The first time Tony hears it, he's four years old.
He totters into his father's shop, tiny fingers of one hand reaching up to push the door open, while the other clutches something precious against his chest. The scent of cigar smoke and scotch burns his lungs when he walked in, and hovers in faint clouds above every surface.
Tony learns when he is older that scent is the sense most in touch with the neural pathways of memory, and he realizes that that's why he always associated that smell with his father.
His socked feet pad across the floor to the lone figure who sat hunched over a desk in a corner of the room, hands in a flurry of activity, scribbling things down with the faint scratch-scratch of pen on paper. A low muttering comes from this man's lips and joins this bare symphony; mutterings of engineering and physics, things that would change the world.
Howard Stark was intent on his work, on his mission to change the world. So much so, in fact, that when his son placed a contraption of wire and hours upon hours of effort, he doesn't even feel the need to look up. A circuit board; crudely made, but a circuit board nonetheless, made with the hands of a four year old child.
"I finish'd it Daddy," he beamed. "You tol' me to wait for you, but I learn'd how t'do it myself an-"
"That’s very good, Tony" Howard replied, not even looking up to glance at his dark haired child. He misses the flicker of pride in the four year old's eyes, he misses the wide smile that is so exuberant that it could put stars in the sky. He misses the pure, childlike happiness that seeks for approval, for acclaim from someone they love and look up to. In that split instant when he didn't look up, when something else was more important, he missed it completely, because that's the last time that expression is so vibrant on his face.
Because that’s the first time Tony hears it; not in the actual words his father says, but in the easy dismissal of his tone. The disinterest that lies there, the silent scream that tells the little boy you're not worth my time, chips away at whatever it is that is a semblance of pride in Tony. He hears it, and that first time he doesn't fully understand it, but it plants a seed in him. It is a dark, ugly abyss that tells him not good enough, not good enough, with every breath, with every step.
Howard Stark never sees that joyful expression, because after that moment, little by little, it begins to fade away.
Tony hears it again at various intervals in his life, and eventually the sting starts to subside. It becomes less poignant; or, at least, he gets better at ignoring the sharp pain of being rejected and neglected time and time again.
He hears it in his teacher's voice in the third grade, when he pushes a boy flat on his ass for calling Tony a nerd and telling him not to bother trying to play with them because they didn't need a smarty pants like him around. The teacher takes him by the elbow when the boy ends up on the ground crying after a short lived tussle, and leans down to tell Tony why it's not nice to push people. All the while, Tony is silent, but bristling under his skin with some kind of scorching flame. He wants to yell at this woman, tell her to leave him alone, but he doesn't want her to know how upset he is. So he gives a childish sneer and tells her that if the boy had known he was such a weakling, he shouldn't have started a fight with him.
He hears it again in the eighth grade, when he almost blows up the classroom during a presentation for science class. It's his first real attempt at a robot; a shiny combination of metal parts and haphazard wires. He's so proud of it, so determined to make it work this time.
He's almost surprised when it doesn't.
The fire department is called and he's reprimanded by the firefighter, his teacher, the principal, his father; but this time he hears it in his classmate's laughs. They snicker behind their hands, whisper and point and Tony feels crushed for an instant as he feels their eyes on him, tearing him apart and spilling him on the ground. He may be a rich kid, he may have a famous father, but he's also stunningly smart and so much younger than them and he's got a big mouth. They laugh and no one feels guilty. Envy is green and bitter and leaves an acrid taste in their mouths.
By the time he's seventeen, a recent graduate of MIT, he finally finishes his robot. An AI he fondly names Dummy, and there is this blossoming light that rises in his chest when he tells the bot to pass him his mug of coffee and he actually does it. Granted, he spills it a bit on his jeans, but he did it. Dummy did it, and Tony did it.
That light was snuffed out in an instant when he realized he wanted to run and tell someone about it, to gush and explode with the excitement of actually succeeding, and he realizes that there is absolutely no one he wants to share this information with.
So he plays with Dummy for a while, showers, grabs a bottle of scotch from his father's office and leaves. He reaches for his phone, dials the number of the first name he sees and asks if they want to get wasted and paint the town red, and of course they say yes, because he's Tony Stark. He goes to a party, drinks more than half the bottle, and passes out in a bed that isn't his own, next to a girl who couldn't care less if he was still there in the morning. When he wakes up, that empty ache is still gaping in his chest, and he wants to fill it with something. Anything. He reaches out blindly, panting and stifling back tears, but there's nothing. No consolation, no way to assuage the wretchedness.
He goes home hung over and smelling like an alcoholic. His father is sitting at the kitchen table when he strolls in and as casually as he can possibly manage, Tony pretends he doesn't see him. Howard does the same, as Tony gets his coffee. He takes it black, as bitter as he's feeling right now.
Howard speaks when Tony's walking away, mug in hand, to hide under a cocoon of blankets in the dark; hide away from the ache and the throbbing pain in his head. It strikes his sleep deprived mind like a poison tipped arrow when Howard says in a low voice, "you're a disgrace, boy," and he can feel himself flinch visibly. He curses himself, wants to kick his own shins for showing weakness.
Howard Stark and Maria Stark die in a tragic car crash not long after that, and that's when Tony stops keeping track of when he hears it. Howard had let him hear it one last time; a parting gift worthy of the billionaire, weapons manufacturer's son.
As years pass, he became numb to it. He was able to pretend that the twinge of self loathing he felt in his gut wasn't there. He buried it under a thick shroud of charisma and money and just basically being a egotistical, sarcastic genius. He smiled, told crude jokes and unleashed his promiscuity on the world. For a long time, it worked.
Until it didn't.
"Tony?" Steve asked, his voice tentative and slightly confused.
"Mmph?" Tony responded eloquently around the wrench that he had jammed in his mouth, while his hands were otherwise occupied with a handful of wires.
"Are you, uh, aware that one of your robots just poured what looks like motor oil into the coffee he just made for you?"
Tony made a garbled noise and took the wrench out of his mouth. He turned on his heels and looked up at Steve behind him from where he crouched at ground level. "Yeah, he does that. Rule number one of the shop; don't ever drink or eat anything that Dummy makes for you without checking with me first, at the risk of having to get your stomach pumped."
The bot in question was rolling over to them, mug clamped in his metal claw, which he set down graciously at his feet.
"Thanks Dummy, but I've told you a million times that humans can't drink motor oil and you're going to kill me one of these days if you keep forgetting that."
Steve marvelled at the way that the bot seemed to wilt at his words, looking as absolutely forlorn as a robot could.
"Did you hurt his feelings? Why did you call him a dummy?" Steve's voice was tinted with a bit of pity for the bot, who seemed to have some understanding of emotions, and a bit of complete awe that Tony was capable of creating this.
"Dummy. It's his name. He earned it because he's even more forgetful than I am, which is partially my fault because I made him when I was a drunk teenager," Tony straightened up, knees cracking, and narrowed his eyes at Dummy when he whirred unhappily. "Dummy, you tried to feed me motor oil, I'm not a machine. Sometimes I think you're trying to kill me, and don't give me that kicked puppy attitude."
Dummy slunk away, whirring sadly, and yes, to Steve absolute surprise, the bot actually did sound sad.
"So he actually has feelings?" Steve asked, staring with what he assumed was a wide eyed, cartoonish expression after the dejected bot.
"Hm? Oh, in a way, I suppose. Yeah. He's an AI, an artificial intelligence, like JARVIS but with a corporeal form. He's also the biggest idiot in this workshop." He said that last part with a pointed glare at the bot who was clearly hiding in the corner. "Yes, I'm talking about you Dummy. Motor oil, God. I wish I could say it was the first time."
The bot beeped at him, and Tony rolled his eyes.
"Whatever Dummy. Learn how to make non-toxic coffee, then I won't be so mean."
He'd seemed to have forgotten that Steve was in the room, until he heard the supersoldier smothering a laugh behind his hand. Steve didn't even bother trying to hide his chuckling; it was just so beyond amusing watching Tony Stark bickering with a robot that was basically just a metal arm.
"What?" Tony demanded, glaring at him without any heat at all, one corner of his mouth quirked up in amused curiosity.
"Nothing." Steve waved a hand at the bot who was still in the corner. "You're just… you're arguing with a robot who can't even speak."
"Yeah. Well, he ought to know better," he grumbled, wiping his hands on a rag.
Then he frowned. "Wait a second, how did you even get in here?"
Steve flushed and crossed his arms over his chest. It'd taken Tony long enough to notice that he was in his shop uninvited. "Well, Pepper's in DC for a few days and you haven't been answering her calls so she was worried. She asked me to come check on you."
"She got JARVIS to let me in," Steve admitted. He and Tony weren't exactly close, the tension that had hung between them when they met had long ago faded, yes, but they were still in a strange grey area that could be called 'tentative friends'. Pepper had asked him because she'd thought he would be the most useful in this situation, whatever that meant. Steve hadn't bothered arguing. He'd kind of accepted the first time that he met her that Pepper knew best.
"Traitor!" Tony shouted at the ceiling, which would have been strange, but then just as the AI responded in his dulcet voice, Steve remembered his existence.
"My apologies, Sir," JARVIS said, not sounding sorry at all, "but given the parameters of Miss Potts' access to your shop, she was authorized to make that decision."
"Can't trust anyone," he sighed, and turned back to Steve with a dejected expression. "So, what did she tell you to do? Force feed me? Drag me out by my feet, toss me over your shoulder and barricade me in my room until I sleep?"
"Actually, she asked me to bring you down food." Steve pointed to a sandwich he had set down on the only surface in the room that wasn't cluttered with miscellaneous objects. "She said getting you to sleep would be too hard for a rookie, so food would have to do."
"Ah, okay. Thanks. And it's too bad, it might've been fun to see that super strength of yours in action," Tony winked, before sauntering over to grab the sandwich and take an enormous bite.
Steve didn't respond to that, he just rolled his eyes and shook his head, ignoring the faint heat that spread through his body when Tony winked at him like that. He was a notorious flirt, Steve knew that, so he wouldn't allow himself a reaction to his charm. Especially since he flirted with Steve, and almost everyone with a pulse actually, more or less about as much as he breathed. He was positive it was just playful and nothing more.
Instead of letting himself think of that, he strolled over to Dummy, who was pouring out the mug of spoiled coffee. He wasn't sure how, but he was pretty sure he saw clumps of something inedible coming out along with the coffee as it went down the drain. Steve wasn't really an avid coffee drinker, but he was positive it wasn't supposed to be clumpy.
"Hey Dummy." He stopped beside him, took a fresh mug down from the cupboard. "Want me to show you how to make a cup of coffee even Tony won't be able to complain about?"
The bot whirred, and Steve laughed. He took it as a yes.
"Okay, first things first. No motor oil, ever," he said firmly. "Only use things you find over here in the cupboard or the fridge, got it?"
Dummy moved his robotic arm up and down, which Steve assumed was meant to be him nodding. "Okay, good. Now first," he reached out and pulled the metallic, rather futuristic looking coffee maker closer to them for easier access, "you're going to need a coffee filter."
Steve opened the nearest cupboard and rooted around until he found them. "Here they are. Okay, so first, you're going to have to put it up here in the top, like this." Steve demonstrated, and then took it out, and offered the thin paper filter to the bot. "Now you try."
Very gingerly, Dummy took it from him and placed it inside carefully. Steve broke into a grin.
"Great. Now, fill it with water, up to this line. Then I want you to get a spoon and put a scoop of the coffee grounds in the filter."
Dummy obliged, beeping and whirring happily with what only could be described as childlike excitement, while Steve pointed and directed, encouraging him the whole time.
Once the production was completed, and the coffee maker was on and gurgling away, Steve turned to the enthusiastic bot with a grin. "You did great Dummy. Now, when that little light turns green, you can pour it and bring it over to Tony, okay?"
The bot did the nodding thing again. Steve, still smiling at him kindly, raised one hand. "Can you give me a high five?"
The bot shrank back a bit, and Steve's smile faltered until he realized that he'd probably just confused him.
"You do it when someone does something well, and you want to tell them they did a good job," Steve explained, "Just hold up your hand and I'll show you."
Dummy did as he was told, and Steve lightly bumped the palm of his hand against his cool metal one. "Great job, Dummy," he beamed. The bot started making an erratic beeping noise, and started wiggling around a bit. Steve was pretty sure it was excitement.
Still grinning widely, laughing at the robot that was practically an overgrown child, yet still a product of advanced AI technology, and turned back to Tony.
"Next time, I'll teach him the fist bump," he laughed, mostly because he wanted to show off the advances he'd made in modern society, but stopped short when he saw Tony's face.
Tony was gripping the edge of the table so hard that his knuckles were white, his half eaten sandwich cast aside and forgotten. His eyes were open wide, comically so, and his lips were parted slightly in what appeared to be complete shock.
"Tony?" he asked, suddenly concerned. "What's wrong?"
He stepped forward, worry creasing his brow, and Tony seemed to shake himself free of some trance.
"Uh, nothing," he gulped, took a breath in and seemed to be trying to collect himself. He was stiff, his eyes intent on his clenched hands until they relaxed slightly, and he picked up the sandwich again. "Great sandwich, Capsicle, you looking for a job? You could totally be my personal chef, I bet you're a wizard in the kitchen, 'cause this sandwich is magical. Maybe it's because I'm used to the world's worst sandwiches, no offence Dummy, I know you try your best. Hey, maybe you could teach him, since you seem to be getting along so we-"
"Tony," Steve interrupted, and now he was standing in front of him, hovering over him. "Are you okay?"
Tony gulped again, and Steve thought it might have to do with their proximity, but after a moment he gave him his million dollar smile. "I'm fine Cap. Great actually. Uh, thanks for the sandwich, but I really need to get back to work…"
"Say no more," Steve said gently. He could tell Tony was faking, that there was something wrong, but it wasn't his job to push. If he wasn’t comfortable telling him what was wrong, he wasn't going to force him. "You should probably finish the sandwich though, since I doubt you're going to leave and get food any time soon."
"Yeah, sure, I'll do that. Thanks again, really." Tony bit his lip, seemed to be about to say something else but then changed his mind. He shook his head almost imperceptibly and stayed silent.
"Great," Steve said smoothly, and placed a warm hand on Tony's shoulder and squeezed. "You really should get some rest though. Consider it, at least?"
Tony seemed to have that shocked, confused expression on his face then. This time it was milder, and he just looked a little bit dazed, but Steve could see it brimming in his eyes, in the slackness of his jaw.
"Yeah," he finally breathed, and Steve realized his hand was still on his shoulder. He drew away then, hoping that it didn't come off as too intimate, too lingering, too tender. He flushed slightly, and backed towards the door with an easy smile on his lips. "See you later?" he asked, tampering down any semblance of hope that might've crept into his voice.
Tony smiled, and nodded and Steve ignored the rush of happiness that ran through him. "Okay. Bye Dummy!" he called to the bot, who was still faithfully watching the coffee maker. He beeped a farewell, and Steve laughed, gave Tony one last parting wave, and left.
Less than an hour later, he was more than a little bit satisfied when JARVIS told him that Tony had just crawled into bed and fallen fast asleep.
"A team, what?"
"A team dinner," Steve announced for the second time, looking so freaking happy Tony thought he might combust at any moment. "I asked the others, and they all thought it was a great idea. We all voted on Thai food, is that okay with you?"
"Yes. I mean, no. I mean-" Tony broke off and ran a hand over his face. "I mean, a family dinner? Really? Is that necessary?"
A flicker of hurt flashed across Steve's face and Tony was surprised that he wanted to kick himself. Steve opened his mouth to speak, but Tony waved a hand at him and continued talking. "It's not a bad idea, I'm just… surprised."
Surprised was an understatement. He felt kind of woozy. He couldn't remember a time when he'd ever actually sat down for a family dinner, especially not one that implied the kind of uncontained excitement that Steve was throwing off right now. Communal dinners of his childhood had always been obligatory, when they happened, and often very tense.
"You don't have to come if you don't want to." Steve was looking at him with a curious expression, his head tilted slightly to the side. "I just thought it might be nice."
Tony observed him for a moment, taking in the hopeful expression on his face, the swoop of blonde hair that fell across his forehead, the crisp shirt that stretched taught over his broad shoulders. Fuck, he was completely irresistible without even trying.
Finally he gave a resigned sigh and shrugged. "Yeah, okay. Thai food sounds great."
And that's how he ended up here, wedged in between Natasha and Bruce, watching while the Norse god of thunder and the master marksman, spy, assassin readied themselves for a good ol' fashioned eating contest.
"My bet's on Thor," Natasha was saying, earning a dismayed look from Clint.
"You're joking! Have some faith in me Natasha, come on."
"He's not even human," Natasha pointed out.
"I'm on your side Clint," Bruce piped up from Tony's other side. "Thor drank a gallon of water than night we had fajitas, there's no way he's going to down that entire bowl of curry without sobbing into it."
"I take offence to that, Banner," Thor frowned, looking honestly quite offended.
"You literally cried after your first bite," Clint scoffed, "and only finished the rest because you declared that 'no Midgardian food will best the son of Odin.'"
"I'm with Thor too, but mainly because I just like pissing Clint off."
"Well fuck you, Tony."
Tony grinned in that infuriating way that he saved just for Clint, and turned to Steve. "How about you, Cap? Who are you going for?"
"I'm going with Clint." Thor made a noise of dismay, and Steve gave him an apologetic shrug. "Sorry Thor, but the fajita incident was pretty unforgettable."
"I will never live it down," he announced regretfully.
"Probably not, you looked like you swallowed wasabi. Alright enough talk, let's get on with it," Clint said, rolling up his sleeves for effect. "Ready Thor?"
Clint won. Thor cried. While shovelling mounds of curry into his mouth. It was a gross, hysterical image that was going to stick with Tony for the rest of his life.
After that, everyone cleared out and left, both Thor and Clint still gagging and groaning from their burning mouths and churning stomachs. They filed out, Natasha supporting Clint and Bruce supporting Thor, after complimenting Steve on his cooking and sticking Tony with the cleanup since he'd been ten minutes late for the dinner. Steve offered to help, because that's just the kind of thing Steve did, and Tony was grateful for the help. And the company.
"I'll wash and you dry?" Steve asked, and tossed Tony a dishcloth when he nodded. He plunged his hands into the warm, soapy water, and Tony sidled up alongside him and for a while they worked together in amiable silence.
It was Steve who broke the silence, speaking in a low voice as he passed Tony a sopping wet plate.
"Thank you, Tony."
He started drying the plate and raised an eyebrow at him. "For what, cleaning? In case you didn't notice, it wasn't exactly my choice," he snorted.
"No, not that," Steve shook his head, and his expression went kind of soft. "For coming to dinner."
"Oh, that. It's no big deal, you're a good cook. And seeing Clint looking like he's about to hurl wasn't a bad bonus."
"He did look pretty sick," Steve grimaced.
"Yes and it was hysterical. He's probably laying up in his bed right now, groaning in agony while Natasha pets his hair, even though she knows he's playing it up."
Steve seemed consider this mental image for a moment, before nodding. "You're probably right," he agreed, amused. "But seriously, thank you. I know that there were probably a lot of other things that you could've been doing on a Saturday night, but you stuck around with us."
Tony knew what he meant, that he could've been out partying and consuming mass amounts of liquor, surrounded by gorgeous women. The truth was, that he could've done that, but he wouldn't have. He probably would've spent the evening with Dummy in the shop, working until he collapsed on the workbench.
"You would've had just as much fun without me," he said, and immediately hated the dryness of his throat.
"What?" Steve stopped washing for a moment to frown at him. "No, it wouldn't have been the same without you. I - we all wanted you there. It really was nice."
Tony's breath caught in his throat, and his heart panged a little bit. Steve's voice was so honest, so thoroughly sincere that he actually almost believed him; that his presence had been valued and even desired. That'd they'd enjoyed his company as much as he had enjoyed theirs.
He wasn't used to this. He wasn't used to "family dinners," to carefree banter free of expectations, to the warm, comforting feeling he got from just sitting around the table with a bunch of idiots who were supposed to be earth's mightiest heroes.
For a moment, he felt himself falter, and he felt like he did that day when Steve came down to the lab, all earnest and concerned. When he'd started talking to Dummy, started staring at him like he was an absolute marvel with complete wonder in his eyes, Tony had felt this warmth curling in his core. Something hot and calming fluttered there, and it only got worse the longer Steve talked to his bot. He'd actually paid attention to it, initiated contact with it, treated it like it was worthy of his time.
Like something Tony had made was worthy of his time.
He was getting that feeling again, looking into Steve's baby blues, as he told him that he had been wanted at a "family dinner."
Tony didn't know what to do with that feeling.
So he just shrugged, forced a smile and reached for another dish. "You're welcome," he murmured and the words stuck in his throat. He hoped Steve didn't notice.
When they finished, Steve tells him he's going for a run, and he brushes his fingertips against Tony's shoulder and smiles that smile that could probably heal the sick and wounded. As Tony watches him walk away, he feels something hard and heavy settle in his stomach, something that should've felt sharp and invasive, but instead felt like a good kind of ache.
In that moment, he felt a sharp thorn dislodge itself from his belly, and wiggle free.
"Tony?" Steve could tell that his voice startled Tony a bit, who was hunched over his desk with an expression that was practically steaming with intensity.
"Yeah?" he said, clearly distracted, and only half listening, but Steve didn't mind. He was used to it by now.
In the following weeks after the first family dinner, a lot of things had shifted in the dynamic of the group.
Much to Steve's delight, family dinners became a regular thing (with only one rule that banned eating contests, after Clint and Thor had both spent the night after Thai night puking their guts up). Steve suspected that Tony was just as happy about it, based on the tentative interest he showed in helping out, willingly attending and suggesting ideas for recipes. He didn't want to cook, he swore he was terrible at it, but whenever it was Steve's turn to cook he stuck around in the kitchen with him to talk. He passed him utensils and stirred things under Steve's supervision. The team started calling him 'Steve's little assistant,' which Steve thought was kind of adorable. Tony didn't like it as much, but Steve suspected he was playing up his dislike for the term.
It was because of this that he and Steve had started talking more, conversing on more of a personal level rather than just as teammates. It was because of this, also, that Steve couldn't seem to get enough of Tony.
Steve had learned a lot about him once they'd actually started talking. Not because Tony suddenly started spilling all of his deep, dark secrets to him, but because Steve started to notice things about him. He started to see that the sarcasm was a front he used when he didn't want to show emotion, a kind of shield he slipped on when he wanted to pretend he didn't care about something (this was most evident when Dummy did something endearing, and he reacted with sarcasm even though the fondness was practically brimming over in his eyes).
Steve found out that the easygoing charm Tony always seemed to exude wasn't completely real either. Well, of course Tony Stark was charming, but when he wasn't in the public eye, the kind of charm he had shifted into something Steve liked even more. Tony was suave, sleek and fast talking when he was out and about, in the spotlight and being a billionaire, but at home? He padded around the tower in jeans and faded band t-shirts, with tousled hair and sleepy half smiles. The blatant magnetism that he usually showed was smoothed down, faded into something less flashy, and more… Steve hated to admit it, but dorky and adorable were the first words that came to his mind. It was more honest and authentic than what the rest of the world saw. When he got absorbed in one of his projects, it was with a single minded determination that bordered on completely obsessive. He'd get this intent look on his face, all speculative and concentrated.
Sometimes Steve would ask him what he was doing, and Tony would observe him for a few moments with his eyes slightly narrowed, as if he was unsure of something. Then, when he was sure Steve wanted to listen, he would completely light up and babble excitedly, using mostly words that Steve didn't understand in the slightest, but Tony knew that and neither of them cared. He found he just liked hearing Tony's voice, and he was starting to get the feeling that Tony liked having someone to listen to him.
Okay so, yeah. He might be a little bit infatuated.
Who could blame him? The lethargic smiles he gave Steve when he came down to the shop with a cup of coffee, the way he always seemed to have grease behind one ear (always, always the right one), the way he always came out of the shop looking rumpled and dead tired and would flop down on the couch and stretch out like a cat; these things were all becoming so irresistible to him that it was practically unbearable.
Now, he spent pretty much all of his free time keeping Tony company in his shop, and he got a full dose of his own mind numbing adoration for him every day.
"Tell me what you're working on?"
Tony glanced at him, and there's that face again, inquisitive and unsure. Steve maintains eye contact, an encouraging smile playing around his lips.
Then he breathed out heavily, turned back to his work and starts babbling at a thousand miles a minute. Steve's smile grew content and a little dreamy, and he leans back to let Tony's voice wash over him.
Tony woke up feeling like someone was holding his head underwater, and he was gasping, his hands scrabbling at his throat to release the pressure, to free his lungs from being filled with emptiness.
He sat up straight, a strangled scream in his throat, and suddenly he's back there again. Drowning. Drowning in nothingness. Terrified.
He can still feel the fear prickling under his skin, biting him. He was shaking, his whole body wracked with pain that coursed through him. Aching sobs tore out of his mouth before he could catch them, and the room is filled with the sound of him gasping for breath.
"JARVIS?" he heaved, scratchy and broken, but the ever reliable AI responds, as always.
"How can I be of service to you, Sir?"
"I-I need…" he was cut off by a shudder paired with a sob, and he thrust his face into his hands. His fingers dug into his hair, and he made a sound that was so pitiful and he hated himself for it.
"Forget it JARVIS, never mind," he choked out, frenzied and tiny and so, so alone.
JARVIS didn't answer, and Tony curled up, hands tight clenched around his head as he lost himself in the fear. The nightmares flood over him, and he is completely powerless. He can't do anything but let himself fall into the fear.
He didn't know how long he'd been laying there, tensed and full of fear, when a knock on the door startles him out of his thoughts.
He can't answer. Maybe they'll go away. Maybe they'll leave him in peace and no one will ever have to see him like this; weak and scared out of his mind by nightmares.
He shouldn't have been surprised to hear Steve's voice through the door, but at the sound he felt himself tense up, stiff as a board.
"JARVIS told me you were upset, and I thought I would come check on you. Are you alright?"
Please go away.
Of course Steve was here. The good Captain wouldn't ever miss an opportunity to look out for his team, because that's what Steve does. He insists on doing head counts, and its only because of him that any of them ever goes to medical. Tony knew he was only here out of obligation, and he really didn't need that right now.
"Tony?" He could practically hear him frowning, the worry in his voice evident.
Leave me alone.
"JARVIS told me that you're awake and can hear me right now."
"Are you alright? Tony?"
No, no I'm not but I don't want anyone to see me like this.
"If you don't say something I'm coming in," he alleged in a voice that was hard and concerned.
Tony didn't want him in here, didn't want to want him in here, but when he opened his mouth to say so, no sound came out.
"I'm coming in."
There was a click, and a sliver of light fell over Tony as the sound of socked feet padded towards him.
He visibly flinched when a warm hand was laid on his shoulder, and turned over with a glare.
"What do you want?" he ground out through clenched teeth. He couldn't stop shaking, why could he not stop shaking.
Steve was looking down at him with that familiar little frown; pursed lips, that fine line between his brow, worry in his eyes. "JARVIS told me you were… upset. He thought you might need some company."
Tony squeezed his eyes shut and rolled over. "I'm fine," he spat.
He was so far away from being fine.
"If you want me to leave, I will, but I'd be more than happy to stay with you."
Get the hell out, Tony tried to say, but it just came out as a strangled, rather pitiful noise. He buried his face in his pillow, his breaths harsh and shallow.
"Do you want me to leave?"
"No." Tony found his voice. It was brittle and small and so scared, but he couldn't stop himself. "Please… stay."
"Of course," Steve said, and for a moment Tony could've sworn that he heard something tender there, but he banished the thought as soon as it came into his mind. Steve was only there because he had to be, but Tony was so miserable he literally could not turn down the company. Just his presence in the room had softened the hard ball of agony in his gut, smoothed down its edges just slightly. Not enough, but it was something.
He'd expected Steve to just curl up in the chair in the corner, maybe just talk to him aimlessly about nothing to get his mind off of whatever was bothering him. Maybe he would've asked him if he wanted to talk about it.
What he wasn't expecting was for Steve to carefully lift the blankets, slide under the covers and curl the warmth of his body around Tony's back.
Tony made a rather undignified noise, halfway between a squeak and a groan, and stiffened even more. Steve was warm against him, the largeness of his frame curled around him in a way that felt like he was eclipsing his whole body.
"Is this okay?" Steve murmured, his breath hot and gentle against his neck.
Tony shivered. He wanted to tell him to go, to leave him alone, let him ride this out peace.
He shook his head.
Steve wound one arm around him, pulled him closer against his broad chest, and placed a warm hand against his stomach.
"Breathe deeply," he told him, his voice low and gentle. "Slow."
Tony tried to quell his ragged breathing, tried to slow it down so that his whole body wasn't shaking with every breath. The bulk of Steve's body softened that hard ball even more, the warm feeling of comfort and his kind presence that was not unlike sunlight soothing and calm. Tony wanted to absorb this feeling, this feeling of his best friend holding him and chasing the demons away, or at least keeping them at bay for a while.
He couldn't find it in himself to question how good this felt.
They lay there in silence for a long time, and Tony just soaked up all of his warmth with silent gratitude, as he drifted off to sleep.
They don't ever talk about it, but after that night, it becomes a semi-regular thing. Tony wakes up in a cold sweat, his whole body shaking in fear, and a few minutes later, Steve would show up at his door and crawl into bed with him. His heavy warmth at his back always made Tony melt in a way that he'd never admit to in the light of day, but here at night, under the cover of darkness, he'd allow himself to be soothed to sleep in Steve's gentle, strong arms.
When he woke up, Steve was never there. They'd pass each other in the hall, give each other a polite greeting, and then they'd be on their way. They hung out like best friends, but acted normal as much as possible. They were cordial. Friendly. No one would've expected that they spent most nights clinging to each other like their lives depended on it.
No one would've expected that one night Steve had come in to find Tony openly sobbing, and he had just curled around him. He'd wiped the tears away with his thumbs, buried his face in his soft hair and held Tony against his chest. He let him cry into the crook of his neck until he faded into sleep.
No one would've thought, especially not Tony, that one night Steve would come into his room uncalled, hands shaking at the sheer force of one of his own haunting nightmares. He whispered something about ice and drowning and Tony had just wrapped a hand around his wrist and pulled him close, happy to be the comforter for once. Steve had clung and shaken like a leaf in the wind, while Tony ran a comforting hand over his back, whispered comforting words in his ear.
There was a kind of solidarity there, a comfort they found only in each other, and they didn't feel the need to talk about it once the sun touched the horizon.
That companionship belonged only to them, and they didn't feel the need to share it with the rest waking world.
"You could've gotten yourself killed, Tony," Steve hissed, his voice hard and tight.
Tony rolled his eyes and hunched one shoulder. "But I didn't Capsicle, so I don't really understand why you feel the need to be such a freaking mother hen about it."
"You put yourself in danger."
"Um, I hate to actually tell you this Steve, but our jobs are kind of infinitely dangerous, you know? I mean, we fight aliens on a monthly basis. Safety isn't exactly a luxury that we have."
Steve rested his elbows on the table and dropped his head into his hands. They were still in the debriefing room; Fury and the rest of the team had left only a few moments ago, and as soon as the last of them had left the room and shut the door behind them, Steve hadn't been able to turn to Tony and lay into him with every bit of anger he'd pent up since they finished fighting those damn aliens today. Steve felt like his whole body was ringing with adrenaline along something kind of frantic and sharp, running through his veins furiously. Every time he thought of how Tony had thrust himself into the line of fire without back up, too far away for anyone to assist him in time, that hot acid in his blood spiked and he felt like putting his fist through the wall.
He let out a sigh, told himself to stay calm before speaking again. "You're right Tony. We have dangerous jobs, but that doesn't mean we have to make dumb, spur of the moment decisions that could get us killed."
"That's the thing though, Cap. That dumb decision I made actually saved all of our asses, you're welcome by the way, and wow, would you look at that? I'm alive and well. A bit bruised and feeling a bit dizzy, but I'm alive, and still in one piece so there's nothing to worry about."
"Next time you might not be so lucky," Steve bit out, ignoring the prickling of discomfort at the back of his neck of at the thought of Tony bloodied and broken. The image had been stuck in his head since that initial moment of fear, and he just couldn't seem to get rid of it.
"I'm like a cockroach Steve, it's impossible to get rid of me. I've lost count of how many people have tried to kill me, and look, I'm still here." Tony flashed him that million watt smile and Steve resisted the urge to shout at him when he winced at the motion. He was so riddled with cuts and bruises Steve couldn't even tell which was the one that was hurting him.
He folded his hands on the table and focused his gaze on them, trying to regulate his emotions.
Don't think about Tony covered in blood, still and lifeless.
Don't you dare.
"I hate to break it to you, Tony, but you're not invincible."
Tony frowned. "Yeah I know I don't have super powers or anything, Steve, but I'm actually not that breakable."
"I know you're not breakable."
"Don't worry Winghead, I'll stick around for however long you need to keep on saving the world from batshit crazy Asgardian gods. You're not going to lose any of your muscle."
Steve turned a sharp stare at Tony, his eyes narrowed. He was leaning back in his chair, eyes fixed on something across the room, his fingers drumming a erratic pattern on the arc reactor casing in his chest. His expression would've seemed neutral, but Steve saw the slight pursing of his lips, the flicker of emotion behind that nonchalant mask.
"Tony, that's not why I'm mad at you."
"Isn't it?" Tony gave him a grin which was probably meant to be that cocky, carefree smirk that was pretty much his trademark, but it came out a bit twisted. Too much like a grimace for Steve's liking.
"No," Steve objected firmly, "I'm not just upset about almost losing another asset to the team."
"Got a replacement in mind already for when I bite the dust?"
"What? No!" Steve dragged a hand roughly through his hair and sighed. "Tony you're an incredibly valuable member of this team, and you couldn't be replaced if we lost you."
"Well, the suit is incredible, if I do say so myself."
"Tony," Steve snapped sharply, louder than he meant to, and Tony started in surprise. He cast the Captain a wry look and rolled his eyes.
"Yes, oh Captain, my Captain?"
"Your value extends far beyond your suit."
"Of course, I'm a genius Steve, remember? Good luck finding someone capable of building anything even close to the magnificence of my suit, 'cause you're not going to. One of a kind, baby."
With that, something snapped inside of Steve, and he was on his feet. Without telling them where to go, he was striding around the table and his hands clapped down on Tony's shoulders and he was staring into his coffee brown eyes with the kind of icy determination that he used when he went running into battle.
"Listen to me Stark. I'm pissed because my best friend put himself in danger, not because the suit you happened to be inside could've gotten destroyed. I'm mad because my friend and teammate almost got himself killed today, because he couldn't fucking wait for back up. I'm pissed because you're cocky and overconfident and stubborn, so you make spur of the moment decisions that could get you killed. I'm pissed because I can't lose anyone else I care about."
For a long moment, Tony was silent, staring back at Steve with eyes that were confused and searching.
Confused wasn't exactly an expression Steve was used to seeing on Tony's face.
He let out a noise that was both a sigh and an unamused laugh, and shook his head. "You are worth so much more than your intelligence, Tony. I care about you." He wished that his voice didn't sound so choked and broken. His fingers were tight on Tony's shoulders, his fingers bunching up the fabric of his under suit. Steve had equal urges to shake him and to examine him for serious injuries. He resisted both.
Tony looked taken aback, his brows drawn together in a strange, twisted expression. That mask was cracking around the edges, letting tiny slivers of emotion shine through, but Steve couldn't read it. He didn't know what that faint grimace on his face meant.
Steve broke eye contact, released his death grip on Tony's shoulders, and made his way back to his chair in silence. He flopped into the chair, boneless, all the fight drained out of him as he sank into the stiff hardness of the plastic beneath him. The adrenaline had faded into something more along the lines of relief and concern all rolled up in this tight ball in his chest.
He couldn't lose Tony too.
It was a long time before Tony finally spoke, his voice careful and slow. "I actually made you swear, Rogers."
Steve let out a gust of breath and shook his head with a roll of his eyes. "Why does everyone get so surprised when I swear? I was in the army for goodness sake."
"I don't know, maybe because the other day you stubbed your toe and muttered 'gosh darn it' under your breath? You swear like an eight year old at the park with his mother."
"We were with Director Fury! It would have been disrespectful."
"Steve that man swears more than a sailor. He actually lives up to that eye patch. You really think he would've cared?"
"Exactly!" Steve threw his hands up in the air in exasperation. "This really isn't the problem right now, Tony! Would you please stop making decisions that could get you killed when you could easily call for back up?"
"Fine!" Tony snapped.
Steve sagged in his seat, suddenly feeling very tired. Tony Stark was turning out to be more difficult to deal with than the god from Asgard who kept sending hordes of aliens down to earth.
It was minutes before Tony spoke again.
"Hey." Steve looked up, to see Tony's face had softened slightly, and he was concentrating very hard on a spot on the table, completely avoiding eye contact. "I'm uh… I'm sorry. I guess. I mean I still did save your ass and all of New York, yet again, but I'm-"
"Thank you," Steve cut him off and gave him a small smile. Tony would go on for hours if he let him, and it seemed like apologizing was actually physically painful.
Tony returned the smile with a small shrug. "No problem-o, Cap."