One of the clearest memories Tony had of his childhood was the broom closet in his father's house in Los Angeles. The air in there had always been warm and dusty and when the door was closed, it was quiet and dark. Tony used to huddle down in a corner on a blanket with a flashlight and books about airplanes, cars or rockets. Away from his father's disapproval and his mother's attempts to make them get along.
Sometimes, he stayed in the closet for hours.
Sometimes, he stayed until his mother called his name with that undercurrent of concern in her voice, because more often than not, Tony being quiet meant trouble was ahead.
Most of the time, though, he stayed in there until there was a knock on the door and then his father's old butler smiling down at him, sitting next to him with his legs stretched out into the hallway. He used to sip coffee while he listened to Tony explaining about engines. Sometimes, he brought lemonade and told Tony about adventures he'd had with a spy named Peggy Carter.
Tony was twelve when Edwin Jarvis died. After that, he refused to set foot into the broom closet ever again. It was one of the few things he'd ever done right in his father's eyes. ”You don't hide from the world like a coward,” he used to say. ”You go and face it, like Captain America.”
Tony really hated Captain America, mainly because his father admired him. In all the pictures Tony saw of Captain America, he looked really tall, wearing stars and stripes, carrying a shield, broad-chested and strong and proud, blond and blue-eyed. Tony was nothing like him and he knew he would never be able to live up to him, so he didn't try.
That was why it caught him quite by surprise a few decades later that he might actually have managed to do so as he carried a nuclear missile through a wormhole to save New York.
Then, as he stared at a fleet of alien ships exploding, his suit down and the silence of space around him all-encompassing, he realized that it didn't really matter, all things considered.
And finally, as his fear-addled brain told him that this was it (the end of the line, the crossing of that last bridge and why did he never try shawarma or ruck up the courage to ask Pepper to move in or tell Steve that he was actually not that bad a guy if you looked past the hair and the way he talked) ... he suddenly remembered the broom closet and the lemonade and Jarvis.
And Tony found that was quite alright as a last thought.
Tony jerked awake with a gasp. The air seemed too thick to breathe, shadows encroached from the corners of the moon-lit bedroom, suffocating him until his shaking hand found the switch of the lamp on the nightstand. Its light was meager, but enough to make out the bedroom with all its details. Enough to put the shadows back where they belonged.
He gulped in air, balling his hands to fists against his forehead.
Pushing past half-remembered images from the dream, he slowed his breathing. He'd learned how to handle this kind of dream after he'd returned from Afghanistan. They'd become rare … now they were back full-force, changed and twisted, memories blending together at random.
Tony breathed, calmed and turned to look at Pepper. She was still deeply asleep beside him and he was grateful. She needed her sleep and he didn't want her to worry. The clock showed only two in the morning, but he was wide-awake. He wouldn't be able to go back to sleep anytime soon and he didn't really want to, either way. Carefully, trying not to wake Pepper, he slid out of bed.
The attack on Stark Tower had left part of the penthouse miraculously untouched. The bedroom, master bathroom and kitchen were fine. Tony's workshop was in shambles, though, as was the extensive living room. It was strange to walk down the hallway as always … just to open the door to the living room and step into the left-overs of a battle. The shards of the destroyed panorama windows had been cleared away, the granite floor was cracked and bent in several places, paintings and furniture either lying destroyed among the carnage or still standing and hanging in their rightful places … as if whoever had wrecked havoc had forgotten them in their wrath.
Tony found most bottles in his bar still whole and poured himself a drink. Taking both the glass and the bottle, he stepped out onto the balcony. He took a deep breath of the cool night air and stilled, sipping his drink and staring down at the city spread out around him.
This high up, New York was quiet. This high up and in the dark, he could ignore and forget about the damage that had been done. At least for a little while.
He jumped when one of the shadows near the wall shifted and stepped back, ready to drop the bottle and the glass to defend himself, though he wasn't much of a challenge without the suit … then he recognized Rogers. He seemed different in sweatpants and a scruffy t-shirt, smaller and more ordinary. His smile was sheepish. ”Sorry, didn't mean to startle you.” His features didn't betray even a hint of exhaustion or pain.
Tony turned away from him, back towards the city. ”Something wrong with the room?” He'd given the team guest rooms one floor below, the offer made without a second thought when news reporters and photographers had started to file into the destroyed part of New York and taking even one step without being followed around by them had become almost impossible. Fury had wanted them to stay at a hotel but Tony had waved him off, knowing that the security at Stark Tower was much better – even with half the roof missing.
”The room's fine,” Rogers replied, burying his hands in his pockets.
Stepping towards a gap ripped into the balcony's rail, Tony said, ”This is a private area. The hole in the window doesn't mean you can just come in here without knocking.” He sat on the edge of the balcony, his feet dangling over the side.
”My apologies. I wasn't aware.”
Tony poured himself a new drink, setting the bottle down beside him. ”You are now.”
”Yes,” Rogers answered. ”Sure.” He didn't turn to leave, though, stepping closer instead and stopping next to him, his socked toes barely brushing the edge. When Tony raised his head, Rogers was staring down at him with an unreadable expression on his face.
”What are you looking at?” Tony asked.
Rogers seemed to hesitate for a moment, then he asked, ”Are you okay? You look … unwell.”
Tony scoffed, sipping from his glass. ”Don't worry your neat little head. I couldn't sleep. Just like you, obviously.”
Rogers shrugged. ”I don't sleep much anymore. I don't need it.”
The way he said it, as if it was actually a burden, made Tony roll his eyes and look out over the city again. ”'Course you don't.”
He let the silence stretch this time, waiting. Rogers hovered next to him and several times, it sounded as if he was taking a breath to say something, but finally, he turned to walk away.
Tony looked back over his shoulder to see him head for the door that would lead him to the stairwell, his head down and his walk strangely tired … he looked like Tony felt, not like the idol he had been to Tony's father at all … Tony's eyes glanced down at the bottle and maybe it was the alcohol or because he did feel a bit lonely and small this high up over the city or maybe just the fact that he wasn't prone to rational decisions and Captain America should not look that defeated … he called out, ”Wait.” He held the bottle in Rogers' direction, not looking at him. ”Have a drink first. Don't let it be said that I'm not a good host.”
There was silence, then, ”I don't ...”
Tony turned his head to give him an annoyed glare. ”Don't tell me you don't drink. Don't you have any flaws?”
There was a moment of indecision, then a jolt in Rogers' shoulders and he made his way back over to Tony. ”I have plenty.” He settled on the balcony next to him and accepted the bottle, reading the label. ”It's just … been a while since I've had anything stronger than beer.” He took a careful sip, nodding appreciatively. Tony raised his glass for a toast and Rogers clinked the bottle against it before taking in the view. ”I can see Brooklyn from here,” he said. ”That's why I came.”
Tony glanced at him, noticing an expression of longing and sadness on his face. ”You're a regular hometown boy, aren't you?”
Rogers ducked his head and Tony thought it might just have been a trick of the light spilling onto the balcony from the penthouse behind them, but Rogers seemed to be blushing. He took another sip, glanced at the label again and cleared his throat. ”This won't become a habit.”
Tony chuckled. ”Too strong for you? Whimp.”
Rogers glanced at him out of the corner of his eyes and smiled. ”Haven't been called that in a while.”
”Get used to it.”
”You are …,” Rogers said very slowly and then paused. ”You really are Howard Stark's son.”
”What gave it away? The devastating looks? The last name? The file you undoubtedly read about me?”
Rogers chuckled. ”The arrogance. Who puts their name on a tower?”
”You'd be surprised,” Tony answered. ”It's kind of a thing this day and age.”
Rogers nodded slowly, caught his eyes. ”I knew your father. He was a good guy.”
Tony scoffed. ”I hear people say that all the time.” He emptied his glass and held it out for Rogers to refill. ”I feel like I missed a memo or something.” Rogers looked at him with a frown and Tony shifted under his gaze, changing the topic before the question that was undoubtedly forming could be asked, ”So, now that you're part of a superhero gang, what's the plan?”
Rogers seemed confused. ”The plan?”
”Yeah. You need headquarters or something, lots of cool gadgets, merchandise ...”
With a shrug, Rogers replied, ”I haven't thought about it.”
”You need a cool name,” Tony added. ”The Awesome Five. Righteousness League. Danger Squad. Something like that.”
Rogers shook his head. ”I thought we already had a name.”
”The Avengers Initiative?” Tony asked, his eyebrows raised. ”Sounds like you have sticks up your butts.”
Cracking a smile, Rogers answered, ”Drop 'Initiative' and it sounds quite good.”
”The Avengers,” Tony said, testing it out. He shrugged. ”It's a start.” He took a sip. ”So … headquarters?”
Rogers shrugged. ”I don't know.”
”You're the designated driver, Cap,” Tony answered in exasperation. ”Give it some thought. You need to get the team up and running before S.H.I.E.L.D. barges in and takes over completely.”
”Wait a moment,” Rogers said, suddenly. ”The Awesome Five?”
”We already settled on a name, moving on to headquarters.”
”Uh ...” Tony did another count in his head. ”No, you're not.”
”Banner, Romanoff, Barton, Thor, me and you.”
”I'm a guest star,” Tony answered. ”Consultant. Deemed unfit. It's got to do with my lovely personality. They benched me before I even started.”
The frown on Rogers' forehead deepened. ”You were there all the way today.”
”It was hard to keep out of it, seeing how you made such a mess of things.” Tony smirked. ”You'll do better next time. It's a learning curve.”
”That's ridiculous,” Rogers said.
”No, believe me, it's not. I made mistakes when I started out as well.”
”Not that!” Rogers answered and he sounded actually angry. ”They can't bench you.”
Tony stared at him, taken aback by the honest indignation on Rogers' face. ”They already did.”
”You saved the world today.”
”Look,” Tony said, ”it is what it is. “
Rogers pressed his lips together and looked out over the city, his hand clenched around the bottle.
Mark 12 was a beauty. Not only had Tony improved on the systems and the JARVIS interface, it also sat tighter around his body, encasing him with a firm, comforting grip.
The fight in the tower had left it slumped in a corner of Tony's workshop, but almost unblemished. Tony started to fix it while his workshop was still in shambles. The scratches were fixed quickly, as was the small problem with the hydraulics in the right arm. Tony took it for a ride to make sure all was fine.
It was dark and warm inside, only the glow of the interface lighting it up and narrowing his world down to the things he wanted to see: Face recognition, navigation, infra-red. It was quiet this high up above New York, with only JARVIS in his ear and the suit providing close-ups of people waving and pointing at him from the sidewalks with smiles on their faces.
“Rogers came to see me today.” Fury, as always, managed to look grumpy, cool and lethal at the same time. His sunglasses shielded his healthy eye, badly disguising the eyepatch over the other, his dark clothes fulfilled the secret-agent-cliché and the signature black coat brushed the top of his boots whenever he moved. He looked impressive, like someone who deserved every ounce of respect the got. He had Tony's … grudgingly. A guy who could dress Iron Man down in a doughnut shop kind of deserved it.
Tony hummed in acknowledgment of Fury's words, and then pressed a button on his computer. A 3D-model of a new generation of S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarriers popped up in the middle of his still not quite reassembled workshop. ”I took some liberties,” he said, pointing at the hovering image and turning it this way and that with his fingers, ”but there you go: Next generation, even better than they were before.”
Fury didn't even look at the image. ”I'm not here to buy Helicarriers.”
Tony sighed. ”But I didn't even get to the part where they won't explode because some overzealous Robin Hood shot an arrow at them.”
”Rogers thinks you might be a good addition for the Avengers.”
Tony stared at him. ”Did it physically pain you to say that?”
Fury didn't answer.
Shrugging, Tony said, ”He might think so. Too bad you don't.”
”I might have changed my mind.”
”You didn't want me.”
Fury pressed his lips together, his hands going to rest on his hips, pushing his coat back to reveal the gun strapped to his chest. ”Rogers put in a good word for you. He seems to think that you could be an asset.”
”Huh,” Tony said, clicking the Helicarrier image closed and leaning back against the worktable. ”Really?”
There was a pause, during which Fury let out a breath. ”He insists.”
Tony crossed his arms. ”And because Captain America insists, I get to be part of the team?”
”Essentially,” Fury said, his voice pressed. ”Yes.”
Tony looked at him, then he ducked his head, humming thoughtfully. “Okay,” he finally said. “I'll think about it.”
”You'll think about it?” Fury asked in disbelief. ”Captain America asks you to join his team, blackmails me to agree and you have nothing else to say but that you'll think about it?”
Tony shrugged. ”I might have better offers.”
While he turned to the computer screen behind him, he heard Fury leave, his boots surely leaving angry rubber marks on the tiles. Pepper would have a fit.
It stood out on the image, even more so because the picture had been taken in the evening, with dusk falling around Stark Tower.
There it was: the neon-blue 'A' among the skyline of New York where before, it had read 'STARK'.
Tony looked at the picture for a long time.
“I imagine not many people get that kind of invitation,” Pepper said. She shifted in the bed, turning to face Tony.
The dim light of the bedside table lamp made her hair shine and turned her blue eyes a darker shade. Tony sometimes wondered how he got this lucky.
“I don't,” he answered, folding his hands on his chest, his palm pressing against the warmth of the reactor underneath his t-shirt. “What I get is an offer blackmailed out of Fury by Uncle Sam.”
“Tony,” Pepper chided. She was smiling, though. “He seems very nice actually.”
“Yes, Steve,” Pepper answered in the patient tone of voice she usually reserved for getting Tony to attend board meetings.
“'Course he is. America's sweetheart.”
Pepper sighed and slid closer, pressing against his side and entwining their fingers. “You consider turning the offer down because it came from Steve?”
Tony tilted his head to look at her. “Why are you on a first-name basis, anyway?”
“What, were you having coffee?”
Pepper sighed deeply. “Lunch, actually.”
Pepper squeezed his hand. “Listen, he's lonely. He's lost. This isn't his time, most of the things he sees, he doesn't even understand.” Her fingers brushed through his hair. “You know what I think?”
He looked at her questioningly.
“I think that the two of you would actually make a good team.”
Tony snorted a laugh which earned him a slap against his arm.
“I'm serious!” she said. “And he likes you.”
“We were at each others' throats the whole time this went down,” Tony replied.
“He likes you,” she insisted and sealed it with a firm kiss against his lips. “If you'd give him a chance ...”
Tony turned his head away, staring back at the ceiling.
Now Pepper's voice took on the hard tone she always used when he was starting to piss her off. “The only reason you're huffy about him is because your father preferred him over you, but that's not Steve's fault.”
“I almost died,” Tony said and it surprised even him. He hadn't ever meant to mention it, hadn't ever wanted to weigh Pepper down with knowing that he'd thought the last call he would ever make to her had been left unanswered. But now it was too late to take it back. “I literally held a missile in my hands and transported it through a wormhole and I almost didn't make it back. That missed call you had ...” He closed his eyes. “I keep dreaming about it.”
Pepper stared at him, then her hand went to cup his cheek. "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
Tony didn't answer. He could have said he didn't want her to feel guilty but that would have only been half the truth. He didn't want to tell her that the thought choked him, sent him into a cold sweat and made his hands shake, panic clawing its way up his throat ... “I want you to make an informed decision about this.”
It was quiet for a long moment, then Pepper softly said, “I'm not going to tell you what to do.”
“You were the one who wanted big changes to our lives to be discussed.”
“There is no change as far as I'm concerned. You were Iron Man before we got together and I kind of like the thought of you not going out there alone anymore.” She leaned over him and dropped a kiss on his lips. His arm came up to wrap around her waist, pulling her closer still. Pepper smiled. “I already made my decision.”
Mark 12 had flaws.
They gave Tony plenty of ideas to work with for Mark 13.
He spent hours arranging the parts virtually on his computer, and then he started to modify the programming until his eyes burned with exhaustion and his head felt muddled. He barely registered the sun rising or Pepper entering and dropping a kiss on his lips and a sandwich on his workbench.
It was noon before he realized that some of the modifications he was planning would not work with Mark 13 but he didn't want to give up on the design.
He opened a new project folder and called it 'Mark 14'.
Tony looked up at Rogers, who was lingering in the door to his workshop, looking like a suburb-dad in his slacks and the checkered button-down. Tony nodded at him and focused back on Mark 15's arm. The shoulder joint had jammed during a trial run of the weapon system this morning and he hadn't been able to track the source of the problem down for the last three hours. His eyes were burning from squinting at the tiny mechanical parts in the bright light of his workshop and his muscles were cramped from sitting in one position for too long. Also, he'd woken from another nightmare in the middle of the night and hadn't been able to go back to sleep after. He was exhausted.
Rogers cleared his throat. “May I …”
Tony shrugged. “Yeah, come in.”
Rogers looked around curiously as he did and Tony lowered the volume of the music. Stopping next to one of the worktables, Rogers reached out to place his hand against Mark 13's half-finished chest plate, his eyes finding the other worktables and the parts scattered over them. “That looks complex.”
“It's like a one billion parts puzzle,” Tony replied. “Well, there are four, really.”
Rogers frowned quizzically.
“Puzzles,” Tony said and pointed at each of the four workbenches in turn as he introduced, “Mark 13, Mark 14, Mark 15 and Mark 16.”
“How many suits does one man need?” Rogers asked.
Tony cracked a smile. “One for every occasion.”
Rogers smiled back hesitantly and looked at one of the computer screens, where Mark 13's schematics were rotating slowly. “I don't understand how you can fight like this. I'd feel trapped.”
Raising his eyebrows, Tony said, “I'd feel vulnerable only wearing a catsuit.”
Rogers lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “I didn't intend to slight your suits.” He swallowed. “I just ... you're closed in, not feeling the battle. It's ... distance from what you're doing. It's a different way of engaging.”
“The coward's way?” Tony asked before he could stop himself.
Rogers' eyes widened. “That's not what I said.” He leaned back against one of the workbenches, carefully as if he was scared he would break something. “All I seem to do is offend you. That's not my intention.”
“I know. 'Cause you're a 40s gentleman,” Tony replied. “You don't do it intentionally.”
“Unintentionally then,” Rogers said. He folded his hands. “That's still not alright and I'm sorry.”
Tony shook his head, waving it off. He focused back on Mark 15, hoping that Rogers was only curious about the workshop and would leave once he'd seen it. Knowing that Rogers was here for another reason.
As if on cue, Rogers took a breath. “Fury told me you turned down the offer to join the Avengers.”
Tony leaned closer to the arm of the suit, peering at the wires. “I didn't turn it down. I said I'd need to think about it.”
There was a pause, hesitation. “If it's because of me-”
“Not everything is about you, Cap,” Tony interrupted him, moving the wires out of the way to check the microchips below. “I just needed to consider the offer.”
“And have you decided?” Tony sighed and was still looking for a diplomatic answer, when Rogers already hurried to say, “Because I went ... online.” He used the word as if it was still strange to him. “I looked you up.”
Tony gave him a crooked, sly smile. “Cap, you could have just asked for a date.”
Rogers looked at him, his eyes widening a bit. “I'm going to go ahead and assume that was a joke.”
“You met my girlfriend, right?” Tony asked. He straightened and stared at Rogers, surprised. “Are you actually blushing?”
Rogers rolled his eyes. It was the most human thing Tony had ever seen him do. ”Anyway, aside from many unflattering news articles and Facebook comments ...”
“Listen to you, talking about Facebook as if you have any clue what it is.” Tony chuckled to himself as he bent back down to look at Mark 15's wiring.
“... I read your rather impressive CV.”
Rogers nodded as if he'd known he would catch him by surprise. “You clearly inherited your father's genius.”
Tony took a deep breath and blinked. The inner workings of Mark 15 came back into focus and now he saw it – one of the microchips was fried. “I know that.”
“He was an impressive inventor.”
“Hm,” Tony said, turning away from Rogers and towards the table he kept his tools on. “He only had good things to say about you as well.”
“You surpass him by eons.”
The quiet statement caused Tony to freeze. He swallowed and busied himself with picking out a screwdriver small enough to loosen the microchip.
Rogers continued, “I doubt that he would have done what you did. He was an inventor and a genius and he was a fighter when he needed to be. But he wasn't a hero.” Rogers paused. “He only ever fought for his own goals.”
Picking a screwdriver, Tony cleared his throat. When he turned back around, he realized that Rogers had come closer.
He was now standing in-between Tony and Mark 15 with his arms crossed and his face set into a determined expression. “I want you to join the Avengers,” Rogers said. “You earned it.”
“Fury doesn't want me on the team.”
“Fury gave me the lead,” Rogers said. “So it's not really his decision.”
“Look at you,” Tony said, “hitting those rebellious teenage years.”
Something like a smile tugged on Rogers' lips, but he suppressed it. “Is that a no? Because the offer only stands until I walk out that door.”
Tony nodded. Then he huffed a breath and turned to one of the computer keyboards, tapping in a few quick orders. “You know,” he said, “carrying that shield around must be rather inconvenient in a fight.”
“Sometimes,” Rogers answered.
Tony hit 'Enter' and an image materialized between him and Rogers. The upper body of a man and – highlighted – a harness strapped to his back, meeting between his shoulder blades with a metal buckle. “This is a new toy,” Tony said. “Nothing special, really, except for this part worn at the back.” He zoomed in on it. “It reacts to Vibranium like a magnet. Just hold it close and the shield will stay there, freeing up your hands for combat. And it's got the classy retro look you're going for.”
Rogers looked at the image. “I like it.”
“I can have a prototype for you to test in a few days.”
Crossing his arms, Rogers asked, “Is that a 'yes' to the offer?”
“Don't make a big deal out of it,” Tony answered, clicking the image closed. “I just got nothing better to do.”
Rogers smiled. “Okay.” He turned to leave.
Tony focused back on Mark 15, leaning in.
“It'll get better.”
The words made Tony notice that Rogers had stopped underneath the door. He looked serious. Confused, he asked, “What was that?”
“The nightmares,” Rogers clarified. “They'll never go away completely, but it'll get better.”
Tony swallowed, caught off-guard. “Why would you think I have nightmares?”
“I get them, too.”
Tony looked at him, his hand clenching around the screwdriver. He nodded. “Okay.”
“Thank you,” Rogers said, ”for following me.”
Scoffing a laugh, Tony answered, “Well, unless I think the path you lead us down is crap.”
Rogers chuckled. “That's the deal,” he answered.