she goes out and steals the king's english (gyzym) wrote,
she goes out and steals the king's english
gyzym

avengers fic: ready, fire, aim (steve/tony, nc-17) [2/3]

For summary, notes, etc, please see Part One.



Tony wakes up to a headache that is dwarfed only by the ache in the rest of his body. He mashes his face into the pillow, tries to will himself back to sleep, and fails. After a moment, Jarvis says, “Good morning, Mr. Stark,” in a voice that would be hesitant if he wasn’t, you know, a computer.

“Fuck you,” Tony mumbles into the pillow.

“What was that?” says Jarvis, in sunny, bordering-on-homicidal tones, and really, one of these days Tony is going to get around to giving him a little less personality.

Eventually. Probably. At some point.

“Fuck,” Tony groans, “fuck, fucking motherfucking fuck.” He rolls over as gingerly as possible, but apparently not gingerly enough. Even the smallest motion sets off a world of hurt, creeping up his arm, his ribcage, his left thigh, and that’s when Tony hazily remembers being thrown to the ground by Thor.

“Oh, hell,” he mumbles, and pushes back the comforter to reveal the mottled canvas of bruises that is currently his body. “That’s gonna be a bitch to spar with, fucking Thor, I swear to god. Maybe…padding, Jarvis, could you…padding. Uh. After coffee.”

“Of course, sir,” Jarvis says, apparently over the “fuck you” business. “I’ll begin rendering some theoretical schematics for your approval. Shall I schedule an appointment with a doctor to see to your bruising?”

“No,” Tony says, “no, it’s just, uh, hangover and, and, divine battery, no doctors, I’m good. If you could maybe just kill me, though? That’d probably be for the best.”

Jarvis doesn’t even dignify that with a response, which is fine. Tony was sick of talking anyway.

It takes him another few minutes—long, dizzy minutes, in which he can’t help but poke at his bruises, regret it, and then stubbornly do it again—to realize that he’s in bed. His own bed, in his own bedroom, on the second floor, which…Tony is pretty sure he was too drunk last night to pick his bed out of a lineup, let alone climb the stairs and get under the covers.

Now that he’s thinking about it, he’s not wearing shoes, either. Or most of the suit he’d had on last night, just the undershirt and the pants.

Huh. Maybe coffee, Tony thinks, and forces himself out of bed over the strenuous protest of his entire body. He walks down the stairs feeling older than he’s ever felt in his life, creaking and aching with every step, and when he reaches the landing he peers into the living room and sighs.

Bruce is Hulked. Tony’s not sure when or how that happened, or where he’s going to find the latest round of consequential structural damage, but at least he seems to be sleeping peacefully. Granted, Tony’s going to have to replace the couch, but he’s sleeping peacefully. Thor’s sprawled out on top of the bar, grinning in his sleep, and Clint—wow, Clint’s still on top of the entertainment set, looking right at Tony.

“Morning,” Tony says, “you’re not planning on moving in up there, are you? Because I don’t think you really match.”

Clint says nothing. After a minute, he snores, which is when Tony realizes that he’s asleep with his eyes open.

“Well that’s not terrifying at all,” he mutters to himself. He looks around for Pepper and Natasha, doesn’t see them, and, riding a hunch, says, “Jarvis, call Pepper, will you?”

“Certainly,” says Jarvis. A second later, the Jaws theme starts playing from the direction of Natasha’s bedroom.

“That’s not nice, Pepper!” Tony yells, and winces at how much it hurts to draw the breath to raise his voice. “I told you to change that!”

“Not now,” comes Pepper’s voice, followed immediately by Natasha’s more insistent, “Fuck off, Tony."

Tony scowls and walks into the kitchen.

“The world better hope it doesn’t need saving today,” he mutters, and then Steve says, “My thoughts exactly,” and Tony jumps about a foot in the air.

"Jesus," he says, "give a guy a little warning, fuck, is super sneaking one of your powers, oh my god, you know I have a heart condition, right? Or, well, not a condition but a…er…."

He stops, because Steve has one eyebrow up, and his mouth is quirked at the corners; this is his I'm laughing at you but too decent to do it out loud expression, and Tony knows it well. He narrows his eyes and turns to the coffeemaker.

"Fine," he says, "be that way."

"I already started a--," Steve starts, and then he makes a strangled, choking sort of sound. "Tony, your arm."

"Huh?" Tony says. He's trying to piece together what he remembers about last night into a picture that makes sense; he's pretty sure he should be mortified right now, he just can't remember why. "Oh, yeah, that. As it turns out, playing hacky-sack for a Norse god is a bad idea, who knew?"

"Me?" says Steve, and before Tony can stop him, he's reaching out to lift Tony's arm with gentle hands. They're warm against the surface of his skin, warm like Tony is under Steve's sudden, careful scrutiny, and Tony doesn't shiver, but it's a close thing. "This looks really bad--god, you hit on your side, is it like this all the way down?"

"Kind of," Tony admits, because it's hard to lie to Captain America. "I've had worse, though, it's not a big deal."

"Your ribs could be bruised," Steve says, brow furrowed. He reaches for the hem of Tony's shirt, and that's about the extent of what Tony can handle this morning; he twists away, trying not to wince too obviously at the movement.

"I'm fine, Cap. Coffee and some Advil, maybe lay off the sparing for a couple of days--"

"A couple of days?" Steve repeats, raising his voice, and then lowering it back to a furious whisper when Tony groans and makes a shushing noise. "A couple of--Tony, your arm is blue. For all I know you've cracked a rib, you need to see a doctor."

"But I hate doctors, so, uh, no, I'm thinking it's a no, definitely a no," Tony says, and pours himself a cup of coffee. Something is itching at the back of his mind; hopefully the caffeine will help. "Seriously. It's fine, I'm fine, everybody's fine, forget about it."

Tony's not fine, actually; he feels like he's going to keel over or throw up, like his head is going to fall off his neck, like half of his body is on fire. He wants to curl up somewhere and lick his wounds, and--oh, oh, there it is, last night's memories in stunning technicolor, the mortification he's been waiting for. Steve saw Tony drunk, drunker than he's been in months; Steve listened to Tony whine, pathetic and maudlin. Steve, shit, Steve carried him to bed, and now he's standing in front of Tony with his arms crossed, concern on his face.

And the thing is, Tony knows it's just that he's part of a team now, part of Cap's team, for all he doesn't play well with others. He's part of the team and that should be enough, but it's not, only makes everything else worse by comparison. He wants to misinterpret what's happening here, wants to read Steve's concern as interest in Tony instead of the Avengers, wants to walk forward into Steve's arms, the warmth there, and let the tension drain out of his own shoulders. Hell, he even wants to talk about what happened last night, wants to believe that Steve's inherent impossible decency would overcome the judgement Tony knows he deserves, but Steve is his coworker, not even his friend, and he can't.

"Let it go," Tony says, and looks away. "It's really not your problem, anyway."  

"You're so goddamn frustrating sometimes," Steve snaps, "would it kill you to just swallow your pride a little and-- "

"Yes, yes, okay, it would, it would kill me, because I have so much pride to swallow, don't tell me you haven't noticed--"

"You know you're not the only person who--"

"Is affected by my injuries? I think I am, actually, and save me the 'There's no I in team,' speech, because really, you know what, I get it, I've heard it, but I fight in a giant metal suit, so a couple of bruises aren't going to--"

"You think this is about-- "

"Yeah, I fucking do."

Steve glares at him, and Tony glares back; Steve breaks first, huffing out a long sigh and looking away. "Okay, fine. If you want to be a stubborn ass, I guess it isn't my lookout."

"Cheers," Tony says, raising his coffee mug.

Steve throws his hands in the air and walks away, and Tony's chest feels tight, heavy, until he's gone.

--


Tony Stark has been in love twice in his life, and the first time was with a circuit board. He never got over that one, never even tried; it’s still there, humming under his fingers while he works, the heady stream of how things fit together. Tony has never been able to fathom reality without the picking it apart and building it a different way, and he sees no reason to start now. For all he pits himself against commitment, the steady rush of home has always been clouded thick around his work, and he’s long since resigned himself to the fact that he’s better with machines than people.

The second time, with Pepper, was less about stability, more about surprise. Tony hadn’t known it was possible to fall headlong into something he’d been feeling for years; he scrambled and scrabbled to catch up, to touch every loose end, to figure it out. And Pepper...god, those first few weeks, tangled up with each other and their own mortality, Pepper was a dream Tony’d been having for years. She splayed herself across his sheets, thighs cream-pale and bruised with kisses, red hair spilled along the pillow, and quirked her eyebrows at him like nothing had changed at all.

“Will that be all, Mr. Stark,” she panted one night, wicked as Tony shook against her. She smiled during sex, slept the night next to him, laughed at him over morning coffee; Tony traced the curve of her spine with his eyes when she moved, woke up curled around her, a hand in her hair. She was just Pepper, warm even when she was cold, hands soft where her voice wasn’t, and he loved her, he loved her, he’d always loved her.

But Tony would be Tony, had always been Tony, couldn’t ever seem to manage being anyone else. Tony was himself in love or out of it, and Pepper knew him better than anyone; he’d thought he could be better for her, and she must have done too, and they were both wrong. Scrambling and scrabbling were all well and good, but Tony fucked up more than he did anything else--too little time or too much affection, absent and smothering by turns.

She’d changed her mind about quitting as CEO; he’d agreed to the Avengers Initiative. Half the time they were on opposite sides of the country, Tony knee-deep in some consulting project while Pepper put out his fires, and when they did see each other Tony couldn’t control himself at all. He bought her diamonds and hung up on her; he missed board meetings and hid his eyes when he fucked her; he said “I love you” once, twice, a hundred times, but kissed her silent before she could say it back.

One month became two, became four, and they fought whenever they weren’t fucking. Pepper tried for maturity and Tony tried to bait her, hoping she’d reveal in anger what it was he was doing wrong. She never did, just looked at him with eyes that spoke volumes in a language Tony didn’t speak, and he sent flowers, cards, suggested Venice for the second time. He tried so hard it seemed like he wasn’t trying at all.

They were on the way to the airfield--Venice after all, and Tony knew he was being humored, but at least it was something--when the truth of it stumbled out of his mouth.

“This isn’t working, is it?”

“Of course it’s working,” Pepper cried, exasperated, “you haven’t listened to a word I’ve said, have you, we don’t have military funding anymore, it’s natural that the numbers don’t meet what was projected a year ago--”

“No,” Tony said, “not that, I, uh. Us. You and me. It’s a no-go, isn’t it?”

Pepper’s eyes widened and her mouth snapped shut, and god, even that was enough; Tony swallowed against the swooping crash in his stomach, took her hand.

“C’mon, Pep,” he said, “how long have we known each other? I mean, god, remember when I made you replace the arc--”

“I am not doing that again,” Pepper said, and her eyes were wet, and really it was wrong that Tony had to go through having this conversation; it’s not like they didn’t both know where it was going.

“I know,” he said. “I know you aren’t. But I...look, I meant what I said, okay? About it being, uh, you. Pretty much...only you, and if this isn’t for us, then you know what, I can deal. Right? I mean, I can totally deal, of course I can deal, but if it flames and burns and you hate me--”

“I don’t hate you, Tony,” Pepper said, and there it was, the fond exasperation, the fact that she found the idea ridiculous, and what the fuck was Tony supposed to do without that, go live alone in a treehouse in the woods?

“Yeah, now,” Tony said, rolling his eyes, trying for flippant, “but in three weeks I’ll have burned down Stark Tower or knocked all the walls out of the mansion--I’m remodeling the mansion, by the way, the New York one, not the one here, the one here is yours, I mean, it’s mine but it can be yours, if you want it I can sign the whole thing over to you, no problem, I’m good at that--”

“Tony--”

“Fuck, fuck,” and that was all Tony was going to let his composure slip, it really was. He took a deep breath, faked a smile, and Pepper smiled back. She wasn’t crying, but she wasn’t quite...not crying, either. Tony thought it must be nice. “See? I can’t even do a breakup right.”

“Is that what this is,” Pepper said, but there was no question in her voice. She reached up, touched the side of Tony’s face--probably right where a bruise once was, Pepper’s funny that way--and sighed. “I do love you, you know.”

“But it’s too much,” Tony said, “right? It’s too much, isn’t it, I know, it’s okay, I’m sorry, let’s just quit while we’re ahead, right? That’s the right call, I think that’s the right call.”

“Tony, I--”

“Tell me I’m wrong,” Tony said, and meant it for the first time in his life. He wanted her to tell him he was wrong, that they were fine, that she was happy; it was selfish, but he wanted it anyway, tried to keep it out of his voice. “Tell me I’m wrong and I’ll drop it right now, see if I don’t, go on, tell me.”

Pepper sighed and shook her head and it was over, over even before she said, “You’re all I have too, you know that, don’t you? I’ve told you enough times that it’s processed? If there was any way to make it work--”

“You would’ve found it already,” Tony said, and ran a hand through his hair. “Forget about me, you’re the genius in this car--no offense to Happy--and I know you tried, okay, I’m a hard problem to solve--hey, hey, you wanna give me a smile? Please?”

She gave him a scowl instead, and when Tony laughed, it only sounded a little hysterical.

“You know what,” he said, “tell you what, you should go to Venice anyway--no, no, don’t start--”

“I haven’t even said--”

“You were going to, I just mean for the weekend, blow of some steam, enjoy yourself--”

“I know this escapes your attention constantly, but as CEO--”

“I was never this responsible as CEO, there’s already a precedent and you’re just--”

“Yes, I know exactly how irresponsible you were, that’s not exactly a selling point and--”

“--making it more difficult this way, Pepper, c’mon, just for the weekend and then you’ll come back and--

“Find the entire company in complete-”

“--things’ll be normal,” Tony finished. That shut Pepper up; she gave him a horribly doubting look, and Tony was scrambling again, would maybe always be scrambling for her. “Or as normal as things ever get for us, come on, let me have this, let me think that we can--”

“We can,” Pepper said, and her voice was firm, no-nonsense. “We can, stop looking at me like that, of course we can. It just...it might take more than a weekend, Tony. You have to be prepared for that.”

“When am I not prepared?” Tony said, “Tell me one time I wasn’t prepared,” and that, at least, got Pepper to laugh. Tony grinned at her, dug his fingernails into his thighs, and hoped. “See, there it is, that’s a smile, we’re going to be fine.”

The car drew to a stop; Tony could see his plane through the tinted windows, fueled up and ready to go, and as endings went, this wasn’t a terrible one. He climbed out of the car before Happy could come around to open the door, offered Pepper a hand out.

“So...that’s it, then,” Pepper said, and the tears were back, unshed but still visible. In ten years, Tony had never once seen her cry.

“That’s it,” he said, and hugged her, pretended not to see the terrible relief in her eyes.

It took him three hours to get home, get the suit, and get to New York; he stormed through the SHIELD hallways in full gear, ignoring the panicked glances from various agents. When he got to Nick Fury’s office, he flipped up his mask, slammed the door, and said, “I want in.”

“You are in, Stark,” Fury said, without looking up from the folder he had spread open across his desk. “Made it down the hallway without getting shot, didn’t you? That’s more in than most people ever get, you got a reason for bothering me today?”

“No,” Tony said, “no, not in the building, not in as a consultant, I want in on the Avengers.”

Fury did look up at that, one visible eye narrowed. “And when did I give you the impression that that was up to you?”

“Would you just listen,” Tony said, and slammed an armor-clad fist into the desk. It left a two-inch dent in the metal, and Fury just raised an eyebrow.

“I’m listening.”

“I will do anything, okay? Anything, is that what you want to hear? When I first started with this shit there was the next mission and nothing else, and I know I’m a pain in your ass, and I know you and your goons got up close and personal with me during a really bad week, but for the record? The time before that? The last time I thought it was the end of the line? I built a fucking arc reactor in a cave with a box of scraps and a goddamn car battery hooked to my chest, so I think it’s safe to say I’m normally good under pressure!”

“Look, Tony-- “

“No, you look.” Some part of Tony’s brain--probably the small, scared, undeveloped corner that handled his self-preservation instinct--wailed in terror at that, but he ignored it. “I don’t know what you want from me here, I don’t know if there’s some kind of psych eval I’m supposed to pass or an obstacle course I’m supposed to run, maybe you want me to flick out one of my eyes so we can match, whatever. I know I’m not a team player, okay, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do my goddamn job, and if you keep me locked up in here running tests on god knows what I am going to lose my mind. I will do the job, you know I will, you have to know that, I will do anything, you just have to give me a fucking chance. “

He was breathing hard when he stopped talking; Fury gave him a long, measured look, then sighed. He looked back down at the folder open on his desk, made a check mark, and flipped it closed again.

“Fine,” he said.

“I knew you were going to say that, and I have prepared a--” Tony paused, let that process. “Wait--wait, fine? Did you say fine?”

“I was gonna call you in anyway,” Fury said, shrugging, “figured I’d let you say your piece first. Turns out we’ve, ah, unearthed someone, and I’m pretty sure he can keep you in line.”

“Oh,” Tony said, and tried not to feel too ridiculous about the fact that his entire set of dramatics had apparently been unnecessary. “Uh, okay. So I guess you’ll just...let me know when I’m needed, then?”

“Mmhmm,” Fury said, and Tony had turned to go when he added, “Oh, and Stark?”

“Yeah?”

“Gonna need you on premises,” Fury said, voice perfectly flat, eyes on his work. “Right here in this building for the next...week, let’s say, though I reserve the right to need you for longer. Shit for you to get done, it’s non-negotiable, you got that?”

Tony thought of the empty house in Malibu, of Pepper’s face in sharp relief, of the Scotch sitting on the bar in his living room.

“Yes, sir,” he said, because ‘thank you’ would have been pathetic, and slipped into the hall.

(Five weeks later, the big blond hero in the armor Tony made him hates him on sight. Tony...well, shit, Tony doesn’t blame him at all.)

--


If Tony's honest with himself--which he rarely is, actually, but whatever--he's missed New York. There was a certain appeal to Malibu, sure, the beaches and the sunshine; there'd been panache in the seedy, smoggy roil of Los Angeles after midnight, and Tony had been looking for panache. The East Coast had felt thick and smothering at 21, at 31, haunted with echoes of his father's Brooklyn accent, always hard with disappointment. Now, a few months shy of 41, he watches the end of a thunderstorm out the window of what was once his father's study and very nearly smiles.

He's healed, mostly, from the whole tossed-around-like-a-drunken-ragdoll episode. One of his ribs had been cracked after all, a fact which he wasn't ever planning on mentioning to Steve; still, time and carefully hidden bandages have done their work. All that remains of the incident is a faint yellow tint to Tony's arm, and even that’s mostly faded.

Well, that and the fact that he and Steve have been circling each other like wounded dogs for two weeks, avoiding eye contact and exchanging as few words as possible. At least it's familiar, Tony thinks ruefully, for all it's harder to weather now.

Tony is, maybe, kind of, sort of, in what he would call a "mood." Pepper would call it a sulking fit, but Pepper's in LA right now, so Tony is free to define things however he likes.

The rain stops abruptly, a shuddering sort of stillness settling over the house; in the absence of the pounding beat of the downpour, Tony can hear Clint trying to teach Thor to work the Wii. It's a losing battle--Tony knows from long experience--but it's not like he's getting any work done anyway. He slips out into the living room, his tablet tucked under one arm, and leans in the doorway to watch.

"You just wave it," Clint says, exasperated, "don't they wave things in Asgard? Is there a no-waving policy? Is it too ungodly or something--hey, don't you dare throw it--"

"But why should I wave it?" Thor says, dangling the WiiMote in front of his face by the strap. "Is it not a weak man's task, mimicry and imitation of a real fight? This is a plaything for children! For cowards!"

"Thor, it's bowling," Clint says. "Hey, Tony, make Thor understand the Wii, give him an upgrade or something."

"Tony has abandoned attempting to school me in this folly," Thor says cheerfully. "He insists I am a hopeless case, and should remain restricted to swinging the mighty weight of Mjolnir."

"Fat lot of help that is," Clint mutters, "I want someone to bowl with."

"You could ask Bruce," Tony says.

Clint, without looking away from the screen, just sighs and beats at his chest like Tarzan. "He's a sore loser, it's bad for the walls."

"Hey," Bruce says mildly, looking up from the textbook he's reading, and sighs when they all tense up. "Oh, honestly--I'm not feeling green, you guys can relax, I was just registering my offense."

"Your offense ended in a viewing of your giant green dong last week," Natasha says, looking extremely bored. "Which, for the record, offended me."

"You could bowl with Clint," says Tony; Natasha gives him a flat look that speaks volumes as to how much that is not an option. "Or you could try Steve, he's getting better at it."

"Can't find him," Clint says. "He's been kinda scarce since you two went all cage-match on each other the other day."

"We didn't--wait, you--I--you know about that?"  

"It is not so large a house as you perhaps imagine, my friend," says Thor. He's got the WiiMote balanced on his head now, and is moving his body to control it; surprisingly, it seems to be working for him. "Also, you and Steven have not been particularly subtle about your discomfort with one another of late."

"Oh, right, because they're normally so discreet," Natasha says, her mouth quirking up, and Clint snickers as Thor lets out a guffaw.

"Hey," Tony snaps, and Bruce glances up again to give him a long-suffering look.

"See?" he says. "Not nice when they're all talking about you, is it?"

"I'm going upstairs," Tony says loftily, "because I am--"

"A busy guy, yeah, Tony, we know," Clint says. He does a controlled little fist-pump as he lands a strike. "Maybe say it a little less, whaddya think? Be more convincing if it wasn't like your catchphrase."

"Agreed," says Natasha.

"Here too," says Bruce, already looking back to his book.

"Tony may speak to his work level if he so chooses," says Thor, securing his place as Tony's favorite once again. Then he ruins it by adding, "Though I will concede that he chooses to do so perhaps more than is required for the understanding of others."

"Yeah, well," Tony says, which is…really, really lame. He's saved from having to elaborate when Clint lets out a whoop of satisfaction and yells, "Eat it, bitch!" in a Norse god's face.

"You insult my people and my kingdom," says Thor, laughing on it, and reaches out to give Clint what's probably the worst noogie of his life.

Tony's life has gotten very strange.

He watches them for another minute, the easy camaraderie that's flowing between them, and then sighs and takes his tablet up to the roof. It's slanted and tiled over, not really designed for sitting on, but Tony had spent hours up here as a kid, staring out at the distant glow of the city's lights. He'd had a stairway built when he took over the mansion, a little door, because he felt like 40 was probably a little old to be crawling out the window, but he hasn't had the chance to take advantage of it until now.

For a moment, it's as good as he'd thought it would be. The air is cool, damp still, heralding fall; Tony takes a deep breath, enjoying the taste of it, and then chokes on it a little when he notices that he's not alone.

"Steve?" he says to the silhouette, really hoping it's Steve and not some supervillain with a lurking fetish.

Then Steve turns around, bites his lip, and says, "Tony, hi," with no inflection in his voice at all. Tony takes it back--he'd take the supervillain any day of the week. At least the megalomaniacs they normally deal with would have the decency to actually stab him in the heart, instead of making him feel like they had.

"Sorry," Tony says, putting up a hand. "I didn't mean to, to, intrude, fortress of solitude, probably, right? That's a thing that people do, I get that, so I'll just, you know--"

"Tony, it's your house," Steve says, furrowing his brow. "You don't have to go just because I'm here."

"Not interested in crashing your party," Tony says warily, and Steve sighs, shakes his head.

"Party is definitely the wrong word. I'd like the company, actually. Stay?"

Tony tilts his head, and then shrugs and shuffles over to sit next to Steve. Apparently they're done not talking; that's fine. That's good. Better for the team and everything. Tony will just let Steve call the shots, and--

"Hey, is that a sketchbook?" Damn his fucking mouth.

"What?" Steve says, and then glances down at his lap. "Oh, this? It's nothing, it's just…I used to do this kind of thing, back before the war. Didn't really have time for it once things got heavy, though, and now I just do it to…unwind, I guess. Helps me think."

"Can I see?" says Tony, which is a stupid question, since he's already snatched it out of Steve's hands. For a second, he thinks he can see Steve blushing, and finds it endearing--well, more endearing than usual, which is actually getting kind of difficult to imagine, that’s probably not good--despite himself.

Then Steve says, "I guess my answer's irrelevant, huh?" in his driest, most deadpan voice, so, hey, maybe not.

Tony looks down at the notebook rather than replying, angles it towards the house for better light. A bustling street spills out across the page in charcoal; shopfronts fit together seamlessly, and there are rough outlines of people leaning out of upper windows, gossiping in the street. The detail is uneven--the drawing is obviously unfinished, a work in progress--but the skill in it is almost breathtaking.

"Is there anything you're not good at?" Tony says, and then, when Steve's face twists a little, backpedals. "Uh, sorry, I just--this is really good. Is it based on somewhere specific, or--"

"It's my neighborhood in Brooklyn," Steve says. He sounds wistful as he takes the notebook back, sad, old. "Or, I mean--was, I guess. I'm sure it's different now. I keep meaning to go see, but it's. I don't know."

"Yeah," Tony says. He waits for Steve to elaborate; when nothing else comes, Tony turns his head, really looks at the guy. He's staring down at the sketchbook, his thumb stroking lightly over one corner, and his shoulders are slumped in on each other.

Tony's mind, never good with staying still, flits from scoliosis to lumbar support to charcoal quality to the fact that he probably needs to get the roof re-tiled before it settles, strangely, on the word Atlas. He frowns.

"Hey," he says, "you okay?"

“Sure,” Steve says, shrugging a shoulder. It’s about the least convincing play-off Tony’s ever seen, and he’s watched himself in the mirror. “I...yes. Yeah. It’s fine.”

“Uh-huh,” says Tony, unconvinced.

He doesn’t push for once in his life, though, not sure it’s his place, and they fall into an easy enough silence. Tony’s got his tablet out again, balanced on his knees, projecting a combination of stock figures and a blown out view of R&D’s latest tragic attempt at creativity; he’s absorbed enough in his work that he almost doesn’t register the sound of Steve clearing his throat.

Almost, but not quite. His fingers still, and he slants a sidelong glance to his left. Steve’s not looking at him, but his face is twisted up like he’s steeling himself for something.

“Everyone I know is dead,” Steve says finally. It’s flat, monotone, none of the visibly held-back emotion Tony remembers from the day with the photograph. “Or, uh, knew, I guess, would be more appropriate. Even--I had neighbors, there was a girl who lived in the apartment across the hall from me, she was pregnant when I left, and her son’s dead--Vietnam, I guess. You know how weird that is?”

“I...don’t,” Tony admits, blinking. Honestly, it hadn’t even occurred to him, and isn’t that a bitch--Tony’s never felt like more of an asshole in his life, and that bar is pretty damn high. But here’s Steve, quiet, steady Steve, Steve who genuinely likes people, who’ll give (almost) anyone a chance; Tony tugs a hand through his hair and can’t fathom how many people he must have loved, how many must have loved him, how many lives he must be mourning.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, and he’s selfish, he’s always been selfish, so he doesn’t mean I’m sorry for your loss. He means I’m sorry I was such a dick to you and I’m sorry I didn’t see you and I’m sorry, I should have done better. He means I’m sorry you don’t like me, but god, I don’t blame you at all.

Steve sighs and shrugs, catches the palm of one hand with the thumb of the other and rubs a steady beat into his skin. “I’m not. Or, I mean, I am, of course I am, but it’s...I don’t know. They all lived such full lives, had families and...and...and lives, I know I said that already, but that’s, really, that’s it. They lived. How could I begrudge them that just because I missed it?”  

Tony doesn’t know what to do or say here, has never had any skill at navigating these kinds of waters. The last time anyone trusted him in a conversation with this much emotional depth, he’d ended up getting (deservedly) punched in the face. On the one hand, there’s probably not anything Tony could say that would lower him in Steve’s esteem at this point; on the other, more important hand, he wants to help.

“I don’t think it’s begrudging them their lives to miss them,” he tries finally, hoping it’s the right thing. “Because that’s not, I mean, if you want to look at the logic of the thing--which maybe you don’t, that’d be okay, I could work with that, we could try philosophy or, uh, math, I’d probably be great at this if it was math--but, my point being. You can be sorry you missed it without being sorry they had it, right? Those are two separate things, aren’t they?”

“Sometimes they are,” Steve agrees, sounding thoughtful. “Sometimes...geez, I don’t know. I woke up and it was the future and everyone expected me to just...be glad we won the war, I guess, and get back to work. And some days that’s great, because god knows what I’d be doing without it, and some days...I guess some days I wish they’d just leave me alone.”

Tony, wondering if that was a hint, makes a vague gesture towards the house. “I can, I mean, if you want alone time, I can provide, it’s a big house--”

Steve actually laughs, a low, honest chuckle, there and gone again. The expression on his face is exasperated, maybe a little fond, too; that’s probably wishful thinking, the fond thing, but Tony’s not going to kick it out of bed. “I didn’t mean you, Tony.”

“Just checking.”

“Mmm,” Steve says, taking a breath. “Least the air’s the same, right? I always did love New York after a storm.”

“Me too,” Tony says, smiling down at his knees. “I used to come out here as a kid when it rained, just to watch. Or, well, I did, until my dad caught me building that lightning-powered bottle rocket--”

“Bet he loved that.”

“You can still see the scorch marks, if you know the flight pattern to look for,” Tony says. He’s a little proud despite himself, and he grins at Steve’s raised eyebrows. “What? It worked; they don’t just throw the words ‘child prodigy’ around, you know.”

“You must have been a terror,” Steve says, and Tony laughs.

“I’m still a terror.”

Steve opens his mouth, and Tony suddenly, definitively does not want to know what’s going to come out of it. Always good in times of stress, his brain connects a few threads it’s been working out and Tony leans forward, intent.

“Hey, can I see that drawing again?”

“I--what? Oh. Uh, sure, why--”

“I want to try something,” Tony says. He lays the drawing flat against his tablet, raises a hand when Steve makes a noise of protest. “I’m not going to hurt it, I’m just...trying something. I’ll be done in a minute, I promise. Jarvis, you up?”

“For you, sir, always,” Jarvis says, voice echoing into the darkness, and Tony quirks a smile.

“Aww, baby, you don’t have to wait up like that--no, I’m just kidding, you totally do, do me a favor and scan this in, would you? To my personal server, not the Stark ones, and don’t auto-edit, I know how you get--it’s charcoal, it should feel like charcoal, yeah?”

“Absolutely, sir,” says Jarvis. “Did you want me to simply store it, or...”

“No, no,” Tony says, flicking through a couple of screens and absently handing Steve’s notebook back. “Manipulatable file, maybe 75% just so I can work with it, and then axe the bells and whistles--don’t need the spiral imprints, don’t need the bent corner--actually, you know what, could you just clear the paper and leave the lines, the whole thing should be--yeah, like that, that’s good.”

“Tony, what are you doing?”

“Working,” says Tony, “give me a second. Jarvis, do you recognize the location on the--oh, hey, look at that, ten seconds or less, Steve, check it out, your artwork translates into the Matrix! Definitely don’t ask me what that means, you won’t like it--okay, right, good, can you take the lines, there, that's it, make the concentration a little darker--okay, that’s great. And now just--yeah, Google Earth would work but I'd rather you use the stuff from our satellites, I hate giving those Silicon Valley nerds the traffic--let's say 33% opacity to start with, just ease it in--”

“Seriously, Tony, what--”

“Trust me,” Tony says, which isn’t something he’d ever ask Steve to do if he was really paying attention. Steve goes quiet, though, so that’s something. “Jarvis, darken the line art, a little lighter on the--yeah, that's good, okay, can you render that so it's a little smoother--perfect. Right. Project it up for me, bigger, brighter too, Jarvis, it’s night, I want him to be able to see--good, good, okay, aaaand...there. Right there. Done.”

He leans back to display his handiwork, trying not to be too obvious in watching Steve’s face for a reaction. It’s not like it’s any big deal, not really; Steve’s sketch is laid on top of a photo composite of the same area of modern-day Brooklyn, charcoal meeting with faded-out color. The sketch is darker and in the forefront, the buildings behind it are more of a haze--Tony had left them nearly see-through on purpose, making them the ghost. The storefronts have changed, of course, but a number of the buildings are the same; looking at it, it’s easy to see how it fits together, past and present.

Steve stares at it, mouth parted slightly, and says nothing. He’s quiet for long enough that Tony has to resist the urge to fidget and drop the tablet entirely; he sits on his hands to quell the urge and waits.

Finally, Steve says, “You know, it’s not so bad, when you look at it like that.”

“Of course it is,” says Tony. He’s surprised by the harshness in his own voice, the honesty threaded underneath it, but he’s gotten on this train now, so he might as well ride it to the end of the line. “You know the thing in my chest, glows blue, looks real pretty--it’s there because if you took it out for ten minutes, the shrapnel hanging around in there would lodge in my heart and kill me.”

“Wait, what? I didn’t--” Steve starts, and Tony waves a hand.

“No, don’t, it doesn’t matter. It’s not the point, and it’s fine anyway, so long as I’ve got the thing in my ticker’s fine and dandy, and look, the point is, it never gets boring, and it never gets better, either. But if it hadn’t happened, I’d be...war profiteering, probably, or dead. And instead I’m Iron Man. And you know what, sometimes that doesn’t fucking help at all, but it’s another angle, isn’t it? And this, uh, whatever you wanna call this little Photoshop experiment, or hell, just look out there, you can see the lights. That’s New York, and it wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t done what you did back then, and it definitely wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t punched Doom out last week, I was there, I can personally attest to that fact. So maybe that’s your angle, or maybe it’s just knowing that the team wouldn’t work without you--because we wouldn’t, you know--or maybe it’s something smaller, but it’s...you’re...fuck, I don’t know, please say something so I’ll stop talking, I told you I’d be better if it was math, you want me to do some math?”

“No,” Steve says, quiet, “no math.”

Tony clamps his mouth shut, because it’s really high time he did, and swallows hard. He looks anywhere but at Steve for a few agonizingly long moments, and then his resolve breaks; when he glances to his left, Steve’s got his head cocked slightly to the side. He’s looking at Tony with sharp, appraising eyes, like he’s a puzzle Steve’s trying to figure out, and Tony has to look away again.

“Seriously, you’re starting to freak me out a little, even just a little nod or something, you’re--”

Thank you,” Steve says. The sincerity in his voice--how do people even sound that sincere, how can human vocal chords even do that--makes something in Tony crack open, leaves him tingling all over, unsure.

He’s wanted to do unspeakable things to Steve for some time now, has recently become acquainted with the fact that he wants to do much less vulgar, but decidedly more terrifying, things with him as well. Just now, Tony looks at him and aches, for him and over him. He wants to know everything and nothing, wants to stay right here and spend the rest of his life running, and Steve...Jesus, given a choice, Steve probably would have chosen anyone else for company.

“No problem,” Tony says, clapping Steve on the shoulder and clambering to his feet. His voice is even, because he’s always been a good actor when he sets his mind to it; he feels splayed open, wrecked. “You should come inside--Clint’s killing Thor on the Wii, or maybe killing him over the Wii, hard to be sure. He could use a new partner.”

“Think I’ll stay out here a minute,” Steve says, smiling up at him. “Do you mind leaving the, uh...what is that, a computer glass?”

“Something like that,” Tony says, feeling his own smile go lopsided. “Tell you what, you keep it,  god knows I’ve got more of them. I’ll show you how to work it properly later; for now, just tell Jarvis what you want it to do, he’ll figure it out for you.”

“Tony, you don’t have to--”

“Least I can do, really,” Tony says, which probably doesn’t make sense to Steve, but is true all the same. “I’ll see you in there, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve says, and Tony makes it into the house, down the hall, and into the bathroom before he collapses against a wall and closes his eyes.

Part Three
Tags: avengers assemble, oh god what even is this, steve/tony
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  • fic dump!

    HI GUYS. So, today for Labor Day I gave myself the gift of, uh, doing a bunch of random nonsense connected to exactly nothing. I wrote some fic for…

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