Tony almost didn’t recognise the phone number when he first saw it on screen; his hand was hovering over the ‘Ignore’ option when he got it, and then he had to clear his throat several times before saying to JARVIS, “Put it through.”
A gruff voice he hadn’t heard in nearly twenty years resonated through the speakers. “Sir, this is Captain Bowers. Do you remember me?”
Tony blinked rapidly, and managed, “I do, Captain. What can I do for you?”
“Well, sir, I’m contracted to get in touch when it looks like the mission’s been successful.”
Tony took an unsteady step back from the display on the coffee table, and lowered himself onto the couch. “So you are, Captain. And has it?”
“Been successful? I think so. I think we’ve found him.”
Tony swallowed. “How long before we have to report it?”
“By military regulations, I shouldn’t even be making this call, Mr. Stark. Next one’s the official one.”
“Right. Thank you, Bowers. Surface as soon as you’re able, and radio your coordinates to me on my personal line. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
The call disconnected, Tony already dialling another on his cell. “Pepper? I’m gonna need you to cancel all my appointments for the next 48 hours. No, it’s actually important. Really, really. Like, not even supermodels are involved. Pretty please? Okay. I’m leaving now, bye!”
When Tony first inherited Stark Industries, he was flooded with paperwork that Obadiah had to walk him through, reviewing each department and what he could expect from it, each project and its progress. Among them was a yearly expedition that was run in collaboration with the Navy.
“Why are we building them submarines?” Tony had asked at one point, peering at the project outline. “It looks like we’re not even getting paid for anything beyond the product, and we have employees out there.”
“Ah,” Obie had said, grimacing. “That one, I’m afraid, we can’t do anything about. Howard was adamant about it.”
Tony had raised an eyebrow. “Dad never did anything with the company that wasn’t at least somewhat profitable.”
“Yeah, well, you’re dear old Dad was also a bit of a sentimental bastard when it came to Captain America.”
And that was when Tony had found out that Howard had been a lot more dedicated to a dead soldier from the war than he had ever been to Tony.
It hadn’t been a great day. But Howard’s will had decreed that the expeditions carry on for fifty years after his death, and the document itself was about as water-tight as an army of SI lawyers could make it, so there was little Tony or Obadiah could do.
Tony had called Captain Bower, the Navy liaison to the expedition, just to check in, and the man had just said, “Howard was a good friend of mine. I’m happy to take a couple of weeks each year to toodle around the north Atlantic for him. Don’t worry about what we’re doing here, and I’ll call if there’s ever a need to make an update.”
And that had been that, until today.
The site of extraction was off the coast of Iceland, close enough that Tony could don the suit to get there. When he landed, however, it was clear that he wasn’t first on the scene.
“Fury. Fancy seeing you here.”
“Stark. I see you’ve been keeping secrets.”
“Not my secrets,” Tony said, raising his hands. “Pinky swear.”
“This boat has been sealed,” Fury said. “You are no longer authorised on the premises.”
“On what grounds?” Tony said, outraged. “I made this boat! I mean, not personally, I don’t generally waste my time with ancient standing orders, but I totally signed off on R&D having a ball with it—”
“This is a military expedition, and military property.”
“Pretty sure you’re not military, least not technically. What is SHIELD supposed to be, anyway, other than a shady intergovernmental hive? You guys have badges, and yet—”
“You totally intercepted Bowers’ call to the Navy, didn’t you? Maybe I should tell him that, and let him try again.”
“Stark. This is not your jurisdiction.”
“Wrong. Military staff maybe, but my property, my expedition.”
“Technically, it was Howard’s.”
“Oh, good job,” Tony snapped, “I was just about to stop caring, and now I am absolutely getting in that room that you are standing so protectively in front of, don’t think I don’t see you doing that. I own this boat, and you’re going to open that door, which I also own, before I drown you in litigators that, whether I win the suit or not, I guarantee will cost you millions in cleanup. Millions that will mean nothing to me.”
Fury made a rumbling sound deep in his throat. “Fine,” he said tersely. “You have ten minutes.”
Tony bared his teeth. “Thanks. Appreciate it.”
Captain America was…kinda beautiful.
It wasn’t often that a man elicited that particular adjective from Tony, but then again, Captain America was hardly an average man. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“How long has he been out of the ice?” he asked, unable to look away from the gurney.
“Sixteen hours, give or take,” the physician answered, snapping her gloves. “Tissue has mostly unfrozen, and circulation of fluids is possible.”
“What, are you embalming him or something?” Tony interrupted.
She gave him an odd look. “No, why would we do that? No sign of frostbite, some buildup of fluid in the large joints but those are draining--”
“Draining how? And why do you have a—”
“EKG started up six hours ago and is now steady,” she cut in flatly. “He should be coming to pretty soon, if what we know about the serum is correct.”
Tony blinked. “I’m sorry, what?”
She gave him an unimpressed look. “Did they not tell you? He’s alive.”
Captain America was alive, he was coming to, and Fury was letting Tony see him.
“I see,” he said, after a moment. “Do you mind if I…?” He made a vague gesture.
The physician shrugged. She was clearly one of Bowers’s staff. “Call me if anything happens.”
The heart monitor seemed oddly loud in the silence after she left. Tony filled the void by walking up to the table they had the Captain on, boots clanking. He flipped up the face plate and regarded the figure in front of him.
“See, this is why you should always take the power of propaganda seriously. I’m looking at you and I want to buy war bonds. Several of them. Hell, maybe a hundred. Posters didn’t do you justice, by the way, but you probably already knew that. Neither did the comics, though if you repeat that to anyone we will have strong words. Hey, do we even have a name for you?” Tony wanders to the end of the table where the physician had left his clip board. “Steve Rogers. Very American, I like it. Dad never actually told me your whole name; you were always just ‘the Captain’. He squirrelled it away like everything else he did during the war.”
He paused. Probably did no good to badmouth his dad in front of a former colleague, unconscious or not. He took a breath, and continued. “And of course, Fury doesn’t tell me shit, because that’s what he does, he’s like a piratical ninja, it’s ridiculous. One day I’m going to steal his eyepatch and probably get tazed for the trouble, but it’ll totally be worth it. Come on, Cap, work with me here, I’ve only got ten minutes before they kick me out and—“
A cold, clammy hand clamped down on his arm. Tony froze.
“You’re American,” Steve Rogers whispered, a look of consternation on his worryingly pale face. “I—where are we?”
Jesus, his eyes were blue. Tony stared into them and said, “A naval ship, off the coast of Iceland. Morning, Captain.”
“Good morning,” he responded, but it was clearly just a reflex. “Where’s Colonel Phillips? Are you…what are you?”
Tony was not prepared for this. He bit his lip, and said, “Okay, last question first—I’m just a guy. Uh. Here, see?” He pulled away from the Captain’s grip and shed the armour in pieces that packed into a neat assemblage in the corner of the room. It left him in jeans and a long sleeve henley that was slightly damp with sweat from the flight. “And as for your colonel, well, um. It took us a while to find you, Cap.”
He watched Cap—Rogers—take in the gleaming armour on the floor, the outfit Tony had on, and the utilitarian but still fairly sophisticated interior of the medical bay. Watched as consternation gave way to creeping dread. “How long?” he asked, after a long moment. He sounded hoarse and far off. “Have we won?”
The door slammed open and both of them jumped. “Okay, Stark, you’ve had your ogling time, now—“ Fury stopped in the doorway, and then his eyes narrowed. “Captain. You’re awake. We weren’t informed.” He sent a glare in Tony’s direction.
On instinct, Tony stepped forward again, putting himself between Rogers and Fury. “He just woke up a second ago. Cut me some slack.”
“Consider it cut by the fact that I’m not throwing you bodily out of the room right now. I am, however, strongly requesting that you leave,” Fury growled. “You’re not briefed for this.”
“Stark?” Cap echoed, struggling to sit up. Not wanting to turn his back on Fury, but feeling concern anyway, Tony turned to help him and put a hand tentatively on Cap’s wrist. Cap looked at him, watchful, but more trusting than Tony deserved. He tried to keep his voice steady.
“We won,” he said. “We won seventy years ago. My name’s Tony Stark. I’m Howard’s son.”
“Goddamn it, Stark,” Fury snapped.
Tony ignored him.
Cap was staring at him. And then his wrist shifted under Tony’s hand, and he was gripping Tony’s wrist right back. “No, I—that can’t…”
“I’m sorry,” Tony said quietly.
Steve didn’t answer, just turned away from all of them, unable to speak.
Tony finally looked back at Fury, who was glaring daggers at him. Tony found he didn’t care.
“I’m staying. You’re not going to stop me.”
Fury’s gaze flickered between Tony and the Captain, and said, “You break it, you bought it, Stark.”
Tony nodded, barely noticing as the room was once again emptied. The silence was heavy when it came down, though, enough that he noticed that he was cold out of the armour, and that Cap’s hand was actually freezing.
And that’s the thing—Steve still hadn’t let go of his hand. Tony looked back down at him. “So,” he said, after a long second. “I’m sorry about that.”
“About what?” Steve asked, still looking away. “What have you got to be sorry for?”
Tony flinched; he couldn’t help it. “Buddy, you have no idea,” he said. “But in this case, I guess I’m sorry for just blurting everything out. Probably should be breaking everything to you gently or something. There’s probably regulations for this sort of thing. Then again, maybe not. I’m pretty sure there hasn’t been any other cases of resuscitation from cryogenic freezing out there, so. Yeah. Sorry about that.”
“You talk a lot.”
“Yup,” Tony replied. “It’s how I roll.”
Steve finally turned to give him an odd look. Tony mulled over what he just said, and clarified, “It’s how I am. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do, Cap.”
“Yeah,” Steve said quietly. “I guess I do.”
The ship docked in Iceland to refuel and then headed for New York.
Fury tried to argue that they could get a helicopter to take Steve back to SHIELD in a fraction of the time, and normally Tony would have agreed, but he looked at Steve staring out at the sea, bundled in spare Navy uniforms and sweaters, his hands wrapped up in the sleeves, and he had the sneaking suspicion that suddenly appearing back in the city would probably just compound the surreality of Steve’s position. So he dug his heels in, and they stayed on the boat.
Captain Bowers invited him into his quarters for a drink the second night they were out.
“I’ll miss this little fool’s errand,” he said, pouring whiskey into tin mugs. “Though I guess it was less foolish than I thought.”
“Less foolish than any of us thought,” Tony agreed.
“How’s the captain faring?”
“As well as anyone would, I suppose,” Tony answered, and accepted his drink with a nod. He took a sip and appreciated the warm burn. “Been keeping himself to himself. How does a guy deal with going to his death and then just, waking up in the future?”
“Can’t say I envy him,” Bowers nodded. “Tough bind.”
“And SHIELD’s gonna poke at him until he gives up the secrets to the serum.” Tony twitched. “I can just feel it.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. I think so. Either that, or they’ve got something else planned for him. Else, why the hell get out here so fast?”
“Off the record,” Bowers said, “I’d say keep him close, then. Men like him, if he’s anything like the stories tell, shouldn’t just disappear.”
“No,” Tony agreed. “They shouldn’t.”
Steve stared at the iron blue of the water, and felt cold.
Physically, he knew he wasn’t—digging his fingertips beneath the layers of cotton and wool he’d borrowed from the crew revealed radiant warmth, his metabolism working overtime as always, but that didn’t stop him from shivering. It probably wasn’t helping that he stayed out on deck, but going down below…it was a little too closed, a little too small. And the sea looked the same as it always did.
He couldn’t tell whether that made him feel better or worse.
“Hey, Cap,” Tony said from behind him.
Steve suppressed a flinch. “Call me Steve, please. I’m not exactly Captain America at the moment.”
Tony made an unconvinced noise. “I was led to believe they were one and the same.”
“Captain America is a symbol,” Steve replied, staring into the water. “I’m just a guy.”
“Guess that wasn’t what the newsreels liked to show,” Tony said lightly. Steve sighed.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Stark?”
“Nothing,” Tony answered. He came up to stand at the railing, his shoulder just brushing Steve’s. “It’s more what you can do for yourself.”
Steve looked at him. Tony was staring out at the water, his expression relaxed and neutral, which Steve suspected wasn’t his natural state. Steve could see a lot of Howard in him, in his features and his bearing, but he was distinctly different also—Steve would never mistake one for the other. It was acutely painful, however, to look at Tony and know that Howard was gone, and had been gone for a long time.
Steve had gone into the ice expecting never to see the people he cared about again. This was not exactly a welcome alternative.
Tony was perhaps not so unwelcome, however. He’d been, after all, the only reason why Steve hadn’t gone straight from comatose to wreaking havoc on a friendly ship—Steve had been just about ready to bolt until he’d identified the American accent in Tony’s monologue, and then when he’d opened his eyes, the metal suit had proven the potential truth of what Tony said about being in the future. After all, HYDRA might have had weapons that defied modern standards of technology, but their suits had been leather and steel, not the strange, interlocking plates of titanium alloy with which Tony had been adorned.
And Tony’s grip had been steady, firm and warm. It had done a lot for Steve, in the first moments of waking.
Since then, Tony had been treading carefully around Steve, but had made a point of being around, answering Steve’s questions with patience that Steve doubted was characteristic. He’d shown Steve some common technology around the ship—newest designs in radar and navigation, and then a handheld device that seemed to serve as not only a telephone, but every other conceivable connection to the rest of the world. Steve almost couldn’t believe it, but he’d seen the ‘Iron Man’ armour up close now, and…well. That was hard to beat.
Tony had only tightened up when Steve had asked about Howard: “He’s dead I’m afraid, Cap. And we weren’t on the best of terms, so I’d rather you read up on him, if you don’t mind.”
“What am I going to find, if I do that?” Steve had asked.
Tony had turned away from him. “That he was a great man.”
And that was as loaded a tone as Steve had ever heard, so he’d let it go.
Steve wondered what Tony’s angle was, because he knew that there had to be one—Fury was somewhat easier to read, not because he was in any way transparent, but because Steve knew a military chess master when he saw one, and Fury fit the bill.
“Tell me, then,” Steve said, “What is it that I can do for myself?”
Tony pursed his lips, and threw a glance in Steve’s direction. “Fury’s gonna want to bring you in to SHIELD,” he said. “He’ll probably say it’s for security purposes. And maybe he’ll want you in medical, see if you’re really all right.”
Steve watched him. “Sounds reasonable,” he replied, noncommittal.
“Mm,” Tony agreed. “My advice? Run.”
Steve felt his shoulders stiffen. “Any particular reason?” he said slowly.
“Come on, Steve,” Tony said, with a smirk, “I know you’re not dumb.”
Steve looked back out at the water again, and took a breath. “Is everyone in the military like him, nowadays?”
“Like Fury? No, and thank god for that,” he shuddered. “Christ, if there were more than one Fury period, I think I’d be running for the hills.” His lips twitched. “But things have changed since you’ve been asleep. That includes the military. We’ve, uh, lost a lot of idealism along the way, I’d say. Shit happened.”
Steve winced slightly. “There wasn’t too much idealism on the ground in my time, either,” he said. But he wasn’t unmoved. It wasn’t the language, but the sentiment. Shit happened. And he didn’t know about any of it. He might as well be on an alien planet.
“How do you suggest I catch up?” he asked.
“I’ll get you a tablet when we reach New York. Electronic thing, holds the information of a million books in one slab of silicon,” he added, when Steve raised an eyebrow. “I’ll teach you how to use it before Fury gets hold of you. SHIELD will give you a sanitised version of the truth; or at least, a highly selective one, and I assume you don’t want that.”
“No,” Steve said, “I don’t.”
“Right. So yeah, I’ll get you on the internet, where all the crazies live. Don’t let Fury know you’ve been there.”
“You’re working under the assumption that I’m not going to take your advice,” Steve observed. “That I’m not gonna run.”
“Yeah, well,” Tony eyed him sidelong, “You don’t strike me as the running type.”
Steve supposed he was right about that, at least.
When they touched ground in New York, Steve was almost afraid to disembark—he’d been watching their approach from the outside for hours, taking in a skyline that was both the same and so, so different from when he’d left it. He had memories from that last plane ride, of being shipped out to entertain the troops, his flimsy theatrical Captain America costume stowed away in a bag, and of looking out one of the small windows one last time and seeing New York like an inky blot upon the sea, iridescent with the beginning of the city’s nightlife. He’d been so certain of returning at that point, safe in his job of dancing monkey, that he’d barely given the site a second thought.
And now the whole city looked like sheet metal and glass. Yet he was approaching it like his mother had as a little girl—Ellis Island to his right, filled with the names, true and false, of those that had come before him. It was a strange juxtaposition.
“Home, sweet home,” Tony said. He was back in the metal suit—apparently it was warmer than the borrowed winter clothes he had been using on board, and he had a ‘reputation to maintain’. Steve was still somewhat disconcerted by it, this red and gold figure that seemed to have stepped off of the set of Metropolis, so futuristic that it looked out of place even while Steve was repeating 2012, 2012, over and over in his head.
He didn’t like not being able to see Tony’s face, either. Tony masked his expression with the best of them, but what he felt still leaked out the sides sometimes, and that was a rarity in the company Steve had been in the past couple of weeks. Tony, it was clear, cared about what happened to Steve—though precisely why, Steve didn’t know.
The knowledge was still comforting, in its way.
“No flying cars?” Steve said, eyeing the sky.
“Sorry,” Tony replied, “Those things would do more harm than good. Can you imagine six million people all trying to learn how to drive in three dimensions? We’d all get ourselves killed in a hot second.”
Steve tried to accept that there were now six million people living in New York, and couldn’t quite manage it. “Fair point.”
“You sure about going with Fury?”
Steve had had a meeting with the director that morning.
“Obviously, we’ve never had a case like yours before,” Fury had said, looking at him in his usual steady, inscrutable manner. “But both because of your displacement…issue, and your military affiliations, it’s my opinion that you’ll be both safer and more able to acclimate while in a controlled environment, where you won’t have a hundred people tugging you this way and that.”
“Stay at SHIELD, is what you’re suggesting,” Steve had said readily.
Fury had narrowed his eye. “You don’t seem surprised.”
“It was a logical conclusion to make.”
“Uh huh. Something tells me Stark might have helped you along to that conclusion.”
“And I suspect he had some strong opinions about it.”
Steve had made a noncommittal noise. “I have no ties to anyone beyond the people on board this ship,” he said. “I’m not too thrilled with the possibility of refusing what limited resources are at my disposal. I’ll stay at SHIELD for as long as you’ll have me, and as long as it takes for me to get my bearings. But,” he added, “I’m not going to sign any contracts until that time either.”
“That’s fine,” Fury had said, “So long as you allow medical to have a look at you.”
Fury had pursed his lips. “Nothing overly invasive.”
Steve had folded his hands in his lap, and regarded him. “Okay,” he’d said after a second. “I agree.”
It wasn’t as if he had very much to lose.
“I’m as sure as I can be,” he said to Tony, still looking up at the skyline as the gangway was lowered. “I’m aware of at least some of the risks. And I can take care of myself, worst comes to worst.”
Tony made a noise in his throat. “Worst comes to worst,” he said, and from somewhere in the suit produced a card, “You call me. I’m not doubting your abilities, Captain, but you know as well as I do that you’re a stranger in a strange land here, and frankly, I’ve got enough on my conscience without losing a national treasure to The Man, too.”
“‘National treasure’?” Steve echoed.
“Well,” and Steve could hear the smirk even with Tony’s faceplate firmly in place, “That’s what you are, isn’t it? At least for now.”
Iron Man powered up the repulsors with a humming whine.
“See you ‘round, Captain,” he said, blasting upwards in a gust of heated air, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
“And what’s that, precisely?” Steve muttered, watching him go.
He tried to ignore the fact that he felt bereft, all of a sudden. He remembered belatedly that Tony owed him a ‘tablet’.
...Whatever that was.
SHIELD was a hive of activity, though of a different feel and noise than what Steve remembered of the wartime SSR bases in London and Paris. Steve could feel the distance that now existed between the war-zone and its operators—everyone who wasn’t traveling at a swift and controlled pace from one place to another was bent towards glass panels filled with what could only be real-time footage alongside streams of data of some kind, speaking quietly into headsets that were jarringly small and discreet.
A woman broke off from a group off to one side and walked over to Fury. She was dark-haired and high-cheeked, with a stubborn tilt to her chin, and even though everything else about her was nothing like Peggy, Steve felt his whole chest contract.
He tried to breathe evenly through his nose.
“Sir?” the woman asked, jabbing a finger at Steve before crossing her arms. “Who is this?”
Fury raised an eyebrow. “I’ll tell you,” he said, “But I’m not gonna repeat myself, so get Coulson in the central conference room in ten, and we’ll go from there.”
The woman nodded sharply, and cast a suspicious look in Steve’s direction again before about-facing and striding back to her station.
“Maria Hill,” Fury said, by way of explanation. “She and Coulson are my top clearance staff members. At the moment, your identity is Need To Know. I don’t have time for the bullshit that your presence would incur, should word of you get around, so I’d appreciate it if you kept your personal security tight. Believe me when I say that you are not prepared for modern media, Rogers.”
Steve would protest that, but the way Tony had spoken about the contemporary world had made him...doubtful. It was very clear to him, even from stilted conversations on board the submarine, just how different the world he’d woken up to was, even if the people looked just about the same.
Fury led the way to a conference room that was all glass-walled and steel-brushed. Steve sat down in one of the oddly-shaped black leather and metal chairs, and cocked his head. It was surprisingly comfortable.
“Ergonomic,” Fury said, eyeing him.
“I don’t know what that means,” Steve said.
“It means it’s designed to be good for your spine,” a woman said, coming in and slipping gracefully into another one of the chairs.
Steve blinked at her. She was strikingly beautiful, slim but clearly well-muscled, with a shock of smooth, bright red hair that ended in a bob at her chin. She met his gaze evenly, eyebrows just slightly arched upwards, not quite a challenge, but close.
“What are you doing here, Romanov? Out, this is above your pay grade.” Fury said sharply, though something about his manner suggested to Steve that he wasn’t actually surprised.
“You went off-grid into the north Atlantic without telling Maria or I,” Romanov said, apparently unperturbed and showing no sign of moving from her seat. “And Coulson wasn’t even lying when he said he didn’t know anything either. Now you’re back, and you have someone who looks a hell of a lot like Captain America in tow. Colour me curious.”
“Natasha, now is really not the time,” a man in the doorway said, his mouth pursed slightly. “I’m sure he doesn’t actually look that much like—” then his eyes fell on Steve and he stopped abruptly.
Natasha’s eyebrows rose incrementally further. “See?” she said, ever so slightly smug.
Fury sighed. “Get in here, Coulson. You too, Agent Hill—and shut the damn door behind you. Have you told Barton, Romanov?”
“No,” Natasha replied.
“Continue not to, for fuck’s sake. As of now, what I say here doesn’t leave this room until further notice.” He looked challengingly at Natasha, who demurred with a slow blink. Then he turned to Steve, and exhaled. “All right. Go ahead and introduce yourself, soldier.”
Steve licked his lips, and looked at three people across from him, each of them wearing different shades of expectation on their faces. “Uh, it’s nice to meet you all,” he said haltingly. “I’m Steve Rogers, of the Howling Commandos. I understand it’s been a while since I last was around.”
“How did this happen?” Maria Hill asked Fury, after a long second of awkward silence.
“Ice. And the super soldier serum,” Fury answered. “Howard Stark had a search party sent out annually. This year, we got lucky.”
“Is he immortal?”
“God, I hope not,” Steve said reflexively.
“Not so far as we know,” Fury said. “His cells have aged, albeit not very much while they were effectively cryogenically frozen. We’ll know more after Rogers has had more than a few days to stick around.”
Steve exhaled a breath he hadn’t been aware he’d been holding.
“And are you sticking around, Captain?” the man named Coulson asked. His eyes were a little wide, and he was leaning forward in his chair; next to him, Natasha had a hand delicately over her mouth, her eyes glinting with amusement.
Steve shrugged. “I’ve got nowhere else to be.” He felt acutely aware of the calling card sitting in his trouser pocket.
“Howard Stark,” Natasha repeated. “If this was his expedition, why did Tony let it continue?”
“Paperwork’s airtight, apparently,” Fury said dryly. “Also, it isn’t as if Stark doesn’t have any interest in the good captain.”
Natasha snorted. “So he was there?”
Steve frowned. “Mr. Stark was very helpful.”
Natasha’s gaze sharpened on him. “Oh, really,” she said slowly.
Hill gave him a flat look. “Tony Stark and ‘helpful’ do not belong in the same sentence.”
“Except in very extreme circumstances,” Coulson murmured. Hill shot him a look, but didn’t disagree. The three of them were fascinating, Steve thought. Three distinctly different brands of military training, composure, and poker faces. Hill and Coulson were more similar to each other, with the squared shoulders and straight backs Steve recognised from training camp, but somewhere along the way they’d had divergent career paths before ending up at SHIELD. As for Natasha...Steve couldn’t get a read on her at all. He suspected that this was, for her part, on purpose.
“That aside,” Fury cut in, “The captain will be staying on SHIELD premises for the immediate future. Rogers, if you need anything, these are the people to ask. We’ll get you set up with a space of your own and some reading.”
“If you’re keeping me a secret, am I allowed to walk around here?” Steve asked.
“We’ll give you clearance and an alias,” Fury supplied. “You won’t have to answer any awkward questions, I can guarantee that. And while I’d ask that you not leave the building, at least not yet, you’re free to go wherever your clearance level will allow you.”
Which wasn’t much of an answer, Steve thought, but he let it go for now. He’d seen enough of the building, walking in, to know that there were probably a mass of floors that would be at least innocuous enough to provide good cover for a clandestine government building, which he would probably be allowed to wander through.
“What clearance level is he at then, sir?” Coulson asked. “Four?”
“Five with restrictions,” Fury answered. “I’m entrusting you all with this information,” he took a moment to glare at Natasha, who remained unmoved, “For the benefit of Captain Rogers. You are now his resources and connections to the modern world. Be considerate and helpful, to SHIELD standards.”
“So internet porn is out,” Natasha murmured.
“Doubt you could surprise me,” Steve volunteered. He got three blank stares, and one glittering smirk in response.
“Try me,” Natasha said, raising an eyebrow invitingly.
“Do not encourage her, Rogers,” Fury said with a glower. “Are there any further questions?”
The three agents shook their heads.
“Good. Dismissed.” Fury handed off one of those glass boards to Hill. “Show him to his quarters please, Agent Hill.”
Hill gave a short nod, and a glance to Steve. “If you’ll follow me,” she said, without inflection.
Steve nodded, and did as he was told. At least, for now.
Life at SHIELD HQ was…regular.
Steve quickly learned to be thankful for Natasha Romanov.
“Don’t be on Facebook, you’ll only learn about how terrible all your friends are. Try Twitter instead, there are already fifteen Captain Americas on there at least, you’ll blend right in.”
“O…kay,” Steve said, fiddling with the SHIELD phone he’d been issued. “And I only get a hundred and forty letters to say anything?”
“Yup,” Natasha said. “Just enough space to say how great your day has been and/or list your top five sandwiches.”
Steve raised his eyebrow. “Because people want to know that about ‘Steve Ryerson’?” It was the alias Steve had been given at SHIELD, at least for the staff who weren’t in-the-know. Steve didn’t think it suited him at all, but he hadn’t said anything about it.
“You never know.”
Steve poked at his phone. “This user interface isn’t particularly stable,” he remarked. Tony had shown him his phone on the ship, and it had been a lot more reliable than this, it seemed to him.
Natasha made a face. “We recently switched security systems and haven’t gotten Starkphones to support them yet, it’s kind of tragic.”
“Tony makes the phones?” His enthusiasm for showing Steve his own started to make more sense.
“Among other things. Stark Industries may not be making weapons anymore, but they turn a pretty good profit anyway.”
Steve looked up at her. “When’d that happen?”
“Ah,” Natasha said, mouth twisting into something resembling a smirk. “I suppose I could get his file for you. For a price.”
Which was how Steve ended up splitting his enormous amount of free time either sparring with Natasha or reading heavily redacted files.
Even heavily redacted, Tony’s story was…difficult to get through.
“I had wondered about that thing in his chest,” Steve said, later. “He was quiet about it, so I didn’t ask, but I knew no one else had one, it couldn’t exactly be normal, and—“
“Of all the things that Tony Stark is,” Natasha said, smiling slightly, “Normal is not one of them.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. “I figured.”
The medical tests were as promised: not invasive.
But they weren’t exactly pleasant, either.
“Another MRI?” Steve said, after the third that week.
“Your neurones are adapting and reconnecting at an unheard of rate,” one of the techs explained. “We’d like to record the progress.”
“…Sure,” Steve said. There was nothing wrong with sitting in that isolating tube in a cold room, hammering sounds surrounding him. It didn’t stay with him, or anything. Didn’t follow him into his dreams.
“Just one more, and you’re done for the day, Captain Rogers,” the lead technician said.
Steve smiled his USO smile, and let himself be dragged back into the magnetic tube.
The business card sitting in his jacket seemed to weigh it down, when he slung the thing back on.
Steve was given a laptop. He was pretty sure it was bugged to hell and at least, as Natasha had put it, “childproofed”.
Still, he’d taken to listening to the IT staff when they chatted in the cafeteria, and he was learning the merits of Google. And of discreet, yet useful search terms.
After four days with the computer, he sent a test email.
Hope you’re well. All is in order here.
Barely ten minutes later, there was a reply.
Subject: Re: hi
holy shit steve, is this encrypted? i’m so proud of you buddy it’s like watching a baby bird take flight
Subject: Re: hi
I don’t think they were expecting much trouble from me on this end. Probably best if you find me a secure network off of SHIELD’s system, though.
The next email was just an IP address. Steve saved it, and went on with his life. Or at least, what was counting for it, nowadays.
“It may help to talk to someone,” Fury suggested, after a week. “I know you and Romanov have been getting along, but maybe someone with a little more expertise might be helpful.”
“I’m fine, sir,” Steve said. He’d fallen into parade rest in front of Fury’s desk, and he decided to stay that way.
“You’ve killed five punching bags in the past three days,” Fury said drily. “And you make my staff nervous when you wander around and refuse to answer when they ask where you’re going.”
“Don’t be sorry. We’ve got no damn clue what to do with you, Rogers, and it’s pretty clear that you have no idea what to do with yourself. Why don’t you talk to someone to try and work out a game plan?”
“Will that give me higher security access?” Steve asked, raising his eyebrows.
Fury gave him a look. “We’ll talk about it.”
Subject: care package
hey, did you get the tablet i sent you
Subject: Re: care package
Subject: Re: care package
fuckers probably kept it for themselves. lemme see if I can hack your PC a bit more to give you some cloud storage and reading materials
“How are you getting along with SHIELD’s personnel?” Dr. Feranza asked. “Are you making any friends?”
Steve looked at him, then at his SHIELD uniform, and then down at the ground. “Sure,” he said eventually. “A few.” It’s not entirely a lie, if he counts Maria Hill alongside Natasha. And Fury. People who watch him like he’s part-golden ticket, part-ticking time bomb. Everyone else called him ‘Agent Ryerson’, and Steve couldn’t quite manage to consider any of them ‘friends’, no matter how friendly they were.
“And how are you sleeping?”
“Fine,” Steve said. “Just fine.”
He watched Dr. Feranza quickly mask a frustrated expression, and waited for the hour to wind up. He was looking forward to the new reading material Tony had uploaded, which was apparently vetted and compiled by someone named ‘Pepperpot’.
Hi Tony. Thanks for the ebooks, they’re very interesting. Also, I wanted to tell you—I read your file. I’m sorry.
Subject: Re: sorry
the hell do you have to be sorry for, rogers
Subject: Re: sorry
Invasion of privacy?
Subject: Re: sorry
nothing I don’t expect from shield
hey let’s not talk about it let’s talk about you, they haven’t drained all your blood yet and stuff, right
Subject: Re: sorry
No, it’s been okay. Boring, though. Agent Romanov is teaching me pop culture, but that’s pretty much the only highlight of my day. I think they’re still trying to figure out whether I’m going to be a liability, going forward.
STABBY RUSSIAN SPY IS TEACHING YOU CULTURE WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU LOG ON TO THIS FTP AND I WILL SHOW YOU ALL THE POP CULTURE YOU NEED
Startled, Steve laughed.
And clicked the link.
As it turned out, most of Tony’s idea of culture came from the 80s and 90s. Steve didn’t mind, though. Between him and Natasha, he was beginning to feel fairly caught up.
And if, late at night, he occasionally wrote Tony long rambling emails about the distance he could feel between himself and this world, about the people he missed, and the lies he’d told that day just to get through without friction, that was his business.
He never sent them. But somehow, having Tony’s name in the address bar helped.
“You seem to be doing better,” Dr. Feranza said, looking cautiously pleased. “What’s changed, lately?”
Steve shrugged. “Not much. I have a schedule I keep to. I’ve been reading a lot, trying to catch up. It’s interesting.”
“SHIELD has been giving you materials, I understand,” Feranza prompted.
“Yes,” Steve agreed. It had been an education, comparing those dossiers to the textbooks and scholarly volumes Ms. Potts had been shunting his way.
“Very good. Well, I imagine you’ve been hanging around here long enough, and wouldn’t mind having a look around the city?”
Startled, Steve nodded. “That would be great.”
“It will have to be monitored,” Feranza said, sounding at least nominally apologetic, “But I’ll see what I can do.”
Steve nodded again. “Thanks.”
Tony was at his desk, for once, when Fury called.
“Nick, what a pleasure. I was just about to actually do some paperwork for once and you’ve officially ruined it, this is the most I’ve ever liked you.”
“He’s doing fine, Stark. You can stop hovering.”
“Hm? I’m afraid I don’t know who you’re talking about.”
Fury made a noise in his throat. Tony mentally gave himself a point. “You know exactly what. But Dr. Feranza has good things to say about Captain Rogers’s progress, so this is me politely telling you that you can stop.”
“Afraid he might like me better?” Tony said breezily. “You should. Eyepatch or not, I am way cooler.”
“Enough, Stark. This situation is delicate, and you have all the subtlety of a dump truck. Take it easy, or we’re cutting you off.”
The signal ended.
Tony scoffed at the room at large. The thing was, he had been ready to move on. Steve seemed to be, well, fine. And god knows Tony didn’t need more reminders of Howard right now, not after the Expo debacle.
But. Well. He couldn’t quite shake how lost Steve had looked, when he’d last seen him. Burgeoning computer skills aside, Tony knew better than most that learning new things and staying busy could cover up a lot.
He didn’t really want to stick his nose in Rogers’s business. He shouldn’t, Fury was right, he wasn’t a people person, and if Steve was doing better, then he could be free of the whole thing.
He added a few more movies to the FTP site. He was pretty sure Steve would enjoy Ghostbusters.
“I have another file request,” Steve said, twisting the ball of athletic tape he’d just unwound from his hands.
Natasha wiped a towel across her face, then perched herself on the edge of the boxing ring. “Oh? What do I get in return?”
“Whatever you want,” Steve said.
Natasha stilled, her swinging leg falling back into place. “That’s a risky offer, Captain.”
“It’s important,” Steve said.
She tilted her head. “What file?”
Natasha blinked, but her expression didn’t change. “No charge,” she said, after a long moment. “That one’s pretty easy to get. A lot of the stuff’s been un-redacted in the last decade or so. Though if you want a current address, you’ll have to jump through some hoops.”
Steve’s heart stuttered in his chest, kicked. “‘Current’?”
Saw Peggy today. She’s just the same. Sometimes, at least. I hadn’t wanted to look for her, knowing how much time’s passed, and I’d looked up Dum Dum and Morita already and couldn’t
I’m seeing her again next week. Maybe she’ll be better. It was good to see her.
That postwar history book—there was really a Captain America radio show?? Peggy must have despised it. Of the things I wish she could remember, that’s definitely not one.
I’m starting to really hate the name Ryerson. Hope I don’t meet anyone with the name later on—might be rude on accident.
Natasha threw punches, gave solid (if noncommittal) advice, and answered questions about memes and k-pop.
Fury gave him more history textbooks.
Maria Hill stressed the importance of said text books.
Steve wandered around where he was allowed, and didn’t do much. They let him run in Central Park, which helped, though eventually his guards couldn’t keep up, so they fitted him with a tracker. That helped less.
There was a crisis in Burma, quickly dealt with. Steve only heard about it in passing, and Hill refused to give any further details.
Steve had dinner in the cafeteria, watched Ghostbusters (a bit strange, but he thought he could understand why Tony liked it), went to bed, had disturbing dreams, and woke up again. Then he went to have another MRI.
“How long, exactly, are you planning on keeping me here?” he asked Fury, at one point.
“Where else would you like to be?” Fury replied, face giving away nothing, as usual.
Steve looked at the floor. “Find my own place, maybe,” he murmured. “Go back to Brooklyn.”
“Have you seen Brooklyn lately?” Fury asked, an eyebrow raised.
“I’ve heard it’s changed.”
“You’ve got no damn idea. Captain Rogers, I’m willing to give you more slack if you need it—hell, you want an allowance, we can talk about that—but I think you need to appreciate the position both you and I are in. You know people’ve kept looking for the serum, right?”
That, in particular, had made for some very interesting reading. “I’m aware.”
“SHIELD has kept your identity fairly locked down—Stark, for example, was never privy to that information—but it is out there, in some circles. Meanwhile,” Fury continued, “Everyone has access to your old newsreels, if they cared to look. Keeping you here is a way of staving off the inevitable, Captain. Someone will put the pieces together, and someone will try and track you down. We’re just trying to keep that off the table until you decide what you want to do, or until we can make you an offer.”
“What sort of offer?”
Fury looked at him squarely. “You lived in interesting times during the 40s. I would argue that you’re also living in interesting times now. Push comes to shove, I would want you on my side.”
“Take up the shield again, you mean,” Steve said. “I don’t know if this is the time or place for that.”
“Neither do I,” Fury replied. “Yet.”
Steve was fairly certain that that was a lie.
“So I’m here until you want me to fight for you,” he summarised. “Frankly, I can’t guarantee I’ll want to. I know what shady government organisations look like, Director, I’ve dealt with them plenty in the past. I’ll need to know precisely what’s at stake and why before signing on with anything you’ve got planned.”
Fury blinked slowly. “No one warned me you’d be a pain in the ass, Rogers,” he drawled. He didn’t look hugely annoyed, however.
Steve just shrugged. “Will that be all, Director?”
“Sure, Rogers. You take care.”
They did let him go out to Brooklyn, eventually.
Steve only stayed for an hour before getting back on the subway towards Manhattan.
I’ve missed so goddamn much, Tony
A couple of weeks passed before the inevitable happened—an emergency situation in the city, followed by the intervention of Iron Man.
Steve didn’t hear about it until after the action was over (which in itself was becoming a pattern Steve was getting used to, but didn’t like). By the time he’d learned what had happened, SHIELD was in cleanup mode, and that meant bringing Tony in for debriefing.
“Rogers! Long time no see!”
Steve turned, and felt himself smile involuntarily. “Hi, Tony. What brings you here?”
The Iron Man suit was just as impressive as Steve remembered, and Tony moved so easily in it. “Rogue scientist, trouble in a lab, explosions and weirdness,” Tony said, waving a hand vaguely. “I don’t remember New York being so exciting last time I was here.”
“Mr. Stark, could you please come to the conference room now?” Coulson called from down the hall, looking harried. “You’re meant to be two floors up.”
“But Steve’s down here!” Tony exclaimed. “I can’t say hi to a friend?”
“You can say hi after the debrief.”
Tony gave Steve a long look, unreadable and almost hesitant. “Got any afternoon plans?” he asked.
“Nothing on my plate, except an appointment at one,” Steve said. “I can meet you in the cafeteria afterwards?”
Tony wrinkled his nose. “Only if we don’t have to eat there. I’ll order takeaway or something if you can’t leave.”
“Stark!” Coulson barked.
“Gotta go, see you in a few,” Tony said, and winked as he turned to go.
Steve shook his head. He still had another test to endure.
When Tony showed up in the cafeteria, he was carrying the suit in briefcase-form, and was wearing a black t-shirt and rumpled jeans stuffed into what looked like stolen SHIELD-issue combat boots.
Steve was not going to ask.
“Up, Rogers, I’ve got your permission slip, we’re going out,” he said.
“They’re letting you near me?” Steve asked dryly. He’d overheard a lot about Tony from passing SHIELD agents.
“Threw Fury’s words back in his face,” Tony grinned. “I broke you, I bought you. And now I’m buying you lunch.”
Steve flushed. “I don’t suppose it’s without the tracker?” He really hated the damn wristband.
“You’re in luck—I am my own walking tracker,” Tony replied. “I’m Tony Stark. If you stick with me, SHIELD will have a pretty good sense of where you are, too.”
They went to a Thai restaurant. Steve recognised nothing on the menu, asked Tony to order for him, and got an evil smirk in response.
“What’s your feeling about spicy food?” he asked.
Steve shrugged. “Don’t think I’ve ever had any. Spices were expensive, and then there was the war.”
Tony rubbed his hands together in glee.
Steve, as it turned out, liked spicy food a great deal.
“You can really put it away, jesus,” Tony commented, when their food had arrived.
“Super soldier metabolism,” Steve said, taking another bite of curry. Thai food was great.
“Uhuh.” Tony scooped more shrimp onto his rice and poked it around. “So this is awkward, but I think you sent me an email you weren’t meaning to send.”
Steve froze. “Um.”
Tony pulled out his phone, and showed him.
Subject: personal question
Do you still dream about the desert? I dream about ice a lot. Too much.
[Sent at 2:38 AM.]
Steve exhaled. That was…not as bad (or, well, embarrassing) as it could have been. Still, he hadn’t meant to send it. Or perhaps a small part of him had wanted to, but was too ashamed.
“Sorry?” he tried.
Tony looked at him squarely. “Don’t be,” he said. He paused, tilted his head back and forth, and then put his chopsticks down.
“You know what was the worst part about the desert?” he said. “The walk.”
Steve swallowed. “The walk?” he echoed.
“After I broke out. Made quite an exit, shooting straight up into the sky in my scrap metal tank.” He gestured the curve of his trajectory—up gracefully, parabolic, and then down with a sudden crash.
“I was in the mountains of Afghanistan, that’s all I knew. No idea where I was going, except that I needed to be away from the hills where I’d come from. It sucked. I was banged up from the crash, burned all over the place, and all I could do was walk. I’d used up my usefulness. I built a fucking robot suit in a cave, and then I walked.”
He picked up his chopsticks again, and stabbed a shrimp. “I dream about walking,” he continued, through chewing. “Walking forever in the desert, burning up and never being found. It sucks mostly because I never die. No dramatic death to wake me up, snap me out of it. I just walk, and when I finally do wake up, it feels like I never slept at all.”
He took a sip of water. He did look tired, Steve realised.
“I just dream about the cold,” he blurted out.
Tony put down his glass.
Steve folded his hands in his lap. “I can’t wake up from that either. It’s just dark and cold and I’m alone, more alone than ever was, even after Bucky.”
Tony watched him steadily. “Barnes,” he said. “He fell, just before you.”
“Yeah,” Steve nodded. He became aware that his throat had gone all tight. He hadn’t talked about Bucky to anyone, not in this century. “I couldn’t reach him.” He took a breath, and then another. “I dream about that too, sometimes. But no matter what, on a train or in the water, it’s always cold.”
Tony nodded. “I usually just go down to the workshop after. Design some new things. Break some shit.”
“I use punching bags,” Steve said. “Does what you do help?”
“Nope.” Tony shrugged. “I’ve been told it gets better.”
“How long’s it been?”
“It is better than it was before,” Tony concedes. “Before it was…bad.”
Steve nodded. He’d seen the notes on Tony’s drinking history. Still, Tony was here, and he had been willing to talk, had probably sought Steve out to share this with him. He was farther along than Steve was, and that was encouraging. Even now, Steve felt better for having said something, even if the saying had been painful.
Someone else knew about Bucky now. He wasn’t totally forgotten.
They finished their meals without talking about much else substantial.
“I should get you back to your nannies,” Tony said, handing over a black AmEx to the waiter.
“Do you—do you have to, immediately?” Steve asked. He felt heat rising in his face.
Tony eyed him. “No,” he said slowly.
“Where do you stay when you’re in New York?”
Tony smirked. “Ah. You want me to take you back to my place?”
Christ, Steve was definitely red now. “Well—I—not that I don’t, that is, but I just…you have the suit, and a phone that does all the things you want it to, and I just wanted to see what that was like when it was a place that you lived in. And I haven’t actually been out in the city much, besides going for runs, so I thought…?”
“I see how it is, you’re only in this for my tech,” Tony scoffed, a hand dramatically thrown over his heart. “I am hurt, Rogers, hurt and offended.”
“That’s definitely what your face is saying,” Steve said dryly, relaxing a bit. “Hurt and offense, not excitement at getting to show off all your cool stuff.”
“‘Cool’? Did you just say ‘cool’, you are learning our modern ways, it’s adorable.”
“You gonna take me back to your place or not, mister?”
Tony waggled his eyebrows at him. “I’ll call my driver.”
Tony Stark lived in a tower. That he owned.
Because of course he did.
“You hate it.”
“It’s not really my style?”
“You’re an old, of course it’s not your style.”
An old, Steve mouthed incredulously.
Tony rolled his eyes. “You’ll at least like the inside, I guess. Though to be clear, it’s not finished yet—scheduled to start running on arc reactor power in a few weeks. Totally green, sustainable, efficient. You should like that, you’re a child of the Depression, after all.”
“I do,” Steve admitted. Pepper had very thorough in her environmental reading assignments.
“Well come on in, then,” Tony said.
Tony led the way through still-unfinished lobby—fresh paint and plastic-covered surfaces abounded—and then into the elevator. A somewhat uncomfortable silence descended when the doors slid shut. Tony tried not to fidget.
“So,” he said, drawing it out. “SHIELD is seriously still suiting you?”
“Sure,” Steve said quickly, and then seemed to regret it. “Well, that’s…there’s nothing wrong with it. No one does anything I’m not comfortable with, not really.”
Tony read that as, I’m uncomfortable, but not to the point of total panic. He nodded, waiting.
“But they keep…” Steve stopped.
Tony cocked his head. “What?”
“I can only go between about five floors in the building, and even then a lot of the halls are accessible by a keycard that I don’t have. I’m pretty sure Natasha had to strong arm them into giving me a computer. And the books they—they’re coddling me.”
Tony digested this, and then said lightly, “And so you wanted to see a bit more of the modern world?”
“Maybe,” Steve conceded. It was more than Tony expected to get. He directed several uncharitable thoughts towards Fury.
“Fifty-third floor, sirs,” JARVIS announced. Steve twitched slightly.
“That’s JARVIS. Artificial intelligence, a brain made of computer bits that lives in the house,” Tony said. “Say hi, JARVIS.”
“Good afternoon, Captain Rogers.”
“Damn,” Steve said faintly, and then more clearly, “See? Not coddling me, Tony.”
“Just telling it like it is, Captain,” Tony said, stepping out of the elevator. “Telling you that JARVIS is a secret butler that lives in the ceiling would just be mean.”
“Creative, though,” Steve pointed out. “And maybe more believable. Marginally.”
Tony jabbed a finger at him, charmed despite himself. “You’re funny. It’s weird. Captain America doesn’t get to be funny.”
“Says who?” Steve shot back. Then he stopped. “Whoa.”
“Yeah, so this is the first finished floor. I’ve got a landing pad all set up, takes care of the Iron Man gear. Also: wet bar. Muey importante. But honestly, JARVIS is probably the most impressive thing you’ll come across in these digs. Ooh, that reminds me, JARVIS, after this we’re going down to the workshop, I need to get Steve his tablet and phone.”
“You remembered?” Steve said, sounding a little surprised.
Tony gave him a look. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Steve didn’t say anything.
Tony’s workshop was…incredible. The tablet equally so.
Steve was about to thank him for it when JARVIS cut in.
“Sir, Agent Coulson to see you.”
“Whoops,” Tony said under his breath. “Cheese it, it’s the bulls.”
“That was old before I was a kid,” Steve said, a bit incredulous.
“I’m multilayered. Show him in, JARVIS, might as well face the music.”
The elevator doors slid open, and Coulson stepped out.
“Stark,” he said, looking tired, “This was not part of our agreement.”
“He asked!” Tony said, waving at Steve. “Who am I to deny Captain America? What do you even need him back for?”
“You know I can’t disclose that.”
“Have I missed an appointment or something?” Steve asked.
Coulson gave him a long look. “There’s a car out front. Please come with me.”
Steve clenched his jaw, and gave a sharp nod. He looked over at Tony, whose face was carefully without expression. “Well,” he said, after a pause, “Was nice to see you, Cap. Glad you’re getting on so well.”
“Thanks for lunch,” Steve said.
They shook hands, and Tony stepped in close. He slipped the new Starkphone into his hand, and the tablet into the inside pocket of Steve’s jacket. Steve’s breath hitched when Tony’s knuckles brushed his chest.
“Try not to break anything,” Tony murmured. “And give me a call, anytime, anywhere. You want to come here, there’s always room.”
“Thanks,” Steve repeated quietly. He pulled away with difficulty, and followed Coulson back into the elevator, and out onto the street.
“So he’s doing all right, then?” Pepper asked, later that week.
“As far as I can tell,” Tony replied. “Sure. He’s fine.”
Pepper paused. “What definition of ‘fine’ are you using right now?” she said, sounding a little more concerned.
“Oh, you know,” Tony said airily.
As it happened, Tony was not quite using the Tony Stark Definition of ‘Fine’ (TM)—a.k.a., close to a mental breakdown but hiding it pretty successfully—but he was coming close.
According to his emails, sporadic and staid as they were (apart from that one accidentally sent one, which, christ), Steve went weekly to therapist appointments at SHIELD that he always came back from with an undercurrent of irritation that only dissipated after watching a movie, or sketching for hours. He also went regularly to an elderly care facility which…well, Tony wasn’t about to ask, but there were a limited number of logical reasons for why Steve, a man out of time, might go there. Those days were usually the worst of all, and Tony made a point of replying promptly to any messages sent on those days, or at least sending stupid cat videos over to keep Steve occupied.
Then there were the dreams, which Tony was pretty sure Steve hadn’t told anyone else about, and there was the way Steve had locked up when they’d gotten into the elevator, like he no longer cared for closed, small spaces.
Yeah, he was ‘fine’ all right.
Tony hadn’t needed to go off on his own at SHIELD when he’d gone back there for debrief—he could have easily gone straight in and out and never seen Steve at all. But that morning he’d gotten Steve’s insomnia-drunk email, followed soon after by an emergency alarm, and yeah, there hadn’t been a chance he wasn’t going to wander around SHIELD until he got a chance to look in on their wayward super soldier.
He was glad he did. But at the same time, he realized with a sort of dull horror that he was now perpetually worried.
He wondered if this was how Pepper felt all the time.
The back of his hand itched where he’d tucked it into the warmth of Steve’s jacket.
“Well, you let me know if you need any more reading material for him,” Pepper said.
“He has the internet now, and a tablet with the safe search turned off,” Tony replied. “Either he’s all set, or he’s doomed.”
Steve tried. Particularly after he had another chat with Fury.
“What did I say before about staying under the radar? Stark is the radar, Cap. You did not help things by going off-course and showing up at Stark Tower. People notice that shit, and we’ve since spent a significant amount of man power getting that erased from public record. I'm not trying to be difficult, Captain, I'm just telling you how it is.”
Steve winced. Didn’t entirely agree, but appreciated the concern nonetheless.
Particularly when, the very next day, Hill forwarded him several tabloid headlines inquiring about the ‘new blonde in reformed warmonger Tony Stark’s life’.
So Steve filled his room with books and art supplies, and tried to make it seem like a home, at least a little. It was hard, given that he wasn’t sure whether he was supposed to have the tablet or phone Tony had given him (the answer was probably no), and so he had to keep them in his coat, or in a drawer. They would have looked more welcome sitting on his desk, waiting for him.
The books were all SHIELD-approved, the radio vintage. It was all very fake.
Steve stowed away his electronics, encrypted his laptop a little more.
He thought it was better.
T: steve amuse me quick i’m dying
S: let me guess, board meeting?
T: more like BORED MEETING AMIRITE
S: you are terrible
T: seriously pep wont let me leave its the worst
S: I think you’ll survive
T: what are you doing
S: just came back from a run, was going to watch a documentary on the Dust Bowl
T: ken burns? rock on
S: I only read about what was happening in the papers, it’ll be interesting to see how accurate the reporting was
T: r u going to become a secret history nerd
T: r u going to start writing letters to historians correcting them on their shit
T: if so, i support you
S: that may draw more attention than is probably safe
T: who cares
T: shine bright like a diamond cap
S: I don’t understand that reference
Natasha remained invaluable. “Heard you saw Stark. I would’ve bought you more time with him if I’d known.”
“That you actually liked him. The whole ‘helpful’ thing was a clue, but you never know. Anyway, I’m glad you went out, because I try to generally stay clear of him—I stabbed him with a syringe last time we worked together and he’s still bitter, even though it kept him alive for long enough to save himself,” she said, unwrapping athletic tape from her knuckles. “I try to be accommodating when I’m without outside instructions. Besides, I like him best in small doses.”
Steve stretched his neck and felt out where a bruise was fading on his jaw—Natasha had gotten him with a solid right hook. “Was that the expo incident?”
“Yup,” she said. “So how was it, seeing him again?”
“It was good,” Steve said. “Different. The future felt…more real, somehow, after talking to him.”
She looked at him carefully. “I get that. Though you know Stark lives in a bit of a bubble too, right?”
“I’ve noticed,” Steve said dryly. “The giant tower was a tip-off.”
“I’m surprised he’s in there, what with it mostly half-finished.”
“The living quarters and bottom twenty floors are operational, and I think he wanted to be away from Malibu, anyway, after—well, you were there,” Steve replied. “It’s a pretty good set-up already, what with the gym and the apartment, and there’s a great coffee shop on the ground floor.”
“You’re smitten, aren’t you?” Natasha said, waggling an eyebrow at him.
Steve snorted. “I’ve seen him once since the boat, for less than an afternoon.”
Natasha’s eyebrow paused, and then went high up on her brow. “I was talking about the tower,” she said slowly. “But good to know.”
Steve flushed, very slightly. “Um.”
“I guess you weren’t kidding when you said Stark was helpful, when you were sailing to shore.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Was that innuendo?”
“No. Should it have been?”
“Shame. I hear he’s pretty excellent in bed, which is surprising, considering all the money. But Pepper’s only given glowing reviews, and that was after they broke up for good.”
“That’s more than I needed to know about Ms. Potts,” Steve pointed out, even as he felt his face go redder. “I’m also surprised you’re still on speaking terms with her.”
“Push came to shove, we were working towards the same thing,” Natasha shrugged. “We’re reasonable people. Grudges are impractical.”
Steve snorts, and clambers to his feet. “I think I’m not the only one who’s made a friend.”
Natasha hums, and pulls herself up with Steve’s proffered hand. “Hey, before we call it a day,” she said. “I wanted to let you know that I’ll be on mission for the next couple of weeks.”
Steve nodded, surprised only that she was choosing to let him know. “Anything serious?”
“Should be routine,” she dismissed. “Very familiar territory.”
“Well, then have a safe journey,” Steve said.
She gave him a look.
“A productive journey,” he amended.
She smiled. Then she cocked her head. “You’re still in contact with Stark?”
Steve paused, and then nodded.
“Good,” she said. “I’m glad you have him. Normally I’d advise to find someone a little more normal to stabilize yourself with, but I guess you’re not particularly normal yourself, huh?”
“I’m just a guy,” Steve said, a little stubbornly.
“Yeah. And lots of ‘guys’ have tried to make themselves into Captain America.” She punched him in the shoulder. “Since Brooklyn didn’t work out, maybe you should consider another option, huh?”
“Are you supposed to be telling me this? You work for SHIELD.”
“And believe it or not, but SHIELD wants you happy and functional,” Natasha replied. “We just have differing opinions of how we might achieve that."
“While maintaining control over the situation, you mean,” Steve clarified.
“That’s a given. Fury wants you contained, and he’ll keep you that way as long as you don’t do anything drastic.”
“He made that much clear. His reasoning isn’t totally flawed,” Steve admitted.
Natasha nodded, and then picked up her jacket and headed for the door. “I’m free to give you my opinion, that’s all. Now you have it. And one other thing: it’s my opinion that we’re not going to just let you out the front door. Especially if they know where you’re headed. Stark’s an ally, but he’s outside the system in a way that an apartment in Brooklyn wouldn’t have been.” She smiled a little thinly. “Food for thought.”
“Thanks,” Steve said. “I think.”
Despite Natasha’s opinions, Steve tried to make SHIELD work for him. It wasn’t that the idea of seeing Tony more wasn’t appealing—it was, perhaps, too appealing—it was more that Steve wanted SHIELD to work for him.
It had been the right decision to go with SHIELD, getting off the rescue ship. Steve had been sure of it then, and he continued to be sure now. He knew also, from what he had gathered about SHIELD’s activities, covert and in cooperation with other governments, that Fury and his organization were generally as morally well-aligned as any large group with this many ties to less-scrupulous powers could be. He wanted to do his duty, wanted to be okay enough to continue to do his job if he was going to be alive and awake in this new time, and being at SHIELD was the best way he could see of achieving that.
But Natasha was off on her mission, and Dr. Feranza was taking his answers with more and more caution, given his willingness to go off the reservation.
So Steve tried, but he didn’t always succeed.
When he didn’t, when there were bad days, he wondered a bit what it would be like to do something selfish, that he wasn’t sure was right for everyone, but might be right for him.
Tony worried a lot.
He tried not to think about it.
Deep in the guts of Mark XIV, he heard his private cell phone ring. He ducked out of the armor and squinted. “Time, JARVIS?”
“3:47 AM, sir.”
“Jesus. Who is it?”
“Captain Rogers, sir.”
“Jesus. Answer it!”
There was a pause, and then JARVIS said, apologetically, “I’m afraid he hung up, sir.”
“Butt-dial?” Tony asked, semi-rhetorically, and then immediately shook his head. “Nah. What’d’you think, J?”
“I couldn’t begin to speculate, sir.”
Tony tapped the ratchet in his hand against his thigh. “Call him back,” he said eventually.
Steve picked up after the fourth ring. “You need something, Stark?” His voice sounded thick, like he had a cold.
Captain America, of course, didn’t get colds.
“No,” Tony said eventually. “However, I have just about had it with this one super irritating bug in the suit’s ventilation system, and need to talk at someone who isn’t a product of my brain in order to maybe get to the bottom of it. Can that someone be you?”
Steve exhaled wetly. “Sure thing,” he said, sounding a little steadier. “Don’t expect any meaningful responses, though.”
Tony made a dismissive noise. “Your input is not necessary. Your presence, however, is invaluable.”
“Okay, Tony,” Steve said. Tony thought he could hear him settle back, probably into bed. Like everything else, he tucked that image carefully away, out of reach.
“So the essential properties of the ventilation system are always to let in air only—I need circulation, however I also do not need to be poisoned in a germ warfare situation, or drowned. Sound difficult?”
“Mm,” Steve said.
“You’re right, it is, it’s ridiculously difficult, Steven, it requires constant monitoring of ambient conditions and instant responses. Thankfully, I am a genius, and therefore my intellect is more than a match for this conundrum. So, what I’ve done is…”
Tony talked for about an hour, explaining bit by bit the solution to a problem he’d managed to solve two days ago. By the end of it, Steve’s breathing was deep and steady on the line.
“…And there we go. Boom. Done. I’m awesome. You there, Steve?”
Quiet inhale. Quiet exhale.
Tony rubbed his eyes, and then said roughly, “End the call, JARVIS.”
The workshop felt particularly silent.
Tony went back to work.
“Pepper, what are we using the 51st floor for?”
“Of the tower? Temporary residences for visiting R&D officials and other imported lab technicians. Why?”
“What about the 52nd?”
“That’s not been assigned yet. Tony, why are are you asking?”
“Can we keep it unassigned for a bit longer?”
“The power’s going online in less than a week. I’d like to have a complete plan by then to start scheduling move-ins.”
“Right. Um. Okay. Leave it open, will you? Just until the power goes on? I might have a thing.”
“A thing.” It was amazing how Pepper could transmit a raised eyebrow across a voice-only call.
“Just an in-case thing.”
“An in-case-of-supermodels thing, or an in-case-of-international-incident thing?”
“They can’t be one and the same?” Tony said, outraged.
“Just…keep it clear, please?”
She sighed. “Fine. Zoning?”
“Residential still. Just…clear.”
“Fine. Will that be all, Mr. Stark?”
“It will, Ms. Potts.”
Pepper disconnected, and Tony wiped a hand over his face. It probably wouldn’t come to anything.
“So you’re having nightmares. And…you have been, without telling me, for more than a month.” Dr. Feranza said. He pinched the bridge of his nose. Then he exhaled, and nodded at Steve. “That’s normal, these things take time.”
“Okay,” Steve said flatly.
Dr. Feranza narrowed his eyes. “But what you do need to start doing is to be mindful of yourself. Are there things that exacerbate these dreams? Allay them? Are there places you can go that feel safe when you’re having a bad day? It’s time to not only think about the reasons behind your anxieties and troubles, but also the reasons for changes in those things. Healthy coping mechanisms are an important part of recovery, because they serve as a stopgap even when your brain isn’t quite ready to heal itself yet.”
Steve looked at his hands. “Huh,” he said.
“Um. I’ll think on it.”
Dr. Feranza sighed. “Do.”
Steve walked to his room and shut himself inside, locking it behind him. He was sure any self-respecting SHIELD agent probably could gain access, but it was an important habit to maintain, in any case. He folded himself onto the bed, and stared at the sketches he’d plastered across the opposite wall.
Peggy, present and past. Bucky. Gabe, Dum Dum, Jim and the rest of the Commandoes.
The train, because he’d thought, late one night, that maybe putting it on paper would take it out of his mind. (It hadn't.)
That damn dancing monkey, redrawn, because it was the beginning, sort of.
Then there were the newer drawings, scratched into post-its, on napkins and legal pads, because after using up the first pad of proper paper, Steve hadn’t wanted to impose and ask for more, especially when Feranza and Hill were practically throwing notebook paper at him, long ago switched to tablets. Steve had found he liked working with ruled paper, liked using the straight lines to achieve the geometric details of architecture, and then moving against them to carve out the curves of people and animals.
A hallway at headquarters, filled with milling, faceless people.
Layers upon layers of clear glass displays, glowing with files and video and reports on covert ops.
Fury, once—his expression, as always, unamused.
And then there was Tony. Steve had accumulated a lot of those, despite having only his memory and the occasional press release to go on. Scribbles of quick hand movements, steady eyes, mid-conversation. The armor, or what Steve had remembered of it after the fact, full of gleaming surfaces carved out of the pencil lead with judicious eraser.
At the far right of the wall, there was a quick four-panel comic of Tony talking and chewing Thai food, his hand extended, describing panel by panel the rise of Mark I, and its almost immediate fall. The last panel has his hand flat on the table, his face downturned, his opposite hand slack around his chopsticks. Steve had taken extra care with that section, the sweep of his lashes, the hard purse of his lips forming an inward, mocking half-smile.
He got up and peeled the comic strip from the wall, carefully removing the blu-tack from the wall in the process. He stared at the picture in his hands for a long moment. Then, he put it down.
Fury wants you contained, Natasha had said. And he’ll keep you that way as long as you don’t do anything drastic.
Methodically, he began to take them all down.
“These are the estimates we’ve worked out for the quarter, and if you’ll sign this we can have—“
Tony’s phone rang. The tune was ‘Star-Spangled Man’.
Pepper stopped abruptly in the middle of the hall, and raised an eyebrow, “Tony?”
Wordlessly, Tony fished his phone out of his pocket.
Tony smiled. “Hiya, Cap,” he said, jovial and joking. “Ready to blow that popsicle stand?”
“I think so,” Steve said. “At least for now.”
Tony froze. Looked wide-eyed at Pepper, and then shook himself. “Seriously? Fury’s gonna be pissed,” he cackled.
Steve snorted. “Probably. So make it snappy, Iron Man.”
“Your wish is my command, Capsicle.”
The line went dead. Capsicle, Steve mouthed to himself, dodging a security camera and hitching his bag up over his shoulder.
It was sort of funny.
Tony hung up the phone, and stuffed it in his pocket. “Pepper, I’m gonna have to cancel on the next meeting.”
“Tony, it is in ten minutes,” Pepper hissed at him.
“Yep, gotta see a man about a dog. Or something. Whatever, I’ve got a different meeting. Also, if SHIELD calls, tell them you know nothing, no idea where I am, blah blah.”
Pepper narrowed her eyes. Tony tried to start walking again; she put a finger on his chest. He stopped. She crossed her arms.
“I will cancel the meeting,” she said. “But try not to piss off Director Fury too much on your way out. I’m the one who has to field calls from Coulson when you irritate him.”
“You’re a gem.” Tony kissed her cheek, and took off at a run.
“Get him back safely!” Pepper called after him.
Steve gathered a small bag—inconspicuous, topped off with one of several history textbooks issued to him by SHIELD. Underneath that, a change of clothes, and a shaving kit. He slung that and his jacket over one shoulder. He typed into his phone as he walked.
S: I think I have an exit route. East side roof, ETA 5. Might need a ride.
Steve dodged out of the way of a line of guards, slunk past a colonel and then darted through a staff door that was inches from swinging shut. He took the stairs two at a time, and came out on the twentieth floor. There, he swiped a key card from a passing pilot, and went back into the stairwell. Ten more flights, and he was keying into the rooftop landing pad. He walked normally from there, and then dropped into a crouch behind a pile of crates.
His phone beeped.
T: RU fukin serious cap
Steve snorted. I know you have voice recognition and spell-check, he typed.
T: Voice recog and spelling doesn’t capture HOW UNIMPRESSED I AM, STEVEN
S: ETA 2
An alarm started up in the lower levels, a dull pulsing roar. SHIELD agents paused, hands flying to earpieces. Steve stifled a slightly hysterical laugh. This was all far too familiar. He could almost hear Bucky yelling at him in the back of his mind.
…That sobered him right up.
S: You here?
T: ETA 30 secs
S: Jumping in 20
T: F. U.
Steve took an assessing glance, planned a route. Stood up straight.
From behind him, he heard the distant shouting of Fury. “Rogers! Rogers, what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
He saluted over his shoulder. “Trying something new, Director,” he called back. “I’ll be in touch!”
“Sir, I’ve locked onto Captain Rogers.”
“Right, where is he?”
“He is falling, sir, ten degrees east.”
Tony gunned it. “Motherfucking crazy person, who does he think he is, we just pulled him from the ice and now he’s going to flatten himself, Christ, pull up JARVIS—“
“Oof. Hi, Tony,” Steve said.
“Is this how you treat your friends, Cap? Throw yourself out of tall buildings, hoping they’ll catch you—“
“’S’how we won the war,” Steve said earnestly. He squinted against the wind. “Wow, you go fast.”
Tony adjusted his grip, all too aware that their current position was faintly…compromising.
“I was just gonna throw the book at Fury, I have like eighteen lawyers on call, you didn’t have to—“
“But now you don’t have to—“
“You are completely bonkers, are you sure the ice didn’t—“
“It’s nice to know that you’ll catch me,” Steve said with finality. “That’s a thing I like to know about my friends.”
Tony banked to cut along 34th Street, steering one-handed, the other arm occupied with crushing Steve to him as closely as he could manage. Steve, for his part, seemed to have a pretty good grip on his shoulders, but Tony wasn’t about to trust him, supersoldier or no. “You need therapy,” he announced. “And this is coming from a guy who’s needed it since his teenage years. Also, goddamn you are heavy, what are you carrying with you, dictionaries?”
“I’ve had it,” Steve said, sounding a little breathless, but that was probably the velocity. “The past few weeks. Didn’t much care for it, though I could tell they meant well. And it’s not dictionaries, it’s history books.”
“You—I am not a pack horse, this is an insult, I am insulted. And a few week’s not gonna do shit, what have I already told you about how long it’s been since Afghanistan. Hang on, you’re gonna need to lean with me on this turn.”
Steve, as it turned out, was a pretty good co-pilot.
Stark Tower loomed overhead, and Tony tilted up to make a wild curl up its side before rolling back down onto the landing pad.
Steve made a gasping, laughing sound on the upwards loop.
“So you’re an adrenaline junkie. Should’ve known,” Tony said, making a smooth landing. He takes a second before letting go of Steve.
“That was—wow,” Steve said, grinning a bit.
Tony flipped up his faceplate, and grinned back. “Adrenaline junkie. Takes one to know one.” He waited for a second, half expecting Steve to say something more, but when he didn’t, he rocked back on his heels and said, maybe a little too brightly, “So, wanna see your new digs, then?”
Steve quirked an eyebrow at him. “Were you expecting me or something?” he said.
“‘Or something’,” Tony said, bumping his shoulder against Steve’s as he passed him and stepped onto the disengage unit. The armor came off in pieces as he walked. He wrinkled his nose at the Ferragamo suit, now thoroughly crumpled, that he was left in. “Ugh, my dry cleaners are gonna hate this. You couldn’t have called when I was out of the office?” He went over to the elevator and stepped inside. Then he looked over at Steve, who had a slightly shellshocked look about him. “Chop chop, Rogers, get your head in the game.”
Steve laughed quietly, a disbelieving huff of breath. “Sure,” he said.
“You caught me on a busy day, it’s a good thing I like you.”
They got into the elevator, and descended several floors.
“That’s new,” Steve said, nodding at the projection on one wall of the elevator, of a broad expanse of the city.
“Elevator felt claustrophobic. Easy fix,” Tony said.
Steve gave him a sharp look, but didn’t speak further. The doors slid open to reveal a broad, empty apartment with basic furnishings, and very little else.
“Welcome to your floor,” Tony said. “It’s got all the amenities, but beyond that, you’re gonna have to work it out on your own. I was going to try and order some stuff in to get you started, but you didn’t give me much warning that you were coming. That said though, there’s a black AmEx with your name on it, for whenever you feel like you’ve decided what you want.”
Steve looked around, and didn’t seem disappointed. “I’ve done a lot more with a lot less,” he said. “What do I owe you? I’ve heard I’ve got back pay, hazard pay.”
Tony waved him away. “I can afford an extra floor, I can afford you. Destroy the place, and then maybe we’ll talk about payment.”
Steve glanced at him. “Why do this for me?”
“Because.” Tony stopped. Shrugged. “I was the first one to talk to you here, in this time. Maybe I’ve got a guilt complex.”
“You did pretty well by me then,” Steve said. “This is a little above and beyond.”
“Above and beyond is what I do,” Tony said, clapping him on the shoulder. He paused. “You know, I was prepared to hate you, after I got over the shock of seeing you alive and kicking. I told you that me and the old man had a complicated relationship, and you were part of that. But uh…you’re all right, Steve. I’ve been glad to help you, this whole time.”
Steve stopped in the entrance to the apartment, his apartment.
Tony turned back to look at him. “What?” he asked.
Steve thought for a long moment about all the things he wanted to say, and felt overfull with them, unable to choose one. Because when Tony had shown him his room, he’d looked at the massive expanse of empty space, devoid of character, clean and sterile, and it was like looking at a blank canvas, full of nothing but what Steve could want, free of expectations, and open to whatever things, old and new, he chose to place there.
He wanted to say a great deal, and all of it felt like too much, too soon. He wanted to say it anyway, but he knew he probably shouldn't.
“Nothing,” he said eventually. “Just…thanks. Again.”
“You’ve got great timing, actually,” Tony said, looking slightly uncomfortable. “I was going to turn the reactor power on tonight—hook it up to the grid. Provide the surrounding three blocks with free power. It’s gonna be a nice little light show; Pepper will come by too, so you can meet her, she’ll get a thrill out of that.”
“We gonna have Coulson chasing you down again?”
“Probably," Steve said, rubbing the back of his neck. "I got a brief call from Natasha the other day saying she was being transferred to a new op, maybe serious, something to do with an agent that’s been compromised. They may actually need me around, instead of just keeping me on site and on call. Iron Man too, if it’s really bad.”
“Well, at least the attorney fees won’t be wasted, then. Ugh, it's probably aliens, the way our lives are going.” Tony looked at his watch. “Hey, so there’s nothing interesting on your floor yet, but I can definitely show you around the rest of the building, at least what’s up and running, which is more than when you were here last time. And Pepper’s coming at six, and she's bringing champagne, so that’ll be fun. Hey! How d’you want to get the rest of your stuff? You’re friends with Hill, right, she's in Fury's pocket but she probably likes you anyway, charmer that you are, maybe she could smuggle it out…JARVIS! What say you?” He started to drift back towards the elevator, commentating and gesticulating wildly.
Steve grinned, and made to follow, a warm feeling growing in his chest.
Maybe sometime soon, when things were settled, and there wasn't a distant threat on the horizon, he’d show Tony one of the emails he’d never sent, one of the more important ones.
I’m glad you were the first person I saw. It could have been so much worse, my imagination runs away from me at times, and I’ve thought of so many ways it could have been awful, so much more awful than it was, is…
I’m glad it was you.