Songs: The Man Who Can't Be Moved, The Script / The Empty Bottle, Archive.
His first instinct is to kiss her on the lips when she comes in, well ahead of the morning rush that is customary on weekdays and wearing an Aztec print sweater that's probably around number three on Tony's Favorite Things That Pepper Wears List, and he's got his hand on her arm and his nose an inch or two from hers before he realizes that a gesture like that might not be socially or emotionally acceptable. So he turns the kiss into something more chaste and awkward and presses it to the corner of her mouth, where her lips have a slight downward tilt and his eyes immediately go because Pepper's mood determines his mood more often than not nowadays. Pepper turns into him and kisses his cheek, brief and uncomfortable and restrained, and Tony knows she's not ready for him to kiss her again, not anywhere, that he has to wait for her to be herself again before they do that friendly smackering they used to be so accustomed to before.
God, he hates himself. Especially because he loves Pepper, the only girl he's ever seen himself having a life with someday if fate took him down a somewhat happy, scarcely difficult route, and he's sort of-kind of broken up with her. Especially because he's in love with Loki, who just might be dead or possessed by a ghost of what he used to be by now, and Tony doesn't have much experience with mourning the dead, and he's never really loved or cared about a person or a people enough to feel grief at their passing – at least, not until Loki died out of his life, and not until last night, when Pepper the Girlfriend kind of died, too.
"Morning," he says, and he wants to catch her around the waist and hold her close like he used to, and a part of him suddenly realizes that they might as well have been boyfriend and girlfriend that whole time they were 'just friends' because he could do that to her before their romance began and it wouldn't have really been a problem, and he's also remembering that Pepper was a lot like what Loki was to him before he left, even though she's a fish and Loki's a bird.
Tony just squeezes her hand, though. That's not romantic, is it?
"No 'good' to go with that?" Pepper asks, raising a brow and letting her hand hang with Tony's in the space they've somewhat awkwardly created between them, more because of the fact that she's got a bag she needs to hang up and a card she needs to punch than any antagonistic or unfriendly feelings. Oh yeah, she'll be okay.
"Well, I didn't want to pressure you," is what comes out of Tony's mouth, and it comes out of his mouth smooth and lilting and just a tad sarcastic, like words used to when he was younger, harder around the edges, sure of himself. And his mouth smiles when he says it, easy and unpredictable, and he's noticing the way Pepper's looking at that smile like it's something rare, because it is rare when they're out in the open and Rhodey, Natasha, and Justin are all watching them in the discreet, mousey way they like to do.
"You're so good at that, Tony. Why would you stop now?" Pepper retorts. Her voice is vague and slightly impassive, and Tony doesn't know whether she wants him to let go of her hand yet or not.
"Didn't want to make you uncomfortable, I guess," he says, unhurt and almost scarily unaffected by the borderline insult she just threw at him. He releases her hand then, watches the way she keeps it in the air for a few moments before letting it fall to her side, where she balls it into a loose fist.
"Thanks," Pepper eventually says. She holds Tony's eyes for a half-second more before turning away to do her card-punching and bag-hanging. Tony doesn't keep looking at her for longer than necessary, because watching her while she's not watching him reminds him of what he did and he just doesn't like to deal with guilt any more than he absolutely has to.
The next hour is probably the most awkward period of time that has ever existed in Jarvis, even moreso than the day Natasha walked in to make her wages for the very first time, and all Rhodey and Justin could do was shuffle around the tavern and watch her like she was a fucking flamingo at the zoo, and all Pepper could do was pout and complain to Tony about how they never reacted like that around her, and all Tony could do was tell her things like 'it's just because they know they'd be fired if they did' and 'their opinions don't matter' and 'do their eyes matter as much as mine?', and there were too many accidents made and not enough work got done and Tony felt like he had just crawled out of a blender by the time his day was over. Anyways.
Tony spends this awkward hour avoiding everybody and trying to make it look like he's getting shit done, which he somewhat accomplishes by hanging around in his office and sitting behind his computer and glaring at e-mails from his parents and glancing at the telephone and contemplating the thought of calling his house to wake Steve up unnecessarily early and talk about the curious case of his livewire nerves. Rhodey and Pepper do a bang-up job of getting business started without his help, so it's not like he needs to lurk around them like his father would him whenever he decided to destroy and rebuild yet another car. Besides, Pepper probably doesn't want to interact with him too much right now (and he doesn't really blame her for that), and Rhodey is going to dawdle around and try to pull words out of him just like Justin and Natasha would, so Tony is mostly content with just leaning back in his desk chair, staring at the ceiling, and thinking about Loki.
He wonders what he's doing right now, alone and with no one to talk to. He thinks that if Loki hadn't ever left in the first place, he probably wouldn't be alone, and if he was, he'd be where Steve is – in Tony's bed. He thinks he might be conceited and greedy and lustful for thinking that, and he thinks he might be self-aware for thinking that, and he thinks he should be a little proud of himself for being self-aware, but he isn't ever proud of himself so that thought just dies really quickly.
Rhodey and Justin will poke their heads in the doorway and tell him they have a question for him, and every time they do, Tony will expect them to just come out and ask him what they're all obviously dying to know but too scared to get from Pepper for fear that the wrath of God will rain upon them – 'Did you and Pepper break up?', which could also translate into 'Is this going to be a sad day in paradise?', or 'Are you going to make us do unnecessary stuff while you mope around all day?', or 'Is Pepper still the mother figure in this establishment?' (the answers to these questions are 'kind of-sort of yes maybe I don't know yeah', 'yes', 'maybe', and 'of course', respectively), and every fucking time they do, Tony will prepare a coherent, composed, dignified response to this question, only to be asked something completely inane like, 'Do you have change for a five?' or 'Indie or classic rock today?'.
Yeah. How fucking clever of you, you guys.
By the time they open, though, everybody is a little less distracted and twitchy. Pepper waits on customers just like she'd do on a normal day, Rhodey keeps to his books without complaint, Natasha waits right alongside Pepper, Justin acts annoying and procrastinates and complains as usual, and Tony works the bar with a mindlessness that's comforting and unhealthy and natural to him – that is, until Steve walks in.
And it's not a problem or a bother to Tony, really; it's just a bit atypical that Steve would come in to see him two days in a row, and when he does do that, it's usually because something's amiss. Tony considers the fact that this week truly is quite far from normal (and it actually hasn't totally sunk in with him how very abnormal it's been, despite the generous dose of depressive monologues he's been mentally feeding himself since Sunday, despite the fact that his relationship status has just changed, despite the fact that he's been wondering a lot more than he used to, despite the fact that a star dropped out of the sky and landed in his backyard – Tony doesn't feel it all yet, doesn't feel the wave of shock or the realization that things are irreversibly different even though they clearly are, doesn't feel much more than miniature epiphanies and bursts of hurt and love and self-loathing through the wall of numbness that's closed up around him) when he starts to question Steve's presence, and it takes him a few delayed moments to break up the ice cage that holds him enough to register that friends are good things and that they're even better when they're with you.
Steve is wearing an worn old hooded sweater that belongs to Tony and the same holey jeans he had on yesterday, his cheeks and forearms smeared with grease, and something about his appearance alone tells Tony that he's going to stay the night again, but he doesn't know why Steve would want to do that or how that makes him feel.
"You look lost," is the first thing Steve tells him when he gets close enough to the bar, and then Tony does the weirdest thing and just dissociates all of a sudden, and he sees himself standing behind the bar with a rag in his hand and the most distant look on his face, and it occurs to him that Steve's right and that Steve is almost like a mirror to him sometimes and that he can't really imagine his life without having Steve there to tell him, 'you look lost'.
"I feel lost," he replies. Rhodey glances at him from over the crossword puzzle he's working on. Justin looks at him, too.
Steve studies him rather coolly for a few seconds, and then, Tony automatically knows that this whole thing that constitutes himself and his behavior has come to the point where something needs to be done about it. He and Steve have been friends long enough to know each other's modus operandi when one of them is in trouble, and while his simply consists of the near-autonomous compulsion to interrogate, panic, apologize profusely, and panic when he senses even the smallest sign of danger, Steve has a little more tact and patience than he does. Steve will wait a day or two before confronting the problem, and when he does go about said confronting, he does it gently and softly and carefully and not at all aggressively, much unlike his younger, darker counterpart.
"You're still upset about last night," Steve says. It's a statement, not a question, but he says it in a way that allows Tony to correct or invalidate it if he wants/needs to.
"What about last night?" Tony asks. He makes the mistake of looking away from Steve then, and I say that this is a mistake because of how easily it exposes his rawness, his heart that hasn't been touched in the right way for such a long time, his bitterness, his ugliness. He swipes his rag across the counter a little too roughly, his eyes on a dark, pretty, imperfect little whorl in the wood that reminds him of Loki, that he thinks Loki would like if he got to see it, that he thinks Loki would take a picture of if he was anything like he was before, and he adds, "Last night was pretty long, if you didn't notice."
Steve doesn't deserve his childishness, and he knows it. That doesn't stop Tony from hanging on to his Peter Pan syndrome, nor does it stop Steve from taking it like an expert (which he kind of is after all these years).
"Okay, let's start from the beginning," Steve prompts, taking a seat at the bar and basically forcing Tony to stay put and stop his nervous cleaning (because it's hard for Tony to move if Steve isn't, and that's more out of instinct than choice). The blond rests his oil-stained cheek against a closed fist, his elbow propped against the bartop, and Tony grabs a new, clean rag as he asks, "Did I do something wrong?"
"No," Tony replies. He doesn't care what he looks like when he leans across the bar and dabs at the grease on Steve's exposed cheek, but he's very much aware of how many eyes are on him as he executes the action. Steve takes the cloth from him and finishes the job himself just shy of irritably before throwing the rag back at Tony, and it hits the man's stomach before falling to the floor, where Tony will leave it until it bothers him enough.
"Are you lying?" Steve asks. That's the question he usually catches Tony with, and Tony hates him in that moment for voicing it.
"No?" he goes, because he's not even completely sure if Steve did something wrong or not, and sometimes there's absolutely no correlation between his feelings and what's actual and factual, and he'll occasionally get mad at Steve for stupid reasons like being a better man than he is and liking Loki and being concerned for him and never getting upset over shit that doesn't matter, and Tony's always so quick to point out his own flaws in others that he might as well just say 'no, I hate myself, so it's not you I'm mad at, it's the me I see in you that I'm pissed off with'. He'd be telling the truth if he did say that, but that's kind of wordy and his mind has a thing about working faster than his mouth can handle, so he just doesn't say much more and makes this frustrated little noise in the back of his throat in a shoddy attempt to articulate his feelings.
"That's a question – not an answer," Steve points out. "Are you asking me to answer for you?"
"No," Tony replies with a growl, and that's the third negative he's spit out during the course of this conversation.
"What are you saying, then?" Steve inquires, blinking rather meaningfully. This is how the man confronts problems – he just asks a lot of questions really impassively until the person he's asking gets pissed off and/or emotional enough to just vent anything and everything that might be found inside them, and Tony's been on the tail end of these interrogations, crying like he never thought he ever could or would, more times than he can count on both he and Steve's hands.
"I'm saying that I'm an illogical jackass," Tony sighs. He glances away from Steve for a moment to look around the tavern, and when he does, he finds that every single one of his employees are looking at him with varying levels of discretion, worry, and confusion. Pepper's gaze is the most intent, so Tony ignores her more than he does anyone else, because he knows what Pepper's thinking, knows she thinks he's about to go off on Steve or break down right there because of some gem of guilt inside him, and while he is pretty remorseful right now, that's not the only thing bothering him and he doesn't want to entertain her assumption that yes – he's just a guilty ex-boyfriend.
"Why do you say that?" Steve pushes.
"Because–" Tony starts to say, and then his hand flies up to latch onto his head, his fingers tearing through his thick, messy hair roughly and painfully because goddammit, he needs to think slower if he's ever going to answer Steve correctly and he shouldn't have to tell Steve things that he knows will upset or hurt him, even if he forces him to, and that's basically because of the fact that they're friends and friends shouldn't think offensive thoughts about friends, you know?
Steve doesn't say anything while Tony composes his reply. He has an uncanny talent for staying quiet and not looking around, he does.
"Because I get jealous of you?" Tony begins, and fuck, that was really horrible and uncertain and not at all what it sounded like in his head, so he immediately scraps everything he planned to say and runs in the direction he started off in. "And I mean, that's a good thing, right? Because obviously you're doing something good if I envy you for it." He looks at Steve. "Right?"
"Well, there's a difference between jealousy and envy," Steve points out, and Tony kind of wants to punch him out for that, more because of the fact that that's such a Loki thing to say than because he's being aggravating and nitpicky.
"Enlighten me," he snaps. Steve smiles.
"Jealousy is experienced when you believe that someone is giving something that you think you deserve, like attention or affection, to someone else," Steve explains in his markedly nerdy, matter-of-fact sort of tone Tony's been hearing since forever ago. "Envy is resentment caused by the want of what another person has, or the fear or assumption that said person has what you want." He crosses his arms on the bartop. "What is it, then?"
Tony processes Steve's words at least a hundred times over, and it takes him a little while to make his thoughts and feelings fall in line with Steve's logic, and even when he does, the cogs don't fit together perfectly. "I guess it's both," he goes, "But more envy? I don't know. I'm thinking about two different things at once, now."
"Uhm, then take them one at a time?" Steve suggests, and the fact that the thought of focusing on one thing and one thing only hasn't even crossed Tony's mind and yet it's simply common sense to Steve says something pretty fucking profound about the two of them. God, do you see how little they've progressed in this conversation so far?
Tony sighs a long, drawn-out sigh, pulls a stool up to the counter, sits on it, and hides his face by creating a sort of archway around it with his hands and arms. He says, "I'm jealous of you because…" he swallows, prepares himself for the backlash of what he's about to reveal, then lets it out in a rapid, gusty exhale. "BecauseyoulikeLokiandthat'snotfairtome."
And Steve doesn't say anything for a few long moments, and it's almost worse to listen to the silence when Tony can't see his friend's face or know what the silence even means, and he's imagining that the silence is a brick wall he's about to run into because he's blind and he's forgotten his walking stick at home, or that it's icy air Steve's about to blow in his face, or that it's a bomb ready to go off, even though Steve really isn't an angry person, and the only time Tony ever saw him get pissed off enough to start yelling was the time his dad accidentally said 'faggot' when they were in ninth grade, and Loki just started crying in the middle of Steve's living room because Mr. Rogers said it in a derogatory way and he'd just started to figure out that boys were just as beautiful as girls were to him, and Steve was just so angry when he screamed at his father like that, and Tony doesn't want to be Steve's father. No.
But when Steve opens his mouth and speaks, he's not yelling. He asks, really quietly and slowly, "Are you sure you're jealous of me? Or are you jealous of Loki?"
"No," Tony replies, but Steve's changed his perspective, and suddenly, he doesn't know, so he says that. "I don't know." He mentally reviews Steve's definition of jealousy for a second, and that's when he realizes that it kind of doesn't make any sense to say he's jealous of anything, because you don't get happy of people or mad of people – you just experience emotions in response to them.
"I guess I just don't like the fact that you like him and he pays attention to you," Tony mumbles. He knows that that's a shitty thing to say. He knows that that's a shitty way to feel. He knows that Rhodey's listening to their conversation from where he sits, and that even though the man is at least six feet away from them, he's eavesdropped on Tony and Pepper enough to know how to catch every mutter and whisper that might come out of Tony's mouth.
And suddenly, everybody in the tavern knows that Tony is unfaithful, in love with some boy he hasn't seen in five years, and a horrible friend.
"He paid attention to you last night, too," Steve points out in a voice louder than what makes Tony comfortable, and oh shit – he said 'last night', so now Pepper knows that last fucking night, the night he called her and sort of-kind of broke up with her, he and Steve were hanging out with the bird - Loki. "Maybe that would have been more apparent to you if you actually gave him more than three-word sentences to work with."
"I know," Tony whines/hisses, pressing his palms against his face.
"And I've always liked Loki, remember?" Steve points out (this is just getting worse and worse), "Remember, Tony? Remember when we were in the fourth grade and I wrote him that long poem about everything he liked? Remember that?" Tony does, but he doesn't say anything because the memory makes him uncomfortable and shameful and just a tad bit irritated.
But then Steve says the most awful thing, and Tony seriously wonders why the man hadn't denounced their friendship years ago, because he's just the biggest asshole and he knows it and he doesn't do anything to stop it, even when Steve's feelings get hurt.
"How do you think I felt every time you and Loki would run away because you had to show him something cool or because he had a secret to tell you, huh?" Steve asks, his voice strained and bitter. "How do you think I felt every time I woke up the morning after you guys spent the night and I saw you two all huddled together and knew you fell asleep like that? How do you think I felt every time someone asked Loki who his best friends were, and yours was the first name out of his mouth? Tell me, Tony. Tell me how you think I felt."
Pepper walks behind the bar and into the back room. Tony knows it's her and not Natasha because he knows how Pepper's shoes sound on the floor and he's memorized the rhythm of her step after hearing it so much.
"Awful," he whispers.
"And it's not just that, Tony," Steve goes on. "I also happen to be Loki's friend, you know. Friends pay attention to each other."
"I'm sorry I'm not you, Steve," Tony murmurs, peeling his hands away from his face to look at this man he's lucky to call friend, this man he's lucky to have to hold him at night and talk him into sanity, this man who's been his rock since before they were men at all, since they were only boys on a playground, since he was just bold and Steve was just meek, since before Tony knew anything about being in love or being in love with Loki.
Tony knows Steve's not going to stay upset with him, and that makes everything worse. He knows what Steve's going to say, and he lowers his head and thumbs a tear out of his eyes when he hears it, just as clear as he did in his head – "It's okay, Tony."
"No it's not."
"Tony, shut up," Steve orders. He lowers his head to catch Tony's eyes, damp with barely-shed tears, and his whole face just melts into a mask of compassion and worry and adoration when he sees the pain there, when he sees that yes, that wall of numbness is breaking down now, that Tony's feeling something deeper than he has in five years, and oh Lord does he hurt. Tony didn't fully realize it until just now, but Lord does he hurt.
It's been five years since Loki left, and Tony doesn't know how he's been dealing until today, until this very moment, when he realizes that he's been declining as a human being and he doesn't feel guilt or happiness the right way and he's been kind of ignorant to emotions and he sees Loki in everything and everybody and he can't breathe or talk like he used to and his personality is different and he needs medicine to feel normally and he's been afraid to grow up and he's been declining as a human being, been declining as himself. And something is wrong with him – something has to be wrong with him, because even though Steve loves Loki, too, Steve hasn't been falling down inside himself every day since he left.
(Why did he have to leave?)
"I get it, Tony," Steve says, "You're human. It's fine."
"I'm not," Tony whispers. Rhodey stands up.
"Yes, you are," Steve insists. He reaches out to touch Tony's hand, and it flies up as if it's been burnt, presses against Tony's right temple and peels his eyelid back, and Tony is gasping silently and desperately, because he forgot his medicine and he cannot breathe.
"I don't feel like it," he rasps. Steve stands up, reaching across the bar to take his wrists in his hands, but Tony is pulling away, rushing into the back and into his office, where his jacket is, where his computer needs to be turned off, where he can hyperventilate and wipe his eyes for five minutes before he's out of there, dragging Steve home so he can take his medicine and lie in bed while the man makes him tea.
And that's exactly what they spend the rest of the afternoon doing. Nobody asks Tony why he's leaving, one – because this isn't the first time Tony's had a panic attack at work, and two – they did witness his whole world break and crumble. They don't say anything; they barely even react beyond a meaningful look or two, but Tony knows they care by the way Justin gives him a grudging, knowing little nod on his way out the door, by the way Natasha's already manning the bar by the time he's emerged from the back, by the way Rhodey claps a hand against his shoulder before he's even out of the back, by the way Pepper stops him in the doorway of his office to give him a brief, comforting hug that Tony knows is a favor to him and not something she's doing totally of her own will. He still appreciates it.
Tony falls asleep in his freshly-made bed after he's taken his medicine and finished two mugs of chamomile and green tea, and he only finds peace is by pressing his back against Steve's side while the man fills six more pages in his brand new sketchbook with wood grains and tea leaves and heart monitors and angled, piercing eyes. All he does is dream of the past.
"Do you feel better?" is what he wakes up to, and Steve's voice is distorted and soft and Tony wonders if he's mentally ill when he hears it, wonders if he's developing schizophrenia, because he's always paranoid and he thinks he's hearing Loki ask him that, thinks that if he leans up Loki will kiss his forehead and lay down beside him and ask him about his dreams and about the stars and about his favorite flavor, which Tony will tell him is him.
"What time is it?" Tony mumbles against his pillow. His bed is warm and his comforter is pulled tightly around him, so he still feels like he's half-buried in a tomb of sleep, and the only thing that tells him otherwise is the color of the light in his peripheral vision, incandescent yellow instead of the red he'd see in his old room, the green he'd see in Loki's, the blue he'd see in Steve's.
"Like, seven-ish," Steve replies. He repeats his question in his distorted, old video tape voice. "Do you feel better?"
Tony neglects to answer, just groans at Steve's record of the time and brings a hand up to cover his face, his fingers pressing into his head, and fuck, he's suddenly aware of the fact that he's never going to live normally ever again, that he may just spend every day of his life having panic attacks and not working and thinking about Loki and sleeping and considering weird things like suicide and the color of Steve's hair and Pepper's freckles, and he feels so awfully stuck and so helpless, and this feeling of dread is getting to be unbearable, and he really just can't do a thing to change that, you know? He's unable. That's just it.
"What's wrong?" Steve asks. The mattress shifts when Steve moves, and Tony can feel where the man drives his elbow into the bed as he leans over him. His mind is suddenly assaulted with thoughts of everything that's wrong, including things like world hunger and the state of the government and the ozone layer, and he lets out a small, nearly silent whine.
"Tony," Steve pushes, mistaking the man's lack of a verbal response for stubbornness (which is completely understandable when you remember who Tony is).
"I was gonna go see Loki today," Tony mumbles into his hand, and what do you know – he's still being an asshole. How surprising.
Just to make things a little worse for him, Steve remains the better man and says, "We can visit him. It's not that late."
"No," Tony huffs. He covers his head with his comforter.
A beat of silence, then Steve asks, "Why not?"
"I can't," Tony sighs. He listens to the groan that escapes Steve and recognizes the source of his aggravation, recognizes that Steve's irritated with the fact that Tony's unable more than he is with his actual answer.
"Why not?" Steve repeats, and he's basically telling Tony that he knows he's about to say something selfish and awful, that he knows Tony's flawed and hurting and unable, that he knows his feelings might get hurt by whatever's about to come out of Tony's mouth, and, more than anything, that he doesn't care.
"I was gonna take him back here," is what Tony replies, peeling his comforter off of his head and balling it up in his hand, and he admits that more because he's tired of playing word-tennis than because he actually wants to reveal how much of a selfish douche he is. He adds, "So he can have a place to stay for free," to the end of his statement when he realizes that it sounds like he wants to have sex with Loki, and even though he does (no sane person wouldn't, what with the legs and the ass and the mouth and the everything on that man), that's not the only reason why he'd prefer to have him under his roof than crammed in a motel room and wasting Lord knows how many funds he has under his thumb.
"Oh," Steve replies, his whole form deflating with what could be anything that lies between realization and disappointment. He kind of just sits there and looks at Tony for a few long, quiet moments, and Tony gets the vague feeling that Steve is waiting for him to say something self-deprecating or humbling or at least a little apologetic, but he has no idea what to give him, and here comes that feeling of helplessness and inability again, that realization that he can't move forward without Steve pushing him to be a better man or his parents pushing him to be angry all the time or Pepper pushing him to care about things or all the people around him pushing him to change and evolve out of the mold Loki set him in when he left, and jeeze, he should be more resentful about this, but all he can feel is tired and blind and unable.
And then Steve asks, "Why can't you do that with me here?", and even though the way the question comes out of him isn't particularly bitter, the question itself kind of is, and Tony just hates himself for pushing Steve like this, for inciting him to be this way and get all underhanded like he never does under normal circumstances.
"I don't know, Steve," Tony huffs, and they're throwing words at each other again and they're getting all aggravated with one another and they're not even having a real conversation anymore, because all Tony can say is 'I don't know' like the child he is and all he can be is avoidant and passive aggressive, and even though it's probably very obvious at this point, let it be known that Tony's inability is about seventy-five perfect his fault despite the fact that he keeps blaming it on Loki with only a fraction of the anger he should have.
"Yes, you do," Steve argues, and when Tony raises his head in an abrupt snap to glare at him like an irritated adolescent lion, his short mane a sleep-tousled mess atop his head, Steve pushes up off of his elbow and sits up and looks Tony in the eyes and says, "You just don't want to hurt my feelings."
"Well, of course I don't!" Tony cries, his voice louder than it's been in months (the last time he ever said something with so much volume, he was caught in an argument with his mother about the affairs and dealings of his father). He inhales a shallow, shaky breath, watches the way Steve's face contorts into something reminiscent of anger but a lot more like sorrow and frustration, and asks, "Is there something wrong with that?"
Steve half-opens his mouth once before he's closing it just as rapidly and exhaling fast and hard through his nostrils, pursing his lips together, and fixing Tony with a look that seems to function as a yellow light of warning. Tony feels like he's just been socked in the jaw when the man says, slowly and softly, "I'm not a child."
"Yeah, but you're my friend!" Tony retorts, his breath suddenly a whole lot shorter than it was a few seconds ago. Of course, Steve has a much better argument, and of course, he isn't hesitant to throw it at him like a fastball flying in the direction of an unprepared, physically disabled batter.
"Exactly, Tony! I am your friend! I expect you to tell me the truth, even if it does suck!" is what Steve tells him, and listening to that is so exhausting that Tony can't help but lie his head back down. He doesn't say anything, but that's only because he's lost, only because he's scared, only because Steve told him to speak and he has a really bad peeve about following directions.
Steve's voice is uncharacteristically hard and confrontational when he asks for a second time, "Why can't you bring Loki here when I'm here?"
"I want him to myself. That's why," Tony mumbles into his hand where it rests over his mouth almost on accident. He's six years-old and drowning in the sea of his bed again, because he'd rather die of comfort than face monsters like responsibility and honor and live through the battle, and he remembers his father telling him that he wasn't ever going to be ready for when life attacked at the slow, selfish, scared rate he was going, and he agrees with him, you know, he really agrees with him when he's lying around having panic attacks and avoiding his best friend for no good reason other than the fact that he's fucking unable.
Steve's response is heart-stopping. Tony can actually feel his chest clench with emotion and dread and guilt and fuck when the man says, totally upfront and not at all embellished or sugar-coated, "Why would you even worry about that when you already have him all to yourself?"
It's not that Tony believes him or anything, but Steve's words force him to pay attention to perspective, something he's learned that privileged people are virtually incapable of having or appreciating. He knows exactly where Steve's coming from in his assumption that he's got it in the bag, this whole winning Loki thing, but he also knows that Steve only thinks that because he's been institutionalized to by the way they both grew up – Steve a lower-middle class and Tony a modern-day Tutankhamen –, by the way Tony's always been concerning Loki, brash and possessive and charming and irresistible, by the way Loki's always been concerning Tony, starry-eyed and pliable and impossibly devoted and eternally dependent, by the way things have always worked in Tony's near-complete, radical favor and in Steve's give-or-take-but-mostly-take contentment. Tony doesn't blame Steve for thinking what he's thinking, but he does wish that Steve would see that Loki's star to him now, too, and that he's never had that much experience with losing things or wanting things he can't really have, not like Steve has.
So he sort of-kind of sums all of that up in three words. "It's different now." Steve's smart. He'll get it.
And he does get it. He gets it so goddamn well that he can keep arguing, which is totally unlike Steve but also very understandable when he's gone such a long time not arguing with Tony or Thor or anybody worth arguing with.
"Yes, it's different." He does that a lot when he debates – agrees with his opponent before shoving their opinion back in their face all dressed up in shiny new clothes that are all kinds of 'fuck you' and 'you're wrong'. "That doesn't mean you still haven't won."
Tony doesn't even know if Steve's not in his favor anymore, and holy shit, this is what makes their arguments so frustrating, what makes Tony hate himself and doubt he and Steve's friendship and inflate his own self-worth too often, this – this habit Steve has of making him the constant winner even when the price or its consequences are pretty shitty or even when he's losing inside or even when winning would be a tragedy in more ways than it would be a victory. God, this situation sucks, god, this world sucks, god, god, goddammit all to hell (goddammit all to New York?).
"It's fine, though," Steve goes on when Tony refuses to do anything but stare at the ceiling with his broken irises and his palm quietly suffocating him. He looks away from him, then, crosses his legs and grabs his sketchbook and props it up on his knee and starts to press lead into his page and says, "I just want to be allowed to be Loki's friend."
That jolts Tony into speech. "I'm not your keeper," he says through parted digits. "You don't need my permission to be Loki's friend."
Another beat, then Steve says, "I know. I just don't want to piss you off."
What a kick in the teeth. Here Tony is, selfish as can be and guilty as a murderer and not doing a thing to change that, and Steve doesn't want to piss him off.
"Don't feel bad," Steve adds before Tony can unscramble his thoughts enough to start to come up with something to say. "I'm fine." He pauses, and Tony listens to the sound of Steve's pencil scratching along his paper in one long, likely beautiful stroke. "We're okay."
Tony is tempted to disagree with Steve just because he also has a peeve about listening to others, but he seriously appreciates his friend's desire to drop the subject and make up too much for him to do something as stupid as pushing the limit would be, so he just inches closer to Steve and pushes himself up and rests his chin on the man's strong, firm shoulder to watch him capture the lovely face of a woman in her twenties, someone obviously real in her excess and her perfect imperfection. He thinks about how lanky and thin Steve used to be when they were younger when he notices the gracefulness with which he handles his pencil, and maybe it's just in an artist's nature to be careful like that, but Tony thinks it's a rarity for someone as large and strong as Steve to be so tender with everything, like the world is full of baby birds and glass animals for him to hold. Tony also notices the stubble dusted along Steve's chin, jaws, and upper lip, and it's almost odd to see that there when Steve is usually so clean-shaven, so he takes it upon himself to point it out.
"You didn't shave this morning," he says. Steve's eyelashes, long and thick enough to have women green with envy, flutter a bit with thought or acknowledgement or that thing he has that makes him soft and pensive and wistful and beautiful.
"I didn't," he agrees. He darkens his graphite woman's lips with the side of his pencil tip. "I think I'll try a beard out for a little while."
"That's my thing, though," Tony whines rather childishly. Steve's pencil tip freezes at the corner of his woman's mouth as he turns his head to level a look at Tony, and Tony smirks and wiggles his chin along Steve's shoulder and brings an arm over to rest in a loose curve around Steve's middle in response, and it's obvious that he's kidding, obvious that he's joking and obvious that he's not upset, not anymore, not for now, and hopefully not for the rest of the night.
"You don't own facial hair, Tony," Steve laughs, turning back to his portrait. "Just because yours is awesome doesn't mean you can dictate everybody else's."
"Except I actually can," Tony retorts, moving to cradle his head in the curve of Steve's neck and shoulder and sighing softly. He lets his eyes fall closed. "I patented it."
"Bull," Steve snorts. He smells like soap and oil right where Tony's got his nose tucked into the place where his neck meets his shoulder, and Tony is suddenly thinking about Loki and his citrusy fresh scent, and his mind does this thing where it shows him an image and he's stuck between being human and enjoying it or being godly and rejecting it. He's seeing the back of Loki's shoulders after he's gotten out of the shower and the dampness lying on his skin like a blanket and his hair curling up to reveal his neck and the dark little freckle on the crest of his left shoulder, so kissable and missable unless you're Tony and you've seen it time after time and Loki's let you run your fingers over it until his skin tickles. And Tony thinks that New York probably missed that freckle, because it's much too small and much too trivial to notice if you aren't looking for it, if you aren't dying to press your lips to it and watch as Loki shivers.
New York probably didn't miss Loki's eyes, though. Loki's eyes are killers – the first obvious attraction in the show that is him, green and blue and gray all at once, pale enough to be angelic, stormy enough to be devilish, rimmed with the darkest, prettiest lashes and accented with the most elegant of brows. New York had to notice Loki's lips, too, and his legs and his hands and his hair and his neck, and New York had to notice Loki's words, so powerful and elegant and beautiful, and New York had to notice Loki's voice, rich and sweet and smooth like honey, and New York had to notice Loki when his feet hit a stage, had to notice how he seemed to fall away from everything mortal and turn into this god of infinite personalities and souls and hearts when he got his hands on a monologue, and fuck, Tony's pretty sure New York noticed everything about Loki but his freckle, because everything about Loki but his tiny, insignificant little freckle is spectacular, and that makes him so angry he could cry for years.
A freckle. That's all he has.
"What do you want for dinner?" Steve asks, unintentionally breaking Tony's train of thought. Tony can only watch as it crumbles into the sea, as the waves of reality crash and beat against it until it's nothing but foam and vapor.
"I don't care," he mumbles. He can feel his cheek sliding down the back of Steve's shoulder and his skin catching along the fabric of his shirt as gravity starts to take its toll, and he opens his eyes and hooks his chin securely over the ridge of Steve's shoulder again, gropes around in the emptiness of his mind and tries to latch onto something that will make him either wildly ecstatic or terribly depressed.
Unsurprisingly, he can't be moved by anything, not one damn thing – of course, with the exception of Loki.
"Is take-out alright with you?" Steve pushes. He's treating Tony normally again, and Tony knows that Steve knows that that's about the best thing he can do for him at this point – just treat him like he would on any other day until the day that is any other day finally comes along, a day without panic attacks and unexpected arguments and unnecessary tears and no more than eight hours of sleep.
"Yeah," Tony says. He thinks to himself that he's going to go get Loki tomorrow for certain, even if God himself came down from Heaven and ordered him not to, and he closes his eyes again and sighs at that thought, lets it fill him up with cool, refreshing air until his head grows light and his heart grows heavy, and he leans his forehead against Steve's neck and he forces himself to breathe slowly and steadily. Somewhere between then and when his shrimp fried rice goes cold and Steve is threatening to eat it, he falls asleep again. All he does is dream of the past.