Everything special about you came out of a bottle.
The words roll around in his head. They shouldn't bother him like they do. Sticks and stones and all that, it's wisdom for any age, but they spin and twist and cling with little barbs like the teeth of leeches. Howard would never have said those words, but he sounded so much like him in that moment. He'd thought they could have been friends.
He'd admitted to himself that he was wrong about Stark, that for all his faults and his flippant, flashy attitude, he was willing to do what it took even as he was thinking on his feet. That deserved respect.
Since then he'd tried to be more considerate; he waited for Tony to give him the go-ahead before he gave out the battle orders. If there was something he didn't understand, he kept his mouth shut and let more educated heads have their say before he asked questions.
He takes it as a learning experience, because sometimes you don't know when you need to come down a peg, and it's better to get knocked down and work your way back up than to think you deserve to be at the top. Humility doesn't tend to be tall enough to get all the way up a pedestal. Although he can't bring himself to thank a man for cruelty, he accepts it, and soldiers on.
In the months after the attack on Manhattan, Steve finds himself unwilling to leave the city. New York is home, even if it's not the one he knows. It's full of glitz now, lights and noise and the so-called beautiful people of this day and age. He feels they might be bit of a letdown after Clark Gable and Myrna Loy, but he likes seeing the unabashed smiles on the girls on the billboards (even if he wishes they'd wear more clothes). He sees a group of girls playing soccer in the muddy turf of Central Park and doesn't hear anyone scolding them for not being ladylike; he likes that, too. He sees guys who were as skinny as he used to be, wearing clothes that don't sag on their bony frames and attracting the attention of cute girls the way he never could.
Other things are less welcoming. One night he holds a door open for a young lady with a heavy bag, and she sprays him in the eyes with something foul, screams and runs, thinking him a predator; he reaches into his pocket to show a security guard the GPS on his phone in an effort to ask for directions, and is held at gunpoint. He hears gunfire and sirens at night and jumps out of bed to help, only to realize it's futile. The first time he wakes up to the sound of a pistol and just rolls over and goes back to sleep, it sours his stomach, and ruins his dreams.
So that morning, he looks for something else to do. He can't join the army, or he'd be doing that. So he finds volunteer work: city improvement projects, soup kitchens, lifting heavy things. It's easy to just find a stick-on nametag and stand in line, no one questions his presence as long as he does the work. He paints over graffiti and bends poles back into shape when no one's looking. He doesn't know anything about gardening, but he can move planters without having to empty them first. If he moves from group to group he never gains a reputation; he just helps, and moves on.
Around three o'clock, he waits on the blocks near schools and watches for cars that don't belong there, watches the drivers with unflinching eyes. The unsavory ones who look too long with bad intentions, he sketches in a steno pad and writes down their license numbers and stops off at the police station. He occasionally finds kids hounded by bullies; he drives off the aggressors with his presence alone, and helps the injured ones up.
These are the things that Tony Stark watches on SHIELD's surveillance cameras, and marvels at how incredibly personal it all seems to be. Steve never talks about it, and he never lingers; he just does it because he has all the time in the world and nothing to stop him. It's so Boy Scouts, so sickeningly sweet and sensible, like he's reading from a Good Citizenship manual and following the bulletpoints one after the other.
And then, one Saturday night, Steve Rogers wanders down a street and, perfectly oblivious, passses by a dance club, one with proudly flying rainbow flags and a leather-clad bouncer who hands out condoms. Tony almost spits out his coffee.
The men in line to get in whisper to each other as he walks by, eyes straying to his shoulders and his legs; a few swoon like girls when he kneels down to tie his shoe. When he realizes they're flirting, Steve blushes and picks up his pace, shrinking a little into the collar of his coat. Tony laughs, because Steve is beautiful in a way that would be stupid on anyone else, and he has nothing but sympathy for the crowd as Steve cuts through an alley; hate to see him go, love to watch him leave. And maybe, in Tony's petty, mean little way, seeing a little bit of homophobia on him brings him a little back down to Earth.
Pondering this, he catches movement in the alley at about the same time Steve does. It's too dark for the cameras, but Steve dashes in as though something is wrong; Tony snaps for JARVIS to zoom in, to do something, and prep the suit just in case. It ends too quickly, and the camera only catches the flash of a muzzle before the view readjusts to show the aftermath.
It was a bashing, apparently; a group of young men, laid out on the ground having obviously taken a good-old-fashioned American beatdown. Their victim, a willowy, mixed-race twenty-something with pink streaks in his hair, a broken nose, and his pants shoved down around his bloody knees was curled up in a protective ball against a dumpster. Steve gave a last look around to make sure the combat was over, and then walked over to the kid to help him up.
The last vestiges of Tony's cynicism told him this was the part where Steve would lecture him, maybe proselytize a little, about the evils of queer life and that being a sissy wouldn't get him anywhere, but it was cold and gray even in his own mind. Instead, Steve helped him to his feet, turned around while he fixed his clothes, asked if he was hurt and if he needed a doctor. And when the kid said no, Steve gave him a few dollars for the bus, and covered his retreat.
With that done, Steve, standing in the shadows of an alley full of men he'd knocked out, took out his cell phone. The light rolled over the legs of Steve's jeans, and although it probably wasn't bothering him all that much, there was a distinct pool of blood spreading on the outside of his left thigh; a small gunshot, probably from a .22.
He stared at his Contacts for a moment... and then his face seemed to fall, as if he suddenly realized that nothing on the screen meant anything to him. He closed it without calling anyone, just took off his jacket, tied it around his waist to hide the blood, and then continued on his way as if nothing had happened.
Tony cut the video feed, and put on the suit.
He found Steve ambling back to his little apartment over the gym. He wasn't limping. Given his healing factor and the density of his thigh muscles, the slug had probably been easy enough to just pick out with a fingernail and the healing factor could handle the rest; that, at least, Tony found marginally comforting. New York didn't exactly have the best reputation as a compassionate city, half the stories about corpses going unnoticed in public places for days or weeks probably had their roots in this town, but there was something specially revolting about watching Captain America, walking slowly across Manhattan, hands in his pockets and quietly bleeding.
It made him sick to watch; Tony preferred to fly home alone to nurse his wounds, but only because he didn't want anyone else to know. It made him remember his father's voice, scolding him for running to his mother with burns from hot machine parts or cuts from sharp metal tools; the shame and belittlement rose up in his throat, and the idea of telling anyone but JARVIS became a non-option.
But Steve was all about community and teamwork. He had the names, he had the numbers right in the damn phone, he could have called anyone. He could have called the police or a cab, he could have called Fury, he was Captain fucking America, he could have called literally anyone, and they would have come. And yet here he was, under the callous glow of streetlights and apartment windows, another nobody on the pavement.
He landed in an empty lot behind a condemned tenement and waited for Steve to catch up, trying to sort out the words before they met. He didn't quite make it; Steve had broken into a somewhat awkward run, one hand pressed against his wound.
“What happened, are you okay?”
“...You were shot, Cap.” Iron Man held an arm out as if he were half-offering a hug. Some thug put a bullet in you and you're asking if I'm all right? They hadn't flown together before, but he'd been prepared for the eventuality. “I'm taking you back to the Tower, we'll get that cleaned up.”
Steve didn't waste time, just hooked an arm around Iron Man's back and did his best to hold himself steady for the takeoff; not really any different from hanging onto a helicopter, just smaller and more personable. Sort of. If he hadn't been so close, Tony might not have heard the soft grunt of pain as the pressure of an armored hand gripped his waist, or the sigh of relief as it took the weight off of his injured leg, or the very small smile on his lips as they slowly raised off of the ground.
They took off into the sky without any further words, one thinking there was no reason to speak, the other having far, far too much to say.
The injury, as it turned out, wasn't bad. The healing factor had already kicked in, and although the bleeding hadn't stopped, the knitting muscle had already forced the offending bullet out; Steve offered Tony his leg, watching him gently dab at the wound with a cotton ball soaked in disinfectant, and found himself bemused.
“I can't believe you don't have lasers or robots for this kind of thing,” he said. It was the first genuine smile Tony had seen on his face in weeks, and it churned the dark-haired man's stomach with guilt.
“I do, actually, but this is kind of a special occasion.”
“Is it National Patch Up A Teammate Day?” It was a lame attempt at a joke.
“No, nothing like that.” Tony chuckled, more out of obligation than real humor. Satisfied the wound was clean, he put down a gauze pad and some tape, and just because it was something he'd do for anyone who didn't have superhuman healing, he wrapped a bandage around it, too. “...I've been watching you the past couple of days, Steve.”
Steve seemed to go a little cold at that, and folded his hands in his lap. The worktable he was sitting on suddenly felt far more impersonal, the vastness of Tony's lab suddenly losing the little space of closeness as Tony stood up again. “I would've thought that was SHIELD's job.”
“Yeah, well. I'm a consultant. Call me diligent.” Tony put the first-aid kit back on the wall and rinsed his hands. He stayed quiet a long while, the words he wanted to say tumbling in his head like someone had left a nickel in the dryer, a clattering din of chaos mixed in with a completely normal process.
Maybe he stayed quiet too long; Steve stood up, grabbed his blood-stained jeans, and headed for the door. “I...should go, shouldn't I? Thanks for patching me up, Stark, and for the ride. Have a good night.”
Tony caught his shoulder, thinking more with his reflexes than his brain. “Wait! ..I mean, wait. Please.”
Steve did. And all at once, Tony got a good, close look at his face. He was just... sad. This was a man who was slowly coming to terms with the fact that his life was over, that everyone he cared about was long gone while he was still young and beautiful; they'd even won the war without him. He had nothing but a few vintage toys to salve the wounds, and even though the hole in his leg was closed, Steve Rogers was bleeding all over Tony's floor. He didn't ask for so much as a change of clothes; he didn't ask for anything. He just said thank you, and moved on.
“Stay here tonight.” The words were out of his mouth almost before he finished the thought. “I... I'm bad, at talking, but-- I thought, if you were okay with it... we could talk.”
That seemed to catch Steve's attention. “What about?”
“I … I thought we could start with my dad. You probably knew him better than I did, honestly. He talked about you all the time, while I was growing up.” Tony moved to lead Steve upstairs, to where the good booze was; he figured he'd need it.
“He did?” That seemed to put that genuine smile back on Steve's face. “I'd wondered if he'd... you know, forgotten me.”
“No. He never stopped looking.”
“You don't sound real happy about that.”
“I'm not.” They reached the top of the stairs, and Tony made a beeline for the scotch. He poured two glasses, kept the bottle, and retired to the overstuffed couch by the window. It faced the city, and made something of an easier view. He sat, and when he felt Steve's weight sink the seat next to him, he passed off the second glass and took a steadying breath. “See... my dad never liked me. He was away most of the time, and when he was home, I was the last thing he wanted to see; I found out later he was founding SHIELD and working with them for my entire life.”
“That sounds rough. I'm sorry.”
“Don't apologize, none of this is your fault.” Tony knocked his glass back. “He used to tell stories—not to me, because he didn't talk to me if he could avoid it, but he told other people-- about Captain America and the Howling Commandos, and all these amazing adventures. Blowing up weapons depots and rescuing prisoners, doing what was right, upholding virtue and justice and hope. And the closer I got to your age, the more I disappointed him, no matter what I did, I couldn't live up to your example. And for a very long time, I didn't think you were even real.”
Steve had been listening to this with a dull ache in his chest. He'd always imagined Howard settling down one day; the bruised romantic in him had pictured it so clearly: Howard, meeting some sassy, sharp dame who made a respectable man out of him, marrying her in some beautiful cathedral, building a home with a bunker in the basement and blueprints instead of paintings on the walls. But he'd never imagined him as being much of a father; it killed him to know he'd been right.
But Tony continued unabated.“Now I know you're real. And frankly, if I had been in my dad's place? I would have been pretty damn disappointed in me, too.” He refilled his tumbler, and knocked that one back too. It stung, but right now, that's what he needed. “Because you live up to the hype. You really do, Cap.”
“That's not fair to anybody, Stark.” Steve's voice was gentle, but the tension in his chest was clear in his tone. “Not to you. And not to me--”
“I know! I know.” Tony turned to face him, one ankle tucking under his knee as he did. “It's not fair. It's wrong, and I'm sorry.” And then, maybe not for the first time, but in his most successful attempt to be legitimately nice to someone yet, he refilled Steve's drink, gave him his full attention, and asked him, “How are you holding up?”
“... Not very well.” Steve took a long sip, enjoying the taste of the booze even though he knew it wouldn't affect him. “... There used to be an ice cream parlor that I would sneak off to, if I had a bad day and some extra money. I went there yesterday; now it's a jewelry store. At the time I laughed, because at least it's still a place you can take a girl to, right?” He smiles, and it quickly fades. “But it's gone. I had a whole life ahead of me, and everybody was saying it was seventy years back, but for me? It was a week ago. And then they wanted me to join the whole Avengers project, and I had no idea what to think, except Fury told me I'd be able to see Mister Stark.”
I was so excited, I don't even have the words. The first time I saw you I knew you had to be Howard's. If you didn't know him very well I guess you don't see it, but you're a chip off the old block, no question. The way you talk, the way you smile, even the way you light up when you're looking at something you think is keen. And I thought, finally, there's a familiar face--”
“--and I hated you.”
“And you hated me.”
Tony took another drink in the long space of silence, his guilt palpable in the air. “Is that why you didn't call anyone, after you were shot?”
“...Clint and Natasha are overseas. Thor isn't back from Asgard. Bruce has enough problems. It didn't seem important enough to call Fury.”
“And I hated you.”
“And you hated me.”
“Well.” Tony knocked back his fourth glass and, perhaps taking a cue from their thunder-god friend, threw the empty tumbler into the fireplace. It shattered in a satisfying burst that made Steve jump a little in his seat. “...That changes, starting today.” He flopped back into the couch, more than slightly tipsy. “Stay here tonight. Stay here and tomorrow, we'll have a better day. JARVIS? When was Ben & Jerry's invented?”
“Good, awesome. We'll go get Ben & Jerry's tomorrow.”
Steve laughed, because a tipsy Tony was not at all like a tipsy Howard. Much nicer, much less maudlin. “Who are they, exactly?”
“Best ice cream in town. It'll double as an educational outing, too, lots of their flavors are puns on stuff you slept through, Capsicle.” Tony beamed, apparently finding this genius. “Actually.. JARVIS? Gimme Wikipedia on this window. And order us a pizza-- no, two, extra large, half everything, half.. uh.. everything else, extra everything, stuffed crust, and ask them very nicely not to fuck us on the breadsticks. Use that word, too, no Auto-Correct. Under special notes, quote, “do not f-u-c-k us on the b-r-e-a-d-s-t-i-c-k-s please”, end quote.”
Steve had begun cracking up about halfway through the pizza tirade, and Tony counted that a success.
They spent that evening shoulder to shoulder on the couch, surrounded by pizza and breadsticks they had very much not been fucked on, exposing Steve to the endless, circular Trivia Hell that is Wikipedia, projected onto a picture window that used to hold the New York skyline. When Tony was finally too sloshed to be able to focus on Wikipedia anymore, he switched to YouTube, and stuck to videos that were worth laughing at.
Yeah, Steve had a bullethole in his leg, and his friends were all long dead and gone. Someday, he'd have to face it properly, and give himself the chance to mourn the person he might have been. When he was ready, he would grieve, and move on.
For now, there's an unfamiliar genius dozing on his shoulder as the sun comes up over an unfamiliar city, and for the first time in a long time, he feels like it's okay to get to know them both.