Tony squints and looks away from the bright burn of the welding torch. It’s moved in smooth, sure passes over the joint, and Tony knows he should be studying the technique, but without safety goggles he can’t look.
There’s a hiss as the torch is turned off. Tony turns back to see the weld, perfectly straight and regular, both the metal and the torch’s end glowing soft orange from the heat.
The torch is rapped once against the bench, almost like a boxer tapping out of a fight. There’s a blackened mark left where the end met the wood.
It’s held out to him.
Steve pushed the last of the stir-fry from the pan. Clint picked up two of the loaded plates and handed them out. Steve heard quiet thanks from Bruce and Natasha as he ran the pan under the tap. Steam hissed up, drawn away by the fan. Clint took another two plates, and walked out to the table with them. Steve picked up the last one, and turned to follow.
Tony had just closed the drinks cabinet, empty-handed, when Steve drew level with him. “Plate?” Steve offered it.
Tony glanced down. He seemed to take a little longer to answer than usual. “Put it on the table for me. Changed my mind.” He opened the glass doors again, and grabbed one of the bottles. Steve shrugged, and went out to the table.
Tony exhaled slowly, establishing that he still had that much control over his breathing. The adrenaline rush was already fading off in the absence of the threat.
Threat, he scoffed, more harshly than strictly necessary. It was Steve with a plate.
And more to the point, it wasn’t a threat because he hadn’t actually needed to take said plate. Perhaps he’d done it slightly less elegantly than he might have, and he hoped Steve hadn’t noticed that he’d picked the cointreau – not a drink he would have with dinner – but he’d done it well enough.
He flexed his hands, trying to drive the pain from them. Concentrating on the muscles moving under the skin, tendons rippling, the faint lines of sweat in the grooves of his palms. Uninjured. Whole.
Steve glanced up as Tony came in and took the last seat at the table. “No drink after all?”
Tony’s shoulders rose and fell, symmetrical and smooth. “Changed my mind again.” He picked up his fork and stabbed at the stir-fry.
Of all the things Steve would have called Tony Stark, indecisive would not have been one of them. On the contrary, Tony struck him as the type of man who knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it. Changing his mind, twice, over something as simple as a drink with dinner seemed out of character.
On the other hand, Steve had known Tony for an entire two weeks, and for those two weeks they’d done almost nothing but fight off an alien invasion and then start cleaning up the debris. This dinner together was one of the few social occasions they’d managed. It really wasn’t that surprising that Steve didn’t have a solid grasp on Tony after so short an acquaintance.
Steve took another mouthful of the truly excellent stir-fry. They were a team. He would come to know Tony, and all of the others, better. They had time.
The flask is tipped very, very slowly, until a thin stream of liquid falls from the lip. It has high surface tension, though, and runs a little down the side of the flask before it pours out freely. Tony watches the colored streak move slowly down the side of the flask, until it reaches the base, beading up until some of it finally breaks loose.
It hisses when it hits the metal underneath it.
The flask is tilted to make sure the last drops don’t stay in the bottom, and Tony watches the external trail of liquid follow the new path of least resistance, covering more of the flask.
It’s empty at last, and straightened up. The liquid on the outside has been spread over so much distance that it isn’t forming droplets anymore, but is smeared thinly over the glass.
The flask is thrust towards him.
Steve’s back twinged a little as he lifted the I-beam. He wrapped his arms around it more securely before crossing over to the skip and dumping it inside. He reached behind himself, and probed at the sore muscle. His fingers didn’t cause more pain, so it wasn’t a strain or a knot, but if he didn’t take a break it would probably become one.
There’s no time, no time to rest, get back on your feet, people die every second that you’re not helping them-
He sighed, and consciously adjusted his mental space again. This wasn’t the war he’d left behind, the war where there were only two options, flat out and down time, because everything moved so fast there was no time for breaks on the job. Here, now, the debris wasn’t going anywhere. It would wait for him, and do no harm while he worked out the growing ache.
He raised his arms above his head, and bent from side to side. His back turned warm and eased out at being moved in a different direction to bending to lift something. A few more light stretches, and Steve put himself back to work.
Tony dropped down out of the sky, a bright red and gold beacon in the dusty grey war zone, and landed a few feet away. “Hey, Cap.”
“Tony.” Steve grunted as he hauled at another mangled I-beam. This one was longer than the other, and the extra weight dragged at his arms. “Give me a hand?”
“What, just one?” Tony sounded amused, but didn’t move towards him.
“If that’s all you’ve got free,” Steve shot back. The I-beam really was heavy, and starting to unbalance. “Soon?”
Metal clicked as Tony flexed his fingers, and then finally moved forward to take the dropping end. Steve inhaled again, much more easily, as the weight in his arms lessened. “Thanks.”
“Anytime,” Tony said, voice strained. Steve frowned as they brought the beam over to the skip. It hadn’t seemed that heavy, not so heavy that it would cause Tony discomfort to take some of the weight. If he weren’t in the Iron Man suit, perhaps, but Steve had seen that thing lift entire cars. This was one measly I-beam.
Well, he’d probably been working for hours. It was completely natural that he should be a little worn down. Steve certainly was. “How long since you took a break, Tony?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. Does it matter?”
“You probably should rest up a bit, then. We’ll be at this for a long time, and we don’t need you to run yourself ragged this early.”
“You’re letting that captain thing go to your head, you know. I’m a civilian, thanks.”
“An American civilian, so technically still under Captain America’s command, don’t you think?”
Tony turned back to face him. “Well played. Captain.” He had no proof, but Steve rather thought that Tony was smiling behind the mask.
Tony’s eyes flickered at the volume controls, and the external output muted.
He’d have to tell them all sometime. It was becoming a Problem. He’d seen Steve was hurting, had taken on too much, and still he hadn’t moved to help him. Because he didn’t like being handed things. It was a pretty lame compromise to lift up the unbalanced end, but it had been all he could make himself do.
And that wasn’t good enough.
He should just tell them. He’d told loads of people who tried handing him things. Delivery boys and people with forms and, memorably, girls who served Senate summons, so why couldn’t he bring himself to tell his team?
Because it’s stupid and you know it is, and you actually want these people to have good opinions of you.
They were going to be around at the end of the day. Unlike all those others. He didn’t care if some busboy knew, since he’d never see the kid again, and he’d probably forget all about it in ten minutes anyway. But Steve and Clint and Bruce would remember for sure, and even worse, Natasha wouldn’t let it pass as ‘just a quirk’, not with her skill at reading people.
Jesus, he was safe with these guys! And safe in the Iron Man suit, that was pretty much his definition of ‘safe’ since Afghanistan. Steve wasn’t going to hand him anything dangerous, and even if by some chance he did, he was in the suit right now, and wouldn’t be hurt anyway. What had that I-beam been going to do, anyway, come to life and attack him?
You’re afraid. You’re traumatized. You’re still eight years old. Of course it doesn’t make any sense.
He had to tell them.
Before they found out on their own, because that would be both awful and humiliating.
Even more so than coming straight out with it.
Come on. It was a slightly-too-heavy beam today. What if it’s something worse tomorrow? Something that could hurt someone?
Then why would they be handing it to me?
All the old fear shuddered in his stomach. His skin chilled and the lights of the display blurred and ran into each other. Pain flared up in bright, discrete points throughout his body.
Both hands, burns, frostbite, acid damage, lacerations, check. Left foot, two broken bones, check. Left thigh, burn, check. Right calf, stab, check. Right arm, fractured humerus, check. Lower left side, fractured ribs, check.
He sucked in a breath. It shook, unsteady, rattling in. He hurt, clear and sharp and fresh, hot and cold streaks along both palms, another hot patch on his thigh, the sheets of simple pain splitting the broken bones, cutting wedge lodged in his leg.
He was fine, he knew that, knew there was nothing left but scars, and even those were old and shallow and faded. He knew it.
But that didn’t stop him from feeling everything like it had happened yesterday.
Sweat was pouring off him and he thrummed under the strain of having every joint in his body locked, every muscle tense. His heart was pounding, racing so fast he couldn’t keep up with a count of the beats. His hands were clenched so tightly he could hear the metal of the gloves creaking.
He hadn’t even been handed anything!
This has to stop.
He checked that the street was empty and then retracted the faceplate. Exposed and vulnerable, but he needed the air, needed the play of the wind across his face. Mid-May, it should have been warm, and it was warm, but it felt cold anyway. His skin was damp, and chilled in the wind.
He was supposed to be working; this was no time for a little psychosomatic breakdown. He could still feel the injuries, quietly reminding him that they would never go away, that they might have healed but they were still there. Yeah, fine, it wasn’t like he didn’t have more than his fair share of ghosts riding on his shoulders anyway. Probably healthier to feel old wounds than feel the actual dead people around him.
Pfft. Tony would never be a poster boy for mental health. Textbook narcissism. Which just brought him back to the point that Natasha would be able to see straight through whatever defense he threw up. The only reason she didn’t know about this was that she’d never handed him anything.
Dammit, he had to just get this over with.
When the case is opened, it vents some kind of coolant gas, thin and white, falling to the floor. Gloved hands reach in with a clamp to pull out a small glass vial, so cold that it frosts over almost instantaneously when exposed to the air.
Standing well back, Tony peers into the case to see five more vials, neatly tucked into their slots. He watches as, with extreme care, they are each removed in turn and lined up on the prepared workbench. They all sound a little different, and he works out that it’s the metal in the clamp chilling and contracting, touching each successive vial just a little less than its predecessor.
The last vial is set down, and a breath heaved out with relief. The clamp is held out towards him.
Sweat ran down Steve’s arms and pooled along his back. He’d known this was a bad idea, and he’d gone ahead and done it anyway.
I’m spending too much time with Tony.
He huffed out a laugh, and grimaced when the movement pulled at the still-healing wound in his side. It was much more serious than usual, which was probably why he’d overstepped his limits like this.
The barbell hung above him, supported by his arms, braced to the point where his elbows were almost turning inwards. He’d put too much weight on, and kept going for too long, and now doubted his ability to put it down safely.
Definitely spending too much time with Tony.
Speaking of Tony, Steve thought he’d heard him come into the gym a little while ago. With luck, he was still around. “Tony?”
“I’m a little stuck, come help me out?”
Tony laughed, and popped out from behind a hanging punching bag. “What’ve you done?”
Steve waited until Tony was closer and could see for himself. “Too much weight, I can’t put it down. Get it for me?”
Tony stopped. “I don’t like to be handed things.” His voice was tight and strained. Almost as if he were the one under the barbell.
“It’s not that heavy, I know you’ve lifted more. With the injury-”
“It’s not the weight, you just can’t hand it to me.” Tony started backing up, face gone pale. His hands were trembling – minutely, but definitely unsteady.
“I’ll send Clint.” A ghost of a smile twitched at Tony’s mouth. “Don’t go anywhere.” He turned, and left.
He practically ran.
Steve huffed out a breath. What had that been? He’d just asked Tony for a hand and then he couldn’t get out fast enough.
I don’t like to be handed things.
Sure, Tony had his eccentricities, and that was perfectly fine, but it was rather rude of him not to put them aside when Steve actually needed his help. Don’t like was fairly mild, too. There were lots of things that Steve didn’t like, but he did them anyway. If Tony had said I can’t lift that much, that would have been a different matter. But he hadn’t.
Damn, his arms hurt.
He kept breathing at a steady rate, knowing his body would need the oxygen. Especially if Clint wasn’t nearby.
What’s wrong with you, Tony?
Tony scowled and wiped his sweating palms dry against his jeans. His skin rubbed off as he did, little dead flecks softened by the damp and scraped away.
He’d done a great job of that.
Saying I don’t like to be handed things and then running away totally counted as telling the team about his trauma-induced hang-up, right?
Wrong, and he knew it. Had he ever blown something that badly in his entire life?
It shouldn’t have been as reassuring as it was that the answer was yes. But it mattered this time, dammit, this wasn’t about being too drunk to tell two sisters apart or accidentally reprogramming Dummy to viciously attack Butterfingers or even blowing a missile up in his face. These people were important to him, he liked them, they were practically all living in his tower, and he had to do this right or they would see what a complete screw-up he really was and get the hell out of Dodge.
He’d told Coulson, even, and, come to think of it, Coulson had actually handed him something once: that old model shield he’d used to prop up the section of particle accelerator. He hadn’t even noticed at the time that he’d been handed something.
Maybe it wasn’t that big a problem after all.
He’d already done it once - okay, and loads of other times, too, but Coulson was someone he actually cared about - and that was proof of concept. It had been done; it could be done again.
Now to contain the borderline-complete-freakout he’d had in the gym. Steve was a polite kind of guy, he practically breathed polite all over them. Telling him he’d been having a bit of a weird day or something would be good enough. Make it clear he didn’t want to talk about it, or, even better, there was nothing to talk about.
And next time this happened, he would damn well take whatever it was that was held out to him.
But for this time, he called Clint, and tried to pretend it wasn’t defeat.
It didn’t work.
Tony’s reorganizing the toolbox when he hears the grunt come from across the workshop. He hops down off his stool and crosses over, ready to help if needed. He skirts two unfinished projects and a bottle-filled crate before reaching the robot being worked on.
Metal squeaks on metal, and the wrench pops the nut off. One of the robot’s arms sags. It’s pulled free, and thrust in his direction. It’s so heavy its momentum makes it swing from side to side.
Steve had to talk to someone about this.
If Tony was leaving him pinned under a barbell in the gym, how could he be trusted in the field? Steve didn’t have a suit, and he wasn’t a god; all he had keeping him on his feet was his own strength. For all that the serum had done for him, he was still only human. He was vulnerable.
He needed to trust every member of his team, absolutely, if they were to function at all.
But after this… It hurt to admit it, made his head pound and his stomach curl up, but he couldn’t trust Tony. He wanted to, he truly did, but not after what had happened.
Steve rubbed the insides of his elbows again. They still ached from holding up that stupid barbell. Clint had lifted it easily enough, being uninjured and fresh, and set it down for him. He’d teased him a little about overexerting himself, but Steve had given as good as he got. If it had been Clint instead of Tony in the gym in the first place, everything would have been fine.
But it hadn’t been. To put it in the most literal terms, Tony had failed him. Steve had needed him and he hadn’t helped.
He needed to know if that was normal for Tony, or if he was just having a bad day, if he was ill, if there were any excuses for his behavior. He needed somebody who knew Tony well, somebody who would defend him, while still being honest with Steve.
It was good that Steve knew exactly who to go to.
It was bad that there was only one person who fulfilled those criteria.
He’d only met Pepper Potts a couple of times, but she struck him as hardworking, smart, and almost as dedicated to Tony as he was to her. She often put Steve in mind of Peggy: they were both smart, beautiful, and strong, women in a man’s world, and better at it than most of the men. Tony was very lucky to have Ms. Potts.
Probably. Steve would be the first to admit that he didn’t understand how their relationship worked. One minute they seemed to be the quintessential romantic couple, and the next they appeared to be nothing more than the CEO and major stockholder of the company.
Seven decades later, and Peggy was still right. Steve didn’t know a bloody thing about women.
Nevertheless, even if Ms. Potts and Tony were only close friends, she was the person to talk to about this. Steve sighed, not looking forward to it at all. How could he tell Ms. Potts that he was having trouble trusting Tony? That Tony couldn’t put aside his little quirks when they needed him to?
Just tell her.
Yes, that was probably the best. Steve would be straightforward and honest, just like she always was with him.
He prayed he wouldn’t regret this.
Tony knocked once, in order to demonstrate how civilized he was, and then entered without waiting for an answer. That was enough civilization for one day.
Pepper looked up from her computer, and gave him a small smile. “Hey.”
He crossed the room and kissed her on the cheek. “Hey.” This close, he could see that she looked fairly good, considering the late hour; she was definitely getting more sleep than he was. He felt like faceplanting into her couch and not moving for a few months.
“Wrong? Who says anything’s wrong?”
“You’re voluntarily in my office, that means something’s wrong.”
Tony looked away. He was rubbing his hands together nervously. Grinding, more like, pushing them against each other until they slipped and then pushing them back. He could feel the strain all through his forearms and curling up into his biceps. Yep, his hands were kind of a big deal right now. “The team keeps handing me things.”
“Ah.” Pepper stood up and walked him over to the couch, where she kicked off her shoes and sat down next to him, curling into his side. Tony recognized the action for what it was, an intended-to-be-subtle piece of psychology, suggesting that he was the one comforting her. That didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate it, or feel loads better already.
“Steve tried to hand me a barbell today.”
“He was stuck under it. And I still didn’t take it. But I called Clint to do it for me, which makes it okay.”
“Really.” It wasn’t a question. Obviously. But that was why he was here, so that Pepper could call him out on his bullshit.
“Coulson handed me something once. I didn’t even notice.”
“I guess that means you trust him.”
Tony scoffed. “Agent? Everybody trusts him. We’ll trust him right until he turns out to be an evil robot and cliffs us all, and we’ll go down swearing that we tripped because Coulson couldn’t have done that.”
He could feel Pepper’s smile through his shirt. “Liar.”
Yeah. If he really believed Coulson would turn on them like that, he would never have taken that shield, no matter how distracted he was. Coulson, obviously, wasn’t going to hurt him at all. Just like Pepper, and Happy, which was why he took things from them. He’d taken stuff from Rhodey, too, occasionally, when he’d figured that one more piece of crap would make Rhodey quit and send him a new military liaison. “Yeah.”
“So if Coulson’s okay, why not the rest of the team?”
“I don’t know! It’s kind of disturbing, there’s actually something I don’t know, and it’s actually really important that I do know because I can’t flip out like this again, what if someone gets hurt because I can’t take what they’re trying to get rid of?”
“You wouldn’t do that, Tony. You’d find a way. You always find a way.”
He dropped his head so his cheek was resting on top of her hair. “You sure about that?”
“You’d never let anyone get hurt.”
He had to believe her. If he couldn’t believe Pepper, who could he believe?
Steve knocked solidly on Ms. Potts’ door. His hand wasn’t even shaking in the slightest. He was far too proud of that. He heard some movement inside, and then a woman’s voice calling, “Come in!”
He opened the door and stepped in.
Ms. Potts and Tony were sitting together on the couch, looking oddly domestic given that she was in full CEO get-up: makeup, severe hairstyle, sharp, no-nonsense suit. “Steve, hi! Come in.”
“Steve, it’s Pepper, I know I’ve told you. Or Virginia, if you must be formal. That’s as formal as you’re allowed to go.”
Somehow, Pepper fit better than Virginia. “Okay. Pepper.” He drew in a breath. He’d only look like a fool if he tried to dance around this. He aimed straight to the heart. “If you’re not busy, I was hoping to talk to you about something.”
“Watch out, Pep, I bet he’s been on the Internet again.” Tony whipped out his phone and started stroking it - no, he was just using the screen. “What have you been looking at, Cap?”
Pepper gave a little huff and rapped him gently on the arm. “Tony.”
“Okay, okay, I’ll be nice, I can be nice, you know I can.”
Steve smiled, and hoped that Tony would either take the hint and leave, or Pepper would just kick him out.
There was a knock at the door before either could happen. It opened at Pepper’s called invitation.
A young woman, smartly dressed, blonde hair neatly pinned up behind her head, stepped in. She was carrying a manilla folder in her arms.
“I have the new projections from the agriculture department.” Her voice was high and sweet. It seemed that secretaries hadn’t changed much since Steve’s time.
“Leave them on the desk, please.”
The blonde hesitated, and bit her lip. “Dr. Harper said I was to give them to Mr. Stark personally. He said don’t let him ignore these again, it’s the dozenth time I’ve sent them up this month.”
Tony’s lips quirked. “And it’s only the fourteenth.”
Pepper stood up and walked over to the other woman. “I’ll take them.”
“But Dr. Harper said-”
“You may tell Dr. Harper that they have been given to someone who will actually do something about them.” Pepper whisked the folder from the blonde’s hands. “Thank you, Alicia.”
Her tone, firm and authoritative, sent the young woman away with only one uncertain look over her shoulder. The door clicked shut behind her.
Pepper flicked the folder open and leafed expertly through the pages, quickly scanning every one. She shut it again, and spun it through her hands, running her fingers over the edges. Then she held out the folder towards Tony. He looked up from his phone and paused slightly before reaching out and taking it. “Thank you,” Pepper said, as though somehow he had done her a favor.
Steve frowned. Pepper was one of the most honest individuals he knew, which suggested that Tony had done her a favor by taking the folder. How could taking something be a favor, especially when Pepper had taken it from the blonde for him in the first place?
It didn’t quite hit him with the force of a plane crashing into Arctic ice, but it was close.
I don’t like to be handed things.
It did make sense for Pepper to thank Tony, if he was putting himself out of his comfort zone by taking that folder. Which meant that Pepper knew about this taking things thing, and certainly knew a lot more about it than Steve did. He’d done the right thing in coming to talk to her about this.
If only Tony weren’t here, and they actually could talk.
Somebody up there was listening, it seemed, because Tony chose that moment to jump to his feet. “Thanks, Pepper. I’ll go put this somewhere I can ignore it.”
“Do that and I will send Hamilton to make you pay attention.”
Tony cleared his throat. “Did I say ignore? I meant somewhere I could analyze and work through this obviously vital material.”
Steve couldn’t hide his smile. He didn’t know who Hamilton was, but Pepper’s statement had clearly been a threat, and Tony had caved without even a token protest.
Tony gave Pepper a hug, and kissed her on the cheek. She kissed him back, and he said something too soft for Steve to hear.
“Any time,” Pepper answered, letting him go. Tony turned back as he reached the door and grinned at both of them before leaving.
“Department projections, huh?”
Pepper smiled. “Tony hasn’t quite gotten the idea that just because he isn’t CEO anymore doesn’t mean he doesn’t have any work to do.” She sat down on the couch that she and Tony had just vacated, and waved an arm invitingly. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
Steve crossed the room to sit beside her. It was strangely reassuring that she wasn’t wearing any shoes; she felt more like a human being, a friend of a friend, than the face of a multi-million dollar company. He could talk to a human being. He did that all the time. “Tony.”
“What about Tony?”
“How he doesn’t like to be handed things.”
Pepper sat back a little, and nodded slowly, her face thoughtful. “Yes, you should know what’s going on there.”
“Can you tell me? It’s not that I don’t trust him, it’s just… I’m not sure I should trust him. I want to know if it’s going to interfere in the field.”
“First thing I can tell you is that I can’t tell you all of it. There are things he hasn’t told me, and things I don’t think I’m going to tell you yet.”
“That’s okay. I’ll take whatever you’re comfortable with. I wouldn’t ask you to betray his confidence."
“Second thing is the most important thing. It’s not just a quirk. It’s not just Tony annoying people for the sake of being annoying, and it is really annoying sometimes. I don’t know why, he hasn’t told me that, but it’s been something he does for at least as long as I’ve known him. And it’s important to him. I don’t think he can turn it off unless he really, really wants to. And he can, you saw him take that folder from me.”
“Why you? Why would he take it from you and nobody else?”
“Because he trusts me. Again, I don’t know why that matters. But he trusts me. And another part… I don’t know how to explain this either, but it works. Did you see how I handled it before I gave it to him?”
“Yeah. You looked through the pages and then turned it around in your hands.”
“I looked through all the pages and touched all of the exposed edges. Touching something extensively seems to make it easier for him to take it. That’s really just a gut feeling I have, I’ve never actually studied it or experimented with it or anything. But the more I touch something before I hand it over, the likelier it is that he’ll take it.”
Steve pressed his knuckles to his lips, thinking. He’d been right, this was a serious matter. If it wasn’t just a quirk, if Tony perhaps didn’t have a choice in how he reacted, then it was a problem that would need a solution. Pepper had one, but in the field… it wouldn’t be good enough. “That’s not going to work for us, though. In combat, we probably won’t have the time to touch something before we need him to take it. We need something else, or…” For all he’d planned to be honest and straight-up, Steve couldn’t say this. He couldn’t make himself say it. He almost couldn’t believe that Tony might be off the team over something as small as this.
Small? He left you trapped under a barbell. What if you’d been pinned down in the open with Hydra shooting from every direction?
“I need to know, one hundred percent, that I can trust Tony in the field and he’ll follow my orders. If there’s an order he can’t follow, then we might have a problem.”
“I know. But give him a chance. I’m not asking you to just trust him on faith, or my word. But he really loves this team. It’s something he wants more than I think he’s ever wanted anything. Talk to him about it, if you can. It’s not like the world’s going to end tomorrow, right, you have time to work this out.”
Steve sighed. This was getting more complicated than he would like. To be sure, it was too much to expect to simply be handed a team of such diverse individuals as the Avengers and except them all to function perfectly. Since waking up in the future, Steve had probably gotten used to the idea that anything was possible. But people were still people, and people weren’t perfect. They could never be perfect, but they could get better.
Steve sucked in a breath, and nodded his thanks to Pepper. It was time to try and help Tony get better.
The empty beaker steams gently, the few drops of liquid remaining evaporating into the air. Tony watches the pale colored steam rise, drawn away by the powerful fans in the fume hood.
A second beaker is held over the first one, this one lined with frost. Tony can almost see how cold it is, how the air snaps to touch it. It’s tilted, and the clear liquid runs out into the other beaker.
Cold liquid meets warm glass, and it shatters.
The cold beaker is set down at once on another table, and the mess in the fume hood is swept towards the drain. The top half of the broken beaker is still mostly intact, its lower section jagged and sharp like a mountain range.
It’s picked up, and jabbed in his direction.
Broken end first.
“Jarvis, where’s Tony?”
“Mr. Stark is in the laboratory in the communal section.”
Steve walked down the corridor away from Pepper’s office, and into the lift. “Uh… the level for Tony’s lab, please.” The lift rose smoothly, taking him to be face to face with Tony, to have that conversation. “Uh, slower. Please. I need time to think.”
“Of course, Captain.” Steve's stomach swayed a little as the lift slowed down. “Please let me know if I can be of any assistance.”
Assistance, yeah. That was a thought - Tony’s AI would probably know the details about this ‘don’t like to be handed things’ thing, while still being loyal enough to Tony to protect his privacy. “Jarvis, what do you know about Tony’s aversion to being handed things?”
Steve paused, waiting for another answer. Then he laughed - of course Tony would build an AI with a sense of humor. “Okay, bad question. What can you tell me about it?”
“Everything Ms. Potts told you was correct. Mr. Stark’s dislike stems from a distrust of most individuals. The only persons allowed to hand him things on a regular basis are both close friends of many years.”
“Pepper, and… who?”
“Mr. Hogan, his driver, senior bodyguard, and personal trainer.”
“Very much so, Captain.”
“Where does the distrust get involved, here? Does he think that everybody’s out to get him or something?”
“A not inaccurate summary.”
Steve flashed back for a second to the helicarrier, when he and Tony had repaired the engine. It seems to run on some form of electricity. Well, you’re not wrong. Jarvis was very like Tony, it seemed. This could almost be a trial run for the actual discussion with Tony.
Steve had no doubts that this part was easier.
“Can you give me a more accurate one?”
“Mr. Stark has experience with being handed things that were not in his best interests to receive.”
“And he’s afraid it’s going to happen again?”
“Afraid is perhaps the wrong term, Captain. He is… wary.”
So he didn’t trust that things were safe for him to hold. That didn’t sound like Tony. It didn’t quite match up with what Steve had seen, either, because Tony touched things. Tony touched everything. He picked up pens and cups and practically everything he saw lying around. He just didn’t take them from other people.
“Is he wary of the objects, or of the people giving them to him?”
“For that, Captain, you must ask Mr. Stark.”
That was a yes.
An evasion like that meant there was something to evade. He’d spent too many nights on watch with the Howling Commandos to miss that kind of deflection. Wartime being wartime, everybody had had things they didn’t want to talk about.
As captain, it had been Steve’s job to know when to drop it, and when to push them to talk for their own good.
Jarvis’s statement struck him as the latter sort. You must ask Mr. Stark - that sounded like encouragement to ask his question. Had Jarvis thought it not to Tony’s benefit for Steve to bring this up, he would have said so, or simply not mentioned Tony at all. Steve had no doubt that Jarvis could lie just as well as his creator, and a simple I don’t know or even Of course not would have directed Steve away from bringing it up with Tony.
So the root of the problem lay not with the objects, but with the people. With nearly everybody. Steve flashed back again, to the start of the conversation. Does he think everybody’s out to get him? A not inaccurate summary.
Steve felt his skin go cold. Tony had been hurt. Tony had been handed things that had hurt him. No wonder he didn’t like being handed things! No wonder he didn’t trust anyone, if someone had done that to him in the past.
Who would do something like this to Tony? Who would hand him things that hurt him? Who would make him afraid of everyone around him? Did he really believe that they were all trying to hurt him?
Steve straightened his shoulders. There was only one way to find out. He had to go ask Tony.
He just wasn’t going anywhere at the moment. “Jarvis, the lift’s stopped.”
“You needed a lot of time to think, Captain.” The motors whirred again, and pulled him upwards.
Tony flipped through the report one last time, grinning nastily at the new red-inked corrections. Somebody in the agriculture department wrote like a second grader. Clearly, they had a co-worker with actual brains, because this was a sound analysis and Tony agreed with at least eighty percent of it. But apparently, Stark Industries employed people who couldn’t spell misapplied.
He reached out, fanning his free hand across the desk, searching for something with Internet capabilities that he could send a scathing memo on. Nothing was within his reach. That just gave him time to compose an extremely scathing memo.
Someone knocked at the door and he waved them in without bothering to see who it was. The memo could wait, and criticism came naturally to him anyway, so it wasn’t like he was working very hard. “Hey.”
“Hey.” It was Steve.
“Could you pass me a tablet? The flat computer thing? There’ll be a few lying around here somewhere.”
“The ones that look like plain panes of glass?”
“Yeah, I guess. They’re not running Windows, though, thank god.”
Steve didn’t get it, but Tony hadn’t expected him to. It was a testament to how lucky Steve actually was, that he was living in the twenty-first century and had escaped exposure to the deadly plague that was the Windows platform.
Steve brought the tablet over. “Great, just leave it there for me.”
Steve made a vaguely hesitant noise. He didn’t put the tablet down. He turned it in his hands instead, running thick fingers over the edges, thumbs splaying out across the screen. “You sure?”
Tony’s eyes narrowed. “Very sure. I don’t like to be handed things.” Even if it was one of his tablets, and Steve doing the handing.
“I can wait.”
“Why would you wait? Just put it down.”
“It’s safe, Tony.”
“I know it’s safe!” Tony shouted, suddenly out of his chair and backing away, fast, out of arm’s reach, getting the table between him and Steve so he wouldn’t have to take anything from his hands. “I know it’s safe! That’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point? I need to know. I need to know that I can trust you.”
“That’s not the point either, Steve, you don’t need to trust me.”
“That’s right. You need to trust me. Because somebody handed you things that hurt you, didn’t they? And now you only take things from somebody you trust completely. And they still have to show you how safe they are. Like this.” Steve was still fondling the damn tablet, turning it through his hands, his bare hands that would surely take the same injuries that Tony would if it were dangerous. Tony stared at those hands, the defined muscles, the smooth, unbroken skin. Ramped-up healing factor meant that after a whole year in the army and his entire life before that, he still had no scars.
He slammed his hands onto the table, palms up, splayed out flat. On display. “Yeah, things aren’t always safe for me. People in charge aren’t always quite aware of what they’re handing over. Like broken glass,” leaving the rough lines across his palms, like rivers on a map. “Like welding torches,” still hot and giving him circular flat spaces where the faint lines had been burnt smooth. “Sub-zero vials,” freezing his skin and killing the nerve sensitivity there so that he still couldn’t feel that section of his hand. “Things dripping acid,” which had given him the elongated bubbly craters straight across the inside of each finger. “So I think it’s fair that I don’t like to be handed things.”
He was crying and he hadn’t even noticed when he’d started. His hands were splashed with tears now, and he flexed them open and shut a few times, spreading the water out as if he could wash the scars away. He hadn’t reached all of them, though. “And that’s not counting everything that didn’t hurt my hands. I dropped something too heavy to hold onto my foot and broke two bones. Something else bounced back up off the floor and stabbed me in the calf, because it was so sharp I didn’t want to hold it tight enough. I’ve fractured two ribs and my arm, and got another burn on my thigh when I actually let go of something too hot to touch.”
Tony looked up at the voice. He was almost surprised that Steve was still here. For a minute, it had just been about him, about him and his past, and now Steve was here and he’d heard every word.
“Who did this?”
Tony laughed, bitterly. “You don’t want to know.”
“I asked, didn’t I?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Tony was wrong. Steve did want to know. He wanted to know who could do this to Tony.
It must have been when he was a child. An adult, or even a teenager, would have known better. An older Tony would have had experience from working with his own equipment. A child, then. Who would be around a child Tony? Using welding torches and acidic chemicals, like Tony did today?
Somebody doing Tony’s work when Tony was a child.
Steve felt like he’d just been punched in the guts. “It wasn’t Howard, was it?”
Tell me no. Laugh in my face. Tell me how stupid that is. Tell me I’m wrong.
“I said you didn’t want to know.”
“Jesus Christ…” Howard? Howard who’d given him his shield? Who’d flown him into the very first Hydra camp? Who’d never stopped looking for him? Howard had done this?
Howard had given his own son things that were so dangerous that Tony’s skin still bore the marks. And he’d done it again and again.
“Most of the time, he was drunk. Didn’t think about it. Just said…” Tony’s face went even paler, and a thin line of blood ran out from one of his hands where his nails were digging into the skin. “Just gave stuff to me.”
“Then why did you take it? Why take it if you could see it was dangerous?”
“Because I was only allowed down there if I was useful. And there was so much to learn, a few lacerations didn’t seem like much of a price.”
“Yeah, so little a price that it’s still screwing you over thirty years later.”
Tony’s mouth twitched. “Are you here to just insult me, Captain, or was there something decent you actually wanted?”
Steve sighed. “I’m doing a great job of this, aren’t I?” It seemed like whenever anything important was at stake, they just ended up fighting about it instead of doing something constructive. They’d done it on the helicarrier, and here they were again. Steve had come in here wanting to help Tony, wanting to talk through the problem, to try and solve it together. Now Tony had put an entire table between them and was bleeding from being so tense.
But then his lips relaxed, just a little, color flowing back into them, and his hands opened. “Well, I did worse. I tried to tell you back in the gym. Told you the plain facts and then ran away. At least you’re still here.”
“Does that mean you do want to talk about it?”
“I know why you’re here, you know. Why trust is such a big deal for you. You’re worried I’m going to fuck up when it actually matters, aren’t you? You think that I can’t take something from your hands and that means that you can’t trust me with anything.”
Steve straightened his shoulders. He’d never believed this would be easy, but that only made it all the more important to be honest and get this done right the first time. “More or less.”
“Good. Because that’s what I think too.”
He’d said it.
He’d said everything.
Great job, me.
I don’t like to be handed things - check. You can’t trust me with anything - check. He’d even detailed out the origins of his scars, and he’d never told that to anyone.
Tony moved back around the table, towards Steve. And Steve’s hands. And that goddamn tablet. Proving to both of them that he could do this. He had to be able to do this.
If nothing else, getting hurt again didn’t seem like much of a price to be able to stay on the team, either.
He stepped up, closer, and held out his hand. “Give it to me.”
Steve hesitated, and pulled the tablet back so Tony couldn’t brush it by accident. It was a nice thought, but it might have been easier to pretend that he hadn’t literally been handed anything. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes, now hurry up,” before he changed his mind and was stuck back at square fucking one. He’d done the hard part, the actual human communication part, and this should be an easy bit of simple bodily manipulation. No big deal.
He even held his hand still and let Steve control the action. Let him move the tablet closer, lower it down-
Was it really that heavy? That heavy for Steve, what would happen to Tony if-
Fingers snapped shut. “Wait.”
“Okay.” The tablet vanished; Steve pulled it back, and let it rest on the table. But he didn’t let go. Didn’t let Tony take the easy way out, and just pick it up. He was going to make Tony do it properly.
Thank god, because Tony would have ducked out by now if it had been up to him. And regretted it. He had to get through this, it would be really easy once he’d actually done it, they would probably laugh and have a drink and if Tony was lucky, Steve would be so pleased with his success that he’d forget all about the Howard thing. Only Tony didn’t exactly have a reputation as the luckiest guy on earth.
He looked down at his clenched fist. The fingers were folded out, carefully, covering as much of the palm as possible while still keeping the delicate ends tucked under. His thumb was wrapped inside, something secure to hold on to and keep his fist closed. Safe.
Completely fucking empty.
Well, yeah, empty except for his thumb, but that really didn’t count. It was a part of him, it wasn’t going to burn or cut him.
His tendons were standing out and his knuckles were white. He tried to relax it a little, and it just didn’t work.
He flung out his other hand. “Let’s get this over with. And don’t let me back out. You make me take the damn thing.”
“I want this over, Steve, I need to know I can take things from you, I need evidence, I need data, I need a foundation to base future predictions on. If I can take it just once then that’s something I need to know.” It hadn’t helped with Coulson, but one occurrence didn’t tell him anything. That could be a completely isolated incident.
Fuck, no, he couldn’t think about it like this. It was a phobia, plain and simple, and phobias by definition weren’t rational. He couldn’t boil this down into mathematical probability. He was just fucking scared, and didn’t even know what he was more scared of, the actual objects or the handed over part. It kept changing. Because the things hurt, yeah, but even when he knew something was safe he still couldn’t take it, which meant that the problem lay in the person handing it to him.
No, dammit, that was logic again, and logic did not belong here. The solution was the same in any case, just take things until it wasn’t a big deal anymore. It didn’t matter why he broke out in sweats and had psychosomatic flashbacks, he didn’t care why, he just needed it to stop. Needed to be reliable and trustworthy and never, ever, broken.
He forced his open hand to stop shaking. “Do it. Don’t let me stop.”
The glass hit his hand in one swift strike, a flat, cool weight lying in his palm. It was there. It was there and it didn’t hurt. It was Steve on the other end, only Steve, Steve who didn’t even have it in him to hurt anybody.
His fingers twitched, but he couldn’t feel them anymore. And he wasn’t done yet. “Steve.”
“Yeah? How you doing? You okay?”
“I need you to close my fingers on the tablet. Make me hold on to it.”
Steve’s free hand came up and wrapped around his. His fingers were huge, easily hanging over the ends of Tony’s. Steve forced Tony’s hand shut - no, guided it. Tony was still in control here. Steve might have been directing, but Tony was going along with it, just letting Steve do the heavy work while Tony tried to rewire his entire brain.
Steve’s handing me something. He’s handing me something. I am okay with this. I am taking it right now. I’m holding on to it. It is not hurting me. I can trust Steve. Trust.
The weight sagged a little and he gripped it tighter to stop it from spilling out -
- bare foot crushed under the weight, so much pain he can’t even see -
- and falling to the floor, the far more likely possibility, and his tablets were all under a pound in weight and he was wearing steel-toed boots so it would just bounce off anyway.
“Tony, you’ve got it.”
His hand was cold and bare again, Steve’s fingers far away. Tony opened his eyes. He was holding it. Holding the tablet. Steve’s hand was floating off the other end, fingerprints on the glass where he’d been touching it until just now.
“You took it, Tony.”
He had it.
He dropped it on the table and shoved it back to Steve. “Do it again.” He was on his toes, balanced lightly, almost like sparring with Happy.
And he always won when he sparred with Happy.
Steve snatched up the tablet and held it still. “I’ve got something for you.”
“Yeah? Let me see.” Tony reached out, but it was Steve who closed the distance and put the tablet in Tony’s hand.
He took it.
He held it.
Steve’s grin was reflected bright and wide in the glass.
“Fuck,” Tony groaned, setting it down. “How was that so damn hard?”
Steve came right up next to him, almost touching down his whole side. “That’s it, then? It’s over? You’re completely cured?”
Tony laughed. The blatant sarcasm just confirmed that Steve didn’t need to ask that question, but he answered anyway. “I doubt it. I’ll probably freak out again just because it’s a different Avenger to you. This stupid psych crap never goes away that easily.”
“Yeah. I saw some of that with the Commandos.” Steve paused, and drew in a deep breath. With his lung capacity, it was pretty deep. “None of us liked trains after…”
It had felt like clawing his own heart out to confess what he’d been hung up over. “You don’t have to say. I’m not expecting some kind of eye-for-an-eye trade here.” Yeah, he wasn’t about to let Steve think he somehow had to share, not if he wasn’t ready.
Steve bit his lip. It made him look even younger than he already did. “Okay. Thanks.”
“Should I be grabbing you up and forcing you onto trains to make you get over it?”
“The war did that for us. If the train was the only way to get somewhere, we damn well took it, no matter what.”
Steve’s voice had turned raw and strained, and his body was trembling slightly. Tony turned his head, and saw tears streaking down Steve’s face. He moved closer, cutting out the few inches between them, and wrapped his arms around Steve and held him close. “It’s okay. That’s great. You did what you had to. But that’s allowed to hurt.”
Steve raised his hands, and clasped them over Tony’s arm where it crossed his chest. “Thanks.”
Tony’s arms were warm and strong around him, his hands wrapped up in each other over Steve’s bicep. It was an awkward position, but Steve wouldn’t have broken it for the world.
He hadn’t even thought before of Tony’s trauma as bearing a similarity to his, but it made perfect sense now: that simple desire to avoid a situation where everything had already gone wrong. How long had it taken the Commandos to let go of each others’ hands on that first train ride after… After. The fact that no-one else had fallen meant absolutely nothing - it had happened, and always could again. Steve hadn’t thought about it in ages.
Tony, meanwhile, had been living with his almost every day.
He gripped Tony’s arm tighter. Tony was still here, with Steve. He was a survivor. He would beat this. Everything they’d just done in this lab proved it.
He’d been right. Tony could be trusted. He’d just needed a little help, like any human being. So what if he’d had a false start before he could take the tablet? He had taken it, and that was the point.
“You’re so strong,” Steve murmured. “So strong, and you don’t even know it.”
Tony snorted, muffled against Steve’s arm. “Yeah. Right.”
“No, really.” Steve pulled them apart only so he could turn Tony to face him, holding his forearms securely. “You did it, Tony. It doesn’t matter how long it took or that you only took it from me and none of the others yet. You did it. You still feel the pain, and you did it anyway.”
Tony’s hands came up and gripped Steve’s arms in return. “I only could because of you. Because you were there to help me through it. Let’s face it, you practically did it for me.”
“That’s not true, and we both know it. You could have been out of here in a second if you’d wanted to be. Maybe I pushed, but you let me push you.”
Tony bit at his lips, eyes flickering in every direction but at Steve. “You’re going to need to keep doing that, you know. With the others. It’s not just you I need to trust.”
“I’ll be here.”
“You’d better be.” And Tony pulled them together and kissed him.
His lips were warm and soft against Steve’s, the current of his breath curling against Steve’s cheek. Tony’s hands rose along his arms, fingers running up his biceps, dipping into the curves and grooves of his muscles. Steve’s arms wrapped around Tony’s back, pulling him closer, keeping him safe. The arc reactor pressed firmly into Steve’s chest, a solid reminder of Tony’s presence, as if he could ever forget him. Tony’s shirt was sliding under Steve’s palms. He wanted it off, wanted to touch Tony’s skin, to feel for himself and prove to Tony that he was strong, that he was going to beat this and come out on top, that he was worth everything Steve could give and more.
He was so glad he’d talked to Pepper and come to see Tony-
“Pepper,” he gasped, snapping back. He ripped his arms away, Tony’s touch suddenly burning him. “Tony, what about Pepper?”
Tony shook his head and reached out for Steve again. “It’s okay.”
“No!” Steve grabbed Tony’s hand only to stop him from cupping Steve’s jaw with it. “Tony, it’s not okay. You two are… aren’t you…” He didn’t know. You still don’t know a bloody thing about women.
“We’re not like that. Pepper’s my… my lodestone. My north star. She tells me how to be human. She’s something real and permanent and somewhere I can go when everything else about my life is too fucked up to deal with.”
Tony’s hand pushed forward again. Steve let it. It folded gently over his cheek, chill and clammy with the fear-sweat from before, trembling slightly, rough and calloused from his work. It was the most wonderful thing Steve had ever felt. It was Tony’s hand, and that made all the difference.
“We’re not about romance. We’re closer than that. She grounds me.” Tony’s smile flickered, devilish and teasing. “Which means your historic morality has nothing to worry about.”
Steve swept Tony back into his arms and kissed him again. The short hairs of his beard scratched at Steve’s skin. Tony’s other hand came up to mirror the first one, and Steve felt completely surrounded. Immersed. Tony was everywhere around him and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Guess I don’t need to know a bloody thing about women after all.
His hands brushed the expanse of Tony’s back. His lips were hot and wet and seeking more, sucking at Tony’s. His tongue pushed out to meet Tony’s and they tangled together, as if they could take hold and never let go. Steve pulled Tony even closer, and felt his erection push into Tony’s stomach, and Tony’s pressing against his thigh.
Their eyes flicked open at the same moment. Tony’s were wide, black pupils blown open. “Bedroom,” he gasped, “now.”
Steve couldn’t agree more. He walked them backwards, together, arms locked firmly around Tony’s back. Every step made his dick grind hard against Tony’s body, sending shudders and vibrations up his spine until his head was spinning from it.
He had no idea how long it had taken when they finally slammed the door of Tony’s bedroom shut. Tony had turned them around at some point, and he was pulling Steve now, further into the room, until they hit the bed and toppled onto it. Steve let his whole weight rest on Tony, pinning him down. His lips felt swollen and he was rock-hard in his pants, but Tony’s moans told him that he felt exactly the same way.
Steve levered himself up to pull at Tony’s shirt. Tony lifted his torso to let it slide free. Steve hurled the cotton somewhere away, somewhere it couldn’t get between him and Tony’s skin. He lowered his head and shifted his weight to drag his lips across Tony’s chest, mapping out the slight dip between every rib, the hollow at the base of his throat, the metal ring surrounding the arc reactor. Its blue light turned red through Steve’s closed eyelids. He loved how he could close his eyes to sink into everything he was feeling, and yet still see that Tony was there.
He raised his lips from Tony’s skin once, when Tony pulled Steve’s shirt off. He dipped his head back down and ran his tongue along Tony’s chest. He gasped underneath him and lifted into Steve’s touch. Steve unbuttoned Tony’s jeans and dragged them off while Tony arched higher. His hands came to Steve’s belt and undid that. The fabric bunched down around his knees and he kicked it loose.
Then there was only skin, skin everywhere, and the feel of Tony lying under him. He tucked a leg between Tony’s and rubbed his thigh over Tony’s dick. Tony’s fingers dug into his arms almost to the point of pain. “Fuck, Steve!”
“Yes,” Steve murmured into his chest. “Yes, Tony, yes.” He pushed himself back up and away, just enough to see Tony’s face clearly. He was flushed red, mouth hanging open, hair messed up. He looked amazing.
Tony’s eyes flickered sideways. “Hand me a condom.”
He hadn’t worded it that way by accident. Steve rooted through the nightstand until the found the box and took a foil packet from it. Carefully, he laid it in Tony’s hand. Tony’s fingers wrapped around it like it was the easiest thing in the world.
“Fuck, yes.” The breathy gasp gave away just how much of a challenge it had been. But he’d done it.
He’d done it again.
“You did it again,” Steve said. His eyes felt like they were burning with the pride he was pouring out of them. His lips stretched wide. “You really did it.”
Tony grinned back. “I think that deserves a celebration, don’t you?”
“What did you have in mind?”
Tony tore the condom packet open. “Surprise me.”