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Del Rion [userpic]

Coping Mechanism (2/3)

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- - -

Steve was convinced Tony was getting better, even when on some days it felt like they were slipping back downhill after making so much progress. Tony also put too much pressure on himself, which caused some of the setbacks, but it was hard to stop him from trying to achieve something he wanted, especially when it was potentially within his grasp.

Jan’s call hadn’t been unexpected, but Steve tried to gauge Tony’s mood extra hard afterward, to see whether it affected him in some undesired way. A reminder of the existence of the Avengers always held a potential trigger, especially if Tony felt like he should be in New York with the team – or that Steve should.

The choice to stay in Malibu was Steve’s and Steve’s alone, however. If the team really needed him, he would join them in battle, but until then – and after that – he would be here, with Tony, because it seemed to work better than any other alternative they had tried.

After Tony had tried training with the suit on, Steve sensed a definite change. Mostly it had nothing to do with the failed exercise but what happened later in Tony’s bathroom. In the days that followed, Tony was less edgy in a lot of ways and didn’t give Steve as much shit when he felt exposed. It was as if they had reached a level where it was okay for Tony to be vulnerable in front of Steve in ways that would have made most people squirm and cast down their eyes.

It was good Steve wasn’t the squirming type, then.

Frankly, he cherished that moment in the tub. As he had told Tony, he missed having a chance to connect with another person, and while this was the worst possible time and Steve was possibly abusing Tony’s vulnerability, he and Tony were bonding over this experience. It would make them closer in so many ways, once it was over, and in spite of or possibly despite all their past and continuing arguments, Steve regarded Tony as his best friend.

It was easy to tell that Tony also craved closeness with someone, because any small gesture Steve made that wasn’t directly necessary for their training and him aiding Tony with his daily routines, Tony greedily accepted. Steve hadn’t noticed that before and wasn’t sure whether it was caused by Tony’s condition and the isolation the other man forced upon himself because of it, or if it was something that had always been there but Tony had been more careful to cover it up.

Either way, in the small interval of three days since their shared bath, the dynamic between them was already beginning to change and Steve was determined to say it was for the better. They sat closer to each other and if Tony wasn’t upset about something – in which case he wouldn’t be sitting with Steve in the first place – they would eventually drift into holding hands and leaning into each other even more. Steve knew it wasn’t romantic, but the simple gesture of closeness gave them both comfort that sharing a joke or bumping fists could never compare to.

It was during their morning workout on the fourth day when it became painfully apparent that Steve was as greedy as Tony – if not more so – when it came to the desire to connect.

They had done some yoga and pilates and Steve was currently keeping Tony’s legs still as the other man did sit-ups. Steve’s hands rested on Tony’s knees as the rest of his body kept his feet pinned to the floor, and every now and then when Tony came up, his eyes would seek out Steve’s as if asking whether he had sweated enough. Up and down he went, feet shaking a little beneath Steve, but his movements were graceful and controlled, which was a good sign.

“Slow down, keep it steady,” Steve instructed, and Tony did, gasping and huffing; faster would have been easier, but this way Tony had to pay attention to every little inch his body moved to hold it in position. A frown grew on Tony’s forehead; his arms shifted on both sides of his head, shoulders tightening with exertion.

“Almost there,” Steve told him. “Ten more, then we’re done. Keep it slow.”

“Easy for you to say, sitting there all smug,” Tony complained then focused on breathing and lifting his upper body off the floor.

After number four, Tony hesitated before moving up again, clearly exhausted. Steve knew he could let it go but he had said ten and Tony would be upset if he didn’t reach that goal. “Don’t let yourself stop,” he encouraged, and Tony moved up again, barely resisting the temptation to just yank himself there, and Steve smiled proudly, seeing how much effort Tony put into it. “That’s five; you’re half-way there.”

“I can do the math,” Tony groaned as he lowered himself down again and halted long enough to interrupt the smooth up-and-down movement.

“We’re not done yet,” Steve told him, like he would tell one of his soldiers or the Avengers while training – like he would have told Tony back when they sparred together.

Tony started lifting himself up again, stayed there, deciding it was better to rest there than on the floor where it was too tempting to just lie down and not finish the sit-ups.

“Only four left,” Steve said, tone lower, and leaned forward.

Tony nodded minutely and sank back down, his feet shifting just a little beneath Steve. It was clearly becoming a struggle, the closer the finish line loomed, but Tony didn’t stop this time, face tight as he pulled up. Seven, eight, nine… Steve squeezed Tony’s knees before the other man pulled himself up for the last time, and Tony let out a huff of relief once he got there, leaning forward, arms sinking down instantly. Their foreheads were barely an inch apart and Steve leaned in the last little bit, his skin coming into contact with the heat of Tony’s sweaty forehead.

The brown eyes met his, an exhausted smile appearing on Tony’s lips, and that undid something inside Steve, luring him to align his head and touch Tony’s panting lips with his own. Tony’s lips stilled instantly, as did his breathing, and Steve knew he had crossed a line. He drew back, just a few inches, regretting his actions but not wanting to run away because of it either; it would be better to apologize now, to get this sorted out, and get back to their workout.

Tony’s hand appeared on his arm, a steady weight of warmth, tired from the physical exertion. It was a sharp reminder that Tony depended on him, so much, and Steve should not abuse the trust placed in him. Just because they had enjoyed other privileges of becoming closer did not mean he could insert something so sexual into their friendship. After all, that was how most people saw kissing, and he knew about Tony’s reputation.

“Steve,” Tony spoke up, forcing Steve to acknowledge him, to look at him. “What was that?”

“A kiss,” Steve admitted. No reason to lie about it.

“More like a peck if you ask me,” Tony raised one eyebrow at him in challenge.

“I shouldn’t have,” Steve admitted.

“But you did anyway.”

He nodded, ashamed of himself. That wasn’t the worst of it, for he feared how Tony would see him from now on. This small thing could not be erased and it would hang between them always…

Tony’s fingers tightened around his arm. “Hey,” he started again, “it’s not… I would say it’s not a big deal, but it kind of is, to me.”

Steve met his eyes with alarm. “I didn’t mean to force it upon you –”

“Caught me by surprise, sure, but if you were forcing me, I would have JARVIS beating you up with one of my suits right now,” Tony told him.

“Would you like me to, sir?” JARVIS asked politely.

“No,” Tony rolled his eyes and then looked steadily at Steve. “I’m going to lay out two theories here. You’re allowed to add more, if neither of them is correct. One: the kiss was some kind of pent-up sexual frustration. Two: this has to do with what we talked about in the bath; about connecting and being close to a person.”

“These are your two options?” Steve asked, daring to smile a bit.

“I think I would have noticed if you were harboring some weird crush on me,” Tony informed him. “I notice it when people are checking me out. You haven’t. And, for the record, you’ve probably seen me naked more than any other person in this world, including my parents.”

Steve didn’t focus on the jibe at Tony’s ‘clusterfuck of a childhood’, as Tony so fondly called it sometimes. “I would say option two is pretty accurate,” he admitted.

Tony nodded in acknowledgment.

“Are you… disappointed?” It was hard to tell, and Steve was now starting to consider whether the real problem wasn’t the kiss but the fact that they might want different things after it.

“Not really,” Tony answered. “I’m… I’ve had my share of one-nighters, affairs and quickies in dark corners. I rarely miss any of that. It was meaningless at best, but it got me a reputation and I was happy to roll with it.” Steve wondered what he was getting at, but waited patiently as Tony organized his thoughts into something that would hopefully make sense to the super soldier. “Afghanistan changed a lot of things. I’m not so… keen on putting myself out there again. Not just because of this,” he motioned at the arc reactor with the hand that wasn’t still resting on Steve’s arm, “but I find it just isn’t worth the risk of exposing myself like that, with so many people gunning for me. No reason to make myself an easy target.”

Which was an odd thing coming from a man who was famous for putting himself out there for people to take a shot at him. Usually he was wearing his armor for that kind of occasion, though, and perhaps that was what made the difference.

“So, what I’m getting at, sort of,” Tony went on again, clearly coming closer to the heart of the matter, “I miss it, sometimes. The little things. And for once I’m not talking about sex,” he clarified, which made Steve suppress a chuckle; he didn’t want to make this into a joke even though Tony was. “I like this whole thing we’ve been doing,” he motioned vaguely at their surroundings, but Steve knew he meant everything that had happened since their bath. “And I like kissing. Well, I like it with most people. Did like it. I think I would enjoy it with you – just like I enjoy the other stuff.” He looked a little awkward for a bit, as if he weren’t sure how exactly to say it. “Is that okay?” he finally asked, looking a little lost.

“That’s more than okay,” Steve replied. “I’m not… I don’t think I’m looking for all those things people do these days. The sex,” he added, because he wanted to be clear where Tony had been vague. “Maybe, eventually, but this isn’t about that.” He tried to spot any disappointment in Tony’s expression, to see whether Tony wasn’t being completely honest with him, but either the man hid it very well or there was no deception. “I would like to kiss you again,” he added. “If that’s not too much…”

“I think we’ve established it isn’t – or, it depends, because I intend to kiss you in a way that can actually be called a ‘kiss’,” Tony grinned at him mischievously, then dropped the expression and inched forward a little. Steve was still sitting on his legs so he couldn’t move far, and Steve closed the distance between them.

Tony’s right hand still remained on Steve’s arm, whereas the left slid across Steve’s temple and into his hair, stroking softly as their lips pressed together again. It was better, lasted longer, and while Steve had been afraid Tony would insist on that whole tongue-thing, none of that happened. However, it was more intense than Steve’s innocent peck, as Tony had called it, and far more satisfying.

“Convinced?” Tony asked when they drew apart after a good eight seconds.

“Yes,” Steve smiled and then squeezed Tony’s knees and lifted himself off the floor. Tony sat there for a bit then leaned over to get his water bottle while Steve proceeded to work on a punching bag for a bit. He had rarely enjoyed a workout so much, his spirits high and expectations even higher. He and Tony were on the same wavelength, wanting the same things, and as long as that remained unchanged… well, his future seemed far less gloomy and lonely.

“Sir,” JARVIS spoke up suddenly, “a Quinjet is approaching the house, asking for permission to land.”

Steve froze mid-punch and met Tony’s gaze.

“A Quinjet? Is something wrong?” Tony asked the AI.

“Nothing seems to be the matter,” JARVIS replied, then remained silent for a few seconds. “Are they cleared for approach, sir?” the AI retuned, prompting Tony for an answer.

“Sure,” Tony agreed. “Direct them to the second helipad. It’s a bit more… out of sight.”

“Very well, sir.”

Steve drew back from the punching bag, resting his hands on his waist. “Why are they here?” he mused.

“No idea,” Tony replied. “Maybe there’s a crisis Jan didn’t tell us about.” He slowly got to his feet, leaning on the wall until he found his balance. “I bet we’ll find out soon enough.”

‘Soon enough’ was approximately three minutes later when the Quinjet had landed and the Avengers had rounded the building to find the main entrance.

Jan was the first to approach once JARVIS opened the door for them, shouting, “Surprise!”

Tony barely suppressed his groan. “What are you doing here?”

“Visiting our fearless leader – and you,” Clint said as he, too, stepped inside. Carol and Thor followed him, both looking around with obvious interest.

“My friends!” Thor exclaimed, dropping Mjolnir to the floor. It left a dent, making Steve grimace. “It is good to see you.” He marched forward, clearly to gather both Steve and Tony in a hug, and Steve immediately placed a hand on the Asgardian’s chest, not wanting him to upset Tony’s precarious balance. Thor blinked, then simply clasped Steve’s arm in a mighty grip. “You look well, Captain.”

“As does Tony,” Jan hurried to say. “Way better than the last time we saw you in person, at the hospital.” It was a poorly veiled accusation that Tony had been ignoring them, and Steve felt his previously good mood plummet.

“Well, now you’ve seen us and we’re doing fine,” Tony replied. “Are you staying long?”

“A few days at least,” Carol replied, “unless something comes up.”

Tony nodded. “Where are you staying? I know a couple great hotels in town –”

“We’re staying here, of course,” Jan grinned and then changed into her small, winged form, flying excitedly around the foyer, kitchen and living room. “This place is so awesome!”

Tony was clearly fighting between being a good host and falling back to the rude routine he had become accustomed to since he got out of the hospital and returned home. “Great,” he finally lied through his teeth. Carol raised an eyebrow and if Clint noticed, he didn’t care, striding forward to take a look, too.

“JARVIS, prep the guest house,” Tony finally admitted defeat.

“If you don’t want us here,” Carol started.

“It’s not that,” Tony cut her off. “Mi casa es su casa, and all that. We were just… not prepared for visitors, is all.”

“We brought enough food to feast tonight,” Thor promised. “Now, let us explore Iron Man’s humble abode.” He walked off to join Jan and Clint, and Tony muttered something about going to shower.

Steve wasn’t sure what to do or say, but he could already feel that the carefully constructed balance he and Tony had come to appreciate during Tony’s recovery was beginning to falter.

- - -

Steve’s arrival had been bad enough, in the beginning, but Tony had learned to accept it – and then accepted it some more as time passed. Of all the people in his life, it was entirely possible that the only person who could have ever gained access to Tony’s most vulnerable state was Steve Rogers.

Steve had become his rock, in many ways – a heavy weight to drag around and a solid surface to lean on when he could no longer support himself. They had a good thing going, even before the bath and the confessions at the gym. Tony had actually looked forward to what came next, now that it was all mostly out in the open between them – but that was before four members of their team decided to drop by for a visit.

Tony was in turmoil, unable to be enough of a dick to tell their visitors to leave. He had expected Steve to tell him it would be good for him to socialize, but that hadn’t happened yet. Maybe Steve, too, felt like their teammates were intruding on their life. At least they were staying in the guest house that was attached to the main building but gave them a little space from the visitors.

Not that it mattered much, because when Tony showed up after showering and taking a moment to get his bearings, he found the other Avengers were breaking in the pool that sat outside. They had also found refreshments and fruit, looking every bit as touristy as one might expect. Even Thor was wearing colorful swimming trunks, which meant someone – probably Jan – had instructed him on what to wear in a place like Malibu.

“Cool house, Stark,” Clint told him, sipping a drink before pulling himself up from the pool, moving over to a diving board where he made a graceful dive with a one-and-a-half-somersault back into the water.

Thor looked delighted at this. “You must teach me,” he ordered Clint, and Tony watched the archer explain the springboard to the Asgardian. Thor, apparently, had dived down from many high cliffs, but anything fancier than that had never seemed to occur to him, and there were many mighty splashes when he fell face first into the water.

“Get into the pool with us,” Jan encouraged Tony after a bit. She was drifting around on a colorful pool toy air mattress she must have brought with her because it certainly wasn’t Tony’s.

“I’m okay,” Tony told her.

“Come on,” Carol encouraged. “Get in here. I’ll go and get Cap,” she added and got out of the water. The swim suit she was wearing complemented her body as she grabbed her towel and walked inside to find their missing teammate.

“Hey, Stark!” Clint called out. “You know how to jump, right?”

Tony stiffened a bit. “Yeah, I suppose. Not my thing, though.” He tapped his chest absently; people usually thought he meant the arc reactor somehow prevented him from doing whatever they were asking him to do, and Tony was happy to not correct them. Well, diving might actually be bad for the device – or rather, what was left of his sternum, if he tried to do anything fancy like a somersault.

“Come on, Tony: you have this pool sitting here; don’t tell me you don’t like swimming,” Jan tried to lure him in again.

“I’m a rich guy with some of the most expensive property in the area. I don’t need to like swimming to have a pool,” Tony informed her.

“Maybe he’s afraid of water,” Clint joked. “Fears his chest piece will short-circuit.”

“That’s… crude,” Jan pointed out to the archer, then paddled her air mattress a bit closer to Tony’s side of the pool. “Come on. We just want to spend a little time with you, that’s all. It’s good for the team, right? And good for you,” she added. “I know how Hank gets sometimes. He needs to be pulled out of his lab by his ear and made to socialize, otherwise he would stay in there forever.”

Tony so wasn’t Hank Pym, everyone knew that, but he knew how it went and supposed that if he played along, his team would feel compelled to leave sooner. He went back in to change into a pair of swimming shorts and returned to the pool. Carol still wasn’t back but Thor had almost mastered using the board without it leaving him smashing uncontrollably into the water. Clint showed off when Thor had swum out of the way, then noticed Tony.

“Your turn,” Clint called out and Tony walked over. The tiles were damp and slippery, which made his slower-than-usual gait appear normal. He gave the board a careful look, then carefully stepped on top of it. Once he was half-way down its length, he began to feel it bending beneath his weight and he stopped to steady his balance.

“Go on,” Thor grinned at him from below. “It is not so difficult.”

Tony nodded stiffly, eyeing the end of the board. He took a step forward, sliding his hand along the railing, but eventually the railing ended and he was left with nothing to hold onto. Putting one foot in front of the other, carefully, he made it to the very tip of the board without falling off, which was a great accomplishment.

Clint snickered at him. “Is it the heights or the water, Stark?”

Tony’s fingers tightened into fists. The water wasn’t that far, but it was too deep for him to reach the bottom once he was in. He hadn’t even tried swimming since his accident and realized perhaps he should have taken a dip in the pool before climbing up here.

“Come, friend Tony,” Thor encouraged – then reached up and grabbed the board, making it wiggle. Whether it was intentional or not, Tony didn’t know, but he instantly lost his balance and barely managed to fall feet first instead of simply splashing in.

The rush of water in his ears deafened all sounds, and after his momentum ended and his hurried exhalation of air came to a halt, he stopped moving and opened his eyes. A special compound designed by him kept the pool clean, which was why his eyes didn’t sting from chlorine. His vision was blurred and although it occurred to him that he should probably swim back up, he floated for a bit, enjoying the feeling of weightlessness. No struggling to stay upright, dragging his feet, measuring each step.

It was peaceful up until the moment he needed to breathe, and he realized his toes couldn’t reach the bottom of the pool to kick himself up to the surface.

- - -

Steve showered and changed quickly after Tony went to do the same. He heard, distantly, the four Avengers take off to the guest house once JARVIS had everything set for them, and wondered how long they were going to stay.

He knew it was highly unlikely that Tony would agree to do any exercises with them around; Pepper – and Rhodey, when he occasionally dropped by – were the only exceptions to that rule – if there was a rule to begin with. Either way, Steve was deeply unhappy about the interruption. He couldn’t just go and tell his teammates to leave, though, after they had come all this way, no doubt meaning well.

A part of him suggested that perhaps he was upset because he and Tony had progressed in their personal relationship today, and with the interruption, any exploration of that seemed highly unlikely as well.

“It can wait a few days,” Steve told himself and sat down on the bed, wondering what he should do.

His first instinct was to go out there and make sure Tony was okay, but he knew his presence would be seen as hovering, by Tony more than most, and where it was usually accepted by the injured man, Steve knew him well enough to anticipate that Tony didn’t want to show weakness in front of the other Avengers.

Which meant it might be for the best that Steve stay in his room for a bit because he could not just switch off the way he was naturally helping Tony around these days.

Eventually, though, he got hungry enough to leave his room, and that was when Carol found him in the kitchen while he was making himself a sandwich – as well as one for Tony, out of habit.

“Hey,” the woman greeted him.

“Do you want something to eat?” Steve asked.

“I’m good,” Carol replied and leaned against the counter. “How are things with Tony? He looks better.”

“He is better,” Steve admitted.

“But not good enough to return to New York,” she guessed.

“That’s… You should talk to him about it,” Steve hedged.

“Which means he isn’t ready and even you know it,” she deadpanned. “How much longer are you going to keep this up?”

“As long as it takes,” Steve replied at once.

“If he’s better then you don’t need to be here all the time. Maybe that’s why he isn’t getting better faster,” she suggested. “I’m not saying you’re making it worse, but sometimes we smother people without knowing we’re doing it.”

“Speaking from personal experience?” Steve asked, raising an eyebrow.

“No, but –”

“I know I can be of help to Tony, right now, right here. When that’s no longer a fact I’ll re-evaluate the situation.”

Carol nodded stiffly. “Alright. I guess that’s fair.”

Steve went back to making his sandwiches then put them on two plates. “Have you seen Tony?” he asked.

“He’s at the pool with the others. You should join us,” she invited him along and Steve picked up the food and followed her out. When they got there, Clint and Thor were laughing about something at the edge of the pool while Jan floated around on top of some kind of pool lounge.

He couldn’t see Tony anywhere.

Setting the plates down on a table that stood in the shade of a parasol, Steve took another look around but still couldn’t locate Tony anywhere. “Where’s Tony?” he finally asked.

“Somewhere in there,” Clint pointed at the water. “Probably hiding away after his spectacular fall from the board.”

Steve’s eyes took in the diving board for a fraction of a second before he looked at the water in front of it. With the sun and rippling water, it was hard to be sure if the shadow he thought he saw was a body or just his imagination. “How long has he been under?” Steve asked, voice louder as he began moving towards the pool.

“Not that long. Chill,” Clint told him, but his demeanor was cracking a bit and he shifted to look at where Tony must have disappeared. “He can swim, right?”

Tony could swim, Steve knew that much, but whether he was able to…

He didn’t think, diving into the water instead, not bothering to strip his clothes. Once under the surface he spotted Tony at once, and there was no mistaking the desperate, slightly panicked expression on his face. He wasn’t moving, wasn’t even trying to kick up, just floating there, his feet just outside the reach of the pool’s bottom.

Steve swam over and grabbed at Tony’s arm; he felt Tony tense at the touch before he hoisted them both up. He heard Tony’s loud inhale of air as soon as they broke the surface. Clint and Thor were no longer laughing. Without thinking about it, Steve wrapped an arm around Tony and swam to the nearest edge of the pool, pushing Tony to the tiled edge, out of harm’s way. “What were you thinking?” Steve asked, fighting to keep his voice down.

Tony coughed and looked at him, expression dark, face pale. “I was swimming.”

“It looked like drowning,” Steve argued.

“I didn’t need you to go all Baywatch on me,” the brunette argued, trying to sit up. Steve could see he was shaking.

“Is he okay?” Clint asked carefully.

“No, he isn’t!” Steve shouted at him, then turned his attention back to Tony. “Why would you even try to jump?”

Tony set his jaw. His eyes darkened, and Steve was instantly back to their first days together, Tony fighting him every step of the way, hurt and unable to cope with his new limitations. He was losing all the progress they had made, in this very moment, and Steve had no idea how to fix that.

“I’m fine,” Tony finally snapped at him and moved to get up, but his foot slipped, landing him back on his ass. Someone might have thought it was just the wet tile, but Steve knew better.

Steve started pulling himself out of the pool. “Let me –”

“I said I’m fine, Rogers.”

Hours ago, they had been perfectly in synch, but Steve knew he was losing Tony right now, perhaps for good. The problem was, there was no way Tony was getting out of this and saving face. He couldn’t keep sitting here on the edge of the pool until he regained enough control to get up and go inside. If Steve didn’t help him, Tony would be backed even further into a corner, and he must have realized that, too, because his expression shut down and he refused to look at anyone.

“Uh,” Jan started, paddling closer on her mattress. “I’m getting a feeling that something serious is going on.”

“It’s okay, Jan,” Steve dropped his voice, searching for smoothness instead of the razor-sharp edge he wanted to give them for intruding on his and Tony’s attempt to get Tony better. “Maybe you guys should go start that feast Thor mentioned.”

“It would seem something else is afoot,” Thor started.

“Let’s just do as the man says, okay?” Clint said, probably not wanting Steve to snap at him for a second time; the archer was smart and must have realized letting Tony into the pool had been a mistake.

“Are you guys going to be okay out here?” Jan asked, moving to the edge and pulling herself out of the pool.

“Yeah,” Steve nodded and watched them all slowly move back into the house. They would probably go change in the guest house, which left them with a small window to get Tony to his room. “Let’s move,” Steve decided.

Tony gave him a mulish look, as if he hadn’t yet forgiven Steve. The blond pulled himself rest of the way out of the pool, though, stood up, and then offered Tony his hands. Tony made his decision in two seconds, grabbing onto Steve hands and allowing himself to be hoisted to his feet.

Whether it was the near-drowning or something else, it had definitely drained Tony, and Steve ended up supporting almost all his weight to the door. “JARVIS,” Steve spoke up, listening carefully, “where are the other Avengers?”

“They have gone to the guest house to change before dinner preparations, Captain,” the AI replied. “All of them are expressing concern over Mr. Stark’s condition.”

“Great,” Tony muttered, then sagged a bit in Steve’s hold. “Okay, I think you’ll have to carry me,” he confessed, which didn’t happen often. “I can’t really feel my legs right now.”

Steve didn’t wait for him to go on, picking him up and padding through the house, getting to Tony’s room without seeing or hearing another soul. He sat Tony down on the bed where the man lay back like a dead fish, breathing deeply. Steve knew Tony probably wanted to be alone right now but it didn’t feel like the right thing to do, knowing that he was too tired to move on his own.

“Leave,” Tony told him after a while.

“I would rather not,” Steve confessed.

“You’re dripping all over my floor,” Tony pointed out, as if that were why.

“I’m sorry I snapped at Clint like that,” Steve said quickly. “I should have chosen my words better instead of –”

“What, implying that I’m a fucking mess?” Tony interrupted him, voice cracking at the end, and Steve knew Tony was close to tears before he even looked at his face.

“It will get better,” Steve promised him, like so often before.

Tony’s lips trembled and he chose to say nothing, fighting not to cry in front of him. Steve knew it ate at Tony, whenever he did, but Steve didn’t want to leave him alone like this.

“Let me help you,” Steve pleaded.

“You can’t,” Tony told him, first tears escaping his eyes. “You can’t do a damn thing, Rogers. You can’t fix me.”

“No, but you can –”

“You should have let me drown,” Tony said suddenly. It didn’t look like he meant it, not really – not when Steve had seen him under water, close to panicking before he reached Tony’s arm. The fact that Tony said it out loud, though, spoke volumes of the lingering darkness in Tony’s psyche that surfaced every now and then.

There were a million things to say to that, for sure, but Steve couldn’t think of a single one. Later, certainly, he would figure it out, but right now he moved onto the bed and gathered Tony into his arms, holding onto him tightly. “Never,” he whispered into Tony’s wet hair and listened as Tony’s shaky breathes grew and then diminished again against the wet material of his shirt.

By the time Steve loosened his hold on Tony, the other man had fallen asleep. Knowing Tony needed the rest, he carefully moved him to a better position on the bed, then covered him with the sheet. He didn’t remove his wet shorts, not wanting to touch Tony like that without his knowledge, and slowly moved out of the room. “Let me know when he wakes up,” he called out and went to his own room.

“Of course, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS replied.

Steve went to change again, then headed out to the kitchen, knowing he had to face his team sooner rather than later. When he got there, the four Avengers were gathered in the kitchen but not yet working on the dinner. Perhaps they didn’t feel at home in the strange kitchen or sensed that they needed to have a talk with Steve and Tony about what had happened at the pool.

“Where’s Tony?” Jan asked when they noticed Steve.

“Asleep,” he replied simply. He didn’t want to elaborate and knew Tony wouldn’t want him to, either.

“I think it’s time we got some real answers,” Clint spoke up next. “What’s going on with him?”

“Tony is recovering from a brain injury,” Steve stated flatly. “In case you forgot, he got hurt in battle.”

“We haven’t forgotten,” Jan reassured him. “It’s just that, he looked fine. We thought that by now…”

“His injury is of a deceptive kind,” Thor murmured.

“He’s a human being,” Steve snapped. “These things take time. They also take finesse, determination and a lot of effort.”

“We’re not the enemy,” Carol snapped back at him. “We’re here to support you, but instead you’re acting like we’re the problem.”

Steve felt guilty, but not by much. He had to put Tony first. His actions – his failure in battle – had led them here, and whether it was his responsibility or not, it was the right thing to do to help Tony if he could. “Tony didn’t handle his shortcomings well, even before this,” he explained. “Right now it’s all amplified, and any small thing can set him off. Some days are better than others. I’m sure he would love to have you here, but this isn’t the right time.”

“For you or for him?” Clint asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “I get it that you feel like you put him in that hospital bed, but you’re part of this team, too, and with Tony out of the picture, you’re our leader.”

Steve was glad he didn’t have his shield on him because he might have smashed Clint’s teeth in with it. “I’ll be there if I’m needed,” he told him as he had told them all before. “If the Avengers need Captain America, I’ll be there. Until then, I know where my place is.”

“Do you?” Clint challenged.

“Drop it,” Carol advised him. “We pretty much had that discussion already. It didn’t lead anywhere.”

Steve gave her a quick look, uncertain how to take her comment.

“Let us help you – both of you,” Jan asked, changing and flying over. “You look so tired, Steve. When was the last time you slept?”

“Last night,” Steve told her. “I’m fine. Today has just been… a very long day,” he admitted. He didn’t clarify that the day had actually been progressing rather nicely until the four of them arrived, because that would just put more bad blood between them all.

“So, what do you want us to do? Leave?” Clint asked. “And if that’s what Stark wants, why can’t he just come out and say so? I know he has the balls to do it.”

“What he used to do doesn’t matter right now,” Steve said, weary of this conversation. “Right now I think it’s best if you –”

“Pardon me, Avengers,” JARVIS cut them off. “There is an incoming distress call from the Avengers Mansion. Dr. Doom is attacking the city, the Fantastic Four are unreachable at present time and the attack is quite wide-spread. The Black Panther is requesting hat you head back at once – including you, Captain.”

Steve knew T’Challa wouldn’t ask him to join the ranks if it wasn’t necessary. The man wasn’t here now, which was either coincidental or purposeful, and Steve imagined the Panther knew Tony needed space more than support from his team, no matter how well-meaning.

“We’re on our way,” Carol responded and looked at the others. “Get your stuff. We’re taking off in ten minutes.” She looked at Steve next. “It’s your call, but I think we’ll need you on this one.”

Steve sighed and nodded. “Ten minutes,” he replied and turned to go to his room, grabbing his gear, then went to see Tony. The other man was still asleep, just as Steve had left him, and he didn’t have the heart to wake him up. “JARVIS, when Tony wakes up, tell him I had to go.”

“Of course, Captain.”

“Tell him I’m… I’ll come back, as soon as I can,” he added.

“Very well.”

“Also, tell Ms. Potts that I had to leave. I think it would be best if she stayed here until this thing with Doom gets sorted out,” Steve decided.

“Be at ease, Captain: Mr. Stark will be looked after while you are gone. Best of luck in battle.”

“Thanks,” Steve replied dryly, then brushed his fingers carefully through Tony’s drying locks before he left, closing the door silently behind him.

The others were already in the Quinjet when Steve arrived, Jan sighing at her seat by the window. “I was really looking forward to lying in the sun all day,” she complained.

“Another time,” Carol replied, then caught Steve’s eyes quickly before closing the ramp and starting the engines. “Buckle up. We’re flying home at top speed. Get ready for battle when we land.”

Steve wondered what they needed him for, with both Carol and T’Challa present.

Battle was different than giving orders outside it, though, and he sat down for the take-off, hand clutching the edge of his shield tightly.

Tony would understand he had to go.

It didn’t mean Steve had to feel good about it.

- - -

When Tony woke up, the house was silent. While Steve was a quiet individual, Tony could tell when he was around. He wasn’t having that feeling anymore and sat up fast, wondering what was wrong.

“Sir,” JARVIS started.

“Where is everyone?” Tony asked.

“Captain Rogers joined the other Avengers to battle Dr. Doom in New York City. The Captain left me with instructions to tell you –”

“They called Steve back to fight?” Tony frowned, dismissing whatever Steve had told his AI to tell him. “How bad is it?”

“It would seem the Avengers are holding their own for the time being, but the level of destruction is higher than usual.”

Tony reached over to open a bedside drawer and found one of his many tablets inside. Finding several news clips, YouTube videos and real-time feeds wasn’t hard, and JARVIS’ evaluation had been correct: the battlefield was too wide-spread to be easily contained, the Avengers too thinly spread.

Just because they were one man short didn’t necessarily mean anything, but Tony could immediately see a lot of places where he could be making a difference.

“Captain Rogers said he would return once the battle was over,” JARVIS informed him, no doubt relaying the message he had already tried to deliver once.

“No need,” Tony decided and shut down the tablet then moved to the edge of the bed and stood up so quickly he barely remembered to worry about balance issues or weakness. He went to the wardrobe, opened a specific door and pulled out one of the undersuits he wore with his armor.

“Sir,” JARVIS started again.

“Prep the armor,” Tony ordered. JARVIS would know which one.

“Is this a good idea?” the AI dared to ask as Tony wrestled into the undersuit, managed to zip it up then set out towards the workshop.

“That’s for both of us to find out,” Tony said, feeling less shaky than usual as he reached the armory section of his workshop and watched the armor power up. Perhaps it was the adrenaline or he was moving too fast for his brain to catch up. Whatever the reason, it helped him to step into the armor and activate the pre-flight sequence. “Plan the fastest route to New York. Keep me posted on the battle.”

“Preparing for supersonic acceleration once we reach the proper altitude,” JARVIS replied and Tony started the thrusters just as the ceiling opened up above him to let the armor take off. He felt the familiar tremble of the suit that didn’t calm him as much as it used to, and Tony knew he was tenser than he should have been as he aimed for the proper trajectory. JARVIS adjusted the angle, the flaps, and then the thrusters really got to work, boosting him forward once they had a clear flight pattern ahead of them.

It took Tony a little over an hour to reach the other side of the continent and to say his teeth felt like falling off when he slowed down dozens of miles outside New York City was an understatement. His jaw was cramping, not to mention several other body parts, and while he had flown longer distances, he had never been this uneasy during those times. He had been continuously aware of how any small movement could drop him out of the sky – just as he knew that for his own safety, JARVIS would keep him from doing just that. The knowledge, however, was enough to make him want for extra air once he dropped below the clouds and arched towards the signs of battle, but he had no time to take a steadying breath.

“Sir, shall I announce your arrival to the other Avengers?”

“Not yet,” Tony replied – just in case he needed that breather after all. He didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up, especially his own, but he had come here to join the others in a fight and by God he would get there, one way or another.

As he moved lower between the buildings, allowing JARVIS to do most of the guiding through spaces that were too narrow to navigate at his current speed without some extra help, Tony soon realized he would have to join the battle much sooner than he had anticipated: a mass that had to be a mangled Doombot came flying up from street level, almost colliding with him. JARVIS made a quick evasive move and spun them lower, just so that Tony could jerk to the side as another similar bundle of metal came flying up.

“Hey!” he called out angrily. “Way to greet the cavalry.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” the Hulk growled at him – just as he punched in another Doombot, stomped on it, then crunched it into a ball between the pair of his mighty green hands and tossed the remnants of the Doombot at another three trying to shoot him down.

“Thanks for the welcome,” Tony muttered to himself.

The green beast looked up although Tony hadn’t connected himself to the Avengers’ comm system just yet. “There are Doombots for you to blast,” the Hulk informed him then. “These are mine,” he pointed at the advancing force.

“Got it,” Tony replied and flew off, finally logging onto the Avengers’ frequency – his ears immediately filled with the usual battle chatter, from commentary to cries of pain and curses of anger from the various members of the team. It took him a while to orient himself to it, to not become overwhelmed – seriously, how long had he been out of the line of fire? – and Tony rounded a couple buildings to end up in the middle of a shooting gallery between Ms. Marvel, the Wasp, Yellowjacket and what looked like an almost overwhelming amount of Doombots.

“Tony!” Jan called out instantly, almost getting shot as she waved at him, then froze. “What are you doing here?”

“Helping you guys out,” Tony replied then took full control of the armor, turned towards the Doombots and fired. He eliminated a dozen of them at once, but the rest of them returned fire, focusing on him, and the blasts threw him back and to the ground, sending him into an ungraceful roll.

“Tony, is that you?” Steve’s voice appeared in his ears.

“Reporting for duty, Cap,” Tony groaned as he tried to stand up. He got blasted in the hip by one of the robots, though, which upset his balance. Another blast hit him in the shoulder and it may have been his imagination or his arm was getting a little numb.

“Get out of the way!” Yellowjacket shouted at him, moving closer. “On the other hand, stay right there: you make a good target for them, giving the rest of us time to shoot them down.”

“Hank!” Jan snapped at him. “Tony, do you need help?”

“I’m fine,” Tony growled, pushing himself up – only to get shot right in the face by one of the robots and for a moment he saw nothing at all, everything going dark. Whether it was the HUD or his brain, he didn’t know, but the next time he blinked and was actually aware of his surroundings, he was on his back, Wasp hovering above him, shooting her stingers at something or someone Tony could not see.

“Cap’s on his way,” Jan noted as Tony lifted his head.

“I’m fine,” Tony told her. “The shot overloaded my system for a bit,” he added, although he wasn’t sure.

Jan gave him a quick look as if she doubted his words, then kept zapping the enemies.

“Where did Doom find all these robots, anyway?” Tony asked, sitting up and using his somewhat steady position to fire on the enemy with one hand. The Doombots were easy pickings for him, especially when Ms. Marvel was moving in for the kill, distracting them from anything else.

“We don’t know, and there’s been no sign of Doom,” Jan said unhappily. “For all we know, these things are not even his!”

“Oh, they’re his,” Clint’s voice joined them over the radio. “Maybe he’s just pissed because the Fantastic Four are out of town?”

“Such open violence is not his style,” T’Challa joined the conversation.

“He’s attacked the rest of the world who knows how many times,” Clint argued. “Frankly, I don’t care why he’s doing it this time. Let’s just take his toys down and ask questions later.”

Tony supposed it was a good enough plan and started getting back to his feet. His body felt slow and sluggish, the armor weighing him down, and in a few seconds he knew he wasn’t going to get onto his feet and stay there. However, remaining on the ground wasn’t an option in front of his team, the enemy and any onlookers. Tony disengaged his audio from the team communications for a moment. “JARVIS, partial control. Help me to my feet.”

Feeling the armor move without his direct command was an odd sensation, as if being tugged into position by someone. Tony held back any hisses and sounds, accepting the AI’s maneuvers, and soon found himself standing up as if nothing at all was wrong.

“All right, sir?” JARVIS asked.

“Don’t let me fall again,” Tony ordered, because he knew JARVIS could do that.

“Perhaps if you got off the battlefield –”

“We’re staying here to fight, and that’s final,” Tony ordered and turned to aim at the Doombots. He didn’t worry about standing and it felt almost normal for a moment: he was back where he belonged, with his team, and he even gave a few orders for the others to re-position themselves. No one argued and Tony figured he had things under control.

“Captain Rogers is at your six, sir,” JARVIS informed him suddenly, and Tony turned his head just in time to see Steve’s lips twitch in an odd way, like he was displeased somehow.

“We’re winning, in case you didn’t notice,” Tony offered to him over the comm. The tide had turned, Thor and the Hulk pushing in, crowing the Doombots towards the area where Tony and the others were standing their ground.

“I didn’t say anything,” Steve replied.

“With that face, you didn’t have to.”

Steve’s expression hardened and he moved past Tony to lead their team the rest of the way to victory. At some point Tony found himself just standing there, watching the fight come to a close, observing how far they had all come as a team – and how easily Iron Man could be dropped from the equation.

- - -

The battle was hard-fought by any measure. Dr. Doom didn’t show his face once and when the robots were finally rendered inoperable, several city blocks looked like a war zone. It could have been worse, but Steve was discontent and led his worn-out team back to the Avengers Mansion.

Tony joined them although he went his separate way once the Quinjets landed.

“That could have gone better,” Clint decided once he stepped out. He was bruised all over, out of arrows and just as tired as the next person.

Even the Hulk simply grunted and stomped off in the direction of the elevator. Steve wondered if there would be any food left in the kitchen once he got there.

“Captain,” T’Challa spoke up from behind him, “a word, if you will.”

“Assembly Hall,” Steve decided and held back a sigh. He was tired and needed a shower – perhaps even some bandages before the serum took care of his injuries.

Half the team ended up following him and the Black Panther and Steve felt like this was going to be some kind of intervention.

“What’s this about?” Steve asked, wondering if this was some kind of payback for how he had acted in Malibu before the call came in about the attack.

“We’ve all figured out Tony isn’t in perfect shape,” Carol started.

“He’s still on the mend,” Jan added quickly.

“He joined us in battle today, against expectations,” T’Challa cut in before anyone else could offer their side of the story. “He did not perform as well as could have been expected.”

“Tony did okay,” Jan defended him – the way she always defended whoever needed defending.

“You mean he did okay playing possum?” Yellowjacket raised an eyebrow.

“Cut the act, Hank,” Jan snapped and morphed back to her human size, stabbing a finger at Yellowjacket’s chest. “Tony’s our friend – your friend, as well as mine. We’re all worried about him and just because you don’t want to say that out loud doesn’t mean you can make comments like that.”

Yellowjacket look chastened, whereas Clint simply pulled back his cowl and scowled at everyone collectively. “He’s right, though,” the archer said. “Stark wasn’t ready to join the battle today.”

“He helped us to defeat the enemy,” Vision spoke up, startling most people because no one had seen him follow them into the room. For someone who could phase through solid surfaces, walking in was never a problem. “However, I noticed that he had some difficulty controlling himself and his armor.”

Steve tensed up more and more as he listened to them. “What’s the point of this discussion?”

“You should bench him until he’s fit for combat,” Clint said at once.

“How can you say that?” Jan whirled at the archer. “Tony put this team together. He’s funded and supported us from the beginning – led us for most of the time.”

“Which means he should know when to step down!” Clint argued right back. “Today, we didn’t need an extra person whose back to watch.”

“I think he did okay,” Carol noted, “given his condition.”

“If he returns too soon, there is a risk of further injury,” T’Challa noted, as patient and calm as ever.

Steve, however, was losing his own cool. “Enough!” he barked. “You think I am unaware of all this? You think I haven’t spent the last month watching him struggle with the most basic things? I was the one who convinced him to get back in the suit in the first place. I’m not sure if he would have done so on his own – not even to come to our aid in battle.” He looked at his team, noting with some pleasure that none of them looked like they wanted to argue with him at this point. “He’s not fit for battle, we all know that. Some days I don’t know if he’ll ever be, but I’m not giving up on him – just like he never gave up on any of us on our bad days. You should all remember that.”

Most of the Avengers wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“Good to know your thoughts on the matter,” Tony’s voice suddenly rose from the doorway and Steve actually jumped at it, noticing him standing there, still in full armor. Iron Man’s arms were crossed over his chest, the way the armor leaned against the doorframe almost casual, but Steve could tell it was all an act.

“Tony,” he started.

“What?” the other man snapped, stepping away from the frame. His posture was rigid – too rigid to be natural, which reminded Steve of Vision’s words about Tony’s precarious control during the battle. “Are you going to kiss it better?” Tony’s words were hurtful, meaning that whatever he had overheard had cut him deep. “Are you going to tell me that tomorrow’s going to be different – because you believe it?”

“No,” Steve replied, taken aback by Tony’s anger, especially with the others in the room. “We all know the odds –”

“Do we?” Tony hissed at him. “Because I’m not sure we’re on the same page here, Cap.”

Steve drew a careful breath. “I need to have a word with Iron Man,” he told the rest of the team.

“No, you don’t,” Tony said before the others could take a step to leave. “We’re done,” he snapped and turned, leaving the room.

“Awkward,” Hank Pym whispered, drawing back his uniform’s cowl. His eyes moved to Steve’s face. “Maybe you should leave him for a bit, until he cools off.”

It wasn’t bad advice. Steve had followed that guideline in the long weeks when Tony struggled and he feared they were back to square one after today. All the things they had accomplished – and almost lost – in Malibu seemed a world away now. The closeness they had shared, so briefly… Steve ached to get back there, to know that Tony trusted him – trusted his judgment – and that they were in a place where Tony could actually get better. All this anger was going to send the injured man into a downward spiral and it would be so much harder to get out of it.

Steve picked up his shield and marched out past his team, trusting them to know he wasn’t in a mood to continue their discussion. He went up to his room, tore off his uniform and got into the shower, allowing the water to wash away the dirt and sweat on his skin, but it did little to ease his conscience.

Eventually he turned off the water and stepped out, not feeling particularly refreshed, his mind constantly jumping back to his and Tony’s bath together, the kisses in the gym…

He had to make things right with Tony.

Dressing hastily, he walked to Tony’s door. He didn’t encounter anyone else on his way there, for which he was glad, and knocked on the door several times. Counting the seconds, he tried to measure an appropriate amount of time to pass before he called out: “Tony? I need to talk to you. May I come in?”

There was no answer.

Pressing his eyes shut, Steve allowed his forehead to fall forward, hard, against the wooden surface.

“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS’ voice was suddenly there, in the hallway, muted and almost private. “Mr. Stark is still in the armory. He is… having a difficult time getting to his room.”

Steve stepped back from the door immediately, turning towards the nearest stairwell that led downstairs.

“He has no desire to see you, however,” JARVIS went on.

“I don’t care: if he needs my help, I’ll be there.” He knew it might make it worse, but they could both swallow their pride for a bit to get Tony into a shower, into a bed, and possibly get some food into him. After they had both rested, Steve could reason with him – and apologize for how much he had revealed to their team. It wasn’t Steve’s business to tell the Avengers whether Tony was fit to fight or not – or why that was. Not that he had said too much, but Tony was feeling betrayed right now and it wasn’t entirely without reason.

He was down in the armory in a few short minutes. The doors were firmly locked but Steve glanced at one of the many discreet cameras, knowing JARVIS knew he was there, and after another three seconds the doors unlocked to admit him.

Tony swore from somewhere in the dim room. “What the hell, JARVIS?!”

“Sir, if you would just let Captain Rogers help you up to your room –”

“I don’t need his help!”

“On the contrary –”

“Shut up!” Tony yelled at the AI and Steve moved towards the sound, steeling himself against whatever he would find.

Tony was on the floor, by the disassembly unit, and once he caught sight of Steve he grabbed one of the armor pieces next to him and hurled it at him. Steve easily side-stepped the object, glad that Tony had that much fight left in him, but that was just about it: Tony sagged a little, as if completely drained, and had to place one hand on the floor to keep himself upright. “Get out, Rogers,” he growled.

“I’ll get out once you’re in your room,” Steve promised. “Until then, let me help you.”

“Why?” Tony asked him, narrowing his eyes. “So you can bitch and moan about it to the others?”

“I wasn’t bitching, moaning or complaining,” Steve snapped at him, resisting the urge to just lift Tony off the floor by the neck of his undersuit. “I’m exhausted from the battle, worried about you flying in, and frankly, I don’t think being concerned about your welfare is wrong.” He halted in front of Tony, trying to find the brown eyes with his own although Tony resolutely avoided his gaze. “Nothing’s changed,” Steve reassured him. “I’m here –”

“You’re exactly where you should be,” Tony agreed, finally looking at him. “Leading the team. I don’t know why I kept you from it for so long.”

Steve sighed. “You didn’t keep me; I chose to stay with you in Malibu.”

“Maybe that’s the problem,” Tony pondered. “I should have made you leave sooner.”

“I thought we had this talk, once or twice,” Steve reminded him. “The last one, if I recall correctly, ended rather pleasantly.”

That was the wrong thing to say, evidently, because Tony’s face tightened. He looked ready to punch Steve, had he been able to reach the taller man from his position. “That’s how you’re gonna play it?” Tony growled. “That’s your excuse for everything? You finally got comfortable and that’s a reason for you to cozy up to me in Malibu instead of being here, where you should be, leading the Avengers?”

Steve tried very hard not to throw a retort back at him. “You’re tired. Let me help you to your room.”

“JARVIS will help me there,” Tony snapped.

“How, exactly?”

“If nothing else works, I’ll get back in the suit and he’ll walk me there,” Tony spat.

Steve guessed that might work but he didn’t say so. “Stop being stubborn. We’ve been through this often enough and I’m tired of the act.”

“Oh, that’s rich –”

“Either you get up,” Steve finally snapped, leaning forward to grab Tony by the neck of his undersuit, “or I help you up. And since we both know the first option isn’t going to work out, how about you shut it and let me do my job?”

“Your job?” Tony’s hand shot up, trying to dislodge Steve’s hold, but between his weariness and Steve’s super-strong hold, he was bound to fail. “How about you do your job and get back to leading the team! I’ll manage on my own. I’m done with your charity.”

“Fuck you, Tony.”

“Oh, you wish,” the other man laughed, suddenly, then stopped mid-breath, glaring at him. “Is that what you want, Cap? Huh? More than a warm hand and a kiss on the cheek?”

Steve debated punching him unconscious just to make things easier for himself. “This has nothing to do with that.”

“After the kiss, I’m not buying that,” Tony told him. “Let go of me now or I’ll have JARVIS kick you out of the room.”

“Sir, please –”

“Deploy the armor,” Tony ordered.

Steve heard pieces moving; he knew JARVIS could control an armor well enough without Tony in it, and without his shield or uniform he was far more vulnerable than usual. Not that it would stop him from standing his ground.

“Captain, it isn’t worth it. I shall see to it that Mr. Stark gets… wherever he wants to go,” the AI tried to negotiate.

Steve let go of Tony, stepping back. “We aren’t done,” he told the brunette.

“Whatever,” Tony huffed and looked away, waiting for him to leave.

Steve wished he could have slammed the door on his way out, instead of hearing the soft hiss as it closed behind him.

- - -

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