The first time Steve notices, Tony is flying in the Iron Man suit.
Steve and Natasha are on the ground and Tony and Thor are their cover, backing them up during their break-in into an arms facility. Clint and Bruce are the forward team, hopefully hacking their way into the security system at this very second. They're in the middle of the desert and it's completely dark all around them, the sky midnight blue and filled with stars.
"You're clear, Cap, Black Widow." Tony flies in a gentle arc over their heads, giving them a slight nod before taking off, going higher in the sky. He flies in a spiral, twisting his way through the darkness overhead, repulsors on his hands and boots leaving a looping trail of blue-white light behind him.
It's insane to think that the Iron Man suit—this huge clanking piece of armor—could be graceful, but the suit moves through the air like a bird in flight, like a spinning firework. "He… he looks like he's dancing." The words slip out of Steve's mouth before he's aware of what he's saying.
"Wow, could you have any more stars in your eyes, Captain?" says Natasha with a lifted eyebrow.
"I—" Steve flushes. They're only talking in person, not on the party line for everyone to hear, for which Steve is grateful, because—
"Hey, Cap, I said you're clear. Shake a leg. Is your hearing aid on the fritz?" Tony's voice on the comm line interrupts his thoughts.
Steve grits his teeth. Yes, Steve is grateful, because Tony is a jerk and deserves no further compliments to make his head even bigger than it already is.
Steve sometimes composes letters to Bucky inside his head. He imagines sending them, imagines Bucky reading them and laughing at him. He knows it's probably not healthy, to hold on so tight to someone long gone, but no one else could understand all the changes in the world since Steve's last known it—sometimes surprising, sometimes disappointing, sometimes reassuring. Besides, Steve would rather hold on too tight than forget.
Dear Bucky, Steve thinks, I think you would like Thor. He's basically an alien, but not like the aliens we used to read about in science fiction serials. He looks just any other normal person, and he's like a lot of guys we knew in the service. He's got a good attitude no matter what happens, always ready to go, and he's one of the few people who sort of understands how I feel, since everything in this world is pretty new to him, too.
"So you see," Thor is saying, holding up a phone—which still looks absurdly non-phone-shaped to Steve, it looks more like a pack of cards—in his huge hand, "the Midgardian technology called a 'satellite' orbits the Earth, and signals from this device shoot up into the satellite and bounce back, so you know your location on Earth at all times."
Steve takes the phone back and frowns. It's not that GPS technology is surprising—it's more worrisome than anything else, knowing what this kind of tracking ability could be used for. For all that the modern world worries about its privacy, people seem to voluntarily give it up very easily.
"Oh my god, it's like the blind leading the blind." Tony wanders into the room. He's wearing a sharp suit and sunglasses, and Steve doesn't understand why a person needs to do that indoors. He looks over the top of said sunglasses at Steve. "You're in my seat, old timer."
And that's just so—Steve barely holds a growl in check. "Deal with it."
"Oooh," says Clint, strolling in and taking a seat. "You hear that, Stark? Ballsy."
"It's okay. I don't want him to break a hip or something getting up," says Tony easily. He slides into a chair, using his own momentum to send it and himself rolling to the other end of the conference table. He props his feet up on the table, leaning back. "So where is everyone else, anyway? Don't you all know about the five-minute rule? Got people to see, multibillion-dollar corporation to run."
Bucky, I think you and Tony Stark would not get along at all, adds Steve, and the imagined letter in his head is written in an angry scrawl, You'd probably end up fighting all the time. He's arrogant and self-centered and—
"Rogers, you look kinda constipated," declares Tony, interrupting Steve's thoughts. "You get enough fiber? The country's no longer on the rationing system, FYI; not sure if you got the memo."
Steve grinds his teeth so hard that his jaw hurts.
The second time Steve notices, he's in Tony's lab.
It's his first time visiting the lab in Stark Tower, and it's the most technologically advanced place Steve has encountered yet. When he punches in the access code Tony had given him, the door says to him, "Welcome, Captain Rogers" in a British man's voice.
Steve has wondered why the future is only… futuristic, for lack of a better word, in certain locales. Tony's personal tech and SHIELD tech seem to be leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, the sort of unbelievable stuff that Steve expects of the future, but lots of areas of the world look exactly the same as they did in the 1940s. And those are usually the poorest communities, the neighborhoods that most people would prefer to forget or ignore. The discrepancy is glaringly obvious to Steve, but no one else seems to notice. When Steve had asked about it, Bruce had said, "Ah, well, I think the answer boils down to three unfortunate words: intellectual property rights."
Steve's not entirely sure where to stand in Tony's lab so he won't be in the way. There are car parts and unidentifiable machinery everywhere, and scattered among the physical objects are blue glowing displays and models just floating in the air.
The blue displays hover and rotate slowly, and when Steve looks more closely, he sees that some are schematics for the Iron Man suit. One is a complete—and very detailed—diagram of the anatomy of Tony's body.
"Like what you see?" Tony appears from behind a giant engine of some kind, red-tinted glasses covering his eyes.
Steve jumps and does not turn red. He says, voice tight from the sudden irritation spiking in him, "What do you want?"
"Ohh, right now, it's a toss-up between world peace and all the Laker girls in my pool. But I won't bore you; my wants are too many to list." Tony pushes the glasses up onto his forehead, making his hair stick up. He snaps his fingers and the lights in the lab get brighter. With a wave of his arm, the blue display closest to him—it looks like a jet of some kind—goes flying across the lab, landing closer to the bank of computer monitors at Steve's end of the room.
"I meant," says Steve, forcing himself to keep an even tone, and why is it that talking to Tony always gives him a headache? "I meant, what do you want with me?"
Tony stops for a second, glancing at him with an unreadable look. "Ah, no, too easy," Tony says, almost to himself. A little louder and more brightly, he says, "I've got some good news for you, Steve. I'm gonna upgrade your suit. Free of charge, because you likely are on the government payroll, so I'll consider this a pro bono consulting case."
He crosses the room as he talks, pushing and pulling at the holographic displays as he goes, weaving between the actual physical objects in the room effortlessly. He ducks under the arm of one robot, muttering, "Where the hell did I put it? Jarvis, where the hell did I put—oh, yes, here we go," and then he literally plucks a display out of the air, and pulls it apart with his hands like a conductor in front of an orchestra, blowing it up in size. He waves his arm and points at Steve, sending the display shooting in Steve's direction. And somehow, in a matter of moments, Tony and Steve stand a pace apart, with a glowing blue life-sized model of the Captain America suit hovering between them.
Steve can't help staring a little. It's like everything Tony does is… graceful, somehow, and Steve doesn't think Tony realizes it at all.
"Hey, space cadet." Tony snaps his fingers in front of Steve's face. The lights in the lab go brighter, brighter, and then they all shut off. In the pitch black, Tony says, "Oh, dammit."
Tony claps his hands, and the lights come back on. "Seriously, Jarvis, you don't realize when I'm snapping at you and when I'm snapping at someone else? I programmed you better than that. Anyway." Tony turns back to Steve. "Well? Say something."
"Uh, thanks?" Steve doesn't know why Tony is doing this for him, being nice to him. He's never quite sure where he stands with Tony, or if they're even friends. All he's ever gotten from the man are smart remarks and jibes.
Tony rolls his eyes. "Your uncertain gratitude makes me all atwitter. Alright, let Jarvis scan your body and then get out. I need to think." With a wave over his shoulder, Tony goes back to the other side of the lab, returning to the engine he was working on earlier. He whistles into the air, saying, "Hey, give me a beat," and some horribly loud rock 'n roll music starts, bass line thumping all around them. He doesn't look up again, ignoring Steve entirely, so Steve guesses he's effectively been dismissed.
"Captain Rogers, please raise your arms and place your feet shoulder-width apart." The British man—this is probably Jarvis, Steve guesses—is speaking to him, voice barely audible above the din.
Steve does so, muttering, "Is he always like this?"
He doesn't think he spoke loud enough to be heard over the music, but Jarvis responds, saying, "Yes, always, Captain. Please hold still for the next 20 seconds."
The thing is, Steve still sometimes feels like he's in a borrowed body.
Sure, he's been in this body long enough and he's trained in it long enough that it's no longer completely foreign to him. It feels mostly like his own body, now, but there are still some days when he feels like he's just strapped on a giant suit of muscles.
And apparently today is one of those days, because when Steve enters Bruce's lab—which is much smaller than Tony's, and filled with a lot more breakable things—he's like the proverbial bull in the china shop.
"Hey, watch out!" Bruce leaps forward, diving to the floor, and only barely manages to catch the beaker before it crashes to the tiles.
All the people gathered around the lab—Steve, Natasha, Clint—freeze. They watch Bruce's back as he carefully gets to his feet and places the beaker back on the lab table.
"Oh geez, sorry," breathes Steve, once it's clear that Bruce is not about to explode in green rage. Sometimes he feels like he's just too big— the only person he's met that's bigger than him is Thor, and Thor isn't even human. "I'm sorry. I'm uh, a little clumsy sometimes?"
Natasha and Clint both release identical snorts of amusement, which is a little unfair, when they are probably the least clumsy people Steve has ever met.
Bruce is smiling, but it looks too—tight. "Not a problem." Are his eyes normally green? Steve feels like this is information that is very important to know about Bruce. "But maybe you should… wait outside for a second. Clint and Natasha will fill you in."
So Steve stands out in the hallway, leaning against the wall with his hands in his jacket pockets, like a kid in time-out. That's where Tony finds him moments later.
"Wow, who kicked your puppy?" Tony says, sliding his sunglasses down the bridge of his nose to look at him.
"Just… leave me alone," mutters Steve. He sorely misses… everything, misses understanding the world, misses having someone around who understands him, and it hits him abruptly, as it often does.
"Oh god, stop with that face, it's probably against a national law for Captain America to have that sadsack face," says Tony, sounding irritated. He prods a finger into Steve's ribs. "C'mon, get moving, nobody puts baby in a corner."
"What?" Steve doesn't know how to take that strange statement. "Stop poking me." He slaps Tony's hand away, but heads back to the lab without further protest. He wonders—not for the first time since meeting Tony Stark—if he's become too conditioned to following orders.
"It's… oh, never mind." Tony shakes his head. "Jesus, I need to give you a pop culture digest or something, or we can't talk at all."
Steve just frowns, not sure if that is exactly the problem.
The third time Steve notices is when they're in the middle of a fight.
Actually, Tony and Steve are in the middle of—running—because the insectoid aliens that rained down on Washington D.C. were unexpectedly bigger than the briefing had promised they would be. And they have exoskeletons like steel. Two are skittering down K Street, chasing after them with alarming speed.
"Cap, we're gonna bank hard on my count," says Tony, who is flying low beside him as Steve runs. "Turn and hold up your shield when I say. Ready? Three, two, one, now—"
They both turn, and Steve braces the shield. He feels Tony kick off of it, boot repulsors bursting white-hot, and watches Tony hurtle forward like a bullet, arms outstretched, energy blastors emitting red beams from his palms, one at each giant insect. The beams explode on contact, flipping the insects and leaving them struggling ungainly on their backs.
"Shield! The one on the left!" Tony's voice shouts in his ear.
Steve throws the shield, and it hums through the air, neatly decapitating one of the insects before returning back to his hand.
Tony takes the one on the right, jumping up and bobbing around the chomping jaws, aided by his repulsors. Steve watches, trying to get a clear shot, but Tony is moving around too much to try it. For a second, Tony almost gets caught by in between the insect's giant forelegs, which are trying to grab at him, but he kicks out, using the momentum to flip up and over. While he is flying in an arc over the insect's head, he fires both of his palm repulsors straight down into the insect's mouth. Its head explodes spectacularly in a burst of fire and black goo.
As always, Tony leaps away and lands gracefully, braced with one knee and one fist on the ground. It's as if the suit weighs nothing on him, is just a second skin, when Steve knows it actually weighs a ton.
Steve walks over and gives him a hand up. "How do you do that?" he can't help but say.
"Yeah, I'm pretty awesome, aren't I?" The Iron Man mask flips up and Tony gives him a wink. "Just say it, I'm awesome."
"Oh my god," says Steve, turning away, suddenly feeling acutely embarrassed and more than a little irritated. "Just forget it." He puts a hand to his ear, activating the comm. "Hulk, Thor, give me your location."
Tony closes the helmet again, but follows Steve, still persisting, "No, no, this is a moment that will go down in my diary with little hearts around it. Captain America almost gave me a compliment. Hey, I have some autographed photos in the suit somewhere; do you want one? And there's that constipated face again, Cap; haven't we already had the fiber discussion?"
Alright, so Steve gets a little… fixated.
He can't help it, because the one of the (many) things that Steve lacks is physical grace and agility, and he admires other people who possess those qualities. It makes sense coming from people like Natasha and Clint, and even Peggy, but to see such qualities inhabit such a… blunt and otherwise graceless person, is just strange.
One day, in his dorm at SHIELD, Steve flips to a blank page in his briefing notebook and draws a sketch of an arm of the Iron Man suit. He draws it extended, and he draws it bent. He draws Tony's arm doing the same things. It doesn't look quite right, though, but Steve doesn’t know why.
He ends up drawing sheets and sheets of both the suit, and of Tony. Just different parts of the body, studying how they move, together and apart. None of them look right.
Steve flips to a new sheet—he's getting to the end of the notebook now—and draws Tony as he saw him in the lab the other day, in a ratty t-shirt, goggles on his forehead, gesturing at something glowing in the air. It seems better, and then Steve realizes what's wrong—movement is hard to convey with pencil on paper.
So to get the drawing right, Steve ends up blurring all the lines a little bit.
That oughta tell ya something, buddy, says Bucky's imagined voice in his mind, deeply amused.
The second time Steve visits Tony's lab, it isn't any less strange. For one thing, it seems like half of the things in the lab are totally different—and Steve's last visit was only a couple of weeks ago—different machines, different cars, different computers. Among the new things is a mannequin wearing a Captain America suit. Tony himself is sitting at a bank of monitors, working with something on the screens. He swipes a hand through the air in front of the monitors and the display on the monitor goes shooting into a spot in the air, expanding into a glowing hologram.
"You did this all in two weeks? Do you ever sleep?" says Steve wonderingly, approaching the new suit and reaching out a hand to touch it. The material is totally different—not like the original leather, but not like the upgraded suit SHIELD made for him, either. This suit seems like it's made out of tiny blue scales, tightly overlapping one another to form a hard but flexible armor.
"Yes, but apparently not enough, or so Pepper says. But she also talks a lot about these things called 'regular meals' and 'healthy living,' which I think are just urban legends." Tony gets up. He snaps his fingers and makes a beckoning motion with his hand, and one of the blue displays flies into him like a boomerang. He pulls it apart, expanding it, and Steve sees that it's a diagram of the suit material.
Tony points out certain parts of the diagram to Steve. "See, I kind of riffed off of the concept of chainmail. And fish scales, clearly. You have to appreciate the incongruity of it. It's lighter, and it seems weaker because it's not solid, but the overlapping microplates reinforce the armor's strength. Twice the durability, half the weight."
"That's… geez, that's amazing, Tony." And Steve honestly means it.
"Aw, stop, you're making me blush." Tony claps his hands together around the diagram, and it shrinks to the size of a coin. He flicks it away with his fingers, and it bounces away into the air, landing somewhere on the other side of the lab. "You know what, though. In return, I'd like you to do a favor for me."
"What?" Steve is circling his suit, touching at the new gloves, which aren't made of the scale-mail material, but also seem to be less bulky and simultaneously more durable.
Tony produces a rolled up notebook, which had been tucked into the back pocket of his jeans. "Explain to me what's up with this?"
To Steve's horror, he sees that Tony's holding up Steve's briefing notebook, the one with all the sketches in it.
"Wh-where did you get that?" It was too much to hope that Tony hadn't looked in it; of course he had, because he was Tony, and because Steve could never catch a break, and already a blush of embarrassment was roiling up his neck, into his face.
"You left it after a debriefing." Tony is starting to smile, to look absolutely gleeful. "I think you need to come clean here, Steve. Just admit it, you love me. Or do you love Iron Man? I could make you an honorary member of the Iron Man fan club if you like."
"Oh god, just… shut up." Steve snatches the notebook out of Tony's hands, rolling it up, seriously considering smacking Tony in the head with it. His face is going to burn off, if the way it's currently feeling is any indication. "It's not like that. It's just—"
"What?" Tony genuinely looks curious.
"You… I don’t know. Your agility, your form of movement." Steve blows an irritated breath between his teeth. He doesn't want to talk about this. He really doesn't want to talk about this. "Those aren't exactly my strong suits. I was trying to… figure it out."
"Huh." Tony actually looks like he's giving this serious consideration.
This isn't the reaction Steve is expecting. For one thing, he had imagined there'd be a lot more laughing. So he adds, reluctantly, "Half the problem is me. I'm just clumsy."
"It's nothing you can't train or practice away," says Tony with a dismissive wave of his hand. He suddenly brightens, and Steve can practically see the metaphorical light-bulb over Tony's head. "Hey, I have a great idea."
"What is it?" says Steve warily.
"Let's dance." Tony advances, smiling slightly. It's actually more of a smirk.
"I—what?" Steve thinks he can't possibly have heard correctly. He backs up, away from Tony, and knocks into a robot, which seemingly wakes up and whirrs at him with an irritated noise.
Tony says, "It'll improve your form and agility." He snaps his fingers and a waltz starts up, lively and familiar, and Steve swears he's heard this song before, a long time ago. For some reason, the bright and cheerful song makes Steve unaccountably nervous, puts a dead weight in his stomach. Tony holds his arms out and flaps a hand at Steve. "C'mon soldier, hop to it. I haven't got all day."
Steve swallows down on the sudden anger that bubbles up. He pushes at Tony with both hands, stopping his advance, and Tony is propelled a step backwards.
Tony drops his arms and laughs a little. He waves at the air with a flick of his wrist, and the music stops.
"Everything really is a joke to you, isn't it?" Steve says. He has to choke the words out, and he knows he's being irrationally angry, but normal people don't act like this with their friends. "You know, I was actually starting to admire you, but… my mistake. I'm just a huge walking punchline, and you're just a bully like all the other bullies that made fun of me when I was a kid. Well, fine. That's just… fine. Have it your way."
Tony stops smiling at Steve's speech, and he scrubs a hand over his face, looking perplexed. "That's not. Wow, do you have the wrong—"
Steve has to get away, because he can't listen to Tony talk any more. "I'll… see you around," he mutters. "Thanks for the suit."
Steve is at the gym, working through another punching bag (Fury has informed him that he has a quota of ten punching bags a month, and anything more comes out of his paycheck). Another one-two combo snaps the chain and sends the bag flying across the room.
It's stopped mid-flight by Natasha, who appears seemingly from nowhere and knocks the bag to the ground with a spiral kick.
"Natasha?" Steve doesn't usually see Natasha training here. He supposes she wishes to keep her training routine—like every other aspect of her—private.
"Spar with me," she says, with no further elaboration.
So Steve shrugs and goes with it, throwing a punch, which Natasha dodges so easily it's like she just happened to move out of the way by coincidence. Before Steve knows what's happening, she grabs his extended arm and uses it to flip up and over him, and then they're off.
It's strange to be fighting with a girl like this, no holds barred, but the size and power differential seems to make no difference. Despite the full effort Steve puts into it, he only manages to tap Natasha once, and grazes her twice.
"Huh," says Natasha, as she flips out of Steve's reach with back handsprings, "Tony's right. You do need work on your agility."
"He—he talked to you about that?" Steve doesn't know what to think, but apparently his skin does, because a flush of embarrassment already starts blooming hot on his face, down his neck.
"Not in so many words. You have to get used to talking with Tony, to understand what he's really getting at when he rambles." Natasha beckons and adds, "Show me a jab on your left, then right, and then left again. Fast as you can."
Steve does so, and Natasha just observes the movement, head tilted to one side.
"He does like you, you know," she says, totally out of the blue.
Steve is thrown off, faltering mid-punch. He wonders if this conversation isn't really some kind of elaborate interrogation game for Natasha, rather than physical sparring. "Uh. Pardon?"
Natasha pauses and adds, half to herself, "He probably likes you more than the rest of us. Except maybe Bruce, but they have this scientist bonding thing going."
"I'm pretty sure that Tony just likes making fun of me," mutters Steve. He sighs, and straightens out of his boxing stance. He starts unwrapping the bandages on his hands. "He's always a jerk to me. All the time."
"News flash, Rogers, he's a jerk to everyone. I spent a year with him undercover at his company; believe me, I know. He actually treats you marginally nicer than other people."
Steve stares at Natasha. "Are we talking about the same Tony Stark?"
Natasha just looks at him, impassive. "I'm just saying you might be reacting to something that's not even there." She gives a little shrug, like she doesn't care whether Steve believes her or not.
Natasha has a deadpan, serious way of talking that only rarely changes or shows inflection, and so you're always inclined to believe everything she says because she sounds utterly bored. Someone telling a lie would be more invested in the conversation. Steve thinks it's a pretty neat trick, when you think about it.
"I…" Steve stops unwrapping his hands, holding the strips of cotton tight in his fists. He shakes his head, as if doing that will clear up matters. "I thought you weren't a fan of his. But here you are, defending him."
"You're right; I'm not a fan of his," Natasha agrees, smiling a little, and Steve can never tell when her facial expressions are just an act or are true emotions. In fact, Steve's not sure this whole conversation isn't somehow a set-up, but Steve doesn't know what her angle would be.
Natasha gives another small shrug, just a bob of one shoulder. "But what can I say? Can't stand to see Mom and Dad fighting like this."
And with that totally perplexing statement, she makes her exit, leaving Steve standing there in the gym alone. Steve looks down, and loosens the fists he has made of his hands, letting the bandages drop to the floor.
After that, Steve isn't sure what to think. He also isn't sure what Tony is thinking, but Steve quickly gets the feeling that he needs to repair the damage done after their last conversation.
When the Avengers gather together at SHIELD for their next meeting, Tony doesn't even seem to acknowledge Steve's presence. He slides into his usual chair with a nod to Bruce and to Natasha, but generally ignores everyone else. He spends half the meeting seemingly engaged in typing something on his phone, only occasionally making an absent comment (and that's only after Fury yells at him to pay attention).
Steve finds himself strangely waiting—hoping—for Tony to speak to him, even if it's just to make a wisecrack. Or to look at him at all. But Tony does neither.
After the meeting is adjourned, Tony rises immediately, seemingly ready to bolt the room.
Before he can make it out the door, Steve speaks up. "Um, Tony, can we talk?"
That stops Tony in his tracks, but he doesn't turn to look at Steve. "I'm a busy guy, Steve," he says, and the words are strangely stilted, not Tony's usual rambling cadence. "Got places to be."
"Did the vibe in the room suddenly get a little… weird?" Bruce looks between Steve and Tony.
"Man, where've you been? It's been weird since we sat down." Clint nods at Steve and Tony and mouths something silently to the rest of the group, but Steve doesn't catch what it could be.
Ignoring this, Steve says, "Ten minutes. Please."
Tony absently checks the display on his phone. "Alright, ten," he says. He takes a seat in the nearest chair, waving a hand at Steve to prompt him to begin.
Normally this would irritate Steve to no end. But now that he has an inkling that it may all be an act, an elaborate wall that Tony puts up between himself and the rest of the world, Steve almost admires how well Tony can play at being a jerk.
"C'mon, peanut gallery," say Natasha, pushing at Clint, Bruce, and Thor in turn, prodding them towards the door, "move it before I shiv you."
When they are alone, Steve realizes he has no idea where to begin, or what to say.
A whole minute ticks by in total silence.
"Not to tell you what to do, but this is possibly not the most efficient use of our time," says Tony finally, with a cocked eyebrow.
"I don't know where to start," Steve confesses, because he usually finds that honesty works best.
"If you can't find the beginning, jump in the middle. In media res. I'm smart enough to pick up the thread no matter where you start." Tony has shrugged off his jacket, and he's rolling up his shirtsleeves, undoing the cuffs and folding them back. Steve finds himself fascinated by the movement, the flick of Tony's fingers, the twist of his wrist. Even his smallest, innocuous movements are… purposeful, coordinated.
"My best friend growing up was Bucky," Steve blurts, and he has no idea where the heck this is coming from, but barrels on anyway, "Bucky Barnes. Right before my crash, he uh… he died. And there was a girl, Peggy, and I guess she was my girl, but you know," Steve's mouth twists, and the movement hurts, like a scrape on his face, and he laughs a little, "we, uh, never did get to go on a date. It was seventy years by everyone else's count but it feels like it was just a couple of months ago to me. And I don't know why I'm telling you all this, except… I want you to know that you're not seeing me at my best right now. But I haven't been fair to you, and it's completely my fault. So, I'm sorry."
Tony blinks, paused in the act of rolling up his sleeves.
"That's all I wanted to say." Steve stands up and moves towards the door, trying to leave before Tony can say anything snide because he doesn't think he can handle that right now, but he is stopped by a hand catching his elbow.
"Hey, hold on," says Tony, but he interrupts himself when his phone buzzes. "Oh, for Christ's—" He lets go of Steve's arm, and starts typing on his phone, saying, "You like pizza? You must like pizza, and cheeseburgers, and apple pie, and god, you probably still drink milk as a standalone drink; it's probably wired into your DNA—"
"I like all kinds of food," Steve feels obligated to protest, because he really isn't the walking stereotype that people assume he is.
"—you eat like famine victim, so you can't have that discerning of a palate," Tony rambles on, fingers flying over the screen of his phone. "There's a double feature playing this afternoon that you need to see, and it's close to this pizza place that I'm pretty sure has been around since your time—"
"I thought you had things to do?" Steve says, bewildered. He finds it hard to follow Tony's speech sometimes; when Tony really gets going, it's like listening to a hurricane.
Tony finally stops typing, swiping his phone off, and waves a hand expansively. "Eh, they don't expect me to show up half the time, and I don't want to disappoint them by improving my attendance record. You in or what, Rogers? Trust me, you'll love these movies. Life-changing, paradigm-shifting."
And Steve suddenly gets that this is what Tony does. This is how Tony shows someone that things are okay, that they're okay, because Tony always expresses everything through his actions and almost never through his words. So Steve can't help the smile that breaks across his face—and it feels like it's been forever since he's had an occasion to smile—when he says, "Sure, Tony, that sounds swell."
Tony mutters under his breath, barely audible, "Oh god, you need to stop being adorable; it's not good for my health." At least, that's what Steve thinks he hears, but that can't possibly be what Tony said. In a normal tone of voice, Tony says, "I can't wait for you to see this. Your mind will be blown, grasshopper."
"My what will be what? And what did you just call me?"
They leave SHIELD headquarters like that, amiably bickering the entire way, but it feels… nice. Better than nice, it feels like finally seeing a friend that you've been missing for a long time.
Turns out, the double feature is about Asian—and Steve has to remind himself that it's "Asian" now, not "Oriental"—martial arts. Steve stares at the poster display that shows a man named Bruce Lee in something called Enter the Dragon and someone named Gordon Liu in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
"Yeah, see," says Tony, coming up behind him with soda and candy (a lot of candy) in hand, "I was thinking, you probably haven't seen a lot of this stuff before, what with our ethnocentric values back in the day. Martial arts got big in the U.S. in the 1970s. The army only taught you boxing, right? Basic hand-to-hand?"
"Yeah," says Steve as he follows Tony towards the theater doors, "but how different could it be?"
"May I just say again—your mind. Blown. And if you like it, which I am 95% sure you will, I'll teach you some, or get you a trainer or something. Junior Mint?"
"I actually like Raisinets," says Steve, taking said box from the many gathered in Tony's arm.
Tony sighs. "Of course you do."
Steve is not sure what that is supposed to mean.
Once inside, they settle in—at least four seats away in any given direction from any other moviegoer. ("I do not want to risk getting recognized in a room with only one emergency exit," is what Tony says.) They watch the previews—which are really confusing for a bit, until Tony explains to Steve what previews are—and trade boxes of candy back and forth. (Tony is a little weird about the candy at first. When Steve offers the Raisinets back, Tony gives him a funny look and says, "I have a thing about people handing me things." Steve feels obligated to point out, "But you gave me these in the first place." Tony seems to consider this for a second, before saying, "Fair point," and he swipes the candy out of Steve's grasp.)
Fifteen minutes into the first movie, Steve finds himself staring up at the giant screen open-mouthed. "Oh wow."
"See?" Tony shakes the last of the Mike and Ike out of the box and into his mouth. He says indistinctly, chewing, "Mind. Blown."
When Tony drops Steve off at SHIELD headquarters, it's growing dark, although Steve thinks it's probably only 8 PM or so.
Steve closes the passenger door and ducks down to look through the open window. "Thanks, Tony," he says.
Tony waves away the thanks wordlessly. Without further ado, he puts the car back in gear and peels away into the night, engine roaring.
Normally, Steve would think driving off without even a good-bye would be slightly rude, but Steve is starting to understand that he's just going to have to accept certain things about Tony and that nothing about Tony should be taken at face value.
Steve makes his way through headquarters, to the dormitory building, which is connected to the main administration building by a narrow skywalk encased in glass. Steve is halfway across the bridge, which he previously thought was empty, when Natasha steps out of the shadows, making him jump.
"Geez!" Steve is not sure how a person can hide from view on a completely transparent glass bridge in the sky, but Natasha somehow did it.
Natasha eyeballs him. "So how was your date?"
"I—it wasn't," Steve splutters, going hot under the collar, "that's not—"
Natasha just watches him, impassive. "Interesting." She walks away, giving a little wave over her shoulder as she goes.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Steve demands, calling after her, but she ignores him.