Let Him Come
The silence in the room was broken only by the soft sobs of Bruce and Steve. Clint, his face pale and eyes unfocused, reached over to the doctor and rubbed soft circles into his back.
Steve had lowered his head to his knees, hoping the position helped with the nausea threatening to empty his stomach – though at this point, maybe that’d help with the overwhelming guilt that had taken residence there.
Natasha replaced her hand on Steve’s shoulder, offering a small gesture of compassion – the most she was able to give at the moment, as her own emotions were swirling dangerously.
The four Avengers held their positions, two offering what comfort they could, and two trying to battle off debilitating guilt or all-encompassing rage and sorrow.
“Obadiah Stane?” Clint finally asked, as Bruce’s breathing slowed, his sobs turning into deep, shuddering breaths. “Stark’s old business partner who died in the plane crash a couple years ago?”
“That’s the official story according to S.H.I.E.L.D.” Natasha replied, her hand clenching slightly against Steve’s shoulder. Steve tried to anchor his wayward, depressed thoughts to the gesture, pulling his mind back to the present.
“Something tells me that’s not the truth,” he mumbled against his hands. He was rewarded by a tightening of the grip on his shoulder.
“You are correct,” Natasha replied, her tone bitter.
Steve braced himself, his mind screaming at him to leave it be – he couldn’t handle anything more.
“He was a monster.”
Steve uncovered his hands to glance at Bruce, whose voice was hoarse. The doctor uncurled himself from the ball he’d made in the corner of the couch, wiping his face with the back of his hand.
Bruce trained his tormented gaze on Steve. “He betrayed Tony, then tried to kill him.”
“In the most intimate way possible,” Natasha added, her voice soft.
Clint caught her eye, sending her a knowing look, trying to offer support with just a glance. He knew the nightmares that plagued her, the fear of a slow death by one she loved. Betrayal was a terror Clint understood completely.
“He stole the reactor right from Tony’s chest,” Bruce said, responding to the look of confusion on Steve’s face. “Then left him to die.”
Steve’s mind just couldn’t process any more emotion. The pain was muffled now, his thoughts moving slowly to comprehend. ‘He was there, you know, when…’ That’s what Tony had said. The boy had admitted to feeling indebted, grateful even, for the man’s presence. Tony Stark had shown gratitude.
God, the boy must have worshiped the man, Steve thought. Nothing less would warrant that kind of admission from the man. And Stane had then betrayed him. After almost 30 years. Steve groaned.
“He covers it when he sleeps,” he croaked out, his eyes blurring from the tears. “I’ve seen him do it. He was sleeping in the lab…”
Steve recalled walking into Tony’s workshop after a 40 hour binge, and seeing the genius slumped over his work table, screwdriver still in his hand. Steve had removed the potential weapon from the billionaire’s grasp before placing his own hand softly on Tony’s shoulder, calling out his name.
He had received several low grumbles of, “g’way, ‘m busy” before he pulled the slumbering man up. That’s when he’d noticed the man’s left hand pressed against his chest, one oily hand covering the blue light that normally filtered through his threadbare shirt.
“Come on, Tony,” Steve said, smirking down at the frowning face of his friend, who still mumbled incoherently about not being tired. “You’ll be more comfortable in your own bed.”
Steve moved to hoist the man up, securing his hold under each arm, and attempted to bring the man’s left arm around his shoulders. The hand just clenched more tightly around the arc reactor in his chest.
Steve sighed, but moved to the other side and hoisted the right arm around his own neck, pulling the semi-conscious man toward the doors. Steve sighed at Tony’s slurred, “You wanna take me to bed, solider?” before hoisting the man higher up and heading to the elevator.
Suddenly the man’s unconscious fear made perfect sense. The horror of the image he created of Obadiah Stane jerking the arc reactor from Tony’s chest sent his heart rate spiking. But a tiny part of his conscious warmed knowing that Tony hadn’t pushed Steve away in his slumber – a reasonable action for someone so traumatized.
Steve pushed away the warmth for further contemplation later, bringing his thoughts back to the present.
“So I’m guessing Stane didn’t really die in a plane crash after taking the arc reactor?” Clint asked, his sarcastic tone only barely covering the smoldering hate in his voice.
“Tony killed him,” Natasha said, her tone flat and resigned.
“Fuck,” Clint hissed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
“My sentiments exactly.”
The four Avengers whipped their heads around to gape at Pepper Pots. Dangerously polished high heels were crossed as she leaned against the entry way to the lounge, her glare and raised brow not-so-subtly demanding explanation.
“Ms. Potts,” Steve croaked, looking up and trying to wipe the evidence of tears from his face. “We were just –“
“So I heard,” she said, voice sharp, eyes swiveling to glare at Steve. “I’m not sure Tony would appreciate his private life spoken of, Agent Romanov.” That steely gaze landed on Natasha, and to Steve’s surprise, the assassin shrunk back slightly from the glare.
“At this point,” Clint said, coming to Natasha’s defense, “I doubt the story of Obadiah Stane would be too personal of a story compared to what Stark just made us watch.”
Pepper’s glare eased as confusion and concern grew on her face. “I don’t –“
“Captain Rogers, Dr. Banner, and Agents Barton and Romanov just finished watching Sir’s personal video files,” Jarvis explained smoothly, his computerized voice expressing its displeasure.
Pepper’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “His personal video files?” she gaped. “No one, ever, has seen those.”
“Indeed,” Jarvis replied dryly.
“And Tony knows you all just watched them?” she asked, her brow rising with apparent skepticism.
“It was ordered by Sir.”
Pepper’s face fell in confusion. “I haven’t even seen those…” she whispered, more to herself than the room. Steve’s stomach fell, watching the hurt flash across her face.
“I forced him to show us,” he said quickly, trying to rid someone of hurt. This apparently only added to Pepper’s confusion.
“No one can force Tony to do anything,” she scoffed. “Multiple kidnappers can attest to that.”
Steve flinched at the reminder of yet another painful event in Tony Stark’s life.
“Tony has videos of Peggy Carter,” Natasha said, her tone flat. “Steve wanted access.”
Steve winced again. He was utterly responsible. For everything. He hung his head, the guilt overwhelming him again.
“Oh.” The pregnant silence was deafening.
“And he just gave you access?” she pressed. Steve groaned, burying his head in his knees again.
“He and Steve…traded words,” Bruce explained, his voice tense.
“You bullied him into showing you his private life?” Pepper quipped, her voice harsh. Steve’s breath caught in his chest, a soft sob huffing out between his fingers.
“I’m the worst human being on the planet,” he mumbled, another sob wracking his large frame. Natasha’s hand returned to his shoulders.
Pepper sighed. Steve suddenly felt another presence on the couch next to him. Looking up from blurry, tear filled eyes, he looked up at Pepper.
“You saw Howard?” she asked, pity seeping through the anger on the planes of her face. Steve nodded, more tears falling.
“I was so wrong,” he gasped out. “I made horrible assumptions and threw hateful words at him.” He sniffed, trying to will the tears to stop. “I’ve ruined everything, and I know I’ve hurt him. He’ll never forgive me.” He hiccupped softly, more tears falling. “And he shouldn’t,” he added, self-hate threatening to tear apart his insides.
Pepper sighed again, but placed a soft hand on Steve’s shoulder. The comfort only served to sink Steve further into self-loathing.
“What did you see?” she asked softly. After a long moment, Natasha summarized each video, and Steve watched Pepper’s face grow pale. At the end, Pepper’s hands came up to wipe away tears.
“I’ve known Tony’s opinions of his father, and the special place in his heart for Peggy, but nothing so specific as what you all saw.” She chuckled darkly. “He refused to show me any videos that I found when clearing out his father’s study. “I’m surprised he even kept them.”
Silence fell again, each person digesting the images they had just seen.
“The last one was Tony’s graduation from MIT?” Pepper asked suddenly, a frown on her face.
“Yes, Ms. Potts,” Jarvis replied, after it was apparent no one else could answer.
“Oh god,” Pepper breathed, eyes misting over in tears again. “Oh that’s horrible.” She buried her face in her hands, breathing shallow.
“What?” Clint asked, anxiety in his tone.
“I believe,” Jarvis began, the disembodied voice heavy and slow, as if experiencing grief. “Ms. Potts has realized the date, and has connected it to what happened exactly six days after the final video.”
Steve felt Natasha stiffen next to him, and he looked up to watch her face – a mixture of horror and grief.
“What happened six days after the video?” Clint asked, slowly, as if dreading the answer.
Jarvis didn’t respond for several seconds, in an extremely human-like expression of hesitance – which both surprised Steve, but also gave him strange flutters of pride, for only Tony Stark could build a computer that could feel.
“Six days after Sir’s graduation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mr. and Mrs. Stark were killed in a car accident,” Jarvis announced finally, his computerized voice quiet.
The blow should have been expected for Steve, who had known that Howard had died in Tony’s childhood. He was momentarily shocked that the news of his friend’s death no longer felt like a blow – a realization that surprised Steve, who had always remembered his friend’s death with melancholy. Now, however, he just felt relief.
After he identified the emotion, he immediately felt horrible – Howard Stark had been a friend, a confidante. But Steve couldn’t bring himself to mourn over the man. Now, he was just glad that Tony didn’t have to suffer through more abuse at the hand of his father.
“Did Tony get to see Howard again?” Bruce asked, his voice incredibly small. “Before he died?”
“He did not,” Jarvis replied, his voice soft.
Steve realized Natasha’s horror. The last thing Howard Stark had ever told his son was that he was nothing compared to Captain America.
The realization hit Steve with a physical force, bringing him to hunch over his knees, sobbing into his hands.
Worse than the suffocating pain and sorrow was the guilt that tore at his chest and forced all air from his lungs. Steve had thrown Howard’s haunting last words at Tony’s face in the first few minutes of being acquainted with Tony Stark. How could Tony even look at Steve after that? Steve would have been overwhelmed with confusion if the guilt weren’t swallowing him whole.
His sobs continued, the pain consuming his ability to form coherent thought. His whole world revolved around the suffocating pain in his chest, the wracking sobs that stole his breath, and the small hand that squeezed his shoulder.
After minutes that could have been hours, Steve finally felt his tears run dry and his lungs begin accepting air, which he gasped for, head spinning with the lack of oxygen. The delicate but deadly hand gave him a tight squeeze, willing him to gain control again, and Steve latched onto the feeling, trying to ground himself again.
“Peggy?” he managed, bringing his watery gaze to Pepper. Her frown lightened as she smiled softly.
“Peggy attended the funeral with Tony and Rhodey,” she said, reaching out to hold Steve’s hand.
“Rhodey?” Clint asked, quirking a brow. “As in, Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes?”
“James Rhodes, or Rhodey – as his friends call him – went to MIT with Tony,” Pepper explained. “They’ve been friends since Tony’s second year.”
That explained a lot for Steve. He had met the Lieutenant a couple of times, and was surprised at the easy interaction between the military man and Tony Stark. As a military man himself, it had been a surprise to see someone cut from the same cloth able to handle the eccentricities of Tony Stark so well.
“But between the birth of Peggy’s son, Grant, and Tony’s new role in Stark Industries, the two rarely saw each other,” Pepper continued.
“Grant?” Steve asked, surprised. Surely Peggy had known his middle name. Was it a coincidence? Pepper gave him a small grin.
“She never forgot you, Steve,” she said, squeezing his hand.
That didn’t make Steve feel better.
“Obadiah had Tony flying around the world to learn about Stark Industries before he officially took control at age 21,” Pepper continued. “Though Tony flew back and was present for the birth of both Peggy’s children.” She smiled, her eyes far away.
“Tony loved those kids,” she said. Steve noticed the slight frown and wistful look in her eye, and felt like he was missing something important. “Sarah was born two years after Grant. That was around the same time I began working for him, and also the first time I met Peggy.”
Pepper smiled fondly, her eyes losing their longing as she grinned up at Steve. “The first thing she said to me was that I was grossly underpaid and entirely too attractive for my own good.” Pepper chuckled.
“She promised to change that, and warned me against wandering hands,” Pepper continued, smirking. “Thirty minutes later, my salary doubled and Tony sat down and signed anti-harassment contracts.”
Clint doubled over laughing. “God, I love that woman,” he said, between sniggers.
“Tony took over the company the same year that Sarah was born, but he made sure to visit Peggy when he could. He took the kids out to ballgames, Disneyland –“
“Tony Stark went to Disneyland?” Clint asked, his brows shooting up in disbelief.
“They let Tony Stark in Disneyland?” Natasha asked, dryly.
Pepper rolled her eyes. “He bought the park for the day just for the three of them.”
Steve chuckled, the weight in his chest lifting as he pictured Tony carting around two kids – because with his energy, not even children could outpace the man.
The four Avengers shared grins and chuckles, each taking escape from the horrors for a few moments, picturing Tony Stark flitting about the ‘Most Magical Place on Earth’. But the moment could not last.
“It was a couple years later that Peggy was diagnosed,” Pepper said, her voice small.
Steve knew the history, but to hear of it in the context of Tony’s life, and knowing what it meant for her family, Steve’s heart plummeted.
“The Alzheimer’s progressed quickly,” Pepper continued, looking down at her hands. “Tony and Robert did what they could to take care of Peggy for as long as they could,” she said, peeking up at Steve, seeming hesitant.
“But in the end, Robert couldn’t stay home, and Tony was needed at Stark Industries. Peggy was placed in a care facility that Tony founded specifically for dementia patients.”
Steve had read the file on Peggy, knew where she was staying. He just didn’t have it in him to go visit her. What if she didn’t remember him? Or worse, what if she did, but she was angry with him? He didn’t think he could face that.
“I remember the day Tony came back from moving her in,” Pepper said, eyes far away and glossing over as tears welled. “He was distraught. He drew up plans for an entire branch of Stark Industries R&D for analyzing and curing Alzheimer’s, and he flew around the world personally recruiting specialists.”
Steve almost smiled. It was so Tony. Bringing together the best and the brightest, using all that money could afford to tackle a problem in the most efficient way possible.
“It was one of the only times Tony and Stane ever truly fought,” Pepper said, her voice turning bitter and cold. “Stane didn’t want to take resources away from weapons developments,” she explained, catching Bruce’s confused glance. “But Tony was…adamant,” she finished, smirking.
Steve snorted. ‘Adamant’ was a rather calm word for Tony’s impressive stubbornness, and the subsequent lengths he’d go to win the argument.
“Today, Stark Industries is a huge manufacturer of Alzheimer’s drugs, and it is at the forefront of medical research for dementia and other related brain diseases,” Pepper announced, pride steeling her voice.
“However,” she paused, her shoulders slumping forward in defeat. “There is no cure for Peggy’s disease.” The room was silent for a moment, each person digesting this.
“What happened to her kids?” Clint asked, his voice small. Pepper looked up and have him a small smile.
“Robert and Sarah live in Boston,” she said, “very close to Peggy. I believe Sarah is in her second year of high school,” Pepper paused, thinking for a moment. “Robert works as head of security at a SI lab – a step down from his original position working security for the company’s US headquarters.”
Steve was surprised to hear that the man worked for Tony’s company. And in security?
“Robert was a soldier,” Pepper said quietly, looking at Steve. “Peggy met him on a mission for S.H.I.E.L.D. and he saved her life.” Steve’s throat constricted, but he pushed down the sadness – Peggy had found a man to care for her -- that was all Steve could ask for.
“When he and Peggy got married, Tony gave him a job at headquarters in the hopes that it would keep Peggy close,” she continued, grinning again. “But married life and motherhood couldn’t stop Peggy Carter from continuing her work to build S.H.I.E.L.D and expand their capabilities.”
Steve almost chuckled. It was very Peggy – a single-minded desire to keep pushing, keep striving for the best. To prove wrong all those who doubted her.
“And the oldest?” Clint asked.
Pepper grinned, a fond smile warming her face. “Grant is a freshman at MIT on full scholarship. Perhaps unsurprising, but his uncle managed to evoke a strong preference for taking things apart and putting them back together in the most aggravating way possible.”
Bruce and Clint chuckled, imagining Tony with a kid down in his workshop, tinkering with things to make them talk or, more likely, throw things at random passersby.
“Does he see them often?” Steve asked, his throat tight.
“He used to,” Pepper said, eyes falling to her intertwined fingers again. “After…after Afghanistan and…Stane…he couldn’t – well, I mean, Tony…” She took a deep breath. “Though he’d never admit it,” she continued, more strongly now, “losing Stane the way he did forever changed Tony. He focused solely on changing the company and himself.” She paused and looked to Steve, gazing at him with a calculating stare.
“I think Tony Stark believes he carries the blood of many on his hands,” she announced, her voice hard. “I think he’s denied himself the happiness of caring for those he cherishes because he thinks himself unworthy of their love.”
Steve’s mind reeled. Before today – before even thirty minutes ago – the idea that Tony Stark would deny himself anything, wouldn’t seem possible. But now?
Steve whipped his head up to stare at Natasha, who had finally spoken. She had a deep frown on her face as she stared down at her hands.
Pepper just nodded and moved to place a hand on Natasha’s shoulder.
“And Peggy?” Bruce asked after a moment, turning back to Pepper. “Did any of the drugs help with her condition?”
Pepper sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose lightly and frowning. Steve’s heart clenched.
“They were able to slow down her rapid mental decline,” she said, still hiding part of her face. “But the degeneration was swift.” She stopped for a moment, taking in a deep breath. Steve watched her posture with a sinking feeling in his gut.
“About four years ago, Tony and I went to see Peggy in Boston,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “She had stopped recognizing me several years before that,” she said. “But that day…” she hesitated, removing her hand and blinking away tears.
“That day, she called him Howard.”
Steve felt tears prickling the corner of his eyes, and he looked up to trying to prevent them from falling.
“She must have been reliving the time when Howard and Maria had first been married, because she knew to ask him about her. But,” she sniffed, wiping at her eyes. “But she didn’t know who Anthony Stark was.”
Steve took a deep, shuddering breath.
“He kept repeating his name over and over,” Pepper gasped, tears rolling down her cheeks. “He begged her to remember. He told her stories of them and things about himself – his birthday, his favorite color, his favorite story,” she had to stop, her breath hitching in her chest.
“She was so confused,” she continued. “Kept asking ‘Howard’ why he was crying,” her voice broke at the last word. Steve felt his own tears fall down his face, imagining the broken look in Tony’s eyes.
Pepper took a shuddering breath. “He couldn’t go back,” she said, wiping away the tears. “After he came back from Afghanistan, though, he said he had to see her.” Pepper hiccupped slightly, wiping away more tears. “He never told me what happened, but he came back looking haunted, and locked himself in his workshop for a week.”
Steve winced, the possibilities spinning in his mind, each more painful than the last. He looked over to Pepper, but the woman seemed unable to continue. She sank down on the loveseat and stared silently in her hands.
Each person held the silence, unsure of what to say. After long minutes, Natasha moved to sit next to Steve, and Clint sat with his back against Bruce’s legs, each offering comfort to the others.
“I need to see Tony,” Steve said, stomach immediately churning with nerves. He had to apologize, had to beg for forgiveness.
“No,” Natasha said, head snapping up. “Leave him be, Steve.”
Steve looked to Pepper, his brow rising.
“Right away, Ms. Potts.”
The screen in front of them lit up with ‘Calling: Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes’. The man picked up after two rings, his face coming up on the screen.
“Pepper?” he asked, his brows furrowed. “What’s wrong?”
“I need you to come to New York, Rhodey,” Pepper said, straightening her back and schooling her features. The man’s eyes flickered in concern, his frown deepening for a moment before his face hardened with resolve.
“Suit or bourbon?” he asked in a no-nonsense tone.
“He’s going to need all the whiskey you can carry.”
Rhodes frowned again. “Afghanistan?” he asked, his voice lowering.
Rhodes’ eyes widened. “Howard?” he asked, now barely a whisper. Pepper just nodded.
The Lieutenant’s face hardened again. “I’ll be there in an hour,” he promised.
“Thanks Rhodey,” Pepper said, relief evident in her voice. Rhodes’ face softened a bit, and he gave the woman a soft smile.
“Thank you for calling Pepper,” he said. “I know it’s no longer your responsibility, and I really appreciate you continuing to look after him like this.”
Steve quirked a brow at the woman, confused with Rhodes’ statement. Why wasn’t Tony her responsibility?
“I’ll always love him,” she said quietly.
“I know that, Pep” he said gently, giving her another small smile. “And Tony does too.” Pepper sighed, a deep and heavy sound that spoke of years of exhaustion.
“See you soon, Pepper.”
The screen faded to black once again and Pepper found herself the center of four Avenger’s attentions.
“When did it happen?” Natasha asked. Steve just blinked at her in confusion.
“Two weeks ago,” Pepper responded.
“I’m sorry,” Natasha said. This replaced Steve’s concern with fear. Natasha apologizing?
“What happened?” Bruce asked.
Pepper sighed again. Since when did she look so completely exhausted, Steve wondered.
“Tony and I broke up.”
Steve felt his heart drop. Then his mind caught up to him.
“Two weeks ago?” he asked. Pepper nodded. How didn’t he know? Why didn’t Tony tell them?
“Why?” Bruce asked, frowning at her. Pepper just squared her shoulders.
“We work better as friends,” she said evenly, a hint of steel in her voice, as if daring them to contradict her. “It’s easier for both of us this way,” she added, her shoulders shrugging forward slightly.
“Neither of us could give each other what we wanted,” she said, her voice broken, as if admitting to something. “And trying to give each other what the other wanted was killing both of us. It was time.”
Steve digested this. From the outside, Tony and Pepper were perfect – the redhead had the strength and confidence to force the manic inventor to take care of himself, and the billionaire’s energy, devotion, and love for the woman broke through all masks he created for himself.
But Steve had seen the hints Pepper had dropped. Had heard the arguments about Tony’s continued role as Iron Man and Avenger. He had seen the look in Pepper’s eyes when she watched children play in the park. Pepper wanted a family – not one that haphazardly formed between six misfits, brought together by their loneliness and overwhelming loss.
Pepper didn’t want a life where a 90 year old super solider made omelets every Sunday; where a demi-god literally dropped from the sky carrying three dozen donuts; where a master assassin left his razor sharp arrowheads on the couch for someone to sit on; or where explosions could be heard as two scientists experimented at god-forsaken hours in the morning.
Steve knew their life wasn’t normal, but he couldn’t imagine it any differently. Apparently, Pepper could.
“Rhodey will be here soon,” Pepper said, interrupting Steve’s musings. She stood, straightening her skirt and wiping her face dry. “Leave Tony to him – Rhodey will take care of him.” She aimed a measured stare at Steve, the steel in her eyes giving him a clear warning of ‘stay away’.
With a final breath, Pepper stood and the clap of her heels on the tile faded as she walked out of the hall and into the elevator.
One by one, the Avengers left the room, each disappearing to the privacy of their own thoughts as images of a small child with wild black hair and an infectious grin flickered in their minds.
Steve had been able to move himself from the couch to a chair in the kitchen – his legs only allowing him to move just that much closer to his bedroom – when James Rhodes stepped off the elevator.
“Jarvis,” the man asked, his voice clipped and serious.
“In his workshop, Lieutenant,” the AI responded swiftly, something akin to relief in its computerized voice.
“How long has it been?” Rhodes asked, a frown on his face.
“One hour and forty-two minutes.”
Rhodes nodded and moved swiftly to the kitchen, eyes focused on the bar in the corner. Steve noted the man moved with surety and confidence, the concern only apparent in the depths of his dark eyes. This man knew what he was doing.
“Status report, go,” he commanded, setting down a large black bag onto the counter.
“Sir’s last meal was yesterday morning at 2:42am – two slices of cold pepperoni pizza. Hours since last full night of sleep: 28, hours since last nap: 13,” the AI rattled off in short, concise tones. “Physical form is steady – very minimal amount of blood loss and current heart rate steady, O2 sats are acceptable.”
Blood loss? Steve thought, concern bubbling up through the sluggish drifting of his thoughts. Why blood loss?
“Sir tends to be rather overzealous in his methods of creation under emotional duress, Captain,” Jarvis explained dryly. Steve jumped at the address, not realizing he’d voiced his question aloud.
The address also brought Rhodes’ attention on him, and Steve resisted shrinking back as the dark eyes assessed him.
“BAC? Rhodes asked, not breaking eye contact with the soldier.
“Sir’s blood alcohol content is currently 0.12,” the AI responded. “Though with the lack of food in his system, I believe he will succumb to the alcohol approximately three hours sooner than his usual, Lieutenant.”
“Thanks, J,” Rhodes’ said softly, finally turning away from his staring contest with Steve. The Lieutenant moved to the bar and extracted two glasses and one bottle of brandy before moving back to his bag. He dropped the bottle in, a loud clink telling Steve that it was joining several more bottles.
Just as Rhodes turned and moved back to the elevator, Steve called out, “Are you sure more drinking is the best plan, Lieutenant?”
Rhodes halted. “Yes,” he said, turning his head to gaze at Steve.
“Wouldn’t something else be healthier?”
“Yes,” Rhodes said again. “But would something else work? No.” He gave the Captain a stern glare before striding to the elevator and disappearing.
The next morning, Steve dragged himself from his bed and into the shower, scowling at the puffiness of his eyes – swollen from the hours of tears preceding eventual terror-ridden sleep.
Moving through the kitchen, he allowed the familiar routine of making breakfast lull his mind into a daze. Such was his mildly comatose state, that he didn’t notice the other Avenger’s presence until Bruce touched his shoulder in concern.
Steve jumped and looked to the man, surprised at his presence and the depth of agony hidden in the dark circles under his eyes. “Bruce,” Steve breathed, clapping his hand on the man’s shoulder. “You okay?”
Bruce chuckled. “I was going to ask you the same,” he said, giving the soldier a weak grin.
The longer Steve looked at the man, the worse he appeared. Red and swollen eyes spoke to a similar evening of melancholy for the doctor, but the set of his shoulders and deep frown on his face couldn’t hold more sorrow than the dark depths of his eyes. Steve’s throat caught.
“It’s going to be okay, Bruce,” he said softly, giving the slighter man a soft squeeze. The doctor just nodded, turning his back and collapsing into a chair at the table.
The four sat in silence, Natasha eventually coming to assist Steve with the food, and Clint delivering hot tea to the doctor. Silently, the four friends ate breakfast.
Just before noon, Rhodes came up from the elevator. Steve jumped to his feet, wanting to do something to help, but the Lieutenant just raised a hand to halt any questions or responses.
“Coffee,” he rasped, scowling slightly. The machine sputtered to life at the remark, a perfect cup poured just as the man reached the counter. Leaning over the cup, Rhodes almost stuck his nose into the liquid in his haste to cherish its aroma.
The man looked like crap. Dark circles pressed into his skin under haunted black eyes, and once crisply pressed button-down was now wrinkled and dotted with black stains.
Taking a sip, the man let out a small moan, hands coming up to wrap around the large mug. Steve grinned slightly, recognizing the gesture as one he saw almost every morning when Tony emerged from his workshop.
“How is he?” Bruce asked when Rhodes finished the cup. The man let loose a content sigh as he lowered the cup onto the marble counter, then looked to the doctor.
“As well as can be expected,” he replied, his voice tired. “Give him space for a few days,” he said, moving to put the cup in the sink. “He’ll come to you when he’s ready.”
“No, Rogers,” Rhodes growled, not turning from the sink. “You will wait for him to come to you. You will not push him any more than you have.” Steve was taken aback by the man’s venom, though, he realized, he deserved it. He sank down into a chair to cover his face in his hands.
He was the absolute worst, horrible, despicable person on the planet, and he wouldn’t be surprised if Tony decided never to talk to him again. Heck, he wouldn’t be surprised if Tony asked him to leave. He’d go, too, no questions asked. He’d been living in the genius’ home, taking advantage of the man’s hospitality, all while holding such horribly wrong assumptions and opinions of the man. He was the lowest, most awful –
“He will come to you.”
Steve was pulled from his self-deprecating thoughts by Rhodes’ voice, now suddenly much closer than before. Steve picked up his head to peer up at the Lieutenant now standing just in front of him.
“Give him time, Captain, and he will come around. Tony can hold a grudge, don’t get me wrong,” he chuckled darkly, the smile not finding its way to his eyes. “But not against you. Not even if you deserved it.”
Steve’s heart clenched, guilt and grief gripping him, and he lowered his head to his hands again, groaning softly as the emotions gave him physical pain in his chest.
“You couldn’t have known,” Rhodes said, repeating Natasha’s words from earlier. The sentiment coming from Tony’s best friend held greater weight than the assassin’s, but still didn’t convince the soldier. “But now that you do,” he continued, placing a firm hand on Steve’s shoulder. “Don’t screw it up.”
Steve looked up, surprised. “What?” he asked, his brain moving too slowly to comprehend anymore.
Rhodes cracked a small smile. “You know more about Anthony Stark than anyone else in the world,” he said, glancing to the others at the table, including them in his count. “Whether you realize it or not, Tony has trusted you with this information. Trusted you all not to hurt him.”
Steve felt his brain move more quickly, breaking from its pain-induced haze.
“Despite the circumstances, he allowed you to see into the most private aspect of his life – his highest and lowest moments of his childhood. The experiences that helped shape who he is. Take this information to heart, and for the love of all that is holy and good, don’t hurt him.”
The last bit held a sort of desperation in the Lieutenant’s smooth tones, and Steve met his eyes, noting the earnest plea in his face.
Steve broke eye contact with the Lieutenant to gaze at Natasha. The woman held a firm, determined blaze of fire in her eye as she gazed at Rhodes. Clint nodded. Bruce said a soft, “Promise.” Steve couldn’t bring himself to speak, so instead he reached up to gasp the Lieutenant’s forearm tightly.
Rhodes smiled softly, gave the Captain one last squeeze, then retreated from the kitchen. “I’ll need a cab, J,” he said, moving to the elevator and hoisting his now empty black bag higher up his shoulder.
“There is already a car waiting for you, Lieutenant,” the AI said. “As you are rather unfit to operate any machinery for the next seven hours.”
“Oh hush,” the man grumbled as he stepped into the elevator. “No judgment from you, thank you very much.” The doors slid closed, leaving the Avengers to ponder the man’s words and their promise.
Two days later, Natasha returned to her room from her morning workout, threw her towel into the basket, and moved to the closet to change.
Sitting upon the mahogany dresser in the oversized closet was a small white envelope. Sharp eyes narrowed at the offending item that had appeared in the two hours she had been away.
Slipping a knife from the elastic of her underwear, she went into a crouch, letting her eyes explore the rest of the closet. Once clear, she moved to the side, eyes now roaming through the main room, seeking out any hiding places. Once sure she was alone, she crept closer to the dresser, eyes narrowed to the envelope.
With her knife, she deftly flipped the envelope over, revealing nothing on either side. Running the blade over the entirety of the envelope, she felt that it contained just two small, almost flat objects less than a finger length long. Frowning, she took the envelope and unfolded the flap.
A small slip of paper fluttered to the surface of the dresser and two small bobby pins fell on top of it. Frowning, she reached for the pins, picking one up and spinning it in her finger. As her finger graced the tip of the pin, she hissed and dropped it. A droplet of blood appeared on her finger.
She glared at the offending pin, and frowned at the end. It appeared to be blunt – a normal bobby pin. Frown deepening, she reached for the slip of paper, carefully avoiding the end of either pin. Unfolding the small paper, the frown disappeared.
In a messy scrawl that Natasha instantly recognized as belonging to their resident billionaire were the words, ‘Sorry I’m prickly’. She beamed.
Clint popped open the final vent leading up to the roof and shimmied through the small opening and into the chilly air. Taking a grateful breath, the archer beamed at the view of the city splayed out at his feet.
Straightening and dusting off his pants, Clint moved to the small pile of blankets he’d gathered and positioned in the small space between large piping adorning this section of the roof. He halted.
In the middle of the pile of mismatched blankets was a thick leather glove. Curiosity spiking, Clint knelt down into his little nest and plucked it up, twirling it idly in his fingers. The color was a mix of jet black and dark maroon – matching his suit, he realized with a grin.
He lowered his gaze to the blankets, looking for its twin. Instead of a second glove, a white paper lay folded just under where he had found the first. Picking it up and unfolding it, he beamed.
A rather crude drawing of Iron Man flying was scribbled on the paper in bright red and gold. On its back, a large bird sat with one wing holding Iron Man, the other brandishing its middle feather, literally giving Clint, ‘the bird’.
Under the ridiculous drawing were the words, ‘Now you can have my back’, scrawled in tiny, messy handwriting.
Clint let loose a bubble of laughter that quickly turned into raucous cackles as he doubled over from the force of his mirth.
The afternoon of the third day found Bruce huddled over a microscope. Looking up and reaching for his notepad, he froze.
Tony Stark stood in the doorway, leaning against the door in an attempt to look blasé. The apprehensive look in his eyes, however, belayed the attempt.
“Tony,” Bruce said, surprise evident in his voice. “It’s good to see you.”
The billionaire didn’t make a move to enter further into the lab. Instead, his teeth caught his lower lip and hesitance colored his face.
Bruce thought the man might be deciding whether to run away or not. Giving the man the choice on his own, and allowing him an option to retreat, Bruce turned around and fiddled with his centrifuge for a moment.
When he turned back around, he couldn’t help the grin that formed when he saw Tony had moved to the stool just inside the door. The man gave him a weak smile in return before turning his gaze to his fingers.
Pushing down his curiosity, Bruce forced himself to return to his work, allowing Tony to take as much time as he needed. Long minutes passed, and Bruce fell back into his research.
“I’m sorry, Bruce.”
Bruce looked up from his microscope, utterly surprised. “What?” he asked weakly. “Why?”
Tony flinched a bit and gulped, obviously uncomfortable. Bruce frowned, wracking his brain for a reason for the apology. “There’s nothing for you to apologize for, Tony,” he said softly after a minute.
“Yes there is,” Tony said, finding his voice. He squared his shoulders and took a firm breath, steeling himself. Bruce just gaped at him.
“You shouldn’t have had to watch that.”
Bruce blinked, taken aback.
“I shouldn’t have made you watch that,” Tony amended, looking away from the doctor. “For that, I’m sorry.”
Bruce made the conscious effort to close his mouth. “Tony,” he began, unsure of what exactly to say. “You don’t have to apologize for that.”
“Yes I do,” he said, looking up a Bruce, more resolve forming in his dark eyes. “I was selfish.” He spit the words out with surprising venom. “I knew about your…history,” he continued, the venom gone, replaced now with sorrow. “I knew, and I didn’t care. I let my anger cloud my judgment and I caused you pain.”
Bruce stiffened a bit, realizing where Tony was going with this.
“For that, you deserve my apology,” Tony finished, breaking eye contact again.
“I’m glad I got to see those videos, Tony,” Bruce said slowly, hoping the genius believed him. “As horrible as it sounds, I’m glad that you shared that with me. Even if it was in anger.”
It was Tony’s turn to gape at Bruce. The doctor pushed down a chuckle and a swell of childish pleasure at rendering Tony Stark speechless.
“But,” Tony continued, a little flustered. “Watching that, Bruce, that couldn’t have been…easy.” The man leaned back in the stool, looking at everything in the room besides Bruce.
“Well, yeah,” the doctor admitted, his smile grim. “But it wasn’t ‘easy’ for anyone, really. It’s hard to see your friend hurting.”
Tony blinked up at Bruce, wincing.
“In an almost selfish way,” Bruce continued, wringing his hands together, “I’m glad I’m not alone.” The doctor’s eye flickered to Tony’s nervously. “I’m thankful that others have listened, but there’s something comforting to know someone really understands.”
Tony winced, closing his eyes. “Sorry, Brucie, but I wish I didn’t understand,” he mumbled, brow furrowed.
“Me too, Tony,” Bruce whispered.
The two men waited in silence, one with his head tilted back against the wall, the other watching nervously from behind a metal work table.
“We’ve got some shitty fathers,” Tony mumbled, opening his eyes to observe the ceiling. Bruce chuckled darkly.
“But some good friends.”
Bruce’s throat constricted and his vision blurred as tears welled at Tony’s quiet, but heartfelt statement. Sniffing, Bruce smiled weakly. “Yeah, Tony,” he said, voice thick. “We sure do.”
Tony brought his face down to return Bruce’s weak smile. “Thanks, Bruce,” he said. The doctor gave him a quick nod. Tony brought his hands together and stood, the tender look now wiped from his face, replaced by a familiar snarky grin.
“Well,” he said in a bright tone, “things to do, greatness to create. See ya, big guy.”
Bruce watched the man turn on his heel and saunter out of the lab, the usual bounce in his step somewhat muted, but present. The doctor sighed and went back to work, but not without a small smile on his face.