Massive, impossible, mind-numbing amounts of thanks to: wheres_walnut for tolerating me, foxxcub for letting me spam her inbox, sheafrotherdon for waging the good war against my fascination with italics, and, of course, postcardmystery, who literally read every word of this story as it was written and coaxed me through to the end. YOU GUYS ARE THE BEST. ♥
Title: Ready, Fire, Aim
Pairing: Steve/Tony [Pepper/Natasha, past Tony/Pepper]
Wordcount: 21,000 (WEEPING FOR MY SANITY, WHAT)
Summary: There's no "I" in "Avenger."
Tony leaves the meeting before he’s supposed to—because he is a busy man and he has things to do and anyone who has a problem with that can just shut their mouths, can’t they—without saying goodbye to anyone. He stalks down the hall and into the elevator and out of the lobby and up to the car (where Happy is courteous enough to let him slam his own door) and fumes the whole ride over to Stark Tower. He sketches out schematics for two new models of repulsor boots and a pocket water filtration system on the back of a napkin—he’s nothing outside of the suit, is he, well fine, he’ll show that frosted-over Americana has-been douchebag--and gets out of the car in a whirlwind of irritation and almost-but-not-quite falling on his face.
“Those curbs’ll sneak up on you, boss,” Happy says, a hand on Tony’s elbow to steady him, his face perfectly straight.
Tony doesn’t pitch a fit in the middle of the street, but only because Happy keeps a chart for that kind of shit and Tony’s over his quota for the month. He turns on his heel and marches inside instead, eyes narrowed, and rides the elevator 40 floors up.
“Where’s Pepper?” he demands, when he gets to her office to find it empty. Her secretary—small and competent and utterly unimpressed by him, why is everyone so unimpressed with Tony today, Tony is a very impressive person—sighs.
“She’s in the conference room, Mr. Stark,” she says, “but you can’t—”
“Nope, nope, I can, my building, it’s fine,” says Tony, and he dodges the woman, strides down the hall, throws open the conference room doors, and clears his throat.
“Captain America," he says, "is a dick.”
Then he notices the table full of investors.
“Uh,” says Tony, “wow, okay. Uh. Well then. Good morning--is it morning? It's hard to tell in the whole, you know, basement of doom they've got going on at--uh, nevermind. Right, so, great to see everyone, any chance I can convince you this was a training exercise?"
Pepper sighs, pinches the bridge of her nose, and waves a hand in Tony’s general direction.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she says, “Tony Stark.”
Tony goes home—well, no. It’s not home, is it, it’s just a mansion that he happens to own and have spent significant portions of his childhood in. It’s his father’s house, looks and feels and, impossibly, even kind of smells like him, and Tony wishes again that he’d had the place renovated years ago, instead of waiting until it looked like he’d be spending a fair amount of time in New York. As it is, the workshop and his bedroom are safe, and the rest of the place is either under construction or far too full of memories to set foot in.
So: pissed off investors, residence in the House of Insecurities Past, and Pepper on the warpath, all for a team of superheroes led by a guy who doesn’t even like him. Great. Fantastic. Tony’s life is so awesome.
“Jarvis,” he says, “the playlist from last week, you know the one, crank it,” and goes downstairs to be a brilliant innovative billionaire genius prodigy amazing human being where no one can bother him.
Which works, until someone decides to bother him.
“Sir,” comes Jarvis’s voice, crisp over the sound of Highway to Hell blasting from every speaker in the house, “there is a Captain Rogers is at the front door. I believe he would like to see you, though he reacted rather badly when I asked him to state the purpose for his knocking.”
Tony grins, getting a little bit of perverse pleasure out of that fact; he laughs outright when Jarvis pulls up the security footage of Steve jumping about a foot in the air and whipping around, looking for the source of the voice.
“Dick,” says Tony vindictively, and Jarvis makes a noise that, if he wasn’t an AI, would be a sigh.
“Yes, sir,” he says, “so you’ve said. Several times, in fact. Would you like me to send him away?”
Tony opens his mouth to say “Yes,” and, surprisingly, what comes out is, “No.” Puzzled, he tries again, and produces, “Yeah, no, don’t, I’ll get it, it’s fine, thanks—the Armanis are in the closet in the far wing, right? Wait, where did I put those sunglasses, I need the sunglasses, don’t let him leave.”
Ten minutes later, he opens the door in a pair of Armani trousers, a hand-tailored button down left open over this morning’s Black Sabbath tee, no shoes, and mirrored sunglasses. Even to himself, he has no explanation for this behavior.
Steve focuses on the lack of shoes, because of course he does.
“You rang?” says Tony, ignoring the furrow-browed look of confusion Steve is giving his feet. “Did you want something, or is this some kind of weird 40s hazing thing? You stand on my porch looking confused until I, what, try to fight you for dominance or something, and then there’s like, uh, brass bands and shit, that was the 40s, right—“
“Stark,” says Steve, and Tony hates that, hates it, “What are you talking about?”
“I live here,” Tony snaps, “and I’m busy, I’m allowed to not make sense if I want to. What do you want?”
“Oh,” Steve says. He winces, and then actually flushes a little, puts a hand to the back of his neck. Tony would be endeared despite himself, except that this guy is a tool. “I, uh. Well, I think we may have gotten off on the wrong foot. And since we are going to be…well, teammates, I guess, I thought maybe we should…work on it.”
“You came all the way out here to apologize?” Tony says. “Have they not taught you to use the phone, like normal people?”
“I’m not apologizing!” Steve snaps, and then visibly reigns himself in. “No, you know what, I am apologizing. I’m sorry. I’m just…not adjusting all that well, I guess, and then there’s you, and you look a lot like--”
“Get out of my house,” Tony says, instinctive, automatic, before he can finish that comparison.
Steve jerks back, stunned, and then narrows his eyes. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me,” Tony says. “Look, Rogers, you want teammates or whatever, fine, great, you’ve got a whole gaggle of SHIELD cronies waiting to bust out their guitars and sing Kumbaya with you, have fun, but I told you, I don’t play well with others, okay? So you and your…apology or whatever, you can just go, I don’t need you to do me any fucking favors.”
Steve stares at him with his mouth open for a long minute. Then he says, “What’re you—no, you know what, I don’t care. Fine. If that’s the way you want this to be, that’s just fine with me. Have a lovely evening, Mr. Stark.”
“Fine!” says Tony. “Good! Great! I will!”
“And turn down that racket,” Steve yells over his shoulder, storming down the stairs, “I can hear it from all the way up the street!”
“AC/DC IS NOT RACKET,” Tony…well, yeah, okay, he screams it, before slamming the door on Steve’s rapidly retreating back.
“I believe that could have gone better, sir,” says Jarvis.
“Captain America is a dick,” says Tony, “and I want that written on my fucking tombstone.”
Of course, Murphy’s law being what it is, the next thing Tony does is save the stupid bastard’s life.
It’s not even supposed to be a mission, not really. Tony knows from the encrypted emails he certainly hasn’t been hacking that it’s a more of a training thing, meant to see how well the Avengers function as a team. They’re just supposed to be doing recon, but trouble follows Tony everywhere, so it’s a full-scale melee within fifteen minutes, bullets ricocheting wildly. Tony isn’t really fighting, just snatching civilians from the street and depositing them on nearby rooftops—Clint’s firing a crossbow with terrifying accuracy, Hulk’s all Hulked out, Natasha is doing her circus acrobat of death thing, and Steve’s more or less playing human bowling with his shield as the ball.
Thor, being Thor, is smashing people in the face with the hammer and laughing about it. He’s Tony’s favorite, really.
Anyway, the point is, Tony shouldn’t even be in any position to save Steve’s life; he should be punching someone in the face, or blasting someone with the repulsors, or doing something useful. But, as it happens, he’s on a rooftop, so he sees the grenade being thrown behind Steve’s back that no one else notices, sees the gasoline leaking out from a shot-through Toyota, puts one and two together to makes explosion with the ease of long practice.
Tony would like to think that, while he doesn’t like Captain America, he’s above wanting to see him blown up, and that’s why he does it. He’d like to think that, but the truth is much less flattering—he just sees the eventuality of it all and acts without thinking about it. He's as surprised to find himself with an armful of all-American hero as, presumably, Steve is to find himself in the air.
“What the hell is your problem,” Steve yells, struggling until Tony drops him unceremoniously on a balcony, “you can’t just—”
The explosion cuts him off, rocks the whole street, and Steve looks down, blinks, and visibly puts the dots together. “Oh,” he says, “I…oh. Uh. Thank you.”
Tony sneers, remembers he’s got the mask down, and settles for waving a hand instead. “Just a guy in a suit, remember?” he says, and doesn’t wait around for Steve’s scowl.
He takes Pepper to an expensive dinner, a seven course dinner, with the wine and the little fork and the works, and she doesn’t even have the decency to wait for the cheese plate before she says, “Tony, just tell me.”
“Tell you what?”
“Oh no,” Pepper says, pointing her fork at him, “don’t you try that with me, either you’ve wrecked the company—“
“Why is it always that? Why do you always think I’m going to wreck the company, you run the company and anyway I’ve only done that, what, two, three, four times—“
“Six times, you’ve nearly wrecked the company six times that I know about, and if it’s not that then you’ve murdered someone—“
“Or you’ve developed some kind of emotional attachment—“
“Don’t say emotional attachment, god, now I’ve said it, I'm going to break out in hives—“
“Or you’re trying to get us started again,” Pepper finishes, taking a sip of her wine, “which, as we both know, would be a terrible idea.”
“But not worse than if I murdered someone, right?” Tony says, and is a little horrified to discover it comes out as an honest question. “I mean, obviously the murder would be worse, which I didn’t, you know, do, nobody’s been murdered and I’m not trying to sleep with you again, you can rest easy and stop looking at me like that—Pepper. Can’t I just, you know, take a friend out for a meal?”
Something soften almost imperceptibly in Pepper’s face; Tony only recognizes it from years of watching her, trying to figure her out. He smiles, grateful for it, and she smiles back, and Tony loves her for liking him still, even after he turned out to be a predictable train wreck of a boyfriend.
“You don’t have to try so hard, you know,” she says.
“You say that,” Tony says, “I hear the words coming out of your mouth, I do, I hear them, there they went, but if I showed up at your office with a pizza you’d CEO me right on out of there.”
Pepper laughs. “CEO isn’t a verb, Tony.”
“Then you’re not doing it right.”
“Is that so?”
“Am I awful to work with?” says Tony, which isn’t what he means to say at all. For a long moment he seriously considers covering his mouth with his hand, like that’ll force the words back inside of it; then he winces, over-exaggerated, trying to play it off.
Pepper lowers her fork, raises her eyebrows.
“Oh, Tony,” she says, which, really, is answer enough.
It turns out that, while Steve doesn't like Tony, Captain America gets on great with Iron Man. Tony should probably have seen that one coming; one of the problems with having a second identity, regardless of said identity's utter lack of secrecy, is that it makes it easy for people to draw a dividing line. Nick Fury had done it--"Iron Man yes, Tony Stark not recommended," god, that was never going to stop rubbing him the wrong way--and Steve is clearly, visibly, doing it too. Never mind that all the good Iron Man does is because Tony is, you know, running the show; Iron Man gets smiles and camaraderie and "Nice work, buddy," and Tony gets flat looks and carefully maintained distance.
Which is fine, really. Two can absolutely play at that game.
Iron Man and Captain America save the day in Bloomington, then Queens, then Spokane; Tony and Steve snipe across the table and avoid each other's eyes. Iron Man and Captain America grace the cover of Time Magazine, arms over each other's shoulders; Tony and Steve sit in the car together in stony, frozen silence. Iron Man and Captain America fight together, fly together, banter easily over criminal's heads together; Tony and Steve, if at all possible, don't even breathe the same air.
"You're being ridiculous," Pepper tells him from LA, her voice fond and exasperated. Tony misses her; the house is echoing, empty, and he hasn't slept in a couple of days. In his exhaustion he's taken to cleaning out the place himself, separating items into "keep," "donate somewhere," and "burn, for they reek too much of my father," and it would be nice to have Pepper bursting in and out, yelling at him to sign things, to eat.
"I'm always ridiculous," Tony says, digging through a box in his father's study. "That's like the whole point of me, Pep, where you been?"
"Running your company, maybe?" Pepper says. Tony can hear the smile. "Honestly, Tony, you could just talk to him."
"And say what? 'Sorry you only like me when I'm encased in metal, I'll try to work on being encased in metal more?' I'd like to think I'm above groveling."
Pepper snorts, and Tony scowls.
"I said I'd like to think that, you could let me think that, that would be a…kindness…"
He stops talking, because the piece of paper in his hands--yellowed, curling at the edges--demands all of his attention. He stares at it, mouth open, until Pepper says, "Tony? Tony, are you there?"
"No," says Tony, "I mean, yeah. I, uh, something came up, I'll call you back, okay?"
"Tony," Pepper starts, but Tony reaches out and pushes the button on his tablet to end the call, then holds the worn paper up to the light.
It's a photograph, which is strange in and of itself. Howard Stark was not a sentimental man by any estimation, rarely kept mementos. What's stopped Tony in his tracks, though, is the content of the picture--it's Steve, looking exactly as he did three hours ago, with an arm around Howard's shoulders. There's a man on Steve's left, shorter, with dark hair, leaning into him and laughing, and behind them a motley crew of guys in Army greens.
"Me and the HC, '43," is scrawled across the back in Howard's familiar handwriting, and Tony knows, knows in his bones, that he can't just burn this.
He doesn't sleep again, but it's not like that's anything to worry about.
Tony waits for Steve outside the meeting, trying not to look like he's loitering suspiciously. He fails; Natasha gives him the evil eye, Clint circles him warily before walking away, and Coulson sends him a text message that says, "Still looking for an excuse to taze you and watch Supernanny; think twice, Stark."
Thor claps him on the shoulder, leans down, peers at him, and grins. "You look tired, my friend. Were we in Asgard, I would invite you to my bath; I believe you would find it most relaxing."
"This is why you're my favorite," Tony sighs, because yeah, okay, you know what, Tony mostly doesn't think of Thor like that, but the mental image of him in the bath is definitely going to help him through the day.
"Truly, your kindness knows no bounds," Thor says, and Tony laughs.
"Oh, no, believe me, it knows bounds. Intimately, even--look, buddy, I've gotta talk to Steve real quick and I think he's coming, do you mind--"
"Oh!" says Thor, and then, in a complete departure from sanity, actually winks at Tony. "I will leave you to your task, my friend. May luck be with you this day!"
"…Um," says Tony. "Right. Thanks?"
Thor nods cheerfully and ambles away, which turns out to be perfect timing; Tony has half a second to recover from that little display of before Steve rounds the corner.
"Hey," Tony says, "hey, Rogers, wait up."
Steve turns, stops, flushes faintly and frowns at Tony. Typical.
"Stark. Did you need something? I thought we'd settled the strategy for the next mission, but if you'd rather--"
"No," Tony says, waving a hand, "no, no, we're good, covered that and recovered it and covered it again, I'm all set. I just. Uh. Here."
He shoves the photograph at Steve with absolutely no grace, and winces internally. He's got more poise than this normally, he knows it, he's witnessed himself in action first-hand and he's downright charming, but for whatever reason Steve seems to shut down the normal interaction part of his brain.
Of course, then Steve looks down at the photograph and back up at Tony, and there are actual fucking tears in his eyes. Tony is more than sure that, even at his best, he wouldn't know how to deal with this; thus, he resorts to an old, faithful strategy, and panics.
"Oh, Jesus," he says, "look, I know I'm not your…favorite person or whatever, you don't like me, I get it, fine, but please don't--oh, god, just don't, don't cry, okay, because then I'll have made Captain America cry and I do not want Coulson to watch Supernanny while I drool, don't, please don't, I just figured you might want it, I swear I didn't do it on purpose would you stop that--"
"I'm not crying," Steve says, blinking hastily. Then, softer, "Where did you get this?"
"You know the guy in the middle who looks like me was my father, right?" says Tony, who is really going to have to work on his filtering skills. "That's registered for you, hasn't it?"
Steve doesn't take the bait. He just nods, still blinking, and Tony sighs.
"I'm just…cleaning house. Trying to get rid of his shit, donating it, burning it, whatever, and I just thought--"
"You're burning Howard's things?"
"Burning them," Tony says, waving a hand, "throwing them in the ocean, bathing them in acid, whichever you like. Getting rid of them, that's the point. The last thing I need is more memories of my old man, I'm full up, thanks."
Steve looks back down at the photo and doesn't say anything for a long time. Tony's bracing himself for a punch in the face or something--it'd be about part for the course, given their history--when Steve clears his throat and says, "I…thank you. He was my friend."
"Well, lucky you," Tony snaps, furious suddenly. "He was my father; I didn't get that luxury."
He turns to go, so fucking done with good deeds for today that he could kill something, and he's almost made it to the door at the end of the hall when Steve says, "Hey, Tony?"
And really it's probably just that it's the first time Steve has called him anything but "Stark," or maybe the tone in his voice--wondering and unsure, less hostile than it always is--but Tony feels something warm unfurl in the pit of his stomach as he turns.
"What was he like?" Steve's still looking down at the photo, but his voice carries. "I mean…later. After I knew him. As a…well, as a father, I guess."
Tony stands very, very still, swallows against the sudden constriction is his throat. It shouldn't sideswipe him, that question; he's answered it in interviews enough times, has practiced his smooth delivery in the mirror, never stumbles over it in public. Steve looks up at him, though, eyes still wet despite his efforts, piercing blue even at this distance, and honesty wells up in Tony like a floodgate is breaking.
"Disappointed," he says finally, and runs.
Moving the Avengers into Tony's mansion is a complete accident, and, like most things currently going wrong in Tony's life, is also completely Steve's fault.
It starts with a dressing down for the rest of the team that is, if Tony might says so himself, hilarious. It turns out Fury's been keeping all of them housed in SHIELD headquarters, which, hey, Tony could have told him that was a bad idea, but whatever, the explosion is worth watching. Clint has apparently been camping out in the drop ceilings, waiting for people to scare--"It's practice," he protests, hands in the air, when Fury turns a vengeful eye on him--and Bruce has broken six doors, a three beds, and a fridge. Thor’s taken to walking around the place naked, and seems entirely confused as to why Fury would have a problem with this; Cap, looking shamefaced about it, nods and looks away when Fury says the words “punching bags.”
When he gets to Natasha, Fury just sighs and shakes his head, a hint of a smile playing around his mouth. She raises one eyebrow—which, for Natasha, is practically a peal of hysterical laughter—and says, “It’s not my fault I make everyone nervous.”
“Be that as it may,” Fury says, “either you guys are going to have to shape up or we’re going to have to find you other accommodations, and let me tell you what, the budget we have for housing you all? It’s not large. So, hey, you wanna live in the kind of boarded up rat traps we can find for you, that’s great, but—for fuck’s sake, Stark, what are you smirking about?”
Tony grins beatifically, fanning his fingers out and locking them together to place behind his head. “Don’t mind me, I’m just really enjoying this. There’s a problem and I didn’t cause it!”
“Oh, good,” says Fury, rolling his eyes, “so glad I interrupted this meeting for your smugness—”
“I’m not even involved,” Tony continues gleefully, clinically incapable of passing up an opportunity to gloat. “While you all have been here terrorizing SHIELD’s best and brightest, I have been living quietly in my mansion, causing no problems, with enough bedrooms for all of you—“
“That’ll solve the problem nicely, Stark, thanks,” Fury says, and flips his portfolio shut. “Meeting adjourned.”
“You’re welcome,” says Tony, and then what Fury’s said actually processes. “Wait, wait, hold on, what--no, come back here, I didn’t mean, what did you think I—“
And then Steve, fucking Steve, with his big stupid eyes and his sculpted goddamn cheekbones, Steve who doesn’t like Tony at all, looks up at him with surprise on his face and says, “That’s really big of you, Tony.”
Three days later, Tony’s got two SHIELD agents, a Norse god, the Hulk, and Captain goddamn America living in his house. Some days—most days, lately—he really hates his life.
The worst part about shacking up with a team of lunatic superheroes, Tony realizes quickly, is how much he doesn’t actually mind it. They drive him crazy, of course—how could they not drive him crazy, Clint alone is enough of an asshole for six people and having Natasha around makes Tony jumpy, like she’s going to stab him in the neck with lithium dioxide again—but it’s kind of nice, actually, not being alone. The house still feels too much like Howard, but some of the renovation is done, and having more people around keeps the sickening empty feeling at bay.
Also, Thor decides he wants to help with the renovation, which turns out to go a lot faster with Mjolnir involved. He’s definitely Tony’s favorite; accept no substitutions.
Anyway, it’s awful because it’s not awful, because Tony wants it to be awful and finds himself enjoying it instead. He’s not sure what that says about him—some sad combination of “doesn’t play well with others” and “secretly desperately lonely,” probably, which is not something Tony wants to spend any time considering—but he knows that any therapist worth their salt would have a field day. He spends even more time than usual in his workshop or at Stark Tower, trying to avoid thinking about it, and finally gives it up and heads to his gym for a 3 AM workout session.
Where he finds Captain America, beating the living shit out of his punching bag.
Tony stands in the doorway, mouth open, transfixed, because yeah, alright, this is a pretty nice view. Steve may be a lot of things, but there’s no arguing the fact that he’s gorgeous; sweat-slicked and breathing hard, almost blurred with speed, he looks like something that walked directly out of Tony’s reptilian hindbrain. His face is screwed up, clouded over with some emotion Tony can’t read from this distance and probably wouldn’t be able to read up close, either, and he’s taking swings like he’s fighting for something.
Which, okay, that’s Tony’s punching bag; that thing is designed to withstand in-suit practice sessions, and Tony would know, because he’s the one who designed it. There’s no way Steve, powerful as he is, should be able to move it that much, let alone rip it in half. But that’s what he does—three more punches and a roundhouse kick and it’s flying backwards, spilling sand everywhere, leaving Steve cursing bitterly under his breath.
“Uh, think you won that round, champ,” says Tony, and Steve jumps.
“Oh! Tony, I didn’t. Um. I didn’t know you were there.”
“I wasn’t,” Tony says, slipping into the room and crouching over the mutilated remains of the bag. “Just got here. You know this was enhanced with Kevlar, right?”
“I didn’t,” Steve admits. “Sorry.”
He’s still breathing hard, and Tony hands over the water bottle he’d brought in with him absent-mindedly, running his fingers over the torn fabric of the punching bag. If Steve has this kind of capability normally, Tony’s going to have to design something considerably stronger to keep up with him—not to mention something that moves, probably, since his agility is where he really needs the work.
“I do not,” Steve says, capping the water bottle and alerting Tony to the fact that he’s been speaking out loud.
“You do,” Tony says, because he might as well, now. “I watch you. Or, okay, that’s not as creepy as it sounds, I mean, the suit tracks that kind of data anyway, but you’re the one I keep an eye on, mostly, because—well, no, I do it for everyone, I guess. Clint’s a little weaker on his left side—“
“Yeah, I’ve noticed that,” Steve says, sounding surprised. “I’ve been running him through drills when we get the chance, but he’s not great about, you know, listening.”
Tony nods. “It’s all the crouching, I think. He puts his weight on his right when he’s in sniper position, so those muscles get worked more; I was thinking about doing the redesign on his bow with that in mind, adjust the specs a little, so he’s got to distribute more, but I don’t want to over-balance him.”
“If I can get him to run the drills, you won’t,” Steve says speculatively, taking another swig of Tony’s water. “And a bow redesign’s a hell of a carrot, he’s been pestering you about that for ages.”
“I’m a busy man,” Tony says, which, really, he intends to delivery with a tone of derision and superiority. Instead he just sounds like he’s joking, and Steve grins at him, easy and relaxed.
Tony is warm suddenly, the tension he came down here to relieve draining out of him only to be replaced with a headier, buzzier variety. He smiles back, because he’s helpless not to, because he wants Steve to keep looking at him like that, like it’s good, like they’re friends.
“I guess so,” Steve says, mock-serious, “but then again, you found time to decide I’m not agile enough—“
“You’re not,” Tony says, and Steve scowls, but it’s a good-natured sort of scowl. “Seriously, you’re not, I can pull up the footage from our last fight and show you—“
“Or you could just spar with me,” Steve says, shrugging.
Tony raises an eyebrow and gestures to the mutilated remains of the punching bag. “Really? You think that’s the best sell for a little play fighting? I don’t know about you, Cap, but I am deeply and sincerely attached to each and every one of my limbs, and, as I believe you know, I do most of my fighting in a big metal suit.”
Steve’s smile slips a little, but doesn’t vanish entirely, and he doesn’t take the obvious bait. “I promise not to treat you like a punching bag, if it helps. I could use the practice, and so could you—suit or no, there’s always the question of form, right?”
“You just want to try to prove that I’m wrong about the agility thing,” Tony says, sighing and stepping up onto the practice mats. “Which, for the record, I’m not.”
“We’ll see,” Steve says, and Tony has just long enough to relish his smile—to think, oh, fuck, I like him, don’t I, how could I like him--before he’s being thrown.
They save the world together, once, twice, six times, argue bitterly over what music to play, drive one another up the wall. Clint takes showers that go on for far too long, and half the time Thor doesn’t shower at all; Natasha vanishes for days on end and comes back looking smug, satisfied, and though they all tease her mercilessly about it, she won’t crack and tell them where she’s been. Bruce takes a dry erase marker and writes all over the windows, equations Tony finds fascinating until he smashes through them as the Hulk, and they all casually try to catch Steve up on pop culture. Twice a week, Tony and Steve toss each other around in the practice room, sometimes with the suit, sometimes without, and it’s…okay. It’s good.
It’s not quite home, but it’s not quite anything else.
In August, about a month into the whole communal living experiment, Tony finds Thor sulking in the living room. Thor is not normally one for sulking; he'd pouted for about six minutes when Tony had told him "Keeping Up With the Kardashians," was not allowed under his roof, but he'd gotten over it quickly enough. Tony eyes the long line of his frown, the way his shoulders are slumped, and considers sneaking away before he can be dragged into whatever it is.
Teamwork, a voice in the back of his head reminds him. It sounds a lot like Steve, because that's just what Tony's life is like.
"Oh, fine," he mutters, and Thor looks up. "What's eating you, buddy?"
"I do not know," Thor says, mystified, lifting an arm and looking around. "What does the creature look like? Where on my body do you see it? Are you sure it is really there and not an illusion, for my brother--"
"Uh," says Tony, holding up a hand. "No, it's not--it's a figure of speech, what's eating you, it's like--it means what's wrong, okay, stop looking around, there's nothing actually eating you, you're fine."
"Oh," Thor says. He actually looks kind of disappointed, and slumps back against the couch in defeat. "Well, then. It is nothing, my friend. Do not trouble yourself."
Okay, awesome, I'll just be going now, things to do, people to see, great talk, thinks Tony.
"Doesn't look like nothing," says Tony, and curses the fact that Steve Rogers apparently freelances at night as Jiminy goddamn Cricket.
Thor sighs, deep and long. "It is only…at home, in Asgard, it is a day of great celebration, wherein, with respect to Yggdresil, the world tree--"
"Whoa," says Tony, holding up a hand, "Reader's Digest version, please."
Thor scrunches up his nose--between him and Steve, Tony is starting to wonder if he shouldn't just program Jarvis to produce some sort of voice-activated dictionary--but he seems to get the message.
"It is a day for me," he confesses. "To celebrate my existence, what I have learned, and what more I have to learn. I fear I have rather more in the latter category than the former, and it would be incomplete without my brother; nonetheless, I would have liked to be there. It is impossible with the current state of the Bifrost, however, so I shall have to weather it with solemnity, as befits a warrior."
Tony takes that sentence, strips it of its inherent Thor-ness, parses it, and grins.
"Thor," he says, "is it your birthday?"
"No," Thor says, frowning. "Although I suppose that would be the closest Midgardian equivalent..."
"It's your birthday!" Tony crows, because this? This is a problem he can deal with. "You should've said, I throw a great party, everyone knows that, even Pepper knows that--hey, you know what, I'll call Pepper, I'll call everybody, and you, you stay there, try to just, you know…frown…less, and I'll be back. Whiskey, maybe, you like whiskey, right? Or mead, I can get mead, I know a guy with mead, Jarvis, get me the mead guy--"
"I would not want you to go to any trouble," Thor starts hesitantly, and Tony grins wildly at him. A party is good news. A party is great news; Tony's been behaving lately, intends to behave still, but it'll be nice to cut loose a little.
Just in case, though, he walks to the bar, pushes the little red button under the sink. There's a faint whirring noise, and then Jarvis's quiet, "Duly noted, Mr. Stark," which Tony knows means his suit security measures have been activated. He won't be able to operate any of them if his BAC goes above .08; he'd repurposed his morbid little blood toxicity death scanner to test for it, made the whole thing impossible to override.
It's probably paranoid, but it had just seemed like a good idea, after the…last time.
"Trouble?" he says to Thor, running his hands over the assortment of liquor choices. "Trouble, buddy, believe me, a party is not trouble when you're me--hey, you know what, let's just ease you into it, get you in the party mood. Highlander or Highlander? I think, you being who you are, we should go with Highlander."
"I do not understand your reference," Thor says, but some of his good humor is starting to come back.
"That's great," Tony says, "it'd only offend you anyway," and pours three fingers each into two glasses, passes one back to Thor. "Right, uh, toast, happy returns and all that--"
"To the great dignity and triumph of all those who stand with me this day!" Thor booms. Tony looks around, mostly just to confirm the room is empty except for them, and then shrugs.
"Right," he says, "okay, what the hell, I’ll drink to that. Cheers!"
Five hours later, Tony is much, much more drunk than he intended to become.
It was just…whiskey, right, all that whiskey, and then Clint and Natasha showed up, and Pepper, and Bruce. Cap sent him a text message--he isn't good with those yet, but has at least figured out enough to be functional--that said “DEAR TONY, I AM IN A MEETING WITH DIRECTOR FURY. THANK YOU FOR INVITING ME! I WILL ATTEND, BUT MAY BE QUITE LATE. SINCERELY, STEVE ROGERS.”
And, well, anyone would need a drink after that. Several drinks, even, and Thor'd never had a sake bomb before; that obviously had to be rectified. Tony forgot, in pouring them, what sake bombs tended to do to Pepper--after three she said, "Tony, I've been meaning to tell you…" and then promptly listed all the way over into Natasha's lap.
Natasha stroked her hair, a fond smile on her face, and then gave Tony a look that dared him to say something. Tony remembered her stabbing him in the neck with a needle like a kidney thief, saw the honest warmth in Pepper's eyes, and bit his tongue. At least it explained where Natasha'd been slipping off to lately. Tony felt pretty good about figuring that out; at least, he felt pretty good until he examined that thought, pushed it to its inevitable conclusion, and felt more to drink was definitely required.
Then the guy with the mead showed up. Thor, as it turned out, was not kidding about that stuff.
Point being, by the time Steve gets to the house, things have gotten…fairly out of control. Clint is perched on top of the entertainment set, painfully still, with a mostly-empty bottle of vodka next to him; Bruce is sitting in front of the television, entirely captivated by Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, because everyone agreed that the best thing to do with a trashed Bruce Banner was to leave him in plain sight with something to keep him very happy. Pepper and Natasha are making out in the corner, which Tony is fine with, really, he's great, he's so fine, and Tony himself is teaching Thor the bump and grind.
Well. Tony is trying to teach Thor the bump and grind. Unfortunately, Thor choses the exact moment that Steve enters the room to say, "My friend Sif has taught me many exotic dance moves; I shall demonstrate!"
This is why Tony is hovering three feet off the ground, upside-down and being held by one ankle, when he is confronted with the face of Steve Rogers.
"Hmm," says Thor, "I believe I am doing it incorrectly."
"Steve," Tony says, scrabbling for purchase and then remembering he's dangling in the air. He settles for crossing his arms over his chest instead, tries to decipher the expression on Steve's face. His mouth is curved, but Tony is upside-down; he can't actually gather his wits or spacial reasoning enough to figure out if it's a smile or a frown.
"Hi, Tony," Steve says, and he doesn't sound like he thinks Tony is the worst person in the world or anything, so that's something. "You guys look like you're having fun."
"Yes, yes, another!" Thor cries, and throws Tony violently at the ground. Tony flails, yelps, and manages not to land on his face by the skin of his teeth; he rolls, aching, and groans into the carpet.
"My friend," Thor says frantically, "I apologize, I intended to throw the bottle, only--"
"I know," Tony moans, "I know, I get it, shut up, god, fuck," and then he's being rolled back over.
"Oh my god, Tony," Steve says, and he's definitely frowning now, "are you okay? How many fingers am I holding up?"
Tony squints at him. "Uh. Is this a trick question?"
Steve looks terrified for a second, and then seems to realize that both his hands are on Tony's shoulders. He shakes his head, rueful, and waves two fingers in Tony's face.
"Peace!" Tony says cheerfully. "That's like my whole thing now, peace and love and…and…Intellicrops…oh, two."
"Okay," Steve says, and releases a breath. Then he releases Tony's shoulder, which is a tragedy. "Okay, good, sorry, I should've caught you--"
"Agility," Tony says, tapping his face where he thinks the side of his nose might be, and Steve laughs.
"Yeah, so you keep telling me. Think you can get up?"
"Can," says Tony, "maybe…shouldn't."
"You're not going to lie on the floor all night," Steve says seriously. Tony is not sure what to do with this information; he is quite certain he has spent many nights in exactly this condition, and the floor is a better place for him to be than, say, in the Iron Man suit inside of a giant doughnut.
The truth is, Tony is drunk enough to know he's too drunk; the truth is, Tony hates being in this place, feels like a failure, doesn't want to remember his last several trips down this road. He wants to crawl inside something and die, wants to be miserable about Pepper and his assorted bad habits and Steve, who is just being nice because Tony is a trainwreck. Even though Tony's not a trainwreck, not always, just sometimes, and a couple times a year he's actually a decent human being, things just got out of control and he's probably, he should probably stop drinking entirely, he mostly has, he was responsible about the suits but this is still…not good. It's not good, and he should stay on the floor.
He would explain this to Steve, but Steve's already grabbing his shoulder again, his hand, hauling him to his feet with the ease of someone with ridiculous super strength.
"It's Thor's birthday," Tony says, as though this explains everything.
"Incorrect but well-meant, my friend!" Thor bellows, and slaps him on the back. Normally this would fine, but it's Thor; the force behind the slap shoves Tony forward again, directly into Steve's chest.
It's a nice chest. Tony likes it here. Maybe he should stay.
"Ow," he says plaintively, as Steve curls an arm around his back to steady him, "hey. If you're gonna go slapping people slap, uh, Captain Muscles here, because, you know, with the serum, and the…muscles."
"Captain Muscles?" Steve says over his head. He sounds amused, which means he's probably just humoring Tony.
Given the fact that he hasn't shoved Tony away from him yet, Tony's gonna go ahead and take it.
"Captain Muscles," Tony confirms. "'s better than Captain America, because of--the French thing. I know French! What's the thing--PEPPER!"
In the corner, Pepper breaks away from Natasha and looks around. Drunk as she is, she manages to lift an eyebrow that speaks entire paragraphs; Tony stands his ground, mostly because Steve is still holding him up.
"Yes, Mr. Stark?"
Oooh, the burn of bitter sarcasm. Tony grins, because he really has no other option.
"What's the thing," he says, "you know, the thing, the French one, the words. That I mean."
Pepper purses her lips, tilts her head, sighs and says, "Je ne sais quoi, Tony. I'm busy."
"That's totally it," Tony crows, "the thing Pepper said, that's what…uh…I meant about…whatever we were talking about. You're tall. I'm gonna go now."
Steve is laughing at him. Tony can tell, because his big stupid soft comfortable chest is moving. He steps back, because he totally should have done that awhile ago, and Steve says, "You okay to be walking?"
"I'm not that drunk," Tony protests, and then winces at the implication that he knows what being that drunk is like, and then laughs--he's not sure why.
"I meant because Thor threw you at the ground," Steve says, slow and concerned, giving him a strange look. “You don’t feel concussed, do you?”
This, Tony feels quite sure, is the kind of question people who aren't superheroes don't ever have to ask each other.
“No,” he mutters, “’m good, ‘s a thing—Thor, buddy, hey, hey, Thor, Thor--“
“Thor,” Steve says, calmer and, naturally, much less whiny than Tony, and Thor turns his head away from the silent communication he’d apparently been exchanging with Clint.
“Steven! Tony says that on a birthday it is customary to exchange greetings in kind. Happy birthday, my friend!”
“That’s not,” Tony says, while Steve visibly bites back a laugh, “that’s just, that’s so not, I bet I could figure out dictionary into a Jarvis for the—wait. Hold on. Wrong order. Has anyone ever told you about your hair, man, because you, I mean, just, that’s a lot of hair, I need you to…uh. Uh. Shit.”
“I think you’ve probably had enough to drink,” Steve says. His voice is as warm as his chest was; Tony wants to wrap it around him like a blanket, which doesn’t make sense.
“Mmm,” he agrees, “Captain America, oracle of truth, I’m just gonna...” and he stumbles away, past Thor and Bruce and Clint and Pepper and Natasha, to snatch a bottle of whiskey from the bar and sulk by himself on the back porch.
Or, at least, he means to go sulk on the back porch. He overshoots a little bit, and is leaning up against the side of the house, the bottle tucked between his thighs, when Steve finds him.
“Are you always such a,” Tony says, and waves a hand, looking for the right word. “Boy Scout, I guess, did they have those in the 40s? I should probably know, I was one, hilarious, right? Three whole weeks and then they kicked me out because I, uh, you know what, you probably don’t want to know that story--”
“The Boy Scouts were founded in 1910, and I brought you some water,” Steve says, sitting down next to Tony and deftly removing the whiskey bottle from between his legs. “And some, uh, Advil? Pepper said you might want it.”
“Thought Pepper’s mouth was occupied,” Tony says, and snorts. “Ooh, sorry, sounded a little bitter, didn’t it, maybe I should build like...voice modulation, right, wouldn’t even be hard, I never sound how I mean to sound. I think that’s a good plan.”
“I think you should drink the water.”
“You would,” says Tony, and takes a pointed sip of it. He’s not sure what point he’s trying to prove, but he’s proved it, goddamn it. “I’m good now, thanks, you can go, there’s a party. Go enjoy the, uh, Thor, Thor’s very enjoyable, you know it’s his birthday?”
“I’m good where I am,” Steve says, and shrugs when Tony gives him what he hopes is a questioning look. “Not much for parties, never have been.”
“I can turn the music down--from right here, I totally can, hey Jarvis--”
“It’s not the music,” Steve says, “it’s just...I like people one on one better. I always feel like I’m breaking some sort of social rule at parties, like there’s some code everyone else has read. Bucky used to say I was allergic to fun.”
Steve’s face goes dark and closed off for a second, but then he smiles. “He’s...he was a friend of mine. My best friend. We grew up together, fought together during the war. He knew me better than anyone, I think.”
“Then maybe you are allergic to fun.”
“Definitely to Bucky’s idea of fun,” Steve agrees readily. “He liked things fast; I was always a slower kinda guy. I don’t know why he liked me, really.”
“Everyone likes you,” Tony slurs, because it’s the truth. “Like...like, everyone, you’re just. Uh. Very.”
“Very,” Steve repeats, dry like the Sahara. “Drink your water, Tony.”
“Maybe I will,” Tony says, pointing a finger in Steve’s direction. He takes another long swing, swirls it contemplatively in his mouth. “Y’know, you’re a good person.”
“Uh,” Steve says, blushing bright red, “thank...you?”
Tony should leave it there; he should definitely leave it there. So, naturally, he adds, “Sorry I thought you were a dick, before.”
“Bad judge,” Tony says, gesturing at himself and spilling water all down his shirt, “of character. Like. Always. Thought Rhodey was a dick too, felt like an ass later--liked Pepper from the beginning, she was always good, she’s like. The exception. And fucking Obie, I always get it wrong. People’re hard.”
“So I should...take it as a compliment?” Steve says, sounding completely at sea. “That you thought I was a dick?”
“Smarter,” Tony says. “If I’d thought you were good you’d probably be like. Uh. Plotting...things, are you plotting things, no one has tried to kill me in awhile, but I don’t think you would. That’s a compliment, sorry I called you a dick. You’re not. A dick, I mean.”
Steve stares at him for a second, then sighs and shakes his head. “You’re a complicated guy, Tony, has anyone ever told you that?”
“No ’m not,” Tony says, “just...tired. Yeah. That’s...yup.”
“Hey, you can’t sleep out here,” Steve says, apparently correctly interpreting Tony’s closed eyes and slumped posture.
“Wanna put money on that?”
“Come on,” Steve says, and then there’s an arm under Tony’s, lifting him to his feet. Tony’s too drunk and shameless to help himself; he tucks his face into Steve’s shoulder, shuffles his feet in a sad approximation of walking, and lets Steve more-or-less haul him through the house and up the stairs.
“Gonna be sorry,” Tony manages, when he’s collapsed face-fist onto his bed, “in the morning.”
Steve says something, but Tony can’t really understand it, and forgets it at once. He registers being rolled over, the soft brush of fabric against his arms, a brief pressure on each of his feet, and then warmth slides over him and he abandons consciousness entirely.
He dreams of Steve’s hand in his hair, stroking lightly, for what feels like a long time.