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In Deep Water

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Steve never really noticed that there were no bathtubs in the tower. No one did (except maybe Natasha- that woman knew everything, after all). It was just a thing; The Stark/Avengers Tower was a shower kinda place.

Actually, it had occurred to him once, maybe some time within the first few weeks of moving in with the others. He'd been telling Thor about rationing in the forties, and was explaining that if anyone wanted a bath, they could only use a few inches of water and had to make do with that. Thor had, of course, looked horrified, and then assured Steve that the baths in Asgard would be sizeable enough to house a Bilshnipe, whatever that may be- But for a brief second Steve had thought:
I miss baths.

He had been going to ask Tony about it; try and see if that would maybe count as an icebreaker which would resort to Tony finally having a proper conversation with Steve since moving in. But the Avengers Alarm had rung off a moment after the thought had managed to half-form in the back of his brain, and the question was forgotten.

 

 Thinking back, Steve really wished he had remembered.

 

 

Two Weeks Ago:

 

 

“Tony, you know it’s Nat’s birthday in a week or so, right?” Clint started up as he caught Tony prowling into the communal room for his third morning coffee.

From across the room, the other man froze, eyes narrowing suspiciously and turning to face Clint.

“…I feel like this is going somewhere inappropriate," Tony turned around and eyed him up warily. "I’m not sure whether to be excited or terrified.”

“Oh, you’ll love this!" Clint grinned, an impish and cheeky thing that didn't exactly make Tony feel any better. "Right, well, Natasha has always loved swimming, it’s like her guilty pleasure, there’s something about it that just appeals to her, I don’t know. But- I was wondering if you could install a pool or something in the tower? I really think she’d love it, you know,” Clint looked to Tony questioningly, a hopeful smile on his face as he taped along the surface of the tabletop.

Tony’s face remained thankfully neutral- but he could feel the familiar anxiety and unease curling around his stomach and became all too aware of the phantom sensation of freezing water trickling down his spine. He quickly clamped a hand over the back of his neck and turned hurriedly toward the coffee, just in case his face let something slip.

 

Fucking water. Natasha had to love the fucking water.

 

“So, what do you say, Stark? Fancy putting all that money of yours to good use? Oh, God, I can’t wait to see her face, it’ll be priceless- like she’ll be trying to contain all her-“

“Do we…I mean, is it really necessary? It’s a pretty big deal- pools are…big. And you have to do all the plumbing and stuff, and it’s, um, a big hassle.” Tony spluttered, fumbling at his mug and waiting desperately for his coffee to prepare. He could feel Clint’s gaze burning on his back, and that damn water was still freezing on his neck.

It’s not real, moron, he cursed to himself, It’s all in your head. We’re high and dry up here, in the tower.

Tony felt Clint's pause. He obviously hadn't been expecting a rejection. “Well, I know it is quite a big thing, but this is Natasha. I think she deserves it, for putting up with us. And it’s not like it’s a big deal for you- money is no object for a Stark, right? You've said it yourself, I’m sure you can afford a pool,” he said, his voice sounding just as relaxed as usual, but now with an undertone of something that sounded like disdain.

Tony flinched, glad that his back was turned so Clint was not aware.
He had probably brought this on himself, anyway. If he had just had the guts to actually spend a little more time with his team, they’d understand him better.

“Clint, it’s not about the money-“ Tony started quietly, trying to think of a way to phrase it that didn't make him sound like a complete coward.

Unfortunately, Clint interrupted, looking a little more than put-out. Tony sighed; obviously they weren’t quite ready to have that particular conversation yet.

“If it’s not the money, what is it? Do you just not like doing nice things? This is our friend’s birthday, Stark. Maybe you should just stop playing Scrooge for a minute and think about someone else for once.” Clint snapped, dropping the spoon he had been holding into his bowl of cereal loudly and staring at Tony, now not even attempting to hide his disgust.

Tony felt the retort climb up his throat, ready to jump out and fight back against the cruel words being thrown at him. But it was early in the morning, and he was tired. He felt wet and he felt cold and he sure as hell wasn’t willing to begin a full-scale argument again. Not in this state.

“Yeah, sure Clint. Sorry, you’re right. I’ll- I’ll have something arranged.” Tony mumbled resignedly, rubbing a palm to his eyes and beginning to walk away. The coffee could be drunk at another time.

He heard Clint calling after him as he walked off- he sounded confused and slightly remorseful, which might have been enough on any other day for Tony to turn back and launch a verbal attack, just to keep him on the right side of pissed off- but in all honesty, Tony was fucking exhausted, and he didn’t really care. He had been awake for three days, working on a new protective suit for both Clint and Natasha. What with them being the only completely human aspects of the team when in the field, Tony constantly worried about them. Only last week, Clint had been caught off guard by a flying piece of shrapnel that cut right through his crappy SHIELD issued uniform and nearly punctured an organ.

That wasn’t going to happen again. Not on Tony’s watch. So he had been up for two nights on the trot, working on a new titanium-lined suit for the both of them.

He wished he could go and talk to Bruce about this. Bruce understood him- Bruce was nice. Bruce didn’t snap at him like the others sometimes, when Tony did things that the others didn’t understand, like flinch away when they grabbed him or refuse to go on their group outings when it was raining.
(Seeing as it rained quite often in winter, it probably just looked like he was being distant. )

But Bruce was away on a four-month project in New Delhi, and so Tony was down a lab partner. And a friend.

 

As Tony shuffled away quickly, Steve entered and took his place, looking over his shoulder curiously and raising his eyebrows toward Clint, who shrugged and resumed his breakfast.

“Don’t ask me. Just Stark being weird again.”

 

 

6 Days Ago:

 

 

It was 5:18 am and pitch dark, except for the glow of the small lights that shone eerily under the surface of the water. The construction workers had just finished up and left, and the brand new state-of-the-art pool was glistening and lapping against the edges of the floor. It looked so calm, and serene.

It made Tony want to vomit, just setting eyes on the damn thing.

This is for Natasha. Can’t you get over yourself for one damn minute and let someone else enjoy something?

There was a thick panel of glass that separated Tony from the horrible chlorine-infused death trap, but it still put Tony on edge. It wasn’t the fact that he could fall in- it was the fact that it was there. Waiting, anticipating the day someone might come into the Tower to try and- and-

 

He shuddered and put a hand to his forehead. Someday soon, he was due for a massive panic attack. But today was not that day- today was Natasha’s birthday. He didn’t want to make this about himself.

 

"Thank you for this, Tony."

He whipped around lightning fast, jerking back and slamming into the glass behind him. Half a second later, his brain caught up with his body and he realised that no, this was not an intruder. He was fine. He was okay. It was just Steve, looking at him with a worried expression and a hand half held out as if he was making to grab for Tony and steady him.

"Jesus, Rogers, warn a guy why don't you?" Tony chuckled emptily, stumbling away from the outstretched hand like it would burn him and turning around again, making sure his eyes never left that pool.

"Hey, sorry, I didn't mean to scare you-"

"I wasn't scared,  Steve, I know you think I'm a weak little daisy that could get blown over by a leisurely breeze, but I'm made of more than that," Tony hissed, suddenly feeling all those hours of no sleep and little food weigh him down; make his mood turn sour in the space of a few seconds. He knew it was unfair to take his bad mood out on Rogers, but he was too exhausted and on-edge to care.

They already hated him, anyway.

 

Steve's hand froze in its path, and he looked hurt for a few seconds before withdrawing and grimacing, looking at Tony with that casual disdain everyone always seemed to just love throwing his way.

"I know that Tony, I just... God, why do you always have to be this-"

"Oh, don't tell me- annoying, useless, rude, selfish, or any other insults you've thrown my way over the past few-"

"I was going to say difficult, but yeah, all that too," Steve's eyes narrowed in judgement, " I came down here because I was awake and so were you and I wanted to thank you for going through all the effort of building us a pool, and I'm greeted with Tony Stark in his usual piss-poor mood, shouting at me for asking if he's okay! I want to try and be on good terms with you, but you make it so hard when you're like this," 

Tony wanted to shout. He wanted to scream and yell and tell Steve the truth; tell him that he was allowed his 'piss-poor mood' when he was having to deal with his literal worst nightmare thrown right in front of his face.

But they wouldn't care anyway. None of them even vaguely liked him.

 

"Goodnight, Rogers," Tony turned away from the body of water and Steve without another word,  and went upstairs, toward the workshop. He wasn't going to sleep- it would only bring him nightmares of hands holding him and water filling his lungs.

 

 **

 

“Oh, Jesus. Guys…this is brilliant. Thank you.” Natasha breathed, as Thor, Clint and Steve led her toward the brand new pool that had been finished that very morning, Steve took one look at her, and chuckled.

“You knew all about this, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yeah- from the first day you began building it. The sentiment is still touching, though.” She told him, smiling slightly, before shucking off her shirt to reveal a black swimsuit underneath, and then diving straight in, as graceful as a swan.

The others jumped in as well, stripping down to reveal swim trunks as they cannonballed and dived into the water with yells and laughter.

“Tony couldn’t make it, then.” Natasha stated, and she watched as Clint and Steve’s faces became slightly harsher.

“No, it seems not. But who cares about him, anyway. We’ve got this fancy pool, and apparently he installed a load of extra features that we can check out!” Steve told her, and she giggled at the look of pure childish excitement on his face.

Steve didn’t understand why Tony would go through the effort of building them a pool, and then refuse to hang out with them in it. But Clint had said that he had had to persuade Tony into agreeing in the first place, so maybe this was just a case of Tony’s ‘throw money at things and leave’, tactic.

Steve sighed. He wished he could get to know the man better- but he could be so damn difficult sometimes. Tony refused to accompany them on social outings; he positively leaped away if any of them attempted to touch him, and refused to talk about his personal life. It was as if they were all strangers to him, and it was so incredibly frustrating it made Steve want to tear his hair out.

Then Thor divebombed on top of him- and Steve forgot about it all again.

 **

A few hours later, they all came back up to the communal room, to find Tony sat curled up watching cartoons on the TV. He turned as he heard them enter, and beamed at Natasha, who couldn’t help but return the smile, despite her initial annoyance that he had not come down to join them. The others were less eager to forgive him, and Clint was outright glaring at him until he turned away to join Steve and Thor in the kitchen. Tony noticed the look, and his smile faltered a little, but he gestured Natasha over with the same grin still etched on his face.

“Okay, well first off, happy birthday, best wishes, blah blah- but that stuff isn’t important. This is important.” Tony burbled, tugging at her hand gently and encouraging her to sit down.

When she obliged, he pulled out a thin parcel from the other side of him, and handed it to Natasha with a glow in his eyes.

She tugged open the wrapping, and stared open-mouthed.

Underneath the wrapping lay seven Russian Kryl'ya Smerti blades, each handcrafted by the best Ironmongers in Russia. These cost thousands of dollars, and they were the best knives on the market. In her entire life, Natasha had only ever managed to get her hands on one tiny Kryl’ya Smerti penknife, that she had stolen from a victim many years ago.

She looked up at him in shock. The words she had been readying up suddenly seemed...less, than what needed to be said. Tony Stark had rendered her speechless. 
Jesus fucking Christ.

 

“I wanted to make some adjustments to them, you know, give them a few enhancements to help you out in field work and stuff- but I figured I would let you see the originals before deciding if you want me to tamper with them or not.” He explained, taking out one of the smallest knives toward the end of the set and inspecting it curiously.

He looked so happy, simply because she was pleased with his gift, and it made her heart warm a little. For someone that the media, and she herself, had written off as a showy narcissist, Tony Stark was far gentler than he ever let on.

She felt a slight pang of guilt as she realized it had taken her so long to figure this out, and wondered if perhaps her report on him needed re-evaluating.

“Thank you, Tony.” She whispered, before pulling him in for an unexpected hug. His arms flailed around for a few seconds, before settling slightly awkwardly on her shoulders. Again, her conscience fluttered unhappily- how touchstarved was he that he had no idea how to react when someone hugged him?

“Don’t mention it. It’s no big deal,” he muttered, his jaw moving on her shoulder.

“Shut up, Stark. I know how rare these are, know how hard they are to find. And you have no idea how much I appreciate it. Best birthday gift ever.” She stated, and Tony broke away, looking in her eyes to see if she was telling the truth (again, with the conscience thing- had people really lied to him in such a cruel way before, that he now had to check every statement made to prove it’s accuracy?)

“Really? Even better than the pool?”

“Definitely. Although we missed you back there.” Natasha added, glancing at him in scrutiny. But he kept his face blank, and gave nothing away.

Tony sighed, and ran a hand through his hair, before glancing up toward the kitchen and at Steve, who was laughing as Thor opened a can of beer with his eye.

“Yeah…sure you did.” He mumbled, smiling sadly and turning back to Natasha.

“I think Steve missed you, too.” She added, raising a knowing eyebrow and looking smug when Tony blushed and looked away.

“What? No he didn’t, I mean, we don’t even speak that much- he just shouts, more often than not.” Tony spluttered, wringing his hands together and then playfully shoving Natasha when she laughed, but then raising his hands in submission when she flipped a knife out from her new set and twirled it menacingly.

“ It's safe to say he's confused by you. You rub him up the wrong way and drive him up the wall and it stresses the fuck out of him- but there's still a big part of him that does care a lot about you. You're part of his team, and we've been living together long enough for him to see glimpses of what you're like when you let all your walls down. It's enough to make him keep trying. Also, the amount of times I have caught him staring at your ass is enough to make me want to take him to the special Shield classes on appropriate workplace behavior,"

Tony found himself choking on air very suddenly, and Natasha simply grinned, before turning serious once more.

"It’s just…you don’t really give us a chance, Tony. Steve wants to get to know you. So does Clint, and Thor too. But you’re just kinda… distant. This is the longest normal conversation I have ever had with you. And it’s nice, I like you. You give me beautiful rare knives and you’re actually, surprisingly, not that much of a complete asshole once you get going. I just wish you could do it more often.” Natasha admitted, holding eye contact and smiling sadly.

Tony was quiet for a few seconds, and then he sighed, running a hand through his hair again.

“ I wish I could, Natasha. I really do. But- there’s stuff…about me. It makes it more difficult.” Tony answered quietly, breaking her gaze and looking down at his lap.

Tentatively, she took one of his hands in hers.

“We’re your team. We understand if you have issues. We all do. Steve hates the cold. Clint has an issue with large crowds. I – I…can’t bear children crying. We all have problems. But we help each other, Tony.” She told him earnestly.

He looked at her for a few seconds, and opened his mouth, as if he were about to start on a story- and then Clint decided it would be an appropriate time to crash their one-on-one by throwing himself over the top of the couch and right on to Natasha’s lap.

“Ooooh, are these Kryl’ya Smerti? Holy shit, Tony, you must be feeling really fucking guilty for ditching us at the pool to go to all this trouble.” Clint teased, and Natasha closed her eyes, holding in a groan. Tony had frozen up, his shoulders hunching up defensively and that God-awful paparazzi smile had been plastered over his face.

“Yeah, sorry about that Clint. I had stuff going on in the lab. Talking about said stuff, I have to get back to it…so yeah; I’ll see you later. Happy birthday Natasha.” He finished; standing up suddenly and making his way back to the lab, stopping to lay a gentle, feather light hand upon Natasha’s shoulder for a few seconds before moving along.

Steve had come to join them in the living room, and was watching Tony intently, his eyes flicking back from him and Natasha curiously.

“Night, Tony.” She called after him, and he turned around, finally shooting her something that resembled a real smile before slipping downstairs again.

As soon as he had disappeared, she pressed down on a particularly sensitive nerve in Clint’s arm and looked at him murderously.

“For fuck’s sake, Clint, I was getting somewhere with him! And then you come bumbling in, saying he only got this incredibly kind and thoughtful gift for me because he felt bad! You’re a complete asshat, Barton. And if you say another word I will use these unbelievably beautiful blades to cut you.” She growled, pressing harder and feeling the satisfaction as Clint squealed under her hold.

“What did he… I mean- did he say anything about…um, do you think he’s, you think he’s into you?” Steve spluttered to her left, and Natasha rolled her eyes in exasperation.

Men.

“Seriously Steve? The guy talks to me one time and you automatically assume it's because he thinks I'm hot?" She chastised, watching as Steve immediately blushed and looked slightly ashamed, like a puppy caught chewing the furniture
"No, he is not ‘into me’- don’t worry yourself Rogers, he’s still up for grabs. And I think he’s just as taken to you as you are to him, anyway.” She told him, still keeping her hand firmly planted on Clint’s shoulder.

Steve bit his lip, and looked at the spot where Tony had been sat.

“We need to try harder with him. He’s obviously hiding things from us- but we haven’t really attempted to make him open up, and that needs to change.” He finally said, taking a sip from his beer distractedly, his mind unhelpfully stuck on the image of Tony’s smile as he left the room. It had been soft and mellow and gentle and Steve thought it was beautiful- too bad it had been aimed at Natasha and not him.

But he really wanted Tony to smile like that again, all natural and real for once- and he would make that happen if it goddamn killed him.

 

 

Four Hours Previously:

 

 

“Oh, hey Steve! Listen, I’ve been working on this new magnetized strap for your shield, seeing as the leather one was getting a bit worn anyway- and I think you’ll really love it. I’m just working on design at the moment, but I was wondering if you wanted to come down and have a look, just see if you want to make any adjustments before I go ahead and create it?” Tony asked one morning, as Steve was busy sipping on his coffee and staring out of the window.

He jumped at the sound of Tony’s voice, and was mildly surprised he was being spoken to at all. Usually it was just brief texts summoning him down to the lab for a quick run through.

The shock must have shown on Steve’s face, because suddenly Tony was backing away in embarrassment, hands tapping out a nervous rhythm against his reactor.
“Oh, fuck, sorry- I just thought you might…but you’re obviously busy, sorry I won't- I didn’t mean to burst in, um, I’ll go.” Tony said hurriedly, turning away to walk off again and no no no Steve hadn’t meant that at all and it was slightly worrying that Tony would jump to that conclusion so quickly.

Stumbling forward, he grabbed at Tony’s arm, and swiveled him around to face Steve.

“Tony, I’d love to. Sorry for reacting weirdly, it’s just you usually don’t…ask me.” Steve admitted, smiling gently and running a thumb gently along Tony’s elbow.

He noticed Tony’s eyes drift toward the place his finger was gently running across and stare blankly, and so hastily retracted his hand, flushing in embarrassment. However, as soon as his hand had left, Tony’s eyes narrowed slightly, and snapped his hand out to wind around Steve’s wrist, as if he wanted to continue the contact.

“Can you come now? I’ve just finished it, and I’ve gotta admit, it’s awesome.” Tony rambled, tugging Steve from the kitchen and towards the elevator with a childish excitement in his eyes, and Steve smiled at it. When he was like this, when he wasn’t being rude or selfish, Tony Stark was actually kinda sweet.

Of course, Steve was starting to realize that maybe Tony wasn’t rude or selfish at all, and that maybe Steve had been grabbing at the wrong end of the stick in an awful, awful way.

He’d said a lot of snappy, and sometimes downright cruel things to Tony in the past. From the beginning, Steve had just sort of, assumed, that Stark was only doing everything for himself. He’d taken one look at the man and his brutally familiar face, and made a snap-judgment that had stuck with him ever since.

Tony had invited them to the tower? A publicity stunt, for all the good PR.

Tony designed them new gear and weapons? Showing off, of course.

Tony dove in front of Steve without armor when they had been walking down the high street and someone had decided to get stab-happy, resulting in him being sent into the ICU for three days due to internal bleeding?
Well…then it became harder to justify.

And here Tony was, burbling excitedly and bouncing on his toes with a light in his eyes Steve had never even seen before- and it felt like a stab in the chest to realize that the only reason he hadn’t seen it was because Steve had never bothered to try and even make the man happy.

He shuddered. He'd been a moron. He intended to rectify that.

 

Tony and Steve spent three hours in the lab, and Steve spoke to him, actually spoke to him for the first time.

It made him want to cry, thinking about everything he had misjudged about the man.

When Tony became more comfortable with someone, the layers of loudness and abrasiveness were peeled away, revealing someone so real and gentle and kind, Steve wondered how Tony had managed to keep it hidden away. Steve saw all the designs Tony was working on, and when he had asked him why he spent so much time on them, Tony had looked genuinely confused for a moment, as if he expected Steve to know the answer.

When he’d said, “to keep you guys safe, duh,” a piece of Steve died.

He had thought Tony was showing off- he’d even said that to Tony on ( and Steve really, really hated himself when he thought of this) more than one occasion, and Tony had just sat there and taken it, all the while continuing to better and improve their safety despite the rude comments thrown at him for it.

But Tony wasn’t only kind, he was funny and sarcastic and playful and Steve realized that after the second hour, he might have fallen in love a little bit.

And he’d ruined any chance of ever being with him because he was a judgmental asshole.

“You’re zoning out on me, Cap. I think you need a break- I’m actually quite proud of you, you’ve managed to sit through three hours of my worthless rambling, that’s something you could probably put in your CV. Multiple companies would hire you on the spot.” Tony said, putting down some of the designs he had been animatedly explaining and smiling lightly.

All Steve could focus on was the fact that Tony had so casually just called himself worthless, and thought Steve was simply putting up with him.

He’d fucked up. He’d fucked up big time. How little confidence did the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark actually have, if he valued himself that little?

“Tony, I have really enjoyed this, you know. I know that I have been…kind of a dick to you-“

“Oh my god, did you just swear? Did Captain America, literal walking flag, patriotism personified, apple-“

“Tony. Shush.”

“Yep, sorry, go ahead.”

“Look, I’ve been a dick to you. I got it into my head that you were this certain type of person, and I didn’t bother to try and check that. I labeled you- and I am truly, truly sorry about that, because I have missed out on having you as a friend for three months and that really fucking sucks. And I know I don’t really deserve it any more, but- I was wondering if you- maybe you would let me make up for all that lost time?” Steve asked, looking towards Tony earnestly and feeling the blush creeping up his neck.

Tony looked blank, and his mouth opened and shut a few times, comprehending the question.

“You want…us…to be. Friends?” He stuttered, his chocolate brown eyes wide with a confusion that made Steve want to punch something really, really hard.

“Yes. Is that okay?” Steve asked, refusing to break eye contact or fidget, making sure not to give Tony any reason into thinking that he might be lying (and wasn’t that a fucking punch to the gut, to think someone must have lied to Tony about this before.)

“Umm…sure, Cap-Steve. I guess being friends with Captain America wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.” Tony replied, unable to hide his own pleased little smile. “And now let’s move on to less awkward subject matters, such as the fact that you haven’t eaten in over six hours and you must be starving. I know how pissy you can get on an empty stomach, and seeing as we are now ‘best buds' and all, I’m allowed to actually tell you to go and eat, rather than put strategically placed sandwiches all over the damn tower and hope you find one.” Tony said, jumping to his feet and pulling Steve with him.

“That was you?” Steve asked incredulously.

“Well somebody had to make sure you were eating enough. Weirdly, you can forget to eat for the same amount of time as I can, but you're a supersoldier and therefore it affects you a hell of a lot more. Trust me, no one wants a second Hulk in this tower, and your hunger-rage is the equivalent of Bruce’s Hulk-rage.” Tony explained, smirking as he led Steve to the elevator and shoved him inside, but didn’t make a move to join him.

Steve eyed him disapprovingly- Tony must have spent at least thirty hours in this one room, and was obviously not intending to leave.

Tony saw the look, and waved a hand in dismissal.

“I’m fine here, Steve. I’ve still got work to do- but I’ll come up when I’m done, promise.” He said, smiling one of the genuine smiles that made Steve’s heart flutter a little.

“Come find me when the strap’s finished, okay? I wanna try it out as soon as possible.” Steve asked, as the elevator doors began to close, and he saw Tony’s little nod and smile before the doors closed completely.

Steve sighed, leaning back on the wall of the elevator. That had been simultaneously brilliant and heart wrenching.

But maybe that was just Tony.

 

 

Half an Hour Ago

 

 

Tony looked at the little heat signature that indicated where Steve was, and grimaced.

It was pulsing brightly among three others- all down at the pool. That stupid mother-fucking son-of-a-bitch pool that Tony fucking despised.
Typical.

Just go down and call Steve then go straight back up. You can do that, right? That’s not difficult. You don’t eve have to go inside, just call him through the glass.

Sighing heavily, Tony ran a hand through his hair.
It shouldn’t be this big of a deal, he thought bitterly.

The saddest thing was, Tony had used to adore the water. His house in California had been built right by the beach, and installed with at least two pools. As a kid, Tony had competed in competitions and won awards for swimming- for a while, before Howard had barged in on his innocent childhood and told him he would have to become a CEO one day, Tony had wanted to become a professional swimmer. He had been good enough, too.
And even when the reality set in, even when he'd realised his childish dream of actually doing what he wanted to do as a career path and not his father's was impossible, Tony had never lost his love of the water, and continued to swim until…yeah- until it happened.

Now he couldn’t even look at the stuff without feeling that sensation of water crawling along his neck, over his face, dripping into his eyes like a horrible infection, spreading along his body.

He missed swimming. But nothing, nothing, would make him set foot in a body of water ever again.

 

“Sir, do you wish for me to inform Captain Rogers that the strap is ready?” JARVIS asked him, jerking Tony back into reality.

“No, Jarv, I got this.” Tony muttered, standing up and heading towards the elevator.

It was just a pool. He had nothing to worry about.

Steve was playing Water Kirby with the rest of the Avengers, and seemed thoroughly immersed. Despite his best efforts, Tony could not catch his attention, or anyone’s for that matter, and even his knocks went unnoticed.

He was half-tempted to just leave there and then, wait for Steve to come back up and pester him then instead- but he’d come this far, and Tony really wanted Steve to test it out now, because he had to attend some fancy gala tonight and so would have to wait until the morning if he left it too late.

It’s just water.

“Hey, guys,” Tony waved as cheerily as he could, making sure his smile hid the initial nausea of being in the same room as such a big body of water. The smell of chlorine punched him in the face, and it was both comforting and distressing at the same time.

He made sure he kept as close to the wall as possible, keeping the door right behind him and available in case of escape.

Steve looked over to him, and his face lit up like a damn Christmas tree. Tony’s heart did a few erratic beats at that (no, he was not pining. Shut up.), and then faltered a little in panic when Steve began to jump out of the pool and walk towards him.

Wet.

“Tony! Hey, you’re here! Clint, you owe me ten bucks, I told you he’d come join us by the end of the week.” Steve said happily, and Clint lazily flicked him the finger on his lilo, before hauling himself up to the side and joining Steve and Tony, his skin dripping with the cold water.

Tony held back a shudder, and took an involuntary step back, but was only met with the rock-hard chest of Thor, who had walked in from the changing rooms behind them.

“Anthony! Clint owes Steven his earnings, I for one knew you would come and join us eventually. I am glad- you should join our game of the Kirby!” Thor boomed, gripping Tony’s shoulders, and Tony was infinitely grateful that at least the man was dry, and his hands warm.

“Thanks guys, but I was only calling in to tell Steve that the strap is ready, and he can come up whenever he’s ready. I have to get back though, there are some tests running and-“

“Oh no you don’t, pal. You’ve come down to our lair now; you’re obliged by law to join us in the pool for fun and frolics. No take-backs.” Clint said, grinning cheekily as he grabbed Tony’s arm and hauled him further in.

Wetwetwetwetwetwet

Tony struggled against Clint’s grip, trying to keep it light and playful whilst holding back the overwhelming panic that was starting to rise to the surface. He wanted to twist suddenly, to snap Clint’s forearm in half and scramble away by any means necessary- but he wasn’t going to hurt them. So he tried to persuade the archer to let him go as they struggled further towards that horrible pool.

“No, Clint, I don’t even have my swimming trunks on. And before you tell me to just go in my boxers, I’m not wearing any. So I am afraid I will have to pass on this wonderful bonding opportunity, for the time being. Unless you fancy a spot of skinny-dipping, which, hell, I’m always up for. But somehow I doubt Steve would approve.” Tony said as sarcastically as he could, his eyes darting manically from Clint to Thor, who had now decided to join in and hold Tony’s other arm and nonono this was all too familiar now and the panic was turning into terror and-

“Well then, Mr. Stark. How about we just chuck you in fully clothed, then?” Thor suggested, and Clint was giggling now, hauling Tony towards the edge of the pool while Steve laughed in the background- and this was too similar to be a coincidence now, they had to know, they had to, they were doing this just to make fun of him- Steve hadn’t wanted to really be friends, he’d just wanted to trick Tony into coming down here so they could do this- they still all hated him and now they were going to throw him into the water and oh God, Tony was having a full-scale panic attack.

“Please, guys, stop. Please, let me go,” Tony whispered as his feet slipped on the pool edge- but they weren’t listening, they wouldn’t stop even if they had been, and Tony could see Natasha, who was the only one left in the pool, and he could see her look at him in confusion, locking her neutral eyes on to his terrified ones before a look of pure horror flashed across her face, and she was screaming at them to stop, and Tony was screaming at them to stop, but it was too late and Tony was in the air-

 

And then he was in the water.

 

It snaked around him, engulfing him, submerging him in horrible, choking, chlorine infused water that made his eyes burn and his lungs scream.

The hands. It was the hands. They were holding him under, drowning him, slowly, painfully, and it was freezing and he couldn’t breathe and he wished death would just come sooner because he didn’t want to live like this anymore, he wasn’t strong enough…

He felt the water rush down his windpipe, suffocating him, filling up his lungs and burning at the back of his throat. Somewhere in his mind, Tony was aware that this was just a pool and he needed to start swimming unless he wanted to die, but his limbs were paralyzed in panic and terror and he wasn’t sure what was real and what was fake anymore- because there were hands on him and they felt genuine this time but he couldn’t be sure that wasn’t just because of the lack of oxygen to his brain.

The car battery. The car battery couldn’t get wet. If it got wet, he would die. So he had to keep holding it above his head, even when they drowned him until he was half-dead, he had to keep it up. It made his muscles scream in agony and his heart race to the point of giving out entirely, but he couldn’t go through all of this now only to die because of his stupid metal heart.

 

He bucked against the hands, lashing out despite the water that obstructed him, because he didn’t want to get pulled up only for those stupid soldiers to push him back under again, he just wanted relief, he wanted nothingness- but the hands wouldn’t let go and Tony could see flashes of red and blond through his foggy open eyes and for some reason that calmed his frantic heart down a few beats, but not nearly enough to make him relax.

He couldn’t breathe- he couldn’t move. He was stuck somewhere between Afghanistan and reality, and he couldn’t escape it. He couldn’t escape the water, it was everywhere-

Tony broke the surface, lapping up pure, delicious oxygen in ragged breaths. There were voices shouting at him and people were hauling him all over the place, throwing him out of the water entirely and on to something hard, but Tony was focused on getting air back into his lungs despite the fact that he was coughing up water, and it took up too much of his concentration to worry about disembodied voices or hands wrapped around his shoulders.

He was free. He was out of the water. He just needed to get out of reach of the hands and he could be away, back to his lab, his safe place where people wouldn’t lie about wanting to be friends just so they could hurt him and people wouldn’t throw him into pools and watch as he broke down.
Back to his lab. Good idea.

Lashing out suddenly, so to catch his attacker by surprise, Tony jutted out an elbow and gave a satisfied grunt as he felt the impact of something soft run up his forearm. Wasting no time, he scrambled up to his incredibly unsteady feet and dodged around the next faceless person, who were holding out their hands and saying things that sounded sad but Tony wasn’t listening to. He punched the next one straight in the face, and he vaguely registered guilt and remorse somewhere in the sane parts of his brain, but he was in too much of a panic-stricken rush to leave so he didn’t stop and apologize, he just somehow managed to find the door and sprint out of it, because his life really did depend on it.

Chapter Text

Steve watched on giggling, as Clint and Thor tugged a grumpy Tony towards the deep-end of the pool. He knew that they hadn't got off on a very good foot with him, and none of them had made very much of an effort to include him in anything they did. And as much as Tony was complaining about it, Steve was sure that it was just the other man's pride getting in the way of him having a good time.

Then Tony started to whimper, and Steve stopped thinking it was such a great idea.

He narrowed his eyes a little in confusion, wondering what was wrong. Maybe Tony couldn’t swim? If so, then it probably wasn’t wise for them to start hauling him into deep water.
He locked eyes with Natasha for a moment, who was also looking slightly perplexed. She was still floating around in the water and was the only one actually facing Tony, so she looked right at him as the others jerked their elbows and threw him in.

In the blink of an eye, her expression changed to one of actual terror, and Steve knew that something was horribly, awfully wrong now, and he tried to run over and grab Tony before he fell in and Natasha started shouting at them to stop but it was too late, it was too late and Tony was tumbling through the air, jerking frantically and twisting his body and Tony’s eyes met with Steve’s for a millisecond, but it was enough to make Steve’s heart shudder to a stop when he saw the look of wild, complete and utter terror etched over Tony’s features.

And then he was gone, submerged in the pool water in a splash of foam and lapping waves.

Instantly, Natasha began to swim, powerful strokes cutting through the pool, but Steve was nearer, and so he jumped right in after him, opening his eyes despite the burning chlorine to try and find Tony under the surface. He swam further down, until his sight focused on a twitching figure that was lashing out in a desperate attempt to free himself from the water.

Frantically, Steve latched on to one of Tony’s shaking hands, and Natasha found them and curled another around the delirious man’s waist, and they both began kicking their powerful legs to get to the surface, fear and shame wrapping like a noose around Steve’s heart.

This was his fault.

Tony was lashing out, even when they broke the surface, wild hands trying to dislodge Natasha and Steve’s grip on him. Tony was gone entirely, and there was only simple survival instinct and terror in his place.

Using all the Super-Soldier Strength in his body, he hauled Tony out of the water, instantly leaping out himself to begin medical checks on the shivering mess in front of him. Clint and Thor were by his side now, looking absolutely wrecked as they knelt down beside Tony who was retching, choking up mouthfuls of water as he curled up in a tight ball on the floor and sobbed.

“What the hell just happened?!” Clint shouted in a panic, trying to sit Tony up, only to get a wild punch to the gut in return.

“He’s having a full scale flashback. Oh my God, how the fuck did I let this happen? I should have remembered, oh my God, I should have fucking remembered,” Natasha muttered, wrapping a gentle arm around Tony’s shaking shoulders and looking far more upset than Steve had ever seen her usually neutral face look.

She whispered soft Russian words in his head, stroking a calming hand along his spine, but it wasn’t doing much, Tony was still screaming, immersed in memories the others had no idea about. Steve’s hands shook as he tried to sit Tony up again, and he felt physically sick.

What the hell had they done?

“Afghanistan.” Natasha told them, her voice breaking a little towards the end. Clint jolted his head up to meet her eyes, and then he slumped, holding his forehead in his hands and groaning in horror.

“What happened in Afghanistan? What happened to him? Natasha, tell me!” Steve shouted, and then instantly regretted it as it only made Tony whimper and curl up even more.

Natasha eyes were hard and sad, and she looked down.

“Waterboarding. They tortured him, Steve. They probably did exactly what we just did then- dragged him down into the water and held him there until he was pretty much dead. I should have-, oh, shit, I should have remembered.” She whispered, before continuing her string of words and moving her hand to lightly trace the back of Tony’s neck.

A few seconds later, Tony stilled unnaturally, and Steve felt the panic rising up into his throat because what if he was dead or hurt or-

Tony lashed out, jutting an elbow out to hit Natasha square in the nose. She fell back, and Tony was on his feet, eyes manic and hair sticking up wildly as he made for the elevator.

Steve tried to make a grab for him, terrified that Tony was going to try and hurt himself if he was alone, but the man dodged the outstretched hand so fast and gracefully, in a way Steve had never even thought Tony was capable of before.

Clint stood up and held his hands out, shouting for Tony to stop, but another lighting-fast hand flew out, and Clint was sprawled on the floor clutching at his nose. Thor and Steve sprinted after him but he was already at the elevator and the doors were shutting quickly, too quickly, Steve couldn’t get to him and instead collided with cold metal.

“JARVIS, stop the elevator, now!” Steve yelled at the roof, as the others hurried over to join him, Clint and Natasha both spewing blood from their broken noses.

“Apologies, Captain Rogers. My primary function is to protect Sir, and after recent events, my data suggests you may pose a threat to him. When Sir is a safe distance away, I will resume elevator functions as normal.” JARVIS replied, a definite hint of coldness in his tone.

Steve literally staggered, taking a few horrified steps back.

“Jarvis- I would never- I wouldn’t ever hurt Tony!” He whispered, horrified.

“As I said, after recent events, I cannot say I agree with you.” JARVIS replied, and Clint moaned a little, whilst Thor inhaled a slight breath in shock. Natasha simply looked miserable.

Steve couldn’t quite pin a particular emotion down. They were all fighting for dominance- anger and regret and fear and shame and horrible guilt.

“I am so ashamed- if the Warriors Three could see what I have done, they would surely disown me. On Asgard, it is one of the most sickening crimes to antagonize memories of past battles for one’s own amusement. I do not deserve the hammer I wield,” Thor said morosely, looking down in shame.

No one did anything else for fifteen more seconds, before JARVIS piped up again, telling them the elevator was now available, and they all scrambled in the moment the doors slid open.

 

“Someone needs to go and check on him. God only knows what he could do to himself in that state,” Natasha said, wiping blood from her face as it trickled into her mouth.

“Clint, Thor, for obvious reasons, it can’t be you two. I would go, but my face would probably not do any good. That leaves you, Steve.” Natasha finished, turning to look at him. It wasn’t a question, or a favor; Natasha was ordering this.

Steve nodded silently, determined to fix whatever had happened. God- it had been going so well. He’d been making progress, for fuck’s sake! And now Steve will be damn lucky if Tony ever goes within a hundred yards of any of them ever again.
He stood there and laughed as Tony literally got thrown into his worst nightmare. How must that have looked to Tony?

 

The elevator doors opened in the corridor leading to Tony’s workshop, but they all remained rooted to their spots, eyes on Steve.

“Fix this, Steve. Please. For me.” Clint begged, before pushing him out of the door and pressing the button for the communal floor. “We’ll wait up in the lounge until you come back with news.” Natasha added, as the doors slid shut and he was left alone.

Steve turned around, walking shakily towards the large glass panes that looked into Tony’s workshop- but Steve couldn’t see a thing. He had put up the tint-filter, and all Steve could see was his own ragged reflection.

Steve tried the code, then Natasha’s. Nothing. Tony had locked them all out.

He tried banging on the windows. No replies.

The glass was surprisingly sturdy, despite it’s appearance. After trying to knock it down once, Steve gave up. He didn’t want to scare Tony further.

“JARVIS, please, I’m begging you, let me in. Tony could be hurting himself in there-“

“I can assure you that Sir is not causing himself any physical harm. If that were to occur, I will release security measures immediately.”

“JARVIS, PLEASE! He may not be in physical pain, but I know what shellshock can do to a man. He needs someone there for him!” Steve begged, shouting at the roof like a madman.

“Someone who is not you, Captain Rogers.” JARVIS answered, a definite note of harshness in his British voice. Steve froze, wondering what the AI was saying. He knew that JARVIS was protective of Tony- but keeping him away from his friends at such a time wasn’t helpful in the least.

“If you are feeling confused, Captain, I am going to feed you through the audio in the workshop. He is currently leaving a voicemail to Doctor Banner- perhaps this will clear things up for you.” JARVIS told him, and then the corridor was filled with Tony’s broken little voice, and the utter sadness in his words made Steve take an involuntary step back.

“Bruce, I can’t do this. I-I-can’t. I care about them- I care about them so-so fucking much, but they hate me, Bruce. They can’t stand me. I thought, today…I thought when S-S-Steve came down to talk, to talk to me today- I thought… he really wanted to be friends,” Tony let out a bitter, shaking laugh, “but why the fuck would he want that, Bruce? No one wants to just ‘be my friend’, apart from maybe you and Rhodey and Pep- turns out he just wanted to find an excuse to lure me down to this pool that I built them for Natasha’s birthday. I know I’m an asshole and I know maybe I d-deserved it, but Bruce, they threw me in a pool. And they were laughing, and Steve doesn’t really give a shit about me, and neither does Clint or Thor or Natasha or fucking anyone and I just fucking can’t do this anymore-“ The audio was cut off, leaving a horrible, aching silence in it’s place.

“Do you understand now…Captain?” JARVIS practically spat out.

Steve stood at the door, unmoving and unable to do anything else other than stare at the blackness of the windows.

Suddenly, his knees decided to give out, and he crumbled silently to the floor, pressing a shaking hand against the cool glass and choking on nothing but air.

 

Tony thought that they had done it on purpose.

Tony thought they hated him.

Tony thought Steve had been lying when he had asked to be friends.

 

“JARVIS, please, I know…I know you can’t let me in. But can you-can you please play the audio of this corridor to Tony, in the workshop?” he asked quietly, desperately trying to keep his voice steady and calm.

There was a brief silence, and then JARVIS agreed sullenly.

Steve stopped, wondering what on earth to say. What on earth he could do to fix this utter mess in front of him.

“Tony, I know you can hear me. JARVIS is relaying my voice over to you right now- this is a live feed.
I’m sat outside your workshop, and Tony- I will not fucking move one step, not one, until I can make you believe that I was not lying when I said I wanted to be your friend. I meant everything- every last word. And I don’t know who or what has happened in your previous experiences to make you so afraid, so wary of someone trying to be your friend- but if you tell me their names, I will take the team and we will royally fuck them up. I promise. And I keep my promises, Tony.
I’m so, so, so sorry we did that. We should have known, or at least asked you before we…before we went through with it. You have no idea, no idea, Tony, how bad we feel. We just wanted you to feel like you belonged, we were just playing around. And it went wrong. So wrong. Tony I-“ Steve choked on the words, feeling close to tears himself.
“I wish I could go back and change what happened. I wish I could have stayed in the lab so I could listen to you talk about what you love with that goofy smile on your face, rather than left you and gone up to that stupid pool. But I can’t- I can’t go back or change it because timetravel doesn’t exist yet. But I can try and make it up to you- and I will, I will do anything to make this better. I swear to you, Tony, anything.”

There was no reply. For a good five minutes, Steve sat there silently, leaning his head against the blackout wall.

Then the glass was transparent again, and Steve scrambled around to look through, seeing Tony standing a few feet away from him, looking absolutely beaten. His eyes were red-rimmed, his hear was a damp mess, and his clothes stuck to him from the residue water. He was still blatantly shaking, and as soon as Steve turned to face him, Tony stumbled back, as if he were actually afraid.

Well, that was that.

Hot tears pooled in Steve’s eyes and begun sliding down his cheeks as he realized exactly what their actions had done to Tony.

“Oh, my God…Tony.” Steve whispered, stumbling to his feet and pressing his hands against the glass.

“Steve, just…go. It was all very funny, ha ha, I had a great time getting thrown into a fucking pool- but the joke’s over now. I get the message. You don’t want me around. Received and understood, Captain. Now leave.” Tony snapped, his voice coming through on the comm system.

“No, Tony, please, it’s not like that, I swear! It was an accident, a stupid stupid mistake! I would never, ever dream of putting you through that if I knew what happened. But apart from the fact that I knew you had been kidnapped before the arc reactor, I had no idea about your fear-“

“It’s NOT A FEAR!” Tony shouted, throwing the wrench that was in his hand across the room in a fit of fury, before bending down and clutching at his hair with his hands.

“TONY, calm down, please, don’t hurt yourself! Please, Tony, let me in. Let me help you!” Steve begged, pressing his fists against the sturdy glass as he watched Tony break down.

“You won’t fucking help, Steve! You’re just like the others, you bastard! I’m not dumb enough to fall for the same trick twice, don’t take me for a goddamn moron!” Tony shouted back in answer, stumbling over to his desk and pressing on a button that blacked out the windows again.

Steve punched the wall in frustration, feeling a knuckle or two crack from impact, but he didn’t care- Tony wasn’t listening to him.

“Tony- Tony, please, hear me out. Pull up the video footage of us all in the pool, after you went under. Please, just watch it, and you will see that I’m telling you the truth. You’ll see that we didn’t mean for it to happen,” Steve asked, hoping against hope that Tony still had the comms on and could hear Steve.
If not, Steve had no idea how to fix this.

“JARVIS, is he playing back the footage?” Steve asked, after yet more silence.

“ I am afraid I cannot say, Captain. That is Sir’s business.” The grumpy AI replied haughtily, and Steve groaned into his hands. This was going nowhere- if Tony’s own computer program couldn’t forgive him, how the hell was Tony supposed to?

Steve thought about what he would have done if the others had thrown him into a snowstorm- if it had been Tony who had stood there and laughed as he watched Steve slowly lose his mind to all the memories that haunted him.

Steve wasn’t sure if he would be able to forgive his friends if they put him through that. So what hope did he ever have of Tony doing it?

_______________________________________________________________________________

 

Tony stared at the screen in front of him, open-mouthed.

He was huddled up on his huge comfy spinny-chair by the desk, watching back the footage from the pool, playing on a loop. He could see the moment of realization dawn on Natasha’s face as she screamed in horror for them to stop, a moment too late to have any effect. He watched Clint and Thor look panicked when Tony didn’t come spluttering to the surface like he should have done, and get ready to jump in- and then saw Steve practically snarling at them to stay back for leaping in himself to drag Tony’s screaming form up from the bottom of the pool.

When Steve managed to haul Tony on to the poolside, everyone rushed to his side looking absolutely horror-struck, Steve and Natasha leaning and trying to calm him down whilst Clint gripped his own hair in fists and Thor held a hand over his mouth in shock.

“What the hell just happened?”

That was Clint- looking down at Tony and making an aborted movement to reach out and touch him.

Tony replayed the phrase, over and over and over in his mind

What the hell just happened?

 

That meant…that could only mean…

 

Sweet relief hit Tony like a train, and he let out a huge breath he had no idea he had been holding.

 

They hadn’t meant it. Steve hadn’t been lying. Natasha cared. Thor and Clint cared.

It had been an accident.

Tony watched further on- saw the look of absolute repulsion on Steve’s face when JARVIS implied they might hurt him. Clint and Thor were standing together in silence, Clint’s eyes flickering towards the pool and then shaking his head in regret. Thor hadn’t moved for a good two minutes.

When the video-footage ended, Tony played it again. He watched it three, four, five times- and every time Clint shouted “What the hell just happened?” It made Tony relax a little bit more.

Ten minutes must have passed before Tony remembered Steve, who JARVIS said was still waiting outside his lab.

Tony checked himself out in the black glass, wiping the tear-streaks off his face. The last thing he wanted right now was for someone to be here, to see him at such a weak moment- but Tony probably needed to tell Steve that it was okay, that it was all sorted out and Steve could go back to his friends without worrying he had accidentally broken Tony.

“Hey Jarv, set the windows to transparent again.” Tony ordered, kicking his legs out from under the desk and riding through the workshop on his comfy chair until it stopped right in front of the door.

Tony was pretty sure JARVIS started muttering in disagreement and distain, but the windows faded into clear a moment later anyway, and Tony spotted Steve, curled up with his knees pulled into his chest and his head resting in between them. He was leaning with his back to the glass and hadn’t even noticed that he was able to see inside until Tony opened the door and poked his head around the corner.

Steve’s head whipped up (and at that speed, it had to have hurt) as soon as the doors hissed open, and was on his feet less than 0.2 seconds later, practically running towards Tony hands outstretched as if he were going to pull him into the biggest bear-hug of Tony’s life. After a few paces, however, he jerked back suddenly, and looked warily at his own hands.

“Can I...did you watch the camera feed?” He asked tentatively, looking down at his feet and talking in a quiet voice.

Steve looked almost as bad as Tony- he had managed to pull on a shirt before leaving the poolside but it was damp from the water on his skin, and so were the swimming trunks he had failed to change in his hurry. His hair, usually pristinely parted, had dried messily, scrunched into lumps and spiked from where Steve had been holding it, and his eyes were bloodshot and red.

“Yeah. Sorry- for jumping to conclusions. It’s just…I’m not really used to- well, I’m just not used to having people, erm, wanting to be my friends. Ah, shit, that sounds a lot worse than it is, wow, I fucked that one up, didn’t I? Of course I have…people want to be my friends. I’ve got Pep, and Rhodey and…others,” Tony rambled, rubbing a hand along the back of his neck to where that damned water was still clinging to his hair and feeling the tremors of his arms that refused to leave, and briefly Tony had to close his eyes in order to shut out the memories that swarmed over him when he felt the sticky water trickle down his back.

It was too familiar. Too real.

His legs had been problematic ever since he had run up into his lab, and now he felt them collapse inwards for about the fifth time, expecting to feel the cold floor smash up against his skin and crack against his knees.

But this time, there was someone there to catch him

Tony felt the warmth press against his skin, overpowering the coldness of the water. As Tony sunk to the floor, Steve sunk right with him, breaking the hard fall with his soft body. Arms curled around Tony’s shaking torso and held him, tight enough to provide comfort, but lose enough to let Tony know he could escape at any time.

“Hey, Tony, it’s okay. It’s okay. I’ve got you. You’re safe, okay, I won’t let anyone hurt you, I promise,” Steve soothed, moving a hand to stroke softly at Tony’s damp hair.

“Oh, G-God, I’m so fucking sorry, I…for fuck’s sake, Steve, I’m not weak, honestly, I’m not, it’s just been a really shit-“

“Tony, I do not think you’re weak. Don’t be an idiot; you’re the bravest man I know, for God’s sake. Please, don’t think of this as a flaw. The fact that you have to deal with this, the fact that you’ve suffered in silence for so long, just proves how strong you are. It’s a damn-heavy load to carry alone, Tony- one I most certainly wouldn’t have been able to hold for as long as you have.” Steve whispered, involuntarily gripping Tony tighter, and then loosening it as soon as he realized. It was hard, Steve wanted to hold on so tightly, until all the broken pieces of Tony fixed back together again.

“Tony, why didn’t you tell us?” Steve asked quietly, thinking back to when Clint had asked for the pool to be installed a few weeks ago and remembering how uncomfortable Tony had looked.

If he’d just had said something…

Tony remained silent, but his mouth opened slightly, as if preparing himself for a speech.

“The last time I told a friend about my weakness- he pulled it right out of my chest.” Tony stated, his whole body freezing and a hand reaching up to curl protectively around the arc reactor. Steve’s mind ran blankly for a few seconds, before it dawned on him about what Tony was talking about, and his blood ran cold.

He’d read it in the files, sure. But all that had said was that Tony’s old mentor had gone insane and used one of Tony’s arc reactor’s to power a suit of his own. He had no idea the guy had pulled it right out of his fucking chest.

“Hey, Steve, can you loosen the grip a little? Your super soldier arms are kinda crushing me right now.” Tony choked out, and Steve let him go immediately, mortified.

Shit, Tony, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you. What happened to the bastard, anyway? Is he in prison?” Steve asked, eyes flashing with anger. Tony looked at him and laughed, a little bitterly, before looking away.

“Dead.”

“Damn. I wanted to at least get one punch in. The others would have been more than willing to take a swing, too.” Steve replied grumpily, letting his lip jut out a little. Tony looked at him, eyebrows raised, and then, to Steve’s enormous relief, laughed. It sounded so beautiful, so refreshing from the choked sobs he had been hearing just minutes ago.

“Are you pouting? Oh my God, you’re adorable, how have I never seen that before, Steven Grant Rogers, you little shit. You’re right, I can’t believe I’ve missed out on three months worth of such comedic opportunities.” Tony mused, relaxing his shoulders a fraction and giving a strained smile. It was still haunted- and Steve guessed the memories most certainly wouldn’t fade any time soon- but at least Tony was laughing, and smiling and joking like normal.

Steve desperately tried to hold back his blush at Tony’s casual words, but obviously he failed, because Tony looked at him and smiled smugly again, his eyebrows hitching even further up his forehead. Steve stood up hastily, before Tony could make a smartass comment that would only worsen Steve’s embarrassment, and headed to the couch, grabbing at the ratty blanket strewn over the arm, then taking it back to Tony and sitting on the floor with him again, wrapping it around Tony’s shoulders and covering his head until Tony was cocooned in a warm, worn-out blanket. Gently, Steve rubbed it over Tony’s head a little, making it absorb any of the spare moisture in his hair.

Tony watched him the whole time, outright bewilderment on his face. Steve tried to avoid the other man’s intense gaze- he knew that if he looked for too long, he would do something stupid, like kiss him, and he wasn’t going to take advantage like that.
Steve thought about all the times when other people might not have been so considerate, and it filled him up with an anger he had not felt since Bucky’s death. It made him want to hunt down anyone and everyone who had ever hurt Tony, and give them a special Captain-America™ punch in the nose.

Tony had been broken by so many people- and Steve would be damned if he was ever going to let that happen again. Not on Steve’s watch.