Title: Coping Mechanism
Author: Del Rion
Fandom: The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes
Genre: Angst, drama
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: JARVIS, Steve Rogers (Captain America), Tony Stark (Iron Man). Supporting cast: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel), T'Challa (Black Panther), Hank Pym (Yellowjacket), Thor, Janet Van Dyne (Wasp), Vision. (Also mentioned: Jane Foster, Pepper Potts, The Wrecking Crew.)
Pairing: Steve/Tony (romantic friendship)
Summary: Tony's recovery from a brain injury is on a tortuous path towards something better. The other Avengers are growing impatient – as is Tony – and Steve's fortitude will be tested as he attempts to be there for Tony and lead a group of superheroes at the same time. Not to mention the change that is taking place in Steve and Tony's friendship…
Complete. Sequel to "Dependence".
Written for: Angst Big Bang's Round 3.
Artist: sarageek16 (find cover art & fanmix here: archiveofourown . 0rg / works/1317274/ )
Warnings: Language, angst & moodiness, minor suicidal thoughts, dealing with brain injury, mild sexual content (m/m, kissing, nakedness), canonical violence.
Disclaimer: The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, its characters and places belong to Marvel, Marvel Animation, and all other creators involved in the making and distributing of the show/comics. No profit was made by writing this story.
Beta: Mythra (mythras-fire)
Feedback: Most welcome, from con-crit to fangirling over the wonderful show this story is based on.
About Coping Mechanism: This story may not look like it at first glance, but there's a lot of angst going on all around, I promise.
I think I finally found a happy medium in my struggle to decide whether I wanted Steve and Tony to continue their platonic friendship, or to bring more feelings and warmth into it. What takes place in this story (romantic friendship) will hopefully appeal to most readers.
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
. . .
On most mornings, Steve Rogers woke up with the sun – and just like on most mornings, he had a familiar urge to work out. Once he had relieved his bladder, Steve dressed in a simple t-shirt and sweat pants, grabbed a yoga mat and moved outside to one of the many balconies of the house and rolled out the mat on the eastern side of the building.
After a series of warm-up moves and stretches, he proceeded with a few pilates and yoga exercises that he had grown fond of. The rising sun warmed his skin, the continuous sound of the ocean crashing into the rocks below filled his ears, and the rest of the world seemed far away.
Breathing deeply with his eyes closed, Steve felt at peace with himself and his surroundings.
"Captain Rogers," a politely soft inquiry reached him a moment later.
"JARVIS," he acknowledged, not opening his eyes.
"Mr. Stark has woken up," the AI informed him. No further information followed, which led Steve to assume this was a good morning and that Tony didn't need his help.
In the little over a month since Tony's accident – which had involved Steve's vibranium shield colliding with his head during a battle – and the weeks that Steve had spent at Tony's house in Malibu, trying to help the man cope with the injuries and the aftermath, they had fallen into a routine.
That routine dictated that Steve would get up, roll up the yoga mat and go inside to make breakfast – not because he had to, but because he wanted to, and he always did. After breakfast they would work out for a bit, depending on what kind of morning Tony'd had, after which Tony would disappear into his workshop downstairs. Tony's assistant Pepper often came by around midday, with something work-related or more personal, and Steve would spend a few hours doing whatever he wanted until it was time to lure Tony into another workout session, then come up with something to eat.
The evenings varied from one another more than the mornings did: depending on Tony's mood and condition, they might exercise more, or just relax on the couch and watch TV on Tony's huge screen. On particularly bad days, Tony bitched and argued with Steve about everything and Steve backed down to a degree, then pushed, knowing that Tony needed to get the frustration out of his system, even if it meant saying horrible things to Steve and then crying himself to sleep afterwards.
As Steve pulled ingredients out of the fridge and cupboards, he mused how differently he saw Tony now than before the accident. He had never seen the man cry, for one, although he had seen Tony close to tears on a few occasions. Not that seeing his fellow Avenger cry was the biggest change Steve had detected; he had always known Tony was a somewhat insecure person, but this experience had shown him just how deep those dark thoughts went – and how poorly Tony thought of himself. Just because he covered it very well on most occasions…
"Morning," Tony's voice greeted him as the man walked into the room. His gait looked almost normal, but Steve didn't comment on it; Tony didn't like anyone drawing attention to his shortcomings – or in this case, the sudden lack of shortcomings – and Steve had learned the hard way that it was one of the boundaries he should respect if he wanted to make things work between them. That didn't mean he wouldn't occasionally call Tony out on it, to snap him out of a particularly dour mood, but as long as they both knew what was going on and weren't pretending otherwise, things were good.
"Good morning," Steve replied kindly and dropped some choice ingredients into a blender, then sealed it and turned it on. Tony sat down while Steve began to assemble a couple sandwiches.
"Weather's nice," Tony commented, which wasn't exactly his kind of small-talk.
Steve nodded, not looking up from where he was loading his own bread with a lot more toppings than Tony's.
"JARVIS and I have been working on a few… glitches in the armor's controls," Tony went on.
Steve wondered whether the glitch was real or if this was Tony's way of subtly implying that he couldn't operate the Iron Man armor in his current condition the way he used to.
Since the day he had taken Steve flying – the first time Tony put on the armor since his accident – Steve had been waiting for Tony to make some kind of move, whether it was another test flight, with or without Steve, or a statement that he was ready for action. On most days Tony still doubted whether he could join the ranks of the Avengers, but Steve wanted to be an optimist when it came to that and kept telling Tony it would happen when it happened.
"I was thinking," Tony went on before Steve could formulate a response, "that maybe you could join me later today while I test a few things."
"Sure," Steve agreed and stopped the blender, then tugged the lid open and poured the thick smoothies into two tall glasses.
It was Tony's turn to nod, then he reached out, carefully grabbing one of the glasses and pulling it towards him. Steve watched the progress, remembering how many times Tony had knocked things over in the last month, but the glass remained upright and Tony tugged a straw from a plastic box that was a permanent fixture at the kitchen table these days.
Steve set down Tony's plate close to him and Tony didn't protest with the standard 'I'm not that hungry', which meant this was indeed a good morning. Perhaps a couple tests with the Iron Man armor was a good sign. After all, being Iron Man had been such an important part of Tony's life for a long time, and Steve didn't see how getting parts of that life back could be a bad idea.
"Preparing for the first live test with the proactive control systems. Sir, if I may –"
"No, thanks, JARVIS," Tony interrupted his AI and squared his shoulders. The armor moved with the motion, and from his spot from across the clearing, Steve nodded. The blond was in uniform, shield in hand. The last time Tony had seen him in full Captain America regalia was when they battled U-Foes at Madison Square Garden. That had also been the last time Tony wore the armor, if one didn't count the brief flight Steve had tricked Tony into partaking.
Well, 'trick' was a strong word, but Tony could see how he had been coerced to take the armor for a spin before he felt he was ready for it. As it happened, he had been ready, and as exhilarating and gratifying as that experience had been, it had also shown Tony that he had a long way to go before he would be ready to be Iron Man once more.
He looked at Steve again, who was patiently waiting for Tony to make a move or give him directions. Tony wished he could somehow borrow that perseverance because lately he just hadn't had what it took to get through the day without getting angry, bitter or furious – or worst of all, so low he simply wanted to bawl his eyes out… which he often did, too. It wouldn't have been nearly as humiliating if he had been alone, but Steve had a way of finding him whenever he was in one of his worst moods, and Tony was a weak person because he just couldn't make the super solider leave.
"Alright," Tony said out loud, "let's do this." He shifted his arms and his stance, and everything worked as well as could be expected.
"What's the plan?" Steve asked, voice carefully neutral yet cooperative.
"The big idea is that I need to fine-tune the armor's movements in relation to the motions of my body. So, how about you throw," Tony pointed at Steve's shield, "and I catch?"
Steve nodded slowly and shifted his shield. "On the ground or in the air?"
"Let's stay at ground level for now," Tony decided. "Don't go crazy, either," he added, making a vague gesture at the surroundings trees; even Tony wasn't stupid enough to think that just because he was wearing the armor he could pull off the kind of stunts he used to. Well, he could try, and then be utterly and completely humiliated when his nervous system decided to take a break. He knew it was better to avoid that.
Steve nodded again, waited four seconds and then sent his shield flying. The trajectory was easy, within Tony's reach without any extra complications, and Tony extended his arm, opened his fingers, aligned the waiting hand – and missed the shield by a few inches. Tony frowned, heard the shield ricochet against a tree somewhere behind him, and Steve moved to the side to intercept the shield as it came flying back towards him. Then, without delay, he sent it flying again, much in the same manner as before, and this time Tony actually grazed it with his fingers. Still the shield bounced away from his grip, spinning away and rolling onto the ground.
Steve moved to pick it up without a word, and Tony's jaw was getting so tense he was afraid the muscles might cramp. He knew the vibranium shield wasn't the easiest object to catch mid-air, especially if you were covered head-to-toe in metal alloy, but he was determined to do this. The HUD in front of his eyes accurately showed him the shield's calculated trajectory, based on years' worth of data on Steve's throwing techniques and the shield's aerodynamic capabilities. All he had to do was stick his hand out there and catch the damn thing.
"Again," he told Steve before the man could think of something to say. Usually Steve had more patience about these things than Tony, from tossing that soft ball in the workshop to getting Tony to do another set of exercises when all he wanted to do was to stab the fitness ball with a screwdriver or a kitchen knife. This wasn't an exercise planned and carried out by Steve, though, and Tony needed to convey that all was going according to plan and that he needed to do this in order to get better.
Steve adjusted his hold on his shield then threw it again.
The Iron Man armor detected a lower-than-average speed, which meant Steve was holding back, trying to give Tony a chance to succeed. It burned at him to allow Steve to stoop so low, but perhaps it was better to start simple when he had already failed to catch the shield two times previous.
Tony took a stride to the side then twisted his upper body, and finally caught the shield using both his hands. It was nothing to break into a smile over because his hold lasted for two awkward seconds before he saw the shield slipping. He tried adjusting his hold but only made it worse, and the vibranium disc fell at his feet, making a resounding clang against his boot.
"Fuck," Tony muttered.
"Let's try again," Steve encouraged, and Tony had, for a moment, forgotten the communicator was on, delivering his every sound to Steve's earpiece.
Tony bent down to retrieve the shield. In the armor, the movement was more awkward than he recalled, and for a moment he lost his balance, almost ending up face-first in the dirt. His right hand, which had been reaching for the shield, shot out to stabilize his armored fingers by burying themselves into the earth.
He took a breath, trying to force himself upright by sheer force of will.
He closed his eyes, huffing out an angry breath. Slowly, he moved his left foot, trying to improve his stance. His back and stomach muscles tensed as he tried pulling himself back upright, shield be damned, but it was as if something were missing in between his brain's command and his body actually doing it.
"Tony…" Steve sounded uncertain, the way he rarely did these days. Obviously he didn't know whether to come over and help, or leave Tony to it – even if it meant he had to lower himself to the ground and then work his way up again.
No, Tony told himself. He wasn't going to go down on all fours like a damn toddler learning to walk. Not while he was wearing the suit. Iron Man wasn't weak.
"Maybe we should continue this tomorrow," Steve offered.
Tony growled in frustration, clenching his fist where his fingers were still buried in the earth, then jerked up and managed to get into a standing position. He swayed slightly, the armor trying to mimic the way his body moved, and Tony adjusted his stance again, to make it stop – then felt himself slipping on something and lost his footing, landing hard on his back.
"Restrict audio," Tony growled at JARVIS, saw a symbol change on the HUD to inform him that he had been cut off from Steve's communicator, and allowed himself to bask in that moment of utter failure, letting out an outraged shout. He also banged his head against the ground for good measure.
Steve walked up and bent over to retrieve something from the ground by Tony's foot: the shield. Tony must have stepped on it and slipped. "Are you okay?" Steve asked and looked down at him.
Tony seethed then remembered Steve couldn't hear him. He reached up and unlocked the helmet, yanking it off as it released itself from around his head. "I'm encased in a metal suit. Why wouldn't I be okay?"
Steve's lips twitched with a micro-expression he immediately suppressed. "You know what I mean," he finally stated.
"No, I don't," Tony disagreed on principle, then started struggling back to his feet. He managed to sit up without much difficulty, then halted to stare at the helmet he was still holding. The faceplate was dead and emotionless, but even it seemed to judge Tony's inability to function. With a scowl, Tony tossed it to the side, the extra strength of the armor making it roll out of sight into the midst of trees and underbrush.
Steve's eyes followed the helmet's flight before returning to Tony's face. He offered no words of comfort or false hope, which Tony didn't want to hear anyway, but the fact that he said nothing fueled his anger even further.
Tony climbed to his feet with unsteady grace but managed to stay upright this time. "We're done here," he muttered and took off towards the house, walking stiffly. He made sure not to stumble on any protruding tree roots, uncertain whether he could get up again if he fell.
If Steve was following him, he kept a safe distance between them.
Tony entered the workshop on his own, hissing and cursing as he took the armor off with JARVIS' help. It felt almost like he didn't fit inside the suit the right way, and he resisted the urge to kick the metal contraption once he was free of it. Underneath his undersuit, he was a sweaty mess. He hadn't noticed that before and now he shivered from the cold.
"J, run a bath for me," Tony ordered.
"Of course, sir," the AI replied.
"Make it hot," Tony added. He could just lie in the water and let all of this go away; every failure, dashed hope and miscarried expectation.
Slowly, Tony moved towards his room. Half-way there, he became aware that his good morning had either been a false alarm or putting on the suit and playing Frisbee with Steve had put more stress on him than he had predicted. Either way, he barely managed to stay on his feet until he reached his door, slammed it shut awkwardly and then just sank to sit on the floor. He could hear the bath water running, and all he needed to accomplish was to get out of the undersuit and into the bath tub.
Both tasks loomed ahead of him like enormous mountains he needed to cross, and he felt like weeping as defeat clutched his insides in a tight hold. He would never make it…
The water stopped running after a while. Tony forcibly slowed down his breathing, sat up, then proceeded to unzip the undersuit and pull it off his arms and down his body. All he had to do was to get creative; he wouldn't even need to get up to remove his clothing. It wasn't that hard.
Lying down, he managed to lift his hips and push the tight clothing past them, then pushed at the floor and sat up again, tugging the undersuit further down along his legs, then finally kicked it off. Sitting on the floor, naked, was an odd feeling, but he had just hit the half-way sign on his goal to reach the bathtub and he wasn't going to stop to think about the little details.
He checked the distance between himself and the bathroom door. Getting there would bring him so much closer to his destination. No reason to stop now.
Tony tried getting his feet under him for a bit. A couple times he almost got it, but his balance was wonky and it didn't feel like he could keep himself upright. He would just end up falling down, maybe hit his head, and JARVIS would call someone for help – only so that said person could find him lying naked in a pool of his own blood. That wasn't a vision Tony liked to share with anyone so he moved along the floor in a weird crawl, inch by inch gaining on the bathroom door.
"Sir," JARVIS asked after a while, "do you require assistance?"
"What does it look like?" Tony asked, voice tight. His fingers were already touching the tiles.
When the door of his room opened, Tony froze and guessed that he should have told JARVIS that he was fine instead of trying to play the sarcasm game with the AI; JARVIS probably understood what he meant but chose not to, which led to the AI summoning Steve Rogers into his bedroom.
"Were you standing by the door?" Tony snapped over his shoulder.
Steve didn't reply, which meant he probably had been. He did that, hovering outside whichever room Tony was currently in, waiting to be asked to help. Tony knew that because JARVIS had cameras all over the place – which he had access to.
"Get out," Tony ordered when the super soldier didn't say anything. "I'm fine. Almost there."
"How are you going to get into the bath tub if you can't even stand up?" Steve shot back.
Tony honestly hadn't thought that far ahead. He had to conquer the first figurative mountain before getting to the second one, after all. "I'll figure it out," was his answer. Snappy and bratty, no doubt.
Steve let out one of those sighs that could be trademarked to him and Tony heard him move closer – which meant Steve was deliberately walking loudly, not wanting to startle him. "Let me help," he said, and then hoisted Tony up without waiting for Tony's answer.
Had it been the first time Tony had been naked in front of the other man, he might have felt embarrassed. Sadly, it wasn't the first time, and while that didn't make it better, exactly, Tony could focus on being humiliated instead of attempting to cover himself up or ask Steve not to handle him quite like that.
A firm arm wrapped around his middle, keeping him up, and Steve really should have given up on pretense and just carried him. Tony's feet were barely moving – not from lack of trying – and at least the bathroom floor was smooth to make it less awkward. Once at the tub, Tony stared at the inviting water. He told his foot – either foot, it didn't matter – to get up and step in, but nothing happened. Staring at them didn't change the situation, either.
The seconds trickled by agonizingly, feeling twice as long as they should be.
Steve's other arm suddenly made an appearance, hoisting Tony's legs up from under his knees, lifting him up. Tony's arms instinctively held onto Steve's shoulders, as if the other man planned on dropping him, but instead of a short free-fall, Steve lowered Tony into the hot water as gently as possible.
"You can let go now," the blond told him after a bit, and Tony realized his arms had remained wrapped around the wide shoulders. He quickly did as he was told and Steve straightened up, looking at him critically. "Will you be okay while I take a shower?" he asked. Still clad in his uniform – although missing the cowl and gloves – he looked totally out of place in Tony's bathroom. Like some weird dream.
Tony nodded, then stared at the water and one of his knees peeking out through the surface. Like an island in the ocean, shivering…
Steve must have noticed it, too, because he emptied his lungs – careful not to sigh this time, but Tony detected it anyway. "I can wait until you're done," he decided.
"I'll be fine," Tony forced himself to say. "What am I going to do, drown?" Which was a stupid question, he realized, because his bathtub was legitimately big enough for a grown man to drown in – especially a grown man whose body was acting up and who could barely move his legs the right way…
Steve must have arrived at the same conclusion, giving the water in the bathtub a suspicious look – the same kind that made petty thieves confess their crimes even though they weren't of any interest to the Captain. The water sat there, innocent as ever, holding onto its evil plans, and Steve nodded his head like he was having a discussion with it. "I'll wait," he decided and moved to the other side of the bathroom – but didn't exit to the side of the bedroom.
Tony felt stupid, sitting there while Steve slowly undid most of his uniform, no doubt looking forward to his own shower. Not that his workout with Tony should have worked up a sweat for him, but Steve was a man of simple pleasures and perhaps a nice shower was one of them.
The water was still hot on his skin but Tony didn't feel compelled to enjoy it. He tried wriggling a bit lower, to further immerse himself in the liquid heat, but it only served to make him slip a little, dunk him entirely under water, and it was with a lot of struggle that he got up at all. When he did, his nose was full of water – and Steve was by the bath, looking ready to break the tub in order to drain it.
"Maybe you should just try showering," Steve suggested tentatively.
"I want to bathe!" Tony snapped, trying to get the water out of his nose without letting Steve know he was doing it. "Is that too fucking much to ask?"
"No," Steve replied, a bit more sullenly, then sat down on the wet floor. It was clear he was going to guard Tony from there, close enough to reach into the tub and pull him back up if he went under again. The only way he could get any closer was to get into the tub itself.
"Maybe you should get in with me and keep me from drowning," Tony suggested darkly, following his previous thought. "That way you don't have to wait to shower."
Steve gave him a somewhat startled look. "I'm not sure…" He didn't finish, which wasn't like him.
"What? That you'll fit?" Tony challenged. "I've had five grown people in this tub." Okay, so, technically some of those people had lain on top of each other, but Steve could get in and probably not even have to touch Tony at all. "I'll keep my hands and feet to myself," he promised like taking a pledge.
"I don't care about that," Steve replied, which was an odd way of putting it. "I don't want to crowd."
"It's a big tub, Cap." Tony suddenly felt confused, because his initial offer had been a joke more than an actual suggestion, but now he was trying to convince Steve it was a good idea to get in a tub with him. That was… okay, so maybe it wasn't more intimate than Steve dragging him across the room, naked, or washing him when Tony couldn't do it himself, or drying him off and helping to clothe him. Taking a bath in Tony's big tub was innocent compared to all the other stuff.
Either Steve had reached the same conclusion or some part of him was still living by old rules of conserving water, because he began taking off his uniform for real and Tony had only a few blank walls to look at if he didn't want to stare.
When he seemed to be done stripping, Steve still wore a tight pair of underwear – black instead of something red, white or blue – and he clearly intended to keep those on.
"Take them off," Tony told him. "I promise not to peek."
From the corner of his eye he saw Steve strip the last article of his clothing, and Tony was a bad person because he did peek, a little, as Steve stepped over him into the tub. Tony had seen a lot more of him lately than he had ever before, but this was the first time he saw all of Steve, literally. His eyes didn't linger, knowing it was inappropriate – especially when he had promised not to look – and he stared at his knees as he pushed them up slightly, to break the surface of the water again.
Steve settled down so that he sat by Tony's feet, his own sliding out, never touching Tony's body. "Is this making you uncomfortable?" he asked after a bit. "I can get out –"
"Don't," Tony told him quickly, looking up and trying to form a smile on his face. "We've been through worse things than this – seen worse things, too, I bet."
Steve chuckled. "Right."
"Besides, my tub is the best in the house," Tony went on and slid a bit lower in the water. "It's only fair you get to enjoy it after taking such good care of me."
Steve stared at him speechlessly for a moment, as if not fully catching on to whether Tony's words were a joke or genuine in their kindness.
Tony closed his eyes, pretending to relax. "I suppose you would like the tub better without me in it," he guessed.
"It's not something I'm used to, but I don't mind." To accompany his words, Steve's fingers lightly touched Tony's ankle under the water. It didn't make Tony jump and the touch itself was nice, but it created odd ghost sensations his body wasn't sure how to interpret.
Tony gritted his teeth. "Either touch me properly or not at all," he told the other man. "What you're doing now is… highly unpleasant." Steve's fingers tightened instead of letting go, and with the increased pressure it was easier to categorize the sensation in his brain. Tony gave him a grateful look, knowing that Steve of all people knew how not to take his words the wrong way; ever since Tony woke up in the hospital, after the accident, Steve had been learning from every mistake he made with Tony. One of the first had been touching him, and while Tony was generally better when it came to that, there were days when his entire body felt like one giant tingle.
With Steve's fingers still around his ankle, Tony allowed himself to close his eyes and relax because that's what he had wanted to achieve. The heat took the aches out of his muscles and even with his lack of control, he felt lighter in the water, gravity not pulling him down so hard.
Steve shifted after a bit, lying lower in the water as well, but his hold on Tony's ankle barely shifted and the touch was becoming oddly comforting. In the midst of all this, Tony hadn't thought he might actually become touch-deprived. It made sense that, like with most things these days, Steve was a safe haven, and Tony could depend on him. Trust him.
Tony moved out his right hand, aiming to return the gesture. He probably should have looked where he was going because when his fingers encountered Steve's body under the water, it was way higher on his leg than he had planned, and he was precariously close to giving the big blond an unintended fondle in the crotch area.
Realizing his error, Tony froze and went to draw back, but Steve was faster, grabbing his hand. It didn't alleviate Tony's concern that he had irrevocably crossed a line with his teammate and friend, but instead of breaking his fingers, Steve simply re-directed Tony's hand back where it had first made contact.
That sent another dreadful thought through Tony's brain – do I want this? – that he had no time to process before Steve laid Tony's hand on his upper thigh and rested his own on top of it, as if marking that it was safe territory. "Relax," Steve said – in that same safe, comfortable, steady voice as when he helped Tony gain his balance on a balance board or hold a pose just a bit longer.
Tony did relax, feeling the warmth of Steve's skin under his fingers as well as around his ankle where Steve still held him in return, and it was like completing a circle.
A comfortable silence fell around them. The water stayed hot for a little while then began to cool, and Tony knew this strange moment was coming to an end. Before it did, though, he looked at Steve and found the blue eyes already fixed on his face. "I miss this," Steve said before Tony could find any words that would make sense in this situation. "Being… close to people. I never really had that before the war, and even during it…"
Tony supposed he had been a selfish idiot, only thinking of himself: he was so wrapped up in his own problems – his own limitations – that he hadn't stopped to consider that Steve had nothing and no one in this world. He was always there for the Avengers, living at the Mansion. He had no life except this. No friends, no dates… Steve had never seemed unhappy about it, save for the whole debacle with the Winter Soldier when Tony had feared he might leave altogether, but otherwise there was no reason to suspect Steve wanted for anything.
What Steve really needed was a friend, and despite the Avengers growing closer after each fight, it wasn't the same. Steve and Tony led the Avengers, together and separately, depending on what phase they were in, and neither of them could really get too close to any of the others without it being taken the wrong way.
Tony knew, better than most, that there were friends – and then there were friends who were so much closer to you and knew who you really were, and with whom you could sit naked in a bathtub, fingers only a couple inches from their crotch and it wasn't weird.
"Sometimes you forget it's something that you need. That you deserve it," Tony agreed. "And even when it's there, and you're drowning in it, it's not necessarily the right kind, you know?" Tony flirted with people, more so before than these days, but if he wanted to, he could have all the comfort he wanted. Not like this, though. Not with his guard down, letting the real Tony Stark shine through. He could name only two people and one AI whom he trusted enough to do that – and now there was Steve, whom he had unconsciously added to that list over the last month.
Steve offered him a small smile and the hand that lay atop of Tony's shifted, fingers curling around Tony's into something that almost resembled hand-holding.
They sat like that for a bit longer, less relaxed but unwilling to end the moment. Both of them were getting something out of it – comfort, as well as human contact – but the water eventually began to get too cool to go unnoticed and Steve shifted, sitting up a bit. His fingers moved up from Tony's ankle, half-way up to his knee, then drifted off, disappearing. "I think it's time we get out and have something to eat."
Tony nodded although he wasn't certain whether he could stand up long enough to rinse, dry and clothe himself. Of course Steve anticipated that: he let go of Tony's hand – which prompted Tony to draw his hand back to his own lap – and reached out to the button on the wall that would empty the tub. As the water level lowered, Tony pulled his knees up in a failed attempt to hide himself. There was no point, really, and he wished he was as proud as Steve, who did not hide himself in any way.
"Come on," Steve said then, offering Tony a hand.
A bit apprehensively, Tony took it, and Steve rose to his feet, water dripping down his gorgeous form. There was no way Tony wasn't looking up at him, following his own arm over to Steve's, up to a strong shoulder and the thick neck, blond hair darker when it was wet, lines of water racing down his smooth, muscled chest all the way to the trail of hair that started from his navel and traveled all the way down to the darker skin of his cock…
Tony averted his eyes and looked at the thigh closest to him – which was entirely too close to what most people would be ogling at. What Tony would be ogling at, frankly, if he didn't respect Steve so much.
"Come on, soldier," Steve urged and tugged on Tony's hand, pulling him up. It didn't look like it was much of an effort – it never was – for Steve to pull Tony up when he could barely take any of his own weight. Even now, Steve placed an arm around him, which left Tony flush against the chest – and then some – that he had just been admiring. Steve didn't press him in too close, always careful of the arc reactor – just another thing that Tony was thankful for. "Think you can stand on your own?" Steve asked, reaching out to a panel on the wall and starting the showerhead above them.
Tony tried shifting his weight but felt instantly uncertain on his feet. On a normal day, before all this, he would have gotten cocky; right after the accident, he would have gotten angry; now, he simply shook his head. "Don't think that's gonna happen, sorry." So, he had gone from defiant to apologetic.
Steve didn't seem to mind. He moved them a bit further under the spray. It was more than adequate to get them cleaned up, and Steve didn't drag it out, turning off the water after a few minutes, taking a careful step to the side, leading Tony along with him. He took his time, waiting for Tony's shuffled steps to catch up. It would have been easier for Steve to just pick him up like before, but sometimes Steve didn't do the easy thing and Tony appreciated him all the more for it.
When Tony was at the edge of the tub, once again debating whether he could raise his foot high enough to get to the other side, Steve reached down and lifted his leg for him, then the other, and Tony did not protest or think too much of it, following Steve over to where his towel was. "There are towels in the cupboard there," Tony motioned, and Steve got himself a fresh one. He merely worked it around his hips, though, while Tony balanced himself on the wall and Steve's shoulder, then returned his attention to drying Tony.
"How do you feel about pasta and chicken?" Steve asked as he moved a bit lower, to dry Tony's feet. After their naked bath together, Tony wasn't sure which felt more intimate.
"Sounds good," he answered the question about food.
Steve nodded his head and stood up again, slowly, because Tony was still keeping one hand on his shoulder. "Let's get dressed and I'll get on it. Shouldn't take too long." It meant Steve was hungry, but proclaiming his hunger to other people wasn't his way of doing things.
Tony noted that Steve had stopped toweling him and took it as a sign to take the cloth from him, carefully, and dry himself in the places where Steve didn't venture, even after today. Tony guessed it was good because he didn't want to get an incidental boner while Steve was just trying to dry him off.
Once he was done, Tony threw his towel in the general direction of the sink. He missed by a couple feet but Steve didn't comment on him making a mess – he would just come back and hang it out to dry once Tony was in the bedroom.
Knowing what was next on the agenda, Tony focused on walking again. It went rather well although he still needed Steve's support. He selected sweatpants and a hoodie to wear, both easy to get on without assistance. Steve had gone to collect his uniform from the bathroom – and true to form, hung Tony's wet towel on a heated rail. He took his time before poking his head into the bedroom, noting that Tony had managed to slip into his clothes.
"Give me a moment to dress and I'll come get you," Steve said and left, the borrowed towel still snug around his hips.
Tony didn't crack a joke about Steve seeing him naked before taking him out on a date, instead taking the brief moment to regain his strength before Steve returned, dressed in a simple shirt and pants. He helped Tony up again so that all of Tony's energy wouldn't be used to achieve that, and worked as his living crutch all the way to the living room.
"Couch," Tony decided. "Maybe I'll get some work done while you cook."
Steve directed them to Tony's favorite spot, helped him sit down, moved his tablet a bit closer from where it had been left the last time he stopped using it, and Tony settled into the most comfortable position he could find while Steve busied himself in the kitchen, measuring the water to boil for the pasta and taking the chicken out of the fridge.
While the super soldier puttered around in the kitchen, Tony caught up on a few messages from Pepper concerning Stark Industries, checked news feeds with special filters for anything Avengers-related – then got a call.
"Hi, Jan," he replied, accepting the video call.
"Hi, Tony!" Jan enthused. "I think this is the first time you've actually accepted my call."
Tony thought about it and she was probably right. "I've been busy," he said – which was mostly true. Also, he had been feeling so crappy that he didn't want to deal with another human being, especially any of the fellow Avengers who weren't already on the premises.
"You look good," Jan noted.
Tony smiled a little. He knew he didn't, really, because he didn't take as much time to look like 'Tony Stark' these days. His hair was still sticking up after the shower, he hadn't shaved properly in a few days, but he supposed there weren't dark circles around his eyes and living with Steve Rogers ensured that he was better fed than ever. "Thanks. How are things over there?"
"Oh, you know, the usual. We rounded up some villains who attempted to form a new and improved Serpent Society – nothing 'improved' about those guys, let me tell you – and save for a couple of old faces and one small break-out from Hydro-Base, it's been slow. We miss you," she added, looking hopeful. "When are you and Steve coming back?"
"I can't speak for Cap, but…" Tony wished he could give her an answer – any answer – but he knew he wasn't ready yet. Today had shown him that more clearly than most events of the last month.
His face must have fallen because Jan instantly changed tactics: "Cheer up, Tony! Maybe we could come and see you?"
"It would be fun," Jan went on. "I mean, Steve's fun, too, but… You know how he is."
Tony's thoughts shot to various different versions of how Steve was, and he started slightly when suddenly the man leaned over the back of the couch to look at the tablet's screen.
"Hello, Wasp," Steve greeted. "Everything okay in New York?"
"Yup," Jan said brightly. "Don't feel like that should keep you from heading back or anything."
"We won't," Steve replied. Tony wasn't sure if it was just him, or could everyone tell this was Steve's dismissive tone, like he wanted the discussion to end. "Food's almost ready," he said in a lower tone, meant for Tony, but Jan heard it, too.
"I won't keep you," she promised. "Take care of Tony, Cap!"
"I will," Steve promised.
Tony rolled his eyes pointedly then disconnected the call. He held the tablet in his lap for a bit longer, wondering how long they could keep this up.
"They're doing okay," Steve told him. "Don't worry."
"I'm not worried about them," Tony replied and tossed the tablet onto the table.
"Good," Steve agreed and waited for Tony to move himself to the edge of the couch; clearly he was waiting to see whether Tony could stand up on his own.
He did, and even took a couple steps before he felt like maybe he needed a little support after all, and Steve's arm was right there, waiting for him, offering him all the support he could want.
Tony curled his fingers around the strong forearm and made a beeline for the kitchen table, proud of himself for not needing more help than that to get there. Perhaps it was going to be a good day after all, despite the disappointment when it came to testing the armor.
Steve was convinced Tony was getting better, even when on some days it felt like they were slipping back downhill after making so much progress. Tony also put too much pressure on himself, which caused some of the setbacks, but it was hard to stop him from trying to achieve something he wanted, especially when it was potentially within his grasp.
Jan's call hadn't been unexpected, but Steve tried to gauge Tony's mood extra hard afterward, to see whether it affected him in some undesired way. A reminder of the existence of the Avengers always held a potential trigger, especially if Tony felt like he should be in New York with the team – or that Steve should.
The choice to stay in Malibu was Steve's and Steve's alone, however. If the team really needed him, he would join them in battle, but until then – and after that – he would be here, with Tony, because it seemed to work better than any other alternative they had tried.
After Tony had tried training with the suit on, Steve sensed a definite change. Mostly it had nothing to do with the failed exercise but what happened later in Tony's bathroom. In the days that followed, Tony was less edgy in a lot of ways and didn't give Steve as much shit when he felt exposed. It was as if they had reached a level where it was okay for Tony to be vulnerable in front of Steve in ways that would have made most people squirm and cast down their eyes.
It was good Steve wasn't the squirming type, then.
Frankly, he cherished that moment in the tub. As he had told Tony, he missed having a chance to connect with another person, and while this was the worst possible time and Steve was possibly abusing Tony's vulnerability, he and Tony were bonding over this experience. It would make them closer in so many ways, once it was over, and in spite of or possibly despite all their past and continuing arguments, Steve regarded Tony as his best friend.
It was easy to tell that Tony also craved closeness with someone, because any small gesture Steve made that wasn't directly necessary for their training and him aiding Tony with his daily routines, Tony greedily accepted. Steve hadn't noticed that before and wasn't sure whether it was caused by Tony's condition and the isolation the other man forced upon himself because of it, or if it was something that had always been there but Tony had been more careful to cover it up.
Either way, in the small interval of three days since their shared bath, the dynamic between them was already beginning to change and Steve was determined to say it was for the better. They sat closer to each other and if Tony wasn't upset about something – in which case he wouldn't be sitting with Steve in the first place – they would eventually drift into holding hands and leaning into each other even more. Steve knew it wasn't romantic, but the simple gesture of closeness gave them both comfort that sharing a joke or bumping fists could never compare to.
It was during their morning workout on the fourth day when it became painfully apparent that Steve was as greedy as Tony – if not more so – when it came to the desire to connect.
They had done some yoga and pilates and Steve was currently keeping Tony's legs still as the other man did sit-ups. Steve's hands rested on Tony's knees as the rest of his body kept his feet pinned to the floor, and every now and then when Tony came up, his eyes would seek out Steve's as if asking whether he had sweated enough. Up and down he went, feet shaking a little beneath Steve, but his movements were graceful and controlled, which was a good sign.
"Slow down, keep it steady," Steve instructed, and Tony did, gasping and huffing; faster would have been easier, but this way Tony had to pay attention to every little inch his body moved to hold it in position. A frown grew on Tony's forehead; his arms shifted on both sides of his head, shoulders tightening with exertion.
"Almost there," Steve told him. "Ten more, then we're done. Keep it slow."
"Easy for you to say, sitting there all smug," Tony complained then focused on breathing and lifting his upper body off the floor.
After number four, Tony hesitated before moving up again, clearly exhausted. Steve knew he could let it go but he had said ten and Tony would be upset if he didn't reach that goal. "Don't let yourself stop," he encouraged, and Tony moved up again, barely resisting the temptation to just yank himself there, and Steve smiled proudly, seeing how much effort Tony put into it. "That's five; you're half-way there."
"I can do the math," Tony groaned as he lowered himself down again and halted long enough to interrupt the smooth up-and-down movement.
"We're not done yet," Steve told him, like he would tell one of his soldiers or the Avengers while training – like he would have told Tony back when they sparred together.
Tony started lifting himself up again, stayed there, deciding it was better to rest there than on the floor where it was too tempting to just lie down and not finish the sit-ups.
"Only four left," Steve said, tone lower, and leaned forward.
Tony nodded minutely and sank back down, his feet shifting just a little beneath Steve. It was clearly becoming a struggle, the closer the finish line loomed, but Tony didn't stop this time, face tight as he pulled up. Seven, eight, nine… Steve squeezed Tony's knees before the other man pulled himself up for the last time, and Tony let out a huff of relief once he got there, leaning forward, arms sinking down instantly. Their foreheads were barely an inch apart and Steve leaned in the last little bit, his skin coming into contact with the heat of Tony's sweaty forehead.
The brown eyes met his, an exhausted smile appearing on Tony's lips, and that undid something inside Steve, luring him to align his head and touch Tony's panting lips with his own. Tony's lips stilled instantly, as did his breathing, and Steve knew he had crossed a line. He drew back, just a few inches, regretting his actions but not wanting to run away because of it either; it would be better to apologize now, to get this sorted out, and get back to their workout.
Tony's hand appeared on his arm, a steady weight of warmth, tired from the physical exertion. It was a sharp reminder that Tony depended on him, so much, and Steve should not abuse the trust placed in him. Just because they had enjoyed other privileges of becoming closer did not mean he could insert something so sexual into their friendship. After all, that was how most people saw kissing, and he knew about Tony's reputation.
"Steve," Tony spoke up, forcing Steve to acknowledge him, to look at him. "What was that?"
"A kiss," Steve admitted. No reason to lie about it.
"More like a peck if you ask me," Tony raised one eyebrow at him in challenge.
"I shouldn't have," Steve admitted.
"But you did anyway."
He nodded, ashamed of himself. That wasn't the worst of it, for he feared how Tony would see him from now on. This small thing could not be erased and it would hang between them always…
Tony's fingers tightened around his arm. "Hey," he started again, "it's not… I would say it's not a big deal, but it kind of is, to me."
Steve met his eyes with alarm. "I didn't mean to force it upon you –"
"Caught me by surprise, sure, but if you were forcing me, I would have JARVIS beating you up with one of my suits right now," Tony told him.
"Would you like me to, sir?" JARVIS asked politely.
"No," Tony rolled his eyes and then looked steadily at Steve. "I'm going to lay out two theories here. You're allowed to add more, if neither of them is correct. One: the kiss was some kind of pent-up sexual frustration. Two: this has to do with what we talked about in the bath; about connecting and being close to a person."
"These are your two options?" Steve asked, daring to smile a bit.
"I think I would have noticed if you were harboring some weird crush on me," Tony informed him. "I notice it when people are checking me out. You haven't. And, for the record, you've probably seen me naked more than any other person in this world, including my parents."
Steve didn't focus on the jibe at Tony's 'clusterfuck of a childhood', as Tony so fondly called it sometimes. "I would say option two is pretty accurate," he admitted.
Tony nodded in acknowledgment.
"Are you… disappointed?" It was hard to tell, and Steve was now starting to consider whether the real problem wasn't the kiss but the fact that they might want different things after it.
"Not really," Tony answered. "I'm… I've had my share of one-nighters, affairs and quickies in dark corners. I rarely miss any of that. It was meaningless at best, but it got me a reputation and I was happy to roll with it." Steve wondered what he was getting at, but waited patiently as Tony organized his thoughts into something that would hopefully make sense to the super soldier. "Afghanistan changed a lot of things. I'm not so… keen on putting myself out there again. Not just because of this," he motioned at the arc reactor with the hand that wasn't still resting on Steve's arm, "but I find it just isn't worth the risk of exposing myself like that, with so many people gunning for me. No reason to make myself an easy target."
Which was an odd thing coming from a man who was famous for putting himself out there for people to take a shot at him. Usually he was wearing his armor for that kind of occasion, though, and perhaps that was what made the difference.
"So, what I'm getting at, sort of," Tony went on again, clearly coming closer to the heart of the matter, "I miss it, sometimes. The little things. And for once I'm not talking about sex," he clarified, which made Steve suppress a chuckle; he didn't want to make this into a joke even though Tony was. "I like this whole thing we've been doing," he motioned vaguely at their surroundings, but Steve knew he meant everything that had happened since their bath. "And I like kissing. Well, I like it with most people. Did like it. I think I would enjoy it with you – just like I enjoy the other stuff." He looked a little awkward for a bit, as if he weren't sure how exactly to say it. "Is that okay?" he finally asked, looking a little lost.
"That's more than okay," Steve replied. "I'm not… I don't think I'm looking for all those things people do these days. The sex," he added, because he wanted to be clear where Tony had been vague. "Maybe, eventually, but this isn't about that." He tried to spot any disappointment in Tony's expression, to see whether Tony wasn't being completely honest with him, but either the man hid it very well or there was no deception. "I would like to kiss you again," he added. "If that's not too much…"
"I think we've established it isn't – or, it depends, because I intend to kiss you in a way that can actually be called a 'kiss'," Tony grinned at him mischievously, then dropped the expression and inched forward a little. Steve was still sitting on his legs so he couldn't move far, and Steve closed the distance between them.
Tony's right hand still remained on Steve's arm, whereas the left slid across Steve's temple and into his hair, stroking softly as their lips pressed together again. It was better, lasted longer, and while Steve had been afraid Tony would insist on that whole tongue-thing, none of that happened. However, it was more intense than Steve's innocent peck, as Tony had called it, and far more satisfying.
"Convinced?" Tony asked when they drew apart after a good eight seconds.
"Yes," Steve smiled and then squeezed Tony's knees and lifted himself off the floor. Tony sat there for a bit then leaned over to get his water bottle while Steve proceeded to work on a punching bag for a bit. He had rarely enjoyed a workout so much, his spirits high and expectations even higher. He and Tony were on the same wavelength, wanting the same things, and as long as that remained unchanged… well, his future seemed far less gloomy and lonely.
"Sir," JARVIS spoke up suddenly, "a Quinjet is approaching the house, asking for permission to land."
Steve froze mid-punch and met Tony's gaze.
"A Quinjet? Is something wrong?" Tony asked the AI.
"Nothing seems to be the matter," JARVIS replied, then remained silent for a few seconds. "Are they cleared for approach, sir?" the AI retuned, prompting Tony for an answer.
"Sure," Tony agreed. "Direct them to the second helipad. It's a bit more… out of sight."
"Very well, sir."
Steve drew back from the punching bag, resting his hands on his waist. "Why are they here?" he mused.
"No idea," Tony replied. "Maybe there's a crisis Jan didn't tell us about." He slowly got to his feet, leaning on the wall until he found his balance. "I bet we'll find out soon enough."
'Soon enough' was approximately three minutes later when the Quinjet had landed and the Avengers had rounded the building to find the main entrance.
Jan was the first to approach once JARVIS opened the door for them, shouting, "Surprise!"
Tony barely suppressed his groan. "What are you doing here?"
"Visiting our fearless leader – and you," Clint said as he, too, stepped inside. Carol and Thor followed him, both looking around with obvious interest.
"My friends!" Thor exclaimed, dropping Mjolnir to the floor. It left a dent, making Steve grimace. "It is good to see you." He marched forward, clearly to gather both Steve and Tony in a hug, and Steve immediately placed a hand on the Asgardian's chest, not wanting him to upset Tony's precarious balance. Thor blinked, then simply clasped Steve's arm in a mighty grip. "You look well, Captain."
"As does Tony," Jan hurried to say. "Way better than the last time we saw you in person, at the hospital." It was a poorly veiled accusation that Tony had been ignoring them, and Steve felt his previously good mood plummet.
"Well, now you've seen us and we're doing fine," Tony replied. "Are you staying long?"
"A few days at least," Carol replied, "unless something comes up."
Tony nodded. "Where are you staying? I know a couple great hotels in town –"
"We're staying here, of course," Jan grinned and then changed into her small, winged form, flying excitedly around the foyer, kitchen and living room. "This place is so awesome!"
Tony was clearly fighting between being a good host and falling back to the rude routine he had become accustomed to since he got out of the hospital and returned home. "Great," he finally lied through his teeth. Carol raised an eyebrow and if Clint noticed, he didn't care, striding forward to take a look, too.
"JARVIS, prep the guest house," Tony finally admitted defeat.
"If you don't want us here," Carol started.
"It's not that," Tony cut her off. "Mi casa es su casa, and all that. We were just… not prepared for visitors, is all."
"We brought enough food to feast tonight," Thor promised. "Now, let us explore Iron Man's humble abode." He walked off to join Jan and Clint, and Tony muttered something about going to shower.
Steve wasn't sure what to do or say, but he could already feel that the carefully constructed balance he and Tony had come to appreciate during Tony's recovery was beginning to falter.
Steve's arrival had been bad enough, in the beginning, but Tony had learned to accept it – and then accepted it some more as time passed. Of all the people in his life, it was entirely possible that the only person who could have ever gained access to Tony's most vulnerable state was Steve Rogers.
Steve had become his rock, in many ways – a heavy weight to drag around and a solid surface to lean on when he could no longer support himself. They had a good thing going, even before the bath and the confessions at the gym. Tony had actually looked forward to what came next, now that it was all mostly out in the open between them – but that was before four members of their team decided to drop by for a visit.
Tony was in turmoil, unable to be enough of a dick to tell their visitors to leave. He had expected Steve to tell him it would be good for him to socialize, but that hadn't happened yet. Maybe Steve, too, felt like their teammates were intruding on their life. At least they were staying in the guest house that was attached to the main building but gave them a little space from the visitors.
Not that it mattered much, because when Tony showed up after showering and taking a moment to get his bearings, he found the other Avengers were breaking in the pool that sat outside. They had also found refreshments and fruit, looking every bit as touristy as one might expect. Even Thor was wearing colorful swimming trunks, which meant someone – probably Jan – had instructed him on what to wear in a place like Malibu.
"Cool house, Stark," Clint told him, sipping a drink before pulling himself up from the pool, moving over to a diving board where he made a graceful dive with a one-and-a-half-somersault back into the water.
Thor looked delighted at this. "You must teach me," he ordered Clint, and Tony watched the archer explain the springboard to the Asgardian. Thor, apparently, had dived down from many high cliffs, but anything fancier than that had never seemed to occur to him, and there were many mighty splashes when he fell face first into the water.
"Get into the pool with us," Jan encouraged Tony after a bit. She was drifting around on a colorful pool toy air mattress she must have brought with her because it certainly wasn't Tony's.
"I'm okay," Tony told her.
"Come on," Carol encouraged. "Get in here. I'll go and get Cap," she added and got out of the water. The swim suit she was wearing complemented her body as she grabbed her towel and walked inside to find their missing teammate.
"Hey, Stark!" Clint called out. "You know how to jump, right?"
Tony stiffened a bit. "Yeah, I suppose. Not my thing, though." He tapped his chest absently; people usually thought he meant the arc reactor somehow prevented him from doing whatever they were asking him to do, and Tony was happy to not correct them. Well, diving might actually be bad for the device – or rather, what was left of his sternum, if he tried to do anything fancy like a somersault.
"Come on, Tony: you have this pool sitting here; don't tell me you don't like swimming," Jan tried to lure him in again.
"I'm a rich guy with some of the most expensive property in the area. I don't need to like swimming to have a pool," Tony informed her.
"Maybe he's afraid of water," Clint joked. "Fears his chest piece will short-circuit."
"That's… crude," Jan pointed out to the archer, then paddled her air mattress a bit closer to Tony's side of the pool. "Come on. We just want to spend a little time with you, that's all. It's good for the team, right? And good for you," she added. "I know how Hank gets sometimes. He needs to be pulled out of his lab by his ear and made to socialize, otherwise he would stay in there forever."
Tony so wasn't Hank Pym, everyone knew that, but he knew how it went and supposed that if he played along, his team would feel compelled to leave sooner. He went back in to change into a pair of swimming shorts and returned to the pool. Carol still wasn't back but Thor had almost mastered using the board without it leaving him smashing uncontrollably into the water. Clint showed off when Thor had swum out of the way, then noticed Tony.
"Your turn," Clint called out and Tony walked over. The tiles were damp and slippery, which made his slower-than-usual gait appear normal. He gave the board a careful look, then carefully stepped on top of it. Once he was half-way down its length, he began to feel it bending beneath his weight and he stopped to steady his balance.
"Go on," Thor grinned at him from below. "It is not so difficult."
Tony nodded stiffly, eyeing the end of the board. He took a step forward, sliding his hand along the railing, but eventually the railing ended and he was left with nothing to hold onto. Putting one foot in front of the other, carefully, he made it to the very tip of the board without falling off, which was a great accomplishment.
Clint snickered at him. "Is it the heights or the water, Stark?"
Tony's fingers tightened into fists. The water wasn't that far, but it was too deep for him to reach the bottom once he was in. He hadn't even tried swimming since his accident and realized perhaps he should have taken a dip in the pool before climbing up here.
"Come, friend Tony," Thor encouraged – then reached up and grabbed the board, making it wiggle. Whether it was intentional or not, Tony didn't know, but he instantly lost his balance and barely managed to fall feet first instead of simply splashing in.
The rush of water in his ears deafened all sounds, and after his momentum ended and his hurried exhalation of air came to a halt, he stopped moving and opened his eyes. A special compound designed by him kept the pool clean, which was why his eyes didn't sting from chlorine. His vision was blurred and although it occurred to him that he should probably swim back up, he floated for a bit, enjoying the feeling of weightlessness. No struggling to stay upright, dragging his feet, measuring each step.
It was peaceful up until the moment he needed to breathe, and he realized his toes couldn't reach the bottom of the pool to kick himself up to the surface.
Steve showered and changed quickly after Tony went to do the same. He heard, distantly, the four Avengers take off to the guest house once JARVIS had everything set for them, and wondered how long they were going to stay.
He knew it was highly unlikely that Tony would agree to do any exercises with them around; Pepper – and Rhodey, when he occasionally dropped by – were the only exceptions to that rule – if there was a rule to begin with. Either way, Steve was deeply unhappy about the interruption. He couldn't just go and tell his teammates to leave, though, after they had come all this way, no doubt meaning well.
A part of him suggested that perhaps he was upset because he and Tony had progressed in their personal relationship today, and with the interruption, any exploration of that seemed highly unlikely as well.
"It can wait a few days," Steve told himself and sat down on the bed, wondering what he should do.
His first instinct was to go out there and make sure Tony was okay, but he knew his presence would be seen as hovering, by Tony more than most, and where it was usually accepted by the injured man, Steve knew him well enough to anticipate that Tony didn't want to show weakness in front of the other Avengers.
Which meant it might be for the best that Steve stay in his room for a bit because he could not just switch off the way he was naturally helping Tony around these days.
Eventually, though, he got hungry enough to leave his room, and that was when Carol found him in the kitchen while he was making himself a sandwich – as well as one for Tony, out of habit.
"Hey," the woman greeted him.
"Do you want something to eat?" Steve asked.
"I'm good," Carol replied and leaned against the counter. "How are things with Tony? He looks better."
"He is better," Steve admitted.
"But not good enough to return to New York," she guessed.
"That's… You should talk to him about it," Steve hedged.
"Which means he isn't ready and even you know it," she deadpanned. "How much longer are you going to keep this up?"
"As long as it takes," Steve replied at once.
"If he's better then you don't need to be here all the time. Maybe that's why he isn't getting better faster," she suggested. "I'm not saying you're making it worse, but sometimes we smother people without knowing we're doing it."
"Speaking from personal experience?" Steve asked, raising an eyebrow.
"No, but –"
"I know I can be of help to Tony, right now, right here. When that's no longer a fact I'll re-evaluate the situation."
Carol nodded stiffly. "Alright. I guess that's fair."
Steve went back to making his sandwiches then put them on two plates. "Have you seen Tony?" he asked.
"He's at the pool with the others. You should join us," she invited him along and Steve picked up the food and followed her out. When they got there, Clint and Thor were laughing about something at the edge of the pool while Jan floated around on top of some kind of pool lounge.
He couldn't see Tony anywhere.
Setting the plates down on a table that stood in the shade of a parasol, Steve took another look around but still couldn't locate Tony anywhere. "Where's Tony?" he finally asked.
"Somewhere in there," Clint pointed at the water. "Probably hiding away after his spectacular fall from the board."
Steve's eyes took in the diving board for a fraction of a second before he looked at the water in front of it. With the sun and rippling water, it was hard to be sure if the shadow he thought he saw was a body or just his imagination. "How long has he been under?" Steve asked, voice louder as he began moving towards the pool.
"Not that long. Chill," Clint told him, but his demeanor was cracking a bit and he shifted to look at where Tony must have disappeared. "He can swim, right?"
Tony could swim, Steve knew that much, but whether he was able to…
He didn't think, diving into the water instead, not bothering to strip his clothes. Once under the surface he spotted Tony at once, and there was no mistaking the desperate, slightly panicked expression on his face. He wasn't moving, wasn't even trying to kick up, just floating there, his feet just outside the reach of the pool's bottom.
Steve swam over and grabbed at Tony's arm; he felt Tony tense at the touch before he hoisted them both up. He heard Tony's loud inhale of air as soon as they broke the surface. Clint and Thor were no longer laughing. Without thinking about it, Steve wrapped an arm around Tony and swam to the nearest edge of the pool, pushing Tony to the tiled edge, out of harm's way. "What were you thinking?" Steve asked, fighting to keep his voice down.
Tony coughed and looked at him, expression dark, face pale. "I was swimming."
"It looked like drowning," Steve argued.
"I didn't need you to go all Baywatch on me," the brunette argued, trying to sit up. Steve could see he was shaking.
"Is he okay?" Clint asked carefully.
"No, he isn't!" Steve shouted at him, then turned his attention back to Tony. "Why would you even try to jump?"
Tony set his jaw. His eyes darkened, and Steve was instantly back to their first days together, Tony fighting him every step of the way, hurt and unable to cope with his new limitations. He was losing all the progress they had made, in this very moment, and Steve had no idea how to fix that.
"I'm fine," Tony finally snapped at him and moved to get up, but his foot slipped, landing him back on his ass. Someone might have thought it was just the wet tile, but Steve knew better.
Steve started pulling himself out of the pool. "Let me –"
"I said I'm fine, Rogers."
Hours ago, they had been perfectly in synch, but Steve knew he was losing Tony right now, perhaps for good. The problem was, there was no way Tony was getting out of this and saving face. He couldn't keep sitting here on the edge of the pool until he regained enough control to get up and go inside. If Steve didn't help him, Tony would be backed even further into a corner, and he must have realized that, too, because his expression shut down and he refused to look at anyone.
"Uh," Jan started, paddling closer on her mattress. "I'm getting a feeling that something serious is going on."
"It's okay, Jan," Steve dropped his voice, searching for smoothness instead of the razor-sharp edge he wanted to give them for intruding on his and Tony's attempt to get Tony better. "Maybe you guys should go start that feast Thor mentioned."
"It would seem something else is afoot," Thor started.
"Let's just do as the man says, okay?" Clint said, probably not wanting Steve to snap at him for a second time; the archer was smart and must have realized letting Tony into the pool had been a mistake.
"Are you guys going to be okay out here?" Jan asked, moving to the edge and pulling herself out of the pool.
"Yeah," Steve nodded and watched them all slowly move back into the house. They would probably go change in the guest house, which left them with a small window to get Tony to his room. "Let's move," Steve decided.
Tony gave him a mulish look, as if he hadn't yet forgiven Steve. The blond pulled himself rest of the way out of the pool, though, stood up, and then offered Tony his hands. Tony made his decision in two seconds, grabbing onto Steve hands and allowing himself to be hoisted to his feet.
Whether it was the near-drowning or something else, it had definitely drained Tony, and Steve ended up supporting almost all his weight to the door. "JARVIS," Steve spoke up, listening carefully, "where are the other Avengers?"
"They have gone to the guest house to change before dinner preparations, Captain," the AI replied. "All of them are expressing concern over Mr. Stark's condition."
"Great," Tony muttered, then sagged a bit in Steve's hold. "Okay, I think you'll have to carry me," he confessed, which didn't happen often. "I can't really feel my legs right now."
Steve didn't wait for him to go on, picking him up and padding through the house, getting to Tony's room without seeing or hearing another soul. He sat Tony down on the bed where the man lay back like a dead fish, breathing deeply. Steve knew Tony probably wanted to be alone right now but it didn't feel like the right thing to do, knowing that he was too tired to move on his own.
"Leave," Tony told him after a while.
"I would rather not," Steve confessed.
"You're dripping all over my floor," Tony pointed out, as if that were why.
"I'm sorry I snapped at Clint like that," Steve said quickly. "I should have chosen my words better instead of –"
"What, implying that I'm a fucking mess?" Tony interrupted him, voice cracking at the end, and Steve knew Tony was close to tears before he even looked at his face.
"It will get better," Steve promised him, like so often before.
Tony's lips trembled and he chose to say nothing, fighting not to cry in front of him. Steve knew it ate at Tony, whenever he did, but Steve didn't want to leave him alone like this.
"Let me help you," Steve pleaded.
"You can't," Tony told him, first tears escaping his eyes. "You can't do a damn thing, Rogers. You can't fix me."
"No, but you can –"
"You should have let me drown," Tony said suddenly. It didn't look like he meant it, not really – not when Steve had seen him under water, close to panicking before he reached Tony's arm. The fact that Tony said it out loud, though, spoke volumes of the lingering darkness in Tony's psyche that surfaced every now and then.
There were a million things to say to that, for sure, but Steve couldn't think of a single one. Later, certainly, he would figure it out, but right now he moved onto the bed and gathered Tony into his arms, holding onto him tightly. "Never," he whispered into Tony's wet hair and listened as Tony's shaky breathes grew and then diminished again against the wet material of his shirt.
By the time Steve loosened his hold on Tony, the other man had fallen asleep. Knowing Tony needed the rest, he carefully moved him to a better position on the bed, then covered him with the sheet. He didn't remove his wet shorts, not wanting to touch Tony like that without his knowledge, and slowly moved out of the room. "Let me know when he wakes up," he called out and went to his own room.
"Of course, Captain Rogers," JARVIS replied.
Steve went to change again, then headed out to the kitchen, knowing he had to face his team sooner rather than later. When he got there, the four Avengers were gathered in the kitchen but not yet working on the dinner. Perhaps they didn't feel at home in the strange kitchen or sensed that they needed to have a talk with Steve and Tony about what had happened at the pool.
"Where's Tony?" Jan asked when they noticed Steve.
"Asleep," he replied simply. He didn't want to elaborate and knew Tony wouldn't want him to, either.
"I think it's time we got some real answers," Clint spoke up next. "What's going on with him?"
"Tony is recovering from a brain injury," Steve stated flatly. "In case you forgot, he got hurt in battle."
"We haven't forgotten," Jan reassured him. "It's just that, he looked fine. We thought that by now…"
"His injury is of a deceptive kind," Thor murmured.
"He's a human being," Steve snapped. "These things take time. They also take finesse, determination and a lot of effort."
"We're not the enemy," Carol snapped back at him. "We're here to support you, but instead you're acting like we're the problem."
Steve felt guilty, but not by much. He had to put Tony first. His actions – his failure in battle – had led them here, and whether it was his responsibility or not, it was the right thing to do to help Tony if he could. "Tony didn't handle his shortcomings well, even before this," he explained. "Right now it's all amplified, and any small thing can set him off. Some days are better than others. I'm sure he would love to have you here, but this isn't the right time."
"For you or for him?" Clint asked, crossing his arms over his chest. "I get it that you feel like you put him in that hospital bed, but you're part of this team, too, and with Tony out of the picture, you're our leader."
Steve was glad he didn't have his shield on him because he might have smashed Clint's teeth in with it. "I'll be there if I'm needed," he told him as he had told them all before. "If the Avengers need Captain America, I'll be there. Until then, I know where my place is."
"Do you?" Clint challenged.
"Drop it," Carol advised him. "We pretty much had that discussion already. It didn't lead anywhere."
Steve gave her a quick look, uncertain how to take her comment.
"Let us help you – both of you," Jan asked, changing and flying over. "You look so tired, Steve. When was the last time you slept?"
"Last night," Steve told her. "I'm fine. Today has just been… a very long day," he admitted. He didn't clarify that the day had actually been progressing rather nicely until the four of them arrived, because that would just put more bad blood between them all.
"So, what do you want us to do? Leave?" Clint asked. "And if that's what Stark wants, why can't he just come out and say so? I know he has the balls to do it."
"What he used to do doesn't matter right now," Steve said, weary of this conversation. "Right now I think it's best if you –"
"Pardon me, Avengers," JARVIS cut them off. "There is an incoming distress call from the Avengers Mansion. Dr. Doom is attacking the city, the Fantastic Four are unreachable at present time and the attack is quite wide-spread. The Black Panther is requesting hat you head back at once – including you, Captain."
Steve knew T'Challa wouldn't ask him to join the ranks if it wasn't necessary. The man wasn't here now, which was either coincidental or purposeful, and Steve imagined the Panther knew Tony needed space more than support from his team, no matter how well-meaning.
"We're on our way," Carol responded and looked at the others. "Get your stuff. We're taking off in ten minutes." She looked at Steve next. "It's your call, but I think we'll need you on this one."
Steve sighed and nodded. "Ten minutes," he replied and turned to go to his room, grabbing his gear, then went to see Tony. The other man was still asleep, just as Steve had left him, and he didn't have the heart to wake him up. "JARVIS, when Tony wakes up, tell him I had to go."
"Of course, Captain."
"Tell him I'm… I'll come back, as soon as I can," he added.
"Also, tell Ms. Potts that I had to leave. I think it would be best if she stayed here until this thing with Doom gets sorted out," Steve decided.
"Be at ease, Captain: Mr. Stark will be looked after while you are gone. Best of luck in battle."
"Thanks," Steve replied dryly, then brushed his fingers carefully through Tony's drying locks before he left, closing the door silently behind him.
The others were already in the Quinjet when Steve arrived, Jan sighing at her seat by the window. "I was really looking forward to lying in the sun all day," she complained.
"Another time," Carol replied, then caught Steve's eyes quickly before closing the ramp and starting the engines. "Buckle up. We're flying home at top speed. Get ready for battle when we land."
Steve wondered what they needed him for, with both Carol and T'Challa present.
Battle was different than giving orders outside it, though, and he sat down for the take-off, hand clutching the edge of his shield tightly.
Tony would understand he had to go.
It didn't mean Steve had to feel good about it.
When Tony woke up, the house was silent. While Steve was a quiet individual, Tony could tell when he was around. He wasn't having that feeling anymore and sat up fast, wondering what was wrong.
"Sir," JARVIS started.
"Where is everyone?" Tony asked.
"Captain Rogers joined the other Avengers to battle Dr. Doom in New York City. The Captain left me with instructions to tell you –"
"They called Steve back to fight?" Tony frowned, dismissing whatever Steve had told his AI to tell him. "How bad is it?"
"It would seem the Avengers are holding their own for the time being, but the level of destruction is higher than usual."
Tony reached over to open a bedside drawer and found one of his many tablets inside. Finding several news clips, YouTube videos and real-time feeds wasn't hard, and JARVIS' evaluation had been correct: the battlefield was too wide-spread to be easily contained, the Avengers too thinly spread.
Just because they were one man short didn't necessarily mean anything, but Tony could immediately see a lot of places where he could be making a difference.
"Captain Rogers said he would return once the battle was over," JARVIS informed him, no doubt relaying the message he had already tried to deliver once.
"No need," Tony decided and shut down the tablet then moved to the edge of the bed and stood up so quickly he barely remembered to worry about balance issues or weakness. He went to the wardrobe, opened a specific door and pulled out one of the undersuits he wore with his armor.
"Sir," JARVIS started again.
"Prep the armor," Tony ordered. JARVIS would know which one.
"Is this a good idea?" the AI dared to ask as Tony wrestled into the undersuit, managed to zip it up then set out towards the workshop.
"That's for both of us to find out," Tony said, feeling less shaky than usual as he reached the armory section of his workshop and watched the armor power up. Perhaps it was the adrenaline or he was moving too fast for his brain to catch up. Whatever the reason, it helped him to step into the armor and activate the pre-flight sequence. "Plan the fastest route to New York. Keep me posted on the battle."
"Preparing for supersonic acceleration once we reach the proper altitude," JARVIS replied and Tony started the thrusters just as the ceiling opened up above him to let the armor take off. He felt the familiar tremble of the suit that didn't calm him as much as it used to, and Tony knew he was tenser than he should have been as he aimed for the proper trajectory. JARVIS adjusted the angle, the flaps, and then the thrusters really got to work, boosting him forward once they had a clear flight pattern ahead of them.
It took Tony a little over an hour to reach the other side of the continent and to say his teeth felt like falling off when he slowed down dozens of miles outside New York City was an understatement. His jaw was cramping, not to mention several other body parts, and while he had flown longer distances, he had never been this uneasy during those times. He had been continuously aware of how any small movement could drop him out of the sky – just as he knew that for his own safety, JARVIS would keep him from doing just that. The knowledge, however, was enough to make him want for extra air once he dropped below the clouds and arched towards the signs of battle, but he had no time to take a steadying breath.
"Sir, shall I announce your arrival to the other Avengers?"
"Not yet," Tony replied – just in case he needed that breather after all. He didn't want to get anyone's hopes up, especially his own, but he had come here to join the others in a fight and by God he would get there, one way or another.
As he moved lower between the buildings, allowing JARVIS to do most of the guiding through spaces that were too narrow to navigate at his current speed without some extra help, Tony soon realized he would have to join the battle much sooner than he had anticipated: a mass that had to be a mangled Doombot came flying up from street level, almost colliding with him. JARVIS made a quick evasive move and spun them lower, just so that Tony could jerk to the side as another similar bundle of metal came flying up.
"Hey!" he called out angrily. "Way to greet the cavalry."
"You shouldn't be here," the Hulk growled at him – just as he punched in another Doombot, stomped on it, then crunched it into a ball between the pair of his mighty green hands and tossed the remnants of the Doombot at another three trying to shoot him down.
"Thanks for the welcome," Tony muttered to himself.
The green beast looked up although Tony hadn't connected himself to the Avengers' comm system just yet. "There are Doombots for you to blast," the Hulk informed him then. "These are mine," he pointed at the advancing force.
"Got it," Tony replied and flew off, finally logging onto the Avengers' frequency – his ears immediately filled with the usual battle chatter, from commentary to cries of pain and curses of anger from the various members of the team. It took him a while to orient himself to it, to not become overwhelmed – seriously, how long had he been out of the line of fire? – and Tony rounded a couple buildings to end up in the middle of a shooting gallery between Ms. Marvel, the Wasp, Yellowjacket and what looked like an almost overwhelming amount of Doombots.
"Tony!" Jan called out instantly, almost getting shot as she waved at him, then froze. "What are you doing here?"
"Helping you guys out," Tony replied then took full control of the armor, turned towards the Doombots and fired. He eliminated a dozen of them at once, but the rest of them returned fire, focusing on him, and the blasts threw him back and to the ground, sending him into an ungraceful roll.
"Tony, is that you?" Steve's voice appeared in his ears.
"Reporting for duty, Cap," Tony groaned as he tried to stand up. He got blasted in the hip by one of the robots, though, which upset his balance. Another blast hit him in the shoulder and it may have been his imagination or his arm was getting a little numb.
"Get out of the way!" Yellowjacket shouted at him, moving closer. "On the other hand, stay right there: you make a good target for them, giving the rest of us time to shoot them down."
"Hank!" Jan snapped at him. "Tony, do you need help?"
"I'm fine," Tony growled, pushing himself up – only to get shot right in the face by one of the robots and for a moment he saw nothing at all, everything going dark. Whether it was the HUD or his brain, he didn't know, but the next time he blinked and was actually aware of his surroundings, he was on his back, Wasp hovering above him, shooting her stingers at something or someone Tony could not see.
"Cap's on his way," Jan noted as Tony lifted his head.
"I'm fine," Tony told her. "The shot overloaded my system for a bit," he added, although he wasn't sure.
Jan gave him a quick look as if she doubted his words, then kept zapping the enemies.
"Where did Doom find all these robots, anyway?" Tony asked, sitting up and using his somewhat steady position to fire on the enemy with one hand. The Doombots were easy pickings for him, especially when Ms. Marvel was moving in for the kill, distracting them from anything else.
"We don't know, and there's been no sign of Doom," Jan said unhappily. "For all we know, these things are not even his!"
"Oh, they're his," Clint's voice joined them over the radio. "Maybe he's just pissed because the Fantastic Four are out of town?"
"Such open violence is not his style," T'Challa joined the conversation.
"He's attacked the rest of the world who knows how many times," Clint argued. "Frankly, I don't care why he's doing it this time. Let's just take his toys down and ask questions later."
Tony supposed it was a good enough plan and started getting back to his feet. His body felt slow and sluggish, the armor weighing him down, and in a few seconds he knew he wasn't going to get onto his feet and stay there. However, remaining on the ground wasn't an option in front of his team, the enemy and any onlookers. Tony disengaged his audio from the team communications for a moment. "JARVIS, partial control. Help me to my feet."
Feeling the armor move without his direct command was an odd sensation, as if being tugged into position by someone. Tony held back any hisses and sounds, accepting the AI's maneuvers, and soon found himself standing up as if nothing at all was wrong.
"All right, sir?" JARVIS asked.
"Don't let me fall again," Tony ordered, because he knew JARVIS could do that.
"Perhaps if you got off the battlefield –"
"We're staying here to fight, and that's final," Tony ordered and turned to aim at the Doombots. He didn't worry about standing and it felt almost normal for a moment: he was back where he belonged, with his team, and he even gave a few orders for the others to re-position themselves. No one argued and Tony figured he had things under control.
"Captain Rogers is at your six, sir," JARVIS informed him suddenly, and Tony turned his head just in time to see Steve's lips twitch in an odd way, like he was displeased somehow.
"We're winning, in case you didn't notice," Tony offered to him over the comm. The tide had turned, Thor and the Hulk pushing in, crowing the Doombots towards the area where Tony and the others were standing their ground.
"I didn't say anything," Steve replied.
"With that face, you didn't have to."
Steve's expression hardened and he moved past Tony to lead their team the rest of the way to victory. At some point Tony found himself just standing there, watching the fight come to a close, observing how far they had all come as a team – and how easily Iron Man could be dropped from the equation.
The battle was hard-fought by any measure. Dr. Doom didn't show his face once and when the robots were finally rendered inoperable, several city blocks looked like a war zone. It could have been worse, but Steve was discontent and led his worn-out team back to the Avengers Mansion.
Tony joined them although he went his separate way once the Quinjets landed.
"That could have gone better," Clint decided once he stepped out. He was bruised all over, out of arrows and just as tired as the next person.
Even the Hulk simply grunted and stomped off in the direction of the elevator. Steve wondered if there would be any food left in the kitchen once he got there.
"Captain," T'Challa spoke up from behind him, "a word, if you will."
"Assembly Hall," Steve decided and held back a sigh. He was tired and needed a shower – perhaps even some bandages before the serum took care of his injuries.
Half the team ended up following him and the Black Panther and Steve felt like this was going to be some kind of intervention.
"What's this about?" Steve asked, wondering if this was some kind of payback for how he had acted in Malibu before the call came in about the attack.
"We've all figured out Tony isn't in perfect shape," Carol started.
"He's still on the mend," Jan added quickly.
"He joined us in battle today, against expectations," T'Challa cut in before anyone else could offer their side of the story. "He did not perform as well as could have been expected."
"Tony did okay," Jan defended him – the way she always defended whoever needed defending.
"You mean he did okay playing possum?" Yellowjacket raised an eyebrow.
"Cut the act, Hank," Jan snapped and morphed back to her human size, stabbing a finger at Yellowjacket's chest. "Tony's our friend – your friend, as well as mine. We're all worried about him and just because you don't want to say that out loud doesn't mean you can make comments like that."
Yellowjacket look chastened, whereas Clint simply pulled back his cowl and scowled at everyone collectively. "He's right, though," the archer said. "Stark wasn't ready to join the battle today."
"He helped us to defeat the enemy," Vision spoke up, startling most people because no one had seen him follow them into the room. For someone who could phase through solid surfaces, walking in was never a problem. "However, I noticed that he had some difficulty controlling himself and his armor."
Steve tensed up more and more as he listened to them. "What's the point of this discussion?"
"You should bench him until he's fit for combat," Clint said at once.
"How can you say that?" Jan whirled at the archer. "Tony put this team together. He's funded and supported us from the beginning – led us for most of the time."
"Which means he should know when to step down!" Clint argued right back. "Today, we didn't need an extra person whose back to watch."
"I think he did okay," Carol noted, "given his condition."
"If he returns too soon, there is a risk of further injury," T'Challa noted, as patient and calm as ever.
Steve, however, was losing his own cool. "Enough!" he barked. "You think I am unaware of all this? You think I haven't spent the last month watching him struggle with the most basic things? I was the one who convinced him to get back in the suit in the first place. I'm not sure if he would have done so on his own – not even to come to our aid in battle." He looked at his team, noting with some pleasure that none of them looked like they wanted to argue with him at this point. "He's not fit for battle, we all know that. Some days I don't know if he'll ever be, but I'm not giving up on him – just like he never gave up on any of us on our bad days. You should all remember that."
Most of the Avengers wouldn't meet his eyes.
"Good to know your thoughts on the matter," Tony's voice suddenly rose from the doorway and Steve actually jumped at it, noticing him standing there, still in full armor. Iron Man's arms were crossed over his chest, the way the armor leaned against the doorframe almost casual, but Steve could tell it was all an act.
"Tony," he started.
"What?" the other man snapped, stepping away from the frame. His posture was rigid – too rigid to be natural, which reminded Steve of Vision's words about Tony's precarious control during the battle. "Are you going to kiss it better?" Tony's words were hurtful, meaning that whatever he had overheard had cut him deep. "Are you going to tell me that tomorrow's going to be different – because you believe it?"
"No," Steve replied, taken aback by Tony's anger, especially with the others in the room. "We all know the odds –"
"Do we?" Tony hissed at him. "Because I'm not sure we're on the same page here, Cap."
Steve drew a careful breath. "I need to have a word with Iron Man," he told the rest of the team.
"No, you don't," Tony said before the others could take a step to leave. "We're done," he snapped and turned, leaving the room.
"Awkward," Hank Pym whispered, drawing back his uniform's cowl. His eyes moved to Steve's face. "Maybe you should leave him for a bit, until he cools off."
It wasn't bad advice. Steve had followed that guideline in the long weeks when Tony struggled and he feared they were back to square one after today. All the things they had accomplished – and almost lost – in Malibu seemed a world away now. The closeness they had shared, so briefly… Steve ached to get back there, to know that Tony trusted him – trusted his judgment – and that they were in a place where Tony could actually get better. All this anger was going to send the injured man into a downward spiral and it would be so much harder to get out of it.
Steve picked up his shield and marched out past his team, trusting them to know he wasn't in a mood to continue their discussion. He went up to his room, tore off his uniform and got into the shower, allowing the water to wash away the dirt and sweat on his skin, but it did little to ease his conscience.
Eventually he turned off the water and stepped out, not feeling particularly refreshed, his mind constantly jumping back to his and Tony's bath together, the kisses in the gym…
He had to make things right with Tony.
Dressing hastily, he walked to Tony's door. He didn't encounter anyone else on his way there, for which he was glad, and knocked on the door several times. Counting the seconds, he tried to measure an appropriate amount of time to pass before he called out: "Tony? I need to talk to you. May I come in?"
There was no answer.
Pressing his eyes shut, Steve allowed his forehead to fall forward, hard, against the wooden surface.
"Captain Rogers," JARVIS' voice was suddenly there, in the hallway, muted and almost private. "Mr. Stark is still in the armory. He is… having a difficult time getting to his room."
Steve stepped back from the door immediately, turning towards the nearest stairwell that led downstairs.
"He has no desire to see you, however," JARVIS went on.
"I don't care: if he needs my help, I'll be there." He knew it might make it worse, but they could both swallow their pride for a bit to get Tony into a shower, into a bed, and possibly get some food into him. After they had both rested, Steve could reason with him – and apologize for how much he had revealed to their team. It wasn't Steve's business to tell the Avengers whether Tony was fit to fight or not – or why that was. Not that he had said too much, but Tony was feeling betrayed right now and it wasn't entirely without reason.
He was down in the armory in a few short minutes. The doors were firmly locked but Steve glanced at one of the many discreet cameras, knowing JARVIS knew he was there, and after another three seconds the doors unlocked to admit him.
Tony swore from somewhere in the dim room. "What the hell, JARVIS?!"
"Sir, if you would just let Captain Rogers help you up to your room –"
"I don't need his help!"
"On the contrary –"
"Shut up!" Tony yelled at the AI and Steve moved towards the sound, steeling himself against whatever he would find.
Tony was on the floor, by the disassembly unit, and once he caught sight of Steve he grabbed one of the armor pieces next to him and hurled it at him. Steve easily side-stepped the object, glad that Tony had that much fight left in him, but that was just about it: Tony sagged a little, as if completely drained, and had to place one hand on the floor to keep himself upright. "Get out, Rogers," he growled.
"I'll get out once you're in your room," Steve promised. "Until then, let me help you."
"Why?" Tony asked him, narrowing his eyes. "So you can bitch and moan about it to the others?"
"I wasn't bitching, moaning or complaining," Steve snapped at him, resisting the urge to just lift Tony off the floor by the neck of his undersuit. "I'm exhausted from the battle, worried about you flying in, and frankly, I don't think being concerned about your welfare is wrong." He halted in front of Tony, trying to find the brown eyes with his own although Tony resolutely avoided his gaze. "Nothing's changed," Steve reassured him. "I'm here –"
"You're exactly where you should be," Tony agreed, finally looking at him. "Leading the team. I don't know why I kept you from it for so long."
Steve sighed. "You didn't keep me; I chose to stay with you in Malibu."
"Maybe that's the problem," Tony pondered. "I should have made you leave sooner."
"I thought we had this talk, once or twice," Steve reminded him. "The last one, if I recall correctly, ended rather pleasantly."
That was the wrong thing to say, evidently, because Tony's face tightened. He looked ready to punch Steve, had he been able to reach the taller man from his position. "That's how you're gonna play it?" Tony growled. "That's your excuse for everything? You finally got comfortable and that's a reason for you to cozy up to me in Malibu instead of being here, where you should be, leading the Avengers?"
Steve tried very hard not to throw a retort back at him. "You're tired. Let me help you to your room."
"JARVIS will help me there," Tony snapped.
"If nothing else works, I'll get back in the suit and he'll walk me there," Tony spat.
Steve guessed that might work but he didn't say so. "Stop being stubborn. We've been through this often enough and I'm tired of the act."
"Oh, that's rich –"
"Either you get up," Steve finally snapped, leaning forward to grab Tony by the neck of his undersuit, "or I help you up. And since we both know the first option isn't going to work out, how about you shut it and let me do my job?"
"Your job?" Tony's hand shot up, trying to dislodge Steve's hold, but between his weariness and Steve's super-strong hold, he was bound to fail. "How about you do your job and get back to leading the team! I'll manage on my own. I'm done with your charity."
"Fuck you, Tony."
"Oh, you wish," the other man laughed, suddenly, then stopped mid-breath, glaring at him. "Is that what you want, Cap? Huh? More than a warm hand and a kiss on the cheek?"
Steve debated punching him unconscious just to make things easier for himself. "This has nothing to do with that."
"After the kiss, I'm not buying that," Tony told him. "Let go of me now or I'll have JARVIS kick you out of the room."
"Sir, please –"
"Deploy the armor," Tony ordered.
Steve heard pieces moving; he knew JARVIS could control an armor well enough without Tony in it, and without his shield or uniform he was far more vulnerable than usual. Not that it would stop him from standing his ground.
"Captain, it isn't worth it. I shall see to it that Mr. Stark gets… wherever he wants to go," the AI tried to negotiate.
Steve let go of Tony, stepping back. "We aren't done," he told the brunette.
"Whatever," Tony huffed and looked away, waiting for him to leave.
Steve wished he could have slammed the door on his way out, instead of hearing the soft hiss as it closed behind him.
Tony slept on a couch in his workshop after one of the armors controlled by JARVIS helped him there. He had more bruises on him after the ordeal than the cross-country flight and the fight because he kept tripping but refused to let the armor just carry him. The couch was also uncomfortable – or maybe it was something else, tugging at his subconscious and turning it into a physical ache.
He wished he hadn't argued with Steve, but Tony had been disappointed in himself after the battle and hearing the team talking about him… There had been no reason to go in there, to show them he had overheard them. Steve might have figured it out eventually and Tony may have let him kiss it better because he would have loved that…
Instead they had fought, perhaps worse than ever, and Tony felt like he had just salted the earth with lies and hurt that should have never been directed at Steve. The failure was Tony's – failure to see that he should have never left Malibu to try and help the Avengers, making himself a liability in battle. He hadn't been helpless, far from it, but anyone who had fought with Tony for as long as the other Avengers could tell the difference.
What had he thought he would accomplish by coming here? Had he actually thought it would end spectacularly well and that he would be back to kicking super-villain ass with the others?
Most of all, what had he thought would happen to his and Steve's fragile rapport once they came back to New York? It had no place here, as he was beginning to realize; it didn't feel right.
JARVIS had kept blissfully quiet once Tony had settled on the couch. It was clear the AI disapproved of Tony's choices and the argument with Steve, which was saying a lot. Then again, JARVIS didn't have the burden of all the anguish and emotions that kept balling up and rolling around painfully in Tony's chest and he wished he could just cut it all out.
Perhaps if he thought of all this as an equation and with perfect clarity… Facts didn't lie, after all; they might hurt, if the truth behind them didn't coincide with what one wanted, but they didn't lie.
It was early the next morning when a faint knocking sound came from the door of the workshop and JARVIS let whoever it was inside without asking for Tony's approval – which meant it could be one of very few people and most of those people were on the other side of the continent right now – where Tony should be, too, as he had come to realize as he analytically went over every little detail.
Steve stepped in, dressed in the same clothes as when he last came to see Tony. His expression was guarded, but he didn't appear angry. He seemed pleased to find Tony on the couch instead of the floor and he walked towards it, hand reaching out to grab a chair on his way over.
"Don't bother," Tony told him. "I actually wanted to talk to you, but it won't take long."
Steve frowned, nodded, and walked the rest of the way to the couch. "What's on your mind?" he asked.
Tony looked up at him and tried to smile. "I've been thinking… I was going to ask you to take me back to Malibu," he started.
Steve nodded again, as if he agreed.
"Then I realized your place is here. The team needs you, and the team is here, not in Malibu."
"I'll be –"
"Where you should be – where you're needed – and that's here. So, I'm going back to Malibu, today, and you're not coming with me."
Steve's face hardened. "You think you can just keep me away?"
"Bar you from my own home? Yeah, I'm pretty sure I can," Tony informed him, and whether it was his flat tone or confident wording that made Steve hesitate, Tony wasn't sure. It didn't matter. "You've done enough for me. It's time you got back here, to what's more important; protecting the world. I can take it from here on my own."
"Don't do this," Steve pleaded. "You know you're far from okay."
"But at the same time I'm so much better than when this started," Tony pointed out and moved to sit up on the couch, taking it slow so that he didn't sag back down. "This choice is mine, not yours. Do the right thing and focus on what's important."
Steve had started out as a scrawny, unhealthy kid; he had been through the horrors of war, slept trapped in the ice for decades and had ever since been in mortal danger and almost seen the world end several times. Through it all, Tony hadn't seen him as scared or upset as he appeared to be now, standing there in front of him. It was as if someone had finally taken Captain America down. "Is anything I say going to change your mind?" he asked, voice tight.
Tony shook his head. "No."
The nod that followed his answer looked painful. Steve turned and walked out without another word.
Tony had never seen him cry but he was glad Steve left the workshop because he had a feeling he might have witnessed just that if the other man had lingered; it may have broken Tony's resolve and he wanted to be able to do this. Hurting Steve's feelings wasn't what he had wanted to do, but he saw that it was necessary in order to pry himself free of the other man and to give the Avengers back one of their most important members.
With a sigh, Tony sagged down on the couch.
"Are you going to carry out your plan to head back to Malibu today, sir?" JARVIS asked.
"Yeah," Tony told the AI. "Let Pepper know." She had already tried contacting Tony several times, at horrible hours no less, and it was obvious she was worried. It was likely she had seen Iron Man on the battlefield in the news and Tony hoped she couldn't tell exactly how bad it had been.
Tony lay there for a bit, resting, then decided he had mustered all the energy he could. He was hungry, though, and since the flight back to Malibu would take a while, he guessed he had better get something to eat before he departed.
Lifting himself to his feet happened easily enough and he went to the elevator, riding it up to the main floor. The Mansion was uncharacteristically quiet and Tony wondered if Steve's little outburst had driven a wedge between him and the team. Hopefully not, but Tony was certain the tension would ease up once he was out of the picture.
He managed a couple corridors before he suddenly felt his feet starting to drag, each step giving him more trouble. Gritting his teeth, he counted the distance between himself and the kitchen. Perhaps he should have put the suit on, but it was too late to turn back now.
Tony was one hallway away from the kitchen when it felt like someone stuck a needle in his spine, full of local anesthetic, and his fingers scraped the wallpaper as he fell down. All he could do was stare at his legs, which were still there, and resist the desire to bang his head against the wall – which probably would have only made matters worse, considering the origin of his problems.
"Taking a break?" a voice asked, and T'Challa's form appeared from a shadowy corner. As was his custom, he was in his Black Panther uniform even when off-duty, and Tony glared up at him and his nonchalant tone.
"Yeah. Got a problem with that?"
"None at all," the man replied but didn't move on.
"Are you particularly fond of this corridor?" Tony asked after a bit.
"Then keep moving."
The head cocked, as if T'Challa were debating his answer. "There is nothing wrong with asking for help when you truly need it."
"I'm not asking for help," Tony informed him. "Don't need it."
"Go see it somewhere else," Tony suggested bitingly.
He heard the other man's sigh – and T'Challa never let out a sound that wasn't meant to be heard by someone. "Is this what the Captain had to deal with during his stay with you?"
"Maybe. Good for him, though, that he's not coming back to Malibu with me." He could sense the Panther's raised eyebrow even when he didn't see it. "Cap's going to stay here with you," Tony confirmed, in case the message wasn't clear enough.
"Was that his choice?"
"He'll come to agree with it, eventually."
"Steve Rogers is a hard man to convince of things he doesn't want to accept. In his heart he believes he must help you – and if you deny him that, it will bode ill for both of you."
"Spare me the lecture. He'll get over it and be happier for it." Tony was certain it wouldn't take too long before Steve was happy to be back here. A selfish, self-centered part of him hoped it wouldn't be instantaneous, however – the same part that wished Steve would have fought him tooth and nail to be allowed to return to Malibu with him. Good thing that part of him was miniscule because Tony couldn't afford that kind of thinking at this point; he had to think of what was best for the team, and keeping Steve away from the Avengers wasn't good for anyone, least of all the safety of the world the next time it was threatened. They had all seen how quickly things could change.
T'Challa took a while mulling it over, then took a step forward and offered one hand for Tony to take. "I shall help you find your feet."
Tony smacked the offered hand away. "No thanks. Leave me alone," he ordered. "The next time you come prowling down this hallway, I'll be gone."
"And how are you going to achieve that?" the Panther asked with casual interest.
"Don't know yet. Crawling works better than you'd think," Tony muttered.
T'Challa cocked his head – then looked down the hallway and took a step away from Tony. "Captain," he greeted, and sure enough, Steve came striding down to them, face set, shoulders squared. He looked like he was going into battle but he wasn't wearing his uniform or carrying his shield.
"I've got this," Steve said, and before Tony could even try fending him off, Steve had one arm beneath Tony's and was lifting him up. "Can you stand?" he asked, voice flat, not giving Tony pity or anything else for that matter.
"No," Tony replied, voice dropping dangerously low to a quivering whisper. He still couldn't feel either of his legs.
Steve nodded and crouched a bit lower, moving one arm beneath Tony's legs and picked him up.
Tony didn't know where to look, mortified and angry, yet strangely relieved.
"Where were you going?" Steve asked.
"The kitchen," Tony admitted. "To grab some food before I leave."
Another nod, Steve's chin brushing his hair. "Where were you headed?" he asked T'Challa.
"My destination happens to be the same as his, but I can wait," the Wakandan replied.
"Nonsense," Steve responded briskly. "I'll fix us all something to eat." And then he started walking, leaving T'Challa to trail behind them, and Tony rested his face against Steve's shoulder, one hand curling at his chest, feeling the heat coming through his t-shirt.
In the kitchen, Steve measured the chairs with his gaze for a bit but none of them appeared to satisfy him.
"Just put me down," Tony ordered, and Steve carefully placed him on top of one stool, making sure Tony was steady before he let go of him entirely. Tony sat there, tense in order to not slip off the chair, then watched as T'Challa joined them, pushing back his cowl and taking a seat close to Tony, but not too close to crowd him.
Steve pulled ingredients out of the fridge, preparing an omelet by the looks of it. He also found berries in the freezer and put them in a blender with some milk, turning it on to make a smoothie.
Tony drummed his fingers against the countertop, acutely aware of how T'Challa was studying the interaction without obviously staring. The Panther never missed anything, though – not the way Steve poured the smoothie into a sturdy glass, found a straw and moved it over to Tony's side of the table, or how Steve kept a constant watch of Tony while he prepped the omelet and then dished it out, dividing Tony's portion into bite-sized cuts before sliding it over as well.
"Thank you, Captain," was all T'Challa said as he was offered a plate with an omelet on it, and he dug in as if it were something he had always wanted to eat.
Tony struggled to hold his fork and actually get the food in his mouth, chewing slowly whenever he managed another fork-load. The omelet was cooling faster than he could eat it, but he had grown accustomed to that over the last several weeks.
"Delicious," T'Challa commented and stood up, taking his plate to the sink. "Thank you for the food."
Steve nodded, finishing his own portion at a rate that was slower than usual – no doubt to make it not so obvious how slowly Tony was eating. The Panther left them and Tony waited a moment, then allowed his fork to drop onto his plate. He sat there staring at the remaining bits, feeling so tired it was insane.
"Do you want to eat the rest?" Steve asked.
"Maybe if you heat it up again," Tony replied.
Steve did, then brought it back, and Tony took hold of his fork again, only to find his fingers uncooperative and stiff. As if that were his cue, Steve moved over, sat down in a chair beside Tony's and took the fork from him, working a piece of the omelet onto it and then brought it to the level of Tony's mouth.
Tony debated not accepting it but he was still hungry. He couldn't remember the last time he had eaten, after all – before the battle and the flight over… before the nap and the incident at the pool. It had been over a day, he counted, so it was no surprise his body was shutting down on him.
He opened his mouth and accepted the food, chewing a bit faster as Steve scooped up another piece of the omelet and was offering it to Tony by the time he was done with the first. They finished the plate like that, after which Steve took care of the dishes and Tony finished his smoothie, then allowed Steve to take the empty glass and wash that as well.
"I don't think you should fly to Malibu in that condition," Steve observed after a bit.
"I concur," JARVIS agreed, and Tony pondered, for the first time, whether the AI had told Steve to come and intervene in the corridor.
Tony sighed, seeing that he was outnumbered on this. "Fine. Take me to bed."
Steve didn't smile but he scooped Tony up from his seat readily enough and carried Tony to his room. Whether it was luck or intentional that they didn't run into any of the other Avengers on their way there, Tony didn't know, but he was glad for it either way.
Once behind the safety of closed doors, Steve helped him undress and then took him to the bathroom to take a piss, cleaned him up a bit, and then took him to bed. Tony sank into the mattress with a thankful sigh and turned his back to Steve, who took the hint and shut off the lights before wordlessly leaving the room.
T'Challa joined the other Avengers – minus their leaders – in the Assembly Hall. Everyone was unusually quiet.
"We're going to talk about this situation with Cap and Stark, right?" Clint spoke up first.
"That's why we're here, smart guy," the Hulk grunted.
"Watch it," Clint muttered.
"Enough," T'Challa called out, voice low but commanding the attention of the room at once. "I had the most… unique chance to watch an interaction between Steve and Tony just now."
"Was that before or after Steve carried Tony to his room, bridal style?" Hank tried to joke, then seemed to realize no one found it funny, himself included.
"We shouldn't have spied on them," Jan said from beside him. "I think that was a… private moment."
"They're here, which means they can't keep it private for much longer," Carol reasoned, looking at T'Challa. "We might have… approached the situation badly, due to that fact. Steve's on a constant trigger, ready to go off at the wrong remark aimed at or about Tony, and none of us have any idea where the landmines are buried."
"The obvious thing would be to ask them to tell us," Vision noted.
"Does anyone see that actually happening?" Clint lifted an eyebrow. "Things are never that easy around here."
"Tony's injury is particularly hard to come to terms with – for him more than us," T'Challa pointed out. "We need to be subtle about it, not to mention supportive. I believe that changing our behavior around them might be enough to make Tony reconsider staying here – a choice which would make Steve less torn about where he is supposed to be."
"We should try and help them," Jan agreed readily. "Take the load off Steve's shoulders. I've never seen him look so tired…"
"I do not think it is the task of helping Tony that is wearing him down," T'Challa argued. "What little I saw of them, the Captain was perfectly at ease with his duties to help our injured teammate. It is the interaction with us, as well as the tension of the battle, that gives him trouble to find his footing."
"Tony's not ready for battle," Hank pointed out. "No matter how supportive we'll be, it's just going to get him hurt even worse."
"I don't think that's the problem," the Hulk huffed. "Stark knows he isn't ready."
"Yet he will come to our aid in our time of need," Thor mused. "He is a warrior, first and foremost."
"He's also a human being, who's at his weakest," T'Challa said, not to disagree but to put it out there. "That may lead him to say and do things that would otherwise be considered uncalled for."
"So, what are we going to do?" Carol asked. "We need a plan here – a plan we all understand and follow as a team."
"We should ask Steve whether he requires our help," T'Challa decided. "I predict his answer will be 'no', but not because he refuses our good intentions: it may be best for Tony that we do not directly interfere with his condition."
"Then what are we going to do?" Clint asked him.
"We will make the situation tolerable for everyone. Dismiss Tony's weak moments. Help him subtly or leave room for Steve to act; I believe Tony will accept help from him more willingly than any of us."
"Tony will notice what we're doing," Carol pointed out. "He's a smart guy."
"And thus we will not try to out-smart him. He will know what we are trying to do and we cannot push him for results."
"So, what you're saying is that we'll be there for him but won't really help him because it will piss him off?" Jan cocked her head. "I don't know if I like that. If he's in trouble, I'd want to help him."
"Tony has much pride and to be put into such a vulnerable position where he requires help is a most unsettling experience – to him and to those around him," Vision mused.
"Aye; a wounded warrior rarely accepts help, no matter how sincere the offers," Thor nodded. "We will keep our distance."
"Act around him as you always have – within reason," T'Challa concluded. "Even if it upsets you, showing pity and concern towards him will accelerate Tony's bad mood."
"Remember to have Cap on speed dial," Clint joked ruefully. "He seems to have found a way to deal with Stark's moods without setting him off."
"That is our sole strength in this situation that we must utilize to its full effect," T'Challa nodded.
"Guess we have a plan, then," Hank nodded along. "Far as plans go in a situation like this."
"It won't last forever," Jan said brightly. "Tony will get better and he'll be back to fighting bad guys in no time. Until then he's still part of the team, and we'll keep reminding him of that."
Tony slept for almost twelve hours straight, woke up to a sunny morning and decided to go and enjoy said sun on the rooftop. No one else was there when he got up there – his legs had miraculously found themselves again – and Tony spent a small moment doing some pilates exercises before he just threw himself down on a sunlounger and relaxed.
He went undisturbed for another hour before someone showed up, and when Tony opened his eyes to see who it was he was surprised to find it wasn't Steve.
Clint stood half-way between him and the door that led to the roof, clearly undecided whether to approach or not.
"What's up?" Tony asked casually.
"I was thinking… I might need a new sight for my bow," Clint mused.
No one had asked him for any kind of gear updates or repairs since the accident, so the request surprised Tony more than Clint showing up on the rooftop. "Yeah?" he mused, to see if Clint would proceed on his own.
The archer moved closer, pulling his folded bow from his back where it was attached to the quiver. "Maybe you can come up with some new versions," he said, extending the bow with a quick twist of his wrist, the move precise, practiced and looking entirely natural for him.
"Is this really the best time for that?" Tony dared to ask.
Clint shrugged. "There's no hurry. Just, you know, if you feel like tackling a project."
"Leave it at my desk," Tony suggested. Not that he really had a desk, but Clint would figure something out.
"Maybe you would like to test out the current version," Clint went on. "You know, to understand how it works."
Tony's eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You're asking me to test your bow."
Again, Clint shrugged.
"I don't know… I think I know how to shoot a bow in theory," Tony said.
Clint flashed him a grin. "We'll see," he stated and stepped over, clearly on board to proceed with the idea. "See, it looks easy, but I'm sure you'll figure it out." He offered his bow to Tony, which he never did with anyone, and Tony took it carefully, sitting up.
"Should I stand up?" Tony mused.
"It works better like that but I'm known to shoot from all kinds of positions."
"I'm not you," Tony pointed out. There was a reason Clint was on this team and that was because Hawkeye was the best damn shot Tony had ever seen, period. He had no delusions that he could match that skill on his best day – and especially not when his fingers curled around the body of the bow and it felt like a totally alien thing in his grip.
Tony stood up, though, and Clint busied himself positioning his arms and then told him to draw the bow. "See, this could be better. There's always room for improvement," Clint pointed at several things that really didn't make sense to Tony at that moment. He had made arrows for Clint in the past, some of them working better than others. That was all mechanics and aerodynamics, but actually targeting something was outside Tony's expertise.
Clint stepped back to look at him, then reached into his quiver. "Notch an arrow, see how it rests there," he suggested next, placing an arrow in Tony's grip, and Tony drew the string taut, his arms shaking a bit with the strain. He tried looking at the arrow, where it was pointed and how Clint picked his target, wondering what he was actually supposed to see that wasn't working right now – then released the arrow.
It flew straight at the ice machine by the pool, the arrow exploding upon contact and creating a small shower of machine parts and ice cubes all around them.
"Fuck!" Clint yelled. "What did you do that for?"
Tony lowered the bow, cringing. "You didn't tell me not to," he offered.
Clint shot him a dark look then took the bow from him. "Okay, I think…" He looked at the ice machine – or what was left of it – and a smile tugged his lips. "That was you, not me," he pointed out, then started laughing. Tony was helpless against it, joining Clint in the crazy mix of giggles and guffaws that left him feeling a bit weak on his feet, and finally the archer took his things and left the scene of destruction – after making sure there wouldn't be any further explosions from the ice machine.
Tony resumed lounging in the chair, the smell of smoke disappearing after a while, leaving only the familiar odor of New York City. He watched the clouds pass by in their various forms and wondered how it was that he had never taken time for stuff like this before. He was always working, partying or saving the world – not in that order, even – and there was never time to just… be.
These days, there was little else but that.
The sounds of the city were pleasantly muted and Tony could almost hear the water gently lapping in the pool nearby. He knew he had planned on being in Malibu by now and part of him was still hell-bent on going, but here he was, still, in no particular hurry to get moving.
He heard the door open and close again, admitting another person to the roof, and the silent footfalls ruled out about half the team.
This time it was Steve, who sat on a lounge chair next to Tony's. He looked over at the ice machine, brow furrowing for a bit, and Tony arched his neck to look as well. A goofy smile tugged his lips before he could master it.
"What happened to the ice machine?" Steve finally asked.
"A weapons demonstration," Tony replied, then looked at the blond. "What are you doing up here?"
"Looking for you."
"I'm fine," Tony said in case it was unclear.
Steve nodded, his eyes softening a little. "I'm glad you're still here."
"Doesn't mean I'm not going to leave."
"Guess so…" Steve looked away at the water in the pool. Maybe it took his thoughts away for a bit – or reminded him of the incident back in Malibu. "I'm sorry if I… came onto you too forcefully," Steve said at length.
Tony frowned. "Do you mean the argument or what happened before half the team showed up in Malibu?"
"Both, I guess."
Tony sighed. "I thought we agreed the… stuff that happened was okay by both of us."
Steve's gaze was sharp and penetrating yet somewhat pleading when he fixed it on Tony's face. "We did. After our last argument I wasn't sure whether you were lying or if something was left unclear."
Tony bit his lip. "I may have… said things that weren't entirely true," he admitted. "But I meant it when I said you should stay here after I go back."
It was incredible how quickly Steve's expression closed down. "If that's your choice…"
"It's the only good choice right now – for the team. The team has to come first."
"Yeah," Tony insisted. "You know, not too long ago you would have agreed with me – no; you would have been the one telling me that from the start," he decided. "You're Captain America, first and foremost."
"Maybe I want to be Steve Rogers for a change," Steve snapped. "I haven't had a whole lot of time to enjoy that. Besides, Pepper and Rhodey always say you're getting lost in being Iron Man, so maybe you need a break from that, too."
Tony snorted. "Yeah, well, I'm on a pretty long break right now, for the foreseeable future."
"You know that isn't true."
"That's what the team thinks – what you think," Tony reminded him. "And for the record, just because I'm angry about it doesn't mean I don't agree with you. I'm not ready to get back in the suit. I'm not ready to be in a position where people have to depend on me and my performance. I don't know if I'll ever get there again." It wasn't himself that Tony worried about; his suit was nigh indestructible and he was pretty well protected inside it – although Steve could make a solid argument with the event that got them here. Well, exceptions were there to prove the rules…
Steve sighed, shifted, and looked completely out of his element. It was weird because Tony was so used to seeing Steve do what he did best – which was just about everything Steve set out to do. "I don't know what to say," the blond confessed.
"Don't say anything, then. That's an acceptable option."
"Not when I want to disagree with you," Steve retaliated, almost hotly, but there was no anger in his voice – only desperation. Like he was losing something precious to Tony and his fingernails were bleeding as he tried to hold onto it. "We all want you to get better, but what the team wants isn't really my concern. My thoughts are my own. The good of the Avengers isn't… It's important, we both know that, but this time – this one time – can't I be selfish? Can't I be irrational?"
"Just this once?" Tony teased. "Are you sure you aren't feverish?"
"Don't," Steve warned him. "Tony, I need you in ways you cannot imagine. Most of those ways have nothing to do with the Avengers – not anymore."
Tony had to break eye-contact with him to get some room for his own thoughts. "If it hadn't been your shield that hit me in the head, you would feel differently," he said at length.
"Probably," Steve admitted. "We'll never know because this is how it happened. I've always believed in doing the right thing. I've always paid my debts and dues. We both know I've done enough to pay my debt to you, to convey my regret that you're hurt and not getting better as fast as we all hoped for. However," he added, "that's where Cap ends and Steve begins." He slid his hand over, startling Tony a little, and curled his fingers around Tony's right hand. "Let me be there with you. For you. Whatever it entails, no matter how angry it makes you sometimes. I can't… I don't want you to deal with this alone."
It was a dirty trick, touching Tony.
Tony stared at their joined hands, feeling his throat tighten. Steve was an honest man, through and through. He was also the man Tony had idolized for most of his life, in secret and in public, and he had a deep-seated need to do right by Steve. He had already given Steve a home, a purpose and a chance at a life after the ice.
Lately, Tony had given him hope and companionship, despite his shortcomings, and he had a feeling that was Steve's biggest motivator. Just like Steve had said it: this was about Steve Rogers, not the national icon.
"They say I'm stubborn, but I've got nothing on you," Tony said morosely and carefully moved his hand to squeeze at Steve's in return. "Fine. Have it your way. See how long you last."
Steve actually smiled at him, his shoulders relaxing. "Thank you, Tony."
It wasn't really anything to thank him for because Steve was certainly getting the short end of the stick with Tony's mood-swings and attitude problems. "You might come to regret this," he told the super-soldier. "That's why I'm giving you the chance to walk out at any time you want. No questions asked." He would probably know what the problem was when Steve chose to leave him behind.
"Not going to happen," Steve promised him and just sat there for a bit, as if he was the happiest he had ever been, holding Tony's hand on a sunny rooftop.
Tony looked at him and then at the pool, the water captivating in its own way. With the safety of Steve's hand around his, he thought back to his moment in the water, just before he realized he couldn't get back up to the surface on his own.
"Do you want to go swimming?" Steve asked. Sometimes Tony thought the man could read minds.
"I liked how it felt," Tony confessed. "The weightlessness. Floating. You know, until I ran out of air and almost drowned," he joked lamely.
Steve nodded and stood up. "I'll help you," he promised, and Tony guessed he might as well accept. He slid off his shirt, then his pants – soon after realizing he had gone commando because he hadn't felt like struggling to put on another layer of clothing in the morning.
By his lounge chair, Steve had already stripped down to his underwear, standing tall in the sunlight. The blond looked at him and Tony flushed a bit, yanking his pants back up. "I guess swimming has to wait," he murmured.
"It's just the two of us," Steve said, and after a minimal hesitation Tony pulled down his pants, feeling a bit weird sitting there naked. Then, to his surprise, Steve reached for the waistband of his own pair of white boxers.
"What are you doing?" Tony asked.
"Leveling the playfield," Steve dared to wink at him as he got naked, then offered Tony a hand. "You don't have to be naked alone."
"I'm starting to think you have a thing for this whole naked part," Tony teased but took Steve's hand and helped himself to his feet then towards the pool.
"For a playboy you seem awfully self-conscious around other naked people," Steve teased right back, helping Tony lower himself in the pool before getting in behind him, staying close by.
"Usually I get naked with an ulterior motive," Tony confessed. "With you, I'm not sure what's going to happen."
Steve smiled at him. "This will be a new experience for the both of us, then."
"Guess so." Tony tried swimming around for a bit but it tired him out faster than he had thought possible. He decided to try floating, relaxing his body and letting it drift up. It was strange doing it without swimwear on; it had been a while since he had been skinny dipping and even those occasions had been about getting naked on purpose. When Steve's hands touched his body, though, supporting his lower back and shoulder blades, he didn't take it as a sexual thing; just like the kissing, the touch was safe and comforting, helping him float in the water and relax his body further.
Steve stayed by him patiently until Tony grew tired of floating and lowered his feet towards the bottom of the pool. They looked at each other and Tony started forgetting how weird it was being naked in the pool with another man. "Want to take a break?" Steve asked him after a bit.
"Are you tired?" Tony teased. Steve didn't bother replying, swimming away from him instead, doing a few laps back and forth. Tony watched him, staying afloat, then started to feel his arms tiring and it was harder to keep his head above the surface. The first time he went under water completely Steve appeared back at his side, lifting him up by his waist. Tony reached out for his shoulders on instinct, finding himself much closer to Steve than was necessary, their naked bodies brushing against each other.
"Want to get out?" Steve asked again.
"Nah," Tony replied. "Just, you know, hold me up," he offered.
Steve's hands moved lower, suddenly, to the backs of Tony's thighs, and he moved them up and around his trim waist. Tony's breath caught a little because the motion was so close to something erotic, but Steve's hands returned to his waist and Tony settled into it, eventually relaxing against Steve's body as the other man kept them afloat.
"I feel like a monkey," Tony joked after a bit.
"I don't mind being your tree," Steve replied, which was sweet and stupid at the same time. Tony shoved away from him in retaliation, swimming away on his back, then started tiring before he reached the nearest edge, his pace slowing down.
He felt Steve swimming closer, his body brushing at his legs as he moved to support him again before Tony went under. Tony glanced at him, offering a small smile –
"OH MY GOD! Are you naked?!"
Tony would have sank like a stone as his body tensed, but Steve kept him afloat as they both turned to look towards the door where Clint stood, gaping at them.
"It's my pool," Tony pointed out. "If I want to swim naked, I'll damn well do so."
Clint blinked, shook his head then turned on his heels and left.
Steve huffed in a weird way that may have been a suppressed laugh. "Do you think we'll ever live this one down?" he asked Tony.
"My pool," Tony repeated.
"A pool other people swim in, besides us," Steve reminded him.
"As if it wasn't your idea to get in it naked!" Tony splashed water at him, but even then Steve didn't let go of him despite the delicious opportunity to dunk him in retaliation.
Steve pushed even closer instead and Tony slid one hand into the wet blond hair, dragging him in the rest of the way and into a kiss. The joining of their lips was pleasant, like a final forgiveness for all the cruel words. Steve shifted Tony's body while he was at it, and Tony wrapped his legs around his waist again – which was probably a mistake, the emotional and physical stimulation making his cock harden a little. "Sorry," Tony murmured as they parted for a bit, faces still right next to each other.
"It's okay," Steve told him, yet he didn't move to encourage or discourage Tony's reaction in any way. For some reason that small, non-existent gesture made Tony feel safer than he had in a long time, and he pressed his lips forward into another kiss which Steve gladly responded to, his hands occasionally brushing across Tony's back while still securely holding him.
Tony soon found he had to stop or he would end up embarrassing himself. Steve still didn't let him go, even after the kiss ended, but merely rested their foreheads together, letting Tony calm down before he finally moved them to the edge of the pool. They got up, dried in the sun for a while, then put their clothes back on. After the exercise in the water, Tony felt a little weaker than when he had come up here, but Steve was right there, offering Tony an arm and a shoulder to lean on, then took him to the door to lead them back inside.
On their way to Tony's room, they passed Clint, T'Challa and the Hulk, who were obviously engaged in gossip; the archer found a spot to inspect on the wall as they passed, T'Challa gave them a polite nod – and the Hulk gave them a feral grin.
It was entirely possible they had misunderstood the whole 'swimming together naked' bit, but Tony didn't feel inclined to correct them.
Neither did Steve.
Steve couldn't have been happier. Not only was he back on good terms with Tony but the other man had made no mention of returning to Malibu in three days.
They had more or less returned to their routine of daily workouts and meals. The other Avengers didn't avoid them, exactly, but they kept away until it was clear they were welcome to join in – which never happened during workouts because Tony still had a thing about looking weak in front of anyone, and their team was the worst possible audience.
It was clear certain rumors had started circulating through the Mansion after Clint caught an eyeful of them in the pool. At least he hadn't seen them kissing…
Steve didn't care, though. His level of intimacy with Tony was between them and the others could speculate until the world ended – as long as it didn't become an issue. So far there had simply been longer looks, whispered conversations and exchanged glances.
All in all the Avengers appeared to be trying to work better as a group of people, and if Steve and Tony happened to settle down in the living room for a movie or something similar, others would drift over and stick around when such activities hadn't been the norm before Tony's accident. Steve thought it lifted their team spirit, which was never a bad thing.
Nine days into their rekindled friendship, the Wrecking Crew showed up on the streets, once again having escaped confinement.
"These guys seriously have a problem," Clint complained as they suited up for action. "The moment they get out they end up rampaging in our backyard. If I didn't know better, I'd think they like getting locked up."
"The quirks of human logic are indeed baffling," Vision agreed while waiting for the rest of them to get ready.
"These guys are too stupid to know better," Jan decided, flying around the synthezoid's head.
"That seems like an unsatisfactory conclusion without any scientific counterpart," Vision frowned.
"Less talk, more action," Steve ordered, fastening his belt.
"Thor is already on the scene: are we really needed?" Clint asked.
"Our last battle left much to hope for when it came to containing the destruction," Steve replied. "We can remedy that this time around." He cast a look at Tony who was standing at the far wall, leaning against it. "Will you monitor the fight?"
"Sure," Tony shrugged one shoulder.
Steve offered him a small smile as he slid onto his bike. "I'll see you soon."
Tony nodded his head and Steve started the engine, hearing Clint do the same with his sky cycle. Vision and Wasp took off, flying towards the scene of the action, and Steve drove out of the garage, speeding onto the street just as Clint shot up to the sky and soon disappeared between buildings.
By the time Steve arrived on location, a while after the others due to the traffic, Thor was battling Wrecker, the leader of the Wrecking Crew. Vision was dealing with Thunderball while Wasp evaded Piledriver's attempts to catch her – all the while shooting her stingers at him – which left Bulldozer somewhere in the area.
The sound of glass breaking was the only warning Steve got before the villain in question came at him through a shop window on his right, catching him before Steve could remove his shield from his back. He flew to the side, hitting a lamp post. The metal bent under the impact, leaving Steve gasping for air as his entire ribcage felt like it was on fire.
"Cap!" he heard Clint's voice, distant and weak although it was probably coming from his earpiece. "I think Cap's down."
Steve tried to breathe – to speak up in order to tell them to keep fighting because he was fine. The sensation of someone having sat a few tons of steel on his chest eased a little but he still couldn't function and a shadow landed on him, a gloating chuckle breaching his consciousness.
"Look at you; Captain America, all winded."
A small explosion shook the ground – no doubt one of Hawkeye's arrows. The shadow above him moved, someone snarled, and footfalls stomped away from him.
Steve tried moving again but he barely got one hand against the ground before his ribs exploded with a new wave of pain. The serum had never seemed to take so long to heal him, but he wasn't going anywhere right then and all he could hope for was that he didn't make too attractive a target.
For a moment he went unnoticed – before a whoosh cut the air and Steve felt the earth shake beneath him. A wrecking ball landed in front of him an instant later, shaking the ground again, cracking the asphalt. "Let's see if that thick skull of yours is thick enough," Thunderball mused, yanking the wrecking ball off the ground – but it never fell.
"How about we see how thick your skull is when I slam your ass back in prison!" the familiar voice of Iron Man carried over to Steve's ears and he looked up in time to see Iron Man grabbing the chain between Thunderball and his weapon, swing it, and send the villain flying through the air – right into Thor's waiting fist. "Take them down!" Tony ordered next, halting in the air in a pose that kept him steady. "Wasp, light up Bulldozer's helmet from the inside; Vision, please remove Wrecker's magical crowbar from his possession; Thor, give Piledriver a helping hand; Clint, secure Mr. Ballsy over there."
"Really, Stark?" Clint's voice appeared in the comm but everyone moved to execute their given commands and the Wrecking Crew was secured in record time.
Iron Man landed on the ground beside Steve, by which time the super-soldier had struggled into a seated position. "You okay?" Tony asked.
"I thought I told you to monitor," Steve replied, still feeling a bit breathless.
"Yeah, well, that was until you got knocked down and kicked around," Tony shrugged one armored shoulder. "Can you walk?"
Steve looked up at him and gave him an honest smile. "Give me a minute," he asked, and Tony nodded.
"I know how it is," he joked – although not really because he really did know.
By the time a unit from S.H.I.E.L.D. had arrived to take care of the transportation of the villains, Steve was on his feet although standing hurt worse than sitting. Still, he insisted on driving his motorcycle back – which may have been a mistake because after standing up the seated position was excruciating.
"Okay," Tony stated as he met him in the garage, still in armor save for the helmet. "It's a good thing Jane Foster came to visit because you have a date with her in medical."
Steve felt like arguing but Tony was giving him a look and Steve still had trouble breathing so he soldiered through the walk and sat down on the examination table, carefully undoing the top of his uniform while he waited for their Jane to arrive. Tony stayed by the door, eyes checking out the prominent bruising on Steve's upper body.
When Jane arrived she was unsurprisingly followed by Thor. The Asgardian took one look at Steve and shook his head. "We should have struck our enemies harder for what they did to you, the cowards."
"It will heal," Steve reassured all of them. "A little R&R and I'll be fine."
"I'll take your word for it," Jane told him. "I don't think anything's broken, but try to relax for a few days. Rest, no long periods of standing up; no physical labor and definitely no battles."
"Yes, ma'am," Steve inclined his head.
Jane smiled and took her leave – with Thor; it was hard to tell which of them was more enamored by the other.
"Okay," Tony spoke up. "Time to get some of that rest."
Steve got to his feet gingerly, debated re-dressing but then decided against it. They stopped by Tony's armory, to leave the suit there, and then continued up towards their rooms. Tony didn't require any help walking – not that Steve would have hesitated to give him a hand if he needed it, despite his own injuries. The brunette took the lead as they reached the floors with the living quarters, and when they approached Tony's room the man grabbed onto Steve's arm. "Come on," he said, and pulled them both inside.
A little confused, Steve followed him in and closed the door. Tony didn't look like he needed much help today but Steve refused to leave him hanging in case he did because Tony almost never asked for help.
"Strip," Tony told him.
Steve blinked, even more confused.
Tony slowly removed his undersuit, then stood there in his underwear, looking at Steve expectantly. "Come on," he urged then, moving over. "Jane told you to rest."
"She did," Steve agreed. "I don't see how this –"
"Get in bed with me," Tony blurted out, then moved his hands to undo Steve's belt.
Steve wasn't sure he understood, even then, but he helped Tony remove his clothes, leaving him in his very snug underwear. Tony nodded approvingly, then took his arm again and pulled him towards the bed. Steve followed on instinct and Tony lay down, clearly planning on staying that way. Steve followed his lead more slowly, the pain making every little movement quite unpleasant, but once he settled down on the cool sheets and Tony pulled the covers on top of them, it was easier to relax.
"Do you need painkillers?" Tony asked, shifting a bit into a better position. The little bit of his chest that was visible was awash with the blue light of the arc reactor, and clearly he was seeking an optimal sleeping position with it in mind.
"I'll manage," Steve promised him and shuffled a bit closer to Tony, feeling their bare skins touch. It was intimate, much like being in the water with him – in the bath or in the pool. Knowing Tony hadn't minded so far, Steve slid an arm over him, fingers tracing the smooth skin of his forearm, trailing down to Tony's fingers – which spread to allow Steve's fingers in between them.
Tony burrowed a bit closer to him before letting out the air from his lungs and closing his eyes. "Lights," he murmured, and instantly the lights dimmed – not into an instant pitch black but gradually lowering towards a proper darkness that would be optimal for sleeping.
Steve settled down, listening to Tony's breaths that were controlled but steady, more relaxed than he had often heard them. The steady sound made it easier to close his eyes, to focus on something other than the pain in his ribs, and with the familiar smell of Tony in his nostrils, Steve drifted off, content and positive for the first time in a long time that whatever tomorrow threw at him, he had too many reasons to not back down.
It was about more than being human; it was about not being alone.