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When Our Day Comes

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                So the thing is, Tony Stark is an asshole. Objectively. He and Rhodey proved it back in Tony’s second year at MIT, when they assigned values to his behaviors, documented everything he did for a week, ran some basic calculations, and came up with several interesting theories that all, unfortunately, boiled down to: Tony Stark is an asshole.

                “I mean,” Tony said, bracingly, “these methods, though. Rhodey-bear, this is barely math. We’re doing soft science. We’ve become sociologists.”

                “I told you,” Rhodey said, face buried in his hands. “I told you I wanted no part in this. I’ve got a project for Propulsion due, and you said this was an ‘emergency.’ An emergency, you said, so if you don’t like our methods you can get--”

                “We’ve gotta repeat the experiment,” Tony said, with a decisive nod. He smoothed his hands over their field notes, eyes scanning the tally marks, the asides, the stick figures Rhodey had sketched in the margins, killing themselves in a dozen creative ways.

                “No,” Rhodey said. “No.”

                “I’ll be drunk this time,” Tony said. “I unintentionally skewed the results. Must have. I was aware of the experiment, and it changed my behavior. So, drunk. We’ll do it drunk.”

                “You are not,” Rhodey said, desperately, “going to be drunk for a week, Tony. For fuck’s sake.”

                “Yeah,” Tony said. “Yep. Drunk enough to forget I’m being studied. I’ve gotta regress, Rhodey. We’ve gotta go full state of nature on this shit.”

                Rhodey finally lifted his head out of his hands. He leveled a bleak, bloodshot stare Tony’s direction. After a moment, he sighed, heavily, and closed his eyes. “Your Social Science requirements,” he said, with dark resignation, “are gonna be the death of you, Tony.”

                If Tony has learned anything over the course of his life, it’s that people can change their names, their bone structure, and their political affiliations, but their natures always – always – stay the same.

                Tony Stark was an asshole at seventeen, and he’s an asshole now, decades later.

                It’s just bad luck that it’s in Steve Roger’s nature to make people want to be better than they are.

 

- - -

 

                Steve Rogers is the kind of variable that pisses scientists off, just by living, just by functioning, inexplicably, in defiance of modern understanding of the natural order. He’s a footnote in a hundred studies, an outlier in numerous articles that has to be acknowledged and explained. He’s like Bruce, basically, but less fun, less charming, and far less willing to be lured down into Tony’s lab for a casual, only vaguely handsy examination. 

                Steve Rogers is also the kind of surly buzzkill that’s been ruining Tony’s life since he was about fourteen.

                The two of them were predisposed to dislike each other, and Tony, if nothing else, can always be relied upon to live down to someone else’s expectations.

                So, he doesn’t like the guy. He doesn’t hate him. He doesn’t think about him much at all, really.

                Sure, he thinks about him several times a day, but Tony’s brain is a wonder unto itself, capable of spinning in a dozen directions at once, and, so, several times a day is basically not at all.

                He doesn’t obsess over him. Tony knows what obsession looks like, how it tends to manifest when it hits him, and he knows this isn’t obsession, because he hasn’t shown up wasted at Steve’s apartment at some ungodly hour of the night, or bought him anything expensive like a nice watch or a live tiger or a McLaren, or even casually hacked his email more than once or twice, so it’s just the kind of low-level curiosity shared between teammates.

                That being said, he’s fairly observant, even when he’s not obsessing, so he notices the way Steve gets wound up, sometimes.

                He carries it in his shoulders. There’s a slight change in the angle, a tension that ratchets the long, straight line of his shoulders into an unhappy set of inclines, with his shoulders inching ever so slightly toward his ears. And he carries it in his mouth, the way it presses in on itself, bleaches those ludicrous, girlishly pink lips of his into a bloodless line.

                And, sometimes, he’ll shake it off on his own. Usually by destroying another set of punching bags, but sometimes by setting off on a long trip down the coastline, and Tony will watch his progress using the GPS tracker he hid on Steve’s bike, and he’ll think the whole time, while he’s watching, that Steve isn’t sleeping, isn’t resting, isn’t taking breaks longer than needed to refuel. And it’ll hit, on the second day or maybe the third, that now Tony isn’t sleeping, either, just working in his lab with a map pulled up on one of the side-screens, following Steve’s trip, and he doesn’t sleep until Steve gets back, and, so, it’s counterproductive.

                It is detrimental to the team. Someone needs to intervene.

                Because if Steve can’t shake it off, he comes back even worse. That tense line of his shoulders slumps, falls like some kind of surrender, and he gets fussy, grumpy and finicky and even more hyper-controlling than normal. He moves from irritating to insufferable. And, sometimes, he makes mistakes.

                Which is what happened today.

                The debrief’s over, and the rest of the team has shuffled out, and Steve is staring at a still-image of Barton’s body in freefall. Tony recognizes that image, because it’s taken from the suit’s cameras. He’d watched a live feed of Barton falling.

                Because Steve, in the middle of a knock-down fight in Brooklyn, had instructed Barton to jump off the wrong damn side of the building. And Barton, because he’s a moron with all the survival instincts of a coked-up lemming, had done so without hesitation.

                “Hey, Cap,” Tony says, “it’s fine. I still caught him.”

                He’d caught him about twenty yards above the ground, and he’d nearly wrenched his shoulder out of socket in the process. Barton’s still in Medical, and he’ll no doubt sulk around for weeks, acting martyred, because he’s been benched and he had to talk to doctors, and both of those things are, apparently, serious affronts to his dignity.

                And that, Tony figures, is alarmingly indicative of the overall well-being of this team. Because Barton isn’t thrown at all by the fact that he almost died. He’s pissed because he doesn’t get to do it again tomorrow.

                “I know you did,” Steve says. He doesn’t look away from the image on the screen. “You did well today.”

                And God, it’s obnoxious, the way Steve is crucifying himself, right here, in front of Tony and every SHIELD camera hidden behind gaps in the ceiling tiles and all seven of the dusty plastic ferns. Tony wants to shake him. He wants to give him some of Howard Stark’s patented advice about showing weakness in front of a lens.

                He doesn’t do either of those things, because he’s an asshole, sure, but he’s never been an idiot.

                “C’mon,” Tony says, standing up. “Let’s go drink about it. I know you’ve got the world’s most perfect liver, but I made my first still in my closet when I was twelve, so--”

                “Tony,” Steve says. It’s too soft to really be an interruption, but it shuts Tony up for a second anyway.

                “Hey,” Tony says. He should head for the door, but he loops back toward Steve instead. “All I’m saying,” he says, “is that whatever science can build, science can destroy. Give me four hours and a blood sample, and I’ll brew something up that’ll get you so trashed you’ll forget what sober feels like.”

                Steve sighs. He stays where he is, staring up at the projected image, eyes focused on Barton’s form like he’s watching some kind of terrible movie play out, like he can see, somehow, the way things could have gone, if Tony wasn’t fast enough.

                Tony wonders if Steve knows how close Tony came to missing Barton. He wonders if Steve knows how close Tony came to crashing. He’s kept that to himself. No damn reason to burden anyone else with it. But Steve almost lost two Avengers today, and it’s just luck and favorable psychics that saved the rest of the team from having to don their funeral outfits.

                “Hey,” Tony says. For a second, he wavers, unsure and torn by his desire not to make things worse. And then, as usual, he figures the hell with it, and he reaches out, settles his hand lightly on Steve’s shoulder.

                The reaction is immediate. Steve slumps. He unlocks. His eyes slide closed, and there’s a noise in the back of his throat, quiet and strangled, cut off like it’s something he’s ashamed of.

                Tony feels the tension bleed out of Steve’s shoulder, and he watches the thin, bloodless line of his mouth fall into a small, miserable frown.

                It’s like watching a mask slip, just for a second.

                Steve shifts, tips his head like he wants to lean toward Tony, and then yanks himself away. His shoulders fall back into parade rest, and his mouth tightens up, and a flush settles over his face. He stares hard at the floor.

                “Wow,” Tony says, because he’s got a historic and well-documented problem with saying the first thing that pops into his head.

                Steve’s jaw locks, and his chin jerks up, like he thinks they’re going to fight about this. Tony can’t think of a single thing he wants to do less than fight Steve Rogers right now, and that is its own kind of historic.

                He reaches out, hooks his hand around Steve’s arm, high up near his shoulder. “C’mon,” he says. “C’mon, soldier, let me buy you a drink.”

                Steve pauses, screws up his mouth. Tony tightens his hand, just a little, lets his thumb run down the sensitive skin on the inside of Steve’s arm, and Steve looks hurt, maybe, or just a different kind of miserable, but, when he opens his mouth, he says, “Sure. Fine.”

               

- - -

 

                The thing is, Tony’s not even trying to get laid. He’s just curious. He’s intrigued by the reaction. He’s a man of science. Granted, when he leaves the SHIELD facility, his plan is to take Steve somewhere and put his hands on him, but his plan, originally, is limited to platonic physical contact. He figured they’d watch a movie, maybe sit together. Maybe there would be a hug, or a handshake. Maybe they’d go to a spa, do buddy massages.

                It’s not a ploy to get Steve alone. It isn’t.

                He remembers what it’s like. He went years in his childhood without any real affection. That kind of thing can ruin you for decades. And, however unbearable Steve can be, he doesn’t deserve something like that.

                Tony’s trying to be nice. That’s what he’ll tell Rhodey, later, when he calls him and says, “Hey, remember the project we did, in undergrad? Remember how I’m an asshole? Well, find your field notes. We’ve reached new heights.”

                That’s what he’ll tell Rhodey, as soon as he gets the chance.

                As soon as Steve Rogers gets his tongue out of his mouth.

                “Damn, Rogers,” Tony says, instead of calling Rhodey, “did Lady Liberty teach you to kiss like that?”

                Steve blinks at him. He’s always been distracting. He has always been the kind of beautiful that can break necks when he walks into a room. But this close, the view is downright devastating. Tony’s eyes drop to Steve’s mouth, red and wet, and he almost forgets how breathing works.

                “Well,” Steve says, after a beat, “she is French.”

                “Oh my God,” Tony says, eyes darting back up to Steve’s, which are lit with a hesitant, guarded amusement. “Oh my God, I did it. I kissed a sense of humor into you.”

                Steve rolls his eyes, but he smiles, just a little. He’s cautious, seems almost skittish. Like Bambi, if Bambi could throw Tony across the room one-handed. There’s another moment where he hesitates, and Tony thinks, with a desperate marshalling of his better angels, that he should tell him. Right now. He should tell Steve Rogers that they don’t actually have to sleep together. They can do whatever. They can do nothing. They can do anything Steve wants.

                But then Steve tips his chin up in a defiant, dare you sort of challenge. “You wanna see what else your mouth can do to me?”

                And, so, that’s it. That’s it for Tony’s better angels. They turn on their heels, shake hands with their devilish counterparts, and bow out for the evening.

                Tony curls a hand in Steve’s hair, watches the way Steve’s eyelashes flutter and his mouth drops open, and then Tony pulls him in. “Well,” he says, “I am a man of science.”

 

- - -

               

                Tony doesn’t call Rhodey until the next morning. Steve’s continued presence in his bed kind of necessitates a delay.

                There’s a weird thing, right after, when they’re both lying sprawled, catching their breath, where Steve stiffens up in a way that would make a mannequin jealous and then starts making moves like he’s going to leave. And Tony, because he’s an asshole but not a sadist, reels him back in by crawling on top of him. Steve breathes out hard and then wraps his arms around him, and so Tony’s stuck, held captive, until dawn, when Steve wakes up with a jerk and nearly throws Tony out of his own damn bed.

                “What the fuck, Rogers,” Tony says, rubbing at his chest, fingers catching over the old scar tissue. He doesn’t startle so well these days “Don’t wake me up like that.”

                “Sorry,” Steve says. He blinks owlishly at him. “Forgot where I was.”

                Tony snorts. “Pretty shitty morning after behavior,” he says. “To tell people to their face how forgettable they are.”

                Steve’s face falls and then flushes. “I didn’t—that’s not what I---” He closes his eyes, just for a second, like he needs to reorient himself. When he opens them, there’s entirely too much honesty on his face. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve slept for longer than thirty minutes at a time?”

                “I’m kidding, Steve,” Tony says, because he’s not prepared to deal with the implications of any of that. “Anyway, I’m a nightmare before coffee. Don’t talk to me. This is why I normally leave before they wake up.”

                And that, somehow, makes Steve look even worse. “Right,” he says, slowly. He’s still for a second and then shoves the sheets back. “I’ll just—I’ve gotta--”

                “By all means,” Tony says, nodding in agreement, “if you’ve gotta.”

                Steve takes himself too seriously to scramble back into his clothes, but there’s a certain efficiency of movement that suggests to Tony that he wants to. And, wow, that kills the very last remnants of the nice, warm feelings from the night before.

                Steve dresses quickly and is halfway out the door before he pauses, clears his throat. “Thanks,” he says. “For, uh. I just. Thanks.”

                “Oh,” Tony says, nonplussed. “Sure. I consider myself a great patriot.”

                God, no one should talk to him before coffee. For fuck’s sake. He needs a warning label tattooed on his ass.

                Steve nods again, shoots one wan, wide-eyed look Tony’s direction, and then disappears.

                “Ugh, what the fuck,” Tony says, running a hand down his face. “JARVIS,” he says, as he falls back onto his bed, “I despoiled America’s sweetheart. Call Rhodey. Call a tattoo artist. Call a priest.”

                “Absolutely, sir,” JARVIS says, immediately. “Which should I call first?”

                “Rhodey,” Tony says, falling back against his pillow. “Call Rhodey.”

 

- - -

 

                The second time is mostly an accident. Well. It’s not deliberate. And, if pushed, Tony’s reasonably certain that means his lawyers could successfully argue that it is, technically, an accident.

                That tense, out-of-sorts look starts settling over Steve again about a week after he spends the night in Tony’s bed. Tony figures he’ll just go out and stand on a street corner looking earnest until some nice girl takes him out for coffee, but, instead, he climbs onto his bike and takes off and doesn’t stop until he makes it all the way to West Virginia.

                And if that’s not a cry for help, then Tony doesn’t know what the hell is. And he has a nontrivial amount of personal experience with cries for help.

                Tony touches down in West Virginia half an hour later. He finds Steve’s bike parked outside a legitimate, honest-to-God biker bar, and Tony wonders if Steve picked this place because he hates himself or because he thinks, somehow, that he belongs here.

                Tony wanders inside, hands in the pockets of his worn jeans, and he takes a second to be grateful that he was in his workshop when JARVIS notified him of Steve’s whereabouts, because this is not the sort of place anyone wears a suit. He still doesn’t fit in, exactly, but he’s doing a damn sight better than Steve, who’s sitting stiffly at the bar in a grandpa flannel, hair combed back like he got confused on his way to church.

                “Howdy,” Tony says, because he’s reasonably certain that’s how people greet each other on this side of the Mason-Dixon. He settles onto the barstool next to Steve and smirks over at him. “Come here often?”

                Steve takes a deep, steadying breath before he turns his head to look at him. “Trouble?” he asks, shoulders settling like he’s ready to take the weight of the world.

                Tony snorts. He knocks his knee into Steve’s thigh and then leaves it there, in what is meant to be a companionable gesture. “People’ve called me that,” he says, with a shrug. “Sure. But I didn’t bring any bad news with me, if that’s what you’re asking.”

                 Steve blinks. The weight tumbles off his shoulders. Tony can practically feel the tension bleeding out of him, and Tony’s spent his whole life improving machines, but he can’t remember ever putting his hands on a person and making them better.

                He’s not sure that’s what’s happening now. But it’s nice, anyway, to feel like it might be.

                Steve’s hand settles on Tony’s leg, several inches above his knee, but it’s below the bar, subtle enough that people probably won’t notice. He tosses back the rest of his beer, flashes the long, clean line of his throat to the whole bar, like a floozy, like some kind of shameless tease, and then he sets the bottle down and tips his head Tony’s direction, gives him the kind of slow, lingering look of appreciation that Tony’s pretty sure men don’t give other men, in bars like this.

                “Well, Trouble,” he says, “I’ve got a hotel room a little bit up the road, if you’re interested.”

                Tony doesn’t want to go to a hotel room. Tony wants to shove Steve up against this bar and see how far they get before someone calls the cops.

                But Steve’s nice and pure and beautiful, the walking embodiment of every worthwhile American virtue, and Tony should treat him better than that. And he doesn’t want to share him with these people anyway.

                “Sure,” Tony says. “Sounds swell.”

 

- - -

 

                It’s a Motel 6, which is laughable, because Tony knows exactly how much money Steve has in his various accounts, but Tony doesn’t have much time to make jokes about it, because Steve pushes him up against the door as soon as they’re through it and starts working on pulling Tony’s shirt off.

                “Careful, Rogers,” Tony says, holding his arms up to make it easier. “You throw me around too much, and you might take down this whole building.”

                Steve rolls his eyes, which is charming, and starts mouthing his way down Tony’s throat, which is even better. “Sorry,” he says, “next time I’ll stop at a bar next to a Holiday Inn.”

                “A Holiday Inn,” Tony says, already a little breathless. “I’m worth at least a Four Seasons.”

                Steve laughs against the sensitive skin of Tony’s throat, and Tony squirms, wants more.

                “All those bikers,” Tony says, “absolutely think I just walked in there and picked you up.”

                Steve pulls back long enough to give him a questioning look. “Yeah, Tony,” he says, slowly, “because you did.”

                “I did not,” Tony says, offended. “I wasn’t—that’s not—Rogers, my intentions were pure.”

                Steve arches a single brow. “Okay,” he says, after a beat. “And what were you going to do with all those pure intentions?”

                “Don’t mock me,” Tony says, with all the dignity he can scrape together. “I came out here to check on you. As a concerned teammate.”

                “Nice of you,” Steve says. His hands move appreciatively down Tony’s arms, shoulders to elbows and back up, tracing the muscles of Tony’s biceps.

                Tony loses track of his pure intentions and preens, just a little, under the attention.

                “Hey, Tony,” Steve says, hands slowly tracing down his shoulders to his chest to the muscles of his stomach. “About those pure intentions of yours…”

                “I’m sorry,” Tony says, tongue tracing along his lower lip, hips arching, trying to get those hands to move lower. “My whats?”

                Steve flashes him a grin, wicked and happy and maybe a little smug. “Oh, good,” he says. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

                There is a second – a single solitary second – where Tony remembers why he’s here. He remembers he’s here because Steve is lonely and isolated and maybe not making excellent choices. He isn’t here to be a selfish asshole who only cares about himself.

                But then Steve drops to his knees and mouths at him, through his jeans, eager and hot and just a little bit sloppy, like he’s absolutely starving for it, and Tony forgets everything that isn’t Steve’s mouth.

 

- - -

 

                Afterwards, though. Afterwards, he remembers. A little late, he acknowledges, but it still counts.

                “Hey,” he says. They made it to the bed sometime between the first and second round, and now he’s laying half on top of Steve, head on Steve’s chest, and he’s thinking he should probably leave, but maybe not quite yet. “You doing alright, Rogers?”

                “You didn’t wear me out that much,” Steve says.

                “First of all,” Tony says, pushing up onto his elbows, rallying a truly amazing counterargument, and losing all his self-righteousness, immediately, at the stupid, sated little smile on Steve’s face. “Oh, go fuck yourself, Rogers.”

                “Hm,” Steve says, mock-thoughtful. “You probably did wear me out too much for that.”

                Tony heaves out an exasperated sigh and settles back onto Steve. It’s nice. He’s being selfish again, probably. But it’s nice, lying here. Steve’s warm, and sturdy.

                “I just meant,” he says, “that, if you were the picture of mental health, maybe you wouldn’t be picking up stray billionaires in West Virginian biker bars.”

                “Maybe if you were the picture of mental health,” Steve counters, calmly, “you wouldn’t let blondes in biker bars take you back to a Motel 6.”

                Tony rolls his eyes. “Irrelevant,” he says. “If the blonde in question is you, there’s not a person in the world who’d say no.”

                Steve’s quiet for a minute. Tony can hear his heartbeat, if he listens. It’s slow, steady. Relaxed.

                “Thanks,” Steve says, finally, when Tony’s on the verge of falling asleep. “For coming out here.”

                “Sure,” Tony says, because he doesn’t know what the hell else he’s supposed to say to that. He shoves at the bedside lamp until it obliging topples over, shatters into darkness on the floor. “Buy me breakfast in the morning,” he mumbles, into Steve’s shoulder.

                “Okay,” Steve says, rolling into him, wrapping an arm around Tony’s waist. “But you’re paying for that lamp.”

 

- - -

 

                The third time, though. The third time is planned. Tony takes full responsibility for the third time.

                Tony has no idea why Steve won’t just let Natasha set him up with some nice SHIELD agent or let Barton introduce him to some horrible guy he met in line for coffee once or even just step outside and say “I need a date” to the first person who looks at him, but Steve’s unwillingness to get himself a date is not a problem Tony can solve. Tony can’t change Steve’s behavior. All he can do is work within it.

                “Hey,” he says, when he gets the news from Clint that a mission has gone bad, and Steve’s been in the gym ever since. “I think that punching bag is ready to talk.”

                Steve looks up at him. After a second, he stops throwing punches. He’s covered in sweat, from shoulders to navel, and it’s rendered his white shirt damn near transparent. Tony couldn’t keep his eyes from dragging down Steve’s body for all the nuclear launch codes in the world.

                “Need something, Stark?” His tone is noticeably more combative than Steve usually gets with him these days.

                Tony wonders what kind of bad the mission went. He wishes, for the first time, that Clint would get talkative about things other than coffee and fast food joints.

                “No,” Tony says. Because this isn’t about him, and, this time, he remembers that. “I don’t need anything. Just thought I’d see if you did.”

                Steve’s hands drop to his sides. He gives Tony a grim, unreadable look.

                “Wanna get a drink?” Tony offers. “Wanna maybe go a few rounds with the suit?”

                Steve’s still for another handful of seconds, and then he’s moving toward him. There’s nothing threatening about it, exactly, but it’s predatory enough that Tony instinctively takes a few steps back.

                When Steve pins him against the wall, Tony finds himself biting back a sharp, eager grin. Well, he’s always had a problem with adrenaline.

                “No,” Steve says, mouth an inch away from Tony’s, “it’s really not the suit that I wanna go a few rounds with.”

                Tony fists his hands in Steve’s sweat-soaked shirt and tugs him in. Steve kisses him like he might want that fight, after all. But, when his teeth nip at Tony’s lower lip, it’s never quite hard enough to draw blood, and the hand that curls its way into Tony’s hair is always just on the right side of too tight.

                “Fuck,” Tony says, finally, pulling back full minutes after he should’ve put a stop to this.

                “That’s the idea,” Steve says. He looks wrecked. Face flushed, hair mussed, lips bitten red.

                “Come home with me,” Tony says, a bit more urgently than he means to. “I’m not giving SHIELD free blackmail.”

                “Okay,” Steve says, immediately. “Wherever you want,” he says. And then, a half second later, almost like he can’t stop himself. “Whatever you want, Tony.”

                And that’s a signal Tony misses, an opportunity he won’t clock until hours later, when they’re curled up together, again, and Steve’s slipped into a deep, peaceful, wonderfully handsy sleep.

                If he were a better man, he’d find a way to ask Steve what he meant. But, instead, he falls asleep, listening to the sound of Steve’s even breathing, and, in the morning, Steve brings him coffee and smiles at him, murmurs, soft and still a little scratchy with sleep, “I get the best sleep, when I sleep with you.”

                And then Tony’s forgetting his coffee, forgetting his plan, and dragging Steve back down on top of him.

 

- - -

 

                It’s an easy thing, if it’s a thing at all. Tony’s never sure that it qualifies. It’s just sex. Granted, it becomes pretty regular sex, and he’s reasonably certain that neither one of them is sleeping with other people, but that’s all it ever is. Tony tries, twice, to make it into something else. He invites Steve out to dinner, and Steve brings Natasha and Clint. And then, another time, when he decides that maybe Steve’s waiting for a grander gesture, he invites him to Fiji for the weekend, and Steve brings the whole team.

                So, Tony stops with the dates, and settles happily enough into having regular sex with Captain America, and everything’s fine, really, except then Tony, in typical Tony Stark fashion, fucks everything up.

                “I’m sorry,” he says. He is.

                The problem has never been that Tony’s not sorry. The problem has always been that he’s an asshole. Being sorry for a thing never changes that it happened.

                “What?” Steve sounds confused. Which is absolutely his right, because here they are, post-mission, down in Tony’s workshop, nearby table already helpfully cleared by one exceptional sweep of Steve’s beautifully muscled arms, and Tony’s shutting this whole thing down.

                Because he’s tired. Because he’s a little banged up. Because he’s a selfish asshole, and everything, always, has to be all about what he wants.

                “Sorry, Cap,” he says, throwing the nickname out like a little distance is going to make this any easier. “Hey, you know, I think Barton’s got a bit of libertine in his soul. You could go knock on his door. Bring him pizza, and he’ll probably blow you in the hallway.”

                “Tony,” Steve says, face scrunching up, shoulders tightening, “what are you talking about?”

                And this – this, right here – is exactly the problem. This is supposed to help Steve, not make him worse. Tony isn’t supposed to add to the endless list of problems Steve thinks he’s obligated to fix.

                “I just,” Tony says, waving a hand. “Have work to do. Tonight.”

                Steve gives him a long, narrow-eyed look. “Work,” he repeats.

                Tony nods. He’s having a hard time meeting Steve’s eyes, which is ridiculous. “Yep,” he says. “Suit repair. We had kind of an exciting brawl, Cap.”

                Steve nods slowly. For a second, it seems like he’s going to pull away and disappear, and something wrenches up tight and unhappy in Tony’s chest, something that makes him want to grab onto Steve and refuse to let go.

                But this isn’t about Tony. And even if he can’t change his nature, he’d like to pretend, just this once, that he’s not entirely owned by it.

                And then Steve rocks forward, grabs the hem of Tony’s shirt, and pulls it up.

                “What,” Steve says, with feeling, “the hell, Tony?”

                Tony drags his shirt back down. “Manners, Steve,” he tells him. “Mind them.”

                “You told me the suit took that hit,” Steve says. “You told me that--”

                “It did!” Tony yanks his shirt up again, because he might as well. Steve’s already seen the dark stain of bruising marking him all down his right side. “You’ll notice,” he says, gesturing, “that I still have ribs.”

                Steve’s whole face twists up, angry and tense. “C’mon,” he says. He hooks a hand around Tony’s shoulder, and pulls him toward the door. “We’re putting ice on that.”

                It’s ridiculous, really. It’s disorienting. Because however mad Steve is, however tight his jaw is, the hand around Tony’s shoulder is still impossibly careful, like he’s worried Tony’s going to shatter apart.

 

- - -

 

                Later, after Steve is an endless, fussing menace that will not leave Tony alone, does not trust him with his own medical care, and insists, at full volume, on holding the ice pack against Tony’s ribs himself for twenty full minutes, Steve tips Tony carefully into bed and curls himself around him.

                “I thought we were icing those ribs,” Tony snips, instinctively, because he doesn’t know what the hell else to do with the gentle way Steve wraps his arms around him.

                “Yeah,” Steve says, “twenty minutes off, twenty minutes on. This is the off part.”

                “Steve,” Tony says, “they’re fine. I had JARVIS check. It’s just surface bruising.”

                “Okay,” Steve says. He tucks his chin into Tony’s shoulder.

                Tony runs a hand over face. “Steve,” he says. “This is really fucking unnecessary. I’m a grown man.”

                “Yeah,” Steve says, one hand curling around Tony’s hip. “I noticed.”

                Tony can feel Steve smiling, mouth quirking up against Tony’s shoulder, and Tony would throw him out of bed, he really would, but he’s tired, and his ribs hurt, and it’s nice, having Steve wrapped around him like this.

                It’s always nice, having Steve wrapped around him like this.

                He just doesn’t know why the hell Steve’s doing it, when he’s made it pretty damn clear that he’s only interested in sex.

                Steve must read something in Tony’s silence, or maybe Tony’s tensing up without realizing it. He nudges at Tony, makes a questioning noise in the back of his throat. “You want me to go?”

                His voice is soft, when he asks. It makes it easy to imagine that he wants Tony to say no.

                “No,” Tony says, eyes sliding closed.  

                God, he’s an idiot. He’s such an asshole. He’s going to break his own heart over this, because he can’t navigate his way through a single relationship without, somehow, making it completely and entirely about himself.

 

- - -

 

                In the morning, Steve brings him coffee and Advil and then shoves Tony’s shirt up and makes quiet, pleased noises at the state of Tony’s ribs. “Yeah,” he says, with a short, decisive nod. “The ice really helped.”

                “Thanks, nurse,” Tony says, drinking his perfect coffee, in bed with Captain fucking America, wishing he were down in his lab, alone, throwing back yesterday’s grounds-filled leftovers.

                “Hey,” Steve says. “Can we talk about how you told me to go fool around with Clint yesterday?”

                Tony heaves out a heavy sigh, throws his free arm over his face, and promises whatever deity might be listening that he will be the best Avenger – the most faithful and perfect and humble Avenger – if they grant him invisibility right now.

                Just for the next five minutes, even.

                Hell, he could probably work with thirty seconds.

                “Honestly,” Steve goes on, because the universe has never had a single spare molecule of mercy, “I thought that was pretty weird.”

                Tony gathers himself. You’re Tony Stark, he reminds himself. You built an arc reactor in a cave. You once told Pepper Potts you didn’t like her shoes. You can face down anything.

                “Well,” he says, “I’m not saying Barton’s easy or anything, but he does have eyes, so he can see you, and, also, he’s super fucking easy, really, if even half the gossip is true. And trust me, Cap, I know easy. I have lived easy. I am an internationally recognized expert on easy, and---”

                “Tony,” Steve says, slowly. His face is scrunched up, mouth tilted to the side, and Tony’s fucked, he’s absolutely fucked, because they’re about to have their benefits-ending fight, and he’s just now realizing that he’s worked his way into a truly incapacitating infatuation with Steve Rogers. “Why the hell would I go fool around with Clint when you needed someone to look after you?”

                Tony forces himself to sit up, because, as much as he’s tried to fight against it, he’s come to realize that there are conversations you cannot have while lounging topless in your unmade bed.

                “Steve,” he says, “we don’t have the kind of relationship where we look after each other.”

                And God, the look on Steve’s face.

                Tony’s seen Steve Rogers take bullets without looking quite so hurt by them.

                “I mean,” Tony says, immediately, gesturing so sharply that he slops some of that flawless coffee onto the sheets, “that was your call. And I respect it. I do. You’ve been very clear that you didn’t want—that we weren’t going to—I’m trying to respect boundaries. Pepper says I need to work on that, and, Jesus, she would know, right? So I wasn’t going to ask you to stay, when I couldn’t operate within the boundaries of our established—I mean, for fuck’s sake, Steve, the spirit was willing, but the flesh got thrown through a load-bearing wall, you know?’

                Steve stares at him. His eyes narrow, and his jaw locks into full Captain America, and Tony thinks, desperately, that he should’ve put on real pants for this.

                “Tony,” he says, slowly, “what the hell do you mean, this was my call?”

                Tony blinks at him. “I mean,” he says, “you kept bringing the team on our dates. Were you trying to swing some kind of very progressive group thing, because, Steve, I know I have a reputation, but you’ve gotta warn a guy before you drop four extra people in his bedroom.”

                Steve’s staring at him, mouth agape. “Those were dates?”

                “Oh my God,” Tony says, faintly. He puts his coffee down on his bedside table so he can cover his face with both hands. “Good Lord, Rogers.”

                “How was I supposed to know you wanted to date me?” Steve says, suddenly defensive. “You never said! You just kept taking me to bed, and you’ve got this reputation for--”

                “You have a reputation for being a bastion of American virtue, and you’ve had my cock so far down your throat that--”

                “Okay!” Steve says, hands up. “Okay, so that wasn’t fair. The reputation thing wasn’t fair, but Tony, I didn’t expect it. You never said--”

                “I asked you to dinner, Rogers,” Tony says. “I wore a suit.”

                “You always wear suits,” Steve says, a little helplessly. “And every time I tried to spend time with you, we just--”

                “Oh, okay, Steve, I swear to God, if you try to blame all the sex on me---”

                “Blame?” Steve sounds legitimately baffled. “Who’s blaming anyone? I’m just saying, we never just spend time together. We never, I don’t know…” He trails off, gestures vaguely with his hands.

                “Go to dinner?” Tony offers, innocuously.

                Steve stares at him for a long moment and then sighs. That blush that Tony remembers, from the early days of this, makes a sudden reappearance. This is the first time that Tony’s ever realized it runs clear down to his chest.

                “It’s just,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of experience. With dating.”

                Tony feels his whole brow furrowing up. “Are you kidding?” he asks. “Steve.”

                “Well, sex,” he says, with a shrug. “Sure. Tony, I went to war. People can get real liberated when they think they might die in the morning. But we weren’t exactly holding hands and going to art exhibits together.”

                “Is that what you want to do?” Tony asks, feeling like a drowning man finally catching hold of a rope. “You want to go to art exhibits with me?”

                “Oh,” Steve says. Something breaks across his face, fragile and uncertain. It’s the first time in a long time that Tony’s been reminded of how young he really is. “I mean,” he says, with a shrug. “I know it’s not really your thing, but--”

                “Christ, Rogers,” Tony says. “Are you kidding? You want to date me? Do you know I’m Tony Stark?”

                Steve gives him a singularly incredulous look. “Do you?”

                Tony shakes his head, slow and disbelieving. He tries and fails to fight back a smile. “I’d love to,” he says. “Steve, c’mon. You’re Steve Rogers. I let you pick me up in a biker bar and take me to a Motel 6. I’ll go to any damn art exhibit you want.”

                Steve hesitates. A grin forms slowly on his face, and all the tension disappears from his shoulders, and he’s beautiful, blush still fading, eyes bright, grinning like an absolute idiot. “Thanks,” he says. “For not saying Captain America.”

                “Captain America’s got a fantastic ass,” Tony says, as sincerely as he knows how. “But I’m not looking for anything long-term with him. I’m here for Steve Rogers.”

                Steve shakes his head, trying and failing to bully his grin into something more reasonable. “Don’t sweet-talk me,” he says. “I think we both know I’m a sure thing.”

                Tony grins back at him, absolutely shameless. “That’s exactly how I like ‘em.”

                And it’s ridiculous. It’s ludicrous. It’s nothing he deserves.

                He’s an asshole, but who cares? It seems like maybe Steve Rogers is into that sort of thing.