A few weeks had passed in Malibu. Steve regularly checked in with the Avengers, but was reassured that nothing was wrong. Of course, many of the Avengers expressed their concerns for his continued absence, as they hadn’t expected Steve to stay gone for so long.
“Is Tony getting better?” Jan asked during one of their conversations, worry on her face. “Should we come over?” Who ‘we’ was, Steve didn’t even venture to guess.
“He’s getting better, but I don’t think a crowd, however well-meaning, is good for him right now,” he answered honestly.
Jan looked disappointed, but didn’t argue.
While Steve knew most of the Avengers wanted to help, he wasn’t certain whether they could. Perhaps he was being selfish, thinking that only he could get through to Tony – but that may also be a cold hard fact. Tony wasn’t all that close with any member of their team, being their old-and-sometimes-current leader, depending on the situation. He and Steve had always shared a bond of sorts – at least that’s what Steve liked to think. They had supported each other through some tough times, learning things, good and bad, about each other and the world.
Contemplating this, he stood up from the computer in his room and headed out to the stairs leading down to Tony’s workshop, grabbing a soft ball as he went; it was filled with some kind of grain, giving it a little bit of weight, while being soft enough to easily grab. He had been informed it was used in a sport called ‘footbag’, and he mused if he could persuade Tony to try it once standing wasn’t too hard on him anymore.
As expected, Tony was in his shop, immersed in snapping commands at JARVIS while his fingers clumsily played with something that looked like a pen, but worked with the holographic displays instead of paper.
“Catch,” Steve called out, knowing Tony knew he had entered the room, and gave the man ample time to turn and react before tossing the semi-soft ball at him. Tony’s hand moved in a reflex, and Steve’s aim was good, but Tony still failed to catch the ball. It landed in his lap instead and sat there, since it wasn’t hard enough to roll off.
“Don’t tell me you want to go play catch outside,” Tony groused at him. “We already did our morning routine,” he added, as if that relieved him of all other exercises.
“I know,” Steve said. “Throw it back to me.”
Steve just extended his arm, palm up, fingers opening and closing as if he were impatient, although he wasn’t. Sometimes it took time to coax Tony into things.
Tony looked away, pretending to get back to work, but eventually his fingers closed around the ball in his lap and he threw it back towards Steve. It wasn’t perfect, but with one long stride to the side, Steve caught it before it hit the floor. He waited a moment, then took aim and threw the ball again, hitting Tony on the head.
The dark head whirled around, and Tony glared at him, then fished the ball from the neck of his shirt. “Funny. Were you always a bully?”
Steve just gestured with his hand, and Tony turned his chair around then threw the ball back with a little more force. His aim was better this time, too. When he didn’t immediately turn back around to face his desk, Steve threw the ball back at him. Tony moved his hand, but the ball still hit him squarely in the chest, where the arc reactor sat.
The brown eyes narrowed. “Funny, Cap,” he muttered again, picking the ball up from where it had rolled down to his lap again. “Are you scoring points?”
“Need to keep my skills sharp,” Steve shrugged, then caught the ball again when Tony threw it back. “What are you working on?”
The ball sailed between them, and Tony caught it this time, although he needed to use both his hands to keep it from falling.
Steve’s fingers squeezed around the ball when he grabbed it from the air, then tossed it up once before sending it back to Tony.
“Just stuff.” Tony sounded a bit annoyed, but his shoulders were relaxed as he once again threw the ball back. His fingers were slowly getting surer around it, his aim improving, and while it was only momentary, it was a step forward.
“Well, I guess that’s a nice change of pace, seeing as you work on your armor a lot,” Steve mused. As soon as he sent the ball flying, he could see that something he had said was causing a much bigger reaction in Tony.
“Yeah? Why would I work on the armor when I have no idea whether I’ll ever be able to pilot it again,” Tony snapped, and this time he threw the ball far to the side, missing Steve on purpose. It hit a shelf, making things fall down from it, and Steve turned his head to look at the mess, then moved over to pick up the fallen items. “Leave them,” Tony snapped.
“So that Pepper can clean it up later?” Steve mused. He knew Tony wouldn’t do it, and if he tried, he would end up breaking most of the items and probably the shelves, too.
As Steve placed gadgets and tools back on the shelves, not sure where they had been but guessing it didn’t matter since Tony wasn’t telling him where they belonged, he noticed something else sitting high above everything else. So high, in fact, that Tony couldn’t possibly reach it: the plushie teddy – the very same one Tony had gotten while he was still in the hospital.
Steve reached up for it, flicked most of the dust and dirt off the soft surface, then looked at Tony. The man was watching him warily, eyes trained on the toy. “You kept it,” Steve mused.
“I threw it away. Pepper brought it back,” Tony snapped. “You can put it there,” he pointed at a waste basket sitting next to one of the tables.
“It was a gift,” Steve mused, then briefly looked around to locate the ball and pocketed it before walking over to Tony.
“It was a joke even when they bought it,” Tony corrected him, and reached out to snatch the toy from Steve’s hands. Instead of tossing it away, though, he turned it over as if examining it, then stopped, staring at the toy and the little heart it was clutching to its chest.
Steve wasn’t certain whether it was what Tony needed, but he lifted his hand and touched the back of Tony’s neck, in silent support. He hadn’t forgotten what preceded the discussion about the teddy. Far as he knew, no one had talked to Tony about his role as Iron Man. Everyone knew better than to assume they could have a say in whether Tony donned his armor in the future or not. Steve, personally, didn’t doubt he would fight by Tony’s side again, soon, but to hear the man say the words, assuming it was what the others thought – or worse, thinking them on his own – made him uneasy.
On the off-chance that it was all in Tony’s head, part of his dark contemplation of his current condition and limitations, Steve didn’t want to respond to Tony’s angry words. The discussion could go ablaze in a heartbeat if Tony took it the wrong way. Knowing when it was best to advance, and when to lay low, Steve decided to wait for an indication from the other man, to see which way he wanted things to go.
Tony eventually let out a tired sigh and bowed his head slightly, then leaned back against Steve’s light pressure and glanced up at him. “I’m not sure what’s going on right now,” Tony admitted, a half-frown on his face. Steve removed his hand, but that didn’t seem to solve the puzzlement in Tony’s mind. “Maybe we could do another round of exercises,” he finally suggested, which he didn’t do often. “When we’re done, I can sit back and sip a drink while I watch you beat another punching bag to within an inch of its life.”
Steve smiled at him. “Sure, we can do that.”
Tony nodded and then slowly shifted up from his seat. He motioned with his hand at the screens. “Shut it all down, JARVIS. We’ll continue later.”
“Very well, sir.”
They went up to the gym, and since Tony was already appropriately dressed, they got right to it. Steve altered a few exercises, because he knew by now how easily Tony got bored with repetition. Whatever Tony did in his life, he sought to add to it and enhance it, instead of doing the same things over and over again. It was the way he was built, looking ahead into the future – a futurist. Steve, personally, was fine with monotonous rituals, but he was beginning to see the perks of Tony’s life as well, even if he wondered how much Tony had to forget and dismiss in order to learn new things all the time. Or maybe his brain was simply different: Steve had worked with Hank Pym and met with Reed Richards often enough to know that there were many exceptional minds that Tony liked to surround himself with when he got the chance, no matter how much he pretended to complain about it.
It made Steve wonder whether Tony would get bored with him, too, because Steve’s brain wasn’t anything like Tony’s, even in its current battered state. Perhaps if the blow to the head had affected Tony’s thinking… But Steve was glad it hadn’t, because this was cruel enough, and if Tony’s intellect had suffered, Steve would have never forgiven himself. Not that he was forgiving himself even now, but if Tony had suffered an injury that reached beyond the physical shortcomings he was dealing with now, Steve wasn’t all that certain Tony would be this forgiving of what had happened, either.
“Come on,” Steve absentmindedly goaded Tony to keep holding the light weight between his palms. He could see Tony’s arms shivering, attempting to maintain the pressure and keep the weight from dropping, but it was hard. “Just a little longer,” he encouraged, counting the seconds in the back of his mind. “You can do it.”
And the look Tony gave him, despite the frown of concentration and the sweat on his brow, triggered something in Steve. Something that Pepper had said, about Tony idolizing him… That earnest, stubborn look Steve received whenever he asked Tony to do something, to keep going – asking Tony whether he was able to do it or not, long before the incident. He wasn’t certain whether Tony noticed him noticing, and wasn’t certain what it was, exactly, but in the next second Tony exhaled hard, his hands jerking and dropping the weight, and Steve’s hand shooting out to catch it before it hit the floor between Tony’s spread legs.
“That was good,” Steve noted, keeping his voice steady. “You did better than this morning.”
Tony flexed his arms then reached out for the water bottle he had set down by the wall. He had to grasp at it a few times before he got it and dragged it closer before lifting it to his lips without dropping it. The brown eyes rather pointedly didn’t look at Steve, until later, when he set the bottle down. It thumped against the floor between Tony’s thighs, dropping the last few inches when Tony’s fingers let it slip. “No one wants to disappoint Captain America,” Tony mused, poking at the bottle which was still half-full and too heavy to fall over.
“Is that what this is all about?” Steve asked. “I thought I was here to help you get back into shape. You aren’t one of my soldiers, Tony.”
“No?” Tony asked. “You always call me one.”
Steve guessed he did that, with a lot of people. The word may not mean the same thing among the Avengers, but… “Would you prefer it if I didn’t call you that?” he asked.
Tony shrugged. “No point stopping now; you’ve only been doing it since we met.” There was a smile on Tony’s face, and it reached his eyes about half-way, but it still wasn’t what Steve had grown used to.
“If you think –”
“I’m glad that you’re here,” Tony blurted, cutting him off. He had that rare, pained look on his face, when he was finally saying something he had been holding in for far too long, usually to the point where things started collapsing and everything could have been salvaged if only Tony had said certain things out loud instead of keeping everyone under the impression that he was a horrible person. “Pepper keeps telling me to say that,” he added. “To tell you that… I appreciate that you’re here.”
“She’s a good person,” Steve mused, uncertain how to reply to Tony’s confession – not that he had been under the impression that Tony hated the fact that Steve was here, but it was good to hear the other man say it.
“Yeah,” Tony agreed, “she’s a great assistant. However, she’s not a nursemaid, and it’s starting to show.” No doubt Tony was hinting that Pepper shouldn’t be here, trying to hold Tony’s life together.
“I haven’t seen any actual nurses around,” Steve ventured.
“That’s because I fired them as soon as Pepper hired them,” Tony said. “I had enough of them at the hospital. I don’t need strangers in my own house, hovering.”
“But I’m here.”
“You’re not a stranger.” It came out naturally, but in the next second it looked like Tony was analyzing his statement, and Steve’s reaction to it. “I can tell you to leave if that makes you feel better.”
“I doubt it,” Steve replied, then shifted forward so that his spread legs were on top of Tony’s, bent at the knee to keep them from touching. In the space between them, he reached out his hands, fingers relaxed, waiting for Tony to grasp them. Tony stared for a moment, then grasped both of Steve’s bigger hands in his, fingers shifting for a better hold. Steve nodded and Tony squeezed, his shoulders tensing as he put all he had into it.
Steve registered the pressure and nodded again after a moment, and Tony let go. “Good. Do you want to do something else?”
“Maybe the balance board,” Tony ventured. “I’ve been sitting on my ass enough for one day.”
Steve accepted this and fished out the wobble board; a black semi-sphere which had many applications. Tony took off his shoes and slowly placed one foot on the flat surface, positioning it carefully, then made the first attempt to place his second foot near the other edge of the circle. His balance tipped a little onto the side and he spread an arm out, reflexively, to catch himself. He succeeded on his second try, but as soon as Tony tried to roll his weigh forward to lift the edge of the semi-sphere from the floor, his balance faltered again.
Knowing this was the hard part, Steve stepped forward and Tony reached out, seeking balance from his shoulders as he tilted the board forward again, teetering slightly until he found the balance to keep all sides from touching the floor. The pressure of his hands lessened on Steve’s shoulders, then returned when he almost lost his balance again, but bit by bit Tony got it and moved his hands away, although Steve remained standing beside him, making sure he wouldn’t fall. Not that he thought Tony would break if he did, but it was unnecessary.
Tony balanced for a little over five minutes before stepping unsteadily off the board and went to fetch his water bottle again. “I’m done,” he announced – which was a sign for Steve to get on with his own workout, and he did so without hesitation, working the punching bag hard. Every now and then he would shift to the side and catch a glimpse of Tony watching him. He wasn’t staring, but not looking bored either – nor was he studying Steve like some fascinating piece of machinery. It was a rather relaxed look, albeit slightly tired, and Steve wrapped up his exercises.
“Do you want to get something to eat?” he asked, flexing his shoulders to ease the strain in them.
“Sure,” Tony agreed, and pushed himself to his feet. Steve watched him, to see if he needed help, but Tony remained upright and only briefly steadied himself against the wall before walking to the door.
They didn’t shower or change, heading straight to the kitchen. It was easier on Tony, because every extra thing he had to do, especially when he was already worn out, was another challenge to overcome, and in the end he would be so tired that eating was out of the question. So, they went to the kitchen and Steve raided the cupboards and fridge for several things to eat. There was plenty to choose from, but the struggle was to figure out a menu each day what Tony could eat without problems – or, as easily as possible. Seeing as they had exercised twice today, Steve knew not to get too adventurous, even if Tony hadn’t yet shown actual signs of weariness; he knew they were there.
So, they had meatballs, tortellini, some vegetables and pieces of fruit. Steve made them both milkshakes as they waited for the rest of the food to cook. Tony tapped his fingers against the tall glass in an even rhythm; starting with his thumbs, then one by one touching the glass until pinky fingers came last. After a while he reversed the order, and Steve knew it was just another small exercise he could do while not blatantly working on his motor skills.
“Here we go,” Steve finally announced as he made them both a plate and set Tony’s in front of him. He tried not to watch openly as Tony grasped his fork, adjusted his hold, then stabbed at the first meatball and carefully placed it in his mouth.
“We could have sushi tomorrow,” Tony mused after a bit, chewing carefully; Steve had noticed he did that a lot, trying to make himself feel full quicker so he wouldn’t need to keep struggling to eat.
“Raw fish?” Steve frowned.
“You’ll like it,” Tony told him. “You like everything.”
“Back in the day, you couldn’t complain as long as there was something to eat,” Steve shrugged. “Even raw fish.”
“It’s more than raw fish.”
“Then we’ll have some tomorrow,” Steve agreed. It wasn’t really a fight, and if Tony was getting tired, he would also get irate, and they might start an argument over something as stupid as what Tony wanted to eat the next day.
Frankly, Steve was just glad Tony had an opinion, and a request, because most days he still had to order the other man to eat. He hadn’t had to resort to force-feeding Tony, which he was thankful for.
“Sir,” JARVIS announced suddenly, “Colonel Rhodes has sent you a message; he will be stopping by this evening, should you feel like receiving him.”
“It’s Rhodey; of course I do,” Tony snapped.
“Very well, sir. I shall reply to Colonel Rhodes.”
Steve gave Tony a brief look. It was getting late, and he hadn’t seen James Rhodes during his stay in Malibu, yet he knew the two were friends. As if knowing what he was thinking, Tony returned his look and shrugged. “Rhodey’s been busy. While Iron Man’s out of commission, he has big shoes to fill.”
“As War Machine?”
“Not with the Avengers,” Tony clarified. “Unless, of course, they really need him, but Rhodey said he would rather not do it – not that I know why. He was happy enough to be appointed as one of the New Avengers…” Tony pushed a cherry tomato across his plate. “Don’t tell me you didn’t know I did stuff on the side, apart from the Avengers.”
“I knew that,” Steve replied. He just hadn’t ever thought about it that much. Tony had always been there when the Avengers were needed.
“I’m full,” Tony finally decided and slid off his chair. “I better go shower, before Rhodey arrives. Carry on,” he mock-saluted, no doubt meaning the unfinished food Steve was likely to either eat or put away for later. Most likely eat, because he was still hungry.
Steve finished his dinner, then cleaned up the kitchen and debated on a shower of his own. He might even go as far as doing another round at the gym, since he doubted his presence was required while Rhodey was visiting. They got along just fine, but the man was here to see Tony, so Steve should make himself scarce.
“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS interrupted him before he could make up his mind, “could you assist Mr. Stark?”
Steve frowned but headed out to Tony’s room, trying not to guess what was wrong now. Maybe it was just shoelaces or something as trivial as that, and he would work himself up for nothing while imagining something worse. “Tony?” he called out once he reached Tony’s door, tapped at it and then entered. He heard running water, which meant Tony was still in the shower, and decided it wasn’t about shoelaces after all. “Tony?” he called out again, and cautiously approached the bathroom door.
There was no reply, and he yanked the door open, expecting blood whirling down the drain or something equally gruesome, but instead he spotted Tony, sitting on the bottom of the tub, lathering his hair clumsily.
“Please tell me JARVIS didn’t send you in,” Tony mused after a bit.
“He did,” Steve replied. “I called out, thrice. You didn’t answer.”
“I have soap in my mouth,” Tony complained and then sighed, lowering his hands. He looked miserable, flicking suds off his fingers, and it was easy to tell he had run out of energy somewhere between getting in the shower and starting to wash his hair. He was trembling, just slightly, as he tried to maintain his posture.
Steve didn’t ask, and he knew Tony wouldn’t either; he walked over, turned off the water, crouched down beside the tub and then reached out. Just like with so many things recently, he knew hesitation was just going to make things more awkward. So, he slid his fingers into Tony’s wet hair, and decided after a while that washing another person’s hair wasn’t that hard. Easier, in fact, because he could see what he was doing.
Tony had closed his eyes at first contact and twitched his nose as a small river of soap mixed with water slid down his face. He reached up with the heel of his hand, trying to brush it off before it could reach his eyes, then settled down, clearly set on enduring this.
Once he guessed it was time, Steve reached out for the showerhead, turned on the water and rinsed Tony’s hair for him, matter-of-factly. He was careful, though, not wanting to drown Tony by angling the spray of water the wrong way.
When that was done, he turned off the water again and reached out to a shelf by the tub, plucking a bottle of conditioner from it. Tony blinked drops of water from his lashes, opening his mouth, but shut it a second later and shifted slightly. Steve personally wasn’t used to all the fancy products they sold even for men these days, for such a simple thing as washing one’s hair, but he knew Tony had conditioner for a reason, which meant he would have used it had he been able, and Steve actually recognized the smell when he opened the small bottle and poured some of the substance into his hand.
“You know, if you ever quit your day-job as a superhero, I’m sure you would do okay as a hairdresser,” Tony mused as he closed his eyes again, eyelashes dark against the tops of his cheeks.
Steve chuckled. “I wouldn’t count on that happening anytime soon.”
“World needs Cap,” Tony agreed with a small nod of his head.
“World needs more than just me,” Steve corrected and eased the movements of his hands, now that the conditioner was evenly spread out, dragging his fingers along Tony’s scalp with a pressure he hoped was pleasant. Judging from the small groan Tony let out a moment later, he was succeeding.
“Did they teach you this in the army?” Tony mused after a bit. “I might have to kick you out of the Avengers and pay you to give me scalp massages for the rest of my life.”
Steve chuckled again, keeping it up, and Tony tilted his head slightly when he reached the base of his skull, breathing deeply. He didn’t react when Steve’s thumb moved along the fresh scar on his skin, but the super-soldier made sure to ease the pressure on that area, just in case.
After several minutes had passed, Steve once again turned on the water and rinsed Tony’s hair thoroughly, then the rest of him, trying to keep his touches as superficial as possible. Of course he had noticed Tony was naked the moment he stepped into the bathroom, but just because they were both men didn’t mean he should look at him or touch him any longer than he had to. The running water cleaned the rest of the soap from Tony’s skin and eventually Steve turned off the water and stood up, finding a towel hanging on a heater rail on the wall.
He waited a moment, watching from the corner of his eye as Tony shifted a little and then looked up, reaching out his hand for the towel. Steve passed it over and hovered by the door, waiting to see if he was needed for anything else. Tony made a half-hearted attempt to dry himself until he placed the towel around his shoulders and looked at Steve. “Give me a hand?”
Steve stepped back to the tub and grasped Tony’s arm, helping him to stand, then carefully step out of the tub. After Tony steadied himself, Steve slowly let go of him, guessing that his services were no longer needed; Tony probably felt humiliated enough as it was, his hands tugging the towel down to cover himself. Not that any part of a naked man wasn’t something Steve hadn’t seen plenty of times, but they knew each other and there should be a line in there, somewhere…
Tony swayed, suddenly, and stumbled into Steve, who was still standing close enough to catch him. Wrapping his fingers around the damp skin of Tony’s bicep and waist, Steve debated whether he should just try and towel Tony off, then help him to bed. A nervous laugh from the other man cut off his inner debate, and he looked at Tony’s face; it could’ve been the warm, damp air – or Tony was flushing with embarrassment.
“It takes fifty-four muscles to stand up, and a shitload more to remain standing,” Tony mused. “To take one single step, you utilize approximately two-hundred muscles, and if you lose control of a few, things get… awkward.” No doubt he was referring to his weight leaning against Steve’s, muscles working to keep his body upright.
Steve wanted to tell him it was okay, that it wasn’t anything Tony could help by feeling apologetic or ashamed. A neurological problem wasn’t something you put a band-aid on, or managed with a painkiller. And it wasn’t even those things that bothered Steve, but the fact that Tony should let Steve help him, and not try to wait until the last minute to bring it up. Sure, he knew Tony liked his independence, but it should have been easier for him to accept Steve’s involvement by now.
Instead of saying any of those things, he waited for Tony to regain his balance – or accept it wasn’t going to happen.
Tony’s fingers tightened around his forearms and he shifted his body, trying to find his feet. It was a process Steve had followed closely during his stay in Malibu, and it felt like he was getting a high-definition experience of it while Tony was unclothed and Steve could see every muscle and joint working to accomplish what the other man wanted.
“Okay,” Tony finally decided, and lifted his right foot. He didn’t move anywhere in particular, but the test was a success and Steve let go of him, yet allowed Tony to maintain his own grip for as long as he wanted. The engineer’s fingers tightened momentarily, then slowly let go as Tony grew more confident in himself – and just as suddenly he was half-sagging, half falling over, and Steve grasped him around the middle to keep him from ending up on the tiled bathroom floor.
“Not okay,” Tony muttered. “Just get me…”
Steve hoisted him up and moved him to the bedroom, which he knew was the nearest destination Tony could want. The other man moved his legs, mimicking a shuffle, but Steve took most of his weight. Tony plopped down on the bed as soon as he could, sitting there in a hunched position, looking so incredibly vulnerable. Nothing like the leader of the Avengers, the Iron Man protected by the most advanced armor known to man.
Not lingering on the sight, Steve went back to the bathroom to fetch a fresh towel, bringing it back with him. Tony accepted it wordlessly, once again making a half-hearted attempt of toweling himself dry.
“I’m sure Rhodey will understand if you don’t –”
“He’s coming over, and I’m seeing him,” Tony cut Steve off resolutely, then pointed at a door in the wall. “Can you grab me some clothes?” Steve relented, and opened the door, waiting for instructions since he didn’t presume to know what Tony wanted to wear. In the end, what Tony chose were simple things with as few zippers and buttons as he could manage. “I don’t need to dress up to impress him,” he muttered as Steve helped him pull on his pants.
Steve just gave him a small, good-natured smile. He was certain Rhodey didn’t mind, seeing as he and Tony went way back, but he also knew Tony would try and pretend to be as normal as he possibly could. When he couldn’t stand without help, Steve wasn’t certain how he was going to tackle that obstacle.
Clearly Tony was debating that as well, weighing up the distance between himself, the door, and the length of the hallway leading to the living room area. Eventually he looked at Steve again, with the sort of broken defeat Steve had learned to associate with a cry for help. Tony being Tony, he still had an air of stubbornness about him, but it was clear he had reached the inevitable conclusion: “Will you help me into the living room?”
Steve nodded and reached down, lifting Tony easily and waiting to see how cooperative his body was going to be. Tony’s jaw was clenched and he forced one foot in front of the other, using Steve as a crutch all the way to the living room – where they found James Rhodes already seated on one of the couches.
The man looked up, dark eyes taking in the scene although his face remained carefully neutral. “Hey, Tony,” he greeted. “Captain.”
“Colonel,” Steve inclined his head when Tony made no reply. He gave the other man a quick look, to figure out whether Tony wanted to go on.
“JARVIS let you in?” Tony asked and started moving, and Steve followed his lead, matching his pace.
“Who else?” Rhodey mused.
Tony gave a half shrug as Steve helped him sit down on a couch opposite Rhodey’s. “Pepper’s been around. I think she’s avoiding me these days, though.”
“She’s handling the company, the best she can,” Rhodey corrected him. “You’re looking good.” Tony arched an eyebrow at that. “You’re alive and functioning,” Rhodey amended.
“Depends on whom you ask, I guess,” Tony replied and looked to the side, out of the wide set of windows that curved in a semi-circle on the other side of the room.
“He’s doing better every day,” Steve offered.
Tony looked at him quickly, frowning. “You can go. I’m sure you have stuff to do.”
“You’re being rude,” Rhodey said and gave Steve a brief, thankful look. “I know what you’ve been doing, Cap, and on behalf of a lot of people, I would like to say thank you.”
Tony muttered something unintelligible.
“Stop muttering,” Rhodey pointed a finger at his friend. “He’s helping your churlish, ungrateful ass, and you know it.”
“Because he feels guilty it was his damn shield that banged me in the head,” Tony huffed and leaned back, crossing his arms over his chest.
“He would be here anyway,” Rhodey argued.
“How do you know that?”
“Because he’s a decent human being!”
“If he was trying to do the right thing, he would still be in New York City, leading the Avengers, not wasting his time here.”
“I’m not wasting my time,” Steve stated flatly, and both men looked up at him, having clearly forgotten he was still there.
“No?” Tony challenged him. “Because there is no certainty when I’ll get better, if I’ll ever get better, and there are dozens of people who can do what you’re doing right now.”
“If you would let them,” Steve reminded him.
“Not the point.”
Steve glowered at him. “You’re getting better, every day, but that attitude isn’t going to get you much further, soldier.”
“I’m not your goddamn soldier,” Tony snapped and sank back on the couch, not unlike a sulking child.
“You’re my teammate, and my friend,” Steve amended. “If I can help, then I’ll be here as long as necessary.”
“Let him be,” Rhodey spoke up, threw back the rest of his drink and got to his feet. “He’ll be like this for a moment and then snap out of it. Would you like something to drink?” he asked.
“No, thank you,” Steve replied pleasantly and looked at Tony. He might make them smoothies later – he had grown to like them, seeing how many different things you could throw into a blender.
Rhodey busied himself by selecting a bottle and fetching some ice, then returned to his previous spot. “Sit down,” he urged Steve. “Unless you would rather be somewhere else. I won’t blame you; he gets on my nerves on the best of days,” the man joked, yet his eyes were full of fondness as he looked at Tony, taking the edge from the words.
Tony stared at Rhodey with brooding intensity, then eventually sighed and relaxed a little. “You’re such a glutton for punishment, then, because you keep coming back for more.”
“To gluttony and suffering,” Rhodey toasted, grinning briefly, and leaned back to enjoy his drink.
Steve took a seat on the couch beside Tony, keeping a comfortable distance between them but feeling surprisingly included in the banter that went on for the next few hours. And if Tony happened to fall asleep against his shoulder, long after smoothies and many laughs with Rhodey, no one made a comment about it.
“Take him to bed,” Rhodey said at length. “I need to get going.”
“Are you okay to drive?” Steve frowned.
“Is someone going to pull over War Machine and stick a breathalyzer in my face?” the other man cracked back, and Steve guessed that was unlikely to happen. “Take care of him,” Rhodey added as he straightened his clothes. “The mere fact that he’s allowed you to stay this long, and do the things you do for him…” He shook his head, and although his expression was sad, Steve read a hint of hope in it as well.
“You can count on it,” he nodded, and they shook hands before Rhodey headed downstairs, probably to suit up and fly back to New York City, or wherever he was needed right now.
Looking down at Tony’s sleeping face, pressed close to the crook of his neck, Steve decided that he knew where he needed to be, too. He hadn’t been certain if he would ever get that feeling of purpose again in his life, after the war and becoming an Avenger. It was a bit of a relief to find yet another place where he… belonged.
Regardless of his protestations and ill moods, Tony was getting better. While they still did various different exercises to help him re-establish muscle memory, they also moved onto more physical exercises. Tony seemed to like that, although he often complained Steve was a slave-driver. But it was good for Tony, too, to see actual results in his recovery, and that kept him coming back for more.
Since actual strength-training was still weeks if not months away, they focused on simpler things: various calisthenics, yoga, tai chi, pilates and isometrics entered the rotation in their daily routines, in healthy amounts. For all his pushing of Tony’s limits, Steve made sure they didn’t over-do it, jeopardize their progress, and cause a setback.
From their training together in the past, Steve knew Tony wasn’t in perfect harmony with his body. In a normal setting it would have been impossible to get Tony to lie down and do slow exercises that required concentration and patience, but maintaining a specific position helped Tony’s brain refigure the body it was connected to, and being a genius, Tony had to see that as well.
Their work-outs became a routine, so much so that Pepper would just walk in, listing all the things she needed Tony’s attention for, while Tony sweated and strained to complete whatever task Steve had set before him. Pepper remained unfazed, yet she profusely thanked Steve every chance she got.
“If there’s anything I can get you,” she kept saying.
“I need Tony to get better, that’s all,” Steve insisted each time, because that was the truth. If there were a way for him to bribe Tony’s injuries to get better faster, he would do that in a heartbeat, but as it was, recovery was slow going and he had to accept that.
Steve had always felt a certain sense of pride when he saw recruits in his training class pass a test, just as he felt relief when all the Avengers returned from a fight. With Tony, his pride was different, yet not a totally separate thing: Tony’s body was doing all the work, but being able to push the man in the right direction, to make him sweat and keep trying whenever Tony felt ready to give up because he had failed at something else… In short, Steve kept forcing Tony up when the man fell and no longer had the will to go on, and each time he would see the spark light up in Tony that drove him to relentlessly tackle a world-threatening situation that couldn’t be solved just with brawn and guns.
Training with Tony gave Steve new things to try as well. He was definitely adding a few of those things to his regular work-out as well; he hadn’t immersed himself too far into all the new forms of exercise society had come up with since he crashed into the ice, so this was as good a chance as any. Tony didn’t seem to mind that Steve was instinctively better at everything they tried, as long as the super-soldier was doing things the same way and not showing off.
To make their work-outs more appealing to Tony, especially on his more morose days, Steve tried to bring in elements that mimicked their hand-to-hand combat training. Tony probably knew what he was doing, but he accepted it with minimal complaints.
“Good, hold that pose,” Steve urged. Tony was sweating and shivering slightly, but he kept his left arm stretched before him, fingers curled into a loose fist, while his right arm was bent closer to his chest. Tony hated doing things slow, but since that was the only way to get anything done these days, he had accepted to go through the motions of fighting instead of throwing any actual punches. “Alright, enough,” Steve finally decided, lowering his own hand from beneath Tony’s outstretched one. “We’re done for the day.”
Tony relaxed his pose and moved to sit on a bench, grabbing his water bottle. He didn’t hesitate as much as he used to, and his grip was firmer, surer. Steve just watched, noting every little thing that seemed to come easier now than when he had first arrived in Malibu.
The brown eyes met his as Tony drank slowly. Steve offered him a small smile, then went for his own bottle and sat down beside the other man.
“You think I’m getting better?” Tony mused after a while, rolling his bottle along his thigh, back and forth, with the palm of his hand. Another small exercise for fine motor control.
“I know it,” Steve reassured him. “I see it, every day.”
“And if I weren’t getting better?” Tony asked, looking at him, his hand stopping the motion, the bottle stilling. “Would you still be here?”
“Always,” Steve told him.
“Huh.” Tony thought about that. “You wouldn’t, but that’s okay.”
Steve liked to think he would be here, regardless of what Tony believed. Maybe not all the time, and not if Tony didn’t want him around, but … He guessed it was better to change the subject. “You seem to like it here.”
“It’s my home, I think I ought to,” Tony gave him an amused look.
“Do you miss it while you’re in New York?”
Tony shrugged. “Not much, and besides, I can fly pretty quickly in between places.” A sad smile played on his lips. “Or, I used to.”
“What’s keeping you from doing it?” Steve asked, knowing the obvious answer, but he had never known Tony to fear something that involved his suit.
Tony probably realized as much and gave him a suspicious look. “Aside from the obvious? Pummeling uncontrollably into the ground isn’t as pleasant as you seem to think it is.”
“I’m not saying that you should start by flying to the moon.” It wasn’t a ridiculous statement since Steve had seen Tony battle in space more than once. “Do something… easy.” He got an idea “Take me flying.”
“You?” There was no end to Tony’s suspicious looks, clearly.
“Yes,” Steve shrugged innocently. “I enjoy flying – safe flying, not falling.”
Tony fidgeted – there was no other word for it. “Not yet.”
“Why not? Are you telling me that the great Tony Stark cannot bypass a few twitches? You have JARVIS in your suit, that should be enough if you suddenly lose control –”
“No, Steve. I… Just… no.” Tony looked so torn, and for a moment Steve feared the Iron Man armor had suddenly become some kind of nightmare for Tony; the last time he wore it, he ended up in a hospital.
“I’ll be there, with you,” Steve reassured, and it was an irrational reassurance because Steve would fall if Tony fell – and of the two of them, Steve would probably break a bone or five.
Tony gave him a dirty look. “Do you know how complicated it is to move the suit? Or fly steadily? Or fly steadily with a super-soldier clinging to your form?”
“So what you’re saying is you can’t do it?”
And Steve knew he had won, because as damaged as Tony was, there was nothing he couldn’t do – especially if he could do it.
Steve had known Tony had more than one armor at his house in Malibu; it stood to reason he would have an armory there, with some suits that were still in development. They were excitingly different, but Steve kept himself sufficiently passive as Tony still pretended to be hesitating.
It wasn’t as if Steve was overly fond of flying, but the few times one of the flying members of the Avengers had offered him a lift, the bond of trust had created a certain thrill in the pit of his stomach. He had often flown with Tony, out of necessity, but this time it would be therapeutic more than anything: eventually Tony needed to get back into the suit, to conquer some unspoken fear or concern he had.
In the past, Steve would have bet a lot of money on Tony putting on the suit no matter how many bruises or broken bones in his body. That he was so leery of being Iron Man again was ridiculous, considering the armor was Tony’s own creation, but perhaps that was part of the issue: Tony didn’t feel like himself, and he was smart enough to see that piloting a suit that was often referred to as ‘a weapon of mass destruction’ might not be in his best interest as long as things could spin out of control.
Steve was still of the opinion that the therapeutic effects of being Iron Man would outweigh the possible quandaries. Tony needed to believe he was making progress, and piloting the suit would provide that. Steve’s desire to fly just gave him the boost he needed, because in the end, Tony was a selfless person under the hard, polished surface that showed anything but that.
“This is a bad idea,” Tony muttered.
“We don’t have to do this,” Steve replied. He may have grinned in triumph, because he was playing Tony perfectly – with Tony’s consent. If Tony absolutely didn’t think getting into the suit was a good idea, Steve would back off. They had all the time in the world to get Tony better, but in Steve’s opinion this was the right time, and Tony had to know that as well. He was simply lacking faith in himself and his brain-body connection.
Tony stepped forward, onto a platform, and snapped his fingers – the fact he could do that was proof enough that he had overcome so many issues already. “JARVIS, prep the Shotgun armor.”
“Sir, I am not certain whether high speeds were Captain Rogers’ idea of an nice, easy flight.”
“It’s the best armor for steady, controlled flight, even on a bad day,” Tony snapped back at his AI, and soon enough one of the cocoons on the wall opened up and revealed a slightly more metallic-colored armor. It opened up like a flower on a sunny morning, and Tony stepped over to it, spreading his arms and legs accordingly to let it close around his body.
If Steve had been a more emotional person, he might have shed a tear at the sight. “Okay?” he asked instead.
“You better be nice to me, Cap, because if you’re not, I might accidentally drop you. No one would look twice,” Tony replied, the voice familiar through the speech synthesizer of the suit.
“Got it,” Steve nodded, face blank, but inside he was doing cartwheels.
Tony stepped forward, none of the hesitation from earlier showing: the armor masked it completely, or maybe Tony was going on autopilot. Being back in the suit might actually help his progress in other areas, and Steve felt like patting himself on the back.
He moved towards Tony and clasped his shoulder. “How do you want to do this?”
“JARVIS, the ceiling, please,” Tony said, and the ceiling rotated and opened to reveal the blue sky above. “Hang on tight,” Tony ordered then, and Steve grasped onto the armor, then felt one of Tony’s arms around his waist and the repulsors came to life.
Flying with Iron Man was amazing. The Shotgun armor, as Tony had called it, packed a serious punch, and Steve felt the wind whip around him as they rose into the sky and then took off over the water, his stomach left behind somewhere in the armory. Tony didn’t weave or do any fancy stunts he usually did, taking a direct path then curving slowly, evenly, taking them along the coast. One of his arms remained around Steve’s waist, keeping him pinned against the suit, which had to be affecting its maneuverability, but Steve knew what it was: a favor returned from all those times Steve had held onto Tony, keeping him from crashing to the floor.
“Go lower!” Steve shouted over the wind, uncertain whether Tony could hear him, but soon they were flying lower over the water, and Steve pulled one of his hands free and stretched out, fingers touching the surface. The firm impact of water on his skin at a speed most boats couldn’t match was thrilling.
Tony tugged on his waist after a moment, and Steve looped both his arms back around the metal shoulders. He thought he heard Tony saying ‘hang on’, and then they shot upwards, away from the water, doing a hard twist back towards land and Tony’s house. The mixed vertigo of speed, wind and gravity sat heavily inside Steve’s chest, but Tony’s hold on him was unyielding and he could admit he was shaking a little by the time they touched down in the armory once more.
Steve gathered his bearings while Tony moved to take off the suit. His ears were buzzing, skin prickling, but he couldn’t help the grin on his face, and the still-lingering rush in his veins. If flying in the suit was anything like it was on the outside…
Tony stepped out of the cocoon a moment later, free of the suit, and looked at Steve for a long moment. A brief shadow of uncertainty flashed over his face, then an expression Steve wasn’t certain he had seen before. He wanted to ask if Tony was okay, to make sure they hadn’t turned back because something was wrong.
Eventually Tony stepped down from the platform and continued to where Steve was standing. They looked at each other, and suddenly Tony leaned forward, wrapping his arms around Steve. It was surprising, but Steve reciprocated, not knowing what else was expected of him. He was keenly aware of Tony pressing his face into his shoulder, and the whispered ‘thank you’ against his clothed skin.
Steve guessed this was all he needed to do right now, so he held Tony a bit closer and hid a smile in the dark hair. For the first time in weeks, he was fully convinced things were going to be okay.
Author’s note: I’m not fully convinced the story should end here. However, time constraints force me to draw the line somewhere, and if time and inspiration allow (which I assume they will), there shall be some kind of continuation to this, later, involving the other Avengers, Tony’s continued struggle to get better, and Iron Man’s return to the battlefield.
Also, possibly, the deepening of Steve’s and Tony’s relationship.