Natasha is the first person SHIELD introduces him to. She’s cool, collected, and at the end of the day, Russian. Captain America means little to her; she’s more interested in Captain Rogers.
Steve figures that she’s probably reporting on him to Director Fury, but at least she teaches him how to knife fight and explains what a frappuccino is. Steve, he discovers, likes them when they’re made with caramel and have those little sugar bits on top. Natasha only drinks her coffee black, but her face softens when he gets whipped cream on his nose.
In between the mandatory training sessions and psych evals, Natasha and Steve become friends. They talk about art and architecture and food, and Steve remembers that he’s more than solitude and war and snow.
Steve meets Clint next, but he suspects that’s an accident. Natasha’s sparring with someone already when he gets to the gym (late, thanks to yet another surprise psych eval. They’re all so worried about him). She pins the man with ease, and he smiles, calls her beautiful, asks if she’d like to smack him around some more. Steve has seen Natasha break a man’s nose for less (it had been a bad week), but she just smiles and helps him up.
He’s introduced to Steve as Clint Barton, codename Hawkeye. “Don’t tell Coulson I was here, I’m not technically off bed rest yet,” he says. He has a cocksure grin and broad shoulders.
Clint seems similarly unconcerned with Steve’s status as an American icon. Natasha explains that Clint only cares about two things in the world, but doesn’t say what. Steve’s just happy to have people around him who don’t think of him as a ticking time bomb of mental instability.
(“That’s because we’re in the same boat, buddy,” Clint says one night after a few beers, “The best assets are the ones with shady pasts and steady hands. Besides, those Captain America cartoons were always so fucking boring. You’re way better man.”
Steve does his best not to blush.)
The meeting with the rest of the Avengers happens all at once, thanks to Loki’s sudden desire for revenge. It does not go so well. Thor thinks Steve’s some sort of demigod and Tony thinks that he’s just a trussed up piece of propaganda. Bruce is reserved in a way that makes Steve uneasy.
Fury tells them that he doesn’t care about their petty bullshit, that they are all here to fight the good fight so shut up and go to work, Clint would you stop trying to sneak up on me, for the love of God, I will assign you to desk work.
(“No he won’t,” Clint tells Steve later, trying to get Steve’s mind of Howard Stark and the past, “He knows that I’m only going to more of a distraction then. Confine me to a desk and I’m just going to go find Coulson. Without him, man, the whole Initiative falls apart.”)
As people, it takes time to get to know each other.
As teammates, they figure it out pretty fast. The field isn’t the place for drama, and familiarity is borne from necessity. Steve knows that friendship will come with time.
Eventually Bruce opens up, begins to trust the Avengers more, begins to trust himself more. He introduces them to Betty and lets Steve hang out in his lab.
Thor and Steve eventually reach a middle ground of understanding. It’s easy enough to bond with the only other person out of their depths as well (although Steve suspects out of time is far easier than out of place). Together they figure out the internet and cell phones and get conned by Darcy into getting spray tans.
He can’t quite figure out how to be friends with Tony. They seem to rub each other in all the wrong ways. Tony, at first, reminds Steve of Howard and, in turn, of all the people he’s lost. Steve seems to remind Tony of Howard as well, although Steve’s not really sure of what that means.
“Just ignore him,” is Natasha’s advice, “Tony Stark is an unstable man-child.”
Clint nods soundly, “Play hard to get, man. Tony’s got ladies throwing themselves at him all day long. What he wants is a challenge.”
“I’m trying to work with the guy, not sleep with him,” Steve says, taken aback.
Clint just grins, “Just giving you some friendly advice from a guy who knows a thing or two.”
Natasha, in an unusual display of emotion (although Steve is starting to expect that Clint and Natasha are each other’s exceptions in most things), rolls her eyes, “Ignore both of them, Steve. Clint knows more about relationships than Tony Stark does, but Clint once gave me dynamite for a birthday present.”
(It takes a while, but eventually Steve figures out that Clint and Natasha are no longer together, although he has no idea when that ship sailed.
He still hasn’t figured out things with Tony though.)
Tony takes it too far one day, after a mission gone bad. Asks what good Steve is, besides a relic of America’s past. Says that he doesn’t need the Avengers. Says that he doesn’t play well with others.
Steve wants to know what hurt him so badly. Wants to tell him that Howard was many things, but Steve never thought that he should be a father. Instead he calls Tony out, rises to the bait, asks what Tony is without Iron Man, like they’re not the same person, like without the heart of Tony Stark Iron man would be anything at all.
Tony seems to rise to the challenge.
What are you? Steve asked, and Tony answers with proof.
Genius Billionaire, Tony answered, and he creates even lighter body armor for Steve. Builds the quinjet. Upgrades Hawkeye and Black Widow’s incendiary devices. He makes an arc reactor powered watch.
Playboy, Tony said, and be brings a new girl to every banquet. Brings home every reporter. Goes twelve for twelve for all the playmates this year. Twice.
Philanthropist, Tony declared, and donates money to Steve’s favorite museums. He builds Clint’s orphanage (that he shouldn’t technically know about, but everyone knows that Tony has hacked SHIELD’s computers) a new wing. Starts a scholarship fund at Bruce’s alma mater. Upgrades the computers in Jane’s lab.
(Steve says, “You don’t have to do this.”
Tony just looks at him and asks, “Do what?”)
Tony is conned into letting the Avengers move into his house after six months of fieldwork. Fury says it’s either that or Tony moves into SHIELD headquarters. Elite teams are required to live together. Tony grumbles and Steve would feel guilty, but he’s seen Tony’s house. The man could use some company.
The move is easy, relatively, for the Avengers.
Everyone’s allowed to pick their own room, but Steve could have done it for them.
Clint picks the room on the top floor with the best coverage out the windows. Bruce picks a room low down and out of the way, just in case. Thor finds the bedroom where Tony has for some reason hung a velvet painting of Elvis (“Earth’s great King!” Thor bellows in delight, “It will honor me to sleep under his visage!” and Steve can’t figure out if he should blame Clint or Tony more). Natasha picks the bedroom with morning light and bay window.
Steve chooses the room down from Tony’s by accident, but he likes the central location and has a stubborn streak a mile wide. Besides, he figures, it’ll help bridge whatever tension lay between them.
The house is strangely quiet at first, everyone sticking to their own corners.
Coulson comes over to check on them, “And make sure no one has killed Barton yet. He has a nasty habit of hiding in the rafters.” Coulson sips at his coffee and ignores Clint climb down from the counter where he was poised to strike and sulk out of the kitchen.
“It’s not like the Howling Commandos,” Steve says, “we’re fighting together, but not every day. Outside of training we don’t have to see each other.”
“Perhaps family game night then,” Coulson suggests dryly, and Steve suspects he means just as long as Stark is behaving himself.
Coulson must have said something to Tony, because Tony declares that they’re having a party.
“Not with civilians you aren’t,” Hill says sternly, “Stark Mansion is now Headquarters of the Avenger Initiative.”
“I am an eccentric millionaire; I am allowed to have eclectic friends.” Tony huffs, “Besides, it’s still my house. The one I let you live in out of the goodness of my heart.”
“I am still authorized to taze you.” Coulson informs him, casually flipping through the briefing in front of him, "and I'm behind on Super Nanny."
Tony still has the party. Civilians are not invited.
Pepper’s there, because she’s always there when Tony might do something inadvertently horrible. Bruce brings Betty. Thor brings Jane, who drags Darcy along. Coulson’s there, for some reason (he claims damage control; Clint claims he gets lonely; Tony mutters something about Coulson trying to destroy fun).
Everyone, shockingly, gets along fine.
Natasha, Clint, and Darcy are playing Wii bowling. Steve fears they’ve turned it into some sort of vicious truth or dare drinking game.
Betty and Jane get on like a house on fire, leaving Bruce and Thor looking sullen and rejected in a corner.
Coulson and Pepper are chatting over drinks.
Steve sits on the couch and feels like this might work out after all.
“They’re talking about us you know.” Tony says, flopping himself onto the sofa next to Steve. Steve wonders how much he’s had to drink.
“Why would they be talking about us?” Steve asks. Last he checked, they were talking about museums in Vienna.
“Coulson’s probably trying to get my ass thrown off the Avengers. The man’s never liked me. I suspect it’s due to his dull personality and that giant stick up his ass. Pepper’s probably secretly agreeing, but arguing that the Avengers doesn’t really work without the Stark bankroll.” Tony grins, “SHIELD only wants me for my money, which is fine. I have a lot of it.”
“You’re also Iron Man,” Steve points out, “Besides, it sounds like they’re only talking about you.”
Tony rolls his eyes, “Everyone’s always talking about you, Cap. Whether you can handle the twenty-first century. Whether someone should get you a cell phone. Whether you can handle this little group of ours. Whether you can handle working with Howard Stark’s son.” Tony says this last one bitterly into the remains of his drink.
“Tony,” Steve grabs his hand, feels like he has to say this in a way he’s never had to before, “I’d rather work with you than Howard.”
“Why?” Tony asks, sounding raw, “By all accounts my father was a great man. He made you your shield. He fought Nazis. And I’m guessing he didn’t goad you into a fight upon sight.”
“He saw death and created the atomic bomb.” Steve falters, seeing the uncertainty in Tony’s eyes, “You saw it, and tried to make peace. I’d rather work with you.”
Things get confusing after that.
Steve spends most of his time fighting with Tony, but he’s pretty sure that most of that fighting is just very confused flirting.
He’s always been idealistic, but that doesn’t mean he’s naïve. Steve knows that sometimes men love men, he’s never really been bothered by it. There were bigger concerns—his mother, his country, the war.
Except for Peggy, Steve never really paid attention to what he wanted.
Up until recently, he never really thought that what he wanted counted for much.
Eventually, whatever strange game they’re playing catches up to them. A mission goes poorly. Tony and Steve couldn’t stick to radio silence, not when they could yell each other. Even Clint had told them to shut up.
Director Fury sits Tony and Steve down in his office and shouts, “I don’t know what the hell’s the matter with you two, but fix it.”
Tony bites the bullet and asks Steve out in the elevator. They go to this old movie theater that plays Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films to the soundtrack of a little old lady playing an honest to god organ. Steve smiles like an idiot the entire time.
Dating Tony, Steve discovers, is strangely normal.
Nothing really changes, except that Steve now has someone who can remind him on his bad nights that it’s still 2012. That he hasn’t lost another seventy years.
Sometimes they go for pizza in Steve's old neighborhood and sometimes they order in Chinese and watch movies and sometimes they spend hours together in Tony's workroom, Tony working and Steve sketching, doing nothing but sharing each other's space and reveling in the novelty of it.
The team takes it in stride. Bruce and Thor are happy for them. Both say some variant of it's easier to have someone. It's better to not be alone. Natasha doesn't say anything to Steve, but he's pretty sure that she threatened Tony with bodily harm and then swore him to secrecy through means of her terrifying presence alone. Clint says, "I know it's the honeymoon period, or whatever, but just don't fuck on the sofas."
Steve blushes furiously despite himself, and Tony just grins lewdly.
"Jesus man, people live here." Clint grumbles, looking sullenly at the couch as if it has betrayed him.
"You're just jealous, man, I get that,” Tony tells him, “everyone here is getting some, and all you've got is Coulson and blue balls. I understand, it’s difficult for you. You’re just acting out. Don’t worry, we’ll help you. We’re teammates after all. How about this? A personal ad? Smart-ass sniper seeks long-term love. Must be fine with spandex. Non-smoker. Why are you laughing? Jarvis, can you get me that ad? I don’t think Barton over here quite understands how serious I am."
"You're not lonely, are you Clint?" Steve asks because he's their leader and he just wants everyone to be happy. He's never really thought about it, but he's never seen Clint sneaking out for a date or trying to bring anyone home, although he does his best to hit on every agent SHIELD has employed. Steve wonders how deep old black ops habits lie and isn't really sure what he'd do if his teammate had a broken heart.
"Do I look lonely?" Clint asks, before adding, "Just stop fucking on the sofas."
(Steve overhears one day Tony asking Clint, “Did you know that your relationship status is classified?”
He hears Clint’s huff of laughter, “I’m pretty sure my entire file’s classified, man.”
“So you’re not going to tell me?” Steve can hear Tony’s pout, not that he’s admit to it.
“It’s classified,” Clint tells him, “Either get better at hacking or go ask Coulson.”
Steve doesn’t know which option is worse.)
Maria Hill calls Steve and Tony into her office after two months of dating.
“We normally do this sooner, but, honestly, most of us thought that you guys were going to kill each other after a month.” She hands them each a brochure, “SHIELD doesn’t have strict fraternization policies, especially since you’re fieldwork has improved since, and you both have the same security clearance. I still have to tell you not to fuck this up, however.”
“Isn’t Coulson the one usually in charge of the whole mother hen routine?” Tony asks, while Steve eyes his STDs and You! pamphlet uncomfortably.
Hill laughs, “You’re hilarious, Stark, really. Now go read your brochures on safe sex, and try not to give Captain America any STDs. Fury takes the defiling of a national icon as a personal offence.”
Tony actually looks bit nervous at that.
(Tony assures him later, achingly honest, between soft kisses, that he’s clean, he got tested, he would never do anything to hurt Steve.)
Everything goes fine for six months after that.
Tony nearly dies in the field on a Saturday.
Steve breaks up with Tony the Wednesday after he's released from hospital.
“I lost Bucky. I lost Peggy. I can’t lose you too,” He says. He has a lifetime of abandonment and loss and nineteen-forties style morals and military discipline reminding him that fraternization breeds weakness, breeds disunity, can be used against you. That it can hurt. That this does hurt.
Tony doesn’t take it well. He turns to a diet of hard liquor and no sleep, surrounding himself with his robots. He gets Jarvis to lock everyone out of his workroom. Even Rhodey gets turned away. Even Pepper.
Steve is no better. He destroys all of SHIELD’s punching bags in a matter of days. He wishes that he could still get drunk, but settles for drinking whiskey by Bucky’s empty grave instead.
Natasha brings him updates on everyone and doesn’t tell anyone where he’s hidden himself away.
She doesn’t tell Steve that he did the wrong thing.
(She doesn't tell him he did the right thing either.)
Coulson only puts up with Steve’s moping for a week. Steve sits near the wreckage of SHIELD’s last punching bag, arms perched on his knees, head bent low.
“Have you come to reprimand me?” Steve asks, “Or, better yet, say ‘I told you so’?”
Coulson stands in front of Steve and says evenly, “I’ve come to tell you that you’ve made a mistake, but I could yell if you’d prefer.”
Steve looks up at Coulson, stone faced as usual, but Steve thinks he can see concern in his eyes, at the corner of his mouth.
“I don’t understand you, sir.” Steve says. His voice is rough. He hasn’t spoken much lately. His mouth is dry.
Coulson crouches down in front of Steve and looks him straight in the eye, “I know you think that you’re doing the right thing, but it doesn’t hurt any less. Whether you’re sleeping with Tony Stark or not, you still care about him. Every time he almost dies, it’s going to hurt, whether you’re with him or not. Better to be able to comfort him at the end of the day than not.” Coulson stands, checks his watch, “But that’s just my advice, Captain Rogers.” He doesn’t let Steve respond, just turns and leaves.
Steve doesn’t feel any better.
He goes to his standing sparring date with Natasha because he knows that she’ll hunt him down if he doesn’t. Natasha doesn’t see personal issues as any reason to go easy on a person, to coddle them, and Steve could kiss her for it.
Natasha’s doing some yoga pose to cool down when she tells Steve, “You should listen to Coulson. If anyone understands, it’s him.”
“Coulson’s wife works at SHIELD?” Steve asks, thinking about the gold ring on Coulson’s left hand.
Natasha laughs, a strangely delicate thing, “Something like that.”
Bruce corners him at breakfast one morning. "Poker night's not the same without you and Tony. Clint keeps cheating and Thor's sad that no one's there to trade stories of valor with him."
"Sorry." Steve mumbles into his eggs, feeling terrible for not just ruining this thing between him and Tony, but for ruining things with the Avengers as well. "I was trying not to make things awkward."
Bruce sits down across from him, plate and full cup of coffee clinking on the table, "I'm not the person to be giving advice, but you need to trust Tony."
"I do trust Tony," Steve says, honest, "I trust all of you with my life. Daily."
"That's not what I mean," Bruce shakes his head, "Look, sometimes I turn into a giant green monster when I'm angry. Don't you think that I'm scared everyday that I could hurt Betty? But I trust her; trust that she knows what she wants and that she knows what she's doing. I've told her that I’m too dangerous, I’ve tried to leave, but at the end of the day, we love each other. Betty's a smart woman, she knows what she's doing, and Tony does too."
"One wrong call and I could kill him, Bruce."
"He has an electromagnet in his chest installed by a kidnapped doctor in a cave in the desert and his liver has no doubt been pickled for years." Bruce says, "I don't think anything can kill that man."
Tony fucks of to Malibu without any warning or return date, citing business. Steve wants to talk to him about it, call him up and yell for just leaving, but they still can't talk to each other out of the field, when it's just Tony and Steve without Captain America and Iron Man getting in the way.
He calls Pepper instead, who sounds tired and strained. Steve can't figure out who gets more of the blame for that, him or Tony. She assures him that Tony's business trip is legitimate. She doesn’t ask him how he’s doing.
(There's a small part of Steve that looks forward to the talking down Tony's going to get when he returns, if the frown lines on Coulson's face are anything to go by. There's a bigger part though that misses Tony and his casual affection, and running monologue to his robots, and the way he drums his fingers on his arc reactor when he’s thinking, and calls Steve darling.)
Steve walks in on Clint and Coulson making pancakes on a Saturday.
"Captain Rogers," Coulson says. He's wearing pajama bottoms, an army t-shirt, and his usual bland expression. "You're back early." Steve's supposed to be in New Mexico getting his mind off Tony and helping Darcy survive her cousin's wedding with his super soldier physique and 1940s charm.
"We got an early flight," Steve replies, automatic, watching Coulson sip coffee and Clint fiddle with the stove’s knobs.
"You want pancakes?" Clint asks, sliding a fresh cooked pancake out of a wok and onto Coulson's waiting plate, "Phil didn't believe that a wok works just as well as a fry pan."
Steve's brain short circuits at that, at Clint’s lack of innuendo. Who's Phil is on the tip of his tongue, because he's only ever heard Clint call the man Coulson or sir and he’s not once seen Clint show any inclination to cooking, but instead Coulson says severely, "If this tastes like teriyaki, we're going to IHOP,” and Clint laughs and says, "Promises, promises," and suddenly Steve gets it.
Clint bullies him into staying for pancakes. They’re surprisingly good.
The three of them eat in relative silence. Not awkward, just comfortable. Steve watches Coulson place a casual hand on the small of Clint’s back, watches Clint roll his eyes when Coulson tells him to put the eggs away, watches Coulson make himself another cup of coffee without complaint when Clint steals his own. It’s natural, casual, and Steve feels like he’s witnessing something personal, private.
When the plates are cleared, Coulson eyes Steve levelly and says, “I hope this doesn’t change anything,” in a way that makes clear how little he cares about Steve’s opinion in this matter.
Steve woke up seventy years in the future and got used to it. This isn’t really that big of an adjustment, not when it’s been going on the whole time. “It explains why Natasha said I should listen to your advice,” Steve says instead.
(Clint pulls Steve aside later that night and says, “You know when it’s the real thing, man. Natasha was right, I fucking gave her dynamite, but we knew what wasn’t going to last. You know when it’s the real thing. You know, and then you fucking hold on.”)
Tony gets back from Malibu, and if Steve didn’t know him, he would think that everything was suddenly fine. Tony laughs and jokes and talks and tap tap taps away at his computers, but he’s still drinking more and he won’t look Steve in the eye.
Steve bites the bullet one day before movie night and says, simply, “I fucked up” because he ate pancakes with Clint and Coulson and if anyone understands holding the life of someone you love in their hands, it’s them. And if they can figure out how to survive a relationship and SHIELD, then so can he, because honestly, Steve doesn’t think any two people can be more reluctant to talk about feelings and he grew up in the forties.
Tony just looks at him like he’s a stranger and says, “Most people have burnt popcorn one time in their life or another,” as the microwave beeps and Thor hollers that the movie is about to start, like Clint isn’t the one controlling the DVD player, and Steve is left feeling raw in an empty kitchen with burnt popcorn and nothing else.
Eventually, Steve decides that enough is enough. He is a grown man. He is an Avenger. He knocked Hitler out over two hundred times and he survived the Arctic for seventy years. He can stop wallowing and figure out how to be Tony’s friend, Tony’s coworker, Tony’s ally, if Tony doesn’t want to be anything else.
A little after that Steve decides that this would go a whole lot better if Tony felt the same way, but before he was Iron Man, before he was an Avenger, he was a billionaire genius playboy philanthropist. And so Tony locks himself into the lab for days, and drinks like a fish, and sleeps with reporters, and spends money like it’s water. And Pepper comments on how she thought he’d finally outgrown this. And Rhodey comments that the last time Tony’d been like this, he’d created the Iron Man. And Bruce makes comments about Tony working too hard and being anti-social, which is pretty rich coming from a guy who lived in the jungle for a few years while he figured out this whole Hulk thing. And Steve feels like crap for trying to move on, but at least he’s trying, and when Tony won’t speak to him, he doesn’t really know what else he can do.
The next time Fury calls Tony and Steve into his office and says, “I don’t know what the hell’s the matter with you two, but fix it,” a city block has just been destroyed and their meeting is cut short by Coulson and Hill, grim faced and dust covered, handing Fury folders of bad news.
Steve and Tony didn’t look at each other during the meeting, and they don’t look at each other now, exiled from Fury’s office in the abandoned halls of the SHIELD headquarters. Everyone’s either in medical or out in the field assessing, and Steve feels guilty about that, but not personally responsible for it because super-serum or not, at the end of the day Steve’s human and this thing between him and Tony really hasn’t had an effect of Captain American and Iron man.
“Tony, I—” Steve begins. He broke them. He should be the one to fix them.
“I’m going to go see how Natasha’s doing.” Tony interrupts, eyes everywhere but on Steve. Last Steve knew, she had foot long gash running down her thigh caused from the fighting and a broken wrist from a collapsing building.
“I’ll come with you.” Steve says, because at the end of the day, he is the team leader, and it does not matter if Steve ignores him or not, they still live together. Still work together. Natasha is still important to both of them.
Tony does not look happy about Steve following him, but he doesn’t look uncomfortable either.
Steve figures it’s a start.
Natasha’s going to be fine, although off active field duty for six weeks as her wrist heals.
She throws Tony out almost immediately, exiled to the waiting room with the rest of the team, “If you apologize, I will punch you,” Natasha says to Steve coolly, examining the artwork on her cast courtesy of Clint, “I worked with Clint for years before the Avenger’s showed up. This is nothing.”
Steve thinks about the Howling Commandos and about Clint and Coulson eating pancakes together on a Saturday. He thinks about how Clint gave Natasha dynamite for a present and how Coulson had ordered Clint down from the safety of his nest and into the fray. He thinks about Betty buying Bruce teas from all over the world and Jane calling Thor after every battle, just to hear his voice. He thinks of Fury, telling him to get his act together, and he thinks of Tony, steadfastly refusing to look him in the eye.
Steve collapses onto the chair next to Natasha’s bed, “I messed it all up,” Steve says. Not an apology, just the truth.
“Tony is a grown man. He makes mistakes as well,” she tells him.
Steve figures she’s right, but he also figures that he’s the one who did the breaking, “How do you and Clint do it?” he asks, honestly curious.
Natasha looks at him, calculating. They never talk about before. Before the Avengers. Before SHIELD. But she had been the first person he’d met and she’d never really treated him like anything other than a person and Steve loves her, he really does.
“It was never serious, the thing between us,” Natasha says eventually, eyes on Steve, “In the beginning,” and Steve still doesn’t really know what that means, where Natasha’s life begins, “we didn’t have anyone else. And now we do. And now Clint has Phil. But there will always have been a time when it was just us. We stopped sleeping together,” she shrugs, “but we didn’t stop trusting each other.”
Steve decides that it’s time he starts trusting Tony (really trusting him); that he starts trusting himself.
Peggy once told him to allow Bucky the dignity of his choice. Steve figures that good advice is good advice. He hopes that Tony still thinks that he's worth it. He misses Bucky like a lingering bruise. He misses Tony like a lost limb.
He thinks of Tony in the hospital, bloodied and broken and thinks that this is definitely worse. Lost but not gone.
Steve starts a campaign to become Tony's friend, since they've been teammates and roommates and lovers but never really friends.
He starts with poker night. He hasn't gone since the breakup since it means they might have to talk. Movie night is easier, just shared space, no expectation of conversation and a distinct lack of competition.
Thankfully, no one says anything about is long absence. Bruce just nods and Thor clasps him on the shoulder, tells him that he has finally mastered this Midgardian game of tricks. Clint says that they should show Thor World of Warcraft and Natasha elbows him viciously in the ribs.
It's an absurdly normal evening, falling back into conversation with everyone, and Steve realizes how much he's missed it. Not just team, but friends.
Thor and Clint keep conversation light, Natasha keeps the game interesting. Tony doesn't say a word directly to Steve the entire night. Steve finds that he has fun anyways.
It takes a month, but eventually Tony is talking to him again. Not like when they were together, when Tony would seek him out and take him to movies and museum and that food cart with the best hot dogs on the island. Not like when they first met, when Tony would poke and prod and provoke at any chance he got, just to see what Steve would do.
They talk like teammates, like roommates. Civil. Friendly. Tony doesn’t seek him out, but he doesn’t avoid him. He’ll give Steve an answer to the morning crossword if he knows it but he doesn’t steal the puzzle away to fill in the squares with lewd, purposefully wrong answers.
Steve doesn’t push, just takes however much of Tony as he can get.
Steve starts to bring Tony coffee and hot pockets when he goes on daylong furloughs in the lab. (He knows that their cardboard protector and their uneven heating secretly fascinate Tony. He has heard him say that someone, one of the good guys, should study it before Loki figures that shit out, freezing half the world and torching the rest, Jesus, who designed these things?)
Tony starts drinking less.
“You know, Barton told me to forgive you,” Tony says one day, startling Steve from where he sits in the living room, sketching.
“Clint bow hunts squirrels.” Steve says in response, looking outside to where Clint is perched on top of the fence, a look of determination on his face.
“Fair point,” Tony shrugs. He sits down in the chair next to Steve, “Although I have to say I’m surprised. He seemed very concerned with the sanctity of the couches at the time.”
Steve can't help the fierce blush that blooms in his cheeks, spreads down his back and chest. Tony just laughs softly, says nothing else.
They sit there in silence, staring out the windows, until Steve thinks that if he doesn't say the truth now, he never will.
"You don't have to forgive me, Tony, you know," he says "I was scared and I panicked. I took something great and I broke it. I was just scared that I was going to lose you like I lost Bucky, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being alone in the world again," Steve laughs, a harsh bitter thing. "Boy did I get that wrong. This is definitely worse," Steve reaches down past the super serum to the scrawny little kid from Brooklyn and pulls out all his courage. He looks Tony in the eye, honest and vulnerable and completely afraid. "Tony, I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I still love you, but I fucked up. I don’t expect you to forgive me"
Tony looks like he desperately trying to conceal whatever it is he's feeling. When he speaks, his voice starts out wobbly, uncertain, before gaining momentum, "It’s not every day you get apologized to by an American icon," he laughs, "but I guess that’s one thing I can cross off my bucket list. All I have to do next is trick Coulson into drag without getting tazed," he stands without looking at Steve, "Now if you excuse me, I have to go tattle on Barton. I think he just trampled Natasha’s begonias."
Steve lets him leave. Lets him have the dignity of his choice.
(Clint did trample the begonias. Steve is surprised that Clint escapes with only a black eye.)
Things get confusing after that.
Some days Tony seeks Steve out, helps him with his crossword, teaches him how to filter his emails. Some days it’s like Steve’s a ghost, not even there at all.
Captain America and Iron Man have never fought better together. Fury seems at once proud and deeply suspicious. Steve figures that it’s a victory all around.
(“I want to forgive you,” Tony says one night as they pass each other in the kitchen on the eternal search for more coffee, “but I can’t.” Steve tells him, honestly, that that’s more than he could ever hope for.)
This time Tony nearly dies, it’s a Tuesday.
Some sort of electromagnetic weapon and Tony is falling to the ground, Thor and Hulk too far away to catch him. They have to cut the suit off his body, the metal conforming to his skin. The steady blue light of the arc reactor is the only proof he’s alive.
Natasha sits next to Steve in the waiting room. Thor paces. Bruce goes through all of his breathing exercises. Clint and Coulson sit together, knees and shoulders touching, Coulson filling out the incident reports with heavy strokes of his pen.
Natasha just sits next to Steve and holds his hand.
When they’re finally allowed to see him, Coulson goes in first, his official SHIELD duties trumping a heartsick and anxious team.
The Avengers crowd Tony’s bed when they’re let it. His face is bruised and his collarbone and ribs are broken, but he’s alive. The bones will mend, the stitches will heal. He has an electromagnet in his chest installed by a kidnapped doctor in a cave in the desert and his liver has no doubt been pickled for years Bruce had said, nothing can kill that man. For the first time, Steve believes it.
Tony spends two weeks in the hospital, confined to bed rest. They take turns with him, an Avenger at all times so that he’s never alone. Rhodey and Pepper come as often as they can. Tony alternates between trying to get rid of them and trying to get them to sneak him in increasingly illicit things.
Steve never once leaves Tony’s side.
(“You don’t have to do this,” Tony says.
Steve just looks at him and asks, “Do what?”)
At the end of the two weeks, Tony comes home from the hospital. He’s confined to bed rest, but now he has Jarvis to talk to and Thor to make him hot drinks and fetch him more pillows. Steve tries not to be a constant presence at Tony’s side, doesn’t want him to feel smothered or constricted or overwhelmed. He checks in on him a couple of times a day, hides the liquor, and provides the correct pills in the correct dosage at the correct time.
Coulson was right. It hurts just as much this time as the last. But Tony’s not dead, Steve reminds himself, has been reminding himself. Better to be able to comfort him at the end of the day than not, and really, Steve can’t find anything wrong with that.
“So you’re sticking around this time?” Tony asks, as Steve picks up the detritus left in Tony’s wake.
Steve looks at him, sprawled on the sofa as if it were his right and not because he nearly died not a month before, and he find himself no longer afraid, “For as long as you’ll let me, yeah.”
And Tony just grins, the crooked one that was only ever for Steve, “Good,” and he pulls Steve forward, hand on his wrist, and kisses him.