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Between Past and Present Tense

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Jab. Cross. Hook. Again. Harder. Faster.

The bag is heavy and unyielding under his hands, his fists a blur as he throws his whole body into every strike, as if he could punch the spiraling thoughts right out of his head. It never really works, but at least it makes him feel slightly better. At least it lets him try and burn through the anger that’s always simmering just below the surface. And why -- why -- does it always seem to be Tony that pushes him over the edge? Tony and his dumb antics. Tony and his stupid, reckless ideas.

Like Ultron. What the hell had Tony even been thinking? Caught up in his own infallible genius. He acted like he was invincible. He’d been sitting on an idea that huge, that world altering, and he hadn’t told any of them. Neither he nor Bruce had breathed a word. So much for being a team. So much for trust.

His fists hit the bag, a flurry of blows. His elbows strike, hard enough to bruise even him. His body twists, and with every impact he sees the buildings crumble. He sees the city falling from the sky, the fear in civilians' eyes. He sees a man who acts without thought of consequences. It’s a Stark thing.

Tony isn’t Howard, Steve realised that early on, but god, there are moments when Tony is the spitting image of his father. Moments when he charges forward without thought or consequences. When he acts on impulse with nothing to check him even when it’s something harmless and fun. Like today.

Steve feels a pang a guilt run through him over smashing Tony’s new gadget. The thing was harmless enough, buzzing around, recording little moments of them. Tony had joked about ‘livestreams’ and ‘snapchats’ -- harmless -- Steve chastised himself. But the damn thing was buzzing around him, invading his space. And Tony had just barged into the room front and centre, demanding attention, shattering Steve’s already fragile headspace. A bull in a china shop. Those were the moments that Tony really reminded Steve of Howard -- when he was at his most obnoxious -- and Steve just was not prepared to deal.

He didn’t want to be reminded of Howard. Not today. Not when his head was already lost deeply in the past, clinging to the ghosts of what could have been and never was. Never would be now.

Steve shouts, pain and frustration seeping out as he unleashes a devastating combo on the poor defenceless bag, and behind him he hears footsteps entering the gym and pausing. Steve turns, expecting to see Sam standing there, or maybe Natasha. They’d been with him before Tony had waltzed into his quiet space, keeping him company, dragging him out of his head. So he’s surprised when he sees Rhodes standing there instead, watching him carefully.

“You pack a hell of a punch, Cap,” Rhodey says, raising an eyebrow. “Makes me glad we’re usually sparring in the suit. And that I’m not one of the bad guys.” Steve tries to smile, but it falls flat as he steps back and regards Rhodey carefully. They were teammates, friends even, and Steve holds a lot of respect for Rhodey and everything that he’d done in his service, for Tony, for the team. But the fact remains, it’s unusual for Rhodey to seek him out after he and Tony have had a clash. Steve desperately hopes that Tony hasn’t sent Rhodey to talk to him, because honestly? He’s not sure he can deal with that right now. Sometimes Tony doesn’t understand personal space. Surprising, for a guy who can be pretty withdrawn himself and pretty particular about his own space. Briefly, Steve wonders if maybe that’s just a consequence of Tony working alone for so many years, of not having a team around him, of having so few people he could trust who cared about him. A question for another time. He doesn’t have space in his head for anything else right now.

“Tony didn’t send me,” Rhodey says as if reading Steve’s thoughts. “I mean, not that he hasn’t done that before, asked me to patch up his mistakes for him. God knows why I agree to it. Guess that’s what happens when you've known him as long as I have. But yeah, this ain’t one of those times.”

Steve breaths a sigh of relief. He’ll talk to Tony, apologise, they’ll sort this out like this always do. But Steve’ll do it in his own time, when he’s not feeling so fragile. When he’s less likely to blow up in Tony’s face, when Tony’s less likely to snap at him. It’s unbelievable sometimes, how easily they can get under each other’s skin.

“I didn’t mean to call him Howard back there. It was a slip,” Steve blurts, pulling his thoughts back to Rhodey, still waiting for him to say something.

Rhodey raises an eyebrow, but otherwise his expression doesn’t change. “Kind of figured as much. Still caught him off guard. Me too. There’s probably a lot more that we should be talking about there, but honestly? I can’t believe you actually knew Howard that well. I always just thought he was exaggerating. You know I went with Tony a couple times to visit his parents. Howard would spin these elaborate tales of knowing Captain America. Tony would just roll his eyes. He’d heard it a hundred times before. Seemed unreal. I kind of thought he was making it up.”

Steve shakes his head with a weak smile. “I knew him. He worked on Project Rebirth. But I didn’t actually get to know him until Europe. Peggy introduced us.” Steve’s throat tightens, his shoulders tense and he briefly turns away. Rhodey must notice, because a moment later Steve feels a hand settle on his shoulder.

“Natasha told us she’s not doing well,” Rhodey says gently as Steve lets out a shaky breath.

“She’s not. She’s taken a turn. Could be weeks, could be months. I don’t know.”

“So the last thing you needed was Tony showing up, being Tony,” Rhodey finishes.

“Well when you say it like that, I sound like an asshole.”

Rhodey shakes his head. “Didn’t mean it like that, Cap. I of all people understand that he can be a bit much to deal with.”

“I just don’t understand him sometimes,” Steve says, slowly unwrapping his hands, the anger he was previously feeling having slowly seeped out of him, leaving him feeling hollow and run down. “You know, a few weeks ago, he showed up out of the blue and took me down to the city. We went to some galleries, walked around Brooklyn. He asked me all kinds of questions about what it was like then, what I liked now. We had dinner at this little cafe tucked away on a quiet street. It was amazing. I don’t get how one minute he can be so kind and thoughtful, and the next he’s coming up with shit that’s going to get him killed. That’s going to get us all killed. I mean, Ultron. What was he even thinking?”

“You know exactly what he was thinking,” Rhodey says patiently, his eyes studying Steve. “Everything you said there, it all comes from the same place inside his head.”

“Yeah, I know,” Steve deflates again and runs a hand through his hair. Rhodey has a point. It might seem like two separate, completely unrelated things, but it was all Tony trying to help, trying to protect in whatever way he could. “I just wish I understood him better.”

Rhodey laughs, sudden and bright. “Don’t even go there Steve, man. That’s a lost cause. Pretty sure no one really understands Tony, not even Tony himself.”

Maybe not, but Tony wrestles with his own demons, and sometimes it's easy to forget that. They 're all fighting with their own demons, and somehow they make it work.

“Pretty sure none of us knows ourselves sometimes,” Steve muses, clapping Rhodey on the shoulder as he turns to leave. “Thanks, Rhodes, really.”

“Hey, anytime, Cap,” Rhodey responds.

“I’m going to send you some new training plans. Want your opinion on them. And hey,” he pauses, turning back to look at Rhodey. “If you’re talking to Tony, tell him that I’ll come and find him later, all right?”

“Yeah,” Rhodey says with a smile. “All right.”