Del Rion (del_rion) wrote,
Del Rion

Coping Mechanism (3/3)

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- - -

Tony slept on a couch in his workshop after one of the armors controlled by JARVIS helped him there. He had more bruises on him after the ordeal than the cross-country flight and the fight because he kept tripping but refused to let the armor just carry him. The couch was also uncomfortable – or maybe it was something else, tugging at his subconscious and turning it into a physical ache.

He wished he hadn’t argued with Steve, but Tony had been disappointed in himself after the battle and hearing the team talking about him… There had been no reason to go in there, to show them he had overheard them. Steve might have figured it out eventually and Tony may have let him kiss it better because he would have loved that…

Instead they had fought, perhaps worse than ever, and Tony felt like he had just salted the earth with lies and hurt that should have never been directed at Steve. The failure was Tony’s – failure to see that he should have never left Malibu to try and help the Avengers, making himself a liability in battle. He hadn’t been helpless, far from it, but anyone who had fought with Tony for as long as the other Avengers could tell the difference.

What had he thought he would accomplish by coming here? Had he actually thought it would end spectacularly well and that he would be back to kicking super-villain ass with the others?

Most of all, what had he thought would happen to his and Steve’s fragile rapport once they came back to New York? It had no place here, as he was beginning to realize; it didn’t feel right.

JARVIS had kept blissfully quiet once Tony had settled on the couch. It was clear the AI disapproved of Tony’s choices and the argument with Steve, which was saying a lot. Then again, JARVIS didn’t have the burden of all the anguish and emotions that kept balling up and rolling around painfully in Tony’s chest and he wished he could just cut it all out.

Perhaps if he thought of all this as an equation and with perfect clarity… Facts didn’t lie, after all; they might hurt, if the truth behind them didn’t coincide with what one wanted, but they didn’t lie.

It was early the next morning when a faint knocking sound came from the door of the workshop and JARVIS let whoever it was inside without asking for Tony’s approval – which meant it could be one of very few people and most of those people were on the other side of the continent right now – where Tony should be, too, as he had come to realize as he analytically went over every little detail.

Steve stepped in, dressed in the same clothes as when he last came to see Tony. His expression was guarded, but he didn’t appear angry. He seemed pleased to find Tony on the couch instead of the floor and he walked towards it, hand reaching out to grab a chair on his way over.

“Don’t bother,” Tony told him. “I actually wanted to talk to you, but it won’t take long.”

Steve frowned, nodded, and walked the rest of the way to the couch. “What’s on your mind?” he asked.

Tony looked up at him and tried to smile. “I’ve been thinking… I was going to ask you to take me back to Malibu,” he started.

Steve nodded again, as if he agreed.

“Then I realized your place is here. The team needs you, and the team is here, not in Malibu.”

“I’ll be –”

“Where you should be – where you’re needed – and that’s here. So, I’m going back to Malibu, today, and you’re not coming with me.”

Steve’s face hardened. “You think you can just keep me away?”

“Bar you from my own home? Yeah, I’m pretty sure I can,” Tony informed him, and whether it was his flat tone or confident wording that made Steve hesitate, Tony wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter. “You’ve done enough for me. It’s time you got back here, to what’s more important; protecting the world. I can take it from here on my own.”

“Don’t do this,” Steve pleaded. “You know you’re far from okay.”

“But at the same time I’m so much better than when this started,” Tony pointed out and moved to sit up on the couch, taking it slow so that he didn’t sag back down. “This choice is mine, not yours. Do the right thing and focus on what’s important.”

Steve had started out as a scrawny, unhealthy kid; he had been through the horrors of war, slept trapped in the ice for decades and had ever since been in mortal danger and almost seen the world end several times. Through it all, Tony hadn’t seen him as scared or upset as he appeared to be now, standing there in front of him. It was as if someone had finally taken Captain America down. “Is anything I say going to change your mind?” he asked, voice tight.

Tony shook his head. “No.”

The nod that followed his answer looked painful. Steve turned and walked out without another word.

Tony had never seen him cry but he was glad Steve left the workshop because he had a feeling he might have witnessed just that if the other man had lingered; it may have broken Tony’s resolve and he wanted to be able to do this. Hurting Steve’s feelings wasn’t what he had wanted to do, but he saw that it was necessary in order to pry himself free of the other man and to give the Avengers back one of their most important members.

With a sigh, Tony sagged down on the couch.

“Are you going to carry out your plan to head back to Malibu today, sir?” JARVIS asked.

“Yeah,” Tony told the AI. “Let Pepper know.” She had already tried contacting Tony several times, at horrible hours no less, and it was obvious she was worried. It was likely she had seen Iron Man on the battlefield in the news and Tony hoped she couldn’t tell exactly how bad it had been.

Tony lay there for a bit, resting, then decided he had mustered all the energy he could. He was hungry, though, and since the flight back to Malibu would take a while, he guessed he had better get something to eat before he departed.

Lifting himself to his feet happened easily enough and he went to the elevator, riding it up to the main floor. The Mansion was uncharacteristically quiet and Tony wondered if Steve’s little outburst had driven a wedge between him and the team. Hopefully not, but Tony was certain the tension would ease up once he was out of the picture.

He managed a couple corridors before he suddenly felt his feet starting to drag, each step giving him more trouble. Gritting his teeth, he counted the distance between himself and the kitchen. Perhaps he should have put the suit on, but it was too late to turn back now.

Tony was one hallway away from the kitchen when it felt like someone stuck a needle in his spine, full of local anesthetic, and his fingers scraped the wallpaper as he fell down. All he could do was stare at his legs, which were still there, and resist the desire to bang his head against the wall – which probably would have only made matters worse, considering the origin of his problems.

“Taking a break?” a voice asked, and T’Challa’s form appeared from a shadowy corner. As was his custom, he was in his Black Panther uniform even when off-duty, and Tony glared up at him and his nonchalant tone.

“Yeah. Got a problem with that?”

“None at all,” the man replied but didn’t move on.

“Are you particularly fond of this corridor?” Tony asked after a bit.

“Not particularly.”

“Then keep moving.”

The head cocked, as if T’Challa were debating his answer. “There is nothing wrong with asking for help when you truly need it.”

“I’m not asking for help,” Tony informed him. “Don’t need it.”

“I see.”

“Go see it somewhere else,” Tony suggested bitingly.

He heard the other man’s sigh – and T’Challa never let out a sound that wasn’t meant to be heard by someone. “Is this what the Captain had to deal with during his stay with you?”

“Maybe. Good for him, though, that he’s not coming back to Malibu with me.” He could sense the Panther’s raised eyebrow even when he didn’t see it. “Cap’s going to stay here with you,” Tony confirmed, in case the message wasn’t clear enough.

“Was that his choice?”

“He’ll come to agree with it, eventually.”

“Steve Rogers is a hard man to convince of things he doesn’t want to accept. In his heart he believes he must help you – and if you deny him that, it will bode ill for both of you.”

“Spare me the lecture. He’ll get over it and be happier for it.” Tony was certain it wouldn’t take too long before Steve was happy to be back here. A selfish, self-centered part of him hoped it wouldn’t be instantaneous, however – the same part that wished Steve would have fought him tooth and nail to be allowed to return to Malibu with him. Good thing that part of him was miniscule because Tony couldn’t afford that kind of thinking at this point; he had to think of what was best for the team, and keeping Steve away from the Avengers wasn’t good for anyone, least of all the safety of the world the next time it was threatened. They had all seen how quickly things could change.

T’Challa took a while mulling it over, then took a step forward and offered one hand for Tony to take. “I shall help you find your feet.”

Tony smacked the offered hand away. “No thanks. Leave me alone,” he ordered. “The next time you come prowling down this hallway, I’ll be gone.”

“And how are you going to achieve that?” the Panther asked with casual interest.

“Don’t know yet. Crawling works better than you’d think,” Tony muttered.

T’Challa cocked his head – then looked down the hallway and took a step away from Tony. “Captain,” he greeted, and sure enough, Steve came striding down to them, face set, shoulders squared. He looked like he was going into battle but he wasn’t wearing his uniform or carrying his shield.

“I’ve got this,” Steve said, and before Tony could even try fending him off, Steve had one arm beneath Tony’s and was lifting him up. “Can you stand?” he asked, voice flat, not giving Tony pity or anything else for that matter.

“No,” Tony replied, voice dropping dangerously low to a quivering whisper. He still couldn’t feel either of his legs.

Steve nodded and crouched a bit lower, moving one arm beneath Tony’s legs and picked him up.

Tony didn’t know where to look, mortified and angry, yet strangely relieved.

“Where were you going?” Steve asked.

“The kitchen,” Tony admitted. “To grab some food before I leave.”

Another nod, Steve’s chin brushing his hair. “Where were you headed?” he asked T’Challa.

“My destination happens to be the same as his, but I can wait,” the Wakandan replied.

“Nonsense,” Steve responded briskly. “I’ll fix us all something to eat.” And then he started walking, leaving T’Challa to trail behind them, and Tony rested his face against Steve’s shoulder, one hand curling at his chest, feeling the heat coming through his t-shirt.

In the kitchen, Steve measured the chairs with his gaze for a bit but none of them appeared to satisfy him.

“Just put me down,” Tony ordered, and Steve carefully placed him on top of one stool, making sure Tony was steady before he let go of him entirely. Tony sat there, tense in order to not slip off the chair, then watched as T’Challa joined them, pushing back his cowl and taking a seat close to Tony, but not too close to crowd him.

Steve pulled ingredients out of the fridge, preparing an omelet by the looks of it. He also found berries in the freezer and put them in a blender with some milk, turning it on to make a smoothie.

Tony drummed his fingers against the countertop, acutely aware of how T’Challa was studying the interaction without obviously staring. The Panther never missed anything, though – not the way Steve poured the smoothie into a sturdy glass, found a straw and moved it over to Tony’s side of the table, or how Steve kept a constant watch of Tony while he prepped the omelet and then dished it out, dividing Tony’s portion into bite-sized cuts before sliding it over as well.

“Thank you, Captain,” was all T’Challa said as he was offered a plate with an omelet on it, and he dug in as if it were something he had always wanted to eat.

Tony struggled to hold his fork and actually get the food in his mouth, chewing slowly whenever he managed another fork-load. The omelet was cooling faster than he could eat it, but he had grown accustomed to that over the last several weeks.

“Delicious,” T’Challa commented and stood up, taking his plate to the sink. “Thank you for the food.”

Steve nodded, finishing his own portion at a rate that was slower than usual – no doubt to make it not so obvious how slowly Tony was eating. The Panther left them and Tony waited a moment, then allowed his fork to drop onto his plate. He sat there staring at the remaining bits, feeling so tired it was insane.

“Do you want to eat the rest?” Steve asked.

“Maybe if you heat it up again,” Tony replied.

Steve did, then brought it back, and Tony took hold of his fork again, only to find his fingers uncooperative and stiff. As if that were his cue, Steve moved over, sat down in a chair beside Tony’s and took the fork from him, working a piece of the omelet onto it and then brought it to the level of Tony’s mouth.

Tony debated not accepting it but he was still hungry. He couldn’t remember the last time he had eaten, after all – before the battle and the flight over… before the nap and the incident at the pool. It had been over a day, he counted, so it was no surprise his body was shutting down on him.

He opened his mouth and accepted the food, chewing a bit faster as Steve scooped up another piece of the omelet and was offering it to Tony by the time he was done with the first. They finished the plate like that, after which Steve took care of the dishes and Tony finished his smoothie, then allowed Steve to take the empty glass and wash that as well.

“I don’t think you should fly to Malibu in that condition,” Steve observed after a bit.

“I concur,” JARVIS agreed, and Tony pondered, for the first time, whether the AI had told Steve to come and intervene in the corridor.

Tony sighed, seeing that he was outnumbered on this. “Fine. Take me to bed.”

Steve didn’t smile but he scooped Tony up from his seat readily enough and carried Tony to his room. Whether it was luck or intentional that they didn’t run into any of the other Avengers on their way there, Tony didn’t know, but he was glad for it either way.

Once behind the safety of closed doors, Steve helped him undress and then took him to the bathroom to take a piss, cleaned him up a bit, and then took him to bed. Tony sank into the mattress with a thankful sigh and turned his back to Steve, who took the hint and shut off the lights before wordlessly leaving the room.

- - -

T’Challa joined the other Avengers – minus their leaders – in the Assembly Hall. Everyone was unusually quiet.

“We’re going to talk about this situation with Cap and Stark, right?” Clint spoke up first.

“That’s why we’re here, smart guy,” the Hulk grunted.

“Watch it,” Clint muttered.

“Enough,” T’Challa called out, voice low but commanding the attention of the room at once. “I had the most… unique chance to watch an interaction between Steve and Tony just now.”

“Was that before or after Steve carried Tony to his room, bridal style?” Hank tried to joke, then seemed to realize no one found it funny, himself included.

“We shouldn’t have spied on them,” Jan said from beside him. “I think that was a… private moment.”

“They’re here, which means they can’t keep it private for much longer,” Carol reasoned, looking at T’Challa. “We might have… approached the situation badly, due to that fact. Steve’s on a constant trigger, ready to go off at the wrong remark aimed at or about Tony, and none of us have any idea where the landmines are buried.”

“The obvious thing would be to ask them to tell us,” Vision noted.

“Does anyone see that actually happening?” Clint lifted an eyebrow. “Things are never that easy around here.”

“Tony’s injury is particularly hard to come to terms with – for him more than us,” T’Challa pointed out. “We need to be subtle about it, not to mention supportive. I believe that changing our behavior around them might be enough to make Tony reconsider staying here – a choice which would make Steve less torn about where he is supposed to be.”

“We should try and help them,” Jan agreed readily. “Take the load off Steve’s shoulders. I’ve never seen him look so tired…”

“I do not think it is the task of helping Tony that is wearing him down,” T’Challa argued. “What little I saw of them, the Captain was perfectly at ease with his duties to help our injured teammate. It is the interaction with us, as well as the tension of the battle, that gives him trouble to find his footing.”

“Tony’s not ready for battle,” Hank pointed out. “No matter how supportive we’ll be, it’s just going to get him hurt even worse.”

“I don’t think that’s the problem,” the Hulk huffed. “Stark knows he isn’t ready.”

“Yet he will come to our aid in our time of need,” Thor mused. “He is a warrior, first and foremost.”

“He’s also a human being, who’s at his weakest,” T’Challa said, not to disagree but to put it out there. “That may lead him to say and do things that would otherwise be considered uncalled for.”

“So, what are we going to do?” Carol asked. “We need a plan here – a plan we all understand and follow as a team.”

“We should ask Steve whether he requires our help,” T’Challa decided. “I predict his answer will be ‘no’, but not because he refuses our good intentions: it may be best for Tony that we do not directly interfere with his condition.”

“Then what are we going to do?” Clint asked him.

“We will make the situation tolerable for everyone. Dismiss Tony’s weak moments. Help him subtly or leave room for Steve to act; I believe Tony will accept help from him more willingly than any of us.”

“Tony will notice what we’re doing,” Carol pointed out. “He’s a smart guy.”

“And thus we will not try to out-smart him. He will know what we are trying to do and we cannot push him for results.”

“So, what you’re saying is that we’ll be there for him but won’t really help him because it will piss him off?” Jan cocked her head. “I don’t know if I like that. If he’s in trouble, I’d want to help him.”

“Tony has much pride and to be put into such a vulnerable position where he requires help is a most unsettling experience – to him and to those around him,” Vision mused.

“Aye; a wounded warrior rarely accepts help, no matter how sincere the offers,” Thor nodded. “We will keep our distance.”

“Act around him as you always have – within reason,” T’Challa concluded. “Even if it upsets you, showing pity and concern towards him will accelerate Tony’s bad mood.”

“Remember to have Cap on speed dial,” Clint joked ruefully. “He seems to have found a way to deal with Stark’s moods without setting him off.”

“That is our sole strength in this situation that we must utilize to its full effect,” T’Challa nodded.

“Guess we have a plan, then,” Hank nodded along. “Far as plans go in a situation like this.”

“It won’t last forever,” Jan said brightly. “Tony will get better and he’ll be back to fighting bad guys in no time. Until then he’s still part of the team, and we’ll keep reminding him of that.”

- - -

Tony slept for almost twelve hours straight, woke up to a sunny morning and decided to go and enjoy said sun on the rooftop. No one else was there when he got up there – his legs had miraculously found themselves again – and Tony spent a small moment doing some pilates exercises before he just threw himself down on a sunlounger and relaxed.

He went undisturbed for another hour before someone showed up, and when Tony opened his eyes to see who it was he was surprised to find it wasn’t Steve.

Clint stood half-way between him and the door that led to the roof, clearly undecided whether to approach or not.

“What’s up?” Tony asked casually.

“I was thinking… I might need a new sight for my bow,” Clint mused.

No one had asked him for any kind of gear updates or repairs since the accident, so the request surprised Tony more than Clint showing up on the rooftop. “Yeah?” he mused, to see if Clint would proceed on his own.

The archer moved closer, pulling his folded bow from his back where it was attached to the quiver. “Maybe you can come up with some new versions,” he said, extending the bow with a quick twist of his wrist, the move precise, practiced and looking entirely natural for him.

“Is this really the best time for that?” Tony dared to ask.

Clint shrugged. “There’s no hurry. Just, you know, if you feel like tackling a project.”

“Leave it at my desk,” Tony suggested. Not that he really had a desk, but Clint would figure something out.

“Maybe you would like to test out the current version,” Clint went on. “You know, to understand how it works.”

Tony’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You’re asking me to test your bow.”

Again, Clint shrugged.

“I don’t know… I think I know how to shoot a bow in theory,” Tony said.

Clint flashed him a grin. “We’ll see,” he stated and stepped over, clearly on board to proceed with the idea. “See, it looks easy, but I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” He offered his bow to Tony, which he never did with anyone, and Tony took it carefully, sitting up.

“Should I stand up?” Tony mused.

“It works better like that but I’m known to shoot from all kinds of positions.”

“I’m not you,” Tony pointed out. There was a reason Clint was on this team and that was because Hawkeye was the best damn shot Tony had ever seen, period. He had no delusions that he could match that skill on his best day – and especially not when his fingers curled around the body of the bow and it felt like a totally alien thing in his grip.

Tony stood up, though, and Clint busied himself positioning his arms and then told him to draw the bow. “See, this could be better. There’s always room for improvement,” Clint pointed at several things that really didn’t make sense to Tony at that moment. He had made arrows for Clint in the past, some of them working better than others. That was all mechanics and aerodynamics, but actually targeting something was outside Tony’s expertise.

Clint stepped back to look at him, then reached into his quiver. “Notch an arrow, see how it rests there,” he suggested next, placing an arrow in Tony’s grip, and Tony drew the string taut, his arms shaking a bit with the strain. He tried looking at the arrow, where it was pointed and how Clint picked his target, wondering what he was actually supposed to see that wasn’t working right now – then released the arrow.

It flew straight at the ice machine by the pool, the arrow exploding upon contact and creating a small shower of machine parts and ice cubes all around them.

“Fuck!” Clint yelled. “What did you do that for?”

Tony lowered the bow, cringing. “You didn’t tell me not to,” he offered.

Clint shot him a dark look then took the bow from him. “Okay, I think…” He looked at the ice machine – or what was left of it – and a smile tugged his lips. “That was you, not me,” he pointed out, then started laughing. Tony was helpless against it, joining Clint in the crazy mix of giggles and guffaws that left him feeling a bit weak on his feet, and finally the archer took his things and left the scene of destruction – after making sure there wouldn’t be any further explosions from the ice machine.

Tony resumed lounging in the chair, the smell of smoke disappearing after a while, leaving only the familiar odor of New York City. He watched the clouds pass by in their various forms and wondered how it was that he had never taken time for stuff like this before. He was always working, partying or saving the world – not in that order, even – and there was never time to just… be.

These days, there was little else but that.

The sounds of the city were pleasantly muted and Tony could almost hear the water gently lapping in the pool nearby. He knew he had planned on being in Malibu by now and part of him was still hell-bent on going, but here he was, still, in no particular hurry to get moving.

He heard the door open and close again, admitting another person to the roof, and the silent footfalls ruled out about half the team.

This time it was Steve, who sat on a lounge chair next to Tony’s. He looked over at the ice machine, brow furrowing for a bit, and Tony arched his neck to look as well. A goofy smile tugged his lips before he could master it.

“What happened to the ice machine?” Steve finally asked.

“A weapons demonstration,” Tony replied, then looked at the blond. “What are you doing up here?”

“Looking for you.”

“I’m fine,” Tony said in case it was unclear.

Steve nodded, his eyes softening a little. “I’m glad you’re still here.”

“Doesn’t mean I’m not going to leave.”

“Guess so…” Steve looked away at the water in the pool. Maybe it took his thoughts away for a bit – or reminded him of the incident back in Malibu. “I’m sorry if I… came onto you too forcefully,” Steve said at length.

Tony frowned. “Do you mean the argument or what happened before half the team showed up in Malibu?”

“Both, I guess.”

Tony sighed. “I thought we agreed the… stuff that happened was okay by both of us.”

Steve’s gaze was sharp and penetrating yet somewhat pleading when he fixed it on Tony’s face. “We did. After our last argument I wasn’t sure whether you were lying or if something was left unclear.”

Tony bit his lip. “I may have… said things that weren’t entirely true,” he admitted. “But I meant it when I said you should stay here after I go back.”

It was incredible how quickly Steve’s expression closed down. “If that’s your choice…”

“It’s the only good choice right now – for the team. The team has to come first.”

“Does it?”

“Yeah,” Tony insisted. “You know, not too long ago you would have agreed with me – no; you would have been the one telling me that from the start,” he decided. “You’re Captain America, first and foremost.”

“Maybe I want to be Steve Rogers for a change,” Steve snapped. “I haven’t had a whole lot of time to enjoy that. Besides, Pepper and Rhodey always say you’re getting lost in being Iron Man, so maybe you need a break from that, too.”

Tony snorted. “Yeah, well, I’m on a pretty long break right now, for the foreseeable future.”

“You know that isn’t true.”

“That’s what the team thinks – what you think,” Tony reminded him. “And for the record, just because I’m angry about it doesn’t mean I don’t agree with you. I’m not ready to get back in the suit. I’m not ready to be in a position where people have to depend on me and my performance. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there again.” It wasn’t himself that Tony worried about; his suit was nigh indestructible and he was pretty well protected inside it – although Steve could make a solid argument with the event that got them here. Well, exceptions were there to prove the rules…

Steve sighed, shifted, and looked completely out of his element. It was weird because Tony was so used to seeing Steve do what he did best – which was just about everything Steve set out to do. “I don’t know what to say,” the blond confessed.

“Don’t say anything, then. That’s an acceptable option.”

“Not when I want to disagree with you,” Steve retaliated, almost hotly, but there was no anger in his voice – only desperation. Like he was losing something precious to Tony and his fingernails were bleeding as he tried to hold onto it. “We all want you to get better, but what the team wants isn’t really my concern. My thoughts are my own. The good of the Avengers isn’t… It’s important, we both know that, but this time – this one time – can’t I be selfish? Can’t I be irrational?”

“Just this once?” Tony teased. “Are you sure you aren’t feverish?”

“Don’t,” Steve warned him. “Tony, I need you in ways you cannot imagine. Most of those ways have nothing to do with the Avengers – not anymore.”

Tony had to break eye-contact with him to get some room for his own thoughts. “If it hadn’t been your shield that hit me in the head, you would feel differently,” he said at length.

“Probably,” Steve admitted. “We’ll never know because this is how it happened. I’ve always believed in doing the right thing. I’ve always paid my debts and dues. We both know I’ve done enough to pay my debt to you, to convey my regret that you’re hurt and not getting better as fast as we all hoped for. However,” he added, “that’s where Cap ends and Steve begins.” He slid his hand over, startling Tony a little, and curled his fingers around Tony’s right hand. “Let me be there with you. For you. Whatever it entails, no matter how angry it makes you sometimes. I can’t… I don’t want you to deal with this alone.”

It was a dirty trick, touching Tony.

Tony stared at their joined hands, feeling his throat tighten. Steve was an honest man, through and through. He was also the man Tony had idolized for most of his life, in secret and in public, and he had a deep-seated need to do right by Steve. He had already given Steve a home, a purpose and a chance at a life after the ice.

Lately, Tony had given him hope and companionship, despite his shortcomings, and he had a feeling that was Steve’s biggest motivator. Just like Steve had said it: this was about Steve Rogers, not the national icon.

“They say I’m stubborn, but I’ve got nothing on you,” Tony said morosely and carefully moved his hand to squeeze at Steve’s in return. “Fine. Have it your way. See how long you last.”

Steve actually smiled at him, his shoulders relaxing. “Thank you, Tony.”

It wasn’t really anything to thank him for because Steve was certainly getting the short end of the stick with Tony’s mood-swings and attitude problems. “You might come to regret this,” he told the super-soldier. “That’s why I’m giving you the chance to walk out at any time you want. No questions asked.” He would probably know what the problem was when Steve chose to leave him behind.

“Not going to happen,” Steve promised him and just sat there for a bit, as if he was the happiest he had ever been, holding Tony’s hand on a sunny rooftop.

Tony looked at him and then at the pool, the water captivating in its own way. With the safety of Steve’s hand around his, he thought back to his moment in the water, just before he realized he couldn’t get back up to the surface on his own.

“Do you want to go swimming?” Steve asked. Sometimes Tony thought the man could read minds.

“I liked how it felt,” Tony confessed. “The weightlessness. Floating. You know, until I ran out of air and almost drowned,” he joked lamely.

Steve nodded and stood up. “I’ll help you,” he promised, and Tony guessed he might as well accept. He slid off his shirt, then his pants – soon after realizing he had gone commando because he hadn’t felt like struggling to put on another layer of clothing in the morning.

By his lounge chair, Steve had already stripped down to his underwear, standing tall in the sunlight. The blond looked at him and Tony flushed a bit, yanking his pants back up. “I guess swimming has to wait,” he murmured.

“It’s just the two of us,” Steve said, and after a minimal hesitation Tony pulled down his pants, feeling a bit weird sitting there naked. Then, to his surprise, Steve reached for the waistband of his own pair of white boxers.

“What are you doing?” Tony asked.

“Leveling the playfield,” Steve dared to wink at him as he got naked, then offered Tony a hand. “You don’t have to be naked alone.”

“I’m starting to think you have a thing for this whole naked part,” Tony teased but took Steve’s hand and helped himself to his feet then towards the pool.

“For a playboy you seem awfully self-conscious around other naked people,” Steve teased right back, helping Tony lower himself in the pool before getting in behind him, staying close by.

“Usually I get naked with an ulterior motive,” Tony confessed. “With you, I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”

Steve smiled at him. “This will be a new experience for the both of us, then.”

“Guess so.” Tony tried swimming around for a bit but it tired him out faster than he had thought possible. He decided to try floating, relaxing his body and letting it drift up. It was strange doing it without swimwear on; it had been a while since he had been skinny dipping and even those occasions had been about getting naked on purpose. When Steve’s hands touched his body, though, supporting his lower back and shoulder blades, he didn’t take it as a sexual thing; just like the kissing, the touch was safe and comforting, helping him float in the water and relax his body further.

Steve stayed by him patiently until Tony grew tired of floating and lowered his feet towards the bottom of the pool. They looked at each other and Tony started forgetting how weird it was being naked in the pool with another man. “Want to take a break?” Steve asked him after a bit.

“Are you tired?” Tony teased. Steve didn’t bother replying, swimming away from him instead, doing a few laps back and forth. Tony watched him, staying afloat, then started to feel his arms tiring and it was harder to keep his head above the surface. The first time he went under water completely Steve appeared back at his side, lifting him up by his waist. Tony reached out for his shoulders on instinct, finding himself much closer to Steve than was necessary, their naked bodies brushing against each other.

“Want to get out?” Steve asked again.

“Nah,” Tony replied. “Just, you know, hold me up,” he offered.

Steve’s hands moved lower, suddenly, to the backs of Tony’s thighs, and he moved them up and around his trim waist. Tony’s breath caught a little because the motion was so close to something erotic, but Steve’s hands returned to his waist and Tony settled into it, eventually relaxing against Steve’s body as the other man kept them afloat.

“I feel like a monkey,” Tony joked after a bit.

“I don’t mind being your tree,” Steve replied, which was sweet and stupid at the same time. Tony shoved away from him in retaliation, swimming away on his back, then started tiring before he reached the nearest edge, his pace slowing down.

He felt Steve swimming closer, his body brushing at his legs as he moved to support him again before Tony went under. Tony glanced at him, offering a small smile –

“OH MY GOD! Are you naked?!”

Tony would have sank like a stone as his body tensed, but Steve kept him afloat as they both turned to look towards the door where Clint stood, gaping at them.

“It’s my pool,” Tony pointed out. “If I want to swim naked, I’ll damn well do so.”

Clint blinked, shook his head then turned on his heels and left.

Steve huffed in a weird way that may have been a suppressed laugh. “Do you think we’ll ever live this one down?” he asked Tony.

“My pool,” Tony repeated.

“A pool other people swim in, besides us,” Steve reminded him.

“As if it wasn’t your idea to get in it naked!” Tony splashed water at him, but even then Steve didn’t let go of him despite the delicious opportunity to dunk him in retaliation.

Steve pushed even closer instead and Tony slid one hand into the wet blond hair, dragging him in the rest of the way and into a kiss. The joining of their lips was pleasant, like a final forgiveness for all the cruel words. Steve shifted Tony’s body while he was at it, and Tony wrapped his legs around his waist again – which was probably a mistake, the emotional and physical stimulation making his cock harden a little. “Sorry,” Tony murmured as they parted for a bit, faces still right next to each other.

“It’s okay,” Steve told him, yet he didn’t move to encourage or discourage Tony’s reaction in any way. For some reason that small, non-existent gesture made Tony feel safer than he had in a long time, and he pressed his lips forward into another kiss which Steve gladly responded to, his hands occasionally brushing across Tony’s back while still securely holding him.

Tony soon found he had to stop or he would end up embarrassing himself. Steve still didn’t let him go, even after the kiss ended, but merely rested their foreheads together, letting Tony calm down before he finally moved them to the edge of the pool. They got up, dried in the sun for a while, then put their clothes back on. After the exercise in the water, Tony felt a little weaker than when he had come up here, but Steve was right there, offering Tony an arm and a shoulder to lean on, then took him to the door to lead them back inside.

On their way to Tony’s room, they passed Clint, T’Challa and the Hulk, who were obviously engaged in gossip; the archer found a spot to inspect on the wall as they passed, T’Challa gave them a polite nod – and the Hulk gave them a feral grin.

It was entirely possible they had misunderstood the whole ‘swimming together naked’ bit, but Tony didn’t feel inclined to correct them.

Neither did Steve.

- - -

Steve couldn’t have been happier. Not only was he back on good terms with Tony but the other man had made no mention of returning to Malibu in three days.

They had more or less returned to their routine of daily workouts and meals. The other Avengers didn’t avoid them, exactly, but they kept away until it was clear they were welcome to join in – which never happened during workouts because Tony still had a thing about looking weak in front of anyone, and their team was the worst possible audience.

It was clear certain rumors had started circulating through the Mansion after Clint caught an eyeful of them in the pool. At least he hadn’t seen them kissing…

Steve didn’t care, though. His level of intimacy with Tony was between them and the others could speculate until the world ended – as long as it didn’t become an issue. So far there had simply been longer looks, whispered conversations and exchanged glances.

All in all the Avengers appeared to be trying to work better as a group of people, and if Steve and Tony happened to settle down in the living room for a movie or something similar, others would drift over and stick around when such activities hadn’t been the norm before Tony’s accident. Steve thought it lifted their team spirit, which was never a bad thing.

Nine days into their rekindled friendship, the Wrecking Crew showed up on the streets, once again having escaped confinement.

“These guys seriously have a problem,” Clint complained as they suited up for action. “The moment they get out they end up rampaging in our backyard. If I didn’t know better, I’d think they like getting locked up.”

“The quirks of human logic are indeed baffling,” Vision agreed while waiting for the rest of them to get ready.

“These guys are too stupid to know better,” Jan decided, flying around the synthezoid’s head.

“That seems like an unsatisfactory conclusion without any scientific counterpart,” Vision frowned.

“Less talk, more action,” Steve ordered, fastening his belt.

“Thor is already on the scene: are we really needed?” Clint asked.

“Our last battle left much to hope for when it came to containing the destruction,” Steve replied. “We can remedy that this time around.” He cast a look at Tony who was standing at the far wall, leaning against it. “Will you monitor the fight?”

“Sure,” Tony shrugged one shoulder.

Steve offered him a small smile as he slid onto his bike. “I’ll see you soon.”

Tony nodded his head and Steve started the engine, hearing Clint do the same with his sky cycle. Vision and Wasp took off, flying towards the scene of the action, and Steve drove out of the garage, speeding onto the street just as Clint shot up to the sky and soon disappeared between buildings.

By the time Steve arrived on location, a while after the others due to the traffic, Thor was battling Wrecker, the leader of the Wrecking Crew. Vision was dealing with Thunderball while Wasp evaded Piledriver’s attempts to catch her – all the while shooting her stingers at him – which left Bulldozer somewhere in the area.

The sound of glass breaking was the only warning Steve got before the villain in question came at him through a shop window on his right, catching him before Steve could remove his shield from his back. He flew to the side, hitting a lamp post. The metal bent under the impact, leaving Steve gasping for air as his entire ribcage felt like it was on fire.

“Cap!” he heard Clint’s voice, distant and weak although it was probably coming from his earpiece. “I think Cap’s down.”

Steve tried to breathe – to speak up in order to tell them to keep fighting because he was fine. The sensation of someone having sat a few tons of steel on his chest eased a little but he still couldn’t function and a shadow landed on him, a gloating chuckle breaching his consciousness.

“Look at you; Captain America, all winded.”

A small explosion shook the ground – no doubt one of Hawkeye’s arrows. The shadow above him moved, someone snarled, and footfalls stomped away from him.

Steve tried moving again but he barely got one hand against the ground before his ribs exploded with a new wave of pain. The serum had never seemed to take so long to heal him, but he wasn’t going anywhere right then and all he could hope for was that he didn’t make too attractive a target.

For a moment he went unnoticed – before a whoosh cut the air and Steve felt the earth shake beneath him. A wrecking ball landed in front of him an instant later, shaking the ground again, cracking the asphalt. “Let’s see if that thick skull of yours is thick enough,” Thunderball mused, yanking the wrecking ball off the ground – but it never fell.

“How about we see how thick your skull is when I slam your ass back in prison!” the familiar voice of Iron Man carried over to Steve’s ears and he looked up in time to see Iron Man grabbing the chain between Thunderball and his weapon, swing it, and send the villain flying through the air – right into Thor’s waiting fist. “Take them down!” Tony ordered next, halting in the air in a pose that kept him steady. “Wasp, light up Bulldozer’s helmet from the inside; Vision, please remove Wrecker’s magical crowbar from his possession; Thor, give Piledriver a helping hand; Clint, secure Mr. Ballsy over there.”

“Really, Stark?” Clint’s voice appeared in the comm but everyone moved to execute their given commands and the Wrecking Crew was secured in record time.

Iron Man landed on the ground beside Steve, by which time the super-soldier had struggled into a seated position. “You okay?” Tony asked.

“I thought I told you to monitor,” Steve replied, still feeling a bit breathless.

“Yeah, well, that was until you got knocked down and kicked around,” Tony shrugged one armored shoulder. “Can you walk?”

Steve looked up at him and gave him an honest smile. “Give me a minute,” he asked, and Tony nodded.

“I know how it is,” he joked – although not really because he really did know.

By the time a unit from S.H.I.E.L.D. had arrived to take care of the transportation of the villains, Steve was on his feet although standing hurt worse than sitting. Still, he insisted on driving his motorcycle back – which may have been a mistake because after standing up the seated position was excruciating.

“Okay,” Tony stated as he met him in the garage, still in armor save for the helmet. “It’s a good thing Jane Foster came to visit because you have a date with her in medical.”

Steve felt like arguing but Tony was giving him a look and Steve still had trouble breathing so he soldiered through the walk and sat down on the examination table, carefully undoing the top of his uniform while he waited for their Jane to arrive. Tony stayed by the door, eyes checking out the prominent bruising on Steve’s upper body.

When Jane arrived she was unsurprisingly followed by Thor. The Asgardian took one look at Steve and shook his head. “We should have struck our enemies harder for what they did to you, the cowards.”

“It will heal,” Steve reassured all of them. “A little R&R and I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Jane told him. “I don’t think anything’s broken, but try to relax for a few days. Rest, no long periods of standing up; no physical labor and definitely no battles.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Steve inclined his head.

Jane smiled and took her leave – with Thor; it was hard to tell which of them was more enamored by the other.

“Okay,” Tony spoke up. “Time to get some of that rest.”

Steve got to his feet gingerly, debated re-dressing but then decided against it. They stopped by Tony’s armory, to leave the suit there, and then continued up towards their rooms. Tony didn’t require any help walking – not that Steve would have hesitated to give him a hand if he needed it, despite his own injuries. The brunette took the lead as they reached the floors with the living quarters, and when they approached Tony’s room the man grabbed onto Steve’s arm. “Come on,” he said, and pulled them both inside.

A little confused, Steve followed him in and closed the door. Tony didn’t look like he needed much help today but Steve refused to leave him hanging in case he did because Tony almost never asked for help.

“Strip,” Tony told him.

Steve blinked, even more confused.

Tony slowly removed his undersuit, then stood there in his underwear, looking at Steve expectantly. “Come on,” he urged then, moving over. “Jane told you to rest.”

“She did,” Steve agreed. “I don’t see how this –”

“Get in bed with me,” Tony blurted out, then moved his hands to undo Steve’s belt.

Steve wasn’t sure he understood, even then, but he helped Tony remove his clothes, leaving him in his very snug underwear. Tony nodded approvingly, then took his arm again and pulled him towards the bed. Steve followed on instinct and Tony lay down, clearly planning on staying that way. Steve followed his lead more slowly, the pain making every little movement quite unpleasant, but once he settled down on the cool sheets and Tony pulled the covers on top of them, it was easier to relax.

“Do you need painkillers?” Tony asked, shifting a bit into a better position. The little bit of his chest that was visible was awash with the blue light of the arc reactor, and clearly he was seeking an optimal sleeping position with it in mind.

“I’ll manage,” Steve promised him and shuffled a bit closer to Tony, feeling their bare skins touch. It was intimate, much like being in the water with him – in the bath or in the pool. Knowing Tony hadn’t minded so far, Steve slid an arm over him, fingers tracing the smooth skin of his forearm, trailing down to Tony’s fingers – which spread to allow Steve’s fingers in between them.

Tony burrowed a bit closer to him before letting out the air from his lungs and closing his eyes. “Lights,” he murmured, and instantly the lights dimmed – not into an instant pitch black but gradually lowering towards a proper darkness that would be optimal for sleeping.

Steve settled down, listening to Tony’s breaths that were controlled but steady, more relaxed than he had often heard them. The steady sound made it easier to close his eyes, to focus on something other than the pain in his ribs, and with the familiar smell of Tony in his nostrils, Steve drifted off, content and positive for the first time in a long time that whatever tomorrow threw at him, he had too many reasons to not back down.

It was about more than being human; it was about not being alone.

The End

PAGE 1 | PAGE 2 | PAGE 3
Tags: character: bruce banner / hulk, character: carol danvers / ms marvel, character: clint barton / hawkeye, character: hank pym/ant-man/yellowjacket, character: j.a.r.v.i.s., character: jane foster, character: janet van dyne / wasp, character: pepper potts, character: steve rogers/captain america, character: t'challa / black panther, character: thor, character: tony stark / iron man, character: vision, fandom: avengers (aemh)

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