Steve Rogers looked down at his book, trying - and failing- to make sense of the words. He sat in the kitchen, forcing himself to steal a few grapes that someone had left out every so often. It wasn't the book's fault. He'd chosen something familiar today to try to relax himself - Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man" - but he still couldn't focus. It was a Bad Day.
He knew enough about Bad Days to know that staying in bed all day like he wanted to was not a good idea. His team needed him, and he couldn't afford to let them down if there was a crisis. The Avengers were all he had now, and he couldn't fail them like he'd failed Bucky.
Which meant that when The Ache started, he had to use all of his considerable amount of will power just to drag himself out of bed and into the common areas of the Tower. Every step was a battleground, like walking towards an execution. He ignored the anxiety that twisted into knots in his stomach with grit teeth, sitting on the couch in the living room or in his chair in the kitchen to read. He never talked to anyone, and after a couple of tries, the others knew it was best to leave Steve alone when he clutched at the book in his hands. But they stayed in whatever room Steve haunted to give him some level of background noise, which was soothing enough to ease some of worst of the knots.
Steve found it didn't make the Bad Day go away, but he was less likely to wake up to a Bad Day the next morning. It sometimes made the Bad Day loosen its grip on him too, even if it wasn't enough to relax him completely. The words 'duty' and 'obligation' threatened to strangle him so much that he wished they had just left him in the ice, but Steve stubbornly pressed forward. Isolating himself like he had in the beginning hadn't helped. It just made him easier to manipulate, and he couldn't let that happen again.
He didn't know what would help, but he needed something. He couldn't bring himself to talk to a SHIELD therapist, so he tried different things when he could. This seemed to help the most out of his other coping methods.
The problem was, he was still missing something. There was a gap he still didn't know how to feel about, a bridge he couldn't quite build to keep himself anchored and above the water. He attempted to talk with the others sometimes, but there were so many references and phrases he didn't understand, and part of him just got overwhelmed. Even Thor was too different, too alien.
So he sat in the kitchen, listening to Natasha and Tony argue about the merits of songs Steve had never even heard of with the occasional input from Pepper, who was working through a mountain of paperwork while Steve pretended to read Alexander Pope. It wasn't perfect, but it was the best he knew how to do, and sometimes it was the only thing he could bring himself to do. It would have to work.
"It's not even danceable, Stark," Natasha said, peeling an apple.
"Excuse you, 'Highway to Hell' is perfectly danceable. Isn't it danceable, Pep?" Tony asked.
Pepper barely looked up from her paperwork, patting Tony's hand in a manner that made Steve question how much of the conversation she had actually heard. "Sure it is."
"What would you dance to it then? Swaying side to side and grinding doesn't count. It has to be a proper dance," Natasha stipulated.
"Swing," Tony said smugly.
Natasha raised her eyebrows. "Swing?"
Steve himself was a little curious. He'd seen lots of people dancing swing before, but he couldn't picture it to today's music. The curiosity was enough to ebb some of The Ache, and he looked up from "Essay on Man" to see what Tony's response would be.
"Swing," Tony repeated, standing up and pushing his chair back in with a wicked gleam in his eyes. "Music, JARVIS! Ms. Potts, may I have this dance?"
"What?" Pepper asked, looking up as Tony wiggled his fingers at her with an invitation in his open palm. Some of Tony's music started to play, and she rolled her eyes. "You want to dance to AC/DC?" she asked.
"Proving a point, Pep, proving a point! Try to keep up." He wiggled his fingers again, and an exasperated smile crossed her face. She stood, letting Tony lead her to an open space parallel to the kitchen counter. Then he pulled her close so that her arm was on the top of his shoulder and his hand was on her shoulder blade. They stood like that swaying for a few beats before Tony angled his body to the side as Pepper passed by him.
Pepper ended up much further away from Tony. They were connected only by one hand, stretching out at the end of the step. Then Tony stepped backwards as Pepper stepped forward, and he spun her in what looked like a complicated turn.
"Show off," Natasha called out.
Tony used his free hand when he and Pepper were spread out again to flick Natasha off, then held it up for Pepper to grab. "That's not swing," Steve said quietly after a few more moments of watching. The movements were all on a straight line, for one thing, instead of the circle Steve was used to seeing.
"Is too," Tony said helpfully.
"West Coast Swing," Pepper said as she spun and ended on a small kick. "It's evolved a bit since your time."
Evolved without him. The Ache came back as he watched Pepper laugh at Tony's waggling eyebrows as she slid down his arm. Tony was smiling as well, something that didn't happen as often anymore now that he and Pepper had broken up. One more thing Steve wasn't part of and didn't understand. There was a small part of him that was angry, and he admitted that he was probably jealous, even though he couldn't have pointed to what exactly the cause was. Maybe it was that he'd never gotten the chance to dance? Whatever it was, it was easy enough to ignore, considering how much The Ache dulled most emotions.
The song went on, and he had to admit both Tony and Pepper were good dancers. The movements were smooth and sensuous, yet still suited to the heavy metal music. He watched as Tony spun, catching Pepper's hand with unerring accuracy. He thought of Peggy, wondering what dancing with her would have been like.
Tomorrow was going to be another Bad Day at this rate.
Tony pulled Pepper in, holding her close as he dipped her back, winning another laugh out of her. The song started to fade, so he pulled her back up and pushed her out 'til they were side-by-side to take a bow. Pepper rolled her eyes but curtseyed when Natasha started clapping. Steve was surprised to hear more than one set of hands, and when he looked over both Bruce and Thor were standing in the doorway.
"As I said," Tony said smugly. "Totally danceable."
"Touché," Natasha replied.
"Aye, that was most skillful, Shieldbrother," Thor said, smiling widely. "I was not aware you were a master of such arts."
"Well, you know what they say. It don't mean a thing if you ain't got that swing." Tony winked as he led Pepper back to her chair and thanked her for the dance. It surprised Steve, and Pepper leaned over to Steve when she saw his face. "The dance instructor was very strict on how to treat your partner on and off the dance floor," she whispered conspiratorially.
"I didn't know you could dance either," Bruce said.
Tony shrugged it off. "My mother loved high society. She made sure I learned the basics of most dances."
"That wasn't ballroom," Natasha pointed out.
"Swing was something we started when we were..." Pepper trailed off as Tony tensed. They both looked away from each other, and Pepper clutched at the necklace she wore. "When we were dating," Pepper finished with a weak smile. "I wanted something that was healthy and fun, and dancing is good exercise. Plus, we could do it together."
Tony pulled his phone out, not looking up. Steve took that as a cue to look back at his book, staring at the words as he willed them to make sense.
"Sounds like it was a good idea," Bruce said, trying to smooth over the tension.
"I think I would like to try this dance with Jane. She has complained as of late that we do not spend enough time together," Thor said thoughtfully.
"Done," Tony said, not looking up from his phone. "Team bonding is on me for the next month or so. Free dance lessons for everyone." Steve felt the anxiety roll in his stomach at the words.
"I don't think dance lessons would be a good idea for me," Bruce said sadly. "If I get frustrated-"
"Nonsense," Tony said. "Lizzie and Victor will be in town for a month or two, and they're the best teachers you'll find. Trust me, Cookie Monster, even if you mess up, she'll smile at you and all the frustration goes away."
"Lizzie and Victor are back?" Pepper asked, a smile returning to her face. "Bruce, you'll love them. And we'll all make sure you don't get frustrated. You could even invite Betty!"
"I..." Bruce looked lost for a moment, and Tony looked up from his phone to shake his head in warning at her. Pepper looked sad again, but it seemed different from earlier. It took Steve a moment to realize he wasn't looking at his book anymore. He should look back, and maybe they'll ignore him while he's on his Bad Day.
Tony wrapped an arm around Bruce, pulling him into the kitchen. "Come on, buttercup. It'll be good, I promise. If you start feeling green behind the gills, you can leave, okay?"
"Alright," Bruce said with a sigh, accepting the donut Tony passed him.
Tony turned his sights on his next victim. "And what about you and Clint, Nat-cat? You up for some dancing?"
"Call me that again and I'll show you what I'm up for," Natasha said. "But I'll convince Clint to come. It sounds interesting."
"Great!" Tony said, clapping his hands together gleefully. "Cap?"
"What?" Steve asked, feeling way out of his league. He hadn't looked down fast enough.
"You. The team. Dancing on Wednesday nights at six. Get with the program, Captain Oblivious."
This time it was Pepper shaking her head in warning. "Tony."
"What?" Tony asked, honestly baffled. "I'm just asking if he wants to learn to dance." Bruce and Pepper shared a look, but didn't comment further.
"What troubles you, Shieldbrother? Have you never gone dancing before?" Thor asked. "I've heard the practice was quite well spread in your time."
Steve finally succeeded in looking down at his book, the words looking like the Greek alphabet to his unfocused eyes. "Before the war, what girl would have wanted to dance with a puny guy like me? Afterwards, there wasn't much point," he said quietly. He'd been waiting for the right partner, for Peggy. She'd promised to teach him, and they'd missed their chance. Now the thought of it just left him hollow.
"Then it's no longer voluntary. Everyone needs to dance at least once."
Steve's head snapped up at Tony's words. "What makes you-"
"Not an option, Cap," Tony said. His eyes were surprisingly hard with some emotion Steve couldn't place. "You can't just let this pass you by again. Think of it as an order. A requirement."
"Tony!" Pepper hissed as she stood up.
"The car leaves at five-thirty. Don't be late," Tony said as he saw no one was backing him up on this. He left the room in a huff.
There was silence as Steve felt his hands grip at the book tightly.
"What was that about?" Bruce asked.
Pepper frowned at the door Tony had exited. "I have a few guesses. He knew some West Coast Swing even before we'd met, and he learned it because..." She trailed off, looking - inexplicably - at Steve.
"Pepper?" Natasha asked, covering Pepper's hand with hers.
"It's not my place to say," Pepper said. She kept her eyes on Steve, not looking at Natasha. "I'm sorry for his behavior. He has a lot of mixed feelings about those memories. But I know it'd mean a lot for you to be there, Steve. And I think it would do you good as well."
Alexander Pope was suddenly much more fascinating. "I don't think I'd be very good at dancing," he said quietly.
"You never know until you try," Pepper said with a note of pleading in her voice. "If nothing else, talk to Tony. Hear his reasons, and then decide. If you knew..."
Steve didn't want to go dancing or talk to Tony, but he nodded, turning the page in his book to show he'd rather them go back to ignoring him.
"Steve," Pepper tried again.
"Leave him for now," Bruce murmured in a low voice that Steve supposed was pitched low enough that he wouldn't hear. It would have worked if the serum hadn't enhanced his hearing, but Steve pretended not to hear.
"Then we must tell you of the restaurant our good doctor and I found today," Thor said, changing the subject with forced good cheer. "Bruce tells me it is from a place in Midgard called Hong Kong, and this 'milk tea' they serve is superb!"
Steve let the conversation fade into the background, flipping over to the "The Rape of the Lock." Maybe an actual story would keep his interest more.
* * *
The next day was, as predicted, another Bad Day. But the one after that wasn't too bad, and Steve still didn't go to find Tony, even though he knew he should. Instead he read more, put a few hours in at SHIELD to get some paperwork done, and then a few at the gym. He came back and watched a movie from the eighties, picking from The List JARVIS had compiled for him and Thor at random.
"You're watching Goonies and you didn't call me?" Clint said with a betrayed expression as he walked into the living room.
"I... didn't know?" Steve said.
Clint took over the arm chair with a glare, pulling out his phone. Likely, he was texting everyone else to come watch. "It's Goonies. The Truffle Shuffle is culture, Cap. Culture. Thor needs to experience it too!"
When everyone but Tony settled in to watch the movie, Steve knew he needed to do something about this. Rifts in the team needed to be worked out before it became a problem in the field, and Tony could be almost as obstinate as Steve was on the best of days.
At least Goonies was a fun movie. Steve was surprised he enjoyed it as much as he did, and he hid a smile as Clint goaded Bruce into singing the song played during the credits with him. He'd talk to Tony tomorrow. Right now, things were good, and he wasn't ready to rock the boat.
* * *
The next day, Steve stood at the door to Tony's workshop, eying the keypad. He wasn't looking forward to this conversation, but he needed to get it over with. Finally, he took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. He punched in his code, privately relieved that he hadn't been blocked out when the door slid open. "Tony?" he called out as he walked in.
"Over here," Tony said off to the right. He was at the computer desk, appearing casual and relaxed, but Steve could tell the difference between when Tony was faking it now. He was definitely faking it.
It made Steve pause, but he couldn't put off this conversation much longer. He walked over to the desk, pulling over a nearby rolling chair. He sat next to Tony, taking in the schematics on the screen with a sense of wonder that he never lost at seeing Tony's work.
"What's up, Captain?" Tony said, his eyes not leaving the screen as his fingers moved over the keyboard. Then he stopped, pulling out a stylus to fix a detail by hand. His posture was practically screaming at Steve to leave him alone. Steve had to tread carefully.
"I wanted to talk to you," Steve said, bracing for Tony's defensive response that he knew would be coming.
Tony rolled his eyes. "Yup, here we go. God forbid Captain Responsibility lets something go."
Steve counted to ten, absently wondering how Bruce managed to stay calm while dealing with Tony. Even Steve still had problems keeping his temper in check around the man. "Look, about the other day-"
"I'm not apologizing for that," Tony cut in.
"I'm not asking you to," Steve said. Tony turned to watch him warily as Steve thought back to the conversation he'd prepared for this meeting. "I do want to ask why it's so important to you though."
"Pepper set you up to this," Tony said, his eyes turning even more guarded.
"She said it would be better if I heard it from you," Steve replied.
"Yes, she did," Steve snapped, immediately regretting it when he saw Tony's smirk. He took a deep breath. "I'd like to know what's going on, if you don't mind."
"What if I do mind?"
"Tony, what's your problem?" Steve said, losing what little he had of his temper.
"You at the moment."
He was being deliberately cruel, because usually even Tony tried to play nicely so long as Steve made an attempt first. Steve stood up, deciding that he'd had enough. "When you want to act like an adult, come find me," he said.
"Wow. You're worse than dear old Dad," Tony said snidely. "You want to know why? Because I didn't spent half my life being second best to someone who can't move on with his life. She wanted you to dance!"
"And why should I care about whoever the hell 'she' is?" Steve snapped, fury and anger rising up against Tony's words.
Then Steve reeled back, hand going up to his mouth. It came away red. He stared at Tony in shock. Out of all the cutting responses Tony could have made, Steve wasn't expecting a punch.
Tony looked furious and wild under a tightly controlled tension. Abruptly, he turned away, back to his computer screen. His voice, when he spoke, sounded calm. "I'm not apologizing for that either."
"Stark, what are-"
"You were in the middle of leaving. The door's that way," Tony said, not even looking up.
"You're an ass," Steve grit out, very close to throwing a punch of his own.
"Tell me something I don't know," Tony shot back.
Steve left the workshop before he did something he really regretted. He wanted to like Tony, he did. Most days he could manage it. But on days like this, he was five seconds from putting his fist through the wall, and he hated that. He hated that he couldn't be friends with one of his only links to the past. He hated Howard a bit too for not raising Tony with more understanding. And damned if that didn't make him feel guilty for thinking ill of a dead man.
He took a deep breath, wondering where the conversation had gone wrong. Had it been him losing his temper, or Tony pushing this time?
A little bit of both, probably. He really shouldn't have ignored the signs and gone in. Steve rubbed his jaw as he took the elevator. The punch was more of a shock than painful, but Tony had gone too far with that. Way too far.
* * *
When he was calmer, Steve left the punching bags to finish up Robert Louis Stevenson. He put the fight out of his mind and tried not to worry about the dance lessons. The Avengers would be fine without him for this team bonding exercise, even if being left out made something churn in his stomach.
Wednesday turned out to be a good day. He and Tony had been avoiding each other since the fight, but Steve found a movie theater playing some classics, and he dragged Thor to see them. He hadn't even thought about the dance lessons until JARVIS interrupted his reading. "Will you be joining the others tonight for lessons, Captain?" the AI asked, startling Steve out of The Three Musketeers.
He glanced at the clock. "I think I've already missed the car."
"Indeed, Captain. But if you were to take a taxi, you could still make it on time. It would mean a lot to Mr. Stark to see you there."
Great. Now even an AI was trying to get him to dance. He still wasn't feeling too keen on going out of his way for 'Mr. Stark' either. "Why does this matter to him so much?" he asked, running a hand through his hair. "And who is this 'she' who supposedly wants me to dance?"
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say, Captain," JARVIS replied. "However, I can say that she was very important to Mr. Stark, and your words earlier this week were rather ill-chosen."
Steve thought back to the fight, going over his words. And yeah, him saying he didn't care what 'she' thought was probably hurtful, but enough to throw a punch? "There's more to it than that, isn't there?"
"I'm not allowed to confirm or deny further information. Though you did also catch Mr. Stark at a bad time."
Which meant yes. It also meant he had spectacularly bad timing, but that was less of a surprise. He needed to find out who this 'she' was, or this rift between him and Tony was only going to get worse. He'd obviously struck a nerve with that sentence, no matter how bad a mood Tony had been in previously. That thought made him feel a little guilty. He should apologize, even if Tony wouldn't.
He looked at the clock again, then at his book. Tony's words had stung more than he was willing to admit. Was he really not moving on with his life? He was feeling an onset of The Ache, but now there was no one around in the Tower to ground him.
"Are you always on his side, JARVIS?" Steve asked, knowing the AI had won.
"Mr. Stark is so rarely on his own side that someone needs to be," JARVIS replied.
Steve wished he had someone always on his side. With a sigh, Steve changed out of his sweats and into something more appropriate for going out. "Where do I tell the taxi to go, JARVIS?" he asked.
"I have already called a driver and informed him of your destination, Captain."
If Steve didn't know any better, he'd have said the AI sounded smug.
* * *
Steve walked up the stairs rather than taking the elevator. It was only five flights, and if he were honest, he was putting things off a little while longer. But inevitably, he made it to the door. He looked into the brightly lit room that had mirrors covering one wall.
"Is this everyone? I thought there were supposed to be nine of you?" a woman asked. She was very beautiful, just the sort of person Tony would associate with. She had long blond ringlets and a sparkling red tank top that flattered her figure nicely, and black slacks. She wore a bit more makeup than Steve preferred girls to wear, plus some high-heeled shoes that he wondered how she was supposed to dance in. Overall though, she was definitely a striking dame.
There was an older gentleman standing next to her, who looked mildly annoyed and distinguished at the same time. He had a salt-and-pepper beard that reminded Steve a little of Tony, and he wore a dark button-up shirt and slacks. He reminded Steve just a little of a villain, but he couldn't think of any known villains that were part-time dance instructors, so he put it down to watching too many melodramas.
It was Tony with his brightest PR smile and hidden tension in his shoulders that answered her. "Nope. This is all of us," he replied, only a hint of disappointment showing through.
Steve realized with a start that it really was bothering Tony that Steve wasn't there. Now that he thought about it, it probably reflected poorly on Steve that the first time Tony tried to be a team player to organize something for them, Steve had shot him down without a second thought. Plus, there was that mystery woman who was so important to Tony...
Steve took a deep breath, steeling himself for what he was about to do, then walked through the open door. "I'd like to join you, if you don't mind," he said, his voice quieter and more hesitant than he would have liked, and his stomach turning in knots.
Tony's head shot up, regarding him in surprise. "I... sure. Come on in, Cap. Now we're all here, Lizzie."
"Great!" the woman said, clapping her hands together. "Wow! We're like, really giving lessons to the Avengers! That's totally awesome."
"Be still my beating hearts," the man said sarcastically, revealing a surprisingly British accent compared to the woman's.
The woman - Lizzie - elbowed him and he went quiet. "I know some of you, but not everyone. Let's start with introductions! I'm Lizzie, and this is Victor. Don't mind him being grumpy. Him and his boyfriend are on the rocks at the moment."
"Ms. Matthews, that's hardly-"
"So just ignore him while he's sulking." Steve could see why Tony liked her. She was just as tactless as he was. "Now, how 'bout everyone else?"
"Natasha Romanov, Clint Barton," Natasha said, pushing a moody-looking Clint forward. If Steve were a betting man, he'd say Natasha used some of those incriminating photos from the stash she kept threatening to pull out during arguments at the Tower. He was pretty sure she had somehow managed to get a hold of some baby pictures.
"I am Thor Odinson, and this is Dr. Jane Foster and her assistant Darcy Lewis," Thor said, taking great pride in Jane's title.
"Dr. Selvig couldn't make it out to New York," Jane said apologetically.
"And this is Bruce Banner, who is awesome with science and has some anger management problems," Tony said with his usual lack of tact. Bruce just rolled his eyes as Tony went on. "And you already know me and Pepper. Everyone knows me and Pepper."
All eyes went to Steve, and he fidgeted, uncomfortable with the sudden attention, even if he knew almost everyone here already. "Steve Rogers," he said, as if the world didn't also already know his name.
Lizzie gave him an engaging smile, then pulled Steve further into the room. "Let's get started then! Men on the right, ladies on the left!"
Tony didn't look at him as Lizzie and Victor taught the basic step, but the tension in his shoulders was gone. So Steve focused on learning the six count movement and not stepping on his own feet.
His anxiety spiked when Victor said to partner up. What if he stepped on the girl's toes? "Come on, Cap," Darcy said, patting his bicep and lingering just a second too long. "You're mine tonight."
"Hate to break it to you, Darce, but classes like these mean you rotate partners," Jane said, laughing at Darcy's look of dismay.
"You probably don't want to be my partner the whole night anyway," Steve mumbled, looking down at his feet. They felt so clumsy, and he wasn't even moving. He wished this were as easy as fighting was.
Darcy gave him the 'You're so precious, I want to take a bite out of you' look, and Steve decided that rotation was a very good thing.
"Men, step back on your left foot! Ladies, forward on your right!" Lizzie reminded them as Steve took Darcy's right hand. He hoped his own hand wasn't clammy enough for Darcy to notice. He kept his eyes down on his feet as Lizzie started to count. "Five. Six. Five, six, seven, eight!"
Steve stepped back, forcing himself to remember what Victor had showed them. It... wasn't too bad, really. Six steps with his feet, and the sugar push with his hands on count four. Darcy came closer, then moved away like she was supposed to, and it looked like the move was supposed to. At least, Steve assumed it looked right. He still hadn't looked up.
"Eyes up here, soldier," Natasha said when the women switched partners.
"I don't want to step on your feet," he said with a sigh.
"I'll let you know if you do," Natasha said. "With retaliation, of course. But if you keep looking down, I'll get proactive."
"You shouldn't be a bully," Steve said with disapproval, but he kept his eyes on Natasha's and she gave him a smile for his efforts.
To his surprise, dancing wasn't all that hard. He got flustered a few times (especially with Darcy), and nearly stepped on Pepper once when the music was too fast, but it was actually kind of nice. The Ache was gone for the moment, and the anxiety left him.
They learned four moves before Lizzie put on music and let them have the dance floor. Steve took one of the chairs by the wall as Tony asked Natasha to dance. He watched Darcy drag Bruce out to the dance floor as well, smiling as Bruce laughed nervously. This might be a good team bonding exercise after all. Even the sullen Clint was coaxed out by Pepper.
As the song ended, the dance instructor walked up to him, hands on her hips. "Okay, you. You're spending too much time over here looking depressed. Time to show me what you've learned," she said with a wink.
"I still don't know enough to-" Steve started.
"You can't say no when a girl asks," Lizzie interrupted. "It's the law. Besides, look at me. Am I smiling?"
Steve looked up at her. She was smiling brilliantly, which only made him falter and stumble over his words. "I-I guess you... I mean, you are."
"As long as the girl is smiling, she's having fun. And if she's having fun, then you're doing something right. So dance with me," Lizzie said, as if this were the most logical thing in the world.
"Yes, Ma'am," Steve said, taking the hand she offered as she pulled him across the dance floor. When they were in position, Steve took a deep breath and counted down in his head. He'd danced with her a few times during the class since they were one girl short in the line-up, but this was different. This wasn't practice. This was...
This was dancing.
Steve nearly froze, but he forced his muscles to keep going. "You need to loosen up. Especially your arms," Lizzie said thoughtfully. She was still smiling though, and Steve was just a little grateful. He could see why Tony thought Bruce wouldn't have problems with frustration. It was hard to be frustrated when you had a smile like that directed at you.
"But Victor said we have to have a firm lead," Steve said uncertainly. "If my arm is loose, how do I do that?" Victor had been very insistent that the guys had to be clear on their leads. He sounded like he spoke from experience.
"You do want like, a firm lead, but not a rigid one," Lizzie said as he led her through a right side pass. "You're in control, but you have to give the girl some wiggle room too. You'll totally be tugging her around like a rag doll otherwise, and no girl likes that. You gotta be like Goldilocks. Not too firm, but not too loose. You want it just right."
Steve thought about that, then forced his shoulders down. He pulled Lizzie forward, but relaxed his arm, like he was going through drills with his shield. "There you go," Lizzie said, the smile twinkling in her eyes. "See? Captain American can totally dance!"
Steve gave her a hesitant smile in return. He wondered what Peggy would think, if she could see him now. He'd have liked to dance with her, because now he was back to waiting for the right partner again. It felt a little like betrayal, dancing with someone else. If he didn't think too hard, he could almost imagine that Lizzie was Peggy instead, with her red lipstick and short hair.
"Thank you for the dance," she said at the end of the song as he led her off the dance floor.
"I should be thanking you. Sorry I wasn't much of a dance partner," Steve said around the lump in his throat. He didn't meet her eyes, wondering what it would have been like if Peggy had had the chance to teach him. At least he was learning now. Better late than never, right?
He couldn't stay in the ice forever.
"It'll get better," Lizzie replied. "It feels like you have a lot to learn and you'll never get there, but it does..." She looked back at Victor who was scowling at Tony, her smile becoming more introspective and just a little sad. "It does get better eventually. And having friends can make up for things while it's still rough. It might not be much of a difference at first, but it adds up. Trust me on that."
"I... I'll think about it," Steve said, and she gave him one last smile before leaving to go steal Thor from Jane.
Steve sat back in his chair, wishing he'd brought his book or sketchbook with him. He stiffened when Tony slid into the chair beside him, knowing this might turn ugly. "Cap..."
"Tony," Steve said, glad his voice was even.
"Look, I know this wasn't easy," Tony started, looking uncomfortable. "But thank you for coming."
Steve felt his mouth fall open. Tony was thanking him? Steve had thought the other man was still angry, given how he'd been ignored the rest of the night. Not to mention being thanked by Tony was a rare enough thing to begin with.
"Anyway, I should go... dance with Jane. Jane looks lonely without Thor, right? Can't leave a science bro out of the loop, so I'll just-"
Tony moved to stand, but Steve grabbed hold of his sleeve. "Wait..." he said, gathering his thoughts. What was it Lizzie said? Leaders had to be firm, not rigid, and give their partner room to maneuver as well. He thought back to how many times Tony had told him to ease up off the stick up his ass and other variants, and Steve wondered if he hadn't been too rigid. "Can we... Do you want to go to lunch tomorrow?"
Tony's eyes looked guarded. "Why?"
"To talk," Steve replied.
"What about? I'm not up for more lectures on team building, Cap." Steve could see in Tony's eyes what he didn't want to say. The dismissive tone was meant to push Steve away, protect whatever Tony felt made him vulnerable. And Steve wanted more than anything to ask about the reason for this whole mess, but demanding to know now, that was too personal. He had to start slowly. Slow, but firm.
"Not a lecture," Steve promised. "Or anything in particular. Just... talk."
Tony lost the wariness in his stance. Now he just looked confused. "I... sure? Why not? See you at lunch then."
Steve nodded, and Tony went up to Jane, saying something about science and dancing. Steve let out the breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
* * *
At lunch the next day, Steve didn't push. Tony had been slightly suspicious at first, but Steve asked about work and the armor's repair, which Tony was only too happy to talk about. When Steve didn't press into more personal matters, Tony asked about Steve's drawings, and Steve showed him a few of his sketches. Tony got a laugh out of the one of Clint chained to the disco ball that had been hung up at the studio.
The lunch went well, overall, and Tony seemed just as surprised as Steve. They'd gotten curt with each other a few times, but once Steve started to step back and let it go, Tony made more of an effort to hold back the cutting remarks. It wasn't until the next day when they were fighting a group of flying horses that things started to change though.
"Iron Man, keep your position! Stick to the plan," Steve yelled as he held his shield to block a dark mare with jagged teeth. The teeth were dripping red, and Steve didn't let himself think about whose blood it was.
"Yeah, no. I can finish this," Tony said, already veering from the course. "And it's way faster than Captain Slow Poke's plan, so if you'll-"
"Then do it," Steve said, gritting back the urge to yell at Tony. A leader had to give his partner room to maneuver, he reminded himself.
"What?" The voice modulator in the Iron Man suit didn't cover Tony's bafflement.
"Put your money where your mouth is, Iron Man. No civilian casualties, no more property damage than you have to, and Hawkeye, cover Widow's six while Iron Man is gone."
"Copy that," Clint replied as Steve rolled to avoid getting trampled.
"Take your shot, Tony," Steve said, trying to put the worry out of his mind so he could focus on the fight.
"Uh, sure," Tony said, heading right into the thick of it.
"Be careful," Steve added as he held his shield up to block a set of deadly hooves.
"Yes, mother," Tony said, sounding more like his usual snarky self. "These night-mares won't know what hit them."
"Stark, I will hit you if you don't keep your terrible puns off the com," Natasha said calmly. Steve couldn't see her, but she sounded a little out of breath.
"Oh, get off your high horse. You know you love them." Steve could hear the smirk in Tony's voice, but he didn't get to hear Natasha's reply. He got knocked back as one of the horses spread its wings. He wondered when he let not trusting Tony become a habit. Whenever Bucky or the other Howling Commandos needed to change the plan, he let them. Even the other Avengers got to call out changes. But Tony, he always berated and yelled at.
Steve wondered if it was because they had waited a few missions to get used to him, whereas Tony jumped into the fight with no holds barred. Steve got in the habit of yelling instead of listening, especially since Tony didn't always have a lot of respect when he made a call.
That was pretty unfair, even if Tony was refusing to keep him in the loop or was insulting him. When the fight was over and the last of the winged horses were corralled, Steve was dealing with the police while Iron Man landed not too far off. The face plate was up, and he could see a calculating look in Tony's eyes when he glanced Steve's way.
"Good job, Tony," Steve said, ignoring the desire to take Tony to task for what he'd said on the comms. "Next time, let me know about the change of plan?"
"Sure thing, Cap," Tony said, like he was wondering when the lecture would start.
Steve felt ashamed, realizing just how long he had let this go on if Tony was conditioned to act like this. The start of the solution had been so easy. It wasn't solved, probably not by a long shot, but it was a start, and one that Steve could have made a long time ago if he hadn't been so stubborn and insistent that he was right.
He looked away, telling the police chief which buildings needed a crew to check the structural integrity before allowing civilians back in. When he'd finished, Thor approached him with a wide grin. "It is good to see you and our Shieldbrother getting along," Thor said with a clap on Steve's shoulder.
"I don't know if we're there yet," Steve admitted. "But I think we're finally starting to be. I just wish it hasn't taken me this long to see that."
"Sometimes time is what is needed," Thor said, looking off in the distance with a sorrowful expression on his face.
Steve wondered if he was seeing Loki. To be honest, Steve and Time weren't on the best of terms either, but he didn't like seeing Thor that sad. "Maybe," Steve said, earning him a smile and a hug from Thor.
Thor really did give the best hugs.
* * *
"Today we're working on our connection," Victor said as they filtered in. Steve wasn't sure why he'd come back for another lesson, but JARVIS interrupted his workout suggesting he should get ready if he wished to catch the car with the others this time. Somehow he'd ended up here again before he realized what he was doing. He suspected JARVIS was doing something to his coffee in the morning, but couldn't think of what would affect the serum for that long. Still, it had to be the only explanation that made sense. As the saying went, when you have eliminated the impossible...
"A weak connection means that you can't lead," Victor continued, interrupting Steve's musings. "You'll give confusing or conflicting leads and your follower won't know what to do."
"Likewise, ladies, if you don't have, like, a solid connection on your end, you'll miss a lead and step on your partner's toes," Lizzie added.
"Among other things," Victor said darkly. He got a consolatory pat from Lizzie.
"Anyway, that's totally a bad thing since we're wearing heels," Lizzie said. "So guys, line up. Ladies, pick a guy."
Steve was surprised to find Pepper in front of him this time. He'd have thought she would have gone to Tony. She must have seen the confusion on his face, because Pepper shrugged. "You get used to being pretty fluid with dance partners," she said. "When you social dance, it's pretty casual. You don't just stick with one guy, and I always knew who I was going home with. Besides, more partners mean you learn more and become a better dancer, rather than just learning one partner's tricks."
Steve nodded, even if he wasn't sure what to make of this policy. He'd told Peggy he'd been waiting for the right partner, but what Pepper said made sense as well, even if it didn't quite sit right with Steve. And she and Tony were broken up anyway, so it wasn't like she had an obligation to dance with Tony. It wasn't her fault Steve was just having problems wrapping his mind around it.
"Now, take your partner's hand and lean back," Victor said. "Put yourself off center, so that your partner is keeping your balance. Let them anchor you in place."
Steve looked at Pepper with a question he couldn't quite voice, not knowing how she'd take it. She laughed instead of being offended, which Steve was quietly relieved about. "It's alright, Steve. Just don't put all your weight on it. Lean back a little, but don't try to pull me over."
Steve leaned back carefully as Pepper did, feeling their joined hands pull taunt, but not uncomfortably so. It felt solid and steady. He could probably catch himself if Pepper let go, but the fact that she had him was comforting. He hadn't had a lot of steady and solid in his life recently.
"Feel the connection? With that strength, even a small movement is easy to follow like this," Lizzie said. "Now, switch from a V to an A position, and lean against each other."
As Victor walked around the room to check their positions, Pepper smiled at him. "I wanted to thank you," she said quietly.
"What for?" Steve asked.
"For giving Tony another chance recently," she replied. "I know he's hard to deal with, and you'll have to take the first step with everything because he won't back down first. But he's worth it. And he'd never admit this, but he really appreciates that you're trying."
Steve felt his cheeks heat and he ducked his head. "I didn't do much. And it took me longer than it should have to start."
"It's enough," she said. "Thank you."
"A solid connection means less fighting over what move comes next," Lizzie said. "Ambiguity totally kills a good dance move. It's like talking to each other in a relationship. If you don't have a solid foundation and connection, the communication falls apart."
Victor scowled at her, but Steve was struck by the words. "When did dancing start to feel like a life lesson?" he asked.
Pepper laughed again, and Steve decided he liked to hear that sound. Especially since he had caused it, even if he hadn't meant it as a joke. He hadn't had someone he wanted to make laugh in a while, but the Avengers seemed to be getting there. "When Victor and his boyfriend are having a spat," she replied with a wink.
At least Steve wasn't the only one with connection problems.
* * *
Lunch with Tony became a somewhat regular thing. It wasn't set on a certain day or time, but every few days Steve would ask and Tony usually said yes, so long as he had no other business commitments. It was getting easier to talk to Tony, and Steve couldn't help but wonder what things would have been like if they had done this from the start.
"When did you learn to dance?" Steve asked one day as he munched on his french fries.
Tony had an introspective look on his face as he answered. "Must have been seven or eight when my mother started me on ballroom."
"That's really young." At that age, Steve was barely let out of bed because of his health problems and watching Fred Astaire had been the best he could do. The thought of learning all of those dances from such a young age was a little daunting.
Tony merely shrugged. "Not as young as some. It made my mother happy, and Dad hated it, so I didn't mind the lessons that much."
Steve didn't rise to the bait, even though he wanted to. The subject of Howard would probably always be a touchy subject with them. "Your mother liked to dance?" he said instead.
That was the right move, to let the mention of Howard slide. He could see the relief in Tony's eyes, and Steve realized it had been a test to see if he could talk without censor. Tony and the word 'censor' didn't go well together in the first place. Steve hoped that meant he was loosening up, that Tony could say things he meant, even if Steve didn't always like them.
"She did," Tony said, a sort of melancholy smile lifting the sides of his lips. "Sometimes, she would put music on in the ballroom and tell me to practice with her, even though I was too short to really lead her properly and she ended up doing most of the work. It was..."
"Tony?" Steve asked when the other man trailed off.
Tony shook his head and shrugged, hiding behind a mask of indifference. "It was one of the few times I remember her being happy," he said nonchalantly, as if it meant nothing to him.
Steve's first reaction was to get angry. He wanted to shake Tony and ask how he could be so casual about something like that. But the image of that melancholy smile stopped him from starting a fight. He forced himself to see things from Tony's point of view, of having to hide the important things from the press and paparazzi for all these years. But Tony hadn't been guarded just moments before. He'd just been Tony.
An unexpected hurt replaced the anger. Tony had been willing to let his guard down a little, but the moment Steve had spoken and reminded the genius of his presence, the walls had come back up. Didn't he trust Steve?
Of course Tony didn't, Steve reminded himself firmly. He still didn't have much reason to. He and Tony were still trying to find a common ground for their foundation, and this kind of trust would take longer. Especially with someone like Tony, whose file was far from lacking in descriptions of his trust issues and the reasons for them. Steve was just going to have to take things slow and work harder.
It was a very good thing Steve was stubborn.
"She must have been a beautiful dancer," Steve said after a moment, wondering if Maria Stark was the 'she' Tony had referred to at the start of the dance lessons. He couldn't for the life of him think of why Tony's mother would want him to dance though. He'd never met the woman.
Tony's defenses softened, though they didn't come back down completely. "Yeah, she was," he said, stealing one of the tomatoes Steve had set aside for him. Tony was strange like that, only accepting something not offered directly. Steve felt like he was beginning to understand though, and that was a step on the right foot.
* * *
The next Wednesday was a Bad Day. It was made worse by what he knew would be a fall out over the dance lessons and having an evening in the Tower without anyone else around. His friendship with Tony was still fragile, and he didn't want to rock that either. He didn't think he had it in him to dance though, when that would probably make things worse. The last thing he wanted to do was have Tony cancel the lesson as well, since aside from Clint's perpetual grumbling the others really did seem to enjoy it.
Speaking of Tony, the billionaire walked into the living room, taking in Steve's sweat pants that he only ever wore around the Tower and his book. Steve braced himself, anxiety spiking at what he knew was going to be a fight.
But Tony didn't say anything. Instead he grabbed his tablet and sat in the armchair as he worked, his mouth pressed into a firm line that wasn't quite anger. Steve felt some of the anxiety loosen its hold on him. Maybe this wouldn't be such a big deal after all. He was even trying a new book today, rather than a familiar one, something written after his time. A Wrinkle in Time was supposed to be a book for children, but he found the creativity in it refreshing and interesting even if the word 'tesser' had some other connotations he didn't like to think about.
He'd never even heard of the book or the few others that had started to appear in his room, but he was fairly certain the source was sitting across from him. One day, Steve was going to have to thank Tony, but for now, he kept his eyes down.
At five, Tony stood up, brushing the imaginary specks of dust off his suit. Steve felt his stomach churn, and Tony came over to him, eying him intently. So much for his hopes that this wouldn't be a big deal.
"Come on, Cap. Time to get dressed for dancing. Don't want to be late," Tony said, tugging on Steve's arm.
Steve didn't budge or look up from his book. "I don't think-"
"What, you want to stay here in the empty Tower all night? Christ, that's depressing. No," Tony said firmly. "Bring your book if you want, but you're coming out with the rest of us."
Steve heard what Tony didn't say. 'Don't be an idiot, being by yourself makes it worse. You don't have to dance, but we're not letting you be alone.' The words came through loud and clear, no matter that they weren't spoken. Steve felt his throat constrict as the meaning hit home. He closed his eyes and took a shuddery breath.
"Come on, Steve," Tony said gently, as if he wasn't asking Steve to do one of the hardest things he knew. "Go get changed. We'll be waiting downstairs, okay?"
Steve nodded, and Tony let go of his arm. It wasn't until Tony left the room that Steve stood up himself. He could do this, right? It was just moving to a new location. A location with music and people dancing, who would know not to talk to Steve when he got like this. That didn't mean the move wouldn't be hard, but he never let that stop him from getting out of bed, now did he?
Steve changed into a pair of slacks and a nice shirt, splashing some water on his face. He was surprised to find that he felt a little better for the change. He couldn't pinpoint why exactly, but maybe getting out helped. It was still hard to keep going, but it helped.
He clutched at his book when he went down to meet the others. They greeted him, then went back to their own conversations. When Steve sat down to bury himself in the fantastical worlds the children visited, he was surprised to find a hand squeezing his shoulder. He looked up to see Tony carrying on a conversation with Jane and Bruce, not even looking at Steve. But his hand stayed on Steve's shoulder until they all had to pile into the car to go to the studio, and it felt warm.
* * *
Two weeks later, Jane got the flu. Lizzie looked at the hole in their lines with a frown. "Jane doesn't want to sneeze on the non-super humans," Darcy told her. "She totally should have though. Clint deserves it."
"I deserve an excuse not to come," Clint said, wincing at Natasha's elbow, which had found its way into his side.
"Tony!" Lizzie called after hmming at Darcy's words.
"What do you need, sugarplum?"
"You're a girl tonight." Lizzie stepped out of the line, motioning to Bruce who had been her partner.
"What?" Tony said, his face falling. "No. Come on. Make someone else be the girl this time. Please?"
Victor glared. "Anthony," he said in a hypnotic tone that booked no argument. "You will be a follower tonight."
Tony stiffened. "Yeah, yeah. I'll follow," he said, muttering darkly under his breath as he sauntered up to Bruce.
"Dude," Clint said from beside Steve. "What dirt does he have on Tony? Because that shit is worth knowing."
"Don't worry, Clint," Lizzie said mischievously. "You'll all be switching places soon, so you'll have your chance to follow as well."
Clint groaned, flipping Tony off after receiving a cheeky grin from the genius.
Pepper, who had been Tony's partner, came down to Steve who had been lacking a partner. "Don't worry, Steve," she said with a smile. "He puts on a show, but Tony likes showing off with both parts. I think he likes predicting the leader's movements too."
"You sure?" Steve asked, looking at Tony who was pouting at an unsympathetic Bruce.
"Positive," Pepper said. "He definitely never complained when I took the lead."
Steve couldn't decide if that was way more information than he wanted about Tony and Pepper's past relationship, or if that was a detail he should file away for later. The latter was troubling, and Steve decided not to think about it too hard.
Steve kept watching Tony despite the fact he was supposed to be learning the starter steps and closed position. Tony really did seem to be enjoying himself, mostly if just to show off extra moves and make Clint and Bruce uncomfortable. Thor just laughed at his antics, playing it up as well. Steve wasn't quite sure what to do dancing with Tony. Tony was flashy, but Steve just followed the teacher's instructions.
"We don't have to do what they say, ya know," Tony told him.
"I have to practice the move," Steve said stubbornly. He was getting a little flustered, and he didn't want to think of why.
"Please, like you didn't have it memorized after the first time," Tony said, waving his free hand. "It's a breeze for an eidetic memory."
"Not for muscle memory," Steve replied. Tony sighed and rolled his eyes, which should have made Steve angry. Would have, in fact, had this exchange happened a few weeks ago. But for some reason Steve didn't quite understand, he was grinning back.
"Fine, whatever," Tony said, but he was smiling as well. "Play by the rules. I'll corrupt you yet!"
That startled a laugh out of Steve, gaining a few curious looks and knowing smiles from the others. "If you say so, Tony," Steve said, ignoring the others' attention.
When the class ended and the dancing started, Steve took his usual chair and watched Lizzie and Tony dance. They kept stealing the lead from each other, and Steve was surprised to find his fingers itching for his sketchbook.
"I never would have thought dancing would be something Tony would enjoy so much," Bruce said, coming to sit by him.
"Music is just numbers and beats," Steve replied, having asked the same question at one of their lunches.
Bruce nodded, smiling softly as Tony laughed, his hips swaying suggestively. "It's also soothing. I forget sometimes that he works best with music."
Soothing? "So the Hulk..." Steve said, surprised by the admission.
"I think he likes dancing too," Bruce replied. "He also likes seeing his friends relaxed and happy."
"If that's true, you could try inviting Betty," Steve suggested carefully.
"I don't think..."
"We like seeing our friends relaxed and happy too," Steve said, feeling the word 'friend' slip through his mouth with surprising ease. It startled him a little, because he couldn't say exactly when this changed. At some point, the Avengers stopped being colleagues and started being family, without him really realizing that it had happened.
Really, it started when they learned how to deal with Steve's Bad Days and made sure to stay in the common areas. He should have seen it a while ago, but the Bad Days always did cloud his judgement a little.
"Yeah?" Bruce asked, looking open and vulnerable, nothing like the guarded man whom Steve had met on the Helicarrier.
"Yeah," Steve replied firmly, offering Bruce a smile and a hand on his shoulder.
"I'll... I'll think about it," Bruce said.
Tony, by this point, was in some sort of dance battle with Victor as they both fought over Darcy. He watched as Victor smugly stole Darcy's hand and pushed Tony aside, while Tony calculated his next chance to take back the lead. Darcy, for her part, was soaking up the attention while Clint narrated from the peanut gallery. The Hulk had a point. It really was nice, seeing all of them together like this.
* * *
"Come on, Cap," Clint said gleefully two weeks later. "There's something special happening tonight."
"What's that?" Steve asked, looking up from Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie. He wasn't quite ready to leave yet, even though he knew Tony would come down and drag him out eventually. He definitely wasn't dancing tonight, and the thought made The Ache grow stronger at the thought. He was really starting to enjoy it, despite himself. Just... not tonight. Besides, out of all the Avengers, Clint was generally the least willing, so him coming down didn't make sense.
"Betty's in town and guess which big green fighting machine asked her to stop by?"
Steve felt The Ache lose some of its hold on him at the news. "Really? That's great."
"About time too," Clint said. He still put on a show about not wanting to go to the lessons, but he seemed excited about tonight. "Go get your dancing shoes, Cap. We've got all night to heckle the lovebirds."
"Be nice," Steve admonished, closing his book.
Even though it was a Bad Day, Steve was able to take part in the class that night. It wasn't easy, but seeing Bruce blushing shyly and stuttering as he introduced Betty was worth the effort it had taken. It was Steve's obligation to the team and his friends, but for once, it wasn't suffocating him. It was worth it. He was starting to think Lizzie had been right. It didn't seem like much at the start, but having friends made the little things start to add up.
* * *
Steve stared at the door to the workshop, a tray of food in his hands as he wondered about his welcome. He hadn't seen Tony in a day or two, and when he asked JARVIS to relay a request for getting lunch together, he got no response. It was now dinner time, but Tony still hadn't come out.
While Steve knew that Tony had a kitchen down there (which Tony used like the comfort eater he was), part of Steve was just a little worried. So he ordered pizza, set up a tray with a couple of sodas (Tony would have whiskey down there already if he wanted a shot to go with his) and some napkins. That settled, he went down to the workshop, only to stare at the door.
"Is this a good idea, JARVIS?" he asked hesitantly. Because if Tony wanted company, he would have come out by now. Or at least he would have mentioned he was busy when Steve asked JARVIS. JARVIS's response that Tony wasn't available wasn't comforting.
"It's probably not, Captain Rogers," the AI replied. "But it appears to be one of the better outcomes according to my calculations."
"Is something wrong?"
"I am not at liberty to say," JARVIS said. "But if you are willing to try, the door will open for you, Captain."
Well, that wasn't cryptic at all. Still, his mother had taught him manners. "Thanks, JARVIS."
He put in his code, surprised to hear nothing but silence greeting him. The feeling of dread grew as he put down the tray and he saw that the workshop was a mess. There were burn marks from what looked like Tony's repulsors all over, and paperwork and parts littered everywhere. It was only the fact that JARVIS would have told the Avengers if there was an attack that Steve didn't raise the alarm himself. He was unwilling to break the silence, however, so he looked around, hoping to catch sight of Tony and get an idea of what this was all about. It wasn't until he saw Dummy in the corner that he noticed Tony was curled up on the ground next to the robot. He wasn't hiding, but he was out of view of most of the workshop.
At first, Steve panicked. Something was wrong and he didn't know how to handle this kind of wrong. Except he did. He really did. Because Tony wasn't crying or shaking like this was an anxiety attack. He was curled up in a ball, misery rolling off him in waves.
Tony was having a Bad Day, and Steve had plenty of experience with those.
A connection, Steve thought. That was what Tony needed. An anchor to keep him from moving too far away. Steve didn't rush forward, but moved quietly until he was sitting by Tony's side.
"Go away," Tony said, his voice muffled behind his knees. He wore one of the Iron Man gauntlets on one hand, and Steve looked over at the burn marks again. What could cause Tony to be this destructive?
Steve didn't follow that order. "Bad Day?" he asked instead, scooting closer so that he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Tony.
He didn't receive an answer. But then, he didn't need one, given the evidence. Tony was always in the room with Steve for his Bad Days whenever he wasn't at work, even if Tony was only sitting there with his tablet. That was before they'd even become friends, and it shamed Steve a little that he'd never noticed just how frequently Tony turned up. Steve also suspected Tony called the others in if he did have to leave. To return the favor was no hardship, even if Tony looked like it had been a day or two since he showered. Steve had seen and been through worse on the front lines.
He sat there, waiting for Tony to speak for an hour according to his internal clock. When Tony uncurled and rested his head against Steve's shoulder, Steve only acknowledged it by briefly resting his cheek against Tony's unruly hair.
"Life sucks," Tony said finally, a small shudder going through his body.
"Tell me about it," Steve replied, not really expecting an actual response.
He was very surprised when Tony answered him. "Obie's dead," he said blankly. "And I killed him."
Steve pulled up a mental image of Tony's file, searching for anything that would fit. Obie... Obidiah Stane? That was the man who had put out the hit on Tony, the previous CEO of Stark Industries. He cross checked the dates in his head, finding that today marked the anniversary of his death.
"He was the bad guy, right?" Steve said after Tony had fallen silent.
"He was a better father than Howard," Tony stated. He paused, then added, "Well, up 'til the fact he sold weapons on the black market, betrayed me, and tried to kill me. That was pretty crappy."
Steve flinched at Tony's words. The man who tried to have Tony murdered was a better parent than Howard? Steve forced himself to be calm, see things from Tony's perspective. Tony had known Stane for most of his life, according to his file. Stane must have stepped up to fill the vacuum Howard had left.
"Sometimes, I wonder if he'd always been after the money, or if he actually did care," Tony continued absently, as if he'd forgotten Steve was there despite curling closer against Steve's side.
There was an ache settling over Steve's shoulders. It wasn't like The Ache, but it was close. Different, in that it wasn't overwhelming. But it was strong, and part of him wanted to find a time machine to go back and take care of Stane personally, if just to spare Tony that death on his conscience. A bigger part just wanted to pull Tony into a hug and not let him go, but he didn't know how far to push Tony's boundaries at the moment.
"You still love him though," Steve said quietly. He heard a whirl and click from Dummy as the black arm lowered itself into Tony's lap, giving him something more to hold on to. Steve smiled at the bot, amazed all over again by the things Tony managed to create. Tony had a lot of love to give the world, except it kept spitting it back at him, and that made the new ache grow just a little.
"I don't," Tony said, but it lacked conviction. "He sold weapons behind my back, killed innocent people, and tried to kill me and Pepper. If he hadn't paid the Ten Rings to take me, Yinsen would be..."
Tony choked on the name, taking an unsteady breath. Steve didn't remember anything about a Yinsen in Tony's file, but he didn't interrupt to ask for clarification. Tony gave it to him anyway. "They brought him in to operate on me and killed his family in the process. He died when I tried to escape. That shouldn't have happened, not just because Obie wanted me dead."
For the first time there was more than blankness in Tony's voice. There was anger and raw pain that Steve wished he knew how to soothe. But when Tony spoke again, it was back to detachment, as if he couldn't handle the other emotions for too long without breaking apart. "I've only ever told Rhodey about Yinsen. He went back to look for a body, but the Ten Rings had already cleared everything out by then. I couldn't even give him a proper funeral.
"So I don't still love Obie. Because I shouldn't," Tony finished, stating it as if it were really that simple. Considering the state Tony was in, Steve didn't believe him.
"Thor still calls Loki his brother," Steve said, trying to sound normal despite the lump in his throat. "Are you saying he shouldn't love Loki either?"
"I don't know," Tony said with a heartbreaking amount of vulnerability. "I don't... I miss him, and that is all kinds of fucked up after what he did, but I can't..."
"It's okay," Steve said, soothingly. "It's not wrong to miss him, Tony. It's not wrong to love him still. He should never have done that to you, but you got yourself out. That's what matters. That doesn't mean you have to stop feeling."
"I can't..." Tony repeated, burying his face against Steve's shoulder. "I can't deal with this, Steve. Not right now. I can't..."
"I brought pizza," Steve said. "It probably has to be heated up, but we can eat. Then we can watch a movie and see if any of the others are around. Or it can just be you and me, if you'd rather."
He let his words sink in for Tony as the genius took shuddering breaths. Steve ran his hand through Tony's dark, greasy hair, wondering how it would feel if it were clean. "You don't have to do this on your own, Tony," Steve said. "We'll even help you clean up down here."
"Even Clint?" Tony said, sounding a little bit like his usual self.
Steve chuckled. "Even Clint. So what do you say?"
"It sounds good, Cap," Tony said quietly, but he didn't move from Steve's shoulder. And that was okay. Steve could wait as long as Tony needed, as long as this connection could go both ways.
* * *
Nothing overtly changed between them after that. Tony was still a bit of an ass, still pushing buttons, and Steve was still just a little too stubborn in refusing to let go of some things. But Steve started to catch unguarded smiles, and it might be his imagination, but Tony was a little more tactile. He lingered a fraction of a second longer when their hands brushed or when he pat Steve on the arm. Sometimes, Tony would stand just close enough that their shoulders bumped, and Steve would admit to himself that he liked these brief bursts of physical affection.
His mind kept returning to the question of 'she' though. He'd never forgotten the fight, and Tony still looked pleased whenever he caught Steve out on the dance floor. Not smug either, but a genuine smile that softened his features and brightened his dark brown eyes. Part of that, Steve was sure, was because Steve was starting to have less Bad Days. But another part of that smile wasn't wholly Steve's, and he wasn't sure he liked that without knowing who it belonged to. He couldn't help wondering every time he saw it, and he was pretty sure it wasn't Tony's mother by this point. He wondered if Tony trusted him enough for Steve to ask, or if he needed more time.
"When you social dance, you have to look out for your partner," Lizzie said one night. "Odds are at some point you'll end up on a crowded dance floor, and being thrown out into someone isn't fun, trust me."
"Or being thrown into someone's elbow," Victor muttered darkly, receiving his usual pat from Lizzie at the words. The man looked a little happier than usual though, so Steve took it as a good sign about Victor's mysterious boyfriend.
"Your partner needs to be able to trust and rely on you," Lizzie continued. "Thankfully though, most cases you'll just get a laugh if you mess things up. A few mistakes are natural, but too many and your partner constantly has to be looking over your shoulder for you, instead of having fun with the dance. Trust is what will change a good dance into a fantastic one."
A leader they can trust. Steve mulled over that as he spun Jane around in for an outside turn. Steve wondered if he'd earned that with the other Avengers. In the field, he doubted they could laugh off his mistakes. And Tony had never brought up this mysterious 'she' in any of their conversations so far. He wasn't sure if that was a lack of trust or something else entirely.
Steve was just going to have to keep trying harder.
* * *
Steve wasn't aware something was wrong until Natasha used Tony's given name on the field. Natasha was always very professional when it came to missions, and everyone became their code names or surnames. Steve wondered if it was to distance herself, or because she had no clear idea where 'Natasha' started and 'Black Widow' ended, a fact that bothered her more than she let on. It was a way to keep them separate, so she could be herself when they were relaxing back at the Tower, even when she was still searching for who she was in her off hours.
But when Natasha yelled "Tony!" instead of 'Stark' or 'Iron Man,' Steve felt fear in his gut. "Status," he forced himself to say as he ran through the halls of the Maggia stronghold.
The Maggia had stolen some of Tony's tech, and the team had offered to help him destroy it or take it back. Steve steadfastly ignored The Ache and the Bad Day he woke up with, because Tony needed help and evil didn't wait for depression to get better. It was hard, but not the first time Steve had forced himself through a mission. But if the Maggia was advanced enough to steal Tony's tech, Iron Man could be vulnerable as well, and Steve cursed himself for not thinking of this earlier. He couldn't afford The Ache to cloud his thinking and get his friends hurt.
"Tony's down," Natasha said curtly. "There was an EMP, but the suit also looks totaled. I'm trying to get him to - damn it."
"Widow, report!" Steve demanded.
"The Maggia's thugs found us. Back up would be appreciated."
Steve was too far from their position, being two floors down. "Is anyone close?" he asked as he took out a few of the scientists who tried to power up one of the experimental weapons.
"The way's blocked from this end," Clint said with a hint of frustration and worry slipping through his cool facade. "I don't want to chance explosive arrows and bring the rest of the building down."
Thor chimed in after. "I have found the stolen weapons. It appears the blueprints they stole for this 'Jericho' missile are more complete than our Shieldbrother feared. I cannot leave it unguarded."
Steve heard the Hulk roar even out side of the comms, and the sound was blind frustrated rage. Steve assumed that meant he couldn't get through either.
"Coming," Steve grit out, changing his course. He was supposed to be going after the head of the family, but he couldn't afford to lose two teammates. "Widow, hold on. Hawkeye, Hulk, take over finding the leaders of this operation."
"Copy that, Cap," Clint said. Natasha merely grunted and Steve couldn't tell if that was a grunt of pain or agreement. He took out his frustration on a door that was blocking his way.
"Watch out," Natasha gasped. "There's something... There's something on their blades. Probably.... probably poison."
Clint swore over the comms, and Steve nearly dropped his shield. He pushed through the halls, racing to the stairs. "Do you need-" Thor started to say.
"Stay with the weapon, Thor," Steve said despite how giving the order ripped his heart in two, telling Thor to stay away. "Unless you can destroy it without blowing this place up or disarm it, then we can't afford to let that fall into their hands." Tony would never forgive them if they failed. If he survived to be angry at them.
Steve shut down that thought as he jumped over the railing down a flight of stairs, putting it down to The Ache acting up. He couldn't afford to think that way. When he burst through the stairwell door, he barely got a glance at all of the bodies when he had to bring up his shield to block a Widow's bite. "Natasha, it's me!" Steve said as he dodged a kick.
Natasha paused, listing to the side as she tried to focus her eyes. "Cap?"
"Yeah, it's me," Steve said, approaching her carefully. When she slumped against him, he caught her. "Natasha, you-"
"-'m fine. Check Tony," she said, but she let Steve guide her to sit down before he barricaded the door to keep out any unwelcome guests.
"You're not fine," he said, trying to keep an eye on her while looking for the armor. Panic was threatening to take over, but Steve pushed it back down. This wasn't like the time on the train. He couldn't afford to break down right now. "You've been moving around and letting the poison work faster through your system."
Natasha looked about to argue, but Clint cut in through the comms. "Steve will take care of things, Nat. Just stay still for fuck's sake."
"Yeah? Why should I?" Natasha slurred, though she stopped trying to stand to follow Steve.
"I'll come quietly to dance class?" Clint offered. Steve could hear the unguarded worry in his voice.
"I'll consider it," Natasha said, her eyes unfocused, but with a faint smile on her face.
Then Steve caught sight of the armor, and his heart nearly stopped. "Tony..." he said, rushing over to where the armor was lying limp and dark. For a moment the panic took over, before he remembered that the arc reactor wasn't keeping Tony's heart beating any longer.
The armor was a mess, broken and dented with jagged edges that Steve was terrified of moving in case it was just as sharp on the inside of the suit. The face plate was up, which was a relief, because Steve could see the short, shallow breaths as Tony's lips moved. "Tony? Come on, wake up."
He looked over to Natasha for a sitrep, but Natasha's eyes were closed as she slumped forward. He had to lunge to catch her. "Natasha?"
"Cap, what's going on?" Clint demanded.
"She's out, and Tony... I can't do anything."
"Cap, calm down," Clint said with enough power behind his voice to get Steve to listen.
Steve took a deep breath and realized he was shaking as he pushed some of the hair out of Natasha's still closed eyes. "I can't lose anyone else," he said, desperately trying to pull himself together. He couldn't afford this right now. He couldn't think of trains, of Bucky falling while Steve could do nothing to help. He...
"You won't," Clint said forcefully. "They're tough. They'll get through this."
"Aye, we will do what we can for our friends," Thor said, though Steve could hear the helplessness in his voice as well.
"We can't do anything for Natasha right now, but SHIELD's incoming. She'll be fine until we can get her an antidote. Focus on getting Tony out of the armor, and see how bad it is," Clint said calmly.
"They're gone." Steve let that sink in. Not only had he failed his team, but he failed the mission as well. He clutched Natasha's prone form against him, struggling to breathe. He didn't have time for The Ache to take over. They were depending on him. He closed his eyes and gave himself a mental shake.
"Okay," he said, feeling not steadier, but able to function. This was why he hadn't tried to make connections since waking up. He didn't know how it would affect him on the field, and he wasn't sure he could keep going if this kept up. The connection was snapping instead of steadying him.
He put Natasha in a recovery position that was close enough to Tony that he could still reach out to her, then he tried to find the hidden catches on Tony's armor. JARVIS was offline, so he couldn't ask for further information. He didn't want to jostle Tony too much either, in case his spine was damaged. "What's SHIELD's ETA?" he asked.
He heard both Thor and Clint breathe in relief over the comms. "Ten minutes," Clint said. "And it looks like the Hulk's ran out of things to smash, so we might have Banner back soon."
"Send him down as soon as he's able," Steve said, reaching for the jagged edge on Tony's torso.
But as soon as he shifted it, Tony started gasping worse than he had been before. "Tony?" Steve asked, seeing the panic in the now open brown eyes. "It's okay. You're okay."
"Can't..." Tony said hoarsely as he gasped. Tony tried to move, but he could barely struggle to lift an arm. He pointed to his neck. That was when Steve saw it, how the armor was pressing down against his neck.
His hands moved without thinking, searching for a way to lift the metal without hurting Tony further. Had the last time he'd moved it pressed it further against Tony? As much as he wanted to yank the suit off, he lifted carefully, watching Tony gasp and cough for breath. "It's okay," Steve said, moving to support Tony's head now that the neck brace was gone. He ran his free hand through Tony's hair. "Just breathe. You'll be okay. Anything else I need to remove?"
Tony shook his head, starting another coughing fit. "Leave him in the armor if you can," Clint said over the comms. "It'll be better support if nothing else is wrong."
"I don't like how it's dented inward," Steve replied. He shifted Tony until his head was resting in Steve's lap, freeing up his hands to check on Natasha. She was clammy and cold, but still breathing. Tony, on the other hand, was still gasping. Hyperventilating? How long had he been unconscious while his body struggled for oxygen?
"Easy. Deep breaths, Tony," he said, ripping away at the armor covering Tony's chest to make sure that it wasn't part of the problem. The metal sliced through Steve's fingers since his new gloves didn't cover them, but he didn't care about that right now. "SHIELD ETA," Steve demanded again as he tossed the metal aside and watched Tony's chest rise and fall.
"Seven minutes," Clint supplied without any mockery for Steve's impatience.
"We don't have seven minutes. Tell them that's not good enough," Steve snapped.
Clint almost sounded gleeful. It was enough to cover the worry and fear he was hiding underneath, but Steve still heard it anyway. "Will do, Cap. I'm almost to your position now as well. Hang tight while I tell SHIELD Captain America says they're not doing good enough."
Steve didn't have the heart to tell him to play nice, knowing it was part of how Clint coped. Instead, he tried to remember all the things he had to do to help with asthma when he was a child. "Match my breathing, Tony. Come on. You can do it. Breathe with me," he said soothingly.
Steve clutched at Natasha's hand like a lifeline as he watched the two of them breathe. Part of him was terrified of blinking, just in case one of them stopped. He'd blinked and then Bucky was gone. He couldn't deal with that again.
When backup finally arrived, they rushed Natasha away, but Tony merely had a concussion and minor hypoxia. All of the other scrapes and bruises were mostly cosmetic, the armor taking the worst of the beating. His chest was bruised where the armor had pressed too hard though, making the hypoxia worse, and Steve tried not to think about how if Tony had had the reactor still in, he'd probably be dead with its added weight.
They set Tony up with an oxygen mask and let Steve sit with him after Clint promised he'd stay with Natasha and keep them updated. Steve didn't think he could have moved to be honest, because Natasha felt so far away and Tony was... The Ache set in fast and hard, and Steve didn't know what made him feel more helpless, The Ache or the fact he could do nothing but wait.
He lost track of time when Bruce came in. Tony was sleeping and the bruises around his neck were starting to turn ugly shades of black. If Steve had gotten there sooner, Tony wouldn't have had to wear the brand of Steve's failure.
"The doctors say Natasha will be fine," Bruce said quietly by way of greeting.
Steve let out a breath of relief, slumping onto the narrow bed Tony was laid out on. He had failed them as a leader, but at least they got out of the mess regardless. "Thank God," he said, lightly squeezing Tony's hand.
"When Tony wakes up, you should let him know that Thor is standing guard over the weapons still," Bruce said with a small smile. "He won't let even the SHIELD agents near them."
"He'll be glad to hear it," Steve said. He traced down the line of Tony's palm with his thumb, almost envying Thor for being useful. Steve's fingers were still scarred from earlier, and the scratches burned as he touched Tony's skin, but they'd heal soon. Tony's bruises would take far longer to disappear.
"You look like you could stop beating yourself up," Bruce said, resting a hesitant hand on Steve's shoulder.
Steve looked away, the guilt stubbornly clinging on. "It was my plan that nearly got them killed," Steve said. "I spread us too far apart. And I should have realized that if they'd been stealing Tony's tech, it would have made him more vulnerable."
"Steve, that's the depression talking. You spread us out so that we could root out this branch of the Maggia once and for all. That's not-"
"But we didn't, did we?" Steve asked. "I failed that too. I can't..." He ran a hand through his hair. "I've had botched missions before, but this..."
Before, he had Bucky and Peggy to talk him down. Now he'd nearly killed two of the only anchors he had in his life. How would they be able to trust him after this? He was on too unsteady of a position in this time and-
Steve was pulled out of his guilt by something soft and plastic hitting his head as Bruce stifled a laugh. The oxygen mask? He looked up from where it fell in his hands to see a grumpy Tony glaring at him. "No guilt trips by my bedside," he croaked, his voice hoarse and raw like every word was painful to say.
Bruce helped Tony drink some water as Steve refused to meet his eyes. "Tony... that's not... How can you follow my lead any more when it nearly got you and Natasha killed?"
"Idiot," Tony said, taking the oxygen mask out of Steve's hands, only to throw it at Steve's head again. This time it was Steve's turn to glare.
"Tony, be nice," Bruce admonished.
"Still an idiot," Tony said, smirking despite the pain he must be in when Bruce hummed in agreement.
"Tony, this isn't a game or a joke," Steve said, feeling anger pulse through him.
"You had our backs," Tony said, looking around presumably for something more to throw at Steve until Bruce lightly slapped his hand away from the paper cup.
"I let the head of the Maggia get away, left my position, and nearly got the two of you killed." Steve forced himself not to yell or the nurses would shoo him out for being disruptive. Then he really would be useless, and he wasn't sure he could handle that.
"He's stubborn," Bruce said.
Tony looked heavenward in exasperation, then heaved a sigh. Except that ended in a coughing fit that made Steve feel even worse. "We get the Maggia later," Tony said, waving his hand dismissively. "Stopped plans. Kept weapons guarded. You had our backs instead. Still trust you, idiot."
"I..." No one else was blaming him, even though he'd failed them. Duty and obligation and these standards everyone placed on him were crushing him, and neither Bruce nor Tony seemed concerned that he couldn't keep holding them up on his shoulders.
After lightly tracing the scars on Steve's hands, Tony pulled his own hand away as Steve rested his head against the bed, The Ache making it too hard to lift. He felt Tony smooth down his hair, carding through it with the same precision in his hands that he used to repair the armor. "Idiot," Tony said again, with a fondness that shocked Steve. "No one's perfect. Not even living legends. Just 'cause you make mistakes doesn't mean you failed us. Still had our backs. Trust me. Genius."
Steve drew a sharp breath, closing his eyes as he felt Tony's fingers continue to toy with his hair. It wasn't Bucky's arm around his shoulders, and it wasn't Peggy's calm words, but it anchored him down when he felt too far adrift, reaffirming the connection that had faltered, but not broken. It pulled him back to the team.
"Come on. You need more rest and the oxygen you're wasting," Bruce said, presumably replacing the oxygen mask when Tony's muttering became muffled. Steve still couldn't quite raise his head to see. "You can both visit Natasha later. I'll go keep Thor company until you can take the missile apart."
"Thanks," Tony said, fingers trailing down to brush against Steve's cheek.
"Anytime, Tony. And I mean all of us," Bruce said as he left, the sound of the door closing behind him softly, letting Steve know they were alone again.
"Idiot," Tony said again. It sounded sleepy, and Steve could only form a wordless sound of agreement from his constricting throat. "Our idiot."
That startled a laugh out of Steve. He didn't know where he stood in this new world, but he couldn't argue if they were going to trust him regardless. He needed that as surely as he needed to drag in his next breath. "Okay," he agreed when he could speak again, his voice sounding almost as choked as Tony's. "Don't know why you'd want a relic like me, but-" He felt the sharp tug on his hair, but didn't protest. "Yours," he finished simply.
"Ours," Tony repeated. Steve finally managed to look up to see Tony smiling behind the oxygen mask.
When Tony fell asleep again, Steve didn't dislodge his partner's hand from where it rested possessively on his head. Pepper's words floated back to him. 'Besides, more partners mean you learn more and become a better dancer, rather than just learning one partner's tricks.'
As long as it was the Avengers, Steve decided Pepper might just be right.
* * *
Dance class that week felt off. Natasha and Tony both refused to let the others cancel the class because they were still recovering, but the big dance floor felt emptier with one less couple on it. Steve kept waiting to hear Tony's laugh, but every time he thought he heard it, he'd turn and realize it was just his imagination.
"You do not seem yourself tonight, my friend," Thor said while Lizzie was going over the girls' footwork.
"It just feels a bit strange without Tony and Natasha," Steve replied.
"You worry." Thor placed a hand on Steve's shoulder, squeezing it gently.
"I'm not worried exactly," Steve said, feeling frustrated with himself. "I'm..."
A look of understanding dawned in Thor's storm-like eyes. "You are lonely."
That was ridiculous, because he was standing in a room full of people - people that Steve considered to be partners and friends - and that was being unfair to them, that without two people (though if he were honest, it was more a specific one) he felt off. Steve felt a little guilty at the thought.
Thor chuckled softly. "Do not fear, Steven. I do not hold this against you. But until our friends return to our lessons, the rest of us will work hard to distract you from the hole they leave. We all feel their loss as well."
"Yeah?" Steve asked.
"Aye," Thor replied. "Now, come. Let us study this step so that we might make our Shieldbrother and Shieldsister proud."
Thor had an awfully funny way of putting things sometimes, but Steve felt a lot better for it.
The next week Natasha and Tony refused to sit out. Natasha still looked pale and Tony wore a high collar to hide the lingering bruises, but none of them were quite willing to face their wrath and tell them no. Clint and Steve privately agreed that a team-up of Tony Stark and the Black Widow was slightly terrifying, and it was not worth putting up a fight.
And Steve was awfully glad to hear Tony's voice (still a little hoarse, but improving) as he went tête-à-tête with Darcy over his dance prowess. The hole that had been there last week filled again, and Steve wondered when he'd actually have to stop and think about this.
* * *
Steve and Tony didn't have a set place for their lunches. Tony was mercurial in his tastes when in a good mood, consistent when he was in a bad one. Some days they would hit ethnic food from all over the world, fancy up-scale restaurants, and places Steve could never afford, and some days were for simple, home-cooked burgers or a hole-in-the-wall French place that no one recognized them at. Tony had a particular fondness for Burger King, and Steve happened to like a little diner run by a couple just out of college with a passion for food. So they frequented those, but at other times, they let JARVIS roll the dice and call the shots.
Today they found themselves at a little Italian place that felt homey and warm. Steve liked the atmosphere and Tony was practically moaning over the food, so he put it on his mental list of places to come back to.
Steve bit his lip as Tony inhaled his plate of spaghetti with a look of pure bliss on his face. He'd rather have this conversation over burgers, but Tony had wanted to be adventurous today. He'd put off asking for a while, because their friendship had been so strained at the beginning, but now...
Now he sat across from Tony and couldn't imagine going back to the way things were before. Steve still had Bad Days, but there were less of them than there used to be. He had friends now, who weren't just background noise to fight off the worst of The Ache, but ones that he could look up occasionally to see how much they cared. Maybe the cold and the nightmares would never go away, and he'd always miss the life he'd lost by putting that plane down in the ice, but now he had ways to warm up again. It made things more bearable, easier to breathe when obligation and duty threatened to strangle him. And that all started with the man in front of him, inviting them all into his home and taking up dance lessons.
He hoped Peggy would be proud that he'd learned how to dance finally, even if part of him still regretted that she wasn't the one to teach him herself.
"Tony," he said, gathering up his thoughts. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Shoot, Cap. Though, technically, you just asked one," Tony said without any hesitation.
Steve on the other hand, chose his words with care, not sure how touchy a subject this would be. "Back when you set up the dance lessons, you said she wanted me to dance. Can you tell me what you meant by that?"
Because Steve had been wondering for a while now. Who would mean that much to Tony that he'd fly off the handle like that? And why? It couldn't have been his mother, who seemed to be responsible for some of the few happy memories in Tony's childhood.
And even if it was someone Tony cared about, there was more to it than just that. That was too simple of an answer, if it had been that. Steve would have been shut out with a few scathing remarks, not a bloody lip. No, Steve had said something that hit deeper, more personal, than just that. Tony had mentioned something about always being second best, but that didn't make sense at all. 'She' couldn't be referring to Howard.
He saw Tony tense and wondered if it was still too soon to be asking. That thought hurt, but he was starting to realize it wasn't because Tony didn't trust him, but because Tony wasn't ready to deal with things. "Damn," Tony said, putting his fork down. "I guess I'd hoped you'd forget about that part of the fight. I didn't really apologize for... I'm sorry about hitting you. That was crossing the line."
Steve nodded, accepting the apology, late as it was. Tony had crossed the line, but Steve had come to understand that he'd had reasons for it. "It's okay," Steve assured, confident that Tony wouldn't react like that now, even if he was pushed to be that angry again. Steve hoped he himself knew better than to let things get that far again. "Just, can you tell me why it happened? Who is she?"
"Steve, I'm not sure..."
"You don't have to tell me if it's painful," Steve reassured him.
"It's not like that, but you..." Tony started, only meeting Steve's eyes for a brief moment before looking down. "Look, you know what Howard did after the war, right?"
"The file said he helped start up SHIELD," Steve said, not adding that Howard had looked for Steve. That was a touchy subject.
A look of hurt crossed Tony's face before it was hidden by bitterness. "Of course they'd give you that information," he heard Tony say under his breath, making Steve wonder when Tony had found out. Then louder, "He wasn't the only one though, you know? A lot of the guys from your old unit helped as well."
Steve swallowed, pushing back The Ache that thinking about the files of his old friends stirred up. "Yeah. They gave me files on everyone after I..."
Tony's head shot up sharply. "What the fuck? They gave you files of the people you were closest to? And SHIELD thought this was a better idea than that fucked up hospital farce? The least they could have done was have someone there to tell you in person!"
To be honest, he'd been glad no one had been there to see him as he went through those files. There had been no one to break it to him gently back then, and the impersonal files were less painful. He couldn't let Tony be distracted by that though. Not unless he wanted a rant on SHIELD rather than his answer. "Tony," he said gently.
"Yeah, yeah," Tony said, though Steve could still see the righteous anger in his eyes. It warmed something in Steve that the memories had left cold, seeing Tony so furious on his behalf.
"Steve," Tony started, back to the tentative looks. "I... I don't know if I should be telling you this."
"I told you, if it-"
"No, it's not that." Tony tapped at his chest, right where the arc reactor used to be. It was a habit Tony was never quite able to drop. "You..." He sighed, closing his eyes. "I didn't know why they were around so much back then, but some of them stuck around after business was concluded to see me when I was younger. One in particular," he said finally.
Steve felt the breath rush out of him, as if Tony had physically punched him in the gut. "Peggy," he whispered, shutting his eyes tightly against the thought. It all fell into place, all making sense now. And God, he'd yelled at Tony, saying he didn't care what she wanted not knowing... No small wonder Tony had hit him. He almost wanted the split lip back, because how could he have said that about Peggy, the woman he'd been saving up to buy a ring for? How could he have-
"Hey," Tony said, and Steve felt a hand covering his. "Hey, Steve. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have... I should have kept my temper back then. I'm sorry. Steve! Hey, talk to me. Steve..."
"I..." Steve said, sucking in a breath. "She wanted me to dance."
"Yeah," Tony said, keeping his eyes downcast. He didn't move his hand, and Steve was grateful. "Aunt Peggy sometimes told me stories about you."
Steve held back the flinch from hearing the words Aunt Peggy, but only just. He wondered what she had thought of Howard's parenting skills. For a moment, he was irrationally jealous, because Tony got to be part of her life when Steve couldn't, but he kept that emotion firmly in check. That sort of thought would do him no good.
"I hated her sometimes," Tony admitted quietly, and that nearly snapped Steve's temper. "She was strict, and Dad always gave her attention when she had something to say. And she'd look at me sometimes and tell me I needed to clean up my act, because all the shit I did wouldn't make Howard..." Tony faltered, stumbling over the words. "It wouldn't make Dad pay attention to me, not in the way I wanted."
And Steve was torn. He was torn between wanting to defend Peggy, wondering how she could have been harsh to a child like Tony, and wanting to know how Tony couldn't see past that to how amazing she was. He didn't know what to say, so he stayed quiet, though he was tempted to pull his hand away from Tony.
"Sorry," Tony said after a moment. "You probably didn't want to hear about that. She was... She and Obie, they kept me from flying off the rails, and part of me always resented that a little, despite the fact I know I should be grateful. She came by when I was in college. I don't know if Howard sent her to knock some sense into me or if she just came on her own. She took one look at me and declared me pathetic.
"Then she threw out all of my stockpile and told me I wasn't going to waste my mind on drugs. She helped me through the withdrawals," Tony said, his eyes hazy with the memory, far away and in a dark place Steve could only shudder to think of.
It made something go cold in Steve, thinking of Tony on drugs. He'd used some of what were now considered illegal drugs before the war to ease his asthma, but he'd also seen some of the kids the Maggia had been dealing to. The thought of Tony, bright, fiery Tony, looking so out of it made him cold in ways not even the ice had. "She probably saved your life," Steve said.
"Not just probably," Tony said ruefully. "Anyway, as part of getting me clean, she dragged me and Rhodey to dance lessons. She'd learned it on some undercover mission, and it just kind of stuck with her."
"She taught you swing," Steve said.
"She taught me swing," Tony echoed with a soft smile. Whatever Tony had said about hating her, Steve realized with a start, Tony still loved her. He had seen through the strictness to how amazing she was, and Steve felt a bit guilty for assuming he hadn't. It sounded like Peggy had been hard on him, but also that she cared.
"She loved dancing," Tony continued, lost in a memory. "She was beautiful in red, no matter how old she got. And after she got too old for field work, she said dancing was one of the only things that made her feel alive anymore."
Steve closed his eyes, picturing her in that red dress, with Bucky saying 'I've turned into you,' as he watched her leave. She must have been a sight, gliding across the dance floor, even as he tried to picture the laugh lines and crow's nests around her eyes, seeing her as Tony must have seen her. Tough, but breathtaking as the hard lines melted into the smooth dance he'd been learning.
"She told me once that you'd never learned how to dance," Tony said, his voice breaking through Steve's thoughts like a stone thrown in the water, rippling outward. "And that sometimes when she was dancing with other guys, she would imagine it was you. I got a bit jealous of that, 'cause I could always see when she did it."
Steve opened his eyes to see Tony blushing faintly. "Can we just forget I said that?" Tony pleaded, sounding a little horrified.
Steve put two and two together, finding the result surprisingly more adorable than he expected. "The first time you were sweet on someone?" Steve asked, a bit of teasing slipping into his tone. Even though it was a weak joke, it had been natural despite his current emotional turmoil, and he hadn't expected that. When had he gotten so comfortable with Tony that he could tease him like he used to tease Bucky?
"I'll have you know I lost my virginity before I went to college," Tony said, though he mumbled something that was suspiciously like a confirmation about the crush bit even if not the first.
Steve didn't want to think about the fact that Tony was having sex before the age of fifteen. Tony wouldn't want the sympathy, and Steve didn't want the fight. He couldn't help but feel a little sad on Tony's behalf though.
Besides, he couldn't blame Tony for having a crush on Peggy. The mental image, though tinged with melancholy, was kind of sweet as well. He wondered what it would have been like if he hadn't gone down in the ice. Could he have helped Tony from having to go through that? Would he have teased Peggy about Tony's crush on her? Would... Would he and Peggy have taught Tony how to dance, instead of Tony setting up lessons for him?
"Anyway," Tony said forcefully, the hint of a flush not quite gone from his face. "She talked about you. And she said she wished you'd known what dancing was like, before you went down."
"She wanted me to dance," Steve finished sadly. She wanted him to understand something she loved, and he hadn't been able to keep that promise.
"Steve," Tony said, looking away again. "I'm sorry. I didn't want..."
"Don't," Steve said, uncertain if his voice was soft due to the pleading or to cut off Tony's guilt. "I'm glad you told me."
"Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Steve lied.
"No, you're not," Tony said.
"If you knew that, then why did you ask?" Steve said. He didn't quite snap at Tony, but it was sharper than Steve had intended it to be, and Tony pulled back, taking the warmth of his hand with him.
"I..." Tony said.
Steve sighed. "I'm sorry," he said, rubbing at his eyes with his now freed hand. "You're right. I'm not."
The rest of the meal was spent in awkward silence as Steve tried to process everything. He avoided Tony for the rest of the day, only leaving his room to force himself to eat, since he couldn't be caught with his strength down.
The next day was a spectacularly Bad Day. Steve couldn't find the will to get out of bed, even his usual stubborn insistence he get up had all but disappeared. What would Bucky think of him now, all that stubbornness finally defeated by something as simple as depression? Not even the Depression had managed that. He knew he needed breakfast, but instead he stared at the ceiling as The Ache crept through him.
At noon, there was a knock on his door. Steve didn't answer, but the door opened anyway. "Steve?" he heard Tony's voice say. "JARVIS says you're still... Steve."
Steve closed his eyes, knowing that he was only making things worse. He was letting Tony down, and now Tony would feel guilty on top of that. He wasn't sure he could follow if Tony wanted him to leave the room right then either.
Tony didn't try to get him to leave though. He pulled up the chair by Steve's drawing table, pulling out his tablet. "JARVIS, music please," he said, and a mix of songs started to play as he worked, both of Tony's usual music and songs Steve knew were tailored more to him.
Tony couldn't stay for long, but Clint came by before he had to leave, most likely summoned by JARVIS. "Are you sure we should-" Clint started to say, looking at Steve's bed. Steve didn't have the energy to acknowledge him. "What if he doesn't want us in here?"
Tony sighed. "Then he'd have told me to get out. He always comes to us on bad days. And if he can't come to us..."
"We come to him," Clint said with the sort of determination reserved for missions. Then more cheerfully, "Then sure. Sounds like a plan."
Clint took the chair Tony had vacated, wincing at one of Tony's songs as it started to play. "JARVIS, can you cut the music? And cue up Die Hard. It's time for Christmas in July."
"The movie certainly does portray the spirit of Christmas, Agent Barton," JARVIS replied sarcastically with a hint of disapproval.
"Yippie Kay-Yay, JARVIS!" Clint said with a laugh. "Yippie Kay-Yay."
The rest of the Avengers took turns sitting with him, and by the end of the day Steve was in his usual spot in the kitchen, managing to force down dinner while he read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The next day was better, and by the end of the third day, he felt human again. He asked Tony if he wanted to go for lunch the next day, and the look of open relief in Tony's eyes eased the last of The Ache's hold on him. It would come back, he was sure, but he wasn't alone in fighting it. And that made it bearable.
* * *
"Alright, Avengers," Lizzie said at the next lesson, rubbing her hands together gleefully. "You've been dancing for three and a half months now. Which means it's time to put your skills to the test!"
"Wait, what?" Clint said, looking dismayed.
"Competition?" Tony asked thoughtfully.
"I highly doubt this rabble is ready for that yet," Victor said with a slightly condescending tone.
"I thought things were going better with his boyfriend," Darcy said, leaning into Pepper conspiratorially.
Victor sent them a glare, but it didn't stop Pepper from answering. "He was stood up on a date again. And the guy didn't call back 'til really late."
"How late?" Natasha asked curiously.
"He called three days later," Lizzie answered, patting the scowling Victor on the arm.
"Wow, what a douche," Darcy said. "I mean, that's seriously low."
"Totally, right?" Lizzie agreed. "I keep telling him he can do way better."
"If you're quite finished discussing my private affairs, I suggest you get on with telling everyone about Friday," Victor snapped, though Steve thought he looked just a little pleased that the others were taking his side, and the words didn't have quite as much heat to them as they did when he was truly cranky.
"Oh, yeah! Friday!" Lizzie said, looking excited again. "It's like, about time you guys started dancing for real. So this Friday, we're going out to one of the Westie clubs!"
"Club?" Steve asked, feeling his stomach sink as he thought of the time Clint and Natasha had dragged him out to one. It hadn't been what he considered a fun time.
"Not that kind of club," Pepper reassured him as if reading his thoughts. Steve wondered what kind of face he had made, if it'd been that obvious. "You'll like this one better. The dancing will be like what we do here."
That was comforting, but the knot in his stomach didn't actually go away. At least Clint didn't look any more thrilled than Steve was. "Joy," he said. "So I'll just be at the range instea-OW! Okay, okay, I'll go."
Steve didn't have to look over to see Jane and Pepper tag-teaming Clint's ribs while Natasha looked on without mercy. Clint had brought it on himself.
* * *
Clint, once he realized that the girls at the club were 'hot' and 'digged a guy who could dance,' decided that this whole dance thing wasn't so bad after all. Steve shook his head as Clint smirked, leading yet another brunette across the floor.
For himself, Steve actually didn't mind the loud music as much as he thought he would, and the club wasn't too bad. Most of the people were tastefully dressed, even if they showed a lot more skin than in Steve's time, and people were actually dancing rather than looking for a way to have public sex on a dance floor. He'd never been able to afford the fancy clubs in his time (and the non-fancy ones had too much smoke for his asthma to take), but this seemed like a nice place.
He'd been staying toward the back, perfectly content to be a wallflower. Occasionally an unfamiliar girl would come over and ask him to dance, and Steve's inner Lizzie guilted him into accepting. Besides, the girls had to be pretty brave, asking a guy like that instead of waiting to be asked, and Steve knew that with the serum, he could be a pretty imposing figure. He couldn't exactly turn that down.
That didn't mean he wasn't enjoying himself. Most of the songs had a pretty good beat and he enjoyed dancing when he was coaxed out. He liked watching people dance, remembering Bucky and whatever pretty dame he had on his arm, giggling as he twirled her. The memories didn't hurt as much as Steve thought they would, and it was nice to remember without The Ache getting too strong. He also occasionally had one of the others come by and sit with him, making sure he wasn't lonely back there by himself when he wasn't dancing.
"Hey, there, solider," a familiar voice said. He blinked, wiggling fingers coming into his line of vision. He looked up to see Tony batting his eyelashes at him. "One last dance before you ship off to war?"
Steve was having a very hard time not laughing in Tony's face. He hoped the genius appreciated the effort he put forth. "Who taught you that line?" he asked, stifling a snicker.
"I'm told that's how it was done in the olden days. Now, are you going to dance with me or not?" Tony asked with a raised eyebrow.
Considering Tony always complained about following, regardless of what Pepper said, Steve wondered if this was a good idea. "I've only had one class following. You know that," Steve said.
"Do I ever," Tony said. "How many times did the girls yell at you?"
Steve winced. He'd gotten many variations of 'Back leading is bad,' 'Stop back leading before I hit you with my high-heels,' 'Steve, sweetheart, I'm leading, not you,' and 'Damn it, Cap, stop back leading,' that night. He really had tried to stop, but he ended up being teased mercilessly for sulking the rest of the night. Teasing, and lots and lots of threats about what would happen if he didn't stop.
"Come on. I'll follow. I'll even be good and actually follow your leads this once," Tony said, wiggling his fingers in front of Steve's face again.
"Will you follow orders on the battlefield too?" Steve asked playfully.
"Probably not," Tony replied with a cheeky smile. "But hey, once in a lifetime chance to give me orders I'll actually follow."
"Only once?" Steve asked, genuinely curious.
"That depends on the dance," Tony said with a wink. "Come on. Up and at 'em, soldier. Let's dance!"
Because you never know when it will be your last, Steve's mind supplied. He thought back to the war, and all those girls left behind who had to wait. Steve hadn't been able to wait behind like that, and he marveled at the strength those women showed when kissing their guy farewell. Neither he nor Tony would really be the one waiting at home, but the life was just as dangerous. Each night could be their last if some super villain got lucky. It hadn't been all that long since one nearly had, and Steve could still picture the now faded bruises around Tony's neck.
Steve put his hand in Tony's wordlessly, interlinking their fingers. Tony stared at their hands as Steve stood, then led them out to an empty spot on the dance floor.
"Take the lead, Cap," Tony said.
But as Steve settled back into a basic, Tony scowled. "Starter step, Cap. Closed position. Victor will skin you alive for forgetting that, then he'll get on to me for not reminding you!"
"You sure?" Steve asked. Closed position was very close, though he had to admit Tony's point about Victor. Steve started to question Clint's original assessment of Victor having good blackmail on Tony to keep him in line. The man was simply someone even Tony didn't want to cross, and Steve privately found himself agreeing. Victor's boyfriend must be a very brave man.
Tony rolled his eyes and stepped closer, putting his hand on Steve's shoulder. Steve automatically brought his hand up to rest on Tony's shoulder blade. Waiting for the count, Steve led the starter step and threw Tony out into the basic position.
Tony was an amazing dancer. Steve liked to watch him dance with the others, always smooth as he glided across the floor. It was different as Steve spun him in an inside turn, seeing him fall into the girl's triple step rather than a smooth spin. The movements took a sensual quality that Steve had seen Lizzie have during certain songs. It was mesmerizing to watch Tony move like that this close.
"You've gotten good," Tony said with a smile as he held the pose longer than Steve approved of. It took him a moment to realize Tony was hitting a beat that Steve hadn't heard coming, so he didn't reiterate some of those back leading threats he'd become intimately familiar with.
"Not as good as you," Steve said with a self-depreciating smile. He held up his hand for Tony to take, and twisted them around until Tony was in a sweetheart hold. Steve walked them forward, eyes lingering around Tony's swaying hips.
"I'm telling Natasha that you're feeding my ego," Tony said smugly, showing off with a kick. Then, quieter, so that Steve almost couldn't hear it over the music, "Aunt Peggy would be proud of you. She'd have been happy to see you like this."
Steve faltered, starting back with his right foot instead of his left. He needed a beat to catch up with the movement, but Tony didn't comment. For just a moment, he could imagine dancing with her instead of Tony. She'd be smaller than Tony, lithe and athletic with curves show-cased in a deep red dress. Her lips would be painted the same shade, tilting upwards in a smile. 'Is that the best you've got, soldier? Put your back into it,' she'd tease him, her voice laced with amusement under the harsher tone.
Steve let go of Tony's hand with a small twist to keep him spinning so that the other man wouldn't see that Steve wasn't quite dancing with him, but with someone else. But from the way Tony was no longer meeting his gaze, the genius knew anyway.
"Always second best, huh?" Tony said with a smile that didn't reach his eyes.
"There's nothing second best about you, Tony," Steve protested. "I just... thank you. For saying that."
"It's the truth," Tony said with a shrug as he brought his hand up for the sugar push. Steve couldn't tell which statement Tony was referring to, being second best or what he said about Peggy, and that made Steve wish he'd been able to hide it better. He pulled Tony into a whip, keeping him in closed position and slipping into a quick hug.
Tony shot him a surprised look, and then gave him a truer smile. Peggy had wanted him to dance, so who was Steve to say no? She may not be his partner any more, but Steve was finally starting to move forward. He couldn't keep looking back when he had someone like Tony to dance with now.
Then Steve grinned, pulling Tony in and around him, putting in a spin of his own. "Show off," Tony said as he spun, laughing as he went. Steve ended the move ducking under Tony's arm, Tony moving close with his hand around Steve's neck. Instead of letting Tony pull away and slide down his arm, however, Steve held him there.
They were close. So close that all Steve had to do was lean forward to brush his lips against Tony's forehead. If he didn't lean up a little, he could steal Tony's lips as well. From the looks of it, Tony knew it too, and his breath hitched slightly, eyes fluttering shut as he waited for Steve to follow through with the lead.
Steve started, jumping back and away when he realized what he'd nearly done. His heart was hammering in his chest, and for a moment, Steve couldn't have told up from down by the way his world was flipping.
Tony, for his part, looked disappointed when he stretched back into a triple step. "So, Cap," he said, his voice carefully neutral. "What was that lead about?"
Steve pulled Tony in for a basic, because he wasn't sure he could accomplish anything more complicated than a left-side pass. "I..." he started, thanking God for muscle memory taking the steps by rote. "I'm not sure," he said finally.
At this, Tony laughed. "So the Man with the Plan doesn't know what the Plan is?"
"Give me some time to think about it," Steve said as his heart began to subside. "I think I need to practice it more and figure out where it was going. I want it to be a good lead. But..." Steve hesitated, saying the next part carefully. "Would you mind waiting 'til I get it right? I can understand if you don't w-"
"I can wait," Tony said quietly as he stepped forward. "Don't listen to Pepper, but I can occasionally be patient. Can't guarantee I'll follow the lead, but I can wait to see what it'll be."
Steve smiled brilliantly, pulling Tony back into a sweetheart hold just to have him closer. He didn't think he could have hid the smile if he tried. "Yeah?" he asked. "Cause I've heard you're a pretty good follow, though you sometimes try to steal the lead. But you're sounding like a pretty sure bet right now."
"For the right partner, I might be," Tony said with a shrug as he passed under Steve's arm.
Steve stopped him from moving forward with a hand on Tony's stomach, gently guiding him back down the slot. "I've been looking for the right partner for a while now," Steve admitted quietly.
"Oh?" Tony said with an amused gleam in his eyes. "Seems to me you were up in the Tower not even dancing until recently. Having better luck now?"
"I think my luck might be changing," Steve said as the song ended, pulling Tony in close for one final move. He ended gently leaning Tony back, not quite into a proper dip, but enough for a pose that earned a small laugh out of Tony.
"Good to hear it," Tony said with a grin. "Thanks for the dance, soldier."
"Thank you," Steve replied, meaning far more than just the dance.
He led Tony off the dance floor. Tony just waved his thanks off. "No problem, Cap."
"I mean that, Tony. Thanks," Steve said, squeezing the hand he still held captive.
Tony rolled his eyes, but when he moved closer to Steve to avoid running into another dancer, he didn't move away again. "Hey, is that Victor?" Tony asked, changing the subject with his usual deflections.
Steve let it pass, looking over at their dance instructor. He was standing next to another older gentleman with white hair that gave Tony a run for his money in poofiness. "Well?" the man said testily, holding out a hand to Victor.
Victor ignored it as Steve and Tony hung back to watch the exchange. "I was under the impression that there were more important things you had to do," Victor said stiffly.
The taller man sighed. "It wasn't like that, old chap," the man said, invitation still open. "And I may have missed your blathering on. Let me make it up to you."
"According to Ms. Matthews, I could do far better than you, so I don't see why I..."
The taller man stepped forward, claiming Victor's lips in a passionate kiss that their dance instructor practically melted into. Steve found himself wondering if Tony kissed like that.
When the taller man moved back, there was a wicked gleam in his eyes. "I dare say you see now."
"You're an insufferable fool," Victor said, but he was allowing himself to be led to the dance floor. Steve caught a hint of a smirk on his face before they both disappeared behind other dancers.
"Looks like even Victor gets a happy ending," Tony said with a laugh. "Sometimes I wonder how Lizzie puts up with his sulking."
"Friends are funny like that," Steve replied, smiling to himself. He didn't know why the Avengers stayed around for his Bad Days either, but he was grateful they did. Victor was a pretty lucky guy to have a dame like Lizzie looking out for him.
Steve slipped an arm around Tony's back to lead him back to his seat, earning him an amused eyebrow as he kept the other man close rather than relinquishing his hold. He was extraordinarily lucky himself to have found those kinds of friends not once, but twice. Even if Steve couldn't have Bucky and the others back, he had the Avengers now. Not the same, but enough to keep him steady.
* * *
Steve looked down at his book, once again trying - and failing - to make sense of the words. Melville had never been one of his favorites, but it was either that or Jack London's How to Build a Fire, and that story was the last thing he needed right now. He sat in the living room, ignoring the stifling quiet until someone woke up and came down. He was having a Bad Day, but Steve didn't have a trigger for it this time. Sometimes they just happened, and those days the others sometimes took a while longer to search him out.
And that was fine. It was. When he felt better, he didn't appreciate the others constantly worrying over him. So it was good that they didn't automatically assume he needed company. He just had to be patient on days like this when The Ache kept threatening to overwhelm him. He could hold out. He always did.
Thor found him first, clapping his shoulder in a greeting Steve barely managed to return as the Asgardian called Clint down for an 'ultimate battle against Mario's foe, Bowser.' Soon the sounds of Clint and Thor bickering over the controllers and the video game music filled the room, and Steve was able to turn the page. It didn't matter if he couldn't make sense of the words. He didn't like Melville anyway.
Natasha came in, sitting in the chair by the couch to heckle the other two's playing skills. Or lack thereof, since neither Clint nor Thor were very good. Bruce came in next, quietly asking if anyone wanted some tea. Steve didn't ask for any, but he soon had a cup of hot chai in front of him on the table anyway.
Tony was the last to come down. He'd been in an early meeting this morning, and he was in one of those suits that cost more than Steve made in his whole life before the serum. He flopped down next to Steve, making rude comments about Clint's inability to catch something called 'Yoshi'.
Then he propped his back against Steve's shoulder, making Steve jump. Tony settled in with his tablet, lounging across the rest of the couch and using Steve as a back rest. Tony didn't say anything to Steve, or do anything else. He was just there.
Steve leaned in just a little, feeling Tony's weight pressing back against him unyieldingly. A solid connection. A partner who anchored him.
For the first time since The Ache started this morning, Steve felt like he could breathe.
Steve shifted his arm, wrapping it around Tony's waist to hold the genius there against him. Not that Tony looked like he had any inclination towards moving away, but Steve liked this better, giving Tony something to hold on to. It would make turning the page a hassle, but he really didn't like Melville anyway, and Tony was a warm weight against him that fought off the cold.
Tony didn't acknowledge the arm wrapped around him, and neither did any of the others. And that was okay, because Steve didn't want the attention right now. He was included without needing their eyes on him.
Steve still wasn't sure if he'd found the right partner, but this team was so amazing that Steve could have less Bad Days, missing the past and the life he'd lost. And he had a solid connection next to him who could be the right partner someday, someone who cared. And Tony was a damned good partner that Steve knew he was lucky to have.
For now, that was enough.