The first time Steve notices it is long before anything happens between them, friendship or…otherwise. He's still stumbling half-blind through a century he never expected to see, and Tony Stark is just the brash man in the metal suit who looks too much like Howard in the right light. The idea of depth there is nearly impossible to fathom; in the three weeks since they met, Steve's seen Tony do a hundred unspeakably rude things, and that's not counting the video footage one of the SHIELD agents showed him.
"I just thought it was better that you know what you're dealing with," the woman said, eyes flat. Steve stared in horror as Tony referred to a panel of United States senators as assclowns and couldn't help but agree.
But then there's a mission, a second one, a third, tumbling into each other like dominos; the team's exhausted and doing a poor job of hiding it, not comfortable enough working together yet to take each others' slack. Reaction times slow and injuries increase, and Friday night finds them all in a little bar in Yonkers, nursing their wounds and their pride.
"Thought you couldn't get drunk, " Tony says, three Dewers in, as he signals to the barkeep for a fourth. "Part of your whole thing, right? There's a note in your file, it's an interesting read; wouldn't've thought you'd need to strip the fun out of a guy to make him a hero, but hey, I'd be the wrong person to ask."
There are ten things Steve could take offense to there, eleven if he counts the way Tony's standing, pressed up against the bar like he owns it, hip jutting out just so. But then again, there's hint of a burn on the side of his face, leftover from an explosion that'd hit when his mask was up; Steve's still feeling guilty for calling the scene clear too early, so he doesn't bite.
"It was an accident, I think," he says, rolling his beer bottle between his palms. "Or, uh, side effect is probably a better phrase. Still tastes good, though."
"Yeah?" Tony says, eyebrows up. "Sierra Nevada, really? I would've figured you for a Budwiser guy."
"I just told him to give me the best stout he had," Steve admits. "I would've asked for a Guinness, but I realized I don't even know if they still make it."
Tony laughs, half surprise, half honest amusement; it's the first time Steve's felt like he was being laughed with, not at, and he smiles a little despite himself.
"Another Dewer's for me, and a Guinness for Cap here," he says to the bartender, and winks when the glass slides along the bar. "Some things never go out of style, you know?"
There's a full head on the beer, frothy, and Steve relishes the first sip more than he really should. It tastes…god, it tastes exactly like it did the first time Bucky passed him a glass of it, and he closes his eyes, rolls it around on his tongue a little before he swallows.
There's a strange expression on Tony's face when Steve opens his eyes. "Good?"
"Yeah," Steve says, with real feeling behind it. "Thank you."
Tony smiles at him instead of saying anything, raises his own glass in a toast before knocking half of it back, and it's the longest pleasant interaction they've had since they met.
Or, at least, it's the longest pleasant interaction they've had since they met until Bruce, drunker than he should be by a fair margin, bumps into Tony on his way to the bathroom. Things get a lot less pleasant after that.
"Christ, Banner, can't you watch where you're going?" Tony snaps, snatching for a napkin to try to mop up the whiskey he's spilled all over himself. "I don't exactly buy my clothes at the Salvation Army, fuck, like it wasn't enough that Barton shot up the Armani the other day--"
"Well, I wouldn't have if you'd been on your mark," Clint says from the next stool, bristling. "Or suited, like you were supposed to be."
"Sorry, can't hear you over the sound of how badly Bruce ruined this shirt. For god's sake, walk much?"
"I…sorry," Bruce says, reaching for the napkins himself, "I didn't mean to, I really am sorry, sometimes it's a little hard after I've been all--"
"Giant green rage monster, yeah, excuses, excuses," Tony mutters, and Clint narrows his eyes.
"Do you have to be such a dick all the time?" he says, while Bruce does an awkward little attempt at patting Tony dry. "I mean, shit, the guy said he was sorry. Were you not hugged enough as a child or what?"
Steve only sees it--the twist to Tony's mouth, the way he freezes up--because he's looking for something else. He's looking for Tony's next vicious retort, for the way his eyes go dark and hard before he moves in for the kill; usually Steve's the person on the receiving end of that, because no one else really tends to bother taking the bait when Tony throws it. But that's…hurt, isn't it, achingly obvious for the second it takes him to cover it, and even the cover's not great. Steve can still see something rough and raw in the way Tony shoves his hands in his pockets, in the way he cracks his neck like he's trying to shake something loose.
"C'mon, Barton," Tony says, his mouth twitching up in a lopsided smile, "think we all know how much I've been hugged--god, Bruce, quit it already, it's fine. It's just a shirt."
Steve watches for another minute, but Tony doesn't say anything else; he just waves Bruce away and grabs his drink, saunters off to the pool table in the far corner. Clint mutters something under his breath but lets it go, and Steve takes another long pull from his beer, turning more than just the flavor over in his mind.
They do a photo shoot for Time Magazine, Steve and Tony, fully costumed, a month after the night at the bar. Steve wants it to be the whole team, argues with Fury about it when he brings it up in a meeting--it's only fair that they be depicted together, share the credit, and admittedly he doesn't relish the idea of being anyone's publicity stunt. Fury stands firm, though, pushes that he and Tony are the most identifiable, the ones that'll really sell, and when he reminds Steve that SHIELD owes the city several hundred thousand dollars in damages already, Steve caves.
He doesn't realize his argument--which really had been about camaraderie, nothing more--must have offended Tony until the day of the shoot. They're in one of the Stark Industries limos Tony seems to have lined up and waiting for him wherever he goes, awkward silence rife between them; Tony's poking at one of the various pieces of glass he insists is a computer, nodding dismissively when Steve tries to engage him, not even bothering with an attempt at conversation.
Admittedly, this is how a lot of their conversations go, outside of the field. When they're fighting together, Tony's a different guy; pulled together and competent, Iron Man doesn't resort to argument for argument's sake, the way Tony so often seems to. Steve's not entirely sure what to make of it, but he remembers the way Monty was, those first couple of months--he'd drawn a very serious line between the business of destroying Hydra and what passed, in those days, for his personal life. Steve had known better than to push it, and he knows better than to push Tony now, lets the silence hang heavy until they've reached the warehouse where the shoot's being held.
Sure enough, the moment they're costumed, Tony gets looser. He throws an armor-clad arm over Steve's shoulder for the camera, cracks a couple of ill-advised but fairly amusing jokes; he's old hand at this kind of thing and it shows in the way he moves around the set, the way he greets the photographer like an old friend. It makes Steve feel a little less like he's going hear the strains of Star-Spangled Man filtering in through the window, and the two hours pass quicker than he'd expected them to, although not quite quickly enough.
It's only when they leave--out through the front entrance this time, since the loading dock they came in through is already occupied with a crew unloading the next shoot's equipment--that Steve realizes where they are. He hadn't placed it coming in, because everything looks so different, but this is--
"What's up?" Tony says, stopping in his tracks. "We got trouble?"
"Uh," Steve says, and blinks, trying to clear his head. "Oh! Oh, no, it's fine, I just. Uh. I…once tracked down a Hydra spy around here. Over there, actually, there was a…submarine, it's kind of a long story…"
"Oh," Tony says. His mouth quirks up in a strange little smile; Steve tries to focus on that instead of the incredibly unsettling moment of cognitive dissonance, that this place is still here, but nearly unrecognizable, too. "Yeah, huh, the time with the taxi cab door, right?"
"Yes," Steve says, surprised. "There was--how did you know about that?"
"My old man had a whole," Tony says, waving his hand. "Collection, I guess you could call it. I never got to see most of it, kept it in his study--but there was an article about you and the cab. Kept it framed in the living room, must've read it a hundred times when I was a kid, waiting for him to--anyway, I'd forgotten that was here."
"Howard kept a collection?" Steve says. "A collection of…newspaper articles about me?"
"Yeah, sure," Tony says. "Articles, memorabilia, whatever. There were comic books and stuff, I always wanted to read them--well, and I mean, the expedition that found you was ours, as it turns out. Always thought that billing code was for a secret kid he was putting through college or something, kind of a surprise when Fury told me. You wanna grab a burger?"
"Uh," Steve says, because that's a lot of information to take in at once. He's gotten about as far as Howard Stark never stopped looking for me when something shifts subtly in Tony's face, stutters back towards the distance he usually keeps.
"Check that," he says, "got a two o'clock, completely forget about it--I'm gonna take the suit, actually, since it's right here and all. Happy'll take you for lunch if you're hungry, though, he's good with burgers, you'll see."
He's engaged the suitcase armor--how he fits all that armor in a suitcase is honestly beyond Steve--and taken off a second later, before Steve gets the chance to press the point. Steve stays for a minute, hands brushing against the worn brick of the warehouse, before he sighs and goes to find the car.
The "philanthropist" part of Tony's "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist" comment turns out to be no joke. Steve doesn't realize it until a few weeks after that photo shoot, when he shows up for his weekly visit to Project Reach Youth to find a party going on in the administration offices. It's something he's been doing lately, volunteering the time he's not spending with the team--it had been Fury's suggestion, when Steve mentioned that he was a little at odds as to what do when they weren't working. He'd probably been thinking of the publicity, has been less than pleased with the fact that Steve flat-out refuses to draw any attention to it, and PRY itself had actually been Pepper Potts' tip.
"They focus specifically on disenfranchised youths in the Brooklyn area," she'd said, when Steve asked her for suggestions. "The head of development there is an old friend--do you have email set up yet? I'll have someone send along some information."
Steve had fallen in love at once--with the information he'd been sent and then with the organization itself, the dedication of the staff, the bright, brilliant kids he meets with every week. What they have him do changes whenever he drops in; sometimes it's tutoring and sometimes it's talking, and some days it's pickup games of basketball, painting, cleanup. He's got a standing time to come in that he never, barring urgent crime, misses, and he shows up unscheduled whenever he's got a free hour.
He's never seen the offices in this state, though, music blasting loud, volunteers drinking cheap champagne and fruit punch from the big jugs they keep in the fridge. Steve stands in the doorway, bemused but pleased--it's rare to see the staff here so relaxed, and he doesn't know what's caused it, but he's hesitant to interrupt. He just watches, a small smile quirking at his mouth, until Marie, the volunteer coordinator, spots him and hurries over.
"Did you," she says, with tears in her eyes, "did you do this, Steve?"
"Did I do what?" Steve says, mystified, and Marie shakes her head.
"We…we got a call," she says, "this afternoon, from the Maria Stark Foundation. And they're…Steve, we've been trying to get the funding to build the new facility for years. I don't know what you did, but I can't thank you enough."
"Wait," Steve says, "the Maria Stark Foundation?"
"Yes, they're, they're, it's more than we'd ever have dreamed of asking for," Marie says, shaking her head. "I don't know what you said to Mr. Stark, but just, thank you, and please thank him for us? We'll, we're trying to pull together an appropriate gesture but it's, you understand, we're a little overwhelmed."
"Of…course," Steve says, a little overwhelmed himself. "But I, you shouldn't thank me, I didn't have anything to do with--"
"The Foundation looks at hundreds of proposals every year," Marie says, shaking her head. "It's, really, there's so much need, and it's so hard to--you must have done something, Steve, to put us at the top of the heap. And, in any case, the good you do in coming at all--"
"Don't," Steve says, for the hundredth time, holding up a hand. "Being here does more for me than I could ever do for you, you know that," and Marie smiles, shakes her head.
"Have some champagne," she says. "The kids are already gone for the day, and we've put a temporary hold on everything to celebrate."
Steve looks around the room, something swelling in his chest that he doesn't know how to name, and shakes his head. "Sorry," he says, "but there's, uh. There's someone I need to talk to."
Tony's at Stark Tower--Steve knows, because he was downtown to begin with for a meeting there, only popped into PRY on a whim--and he walks the whole way there, trying to sort out his thoughts. He doesn't manage it, and he must make a strange picture when he throws open the doors of Tony's office, because Tony looks up from the designs he's got spread out across his desk and furrows his brow.
"Uh," he says, "I thought you…left?"
"Did you," Steve says, "my god, did you offer to build Project Reach Youth a new facility?"
"Now, see, that was supposed to be an anonymous donation," Tony says, rubbing the heel of his hand against his forehead. "It defeats the whole purpose when they stamp my name all over everything, seen enough of these things get overrun with greedy little shits covered in political aspirations, I'll have to make sure the Foundation follows up on that--"
"I, you," Steve says, "how can you just--how can you be blase about this, Jesus, that's so much money--"
"It's a tax write-off," Tony says, grinning slightly, his eyes far away. "C'mon, I needed that--look, seriously, don't get weird about it. The Foundation gives a ton of money each year, it's not even really me, it's not like I'm hurting for cash or anything."
"But you," Steve says, "but it's the--I'm there every week--"
"Well, yeah, obviously when I know someone," Tony says, waving a hand. "I mean, look, you talk about it enough, you keep trying to get us to go, maybe I felt a little bad that I didn't have time to stop in--"
"So you decided to build them a new facility?"
"No, the Foundation did that," Tony says, shrugging. "They must've had a hell of a proposal--I just told them to make sure they looked into it, that's all. I try not to meddle too much there, because, I mean, it's not like I know what I'm doing or anything--and, plus, that's the kind of thing my mother would've liked, probably, and it's all her, really. That's the whole point--she didn't like much, I don't think, but she really didn't like it when people weren't heard, or at least people that weren't--uh, anyway. I didn't really do anything, I just pointed them in the right direction or whatever, it's not a thing, don't worry about it."
And…and he's lying, Steve realizes after a second. He has to be lying, because that's the nervous babble he slips into when he's avoiding the truth, and he's twitching and god, maybe he didn't even want Steve to know he'd done it. He's--this is a version of Tony Stark Steve's never seen, someone shying away from the credit and trying to downplay his own involvement, and it's hard to match up with the guy who'd gloated when Steve mentioned the "assclowns" video to him.
Except maybe it's not, not really, and that's horrible and heartbreaking and Steve doesn't know him well enough to know how to say that, to even be sure if it's true. He just says, "Thank you," and Tony shrugs again, looks back down at his work.
"Seriously, it's nothing," he says. "Thank Pepper, if you want, she liaises with the Foundation more than me these days."
"I," Steve says, "I…will?" and Tony nods, waves a hand, dismissive.
"See you at the thing tonight, yeah?" he says, and Steve nods, slips out the door.
He starts paying attention, after that.
Which…it's not like he hadn't paid attention to Tony before. Tony is not someone who allows attention to be paid to anyone else; when he's in a room, he's the only person in that room, and he makes damn sure everyone knows it. It had struck Steve from the first as the kind of ostentatious posturing that's usually masking incompetence, and even once he'd discovered that that wasn't the case--Iron Man, for all his obnoxiousness, was a hell of an ally--it had still stuck in his craw.
But it's hard to dismiss Tony's antics as the fruit of too much money and not enough discipline in the wake of the work Project Reach Youth is doing, even harder when they're saving lives together nine days out of ten. Steve stops rising to his bait in meetings and starts listening to what he has to say; he doesn't always agree, but they're rarely unfounded arguments, regardless of how they're presented. He maintains the distance Tony seems to prefer, using his last name instead of his first and trying to avoid getting too familiar, but he allows himself to get a little more comfortable with the man, a little less armed for battle.
He's still not expecting it when Tony stops him in the hall, waves his hands around for a second, and then thrusts a piece of paper at him like it'll burn him if he holds onto it for too long.
Steve looks down at it, bemused, and then…oh. Oh, he remembers when this was taken, in that thrown-together base in London after the fourth Hydra raid; that cut running down Bucky's cheek was fresh off of a Tesseract-enforced knife, and he himself has a hand wrapped around one of Howard's failed attempts to sell him on new weaponry. Peggy had taken this photo, laughing at all of them from behind the camera, raising her eyebrows and the very corner of her mouth just for Steve, and he feels tears prick at his eyes, can't help it.
Tony's babbling something--"oh, god, just don't, don't cry, okay, because then I'll have made Captain America cry and I do not want Coulson to watch Supernanny while I drool, don't, please don't"--and Steve barely hears it, awash with a hundred, a thousand memories he's been trying to keep buried, that he's been too much a coward to touch.
After a second, enough filters through that he blinks and says, "I'm not crying."
Tony doesn't say anything; Steve thinks it's a kindness, perhaps, not calling him out on that obvious lie, until he glances up and sees the naked panic written on Tony's face. He can't quite bring himself to invest much focus on it, eyes drawn back to the photo; god, Howard mugging for the camera, Bucky's fist halfway to Dum Dum's bicep, it could be yesterday except for how it couldn't be at all. "Where did you get this?"
"You know the guy in the middle who looks like me was my father, right?" Tony says, voice still riding that manic edge. "That's registered for you, hasn't it?"
Steve looks up at him to nod and has to blink back tears again, because--because this is Howard's son, fifteen years older than Howard was the last time Steve saw him, and the terrible truth of his reality can be summed up with that fact, can't it, that Tony's here and Howard's not.
"I'm just…cleaning house," Tony says finally, like it's costing him money. "Trying to get rid of his shit, donating it, burning it, whatever, and I just thought--"
"You're burning Howard's things?" Steve says, horrified, before he remembers himself.
"Burning then," Tony says, nonchalant, waving a hand like it doesn't matter at all, "throwing them in the ocean, bathing them in acid, whichever you like. Getting rid of them, that's the point. The last thing I need is more memories of my old man, I'm full up, thanks."
And Steve would say something to that, he really would, because the idea of what remains of Howard falling into some uncrossable abyss is terrible, leaves something in him aching. But it's not his place, is it--because this is Howard's son, so those things belong to him, now. That which was Howard's is now, by any scale of measurement, Tony's to do with what he likes, and the fact that he'd been willing to give up this much is more than Steve has any right to ask for.
"I…thank you," he says, finally, clearing his throat around it. "He was my friend."
"Well, lucky you," Tony snaps, anger wiping across his face so quickly that Steve can't make sense of it at all. "He was my father; I didn't get that luxury."
He stalks away, down the hall, and Steve knows that there's something he's supposed to do here, but he's to wrapped up in the past to wrangle the present. He says, "Tony?" before he can think better of it, before he can remember to maintain distance, but Tony turns anyway, nearly at the door.
"What was he like?" Steve says, staring down at Howard in yellowed black and white, too hungry for the knowledge to worry about the consequences. "I mean…later. After I knew him. As a…well, as a father, I guess."
There's a long pause; Steve looks up, wondering if Tony's gone, only to see him standing stock-still, like he's being hunted. Steve feels his brow furrow, feels his mouth open and close again. His fingers flex against his thigh, unsure, the slip of paper heavy, suddenly, in his hand, before Tony finally speaks.
"Disappointed," he says, like it's being dragged wild out of his mouth, like he's uttering a confession, and he's gone before Steve can think of anything to say to that.
Steve can't help but feel a little overwhelmed at the size of the mansion when he shows up on move-in day. He's seen the place before, of course; there was that first time, when he'd come to apologize to Tony only to find him stubborn and impossible, and a few times since, when Happy dropped Tony off first before taking the rest of the team back to HQ. He's never been inside of it before, though, and he trails behind the rest of the team as Tony gives them a halfhearted tour, sounding like he doesn't know how he ended up in this position.
"So, right, uh, all the guest rooms have bathrooms, so that's not a thing," Tony says, waving a hand down an ominously long hallway. "Just pick one, I guess--except you, Cap, yours is over by the first floor living room, 'cause it's got the French doors and I know how you are about clear exits--"
"Thank you," says Steve, surprised by the thought there, at the same time Clint says, "Sorry, man, the first floor living room?"
"Well, one of 'em, anyway," Tony says, absent. "The other one's still under construction, the whole south wing's kind of shot. You can just ignore the work crews, Jarvis does security checks on everyone who comes in here--oh, right, I should probably--Jarvis, say hi--"
"Good afternoon, Avengers," says the crisp, British voice that Steve recognizes from their comm-link; everyone but Tony and Natasha jumps, looking around. "My apologies; I suspect Mr. Stark has not explained the full extent of my functionality and purpose. He tends to forget these things."
"Oh, good, that's good, slip a little lecture in, why don't you," Tony mutters, rolling his eyes. "Jarvis runs the house."
"I am, in fact, Mr. Stark's artificial intelligence," Jarvis corrects, in the tones of someone who has had this conversation several times before. "I run the house, as well as his assorted technological creations, up to and including his suit and your communications devices. Should you have any need of anything during your stay, please do not hesitate to ask; simply address me by name, and I shall do my best to assist you."
Steve would be taken aback by that, but many things about the future have turned out to be far and away beyond what he would've imagined, and, in any case, that's a Picasso on the far wall. The only person who looks rattled by the whole thing is Clint, and, considering his fondness for lines of sight, Steve's not particularly surprised.
"Right, yeah, that's better than what I'd've said," Tony says, covering a yawn with one hand. Steve narrows his eyes, noticing the dark circles he's sporting even though the criminal element has been quiet this week, narrows them further when Tony adds, "Actually, Jarvis, finish the tour, would you? I've got a thing running downstairs."
"Certainly, sir," says Jarvis. "How would you prefer me to manage it? Shall I use the LED systems, or would it be more to your liking that I advise them to follow the bouncing ball?"
"Ha-fucking-ha," Tony says, and that--the fact that Tony appears to have some sort of rapport with what he's just explained is a machine--well, that Steve finds a little disconcerting. "Just--I don't know, look around, and Jarvis'll tell you where you're going, or where you shouldn't go. You can pick your bedrooms, the ones you can't have are locked."
"Except for Cap," Bruce says, something strange in his tone, and Tony nods.
"Right, except for Cap," Tony says. "Or, look, uh, Cap too, you can pick a different one if you want--"
"No," Steve says, "the one with the doors will be perfect, thank you."
Tony gives him a strange little smile before his face hardens again. "Right," he says, "well, welcome home or whatever," and he disappears down the hall.
Steve's not sure why he follows him. Maybe he's just riding a long-honed instinct for trouble or maybe it's because he's noticed, since Tony originally offered to take them in, a certain hesitance about actually doing so. He feels vaguely guilty about that, honestly; when Tony made the offer, Steve had jumped to thank him for it, trying to maintain the good humor that seemed to be growing between them. He'd only realized on thinking about it later that Tony might not have meant to offer at all, that he might have unwittingly pushed him into doing so, though he finds that thought fairly incongruous; Tony's not the type to agree to anything he doesn't want to do, regardless of outside pressure.
Still, there's something itching at the back of his mind, so he slips out of the room after Tony. He catches up to him a few minutes later, leaning against the doorframe of a room he'd hurried them past, his back to Steve. Steve folds his arms over his chest, watches.
"Are you alright?" he says after a minute, and Tony yelps, spins around with his fists half-raised. Steve puts both hands up, calming.
"Sorry," he says at once, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
"Uh," says Tony. "No, it's…it's fine. You're fine. Sorry, just not used to…. yeah, uh, I'm fine. Don't worry about it."
"You seem a little," Steve says, waving a hand instead of finishing his sentence, and Tony laughs.
"I'm always a little," he says, mimicking Steve's gesture. "You'll get used to it, living here, I guess."
"Ah," Steve says. "Well, if you're sure."
Tony cocks his head. After a second, like it's a test, he says, "This was my dad's study."
"Yeah?" Steve says, trying not to sound too eager. Tony nods, distant.
"I kept it," he says. "The, uh, the stuff about you. I wasn't sure if you'd want it or not."
"I'm…honestly not sure about that myself," Steve admits. "I would like to see it, though, if you don't mind."
"Knock yourself out," Tony says, gesturing towards the room. "There's a cleaning crew coming tomorrow; I though, you know, people moving in, I should probably bite the bullet on getting stuff out. The stuff about you's in that box in the corner, but you can look through the rest, if you want, I pulled all the financial shit."
"Thank you," Steve says, and Tony smiles at him, a lopsided little quirk to his mouth.
"Yeah, well," he says, clapping Steve on the shoulder as he turns to go, "I think he probably liked you a lot better than he ever liked me. Figured I probably owed at least one of you this much, right?"
"Tony, I'm sure that's not true."
"Huh," says Tony. "Well, you'd know better than I would."
Steve has no idea what to say to that; Tony goes, and Steve doesn't follow him this time, knows a dismissal when he sees one. He settles himself down on the floor, starts flipping through the box of Captain America memorabilia. It's…strange, not in the least because of some of the dates on these things. There are comic books from as late as 1979; one of them features an illustration of a man who looks nothing like him, in a colorful shirt and strangely cut jeans, who answers to the name Stan Rogers. He smiles a little despite himself; he can imagine Howard's bark of laughter on finding this.
In fact, a number of the things he seems to have kept are things that got some essential fact wrong. That, too, is very Howard; he always was one for his own superiority, and it probably did something for him, knowing he was right, even if history wasn't. Steve plucks one or two things from the pile--the ridiculous comic, a plastic yo-yo with lights studding the side that looks a bit like his shield--and leaves the rest, figuring it would be a little self-congratulatory to hold onto all of it.
He's packing it up, getting ready to go, when a hint of white catches at the corner of his eye. It's poking out from behind the desk, and Steve narrows his eyes, leans over to pull it all the way out. It's a…photograph, of sorts, inside of a sort of thick, white cardboard frame, and there are marks on it where the desk had it pressed to the wall. The ink in this photo seems to have shifted slightly, dripped, almost; it must have been back there for years, and Steve holds it up to the light to see it more clearly.
It's Howard, older than Steve's ever seen him, hair gone white around the temples. He's got an arm around a man Steve doesn't recognize, a big guy, mostly bald; they're standing under a sign that reads "New York State Science Fair, 1976," and they're both smiling.
And, really, it would be a throwaway photograph, wouldn't hold Steve's attention at all, except for the boy in the far corner of the shot. He's got dark, messy hair and knobby knees, a frown on his face even though he's holding a trophy nearly as large as he is, and no one's standing with him; it's Tony, Steve realizes, couldn't really be anyone else.
He's crumpled it before he means to, without even realizing it, regrets it and smooths it out the moment he realizes what he's done. He hasn't done any permanent damage, but the act of getting it flat again doesn't do much to soothe his own sudden flare of anger, almost--but not quite--inexplicable.
He tucks the photograph in between the pages of the rescued comic book and goes upstairs, pushing at questions he's not sure he wants to answer. When he sees Tony that night at dinner, he makes sure to smile.
He gets a text message a month or so after he moves into the mansion, sitting in a meeting with Director Fury; it takes him a few minutes to remember how to open it, since the phone Tony'd given him pulls up new screens every time his fingers graze the surface. He gets there eventually, though, only to find the words "party @ the house, start time right now, consider this an fyi & an invite."
Steve sighs. On the one hand, it's Tony's house; if he wants to throw a party, Steve certainly doesn't have any grounds to stop him. On the other hand, he's been to two of Tony's charity events now, and he knows that Tony's idea of a good time doesn't line up, at all, with his own. He agonizes for a few minutes over his reply, settles on "DEAR TONY, I AM IN A MEETING WITH DIRECTOR FURY. I WILL ATTEND, BUT MAY BE QUITE LATE. SINCERELY, STEVE ROGERS," all in capitals because he can't actually figure out how to turn them off.
"Sure, whenever," he gets back a few minutes later, and a few minutes after that Fury adjourns their meeting, leaving Steve to his own devices.
And, well. The right thing to do, the polite thing to do, would be to go home and face the music--probably literally, given the volume that Tony tends to think is normal. He's not quite sure he's prepared, though, and ends up wandering the streets, enjoying the twilight quiet and trying to psych himself up. He buys a hot dog from a vendor on the corner, which is disgusting, but not as disgusting as it could be, and he finds himself on a bench in Central Park, his sketchbook balanced on his knees.
He draws what he sees, without any coherent plan behind it; a young boy laughing on his father's shoulders, a squirrel intent on rescuing some sort of wrapper from the garbage. There's an oak tree that's probably--not definitely, but probably--older than Steve, and he devotes a whole page to sketching it out, the lines thick with fellow-feeling.
It's been a few hours when he notices that he's doing it again. He's got this bad habit of imagining conversations with Peggy, what he'd tell her about this strange new world he keeps realizing he lives in, and it tends to crop up when he's drawing. He knows all too well that it's unhealthy, and, worse, that it's nonsensical; Peggy'd lived the years he'd slept, almost certainly knew everything Steve could think to tell her. But he can't quite help it, imagining the way her accent would roll across her vowels, how she'd snort at what passes for politics these days.
He misses her; not in the dark, crippling way he did at first, like it was going to eat him alive in that dank room at HQ, where everyone looked at him like an experiment or a ghost--but still, he does, more and less every day. She fades in and out of focus, leaving him panicked that he'll forget what she looked like until he remembers he has photographs, and when he looks down he sees he's sketched her next to the oak tree, eyebrows up, like she's scolding him.
He decides it's probably time to go home after that, music or no.
There is, sure enough, an audible aura around the house, something with heavy bass booming out from a few open windows, but there's only one car in the drive, and it's one of Tony's. Steve's confused until he goes inside, sees his team (and Pepper) in various states of intoxication, and realizes that "party" had simply meant "Avengers, getting drunk." He feels a little silly; he hadn't been prepared for one of Tony's lavish affairs, but he certainly could have handled this.
Then again, it's hard to feel silly when face with the image of Thor picking Tony up by the ankle and waving him in the air. Steve tries, and fails, to bite back a smile when Tony flails his arms, says, "Steve!" in tones of great surprise.
"Hi, Tony," Steve says, and he keeps most of the laugh out of his voice. "You guys look like you're having fun."
Then Thor lets out some kind of warrior cry and hurls Tony to the floor, at which point things become a lot less fun for everyone involved.
Steve doesn't know all that much about medicine; he has a soldier's grip on trauma, an understanding of the frailty of the human body that comes from being a nurse's son. It's enough to calculate that an impact with the floor at that force, from that distance, could've been enough to cause serious damage, and he's crouching down with panic flaring in his chest even as he hears Tony moan "Shut up, god, fuck," into the carpet.
He puts careful hands on Tony's shoulders--no response of pain, nothing shifting that shouldn't be--and waits a moment, until he sees Tony move his head, before he rolls him over. He half-expects to see blood and snow, just for a second, before he remembers that he's checking for injury, not battle wounds.
"Oh my god, Tony," he hears himself say, more frantic than he means to be, than he'd have expected himself to be, and tries to resist the urge to pat him down on the off-chance something's actually broken. "Are you okay? How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Uh," says Tony, squinting up at him. "Is this a trick question?"
Steve thinks concussion for half a second, out-and-out winded at the idea of Tony suffering brain damage, before he realizes that both of his hands are still on Tony's shoulders. Embarrassed at himself, he waves two fingers in front of Tony's face; Tony's answering babble is normal enough that he lets himself relax a little. He helps Tony up, then helps him stay up when Thor slaps him on the back; he glares, a little, over Tony's head, and Thor looks appropriately ashamed of himself, so Steve doesn't push it.
It's not until he realizes that Tony's not really capable of stringing a sentence together that he caves and says, "I think you've probably had enough to drink." He's careful to keep his voice warm, free of judgement--he's not sure how much of it is the alcohol and how much is a head injury he's not qualified to diagnose--but Tony narrows his eyes anyway, stiffens so instantly Steve winces in sympathy, and mutters something Steve can't quite make out.
He's weaving his way through the room a second later, favoring his right side so visibly that everyone stops and stares at him. Steve's pretty sure Tony doesn't even notice it, and he sighs when Tony snatches a decanter of what looks like whiskey from the bar and wanders out the back doors.
"That is an interesting look on your face, Captain Rogers," Pepper says, a little unsteadily, at his elbow out of nowhere. "Would you like to be the one to chase him down, or shall I do it myself?"
"So this isn't the first time he's done this, then," Steve says, not really a question, eyes fixed on the door Tony just walked out of.
Pepper sighs. "No, it's not. First time in quite awhile, though, if that helps."
"Is he always so," Steve says, and waves a hand. "Oh, I don't know--"
"Maudlin," Pepper provides handily, and then makes a face like that was, perhaps, more than she meant to say. "No, sometimes he's quite a cheerful drunk. Depends on the day."
"Fantastic," Steve says, under his breath. "Right, well, I'll get him a….glass of water or something…"
"Advil," Pepper says. "Cabinet over the sink, in the back, the white and green bottle. He'll thank you later."
Armed with water and the bottle, Steve goes outside; Tony's drunker than Steve's seen anyone since that time with Monty and the absinthe, and even that had been less…upsetting, Steve guesses, is the right word. Tony slips in and out of consciousness a couple times, clearly isn't aware he's doing it--he tells Steve he thought he was a dick the first time they met and then backpedals by offering up the fact that he doesn't think Steve would try to kill him. Steve's not sure what the worst part about that is--whether it's how readily this idea comes to Tony, how clearly he sees it as a forgone conclusion, or how little sense he's making.
Steve ends up talking about Bucky. He's not sure why, exactly; he hasn't mentioned Bucky's name since he woke up, because even after 70 years asleep it's too raw. He's still waking up from nightmares where Bucky's falling and Steve's reaching--but he's had one foot in the past all night anyway, and Tony's drunk and visibly heartbroken, even if Steve's not quite sure why. He talks about Bucky, just for a minute, and nothing terrible happens, the world doesn't fall apart, and he feels almost giddy until he notices Tony trying to fall asleep against the brick.
"Alright, up, up," he says, dragging Tony to his feet. Tony can barely walk, turns his face into Steve's shoulder and lets himself be dragged through the house, and Steve waves off the offers of help their teammates throw his way. If he knows Tony at all--and he does, he thinks, at least a little--it'll be easier for him to deal with the fact that this happened if he's given as little assistance as possible.
But Steve can't quite stop himself from stepping in when Tony collapses down across his bed, missing the pillows by a good half a foot, still fully dressed and clearly intending to sleep that way. He pulls Tony's suit jacket off first, as gently as he can, mindful of the fact that Tony's probably more injured from the incident with Thor than he's willing to let on; he gets his button-down next, then each of Tony's shoes, before he eases him up towards the pillow and pulls the blanket over him.
He's turning to leave, having already pushed things well beyond what's really acceptable here, when Tony makes a soft, strange little noise. Steve's eyes narrow, but Tony's just as asleep as he was a moment ago, sprawled out across the sheets. A nightmare, then, based on the way his face is twisted up; he mumbles something into the pillow, "Sorry," and then a word Steve doesn't understand, "owe me" or "obie" or something.
He's got a hand in Tony's hair before he can stop himself, stroking lightly, because just this minute he can't bear it, this loop they seem so stuck in. Steve knows there's something not quite right about what's going on between them, about the distance they keep pushing towards and then away from again; Tony's his best friend except on days when he isn't, and Steve's got feelings he doesn't know how to deal with on top of that, attraction or something like it burning hot at the pit of his stomach. It's not fair--Steve wants to be a good friend but he doesn't know how, not when it's all so tangled up in things Tony won't tell him and people he once knew, but maybe didn't know at all.
He runs his fingers through Tony's hair once, twice, doesn't stop even after the wrinkles in Tony's forehead have smoothed out and he's stopped with the pained, half-coherent mumbling. It's easier, isn't it, soft and so simple, a few swipes of his fingers saying things Steve isn't sure how he'd put into words.
"I don't know what I'm doing here," he says, and doesn't know how he means it--if here is 2012, or this bedroom, or the no-man's land he and Tony keep winding up in, where there aren't any rules, where there are no clear borders.
On Veteran's Day, the Avengers go to DC for what is, essentially, a press junket. It leaves a bad taste in Steve's mouth, the whole thing; it's supposed to be a day about respect and sacrifice, not image, and he smiles when he'd told to and keeps his face blank when he's not. It's not that he doesn't understand the need for what they're doing--they're national symbols now, all of them, and the photo ops are good for morale. They help counteract the near-constant panic the country's in these days, with threats cropping up harder and faster all the time, and Steve understands, he really does.
He just wishes he could be doing it on his own terms, not SHIELD's. He fought, is still fighting, for his country--hell, he died for his country, for all intents and purposes. There's a small, selfish part of him, a part of him he tries to ignore, that feels he's owed this day for himself; the rest of him just wants to attempt to get drunk and try not to think about the Commados, about Peggy, about Bucky.
But that's not what's on the docket, so he swallows it as best he can, lets himself be ushered from breakfast on Capitol Hill to a press conference in the Rose Garden to a tour of Walter Reed Memorial Hospital, where he has to lock himself in the bathroom for ten minutes to keep from saying all the things he could. From there, it's an overly formal lunch and a series of incredibly boring meetings, and then an interview with that Cooper guy that Steve always likes better when the cameras aren't rolling, and then they've got half an hour to change before they're whisked away to the kind of black tie dinner event that makes Steve's palms itch with discomfort.
"Greetings! I am a penguin," Steve hears someone say, about an hour in; he turns to see Thor cheerfully accosting what might well be a heartily confused secret service agent, and smiles despite himself. "Or perhaps I am simply disguised as one--my friend Clint informs me that this is their typical attire, though I confess I am at a loss as to who or what they are."
"Flightless birds, Thor," Natasha says, gliding by in an evening gown that somehow manages to convey 'armed and dangerous.' "Penguins are flightless birds."
"But I am, myself, quite capable of flight," Thor says, sounding mystified, and that's all Steve catches before he's approached by yet another pompous stranger who wants to talk to him about things they can't possibly understand.
"Yes," he says, every time he's asked if he's proud to have served his country; "No," he says, every time he's asked if he has any regrets. Both answers are the truth, but not all of it--Steve's proud to have served, to be serving, but prouder of those who served with him; he's without regrets, but equally without much choice. What he wants, more than anything, is to say, "What makes you think that I answer to you?" but he recognizes that that's selfish, unkind, impolite.
So he smiles and nods, swallows it like he's been swallowing it all day, like he's always swallowing it, always trying to push it away. He smiles and nods and when he catches sight of Tony deep in conversation with a beautiful woman, hands flying everywhere, grin firmly in place, well, he swallows that too. There are things he wants, things he's wanted for awhile now, but they're hardly relevant; it hurts, a little, but there's no one without something sharp in their side, and to focus on it would be willfully missing the point.
He's surprised when he sees Tony shake the woman's hand and break away from her, surprised all over again when Tony saunters up next to him and lowers his voice conspiratorially.
"Walk with purpose," Tony says, like he's imparting some great piece of wisdom instead of talking nonsense, and Steve furrows his brow.
"They're like sharks," Tony says, "you have to walk like you're going somewhere or they smell it on you and go in for the kill. Literally, sometimes, there was this thing with Murdoch--look, we're blowing this popsicle stand, so just be cool and do the big boy walk. See you outside."
And then he just walks away, head high, big, quick strides like there's somewhere Important he has to be, and when Steve mimics him it…works, somehow. No one grabs his arm and calls his bluff, they all just step aside, and before he knows it he's on the front steps of the ridiculously ornate building he's been trapped in all night.
Tony's leaning against a limo, wearing sunglasses even though it's pitch black outside, and grinning at him. "Told you."
"Yes, you did," Steve says, and then rolls his eyes, because he tries not to indulge Tony's smug moments too often. "What's going on?"
Tony shrugs. "You don't like parties."
"I…don't, that's true," Steve says slowly, and Tony's smile changes, shrinks down into that weird, trying-too-hard expression he gets sometimes.
"I remember some of what you told me," he says. "That night I was all…uh, anyway. I wrangled us a field trip, unless you wanna go back to schmoozing."
"No, I could definitely go for a field trip," Steve says hastily, and Tony's grin flicks back to life as he opens the door of the limo.
"Your chariot awaits," he says, gesturing with a flourish, and Steve snorts out a laugh and climbs into the car.
Tony gets in after him, pulls the door shut, and whips out his phone before Steve gets the chance to ask where they're going. He pushes a couple buttons and then holds it to his ear, says, "Hi, this is Tony Stark, I just spoke to Madeline--yeah, good, she said she was going to--about five minutes? We're close, so it shouldn't be--heh, yeah, it's a big black limo, you can't miss it. Thanks."
He hangs up, offers Steve another faint grin, and then lifts his drink to his lips, which is when Steve realizes--
"Did you take that?" he says, and raises his eyebrows when Tony opens his mouth to respond and then makes a face at the drink, like he's surprised too.
"Oh," Tony says. "Uh, yeah, I guess I did. Whoops." He makes that face again--and it's not quite surprise, Steve decides, runs a little closer to resignation--before he shrugs and knocks the whole thing back in one go. "Better a glass than a bottle, right?"
"If you say so," Steve says, eyebrows still up, and Tony pulls his phone out again, doesn't answer him.
He's…drunk, Steve realizes, almost has to be. There's a little bit of a tremor in his hands, and every time Steve's seen him all night, he's been holding a glass; he's drunk, at least a little, and if Steve's attention hadn't been brought to it he wouldn't have noticed at all. That's disconcerting enough that it distracts him from his curiosity about where they're going, and he watches Tony as surreptitiously as he can. The light from his phone casts a dim glow over his face, sunglasses and all, and Steve wonders if Tony even recognizes that it's strange, the way he lives his life--if, to anyone but Steve, it comes off as strange at all.
But then the car is drawing to a stop, and the driver is leaning over to speak to someone in the little booth they've pulled up next to, and there's a gate opening, and…
"This is…Arlington," Steve says slowly, as the car starts moving again, crawling through the gate and up to an appropriate spot. "You…our field trip is to Arlington?"
"I know you wanted to go, earlier," Tony says, shrugging a shoulder. "It got bumped for the Anderson Cooper thing, and that's totally my fault; that was supposed to just be me, and then I told Fury about it and, well. I just--Maddy, she's the superintendent now, she was my assistant for like fifteen seconds, back before Pepper, and we kept in touch, and since she was right there at the thing and all--anyway, yeah. Arlington. If you want, I mean, if not we can go, I don't know, find the elusive Einstein monument or something."
"No," Steve says, "no, I definitely want to--I, uh, I didn't think I was going to get the chance, but it was important. Is important. To me."
"Yeah," Tony says, and he takes off the sunglasses and slides them into his pocket. "Yeah, I thought it might be." He gets out of the car, waits for Steve to climb out too, and then nods out at the grounds. "I figure you probably want to…have a minute, right?"
"Yes," Steve says, too quickly, and tries not to feel guilty at the way Tony winces. "This is actually…better, empty like this, without everyone who probably would have…just a minute or two, if that's, if we're allowed to-- "
"Mads was more than happy to open the gate for me, let alone for Captain America," Tony says, waving a hand. "Take as long as you want, I'll be around."
He turns and walks off. There's purpose in his step, but then again, he might well be faking it; Steve puts his hands in his pockets, keeps his back straight, and walks the other way.
It's not his first visit to Arlington. He'd been once, during the war, when he was still a dancing monkey and the battlefront was still a pipe dream. They'd been in D.C. for a show, him and the girls, Senator Brandt showing them around, waving Steve in people's faces like a re-election poster; he'd asked for an hour, was granted it only when he told the Senator where he was going. He spent the whole time at the Tomb of the Unknowns, back ramrod straight, feet firmly planted, thinking of his father, and there was a photographer waiting for him at the gate when he walked out. The guy was obviously hired, discomfort visible and, for Steve, easy enough to relate to. He'd given the man a tired smile and walked, head ducked, the six miles back to his hotel.
That's not where he goes now, though he knows that the Tomb of the Unknowns is marking the lives of far more soldiers than it was the last time he visited. His country has kept on fighting without him, has dipped in and out of so much conflict that Steve imagines it'll take him another lifetime to catch up. He just walks, eyes raking over the rows on rows of alabaster catching moonlight, and keeps his shoulders squared.
And oh, Steve's proud to be an American, has been since he was old enough to know what it meant; he's proud of the people he's fought with and the people he's fought for, of the bravery he's encountered on the battlefield and off. He protects and serves because he loves, has always loved, his country and the people within it, the things they believe, the ideals they fight for, and there's no amount of time or distance that could change that.
But loving something doesn't mean it can't disappoint you; if anything it means the opposite, and Steve is so tired of waiting for the war to be over. Seventy years later and everything's changed, but nothing has--this is still hallowed ground and someone will still, always, be fighting, and those losses Steve has weathered seem small and battered in the face of that inescapable truth. He grits his teeth and remembers the 107th, beaten down and dragged raw and still, somehow, willing to meet him with hope.
"Thank you," he says, to the empty air, to Bucky and Peggy, to his parents, to Dr. Erskine and Colonel Phillips, to a hundred people he'll never see again, to a hundred thousand people he'll never meet. And maybe it doesn't mean anything at all, one voice in the darkness, but it leaves something lighter in his chest; he bows his head and means it, doesn't move for a long time.
He walks on eventually, makes a few turns at random until he finds Tony, sitting on a bench about a mile from where they came in. He's staring fixedly at some point in the distance, and one of his fingers is tracing something absently against the marble next to his thigh. He jumps when Steve says hello.
"Oh," he says, "you're done."
"Ah," Steve says, "done's…not quite the right word, if that's alright. Ready for company, maybe, unless--we can go if you want, I don't mean to keep you. "
"Keep me from what?" Tony says. "There's always another overpriced party, don't worry about it. You wanna sit?"
"Sure." Steve does; the marble's cool enough in the November air that he can feel it through the ridiculously thin tuxedo pants he's been outfitted with. It's nice, the chill, affirming somehow, and he takes a few long, slow breaths, watches the air go white around his exhales.
"Last time I was here Rhodey made me do a thing," Tony says after awhile, a slightly smile quirking at the edge of his mouth. "He--oh, uh, Rhodey, James Rhodes, he's a friend of mine. War Machine, actually, on the SHIELD stuff, you'll probably meet him at some point--anyway. There was a walking tour. He took my phone."
"It's possible to take your phone?"
"I let Rhodey take things from me, sometimes," Tony says, shrugging. "I wouldn't have used it anyway, not...my father's buried here, you know."
"I…didn't," Steve says, blinking.
"Right there, actually," Tony says, nodding out at the row of tombstones in front of them. "Fourth one back, with the wreath--Pepper used to send them, guess she never stopped."
"I'm sorry," Steve says, and is, surprised to find it's more for Tony's loss that his own.
Tony sighs. "Don't be. He was…uh, well, I mean, a great American, obviously, you don't get in here without--you know the funeral was in Manhattan? They, there was a car accident--or maybe not an accident, I guess it's possible that it--anyway, I was 17, and they did the funeral in Manhattan because my mother wasn't gonna be buried here, they wouldn't…not that she'd have wanted to be next to him for all eternity, probably. I guess it's better. But then I had to fly out here and do it again, because he wouldn't--it would've killed him if we'd let him be buried anywhere else."
"That…sounds like him," Steve admits. "He once made me promise that I'd use my post-war pull to get a monument of him erected somewhere."
"As opposed to building one himself?" Tony says. "I'm shocked."
"Well, he was more than a little drunk," Steve admits, and Tony almost laughs, pinches the bridge of his nose.
"Yeah, that sounds like him too. Or maybe like me; who knows at this point, right?"
"You're a lot less," Steve says, and stops, unsure. He doesn't know how to say what he means here, what would be revealing and what would be overstepping his bounds. But when he looks up Tony's staring right at him, eyes big and almost desperate, and honesty's really his only choice. "He…so much of it was smoke and mirrors, and it was always…oh, Tony, I don't know. He was my friend, but I never felt like I was fighting with him; it was always…he always had his own interests at heart, I guess."
"You think I don't always have my own interests at heart?"
"Of course not," Steve says, taken aback. "I mean, sure, at first I thought that, and sometimes you do, but it's--we're a team, all of us, and you're--"
"Right," Tony says, "yeah, silly question, sorry."
"I'm almost positive you're missing my point," Steve says, and the look Tony gives him this time is shuttered, careful.
"If I am, it's not by intention," he says, and then, the corner of his mouth twitching, adds, "for once."
"Well, thank heaven for small favors," Steve says, and Tony doesn't quite laugh, but he ducks his head to hide his smile.
"Can I ask you a weird question?"
"Did he," Tony says, and winces. "My dad, I mean, did he ever--I mean, I know you guys were, uh, pals or whatever, but there's levels of that and--did he ever talk about my mother?"
"I," Steve says, and stops. "Did he…know your mother, then?"
Tony sighs. "Well, that's an answer. Yeah, they met in--it doesn't matter, I was just curious. He sometimes talked about the war like it was this, I don't know, a Bruce Springsteen song or something, this whole heyday thing. I don't think the family thing was really in his game plan, always kind of wondered if it was her or me."
"Maybe it was him," Steve says, trying for kindness, and Tony snorts.
"Doubt it. One thing you can say about Stark men, we're very fond of ourselves."
No, you're not, Steve thinks, doesn't say even though he's got the empirical evidence to back it up. Tony Stark's least favorite person in the world is, contrary to popular belief, Tony Stark; Steve's known him long enough now that it's achingly obvious, almost painful to watch. And Howard, who'd worked like someone was chasing him, who'd ducked away from anyone who got too close; Howard hadn't been his own least favorite person, but he hadn't been the world's biggest Howard Stark fan, either.
"Just…not fond of each other?" Steve guesses instead, which is almost certainly a step too far, but he's been dancing around this with Tony for months now, and he might as well.
Tony bark out a harsh laugh; it echoes through the thick silence around them almost tauntingly. "Sounds about right."
"That's not fair," Steve says, angry suddenly, and Tony jerks like he's been stung.
"Yeah," he says hastily, "yeah, I know it's not, sorry, I shouldn't have said that, I mean, obviously he was a--"
"No--wait, no," Steve says. "Tony, for god's sake, are you out of your mind? I meant it the other way--you were a kid, of course I didn't mean--I meant him, not you, Jesus."
"Oh," Tony says. "Then, that's…uh. What?"
"It's not fair that you think that," Steve clarifies. "Or, that he made you think that. For one thing, it makes me feel like a bad judge of character."
"You are a bad judge of character," Tony says. "Unless you want to tell me you've changed your mind about Scott Summers--"
"I'm not saying he's not irritating," Steve says, for the fifteenth time since he confessed that he finds Scott a little overwrought, but good leadership material. "Just that there's more there than meets the eye. And you like Wolverine, and he agrees with me--"
"He agrees with you because he's not-so-secretly planning to get you drunk, whatever it takes," Tony says. He roll his eyes when Steve looks at him in surprise. "Have you not noticed that he keeps trying to get you into bars when we tangle with them?"
"I thought he just liked drinking."
"He loves drinking," Tony agrees. "He loves drinking alone."
"In retrospect, he has been a little strange about it," Steve says, and Tony shakes his head.
"No good can come of befriending X-Men," he says. "Only disaster and accidentally confessing things to Xavier."
Steve doesn't say anything to that, just bites back a laugh and shakes his head; silence falls between them, but it's comfortable silence, and Steve feels lighter than he has all day.
"I could go, if you're ready," Steve says after awhile, and Tony nods, gets up, follows him to the car. When they're inside it, tucked up against opposite black leather seats, he says, "Thank you for bringing me here, Tony."
"Thank you for your service, Steve," Tony says, his voice as sincere as Steve's ever heard it, and Steve doesn't answer him, can't, for fear he'll hear the sudden lump in his throat.
The rest of the team goes home for Christmas, for a given value of the word home. Bruce's mom's in a nursing home in Del Ray and Natasha's got a brother in Seattle; Clint and Thor apparently have some kind of road trip planned, which is an experience Steve's a little sorry he won't get to see. Even Pepper's gone, two weeks in Barcelona that Natasha's planning on joining her for after the holiday, so it's just Steve and Tony left in the mansion on December 23rd.
They're still new enough together that it's strange, doesn't quite fit--in the absence of the clattering racket of the rest of the team, Steve finds himself at odds. He's not sure he remembers how to talk to Tony, which is ridiculous. He's been talking to Tony for months, has only been sleeping with him for a few weeks, so there shouldn't be a problem at all. But the house is empty and the criminal element seems to be taking a holiday along with everyone else, and Steve's eyes follow the line of Tony's shoulders, the curve of his back, and his words dry up in his throat.
It doesn't help that there's Christmas spilling out of every television and computer, screaming out of the radio, bursting forth from each and every shopfront. There's a strange sort of desperation to it, feverish, almost, and it builds to a crescendo that sits wrong next to the holiday Steve remembers. He hadn't grown up with much, but his mother had always managed to scrape something together for Christmas dinner, for a book or an orange in his stocking, a new pair of shoes when they could afford it. They'd gone to Midnight Mass every year until she died, her smile cast in flickering candlelight, her hand held tight in his.
Steve made Bucky go with him, in those years afterward, for all he was Protestant; he didn't complain, sixteen and rock-solid when Steve needed him to be, just knelt when Steve told him to and hung back for communion. They'd walk the streets afterwards, bitterly cold but too taken with the frozen-over silence to go inside, and it had been…a good memory, later, when they'd spent Christmas camped out in an iced-over mudbank outside of Brussels.
But now…Steve doesn't want to go to church, isn't sure he even could , doesn't want to find out if it's different, if that difference is something he could stomach. He doesn't want to go to church, and he certainly doesn't want to subscribe to the screaming juggernaut of advertisement that's been pitched at him since Thanksgiving, but it's hard to imagine letting the day pass unmarked.
He goes down to Tony's workshop in the end, spends an awkward couple of minutes dancing around conversation, before he says, "So, what do you normally do for Christmas?"
Tony jerks, just slightly; the corner of his mouth twitches up and back down again, one of those little tics Steve's coming to recognize. "Uh, work."
"Or, well, uh," Tony says, voice canting up a pitch or two, "parties, sometimes? Only I don't, you know, there's something kind of…not great about trying to pull at a Christmas party. Not that I'd be doing that now anyway, because, I mean, obviously, unless that's not obvious, which--uh, anyway, point is, Christmas parties are kind of a bummer so mostly, yeah. Work."
"That's," Steve says, and stops, because there are a lot of ways he could finish that sentence, but he's fairly certain any one of them would hurt Tony on some level. "Do you…want to maybe do something else?"
"I, yeah," Tony says, and then he furrows his brow. "Wait, shit, it's not Christmas today, is it?"
"No," Steve says, "it's the 23rd, you're fine," and Tony's relieved exhale is familiar enough that Steve feels some of the discomfort slide from his shoulders. "Forgetting what day it is again? Really?"
"Don't try to box me in with your, your calendars and your insistence on," and then he stops, yawns hugely, and blinks. "Uh, something. Shit, hi, I've been kind of…hello. Sorry. Christmas, yeah, we can do a Christmas thing--you and me, right, that's what you meant?"
"That's what I meant," Steve agrees, and steps forward, because oh, right, he does remember how this works. "You want to call it quits with...whatever you're doing....for awhile? Watch a movie or something? We've got a whole day to figure out the Christmas thing."
"No, I've figured out the Christmas thing already," Tony says, "only, forget that, it's a--forget I said that, yeah, movie's good."
They don't end up watching anything; the house is empty for the first time either one of them can remember, and when Tony's shoulder, and then his mouth, brush against Steve's in the hallway, Steve lets himself slide into the distraction. Tony's warm and easy with him, tongue sliding over Steve's lower lip, a little slow with exhaustion; he gets less manic every time they do this, less desperate to please, and Steve knows that his own self-consciousness is falling away too. They fuck, slow, on the couch in the living room, Tony biting sharp-soft into Steve's shoulder when he comes.
When they wake up there at four in the morning, punch-drunk and laughing at themselves, it's easy to stumble to the bedroom and pass out again. The next day they sleep in, tease each other over a late breakfast, spend a lazy few hours enjoying the luxury of the quiet. Steve would actually be happy to spend Christmas this way, in a too-small pair of pajama pants he stole from Tony's dresser, grinning to himself over the mess of Tony's hair; he's surprised when, at 4:30, Tony stands up and claps his hands.
"Right," he says. "Dress yourself, we're going out."
"'Dress yourself,'" Steve repeats, dry, "Tony, there's a basic lack of manners and then there's behaving as though you're some kind of--"
"Oh, god, don't," Tony says, rolling his eyes. "Here, look, I'll try again: Captain Rogers, if you would please be so kind as to consider replacing those totally stolen pajamas pants with actual clothing, that I might take you out amongst the populace without revealing your ankles. Does that fit your standards?"
"Not even a little bit," Steve says, and Tony grins at him, leans down and braces his hands against the couch, bracketing Steve's head.
"How 'bout this," he says, lips ghosting against Steve's. "You get dressed, and then maybe later we can both get…undressed."
"That's a really, really terrible line," Steve says. It's not very convincing, but at least he's making an effort. "And also, for the record, not exactly providing me with a lot of incentive to get up."
"Yeah, guess I'm not," Tony says, and grinds his hips, grins against Steve's mouth when he groans at the pressure. "I'd tell you I'm sorry, but I really don't think I am."
"You're the one who wanted to go somewhere," Steve reminds him. "I'd be perfectly happy to stay right here--this is an awfully interesting argument for that plan, actually."
"But you wanted a Christmas thing," Tony says, pulling back. He looks honestly confused, and Steve blinks, trying to track the change in tone. "Yesterday, you said--plus, I mean, you said a couple times before, about, and Pepper made me promise I wouldn't, and it's just. You! It's Christmas Eve! You wanted a Christmas thing!"
"I wanted to spend Christmas with you," Steve says.
"Right, I know--"
"No, I mean," Steve grabs Tony's hands and stills them, because he's doing that thing he does sometimes, where he moves too much, "I wanted to spend Christmas with you. I don't care what we do."
Tony's face…twitches, that's really the only way to describe it. For a second, he looks so outright stunned that it makes something ache a little in Steve's chest; then Tony's kissing him, none of the dirty slide to it Steve was expecting, just something honest and hard to ignore. Steve grounds his hands against Tony's thighs, runs his thumb lightly across the bared skin just above Tony's hip, and Tony shudders, just a little, just for a second.
When he pulls away, his grin is so uninhibited that Steve can't help but smile back, and Tony climbs up off the couch, puts his hands in the air. "Alright, alright, this is getting indecent and we have plans. Seriously. Clothing, Captain, we've business to attend to."
"Not our typical business, I hope."
"Yes, I scheduled a hostile takeover of Manhattan for you," Tony says, rolling his eyes. "Go, go, before I change my mind."
Steve changes quickly--"Warm things!" Tony yells from down the hall, when Steve asks, "no dress code, just warm,"--and goes back out to the living room to find Tony wearing the single most ridiculous jacket Steve's ever seen. It's…puffy, somehow, and an oddly muted shade of red. He chokes back a laugh before he can help himself.
"Hey," Tony says, pointing a finger. "Don't you dare, okay, I am very used to Malibu winters and this is so not Malibu, and also I'm, you know, the whole incognito thing--"
"Yeah, I think it's safe to assume no one's going to recognize you under there," Steve says, reaching out to jab at the coat. It sinks in a little under his finger, only to puff back out immediately. "You know, I actually think this is bulkier than your suit?"
"Well, yeah, of course; believe me, if I could figure out a cost-effective way to reinforce regular outerwear with gold-titanium alloy--oh. You're trying to wind me up, aren't you? That's nice, Steve, very holiday-spirit."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Steve says around a smile, and Tony scowls at him.
"We're leaving now," he says, which means I have no comeback, and am thus executing a tactical retreat; Steve's grin widens. "Any preference on car?"
"Are you driving?" Steve says, because that's a terrifying thought. He's been in a car with Tony before.
Tony just tilts his head, like he's confused by the question. "Well, yeah, unless you want to. Happy's off for the holiday, they all are. I always let the staff off for the big things, I'm not a complete bastard."
And then Steve has to kiss him again, has to crowd him up against the wall and slide his hands up under that ridiculous coat. Tony'd said he worked on Christmas, and that had been enough to set off alarm bells, but if he gives the staff the time off…Steve wonders how many holidays Tony's spent in his workshop, alone in an empty house. He tangles a hand in Tony's hair and pulls him closer, doesn't break away for a few long, slow minutes.
"Wow," Tony says, when Steve steps back. "Not gonna lie, I was not thinking 'sex appeal' was high on the list of this coat's pluses, but hey, whatever works for you."
"I've been reliably informed that red's a good color on you," Steve says, and Tony laughs, head tipped back.
"Ferrari, then, if red's what we're going for. Holiday spirit and everything, probably fitting."
"If you say so," Steve says, following him out into the garage.
Tony drives slower than usual, probably in deference to Steve's plea that they heed both the black ice and the lives of unsuspecting carolers. They're going into the city, but Tony won't tell him where, other than the muttered clue that "if you've been to midtown recently, this is going to be really anti-climactic." Steve settles back against the seat and doesn't worry about it, content to let himself drift on the furious, nonsensical ranting Pepper calls "road rage" and Tony calls "driving," until Tony sighs and pulls the car into a parking spot that Steve's pretty sure is intended for foreign dignitaries and police officers only.
"Closest we're going to get tonight," he says. "We'll have to hoof it the rest of the way, sorry."
"I don't mind," Steve says, because he really doesn't. He'd elaborate, but he can't, because Tony pulls a hat out of his pocket and jams it on his head. There is fur. There are….earflaps. "Oh my god, Tony, what--"
"Not a word, Steve."
"Incognito!" Tony says, waving his hands and glaring. The whole effect is kind of muted by the fact that, between the coat and the hat and the thick scarf he's already pulling up over the bottom half of his face, he looks like a marshmallow fresh from some kind of terrible zoo accident. Steve bites the inside of his cheek to keep himself from laughing out loud.
"Right," he says, "think you're probably safe on that front."
"Or someone will recognize you and this will end up on the front page of People," Tony says, rolling his eyes, which are currently the only visible part of his face. "'Something like 'Tony Stark: Winter Fashion Disaster,' it'll be nice, I'll get it framed."
"You don't think they'd manage a better headline?" Steve says, pulling out the creased baseball cap he keeps in the inside pocket of his jacket and tugging it low over his eyes. "'Tony Stark Kills Small Animal And Wears It On His Head' might have some traction."
"See if I ever bring you for a holiday surprise again," Tony says, warning. "Just see."
Steve's honestly not sure what it is about that statement that makes him crack. Maybe it's the fact that he can hear the smile that's hidden under Tony's scarf; maybe it's just the suggestion that there will be other holidays on which Tony will want to surprise him. It doesn't matter, not really, and Steve lets himself him smile at Tony, slow and honest. It's starting to snow, wispy little flakes sticking to the outside of Tony's jacket, and Steve doesn't look away, because he can't think of a single reason why he'd want to.
Tony stares back, a faint flush on what's visible of his cheeks, for a long moment. Then he blinks, shakes his head like he's trying to clear it. "Uh, what?"
"Nothing," Steve says, still grinning, tugging at Tony's sleeve a little. "Weren't we going somewhere?"
"Uh, we're," Tony says, blinking again, "right, yes, going, yes we are, you have to stop--uh, nevermind. Come on, this way," and he takes off, that tell-tale purpose in his step, Steve still holding onto his coat.
It's not that long a walk; Tony complains bitterly about the cold until, three blocks up, they come across an open Starbucks. Then they have the coffee argument--dressed-up beverages have their place, Steve is sure, but if it's not black and slightly burnt and tasting faintly of the metal carafe it's been in for hours, you can't really call it coffee--for the next ten minutes. Steve's so busy trying not to laugh as he searches for a comeback to "I need you to understand that espresso is my closest blood relative--no, I'm serious, my blood is 95% espresso, I have a scanner and everything," that he doesn't realize where they're going until they're already there.
It's Rockefeller Center, lit up like…well, like Christmas morning. There's a spruce larger than any Steve's ever seen at the center of the bustle of activity, glittering a hundred different colors, and an ice rink laid out beneath it. There are people everywhere, couples smiling at each other, children tugging on their parents' hands, and even that would be enough to put a smile on his face; the last time Steve was here, he'd been in costume, fighting back an invading army of sentient sewer gators, and there'd been a moment where he'd thought the whole area was going to be destroyed beyond repair. To see it healed over and teeming with humanity is more a comfort than he'd have expected, eases the guilt that's always itching, just a little, at the back of his mind.
But that's not all it is, because the time before that it was 1939, and Steve was staring up at a tree just like this one, if smaller and less colorful. He and Bucky had gone a week before Christmas, one in a long string of failed double dates, and Steve had spent most of the night sketching out what he saw. It had been couples and families then too, and something about that had stuck and stung at the time; now it warms him, that they're still doing this, that he gets to see it on the other side of seventy years and a bitter solitude he's beginning to think he won't have to weather anymore.
"Good silence or bad silence?" Tony asks, after a minute. "Because I totally have a backup plan if it's bad silence, I've got a plan B that was originally plan A, there's a whole fancy dinner thing standing by, I just…thought you might like this better?"
"Good silence," Steve says, looking around to take it all in. "Definitely a good silence--Tony. You know I was here for the first one? The first time they put a tree up, I mean, my god, that must have been--"
"1931," Tony says, and looks sheepish when Steve raises his eyebrows. "I, uh, looked it up. I knew it was the 30s, I had kind of a thing about how the lighting worked when I was a kid, read some stuff about it that must've stuck. My dad used to bring me, when I was really little."
"Yeah," Tony says, scuffing a shoe against the ground. "It was…I don't know. If you don't like it, seriously, we can go do something else, I've got another plan, there are options and shit, but--you wanted a Christmas thing, and this is the most Christmas thing I could think of."
He's doing that thing again, the thing where he hides his eyes and clearly imagines it hides what he's thinking. Steve wonders, sometimes, if Tony knows that his voice changes when he talks about his childhood, if he's realized that whenever he pushes something forward, he always stops at the last second to try to build himself a back door. It's not fair, because Tony's a better person than he thinks he is, to degrees that are staggering sometimes; there are moments when Steve thinks about who Tony might be if he'd had someone to tell him that every once in awhile, about the kind of happiness he might have found.
But on the other, more selfish hand, any other Tony wouldn't be this one, and for all Steve wishes Tony'd had better, he can't quite wish himself having worse.
"It's perfect," he says, smiling around it, a hand on the layer of bright red polyester currently representing Tony's arm. "The Christmas thing to end all Christmas things. You can cancel plan B, I love it, thank you."
"Oh," Tony says. "Well, that's….good, then. That's good, right, yeah, I think that's good."
"So are we skating?" Steve says, before Tony can start second-guessing himself. "Since we're here and everything?"
"Skating?" Tony says, and then seems to notice the ice rink. He puts his hands in the air at once, takes a sharp step back. "Ohhh no. No, no, no one wants to see that, okay--there are lots of winter sports I excel at, skiing, I'm an excellent skier--"
"And yet you brought me to an ice rink."
"I brought you to a Christmas tree!" Tony says. "A giant Christmas tree, we are here for the tree and only the tree."
"Well, that's kind of a waste of resources," Steve says. When Tony narrows his eyes, he laughs. "Come on, you can't be that bad at it."
He is, actually, that bad at it. They're recognized at the skate rental stand, because Tony tries to pay when Steve raises his eyebrows at the rental price and the only cash he's got on him is a hundred, and things only go downhill from there. Tony's less graceful on skates than he is three sheets to the wind, which is actually a little unsettling; he wobbles and flails his arms and pitches toward the ground, complains bitterly when Steve, long since enhanced to the peak of human performance, snatches him up before he face-plants.
"Would it have been better if I'd let you crack your head open?" Steve asks, and Tony scowls at him.
"Yes," he says, "because then I'd at least have my dignity."
"And a head wound."
"A dignified head wound, and--oh, for fuck's sake, Steve, are you skating backwards?"
Steve hadn't realized it, but he is; he grins at Tony, a little smug, because he can't help it. Tony's flushed bright red under that ridiculous hat, from cold or embarrassment, it's hard to be sure, and Steve spreads his arms in supplication and does one quick lap of the rink mostly to figure out how to explain it--he's found, since the serum, that there are things he picks up so naturally that he has to actively think about them to figure out how they work. Then he slides to a stop next to Tony and sets about teaching him how to maintain balance and momentum, the combination of smooth strokes and careful distance that spells success. Tony's nothing if not a quick study; after fifteen minutes he's moving, if not like a pro, at least less like a beginner.
"You know, I was never good at this when I was a kid," Steve says, a hand on Tony's back that Tony (hopefully) can't feel through the coat. "Or, well, the version of this we--it's not like I had skates, but sometimes on the cold days we'd let water freeze over on the sidewalk behind my apartment, slide around on it."
"Cap," Tony says, mocking, eyes wide, "that's not the commitment to civic justice and safety I've come to know. This is shameful, does Fury know about that?"
"It wasn't ever my idea," Steve says, rolling his eyes. "And, like I said, I wasn't very good at it--Bucky'd always manage to do tricks and stuff. I usually ended up breaking something."
"You're just trying to make me feel better about Nancy Kerrigan Jr. over there, aren't you?" Tony says, gesturing towards the little girl who's been skating circles around both of them for half an hour. Steve doesn't know who Nancy Kerrigan Sr. was--a skater of some kind, in all likelihood--but he shakes his head anyway.
"Just thinking out loud," he says. "You ready to get off the ice?"
"I've been ready to get off the ice since we got on the ice," Tony says, "but it's been more fun than I was expecting, so if you want to stick it out a while longer--"
"No, I think I'm good," Steve says, eyeing the line that's formed behind the rental stand with trepidation. "If this place gets any more crowded, I doubt we'll be able to move at all."
"Point," Tony says. He sounds relieved, which is telling, as is the fact that he lets Steve more-or-less tow him back to the front of the rink. There's something warm in it, the allowances he's making here, the fact that he's trying this hard; Steve goes and buys him another coffee while Tony's wrestling his way out of his skates, leads them both over to a recently vacated bench.
"So," Tony says, a couple of sips into his coffee and sounding that much more enthusiastic for it, "skills you've acquired since the serum, we've got ice skating and, uh, I'm assuming you weren't throwing a lot of vibranium around back in the day--anything else you wanna tell me about? New exciting post-serum hobbies?"
"You tell me," Steve says, "you're the one who's read my file."
"Well, yeah, of course, it was right--wait. Wait. Have you never read your file?"
"Why would I? I doubt there's anything in it I don't already know."
"But the temptation," Tony says, "it's right there, you'd have to be--you don't want to know what they've said about you over the years?"
"Not really," Steve says. "Why, do you?"
"Ah," Tony says, his face shifting slightly.
Steve sighs. "You've hacked your SHIELD file, haven't you?"
"If it makes you feel better, it wasn't exactly an ego boost," Tony says. "Although not as bad as my boarding school quarterly reviews, back in the day."
"You went to boarding school?"
"You knew that," Tony says, dismissive, and then raises his eyebrows when Steve shakes his head. "You…didn't know that, of course you didn't know that, why would you have known that? Yeah, boarding school, from the second I was old enough."
"Did you…like it?" Steve says, not sure if that's the right question. Tony's past--like all of their pasts, really, the whole team's shuffling away from their collective histories most of the time--is a minefield Steve's still trying to figure out how to traverse.
Tony smiles, just for a second, a pained little twitch of his mouth that's gone as quickly as it appears. "It was fine. Better than the house, I think. I was always--school wasn't great, ever, y'know, smartest kid in the room, and…well, you know. It's not like I've ever been great with people."
And just like that, it clicks, the loose thread that Steve's been worrying at all these months unraveling into a picture that makes sense. Steve had thought it was about Howard, the way Tony is; he'd thought it was the lack there feeding the aching desperation in Tony's eyes sometimes, the way he's always scrambling to catch up. But it's not just that, is it--Howard's part of it, certainly, and that's something Steve's still trying to reconcile with the man he'd known and liked, but he's not the whole story. Steve knows what it is to fit wrong, knows the raw sting of rejection inside and out; Tony'd said from the first that he wasn't a team player, but maybe it's just that he'd never gotten the chance to be before.
Steve puts his arm around Tony's shoulders, pulls him in against the chill. "I think you do alright."
For once in his life, Tony doesn't say anything; after a minute, he slides one gloved hand into Steve's front pocket, rubs dexterous fingers against Steve's thigh through the fabric. Steve smiles, because he knows a thank you when he feels one, whether Tony's going to say it or not.
"So, uh, Merry Christmas," Tony says after a few minutes, voice almost lost in the noise of the crowd.
"Yeah," Steve says. He turns his face to press a kiss against Tony's hair, almost laughs when his lips meet the top of that ridiculous hat instead. He's already thinking of the bed back at the mansion, the breakfast they'll probably wake up too late to make tomorrow; it's not what he'd thought he was looking for, but it's starting to feel like the right thing anyway, a certainly he'd forgotten he knew how to feel building within him. "Merry Christmas, Tony."