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Never Be Alone

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               Tony can tell, from the tightness of his shoulders and the flat, thin-lipped line he’s bullied his mouth into, that Steve does not approve of the accommodations.

                “This isn’t a safehouse, Stark.” And yeah, there it is. There’s the Captain America wants YOU-- to get your shit together voice.

                Tony graces him with the bland, inoffensive smile he uses on nosy reporters and handsy board members’ wives. “It’s a house,” he says, “and it’s safe. It’s a safe house, Rogers. A safehouse.”

                “This is amazing,” Clint says. He wanders by, already out of his body armor and currently stripping out of his shirt. “Tony, what are the public decency laws around here?”

                “There are none.” Which isn’t exactly true, but there’s certainly no one around to enforce them, and Tony pays enough in taxes that no law enforcement officer is going to set foot on his property for anything less troubling than a livestreamed murder.

                Clint breathes a happy sigh and starts working on his belt. “God bless you, Stark.”

                Steve turns to frown after Clint, hands going to his hips in classic Disapproving Captain fashion. “Barton, do you really think--”

                “Rogers,” Barton says, in a scarily accurate impersonation of Steve’s tone, “we’re benched for three days minimum. That means I don’t have to think for seventy-two hours. So you can start that countdown, and I’m gonna go swim naked in paradise.”

                Steve seems momentarily scandalized into silenced by that speech. Or maybe it’s Clint abruptly dropping his pants that does it. Either way, Steve makes an aggrieved sound in the back of his throat and shoots a glare at Tony, like he’s done anything other than open his beautiful home to a team in need.

                “How’s it going to look if you get killed?” Steve asks, suddenly wheeling back around toward Clint. “And you’re naked in all the crime scene pictures?”

                Clint shrugs, glancing over his shoulder just long enough to grin. “Well, Cap, guess I’d just posthumously take over your place as world’s most favorite Avenger.”

                “Hey,” Tony says, “I’m the favorite.”

                “Sure,” Clint says, with an agreeable shrug. “Hey, Nat, Bruce, let’s get out of here so Tony and Steve can fight in peace.”

                “Done,” Natasha says. She appears out of the hallway, towel around her neck, dressed in a bikini that Tony is reasonably certain she wasn’t wearing under her uniform earlier.

                The swimsuit is Pepper’s, probably. This safehouse is stocked with clothes for him, Pepper, Happy, and Rhodey. He hadn’t thought to send over a shipment with clothes for the team. He hadn’t planned on bringing them here.

                “I’m, uh.” Bruce stalls out, eyes flicking among the group, settling very briefly on Barton’s bare ass before skipping desperately skyward. “There’s a lab, right? Tony, please tell me there’s a lab.”

                “Basement,” Tony confirms. “We’ll go over the blueprints once Cap’s done being disappointed in me.”

                “I’m not disappointed in you,” Steve says, immediately, because his contrariness runs all the way to the marrow. “But this isn’t an appropriate safehouse.”

                “What do you want, Steve?” Tony gestures at the wall of windows, toward the slowly sloping sands that lead into the vibrant blue water. “I got you beaches. Don’t you love storming beaches? Isn’t that your thing? Go relive your glory days, c’mon.”

                Steve’s jaw tightens. Behind them, Clint and Nat slip out the side door, and Bruce, wide-eyed, turns on his heels and sets off into the house.

                “Sorry,” Tony says. “You’re completely right. World War II jokes are not funny. It was very inappropriate, and I’m going to go put myself in time out and reflect on my actions. Bruce will supervise. He’s good at guilt.” He hooks a bottle of whiskey off the nearest bar, holds it up like evidence. “I’ll bring this.”

                “Stark,” Steve starts, eyes narrowed.

                “Family tradition.” Tony cradles the bottle protectively against his chest. “This is how Dad did guilt. Mom preferred Merlot, but we’ll save that for dinner. I’m not an animal, Steven.”

                “Tony,” Steve says, and it’s the sharpness of his voice that shuts Tony up. It’s sure as hell not his name, because he hears his name all the time. People shout it from street corners and lean out of cars to yell it whenever they see him. It’s not his name. Even if Steve almost never uses it.

                “What,” Tony says, a little flatter than he means to. He’s holding the whiskey like a teddy bear. He sets it back down before he embarrasses himself further.

                Steve gestures around them, at the granite countertops and the floor-to-ceiling windows and the open floor plan. “This is not a safehouse. I could kill you from every corner of this room.”

                “Well, Jesus.” Tony’s rethinking his abandonment of that whiskey bottle. “I didn’t know it was fantasy sharing time, Cap. I would’ve brought visual aids for mine.”

                Steve makes the kind of rumbling noise of disapproval that Tony seems uniquely qualified to provoke. Barton’s managed it once or twice, usually by hurtling himself off a building or flirting outrageously over the comms, but Tony is easily the reigning champion of pissing off Captain America in sixty seconds or less.

                “It’s not safe,” Steve tells him.

                It’s perfectly safe. Tony designed this place after Afghanistan. Every square inch of the grounds is under surveillance. There are hidden gun turrets on the beach and a whole squadron of drones hovering in a ring around the island, monitoring any approaching object larger than the average seagull. There are weapons caches and safe rooms and three separate suits down in the lab.

                Tony could explain all of that, but he is, right now, done with trying to explain himself to Steve Rogers.

                He grabs that whiskey bottle off the counter and salutes Steve – poorly, casually, disrespectfully – as he turns to follow Bruce.

                 “If you’d rather go hide out in some SHIELD bunker,” he says, “that’s fine by me, but you’re gonna have to drag Natasha out of the hot tub first. Godspeed, Cap. I suggest you wear a helmet.”

                “Tony,” Steve says, calling after him, and it’s almost enough to get Tony to turn around. Almost, but not quite.


- - -


                “You can bring a man to paradise,” Tony says, awhile later, “but you can’t make him relax.”

                “Hm.” Bruce is working on something complicated. Or, at the very least, he is pretending to work on something complicated as an excuse not to help Tony with that whiskey he brought to the lab.

                “I mean, Barton’s having a hell of a time.” Tony assumes, anyway. He hasn’t checked. JARVIS is monitoring every camera on the island; he’ll let Tony know if there are any issues that require his attention.

                “Well,” Bruce says, “Barton might take a more prosaic view of things.”

                “Of tropical waters and sunshine?” Tony doesn’t even like this whiskey. He bought it, years ago, to impress Obie. Which means he really bought it to impress Howard.

                Which means it’s smoky and heavy and more complicated than it needs to be.

                But it’s still better than whatever room temperature tap water Steve’s knocking back. Probably.

                “Of you almost getting shot in the head,” Bruce says, finally glancing over. He narrows his eyes and then adjusts his glasses, and Tony fights off the irrational urge to play for time by dramatically choking on his drink.

                “Tony,” Bruce says, “he’s worried.”

                Tony rolls his eyes, pours himself another round. “Why would he be worried? No one’s shooting at him.”

                “It’s Steve,” Bruce says, in much the same way that someone might say there’s a tornado or that’s a rattlesnake or the IRS found the offshore accounts. Steve Rogers is a natural disaster. Steve Rogers is the walking human embodiment of unrelenting will.

                “Yeah,” Tony says, knocking back his whiskey with grim resolution, “it’s Steve.”

                Bruce raises his eyebrows. “He’d probably be much happier if they were shooting at him.”

                “He’s such a diva,” Tony says, under his breath.

                “He’s a mother hen,” Bruce counteroffers.

                “Well, I’m not some helpless baby chick,” Tony says.

                “Tony,” Bruce says, with that saint-like patience he trots out whenever he’s feeling particularly tested, “you almost caught a bullet with your face right in front of him.”

                Tony scowls down at his empty glass and tries to decide if he can justify refilling it. “He’s a soldier. He should be used to that.”

                Brue sighs. “I imagine he is,” he says, and he sounds so tired, so deep in his own head, that Tony forces himself to his feet and wanders over, rests his chin on Bruce’s shoulder while he squints at the screen.

                “Your math is wrong,” he says, finally. It isn’t, of course, but it’ll take Bruce’s mind off things.


- - -


                “I once used a similar recipe to seduce a man in Kiev,” Natasha says, while doing something intricate and endlessly impressive with her knives. It’s almost dinnertime, and Natasha, Clint, Tony, and Bruce are all crowded around the kitchen island while Nat and Clint work their way through meal prep.

                Steve, apparently not feeling martyred enough, took off on a run around the island two hours ago and hasn’t returned. JARVIS reports that Steve is checking the perimeter.

                Tony turns curious eyes Clint’s direction, where he might be making drinks but also might just be harassing some limes he found.

                “And these drinks you’re making,” Tony says, deciding to frame this as optimistically as possible, to speak his will into the world, “do they also have a history of beguiling SHIELD targets?”

                Clint snorts through his nose. “Nah, I just use my ass to seduce shady arms dealers,” he says, matter-of-fact. “But I learned how to make a mean margarita from a Bulgarian aerialist when I was twelve.”

                Bruce tips his head to the side. “Really?” he asks, like he hasn’t learned by now to stop asking questions about Clint’s time in the circus.

                “Yeah.” Clint slams a lime against the counter and then rolls it under his hands. “She was afraid of heights. Did every show blitzed out of her head. It worked alright until we ran out of tequila.” He walks his fingers in midair and then tips them over, kicks them wildly until they drop heavily to the granite countertop. “Like a rock,” he says, decisively.

                “My God.” Bruce sounds alarmed. This is exactly why Tony stopped asking Barton about the circus.

                “So, Nat,” he says, loudly, “this man in Kiev--”

                “Not a sexy story, Tony,” she says, with an apologetic shake of her head. “As soon as I got him alone, I tranqed him and tipped him out a window for pickup.”

                Tony raps his knuckles against the counter, not even trying to keep the disappointment off his face. “You could at least describe what you were wearing.”

                She looks up. She’s doing something absolutely vicious to the pineapple. Between her and Barton, fruit on this island must be running scared.

                “Steve changed out of his uniform before he left,” she tells him. “Last I saw, he was running this island in a pair of running shorts that looked like they belonged to Pepper Potts.”

                Tony immediately shifts his focus, damn near straining his neck turning to stare hopefully out the front windows. He’d be embarrassed about it, except Barton goes up on his tip toes to see farther.

                “No shit?” Barton says, as he mercilessly juices the limes, eyes pinned out the window. “Rogers is giving the seagulls a free show?”

                “This is really inappropriate,” Bruce announces. He shrugs when everyone shoots him incredulous looks. “I just want it acknowledged, for the record, that I was not participating in the objectification of Captain America.”

                “That just makes you a piss-poor patriot,” Clint says, dismissively.

                “God bless America,” Tony adds, in resolute agreement.

                The echoing pop of the tequila bottle opening feels like a clear and decisive endorsement.


- - -


                When Steve finally makes his return, all four of them are out on the patio, pleasantly buzzed. Bruce and Tony are swapping idle chatter about the potential perils and grammatical complications of time travel while Natasha and Clint engage in what is probably a friendly disagreement about the proper way to grill a pineapple.

                Steve comes jogging up the path in a pair of offensively small bright blue jogging shorts. He’s shirtless and windswept and glistening – actually glistening – in the warm sunset glow.

                “Sweet abs of liberty,” Tony says, hooking his sunglasses down his nose to get a better look.

                “Of thee I sing,” Clint intones, reverently.

                “Do we have an HR? I’m emailing them tomorrow,” Bruce says, covering his eyes with one hand. Tony might’ve been shamed by the disapproval in Bruce’s voice, but, when he glances over, Bruce’s fingers are cracked just far enough apart to give him a pretty decent view.

                “Hey, Steve,” Nat says, with unassailable calm, “you hungry?”

                “Smells amazing,” Steve tells her. He gives her a friendly, easy smile that he has never once directed Tony’s way – not that Tony is counting, or keeping score, or obsessing about why his score is always so low – and then glances toward the rest of them.

                “Amber waves of gains,” Clint greets, before throwing out a jaunty salute that Steve promptly returns, apparently on instinct.

                “Amber--- what?” Steve says, brow furrowing.

                “Mine eyes,” Tony says, “have seen the glory of the coming--”

                “You wish,” Clint mutters. “You wish you’d seen--”

                “Okay!” Bruce stands up. He does a strange, agitated little jazz hands maneuver and nearly capsizes his drink in the process. “Okay, that’s great. Nat, are the burgers ready?”

                Steve squints suspiciously around at the four of them. “Have you all been sitting here drinking the whole time?’

                “Not the whole time,” Clint hedges. “There was a break when I had to go juice more limes.”

                Steve’s hands land on his hips. His mouth starts to twist downward.

                “Run,” Tony advises, tipping his head back in surrender. “Save yourselves. You know he only really wants to yell at me.”

                “God bless and keep you,” Clint says, vaulting out of his pool chair with a grace that Tony finds frankly insulting, given the amount of tequila he’s downed in the past two hours. “Nat, save the burgers.”

                “I’m not going to yell,” Steve says. “I’m just—someone attacked us and--”

                “They attacked Tony,” Natasha says. She turns away from the grill just long enough to point her spatula Tony’s direction. “It was an SI-related assassination attempt, Steve. They weren’t after the Avengers.”

                The look Steve gives her could politely be described as dubious in nature. “Stark is an Avenger.”

                 “Oh my God.” Tony presses his hand to his chest, right over his arc reactor. “You guys heard that, right? Everyone heard that? I made the team. No take-backsies, Cap. You already said it.”

                Steve turns that look of exasperated disbelief on Tony. “What the hell is wrong with you, Stark? Someone almost shoots you in the head, and you go on vacation? We should be--”

                “Now, Cap,” Tony says, “if we interfered in every little criminal case--”

                “Almost shot you,” Steve repeats, doing an awful lot of yelling for a man who thirty seconds ago declared he wasn’t going to, “in the head!”

                Tony heaves a sigh and finishes his drink. Clint really is a margarita prodigy, although his free-pouring technique lacks the accuracy and consistency of his sharpshooting. “Rogers, I’m sorry this little corporate spat interrupted your photo op. I’m sorry you had to use the shield in front of all those kids. I’m sorry we were pulled off active duty and have to spend a weekend in a tropical paradise while--”

                “Corporate,” Steve repeats, really leaning in to the volume now, hitting almost full battlefield roar, “spat?”

                “Gentleman,” Natasha says. Her tone is even and pleasant. Her grip on that spatula has changed in a subtle but extraordinarily menacing way. “Dinner’s ready.”

                “Right,” Tony says, launching himself to his feet with a quickness that would’ve spilled his drink, if there were any drink left to spill. “Let’s eat.”


- - -


                Tony sobers up a little over dinner, primarily because Captain Temperance pours coffee into everyone’s wine glasses like some kind of monster. Natasha, being Natasha, gets up halfway through dinner to grab the Kahlúa, but she only pours some for her and Clint before very deliberately putting the bottle back where she found it.

                Tony cannot believe he is being disrespected so thoroughly in his own home.

                Except this is exactly how he’s treated back at the Tower, where the Avengers have settled to the point of casual disregard. Tony’s been doing his best not to be charmed by the knives Natasha leaves lying around or the empty energy drinks and protein bar wrappers that clutter up behind Barton like breadcrumbs. He refuses to be warmed by the sight of Bruce’s research journals – paper copies, with handwritten notes scrawled in the margins – or Steve’s art supplies heaped in precarious stacks in regularly trafficked areas.

                But it’s been years since Tony lived anywhere that felt homey, and it’s been some kind of revelation, the realization that to have a home you need a family.

                Not that Tony has one of those. Not that he’s in one of those. But Barton and Romanoff are their own kind of family, and they’ve provisionally adopted Bruce, and Steve is Steve Rogers, so he’s welcome anywhere that isn’t a terrorist camp or Hydra base. So it’s like living with a family. It’s like renting a room in someone else’s house, if that house happened to belong to him and the family consisted of full-grown adults who never really learned how to pick up after themselves.

                “Thanks,” Tony says, when dinner is winding down. “For dinner,” he clarifies, a second later, for no reason at all.

                “Sure,” Natasha says.

                “Thanks for letting us stay here,” Barton throws out, with one of those rare resurrections of his Midwestern manners. “Much better than lockdown in a SHIELD facility.”

                Steve’s chin lifts. His eyes narrow. “A SHIELD facility--”

                “Would have a much cheaper liquor stash,” Natasha says. “And we’d have to steal it from the junior agents.”

                Steve frowns. “But it would be--”

                “So fucking boring,” Clint says, nodding along like they’re in perfect agreement. “And a safety hazard. You don’t know the dark depths of vengeance until you steal a junior agent’s half-empty bottle of Jägermeister from a filing cabinet down in Records.”

                “Tony,” Natasha says, before Steve can work his way to another objection, “show us to our rooms?”

                “Oh, sure.” Tony climbs to his feet. On his way out, just to make some kind of point even he doesn’t fully understand, he grabs that bottle of Kahlúa and tucks it under his arm like a trophy.


- - -


                “Connecting bathroom, separate bedrooms,” Tony announces, as he herds Natasha into her room. Clint bops along right behind her, certain of his welcome in a way that Tony is not even the least bit jealous of. “Or if you’d rather--”

                “No, this is great,” Clint says.

                Tony doesn’t fully understand the nature of their relationship, but he knows they close ranks after any kind of danger. And even if the threat wasn’t aimed their direction, and even if they’re being remarkably lackadaisical about the whole thing, he’s noticed that the two of them haven’t been more than ten feet apart all evening.

                “You know,” Natasha says, as she examines the bar in the corner of the suite and checks the sightlines through the window. “He’s worried about you.”

                Tony blinks. “Who’s worried about Barton?”

                “Steve’s worried about you,” Clint says. “Don’t get all deflective. It’s unbecoming.”

                “Who taught you that word?” Tony sizes Barton up. “Have you been watching Downton Abbey again?”

                Clint shrugs and does not look ashamed. “I watch it with Happy. He thinks it’s elegant.”

                “Deflection,” Natasha says, half-singing it.

                “You know,” Tony says, “next time, the two of you are welcome to stay in a SHIELD safehouse.”

                Clint snorts. “Then you’d better leave Bruce with us, too. You can’t make him play third wheel to the Rogers-Stark show. He’d throw himself into the ocean and then where’d we be?”

                “It’s Stark-Rogers,” Tony says. “Wait. No. It’s nothing. There’s no show. There’s no hyphen. There’s nothing.”

                “Oh, Tony,” Clint says, launching into an abrupt Victorian-inspired falsetto, “I’m so upset. Someone tried to kill you in front of me. Hold me, I’m frightened.”

                “Oh, Steve,” Natasha calls back, in a flattering baritone, “why don’t I just antagonize you from a safe distance instead? It’s foreplay.”

                “The two of you,” Tony says, in very steady tones, “are completely deranged.”

                “All I’m saying is,” Clint says, hands up, “I don’t flash that much of my ass unless I want someone to see it.”

                “And I don’t spend two hours running the entire perimeter of an island unless there’s something on it I want to protect.” Natasha, who’s usually the sane one, smiles at Tony beatifically over the rim of her nightcap, and Tony’s legitimately starting to worry that someone spiked the tequila with something psychedelic.

                He’s worried that he spiked the tequila with something psychedelic. He isn’t always in the best headspace when he retreats to this particular island.

                “Steve loves running perimeters,” Tony says. “He puts himself on watch at the Tower all the time. Seriously. The guy does perimeter checks of the penthouse every night.”

                Natasha and Clint share a long look. Clint’s expression is bleak, almost pained. Natasha looks fond and amused and exasperated, the way she does whenever Clint’s done something especially asinine in the middle of a firefight.

                “Clint.” Natasha’s tone is blandly innocent, and every hair on the back of Tony’s neck immediately stands straight up. “When was the last time Steve did a check of your room before tucking you in at night?”

                “He doesn’t--” Tony huffs, stutters. “He doesn’t tuck me--

                “The only time Steve has ever been in my suite,” Clint says, “is that time he heard a lot of screaming and thought I was being murdered.”

                Tony remembers that evening. That was the night they made the house rule that Clint has to issue a public warning before watching any horror movies without Natasha’s calming presence to keep him from screaming like an entire Girl Scout troop at every jump scare.

                “Well, that’s.” Tony pauses, thinks it over. Steve’s in his penthouse damn near every night, wandering from room to room, making awkward small talk about upcoming or completed missions while he eyes each window like it has personally disappointed him.

                “Oh,” Tony says, with sudden realization. “He thinks I can’t handle myself.”

                Natasha’s forehead makes a soft thunking noise as it falls into her hands. Clint half-smothers a bark of shocked laughter.

                “He’s hoping you need some help handling yourself,” Clint says, after a moment. “He’s volunteering for handling duty. He’s enlisting in hands on--”

                “Okay,” Tony says. “Wow. Do you write greeting cards? Something to consider. A side-hustle.”

                “Tony,” Natasha says, and there’s really no discernable change in her tone or her body language, but there’s something in the way she’s looking at him that seems substantial, significant. “He’s lost a lot. I don’t think he’s prepared to take emotional risks right now. The first move has to be yours.”

                Tony blinks at her. “What are you talking about?”

                Barton gives Tony a look of sympathy and then slaps Tony bracingly on the shoulder. “Fish or cut bait, Stark,” he says.

                Tony appreciates Barton’s dedication to tropical metaphors, but he wishes, as he salutes them with the Kahlúa bottle, that he would at least have the decency to make any damn sense at all.


- - -


                Steve’s in the master suite, honest-to-God double-checking the manual window locks. As far as Tony knows, those locks are purely decorative, but he sees no reason to mention that as Steve paces from one to the other, running his thumb along the tiny metal latches like he thinks he needs to physically investigate the durability of each one.

                “You know, Steve,” Tony says, “there’s actually a pretty complicated security system on this island.”

                “JARVIS told me,” Steve says, sounding distant. He’s crouched, investigating the integrity of the window sill. “Stark,” he says, “there’s a gap--”

                “Okay,” Tony says, setting aside the glass of water Steve had handed him five minutes ago, “is this some kind of anxious quirk or do you honestly think I’m incompetent?”

                Steve rises to his feet. The halfway guilty look he directs toward Tony is in no way reassuring.

                “Incompetent,” Tony says. “Got it.”

                “No,” Steve says. “I don’t--”

                “Because actually,” Tony continues, “actually, Steven, people have been trying to hurt me for a very long time. I was kidnapped for the first time at age eight. I’m not exactly a beloved figure. ‘Merchant of Death,’ remember? When it isn’t AIM, or Loki, or Vanko, or the Ten Rings, sometimes it’s just people I’ve hurt. And I’ve hurt a lot of people. Sometimes they buy guns and try to shoot me at scheduled Avengers events, and there’s really nothing I can do about that other than stop attending, which I am happy to do if--”

                “It used to be me,” Steve says. “You don’t have to tell me all of that. I get it, Tony. It used to be me they shot at.”

                Tony blinks at him. “It used to—what?”

                Steve runs a hand through his hair. It’s the only part of him that seems to know they’re in the tropics. The salt water and sunshine made it curl, just a little.

                “Look,” he says. “I know SI’s history. I know what Stane did. I know the SI logo has been a target on your chest for a while, but I wore the colors during wartime, Tony. I wore them as a uniform. That wasn’t just an invitation to every enemy soldier. Civilians would take shots at me, too. With the last of whatever ammo they’d saved. They saw the colors, and they--”

                Steve breathes out. His eyes are shuttered for a second. Tony hasn’t seen that look on his face since the early days, when the good Captain was still midway through defrost.

                Steve makes a small, sharp gesture with his hands. His mouth twists up in a grimace. “The thing about war is that people sometimes do things in your name that are just as bad as what you’re fighting against. Some of those civilians had damn good reasons for shooting at any American flag they saw. So I wore it, to make sure they shot at me.”

                It has never once occurred to Tony that Steve’s relationship with the American flag might be more complicated than sheer starry-eyed devotion.

                It’s unsettling, sometimes, catching glimpses of Steve Rogers behind the grand, bunting-draped bulwark of Captain America.

                “People remember the dancing,” Steve says. He doesn’t sound bitter; if anything, he sounds confused, like he’s not sure how he got so lucky. “They remember the dancing and the singing and punching Hitler in the face. People used to spit on me, Tony. I’d show up in cities where women had already lost their brothers and husbands and ask for their sons and their life savings, too. People hated me. I hated myself.”

                “Jesus, Steve,” Tony says. He spins his water glass in his hands. “Have you talked to anybody about this?”

                Steve gives him a patient look. “What I’m saying is that I get it. Alright? And now that it’s not me anymore, I get why Bucky was so pissed off all the time about me not just wearing a regulation uniform.”

                “You want me to change my clothes?” Tony hazards, feeling lost. “Is that what you want?”

                The look he gets this time is a little less patient. “I want you to be safe.”

                Tony blinks at him. He hasn’t been safe since he was eight years old and the first batch of intrepid kidnappers finagled their way past his father’s assigned security detail. “Cap, we’re Avengers. None of us are safe. I can’t give you that.”

                Steve shrugs. He smiles, but his eyes are distant again, blank. “Sure,” he says, with a nod, “I know that. But you asked what I wanted. And that’s it, Tony. I want you to be safe.”

                Tony stares at him. There’s a moment, just then, between the two of them. Tony can feel it stretching out. He hears Natasha, the first move has to be yours, and Clint, fish or cut bait. But he’s tired and slightly drunk, and he promised Rhodey years ago, back at MIT, that he’d stop making impulsive romantic decisions in the first twelve hours after a near-death experience.

                “I’m gonna get some sleep,” Tony says, instead of doing something selfish and destructive like planting his mouth right on Steve’s. “I think you should, too.”

                “Yeah,” Steve says. His hands are back on his hips, which makes three times in one day. He really is unsettled.

                “This is a safehouse, Cap,” Tony tells him. “Safest one I have.”

                Steve nods. He looks lost, standing there in borrowed clothes that must’ve been Rhodey’s because they almost – almost – actually fit. “Hey, Tony?” he says, as Tony starts toward the bedroom.

                Tony doesn’t look back. He’s been making a genuine effort to be a better, more careful person. He’s had mixed results so far, but he’s looking to accumulate more data before labeling it a failure. “Yeah, Steve?”

                “I’m gonna sleep on your coach, okay?” Steve sounds embarrassed but determined. Pushing against him would just make this into another shouting match. “I just—I have to.”

                Tony thinks about Clint and Natasha, shortening the rope that always ties them together. He thinks about Bruce dodging to the lab to start working on a suit that would auto-detect weapons in a crowd and deploy shields before they were fired. He thinks about himself, in that bleary span of time after Steve’s shield deflected a bullet meant to splatter his brains in front of dozens of first graders; he thinks about directing JARVIS to commandeer the quinjet and fly the team to a remote, heavily fortified island in the Caribbean. He thinks about how, in that moment, he was a danger to all of them, and he still couldn’t bring himself to leave them behind.

                “Sure, Steve,” he says. “You can be on watch if you need to.”

                There’s an exhale and a rustle, the gentle click of Steve checking the window locks all over again. “Thanks, Tony,” he says, in the very last second before Tony’s bedroom door shuts.


- - -


                In the morning, Tony feels lightly hungover, and it’s anybody’s guess as to whether that has more to do with the adrenaline crash or the alcohol. He lounges in bed for a while, putting off the moment when he’ll have to face the news articles and the subsequent stock drop, but he sits up when there’s a hesitant knock at his door.

                “Yeah?” he asks. He’s not sure who he’s expecting. Barton, maybe, who doesn’t always respect personal space and has crashed into Tony’s bed at high speeds in the past, seeking sanctuary after pulling Thor’s pigtails or swiping Natasha’s weaponry.

                “Hey,” Steve says. He shoulders his way inside. He’s carrying two coffee cups in his hands, and he looks awkward and rumpled and sleepy-eyed. “Coffee?”

                “You’re a saint,” Tony tells him. Steve’s a saint, and Tony’s a sinner, and he should really stop staring at the way that t-shirt is straining valiantly over the heavy muscles of Steve’s chest.

                “Here,” Steve says, when he gets close. JARVIS helpfully decreases the opacity of the windows, letting in some morning sunlight as Steve peers curiously aroundbefore deciding to settle on the foot of Tony’s bed, staring out at the water.

                “Sleep well?” Steve asks, taking a sip of the coffee with a carefully casual air about him.

                Tony blinks at him. He feels like a man who’s walked into his kitchen to find a gazelle doing the dishes. He feels like something magical is happening, something unbelievable, and he’s absolutely going to ruin it at some point, but, if he’s very still and very good, maybe it won’t be right now.

                “Sure,” he says, keeping his voice soft and his tone upbeat. “Did you?”

                Steve shrugs. “Didn’t sleep.”

                “Right,” Tony says. “You were on watch.”

                Steve runs a hand through his hair. The smile he directs toward Tony is rueful. “Sorry,” he says. “I’m just not used to—with the Howlies, we were never that far apart, after an incident. I never had to leave any of them alone.”

                Tony doesn’t have words, exactly, for how it makes him feel, the idea that Steve thinks about the Avengers in the same way that he thought about the Howling Commandos. It’s possible Tony’s overinvested in this team. It’s possible he’s already in too deep, has no chance of making it back to shore.

                Ship’s out of the harbor, he thinks, nonsensically. Tide’s going out.

                The next thought should probably be here there be dragons, but, instead, he just gets a flash of Clint’s sympathetic smile and another repeat of fish or cut bait.

                The thing is, it’s always been tense between him and Steve. Part of that is Tony’s fault. He wanted so badly for Captain America to be impressed and then, later, he wanted Steve Rogers to be impressed. Maybe he’s been too caught up in how he feels about Steve to notice the way that Steve might feel about him.

                It makes sense, of course, that Steve would worry about him. He’s Tony’s Captain. He’s the leader of the team.

                Yesterday, after the shot ricocheted off Steve’s shield, Clint tackled Tony bodily to the ground and wrapped himself around him, ankle-to-ankle and temple-to-temple, so any bullets that came at Tony would have to go through Clint first. Bruce went green in an instant, roaring, and Natasha was gone even faster, sprinting through the crowd with the single-minded focus of a predator after prey.

                When she came back, her knuckles were bruised and there was blood splattered across the fingers she used to lift Tony’s chin to the light. When she stared down at him, there was something feral and broken-open in her eyes that slowly sealed itself shut as she looked him over.

                “Steve’s got him,” Natasha said. “You’re safe.”

                “I’m fine,” Tony said, still struggling to wriggle free of Clint’s deathgrip around his waist. “Would everyone stop making a fuss? This is ridiculous.”

                It’s so stupid, Tony thinks, the way they are about each other. All of them. Thor’s been in Asgard for a month or that park would’ve been lit up by lightning, too.

                It’s possible – maybe, just maybe, he’s trying not to jinx the theory by asking it to hold too much weight too early on – that Tony’s not this team’s landlord. It’s possible he’s been one of them all along.

                And maybe the way Steve is about him – the way he’s always double-checking Tony’s penthouse for threats, the way he’ll go full obscenity-laden Brooklyn on camped-out paparazzi, the way he’s always fretting and fussing and following Tony around – has nothing to do with him thinking Tony can’t take care of himself.

                “The thing is,” Steve says, slow and careful and resolute, bracing himself, “I was standing right beside you, and you almost died. And that happens a lot. Nature of the job. But I wouldn’t have been fast enough if I wasn’t paying so much attention to you.” He takes a breath. He’s staring hard at his own hand, curled around his coffee cup. “I’m always looking at you, Tony.”

                I want you to be safe, Tony thinks. And, one last time, fish or cut bait.

                When he kisses Steve, he tastes like black coffee and toothpaste. Steve’s facing away from him, so he gets the side of his mouth on the first attempt, but their second kiss is better. Steve turns to face him, drops his coffee cup on the bedside table, and crawls half on top of Tony in an instant, needy and almost desperate.

                “What,” he says, right into Tony’s mouth. “What is--”

                “Hey,” Tony says, “Steve, come on. Words later.”

                And it’s strange, maybe. Tony expected something else. He’s kissing a living legend, but the only legendary thing about it is the way Steve moves his tongue in Tony’s mouth, the heat of Steve’s hand wrapping around his waist, the weight of him, pressing Tony’s back against the bed. It’s perfect. It’s Steve Rogers instead of Captain America, and Tony’s acquainted enough now with both of them to know which one he prefers.

                “I can’t,” Steve says, pulling away just far enough to start mouthing the words against Tony’s neck. “I can’t do this if it’s casual, Tony. I’m not--”

                “Steve,” Tony says. He gets his hands on Steve’s hips and suddenly understands why Steve’s always putting his hands on his hips. He gets the draw. He understands it completely.

                “No, wait,” Steve says, and he shifts away, putting space between them. “Tony, I mean it. I’m not--”

                “Steve, you morning make-out terrorist,” Tony says, deeply aggrieved, “get back here.”

                Steve narrows his eyes and does his patented Captain America jaw clench, and Tony wants to lick him. He wants to drag his tongue up the blade of Steve’s jaw and stick his hand right down his pants.

                This, he realizes, is going to make for some awkward mission briefings in the future.

                “Tony,” he says, very seriously. His eyes are sea-blue and intense, focused completely on Tony. “If this isn’t serious for you, then it’s best if we don’t do it at all.”

                Tony thinks, at this particular moment, Steve could shift in Tony’s lap and say Let’s topple the UN and name ourselves Co-Emperors of Earth. He could ask for a controlling interest in SI; he could ask for half of Tony’s cars. He could ask for all the vibranium in the world. He could ask for the world. He could ask for anything.

                “Steve,” Tony says, as patiently as he can, “I had a near-death experience and whisked you off to a tropical paradise. I almost made Barton row himself home in a dinghy yesterday for ogling you too much. I let you sleep on the couch because I respected you too much to take you to bed. I am gone over you, Rogers. There’s no more serious than I already am.”

                “Oh,” Steve says. He grins, heedless and a little dopey. He looks nothing at all like a recruitment poster or a magazine cover. It’s special, and private, and just for Tony.

                “C’mon,” Tony says, putting his hands back on Steve’s hips and pulling him close. “We’re benched for another forty-eight hours while SHIELD finishes its threat analysis.”

                “Forty-eight hours,” Steve repeats. He sounds cautiously delighted. He sounds like someone who’s not sure he’s earned this.

                “Could stretch it to seventy-two,” Tony murmurs, leaning up to press a kiss to the underside of Steve’s jaw, “if we tell them Barton got eaten by an iguana.”

                “In your perfect, impregnable safehouse?” Steve says, and it’s really unfair that he can be so damn snotty while also slipping his fingers into Tony’s pajama pants. “Gun turrets would shred it in a second. I’d never sully your good name like that.”

                “Flatterer,” Tony accuses.

                “You’re an impressive guy, Tony,” Steve says, a little too breathless to be casual.

                Tony kisses him, because he can’t not. He can’t help it. It’s all he’s wanted to hear, maybe since the moment he laid eyes on Steve Rogers brawling with a Norse god in Berlin.

                “Hey, Steve,” he says. “I’m probably pretty safe if you stay on watch in bed with me.”

                Steve rolls his eyes. There’s a blush settling in along the lines of his cheekbones, and Tony has never been so enchanted in his life.

                Tony’s expecting something dismissive, another joke for their back-and-forth. But Steve’s face softens in the sunrise glow, and it’s better than any fond eyeroll he’s directed at Barton, any friendly smile he’s given to Nat. It’s sweet and genuine and perfect.

                “Well,” he says, starting to smile, “then I guess I’d better stay.”

                “Yeah,” Tony says, grinning up at him, “I’d guess you’d better.”