Steve Rogers's hands were bleeding.
He wasn't that surprised to see red splotches staining the white of the wrap he had around his hands. He'd lost track of how long he'd been in the gym, and how many bags he'd destroyed. Stark had made a punching bag recycling unit where all Steve had to do was feed it the abused bag. Five minutes later, it was good as new. 'Green', Stark had called it. Better for the environment.
Ignoring the pain in his hands, Steve kept hitting the bag until it burst. He stood there panting for a few moments before dragging it over to the recycler. While that one was being refurbished, Steve hung up the second bag.
"You're going to over-heat the machine if you keep this up," a voice said from behind him.
Steve didn't look up. He knew who was standing in the doorway of the gym, and he didn't really need to see the overdressed son of a dead friend. "You need something, Stark?" he asked, testing the connection of the bag.
"Nah. Not particularly," Stark said, his voice light.
Steve ignored him, throwing his first punch. The weight of the bag spelled out agony on his burning knuckles, but Steve ignored it. He was used to pain management. He had to be when drugs and pain killers didn't last long enough to actually get in his blood stream.
"Okay, here's the thing," Stark said, his voice closer. "JARVIS tells me you've gone through a record number of punching bags and I'd rather not have to fix the over-heated machine."
"I'll stop after this one," Steve said. He could always go back to his old gym in Brooklyn. They still had a ton of bags lying around from when SHIELD funded his punching bag addiction. The drive there would give his hands a chance to heal and by the time he got through those, the machine should have had plenty of time to cool down.
"Yeah, I don't believe that," Stark said, this time from right behind him.
Steve spun around at the sudden proximity, only barely stopping from breaking Stark's arm off when the genius let out a startled yelp. Steve let go of his arm immediately. "Sorry," he grit out. Because the last thing he wanted was to hurt someone else. Stark didn't deserve that. Steve ran a hand through his sweat-soaked hair. "I'm jumpy. I shouldn't have... I'm probably not good company right now."
"I noticed," Stark said, brown eyes examining his knuckles like they held the formula to an alloy that would revolutionize the world. He wasn't wearing one of those fancy suits after all, but rather a black wife beater and jeans, fingers tapping at the area on his chest that was no longer lit. He looked exhausted.
"Can whatever it is you came down to say wait?" Steve asked.
Stark looked up, finding something in Steve's face that was unsatisfactory, if his expression was anything to go by. "Nope. Can't wait. Come on, Cap. We leave in three hours and you should get those patched up if you don't want blood on your clothes while you pack. And trust me, getting blood out of fabric sucks."
Steve blinked. "What are you talking about, Stark?"
"Trip to China," Stark said, reaching out to Steve's hands slowly. Steve tensed, but he let Stark start unwrapping the gauze with surprisingly gentle and deft fingers. "Fury wants something from the People's Republic. Not that he'd tell me what it is, nor do I care, but I've got some business there anyway. An appointment with the doctors."
"And I'm going because?" Steve said, wincing as the last of the gauze was pulled off.
Stark started working on the other hand. "Publicity. China loves Iron Man. But I've got things to do, so you've just been volunteered to help me. Go spread some American goodwill among the Communists, Cap. It'll be good for you."
"Find someone else to go," Steve said, pulling his hand back and unwrapping it himself. It hurt more than when Stark had been doing it, but at the moment Steve didn't care.
There was a brief second when Stark looked uncertain before stubbornness set in the line of his jaw. "Look, Cap-"
"Stark, I'm really not in the mood to be a dancing monkey for the press," Steve cut in. "Just leave me alone."
"Okay, you don't have to do any of that really," Stark said, frustration seeping into his voice as Steve turned away to pack his gym bag. "Would you let me put something on your knuckles at least? A change of scenery would be good for-"
Stark didn't learn. Steve barely felt the hand on his shoulder before he pivoted, grabbing Stark's wrist and yanking it behind his back with one hand pressed between Stark's shoulder blades.
"Please don't break my arm," Stark gasped.
Steve immediately let go, stumbling back a few feet. He was shaking, though he didn't know if that was from tension or from the fact he'd been about five seconds from breaking Stark's wrist.
"Right. No surprise touching or sneaking behind you. I should have seen that," Stark said, rubbing his freed wrist with a grimace. "I can work with this. I'll-"
"You need to leave," Steve said, his voice trembling.
"Actually, leaving you alone right now seems like a spectacularly bad idea," Stark said, but he took a step back, putting enough space between them for Steve to breathe. "You're pretty worked up. Want to talk about it? Cause I didn't hear anything, so it's news to me."
"Not really," Steve said. And not to you, he thought. If the hurt that flashed through Stark's eyes was anything to go by, he'd read between the lines. "Why me, Stark? Find one of the others to-"
"Rhodey's on a mission," Stark said, looking away. He was tapping at his chest again, and Steve could see where the bruises would form on his wrist. Guilt flashed up as Stark continued "But he'll come anyway, because he doesn't want to leave me alone if there's something wrong. And he's already taken off so much because of... Anyway, he'll take it off regardless if there's not someone with me."
"You've got a tower full of other people to ask," Steve said, leaning against the wall as he closed his eyes. He needed to calm down if Stark was going to keep ignoring basic self-preservation instincts.
"And they don't look like they need to be distracted," Stark replied. Then hesitantly, "Can I come closer?"
Steve sighed, forcing his shoulders to relax. "Are you going to take no for an answer?"
He opened his eyes, knowing that if Stark was going to move, Steve had to be aware of it. "I'd rather not," Stark said, but he did wait until Steve's eyes were on him. "You need to calm down."
Steve snorted. Understatement of the century. Guilt was ripping him up inside, and he couldn't control his strength when he was this worked up. This was why he only sparred with punching bags when he was in this mood. That was why he was down here in the first place, so he wouldn't see anyone while he got worked up into this mood.
"If I touch you again, are you going to snap my fingers off?" Stark asked. This time he didn't wait for an answer, though his movements were slow enough Steve could say no if he wanted. Which he did want to, but Stark seemed to have made up his mind to be a nuisance.
He wasn't expecting to find Stark's deft fingers at his temples. "Stark-"
"Just relax," Stark said as he started to rub gently. "I've been learning about pressure points, okay? It helped when I... You know what, never mind. Bad subject right now. Just relax, okay?"
Steve didn't want to relax. Relaxing meant thinking, and he'd wound himself up this much so he wouldn't have to think. But he'd found himself helpless against the light pressure of Stark's fingers. Slowly, his mind unwound, and his body with it. The things he'd been pushing aside came back, but slowly, and at a pace that didn't overwhelm him.
He hadn't realized that he'd closed his eyes again until Stark rubbed at his inner wrist, pressing down sharply. "What are you-?" Steve asked, ignoring the sharp pressure. But then Stark let go and Steve felt the tension leave his right arm completely. He looked at Stark in surprise.
Stark just smirked, taking Steve's other hand. "Pressure points," Stark said again. "They used acupuncture on me during the surgery. It seemed like a good thing to know about before I let them try it on me."
Steve winced as Stark did the same to his left wrist, but didn't protest this time. "Why are you doing this?" Steve asked instead.
Stark looked down. "I need someone to go with me to keep Rhodey from flipping out, and you look like you could use a change of pace."
Steve considered it. Since the battle of New York, he and Stark had been on civil terms, and he could admit to being grateful that Stark let them all stay at the Tower, even if it was ugly. And Stark had been pretty subdued after the whole thing with the President, moving back to New York with the rest of them, but sticking to himself. Steve himself was generally busy with other things at SHIELD (or being kept busy, so that he wouldn't fall into a mood like this one, which was probably more likely) to really wonder about the son of a dead friend.
He looked at the punching bag, wondering if he could really exhaust his body enough to pass out without dreams, or if he should just give in. He'd never been to China before.
"Come on," Stark said, turning his hand over to frown at Steve's bloody knuckles. Steve looked back at the man, and when their eyes met Stark looked so damn desperate that Steve found it hard to say no. "Let's get these cleaned up and you can call Rhodey while you pack, because he won't believe me if I tell him."
And Steve couldn't muster the energy to care anymore. He nodded, letting Stark drag him along to the nearest first aid kit.
It wasn't like visiting a grave in the few days remaining would make a difference. There was no body there, and Steve slept through the funeral while he'd been in the ice. There was no sense of closure to be had from an empty gravestone, no matter how much he wanted it.
* * *
The flight out of Beijing was quiet. Stark fell asleep after a few hours with his tablet, and Steve pretended to be immersed in Tolkien. Not that Tolkien was bad, but he didn't have the focus at the moment to really appreciate Middle Earth. Talking with Rhodes had actually helped. He'd been given strict orders to keep an eye on Stark, and he was able to switch into mission mode. Stark was not to over-exert himself, not to be allowed to disappear for more than an hour, and under no circumstances could the doctors talk to Stark by himself. "If that rat bastard tries to hide that he's dying again, I'll kill him myself this time. If they say there's something wrong with him, you call, no matter what time it is here. Understood?"
Steve honestly didn't care if Stark was hiding something or not (and Steve was certain he was, though he wasn't sure if Stark was hiding the things Rhodes was worried about), but a mission was a mission, and it meant he wasn't allowed to focus on the things that kept him in the gym until his knuckles were bloody. And that was fine with Steve for now, because he owed Stark an apology for misjudging him, and because he was Howard's son and one of the few links to the past that he had left.
Actually, the last two were reasons not to come, but it would get Fury off his tail to get back into things, which outweighed some of the cons. He had a long list of them by now, because he wasn't willing to admit that part of it was the almost painfully hopeful smile Stark had offered while patching up his now healed knuckles. Stark's trip through that portal had already cut too deeply. Steve wasn't ready to face losing someone else. He'd already lost too much of his future.
They landed in Beijing without any fuss, with Stark being whisked off by people who looked important. Steve preferred to be forgotten, but he was ushered into a car by a Stark employee. The hotel was nice, but Steve wasn't looking forward to spending the day doing nothing but sitting around. Maybe this had been a bad idea after all, and he was revising his stance on being forgotten.
He stepped closer to the windows. They were on the thirty-eighth floor, yet all he could see outside the window was smog. "How do people breathe in this?"
"Not well," Stark said. Steve looked back to see that Stark was leaning in the doorway. "They almost had to have the surgery somewhere else, because the arc reactor was bad enough for my lungs, but we found a clear day over the holiday."
"I thought I wouldn't be seeing you again 'til tonight," Steve said, glancing back out the window.
"You won't," Stark said with a grimace. "I've got publicity shots and a charity ball tonight, and they're even worse when you have to talk through a translator. I figured you'd want to skip all that. The Summer Palace is always good this time of year. I've got a driver waiting if you want to go."
"Exactly what it sounds like, the summer digs of the guy in charge. It's pretty big, and there's a lake nearby if you want to sit and draw. Tomorrow you can-"
"You've got an appointment with the doctor in the morning," Steve said. "I'm going with you."
Stark sighed, waving him off. "Yeah, yeah. Make sure I'm not dying so you can keep Rhodey happy. But after that, you can go to the Forbidden City while I'm in meetings. Then we can do the Great Wall on Wednesday."
"You planning on asking me about any of this?" Steve asked. He couldn't decide between being amused at the plan or frustrated at his lack of choice.
"That you take up with Pepper, not me. She..." The amusement in his eyes faded, but it was so quick that Steve nearly missed it. "She likes arranging people's schedules. You could always sit around the hotel room and sulk instead though. Be my guest."
When it was put that way, Steve didn't have much choice. Besides, doing the touristy things sounded better than Stark's itinerary. He shrugged, figuring this was why he decided to come to China with Stark in the first place. "Might as well."
* * *
"They don't know who I am, right?" Steve asked the next time he saw Stark, which was five minutes before the doctor's appointment the following morning. "They can't. Not even the people back home know. Why do they keep taking pictures of me?"
Stark blinked at him, then burst out laughing. He only laughed harder when he saw Steve's glare. "What is it?" Steve snapped.
"Steve, you thought..." Stark gasped, sending a jolt through Steve for hearing his given name. Stark didn't seem to notice, too busy trying to breathe after laughing at Steve's expense.
Steve fought the blush creeping up his face and the anger that threatened to turn this into a shouting match. "Stark..." he said warningly.
"Sorry, sorry," Stark said, wiping his eyes which were dancing with mirth. "Let me guess, they were all staring at you too?"
"Yeah," Steve said, shifting uncomfortably. Even in the hospital, he was getting stared at. Stark's laughing fit hadn't helped with drawing attention to them either. It was unnerving.
"And people constantly want to have their picture taken with you?"
"I think I can walk through New York in costume easier than I can here," Steve admitted. It'd been embarrassing. Most of the people who asked for his picture didn't know enough English to explain why.
"And they take pictures when they think you aren't looking," Stark said with a smirk.
"What?" That was alarming. He'd seen a few people yesterday with cameras pointed his way, but he thought they were taking pictures of things that were behind him. "Do they know or-"
"Relax, Cap. No one knows," Stark said, the smirk fading to a more genuine smile that Steve wasn't sure how to deal with. He didn't return it, since he was still angry at Stark, but the other man didn't seem to mind. He just continued talking. "No one warned you, I guess. Try to think, Rogers. Describe the physical features of the average Chinese person."
Nonplussed, Steve thought about it. "Short, dark-haired, dark eyes that are usually small, um..."
"That sounds about right. Now you, on the other hand, are tall, blond, and all-American wholesomeness that practically oozes off of you." Steve frowned at the last part, but before he let his temper get the better of him, Stark touched his arm. Steve didn't jump at the contact, but it was a near thing. Most people hadn't tried to touch him since he came out of the ice unless they were a bad guy throwing a punch, and Stark's casual touches were unnerving. "Steve, most of these people have never seen a foreigner before. You're a novelty to them, and you stick out like a sore thumb. Sorry. I figured you knew about the whole foreigner thing here."
Steve brushed off Stark's hand, ignoring the hurt that flashed in Stark's eyes, though it was quickly covered. "So they take pictures because I'm blond?" Steve didn't like it, and all that staring left him feeling paranoid, but at least it wasn't an evil plot to drive him insane by people who had been his allies during the War.
"Tall and blond. Either of those will get you attention here. You get used to it." Stark obviously reveled in it, was what Steve took that to mean. Of course he was used to everyone staring at him. "And it wouldn't have been as bad if you hadn't taken the subway back to the hotel instead of ditching my driver," Stark added.
"I wanted to see the city," Steve said stubbornly. Touristy things were all well and good, but Steve preferred seeing the real city. And he'd managed to order dumplings by himself with the money Stark had exchanged for him, so that was a plus. The nice lady who made them even showed Steve how to use chopsticks, despite the fact that she didn't speak any English and Steve didn't speak any Chinese.
"And the Chinese won't stop staring if you keep going-"
"Mr. Stark, Dr. Wu will see you now," a pretty woman in the hospital's uniform said in stilted English.
Stark tensed, his fingers tapping at his chest before he stilled them. He was nervous, that much was obvious. He'd been pacing the room when Steve walked in. And Stark thrived off physical contact. If Steve reached out and laid a hand on Stark's back, it would relax the other man. He knew that as well as he knew his own shield.
Steve didn't reach out. That would be getting too involved. That wasn't a good enough reason to soothe the guilt of his inaction away, but it kept him from acting on the notion all the same.
They walked down the hallways, and Steve tried not to think about how a third of his childhood had been spent in a place like this. Well, not like this exactly. This was obviously a hospital for rich people, and it was clean and modern. Not at all like the run-down hospital in the twenties and thirties that his mother had taken him to when he got too sick for her to care for him herself. Hospitals were too much medicine, which barely covered the smell of the sick and injured. Steve was already uncomfortable.
Stark managed to produce a bag of dried mangoes from somewhere (Steve hadn't seen from where and was quite baffled by their sudden appearance) and offered some to both him and the assistant. The assistant declined, but Steve didn't think he'd ever tasted mangoes before. He accepted one, popping the sugary fruit in his mouth. Mangoes weren't bad. He told himself it was that, and not guilt, that had him accepting a few more when Stark looked pleased.
The doctor's office was clean and smelled faintly of incense. It was a calming smell, and Steve liked it. He didn't understand why the rest of the hospital didn't use it, since he felt more at ease here than he had just outside the room.
Dr. Wu was an older gentleman with a kind smile. He sat behind a wooden desk and stood as they entered. "Mr. Stark, Captain Rogers. Zăo shang hăo," he said.
"Ní hăo," Stark said, bowing politely. Steve followed suit, and they took a seat as the doctor started speaking in Chinese. Steve looked at Stark to see if he understood any of it, but he looked just as blank.
"Dr. Wu says that it's a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Stark," the assistant said, and Stark nodded at the doctor.
"Always good to be back in Beijing," Stark said, an easygoing tone at odds with his tense shoulders.
"He says that he is happy to see that you are well, since Iron Man is a friend to the Chinese people. If there is anything you should need, please do not hesitate to ask," the woman said. Steve found himself looking more at her than the doctor. He wondered if that was rude.
"Yeah, thanks. I'll keep that in mind. And uh, back at you, if you're ever in New York," Stark said.
The woman translated for the doctor, then smiled at them. "You have seen the descriptions of the tests Dr. Wu wants to run, right?"
"Yup, just give me the forms to sign," Stark said, shifting in his chair.
The doctor spoke as the woman handed over the documents, and she nodded. "He says he is very surprised to see you've come back on your own. He was not expecting you to actually come in for the check-up. Has anything changed with your condition?"
"Hey, Steve, there's a great place serving milk tea a block away that-"
"Stark," Steve growled, refusing to acknowledge Stark's continued use of his first name.
"Right, orders. I know. Had to try." The last was under his breath, but Steve heard it anyway. "I've been running hotter than normal occasionally, and JARVIS said my heart rate is faster than it should be. Especially if I'm doing strenuous work."
That sounded serious. And piloting the Iron Man armor definitely counted as 'strenuous'. "Any reason you hid that from us, Stark?" Steve asked, gritting his teeth against the urge to shake the man as he started to see why Rhodes was so worried. They'd been out as a team at least half a dozen times since Stark's surgery.
"Need to know basis, Rogers. It wasn't important."
It sometimes amazed Steve how much of a selfless, yet intensely frustrating idiot Tony Stark was. It was a good thing their translator started talking again, because Steve was pretty close to killing Stark himself. Or maybe just shaking him silly. "Do you feel out of breath when this happens?"
"Yeah, it... it can get hard to breathe sometimes," Stark admitted quietly, not meeting Steve's eyes. Steve cursed softly, and he'll admit he was petty enough to take some small satisfaction in the way Stark flinched.
"Then please, come this way. We should start on the tests as soon as possible."
* * *
The tests were inconclusive as far as the ones that could be processed immediately went. The other tests would take longer, and Stark agreed to stay in Beijing to wait for the results. When Steve tried to get the frustrating man to talk to him about it, he'd been essentially kicked out and forced into the car to see the Forbidden City. He couldn't focus on the hired tour guide though, not when Stark had been hiding this for weeks.
A part of him was screaming in frustration and wanted to shake Stark. A larger part was terrified at how worried this made him. Worrying over Stark meant he was starting to care again, and he couldn't, not right now. Not when it was only days away from...
Steve pushed that thought away with a vengeance.
He didn't see Stark that night or the next morning. He wanted a punching bag, but in lieu of that Steve drew one of the stone carvings he'd seen on the stairs yesterday. He was shading the dragon when Stark stumbled into the common room. The man had obviously had a late night, and Steve couldn't help but wonder if that was putting a further strain on Stark's heart. It was a disinterested sort of curiosity, since obviously Steve Wasn't Involved.
Col. Rhodes would want to know, after all.
"Late night?" he asked, attempting a more roundabout form of questioning.
Except Stark merely hummed, leaning over the couch to see his drawing. "You're doing it wrong," he said absently.
"Thanks," Steve said curtly. "I wasn't aware you were an art critic."
"Whoa, that wasn't..." Stark ran a hand through his hair. "Okay, yeah, that sounded bad. Sorry. Lack of coffee does things to my brain and words don't come out right, because even I'm not that much of an ass. Well, I am, but I'm actually trying here, so-"
"Then what did you mean?" Steve cut in before Stark could get too worked up. He filed the fact that Stark thought he was making an effort to work things out for later.
"The story," Stark said, as if that explained everything. He must have realized that Steve had no idea what he was talking about, because he started to explain more. "About that one Chinese painter? I forget his name. But he painted four dragons. And they were - they were amazing and life-like, like they could just jump off the wall. Except he didn't paint the eyes."
"Why not?" Steve asked in spite of himself.
"Because you have to save the eyes for last. Someone made him finish two of them, and they supposedly flew away," Stark said, waving his hand tiredly. "So, not what I meant. Anyway, Great Wall?"
Steve nodded, looking down at his drawing. He wondered where Stark had learned the story from, and if he'd looked up some things that might interest Steve. He looked down at the dragon, running his pencil lightly over the eyes. In an odd, Stark-sort-of-way, it was almost a compliment. He compared his drawing with the one that was good enough to fly away on its own. Stark probably didn't mean it like that, but it was a nice story.
It wasn't until thirty minutes later that Steve realized he'd been successfully distracted from questioning Stark further.
* * *
"There's a reason I've never done the Great Wall by foot," Stark wheezed as Steve took a break to take pictures. "Too many fucking stairs. They never mention the stairs. I've flown over it enough times that I don't need to walk it."
Privately, Steve agreed. This was way too strenuous for a man with heart problems and Steve was half terrified Stark would keel over and break his neck on the stairs. He'd stopped reminding Stark they could go back thirty minutes ago when Stark had made sure there was a physical distance between them to show his displeasure. He couldn't keep the idiot from falling like that, and Col. Rhodes would do a lot worse than a dishonorable discharge if he failed at this mission.
Steve sighed, snapping another picture. "Chairman Mao said that you can't become a man if you haven't climbed the Great Wall," Steve said instead of what he wanted to say, which was 'Let me take you back down so the doctors can check you over, you idiot.' Shaking the said idiot while saying it would have done great things for Steve's sense of calm. He'd tried saying that earlier (sadly, he'd held off on the shaking bit), and it had just made Stark more determined to not let Steve help in the slightest. So he continued the pretense of stopping to take pictures every few minutes or so, in order to give Stark frequent rests. He now had more pictures of the Great Wall than he knew what to do with.
"Hold up. Did Captain America just quote a communist dictator?" Stark asked incredulously. "A man who's on par with or worse than Hitler with the sheer number of people he's killed?"
"That's what I overheard one of the tour guides saying down at the bottom," Steve said with a shrug. "Besides, the Chinese and Russians were our allies during the War. But I've read Mein Kampf too, if you want quotes from that. Trying to ignore the bad things doesn't mean that they aren't there. I prefer to know more, rather than less about bad men in power."
"All the better to smite them with, I suppose," Stark said, straightening up. "You done with those pictures yet, Rogers?"
Steve snapped another one, scanning the horizon for an angle he might have missed. "You can actually see the sky out here," Steve said, taking a moment to breathe the clean air. They were above the smog level, which Steve counted as one of the few pros to Stark's insistence on coming along.
"No point in staring at the sky all day," Stark said, looking vaguely uncomfortable. He glanced up at the sky once before shivering. "Yeah, let's just not. Stairs. Lots more stairs. Stairs are good. Time to get moving Captain Slow-Poke."
Steve glared at the nickname but ignored it for now. He supposed neither of them had the best memories of the sky after the Battle of New York, Stark in particular. "It's lonely up here, the further up you go," Steve said, attempting to change the subject. "I guess a lot of people just don't make it out this far. Gets harder to breathe when you get up here too."
"Can we just not?" Stark said, starting to climb again and forcing Steve to follow behind him. "Subject change. We need a subject change."
"Stark, what's wrong?" Steve asked, gritting his teeth against the genius's ability to peck at his calm. He'd been trying to change the subject. "What's wrong with talking about how high up we are? There's no one here so-"
"You are officially worse than Harley," Stark said, walking faster.
"Who's Harley? Stark, you're going to get yourself killed at this rate!" Steve shouted after him, losing his temper as he reached out to grab Stark's arm.
But the moment his finger's brushed Stark's shoulder, the man jumped. It was then Steve realized how his plan had backfired into his worst nightmare. Stark's foot missed the step by a half an inch, but that was more than enough to send Stark tumbling down as Steve scrambled to get a better grip. For one heart stopping millisecond Steve reached, finally feeling his fingers close around Stark's jacket.
He yanked the man up to a closer step, arms wrapping around a still-panicking Stark to get a better grip. "Let go!" Stark shouted, struggling to get away. "Rogers, let go of me or-"
"I can't," Steve gritted out. Because he wanted to let Stark go. The genius was terrified, and currently terrified of whatever he saw Steve as in his mind, and that was horrible. Steve never wanted to hold Stark against his will, no matter how much Steve wanted to hold him tight and not let go until his own heartbeat slowed down. But... "I let you go now and you go right back to falling. I can't let you go until you've calmed down."
He tried to make his voice soothing over how rattled he felt, but it was hard when Stark was trying every dirty trick he knew to get away. "Stop!" Stark yelled as he tried putting an elbow into Steve's gut. Steve had to tighten his grip. "Don't-"
"Iron Man," Steve said with as much of a command voice as he could muster. "Stand down. That's an order, Stark, stand down."
Surprisingly enough, that worked.
Steve gaped as Stark went limp against him, trembling something fierce but no longer trying to bite and kick his way out of Steve's hold. Steve took a deep breath to ground himself, then looked around and considered his options.
"I'm fine. You can let go now," Stark said, attempting and failing to keep his voice even.
"I'm not letting go of you while we're still on the stairs." Steve wasn't taking any arguments on this, his own heart barely calming down after that. He could only imagine how Stark's was pounding, and the man was still having problems catching a breath. "We're ten steps away from the next landing. Can you walk?"
"I'm fine," Stark said again, continuing to try to pull away.
Ask a silly question, get a stupid answer, as he'd heard Banner say a few times. He sighed internally, willing the urge to shake Stark until he started answering truthfully to die down.
Instead of letting Stark go, he scooped the genius up in a bridal carry, because with Stark struggling on the stairs, Steve couldn't risk the momentum to toss Stark over his shoulder like he dearly wanted to. It said something about Stark's frame of mind that all he got was a shout and a weak glare rather than an actual response. Steve went up the steps a bit quicker.
When they got up to the landing, Steve set Stark down carefully, then backed off a safe distance. He didn't want to let go of Stark at all, not when that fall was repeating itself every time Steve closed his eyes, but Stark obviously needed the space. "Are you-"
"Just - No talking. Not about skies, not about being alone, or not having any air, or about New York or Portals or-" Stark cut off with a gasp, trembling harder.
"No talking, got it." Steve didn't so much as agree as turn the statement back around into a command. "Breathe, okay? Try to match my breathing."
Stark nodded, curling up against the stone wall, and boy, was it weird being on the other side of this. How many times had his asthma gotten worked up when he was younger, and Bucky had to...
At least he knew what to do, even if he'd never been on the giving end before. When Stark seemed a little calmer, Steve slowly moved to sit beside him, leaning back against the stone. A few people passed them, but Steve just nodded and motioned that it was under control. That, at least, seemed to not need a translator. "Are you alright?" Steve asked finally.
"Fine," Stark said, not quite as breathless as before.
"How often does this happen?" Steve asked, because the way Stark had listed off subjects not to talk about meant that this had happened before, and Steve wasn't happy with this conclusion.
"Not as often as before," was all Stark said.
Steve grit his teeth, reminding himself that Stark was an idiot and therefore needed to be treated with patience. "Have you told anyone about this?" Steve asked, grasping what little remained of the calm that Stark systematically sought to destroy.
"Pepper," Stark said, and Steve felt some of his frustration slip away. At least Stark had told someone, and Ms. Potts seemed quite capable when it came to taking care of her boss/boyfriend/whatever they actually were to each other. "Rhodey and Harley found out too. It was probably just the lack of air up here that set me off. Pepper was helping, but now she's..."
Stark cut himself off, standing up suddenly. Or rather, attempting to, since he toppled over with a curse. Steve only barely managed to catch him before his head hit the pavement. At this rate, Steve was going to die of a heart attack before Stark did. "What's wrong?" Steve asked.
"Everything," Stark muttered darkly. "I do not need your help, Rip Van Winkle, so just back off."
"Not if you're going to get yourself killed. That defeats the purpose of me being here," Steve said, replaying in his memory what had happened. Stark hadn't started to fall until he put his weight on his left side.
Making sure Stark was stable leaning against the wall, Steve kneeled down and poked at Stark's left ankle. He got a hiss of pain in response. "Let me see it," he said, with less of a command than he'd have liked it to be and more resigned than anything.
"Captain America on his knees for me and asking to see it. What will people think about-Ow! Fine!" Stark lifted his foot with a glare. Steve didn't feel the least bit apologetic for the pinch.
Now that Stark was cooperating, Steve gently ran his fingers over Stark's ankle. "Sorry," he said as Stark drew in a sharp breath. The ankle was already starting to swell, but it appeared to be fine other than that. "Doesn't feel broken. Just twisted."
"Fantastic," Stark said sarcastically. "And that's why I always do this with the suit. Well, let's get going again. We don't have all day."
"What do you mean, let's get going?" Steve asked incredulously. "You can barely walk!"
Stark looked at him like he was a particularly stupid child who couldn't understand the concept of two plus two much less nuclear physics. "Well, we can't camp out here forever until it heals. Either we keep going or we head back down." And Stark, of course, obstinately started walking to the next part of the stairs that lead to the top. He was limping badly, and obviously in pain, but he kept going.
Was this divine retribution for all those times Steve had been too stubborn? He couldn't help but think Col. Philips would be laughing at him right now for getting a taste of his own medicine. "You're going to hurt yourself worse," Steve said.
"Story of my life," Stark hissed over the pain. "Besides, I'm told you're not a man until you've climbed it, so let's avoid singing songs from Mulan and just get to the top of this damned thing already."
Steve counted to ten. Then he counted to ten again, because good God in heaven, even his patience was running out. Finally, he took a deep breath and grabbed Stark's arm. "Let go!" Stark said, steel in his eyes as he tried to yank free. Steve could feel the trembles running up Stark's body, either from suppressing the pain or from the earlier panic attack, Steve didn't know. He almost wished Stark would call the armor, if just to stop from getting himself killed here.
"Hang on for a moment," Steve said, fighting off the anger that he knew wouldn't help.
"What, so you can take pictures?" Stark sneered. This time when he tugged, Steve let him pull away. "You've got an eidetic memory, or near enough according to my dad's notes, so I know you don't need them. I'm apparently so weak that you think I need to - What are you doing?"
Stark's bafflement took the place of the anger. Steve looked back over his shoulder from where he knelt on the ground, returning Stark's two plus two incomprehension look from earlier to the best of his ability. "No, really," Stark, said. "I mean, apparently you like being on your knees, which hey, I've got no problems with to be honest, but that's facing the wrong way and-"
"Unless you want me to throw you over my shoulder or carry you bridal style, this seems like the most dignified option for both of us," Steve interrupted, as he fought back a blush at what Stark was implying. Really, there was no dignity to be had in this situation, but Steve was beginning to learn that with Tony Stark, sometimes it's best to commit to damage control rather than containment.
Stark hadn't moved though, and Steve sighed. "Haven't you ever ridden piggy-back before when you were younger?" Steve asked.
"Not really," Stark said, and Steve caught the barest glimpse of loneliness and uncertainty before Stark covered it up with a wave of his hand. "So, um, how does this work?"
Stark was limping closer, which meant Steve just had to keep coaxing while appearing non-threatening. The latter was more difficult, considering he really just wanted to shake Stark silly. "You're an engineer. Figure it out," Steve said with a shake of his head. "And I know you've seen it done before. You're the one who wanted to hurry this up, remember?"
Stark obviously didn't know what to make of the situation, and Steve pat himself on the back for confounding the genius. He wasn't usually that petty, but Stark did bring out the worst in him.
At least Stark was close enough and leaning down now. "Arms around my neck," Steve explained, since Stark seemed to be slow on the uptake. "Legs braced on my hips. And hold on. I'll make sure you won't fall off, but I'd prefer to keep a free hand on the wall with all these uneven steps.
He felt Stark still trembling as arms slid around his neck, but they were minute tremors that were obviously being suppressed. Steve didn't comment, waiting until Stark felt secure before rolling to his feet. "This okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," Stark said, his breaths coming out short and fast against Steve's ear. This time instead of ignoring the impulse, Steve placed a hesitant hand on where Stark's arms crossed around his neck, whether to give comfort or to steady him, Steve didn't know. Stark managed a full breath after that, arms tightening around him fractionally. Steve told himself he allowed the contact this time because he was trying to comfort a teammate who had just had a panic attack. A dark part of him warned he was getting in too deep.
Shifting one hand under Stark's thigh, Steve started their trek again. Twenty minutes later, Stark was relaxed again, humming something softly in Steve's ear. It was almost pleasant, as pleasant as spending time with Stark could get at any rate. Naturally, that was when Stark had to go and ruin the moment.
"So I could get behind this whole piggy back thing. Though, speaking of something to get behind, I can think of a much better way to ride a man."
Ignore him and don't think about what he's implying to do to you, Steve thought furiously. The silence lasted a few more seconds before Stark piped up again. "Your ears turn red when you blush. Did you know that?"
Would Rhodes have him court-marshaled for dropping Stark on his ass? Steve weighed the pros and cons of this and found he was severely tempted to find out.
* * *
Stark ended up forcing him to watch a Disney cartoon after they'd gotten back rather than have a doctor see to his ankle. Steve allowed it on the condition Stark let him wrap his now extremely swollen ankle and put some ice on it. And if Steve was being honest, he'd liked Mulan a lot. Stark dragging him out to KTV for two hours of karaoke and alcohol though, that he didn't like as much, no matter how plush the room was. Still, keeping Stark from dying of alcohol poisoning was part of his job description, so he stayed and suffered in silence. He also came to an agreement with JARVIS after Stark had passed out that the footage of Steve singing some Cole Porter and Irving Berlin songs at Stark's insistence would be deleted permanently.
The next day saw a few more doctor's tests (and Steve insisting on a proper look at the sprain) and then exploring the city with Stark and his newfound 'pimp cane' as he called it. It was a mistake to take Stark into a local supermarket though, and one Steve was seriously regretting. "Are those lobster-flavored potato chips?" Steve asked, appalled.
"They are!" Stark said gleefully, adding them and the cucumber-flavored ones to the basket. "Why don't I do my own shopping more often? This is awesome!"
Steve decided it was better not to think about how much the Chinese liked to put random flavors into everything. At least with drinks, it wasn't too bad.
When Stark tried to force him on the plane with an overnight bag though, Steve put his foot down. "Stark-"
"You can ask JARVIS. I'm not going anywhere near the doctor's office tomorrow," Stark replied. "Look, I'll even set up an alert on your phone if I go near the building, alright? Jesus, I didn't plan on you taking your babysitting duties so seriously."
"Then why send me off?" Steve growled, tracing his shield through the cover of the canvas bag that held it. It helped calm him, which was always an added benefit when one was around Stark. And no, he wasn't upset because it hurt a little that Stark was just shipping him off. He was just doing his duty. Though if he were truthful, the past couple of days had been pretty nice, frustrations and all.
Too bad Steve didn't feel like being particularly truthful.
"Because you should go see the pandas," Stark explained patiently. "I've been assured by Chinese school children on my last visit that pandas are cute. But I've seen them before and it's a lot of walking. So you should head out without me."
"I don't have to-"
"Look, the pandas are in Sichuan province, and I'll be in boring meetings all day explaining company policy about the treatment of our Chinese workers to people who want to lower minimum wage." Stark fiddled with a tablet, not looking up at him. "You can visit the panda research center in Chengdu, then I'll meet up with you for hot pot. You might have to put on the uniform to do a few photo-shoots while you're there, but that's because Fury is being a bastard about how you left without telling anyone. Your fault."
Steve winced, holding back a comment about how Stark really hadn't given him much time to tell anyone about the decision, but he really could have spared a five minute phone call to Fury on the plane ride here.
"Just go and enjoy the pandas, alright? And go early, so that you can see their feeding time," Stark said with a sigh. "Then we can go to Xi'an or something. I've never been to Xi'an. The test results won't be done for a while, so we might as well have fun."
He was about to argue when he saw Stark tapping at his chest. Stark was nervous about something. Was it the test results making him worry? Steve wondered if he should say anything.
He squashed that thought before it got too far. If Stark was nervous, it was none of Steve's business. Even if a small portion of him wanted to make it his business.
Instead, he told Stark to stay out of trouble and got on the plane. Spending the night alone in a strange hotel was a lot lonlier than Steve thought it would be. He told himself that it was a good thing as he pulled out his sketchbook. This was how things should be, if he wanted to keep from losing someone again.
* * *
Steve looked up at the gates of the Panda Breeding Research Center, wondering if he should just go back and wait for Stark. He had no real desire to see the pandas, and he'd already ditched the guide, preferring to strike out on his own. The pandas were just bears, right? He was able to afford to go to the zoo occasionally before the War. Seen one bear, seen them all.
Stark had already paid for the ticket though, and he was here, so he might as well go in. He went through the gates, wishing he hadn't worn the uniform under his clothes. Chengdu was hot, and the humidity was sweltering. Going back to the hotel to change before the photo-shoot was less of a bother than he thought it would be, but he was here now, and the uniform was already sweaty. Putting it back on again wouldn't be fun.
At least the shield on his back was comforting. It was covered by his canvas bag, which also held his sketchbook, but it was the first time he'd brought it with him on these excursions. He hadn't wanted to look at it and what it stood for recently, even if the weight was comforting.
Too bad it hadn't saved the person he needed it to when it mattered the most.
Steve closed his eyes for a moment, then stared at the golden statue of a Panda and her cub. He refused to think about this. He couldn't think about this, not now. Definitely not while strangers were snapping pictures of him simply because he had blond hair.
Picking a direction at random, Steve wandered down the long path. He could see why Stark had decided to sit this one out. It was a lot more walking than he'd expected for a zoo of nothing but pandas. His phone started ringing, and he fumbled with it for a second. He always felt self-conscious holding the small rectangle to his ear, like it was just a joke that the others were playing with him rather than an actual phone.
"Hello?" he answered once he got the damn thing to accept the call.
"See any pandas yet?" Stark said in lieu of a greeting. His voice sounded clear and strong despite the fact he was half-way across the country, which was one modern improvement Steve didn't object to.
"Not yet," Steve admitted, wiping some of the sweat off his face. "You could have warned me it would be this hot."
"Oh," Stark said, as if it hadn't actually occurred to him. "Yeah. Sichuan Province is pretty hot this time of year. You uh, might want to check the indoor enclosures for the pandas if you don't see any of them outside."
"I thought you were supposed to be in a meeting," Steve asked, knowing that waiting for an apology would be a waste of time.
"Canceled," Stark said cheerfully. "I'm headed your way now, so I'll meet up with you for lunch. Buy a fan or something if it's that hot. There's more than enough gift shops there to find one if I remember correctly."
"I'll let you know if I find something," Steve said, walking up to a nearby signpost. "Apparently there are pandas 100 meters this way."
"Well? What are you waiting for, Rogers? Go see the pandas."
Steve could picture Stark rolling his eyes, but Steve felt strangely better than he had since getting on the plane. He couldn't say that it was because of Stark's call but... his mind was coming up with a surprising lack of alternatives. Stark had called to tell him he'd come in early, but he hadn't hung up after that. Stark was just chatting, which wasn't unusual, but he was chatting with Steve, and really, there hadn't been many people other than Coulson who had tried to do that since Steve had been defrosted.
Steve watched people sometimes when he went out to sketch. Many of them were on their phones, either talking or texting. Once, he'd drawn a girl, maybe about sixteen or seventeen, staring down at whatever message had popped up on it minutes before. Steve hadn't seen the message, but it was an important one, he'd known that much. The small smile on her face when she saw it had been positively radiant with love. Steve had ached when he'd drawn it, trying to capture a little bit of her happiness for himself, no matter how impossible it was.
Phones were things that connected people in this future world, but his had only been used to call him in for meetings or missions. It was one more way he failed to connect, one more way he failed to integrate. This was the first time he'd really talked to anyone using the device, and it was a bit of a heady feeling. It scared him more than he wanted to admit as well, because he wasn't ready to take a further step into the future, not with all he had to leave behind.
"So what's this hot pot you told me about earlier?" Steve asked. Despite the fear, he wanted to keep talking. He hadn't realized how starved he'd been for a connection, that he'd want one so desperately. And it was better, when he didn't have to see Stark. He could tell himself it made him feel more distant, regardless of if it were actually true or not. He stood off to the side as he talked. The pandas could wait for a little while longer.
"It's a specialty of the Sichuanese. To hear them talk, all they do in Chengdu is eat hot pot, drink tea, and play Mahjong," Stark replied as if he were reciting a list.
"It's a game. Really complicated," Stark said. "You'll see people playing it if you walk around enough. Four people sitting around a bunch of tiles. Watch out for the old women. They will bleed you dry if you play for money."
Steve blinked. "Are you speaking from experience?" Stark seemed to be the sort that could play the odds to his favor in most games.
He could almost picture Stark wincing from the tone of his voice. "Yeah, not one of my better gambles. Never bet against a conniving old Chinese woman. I'm still not convinced she wasn't cheating somehow."
Steve tried to picture an old Chinese woman taking Stark for all of his money. He found himself stifling a laugh. "That's not funny, Rogers," he heard Stark saying as his shoulders shook with quiet laughter. "I know you're laughing, but she was vicious. She didn't speak a lick of English, but that woman was just as evil as Loki. Wait, maybe she was Loki in disguise..."
"I doubt it, Stark," Steve said, wondering what he was doing. He shouldn't be doing this, no matter how much he needed a connection, not when Stark was potentially dying, but he couldn't bring himself to stop either. A part of him just ached, and Stark sounded happy instead of the usual mask he put up for everyone to see. This was dangerous, but Steve somehow couldn't stop himself from clutching painfully at the phone.
"Are you at the pandas yet? Jesus, are you a ninety-year-old man, walking that slow? Oh, wait, you are."
And then they were back to the teasing. For the first time though, Steve saw that the only maliciousness in the phrase was what Steve himself put there. It was sort of the good-natured ribbing that Bucky...
Cutting that thought off, Steve started a brisk walk to the nearest panda enclosure. "I'm going," he said curtly, in hopes Stark would get the hint that malicious or not, the teasing wasn't welcome. It was crossing the line for being too friendly. What was so important about seeing these pandas anyway?
"Steve?" The phone picked up the insecurity that had crept into Stark's voice, but Steve could pretend this was one of the phones from his time. He was good at pretending by this point. "Is everything alright, or-"
"I'll talk to you when you get here," Steve said, making sure that his voice was calm and impersonal.
"Wait! Steve, please. Did I-"
"I'm hanging up now, Stark. Good-" he started to say. He made the mistake of looking up first, and the words died in his throat.
"It's just lying there," Steve said, and God help him, but that was the most intelligent thing he could think to say.
"You just saw the pandas, didn't you?" Stark said smugly.
"All it's doing is lying there," Steve repeated, because he was Captain America and capable of forming complex battle plans in a matter of seconds, yet this creature who did nothing but lay there with its face mashed into the ground got past every single one of his formidable defenses and made him want to melt into the pavement.
It bore repeating that all the massive black and white creature had to do to achieve a complete and total meltdown of Captain America was lie there. Steve didn't think he'd ever been disarmed this quickly before, even before the serum.
"Yup. You just saw a panda. Cute, aren't they?"
It took a few moments for Stark's words to filter through the mush that Steve's brain had become. It took a few more to formulate a reply that wasn't just gibberish. "I don't think 'cute' is really strong enough."
"Damn, I knew I should have gone with you. I bet your face is priceless right now. Captain America, cooing over a panda."
"Shut up, Stark," he said absently. It was good to know some phrases were so far ingrained that his first response to Stark was to tell him to shut up, no matter what weakened state Steve was in. Really, pandas needed to come with some sort of warning, because Steve was not prepared to deal with it. These were not just any bears.
"If they weren't endangered, I'd say they should be our ultimate weapon against super-villains," Stark continued. "Doom could not send his robots to destroy lower Manhattan when faced with a panda. Loki would-"
"You're not letting a panda near Loki," Steve growled, half-panicked at the thought.
"Steve, Loki would melt into a pile of evil green goo with daddy issues on the spot. I'm serious. I have one of the blackest souls on the planet. My soul is darker than the blackest coffee, and it took approximately five point six seconds for a panda to render me unable to put two and two together," Stark said. It was a surprisingly convincing argument, despite the fact that Steve would never allow the plan to take place. Or maybe he couldn't think of a counter argument because the panda had rolled over. "What is two plus two, by the way?" Stark asked casually.
"Blue," Steve replied, not really hearing the question but knowing it was something basic.
"Uh-huh. Point proven," Stark said in a tone that should have set off warning signs that Stark was up to something. But Steve's world was narrowed down to black and white, and really, that wasn't fair. It was just lying there.
"Just wait 'til they start feeding time."
"They eat too?" Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, his brain was never going to recover from this.
"And occasionally, they'll even move around to get more bamboo sticks," Stark said. "You're really far gone, aren't you? You know, I could arrange for you to hold one if you want."
"They let you do that?" Steve asked.
"Yeah, it's a tourist-trap thing. You pay enough money, and you can hold a panda cub. And I've got enough money to spare, so don't worry about it."
"They have panda cubs here?" He really should be scolding Stark for needlessly spending money, but the thought of panda cubs sort of broke him. This place was going to be the death of him. Not Nazis, not Norse gods, but pandas.
Stark chuckled. "Really? That's what you get out of that sentence? It's a panda breeding research center, Rogers. That's what they do. Of course they have panda cubs. They might even have little baby pandas at this time of year. You'll like them. They're like you, all small and scrawny and like a tenth of their size when they get bigger. You can emphasize with them. There's a metaphor in there somewhere. Or in the very least some patriotic imagery."
"Oh," Steve said intelligently, his mind going blank as the panda blinked sleepily. It looked sadly around at the old, half-eaten bamboo shoots that surrounded it as it sat up. It looked so sad that Steve thought it needed a hug. A hug and someone to hurry along the panda caretakers.
"Yeah, I'll have them schedule it in a couple hours. I might even make it back in time to see it," Stark said, and it sounded like he was smiling. "Until then, you'll have to take pictures. Then you can show me and the others when we get back. You'll infect us all. It's like second hand smoke being more dangerous, only these will be second hand pandas."
Steve felt his lip quirk up against his better judgement. "Now you're just being ridiculous, Tony."
Instead of a return quip, he was met with silence. Which was odd, because Steve was the only one being besieged by black and white. "Did something happen?" he asked, five seconds away from grabbing the shield off his back.
"No," Stark said, though there was something off about his voice. "But you just... never mind. Anyway, pandas! Have they started feeding yet? Because they're even cuter with bamboo sticks stuffed in their mouths, which, yeah, I know that sounds impossible but it's the truth."
He listened to Stark's babble, searching for any guess of what might have happened. But if anything, Stark sounded... happy? He rewound the conversation in his head as Stark continued to talk about the nutrients in bamboo. He found his mistake easily enough, and suddenly Steve wanted nothing more than to throw the phone as far away from him as possible. And he could throw pretty far.
He'd called Stark by his first name, and he'd done it after laughing. Suddenly, the happiness in Stark's voice made the bile rise up in his throat. Because not only could Steve not handle being friends, but he was apparently leading Stark on. The guilt made his anger slip away as he tried to keep his voice calm and waited for Stark to take a breath. "I should probably let you go now," he said, proud of how neutral he sounded.
Maybe too neutral. Stark seemed thrown off. "Uh, right. I guess you should get back to cooing over the pandas. Though I could... no, never mind. I'll let you have fun with the super-cute. I'll text you when you get to hold the panda, okay? See you in a bit."
Stark hung up before Steve could say more, and privately, Steve was glad. He got the feeling that Stark had wanted to keep talking, and that left him with even more guilt. At this rate, it would start to overflow. It was like he was letting Stark down, and it just made him feel worse. But Steve wasn't the friend Stark needed. He couldn't be. If he was, Stark would...
Steve closed his eyes and walked to the next panda enclosure. He knew intellectually that Stark wouldn't die just because he became friends with Steve. That didn't mean he was ready to chance it just yet.
When he got there, however, all thoughts of Stark and Bucky and the sweltering heat promptly disappeared. There were six pandas sitting on the wooden platform. Six. As if that weren't enough, they were sitting up like a human might, chewing on the bamboo shoots that were spread around on the ground. Then one of them laid back, hands thrown to the side as if he were flying, and the higher functions of Steve's brain just shut down. He couldn't handle it anymore. It was too much. Captain America admitted defeat by cute things, and he couldn't even say he minded.
(A small part of his mind recognized the strategic value of Stark's earlier comments about super-villains. He wondered how the Chinese hadn't taken over the world yet, with this power at their fingertips.)
Steve took plenty of pictures, wanting to test the theory in their next fight against a super-villain without putting them in danger. There were lots of other people around, taking pictures of both him and the pandas, but he'd gotten used to it, surprisingly enough. Now that he knew it was just his height and hair, Steve didn't mind so much. It was just a little strange, but he'd even put one little girl on his shoulders as her grandparents took pictures and she chatted at him excitedly in Chinese.
After some of the excitement around him died, Steve noticed that one of the smaller pandas sat apart from the rest. It sat on the upper platform, eating a bamboo shoot that it had brought with it. Steve watched as it looked down at the other pandas. He couldn't help but think it looked a little lonely up there.
"Are they bullying you?" Steve asked. "Or don't you know how to make friends? You shouldn't..."
The panda closed its eyes and fell asleep. Steve's mind stuttered to a halt, and it took him a few seconds to find his original train of thought. Then he chuckled, low and self-deprecatingly. "Fantastic. I'm projecting on pandas now."
He went through the rest of the park, wondering what Bucky would have thought if he could see Steve now. He'd probably be laughing at Steve when he himself wasn't melting at the sight of two panda cubs wrestling.
The red pandas were another shock of cute. They didn't quite have the all-encompassing grab of the giant pandas, but Steve spent an hour watching them scamper about with a half-smile on his face. It was okay to smile now. He could be happy by himself.
Eventually he found a small bench by the lake after seeing the baby pandas (They were so tiny Steve didn't know how they survived. Then he wondered how many people had seen him before the serum and had thought the same thing) and he pulled out his sketchbook. He hesitated a moment as he decided what to draw. Most of his sketchbook was Peggy, Col. Phillips, the Howling Commandos and other people from his time, but recently all he'd been able to draw was Bucky. Bucky, who had followed Steve instead of...
Steve closed his eyes. He couldn't think about that right now. The world needed Captain America, no matter how tired of the world Steve was. The Battle of New York showed him that. He couldn't afford to lay down on the job because it was too much effort to get out of bed in the morning.
Opening his eyes, Steve started to draw one of the panda cubs he'd seen sleeping while suspended in a tree. Once he'd gotten the panda's face sketched, it was hard not to smile at it, even just a little.
Steve looked up to see a Chinese woman of middle height with a surprisingly decent... what Stark would call a 'rack' and what Steve would politely put down as 'very nice curves'. She had a bright smile, and that was where Steve reminded himself firmly that his eyes should be. She seemed like the exact sort of person Stark would send, even if he didn't remember ever getting the promised text. "That's me," he said.
"Hi! My name is Ginnie! Mr. Stark told me to find you. If you'll follow me, I'll take you to where you can hold the panda." Ginnie had a round face framed by dark hair that was pulled back into a pony tail. She held an umbrella over her head, like many people Steve had seen walking around today, despite the fact that it was sunny out.
"Sure," Steve said, gathering up his sketchbook and pencil, putting them away carefully so as not to reveal his shield. "'Ginnie' doesn't sound like a very Chinese name, if you don't mind me asking."
"Ginnie is my English name," Ginnie answered. "My old English teacher gave it to me. I think she said it was after a character in a book?"
A book that she clearly expected Steve as a foreigner to recognize. "It's a pretty name," Steve said instead of admitting he had no idea what it was.
"Thank you!" she said, starting down the path. Steve followed her once he slung his bag over his shoulder. "Mr. Stark made a really big donation to the research center, so you'll be able to hold the panda for as long as you want," she continued. "Usually guests only get a short time to-"
"He made a big donation?" Steve asked, unsure if he should be appalled that Stark was spending this much money on him or glad that the pandas were being funded. He thought back to the phone call, and he could have smacked himself for letting Stark get away with that. But what was done was done, and at least it was for a good cause.
"We're very happy he sent it," Ginnie said, her pony tail swaying back and forth as she walked. "Pandas are endangered, after all, so people supporting them is really good. This way we can continue the research into protecting them."
And really, Steve couldn't argue with that. "So why does everyone have umbrellas here?" Steve asked. Hers was a pretty blue one with lace and butterflies that was obviously not meant for the rain. It reminded him of some of the things the upper class dames had when he was little.
Ginnie giggled at this. "It is to protect me from the sun," she said, giving the umbrella a twirl. "See?"
She held up her am to Steve's, and he looked at them blankly. "I'm so dark, compared to you," she said with a small whine. "I work outside all day, so I get so much sun. You have such nice skin. I wish I had skin that pale!"
Steve blushed, quite sure that his Irish heritage made it impossible to hide the red tint to his cheeks. "S-so you like white skin? It seems like it's the opposite back home right now."
"Every girl wants white skin in China. It's beautiful," she said, leaving Steve to blush harder as she pointed to his arm. He'd never been very good at talking to dames, and he wished Stark were here to...
No. He was doing this alone. He could do this alone. He has been for nearly a year, so he doesn't need his most obnoxious team mate to hide behind.
Ginnie was oblivious to Steve's inner debate, chattering about the various methods used at the research center to ensure that pandas continued to breed. He winced in sympathy when she described how they used electric shocks on the male pandas to get them to produce sperm. That was something Steve could have lived without knowing.
But all of that left his mind when he saw the baby panda in the room, obviously waiting to be cuddled by well-off foreigners or equally well-off Chinese people. It gave an odd little bark when it saw them enter that melted Steve's insides. "I can touch it?" Steve asked tentatively.
"You can hold her, if you like," Ginnie said. "Her name is Miao Miao, and she was born in September of last year, so she's not quite a year old yet."
There was a chair in the middle of the room that Steve assumed was for him to sit in. Instead, he knelt down next to the panda as she watched him carefully. "Hello, sweet girl," Steve said, for the first time in his life not caring how awkward he was around a beautiful female. He reached out to touch her head, amazed at how soft her fur was. "You're a real beauty, aren't you?" he told her softly.
And that was how Steve Rogers became enamored with a panda cub in under a minute. Ginnie helped him hold Miao Miao so that he wouldn't hurt her, and Steve scarcely noticed the click of the cameras going off. Which is why he shouldn't have been surprised that he was caught entirely off guard by the click of the safety being pulled off a gun. That was a sound that was deeply engrained in him as danger, and he looked up in time to find the barrel at his temple. Really, he should have seen this coming, if he was considering using pictures against super-villains, obviously they could have the same thought and less scruples about the pandas getting hurt.
Steve stilled immediately, subtly moving Miao Miao to the other side. "You weren't sent by Stark," Steve said through his teeth, kicking himself for letting his guard down this much.
Ginnie smiled sweetly before it turned malicious. Her accent as she spoke was no longer Chinese, but one Steve was intimately more familiar with. "No, Captain Rogers. We have looked long and hard for a way to isolate you from your new team. Imagine our surprise that you did our work for us," she said with a twisted version of her earlier cheerfulness. "Heil Hydra."
He felt the blood drain from his face at the name, recoiling as if she had struck him with the gun. "The Nazis were destroyed. Hydra was destroyed."
"You killed our leader, yes," Ginnie said. "But you know how the saying goes: cut off one head..."
Two more will take its place. Steve nearly choked on the bile that rose in his throat. The organization Bucky had died to destroy, the organization Steve had died to destroy, was still alive and kicking. He felt sick, with a terrible twisting in his gut that threatened to turn him inside out.
Bucky was dead. Everyone was dead, or old and frail, beyond his reach, gone to a place he couldn't follow. But the nightmares, the nightmares always came back. Hydra came back.
There was a sharp bark from his arms, and Steve immediately loosened his grip, forcing air into his lungs. "Sorry, sweet girl," he told Miao Miao as she pressed her nose at his neck and pawed hard at his chest to get away. Letting her go would make her a target and it'd be harder to protect her if Ginnie turned violent, though, so he held on.
"Pathetic creatures," Ginnie spat. "No ambition. It is a fluke of nature that they have survived this long. Humanity should let the race die out if it can't sustain itself. Evolution values only the strongest."
"And Hitler's vision of an Aryan race is the strongest?" Steve spat, putting as much of himself between Ginnie and the panda as he could. "It's me you want, so don't hurt her."
"We welcome the superior race, Captain. You should be aware of this," the woman said. "Though Hitler's view on color and religion was far too narrow. Now we simply select the best. And we won't harm the pandas so long as you come quietly. Hydra has use for you, Captain."
Before Steve could respond, there was a faint electronic whine coming closer. Both Steve and Ginnie looked up, but Ginnie was blown back a split second later, crashing against the wall with a terrible crack.
Iron Man stood in front of him, faceplate gleaming in the Sichuan sun. "Sorry, babe, but this is the future. Cap can come as loud and hard as he wants to."
Steve stared blankly at Iron Man, knowing he needed to move but feeling like his legs wouldn't support him. Ginnie had no such problems, standing up and clutching at her stomach with one hand as the other lay limply at her side. "You know how the saying goes, Captain America," she said ominously, before crunching down on something inside her mouth.
"Wait, no! Suicide is not - Damn." Stark's face plate shot up as he stared down at her. He looked unsettled over the death, but quickly turned back to Steve. "You okay? You weren't answering your phone and Cherry said she couldn't find you for the pandas, so I figured something was off and checked your GPS. I finally managed to get a remote control link to your com a few seconds ago, but by then it was just kind of easier to drop in and see what the commotion was myself. Who was psycho chick with the death wish? Hey - hey, Steve! Let go of the panda, okay? It's hurting you!"
Steve didn't let go, despite the claw scratches that now graced his neck. "The saying..."
"Steve..." Stark said, worry in his voice. "You look like you've seen a ghost. Who was she?"
Steve swallowed, trying to stand, but his feet did, in fact, buckle under him. Miao Miao finally got away from him, but she didn't wander too far. "Steve!" Stark shouted, scrambling to take Steve's weight.
Steve recoiled from him and the metal touch, ignoring the hurt in Stark's eyes. "There's more of them," Steve gasped, trying to pull himself together.
"How do you know?" Stark asked, looking around and finding nothing.
"Cut off one head and two more take its place," Steve said, aiming for bitter, but ending up more than a little hysterical.
Stark's eyes narrowed. "Isn't that Hydra's catch phrase? Steve, they haven't been active since the-"
"Stop calling me that!" This time, Steve wasn't imagining the hurt in Stark's expression and he couldn't ignore it. He challenged it head-on, because he couldn't afford to care about the fact that he put it there. "And there's more of Hydra. They never go away. Everything good in my life is ripped from me, but Hydra keeps coming back. There's more of them. That's what she meant. There's always more."
There was a short pause, then Steve heard the hiss of hydraulics as the suitcase armor compacted. It wasn't long before very human hands were touching his shoulders, and he wanted to shake Stark for leaving himself defenseless like that just to comfort him, but he couldn't get the scolding out of his throat. He had to admit he wouldn't have reacted well to metal either, not when it was so impartial and reminded him of the anonymity of the Hydra masks.
"Rogers, calm down." Stark's words cut through his hysteria, and Steve took a deep breath. He couldn't afford to breakdown now, not with Hydra attacking. He couldn't. His isolation would be meaningless if he broke down anyway.
"Okay, so Hydra's back," Stark continued. "That's a thing. It's a fucking thing now, but that's okay. I'll take care of it. Protect the pandas while I-"
"I'm not staying here and-"
"Cap, no offense, but you're not up for this one." And damn Stark for having to say the obvious.
"They're after me," Steve said as he scrambled for reasons. "They came here for me."
"Then I'll keep them away," Stark said with a steely resolve. "Look, just stay here and take care of the panda. I'll lead them off."
Stark limped over to the side of the room where there were some bamboo shoots, grabbing a handful before kneeling down close to the corner of the room that the panda had retreated to. Before Steve could come up with a more convincing argument, Stark's face softened. "Hey there, sweetheart. Sorry for scaring you. I know, you're probably not a happy panda at the moment, but we need you to work with us, honey."
Stark held out a bamboo shoot for the panda like a peace offering. The little panda whined, but sniffed at it a few times before crawling out and accepting it. Miao Miao shucked the outer portion of the bamboo with her teeth. "There you are," Stark said with a gentle expression Steve had never seen on him. Steve felt a little better knowing that the panda's charms affected Tony Stark just as much as anyone else. "Cap will take care you, baby girl, so you just-"
An explosion shook the building, and the panda gave a bark of surprise, clawing at Stark's hand. Steve didn't think. He pushed Stark down, shielding both him and the panda as the building started to come down around them.
"Steve!" Stark shouted, trying to scramble for the armor.
"Don't." Steve didn't know if he was protesting Stark moving or the name, but he pulled Stark against him with the hand that wasn't shielding his head. A block of wood caught his back, but his shield was there, covered by the bag, but still strong.
Stark looked miserable, but he huddled closer as a piece of rock scraped down Steve's arm. Stark's forehead rested against Steve's shoulder, the panda whining fearfully between them.
A few seconds later, the debris stopped falling. Steve lowered his arm, looking around carefully. He tightened his grip around Stark, telling himself that it was to make sure the man didn't move away prematurely, and not because that had been far too close of a call, but the excuse felt far too weak and flimsy. The latter was the exact reason he was pushing Stark away, and he couldn't handle that right now, not after Hydra.
When nothing fell on them and what was left of the building was seemingly stable for the time being, Steve stood and started rooting through the rubble. He'd feel a lot better once Stark was back in the suitcase armor.
"Let me look at your arm," Stark said, starting to follow.
"Stay where you are," Steve commanded, terrified either the floor would give way and swallow Stark whole or that he'd set off the structural integrity of what was left. Steve could survive that. Stark wouldn't.
Stark looked about to argue, but he turned and gave Miao Miao the rest of the bamboo as Steve lifted a particularly big boulder off. Part of the hill had blown off with the building, and it was a miracle they weren't buried alive. The suitcase armor underneath was dusty, but not dented. Stark built it sturdy, he'd give the man that much.
Picking up the case, Steve made his way back over to Stark and the panda. He pushed the armor into Stark's hands. "Take the pandas, and get out. Get the civilians to safety. Do not engage with Hydra. I'll draw them off."
"Ste-Cap, that's a crappy idea," Stark said, opening the case with a yank. The armor started to mold around him, and Steve felt better as more of Stark was enclosed. "It's you they want. We can't split up if you're going to take their fire. I'll-"
"You do not engage," Steve nearly shouted, his eyes hard. "Civilians, pandas, and then you get out."
The armor was fully in place now, but the faceplate didn't come down. Stark looked furious. "And what makes you think I'll follow your orders?"
Steve was pulling off his outer clothes, wincing as the fabric brushed over his arm. His suit had caught most of it, but it still hurt. He was awfully glad he'd worn the Captain America armor under his clothes now. "Stark," he said warningly after he'd gotten rid of the unnecessary layers. He wasn't in the mood to deal with Stark's theatrics, and he pulled the cowl over his head after unslinging his shield.
"Those are shit orders, Captain Stick-in-your-ass, and you know it. I'm not going to-"
Steve slammed Stark, armor and all, into what little remained of the wall. "Get the civilians and animals out, then get out yourself. Those are orders, soldier."
And that was the exact wrong thing to say; he saw it the moment the last word left his mouth. "I'm not a soldier," Stark said, trembling in anger even through the suit. The face plate snapped down as Stark shoved him away, and Steve let him go. Stark picked up a panicked Miao Miao and flew off without a backward glance.
Steve let out a breath. At least Stark was following orders, even if it was only for now. He couldn't let Stark fight against Hydra. Not now, when it was so close to...
Steve traced the edge of his shield, clearing his mind. Then he walked out of the rubble, looking around for a target. The civilians had cleared out of the immediate area, and the plaza looked empty.
A rustle in the trees made Steve bring up his shield. Something hit with a loud clang, and Steve risked a glance down at the ammunition. Tranquilizer dart. Hydra knew all about the serum due to the Red Skull, so odds were that the tranqs in that dart would be enough to take out someone with Steve's metabolism.
"So Hydra is hiding up in trees now? Pandas do that, and I'm told they're an inferior species," Steve said with a calm he didn't feel as several armed Hydra agents dropped down. He didn't even wait for them to stand, flinging his shield and rolling away as they started shooting at him. The shield knocked out two of the Hydra soldiers as it rebounded back to him, and Steve caught it in time to bring the edge down on someone who tried to close in on him. He heard vaguely over the coms Stark directing civilians to evacuate, then asking JARVIS to translate 'without using that Google Translate shit.' Which meant Stark was occupied and following orders so long as there were civilians present. Steve had to end this quickly.
It didn't occur to him until he'd taken out another Hydra soldier that Stark usually kept his conversations with JARVIS off the coms. He might be furious with Steve for the admittedly jerk move he'd pulled, but he's still letting Steve hear that he was okay. Steve didn't want to think about how relieved he felt at that.
Steve used his shield to knock down two more men before throwing it again, ducking as a tranq dart whizzed past his ear. He put his weight behind a punch as another Hydra soldier clipped him with a knife on his cheek. Steve felt the sting as blood dripped down to his chin, but he kicked the knife away with a solid connection that probably broke the man's wrist.
"Come on, sweetheart," he heard Stark say over the coms. "No, damn it. You scratched the paint job! Come here you cute little bastard, I'm not going to hurt you." Steve caught his shield, stumbling as one of the Hydra soldiers kicked at his feet. "Don't give me that 'I'm so cute you'll forgive me anyway' look," Stark continued. "It won't work on me. Do you have any idea how much this armor costs and you just... okay, okay, stop with the cute. I admit defeat. Let's just get you out of here."
"Focus, Stark," Steve hissed, fighting a wave of dizziness. He did a mental check to make sure none of the tranq darts had hit. That only left his cheek, which meant the weapons had to be laced as well. Damn.
"Right, your patriotic panties are still so tightly twisted that-"
"Stark, cut the chatter," Steve said, ducking under a punch a little too slowly and taking a clip to the side of his head. What had been relieving at first was now a distraction, and one he couldn't afford.
Stark growled over the coms. "I'd like to see how you plan on making me follow-"
Steve lost the rest of the sentence, the force of the next blow sending him tumbling over the railing into one of the panda enclosures. A panda looked up from the platform a short ways away where it had been taking a nap.
"Cap?" he heard over the coms as he saw one of the snipers take aim.
Steve knew in that second a few things. First, the sniper was aiming at the panda. Second, the dosage in those tranq darts would kill the panda easily. Third, they wanted him to throw the shield to save it, leaving himself defenseless.
Steve didn't hesitate in throwing the shield, tumbling forward as he did, making himself a moving target. The shield hit the sniper and a tranq dart missed him by half an inch. Too close. He was moving too slowly, and God, what was on that knife if just a graze was getting to him?
He caught the shield, running to put himself between the panda and the attackers. He nearly fumbled catching the shield, but it was up in front of him for the next hit.
The panda, through it all, did nothing but roll over. When Steve turned back to yell at it, to try to get it to run away, his anger at the creature melted quicker than ice would have in a Sichuan summer. And really, he didn't need to be thinking about ice right now. Instead, he stood in front of the panda and threw his shield again to keep the assailants from closing in.
Unfortunately, there was a sniper he'd missed. Steve saw him a second too late, as the shield slipped out of his fingers, and there was nothing he could do, nothing he could use to block the blow. There was no dodging, not with the panda behind him. He calculated the trajectory in the split second before the shot was fired, knowing he could do nothing more than control where he got hit.
But as the sniper pulled the trigger, a gold and red blur got in the way.
Iron Man staggered into him. Steve barely had time to catch both Stark and his shield, but he managed somehow, giving them both cover from the next round of fire.
"Fuck," Stark said, going entirely too stiff in the armor.
"Stark, status," Steve demanded, unable to look down with their attackers still coming. He picked off the sniper with his shield, blocking the closer Hydra soldier with his forearm.
"Fucking Hydra weapons," Stark said, firing a repulsor blast at the man who had been attacking Steve, creating a giant hole in the man's chest. Stark knew better than to use that kind of force against regular humans, unless his consciousness was slipping from the drugs. But Stark was in the armor. The tranq darts had all bounced off his shield, so it shouldn't affect Stark's armor either, right?
"The dart got through," Stark said, tipping to the side unsteadily. Steve's blood ran cold, but he couldn't turn and look. There were still Hydra soldiers swarming around them. "Damn it," Stark cursed, his words sounding slurred. "Get me one of those guns. When this is over, I want to know what the hell they have that can pierce the armor."
Stark would be dead before Steve could even get his hands on one. Stark fell to one knee as he fired another repulsor blast, picking off another Hydra goon. "JARVIS, keep my arm steady if you have to!"
Steve put himself between the panda, Stark, and their attackers, but they would overrun him soon. There was no place to bottle neck them in the open like this. The drug was racing through Stark's body. Steve felt useless.
He wasn't going to be able to hold them off. He'd known that going in, which is why he'd sent Stark away. But now...
Now they were shouting the German word for retreat. Steve stared as they started to fall back, easily blocking the last few rounds with his shield. They were getting away. They'd get away and bring twice as many people next time, and he wasn't going to let-
Out of the corner of his eye, Stark fell to the ground. Steve gave one last glance around to make sure no one was around to take advantage of his guard being let down (too late, Stark had already done it, and damn him for doing so only to get hit like this), before taking a few long strides to Stark. "Get the suit off," he ordered.
"That's a change," Stark slurred. The faceplate slid off with the armor following suit, and Stark blinked hazily with unfocused eyes. "I screwed up again, didn't I?"
"What are you talking about?" Steve asked, panicking when Stark's eyes slid shut for a second too long. "Stark, stay awake! That's an order."
"Not very good at following orders, Cap. You should know that by..."
"Tony, stay with me. What do you mean you screwed up?"
"Thought I could fix things," Tony said with a small, rueful smile, his voice fading as the armor retreated. "But I keep making things worse. Can't even get you to smile. I really... fucked up this one. Rhodey said I wouldn't. I wanted to be proved wrong. Just this once, I..."
Tony didn't open his eyes again this time. He was lousy at following orders, but the bastard could have... he could have at least followed this one. Steve bowed his head, grasping at Tony's prone form and wondering why they bothered to wake him up just for this.
He tensed at the sound of footsteps, jumping to his feet and fighting back a bout of dizziness. Was Hydra back? Why had they left in the first place? He raised his shield, wondering how much of a fight he could put up. The drug had to be burning through his body by now, and he couldn't... he couldn't let Hydra get the armor.
He owed Tony that much. Actually, he owed Tony a lot more, but this was all he could give now.
But the soldiers who started to appear were all Chinese. And they were speaking to him in Chinese, which made about as much sense to Steve as usual. He got the feeling they weren't hostile though, and they were probably the reason Hydra had been scared off. He lowered his shield, motioning back to where Tony was lying. "Tony is - Stark is down," he said, knowing they wouldn't be able to understand, but needing to try anyway. He looked back to see the panda sniffing at Stark's shoulder and whining softly. The image just about broke his heart.
He thought it'd been broken beyond repair after Bucky had died and Steve lost everyone when he woke up in the future, but it turns out stomping on the bits and pieces still hurt. His isolationism had only made it worse. Not only was Tony going to die (if he wasn't already dead while Steve had been distracted), but he would die believing he'd failed, because for some wild and insane reason, Tony had decided he wanted Steve to smile. Steve had found it easier to smile since coming here than he had in months. Would it have killed him to have shared one or two with Tony? And how pathetic was it that he had only started calling the genius Tony when there was no point in wallowing in denial? Funny how death made a lot of things pointless.
The Chinese military took over, and he let them usher him wordlessly into the ambulance with Tony, but not before he'd picked up the suitcase armor. Against all odds the man was still breathing, but Steve could only assume the drug was working slower through Tony's normal metabolism. It was a matter of time. It was always a matter of time.
Steve sat in the ambulance, feeling too big and too useless to do anything to help. He thought that maybe he should take Tony's hand, but in the end he couldn't even do that. They took Tony into the emergency room, and Steve wasn't allowed to follow.
He sank down into one of those uncomfortable chairs, not caring about how hard it was. His shield hung limply in his hands, because no matter how it failed him, he still couldn't give the damned thing up. All he could do was wait for the news he knew was coming. After an hour or so of sitting there and ignoring the rest of the world, a man came up to Steve. "Captain America?" he asked.
Steve wanted to snap, to point at the shield and ask if he saw any other super heroes wearing the American flag around who had failed to protect their teammates. He wanted to see if that rice wine Tony kept going on about might be enough to overwhelm his metabolism this time, or at least see if it burned on the way down. He wanted to wander around in the Arctic in hopes that no one would find him this time. He wanted a lot of things, but in the end he did what he did best: he buried it deep and nodded to the man.
"Mr. Stark had Iron Man protect him," the man said in hesitant English. "He only... né gè... It did not hit her."
"Her?" Steve said, wondering who the doctor was talking about.
"Him. Sorry. English is not my subject," the doctor said.
"So he wasn't hit?" Steve asked, relief flooding through him with a force that was nearly blinding. As it was, he barely found the breath to say "Then why-"
"Small cut. His right collarbone. Some of drug is in blood stream, but very small. Drug is not so strong."
It would only take a small amount to kill Tony regardless. A pinprick would probably be enough, even if they'd gotten enough adrenaline into him to try to counter-act the drug. Never mind that the adrenaline itself could kill Tony with his heart problems. "Will he be alright?" Steve asked after swallowing down the new rush of fear.
The man nodded. "Her - his heart is beating fast, but he should wake up."
Steve sank down in the hard chair, barely taking note of the doctor. He vaguely remembered telling the doctor 'thank you' before the man walked away, but it faded in the background of his swimming thoughts. Stark - Tony - was going to be okay. Where did that put him in terms of denial? Steve didn't know anymore, and fear and regret wore him down as they fought it out in his head. He didn't want this, but he didn't know if he could go back to the way things had been either. He could never go back to the way things were before. It wasn't fair.
Steve wondered if he should ask to see Tony, or if he should just wait here. Did China have laws like they did in the States? If not, someone needed to tell Ms. Potts and Col. Rhodes that Tony was alright. If they'd seen it on the news and no one called them, they would probably already be on the way here. Steve fumbled with his phone, wishing the buttons weren't so small and his fingers weren't quite so big. He didn't know Ms. Potts's number, but he did have Rhodes on his phone if he could remember how to find his received calls again. It was times like this he wished he used his phone more often, so he'd be more used to it.
The phone rang for a while, before a sleepy-sounding Colonel picked up. "Rhodes here," he slurred. Then after a beat of silence. "Hello?"
Of course, Rhodes and Potts might have just been sleeping and not watching the news. It was well past midnight on the other side of the world. "Sorry to wake you, Sir," Steve said. He should have remembered the time difference, emotional shock or not.
Rhodes just chuckled. "You might not believe it since Tony's so on top of things, but I'm used to it," he replied sarcastically. "What's up? Has Tony given you the slip?"
"He's okay," Steve said, needing to hear it himself. "They said he'd..."
"What happened?" Rhodes demanded, any trace of sleep gone from his voice.
"He took a hit meant for me," Steve said, his voice sounding far away. "It was a tranquilizer dart meant for my metabolism."
"Christ," Rhodes swore. Steve heard some furious clicking sounds that took him a moment to place as a keyboard. "He's alright? That lucky son of a bitch, because one of these days I swear his luck will run out. There's nothing on the news either, so China's keeping a tight lid on this one. He's okay?"
"He will be. He's fine," Steve said.
"Thank god," Rhodes said, sounding just as shaken up as Steve felt. "He's awake?"
"Not yet. The doctor said he'd probably wake up. It was just a scratch," Steve said, responding on autopilot.
There was a moment of quiet as Rhodes took that in. "Are you alright?" Rhodes said, surprisingly gently. "Cause man, you don't sound it."
Had anyone asked him that question since he'd woken up? Asked and really meant it. He laughed a little hysterically, not caring if that drew even more stares than normal from the Chinese people. "It was Hydra."
There was dead silence on the other end, and Steve knew he should be telling Fury first (if the man didn't already know, in which case Steve was going to hit something. Preferably Fury) but he couldn't hold that back any more than he could the hysterical laughter. "The Nazi bastards you killed in the second World War?" Rhodes asked finally, stunned. "That Hydra?"
"The same," Steve said, letting his laughter die as a surprising amount of anger took over. "Only I apparently didn't kill them. Couldn't even do that for Bucky. The one thing in my life that won't go away. Everyone is dead, but Hydra is always there. Always trying to take-" Steve cut himself off, looking up at the doors the doctor had gone through, back to Tony. Tony had only just started being important, and already Hydra was trying to take it from him.
"Well, fuck," Rhodes said. And damned if that wasn't the most eloquent way of summing up the situation. "Damn, that's... Do you need the team out there? Or hell, anyone you want me to call?"
Steve couldn't tell if he wanted to scoff or cry more. "I'm fine," he said, leaning over and running his hands through his hair, because who the hell could he call? "I don't want to think about if Fury knows. The ones we knocked out are in custody, and I'm pretty sure the Chinese searched for cyanide capsules before they woke up. I... I'm fine."
"Yeah, not really buying that, Captain," Rhodes said. "Look, I'm not saying I'll be the best person to talk to, but you're doing me a favor currently, so if you don't have anyone else I'll listen. I mean, you're... Okay, that's probably too much hero-worship for me to say, which is probably not what you need right now. Can we forget I said that and let me go back to being a higher ranking officer?"
Steve couldn't break down here, especially not on the line with one of Tony's friends while the Chinese people stared at him and took pictures. He took a shaky breath, deciding to try to change the subject. "Can I ask you something?"
"Shoot," Rhodes said.
Steve tried not to flinch at the terminology. "Before he was knocked out, Tony... Stark said he'd screwed up again. Then he mentioned you and said he wanted to be wrong. What was that about?"
He heard Rhodes sigh, and in any other circumstance, he'd have been impressed that he could hear that halfway across the world. "I challenged him," Rhodes admitted. "After he and Pepper broke up two months a-"
"They broke up?" Steve interrupted, thinking back over the past few weeks instead of how he'd just cut off a colonel. Tony had been acting a little differently lately. Quieter, almost.
That earned him another sigh. "Of course he wouldn't tell you," Rhodes muttered. "Why would he? Yeah, he and Pep broke up, and they've both been taking it pretty hard. Pepper's been keeping afloat by delving into SI, but Tony's... I'm sure you've noticed, but Tony has problems really connecting with people."
Steve nodded, forgetting that Rhodes wouldn't be able to see it, but the other man continued on regardless. "He's got me, and he's got Pepper and Happy, because we saw past the show he puts on and decided to stick around. Happy saw him yelling at his old driver, because the other guy wouldn't stop to check an animal he'd hit. They were on a tight schedule, but you know how Tony gets when he wants something. In the end, Happy offered to drive the dog to a vet, and Tony tagged along with him instead to help keep it calm on the drive."
"Tony hates dogs," Steve said absently. They'd passed a lot of dogs in China, both on a leash and without, and he'd gotten the rant of how Tony hates dogs ten times over.
"He paid the vet's bill without even blinking an eye," Rhodes said with a tone that said he was agreeing with Steve's assessment. "Happy saw that and figured Tony's bluster was worth putting up with if he'd fight for a wounded animal like that. Pepper's a bit different. She's only told me a little bit, to be honest. She said she found him drunk in his workshop one night, and that she'd overheard him talking to himself and the bots. She won't tell me what he said, but she went from hating his guts to taking care of him overnight. It threw Tony for a loop, and I still don't think he knows what the change was."
Rhodes chuckled lightly. "Then there's me. I was nineteen, stupid, and unable to bring the stray cats I kept finding home. I suppose that's why when I saw a fifteen-year-old boy crying under a desk who mouthed off at me when I tried to get him to come out, I couldn't leave it alone. If I couldn't adopt a cat, I might as well adopt a Stark. They're just as headstrong and bratty, but Tony doesn't make my allergies go haywire."
Steve could picture a fifteen-year-old Tony Stark crying under a desk far too easily after adding up all of the hurt expressions Tony had been so quick to cover when Steve had been curt with him. A younger Tony probably didn't have the shields up enough to cover that sort of hurt. He didn't want to admit it, but the thought of it made him ache a little. "Why are you telling me this?" Steve asked, since some of that sounded pretty private.
"Because I want you to realize that Tony Stark does not try to be friends," Rhodes replied. "That was all on us, seeing past the front he puts up and deciding he was worth the persistence. We tried, not him, because he knows he'll screw things up eventually, and it takes someone pretty strong to stick by him when that happens. And even then..." Rhodes fell quiet for a long moment before continuing. "Even then it doesn't guarantee we'll stick around when things get rough. Do you know why he doesn't try?"
Steve shook his head, but this time Rhodes was waiting for a verbal cue. "No. Why doesn't he?" Steve asked.
"Because the only people he's tried for ended badly. He tried for Howard." Steve winced as Rhodes spat the name, but wisely said nothing. The second name listed had even more anger. "He tried for Obidiah, who was a more of a father than Howard had ever been, and he tried for his mother. Howard ignored him on the best days, no matter how hard Tony tried. Obidiah paid for his death in Afghanistan, then ripped the arc reactor right out of him while Tony could do nothing but watch. Maria Stark..."
Again, Rhodes sighed, and this time Steve thought he was shaking his head. "Don't repeat this to Tony, but I think she was the worst, in some ways. He only ever wanted her to smile, and he tried everything he could think of to get her to, but by that point, I think she was too far into depression. But he never stopped trying."
Steve gave a full-body flinch at Rhodes's words, and he was relieved that this wasn't a video call. Stark had everything: money, smarts, a suit of armor. But he'd never gotten the one thing he'd wanted, and it was as simple as a smile. His mother apparently hadn't been able to give him one, his father wouldn't, his make-shift father hand tried to kill him, Holy Mother in Heaven.
And Steve had been too afraid to give him one. No, not afraid. Unwilling. Cowardly. He'd shut Tony down the few times he'd started to smile out of pure cowardice.
"I'm still here," Steve said, though his voice was weaker than he'd have liked.
There was quiet on the other end for a few seconds, but Rhodes didn't push. Steve was pathetically grateful when the other man continued. "Tony Stark does not try to make friends. Because every time he's tried, he's gotten shot down. But he hit a low after the break-up, so I challenged him. Because he works better with a challenge or a problem to solve. And because I hate seeing him like that, when what little support he has gets knocked out from under him."
"You told him to try," Steve said, putting the pieces together.
"I told him to try," Rhodes confirmed. "And he said he couldn't make a meaningful connection without ruining it, and I'm not sure if by choosing you he wanted self-sabotage, or if he actually wanted to solve an impossible riddle."
"I deserved that," Steve said with a wince. He didn't want to think Tony was doing this as self-sabotage. He had sounded sincere enough, and the hope in Tony's eyes and voice when Steve had fallen for some of his charms hadn't been faked. The hope that Steve had systematically killed. That hope had been far too real. Steve knew, because he'd seen it crushed, and he'd seen lost hope enough times to recognize it when it was sincere. And this time it wasn't Hitler or Mussolini, or any other dictator crushing it, but Steve Rogers.
Steve felt more than a little sickened at that thought.
"You deserved that," Rhodes agreed. "And I'm not blaming you, I'm really not, because you've been through just as much shit as the rest of us, if not more. But he's filled me in every night since this charade started, and you haven't given him an inch. Not an inch, Rogers. And I'm really trying not to resent you for that, because you don't deserve it when Tony's the one who's pushed his problems on you, but he is my best friend. He hasn't got anyone else to look after him."
Steve took a deep breath, fighting back the jealousy and bitterness. "He's got more than me," he said before he could think better of it.
If the sharp silence on the other end of the line were any indication, it was the wrong thing to say. "Shit, man," Rhodes said, after a while. "Okay, that's putting my foot in my mouth. Like I said, no one is begrudging the fact that you have issues. But Captain, there's something you should realize."
"If you let him in, Tony will have your back. And he will do it in his own socially inept way that will make you want to strangle him, but he will never, ever let you down, no matter how you've hurt him in return for it," Rhodes said with conviction. "Even when he's made you think that he's snapped your last straw, he will do everything in his power to make sure you're okay, or at least getting there."
Steve took that in quietly, fear and panic spiking again. If he let Tony in... The real question though, was if he'd already let Tony in. It was enough to send him careening back towards denial. But if he'd already let Tony in, how much was he needlessly hurting Tony in the meantime with that denial? "And what if he dies, like everyone else?" Steve asked, because he couldn't hold it back any more. "What if I fail him again?"
"I can't tell you that," Rhodes said. "In the end it's your choice. I could tell you that everyone dies eventually, and that you're in a dangerous line of work. I could say he's usually more than able to get himself out of those problems, especially when we fail him. But that won't make a lick of difference and they sound far too much like platitudes. So I'll tell you this: it's your choice. For whatever misguided reason in that stubborn head of his, Tony wants to make a connection with you. So you can turn him down and continue to have no one at your back, or you can let him in, and maybe stop being so lonely all the time."
Steve closed his eyes, wishing it wasn't a choice he had to make. Or maybe he wished he actually had a choice in the matter. But, as he was learning, it was so typical of Tony Stark not to even give him the option. Somewhere along the line Steve had fallen for the genius's charms without really realizing it, frustration turning to fondness quicker than he'd have thought possible.
"Just one thing," Rhodes said. "If you're going to turn him away, don't string him along. Tell him soon. You've got the power to hurt him, and that's something I set him up for, sure, but don't get his hopes up. He's been hurt enough as it is."
Privately, Steve thought it was too late for Tony getting his hopes up, and Rhodes knew it. But he duly promised, because Rhodes was right. Tony deserved a straight answer, if there was one to be had. Tony had been trying to cheer Steve up this whole trip, and he'd proven how good a friend and person he was several times over.
"Good," Rhodes said, trying to find his footing now that the heart-to-heart was over. Worry seeped back into his voice, and Steve wondered how much he'd been holding back just to talk Steve off his cliff. "So, are you sitting with him now, or did they kick you out with a no cell phones rule? Because if it's the latter, you should never leave him alone for too long. I swear, that man could find trouble even in his sleep."
"I haven't been in to see him yet," Steve admitted. "I'm not family, so-"
Rhodes cut him off with a curse. "Okay, I'll get Pepper to make sure they get the authorization ASAP, but you force your way in to see him if you have to. He does not wake up well in unfamiliar circumstances without someone he knows. If someone asks, those are orders."
"Yes, Sir." Orders Steve could understand. They were meant to be followed, and so long as they weren't stupid or unethical orders, Steve could follow them. All this to-do about him going against orders to suit his own morals was blown out of proportion.
Really, it wasn't his fault that a lot of the orders Steve got were bad ones.
In the end, there wasn't much of a fuss to keep Captain America from seeing Tony Stark. After a long discussion with a translator to ensure medical privacy, Steve even pulled his cowl down as he sat in wait for Tony to open his eyes.
* * *
It was two days before Tony woke up. It was decided that Ms. Potts and Col. Rhodes wouldn't fly over, though that had been a long conversation with the doctors to convince them to stay States-side. Steve had to call twice a day with any updates as a condition of them staying behind to hold down the fort. He was quite sure the moment Tony's condition stopped being stable, the two of them and Happy Hogan would drop everything and fly out. Even the Avengers had to be talked down and reassured that they didn't have to make a trip out, and Romanov and Barton went quiet when Hydra was mentioned.
Steve already had a healthy fear of dames, but when Romanov said she hadn't realized Fury didn't update him on Hydra and was going to bring this up at the next debrief, Steve did not want to be in Nick Fury's shoes. It also made him afraid in another sense, because the team was wanting to get close to him like Tony was, and he wasn't sure he could handle more right now. Besides, he was trying to tell himself that he wasn't jealous that they'd all been so worried about Tony. Rhodes was right. It was his choice, and Steve had chosen this isolation.
As Tony blinked awake, Steve still wasn't prepared for his first words. "Huh," Tony said,his voice sounding rough. "Guess I survived again. Wasn't expecting that."
Steve didn't know if he should laugh or cry at that. He forced his fingers to let go of the vice grip he had on the chair's arms, getting a glass of water for Tony to drink. Tony drank it gratefully, and he let a flurry of doctors and nurses poke and prod at him before settling down. His mouth was drawn at the edges and there was pain in his eyes, but that was probably the lingering headache from the tranquilizers.
"So," Tony started some time later. "How much of what I remember was drugged up hallucinations?"
"You said you wanted me to smile," Steve said, not tiptoeing around it.
"Ah," Tony said eloquently. "Yeah. So all of it, pretty much. Well. That's embarrassing. Not the worst thing I've done, sure, but hey. That's because my life is full of bad choices."
Tony didn't look embarrassed, but he also didn't meet Steve's eyes. It startled him to realize this too, because Tony was very, very good at faking it. He didn't look down or over his shoulder, but just above Steve's eyes or just off to the side. Steve wondered when he had perfected this tactic, and he was getting a now familiar ache that seemed to happen a lot when Tony was involved.
He'd heard Tony say the phrase "Fake it till you make it" once or twice in jest, but he didn't think he'd ever understood what that truly meant until just now.
"Right," Tony said, clapping his hands together and rubbing them. "This place is depressing, and I promised you hot pot. So, hot pot. Let's go."
"Now?" Steve asked. He could have sworn the doctors wanted Tony to remain over night for observation.
But Tony was already swinging his legs over the side of the bed, scrunching up his nose at the hospital gown. "Yeah, this has to go. And of course right now. When else? Get with the program, Rogers. In the future, we do things now."
Steve did not wince at the name or the jab, because he had asked for the former and the latter he was getting used to. He'd made that particular bed, no matter how much he didn't want to lie in it. "So you're just going to leave?" Steve asked.
"I'm just going to leave," Tony repeated. "You gonna stop me, Cap?"
Steve hesitated. He wanted to tell Tony to stay, let the doctors look after him, but he didn't want to push too hard right now. "I won't," Steve said as he came to a decision.
It was the wrong thing to say. He could see that immediately as Tony's mouth made a firm line before lifting into his PR smile. "That's what I like about you, Cap. You don't nag me like the others do. So let's blow this joint!"
Oh. The others would have tried to force him to stay. It wouldn't have worked, but they would have tried, and that was a concrete way someone like Tony could catalog as a sign to show they cared. Steve felt his ears burn, but he couldn't exactly take it back. Besides, it really was a losing battle to try to keep Tony here.
The fight with the hospital staff was no less explosive for the language barrier, but eventually, Tony pushed his way through after finding his clothes he'd worn during the fight. They were dusty and torn, but that didn't stop Tony from telling the taxi driver to find the best hot pot restaurant in town.
That didn't stop him, but not speaking much Chinese did. After five taxi drivers failed to understand Tony's broken attempts at Chinese, he found a Chinese person on the street who spoke enough English to tell a taxi driver where to go. This involved a surprising number of Chinese people who didn't speak English but wanted to help anyway. The Chinese seemed to be very helpful when the 'lost foreigner look' came out, as Steve had discovered in Beijing, but at the moment, it caused more trouble than it was worth, trying to explain to so many different people.
Tony looked so haggard by the end of it, that Steve nearly told him to march straight back into the hospital. But they went on, and soon enough they were in a brightly lit restaurant that didn't look twice at Tony's torn suit. Steve was quite sure he wasn't a peach himself, since he'd only left Tony's side for a quick shower and a change of clothes.
'Hot pot' ended up being a large pot in the center of the table with a division down the center of it. One of the sides of the pot was white and milky, and the other side was red. They both had what looked like vegetables floating in them as the pot started to boil. Steve watched curiously as Tony poured several different plates of meats and other things Steve didn't recognize into the different sides, spreading them evenly. Then he used chop sticks to stir the mixture on the red side, picking through until he found a white circle with holes in it that Steve thought was some sort of vegetable. "What is that?" Steve asked.
"Lotus root. Trust me, it's awesome," Tony said, motioning to the pot. "Dig in. Try from the red side first."
With some trepidation, Steve picked up the chopsticks. He found he could use chopsticks decently enough, but slippery things like noodles or soft things like tofu either slipped away from him or split in two. There was a myriad of different kinds of food that had been poured in though, so he should be able to pick something out of it. He watched Tony eat a few more things out of the red side, then decided he could do this.
When he picked a piece of unknown meat from the red side, though, Steve nearly spit it back out again. He coughed, forcing himself to swallow and then drink water as his mouth burned and eyes watered. "You okay there, Cap?" Tony said a little too cheerfully as he plucked another piece out of the red pot and ate it without batting an eye. "Welcome to Sichuan. Everything is spicy here. I'm surprised you hadn't already found this out through the hospital food. Or did you just eat sandwiches the whole time?"
Bastard. And no, he wasn't admitting to sticking to American food while Tony had been sleeping either.
After Tony's laughter died down, he had the waiters bring a non-spicy sauce for Steve. "Just stick to the white side, Cap. It's not spicy, I promise."
Red pot aside, the meal was actually quite nice. Having bones in the chicken was a little weird, but Steve got used to it, even if Tony ended up having to fish a lot of the food out of the pot for him. A lot of the food he'd never seen before was pretty good too, and after a while even Tony started sweat after so much of the spicy side. The latter circumstance appealed to the increasingly petty side of himself that Steve was starting to realize stemmed from an actual fondness rather than annoyance.
He tried smiling at a few of Tony's jokes, but Tony's fake PR smile only grew more pronounced. "Tony-" Steve started, wondering what he was doing wrong.
"Don't," Tony said, and for a moment the hurt and hopelessness took over before he covered it with a self-depreciating grin. "You don't have to keep pretending just because I said something pathetic while I was drugged, Cap. I'm a big boy. I can handle rejection."
Steve looked down at his bowl, suddenly not feeling hungry, though he continued to eat so as not to waste the food. Tony thought he was pretending? Out of what, guilt? Well, maybe both of those were partially true, but he'd promised Rhodes he'd give Tony a straight answer.
But he hadn't given Tony an answer, had he? He hadn't done anything to make Tony think he'd changed his mind, other than weak attempts to smile that Steve knew looked as fake as they felt. Steve closed his eyes and took a deep breath, calculating the time difference in his head.
"I want to go back tomorrow," he said finally.
He ignored the hurt that flashed across Tony's face and was once again quickly hidden, like Tony had still been holding out hope that Steve would correct him. "No problem, Cap. You can leave first thing in the morning. I'll set things up. If Rhodey worries that much, he can come himself."
Steve nodded, bracing himself. This was the hard part. He reminded himself how brave Tony was being by trying this at all, and of the hurt that kept flashing through Tony's eyes as his grip on the chopsticks tightened. "I want you to come with me," Steve said in an out-rush of breath.
Tony blinked. "You want... are you asking me to run away with you for a torrid affair, Cap? I am shocked and dismayed, Cap. Shocked and dismayed. Also a little turned on, but that's neither here nor there."
It was a weak joke that was more automatic than anything. Tony was on unsteady footing waiting for the ice to swallow him whole. Steve squared his jaw against the blush that he refused acknowledge. He resisted the urge to strangle Tony. Again. He didn't want to see anyone fall through the ice like that, much less Tony. Yet Steve couldn't quite dismiss the fact that shaking Tony wouldn't be deadly, and it would make him feel so much better. "I'm asking you to come with me," Steve snapped, then rubbed his temples as he tried to remember not to let Tony wind him up so much.
"Okay, you're being touchy about it. No jokes. Got it," Tony said, deftly picking through the non-spicy side before plopping a lotus root and some sort of green vegetable in Steve's bowl. Steve felt his annoyance fade. Tony's delusion that food solved any emotional problem was admittedly starting to grow on him, and it was rather sweet in Tony's own, dysfunctional way of apologizing.
"I've got to wait for the test results, Cap," Tony said after picking out what resembled an octopus tentacle for himself. "They might need to do more tests, or they might..."
Tony didn't have to finish that sentence. Steve knew as well as Tony did that the news might not be good news. "It's gotta be tomorrow," Steve said instead, telling himself there was no backing out of it now. "I can't... It has to be tomorrow. We can come back after, and I know it's a long flight, but... I need to go tomorrow. It's important." And maybe Steve was right, that going wouldn't do any good, but Tony deserved to know what he was getting into.
"And you want me to go with you?" Tony asked, confusion plain in his voice.
Steve took another deep breath and made eye contact, despite how difficult Tony made it. "I want you to come with me," Steve repeated. His pride at admitting that took a beating, but Steve didn't break eye contact and he didn't back down. "If you don't mind the flight, that is."
"Okay," Tony said simply, as if Steve were asking for a lift back to the hotel rather than a flight halfway across the world. He said it so quickly, as if he hadn't needed to even think about it once he realized Steve was being serious.
'He will never, ever let you down, no matter how you've hurt him in return for it,' Steve heard Rhodes say in his memory. Even when Tony thought he was pretending out of guilt, Tony didn't hesitate to say yes. No wonder Tony didn't have many friends. That was a whole lot of power to hand over to one person, and Tony already knew first hand what happened when someone abused that trust.
"Okay?" Steve asked, hardly believing the man in front of him.
"Yeah," Tony said, continuing to act like it was no big deal. He went back to the hot pot, using a tissue provided on the table to wipe away some of the sweat from his temples.
Steve sat there stunned as Tony piled more food into his bowl, before fishing out of the spicy side for himself. Then he shook his head and picked his chopsticks up again, snatching some sort of rectangle baked food that was covered with honey with a gooey center that wasn't put into the hot pot. The sweetness was a shock, but it helped him think. Tony was coming with him tomorrow. Which meant now he had less than twenty-four hours to brace himself for what he had to do next.
Steve really wasn't looking forward to it.
* * *
The rest of the night was fairly quiet, since Tony left him alone to his thoughts. The flight back was also quiet, and Tony didn't question the fact that Steve asked to be dropped off in Virginia instead of New York. He did throw Steve a surprised glace when he told the driver to go to Arlington Cemetery, but he didn't say anything after seeing the look on Steve's face.
It wasn't until Steve was finally standing in front of the grave as the wind pushed at them that Tony gave in to his curiosity. "This is..."
"Bucky's grave," Steve said. He wondered if he was supposed to be feeling some kind of cathartic release. That was how these things went, right? He visited the grave and now he could move on. It was even a cloudy day, dark and lonely, with a threat of rain. Except Steve felt nothing looking at the carved headstone, other than feeling as empty as the casket below. He'd known this was a bad idea and that it wouldn't help. That didn't stop him from doing it, but he hadn't expected the weariness to settle about in his bones that made him want to sleep another seventy years.
Tony looked between Steve and the headstone, trying to understand what was going on through osmosis, but Steve didn't offer an explanation, simply tracing the letters of Bucky's full name with his eyes. "So not that I begrudge you coming here," Tony started hesitantly, his voice soft, like even Tony Stark couldn't be loud among the dead. Steve didn't acknowledge him, but Tony plowed on anyway, still not raising his voice. "But you said you had to be here today. What's so special about today? It's not the day he-"
Tony cut off at that, biting his lip, but Steve still didn't look up. He saw it out of the corner of his eye, and he could see how uncomfortable Tony was by being here. "It's not the day he died," Steve said easily, finishing Tony's sentence. "It's not his birthday either."
"Then what is it?" Tony asked, tentatively placing a hand on Steve's shoulder.
The touch woke something in Steve, and he stepped away, breaking the contact. It was too familiar, too intimate, and Tony's continued hurt was covered away so fast that Steve could pretend he didn't see it. He was getting good at that, though he almost wished he was getting better at not hurting Tony, rather than at pretending not to notice. "It's two weeks before it makes one year since I've woken up in the future," Steve said by way of apology, as if that explained everything.
Tony watched him, then stared down at the hand he'd used to touch Steve. "You've been out of the ice for a year?" Tony asked.
"Just about," Steve replied. "And two weeks before I put the plane down was the week we went after Dr. Zola's train."
That got recognition out of Tony. "So for you..."
"For me, it's the one year anniversary of his death, no matter what the actual date is," Steve finished.
A silence fell between them as they stood at the grave. Idly, Steve reached out to touch the headstone, but it didn't give him any more closure. It just made him realize the stark difference of the cold stone from Tony's hand. "I didn't get to go to the funeral," Steve said, breaking the silence. "We were putting it off because we didn't have time to mourn, not while the Red Skull was still loose. Not like we had a body, anyhow. Bucky wouldn't have wanted us to miss destroying Hydra's main base just because I was..."
Steve stared at the ground where the empty casket was buried, then moved up to the headstone again. "This is the first time I've been here. Didn't seem like there'd be much point to it."
"Maybe you're looking for closure?" Tony asked, sounding like he was way out of his depth.
"I'm not feeling any," Steve replied. He'd felt more emotion at seeing Bucky's personal effects that had been collected by SHIELD than he did staring down at the empty grave.
"I'm sorry," Tony said. He started to reach out again, but pulled back, holding his hand against him like he was afraid of being unable to stop himself. "I'm sorry, Steve, I-"
Steve's head snapped around. Tony visibly braced himself for a blow, though Steve couldn't tell if he expected it to be physical or emotional. Maybe both. How awful had Steve been to him that Tony was expecting a physical blow?
When none came, Tony's eyes relaxed into confusion. "You're not going to tell me to stop?"
Steve didn't answer his question, turning back to the grave and picking up like Tony hadn't interrupted. "Peggy found me, after we got back. When I was trying to get drunk. Except it didn't work. Part of the serum means that my metabolism's too fast, so I couldn't even get drunk after he died."
For once, there was no quip about making that into a challenge from Tony. In fact, Tony had been surprisingly quiet since the hot pot. Too quiet, now that Steve thought about it. Earlier he'd thought it was because Tony was still recovering from the fight, but now he wasn't so sure. Steve wondered if Tony was trying to give him what he wanted. Sadly, Steve didn't really know what he wanted, and Tony was left to grasp at straws. He didn't like the thought that Tony was trying to change for something as stupid as Steve wanting quiet though, and he sort of missed the quip in a way he couldn't explain.
"She told me it was his choice," Steve continued once he realized Tony wasn't going to interrupt. He thought back to that night, in the ruins of a city whose name he'd long forgotten. Funny, how he could remember everything else, from the smell of the ruined wood, to the specific brown of Peggy's eyes as they tried to comfort him, and down to the burn of the alcohol as it raced down his throat. Yet for some reason his normally excellent memory couldn't recall the town's name. "She said I needed to respect his choice, and not blame myself for it."
"She was right," Tony said, breaking his silence. "Steve, it's not your fault that-"
"Do you want to know what choice it was that got him killed?" Steve asked, unable to take Tony's interruption now. Bitterness entered his voice, the first emotion he'd really felt since getting on the plane.
"To be a soldier?"
"To follow me," Steve said, not meeting Tony's eyes. "I asked all the Howling Commandos, and they said they'd follow Captain America. Bucky though, Bucky said no. He refused. He said he wouldn't follow Captain America. He'd only follow..." Steve choked off, suddenly blinking back tears. He shook his head as if to clear it, refusing to break down now.
"He said he'd only follow Steve Rogers. So he did," Steve said, falling back into his earlier calm. "And look what that got him."
The empty grave and the wind spoke enough for the two of them.
Finally, Tony took a hesitant, limping step closer. All this flying around hadn't been kind to Tony's twisted ankle, and Steve felt a pang of guilt over making things worse again. "Steve, Peggy was right. He chose that, and I doubt he'd have changed it even if he knew what would happen. He knew the danger. It wasn't your-"
Steve whirled around, slapping away the hand that had been reaching out to him. "It was my fault. My shield failed to protect him. I failed him when he needed me. Not Captain America, but Steve Rogers. Steve Rogers couldn't do anything more than watch as Bucky picked up my shield and wasn't able to stand against the force of the blow. I couldn't do anything but watch as Bucky fell."
Tony cradled his hand, and Steve immediately felt even more guilty. How hard had he hit Tony? Why could he do nothing but hurt Tony, and for God's sake, why did the man keep coming back for more? "I'm sorry," Steve choked out. "That wasn't... I shouldn't have done that."
Tony looked down at his wrist for a moment, before meeting Steve's eyes. "It's okay. It doesn't hurt that badly."
"That doesn't excuse it. Don't just forgive something like that!" Steve wanted to shake Tony, but he kept his body in check this time. Tony was being stubborn about all the wrong things. "Let me see it," Steve said, taking a deep breath before moving closer.
"I told you, it's fine. I should have known better than to try again when you're worked up like this. It's not like I don't know how stupid that is to do when I've seen you react like this before, and no one expects you to be able to control yourself all the time, Steve," Tony said, but he let Steve take his hand and run light fingers over the reddening skin.
Steve would have said something about not feeling worked up like he had been in the gym, but the shame had him biting his tongue. At least Tony was right. He might get a bruise, but he didn't seem too badly hurt. This time. How many more times would Steve be wound tighter than a wire and hurt someone?
"Is that why you don't want me to call you Steve?" Tony asked while Steve stared at his wrist, returning the conversation to the rails. Steve stiffened, wondering if Tony had a death wish, bringing up the topic that had gotten him hurt in the first place while Steve was still so close. But this time, Steve held himself in check, not letting his hand tighten like it wanted to around Tony's wrist. He wondered if that was the point, to make Steve aware that he was in control again, but that didn't make it worth the risk.
Steve stepped back, putting distance between them. Tony didn't follow, though he looked like he wanted to. "My shield didn't protect you either," Steve said finally. "And all I seem to do is hurt you."
"Is that what this is about?" Tony growled. "We can follow the orders of Captain America, but we can't get to know Steve Rogers? Because if we do, we could die? That's a fantastic show of trust, Cap."
Tony was getting angry, but Steve didn't feel any guilt for that. Maybe it was wrong, but it was tried and true by this point. "Because Steve Rogers can't afford to lose anyone else," Steve said, the sense of defeat he'd felt on that train coming back full force.
"So are you just going to push everyone away or is it the team that gets special treatment?" Tony snapped.
"You nearly died!" Steve shouted back, feeling awful for yelling at a graveyard but unable to stop. "You nearly died, and I... I didn't have the shield again. I couldn't do anything."
"And because of that, I'm suddenly this fragile? Then tell me what the point of getting you out of the ice was, Cap?" Tony yelled. "Why even bother, if you won't try to live again?"
Steve snorted. "You think I don't ask myself that, Stark? Every. Damn. Day."
Tony looked like he was going to yell more, but he must have seen something in Steve that stopped him. He took a shaky breath, forcing his shoulders down as he ran a hand through his hair. "Steve," he said in an out rush of breath. "Jesus. Don't just... Don't agree with that. Please."
Steve looked away, to the grave, to the tree just down the way, to the cloudy sky that looked like rain but didn't fall, like it was mocking him. To anywhere but Tony. "Then what else do you want me to say, Stark?" he asked with a defeated slump of his shoulders.
"I want..." Tony said hesitantly, taking a tentative step forward. When Steve didn't stop him, he came up until he knocked his shoulder against Steve's. "I want you to call me Tony, if it's all the same to you," he finished with a quiet tone as he looked at the ground. "Not Stark. Tony."
Steve sighed, the tension draining out of him. When had he gotten this tense? He was calm, he really was. He had been other than when he was getting angry at Tony. But maybe Tony had a point about being wound up. Steve obviously wasn't a very good judge at the moment, if he was lashing out so much. Was this shell shock or something else? Steve didn't know, but he did know he was tired of it. He was tired of constantly hurting and hurting other people.
Steve sat down on the ground in front of Bucky's grave, Tony following after him. "Col. Rhodes told me about your bet," Steve started, feeling more tired than he ever remembered being, and he reached out to touch the gravestone again, wondering if it might ground him, even if it wouldn't give him closure. "Why me? You could have picked anyone else in the world, so why me? Someone else would have been easier."
"You didn't have anyone else," Tony said. "Natasha and Clint, they've got each other. Thor has his family and Dr. Foster. Bruce has Betty, regardless of how he denies it. Hell, even Coulson has the cellist in Portland. But you... you didn't have anyone. And you never smiled. You gave the press and sometimes us a goofy PR grin, but never... it was never a real smile."
Tony leaned against him, a warm, soft constant to the cold stone under Steve's fingers. "I didn't want to see anyone like that," Tony admitted. "Especially not you."
It was the 'especially' that caught Steve off guard. "What makes me so special?" he asked, baffled. He'd thought Tony had every reason to dislike him, to be honest.
He turned back to look at Tony, who had a surprised expression. "You're shitting me, right? You're... of course you wouldn't know. Steve, you've only saved the western world and democracy at the price of everything you hold dear. No, I can't imagine why America idolizes you for something like that."
Tony was actually blushing. Tony Stark, who had no shame to speak of, was blushing and admitting he thought Steve was worth the hype. Maybe not in so many words, but the implications were there. With all the fights and spats they've had, Tony still thought of Steve as someone worth looking up to.
And that thought gave him pause. They'd both said some pretty rotten things to each other, but coming from Tony, it was just a spoiled rich guy who knew nothing about Steve and whose opinion ultimately hadn't mattered at the end of the day. Or at least, that's how it had been at the start. Steve's words, on the other hand, would have carried weight. He had the opinion of someone who mattered, and he'd told Tony that he hadn't mattered at all.
How was it that Tony managed to guilt-trip him without saying a word? That really wasn't fair.
"So you're doing this because I'm Captain America?" Steve asked to cover his guilt.
"I'm doing this because Steve Rogers looked lonely," Tony replied, leaning his head against Steve's shoulder. "And because he was miserable. And if I could help him be less miserable, then maybe..."
Tony trailed off. Steve debated knocking Tony off his shoulder, because this was too... intimate. Too 'touchy-feely' as Barton would say. But Tony didn't push for more, and he seemed like he needed the comfort. It certainly wasn't because Steve needed the comfort (and he wanted it. He wanted the contact that told him he wasn't alone, that there was someone willing to touch him in this empty future. But damn it, he did not need it to survive, despite what his body told him), but Steve couldn't find the will to deny Tony the touch after all he'd put the man through. He'd hurt Tony enough recently.
"Maybe?" Steve prompted.
Tony was quiet for so long that Steve wondered if he'd actually get an answer. But then Tony spoke in a small voice that was so unlike his usual bluster: "Maybe if I made someone happier, I wouldn't be so miserable."
The now familiar 'Tony ache' settled over Steve so fast that it almost took his breath away. How many people thought this man was selfish - how Steve had thought Tony was selfish was mind-blowing when forced with the reality of it all. Tony Stark couldn't be happy himself, so he tried to make others happy instead. It was so selfless and misguided, and Steve swore he could hear Rhodes laughing at him, but all he wanted to do was shake Tony. Because of course he'd pick someone who didn't want it, yet tried to save them anyway even if he couldn't have salvation for himself.
Steve's hand tightened over the gravestone, but he made sure not to use too much force. He didn't want to destroy Bucky's grave, and he had the feeling Tony would take that as a bad sign.
Tony continued on when Steve didn't say anything, his voice returning to a more normal state, though he didn't quite lose the air of vulnerability. "Look, we both know... This is a dangerous line of work. No amount of promises that we'll still be here when you wake up can change the fact that tomorrow, some idiot with ideas of world domination might get a lucky shot that takes one of us out. But when Happy was in that coma..."
Tony paused, his shoulders shaking slightly against Steve's. "When Happy was in the coma, I still had Pepper and Rhodey to ground me. It still felt like my fault, and I was angry at the Mandarin, and myself and everyone, and I still did colossally stupid things, but they helped ground me. The other Avengers could do that for you if one of us falls."
"And if I lose all of you?" Steve asked, his chest tightening at the thought. Even when he'd tried to keep his distance, it scared him more than he wanted to think about. It was a question that had to be asked.
Tony held up his fingers, tacking them off as he went. "A, if something has taken out the whole team, you're probably lost with the rest of us. B, if you do survive by some miracle, I fully expect you to avenge us. It's a Thing. It's in the name, and therefore it's a Thing. C, after all of that... well, that's your choice. Go back to this, move on a third time, or go to the Avengers extended family, since despite all of us being broken and damaged goods, we've managed to collect an odd group of misfits that seem to like us anyway."
There was a fourth option, but Steve was just as glad Tony didn't mention it. No matter how rough it got, Steve was still religious enough to feel chilled just thinking about it. He could tell Tony was thinking it, but he shook his head and went on. "But the thing is, Steve, it'll happen whether you let people get close or not. Will you regret not taking what you do have with us now? If not, fine. But if so, keeping this up will make it worse."
Steve considered it. He considered all of the regret that was already in his life, and what he'd missed out with Peggy. He considered his regret about Bucky and how much more that could have hurt. He already didn't have room for more regrets. He considered how far Tony and the others had already wormed their way in, because Steve was terrible at being alone. The conclusion seemed inevitable. That didn't mean he liked it, but the truth of the matter was starting to filter past his denial, like a dam that was on the brink of overflowing.
Or maybe it was the fact Steve really didn't want to be lonely anymore.
He took a deep breath, looking longingly at Bucky's grave one last time. He knew what Bucky would be telling him at any rate. "You remember what you said about wanting me to smile?"
"That was - that was the drugs talking, Steve. I thought we agreed that we weren't mentioning what was said while on drugs. I'm pretty sure that's mentioned in the Avengers charter somewhere so-"
Tony shrugged again, mumbling something about having to try.
"I..." Steve started, closing his eyes for a moment to gather his courage. Funny how he'd never had a problem with that going up against Hydra or bullies, but starting again was somehow more terrifying. "You've seen this. You saw how I acted with Hydra. I just... It'll take a while. And I can't promise you anything."
"But you'll let me keep trying?" Tony asked, his eyes so pathetically hopeful that Steve wondered if that was why he wore sunglasses a lot of the time. Or maybe Steve was just learning to see the shutters Tony puts up around himself after Tony tilted the blinds enough to let a little bit through.
Steve hesitated another moment, before nodding. "You can keep trying," Steve said to affirm it further. Tony smiled at him, a shy little thing that Steve thought wasn't used near enough, and all the more real for it. He wondered if it could work both ways. If he should try to make Tony smile more as well. He could pay it forward, and maybe see if he couldn't cheer Tony up a little since the break-up seemed to be hitting him hard. That's why people connect, isn't it? It wasn't just misery that loved company.
"Good. Great. Um, fantastic. That's not a g-word, but I'll come up with something else eventually," Tony said, letting out a soft breath of relief. Then, quieter so that Steve had to strain to hear it even with his enhanced hearing, "Thank you."
They sat that way in silence for a while, Steve with his hand on Bucky's headstone, and Tony with his head on Steve's shoulder. It was a comfortable silence though, and he wondered what Bucky would have made of Howard's son. Bucky probably would have liked him, while Peggy would have been unimpressed with his bluster, but Steve bet she'd have warmed up to Tony eventually. Tony had a different sort of pluck from Howard, and Bucky and the others would have enjoyed going head-to-head with him. Bucky would have...
"Is it betrayal?" Steve asked suddenly, a panicked note in his voice that he hadn't realized slipped in. Tony sat up, opening his mouth to question, but Steve continued on, "Leaving them. Leaving this. Is it betraying them to..."
A warm hand covered his on the gravestone. "Steve..." Tony said, looking more serious than he'd ever seen him, and just a little scared and out of his depth, but trying to sound confident despite it. "Moving on isn't betrayal. If Bucky were any kind of friend, he'd be furious with you for taking this long to mourn him and grieve. It's not betrayal. No one wants you to torture yourself like this for so long."
"It feels like betrayal," Steve said, feeling alone and lost and scared, because he couldn't do this. He was supposed to be strong, to hold it all in, but he couldn't-
Tony's hand left his, and suddenly Tony was kneeling in front of him, his arms slipping around Steve's neck. "It does," Tony said against his ear. "It does feel like betrayal. But it's not. I promise you, it's not."
Steve should push him away, should tell Tony that he was fine, but instead he just let Tony hug him, because letting Tony have his way was the path of least resistance. It wasn't because he was trembling and leaning into the touch. It wasn't because he needed something solid, something grounding, or else he'd be too far adrift in his own grief.
Or maybe it was because he did. Steve didn't know what to do anymore, which path to follow. It was strange, but even without the reactor, Tony was still like a beacon shining in a lighthouse, and for the first time Steve wanted to grasp at the path Tony was offering.
Tony held him as he calmed down, until Steve was able to let go of Bucky's headstone and open his eyes without fear of seeing betrayal on a ghostly visage. Logically, he knew Tony was right. That didn't make it easier to believe, but Tony's solid bulk pressed against him eased the choke hold the emotion held on his chest. Almost without realizing it, his arms wrapped around Tony's waist, pulling him closer.
They both started when Tony's phone blasted some noise that Tony insisted was music. Tony reached into his pocket and jabbed at something as he growling, holding tight to Steve with his other hand to keep him from pulling away. Steve felt a little warmer despite the wind at the fact Tony had ignored a call for him.
When it started ringing again though, Steve did what he should have done at the start; he pulled back. "It sounds important," Steve said, secretly relieved that his voice sounded calm. "You should answer it."
Tony pulled out the phone to jab at it this time, not even looking at the number as he cut it off. "Look, I know I'm crap at this sort of thing, but even I know the damn phone can wait."
It wasn't five seconds before the phone started ringing again. Steve had to take Tony's hands to keep him from turning the phone off completely, shaking his head. "I'm fine," Steve said, rolling to his feet after another moment. "It's okay. You should answer it."
Tony didn't look happy, but he took the call this time, standing up as well and moving a little ways off from the graves. Steve could still hear him speaking softly but angrily into the phone. "I'm in the middle of A Moment here, Pep. Company business can wait."
Tony was quiet for a moment as he listened to whatever Pepper had to say. "So the doctors called. If it were important, they would have - no, I didn't give them your cell phone number on purpose. Yours is the only one I remember. It worked, okay? It's better than... they want what?"
Steve had been trying to politely ignore the call, but his head snapped up at the tone of Tony's voice. Tony looked pale, like the blood had drained from his face. But Tony was already moving, his mouth unhindered by the distress. "Okay, okay. Look, I'm not in China at the moment, but I'll get back. I know I said I was going to stay, but it was important, okay! Sorry, I... Set up the appointment. I'll be there, I promise." He was silent for a moment before he said softly, "I love you."
Whatever Ms. Potts said left Tony staring at the ground. "Yeah, still broken up. Got it. Don't worry about me, Pepper. I'll be fine. I usually am, right? Yeah, I'll be careful. Bye, Pep."
"What was that about?" Steve asked sharply, unable to help from moving closer any longer.
The vulnerability that had been laced through out Tony's body snapped off like broken ice, his usual facade falling into place. It was shaky though, and anyone would be able to see through that mask. "Pepper called. Apparently the doctors have been calling her. They want..." Tony stumbled over the words as it started to rain. He looked up, wiping away the rain that was starting to gather on his eyelashes. "Anyway, I've got to head back to the land of Communists. Sorry. You can stay longer in the rain, if you want. That's broody and manly, right? Should be right up your alley. I can send a jet for you later if you still-"
"What do the doctors want?" Steve asked patiently, because it was that or strangling Tony, and the latter wouldn't help with the doctors' wishes. Tony didn't answer, looking away.
Steve looked down at Bucky's grave as the rain started to pick up, making his decision. He took a step towards Tony. "You want this connection to work, Tony, it goes both ways. Don't snap it off when it starts to pull tight."
Tony's eyes went wide before he shut them against the rain. Steve didn't know if he was closing himself off or preparing himself, but he waited as Tony's shoulders rose and fell, slowly being soaked by the rain.
"They think they found something," Tony said tightly. "They want to run more tests."
"Something?" Steve said, his chest tightening. Tony wouldn't look upset if it was good news, and suddenly the graveyard seemed like a much darker place.
"Yeah, of the 'it could be nothing serious, but we want to make sure' type. You know, the kind the doctors have already found, but want to reassure you that nothing's wrong yet," Tony said, his voice unsteady as he kept going on. "One of these days, the universe will find a new way to kill me. Really, the whole heart thing is getting old. If it's going to keep throwing this shit at me, the least it can do is be more creative, right?"
Tony was walking back to where they'd left the driver, trudging through the rain. Without thinking about it, Steve grabbed his arm as he walked by, holding him in place. Tony tugged ineffectively at it. "Look, I've got to get on a plane again, which is really starting to suck at this point even with my private jet making the ride better than most planes, so-"
"You're not going without me," Steve growled.
"Great. You take your responsibility personally. Fantastic," Tony said, pulling at his wrist again. "Really, you can let go now. I won't just disappear."
"Won't you?" Steve asked. Tony stopped tugging and looked away. "I..."
"I'm sorry," Tony said, not meeting his eyes. "I know. I'm screwing everything up. Again. I've just made things worse, haven't I? Trying to get you to open up when there's a good chance I'm dying. Again. Have I mentioned the again bit? Because I think it bears repeating that-"
Steve let go of Tony's wrist and gave in to temptation. Shaking Tony was far more satisfying than he'd imagined. Tony shut up, his eyes going wide as his wet hair fell between them. Steve didn't let go of Tony's shoulders as he stopped shaking, glaring down at the now soaked genius. When Steve didn't say anything, Tony sighed. "I'm fine, alright? I've done this all before. It's not exactly surprising news, Steve."
"You're not fine," Steve said, eyes daring Tony to argue. "Stop denying that. You're not fine, Tony. And neither am I." The last was added softly as Steve resisted the urge to rub the rain out of his eyes. It was galling to admit it, but if Tony was going to just bundle things up after finally moving the unmovable Steve Rogers, he had another thing coming. As he'd said earlier, connections work both ways.
Of course, Steve hadn't counted on Tony closing his eyes, taking a shuddering breath, and leaning against Steve's chest as he buried his face against Steve's shoulder. He felt Tony's fingers curling around the fabric of his shirt while he tried to decide what to do with his own hands.
"I can't..." Tony started, cutting off with a shiver that never quite stopped. It took Steve a moment to realize Tony was trembling. "I couldn't tell them the first time. I don't know if I can do this again. I was - I was trying this time, and I've put them through so much crap already. I can't..."
Steve finally settled his hands gingerly on Tony's back. He closed his eyes, and he could see his mother coughing the first time he realized she wasn't going to win against the illness, and he couldn't handle that right now. Instead he looked back through the rain at Bucky's grave for guidance, but no inspiration struck him. He was going to have to forge forward on his own from here on out. He looked down at Tony trembling against him and realized that while the hurt was still there, the prospect of moving forward wasn't as frightening as before.
"You won't have to tell them," Steve said, easing the one doubt he knew he could. Telling Col. Rhodes, Ms. Potts, and Tony's ex-bodyguard would be a living nightmare, he was sure, but he could promise Tony that much. "You don't have tell them. That's my job, remember?"
"Your job is to keep me from hiding it again," Tony corrected, but he didn't argue. Steve must have said something right, because Tony relaxed marginally against him. "They'd still know," Tony said after a moment.
Steve looked at the sky, taking back his earlier thoughts about the sky mocking him by not raining. He was soaked, Tony was soaked, and the rain didn't wash away the pain like it was supposed to. He sighed, hugging Tony a little closer and wishing his shield once again wasn't so useless. "They'll know. You were the one talking about regrets earlier though. I don't think they want any more of those either."
"So you're saying I'm being selfish. Not the first time," Tony said, with a low chuckle. He leaned back and Steve let go of him immediately. "Selfish and hypocritical. That's practically my MO by this point. I don't..."
Tony was back to his sneaky non-eye contact, but Steve didn't call him on it. "So you ready to go?" Tony asked, rather than finishing his sentence. He ran a hand through his drenched hair. "Or do you actually need to do the manly brooding in the rain thing? What we just did was pretty non-manly, so I can get you needing to reaffirm your 1940s masculinity after a heart-to-heart."
Point of fact was that he did want to stay and brood. But he also didn't want Tony catching a cold on top of his heart condition, and the living couldn't wait like the dead could. Bucky would... he'd forgive Steve for that, wouldn't he? "I can 'be manly' next time the sun comes out," Steve said.
He took one last look at Bucky's empty grave. Maybe it wasn't the closure he wanted, but now he felt like he was moving towards it rather than staying still. He followed Tony back to the car, shielding Tony as best he could from the rain.
* * *
Beijing was just as smog-filled as Steve remembered it, and they were both jet lagged after so much time spent flying in the past couple of days. It really didn't help that every time Steve fell asleep, not five minutes later fireworks would go off close to the hotel, and it'd send him tumbling out of bed looking for cover. The fifth time it happened, Tony obviously heard the thud and offered him ear-plugs, shrugging as he said it must be the start of a Chinese holiday or a wedding.
If it were a holiday, the doctors were awfully swell about seeing Tony the next morning despite the holiday. The tests were simple enough, and some of them were retests to see if the tranquilizer had any lasting effects. Tony sat through them all patiently, but Steve could tell that he wasn't happy.
He debated just letting Tony work out his frustration for himself. Tony's words about regret filtered through his list of pros and cons though, and he reached for Tony's tablet, searching for something that would be suitable for his needs.
When the doctors said they were free to go for the next couple of days, Steve called them a taxi and refused to let Tony see the address that he showed the driver. They drove halfway across Beijing (and took a picture with the taxi driver before they were allowed to pay), but the look on Tony's face when he saw their destination was kind of priceless. Steve made a mental note to draw it when he got back to the hotel.
"You're taking me out for ice cream," Tony said in disbelief as he stared at the Cold Stone Creamery logo.
Steve shrugged. "You were being good at the doctor's office," he said as if Tony were a child to be mollified and really, he was only half teasing.
Tony narrowed his eyes, about to come up with some undoubtedly scathing reply as Steve raised his eyebrows. Then he looked at the ice cream though the window. "You're getting away with this only because it's American ice cream and not some crappy Chinese ice cream. Don't expect this to work again," Tony said, stalking off to smile charmingly at the lady behind the counter as he ordered.
Steve just smirked, knowing that it would work again, no matter what Tony said. He picked a chocolate ice cream with Oreo sandwiches smashed into it (they surprisingly enough didn't taste too differently from the time he and Bucky had saved up for a box of them, and he'd grown fond of them since he'd woken up), while Tony chose at least three different flavors (one of which Steve didn't recognize, even with the English letters on the card as well), sprinkles, and hot fudge sauce before sliding down in a seat next to Steve. They sat there, eating their ice cream as they watched people walking by out of the long window. Tony checked his phone as he ate, nearly choking on his spoon. "This is not cool. I did all the work on this. I was the one who nearly died. But I apparently don't even get space in the headline!"
"What are you talking about, Tony?" Steve asked, polishing off the remainder of his ice cream.
Tony looked up at him in surprise at the sound of his name, a tiny smile appearing on his face before he hid it away. It struck Steve how little it took to make Tony happy, if all it took was Steve using his first name. Considering how unhappy Tony looked in most of the pictures and videos in his file, Steve wondered how many people bothered to give it to him. Out of all the Avengers, Steve was pretty sure only Banner didn't use Tony's family name.
But soon Tony was back to groaning, shoving his phone in Steve's face. "Chinese media sucks. Also, I'm totally not doing any more PR events here. Fury can suck it."
Steve looked at the headline, and then blushed at the picture. "Captain America saves China's national treasure," he read, sparing another glance at the picture of him with his shield, standing heroically over the panda. He skimmed through the article after that. "They mention you being hospitalized in the attack."
"Five paragraphs down," Tony said, but he looked more amused than anything. "So, how does it feel to be China's new darling super-hero?"
Tony flicked his finger across his phone, showing the next headline: 'China loves Captain America!' "Stocks are saying your merch just went through the roof in the Asian markets," Tony said idly.
Steve slouched down, pressing his head to the counter. Fury would be on him like a tiny, vicious tick to do PR now, just to encourage the good press. There would probably be awards involved. He hated awards. "Sorry for stealing your thunder," Steve grumbled.
"Just don't steal it from Thor. It's kind of his gig," Tony said far too cheerfully.
Steve wondered how much worse walking around Beijing would be, then decided he was just going to stay at the hotel for the remainder of their stay. Bucky would be laughing hysterically if he'd been here. And that... the thought hurt, but it didn't hurt as much as it usually did. Tony's hand patting his shoulder helped chase some of the pain away, and for once, Steve didn't knock it off.
* * *
"Did you know the Chinese invented cock rings?" Tony said as Steve paced the floor. "Apparently they were originally made with the eyelids of goats. With the eyelashes left on, because it felt better or something, though that sounds kind of freaky to me. And not a good kind of freaky."
Steve blinked. His mind pictured it without prompting, and what was that phrase Tony used? Brain bleach. Yeah, he was positive he needed lots and lots of brain bleach right now. Tony adding "Your ears really do turn bright red when you blush," really didn't help matters either.
"Why are you telling me this?" Steve asked, ignoring the heat in his cheeks and ears.
"Seemed like something that should be shared with the rest of the world," Tony said casually. "Also, your pacing is driving me nuts. Sit down, will you?"
Steve glanced at the chair next to Tony and did a mental check of how much pent-up energy he had, and resumed pacing. He'd gone far too long without a punching bag. "How do you even know that?" Steve asked, trying not to think about dead goats anywhere near his nether regions.
"Well, you've got the pacing bit down this time, so I was doing some research. I got a notice saying there's an unlicensed cock ring in your colors with a white star on the clasp going around. They're claiming it's more of an American thing instead of a Captain American thing though, so I was trying to research the claim when one thing led to another and-"
Steve was not having this conversation with Tony anymore. It was better for his sanity and for Tony's continued existence of not dying by a super soldier induced death by shaking. "Stow it, Stark."
Tony deflated a little at the name, but looked like he was fully intending to continue talking regardless. Thankfully, the door clicked open as Dr. Wu walked in, followed by the pretty woman who was acting as their translator. Tony stood immediately, every bit as tense as Steve, and greeted the doctor.
"What's up, Doc?" Tony asked. Steve wondered if Tony made the reference to soothe him, since he usually stuck with references that were made after Steve's time.
Their translator stepped forward, smiling. "The cardiac dysthythmia doesn't seem like it will be a long-term problem. It appears that it is just your heart needing time to readjust to not having the arc reactor any longer. It's evened out since your last fight, and the elevated heart rate probably saved your life at the time."
"But it's still a problem, isn't it? The whole breathing thing?" Tony said, his fingers tapping at his chest in a rhythm not unlike a heartbeat.
"You said it's been happening with less frequency, and that it took longer than the last few times during the last battle and the tests," the translator said. "And even in this past week since we re-did the tests, there has been some improvement. It will probably be back to normal in a month or two. If it is not, then let us know and we'll see if there's something we missed. But right now there doesn't seem to be any problems with your heart."
"What about my temperature running too hot?" Tony asked. Steve almost wanted to stop Tony from asking, because this was good news. But he saw the tension in Tony's shoulders. Steve realized with a start that he probably wanted to be certain before getting his hopes up.
Dr. Wu said a few words, and the woman nodded. "Dr. Wu thinks it was probably just a small fever as your immune system recovered from the surgery, and you need to get some proper rest."
"Oh," Tony said.
Tony was quiet for the remaining explanations of the test results, letting Steve ask most of the questions. Dr. Wu and the translator left eventually after thanking both of them for saving the pandas.
When Steve returned from walking them out, Tony was staring at his tablet without seeing it. "Are you alright?" Steve asked, wondering what had gotten into the man. It had been good news!
"Fine," Tony said, looking up at Steve with a slightly lost expression. "I'm fine, right? That's what they just said, and it's not a dream or anything, right? So I have to be fine now. It's good. Isn't it?"
Steve got the 'Tony-ache' as the genius spoke, but at least this time he could do something about it. He sat down beside Tony, pinching him lightly.
"Ow!" Tony yelped, the lost expression turning to a glare. "What was that for?"
"This isn't a dream," Steve said. "You're really okay, Tony. So don't think you can use this as an excuse to get out of training."
"Yeah," Tony said, taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly. "Yeah. I'm... I'm okay."
Then Tony turned and smiled at Steve. It was a small, little thing that was almost shy around the edges, and it went against every instinct Steve had when it came to Tony Stark. But it was there, small and broken, but happy. Really, it was only the last bit that mattered.
Steve blinked, coming back down from his thoughts. "What?" he asked, feeling a little self-conscious at the way Tony was staring at him. He felt like there was something on his face, but surely Tony would have made a fuss about that earlier if it were true.
Tony just smiled wider. "Nothing," Tony said quickly, jumping up and dragging Steve with him. "Come on. Let's go celebrate with expensive food and baijiu! And fireworks. We should totally set off some fireworks. From a distance so they're not loud though, because yeah, that's... anyway, let's go!"
Steve felt his lips twitching upward again to meet Tony's infectious grin. And, oh. Again.
He'd been smiling.
Steve hadn't even noticed it. It'd just felt so natural, returning the broken smile given to him by Tony that he hadn't even noticed. His own smile had probably been just as broken, but Tony didn't seem to mind.
He thought back to Bucky and the others, and it hurt, but not as much as it usually did. Tony continued to talk at a breakneck speed in front of him as he tugged Steve along. Tony, who wasn't a screw up at this whole connecting business.
Maybe that meant Steve could get better at it too. Watching Tony smile wasn't a bad payoff either....
"-track down those cock rings too, because, obviously we need first hand evidence!"
...even when Steve really wanted to shake him.