Author: Del Rion
Fandom: The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes
Genre: Drama, angst, hurt/comfort
Rating: T / FRT
Characters: Steve Rogers (Captain America), Tony Stark (Iron Man). Also: JARVIS, Pepper Potts.
Small appearances from: Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel), Henry "Hank" Pym (Ant-Man/Yellowjacket), James "Rhodey" Rhodes (War Machine), T'Challa (Black Panther), Janet van Dyne (Wasp), The Vision.
Summary: After Iron Man suffers a brain injury during a battle, a guilt-ridden Steve Rogers stops at nothing to help Tony survive the aftermath, determined to be there for his friend during the most challenging time of his life.
Written for: Cap/Iron Man Reverse Bang 2013. Story based on & inspired by the beautiful art by the talented Gabbi! (gabbi . livejournal . c0m / 43219 . html)
Warnings: Violence and injuries, language.
Disclaimer: The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes, its characters and places belong to Marvel and all other creators involved in the making and distributing the show. No profit was made by writing this story and the author owns nothing at all.
Feedback: Very welcome.
About Dependence: Written during my first time experiencing a reverse bang (second fic of that particular round).
The world needs more AEMH fics.
Also, I have no idea how exactly this story grew from that simple image, but here we have it; I hope you all enjoy it!
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.
. . .
Author's note: I have no real experience with TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), or its effects, but I know a thing or two about watching someone's body not do what they want it to. So, that's the route I took, and I apologize for any medical/rehabilitational flaws that may appear in this fic. This is fiction, these are superheroes, and from what I took while exploring the subject online, the resulting problems from a TBI can vary a lot, depending on the damage.
Written for Cap/Iron Man Reverse Bang 2013, inspired by Gabbi's art!
Avengers Mansion, New York City
Tony came at him hard, throwing caution to the wind. At this point he should have been taking care, having already been thrown down several times, but the less steady his legs got, the more Tony kept forgetting what he had been told: when he was supposed to be cautious, he was brash; when he should have waited for an opening, he rushed in to make one by force.
Only, Steve wasn't going to give him an opening. He only needed to step aside, sweep his foot across the mat, and Tony went down, hard, not even trying to regain his balance at the last second. Not that it would have helped much.
"Fuck," Tony muttered into the mat.
"Had enough?" Steve asked, holding back a smile. Steve knew that if Tony wanted to go on, he would oblige – and he also knew that if he taunted Tony, or if Tony thought he was taunting him, their good-natured sparring would come to a grinding halt until the next big disaster busied Tony's brain enough to make him forget the humiliation.
Not that Steve needed the exercise with Tony, exactly, but he rather liked it. They worked together on the battlefield, and it was important that they maintain a certain balance between each other. Besides, a work-out with Tony in the armor was often better than what the training room had to offer.
However, shaping up Tony's self-defense and attack skills without the armor had little to do with Steve's own work-out and more with the fact that Tony could benefit from it. Over the years, it had become a comfortable routine, and Steve could see Tony making progress even when no one else could – Tony himself included. Steve had also learned how to avoid the landmines made up of Tony's pride and inferiority complex.
"Maybe," Tony finally replied and started to roll over. He was sweaty and close to calling it a day, but Steve guessed he might have one last round in him before he collapsed.
"Sir," JARVIS interrupted before Tony could get up. "There's an incoming distress signal from Madison Square Garden."
"Yeah?" Tony moved to sit on the floor. "What's on the menu today?"
"It would appear the cosmically-irradiated group called U-Foes has finally made an appearance." The villain group of four had managed to escape their prison a few weeks ago, and the Avengers, among many others, had been trying to track them down.
"Call the team together," Steve ordered. "Anyone who's close by." He looked down at Tony then, after the AI let out a sound of affirmation. "Are you up for this?" he asked.
"Please," Tony smirked and picked himself up from the mat, reaching for a towel, "this was a nice warm-up." He wiped his face and hair briefly, then twirled the towel in his hands. In the next second he was walking towards the door, and Steve moved to follow him. Tony was still a bit unsteady on his feet, so Steve caught up with him easily enough, then led them down the hallway until they came to the door that led to Tony's armory.
Steve was just about to tell Tony to suit up and meet him at the Assembly Hall when he felt something smack hard against his ass. He looked down just in time to see Tony's towel sway between them, and then met Tony's mischievous look. "See you in a bit, Cap," Tony mock-saluted him and stepped inside the armory to prep for battle.
With a smile of his own, Steve turned and continued down the hall to put his own uniform on.
The arena in midtown Manhattan had been the scene of many a villainous plot. Steve guessed that he had been here, fighting, more than he had actually gotten to visit the place off-duty. It was a shame, really; Steve liked sports well enough, even if they had changed somewhat from his time.
Wasp was already on the scene when Steve and Tony got there. Hawkeye arrived soon after with Black Panther, who had joined ranks with the Avengers while visiting the States.
"Is the Hulk coming?" Steve asked, looking at his four companions.
Hawkeye shrugged. "Haven't seen the big guy in weeks."
"I would have thought him interested in battling the U-Foes," Black Panther noted, then looked towards the main entrance. "Shall we?"
"Let's," Tony decided, and Steve nodded, leading them inside.
It wasn't hard to find the villains on most days, and this occasion was no exception. There were four of them, and the Avengers had fought the group at the Cube – a prison for radiation-based villains before the great breakouts; Steve was confident they could handle the situation once more, yet they shouldn't get cocky. That was when mistakes started to happen.
Led by a telekinetic called Vector – who looked like the shape of a man cut out of outer space, a constellation crammed inside his chest – the criminals were gathered on the main court, circling multiple hostages. Vapor, a woman composed entirely of gas, kept swirling around the group. X-Ray, a man wearing a strange suit with a face that looked exactly like an x-ray image inside the helmet, was zapping the hostages with electricity at random. The fourth member was Ironclad, who looked more like a giant robot with his dense metal body than a person.
"Avengers!" Vector called out when he noticed their entrance. "You're early for tonight's game."
"Let these people go, and we'll give you a show for free," Tony called out, full of bravado as usual. It didn't even bother Steve so much anymore, because it didn't surprise him like it used to. In fact, the day Tony lost his sass was the day they should all be concerned.
"You think me stupid, Stark?" Vector asked, clearly incensed.
"Nah," Hawkeye called out, "just a coward. Hiding behind a bunch of cleaning ladies and tourists." The archer already had an arrow ready, but he knew they needed to get the civilians out of the way first.
It shouldn't have been that easy to taunt their enemies…
"Take them down!" Vector shouted.
Then again, it usually was.
"Wasp," Steve called out, "blow Vapor away and then make sure these people get to safety. Iron Man, take down X-Ray. Hawkeye and Panther, deal with Ironclad. I'll take Vector."
There were no arguments and the Avengers moved out to take down their assigned opponents. Wasp flew into action first, her wings flapping, tearing Vapor to pieces before she could attack anyone. "Come on, people!" Wasp called out just as Iron Man flew right at X-Ray, picked him up and rocketed them both across the court before smashing the villain down. Hawkeye and Black Panther were already firing at Ironclad, who gave them chase, but both men were too fast for their bigger opponent.
That left Steve, who faced off against the leader of the U-Foes. Vector sent two chairs flying at him from the side, which Steve easily blocked with his shield, and then charged the man himself. Before he could strike, though, he felt his body leave the floor and get flung to the side by invisible hands. He hit the floor hard but climbed back up, dismissing the brief pain.
On the side, X-Ray was zapping Tony, but the armor seemed to be handling it well enough; Tony was moving closer, slowly, then eventually punched the villain in the face, sending him flying onto his back. Steve noted Tony's posture was getting better, then turned his attention back to Vector, and dodged another object tossed at him by telekinesis.
Hawkeye and Black Panther were doing well, and eventually Hawkeye sent an arrow flying at Vector, distracting him enough to let Steve slip closer and deliver a blow that would have knocked out a lesser man.
Vapor had pulled herself back together and whirled above them, then descended suddenly to where Tony was about to place a power dampener on X-Ray, and wrapped around the Iron Man armor. Steve cringed as the armored body went rigid; he remembered Vapor's suffocating kiss from their last battle at the Cube, and it was on the tip of his tongue to order someone to help Tony, but Tony suddenly stuck his hand out, seized X-Ray by the throat, and in a final attempt to overcome their enemy, X-Ray released an electric current at him. Of course, that current also hit Vapor, making her scream and fling herself away from Iron Man, who used the opportunity to blast them both with repulsor rays.
A sixth sense warned Steve just in time and he dodged to the side before a table flying through the air caught him in the back. Vector swore, and Steve rotated his body, then sent his shield flying. It was a hair's breadth from hitting Vector when it stopped, spinning in the air.
Steve crouched lower, bracing himself.
Vector smiled, raising a hand to make a point that he was controlling the shield. "Did you think we would just roll over and surrender?" he asked.
"The result would have been the same," Steve promised him, body ready to move.
With an annoyed huff, Vector sent the shield flying with an angry motion of his hand. Steve dodged easily, then watched the shield sail across the court – right at Tony, who was securing the two unconscious villains.
Tony was just starting to turn towards the sound of Steve's voice when the shield hit him on the side of the head, sending him to the floor with a loud crash. The shield fell beside him, lying still.
Steve whirled around and attacked, clearly taking Vector by surprise; the man seemed the type to enjoy his victories a little too much, which left him distracted and open. Steve had no problems using that to his advantage, hitting him hard enough to make his shoulder ache.
Another crashing noise made him turn back around, just in time to see Ironclad roll to the floor, several of Hawkeye's arrows embedded in him, with a few smoking mementos from the Panther among them.
"That wasn't so hard," Hawkeye noted, steadying his breathing.
Black Panther didn't reply, instead glancing over at where Iron Man still lay on the floor. "Stark," he called out.
"Maybe he finally got some sense knocked into his head," Hawkeye offered with a grin.
"The shield hit him pretty hard," Steve recalled and started walking over, trusting the archer to secure the last two villains. "Tony," he called out as he approached, but there was no reply. Black Panther was only a step behind him and they both crouched down by the prone body of their teammate. "Hey, Tony," Steve said again, tapping slightly at the armored shoulder.
"Captain," the Panther said, and Steve looked at him, then down at where he was touching the shield. There was blood on the edge of the vibranium disc, and Steve felt dread clutching his stomach. He quickly turned his gaze back to Tony, touching the back of his head, then carefully lifted it to check for injuries.
Sure enough, there was a deep gash in the side of his helmet, smeared with blood.
Steve knew that it took a lot to cause damage like that, but between vibranium and the extra force Vector may have pushed it with… Anger coiled inside him and he glanced back at the leader of the U-Foes, wishing he had hit him harder.
Black Panther reached over, curling his fingers around the helmet, and Steve felt it unlock. He helped Panther remove it from around Tony's head and supported the unconscious man as Panther inspected the wound. "He has not woken up yet," he mused. "We might have to take him to a hospital."
"Guys?" Wasp called out, flying back in.
"What's going on?" Hawkeye asked, walking over, Wasp following him.
"Oh, no, Tony!" Wasp called out as soon as she was close enough to see and flew over, then changed back to her actual size as she knelt beside Steve and Black Panther. "Is he okay?"
"He's breathing," Panther replied.
"That's a good thing," Hawkeye said, but he was quieter, more serious. "That was quite a blow…"
"Cut through the armor," Steve murmured, staring at Tony's still face, willing him to wake up and shrug it off.
"It wasn't your fault," Black Panther said suddenly.
"I let go of the shield," Steve stated.
Wasp looked between them. "We should get him to a hospital, right now. It doesn't matter whose fault it was, but he's bleeding!"
Steve moved his eyes, seeing the darker red staining his red gloves, then moved his eyes back to Tony's face. Did he always look so pale…? No. "He's going to be okay," Steve decided, and Wasp nodded eagerly, then got up to call Jane Foster.
The steady beep of the machines was almost maddening; as long as they didn't change, nothing else was going to change either – which meant Tony lying in a hospital bed, unconscious, with no one able to say when he was going to wake up.
No one had actually said the words 'if he wakes up', which was either from fear of being punched out by Captain America, or a sign that it wasn't that serious.
Well, it had been two days since the fight at Madison Square Garden, so Steve considered the situation worthy of some concern.
They had given Tony a private room – of course – and it was possible the attending doctors were privately hired by Stark Industries as well, but they hadn't moved him out of the hospital so in this room was where Steve sat, waiting, still in uniform although he had stripped the gloves off and pulled back the cowl, to make himself slightly more comfortable.
For two days people had come and gone, doing tests, writing down notes that made little to no sense when Steve looked at the chart hanging from the end of the bed. Their fellow Avengers visited daily, depending on who was in town and not fighting crime. More than once they had asked Steve to step outside, to go and find himself something to do.
Today was no different: Janet van Dyne and Hank Pym came by, with T'Challa and Carol Danvers. They were all out of uniform save for T'Challa, whom Steve had rarely, if ever, seen out of the Black Panther uniform.
"Still nothing?" Carol asked, resting a hand on Steve's shoulder.
Hank reached for the chart, flipping pages. "He suffered a brain injury; it's hard to predict how it's going to go from here." He put the chart back down while Jan moved to the other side of Tony's bed and touched the unconscious man's hand.
"He'll be fine," Jan reassured them. "It was just a little knock on the head…"
Steve's mind flew back to the moment when he had realized what Vector was doing. He heard the sound, over and over, and sometimes he imagined he perhaps heard Tony's skull breaking…
"It wasn't your fault," Carol said resolutely and sat down in a chair beside him.
"Carol's right," Jan chorused. "If that's why you literally haven't left this room for two days –"
"I didn't have his back out there," Steve snapped. "I need to… have it now."
"We have been fortunate, thus far, that we have not lost one of our own," T'Challa noted. "I know Stark to be a stubborn man. He's not going to let this slow him down."
"He needs to wake up first," Hank murmured. "After that, he can move as fast or as slow as he wants. Selfish… he's probably going to rub our concern in our faces once he wakes up."
Steve knew better than to get riled up about Hank's words; they were all concerned, and tired, and the scientist spoke a lot more in anger these days than he used to, like he wasn't bottling it up so much. Then again, he seemed angry all the time – or maybe it was just the Yellowjacket performance he put on.
"Let's go grab a bite," Carol suggested after a while, giving Steve's shoulder a solid slap.
"I'm fine," Steve replied.
"Have you eaten anything since yesterday, when I brought you that sandwich?" Jan gave him a serious look.
"No, ma'am," Steve hung his head, just a little.
Jan sighed and moved around the bed, scooting down in front of Steve. She took his hands, squeezing them desperately. "Come on, Cap. T'Challa will stay here while we're gone. You need to get some fresh air. Shower. Change. You seriously haven't left this room since they brought him in?" she asked, twisting her face as if imagining something disgusting.
"I'll leave when he wakes up," Steve said resolutely.
"And if he doesn't?" T'Challa asked. He was ever a… rational man, and right now Steve hated him for it.
"Then we'll be here for the long haul," he decided.
Needless to say, Steve didn't join the others in the cafeteria, but they brought him lunch.
That night, Steve stirred from his light sleep. At first he wasn't certain what had triggered it, but then he realized Tony's breathing had changed. Not by much, but enough for his keen senses to notice.
He sat up at once, leaning forward, and in the weak lights of the room that never went out, he could see Tony's eyes were open, searching the ceiling.
"Tony," Steve said, relief washing over him. The eyes stilled, then moved towards him slightly. Steve stood up and leaned closer, reaching out to touch Tony's hand as he did. When their skins touched and he applied a little pressure, Tony's arm flinched as if he had been shocked. Steve drew his hand back, alarmed, and looked at Tony. "How are you feeling?"
For the longest time, Tony just stared at him. Steve was afraid he had slipped away again, but then he blinked slowly and appeared to be looking around again. At that point, Steve guessed he should call for a nurse or a doctor, and reached over to press a button by the bed.
A nurse came in a long ten minutes later, looking bored and worn out. She was probably one of the hospital's own staff, because the ones Pepper Potts had hired didn't look so rumpled. "Did you need something, Captain?" she asked. Normally he didn't bother the staff, as long as they let him stay. All of them knew who he was, and who Tony was, and they knew better than to mess with him.
"He's awake," Steve noted, amazed she had missed it. If Steve hadn't been there, how long would it have taken for them to notice Tony had finally stirred?
"Oh," she said – and then ran out of the room.
Steve blinked after her, then glanced down at Tony. "That wasn't the reaction I was expecting," he mused, and he imagined he saw Tony's mouth curl in a smile, just a little.
"You're a lucky man, Mr. Stark," the doctor mused, shining a light into Tony's eyes for the fifth time. "You're recovering well, considering. TBI's nothing to fool around with," he noted, giving Steve a sideways glance, as if the two of them had been 'fooling around' when this happened. The doctor probably knew better, though. "Responses to stimuli are almost back to normal."
The day after Tony woke up had been unbelievably hard, regardless of the obvious relief. Tony spoke haltingly, as if his mouth didn't work right. He was frustrated, and kept dropping things if he was handed something – like pen and paper by Jan in order to establish a line of communication. Tony had looked ready to stab her with the pen when they realized his hands weren't really working.
The doctor left, saying he would come back later for some more tests, and Tony slowly, deliberately, rolled his eyes. "Oh. My. God!" he sighed, closing his eyes, leaning his head back, all in a dramatic way that was so like him. "If he was going to try and blind me one more time, I was going to strangle him with his stethoscope. Or have you do it," he amended, looking at Steve.
Once he had woken up properly, Tony had vehemently communicated there was nothing at all wrong with his mind. No blanks, no confusion. He remembered the fight, remembered being hit – and he wasn't carrying a grudge by the look of it, either.
What was the problem, however, was that his body seemed to be asleep still – or not in complete synch with his brain. Speech wasn't giving him that much trouble, although sometimes it was easy to tell Tony had to slow down, to focus on what he was saying, and sometimes use simpler, more easily pronounceable alternatives. Everything else, however, was putting him on edge, and he took it out on anyone who came by – unless he was in the process of hiding it.
Steve had already learned the difference between the two, and he felt worse whenever Tony figured out yet another thing he had been able to do a few days ago, but which now took extreme effort or was downright impossible. Any sparks of anger that followed those failures, Steve took willingly because he had participated in causing them, no matter how unwillingly or unintentionally.
"The doctor thinks you might be able to go home if the next scan looks promising," Steve mused.
"I heard," Tony murmured, eyes narrowing as he looked at the door of his room. He glanced at Steve next. "Or, you could just help me out of this bed and we could leave right now."
"I'm sure someone would spot me carrying you out," Steve raised an eyebrow at him.
"We could take the fire escape," Tony suggested, not even catching the 'carrying you out' part, which spoke volumes; Tony knew that if sitting up and holding items in his hands were giving him trouble, standing up and walking out might not happen at all, least of all while sneaking past the hospital staff.
Steve offered him a good-natured smile, at which Tony gave him a critical look.
"When was the last time you left this room?" the genius asked.
"When you arrived," Steve replied. No reason to lie about it, because as soon as Tony asked someone else, he would hear the truth.
"Huh," was Tony's only reply and he laid back down again. His fingers drummed an uneven rhythm on the bedspread for a moment, then stopped, and the rather familiar look of disappointment was back on Tony's features. "So this is Captain America guilt-tripping," he said next – probably after having gone over how the discussion was going to play out.
Steve wondered if he should admit it, or deny it, or go with one of the many excuses he had been giving the others. Before he could decide, the door opened and Jan flew in – literally flew – and the others followed behind her. The only ones missing, from the whole Avengers line-up, were the Hulk and Thor.
"Look who's up!" Jan greeted and grew back to her human size, bending over to smack a kiss on Tony's cheek.
"You were here yesterday, when I was also awake – and why didn't I ever get kissed before?" Tony complained.
"He's a grumpy patient. What a surprise," Clint rolled his eyes. "Good to see you back among the living, though."
"I wasn't dead," Tony frowned.
"They said you're recovering nicely," Hank noted, already looking through the chart.
"It's a cons… conspiracy," Tony replied, halting in the middle and looking mad at himself when it happened. "Did you at least bring me some nice 'get well' gift?"
"Did you want flowers?" Clint asked.
"I pointed out, on our way in, that flowers are considered a customary gift to those staying in a hospital," the Vision pointed out from the side. The synthezoid was looking at the room, probably analyzing every piece of equipment.
"I'm allergic to flowers," Tony claimed, which probably wasn't true – unless he meant the gesture of giving flowers. Steve was proud he knew Tony well enough to be able to figure that out.
"Then it's good we didn't bring you flowers," Hank noted and dug something from his large messenger bag, tossing it into Tony's lap. It was a teddy bear, about fifteen inches tall, with soft light brown fur and a small red heart in its lap that said 'We U'. Tony raised an eyebrow at it, then looked at Hank. The scientist shrugged. "Jan picked it out."
"It was so cute!" Jan enthused. "I really wanted to give it a whole Iron Man makeover, but we ran out of time."
Tony gave the teddy another look then started to toss it away. Steve reached out before he could, grabbing it and sitting it in his lap instead. Tony stared at him suspiciously, as if the plushie meant him bodily harm. "Thanks," he finally muttered, and gave Jan a somewhat genuine smile.
"Maybe we should have tied a miniature Cap shield on its arm," Clint suggested.
Carol elbowed him hard in the side. "That's tasteless, even for you."
"I thought his armor was supposed to be tougher than that," the archer muttered, rubbing his ribs.
"You're free to borrow my helmet and test it yourself," Tony offered.
"Okay," Jan cut in, "no one's throwing anything at anyone. Will they let you out soon?"
"Tomorrow, maybe," Tony answered. "Cap refused to sneak me out. How about you, Danvers?" he asked Carol instead. "There's a window right there. We could pick up take-out on the way."
"Charming, but no; we have errands to run, baddies to catch," Carol shook her head.
"I'll remember this, when one of you is stuck in a hospital," Tony threatened.
"Sure you will," Clint snorted. "Get better – we need him," he pointed at Steve.
"We need both of you," Jan amended quickly, and came over to kiss Tony's cheek again and then gave Steve a quick hug. "We'll see you tomorrow, if they won't release Tony. Otherwise, we'll have a welcome party ready at the Mansion!" She waved and ushered everyone else out of the door. It felt empty and quiet afterwards.
Steve looked down at the teddy in his lap, and after a moment Tony did the same. "He is kind of cute," Steve noted, picking it up with one hand and shaking the toy gently like one would to endear a child.
"If you're going to start baby-talking me, I'll shove it down your throat in your sleep," Tony threatened.
"You may try, soldier," Steve informed him. "I'm a light sleeper."
"Every time I look at you, you're awake. How do you not look worse than that?" Tony demanded to know.
Steve looked at himself. He could use a shower, sure, and he had barely cleaned up after the battle by the sink in a bathroom before they wheeled Tony into this room. He wondered if he should have perhaps taken a look in the mirror, seeing as so many people came and went while he just sat here. Then again, it hadn't seemed important how he looked when Tony was still unconscious.
"Give me that," Tony said, reaching out, and Steve offered the teddy to him. Tony's fingers curled around it, but as soon as Steve let go, the toy fell to the floor between them. Tony's fingers twitched, as if he were debating whether to admit what had just happened or not. Steve waited ten seconds before bending to pick up the toy, and then placed it beside Tony's hip on the bed. The brown eyes moved to stare at it, hard to read, but Steve was certain the same disappointed look was floating around in there somewhere.
"It will get better," Steve told him.
"And if it doesn't?" Tony asked, voice hollow.
"We'll fix this," he decided.
"You'll fix my brain?" Tony threw a look at him, the sadness and defeat washed away by anger. "Gee, it's good to know you're going to do better than the best trained professionals in the world!"
Steve took it, held it in, and swallowed it down. It felt like acid, but he deserved it. He had let go of his shield, knowing full well that when fighting a telekinetic, anything that wasn't directly fixed into something solid was fair game. He had sent his shield flying, and might as well have delivered the blow to Tony's head personally.
Tony let out an angry huff, and for a moment Steve was afraid he would start hyperventilating. There had been a miniature panic attack on the first day, when Tony wasn't yet fully aware of what was going on, and he didn't wish to repeat that.
"Just breathe," Steve reassured him, touching his hand. He knew Tony hated the sensation now, because it felt wrong – that's why he'd flinched the first time Steve did it, right after he woke up. However, it took Tony's mind off whatever was trying to set him off.
"You should tell me I'm an idiot," Tony informed him. "Tell me I'm going to be okay, and that it wasn't your fault. That it was no one's fault. You should go home with the others and then maybe come pick me up tomorrow."
"We'll leave together tomorrow, if they let you go home," Steve told him, not for the first time.
Tony gave him a baleful look, then just sagged back on the bed, against the pillows. "I'm not sure I want to go home. Not that I want to stay here, but…" Something seemed to dawn on him, suddenly, and he closed his eyes, looking at bit happier. "It's going to be okay."
Steve wasn't certain whether to trust that statement.
"Tony, are you sure?" Pepper Potts asked. "They said you need extensive therapy –"
"And they're still letting me leave," Tony cut her off. "Trained professionals agree I'm free to leave the hospital, so I am. I've taken up enough space here. Hand me my shirt."
She looked indecisive, and turned to Steve. "Do you know what he's up to?" she asked.
"No, ma'am, but they cleared him to leave," Steve admitted, then looked at Tony. "Should we… make arrangements? Ms. Potts is right, they said you need rehabilitation."
"I'll arrange that. The best money can buy, of course," Tony mused, struggling with his shirt. He was losing the battle, and eventually Pepper sighed and reached over to help, finding the sleeves and then buttoning it up. "Did you get the plane ready?" Tony asked then, swaying slightly, his body still struggling to maintain the position as he sat. They had made him walk this morning, which had been painful to watch, but Tony was a survivor and he had promised to work on it, only he didn't need to be in a hospital to do it.
"Plane?" Steve frowned.
"Tony, you need to get home, and rest," Pepper said.
"I am going home," Tony insisted. "I'm going to Malibu."
Steve felt something shift inside him – something large and painful. "What's in Malibu?" he asked.
"My house," Tony shrugged. "I'll get things sorted out and... shoes," he pointed, and Pepper bent down to pick them up.
Steve's hand shot out, preventing her from doing it, and he met Tony's stare full on. "You're going to go and hide in Malibu, instead of staying here?"
"What am I going to do here, Steve?" Tony asked him, voice harder. "I can barely stand. I can't scribble down a goddamn note. Talking to you is taking too much effort, and I sure as hell can't play a hero in this condition." The last statement seemed to hurt him the most, but Steve wouldn't have let him suit up anyway, so it was good they agreed on that.
"That doesn't mean you have to leave," Steve insisted.
"What do you want me to do?" Tony snapped. "Come back to the Mansion, cuddle with this on the couch and gather pitying looks from our team?" he said, picking up the teddy, his hand shivering as he maintained a desperate hold on it before trying to toss the toy across the room. The motion didn't go quite as expected and the teddy fell on his knee, and then down onto the floor. Tony's eyes were full of poison as he watched it go – then even more so when Steve picked the teddy back up.
"You're going to Malibu to hide and lick your wounds," Steve told him, looking Tony in the eye again.
"There's a whole lot of licking that needs to be done," the other man noted. "Your sentry duty's over, Captain. You did your part, paid your debt. You can go back to the Mansion and keep the world spinning."
"You think that's the only reason I stayed by your side?" Steve narrowed his eyes.
"Yeah, and you're just too proud to admit that you feel like shit about what a mess I am right now. You've done all you can, though. You've held my hand and combed my hair, and it's been real nice, but that's all you can do. The rest? That's where other people come in. Not you."
Pepper shifted beside them, and Steve could feel her eyes moving back and forth, trying to read the situation and find something to say to ease the tension.
"Let me help," Steve begged.
"You've done enough, I think," Tony said. He wasn't exactly concealing the hurt, and Steve nodded, standing up. He grabbed his shield from behind the chair – cleaned of Tony's blood the first night – and offered Pepper the teddy bear toy. She took it and moved aside, to let him pass and move out of the room.
"Thank you, Captain!" Pepper called out after him. "For everything."
Steve wondered if she actually meant it.
Steve could admit he was upset. Depressed, even. Well, perhaps not depressed – that's what he had felt, briefly, when the Avengers dug him out of the ice. This was deep discontent, with a little bit of betrayal, although what had he expected? Tony had been nice enough about it, but in the end, if he never fully recovered, it was all on Steve. He had been the leader, he should have… done better.
"Captain Rogers," JARVIS called out in the midst of a grueling work-out. He half-expected the AI to admonish him for demolishing so many punching bags earlier, but really, hadn't those been designed with his super-soldier strength in mind?
"What?" Steve replied, the program coming to a halt around him. Clearly JARVIS really wanted to talk to him.
"Ms. Potts has left a message for you. She said that you should review it at your first convenience."
"I will, once I'm done," Steve answered. "Continue the –"
"Captain," JARVIS interrupted him, which wasn't like the AI, "Ms. Potts left the message over three hours ago, when you first came down here. Would you be interested in viewing the message?"
"Do I have a choice?" Steve muttered, sliding his shield back on his arm and stepping towards a wall where a screen appeared, with the familiar logo of his message box.
A smaller tab opened and Pepper's face appeared in it. "Captain Rogers, I hope all is well in New York. I have a… request to make. I know you feel guilty about what happened at Madison Square Garden, but I want you to know I don't ask this of you because of that: I don't blame you, and even if I did, this request should come from your desire to help Tony, not to make up for the hurt you may have inadvertently caused him." She took a deep breath, looked at something off-screen, then back at the camera. "Tony's not handling his current situation well. He's… getting worse; he's moody, the therapists are not getting through to him, and frankly, I think they'll keep failing at motivating him. You, however, are someone he trusts and respects. You're his leader, and his fellow Avenger. You stayed with him when he needed you the most, not judging him, and… I just think you might be able to help him," Pepper finished, with a pleading look on her face. "The choice is yours, and I fully understand if your duties keep you in New York, or if you simply think you're not the man for the job. Tony can be difficult, more so now than ever, but… If you decide to come, let me know and I'll arrange for your arrival in Malibu."
Steve blinked at the screen.
"Would you like to call Ms. Potts?" JARVIS prompted after a moment. Sometimes, Steve forgot the AI was actually Tony's personal AI – which meant his loyalties were to Tony first.
"How is Tony doing?" Steve asked. "I mean… are you connected to his home in Malibu?"
"Indeed I am, Captain," the AI replied. "Mr. Stark is having difficulties adjusting to his… disabilities. He requires help, but is ill-suited to receive it."
"But Ms. Potts thinks I'm the man for the job," Steve frowned, thinking the message over.
"You and Mr. Stark have much in common. You command much trust and respect from my creator."
"How is that going to help Tony?" Steve mused.
"It will, if I may, make him listen. It will make him accept help, which has been rather difficult for him for most of his life."
"He has to do everything himself," Steve smiled softly. He had learned that much about Tony early on, and now, if Tony couldn't do things on his own … "Tell Ms. Potts I'll be ready to fly to Malibu at her earliest convenience."
"Very well, Captain."
Steve nodded and then left the training room, heading up to his own quarters. He showered, pulled on a fresh set of clothes, and then packed a bag. After a little hesitation, he also packed his uniform and shield, knowing he would feel uneasy without them. He walked down to the main floor when he was done, waiting for JARVIS to confirm when he would be leaving. Knowing Pepper Potts, it would be only a matter of hours.
"Going somewhere, Captain?" T'Challa's voice reached him, and he looked at the Black Panther approaching.
"To Malibu," Steve replied.
The King of Wakanda nodded. "Give him our regards," he said, not even asking why Steve was going, or for how long. "In your absence, who do you wish to be in charge? After all, there is always disaster afoot."
"You and Carol," Steve responded. "I know you will return to Wakanda soon, and if there is anything I'm needed for, don't hesitate to let me know."
"Let you know about what?" Clint asked as he walked in, a bag of popcorn in one hand.
"If you need my help," Steve repeated.
"With?" Clint frowned.
"We will manage in your absence, but shall confer with you should there be a matter that cannot be easily resolved," T'Challa decided.
"Are you going somewhere?" Jan's voice reached them as she flew over, taking a look at Steve's bag and landing on top of it, still in her shrunken form. "Is something wrong?"
"I'm going to go see Tony," Steve replied.
"You've done enough for him," Clint said. "You don't need to help him hide."
"Clint," Jan snapped. "We talked about this. Tony's hurt, badly. Just because he didn't say as much doesn't mean it isn't true! Steve's going to help him get better." Her smile was warm and radiant. "Did you pack some sunblock? It's really nice on the West Coast. I'm actually jealous. Maybe I could come with you?"
"Maybe later," Steve hedged.
"Captain Rogers, there is a car waiting outside to take you to the airport," JARVIS announced suddenly.
Jan grew up, suddenly, and leaned over to give Steve a hug. "Take care of yourself – and him," she ordered fiercely. "We'll hold down the fort until you get back. Don't you worry about a thing."
Steve wasn't certain why that made him feel a little concerned, but he forced himself to let go of that and step out of the door without a backwards glance.
Steve hadn't been to Tony's house in Malibu before, and the few pictures he had seen didn't really do justice to the real thing. The whole structure was very modern, built on a shelf of stone, above the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. It was pale, rounded and layered, with more windows than there were floors.
It somehow reminded him of Stark Tower in New York, although they were nothing alike in looks. It was just the feel.
"Captain Rogers," a voice called out to him, and Steve looked towards the open door and Pepper Potts standing there. "Welcome to Malibu."
"Thank you," Steve replied and walked over to her.
"I'm glad you're here," Pepper admitted and stepped aside to let him in.
"Welcome, Captain Rogers. Your room has been prepared for you," JARVIS' familiar voice greeted him next.
"This way, please," Pepper gestured, and Steve followed her down a hallway. "Here we are," Pepper said cheerily and opened a door for him. The room was very minimalistic, yet not cold or forbidding. It had everything Steve could imagine needing. "Do you want to freshen up? I know your departure was rather sudden," Tony's assistant asked.
"I'm fine," Steve assured her.
"A tour, then?"
"Of course," Steve smiled indulgently, although the obvious question burned at the back of his mind: where was Tony?
He was shown around the living room, kitchen, gym and offices. The house wasn't as big as the Avengers Mansion, so there was no fear of getting lost. "If you need anything, ask JARVIS," Pepper noted, then looked him in the eye. "You've been patient, I give you that. Shall we proceed downstairs?"
'Tony's shop' was much like the armory and his lab area at the Mansion, yet it also had plenty of other stuff, like cars in one corner. The floor was semi-transparent, like glass, armor schematics floated around in the air on holographic displays, and Steve wondered how many amazing things had come to life inside these walls.
"Tony!" Pepper called out. "You have a visitor."
"If it's another therapist, you can show them to the door. If it's a psychiatrist, you can show to them to the door. If it's –"
"Anyone, I can show them to the door, yes, I know," Pepper sighed heavily. "It's none of those things, and if you actually paid attention to the visitor logs, you would know who it is."
Steve frowned and looked around, not having located Tony yet. He wondered if Pepper saw something he didn't, but then she gave him the smallest of motions to follow and they rounded a workstation together. Behind it, on the floor, sat Tony Stark, smeared with oil, his hair a mess, and it looked like he had pulled half the contents of the table on top of himself.
Tony looked up, dark eyes furious, but his expression shifted once he laid his eyes on Steve. "Oh, hi, Cap," he murmured.
Pepper surveyed the situation, clearly seeing something Steve didn't. "Why didn't you call me?"
"Why would I have called you?" Tony asked and went back to moving the various pieces of equipment around. His left leg was tugged towards his body, while the right one lay straight on the floor, steadying him.
"You know why."
"Maybe I don't," Tony said, tense again, words barely coming from between his lips.
"You can't get up, and you're too stubborn to ask for help," Pepper snapped.
Tony threw her a withering look, then glanced at Steve instead. "See what I have to deal with?"
Steve merely looked at him – at the trembling of his limbs, of the halting, grabbing motions of his hands when he had to try a bit too hard to grab anything long enough to move it around. "I've got this," Steve finally said and gave Pepper a curt nod. "Thank you for the tour."
The red-head gave him a nod in return. "He hasn't eaten since this morning," she informed him. "Feel free to raid the kitchen and eat anything you find. Anything special you want, ask JARVIS for it. I have a couple virtual meetings to attend to in my office."
"Bye," Tony waved from the floor, not looking at her.
Pepper hesitated for a second, then turned and left. The door closed behind her with a soft hiss, leaving them alone. A silence stretched between them, broken by the occasional soft clang of metal hitting the floor as Tony continued to mindlessly shift things at his feet.
"I take it things haven't gotten better yet?" Steve finally guessed.
Tony took a deep breath and looked up at him. "You think?"
Steve looked around, wondering how to get into Tony's good graces, and hopefully help steer him towards a more positive mood. "So, this is your workshop?"
"Want to tell me what all this is?"
"Since when do you care?" Tony asked and tossed something that looked like a small wrench across the floor. "This is the epitome of the future; you're the man from the past, trying to live in the past. You should be breaking out in hives right about now." He kept stubbornly staring at the floor, swaying for a bit as he reached for another gadget, turned it around then flicked at it and sent it rolling across the floor.
"Are you done?" Steve asked.
Tony kept sitting quietly for a bit longer, moving things, then eventually nodded. "I guess."
"If you don't want to show me your workshop, then maybe we should go and eat," Steve suggested. He was kind of hungry. Then again, he was hungry most of the time, due to his faster metabolism. "And don't tell me you're not hungry," he added before Tony could form a protest.
"I've eaten stuff during the day," Tony replied. "I work down here for days at a time, I keep food around."
"Mr. Stark hasn't eaten since this morning," JARVIS noted, his voice coming from everywhere at once, although it was still soft and ever so polite.
Steve raised a challenging eyebrow at Tony.
"Traitor," Tony muttered. "I'm downgrading you, J, you wait and see."
"Of course, sir, but in the meantime, it is still my primary function to look after you and your health, which includes eating at regular intervals. There is food ready upstairs. I took the liberty of ordering Chinese."
"Let's go," Steve ordered and started to step around the workstation. While he waited for Tony to follow, he touched a few things on the table. Some of them looked like parts from the Iron Man armor, while the meaning of other contraptions he couldn't even begin to guess.
After a minute had passed, Tony still hadn't begun to follow him, and Steve turned back, rounding the table again. The other man remained seated where he was, staring resolutely at the floor. "Well?" Steve asked. "Get up, soldier. The food's getting cold."
"I can't," Tony murmured.
He could see Tony's face muscles tighten and the other man looked at him with a certain level of anger, but mostly it was embarrassment. "I can't get up."
Steve frowned, then recalled Pepper's first words when they found Tony. He felt ashamed, suddenly, for not realizing it. He looked around. "Do you have something –?"
"No, and I won't," Tony snapped. "Just…" He didn't finish, but he sort of held up his arms, and Steve stepped over to pull him up. Tony weighed next to nothing in his grip. The several items that had sat atop Tony clanged to the floor, hard, making Steve cringe.
"Okay?" he asked, preparing to let go now that Tony was upright – and as soon as he did, Tony started sagging down. Steve adjusted his hold, pressing his body against Tony's slightly, and the way Tony kept avoiding looking at him made him feel even worse. "Can you walk?" Steve asked, trying to keep his voice firm and even.
"Yeah. Just… let me find my legs," Tony said, and Steve could feel his muscles working at the small of his back as Tony adjusted his balance. "Okay, let's do this," the other man finally decided, and Steve moved to the side, still holding an arm around Tony, and it was almost painful how uncertain the first step was. However, he let Tony go at his own pace and kicked obstacles out of the way until they were almost at the door. Tony leaned to the side, and Steve realized there was another set of doors: an elevator.
When the doors opened, they stepped inside. The space was wide – wide enough for a dozen people – and Steve guessed it was used for moving cargo rather than people, seeing as there weren't that many floors in the house. Tony didn't press any of the buttons, but the doors slid shut anyway and the elevator moved upwards. Steve made a wild guess that JARVIS was behind it.
The doors opened to the main floor and once again Steve allowed Tony to make the first move, guiding him along until they reached the kitchen. It felt like near the end, Tony was doing better, as if his body remembered what it was supposed to be doing.
As promised, there were bags of food waiting, and after Steve had helped Tony to sit on a high stool that didn't require him to sit down as much as slide onto it, he went to open the cartons and found plates and flatware, as well as glasses. He didn't ask what Tony wanted, dishing a bit of everything on both plates, then pushed one towards Tony's end of the table.
Steve dug into his own portion with gusto, knowing that there was plenty for just the two of them – and maybe Pepper – so he could have seconds. After a while he glanced towards Tony and noticed the man was just staring at his plate, not having even touched it. "Eat," Steve told him, "before it gets cold."
He saw Tony's brow crease, and then the man reached out with his hand, grabbing the fork intended for him. Steve smiled and proceeded to empty his plate, but from the corner of his eye he spied Tony. He saw the first tentative stabs of the fork, the way Tony stopped to adjust his hold on the cutlery, then tried again. This time he began to bring food to his mouth, but his balance wavered mid-way to this mouth and a moment later the fork fell, bouncing off the table and to the floor.
Steve lowered his own fork and prepared to get up and get Tony another. Baby steps, he told himself.
Tony's fist tightened above his plate, fingers clenched, and then he lashed out, pushing the plate off the table and to the floor. Steve started at the sound of breaking porcelain, staring at him and then at the mess on the floor. Tony simply raised his elbows to the table and leaned his face in his hands, fingers clutching his hair. It was clear he was angry…
Steve took a careful, measured breath, then looked around for something to clean up the mess. There was a dustpan in the corner, looking out of place in the high-tech house, and he got the feeling this wasn't the first time this had happened recently. He walked over to fetch it, started sweeping off the mess, then glanced at Tony and heard the hitch in his breathing.
He decided cleaning could wait, and moved back to the table instead, hovering beside the man he had first seen as his leader, and then his teammate. Right now, Tony was neither of those things – although nothing could change the above-mentioned statuses.
Right now, Tony was someone who had gotten hurt, and was in the process of dealing with the aftermath of his injuries.
Also, he was crying, and that was the first time Steve had ever seen it happen. Not that he thought Tony was incapable of it, but to see him so… vulnerable made him feel a bit uneasy.
"Can I…" Steve halted, not knowing what he was going to offer. More food? His help? A shoulder to cry on?
Tony sniffed loudly and shifted his face, drawing one hand across his face, clearly trying to hide the tears. "Go back to New York," was what Tony said, finally. "You came out here, you saw what a mess I am, and you tried to help."
"I can do more than try," Steve told him. "I came here to –"
"To fix me?" Tony snapped, his eyes still red, cheeks wet.
"I can't fix this," Steve admitted, gesturing at everything around them, "but I can help you get through it. Just let me."
Tony snorted, which turned into another sniff, and his lips actually trembled. Clearly he was beyond tired, and if this was how dinners went, maybe he was more than a little hungry, too. "There are a hundred trained professionals –"
"And where are they?" Steve asked, patience running short. "They're not here. You're not letting them. Because you do it all yourself, right? Well, it's not working, and since it was my goddamn shield that got us here, you can't just intimidate me out the door."
Tony gave him a careful look, and a watery smile was there, for a few seconds. "Did I just make Captain America swear?"
Steve raised an eyebrow at him. "I was in the Army. Don't look so shocked."
"Okay," Tony said and shifted a little.
"So," Steve started, prepared to repeat his speech if necessary.
"I said 'okay'," the other man repeated. "Be here. Help me. See how long you'll last. I know Pepper's ready to escape through the window."
"Yet here she is," Steve pointed out. "Why is that?"
"I pay her too well."
Tony closed his eyes and sighed, pulling up his hands again, covering his face. "Because she cares," he mumbled into his palms. "Satisfied?"
"And why am I here?" Steve pressed.
"Because you're a guilty idiot."
"Incorrect," he mused, softer now, and reached out to briefly ruffle Tony's hair. It was definitely dirtier than usual. "But if that's what you think, we'll have to remedy that." Then he proceeded to clean up most of the mess on the floor, got another plate and a fork and made another plate for Tony, setting it down in front of him. Tony peered at it from between his fingers, still covering his face, and Steve was ready to catch the plate if Tony decided to shove it off the table as well.
"I'm not hungry," Tony told him.
"I think you're famished," Steve argued. "I think you're tired, and hungry, and that's making you cranky and even more worn out. Eat."
Tony lowered his hands and carefully laid them out on the table. He glared at Steve, and the forefinger of his right hand started tapping the tabletop. "You're enjoying this, aren't you? A sadistic streak I've never seen before."
"Eat," Steve repeated.
"Easy for you to say," Tony snapped. "Maybe if you gave me a straw to suck it through; I can still do that."
Steve refused to be provoked. Instead, he grabbed his stool, dragged it closer, and sat back down, then picked up Tony's fork. "Then we do this the old-fashioned way."
Tony leaned back and almost fell from the chair. "You're not feeding me!"
"You're not starving to death!"
They glared at each other, and Steve pointedly stuck the fork into the food on Tony's plate and gathered some rice and sauce on it. He lifted it a couple inches into the air, waiting for Tony to do his part. He had never been forced to feed an unruly child, or a child of any kind, but he imagined it was a lot like this. Only, he couldn't make train sounds and have Tony open his mouth; this was an adult man, his mind fully functioning, yet his limbs weren't taking his orders as they should and the simple act of eating had probably become something Tony avoided at all costs.
The food was probably getting cooler than it was supposed to, but eventually Tony slumped in his seat and averted his eyes. Steve moved in for the kill, and Tony opened his mouth just in time, allowing him to guide the fork in. It wasn't as easy as parents of young children made it look, and Tony's thoroughly embarrassed expression didn't help. Sure, the other man tried to mask it with indifference, but it was cracking and Steve had already seen behind the façade.
They managed about a quarter of the portion like that before Tony just turned his head away. Steve had stabbed him in the lip once, and offered Tony a napkin to clean up the mess on his tank top. Not that there was much to clean amidst all the stains already there. He put the remaining food in the refrigerator, cleaned up the rest of the mess on the floor, then offered Tony his glass.
"I can do it," Tony said grumpily and lifted it up with two hands. It looked shaky, but Tony managed about half of it before the glass slipped and fell to his lap. Steve moved in time to keep it from falling to the floor and breaking, but Tony was a sodden mess who sat there looking rather miserable.
"Are you still thirsty?" Steve asked, berating himself; he should have offered Tony a straw, but after the earlier crude joke, he hadn't actually thought Tony might mean it, literally.
Tony shook his head.
Steve finished cleaning up, then guessed it was late enough for them to turn in. "Where's your bedroom?" he asked.
Tony cast him a dark look, then pointed down one hall – the same hallway that led to Steve's room.
Steve once again looped one arm around Tony's waist and waited for him to find his balance. However, Tony seemed to be having a harder time at staying upright this time, and Steve ended up taking most of his weight. In the end Tony just let himself sag down, and Steve stopped entirely.
"Just… let me down," Tony murmured.
"What are you going to do, crawl?" Steve asked, voice hard although it hurt him a little.
"Yeah," Tony replied, and while Steve wanted to think it was a joke, he was pretty sure it wasn't.
Making up his mind, Steve shifted and moved his other arm around Tony as well, hoisting him up. "Which door?" he asked, refusing to compromise right now; they'd had a pretty awful time in the kitchen, and carrying Tony was far less humiliating than the eating debacle.
"That one," Tony finally said and pointed, and Steve realized their rooms were right next to each other. Convenient – and no doubt something Pepper had planned.
"I'm in the room next to yours," Steve said as he managed to open Tony's door. The lights went on automatically, revealing a set of rooms larger than his, but pretty similar in style.
"Of course you are," Tony let out a derisive laugh. "Pepper never misses a thing." He pushed at Steve's shoulder a little. "Just put me down, I can take it from here."
Steve guessed he had done enough, and carefully sat Tony down on the bed. "If you need anything –"
"I need you to leave me alone," Tony informed him, and Steve nodded, knowing when he had crossed enough lines for one day. He retreated back to his own room, noticing that the lights elsewhere around the house had gone out. If Pepper was around, he was sure she knew her way around the house – or JARVIS was in control of the lighting.
Steve took a quick, efficient shower and changed for bed, looking at himself in the mirror as he brushed his teeth. It occurred to him that Tony probably couldn't do that, either, but he knew better than to go knock on the man's door and ask whether he needed more help. He spat the toothpaste out of his mouth, rinsed his mouth and stared at his own reflection. "What the hell are you doing, soldier?" he asked himself.
The answer was simple, though: he was doing the right thing, which was to help Tony get back on his feet – literally, it seemed. Even if it had only been partially his fault, Tony was his friend, and Steve felt angry at himself for allowing Tony to drive him away at the hospital.
That wasn't going to happen again, though.
He went to bed angry with himself, the world, and perhaps Tony, too, and slept uneasily. For once he didn't dream of the war, or some version of the ice, but he kept feeling Tony's blood on his fingers and seeing those brown eyes, tired of life and filled with derision at himself and what he had become.
Steve rolled out of bed as soon as he stirred, doing push-ups until his arms ached, then went to the bathroom, took a leak, washed his face and finally looked at the time. It was a little past four and he felt like he hadn't slept at all. Usually it didn't matter – he could go on for days – but knowing what lay ahead of him was enough to make him want to crawl back to bed and pretend he might be able to sleep.
"Captain Rogers," JARVIS snapped him out of his thoughts. "Since you are awake, could you perhaps go and assist Mr. Stark?"
"Is he awake?" Steve frowned.
"That is debatable, but it may be better for his back if he slept on the bed for the rest of the morning."
Steve's frown deepened. "Where is he sleeping if not on the bed?"
"In the bathroom."
Steve closed his eyes and began to count to ten, but only got to six before it became too much. "Why is he in the bathroom?" he asked, then decided he didn't need to know and stepped out of his room, moving to the next door and opening it. The lights were on low and he moved across the bedroom to the en-suite bathroom. Sure enough, Tony was on the floor, clad only in a pair of underwear which barely clung to his hips. If Steve didn't know better, he would have thought Tony had drunk himself stupid and wound up clinging to the toilet, but he didn't think that had been the case here.
"Tony," he called out softly and crouched down, touching the other man's shoulder. Tony just groaned and shifted slightly; the tiled floor had to be uncomfortable. With a sigh, Steve slowly placed his fingers under the other man, then his hands, and pulled Tony into his arms and straightened up, taking him back to bed. "Why was he in the bathroom?" Steve asked, knowing JARVIS was listening and hadn't answered him earlier.
"Mr. Stark needed to urinate, but he never managed to get back to bed, so he decided to lie down in the bathroom instead."
Steve tucked Tony back into his bed, hoping the position was comfortable. "Next time that happens, let me know. Even if I'm asleep," he added, since that had apparently been the problem this time. "He doesn't have to sleep on the bathroom floor, or any floor, for crying out loud."
"Very well, Captain."
"Has this happened before?"
"Various times since he arrived back home. Usually he has managed to return to bed at some point of the night, and he instructed me to not tell Ms. Potts."
"But… he didn't instruct you to not tell me," Steve guessed, and had to smile a little.
On the bed, Tony shifted and groaned, then blinked his eyes open. As soon as he noticed Steve, he frowned, blinking several more times. "Are Doombots attacking?" he asked, voice gravely from sleep.
"No," Steve reassured him.
"Then why are you in my bedroom?"
"It would be okay for me to be in your bedroom if Doombots were attacking?" Steve countered.
Tony frowned, thinking it over. "No, but… Back to my… second question."
"JARVIS told me to come and help you back to bed," Steve said flatly.
Tony closed his eyes, briefly, in clear annoyance. "I was doing okay. I was just resting my eyes."
"Just like all those other nights?"
Tony looked at him again. "It's been less than a week since I left New York. So, there haven't been a lot of 'other nights'."
"Does that mean you fail to reach your bed every night?"
"Get out," Tony ordered. "Let me sleep."
"Stay in bed," Steve ordered. "If you need help, ask for it. Don't curl into a half-naked ball on the bathroom floor and pretend you're all alone in the world."
Tony stewed on that, and Steve turned to return to his room, or maybe he would go and get some breakfast and wait for the next disaster to strike. "Thanks," he finally heard Tony say, and he actually had to turn around and look at him. Tony had moved to lie on his back, the arc reactor prominent on his naked chest. His eyes were dark and shining as he regarded Steve, and he looked almost like he might cry again.
"Any time," Steve replied and opened the door, then closed it when it was clear Tony had nothing else to say.
The kitchen was deserted, but JARVIS made him some coffee with the futuristic looking contraption that was even more alien than the one at the Mansion. Steve sat waiting at the table, listening to the silence of the house, wondering what the hell he had gotten himself into. He guessed he wouldn't stop wondering about that for a long time.
When the coffee was done, he moved to the living room, sat down on one of the couches and stared at the ocean. It was dark outside, still, the sun not up yet. It was a soothing scene, either way, and he wondered if Tony felt like that, too. Among all the things they had talked about over the years, they had never really cut that deep into their personal likes and dislikes. He supposed he was about to get a lesson in what some of those things were in the coming days, although Tony was far from himself. Given the situation, Steve didn't expect anything else.
It was perhaps an hour later when he heard footsteps, and looked up to see Pepper wandering in. Instead of her usual suit and high heels, she was barefoot and dressed in what had to be her comfort clothes: a loose sweater and sweat pants. She darted into the kitchen to get herself a cup of coffee, then joined Steve on the couch. They sat in silence for a moment, Pepper with her feet drawn up, Steve leaning his elbows against his thighs, and it was comfortable.
"Thank you," Pepper finally said. "You have no idea what it's been like."
"I think I can imagine," Steve offered and looked at her. Pepper was holding up pretty well, considering, although she had never looked quite so tired when he had seen her before. With all the things Tony went through, as Iron Man and the head of Stark Industries, she had gotten used to quite a lot.
She gave him a hollow smile and looked out at the ocean. "The sunsets are magnificent here," she noted.
"I missed that last night," Steve confessed.
"He does that," Pepper mused. "Makes you lose hours of your life. Most of the time, you don't think it's a loss at all, but these days… I just count the minutes until I can leave." She looked at him, face conflicted, as if fearing she had said too much. "It sounds horrible, and I keep beating myself up for feeling that way, but it's like watching him waste away, instead of getting better. He should be improving, but he's just… stubborn. Not only that, but he doesn't trust anyone to help him get better. All those people, coming by, treating him like they would treat anyone else – it just doesn't work. Tony's not a delicate flower, but you have to treat him like a wild animal sometimes. A normal approach will make him chew off your hand," she mused wryly.
"He's survived so much," Steve observed. He knew so little of what Tony had been through before the Avengers, but he felt it was the right thing to say. "He will get over this."
"I think he sees that this is potentially his downfall," Pepper said. "His body giving up on him, betraying him. His mind is still sound, but being imprisoned in his body…"
"It won't happen," Steve said resolutely. "He's on the mend, and even if he never gets it all back, he'll get better. There are a lot of people that he hasn't given up on, over time, and I'm not giving up on him."
The look Pepper gave him was one of strange adoration. "You know, he respects you very much. Not just that, but there's a whole lot of… childhood idolization there as well. The day they found you, his entire world changed. For him to fight beside Captain America is something he dreamt of but never thought possible. For him to be weak like this in front of you – being frail and broken – is probably the hardest thing he's ever done, and that includes having an arc reactor embedded in his chest."
Steve knew there was a story in there, but it wasn't Pepper's to tell, obviously. "I respect him as well," he noted. "He's… offered me so much, kept me sane in this strange new world, and given me purpose. I'm not sure what I would have done if it weren't for Tony. To help him re-discover the man he was is the least I can do."
They sat in silence again, as it became light outside, and Steve knew that whatever he was going to face in the coming days, he wasn't doing it alone. Neither was Pepper, now that he was here.
A few hours passed as they sat mostly in silence, conversing occasionally of topics that didn't directly revolve around Tony or the Avengers. They spoke of art and culture, even sports, and Steve contemplated that it was the first real discussion he'd had in a long time.
It was hours after dawn when JARVIS interrupted their conversation: "Mr. Stark is awake."
Pepper sat up straighter, as if to pull herself together. "Time for breakfast, then," she decided and stood up, heading for the kitchen area. Steve followed her, hoping to be of assistance, but she simply drew ingredients from the shelves and fridge, then dropped them into a blender. "You may have noticed that eating isn't Tony's favorite thing to do these days," she said when Steve had stared at the proceedings long enough. "I try to make it as painless as possible, for the both of us."
Steve was reminded of their rather challenging meal last night. Before he could begin to ask how many times Pepper had attempted to do what he had done, another person joined them: Tony walked slowly into the room, his steps certain for the time being. He had pulled on a simple shirt and pants, his feet bare against the floor.
"Morning," Pepper said cheerfully.
Tony made a sound that may have been a greeting and approached the table, sliding up to sit on one of the bar stools. A moment later Pepper poured a smooth, thick concoction into a tall glass and slid a straw in it. Tony accepted it without blinking and slid some kind of device onto the table, from which rose a blue-ish screen, much like the one from his Avengers ID card whenever Tony browsed the news with it. As he drank, Tony's fingers moved things around on the holographic screen. Having watched him work for years, Steve could tell his movements were slow and hesitant.
"Pepper, give Cap something to eat," Tony mused after a bit, eyes not leaving the screen mid-air. "His staring is starting to bug me."
Steve blinked and guessed he had been staring. "I can make my own breakfast," he assured. "Do you want something else?" he asked Tony as he moved over to the fridge.
"'m good," Tony murmured, lips around the straw, brow furrowed.
"You need more than that," Steve noted.
"I said I'm good," Tony snapped at him, clearly frustrated. Pepper gave Steve a quick look and the super-soldier dropped it for now. He and Pepper had eggs and toast, with some fruit on the side. Tony refused to eat anything but the smoothie.
It was an hour later when the doorbell rang and Pepper – who had changed into a less casual set of clothes – went to open the door. Tony had migrated to the couch, still absorbed in whatever he was reading from the screen, and Steve was doing some simple work-out routines on the wide balcony outside the living room area.
"Good morning, Mr. Stark," a foreign voice called out cheerfully, and Steve ceased his stretching to see who had arrived. A young woman was standing by the couch, with a bag on her shoulder, doing her best to not look nervous or intimidated.
Tony didn't looked at her, and Steve moved to the doorway to see what this was about.
"There are some exercises –" the woman started.
"Not interested," Tony told her.
"Pepper, show her to the door."
"Tony," Pepper said from the side, "you won't get better without physio. You know that. Stop acting like a child –"
Tony leaned back on the couch, and Steve knew nothing good was going to come out of his mouth. "I know the exercises. I'll do them on my own, in my own time." He looked at the young woman next. "I told you, and your predecessors, that I'm done with all of you."
The physical therapist looked ready to get sucked into the argument, and Steve stepped in before things could escalate: "Miss," he called out, "let me see the exercises you were meant to do with Mr. Stark, please, and I'll run him through them."
Tony looked at him, as did Pepper and the therapist. The last two looked relieved. Tony, on the other hand, was frowning hard, as if trying to figure out an extremely complicated puzzle.
"I'm not sure I can do that," the young woman attempted to argue, although she had clearly moved on from the idea of talking Tony into submission.
"Tell me what to do, and you won't have to argue with him," Steve pressed, knowing he had already won her over.
Twenty minutes later Steve had a stack of papers full of instructions in his hands, with a promise that there would be more in a few days. He had also been left with a few tools, although he could use many items found around the house to aid him. He returned to the living room, finding Tony in the same spot on the couch, and laid the papers on the table.
"That was brilliant of you, to trick her into believing you would take over her job," Tony mused, still moving items around the holo-screen.
"No tricks," Steve said and reached out, plucking the device from the table and putting it aside.
Tony turned his head quickly to look at him, and the frown was back. "Oh, right, I forgot: you're Captain America and you don't deceive people."
"I've deceived lots of people," Steve argued. "I only did the poor girl a favor, because you were such an ass to deal with. I fully intend to do her job for her, and you had better pay her for all the trouble she's no doubt gone through for coming here and listening to you complain."
Tony sputtered – there was no other word to describe the sound and the expression that went with it. "Are you kidding me?" Steve raised an eyebrow at him. "You're not kidding," Tony decided and his eyes flickered towards the device he had been using to do whatever it was he had done all morning. "I have stuff to do. Work. A company to run."
"The exercises won't take more than half an hour at a time," Steve informed him. "If we start right now, you'll be back to work in no time."
Tony gave him a deeply dissatisfied look. "I'll do them later."
"We'll do them now."
"I have –" Tony cut himself off when Steve kept giving him a calm, determined look. Tony knew Steve wasn't going to budge, wasn't going to give in; Tony could whine and complain as much as he wanted, but they were going to go over the exercises, just as the papers said. "Fine," Tony finally muttered. "But this is going to reflect on your Christmas bonus."
"Didn't know I had one," Steve deadpanned and smiled wanly at Tony's stubborn expression.
The first days were hard. Tony fought and complained, which led Steve to wonder whether he wanted to get better or not. The exercises had been designed with Tony's injuries in mind, after all, and they could only improve his condition. Eventually it dawned on him that Tony was merely covering up another level of humiliation with his refusal to exercise, and once they both knew that, things started to go smoother.
Also, Steve was creative. He looked at the exercises, saw what they were supposed to achieve, and found an alternative that worked for Tony. In Tony's lab there were a dozen ways to sharpen his motor skills and Tony didn't seem to mind those all that much, even when they weren't directly helping him get any actual work done.
Prior to the incident, they had trained together regularly. Steve had handed Tony's ass to him in the boxing ring for almost as long as they had known each other, but there was a reason why it had always been Steve and not one of the other Avengers: he didn't ridicule Tony. He may have knocked him out a few times, but where Clint might openly laugh on the sidelines with the Hulk, Steve had never put Tony down. That was paying off now, and eventually Tony began to forget that he was supposed to hate the exercises and how they showcased his weaknesses, instead working hard to perfect each motion and commit them to his damaged muscle memory.
Once Tony began to show actual progress, the physiotherapists started to go directly to Steve, showing him first hand what the exercises were supposed to be like, so that he would better understand what he should do with Tony. A few times Steve still tried to get Tony to work with the actual professionals, but even with him there, Tony's temper grew short way too fast and he eventually refused to do anything at all.
Steve attempted to put himself in Tony's shoes, time and time again, to understand his flaring moods: had Steve's body become an alien, suddenly, would he have behaved any different? When simple tasks still gave Tony trouble, regardless of the progress he was making, it was easy to imagine his frustration. Had it been something highly difficult that Tony could no longer master, no one would have batted an eye, but as the damage to his brain had impaired simple things that hadn't been difficult since childhood, and were easily taken for granted in one's everyday life, the changes were glaringly obvious and frustrated Tony more than anything else.
Some days were better than others: on the good days, Steve could pretend nothing at all had happened, and that the odd part in Tony's hair wasn't a healing wound. Tony's mood was good on such days, and he seemed to be on top of the world with everything he tried. Just as fast it could all collapse, though, and Tony would throw things across the room after his legs collapsed beneath him, unable to follow the orders he tried to give them – or even worse, he couldn't even hold onto things long enough to throw them. Sometimes, when he was too tired, he could barely get a word out of his mouth, like that first day at the hospital.
Steve understood it, remembering how weak and sickly he had been before the transformation into a super-soldier. He gave Tony space when the man needed it, then moved in to help him when things had gone on long enough; it was not wise to leave Tony alone with his musings of inferiority for long, because bad things tended to happen. Tony hadn't actually tried hurting himself, but on the worst days Steve could tell he was seriously contemplating it – and he knew Pepper and JARVIS felt the same.
A few weeks had passed in Malibu. Steve regularly checked in with the Avengers, but was reassured that nothing was wrong. Of course, many of the Avengers expressed their concerns for his continued absence, as they hadn't expected Steve to stay gone for so long.
"Is Tony getting better?" Jan asked during one of their conversations, worry on her face. "Should we come over?" Who 'we' was, Steve didn't even venture to guess.
"He's getting better, but I don't think a crowd, however well-meaning, is good for him right now," he answered honestly.
Jan looked disappointed, but didn't argue.
While Steve knew most of the Avengers wanted to help, he wasn't certain whether they could. Perhaps he was being selfish, thinking that only he could get through to Tony – but that may also be a cold hard fact. Tony wasn't all that close with any member of their team, being their old-and-sometimes-current leader, depending on the situation. He and Steve had always shared a bond of sorts – at least that's what Steve liked to think. They had supported each other through some tough times, learning things, good and bad, about each other and the world.
Contemplating this, he stood up from the computer in his room and headed out to the stairs leading down to Tony's workshop, grabbing a soft ball as he went; it was filled with some kind of grain, giving it a little bit of weight, while being soft enough to easily grab. He had been informed it was used in a sport called 'footbag', and he mused if he could persuade Tony to try it once standing wasn't too hard on him anymore.
As expected, Tony was in his shop, immersed in snapping commands at JARVIS while his fingers clumsily played with something that looked like a pen, but worked with the holographic displays instead of paper.
"Catch," Steve called out, knowing Tony knew he had entered the room, and gave the man ample time to turn and react before tossing the semi-soft ball at him. Tony's hand moved in a reflex, and Steve's aim was good, but Tony still failed to catch the ball. It landed in his lap instead and sat there, since it wasn't hard enough to roll off.
"Don't tell me you want to go play catch outside," Tony groused at him. "We already did our morning routine," he added, as if that relieved him of all other exercises.
"I know," Steve said. "Throw it back to me."
Steve just extended his arm, palm up, fingers opening and closing as if he were impatient, although he wasn't. Sometimes it took time to coax Tony into things.
Tony looked away, pretending to get back to work, but eventually his fingers closed around the ball in his lap and he threw it back towards Steve. It wasn't perfect, but with one long stride to the side, Steve caught it before it hit the floor. He waited a moment, then took aim and threw the ball again, hitting Tony on the head.
The dark head whirled around, and Tony glared at him, then fished the ball from the neck of his shirt. "Funny. Were you always a bully?"
Steve just gestured with his hand, and Tony turned his chair around then threw the ball back with a little more force. His aim was better this time, too. When he didn't immediately turn back around to face his desk, Steve threw the ball back at him. Tony moved his hand, but the ball still hit him squarely in the chest, where the arc reactor sat.
The brown eyes narrowed. "Funny, Cap," he muttered again, picking the ball up from where it had rolled down to his lap again. "Are you scoring points?"
"Need to keep my skills sharp," Steve shrugged, then caught the ball again when Tony threw it back. "What are you working on?"
The ball sailed between them, and Tony caught it this time, although he needed to use both his hands to keep it from falling.
Steve's fingers squeezed around the ball when he grabbed it from the air, then tossed it up once before sending it back to Tony.
"Just stuff." Tony sounded a bit annoyed, but his shoulders were relaxed as he once again threw the ball back. His fingers were slowly getting surer around it, his aim improving, and while it was only momentary, it was a step forward.
"Well, I guess that's a nice change of pace, seeing as you work on your armor a lot," Steve mused. As soon as he sent the ball flying, he could see that something he had said was causing a much bigger reaction in Tony.
"Yeah? Why would I work on the armor when I have no idea whether I'll ever be able to pilot it again," Tony snapped, and this time he threw the ball far to the side, missing Steve on purpose. It hit a shelf, making things fall down from it, and Steve turned his head to look at the mess, then moved over to pick up the fallen items. "Leave them," Tony snapped.
"So that Pepper can clean it up later?" Steve mused. He knew Tony wouldn't do it, and if he tried, he would end up breaking most of the items and probably the shelves, too.
As Steve placed gadgets and tools back on the shelves, not sure where they had been but guessing it didn't matter since Tony wasn't telling him where they belonged, he noticed something else sitting high above everything else. So high, in fact, that Tony couldn't possibly reach it: the plushie teddy – the very same one Tony had gotten while he was still in the hospital.
Steve reached up for it, flicked most of the dust and dirt off the soft surface, then looked at Tony. The man was watching him warily, eyes trained on the toy. "You kept it," Steve mused.
"I threw it away. Pepper brought it back," Tony snapped. "You can put it there," he pointed at a waste basket sitting next to one of the tables.
"It was a gift," Steve mused, then briefly looked around to locate the ball and pocketed it before walking over to Tony.
"It was a joke even when they bought it," Tony corrected him, and reached out to snatch the toy from Steve's hands. Instead of tossing it away, though, he turned it over as if examining it, then stopped, staring at the toy and the little heart it was clutching to its chest.
Steve wasn't certain whether it was what Tony needed, but he lifted his hand and touched the back of Tony's neck, in silent support. He hadn't forgotten what preceded the discussion about the teddy. Far as he knew, no one had talked to Tony about his role as Iron Man. Everyone knew better than to assume they could have a say in whether Tony donned his armor in the future or not. Steve, personally, didn't doubt he would fight by Tony's side again, soon, but to hear the man say the words, assuming it was what the others thought – or worse, thinking them on his own – made him uneasy.
On the off-chance that it was all in Tony's head, part of his dark contemplation of his current condition and limitations, Steve didn't want to respond to Tony's angry words. The discussion could go ablaze in a heartbeat if Tony took it the wrong way. Knowing when it was best to advance, and when to lay low, Steve decided to wait for an indication from the other man, to see which way he wanted things to go.
Tony eventually let out a tired sigh and bowed his head slightly, then leaned back against Steve's light pressure and glanced up at him. "I'm not sure what's going on right now," Tony admitted, a half-frown on his face. Steve removed his hand, but that didn't seem to solve the puzzlement in Tony's mind. "Maybe we could do another round of exercises," he finally suggested, which he didn't do often. "When we're done, I can sit back and sip a drink while I watch you beat another punching bag to within an inch of its life."
Steve smiled at him. "Sure, we can do that."
Tony nodded and then slowly shifted up from his seat. He motioned with his hand at the screens. "Shut it all down, JARVIS. We'll continue later."
"Very well, sir."
They went up to the gym, and since Tony was already appropriately dressed, they got right to it. Steve altered a few exercises, because he knew by now how easily Tony got bored with repetition. Whatever Tony did in his life, he sought to add to it and enhance it, instead of doing the same things over and over again. It was the way he was built, looking ahead into the future – a futurist. Steve, personally, was fine with monotonous rituals, but he was beginning to see the perks of Tony's life as well, even if he wondered how much Tony had to forget and dismiss in order to learn new things all the time. Or maybe his brain was simply different: Steve had worked with Hank Pym and met with Reed Richards often enough to know that there were many exceptional minds that Tony liked to surround himself with when he got the chance, no matter how much he pretended to complain about it.
It made Steve wonder whether Tony would get bored with him, too, because Steve's brain wasn't anything like Tony's, even in its current battered state. Perhaps if the blow to the head had affected Tony's thinking… But Steve was glad it hadn't, because this was cruel enough, and if Tony's intellect had suffered, Steve would have never forgiven himself. Not that he was forgiving himself even now, but if Tony had suffered an injury that reached beyond the physical shortcomings he was dealing with now, Steve wasn't all that certain Tony would be this forgiving of what had happened, either.
"Come on," Steve absentmindedly goaded Tony to keep holding the light weight between his palms. He could see Tony's arms shivering, attempting to maintain the pressure and keep the weight from dropping, but it was hard. "Just a little longer," he encouraged, counting the seconds in the back of his mind. "You can do it."
And the look Tony gave him, despite the frown of concentration and the sweat on his brow, triggered something in Steve. Something that Pepper had said, about Tony idolizing him… That earnest, stubborn look Steve received whenever he asked Tony to do something, to keep going – asking Tony whether he was able to do it or not, long before the incident. He wasn't certain whether Tony noticed him noticing, and wasn't certain what it was, exactly, but in the next second Tony exhaled hard, his hands jerking and dropping the weight, and Steve's hand shooting out to catch it before it hit the floor between Tony's spread legs.
"That was good," Steve noted, keeping his voice steady. "You did better than this morning."
Tony flexed his arms then reached out for the water bottle he had set down by the wall. He had to grasp at it a few times before he got it and dragged it closer before lifting it to his lips without dropping it. The brown eyes rather pointedly didn't look at Steve, until later, when he set the bottle down. It thumped against the floor between Tony's thighs, dropping the last few inches when Tony's fingers let it slip. "No one wants to disappoint Captain America," Tony mused, poking at the bottle which was still half-full and too heavy to fall over.
"Is that what this is all about?" Steve asked. "I thought I was here to help you get back into shape. You aren't one of my soldiers, Tony."
"No?" Tony asked. "You always call me one."
Steve guessed he did that, with a lot of people. The word may not mean the same thing among the Avengers, but… "Would you prefer it if I didn't call you that?" he asked.
Tony shrugged. "No point stopping now; you've only been doing it since we met." There was a smile on Tony's face, and it reached his eyes about half-way, but it still wasn't what Steve had grown used to.
"If you think –"
"I'm glad that you're here," Tony blurted, cutting him off. He had that rare, pained look on his face, when he was finally saying something he had been holding in for far too long, usually to the point where things started collapsing and everything could have been salvaged if only Tony had said certain things out loud instead of keeping everyone under the impression that he was a horrible person. "Pepper keeps telling me to say that," he added. "To tell you that… I appreciate that you're here."
"She's a good person," Steve mused, uncertain how to reply to Tony's confession – not that he had been under the impression that Tony hated the fact that Steve was here, but it was good to hear the other man say it.
"Yeah," Tony agreed, "she's a great assistant. However, she's not a nursemaid, and it's starting to show." No doubt Tony was hinting that Pepper shouldn't be here, trying to hold Tony's life together.
"I haven't seen any actual nurses around," Steve ventured.
"That's because I fired them as soon as Pepper hired them," Tony said. "I had enough of them at the hospital. I don't need strangers in my own house, hovering."
"But I'm here."
"You're not a stranger." It came out naturally, but in the next second it looked like Tony was analyzing his statement, and Steve's reaction to it. "I can tell you to leave if that makes you feel better."
"I doubt it," Steve replied, then shifted forward so that his spread legs were on top of Tony's, bent at the knee to keep them from touching. In the space between them, he reached out his hands, fingers relaxed, waiting for Tony to grasp them. Tony stared for a moment, then grasped both of Steve's bigger hands in his, fingers shifting for a better hold. Steve nodded and Tony squeezed, his shoulders tensing as he put all he had into it.
Steve registered the pressure and nodded again after a moment, and Tony let go. "Good. Do you want to do something else?"
"Maybe the balance board," Tony ventured. "I've been sitting on my ass enough for one day."
Steve accepted this and fished out the wobble board; a black semi-sphere which had many applications. Tony took off his shoes and slowly placed one foot on the flat surface, positioning it carefully, then made the first attempt to place his second foot near the other edge of the circle. His balance tipped a little onto the side and he spread an arm out, reflexively, to catch himself. He succeeded on his second try, but as soon as Tony tried to roll his weigh forward to lift the edge of the semi-sphere from the floor, his balance faltered again.
Knowing this was the hard part, Steve stepped forward and Tony reached out, seeking balance from his shoulders as he tilted the board forward again, teetering slightly until he found the balance to keep all sides from touching the floor. The pressure of his hands lessened on Steve's shoulders, then returned when he almost lost his balance again, but bit by bit Tony got it and moved his hands away, although Steve remained standing beside him, making sure he wouldn't fall. Not that he thought Tony would break if he did, but it was unnecessary.
Tony balanced for a little over five minutes before stepping unsteadily off the board and went to fetch his water bottle again. "I'm done," he announced – which was a sign for Steve to get on with his own workout, and he did so without hesitation, working the punching bag hard. Every now and then he would shift to the side and catch a glimpse of Tony watching him. He wasn't staring, but not looking bored either – nor was he studying Steve like some fascinating piece of machinery. It was a rather relaxed look, albeit slightly tired, and Steve wrapped up his exercises.
"Do you want to get something to eat?" he asked, flexing his shoulders to ease the strain in them.
"Sure," Tony agreed, and pushed himself to his feet. Steve watched him, to see if he needed help, but Tony remained upright and only briefly steadied himself against the wall before walking to the door.
They didn't shower or change, heading straight to the kitchen. It was easier on Tony, because every extra thing he had to do, especially when he was already worn out, was another challenge to overcome, and in the end he would be so tired that eating was out of the question. So, they went to the kitchen and Steve raided the cupboards and fridge for several things to eat. There was plenty to choose from, but the struggle was to figure out a menu each day what Tony could eat without problems – or, as easily as possible. Seeing as they had exercised twice today, Steve knew not to get too adventurous, even if Tony hadn't yet shown actual signs of weariness; he knew they were there.
So, they had meatballs, tortellini, some vegetables and pieces of fruit. Steve made them both milkshakes as they waited for the rest of the food to cook. Tony tapped his fingers against the tall glass in an even rhythm; starting with his thumbs, then one by one touching the glass until pinky fingers came last. After a while he reversed the order, and Steve knew it was just another small exercise he could do while not blatantly working on his motor skills.
"Here we go," Steve finally announced as he made them both a plate and set Tony's in front of him. He tried not to watch openly as Tony grasped his fork, adjusted his hold, then stabbed at the first meatball and carefully placed it in his mouth.
"We could have sushi tomorrow," Tony mused after a bit, chewing carefully; Steve had noticed he did that a lot, trying to make himself feel full quicker so he wouldn't need to keep struggling to eat.
"Raw fish?" Steve frowned.
"You'll like it," Tony told him. "You like everything."
"Back in the day, you couldn't complain as long as there was something to eat," Steve shrugged. "Even raw fish."
"It's more than raw fish."
"Then we'll have some tomorrow," Steve agreed. It wasn't really a fight, and if Tony was getting tired, he would also get irate, and they might start an argument over something as stupid as what Tony wanted to eat the next day.
Frankly, Steve was just glad Tony had an opinion, and a request, because most days he still had to order the other man to eat. He hadn't had to resort to force-feeding Tony, which he was thankful for.
"Sir," JARVIS announced suddenly, "Colonel Rhodes has sent you a message; he will be stopping by this evening, should you feel like receiving him."
"It's Rhodey; of course I do," Tony snapped.
"Very well, sir. I shall reply to Colonel Rhodes."
Steve gave Tony a brief look. It was getting late, and he hadn't seen James Rhodes during his stay in Malibu, yet he knew the two were friends. As if knowing what he was thinking, Tony returned his look and shrugged. "Rhodey's been busy. While Iron Man's out of commission, he has big shoes to fill."
"As War Machine?"
"Not with the Avengers," Tony clarified. "Unless, of course, they really need him, but Rhodey said he would rather not do it – not that I know why. He was happy enough to be appointed as one of the New Avengers…" Tony pushed a cherry tomato across his plate. "Don't tell me you didn't know I did stuff on the side, apart from the Avengers."
"I knew that," Steve replied. He just hadn't ever thought about it that much. Tony had always been there when the Avengers were needed.
"I'm full," Tony finally decided and slid off his chair. "I better go shower, before Rhodey arrives. Carry on," he mock-saluted, no doubt meaning the unfinished food Steve was likely to either eat or put away for later. Most likely eat, because he was still hungry.
Steve finished his dinner, then cleaned up the kitchen and debated on a shower of his own. He might even go as far as doing another round at the gym, since he doubted his presence was required while Rhodey was visiting. They got along just fine, but the man was here to see Tony, so Steve should make himself scarce.
"Captain Rogers," JARVIS interrupted him before he could make up his mind, "could you assist Mr. Stark?"
Steve frowned but headed out to Tony's room, trying not to guess what was wrong now. Maybe it was just shoelaces or something as trivial as that, and he would work himself up for nothing while imagining something worse. "Tony?" he called out once he reached Tony's door, tapped at it and then entered. He heard running water, which meant Tony was still in the shower, and decided it wasn't about shoelaces after all. "Tony?" he called out again, and cautiously approached the bathroom door.
There was no reply, and he yanked the door open, expecting blood whirling down the drain or something equally gruesome, but instead he spotted Tony, sitting on the bottom of the tub, lathering his hair clumsily.
"Please tell me JARVIS didn't send you in," Tony mused after a bit.
"He did," Steve replied. "I called out, thrice. You didn't answer."
"I have soap in my mouth," Tony complained and then sighed, lowering his hands. He looked miserable, flicking suds off his fingers, and it was easy to tell he had run out of energy somewhere between getting in the shower and starting to wash his hair. He was trembling, just slightly, as he tried to maintain his posture.
Steve didn't ask, and he knew Tony wouldn't either; he walked over, turned off the water, crouched down beside the tub and then reached out. Just like with so many things recently, he knew hesitation was just going to make things more awkward. So, he slid his fingers into Tony's wet hair, and decided after a while that washing another person's hair wasn't that hard. Easier, in fact, because he could see what he was doing.
Tony had closed his eyes at first contact and twitched his nose as a small river of soap mixed with water slid down his face. He reached up with the heel of his hand, trying to brush it off before it could reach his eyes, then settled down, clearly set on enduring this.
Once he guessed it was time, Steve reached out for the showerhead, turned on the water and rinsed Tony's hair for him, matter-of-factly. He was careful, though, not wanting to drown Tony by angling the spray of water the wrong way.
When that was done, he turned off the water again and reached out to a shelf by the tub, plucking a bottle of conditioner from it. Tony blinked drops of water from his lashes, opening his mouth, but shut it a second later and shifted slightly. Steve personally wasn't used to all the fancy products they sold even for men these days, for such a simple thing as washing one's hair, but he knew Tony had conditioner for a reason, which meant he would have used it had he been able, and Steve actually recognized the smell when he opened the small bottle and poured some of the substance into his hand.
"You know, if you ever quit your day-job as a superhero, I'm sure you would do okay as a hairdresser," Tony mused as he closed his eyes again, eyelashes dark against the tops of his cheeks.
Steve chuckled. "I wouldn't count on that happening anytime soon."
"World needs Cap," Tony agreed with a small nod of his head.
"World needs more than just me," Steve corrected and eased the movements of his hands, now that the conditioner was evenly spread out, dragging his fingers along Tony's scalp with a pressure he hoped was pleasant. Judging from the small groan Tony let out a moment later, he was succeeding.
"Did they teach you this in the army?" Tony mused after a bit. "I might have to kick you out of the Avengers and pay you to give me scalp massages for the rest of my life."
Steve chuckled again, keeping it up, and Tony tilted his head slightly when he reached the base of his skull, breathing deeply. He didn't react when Steve's thumb moved along the fresh scar on his skin, but the super-soldier made sure to ease the pressure on that area, just in case.
After several minutes had passed, Steve once again turned on the water and rinsed Tony's hair thoroughly, then the rest of him, trying to keep his touches as superficial as possible. Of course he had noticed Tony was naked the moment he stepped into the bathroom, but just because they were both men didn't mean he should look at him or touch him any longer than he had to. The running water cleaned the rest of the soap from Tony's skin and eventually Steve turned off the water and stood up, finding a towel hanging on a heater rail on the wall.
He waited a moment, watching from the corner of his eye as Tony shifted a little and then looked up, reaching out his hand for the towel. Steve passed it over and hovered by the door, waiting to see if he was needed for anything else. Tony made a half-hearted attempt to dry himself until he placed the towel around his shoulders and looked at Steve. "Give me a hand?"
Steve stepped back to the tub and grasped Tony's arm, helping him to stand, then carefully step out of the tub. After Tony steadied himself, Steve slowly let go of him, guessing that his services were no longer needed; Tony probably felt humiliated enough as it was, his hands tugging the towel down to cover himself. Not that any part of a naked man wasn't something Steve hadn't seen plenty of times, but they knew each other and there should be a line in there, somewhere…
Tony swayed, suddenly, and stumbled into Steve, who was still standing close enough to catch him. Wrapping his fingers around the damp skin of Tony's bicep and waist, Steve debated whether he should just try and towel Tony off, then help him to bed. A nervous laugh from the other man cut off his inner debate, and he looked at Tony's face; it could've been the warm, damp air – or Tony was flushing with embarrassment.
"It takes fifty-four muscles to stand up, and a shitload more to remain standing," Tony mused. "To take one single step, you utilize approximately two-hundred muscles, and if you lose control of a few, things get… awkward." No doubt he was referring to his weight leaning against Steve's, muscles working to keep his body upright.
Steve wanted to tell him it was okay, that it wasn't anything Tony could help by feeling apologetic or ashamed. A neurological problem wasn't something you put a band-aid on, or managed with a painkiller. And it wasn't even those things that bothered Steve, but the fact that Tony should let Steve help him, and not try to wait until the last minute to bring it up. Sure, he knew Tony liked his independence, but it should have been easier for him to accept Steve's involvement by now.
Instead of saying any of those things, he waited for Tony to regain his balance – or accept it wasn't going to happen.
Tony's fingers tightened around his forearms and he shifted his body, trying to find his feet. It was a process Steve had followed closely during his stay in Malibu, and it felt like he was getting a high-definition experience of it while Tony was unclothed and Steve could see every muscle and joint working to accomplish what the other man wanted.
"Okay," Tony finally decided, and lifted his right foot. He didn't move anywhere in particular, but the test was a success and Steve let go of him, yet allowed Tony to maintain his own grip for as long as he wanted. The engineer's fingers tightened momentarily, then slowly let go as Tony grew more confident in himself – and just as suddenly he was half-sagging, half falling over, and Steve grasped him around the middle to keep him from ending up on the tiled bathroom floor.
"Not okay," Tony muttered. "Just get me…"
Steve hoisted him up and moved him to the bedroom, which he knew was the nearest destination Tony could want. The other man moved his legs, mimicking a shuffle, but Steve took most of his weight. Tony plopped down on the bed as soon as he could, sitting there in a hunched position, looking so incredibly vulnerable. Nothing like the leader of the Avengers, the Iron Man protected by the most advanced armor known to man.
Not lingering on the sight, Steve went back to the bathroom to fetch a fresh towel, bringing it back with him. Tony accepted it wordlessly, once again making a half-hearted attempt of toweling himself dry.
"I'm sure Rhodey will understand if you don't –"
"He's coming over, and I'm seeing him," Tony cut Steve off resolutely, then pointed at a door in the wall. "Can you grab me some clothes?" Steve relented, and opened the door, waiting for instructions since he didn't presume to know what Tony wanted to wear. In the end, what Tony chose were simple things with as few zippers and buttons as he could manage. "I don't need to dress up to impress him," he muttered as Steve helped him pull on his pants.
Steve just gave him a small, good-natured smile. He was certain Rhodey didn't mind, seeing as he and Tony went way back, but he also knew Tony would try and pretend to be as normal as he possibly could. When he couldn't stand without help, Steve wasn't certain how he was going to tackle that obstacle.
Clearly Tony was debating that as well, weighing up the distance between himself, the door, and the length of the hallway leading to the living room area. Eventually he looked at Steve again, with the sort of broken defeat Steve had learned to associate with a cry for help. Tony being Tony, he still had an air of stubbornness about him, but it was clear he had reached the inevitable conclusion: "Will you help me into the living room?"
Steve nodded and reached down, lifting Tony easily and waiting to see how cooperative his body was going to be. Tony's jaw was clenched and he forced one foot in front of the other, using Steve as a crutch all the way to the living room – where they found James Rhodes already seated on one of the couches.
The man looked up, dark eyes taking in the scene although his face remained carefully neutral. "Hey, Tony," he greeted. "Captain."
"Colonel," Steve inclined his head when Tony made no reply. He gave the other man a quick look, to figure out whether Tony wanted to go on.
"JARVIS let you in?" Tony asked and started moving, and Steve followed his lead, matching his pace.
"Who else?" Rhodey mused.
Tony gave a half shrug as Steve helped him sit down on a couch opposite Rhodey's. "Pepper's been around. I think she's avoiding me these days, though."
"She's handling the company, the best she can," Rhodey corrected him. "You're looking good." Tony arched an eyebrow at that. "You're alive and functioning," Rhodey amended.
"Depends on whom you ask, I guess," Tony replied and looked to the side, out of the wide set of windows that curved in a semi-circle on the other side of the room.
"He's doing better every day," Steve offered.
Tony looked at him quickly, frowning. "You can go. I'm sure you have stuff to do."
"You're being rude," Rhodey said and gave Steve a brief, thankful look. "I know what you've been doing, Cap, and on behalf of a lot of people, I would like to say thank you."
Tony muttered something unintelligible.
"Stop muttering," Rhodey pointed a finger at his friend. "He's helping your churlish, ungrateful ass, and you know it."
"Because he feels guilty it was his damn shield that banged me in the head," Tony huffed and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest.
"He would be here anyway," Rhodey argued.
"How do you know that?"
"Because he's a decent human being!"
"If he was trying to do the right thing, he would still be in New York City, leading the Avengers, not wasting his time here."
"I'm not wasting my time," Steve stated flatly, and both men looked up at him, having clearly forgotten he was still there.
"No?" Tony challenged him. "Because there is no certainty when I'll get better, if I'll ever get better, and there are dozens of people who can do what you're doing right now."
"If you would let them," Steve reminded him.
"Not the point."
Steve glowered at him. "You're getting better, every day, but that attitude isn't going to get you much further, soldier."
"I'm not your goddamn soldier," Tony snapped and sank back on the couch, not unlike a sulking child.
"You're my teammate, and my friend," Steve amended. "If I can help, then I'll be here as long as necessary."
"Let him be," Rhodey spoke up, threw back the rest of his drink and got to his feet. "He'll be like this for a moment and then snap out of it. Would you like something to drink?" he asked.
"No, thank you," Steve replied pleasantly and looked at Tony. He might make them smoothies later – he had grown to like them, seeing how many different things you could throw into a blender.
Rhodey busied himself by selecting a bottle and fetching some ice, then returned to his previous spot. "Sit down," he urged Steve. "Unless you would rather be somewhere else. I won't blame you; he gets on my nerves on the best of days," the man joked, yet his eyes were full of fondness as he looked at Tony, taking the edge from the words.
Tony stared at Rhodey with brooding intensity, then eventually sighed and relaxed a little. "You're such a glutton for punishment, then, because you keep coming back for more."
"To gluttony and suffering," Rhodey toasted, grinning briefly, and leaned back to enjoy his drink.
Steve took a seat on the couch beside Tony, keeping a comfortable distance between them but feeling surprisingly included in the banter that went on for the next few hours. And if Tony happened to fall asleep against his shoulder, long after smoothies and many laughs with Rhodey, no one made a comment about it.
"Take him to bed," Rhodey said at length. "I need to get going."
"Are you okay to drive?" Steve frowned.
"Is someone going to pull over War Machine and stick a breathalyzer in my face?" the other man cracked back, and Steve guessed that was unlikely to happen. "Take care of him," Rhodey added as he straightened his clothes. "The mere fact that he's allowed you to stay this long, and do the things you do for him…" He shook his head, and although his expression was sad, Steve read a hint of hope in it as well.
"You can count on it," he nodded, and they shook hands before Rhodey headed downstairs, probably to suit up and fly back to New York City, or wherever he was needed right now.
Looking down at Tony's sleeping face, pressed close to the crook of his neck, Steve decided that he knew where he needed to be, too. He hadn't been certain if he would ever get that feeling of purpose again in his life, after the war and becoming an Avenger. It was a bit of a relief to find yet another place where he… belonged.
Regardless of his protestations and ill moods, Tony was getting better. While they still did various different exercises to help him re-establish muscle memory, they also moved onto more physical exercises. Tony seemed to like that, although he often complained Steve was a slave-driver. But it was good for Tony, too, to see actual results in his recovery, and that kept him coming back for more.
Since actual strength-training was still weeks if not months away, they focused on simpler things: various calisthenics, yoga, tai chi, pilates and isometrics entered the rotation in their daily routines, in healthy amounts. For all his pushing of Tony's limits, Steve made sure they didn't over-do it, jeopardize their progress, and cause a setback.
From their training together in the past, Steve knew Tony wasn't in perfect harmony with his body. In a normal setting it would have been impossible to get Tony to lie down and do slow exercises that required concentration and patience, but maintaining a specific position helped Tony's brain refigure the body it was connected to, and being a genius, Tony had to see that as well.
Their work-outs became a routine, so much so that Pepper would just walk in, listing all the things she needed Tony's attention for, while Tony sweated and strained to complete whatever task Steve had set before him. Pepper remained unfazed, yet she profusely thanked Steve every chance she got.
"If there's anything I can get you," she kept saying.
"I need Tony to get better, that's all," Steve insisted each time, because that was the truth. If there were a way for him to bribe Tony's injuries to get better faster, he would do that in a heartbeat, but as it was, recovery was slow going and he had to accept that.
Steve had always felt a certain sense of pride when he saw recruits in his training class pass a test, just as he felt relief when all the Avengers returned from a fight. With Tony, his pride was different, yet not a totally separate thing: Tony's body was doing all the work, but being able to push the man in the right direction, to make him sweat and keep trying whenever Tony felt ready to give up because he had failed at something else… In short, Steve kept forcing Tony up when the man fell and no longer had the will to go on, and each time he would see the spark light up in Tony that drove him to relentlessly tackle a world-threatening situation that couldn't be solved just with brawn and guns.
Training with Tony gave Steve new things to try as well. He was definitely adding a few of those things to his regular work-out as well; he hadn't immersed himself too far into all the new forms of exercise society had come up with since he crashed into the ice, so this was as good a chance as any. Tony didn't seem to mind that Steve was instinctively better at everything they tried, as long as the super-soldier was doing things the same way and not showing off.
To make their work-outs more appealing to Tony, especially on his more morose days, Steve tried to bring in elements that mimicked their hand-to-hand combat training. Tony probably knew what he was doing, but he accepted it with minimal complaints.
"Good, hold that pose," Steve urged. Tony was sweating and shivering slightly, but he kept his left arm stretched before him, fingers curled into a loose fist, while his right arm was bent closer to his chest. Tony hated doing things slow, but since that was the only way to get anything done these days, he had accepted to go through the motions of fighting instead of throwing any actual punches. "Alright, enough," Steve finally decided, lowering his own hand from beneath Tony's outstretched one. "We're done for the day."
Tony relaxed his pose and moved to sit on a bench, grabbing his water bottle. He didn't hesitate as much as he used to, and his grip was firmer, surer. Steve just watched, noting every little thing that seemed to come easier now than when he had first arrived in Malibu.
The brown eyes met his as Tony drank slowly. Steve offered him a small smile, then went for his own bottle and sat down beside the other man.
"You think I'm getting better?" Tony mused after a while, rolling his bottle along his thigh, back and forth, with the palm of his hand. Another small exercise for fine motor control.
"I know it," Steve reassured him. "I see it, every day."
"And if I weren't getting better?" Tony asked, looking at him, his hand stopping the motion, the bottle stilling. "Would you still be here?"
"Always," Steve told him.
"Huh." Tony thought about that. "You wouldn't, but that's okay."
Steve liked to think he would be here, regardless of what Tony believed. Maybe not all the time, and not if Tony didn't want him around, but … He guessed it was better to change the subject. "You seem to like it here."
"It's my home, I think I ought to," Tony gave him an amused look.
"Do you miss it while you're in New York?"
Tony shrugged. "Not much, and besides, I can fly pretty quickly in between places." A sad smile played on his lips. "Or, I used to."
"What's keeping you from doing it?" Steve asked, knowing the obvious answer, but he had never known Tony to fear something that involved his suit.
Tony probably realized as much and gave him a suspicious look. "Aside from the obvious? Pummeling uncontrollably into the ground isn't as pleasant as you seem to think it is."
"I'm not saying that you should start by flying to the moon." It wasn't a ridiculous statement since Steve had seen Tony battle in space more than once. "Do something… easy." He got an idea "Take me flying."
"You?" There was no end to Tony's suspicious looks, clearly.
"Yes," Steve shrugged innocently. "I enjoy flying – safe flying, not falling."
Tony fidgeted – there was no other word for it. "Not yet."
"Why not? Are you telling me that the great Tony Stark cannot bypass a few twitches? You have JARVIS in your suit, that should be enough if you suddenly lose control –"
"No, Steve. I… Just… no." Tony looked so torn, and for a moment Steve feared the Iron Man armor had suddenly become some kind of nightmare for Tony; the last time he wore it, he ended up in a hospital.
"I'll be there, with you," Steve reassured, and it was an irrational reassurance because Steve would fall if Tony fell – and of the two of them, Steve would probably break a bone or five.
Tony gave him a dirty look. "Do you know how complicated it is to move the suit? Or fly steadily? Or fly steadily with a super-soldier clinging to your form?"
"So what you're saying is you can't do it?"
And Steve knew he had won, because as damaged as Tony was, there was nothing he couldn't do – especially if he could do it.
Steve had known Tony had more than one armor at his house in Malibu; it stood to reason he would have an armory there, with some suits that were still in development. They were excitingly different, but Steve kept himself sufficiently passive as Tony still pretended to be hesitating.
It wasn't as if Steve was overly fond of flying, but the few times one of the flying members of the Avengers had offered him a lift, the bond of trust had created a certain thrill in the pit of his stomach. He had often flown with Tony, out of necessity, but this time it would be therapeutic more than anything: eventually Tony needed to get back into the suit, to conquer some unspoken fear or concern he had.
In the past, Steve would have bet a lot of money on Tony putting on the suit no matter how many bruises or broken bones in his body. That he was so leery of being Iron Man again was ridiculous, considering the armor was Tony's own creation, but perhaps that was part of the issue: Tony didn't feel like himself, and he was smart enough to see that piloting a suit that was often referred to as 'a weapon of mass destruction' might not be in his best interest as long as things could spin out of control.
Steve was still of the opinion that the therapeutic effects of being Iron Man would outweigh the possible quandaries. Tony needed to believe he was making progress, and piloting the suit would provide that. Steve's desire to fly just gave him the boost he needed, because in the end, Tony was a selfless person under the hard, polished surface that showed anything but that.
"This is a bad idea," Tony muttered.
"We don't have to do this," Steve replied. He may have grinned in triumph, because he was playing Tony perfectly – with Tony's consent. If Tony absolutely didn't think getting into the suit was a good idea, Steve would back off. They had all the time in the world to get Tony better, but in Steve's opinion this was the right time, and Tony had to know that as well. He was simply lacking faith in himself and his brain-body connection.
Tony stepped forward, onto a platform, and snapped his fingers – the fact he could do that was proof enough that he had overcome so many issues already. "JARVIS, prep the Shotgun armor."
"Sir, I am not certain whether high speeds were Captain Rogers' idea of an nice, easy flight."
"It's the best armor for steady, controlled flight, even on a bad day," Tony snapped back at his AI, and soon enough one of the cocoons on the wall opened up and revealed a slightly more metallic-colored armor. It opened up like a flower on a sunny morning, and Tony stepped over to it, spreading his arms and legs accordingly to let it close around his body.
If Steve had been a more emotional person, he might have shed a tear at the sight. "Okay?" he asked instead.
"You better be nice to me, Cap, because if you're not, I might accidentally drop you. No one would look twice," Tony replied, the voice familiar through the speech synthesizer of the suit.
"Got it," Steve nodded, face blank, but inside he was doing cartwheels.
Tony stepped forward, none of the hesitation from earlier showing: the armor masked it completely, or maybe Tony was going on autopilot. Being back in the suit might actually help his progress in other areas, and Steve felt like patting himself on the back.
He moved towards Tony and clasped his shoulder. "How do you want to do this?"
"JARVIS, the ceiling, please," Tony said, and the ceiling rotated and opened to reveal the blue sky above. "Hang on tight," Tony ordered then, and Steve grasped onto the armor, then felt one of Tony's arms around his waist and the repulsors came to life.
Flying with Iron Man was amazing. The Shotgun armor, as Tony had called it, packed a serious punch, and Steve felt the wind whip around him as they rose into the sky and then took off over the water, his stomach left behind somewhere in the armory. Tony didn't weave or do any fancy stunts he usually did, taking a direct path then curving slowly, evenly, taking them along the coast. One of his arms remained around Steve's waist, keeping him pinned against the suit, which had to be affecting its maneuverability, but Steve knew what it was: a favor returned from all those times Steve had held onto Tony, keeping him from crashing to the floor.
"Go lower!" Steve shouted over the wind, uncertain whether Tony could hear him, but soon they were flying lower over the water, and Steve pulled one of his hands free and stretched out, fingers touching the surface. The firm impact of water on his skin at a speed most boats couldn't match was thrilling.
Tony tugged on his waist after a moment, and Steve looped both his arms back around the metal shoulders. He thought he heard Tony saying 'hang on', and then they shot upwards, away from the water, doing a hard twist back towards land and Tony's house. The mixed vertigo of speed, wind and gravity sat heavily inside Steve's chest, but Tony's hold on him was unyielding and he could admit he was shaking a little by the time they touched down in the armory once more.
Steve gathered his bearings while Tony moved to take off the suit. His ears were buzzing, skin prickling, but he couldn't help the grin on his face, and the still-lingering rush in his veins. If flying in the suit was anything like it was on the outside…
Tony stepped out of the cocoon a moment later, free of the suit, and looked at Steve for a long moment. A brief shadow of uncertainty flashed over his face, then an expression Steve wasn't certain he had seen before. He wanted to ask if Tony was okay, to make sure they hadn't turned back because something was wrong.
Eventually Tony stepped down from the platform and continued to where Steve was standing. They looked at each other, and suddenly Tony leaned forward, wrapping his arms around Steve. It was surprising, but Steve reciprocated, not knowing what else was expected of him. He was keenly aware of Tony pressing his face into his shoulder, and the whispered 'thank you' against his clothed skin.
Steve guessed this was all he needed to do right now, so he held Tony a bit closer and hid a smile in the dark hair. For the first time in weeks, he was fully convinced things were going to be okay.
Author's note: I'm not fully convinced the story should end here. However, time constraints force me to draw the line somewhere, and if time and inspiration allow (which I assume they will), there shall be some kind of continuation to this, later, involving the other Avengers, Tony's continued struggle to get better, and Iron Man's return to the battlefield.
Also, possibly, the deepening of Steve's and Tony's relationship.