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Cracked Hearts Under Iron Ribs

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Tony makes the most orgasmic lemon-basil orzotto Natasha has ever tasted. She knows this for sure because she has had the dish from places people sing ballads about. Food critics have wept over that little off-the-block gran's place in Queens but Natasha is not the smartest woman she's seen in a mirror to ignore the thing her taste buds scream for. Tony adds exactly the amount of white wine she likes and even she doesn't know how much that is.

She has thought in fleeting moments about manipulating him into opening a restaurant and let her manage it while he whipped up delicacies. Then she remembered that it would mean less foodgasms for her and more for the world she doesn't care about. She never got around to getting that restaurant.

"He's making your zit thing again," Clint whined as he poked at her side viciously, eyeing the bustling figure across the room, almost dancing around the utensils, "we were supposed to have homemade pizza. We had a bowl. There were chits. My name arose."

"Arose from what?" Sam asked as he plopped onto Clint's right, deliberately jarring his hip with his arm and getting a swift jab at the abdomen, "You hit like...well, you I suppose. What did your name arise from?"

"That was a shitty insult, absolutely pathetic. My name came up in this week's TT," Clint groused in a hushed whisper when he noted Tony looking their way absently, "The TT is sacred. We have to respect the TT. We all agreed on that. And yet, he's making her zitty shit today."

"Tony's making orzotto?" Sam asked Natasha with raised eyebrows, grinning when she smirked, "You used your battle scars and lone woman tear didn't you?"

"He was spying technically, so I didn't do anything," Natasha shrugged delicately though Sam could easily tell that she was bluffing, "It's not my fault he likes me better than Clint."

"Psh, he likes Bucky better than both of you," Sam rolled his eyes and quickly gestured to the kitchen where they could see the metal armed ex-soldier joining Tony in the kitchen, excitedly hovering around him, tasting a sauce he was making and grinning when Tony smacked his hand away, "Honestly, it's like Tony's adopted him as his sous chef or something."

"Oh please, James just switches on his lost-puppy charm and Tony melts like warm cheese," Natasha snorted, watching as Tony babbled away about something related to Bucky's arm and the taller man hopped on to a counter and munched on a pear, nodding in time to whatever he understand of the rant, "I can guarantee that he's going to get his way with today's bonding activity."

Clint scowled at that and almost stared at too long at Tony making the genius notice and frown before Sam kicked him lightly under the table and the archer acted like he was scowling at Bucky.

It was the golden rule of the team that nobody was to make Tony uncomfortable or noticed about his cooking or other domestic interests. It had started off six months back, when Bruce had first walked in on Tony making tiramisu with a sleepy Steve leaning over him, head tucked over Tony's shoulder. Bruce being the zen master he was, had simply backed off quietly, not mentioning anything when the next day the fridge had two Tupperwares full of the most delicious tiramisu he had ever tasted. Tony had looked like a deer caught in the headlights when Thor had boisterously demanded to know who had whipped up the 'most worthy food of Midgard I have partaken in!' and had looked at everybody expectantly. Everybody except for Tony, because nobody had ever imagined Tony cooking. Tony had owned up haughtily before snarking viciously in defense for any imagined judgement about it and then proceeding to avoid the kitchen completely for days.

They had learnt pretty quickly about the bundle of issues the genius had about acting anyway remotely 'homey' or 'domestic'. Nobody had commented regarding it in front of Tony.

After then, they had made sure that nobody gave Tony any special attention or strange look whenever the genius decided to fiddle around in the kitchen, making him presume that they weren't really bothered about whatever he did. They couldn't compliment him too, because it always led to him spacing out and misunderstanding that they were making fun of him. There was absolutely no acknowledgement of Tony being the pack mom since then.

But that didn't mean that they didn't know that he was just that - the mom of the group. He bashed Sam and Clint left, right and center when one of them didn't inform him about any minor malfunction in their weapons or suits. He fielded press conferences when either Bruce or Wanda got snidely insulted by any reporter. He kept track on Pietro's dating subtly and silently got all their details before the guy ever brought them home. He helped Bucky handle his bad days by letting him assist Tony in the workshop. He helped Natasha in trying to break the whole Red Room network silently. He taught Thor technology whenever the guy went into his sad moods. He discussed new ideas with Vision before a mind-boggling invention. But the best relationship was with Steve.

Steve was the pack dad. He made sure they trained regularly and kept them updated on their weaknesses and strengths. He handled SHIELD whenever they got too intrusive. He gave the Disappointed Stare when there was a PR incident that started off as a bet or prank. He discussed the team with Tony like they were a family. He was the only one allowed into the workshop whenever Tony got into one of his regular monthly bitchy moods. Wanda had been horrified when that seemed to match her cycle.

They had become a family in the past six months. They were happy.

Nobody had been surprised when the Captain and Tony had silently began dating. The lack of surprise had somehow helped keep Tony calm about the change. 

The problem came up when the team desperately wanted to make demands for Tony's special dishes and had to find a way to get him to think it was his idea and not theirs. Everybody had their favorites. The girls had a sour and spicy tongue, Clint, Sam, Pietro and Thor had a sweet tooth, Bucky practically devoured anything that had garlic and cheese in it, Bruce preferred the light salads while Vision would simply take in the presentation and smile like a happy kitten. Steve didn't have a favorite because he ate everything Tony made with equal gusto. The others got annoyed with him for that but it made Tony break into that secret smile so they really couldn't do anything about the honeymoon phase couple.

They had to do something about their cravings though and that was how TT or Tony Tarot had come up. It was a simple concept, one Sam had come up with after the fourth fight they had gone through to decide between pasta and pizza. The Tony Tarot was a bunch of Avengers trading cards that were given to Vision to 'read' and pick one card of the Avenger would get to decide the dish of the week. Steve's card was excluded after Clint had hissed that Steve could always get his way by chiming the clapper with Tony. 

They had underestimated Natasha and Bucky though, who always seemed to get Tony soft with their fucking fake sad looks. If one of them got hurt, that just made things even worse. 

"You know, one of these days, I'm going to fall off a building and he's going to make fucking chocolate and orange risotto till you fakers die of diabetes," Clint vowed in a hissed whisper as he side-eyes Natasha, pretending to watch Say Yes To The Dress

"If you fall off a building, he's just going to chew himself out for not catching you," Sam whispered back with a roll of his eyes, "and you'd be in the hospital till Steve allows you back which means you'll have to eat rubber food for weeks. Good plan there man."

"Where's my jacket?" Wanda bustled into the room, looking high-strung and eyes darting around the living room, an edge of panic creeping in, "It's not there in my room or floor. Where is it?"

Natasha raised an eyebrow and discreetly looked towards the kitchen to notice that Tony had paused in his cooking and was frowning at Wanda.

"Did you try asking FRIDAY?" Sam asked calmly, knowing that the girl needed her jacket for reasons that went back to Sokovia and strange memories.

"I looked everywhere!" Wanda continued, slipping into a mild panic attack as she ignored Sam's question and paced around the sofa, frantically looking at all spaces, "I can't find it. I can't find it and I don't know when I had it last!"

"It's okay," Tony walked into the room with a forced casual ease to his tone as he regarded the younger girl with a small smile, "It's okay, this is a big Tower, lots of rooms and floors. It'll be here somewhere. Let's just ask FRIDAY, okay? Hey, FRIDAY? Where's Wanda's red riding hood?"

The others were resolutely not coming closer to Wanda, letting her decide where to move freely and watching Tony hold her gaze as he pointedly waited for FRIDAY's scan and answer.

"Ms.Maximoff's jacket seems to be absent from the Tower, sir," the AI answered softly.

Wanda's hands had begun to spark red and Natasha caught Bucky's eyes from afar, both subtly re-arranging themselves in places that would enable them to take her down if she lost control. Tony, on the other hand, firmly put himself in front of the young woman, not looking away from her for a second as he spread his hands and spoke slowly.

"Hey, Wanda, we'll find it, okay? I promise," he said firmly, "You've not lost it, it's not stolen and we'll get it back from wherever it is, okay? Look at me, kiddo, yes, that's it. I promise that your jacket isn't gone. Okay?"

"FRIDAY, where's Pietro?" Clint asked, using the same calm tone Tony had been using.

"Mr. Maximoff is training with the Captain in the gym," the AI answered before a pause that meant that she had informed Steve of the situation, "The Captain and he and arriving to your location right now."

"What's wrong?" Pietro asked with a frown when he whooshed into the room, staring between his tensed sister and the others.

Tony didn't take his eyes off Wanda yet but relaxed an inch before tilting his head in a way that he acknowledged both Wanda and Pietro.

"Hey, P? Did the girl from last night, ravenhead whats-her-name, leave the Tower after you went into hiding in the pretext of sparring?" Tony asked calmly though Clint caught on and bit back a groan.

"Erm. After?" Pietro answered in confusion but soon Natasha caught on too and swore under her breath before whipping out her phone and dialing a number.

"Yeah, buddy, remember how we had the discussion about not letting your toys scatter into other's rooms?" Tony asked, this time looking away from Wanda and staring at Pietro with a tight smirk, "Especially when you know that the toys are crafty and may pick up some dirt?"

Wanda seemed to have caught on finally and turned around to pin a glare at her brother.

"You let your drunkie into my room?" she asked in accusation and Pietro frowned harder.

"No! Of course not!" the white haired man shook his head vehemently and took a step forward towards Wanda, "Wanda, you know I wouldn't do that."

"You didn't let her but you sure didn't tell FRIDAY to monitor her or you know, stay and wish her good-bye," Tony observed and pinched the bridge of his nose, "FRIDAY, tell me the jacket's the only thing she took and drop me her number would you?"

"Not necessary," Natasha cut in, walking back into the room with a calm but pissed face, "We've sent her a clear message. We'll be getting the jacket and a few other things she apparently picked from Thor and Sam's rooms soon. Steve's gone to collect them himself. You picked a hell of a number this time, Quicksilver."

"She took my things too?" Sam demanded before glaring at Pietro, "Man, why do you always get the rotten apples?"

"Because he's a horny dick," Tony sighed matter-of-factly and it was a testament to how awkward Pietro was feeling that he didn't protest any louder than a feeble 'hey', "Let's just...get back to work till Steve comes back from his morning lecture, alright?"

Steve did come back looking like a principal who had just reprimanded a naughty kid and handed over Wanda's old red jacket to her with a soft smile before kissing Tony's amused smirk right off his lips. When Wanda looked like a relieved kid, Clint knew that Tony would end up making her favorite dessert after this. 

Damn kids and their emotionally manipulative ways against the TT.

-----------------------

"So if I kneaded like this..." Steve whispered into Tony's ear as he purposefully messed up the dough again, using Tony's 'guidance hands' to his own mischief.

"You'd end up making a paste instead of a dough," Tony replied deadpanned, elbowing his boyfriend in the gut lightly, "Seriously, Rogers, I am literally wasting my precious genius in trying to teach you how to knead properly while I could be putting these babies to use in creating the new arrows I know Barton would worship me for."

"I could worship you," Steve shot back teasingly and Tony casually shifted his foot and stamped hard on Steve's toe, "Okay, okay, so this is how we knead for pizza. Got it."

"Good," Tony nodded and easily slipped out of Steve's arms to go pick his toppings, "Now, do you have any idea what you want on your pizza or are you gonna go with your usual 'all you can eat' variety?"

Steve pretended to think but stealthily moved forward till he was hovering over Tony, cornering him to the fridge with an innocent smile.

"You're asking me what I want on top?" he asked with an exaggerated blink but leering eyes and Tony's eyes fell to his lips before they looked up and frowned.

"I thought you said you wanted sustenance?" he asked pointedly, not quite objecting to the hands sneaking closer to his waist but raising an eyebrow at the innocent act, "You know, after you clearly said that I won 'round five' because you needed food to keep going?"

Steve smirked at that, a habit he had clearly picked up from his boyfriend and Tony felt himself chuckling at the thought. Everybody, well, everybody who knew, thought that Steve would be the one to change Tony in their relationship. They had been looking forward to it a bit, Tony could tell. Pepper and Maria the most, which had made things even more surprising for Tony when it didn't happen. Pepper was always right in such matters, wasn't she? He had waited for it, left loopholes that would lure Steve in and make him ask for changes. Don't drink so many cups of coffee, Tony; Don't work late night, Tony; Follow the rules, Tony; Don't be crass, Tony.

Anything. He had looked for anything of that sort.

Seventh week into dating and Tony had realized, partly due to Natasha's quiet remarks, that it wasn't him that had changed. It was Steve. Not in a life-altering, ground-breaking, boxers to thongs kind of change, but a more subtle one. Bucky described it the best when he answered Tony about it.

Well, even Atlas needs a break now and then, right?

It struck Tony hard how the comparison was right. Steve's shoulders had always been broad and strong but if he thought back to before their dating, he could also remember them being high-strung. They were swift to move, evading when striked, but they weren't relaxed, hadn't been flexible. Tony remembered even making scathing jokes about Steve having taken the serum with a clenched body leading to continuity of the same posture. It hadn't struck him, the difference, till he had compared the man before him at present to the man he remembered from the past. 

Steve smiled now. Not with abandon and certainly not always, but he didn't grimace or hide his face when he was genuinely happy. He cracked jokes, pulled pranks and sometimes made life hell for Tony when he got into one of his nutty moods with Bucky. It was like happiness had finally crossed a hurdle to reach his hand's distance and Steve was holding on to it with all he had.

It made Tony feel important, thinking that part of it was because of him. It made him feel happy, knowing that all of it was available for him to watch, share and hold.

"I said I needed food," Steve nodded solemnly making Tony tilt his head slightly but gasp when Steve's hand decided it preferred part below Tony's waist to above, "But I didn't necessarily mean eating it...off plates."

Tony breathed in deeply, trying to shut off the bubbling laughter but cracked when Steve made a horrible impression of giving the sexy wiggle with his eyebrows. 

Steve pouted slightly as Tony snorted through guffaws and buried his head between Steve's shoulder and neck, his laughter sending vibrations through Steve's skin. Tony always laughed whenever Steve tried to act suave and flirty, which at first, made Steve feel self-conscious. He didn't have experience in it, he knew that. Kissing Natasha once, a long time ago during a mission, had taught him that he didn't have much technique too. All he had was enthusiasm then, and a curiosity to learn. He was a good student, his mother had always been proud of that. He learned numbers quick, learned the sharpness of lines and curves, or words and tones better than most children he had grown with. Most of all, he learned people the best, as his mother would proudly tell Bucky's mom. It was an achievement in her eyes and Steve would later grow up to understand that maybe it was.

But most of all, most importantly, Steve was good at learning because he was a self-learner. He tried everything under the sun and then, if that failed, he would try everything under the moonlight, till he found a way to get things done.

Flirting, romance and opening up to people unfortunately, wasn't something he had found much success in, after seven decades of being friends with ice. 

Tony, the dark-haired man on the other hand, breathed and thrived on these. He could make anybody look like a novice at flirting, could charm your pants off you if you got star-struck and them could calmly put on his suit before he flew away from you. He was the man who probably never needed a wing-man, even as a pimpled ganky teen. Steve didn't even know if Tony was ever a teenager, or rather, if he ever aged in the normal fashion. Sometimes he felt that Tony was aging in reverse, living his childhood and adolescence now.

So when he had, in the beginning, before they had officially begun dating, tried to flirt with Tony, it always led to disastrous silences and awkward stares. Later, when Tony made attempts to flirt with him and Steve flirted back, the genius would start laughing. It made him almost swear-off trying again, but luckily and thankfully, Bucky and Sam knew him too well to understand that impulse. 

He still remembered the Talk he had been a part of with both of them. He definitely didn't need to see birds and bees ever again.

Somehow, Tony had caught on to his insecurities over time and that hadn't been as embarrassing as Steve would have predicted. Maybe it was because there had been some lips and tongue involved in that clarification.

He had come to understand as they began dating, that Tony didn't laugh out loud much. He snorted, sometimes even gave a small chuckle, but he didn't laugh. So when Tony laughed at Steve's flirting or innuendos, it started to hurt less and make him feel happy more. Steve began to see that Tony wasn't laughing at him but was laughing because of him. He was laughing because he was overwhelmed that Steve made an attempt to seduce him. Somebody he loved, somebody he didn't know could love him back, was making serious attempts to woo him. Somebody wasn't taking him for granted, wasn't expecting him to take the role of the initiator always. Tony laughed because Steve's flirting reminded him that he was dating Steve Rogers, the man instead of Captain America, the soldier. That somehow translated to a strange joy in Tony's face whenever it happened.

It was some sort of unbridled happiness that made him break his unknown vow of self-depreciation and let himself voice out his joy. Steve made Tony laugh, he realized with wonder, and that was probably the only proof he needed to know that this was happiness, this was love. The knowledge that he could do that, he could make this man break out of his shell, be silly, be happy and most of all, be himself - that was what had sealed the confidence in Steve again. 

Steve felt his pout fade into a grin when Tony's laughs turned into weak chuckles and his snorts were borderline hiccups. Shifting his legs closer to the other man, he buried his own face in Tony's neck and rubbed his nose at the sensitive skin there, making his boyfriend squirm on another chuckle. 

"No round six then?" he muttered against Tony's skin and felt the other's lips gently kiss his own neck before Tony's hand slapped his butt.

"As much as it breaks my heart to say this, and it does, listen to the cracking," Tony said melodramatically before easing off Steve's body and grinning at him cheekily, "Nope. You're gonna break me into half with all those things you want to try and I'd really like to not be hungry when I get broken. So, chop chop, get cooking champ."

Steve's light whine made Tony push him harder towards the counter with a knife in hand and a smirk on his lips. They spent a lot more time rubbing against each other and less making the pizza, but by the end, Tony wasn't hungry physically and Steve did look proud on making the colorful pizza.

If that lead to them doing round six on the kitchen counter at 2 a.m in the morning, well, they were well-sustained after all.

-----------------------

Pietro was a cat, Bucky was sure of that. Sure, his whiskers were on his head and his tail was...in the front, but he had all feline properties down to a pat. He hissed in the mornings, was unbelievably agile, made no noise when he moved and was lazy as shit when it came to actually doing any work. He even slept curled up in a ball, like he was currently on the sofa.

Bucky himself was a wolf, in his opinion and no matter how many time Steve sighed and petted his head when he heard this, he would maintain it, thank you very much. He was majestic, he was ferocious, he was wise, he was powerful, he was...

"What's up, cutie?"

...not a cutie.

He blinked and glared at Pietro, who was blearily smirking at him from his spot.

"That's my spot," Bucky grunted and pointedly stared at the digital timer on the war above the TV, "And this is my slot. Move."

"Aw, is Bucky Bear waiting for his New Girl?" Pietro asked in with a big pout and Bucky scowled at him, moving forward to push him off the couch himself when he felt the little pest pick away his scrunchie from his hair and rush away. Bucky hated his hair falling onto his face and always pulled it into a small bun with a scrunchie. He saw his hair fall onto his eyes and slowly turned around, seeing Pietro already standing at the other end of the room, dangling the band in his hand with a smirk. 

"Give it back," he warned in a low voice but Pietro simply threw the band up and caught it cockily, smirking harder.

"Come and get it," he sing-songed, "Cutie"

Rhodey was slightly tired as he got into the elevator, massaging his neck with one hand and stretching his back as he told FRIDAY to take him to the common floor. He'd been gone for more than six months this time, probably the second longest mission he had been in without Tony somewhere around. It had been a top Op, completely confidential. Before the Avengers moved into the Tower, that would have meant Tony nagging him till he spilled every detail and would have probably called him constantly on the suit. But then, after a particular glitch in Syria where Rhodey had gotten distracted on a mission because Tony called, the genius had been more careful. Rhodey knew that it was partly because of Steve's famous silent disapproval. He smiled to himself thinking about how Tony would have probably run Steve crazy by now. 

He could have gone back to his apartment after the debrief but he had wanted to catch up with Tony before he went, knowing that the guy would bombard him with questions if he didn't. He could also use some talk with Sam about the whole Carol thing, seeing that they were colleagues before. 

The elevator stopped at a floor below the common floor and Rhodey frowned.

"FRIDAY, what's wrong?" he asked worriedly, one hand already inching towards the gun he kept in the back.

"Colonel Rhodes, I'd request you to wait for a while, sir," the AI's voice came hesitantly, "there seems to be a -"

"Has Tony put a lockdown?" Rhodes cut in sharply.

"No, sir, it is just a precaution for your safety," FRIDAY amended and Rhodey raised an eyebrow.

"Unlock the elevator please, Friday," he commanded politely, "I'll be fine. From whatever it is you're not sure about."

The AI went silent for a minute but then the elevator moved again and Rhodey kept his hand ready on the gun, poised to shoot at the first attacking object that came at him.

He was truly thankful for his reflexes when it turned out to be Bucky. 

"What the..." he whispered with wide eyes when he came out onto the floor and nearly dashed into a running Bucky who had a taser in hand. He looked up when an arrow whooshed down and saw Clint perched on a railing above, nearly hanging off it on one ass. The arrow missed Bucky while a blur zoomed past him, around in the floor and Rhodey squinted to see that it was a suction sup arrow and not a lethal one. The blue he could identify without squinting - nobody ran as fast as that other than Pietro Maximoff. He was about to demand an explanation when suddenly a red figure walked out from a wall and raised a hand, knocking Pietro down when he ran into it. Vision cocked his head at the fallen guy and gave an eerie smile before looking up at Barton.

"2-1" he said with the tiniest hint of smugness and returned Bucky's high-five when the ex-assassin came up to him and raised his hand. Pietro was cursing in some unknown European language and Barton was shooting suction cup arrows at Pietro's face with a scowl.

"What the hell is going on here?!" Rhodey burst finally when Vision helped Bucky put on a scunchie, creeping out Rhodey, "What is happening in front of me? Which world is this?"

Pietro looked up from the floor first, with two suction cups on his cheeks and waved tentatively. Bucky and Vision simply stared at Rhodey appraisingly. Barton was scribbling something on an arrow with a sharpie before shooting it near Rhodey's feet. The Colonel tilted his head and read the message with a raised eyebrow.

Hi. Wanna join my team?

"What are you guys doing?" he asked slowly, carefully considering all four Avengers with a cautious eye, thinking about various mind-control scenarios possible.

"Barton! Did you take the suckies again?!" a voice yelled and Rhodey turned his head to see Tony march into the floor, glaring at the railing.

With a paper hat on his head. That read 'Dummy's daddy'. The 'Dummy' and ''s daddy' were in different handwriting, the first resembling Tony's and the second unknown.

"Pietro made me chase him to get my scrunchie back and made me miss my slot," Bucky muttered to Tony which got a yelp from Pietro, who jumped up and faced Tony with wide eyes.

"Barnes tried to kill me with the butter knife! He cut off three strands of my hair!" the white-haired guy shot back, narrowing his eyes at Bucky.

"I was just trying to stop the fight," Clint commented with a fake innocent look, now completely dangling upside down from the railing, "I told them both that fighting sucked but they didn't listen. So, I tried to make them see how much..it sucked."

"I was simply taking a walk," Vision said primly and Rhodey saw Tony's eyebrow raise, "Also, hello Colonel Rhodes. Welcome back."

Tony's head snapped around so fast that Rhodey winced thinking about a whiplash. Rhodey saw shock etched on his friend's face before it morphed into joy and the genius strolled across the room to him.

"Rhodey-bear!" Tony called out with a grin, pulling him into a one-armed hug, "I thought you were coming in tomorrow!"

Rhodey had a hard time not staring at the hat but forced a shrug.

"Got back early," he said with a small grin, "What's all this?"

Tony rolled his eyes and shot a side look with a sigh.

"Aging in reverse," he said with a snort and Rhodey frowned a bit before getting shepherded into the floor by Tony.

He eyed the place for any more surprises but only saw Bruce come up from his workshop, nodding with a smile at Rhodey and Natasha and Wanda coming down from a floor above, sparing a glance at Rhodey in acknowledgement before going back to their hushed discussion. He was about to ask about the others when he entered the dining area and saw Thor and Steve standing across, in the kitchen. Thor wearing an apron that read Big, Blonde and Beautiful. Steve wearing a t-shirt that read Kiss me, I'm Irish.

He opened his mouth and shut it back, sitting down in the chair that Tony had led him to. 

"It's not done yet," Natasha whispered from his right casually and Rhodey turned to stare at her.

"Wait for it," Wanda chimed in from his left and Rhodey would have almost missed it if he had stared at her too.

But he couldn't miss it. He couldn't miss Tony sauntering casually into the kitchen, still babbling about some mission to Rhodey, gesticulating fluidly with his hands. He couldn't miss Tony roll his eyes at Steve at one point, Steve shrugging in reply before offering a ladle to Tony. A sauce ladle. That Tony tasted smoothly and pondered for a minute before pointing at something in front of Steve that looked like salt. He couldn't miss Steve's obedient nod and dutifully adding the ingredient before stirring some more offering the ladle again. This time Tony smacked his lips and nodded affirmatively, getting a grin from Steve. Rhodey couldn't miss the fond eye-roll from Tony at that, like he was used to this, whatever this was. 

Most of all though, Rhodey couldn't miss Tony leaning in and smoothly pecking Steve on the lips before walking back to the table, slapping Steve's ass lightly as he came.

A small glass cracking sound came from Rhodey's vicinity and he saw Tony's eyes sharpen on him, frowning strongly. He blinked and looked down to see his hand wrapped around a broken glass tumbler, a couple of shards stuck in his hand. 

"Congrats, you win the most dramatic reaction," Bruce muttered from across and Rhodey coughed on a sudden choke in his wind-pipe, noting Tony's frown settle on Bruce for a minute before he came to Rhodey and looked at his hand critically.

"What's wrong with you?" Tony asked with a tsk, dragging Rhodey to the kitchen sink and holding his injured hand gingerly even as Pietro got a first-aid box from somewhere in a second.

Rhodey gaped at him for a second before something snapped in him.

"What's wrong with me?" he began in a disbelieving voice, making Tony still and look up at him, "What's wrong with me? What's wrong with YOU?! You're wearing a hat! With daddy written on it! You're tasting sauce and giving improvement suggestions! You kissed Captain America! Your team of Avengers, grown-ass men and women, are playing chase in the Tower and you call it 'aging in reverse'! You have a God cooking in your kitchen! What the hell is going on here?!"

"Nothing's wrong," Tony replied quietly, his eyes fixed on the hand now instead of Rhodey's face, "You're just back after a long time and -"

"You're domestic, Tony!" Rhodey said before he could think things through, the bizarre situation taking over his thoughts even as a small warning bell chimed in his head, "This is...this is domestic life. This isn't the Avengers Tower, it's more like a family home."

"We're just...it's not domestic, Rhodey," Tony replied insistently, his hand minutely tightening on Rhodey's arm but the Colonel was beyond freaked when a robot dog bounced into the floor and made a straight dash to Tony's feet, nipping at his ankle.

"You made a dog," Rhodey stated to himself and in his shock ignored the way Tony's eyes began to shift between his hand and the doorway, body slowly growing tense.

"Rhodes..." Natasha began softly but unfortunately, Pietro's big mouth cut in, trying to make things right.

"Well, it's not as bad, he also made his special Stracciatella yesterday," he chimed in, thinking that Rhodey would be diverted with the idea of delicious Italian dessert. Pietro would have been distracted for sure.

This time Bucky's pinch hurt harder than the butter knife and Pietro shot him a look but got a silent glare in return.

"You...made ice cream?" Rhodes asked Tony with a laugh, at first thinking it was a joke. Tony didn't laugh back in reply though and simply shrugged weakly. "Wow," Rhodey exhaled, running his hand under water, "You're really domesticated now, huh? Who would have thought, Tony Stark, making desserts. Nice role, mom."

"It's not like...I'm not a mom," Tony quipped back, with a weak smile in place but his tone was strange and Rhodey frowned at him before winking, trying to make it get lighter.

"Sure you are, mommy," he teased with a soft smile, looking back at his hand for a minute to avoid any glass pieces sticking, "All you need is a nice dress and set of pearls and voila. Yeah, that's a pretty picture right there."

Steve watched in silence as Tony's eyes widened and he took a step back unsteadily, his eyes getting that glassy look he had when he woke up from nightmares. He took a step forward of his own but Tony's eyes shot to him and his eyes blew up some more, a tinge of panic setting in. Steve stilled and noted that Rhodey had looked up by now too, his grin slipping off his face and a serious frown taking his place. 

"Tony? Man, you alright?" Rhodey asked softly but Tony was already walking backwards.

"I-uh, I have to go," Tony stuttered for a minute, "I've got work, you know, important stuff, science yeah. Avengers stuff and SI stuff and Howa-no, I mean, SHIELD is biting my ass, you know what I mean. Gotta go, cheerio, take care of that wound there Rhodey-bear, and yeah, I'll see-see you guys bye."

Before anybody could stop him, Tony had stalked off the floor quickly and they heard fading sounds of him barking something to FRIDAY. Rhodey made to follow him but a hand stopped him on his elbow lightly and he turned to see Steve, grimly shaking his head.

"I didn't realize," Rhodey said gesturing towards the door, "I didn't-I was just-"

"It's not your fault, Rhodes," Steve said placatingly, though his eyes kept darting towards the exit worryingly, "You were just kidding."

"I should have known," Rhodes shook his head, clarity sinking in and grounding him, "Shit Rogers, I didn't think and...I'll go talk to him."

"No, Rhodes, I don't know if -"

"He's my best friend, Steve," Rhodey cut him short calmly, shaking his head once more and looking him in the eye, "I can't just let him panic."

Steve stared at Rhodey for a minute before nodding.

"Then I'm coming with you"

Rhodey had questions, he had tonnes of questions about all the changes happening here. But right now, he had to concentrate on Tony alone. He cursed himself for not keeping his cool earlier and simply nodded at Steve before both of them went towards the elevator.

The floor was left in awkward silence as the two men left to go talk to Tony. Nobody moved or spoke.

Till Pietro sighed.

"Maybe I should not have mentioned the ice cream, yes?" he asked in general. Bucky shook his head to himself and the others ignored him.

Clint simply took a sucker cup arrow from his quiver and stuck it on Pietro's mouth.

------------------------

"I can't believe it," Pepper said for the fiftieth time and Rhodey groaned into his hands.

"Pepper..."

"No, no, wait, let me live this moment," the redhead CEO shushed him with a hand and closed her eyes, "James Rhodes, founder of the Tony Stark Defense Squad, longest best friend of said Tony Stark, encyclopedia of Tony-ese, James 'Rhodey' Rhodes actually made a mistake when it came to Tony. Wait, is the earth rotating the other way around yet? Has the sun risen in the west? Is Natasha blonde?"

"False, false, true," Natasha commented wryly from across the room and everybody turned to gape at her before Pepper shrugged on the screen.

"One out of three, not bad," she observed and rolled her eyes when Rhodey grumbled, "Oh come on, Rhodey. The last time you two fought, you guys trashed the house, he pretended that you stole his suit even though the measurements were exactly your size, you two ruined my Stark Expo and you called me a gorilla fighting for a grape. I'm allowed this moment."

"You called her a gorilla?" Sam asked with a raised eyebrow and Rhodey scowled at him.

"I didn't-I called you both apes fighting over a grape, because the kiss was awkward and...it doesn't matter," Rhodey waved his hands and came back to the point, "We aren't fighting this time and that's the problem. He's stuck inside that goddamn workshop of his again, there's a total lockdown on it and none of us know what's going on."

"What about Steve?" Pepper asked from the screen thoughtfully, "He'll have the major override code, right?"

"He's down outside the workshop but won't use the code," Rhodey sighed and rubbed his forehead tiredly, "Apparently he doesn't want to break Tony's trust."

"That's sweet," Pepper nodded with a smile, "And foolish. I give him four hours till his patience wears out."

Rhodey shook his head and looked at Pepper with a huff of laughter.

"Nah, he won't. He's too stubborn to give up," he said before sighing again and smiling slightly, "Hell of a guy Tony picked to fall for, huh? Captain America."

"Steve Rogers," Pepper shook her head and corrected with a soft grin, eyeing Bucky who nodded in agreement, "Captain America would have used his shield in the first few minutes. This...this is Steve Rogers, the stubborn guy from Brooklyn."

Rhodey considered that for a second before nodding to himself. 

"Yeah," he exhaled quietly, looking up and giving Pepper a sheepish and helpless shrug, "I was really gone for way too long, I guess."

"You're here now," Pepper replied simply and Rhodey saw the hidden meaning behind it. You know now and you'll understand, she was saying in those three words. Rhodey knew, from a long time back, that Tony had a crush on Captain America. Even before the Avengers had come into the Tower. It was true that the crush was more pigtail pulling on Tony's part and some strange childhood fucked up dream, but he had been more interested in Steve than the others right from the beginning. 

Rhodey had always known Tony's crushes. He had long before crossed the friend territory and taken over the sibling role in Tony's life. He had been there when stupid Tiberius Stone tried to take advantage of Tony resulting in Rhodey punching the blonde bastard on his face in a frat party. He had been there when Sunset Bain had tried to leak information about SI through a happily doped up Tony resulting in Rhodey making sure that she was expelled and gave her a clear message of what would happen if she ever used Tony again. He had been there when Obadiah Stane had left Tony to die in his own Tower resulting in Rhodey not letting anyone know how Stane had died, not even his superiors who had suspected Tony. He had been there for Pepper and Tony's first kiss and last hug as a couple. He had been there when Tony had been at his worst and best with regards to alcohol. He had been with Tony silently, strangely, supportive, opposing, as a friend, as a brother and most of all, as his most trusted partner. 

He had never known that he would make this mistake with that Tony.

He had also never known that he would ever feel smaller than any of Tony's lovers.

"You're good," Rhodey said as he entered the workshop floor and saw Steve sitting outside the closed doors, reading a file. Steve looked up at him and shrugged lightly as Rhodey walked up to him and sat beside him.

"Thanks. I'm not really all that good all the time though," Steve said wryly and Rhodey rolled his eyes with a small grin.

"I meant for Tony," he clarified and saw Steve turn his head to look at Rhodey for a second before getting back to his file.

"I know," he said simply and on any other person, Rhodey would have found it to be arrogance and a superiority complex. On any other person, Rhodey would have bristled at the assumption.

On Steve, here, sitting outside Tony's workshop in silence, he found it nothing but the simple truth. Steve wasn't being arrogant, he was being honest. Somehow, in the strange 'I know', Rhodey heard a 'I try' and that made him nod his head and stare at his own tablet.

Steve wasn't really reading, his eyes still stuck to the same paragraph. He was trusting his eidetic memory to grasp this because his mind was on the person beyond these doors. 

"I don't know what I did," Rhodey said softly after a few minutes and Steve froze but kept silent. Rhodey swiped at his tablet and Steve's eyes flickered to it to see a suit design he knew to be Rhodey's made by Tony.

"I don't know either," Steve said finally and felt Rhodey's eyes on himself, "Maybe you didn't do anything. Maybe it was something else. Maybe he'll be out anytime soon and then we'll all catch some coffee and eat some cookies Thor made."

Rhodey let out a weak laugh at that and shrugged.

"Thor cooks too, I see," he commented and Steve shook his head.

"Nah, Thor bakes," he corrected with a small smile and Rhodey raised an eyebrow in curiosity, "Yeah, he does. Muffins, cookies, cakes, you name it and he'll get into it. I think it's more because he likes the mess frosting and flour makes on his hands. He likes a mess, you know that?"

"A big mess, I'm sure," Rhodey commented and Steve nodded solemnly.

"As big as the entire city's face," Steve shook his head fondly, "Clint makes a mean drink. He even got Natasha admitting that his cocktails are the best, so I'm guessing it's pretty damn A. Bruce and I, we're breakfast people. We like food kids like. Pancakes, eggs, waffles, anything you can put syrup on or eat berries with. Vision, Nat and Sam are in-charge of house maintenance and you if mess with Bucky or Wanda's daily schedules for everyone, you're a pretty brave man."

Steve stayed silent for a few more minutes before he shrugged.

"Pietro basically is the house cat, so he just feeds, plays around and rubs up against any person he likes" he said thoughtfully and Rhodey chuckled with a nod.

"Yeah, that sounds like something a cat does," he agreed on a chuckle before the grin slowly slid off his face and he sobered down, "I wasn't judging him. I don't-I don't do that, will never do it with Tones. I've seen him in situations and habits that were on the wrong side of the fence. This...I wouldn't judge him for this, you have to know that. I was just...just.."

"Surprised," Steve supplied calmly and looked at Rhodey with a nod, "Rhodes, I know. Honestly, out of all of us, you're the last person who's ever gonna judge him or hurt him in any way. You've been there with him and for him longer than any of us. You're not answerable to us. Well, not answerable when you don't do anything. He'd kill us if we blamed you for this, you know that. It was just an issue, an insecurity. All of us have that."

"But all of us aren't Tony Stark," Rhodey said quietly and turned to face the camera above the door, "We don't have the same insecurities he does."

Steve didn't say anything to that. He knew Rhodey was right, of course he was right. There was no expert on Tony Stark, nobody who knew him as well as everybody deserved someone to know about them. Rhodey and Pepper had been the closest things he had to family before the Avengers. After Mandarin and Ultron, Pepper had been on a rocky ground, which had left only Rhodey. Steve knew, he knew in his heart, that now things were different. He knew that he was Tony's family too, that all of them were.

But how do you explain that to Tony himself? How do you tell someone something they see everyday?

"Maybe we'll just wait and watch," Rhodey said to himself and Steve silently agreed, knowing that it was a meaningless platitude necessary for the moment.

Till Tony would come back.

------------

Pepper put the phone down and frowned into the room. This was strange, she decided immediately, without even knowing the reason behind the visit. Usually it took hours and days of reminding Tony and coaxing him to get him to the office or a meeting. There was always yelling, bickering, highly resisted throwing of breakable objects, subtle emotional manipulation and total resistance to bullshit involved in such cases. Pepper had three bottles of pills in her purse as proof of the stress it would take to get that done.

So it was really strange when Maria called her to inform that Tony had come to the office and was in his old R&D lab.

Pepper was never a fan of strange things. She had enough strange people to be friends with, she didn't need her strange friends to become stranger.

She looked at her phone and thought of putting a call through to Tony to find out why he was here. If there was one thing she had developed in the time she had been his girlfriend, it was an ability to see through his lies. She could easily detect bullshit if he decided to throw it her way. She was good at that.

But then she stopped and thought.

It had been two days since Rhodey's return and the panic situation. According to Steve and the others, it had also been two days since Tony had stepped into his bedroom or the common floor. He was in a bubble. One prick and he would come falling down. When Tony came falling down, he always used the wrong things as his parachute. 

She was familiar with most of them and liked none of them.

If she called and questioned this sudden appearance, she might chase him away from here too, she realized. Taking a deep breath, she stood up and walked out of her office, deciding to meet the man herself.

When she entered the lab, she stopped for a minute and carefully looked at the man standing with his back to her. His head was bent over something and was muttering something to himself.

"Tony?" she called out softly and saw him still for a second before he turned around and flashed her a smile.

The smile she hated. The smile she only saw during press meets and court hearings. The smile from before the Avengers.

It was the alpha male, self-centered, arrogant smile that curved just wrong and flashed just enough teeth to border a leer. 

Pepper felt her stomach sink.

"Hello, Ms. Potts, looking gorgeous today," Tony drawled slowly and winked at her over his glasses, "Come to see me, honey? Must be a beautiful day."

"Yeah, what are you doing here?" Pepper cut the bullshit and asked directly, feeling something nag on her mind at the seemingly alien expression on Tony's face, "I didn't know you were coming."

"Just wanted to visit the old lab and work on something," Tony shrugged effortlessly and leaned against the table. 

Pepper raised an eyebrow and looked at the table, seeing a couple of blueprints laid out on it.

"You came all the way here to work on some blueprints?" she asked skeptically and eyed Tony critically. The genius's eyes were hidden behind sunglasses but his body language was still strange. He simply shrugged again and pushed off the table before turning and rolling up the prints and strolling towards her.

"The place still has my name on it, doesn't it?" he commented with another grin and before Pepper could react further, paused beside her and leaned in to leave a kiss on her cheek. Pepper had been kissed by Tony countless times before, even after the break-up. Usually though, he didn't linger. He didn't breath out slowly over her cheek. He didn't take a subtle sniff of her perfume and wink at her after kissing her cheek. 

He wasn't the smarmy asshole in front of her.

Pepper watched as he sauntered down the corridor and offered a pretty PR intern a slow and casual salute. She was reminded of the countless times before, when she had been his PA, watching him schmooze and booze over every pretty little thing in a skirt. It would have been disgusting if she hadn't seen through the mask down the line, if she hadn't learnt to watch for his tells. 

She frowned at the man disappearing into the elevator. This wasn't Tony, their Tony who grinned cheekily around the Avengers and looked dopey when Steve smiled at him. This wasn't the Tony who had taken serious efforts to patch things up with Wanda and Pietro after Ultron, meeting them half-way graciously. This wasn't the Tony who gone back to being an Avenger after Ultron only because the Accords had threatened his friends. This wasn't the Tony who bickered over clean-up after missions instead of why the mission was necessary.

This wasn't Tony. This was Stark, the man from before all of this.

She whipped out her phone and dialed Steve's number. Something was wrong, much more than any of them expected it to be she decided. At the end of the call, judging by the silence on Steve's end, she knew that he agreed too.

----------------

Tony knew the minute Steve stepped into the lab. He had known that he would do it in the end, that he would use his override code finally. That was what Tony did, he observed and knew about people, their strengths and weaknesses. 

Steve's strength was his stubbornness and faith. Tony's strength was his brain and words.

He also knew one of Steve's temporary weaknesses. Tony.

"Hey, Steve," he called out even before turning, looking at the serious looking guy with a charming smirk, "Need something?"

Steve simply stared at Tony, noting the pose, the smirk, the lazy tilt of his head and the cool drawl of his voice. There was nothing wrong at first sight. In fact, any person who had met Tony before might say that everything was alright. But Steve wasn't any person. He hadn't just seen Tony before. He saw him everyday. Steve saw him in his sweatpants and vest, blearily falling into the bed when he was too sleepy to even lie down properly. He saw the happy kitten smile that graced his face when Steve would re-arrange him and would get in himself to pull the shorter man into his arms before they slept. He saw the cuddler, the morning-breath kisser, the coffee devotee, the karaoke diva, the bot daddy and the donut lover. He saw the whiner during Wanda's Grey's Anatomy nights, the yacker during Natasha's boxing bets, the pouter during Bucky's health check-up day drill, the plotter during nerf-fight weekend and the kitchen lover during calm moments. He had seen Tony for years and now, even entering the room, he knew that this wasn't him. It was him in body and spirit, but in focus and feel, he was somebody else.

"My boyfriend would be nice for now," he replied casually and took a step forward, internally frowning when Tony's eyes swept over him in something more judgemental than comfortable, "Been a long time since you came up, Tony. We missed you at breakfast again today."

Something in Tony's expression changed and his smirk grew sharper before he shrugged and turned back to his holograph.

"Yeah, well, when you've gotta work, you've gotta work," he said casually and swiped a part out of his suit's design, replacing it with another, "Dummy's doing good on sandwich duty here."

Steve looked at Dummy, who was currently beeping around a pile of trash metal, his Dummy cap on his head. Steve noted that it was new, freshly made. He recalled the earlier cap, the one Bucky had changed to Dummy's Daddy when Tony had scolded the bot. Bucky was terribly fond of Tony's bots and had simply shrugged at a open-jawed Tony as he put the cap on his head. It had been the first time Tony had laughed around Bucky before telling him make himself useful along with poor Dummy. 

Steve remembered that day clear as sunlight. Which is why he frowns slightly at this new cap. 

"I see Dummy has a new cap," he comments as casually as he can, moving along to pet the cute bot lightly, "Must be a special occasion."

"Nah, nothing special. Just things as the way they should be," Tony replied quietly, looking at Steve, "If that'll be it then I think you should be on your way now, Cap. Busy man doing great things here."

"Yeah, sorry, in a minute," Steve nodded before he turned to face Tony completely, "Tony, the other day, what happened in the kitchen was just -"

"I'm not blind, Rogers, I know what it was," Tony cut him off sharply before sending a shrug Steve's way, "Besides, Rhodes knows me better than anyone. He knows who I am and I know that. It's fine. Leave it."

"I'm not talking about Rhodey, I'm talking about you," Steve replied calmly, "You didn't look okay."

Tony chuckled at that and somehow, it sounded like grating nails on Steve's ears.

"I'm not a wimp, Cap," he rolled his eyes and went back to his holograph, "I'm a Stark. I can handle things just fine, don't worry your pretty little mind."

"You're not just a Stark though," Steve frowned, "You're more than that."

Tony stilled for a moment before sighing and turning to look at Steve.

"Steve, I'm not crying and hiding here get attention here, okay?" he said curtly before gesturing vaguely with his hands, "I was thrown off a bit that day but that's about it. No muss, no fuss. I'm fine. Still kicking ass and being a genius. You miss me, I'm sorry, I'll try to come back up sometime soon. But that's it, that's all you need to know and believe. Things are fine, everybody's fine, things'll be just the way they should be. Okay?"

Steve didn't like it one bit but he could recognize the signs of Tony's stubbornness kick in and made a tactical decision to back down now. Any further argument would only lead to another lockout and this time, Tony might change the code. 

"Okay," Steve smiled at Tony who simply nodded in reply, "We're having spaghetti for dinner, Sam's special. Come on up if you can, it'll be fun."

Tony simply waved his hand in a vague affirmative gesture and became engrossed in his work again. Steve sighed but complied and walked out of the workshop silently. 

As the doors closed, Tony clenched his hand mid-air and felt his shivers begin again. He bit his lip till it bled and closed his eyes. He could hear the voice ringing in his ears even now and gasped in a shaky breath when the noise rose into a white roar.

All you need is a nice dress and set of pearls, boy. That's what you wanna become, huh? A damn pussy? 

"Get a grip, Stark," he whispered to himself and opened his eyes, staring at the floating holograph, "You're not there anymore. You're Tony Stark. You can do this. You're better than that."

Strangely, his words didn't convince himself. He felt another shiver pass through his body and breathed through his mouth.

In the end, the suit remained half done and Tony never went up to dinner. Instead, all there remained was a sobbing mess in a dark corner of a cold workshop.

----------------

Bruce was no genius on human emotions or relationships, but even he could see the strain on Steve's face when Tony wasn't there in the Tower this morning too. It was unspoken knowledge that Steve and Tony weren't sleeping in the same room anymore. Not for lack of trying from Steve though, but somehow, everyday, Tony managed to make an excuse and slipped out to go meet people in parties nobody knew about. He'd come back in ungodly hours and then his old room would be under lockdown. In the morning, when Steve would try to go meet him, he would find the room empty. No Tony, no trace of him anymore.

It had been a week now and Steve was steadily breaking. Bruce could see it in the tired eyes, the tight set of lips, the ever present frown and the lack of response to things that weren't purely Avengers business.

Steve had forgotten to smile. He had forgotten happiness.

Rhodey had to go to DC a day after he had come, but Bruce knew that his anxiety over Tony's erratic behavior wouldn't be any different.

His eyes met Bucky's over the table and he saw the ex-assassin look extra sombre. He pushed another piece of toast onto Steve's plate and Steve quietly ate it, without even looking at it. Bucky was the only reason Steve ate anymore. For that, Bruce was grateful for Bucky's calm stubbornness.

"Guys, you should come watch this," Sam called out from the living room and Natasha shared a look with Steve before all of them stood up to gather at the living room, seeing Sam standing before the TV.

As soon as he saw the TV, Bruce regretted watching it. His eyes narrowed at the face flashing on the screen and he could hear Wanda's hushed exclamation.

“Hey guys,” Justin drawled on the screen, tipping an imaginary hat at them, “Wow, until about a week ago, I’d never have told this but now, I actually do mean it. It’s an absolute pleasure to meet you guys. Who would have thought? Meeting the Avengers, an actual pleasure.”

 “He left a video message?” Natasha asked quietly, already checking the database for any disturbance, “This is strange. The tracking shows that it came from Tony’s phone.”

Steve frowned at that but kept silent, coolly waiting for the next part of the message.

“You know, I actually like you guys,” Justin continued, shrugging at the camera, “No, seriously, I do. Captain America, big fan; Thor, totally impressed with all that power, man! The others, eh, you’re great too. I watched you guys save New York from my pretty prison cell. Not an amazing place to be but bearable if you’ve got the money and brains to use that money. But anyway, I digress. This isn’t about you, this is about me. You see, a couple of you guys changed my life a few years back. Total change, complete turnover. It was cool at first, very dramatic and stuff. But now, now I want to change it back. So I tried. You know what happened when I tried? Nothing. You changed my life so much that now I can’t get back to my old life even if I try hard. And that, guys, that is pretty pissing off.”

“So,” Justin clapped his hands and leaned back on his chair, “I thought I’d try to return the favour to those who made the change happen. Give you a taste of your own medicine. What do you say, Ms. Rushman, Potts and Colonel Rhodes? How’d you like that?”

Clint was already on the phone with Pepper and Rhodey and shot Natasha a look which conveyed that they were watching the same thing.

“I gave this plan some real thought, by the way,” Justin said, picking a drink from a table beside him, “How do you take revenge from people who hurt you where it hurts the most? Where is your weak point? And then, it hit me. Of course. I didn’t have to hurt all of you, I simply had to hurt one of you. One among you. One person who connects all three of you and the others. The answer was pretty simple in the end.”

“Tony,” Steve muttered tightly and Bucky came to stand near him silently.

“Tony,” Justin confirmed with a smarmy grin, “It always boils down to Tony, doesn’t it? It’s always about the great Stark legacy. That’s the mothership, the Vulcan to hit you Spocks. Never liked the guy anyway, Stark. Always made my life hell with his superiority and genius. Ego the size of Mount Rushmore. And that’s his weak point, isn’t it? His ego, his pride and dignity. That’s where it’ll hurt him the most. So, here’s my reply to your change. I’m gonna change Tony Stark’s life by hitting him in his sore point. Go ahead, have a look. It’s gonna be pretty interesting.”

The video changed from Justin’s face and went to another video, a public share link. When Tony’s drugged face came into focus, Steve clenched his hand and breathed deeply. Tony was sitting on a chair, in something that looked like a hotel room. There were no restraints or gags on him, no bruises to show. But everybody could see that he was pretty drugged up, beyond reasonable consciousness. He looked tired and small, tear stains on his face. A young woman was sitting beside him, offering him a drink.

And then he started talking.

When the video ended, there was pin-drop silence in the room. Nobody moved, nobody looked at each other. It was the silence after a storm. Nothing made sense but everything fell into place too.

“Any idea where Tony is?” Steve asked after a few minutes, not caring that his face looked broken or his voice sounded cold.

“Rhodey’s suit seems to have tracked him,” Clint replied and shared a look with Bucky, “He’s bringing him home.”

“Steve…” Sam began but Bucky caught his eye and shook his head. There was no place for any consolation here. Nothing they could say would make things better. Not until Steve had finally seen Tony hale and healthy.

“I’ll get the video down,” Natasha promised quietly, looking coldly furious herself, “If Pepper hasn’t done it already.”

“We need to get Hammer though,” Bruce said calmly and Thor nodded.

“I shall go bring this man in,” he replied but Pietro and Vision stood up too.

“I’ll come along,” Pietro declared and met Wanda’s eyes when she looked at him, “This happened because of me in a way. That woman, she is the one I brought home that day. I think it’s time we had a chat.”

Wanda nodded at her brother and watched as the three men left to go get Hammer from whichever hell-hole he was hiding in.

None of them said anything though, when Steve got up and walked off towards the workshop. What would you tell someone who found out something this painful about the man he loved? What could possibly make it better?

Natasha looked at Bucky and knew the answer. There was nothing that would change this. Nothing would make these scars go away.

------------

Tony didn’t speak a word as Rhodey flew. Rhodey hadn’t spoken a word since he had shown up in the room and calmly extracted Tony from the couch before leaving. Tony didn’t even remember how he got to the couch. The last he remembered was getting pricked by something on his neck and then he awoke this morning, feeling bone-dead.

In the past, Rhodey had always been the one to come for Tony, whenever he got into a mess. He was always playing his rescue team, finding him in the end, no matter where Tony got stuck. Rhodey always told people in interviews and press meets that Tony was his mentor but Tony knew better.

He remembered Afghanistan clearly. If Rhodey hadn’t looked continuously for him, without giving up hope, he would never have found him in that desert.

He remembered Mandarin. If Rhodey hadn’t trusted him implicitly, he wouldn’t have believed him to be alive after Malibu. He wouldn’t have given a top-secret password without second thought to let Tony save himself. He wouldn’t have risked everything, time and again, to make sure that Tony didn’t die.

Rhodey always came for him. No matter what was going on between them.

“So,” Tony began, talking loudly, trying to get himself heard above the flying noise, “Been a long time since we had a party, don’t you think?”

Rhodey remained silent at first and Tony wondered if he was really not going to talk.

“I don’t wanna party,” Rhodey replied finally and Tony frowned, “I just wanna kick back and play some Wii or watch a good movie. I’m getting tired of parties.”

“Tired of parties? That’s not a good sign. What, you’re getting old or something?” Tony shot back with a small grin.

“I became old the day I met you, you ass,” Rhodey quipped and Tony chuckled at that, “It’s a blessing that I don’t crack like other pasty ass. With all the stress you give me, it’s a miracle I’m not a grey haired man yet.”

“Aww, you were worried,” Tony teased and felt Rhodey loosen his grip for a minute before tightening it.

“I was worried about the other people you were with,” Rhodey commented haughtily and Tony rolled his eyes, “Most times they end up with singed eyebrows and blown up butts.”

“That was one time and you’re gonna come at me like that now?” Tony mock gasped and saw the view as they neared the Tower, “I’m hurt Rhodey-bear, really, hurt. You find your best friend drugged and you’re worried I’m gonna blow up people?”

“You blow things up in your sleep, Tones,” Rhodes snorted and Tony shrugged lightly in agreement, “And I’m more worried about your stupidity than anything else.”

“I’m not stupid, I’m a genius,” Tony corrected, “You’re the one who taught me that, remember?”

“That was a pep-talk but yes, you are,” Rhodey agreed before his voice became serious even through the suit’s filter, “And I need you to use that genius brain of yours to understand what I’m saying here now, alright?”

Tony froze but Rhodey barged on.

“You’re my best friend, Tones, and I don’t give a shit if you’re gonna be my best friend in a tutu or a kimono,” Rhodey said firmly, stopping just at the entrance of the Tower’s landing pad and flipping his faceplate up.

“Rhodes, just, it was nothing,” Tony deflected but Rhodey waited till he looked up and faced him.

“I know,” he said calmly, “I know it’s nothing. But humour me, alright? Just remember this for me. I don’t give a shit about anything that you think I find strange. Yes, I reacted odd when I came. Yes, I was surprised at the whole domesticity. But that doesn’t mean that anything’s changed. I like it, I like seeing you happy. I always like things when they make you happy. Doesn’t matter if it’s an Xbox or a guy. I don’t care as long as you’re happy, Tones. If you thought otherwise, I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to be an ass.”

“Rhodey, I’m fine,” Tony said, even though he looked a little bit relaxed now.

“You better be, cause I’ve not even given Rogers the Talk yet and he’s already getting better than me,” Rhodey huffed and Tony rolled his eyes as his best friend removed his suit.

As soon as they entered the floor, Tony knew that something was off. Rhodey walked closer to him and Tony shot him a look when the others were present in the living room, looking a tad too casual, like they were positioned mannequins.

“Okay, what’s going on?” he asked when he saw even Wanda not acknowledge his return “No, don’t give me the innocent act Wilson, the tension in the room is thick enough to cut. What happened?”

“How are you?” Bruce asked instead and Tony frowned at him but shrugged.

“Fine, as always,” he lied knowing that they suspected something, “and what about you guys? Why the murderous looks?”

Nobody answered and Tony felt the suspicion in his head grow stronger by the minute. He finally noticed the absence of a few people and narrowed his eyes.

“Where’s Steve?” he asked abruptly and caught the slight stiffness on Bucky, pointing at him triumphantly, “Aha! Got you. Where’s Steve, Bucky? Something’s wrong with him, isn’t it?”

“Nothing’s wrong with Steve, Tony,” Natasha commented calmly but Tony raised an eyebrow at Bucky, knowing that he would break easier.

“This is ridiculous. You guys are being ridiculous,” Rhodey said after a moment and Tony looked at him, noting the way everyone glared at Rhodey and Rhodey ignored them, “Tones, Hammer was the one who got you drugged last night. The douche-bag wanted some revenge shit or something and sent us all a video. I think you should see it for yourself.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” Sam interjected but Rhodey looked at Tony and squared his shoulders.

“He deserves to know the truth,” Rhodey said firmly and Tony felt glad that he still had his best friend’s confidence. Rhodey got the video on and shepherded Tony to the couch but sat down beside him and watched it along.

When Tony saw himself on screen, he remembered flashes of last night and gritted his jaw. He felt betrayed, violated and pissed as hell. He clenched his hand at the point when he began to blubber about being unworthy but Rhodey didn’t react beside him, simply sitting shoulder to shoulder with Tony. Sitting beside the lone gunslinger.

“Now I remember why I hate Hammer,” Tony whistled at the end and Rhodey snorted.

“Yeah, well we always knew that he was a skunk,” he answered and Tony nodded before he felt Rhodey give him a side look, “The video’s down already. Pepper’s more furious about it than ever. I heard Hammer’s back in prison now.”

“That’s good,” Tony nodded again, pushing down the pain inside, “Prison suits him.”

Rhodey nodded and stayed silent, letting Tony breathe as much as he needed.

“Rhodes, I-what I said wasn’t all that bad, you know?” Tony commented nonchalantly and Rhodey’s eyes hardened but he kept his calm.

“As long as you’re good today, it doesn’t matter Tones,” he replied instead, knowing that insisting on talking about it would lead nowhere with Tony, “I’m not your friend because you’re a Stark. I stick with your ass because you’re Tony. The idiot who’s always been my best friend, ever since I carried your drunk butt from an MIT party. You could have any surname and I’ll still be here. You know that.”

“That’s because I make you the best gizmos,” Tony winked and Rhodey rolled his eyes.

“Man, the suit’s cool and everything but the only thing you made me before your Iron Man days was wait for you three hours on your plane,” Rhodey reminded him and nudged his shoulder, “You’re a genius, but you’re still an ass and I’ve always known that. Hasn’t changed a thing, has it?”

“Nope,” Tony grinned and nudged Rhodey back, “But that’s because you’re an ass too, right?”

“You get me,” Rhodey replied in a deadpanned voice and Tony winked at him.

“So…where’s Steve?” Tony asked finally and Rhodey raised an eyebrow before looking behind him at the silent crew.

“Workshop,” Sam answered and Tony winced slightly, knowing that the workshop was worse than the gym.

“That mad, huh?” he asked out loud before getting up and looking at the others, “Does this mean you guys are gonna be mad too?”

Natasha smirked at Clint before turning to Tony and raising an eyebrow.

“Depends,” she said softly, “Are you gonna make pizza again? This time for everyone instead of just you and Steve?”

Tony raised an eyebrow and remembered the night a week ago before laughing.

“I think I’ll find some motivation,” he replied with a sniff and Natasha smiled with a nod.

-------------

When Tony entered the workshop, he found it eerily silent. The lights were on and all the bots were moving around but there was no noise. He felt his resolve weaken but then his eyes fell on Steve.

Hunched over on the small couch at the corner of the room, he was staring endlessly at the same spot on a wall. Tony’s eyes swept over him and he saw the tiredness pour off in waves from the man who looked weak despite his physical strength. The easy smile and happiness was gone from Steve’s face, now replaced by the old ‘Atlas stress’ that made him look constipated at all times.

Tony hated that look on Steve. He hated seeing the change after having seen his Steve for months. It struck him with the force of a sucker punch that the past week was as hard on Steve as on him. Tony had at least known the problem, even though he had chosen to be quiet about it, taking the unhealthy route of keeping it in. Steve hadn’t even known the problem and he had been given no choice.

Because to Steve, anything other than Tony was no choice.

“I don’t like my dad,” Tony said suddenly and saw Steve’s head whip up to stare at Tony, his eyes red-rimmed and face looking painful. Tony noted that he was hunching in on himself, not moving from the couch and understood that he wouldn’t encroach on Tony’s space till Tony gave him permission. Suddenly the whole thing seemed too heavy to hold in and Tony sighed, letting the words fall as they were.

“You know that I went to boarding for school, right?” he began, not looking at Steve and looking at a spot above his head instead as he walked towards the couch, “I was 11 when dad decided that I needed to become stronger, that I needed to learn to be tougher. To be a Stark. I didn’t want to go to boarding. I had my friends at my old school, I had Jarvis, Aunt Peggy, sometimes even mom, when she wasn’t busy being depressed. Dad wasn’t always available but at least I got to see him sometimes, when he would be momentarily normal about some new invention he made. I liked that. I liked being at home.”

He paused walking and looked at his hands, remembering the day it changed beyond repair.

“Jarvis and Ana, his wife, were the ones who took care of me as a kid,” he continued, swallowing a lump and shrugging casually, “They didn’t have kids of their own, so I guess they got a bit too emotional with me. Every award I got, every achievement of mine was celebrated at the Jarvis quarters. I never made messes at home but at their place, there were always evidences of me trying something new; some sketches, new equations tried on the walls, some thing or the other. It was my back-up home. Ana was super enthusiastic about cooking and she would try every new recipe she could find. I was usually the test subject for them. Nobody could burn crepes like Ana.”

Tony chuckled at the memory of him and Jarvis quietly enduring the burnt crepes and then praising Ana to avoid hurting her feelings. Of course, Ana would later taste them herself and would then yack their ears off on being honest about criticism.

“I learnt to cook at their home,” Tony commented quietly, resuming his walk, “Jarvis was better at it than Ana, but she was more patient at teaching. Jarvis had a report-card for cooking and I tore it up the fourth time he didn’t give me an A+. I liked cooking, it gave me something new to do every time. I had restless hands as a kid and learning to cook helped me focus better. Ana made me an apron and everything when I got good. It was silly but…I guess I liked being silly.”

Tony risked looking at Steve and saw that he was calmly looking at Tony, listening quietly. He knew that the next part would get bad, knew that it wasn’t pretty, but he had gotten this far. He didn’t want to keep it hidden anymore, didn’t want to hide. If he could somehow make Steve see what he saw, if somehow he could make Steve understand why he was who he was, maybe it would make him understand it himself too, Tony thought. He put his shivering hands in his pockets and continued.

“Neither mom nor dad knew about my hobbies outside the lab,” he said with a bitter shake of his head, “I didn’t tell them. I made Jarvis promise that he wouldn’t too. It was our little secret. Little secret. The fantasies you have as kids, right?”

He had reached the couch by now and sat down beside Steve, not touching him yet. Steve didn’t turn too, letting Tony complete.

“Dad had an eternal relationship with the bottle,” Tony observed with a chuckle, “Something I think I got as legacy from him well into my middle-age. Anyway, he liked to have a drink on him all the time. It made him feel better I guess, or maybe he just needed something to love in absence of actual human relationships. When he got drunk, he got loud. Like real loud. If you were the first person he saw, you were going to be his punching bag. Which is probably why mom stayed in her room all the time. I had learnt that too after a while but…but sometimes people make mistakes.”

Tony took a deep breath and let it out when he continued, inching his leg closer to Steve’s and touching his knee for warmth.

“On Ana’s 35th birthday, me and Jarvis baked her a cake,” he remembered quietly, “It was nice, chocolate frosting and pretty cherries on the corners. We celebrated quietly and I went back home before evening, being careful as usual not to get caught. I guess I wasn’t too careful that day. I dashed into dad and Stane in the corridor and immediately caught on that dad was drunk. I tried being quiet, thinking that he’d let me go if I didn’t speak much. I was partly right and almost escaped till my small apron fell out of my coat. I always brought it back with me, always kept it hidden. That day it fell out and dad saw it. He wasn’t too happy about it.”

Tony knew that it was an understatement. The look on Howard’s face when he picked up the apron and read the words Sous Chef stitched on it still played on Tony’s mind. The confusion, the shock, the rage, the rage, rage, rage. Howard had been furious with the thought of his son, a Stark who was supposed to become an inventor like himself, playing in the kitchen.

He remembers the way Howard had dragged him to his study. He remembers the yelling, remembers his own feeble protests. He remembers Stane pretending to intervene only to be shut up by Howard. He remembers the exact words before it happened.

“Is this what you wanna do, Anthony? Play with kitchen sets and hold tea parties?!” Howard snarled as he pulled Tony by the collar and shook him, “Are you a damn girl, Anthony? Pretty face, ready to be domestic for the rest of your life? All you need is a nice dress and set of pearls, boy. That's what you wanna become, huh? A damn pussy?”

Tony tried to protest, tried to struggle against Howard’s grip. Obadiah had retreated to a dark corner of the room, silently watching the whole thing. Tony struggled harder, tried to get his dad’s hands off his collar. In his adrenaline, he didn’t control himself well.

That was how one of his hands flailed and hit Howard across his face. Tony froze, blood running cold at what he had done.

“Dad, I’m sorry,” he stammered, tears leaking out of his eyes, hands pulled close to his chest, “I didn’t mean to, dad, I’m so sorry, I was just –“

He couldn’t finish the sentence before he had been lifted from the ground and found himself thrown across his father’s knee on the chair. His entire body had frozen in fear and he tried to speak but no words came out of his mouth. Before he knew it, he felt the first slap of pain and screamed.

There was a reason Tony never indulged in spanking in the bedroom. It reminded him of that day, the way he had struggled against his father’s knee, the way the slaps landed harder every time he cried, the cold air when his pants snuck down a bit and the hits landed on part flesh. The way Stane remained silent.

Tony startled when he felt Steve’s hand on his own and blinked to realize that he had tears in his eyes. He didn’t know if he had said things aloud or if Steve had guessed enough to imagine. His first instinct was to snatch his hand away, to run and hide again. But he was too tired to run anymore, too full of secrets to hide anymore.

So he stayed and tightened his hand around Steve’s, taking strength from him silently.

“You know what I hate the most about that day?” Tony asked in a hoarse voice, laughing mirthlessly, “I hate that I understood why he did that. I didn’t hate him for it because I understood that he didn’t hate me. He hurt me but didn’t hate me. Sure, I don’t think he liked me too but he didn’t hate. The next morning when he avoided me again, I understood that he was hurt too. He announced at the dinner table the next day that I was getting sent to boarding and I didn’t say anything. Because I understood that it was the right thing for me. I mean, how fucked up is that? How fucked up can a person be if he understands the guy who hurt him and says that he doesn’t hate him? How damaged can I be, Steve?”

“You understood him because that was the only way you could survive with him,” Steve said finally, his voice raspy too and Tony looked at their interlocked hands.

Tony knew about Steve’s own history with alcoholic dads. He wondered if that was why they were together, two guys with daddy issues and pasts of twisted theories only they could understand. Maybe it was pain that brought them together. Maybe pain was their language, because they understood that better than most.

“I don’t want to understand him anymore,” Tony whispered and turned to look at Steve, “I want to forget him, I want to stop understanding. Please, Steve.”

Steve looked at Tony for a minute and wordlessly leaned in. He kept one hand in Tony’s hand and raised the other to cup his neck as he fused his lips with Tony’s, silently urging him to close his eyes. There was nothing passionate in the kiss, no heat or desire. It was just two broken souls trying to find a way to fix the moment, trying to find a way to join their broken parts and make a whole together. Tony shuddered against Steve but leaned closer and let himself focus on the lips drawing out his thoughts. Steve gently rubbed the back of Tony’s neck and shifted his position to bring Tony closer, till the genius took the hint and crawled onto Steve’s lap. Steve balanced one hand on Tony’s back and splayed it over the small of his back as he continued kissing him. Tony gripped his hair tight and took control of the kiss, opening his mouth and biting Steve’s lower lip till the guy opened his mouth too.

It was the sloppiest of kisses. It was the laziest of touches.

It was the best moment of their relationship.

“I love you,” Steve gasped in between kisses, leaning back to look at Tony, “Every single person in this home loves you. You, not just what you create for us. We’ll love you just the same, no matter what. You’re our family, Tony. You cook, blow up your workshop, wear gold suits, sleep on the kitchen counter, it doesn’t matter. We love you with all that you do. Not despite it. This is our family, Tony. We’re always going to be a family.”

“Even if I stop cooking?” Tony asked slyly, even though his heart was pounding a mile a minute.

Steve simply smiled and kissed him again before replying.

“I love you. Madness and all,” he said with a wink and Tony snorted.

“Madness and all,” he agreed with a smirk before pulling Steve back and kissing the life out of him.

---------------

That night when they were all having dinner, courtesy Rhodey, Tony stopped eating suddenly and looked at his best friend.

“Holy Shit,” he exhaled and Rhodey raised an eyebrow but Tony flailed his hands desperately, “Rhodey, we could have had proper food throughout college. The lasagne!”

Everybody looked at Rhodey with a curious look when the Colonel’s expression cleared to horror and he slapped his forehead.

“Four years,” he groaned and Tony nodded vigorously, “Four fucking years, Tones! I hate my life!”

“Weirdos,” Clint snorted before clearing his throat as both Tony and Rhodey glared at him, “What?”

The best friends simply glared at everyone and got into some strange competition of out-eating each other. The Avengers were used to weirdness at their Tower and simply went about eating their food.

Steve watched as Tony stuffed food into his mouth and waggled his eyebrows at Rhodey who simply glared back before stuffing his own face. Things would always be strange with Tony, he realized with a smile. Nothing would be alright all the time. The fun part would always hit some obstacle, some past monster to battle.

In the end though, they would always survive. They were cracked hearts, Steve knew, all of them in this rag-tag family.

Thankfully, they had iron ribs to protect each other. And wasn’t that all that mattered in a family?