“Sir, Captain Rogers is requesting entry,” JARVIS informed the engineer in a monotone, automatically lowering the volume of the classic rock music blasting through the amplified speakers. Tony sighed once, still staring hard at his StarkTablet as he finalized the specifics on his latest project.
“I thought I said no interruptions,” he reminded the AI, ignoring the holes burning in the back of his head. He kept his back turned to the entrance in an effort to discourage visitors. Most of the team cooperated with his tendency to seek isolation, but a certain super soldier and a redheaded master assassin seemed determined to include him.
“I’m afraid he’s insisting. He’s threatened to break through the doors if not permitted to enter,” JARVIS replied dryly. With a scowl, Tony closed the numerous holographic files displayed around him, and turned the music off completely. After marathoning AC/DC for a few days, the absence of sound left a dull ringing in his ears. He pinched the bridge of his nose, squinting against the slight pressure in his skull.
“Fine. Let him in,” Tony surrendered, spinning around in his office chair. The glass doors slid open with a low gust of air, and the Captain strode in leisurely, his bright blue eyes fixed directly on the engineer. Tony tried not to register the unwelcome flutter his heart gave at the very sight of Captain Steve Rogers. It began a few weeks ago, and he hadn’t acted on it, just tried to avoid him and stay down in the lab. But either Steve or Natasha always sought him out.
“Natasha made breakfast. We’re waiting for you,” Steve told him by way of greeting, and Tony discreetly marveled at him. His blond hair was slightly ruffled from sleep, and he wore a soft-looking gray t-shirt and sweatpants that hung low on his hips. Tony idly wondered how the Captain managed to look so good after he had obviously just woken up. He dismissed those thoughts, as they were completely ridiculous, and obviously would not be welcome.
“Busy,” Tony managed shortly, and swiveled back around to continue working, or to have something to do with his hands. All he wanted was to run his fingers through the Captain’s hair, which he imagined was very soft. He heard Steve exhale.
“Come on. How long have you been down here? Did you even go to bed?” the soldier pressed, and Tony’s lips twitched. It took all of his self-restraint not to make some crack about bed and all the things beds were good for besides sleep. Before, he used to always throw sexual innuendos at the Captain, mainly because it was too easy making him blush. But when he realized that he might be a little serious about some of his suggestions, he toned it back a bit.
“I’m working, Captain. Either say something interesting or get out.” He kept his eyes trained on a screwdriver on the table, trying not to look at Steve. It occurred to him that he wasn’t being very nice, but Steve’s constant monitoring of his sleeping and eating patterns-or lack thereof- was grating on his nerves. Maybe because he knew that the only reason Steve nagged was to ensure that he wasn’t a danger to the team. Was it really so bad that Tony just wanted someone to care about him, with no other agendas?
“When’s the last time you ate, Tony? When’s the last time you saw the sun?” The Captain fired off, pulling Tony from his bitter thoughts. Why couldn’t Steve just leave him alone? The engineer stood, turned, and forced a smile that really turned out to be more of a grimace.
“I had a delicious red starburst not two minutes ago,” Tony drawled, nodding his head at the half-empty bag of starbursts on his desk, “and you’re my sunshine, Cap.” Steve blinked, and Tony was amused to find blush rising on those perfectly sculpted cheekbones.
“Excuse me?” Steve asked stupidly, and Tony laughed, preparing to deflect attention off of what he had just said. It wasn’t that infrequent of an occurrence that Tony’s mouth worked faster than his brain, and the repercussions tended to be less than desirable. Like the time with Pepper where he unthinkingly revealed his aversion to water, resulting in a steady stream of questions that ceased only when he told her about what had happened in Afghanistan.
She had wisely dropped the subject, but he still hated the pity in her eyes when she looked at him after that. He supposed that this wasn’t as bad as that particular instance, but the endearment could perhaps tip Steve off that Tony’s interest in him was more than friendly, and that could never happen.
Fortunately, when his brain caught up, he was generally able to redirect attention off of what he’d said with a witty remark, inappropriate joke, or, more often than not, an insult. The latter seemed most apt for serving his purpose in this particular situation.
“Yes, you’re a burning pain in the ass and hard to look at,” he replied, less than a second having passed for all those thoughts to have raced through his brilliant mind. Both a blessing and a curse. He felt Steve inspect him closely, and lowered his eyes so the good captain wouldn’t see through him, as Tony felt he so often did.
To be honest, Steve sort of was the light in his dark world, but Tony couldn’t ever let him know that. Even if Steve did care about him, and that was a huge if…Tony obviously wasn’t good enough for him. He would not be the one responsible for hurting Captain America, and inevitably, he would. It would only be a matter of time.
Tony Stark had a track record of pulling away when someone got too close, and it was about time to begin the process with Steve. The Captain seemed a little too comfortable around him, which wasn’t okay. The only way to protect himself and others was to keep everyone at arm’s length. The only one he didn’t really push away was Bruce, but that was because he enjoyed having a science buddy, and the curly-haired man was so unintentionally hilarious that he lightened Tony’s mood. Besides, one does not simply push away the Hulk.
“Come on, Tony,” Steve sighed, sounding exasperated. “You can’t keep doing this. You need to rest.” Tony just rolled his eyes. He may be teetering on the edge of insanity, but that was what he could manage. Especially after- no. He quickly halted that train of thought before it could incapacitate him.
“I’m fine,” he lied smoothly, knowing full well that he wasn’t. But what did the Cap expect him to do? Lie down and weep that he was all kinds of fucked up? Admit that he couldn’t let anyone get close because he was afraid of what they might see? Let the team in so they could pick and poke and prod until they saw every sinful inch of his twisted mind and then disappear, leaving him to pick up the pieces? Right.
“Yeah, you look it. When was the last time you slept?” Tony pursed his lips, peering at the ceiling as he considered the question. In the pause, the AI decided that he needed assistance.
“It has been sixty-four hours, twelve minutes, and seventeen seconds since the sir last slept, which lasted for the duration of roughly four hours,” JARVIS supplied helpfully, which was so not helpful. Tony shrugged, plastering on his most plastic smile.
“The power of coffee,” he supplied, hating the way the Cap was looking at him. Sympathy was for the weak. Stark men were made of iron. Howard had beat that lesson into him at a very young age.
“You’re not being responsible. How are you supposed to protect other people if you can’t even take care of yourself?” Steve asked gently, something close to concern shining in those gorgeous blue eyes. Tony scoffed loudly, abruptly fed up with the conversation.
“I can take care of myself,” he snapped, glaring at his own personal Adonis defensively. The Captain’s eyes hardened in response, and he folded his arms across his muscular chest.
“Well, prove it. Or I’m pulling you off the team.” The words hung there in the air for a moment, and Tony’s eyes widened in shock, and a little bit of hurt. Seriously? He had given up everything in order to be Iron Man, including his peace, his sanity. And now Captain freaking America was threatening to kick him off the team just because he was skipping a few meals?
“Sir, Miss Potts is calling you. Shall I put her through?” JARVIS interjected, and Tony blinked, swallowing around the lump in his throat. Despite the god-awful way his chest was constricting, making the simple action of breathing in and out difficult, he was grateful for the distraction.
“We’ll continue this later,” Steve promised, or was it a threat? Tony rolled his eyes as the super soldier made his way to the door, his gaze lingering on the Captain’s super fine ass. He tore his eyes away with some difficulty and fixed his gaze on the ceiling.
“Hey, Pep. What’s going on?” Tony asked upon answering.
“Hello, Anthony,” a male voice greeted icily through the speakers, and Tony froze. Either Pepper was seriously sick, or that wasn’t Pepper. Tony glanced up, finding that Steve had paused at the door. He was staring back at the engineer with a pensive expression, as though he wasn’t sure if there was cause for concern. There was.
“Who is this?” Tony demanded, feeling the familiar buildup of panic in his chest. There were only two reasons someone would be calling from her phone. First scenario was that Pepper had hurt herself and had someone call Tony for her, but he quickly ruled that out, because if that were the case then the greeting shouldn’t sound so cold. The other, more likely scenario was that someone had taken Pepper to hurt him. Thinking about Pepper being punished for his wrongdoings sent him spiraling into black panic. He pushed it all down forcefully. Not here. Not now.
“I would have thought you’d remember me. After all, we do go pretty far back, Stark,” the voice replied, his tone familiar, yet wrong. It was brimming with absolute hatred. And suddenly, Tony recognized its owner. His head spun. How the hell was he contacting him? Wasn’t he supposed to be locked up for trying to kill him?
“Justin Hammer?” he breathed in surprise, and his old enemy chuckled.
“Yes. I’m glad you haven’t managed to completely forget me just yet. That’s against the rules, remember?” Tony flinched. “But here’s what’s going to happen, Anthony. You are going to meet me at a location of my choice. No suit, and you come alone. Or your girlfriend dies.” Tony inhaled sharply, and met Steve’s alarmed gaze. Not Pepper, he thought desperately. He wasn’t in love with her, but he still loved her, and he figured he always would. She was beautiful, and amazing, and witty, and she could take most of his crap. But most of all, she was smart. Smart enough that it wouldn’t be easy to pull the wool over her eyes. Tony knew- he had tried.
“How do I know you really have her?” he challenged, and Justin chuckled, though it wasn’t a pleasant sound.
“Color me impressed, Anthony,” Justin drawled sarcastically. “But hear for yourself.” There were a few rustling noises, and suddenly-
“Tony!” Pepper cried, her soft voice full of fear. Tony’s heart wrenched, his face crumpling in pain.
“Pepper!” he choked. “Pepper, I’m so sorry, I promise I’ll-” but he was cut off in his flurry of words.
“Meet me at the old house at the edge of the city. You know the one. You have one hour,” Justin growled, and then the line disconnected.
Tony stared at the ground in shock. How could he be so stupid? He should have killed Hammer when he had the chance. Or better yet, he should have killed himself. Nobody tries to hurt the people you love if you’re dead.
He swallowed with some difficulty before connecting the bracelets to his wrist. Justin didn’t know about them, as they were more of a recent invention that saved his life when Loki threw him out a window back in the battle of New York. They would come in handy.
“You can’t actually be thinking of going,” Steve cried out in disbelief, startling Tony. He had stalked forward until he was right in front of the engineer. Tony avoided his accusing eyes and shrugged.
“I don’t have a choice. You heard him. He’s going to kill Pepper if I don’t,” he muttered, reaching out to grab his car keys. But before he could, a hand locked around his wrist. Tony’s heart seized up in full-blown panic. Touching was off limits. He had never said it out loud, but he thought everyone knew. Touching had always been an issue for him ever since he was a kid, but after the cave in Afghanistan, it was nearly unbearable. He could tolerate the occasional clap on the back from Thor as long as he was expecting it, but this...
As much as he hated to admit it, he didn’t trust Steve not to hurt him just yet. Wasn’t personal; he didn’t trust anyone, except maybe Pepper and Rhodey. But the truth was, everyone hurt him sooner or later, and he figured it was just a matter of time before someone got fed up with his crap. Undoubtedly, it would be his fault, but he still wanted to avoid the inevitable ass-kicking for as long as possible.
“Let go,” he ground out, his pulse racing. And even though he knew it had always pissed Howard off more when he begged, he couldn’t help the whimpered, “please” that escaped his lips. Steve immediately noticed the look in his eyes, and somewhat guiltily released him. But he didn’t move out of Tony’s path, and his face was hard, unyielding.
“I can’t let you do this.” Tony stepped closer until they were almost nose to nose, his blood boiling. Rage had flared up inside his chest. Nobody let him do anything. Not since Obadiah.
“It’s not up to you,” he hissed, glaring directly into Steve’s impossibly blue eyes. He knew that it was just the rage and sleep-deprivation, but he wanted to hit something, anything. He wanted Steve to hit him, so he had an excuse to hit back. He wouldn’t win, obviously, but sometimes it didn’t matter to him whether he was beating or being beaten.
“Please, calm down,” Steve cautioned, holding up his hands.
“Calm down?” Tony echoed disbelievingly, and he raked his hands through his hair, jerking away from Steve and taking several deep breaths. “It’s Pepper, dammit! Steve, I can’t just be calm, and you wouldn’t be either if the situation was reversed. What if it was Peggy?” he challenged, and the Captain’s lips parted slightly, a faraway look entering his eyes. For a second, Tony thought he had him. But then Steve shook his head, as if to clear it, and the steely look was back in his eyes.
“He’s going to kill you, Tony. Look, we’ll figure something else out,” Steve insisted pleadingly, and Tony flinched, looking off to the side. He wasn’t sure if it was intentional, but when the Captain used his puppy dog face, it was incredibly hard to say no. His heart stirred curiously at the concern in his voice, and then the Cap continued. “We can get the team involved to help, just please don’t do this. You can’t go running off on a suicide mission!”
And there it was. He didn’t want to disappoint Steve, but it was Pepper, his first love. He couldn’t let his weakness for the Cap prevent him from saving her. So Tony did that thing he sometimes had to, the thing he had learned while growing up in Howard’s care and then being under Obadiah’s control. He just completely cleansed himself of emotion. When he finally turned back to the Cap, his face was blank, his eyes were empty, and his voice was cold.
“Cap, I’m going. You can’t stop me. So you can get the hell out of my way and quit wasting my time or you can stand there and make me late,” Tony warned in a low voice. Indecision warred on the Captain’s face, and Tony stared at him as he awaited his decision. But Tony already knew; Steve was too noble, too good to stand by.
“We can figure something else out,” Steve repeated stubbornly. Tony sighed in defeat, and let his shoulders fall. He really didn’t want to have to do this, but Steve left him no choice.
“Like what, Cap?” he mumbled, letting his voice break. “What can I do here?” He stumbled forward, and the Cap automatically caught and steadied him. And then he was wrapped up in a super soldier hug. Steve rubbed his back comfortingly, and self-hatred slipped through his defenses, curling in Tony’s stomach, making his blood sing. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered into Steve’s neck.
“For what?” Steve asked, but Tony didn’t answer. He pulled away, and the Captain’s eyes were wide with shock and betrayal. Tony pulled the now empty syringe out of Steve’s neck, and watched as he crumpled to the floor. Tony lost the tenuous grasp he had, and was flooded with horror. Oh, god, that was Steve he had just sedated.
“Sorry,” he whispered guiltily, gazing down at the blond super soldier with a terrible feeling in his gut. This was probably the last time he would ever see Steve, and that hurt more than anything else. As much as he tried to deny it, he cared for the idiot a little, and he didn’t let himself do that very often. And this was exactly the reason why; the pain when someone inevitably left.
Quickly, he tore a page out of a notebook and scribbled a message on it, placing it gently on Steve’s chest. The words didn’t come exactly right, but they were the only ones he had.
Sorry I drugged you, but I knew you wouldn’t let me go. I have to do this. It’s Pepper. Please tell the others that it’s my fault, and mine alone. JARVIS will give them a message if I don’t make it back. Please forgive me.
He retrieved his keys and stepped carefully around Steve’s unconscious form, trying hard not to look at him. He slipped out the back door and made his way through the garage, scanning the rows of cars for the fastest. He got into Stark 9, double checking to make sure the bracelets were on and the suitcase was ready.
“Sir, you do realize that you might not come back home,” JARVIS said softly, and Tony pursed his lips. For whatever reason, a conversation he had with Steve shortly after the Battle of New York popped into his head…
“No, DUM-E, you put the Neosporin on before the bandage!” Tony exclaimed in exasperation, running his uninjured hand through his hair. DUM-E had stuck a Band-Aid over his split open hand and was now smearing a generous amount of Neosporin over the top. Having a mentally retarded robot dress a wound probably wasn’t the best idea, but Pepper wasn’t in New York and he sure as hell wasn’t going to the hospital for a tiny gash on his hand. He pursed his lips. Okay, maybe it was little deep…and bloody.
“Perhaps verbally assaulting him isn’t the best way to encourage cooperation,” someone chuckled from behind him. Tony turned slightly to see the Captain leaning against the entrance, doing an extremely poor job of concealing his smirk. How the hell did he get in here? This seemed to show on Tony’s face, because Steve pointed to the ceiling. “Sorry, your, um, guy let me in,” he explained. Tony sighed.
“JARVIS,” he supplied warily, “who is apparently terrible at his job.” Tony shot a glare at the ceiling, though he could almost feel the AI’s amusement. “Also, this guy’s name is DUM-E.” He kicked his robot lightly, and DUM-E whirred, sounding happy. “So, I wasn’t insulting him.” Steve just smiled, which was kind of weird. Nice…but weird. What happened to ‘put on the suit’?
“You need some help with that?” Steve offered, gesturing at Tony’s hand. Tony frowned. Was this some kind of joke? He thought Steve hated him, wanted to kill him and stuff. He thought the only reason Steve put up with him was because of the whole world being in jeopardy and all that. He thought Steve couldn’t wait to get away from him, just like the rest. Why was he here?
“What are you doing here?” Tony demanded, letting some accusation leak into his voice. Steve blinked, taken aback a little bit. Then his shoulders fell slightly, and took a deep breath.
“Alright, I deserve that,” he muttered. He took a step forward and raised his hands. “Look, I just wanted to apologize.” Well. Tony wasn’t expecting that.
“For what?” Tony scoffed, because technically Steve hadn’t done anything wrong. Just voiced his very hurtful opinions, which Tony could not blame him for. After all, he was a huge advocate of freedom of speech. “Knowing guys worth ten of me?” Steve shrugged, not taking the bait.
“That and all the other things I said. I was clearly wrong. What you did back there… that was brave.” Tony flushed slightly at the unexpected praise, and he turned away to hide his expression.
“Don’t worry about it,” Tony muttered to his screwdriver. “I just did what I had to, Cap.”
“You saved a lot of people, Tony. What you did was…risky,” Steve said softly. Suddenly, the endless black of the portal flashed behind his eyelids. He slammed his hand on the table to dispel the haunting flashback and turned back to Steve.
“I know, I was there,” he snapped. Steve just stared back at him calmly, and Tony realized he was kind of blowing his chance to smooth things over. He inhaled deeply, and turned back to his work. “But thanks. And I’m sorry too. I didn’t mean what I said.”
“No problem,” Steve replied easily. “Now… can I help you with your hand?” Tony was silent for a moment as he considered. If Steve wanted to kill him he would have done so already.
“Sure,” he finally answered. He took a seat on the workbench and Steve walked over, gently grabbing Tony’s hand in his own. He inspected the wound with furrowed eyebrows that Tony found slightly adorable, and brushed over DUM-E’s poor handiwork gently. Tony’s breath hitched slightly in his throat, because Steve was right there, and he could smell his body wash and shampoo and his eyes were so so blue, and-
And that was when Tony knew just how fucked he was.
Even then Steve was kinder than Tony deserved. But Steve had also been wrong. What Tony did wasn’t brave; it was cowardly. He didn’t fly that goddamn nuke into the portal because it was the only option. They could have managed easily without what he did, though they didn’t seem to get that. Mostly, he chose to do it because he thought he would die. Back then he was too worried about Pepper and Rhodey to try anything, but the portal gave him the perfect opportunity. And the world would see him as a hero. So it wasn’t brave at all. And neither was what he was about to do.
“I know. I’m counting on it, buddy.”