Steve was sitting on the bench at the very back of the garden, staring at his sneakers. They were muddy, and he could feel the damp seeping through into his socks. The garden was looking particularly pretty this evening, in a soggy kind of way, all wet lush greenery and glittering droplets on the grass, but cold wet feet suited his mood better, so he kept his head down.
He knew he was being ridiculous, but he really didn't care. He'd been self-aware enough to tidy himself away where no one would have to watch him mope; none of the team would bother him when he was sulking.
Not that he was sulking, really. He picked moodily at the loose skin on his grazed knuckles, feeling the yield of plastic in his fist. He should have let Jan look at his hand, but he'd been in such a hurry when they finally got back -
He heard the sound of gravel crunching, and looked up to see Tony Stark wandering down the path, picking his way slowly around the puddles, clearly giving Steve the time to compose himself. Iron Man had probably called him; he hadn't said anything, but he'd turned his bucket helmet to watch when Steve had come back downstairs and made straight for the garden door. He was going to have to have a talk with Iron Man about snitching on his teammate to his boss, even if said boss was -
"Hey, Tony," he said, and Tony looked up, feigning mild surprise.
"Evening, Cap," he said. "Can I join you?"
"Oh sure, take a seat." He gestured vaguely to the bench. "I'm just, uh, watching the - " he glanced up at the dim blue sky. "For the stars."
"Mm-hm," Tony said, accepting the lie equably. He sat down close on the bench, and nudged Steve's shoulder with his. He lifted the little package he held. "So Jan said your hand was bleeding."
"It's fine," said Steve, and dropped his hands down between his knees.
"Let me see," said Tony, and hooked Steve's elbow with his hand. Steve managed to conceal what he was holding, switching hands neatly and presenting his injury for inspection. Tony didn't say anything, but Steve saw the speculative glint in his eyes before he turned his attention to Steve's hand.
"Shredded your glove, huh?" he said, waggling each finger in turn as if he thought Steve might be hiding broken bones. "You need tougher ones."
"I'll lose flexibility. It'll be fine, you know, I don't get infections."
"Sure you don't," said Tony. "Humour me." He batted his eyelashes, and Steve flushed. Tony could behave just like a flirtatious girl when he felt like it, which Steve still hadn't decided if he liked or not. He made a grouchy noise at the sting of antiseptic as Tony mopped at the ragged scrapes. Tony ignored him, cleaning them with unnecessary thoroughness before digging in the package again. "So, the Wrecking Crew, huh?" he said, and Steve shrugged.
"Yeah," he said. "They're not that tough."
"You took them out pretty easy, Iron Man said." Tony applied gauze and a bandage with the careful precision he usually only used on machinery. Then he stuck the ends down with electrical tape, and Steve felt a smile tug at his mouth. It widened when Tony lifted Steve's hand to his mouth, and kissed the tips of his fingers; Steve ducked his head.
"Yeah, yeah. Took a little while, but I figured it was worth the time to avoid too much damage to public property." Two hours spent, corralling them safely before putting them down. And of course, that had been the priority. He bit his lip, and Tony's eyes narrowed a little; he was going to start asking questions any minute unless he was distracted. Steve stroked his fingers along Tony's lips, and they parted, tongue darting out; but when Steve moved to kiss him, he turned his head away. He was clearly more intent on digging out what was bothering Steve, which was sweet, if annoying right now.
"So... you don't exactly have the satisfaction of a job well done," he murmured, breath warm against Steve's chilled skin.
"It's nothing," Steve said quickly, and Tony shook his head, and squeezed his fingers.
"Steve," he said, and Steve felt a familiar warmth creep over his skin at the concern in his voice. "What's up?"
"It really is nothing," he said pleadingly, and Tony frowned, clearly unwilling to drop it.
"Steve, I don't want to pry, but - "
"No, you - " Steve broke off, and pulled his hand free of Tony's grip to rub at his face. Tony was being so sympathetic, and in about ten seconds he was going to think Steve was an idiot. Tony put his hand on Steve's shoulder, and spoke again.
"You can - "
"My Tamagotchi died!" Steve blurted out, and opened his hand to reveal the little toy. Tony stared down at it, and then back up at Steve, mouth forming a little O. Steve looked away, unable to meet Tony's incredulous gaze. "Hank gave it to me. The day you all found me, he'd - there was a lot of waiting about, and tests, and - it was all so new and confusing - and he gave me it to play with. And now it's dead."
I'm sorry, Hank had said hastily, breaking away from a cluster of scientists whose expressions ranged from joy to panic. It's crazy, I know - look, I had a bunch of these for a - anyway, here, it'll give you something to - His head had jerked upwards at someone calling his name, and he'd clapped an awkward hand on Steve's shoulder before hurrying out, leaving Steve staring down at the clear package with the gaudy lettering.
The silence lasted a while. Steve could feel his blush burning up his face, and when he snuck a glance at Tony, he could see the the corner of his mouth twitching.
"How did it die?" said Tony finally, voice strained.
"I forgot it when we went out today. And when we got back..." He'd run upstairs as soon as they'd gotten in, but it had been too late.
"You take it on missions?" said Tony with a lilt of incredulity, and Steve hunched his shoulders.
"Pets are a responsibility," said Steve, and then blushed deeper. "I mean, I know it's not real..."
"They're supposed to feel real," said Tony firmly, and his hand slid up over the muscle of Steve's shoulder to gently squeeze the back of his neck, thumb brushing the short hairs there. Steve leaned into his touch, but didn't look up. "Steve. Really. It's okay to feel bad about it."
"It's stupid to get fond of a - a doll," Steve said, and scowled down at it. At least Tony wasn't openly laughing at him. Warmth all along his side as Tony leaned in close, resting his cheek on Steve's shoulder, the usual cat-like colonization of his personal space.
"Have you heard of the Chinese Room theory?" said Tony, and Steve shook his head. "Basically, if a man who didn't know Chinese or English was in a room with a set of Chinese-English dictionaries, and English text was put under the door, and he used the dictionaries to translate it into Chinese, and put the text back out, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the guy with really good dictionaries, and the guy who understood Chinese and English."
Steve frowned, processing that. Tony had the strangest ways of explaining himself sometimes; Steve was always pleased when he could get through a conversation without asking for an explanation. This wasn't going to be one of those times, though. "I need a little more."
"You can't tell the difference between someone who expresses the outside forms of hurt and hunger from someone who really is hurt and hungry," said Tony. He hesitated. "Unless you're a telepath, of course, but you're not. So never mind that."
"You're saying I shouldn't be sad about the Tamagotchi because it was just fake?" said Steve, and turned it in his hand, rubbing his thumb over the little screen. "I know that."
"No, I mean it's okay to feel sad. The Tamagotchi says it's hungry, I say I'm hungry - you can't see inside us, and know how we're working, so you can't tell if I'm feeling hunger or just saying it," said Tony. Steve considered that.
"I know you mean what you say, though, and the Tamagotchi's just a toy," he said, and Tony chuckled, arm slipping round Steve's back.
"Well yeah, of course," he said. "But that's your brain talking. Your gut just knows something was relying on you for food and care, and you let it down." Steve's eyes dropped, and Tony's arm tightened. "It's just a toy, and all, but you were attached to it and now it's gone. Steve, we design stuff so people believe in it, it'd be silly to mock them when we succeed. People cry at movies all the time, it's really no different."
"I guess," said Steve. It seemed much more reasonable put like that; he felt less of a fool. He turned his head, and Tony was smiling at him, sweet, no mockery. This close, Steve could see the dark rim around his irises, the paler ring round his pupils. There were violet shadows under his eyes; Tony didn't get enough rest. He cupped Tony's cheek, ran his thumb over the jutting cheekbone. Tony didn't eat enough, either. Steve had always thought being rich meant enough time and money to do whatever you wanted, but what Tony seemed to want to do was run himself ragged, taking care of every little detail personally. Taking care of Steve, too, coming out to the Mansion just because Steve was sulking. "When I first set up house here, I used to play with it all the time. It was nice to have something that needed me."
"We need you," said Tony, and his eyes dilated a fraction, a slight lowering of his lashes, and Steve knew exactly what he was thinking. It still wasn't a look he was entirely used to seeing a man direct at him, but he was definitely getting fond of it. "I, for one, will be happy to ply you with constant demands for attention."
"Yeah?" Steve said softly, and traced his thumb along the line of Tony's lower lip, the rasp of his beard a sharp contrast to his soft mouth. "I'd like that." Tony grinned, eased closer.
"Would you?" voice low and throaty, and Steve shivered.
"Uh," he said intelligently, and then he put his hand on Tony's leg, just above the knee where his fingers fitted into the indentation of muscle. Tony took that as encouragement, and covered Steve's mouth with his own. Tony always kissed like he was trying to do a hostile takeover of Steve's mouth, tongue sliding in as soon as Steve's lips parted, fingers pressing into his jaw, holding him in position. Steve submitted, let Tony ease his mouth open wider, kiss him deep, and after a moment or two, he felt a tug on his shirt as Tony's free hand began digging for skin.
Steve grabbed his hand and linked their fingers together, the Tamagotchi caught between their palms. Tony broke the kiss and blinked at him.
"You know," he said, only slightly breathless. "I'm an engineering genius. I could probably resurrect the little guy."
"It's okay," said Steve. "I don't think I'll have the time to give you both all the attention you need." Tony wriggled his hand free and laid it on Steve's thigh, thumb stroking his inseam just low enough Steve didn't feel obliged to move it. He petted the tender skin at the inside of Tony's wrist, instead, and watched the faint pink flush rise over his skin.
"Want to go inside and play with me? I have all kinds of buttons for you to press. Also, you need to hurry up with the learning about the modern world thing; I have some breathtakingly dirty innuendoes you just don't have the context for," said Tony, and Steve tucked his head into the warm, expensive smelling curve of his neck.
"You can explain them to me," he said. "Later. Let's wait and see the stars come out. I mean, that is what I'm out here for." He grinned at Tony's snort of disbelief, and snaked his arm around Tony's waist.
"Oh, fine. But don't come crying to me when your computer dies." Tony's other hand was wandering down his back, tracing the bumps of his spine, a soothing contrast to his waspish tone.
"My computer can die?"
"It's just - never mind." Tony patted his back, and then curled his fingers in the fabric of Steve's shirt. Probably as a prelude to untucking it, as Tony's many-tracked mind only seemed to have one destination where Steve was concerned, but he could deal with that as and when. "Stars."
"Stars," said Steve agreeably, and shut his eyes.