Thanks to everyone who has read and reviewed over the (literally) years. Now that we're through Endgame I'm going to try to go back and get this wrapped up. For those who have pointed out typos/errors, thank you and I'll try to get some of those cleaned up too.
Steve, already off balance from a low kick that had taken an ankle out from under him, fell forward as Tony's strike landed between his shoulder blades. It wasn't enough to knock the wind out of him, though, and he caught himself with one arm and launched himself back to his feet. And somehow into Tony.
Steve managed to get his legs under him before he could fall again, spinning into a guard position in preparation for Tony's counterattack, but the collision had knocked Tony to the edge of the mat and his roll to bleed down the force of impact had taken him well past the self-defined borders of their sparring area. Tony sighed as he pushed himself up on his elbows. "Well, that wasn't what I was going for."
Steve grinned and relaxed, stepping forward to offer Tony a hand back to his feet. Not that it had been what he'd been going for either, not an awkward, un-aimed, backwards take-down, but in the end it had had the desired effect. "You could hit me a lot harder," he admitted as he pulled Tony up.
"What do you mean?"
He shrugged. Tony was observing the standard rules of sparring just as he was, but short of attempted murder there wasn't much that Tony could do that he wouldn't recover from almost immediately. Given a few of the things he'd talked the Howling Commandos into trying, even attempted murder probably wouldn't matter if Tony wasn't armed. If that last hit had caught Steve closer to full force, it might have kept him on the ground for a few moments longer. "You don't have to pull your punches that much," he admitted.
Tony tilted his head, eyeing him for a minute. "Out of curiosity, how much is 'that much'?"
"Pretty much at all unless we start sparring armored. I mean, if you go for my throat or my eyes or something it might be different, but not…." Another shrug. Even then it would probably take someone with a skill set like Natasha's or Clint's to do real damage, but there was no sense in being stupid. Anyone could have a bad day.
Tony snorted, and Steve flushed. He hadn't been sure about saying anything the last time they'd sparred, some people were sensitive about kind of thing, but by now he had a better idea of what Tony would take offense at and that wasn't anywhere on the list. Which didn't mean that he wouldn't twit Steve about staying quiet.
"I'd wondered," was all Tony said, though, as he stepped away and picked up a water bottle.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, unlike you, I did do my homework. Or, more importantly, I understood my homework. Now, I'll grant that biology is not my specialty, but I can manage the basics, and I'm damn good at physics. The fact that your rib cage doesn't look like the world's most difficult jigsaw puzzle is certainly a testament to something."
That was a more than fair point, really. "I guess I should be grateful that you didn't stab me with something sharp or electrical on the helicarrier in the name of science," Steve said with a shake of his head.
"You, no," Tony said, obviously following his train of thought and echoing the head shake as he put down his water bottle and picked up Steve's, holding it out. "That was never going to happen. You're too much of a wild card."
Steve started to reach for it, only to halt. "Wait, I'm too much of a wild card? Tony, you stabbed Bruce." And it wasn't like Tony and Bruce had been friends before he'd done it, either.
"I only poked Bruce, and remind me again which one of us went directly from dancing to show tunes to commandeering a jet and taking it into enemy territory specifically against orders to rescue people with a plan that consisted of not much more than 'Huh, those look like bad guys. I wonder what that big building is'? Not to mention that a parachute may or may not have been involved depending on which version of the story my dad was telling."
"Hey, I had a parachute that time," Steve objected. "And Howard offered. And we had a little more intel than that. Anyway, as I recall your idea of a plan is, and I quote, 'Attack,' so I don't think you've got any room to talk."
"I—" Tony broke off with a wave and then frowned and tossed the bottle to Steve. "Never mind. That's not the point."
Not really a surprise since Tony's points always seemed to come straight out of left field, at least upon first examination, but Tony was still talking.
"Bruce is a scientist, and one at a level not many people reach. Even if I can't tell you exactly what he's thinking, I can make a pretty good guess about where his head is going to be. Given how much trouble he went through to take himself off the grid after everything that happened, there was no chance that he was going to suddenly lose it. Not without a lot more provocation than me and a sharp stick, anyway. You?" He shrugged. "Not a scientist. Wild card."
"That..." Steve honestly wasn't sure what that was, analysis-wise. He took a quick drink and then set the water bottle back down and gestured to the mat. "Want to go again?" They'd been at it for almost an hour and he still felt fine, but Tony was starting to look a little ragged.
Tony nodded. "Sure. Say a couple more falls and then we grab some dinner?" He didn't wait for a response. "Indian, Greek, Chinese, Thai? Something else? No Pepper tonight, so she can't complain about the amount of dessert we order, but Bruce can probably be convinced to join us."
"Uh...Indian?" Not that Steve had had much Indian food before, but it had been first on Tony's list and given the amount of time Bruce spent in India he probably wouldn't object either. And he already knew there was no point in telling Tony not to bother or that his kitchen had plenty of supplies. Or to say he was fine without dessert, for that matter. Food would appear regardless of anything he had to say about it.
"JARVIS, you heard him."
"I will have a delivery scheduled for one hour from now, sir. Captain Rogers, would you care to request any specific dishes?"
"No, thank you, whatever Tony and Bruce like will be fine with me."
"Very well, sir."
"Does Pepper have a business dinner or something?" Steve asked. He knew that he hadn't seen her today, but that wasn't all that unusual. Heck, he'd only seen Tony when Tony had interrupted him in the middle of another deep dive into Wikipedia—not how he'd planned to spend the afternoon, but that website was dangerous—and invited him down to the gym.
"Nah, she's off to Asia for a few days. Some kind of whirlwind tour for our clean energy expansion project. I'm not invited, which seems like something I should take offense to, but the last time I went along for that kind of thing there was this whole international incident, and…." He waved a hand. "I told them I was going to upgrade their security system; I'm not sure why it's my fault that they were surprised."
"All right, that's it for me or I'm going to fall asleep here," Bruce said with a shake of his head as the credits began to scroll across the screen, pushing himself up off the couch. "I'll see you two tomorrow."
"Goodnight, Bruce," Steve said, grabbing one more of the rice balls from the box on the table. He'd never had them before, but they were tasty.
"Don't forget, tomorrow, ten o'clock, we're kicking off that experiment," Tony said, jabbing a finger in Bruce's direction. "No excuses."
"Ten o'clock," Bruce agreed with a half-smile. "Steve, you're welcome to join us if you'd like."
"I've already got plans tomorrow morning, but thanks. Maybe next time?"
Bruce nodded and stepped into the elevator, and Steve kept his sigh of relief that Bruce hadn't asked what those plans wereto himself. The self-defense class Wednesday evening had gone well enough for him to get invited back to teach the women's and children's classes tomorrow, and he absolutely would not put it past Tony to show up with a camera if he remembered. As of now it looked like he didn't, and Steve didn't want to jinx it, especially since JARVIS had already assured Steve that there were no requirements in his programming to notify Tony of events that he hadn't specifically requested for reminders for. And as of now Steve's classes were not on that list. Steve figured that he really needed to talk to Pepper and find out how to get a gift for an AI because even if there wasn't a 'requirement in his programming,' he knew darn well that JARVIS usually took the initiative to remind Tony of all kinds of things without specific requests.
"Plans?" Tony asked.
Oops. Premature relief, it looked like. "Nothing too interesting. Hey, if I was such a wild card, why did you, anyway?" He hadn't really planned to ask the question that had popped into his head as they'd watched a ridiculous team shout at each other as they put together a ridiculous heist, or at least he hadn't planned to ask it until he'd thought it the rest of the way through himself, anyway, but right now he needed a distraction. And he was curious about the answer.
Tony waved the remains of a piece of naan. "Eh, it seemed like a good idea at the time."
As much as that was a reasonable answer where Tony was concerned, it didn't help Steve very much. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you know, New Year's, good alcohol, a pretty lady….."
"December 31st, 2003."
"What? You weren't asking about December 31st, 2003?"
"Why would I be asking about that?"
"I don't know, it was your question."
He grinned. "Sorry, Spangles, but you're going to have to be a little more specific if you want a different answer."
Steve shook his head at the irony of Tony of all people making that request, but he couldn't really argue the point. He should have gotten the question sorted out a little better in his own head before he'd asked it. "It's Steve, and I was talking about during the Chitauri invasion. You had positions on all of us, you're the one who expected Bruce to show up, and you said earlier that you can't tell how I'm going to react to things. They'd have listened if you'd given the orders, so why did you tell me to call it?"
"You're Captain America."
"I was. Bad form, really, seeing as it isn't Tuesday. Probably." A frown as he popped the naan into his mouth. "JARVIS?"
"It is not Tuesday, sir," JARVIS agreed.
Tony nodded. "The thing is, Steve, I do me. I do me extremely well. If there was an entire army of mes I'd be good. And Bruce, he's a scientist. Not me, but like I said, I can make a pretty good guess about where his head is at most of the time. Beyond that, though? You aren't me. The Wonder Twins aren't me. Point Break sure as hell isn't me. In a fight I'm going to be making calls based on how I'd react, and even with JARVIS' input I don't always—ever, if you ask Pepper or Rhodey—do the best job of accounting for human humanness. Whatever else those reports had to say about you, you're a hell of a tactician, and you do get the human side. Who better to call it? Besides, it worked, didn't it?"
There was no sign of joking on Tony's face, and Steve felt himself relax.
"You know, I should build an army of mes."
Steve felt his forehead crease. With anyone else he'd have said it was a joke; Tony looked serious. And an entire army of Tonys did not bear thinking on.
"Better yet, an army of robots." He straightened in his chair. "A legion—we are legion for we are many."
Steve hesitated. "You do know that in the Bible that refers to a host of demons, right?"
Tony was already up and moving, digging for something under a pile of papers on the main table, and Steve looked up at the ceiling.
"JARVIS, he's not really going to build...?"
"I calculate a near hundred-percent certainty, sir."
Steve almost groaned. Somehow that was not the distraction that he had been hoping for.