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I was Born Sick

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My lover’s got humour,
She’s the giggle at a funeral,
Knows everybody’s disapproval,
I should’ve worshipped her sooner.

“Steve, can I talk to you for a sec?”

Steve was pouring milk from a carton as he listened rapturously to Natasha. To Tony, it looked very much like a one-sided monologue – with Natasha doing most of the yapping – as Steve nodded or hummed on cue.

It was early morning, sunlight streaming into the Avengers Tower through the high windows. Tony had been awake for a full hour; he washed up, had a PowerBar and deliberated in the common sitting area in hope of catching Steve as he return from his morning jog. He lucked out when the Head of R&D from Stark International requested an urgent teleconference. Tony obliged, so he retreated to his office for ten minutes or so before returning to his waiting in the hall. Still not there. Now Tony wasn’t much accustomed to waiting on others. All these called for another cup of coffee and finally he found Steve, a towel about his shoulders, listening to Natasha prattling off some choice words to describe her assignment that would’ve costed her a leg – in a very literal sense – if it weren’t for Clint’s quick wit. Tony had waited long enough. He couldn’t (wouldn't) spare another half an hour waiting for Steve to finish playing Dr Phil so he sort of rapped his knuckles against the door and threw them his trademark megawatt smile. He’d asked for Steve.

He nodded once, returned his half-empty cup to the counter and followed Tony to the still vacant sitting room.

“What’s the matter?”

“You were right.”

Steve angled his head slightly, perplexed. “You all right?”

“No, I mean yes, I’m fine, but listen, you were right, Steve. As much as it pains me to admit it.”

“OK. Back up. Start from the beginning.”

“Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what am I?”

“Oh God,” Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “I said that because you were acting like an ass. We all were, but we’re past that.”

“I know that. I’m saying I hear you, and I know that under that suit, I’m just a man. Vulnerable,” his voice cracked a bit. “A liability to the team, and let’s face it, I can’t always be inside the suit now can I?”

“You sure you’re all right?”

“Yes! For the love of – why do you keep asking me that?”

Steve’s lips thinned and his brilliant blue eyes were so piercing they penetrate souls. Tony dreaded this. He dreaded the questions, the fuss. How about keeping it short and simple? Pop the question, get the “yes” he needed and zip right back to his workshop where the only thing worth probing is science. The billionaire sighed. He listed sideways, leaned his hips against the sofa.

“You heard about the inquiry at the DOD?”

“Just that you were summoned to one yesterday evening. What about it?”

“Brought out that horse so dead I can’t believe it hasn’t fossilised. That Iron Man is too intimidating to be allowed working on his own payroll. Their main concern is, what if Iron Man is… influenced, to a point where he – where I – become a national threat?”

“That’s a heap of bull after all you’ve done for the country –“

“That was exactly their point. What I’d done before. I was a war-monger once. I designed weapons, built ‘em shipped ‘em off at a moment’s notice so they could kill whoever’s unlucky enough to be on the other side. I’ve been on this side of the fence so far but they wanted someone controllable. And I’m just not that kind of schmuck.”

“You are a valuable asset to the Avengers, one of the First. There won’t be doubts on your allegiance, and I’m sure Fury will be able to tilt the odds –“

“They want someone military piloting the suit. Nothing I could do.”

Steve turned fully to face Tony, appalled that he was done, that he was conceding to the DOD’s demand. There was no humour in the other man’s visage, just a half-scowl and the general air of defeat uncanny for a Stark. They’d asked for Iron Man before. Tony warded them off. So they asked for it again, and Tony stood his ground. Certainly this time wasn’t any different?

“You’re not seriously considering giving up the suit, are you?”

“You win some, you lose some, Cap. I’ve decided, I’m turning it in first thing tomorrow morning. Rhodey is taking over, that much I get to convince them. Which brings us back to my point.”

Tony chewed on his tongue. But he knew he had to ask this of Steve. “Can you teach me how to fight? I’m not allowed in the suit anymore – at least, not for the time being – but I’ll still need to be able to defend myself. So, what d’you say?”

Easier said than done, they realised, because no matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t make the training session routine. Steve was constantly on-call for SHIELD duties and Tony, despite being temporarily benched from all the Avenging after losing piloting rights to Iron Man, either had research to do or company matters to attend to. They did try to squeeze in at least four hours a week, and given the unpredictability of the lives of Captain America and a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, the best hours were usually after.

Thursday, 1.30 a.m. – that was the appointment today. Tony didn’t have much on this week, in fact he was mostly working from home, from his office on the upper floor of the Tower. Nothing heavy duty; corporate decisions to make, industrial designs to approve, the same ol’ same ol’. Steve was on recon in South America – where exactly in the continent he wasn't able to say, but he did promise to make it back for the sparring.

Sparring. How far had they come. When they first started out, it was mostly Steve showing some moves and Tony monkeying after. In under a week he got most of the forms down, and they proceeded to actually executing them in combat. Tony got excited; he imagined it to involve pummelling Captain America to the ground when Steve disappointingly appeared with a pair of arm guards and told him to work on the targets. They focused on his speed and momentum for two more weeks before Steve finally decided that they should start sparring for real. Naturally within the first hour Steve almost broke Tony’s ribs. Steve wasn’t aware that the grisly surgery of implanting the metal housing for the arc reactor involved removing up to 35 percent of the bone mass, significantly weakening the cage’s structure as a whole. Steve saw an opening, he took it. Tony saw him coming. Yet, no matter how brilliant he was a tactician in mind, his body simply could not overcome the inertia. Not a moment too soon Steve realised that Tony was unable to parry and had pulled back before the punch collided in full force. Tony still found himself thoroughly winded on the mat, but otherwise thankfully intact.

Steve did not apologise, and for that he was grateful. Subsequent hits came slower, weaker though enough to leave bruises. He did not complain, but he knew one day he was going to force Steve’s hands.

Tony hoped today would be it.

When he strolled into the gym he found the interiors pitch black till motion sensors detected his presence. He squinted, adjusting to the bright unforgiving fluorescent lights. To the left corner of the gym there was an all-black punching bag suspended from the ceiling. Tony approached it, ran a hand down the rough exterior. Kevlar, as it were, because Steve’s merciless hits wore them off so fast as if they were made of gelatine. Even the filling was enhanced packed sand because, Captain America. Tony flattened his palm against it, and though he knew it wouldn’t budge anyway, he pushed, appreciating the weight of the bag.

That was Steve in essence. A pillar of strength in trying times, the voice of reason in a world that rarely made sense.

“Hey,” a deep rumble came from the entrance. Tony turned to the newcomer.

“Cap! So good to see you!”

Steve looked like he’d just gotten out of shower. Fresh and clean, from the top of his damp blonde tussles all the way down to his bare feet. But it was the black eye that caught Tony’s attention.

“I thought it was just recon?”

“It was a trap. Well, kind of. They expected a couple of grunt level agents, so just a couple of grenades and a short shoot-out –“

“Nothing Captain America couldn’t handle,” Tony supplied, smiling.

“They certainly didn’t expect him.”

“You sure that’s all the souvenir you brought back? Have you gone to the infirmary, just in case?”

“Nah, just this one,” Steve gestured to the side of his face that was already turning yellowish green, the colour of aged bruise soon to fade. Tony relented and moved towards the centre of the open court.

“If you’re feeling nice and perky, let’s get the ball rolling, shall we?”

Steve chuckled. He now stood several feet away from the billionaire.

“All right, come at me, Tony.”

They danced around each other in the dead of night, like shadows intertwined when they meet, two predators poised for the next attack when apart. There was a difference to his rhythm this time; almost as if Steve was goading him, only returning blows when he was on the receiving end. The lacklustre intensity was exasperating. Tony came down with an objective in mind; he wanted to graduate from academy of greenhorn martial arts practitioner to an opponent worthy of Steve Rogers.

He managed to land a hit on Steve’s right shoulder; the super soldier staggered backwards, more from the surprise than the force of the blow. Tony grinned cheekily, and was confident he might be able to get Steve to come at him with all he got after all. Tony scored the next hit as well, this time by suddenly dropping to the ground and swiping Steve clean off his feet, who promptly fell on his back with a satisfying thud.

“Hah! Say my name, Steve!”

Steve groaned from his spot. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, and then just let them flop by his sides as he stared at the ceiling above. Tony came closer and nudged at the prone form with his toes.

“You wanna tell me what’s bothering you?”

“That obvious huh?”

“I’d like to take 100% credit for kicking the great Captain America’s posterior in a one-on-one, but hey, I’ve got standards. Your attacks were 2% slower, there wasn’t as much momentum in them, and you left openings so wide I could’ve actually dropped you three more times –”

“I do not –”

“I could’ve flung you across the room too –”

“That’ll be a sight to see.”

“Sure it is.”

Steve inhaled, slow and deep, and stretched on the mat. Tony glanced at the wall clock and saw it was 2.30 a.m. Steve just flown in from somewhere-he-could-not-say, it’d been a long day, maybe it was better to just hit the sack after all.

“Tony,” Steve started, not taking his eyes away from the ceiling, “how do you handle that, not knowing what’s going to be done to Iron Man?”

Tony shove his hands into the baggy pockets of his sweat pants. He regarded both the question and the man on the floor carefully, not quite understanding where Steve was coming from. “In a way I do. Genius, remember? They’re not gonna write me a nice e-mail whenever they decide to deploy it of course, but I have my sources, my backdoors to getting any information I needed. Plus I’ve got Rhodey behind the suit and I trust him to do the right thing.”

“Things used to be simpler back then.”

“Welcome to the future, Cap. Might not be what you wanted, but it’s the only one we got.”

“Might want to start doing away with the ‘compartmentalisation’ thing. More like divide and conquer to me.”

“Compartmentalisation is efficient,” Tony rebutted coolly. He was starting to rock on the ball of his feet. “You know what you need to know, and do what you’re assigned to do, which is usually what you do best. It’s good for maximising output in any organisation.”

“Bottom lines. Yeah. All decided by one guy.”

“Who in turn is advised by a council.”

“Those kept in the dark will beg to differ.”

“Weren’t you in the Army? Thought you all dig the take-orders-no-questions regime?”

“And I thought all Starks are rebellious by nature?”

“Systems are in place for a reason, Steve. Good reasons. You may not see –”

In that split second that escaped Tony’s reflex, Steve hooked his leg around Tony’s ankles and pulled. As he fell Steve caught him by the shoulders and waist, used the momentum to roll them both over a short distance and pinned Tony firmly to the ground. He was utterly stunned, his mouth agape and his brown eyes as wide as a dish.

Now Steve laughed lightly. “Constant vigilance, Tony.”

They were almost touching, their noses mere inches away from each other. Tony could feel Steve’s heat radiating and a firm pinch on his flesh where Steve was holding him down like a vice. Instinctively he bucked, trying to get away, but Steve had him good. The most he could do was shift his leg a bit, and when he realised Steve’s was kneeling, straddling him, he tried to lift the Captain off; he’d only managed to slide his thigh against Steve’s. Tony froze, didn’t dare to move, didn’t dare to breathe, and he thought the world had miraculously stopped. Just as suddenly as he found himself beneath Steve, the tension lifted when the Captain pulled himself up, but not before clapping Tony apologetically on his breast twice. Tony took Steve’s proffered hand appreciatively but gave him the stink eye all the same.

“Thanks, by the way. You’re right, and I don’t mean to be… difficult.”

This… future, or present rather, was in a way, worlds apart from the one Steve envisioned. The world had grown, gotten a tad more complex, and it was something ingrained into the sub-consciousness of Men, Tony liked to think, that Men liked order in chaos. Men needed order. Conformation. A system, in other word, to keep all the little things under control. Unfortunately time and again what was meant to be a responsibility was twisted into a privilege for a select few, to govern the herd while the rest faded into arbitrary dots, parts of dreary statistics.

“Is there something SHIELD is keeping from you?” Tony asked, his voice slightly raw.

Captain Rogers had a bird-eye view on things in the 40’s. Now he had this unbelievable amount of catching up to do with what’s contemporary. Some called it the end of his relevancy. Despite going back to doing what he did best, serving the country and its people, ignorance as to how the system work still plagued him. Ignorance had threshold. Patience had threshold.

“I guess all these things are starting to get a little frustrating somehow.”

Tony’s hummed emphatically. He reached out for a hug or a pat on the arm maybe, but quickly stuffed his fists into his pockets again.

“I don’t know why they won’t let you know stuff especially if it’s something you’re directly involved in, and I’d welcome input from Captain America. What, I am capable of saying nice things once in a while, you know. And I mean it. Anyway, you’ll learn to deal with it, but if you need some, let’s say intel, you know where to find me. If there’s something Captain America isn’t allowed to know, then I want to know it too.”

Tony winked, and walked past Steve, leaving the super soldier alone in the gym. It was 2.45 a.m., and his heart was beating so hard in his ears he didn’t hear the door close behind him.

Two days later a call came from SHIELD; Steve had a follow-up assignment, this time to Germany. Another stealth mission was all he could gather from the two-minute long conversation. He was to leave by 2 p.m. so at lunchtime Tony, the only Avenger left in the Tower found Steve sitting at the edge of the dining table forking his meatball spaghetti with zero gusto. Oddly enough, the billionaire who had a penchant for fiddling with his phone whenever he had company had resolutely stowed the offending device although Steve was obviously not in the mood for talking.

The only time Steve spoke was to inform Tony that he was leaving again for a week. Where exactly, for what purpose, Steve didn’t mention, so Tony didn’t ask.

It pained him somehow when Steve set his plate in the dishwasher and turned his back against the kitchen. His shoulders were drooping pensively, and from his distant stares Tony knew he was still finding it difficult to come to terms with how things were being run at SHIELD. Tony had always had issues with authorities – mostly because they had outstanding track record of being dunces – but he’d accepted the rules of the games and since learned to play by them.

Steve was far too honourable for that.

Tony was looking forward to the following Tuesday. Not because his mornings were choking with meetings about patent applications on multiple concepts and prototypes, or the 3-hour field visit to a factory on Long Island afterwards. Steve was coming home. The anticipation made the earlier parts of the day stretched longer, but when he finally got onto Happy’s car at 6 p.m. he felt inexplicably peppy.

Tony thought of showering and eating before waiting up on Steve, but upon hearing dull murmurs from the living room he started for it, ignoring the welcome of his private elevator.

There was no one else save for the unmoving lump occupying the lush three-seater sofa; Steve was snoring softly, still clad in his SHIELD-issued uniform, the dark blue threads a contrast to his pale skin. He didn’t move as Tony switched the TV off or sank into a footstool beside him. The Kevlar gloves he wore to missions lay uselessly on the coffee table, specks of dried blood on his boots. Tony checked Steve for visible injuries; his suit was ripped at the sleeves but nothing seemed life-threatening, just a couple of lacerations and newly-formed scabs. Tony shook Steve’s knees gently, not wanting to startle the sleeping soldier.

“Steve? Come on, you’ll rest better in your own bed.”

Steve’s breath deepened; he blearily opened his eyes before pinching the bridge of his nose, hard. He turned to Tony and gave a small fond smile. Tony hadn’t seen that in a while.

“I’ve missed a friendly face.”

“I’m desirable, so I’ve been told. Up you go, Cap. Go shower and get some sleep.”

Still, he remained where he was, slumped in fatigue. Tony was about to physically haul him up when he spoke in a whisper, “It wasn’t a recon mission, Tony. Not really.”

He looked twice as weary than Tony last remembered. Tony laced his fingers together, nodding, urging him to continue.

“SHIELD picked up paper trails leading to a start-up company in Stuttgart. As far as we know, they didn’t have any mentionable trades to account for that loaded bank account of theirs. The company showed up on the radar when we caught them stockpiling on… something. That detail was left out in the briefing.

“I was there with a team for surveillance. We kept our distance, studied their routines and movements. On the sixth day, they cleared out.”

Tony sighed, “Sounds like a botched assignment. You gave yourselves away, they ran for it.”

“Or they took the message and stopped.”

Steve straightened up in his seat and retrieved his gloves from the table. There were specks of blood on them too.

“It looked like they’d ceased operation. Hardly anyone show up for work the next day and there were trucks coming in for the computers and papers. Our next order was to stand down and in 24 hours, go home. At dawn of our last day, the basement blew apart. Plastic explosives. Three casualties on our side.

“To be a damn mascot, Tony. That was my real mission. Apparently SHIELD had been trying to shut the operation down. Sure got a funny way of doing it. Weren’t even considering bringing them in for questioning.”

“You’re SHIELD’s insurance. You were there to scare them off?”

Steve heaved a sigh. See? Dunces. Who was the buttwipe that decided it was better to lose a bunch of terrorists-wannabe, risking them going underground again than to haul them in for interrogation? Intelligence gathering 101 – did someone miss a lecture or something?

“What am I doing here again, Tony?”


If the heavens ever did speak,
She’s the last true mouthpiece,
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak,
A fresh poison each week,
“We were born sick,” you heard them say it.

Steve got a month off from SHIELD duties after being on-call since forever; Tony couldn’t recall a time Steve lay off the SHIELD-issued getup ever since he moved to the Tower. Even the undershirt he put on for his morning runs bore the distinct eagle emblem on the sleeves. And it must be kismet, because Pepper decided Tony too should take the weekend off after two long months of hard work. “Even the Chairman deserved a break,” so she said. So Steve was free, Tony was free. And some special cluster of stars must be aligned up there because Pepper next brought him a fancy red envelope embossed with phoenixes that was addressed to the Malibu mansion. The sender was Anna Wei, apparently now owner of a soon-to-be-opened Chinese restaurant in downtown New York. That was an invitation to come for the opening ceremony. He remembered her, employee of back-then Stark Industries, talented computer programmer, and she’d given him wonderful memories. Might’ve saved his life that one time too. Tony smiled ruefully and considered sending a wreath and apologies for not making appearance when Steve sauntered into the hall with his laptop. He saw Tony, said hey, and claimed an armchair for himself.

Tony asked if Steve had plans that Saturday because he was invited to someplace and he’d like Steve to come along. Steve said OK.

On his insistence though, they took the train down instead of the Audi R8. That was how Tony found themselves rocking back and forth in hard plastic seats as the train trudge down the railway. They didn’t speak much, just basking in companionable silence when a large group on Indian tourists flooded the coach they were occupying. They both stood up and gave their seats to the elderlies and edged towards a relatively unoccupied corner. Relatively, Tony highlighted, because when he was with a 6 feet 4 super soldier, extra shoulder space became immediately a rare commodity. As the train climbed in speed and they swayed with the momentum, Tony gained an increasing awareness for Steve’s shampoo, and when he cast his eyes lower all he could see was the large expanse of Steve’s chest. Memories from the gym that night hit him in full embarrassing force, and Tony found himself chewing his bottom lips. He twitched, anxious and awkward as he stood, and his knee brushed against Steve’s. He didn’t know they were standing that close.

Tony faked a cough and motioned for Steve to find an emptier couch. As Steve manoeuvred his large frame around, Tony let out a breath he didn’t realise he was holding.

Something must be wrong with him.

Happily Tony didn’t get to dwell much on his predicament as they reached their stop in under ten minutes. The restaurant was strategically located nearby. Not that it was hard to miss; the feel of the entire premise was like every bit Anna was, audacious. As they stood on the curb waiting for traffic to break, Tony studied the rough surface of the walls, painted black, with half-tinted windows framed in gold. Red lanterns bearing Chinese characters he couldn’t read hung regally from the roof. Steve had to tap at his arm, jostled him from his reverie and they both finally crossed the road. Anna wasn’t difficult to locate amidst the crowd; she was standing by the grand entrance, still as ravishing as Tony remembered. Her red cheongsam had yellow chrysanthemum motives along the front and her glossy black hair was held up in a tight bun. Her smile was dazzling, her eyes illuminated with pride and joy. Tony found himself smiling too. They’d come a long way since then, and from the bottommost of his heart, he was distinctly proud of Anna too.

“Tony? Oh my god, you came!”

Heavens know how a woman could run so fast in high heels but Anna did just that before she launched herself into Tony. The billionaire laughed, the widest grin carved onto his face, and he held her tight. It had been so long.

“I’m just so happy to see you here!”

“I got your card.”

“I was sure your assistant would toss it away.”

He did have people in charge of filtering his mails and messages. Only Pepper was allowed to handle those addressed to his domiciles and she operated on a different selection criteria all together. Reason why this card made it to the Tower. Tony didn’t know how Pepper did it, she just knew.

“Anna, this is Captain Rogers.”

They shook hands. Anna seemed mesmerised by the Cap (who doesn’t) and she only let go of him when Tony cleared his throat very, very loudly.

“Congratulations, Ms Wei. This is a beautiful restaurant.”

“Thank you, Captain. I hope the décor isn’t the only lasting impression you get though,” she said, her eyes twinkling. “We put together some of the most creative Chinese cuisines on the menu for the night. My son will be playing the pipa, if you decide to hang out till late.”

“Looking forward, ma’am,” Steve promised.

“I’ve set you up at table 14. I know you like your privacy, Tony,” she added, her slender fingers touching his cuffs for the briefest of moment. “Enjoy yourself tonight, gentlemen.”

“You two seem to know each other very well,” Steve offered as they flitted between the mass. The interior too was tastefully decorated, generous with hues of red and gold. The phoenix seemed to be a favourite motive; it graced the contours on tall pillars, wood panels separating the dining area from the kitchen and lavatory, the stage. Wide mirrors installed near the back enlarged their perception of space. Table 14 was tucked away nicely from the crowd, not nearly flushed to the walls or behind one of those columns, neither was it too close to the stage nor any exits.

“We had history,” Tony stated simply, declining elaboration. Steve nodded, and as he took his seat opposite Tony, he said no more.

Over a pot of pu-erh and a serving of the famed beggar’s chicken, Steve ostensibly relaxed in the slightly chaotic atmosphere. Their neighbours were discussing something rather vociferously in Cantonese – Tony heard every single word but in all honesty it didn’t count as eavesdropping since they spoke loudly first and he didn’t understand a thing. There was laughter all around but none of the mirth seemed to affect Steve. He brought Captain Gloomy out for a reason, and so far it hadn’t been turning out well. Tony decided this called for a more barefaced approach.

“All right,” Tony placed his chopsticks pointedly across the rim of his rice bowl. “You can brood for the rest of the year, or you can start talking.”

Steve looked at him, stunned at first, and then to their surprise, he laughed. The first, open laughter in weeks. Steve too put down his chopsticks.

“Thank you, Tony. For this – all of it.”

“You’re welcome. I think,” he said woodenly as he twiddled the edge of the tablecloth. “Remind me, for what?”

“For being honest with me. A quality this world should see more of.”

“Amen to that.”

“I don’t know, maybe I’m the one who’s too stubborn to evolve, change, to try to fit in with the future. Obviously a lot of time has passed. It’s not the 40’s anymore. And I can’t stay stuck in there.”

“You’re fine as you are. Your innocence is precious.”

“Innocence?” Steve chuckled again. “I’ve fought wars, I’ve killed.”

“People these days don’t see things in black and white anymore. It could be orange now, red the next. Convenient bullshit to further selfish agendas. You know, I dare say 60% of the world’s greatest problems shouldn’t even existed if not for the puerility of human beings. Transparency is good, Cap. And you’re just that.”

“You’re saying you can read me?”

“Like an open book, sure.”

Steve watched Tony pick up his chopsticks and prod the half-eaten chicken. He shook his head in amusement but picked his bowl up all the same. Suddenly there was a sharp clink as Tony’s chopsticks rested on it, laying a shitake mushroom on the fluffy rice. His eyes were dark, solemn. Sincere.

“You’re our leader, Steve. You are the anchor that all of us hold on to, God knows what we’d without you. Probably having a go at each other every Thursday night instead of coming together for a greater purpose. And we choose to follow you to whatever ends. If everything goes down to the dogs, well, you still have me. So stop doubting your place here with us.”

There.

Steve used the rest of his month-long leave to great use. He read more, went out more. There was less and less of searches on his past – the Howling Commando, the war – but more and more bookmarks on world politics from the 1950’s to present day. He even tried setting up a Facebook account after Pepper told him people get their daily feeds from it. He’d wriggled his nose a bit when Pepper warned him to take everything on Facebook (or the Internet in general) with a grain of salt. Then he went on YouTube and Tony hoped JARVIS still diligently clean it up of scandalous vids – what was that about again, about him not wearing clothes?

His mood improved and he opened up more. Not as obnoxiously as Tony who tended to dominate chit-chats over breakfast, but enough that people were starting to hover around him for reasons beyond the fact that the was Captain America.

Tony hadn’t been unaware of how his own heart stuttered as Steve laughed uninhibitedly at jokes Clint or Natasha made, or when he insisted on cleaning up after movie nights despite having hired helps for that. Tony found the almost child-like manner of him scratching his eye and yawning after staring at the computer screen for too long endearing. He told himself that it was the stress of managing the Avengers and Stark International. He’d been lonely. He missed the intimacy and attention of a good company over a meal. Didn’t even have to be a nine-course in Shangri-La.

So when he came home to a bowl of soggy mac’ and cheese Steve had cooked after his morning run, he was so taken he didn’t realise he had all but buried his forehead in the back of Steve’s neck. The ladle clattered against the pot as he turned to grab Tony around the elbows.

“Hey, you OK?”

“Morning,” Tony said unenthusiastically. He lifted his head and realised, perhaps too late, what he’d just done. He backed off so fast he bumped into the dining chair that it scrapped cacophonously against the tiled floor.

“Easy there, tiger. I’m not shooting anyone so early this morning,” Natasha greeted. Her slender frame appeared out of nowhere – not entirely comforting.

Tony lay his briefcase haphazardly by the leg of the table before he too sank into the chair that had jabbed him painfully in his hipbone. Steve served him the mac’ and cheese he was making. Then he palmed Tony’s forehead.

Natasha whistled, though not quite looking at the spectacle before her. She took the spoon and starting eating out of Tony’s bowl.

“I have more in the pot, Nat. And Tony, you’re burning.”

He peeled Steve away from him and wrestled the spoon from Natasha. He tucked into breakfast grimly, trying his very best to ignore two pairs of raised eyebrows.

“I thought you won’t be back until Wednesday?”

“Earthquake. We shut the plant down when a foreman spotted cracks in the west wing. Reparations commencing today. I flew out yesterday night.”

“Is it OK to leave?”

“Yeah, nothing I can do for the time being. The plant visit is rescheduled to… next week maybe? And the board meeting is due for this term, so I have to be in town anyway,” he groaned, his forehead now finding solace on the cool table top.

Both were about to go mother hen on Tony when JARVIS interrupted with an urgent call for the Avengers to assemble. All three stiffened as JARVIS intoned “a black army in masks attacking a university in Crimean Federal District of Russia, with a confirmed sighting of Crossbones.” Tony did not miss how Steve’s eyes steeled at the mention of the name.

“Meet you guys at the deck. JARVIS, get Mark VII ready.”

Steve pushed Tony back into his seat with absurd ease. He regarded the feverish billionaire with a frown, a weak semblance of apology.

“You’re sitting this one out, Tony.”

He nodded to Natasha, and soon they were gone. Tony slumped dejectedly as he watched his team mates calling orders through the comm. The last evidence of their presence was Steve’s heavy footsteps disappearing beyond the foyer. He poked at a random pea in his bowl, trying to quench the growing sense of uneasiness that was forming in the pit of his stomach.