Coping Mechanism (page 1)
Title: Coping Mechanism
Author: Del Rion (delrion.mail (at) gmail.com)
Fandom: The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
Genre: Angst, drama
Rating: M / FRM
Characters: JARVIS, Steve Rogers (Captain America), Tony Stark (Iron Man). Supporting cast: Bruce Banner (Hulk), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Carol Danvers (Ms. Marvel), T’Challa (Black Panther), Hank Pym (Yellowjacket), Thor, Janet Van Dyne (Wasp), Vision. (Also mentioned: Jane Foster, Pepper Potts, The Wrecking Crew.)
Pairing: Steve/Tony (romantic friendship)
Summary: Tony’s recovery from a brain injury is on a tortuous path towards something better. The other Avengers are growing impatient – as is Tony – and Steve’s fortitude will be tested as he attempts to be there for Tony and lead a group of superheroes at the same time. Not to mention the change that is taking place in Steve and Tony’s friendship…
Complete. Sequel to “Dependence”.
Written for: Angst Big Bang’s Round 3.
Artist: sarageek16 (art & fanmix here!)
Warnings: Language, angst & moodiness, minor suicidal thoughts, dealing with brain injury, mild sexual content (m/m, kissing, nakedness), canonical violence.
Disclaimer: The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, its characters and places belong to Marvel, Marvel Animation, and all other creators involved in the making and distributing of the show/comics. No profit was made by writing this story.
Beta: Mythra (mythras-fire)
Feedback: Most welcome, from con-crit to fangirling over the wonderful show this story is based on.
About Coping Mechanism: This story may not look like it at first glance, but there’s a lot of angst going on all around, I promise.
I think I finally found a happy medium in my struggle to decide whether I wanted Steve and Tony to continue their platonic friendship, or to bring more feelings and warmth into it. What takes place in this story (romantic friendship) will hopefully appeal to most readers.
Story and status: Below you see the writing process of the story. If there is no text after the title, then it is finished and checked. Possible updates shall be marked after the title.
On most mornings, Steve Rogers woke up with the sun – and just like on most mornings, he had a familiar urge to work out. Once he had relieved his bladder, Steve dressed in a simple t-shirt and sweat pants, grabbed a yoga mat and moved outside to one of the many balconies of the house and rolled out the mat on the eastern side of the building.
After a series of warm-up moves and stretches, he proceeded with a few pilates and yoga exercises that he had grown fond of. The rising sun warmed his skin, the continuous sound of the ocean crashing into the rocks below filled his ears, and the rest of the world seemed far away.
Breathing deeply with his eyes closed, Steve felt at peace with himself and his surroundings.
“Captain Rogers,” a politely soft inquiry reached him a moment later.
“JARVIS,” he acknowledged, not opening his eyes.
“Mr. Stark has woken up,” the AI informed him. No further information followed, which led Steve to assume this was a good morning and that Tony didn’t need his help.
In the little over a month since Tony’s accident – which had involved Steve’s vibranium shield colliding with his head during a battle – and the weeks that Steve had spent at Tony’s house in Malibu, trying to help the man cope with the injuries and the aftermath, they had fallen into a routine.
That routine dictated that Steve would get up, roll up the yoga mat and go inside to make breakfast – not because he had to, but because he wanted to, and he always did. After breakfast they would work out for a bit, depending on what kind of morning Tony’d had, after which Tony would disappear into his workshop downstairs. Tony’s assistant Pepper often came by around midday, with something work-related or more personal, and Steve would spend a few hours doing whatever he wanted until it was time to lure Tony into another workout session, then come up with something to eat.
The evenings varied from one another more than the mornings did: depending on Tony’s mood and condition, they might exercise more, or just relax on the couch and watch TV on Tony’s huge screen. On particularly bad days, Tony bitched and argued with Steve about everything and Steve backed down to a degree, then pushed, knowing that Tony needed to get the frustration out of his system, even if it meant saying horrible things to Steve and then crying himself to sleep afterwards.
As Steve pulled ingredients out of the fridge and cupboards, he mused how differently he saw Tony now than before the accident. He had never seen the man cry, for one, although he had seen Tony close to tears on a few occasions. Not that seeing his fellow Avenger cry was the biggest change Steve had detected; he had always known Tony was a somewhat insecure person, but this experience had shown him just how deep those dark thoughts went – and how poorly Tony thought of himself. Just because he covered it very well on most occasions…
“Morning,” Tony’s voice greeted him as the man walked into the room. His gait looked almost normal, but Steve didn’t comment on it; Tony didn’t like anyone drawing attention to his shortcomings – or in this case, the sudden lack of shortcomings – and Steve had learned the hard way that it was one of the boundaries he should respect if he wanted to make things work between them. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t occasionally call Tony out on it, to snap him out of a particularly dour mood, but as long as they both knew what was going on and weren’t pretending otherwise, things were good.
“Good morning,” Steve replied kindly and dropped some choice ingredients into a blender, then sealed it and turned it on. Tony sat down while Steve began to assemble a couple sandwiches.
“Weather’s nice,” Tony commented, which wasn’t exactly his kind of small-talk.
Steve nodded, not looking up from where he was loading his own bread with a lot more toppings than Tony’s.
“JARVIS and I have been working on a few… glitches in the armor’s controls,” Tony went on.
Steve wondered whether the glitch was real or if this was Tony’s way of subtly implying that he couldn’t operate the Iron Man armor in his current condition the way he used to.
Since the day he had taken Steve flying – the first time Tony put on the armor since his accident – Steve had been waiting for Tony to make some kind of move, whether it was another test flight, with or without Steve, or a statement that he was ready for action. On most days Tony still doubted whether he could join the ranks of the Avengers, but Steve wanted to be an optimist when it came to that and kept telling Tony it would happen when it happened.
“I was thinking,” Tony went on before Steve could formulate a response, “that maybe you could join me later today while I test a few things.”
“Sure,” Steve agreed and stopped the blender, then tugged the lid open and poured the thick smoothies into two tall glasses.
It was Tony’s turn to nod, then he reached out, carefully grabbing one of the glasses and pulling it towards him. Steve watched the progress, remembering how many times Tony had knocked things over in the last month, but the glass remained upright and Tony tugged a straw from a plastic box that was a permanent fixture at the kitchen table these days.
Steve set down Tony’s plate close to him and Tony didn’t protest with the standard ‘I’m not that hungry’, which meant this was indeed a good morning. Perhaps a couple tests with the Iron Man armor was a good sign. After all, being Iron Man had been such an important part of Tony’s life for a long time, and Steve didn’t see how getting parts of that life back could be a bad idea.
- - -
“Preparing for the first live test with the proactive control systems. Sir, if I may –”
“No, thanks, JARVIS,” Tony interrupted his AI and squared his shoulders. The armor moved with the motion, and from his spot from across the clearing, Steve nodded. The blond was in uniform, shield in hand. The last time Tony had seen him in full Captain America regalia was when they battled U-Foes at Madison Square Garden. That had also been the last time Tony wore the armor, if one didn’t count the brief flight Steve had tricked Tony into partaking.
Well, ‘trick’ was a strong word, but Tony could see how he had been coerced to take the armor for a spin before he felt he was ready for it. As it happened, he had been ready, and as exhilarating and gratifying as that experience had been, it had also shown Tony that he had a long way to go before he would be ready to be Iron Man once more.
He looked at Steve again, who was patiently waiting for Tony to make a move or give him directions. Tony wished he could somehow borrow that perseverance because lately he just hadn’t had what it took to get through the day without getting angry, bitter or furious – or worst of all, so low he simply wanted to bawl his eyes out… which he often did, too. It wouldn’t have been nearly as humiliating if he had been alone, but Steve had a way of finding him whenever he was in one of his worst moods, and Tony was a weak person because he just couldn’t make the super solider leave.
“Alright,” Tony said out loud, “let’s do this.” He shifted his arms and his stance, and everything worked as well as could be expected.
“What’s the plan?” Steve asked, voice carefully neutral yet cooperative.
“The big idea is that I need to fine-tune the armor’s movements in relation to the motions of my body. So, how about you throw,” Tony pointed at Steve’s shield, “and I catch?”
Steve nodded slowly and shifted his shield. “On the ground or in the air?”
“Let’s stay at ground level for now,” Tony decided. “Don’t go crazy, either,” he added, making a vague gesture at the surroundings trees; even Tony wasn’t stupid enough to think that just because he was wearing the armor he could pull off the kind of stunts he used to. Well, he could try, and then be utterly and completely humiliated when his nervous system decided to take a break. He knew it was better to avoid that.
Steve nodded again, waited four seconds and then sent his shield flying. The trajectory was easy, within Tony’s reach without any extra complications, and Tony extended his arm, opened his fingers, aligned the waiting hand – and missed the shield by a few inches. Tony frowned, heard the shield ricochet against a tree somewhere behind him, and Steve moved to the side to intercept the shield as it came flying back towards him. Then, without delay, he sent it flying again, much in the same manner as before, and this time Tony actually grazed it with his fingers. Still the shield bounced away from his grip, spinning away and rolling onto the ground.
Steve moved to pick it up without a word, and Tony’s jaw was getting so tense he was afraid the muscles might cramp. He knew the vibranium shield wasn’t the easiest object to catch mid-air, especially if you were covered head-to-toe in metal alloy, but he was determined to do this. The HUD in front of his eyes accurately showed him the shield’s calculated trajectory, based on years’ worth of data on Steve’s throwing techniques and the shield’s aerodynamic capabilities. All he had to do was stick his hand out there and catch the damn thing.
“Again,” he told Steve before the man could think of something to say. Usually Steve had more patience about these things than Tony, from tossing that soft ball in the workshop to getting Tony to do another set of exercises when all he wanted to do was to stab the fitness ball with a screwdriver or a kitchen knife. This wasn’t an exercise planned and carried out by Steve, though, and Tony needed to convey that all was going according to plan and that he needed to do this in order to get better.
Steve adjusted his hold on his shield then threw it again.
The Iron Man armor detected a lower-than-average speed, which meant Steve was holding back, trying to give Tony a chance to succeed. It burned at him to allow Steve to stoop so low, but perhaps it was better to start simple when he had already failed to catch the shield two times previous.
Tony took a stride to the side then twisted his upper body, and finally caught the shield using both his hands. It was nothing to break into a smile over because his hold lasted for two awkward seconds before he saw the shield slipping. He tried adjusting his hold but only made it worse, and the vibranium disc fell at his feet, making a resounding clang against his boot.
“Fuck,” Tony muttered.
“Let’s try again,” Steve encouraged, and Tony had, for a moment, forgotten the communicator was on, delivering his every sound to Steve’s earpiece.
Tony bent down to retrieve the shield. In the armor, the movement was more awkward than he recalled, and for a moment he lost his balance, almost ending up face-first in the dirt. His right hand, which had been reaching for the shield, shot out to stabilize his armored fingers by burying themselves into the earth.
He took a breath, trying to force himself upright by sheer force of will.
He closed his eyes, huffing out an angry breath. Slowly, he moved his left foot, trying to improve his stance. His back and stomach muscles tensed as he tried pulling himself back upright, shield be damned, but it was as if something were missing in between his brain’s command and his body actually doing it.
“Tony…” Steve sounded uncertain, the way he rarely did these days. Obviously he didn’t know whether to come over and help, or leave Tony to it – even if it meant he had to lower himself to the ground and then work his way up again.
No, Tony told himself. He wasn’t going to go down on all fours like a damn toddler learning to walk. Not while he was wearing the suit. Iron Man wasn’t weak.
“Maybe we should continue this tomorrow,” Steve offered.
Tony growled in frustration, clenching his fist where his fingers were still buried in the earth, then jerked up and managed to get into a standing position. He swayed slightly, the armor trying to mimic the way his body moved, and Tony adjusted his stance again, to make it stop – then felt himself slipping on something and lost his footing, landing hard on his back.
“Restrict audio,” Tony growled at JARVIS, saw a symbol change on the HUD to inform him that he had been cut off from Steve’s communicator, and allowed himself to bask in that moment of utter failure, letting out an outraged shout. He also banged his head against the ground for good measure.
Steve walked up and bent over to retrieve something from the ground by Tony’s foot: the shield. Tony must have stepped on it and slipped. “Are you okay?” Steve asked and looked down at him.
Tony seethed then remembered Steve couldn’t hear him. He reached up and unlocked the helmet, yanking it off as it released itself from around his head. “I’m encased in a metal suit. Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
Steve’s lips twitched with a micro-expression he immediately suppressed. “You know what I mean,” he finally stated.
“No, I don’t,” Tony disagreed on principle, then started struggling back to his feet. He managed to sit up without much difficulty, then halted to stare at the helmet he was still holding. The faceplate was dead and emotionless, but even it seemed to judge Tony’s inability to function. With a scowl, Tony tossed it to the side, the extra strength of the armor making it roll out of sight into the midst of trees and underbrush.
Steve’s eyes followed the helmet’s flight before returning to Tony’s face. He offered no words of comfort or false hope, which Tony didn’t want to hear anyway, but the fact that he said nothing fueled his anger even further.
Tony climbed to his feet with unsteady grace but managed to stay upright this time. “We’re done here,” he muttered and took off towards the house, walking stiffly. He made sure not to stumble on any protruding tree roots, uncertain whether he could get up again if he fell.
If Steve was following him, he kept a safe distance between them.
Tony entered the workshop on his own, hissing and cursing as he took the armor off with JARVIS’ help. It felt almost like he didn’t fit inside the suit the right way, and he resisted the urge to kick the metal contraption once he was free of it. Underneath his undersuit, he was a sweaty mess. He hadn’t noticed that before and now he shivered from the cold.
“J, run a bath for me,” Tony ordered.
“Of course, sir,” the AI replied.
“Make it hot,” Tony added. He could just lie in the water and let all of this go away; every failure, dashed hope and miscarried expectation.
Slowly, Tony moved towards his room. Half-way there, he became aware that his good morning had either been a false alarm or putting on the suit and playing Frisbee with Steve had put more stress on him than he had predicted. Either way, he barely managed to stay on his feet until he reached his door, slammed it shut awkwardly and then just sank to sit on the floor. He could hear the bath water running, and all he needed to accomplish was to get out of the undersuit and into the bath tub.
Both tasks loomed ahead of him like enormous mountains he needed to cross, and he felt like weeping as defeat clutched his insides in a tight hold. He would never make it…
The water stopped running after a while. Tony forcibly slowed down his breathing, sat up, then proceeded to unzip the undersuit and pull it off his arms and down his body. All he had to do was to get creative; he wouldn’t even need to get up to remove his clothing. It wasn’t that hard.
Lying down, he managed to lift his hips and push the tight clothing past them, then pushed at the floor and sat up again, tugging the undersuit further down along his legs, then finally kicked it off. Sitting on the floor, naked, was an odd feeling, but he had just hit the half-way sign on his goal to reach the bathtub and he wasn’t going to stop to think about the little details.
He checked the distance between himself and the bathroom door. Getting there would bring him so much closer to his destination. No reason to stop now.
Tony tried getting his feet under him for a bit. A couple times he almost got it, but his balance was wonky and it didn’t feel like he could keep himself upright. He would just end up falling down, maybe hit his head, and JARVIS would call someone for help – only so that said person could find him lying naked in a pool of his own blood. That wasn’t a vision Tony liked to share with anyone so he moved along the floor in a weird crawl, inch by inch gaining on the bathroom door.
“Sir,” JARVIS asked after a while, “do you require assistance?”
“What does it look like?” Tony asked, voice tight. His fingers were already touching the tiles.
When the door of his room opened, Tony froze and guessed that he should have told JARVIS that he was fine instead of trying to play the sarcasm game with the AI; JARVIS probably understood what he meant but chose not to, which led to the AI summoning Steve Rogers into his bedroom.
“Were you standing by the door?” Tony snapped over his shoulder.
Steve didn’t reply, which meant he probably had been. He did that, hovering outside whichever room Tony was currently in, waiting to be asked to help. Tony knew that because JARVIS had cameras all over the place – which he had access to.
“Get out,” Tony ordered when the super soldier didn’t say anything. “I’m fine. Almost there.”
“How are you going to get into the bath tub if you can’t even stand up?” Steve shot back.
Tony honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead. He had to conquer the first figurative mountain before getting to the second one, after all. “I’ll figure it out,” was his answer. Snappy and bratty, no doubt.
Steve let out one of those sighs that could be trademarked to him and Tony heard him move closer – which meant Steve was deliberately walking loudly, not wanting to startle him. “Let me help,” he said, and then hoisted Tony up without waiting for Tony’s answer.
Had it been the first time Tony had been naked in front of the other man, he might have felt embarrassed. Sadly, it wasn’t the first time, and while that didn’t make it better, exactly, Tony could focus on being humiliated instead of attempting to cover himself up or ask Steve not to handle him quite like that.
A firm arm wrapped around his middle, keeping him up, and Steve really should have given up on pretense and just carried him. Tony’s feet were barely moving – not from lack of trying – and at least the bathroom floor was smooth to make it less awkward. Once at the tub, Tony stared at the inviting water. He told his foot – either foot, it didn’t matter – to get up and step in, but nothing happened. Staring at them didn’t change the situation, either.
The seconds trickled by agonizingly, feeling twice as long as they should be.
Steve’s other arm suddenly made an appearance, hoisting Tony’s legs up from under his knees, lifting him up. Tony’s arms instinctively held onto Steve’s shoulders, as if the other man planned on dropping him, but instead of a short free-fall, Steve lowered Tony into the hot water as gently as possible.
“You can let go now,” the blond told him after a bit, and Tony realized his arms had remained wrapped around the wide shoulders. He quickly did as he was told and Steve straightened up, looking at him critically. “Will you be okay while I take a shower?” he asked. Still clad in his uniform – although missing the cowl and gloves – he looked totally out of place in Tony’s bathroom. Like some weird dream.
Tony nodded, then stared at the water and one of his knees peeking out through the surface. Like an island in the ocean, shivering…
Steve must have noticed it, too, because he emptied his lungs – careful not to sigh this time, but Tony detected it anyway. “I can wait until you’re done,” he decided.
“I’ll be fine,” Tony forced himself to say. “What am I going to do, drown?” Which was a stupid question, he realized, because his bathtub was legitimately big enough for a grown man to drown in – especially a grown man whose body was acting up and who could barely move his legs the right way…
Steve must have arrived at the same conclusion, giving the water in the bathtub a suspicious look – the same kind that made petty thieves confess their crimes even though they weren’t of any interest to the Captain. The water sat there, innocent as ever, holding onto its evil plans, and Steve nodded his head like he was having a discussion with it. “I’ll wait,” he decided and moved to the other side of the bathroom – but didn’t exit to the side of the bedroom.
Tony felt stupid, sitting there while Steve slowly undid most of his uniform, no doubt looking forward to his own shower. Not that his workout with Tony should have worked up a sweat for him, but Steve was a man of simple pleasures and perhaps a nice shower was one of them.
The water was still hot on his skin but Tony didn’t feel compelled to enjoy it. He tried wriggling a bit lower, to further immerse himself in the liquid heat, but it only served to make him slip a little, dunk him entirely under water, and it was with a lot of struggle that he got up at all. When he did, his nose was full of water – and Steve was by the bath, looking ready to break the tub in order to drain it.
“Maybe you should just try showering,” Steve suggested tentatively.
“I want to bathe!” Tony snapped, trying to get the water out of his nose without letting Steve know he was doing it. “Is that too fucking much to ask?”
“No,” Steve replied, a bit more sullenly, then sat down on the wet floor. It was clear he was going to guard Tony from there, close enough to reach into the tub and pull him back up if he went under again. The only way he could get any closer was to get into the tub itself.
“Maybe you should get in with me and keep me from drowning,” Tony suggested darkly, following his previous thought. “That way you don’t have to wait to shower.”
Steve gave him a somewhat startled look. “I’m not sure…” He didn’t finish, which wasn’t like him.
“What? That you’ll fit?” Tony challenged. “I’ve had five grown people in this tub.” Okay, so, technically some of those people had lain on top of each other, but Steve could get in and probably not even have to touch Tony at all. “I’ll keep my hands and feet to myself,” he promised like taking a pledge.
“I don’t care about that,” Steve replied, which was an odd way of putting it. “I don’t want to crowd.”
“It’s a big tub, Cap.” Tony suddenly felt confused, because his initial offer had been a joke more than an actual suggestion, but now he was trying to convince Steve it was a good idea to get in a tub with him. That was… okay, so maybe it wasn’t more intimate than Steve dragging him across the room, naked, or washing him when Tony couldn’t do it himself, or drying him off and helping to clothe him. Taking a bath in Tony’s big tub was innocent compared to all the other stuff.
Either Steve had reached the same conclusion or some part of him was still living by old rules of conserving water, because he began taking off his uniform for real and Tony had only a few blank walls to look at if he didn’t want to stare.
When he seemed to be done stripping, Steve still wore a tight pair of underwear – black instead of something red, white or blue – and he clearly intended to keep those on.
“Take them off,” Tony told him. “I promise not to peek.”
From the corner of his eye he saw Steve strip the last article of his clothing, and Tony was a bad person because he did peek, a little, as Steve stepped over him into the tub. Tony had seen a lot more of him lately than he had ever before, but this was the first time he saw all of Steve, literally. His eyes didn’t linger, knowing it was inappropriate – especially when he had promised not to look – and he stared at his knees as he pushed them up slightly, to break the surface of the water again.
Steve settled down so that he sat by Tony’s feet, his own sliding out, never touching Tony’s body. “Is this making you uncomfortable?” he asked after a bit. “I can get out –”
“Don’t,” Tony told him quickly, looking up and trying to form a smile on his face. “We’ve been through worse things than this – seen worse things, too, I bet.”
Steve chuckled. “Right.”
“Besides, my tub is the best in the house,” Tony went on and slid a bit lower in the water. “It’s only fair you get to enjoy it after taking such good care of me.”
Steve stared at him speechlessly for a moment, as if not fully catching on to whether Tony’s words were a joke or genuine in their kindness.
Tony closed his eyes, pretending to relax. “I suppose you would like the tub better without me in it,” he guessed.
“It’s not something I’m used to, but I don’t mind.” To accompany his words, Steve’s fingers lightly touched Tony’s ankle under the water. It didn’t make Tony jump and the touch itself was nice, but it created odd ghost sensations his body wasn’t sure how to interpret.
Tony gritted his teeth. “Either touch me properly or not at all,” he told the other man. “What you’re doing now is… highly unpleasant.” Steve’s fingers tightened instead of letting go, and with the increased pressure it was easier to categorize the sensation in his brain. Tony gave him a grateful look, knowing that Steve of all people knew how not to take his words the wrong way; ever since Tony woke up in the hospital, after the accident, Steve had been learning from every mistake he made with Tony. One of the first had been touching him, and while Tony was generally better when it came to that, there were days when his entire body felt like one giant tingle.
With Steve’s fingers still around his ankle, Tony allowed himself to close his eyes and relax because that’s what he had wanted to achieve. The heat took the aches out of his muscles and even with his lack of control, he felt lighter in the water, gravity not pulling him down so hard.
Steve shifted after a bit, lying lower in the water as well, but his hold on Tony’s ankle barely shifted and the touch was becoming oddly comforting. In the midst of all this, Tony hadn’t thought he might actually become touch-deprived. It made sense that, like with most things these days, Steve was a safe haven, and Tony could depend on him. Trust him.
Tony moved out his right hand, aiming to return the gesture. He probably should have looked where he was going because when his fingers encountered Steve’s body under the water, it was way higher on his leg than he had planned, and he was precariously close to giving the big blond an unintended fondle in the crotch area.
Realizing his error, Tony froze and went to draw back, but Steve was faster, grabbing his hand. It didn’t alleviate Tony’s concern that he had irrevocably crossed a line with his teammate and friend, but instead of breaking his fingers, Steve simply re-directed Tony’s hand back where it had first made contact.
That sent another dreadful thought through Tony’s brain – do I want this? – that he had no time to process before Steve laid Tony’s hand on his upper thigh and rested his own on top of it, as if marking that it was safe territory. “Relax,” Steve said – in that same safe, comfortable, steady voice as when he helped Tony gain his balance on a balance board or hold a pose just a bit longer.
Tony did relax, feeling the warmth of Steve’s skin under his fingers as well as around his ankle where Steve still held him in return, and it was like completing a circle.
A comfortable silence fell around them. The water stayed hot for a little while then began to cool, and Tony knew this strange moment was coming to an end. Before it did, though, he looked at Steve and found the blue eyes already fixed on his face. “I miss this,” Steve said before Tony could find any words that would make sense in this situation. “Being… close to people. I never really had that before the war, and even during it…”
Tony supposed he had been a selfish idiot, only thinking of himself: he was so wrapped up in his own problems – his own limitations – that he hadn’t stopped to consider that Steve had nothing and no one in this world. He was always there for the Avengers, living at the Mansion. He had no life except this. No friends, no dates… Steve had never seemed unhappy about it, save for the whole debacle with the Winter Soldier when Tony had feared he might leave altogether, but otherwise there was no reason to suspect Steve wanted for anything.
What Steve really needed was a friend, and despite the Avengers growing closer after each fight, it wasn’t the same. Steve and Tony led the Avengers, together and separately, depending on what phase they were in, and neither of them could really get too close to any of the others without it being taken the wrong way.
Tony knew, better than most, that there were friends – and then there were friends who were so much closer to you and knew who you really were, and with whom you could sit naked in a bathtub, fingers only a couple inches from their crotch and it wasn’t weird.
“Sometimes you forget it’s something that you need. That you deserve it,” Tony agreed. “And even when it’s there, and you’re drowning in it, it’s not necessarily the right kind, you know?” Tony flirted with people, more so before than these days, but if he wanted to, he could have all the comfort he wanted. Not like this, though. Not with his guard down, letting the real Tony Stark shine through. He could name only two people and one AI whom he trusted enough to do that – and now there was Steve, whom he had unconsciously added to that list over the last month.
Steve offered him a small smile and the hand that lay atop of Tony’s shifted, fingers curling around Tony’s into something that almost resembled hand-holding.
They sat like that for a bit longer, less relaxed but unwilling to end the moment. Both of them were getting something out of it – comfort, as well as human contact – but the water eventually began to get too cool to go unnoticed and Steve shifted, sitting up a bit. His fingers moved up from Tony’s ankle, half-way up to his knee, then drifted off, disappearing. “I think it’s time we get out and have something to eat.”
Tony nodded although he wasn’t certain whether he could stand up long enough to rinse, dry and clothe himself. Of course Steve anticipated that: he let go of Tony’s hand – which prompted Tony to draw his hand back to his own lap – and reached out to the button on the wall that would empty the tub. As the water level lowered, Tony pulled his knees up in a failed attempt to hide himself. There was no point, really, and he wished he was as proud as Steve, who did not hide himself in any way.
“Come on,” Steve said then, offering Tony a hand.
A bit apprehensively, Tony took it, and Steve rose to his feet, water dripping down his gorgeous form. There was no way Tony wasn’t looking up at him, following his own arm over to Steve’s, up to a strong shoulder and the thick neck, blond hair darker when it was wet, lines of water racing down his smooth, muscled chest all the way to the trail of hair that started from his navel and traveled all the way down to the darker skin of his cock…
Tony averted his eyes and looked at the thigh closest to him – which was entirely too close to what most people would be ogling at. What Tony would be ogling at, frankly, if he didn’t respect Steve so much.
“Come on, soldier,” Steve urged and tugged on Tony’s hand, pulling him up. It didn’t look like it was much of an effort – it never was – for Steve to pull Tony up when he could barely take any of his own weight. Even now, Steve placed an arm around him, which left Tony flush against the chest – and then some – that he had just been admiring. Steve didn’t press him in too close, always careful of the arc reactor – just another thing that Tony was thankful for. “Think you can stand on your own?” Steve asked, reaching out to a panel on the wall and starting the showerhead above them.
Tony tried shifting his weight but felt instantly uncertain on his feet. On a normal day, before all this, he would have gotten cocky; right after the accident, he would have gotten angry; now, he simply shook his head. “Don’t think that’s gonna happen, sorry.” So, he had gone from defiant to apologetic.
Steve didn’t seem to mind. He moved them a bit further under the spray. It was more than adequate to get them cleaned up, and Steve didn’t drag it out, turning off the water after a few minutes, taking a careful step to the side, leading Tony along with him. He took his time, waiting for Tony’s shuffled steps to catch up. It would have been easier for Steve to just pick him up like before, but sometimes Steve didn’t do the easy thing and Tony appreciated him all the more for it.
When Tony was at the edge of the tub, once again debating whether he could raise his foot high enough to get to the other side, Steve reached down and lifted his leg for him, then the other, and Tony did not protest or think too much of it, following Steve over to where his towel was. “There are towels in the cupboard there,” Tony motioned, and Steve got himself a fresh one. He merely worked it around his hips, though, while Tony balanced himself on the wall and Steve’s shoulder, then returned his attention to drying Tony.
“How do you feel about pasta and chicken?” Steve asked as he moved a bit lower, to dry Tony’s feet. After their naked bath together, Tony wasn’t sure which felt more intimate.
“Sounds good,” he answered the question about food.
Steve nodded his head and stood up again, slowly, because Tony was still keeping one hand on his shoulder. “Let’s get dressed and I’ll get on it. Shouldn’t take too long.” It meant Steve was hungry, but proclaiming his hunger to other people wasn’t his way of doing things.
Tony noted that Steve had stopped toweling him and took it as a sign to take the cloth from him, carefully, and dry himself in the places where Steve didn’t venture, even after today. Tony guessed it was good because he didn’t want to get an incidental boner while Steve was just trying to dry him off.
Once he was done, Tony threw his towel in the general direction of the sink. He missed by a couple feet but Steve didn’t comment on him making a mess – he would just come back and hang it out to dry once Tony was in the bedroom.
Knowing what was next on the agenda, Tony focused on walking again. It went rather well although he still needed Steve’s support. He selected sweatpants and a hoodie to wear, both easy to get on without assistance. Steve had gone to collect his uniform from the bathroom – and true to form, hung Tony’s wet towel on a heated rail. He took his time before poking his head into the bedroom, noting that Tony had managed to slip into his clothes.
“Give me a moment to dress and I’ll come get you,” Steve said and left, the borrowed towel still snug around his hips.
Tony didn’t crack a joke about Steve seeing him naked before taking him out on a date, instead taking the brief moment to regain his strength before Steve returned, dressed in a simple shirt and pants. He helped Tony up again so that all of Tony’s energy wouldn’t be used to achieve that, and worked as his living crutch all the way to the living room.
“Couch,” Tony decided. “Maybe I’ll get some work done while you cook.”
Steve directed them to Tony’s favorite spot, helped him sit down, moved his tablet a bit closer from where it had been left the last time he stopped using it, and Tony settled into the most comfortable position he could find while Steve busied himself in the kitchen, measuring the water to boil for the pasta and taking the chicken out of the fridge.
While the super soldier puttered around in the kitchen, Tony caught up on a few messages from Pepper concerning Stark Industries, checked news feeds with special filters for anything Avengers-related – then got a call.
“Hi, Jan,” he replied, accepting the video call.
“Hi, Tony!” Jan enthused. “I think this is the first time you’ve actually accepted my call.”
Tony thought about it and she was probably right. “I’ve been busy,” he said – which was mostly true. Also, he had been feeling so crappy that he didn’t want to deal with another human being, especially any of the fellow Avengers who weren’t already on the premises.
“You look good,” Jan noted.
Tony smiled a little. He knew he didn’t, really, because he didn’t take as much time to look like ‘Tony Stark’ these days. His hair was still sticking up after the shower, he hadn’t shaved properly in a few days, but he supposed there weren’t dark circles around his eyes and living with Steve Rogers ensured that he was better fed than ever. “Thanks. How are things over there?”
“Oh, you know, the usual. We rounded up some villains who attempted to form a new and improved Serpent Society – nothing ‘improved’ about those guys, let me tell you – and save for a couple of old faces and one small break-out from Hydro-Base, it’s been slow. We miss you,” she added, looking hopeful. “When are you and Steve coming back?”
“I can’t speak for Cap, but…” Tony wished he could give her an answer – any answer – but he knew he wasn’t ready yet. Today had shown him that more clearly than most events of the last month.
His face must have fallen because Jan instantly changed tactics: “Cheer up, Tony! Maybe we could come and see you?”
“It would be fun,” Jan went on. “I mean, Steve’s fun, too, but… You know how he is.”
Tony’s thoughts shot to various different versions of how Steve was, and he started slightly when suddenly the man leaned over the back of the couch to look at the tablet’s screen.
“Hello, Wasp,” Steve greeted. “Everything okay in New York?”
“Yup,” Jan said brightly. “Don’t feel like that should keep you from heading back or anything.”
“We won’t,” Steve replied. Tony wasn’t sure if it was just him, or could everyone tell this was Steve’s dismissive tone, like he wanted the discussion to end. “Food’s almost ready,” he said in a lower tone, meant for Tony, but Jan heard it, too.
“I won’t keep you,” she promised. “Take care of Tony, Cap!”
“I will,” Steve promised.
Tony rolled his eyes pointedly then disconnected the call. He held the tablet in his lap for a bit longer, wondering how long they could keep this up.
“They’re doing okay,” Steve told him. “Don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried about them,” Tony replied and tossed the tablet onto the table.
“Good,” Steve agreed and waited for Tony to move himself to the edge of the couch; clearly he was waiting to see whether Tony could stand up on his own.
He did, and even took a couple steps before he felt like maybe he needed a little support after all, and Steve’s arm was right there, waiting for him, offering him all the support he could want.
Tony curled his fingers around the strong forearm and made a beeline for the kitchen table, proud of himself for not needing more help than that to get there. Perhaps it was going to be a good day after all, despite the disappointment when it came to testing the armor.
- - -
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.