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Split the Deck

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For a moment, Tony freezes. But the voice is - not higher pitched, but not quite as much of a bellow. Angry, but not dangerous. He takes a sip of his coffee and fixes a smile to his face.

"Uh oh," Janet teases next to him. "Someone is in trouble." She twirls around, her own coffee sloshing dangerously in her cup. Their quick caffeine fix (with extra shots of espresso) before getting back to their study session had turned into a longer stroll around campus to 'get inspired by all the beautiful autumn colors' according to Janet.

"Always," Tony replies with a wink before turning around to greet Steve. "Hey Captain, my captain. What can I do for you?"

Steve stomps up to Tony with a scowl. "Your robots ruined my jacket!" Steve turns his arm, and Tony winces at the large scorch mark that burned through the denim in a few places.

"Oh, no! And that was your favorite jacket too," Janet sympathizes, going up and giving the jacket a consoling pat.

"Uh...I can fix that?" Tony offers. He takes a deep gulp of coffee as he adds it onto his mental list of things-to-do. Below this exam, the schematics for Stark Industries, and his engineering homework, but above those repairs Fury wanted. And he should fix Falcon's wings while he's at it. Tony sighs. "Though really if you had been wearing your uniform this wouldn't have -"

"I wasn't training!" Steve interrupts, hands going to his hips. "I was standing to the side coaching Sharon through a session," Tony rolls his eyes, earning an even more heated glare from Steve, "when one of your robots went haywire and started attacking me!"

"I'll fix it," Tony insists. "But I programmed them to keep people on their toes, so..."

"You and your stupid robots," Steve scorns, crossing his arms. "If they don't function properly, they're of no use. Maybe we'd be better off going back to sparring with each other rather than relying on so much technology."

Anger slams through Tony like a wave, and starts to crumple the coffee cup in his hand before he loosens his grip. "Just because you wrecked your favorite jacket paying more attention to Sharon than your surroundings," Tony throws back, "doesn't mean my technology doesn't work."

"Come on, Tony. We should get back to studying," Janet intercedes, looping her arm through Tony's and turning him back to the library. "I'll design you a new favorite jacket, Steve. It'll be absolutely perfect!" she calls back.

"You couldn't last a week without your tech," Steve yells after them.

Tony pauses, ignoring Janet yanking on his arm. He turns his head to reply, "You give me too much credit. I couldn't last fifteen minutes."

Then Tony turns and drags Janet back towards the library.

Tony bangs his forehead onto the keyboard repeatedly. "Come on, Stark," he mutters. The pain jars his head, especially where he hits his gauntlet, and he stops to blink at the screen in hope that it kick-started his brain.

The answers don't come. How does he keep activated machines from realizing that someone on the floor isn't supposed to be attacked without creating the loophole that if a trainee stands still too long they'll be safe? Not a good habit for battle.

He grabs his energy drink and shakes it - empty. Tony sighs and tosses it at the trash can, where it rebounds off of the cans he'd drunk earlier.

"No wonder you aren't a morning person," Steve comments as he leans down and picks up the can. He sets it in the trash can, and turns to Tony.

Tony turns back to the screen before Steve can make eye contact. He glances at the clock and holds back a whimper as it displays 6:37 am. He had wanted to grab at least a few hours of sleep, had meant to set an alarm as a reminder to sleep but then he'd had an idea and...

"Right," Tony grunts in agreement to Steve. He starts typing random words, but throws in parenthesis and brackets occasionally so that it would still look like code to Steve.

"Are they down for maintenance or can I still get a training session in?" Steve asks, the words even and cool.

"Do whatever you want, it's fine," Tony mumbles and his fingers fly over the keys, now typing actual code as he double-checks that his code fixes are still offline. Reprogramming the 'safe way' hasn't historically been his default at two am. The changes - and random words - aren't live though, so he breathes a small sigh of relief. "Go get in your 7am torture session."

Tony leans back over his chair and stretches his arms above his head, his back giving a sharp crack. He winces and collapses forward. He mourns the last of his energy drinks and rubs his eyes. The words still blur together as he blinks, but focusing on this problem lets him avoid facing the huge battle that is the rest of the day.

"You don't get enough sleep," Steve observes, and Tony startles - he catches himself on his desk rather than falling to the floor.

"Jesus, Rogers what the hell," Tony breathes out. "You're still here? What are you, practicing your spy skills?" And he hates that Steve comments on stuff as if whatever he says is the complete truth - and sure, yeah, Tony could get some more sleep. He'd meant to, even, but it isn't any of Steve's business and Tony can manage himself just fine thanks. He's fine.  "Don't you have to go destroy my robots before breakfast or something?"

"I think you should take a break from tech," Steve declares.


"I'm serious," Steve says, setting his feet and crossing his arms. Tony snorts, and Steve's scowl deepens. "There's a ton of research on the benefits of minimalism and -"

"Just because you're a technophobe doesn't give you the right to start dictating my  life -" Tony begins, standing up from his chair.

"I'm just saying that you look terrible and I think-"

"Oh thanks, Rogers, yeah great way to win a guy over-"

"You need a break, and -"

"I'm fine, I could fight circles around you all day -"

"Don't kid yourself, Tony, without the Iron Man suit you're -"

"What? I'm what? Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist - yeah, that's what I thought," Tony replies with a twisted smile as Steve grits his teeth and swallows whatever he was going to say. "Leave me and my life alone, and go train with the tech that I, the tech junkie, built."

Tony steps around Steve, already deciding to screw classes and get some sleep - Janet will get him notes - when Steve catches his arm.

"Get the suit and let's go a few rounds. I win, you don't touch tech for three days."

"And when I win?" Tony counters, blood pounding in his ears. His brain is hyperaware of Steve's hand on his arm, and he should definitely grab another energy drink before he does this. Because no question, this was happening and Tony was going to win.

Steve lets go of Tony, and shrugs. "Whatever you want," he replies.

"Promises, promises," Tony says with a wide grin. Steve frowns, and Tony continues, "Too late, I accept, you can't take it back. When I win, you do whatever I want," and Tony adds a wink. His grin grows as Steve shifts, face reddening.

Tony rocks back on his heels, pleased. Making Steve uncomfortable is equal payback for the headache building behind Tony's eyes...or for something, at least. It's fun, at any rate.

Steve squares his shoulders. "Fine. Be down in five."

Twelve and a half minutes later, Tony slams into the mat face first.

"Ow," he moans.

"No concussion detected," JARVIS informs him.

"Yeah, well, there's lot of pain being detected," Tony snipes under his breath before his display lights up, and he rolls out of the way before Steve's shield can slam into his back. "You'd hit a man when he's down?" Tony calls out to him as he ignites the repulsors to send him back into the air.

"So you agree you were down, then?" Steve taunts.

"Hypothetically!" Tony hovers, eyes on the shield as it soars back into Steve's hands. His fingers twitch, his blood races, and before his mind fully settles on a plan of attack - he attacks.

"Hypothetically," Steve grunts as he ducks Tony's repulsor blasts and runs at him, shield in front, "I keep hitting until it stops moving."

"I guess that works," Tony breathes out as he swerves out of Steve's path. Letting Steve get a handle on the armor, even if it's a large suit of nearly indestructible titanium alloy, isn't good strategy. Nearly indestructible doesn't hold up well against a combination of super soldier and vibranium - at least not after an all-night coding binge. Tony has nothing left but adrenaline and the element of surprise based on sheer lack of strategy.

Steve is way too put together and energetic in the mornings.

Tony twists and fires at Steve's back, which Steve ducks before throwing his shield that Tony has to duck in turn. He successfully avoids the rebound too, but then Steve grabs a hold of his foot and yanks. Before Tony can use the thrusters to compensate for the shift, Steve has him down on the ground - when did he get so fast - and Tony vows not to skip any more training sessions as he blocks Steve's punches.

"Ha!" Tony cheers as he flips Steve, grabbing the shield and tossing it out of reach.

Then, with a hip thrust and a leg maneuver that, okay, Tony would totally love to see again, Steve flips them. Tony lands on his back hard, driving air from his lungs as metal digs into his spine.

Steve pins his arms in place, his palms and repulsors against the mat. He beams down at Tony, breathing hard. "I win," he claims.

Tony struggles, but even with the suit's support, his energy is shot. His head feels three times its normal size and it pounds with every heartbeat. He fires the boot thrusters, but Steve's grip keeps him in place. Still, Tony gives himself another couple of moments to squirm and wiggle - and try Steve's leg flip that, while unsuccessful, does cause Steve to flush - before he lets his body go lax.

Steve isn't fooled - he waits, hands still clutching and pinning the armor.

"Fine, fine, you win," Tony sighs, and closes his eyes inside the helmet. He almost falls asleep right there, when Steve raps his knuckles on his helmet. "What?" Tony whines.

"I win, so you have to go tech free for three days, barring Avengers emergencies," Steve instructs him. "I'll be generous and let you start tomorrow, so get all your tech needs out by the end of the day."

"Whatever, okay, got it," Tony mumbles, and Steve slides off of him.

"See you later, Tony!" Steve calls, waving cheerfully as he grabs his shield and leaves.

Tony mutters curse words at his back as he contemplates the benefits of sleeping right where he is.

"I feel that some aspirin and a bed would be most prudent," JARVIS comments as Tony's eyes flutter shut.

"Leave me alone," Tony gripes. He lets out a long breath, then opens his eyes and levers himself to his feet. At the very least, sleeping in the armor isn't comfortable - yet. He tells JARVIS to add that to his list of upgrades.

He makes it back to the Tower solely because of JARVIS. He texts Janet that he wasn't coming to class and that he'd beg for notes later, and he's already asleep before his head hits his pillow.

The next morning, Steve walks up to him, a smug smile plastered on his face. Tony sighs.

"If you're going to say I can't drink caffeine because it's made with technology, I will kill you," Tony threatens. Still, he gulps down the rest of his cup before Steve has a chance to take it away.

Steve's forehead furrows, the smile disappearing. "I guess it's fine," he admits. "Otherwise you'd probably just eat the beans straight."

"Damn right," Tony mutters. He already needs another coffee, probably two, before he can have this conversation with Steve.

"But, I do expect you to adhere to our deal. No tech," Steve says, staring at Tony's right hand holding the cup.

Tony's body flashes hot, then cold. He had left his phone in his room, and he's already twitchy. He hasn't checked his email, seen the news, or updated Janet that he's alive - he crushes his empty cup with the gauntlet that Steve apparently, accurately, considers technology.

Steve crosses his arms, raising his eyebrows at Tony in challenge.

He has to go to class today. He can't afford to miss another day of lectures, can't stand being alone in his room isolated from everyone because he can't check his phone and he can't even work - and how is he supposed to get his work done if he follows Steve's stupid rules for three whole days? Damn Rogers and damn his own stupid pride.

"No loopholes? No grace? Nothing, just cold turkey?" Tony asks, whines, begs, eyes wide and pleading.

"No technology. It'll be good for you," Steve replies. And he has that tilt to his chin, that look in his eyes - it's the Captain America that Hydra sees, the guy who doesn't back down.

The guy who is now wanting Tony to remove and go without his gauntlet for three entire days.

"Fine," Tony agrees, pleasantly. Easily. He tosses the cup in a nearby trashcan, and then his left hand works at the releases on his wrist. He feels numb, like they aren't his fingers - but they move mechanically, smoothly, efficiently releasing all the clamps that keep his gauntlet on his body.

He releases the last one, and tugs the gauntlet off his arm. "Hang onto this for me will you? I have to go to class, no time to run back to the Tower," Tony says, voice perfectly even, as he hands the gauntlet off to Steve.

Steve fumbles the hand-off, still staring at Tony's right hand - or more accurately, the space where Tony's hand would be, should be.

Tony pulls his jacket sleeve down, covering the stump that ends three-quarters down the length of his forearm. The skin puckers around the edges, and he had forgotten how the scars stand out.

He attempts to give Steve a grin, though his skin feels stretched too tight. "I do still have tech, though." He raps on the arc reactor with the knuckles of his left hand. "If I remove this, I'll die of cardiac arrest in less than fifteen minutes, so I'd like to keep this in. If you're okay with me having the one loophole."

Steve doesn't reply, still frozen though not gaping at Tony rather than staring at his (lack of) right hand.

"I'll take that as a yes. Anyway, I have to get to class. Bye Cap."

Tony walks away with a wave - of his left hand. He tries to let his right arm hang naturally, but he doesn't remember how it's supposed to be without the weight of a hand, a gauntlet, at the end. He tucks it into his side, glancing down every few seconds to check that his sleeve still covers his arm.

He walks into physics, only for Janet to grab him by the front of his jacket and drag him back out. "What's wrong?" she demands in a whisper as she backs him into a corner.

"Nothing," Tony replies, angling his right side away from her.

"Tony, you're white as a sheet. Are you sick? If you went to the nurse then you'd actually be excused from class and you wouldn't look like you were just ditching -"

"I'm fine," he insists.

Janet pouts, letting him go to cross her arms. "Friends don't lie to each other."

Tony looks away. He takes a deep breath, and then mumbles. "It's nothing. Rogers - Steve. He just - we sparred, the other day, and I lost and that means I have to go tech-free for three days."

"Oh Tony," Janet breathes. "That's a silly bet. Boys!" she exclaims, throwing her arms up in the air. She gives his right arm the quickest glance, and Tony is grateful when she does nothing but loop her arm through Tony's left and smile. "Come on, if that's all - then we have class! And I call dibs on keeping you updated on social media. Wait, who am I going to Snapchat when I'm bored if you don't have your phone?"

She tugs him back to class, directing him to his seat.

Natasha gives him a once over, and Tony braces himself as he sits. But Natasha only raises her eyebrows and gives him a small nod - same as every morning.

His handwriting is messier with his left, he usually uses his right for any notes he needs to physically write down, but at least he could still write if needed. Tony taught himself to be ambidextrous, which is what he tell anyone who wants to be a mechanic or engineer. He says the why is that some spaces are impossible to get to with a specific side - as long as you only need to reach with a hand, then you can fix it.

Tony doesn't say that desperation is a powerful motivator when you lose your dominant hand.

He feels ready to claw out of his skin. No one says anything, no one mentions it. No one even stares, or if they do then they at least wait until he's not looking. He waits, on edge, for an attack, a slur, a look.

He's almost grateful as he sees Steve marching through the crowd, always with purpose, toward him.


Tony waits, relaxing his posture almost to a slouch. He gives Steve a lazy grin as he walks up. "Hey Cap, what's up?"

"Tony," Steve breathes out, and then his body seems to deflate. "Tony, I -"

"Excuse you, why do you have Tony's gauntlet?" Janet buzzes up to them, snatching Tony's gauntlet that Steve was carrying - had been clutching to his chest. "I'll make sure to keep it safe."

"I wouldn't -" Steve starts to defend, forehead wrinkling, before he swallows whatever words were going to swallow. "I wanted to -"

"I know, I know," Tony talks over him, waving Steve's words away. Despite being prepared for this since their run-in this morning, Tony decides that he doesn't want to know whatever Steve is about to say. "Don't worry about it. See you at training, yeah?"

And Tony walks away, a sedate pace with Janet as his side chatting about Loki's latest dramatic Facebook posts. It at least explains why Thor was looking so sad at lunch earlier.

Tony skips training. Instead, he gets into a staring contest with the black screen of his computer. Hydra could be attacking, Stark Industries could be on fire, the world could be ending and he wouldn’t know.

Minimalism. Ha.

His gauntlet stares at him from the bed, where Janet left it before she had to run to a meeting. She promised she’d be back, which was good because his room was suffocating in its silence. No music, at least unless he wanted to string wires across a bowl - since he can’t have JARVIS order him a guitar, even. Or fly to a store, or...even drive his car.

How the hell does Steve live his life?

A knock has Tony leaping for his door. He yanks it open to find Rhodey and, even better, a bottle vodka.

“Thanks man, love you too,” Rhodey says while rolling his eyes as Tony verbalizes his thoughts.

“And I love vodka,” Tony replies, gesturing for the bottle.

Rhodey holds it out of his reach. “Oh no, we’re sharing this. Get glasses.”

Tony pouts but does as directed.

“I’m going to be so hungover tomorrow,” Rhodey laughs as he pours himself another shot. They’ve made a noticeable dent in the level of liquor, with one of the crazy stunts they’d filmed back in high school playing on the screen - because Rhodey asked JARVIS to play them, and if that breaks Steve’s rules on ‘no tech’ than Tony can tell him where to shove it. “And there it is!” Rhodey points out, cackling, as he falls on-screen and two seconds later Tony faceplants. Their skateboarding session had been very short-lived indeed.

“Dad was so pissed when he had to replace the railing,” Tony laughs, burying his face in Rhodey’s shoulder. Rhodey wraps an arm around him and saves Tony’s shot glass in the process. “You’re the best,” Tony declares, and when there’s three solid knocks at the door he calls out, “Jan! Party’s started without you!”

The door creeps open, but it isn’t Janet’s head that pokes in. It’s Steve.

Tony groans. “Are you here to crash the party? New rule - no party crashers allowed.”

Rhodey raises his glass in agreement, and downs his new aliquot of vodka.

“I, uh. Didn’t mean to crash any parties,” Steve offers, staying in the doorway.

“Then be welcome, Cap. And in case you were checking in, Rhodey is the only one participating in any technology here. I’m still following the rules,” Tony says, saving his right arm toward where the gauntlet now lies on his desk.

Steve winces and Tony grins despite the queasiness in his stomach. If he ends up throwing up, he’ll blame Rhodey’s cheap taste in vodka.

“About that - I just,” Steve stumbles, then he takes a step into the room and stands up straight - as if he’s facing down the Director. Tony almost expects a salute. “I’m ending this. The bet was stupid, and I’m...I’m sorry. I didn’t realize…”

“That I was a cripple?” Tony finishes for him. The words flow easily, vodka and familiarity dulling the pain.

“Choose your next words carefully,” Rhodey threatens, pointing the bottle of vodka at Steve. His other arm tightens around Tony waist, and Tony leans into him.

“That’s not what I was going to say,” Steve pleads, gaze shifting from Tony to Rhodey to Tony’s right arm. Tony had discarded his jacket after his third shot, the feeling of fabric against his stump a constant, irritating presence in his brain.

"You got a new jacket," Tony blurts out. He takes in Steve's new jacket - it looked the exact same as the old one, without the scorch mark on the sleeve.

"Uh, yeah," Steve admits, rubbing the back of his head. "The old one was a gift from Bucky. He just...went out and got me a new one. Called me six different kinds of idiot, too."

"Good," Rhodey agrees. He raises his glass in toast to Bucky and downs the vodka.

Tony finds a water bottle on top of the covers and shoves it at Rhodey. "Shot?" he offers Steve.

"It's...Thursday," Steve answers.

"Tomorrow is going to suck," Rhodey agrees before taking a large swig of water.

Tony swipes the vodka bottle from beside Rhodey and pours his shot glass full. He spills some - a lot - on his bed, which he is certainly going to regret later, but now he only has one hand and the glass is askew on his covers. "Here you go, super soldier," he says, exchanging the bottle for the glass and offering it to Steve.

Steve mouth tilts down, but he comes forward and takes the shot from Tony. He downs it, and Tony and Rhodey cheer.

"I'll take all the pity shots you'll give me," Tony says, reaching forward and pouring more vodka into Steve's glass.

"Just the one," Steve says, shoving the shot back at Tony.

Tony pouts, but then again...more for him. "Ugh, this whole one arm thing is exhausting," Tony gripes as he has to set the vodka in Rhodey's lap before taking the shot glass back from Steve. The alcohol burns down his throat, and Tony hums.

"The bet was stupid - or at least, saying you needed to ditch all your tech," Steve says with a heavy sigh.

"I can do it," Tony spits out. Then he backtracks, "...except for the arc reactor thing. Can't do that one."

Steve's face twists. "Yeah - I, look, I'm sorry. Sometimes I still get overwhelmed with everything, and the tech is just. Over my head. But, for you, I - well, it's really hard to find you when you don't text back."

Tony huffs out a laugh. "Aw, I guess it's back to work then."

"Tomorrow is going to suck," Rhodey whines again, and then falls sideways to smush his face in Tony's pillow.

"He'll be fine," Tony assures Steve.

Steve slowly nods, mouth pursed as he stares at Rhodey's figure.

Tony stares at Steve. The denim jacket is really nothing special. There are a thousand jackets that could better highlight Steve's physique or even bring out his eyes. But this jacket, one clearly straight off the rack, is the one he got all upset over. Because it was a gift. Tony takes it, and Steve, in.

Then he meets Steve gaze, and he quickly looks away. His eyes end up landing on the gauntlet, laying on the desk. He can see the clasps and wires where his arm attaches, and his fingers twitch in anticipation.

Steve crosses over to it, his hand skimming the surface of the gauntlet without touching. "I - I wanted to tell you," he croaks, gazing down at his hand, "this - you, you're amazing."

Tony gapes.

"Whenever I get - too much, you know? It helps to see how far things have come. That it can help. Doesn't just give me headaches. And I'm - you're amazing, with this. Tech."

"Genius, born and bred," Tony tosses out with a casual smile. "Couldn't let a small lab accident keep me from great science. It works."

"I - I'm sorry," Steve tries again, face twisting with guilt.

"Don't hurt yourself, Steve. It's fine. I'm fine, we're fine, everything is fine," Tony breezes as he climbs off the bed, Rhodey grumbling at being jostled.

"Are we?" Steve asks, voice almost a whisper.

"Course," Tony declares. His feet are a little unsteady under him, but he takes the few steps necessary to reach his desk with minimal issue. "Friends, right? Do we need to hug it out?" Tony teases.

Steve reaches out and grabs him before he can even process what's happening. He had expected that Steve would refuse, as usual, but instead Steve's arms wrap around him. Tony blinks, and then reaches around Steve and shuffles forward to eliminate the awkward space Steve left between him. After a moment where his entire body remains tense, waiting for the explosion, Tony takes a deep breath and relaxes.

Steve clutches him a fraction tighter, and Tony buries his face in Steve's shoulder. Without his boots, without any shoes at all at the moment, Steve is several inches taller. Tony is silently dying inside as he memorizes everything about this moment. How long of a hug can get away with, especially if he can blame it on alcohol? Steve's warm breath coasts down his neck and it's driving him insane.

Steve begins to pull back, and Tony lets go with a silent sigh. But Steve catches his arm, his right, and gently cradles Tony's forearm in his hand. The small smile that Steve gives him sends a warm, bubbly feeling shooting through Tony until it settles low in his stomach.

"Train with me tomorrow?" Steve asks.

"Not at 7am. Never again," Tony vows.

Steve chuckles. "After class. We can spar again, no stakes this time."

"That's no fun. But fine. No stakes - this time."

Steve pulls back. "Tomorrow then," he agrees, that smile still on his face. He strides out the door, shooting one last glance at Tony before he's gone.

Tony collapses back onto his bed, sprawling across Rhodey's legs.

"A hug? That's nice, real nice Tones."

"Shut up," Tony commands with a whack to Rhodey's chest.

"Ladies and gentleman, Tony Stark has game! A hug! From Steve Rogers!" Rhodey cackles.

"Shut up!" Tony cries and yanks the pillow out from underneath Rhodey so he can whack him with it.