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What Goes Up, Must Come Down (But I'll Always Climb Back to You)

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Tony pushed a hand through his hair and leaned back, deciding to call it quits for the night/day/whatever. It was the fourth time he’d burned himself in about an hour.

“Jarvis, time,” he muttered, no longer meaning the time of day but rather the likely unholy amount of hours he’d been holed up in the ‘shop.

“Approximately 86 hours, Sir.”

God. Yeah, he needed some sleep. It was officially the third time in a row he’d worked himself to the point of passing out, and the last two times it’d only been for a few hours on the workshop couch. A proper bed and maybe some food would be good. Great, actually.

After shutting everything down and calling out a goodnight to the ‘bots, Tony made his way to the elevator.

“Communal floor first, J,” he mumbled, leaning against the wall and half-closing his eyes.

But of course, it stopped at the gym, just a few floors below his destination, and Tony knew who would be there before the doors even started to open. None other than Mr. Steven Grant Rogers, Captain Fucking America himself.

The soldier was standing in parade rest in front of the doors, because he did stuff like that, even in the Tower. Both men barely glanced at each other before glancing pointedly away and moving to opposite sides of the small space. Tony fidgeted with the hem of his ragged T-shirt, greasy and stained and full of holes, and glanced at Steve, the perfect super soldier, fresh and shiny and standing tall in parade rest again. The tension was suffocating.

And then, because the universe absolutely hated Tony Stark, the elevator released an earsplitting screech and shuddered to a halt.

Steve tensed, every line of his body prepared to take on a threat.

“Easy, Cap. Just about any problem, Jarvis can fix it in a second, right J?”

“Of course Sir.”

“See? Outta here in a sec,” Tony said, but Steve still didn’t respond, just stared stonily ahead.

Minutes ticked by. After maybe ten, Tony spoke up. “Hey Jarvis, how’s it going out there?”

“Repairs to the elevator are being conducted, Sir.”

“Do we have, like, an ETA or anything?”

“I am afraid not Sir.”

Okay. Tony swallowed and glanced toward Steve, who still hadn’t moved. The elevator was too small, and he was beginning to feel claustrophobic. At least the lights were still on.

“Jarvis can fix anything, huh?” Steve asked bitterly after a bit longer.

Tony grit his teeth. “I sort of assumed it was a simpler problem than whatever the hell’s going on here.”

Steve made a noise. It was the sort of noise that was one part laugh, two parts disbelief, four parts disgust, and 100% condescending.

And Tony hated it.

“Listen, Cap, you got a problem, you can say it to my face.”

The super-soldier finally turned his head just enough to look down at Tony. “Come on, Stark, do you think I’m stupid? I know what all of 'your' projects really are.”

Tony would’ve laughed if he wasn’t close to exploding. “You think I’ve been stealing from people this whole time? Who do you think could make all of this?” He could hear his voice getting louder and louder with every word as he gestured around them, but he couldn’t seem to stop.

“Howard,” Steve said simply.

Tony did laugh, that time, sharp and manic and bitter. “Sorry to break it to ya, Capsicle, but dear old dad’s been dead for years.”

Steve shrugged. “He was a brilliant man. I’m sure you could find thousands of half-finished projects if you looked. And I know the excellent R&D team a few floors below could build most of it easily. Just not quite...well enough.”

As the last words were directed upwards, clearly meant for Jarvis, Tony bit the inside of his cheek hard enough to draw blood and fought the urge to summon the armor and ask Rogers if he thought Howard could’ve made it.

Although technically, Steve wasn’t wrong. Tony had been building “Howard Stark’s” projects for years now. His whole life, practically.

So if Steve wanted to see a thief, he was looking the wrong way.

“Look, Cap, I’m tired, and if you want to believe in whatever god-like image of Howard Stark you worship in your head, fine,” Tony sighed, sliding down the wall until he was sitting on the floor, “cause I’m not gonna sit here and try to convince you.”

Steve spun and only a lifetime of hiding kept Tony from flinching. His hands still jerked, wild, but Steve didn’t seem to notice. “Think I don’t see you deflecting, Stark? Always hiding behind the real heroes until it’s time for a little PR stunt, right? Howard was a thousand times better than you. No armor, no team, no nothing, and he flew a helicopter into enemy territory. You’re just a big man in a suit of armor, take that away, and what’s left? A coward.”

Sitting had been a mistake. Steve was looming over him, spitting an endless stream of insults, and Tony sat in a sprawl staring at some point behind the super-soldier’s thigh and trying to force Howard’s voice out of his head.

Mistake.

Useless.

Disgrace.

Disgusting.

Coward.

Coward.

Coward.

The person in front of him shifted from Howard to Steve and back again, the elevator was beginning to close in and he wasn’t going to be able to hide his shaking hands for much longer and and and-

The lights flickered once, twice.

And went out.

Tony’s heart practically leapt out of his chest, and his already panicked mind went haywire. Dim emergency lights flicked on, but they barely did anything for the darkness. Steve stopped speaking for a moment, caught off guard, and then started in again.

“Yeah, Stark, you call that the smartest AI in the world? Honestly, can you do anything right? Are you even listening to me? Hello?” At the last word Steve snapped his fingers in front of Tony’s face and he flinched violently, his head slamming into the elevator wall.

Are you even listening to me, boy? Look at me when I’m talking to you!

Snapping fingers that forever indicated mounting rage.

A scar on his cheek from the ring on Howard’s hand a fall when he was six.

A British accent gently picking up his broken pieces.

“-ark? Tony?”

“Sir, please calm down, you are hyperventilating-"

He could barely see the person in front of him, Steve/Howard/Yinsen as flashbacks cycled through. One moment Tony was trapped in a closet, the next in a cave, and then an elevator, and he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move because if he moved something bad would happen and he wanted to say a thousand things but he couldn’t make his mouth open.

A hand reached out and found his knee, and Tony’s whole body snapped away, throwing his head into metal once more as he scrambled back, back, away. A terrible mix of disgust and fear rose like bile in his throat. He hit the opposite corner and curled in on himself, staring at his feet. Everything was so loud, the roar of water in his ears, blood pounding through his veins, a thousand screamed insults, the terse words of the man he’d loved most. And those were the worst, worse than the yelling, because yelling meant anger and anger made people do things they wouldn’t, and quiet, steady words meant they were true, and real.

“Tony,” the voice that said his name was soft, and worried, and gentle, and he held onto it because he was never Tony, he was Mr. Stark and boy and Iron Man and Anthony and Sir, but he was never just Tony and it meant something, it meant something.

“Tony?” the voice asked again. “Tony, can I touch you?”

And oh, Tony wanted to say yes, he wanted to at least nod, but his mind was still screaming that he couldn’t move or everything would come crashing down and as long as he stayed still it would be fine.

“Okay, Tony, you don’t have to say anything or move, okay? I just need you to tap your fingers once for yes, twice for no. Can you do that for me?”

After a long moment, Tony managed to tap his fingers once against his legs, a feat that felt like moving mountains. But then a warm hand settled on his knee, a tan blur in the corner of his vision, and it was nice and good and gentle and he stopped trembling, a little, maybe. Tony focused on that, one warm, heavy weight tethering him to the earth, to reality. A not-so-distant voice in the back of his head told him he was being ridiculous and stupid and weak, and he bit his lip hard enough to draw blood, but he still couldn’t make himself move.

He wasn’t sure how long he stayed there, curled in on himself, but eventually the lights flickered back on, but dimmer than before. Tony pushed his head down, into his knees, gathered himself up tighter, because light meant he could be seen.

“Hey, Steve, Tony, what’s up?” came a voice, too light and too loud.

Curiosity forced Tony’s chin up, to a square panel of light in the ceiling. Clint Barton’s face appeared.

“Hey, why are you—wait, hold up, are you guys okay?”

Tony’s mouth was still decidedly not functioning, but Steve answered for them both.

“Not yet, but we will be.”

Clint nodded once and his face vanished. “Hang tight!”

There was series of thumping and scraping noises overhead, and then the unbearable scream of metal on metal, the sensation of moving upwards. Tony grabbed at the wall, or tried to—it was all slick, smooth, steel and he couldn’t grip it. Steve’s hand moved from his knee, and for just a moment the genius felt his breath catch before the warm weight settled on his shoulder. Tony waited for his body to flinch, contract, react in some way to what was normally a trigger, but nothing. He still remembered too many heavy hands on his shoulders, could still see the handprint bruises there afterwards, and Steve Rogers’ hand should feel no different...but yet.

The elevator doors parted a little, and someone’s fingers wedged into the crack to pry them open.

“Are you alright to stand?” Steve asked, all soft concern like he was talking to a child, and now Tony wasn’t panicking anymore, he didn’t need Captain America, he didn’t need to be saved, so he nodded once, harsh, and pushed himself up.

Natasha had the doors about halfway open, so he just pushed through her and past Clint, earning a chorus of three “Tony?”s as he half-ran to the stairwell. Shaking hands in his pockets, he leaned on the wall for balance and stumbled down several flights to the workshop. The ‘bots whirred nervously as he stalked in, hovering a ways from the door.

“Sir, if I may-”

“Mute, Jarvis,” Tony raked both hands through his hair, once, twice. “Put the ‘shop on full lockdown, black the windows, no override codes. 24 hours unless I say otherwise.”

A quiet, affirmative chime sounded in lieu of Jarvis’s voice, and the wall of glass went black.

~~~~

Steve was...a mess.

He hadn’t meant for things to go that way, truly. He’d just...he’d just gotten the call, that Peggy had...that Peggy was…

Gone.

He’d just gotten the call that Peggy was gone, and he’d gone to the gym and killed about twenty punching bags before he realized she’d never want him to do that, if she were there. So he dragged himself away, showered and made sure he looked presentable for whoever was hanging around the Tower.

And of course, it’d been Tony.

Steve didn’t not like Tony, really. It was just that when they were around each other, things tended to get...heated. And he was already a barely contained storm of more grief and anger than he ever would’ve thought possible, and the whole situation was a storm three seconds from breaking.

He really tried to pretend the genius wasn’t there, and Tony seemed content to do the same. Until the elevator stopped.

And dammit, he hadn’t meant to open his mouth, hadn’t meant to say anything, but it just slipped out. Steve didn’t even really believe any of it—maybe at first, but after months in the Tower? No. And maybe, if it had ended there, with one short little comment, he could tell himself there was too much happening and he took it out on Tony, and that wasn’t good, but it was fine.

God, he wished it had stopped there.

The words wouldn’t stop coming, and Tony was sitting on the floor like he didn’t care at all, about any of it, and Steve couldn’t stand that, he started grasping at any barbs he could find to dig under Stark’s skin. If he’d been in his right mind, if he’d paused for even a second, he would’ve noticed the vacant look and the trembling hands, but he hadn’t.

And because of that, every time he closed his eyes he could see Tony’s face, too pale in the dim light, could see him flinching backwards, cracking his head into the wall.

He’d realized, then, of course, but it was too late. Jarvis was speaking, trying to calm Tony down, and it must’ve happened before because the AI hardly seemed fazed. All Steve could do was repeat Tony’s name while Jarvis tried to tell him he was in New York, in the Tower, and he was safe.

It was awful, because Tony was practically catatonic, staring blankly through Steve and not moving at all, except for the tremors running through his body. And despite everything Steve knew, despite his own experiences, he reached out and tried to touch Tony’s knee.

The flinching was even more violent that time, Tony’s eyes wide and afraid as he scrambled back into the nearest corner. Steve crouched down, trying to make himself as unthreatening as possible as Tony drew his knees up to his chest and shook. As Steve got closer he could see his lips moving, and when they were side by side his enhanced hearing could pick up the barest whispers, more breath than sound.

“Please, please, please, no, nononono please, please don’t-”

And Steve had said his name, as gently as he could, and Tony had closed his eyes, tightly, and Steve had no idea whether that was good or not.

“Tony,” he said again, “Tony, can I touch you?”

There was a pause, and then a deep, shuddering breath ran through Tony’s whole body, but he still didn’t move.

“Captain,” Jarvis interjected quietly, “often Sir finds it difficult to speak and move during these...attacks. I would suggest finding a simpler, alternative means of communication.”

Steve swallowed at the “often.” How many times had this happened? How many times had he caused this before, without even knowing?

He pushed the thought away, for...later. There were more pressing matters at hand.

“Okay, Tony, you don’t have to say anything or move, okay? I just need you to tap your fingers once for yes, twice for no. Can you do that for me?” Steve asked.

The engineer’s body tightened, coiled like a spring. His knuckles turned white as he gripped his legs, like his hands might move of their own accord. A second shaky breath sounded like thunder in the silence, and then his fingers tapped once against his leg. He instantly tightened up again, grinding his forehead into his knees, but it felt like a victory all the same.

Steve laid his hand on Tony’s knee, and the reaction was instantaneous. The other man’s body stilled, and some of the tension bled from his muscles. Steve opened his mouth to say something, closed it again. He couldn’t trust himself not to shatter this.

They stayed there for about ten more minutes, and Tony never moved. Steve didn’t, either, just crouched next to him with one small point of contact tethering them together.

The lights went on, and Steve glanced up to see a panel in the ceiling being opened. Clint, of all people, poked his head through.

“Hey Steve, Tony, what’s up?”

Slowly, a little hesitantly, Tony looked up. Steve was only watching him out of the corner of his eye, so he could still see Clint’s face change from a casual grin to concern. “Hey, why are you—wait, hold up, are you guys okay?”

Tony bit his lip, so Steve jumped to answer. “Not yet, but we will be.”

Clint’s face melted back into its usual grin and he nodded. “Hang tight!”

There were thumps and scrapes overhead, presumably the archer climbing around in the elevator shaft, and then the earsplitting screech of metal on metal as the elevator was hauled upwards. Tony jumped a little, made to grab at the smooth wall. His fingers slipped over the steel, erratic and shaky. Steve moved his hand from Tony’s knee and the smaller man’s breath caught for just a second before Steve rested it on his shoulder.

The screeching stopped, and the elevator doors cracked open. Someone, possibly Natasha, wedged their fingers into the crack to push them apart.

“Are you alright to stand?” Steve asked Tony, remembering too well all the times his panic attacks left him with legs to weak to support him at first.

Tony’s jaws tightened, his expression shuttering closed. He gave Steve a quick, sharp nod and staggered to his feet. Natasha had her body between the elevator doors now, forcing them open, and Tony pushed past her. All three of the Avengers called out after the genius, but by the time Steve ducked out of the elevator Tony was gone.

A curse snaked up his throat, but Steve bit it back with a frustrated growl.

“Steve, what happened in there?” Natasha asked.

Steve told her everything, skimming over the part about Peggy as quickly as he could and skimping on the details of what was said, exactly.

“Steve…” Nat murmured.

“I know, I know, I have to go and apologize, where do you think he went? Workshop?” Steve pushed a hand through his hair.

“Where else?” Clint asked, aiming for flippant but not quite making it.

“That’s not what I-” Nat began, but Steve was already moving.

Steve made for the stairs, darting down two, three at a time. When he slid into the narrow hallway outside the workshop, he was greeted not with the faint blue glow of the holograms forever hovering around the space, but with a solid black wall. He tried his code at the door.

Nothing.

Override code? Nothing.

“Jarvis?” Steve asked, glancing upwards.

“Sir has put his workshop in full lockdown mode and is currently denying all codes, even overrides.”

Steve swallowed. “Would you...you would be able to break that protocol, if, if Tony was going to…” he trailed off, unable to finish the sentence.

“If Sir were to become a danger to himself or others, yes, I would break my protocol.”

“Good. Uh, yeah, could you…”Steve shifted his weight, “could you tell him I’m here, at least?”

“I am afraid Sir has muted me within his workshop, Captain.”

Oh. Well then. “You’ll let us know, though, if anything happens?”

At Jarvis’s affirmative, Steve turned and plodded back up the stairs.

His mouth tasted like defeat he didn’t deserve to feel.

~~~~

“Jarvis, I said to dim the goddamn lights,” Tony groaned for the third time, peeking up through his fingers and immediately closing his eyes again.

The lights lowered a lot that time, and Tony was able to look around without being blinded. He blamed sitting in a dark elevator.

One of his screens nearby changed to display a WebMD page on concussions.

“Subtle,” Tony muttered. “And I do not have a concussion.”

The screen scrolled down to the Related Articles section and zoomed in on one of the headlines: You Don’t Need To Be Unconscious To Get A Concussion.

“Well, duh. But where do you even think I got a concussion from, huh J?”

A different scene pulled up a video from one of Jarvis’s cameras. Tony knew it would be the elevator even before it started playing. Thankfully, there was no audio, but Tony still flinched when his on-screen self did, and winced as his own head cracked into the steel. The video skipped ahead to the second time, but Tony waved it away before it could get started.

“Fine, fine, maybe I have a teeny, tiny, mild little concussion. I’ll take some meds and sleep, it’ll be better by tomorrow.”

A disapproving beep sounded around the room. Tony ignored it and ducked into the workshop bathroom and woah, woah, balance was definitely not a thing his brain was doing. He managed to open the cabinet and pull down some aspirin and sleeping pills–at least, he thought that’s what they were, his hands were shaking and his head was pounding, and he definitely didn’t feel like trying to read the labels.

Tony dry swallowed two pills from each bottle and then, watching his hands shake, took down the anxiety medicine he was supposed to take way more often than he did and took that too. And, hey, what do you know, there was an empty coffee cup left on the counter. Or, mostly empty. Tony grabbed it and stumbled back into the workshop, making for the couch. Halfway across the room, his fingers slipped and the coffee mug fell, shattering across the floor. Tony just had time to stare down at it before his body tipped sideways to join the shattered glass on the concrete.

~~~~

Steve was only three or four flights up the stairs when Jarvis cut through the dull echo of his footsteps. “All Avengers please report to the workshop as soon as possible.”

A few months ago Steve wouldn’t have thought an AI could sound worried, let alone tersely professional at the same time, but Jarvis managed it. And that, above everything, sent him spinning on his heels and charging down the stairs, two, three at a time. After a second, the thudding of feet overhead told him Natasha and Clint were racing down as well.

“Jarvis!” Steve yelled as he jumped half a flight of stairs. “What’s going on?”

“I suspect Sir sustained a concussion earlier today, and attempted to take medication for it.”

“Attempted?” Steve actually stopped for a second before he kept moving. “Jarvis, what happened?”

“Sir is currently unconscious, I suspect as a result of mixing medications.”

Steve grit his teeth and made it down the last few stairs in two steps. The workshop windows were still blacked out, but the door opened without any codes at all. For a moment, Steve stood in the barely-lit workshop, trying to find Tony among the tables and strewn bits of projects or scrap metal or both. Then one of the piles moved, and Steve’s eyes adjusted to recognize DUM-E.

All the bots were clustered in one area, and Steve pushed through the workshop towards them...and the vaguely Tony-shaped form on the floor.

“Jarvis, lights,” he whispered, and the room brightened a bit.

Tony was lying facedown on the floor, his left hand, side, and thigh cut open from shards of broken glass next to him. Steve reached down and took the engineer’s limp wrist in his fingers, feeling for a pulse. It was the weakest flutter of a heartbeat, but there.

Clint and Nat ran into the workshop behind him, and Steve, half-crouched over Tony, whirled to meet them.

“Nat, get Bruce, wherever he is.”

Nat hesitated. “Steve, the hospital-”

“No,” Steve said, the word coming out a command. Nat visibly bristled, but didn’t argue. “Bruce, now. Clint, help me.”

The two spies sprang to their assignments, Natasha vanishing in a flash and Clint helping to gently turn Tony over. Shards of glass were embedded in his skin, and the right side of his face was streaked with blood where his temple had split. Steve and Clint carefully picked out the larger shards, avoiding the minuscule slivers by mutual agreement—they were too tiny to be pulled out with large, clumsy fingers.

They were most of the way through when Tony made a sound. It was something of a breathy grunt, so quiet that for a second Steve thought he’d imagined it. Then the engineer’s eyes opened, fluttered, and looked down at himself. It seemed to take a few seconds for Tony to process what he was seeing, and then he was angry.

“What the hell, Rogers, and Barton? Get off me, seriously, ow, dammit, what the hell were you two doing-”

“Shut up, Stark, we were trying to get glass out of you, unless you’d prefer it stay in there?” Clint said, aiming for flippancy but not quite making it.

“How did you even get in here, I had the shop on lockdown, Jarvis I swear to God-”

“Sir, my protocol allows me to override lockdown if you became an immediate danger to yourself or others.”

“Fuck that, I’m fine, a little blood loss is nothing, I just need to sleep and get these bastards out of my ‘shop, God.”

Tony was still struggling to sit up and move away when Natasha reentered the room. “Bruce is on his way, ETA ten minutes. He needs to know what you took, Tony.”

“Just aspirin and sleeping pills, why is everyone freaking out about this-”

“Sir also took his anxiety medication; I believe it reacted badly to the other medicines.”

Tony scowled. “Why can’t I finish a sentence around here?”

“Be quiet,” Natasha ordered, half turning to talk to Bruce over the phone, “and get upstairs to Bruce’s lab. He says there’s a low chance of anything serious happening, but it’d help to get it out of your system.”

“So throw it up,” Tony muttered, not a question.

“Yeah.”

Hell no,” Tony said, struggling to his feet. Steve and Clint both reached out to steady him.

“Tony,” Steve tried, “Bruce said.”

“And I said no!” Tony snapped, attempting to shove away and swaying dangerously. “I’m not, I’m not, not gonna throw up.”

“Tony, you might actually die if you don’t-”

“Steve,” Nat cut in sharply, “he said no. Just get up to Bruce’s lab.”

Steve made a sound not unlike the thick panting of an angry bull, but obeyed. He and Clint half-helped, half-carried Tony out of the lab.

~~~~

Tony hurt.

He remembered getting up to Bruce’s lab, everything a blurry mess of people being annoying and angry and worried. He remembered Bruce teasing shards of glass out of him, bright blue light and shrapnel in his heart, and then--nothing, actually. There were definitely bandages, sticking to his skin, possibly (probably) some stitches. Something was quietly beeping to the left, otherwise the only sound was Tony’s breathing.

He opened his eyes and carefully maneuvered himself into a sort-of seating position, putting him at eye-level with a certain super-soldier’s chest.

“Rogers,” he muttered by way of greeting.

“Tony, I wanted to apologize,” Steve began, “I know it isn’t much of an excuse, but I wasn’t--myself, when I said those things, in the elevator. I didn’t mean any of it.”

“Yeah, God forbid Captain America have a mean bone in his body. Leave it, will you? Just leave me alone.”

“I’d just heard Peggy was gone, St--Tony, I wasn’t thinking straight-”

“Peggy’s dead?” Tony asked, his stomach curling in on itself.

Steve looked confused. “I--yes? This, this morning, or last night, I’m not sure.”

Shit,” Tony blurted, and Steve started a little, surprised. Tony knew he was displaying his connection to Au--to Peggy all over the place, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. His internal organs were twisting up and vanishing, like a snake eating its own tail.

“Tony? Are you o-”

“Get out,” he hissed, “get out, leave me alone, why didn’t I know?”

“I was the personal representative, Mr. Stark was on the list as well, but I figured, Howard’s dead...” Steve trailed off.

Tony couldn’t see straight. His Aunt Peggy, his strong and brave and beautiful Aunt Peggy was gone, and he had to find out from Steven Goddamn Rogers, who had removed him from her representatives list.

“Get out,” he found himself saying. “Get out, get out, I can’t-”

Tony lifted his hands to rake them through his hair, but was stopped short. Handcuffs circled his wrists, binding him to the cot he was lying on. Trapping him.

Fuck.

“We weren’t sure what kind of state you’d be in-” Steve tried.

“No, no, no, you, you get out, right now, or I swear to God, Rogers-” and Tony was all but hyperventilating, yanking at the cuffs (padded, not that it helped), bent double trying to breathe, because Peggy was dead and he was tied down, trapped, hurting and alone, and he didn’t know what to do.

Steve left.

~~~~

Steve returned to the common floor where the others were waiting, but he’d barely stepped out of the stairwell when a knife buried itself in the wall two inches from his head.

“What the hell, Steve?” Nat yelled.

“What?” Steve tried, but Natasha was already stalking past him. She tore the knife free of the wall and banged down the stairs.

“You pissed her off, man,” Clint said from where he was leaning on the counter. “Nat’s touchy about that stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“Dude. The panic attacks? She’s had her share--hell, we all have--and she, well, she gets protective.”

“We have slightly bigger problems than what happened in the elevator-”

Clint stared at him. “God, did you seriously not notice? You’re not stupid, tell me you didn’t think you could handcuff a fucking trauma victim, hover over him until he wakes up, and immediately tell him his aunt died and have it all work out just peachy, did you?”

“His...his aunt?” Steve had known Howard and Peggy were close, had assumed Tony might’ve been acquainted with her, but aunt?

Clint came dangerously close to smacking himself in the face--he covered it by running a hand through his hair. “Look, Cap, I haven’t even known Tony as long as you and I know he practically hero-worshipped his Aunt Peggy. I also happen to know he stopped going to see her, oh, about a year and a half ago for some unknown reason, and I know the two of you have this rivalry thing. Put two and two fucking together, Steve.”

“I...I drove him off?” Steve asked.

“And he gets it! It’s a miracle! Now, you know where you’re gonna go? Anywhere. Anywhere at all that isn’t Bruce’s lab, Tony’s floor or his workshop.”

“But-”

“But nothing. You’re doing more harm than good every time you try to fix things with him, Steve. Let Nat mother-hen Tony for an hour and then just...I dunno, avoid him for a couple days.”

A dozen pleas rose in Steve’s throat, but he swallowed them. Clint was right. All he did around Tony was trigger things he hadn’t even known existed.

Ironic that he learned the most about Tony just when the man hated him the most.

Chapter Text

Tony was still bent double, yanking at the cuffs around his wrists, caught somewhere between Afghanistan and the lab, when Natasha appeared.

Anton, Tony, listen to my voice, you aren’t there anymore. Steve is an idiot, and I’m going to get you out, okay?” 

She kept up the steady stream of babble as she picked the locks on his cuffs, as Tony ripped his hands free and dragged them through his hair. 

“Do you know where you are, Anton?”

Yes. Tony wrapped his arms over his chest, gripping tight, and ducked his head. Safely curled away and hidden, he tapped once at his arm. 

“Mm, is that one for yes, two for no?”

Another tap.

“Okay. If I ask you some questions, can you answer them for me, Anton?”

Yes.

“You saw Afghanistan?”

Yes.

“You know where you are and who I am?”

Yes. Yes.

“Good, you’re doing so well, Anton, now--do you want me to leave?”

Tony hesitated. The rational part of him knew this was weak and he shouldn’t let Natasha see him like this, but...he so desperately didn’t want to be alone. No.

Nat had retreated a few feet after releasing him--now she edged carefully closer. “May I touch you?”

Tony shivered. Yes.

Small, deadly gentle hands took one of his, warm and real. It was anchoring, keeping him connected to the world, but it was also not enough not enough and moremoremore and he shivered again, this time not in relief but because of the cold-warm spots and familiar anxiety.

Nat sighed lightly somewhere above him. “Anton, is something wrong?”

No. He knew better than to ask for more. To, to impose like that. It was...it was freakish, he knew that, had known it even before Pepper’s strange look the one time he’d asked. 

So. 

“We both know that’s a lie.”

It wasn’t a question, but Tony answered anyway. Yes. 

“Do you want me to stop?”

No. 

“Tell me what you need, Anton.”

Tony froze. Coaxed his thick, limp tongue to move. It took too long, he knew, testing and teasing his limits, trying to convince his stupid brain that it was safe to speak . But Natasha never pushed, just waited, until finally Tony managed a sound.

“What do you need?”

“More,” he whispered, “please.”

Nat ran one hand through his hair, fingernails scraping lightly over his scalp. “That’s good, Anton, that’s so good. I’m proud of you.”

In the privacy of his own head, Tony whimpered at the praise he shouldn’t be weak enough to need. He waited a few seconds while Natasha carded a hand through his hair and held his hand, but it did very little against the gaping hole yawning in his chest—both the physical and metaphorical one. So, despite his mind screaming remember before, don’t do it, don’t, Tony pulled at Nat’s shirt, feeling like a child, weak (Stark men are made of iron, and iron doesn’t bend).

Nat made a surprised little sound. “Closer?”

It wasn’t right, but it was close enough. Yes.

Tony could feel Nat’s eyes on him as he tightened his white-knuckle grip on his own arm. She tapped lightly at his hand.

“Is it pressure?” she mused. 

Almost. Yes.

“Let me know right away if you want me to stop,” Nat murmured, and then she was climbing onto the bed, straddling his waist, stretching carefully over the places Tony was cut, settling over him until they were both lying down. 

It was maybe the only time Tony was glad to be small, small enough that Nat’s head was above his and he could hide his face against her neck. She wasn’t much bigger, not big enough to cover all of him, but it felt that way, felt safe and warm and nice.

“Good?” she asked after a while.

Tony tried words. “Mmph. Yeah. I jus--sorry.”

“Don’t apologize to me, Anton.”

“Sor--okay. Okay,” Tony murmured, and when Nat didn’t say anything else, he added, “I didn’t really, y’know, expect , uh,”

“...me to be the one down here?” Natasha finished, sounding faintly amused.

“I, uh. Yeah? I just, you aren’t exactly the, um, most warm and cuddly person,” Tony stammered, fully aware he was underneath the Black Widow and that she probably had multiple weapons on her at the moment.

“I’m not angry, Tony, if that’s what you’re worried about. I built that reputation for a reason,” Nat insisted.

“Yeah. So, um,” Tony cleared his throat, “Cap. Is. Is he okay?”

Nat pushed up off of Tony at that, leaning back so he could sit up as well. “Are you really asking me about Steve right now?”

“Uh, yes?” Tony said, “I mean, Peggy was his...I dunno, something, the only one he had left from the 40s. And, he went to see her a lot, I know--wait, that sounds stalkerish, I take that back-”

“Tony. I won’t say Steve is fine, but I’d like you to stop putting yourself last for one goddamn second. You were close to Peggy. Steve is far from the only one allowed to grieve right now. And I know you stopped going to see her when Steve got back.”

Tony glanced down. “Yeah, well. It wasn’t my place, to intrude on them.”

Nat coughed lightly; it came out sounding an awful lot like bullshit. Tony opted to ignore it. “Fine, whatever. So, what happens now? And where’s Bruce? I didn’t kick him out of his own lab, did I?”

“Bruce was here for a while--Steve came down after Clint and I left and apparently asked him to leave. I assume they did other things before that, because they would not have gotten so much as a piece of yarn tied around your pinkie if I had anything to say about it,” and just like that, Natasha had transformed into the Black Widow, coolly dangerous, calmly threatening.

“Oh,” Tony wasn’t exactly sure how to respond, “thanks, I guess?”

Natasha disentangled herself from Tony so she sat cross-legged down by his feet. “I threw a knife at Steve.”

“You did what?

“I told you,” she picked at a stray thread on her sleeve, nonchalant, “Steve is an idiot. Also,” Nat hesitated, half a second, “you’re not the only one with triggers. I, ah, well. With the Red Room. I’ve had my share of bad days. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

“I’m sorry-”

“Mm, no, I told you, no apologies. Not now. And that concludes the caring and sharing part of today’s program. I think you’re caught up on sleep enough to get out of here--lunch?”

“I...okay.” Tony slid gingerly off the bed--he’d pulled at his injuries, but nothing serious--and followed Natasha upstairs.

(Hopefully the elevator thing wouldn’t become a Thing. Tony didn’t think he could handle an elevator phobia on top of everything else).

~~~~

Natasha sent Tony to his own floor while she went hunting for some food. It definitely was not an excuse to talk to Clint and Steve. That was just...a strategic advantage. 

Steve was sitting in the living room looking like a kicked puppy (as well he should) and Clint was sharpening arrows at the counter. Natasha honestly couldn’t tell if that was a not-so-subtle warning or not; Clint sharpened weaponry at the table regardless of the situation.

“Tony’s fine,” she announced, loud enough for Steve to hear, “shaken up a bit and hungry, but fine. We’re going to eat lunch on his floor--and that is a warning, not an invitation for you to join us.”

Steve slumped a little more. “I really messed up.”

Nat made agreeable humming sounds as she dug out leftover pizza from the fridge. “You did, but you’re also human. Doesn’t make it excusable, but I also can’t totally fault you.”

Steve didn’t look particularly reassured, but Natasha wasn’t there for him. She hovered over the pizza and decided to just take it up cold--reheating it would make the crust rubbery and mess up the flavor. Tony should probably eat something more substantial than yesterday’s pizza, but that was a problem to be dealt with later.

 

After Nat left, Clint tossed his arrows onto the counter. “Look, Steve-”

“I know,” Steve sighed, “I’m gonna be lucky if he doesn’t throw me out of the tower.”

“I wouldn’t say that, but groveling at his feet a little wouldn’t hurt. You just...I know you didn’t mean it, okay? People mess up, they do stupid shit. And, God, with Peggy, man. I won’t even pretend to grasp that.”

Steve huffed out a dry, humorless laugh.

“And we both know Tony won’t blame you--dude’s got such low self esteem you’d need a trip to the Mariana Trench and some concrete shoes to find it,” Clint continued, “But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.”

“I know , Clint. Just please, tell me how I can even begin to fix this.”

“Well, first, try to avoid him for a couple days, give him some space. Then, you go apologize, like a lot. Grovel, man. If he accepts it--he shouldn’t, maybe, but he will--you can try starting over. Like on the helicarrier, but...better. Obviously.” Clint grimaced.

Steve’s own mouth twisted up to match it. Clearly, he had a lot to make up for. How exactly did one get back on good terms with a guy that had pretty much always hated his guts?

~~~~

When three days had passed since the Incident, Steve asked Jarvis to tell Tony he was coming to the workshop and got on the elevator (newly repaired and reinforced, safety-checked a thousand times). Outside the workshop, Steve peered through the glass. It’s tinted but not black, which has to be a good sign.

Right? Right.

“Tony?” Steve asked loudly, “Tony, may I come in?”

Shadows moved beyond the glass and then the tint peeled away, leaving Steve face-to-face with Tony. Despite the repulsor-proof glass, Tony’s voice was crystal clear when he said, “Sure, Rogers. Do what you like.”

With a little huff of air the door to the workshop opened an inch or two. Steve nudged his way inside and stood awkwardly for a moment, balancing a tray of coffee and food. God knows Tony probably needed it, even if Steve lost the right to care days ago.

Probably he never had that right in the first place.

“Clear a space anywhere,” Tony called over his shoulder, already headed back to his projects, “Jarvis will make sure I get fed and watered. You’re dismissed, soldier.”

Steve gently pushed some scrap bits of metal and wire aside to make room on one table. “Actually, I came here to apologize.”

“For what? That thing in the elevator? Yeah, that was kind of a shitty thing to do, but it’s done. No big deal.”

They weren’t going to get anywhere if Tony was determined to blow it all off as “no big deal.” Dropping something was no big deal. Accidentally stepping on Tony’s foot was no big deal. In the Tower, accidentally breaking through a wall was no big deal. 

What Steve had done was a Massive Fucking Deal.

And not just in that damn elevator. Every day since they’d met on the Helicarrier, every day since Steve had moved into the Tower. He’d had a lot of time to think about it, over the last three days. He tried to imagine how he would feel if Tony threw him out in the snow and started screaming at him the way Steve had. 

Yeah, Steve really didn’t deserve to be forgiven for this one. 

“Tony. I really, truly am sorry for what I did. I could give you half a dozen reasons why, but really, in the end, it’s inexcusable. So I’m sorry, and if you want to throw me out of the Tower or kick me off the team, I won’t fault you.”

Tony still wasn’t looking at Steve when he spoke. “Last I checked, Capsicle, you’re team captain and I am far from the only Avenger in this Tower.”

“The Avengers belong as much to you as to me, Tony. If you need me to leave, I will.”

“I wouldn’t throw you out like that,” Tony said quietly, finally turning to face Steve. “I don’t know if I can totally forgive you, Cap, but I can understand. With, with Peggy, I mean. So.

The mention of Peggy was just another reminder of how badly Steve had messed up. “About Peggy, Tony, I really should’ve known-”

“You couldn’t have. I made it that way on purpose. Yeah, she was my Aunt Peggy, and yeah, she taught me almost everything I know, and yeah, I loved her, but I’m a big boy now. I don’t need my Aunt Peggy anymore, Cap. You did, clearly, so I gave you space. It’s fine.”

“It’s not--okay. Okay.” Steve took a breath. “I’m going to just...Tony, I’m really sorry, and you have every right to tell me to go to hell right now, but I’d like it if we could...start over? Try being friends?”

Almost too softly to hear, Tony murmured, “I’ve never been able to say no to you.” And then, louder, “Sure, Cap, let’s kiss and make up.”

~~~~

Starting over came in fits and starts. They danced around it, more strangers than friends, until Steve came down to the gym and rather than leave Tony be, asked him to spar. And rather than politely decline, Tony accepted. Comm chatter started light banter between them that gradually wormed its way into their lives off the battlefield.

Light banter became conversations, became Steve sometimes sitting in the workshop to sketch, became late-night chatter over leftovers while they both ignored the reasons they were really awake.

At least, ignored them for a while.

“So,” Tony broke the silence one night/morning around 2 AM, “we both know you don’t need as much sleep as the average person, and we both know I haven’t had any semblance of a sleep schedule since, oh, my MIT days at least. But that’s not why we’re doing this.”

Steve made a sound like a soft snort in response. “Yeah.”

“Nightmares?” Tony prodded carefully, well aware that what he was asking could shatter their fragile new start.

“Sometimes.”

“Ice?” Tony asked softly.

“Ice, losing time,” Steve trailed off. “Two of the bigger ones.”

“Caves, darkness,” Tony murmured, mostly to himself.

“Water.”

“Water.”

“Hospitals.”

“Throwing up.”

“Flying, sometimes.”

“Cold.”

“Cold.”

Tony tried for a smirk, but it fell flat. Somehow his careful question about nightmares had turned into two Avengers listing off triggers. He was willing to bet there were a dozen more for both of them, too close and too complicated to talk about. 

“I can’t sleep,” and woah, where did that come from? Tony’s Brain definitely never gave Tony’s Mouth permission to say that. No.

“How long have you been up?” Steve frowned.

“Eh, not that long-“

Sir has been awake for approximately 42 hours, Captain.”

“Traitor,” Tony mumbled.

Steve sighed. “Movie? Maybe we’ll both fall asleep.”

Tony shrugged, and that was how he found himself on the couch, barely two feet from Captain America, watching Star Wars because even Ste—even Cap had seen it a couple of times by then. And if he did actually fall asleep somewhere after the bit where Leia calls Chewie a walking carpet, well...no one would know (except maybe Steve, but it was his idea, so he doesn’t count).

“-ou hurt him, I will end you,” a ferocious stage whisper dragged Tony from sleep.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” and oh, that was Steve, wasn’t it? Tony resolved to stay quiet and eavesdrop a little.

“I do. He’s mine,” Natasha responded softly, and Tony knew what it meant for her to say that, how few people she allowed inside--her trust issues rivalled Tony’s own. He didn’t know, however, what to do with the warm little ball of something in his chest.

So he did what he always did, and snarked, “Hey, Romanov, I’m not a dog.”

Steve made a choking sound somewhere to Tony’s left, but Nat only said, “I know. But your other mother-hens aren’t around to stop me from stealing you at the moment.”

“And, uh, I’m..” Steve trailed off, clearly wanting to say something but not sure what.

“Hungry?” Tony interjected. “I’m hungry. Nat spoiled me with food once, I’m practically one of Pavlov’s dogs.”

“Not a second ago, you weren’t,” Nat said, but she was already wandering into the kitchen. 

Steve followed her comically fast--it was no secret which two people in the Tower would blow up the kitchen before they actually managed to cook, and the other one was Tony. While their resident Russian was being safely removed from the kitchen, Tony dragged a blanket from the couch and went to sit at the bar with it draped over him like a cape. 

It wasn’t perfect. Tony flinched when Steve moved too fast, and Steve spent so long tripping over himself to apologize that he burned his pancakes a little, and Clint dropped from the ceiling vents and scared the hell out of everyone but Natasha, who threatened to stab him. 

But it was healing, a bit, and it was okay.

~~~~

Steve was falling.

No, diving, the nose of the Valkyrie pointed surely towards the water because he was forcing it to be there, slicing through the air like nothing, the gray-black expanse of the sea getting closer every second. In the breath between Peggy’s voice cutting off in a burst of static and the blunt-force explosion of the impact, Steve remembered hearing that hitting water from high up was the same as hitting concrete. 

The Valkyrie smashed into the water, crumpling like paper, and with a muted shout the upper half of Steve’s body lurched forward too hard, crushed metal pinning his thighs uselessly as water rushed in and he struggled to breathe, to keep his head above water-

“Cap? What—Jesus, you’re hyperventilating, Jarvis! J, shut that down, God, okay, Ca—Steve. Steve? Steve, breathe, what do you need?”

Steve reached out towards the voice that didn’t belong in the Arctic with him, reached for either a friend or an enemy, and held on.

“Steve, ow, shit, okay, can you open your eyes there, buddy? Come on, look at me-“

Steve opened his eyes a crack, unwilling to let in the stinging saltwater, and any air he might have been taking in left his lungs in a rush, because Tony was staring at him, still quietly talking, but more importantly Steve was crushing his arm and he let go instantly, scrambling backwards. Or, trying to, because the blanket he’d been wrapped in (movie, they’d been watching a movie, fuck) was tangled all around him, so he mostly just flailed back a few inches.

“Tony, Tony, I-I…” Steve fumbled.

Tony edged forward a little. “It’s okay, Steve, we’re in the Tower, you’re fine, everything’s fine-” 

“I hurt you,” Steve blurted, feeling a little like he might be sick. Tony’s forearm was blossoming ugly purple-black fingerprints and Steve was lucky that seemed to be the worst of the damage, God, he could tear a man’s arm from his body if he really tried-

“Steve? Come on, breathe for me, it’s seriously not that bad, I’ve had way worse, but more importantly it is not your fault, okay? I don’t blame you,” Tony said, pulling another blanket down from the couch (the floor, when had they ended up on the floor?) and strategically tucking it around himself to hide his arm.

“I just…”Steve swallowed and looked down, tugging his own blanket up over his shoulders. He was shivering. 

“Heating up, J, if you don’t mind,” Tony murmured, scooting closer to Steve. “May I?”

When Steve nodded, a bit shamefully, Tony positioned himself next to Steve so they were almost-not-quite touching. 

“Sorry I woke you,” Steve whispered, just to say something, “I just...wasn’t expecting it.”

Tony shifted next to him, going taut and harsh the way he did sometimes, and Steve panicked, thinking he’d hit a nerve, somehow. “Don’t you dare ever fucking apologize to me for this, Steve, God. I knew that scene would be there, I always skip it when we watch this episode. Just...don’t apologize. Ever. I…” Tony scrubbed one hand over his face and deflated, all the fight flooding out of him suddenly. “Sorry. I sound like such a hypocrite.”

Steve smiled a little, huffed out a bare-bones laugh, and jostled Tony with his shoulder. It’s okay. 

~~~~

Something nudged Tony’s side, pushing him just to the edge of waking, and the dull thump that followed pulled him over. Sitting up, Tony automatically looked to Steve (because he was the only other person, definitely not for any other reasons), but the super-soldier wasn’t….there.

“Cap? What-” Tony asked the empty air, and a muted, garbled cry answered him.

Steve was on the floor, shivering and shaking violently, curled in on himself. Tony half jumped, half slid onto the floor, kneeling a careful distance away. 

“Jesus, you’re hyperventilating,” Tony hissed, not sure which of them he was talking to. He glanced around, trying to see if anything had triggered Steve, and his eyes landed on the TV….playing Star Wars V, specifically, the beginning of it, the whole screen awash in a blizzard. God. 

“Jarvis!” Tony yelled, “J, shut that down, God, okay, Ca—Steve,” he corrected himself. “Steve? Steve, breathe, what do you need?”

Steve’s arm shot out, blindly flailing, and Tony lifted his hand in return. But Steve gripped his forearm instead, holding on like Tony was a lifeline, or maybe like he wanted to snap his ulna. Toss-up, really. 

So Tony had to try to calm him before Steve did any real damage, God, the man would never forgive himself if he hurt Tony, and self-loathing was kind of Tony’s job. “Steve,” and the man’s grip tightened at the sound of his name, “ ow, shit, okay, can you open your eyes there, buddy? Come on, look at me, there we go.”

Steve opened his eyes, squinting, like he was afraid to look, and then he saw Tony, and his eyes widened almost comically. Tony tried to keep talking but somehwere something had gone wrongwrongwrong because Steve let go of his arm like he’d been burned (and, okay, so that wasn’t all bad) and rocked violently backwards. He was still shaking. 

“Tony, Tony, I-I…” Steve tried, eyes locked on Tony’s arm. Dammit. Steve hated hurting people--non-villian people, anyway.

“It’s okay, Steve, we’re in the Tower, you’re fine, everything’s fine-”

“I hurt you,” Steve spat out, looking completely horrified and disgusted with himself and well, that just wouldn’t do.

“Steve? Come on, breathe for me, it’s seriously not that bad, I’ve had way worse, but more importantly it is not your fault, okay? I don’t blame you,” Tony insisted, but to make Steve feel better he pulled his blanket off the couch and wrapped himself up in it. 

Looking lost, Steve mumbled, “I just…”

He was shivering. Still. Tony asked Jarvis to turn up the heat and shuffled closer to Steve, who now had his back pressed against the other couch. Wary of boundaries, he asked “May I?” before closer became too close.

Steve nodded like he was admitting a dirty secret, a feeling Tony was intimately familiar with. He nestled up right next to the super-soldier, leaving a few inches between them.

After a beat of silence, Steve whispered, “Sorry I woke you. I just...wasn’t expecting it.”

Sorry I woke you?

Oh no, Steve was not going to do that. Tony? Sure, absolutely, it wasn’t like he was really worth it anyway, but Steve? Steve was Captain Fucking America, and before that he was a goddamned war hero and before that he was always the best and bravest man Tony had ever known, even back when Howard hadn’t been able to fucking shut up about him. And Tony had known Episode II would come on, had known about Hoth, just like all the other times when he quietly asked Jarvis to skip the whole ice-planet bit. 

So you know, it was really his fault. And Steve should never, ever feel the way Tony did. It was wrong, the way dead unicorns were wrong--it went so blatantly against the natural order of things, that a being so perfect and true and light had ever come into contact with pain. 

So. “Don’t you dare ever fucking apologize to me for this, Steve, God. I knew that scene would be there, I always skip it when we watch this episode. Just...don’t apologize. Ever. I…” Tony broke off, well aware he was being too harsh and too angry and forcing a hand through his hair while he tried to rein himself in. Don’t apologize? Jesus. Who was Tony to talk, really? “Sorry. I sound like such a hypocrite.”

Steve bumped Tony’s shoulder with his own, and when Tony risked a glance, the blond was smiling, small, but there. A sort of silent reassurance. 

God, they were both such a fucking mess. 

At least this way they matched.