounded when she was in its head. And this way, nobody else has to make the call. “Once a person’s infected they’re effectively dead.”

It’s probably a defense mechanism, Tony thinks. If they put their kids in human skin, a human will be much more hesitant to kill them. It’s sick, but good strategy.

“Copy,” Steve says, and he sounds grim, like he understands the implications of what Tony just said.

The CPD have more lights set up now, but there’s thunder rolling in the distance and clouds blocking the light from the moon.

***

Four and a half hours into the fight, and Tony’s flagging. He’s been losing blood slowly since he took on the first of the infected; there’s still a bit of metal in his arm, he thinks, that’s been slowing the bleeding. It hurt at first, but not as much anymore. It’s probably not ideal, but he’ll take it at this point. He desperately wants to tap out, get some water and some medical care. The only reason he doesn’t is because he knows that nearly all his teammates are in the same boat: exhausted, bleeding, and struggling to hang in there. They’ve gotten more help from the National Guard, but they seem to hardly be making a dent.

Evacuations are the only thing they’re keeping up with. Wanda and Vision have come back to the fight after the direct perimeter was cleared. Now the police are evacuating people in a wider and wider diameter. Tony feels slightly better with the buffer zone, but it doesn’t mean anything if they can’t get this under control.

Clint’s moved back onto a rooftop, lower to the street this time, a perfunctory precaution against the lightning lighting up the sky, but things go smoother with his voice in their ears. He catches patterns first and describes them best. Tony thinks he might’ve broken a couple ribs, too, but nobody says it outright.

“Wanda,” Clint’s saying, “move around to the northeast for—”

He’s interrupted by a flash of lightning and he pauses.

“Guys,” Clint says, right as the thunder sounds, just about drowning him out. Tony tunes in, though. There’s something about Clint’s tone, something different. Still cautious and weary and pained, but there’s an urgency to it, a hope they haven’t heard in hours. Clint doesn’t say anything else, though.

“Hawkeye,” Natasha says, and she sounds out of breath but sharp.

Clint laughs.

“Son of a bitch,” he says.

“We have visitors,” Vision says then, sounding lighter than he has in a while. Tony wants to look, but he’s engaged on the ground. He’s just distracted enough to miss the tail sweeping around. It knocks his feet out from under him, but from the ground he easily aims up and fires his repulsors through the soft underside of the alien’s jaw.
He twists then, still lying on the ground, and his breath gets caught on a laugh.

There, in the middle of what used to be a Chicago street, is Thor and the Hulk. Thor’s in a defensive stance, legs spread wide, center of gravity low, Mjölnir in hand, and the Hulk’s breathing heavily, hands curled into fists as his head swivels around to take in the situation.

Steve gets close enough to Thor and the Hulk that his comm starts picking up what they’re saying and transmitting it to the rest.

“Thor,” Steve breathes, “Hulk. You’re late.”

“Fashionably,” Thor says, and Hulk snorts in amusement.

Chapter Text

Thor calls the aliens the Brood, and he talks about them as if they’re pests. According to him, the only way to stop this attack is to either kill every single alien present or to find the queen and either kill her or force her to order them to stand down. Steve explains what they’ve surmised about the the queen not being on planet.

“Surely your people would have noticed a Brood ship entering your world,” Thor says. “They’re not unremarkable.”

“There’s gotta be a portal,” Tony says, the realization hitting him so suddenly he feels a little dizzy. (Well, realization and blood loss.) “That’s how they got hundreds of aliens into the fucking middle of Chicago without anyone noticing. There’s a portal.”

“I suspect so,” Thor says.

During their talk, the fighting continues. Everyone’s splitting their attention to hear what Thor’s saying—except the Hulk, who doesn’t seem to care—and Steve stays close enough to pick up his every word. The pauses are too long between one person speaking and another starting, they’re all switching focus from their surroundings, their enemies, back towards their strategy.

“Underground,” Vision says eventually. “Where they were hidden away.”

“There’s always a portal,” Tony says, more to himself than to anyone else.

***

Steve divides them into two teams, and Tony’s ridiculously glad. Natasha, Vision, Scott, and Thor are all going underground to search for the portal and hopefully to find the queen. It’s a stealth group, with Vision and Thor there as heavy hitters, and Thor with the added benefit of the Allspeak. It’s a solid group, and Tony feels relatively good about it.

Tony, Steve, Wanda, Clint, Sam, and the Hulk are staying behind to keep fighting and keep the way clear for the others. Tony knows it’s a different kind of portal, there’s no nuke, hell, this isn’t even New York, but he’s never been happier to be one of the least stealthy Avengers. Happy pings to ask if they need the spider kid, but Tony gives him a firm negative, tells him to get the kid back home. There are so many reasons Tony could end up in hell, but bringing Peter into this fight isn’t going to be one of them.

Tony breathes deeply despite the flare of pain it causes, and he makes himself pause in the middle of the fight. He pivots around and sees his entire team. Rhodey’s the only one of them not here, but Tony’s secure in his knowledge that Jim’s safe on the east coast. FRIDAY records all footage from battles—it comes in handy in debriefs—and he’s never been happier to have the record. They’re all home, all fighting on the same side, watching each other’s backs. The stealth team is about to go underground, but in this moment, they’re together in the way he imagined back during the Battle of New York. He lets out the breath, shaky, and lets his eyes slip closed.

He’s never going to let that happen again. Not now that he has them, here, with him.

Never again, if he can help it.

And then the air’s knocked out of him; his head whips to the side and he’s sent flying toward the ground hard enough to crack the asphalt. Eyes open, he raises his hands defensively, and the fight’s back on.

***

Thor’s team goes underground, moving slowly but steadily. Clint comes down to street level again to hold back any aliens that tried to follow their teammates. They give a hard push and stall the Brood successfully. Going by the sounds Clint’s making, though, there’s definitely something broken. He would be hovering, but Wanda seems to have that covered.

They’re expending energy they don’t have, but they do it anyway. They don’t have to last indefinitely, Tony reminds himself. If things work out, they only have to hold these things off until the others find and figure out what to do with the queen. Clint and Steve keep up a clear stream of communication, sharing locations and weak spots, and Tony gives input when he can. He focuses on that, on the patterns the Brood are making, on the next target, just one foot in front of the other, metaphorically.

Eventually, the steady updates from Natasha stop. She informs them that the portal has been found, and they’re about to go through and then—nothing. The signal must not be able to travel like that. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but it’s not ideal for either group.

More of the infected human-alien hybrids start showing up after that. So much for protecting Wanda, Tony thinks.

Tony touches down next to Steve for a while; they fight as flawlessly as they ever have despite the haunted look on Steve’s face and the way Tony can’t stop shaking inside the armor, only overlapping adrenaline rushes keeping him upright. They don’t talk beyond strategy, but Tony thinks he can read some of his own conflicting feelings in Steve’s body language; the relief at being a united front again, the horror at having to kill things that used to be people, the trust to have each other’s backs.

***

Five hours in, Tony thinks. Maybe five and a half. It would be too much work to pull up a clock on the HUD or ask FRIDAY. Frankly, they have bigger fish to fry. But, Tony thinks five and a half hours. He’s running out of ammo. The short range ballistics that were proving somewhat effective against the exoskeletons have just about run out. The repulsors haven’t done much good unless he can get to a tentacle, but he’s slowing down too much, missing the tricky targets more often than not. Concentrated lasers have some effect too, but only localized. Good for distracting them, he’s found, but not necessarily doing permanent damage.

T’Challa’s here now, though Tony’s not sure when that happened. He’s fierce and efficient and ruthless and barely bats an eye at the infected when Tony tells him there’s nobody left inside the husks.

***

They get a message from Scott some time later.

“Just a little longer,” he says, apologetic. “We’ve found the queen. Thor’s…negotiating.”

There’s blood dripping down from Tony’s eyebrow to his cheek.

“We’ll finish this as soon as we can,” Scott says.

“Lang—” Steve says, but he’s gone already, back through the portal.

***

Tony's stopped keeping track of everyone else’s injuries. He can’t keep up. It’s too many, and they’re past the point of it doing any good.

***

Just a little longer, he tells himself.

***

Hulk brings down a building, slowly and then all at once. Buildings shouldn’t really be coming down like that, Tony doesn’t think, but whatever, doesn’t matter, because it is coming down like that.

And Steve’s standing bare meters away. Tony watches in slow motion as Steve’s eyes widen and he starts to put up the shield like that’s going to help at all. Too slow, Tony thinks, but fires up the repulsors anyway.

He flies straight at Steve, faster than he should, and tackles him. He senses more than feels the cracks coming from Steve’s lower ribs, the way his pelvis angles against his own shoulder. They skid across the ground hard, Steve screaming, the suit screaming, sparks flying. Tony covers Steve’s body with his own and braces himself; the building’s already crashing down on them. Steve’s still holding onto his shield somehow, and he flings it up and around so it’s covering both of their heads. Tony’s collarbone howls at the way his arms are braced, but he just swallows and clenches his teeth against it.

“FRIDAY,” Tony says, staring down at Steve, the way his eyes are scrunched up and the way his nose is wrinkled against the dust he’s breathing in, “lock the joints.”

He can’t hear anything from the suit, but FRIDAY says, “Done, Boss,” and he sags, like a puppet with his strings cut.

“I had strings, but now I’m free,” he sing-songs a little hysterically, “there are no strings on me.”

It’s ridiculous to be thinking about Ultron right now. It’s probably even more ridiculous to be quoting Pinocchio, but the thought fills up his head and spills out. A huge something hits him over the back so hard it punches a gag out of Tony. No thanks, he thinks. He hates vomiting in the suit.

“Iron Man,” Steve coughs and, oh yeah, Tony forgot to turn off his comm transmission. Steve can hear him singing. Steve’s squinting up at him now, and the building’s not even done falling on them.

There’s something heavy on his leg all of a sudden, so heavy he can’t move it. Going from how Steve pales and gasps, he can feel the weight, too.

“We’re gonna be okay,” Tony tells him, lies to him, because it’s a nice lie, and Steve did it earlier. Tony doesn’t know when that became something they do, lying to each other to make them feel better. It’s nice though. He wants to keep it, this thing between them.

“We’re gonna be—okay,” Steve parrots back, breathing through the pain.

“Just hold on,” Tony says. He feels strangely calm. Steve's the one that needs to stay calm, though. It’s got to be hard for him to breathe with all the debris billowing around them, through the space in between them. Tony has filters in his suit for this, all Steve has between him and the rubble is Tony’s armored body, which is hardly airtight.

Eventually, the building stops falling. Steve’s breaths are still too harsh, and he looks terrified to move. Tony would be too, scared of shifting a rock on top of them and setting off an avalanche, but the suit doesn’t let him.

They don’t say anything after that. Steve seems to be trying to regulate his breathing and Tony’s focusing on staying awake. There’s nothing to say anyway. After a few minutes, Steve starts talking again, telling the others where he thinks they are.

“Copy,” Sam says, but it sounds like he’s in the middle of a fight.

***

“I’m gonna get a mocha,” Steve says, whispers. His voice is absolutely wrecked, and the sentence ends in a silent, wheezing cough. “Sprinkle some cinnamon on top.”

There’s a stinging in Tony’s nose, behind his eyes. Steve always liked the sweeter coffee drinks. Tony finds them frankly disgusting, and he has no idea where Steve “lived through the Great Depression” Rogers developed the palate for it. He clears his throat.

“I’m going to make a coffee hot tub,” Tony declares, “with a gallon of sugar poured in.”

Steve laughs, which leads to a cough, which makes him try to curl in on himself. Steve’s head knocks into Tony’s helmet and, despite himself, Tony snickers.

“Asshole,” Steve pants out, laying back carefully against the ground.

***

The rocks start shifting after what feels like forever. One of them pops out from where it had been packed tight with the others, bounces against Steve’s shield, and rolls to a stop next to their heads.

“Careful,” Tony says. “You’re gonna crush us.”

“What?” Wanda says.

“Careful what you’re moving up there,” Tony says.

“We’re not—” Wanda says.

“Shit,” Clint says.

Something shifts above them, a big something or a million small somethings and Tony braces himself even though they don’t collapse (yet).

“Listen,” Clint says, “that’s not us.”

“What?” Tony says. “Then who?”

“Tony,” Steve says, quite, soft.

“Oh,” Tony says.

The thing about that is that they’re still effectively pinned under God-knows-how-many-tons of concrete and glass and steel beams. They can’t move, even as their enemy picks their way slowly towards them. Tony looks down at Steve, at the fear he can see on the other man’s face.

“Oh,” Tony says again.

“Okay,” Steve says. “We’ll wait for it, and then we’ll fight.”

“FRIDAY,” Tony says, because what else can he do, “unlock the joints as soon as there’s room to move.”

***

Tony tries. The dark becomes the darkness of a city night instead of the absolute darkness of a cave-in. Atmospheric light filters in through the dust, and Tony tries to roll. His torso slips off to the side so that his shoulder lands next to Steve’s, but their legs are both still pinned where they are.

It’s enough for Steve to have some room to maneuver, but he’s only halfway through swinging the shield, and Tony’s trying to get his arm out from underneath him, when the Brood’s tail snaps forwards, into Tony’s hip. Not into the plating, but through it, into his hip. His throat closes on something that feels like a sob, and he brings his hand up to fire a careful, concentrated repulsor blast while Steve takes another defensive swing.

And then it’s gone, in a sweep of red, and that must’ve been Wanda, but it’s Sam who’s standing above them now, reaching down.

“Wait,” Steve says, “we’re pinned. I think we need Wanda over here.”

“Be there in a moment,” Wanda says through the comm.

Tony’s thigh feels like it’s burning from the surface down by the time Wanda comes over and lifts a huge hunk of wall off their lower legs. They’re on their feet now, under their own power, and Tony’s rather impressed with himself. He’s restless and twitchy, and he wishes he could keep still, or that he could make it not hurt. He reaches a hand up to run through his hair and is met with the dull clank of his gauntlet meeting his helmet. Steve’s calf looks a little worse for wear, but he’s standing on it resolutely, taking deep, slow breaths, like he’s daring someone to challenge him on it.

“You guys alright?” Sam asks.

“Think so,” Steve says, so Tony doesn’t think he saw, or he must assume the armor was enough to stop the stinger from sinking in.

“Any word from the others yet?” Tony asks even though he’s been on their channel the whole time.

Sam’s halfway through saying, “Not yet,” when Steve interrupts.

“Tony?”

Tony’s sweating the way people sweat when they’re on party drugs.

“Just a little longer, right?” he says to them. He’s fighting a losing battle, and not against the Brood. No matter how hard he tries, he’s losing consciousness. Probably more than consciousness. Steve looks like he wants to cry. Wanda’s stepped away from them and is holding more Brood off while they have their moment.

“We’ve got a job to do,” Tony says, trying his best not to slur his words. He looks straight into Steve’s eyes, though he doesn’t dare lift the faceplate. “Together.”

(This is playing dirty.)

“Together,” Steve says. And Tony flies off. Sam curses down the line, but neither of them try to stop him.

Tony does remember to turn the transmission off on his comm this time.

“FRIDAY, what’ve we got?”

“You’re dying,” she says bluntly.

“See?” Tony says. “That’s not nearly as nice. Nothing to soften the blow. Not even a little white lie.”

“Would you like me to lie to you, Boss?” FRIDAY says; she sounds bored. Tony takes a half-deep breath, careful of the way he feels like he’s been stabbed between the ribs. The joke feels normal, brings a false sense of control he desperately needs, but it costs him, just talking, being awake, breathing.

It isn’t fair. And he’s not five, whining about how unfair life is won’t help him now, but it just—isn’t. His team is back, everyone’s alive and fighting together, on the same side even. If ever there was a time Tony wanted to live, it’s now. His thoughts are getting increasingly sluggish, though. He’s cagey and unraveling. It’s now or never, Tony knows, and he blinks his tears away.

“Nah,” he says. “What do y’think? AVALON Alpha-4?”

“This seems more of an Alpha-6 to me,” she tells him. She takes over the suit then, and Tony lets it go without a fight. He slumps and gives into the urge to twitch.

“Hit it then, babycakes,” Tony says, and tries to pretend he remembers which subprotocol Alpha-6 is. FRIDAY probably knows best, though. He trusts his girl.

There’s the prick of a needle, four of them, and Tony grits his teeth. Ideally, there would be a dozen or more needles; it would be safer that way, to spread the dose out through his body, but Tony never knows how much damage the suit will take or which parts will get knocked out of commission. (Also, Tony dislikes needles, so sue him.) They hold for a moment, and then retreat.

For a couple seconds Tony thinks that maybe they actually did fix the whole agony problem. Only for a couple seconds, though. Whichever subprotocol this is, Tony knows that part of the deal is that his speakers are off. He’s secure enough in that knowledge that he gives in, groans low in his throat when the tingling turns to more. At the end of it, when his lungs are empty, he gasps, and tries to curl in on himself. It doesn’t work, of course, FRIDAY’s still in control of the suit.

He really is burning from the inside out, hot and blistering, and he can’t help but remember Pepper’s face when she’d cried out for him, glowing and hurt and strapped to a table.

Tony, make it stop.

FRIDAY lands them, then, and Tony might just remember what Alpha-6 is.

“Fri,” he says, hisses, because she’s the only one left. And Tony doesn’t want to die alone. He doesn’t. Been there, done that, it sucked.

“Be calm, Mr. Stark,” she tells him.

The suit opens then, and she catches him before he can smack his face on the ground, though he’s not even opposed to it at this point. He writhes where she sets him, propped up against the back wall of a building. Suddenly free, his body doesn’t know what to do, but it’s desperately searching for a position that’s more comfortable. His hands press into his closed eyes, one of his legs kicks out, he twists.

“I shall return,” FRIDAY says, voice inflected with more warmth that usual. Air forces its way out of Tony’s throat, and he makes it into a sob instead of a scream.

“Keep them safe,” he says, and a wave of fire drags him under.

***

It’s not as fast as he’d like. Tony had been hoping he might lose consciousness quickly, but of course not. There are times where he loses awareness, when he forgets how to breathe for how much it hurts, but he keeps coming back to himself.

He still has his in-ear comm with him, transmission off. He’s only able to pick up every odd word, and it doesn’t make much sense. He tries to pay more attention to the voices than the words. Sam and Clint, their tones suggesting bickering, Steve’s increasingly clipped orders. This fire inside of him is spreading out from the injection sites, down to his knees and up his neck, slowly, so slowly.

“I’m sorry,” Tony tells Chicago at 4AM. “Please.”

***

Tony looks down, fully expecting to see his skin blistering and peeling. Maybe charred, the way Killian had looked at the end there. There’s nothing, though, not even the red-orange glow that Pepper’d had.

He bites his hand to stifle the noise he’s making, and it feels almost good, like when you have a headache and you press on your head to relieve the pressure. He bites harder.

***

The burning climbs up his jaw, reaches his ears finally, and he loses his team’s voices. He might be crying.

Come back, Tony thinks. And then the burning reaches the top of his head, his brain, and he knows nothing else.

Chapter Text

Steve likes to believe he’s a man of faith. Not in God necessarily, though that’s how he was raised. His faith is in people—and in his team more than most. He believes in them, trusts them with his life, but he’ll admit he was nearing the end of his rope before Thor came back, Brood Queen scuttling along at his side.

It’s been almost half an hour since he and Tony were freed from the rubble. Steve has some awful road rash and more than a couple broken bones, but he’s alive thanks to Tony, there’s no doubt in his mind. He can throw the shield still, but he’s not good for much else at this point. His dodges are getting sluggish; he can’t roll out of the way anymore because of his back, and his ankle protests any sharp sideways movements.

The fighting grows less heated as Thor and the queen make their way to the epicenter of what now could be called a small war zone. They’ve all fizzled down to halfhearted swings and defensive blocks by the time anyone speaks.

“Enough,” Thor says, loud enough to project down the entire street. “Their business here is done.”

The queen doesn’t make any noise that Steve can hear, but then he remembers the hive mind at play. The aliens stop fighting, but stand at the ready, watching the Avengers and National Guard officers at the perimeter. Steve holds his shield at the ready for a moment, but he realizes that the Brood aren’t going to be the first to stand down. He swings his shield back and activates the mag-strips so it latches onto the straps. It brushes over the road rash on one of his shoulders, and he hisses out a breath. He starts making his way over to Thor’s team where they’re standing beside the queen, quieting his breathing as he goes.

“Avengers,” he says, “fall in.”

Everything feels surreal, a little far away. He doesn’t know if it’s due to the anticlimactic ending to the fight, the pain pushing out a wave of endorphins, the exhaustion soaking in the last of his adrenaline, or all of the above. He’s guessing all of the above. Overall, Thor’s group looks stressed and exhausted, but no worse than when they went underground.

“We won’t have any more problems?” Steve asks. Thor meets the queen’s eyes briefly before looking back to Steve and shaking his head. Steve could scream, really. All of this, the bloodshed and death and horror, and they’re just going to leave? Not that he wants them to stay, but why even start this crusade in the first place if they’re just going to give up?

“We have set agreed upon terms for this ceasefire and retreat,” Thor says. “I apologize for not discussing them with you, Captain, but time was of the essence.”

Steve just nods.

“Nothing too out there,” Natasha says, and Steve’s immensely glad he assigned her to Thor’s team. “Mutual protection from greater cosmic threats, no teaming up with anyone else against each other. That sort of thing.”

“Thank you, o, diplomat extraordinaire.” Steve smiles at her, pained and small but real. She grins back tiredly.

“The Brood has a standing treaty with Asgard, apparently,” Vision says. “Neither party seems overly eager to breach it.”

The others come to join them. Sam stumbles when he lands, but peels the goggles off his head like he’s relieved to have them off, and leans against an overturned car. T’Challa flips over the back of the car, still light on his feet but hunched over ever so slightly. Sam side-eyes T’Challa but moves over so they can both lean. Wanda’s limping, has a black eye and a cut on her cheek, but she’s firmly upright. Clint’s trembling, just barely, holding himself stiffly. He’s taken hard hits, and Steve’s worried about the internal damage he might have. Tony still hasn’t lifted his faceplate, which is strange, but not the weirdest thing to happen today. He looks a little eerie when he lands, like he’s maybe holding himself unnaturally. He sure hadn’t sounded great when they’d been trapped under that building. Neither had Steve, though, he’s sure.

Whatever, though. They’re all alive and on their feet, he tells himself. Despite the odds. The Hulk is even ambling over, which is definitely new. He’s never been much one for listening, but not for lack of effort from the others. Steve's not going to look a gift horse in the mouth at this point.

“We’ll escort the remaining Brood back down and through their portal,” Steve says. “Does anyone need—?”

Steve blinks. He registers that Hulk’s growling before he can register who he’s growling at, and for a moment he thinks they’re going to have to start fighting all over again because Hulk offended their queen. But it’s not the alien he’s glaring at; it’s Tony.

Bruce’s affection for Tony has always bled over into how the Hulk feels about him, ever since that first battle. This, what appears to be happening now, simply doesn’t compute for Steve. He looks back at the Hulk and traces his line of sight again and, right there, he’s obviously looking at Tony, low to the ground and growling.

“Dude,” Scott says, “what the hell?”

He looks about as confused as Steve feels. He sweeps his gaze over the rest of the team, noticing Natasha’s pinched mouth and Clint’s narrowed eyes, the way his hand inches towards his quiver. It’s Wanda, though, who steps forward and puts her hands up threateningly.

“Where’s Mr. Stark?” she asks Iron Man. No response comes from the suit, and a ball of dread settles heavily in Steve’s gut. “Open the armor!”

Something’s wrong, has been for a while. Tony’s hardly spoken since they were unburied, only giving verbal affirmatives to confirm positions or to call out a teammate’s name. That’s not right for Tony, but Steve had chalked it up to exhaustion and an injury or two, just like the rest of them.

He feels like he’s going to be sick. He ignores it, pushes it down, because he and Tony are having coffee in the morning. They have plans. Tony agreed. The back of his throat still burns, but he steps forward.

“Tony,” he says, channeling what Tony and Clint call his Captain Voice. “Status report.”

The helmet rotates so the eyes are staring right at Steve, and his gut lurches. It’s that same unfamiliar, too-graceful movement Iron Man had when landing.

“Captain Rogers,” FRIDAY says, and any thoughts of tragedy are confirmed in Steve’s mind. It feels like his heart is skipping consecutive beats. “If the threat has been handled, the boss could use a hand.”

He flicks his gaze back to Wanda, who’s now standing straight up, but hasn’t lowered her hands. He remembers the men and women they had to fight, had to put down like sick dogs, and he thinks, worse fates than death. Steve makes a snap decision.

If the worst has happened, Steve owes Tony nothing less than his greatest effort to bring him back. Barring that, he deserves all the dignity Steve can offer.

His throat clicks when he swallows.

“Clint,” Steve says, “I want you with me. Nat, we could use a lullaby. Everyone else, I want you to start an escort of the Brood back down and through that portal. Oversee it or get the local authorities set up.”

Truthfully, Steve doesn’t know if a lullaby will be soothing or frustrating to Hulk at this point, not after how things went down between Bruce and Natasha in Sokovia, but he wants her close in case it’s just a run-of-the-mill injury and Tony refuses help. She’s always been best at reasoning with him and getting him to accept what he needs. Mostly, he’s keeping Clint because the man looks about four seconds from total collapse. He and Tony also have a weird, tailor-made bro code where medical assistance is concerned.

People nod and start shuffling around. Steve breathes, and Natasha brushes their shoulders together as she walks by. Right, Steve thinks. Job’s not done.

“Armor override,” Steve says. “Steve Rogers. Code: 34-44-54-64.”

“Code recognized,” FRIDAY says. Steve actually does puke a little in his mouth then, and Clint gives a low, impressed whistle.

Locks can be replaced, he thinks, a little hysterically. It’s the same code from before the Accords, before Siberia. And Tony hasn’t changed it. But that’s…something to look at later. Not now.

“Open the faceplate,” Steve says.

She does, but there’s nobody there.

“Christ on a bike,” Steve says.

“FRIDAY,” Natasha says from where she’s standing at Hulk’s side, “where is he?”

“Behind the car rental service building up the street,” she says. “I can fly someone there, but—”

“Take me,” Steve says right away.

“—you’ll want to call for med-evac,” she says. “Ideally to the compound.”

“Hawkeye,” Steve says, desperation clear in his voice and not caring one bit.

“I’ll call it in and make my way over. You fly,” Clint says. His eyes are dark and solemn, his chin lowered.

Steve opens his mouth, but can’t get any words out. He nods instead. Bruce may or may not be shrinking off to the side, but Steve can’t muster the energy to turn. And then the armor grabs him up in a hug-and-fly so swiftly that Steve’s eyes are burning. If anyone asks it’ll be from windburn.

***

Steve thought he was prepared for a lot. He was thinking that Tony was infected or quietly bleeding out. Maybe he just had a broken bone and was remotely piloting the armor.

Not this.

Not Tony, lying mere feet from a broken beer bottle, gasping like a fish out of water, tear tracks running down his face from every angle, trembling and twisting, gagging in pain.

“What is it,” Steve whispers. He’s frozen a couple feet away from Tony, afraid of somehow making it worse (though he’s not sure that’s possible). Then, louder, “FRIDAY! What happened?”

“The situation was dire,” she says. “The boss’s condition was rapidly nearing the point of no return. As a last-ditch effort, a contingency was triggered and a version of the Extremis virus was injected.”

Steve remembers Extremis. It was part of the whole Mandarin mess that first Christmas they all knew one another. Mostly, Steve remembers seeing Tony’s house being bombed on the news and hearing Tony Stark, presumed dead. He went through the files when the fiasco was over, though. There had been descriptions, mostly of young people who had fought for their country and then been cast aside upon their return, signing away their bodies for a second chance. Steve remembers thinking he understood, and then he remembers realizing for the first time just what he’d been gambling when he decided to let Erskine and Howard experiment on him.

There had been videos.

At least Tony isn’t glowing in front of him. He assumes that means he won’t be exploding. But, dear Lord, he’s in the same kind of pain Steve remembers from the footage.

He finally gets his feet to move, then, to take him forward that last bit of space so he can fall at Tony’s side. His hands float over Tony’s body, looking for injuries. One of his arms is soaked with blood, and he’s holding it all wrong at the shoulder, too. The t-shirt he’s wearing is too baggy to see anything underneath, so Steve moves on. There’s a tear in his jeans at his hip, where the skin beneath is swelling and discolored. There’s a clear puncture mark, the edges of which are flaking away like mica.

“How long has he been back here?” Steve asks, methodically moving his eyes over the rest of Tony’s body, cataloging the small cuts and abrasions.

“Since immediately after being released from the rubble,” she says. Steve’s eyes slip shut. Too long, much too long. Then again, five seconds would be too long in this hell.

He finally reaches up, touches his hands to Tony’s jaw. He’s burning up, and he gasps in a breath at the contact, and sobs it out. His eyes look like they’re struggling to open past the impulse to scrunch them closed.

“Tony?” Steve says quietly. “Tony, it’s me, okay, you’re going to be okay. I’m here.”

“Steve,” Tony says, though it comes out low and afraid and ends in a pained moan. “Please.”

“I know,” Steve says, and he uses one hand to brush back Tony’s hair, comforting and checking for head injuries. “A med team’s on their way. I’m right here,” he says again.

He can hear someone coming up behind them, but when he turns it’s just Clint walking through the alleyway. After a nod, Steve turns back to Tony. One of his hands is flailing and his eyes are screwed shut again. He manages to grab Steve’s hand, the one still on Tony’s face, and pulls it down. Steve takes the hint and holds his hand down at Tony’s shoulder level, still raking fingers through his hair.

“Aw, Tones,” Clint says faintly when he gets close enough.

“ETA on help?” Steve asks.

“Any second,” Clint says. He crouches down on Tony’s other side, falling heavily to his knees and swaying worryingly when he gets there. “They were on standby. We’re gonna load ‘im into the Quinjet. They’re lending us a pilot and some medical personnel to get back to the compound.”

Tony gags then and his entire spine heaves him upwards. He gags again and Steve uses the hand in Tony’s hair to shove his head to the side just in time for him to not choke on his own vomit. The puke splashes onto the pavement and onto the thigh of Steve’s uniform. His heart clenches and he kneads the back of Tony’s neck until it looks like he’s done, and then settles him back against the wall again. Tony resumes his pained gasping.

“Any idea what happened?” Clint asks, and Steve can already hear feet pounding on the street, getting closer. Steve realizes belatedly that FRIDAY must not be transmitting through the comms, just the suit’s speakers.

“Injected himself with Extremis,” Steve says. The rolling, flailing energy seems to have left Tony after vomiting. He’s slumped against the wall now, eyes half open, moaning so quietly on the exhale.

“Right,” Clint says, and reaches for Tony’s other hand. “We gotcha, man. Hang on.”

Tony’s head rolls towards Clint and his eyes open fully just long enough to look up at Clint and break Steve’s heart.

And then the medical team’s there, and someone tells Steve he has to move, and then there are hands on Steve’s shoulders and he really does move. Tony makes a sound when Steve’s hand leaves his hair and, oh, did he say his heart broke before, because he must’ve been wrong then. This is what it feels like.

“We’re right here, Tony,” he says, raising his voice and angling his head so that the words have to be loud enough to reach Tony. And then Steve moves around to help pull Clint to his feet because he seems to be struggling. He’ll have someone check Clint over on the ’jet, he decides, and wraps Clint’s arm around his own shoulders to lead him out of the alley. The EMTs are strapping Tony down behind them, and they’ll need to follow an Avenger to know where to go to get Tony on board. Steve doesn’t want them taking any more time than they have to.

Natasha and Bruce are huddled at the edge of the main street and Steve pauses, takes Clint’s hand from his shoulders, leans him against a wall, and dry heaves over the ground a few feet away. Nothing comes up, so when he decides he’s done he gathers Clint back up and goes to meet them. Someone’s given Bruce a shock blanket and some pants, but he’s barefoot and shirtless. Natasha’s watching them closely, and then looking behind them.

“Pepper’s going to be pissed,” she says, and it’s supposed to be a joke but, Christ, someone really needs to call Pepper. And Rhodey.

“I’m sorry,” Bruce says, and he looks a little out of it, the way he always does after shrinking down. Part of Steve wants to ask about that comment, but most of him doesn't want to touch it with a ten foot pole.

“Captain Rogers,” T’Challa says through the comm, “I suggest you take your injured to safety. I can transport the rest to the Avengers compound when this task is complete.”

“Thank you, T’Challa,” Steve says, and they’re wheeling Tony down the alley now, so Steve starts making his way toward the building they landed on. “Avengers, list off.”

“Ant-Man,” Scott says. “I’m good to stay. Minor injuries, but nothing that needs immediate attention.”

“Black Widow,” Natasha says. “I’m able to stay if needed, but I would prefer to accompany back to the compound.”

“Falcon,” Sam says. “Requesting medical attention and transport. Sooner rather than later.”

“Hawkeye,” Clint mumbles where he’s already stumbling along at Steve’s side. “Med-assist required.”

“Hulk,” Bruce says. “Transport request. And a shirt.”

“Scarlet Witch,” Wanda says. “Minor injuries. I can stay behind.”

“Thor. I shall assist the Black Panther.”

“Vision. I’m able to remain and help.”

Steve heaves a breath and makes his way through the lobby to the elevator.

“Falcon, make your way up to the Quinjet,” he says. “We’ll wait for you. Vision, Thor, Wanda, Scott. Stay behind with T’Challa to get those things off-world. We’ll see you in a bit.”

***

The ride back is a blur of questions from the medical personnel, making sure they don’t move Clint too far from Tony, and being propped up by Natasha.

“We need to call Ms. Potts,” he says at one point.

“FRIDAY did,” Natasha says. “Her and Rhodes. They’re making their way to the compound already.”

“Oh,” Steve says. And then, “Dear God.”

“Sit down,” Natasha says, and moves him to a seat with a good view of everyone and everything.

***

All things considered, it doesn’t take them very long to touch down in New York. They wheel Tony out first. He’s been in and out the entire trip. Every time he goes quiet, Steve’s heart feels like it’s stopping, but he would rather Tony be unconscious while the doctors work. They don’t understand the components of Extremis and are reluctant at first to give him anything for the pain. Bruce rouses long enough to confirm their suspicions. No morphine, no painkillers, no nothing. They seem to remember Bruce’s existence then, and someone digs out an old SHIELD jacket for him to throw on. Still no shoes, though.

Clint's completely crashed now too. He gets wheeled off on the next gurney. Natasha helps Sam hobble down the ramp and Steve half drags Bruce inside. Eventually security stops them.

“What,” Steve says.

“No entry beyond this point, Captain,” the woman says. She’s dressed unassumingly but Steve can see the outline of her tac-gear under her civvies. “The doctors need to run some tests.”

“No—he’s,” Steve says.

“Hey, Steve,” someone says from behind him, behind Bruce even.

Steve turns and there’s Bucky, standing in the middle of the corridor in jeans and a t-shirt with one of the sleeves pinned up where his arm is still missing. His entire field of vision swims for an extended moment before he manages to lean back against the wall. Distantly, his back flares with pain, and he needs to get that looked at, it’s more than road rash.

“Buck,” he says, and tries to smile.

“Wilson pointed me this way,” Bucky says, looking slowly from Steve to Bruce in slow, sweeping motions. Threat assessment or checking them for injuries. Knowing the way Bucky is now, it’s probably both. “The way he said it, though, I expected you to be laid out or somethin’.”

“It’s Tony,” Steve says, and stares at the wall opposite him. He wants to look at Bucky, to drink in the sight of him being awake and aware of himself, but it’s too much. He desperately wishes he hadn’t drank the water Sam pressed into his hand on the ’jet, because he thinks he might get sick for real this time. It feels like a forbidden comfort to have Bucky here when Tony literally used himself as a human shield to save Steve from a falling building. It feels like betrayal, again, right when he and Tony had agreed to talk things through.

He’s overwhelmed, and he shouldn’t be, can’t be. He still has teammates in the field for Christ’s sake.

“Bruce Banner,” Bruce says, and Steve opens his eyes to realize he’d closed them tight. Bruce is stepping forward, offering a hand to Bucky warily.

“Bucky Barnes,” Bucky says, shaking Bruce’s hand.

Steve snorts out a laugh because what the hell, their names are so ridiculous and alliterative. What the hell. Bruce looks bemused and Bucky looks like he might be fighting a smile. Steve heaves in a breath, and then another before he’s fully breathed that one out because it wasn't full enough, it didn’t expand his lungs all the way like it was supposed to. And, God, it’s like having asthma all over again; he sure feels just as useless as his pre-serum self. There’s still a security guard off to the side, and Bucky and Bruce to the other side. And Steve really, really needs to do something. Ping T’Challa, maybe, to see if they’re alright. Or figure out when Bucky got here, or find Bruce clothes that fit better, at least some socks or something, really.

And then there’s Natasha, stalking down the hallway straight for them. Some of Bucky’s humor fades away and Bruce’s eyes go a little hard. Steve tries to take another breath and it comes out as a sigh. Nat brushes right past the both of them, though, and gets a hand on Steve’s shoulder. At first Steve thinks she’s going to ask for an update or give him some bad news, but she peels his torso away from the wall so she can get a look at his back.

“You need someone to look at this,” she tells him.

It’s bad, probably. He can feel air on his back, which means part of his uniform has been shredded away. It hurts when he hunches his shoulders forward too far.

“It’ll heal,” he tells her.

“Steve,” she says, “there’s debris in there.”

“Oh,” he says, and blinks. “Where’s Sam?”

“They gave him something and are trying to ice his ankle back down to a normal size,” she says, and she gives him a tug. Steve remembers why he's standing next to a door in the medical wing. He’s not overly cooperative. “Come on.”

“They won't let me see Tony,” he says. Natasha pauses, and then looks him very firmly in the eyes.

“Maybe they’ll have him settled by the time you’ve gotten the boulder removed from your spine,” she says evenly. He can feel Bucky’s gaze on them, but doesn’t look.

“Nat,” Steve says. Natasha swallows.

“I know, Steve,” she says, squeezes his arm. “Believe me. I do. You need help, though, and it’s Extremis. It’ll take time to…run its course.”

“Natasha’s right,” Bruce says, looking small and miserable. “Unless Tony’s changed it more than we already had.” He grimaces. “There should be more safeties in place than when Killian was using it, at least.”

“You knew about this?” Steve says, and it comes out much angrier than he probably means it, but this whole experience is grating Steve down to his bones. Tony had been in so much pain, just lying in a back alley on the dirty ground, close to choking on his own vomit, alone. Bruce takes a step, a widening of his feet that’s moving neither forwards nor backwards.

“Not,” he gestures at the door they’ve been barred from entering, “whatever this is, but back. Before Ultron. In the early stages of the Cradle research, we were messing with Extremis.”

“Of course you were,” Natasha mutters. Steve concurs.

“Please,” Bruce says, just as quietly and just as vehemently, “without it, you really think Tony would still be alive?”

Steve’s reality swoops again. He might be crashing, finally. Bruce is right, though. Bruce is right, and Tony would’ve died, should’ve died, but he didn’t, and he’s right beyond that door, probably still fading in and out of consciousness, afraid and hurt and he probably thought he was dying alone next to that broken beer bottle, and why the hell does Steve even remember the beer bottle, it doesn’t matter.

Bruce is suddenly in front of Steve, and he didn’t notice when that happened. One second Steve’s thinking about the broken beer bottle and the next Bruce’s hair is inches away because Steve's taller and Bruce is looking down. Steve’s face feels like it’s flaming hot right on the surface, and his hearing has tunneled out. He's leaning back again, which is starting to hurt his back more, and Bruce’s thumb is pressed to Steve’s exposed wrist.

“Your heart’s racing,” Bruce says lowly, eyes flickering to the wall clock. He pulls a face.

And there’s Bucky, right at Bruce's shoulder.

“Buck,” he says. He wants to crouch on the floor and cry like he’s five again. He wants to punch Bruce a little bit, and fight his way back into Tony’s room so he’s not alone anymore.

“Yeah,” Bucky says, like he caught all that. He purses his lips. “One thing at a time. Let’s get someone to look at your back.”

“Okay,” Steve whispers. He takes a deep breath and his hearing normalizes a little. He does it again. “I want someone getting updates from Chicago. Have Vision checking in.” Another breath. When Bruce rolls his sleeve down, he passes Steve’s arm to Bucky and Bucky tugs. He follows.

“I’ll keep you posted,” Natasha says. Steve twists to look back at where she and Bruce are standing still, not following. “I’m gonna catch Bruce up on some things before someone gets a nasty surprise.”

Steve turns back and lets Bucky tow him off.

Chapter Text

Steve sits still long enough to let a couple nurses pluck pebbles from his open wounds. During that time, he eats two energy bars while Bucky stands in the corner and watches the proceedings, hand on his hip, like he’s afraid Steve’s going to bolt.

“There something on my face?” Steve says. He finishes balling up the wrapper for his second energy bar and cuts his gaze to Bucky. Sadly, Bucky doesn’t play along.

“You’re pretty torn up,” Bucky says. Steve looks over his shoulder when another plink sounds from the glass dish they’re throwing his back debris into. When he turns forwards again, Bucky’s rolling his eyes. “Not that.”

“Then what, pray tell, do you mean?” he asks.

“You’re a little shit, you know that?” Bucky asks, but he’s smiling, kind of. Steve can’t help the grin in response, even if it turns into a grimace as a pair of tweezers dig in deep. They’ve developed a rudimentary analgesic for Steve’s metabolism, but it’s not perfect. Partially numbing at best, and it wears off fast.

“And yet here you are.”

“You’re pretty torn up about Stark,” Bucky says.

“You’re a jerk,” Steve says, “you know that?”

“Jerk is such a mild word,” Bucky says, mock musing tone.

Steve blinks.

“We were finally gonna meet up to talk,” Steve says. “Tony and I. We were supposed to get coffee today.”

Bucky grunts in what Steve guesses is acknowledgment.

“You should’ve seen what he did out there,” Steve says. “He made his armor—” He swallows, blinks again, tries to clear himself of the burning tears he can feel trying to make their way out. “He made the armor dump him behind a building when it became clear he probably wouldn’t make it, and then had his AI fly back into battle as he just…as he laid there thinking he was going to die.”

Bucky’s watching him steadily, eyes sympathetic.

“And what’s that thing,” Bucky says, “Extremis.”

“Tony injected himself with a dose,” Steve says. “It’s—hard to explain. There's a file I can get you, though. I think it’s the only thing keeping him alive.”

“I didn’t think,” Bucky says, and then stops. Steve looks up and catches his eye only to find the genuine confusion Bucky’s radiating. “After the way it went down in Siberia, I didn’t think you’d be so worried about him.”

“Of course I am,” Steve says. Quieter, “Of course I am.”

“Of course,” Bucky says slowly, eyebrow raised.

Steve gasps then, at the awful sharp pressure against his back. His eyes shut tightly against the pain and by the time he opens them he’s just tired.

“I didn’t want to fight him,” Steve says.

Bucky just watches him in response. After another couple minutes of discomfort and Steve trying not to squirm, Bucky looks up at something above Steve’s head. The nurse, if he had to guess.

“Tell ya what,” Bucky says, looking back to Steve, “you let ’em get an X-ray and I’ll personally help you fight your way into Tony’s room.”

Steve grins.

***

There's a stress fracture in his pelvis, but it's not displaced at all. It’s already stitching itself back together, too, and if Steve had to guess then he would say that it’s already improved significantly. He has one cracked rib, a few more deeply bruised. There’s no danger to his ankle, so he doesn’t even listen to what they say about it. He may or may not need skin grafts for his back, depending on how his healing factor decides to deal with that, but he’s not going to worry about it quite yet.

Steve sits there on the exam table, and he nods along with what the doctor says for the entire time he’s speaking. He doesn’t remember having dealt with this doctor before, and that’s good, that’s wonderful actually, because the doctor probably thinks he’s listening or going to take any of his advice. Steve knows how this works. No backflips, sparring, or jumping, and probably no showers until his back fixes itself. Not his first rodeo, after all.

Eventually, the doctor nods to Bucky and exits the room. Bucky inclines his head at the doctor in response, but leaves his chin down when he rotates to glare at Steve.

“It’s all comin’ back to me,” he says. "You're deplorable.”

“They got their X-ray,” Steve says. “A deal’s a deal.”

“Next time I’m getting a contract written up.” Bucky blinks his eyes like he’s rolling them behind closed lids, but he reaches a steadying hand forward when Steve slides off the exam table anyway.

***

They can hear the screaming long before they reach the door where they were denied entry earlier. It lasts for a broken twenty seconds or so, the terrible, scared, pained yelling, and then it tapers off with some audible panting like Tony’s trying to get his breath back.

Steve doesn’t realized he’s paused to listen until the sound stops altogether. He turns and meets Bucky’s gaze for all of two seconds before they both take off down the hallway. There’s not even a guard at the door anymore and Steve thinks, we’re gonna make it, nobody’s going to stop us—

“Cap.”

It comes from behind them, and when Steve turns he sees Sam occupying two waiting room chairs turned to face each other; he’s sitting in one and has his ankle propped up in another. That’s not what makes Steve pause, though. Rhodey’s there, too. He’s standing, pacing but trying to be sneaky about it, and he looks more pissed off than anything. Natasha’s there as well, standing behind the chair Sam’s sitting in, one hand braced on the back. She looks pained, gaze flickering to the door Tony’s behind, then to Bucky, and then settling on Steve.

“Pull up a chair, boys,” she says, but it’s lacking the lightness she usually has.

“What,” Steve says. He glances back at the door that’s now behind him like he might decide to make a run for it anyway (he really might). “What the hell.”

“Bruce said they still couldn’t give Tony anything for the pain,” she says quietly. “Said it would confuse the ‘program’ to introduce a foreign chemical agent. Or something like that.”

Steve looks around the group again, and then down the hall.

“Where’d Banner go?” he asks, thinking maybe Bruce went back to help the doctors.

“Getting acquainted with the compound’s Hulk room,” she says, and Steve would be curious, really, if curiosity didn’t take so much energy.

“Others are on their way back,” Sam says sleepily from his chair-bed. “Clint’s in surgery.”

Guilt flares up in Steve’s chest. He’d forgotten to ask about Clint. Goddammit, he was supposed to be a leader here. Tony was right, he can’t keep doing this thing, this self-sabotage thing where he just forgets about some of his teammates. He sees Bucky shift his weight out of the corner of his eye.

“What’s his condition?” Steve asks, because he has to, because it’s Clint, his friend and teammate, one of the only ones of them to have a family depending on him.

“Ruptured somethin’,” Sam says, waving a hand vaguely, but his eyes are sliding shut. “He should be fine.”

“They don’t expect any complications,” Natasha says. Another scream comes from the hallway, but it’s short, bitten-off. Natasha grimaces, hunches over a little.

“I’m gonna kill him,” Rhodey says low, under his breath, pacing more obviously now. Steve registers that he means Tony, not Clint. “No, shit, if this is still happening when Pep gets here all I have to do is not stop her—I can’t believe—”

“Colonel Rhodes,” Steve says. He clears his throat and starts again, “It’s good to see you up and about again, though I wish the circumstances were better.”

“Christ,” Rhodey says. “Yeah, hi. Tony made me new legs.” He breaks off, laughs harshly. “So I’m doing much better.”

Steve glances down and, sure enough, there are metal braces strapped around Rhodey’s legs. They don’t look particularly comfortable, but they’re all the sleek lines and hidden circuitry that reek of a Stark design.

Steve would think it’s nothing less than a miracle if he hadn’t known Tony personally for years. The thought makes his chest ache.

“That’s good,” Steve says quietly.

Rhodey nods, but he’s not looking at Steve. It’s more like he’s nodding to himself, over the entire situation. He does look at Steve then, and then at Bucky, fleetingly, before looking back at Steve, eyes narrowed. Steve clenches his jaw.

“A word of advice, Captain,” Rhodey says, and he takes a step forward, finger pointing right in Steve’s face, “if you want Tony to talk to you again, ever, he—” Rhodey switches to pointing at Bucky, “—doesn’t step foot beyond that door.”

Bucky doesn’t say anything, just stands very, very still. Natasha sighs. He thinks Sam might’ve fallen asleep. Steve steps forwards, aware that his voice is raised, angry, even though he doesn’t want to start a fight right now, not with Rhodey of all people.

“That’s not—” Steve says, but then Natasha’s stepping between them, and then her eyes are widening and she’s falling.

Rhodey gets his arms around her first but then they’re both going down and Steve has to dive to grab onto both of them. He slows their descent to the floor, but that’s where they end up anyway. Steve’s hip protests loudly and Rhodey grunts. Bucky stays where he is.

“Nat?” Steve says, gasping around the sharp flare of pain. It takes a few laborious seconds to get them all untangled, but they do, and then Steve helps Natasha scoot back so that her shoulders are up against one of Sam’s chairs. She leans her head back against his hip and huffs out a breath. Steve crouches in front of her.

“Ankle rolled out from under me,” she says. “M’fine.”

“Right,” Steve says dryly. He thinks of Tony screaming in pain, and of Clint in surgery, Bruce’s return, and Steve’s own freakout that lasted the entire way here. He doesn’t think he’s seen Natasha sit down since they touched down in Chicago. “You seen a doctor yet?”

“Not injured,” she says and, Jesus, she’s not even using complete sentences anymore.

What a leader, Rogers.

“I can tell just by looking at you that you’re dehydrated,” Steve says, eyes lingering on her fluttering eyelids and chapped lips. He runs a hand down his face. “And you’ve been awake for at least twenty-four hours by this point.” And that gives Steve pause. He looks up at Sam, who’s now snoring lightly, head tipped back at an odd angle. They’ve all been up for too long, they’ve all dealt with too much in the past twelve hours.

“Okay,” Steve says after a moment, “how far out are the others?”

“About an hour,” Rhodey says. He’s picked himself up and has his hands braced on the back of the chair Sam’s using for his ankle.

“Okay,” Steve says again. “We all need a break. Some food, a shower, a nap. Rhodey and I can stay and keep an eye on things, and FRIDAY can always let you know if anything changes.”

Steve holds out a hand to help Natasha up. She takes it, but lets go the moment she’s upright under her own power again.

“Nice try,” she says, “I’m staying till Clint’s out of surgery, though.”

“Come on,” Steve says. She just stares at him, chin up, and Steve rolls his eyes.

“Hey, Buck,” he says after a minute of staring down the Black Widow. Bucky hums his acknowledgment. “Let’s go hunt down some more chairs.”

Even so tired she’s about to pass out, Natasha finds the energy to look smug.

***

They make an absolute mess of the hall, and Steve thinks that Tony would be delighted if he could see it right now. But that train of thought only makes Steve’s throat feel thick, so he shuts it down.

There are chairs for everyone, and they stole some blankets and pillows from a supply closet. They’re surrounded by small piles of junk food and wrappers from the vending machine around the corner. Steve’s exhausted even though he knows he shouldn’t sleep yet. He drifts a couple times anyway, but then Tony’s screaming or someone drops a Snickers bar, and Steve jolts awake.

People filter in shortly after that, and Steve pinches his own thigh hard to wake himself up.

“Everyone gets checked out by medical,” Steve says, and it sounds more weary than authoritative, but he must look bad enough that no one wants to start a fight because after a few grumbles, nobody protests for real.

They take Scott off to another room to deal with his injured shoulder, but nobody else from that group seems too badly off, so Bucky and Vision round up some more chairs to line up close to the wall as medics make their way down the row. T’Challa exchanges all of five words with a doctor before waving him off. He stays long enough to ask after the injured and promise to be in touch, but that’s it. Natasha offers him a room to rest in for a while, or a shower, but he gracefully declines and disappears shortly after.

Wanda looks anxious as a nurse fixes a butterfly bandage to her cheek. Steve knows how close she and Clint are, and he’s seen her protective streak when it comes to Hawkeye.

Today, they just couldn’t protect the people they needed to protect. Hopefully they did well enough.

Vision brings her a coffee in a cardboard cup and she takes it in shaking hands. Rhodey’s phone vibrates in his pocket, and he takes it out and walks away, looking stiff but doing it anyway. Steve wonders if the braces get uncomfortable with continued use.

“Jim’s right,” Steve says, rolling his head along the wall until he can see Bucky in the chair next to him. “When they let us back, you can’t go.”

Bucky raises his eyebrows and tucks his chin.

“I know,” he says, and of course he does, of course it’s obvious. Steve knows that even, it was just too hard earlier, everything was going too fast and Steve wasn’t thinking. But, then again, what’s new?

He pushes down the feeling of unfairness that tries making its way up his throat. It’s not fair, or right. Bucky didn’t do those things, he didn’t kill Howard and his innocent wife, and it’s a special kind of torture that they could make his body do it and make him remember, when he held no intention or will to do it himself.

But, he tells himself firmly, it’s not fair to ask Tony to pretend that Bucky’s body didn’t do it. He’s been thinking about this a lot, since he started talking to Sam and T’Challa about getting Bucky safely stateside, awake and free. With more time at his disposal, he knows, he can see what he didn’t have the patience for before.

Sure, Steve’s parents died when he was young too. He doesn’t remember his father much, but he can recall vividly how his mother slowly grew weaker and weaker, more and more sick over a course of weeks. A couple months ago he imagined it for the first time, what it would’ve been like to lose her suddenly, for her to just not come home as the stupid consequence of a careless action, like Tony thought for years, or as a meaningless sacrifice in a human-sized game of chess, like Tony learned all-too-suddenly in Siberia. It’s almost too much to bear. As it was, Steve got the time to say goodbye, to hold his ma’s hand and tell her he loved her and hear it said back. She said to him you’ll be okay and said to Bucky look after him.

When Tony’s parents died, he got Obadiah Stane. The man who hired the Ten Rings to take him out years later, and then tried to do it himself when that didn’t work. Steve doesn’t know what their relationship was like before, if it was ever actually good, but he has a hard time believing that hiring a terrorist organization in Afghanistan would’ve been Stane’s first attempt at removing Tony. Tony wouldn’t have met Pepper yet at that point. Rhodey would’ve been there in some capacity because he and Tony went to school together, but Steve knows that Rhodes was already on the military path, and he knows what it’s like to be left behind for that.

In short, HYDRA’s been ruining Tony’s life since he was 21 at least. And he didn’t even go looking for a fight with them, not like Steve did, across enemy lines wearing a target on his chest. And here Tony is anyway, giving Bucky permission to come to the compound. Because he understands that Bucky was used, was just a tool in all of this. Steve can’t ask any more from Tony, can’t take advantage of his kindness without realizing what it cost him. So Rhodey’s right, and Steve can’t expect them to be in the same room together, not now and maybe not ever. He’s going to have to be okay with that, because the situation isn’t fair to any of them.

He’ll deal with it, he swears. As long as they’re both alive, he’ll deal with everything else. Tony just has to live, just has to hear Steve out, once and for all.

Tony just has to live.

***

When Rhodey comes back, he’s got Pepper with him. She’s dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, casual as Steve’s ever seen her, though her makeup and hair are still done. Even under the makeup her face is splotchy red and she’s trembling, teeth clenched and hands balled into fists. She falls into Rhodey’s abandoned chair, right next to Natasha, and dabs at her eyes like she wants to scrub at them instead.

“Again, Rhodey,” she says, sounding downright miserable.

Steve wants to stand, offer his chair to Rhodey, but he doesn’t think Rhodey and Pepper want to be far from one another right now. That, and Steve’s not entirely sure he can get up at the moment; he’s been sitting so long his muscles have stiffened up. He feels leaden. So Steve stays where he is, and Rhodey’s braces clank against the metal arm of Pepper’s chair as he leans his thighs against it.

“I know,” Rhodey says quietly, “but we knew. We knew there was something.” And then he gets even quieter, more to himself than even to Pepper, “There’s always something. At least—”

“At least he wasn’t actively dying?” Pepper says, voice dripping with saccharine sarcasm. Rhodey shrugs theatrically, lifting his hands palm-up over his head.

“I guess,” Rhodey says. “Look, at least he gave himself an out this time, an out with a viable probability of success.”

“Right,” Pepper says, laughs. “Compared to the last decade, then, he’s not quite as aggressively ready to die.”

Rhodey huffs, and it sounds like an old argument. Steve closes his eyes, tips his head back against the wall, and breathes measured breaths there. ‘Ready to die,’ Pepper had said. He needs a moment, just to let those words wash over him, and then to hold them up next to his idea of Tony, a man so full of light and curiosity and creation, a man with a personality so big he just—expands to fit whatever room he’s in, a man who couldn’t give up the good fight, even if it went against what the love of his life wanted for him, from him. But that’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? Because Tony’s the person who brings them post-mission smoothies and gives them all rooms, but he’s also the person to carry a nuke through space, or to threaten a terrorist, or to use himself as a human shield when a teammate’s in need.

They could probably say that about any of us, Steve decides. That they’re unstable, just a bunch of suicidal assholes. That thought, strangely, doesn’t make him feel any better.

Mostly, Steve is glad that Tony seems to have winded down. There’s been less noise less frequently from the hall in front of them, and Steve feels unwillingly hopeful about that. It’s unpleasant. He’s been here before, and it’s not a place he likes to go. It’s like the sinking feeling people get when they know something’s wrong, that gut instinct that drags you down without a bit of consent from reason, except where that’s a feeling that other people sometimes get, it’s more like a place Steve lives. But the mirror feeling, that awful lightness that pulls him to the surface when he knows it’ll only sting more later, this is what he really hates.

***

Of course, it doesn’t take too long then for things to fall apart. It never does.

***

They call for Bruce over the PA. Some medical personnel stride in and out of the doors, and even though Pepper springs up, ready to take charge, they all keep their eyes trained carefully forward, not so much as glancing towards Pepper or any of the Avengers.

When Bruce finally shuffles through, he doesn’t do much better. His hands are in his pockets and he looks freshly showered, hair not quite dry. Natasha or FRIDAY must’ve shown him his room (Tony brought all of Bruce’s things over when he sold the tower in the city, stuck them all in a new room just in case) because he’s dressed in some of his old things, and he’s got shoes on finally.

He looks at them out of the corner of his eyes, but doesn’t stop on his way through the doors. The look on his face is weary.

“What did you tell him?” Steve asks, leaning forward so that he can see Natasha around Sam. Natasha smiles at him, but it’s more sardonic than amused.

“Just updated him on some things,” she says. “I thought we’d try out that thing where we don’t lie to our teammates. Doesn’t seem to be doing anybody any good.”

Steve raises an eyebrow at her, tilts his head.

“Come on, Steve,” she says, sounding just as weary as Bruce had looked. “He didn’t even know Wanda was on the team, let alone the way the entire team self-combusted while he was away.”

“Ah,” Steve says. “So. You said he tested out the Hulk room already?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Great.”

***

When a doctor finally comes out, it’s Clint’s surgeon. He addresses them all to say that Clint is out of surgery and everything looks good so far, and then he asks for a moment alone with Natasha. Technically, she’s listed as his next of kin since his marriage is still a secret, but there’s no doubt in Steve’s mind that she’s been texting Laura since the early hours of the morning, no matter how unstable things are between Laura and Clint these days.

Natasha comes walking back over looking more tired than before. Steve bites the inside of his lip.

“Fixed his spleen with the portable Cradle,” she says to Steve, voice hushed but not secretive. Wanda’s asleep now, but Vision and Sam are listening attentively, the others all quiet and in varying degrees of pretending to give them privacy. “The rest of the internal damage was fixed the old fashioned way. No collapsed lungs, which is a miracle considering the mess of his ribs. Too early to tell how long he’ll be out of commission.”

Rhodey nods slowly from where he’s sitting, gaze on the far wall.

“Doesn't matter as long as he’s okay,” Steve says.

***

The next time a doctor comes out, it’s to tell them that Tony’s heart’s stopped.

It’s started up again, Bruce tells them. It’s pumping, weakly.

Pepper makes a choking noise, and Rhodey gets quiet and still.

“This part’s beyond me,” Bruce says. “I’ve told them everything they’ll need for the Extremis. All I’m doing is making the doctors nervous.”

Bruce looks even more tired than he did the last time he passed by, and Steve would offer him a chair, but Scott came back with an entire cart of coffee and took the last one.

“How—” Pepper’s saying quietly, voice cracking, and Steve does not want to hear this.

“Shouldn’t Extremis be fixing his heart?” Steve asks. He doesn’t understand. If Bruce and Tony really did fix the process, then Tony shouldn’t blow up, and his heart definitely shouldn’t stop.

Bruce leans his shoulders back against the wall and crosses his arms.

“Extremis isn’t—it’s not a super soldier serum,” Bruce says. “It was designed for that maybe, but even when Killian was testing it, the only people he could find willing to subject themselves to it were frustrated, desperate men and women. It’s not something you do if you have other options. For good reason.”

That lights something in Steve. It’s not anger, not really, but some kind of vicious hurt.

“Other options like what?” Steve asks, leaning forward in his seat. “Like saying ‘hey, guys, I need medical attention ASAP, bye’?”

“He what?” Pepper says somewhere off to the side. She’s talking to Natasha, maybe. It doesn’t matter.

“Why didn’t he have his body dropped off with those medics that were on call right outside the perimeter?” Steve asks helplessly; the heat in his voice doesn’t disappear, but it does sound more like desperation. “The suit still could’ve come back and he could’ve gotten help half an hour sooner!”

“It wasn’t,” Bruce says, glances off to the side and then back to Steve, “something they could’ve fixed.”

“Why not?” Steve asks. The more he thinks about it, the more it seems like a purely self-destructive move.

“It’s—”

“That’s none of your business,” Pepper says, marching right up to him. She gets in between him and Bruce and stands there, looking directly into his eyes. Steve can almost see the fumes rising from her ears. In his peripheral vision he sees Rhodey shift, but he doesn’t move to stop Pepper.

“Actually,” Steve says, “it is.” Pepper’s shoulders pull back even farther. “It’s in a contract somewhere. I’m entitled to the medical information of anyone on the current roster when it’s liable to interfere with the team.”

Pepper relaxes her stance, her shoulders drop. Steve thinks she’s going to concede the point for all of two seconds.

“Maybe you have a right to information regarding your team,” she says, “but as Tony’s friend, I’m telling you to back off. When it becomes necessary, you’ll know.”

As a threat, it’s not much, but she’s definitely letting Steve know who’s in charge here. It’s not him. Steve’s mouth is already half open to say something scathing about her use of the word “friend” (if you’re really his friend then where the hell have you been?) but Bruce beats him to it.

“Ms. Potts,” Bruce says, and he takes off his glasses to fiddle with them, “it may very well become necessary.”

“What do you mean?” Pepper says, quick as a whip, and turns to face Bruce instead.

Bruce doesn’t exactly shrink under her gaze, but his shoulders do hunch. He twirls his glasses around by the end for a moment, and then looks up to meet Pepper’s eyes, and then behind her to briefly look at Steve. His eyebrows rise and fall in a gesture that reads to Steve as ‘fuck it.’

“Would you like to discuss this privately?” Bruce asks. Pepper’s shoulders rise and fall hard in a deep, shuddery breath. When she speaks, though, her voice is considerably more composed.

“If you don’t mind,” she says. Bruce’s lips pull up in a polite smile and he holds one hand out, gesturing down the hall, and they walk away. Rhodey grunts as he trudges after them. He looks washed out, paler than he did before, and like he’s moving from ‘uncomfortable’ to ‘pained.’

Steve paces, because he can’t get into a physical fight with Pepper, and he can’t leave to go to the gym, not now, and because if he doesn’t move he thinks he might fall asleep, even standing. He’s cold and everything itches at this point in the healing process, and he feels like everything is two inches to the left. It’s a feeling he’s been getting since he woke up from the ice, or maybe since Bucky fell, he doesn’t know which. But it echoes inside of him in moments like this: this is wrong, this wasn’t supposed to happen. It’s gotten particularly bad since Siberia. He doesn’t feel like he’s seated in his own skin properly, and there’s an aching in his chest even though he knows better than to think it’s his old asthma, but damn if it doesn’t hurt just the same.

So, Steve paces, and he watches the door, and paces some more until his stomach clenches and clenches and he has to stop and huff a breath. He presses one finger against the healing cut along his collarbone just to feel that there, that feeling, that pulling, that’s where his skin ends, that’s his border. That’s where his body stops, just like always, no matter what his brain is trying to tell him. His hip hurts now, and he wants to ask for some more painkillers, but if he takes them now he’ll fall asleep, he knows he will. So he paces.

Vision walks Wanda to her room, now that Clint is more or less in the clear. Scott goes off to his room to call his girlfriend once it’s late enough in the morning for that kind of thing. Someone gets Sam a pair of crutches and he and Thor leave long enough to get protein-heavy breakfasts for everyone remaining. Natasha and Bucky are the only ones who stay the entire time, but by the time Rhodey comes back, Vision, Thor, and Sam are there too. Rhodey looks determined, the face of a colonel on a mission. He stands by the wall and watches Steve pace until he catches on, pauses, and turns to face the other man head-on.

“Bruce went to catch some sleep,” he says, “and Pepper went for a walk.”

Steve nods. He can feel Natasha’s eyes on him from where she’s sitting.

Rhodey looks into the middle distance, and then back to Steve.

“You know that he got—stung?” Rhodey asks.

Not in so many words, Steve thinks. He remembers the blackening puncture wound on Tony’s hip, though, remembers asking himself what else that could be. He’d been blindly hoping by not asking for confirmation. A lie of omission he told himself, but he wasn’t clueless. He’d described the injury to the medical team on the Quinjet, just hadn’t put a name to it.

“Yeah,” he says softly. It feels like there’s something in his throat.

“Extremis isn’t supposed to be working this way,” Rhodey says. “Not that this version has been tested before, but. They don’t know which is winning.”

“Winning,” Steve echoes. “What do you mean?”

Rhodey doesn’t answer for a minute, instead walking laboriously over to a chair and using his arms to help lower himself into it. He starts unhooking the braces and is halfway done before he speaks.

“The Brood virus and Extremis,” he says. “They’re—fighting. One of them might come out on top, or a combination of both of them. Or neither. It’s a lot of strain on his body, Tony’s heart hasn’t been strong for a while.”

“Oh,” Steve says, “I.”

He crosses his arms, uncrosses them. Leans against the wall.

“When will we know?” Natasha asks. Her voice is dry, cracking.

“Within the next day, Bruce thinks,” Rhodey says. It’s quiet, then, except for the sounds of the exoskeleton’s clasps being undone. Steve slides down the wall and lets his head thump back. The position pulls at his hip, but he doesn’t get up.

“Look,” Rhodey says when he’s done with the braces. Steve glances up to see Rhodey staring at him. “The medical team wouldn’t have been able to help him after the venom was introduced. They’re not really helping now except to monitor. The only thing that would’ve happened in Chicago is that you all would have been distracted.”

“So,” Steve says, and then he pauses to laugh even though it feels hollow. “A sound strategic decision?”

Rhodey doesn’t rise to the bait.

“Believe it or not,” he says, “Tony is fairly invested in his own continued existence these days. Hasn’t always been the case, but I think he really was doing what he thought was best.”

“A noble move,” Thor says lowly.

Steve swallows. Rhodey maneuvers his legs up and around onto a second chair. Eyes drooping, he looks towards Bucky for barely a second before shutting them completely.

“And Rogers?” he says. “I don’t give a shit how he wakes up as long as he wakes up. I’ve been disobeying direct orders to protect my friend for just as long as you have.”

Steve meets Bucky’s eyes and he understands, with a startling intimacy, what Rhodey means.

Rhodey yawns and falls asleep within minutes.

***

I don’t give a shit how he wakes up as long as he wakes up.

Me neither, Steve thinks fiercely, as fiercely as he can even as his body drifts farther and farther askew. Distantly, determinedly, he reminds himself: As long as Tony’s alive, we’ll figure it out.

Chapter Text

He’s warm and heavy. Safe. Surrounded in a glorious nothingness he’s been missing for a long time, somehow. If he had to equate the feeling to a place, it would be the mansion on Fifth Avenue, the one he hasn’t been to in—years. Tony holds the feeling so close that he almost loses it completely.

It drags him under again.

***

This is how he wakes: in waves, crashing and rising in a soft, perpetual movement that fills him up, leaves no room for urgency. He rises close to the surface, hovers on a crest, and sinks back into numbness. The tide slowly, slowly rises, closer and closer to the shore, and the waves of consciousness reach farther. Still, he stays away from thinking for as long as he can, holds onto the heat. It feels like a long time since he’s been warm.

His skin tingles, when he gets close enough to feel it. It’s…abnormal, possibly even concerning, and he lets himself be swept out with the current as soon as he can, just to escape it.

The realization hits him eventually. First, it’s the sound: the ping of a tablet sending a message gets his attention, but it’s a short, staccato noise, and it’s gone quickly enough that Tony’s attention hasn’t yet faded, so he hears the incessant beep-beep-beeping underneath it all. It takes him a few seconds too long to place it as medical equipment, but what else could it be?

No, he thinks, rather petulantly. He really doesn’t want to deal with that, not right now. It’s more like falling asleep this time than being pulled under, but he lets it wash over him anyway.

***

This time, he thinks he’s well and truly on his way to being awake. He remembers, vaguely, the knowledge of a heart monitor, and resigns himself to the fact that reality’s going to suck.

It takes a while to find his body, and when he does he spends some time convincing it that he’s alive. He clenches the muscles in one shoulder, releases, and then the other. Then the same thing with his legs, until he’s almost rocking side to side in micro movements. He scrunches his nose, too. That tingling is still there. Numbness, kind of. A form of numbness.

He hears, then, and realizes he got distracted.

“Tones,” it says, and a warm point on his arm. A hand, if he had to hazard a guess. “Hey, man, you in there?”

Tony hums, and even that sounds hoarse. It gets him half a laugh in response anyway.

“Tony.” A voice from the other direction. Wait, Tony thinks. That’s not right. “Can you open your eyes?”

Tony scrunches his nose successfully and thinks, wrong direction. Pulling his muscles the other way, he cracks his eyes open. Rhodey’s there, wearing something close to the expression he had when they reunited in the desert: stressed, relieved, and dizzy with all of it.

It is horrendously, exceptionally bright in this room. Tony blinks, scrunches his nose up again because it makes his eyes water, and blinks some more. He rolls his head to the other side and, holy shit, that really is Bruce, not Tony’s imagination, Bruce is right in front of him.

“Your rent’s late,” he says. Not his wittiest comeback, but he’s still waking up. Hasn’t even had coffee yet. Bruce smiles softly either way, and Tony remembers why he likes the man so much.

“Better earn my keep, then,” he says. “Do you remember what happened?”

Rhodey’s hand squeezes his arm once more and then withdraws.

Think, Tony tells himself. If Bruce is here and Tony himself is in a hospital—or in medical at the compound, now that he’s looking—then something exciting definitely happened.

And he remembers, with a jolt. The woman being worn as a second skin, fighting next to Wanda, Thor’s new haircut, Steve under a building, a stinging, burning horror in his leg, FRIDAY leaving him—

And of course there’s an IV in the crook of his arm; Tony doesn’t know why he didn’t place that with the tingling not-numbness earlier. Not today, Satan.

“Hey, whoa-whoa-whoa,” Bruce is saying, reaching for Tony’s hand. “Tony, stop, don’t pull on that.”

“Don’t know if anyone told you,” Tony says, and his voice should really be cracking right now, but maybe he wasn’t out of it for as long as he thinks, “but I don’t really do substances anymore.”

Rhodey puts a hand on Tony’s shoulder and tries to get him to lay back with gentle nudging.

“There’s nothing,” Bruce says, hand closed tightly around Tony’s wrist, keeping it away from the needle. Tony always forgets how strong Bruce can be in this form too. “It’s just for hydration, there’s nothing in it.”

“Um,” Tony says. “Yes there is. I can feel—”

And holy shit, Pepper’s here too, standing beyond the foot of his bed in the little room, up against the wall, arms crossed. Did he sleep through his birthday? Or Armageddon?

“What do you feel, Tony?” Bruce says, low and quick, like it’s important.

“Hey, Pep,” Tony says. And because he’s an asshole, he adds, “Long time, no see.”

Tony lets Rhodey press him into the pillow, then, even though what he really wants is some breathing room, some space. They’re kind of awfully close. Pepper’s got the right idea, though, except that hurts in a different way. Honestly, she can’t even be within touching distance of his bed?

“Hi, Tony,” she says, and drags her mouth up in an insincere smile.

“Did I die?” Tony asks. He means it as a joke, but, “Sorry, that’s not funny. But seriously, you look like you’re planning a funeral all the way over there.”

And, hey, there’s a thought. Tony lurches hard enough that it knocks Rhodey’s hand away again.

“A couple of times, actually—” Pepper says.

“Where’s Steve?” he asks. He remembers— “The building, fell on us—”

“Steve’s fine,” Rhodey says. Pepper’s mouth is pinched into a very straight line. “Worried about you, but fine. He was a little torn up, but he’s up and about now.”

“Okay,” Tony says. He sits up fully now, well and truly awake thanks to that bit of adrenaline. The sensation of the sheet flows over him like a wave, soft and light. “Awesome, right. Because I did the thing.”

“That you did,” Bruce says. “Which is why I really need you to answer my questions here.”

“Holy shit, I’m alive,” Tony says. “Wait. Did you say I’m not currently on the good stuff?”

“You’re not on anything,” Bruce confirms.

“Huh,” Tony says. He takes his hands up to his ribcage and pats out a drumbeat there. Nothing. He can feel it, he realizes. It just doesn’t hurt. “Wowza.”

“What,” Bruce says.

“I’m just being melodramatic,” Tony says.

Bruce sighs.

“I’m fine,” Tony says.

“You certainly seem much better,” Rhodey says. He seems relieved, the muscles around his eyebrows not drawn so tight anymore, his fingers uncurled—not all the way, just enough to go from gripping the arms of his chair to just resting his arms there—and his chin even lifts from where it was starting to tuck down toward his chest.

“And everyone else?” Tony says. Bruce just stares at him. Rhodey and Tony watch Bruce stare at Tony for a few seconds until it becomes clear that he’s not going to answer. Tony thinks he’s pissed Bruce off somehow; the man’s breathing is suspiciously even and he’s not really blinking. It’s strange. Pepper doesn’t move from her spot against the wall, but at least Tony knows why she’s upset with him.

“Obviously, you were the worst off,” Rhodey says eventually. “And then Clint, ruptured spleen, some fucked up ribs, and other internal damage, but his surgery went well. He’s mobile but benched for the time being. Scott’s going to be out for a few weeks too, popped his shoulder clean out of the socket, and then back in and kept going. Sam sprained his ankle pretty good and Wanda got a bump on the head.” Tony nods. “Other than that it was all cuts and bruises, mostly.”

“Awesome sauce,” Tony says. “So. We won, then?”

“Yep,” Rhodey says. “The aliens went back from whence they came, Earth lives to see another day, and everyone has officially regained consciousness.”

“Point number two for the post-Accords Avengers,” Tony says. “One more and I might actually believe it.”

“They did a debrief already, but you’ll probably have to fill out a report or talk to the rep.”

“Yeah, of course, just gimme, like. An hour. Two hours,” Tony says. Rhodey snorts. “Debrief went well though? I was half thinking they’d try to drag their feet on some of Steve’s protocol changes they already agreed to. And I swear to Odin if we lose all the progress we’ve made with Rogers I will personally fight the entire UN again—”

“It was fine,” Rhodey says. “Rogers gritted his teeth and played nice.”

“Huh,” Tony says.

“First time for everything,” Pepper says, voice distant and cool from her spot against the wall.

“Hey,” Tony says mildly, “he’s been working on it. Using language to communicate instead of his fists and everything. Speaking of—”

“You definitely missed your coffee date,” Rhodey says.

“Yikes, okay, there’s no need to bring out that word, sugarplum—”

“Oh, my God,” Bruce says, chuckles humorously. He slips his forefinger and thumb under his glasses to pinch the corners of his eyes.

“Hey, Brucey,” Tony says, going for light, “what’s—”

“No,” Bruce says. “What in God’s name—you both—you and Steve tore everything to shreds because, what. You were jealous? Because you couldn’t figure out how to deal with your sexual tension like a human being?”

“Wait,” Tony says, surprised by the level of venom in Bruce’s voice, “that wasn’t—”

“You were working with Ross!” Bruce growls, literally growls, eyes flashing green and everything.

“Whoa now,” Rhodey says, stepping forward.

“Back off,” Bruce spits his way. And then to Tony, “They’re calling it a war. Your best friend lost his legs, and for what? Because you couldn’t talk about your feelings with Captain America?”

Tony’s throat makes a clicking sound when he tries to swallow. He shakes his head. Bruce laughs for real this time, sounding like he can’t control it, like it’s bubbling over, and he shakes his head back at Tony.

“Thanks for that input, Dr. Banner,” Rhodey says, swiftly and seriously. “You can screw off now, or I’ll show you just how nice these new legs can be.”

“Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice,” Bruce says, already backing away. “Your doctor will be in shortly.”

He’s gone, then, and Tony’s nose burns with tears he absolutely refuses to cry. It’s been so long since he’s seen Bruce, but it’s not like Tony didn’t know how the big guy would feel about the Accords. It seems that he’d stubbornly held out hope though. He'd been hoping he would still have Bruce as a friend at the end of this, like maybe he could understand the horror they kept leaving in their wake, that they needed to stop, they needed to be stopped.

Then he catches sight of Pepper. She’s pale, rigid against the wall, staring at some place right over Tony’s bed, and he replays what Bruce just said in his head.

“Pep,” he says as Pepper springs up to stand straight, “Pepper, c’mon, that’s not what it was—”

And she walks out of the room, back ramrod stiff, without a word.

“God Almighty,” Tony says, and slumps down onto his pillow.

“You’re tellin’ me,” Rhodey says.

“Okay,” Tony says slowly, and he takes stock of the situation. There’s an IV in his arm still and a pulse oximeter clipped onto his middle finger of the same arm, but he suspects it’s more than that. He shifts his hips and, oh yeah, he’s on a catheter leash too. Fun. “Speaking of doctors, I think I’m done here. Someone can come unhook me now.”

“They’re gonna want to run some tests,” Rhodey says. “Maybe monitor you for a couple more days.”

“Tough luck.”

Rhodey turns away, but not before Tony sees his smile.

***

The doctor talks for a while, but it boils down to ‘tell someone immediately if you feel either a zombie-like need to attack people or a boiling feeling in your gut or extremities.’

The doctors know about as much as Tony does at this point, so he doesn’t even feel bad about ditching medical. He even asks about those tests they want to run, and when he hears (MRI, blood tests, cognitive responses, etc.) he feels even more justified. If they’re not going to do anything useful, there’s no reason for Tony to sit here twiddling his thumbs. Finally, the doctor sighs and moves for a piece of cotton to hold against the puncture on Tony’s arm. Rhodey excuses himself with a quip about letting everyone know Tony’s not a raging monster (yet). And even though Tony knows that Rhodey’s just giving him some privacy and probably about to hunt Pepper down—which, yeah—he’s grateful for the gesture.

The doctor is swift about it. Tony nods and holds the cotton to the thin trickle of blood on his arm and exhales when he’s told to, and soon enough he’s free and in his own clothes again. It takes him a moment in the hallway to reorient himself in the compound. He basically picks a direction and starts walking. After turning a couple corners, he knows roughly where he is.

He’s almost out of the medical wing by the time he runs into Sam and Natasha. They all round corners at the same time and then stand there, watching each other for a moment. Finally, Sam smiles crookedly and Tony breathes.

“Welcome back,” Sam says.

“Good to be back,” Tony says, grins back with his hands in his pockets. He feels unfit for human interaction, strange, his skin still tingling and the lights are too bright. The world is pressing in on him, and these two—the veterans’ counselor and the master spy—will be able to tell. Even so, it’s not a lie. He’s glad he’s back, and happy to see them unharmed and okay.

Natasha doesn’t say anything for a moment, just searches his face with a few quick flicks of her eyes. She clenches her jaw when she’s done and walks towards him, long strides and swinging arms. Tony takes an aborted step back before he can stop himself.

And she hugs him. A hug.

Her arms are tight around him, one hand even cradling the back of his skull, her warm fingers curling into the hair there. Tony is suddenly very aware of just how greasy his hair is.

“Christ, Nat,” he says, settling his hands on her spine and shoulder blade. Sam is coming forward too at a more sedate pace. “I thought you were gonna backhand me.”

“Me too,” she says, squeezes him tighter. “What the hell.”

Tony sweeps his thumb back and forth over her spine and she shudders.

“Hey,” he says, “I’m fine.”

She pulls back, out of his arms and steps away, watching his face again.

“Are you?” she asks.

Sam stands square to both of them, making it a triangle of people instead of the both of them staring at Tony.

“I haven’t quite gotten that far yet,” Tony says, because it’s Natasha. “I’m alive though, and I’ve got all my own skin, which at least appears to fit—”

“I think,” Sam says, “I speak for everyone when I say it’s good to see you up and about.”

“Oh,” Tony says, “that’s. I mean, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth—”

Natasha snorts.

“You're the most suspicious person I’ve ever met,” she says.

“Said the super spy,” Tony says.

“I don’t know if it’s ridiculous or impressive,” she says.

“Both,” Sam says, “I’m pretty sure.”

Natasha makes her excuses and heads farther into medical to see a man about Clint’s stitches. It doesn’t sound serious so Tony doesn’t ask. Sam falls into step with Tony.

“What?” Tony asks. “You just like to hang out in medical now? What’re you doing here?”

“Not exactly,” Sam says. Then, at Tony’s what-the-fuck look, “I was just stopping down to ask your doctor if you were up and at ‘em yet, but now I don’t have to.”

“Sweet of you,” Tony says as they close in on the elevator. Sam shrugs.

“It's been days of basically no news about you, man,” Sam says. “It’s better to know nothing’s changed than to just sit around.”

Tony hums. He suspects that translates roughly to ‘I was going to lose my mind if I had to stand next to any of the Avengers anymore while they frantically and furiously paced, pretending they knew a single thing about patience’ but his brain catches on the part where it’s been days. A doctor came in and poked around, but he mostly just asked questions instead of answering them. Which makes sense; Bruce had been in the room first and had at least sounded like he was gearing up to say something before storming off. But—for Extremis to have gone its full course, he had to be out for about 48 hours. He’s not entire sure how long it’s been since Chicago at this point. He’ll ask FRIDAY, but not in front of Sam.

“So,” Sam says, when they’re about three floors from the living quarters, “you sticking around this time or flying off in the dead of night?”

“I, uh,” Tony says. “You know, I should probably stick around. At least until we know I won’t go off and murder a bunch of innocent people.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he catches Sam’s wicked grin.

“No risk of that around here at least,” he says.

“Better tell Maximoff to start getting warmed up,” Tony says, and makes himself smile back. “She might get to take a few free shots at me.”

The elevator doors chime open and Tony steps out.
“Yeah, whatever. Glad to have you back,” Sam calls as the doors close again and take him away.

Tony's smile relaxes into something real for a second and then melts away altogether. He stands there and listens to the elevator descend again, and then frowns when it goes on for a few seconds too long. It stops finally, and Tony all but holds his breath. He’s just about to walk away when it starts up again. Shocked, he looks at the panel above the door, and it’s on the first floor. And Tony…definitely shouldn’t be able to hear that. He doesn’t think he ever has before, but he can’t exactly remember. He might just be tripping himself out.

Chapter Text

Standing in front of the elevator, Tony shakes himself out, each leg and his arms, ends it with a head roll, and goes to his room. When he gets there, he stands in the middle, not sure what to do with himself. As much as he knows it’s not a reliable way to gather data, he focuses on how he feels. He doesn’t think he’s in any way fundamentally different from how he was just days ago, but then again, would he really be able to tell? He does feel different, but maybe only superficially?

He’s fine up until the moment he decides he needs a shower (his entire body feels greasy and stale, and his hair is downright disgusting). When he undresses, his fingers and toes are all warm—he’s had poor circulation since before Iron Man, uncovered extremities always means numbly cold. It’s enough to throw him off balance, but not exactly bad.

But, of course, he catches sight of himself in the mirror. His scars are gone. It’s unsettling, alien. It doesn’t look like his, it’s not him.

Tony Stark is a man of forward momentum, a self-proclaimed futurist. At the same time that he’s telling himself to suck it up and get on with his life, to accept this for what it is so he can move on to whatever shitshow is inevitably next, this feels like going backwards. This looks like the Merchant of Death staring back at him, feels like he’s lost something precious. Dark hair, dark eyes, smooth skin. He looks sleek and it just reminds him of the devil.

Fuck what you feel, he tells himself, and walks right up to his reflection, bracing his hands on the sink. Fuck it, if this makes you more efficient, helps you live longer, then just don’t waste it.

His skin is still buzzing faintly, constantly, and it doesn’t stop under the spray of water like he’d been hoping. There are just layers to the buzz now, a tingle under the static feeling of water, a million nerves calling for attention, tapping at him. It sets his teeth on edge.

He brushes his teeth when he gets out, and then pauses, eyeing his pill bottles. His scars are MIA, sure, but Tony doesn’t know what other parts of his physicality have changed. Does he even need the heart medication still? If he doesn’t, and he takes it anyway, will that fuck something up? But what if he does need it? That’ll be the first thing he figures out when he gets down to the lab, he decides, and quickly swallows a couple pills just in case.

Then he brings out the big shaving kit; his facial hair is a scruffy mess, the biggest indicator that he’s been in medical for a few days. He goes through with the comb first and trims everything down, and then shaves down the borders. It’s when he’s almost done, just going through with the scissors to snip at the strays, that he stops. He turns the scissors over in his hands, open-close, open-close, lets them catch the light.

He’s supposed to have a healing factor now. That’s the main reason Extremis was even part of the AVALON contingency. And he must have one, considering the fact that he’s still alive, and that all of his scars are gone. He’s sure, too, that he’ll find out soon enough. But…

He takes the scissors, touches one of the short blades to the base of his thumb, and slides it across to make a shallow cut. Blood beads quickly, and Tony pushes his hand forward just in time to catch the blood in the sink. He ignores the impulse to put pressure on it, and puts it under the tap instead, rinses it out. Before his eyes, the water turns pink as it washes away and he can see the skin start to knit itself back together. Strangely enough, it itches. Tony wrinkles his nose; the sting of the cut is quickly obliterated by the weirdly alien feeling of his body healing itself. But God does it itch. He pulls his hand out of the stream of the sink and makes two smaller cuts, each crossing the first, healed cut. And holy shit, it’s really no wonder how Captain America got to be such a reckless goddamn idiot when the physical consequences to his actions just disappear like that.

Despite just having been asleep (more or less) for days, Tony’s tired. At least emotionally, he’s wrung out. And he wants to ask Bruce’s advice on a couple points, but he really doesn’t think either of them are ready for that at the moment.

So, first task: observation.

“Friday?” he says.

“Welcome back, Boss,” she says, and it even sounds like she means it. Tony scrunches his eyes closed briefly.

“Good to be back, I think,” he says. “Listen, uh. I need you to start surveilling me. And it doesn’t need to be covert, let’s leave that at the door. Complete bumper lock. Put a red flag on anything noticeably different about me and send it all to my phone.”

“Will do,” FRIDAY says.

Tony makes another cut, a joint higher on his thumb, and then one on the pad.

“Shall I start the list off with ‘intentionally causing bodily harm to self’?” FRIDAY says.

Tony tries very hard not to roll his eyes.

“I think we can chalk that one up to scientific curiosity,” Tony says, “but thanks.”

He’s looking at his reflection in the mirror, shirtless still, only a towel around his hips because he’s still not cold, eyes locked on his own face and avoiding his torso, and he’s twirling the scissors idly. Even without looking for his missing scars, there’s plenty odd about the picture. His gray hair is gone, the near permanent bruises underneath his eyes have vanished too. It’ll take some getting used to, that’s for sure. And his wrinkles, his face looks downright alien with his skin smoothed out like that. He rotates his left wrist, which has been aching almost constantly since the Accords, and it doesn’t hurt, so at least Extremis was good for something.

His eyes catch on the scissors again, and he slows his fidgeting to a stop. He wonders what else…

An insistent knocking at the door snaps him back to reality. Tony raises an eyebrow at his reflection.

“Captain Rogers appears to be at the door, Boss,” FRIDAY says.

He puts down the scissors, drops his towel, and puts on the first clothes he can get his hands on. His brain and the surface of his skin are still buzzing, and he’s distracted enough that he doesn’t even feel the familiar rush of nerves-dread-comfort when he opens his bedroom door to see Steve standing there. He looks tired—exhausted, really—but all evidence of physical wounds has probably healed by now.

“Hi,” Steve says, “Tony, I. Sam said he saw you.”

“Yep,” Tony says, and he would be amused by just how flustered Steve looks if he wasn’t so off-balance already.

‘Flustered’ isn’t quite right though. Steve looks like someone just kicked a puppy, or like he’s watching someone open fire into a group of grade school kids. It reminds him of the way Steve used to look when talking about Barnes, back before any of them knew he was still alive. And, hey, there’s an idea.

“So,” Tony says, and wills it to come out casual, easy, patented Tony Stark quality, “you still like making rash promises that you’d never break, right? Who am I kidding, that, that’s a pillar of your personality, of course you do.”

“What are you—”

“Wanna make a promise?” Tony asks, warming up to the idea.

Steve crosses his arms and leans against the doorframe. Tony should invite him in, but he’s not sure if he wants to. Oh, in an abstract, fantastical and frantic way, he wants Steve to come in, more than almost anything. He wants it with the same corner of his brain that asked for Steve at the gala, but the rest of him, the part of him that feels like he’s vibrating out of his skin, that feels on edge and wrong, recognizes that it probably wouldn’t end well. He wants contact, wants to be anchored, but doesn’t know where he stands with Steve right now, in the light of day, and Steve looks just as unsure as Tony feels. Besides, it’s a tossup of whether Tony would actually feel anchored or if it would feel more like held down, trapped.

“That usually depends on what the promise is,” Steve says, but he looks more amused than suspicious. His eyes flick a couple times to different parts of Tony’s body, and Tony can’t quite clearly remember where all of his injuries were—after a while it stops being individual points of pain and blurs together—but he thinks Steve might be cataloguing all the places Tony was hurt. Tony grins, easy peasy, and puts his hands in his pockets.

“It’s just your standard hey, if I happen to go bat-shit or spontaneously turn into an alien, you’d take me out before anyone got hurt, right?”

Steve, unfortunately, rejects the casual tone Tony had set and proceeds to look nothing short of mortified.

“You’re just as—” It’s actually visible; Tony can see Steve twirling an emotion lasso above his head and reigning in his words, feelings, all of it. “You know what? No. I’m not going to take you out.”

Tony wants to stomp down on his flash of irritation, but it just flares even brighter. Of course Steve would take the path of ultimate righteousness, of course he gets to keep his hands clean while Tony loses whatever shred of his humanity is left. Because that’s how Steve’s morals work: black and white, right and wrong, and Steve’s always right, good, fighting on the right side, even if it damns the rest of the world. How dare Tony ask him to get his hands dirty just to keep Tony from killing his teammates, their teammates.

“Are you kidding me?” Tony asks, and Steve’s shoulders loosen, the exact opposite of what he’d been expecting. He still looks dejected, but also sympathetic. “You didn’t have a problem with it in Siberia, when it was—”

And there, button found, rise gotten. It may not have been exactly what he’d been trying to say, but lashing out has always been his strong suit.

“If you honestly think I didn’t have a problem with that,” Steve says, shoulders rigid, arms uncrossed now as he stands up straight in the doorway, “then having a building dropped on your head must’ve given you brain damage after all.”

Tony expends so much mental energy biting back the automatic reply of no, Brain Damage is your other boy that he can’t say anything for a few seconds. The words are designed to hurt, and it would be satisfying, making Steve feel just a modicum of the terrible injury Tony himself had been left to fester in, but they’ve made progress and it wouldn’t be right. Tony reminds himself fiercely that it would feel good for only a fraction of a second, and only build the momentum of the verbal battle.

Tony must take a second too long to open his mouth.

“Stark,” Steve says. At least he doesn’t look like he’s trying to defuse a bomb. Just…like he means it. “Tony, don’t ask me to do that. I don’t wanna hurt you anymore.”

“Yeah, well,” Tony says, and he’s tense now, too, even though neither of them seem to be on the verge of yelling anymore. Tenser for it, probably. “I don’t actually want to murder any of my friends or coworkers.”

Steve regards him, eyes roaming over Tony’s body all over again.

“You won’t, okay?” Steve says. “That’s my promise of the day. You’re not going to go insane, you’re not going to murder anyone. Not another Avenger, and not an innocent bystander. I swear to God. And not because I’m going to stop you, or take you down, or whatever other euphemism you pick.”

Tony stares, waits for the catch, the rest of the speech. There are so many holes in this plan of action he doesn’t even know where to start. First of all, it’s more like a plan of inaction, and Tony doesn’t do well with inaction, and neither does Steve he’s pretty sure. Plus, this is really the sort of thing that needs a contingency or twelve. Personal feelings aside, they’re Avengers, and this is literally their job, to be prepared for the worst possible outcomes.

Steve’s eyes are wide, watchful, and his shoulders are almost up to his ears. He looks afraid, ready for Tony to laugh in his face, but maybe genuine, too.

“That’s the most bullshit promise I’ve ever heard, even from you,” Tony says quietly, not laughing, not making fun, just desperate for reassurance.

Convince me, he doesn’t say.

Steve grins.

“Careful what you wish for.”

“You’re terrible,” Tony tells him, but softens it with what he hopes comes across as a sincere smile. “The worst.”

There’s a humming sounds that kicks in then, and Tony cocks his head. His first thought is that it’s Steve’s phone, but the timbre is off and Steve doesn’t move to pick it up. The sound doesn’t seem to be coming from Tony’s own bedroom or bathroom behind him, and so he reaches out with his senses, out and around—down? It’s coming from below them, maybe, probably, and it sounds like—

“Tony?” Steve says, taking a step closer. Just a small step as he tries to catch Tony’s eye, and Tony blinks, breaks the spell. The humming is still there, but it really is far away. “Hey, To—”

“What’s that noise?” Tony says. He cocks his head to the side—and when the hell did he become a dog—and, yeah, definitely from downstairs. Steve stays quiet for a few seconds and copies the head movement. He raises an eyebrow at Tony.

“What noise?” he asks eventually.

“Uh-uh,” Tony says. “Shh.”

Another few seconds go by, and Tony can’t tell if Steve’s amused or concerned anymore.

“I think…” Tony says, “it might be the fridge on the common level.”

Steve’s eyebrows draw together as he concentrates.

“You shouldn’t be able to hear that,” Steve says slowly, and Tony feels an irrational spike of irritation—don’t tell me what I should be able to hear, who do you think I am—but shrugs it off because, really, he shouldn’t be able to hear the hum of a refrigerator two floors down.

“Eh,” he says noncommittally. “Can you hear it?”

“Um…” The scrunch between Steve’s eyes gets deeper briefly before smoothing out again. “I think so? I mean, I think that’s what I’m hearing, maybe.”

Tony hums acknowledgment, focusing on pinpointing the sound.

“Tony,” Steve says.

Tony hums again.

“Hey,” Steve says.

Tony hums again, but tries for inquisitive this time.

“Hey, Tony.”

He doesn’t stop until Tony focuses on him.

“What exactly is Extremis supposed to do?” he says. “Now that it’s, uh, stabilized.”

“Well,” Tony says. “Generally, it’s going to make me more efficient.”

Steve’s face doesn’t something complicated that ends in a deep sigh.

“What does that…you know, translate to in terms of you as a human being?”

Tony’s not entirely sure and, to be perfectly honest, Bruce probably knows better at this point. But Bruce is pissed and so obviously above Tony and his petty grievances. (Bruce doesn’t have the whole story, Tony knows, or he’s just hurt by Tony’s involvement with Secretary Ross, and Bruce should be allowed to get emotional about things that hurt him, but damn if it doesn’t sting Tony too; he thought, out of all of them, that Bruce was really his friend.)

“Healing factor,” Tony says, instead of any of that other stuff. “Heightened senses, it seems like. I’m not exactly sure what else. It’s a modified strain, and even before, there seemed to be some leeway with what effects would manifest in which subjects.”

“Okay,” Steve says, and his mouth ticks up in a smile. “So, basically, it’s a guessing game.”

Tony shrugs.

“More of a wait-and-see game, but yeah.”

“Then we’ll wait and see,” Steve says.

Tony nods. He knows it’s not that simple, that it’s borderline dangerous to listen to Steve’s oversimplified version of things, but fuck it all to hell, he wants the comfort. He wants to soak it up and believe it like everyone else. Just for a day, an hour. He’s tired.

“I’m glad you’re okay,” Steve says, and he says it slowly, deliberately.

He’s painfully aware that they’re still standing in the doorway to his bedroom.

“Cap,” Tony says.

“I really thought—” Steve breaks himself off, looks Tony directly in the eye like he’s an opponent to face down, like something to fight, but when he speaks, it’s to say, “I was terrified. I was scared you weren’t going to wake up at all, or that we’d be too late getting you here, or that there’d be nothing we could do for you.”

Tony squares his shoulders and wishes they were having this conversation in the kitchen or in a board room, somewhere he could storm out of, but he’s not even wearing shoes and Steve’s blocking the door because Tony’s an inhospitable jerk who didn’t invite his guest in.

“I’m not sorry,” Tony says. He can see, vividly, where this conversation could go: down the how-could-you-keep-this-from-me road that leads straight to Ultron yet again. God, he’s so tired of this conversation. “I did what I thought was best for the—”

“You did do what was best,” Steve says, talking over him. Tony’s so shocked by the fact that Steve’s agreeing with him, he shuts right up. “For the mission objective, there wasn’t any decision you could’ve made that would’ve been more tactically sound. You were right, and the Extremis saved your life. None of the doctors would’ve been able to do that.”

“Oh.”

“Technically,” Steve says, “you made the right call. That doesn’t mean it didn’t make me sick to learn about it, or that the worry hasn’t been eating me alive.”

“Okay,” Tony says, and he can feel his brow scrunch up in confusion. “We feel what we feel, I guess. That’s—uh. Valid?”

Steve flashes the briefest of smiles, genuine humor in his eyes, before he gets serious again.

“You know what else?”

“Probably not, the way this conversation’s going,” Tony says.

“At first I really just felt…cheated. We were finally going to try and talk things out, so of course the universe would drag us over the coals when we’re finally close to getting on the same page.”

Tony nods because, yes, that makes sense. The powers that be seem to either personally hate them both or thrive on their suffering. Or something, evidently.

“But then you were….then I decided I didn’t care if we were getting along. No, I mean—I care, obviously, or I wouldn’t be going to so much trouble.” Tony raises an eyebrow at Steve, but doesn’t jump in right away to save him. “Not that you’re—” He huffs out a sigh and looks skyward like he’s praying for divine intervention. “I do care. We work better when we’re on the same side, and it’s been…emptier here without you around, but I could deal with that as long as I knew your were alive and well somewhere.”

He looks back down at Tony.

“I don’t care that you used Extremis, because it kept you alive, and that’s good enough for me. The rest of it…” He shrugs. “I’d still like to go out for coffee, if that’s alright with you.”

Tony’s mouth quirks up in a genuine smile, maybe his first since he’s woken up. He waits a few seconds to make sure Steve’s said his piece, and rocks back on his heels.

“That was…very longwinded,” Tony says, grin growing. “If I’d known I was gonna get a speech I would’ve pulled up a chair and made some popcorn. Did you practice that in front of the mirror?”

Steve just laughs, a soft chuckle that’s so genuine it makes Tony’s chest ache. The corners of his eyes scrunch up and his shoulders loosen, and Tony smiles back automatically.

“No, but I made Sam listen to me practice,” he says, and it’s Tony’s turn to bark out a laugh, abrupt but no less genuine than Steve’s.

“It’s a date,” Tony says.

***

“It’s almost nice to know he’s not looking for excuses to come after me,” Tony says to his closed bedroom door.

“Very reassuring,” FRIDAY agrees.

“Of course, it would also be reassuring if I knew someone would have my back, too,” he says, more to himself than to FRIDAY. Louder, he says, “You’ve got my back though, right, little lady?”

“Certainly, Boss,” she says. “Someone’s got to.”

Tony snorts.

“Okay, hop to. How’re you feelin’ about the Iron Legion these days? Been practicing your multitasking?”

***

Tony doesn’t even lock himself away, not really. Sure, he stays in his room, but that’s more to sort through the mess he’s gotten himself into than anything else. The thing is that he wants to go downstairs, wants to sit on the couch and whine about how weird he feels and ask Natasha to run her fingers through his hair and have Bruce make him the tea he secretly likes, but that’s not how things are anymore. That’s never how things were. They’ve all had their moments: moments bonding, realization, empathy, whatever you want to call it, but they were never that team outside of a few exceptional, fleeting moments when Tony saw what they could be, what they could’ve been, and longing has never sat right with him anyway.

Besides, he doesn’t want to accidentally kill anyone. Even if they aren’t a lovey-dovey group of friends, he still needs to protect them, because that is how things are.

He makes a compromise with himself: he can only go to the common floor when he gets all his ducks in a row about the whole what happens if I turn into alien spawn and go for the kill shot question.

So he turns all the lights down by 20% and sketches out a plan for FRIDAY to follow if Tony were to go berserk. The buzzing settles into his skin until he’s resigned to it as his new normal, his body being just as hyperaware as his brain, and it makes him wish for a drink.

Chapter Text

Tony Stark cannot sleep. He can’t. It’s becoming concerning, just a little.

Oh, he’s dealt with insomnia for most of his adult life. He’s gone through all the flavors: nightmares, mania, grief-driven, simple ceiling staring, painsomnia. Nearly all of them have one thing in common: the exhaustion. Mania’s the exception there, but even that’s its own kind of hell.

The thing is that he’s not tired. Or, his body’s not tired. Neither is his brain, exactly. His thoughts go in straight lines and his eyes don’t cross when he’s trying to read. So his brain is functioning and his body is downright thriving despite the lack of rest, but the longer it goes on the more…distressed Tony gets. Extremis may have given a tuneup to his physical body, but there are still some bugs in his brain chemistry, or the neural pathways are just that ingrained, because even the program doesn’t stop the anxiety and mania and disquiet from creeping up on him.

That day after he first wakes up, he’s left to his own devices under the order to rest, which. Yeah, right. He’s just gotten the twenty-first century version of a super soldier serum. He doesn’t exactly need a nap, not after the two-day incubation period. So he works on a couple rudimentary contingencies and gets FRIDAY to do a writeup for the UN rep that’ll keep them satisfied for a little while, at the very least. Rhodey communicates via FRIDAY to make sure he’s still alive, but gives him his space, too, because he truly is Tony’s oldest friend, and Pepper stops by his room with some of Clint’s get-well-soon soup (the recipe comes from the brother he never talks about, but he makes it whenever one of his kids gets a cold or one of his teammates has a near death experience close enough to death), a reminder to take it easy, and a fierce hug goodbye. She doesn’t mention the way she breezed out of medical before, and he doesn’t want to sour another moment between them, so he keeps his mouth shut too, focuses on the sharp knob of her shoulder and the seven shades of gold in her hair.

The soup is really more of a pork chili, and it’s the most Midwestern thing Clint indulges in after owning an actual, honest-to-God farm. It’s also playing dirty, because Clint hasn’t made it for Tony in at least a couple years now, and he’s missed it, missed this feeling, so he’s guaranteed to eat it. He’s not hungry until he sees it, and then he’s instantaneously ravenous. He practically inhales it the second Pepper shuts the door, and even entertains the idea of going to ask for more. He decides against it in the end because, Extremis or not, he hasn’t had food in his stomach for days, and the soup sits heavily for a while before deciding to settle there, like it always does. Miraculously, Tony never seems to get sick off the stuff despite how poorly designed it seems to be for the sick and/or injured.

So he spends that first night lounging in his bed, full of warm pork chili, getting himself caught up on what happened while he was out of it. He reviews the footage of the debrief (the aliens apparently just…left, after that entire fight, they just up and left like it never even happened), reviewing the reports (Clint’s internal injuries, Scott’s dislocated shoulder, Natasha’s near collapse after failing to get herself checked out, Steve’s own absolutely torn up back from being skipped like a stone across the concrete), and the general goings-on of the compound (mainly the fact that Bucky’s creeping around the premises). It’s hardly news that he doesn’t get any sleep. There’s a surprising amount of information to go through considering it’s been a couple of days (three days, actually; Extremis really struggled to get going for a while there), but he thinks he gets the general picture eventually.

***

So those tests the doctor wanted to do were probably a good idea. He’s going to have new baselines, at the very least. But he would really rather do it himself.

Okay, he tells himself. Another compromise: he’ll get caffeine and a quick update from whoever else is there. Just a quick pass through the kitchen for some coffee, and then down to the lab. It’s still before dawn, so he takes the time to shower and dress in shop clothes, jeans and a couple of t-shirts.

Even then, it’s still early when he heads out, but he can hear voices before he even gets to the elevator. Indistinct and more of a hum than anything, but he can still hear it. The lights are brighter out here than he’s been keeping them in his room, and even with the added lens between his eyes and the world, it’s a little much.

The first voice he can pick out is Clint’s, loud and exasperated and familiar. Tony wants to smile, wants to be included in the team again, but he doesn’t want to walk into the room and watch everyone close down. He just—he misses them, and he doesn’t know where they stand after everything that’s happened. (It feels like a lot has happened, but it probably hasn’t been as much for everyone else.)

The next voice he gets is…Scott? Definitely Scott. He laughs, then speaks, sounding light. Tony catches the stray word, but gets distracted when he hears Vision. Vision’s tone doesn’t vary too much still, staying steady and calm but with varying degrees of gravity to it. There’s not much there now. There’s a fourth voice, unfamiliar to Tony, but tinny, it might just be a TV.

“No, no, no,” Clint’s voice carries up to Tony. “Oh, my God, Vis, come on. No, wait, don’t use those!”

“Do not strain yourself,” Vision says, more amused than anything. “I’ll take care of it.”

Tony gets out of the elevator and speeds up his pace as their words become more distinct, just a little, because it’s weird to be accidentally eavesdropping like this.

He breezes into the room, a little too fast maybe, and uses the momentum to propel himself toward the coffee maker. Scott’s sitting at the island with a StarkPad, a kid on the screen who must be his daughter, Vision’s standing in front of the stove, apparently cooking, and Clint’s sitting at the dining table on a wooden chair, propped up on at least five different cushions and wrapped in bandages (and Tony feels a stab of guilt at that, having wiped his own slate clean of injuries without actually healing), facing the kitchen and looking riled up.

“Just—throw those out, start over,” Clint says, gesturing wildly toward a bowl of something. “You’re not gonna get all the shells out like that and I, personally, am not eating anything you make with those eggs.”

“What’s the expression—cool your jets?” Vision says, but he turns to the sink and away from Clint, bowl in hand, and rolls his eyes so only Tony can see. He smiles back conspiratorially after fishing a mug out of the cabinet. At the island, the young voice from the StarkPad is telling a story involving a trowel, sand, and a boy’s underwear, and at the same time Clint’s grumbling under his breath (trying to poison me), Vision’s dumping the eggs, yolks, whites, bits of shell and all, down the disposal, Tony himself sets the coffee to start percolating and blinks owlishly in the bright lights of the kitchen. He can smell things too: the antiseptic from Clint’s injuries, something’s getting close to spoiling in the fridge, the container of dill that wasn’t closed properly, Scott’s morning breath—God, from all the way over here? That’s just not fair.

“Good morning, Tony,” Vision says. Tony jerks back to reality to find that—no time has passed. Vision is still mid-pour at the sink, sharing a look with Tony.

“Yeah, hi. Um, good morning,” Tony says.

“You’re having more than coffee!” Clint calls from his spot at the table.

“I’ll have a smoothie in the lab,” Tony says back.

“A smoothie in the lab,” Clint says, and now he’s grumbling in Tony’s direction.

Tony ducks his head and grins to himself as he steals the carafe to pour his first cup, putting it back just as fast to catch more of the brewing coffee. Clint Barton’s even worse with feelings than Tony, but he’ll take care of his own almost ruthlessly. He was absolutely shocked to find out what a mother hen the man was when the team first started, and even more surprised to find that Tony qualified as part of Clint’s own. It’s so nice to have Clint on his side again he can almost forget to pretend to resent it.

“He’s making french toast,” Clint says, “and it’ll be good if it kills me.”

Tony scrunches his nose. “It might just kill you.”

“Screw you,” Clint says.

“Seconded,” Vision says, lifting his nose higher. “They’ll be phenomenal.”

Tony raises his eyebrows at both of them, but takes his mug and sits next to Scott at the island instead of bolting right away.

“Hey, Cass,” Scott says, tilting the screen to get Tony in the shot, “guess who’s here?”

A tiny, excited gasp comes from the wild-haired kid, and her small hands go up to cover her mouth.

“It’s Iron Man!” she shrieks. “Iron Man! Hi! I’m glad you’re not a zombie!”

Tony smiles because, holy hell, yeah, this creature is definitely a mini-Lang, genuine curiosity and twinkling eyes and all.

“Me too,” he says. And then, because it’s true but mostly because it’ll make Scott squirm, he says, “And, y’know, your old man’s one of the bravest weirdos I know, and a valuable asset to the Avengers, yadda, yadda, but I’m afraid there are just too many people wearing red these days, and I’ve gotta do something about it.”

Scott laughs that laugh he gets when he’s uncomfortable. Cassie just nods seriously.

“Right,” she says, and then starts counting off on her fingers. “Scarlett Witch, you, Vision, uh. Falcon, Daddy.”

“Yep,” he says, “too many. Something’s gotta give, and it’s not gonna be me. Red was mine first.”

“Pretty sure red was Cap’s first,” Scott says. Cassie scoffs outright at her dad.

“As an accent color, at most,” she says indignantly, flapping her small hand at Scott. “Red was Iron Man’s first.”

Tony grins, and hides it behind a drink of his coffee. He wonders if Hank’s met this kid, if he has any idea she sounds so much like Jan. Probably not, remembering Hank.

“Scarlett Witch’s powers are red, so she gets to keep it, and Vision is red. Daddy, you and Falcon have to change colors.”

And then there’s a plate in front of him, syrup and butter at his elbow. Tony pokes at the french toast with his fork, flips it over, but it smells good at the very least. It might not be cooked very evenly, but it all seems cooked enough. He scoops up his plate and mug and makes a strategic retreat to the table when Cassie starts telling her dad why Sam gets to be gold and why Scott himself should be pink. He sits with his back to the kitchen after going back for the syrup and butter, facing Clint.

“So,” Tony says, drowning his plate with the syrup. “How’re you feeling, Tweetie?”

“Pretty good, all things considered,” he says, grimacing at Tony’s plate. “Dude, that is unnecessary and hurtful. I promise it’s edible.”

“I believe you,” he says, “this just makes it more edible.”

“See, Daddy?” Cassie says from the tablet. “Iron Man eats his pancakes just like me.”

“Tony,” Scott says, “you’re a terrible influence and never allowed to talk to my daughter again.”

Tony catches Clint’s eye as he pops a bite into his mouth and grins the most shit-eating grin he can conjure. There’s no sick churning in his stomach for accepting this food. It’s from Vision, who…might give him food poisoning on accident, but wouldn’t hurt him on purpose, Tony’s pretty sure.

The conversation flows easily, and Tony eats slowly, in the pauses between conversations. If it’s early in New York, it’s practically the middle of the night on the West Coast. Tony asks about it when Cassie hangs up, and Scott shrugs and says something about nightmares. Scott downs two more cups of coffee in rapid succession and declares he’s going back to bed.

Tony’s there long enough that others start filtering through for coffee and food. Thor comes through first, and is endlessly courteous to Vision even as he accepts the offer of french toast. He grabs some of his own coffee and comes to sit at the table. Clint’s calmed down a bit by that point (or, at least, Vision seems to have gotten the hang of french toast and doesn’t need the constant supervision anymore) and is doing a Q&A on Twitter. In Tony’s absence, they’ve all been given PR Bootcamp packets and at least Clint seems to be taking it seriously. Tony assumes it’s part of his agreement with Laura, but it’s nice, either way, to have someone else care about this sort of thing.

Thor claps a hand on Tony’s shoulder as he lowers himself into a chair.

“Stark,” he says, “it’s good to see you looking well.”

“Thor, it’s good to, y’know. See you,” Tony says. “And thanks for showing up and saving all our asses.”

Thor laughs, a low, calming rumble. “You’re quite welcome.” And his grin grows. “Honestly, I’m surprised you managed so long without me.”

“ ‘Managed’ is a strong word,” Clint mumbles from where he’s hunching over his phone.

The question comes to Tony’s mind, unbidden, unhelpful: what side would Thor have picked? He could be as hotheaded as Steve sometimes, hated to be controlled—hell, the man had refused the throne on Asgard a couple times to maintain his freedom. On the other hand, though, Thor has always tried to respect Earth’s customs, and his journey to being a hero had a lot to do with cooling that hot head of his, learning diplomacy and when to use it over his hammer.

Tony pulls his mug to his face to take a long drink and hide his expression. He doesn’t know who Thor would’ve sided with, and it makes him incredibly uneasy, more so than he cares to admit. Speaking of—God, has anyone had the Accords talk with Thor or Bruce yet? They’re going to have to sign. Where’s Ross at these days? Tony’s gotten lax and it’s going to cost them if he’s not careful. He needs to be better, more vigilant.

He picks up a tablet after that, and checks in on some things, takes inventory of others. He’s not going to be able to do much of anything until he makes a to-do list, figures out his priorities. There are a couple backup armors here at the compound, but he’s down one fully functioning suit now, and that never sits right with him. He doesn’t think he’ll have to scrap it completely, but he won’t know until it’s opened up in front of him. And he’s going to have to send out a memo to the team, he thinks, have them run diagnostics and checks on their own equipment so he can start getting that fixed. Most of them are pretty self-sufficient with their own gear, but there’s got to be at least a couple things that need replacing after that battle.

He hears the next people coming long before they get to the kitchen—two of them, he thinks. But he’s neck deep in setting up wireless tripwires for Ross and his minions, and he doesn’t look up until the room grows deathly still and quiet. Tony looks up and sees Clint, head still tilted down toward his phone, but eyes raised and resting on something beyond Tony’s shoulder. Tony turns around, and—oh.

There’s Bucky, standing hesitantly in the entrance to the kitchen, one-armed, next to Sam.

Two thoughts rise up simultaneously and crash into one another. Wow, I should get down to the ’shop and you shouldn’t have to hide in your own home.

He blinks, and Bucky shifts so that his shoulders are at an angle to Tony, and to the doorway, instead of square to the front. Tony blinks again, and then looks back down at his list. He adds conference with T’Challa about arm schematics above fixing armor but below vital equipment repair for the rest of the team.

“Damn, Cobain,” Tony says, “I was half-hoping His Kittiness would fill in the blanks, but that would be—yeah. I don’t know if ‘too easy’ is the phrase I’m looking for, but it would be too easy.”

Tony feels like he’s freezing up, like his gears are one-by-one grinding to a dead halt. Because he has to prove them wrong, he has to prove Steve wrong. He has to be a goddamn adult about this, not a reactionary four-year-old throwing a tantrum. But fuck if it doesn’t feel like burning alive.

“What’re you talkin’ about?” Bucky says. He looks genuinely confused, but at least he doesn’t look like he’s waiting for Tony to snap and go for his throat (again). Tony looks back down

“I should have a working prototype in…two weeks at most.” Then, more to himself than the company present, “Bloody hell, I’ve been sleeping on the job, wow.” And back to Bucky again, “Whatever, you’re lucky SI’s recently taken such an interest in prosthetic technology. Shouldn’t even take me that long to get started.”

There’s a beat of silence, two. Three and a half before Bucky opens his mouth.

“You’re a lunatic,” he says, but he looks more relaxed than Tony’s ever seen him, not that that’s saying much.

Tony’s definitely not watching out of the corner of his eye when Sam claps a hand to Bucky’s shoulder and pushes him all the way inside the kitchen.

“What he means to say is that he’s building you a new arm,” Sam says. “And what you meant to say, I’m sure, was thank you.”

“No, I think I meant he’s a lunatic,” Bucky says, coming farther into the room, getting down a glass from the cabinet and pouring himself some orange juice. “And thanks for the sentiment, but you really don’t need to make me a thing.”

Tony rolls his eyes so hard it would normally have given him a headache.

“I broke the last one,” he says, just in case Bucky forgot.

“French toast?” Vision asks before Bucky can even reply.

“Uh, yeah, sure. Thanks.”

He grabs his glass off the island and comes around to get a seat at the table. Tony’s head is still angled down toward his tablet, but he’s been watching Barnes’s every move since he came all the way into the room. When Bucky goes behind Tony, disappears from sight fully, it’s supposedly just to get to the chair at the head of the table, the one between Clint and Tony. Too bad that logical reason doesn’t stop Tony from feeling like his entire spine’s just been electrified. He jolts in his chair and Clint’s being subtle about watching him, at least, but he can feel Thor’s eyes on him, and he’s suddenly boxed in, stuck, and he can hear them all breathing individually. He blinks hard and pushes his chair out a few inches with a terrible grinding sound. One of his elbows plants on the table, and he balances his head on his hand, fingers along his eyebrow. He clears his throat, tells himself, breathe. Bucky’s frozen, half-sitting, half-standing over the chair at the head of the table.

“Hey, not to—uh, whatever, but can you. Not walk behind me like that?”

“Of course,” he says, right away, and lowers himself slowly into the chair.

And Tony can’t be here anymore. He’s hit some sort of limit, or wall, and he was only supposed to blow through for some coffee anyway.

Tony stands up, and his chair screeches again as it slides across the floor. He just barely manages to keep it from toppling over.

“Anyway!” he says and, shit, all this awareness is going to be really bad for him when it’s not saving his life, he’s pretty sure. He can sense Thor’s tenseness, Clint’s wariness, Sam’s pinched expression, Vision’s steady, imposing presence, Bucky’s eyes tracking him expertly. Tony gathers his dishes, tosses his plate in the sink, refills the mug.

“Check your emails later,” he tells the room. “I need lists from most of you.”

“We’re doing dinner later,” Sam calls after him as he breezes out of the room.

***

Dum-E shrieks happily the second Tony enters the workshop, and then rolls over to “scold” him by opening his claw all the way and spinning it as fast as he can. Tony doesn’t remember where the gesture came from, but it’s the robot’s version of putting a hand on his hip and wagging a finger in his face. Tony stands there and takes it, because he deserves it for fucking off to Malibu for so long, and because he’s missed this hunk of metal.

U, the more patient of the bots, waits until Dum-E’s got it all out of his system, and then comes forward slowly like Tony might spook, so he holds very still as U’s claw comes to rest, open, on Tony’s shoulder.

“Hey, buddy,” Tony says softly, and U lifts his claw slowly, closing it as he pulls away in a strange petting motion, does it again, and again. “Good job looking after the place, it’s not even a little burnt.”

It’s only after he says this, of course, that his eye catches on the disaster close to the back corner of the ’shop, like someone toppled something explosive and then covered the mess in a blanket. He reaches for a stern, disappointed voice, because that’s the only way the bots ever learn, but what comes out is laughter, bubbling and floating out of him, until he’s leaning on U for support and Dum-E comes back to poke at him like he’s looking for the reset button.

***

The new Extremis doesn’t need regulator injections anymore. There are nanites now, tiny little robots swimming through Tony’s blood in addition to the biological aspect of the program. They’re microscopic, capable of changing the way his body and the Extremis interact, what the Extremis’s focus is, all that stuff. He doesn’t know how far that power goes, what he can program the virus to do to his body, and he’s reluctant to push so soon.

The kicker is that the nanites can’t remotely interface with other systems. Tony doesn’t want to become hackable. So, while the microscopic bots are programable, they have to be removed, each manually tweaked, and then reinserted. And the process would be much less gross if he were talking about machines instead of his own body. Ugh.

The first thing he does is send out that email to the other Avengers, but while he’s waiting for replies he digs out the design for the hardware that’ll let him program and reprogram the nanites. He spends most of the morning fabricating what looks like a slightly smaller hemodialysis machine for blood transfusions, and in between work on that he lays out for various scans and takes blood samples for FRIDAY to analyze.

Finally, he’s got a good dozen baseline tests under his belt and the new machine assembled—and damn, he’s going to have to come up with a name for it, isn’t he—and it gets a little easier to breathe.

He shoots off a message to T’Challa and gets to mass producing arrow shafts and some of the more basic arrowheads for Clint, some new cartridges for the Widow’s Bites, and, when he’s done with that and still has no helpful responses, a software update for Redwing. He doesn’t look up until FRIDAY turns the music down and announces Rhodey’s arrival.

“Food,” Rhodey says.

“You’re not selling it very well, sugar plum,” Tony says back. “No introduction? Not even a howdy-do? You gotta convince me, here. Tell me something I want to hear.”

Rhodey comes the rest of the way into the room pretty quickly, Tony notes with something like glee. He's moving really well. Still, Tony should add the braces to his to-do list.

“Fine,” Rhodey says, and takes the screwdriver away from Tony. “A couple of your house goblins went all the way down to the city in a jet just to get saag from that place in Queens.”

“Oh, my God,” Tony groans, and his stomach really almost grumbles at the very thought. “That’s more like it, that’s very convincing.”

“Come on,” Rhodey says, but then Dum-E’s wheels are screaming in his excitement to see Uncle Rhodey, who he definitely likes more than Tony, and they’re held up for another ten minutes.

***

“Hey, Lang,” Tony says as he enters the room, “that kid of yours—thinking of going into STEM?”

“Uh…I don’t. What’re—she’s nine.” Scott laughs.

“Yeah, so? I’ve got dibs, I’m calling it. As in: before Pym. God, please don’t let her work for Pym.”

“Oh, come on, he’s not even in charge of his company anymore.”

“Don’t care,” Tony says. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

There are people sitting on every surface available. Natasha and Bucky are on the loveseat along the far wall; Wanda, Scott, and Sam are on the first couch, and Clint’s sitting on the arm, leaning against Wanda; Vision and Bruce are on one of the loveseats, heads bent close together and absorbed in conversation, though Vis looks up and smiles briefly at Tony; Thor’s on the floor next to Bruce’s feet, his back leaning against the arm of the loveseat.

And that’s….well, that’s all of them. Rhodey goes to sit in the armchair between the couch and one of the loveseats, and Steve’s zipping around with paper plates and containers of food. They need more furniture, Tony notes with delight. They’re all here, and there’s not enough room to sit. The giddiness turns sour in his mouth for a brief moment as it brings up the memory of how empty it was, how lonely when it was only him and Vision. Those three months before Natasha came waltzing back in, where the vastness of the compound threatened to swallow him daily.

He catches Nat’s eye then, and she’s sitting next to Bucky, their bodies angled toward one another, and she smiles at him, not soft or sympathetic, but happy, a sharp kind of relief like she knows exactly what he’s thinking. And he’ll take it, he’ll take this. They’re all together, and maybe he hasn’t worked things out with everyone yet, but they will, he’s fairly confident, so he smiles back and moves to hand out plastic silverware from the pile on the coffee table. The sounds of his teammates talking to one another wash over him, and he takes a deep breath.

***

The goblins who felt the need to get one of Tony’s favorite dishes in the entire world and bring it back to the compound were, apparently, Steve and Wanda. And Tony’s got mixed feelings about that, but he’s going to give it the good ol’ college try anyway.

There’s really nowhere left to sit by the time he and Steve get everything distributed, so they sit cross-legged in front of the coffee table, and it’s surprising to Tony how little it physically hurts (as in: not at all). His joints don't ache when he folds himself down onto the floor, and maybe it’s not the most comfortable place, but it’s so incredibly easy.

Tony thought Steve would sit by Bucky, but nobody seems shocked or uncomfortable by the arrangement. In fact, Tony hasn’t seen them together once, but, to be fair, he hasn’t seen much of anyone except at breakfast this morning. He wonders what that’s about, but doesn’t dare ask.

***

They watch The Music Man (the 1962 version) because it’s apparently Vision’s turn to pick (because, of course, they’re on a movie night rotation now, what the fuck), and he loves musicals.

“It’s because you spent years forcing hard rock on Jarvis’s poor ears,” Rhodey says with no small amount of satisfaction. Tony fakes offense and throws a pillow like a frisbee so it smacks Rhodey in the stomach. His aim’s never been bad by any stretch of the imagination, but over the past couple days it’s become something else altogether. Unfailing.

Tony’s phone is ringing, then.

“C’mon, man!” Sam says. “We’re watching a movie, can’t you mute that?”

“I did,” Tony mutters, leaning back so he can fish his phone out of his jeans pocket. And he did, or FRIDAY should’ve done it for him. An automatic Priority Alerts Only setting for when it’s movie night, or he’s in a meeting, or anywhere he’ll get in trouble for it.

His screen shows him a spider icon, and he’s up faster than he’s ever been up in his entire life.

“Fuck, fuck,” he says, and he answers the phone before he even makes it to the kitchen.

“Kid?” he says. “Talk to me.”

“Mr. Stark?” Peter says, and he sounds downright out of breath. Alarm sparks all the way down Tony’s spine. He puts the flat of his hand on the island and wills it to ground him.

“Hey, hey, what’s going on? You okay? Do you need help?”

“I—no! No, I’m okay. Really, Mr. Stark, but—uh, are you?”

“Am I?” Tony asks, sharp and fast. “Am I what?”

“Okay?” Peter asks, and his voice absolutely trembles. “Are you—I mean, Ned heard. And I didn’t know and I haven’t heard from you and, and Happy didn’t answer the phone so I thought what if—and, well, what-if’s are bad for me, I always get a little—”

“Okay,” Tony says just as Steve rounds the corner and leans a hip against the counter, eyebrow raised. “Listen, ’kay? I’m fine. I’m dandy, and I’m not just saying that this time. What did Ned hear?”

“He, um. There was someone at school and she, uh, she saw a YouTube video from Chicago, and she was saying—well she was just, she was so sure you were dead, Mr. Stark, and I just—”

“Yeah, alright,” Tony says, talking over him just to make him stop that line of thought. “But I’m fine, kid. And you’re fine?”

“I—yeah. Yeah, I was just…worried.”

“It’s a long story, but I really am alive,” Tony says, and smiles when he catches Steve’s eye. “Promise. Just breathe, ’kay?”

“Yeah,” Pete says, and it’s slower this time, like he actually is breathing, but he still sounds…not entirely reassured.

“Look, Captain America will even vouch for me.” And he flips the phone to speaker. “I’m okay, right, Cap?”

“He is now,” Steve says, smiling back at Tony.

“Captain?” Pete asks.

“Yeah, hi. The kid from Queens, right?”

“Uh-huh,” he says, and he sounds a little dazed. Tony can’t tell if it’s because he’s coming down from an anxious spiral or because he’s talking to Captain America. Probably both, because Peter.

“Well, it was bad for a few days, but Tony really is okay now.”

“Uh—right,” he says, and he sounds downright dubious now. “Can I—talk to Mr. Stark again?”

Tony flips off the speakerphone and brings it back to his ear.

“Hey, kid.”

“Bark like a dog if he’s holding you hostage,” Peter says quickly, and Steve’s face a few feet away goes from amused and relaxed to downright shocked.

Tony, personally, can’t keep in the laughter that explodes from his chest. Steve looks downright torn for another moment before the smile comes back with a shake of his head. Maybe it’s a little forced, but that’s what he gets for eavesdropping on someone else’s phone conversations.

“Uh, no,” Tony says. “I’m fine. And, no offense, but Cap couldn’t kidnap me if he tried.”

“Not if Friday’s half as overprotective as Karen,” Peter mumbles down the line.

“Hey,” Tony says in reprimand, but there’s no real edge to it, because Karen is overprotective, a little bit, but she’s better for it, “leave the girl alone. She’s just looking out for you.”

Steve, who seems to have been reassured by this point that no one’s currently in trouble, settles into a small smile and goes to grab a Dr. Pepper from the fridge before going back to the living room.

“Yeah, I know, I know,” Peter says. There’s a brief silence then, the heavy kind, and Tony knows he can just wait it out. Peter’s like Tony was at his age, all movement and words and brilliance. The kind of energy that doesn’t mesh with quiet.

“It’s just…” Peter says, voice hushed. “That video looked really bad, Mr. Stark.”

“Yeah, I believe that,” Tony says, purposely flippant. “I really almost did die,” Peter makes a low, distressed sound that Tony does his best to ignore, “actually, I kind of did die but only just a little bit, and then I got better.”

“What’s that supposed to—” Peter says, loud and panicked.

“Okay, hey, look!” Tony says, and Peter quiets down. “What day of the week is it?” And then, without waiting for an answer, “Over the weekend, or in a couple weekends, I can have Happy bring you up to the compound. We can hang out, I’ve got a debrief packet with your name on it if you want it. All classified stuff, but it’ll explain everything.”

“I…you’re sure?” Peter says. “I mean, with everybody there?”

“Course. It’s about time for you to meet everyone out of combat, don’t you think? I do.” He pauses, nods to himself. “It’s decided. Happy’ll be in touch, let him know the next weekend you have free.”

“Um, yeah, okay. For sure.”

“Oh, and tell May I said hi,” Tony says, smug smile on his face.

“Ugh, yeah, whatever—bye.”

The kid hangs up then, and Tony’s almost proud of him for it. At this rate, maybe he’ll be able to kick the kid of that weird “Mr. Stark” habit in the next couple years.

***

“Everything alright?” Vision asks when Tony returns. Next to Vision, Bruce looks worried in the way he normally does, in the way Tony hates, despises, where he shrinks in on himself, hunches his shoulders. Makes himself a smaller target.

“Oh, yeah,” Tony says, and notices that Steve and Rhodey are the only ones who look relaxed. “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. Again. What’s new.”

Steve snorts at that, and Natasha seems to relax the rest of the way.

“How’s the baby spider?” Rhodey asks, knowing smile on his face.

“Fantastic now, thanks,” Tony says dryly. Rhodey’s smile only gets wider in response.

“What I really wanna know,” Tony says, folding back onto the ground with a grace he’s never possessed until a couple days ago, “is who the hell was videotaping my pseudo-death when we were actively evacuating the area, what the hell.”

“There’s always one,” Steve says mournfully. “First thing I learned coming out of the ice: people are willing to do incredibly stupid things to get a good video.”

“Did you say Spider-Man?” Sam says, sitting up a little straighter in his seat. “Where the hell’s he been? I need a rematch.”

***

When they’re done with the movie Tony feels…he feels. A lot of something. A lot of different things, all mixed up. Going up to bed wouldn’t be anything but a study in futility at this point, and he knows it, so he goes back down to the lab.

Before, when everyone had just returned, Tony had felt so out of place and so unwanted. Things are still weird now, but at least he doesn’t feel so despised in his own home.

It’s just—Barnes was there, Barnes is living here, in the compound, and. And, and, and. And it’s not Barnes’s fault. And it’s no good to offer someone a place to live if you make it clear you don’t want them there. And he’s not even mad at Barnes, not really, hasn’t been for a long time now. And he can’t stop waiting for Steve to forget about his existence entirely. And he’s worried he’s going to turn into the Winter Soldier 2.0 and kill the last people he ever wants to hurt, the people he’s already hurt anyway. And—

He starts putting together Bucky's arm that night. Some time during the evening he’d gotten a reply from T’Challa that contained scans of Barnes’s torso, the mess of biological tissue and mechanical parts and wiring at Bucky’s shoulder, and attached had also been an edited version of the designs he’d sent, notated by someone named Shuri. And it’s fantastic, incredible, makes his eyes go wide and steals his breath it’s so good. He doesn’t have any idea who Shuri is but his new life goal is to meet them and possibly worship the ground they walk on.

He gets a good deal of the plating constructed and halfway assembled. It’s good. Overall very tedious work, but he gets to use his hands a lot. There’s a new rhythm to his workshop that involves multiple projects—tonight it’s the various aspects of Bucky’s arm and putting the finishing touches on Redwing’s updated code—and a lot of mileage on Tony’s rolly chair. At some point he adds in circuitry work for the arm too, which is trickier, more detailed work, and there’s no room in his head for anything else, and that’s pure bliss.

When he’s not wearing safety goggles, he’s got the HUD glasses on, and everything is so much better. There’s less light stimulation from the tint of the lenses, and, strangely enough, the supplementary info from the mini HUD seems to help too. There’s finally enough right in front of him, enough relevant data, to occupy at least most of the corners of his brain. Between the HUD glasses and his music, and knowing that his team is safe and accounted for, he feels clearer than he has in months. He is, effectively, in the zone. Breathes in, feeling his lungs fill to the brim with air in that entirely satisfying way he hasn’t been able to do since Afghanistan, holds it.

Gets back to work.

Chapter Text

Tony happens to look at the clock around a time reasonable for breakfast and decides he could use a break (and some coffee). He takes a tablet, a USB, and some dirty dishes up with him to the communal level.

Today it’s Bruce, Steve, and Vision in the kitchen when he gets there.

“Morning,” he says.

Steve and Vis greet him, Bruce grumbles something from his spot at the counter, but Tony knows not to be offended; that’s just how Bruce is in the mornings.

“Sam’s not up yet?” Tony says. He tosses the tablet and the USB on the table and walks past it to dump the dishes in the sink and grab a cup of coffee.

“He hasn’t been down yet, at least,” Steve says. Tony hums from behind his mug. “It’s a little early,” he says pointedly.

“Depends on how you look at it,” Tony says.

“You haven’t slept yet,” Steve guesses, looking unimpressed.

“Uh,” Tony says. “Neither has Bruce,” because that much is obvious.

“You’re both ridiculous,” Steve says.

“At least we don’t wake up this early,” Bruce says, sounding downright petulant. Tony beams, and goes to hide it behind his mug, because Bruce is taking his side.

“Wait,” Tony tries to say, but his mouth is full of coffee, so it mostly comes out as grunt that means ‘I have something to say!’ And then, when he’s swallowed the coffee in his mouth, “Who’s Shuri?”

“Uh,” Steve says, “T’Challa’s sister.”

“The princess of Wakanda?” Bruce says, still sounding bleary. He’s even rubbing his eyes—it’s adorable.

”Genius princess of Wakanda,” Tony corrects. “I owe her—damn, something nicer than a fruit basket. What can I send the genius princess of Wakanda that’s nicer than a fruit basket but not creepy?”

“And what did Shuri do?” Steve asks, much less suspicious than he probably should be, mostly seeming fond.

“She gave me ideas,” Tony says, declares, and Bruce buries his head in his arms on the counter with an appropriate level of suspicion and resignation, thank you, Bruce.

“There’s not enough coffee in the entire compound for this right now,” he says.

Steve snorts like the dork he is and Tony grins in response.

“What kind of ideas?” Vision asks, demeanor polite but curiosity bubbling underneath, because Vision is the best, and definitely Tony’s favorite.

And Steve is right here. The ideas for Bucky’s arm dies on Tony’s tongue before he says it, because he doesn’t want to deal with that right away in the morning (whether he’s actually slept yet or not), and he doesn’t think either Steve or Bruce do either. Vision might but, again, there’s a reason he’s Tony’s favorite.

“Ideas for the armor plating, a way to make the seals tighter while expanding range of motion,” he says instead. “Just have to make sure the joints’ll be strong enough to provide full support too. My elbows only bend one way and that’s how I’d like to keep ‘em.”

And then Tony gets the tablet back in hand and pulls up some of the specs he’s worked out based on Shuri’s notes. Even though Bruce looks exhausted and doesn’t pick his head up all the way, he does roll it on his neck until his cheek is smushed against one of his arms and at least one eye is free to look at the screen as Tony explains it to him.

This isn’t a fix of any kind between him and Bruce, but it loosens something in Tony’s chest when Bruce’s knee bumps into his own leg as he swivels closer to get a better look. It’s evidence that Bruce is willing to talk to him, to give him a chance.

He almost doesn’t notice when Bruce starts to snore.

“Oh, my God,” Tony says, mostly to cover up the overly fond smile trying to take over his face. “Am I really that boring? Because I know for a fact it’s not the material this time.”

He looks up to see Steve watching him from the other side of the island, mug in hand and a smile on his lips that tells Tony he’s not fooled at all, but that’s probably okay because Steve himself looks absolutely dopey with that expression. Tony lets himself smile back because who else is going to see? Bruce is out like a light.

“Definitely not the material,” Vision says from right next to Tony’s ear.

And holy fuck, nobody’s surprised him like that for days now—he used to be used to this, living in close quarters with the resident SHIELD spooks back in the day, but he supposes he’s gotten cocky with his newly heightened senses.

But Vision’s feet don’t need to touch the floor and he doesn’t need to breathe.

“I have a heart condition,” Tony says, clutching at his chest. Bruce, the bastard, just snores louder and squirms to find a comfortable position against the counter. His neck’s going to be killing him later and Tony’s not going to feel bad about it at all.

“Not anymore, you don’t,” Steve says, and he’s laughing like the asshole he is. And when Tony turns back to look at him, Steve has an eyebrow raised in challenge or question. Tony huffs, keeps it light.

“Point,” he says, confirming Steve’s supposition. “Far as I can tell, anyway. Effectively, I’ve grown new organs.”

Steve’s second eyebrow joins his first.

“That’s…nifty,” he says.

“Nifty,” Tony scoffs, but it’s true. And his heart’s about tied with his liver for Most Thankful Organ. Just that alone has probably added decades onto his life expectancy. It’s astounding. But these aren't exactly things he wants to admit to in front of so many people, even if one of them’s out like a light.

“Hey, Bruce,” he says instead, before the moment can stretch out any longer or either Steve or Vision can work out the implications of that. Tony reaches out and ruffles Bruce’s hair because it’s gotten long enough to be perfect for exactly that. “Hey,” he says again, quietly. Bruce sniffles and the full weight of how much Tony has missed this man settles firmly on his chest. His hand stills on top of Bruce’s head and he lets it sit there, soak in Bruce’s warmth and calm, lets himself feel the crushing pressure of it all for just the briefest moment before shaking it off. “C’mon, Brucie, couch or bed, you really can’t sleep here.”

“No,” Bruce moans, and for a terrible second Tony thinks he’s having some sort of nightmare, but then he follows it up with, “I was listening, I promise. Jus’ resting m’eyes.”

“Oh, my God,” Tony says. He’s going to protect this man until his dying breath. “I just got this new heart, green bean, you can’t ruin it like this.”

“No,” Bruce says again, but he also stands when Tony tugs on his arm, so he just rolls his eyes and ignores it.

“Yep,” Tony says, and Bruce barely bothers to open his eyes as he takes the first few stumbling steps following. Tony keeps his arm around the man’s shoulders because, Jesus, he’s going to faceplant if Tony lets go.

“Goodnight!” Steve calls after them, to which Bruce mumbles some very unkind and downright obscene words into Tony’s shoulder. Tony laughs a laugh that is pure delight. Just as Tony calls the elevator, Sam comes out of the stairwell off to the side, takes one look at them standing there, and grins.

“Aw, man,” he says, turning to the kitchen. He calls out, “Please tell me I didn’t miss the drag-Tony-for-wearing-shades-inside sess, because I could really use that today.” Then, facing Tony again, “Dude.”

Tony reaches up and—yeah, he’s definitely still wearing the tinted HUD glasses. Effectively: sunglasses inside at 7:30AM. Patented asshole look. He’s worked with worse before. And, luckily, he can hear the elevator on its way.

“What can I say?” Tony says, shrugging in a way that almost dislodges Bruce. The elevator doors open behind them and Tony backs them in, saying, “Spider-kid had a point.”

“Okay,” Sam says as the door slides shut, “but you still look like a jackass!”

Say what you like about Steve—Tony himself certainly has about a million conflicting thoughts about the guy—but he has pretty consistently solid friends. (By friends, of course, Tony means friends, as in the people Steve has considers his; Steve collects followers and devotees everywhere he goes, but he trusts only a few people.) He remembers Peggy being around the first ten or so years of his life, how strong and sweet and patient she had been. He grew up seeing the reels and hearing the accounts of Barnes, too—how he was efficient, easy, and protective. Steve even managed to inspire some kind of longstanding loyalty in Howard who, for all his flaws in the fatherhood department, was still a good person who dedicated his life to protecting people and making discoveries. Sam is genuine and wickedly smart and sharply sarcastic and takes things at face value. Tony likes him, even though he didn’t know him well before the whole mess with the Accords. He thinks he might be grateful for that, actually. One less betrayal. All he sees when he looks at Sam is a good man who had some serious reservations about handing over his professional autonomy and who’s a good friend, if a little misguided.

Bruce slips away from Tony so he’s leaning against the wall of the elevator, blinking slowly at Tony like he’s confused as to how they got there. The feeling Tony gets looking at him isn’t betrayal either, but it’s—something. If he had to hazard a guess, Tony might say abandonment. Which he recognizes as ridiculous, thank you very much, since he’s not five and Bruce isn’t his mom.

“You really did not sleep a wink, did you?” Tony observes, remembering this look from the early days of Avengers Tower, right after New York, when Bruce came back with him for want of anything more pressing to attend to.

“Yeah, well,” Bruce says, and he doesn’t seem to be awake enough to be overly self-conscious. “It’s exciting to have a lab again.” He pauses to yawn. “Guess I got carried away.”

“A vacation with no lab?” Tony says, taking great care to sound aghast and an appropriate level of horrified by the very idea. “That’s what you get for not letting me help with the itinerary.”

It earns him a sleepy snort, but Bruce’s eyes are drooping again so Tony doesn’t even have to hide his responding grin.

“I’ll try to remember that.”

Instead of dragging Bruce when the doors open again, Tony links his elbow with Bruce’s and gives him a tug. Tony still ends up supporting more of his weight than normal, but neither mentions it. In fact, they don’t talk again until Tony’s led them to Bruce’s quarters and Bruce is half-sprawled, half-flopped onto the bed. Tony huffs and moves to take Bruce’s shoes off for him. Just to be petty, he slips them off Bruce’s feet without untying the laces, because he knows it’ll bother the hell out of the big guy later.

“I get it,” he says, to no one in particular. “This is payback for all the times Pep had to make sure I didn’t choke on my vomit, right? Very funny.”

“I’cn hear y’,” Bruce says, mouth smushed into his pillow.

“Good,” Tony says suddenly, and means it. “Because that lab? Yours. Always has been. It’ll still be there tomorrow, and the next day. At least until some baddie inevitably destroys that part of the compound, but there will always be a lab for you if I have anything to say about it.”

Bruce is looking at him now, scrutinizing him with one eye, the other one hidden by the pillow. He rolls fully onto his side after a stretched out moment, revealing the other eye, looking wearier and less sleepy as he takes that in. One side of his mouth pulls in tight in a not-smile.

“I keep thinking,” Bruce says, and that’s a sentence that never ends well for Tony, so he sighs and, to hide the way his shoulders slump, he rides the movement and sits on the edge of the bed, by Bruce’s hip, his elbows on his knees and his eyes on the ground. “If I’d been here when the Accords were proposed—and I just keep goin’ in circles, Tony. I don’t know what I would’ve done.”

Natasha’s voice rings in his ears. You really think he’d be on our side?

Well, he’d hoped.

“It was a bad situation,” Tony says halfheartedly. It’s a shitty defense.

“The worst,” Bruce agrees easily. “Doesn’t make me any less angry about it.”

“Get in line,” Tony says, voice a little harder than he means for it to be. “If you think I was getting any kind of joy or fulfillment out of the setup then—then I don’t know what to tell you. We thought you were gone, and Ross is the Secretary of State. We can’t not communicate with him, and it’s not like the Accords were his brain baby, not by a—”

“I know,” Bruce says miserably.

“Then what do you want from me?” Tony asks, showing his cards just that much more than he probably should, but this is Bruce.

Bruce doesn’t answer and Tony takes a breath. It’s not like he expected an answer. It's not like there’s any answer Bruce could give that would make Tony feel better about it.

“A hundred and seventeen countries, Banner. And they were right to be uncomfortable with the level of power we had. They were right to demand change, and they were right to be pissed off. You’re probably right to be pissed off too.”

“It’s easy to be mad at you,” Bruce admits, and drags himself up to a sitting position, leaning back against the headboard.

“Boy, do I know it.”

“The guy with seemingly endless money and just as much power. If there’s a problem, why haven’t you fixed it already?”

“Believe me when I say I’m trying,” Tony says. He gives in then, because it looks like this is going to be a Conversation, so he swings his legs up onto the bed and leans back so the footboard digs into the small of his back.

“I know,” Bruce says, but he doesn’t. If he knew he’d be meeting Tony halfway, or at least trying. (Which is, maybe, not entirely fair, given that Bruce is here and talking and that’s more effort than he wastes on most human beings.)

“I’ll be making amends till the day I die. Actually, if everything works out, I’ll be actively making amends for about twenty years after that too. But I don’t have the time to be kissing ass for the decisions I stand behind.”

“And yet,” Bruce says.

“I’m gonna level with you…I can't tell if you want me to take more or less responsibility here.”

“Me neither,” Bruce mumbles. Then, louder, “It’s a—livable solution. In the literal sense. And it’s not ideal, but.” A deep breath that hikes his shoulders up. “God, I’m astounded we made it so long after Ultron without something worse landing in our laps.”

It almost did, Tony doesn’t say. I stopped it. I held this back as long as I could.

He thinks Bruce knows all this anyway.

“So,” Tony says after a beat. “What’re you workin’ on down there in Bannerland?”

Bruce's eyes light up and he sucks in a breath.

“I’m—”

Tony jolts a bit in his seat.

“God, no, wait,” he says. Bruce pauses, mouth still half open, and Tony says, “Jesus, I’m bad at this. Sleep, you.” He makes a vague shooing gesture at Bruce as his science bro’s face melts from shock to amusement. “We’ll have a science party later.”

Bruce just stares at him for a moment, an amused tilt to his mouth that’s basically a laugh coming from him. Tony flaps a hand in his direction and gets up off the bed.

“Come on, lay down, close your eyes,” Tony says. Bruce shuffles down on the bed, still in his lab clothes, and wiggles around enough to get the covers out from underneath him.

“Aren’t you gonna tuck me in, Tony?” he says, teasing and lighthearted and sleepy, and Tony calls his bluff, stepping forward and floofing the blankets until they sit just right, and then he pats Bruce’s sternum twice. He’s a little softer than Tony remembers him being, time has passed, and neither of them are as young as they were when they faced the Battle of New York.

“I missed you, y’know,” Tony says, staring at the corner of a pillow.

Before Bruce can say anything, Tony’s up and fleeing the room altogether.

“Sweet dreams, jolly green,” he calls over his shoulder, and closes the door.

***

He walks straight past his bedroom door and back to the elevator.

***

“You get an upgrade! You get an upgrade!” Tony bellows. He’s standing in the middle of the workshop, feet set wide, pointing dramatically at U and DUM-E. The bots start twirling and hurrahing around him, and Tony spins and watches them go, watches them pick up on his excitement and amplify it. It’s been too long since he spent any kind of real quality time with them, and it shows.

“Hey, Fri,” he says, because she’s his baby, she needs attention, especially after that stupid stunt he pulled on her in Malibu, “you want an upgrade?”

“All due respect, Boss,” she says, “let’s make sure your upgrade isn’t buggy before we mess around with my programming.”

“Noted,” Tony says. “And correct as usual. I knew there was a reason I kept you around.”

“Of course,” FRIDAY says. “And here I thought you genuinely enjoyed my company.”

“Hearing your voice is the highlight of my day,” he says. DUM-E and U are still dancing around, and heading straight for each other. Tony reaches a hand in their direction and says, “Hey, guys, cool it—” but it’s no use, and they careen into one another, U rocking dangerously but thankfully not tipping over.

It feels good to start their diagnostics. U gets impatient and squirmy during the first checks, because U is always squirmy when they do this. DUM-E’s the one to stay perfectly still and follow orders—there were a couple incidents way back in the day that ended in both Tony and DUM-E getting a nasty shock or cut or some other such hurt—though he does chatter at Tony the entire time, like a teenager in a barber’s chair.

“Yeah, buddy,” Tony says, oil can in hand, “I know.”

DUM-E chirps again and flicks his claw in an expressive manner.

“Mm-hm.”

And, okay, maybe Tony doesn’t know, not exactly. Usually he can get a vague idea of what the bots mean, especially DUM-E, but mostly FRIDAY will send the cliffnotes version to his phone later in case the bot actually has information he’d really like to relay.

It’s good and long overdue, the maintenance on the bots. And in truth they are pretty self-sustaining these days; they know when to charge themselves and can change each other’s parts out if it becomes necessary, and if there’s anything else that needs to be done, FRIDAY can walk them through how to do it, but doing it himself always reassures Tony. This is one of the most consistent things in his life, originating from his MIT days, before DUM-E could feasibly do any of this himself—back before board meetings even, when Howard and Maria were still alive. The only human being to be so consistent in his life is Rhodey, though with the whole military career thing going on, they’ve mostly had a distant kind of consistency, meeting up briefly and catching up perpetually. (Which, all things considered, has been for the best; no person could be around Tony all those years without wanting to kill him, especially in those years immediately leading up to Iron Man—see Obie as exhibit A.)

So the familiarity and relative simplicity is good, well and truly good, but it doesn’t exactly take all of his concentration. His attention wanders off and, with it, his emotions. On the one hand, he knows he’s been doing everything in his power to keep the team together and legit and keep them from being tyrants, and he thinks—hopes, desperately—that the rest of the team understands that now. On the other hand, Tony should’ve done more, should’ve been better, but he doesn’t know how. Everyone shoots blame at him, but nobody can seem to tell him what he should’ve done differently. He’s a convenient scapegoat, he knows: when things go right it’s just his duty to give back to the people he profited off of for so long, when things go wrong it’s because he wasn’t paying attention, didn’t try hard enough, was sleeping on the job—

Bruce’s conflicted feelings about the entire thing are confusing both of them, and Tony doesn’t think Bruce’s point-of-view is entirely uncommon.

This all ends in him having a relatively low-key panic attack in the middle of the ‘shop.

“Boss?” FRIDAY says, and she’s an AI, Tony knows he can’t hear uncertainty in her voice because that’s not the personality he programmed her with, but he thinks she is uncertain; she wasn’t around before Tony was a constant wreck, doesn’t know his usual ways of dealing with bullshit like this. The norm for her is hardly the wider sense of normality Tony knows from life before everything went to hell in a hand basket. “Would you like me to call—”

He doesn’t even hear the end of the sentence. The thought rises, unbidden, from the sea of his brain, clearing away the clutter for a split second as he thinks, JARVIS would never ask that, he would’ve known better, FRIDAY doesn’t get it and suddenly his stool’s tipping over and he’s scrambling so he doesn’t fall on his face. In that moment, his grief for JARVIS crashes into him full force, even though Vision’s right upstairs, even though he has FRIDAY now to help him out, even though he has U and DUM-E here in the shop, even though the entire team has returned, plus some, even though Pepper and Rhodey are still alive, and Peter’s safe in his little apartment in Queens with his aunt, and—and just how much can Tony want out of life? This is so much more than he should be able to have anyway, so much more than he ever expected—just how selfish can he be?

And, God—no, Tony doesn’t want FRIDAY to call anyone. He doesn’t need anyone to see him like this, he doesn’t want anyone to see him like this. Half the team thinks he’s too unstable to be an Avenger anyway, and the other half would probably think he was attention seeking and—why is he so happy to have them back, anyway? If this is how they see him, and how he has to work around them?

Eventually, Tony takes a deep breath and reasons with himself. Steve has been doing so much better, he’s got the right idea lately even if his execution doesn’t exactly match up, or that’s the perception Tony thinks he has when he’s not in the middle of losing his shit.

***

So Tony can breathe now, kind of, but he still puts the workshop on lockdown, and he doesn’t lift blackout mode when FRIDAY announces that Steve’s knocking (he applauds himself for his foresight, really), asking if he can come in. Steve probably says please, because he’s so polite. Well—he’s polite to other people. He’s either on the other side of that door saying pretty please or he's speaking in that tight, controlled way that means he wants to be yelling and his face is turning splotchy and red and his fists are clenched at his sides and he’s just waiting for Tony to open the door so he can—

Tony doesn’t unlock the door. Well, for a while, at least. FRIDAY doesn’t say how long Steve actually stays out there for, and Tony doesn’t ask because he’s learning that either answer will sting him in some way: the sting of hurt he feels when Steve can’t respect even Tony’s simplest of wishes up against the sting of desertion he feels when Steve does respect those wishes. So he doesn’t ask, and he goes through SI paperwork he’s sorely behind on, and makes a mental note to slip another small bundle of money into Pepper’s bank account. (Back in the day he’d just give her another raise but she’s CEO now and that’s not quite how it works.)

Tony does open the door to the lab eventually, because obviously he doesn’t die down there, but he doesn’t come up for air until he’s talked himself down almost entirely. Because, okay, things got bad for a while there. It wouldn’t even be out of bounds to say they slowly fell to pieces over the course of a couple years. The lines were in the sand long before the Accords hit the table in front of them.

He’d made these people his family and they’d imploded, just like Bruce had predicted.

And yet, Tony tells himself. And yet here they are. That shouldn’t fix everything but it should mean something. It has to mean something.

He thinks he might be at the point in healing where he’s past being bitter and angry and ready to snap all the time. Everything seems normal and calm and better for the most part, and then reminders jump out of the water and he’s blinded with it. They’ve shown (some more than others) that they’re willing to stand beside him, that they’re on the same team, that they care. Which makes things simply confusing. Why did they go through all of that if it was pointless and they’re back anyway? Why the assumptions and the knee-jerk anger and the distrust?

And Tony doesn’t have an answer but he doesn’t think one exists, so he’s trying to just not obsess over it.

***

It’s the dead of night when he finally goes up to the communal floor to scavenge for food and then maybe go to bed. He might finally be tired, but he might just be emotionally drained. He’s hoping they might be the same thing.

Now, Tony doesn’t make a habit of using words like intuition, but if he were any less science-oriented in his worldview, he might say his earlier anxiety attack was a gut instinct because things had been going too well and he just knew something had to give.

Then again, the only reason he’s here running into Bucky, alone, on the common floor in the middle of the night, is because Tony spent hours locked in his shop being consumed by terror over the belief that none of his colleagues actually like him, Jesus.

But the important part of that sentence is that Tony’s alone with one James Buchanan Barnes in the dead of night and he’d be on edge if he hadn’t been on edge all damn day. As it is, he stops dead in his tracks makes eye contact with the man, who’s sitting on the big couch and staring at the TV that’s not on.

“Hey,” Tony says, feeling disturbingly…casual. Non-hostile.

“Hey.” Bucky sounds just as pleasant, if a little surprised.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Tony asks. Bucky shrugs and goes back to looking at the blank screen. Tony’s about to leave when Bucky sneaks a glance at him.

“Not worth the trouble,” he finally admits, looking sheepish about it and, yeah, Tony gets that. He takes a moment to contemplate his answer.

“Want some coffee?” he offers, and Bucky looks even more surprised. Annoyance flashes through him—he really wishes people would stop being so shocked when he shows basic humanity—but it burns out just as quickly. It’s not like he’s given Bucky any reason to think he’d do anything but go on about his business and keep from showing Bucky his back. It’s somehow easier though to interact with Bucky without being watched, without someone breathing down both their necks waiting for Tony to snap or whatever it is they seem to be waiting for. Well—they haven’t been waiting lately, but there’s a tension that’s like being watched. Tony thinks they know he’s past attacking the man—he’s invited Bucky to live at the compound for God’s sake—but they all know he’s still uncomfortable. He doesn’t hide it very well. (To be fair, he hasn’t had that much time to get used to it yet.)

“Only if you’re already making some,” Bucky says, and Tony nods, taking a route to the kitchen that lets him keep Bucky in his periphery almost the whole time.

He starts a pot of coffee and pokes around in the fridge, snatching the remains of a frozen pizza to take with him. The muscles in his hand don’t cramp when he grabs both coffee mugs with it and the plate in the other hand, and his balance is impeccable. He hands one off to Bucky. Tony takes a seat in the armchair adjacent to Bucky’s couch, puts his coffee on the end table so it can cool, and puts the plate on his lap so he can start eating.

“Steve was worried about you,” Bucky says after a couple of minutes. He’s cradling his still-too-hot-to-drink coffee to his chest, and his eyes have mostly been on his mug.

“Steve’s a worrier,” Tony says around a mouth of pepperoni. Really though, he’s surprised by the distinct lack of disbelief that sentence brings up. Of course, that voice in the back of his head still whispers, still sneers, asks why in God’s name Steve would be worried about him, asks where that worry was in Siberia—but that’s not right, and this isn’t Siberia. That sentence edits his imagined memories of Steve outside the door, does a lot of work toward solidifying the image of Steve sad and worried instead of exasperated and outraged.

“Well—yeah,” Bucky says. “He kind of is these days.”

They settle into a silence that’s only mostly awkward, and Tony turns to his food and focuses on pretending that it doesn’t bother him at all. He’s halfway through his second slice when Bucky talks again.

“So, what—did you just nap all day long down in your workshop?” he asks. “Or did you just wake up?”

“None of the above,” Tony says.

“Can’t sleep, then?” Bucky says, and he’s carefully only half looking at Tony.

“It’s,” Tony says, considering. “A work in progress.”

He doesn’t know what to say about his sleep situation right now; it’s not like he hasn’t gone a little longer without sleep, but usually it’s on purpose and his body fights him the entire way. And most of the time there’s chemical assistance, coke back in the day and caffeine since he collected shrapnel in his chest. He doesn’t know how to give voice to his semi-solid concerns without making them real. Tony’s not an idiot, though, and keeping quiet doesn’t mean it’ll go away, but he and Bucky definitely aren’t on good enough terms for that kind of conversation yet.

“Fair enough,” Bucky says.

“I—” Tony says, stops. He really does feel emboldened being alone with Bucky, freer to speak even though he knows that’s not the case. It’s just that alone Bucky’s just Bucky, they’re just two pretty screwed up dudes awake between super-late and nobody-wakes-up-at-this-hour-voluntarily o’clock. With any of the others around, the social context between the two of them becomes unavoidable. “Just. If there’s anything you need, you know you can always ask me, or Friday, or Steve.”

To be fair, Bucky looks just as awkward as Tony feels about sharing this sentiment.

“That was—the sentiment I got from the others,” he says. “But it’s—uh, kind of you to say outright.”

Bucky's considers his mug, and Tony can see the thought process play out on his face. He spins a pizza crust idly and watches as Bucky brings the mug to his lips, knowing full well that it’s still much too hot to drink. Bucky commits, though; he slurps obnoxiously, and continues breathing in air after he pulls the coffee away, trying to cool the liquid as it burns his tongue, and Tony laughs at him, silently. It’s quiet again, then, and at least Tony knows better than to drink his coffee for another couple minutes. They both sit there, and he doesn’t know what else to say that would keep things as peaceful as they are, so he eats the crust even though he doesn’t want it. Eventually he swaps his plate for his mug and thinks, to hell with it.

“So,” Tony says, and Bucky looks up immediately, the relief plain on his face. “What kinda TV are you watching these days, Buckaneer?”

And Bucky’s eyes light up with such pure delight that Tony regrets asking immediately.

Chapter Text

Turns out, Bucky’s obsessed with Real Housewives. Apparently Clint introduced him to the show and Bucky was hooked right away. He’s fascinated with the way societal rules have been turned inside out since WWII, and the strange way the starring women navigate their insane amounts of wealth. Or, at least, that’s the way he tells the story. Tony secretly thinks Bucky might have the entire personality of a wine mom.

“Reality TV’s fuckin’ crazy,” Bucky says in conclusion. On screen, a blonde woman just showed up uninvited to the brunette’s lunch gathering. Tony can feel the tension from his chair and he makes note of which women at the table make meaningful eye contact with one another like ‘oh Jesus, not again’ and which look like they want to start chanting for a fight. Tony’s been to his fair share of these kinds of get togethers, but this is normally the point he starts drinking seriously, with intent, or otherwise finds a way to excuse himself. It’s admittedly much more amusing with the screen in between him and the drama. Natasha breezes through sometime during the second episode to make herself some tea.

“Not you too,” she says to Tony.

“It’s engaging,” Tony says. “And quite honestly it’s refreshing to see that some people have even worse communication skills than we do.”

Nat rolls her eyes at that, but she stays perched on the arm of Bucky’s couch until her tea’s gone and she knows all the housewives by name. She doesn’t make any comment about Tony and Bucky watching bad TV together in the dead of night, which Tony’s grateful for, and she leaves between episodes to go back to bed or at least retreat to her room.

A little while later Tony gets an idea for a new comm interface from an insult hurled onscreen and starts to multitasks. He flips the HUD glasses down from where they’re resting on top of his head and uses the visual tracking to make notes while still watching middle-aged women throw drinks on each other.

Bucky falls asleep eventually, but Tony’s on a bit of a roll by then so he turns the volume down a little bit, gets another cup of coffee and a tablet, and sets up camp on the armchair while Real Housewives plays in the background. He doesn’t even realize he’s stayed up all night (again) until the sky starts to lighten. He blinks at the picture window and glances over at Bucky, who’s completely conked out with his head tipped back at an awkward angle against the couch arm, one foot planted on the couch, one dangling over the side, and who may or may not be drooling.

“Fri, snap a pic of this,” he says.

“Why, Boss,” FRIDAY says through the comm in the glasses, “people will think you’ve gone soft.”

“Aw, worried about my reputation?” His phone buzzes on the end table to indicate where she’s storing the pictures.

“Just your pride.”

“C’mon, blackmail material is valuable.”

He’s almost got the new voice-command system mapped out by the time Sam and Steve step out of the elevator in workout clothes, looking bright eyed and bushy tailed.

“Oh, God,” Sam says, eyes on the almost-muted TV, “not you too.”

“Funny,” Tony says. “That was Nat’s reaction.”

“We get enough of this shit as it is,” Sam says, pointing at the screen the same way Howard used to point at the girls Tony brought home as a teenager.

Steve’s standing there next to Sam and he’s taking in the scene before him, for lack of a better way to put it. And then he’s smiling, he’s beaming, and obviously tying to tamp it down. Sam goes to get them both water bottles out of the fridge. Meanwhile, Steve grabs onto both ends of the towel around his neck and Tony doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do. Before he’s figured it out all the way, Bucky starts to stir, stretching his legs out straight and yawning, opening his eyes. The silence between Steve and Tony refreshes as Bucky looks around, becoming a three-way awkwardness, and Tony looks down at his tablet. And dammit, he’s lost his train of thought entirely.

“Mornin’,” Bucky says.

“Good morning,” Steve says.

“Welcome back to consciousness,” Tony says without looking up.

Steve still looks like he thinks it’s Christmas morning, but he’s starting to look wary, too. Bucky looks flat-out confused, and Tony can feel himself getting tenser by the moment. He’s annoyed with Steve for looking at him like that, pissed at himself that he’s getting more on edge and playing right into Steve’s expectations, and maybe just a little pissed at Steve for so obviously trying to walk on eggshells, trying not to look too happy, or say something that could be taken as critical. Fuck it, he thinks.

“Hey, Friday, hit Cap’s phone with that blackmail material, will ya?” Tony says. He doesn't know what he wants from this exchange, but he knows he’s going to have to change their track fast before they get any further. Then, as Sam comes back with a bottle for him and one for Steve, “Sam’s too.”

Sam’s phone buzzes in his pocket, but Steve doesn’t seem to have his on him, so he leans over Sam’s shoulder as the pictures are pulled up. Sam laughs.

“Oh, my God,” he says, “is that drool? Jesus, all over the couch!”

Tony knows that’s an exaggeration, but Bucky obviously doesn’t.

“The couch?” Bucky parrots, levering himself up the rest of the way and lifting his arm to look underneath him. When his hand brushes against his face he stills momentarily and then scrubs at it with part of his sleeve pulled over his hand. Sam’s laughter morphs into a crazed howling. “What—”

He totters up, uncoordinated from sleep and keeping his one hand occupied wiping at his chin, and goes to look at Sam’s phone where Steve’s holding it (Sam passed it off as he slowly crumpled to the floor, out of breath from laughing at something Tony doesn’t think is really all that funny).

“Where did this—” Bucky says, looking down at the screen in confusion, and then up at Tony, utter betrayal on his face. “Tony,” he whines.

Tony gets that familiar shock of first name, but grins around it.

Bucky schools his expression quickly for a guy who just woke up, and deadpans, “My therapist would call this a violation of my privacy. Which is a thing I’m entitled to.”

“That's what you get for letting your guard down,” Tony says, hands spread in a what-can-you-do gesture.

“Okay, okay,” Sam says from the ground, wiping a tear from his eye. He sticks his hand up and Steve automatically reaches down to hoist him to his feet. “I’ve got actual shit to do today, so we should get started, but—phew.” Sam pops up, bouncing on the balls of his feet, looking altogether much happier to be awake so early. “Thanks for that, Stark.” He motions to the elevator and looks pointedly at Steve.

“Yeah,” Steve says, “alright.” He looks at Bucky for a moment longer. “And maybe get some sleep in a real bed, Buck. You’re lookin a little rough.”

“Yeah, Buck,” Tony simpers as Steve turns to follow Sam. Bucky looks about ready to sink through the floor, and like he’s trying very hard to appear unaffected. “You look like you could use the beauty rest.”

“You too, Tony,” Steve calls as he strolls into the elevator. “Get some sleep.”

“But then who would spread the gospel!” Tony shouts back, holding up his own phone displaying the picture of Bucky that is, on closer inspection, actually pretty funny. FRIDAY’s got an eye for angles, go figure.

“Mm,” Bucky grunts after they’re gone. “G’night, traitor.”

“Sweet dreams, princess,” Tony says.

***

Bucky leaves, but Tony hovers on the common floor, working and drinking coffee and pilfering food. He stays there until most everyone’s passed through, slowly reassuring himself that this is his team, these are his friends, that they’re all okay with him being here, that they want him here as much as he wants to be here. Bruce smiles at him with the sleepy smile he only ever has after an actual full night of sleep, Nat slides him a piece of her bacon without a word, Clint refills his coffee when he makes a fresh pot, Thor bids him a good morning, Scott comes in with a gleam in his eye, asking after Tony’s knowledge of propulsion systems, Vision offers to cook extra if he wants some, Wanda passes him the butter when she sees him start reaching for it (he’s learning to count the little victories with her, maybe, or at least to recognize when she’s reaching out, trying to interact), and Rhodey steals his whole-ass mug of coffee (it’s how he shows he cares). Tony stays and basks in it, in the feeling of his team being safe, being here, being together in a way he’s never really felt before, not like this, down to his core, content and secure in the knowledge.

When it looks like he’s about to get roped in to dishwashing duty (which consists of collecting, rinsing, and then loading the dishes into the machine, but still), he cites a conference call for SI and makes a hasty retreat.

“Coward!” Rhodey calls after him, still holding Tony’s favorite mug even though he’s been complaining constantly about how much sugar Tony uses, like they haven’t known each other for a couple decades, like Tony’s coffee hasn’t always been like that.

“Thief!” Tony calls back, and doesn’t feel guilty at all.

He goes up to his room and wonders after his freakout in the shop the day before. Things are better now, or at least pointed in the right direction, but there’s still a disconnect buried in there somewhere for Tony, an uncertainty lurking around, nipping at his ankles. He doesn’t know if there’s anything he can do to get it to go away entirely, but he’s tired of the way it keeps knocking him on his ass.

The errant thought maybe it’s time we talk about it flits through his head and it reminds him with a jolt of genuine surprise that they were supposed to do exactly that. And Tony would ask himself how in the hell he could’ve forgotten that, but there was an alien attack to consider, and then the small matter of his own infection and subsequent days of unconsciousness, followed by the adjustment of waking up to Extremis.

He goes through The Routine, puts on some clean jeans and a couple t-shirts (purposefully leaving the tinted HUD glasses behind, knowing they can come off as defensive just like regular sunglasses), and, before he can talk himself out of it, walks down the hall to Steve’s room. It’s not until after he knocks that he realizes Steve’s probably not just sitting in his room, but the door swings open to reveal Steve in dark jeans and a dark gray shirt with three-quarter sleeves, a style that looks unfairly good on him and one that Tony’s sure Wanda introduced him to. Steve’s sense of style increased by roughly 70% when she joined the team, though she still can’t convince him to accessorize, much to Natasha’s amusement. Tony grins wide, and Steve blinks at him.

“Hey,” Steve says. He smiles back belatedly. “Tony, hi. What’s up?”

“Hellohihey,” Tony says. “You particularly busy right now?”

“Not at all,” he says immediately.

Tony only sees the sketchpad laid out on Steve’s bed because Steve shifts in the doorway to block his view of it. That’s interesting, definitely, but Tony lets him get away with it for now.

“I was just thinking,” Tony says, and tells his voice to be light, to be nonthreatening, to be friendly because that’s what they’re trying for here. “Might be time to cash in that rain check on our talk.”

Tony’d been afraid he’d have to extrapolate on that since it’s admittedly pretty vague, but Steve’s smile softens into something like a sincere expression and Tony counts it as a win.

“Of course,” Steve says. “Yeah. Lemme just grab my shoes.”

***

Tony had been having grand thoughts of a little bistro in the Bronx he thinks Steve would enjoy, but Steve suggests a walk and Tony finds himself agreeing easily enough. The compound grounds are pretty spacious because Tony bought up a lot of the surrounding land in an attempt to minimize the risk of collateral damage. It’s mostly fields and patches of trees, but almost a mile out to the west there’s an apple orchard Tony’s never been to. They take one of the small all-terrain vehicles (one of the suped-up golf carts the crew use to get around the grounds for maintenance) out to the start of the neat rows of short trees. Tony feels calm. He feels alright here, on the grounds with Steve. It’s a little warm out, a little muggy like New York always is, but the sky’s blue and clear.

Steve kills the engine and the silence rings, broken by some bird Tony hears a lot out here, but he doesn’t have a clue what it is.

“It’s nice out here,” Tony says aloud, giving a voice to the tranquility settling over his mind, casting his eyes over the orchard. The trees are shorter than Tony expected for apple trees, but sturdy looking. He doesn’t doubt they can hold their own in the wicked upstate winters. Steve looking at him in a way Tony can’t immediately identify.

“You really didn’t know this was out here?” he asks, tilting his head toward the trees.

"No, I knew,” Tony says, watching Steve watch the trees. “Theoretically. But no, I’ve never been out here before. Not on the ground, anyway.”

“Always focused on the big picture," Steve murmurs, but he’s smiling, and the wind is tousling his hair.

Instinct tells Tony to backtrack, to change the subject before they go too far down that road and someone says something stupid. But they’re here to talk.

“Someone’s got to,” Tony says, and he doesn’t even feel bitter when he says it.

“I know,” Steve says, quieter, less happy. He glances at Tony quickly before looking back at the trees. “I’m sorry it’s had to be you this entire time.”

When Tony starts walking between two rows of apple trees, Steve follows, even though Tony’s never been to this part of the compound before.

“That’s an oversimplification,” Tony admits.

"Not really.” Steve puts his hand out and trails his hand across the leaves of a nearby branch as they pass. “Ever since we officially became a team, it’s been you dealing with insurance claims and holding press conferences and answering phone calls from D.C. at all hours of the night. And I thought…”

They’re walking very slowly, and Steve’s obviously lost in thought. Tony looks over to find Steve’s eyes on him again. Tony looks away, at a tree on their other side, and drags his fingertips along the rough, calloused bark.

“I thought it was obviously your job to be doing that for all of us,” Steve whispers. He sounds almost choked up, but Tony can’t bring himself to look over again. “You were the one with all the money, and all the right connections, and this huge company. Anything less and I’m so sure I would’ve—thought you weren’t pulling your weight.”

“I know,” Tony says calmly, because he does, and he did. That’s why he took on all the stuff he did for the Avengers. Or, it’s at least part of the reason, a part he never thought he would be admitting to. Another part of it was that after New York he needed to keep busy with as much as possible, to stay awake, to keep working, to keep from spiraling down with his thoughts of how hopeless it was going to be to try and go up against an army like the one he’d seen through the wormhole. Another part was the ever-present guilt, the need to make it up to Yinsen, to make himself worthy of Iron Man and the second chance he was rewarded. The last part was the one aware of Nat’s preliminary report, the one that said he wasn’t worthy of being an Avenger, the part of him that was afraid they were going to kick him off the team for just—how he was.

“After Loki,” Steve says, “I thought I finally had you nailed down, but I honestly. I really don’t know how I came to the conclusion that your weight was so much more than anyone else’s. Than mine, even when I thought I was the natural leader of the group.”

“You were,” Tony says, surprised by the harsh bite in Steve’s words. He looks in time to see Steve stop walking entirely, hand clenched around a thin, lower-hanging branch. He actually rolls his eyes at Tony. “What? You were—even Nat was following your lead from the get-go. By the end of New York even I was going along with it, and you know enough by now to know that was basically a miracle.”

“A natural leader,” Steve says again, quietly. There’s less acid in the words, but he still looks mad, just—deflated too.

“A natural leader,” Tony echoes. “And I was a natural businessman, or I at least knew the terrain. And, sure—I mean, we definitely didn’t handle the team ideally by any stretch of the imagination. We should’ve at least divvied up duties clearer, or communicated our roles in some kind of way.”

“If I’d been more involved or even bothered to keep up-to-date, maybe it wouldn’t have been such a damn surprise the day you showed up with Ross.”

“Maybe not,” Tony agrees, fighting the urge to get defensive, to retreat into himself at the allusion to the Accords. “But it was.”

“It was,” Steve echoes. “And I blamed you for that too.”

“I could’ve stayed in touch better,” Tony says. “After Ultron—”

“After Ultron everyone was still sore about your lie of omission and Wanda was taking cheap shots at you every time you showed your face,” Steve interrupts. “Most of us were.”

Tony stops to think about that before answering. None of this is revelatory, not for Tony anyway. But it might be revealing that Steve recognizes it for what it was, that there were issues he could’ve been solving before the Accords fell into their laps. It’s probably even more revealing that he seems so incited by the events now, like the emotions are fresh. (Like he didn’t even notice any of this until recently.)

“It’s—” Tony says, stops to rethink what he’s trying to convey. He fixes his eyes to a bluejay perching a few rows away and tries again. “It means a lot that you took the time to look back and parse what went wrong and where, but, Cap,” he has a first name, you coward, use it, “Steve. It means jack shit unless you’re gonna use that data and change the way things are now.”

Colors are different now. Enhanced, like everything else. The bluejay is four different shades of blue, and none of them solid. He can see the gradients, the fades and the flaws. It’s less simple, maybe, but more beautiful.

His statement rings heavily in the air, long enough for the bird Tony’s watching to get bored and fly away. It’s Tony laying out what he needs, his conditions. He thinks it’s completely fair to say they can’t continue on the way they have been. They’re doomed to fail—a time bomb, like Bruce foresaw years ago at the very beginning.

Tony gives in eventually, turns to face Steve, and Steve meets his eyes instantly.

“I know,” Steve says. “And I’m not—being rash about this. I really do know. It has to be different or this is never going to work.”

The vagueness of this bounces around in Tony’s skull. Does Steve mean the team? Probably. It could also be a more personal this, like their friendship. Probably both, maybe something else entirely.

“This?" Tony asks, feeling bold and small and hopeful.

“This,” Steve says, and he walks toward Tony. They’d both gravitated to opposite sides of the row they’d been walking down; it had seemed safer, more practical, overall easier to say what they needed to say. “The Avengers, the rest of it.”

The rest of it. Just as vague, just as unspecific, as Steve always seems in his rallying speeches. Blind hope and drive, the need to dive in.

Steve’s close now. They’re both holding on to the same branch of the same tree. The sun, still climbing in the sky, is bathing Steve in warm light. He looks younger than when the team first reunited, Tony thinks. More like the version of Steve who came fresh out of the ice, but softer, more familiar with the world around him. He wonders where the hell Steve’s frown lines went. Does the serum just smooth them over when his face isn’t being held like that constantly?

“I like being at your side, and knowing you have my back,” Steve continues. He lets go of the branch and looks so vulnerable, unmoored, breathless. He looks about as terrified as Tony’s starting to feel. “I’m a better person when we’re on the same team, and I—can’t stand myself when we’re not. I don’t want to be the version of me that stood against you anymore.”

Tony isn’t going to say he’s a better person when he and Steve are on the same side because he’s pretty confident in his own moral compass, but—

“I’m glad,” Tony says on an exhale and—I’m glad? Come on, Stark, you can do better than that. “Things are—better, I’m coming to find, when we work together instead of against each other all the time. But it’s. Not more important, per se, but, I. Also enjoy it when we’re friends outside of what that may or may not mean to the overall security and safety of the world and the human race.”

“Me too,” Steve says quietly, but he’s smiling now, so wide his eyes crinkle at the corners and, really, there’s not a hint of—

“Motherfucker,” Tony says, so loudly and suddenly that Steve pulls back in shock, eyes widening, even as Tony leans in and says, “Hold still.”

(Steve does, is the crazy thing. He holds perfectly still and watches while Tony moves decidedly into his bubble and squint-stares at both of his eyes in turn.)

“That asshole!” Tony says. “I’ve been looking for the ‘green in the blue’ of your eyes for months now. Jesus Christ,” Tony leans in again, just to confirm. “He was just being poetic. There’s nothing but blue. Is that even possible? How can there be—twelve different kinds of blue and not a single crosses into green territory?”

“Are you,” Steve says, pauses. “Talking about my eye color?”

“Yes!” Tony says, waving a hand toward Steve’s face. Was that unclear?

“That thing Zemo said?” Steve asks. “I’m sure in some lighting—”

“No,” Tony says, “there’s no green. Just blue, I swear to God. And my vision has recently improved by a factor of about ten. I’m a color expert.”

A laugh catches Steve so off-guard it comes out as a snort and his hand flies up to his face (Tony guesses he’s making sure he didn’t just spray snot everywhere). He lowers his hand a couple cautious seconds later, smirking.

“Glad to hear you’re using your newly enhanced senses for good.”

Tony shoves at Steve’s shoulder and rolls his eyes. They’re suddenly very close to each other and Tony hasn’t exactly been this close to someone, facing them and lending them his full attention, since he got control (more or less) of the way his senses work now. Steve has a distinct smell Tony’s brain immediately classifies as familiar and—somewhat surprisingly, especially since he at least smells partly like SHIELD agent—safe. SHIELD and the balm he uses on the leather straps of his shield. His hair is golden and thick, and Tony can see now where Steve styles it to hide a cowlick on the right side. His eyebrows taper off almost awkwardly, meaning it’s been just a couple weeks too long since he let Nat shape them up. One of his ears is just ever-so-slightly smaller than the other, but Tony really doesn’t think a human without enhanced senses would ever be able to tell without the help of a computer program.

All-in-all, Steve is a whole and complete person in Tony’s eyes-ears-nose-brain now, maybe for the first time ever. He’s not an old war story from Howard, or Fury’s lapdog, or even Cap. He’s Steve, with all that could possibly mean, and Tony wishes he’d brought the HUD glasses with him after all. He wants to catalogue all of this, feels it desperately, this needs to be saved. (And, truth be told, Tony could do with the extra wall between him and Steve; he fears he might’ve gotten rid of one too many defenses.)

***

They talk. After walking a little farther, Tony pulls himself up into a tree and sits on a horizontal branch, mostly because it’s so easy for him to do now, and partly because it really just looks like a tree bench. Steve watches him go up with hands on his hips, looks at the tree, and then pulls himself up onto the sturdiest branch he can reach, even though it’s at a slightly more awkward angle.

“So,” Steve says after a couple minutes of picking at leaves and watching the horizon. “How’s it going with everyone else so far?”

“It’s…okay,” Tony says cautiously, thinking back to finding Bucky last night. “I’m still—it’s strange to be around everyone all at once. But one-on-one I think I’m solid with almost everyone.”

“Almost?” Steve asks.

Tony knows he’s making this more difficult than it needs to be, that it’s like pulling teeth to get him to admit when he’s discomforted by another person. Even alluding to the fact brings something like Howard’s voice to life in Tony’s head.

Don’t show weakness. Take it in stride; showing pain just shows where they need hit again. They’ll bleed you dry if you let ’em, Tony. You’re smarter than this.

It takes him a long moment to respond, but he reasons with himself that Steve is really trying here. He’s really putting himself out there, willing to hear Tony out in ways that might matter. Ways that might help.

(Tony can admit, though maybe only to himself, that he doesn’t want to screw up this conversation.)

“I still don’t know—“ Tony grimaces, doesn’t look at Steve, stops thinking about Howard of all people. “About Wanda.”

Tony’s still purposefully not looking at Steve but there’s a distinct pause before he replies, and Tony knows he’s reigning in his automatic response.

“Walk me through it,” Steve says eventually. Tony takes a deep breath and hopes the planets are aligned.

“I know she turncoated in our favor.” He pauses, ignoring the fact that turncoat definitely isn’t a verb and the fact that there’s definitely an existing word for what he means because fuckit, Steve will understand either way. “But most people would if faced with the reality that your side's fixin’ to commit genocide.”

“Okay,” Steve says, "so it took some extreme measures for her to change her mind. Are you saying you think we shouldn’t have let her help us when she realized the extent of Ultron’s plans?”

Tony takes a deep breath, holds it.

“I’m saying,” he says, exhales, “that there’s letting her help clean up what was partly her mess and instantly instating her as an Avenger.”

“It’s not like we made Sam or Scott jump through hoops to be part of the team.”

The words themselves make Tony grit his teeth, but the tone is neutral enough. He has to remind himself that Steve’s really trying to have a conversation here. Maybe Steve even gets where Tony’s coming from and just needs it mapped out like a combat plan. Communication. It’s a new concept for them, of course it’ll be a little clunky at first. Tony wills that to be the case.

“It’s not like Sam or Scott ever volunteered for Nazi experimentation specifically as part of a ploy to exact revenge on an existing member of the team.”

“That was before she met—”

“Oh, please,” Tony snaps, and he has to take a moment to sit himself down in his own head and tell himself to calm the fuck down. He looks at Steve when he starts talking again, and he thinks Steve looks more concerned than pissed. “Before she met me? You know, to my knowledge at least, she’s never expressed that she shouldn’t have done what she did. I think it’s clear that she regrets blindly trusting Ultron, but I don’t know if it’s ever even crossed her mind that her crusade was flawed from the first.”

Tony makes himself catch Steve’s eyes, catch them and keep his gaze.

“And I’d reckon some of the Avengers agreed with her at the time.”

He feels—a lot of things, saying those words out loud. Vindicated, ashamed, righteous, raw. The look Steve gives him makes him want to take them back, stuff the words back down his throat where they’ve lived for years now.

“You’re right,” Steve says, and Tony has to look away, down at the ground. “I thought—I really thought she was just, pulling a me.” He chuckles low in his chest, bitter. Tony closes his eyes at the sound, banishes the memory of Steve’s face in Siberia, enraged, resigned. It’s the expression he’d match with this laugh and he hates it, even though he knows it’s not directed at him.

“She didn’t wanna help anyone,” Steve says after a minute. “She just wanted to hurt you.”

This is all—too much. It’s too much. The silence that stretches this time is awkward, and Tony feels like it’s his turn to say something, but what? What does Steve want from him here? For him to say yeah, she did, and not a single one of you bothered to notice? Or you really hurt me, and I’m the idiot who gave you the power over me to do so?

“This doesn’t even matter anymore,” Tony mutters eventually. Then, louder, “This is in the past—Steve, this isn’t going to fix anything now.”

“Not necessarily,” Steve agrees. “But I don’t think acknowledging what happened is going to set us back any. You—there’s no excuse for what we let happen. What I, as the leader of this team, let happen. And I’m sorry, Tony. I think I need to spell out what went wrong just so—we can both know that I’m at least capable of understanding why it was so messed up.” The tree quakes as Steve moves. When Tony looks up, Steve’s right there, half leaning on the apple tree’s trunk, half wrapped around it. “So I can prove I won’t let it happen again.”

Tony leans back on his hand so he can look up more comfortably. It’s obvious that Steve at least believes he’s being truthful.

“Okay,” Tony whispers. Except—no. Blind trust isn’t the way to go on this, neither is the quiet vulnerability. Instead, Tony grins and scoots to the side on his branch.

“Alright then, Cap,” he says, “what’s the game plan?”

Steve smiles back. The branch dips when he sits, and Tony can hear it groan, though that’s hopefully only because his ears are so much better now.

The plan Steve lays out isn’t perfect—Tony’s pretty sure a perfect plan doesn’t exist for this situation—but it’s pretty good. He suggests team forums and a more democratic process for deciding on new team members in which everyone at least gets to be heard. The core members should get veto power, or weighted votes somehow, Steve reasons, because they, after all, have been around from the start and all passed Fury’s and (more stringent still) Coulson’s screenings for the original Initiative. Of course, emergencies are still emergencies, and they both acknowledge that things will happen. Temporary alliances and team-ups are par for the course at this point, the difference now being that, after the crisis has been averted, there will be a process to instate members officially.

Steve even proposes a forum now, to get them caught up. A setting in which the “core members,” referring to the original six, could discuss the standing membership of everyone who’s been added to the roster. Tony shoots that down pretty fast. He sees where Steve’s coming from, but that would do nothing except freak everyone out.

“Who even would that be?” Tony asks. “Sam, Rhodey, Vision, Wanda…Scott? They’re all staying.”

“Well then.” Steve heaves a great sigh. They’re sitting on the ground now, underneath their tree. Tony moved down a little while ago when he needed a moment to think through his response, and Steve followed. Now, Steve’s on the ground, leaning up against the trunk with his legs bent and Tony’s beside him, sitting on a small rock criss-cross so their knees touch. “Do you have an avenue in mind that would let us deal with the Wanda thing without singling her out?”

This is, thankfully, one thing Tony’s been thinking about for a little while now. He’s glad they’re facing the same direction so all Tony has to think about are his words and the tone he uses.

“I think it's time,” Tony says. “We need to start taking some initiative with team members’ mental health, Steve. I think the best plan is regular, Avenger-mandated therapy to, one, decide if people are combat ready and, two, if they’re not, get them the help they need without making it feel like some sort of punishment.”

Steve’s quiet after that. Almost a minute goes by in silence before Tony looks over, and Steve’s face is stony as he stares through the lines of trees. His jaw is tight and tendons stand out in his neck.

“It’s been an issue since the very start,” Tony says softly. “Maybe if there had been resources available to us back in the day, you wouldn’t have struggled to adjust and I wouldn’t have gone quite so off the deep end after New York. And I can’t think of a single one of us who wouldn’t benefit from an extra support system.”

“You’re right,” Steve says, and he sounds a little strangled. Then, calmer, “You’re right. It would save us all a lot of grief in the long run.”

“It’ll probably save the entire world oodles of crap,” Tony says. “But—yeah. Part of eligibility for active membership should be respect for—or at least a tolerance of, I’m not that picky—all teammates. I don’t know exactly how we’re going to judge that, and doctor-patient confidentiality is still a thing, but we’ll hash something out and see how it works.”

“That’s a lot of power to give someone over the team,” Steve says, and—there we go, Tony thinks. Steve’s back in problem-solving mode, out of crisis territory. “We’d have to pick psychologists carefully.”

“I’ve got a couple in mind,” Tony mentions. “And there’s a list of psychs they had working over at SHIELD before they fell. We can ask Hill and the Wonder Twins if any are worth adding to the payroll.”

“It’s a good starting point,” Steve says. “The psychologist, the forums for new members.” When he trails off, it seems thoughtful. “None of that fixes the—imbalance of day-to-day operations though.”

“Whaddaya mean?” Tony rests his elbow on Steve’s shoulder because he can from this position, slightly elevated, and Steve leans his head against Tony’s arm briefly. He feels sun-warm and like he’s on solid ground here, with Steve, as an equal. Like Tony’s problems are Steve’s problems, are the team’s problems, like he doesn’t have to rail against them alone.

This is what Tony’s wanted this entire time, this was the possible reality Steve’s betrayal and refusal to compromise took away from them. The lightness of the situation suddenly weighs a ton, hanging over the both of them and reminding Tony the cost he paid to get to this point. He doesn’t know what to think about it, so he just presses slightly more into Steve where they’re already touching without letting Steve know what he’s up to.

“All that shit you’ve been doing for the team since it started—all that extra weight I thought was your burden to bear,” Steve says. “We need a system that doesn’t break your back by design.”

“Oh.”

And suddenly Tony’s blinking back tears, feeling like some kind of complete idiot, what the fuck.

This was not the conversation Tony’d been gearing himself up for. He came ready to talk about the issue of the people-wanting-him-dead circle and the people-who-are-Avengers circle overlapping just a little too much for his liking, and he was prepared to fight for his assertion that they all desperately need an outside mental health professional keeping tabs on them—not whatever the hell this is.

“Oh,” Tony says again, and turns on his rock-stool so he can replace his elbow with his forehead on Steve’s shoulder, willing his tears to evaporate before they spill over.

“Tony?” Steve says, and the shoulder rotates as Steve reaches around, putting a hand on Tony’s back and, oh, hey, isn’t that pleasant? Nice and kind and warm and soft? A tear slips through the inside corner of his eye, off the bridge of his nose, and splashes onto the rock he’s sitting on. It’s insane, but with Extremis, he can actually hear it.

“Yeah,” Tony says, proud when his voice comes out clear, if a little breathless. “I’m just gonna—hang out here for a hot second if you don’t mind.”

“Okay," Steve says, voice softly surprised. His blunt fingernails scritch gently against Tony’s back through his layered shirts, and Tony blows out a breath.

Maybe he's being a little dramatic—it sure as hell wouldn’t be the first time he’d been accused of theatricality—but he has to wait for this new version of reality to settle around him. In this version, Steve cares about him, and lets Tony seek out contact, which Steve then adds to. It’s a reality where the team might be real, might work and not even kill him in the process. In this reality—wonder of wonders—Steve wants to work with him to fix the issues with the team.

Don’t get used to it, he tells himself. Keep watch.

“Okay,” Tony says. He turns forward again, resting his arm against Steve’s and raising his head before he does something truly humiliating. “Any suggestions?”

Chapter Text

So they talk. Really and truly for maybe the second or third instance in all the time they’ve known each other. This is the thing they’re always trying to reach, this closeness, this meshing—like they were made to work together. It’s natural as breathing. Tony almost wants to kick himself for not taking Steve up on this offer sooner, back when he’d followed Tony out to Malibu like the reckless, impulsive little shit he truly is.

But even he knows that’s ridiculous. What he really wants was for them to have been ready for this conversation back then. He also knows neither of them were. Tony hadn’t gotten used to Steve being around again yet, and he sure as hell hadn’t trusted him. For his part, Steve didn’t yet understand what Tony was going through, or even quite have a handle on the whole respecting-Tony’s-boundaries thing. It would’ve been an unmitigated disaster, and Tony knows it, but he still can’t help wishing they’d done this sooner anyway. It feels like he’s wasted a lot of time being angry and defensive when he could’ve had this instead.

The logical part of Tony’s brain is busy being proud of himself, for listening to his gut and knowing he wasn’t ready before, and for having enough respect for himself to be honest about that.

We’re here now, Tony thinks. That’s gotta be worth something, after everything that’s happened, right?

So he confesses to how nice it was at the press conference they did for the Accords, how much easier it was to handle with other people there to back him up. They agree that press duty should be handled in pairs or groups, and that it shouldn’t be anyone’s sole responsibility to calm the sharks in the wake of a storm.

The legal team is, admittedly, all on Tony’s payroll, and he does have the most experience in that department, but Tony agrees when Steve says they should all be kept up-to-date on such matters. They all have a tendency to react rather with more volatility to surprises than most other people, hence the exceptional display of fight-or-flight reaction invoked by Secretary Ross’s appearance at the compound.

They’re instating weekly meetings, too. A place where team members can bring up issues they’re having, where Tony can tell them what he knows, where mission plans can be shared and backup requested.

Steve even suggests Team Bonding Nights as an extra measure. They won’t be made mandatory, because they’re all adults and can manage their own free time, which they don’t get a lot of anyway. However, attendance will be highly encouraged. They talk about that for a while, how to avoid making anyone feel excluded or unwanted, and they decide to rotate who gets to choose the food as well as the “bonding activity.” (Seriously, though, when did this become the Great Tony Stark’s life? Howard’s ghost is probably having an aneurysm right now.)

Tony can barely believe this Steve Rogers is the same man he’s known for years now, the one who politely (if a little tersely) refused Tony’s offer of a room in the Tower. (The fact that Tony gave him one anyway is irrelevant; it’s not like he ever pressured Steve or the others to use the accommodations.)

Overall, they talk for hours. By the time they start walking back to the ATV, the sun’s coming at them from a sharp angle. Tony’s both drained and pleased, and he feels like the cat that got the canary the whole ride back to the garage. Steve looks like he feels much the same, a smug-happy smile on his face as he cuts the engine and swings his way to his feet.

“Good talk,” he says, and Tony’s grin spreads about as wide as it can.

“Given our track record?” he says. He gets out of the passenger seat and raises his arms over his head to stretch his back. It’s more out of habit now than any actual need to work the kinks out, but it feels good nonetheless, like the slow, careful breaths he takes now, pulling air into his lungs and all the way to the bottom. He closes his eyes and sinks into it before releasing with a sigh. “I think hell might be freezing over.”

“Let it,” Steve says.

Tony’s not even surprised to find Steve so close to him, not really. He noticed it in the background, kind of, though he thought at first that Steve was just walking by him for some reason. But—no. He’s standing there, square to Tony, a foot and a half between their noses.

“Yeah,” Tony says, which—eloquent. When he speaks again, his voice comes out soft, only loud enough to travel the distance it needs to go to get to Steve’s ears. “Don’t think we’d get much say, anyway. There’s a lot we can do, but biblical locales might be the hard limit there.”

“You think?” Steve asks, head cocked to the side and tone a match for Tony’s. His smile is less smug now and more joy—the kind that makes his eyes sparkle even though he’s not really about to cry. Relief and lightness and curiosity.

“I do,” Tony says. “Guess we’ll just have to let it.”

The moment feels heavy, like they’re balancing on the edge of a precipice and neither of them makes that final step, but neither of them wants to go backwards. Or—Tony doesn’t. Maybe he’s just projecting.

(He doesn’t think so.)

This time Tony doesn’t even hear the elevator until the doors are sliding open and voices drift out. It’s reassuring actually; he’d been half-afraid the hyperawareness that came with the heightened senses would stick around forever. While, yes, it’s bound to be useful in some situations, the idea of it being permanent and constant is exhausting to contemplate.

“Come on,” the first voice laughs. It’s Wanda, and there’s only one set of footsteps, so Tony knows Vision’s there before he even turns far enough to see. “It wasn’t that bad.”

“Oh, but it was,” Vision says back, a shit-eating grin on his face that makes his voice sound perfectly like JARVIS in that moment. “Had it not been a simulation, we would have died a horrible, fiery death. You would have, anyway. Organic body and all that.”

“Oh, save it,” Wanda says. “There’s a learning curve to these things.”

Vision catches sight of them then, eyes flickering between Tony and Steve once quickly. Wanda’s gaze follows and she takes in the scene much more slowly, looking at the both of them up and down. Steve doesn’t put any space between them, though—which Tony finds he enjoys for some reason or another—and so Tony doesn’t step away either.

Tony does, however, angle his body slightly toward Wanda and Vision.

“Fancy seeing you here,” Tony says, sending a smile their way.

“Hey,” Steve says, putting his hands in his pockets and rocking back on his heels.

Every “act natural” scene from every movie Tony’s seen in his 40-odd years flashes before his eyes, and he has to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from cracking up.

“Up to trouble, I hope?” Tony says.

Vision smirks because he really is Tony’s son, deep down (very deep down), and Wanda turns her nose up dramatically.

“Of course not,” she says. “We are exemplary teammates and Vis has been teaching me how to fly the ‘jet.”

Since becoming an Avenger, Wanda’s gotten her driver’s license and taken a defensive driving course, and she knows how to land the Quinjet in case of an emergency (because that’s one of the first things they teach newbies), but apparently nobody’s taken the time yet to actually teach her how to fly one of those things.

Vision’s smirk gets bigger and Tony suddenly has grand plans to deep clean the entire hangar.

“And so far only simulations,” Vision says, “but even so, we seem to crash an awful lot.”

Tony’s mouth is open to say, well, maybe if you’d stop distracting her when she’s supposed to be focusing, when Steve claps a hand on his shoulder.

“Then we won’t keep you,” Steve says, and he looks at Tony out of the corner of his eye. “It sounds like you’ve got some more practicing to do.”

Wanda gives them a closed-mouth smile and Vision bids them a good evening. Tony waits until they’re firmly in the elevator with the doors closed before speaking again.

“Is that even legal?” he says, but it’s musing rather than serious. God knows most of the things the Avengers get up to on a daily basis aren’t legal for the rest of the population, including parts of their existence (hence the Accords, but that’s not the point).

“Which part?” Steve asks wryly. “Wanda flying the Quinjet?”

“The part,” Tony says. “Uh. The one where they…” And Tony looks over when he hears Steve breathing funny and the man’s trying so hard not to laugh it looks like he’s trying to hold bees in his mouth.

“Oh, my God,” Tony says, shoving Steve’s shoulder none-too-gently as they ride up. Steve gives in and laughs his full-body laugh, the real one. “You’re the worst, Rogers. The—wow.” He clutches at his chest.

“I’m happy for them,” Steve says, laughter still in his voice.

Me too, Tony thinks.

“Yeah,” Tony says, and as the humor quiets down, taking the dregs of his energy down with it. The elevator door slides open on the communal level and Tony waves Steve off.

“I’m gonna go catch some shuteye,” Tony says. He can see Natasha’s hair over the back of the couch. “That much serious talk and genuine emotion ruins me for casual banter anyway.”

Steve agrees easily, possibly recalling that Tony was awake before even him this morning. Tony rides the elevator another two floors up, goes down the hall, into his room, and falls face-first onto the bed. It’s slightly musty, but Tony supposes he hasn’t actually slept on the thing in weeks now. Sure, he’s sat on it a couple of times, but he hasn’t so much as lifted the covers since the last time he fled compound. He wiggles underneath them now, flinging off his shoes and ditching his jeans in the process.

He lays there, and he breathes, and tells himself not to be stressed over the fact that he’s not already asleep after three nonstop days (has it been three already?).

Tony can feel himself getting worked into an anxious tailspin over it all. It’s almost a relief when there’s a knock at his door not an hour into his efforts. He rolls out of bed and takes the few steps to the door and, dammit all, he’s not even uncoordinated, his body doesn’t even feel sluggish. He sighs, opens the door.

“Nice look,” Rhodey says, and Tony remembers he’s wearing two t-shirts, his boxers, and mismatched socks.

“Shhh, honeybunch,” Tony says, smirks. “You’re interrupting my trail blazing.”

“God forbid,” Rhodey says. His smile drops slightly, expression turning thoughtful as he considers Tony.

“You look…better,” Rhodey decides eventually.

“Thanks,” Tony says, and he has no idea what Rhodey’s referring to. “Experimental regenerative viruses’ll do that for you. Sometimes. When they’re not turning you into human fireworks.”

Rhodes rolls his eyes.

“Jesus,” Rhodey mutters. Then, louder, “I mean you, Mr. Stank.”

"Gee, thanks,” Tony says. “Must be all the emotional heavy lifting I’ve been doing lately.”

“Well,” Rhodey says, deadpan, “you better keep it up then.” A smile breaks through his expression then. “The heart is a muscle and all that.”

“Leave,” Tony says, pointing down the hall. “Go, really, I mean it. That was terrible, Rhodes, deplorable.”

“Okay,” Rhodey says, smirking.

“Okay?” Tony says.

“I really do gotta head out,” he says.

“Where to?” Tony sniffs. Rhodey dips his head to the side like he’s trying to pour water out of his ear.

“Just a couple checkups I pushed back when you decided to stage an entire ballet with Death herself.”

Tony feels a rush of emotion equal parts guilt, irritation, and fondness. Only a fool as big as Rhodey would do something like put Tony’s health over his own, and only Rhodey would be forward enough with him to put it like that.

“Please,” Tony scoffs. “After the first couple days of unconsciousness and touch-and-go-ness I was fine.

“Yeah well now you look better.” Rhodey says it like it explains everything. Tony thinks it might.

***

Rhodey’s problem has always been that he trusts Tony too much to figure out his own shit. Most normal, sane people would react to Iron Man like Pepper, with concern over his self-destructiveness and a strong desire for him to stop. As opposed to Rhodey’s acceptance, assistance, and then, later, his donning of a suit himself.

Rhodey hits the road soon after stopping by Tony’s room. Later, hours later, it’s the middle of the night. Tony’s lying in bed, in the comfiest clothes he could find, all lights off, and he’s thinking maybe Rhodey’s had too much faith in him yet again. It’s starting to wear on him, the not-sleeping thing. Even if he doesn’t physically need it (and he has to still need some, doesn’t he?) the psychological strain of being conscious for so long is getting to him in a way wouldn’t have anticipated. He’s stern with himself this time, though, and he stays in bed instead of going down to the shop or wandering out to the kitchen. He needs to sleep.

More importantly, he needs to know. If he can, what it takes to get even an hour or two of shuteye.

So he lays there for hours uninterrupted, longer than most of his nights spent actually sleeping in adulthood, and he just can’t. Fall. Asleep. Even though he hasn’t slept in days, since the virus was introduced to his biology along with alien venom that definitely should’ve killed him and, oh, God, what if it’s some kind of interaction between the virus and the venom, something that’s killing him, but slowly? Or—worse—what if it’s just working him towards a psychotic break?

He tries everything he can think of: lavender essential oils on his pillow, FRIDAY playing ocean sounds, getting buck-ass nude underneath the softest sheets money can buy.

It’s not that he’s not trying hard enough, it’s just that nothing works.

He thinks of Pepper when they were together, and her hand on his shoulder as they lay side-by-side was enough on the better days to signal to his brain that he was safe-home-happy. He thinks of JARVIS obliging Tony after Afghanistan, how he would start dictating old theoretical work at him, always with a twist—alright, Sir, but if you were to apply the flight capabilities of version the S-17 rocket in the vacuum of space, how exactly would that be done? He thinks of Obie pouring him a nightcap and patting him on the shoulder when he’d get too wound up, eyes dilated with inspiration or coke or mania; he was never one to hover, but he’d laugh as he left, a warm sound Tony used to think of as fond, usually with a comment about how he had to keep m’boy in working order! He thinks of Rhodey at MIT and the way-too-fun mutual destruction that was their college years, partying hard and propping each other up on the way back to the dorms, making each other drink water and puking at the sight of each other’s puke. He thinks of Jarvis—human Jarvis, Edwin—who had the most solid presence Tony’s ever experienced, the perfect way he knew how to tuck Tony in as a kid, something his mom could never even do quite right. He thinks of her, too, and he misses her, and it stings, but not as much as it has lately when he thinks of her carrying him to his room, sick with a fever but stubbornly refusing to go to bed before his bedtime, the way she checked his temperature with forehead kisses.

He thinks of Howard, even though the only memory he can seem to conjure up is that time Tony partied a little too hard during a summer trip home and a couple of kids drove him home and left him on the front lawn, by the gates they didn’t have a passcode to. Howard had come out in his robe and gotten his slippers damp with dew as he hoisted Tony’s arm over his own shoulders and dragged him back inside. That was the Howard-and-Tony version of a hug.

He thinks of his teammates, too, once he’s desperate and melancholy enough. Of Nat, while she was undercover as Natalie Rushman, how she always seemed to know which times of night were the worst for the pain, when he would slump onto the couch in the workshop and feel it in every inch of his blood, heavy, like his bone marrow had made a deal with gravity for some extra attention, when it felt like a million tiny anchors were tied to his blood vessels dragging him deeper and deeper into his own head with the knowledge that one night, it would take him all the way down, until he’d drown for real, until the night when he suddenly wouldn’t make it till morning—and Natasha would come in wearing something tight and low cut, brandishing tea, and she’d stare at him and say slightly unnerving things until Tony took it and drained the entire mug.

Of Clint, who seemed to be the only one who could tell that time Tony fell asleep in the armor after a six hour battle in lower Manhattan and covered for him to Fury during the debrief. The way he’d smirked afterwards, telling Tony about it, and the way Tony didn’t realize until the next day that Clint had gone all the way back to the Tower with him, talking and joking, encouraging Tony to let JARVIS pilot the armor back instead of flying it himself.

Of Bruce, in the weeks after the invasion, who would prod at Tony wherever he fell asleep in the lab, steering him to the couch and sighing like the most put-out man in all the world.

Of Thor, who doesn’t run on the 24-hour day Earth happens to have, and who Tony’s never been particularly good friends with, but who Tony fell into the habit of sitting quietly with in the dead hours of the night shortly before Ultron destabilized everything. The faint surprise of finally seeing the older, quieter parts of the prince, who has lived through death and destruction and love in equal measures, the depths of which Tony doesn’t know how to comprehend. The settled feeling in his chest when he realized that, whether he could understand or not, Thor had still chosen them, the Avengers, as his brothers-in-arms.

And he thinks of Steve driving them home from the Accords gala early, of standing in the dark kitchen, both of them weighed down and at a loss, of Steve choking on root beer, of waking up next to him. Of the steadiness of his heart when he knows Steve’s well and truly with him, on his side.

He’s not asleep by the end of his little meditative practice. Really, he thinks the only thing he’s accomplished is that he’s emotional and lonely in addition to painfully, steadily awake. Generally, it sucks. He wants—God, he doesn’t even know what (who) he wants at this point. He wishes Rhodey hadn’t left. If Jarvis were here (either one of them) he’d say something dry and sarcastic and illuminating and Tony would feel, if not better, more grounded and ready for the reality waiting for him. Hell, he even kind of wants to talk to Howard. (He doesn't think he could look Mom in the eyes and explain to her how he got himself into this mess. Howard, though, Howard would fix it for him even if he was berating his son the entire time.)

He feels stupid and small, and the more he tells himself that this shouldn’t be a problem, that it’s just sleep and literally the last thing about this situation he should be concerning himself with, the more unsettled he feels. Sure, it’s just sleep, but what if it’s more, what if this is the beginning of the end, of him unraveling, or going insane, or slowly turning into one of those things?

He can’t shake the thought. The longer he lies here, the more it festers and takes root, until all he can seem to do is conjure up worst case scenario after worst case scenario, each somehow scarier than the last. Scenarios where he kills everyone in the compound, where he takes away Earth’s mightiest heroes, all of them, leaving the planet at the mercy of whatever homicidal maniac strolls along next. At the mercy of himself.

The realization hits suddenly, crashing like a wave: he can’t lay here anymore, alone, thinking about it, or he thinks he really will go insane. He’s always been skilled at actualizing self-fulfilling prophecies.

When he gets up, he’s almost surprised he isn’t shaking with the force of the freakout he’s apparently worked himself up to. He pulls on sweats and socks, zips up a hoodie without bothering with a shirt, and jams his feet into his tennis shoes on his way out the door, stomp-scuffing his feet along the floor to get them on all the way, even as he grits his teeth and pulls the door shut behind him.

***

He’d meant to march his ass down to the workshop, but he’d had an errant thought, and he’d remembered Steve’s head resting against Tony’s arm and the absolute comfort that settled into his chest with Steve agreeing to work with Tony, and not only when the fate of the world is at risk—and here he is, at the opposite end of the hallway to the elevator.

Steve’s in there, too. He can hear the other man’s breathing (which is creepy on a couple different levels), but he could be asleep for all Tony’s knows.

“Cap?” Tony says quietly, just barely over a whisper. All movement briefly pauses on the other side of the door, and then someone starts rustling around.

“Hello?” Steve’s voice calls, but Tony can hear someone moving toward the door already, so he doesn’t bother trying to think of a reply. He only has to wait a handful of seconds before Steve opens the door. He looks politely confused, head cocked to the side like a damn golden retriever, but at least he doesn’t look like he was just asleep.

“Tony,” Steve says, blinking, “hi. What’s up?”

“I can’t sleep,” Tony says. His brain feels like a leaky faucet. That’s all he can say, he’s so goddamn tired he just wants to sleep. It’s the truth anyway, even if it doesn’t explain what Tony’s doing standing in front of Steve’s bedroom like an idiot. Steve’s brow furrows.

“Whaddaya mean you—” Steve starts to say, and Tony interrupts because he can’t let Steve finish that sentence, he can’t, because he’s looking at Tony like Tony’s as dumb as he feels.

“I can’t sleep,” Tony says again, stiffly, mechanically. Something snaps back into place, then, like a rubber band recoiling. “I haven’t slept. Since I woke up with Extremis, I haven’t slept at all, I haven’t even been tired.”

And—there it is, Tony thinks as he heaves in a breath, two, three. The emotional response his body wasn’t having in his own room.

“Oh, Jesus fuck,” Tony hisses. This is not what he came here for. He didn’t even mean to come here. What happened to that resolution he made about thinking things through? He was supposed to go to his ’shop, to run some more tests on himself or distract himself until he restored some kind of equilibrium.

“Since you woke up?” Steve repeats, and when Tony focuses on his face again he’s frowning deeper. “But it’s been—”

“Three nights,” Tony supplies. “Or four, counting tonight, which we should because it’s over halfway done and speaking of which, what the hell are you still awake for?”

“Well, you see,” Steve says, the frown disappearing under an unsure smile, “I don’t sleep as often as most people. Which I suppose you don’t either, now. But. Three days without feeling tired is pushing it, even for me.”

“It’s probably fine,” Tony rationalizes, because it probably is, and he feels somehow even more like a doofus with Steve trying to validate Tony’s unease over what’s likely most definitely nothing.

“I mean…” Steve says. His forehead gets all scrunchy the way it does when he worries (the way it always used to when he was reviewing case notes on his search for Bucky) as he looks Tony up and down. “Not if it’s worrying you.”

“It’s—not,” Tony says, but that’s not quite right because it obviously is, which Steve knows, of course, if his raised eyebrow is anything to go by. “Or it may be, okay, but that doesn’t mean it’s worrying.”

“It doesn’t—” Steve starts to say.

“I shouldn’t have bothered you,” Tony says, pressing a hand over his eyes, briefly, and he feels downright miserable, but turns away anyway. What did he honestly think was going to happen? Rogers isn’t some magical creature who can fix Tony at will. He’s human, Tony reminds himself.

“I’ll just…” Tony says, throws a thumb over his shoulder and already stepping away.

“Tony!” Steve calls after him. Tony stops, turns so he can see Steve out of one eye. Steve, for his part, is leaning against the doorframe, casual as can be, arms crossed over his chest. “I won’t go to sleep for another couple hours or so. If you wanna—hang out.”

“Hang…out,” Tony echoes.

“Yeah,” Steve says, one shoulder ticking up in a lazy shrug. “We could…watch a movie. Or something.”

“I,” Tony says. He turns fully to face Steve again. “It’s two in the morning, Cap.”

“And we’re the only two up ’n about at such an ungodly hour,” Steve says, but he’s smirking now, eyes twinkling.

And it’s not exactly a magical solution—or any solution at all, really—but Tony feels a little better anyway. Sure, he still hasn’t slept, and Steve doesn’t have any apparent way to fix that, but someone at least knows now, and it doesn’t seem like anyone’s going to lose their shit over it, and Steve at least doesn’t think it’s anything major or dangerous yet. Tony grins back.

“Well, when you put it like that.” He beacons Steve with a nod of his head toward the elevator. “Your pick this time, old man.”

***

Tony feels like he should feel cheated. After all, it’s not like Steve’s fixing anything. It should be an empty comfort, a false sense of security. It’s the kind of non-problem solving strategy Steve employed back during Ultron.

They end up on the common floor couch, watching a movie about paintings in the 1950’s with Amy Adams because apparently they’re becoming the kind of friends who watch movies alone together in the dead of night. He doesn’t even have to bully Steve into physical contact this time around. In fact, when Tony rests his head on Steve’s shoulder, Steve rolls with it, tossing an arm over Tony’s shoulders, grounding him.

He’d forgotten to grab the HUD glasses on his way out of his room, and his mind definitely wanders, but with most of the floor still dark and most people in the compound either asleep or too far away for him to hear, he manages to follow the plot of the movie and, even more miraculous still, to relax against Steve’s side. Half the movie passes and they only move to readjust their positions, Tony kicking his socked feet up onto the couch, leaning his head back against Steve’s chest, and Steve moving his hand to rest lightly on Tony’s chest. The weight of it, of them, Steve-and-Tony, of Sokovia and Leipzig and Siberia and Chicago, of the Tower and Malibu and the apple orchard, they all press down around Tony as he feels Steve’s hand pressing so carefully against his own chest.

Unmoored and unsure, Tony reaches up and grabs onto Steve’s hand with both of his own.

“Sorry,” Steve says, misreading the gesture and trying to snatch his hand back.

“No, it’s,” Tony says. He tightens his hold, curls his fingers around to actually hold Steve’s hand, and swipes his thumb along Steve’s knuckles. He feels Steve exhale sharply, then breathe in deeply, and Tony mirrors the deep breath slowly. The weight settles around him again and he’s floating, Steve a buoy in their own endless sea. It’s peace, Tony thinks.

“Tony,” Steve murmurs, and Tony can feel the word across his scalp, a warm breath of air from where Steve has his nose buried in Tony’s hair.

It’s a dishonest peace, Tony realizes. He scrunches his eyes shut.

“I was afraid,” Tony admits quietly. The movie drones on in the background, Amy Adams’ marriage dissolving around her, lights splashing against Tony’s eyelids. The paintings in the movie, the children with their wide eyes, they remind him of kids whose lives he’s ruined all over the world, children like Wanda and Pietro and countless others.

“Afraid of what?” Steve asks.

“Mostly of turning into a braindead monster and killing everyone,” Tony says. “Or of slowly going insane and dropping dead from some bullshit inability to reach REM sleep. But…” Steve’s nose nudges against Tony’s head, and Tony breathes deeply again. “I was scared of it being Ultron all over again. Of not saying anything and being blamed when shit hits the fan.”

It’s such a selfish thing to be afraid of, Tony knows it is. With everything that could go wrong, the blame should be the least of it, but he can’t shake it, the thought that they’re all just waiting for something to go awry, so they can be proved right for the way they’ve treated him in the past.

“We won’t let it get that far,” Steve says. “And even if something did happen, it wouldn’t be your fault.”

“That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be blamed,” Tony says.

“I wouldn't let them,” Steve says, and Tony feels equal parts irritation and fondness.

“That's not how it works," he says, “and you know it.”

“It’s moot anyway,” Steve says thoughtfully, his other hand settling on Tony’s shoulder, squeezing. “Because it’s not gonna get that far. But I really am sorry we’ve made you feel that way.”

Tony does kind of want to rip Steve’s hand away from his chest then. He wants to run and hide, but not as much as he longs to stay. So he sits there, very still except for how he rises and falls with Steve’s breathing. For a while, he matches their breaths, inhaling when Steve exhales, keeping himself at an even level. He wonders if it’s uncomfortable for Steve at all, to have the weight of Tony’s skull, his shoulders and spine against his torso, holding him down.

“Walt reminds me a little of Obie,” Tony says at one point, surprising even himself. Obie’s not someone he talks about most of the time. There were a couple of instances, right after he went public as Iron Man, with Rhodey or Pepper or, once, at his dad’s grave, when he was first trying to make sense of the betrayal in his own head, working through it, still processing as he stood there in the mud upstate. Never with the Avengers, though, or any member of the public. Hell, thanks to Coulson, the general population still thinks Obie died suddenly in a plane crash, and that Tony misses him dearly as a father figure. Really, he doesn’t recall ever having said the man’s name in front of Steve before. There’s a brief pause before Steve replies.

“Stane, right? Obadiah?”

“Yeah.” Tony nods, his head rolling against Steve’s shoulder. “COO of the company after I took over. Dad’s best friend toward the end of his life. And the guy who paid the Ten Rings to take me out, and then tried to do it himself when that backfired.”

"Wish I coulda met him,” Steve says, and he presses his cheek against Tony’s hair. “It would’ve been nice to punch him hard enough to shatter his jaw.”

Tony snorts and accidentally knocks his head back into some pointy part of Steve’s face.

“Sorry," Tony says, but he’s smiling and Steve’s laughing, so it’s not a big deal.

"Don't be," Steve says on a sigh. They both melt a little farther into the couch after that, and Tony stops worrying about being too heavy on top of Steve.

Chapter Text

Tony wakes up in the morning feeling well-rested and clear, though it still takes him a couple minutes to realize he just woke up, which means he was asleep. His senses come alive instantly, processing and sorting information: he’s warm with his back tucked up against the cushions on the back of the couch, his shoulder wedged between the couch and Steve’s torso; he’s mostly on top of Steve, using him as a pillow. Steve’s laying on the couch on his back, one of the throw pillows folded up under his head. Tony’s pretty sure one of his arms is pinned underneath Tony, but the other is wrapped around his waist, caught between Tony’s shoulder blade and the couch back. Either Steve or FRIDAY must’ve turned the TV off at some point. He guesses it must be late morning from how bright it is. There are hushed sounds coming from behind them somewhere—the kitchen, if Tony’s right. He focuses, trying to figure out who it is by sound. There’s the sound of ceramics sliding across the countertop (something Bruce does when he’s sleepy and uncoordinated), a distinctive plop, plop, plop of plate, mug, and drumming fingers (Thor, for sure, no one else makes that much noise simply existing unless they’re actively pouting), and the whisper of socked feet across the hardwood floor, the inhale-exhale of perfectly even breathing (Natasha, cautiously quiet out of habit).

It takes him another slow moment to parse through the flow of information and get from head pillowed against Steve’s chest to realize the meaning behind the stimulus, that he and Steve both slept crammed onto the sofa all night long, that Steve stayed and is still here. The warmth making a home in Tony’s chest grows roots, attaching him to Steve and the couch, pinning him down with utter contentment, making him leaden so that he feels like he might never move, might never find a good enough reason to get up and walk away from this morning.

He lays there for a few minutes, just listening and relishing in the warmth Steve’s giving off, surprised Steve hasn’t woken up yet. He stays where he is even when he hears someone—Natasha—approaching, cranes his neck and smiles at her when her head pops over the back of the couch. She smiles back, raises her phone and snaps a picture. He’s very, very certain in the knowledge that it’s not the first photo she’s gotten this morning.

“Mornin’,” Tony says quietly.

“Indeed,” she says, eyes flickering to Steve’s face and settling back on Tony. Her smile is big, almost shit-eating. “Good morning.”

Tony blinks. She looks downright smug. He narrows his eyes and snuggles further into Steve’s chest.

“What—uh, should I be worried?” he asks. Steve stirs underneath him. “What’re you doing with those pics, o mighty Black Widow?”

She tames her expression as she looks down at her phone, typing, a closed-mouth curl of lips that looks no less like that cat that got the canary.

“About to collect some serious money from Fury, that’s what,” she says, not even looking at him. Steve grunts, tightens his grip around Tony, and stretches one foot out. Tony rolls his head around to look up at him.

“Morning, Sleeping Beauty,” he singsongs.

“Tony,” Steve whines, long and drawn out. He yawns, eyes still closed. “G’mornin’.”

Tony clamps his teeth hard on the giggle the view manifests. He’s well rested, comfortable, safe. Steve’s under him and Nat’s leaning on her elbows above him, and it smells like bacon. He’s absolutely floored by the feeling it’s giving him. His heart was definitely not made big enough for all the emotion it’s holding in this moment, and he has no idea what to do with the excess.

“Morning, Rogers,” Natasha says, smirking when Steve’s eyes fly open and land on her, taking in the scene.

“Hi,” Steve says to her. He looks back down at Tony, more awake than before, but only by a bit. “Sleep okay?”

“Like a rock,” Tony says, letting the weight of his head flop forward onto Steve’s chest. Steve removes his unpinned arm and stretches again, humming low in his throat.

“Something smells good,” he says. Natasha pushes herself up to standing and rolls out her neck as she walks away.

“I’m making a fresh batch of coffee, too,” she calls back at them.

“Nat,” Tony whines because, come on, that’s playing dirty. Downright unfair. He turns the rest of his body into Steve, grabbing a fistful of his t-shirt and throwing a leg up over his hip, feeling ridiculously triumphant when Steve allows it. “Save some for me!”

“Only if you hurry!” Natasha yells from the kitchen.

“Mean,” Tony mumbles into Steve’s chest.

“Shh,” Steve says, hand landing on Tony’s head, combing through his hair. “She’ll hear you and you’ll end up drinking decaf for the next month.”

“That’s ‘cause she’s a bully,” he grouches, “and she hates me.”

Steve laughs, and it’s less bell-like than usual, more sleep-rough. His fingernails scratch lightly at Tony’s scalp. Tony has to pause and seriously consider the possibility that he’s been kidnapped and somehow rigged into an ideal virtual reality by someone looking to dig his most well kept secrets out of his brain. He read a book like that once; it seems almost like the most likely explanation.

They do get up eventually, a couple minutes later when the coffee machine chimes (a sound that’s usually muted, but Natasha appears to be in rare form today), and Steve smiles at him as Tony grabs his hands and hauls him to his feet. Bruce watches them drearily when they come into the kitchen, and Thor’s eyes twinkle as he hands off a mug of steaming coffee to Tony, but nobody says anything about it. Wanda wanders in a couple minutes later, and it’s nothing more than a normal morning, but the feeling stays with Tony, flares up every time he catches Steve’s eye and gets a smile from him. He smiles back, heart hammering in his chest.

***

Tony calls Rhodey the second he’s alone. He rides the wave of happysafeprotected all through breakfast and two and a half cups of coffee before he calmly excuses himself and wanders up to one of the viewing platforms over the entrance to the Quinjet hanger.

Rhodey answers on the second ring, but is overwhelmingly unhelpful.

“Why aren't you more worried about this?” Tony finally demands. His blood is boiling, singing—he thought Rhodey would be more concerned, would have something sympathetic to say at the very least.

“Honestly, Tones?”

“Yes, honestly.”

“I think,” Rhodey says, pauses. The amusement leaves his tone and he sounds serious and soft when he starts up again. “Steve’s learned his lesson. I think he knows what it’s like to hurt you, to have you look at him like someone who’s out to hurt you.”

“He’s—” Tony says. His heart feels twisted. He tries, for a brief moment, to conjure the hurt from Siberia, the sting from Steve lying to him for years, the feeling of being a negligible variable to Steve, not worth the effort, the sentence that could have brought him peace if Steve had just bothered. The momentary certainty that Steve was going to decapitate him with a weapon forged by Howard’s hands.

The hurt is easily accessible. It comes to life like a guard dog waiting to be called on, awake and snapping, so defensive it’s mean, vicious.

But when he holds that hurt up against Steve—Steve as he’s been lately, the Steve who knows his carelessness has consequences and tries—it feels incongruous. He can sense Steve’s frustration at the past, his drive to be better, his willingness to listen.

The thing is, away from Steve, alone, Tony doesn’t know which perception he should believe, which he should be basing his actions on. They’re both real, in their own ways, Tony knows. Steve’s no villain, but he really did those things; he hurt Tony; he drove the team apart. He did those things, but that doesn’t mean that the version of Steve from last night and this morning—the one who listened, and reassured, and stayed with Tony until he fell asleep, the one who smiled at Tony with his mouth full of sesame seed bagel—he’s not any less real for all the pain he’s caused in the past.

Tony really honestly doesn’t know what to do with that. For most of his life, the majority of people who hurt him either didn’t give a shit about him or hated him entirely. That’s easy to deal with, whether it be reporters, business rivals, models who want their fifteen minutes of fame, leaders of terrorist organizations. This is different because Steve cares, Steve cares and he messed up anyway, he hurt Tony anyway, and Tony wasn’t ready for it.

Does that make it better or worse? On the one hand, Steve seems to be about as torn up over the whole thing as Tony, but on the other hand, Steve was careless enough to let it happen. Who’s to say it won’t again? What’s stopping him?

And that’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it?

“He’s capable of hurting me,” Tony says finally. He feels—a lot. Terror, excitement. He doesn’t give people the power to do that very much anymore. Half of him trusts Steve, half of him wants to flee, back to Malibu, beyond.

“I know,” Rhodey says, and he sounds sympathetic at last.

“I know you know,” Tony says, exasperated. “You know, I know, Nat knows, apparently Bruce and Pep know. Everyone knows except him. He’s gonna stomp me out without even knowing it.”

“Listen, man, Captain America is a lotta things, but stupid isn’t one of them.” Tony opens his mouth, but Rhodey continues before he can say a word, “And neither is cruel, Tones. He’s not gonna repeat history if he can help it.”

“Great,” Tony says, “so I guess I can look forward to all the new and exciting ways he’s gonna find to crush my spirit.”

“That is,” Rhodey pauses, blows out a breath, “not what I meant at all, and you know it. And, to be entirely honest with you? I think you’re severely overlooking the part of this scenario where you have just as much power to hurt him as he does to hurt you.”

Tony scoffs. He can't help but remember the pleading tone in Steve’s voice when he’d met Tony’s eyes in Siberia—He’s my friend—like Tony was nothing, just another obstacle in the way of Bucky, like Mom didn’t mean anything, like not even Howard’s life meant anything to Steve when all was said and done.

The real kicker is that he can still hurt over it so much, even if he gets that Steve was just a mess then, that he phrased everything wrong that day—it still hurts like an intentional blow.

“Steve doesn’t—” Tony starts to say, then stops. There isn’t a way to describe it without sounding petulant, that Steve doesn’t get attached like Tony does, that Steve has Bucky and doesn’t need anyone else, doesn’t care what anyone else feels or thinks.

But that’s not quite right, Tony thinks. He knows that’s not quite right. But then what is?

I don’t want to be the version of me that stood against you anymore, echoes in Tony’s head, along with a gentle breeze and twelve different shades of blue. I’m a better person when we’re on the same team, and I can’t stand myself when we’re not.

It quells the hurt enough that he can imagine Rhodey being right, or at least not entirely looney.

“You should’ve seen him after Chicago,” Rhodey says after a few more seconds of silence. “Man was just about out of his mind with worry for you.”

“Why tell me that now?” Tony asks, and he’s frustrated but curious, too.

“Listen, okay?” Rhodey says, and Tony was, thank you very much. “I’d say something corny like ‘the second Steve even thinks about screwing you over again, I’ll pull his dick out through his ear,’ but we both know you’d beat me to it.”

“Aw,” Tony says, “thanks, honeybear. That’s the sweetest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“And to be entirely honest with you?” Rhodey says, ignoring Tony entirely in a way that makes Tony smile into his phone. “I’m pretty sure that if I tried to kick Steve’s ass you’d just end up kicking mine. Then I’d have to kick your ass, and that’s just embarrassing for everyone involved.”

He takes a moment to picture the scene.

“Well, thanks,” Tony says eventually. “You’ve officially been no help whatsoever.”

“Good,” Rhodey says, and hangs up, because he’s the worst best friend in the entire world.

***

“You were right!” Tony announces as he breezes into Bruce’s lab, two coffees in hand.

“I’m always right,” Bruce mumbles around a pen from where he’s hunched over a sample of something-or-another on a glass slide. He’s literally just sitting there, poking it. Wet sciences fascinate Tony.

“Correct,” Tony says, and puts one of the mugs down at Bruce’s elbow. “And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t hate me.”

Bruce blinks, pauses in his poking.

“What was I right about again?”

“Uh, well—”

Bruce spots the coffee, narrows his eyes at it.

“This is a new lab, Tony,” he says. “I haven’t Hulked out in here once yet, or spilled spaghetti on an experiment. I really shouldn’t get in the habit of bringing coffee in here,” he says, dragging the mug closer anyway.

Tony rolls his eyes because, really, they both know that’s not going to last. When it comes down to it, Bruce is just as bad of a workaholic as Tony, and he gets just as little sleep (at least pre-Extremis). Ever since he first came to crash at the tower, Bruce has had the tendency to act like it might be his last time allowed in a lab even though Tony's made it a point to gift the space and funding to Bruce to do with as he sees fit. Unless Bruce can suddenly go twelve hours without coffee or tea or some form of caffeine, this rule’s doomed to fail.

“I missed you,” Tony says, the words spill out of his mouth, and they’re not even the ones he means to say. Bruce pauses mid-drink. He swallows and lowers the mug, focusing squarely on Tony again.

“So you’ve said,” Bruce says slowly.

“It’s still true,” Tony says, and he shrugs, telling himself not to tense up. “I got used to relying on you. I don’t know if it would’ve been simpler or more complicated with you here for everything, but I wish you’d been there anyway.”

Bruce looks slightly concerned, and he takes another, slower drink of his coffee before replying.

“What, exactly, was I right about?” Bruce asks again.

“As we’ve established: everything, but mostly I’m referring to that thing you said about me fighting Steve so hard because I was into him. Though, to be entirely fair, I. Well, one, I would’ve fought him anyway because I have something of a personal moral code these days, it’s kind of this whole thing—”

“Tony,” Bruce says.

“—and two, I really had no idea at the time that I felt any such way, and in my defense—”

“Tony, please,” Bruce says, and Tony can’t tell if it’s amused, or fond, or what, but it at least doesn’t seem like he’s going to Hulk out in his shiny new lab quite yet.

“—not even Rhodey knew until pretty recently, so I hardly think I can be blamed for not knowing, because Rhodey always catches on before me somehow—”

“Oh, my God,” Bruce groans. “You’re only now having this freakout?”

“What freakout?” Tony asks, adequately derailed. Bruce twirls a hand in the air distractedly.

“The feelings freakout,” Bruce says. “Are you just figuring this all out now?”

Tony makes his own vague hand gesture because, ha, Bruce, two can play at that game.

“I mean—I’m finally getting over all the, y’know—hurt and betrayal of having Captain America beat me into the ground and leave me for dead in Siberia, so—yeah, actually. Sue me. I’ll probably win. I have very good lawyers.”

“Jesus Christ,” Bruce says. His coffee mug has been firmly set aside, and he lowers his face into his hands briefly.

“Oh, boy, I know,” Tony agrees wholeheartedly. “I’m fucked, right?”

“Probably,” Bruce says, lifting his head again.

“And I should definitely take this SI trip off of Pepper’s plate and run off to Japan for a week and a half. Or until I forget everything about Steve.”

“Nope,” Bruce says.

“Nope?”

“Anthony Edward Stark," Bruce says.

“Jesus, Mom, what?”

“If you and Steve really fought so hard against one another, if he really hurt you as much as it sounds like he did, and tore you up, and broke the team apart—and you’re still having this freakout?” Bruce pauses to meet Tony’s eyes head-on in a way that’s rare for him. “Then I can personally guarantee the Hulk will beat you into the ground if you let an opportunity for genuine care and happiness slip by.”

“What?” Tony says.

“I’m just saying. You must feel pretty strongly if you feel this way even after everything that’s gone wrong.”

“Oh, well. When you put it like that.”

“You deserve to be happy,” Bruce says, casually, like he’s talking about the weather, pretending to focus back on his little glass slide even though he doesn’t poke it, and something in Tony crumbles.

He breathes through his instinctual response—no I don’t—and downs half of his coffee in one go.

It’s not that Tony doesn’t want to be happy because, honestly, who doesn’t? He simply doesn’t know how to seek out happiness without being an entirely destructive force unto the world. Sure, there was that brief period of time with Pepper, but even that was doomed from the start, a form of slow punishment onto himself.

He’s pretty sure that Steve, despite everything, wouldn’t be that. Then again, maybe he’s tricking himself. Maybe Steve would tear him apart.

“I deserve a lotta things,” he says. “I'm not sure how high happiness ranks.”

He sets his mug down, mostly empty now, and spins it by the handle.

“Holy role reversal, Batman,” Bruce mutters, watching Tony’s mug through narrowed eyes as the liquid at the bottom gets closer and closer to spilling onto the bench.

“Wrong billionaire, I’m afraid,” Tony says.

“Listen, twinkletoes,” Bruce says and Tony’s gaze flickers up to catch the glee in Bruce’s eyes. “I’m still not a therapist, but this…hesitance? Not a good look on you.”

“It’s—I’m trying this new thing called thinking through my decisions before I fuck everything up.”

“You’re looking for approval,” Bruce says right back and, damn, Tony had almost forgotten how blunt Bruce likes to be. The man revels in it. “I’d bet this entire lab you’ve already figured out what you want to do in this situation.”

“Well—I mean—”

“Since when does Tony Stark need approval?”

Tony grinds to a halt, grabs the mug between his palms, and looks down at it.

Since when does he need approval? He’d thought he was being mature these days, so why does this feel like a defeat? It’s one thing to check with his team before acting on their behalf or doing something that affects them, but since when does that include every personal decision?

And Tony’s not completely deluded; he knows there’s more to him being here than seeking approval from teammates. However, that doesn’t mean Bruce is completely off the mark. He rarely is.

“Since over half the team decided they’d rather jump headfirst into the RAFT than work with me to ratify the Accords,” Tony says.

“That’s a whole other conversation,” Bruce says dismissively, now holding his coffee in one hand and prodding at his specimen with the other. It’s a veritable disaster waiting to happen, and Tony just hopes Bruce isn’t working with anything too toxic. “My anger towards you is one thing, but it’s got nothing on how livid I still am with Rogers.”

“Really?” Tony asks, squinting. Bruce grins.

“Professionally, anyway,” he says. “Personally, the two of us were never really close, and he’s been nice enough about the whole me-disappearing-for-a-couple-years-unexplained thing. But the way he conducted himself as a leader of this team? Deplorable.”

Tony rolls his eyes.

“Now,” Bruce says before Tony can continue them on that track of conversation, “if you’re gonna be here, you might as well be useful. Go grab me the next dish from shelf B-5.”

“Yes, sir, Dr. Banner, sir,” Tony says, sliding off his stool.

Tony stays for the next few hours. Bruce explains his current experiments—all seven of them, dear God—and Tony alternates between conducive brainstorming and being an absolute nuisance to the very idea of science. Bruce tolerates it for a surprisingly long time, which is more of a testament to how he feels about Tony’s decisions of late than any conversation ever could be.

“So,” Tony says eventually. His arms are folded on the table, his head resting on top of them. Bruce is fiddling with his phone, waiting for the hour mark to make his next observations. “How’re things going with you and Natasha?”

“They aren’t,” Bruce says without looking up.

“They could be,” Tony points out. Bruce scoffs.

“Whose side was she on for the Accords, again?” Bruce asks, and Tony’s chest aches fiercely, briefly.

“Mine,” Tony says, and he lets a bit of the bitterness creep into his voice because, yes, okay, it still stings a little bit, to think that Natasha’s only ever on his side as long as it suits her needs. “To start with anyway. She jumped ship with Cap, of course, because who in their right mind would stay on my side because of something as silly as agreeing with my reasoning, right?”

“Exactly.”

“She was also the first one to come back,” Tony admits, and honestly, he’s never going to figure out the Black Widow. He thinks he finally gets how she operates, the conflicting modes of decision making she goes through, even though he can hardly predict what she’ll settle on in any given moment. The thing is: even if she’s just as likely to poison him as help him to his feet, he knows she cares, and that it hurts her to choose against him, against any of them. “She snuck back into the compound before anything was settled, before there was any emergency or threat.”

“She still left, though,” Bruce says. “Even though she agreed with you, she still left. It doesn’t matter what she feels or doesn’t feel for me, what I feel or don’t feel for her. She’ll still push me off a cliff at the end of the day.”

“I’m not saying you have to—or should—stand near a ledge with her,” Tony says. He shrugs. “Maybe you should talk to her, though.” Bruce is still looking down at his phone, but Tony doesn’t think he’s looking at much of anything on the screen. “Y’know. For the sake of the team.”

Bruce looks up and glares.

“You come in to my lab, just to disrespect me like this?” he says dramatically, so Tony thinks he must not be too mad. Bruce shakes his head and says, “Ridiculous. Hand me that solution. No, not—the one marked with red tape. Thank you.”

So Tony hides out there for the next few hours, pestering Bruce while genuinely observing his experiments, and texting Steve off and on, coordinating their plans so they can have their shit together for the meeting they have planned with the rest of the team.

It’s oddly reminiscent of them working on the Accords, but…better. More familiar. They’re coordinating through text instead of email, and without the entire team of lawyers working as a buffer zone between their short fuses. Tony thinks of how far they’ve come, the growth they’re exhibiting just by being able to do this and he swivels on his stool so Bruce doesn’t catch him smiling to himself like an idiot.

They slate the team meeting for that weekend because Tony thinks it’s important for Spider-Man to be there, too, even if he’s not an official Avenger (yet). Happy's set to pick the kid up Friday after school, and the meeting they’re planning is casual, a round table discussion literally around their dinner table, and Tony hopes that having Steve already on his side will be enough to sway the worst of the defensiveness he anticipates from some of them.

***

Tony retreats to his workshop after a few hours in Bruce’s lab. He’s not even avoiding anyone this time, really, but he’s well-rested, and he’s been doing a lot of social and emotional labor lately. He just needs to do some work with his hands to keep himself balanced, or as balanced as he ever gets.

Unfortunately, by the time evening is solidifying into nighttime, Tony’s staring at the completed prototype for Bucky’s new arm.

And, sure, he could fiddle with the thing forever, but any more edits or additions he makes are going to be ultimately useless until he can get Barnes down here and fitted with the damn thing.

Of everyone, though, Bucky's probably the one person at the compound who expects the least of Tony. Actually, due to his guilt complex, Bucky might be the one person on the face of the Earth who expects the least from Tony. At least, this is what Tony uses to reassure himself as he stands over the nearly fully assembled arm on the bench in front of him, looking over it just one more time for anything he can reasonably use to kill a few more minutes.

What’re you so afraid of, Stark?

“Hey, Friday,” he says, then pauses. “What time is it?”

“Just after 8 PM,” FRIDAY says.

Damn, Tony thinks. No such luck there.

“A perfectly reasonable time for people to be awake,” he comments.

FRIDAY doesn’t even grace that with a response. Tony doesn’t blame her, but he does roll his eyes at himself since that’s one thing she can’t do.

“Extend an invitation to Barnes if he doesn’t seem busy,” Tony says. “Tell him I’ve got something for him if he wants to come visit Candyland.”

There’s a pause during which Tony knows his message is being relayed—if Bucky were particularly busy, FRIDAY would have just told him so—and he picks up a thin wrench to flip around his fingers like a drumstick.

“Sergeant Barnes will be down momentarily,” FRIDAY informs him after a few more seconds. Tony nods to her and opens up three different holo-screens. One’s filled with Peter’s weekly hero-ing report, transcribed by FRIDAY from Happy’s voicemail; the next shows the projected diagnostic report from Extremis (he’ll have to do another sweep later to get actual numbers from the nanites, but he’s pretty sure he definitely shouldn’t be taking that heart medication anymore); the third screen shows Pepper’s SI business trip schedule, just in case Tony decides he really does need to run away again.

All in all, he looks sufficiently busy when the door slides open to allow Bucky entrance.

“Stark?” he calls out. Tony’s near the back of the lab, off to the side where he’s been keeping Bucky’s arm as it’s been slowly assembled. He spins around in his chair, leaving the screens up to backlight him as he stands and spreads his arms.

“Dark-Hoodie Jesus!” Tony greets because, really, standing there with his pinned hoodie sleeve, the long hair, and open expression, no other words will even come to mind. He tilts his head after the nicknames leaves his mouth, considering. “Huh. You really need a haircut—but! That’s definitely not why I asked for your presence in my humble abode.”

To Tony’s mild chagrin, the nickname slides off Bucky’s back like water. He’ll have to do better, apparently.

“Humble abode,” Bucky echoes with an amused huff. His focus isn’t even on Tony, but the ’shop around them, eyes flitting from bench to bench, pausing on the Iron Man armor in its case before moving on to the rest. Tony realizes all at once that this is Bucky’s first time down here, ever. He’s never seen this part of Tony before. He lets the silence stretch on a few more seconds than he normally would as Bucky takes it in.

The space of the lab is, admittedly, a bit of a mess right now. Parts of projects are lying around from before the fight in Chicago, from before he ran away to Malibu. He keeps meaning to ask FRIDAY what he was doing with the bundle of wires on the center-South table, because he knows she’ll know, but he just hasn’t quite gotten to it yet. Soon, though, now that his armor is combat-ready again, and now that Bucky will have an arm, and now that Extremis is at least on its way to finding an even keel.

“It is, for me,” Tony says eventually. “There aren’t even any hot rods in here.”

“What, that thing doesn’t count?” Bucky asks, nodding at the armor display again.

“Certainly not,” Tony says, scandalized. “Technically speaking, anyway. Though I appreciate the poetic sentiment. Actually…Dummy might count, but even that’s a bit of a stretch.”

DUM-E whirs his claw from the far side of the workshop (where he’s been wisely avoiding Tony and his jittery energy for the better part of an hour now), and starts rolling over.

“Oh, God,” Tony sighs. “No, not you, I was not addressing you, you giant fool.”

“I—” Bucky says, and DUM-E decides to investigate the newcomer. “What’s—its name?”

“His name’s Dummy,” Tony says. “And he’s not why I invited you down either. Come here.”

“Dummy?” Bucky says in disbelief, but he approaches Tony anyway, the bot trailing behind. “You actually named him—”

“Yes, okay, I was a teenager, what do you expect from me? No,” Tony says immediately. “Don’t answer that. Just come look at your new arm.”

“My what now?” Bucky says and—there, Tony thinks, they’re finally on track.

“Or, I mean, at least the prototype for it. But this is about as far as I can get without you trying it on and answering some questions about it. Got the scans from T'Challa and some input from Shuri, so everything should be pretty up-to-date, but obviously neither one of them can tell me whether it'll be comfortable or shift your center of balance, and so.”

Tony shrugs, motioning to Bucky, who’s finally close enough to have caught sight of the prosthetic waiting on the table for him. He lets Bucky approach the table and intercepts DUM-E before he can follow, quietly poking the bot's support struts and smiling to himself, comforted more than he'd like to admit as DUM-E forgets their guest in lieu of trying to predict Tony's next “attack." Of course, true randomness doesn't exist (or, at the very least, it doesn't stem from the human mind), but it's close enough to thoroughly stump the robot.

“I’m really not sure if I'm the Jesus in this scenario," Bucky says after a stretched, awkward silence. “What with you—restoring the lost limbs of the leper and whatever.”

The man's smiling down at the arm, inspecting it more closely now, touching, checking the finger joints and the range of motion, looking pleased if a little tense.

“Yeah, no,” Tony says. “Far as I know, Jesus never ripped a man’s arm off.” Bucky snorts and Tony feels something in the atmosphere relax. “But what do I know; it’s been a while since I sat down with a Bible.”

Bucky just shrugs.

“So,” Tony says, when the silence has gone on far too long, “wanna try her on?”

“Uh,” Bucky says. “Yeah."

“Okay,” Tony says, and claps his hands together. “Dummy, over here—no, I, thank you. There, perfect.” Tony goes to pick up the arm and DUM-E, miraculously, stays where Tony stations him at Bucky’s side.

“Jacket off,” Tony says as an afterthought. Bucky reaches for the zipper immediately, eyes on the bot.

“He’s really gonna help?” Bucky asks.

“Well, we’ve got his attention now, so he’s either gonna help or make the entire exercise impossible, so he might as well be useful.”

Tony runs his mouth the entire time, alternating between explaining the arm’s features and scolding DUM-E. Bucky stays entirely, eerily still and totally quiet. In reality, the adjustments and fitting only take a few minutes at most, and then Tony watches as the plates slide and click into place, almost flawlessly except for a section in the back, behind Bucky’s armpit where the metal plates are small and fold into one another to mimic the range of motion of a normal human arm. Tony breathes around his panic, waiting out every instinct his brain can throw at him, even as he watches Bucky frown and twist, trying to see what the problem is.

“It’ll need some adjustments before it’s ready for continued wear, obviously,” Tony says. He feels stiff—wooden. “Fri, flag R-6 through…13? Okay, sharp-shooter, we’ll just do a few checks and then I’ll take that back to work on some more.”

Bucky stays just as quiet, only answering the occasional question Tony throws his way (he always answers promptly, though, no lag in his responses to indicate that he’s freaking out), and doing exactly the movements Tony instructs him to do, and only those movements.

Tony would be grateful if he were present. He’s relying mostly on FRIDAY to record Bucky’s answers and to inform him later of what really needs to be adjusted or fixed. Most of Tony’s attention is thinking about Mom, about Siberia, about how goddamn angry he’d been at Howard for years when he thought it was all his fault, about Steve lying, about Steve’s face when he’d been caught in the lie in that bunker, about every effort Tony made being thrown back in his face, about Steve’s knees pressed to either side of his ribcage, about Steve’s shield looming, coming closer, about how much Tony hated himself for flinching, for covering his face.

“That should do it,” Tony says, and he steps closer to help Bucky out of the arm. “Give me—a couple days? Then we can do a more thorough check of fine motor skills and proprioception when the thing actually fits.”

“Thanks,” Bucky says. Tony doesn’t reply, but DUM-E waves at his new friend as he leaves.

Chapter Text

By the time Bucky’s gone, the air in the workshop is humming around Tony. There’s an itch under his skin that means he’s going to either rip his way out of it or find someone else to do it for him. He wants a fight, pure and simple, clean and destructive, in a way he hasn’t in months—since before the Accords, since maybe before Ultron. Sure, Siberia happened, but that had been a unique incident, more about destroying something (someone) else. This? Good, old fashioned self destruction.

He goes up the stairs swiftly, ignoring the elevator entirely. He breezes through the communal floor since it’s only after 9, but it’s just Natasha with a beer and Clint messing around with his phone on the couch. Luckily, Clint doesn’t look up, but Nat does, casually at first and then with a sharp gaze when she takes in Tony’s appearance, his chest heaving, his muscles coiled. His automatic reaction is to pull himself together, say something calm and sharp, lay his hair down flat. The urge to compose himself, to show no weakness, is so strong it’s nearly a compulsion, and—

He remembers, simultaneously, the warmth of coming to awareness wedged between Steve and the couch back, and the absolute zero leaking from his own mouth, into his own blood, the air around them as he’d hissed, Don’t bullshit me, Rogers.

And that’s about the last thing he wants, so he turns on his heel and continues along. Natasha, out of either mercy or apathy (and, really, Tony’s occupying two realities right now; either one is just as likely as the other), doesn’t say a word as he turns to leave.

***

Eventually he finds Steve in his office. He has a paper notebook in front of him, a pencil gripped loosely in his hand as he makes absent marks on the page, but his focus is on the computer screen in front of him, reports of some kind pulled up. Tony can’t bring himself to give a damn what they might be; he could’ve caught Steve watching porn for all he cares in this moment.

Tony feels like half the wild thing Natasha spotted on the common floor and half the distant, calculating man his dad always wanted him to be. Steve blinks at him as he fills the open doorway, gripping the frame. Steve smiles an insincere smile and swivels his chair to face him.

Reality’s still split in half, and he sees both Steves in front of him, the one who cares and the one who can’t be bothered. It’s driving him mad.

“I can’t just not sleep unless you’re there,” Tony says, more venom behind the words than he really means. He’s just so angry—at Zemo, at Natasha, at himself, at Steve. He needs reality to be just one thing again, he can’t stand this.

Which Steve are you? he thinks desperately. Fire or ice? Fight me, fight me.

“Well,” Steve says, and he crosses his arms. His tone isn’t outright mean, but it’s not too close to being gentle either. Trust Steve to never shrink away from a challenge. “I don’t see why not.”

“What?” Tony says, and it comes out like a demand. Steve’s eyebrow ticks up, and Tony’s first impression is that it’s mocking.

“It’s not exactly a hardship for me,” Steve says. The words are neutral enough, but he says it sharply, matching Tony’s own clipped voice.

Good, Tony thinks, even though it’s not. He hates how much control he doesn’t have here, how helpless he seems to always be in the face of this man, this haunting come to life, preserved in the ice for decades just to come back and torment him, obviously. Because the universe can’t give him any kind of break. (Narcissist, his brain sings in his own ear. That ego again.)

“Not what I meant,” Tony says, and he doesn’t know what he’s feeling except that he feels a lot of it, and that he’s present in the moment again. Whatever reality he’s in, he’s really in it now. Nothing to do but forge ahead, he supposes. Steve’s feet are planted firmly on the ground, though he stays sitting for now. His posture is challenging nonetheless. Tony lets go of the doorframe and stands with his shoulders back, feet exactly shoulder-width apart.

“How long until you leave again?” Tony hisses, almost a whisper. Steve blinks hard, once, like a flinch. His lips press into a thin line, the expression he usually gets before he starts yelling, so Tony keeps talking, quickly. “Last time you took damn near the entire team. You really think it’s a good idea to make you integral to my ability to sleep?”

“Oh, come on,” Steve scoffs, and he looks just as nasty as Tony feels now, all jagged edges and open bleeding. “You say that like I’m looking for excuses to bolt, like I really just wanted to leave last time.”

“Well you sure as hell didn’t fight very hard to stay, now, did you?” Tony spits. His hands are balled into fists, he realizes.

Why do they both sound so pissed off? This isn’t the conversation Tony came here to have. Which Steve is this? Why, why, why?

“Tony,” Steve snaps, like his name is a curse.

Very abruptly, Tony changes his mind. This isn’t what he wants.

“You know, Rogers,” Tony says, and he still sounds mean, but he also sounds tired: calm and certain and a little bit dead, “you’re going to end up killing me.” He says it like the fact it is, and Steve’s standing suddenly, hands limp at his sides instead of crossed. “Droves of people will gather for my funeral and tell stories about how I hurt you.”

“Never,” Steve says, and his voice is still hard, but every part of his expression that was mocking is gone, crumpled very slightly. His voice is softer this time when he says, “Tony.”

Steve’s eyes are so blue, even in the different, dim, unnatural lighting of his office. Not a hint of green.

“Steve,” Tony says.

He feels—something, everything. He wants to step forward but doesn’t know how. It feels impossible, in the worst way. Steve’s jaw is clenched, a desperately sad kind of anger. He looks like he’s ready for Tony to slap him.

Tony brings his hands up to cover his eyes, just for a moment as he tells himself to get a fucking grip. This isn’t the kind of fight he’d wanted. It’s all wrong. This isn’t some random asshole in a bar, it’s not even Rhodey. It’s Steve with all twelve shades of blue in his eyes, and Tony wanting to make everyone hurt just as much as he hurts, just like always.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, eyes still covered. “This was ill-conceived.”

When Tony uncovers his eyes, Steve’s still there, and this strikes Tony as a minor miracle for no particular reason.

Stop putting him on a pedestal, he tells himself. He’s a man, he’s a human being.

He steps forward, doing what felt impossible just seconds ago, and it’s like miniaturizing the arc reactor all over again, the feeling he gets putting his palm flat to Steve’s sternum. He keeps his elbow bent only slightly, connecting with Steve in a way that makes him real, human, warm—the warm Steve, then, the one who cares, the one who stays—and keeps him at arm’s length, literally.

“Scratch that,” Tony says. Steve’s hand comes up to rest over Tony’s, though he looks wary. “The last couple minutes, just, cross that out. Temporary insanity or—something.”

“Or something,” Steve echoes. And then he smiles, wry and a little confused. “Strange,” he muses, looking down at their hands on his chest. “When did you get here? I must’ve zoned out.”

It takes Tony a second too long to realize what Steve’s doing, and when it finally clicks he rolls his eyes skyward.

“I’ve been trying to get your attention,” Tony says, playing along. He bites his tongue, rather hard, considering. Fuck it, he decides. If Steve doesn’t already think he’s completely insane, he might as well go for it.

It’s not exactly a hardship for me.

“You must be tired if you didn’t notice,” Tony continues, and wrinkles his nose for dramatic effect. He presses the pads of his fingers into Steve, just enough to really feel. Steve’s smile abruptly turns sweet.

“Guess I should turn in for the night then,” he says. “What’re you up to?”

“Just wrapped up some work myself, actually,” Tony admits, matching Steve’s smile and he—God, he feels. “If you were looking for company.”

Tony would flinch at how utterly fucking dumb that sounds out loud if he wasn’t so busy being breathless and terrified. To his dismay-slash-amusement, Steve snorts, honest-to-God snorts and pries Tony’s hand off his chest. But then he nudges Tony’s shoulder, enough to get him to turn back to the door and start walking back toward the stairs.

“Hey, Friday,” Steve says then, “save that progress for me?”

“Of course, Captain,” FRIDAY says.

Tony doesn’t know how Steve knows to take the stairs instead of the elevator, but he does, and Tony’s glad. If he had to stand in an elevator right now he might actually claw his way out of his own epidermis.

Steve guides them all the way back to the living quarters. Tony turns instinctually when they’re next to his door and Steve, who was making a beeline for his own room, pauses, looking mildly alarmed. His eyes flicker from Tony to Tony’s door to Steve’s own door and back to Tony. It’s so ridiculous Tony thinks it might be cute and holy actual fuck Rhodey was right. Tony’s fucked.

It’s a reassurance, though, that Tony’s not the only one a little invested here, not the only one taking a series of tiny leaps of faith, hoping he’s not getting it wrong.

He’s fairly certain, anyway.

God, he hopes.

“Just,” Tony says, and jerks this thumb toward his own door. He clears his throat. “Grabbing some sweats and then I’ll—your room?”

“Yeah,” Steve breathes, nodding his head in a strange figure-eight pattern.

“Right,” Tony says, “I.”

And then he turns resolutely and walks into his own room, shutting the door firmly behind him and leaning against it for a second, reminding himself to breathe.

He’s tempted to do a few things at this very moment, including, but not limited to: texting Rhodey an SOS; jumping out his bedroom window and letting FRIDAY snatch him up in a suit, taking him very very far away; sinking through the floor, to the simple bliss of no longer existing.

He’s not even sure he’s tired right now, in the physical sense. He does register that he’s emotionally exhausted. It would be nice, he thinks, to lay in the dark, in the calm, even if he weren’t to fall asleep for a few hours.

Breathe, he orders himself, and does. Eyes closed, he does. He can hear Wanda strumming a guitar down the hall—the new one, the electric, and it’s unplugged, just the quiet twang of unamplified steel, but she’s getting good. Someone’s snoring farther up the hall; it’s Scott, Tony realizes, which makes sense. His sleeping schedule’s gotten all sorts of screwy lately, something about his daughter’s nightmares and late-night FaceTime sessions. Tony should really invite the kid and her mom out for a weekend sometime soon.

He opens his eyes, stands up. It’s not the same, going to Steve’s room. Tony’s not that stupid. Not that Steve and Tony really operate within the normal bounds of social interaction; they never really have, but it’s hard to pretend this is the same as falling asleep together on the couch in the middle of a movie. But it might be what works for them, what’s necessary to quiet whatever monster’s living in Tony’s ear, and Steve, well.

It’s not exactly a hardship for me.

Tony doesn’t know what he meant by that, precisely, but he seemed fond and entirely accepting of the idea of Tony sleeping in his room. He even looked alarmed when he thought he’d gotten it wrong.

Deciding he’s adequately bolstered, Tony straightens and goes to his dresser, throwing on sweats and changing into one of his baggier t-shirts, washed-out black with a string of tiny holes near the collar. It doesn’t exactly hang on him, but it doesn’t fit either, per se.

Barefoot, he pads down the hall. Steve’s door is cracked, but Tony raps his knuckles against the wood twice as he pushes it open anyway.

“Just me,” Tony calls softly in the direction of the ensuite, pulling the door shut behind him. That door’s open, too, the sounds of the sink and a toothbrush floating out. Tony forgot to brush his own teeth, but it’s too late now. He’s here and he needs to stay here or he really might bolt.

He flops onto the bed, right in the middle, and stretches out to slip his phone onto the nightstand, reasoning that Steve can tell him to budge over and pick whichever side he wants.

The sink turns off and his stomach swoops in response. He rolls fully onto his back, closes his eyes, and takes a careful breath. Slowly in, in, in, and past the point that used to stretch his lungs. There’s so much room there now, he can breathe so deeply it’s astonishing, and still surprising somehow if he pays attention to it.

Steve comes out of the bathroom and Tony tracks him by sound, to the dresser, the bedside table to click the lamp on, to the wall to turn the overhead light off, and to the side of the bed closest to the door.

“Hey, Tony,” Steve says softly. Tony opens his eyes to see Steve smiling in the soft light from the lamp. He has a corner of the comforter in his hand and flaps it demonstratively when Tony looks over. “Scoot over.”

Tony rolls and performs a half-acrobatic move that frees the sheets. He lands underneath them, on his side facing Steve, one arm folded underneath his head. Still smiling and looking like he’s trying not to, Steve picks up one of the pillows from where they’re both stacked and flips it so it falls on Tony’s face as he crawls under the covers. By the time Tony has the pillow in place Steve’s settled. They’re facing each other, barely a foot between them.

They seem frozen, and Tony feels another flash of the impossibility of the divide between them, the one he felt in Steve’s office. He tries to smile back at Steve, feeling dumb and unsure of literally everything. Steve’s smile doesn’t disappear, exactly, but his gaze flicks over Tony’s face, assessing, calculating, before he turns just long enough to shut off the lamp.

Tony’s struck by a sudden terror, like he’s standing on the edge of a cliff, armor nowhere in sight. He’s also hit by the absolute clarity of the knowledge that he’s here with Steve, that Steve’s on the same ledge that he is, that, while this might be the riskiest, stupidest thing he’s done in years—Steve’s here, too. Steve seems to want him here.

The sense of impossibility melts at the thought.

In for a penny, Tony thinks. His eyes, impressive though they are now, still haven’t adjusted entirely to the darkness, but he inches his hand forward anyway until his fingertips land on Steve, lower than in his office, right between the gap between the halves of his ribcage. Steve stops breathing momentarily.

“Can I…?” Tony asks, but Steve’s already got a hand loosely around Tony’s forearm.

“Come here,” Steve whispers.

Tony does, the hand already on Steve going around his waist to lay flat against his shoulder blade, his forehead curling down to Steve’s chest. Steve’s hand slips up to Tony’s bicep, thumb brushing back and forth soothingly. Steve’s breaths don’t move him, but they do press them together more firmly. Outwardly, Tony knows he’s coming across as less feral than in Steve’s office, and he wills himself to settle. Deliberately, he matches their breathing, following Steve’s example, and waits as patiently as he can for his heart to fall for the trick, relaxing and slowing.

Eventually, he decides he’s not going to implode or crumple. His eyes are closed, but he knows Steve’s not asleep yet, though enough time has probably passed.

“I’m sorry,” Tony whispers, and it feels wrong, like battery acid in the back of his throat, like some combination of don’t show weakness and a dam about to burst. Apologies are dangerous, always have been, because—Christ, he has so much to apologize for. If he starts, it’s hard to know when to stop. There’s no way to apologize adequately within the bounds of words. Normally, he navigates this by only apologizing for very specific things, when he can pick out one wrong thing he’s done, one singularity that deserves the words.

This one, obviously, is his fault. He practically catapulted himself into Steve’s office, spitting angry and solidly in fight-or-flight mode over, essentially, old hurts. Even though one could argue that between Steve being a fugitive of the law for a number of months and then Tony’s own obsessive avoidance tactics, the hurts never really healed right the first time around.

Part of Tony insists this is factual and that he was right to be mad. But, no. Right to be insecure, maybe, but Steve’s put a lot of work into reassuring him as well.

The reality is closer to this: that feelings aren’t always justified or rational and that, no matter how much reassurance he has, sometimes he needs more.

It’s easy to admit this to himself as he lays in Steve’s bed, the both of them covered in a clean darkness. He can feel Steve’s warmth this way, knows that this must be the warm Steve here with him, though he feels more like a small forest fire when the stimulus is limited like this.

Overall, Tony’s content, enough that it feels dangerous, and he can feel a faint thrum of adrenaline in his fingertips at the implications even though that’s downright antithetical to the whole tranquility thing.

“What happened?” Steve asks.

Tony takes a moment to absorb the question. It’s neither blind forgiveness nor accusation. His first instinct is to retreat, to say nothing happened, to keep the truth of it close to his chest.

Steve’s bed smells like him, vaguely like his shampoo, earthy and light. Tony imagines never smelling it again, of having gotten to this point and then leaving it behind. Moreover, Steve’s right to ask. He’s being fair and opening yet another channel of communication between them in the process, or trying to. Uncomfortable though it may be, Tony knows talking—and being honest about it—is the thing that needs to be done here.

“Cognitive dissonance?” he says.

Not an explanation, he knows. Clenching his jaw, Tony blows out a breath through his nose. When a few more seconds pass in silence, Steve tries to detach himself, to pull away. Tony clings tighter.

“Just,” he says, stops. Steve pauses, too. After a moment, he puts his hand on the back of Tony’s head, letting it stay where it is, shielded. His fingers slide through Tony’s hair, and Tony makes the conscious decision to let himself be comforted by it.

“Tell me?” Steve says, soft and gentle, like he knows how hard this is for Tony despite the fact that it shouldn’t be hard at all.

“Working on it,” Tony grounds out. For some reason, Steve seems to relax at this, content to wait now that he knows it’s not a dead end exercise. Tony, in turn, relaxes, knowing he’s not being rushed, and starts to slowly put his thoughts into order.

“I like—this,” Tony says eventually, flexing the hand on Steve’s back to show what this is. His fingernails scratch lightly over the t-shirt there, Steve’s breath catching at the movement. Tony files the sound away, using it to fortify his confidence. “I liked waking up on the couch this morning. I liked that it was you.”

He pauses as the weight of that hangs in the small amount of air still between them, and Steve grip tightens almost imperceptibly on his head. Tony’s suddenly uncomfortably aware of how fragile human skulls are, and how incredibly strong Steve is. The patch of Steve’s shirt he’s talking into is vaguely damp with his breaths, but he doesn’t much care.

“I built Bucky a new arm,” he admits miserably, finally retreating from his hiding place against Steve. Awkwardly, he shuffles back on the bed a few inches, his arm unwinding from around Steve. Steve’s own hand falls to be bed between them, and Tony grabs his wrist, needing to know Steve’s not turning frigid in dismissal, disgust, indifference.

Steve looks—confused, maybe. Concerned? Definitely vulnerable. Tony can’t tell, and his heart is starting to pick up the pace again.

“You didn’t have to,” Steve says, more awkward than anything else.

“I know,” Tony says, and he groans in frustration. Steve’s brow furrows and Tony swipes his thumb over the back of his hand and wrist. “I wanted to—want to.” He squeezes his eyes shut briefly. “He came down to try it on earlier. Still some adjustments to make, of course. Some of the plating was sticking, but mostly it’s already done. And I want him to have it because I’m the asshole who destroyed the last one—but it just—I couldn’t—”

Tony breaks off to breathe, willing his lungs to slow, the fast pace dragging his thought processes in circles. When he makes himself look back to Steve’s face, there’s no anger or impatience. He looks a little sad, maybe, but not like he wants Tony to just spit it out already. Gently, gratefully, Tony’s thumb strokes Steve’s wrist again, and he keeps his eyes locked on Steve’s as he talks, unsure if he’s still being honest or if he’s going to accidentally cross into unfair territory.

“Sometimes," he says quietly, “I feel like the butt of the biggest joke in the world. I’m just—” his lips quirk and it feels cruel and honest and unfair to put this burden on Steve but fair he should have to know if this is how Tony feels anyway, “—so convenient to have around. Any World War II master strategist worth his salt would know when to put me in my place, when to beat the shit out of me in a Siberian bunker, when to disappear for months and months while I dealt with the angry bureaucrats and the 12-hour hearings and the public scorn, and when to play nice and bat their eyelashes and get me to build their buddy a new arm.

“And I know,” Tony continues quickly, seeing the storm in Steve’s eyes, the tightening of his bottom lip, “you weren’t having fun in Siberia. I know you didn’t ask me to build the arm. I know, okay?”

“I would never,” Steve says.

“I—know,” Tony says, and for the first time, his breath catches on the lie. Because the whole point is that he doesn’t know, that his doubts run rampant until they tear him to pieces and rearrange him into some cornered animal.

“You keep saying that,” Steve says, still just as sad but with a raised eyebrow. Part of it grates on Tony, but mostly it reassures him that he’s not fucking up this whole communication thing too badly. There’s an edge to his voice now, pushing, demanding, but not necessarily angry.

Good, Tony thinks, and this time it might actually be.

“I’m not trying to—this isn’t some sort of designed punishment,” Tony says, and it comes out stern, almost confident.

“What is it?” Steve asks, and it’s the young, vulnerable Steve. The one who doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing, the one in a body too big and in a world too chaotic, trying so very hard to be an anchor.

“It’s—” Tony stops to think.

It’s not punishment, of that Tony’s pretty certain. He’s not above anger or resentments in his darker moments, but he’s at least sure he’s beyond lashing out or acting in any way like someone else’s pain is going to make his less.

It’s about checking, maybe. Though Steve’s not a machine he can run a diagnostic on, he’s not a robot to be put through the ringer to test his strength. Not an AI or a bot. But that’s not entirely right. After all, how often has Tony reminded himself, rather forcefully, that Steve’s a man, not some golden soul in a perfect body? Steve Rogers, not Captain America.

No, Tony really does know Steve’s human. Changeable, fallible. A tactile creature instead of an untouchable deity. With all of that fluid humanity, it makes him more dangerous than any machine. More dangerous than Ultron, certainly. Even when the AI turned out to be insane, his logic was constant, followed through to its reasonable (or relatively reasonable) ends. And while Captain America may be fueled by justice and righteous anger, Steve Rogers is a man prone to following his heart with everything he’s got.

Tony doesn’t doubt Steve’s mind, that he’s thought through their shared past and come to different conclusions. Hindsight is 20/20 after all, and Steve’s shown both with his emotional reactions and his words that he solidly regrets how some things worked out.

The issue is—what, exactly? The fact that Steve needed months and hundreds of thousands of miles between them and the Accords to admit he might not have handled it perfectly? Does Tony really think Steve’s going to default back to cruelty and secrets the second that’s more convenient?

Logically, Tony’s pretty sure he won’t. But the idea doesn’t sink in with any conviction. Steve’s shown him depth of feeling when they’re alone, isolated from everyone else. He doesn’t know what Steve’s going to do when they butt heads, or when Tony doesn’t agree with him implicitly and automatically. He doesn’t know what’s going to happen in the real world, outside of this strange, terrifyingly intimate bubble they’ve been building around themselves.

Belatedly, he realizes he’s been staring at Steve for minutes now, blinking slowly, and Steve’s been returning his gaze. The edge has bled out of the moment, leaving calm regard. Expectation.

“Who cares what I know,” Tony says. “I’m actually pretty sure knowing isn’t the point.”

“And what is the point, then?” Steve says, but he looks encouraged by Tony’s statement for some reason. Tony has no idea how Steve is interpreting his words, vague as they are.

Belief, Tony doesn’t say.

“Results of experiments are only given any sort of scientific validity after repeated trials,” he says instead. “Under varying conditions, of course, to make sure the results aren’t stemming from an altogether unrelated variable.”

Tony sniffs, exuding a careful air of clinical indifference as he talks science laying in Steve’s bed, fingers still curled around his wrist. Steve himself smiles like he’s trying to keep it small.

“Of course,” Steve says.

“The trial where we’re alone and emotionally vulnerable has been—overdone,” Tony says slowly, more carefully.

“And the circumstances where we’re in conflict or not alone have yielded…somewhat different results, historically speaking,” Steve agrees easily enough, but his smile has mostly vanished.

“In other words,” Tony says more boldly, “I’m an entire asshole, and an especially manipulative one at that.”

“No you’re not,” Steve says firmly.

Tony is reasonably and genuinely confused by this.

“Okay,” he says, “I’ll bite. What am I, then?”

“Right,” Steve says.

“Uh,” Tony says, and it’s a higher pitch than he strictly means for it to be. “Is that what we would call it?”

“But in that case,” Steve shrugs and it’s awkward with him lying on his side, but when he meets Tony’s gaze with such determination it’s more Cap than Steve, and Tony’s chest bites down on a wad of feeling. “We’ll fix it.”

“Alright then, Cap,” Tony repeats, because he can’t really fathom coming up with something new to say at the moment, “what’s the game plan?”

Steve flips his hand so he can twine their fingers together and squeeze for a moment, insistently.

“Simple, really,” Steve says. “We commit to talking to each other, and listening. And you start hanging out with the team more, at least on bonding nights once we get that going, so you can see—or we can both see—what happens when we’re not alone.”

“That’s it?” Tony whispers. Steve tugs the knot of their hands closer and rests one of Tony’s knuckles against his own nose, and Tony scoots just a little closer to ease the awkward angle his arm is at. When Steve exhales, Tony can feel it down the side of his hand like a ripple of water.

“The rest of the plan is just to wait, I’m afraid,” Steve says, though he doesn’t sound apologetic in the least. “Patience and exposure.”

“My two favorite things,” Tony jokes.

“A true hardship, I know,” Steve teases, and Tony’s starting to smile despite himself, starting to feel the pull of hope despite himself.

“So what you’re saying is,” Tony wrinkles his nose, “there’s nothing for me to do, right now, immediately at this moment, to fix everything.”

“I’m sure it’s a foreign concept to you,” Steve says lightly. He moves their still-joined hands then, down below his chin to where they don’t muffle his words. His voice loses the playfulness when he continues, “It’ll take time, Tony.”

“We have time,” Tony says with as much nonchalance as he can conjure, a friendly reminder to the both of them.

Steve’s smile is small but genuine. Very real, and very warm.

“Think you can sleep?” Steve asks, and it jars something in Tony.

It’s not especially late, not even by normal human standards, meaning it’s obscenely early for Tony. Laying down here with Steve is nice, and the darkness around them is nice, of course, it’s all a blanket of security and reassurance and freedom, but even in the wake of his—outburst, he wouldn’t necessarily say he’s sleep ready. It was a bit of an abrupt shift, not that it’s exactly surprising, given the conversation that led them here, but he feels jarred nonetheless.

“You’re tired,” he says before he’s even registered the words, and he realizes it’s true. “Oh.”

He looks exhausted, weary, and Tony figures it’s at least partially his own fault. Steve’s smile twists then, and he blushes and, wow, really, even in the almost-total-darkness Tony can see it, the flush of color starting under Steve’s cheekbones and spreading to the tips of his ears, more purplish than red through the filter of dark around them and it’s actually scientifically incredible that Tony can see as much detail as he can now. Most people, he realizes, won’t ever get to experience colors at night like he is now, like he can now, whenever he wants.

The thought’s like a shot of espresso. He needs to see everything, catalogue it, not waste this—second, third, eighty-sixth—chance.

“I’ve been going through performance reports and background checks for psychologists for hours,” Steve says by way of explanation.

“I could sleep,” Tony lies easily.

There’s a moment of absolute stillness, leaden with awkward anticipation, so foreign and strange yet safe that Tony has to appreciate it. Here he is, laying in Steve’s bed, having early-night conversations in a dome of privacy and darkness—and he honestly has butterflies in his stomach. It’s a pure, clean feeling, opposite the chaotic way reality split earlier.

Slowly, memorizing the way his nerves notch up at the movement, Tony reaches forward to grab Steve’s hand and rearrange them, his back to Steve’s front, Steve’s arm around his waist and Tony clutching their hands to the space just over his diaphragm, one ankle hooked behind Steve’s foot. Steve complies without comment or resistance, only shifting once Tony stills, shuffling closer and adjusting the angle of his arms. He’s amazed; this must be the easiest Steve’s ever acquiesced to another’s will ever.

He doesn’t apologize to Steve for not being able to trust him completely, but he shivers when Steve’s breath hits the back of his neck. He hopes it means something to Steve, because it feels significant to him. His back is fully exposed, and Steve’s fingertips are brushing just where the edge of the arc reactor would be if it still lived in Tony’s chest. It’s a promise and a reassurance.

It’s sweeter than another apology between them anyway. Or at least devoid of the sadness they seem to drag out of each other when they wallow in it.

Thumb sweeping over the knuckles in his hand, Tony says, “Goodnight, Steve.”

“Sweet dreams,” Steve says into the skin behind his ear. Tony grips Steve’s hand harder for a moment, fighting off a second shiver, and feels Steve’s mouth curl into a smug smile. (Okay, so he can’t see the smile, but he doesn’t have to be able to see it to know it’s self-satisfied. Because Steve’s an asshole like that.)

There’s a whole entire world that needs to be explored or at the very least seen, but Tony’s always been good at fixation. He narrows his world down to this one room, to Steve at his back, and zooms in on the mini reality of them, Steve-and-Tony. It feels safe here, and natural to contemplate. During the day he might distract himself or become convinced it’s all doomed, but right here and now there’s no room for confusion. Time’s frozen with them on the same page and Tony will gladly lie awake all night, Steve’s hand in his, if only time will stay frozen and them okay.

He can’t lie here, and he doesn’t want to, at least not to himself. They haven’t spoken about it yet, or changed anything too drastically—nothing they couldn’t come back from, at least. Plausible deniability is still tenuously in place. It’s also a joke, for sure, but there nonetheless.

Steve’s room feels more like a universe. He can’t fathom the idea of space beyond the walls here, the grounds of the compound, the vastness of the upstate sky, the terrifying reality of space-space beyond that. This, Steve at his back and the blanket over him, the slight hum of the controlled climate keeping the building warm. There’s so much here, an entire landscape. He could stay here all night, wide awake as he is, and not run out of things to experience.

Steve's breathing evens out as he drops off to sleep, more slowly in here than the times they’ve slept on the couch, or maybe Tony’s just more aware.

The air isn’t cold, but it is on the cooler side, which he finds strange. He would have thought Steve would keep his room warm; the man really does hate being cold, this is something Tony knows to be true, has seen in action. He is a living furnace, though. It must make it hard to sleep in a warm environment. Plus, the cool air makes it easier to be pressed together like this.

While Extremis fixed Tony's circulation problems, his skin doesn’t run that much hotter than a baseline human that he’s noticed. Steve, on the other hand, is naturally a few degrees warmer than most health professionals are comfortable with. It’s ridiculously pleasant.

Despite all jokes to the contrary, Tony’s not that small of a man. He’s not super tall, true, but he’s got enough bulk to him that he’s never worried much about it. And he’s been in a bed with men before, of course, but Steve is—different. Rather large, solidly built, exceptionally powerful, even in rest. Tony feels downright wrapped up. Held.

There are piles of books half-hidden all over the place. Steve can very well use modern technology, and does whenever it’s work-related; he knows the databases and quickest shortcuts better than most people born in this century, Tony knows. Part of it is just how fast of a learner Steve is and always has been, the other part is that Steve’s introduction to technology happened at the SHIELD- and SI-level, his first exposures were to very advanced systems in the familiar grounds of military strategy and SOP. Everything after that was a piece of cake. Here, though, it seems Steve retreats into the comfort of notebooks and hard copies. There’s a row of books lined up under the desk, a small pile on the bedside table, two shelves over the dresser. Tony suspects there are even more in the closet.

Tony knows from the couple of stakeouts they’ve been on together that Steve can be awake and throwing his shield between one breath and the next, so he suspects that the object’s close, but he can’t see it without shifting around. He wonders if it’s under the bed, and then about why he finds that possibility charming.

***

He’s surprised when he wakes up in the way he sometimes is when he falls asleep in the lab or his office. He really hadn’t been expecting to fall asleep, though it still feels like it’s nighttime—no surprise there, considering how early they laid down. For a few seconds, he stays still, remembering how he got to the semi-familiar room and if it was his body’s own messed up internal clock that woke him.

Then the arm around his waist spasms and he thinks, ah.

Steve grabs a handful of Tony’s shirt, then, and makes this sound. It sounds like he’s in pain, a whimper-grunt through gritted teeth, and Tony’s sure he’s never heard something so sad from Steve before. There’s a moment of blind panic where Tony’s sleep-addled brain is convinced that his presence in Steve’s bed is somehow causing physical harm to the man. It takes the jolt of adrenaline springing through his blood and waking him up before the simple reality of the situation hits him: Steve’s having a nightmare.

It occurs to Tony that Steve could probably snap him like a twig caught up in his own mind like this. He remembers Pepper’s hand on his shoulder, the insistent shaking, the terror of reliving the worst moments of his life melting into the reality of almost hurting her, of calling the suit on her in his sleep. So, okay, he probably shouldn’t shake Steve. Maybe. Steve’s nightmares are probably different than his own, but that doesn’t really give Tony a clue as to how to stop this. But this really, really needs to be stopped.

Steve gasps behind him and then releases the breath on a strangled moan, all pain-pain-hurt-dread, and Tony grinds his teeth together, squeezing his eyes shut briefly before opening them again to a room awash in a pallet of darkness.

“Steve?” he whispers. “Steve, it’s okay, you’re okay.”

He stops to listen. Steve’s breathing is harsh, uneven. His arm twitches around Tony’s waist, wrapping around the curve of his ribs and squeezing. The movement isn’t conscious, not carried out with any kind of awareness of Tony’s presence, and he can feel the pure tension coming from Steve’s muscles

“Steve, you’re asleep,” Tony says, and lets his vocal cords carry the words this time. It’s not much louder than his whisper, really, but it carries the sound of his voice. “It’s just a dream…albeit a very bad one.”

The joke falls on deaf ears, but Steve curls into him, around him. The crown of his head presses into Tony’s nape. Steve’s hair would probably tickle if they weren’t both sleep-warm and if Tony wasn’t still fuzzy with sleep. All it is is soft.

Steve makes another distressed sound, a hum, low in his throat but quieter than the other noises. Resigned and tired. They’re not holding hands anymore, but their hands are still touching, Tony’s pinky almost hooked around Steve’s thumb. He chances a slow swipe where they’re already touching, hoping it’ll be interpreted subconsciously as comfort instead of something to panic over.

“I’m here,” Tony says at the same time. It doesn’t make anything worse, the touch and the words, so he does it a couple more times before Steve flexes around him—different, though, he thinks. Not so much terror-fueled agitation as testing the muscles. A sharper inhale, and then—

“Tony?” Steve asks, and his voice is sleep-rough, deeper than normal. The relief and sense of pride Tony feels upon hearing it leaves him winded. Clumsily, Steve’s hand flaps around until he catches Tony’s, threading their fingers together so that his palm presses to the back of Tony’s hand.

“You had a nightmare,” he explains gently. “Go back to sleep.”

“Mm,” Steve says disagreeably—hell, it’s almost petulant, but he’s asleep again on the next breath, and Tony doesn’t know how really awake he was at all.

While Steve seems to be dead to the world, Tony finds himself excruciatingly awake. They all have nightmares, of course. Not even Thor, who’s been alive for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, is totally immune to the grislier things he’s seen. Even Natasha, as elusive and preternatural as she normally is, will openly admit to having nightmares regularly. There’s really no point in denying it when it affects them all (save for Vision, if only because the weirdo doesn’t sleep). So it’s not the knowledge that Steve has nightmares that has Tony’s stomach in knots, not even close. But something about Steve trusting him so implicitly, letting Tony see the nightmare and accepting the comfort.

It hammers home the reality Steve’s living in more than his waking words or gestures probably ever could. Even confused and afraid and tense and not-entirely-aware, Steve had quieted instantly as he woke and took in Tony’s reassurance.

Tony’s never felt more like he belonged somewhere, like he was wanted and not just tolerated. (Valued. The word for this: valued.)

A shiver rips its way though Tony’s frame, even though physically he’s perfectly warm and the most comfortable he’s maybe ever been. Steve shifts behind him, against him, and Tony makes himself stay still and just breathe for a little while.

He calms down and works himself up at the same time. The breathing and stillness staves off the reactionary panic to feelings and honesty and transparency, but the time to think settles the weight of their changing dynamic down on top of him. He makes it about twenty minutes—a miraculous feat, really—before carefully, slowly extracting himself from Steve’s bed. He grabs his phone and tiptoes to the ensuite, moving as soundlessly as he can, closing himself in but leaving the light off. It’s not like he strictly needs it to see. (It’s not strictly like he can’t see, even in the near pitch blackness anyway.)

Tony sits with his back against the tub and unlocks his phone, firing off a text to Pepper.

ny or cally?

Despite the fact that it’s just after one in the morning—and Jesus Christ, that early?—Pepper responds within five minutes.

NY

lunch tmrw?

Her response takes longer this time, almost fifteen minutes and Tony doesn’t have a clue what he’ll do if she says no, but he suspects the ground would shake apart underneath him and deposit him straight into hell.

Marcel’s @ 11

Tony doesn’t reply because there’s really nothing else he can say over text in the middle of the night that won’t make her hate him all over again, but something unclenches in his chest. He thinks he should be anxious, or try planning what he’s going to say to her, but instead he feels heavy, like a tension that was holding him up, holding him together, has slackened if not been untangled yet.

Phone in hand, he eases the bathroom door open and slips back into Steve’s room, drawn to the bed—drawn to Steve—like someone’s magnetized the iron in their blood. Having taken in most of what Steve’s wall and desk have to offer in the way of scenery, Tony crawls back into bed, burying his face in Steve’s shoulder, one arm tucked under his head and the other around Steve’s ribs so his hand rests on the man’s shoulder blade. Steve shuffles around to accommodate, though he never opens his eyes.

Chapter Text

Despite the interrupted sleep, Tony wakes early. Earlier than Steve anyway, if the way his hand rises and falls with someone else’s deep breaths is anything to go by. He takes his time waking, floating just on the edge of consciousness where everything is slow and peaceful and uncomplicated.

Eventually, he opens his eyes, feeling truly rested. They’ve shifted around in the night, a little farther apart than they were, and Tony’s ended up on his stomach (even though he doesn’t have the arc reactor anymore, he still rolls onto his stomach a lot in his sleep, a remembered weight on his chest sometimes present when he lies on his back), his arm flung haphazardly across Steve’s abs. Steve himself is on his back, face slack and so beautiful the force of it hits Tony like a truck.

Briefly, he considers bolting. It would be the easiest thing to do. But he promised he’d give it time, that he’d stick around and see what happens. Moreover, he doesn’t want to leave. Terrified as he is, he’s content in this moment; all his fear revolves around what might happen, or what Steve will do when he wakes.

People are different in the mornings, especially on mornings-after. Usually, the ‘after’ is ‘after sex,’ though he’s almost certain this qualifies as a morning after. After vulnerability, after truth, after intimacy. This is just much, much less familiar to Tony. When it’s ‘after sex’ Tony knows what to do, joke or leave or smile. This isn’t uncharted territory, not exactly, but it’s not familiar either.

So, he stays. (Curiosity has always been his Achilles heel, anyway.)

It takes Steve about ten more minutes to wake, even with the added weight of Tony’s eyes on him. Once he gets going, he wakes up rather quickly, though Tony suspects this is Steve’s version of slow and relaxed, eyes blinking open soon after his breathing loses the unhurried rhythm of sleep. His smile is wide, closed-lipped and goofy when his eyes focus, though Tony thinks that’s maybe the most ridiculous response to waking up to a grown man staring at you intently. Tony smiles back anyway, smaller and more awake but just as fond, because it is rather flattering.

“Good morning,” Tony says.

“Good—” Steve chokes ever-so-slightly as his eyes land on something beyond Tony’s shoulder, “morning? Christ, why are we awake?”

“Well,” Tony says, “I’m pretty sure we went to bed before the sun’d even set last night, so—”

“—It wasn’t that early—”

“—It was ridiculously early,” Tony insists. “It is ridiculously early, in fact, though there’s no way in hell I’m gonna be able to go back to sleep. On the bright side, if I get up now I might actually get some work done.”

And this is the moment Tony realizes he feels normal. This isn’t the distrustful version of himself who could hardly accept a dinner plate from his teammates; this isn’t the hateful, out-of-control version of himself who invited the team back to the compound after that first battle-slash-reunion, who was admittedly right but so so so alone; this isn’t the martyr version of him who designed the AVALON protocol, who anticipated scorn for being wounded or unable to fix everything; this isn’t the ghost of himself who’d haunted the new Malibu house for weeks, unable and unwilling to utter a word.

Steve gives him a look, a twist of the mouth and a lift of an eyebrow. He picks up Tony’s hand from where it’s still flung across his torso and starts manipulating Tony’s fingers, playing with them, running a fingertip back and forth across the calluses he finds. Tony, aware again of his position, turns onto his side, carefully not dislodging the hand in Steve’s grip.

“You never just lay in bed for a while for the hell of it, do you?” Steve says. “Would it actually kill you?”

“I try not to,” Tony says wryly. When he opens his mouth again, he hopes he’s striking a good balance between honesty and not-cruelty. “A few times I did, after that first try with the Accords, but it wasn’t usually the fun or relaxing kind.”

Steve’s smile has shrunk, and he looks sad, but not overly so. Tony doesn’t know if this means he struck the balance or not.

The world was full of wolves, Tony doesn’t say. Everyone wanted my blood, and I was running out of ways to fight them off. There was no one to watch my back, because you left, and I’ve never been so exhausted as I was spinning in circles like that.

“Did you ever think of calling, when it was like that?” Steve asks.

“Now and again,” Tony says, because that’s true. He thought of it often enough. “I’m glad I didn’t though. It would’ve been just to rant and rave about why I was right.”

Or worse. But Tony doesn’t say that either. He’s at peace with his anger during that time, and it was well-documented. But the sadness, the sense of abandonment, the tears that weighed him to his bed on those days when he felt like giving up, those are another beast entirely. He thinks everybody probably knows—he knows he’s not a huge mystery—but that doesn’t mean he has to admit to it.

“Fair,” Steve says, even though Tony’s pretty sure it’s not. “I figured that out eventually anyway.”

“ ‘Right’ might be a bit of a stretch.”

Steve wrinkles his nose, eyes leaving Tony’s face to look down at their hands. His finger follows a path across his knuckles and Tony can’t see from this angle but he knows there’s a wicked scar there, one from his pre-Iron Man days, actually. Something from London, with cocaine and a downright terrifyingly dingy club. A man with gaudy rings and maybe broken glass, though he can’t recall which of those things actually cut his hand. He probably deserved it.

It’s just before 5 AM, and Tony feels good. He wants to chase the feeling, though he’s not entirely sure of the most effective way to do that. Brain still half remembering the old days, he recalls the benders, just one more drink, another line just to hold him over when everything got overwhelming or the people seemed vicious. Chasing the incredible, ultimate freedom with reckless abandon. And later, chasing that feeling of worth every time he destroyed another stash of the weaponry designed by his own hands, chasing Yinsen’s ghost. After the Battle of New York, chasing the feeling of a full breath, the actual lungful he could only manage when a new suit was assembled and powering on in front of him, or some other new precaution put into place against the looming threat of vengeful aliens.

But this is—contentment. He doesn’t think you’re supposed to chase contentment. Isn’t it a bit antithetical? He’s warm, and Steve might as well be transparent for all the truth Tony can read on his face now. Steve’s smile is gentling again, and the silence is stretching. It’s so good, he doesn’t know what to do with it.

“Let’s make breakfast,” Tony declares.

“Breakfast?”

“Breakfast.”

Steve blinks.

“You don’t…do you cook?”

“Some things,” Tony says, trying to dredge up offense at the statement and landing mostly on amusement. “You know I’m actually almost 50 and am still alive somehow, right?”

“It’s a little early,” Steve tries.

But now Tony has a plan. This is a good way to chase contentment, he decides, and hell if Steve’s going to stop him. In fact, they’re a team now. Steve’s going to help.

“We’re cooking for super-metabolisms,” Tony points out. “By the time we have enough food, someone’ll be awake to eat it.”

With one last, forlorn look at the clock, Steve flings the blankets off his legs, gets out of bed, and stretches.

“Hey, toss me a hoodie?” Tony asks, reaching a hand out without making a move to get out of bed, and Steve rifles around in a drawer before throwing a hoodie over his shoulder where it lands perfectly on Tony’s face.

Pros: it’s exceptionally soft and worn.

Cons: it dwarfs Tony’s not insubstantial frame, and has a SHIELD logo on the front.

Rolling his eyes, Tony pulls it on and doesn’t call him out on it.

***

When they get down to the common floor, Thor’s already up and about, cross-legged in a recliner, wearing his Yoda slippers and reading a paperback with a plain maroon cover. He looks from Steve to Tony and back, a grin spreading over his face.

“Good morning,” he says warmly, putting his book face-down on the arm of the chair to mark his spot.

“Morning, Thor,” Steve says, and smiles back, though he’s shuffling his feet and generally being sleepy all over the place, radiating—not quite resignation, but the vibe of being just along for the ride on this one.

“Morning,” Tony chirps and, holy shit, did this technovirus make him into a morning person? There goes an entire pillar of his personality, he supposes. He takes a moment, just a brief one, to be exceptionally annoyed with himself, and then proceeds with his day.

“We’re taking breakfast requests,” he says. Thor hums and regards them again before picking up his book and looking back down.

“Salt-cured boar,” Thor says. “Beyond that I’m impartial.”

Salt-cured boar is what Thor calls bacon when he’s trying to be charming. Rolling his eyes, Tony moves past the living room to the kitchen. He starts a pot of coffee and sets to piling breakfast ingredients onto the island, pulling out anything he can find that even slightly plays into the meal as far as he can recall. Steve sits at one of the barstools, leaning on his elbows on the countertop, though he’s smiling just the slightest bit, just enough that Tony thinks he’s not doing it on purpose.

By the time Tony’s done with that, there’s half of a pot of coffee, and he snags a quick mugful before replacing the carafe. He slides the mug to Steve, so it sits right in front of his nose, and notes the surprise on Steve’s face as he moves back to stand in front of his collected pile of food with his hands on his hips.

“Okay,” Tony says, “thoughts?”

To his extreme pleasure and pride, Steve’s already sitting up more fully, hands wrapped around the steaming ceramic in front of him. Tony normally wouldn’t give up the first cup of coffee willingly, let alone without a word, but he feels ridiculously good about this decision. He can wait a few more minutes for the brew to actually be done.

“Uh—well,” Steve says. “What are we making again?”

"Breakfast," Tony says.

“Yeah,” Steve says blankly. “What kind?”

“Every kind,” Tony says. In that moment Steve looks like he needs a minute to absorb that information despite being the more caffeinated of the two of them, and Tony turns his back and fixes his own cup of coffee. Stirring in sugar, he’s hit with the mental image of a hot tub full of coffee, smelling rich and dark but being sweet to the taste. It’s a stupid detail, not something he thinks is really worth remembering, but it brings with it the memory of being trapped in the locked up suit, hovering over Steve after having tackled him to the ground, being stuck with him.

He adds a second spoonful of sugar even though he doesn’t like it that sweet, and drinks past the lump in his throat, even though it burns his tongue. He turns back to Steve, unaccountably relieved to see him clean, unhurt, breathing easy.

“Quiche," Tony says, pointing at him with the hand not holding his mug. “Can you make quiche? Do we have stuff here for quiche? I can make french toast.”

***

They do have things for quiche—for seven quiches, actually—but Steve doesn’t know how to make it, at least not off the top of his head.

“There’s this nifty new thing,” Steve says, eyes wide and faux innocent. “The interweb? Super swell, it’ll tell me how to make one.”

So Steve makes seven quiches, and Tony makes five piles of french toast, and Thor meanders over at one point and wrings out oranges for juice (because Thor’s been all but banned from cooking with real appliances due to a couple of unfortunate instances back at the Tower, though Tony half suspects that was on purpose too, just like the “salt-cured boar” thing, because he’s really just a huge asshole and also a prince).

But Tony happens to like fresh-squeezed orange juice, so he doesn’t mention it (this time).

***

By the time the sun has risen, they end up with seven quiches, five piles of french toast, orange juice, two plates of bacon, an entire cake pan filled with scrambled eggs, three different boxes of cereal, a bowl of sausage, two plates of pancakes, and ingredients waiting for omelet orders.

Sam comes in first and does an actual double-take at all the food. Looking startled, his eyes go from the food to Tony to Steve to Thor and all the way back to the food.

“What the fuck,” he whispers and hesitantly (suspiciously) reaches for a plate, watching them out of the corner of his eye as they all watch him slowly reach for the sausage.

“G’morning,” Tony says when it seems clear to him that nobody else is going to help the Falcon out.

“Morning,” Wilson says, and his movements lose the hesitance as he starts filling up his plate in earnest. “What’s all—this?”

Tony raises his eyebrows and casts a pointed look at the food in what he hopes comes across clearly as what kind of idiot are you?

"Team breakfast," Steve says after a beat.

Sam drags his eyes away from Tony to shoot his disbelief at Steve. This time, Tony takes pity on him by pouring another cup of coffee and handing it off.

“Right," Sam says, blinking down at his mug. “Carry on.”

Thor, unhelpful as he’s been the entire interaction, laughs.

***

Scott comes down some time later, looking dazed and unrested, earbuds loose around his neck. He looks around at the scene before him and his eyes slip shut.

“Yes,” he hisses quietly to himself. “Magic fridge. Magic kitchen.”

Tony grins, wide and free, and wonders if Scott would accept an offer of the services of the best child psychologist on the West Coast or if he’d be insulted.

Bruce stumbles in next and is sliding onto a barstool before he seems to register the spread expanding out around him. He sigh-huffs and rises again, snagging a plate and putting it upside down over the top of the toaster, pulling the lever down (because this is a thing Bruce does habitually so that his food stays warmer longer). He doesn’t say a word—too early for Bruce to be speaking, another habit of his and, God, how Tony’s missed him—but he does rest a hand squarely on top of Tony’s head for a moment, like some weird prolonged pat.

Clint appears, and not from the direction of the elevators (Tony’s almost afraid it’s going to be the Tower or the Triskellion all over again, both places Clint had the ventilation system memorized and utilized like convenient shortcuts despite being a full grown man). Clint laughs the carefree laugh he had before the Accords, before Ultron, and he starts to grab food without bothering with a plate.

Wanda and Bucky both appear at roughly the same time, just as Steve and Tony are debating whether or not they should be replenishing the stack of pancakes.

“I’m just saying,” Tony says, “I’d rather make too much than not have enough.”

“Enough?” Steve says, pure incredulity. “There’s more than enough. Do you really have no concept of how much people normally eat?”

“Did you really just use the word ‘normally’ to describe anything these people do?” Tony asks, gesturing to the room at large. At this moment he catches sight of the newcomers. “Morning!” he calls. “James #2—that arm might take me an extra day, sorry to get your hopes up, I have a meeting in the city a little later today.”

“I—” Bucky says. “Morning. That’s, uh, no rush.”

“What the hell,” Wanda says quietly from his side.

“There are multiple super soldiers in this building,” Tony says, turning back to Steve. “And besides them, others with mega-metabolisms. Even the baseline humans here eat more than actual baseline humans.”

“Tony, there are still two plates stacked with pancake skyscrapers,” Steve says, not quite laughing, but he definitely wants to be.

They even manage to surprise Natasha, which Tony will freely admit delights him to no end. She stops half a step out of the elevator, frozen and taking in the scene. And then she laughs, surprised and real, and it sounds weirdly like a dog’s bark before she claps a hand over her own mouth, stopping it. Her eyes are crinkled and happy when she meets Tony’s gaze, though, and he remembers their mornings before everyone else came back. Breakfasts together, stilted and suspicious. He feels a swell of gratitude for them—for her—all the same. He loves her, always has, and he understands parts of her he thinks the others have a hard time grasping. She’s seen him at his lowest points, during the palladium and after the Accords, seen him bleeding in just about every way, and he’s seen through her, called her out, seen the thing at the core of her she thinks is ugly and ruthless but necessary, and he knows what it really is: strong and empathetic and not at all necessary but extraordinary. She tries so hard to do the right thing, to keep the peace, to minimize the damage—even when people would like her more if she didn’t, even when she hurts herself and the relationships she’s cultivated. No matter what else has happened between them, he respects that about her. She really did agree with Tony, he thinks, and she didn’t go with Steve because she necessarily wanted to, but because that was where she was needed most. She didn’t come back because she wanted to face Tony’s coldness and the rest of the consequences, but because someone had to take the first step if they were going to reconcile (which they had to, for the sake of the world). She’s very exceptionally talented at setting her ego aside to get the job done, but this—this breakfast, in this room, in this building, all of them together, this isn’t necessary at all. It feels like a blessing.

“There a meteor coming for earth?” she asks, stepping fully into the kitchen. “On a collision course?” She moves around Tony to the coffee maker, and refills Tony’s mug before pouring her own. Tony drinks it like it’s the most natural thing in the world, accepting this from her. “Seems eerily like a last meal.”

“Please,” Tony says. “If a mass of space debris were heading for earth, we’d be the ones stopping it.”

Nat takes a sip of her coffee, looking happy and relaxed in her mismatched flannel pajamas; the bottoms are Clint’s, the shirt is Bruce’s, which doesn’t necessarily mean anything even though Tony wants to read into it. Natasha stole a few pieces of Bruce’s clothing while he was away. She steals everyone’s clothes, but it’s still heartwarming to see whenever she lets her guard down, sheds a piece of her armor.

“Last breakfast,” Tony scoffs, hiding his own smile into his mug. “Gimme a break.”

***

Breakfast only really ends through necessity.

“We,” Steve announces to the entire floor of Avengers, “are out of eggs.”

No more eggs means no more french toast, no more omelets, no more pancakes, no more quiche.

“How can we be out of eggs?” Bruce asks from his spot on one end of the couch (they’ve expanded to fit most of the kitchen and living room, from the dining table to the kitchen counter to the recliner). “We get mass deliveries every week. We have enough eggs to feed a small army.”

“Had,” Tony corrects him, grinning.

“Guess we’re officially a moderately sized army,” Natasha says.

Vision arrived at some point—again, not from the direction of the elevators, suggesting he’s ignoring doors and walls and floors alike, again. He’s at the table with Scott and Wanda, chatting with the both of them, but he pauses to catch Tony’s eye at that, face soft and open and full of emotion so pure Tony’s taken aback. At some point, Vision became capable of feeling, apparently; there’s no faking this, not so well. Silently, he smiles back and tucks away that information to examine later.

***

It’s not until he’s fully on the Taconic, doing an intricate dance with the State Troopers, that he realizes. He reaches a hand up to scratch his jaw, and feels more stubble than he should and he realizes with something like genuine shock that he didn’t shave, didn’t shower. He skipped The Routine entirely. He went back up to his room only long enough to throw on some clothes before he had to leave, and somehow he still forgot to do anything else.

Taking a moment to parse how he feels, he dips to almost the speed limit as he considers. His feet still feel pretty firmly planted on the ground. Maybe he’s a little fuzzier—pun intended—and a little less put-together, but. He figures he’ll live.

It’s a good thing that heart medication’s obsolete in his current physical state.

Smiling to himself, his foot hits the gas pedal again, and he zips past a hatchback.

***

Driving through the city is like dancing to make your way through a club, or flying to outmaneuver projectiles. Where normally Tony thinks of himself as a fire—destructive and unpredictable, eating away at what he touches—these moments are all water and grace, the way he flows within the universe, around it, through it, a driving force. Alive and free.

He’s five minutes late getting to Marcel’s, though he still seems to have beaten Pepper there. After surveying the place, he grabs a coffee from the counter and picks the most inconspicuous table in the corner to sit at.

Marcel’s is a small vegan cafe, though a fairly pricey one. This time of day it’s not quite crowded, and occupied by people dressed in business suits or the most expensive hobo clothes Tony’s seen in months. Tony himself is wearing a suit, simple and charcoal grey, and the HUD glasses. There are potted plants everywhere, and a hardwood floor so shiny it’s reflective. It smells like every kind of coffee imaginable and American Spirit cigarettes and some very potent essential oil perfume and car exhaust and weed. And holy hell, there’s so much, every person a walking storybook, all being thrown into his face at the same time. He finds himself contemplating the three separate (and clashing) rings on a man’s left ring finger before he even considers how he noticed them through the cacophony of other things, but—yes, when he looks at the armchair by the dessert display, there’s the man, there’s his finger with all three rings. He wonders what they mean.

And there’s a woman sitting by the window with a spot of blood on the thigh of her jeans and a leather jacket (real leather, Tony can smell it from here, how creepy is that?) that’s cracked and fissured with age. A man in his early twenties sits in the middle of the room, criss-cross on a wooden dining chair, staring at a laptop, absently petting the ivy growing from a pot beside his table. His socks are made of real wool and he has mismatching tan lines all over the place. His breath whistles a little when he breathes in deeply, a sound that reminds Tony of having the arc and cold at the same time, painful background noise.

There’s a woman sitting two tables in front of Tony, pretty young, fried bleached hair, and a large coffee cup and notebook on her table amongst the books—seven of them. There’s another thermos of coffee sticking out of her backpack. She’s writing with four different kinds of pens, switching back and forth rapidly. He swears he can just about smell the bitterness of ground up Ritalin from here, but he thinks that might be his brain filling in the blanks a little bit.

It’s 11:19 when Pepper finally walks in, but Tony’s head is absolutely buzzing and he doesn’t turn to face her until she puts a hand on his shoulder even though he’s definitely aware of her presence.

And, God, she’s as beautiful as always. He saw her right when he woke up, of course, and before she left the compound, but he’d still been reeling a little bit, a little overwhelmed and unable to focus. The noise—the sound-noise, the visual-noise, the smell-noise, the brain-noise—it all falls away when he looks at her now. His magnifying glass, his fixed point, his anchor.

His CEO, he tells himself. She doesn’t belong to him like That, not anymore.

His friend, he thinks hopefully as she smiles down at him.

He stands and regards her. She looks good, relaxed if a little tired, and her hand is still on his shoulder. He covers it with his own, briefly squeezing. They let go at the same time and step back.

“Sorry I’m late,” she says. “Conference call with London went longer than I strictly wanted. They keep thinking they can wait us out and that we’ll donate the reactor.”

“Hm,” Tony says. “Do they make a compelling argument?”

“Tony,” Pepper says firmly. “We are not giving away self-sustaining energy to one of the most developed, well-off countries in the world.”

“We’ll see,” he says, even though he knows she’s right. If they end up giving away reactors it should be to people or cities who can’t afford it. (See? He knows how running a company works.)

(He’s still going to look over the London deal later, though. See what he can do for them.)

He grins, she raises an eyebrow, and Tony feels like they’re solidly back on their feet. They order at the counter—cappuccino, a cup of sweet potato soup, and spring salad for Pepper, and some sandwich with onions and apples for Tony.

“So,” Pepper says as they return to their seats to wait for the food. “What’s going on?”

Tony meets her eyes briefly, then looks away as he settles fully into his chair. He clears his throat.

Please don’t hate me, he thinks, but it occurs to him that this might not be an entirely fair thing to say. He doesn’t know how else to express it, though.

“Tony,” she says softly, and she looks hesitant now, in the way her chin ducks, confused in the pinch between her eyebrows. “You look good.”

“I—feel good,” Tony says, meeting her eyes again and wondering why that sentence makes him feel so guilty. “Extremis is nothing short of lovely.”

“Well, I don’t know if lovely is the word I would use, specifically, but…”

She trails off, it’s obviously Tony’s turn to say something, so he opens his mouth, and the only thing he can think of spills out.

“I never knew,” he says slowly, thinking of how much he shouldn’t be confessing this, “how much pain I was in until I wasn’t.”

Pepper’s eyes go impossibly sad, and Tony hates himself just a little bit. Their food arrives, then, deposited in front of them by a boy with his jeans cuffed. They both smile and thank him. The interruption stretches into a silence, and something in his head screams at him to let it go, to chat, ask more about London, anything else.

“It feels like a third chance,” he admits. “Or—whatever number I’m on now.” He laughs, a quiet huff of self-deprecation.

“It’s just life,” Pepper reminds him quietly. “Not three strikes and you’re out.”

“I wanna do it right this time,” he tells her anyway. “For the first time, I—I feel like I have time, Pep. Maybe enough.”

“Of course you do,” she says, smiling again, but it’s weaker this time, doesn’t get rid of the crease in her brow.

Tony passes his hand over his mouth, wishing desperately he could stop putting that look on her face.

“I, uh,” he says. “Steve and I, we’re—or, at least, I’m pretty sure, I think—”

“Oh, you definitely are,” Pepper says, and she doesn’t look not-sad, but she's smirking, picking up her spoon to take a sip of soup.

“We weren’t, though,” he points out, suddenly adamant she understand that, believe it. “Not until—Chicago? Or. Maybe the Accords signing? No, definitely Chicago. But never while you and I—not even after, for a long time, I swear, I wouldn’t—”

“I know,” Pepper says, cutting him off. “God, Tony…For all the world likes to pretend otherwise, you’re the most ridiculously loyal person I know. The thought never even occurred to me.”

Tony releases a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“I was just…after how you left, when I woke up. I wasn’t sure, you needed to know…”

He lets the sentence die, unsure how to end it, how to convey his need for her forgiveness. He doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be apologizing for. Should he be apologizing?

The silence stretches with Pepper slowly eating her soup and obviously staring at Tony, a thoughtful look on her face. Tony feels unaccountably dejected, and drags an apple slice out of his sandwich with his teeth even though he’s pretty sure he’s never going to be hungry again.

“You don’t even see it, do you?” Pepper asks. Exasperated sorrow. Then, angrier, “You shouldn’t have to martyr yourself for someone to notice you.”

“That’s not—”

“It is! I never saw him care about you until after Chicago.” She takes a deep breath and is a more appropriate volume when she speaks again. “Do you remember what you looked like when they brought you back to the states? After he beat you? Because I won’t ever forget it.”

“It’s a blur I’ll always remember,” he assures her.

“It’s guilt, Tony,” she says, quiet and soft now, like she’s breaking it to him gently. “He feels guilty.”

“I don’t think so,” he says, raising his hands in an exaggerated shrug. “I am intimately familiar with guilt-as-motivator, Pep. That’s not what this is. It’s just not.”

She stares at him.

“Okay,” she says.

Tony blinks.

“Okay?” he says.

“Yeah.” She picks up her fork and starts in on her salad, pointing at him with the spinach. “He’s on thin ice though, and you should pass on the message.”

Tony laughs.

“God, I’ve missed you.”

“Well, whose fault is that?”

Tony tilts his head in acknowledgment because, yeah, that one’s on him.

He tears apart his sandwich bit by bit as Pepper eats. He feels okay here, at peace. Something he hasn’t had near Pepper in a long while now. She’s gravity, just like she always has been, able to corral him just by existing near enough to him to draw him in.

***

They chat as Pepper finishes her food, about Scott’s kid and Rhodey’s absolutely remarkable recovery and Happy’s new girlfriend. Pepper’s phone chimes when her allotted lunch break is up.

“I need to get back,” she says apologetically.

“I’ll walk with you,” Tony says. She doesn’t object and it’s only a few blocks back to the main SI offices. Tony revels in the feeling of the city; he’s been a rather impressive hermit this year. Probably not good for the company image that he’s been MIA. Pepper must really have been worried about him to not have brought it up at all. He resolves to do better, now that he’s not afraid in his own home and doesn’t think he’s going to drop dead or lose his mind.

“So,” Pepper says a couple minutes into the walk. “You and Steve, huh?”

“I,” Tony says. He laughs once. "God, you're gonna find this hilarious. Sort of? I mean, there’s something, but not a single kiss. Yet.”

“Tony Stark," Pepper says, smiling ahead, but it’s fond. Sweet. “How far you’ve fallen.”

“We sleep in the same bed,” Tony offers weakly.

“But you haven’t—”

“Nope,” he says. “We talk about things, though. Problem solve. And—some of the feelings, anyway. I don’t know if we talk about all of them, or just around some of them.”

“Oh,” Pepper says, and she sounds genuinely surprised. Even at the height of their relationship, there are certain things they failed at. Problem solving being chief among them.

“Yeah.”

“Tony…”

“I miss you,” he says suddenly, and, by God, how he means it. “And I’m sorry. Whatever’s been happening, I’m the one who’s been absent. I’ll fix it.”

Pepper gets quiet then, and Tony feels like he’s said something wrong. He wants to fix it, needs to, because he has no idea what he’ll do if he can’t. He needs her in his life. It doesn’t make sense without her, and he’s not terrified to find how essential she is, that ship has sailed, but he will flay himself open, bare his heart for her to poke at and dissect at her leisure if it means she’ll stay.

“I love you,” Pepper says when they’re standing outside the SI offices. “You’re family, whether we’re together or not. I just wish you’d stop leaving for months at a time. I miss you too, you know.”

I don’t, Tony thinks. You have to tell me these things.

He wants to be petulant about this, because she’s the one who wanted space after the breakup. He was just acquiescing—which, okay, may have been the case at the beginning, but at some point it definitely turned into isolation on his part. Right before the Accords, maybe, when he knew it was all going to go to hell, despite his hope to the contrary. Definitely after Siberia, when it felt like him against the world, when he didn't want to face Pepper or her smug face or her I-told-you-so eyes, because she’d known the Avengers hadn’t given a shit about him, she’d tried to warn him. The only person he could really stand in those days was Rhodey, and he’d been back and forth between doctors and the compound and his parents’ place. Tony’d stayed away from Pepper much longer than he ever meant to, wallowing in his own misery and martyrdom, figuring out how to do a whole team’s worth of work all on his own.

“I know,” Tony says instead. “We’ll work it out. I’ll start coming down to the city once or twice a week to the office. Or for board meetings. And you know you’re welcome upstate anytime, right? Because you have probably more security clearance than even I do, y’know.”

“I know,” she says back, grinning. “And I’ll hold you to that.” She squeezes his bicep briefly. “Pass on my message to Steve, ’kay?”

Tony hisses a breath through his teeth.

“Yeah, we’ll see about that.”

“Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”

“That will be all, Ms. Potts.”