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How Not To Be Nothing

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If Tony ever wrote a book- y’know, in his abundant spare time between talk shows and press conferences and making the next best thing since sliced bread- it’d be ‘How To Survive as Tony Stark: A Guide.’

The first line would be:

Good fucking luck.

Then there would be a lot of bullet points, and the first few would be:

  • Ever heard the saying, ‘fake it till you make it’? Commit it to memory. Make it your own personal motto. Say it in the mirror at night if you have to.
  • In reference to the first point: learn how to fake a smile. And everything else. Except orgasms. Always have genuine orgasms.
  • Alcohol helps with the thinking process. Or whatever excuse you can come up with (make said excuses many and varied).
  • Lower everyone’s standards very, very quickly. It makes life considerably easier.

After that, it would probably just be pages of equations and drunken babbling until he passes out.

In the classic Tony Stark way.

Oh, and lastly:

  • Don’t kiss him.

-

Say what you want, but Tony didn’t get into Harvard at 16 because his dad’s loaded. When they say Tony’s smart as fuck, they don’t say it to piss you off.

Tony is legitimately as smart as everyone says- childhood prodigy, built an engine at 3 years old, got into high school at 11, corrected the teachers about astrophysics- Tony is smart to the point where he can’t get to sleep because the numbers won’t let him.

Hence why he is awake at 4 a.m. in the laundry room underneath his building, scribbling equations absentmindedly on the dryer he’s sitting on.

He’s still sort of drunk, and also completely folded up in his own head, which he takes as a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why he doesn’t notice the guy standing about a meter away from him until he finally clears his throat.

Tony startles, and the guy is saying: “Uh, sorry, it’s just- well, that’s the only dryer that isn’t being used, and I-”

Tony looks down, and yep, apparently he’s sitting on a dryer. Huh.

“Sorry,” Tony mumbles, and is sliding off when he focuses on the guy’s face.

If there is a God, Tony thinks blurrily, he’s either an asshole or he has a sadistic fucking sense of humour.

“Thanks,” the guy- Steve- says, smiling awkwardly, and Tony feels like he’s been punched, because maybe it’s the light down here, or the lack of it, or how he hasn’t slept in a few days, or what the fuck ever, because Steve is beautiful.

But he manages a nod and steps back, shoving a hand though his hair and then wincing, because he’s just smeared engine oil into it and that’s a bitch to wash out.

The guy’s hand hovers over the lid of the dryer, before he turns around, his basket of clothes still in his arms, looking like he’s going over something in his head.

Tony waits a few seconds, and okay, now the guy is blushing, what.

The guy looks at him almost guiltily, and says, “Uh, excuse me if I’m being rude-”

Tony shouldn’t be as disappointed as he is. He shouldn’t, he isn’t, he doesn’t care, but the words are too familiar and the guy’s going to say them like everyone else does, and-

“-but you’re Tony Stark, right?”

Tony wrestles his internal whining to a halt and manages his famous shit-eating grin. “In the flesh.”

The guy keeps blushing- and seriously, what- and ducks his head. Then he seems to get a hold of himself and straightens up, hefting his shoulders, and o-kay, then. “I heard you were coming here. To Harvard, I mean. Which is, um. Here. Like I… said.”

Tony’s smiling against his will. An actual, genuine smile and he should really stop it, damnit, because this would make it easier for people to tell the difference, but Steve is fucking adorable. “Indeed I am. Rogers, right?”

Steve’s smile deflates a little. Fuck. “I- yeah. Steve, actually.”

I know. “I’ve seen you around. Art major?”

“Yeah.” Steve shifts , rearranging the bundle of clothes slightly in the basket, and Tony watches as the leg of a pair of jeans is shoved back into the pile. “I, uh. On TV, you always look- I mean, I didn’t realize how young you are.”

Tony bristles, and Steve splutters: “I mean, I know you’re really smart, so- you’re only a few years younger than most of us, so that’s-”

“Two or three,” Tony says through the forced stretch of his lips, but it’s fine, he’s good at this. “I make up for it, believe me.”

“I’m sure you do,” Steve says, nodding furiously, looking like he wants to be anywhere else but here. “I’m- I didn’t mean- uh, I’m only 18, so. Uh. I should really just- stop talking, huh?”

Stop making me like you. I’m trying really hard not to. You almost had it. “No, no, you’re doing fine. Classy. Honestly, it’s usually me babbling, but you’re forgiven.” He flashes another grin. “Not everyone has a celebrity on their campus.”

Steve’s smile falters again, and this time his expression flickers. “I- yeah, I guess.  I mean, I’m not going to ask you to sign anything, you’re- when you get right down to it, celebrities are just… you’re a person, I mean, you’re not just. Um.”

Tony’s staring, stuck between taking it as an insult and just staring some more, but Steve is blushing again: “Not that you’re not- uh, I mean, it’s- you’re very- you’re standing next to a dryer looking like you haven’t slept in a week, and your shirt’s kind of ripped, and I can still imagine you in front of a billion people because you keep using that face that you use in front of the camera, not that- you’re still gorgeous, I didn’t- you just look- uh, tired- I don’t watch the interviews, like, religiously, but it’s kind of hard to miss them every once in a while, and you’re on magazines and everything, and you’re Tony Stark, but you’re- you’re still a person, under all that. Is what I, um. Is what I mean.”

Tony’s still staring, and maybe he’s gaping a little, he doesn’t care, and Steve is shifting horribly awkwardly now, blushing insanely, the clothes in the basket trying for suicide dives to the floor.

There’s a muscle fluttering in Steve’s jaw. “Christ, I’m- that was really, really inappropriate, I’m so sorry.”

“Ghhh,” Tony chokes, and then, getting his vocal cords to co-operate: “It’s- it’s fine, S- Rogers. I’m- I’m just really tired, I’m gonna-”

“Oh!” Steve starts to shuffle out of the way, saying, “Sorry, I’ll just-”

“Have fun with your washing,” Tony hears himself say, and internally slaps himself, because fucking smooth, Stark.

But Steve smiles, albeit nervously. “I will. Sorry, again, abo-”

“It’s fine.” Tony waves his hand a bit too hysterically. “Just kind of intense for a guy that I’ve known for less than 80 seconds. Uh. It’s fine, really. And you’re right on the ‘me-not-sleeping’ account, so I’m going to go and, uh. Sleep.”

A few seconds pass and Tony realizes that they’re both just standing there, so he jerks into motion, making himself walk down the line of washing machines towards the door.

From behind him, he hears: “Bye, Tony.”

Tony slips over his words- he almost says Steve, and that would be bad, because he’s trying so, so hard not to like him and this would make him think that Tony liked him, and that would be bad because Tony’s not- “Catch you later, Rogers.”

The door swings shut behind him and Tony just stands there, feeling heavy and tired and more lonely than he should be.

-

“You are very definitely not supposed to be here.”

Peter tilts his head in the sarcastic-yet-gangly way that 11-year-olds do. “Bruce said you lived here. Would you rather I left?”

Tony breaks out into a grin, closing the door behind him. “Maybe you can stay a while.”

Peter fist-pumps, and before Tony acknowledges it, he’s being tackled in five feet of eleven-year-old enthusiasm. “Fuck, I missed you, Uncle Tony!”

“Language.” Tony wraps his arms around him and pulls him down, tumbling them both over the couch so Peter squeals as he’s pinned underneath.

“Hypocrite,” he says, his voice muffled into Tony’s chest, and wriggles out, falling onto the carpet. “Ahhh! Freedom!”

Tony watches him fondly, trying to tamp down on the warm twisty feeling that’s currently curling in his chest. “What’re you doing here, kid?”

Peter bounces up, and Tony loves him for it- he always bounces up, energetic and grinning and stupidly smart, as sarcastic as he is- enough like Tony to relate to, but not enough to make him hate him.

“I told Aunt May that you invited me over for the holidays.”

Tony blinks. “I thought you said you didn’t want to come over for the holidays.”

Peter throws his head back and groans loudly. “I didn’t mean it! I was mad! You were 11 once, a billion year ago-”

“Hey, hey.” Tony flicks him in the ear, and Peter makes an enraged squeak. “Only five years older than you, bud.”

Peter raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, but that’s aaaaages in teenage years. I’m still pre-pubescent.”

Tony stifles a laugh. “Damn straight. How are you going on the armpit hair?”

Peter lights up. “I thought I felt one yesterday, but it was just cat hair.”

“…Right. So, what do you think of my new digs?”

Peter scrunches up his face as he looks around. “Jeez. Where’d you get this dump?”

“It’s a dorm,” Tony says. “It’s supposed to be shit. It’s, like. The full college experience.”

Peter rolls his eyes. “Whatever you say, Uncle Tony.” He perks up as he catches sight of the hot-tub outside. “At least you kept the necessities! Can we use it? Pleeeeease?”

Tony bats him softly on the head. “Pshhh. You only love me for my money.”

“No, I love you for you.”

Tony might turn to look at him a bit too fast, but Peter’s looking at him with that stupidly earnest face, looking young and honest and it makes Tony’s chest clench, makes him remember back to Steve’s blush: you’re still a person, under all of that.

Tony swallows. “Uh. Yeah, we can use the hot-tub.”

Peter whoops and hugs him again, and if Tony holds on too long, neither of them says anything.

Chapter Text

  • Don’t kiss him.

Tony cannot stress this point enough.

Come on. It’s a very important point, and it’s not as easy as it looks- Steve is just so kissable, with those pale pink lips and bright blue eyes. Hell, he looks like a fucking clichéd Michelangelo painting, but better, because he laughs and his eyes crinkle, and his hair is messy most of the time even though Tony sees him trying to comb it down a few times in class. And his stubble- Tony keeps getting distracted in class imagining dragging his mouth over it until his skin is raw, running his thumb over it, and he’s never even had a stubble kink until now, Jesus Christ.

Not to mention ever since they actually had a sort-of conversation, Steve’s been saying, “Hey, Tony,” every time he passes him and Tony has to physically stop himself from sprinting over, slamming him against a wall and kissing the living crap out of him every fucking time.

All of which Bruce acts incredibly not surprised at when Tony tells him as he’s helping Bruce pack everything into his shitty suitcase.

“And yesterday I spent six hours sitting in the laundry room downstairs in case he came in at the same time he did last week,” Tony finishes, his cheek pressed against the fridge.

Bruce glances up from where he’s trying (and failing) to zip up his bulging suitcase. “I wondered why you weren’t in physics.”

“Mphhh,” Tony says. “So, what’s the verdict, lab buddy?”

Bruce sighs and sits up, kicking at the suitcase in a futile attempt to aggravate it into zipping its own damn self up. “I think you’re insane. I’m also stuck between suspicious and proud as to the fact that you actually like someone.”

Tony straightens up, fast. “I don’t like him.”

Bruce smirks, half amused, half exasperated. “Really? Because I kind of got that impression halfway through your ‘his hair is the greatest thing to grace god’s green earth and I bet his dick tastes like candy floss and fairy dust’ rant.”

“That,” Tony says, “is purely a physical attraction. An attraction that revolves around how his dick does or does not taste li-”

“Which you then followed with a three-minute speech about how he was really nice when you spoke to him and how it’s really, really hard to hate him,” Bruce cuts him off. “You, Tony E. Stark, have a crush.”

Tony likes Bruce. He trusts Bruce, which is a rare thing, he basically only trusts him and Peter, so.

They had met when they were both 13, and had hit it off based on a shared love of physics, the fact that they were fuckloads smarter than anyone else their age and because Tony didn’t tiptoe around Bruce due to his raging anger issues like everyone else did.

So when they had both graduated high school, they both had sort of wanted to not be complete and total loners at huge colleges where everyone wanted a piece of them. Plus, Bruce had started taking pills for his anger, so that had pretty much worked out. Being roommates had been thanks to Tony sleeping with the RA for this floor, which he still hasn’t told Bruce about.

Basically- they’re both too young, too rich and too smart.

Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

But him accusing Tony of having a crush was just- “I don’t like him, Bruce. I like his dick. Or the idea of it.”

Bruce looks at him with that fucking expression- the one that always ended up with Bruce barrelling on about their feelings and Tony hating it while it’s happening but being grateful for it later.

“Tony,” Bruce says, in that understanding tone, and yep, this is going to be awkward as fuck. “It’s not the end of the world if you like someone. Hell, even if you fall for them.”

“Hey, hey, hey.” Tony holds up his hands. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. I’m still in denial that I like him, but don’t even suggest-”

“You’re Tony Stark,” Bruce says. “I know. I know that it’s not just a name, it’s a label. It’s practically a brand, for fuck’s sake. I know that it’s not- that it’s not simple, and I know you, Tony, better than almost anyone.”

At this point, Tony is just staring at the ground in front of him with his jaw locked, so Bruce continues: “And since it’s a guy- people aren’t, uh. They aren’t necessarily okay with the whole ‘bisexual’ thing, which, um. Which will be fun when the press stops ignoring it. And your dad isn’t-”

Tony looks up warningly, and Bruce wisely backs off. “Yeah, yeah, moving on. Anyway, the press is going to be dicks about it, and your intimacy issues aren’t exactly a walk in the park, either.”

Tony snorts. “Intimacy issues- what? Seriously? Do you know how many people I’ve-”

Intimacy, Tony, not sex,” Bruce sighs. “There’s a difference. Your philosophy at this point seems to be ‘sex good, actual feelings bad.’ Like- when some girl hits on you at a party, you’re fine. You’re oozing charm and the usual bullshit, whatever, and she sleeps with you, fine. But if it’s not me or Peter, and someone tries to hug you, or hold your hand or something, then you freeze up. Hell, sometimes even when it is us.”

“I fail to remember any point in time where you have held my hand-”

Bruce, because he’s an asshole, leans forwards and wraps his arms around Tony, who goes rigid and lurches back slightly. Before he can rectify this, Bruce is leaning back, lightning-quick, and Tony blurts, “That was cheating, I wasn’t prepared, anyone would-”

Bruce says, “Tony,” but is interrupted by two tiny arms linking around his neck and Peter yelling, “UNCLE BRUUUUUUCE!”

Bruce takes this in stride, and fixes Tony with a look like, see, some people don’t freak the fuck out when they get hugged, even if it’s from behind and by an eccentric 11-year-old, before bending forwards so Peter yelps and topples off of his back and onto the carpet.

He lies there for a few seconds, groaning melodramatically and clutching his elbow.

He slits an eye open. “Ughhh. You killed me. Uncle Tony, Bruce killed me.”

“We deny any and all accusations of such a thing,” Tony replies flatly. “I saw nothing. Come on, up you get-” he scoops Peter up and tosses him so he’s half-hanging over his shoulder, and Peter starts to laugh.

“Guh.” Tony pretends to sag under the weight. “You’re so fat.”

“Am not!” Peter wriggles out of Tony’s grasp and lands with both feet on the ground. “I’m small for my age, everyone says so!”

Tony grins and looks at Bruce. “So, I heard you gave this menace our address.”

Bruce raises an eyebrow. “How dare you accuse me of treachery.”

Peter pretends to pout, before noticing the suitcase. “Are you leaving?”

Tony hooks a thumb at Bruce. “He is. Malibu- going to see Betty for the holidays.”

“Bruce has a giiiiiiirlfriiiiiiiend,” Peter drawls, grinning, and Bruce bats him on the shoulder.

Peter looks up at Tony, eyes bright. “But you’re staying, right?”

Shut up, weird stomach clench-y things. “Yep. Hey, do you want to see the new Jacuzzi I brought one of the dorms upstairs?”

Peter’s brow furrows. “The green veggie thing?”

Bruce barks out a laugh, but it takes Tony a few seconds to get it. “No, that’s a zucchini, idiot.”

“Oh.” Peter’s expression smoothes out. “Okay.”

-

“Tony!”

Tony’s heart leaps into his throat, and he tries to shove it down- shut up, damn it- and turns.

Steve is jogging up to him, and comes to a stop at an acceptable distance. ‘Acceptable’ as in ‘hey so Steve I am ridiculously attracted to you and will probably maul you if you come half an inch closer.’

“Hey, S- uh, Rogers.”

Again, Steve’s face flickers. “Calling me ‘Steve’ is fine.”

But ‘Rogers’ distances you from me. “I prefer ‘Rogers.’”

And fuck if that isn’t a slap to the face, because Steve is looking like he’s regretting the decision of coming over.

But he doesn’t leave, which Tony is honestly confused by, because come on, he’s acting like an asshole to him.

“Uh,” Steve says. “I know it’s probably stupid to ask you this, but are you free sometime over the Christmas break?”

Tony blinks, running over the words again in his head- and Steve is saying, “I mean, you’re probably busy with parties or machines or something, but I thought-”

“I could arrange something,” Tony says, his tongue feeling heavy and thick. “Why?”

Steve’s smile is relieved this time. “Have you seen those people I hang out with at lunch?”

Tony blinks again. He’s been doing that a lot. Not really, because every lunchtime I get distracted by you eating and can’t focus on anything else. “There’s that Russian chick. And… the big blonde guy.”

“And Clint,” Steve says. “The other blonde guy. The two you mentioned were Natasha and Thor.” and then, “No, seriously, his name is Thor. His parents were thoroughly stoned when he was born.”

Tony’s loud, rolling laughter startles him even as it comes out of his throat.

“Anyway,” Steve says, looking absurdly pleased at making Tony laugh, “We, uh. We’ve all known each other for a while, and every Christmas break we try to go down to the lake near here. It’s about a four hour drive, and we stay there for a few days, in a hotel near the- um, anyway, we were wondering if you’d like to come.”

If you’re trying to sleep with me, you’re putting in way too much effort. You could’ve just said, ‘hey, that janitor’s closet looks dandy.’ “Uh. I was going to hang out with my nephew-”

“You have a nephew?” Steve seems genuinely interested. “I haven’t seen that on the news.”

This, strangely, doesn’t make Tony feel bitter. “Yeah, he’s- it’s not official. He’s not really my nephew, I mean, we’re just- yeah.”

Wow. Nice. You’re going to knock the socks off of everyone at the next press conference.

“He can come,” Steve says. “And- Banner? Is that his name?”

“Bruce Banner, yeah. He’d have to leave early, he has plans.” Tony is grinning, and why is he grinning he shouldn’t be grinning oh my god stop it right now-

“I mean, if you guys want to.” Steve’s blush is getting steadily heavier. “I know it’s really forward, but, uh. I just thought you’d like to come.”

Tony looks over his face- not pity, not lust, so what the fuck- “I’ll see if they want to.”

Steve’s smile forms into a fully-fledged grin. “I’d really like that. So, uh. Ban- uh, Bruce already gave me your number, so-”

“He did?” Bastard. I am going to kick your ass, Banner.

“I- yeah, he didn’t tell you? I’ll, um. I’ll call you?”

Tony nods jerkily, and Steve blushes again, before starting to walk off, waving awkwardly.

“Rogers?”

The name feels weak in his mouth. Pathetic, even- he’s trying, he’s trying so hard to not get attached, but if he’s trying so hard then why the hell is he not thinking of an excuse to get out of the trip-

But Steve turns- doesn’t just glance over his shoulder, actually fully turns, and Tony feels a rush of affection at that for no fucking reason.

His mouth works uselessly for a few seconds before saying: “Why the hell did you want to invite me? You don’t even know me.”

Steve pockets his hands, and shrugs, still smiling. “I thought we could fix that.”

Tony stares. Again. “Uh. I- okay. Have fun in class?”

Steve grins, and waves again, and then he’s gone and Tony’s still staring after him.

Chapter Text

Tony slings his bag onto the counter and declares, “Bruce Banner, you are a fucking bastard who should be devoured slowly by wolves.”

Both Bruce and Peter look up from the couch.

“Yeah, Bruce,” Peter says, flicking him in the ear. He turns to Tony. “Why should he be slowly devoured by wolves?”

Bruce is smiling blandly. “Hi, Tony. Did Steve catch up with you?”

Peter looks between Bruce and Tony, who seem to be having an epic staring match. “Who’s Steve?”

Bruce says, “I don’t know. What would you call him, Tony? Friend? Boyfriend? Lover? Soulmate bound by the endless bonds of love an-”

“Fuck you,” Tony says. “Are you coming?”

Bruce laughs. “You think I’d miss this? I’m coming even if you restrain me. It should be a reality show: Tony Stark versus his feelings, the first season.”

“What? Why is Tony facing his feelings? Where are you going?” Peter is extremely confused at this point, his head whipping between Tony and Bruce.

Tony finally looks at him. “Would you,” he says, “Like to go to a secluded hotel in the middle of nowhere with us and four people you’ve never met before?”

“Yes,” Peter answers instantly.

Bruce says, “Ha.”

Tony tamps down on his amused grin. “Right. Why the hell would-”

“It’s an adventure,” Peter exclaims, colour high in his cheeks. “Things could happen! We could- we could stumble onto another dimension-”

“Which I am all for,” Bruce nods.

Peter cocks his head at Tony. “Why don’t you want me to go?”

Tony stammers for a few seconds before raising a hand to scratch guiltily at the back of his head. “I was, uh. I was actually going to use you as an excuse not to go.”

Peter frowns. “Why don’t you want to go?”

“Msrnhnn,” Tony says, slouching onto the couch next to him.

Bruce sighs, pinching his forehead. “You know how Tony’s a prodigy who is the future of technology in the known world?”

“Yeah.”

“You know how he’s an idiot when it comes to emotions?”

“Yeah.”

“He may or may not have found someone who makes him tap into things that he’s buried under layers of alcohol and intense denial for the past 16 years.”

Peter doesn’t even blink. “Is that good?”

Bruce, bless him, doesn’t even look taken aback. He glances at Tony, who looks back at him with a look that only two people who have known each other too long and too intimately can look at each other like. “Dunno. I think we’ll find out.”

Tony averts his eyes to the floor, and tries not to think about what’s underneath.

-

Tony passes the semester with flying colours, blah, blah, A+, who cares.

Hell, he could probably flunk out of college and still end up a millionaire, thanks to the Stark fortune.

Which isn’t a comforting thought, but whatever.

Peter spends the next three days babbling about the trip, literally jumping up and down on the spot, and insists on meeting everyone.

“We’ll meet them when we get in the car,” Tony says, rolling his eyes- he’s offered to Steve to just fly them all over to the hotel, but Steve had laughed and said it was a third about the journey. It was only a four-hour drive, anyway, surely they could all put up with each other for that long without killing each other.

“Famous last words,” Bruce mutters darkly.

-

Because Peter’s a brat, Tony finally caves in and gets Steve to call everyone to meet in Tony and Bruce’s dorm room, which Tony thinks is stupid because they’re all going to get in the car together in 12 hours.

Clint is pretty cool. He accepts the beer Tony gets him, and they spend an hour dissing the PA and discussing what celebrities they would rather sleep with- Tony wins, because he actually has slept with some of them.

Natasha- well, Natasha kind of scares the shit out of Tony. She doesn’t look at him, she glares, and she wields her bread knife like she could cut out his aorta with it.

“I wouldn’t put it past her,” Clint remarks when Tony tells him this. “She’s done crazier things.”

Thor is awesome. He’s just- awesome. He flings open the door, apologizes for being late, and then chugs an entire fucking pitcher without stopping for breath, which automatically puts him in Tony’s good books.

It’s nice, actually- Tony only gets tipsy, and they all spend a few hours in front of the TV, watching reruns of ‘Friends,’ piled up on the couch with Peter sprawled over their knees.

Steve sits next to Tony, who’s near the middle, wedged between him and Bruce, and Tony tries not to concentrate on the soft, hot weight of Steve’s side pushing into his.

After a while, everyone has mostly fallen asleep- Clint and Natasha are curled in a chair, Bruce is in his room, Thor is snoring softly against a wall and Peter is out cold over Steve and Tony’s legs.

“Y’know, he’s a great kid,” Steve whispers, so they don’t wake anyone up, “but I can’t feel anything below my knees.”

“Seconded,” Tony agrees quietly. “So, we can take option a: heartlessly shove him off and find somewhere comfortable to sleep, or b: selflessly spend the night getting cricks in our necks and when we wake up, they’ll have to drag us to the car and drive us to the hospital where our legs will be amputated. I can build us new legs. They’ll be awesome. Seriously, I’m imagining the schematics right now, mine can have hidden rocket boosters-”

Steve is laughing, a hand shoved over his mouth to stop the noise, but he’s shaking, his shoulders trembling with the effort of shutting himself up.

Tony watches him, and he wants to kiss him- of course he wants to kiss him, but his mouth is currently covered by his hand, and even if it wasn’t Tony doesn’t think he would.

Under the bright, hazy amusement and slight drunkenness of the situation, Tony feels a smear of unease paint its way across his chest. It’s mixed with want, with lust and comfort and something stupid that he shouldn’t feel anyway, and he shoves it all back because he’s good at it, because it’s best for everyone, because he’s only known the guy for a while, because they barely fucking know each other except he feels like he does, and god, he doesn’t want to fuck this up.

He wants this to turn out well so, so badly that his throat is closing up.

Steve’s not laughing now, and he takes his hand away from his mouth, and Tony almost raises his hand to put it back because damnit, remove the temptation.

It’s quiet. The only sound is Thor’s quiet snores, and everything seems too muted, too raw, and Tony feels static thrumming through his hands, through his feet, his fight-or-flight mode acting up, telling him to run, to get the fuck out while he still can.

It’d be easy- pry Peter off, say he can’t go, he’s busy, because he is, he’s Tony Stark, he’s always busy. And he knows he’d say it- ‘I’m Tony Stark,’ the ultimate excuse, the trump-all card.

‘I’m Tony Stark’- I can’t go, it’s a bad idea, we’re a bad idea, I don’t want to fall for you, I’m an asshole, you’re better off without me, you should get out, you’re going to betray me or end up hating me and I’ll let you down and I’m not worth it and I’m sorry-

But fuck, he’s so sick of always just being Tony Stark.

“Are you okay?”

Tony watches Steve’s mouth move before the weight of the words actually hit him, and he’s thankful for Peter at that moment, otherwise he’d get up and try to leave.

Steve’s looking at him, those fucking flawless blue eyes searching. “Tony?”

Tony says, “Yeah, no, I’m fine. Just tired. Yeah, we should sleep.”

Steve’s answering smile makes him inhale a bit too sharply. “Keep those rocket boosters in mind. On second thought, they sound kind of useful.”

Tony huffs, his smile failing and then coming back up again. “You’d never need to catch a bus again. Well, I’ve never needed to, but whatever.”

Steve laughs again, breathessly, and leans his head back so it’s resting on the couch. “Night, Tony.”

Tony almost says, Night, Steve, and then Night, Rogers, but then gives up on them both, because one would make him want to kiss him and the other he thinks would be like shitting on their entire conversation, so he just says, hopelessly, helplessly:

“Night.”

Chapter Text

“I literally think my legs will have to be surgically removed.”

Natasha rolls her eyes. “Stop being melodramatic and get up. We’re leaving in ten minutes.”

“No, seriously.” Tony tries to move his feet, and freezes when bolts of pins and needles rip paralyzing-ly up his leg.

“Ohmygodthisistheworstfuckingfeelingintheworldfuck.”

“Seconded,” Steve croaks, trying very, very hard not to jolt his legs in any way, shape or form.

Tony looks over to where Peter is wearing a shit-eating grin. “I hate you.”

Peter starts along the hallway, singing, “No, you doooooon’t-”

Natasha shoots Thor a weary look, who nods.

“Fear not, Steven and Tony Stark. I shall assist.”

And yes, he actually fucking talks like that, seriously, which is another reason Tony thinks he’s fucking awesome.

He thinks Thor is a bit less awesome when he grabs both him and Steve by their waists and hauls them up over separate shoulders, ignoring their yells of “MYLEGSOHGODPUTMEDOWNI’MDYING-” and “FUCKYOUFUCKYOUFUCKYOUFUCKYOU-” and carries them out the door, heading to the stairway.

-

“Move over.” Tony jabs his elbow at Bruce.

Bruce snarls. “I’m moved over as far as I can. If I move over any further, I will be hanging out the fucking window. You’ve taken half my seat.”

“I deny it.” Tony shifts his legs further into Bruce’s seat, just to piss him off, and Bruce growls and swipes them off.

“Hey.” Clint glances at them in the rear-view mirror. “Knock it off. There’s barely enough room in here as it is, and we have seven people in here.”

“Mmm,” Tony says. “Nice minivan, by the way. Very soccer-mom chique. Who owns it?”

Thor says, “I do,” and Tony stares for a few seconds before deciding nope, he doesn’t even want to know.

Peter shifts restlessly, and Tony eyes him. “I just want you to know, if you ask if we’re there yet, you will embody every single cliché of your time, ever. So don’t.”

Peter blinks innocently up at him. “I was gonna ask if someone would put on some music.”

Tony narrows his eyes, but Steve just says, “I do,” and Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ fills the car.

Tony, Bruce and Peter all stare.

Steve shrugs. “Surprises come in large packages?”

Bruce and Tony look at each other, and Bruce has a look that says: Tony fucking Stark, don’t you dare make any comments about Steve’s large package.

Tony just grins, feeling too light, and catches Steve’s eye as he does.

-

The four hours actually pass surprisingly quickly, complete with everyone singing at the top of their lungs and headbanging at the right parts, which mostly ends with Tony choking himself silent on laughter, because Natasha and Steve headbanging is one of the best thing he’s ever seen, ever.

When they get out of the car- and fuck, Tony has been taking too much abuse to his legs today- he forgets about his ‘not-touching-Steve-if-you-can-help-it’ taboo and pats him on the shoulder. “I approve of your playlist.”

Steve laughs. “Thanks. That was just the roadtrip playlist, though. You probably wouldn’t like the rest of my i-pod.”

“We’ll see,” Tony says, and doesn’t miss how Steve’s smile stretches enough to burst. It makes him feel strangled- in a good way, if that’s possible- it’s kind of a prickly feeling, and he tries to swallow it down as he turns to get the bags.

Peter tugs on Tony’s shirt as Tony hefts his duffel over his shoulder. “Yeah, kid?”

“Is that him?” Peter at least has the common sense not to point, but he nods towards Steve, who is a few metres away and digging through the supplies in the front seat.

Tony rolls his shoulders, feeling ridiculous. “Uh, yeah.”

Peter looks around Tony at Steve, and Tony feels himself holding his breath. Finally, after a few long tense seconds, Peter says, “He has a good taste in music.”

Tony lets the breath out in a huff of laughter. “Apparently. Who knew?” He rearranges the bags on his shoulder so the straps sit comfortably. “You need help with your bag?”

“I can handle it,” Peter says, looking at it like a sworn enemy.

Tony rolls his eyes. “Whatever you say.”

“I can!”

Tony raises his one free hand defensively. “Hey, I believe you!”

Peter glares, and Tony grins toothily. “Tell me when you start sagging sideways.”

Peter squawks indignantly, and Tony cuffs him on the shoulder. “Joking. Come on, the others are going.”

“Can carry my own bag,” Peter mutters to himself, slinging it over his shoulders and nearly getting crushed by it in the process.

Tony snorts, and leads him up the steps.

-

“Happy holida- holy motherfucker.”

Everyone turns to stare at the girl behind the desk, who is gaping shamelessly at Tony, who sighs inwardly and makes himself pull the trademark Stark grin. “Hey, gorgeous.”

Steve watches him amusedly, and signals towards the desk lady. “Uh, we booked the suite on floor fi-”

The girl croaks, “Tony fucking Stark.”

Peter slumps against Tony’s arm, and Tony can feel, rather than hear, the words being muttered into his elbow: “Not agaaaaaain.”

But Tony flashes the grin again. “In the flesh.”

He regrets it in less than a millisecond, because he can see Steve startle in the corner of his eye, and thinks, fuck, I better start coming up with better ‘yeah hi it’s me fuck off now.’

The girl- she’s around about his age, what the hell is she doing working here- gapes again, and then manages to snap her mouth shut. “I- oh, my god, I thought I’d be cooler than this. Why aren’t I cooler than this? I’m so sorry, I- do you mind if I get a picture?”

Just let us check into the fucking room. “Not at all.”

She gushes, and yep, there’s her cellphone. She ducks out from behind the desk and loops her arm around his neck, almost squishing Peter before she notices him. “Oh, hey! Who’s this?”

Peter is glaring daggers at her, but Tony just raises an eyebrow at him as he says, “My nephew.”

“Your nephew?” She ruffles Peter’s hair, who continues glaring in a way that could kill flowers and baby chipmunks. “I never knew you had a nephew.”

“It’s a government secret,” Tony says, looking at Steve over the girl’s head. “Don’t tell anyone. We’d all disappear off the face of the earth.”

The girl looks uncertain, and Tony thinks okay, can’t take a joke, and says, “You said something about a picture?”

“Oh, yeah!” She positions her cell-phone, and Tony relaxes into the usual smile, the usual flash of light, the usual, “Thanks, Mr. Stark!”

He says, “Tony,” and the girl giggles slightly hysterically and nods.

“Um.” Bruce waves a few fingers in her direction. “Our suite?”

“Hmm?” The girl looks at him vaguely, and Tony can practically see the clockwork chugging in her head. “Fuck. I mean- bother. I mean- fuck, I am so going to get fired. I am so, so sorry, guys- the suite booked by ‘Rogers, Steve,’ right? Party of seven?”

“That’s me,” Steve says, raising a hand.

The girl nods briskly. “Okay. Okay, I can do that. Uh.” She starts typing into the computer, hitting the keys a bit too hard. “Hey, uh. Why is Tony Stark here? Shouldn’t he be in his mansion, or something? Or with his family?”

Tony bites back a retort, smiles the smile, plays the role. “Yep. This is just a quick getaway thing. Thought I’d have Christmas here with a few colleagues. We’re taking another trip down to get the presents out of the trunk.”

“Oh!” The girl beams around at a sullen room. “That’s… nice. Um.” She reaches underneath the desk and comes back brandishing a key. “Enjoy your stay, I guess?”

“Thanks,” Tony says, and they all head for the elevator, dragging their bags.

As Tony moves to the right to give Natasha more room, she shoots him a look- it’s not a glare, it’s sort of soft, sort of understanding, and it catches Tony completely off guard, because hey, I thought you hated me.

No-one says anything almost the entire way up, until it’s almost on the last ‘ding’ because mother of fuck this elevator moves slow, and Steve catches Tony’s eye.

Tony means to drop it, but then he just- doesn’t, and it stretches on for a few seconds.

Steve says, “I didn’t get a ‘hey, gorgeous.’”

There’s a wave of laughter around the elevator, and the tense atmosphere is broken, everyone smiling reluctantly.

Tony shrugs. “You didn’t act completely and utterly awed. You want compliments, you’re going to have to be breathless from my very presence. Breathless, I say.”

“Don’t start, please,” Bruce says from behind them both. “It only inflates his ego.”

The elevator finally ‘dings’ and the doors creak open and motherfucker, Tony could build a better elevator in his sleep. He’s genuinely worried for their safety.

Everyone starts filing out- okay, shoving, shut up, they’re all teenagers (minus Peter) who have been cramped in a car with minimal leg space for over three hours- and Tony only just hears Steve say, “I don’t know, he’s kind of breathtaking.”

Tony turns around jerkily, his bag knocking into his leg and probably bruising it, and Peter narrowly manages to avoid slamming into Tony’s back.

Steve is blushing, but he meets Tony’s gaze steadily. “What?”

Tony says, “Nothing.”

Steve smiles, his mouth twisting slightly, and bumps his shoulder softly against Tony’s as he passes. “Follow us.”

Tony just stares for a few seconds, stuck in his own head, but is jolted out of it when Peter jabs him in the ribs.

“He said follow,” Peter grumbles, still a bit pissed off from almost breaking his nose via Tony’s spine.

“Oh,” Tony says stupidly. “Yeah.”

He follows Steve, and it feels like breathing, like kissing, like making engines, like something natural and normal that he’d be perfectly happy doing for the rest of his life.

Chapter Text

“Okay, fuck it. What the fuck is that sound?”

Clint looks up. “What sound?”

“The sound.” Tony gestures wildly. “It’s- it’s like- a beeping thing.”

“Child prodigy, is in college at 16, ladies and gentlemen: Tony Stark,” Bruce says from the opposite couch.

Tony pulls the finger at him. “Come on, you've heard it.”

“Yeah,” Bruce admits. “I’ve actually been wondering what it is.”

“Ohhhh,” Clint says. “That sound.”

“Yes, that sound,” Tony says, exasperated. “What is it?”

Clint shrugs, going back to his book. “We have no idea. It just beeps randomly once every hour. We’ve come up to this room seven years in a row, we’ve never found out what it is.”

Tony stares.

Clint looks up.

Tony stares.

Tony, still staring, says in a disturbingly calm voice, “And were you at any point curious as to what said beeping noise was?”

Bruce says, “Oh, god.”

Tony rolls of the couch and stands up. “Okay. The last time it beeped, it sounded like it was coming from the left side of this room, and-”

“Fuuuuck.” Bruce slams his head down into a couch pillow.

From the doorway, Natasha and Steve frown at Tony, who is now digging under the cushions.

Natasha deadpans, “Did he find a quarter?”

Tony shoots her a look before going back to digging. “Something beeped. There’s a beeping sound and no-one knows what it’s from. How the fuck could you guys come here for seven years and not go batshit insane over what it is?”

“Because we’re not spectacularly insane nor have OCD,” Natasha says. “We’re not helping you look.”

“Aha!” Tony sticks a finger at her. “See, that, my dear Romanoff, is where you’re wrong. Want to know why?”

“Not rea-”

“Because inside you- deep, deep down- you have a burning desire to know what the beeping sound is. Maybe it’ll take a few hours, even days, but you’ll join us all in our epic hunt for the cause of the beeping sound.”

Natasha watches him continue to dig. “I refuse to spend the three days that we’re here on a scavenger hunt.”

“Your loss,” Tony calls, his face stuck inside a cushion cover.

Steve’s mouth twitches upwards. “Well, I’m game.” Natasha raises an eyebrow at him, and he shrugs. “Come on, last year we spent a while looking for it. This has been driving us crazy since we were 11. Don’t you want to find out what it is?”

Natasha shifts uneasily from foot to foot, looking between Steve and Tony.

“You know you want to,” Tony says from inside the couch cushion.

To this day, Natasha will deny that she had smiled at that point. “Fine. One hour of searching. It’ll beep again by then, which will make it easier. You guys take this part of the suite, Thor and I will take the southern-”

“Dude,” Clint says, slapping his book down. “We’re just looking for a beepy thing. Start looking under the rugs.”

-

It’s not under the rugs.

It’s not anywhere, and it’s been five hours and it’s beeped four times since then and everyone has pretty much gone fucking crazy over finding it.

“Fuck this,” Clint yells to the ceiling, after five and a half hours of fruitless searching. “I am done. This is a mystery that was never meant to be solved, I swear to god. I,” he declares, sitting down heavily on the couch that’s still missing the cushions, “am sitting the fuck down and watching Firefly.”

“I admire your taste,” Bruce calls from the kitchen. “And I agree with your ‘fuck this’ statement. I give up. We’ll never know what the beeping sound is.”

“Everyone into the lounge, now,” Steve hollers. “We’re surrendering against the beeping sound.”

Thor trudges in, looking uncharacteristically down, probably due to the fact he had been digging through the balcony for the past hour and had been crapped on by a pigeon.

Natasha comes in with Peter, who is conked out in her arms. She lays him carefully on the couch and then looks up, her expression clearly saying: If any of you speak I will slice your testicles off one by one with a can opener.

Steve looks down the hall. “Where’s-”

“Tony is still on the balcony,” Thor says. “The pigeon missed him.”

Steve very considerately not laughs. “Tony?”

Nothing.

“Tony, we’re giving up.”

…Nope.

Steve sighs and makes his way through the hallway, then the left onto the balcony, and there he is, in all his glory, crouched in front of the pot-plants.

“Tony.”

Tony jumps, and drops the pot-plant off the balcony.

They both lean forwards and watch the pot-plant fall five stories before smashing to pieces on the concrete.

They blink at each other for a few seconds before Tony finally says, “Oops?”

Steve laughs. “We, uh. We gave up on looking for it. I guess we’ll never know. But hey, there’s always next year.”

Tony sort of looks at him sideways, and Steve realizes what he’s just said. “I mean, not that- I’m still surprised you weren’t busy, I wasn’t presuming- I mean, it’d be nice, is all. Um.”

He trails off, knocking his hands together.

Tony says softly, “It would be nice.”

Steve looks up, and Tony’s bent slightly over the balcony, staring down at the mess of dirt and terracotta that used to be the pot-plant.

He waits, and Tony’s still looking down when he says, “I’d like to, Steve. Honestly, I would. This has- fuck, this has actually been the best Christmas I’ve ever had and it’s not even Christmas Eve yet. I mean, you guys are-” he stops, clears his throat, and glances up at Steve. “Not trying to be an asshole, but why are all of you guys free at Christmas? You all seem… really close. Coming here seven years in a row, getting out the same room. Hell, most people just hang tinsel.”

Steve sucks in a slow breath, and leans his elbows onto the balcony so he’s face to face with Tony, which is not distracting at all, nope. “I, uh. I don’t really think you want to hear. Destroy the festive spirit and all.”

Tony gives him a dry look. “Rogers. We don’t even have a tree. We barely even have any presents, which is fucking weird, because I’m a billionaire and could literally buy us all private jets if I wanted to.”

“Which you’re not,” Steve warns. “Seriously, Tony, I’m not kidding.”

Tony holds up his hands. “No promises. But come on. Storytime, Rogers. Get to it.”

Steve looks at his hands- not his own hands, Tony’s. They’re an odd contradiction- for one, they’re manicured, but they’re also patchy with burns and twisted swathes of skin. For some reason, this puts him at ease.

“Well, uh.” Where to start? How the hell can I- “We all met in school, actually. Clint and Tash already knew each other- orphanage. And, uh. Me and Bucky already knew each other, because we grew up together.”

It hangs there like a phantom limb, but Tony doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask who’s Bucky or what happened.

“We, uh. Thor was an exchange student; they had to move because his younger brother got sent to Juvie. He doesn’t talk about it much. And anyway, we all became fast friends. And it was great, it was-” he stops and swallows, thinking how easy it’d be just to stop. To stop and go inside, or kiss Tony to get him off subject, or just kiss him because the moonlight is hitting him and lighting him like  a star, or just kiss him just to kiss him-

“Bucky died last year. Motorcycle accident. Fucking-” he ducks his head. “Fucking motorcycles, I told him-”

He can feel Tony’s eyes scraping over him, and he’s used to that, but he’s not expecting the tentative hand on his shoulder. It makes him look up, and when he does, Tony looks uncomfortable as fuck, and fair enough.

But he nods at him, like, continue, might as well get this over with.

“The first time we came here-” Steve cuts off, his throat closing like a vice, and he has to struggle to get the words out- “The first time we came here,” he says, gritting his teeth, “we had all ran away from home for Christmas. None of us really- we didn’t really-” he swallows again, internally kicking himself for getting so worked up over this when he’s just talking about it. “The first year we came here, it was- it was like a thing. We realized that we didn’t have to be chained to our relatives. That they didn’t have to be our family.”

He can’t look at Tony. He can’t. “We were our own family. We are our own family, that’s what- that’s what being here means. With- people.”

Tony’s hand is still unmoving on his shoulder, and Steve’s sort of surprised he hasn’t dropped it and flung himself off the fucking balcony.

Instead, Tony says, in a weirdly quiet voice, “I- thanks.”

Steve doesn’t look up, doesn’t trust himself to.

Tony squeezes his shoulder, and then finally drops his hand, folding them both under his chin.

Steve looks up, blinking hard, and Tony says, “I still don’t fully get why you invited us, but thanks. Thank you.”

 Steve laughs, his head drooping slightly, because Jesus Christ, he’s tired.

Tony laughs with him, quiet and nervous, and they both just look at each other, and it’s comfortable.

Then, like an ad for porn popping up at the bottom of the screen while your parents are looking:

Beep.

From the lounge, Steve can hear everyone’s annoyed yells, and Tony throws up his hands to the sky. “OH MY GOD IT’S LIKE IT’S TAUNTING US. WHO WOULD PUT SOMETHING LIKE THIS IN A HOTEL ROOM? WHY IS IT EVEN THERE? WHAT THE FUCK IS IT? WHAT ON EARTH COULD IT POSSIBLY BE?”

Then Steve’s full-out laughing, in huge, uncoordinated gulps, clutching his stomach and almost crying from it, and Tony’s joining in because it’s so stupid, it’s so amazingly idiotic. The stars are out, and Tony’s shoulders are shaking, and Steve can still hear everyone in the lounge quoting along with River Tamm, and Tony’s bent over and laughing like hell and this, this is why, this is always why.

Chapter Text

Clint bursts into Tony and Peter’s room at 7 a.m. wearing Lindsey Lohan boxers and a santa hat.

“MEEEERRY CHRISTMAS!”

Both Tony and Peter raise their heads enough to give him the most terrifying glares in the history of humanity.

“…EVE,” Clint finishes. “We decided to be festive this year. I even got a hat, see?”

“Mmphhhfuckyou,” Tony mumbles.

Peter looks at Clint from under his covers. “Yeah, fuck you.”

“Language,” Tony says into his pillow.

Clint looks at them both. “Tony, you are a horrible influence.”

“Fuck you,” Peter says again.

“That’s not me,” Tony says. “He’s just a New Yorker. That’s how we act. We’re all hardened and gritty. Now get out so we can get our beauty sleep. Wake us at noon.”

“But guuuuuys,” Clint whines. “We’re all going to do Christmas things. We never do Christmas things. It’s Christmas Eeeeeve.”

“Sleeeeep,” Tony groans, flinging his arm over his head and burrowing further into his pillow.

Natasha sticks her head in. “If you two don’t get up right now, we’re binning the rest of the coffee.”

Tony forces himself to be horizontal. “Oh, god. You monsters. I’m up.”

Peter snuggles in closer to his pillow. “Whyyyyy.”

“Because,” Tony says, pulling the covers off him so he howls and scrabbles for them. “You are 11 and therefore haven’t yet discovered the wonders of coffee.”

“’s gross.” Peter wraps his hands around his head and curls up into himself, and Tony considers taking a picture- he imagines arguing with Peter when he’s his age, then BAM, a photo of him at age 11 in a Harry Potter onesie. Automatic win.

“No, you just think it’s gross. It’s an acquired taste.” Tony reaches down and locks his arms around Peter’s shoulders and legs, and hauls him over his shoulder.

“We’ve been doing this way too much lately,” Tony says as Peter flails.

-

Steve sort of bounces into the kitchen, and Tony eyes him, half-amused, over a piece of toast.

Steve points a finger at him. “Shut up, we’re doing Christmas things, I’m excited. What first?”

“Uh,” Peter says. “We could get a tree. That’s pretty standard.”

Steve claps his hands together. “Tree it is! Where do we buy an axe around here?”

“No,” Tony says. “No, no, no, fucking fuck in hell no. We are not chopping down a tree. We are buying a shitty plastic tree from a gift shop like any normal Americans. That, or I could get someone to ship one ov-”

“No,” Steve cuts him off. “Shitty plastic gift-shop tree it is! Do they sell tinsel down there?”

Natasha cranes her neck to see into the kitchen. “They hung a wreath on the door. We could just use that for decorations.”

“You,” Tony says, “are all philistines. Shut up, Steve, I’m getting out my credit card-”

“No, you’re n-”

“-And buying tinsel and shit. Come on, it’s the least I can do after everything.”

Tony waves his credit card at him hopefully, and Peter quickly sidles up beside him and shoots Steve his infamous puppy-dog eyes.

Steve rolls his shoulders uncomfortably. “…Fine. But don’t go overboard. I’m coming with you.”

Tony salutes. “Sir, yes sir. I’ll go and get dressed, the last thing I need is photos in the next Crème magazine of me in a ratty dressing gown.”

Bruce says, through a mouthful of oatmeal, “I think it’d add a little class to it.”

-

The hotel’s gift store, shockingly, doesn’t exactly have a good selection. Yes, it has tinsel, and that’s fine, and fairy lights- shut up, Tony calls them fairy lights, go fuck yourselves.

But the trees are for shit. They’re a muted, sickly tone of green and come up to Tony’s knees.

“Ugh.” Tony looks down at them, wrinkling his nose. “Give me enough time, and I could probably connect all of them to make one huge-”

“It’s fine,” Steve says, and looks genuinely happy at the tree, so that’s okay. “Really. I’m just concerned we won’t be able to fit all of the presents underneath it.”

Tony squints. “We could put it on top of all the presents. A really sturdy present, like-”

“I basically got everyone books,” Steve admits, scratching the back of his head guiltily. “Yours was kind of hasty, since I didn’t know if-”

Tony snorts. “I’m sure I’ll live with a book. This is still better than 99% of Christmases at home.”

He can feel Steve giving him a look, and wishes to swallow those last words, because fucking hell, way to fuck over the Christmas spirit.

“What are Christmases at home like?”

The voice comes from behind him, and they both turn and Natasha’s standing there, funnily enough, with her arms crossed and she’s staring at Tony in a way that Tony still can’t tell if she hates him or not.

She raises his eyebrows at him, like, I’m waiting, and Steve glares at her slightly.

“Uh,” Tony says. “I don’t know, it’s- they’re… fuck, I don’t know. The maids hang decorations and shit, but we don’t really do Christmas in my family, they’re always in Japan or something. In the past few years I’ve just gone over to Bruce’s, or got Peter to come, or- I don’t know, it’s…” He doesn’t want to say lonely, but that’s pretty much the entire definition: those silent, huge rooms, stocked to the brim with tinsel and ornaments and fucking bows.

Whenever he thinks of Christmases at his house, he just thinks of the thump of his footsteps looming in the empty house.

Natasha and Steve are looking at him, and Tony sort of gets it in that second- why they come here, why they needed to make their own family: because anything is better than his shoes coming down onto the perfectly polished floor of the mansion, and the sound is like a gunshot, loud and taunting and you’re alone, you’re alone, and no-one being around to hear them.

-

Tony’s known them for about two days at this point, he’d just like to point that out.

Two days of Thor saying ‘verily’ and meaning it, of Natasha sort-of-not-really glaring, of Clint’s dirty socks hanging over the sink. Two days of them all being almost constantly together, of Steve making Peter specially-shaped pancakes and Bruce giving Tony looks whenever Steve did almost anything near him, including breathing.

Two days, and Tony thinks he’s the happiest he’s been in a long time.

Which, looking back on it, should really have been a warning sign.

-

“Fa, la, la-”

Natasha says, “I will strange you with this tinsel. It will be on the news. ‘Tony Stark strangled with tinsel.’ Kindly shut up.”

Tony grins. “But it’s Christmas carols! They’re festive! It’s not Christmas without caro-”

“It can be Christmas without you breathing,” Natasha threatens, advancing on him with the green tinsel strung tightly between her hands.

“Hey!” Steve steps in between them and shoots Natasha a disapproving look. “No murdering on Christmas Eve. It’ll destroy the Christmas spirit.”

“Oh, my god, guys,” Peter sighs loudly from the lounge. “You know what Christmas is really about? Watching bad reruns that they play every year. Everyone get on the couch, Rudolph is on.”

Clint beats everyone else to the good seat. “Loooove me some Rudolph.”

Tony rolls his eyes. “Of course you do, Clint. Pass the popcorn.”

Bruce holds out the bowl, and Tony digs his hand in it before recoiling. “What the f-”

“It’s burnt,” Bruce says. “We had to cook it in a pot. This room doesn’t have a microwave.”

Tony barely restrains himself from banging his head on the table, because what kind of fucking hotel doesn’t have a microwave in-

Instead, he just sighs and flops down onto the couch, almost crushing Peter’s left side. “Egg nog?”

Clint opens the mini-fridge and peers in. “Nope, but we have vodka.”

Natasha’s hands fly out. “Give me.”

Tony starts to say, well, at least there’s proof you’re Russian, but then the ads come up and there’s his face, grinning at the camera.

Thor looks at the TV, then at Tony, the back at the TV. “’Tis like Tonyception.”

A voice on the TV is saying, “Brand new interview with Tony Sta-”

“Yeah, brand new interview that was filmed over three months ago,” Tony says, reaching for another handful of burnt popcorn.

“Huh,” Natasha says, looking at the screen, where Tony is straightening his tie before saying something obviously hilarious that causes the audience to break into peals of laughter.

Steve raises his eyebrows at on-screen Tony. “Christ- How do you do it?”

Tony knows what he’s talking about, of course, but- “Do what?”

“Everything.” Steve is still staring at the screen, at Tony’s stupid plastic grin that he’s incredibly good at by now. “I mean- the interviews, and the girl at the desk, and just- everything.”

Tony shrugs uncomfortably, suddenly tongue-tied. I fake it. I’m good at it. I’m used to it. This is how I live.

He opens his mouth, but (thankfully) his phone rings loudly, making him jump.

“Aaaah.” He digs in his pocket, and draws it out- Shit- what the fuck is dad’s assistant doing ringing me?

He briefly considers ignoring it, but just as he’s about to, his thumb makes a suicide dive and hits the ‘answer’ button. He stares at it for half a second.

“Turn it down,” he nods at the TV, and Peter grabs for the remote.

Tony puts the phone to his ear. “Yeah?”

“Mr. Tony Stark?”

It’s a different assistant- a woman, maybe in her early forties, her voice thin and clipped.

Tony blinks. “Speaking.”

The girl coughs and then clears her throat, sounding extremely reluctant, and Tony mentally runs through the list of things he’s done for his dad to be pissed at him about.

“I am…” the woman inhales deeply. “Your mother instructed me to call you. She- I am very sorry for this.”

Tony’s mouth goes dry. He’s always hated this- how he has such a physical reaction, how his hands clench, how it feels like his blood goes solid.

The woman says, “Edward Jarvis was just recently involved in a car accident. He passed away.”

Tony waits for more. The words don’t even hit him for a few seconds, but when they do, and he realizes that she’s not going to continue, that this isn’t a joke, that-

“Mr. Stark?”

The woman sounds vaguely concerned, but this is her job, so she’s probably trained to be.

Tony feels his heart beating sluggishly in his chest, all too aware that everyone in the lounge has their eyes on him.

Bruce says, “Tony?”

Tony doesn’t answer. He distantly feels the phone drop to his lap. His breath is being dragged from his chest.

Someone is saying, “Tony.”

Someone says it again: “Tony.”

Someone says, “Tony,” and Steve is in front of him with a hand on his shoulder, still saying his name, panic leaking into his voice, and Tony doesn’t answer, can’t answer, and Steve is still saying his name, over and over.

Chapter Text

“Tony-”

“I’m fine, I just need to get back t-”

“Tony, wh-”

Tony shoves the last of his shirts into his bag, swearing as he nicks his finger on the zip so blood wells over the cuticle. “Fuck- look, my dad’s assistant called me, and- I’m sorry, I don’t want to ruin all of your Christmases, I just need to get home. Now.”

Everyone’s standing up- Peter even moves towards Tony, but Bruce stops him.

Peter cranes his neck. “Uncle Tony?”

Tony sort of crumples slightly. He walks on wobbly legs and bends down in front of Peter. “Hey, uh- I’m going to go back home, but you’re allowed to have Christmas here if you wa-”

“I’m coming with you,” Peter interrupts.

Tony feels a lump gathering in his throat. “You don’t have to, you should have Chr-”

“I’m going wherever you’re going,” Peter says, folding his arms stubbornly. “And you can’t stop me. Stupidhead,” he adds.

“I second that,” Bruce says quietly. “We’ll be where you are. Stupidhead.”

Tony almost laughs and then wisely decides against it, due to his throat quickly closing.

“I think I speak for all of us,” Thor says behind him, and Tony turns- he thinks it’s the first time he’s heard Thor ‘speak’ rather than ‘boom’- “When I say that we will valiantly follow Tony Stark wherever he has to go.”

“Tony-” Steve steps forwards. “What happened?”

Tony almost says, my dad died, and then stops himself. Then, my butler died, but that wouldn’t work, that doesn’t have depth, doesn’t say what Jarvis fucking meant to him- “I- Jarvis died.”

Behind him, he can hear Bruce’s intake of breath, how his hand moves to stop Peter doing whatever the hell he’s doing.

Steve, of course, has no idea who the hell that is, Tony can just see him thinking I’ve never read about him in the newspapers, because that’s all Tony is, right? Headlines.

But Steve obviously sees something in his face, because Tony’s about a glass of vodka away from a complete breakdown, so Steve takes another step forwards.

Tony’s back hits something hard and smooth and shockingly cold, and it takes the tinsel poking into his neck to realize that he’s just backed into a fucking wall, and everyone’s staring at him with mixed expressions.

Shame floods through him- he’s cringing into his shoulders like he wants to vanish into them, and he might as well just have put a neon sign on his head, flashing, I am the most fucked up person to ever exist and I can’t cope with any form human contact.

Steve’s face goes shuttered, and he rocks back on his heels, his arms by his sides.

Tony pushes forwards. “Sorry.”

Flash. I am fucked up.

Steve swallows. “Don’t be. Clint, can you go and bring the car around?”

“Yeah,” Clint nods, dragging his eyes away from Tony and heading for the side door.

Natasha’s face is impassive- Tony’s grateful for that, how she can tuck her emotions away behind her skin until they boil to the surface- minutes, hours, years later, even. Hell, he can sympathise.

Flash: I am fucked up.

Tony looks at the ground, and then up at everyone, because he’s Tony Stark, for fuck’s sake, he does this for a living. “You guys really don’t need to-”

“We want to,” Natasha interrupts, and okay, so she doesn’t hate him. Huh.

Tony says, “I could call a jet-”

“There’s no traffic on these roads at this time of night,” Steve says. “It’d trim off half an hour or so.”

Tony runs his tongue over his cracked lips. “I- yeah.” His lips are bleeding- he tastes the coppery tang of it in his mouth. “Okay, we can do that.”

Steve starts to step forwards again, and then his foot stutters and returns to its original place, like Tony’s going to freak out again and tries to hide under a chair.

Like he’s that damaged. Like he’s that weak.

The blood tastes bitter on Tony’s tongue.

Steve nods sharply, his hands clenching and unclenching, like he doesn’t know what to do with his body- everything’s awkward, it’s dark outside and the room seems too brightly lit; they’re burning specks into Tony’s corneas. Tinsel is hung all over the room- it almost glitters, along with the fairy lights, strung carefully by Peter a few hours prior, and Tony feels like an asshole for doing this, for feeling like this, because he’s ruining a perfect fucking Christmas with his own selfish bullshit.

Steve starts to say, “I’m sorry for your l-” and Tony can’t watch Steve’s mouth shape the last word, because it is a fucking loss, he’s lost someone, and he’d prefer to lose his legs or his arms or his eyes.

He snaps, “Don’t. Just-” He closes his eyes for a second, over the fine film of moisture, and breathes. “Just don’t. That’s crap that talk show hosts say when they want a reaction out of me, you’re not- don’t-”

Flash. I can’t cope with human contact.

Flash: I’m getting too attached to all of you.

His breathing is getting ragged again.

-

They’re an hour into the drive home when Tony gets another call. It’s the assistant, and no-one asks why the fuck his parents don’t call him, thank fucking god. She says that a helicopter is coming to pick him up from the dorms in ten minutes, and Tony tells her to give him a few more hours.

She doesn’t ask why, and he doesn’t tell her.

-

It’s another hour into the trip when Tony starts wondering why the fuck he’s even going. It’s not like Jarvis will care, he’s d-

Not for the first time, he starts thinking it’s a mistake. That they got it wrong, that Jarvis is currently screaming himself hoarse at the people who had declared him dead, calling them dolts, or brain-dead, or whatever Jarvis calls people when he’s riled up.

He gets lost in it for a while- how Jarvis will wrap his arms around him, tell him affectionately that he’s a moron, for thinking he had died. Imagines him saying, it’d take a lot more than a car crash to get rid of me, Master Tony. I’ll be here for a good long while.

He imagines the warmth of Jarvis’s arms, the feeling he’s associated with home for far too long.

-

The helicopter comes down like a knife.

Everyone is standing back- they’re coming, they’re all coming, to the helicopter pilot’s confusion, but this is Tony’s world and they don’t really know what to do in it. Hell, apart from Bruce, none of them have even flown in a helicopter before.

They all pile in awkwardly, and the pilot raises his eyebrows at Tony, who doesn’t look at him and instead looks numbly out at the quad.

People stare blurrily from their dorms, through badly-hung tinsel and hanging lights. There are still people up, even at this time of- day, fuck, it’s fucking Christmas.

They’re all staring, semi-used to it, like, oh, of course Tony Stark would get a fucking helicopter to fly him someplace at 1 a.m. on Christmas fucking day and wake us all up.

Someone yells, fuck off, we’re trying to sleep, and Tony barely hears it over the whirring of the helicopter’s blades.

There’s a hand on his knee, and Tony doesn’t check to see who it is, but it’s small and warm and he thinks it’s Peter’s.

No-one says a word the entire way there except for Clint quietly asking Natasha what time it is, and they all try to cautiously look at Tony while seeming like they’re not.

Tony just looks out the window, too used to the hum of the helicopter- spoiled little rich boy- and feels their gazes like a brand.

God, he hopes they’re not using him.

Chapter Text

Maria and Howard aren’t waiting for him when the helicopter lands, but Tony’s kind of expecting it.

Instead, there’s Aunt May, and Peter shouts her name as they land and jumps out of the helicopter a few seconds before they’re meant to.

The pilot starts yelling at him, and Thor shoots him a menacing glare. The pilot raises his eyebrows, like why am I afraid of you, you are twenty years younger than me, but wisely shuts up.

Peter hits Aunt May at full speed, almost knocking her down, and hugs her tightly. She hugs back, crushing him to her, and Peter buries his head in her neck for a few seconds before letting go and pulling back, lightning-quick.

He sniffs, and glances down at the ground. “Hi.”

“Hi,” she whispers, her smile wobbling at the edges. She looks up at the rest of them- her eyes widen at the sight of everyone standing in an awkward group, but she catches herself enough to nod at Bruce.

Her gaze lands on Tony last- her expression falls slightly, and she stands up fully. “Oh, honey.”

She lurches forwards, and Tony opens his mouth to say I’m fine, really, but they get stuck in his throat as she pulls him into a hug- he’s taller than Peter, so his head fits just over hers, and then he’s standing there stiffly with his arms by his sides as she clings to him.

After a few seconds, he gets his arms to work, and he pats her on the back a few times before she leans back, her hands on his shoulders.

His mouth works soundlessly for a while before he manages to choke out, “Merry Christmas?”

That startles a laugh out of her, and Tony glances at Steve. See? You’re not the only one with a makeshift family.

-

It was very fast, they tell him.

There wasn’t any pain, they tell him.

He’s at peace now, they tell him, and Tony doesn’t smile, because that would be inappropriate, but he doesn’t cry, either, because that’s not part of his image- he gets caught up in this, how he’s supposed to act around these people, and Bruce looks at him with the muted understanding that they share.

He can see everyone trading looks- the people in suits, he means. They keep sharing glances, like, who the hell was Jarvis? Why haven’t we read about him? Why the fuck does Tony Stark give a shit if his butler dies?

Tony watches them and their invisible language, and wants to tell them that he can translate it, he can read morse code and fucking binary if he wants to, so watching white-collars in glasses shrug at each other is kind of easy to interpret.

It’s like a crossfire of looks- everyone’s looking at each other and away from each other and trying not to look at Tony and failing.

-

When they leave, the house is oddly full. Of people, he means. All in a clump over by the fire- Natasha, Thor, Steve, Clint, Peter, Aunt May and Bruce, all looking shifty and tired and awkward as fuck.

Everyone’s still looking at him, and Tony’s never wanted to be someone else more in his fucking life, and that’s saying something. People always ask him, why do you drink so much, why do you sleep around so much, why do you turn the music up so loud, and Tony always just grins and changes the subject.

I don’t like being in my own skin, he wants to say. I want out. I don’t want to be Tony Stark 24/7. It’s stressful, believe it or not.

He imagines telling them, it’s lonely, and imagines their surprised bark of laughter, because he’s Stark, he’s Tony Stark, he’s always around people, he goes to parties and everyone fucking swarms him, how could he be lonely, how could he be unhappy, he has everything he could ever want, and wanting anything else means he’s a selfish bastard.

Tony tries to make his mind shut up, and slaps his hands uselessly down onto his jeans. “Uh, so. We didn’t bring the presents, did we? Oops. I could buy-”

“We’re fine,” Steve says, and Tony wants to scream at him, just take my money, everyone else does, that’s all everyone else wants, why should you be different, but instead he just makes himself smile and shrugs. “Whatever.”

Steve’s face falls, and he starts to say something, but abruptly cuts himself off and goes ramrod straight, his eyes trained to the doorway.

Tony turns, and his mother is standing in the doorway, looking surprised.

But she’s a Stark, too, she takes everything in stride, and her lips are spreading in that multi-million dollar smile. “Hello,” she says, her perfect red lips smacking together. “I wasn’t aware we had company. D-” she stops, her eyes settling on her son, and the smile bottoms out. “Tony.”

Tony starts. “I- Yeah?”

The smile doesn’t return. In place of it, there’s that vague, nervous expression that Tony is all too familiar with. “You got my message?”

I got your assistant’s message, Tony doesn’t say. “Yeah. Thanks for, uh. Telling me.”

She nods curtly, the dip of her head practised and elegant, her pearls clattering against her neck. “That’s- that’s good. I- he was a good man.”

“He was.”

No-one knows where to look, least of all Tony, so he keeps his eyes on his mother, which seems as dangerous as anything else.

She hovers for a second before starting towards him, her high heels hitting the wood with a crack, and Tony is only distantly absorbing this before she’s stopping a few inches away from him.

Her hand flickers upwards, and then stops, and for a horrifying second he thinks she’s going to hug him, but she just puts a hesitant hand on the side of his shoulder, and it stays there as Tony shifts backwards slightly in shock.

She doesn’t squeeze or anything, her hand just sits there like a dead weight. Her throat clicks, her gaze won’t sit still.

Tony’s never been quite clear about her- she’s never hugged him, except for one time when he had been six and had tripped over a tree root, and that had surprised the shit out him, even back then. His whole life, she’s just been kind of… confused, especially when she had looked at her son, like she couldn’t figure him out, or didn’t want to.

Her mouth opens, but nothing comes out- Tony thinks this might be the first time he’s ever seen her speechless. She licks her lips, smudging her lip-liner, and Tony knows that when she leaves, it’ll be to the bathroom to fix it.

Then, from the door- “Maria?”

Tony almost bites off his tongue.

Yes, there he is, there’s Howard Stark, there’s Tony’s future in a couple-thousand-dollar suits and a loveless marriage and a glass of bourbon in his hand.

Maria doesn’t smile, and she drops her hand. “Yes, Howard?”

Howard’s eyes track to Tony, who smiles grimly. “Hey, Howard.”

Howard eyes him warningly, and he can’t say it because there are people here, but Tony knows it off by heart: Call me Dad. It’s better for the press.

He remembers that one time: And that’s all that matters, right, Howard?

Howard says, “Who are your friends?”

He hears it in his tone- how he lingers on ‘friends,’ like he’s stretching out the lack of them, like so which one of these people are going to end up fucking you tonight?

Tony feels trapped. This house is huge, it bends out for too long, like a spool of thread, but Tony wants the fuck out, now. “You know Bruce and Peter,” he says, and watches his father frown, because he doesn’t even pay attention to his son, let alone his associates- “and the rest are- some- people I got to come over for Christmas.”

For Jarvis dying. Jarvis is dead. He’s dead, and I’ll never see him again, and he raised me, and he’s dead, do you not think that maybe that would affect me slightly and I might need some support, that maybe I’m actually human and not just here for you to use, you fucking-

Howard says, “That’s nice. When’s Christmas?”

Of course. “Today, Ho- dad.”

Howard says, “Oh,” and Tony grits his teeth, because of course, of course-

“I think Tony should leave with us now.”

Howard, Maria and Tony all turn to look at Steve, whose jaw is so tight he’s probably breaking teeth.

“Steve Rogers,” Steve says. “Nice to meet you both. Tony?”

A hand on his arm stops him, and Tony blinks up at Maria, who seems to be speechless again.

There’s a silence, and finally she swallows hard and drops her hand. “Merry Christmas, Tony.”

Tony feels something hit bottom in his stomach, like he was expecting something different. “Merry Christmas, mom.”

She smiles tightly, and Howard moves an arm around her.

Tony watches them both with a churning stomach, and walks out with everyone else.

-

They walk to Starbucks, of all places.

Bruce gives Tony his hat so he won’t be recognized- it’s a fucking huge hat, and it hangs down over his eyes.

After they’ve been sitting down for almost ten minutes and no-one’s said anything except their drink order, Tony clears his throat. “Uh. Thanks, Rogers.”

“Would you stop that?”

He thinks it’d actually be better if Steve had thrown a plate at his face.

But then Steve’s backtracking, his hands coming up, saying, “I didn’t- you keep calling me ‘Rogers,’ and it’s- I think it’s fair to say we know each other at this point, Tony.” Again, he moves his limbs like he doesn’t know what to do with them. “Please call me Steve.”

Tony doesn’t move. He just stares down at the table, and the silence builds again, and wow, everyone’s been really quiet lately.

Peter especially- he keeps trying to catch Tony's eye, and on the way here, he had sort of held Tony's hand, and Tony doesn't really know how to feel about that except for fucking pathetic.

When he gets up, he doesn’t expect it. He doesn’t expect to her his own voice saying, “Sorry, must be going, I have a hot date with a bottle of vodka. See you guys later.”

He doesn’t expect to hear them all calling his name behind him.

Steve says, “Tony,” and then his hand is on his shoulder as Tony’s turning away, and Tony flinches before he can stop himself.

Steve lets go like he’s just grabbed onto a live wire, and Tony wants to apologize, wants to say sorry I’m not stronger than this, wants to say you’re better off like this, trust me, wants to say why the fuck did you want me to be a part of your family anyway, wants to say fuck off and stay and save me, please.

But he swallows it down, and his lips part in a pained grin. “Catch you on the flip side.”

He walks off, and this time Steve doesn’t follow him, and Tony closes his eyes-

save me, save me, fuck, please-

Chapter Text

He spends the next few days perpetually trashed off his face, not really knowing where he is and definitely not caring.

He’s currently in that great hazy state where nothing matters and everything is awesome except it’s really, really not, and he’s vaguely aware of his phone ringing before the floor comes up to press against his cheek.

-

He wakes up and there’s a text from his dad’s assistant, saying that the funeral’s in three weeks and he’d better wear a suit.

-

He wakes up and there’s eight invites to a party for- something, Tony doesn’t know and doesn’t give a shit, and he manages to stumble upright for a few seconds before slumping against the wall and sliding down, down, down, and wow, that’s his life in a nutshell, huh?

-

He wakes up and he’s in a pool of his own vomit, and New Years has passed and he has eighty-one missed calls.

-

He wakes up and wishes he could just stop waking up.

-

He wakes up and someone’s yelling.

He sits up, and immediately regrets it- he looks around crossly, slurring at whoever it is to shut the fuck up, but then his eyes settle on the TV and it comes to him slowly that it’s just the guy on the TV.

There’s a half-empty bottle of whiskey in his hand- he thinks it’s whiskey, at least. It’s probably whiskey. It has whiskey-like qualities, the most important of which being it gets him drunk, so he takes a swig.

-

He wakes up and for a second he thinks that the person in front of him is Steve, and he reaches out.

-

He wakes up

              and people are          laughing around him

and his mouth still                    

                        tastes like the inside of a closet

            and        everything is           

 

                         too bright and too loud

       and                              he wants                                                       Steve or Bruce or someone to take him away from all of this

          and he                       

            brings a                                                    hand up to shield his eyes

  and everyone’s              yelling around him and whooping and screaming

                and he’s far too used to this by now

                                      and he has no idea

                   what the date is now

                                             it’s a new year

                                                    new start                              like it matters

                                                                 and someone shoves a drink            into his hand

      and that’s                          

                                      okay right he can              do this

   he’s Tony Stark this is                                                               what he does and this is fine isn’t it he’s fine

             everything’s

 

 

 

                              fine

 

 

 

                                            just tip your head back and                     feel your head

                                                                               spin and

                      swallow

 

       and                                 swallow

 

and

 

 

 

                        swallow

 

 

 

 

 

              like this is going to save you

Chapter Text

He opens his eyes, which he takes for an enormous achievement and a colossal disappointment on his account.

He squints- the lights are fucking blinding, so he’s not really paying attention when the door opens.

He notices when it closes, though, and glances up.

Fuck.

“Msuhgjy,” Tony slurs, and then blinks, hard. “Hey, Hammer.”

Aaaaand there’s the skeevy smile that he hates to the core of his very soul. “Hey, Tony.”

Tony sits up, putting a hand to his eyes. “Think you could be the best person ever and tell me where the fuck I am?”

Justin Hammer, spawn of Satan and all things Nickleback, drums his fingers on the table next to Tony’s head, making Tony’s urge to maim him rise higher than it already is.

“Sure thing, old buddy, old pal. You’re at some really fancy party and you’ve been passed out in this supply closet for the past- oh, I’d say eight hours? I sort of lost count.”

“Muytgf,” Tony mumbles. “Awesome. Kindly pass me that bottle and fuck off.”

Justin smiles that stupid, tacky smile and laughs. “Oh, Tony. You crack me up.”

“You make me want to stab myself repeatedly in the eye,” Tony replies. “Seriously, fuck off.”

Justin’s smile slips a bit. He rocks back and forth on his heels, exhaling through clenched teeth. “Hey, Tony, old buddy, old pal, what do you remember about last night?”

Tony frowns. “I honestly wasn’t aware it was morning. Is it morning? I can never tell. These places always have artificial lights every hour of every fucking day.”

“Uh-huh.” Justin’s eyes flicker around the room.

Tony watches as Justin reaches one hand out of his pockets to click the lock shut.

Tony stares. “Uh. What?”

Justin smiles, and this time it has a little weight behind it- enough to creep Tony the fuck out.

Justin says, “What, Tony?”

Tony motions towards the door. “You just locked me in. Correction: you just locked us in.”

Justin looks at the door, his eyebrows raising like he hasn’t noticed. “Well, golly gee! Look at that!”

Tony smiles tightly, something sinking in his throat.

Come on, not today, this happens way too often than he cares to think about- the sickly sweet taste of something being dropped into his drink, how their hands creep up Tony’s neck. How he feels the bruises for days afterwards, avoiding them when he showers.

How he’s avoided them, broken a window or kicked them in the face or even had Bruce rescue him that one time. How he had avoided it, gotten away before anything serious had happened, before people could have a cause to start saying that ugly word that reminded Tony too much of a cloth being pushed under his nose, up over his mouth.

Justin smiles- leers, and starts sauntering towards him like he has all the time in the world. “Do you remember what you promised me last night?”

Tony feels the ghost of a hand biting into his forearm. “I was drunk-”

“You were really drunk.” Justin laughs, and leans in towards him. “Guess what you promised me, Tony?”

Tony shudders, trying to get enough co-ordination to move. “Hammer, I swear to god-”

Justin runs a hand over his own pants, down his left thigh. “You will.” The hand moves to the front of his belt, undoing the loops-

Tony’s back hits the wall, and it makes him remember: the blur of voices, the smear of tomato sauce on Thor’s cheek, Natasha’s careful expression, the cold wood on his back, Steve’s voice struggling to keep calm, Steve-

His leg flies out, catching Justin in the face, who reels back.

Tony lurches sideways, trying to stand up, but his head is swimming and he slams into the shelf, his hands scrabbling for a hold, trying to drag himself towards the door-

And then Justin’s hands are locking around his shoulders. “You fucking tease-”

Tony pants, “Fuck off,” and Justin slaps him, hard enough for Tony’s head to snap sideways, the ringing in his ears careening to a new high.

Justin’s hands come up to shove at Tony’s chest, pushing him down into the tiled floor, his legs straddling his waist.

“Let go of me-” Tony’s teeth sink into Justin’s arm, which is holding Tony’s right wrist down.

Justin howls and grabs Tony’s head, bringing it up before slamming it into the tiles, and Jesus Christ, as if Tony’s head didn’t hurt enough already, now his vision is going fuzzy.

He’s brutally aware of Justin’s hands yanking at his pants, snapping open the button-

“HELP!” He bucks underneath Justin, distantly wondering if that last blow to the head had concussed him. “HELP, SOMEBODY HELP M-”

Justin slaps him again, spitting at him to shut up through his teeth, and Tony’s ears are ringing even louder now, his tongue flopping around in his mouth, and he slurs, “Help-”

Something slams against the door, and Justin pauses in pulling down Tony’s pants to look over his shoulder.

Something slams against it again, and Tony thinks, dazed, saved by the bell.

The door breaks halfway down the middle, and it takes another hit to the centre of it to tear right off the hinges.

Then Steve’s there, because of course he is, he’s pushing through the broken door and he’s yanking Justin up by his shirt, punching him in the face twice, and then kneeing him in the stomach, and then in the face-

“Wow, you totally go to the gym,” Tony says, probably still slurring.

Steve drops Justin, his face creasing in concern. “Oh, my god, Tony-”

“’M fine,” Tony says, easing himself up to his knees, allowing Steve to take his arms and haul him to his feet, and then out of the closet.

“Call the police,” Steve says to- Natasha, okay, when did she get here, and Tony nods towards Justin as Steve leads him away. “Nice. With the punching and all.”

Steve doesn’t answer him until he marches him into the next room, which is (thank god) empty. He’s breathing hard. “Did he-”

“Nothing was violated,” Tony cuts him off. “I can still wear white to my wedding. Well, I can’t, obviously, I’m not exactly- oh, hey, my head’s clearing up, that’s good-”

Steve says, “Tony,” and Tony waves him off. “I’m fine. Seriously.”

Steve’s eyes are still as fucking blue as Tony remembers them. “You haven’t been answering your calls for nine days, Tony. None of ours, we all checked, you- you weren’t in your house, no-one knew where you were, we-”

 “You should’ve just checked the gossip column.” Tony tries for a grin but it falls flat.

 Steve doesn’t smile, and okay, they’re not up to that yet.

Tony tries to wriggle his hands out of Steve’s grasp, and Steve lets go, quick as fuck, as always.

Steve says, “Tony,” and Tony, because he’s an asshole, interrupts again. “Fuck, I’m fine. I’m fine, this happens all the time, it’s no big deal.”

As soon as the words leave his mouth- fuck, even as they’re leaving his mouth, Tony wishes he could call them back.

Steve’s eyes are huge. “I- what? This ‘happens all the time’? What, people try to-”

“The key word here being try,” Tony says. “No bases have been gotten to as of yet.”

Steve makes a choked noise. “Yet-”

“Yeah, yet,” Tony spits, suddenly enraged. “What, just because you’re immune doesn’t mean everybody else is. If you haven’t noticed, Rogers, I’m kind of lickable.”

Steve has that look again. “You’re sixteen, people shouldn’t-”

“Don’t.” Tony clenches his teeth. “For fuck’s sake, Steve-”

He runs a hand over his face, his chapped skin catching on his beard, and fuck, he really needs to shave.

He throws his head back and laughs once, loud. “Fuck. Okay, you want to know how I do it, Rogers? I bullshit my way through it. I grit my teeth, flash them the famous Stark smile, and pretend to give a shit about whatever the fuck they’re talking about. They don’t care about me, I don’t care about them. We’re all using each other- them for my money, me so I don’t get so lonely I down a bottle of sleeping pills, and I get wasted off my face with them and they’re going to leave the first chance they get as long as they get something from me first, it doesn’t matter, I’m fine. I am.

He stops, refusing to let his shoulders shake, because he won’t break down in front of Steve if it fucking kills him. “And then- and then you come along and you- you’re so-” He bends down and laughs again, sharp and harsh. “Fuck, you actually made me think you gave a shit, Ste- Rogers.”

Steve says, “I do! Tony, I-“

“Bullshit.” Tony’s on a roll, his fists are clenched and he hasn’t eaten for a few days, at least, so what’s another act of self-destruction going to do? “Bullshit. What do you want from me? Want me to give you a free ride from college, no student fees?”

He takes a step forwards, probably for the first time. “Or maybe you heard I was easy.” He lets his gaze drop, seductive and flirty. “Want to fuck me, Rogers? Want me to suck your cock?”

Grabbing Steve’s wrist, Tony says, “Want to hold me down and-“

Steve wrenches his hand out of his grasp. “No! No, Jesus Christ, I-“

Tony half-yells, “What the fuck do you want?”

Steve just stares helplessly, and Tony barely restrains himself from shoving him, from screaming it again. Instead, he grabs Steve’s face in his hands and yanks him towards him, mashing their mouths together.

It’s not a nice kiss- it’s all teeth and Tony’s tongue sliding into Steve’s mouth, and it takes less than a second before Steve’s pulling back.

“Tony, you’re not-”

Tony drops his hands. “Save it. Just-” He pinches his forehead , his mouth itching for the tang of whiskey down his throat. “Just fuck off, okay? Fuck you. I can’t do this.”

He waits for Steve to leave, but he doesn’t, which pisses Tony off more than anything, and he’s storming out, away from Steve, away from the bruises and Justin Hammer and everything he did last night that he can’t remember and probably doesn’t want to.

Chapter Text

-ave ten new messages.

“Tony, just talk to me, I’m sorr-”

Click.

“Tony, it’s Bruce again. Steve told me what happened with Hammer, I- fuck, I honestly regret not kneeing him in the balls when we met at that gala a few months back. Are you okay? And don’t bullshit me, I know you, Tony, you shouldn’t-”

Click.

“This is Thor Odinson. I am calling to enquire about your whereabouts and conditio-”

Click.

“It’s still Natasha. Fucking call one of us before you do something you might regr-”

Click.

“Hey, it’s Steve, I-”

Click.

“Uncle Tony? Aunt May said I shouldn’t call you right now, but I was worried about you. There was something on the news about y-

Click.

“Hey, it’s Clint. Natasha’s been on my ass for days about calling you, and- dude, we’re kind of worried. Fuck that, we’re literally ready to stage an intervention. Look, I know we don’t know each other that well, but I think we should stick together. Not just you and me- all of us. Everyone, and-”

Click.

“It’s Natasha. Checking to see you haven’t drowned yourself. Call me.”

Click.

“Tony, it’s Bruce. Are you okay? Give me a call as soon as you get this.”

Click.

“Tony? It’s St-”

Click.

-

Tony’s never been the sort of guy to ‘need’ things.

Okay, that’s bullshit. That’s the sort of thing that he’d tell the press, because Tony Stark has always been a bit better than everyone else, better than regular people, because he has to be to get the job done, he has to be just that bit more to be live up to ‘Stark.’

He’s always been the sort of guy to need things, to need things with a burn that casts everything else aside until he gets it.

Vodka, his college application, dorms, Steve.

He’s learned to live with it, though- the burn, he means. He’s used to it right now. He’s used to the sour taste in his mouth, the pounding in his head, how most of the time he’s faking smiles until his cheeks hurt.

He’s incredibly used to not getting what he wants at this point.

And so what if in his drunken state of mind, he always reaches for the blondest guy there? So what if he gets distracted by people with blue eyes, and a kind smile- which is really fucking rare, with the people he hangs out with. Kind smiles are hard to fake, and everyone he sees seem to have smiles that don’t reach their eyes, or curl up strangely at the edges, or are accompanied by a red slash of lipstick that leaves marks on his neck.

So what if he reaches out beside him most mornings (evenings, nights, he doesn’t really keep track of when he wakes up nowadays), and the sheer amount of space beside him makes him pick up the bottle that he knows will be at his right?

So what if he got stupidly attached? If he doesn’t just miss Steve, and Peter, and Bruce- but also the measured smile on Natasha’s face, the high keen of Clint’s laugh, how Thor’s voice echoed off the walls.

If his thumb keeps hovering over the ‘call’ button on his phone, keeps hovering over if you would like to listen to the message again, press-

He’s fine. He’ll cope. He always copes, whether it be with drunk girls with too many ribs too easily seen, or (blonde) guys who laugh too loudly, or vodka tipping down his throat, or the reassuring burn of a joint.

So what if he fucked everything up? He’s done it before, he’ll do it again, and there’s nothing to do but pick up the pieces and keep going, like he’s always done.

He’s fine.

He’s fine, and he’ll cope, because he always does, and if he wakes up and reaches for Steve, no-one has to know.

-

It’s sort of mid-January, Tony thinks, and the lights are still too bright as he heads down the corridor.

He hesitates before knocking- what if they just kick me out what if they don’t want me what if- but then decides to just bite the fucking bullet and knocks three times, fast.

The wait stretches out, and less than a second after his hand falls back to his side he starts to consider fuck, maybe I should just-

And then the door’s swinging open, and the rush of air hits Tony in the chest.

Tony swallows. “Hey.”

Bruce stares at him with wide eyes. “Hey,” he breathes, and then his arms are curled around Tony’s back, hugging him for all he’s worth.

Tony doesn’t flinch this time- he doesn’t lean into it, but he doesn’t flinch. Instead, his arms raise and he hugs him back lightly, until Bruce finally lets go.

“Fuck,” Bruce says shakily. “Could’ve told us you weren’t dead in a less dramatic way.”

Tony shrugs. “You know me, all about dra-” he stops, looking over Bruce’s shoulder into their dorm.

Natasha cocks her eyebrow at him, Clint shoots him finger-guns, and Thor and Peter wave. Steve just stares, his expression unreadable, and Tony makes his eyes slide over him.

Tony says, “Uh.”

Natasha folds her arms. “Knew you’d have to come back here at some point. Nice to see you in one piece.”

Tony stays stock-still outside the door. “I- I missed the funeral.”

Natasha’s gaze stutters for a bit, but then it’s back in full force. “Yeah. Yeah, you did.”

Peter blurts, “We still don’t know what that beeping noise was.”

Tony blinks at him for a few seconds before realizing what the hell he’s on about, and barks out an involuntary laugh. “Yeah, I don’t think we’ll ever find it.”

Steve says quietly, “There’s always next year.”

Tony can’t stop himself from looking at Steve, who looks back at him with those fucking blue eyes, because of course he’d say something like that and take the fucking ground out from under Tony’s feet.

Tony glances down at the ground, not sure who to look at. “I, uh. Can I come in?”

“Well, duh.” Bruce knocks him in the shoulder slightly. “Stupidhead.”

Tony’s mouth flickers, and he steps inside.

Chapter Text

Honestly, it’s sort of anticlimactic.

Tony steps inside, and Thor says, “I shall concoct some macaroni and cheese,” and Tony bites down on a laugh and doesn’t say Christ, I missed you guys, and Clint moves over to make a spot for him on the couch.

Tony pretends not to notice how Steve sits as far away as he can.

-

“Give me the remote.”

“You had it for the last two hours, go fuck yourself.”

“Natasha, give me the rem-”

Natasha holds the remote even higher and Clint pounces, scrabbling for it and failing miserably.

Tony watches, his laughter reaching an almost dangerous pitch as Clint topples sideways into the coffee table and Natasha stands up.

She nudges Clint with her foot. “You alive?”

“No,” comes Clint’s muffled response, and Natasha opens her mouth to say something else, but is interrupted by Clint leaping up, swiping the remote out of her hand and lofting it above his head like a trophy.

Yes! Fuck yes, I-” Clint’s victory speech is interrupted by Natasha tackling him into the wall and grabbing the remote off of him.

She smiles coolly. “Learned your lesson?”

“Until next time,” Clint says, his face flat against the wall.

Natasha flicks him in the ear and comes to sit next to Thor again, ignoring a moaning Clint who drags himself to her feet and slumps there.

Everyone’s laughing, shoulder-shaking, nerve-wracking laughter, and fuck, this is like taking a lungful of air after being underwater for too long.

He’s dimly aware of choking something like, this is better, this is so much better, and the laughter around him slowly dies like a match going out.

Tony feels the shift in atmosphere, and the room physically feels colder as he opens his eyes, because everyone’s doing that totally-not-staring-but-really-we-are thing again.

He doesn’t miss the shared glances- and come on, he’s good at seeing those, they should know better.

Tony’s throat clicks. “Wow, way to kill the mood.”

“Tony,” Bruce says, and yep, there’s that tone again. He rolls his hands together. “Look, I already know the answer to this question, but we sort of want to see how you handle it.”

Tony shifts in his seat, his mind already skimming over the possibilities.

Bruce stills his hands from where they’ve been twisting together. “Tony, are you okay? With… everything, I mean.”

Tony’s mouth is too dry. He feels his hand curling around the non-existent neck of a bottle, and flexes it, fluttering his fingers.

He wets his lips. “I-”

He thinks of saying the usual: I’m fine, stop asking, get over it, but something just- gives out in his chest and he can’t be fucking bothered anymore.

His voice is low when he says, “I can take it, okay?”

He looks down at his hands- still aching for a bottle, for something to drink. “I can take everything that anyone throws at me. I can take wanting a drink all the time, I can take sleazy guys trying to shove their cocks down my throat. I can take sleeping with people to get the job done, I can take faking my way through everything, because I’ve been doing this for my entire fucking life, Bruce, you know that.”

His voice isn’t getting louder, and that alone should freak him out, because he’s always loud, he’s always brash and screaming at the top of his lungs. “I’m- used to it. So I can take it, I can take everything. I can take everything, just-”

He hesitates, not daring to look up, because he’s only half-aware of what he’s saying at this point but he knows whatever it is, he can’t say it looking them in the face. “I just want you guys. I need people to keep me from going insane. And not just those people who I drink with, who I end up in bed with, I don’t-”

Swallow. Breathe. Don’t look up. “I need you guys. I just want you guys.” His voice doesn’t crack, it doesn’t. “Just a few good things in my life, okay?”

For a few seconds, there’s just silence, and Tony starts berating himself- what the fuck was I thinking, they think I’m a mess, I fucked it up, fuck- when a hand comes down onto his shoulder, making him jump.

He looks up, and Natasha’s smiling at him in a way that’s surprisingly not terrifying before going back to its usual state. “We stick together, remember?” She lets her hand drop, and Tony finds himself missing it. “But next time you go on a suicidal spree to see how fast you can get alcohol poisoning, call one of us first.”

Tony huffs out a laugh. “I’ll do that.”

Natasha’s carefully composed face flickers for a second, going soft and affectionate around the edges. “Good.”

She flicks him in the ear before flopping back down on the couch, saying, “Okay, now that that’s all over, could we please finish the rest of Serenity befo-” she stops suddenly, and Tony turns to see her looking away from- Steve?

“Or,” Natasha says quickly, “We could all take a casual stroll around the campus.”

From behind her, Peter frowns. “But you wanted to finish-”

Natasha turns around and glares, and Peter squeaks, “Or we could do that.”

“Uh,” Clint says.

Natasha whips around to glare at him, and he throws up his hands. “I’m going, I’m going, Jesus Christ, woman!”

Tony just blinks, confused, as everyone starts filing out the door. He starts to get up, but Natasha sticks her head around the door.

Tony says, “What the hell.”

There’s a cough behind him, and Tony turns to see-

Steve is standing a few meters away with his hands stiff at his sides, and Tony spins to face the door. “Come on, I just had a heart-to-heart, two in one day is a fucking-”

“You’ll thank me later,” Natasha says, and yanks the door shut.

Tony grabs for the doorknob.

Steve says, “So, do you still think we’re using you?”

Tony winces. He knows he should turn to face him, but he can’t seem to make himself move. “Uh. It wasn’t anything personal, Rogers, just- life experience, I guess. I figured there’s about a forty percent chance that you genuinely-”

Then Steve’s walking forwards, taking Tony’s shoulder and pulling him around. “That I genuinely what, Tony? Want to spend time with you? Don’t care about your money?” He’s blushing like a maniac, and Tony can’t look away. “God forbid, that I love you?”

Halt. Desist. All systems cease. Does not compute. “You don-”

Steve cuts him off. “Nope, my time to talk. I genuinely and truly do not give a flying shit about your money, or your fame, or whatever other delusions you have that I am apparently using you for. I love you, Tony Stark.”

Tony’s just staring like an idiot, thinking back to when they had first spoken in the laundry room, how Steve had basically defied everything that Tony’s used to, and now-

“I love you because you’re shitty in the mornings, and you get way too absorbed when you’re working. I love you because you try to make up for being younger than everybody when you shouldn’t- when you don’t have to. I love you because you let your guard down around us. I love how you are with Peter, and how you’re so loyal to Bruce. I love you because you try so damn hard. I love you because even though you’re… damaged, as you call it, you still give a shit about people.” He laughs disbelievingly. “I love you, and I should be terrified of it, because I’ve known your for less than a month, but I’m not. And I- Tony, I get why you think I’m using you, I mean, after everything, I’d be surprised if you didn’t. But-”

Tony wants to cover his ears. “Ste-”

“Oh, is it ‘Steve’ now? You’re done calling me ‘Rogers’?” He licks his lips nervously. “Good. Took you long enough. But I’m not finished. Tony, I-”

He shifts from foot to foot, still blushing furiously. “I know you have- feelings for me. I’m not saying you love me, I’m not even saying you like me, but something’s there. And- and I want whatever that is. You. And not just your body, not just sex, I want everything. I want you pissed off, I want you drunk, I want you broken and tired and fed the fuck up. I want you when you’re busy, when you’re asleep, when you can’t be bothered getting up in the mornings.”

He’s not smiling, but he’s not frowning, either, and Tony has no fucking idea what to make out of any of this.

Steve says, “I want all of it. Okay?”

Tony’s pretty sure he’s gaping.

Yep, he definitely is, and he snaps his jaw shut.

 In any other circumstances, he would have said hey, congrats on rendering Tony Stark speechless, but this isn’t any other circumstances and Steve had just confessed that he loved him.

Loved Tony, and okay, what the fuck.

Tony says, “Hrrggrrrrl.”

“Um.” Steve swallows. “What?”

Tony tries to gather his thoughts and get his mouth to work at the same time, which proves to be a fucking hard task. “I, uh. You. I’m, uh, not. Yes. Wait, what?”

Steve’s face contorts like he’s trying not to laugh. “Um. I would like to be in a relationship. With you. Date you, would be the, uh. The term. That I would, uh. Use.”

Tony manages to snap out of it, finally. “Dating. You want to date me.”

“I do,” Steve nods. “And I’m pretty sure I heard a ‘yes’ in the middle of your last babble.”

Tony says, “Well, I might’ve said something that leaned towards the possibility of-” he clears his throat. “Um. Yes, please?”

Steve’s lips start to curl up. “Yes, please?”

Tony scowls. “Shut up. I don’t know how to react to this. Yes, I want to date you. But, uh. I’m not exactly-” He flexes his hands just for the sake of doing something other than babbling. “I’m not- dating me isn’t going to be a walk in the park, Steve.”

Steve’s smile stretches into a grin, and Tony opens his mouth to ask why the fuck he’s grinning at a time like this, but is interrupted by Steve pressing his lips to his.

Tony’s brain sort of freezes, but then fires back up again with the whole ‘oh okay this is really nice’ thing, because it’s Steve and he’s kissing him and it’s so, so much better than last time.

Steve’s hand comes up to cradle his cheek, and Tony practically dissolves into him because this never happens, he never gets touched like this-

Then Steve’s pulling back, and Tony barely manages not to make a squeak of disapproval.

But Steve’s still grinning, and that’s worth not kissing him for a while.

Steve bends and pecks him quickly on the lips, leaning their foreheads together. “You,” he says, “have no idea how happy it makes me when you call me ‘Steve.’”

Tony snorts. “Wow, that ‘Rogers’ thing really pissed you off, huh?”

Steve shrugs. “Yeah, kinda.”

Tony laughs, half-delirious, and Steve stoops again, and Tony feels the fluttering in his chest swell and finally burst.