Running The Risk

(c)2008 gekizetsu

 

Avengers + Iron Man movieverse, well into movieverse future. Sometimes Tony is popular in all the worst ways, and the Avengers keep discovering that being his friend can be terrifying. Hurt/comfort, fluff, and occasional pointless humor because Marvel canon sucks. 7500 words, PG-13 for language. Reads as gen or Steve/Tony; whatever you’re in the mood for.

 

Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn't believe what I'd become
Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh, who would ever want to be king?
– Coldplay, Viva la Vida


/~~/


Steve Rogers whistled to himself and used a blending stump he’d made from a scrap of paper to shade another area.


He had several pages spread in front of him on a drafting table by the windows on the second floor, eyeing them critically. They were still only the rough sketches for what he meant to do, but he felt that the groundwork was all laid and he’d be inking soon. He didn’t mind commission work, even when it was something he never would have drawn for pleasure. In the most recent case it was a set of illustrations for a high school American Government textbook, and since he’d been there for some of the written history, it wasn’t all that difficult.


Decent way to pass a Saturday afternoon at Avengers mansion.


Plus, it made it look like he wasn’t paying any attention to where anyone else was.


He tried to keep track of everyone without making it seem like he was keeping track of them. They didn’t need a chaperone or to be given curfews, but that was exactly what it was going to feel like to a group of adults if he constantly asked them where they were going and when they would be back. Tony had put a sign-in sheet in the kitchen even though they all well knew that Jarvis kept track of who came and went. Tony often made a point to sign himself in as whatever movie or TV star was in the most trouble at the time. Clint took pains to one-up him and usually entered something inappropriate (Tony finally explained to Steve who Ron Jeremy was).


That Saturday, Tony was at a charity event on the Upper West Side; Clint was in the gym; Thor was in the library, Carol was at a SHIELD meeting, and Hank and Jan had gone to the park.


That wasn’t nosy. That was just good leadership.


He added several more soldiers to a WWII winter battle scene from the Ardennes Offensive, sketching from memory, leaving out a few select parts of the reality. Textbooks didn’t require that level of gore. Some things were best left to the imagination. What with the horror movies that had become so popular over the years, anything he could have drawn wouldn’t have had much of an impact, but necessity didn’t dictate it.


His communicator lit up from its spot balanced on the edge of the table. When he picked it up, Carol came through on the emergency channel. “Get the news,” she said. “Doesn’t matter where. Tony’s not answering his phone or his comm.”


He grabbed for the remote and flipped to the nearest news station. He caught the top of the news cycle on CNN.


...shots fired from outside the building, into the crowd inside. Witnesses say there were at least three gunshots, and that the target was billionaire Tony Stark. Authorities have not verified whether this was a random shooting or an assassination attempt. No one is currently in custody, the number of injuries are unknown, and we have been unable to confirm –


Steve’s heart sank. The fact that Tony wasn’t answering didn’t mean anything, if the situation hadn’t been cleared up and everyone was still running for cover, but it still made him pause. “Tell everybody to stay put,” he said to Carol. “We don’t know if this was only aimed at him. I’m going to try and call Pepper.”


It didn’t immediately ring through, and he knew she was likely overloaded with calls from people trying to figure out what was going on. He waited, trying not to assume anything, hoping that she was able to answer. She had been at that thing with Tony, and that didn’t mean she’d remained within arm’s length, but she wouldn’t have let him out of sight either. If she’d been hurt...


Witnesses were notoriously unreliable in stressful situations. It was possible that no one had been aiming for Tony, and that no one had been hit at all. Did Tony even wear armor to these formal events? He had stopped employing bodyguards well before the Avengers had been formed. He’d become his own bodyguard.


He waited for Pepper to pick up and thought, he’s not dead, he can’t be dead.


“Steve,” Pepper said breathlessly as she picked up. “Thank God.”


Steve closed his eyes in relief. One less thing to worry about. “Are you okay?”


“Yes. We’re – ”


“Is he alive?”


“Yes,” she said, sounding startled. “We’re at St. Luke’s. He’s going to be okay. I keep losing my signal, and there are so many other calls coming in at once, I haven’t been able to get through.”


“I’m coming,” Steve said. “Just stay low and ignore the press. Okay?”


“I’ve seen more press than this,” she said. “Don’t tell anyone he’s okay, yet. Except Rhodey – could you call Rhodey for me? Whoever did this is probably pretty sure they succeeded. It gives us a little more time.”


“CNN’s already running it,” Steve said.


“They never know anything,” Pepper said. “It’s always ‘alleged’ and ‘we’re unable to verify’ and then they let some witness ramble for five minutes about something they thought they saw.”


She sounded just a little rattled. Most people would have been in a genuine panic.


“Did you see it?” Steve said.


“No. I was on the other side of the room, so I only heard the commotion. Then everybody was running, but...Tony.”


Steve remembered her saying that Tony would be okay, but he’d obviously missed something. “Pepper, was he actually shot?”


“He was wearing body armor,” she said. “Nothing got through. But he was still hit pretty hard.”


“I’ll be there as soon as I can.”


He left voicemail for Rhodey and then paged him, knowing the Lieutenant Colonel was likely going to suffer the same moment of worry everyone else had if he saw the news before someone had the chance to let him know it wasn’t as bad as it looked.


/~~/


It took him a little while to get past nurses, security and police, but once they realized who he was, people tended to just let him wander anywhere he wanted. Tony had been trying to tell Steve that as far as the entire world was concerned, he was beyond reproach because he was Captain America, and Steve wasn’t quite certain he deserved that much leeway. It seemed like too much trust had been handed to him in an era where that kind of confidence was the rarest of commodities. The world had made him into even more of an unmitigated pop culture image of ultimate responsibility and perfection while he’d been gone, which was why he appreciated it when Tony and Clint tended to treat him like a regular guy and stop just short of anything more disrespectful than the kind of behavior he would have expected from younger siblings.


Pepper was not one of the people he encountered on his way through the ER.


There Tony was, sequestered in one of the dozens of exam rooms, sitting on a table with his back not quite facing the door and already showing the first livid colors of blunt force trauma. The impact points were still visible in angry reds, a tight grouping close to his spine, midway up his ribcage. They looked like high caliber rifle rounds. As Steve circled the table, he saw that Tony had his shirt in his hands, the fabric still white except for the discolored edges of the tears where the bullets had struck. Three. He had shoved his fingers through the holes and was staring at them.


It wasn’t like they didn’t face that type of thing all the time. Somebody was either threatening to kill them or taking shots at them as a way of saying hello on a daily basis. But it still seemed like such a shock when it happened in their ‘off’ time, even if he realized there was no such thing.


“Hey,” Tony said without glancing up. “I made the news again, didn’t I.”


His voice was slightly strained. It had to hurt to breathe.


“I hear somebody’s already released the footage from the security cameras,” Steve said, keeping his voice even.


Tony quirked an eyebrow. “YouTube, here I come. That’ll play at someone’s Christmas party.”


“They letting you go?” Steve said. “Or were you just getting ready to make a run for it?”


“Waiting for the x-rays to come back,” Tony said, finally looking up at him. “I already told them the ribs aren’t broken. I think I’d know the difference by now.” He offered his shirt to Steve, who took it and examined the holes.


“You always wear body armor under a tux, now?” Steve said, reaching over to pick up the mere handful of cloth-like material lying on the edge of the table with his free hand. It was light and pooled like silk, but the silvery sheen gave a hint of the metallic base it was made with. It seemed insubstantial, but it would turn away any blade or ballistic. Tony had made it, and the Avengers wore it under their uniforms when situations seemed to call for it. They jokingly referred to it as mithril because Tolkien references had yet to get old.


“Well, yeah. I have enough shrapnel as it is. Kevlar would never have stopped what I got hit with today.”


Steve handed the button-down back, and Tony put it on one sleeve at a time with deliberate care. Steve didn’t offer to help; he’d known Tony long enough to understand the difference between his usual stubbornness and the extreme, unrelenting kind that came along with any injury. Tony would be walking out of there with bullet holes in his clothes, acting like nothing had happened.


“It was personal,” Tony said, buttoning his shirt.


Steve folded his arms across his chest. “Someone trying to kill you usually is.”


“No, I mean, they decided to shoot me in the back,” Tony said. “That’s an asshole move, but even if they gambled that I’m dumb enough to walk around leaving my back unprotected, they chose a heart shot over the sure thing. If they just wanted me dead and didn’t care how, it would have taken one easy head shot.”


Steve looked at the ceiling and swallowed, trying to avoid the mental image. He knew exactly what a head shot looked like, from close up as well as from a distance.


“I’m happy they were aiming to let me have an open casket while I’m still young and pretty enough to deserve one,” Tony said with a wink.


“Cut it out,” Steve said without any real rebuke.


Tony turned away, but there was a smirk in his voice. “C’mon,” he said. “You think I’d be laughing this off if it was the first time it had happened?”


Steve dropped his eyes from the ceiling and looked at him incredulously.


“How do people hate me?” Tony said, obviously trying not to grin. “Let me count the ways.” He held up a finger for every item he named. “Billionaire...strike one. One-time weapons manufacturer, smart-mouthed bastard, once claimed to be Iron Man...I can list ‘em all day. This could have been anybody I’ve pissed off in the last year or so, professionally or personally. A few remaining cave-dwelling terrorists in Afghanistan really have a bone or seven to pick with me, there are a couple of women I’ve dated that are capable of anything...” He paused to waggle his eyebrows. “And I mean anything. I’ve got a couple of industry rivals who would love to see me bleed out on TV, and I don’t think I have an employee that isn’t disgruntled.” He pursed his lips, tilting his head in consideration. “Except Pepper. Or Happy. And Pepper would be nice enough to put something in my coffee and knock me out first.”


Steve just shook his head. “Where is Pepper?”


“I asked her to go with the cops,” Tony said, turning his face away again. “Then I told her to. She didn’t want to, but...it’s all pretty boring from here on out, and she’s had enough for one day. I don’t want her to keep getting mixed up in the parts of the job that include guns and explosions and other assorted exciting bullshit.”


Steve had to wonder what kind of encouragement it had taken to get Pepper to go, and figured it had involved Happy and several officers bodily removing her. “She wouldn’t still be so involved if she didn’t want to be,” he said.


Tony took a slow breath. “Yeah, well. Lucky for me, I piss everybody off enough that they feel a need to put personal touches on things,” he said. “It’s worked well for me so far.”


“Someday, someone is going to take that head shot,” Steve said.


Tony shrugged with eyebrows and a quirk of his mouth. “I’ll never know it,” he said.


“But the rest of us will,” Steve said.


Tony held his eyes for a moment. “Sooner or later, I’ll piss you off, too. When you do it, though, don’t go for the heart, okay? Go ahead and take my head right off with your shield.”


Steve sighed. “Tony, please.”


“At least I can count on you to do it right the first time,” Tony said, looking down to adjust the shirt’s cuffs.

 

“I’d never hurt you on purpose,” Steve said.


Tony’s hands stilled, and he glanced up at Steve again before looking away. “Maybe just to put me out of my misery, then,” he said. He cleared his throat. “I’ll quit standing near windows. I knew better, anyway.” He leaned toward Steve a little and wrinkled his nose but didn’t raise his eyes. “If I was family to any of the kids who were with me, the day I was grabbed in Afghanistan? The ones who died only because they were hauling me around? I’d take a shot at me.”


“Not everybody blames you for that,” Steve said. “Everybody who signs up knows the risks.”


Tony snorted. “Yeah, the risks. Not a full guarantee that they’re going to be blown to hell.” He slid off the table and failed at suppressing a wince as the move stretched the muscles of his back. “With weapons I invented, by the way.”


“And you’ve done everything you can to clear that up,” Steve said. “You’re not the one who allowed any of it to get into the wrong hands, Tony.”


“It’s still my name on the weapons,” Tony said.


“Don’t sound too disappointed that someone failed to kill you, today,” Steve said with an audible edge.


“Hey,” Tony said, “I’m sure they’ll find another way. Day’s not over.”


Steve nodded. “That’s why you’re getting an escort home.”


“Fine,” Tony said. “But we’re going back to the scene, first. I wanna see things before it’s all cleared away.”


Steve stared at him for a moment, debating how to talk Tony out of that idea. The other man was obviously in pain – it didn’t take much detective work to see the lines of stress around his mouth and eyes or the hint of sweat on upper lip and brow. He still held himself with an exaggeratedly casual air that was taking more effort than he likely wanted anyone to know, and that wouldn’t stop until he was either completely alone or could be convinced about the necessity of pain medication.


Steve gave in without arguing. Tony was the only person he had ever known who stood around yelling I’m fine when he meant someone please help me.


He had never been able to resist that.


“It’ll hurt worse later on than it does now,” he said. “And tomorrow morning, coffee’s not going to fix it. We’ll go over there and look if you put the armor back on and take whatever prescription they give you.”


Tony rolled his eyes a little. “Guy gets shot at, everybody turns into a mother hen,” he muttered. “I hate that stuff. Alcohol, I can handle, but drugs mess with my head. They turn me into an idiot.”


“I doubt that they’ll lower your IQ enough to really make a difference,” Steve said.


“I say and do stupid things,” Tony said, leveling a steady gaze on him. “I mean, sometimes I do that on purpose, just to piss people off, but on painkillers it’s unplanned. Not okay.”


“I’ll keep an eye on you,” Steve said, trying to sound reassuring. “I won’t let Clint take pictures of you or anything.”


Tony seemed to appreciate the attempt at humor.


/~~/


If Tony noticed how close Steve stayed to his back to shield it once they left the hospital, he didn’t say anything.


The cops were surprised to see him.


The safety glass had webbed in places but remained intact, with three small holes glaringly visible high up on the windows, angling in and down.


Three brass shell casings from the roof of the building across the street had already been recovered, along with two of the three bullets that had hit Tony from the floor of the banquet room he’d been in. Tony glanced in the evidence bag he was shown and looked at them as if he knew what they were. The detective holding the bag said “Probably AR-15,” and Tony nodded.


Whoever had done it hadn’t left anything else behind.

 

Tony stood and looked at the damaged windows in the gathering dark, doing exactly what he’d already said he would quit doing: standing in plain sight.


“They were careful about avoiding collateral damage,” Tony said when Steve came to stand beside him. “That’s a big clue, right there. They were neat about it and didn’t want anyone else hurt. So we’ve got a good shot with a civilian assault rifle who hates me but cares about how they do things. If they were ever military, they decided to go for something high powered but not military issue. The AR-15 is the civilian version of the M-16 and takes both .223 and NATO rounds, and they chose NATO rounds. That’s all available on the open market. Anybody could get that stuff. They didn’t even go with a sniper rifle. The NATO rounds are harder to use than .233's for accuracy over the kind of distance they shot me from.”


“So they’re likely an expert shot but were still willing to take the chance of missing you by not choosing the optimum weapon for the job,” Steve said. “Overconfidence? Trying to make a point?”


“Someone who knew they were going to hit me, and would have been okay with just crippling me,” Tony said. “Not a professional hit, and not military.”


His eyes seemed to be locked in place, unblinking, on the holes in the glass. He was beginning to look a little dazed, and Steve knew the meds were kicking in. Vicoden and anti-inflammatories.


“Too many good suspects,” Tony said. “I don’t really care who it is, anyway.”


“I do,” Steve said. “I’m not going to let people keep taking shots at you.”


Tony shifted his eyes to Steve without moving his head. He smiled a little. It was grateful and sightly mocking at the same time, something Tony was particularly adept at.


“Let’s go home,” Steve said.


/~~/


Tony flipped through several stations as soon as they got in, catching seven different versions of what had supposedly happened via various news cycles. “That’s what I get?” he complained. “‘Billionaire’ Tony Stark? What happened to ‘former weapons specialist’ or ‘defense contractor’ or ‘inventor’ or even ‘irredeemable playboy’?” He scoffed at the TV and tossed the remote over one shoulder. “Gotta fix that.”


“Go ahead and piss SHIELD off...again...and just take your helmet off on camera, next chance you get,” Carol said, walking in. She had already spoken to both Steve and Tony, but there was still a moment of visible relief on her face once she could look at them.


Tony paused as if considering it.


No, Tony,” Steve said.


Tony went back to watching TV, standing there and gazing at it in open annoyance.


Carol looked at Steve with raised eyebrows, apparently asking if things were how they looked. Steve nodded.


“Tony,” Carol said, “Why didn’t you answer your phone?”


“Lost it,” Tony said without taking his eyes off the TV. “When you get hit that hard, things fly out of your pockets. Dunno where my communicator went. Why don’t people automatically go for the floor when they hear gunshots, anymore? It’s TV, isn’t it, people see shit on TV and don’t take anything seriously. I’ll have to send a signal and self-destruct the phone, or something, because if someone finds it...I have Halle Berry’s number on there. She’ll freak.”


Carol looked at Steve again, and Steve nodded again. Yes, Tony is doped up on pain meds, and he’s rambling. Steve wasn’t sure when he had become Tony’s barometer for the others, but he didn’t mind.


Sooner or later, regardless of where they were, the other Avengers would wander in to look at Tony and make sure he was okay. They all tended to do that with each other, when any of them had been hurt or had fielded a close call. Sometimes it was a phone call, or a smart remark, or just a moment of staring before moving on. But they always checked.


CNN was reporting that Tony had been treated and released.


“Someone’s gotta be taking this hard,” Tony said, beginning to waver back and forth slightly in place as if to a tune only he could hear. “They’re watching TV somewhere right now and saying, ‘what do I gotta do to kill this asshole – blow a place up?’ And I’d say, no, that doesn’t work either, I was on the roof when the arc reactor blew, and I made it out of that. Poor Pepper. This is why I don’t let her within twenty yards of me at public things anymore, right? If she goes.”


Clint walked in. “Hey, attention whore,” he said.


Tony flipped him off without turning.


Clint looked at Steve. Steve wasn’t sure which question was being asked, if there was one at all, so he just nodded.


Clint walked over to stand next to Tony and stare at the TV with him. “Did they get your good side?”


“All my sides are good,” Tony said.


Clint plucked carefully at one of the holes in Tony’s jacket. “Life flash in front of your eyes?” he asked.


“No,” Tony said. “Just the season finale of CSI.”


“Can I see the damage?” Clint said.


“Knock yourself out,” Tony said.


Clint pulled up the back of Tony’s jacket and shirt, taking the armor with it. The bruises were worse by then, harsh indigoes and purples beginning to spread below the skin. They were deep muscle bruises and didn’t show as much color on the surface as most blows would have.


Carol made a tsk sound of sympathy between her teeth.


“I’ve had worse,” Clint said.


“You are worse,” Tony said.


Clint put Tony’s clothing back into place with more care than it seemed he might have been capable of, then patted him on the shoulder furthest from the damage. He leaned in a little. “I’d have gone for a head shot.”


Tony smiled a little. “Thanks.”


“Anytime.” Clint threw himself on the couch. He had been careful not to glance at Steve once he started hassling Tony.


Carol stayed by the windows as if observing the whole thing from a slight distance would give her some sort of insight on it.


“Oh, look,” Tony said. “The security camera footage. That really didn’t take long.”


It was a grainy shot from above of a room full of milling people. Tony wasn’t distinguishable from the crowd until he was stumbling forward as if shoved, then shoving others out of the way instead of getting down like he should have before the third shot knocked him down. It would have been unnerving to watch even for someone who wasn’t fond of him.


“Your ass looks really big from this angle,” Clint said.


“That’s because I’m standing in front of the TV,” Tony said.


“I mean on the footage,” Clint said. “Next time it would be awesome if you’d just get on the floor when the shooting starts.”


“Ray, when someone asks you if you’re a god, say yes,” Tony said.


Clint snorted.


Tony hummed for a moment, leaning over to one side a little. He pointed a finger at the TV. “See, this is what I’m saying, people don’t get on the floor, so you have to push them down. And whoever the shooter was...aw, why do they have to show it a hundred times?...they kept hitting me in the same place even though I was moving. That’s pretty good.”


A supposed gun expert came on and theorized about what weapons were used, and why.


Tony yawned.


“Fuckin’ CNN,” Clint said. “Gotta interview someone next about the atmospheric conditions at the time of the shooting, see if that helped the bullets travel better.”


“Can someone get to Pepper and remind her to just shut everything off?” Tony said. “I don’t want her stuck with trying to deal with the press, at all. And she’ll try, if she hears these guys being a bunch of idiots.”


Tony had already spoken to her twice to tell her to ignore everything and take some time off, but whether he was worried or just unable to remember, Steve wasn’t sure.


“I’ll call her,” Carol said, and walked away.


There were heavy footsteps dopplering toward them along the hardwood floors, and then Thor came in. “Tony?” he boomed. “Art thou well?”


Kveðja, vinr,” Tony said in Old Norse. I’m okay.”


Tony had been practicing his Old Norse to amuse Thor. Steve had suggested that he not attempt it unless he was absolutely certain about what he was saying, because Tony had once accidentally called Thor a little girl. Still, once that disaster had been averted, it had become plain that Thor appreciated the attempt.


Kveðja, Thor returned. “Friend Tony, do you require assistance in thy vengeance against the coward who attempted to harm you whilst thy back was turned?”


“No way, big guy,” Tony said, turning to look at him. “I got this one.” He gave Thor a thumbs-up. “Thanks, though.”


Thor looked at Steve for confirmation. Or Steve assumed that was the intent. Steve nodded. It seemed to answer something for Thor, who nodded back.


“They’ll give themselves away eventually, and we’ll screw them up,” Clint said. “Right, Thor?”


“Verily,” Thor said, clenching one fist.


A witness was being interviewed on CNN, an older man who was saying he had seen the entire thing and wasn’t surprised that someone had tried to kill Tony. “Wait, turn the sound down,” Tony said, the words beginning to slur a little as he waved one arm ineffectually in the basic direction he’d tossed the remote in. “I wanna see if I can read lips.”


Clint found the remote and muted the sound. “He says your ass is so big he’s surprised the assassin didn’t hit it by accident.”


Tony flipped Clint off again without looking at him, and Steve cleared his throat with disapproval. Clint sank down on the couch a little further as if to possibly avoid something the size and shape of Steve’s shield should it become airborne.


“Tony,” Steve said, “You should probably go lie down.”


“M’okay,” Tony said. “I think someone should use this in their music video.”


The security footage was still playing in one corner of the screen on some kind of endless loop and was apparently being analyzed frame by frame. Tony seemed hypnotized by it.


“Can’t blink my eyes,” he said. “Stuck.”


Clint looked like he might start laughing.


Steve knew he was running the risk of becoming the mother hen that Tony had accused him of being, but he stepped between Tony and the TV. Tony stared wide-eyed at Steve’s chest for a moment in confusion, then slowly leaned forward and rested his forehead on it.


Clint grinned but was careful not to say anything. He didn’t have to.


Steve put Tony to bed.


/~~/


Hank and Jan came in, heard the whole thing, and went to briefly stare at Tony while he slept. That wasn’t odd, either, because they’d all been in that position with each other at one time or another.


Worried calls were fielded from the Fantastic Four, SHIELD and various X-Men. After that, the phones were turned off because Clint started answering media calls and that really never went well.


Carol went to wake Tony around dinner time to try and get him to eat, and he was missing.


Steve knew exactly where he was without bothering to ask Jarvis.


Tony was down in his workshop, puttering around, pacing, unable to keep still. He touched things as he went, cars and parts and tools and tables, never resting on any one thing for very long.


Steve said his name, softly, never expecting an answer, but Tony reacted to his voice immediately and turned to stare.


And stare. He looked a little dazed, and the sharp focus Steve was used to being subjected to was missing. Tony didn’t even attempt his standard public face, the one he defaulted to when he disagreed with everyone or didn’t want to give away what he was thinking. There was just a moment of visible and weary relief when he looked at Steve.


“You can’t mess with any of this while you’re on medication,” Steve said, knowing it wasn’t true. Tony could wander down there drunk, and it never made any difference. “Come hang out with us, if you can’t sleep. Okay?”


He didn’t say you were almost wiped off the planet today by regular means and it was so easy, so humor us for awhile, because Tony hated that kind of thing. The words, the emotion; being fussed over when he wasn’t actively looking for it.


“Sure, whatever,” Tony said.


That, plus the fact that he got Tony to eat something and take another couple of Vicoden without any kind of a fight caused Steve to wonder if Tony’s real complaint about painkillers was that they made him compliant. In Tony’s mind, acting on suggestions from others and not having full control of a situation could easily fall under his definition of saying and doing stupid things.


/~~/


Steve was still awake and watching TV when Tony came out again just after midnight. Tony stood there in bare feet for a long moment, looking bleary-eyed and disheveled.


“You okay?” Steve said, testing to see if Tony was actually awake.


“You really did punch Hitler, didn’t you,” Tony said.


“Yes.”


Tony nodded, looking satisfied. “I like you.”


He wandered away, back down the hall.


Steve waited a couple of minutes, then followed.


Tony had made it back to his room. The door was open, and he was lying facedown across his bed as if he’d simply run into it and collapsed. Steve covered him back up and left him that way, figuring Tony would move himself sooner or later if it was uncomfortable.

 

Steve figured he should go to bed, himself, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep. He could lie awake and read, but his mind wouldn’t be on the material. TV was soothing and distracting in a way, and staring at it was preferable to staring at the ceiling of his room.

 

They were in danger all the time, from a wide variety of sources with an even wider variety of weapons and powers. That would never be commonplace, but it made the more mundane ways of assault seem more alarming as a result. Even the dumbest of criminals had quit opening fire on them because it was a waste of time. When he was out of costume, it never even occurred to him that someone would purposely try and gun him down. Granted, he didn’t go many places without his shield, even concealed in his portfolio, but that wasn’t done in the interest of protecting himself. It had never seemed like a luxury to be able to walk around without wondering who would try and shoot him in the back.

 

Tony was accustomed to the idea that every time he was in public, someone might try and kill him.

 

How do people hate me? Let me count the ways.

 

That was a hard way to live. Still, the simplest weapons had always proved to be the most effective, in the end. It was to their advantage that most of the…personalities they fought on a regular basis had overcomplicated schemes in play and spent too much time with the dramatics. Steve was fine with that.

 

He wasn’t sure whose mortality he was sitting there contemplating.

 

CNN had stopped playing the security footage hourly, but they were still making a big deal of it, even in the middle of the night. There was something sensationalist about it, as if the shooting was considered a form of entertainment. It was one of the things Steve found hardest to reconcile between the world he’d grown up in and the one he now inhabited. People should have been horrified, not asking each other whether Tony had brought it on himself or acting as if it was no more worrisome than Britney Spears wandering around without underwear.

 

People in general seemed to only have two reactions to Tony: fawn over him, or try to kill him.

Those who knew him settled into a default of affectionate exasperation when confronted with endless attempts to deflect and distract, to goad or ignore. It took patience to deal with him. Tony liked to push people until they could barely stand him. Whether that was a means of testing them to see if they would hold up under the strain and still stick around, or just a defense mechanism, didn't matter.

 

He was, as Steve’s mother would have said, a chore.

 

And still, he was worth it. Not because he was rich, or handsome, or brilliant. Each of those things was part of the whole. But in the end, he was good. The last outweighed each of the former by a factor of ten...if Steve was to base it in terms Tony would understand best. He made some strange decisions occasionally, while trying to force the means to justify the end, but never for selfish reasons. That made a difference.

 

He had the volume on the TV down far enough to hear the soft approach of bare feet again as Tony padded out. He sat still and watched, waiting to see what he’d get that time. Tony wandered by and headed for the windows, steps steady but with the heavier tread of someone half asleep. The t-shirt he’d worn to bed was missing, making the arc reactor a spotlight for him to follow around the darkened house. Steve figured the shirt had irritated the abused skin of Tony’s back, so it had likely been tossed somewhere.


The bruising seemed like a pattern of fixed shadows in the ambient light from the TV.


Steve twisted on the couch to watch, trying to figure out what Tony might be doing and, more importantly, whether he was awake enough to do it.


Tony reached the windows and stared up, face tilted back. He stepped sideways, hands out slightly for balance, pacing the length of the windows intently.


He kept looking up and staring, sidestepping a bit at a time, backing up as if to get a better view of something. Steve watched with a mix of interest and concern, trying to figure out what had the other man so transfixed. Finally, Tony stopped about midway across the room and rubbed at one eye, still craning his neck to check the windows.


Realization of what had to be happening came with a dull pang of horror, and Steve came off the couch as quickly as he dared without startling Tony. He approached at an angle, trying to get into Tony’s peripheral vision instead of just walking up behind him.


“Hey,” he said. “Tony. Tony?”


Tony turned his head in Steve’s direction but didn’t look at him directly. “Can’t find ‘em,” he said, blinking slowly, a vertical line of consternation appearing between his brows.


“That’s because they’re not there,” Steve said. “No holes, okay? It didn’t happen here. You’re home.”


“Have to cover ‘em…before.”

 

Steve really wanted to know before what, but he knew it likely wouldn’t make much sense anyway. “There’s nothing to cover,” he said softly, holding a hand out at shoulder height but not allowing it to come to rest. If Tony felt threatened, then the fact that he was half asleep and still apparently a little medicated wasn’t going to keep him from lashing out, and he’d end up hurting himself long before he’d do Steve any damage.

 

Tony turned his head a little further toward Steve, eyes on the floor as he visibly struggled to look somewhere other than the windows.

 

“Come on,” Steve said. “It’s okay. The windows are fine. Everybody’s fine.”

 

Tony took a wavering step and leaned into Steve, head resting on his chest. “Okay, good.”

 

Steve remained motionless, one hand still raised as he tried to decide what to do with it. He wasn’t used to Tony like this – agreeable and affectionate and accepting at least some kind of help. He suspected no one else would have been, either, not even Pepper.

 

Tony sighed in a way that sounded content and leaned in a little harder. Steve smiled and gently tangled his fingers in Tony’s hair, cupping the back of his head. A couple of minutes passed in silence with the warm weight of Tony against him, as much a comfort against his earlier musings as it seemed to be against whatever kept waking Tony. It didn’t matter whether Tony even realized who he was; it was good to be able to comfort him even that much.

 

“I’ve got you,” Steve said.

 

Tony hummed in what sounded like approval.

 

Steve resisted the urge to pet Tony’s head. The vulnerability was so foreign that he felt like a voyeur. Still, Tony had not been out there looking for bullet holes in the glass because he was worried about himself. He was very rarely worried about himself. This was the man who had done anything and everything to try and help Steve acclimate to a world he could barely recognize, who often dropped everything to listen to him, who had roused him from nightmares even when it wasn’t all that safe to wake a soldier who, to his own mind, had been only weeks out of battle rather than decades.

 

He would protect this man with his life, and whatever else he had after that.

 

“Why do you put up with me?” Tony said.

 

“Because you’re a good man, Tony,” Steve said. “Whether you believe it or not.”

 

“Cartoon Network,” Tony said.


“What?”


“Wanna watch Adult Swim,” Tony said.


Steve wasn’t surprised, but he did smile to himself. He kept one hand on the back of Tony’s head and guided him over to the couch, letting him slide down onto the edge of it. He wouldn’t lean back even if most of the pain was still dulled. Steve sat beside him and flipped to Cartoon Network. Boondocks had started at midnight. Steve had discovered that a lot of modern animation left something to be desired both content and language-wise, but he could appreciate the technique.


Tony reached over and shoved at Steve’s shoulder insistently.


“What do you want me to do?” Steve said.


“Lie down so I can, too,” Tony demanded.


Steve shrugged internally, finding the whole thing fairly amusing. He adjusted a pillow under his head and rested it at one end of the couch, then stretched out and bit his tongue to keep from smiling when Tony crawled up by degrees and settled himself with his head on Steve’s chest.


He patted Steve’s ribs. “Custom piercing digging into anything important?”


Steve figured he meant the arc reactor. “No,” he said. “Comfortable?”


“Yep.”


Steve pulled the afghan off the back of the couch that Sue Richards had made them when they’d first moved in. He arranged it so that there was no direct contact with Tony’s back but so it was still covering him.


When Boondocks was over, they watched Bleach.


”Too many characters,” Tony said. “Be cool to be a shinigami, though.”


“They’re grim reapers, right?” Steve asked. “So which came first – this, or Dead Like Me?”


“No telling.”


They were silent for several minutes. Then Tony said, “They used to call me the Merchant of Death.”


“Who are ‘they’?”


“The press,” Tony said. “It’s kind of catchy, don’t you think? It would make a lousy alter ego, though. I can’t think of a decent costume for that. It just sort of requires an apron or something, you know, like a grocery store owner, except really threatening.”


Steve smiled to himself but he didn’t laugh. He could tell Tony was being partly serious.


“Even when you do the right thing, there will still always be someone who thinks you’re doing it wrong, or for the wrong reasons,” Tony said. “Someone will always be trying to save the world from me.”


“I don’t think so,” Steve said, resting a hand on Tony’s head.


Tony fell asleep again soon after that, and Steve didn’t find it all that hard to do the same.

 

/~~/


He opened his eyes to Jan leaning over the back of the couch and beaming at them with open and unapologetic humor and approval.


"I’m up early,” she said softly. “I’d wake him and move before this becomes an incident. As in, referred to with capitals and brought up at least three times a week.”


/~~/


Tony went back to bed willingly and Steve endured periodic looks from Jan that were brimming over with some kind of maternal adoration.


/~~/


Rhodey called Steve’s cell later that morning.


“I was out in the field,” Rhodey said. “Dammit, man, why can’t he stay out of trouble? Have they caught anybody yet?”


“Not that I’ve heard,” Steve said.


“Why doesn’t he answer his cell?”


“It was lost in the confusion,” Steve said.


As if summoned by some innate knowledge of when someone was calling him, Tony appeared and went for coffee. He glanced at Steve by degrees, not looking embarrassed but displaying a bit of chagrin in his direction. Steve pointed at the phone and mouthed Rhodey and Tony nodded as he passed.


“He really okay?”


“Yeah,” Steve said. “He really is. I’ll make sure of it.”


Tony reappeared with coffee and a yawn and stood near Steve with the same reluctantly chagrined look on his face. He took the phone.


“Hey, it’s me. Yeah, fine. I saw it too. Pretty badly choreographed, don’t you think? Should I try and get Janet Jackson to sequence the next shooting?”


There was a long pause, and Steve knew that Rhodey had to be giving Tony a piece of his mind, based on the slump of Tony’s shoulders and the just-audible sigh.

 

“It was nothing,” Tony said. “Rhodey – wait. Rhodey. Rhodey. Rhodey, Rhodey, Rho – come on, sourpatch. I’m walking around and suspiciously lacking in holes, so I’d say it went pretty well. For me, anyway. Even better than last time. I’ll take a picture of me right now, so you can see.” Tony held the phone away and took a picture of himself, then pressed a button. “See? Aw, come on, I went to all that trouble. There’s...well, a lot of superheroes. All over the place. That’s kind of daunting to would-be assassins.”

 

There was a pause. Tony wagged his head back and forth as if he was hearing something he’d heard before. “Hmm. Yeah. Well, because it is funny. Couple years from now, we’ll be talking about it and it’ll still be funny. I’ll be missing an eye or something, from another shooting, but it’ll still...yeah, okay. Cheers.”

 

He handed the phone back and smiled at Steve. “I think he’ll shoot me himself, one day.” 

 

Steve figured that Tony was contemplating that with the same bit of confidence he’d displayed when telling Steve that sooner or later, Steve would get tired of him and take his head off with his shield.

 

“Sorry,” Tony said, looking at the floor.

 

“Nothing to be sorry for.”

 

Tony looked like he wanted to disagree, but he remained silent.

 

“Stiff?” Steve said.

 

“On a very regular basis,” Tony said with a smirk. When Steve sighed, he added, “It’s not all that bad.”

 

“Getting some rest probably helped,” Steve said.

 

“Sure.” Tony paused and shuffled his feet a little, fidgeting. “Um...thanks.” He struggled visibly and then finally raised his eyes to meet Steve’s. “Thanks.”

 

Steve smiled. “You’re welcome. And it was no big deal. It’s what friends are for, right?”

 

“Yeah,” Tony said without returning the smile. “Family, too.”

 

They looked at each other for a long moment. Tony raised a hand midair, and Steve clasped it.

 

Tony walked by, brushing shoulders with him.

 

Steve nodded to himself. They’d figure out who’d tried to kill Tony sooner or later, whether Tony wanted to know or not. It was what family did.

 

/~~/

 

/~~/

 

/~~/

 

Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can’t explain
I know Saint Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
And that was when I ruled the world.

/~~/ /~~/ /~~/