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.