"Chill out, Stark."
"Oh, sure," Tony says, because he can't flip Clint off, not without getting an arrow in his ass, and no, thank you, not today. "Do you understand how much this is going to cost me? No, you probably don't, you just wander into the ruins of my home, my home, Clint, do you understand me, and—"
"It's our home, too."
"It is not."
But it is. Tony offered the mansion to the Avengers because they all needed one, every homeless, misfit one of them, and they made it a home. They took the empty spaces, the ghosts of resentment and the echoes of silence, banished them and brought the house to life. Bit by bit, one awful dinner, one burnt Pop Tart and one sappy movie—who let Steve pick out movies, anyway?—at a time, they'd turned it into someplace that meant more. A place he didn't mind coming home to, heck, enjoyed it, especially when there was a spot on the couch left just for him. And if it was next to Steve, well...
He shakes his head and repulsor-blasts another toppled support beam out of his way. "It's just where I let you stay out of the kindness of my heart."
And why is he paired up with Clint today anyway? Probably because surveying the damage wasn't painful enough and Fury's eye had been twitching as Tony had been railing about how he was going to find Loki, and he wasn't going to kill him or capture him or contain him. Oh, no, he was going to sue him. Midgardian lawyers had to rival any torture or discipline they had on Asgard. See how the fucker liked that.
So yeah, Clint.
Tony pushes through another charred door, toward the stairwell leading down to his workshop, and steels himself. JARVIS hasn't been able to get a feed working down here since the blasts went off, and he knows what that means. He knows. But until he sees it, it won't be real.
And he's so glad. He's so fucking glad he's in the suit and that he has the visor down, because Tony Stark is the master of the guarded expression, but this. This.
He turns the corner of the stairwell, faces the shattered glass and the wreckage, and oh God, is that Butterfingers? And he's not going to cry. He's not.
The vocal processor filters out the tremor from his voice. "Loki is a…a dick."
"You have no idea."
But Tony does. No, he didn't have his heart sucked out of him and a dickish god's put in its place, but everyone says Tony doesn't have a heart anyway. And if he did, it would be…this.
And it's been leveled.
Out of peevishness, he goes to use the door instead of stepping over what's left of the wall, only the security keypad is melted. He fires a burst at it just because he can. Seconds later, the catch on the lock springs open. He shoves at the glassless doorframe, and it gives, and he steps inside and. And.
The workshop is a burnt-out wreck. There's nothing to salvage, he knows there's not. "This is wrong. This is a travesty, a crime against humanity, and circuitry, and…," he babbles, strokes in mourning at a broken circuit board before setting it aside. "That display was only a week old, and JARVIS is going to kill me. Damn bastard gets so prickly when he's homeless."
I'm clearly alone in that trait, sir.
"Oh, shut it," he mumbles and blinks harder.
He doesn't say how relieved he was, right after the explosions, when he heard that snarky, obnoxious, beautiful voice rise from the ashes of the backup he could have kissed his past self for installing. If he'd lost JARVIS, he…
If you're finished with your emotional outburst, I do believe I detect--
Tony stops listening right around then. A pile of rubble trembles, and Tony tries not to let himself get his hope up too much, but it rises anyway. The tightness in his throat squeezes just a little harder as he drops to his knees, uses the strength of the armor to lift a tabletop. There's a chirp, and then another, and oh God, he never thought he'd be so happy to see that stupid claw.
"Hey, buddy," he mumbles. Dummy paws at the suit, and Tony is not crying, it's just something off in the humidity controls inside the suit, and he'll work on it later. He will. He inspects the damage to the joints in the robot's armature. Fixable. Totally fixable. "I know. I know. We'll get you patched up. Good as new."
The claw points feebly, and Tony asks, "What?" but then he spies the fire extinguisher just a couple feet away. He pats Dummy's head and chokes on a laugh. "You tried, didn't you? I'll let it go this one time." Just this once.
He's just about got Dummy out from under the mess of what used to be a desk, and if he accidentally crumbles the ashen remnants of paperwork he never did get around to finishing for Coulson or signing for Pepper, well it's something only he and Dummy know. He's pretty much forgotten Clint is even here with him, getting up to who knows what, and Tony should be supervising him, he should, but—
"Holy shit, Stark, what is this?"
He takes exactly one glance before he drops his head.
No. No no no no no no no. He'd thought the whole having-your-life's-work-destroyed-in-the-Asgardian-equivalent-of-a-practical-joke thing was bad, but this is worse. This is worse.
His stomach twists, and it's like all the G's he took that one time Doom reversed his repulsors when he was at thirty thousand feet. Only worse.
"Nothing." Tony lies smoothly, effortlessly, and that right there tells everything you'd ever need to know about him. He forces the shoulders of the suit to shrug. "Just some artifacts. Stark Industries files."
Paper files, kept in a folder in a locked cabinet, a cabinet that was fire-proof, and why the fuck didn't Tony think of that. His stomach is bile. And so what if the files are ones JARVIS recognizes alternately as Project Rebirth (when Tony's sober), Project Hero Worship (when he's tipsy), and Project Spank Bank (when he's drunk).
He calls it that last one a lot. A lot, a lot. Calls it that when he's fucked and so fucking depressed and beyond even horny and just needy. Needing something to look up to and to remind him that heroes do exist, and the best one, the very best one is part of Tony's life somehow. That the very best one doesn't hate Tony quite as much as he used to.
The photo Clint is holding up right now is the only one they managed to pop off right after the serum did its work, one of Steve standing there, naked from the waist up and dripping with sweat, his face still carrying the echoes of the pain of transformation. Peggy Carter is about to touch him, and sometimes, Tony imagines what that might have been lik—to be able to touch.
Tony's dad showed him this picture when Tony was twelve, in one of those moments when he was nostalgic-drunk instead of angry-drunk, though even then the lines between nostalgia and disappointment had been fine enough to cut. Deep. It's from right before everything went to shit, right before Erskine died, and isn't that just a contrast? When Yinsen bit it, when Yinsen told Tony not to waste his life, Tony was shaking in his boots, just trying to save himself. Steve tried to save the world. The serum. His girl.
His girl. It isn't possible for Tony to emphasize that particular little detail enough.
Not that he really has time to dwell on the bastion of heterosexuality that is a 1940s-era superhero most at home in skin-tight leather, not when their other resident jumpsuit-wearer is still rifling through Tony's very personal photograph collection, skipping from one to the next.
And they call him Hawkeye for a reason. They do, and Tony is going to kill him. He is going to kill him. Lawyers would give him too much opportunity to talk.
"I don't know, you're the asshole with the 20/20 eyesight," Tony snips.
It's his favorite picture. His favorite. The one of Steve, but of the other Steve. The one that's tiny and weak and so fucking brave. The one who had nothing and still was everything. Had the potential to become everything, because it was already there inside him, things even supersoldier serum could never endow. Things you can't make up for just by wearing a suit.
"That's Steve?" Clint asks.
It is—scrawny, pathetic, pre-serum Steve. Count-my-ribs-through-my-skin Steve. And he was beautiful, even before. More so, even.
And Tony has to ruin that, of course he does, because he can't acknowledge beautiful things, can't have beautiful things, can't even observe something good without undermining it.
"We all had to start somewhere." His voice is all invective and derision, and he couldn't hate himself more.
Except he can. Of course he can.
Sir, you may be interested to know that—
And Tony does. He knows.
He winces hard and clenches the gauntlets into fists.
There's the clatter of vibranium on broken concrete, setting down amidst so much shattered glass, and why not? Everything else is shattering.
And God, but Steve's voice hurts. It hurts because it is hurt, and Tony ruins everything.
"Well, excuse me. We don't all get everything handed to us from birth."
As if that's even the worst of Tony's sins. Yinsen said it himself: the exact opposite of Steve, Tony has everything and is nothing.
Clint boggles, gesturing between the perfection that was Steve and the perfection that is him now. He points at the picture again. "So that really is you?"
"Yeah." Steve sounds winded, and Tony still can't look at him. Even the faceplate won't be able to hide this. "What? Am I supposed to be ashamed of that?"
"You could pretend to have a little humility about how hot you were back then." Tony isn't joking, not really. But it sounds like he is.
And oh God, Steve doesn't even have a quip for that. Doesn't press the wound, doesn't make it hurt any more, except that his silence is just another kind of injury.
"Sure, Tony. Sure."
Glass crunches, and the footfalls echoing off the walls are heavy, too heavy even for a supersoldier. Only when Tony's convinced Steve's turned around does he bring himself to look.
Captain America's shoulders are stooped, every line of him aching, and it's worse than a suckerpunch or an arrow in the ass.
"Jesus, Stark." In Tony's periphery, Clint shakes his head. "Why don't you kick his puppy, too?"
Tony watches Steve retreat, and all those thoughts he had before about things being worse than having his tower destroyed or picking through the rubble of his life or hurtling thirty thousand fucking feet…they were all bullshit.
Because there won't be a spot on the couch for him, definitely not next to warm, laughing, even-better-beneath-the-perfect-surface Steve. There won't be a place for him at all.
None of those things were worse. Because the way Steve looks and sounds right now, this…he, Tony…is the worst.
"Well, this is just depressing."
Tony stares up at the grey steel of the ceiling, crosses his legs again, grey cotton pants against paler grey sheets. For all that they're always housing superheroes and over-sized agents and who the hell knows what else, the beds at SHEILD are too damn short, and Tony hates it here. He hates it, he hates it, he hates it. He could be at the Ritz-Carlton right now, could be anywhere.
But when he'd suggested it, suggested putting the whole team up there, Steve had looked at him like he was the biggest disappointment in the world.
Yeah. New information, that.
The biggest problem, besides the decorating scheme apparently meant to make prisoners be good sports and off themselves instead of forcing SHEILD to waste the bullets, is that there's nothing to do here. His tablet is boring, and Pepper and Rhodey have both already told him stop calling, please dear God, go find someone else to bother, and yeah. Again. Super new. He's already been thrown out of the labs a dozen times, and he has – had better toys back in his workshop anyway. Even cracking the security to get into the restricted sections is old hat.
In desperation, he'd even ordered the team to report to movie night in the conference room, and he hadn't cared that he'd have to sit by himself in a corner where the naughty boys belong. Clint had laughed out loud, and God, Steve hadn’t even been able to meet Tony's eyes. Natasha'd shaken her head and at least clapped him on the shoulder before she walked away. Thor was still in Asgard trying to figure out how the fuck Loki had escaped again.
Even Bruce hadn't wanted to play. Something about The Other Guy not liking confined spaces and needing some quiet time.
Tony could be quiet. He totally could.
"Who am I kidding?"
The answering chirp from the floor beside his bed is just about the saddest thing he's ever heard.
Tony dangles one of his hands off the side of the mattress. What's left of Dummy bumps his fingers, and there's that at least.
"Yeah, I hear you, buddy." Shockingly, there's no response. More shockingly, Tony kind of wants one. Would kind of kill for one.
Fuck, but he's alone. And bored. And appallingly sober.
Damn Clint. Damn Steve. Those damn photos…
He can see them in his mind, every one of them. Can see the look on Steve's face when Tony had said… But he hadn't meant it, not the way Steve had taken it. Of course he hadn't, and Steve usually knew that.
God, he'd fucked up.
He keeps looking toward the door, half-expecting Steve to be standing there, doing his team leader thing and showing up to give Tony a talking-to or explain to him why he was wrong this time. Why the team needs him to get his shit figured out. But no. Not this time.
"He's really going to make us do this, isn't he?"
Dummy whirs and then folds back in on himself on the floor. Right. Good reminder on where Tony stands with that whole 'us' thing.
He scrubs his hand across his face. "Oh, I see how it is. Should have left you in the workshop for the scavengers. Maybe they could at least get a couple bucks for you."
And that noise, oh that's just pathetic.
"Sure, sure. Believe that if you want."
And he doesn't lean down and pat Dummy's claw consolingly as he drags himself up. Not at all.
Over on the other side of the room, he takes a couple seconds to check himself out in the mirror, drags in a few deep breaths. He looks like shit, the bags dark beneath his eyes, but he surveyed the ruins of his parents' home today. His home. His friends' – well, at least his colleagues' home. That's got to excuse a lot of things, right?
Maybe. But not enough things.
This is going to have to be good.
He goes for sincere, makes eye contact with his own sorry gaze in the mirror as he tests out the words. "I'm…sorry, Cap." He screws up his face and tries again. "I'm sorry. I'm a dick. Total dick. Was totally out of line, will not happen again." Shit, but he can't even get his practice apology right.
Giving up, he bangs his fist against the wall and shuts his eyes. His ribs hurt, like the arc reactor's been pried out of it all over again. He can still breathe, though, he can still breathe, and the sensation that something's missing from his chest, well. Well. Plenty of experience there, even though this is its own kind of hell. Even though this is new.
He doesn't meet his own eyes again as he turns and leaves and heads down the corridor. To Steve's room.
Tony's never tried to read too much into the fact that, in spite of living at the mansion, Steve never gave up his quarters at SHEILD. Not that he can blame him, either. Always a good idea to have options. Or an exit strategy. Tony knows the way to the room by heart, from back when Steve was still here and Tony was dropping by all the time for stupid reasons, to force him to go out or to show him something or just to see his stupid, gorgeous face and remind himself that Captain America was really back. That they'd found him, finally they'd found him. Back when the air of mourning clung to Steve like a second skin and he was functional, dragging himself around, but so fucking sad all the time, and Tony would have done anything to make him smile. Steve'd been better recently, had been smiling more. Around the other Avengers at least, even if around Tony his face remained guardedly neutral. Restrained.
Tony's always tries not to read too much into that either. Just lives with the disappointment and the ache and tries to be better. And fails.
When he reaches it, the door to Steve's room is closed, and Tony knocks one, twice. There's no response, and it just makes the tightness squeeze in harder around his ribs. Steve might know who it is, might be using his damned super-hearing to identify the cadence of the footfalls or the breathing. Because he has to be sure, Tony does something he never does – okay, something he's done maybe once or twice or, fine, twenty-eight and a half times, but never in a pervy way. (That one time it started to be pervy, he made himself cut the feed right away, and he still regrets it to this day. Thus the half.)
He hacks into the camera surveilling Steve's room.
And it's a relief and a disappointment at all once to find the space empty.
Well, at least Steve's not hiding from Tony in his own room, not actively ignoring him, but he isn't here, either. Tony wants him to be here.
Before Tony can start thinking about other ways Steve could be hiding – he does have plenty of back pay to afford a hotel room if he wants to be a total hypocrite, but no. Captain America? No. So Tony heads to the second-most likely place Steve would be. Sure enough, as Tony approaches the special gym set aside just for Avengers, he hears the unmistakable, dull impacts of supersoldier fists against one of the punching bags Tony designed for just this sort of abuse.
Well aware that he may be asking to become a supersoldier punching bag himself, Tony keys in his code, grateful for the audible whoosh of the door to announce his presence before he steps into the room, and—
Tony's seen Steve working out plenty of times, has taken to wearing briefs just to contain the reaction he really doesn't want Steve to notice when they're sparring, but still. The man is sweaty, like he's been working out his frustrations for a while, and those workout pants are clinging to his ass, and his skin is glowing. Glowing.
Tony swallows a good half-dozen times because his throat is parched. He's just watching Steve the entire time. Just watching. Ogling. Aching.
Steve doesn't break the rhythm of his fists on leather as he grunts, out of nowhere, "I can hear you breathing, Tony."
Right. That whole superhero-recognizing-footsteps/breathing thing.
And there are words Tony came here to say, but he doesn't know how. And so he screws it up all over again. "Those things cost money, you know," he says, pointing at the punching bag, at the tear that's already opening at the seams even though it's meant to withstand anything.
At just that moment, Steve lands a punch the people down in the city below must be able to hear, and the punching bag explodes. Because Steve is good at breaking unbreakable things. He tears through punching bags as easily as he tears through Tony's missing heart.
Steve stands there, shaking, broad back heaving, and his hands are fists. "Why are you here, Tony?"
And Tony isn't the better man. He never has been and he never will be, but he can try.
Steve chuckles. "Sure."
"No, I am. I'm just…I'm sorry. What I said, those pictures. I had them because…"
The words die in Tony's lungs, because to say them is to give so much away. More than just his feelings and his longing, more than his wish that once, just once, someone would think he was good enough and hold him and maybe run fingers through his hair and tell him everything's okay. Things that go too deep to who is and who he wants to be.
Things he's never known how to give to anyone, not even to Pepper back before they fell apart. But he could give them to Steve. He could.
He opens his mouth and tries to push the confession forward, but before he can, Steve…crumples. His shoulders collapse, and he lets out this awful, broken laugh, and Tony hates that Steve even knows how to make that sound.
"I get—" Steve starts, and shakes his head. His back is still turned to Tony. Like he can't even look at him. "I get that I'm some sort of scientific curiosity."
Tony seizes, jaw dropping. This is not where this conversation was supposed to be going and, excuse him, what? Steve doesn't think…
Steve keeps talking past Tony's complete and total mental shutdown. "I'm not ashamed of where I started out. But I hate that you make me feel like I should be."
And no. No no no. But yes. Because Tony can't have this, can't have this one pure thing, this thing he believed in, this thing that made him want to be better.
"Tony." And now Steve can look at Tony. He turns, and his eyes are so lost. "You made fun of me."
And Tony has no words. He always talks and he has no words. He makes his face go hard, picks up his jaw and settles his mouth and eyes into lines like the armor, eyes that no one can see behind. "That's what you think of me."
It's not a question. Because it's entirely too plain.
There was this one pure thing, this one thing Tony didn't ruin, but now he has, and he won't ruin Steve. Not even by loving him.
Even if it means ruining himself.
He's giving everything away.
The confession he couldn't bring to his lips pours out of him now, and it hurts, to know that even though he tried, he couldn't live up to it.
"That guy you used to be," Tony says, and he can see him behind his eyes. "The scrawny guy…"
How can Steve look even more upset? "Yeah, scrawny—"
"That's how I feel. Every day. But I don't have supersoldier serum or powers or…anything really. Just a suit. An empty suit." He throws Steve's words from that very first awful, awful conversation right back at him, and they stung then but they sting even harder, now, because they're true. "But the man you became? The way you made yourself into something better? That's what motivates me. That's the kind of man I try to be. A better one. And I fail." He laughs, and his throat hurts. "I fail."
He turns, and because it's the thing that matters the least, he adds, "And I really did think you were hot back then."
He doesn't stay to hear what, if anything, Steve is going to say to that. He can't hear, and his fingers and face and feet are numb, and there's this ringing in his ears. He goes to his awful room and sits on the awful bed and bars the door.
And no one comes.
Hours later, he's still sitting there. He hears voices in the corridor – is that Natasha? And then Steve, and Tony's chest is pounding, and he doesn't want to be here. He doesn't want to be.
Steve's muffled voice asks, "Where are we going?"
Natasha, crisp and efficient, says, clipped, "There are things you need to see."
Tony doesn't even know what to do with that. He checks the helicarrier's logs a few minutes later to see that Agents Rogers and Romanoff have left the building.
God, but he wants to go home.
He doesn't even pay attention as he summons the suit to him. He flies all the way to the Ritz and doesn't respond when the girl at the check-in desk gapes at him and flirts with him. He requests the most decadent, extravagant, wasteful suite they have. The bed is huge, and the sheets are white, the walls his favorite combination of crimson and gold.
And he sits on the floor with his knees tucked to his chest for the longest, longest time.
"Tony? How did you get this—"
"I have everybody's number, can get anyone's number. You want the president's? Or maybe that guy from Twilight? I can get that. I can totally—"
"The President? Seriously?"
"Yeah, no big, just lemme—"
"And do not ever offer Darcy Rob Pattinson's number."
Tony pulls up short, blinking at his phone as if it can see him or as if Jane can see him through it, and fuck, it's blurry and he's probably slurring, and he only had a few drinks, okay, maybe a few more than a few, but still. He was only shooting for enough to make his stupid mind shut up, and he overshot, and now he's calling people, and he already programmed the phone to not let him take or place calls to Steve.
"Steeeeeve." He tests the word in his mouth, and it still feels nice.
"No, Tony. Jane. This is Jane you're drunk-dialing."
He grins and slides down to rest his cheek on the table. He's in a corner by himself at the hotel bar, and everyone is giving him his space, probably because he growled at someone or threatened to go get the suit and put a repulsor blast up someone's ass and, well. The cute waitress with the blond hair and the dimples had kept people pretty far away after that. He loves her. He looooooves her, and she's probably what Steve's babies would look like, and he loves Steve, God damn it, he does.
"I wanna have his adopted babies."
Can't think about having babies with Steve. Can't. Think. Tony seizes onto another thread of conversation. "I didn't picture Darcy as a Twi-hard."
Thank goodness Jane is one of the few people who can keep up with him, even when he's like this. "No, no, she hates it, but she'd still, what was the term? Climb him like a sparkly, sparkly tree."
"Duly noted. Jane?"
"Jane, is Thor back yet?"
She hesitates a second. "No, but he said he would be soon. Things in Asgard haven't been going all that well."
"Loki's a dick."
"Understatement of the year. I heard about your mansion, and that just—"
"Kindling. Boom!" He makes the hand-gesture to accompany the boom and everything. Repeats it again just because it sounds good. "Boom!"
"That must be so hard."
She said hard.
He chuckles, mature as ever. "Jaaaaane."
"Jane, I need Thor."
"Why do you need Thor?" There's a beat of silence. "Tony? What do you need?"
"I need—I need…" Tony just manages to keep what he really needs in check, and settles for what he thinks he can have. "I need a drinking buddy."
"What's it like to love someone who's perfect?"
She takes so long to answer, Tony thinks for a sec that she hung up on him. But she's there, her words careful and slow. "It's hard sometimes. But the thing is… The thing is, perfect people never see themselves as being as perfect as we do.
"The thing is, perfect people need love, too."
Tony peels himself off the table and strains to focus. There are three of Thor, and he thought that was Loki's trick. He blinks hard and looks again. Just one Thor. Oh, good.
"Hiiii. I'm drinking."
"That is most apparent, both by virtue of the glasses that surround you and the stench of thy breath."
Tony hiccups. "Sorry."
Thor pulls out a chair and…folds himself into it. Midgardian chairs aren't meant for gods, not even really nice Midgardian chairs.
"Tony Stark. Dear Jane summoned me and informed me of a…drinking emergency. As my search for clues in Asgard had proven unfruitful, I felt compelled to respond. Tell me, what is the nature of your emergency?"
Tony stares at him for a while before cackling. "Have you ever considered a career as a 911 operator? I would actually call more often when I almost kill myself if you were picking up the phone." He uses his thumb and pinky finger to imitate a phone, because his is…somewhere. Pocket, maybe? Pocket. He tries his very best thunder-god swagger. "Be calm, Midgardian. Help will be dispensed posthaste."
"You mock me."
And, no. That's too close to home, and Tony flings a hand out, settles it around his glass and then the bottle he finally had not-Steve's-daughter leave, because fuck. Just fuck. He pours with shaking hands. "Not mocking. Why does everybody think I'm making fun of them, I'm just talking, I talk, it's what I do, and—"
"I apologize. I misunderstood your intention." Thor helps him pour, then takes the bottle and brings it to his lips, downing half of it in one swallow.
"W-wow. That's…no gag reflex, huh? The guys must love that."
"It was indeed most helpful in my youth."
Tony points at him. At least he thinks it's at him. "T. M. I. Do you know what that means, or--?"
"Aye. The Hawk has brought me up to date on many of the colloquialisms of this realm. As you have requested, I shall spare you the details of my conquests prior to my attachment to Jane Foster." He sets the bottle down, and Tony doesn't miss that he places it just beyond his reach. "Now, tell me. What lands you in this pitiable state?"
And Thor doesn't mean it, not pity the way Tony thinks of it, but it still reminds him of…everything. "Pitiable." He tries it on his tongue. It's a good word, a good word that burns, and. Well.
Thor leans down to put his face in Tony's vision, and when did Tony end up with his cheek against the table again?
"You will tell me what has happened, or I will, as the Hawk puts it, be forced to drag it out of you?"
And wow, but Tony hopes Clint mentioned that was a euphemism, because Thor dragging Tony? Would. Not. End. Well.
"No dragging," he insists. "No. No."
One blond eyebrow arches up, expectantly.
So Tony changes the subject, because expectations? Ha. "Speaking of Jane, have you been to see her yet? She's missed you. You probably missed each other, missed…" He makes a crude gesture, then flops his hands back down.
"I have not. Once we have concluded our visit here, I will be paying her a call."
"I bet you will, buddy. Listen, when you do, tell her… Tell her…"
And what does he want to tell her again? Something, she said something, and…
"Perfect people," Tony mumbles. "It's easier to love perfect people if perfect people love you back."
Thor leans backwards in his chair. "Love? Is that what we drink to this night?"
"Love and fuck-ups and…and…fire. Fire and my fucking mansion exploding, and…your brother is a dick, you know?"
Sighing, Thor hesitates, but finally responds with, "Verily."
"Steve never would have seen those pictures if he hadn't…if your brother hadn't…"
Thor tilts his head to the side. There's confusion in his eyes. "It is the Captain who has captured your affections?"
"Steeeeve. His name is Steve."
"But I do not understand."
"Steeeeeeve." He says it again. Because saying Steve's name is just like Pringles and whiskey. One will never, ever, ever be enough. "Steve Steve Steve Steve Steve."
"But Tony? You implied the object of your devotion to be unaffected."
"Steve Steve Steve."
"You said he did not love you back."
"Steve Steve Steve Steve Steve."
And Tony doesn't remember much after that.
It's the jostling that wakes him up. Tony groans, hoping it'll stop, but all it does is get him laughed at. He's being carried…fireman style, and he's not going to throw up and—huh, is that Thor's ass?
Before he can ask or squeeze or even properly ogle, he's landing on his back on something soft. Bed? He stretches a hand out and pats at satin sheets. Bed.
"Brother Tony, your exploits in the consumption of distilled beverages will be recounted in the halls of Valhalla."
"Okay, good, sleep now?"
"Sleep now, but know this." Thor waits until Tony opens his eyes and looks up. "I have cancelled your reservation at this establishment after this night. We will expect you at SHEILD by nightfall."
Stony squints and looks at the window. The sun is only barely coming up, so he has time. Time. And there's a reason he doesn't want to go back to SHIELD, doesn't ever want to, and he can't remember what it is. But he knows the reasons for most things these days.
"Will Steve be there?"
The very idea of it fills him warmth and with dread, and, yeah. That pretty much summarizes the whole damn thing.
There's something important, something, and his tongue and lips have been loose. He doesn't know what truths he's been spilling. He grabs onto Thor's vambrace, suddenly urgent.
"Don't tell him, okay?"
"Tell him what?"
Tony flops back down into what he hopes is a pillow and closes his eyes.
Barely audible, he murmurs, simply, "Anything."
Of course, with his luck, Tony doesn't get until nightfall. The sun's still high in the sky when the alarms on the suit still standing in the corner of the room start blaring, and Tony falls out of bed, he jumps so hard. He'd turned off all his phones and forwarded his calls, and JARVIS had been instructed not to interrupt him for anything.
Upside down, neck and head and back aching, stomach turning, he grunts out, "Talk to me."
From the shell of the suit, JARVIS's disembodied voice informs him, "There is a priority message coming through on the Avengers channel."
Message. Message is good. Much better than someone he'd actually have to talk to.
"Lay it on me."
The text projects out from the center of the chestplate, and it's just one word.
Tony stares at the code that follows it for a second, at the coordinates and the timestamp. And then he's on his feet, a little wobbly and a lot hung over and maybe even a bit still-drunk. He calls the armor to him, holds his arms out as the pieces wrap around his body.
"JARVIS, I'm going to need about thirteen gallons of coffee."
"I've alerted the front desk already, sir."
"Knew you were good for something." He glances at the code again to check it means what he thinks it means. Yup. He huffs out an exhale and closes his eyes as the faceplate hinges down. "Loki is such. A. Dick."
He takes the time to open the window before hurtling himself through it, a nose-dive straight down and a thrill at the fantasy of just letting the pavement come up to meet him. He fires up the repulsors at the last possible second, and fuck but that was a bad idea. His already-pounding head bursts with pain as he coasts through the revolving doors. Sure enough, there's a triple espresso sitting on the counter at the front desk. He picks it up, pops the visor, and gulps the whole thing down, and thank goodness he's burned his mouth enough times that it doesn't even phase him anymore. A full-body shudder wracks his frame, and, "Ah! Yes! That's the stuff."
He winks at the woman staring at him in shock from behind the desk, crushes the cup and tosses it at her. "Thanks, doll."
And then he's off.
By the time he makes it to Central Park, right in front of Strawberry Field—and how appropriate is that? He'll have John Lennon singing Nothing is real in his head for days now—the rest of the Avengers are already closing around the green and gold form with the giant horns. The green and gold form with giant horns who is soliloquizing.
Ugh. Been there, done that. Destroy the Avengers, piss off my brother, father never loved me, show them all, evil cackle, blah blah blah blah blah.
Just as Tony's trying to decide whether to take a nap or vomit, all hell breaks loose as Loki splits into a dozen copies of himself, each growing to the height of the Hulk. Suddenly, Tony's awake and alert. Because the new suit is prepared for this. It is. It better be. Not that he actually had a chance to test it, but… "JARVIS, perception filters?"
The space in front of him goes hazy, and the algorithms Tony worked on with Thor had damn well better work, they better—
Sure enough, the other Lokis fade into a faint shimmer, leaving just one.
Tony has to move a little slower for the noise-cancellation embedded in the upgraded repulsors to be effective, but that's all right. The reduction in speed helps suppress his urge to throw up.
As he closes in behind Loki, Tony gives himself just one second to scan the faces of his teammates. His heart races at the sight of Steve. Beautiful, perfect, smug, assuming, asshole, wonderful Steve. And Steve is not looking at him, he's not looking at him so hard that Tony knows he's seeing everything and is intentionally not giving Iron Man's position away.
Red-gloved hands form a signal Tony knows, a sign that means to wait and monitor, to hold his position and to wait.
Tony was never much good at waiting.
In one deft action, he swoops down and fires off twin repulsor-blasts right at Loki's back. And it's stupid and reckless, and—
And he's not the only one to gape when it actually works.
The other hazy images of the God of Lies crackle and fade away, and the real Loki crumbles, falls face-first into the grass.
Tony raises the faceplate just long enough to spit, "That's for my house. Dick."
He spares one more glance at Steve, bracing himself for the twinge but still ruined by it anyway. Everything's there, the disappointment and frustration he expects for disobeying a direct order, and something more.
He hasn't got the energy or the sobriety for this.
One more quick blast at Loki's still-smoldering spine, and then he's flying, soaring and speeding, and he doesn't care that his head aches or that both JARVIS and Steve are telling him to come back. He monitors the life readings beneath him, verifies Loki's still down for the count and that Thor is shackling him, that Steve is still shaking his head. He keeps them all up on the HUD until he goes out of range.
After that, he doesn't look back.
The Helicarrier is mercifully empty when Tony lands on it, the majority of the agents in residence still mopping up the mess in Central Park, and he's going to hear about that, he knows. Right now, he doesn't care, though. Hiding behind the faceplate of the suit, Tony stalks through the halls to his shitty, shitty room, keys in his code and locks the door.
Even Dummy is smart enough to stay out of his way.
All Tony wants to do is sleep, maybe for seventy years, maybe Steve had the right idea, but he tastes like the bottom of a bottle and he smells like one, too. The air in the suit is oppressive. Probably part of why he still feels drunk – he's inhaling alcohol fumes recycled from his pores. He gets it off without entirely knowing how he manages, strips to his skin and fires up the private shower that's the only saving grace of this awful room. When he steps inside, the water's still cold, and he doesn't care. He doesn't care.
He just stands there under the spray—long past where the water's up to temp, to the point where it's scalding. That's enough of a wake-up call that he adjusts it til it's right, then soaps up and scrubs, but the things that matter won't come off.
When he finally brings himself to leave, he has the energy to towel himself off and pull on a pair of ugly, scratchy SHEILD-issued boxers – and didn't he have a field day with that when he found out they had those? Now look at him… He collapses onto the too-small bed and closes his eyes.
He doesn't even realize he's fallen asleep until his door bursts open, and he blinks hard, pushes up, hand out to call for the suit, but it's Steve. Of course it's Steve.
"That door was locked," Tony croaks.
"And I opened it."
"That's…that's…" Well, let's be honest. That's something Tony would do, so, ground to stand on. He has none of it.
Tony frowns and sits, his back literally up against the wall. His head is still a dull, amorphous ache, but it's better than it was. Much better. The feeling in his chest is another thing, though. Steve is closing the door and opening his mouth, and Tony can't. He just can't.
He holds up his hand in protest and looks down. Gathers the sheet around his waist, because he may be almost naked, but he doesn't have to feel it.
God, it's bad enough Steve's getting an eyeful of the arc reactor. An eyeful of Tony's scars.
He pinches his own eyes shut.
"Here, let me just do it for you." Counting off on his fingers, Tony rattles off every argument he's expecting Steve to make. One, "The stunt I pulled today was reckless, was unnecessary self-endangerment. Will not happen again." Two, "If I disobey another direct order, whether given to me audibly or via secret Captain hand signal, I am off the team." God, that makes his head hurt even worse. He pushes past it anyway. Three, "Do not taunt Happy Fun God by calling him a dick, even if he is unconscious and smoldering." And Steve's not even going to get that reference, fuck, someone really has to get him caught up on forty fucking years of Saturday Night Live. Four, "I will not leave SHIELD premises without alerting my teammates as to my location." Five, "Recalling team members from alternate dimensions just to keep my sorry ass from killing myself with alcohol poisoning or self-pity or any combination of the two is unacceptable. Even if Thor is the bestest drinking buddy ever." Six, and he clenches his eyes shut tighter against the ache, "I will not keep pictures of Captain America, or look up to him, or make fun of him or even talk to him, because, fuck. Can I not be talking now? Can we just be…not?"
He's ready for Steve to punch him. Ready to get yelled at or told to pack his bags, and he doesn't even know where he's going to go at this point. He braces himself, winces and wants to pull his naked legs in closer to his body, but after what feels like an hour, absolutely nothing has happened. Suddenly confused, he squints one eye open.
Steve's still standing there, all that muscle and patriotism, and the look on his face is serious, but it's a mix of a hundred other things as well – it's angry (pinched brow) and sad (downturned mouth) and…his eyes are deep.
Exhaling hard, Steve holds up one gloved hand. Counts the numbers off in the very same order Tony did. One, "Yes, it was reckless, and no, you will not be doing it again. I'm…I'm not going to lose you." And does his voice shake just a little on that one? Two, "You will never, ever be off this team, but your inability to follow orders or even, I don't know, say tell us what you're about to do is…infuriating." Three, "No, you were totally justified. Loki is a dick."
Tony's eyes widen at that. He didn't even know Steve knew that word. Then again he's lived with Tony now for how long? Bad influence was bound to rub off eventually.
Oblivious to Tony's mental digression—or maybe not? he does punctuate the next point with a little extra emphasis—Steve rattles on. Four, "You check in with the team about your whereabouts for a reason. You…" He falters there for a second, the lines on his forehead easing as his mouth turns even further down. "You worried the hell out of—We thought—" He cuts himself off, seems to bite something back and glances away. When he speaks again, his voice is clipped. Five, "Thor needed to come back anyway, and of course he was there for you. If you'd just ask, anyone on this team would, I would, we'd…"
Full-stop. Steve drops his hand, and Tony's pretty sure it's not just because he's run out of fingers to count on it. His head drops, too, and then.
What? Wait. How?
Then he's on the bed beside Tony, in full Captain America regalia, and this is too close to too many adolescent fantasies, and fine, maybe more than one adult one. Tony's whole body tightens, and he's too shocked, too overwhelmed still to get hard, but he will be. When he replays this someday in his mind, alone, he will be.
"Cap," he manages, but oh God, Steve's hand is on his leg through the sheet, and there we go—shockingly, suddenly, achingly hard.
Steve leaves it there. Leaves that warm, big hand on Tony's body, and they've never touched like this. Never when one of them wasn't dying. And Tony's only dying on the inside.
Low and gentle, Steve says, "Natasha took me to your workshop last night."
Oh, God. And Tony remembers that, remembers the sound of voices and Nat taking Steve somewhere but he didn't think—"Are you going to kill me now? Because Natasha's just been waiting for an excuse—"
The hand on his thigh tightens, almost to the point of pain, and, wow, Tony's kinky but not usually…wow. At least that shuts him up.
"Stop it," Steve says, serious, and there's an edge there. Something that's been simmering beneath the surface. "None of us hate you, none of us want you dead. Thor came all the way back from Asgard to keep you company, and Natasha helped you last night, helped me see—And I'm here. I'm here, Tony."
"Here to yell at me."
Steve loosens his grip and slides his palm up and down Tony's thigh, and it feels too good.
"Listen, Cap," Tony starts, and the words catch, arousal and fear, and he's so fucking tired. But Steve should know what he's getting into here; it's cruel to let Tony get the wrong idea. And Steve would never be cruel.
But Steve is laughing, a sound deep at the back of his throat, something sad and raw. "You just yelled at yourself for me." And he's still rubbing, his thumb making circles now on Tony's knee. "None of us hate you, but you're too busy hating yourself to see."
Naked. Tony's covered from the waist down and he still feels naked. He sputters but no sounds come out, and is he breathing? He needs to breathe, but. He. No.
Suddenly, there are photos in his lap, and he didn't think this could get worse, but it is. It's so much worse.
They're those photos.
"You can have them," Tony says, choking.
"I don't want them. They're yours."
Tony watches, dying a little more with every slide of glossy paper against itself, as Steve flips from one pic to the next. There plenty of modern ones, ones of Steve's face in the kitchen and his eyes beneath the cowl and his chest in white cotton, blue Kevlar, soft plaid. And then there are the old ones. Just-reborn Steve and you're-in-the-army-now Steve and returning-from-walking-into-fucking-Austria Steve and even USO Steve.
And then there are more.
Tony can't help but reach out, touching the concave chest in the photograph the way he wants to touch the muscled one beside him now. Skinny Four-F Steve. Maybe his favorite of them all.
"You really meant it, didn't you?"
Tony hums in question, only half-listening.
"What you said. About liking how I looked…before."
Is the way he's caressing the photograph not clear enough? Somehow, Steve has gotten closer, and there's so much heat, so deep inside him. Tony shivers, wants to curl closer, wants to be here and safe and home. Wants Steve to look at him the way he sounds.
It's a bad idea. It's a terrible, terrible idea, but Tony lets his eyes drift up, lets himself stare up into Steve's face. Everything stops.
Because, Steve is smiling at him and it's not guarded, not defensive or triumphant or sneering. It's the smile he uses around the other Avengers, but not. It's something that, even now, Tony knows is for him alone, and it's the best one. The very, very best one.
Steve's hand is on Tony's face, fingertips grazing his jaw. "This is what Natasha showed me. The rest of the file. I know…" His eyes are shining, and his smile cracks. "I know you weren't making fun of me."
And he's going to. Tony can feel it in his gut, Steve is going to kiss him, and this can't be real. This can't.
Tony never gets what he wants.
But for once, he gets something better.
Instead of kissing Tony, Steve nudges him back into his space and pulls the photographs away, leaving behind a book Tony's never seen.
"It's my sketchbook."
And—oh. Tony'd heard something about that, about what Steve did, before. Apparently it's something he still does now. Drawing.
With reverent fingers, Tony teases open the lid and looks down at an image of a woman with pincurled hair hanging just to her shoulders, deep red lips and wicked eyes. "Peggy?"
And Steve's practically leaning on him, chin on Tony's shoulder, and Tony is cocooned in warmth.
Tony stares for a long minute at the graphite lines on woven paper. He flips to find the same steady hand scrawling out across the page, but the strokes form a different face.
"Bucky," Steve supplies. Then, when Tony flips again, "Erskine."
And the warmth is cooling, even though the heat is still the same. Whatever message Steve is trying to give him… There are more pictures, more of the same faces, a few thrown in of someone Steve identifies as his mother, and Tony's really, really starting to wonder.
The image on the page is all dark, bold lines, black eyes and the sharp cut of a jaw, but there is warmth to eyes that always seem dead when they stare back at him in the looking glass.
"That's me," he croaks.
"Yeah. It is."
The other faces still dominate the mix, but as he flips, they all start to fade away, yielding to image after image of Tony's eyes, Tony's nose, Tony's lips. There's the occasional portrait of Bruce or Thor or Clint. Natasha and Coulson, even. But mostly, it's him.
"Do you know why those faces at the beginning, why those were the most important?"
Tony shudders, and—and yes. Yes. Those are Steve's lips against the bare skin of his shoulder. And he's not dying. He's reborn.
"Because they all knew me before I became…this. And they liked me anyway."
Laughter boils up from deep inside him, but Tony tamps it down into a chuckle. "Of course they did. Who wouldn't?"
"Somebody told me everything special about me came out of a bottle," Steve says, the words careful and calculated.
Tony can tell a joke when he hears one, even when it's as wry as Steve's. He tests, "And someone called me a big man in a suit."
"We were wrong. We were both so wrong."
Steve slides a hand around, rests it on Tony's chest so that Tony is…held. Too far gone to not believe this is happening, Tony puts his own palm over Steve's, intertwines their fingers. And he was wrong about another thing. His heart wasn't his workshop.
His heart was right here. All along.
"Tell me I'm not reading this wrong," Tony says, voice raspy, head turning, and his lips are so close to Steve's.
And Tony doesn't have to angle in, doesn't have to reach up. Steve's mouth is on his, lips dry and warm and parting, and Tony tastes his breath, tastes his tongue and slides wet skin over skin. He's on his back, and Steve is over him, and all there is is Steve, Steve, Steve.
And Steve's kisses are another thing. Just like his name.
One will never be enough.
Tentative, like he's testing, Steve settled over top of Tony, a press of hips against hips, and Tony nearly loses what little of his mind is left at the knowledge that Captain America is hard, hard and rubbing against him, and yes. Thank you, yes. Tony shifts, tries to get his legs open and to pull Steve closer, but beneath them, paper crinkles, and Steve pulls away.
"Hold on a second."
Paper hits floor, all the images of each other they've collected and made, and Steve slides to lie beside Tony instead of on top of him. "Unacceptable, this is really, we should be," Tony babbles into his mouth, reaches down and fulfills a hundred fantasies by grabbing a handful of patriotic ass, turning to push himself into Steve again.
But it's not the same—the air is clearer, less fogged by lust. Propped up on his elbow, Steve pulls away. Tony follows, but then slumps back to rest his head on the bed. They're lying across it at angles, and it's too small, and he hates it, but he loves this moment more. So it's all okay.
Steve's eyes are soft as he looks down at Tony and slips gloved fingers through his hair, pushes it back from his forehead to trail his knuckles down his cheek. His smile is fragile and, yes, definitely fond, the affection almost painful in its rawness.
"I never knew where I stood with you," Steve says slowly. "I never knew. You were always so…"
Difficult. Annoying. Impossible.
"Yeah. That's pretty much how I am."
Steve rolls his eyes and shakes his head. "Whatever you were thinking, I can pretty much promise you it's not what I was."
Tony huffs. It's too much to try to talk about what Steve was thinking, too uncomfortable and close. And he can just take how this feels. Just take it and keep it and pull whatever he needs to from it.
He redirects. "I thought you didn't like me either, for what that was worth."
"I might have figured that out from your reaction the other day. But I do. I do…like you."
A tightness Tony had started to think was just a part of how his chest worked now starts to ease. He laughs it off, though, feeling light and strange and good. He can't remember the last time he felt so good. Gesturing between their bodies, he quips, "I should hope so."
Steve groans and buries his face against Tony's neck. His breath is hot on Tony's skin, and yeah. This is pretty much the best thing ever. It'd be better if they were both naked, but even then. Yeah. This. Nice. Awesome, really.
Breaking the quiet, a quiet that's new and nothing Tony ever thought he would actually like before, Steve muses, "I always admired you, too, you know."
"The serum might not have changed who I am, but it let me do things. I was given a chance. But you took yours. Made your own. Decided to do good, even without any advantage."
"Other than an enormous personal fortune and a genius-level IQ."
"Right." Steve keeps touching him all the while, not rising to the bait this time. "Just that."
They slip back into silence, and for once Tony's content to let Steve lead. He's still too blown away, still too wrecked by all the revelations, by the idea that Steve likes him, really likes him. Steve kissed him. And everything Tony's been feeling hasn't been misplaced.
As the time ticks past, Steve doesn't resume their kisses, doesn't slide a hand down half-naked skin. Doesn't recoil from the arc reactor, and that…that makes Tony's heart a different kind of warm. Instead he just lies there, beside Tony and around him and strokes his hair and his face, breathes hot and damp against his throat.
Tony's arousal subsides in the wake of something that tastes like what he always imagined comfort might. Acceptance too. Affection.
Along with the tension, the last of Tony's energy seems to slide away, the exhaustion setting back in. He's far too comfortable for how uncomfortable this position is, and his eyes slide closed as he caresses the bare skin on the back of Steve's neck.
"You're gonna put me to sleep if you keep this up," Tony slurs.
Steve chuckles. "You probably need it. How much sleep did you get last night?"
"This morning," Tony corrects. "Maybe three hours? Dunno when Thor made me go to bed."
Steve mutters under his breath and shifts, but Tony isn't letting him go. As it turns out, he doesn't have to. Steve rearranges them on the bed, sliding them up toward the pillow and putting himself between Tony and the long drop to the floor, and Tony lets himself be moved.
Steve kisses Tony's forehead and says, "Sleep."
There's a moment of hesitation, and then another kiss, soft and easy against Tony's lips. "Yeah."
And Tony's smiling, lazy and slow. "Wait'll I tell all my friends I slept with Captain America."
"Pretty sure you can call me Steve."
Tony turns his face into Steve's shoulder, his whole body pressing against Steve in interesting ways he'll have to explore. More. Later.
Because the bed is too small.
And he thinks that may be what he likes about it most.
The lights are off when Tony wakes in the middle of the night. There's no chance to wonder if Steve walked out on him, or if it was a dream. Steve's still there, still taking up the entire bed, Tony's face pressed to his now-bare chest.
"Go back to sleep," Steve mutters, voice heavy.
He does, too, no overriding thoughts about where he needs to be or what he needs to do. For the first time in days, he doesn't pace, angry and displaced.
Right here, right here…he's home.