He wonders if he will ever stop being angry, ever stop feeling bone-deep despair.
Mostly, he just assaults the weights and the punching bags that Fury provides as he tears through them, resents the faded and quiet things they surround him with and tries not to think. What nobody seems to expect or understand about Steven Rogers, Man Out of Time, is how very, very not comforting surrounding him with the familiar is; the problem is, the most important parts are the ones it's impossible to fabricate. Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman make him think of Bucky dragging him out night after night in the faith that some dame somewhere would see his best friend and not just a scrawny shrimp, Dinah Shore and Frank Sinatra take him to imagining that first dance with Peggy, the way her head would come to rest on his shoulder and they'd sway back and forth and somehow, magically he wouldn't step on her feet. It goes on and on, Woody Guthrie and Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald, the crackle at the end of the record, the held-breath silence at the end of a disc, feeling like losing them all over again. After the first few days he decides it’s an indulgence he can’t afford himself.
[He has always hated the Andrews Sisters - the USO tour had just been the icing on that cake. It had taken Tony no time at all to figure that one out, and he didn't know where or how the bastard had gotten hold of Star-Spangled Man but he's taken to humming it under his breath when Steve is talking at team meetings. It takes every ounce of control he had not to put him through the briefing room wall by the end.]
Stark is right, of course—genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, inventor of miracles, versus broke art student and semi-professional punching bag from Brooklyn. Yeah, that was the hell of it, he’s one-hundred percent right; without Dr. Erskine's genius, Steve was moldering bones in Mount Judah while Tony had superseded human frailty on his own. It doesn't make him any less furious.
Later, holding a pack of bloody cards, he suspects the anger was because something deep in him wanted to just walk out into the Sound and see if a genetically altered supersoldier body would have the decency to just drown already if the water was warm enough. And if he’d thought for a second he had the right to throw away what good men and women had died to protect, he would have.
He says “Close the portal” too soon and too curtly, because he can’t stand looking at another time that someone has lain on the wire for him, because all he can see is Bucky picking up the shield and all he can hear is Tony snapping “I’d cut the wire.” He is almost too numb to realize what the hurtling red and gold missile is tumbling back to earth, and even when he does, he does not realize it is an end or a beginning, not yet.
After Thor leaves for Asgard, and things start assuming a more mundane shape (not normal, normal is something he gave up on back in 1943) Steve starts looking through the classifieds for an apartment somewhere in the city. He has done just enough reading to be more than slightly sick at how much everything costs and how much red tape lies between him and his sad little back pay account – even with 70 years’ compound interest, a couple years as a very junior Captain and only half of that in combat rather than the dancing monkey gig? Still not that much money in 2012, especially considering twelve thousand calories a day at modern grocery prices - when Tony strolls into his quarters as if he belongs there. That shouldn't have been possible, but he'd seen how easily Stark had had his way with the SHIELD computers and equipment so what was a simple locked door?
"Star-Spangled Man making a plan, I see," Tony glances dismissively at the pages spread out in front of him. "You know, almost everybody lists on Craigslist now - or, well, no, you probably don't. Anyway, Craigslist. And the Bronx, really? You may want to rethink that; it's not quite the same as when you left. I mean, not that you aren't fully capable of being a one-man urban renewal but I'd think it'd get old."
"Didn’t leave the Bronx, can’t afford Brooklyn Heights since the what-do-you-call-it? gentrification, and I hate to break it to you, but I have in fact been exposed to junkies, thugs and gangs before – the clothes and the slang changes, being poor, proud, angry and out of options doesn’t. But beggars can't be choosers, and it's not like I'm going to stay here," Steve says mildly. "Not after everything."
"Wait, what, do my ears deceive me? Good soldier's not going to re-enlist?"
Steve looks up at Tony, lips twisting. "The man who made me outta that bottle, said there were more important things than being a good soldier. Last thing he asked before he died was for me to remember that. If I stay here, it's breaking a promise."
Tony looks uncomfortable at that, swallows. "Look, I - I didn't mean what I said, before, when we, on the Helicarrier."
Steve shrugs. "It's okay, you were right – there WASN’T anything special about me, not really. That's pretty much exactly why Dr. Erskine picked me, he wanted someone who knew what that was like. Wish I hadn't meant what I said, because I was wrong and I'm sorry for it. You're a good man, Tony Stark, a good teammate. Proud to fight beside you, know you have my back, as much as your old man. More."
Tony swallows, something unreadable flickering in the dark eyes. "So, um. Anyway, forget the Bronx. I was kind of thinking. You know. As one does, when one is in an uneasy alliance with an enormous politicomilitaryindustrialintelligence complex with murky and almost certainly sinister motives, and well, given current events there happen to be quite a few vacant spaces in Stark Tower right now. I’m thinking, the world being what it is, tenants who know how to take care of themselves might be a plus. Kind of a mess right now since we're in the middle of remodeling. Tell you what, I’ll cut you a deal on the first month?"
Steve looks at him, the moment humming between them. Tony looks more uncertain than Steve would have said it was possible for him to look; Steve realizes with something like wonder that it matters to Tony, that he is not making this offer because he feels like he has to but because for some reason he wants to. He takes a breath and replies with the best grave and earnest expression he’d learned as War Bond Poster Boy.
"Is there parking?"
Tony stares at him for a minute in surprise and then starts laughing, and Steve grins easily in response to the evidence that Tony can, in fact, take a joke at his expense. “You dick. Yeah, there’s parking.”
"Cause I'm really gonna have to insist on underground. You know, given current events."
Even with all the money and tools Tony has, it will take some time before the suites in the Tower will be ready. That’s fine with Steve; he has a promise to himself to keep – the ones he can, anyway, given that the Stork Club no longer exists. He goes to the tiny vest-pocket park where it used to be, attracting attention in his old dress uniform but something in his eyes, in his face keeps anybody from coming close as he lays the single English daisy on the rim of the fountain, stays for the length of a dance and then leaves.
The Cyclone is still there, but—he can’t. Not yet.
He begins in Boston; Tim’s Dugans aren’t there any more in the Back Bay, and neither is Scollay Square, where Tim had been a bouncer before the war at the Crawford. He does find a burlesque show running, the women costumed in vintage stockings and tassels like Tim’s tattered pinup of Sally Keith. He teaches the bartender at the club, a young thin tattooed man with war in his eyes (2 tours in Iraq he says after a few drinks, and Steve is sorry to be right), how to make a Tassel Tosser and a Between the Sheets, and somehow that turns into hitting a 24-hour-breakfast joint with a bunch of the gals from the show afterwards, swapping stage yarns and tour indignities. Mike offers him his couch to crash for a few hours and by eight he is on his way again, a couple of wildly inaccurate and hilarious Captain America shield pasties in his saddlebag. He texts pictures of the girls to Clint and Natasha, mails a postcard from Fenway Park for Coulson “was going to see a game here with Dum Dum. Nice place,” because he doesn’t quite feel appropriate sending him snaps of mostly naked girls, and pops a card from Revere House “this is new, when’d they build this?” for Tony into an envelope with the tit tassels and amuses himself when the scenery gets boring on the drive down to DC at the face THAT’S going to get when it’s opened.
In DC, he gets a little sense of how profoundly out of place Gabriel Jones must always have felt with the Howlers as he walks through the campus of Howard with variously curious and suspicious gazes on him, big white guy in old-fashioned pressed shirt and khakis. But by the time he and Gabe’s son are walking into a place called Busboys and Poets talking about World War II propaganda versus media coverage of the war in Vietnam and Iraq, he forgets to notice. Steve finds out that his friend married the girl who had tutored him in German when he got home, and that while he’d brought home the trumpet he’d found in a half-destroyed shop in Cherbourg, he’d never told his son the professor about how he’d tormented the Howlers for weeks convinced he could teach himself how to play it. He tells that story and how Gabe took the most valuable prisoner of the war, Dr. Zola (he doesn’t tell him that Gabe also probably saved his life by yelling for help he didn’t need to get Steve back inside the train instead of letting go, letting himself fall after Bucky. It may have happened almost seventy years ago but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to talk about it). He takes pictures of the graffiti mural he watches being painted outside afterwards to email the three SHIELD agents, and sends the tackiest oversized eagle-crying-a-tear-over-the-Washington-Monument postcard he can find to Tony with a sketch of the mural on the back.
Next leg of the trip is considerably longer, blowing through the miles and not stopping except for gas until he can feel his reaction times increasing to the point where it feels dangerous to keep going. The first time, this is in New Orleans as homage to Dernier and Falsworth, since he can’t exactly bike to Europe. He isn’t sure what he’s looking for there, but whatever it is he doesn’t find it; what he does find is amazing food and musical voices that sound both foreign and oddly like the Brooklyn of his childhood. He’s tired enough to sleep without dreams for a few hours before taking snapshots of café au lait and beignets and colorful storefronts, then scrawling Laissez les bon temps roulez! on a postcard of a grinning alligator holding a violently-colored drink before dropping it in the mail and heading on his way. He stops somewhere just over the New Mexico border the next time for no reason other than exhaustion from heat and dust and riding, drinks about a gallon of water and collapses for a few hours before hunger drives him out. He spends some time talking to a truck driver who admires the bike and recommends something called huevos rancheros (Steve’s uncertain looking at the plate but after tasting is definitely a fan) before heading for the Grand Canyon, for no particular reason except they’d gone so close on the USO tour but not actually stopped there. The color and majesty, the sheer scope and silence of it as he watches the sun rise over the edge overwhelms him too much to write anything on the cards- there’s no pictures there because there’s no way his little phone camera can do any kind of justice to it and he finds himself loath to even try.
It’s heading toward sunset when he reaches Fresno and Jim Morita, the only one left alive. The dark eyes are still lively and alert although Jim’s face is seamed with wrinkles, his wiry frame stooped and frail. “Well, shit. I’m still alive, right? I’d better be. This isn’t some ghost garbage to take me over to the other side?”
“No angel, Jim,” Steve agrees softly, and Jim’s face lights, for a moment the smartass kid he’d been months and a lifetime ago.
“Steve. Steve fucking Rogers. Saw you on TV, Cap, but I thought it couldn’t—I mean, couldn’t have been YOU, right? That was some helluva mess you had up there in New York. I keep telling you, California, it’s a better class of people than your East Coast bums. And let me tell you, Lucy, you’ve got a lot of ‘splaining to do about where you’ve been the last oh, three-quarters of a damn century. Hana!” The graceful young woman who had answered the door looks in curiously. “Steve, my youngest granddaughter, Hana. I can’t drive any more and I got more house than I need so she’s staying here while she goes to college. Ag science, finally we got one interested in taking care of the grapes.” He puffs up a little, and Steve smiles. “Hana, go get your grandpa some beers and some fish tacos, we got a lot of catching up to do.” They talk for hours about people and things they’ve loved and lost, and Jim won’t hear of him finding somewhere else to stay. Steve stays in the guest room, sleeps on crisp white sheets on a too-small bed and his ghosts that night are loving instead of accusing.
It is well into morning when he wakes up, and Jim fries eggs and bacon and limps out on a cane to show Steve the vines. “Took a long time to rebuild, after the war,” he says, staring out across the rows that with their wires and twisted branches suddenly make Steve think of battlefields and encampments. “My father, he never really recovered from the internment. Tim and Gabe asked me to join them out East with Stark but I couldn’t. I just—the folks needed me here, Steve, and I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful to the US of A at that point.”
Steve is unsettled by the look on his face, the tone of his voice like guilt. “Jim, of course you were right to stay. What were we doing, other than protecting our families, our homes?”
“See you’re still in harness,” Jim stared out over the rows.
“Got no family, no home. At least I can still be useful.”
Jim looked at him hard at that. “You’ll always be welcome here, Steve, if that ever gets old. I’ll tell them all that. Whether I’m here or not, you can come back. Owe you my life, my folks’ lives, my kids. Wouldn’t have come home without you.”
The thought of Jim not being there, his last link to the past breaking sends panic spiking through him like forgotten asthma attacks but Steve just smiles, rueful and warm, raises the shield in his head. “I’ll remember. Speaking of, I should head back to HQ--I didn’t exactly tell them I was leaving. Give me your phone number, though, so I can yell at you during Dodgers games, since you lousy West Coast punks stole ‘em.”
Jim sees too much because he doesn’t protest, just hugs him with a hint of that fierce wiry strength that had surprised everyone but him and Bucky that a skinny guy was that damn tough, and watches him out of sight.
Not sure whether it’s escape or freefall, Steve rides until he’s loopy-exhausted again. This happens in Salt Lake City, where he finally gives up and buys jeans to replace the khakis that have had it at that point and ends up wandering through an insane dreamscape of a sculpture garden called Gilgal. The place offers an embarrassment of weird postcards to send to Tony; he ends up sending both the Sphinx with Joseph Smith’s face and the guy in brick trousers. After that, with no clear goal anymore, he decides to go to Mount Rushmore and from there, he somehow ends up at the Corn Palace. South Dakota has been unexpectedly full of stupid things to take pictures of; he sends one to Natasha and finally gets his first text from Tony: you fraud, why is everyone else getting realtime updates and I’m only getting treemail? It takes a minute to figure out how to take a picture of himself and actually get what he wants in the frame--it ends up just being his upraised middle finger and lips curving in a smirk but he figures that’s enough to get the point across. He buys a postcard anyway at the antique car museum outside the next town and sends it to him.
He gets back two days and four more postcards later, road-dusty and exhausted and glad beyond words for his city, an unfamiliar New York but still less alien than any other place could be. He laughs himself about sick when he pulls into the garage of the Tower and finds a motorcycle-sized stall, the concrete painted blue with a single star in the center, next to Tony’s elevator.
He hadn’t had a home to leave, but this feels like coming back to one.
Between tiny thin-walled apartments in Brooklyn and then the Army, Steve has always lived in close quarters, surrounded by the sounds of other people. His suite in the rebuilt pinnacle of Stark Tower is quite possibly bigger than the barracks at Lehigh and insulated from the outside world not only by height and steel girders and concrete but the best shielding and soundproofing Stark can design and money can buy to boot. It is luxurious and peaceful and desperately wrong to not hear other people talking, moving, breathing around him. It feels like he is the last man left on earth, and Steve’s brain has a way of filling in the blank spots with the merciless clarity of eidetic memory.
Television seems like the logical solution to this problem, since it is all people talking, but the problem is Steve hates almost everything after five minutes. The news is a horrifying barrage of images with no context or analysis; it's not like he hadn't learned in the war that 'news' was what People Who Counted Thought It Should Be, but it seems to have only gotten worse with time. If Mr. Moyers or Miss Maddow are on, that's worth watching, but Mr. Olbermann can be kind of a jackass and the rest of them are either smug politicians or bright-eyed dolls. Comedies and dramas too often leave him floundering for references that throw him out of the story or end in him yelling at the screen "THAT IS NOT HOW A GUN WORKS--NO, NO, for the love of God DON'T PUT IT DOWN," and turning it off in disgust. The History Channel reduces him to hysterical laughter (although after Thor and Loki and the robotic flying lizard whatever-the-blazes-they-weres the Chitauri had, maybe the Ancient Aliens fella with the weird hair is onto something - no, nobody who does that to their head on purpose is onto anything except possibly drugs, Rogers, go to sleep). And reality TV -- well.
"Bruce, for the record, you are a better man than I am."
"What prompts this observation?" Dr. Banner looks up from his tea and the latest volume of Journal of Applied Physics as Steve stalks into the kitchen.
"Because if they had used gamma rays instead of vital-rays on me, whatever THOSE were, there would be nothing left of the Eastern Seaboard right now. Since you're the more likely of the two for-real geniuses I know to give a straight answer to a question, why are over half of the shows on television about people acting like fatheads for money and what in heaven's name did they do to that Snookie dame to make her orange?"
Bruce, because he IS a better man than Steve is, listens to him rant for about twenty minutes and offers some of his meditation CDs as an alternative. It's well-intentioned, but nature is in no way reassuring to someone born and raised entirely within the confines of the City of New York. Cars are reassuring, someone yelling far in the distance is reassuring, the rumble of the subway is reassuring. The only times he had been out in nature, on the other hand, it was with the Howlers trying to blow up HYDRA installations without getting shot or disintegrated or whatever fresh hell Schmidt had come up with that week. After the third time waking up in a cold sweat convinced he was surrounded by snipers, he managed to return the discs to Bruce without smashing them into unrecognizable bits of deceptively serene evil first, but it was a close shave. It does, however, give him something to think about.
A couple of days later, he comes and knocks on Bruce’s door with an armful of plants, and Bruce greets him, bemused. “Steve. Can I-“
“Well, it’s kind of more, can I. Come in? I mean.” Bruce steps back and gestures him in, and Steve walks through the suite to the balcony.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t mind, you having the south-facing patio and all, and I know Tony doesn’t care about how much things cost or running out to get things but my God, four dollars for a little box of basil at the store and no. Just no. And I kind of, well, once I got started…” He smiles sheepishly down at the flat of herbs. “Well, they all smelled so good. It won’t be that much room, really?”
“You want an herb garden. On my balcony,” Bruce says slowly.
“No? I mean, if not, that’s OK, I can try my balcony, or if that’s not enough sun probably find someplace up on the roof itself, it’s just so much windier up there and it’s nicer down here for that, more sheltered.”
“I didn’t say no.” Banner reaches out and gently brushes his fingers over the sage. “This wouldn’t be for stress relief, would it, keep the other guy calm?”
“It would be for dinner. And because somebody who likes nature that much should have some—something green and growing and whatnot. The other guy, I don’t know about him, and you, and how that works and I’m not gonna pretend it doesn’t worry me sometimes. But I do know I hate people looking at me like I’m going to crack up or crawl in a hole and die because of what happened to me, trying to fix me, protect me, not upset me, like I’m not a grown man who can take care of myself. I figure if you think I can help somehow with the other guy, you’re gonna ask me and otherwise I’m gonna keep my nose out. This isn’t about him. This is about something I thought YOU might like. Bruce.”
Bruce looks at him for a long moment, thoughts flickering over his face too quickly to read. “Okay,” he says finally. “Do you have planters, potting soil, things like that?”
Steve nods. “On my balcony.”
Bruce does smile at that. “Thanks. For having a plan for if I said no.”
“That’s me, star-spangled man with a plan.” He flips Bruce a salute, straight-faced.
“The thing is, Steve, I’m not a better man than you, because I’M getting ready to punch him over that. I don’t know how you haven’t.”
Steve starts laughing, and he thinks Bruce is surprised at himself when he laughs too, shy but real.
Agent Coulson was the one who had found him a lot of the music from his time; it seems ungrateful to go to him and ask him for something else, especially since he is still on severely restricted duty. Steve is still supremely pissed off with everything to do with SHIELD after finding out that "agent down, medics called it" had been at best a GROSSLY incomplete account; only Coulson actually being present when he'd found that out had saved Fury from a poke in the remaining eye. But those bright blue eyes, hazy with pain and drugs instead of clear, were still watching him like Steve was a hero when Phil was the one who’d taken on a demigod with a gun, and what was a guy supposed to do but step up to that line? So Fury left unbruised, and Coulson's recovery might have been set back a week or so when Steve had brought the old steel prototype shield that Tony had had among his old man's things to Phil's bedside. "If you pull that stunt again, so help me God you are gonna wish you'd stayed dead, and in the meantime, clearly you need one of these. Until Stark can make more vibranium this will have to do." Machines had gone off and the nurse had scolded him and made him leave, but he was pretty sure Coulson had appreciated the thought.
He could go to Tony - Tony, irritatingly enough does in fact seem to know everything about everything. But that's kind of complicated by the fact that because between knowing everything about everything and owning half of it, he is ridiculously busy. Honestly, the more Steve realizes about how very much time and money Tony gives to the Initiative, let alone his companies and his charitable foundation, the more it makes Steve excruciatingly uncomfortable to ask for more from him than he's given already, with nothing to give back. Which is how he ends up with the best marksman of the modern age and quite possibly the best assassin instead, making Manhattans and spaghetti carbonara while they go through Clint and Natasha’s iTunes. "There is something so...surreal about this," Natasha murmurs, coming to look over his shoulder. "Captain America cooking dinner. And it smells amazing."
Steve shrugs, half-smiles over his shoulder at her. "I like the Food Network. Had this in Italy, remembered it was pretty good. Figured it was the least I could do."
"For future reference, the least you could do would be frozen pizza and Bud Light. Clint's a cheap date. Don't even bother to disagree, Barton," Natasha says comfortably as he opens his mouth.
"Wasn't going to. Was just going to say, Tasha's favorite is Tombstone."
Natasha flips him off and Steve mock-shudders. "Okay, so even Capsicle gets that's a joke but still, there is no possible reason, ever, to buy frozen pizza in the same city as Lil' Italy."
"Good boy." Natasha ruffles his hair and goes to poke at Clint's laptop and make fun of his playlists until they decide to just put the whole library of his computer and her iPod on shuffle and let it go. The first couple of songs are uninspiring but then a couple of softly plucked chords scraped across his shoulder blades and explode into a full guitar, an appealingly rough British voice crooning "darling you got to let to let me know.."
There is something almost resembling awe on Clint's face. "Okay, so don't punch me or anything 'cause I'm just a soft and squishy regular guy but since you look like you either just found God or came, I'm thinking the Clash is a yes."
Natasha laughs as he colors a little, and Steve internally curses for the millionth time that the Super Soldier serum has not done anything about his practically transparent skin but nods, firmly. "This is good. What else do you have like this?"
They drink and pick over songs and it feels almost like the team, like a REAL team, the way the Howlers had become, and he smiles at Tony when he comes in to the common area with that warmth on his face, in his eyes. He is surprised by the way Tony smiles back, almost…startled. “Okay, I am hurt, there is mischief afoot that doesn’t involve me. What is it, I want in.” He thumps down beside them.
"Steve was hoping for some new listening material; we're teaching him about the last few decades in music," Natasha says, smiling, and Tony's eyes widen.
"And you didn't wait for me? you ingrates. Let’s have a look." He tugs the little Macbook over, shakes his head and makes what Steve has come to think of as Mad Scientist face. "Okay. Okay, it’s a little British Invasion and New-Wave heavy- and oh God, Journey, really, Barton?”
“Fuck you, Stark, everybody who has a SOUL likes Don’t Stop Believing—“
“No, I’m pretty sure Journey is, in fact, the absence of soul, soul would be Marvin Gaye. Sadly deficient in metal, but yeah, okay, the classic punk’s good. I can work with this, but there is at LEAST a hundred percent more awesome achievable here. Let me think on it."
"You do that, but eat first." Steve goes back into the kitchen, brings back another plate and a drink and Tony takes a bite, hums thoughtfully as he picks at Clint’s keyboard one-handed and still faster than any of them.
"I don't think I knew this about you, that you cooked."
"Wanted to eat, was kind of mandatory," Steve says dryly. "Ma worked from seven 'till seven, when she was gone was just me, then me and Bucky, and by that point I more or less knew enough not to burn myself or anything else too badly. Was enough, until we got into the service. And frozen dinners remind me too much of C-rations, which I swore if I made it home I was never gonna eat another one."
"Your mother worked?" Tasha draws her legs up underneath her.
"Yeah. My dad got it during the Somme; no Social Security then, survivor's benefit was only a few hundred bucks - not enough to live on for long even in 1918. She was a nurse." He looked down. "She had light, light blond hair, really gold, not like mine, and blue eyes. My dad was darker, more like me she said. She didn't have any pictures, just his sergeant's stripes and the letter of commendation."
"She must have been proud." Clint watches his face, and Steve wonders a little at that wistful look, makes note to ask Coulson or Natasha about Clint’s family later. He could read the file, he’s got clearance. But it feels like cheating, somehow in a way that asking someone who’s becoming a friend, a comrade in arms, about another friend doesn’t.
"I hope so – she didn’t see this, what happened to me, though. Died when I was fourteen. I like to think she would have understood me going into the service, but I don't know. Her life would have been a lot easier if my father had come home."
"Assumption," Tony says, eyes focused inward then starts as Tasha and Clint glare at him, scrambling to his feet. "Yeah, raised by wolves, going now.”
Barton shakes his head as the door closes behind him. "Textbook narcissist, you said?"
"In the file," Tasha says, rolling her eyes, and Steve frowns at both of them and changes the subject, but not for the reasons they think.
A narcissist does not lie on the wire, let alone jump on a grenade, and that’s exactly what Tony did with that nuke.
There are a LOT of things that Steven Rogers are distinctly unsure are improvements in the brave new world that's opened up to him, but after several hours’ exploration in search of more music, he's decided he loves the Internet. It allows him to be bemused or horrified, angry or curious without judgment, just gives him back answers to his questions, no matter how stupid, and unlike the library, it’s there 24/7 for all of his dream-avoidance needs. Somehow the vast unfiltered mass of humanity behind that screen fills him with humor and dismay and exhaustion and hope all at the same time; for all that people now seem so much more profane and disconnected and lonely and angry, there is also a lot of knowledge, creativity, tolerance, unexpected pockets of fiercely close-knit community and inexplicably funny pictures of cats. Possibly only funny because when he discovers the cat macro, it is somewhere around 4 AM, but the ones he understands still make him laugh in an uncomplicated sort of way. The ones that he doesn't get usually have enough cues that he can look up why they're supposed to be funny, and that leads in the kind of demented pseudo-logical progression Steve has come to associate with Tony (suggesting that he spent FAR too much time at a formative stage with computers) to Star Wars.
Steve loves – no, it deserves the emphasis, he fucking loves Star Wars. If Luke is frequently naïve and occasionally downright whiny, well, Steve’s willing to give him a pass, since he knows exactly how it feels to have just wanted to have somewhat more idea what you were actually signing up for before you surrendered your life to The Greater Good. It wouldn’t have changed the decision, but it would have been nice to be a little bit more prepared for the consequences…
It’s 8 AM when he’s done and even with super endurance, it is all he can do to stay awake in the warm quiet briefing room. For a change, he’s the space cadet and Tony is the one bitching about not paying attention, but his irritation just rolls off Steve’s back as he imagines getting to be Han Solo rather than Luke Skywalker. It occurs to him later, his workout accompanied by the Ramones, that Tony has probably had the same revelation at some point, which is why he has so deliberately constructed himself as the free-agent bad boy. He amuses himself in the next briefing sketching Tony with a panicked face and the suit as a Stormtrooper costume, buildings in flames all around him, Fury's voice blaring out of the console as Tony babbles "weapons malfunction, uh, dangerous leak."
Coulson catches him doing it and confiscates it afterwards, Barton laughs himself sick when he sees it pinned up in his office, and because gossip is the only thing that does in fact travel faster than light, Tony is waiting for him, leaning against his door. "You know, you're kind of passive-aggressive for an American icon of the Greatest Generation." Steve has no idea what he’s talking about until he says "I mean, come on, passing notes in class, kind of eighth grade, don't you think?" and Steve turns to look at him, feeling at that moment like the 93-year-old that Tony likes to bait him about being.
"For Christ's sake. I wasn't passing notes. I was trying not to throttle you. Coulson saw it and took it away, I THOUGHT to throw away, apparently not. Does it make you feel better that apparently you're the only one allowed to doodle in meetings?"
Tony smiled reluctantly. "Pretty good likeness, actually. Immediately recognizable - enough to piss me the hell off."
Steve smirks a little at that as he opens the door. "Yeah, well, I practiced on dinosaurs and Moses in Life Drawing."
Tony chuckles as he strolls in after him, looks around as Steve notices he just actually did that and whatever happened to asking first? "Mmmm. Early Modern Functional. Stark with a small s. You ARE allowed to make it look a little less like a hotel room if you want, you know - holy shit, is that 4chan?"
Steve's astonishment at the invasion turns to sizzling irritation as Tony scoops up his tablet curiously, stalks after him to retrieve it. "Go to hell."
"Been. Climate sucks, company's assholes but the music is AWESOME. What were you trying to find that you ended up on 4chan? There are far, far better places for porn, I'm just saying. Although if you're INTO tentacles, far be it for me -"
Steve snatches his tablet out of Tony's hands, blanches at what he's scrolled down to, and stabs the Home button. "Tony, why are you here?"
Tony shrugs. "Nothing better to do. Also, I dislike realizing I'm wrong about something. The best way for that not to happen again is to research."
"Shouldn't you go do that then?"
"I am," Tony cocks an eyebrow. "I'm researching you. Primary observation, since the documentation I received was clearly inadequate." He stretches out on Steve's bed, without even having the decency to take his shoes off. "Have you watched The Empire Strikes Back yet?"
Steve lets out a sigh, not sure if it's defeat or relief or what of the many, swirling emotions is dominant at the moment, but somehow his head is full of them, a clamoring tumult of aggravation, insult, uncertainty and a small soft strand of curiosity winding it all together in his head instead of the bleakness it is all too easy to slip into when left to himself too much. "I was GOING to--"
"So turn it on already. Best one of the trilogy."
Steve gives him a narrow-eyed glance. "Take your shoes off at least, you heathen."
Tony, for a wonder, obediently toes off shoes and Steve stretches out beside him; he doesn’t really have company so he hasn’t gotten around to getting a sofa and he'll be damned if he's going to let Tony Stark bully him off the only comfortable surface in the room. He is fully expecting Tony to be one of those wiseacres who can't keep their mouth shut watching a movie and is prepared to punch him if he is, but he is mercifully quiet. Too quiet, actually, for Steve on about three hours' sleep in the last three days and right around the time the battered Millenium Falcon gains Cloud City he closes his eyes for a minute, just a minute...
When he wakes up, he is alone; the blankets are wrapped over him like a bedroll which confuses him for a moment. It is late, must be very late because the darkness in the room would be total except for the soft light of Cloud City set as his background on the paused tablet next to the bed, propped up so it plays softly over his face. It is the first thing he sees, along with a note in a strong slashing hand propped up against it.
Come down and watch Return of the Jedi in the shop when you're done with Empire so you don’t go blind from that ridiculously tiny screen. Pretty much live down there so wander in wherever. And don't freak out when the wall talks to you, it's just my computer. - T
Steve pulls the covers over his head for a minute because he is still tired and uncertain doesn't even begin to cover how he feels about Tony Stark. But dammit, he wants to know what happens next. It does not occur to him until he's showered and dressed in something not crumpled and slept-in that he could just have ignored the invitation. He tells himself it's the allure of a bigger screen.
Because he was warned, he only startles a little bit at the warm, cultured British voice speaking to him as he comes into the shop. "Hello, Captain Rogers."
"Hi. Tony said you would talk to me, but he didn't tell me your name."
"Jarvis," Tony said, looking up from whatever it was he was working on. “Cop a sit.”
Steve looks at him uncertainly; Tony is up to his wrists in something sparking dangerously, the dark goggles for a second making him look painfully like Howard but he’s not idiot enough to blurt it out at least. "If you're busy, I can come back - "
"Always busy. Comes with that genius billionaire philanthropist gig. Don't touch anything." That crisp temperamental address was familiar too and for a moment he aches with what he’s lost so much he can’t hold it.
"Yeah. I'm going to go." It comes out rougher than he intended.
Tony looks up again, pulls off the goggles, confused and irritated. "Then why'd you come down?"
"You’re working. Is this some kind of test? Should I put a puzzle together or tell you about my dreams or how many things I remember on your workbench after a thirty second look?" He is vibrating, seething, sweating with temper suddenly and he doesn't even know why, why Tony can find that in him.
Tony cocks an eyebrow, amused, damn him. "How many things DO you remember seeing on my workbench?"
"Seventy-eight,” he snaps as both Tony’s eyebrows fly up and he looks himself as Steve keeps his eyes focused on him and raps out, “Soldering iron, some kind of arc welding gun, spools of ten-gauge, fifteen-gauge and 24-gauge copper and gold wire, three sets of Allen wrenches, a wire-stripping pliers, a black plastic bottle cap, a set of ASME standard-D size blueprints folded into sixteenths, a black and white Stark Industries coffee cup, a takeout carton, thirty-seven 1/8" screws--"
Tony scowls and interrupts him. "Thirty-seven? Are you sure? Fuck, I thought I picked them all up. Dummy!” To Steve’s astonishment, one of the piece of machinery moves, craning towards Tony and…waiting. Expectant. “Get me another 1/8 – oh, never mind, you’ll never be able to pick it up with that array. I’ll do it.”
Steve watches him dive back into the sparking whatever-it-is, bites down on irritation. He hadn’t known what he’d expected, really, but whatever it was, this wasn’t it. He turns on his heel with parade precision and Tony says without looking up but asperity gentled a little, "Oh, sit the hell down. I can work and watch at the same time, I usually do. When it's too quiet I can't concentrate; while usually Black Sabbath does the trick, for reasons known only to God I'm in the mood for Jedi. Where did you learn about blueprints?"
"A million years ago when I was another guy, I thought I might draw for a living. I mean, not like art or anything, but illustrations maybe or technical drawing--was in some of the same drafting classes as the engineering students. I had an eye for detail and perspective before the serum; it's photographic, now. When we figured that out, information-gathering became one of our primary objectives. Blueprints and schematics for HYDRA weapons, maps of facilities. Guess they do all that on computers, now." Steve watches the approaching robot thing with some trepidation, wonders how something that doesn’t have a face as such can convey shy curiosity as it stops well out of reach and cocks its ‘head’ to study him. “Um, Tony? What…does it want?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, how rude of me. Dummy, Captain Rogers. Captain Rogers, Dummy, my first experiment in artificial intelligence. He grabs me things while I’m working. You, buddy, turn on the TV. Jarvis, cue up Return of the Jedi for Cap and me, would you? Cap, couch over there, have a seat.” Another mechanical creature clicks at Tony and rolls over to a screen the size of a small movie theater while the first makes excited sounds and rolls over to the microwave, carefully laying a package in it. “Hey, Dummy, don’t forget to take off the plastic this time, remember last time, fire extinguisher, no good very bad, place stunk of burned popcorn for a week.”
Dummy picks at the package for a minute, whistles frustration and rolls over to Steve, depositing the packet in his hand and looking—looking?—looking at him expectantly. Steve fumbles with it and pulls off the cellophane which is promptly picked out of his hand by You, crumpled expertly and tossed in the direction of the garbage can. Dummy places popcorn in the microwave and presses buttons, the two of them chirping excitedly at him when it is finished and coming over to crane over the couch and towards the screen. “It’s one of their favorites too,” Tony says as if it is totally reasonable for things built out of metal and wires to have favorite movies. “They love Artoo.”
Dummy nudges him hopefully and Steve thinks, strangest thing in the room? Yeah, who am I kidding? We’re all science experiments, and settles in to absently run a thumb over one of the smooth curves of Dummy’s claw. True to his word, Tony works, sporadically throws out some bit of trivia or huffs about the “extended releases,” whatever those are, and occasionally casts confused and thoughtful looks in the direction of Dummy.
It is a wet, filthy night—of course it is, because surveillance always seems to happen when you’re half-blind and half-frozen and soaked to the skin and how was it you could make a suit that repelled bullets but couldn’t keep you dry? (Steve knows the answer to that; water that can’t get in also can’t get out and that’s its own wholly different miserable. It still doesn’t make him happy about it.)
Clint is if anything less happy than he is. He can and frequently has shot in streaming rain before but it’s about the only thing that makes him uncertain of his aim and release as fingers and fletching both suffer from the damp chill. Usually steady given an objective, he keeps fidgeting with the bow until Natasha hisses a curse at him in Russian. Her hair is skinned back to her head to keep it from dripping in her eyes and if not for the murder in her eyes she would look fragile, too pale and eyes enormous and black in the dark. Natasha sneezes like a cat, tiny suppressed sounds and then glares, daring anybody to take any notice of it at all. Tomato soup when we get back, Steve thinks with a hint of longing, and grilled cheese, and he will doctor Natasha’s tea himself.
“This is stupid, Cap,” Tony says over the comm, and Steve can hear the nerves fraying to the breaking point because if there is one thing Tony does not do well it is stay still.
"Iron Man, you baby, at least your feet are dry," Steve murmurs, smile audible because Tony will feel better bristling at him than jittering.
Thor chimes in, “Verily, and yet—“ Thor is unbothered by the storm, but doesn’t wait any better than Tony.
"Chatter," Coulson reprimands them quietly.
“I’ve got something,” Tony says suddenly, that shift of tone prickling over Steve’s shoulders with a hint of unwanted memory, the way it goes from smooth nattering to focused intent. “Gamma ray signature.”
Bruce goes very still. “When I knew him, Eliot was working on a miniaturized gamma ray bomb. Meant to be antipersonnel but minimize structural damage when deployed. Maybe he’s finally got it.”
“What kind of payload are we talking about here?” Tony’s voice is tight.
“About a kiloton actual explosive damage, but the neutron radius—if he’s perfected the dispersal solution, we’re talking about the ability to wipe out every human being on the island and a dispersal plume of LD-50 of about a hundred miles long and ten miles across inland depending on wind conditions. In a package about the size of a lunchbox.”
Steve’s stomach knots, not quite able to conceive of destruction on the scale Bruce is talking about. “And people are worried about suitcase nukes,” Tony snaps. “Jesus Christ.”
“Iron Man, Hulk, what are we looking for? I need you to take point, since you’re the ones who actually know what we’re looking at here.”
Bruce’s nails dig into his palms with the effort of remaining calm. “I can’t help until the fighting and shooting part’s over; you do NOT want the Other Guy showing up in there. That would be the opposite of helpful.”
“Got this,” Tony says calmly. “I don’t know that I can render the whole device totally harmless without some time to play with it and figure it out, but detonators are detonators and those I’m confident I can disable until the situation’s stable enough to get Bruce inside. Cap, what’s the play?”
“Thor, I need you to stay here with Dr. Banner. Make sure he feels VERY SAFE, okay? That is priority number one, because if he doesn’t stay calm the bomb situation becomes a lot worse.”
“Aye, Captain.” Thor dives toward them, all controlled grace, surprisingly difficult to see in the storm. “I will be the good Doctor’s shield while yours is employed elsewise.”
“Iron Man, can you give us the greatest concentration of people inside?”
“Looks like five or six on the ground floor, couple upstairs and then maybe two more in the basement, hard to tell since it’s hardened to most scanning. Cap, these are criminals, not terrorists, they’re looking to sell this technology to the highest bidder. I say we go in fast and hard; our biggest risk isn’t being blown up but that one or more of them get away with something they can sell to someone who WILL push the button.”
It is a risk—it’s a horrible risk, but Steve can feel the rightness of the assessment in his bones. “Okay. Hawkeye, eyes out for anybody getting out of the building – you may want to start with any potential sources of transportation.”
“On it, Cap.”
“Widow, with me. Iron Man, this is your show, we’ll keep them off your back for you to work.”
“Miracles provided while you wait. Coming in the front door with you or making my own?”
“You do like an entrance, I’ve noticed. Give us thirty seconds from my mark – enough time for us to get them looking our way, but not enough to fully lock down. Thor, can you give me a good hard smack from Mjolnir on the door to get us inside?” Thor nods, readies himself to throw the hammer. “In three, two, one—“ He is moving as he’s counting, his “Mark!” joined by the rending crash of the steel door ripped from its hinges, the hammer returning to Thor almost close enough to brush him as he and Natasha sprint for the door.
The human hirelings are laughably easy to deal with; when Piledriver appears from the stairway, that becomes a little more complicated, although Tony helps by blazing in full-speed through boards and riot bars on the window and knocking him flat before tucking and rolling to land. The helmet opening as Tony runs for the door to the basement, cursing a low violent stream as he studies the keypad, pulls off his repulsor and then rips off the interface, plugging in a little cable from his suit and muttering to Jarvis as Bulldozer and the Wrecker come bellowing down. Steve and Natasha are a great deal faster although more room to maneuver would be nice; what is less nice is the Wrecker catching sight of Thor through the shattered window and barreling toward him, bellowing a challenge.
“Nemeses, what are you going to do,” Natasha shrugs, leaps onto Piledriver’s shoulders and locks her thighs around his thick neck, punches him in the temple and he staggers.
“For God’s sake. If he—oh, Hawkeye, good shot.” Turning away from the sight of the Wrecker falling on his face from a full dose of Hulk-tranquilizer, Steve swears under his breath at his distraction and quickly shield-bashes Bulldozer before he can crash into Tony. Tony is totally oblivious to everything going on around him that is not his battle against Eliot Franklin’s security, which ends in a whoop of triumph as the door slides back. Tony darts inside, surprisingly agile even in the suit, footsteps clattering down stairs and echoing down the hall.
Steve ducks another ham-sized fist, throws himself backwards and kicks Bulldozer in the balls. There was something to be said for having been small enough to learn to fight dirty, he thinks with a hint of amusement as Bulldozer crashes to the ground, freeing him to run after Tony. When he gets there, since the sound of Iron Man running down stairs is the exact opposite of stealth, Tony is grappling with a more-than-forewarned Franklin. “Took you long enough, was wondering if you got lost in the hallway,” Tony dives out of the way as Steve tackles Franklin, heads for the prototype. “Oh, and please don’t smash anything important.”
“Qualify important,” Steve gasps, chops at Franklin’s windpipe as the other man bucks beneath him, gets a knee up and throws him off.
“Anything you don’t recognize,” Tony snaps, then hums. “Oh, wow, this is really cool, I didn’t think you could get these this small—“ He strips the other gauntlet off and starts working, fiercely intent.
“Great,” Steve mutters, thinking that pretty much lets out everything in the room before Thunderball picks up the ball and chain that gave him his title and yeah, this suddenly got a LOT more interesting. “Steve, a little help?” Natasha yells from upstairs.
“Be there in a second – Hawkeye, what’s your 20?”
A whizzing sound answers him. “Slowed down the party upstairs, tell Iron Man the bolo arrow? AWESOME.”
Steve manages to catch the wrecking ball flying at him, gives it a good hard yank and then smashes it back at Franklin. He twists to pick up his shield and gets it back up just in time to keep Tony from getting the ball in the side of his head. “Little busy, Hawkeye.”
Steve takes the next blow in his ribs, feels the quick stunning pain of one cracking but keeps his head down, bulls forward and knocks Franklin back. The second blow to that side takes him to his knees and he flings himself to the limits of his reach to get the chain tangled around his fingers, smashes Thunderball’s foot with a gauntleted fist. The screech of pain is rewarding but not sufficient to throw him off balance; Steve flings the shield up just in time to keep the next blow from landing. He scrambles frantically to regain his feet as a precisely aimed blast comes from behind him and sends Thunderball flying into the wall. Tony, incredibly, is still looking down at and working with the bomb with the left hand, the repulsor gauntlet back on the right. “Multitasking is what separates us from the animals, Cap. You’re probably going to want to get up now.”
“Right,” he mumbles, stalking stiffly over and scruffing a still-dazed Franklin like a kitten, throwing him out the door and into another wall.
“Most fun I’ve had in WEEKS,” Hawkeye crows over the com as the sound of another arrow sings through the air. “I’ve been totally neglecting the non-explosive section of my quiver lately.”
Natasha growls, delivers another punch to Bulldozer and he goes limp. “Next time I vote you get to lead the charge.” She sneezes again, and her expression goes from murderous to murderous tinged with woebegone, just for a second. “At least it’s not WET in here.”
Bruce is able to come in a few minutes later. Steve rubs his side, eyes closed, knows it’ll be fine in the morning but at the moment feels deeply unwilling to move.
“You in one piece, Cap?” He opens his eyes to Tony scowling at him.
“Yeah. Just sore. You did great work tonight.”
Tony shrugs. “Yeah, well. Occasionally the family business being mass destruction pays off.”
“Your old man was interested in a lot more than weapons,” Steve knows it’s the wrong thing to say as soon as it leaves his mouth. “I mean, I – you both seem to be able to do whatever you turn your mind to. Whatever someone needs most from you.”
Tony looks at him, lips twisting wryly. “Yeah, well. Maybe he should have made what he wanted instead of what everybody told him the US needed and we’d all be better off now.” He stalks away and Steve’s head thumps back against the wall hard enough to dent it a little.
“I frequently had that reaction when I assigned to Tony-watch,” Natasha says dryly. “Come on, Steve, we’re through here, SHIELD will handle the mop-up.”
Thor and Clint hang back to escort Bruce and the makings of the bomb safely back to SHIELD HQ; the others head back to the Tower. Steve puts the chopped tomatoes in the oven before going to shower, and by the time he is blending the others have gotten back, gotten clean and meandered back to the common area drawn by the smell of food. “You do realize that comes in cans, right?” Tony gives the soup a quizzical glance.
Clint scowls at him. “Yes, and it’s nasty. Steve’s is not. So eat and be grateful.”
“Just seems like a lot of work,” Tony protests.
“Makes me feel better,” Steve says easily, flipping over sandwiches. “And I guarantee my grilled cheese is better than that orange plastic stuff. There’s coffee if you want it.”
“Is this supposed to be some kind of team bonding thing?” Tony scowls at him.
Steve heaves a sigh, stares at the stove. “It’s some kind of I’m hungry, cold and tired and would rather not eat by myself thing. Stay if you want, don’t if you don’t. But I’d like it if you did.”
Tony does stay, talking animatedly about the bomb with Bruce, occasionally needling Clint and Thor about sitting on the sidelines, refilling Natasha’s tea and mostly-ignoring Steve, although his temper seems to have subsided into the same bewildered softness as in the shop before.
Steve doesn't need to hack a computer; he knows one. Back in his rooms, he stares at the ceiling and asks softly, "Jarvis? Can you hear me?" He feels a little bit foolish doing it, and then a little bit of wonder when the mellow voice from Tony’s lab replies.
"Yes, Captain Rogers?"
"Steve," he says, closing his eyes. He's about to stick his nose as far into another guy's business as he can and there's no decency in pretending it's for any reason but his own curiosity. "Just Steve. I need to research something.”
“Indeed. How may I help?”
“I want everything you know about Howard Stark, from after I disappeared."
"Oh.” Jarvis’ voice is hesitant and he continues to be amazed by a machine that can sound both wary and apologetic. "That is a…considerable breadth of topic. Can you be more specific?"
"Don't know if I can, or if you’d give it to me if I could. Protecting Tony, I mean, you should, he made you, I get that and I don’t want to make him mad or hurt him, I just want to know, Jarvis, to understand how the guy I knew turned into somebody whose kid can barely stand to mention him, when they seem so much alike to me."
Jarvis is silent for a few moments and Steve wonders if he has been cut off until he replies. "Perhaps we can start with his Strategic Scientific Reserve and SHIELD dossiers, and then go forward with whatever other documents are available from secondary sources. You do understand, my only personal files with regard to this matter are the ones that Anthony has spoken without intent to be recorded, and--"
"Not asking you to tell tales out of class. You know what, forget I asked. Should probably ask Fury, or--"
"If you were about to say ‘use the library’ or worse yet, Google, I will deploy the fire-control system. I have done nothing to deserve such an insult—“ Steve laughs, surprised, and Jarvis goes on. “It is well within my capabilities and I must confess to a certain amount of curiosity myself. I would ask in return, however, that you tell me more about the Howard Stark you knew, and the conclusions you come to from what we find.”
Steve nods. “Fair enough.”
He goes down to the gym when he can't take any more of it, of watching Howard falling prey to despair and drink after the Manhattan Project. It had only gotten worse after he’d retrieved that damn glowing nightmare from the sea floor, the future he'd believed in so ardently both opponent and his only weapon after that, growing more and more angry, brittle, erratic with each passing year. Goddammit, maybe if he'd been there he could have helped, could have pulled him back from that edge, he should have tried harder, failed Howard and Howard’s son as well as Bucky and Peggy, he should have—
The SHRIEK of Tony's music exploding around him, Guns and Roses and that is a taste he doesn’t think he’ll ever acquire, brings him back to himself, looking up and panting, chest heaving, eyes wild. Tony himself is in the doorway in sweats, watching, eyes veiled. "I need to work on those. Clearly not enough mass for you." He quirks an eyebrow over the pile of heavy bags that he'd ripped or broken the chains on the gym floor, then scowls as he realizes how many of them there actually are. "Wait, even for you that’s excessive. How long have you been down here?"
"What time is it?" Steve asks stupidly, just starting to become aware of the singing ache in his back and shoulders, his arms.
Tony's eyes narrow. "Quarter after six. Jarvis, how long has Captain Rogers been down here?"
"Six point four hours. Working with the heavy bag almost all of it."
"Yeaaaaaah, that's probably long enough." Tony moves in quick light steps and hisses as he sees the reddened wraps. "Make that definitely. Come on, Rocky, you have a date with some ice and the nice X-ray machine up in the infirmary."
"Nothing’s broken," Steve snaps, thoroughly aggravated with himself, a small sneaking ball of shame curling hot in his gut at the look on Tony’s face. What the hell had he been thinking, or not thinking? He's pretty sure he won't be able to unwrap his hands himself. "I'd know."
"If I don't get away with that you don't either. Should get you some drugs for that too, because if you don't feel it yet, it's not going to take long."
"Don't bother, they don't work." Steve replies, frustrated enough to use his teeth on one wrap. "Nothing does."
Tony gives him a disconcerted look. "When you say 'nothing works' - what have they tried?"
"What have you got? Opium, morphine, bromides, barbituates, pentothal, ether, chloroform, nitrous. Don't know what all you've come up with since, but none of them did a darn thing. Do a darn thing. Maybe make me dizzy for a couple minutes."
"Hold still, you idiot." Tony comes forward and grabs his wrist hard enough to make him make a rough sound, unwraps his hand. "Are you seriously fucking kidding me? What happens if you get seriously hurt? I saw that big slice someone put in your side when we were tearing up Manhattan..."
He shrugs, so exhausted now that the adrenaline’s ebbing that he feels lightheaded. "Well, that’s harder to do than the average fella so I don’t worry about it, honestly. Does happen, doc sews it up, it heals, between eight and ten times as fast as for a regular guy, depends on if it’s soft tissue or bone damage. Till then, I remember to duck faster next time.”
Tony blanches. "I...duck faster. God. GOD. We're redoing the suit. We're redoing the suit RIGHT FUCKING NOW and you - I can't look at you. Seriously, go to your room - or, wait, you're not going to be able- oh, hell. Jarvis! Who’s Xavier’s guy upstate—McCoy. Hank McCoy, he might know what to do about this or know who would, would you fire him off an email from me, set up a Skype or something? You, you fucking disaster, you come with me." Steve’s pretty sure he should be insulted or amused or SOMETHING but Tony is an irresistable force and he's too tired to be an immovable object, so he lets himself get bullied upstairs. He does, however, resist, mostly out of confusion, as Tony reaches for the hem of his t-shirt. "Hey, wait, whoa, what?"
Tony looks at him ferociously. "Go ahead, if you can take it off yourself please do. I'm sure you were warned by Coulson and Fury about bad touch and workplace harassment and how Tony Stark is an affront to every kind of decency and dignity imaginable but seriously, your virtue is safe. You really, really need to shower, you're disgusting, and doing it in your clothes, not that effective. I’ll save my lewd attentions for when you don’t smell like a gym sock."
He remembers having almost exactly this same skittish bruised conversation with Bucky from the other end; Stark is carefully, carefully bullying him, trying to scrape his temper to distract from the raw spots he sees as the greater threat to Steve’s well-being. They’re in agreement there that distraction is best; the last thing he wants is Tony thinking and wondering about this when Tony’s the one who had to live with what Howard became, with Steve’s failure to protect another friend. The best defense, as always, is a good offense.
"Going to have to work harder to shock me, Tony." He doesn't need to be able to grip to slip his hand through his dog tags, twist and wrap them around his wrist and lift them over his head, drop them into Tony's hand. One was his, per regulation; the second, one James Buchanan Barnes', which at best would have gotten them written up and at worse court-martialed if anybody had realized why. He starts wrestling at his shirt as Tony stares at them for a long moment, confused, then fingers closing over them white-knuckled as the penny drops.
"Okay, so tell me one thing,” Tony says harshly, staring at his fist, then at Steve’s swollen and bloody hands. “This James B. Barnes, would he have kicked your ass if you'd done this to yourself?"
"Yeah. Yeah, he woulda," he whispers, and jerks, eyes wide and startled as Tony reaches up and rips the t-shirt from collar to waist, slides it down over his arms.
"Good. I hate to think of you taking care of yourself since you're clearly incapable. Can you finish undressing or you need help with the sweats?" A muscle flexes in Tony's cheek, his eyes unreadable.
He wants to protest that a) he's taken care of himself his whole damn life, and b) he can't see where Tony Stark is one to talk about healthy ways to deal with what lives in his head and c) what the hell’s the matter with him freezing up on him like that when all Steve did was call his bluff? But he is so damned tired he just climbs into the shower instead, Jarvis turning it on and letting it beat down on him, reminding him as gently as a child when it's time to get out. The last thing he remembers is falling across the bed lengthwise; when he wakes it is afternoon edging around to long shadows before sunset and he is only slightly achy, his dog tags back around his neck and the covers drawn up over him. He is still naked, and not sure if he is ashamed, or unsettled, or what he is exactly at the thought of Tony – it must have been Tony? – taking care of him, after what he had told him.
Mostly, he thinks, eyes burning until he blinks them clear, that he is comforted.
There are several things lying on the bedside table waiting for him, and his hands shake as he picks them up; a small stack of photos of Bucky, looking as if they were culled from SHIELD files, and beneath them, a color copy of a yellowed document that it takes him a second to realize is a Selective Service card, 1917, with a graceful copperplate signature: Joseph Rogers, 569 B Kosciusko, Brooklyn, dependents, wife Sarah. There is a much sharper-edged hand at the bottom of the page: Jarvis is still working on images. Don't know if there's any luck to be had there but thought you might like to see this at least. - T
There is also a music disc there, Tony’s writing in Sharpie spiraling in to the center from the outside: Natasha and Clint are going to teach you about ducking faster. You don’t have to use this if you don’t like it but if you use the heavy bag longer than this disc lasts Jarvis has instructions to evict you from the gym - with the Mark VII if necessary.
It is and is not the music he expects; the soaring and driving guitar is familiar, the rough voices. But unlike the music he has heard in the workshop, what Tony had added to the playlist they had sat around making in the living room, these songs are more dreaming and thoughtful and tender, talking about pain and reasons to keep going and muddling through. He thinks this is maybe a conversation that Tony doesn't know how to have with him. Which is fair, because it's never been one he's known how to have either.
He listens to it over and over, swallowing hard past the lump in his throat.
“Friend Steven, might I crave a boon?”
Steve looks up from his sketchbook. “Sure, Thor. What do you need?”
“As I learn more about Midgard and her customs, I feel perhaps that I have not been doing all I might for my beloved to know my regard for her.”
Steve clears his throat before Thor can go on. “I…I might not be the best guy for this, Thor. Dames were never my strong suit, even before I was seventy years behind on dating. Tony is probably who you’re looking for.”
Thor grinned wryly. “Steven, although I think you esteem yourself too little, it is not wooing advice I seek. I mean to assume more of the work of our home, that Jane not feel as though I expect her to serve me, and to show her that I understand the work thus done is a worthy task, one that shows respect and care for her and our dwelling place.”
“You want me…to teach you how to clean?”
“And use the machine of washing. There was a…mishap.” Thor’s shoulders hunch a little. “I wish this not to happen again. And perhaps the cooking of meals, that I might take upon myself the pleasure and responsibility of feeding our fellowship in my turn.”
Steve nods, feeling a little bit more on solid ground there. “Okay, that I can do. So let’s start with basic rules to stay out of trouble. You don’t need fancy gadgets or sprays; you can clean most anything with a scrub bucket, some castile soap, some warm water and a rag. When you clean, you start from the top down, so any dirt you knock loose falls on something that’s still dirty instead of what you’ve just cleaned. When you’re cleaning something you haven’t cleaned before, start by just wiping it down with water. If that doesn’t work, then castile soap and water. If that still doesn’t get it clean, THEN you use a brush or a scouring pad.”
They work through the kitchen, Steve explaining and Thor thoughtful. “It is work that anyone may do,” he said quietly, “and thus counted of low worth. Yet it is work all must do, that gives great comfort. I am shamed for having thought it so.”
“You’re doing it, aren’t you?” Steve claps him on the shoulder. “You had it right before, it shows care for what you have. You’re a good man, Thor Odinsson. Jane knows that, but this is just one more way to show her.”
“Kind of a trip,” Tony says from the doorway watching. “It’s like women’s magazine porn, Hot Hunks Scrub Your Pots.”
Steve makes a face at him. “Whatever, tough guy. I know you know how to clean. Your cars look like glass. You could eat off your workbench if you’re not that second tearing stuff apart on it, and you could probably perform surgery with your tools. You take care of what you care about. You just don’t care about the kitchen.”
Tony arches an eyebrow, something thoughtful there. “Touché.”
“So okay, now that we’ve cleaned the kitchen, time to mess it up again. We’ll start with something simple. Tony, do you want to help?”
Tony shrugs. “Sure, why the hell not.”
Thor beams like the sun that night as he presents his chicken, not quite perfectly browned and the wingtips singed but juicy and tender, potatoes and carrots roasted with it in meticulously, almost mathematically precise chunks. Tony lets him take the credit but preens a little when Steve says, “Cooks don’t wash up,” and smiles at both of them.
For some reason, New York seems to be the favorite target of every megalomaniac and revenge-crazed genius with an axe to grind about the USA more than the actual Capitol (Clint has theories about that, and Steve is starting to wonder if there’s some meat to them, given just how often it happens). Tonight’s offering beat the giant flying acid-spewing squid from Tuesday in his books, but killer robots always put Tony in a foul mood and Steve couldn’t blame him, really, given how many grandstanding jerks masquerading as journalists liked to talk about technology as if THAT was the problem instead of the people using it to hurt people. Since Ms. Potts had left earlier in the week for California, he is unsurprised to see the soft blue-tinged light from the common room; for the same reason he is equally unsurprised that Tony has a glass in his hand. He feels a moment of intense envy along with the concern as he rummages out a Coke for himself to blunt what edges can be. At least caffeine has no more effect on him than alcohol does, and although Coke doesn’t taste exactly the same it’s close enough, familiar enough the way few things are any more to soothe. “Can’t sleep?” he murmurs from the doorway before coming in and sitting down; he has learned that Tony hates people getting close enough to touch him without plenty of warning.
“Yeah, shocker, I know. Hey, as I happen to be thinking about life and death and love, a question for you. You and Sergeant Barnes - how’d that ever happen, anyway, Cap?” Tony is glassy-eyed, and if he stood he’d probably fall, but the glass is steady in his hand and his voice is as clear and sharp as a blade. “Art school? Childhood sweethearts? Group showers in Basic, stolen glances between foxholes?”
Steve suppresses the flare of shock and temper at Tony’s flippant tone because he knows more than a little bit about expecting to get smacked down, knowing it’s going to happen and figuring what the hell, might as well make it worth it. He’s more than a little ashamed of himself that it took him that long to recognize it in Tony. “We were friends. Grew up together. But there was nothing like that between us until the war, until after Zola got hold of him. He was – he had a hard time trusting people after that. Hard time with a lot of things. I still don’t know whether he really felt about me like that, or if it was just that he needed to be with someone and I was the only one he didn’t think would hurt him. Didn’t have much time to figure that out, or anything, before.” He reached over and plucked the tumbler out of Stark’s hand, took a swallow to try and get hold of himself, to ease the tightness in his throat and chest, and the peat-smoke tang of good Scotch tasted like ashes. “Before he died.”
“Thought you couldn’t get drunk,” Tony said, watching him. “What about you? What did you feel? Act of charity for a wounded soldier, Saint Stephen martyred to his friend?”
“The only family I had. The only one other than Peggy who knew or cared to know anything about Steve Rogers, not Captain America. Yeah, I would have given either one of them anything, everything it’s in me to give. Are you asking did I get off? Did I want him to do it? Yeah. Yeah, I did. Body’s a body, touches are touches whether it’s a man or a woman touching you, love is love. He was beautiful, Stark, you saw the pictures. What you can’t see are all the times he stood beside someone who wasn’t, someone too dumb to keep his mouth shut when he was angry and too stubborn to run. And he died the same way, picked up the shield and stood between when I was hit. Scotch was his favorite, it tastes like him to me. Scotch was what I drank afterwards, in a bombed-out bar where we were singing and drinking the first night he laid hands on me. What I was drinking when I found out I couldn’t get drunk enough to stop seeing it, stop seeing him fall. Is that what you wanted to know?” His breath is coming fast and hard, the way almost nothing can make it any more.
Tony reaches out and takes the glass out of his hand before it cracks in his grip, eyes half-closing as he takes another sip, something unreadable in them. “Yeah, so Tuesday? After the attack of the killer calamari? Pepper left me,” Tony says, still too still and too calm. “She decided she couldn't take it any more – either the whole risking-my-life-as-a-career-choice gig or the ways according to her that I don’t deal with it. I'm kind of irritated that apparently that makes me luckier than you. At least she’s still alive and speaking to me."
"She what?" Steve looks at him, incredulous, and sure, Ms. Potts wasn’t Peggy, with a gun in her hand and no shield or serum, just that ridiculous, magnificent courage but how – and then he thinks about all the Dear John letters guys he knew got while they were overseas. Looking at Tony, he never realized how lucky HE was that Peggy and Bucky couldn’t quit any more than he could, as much as that hurt like losing his arm, his heart when Bucky had fallen, how much it probably hurt Peggy when he did. Tony looks - almost relieved instead of surprised, like he knew this was coming and is just glad he doesn’t have to dread it any more. Which is, dammit, not right. Not right at all.
Tony laughs. "My god, how are you even real that you look surprised? Me, I’m just surprised it took her this long.”
He scowls fiercely at Tony, hating that brilliant, bitter self-mocking grin. “I am getting darn sick of you talking about one of my friends that way.”
“Believe me, it’s no reflection on Pepper.” Tony reaches for the decanter again and Steve nudges it out of reach.
“Not talking about Ms. Potts. Talking about Tony Stark. Yeah, he could stand to take better care of himself, trust his team a little more. But he’s one of the bravest sons of bitches it’s ever been my privilege to stand next to in the field, and one of the kindest and definitely the smartest, so quit knocking him or we’re gonna have words.”
“That so, Captain Rogers.” Tony closes his eyes as if he’s in pain.
“It is.” Steve takes the glass back and refills it himself, takes another swallow and he can taste Tony’s mouth on the glass, salt and metal and something sweeter he can’t identify. “Far as I’m concerned, she’s throwing away the best thing that ever happened to her.” He would say more – he wants to say more – but he can feel Tony’s tension as if he was touching him. He knows if he keeps going, Tony will leave and that presence is worth a lot more than whatever he can say right now, will be believed in a way more words won’t be. “As long as we’re sitting here, you care if I turn on the TV? Late game, Dodgers and the Mets in LA, hoping I could catch the end.”
Tony made a face at him. “Fine, sure, whatever, old man. We can watch some paint dry after that too, if you want.” His lashes are wet, his voice is raw.
Steve chuckles softly and turns on the TV, pretends he doesn’t see it. Tony halfheartedly complains but makes no move to regain his glass, gradually drifting down against him as he loses the battle with sleep until his head is resting on Steve’s thigh. Steve lets his fingers card through the softly spiky mess of his hair long after the game is over.
Steve smiles down at Dummy, who is curiously following him around Tony’s empty workshop; the man himself is in Tokyo, as he puts it “showing the flag” for StarkIndustries Japan. Steve isn’t quite sure what HE’s doing, other than making a little bit of an idiot of himself, but even without Tony’s presence the workshop is a good place to be comfortably silent. He’s reasonably sure that Jarvis won’t volunteer the information to Tony and it’s not like Tony would think to ask, “say, has a large blonde anachronism been moping around down here like he’s afraid to go outside while I was gone?”
God, he HOPES Tony doesn’t think to ask that. You never know, with Tony.
Dummy whirs and clicks, and Jarvis says helpfully, “He is of the opinion that you should stay here; outside is rather dangerous and frightening, given how frequently Anthony comes home dented.”
Steve lets out a surprised bark of laughter, rubbing a hand over his face. “It’s contagious, isn’t it. The saying things you don’t mean to out loud thing.”
“Perhaps, Steve, someone needs to hear them.” Dummy chirps hopefully, pushing a movie into his hands, and Jarvis sighs. “Dummy, I don’t really think he wants—“
“That’s a good idea,” Steve says, looking at him fondly. “Why don’t you make some popcorn?” You and Butterfingers make their way over after a little bit, and Dummy rests his head on Steve’s shoulder as they watch more movies about robots than Steve knew existed. It’s just so easy to be there, where nobody expects him to be anything other than what he is.
The next day, Steve takes Tony at his word about his suite; however, it isn’t things he wants, it’s color and movement. He spends the next morning prepping one of the walls, priming and grounding and staring at it a long, long time before starting to translate the rough drafts in the sketchbook to paint from pen and pencil and the lines in his head. It is slow going; it has been years since he’d worked in paint instead of ink and pencil, since he’d pushed himself for depth and shade and tone and not just a tactical representation or self-deprecating cartoons in his journal, and that night he’s ready to punch holes in things or start screaming, maybe both by the time he walks away from it. He tries to smile and socialize in the kitchen as usual for dinner, but he can’t quite shake the feeling that it’s something else he’s lost to war and time and the cursed gift he’s been given, staring at his hands like he had that first night, a stranger’s again.
Jarvis has to remind him gently but forcefully about Tony’s threat about the suit to get him out of the gym.
Steve slinks down to the workshop afterwards, because there is nothing he wants to look at less than the work NOT in progress on his wall. Dummy is confused but pleased, and then concerned as Steve rests his head against his unyielding framework instead of petting. When Steve finally shifts to rub aching eyes, he drag over a tarp to the couch clearly meant as a blanket, and Steve laughs until he cries at how fussily he arranges it around him, startles at the sound of his own voice, hot tears spilling over.
“So it’s like this; there was only one thing I was ever good at before this.” He spreads out his hands. “I used to know how to draw, how to paint. Used to think I might be good enough to make a living at it. And now, I don’t—it’s been so long, and so much has changed, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get it back. And that’s kind of a dumb thing to be scared of, right, because I’m bigger and stronger and smarter and I’ve done so much more than I would have ever imagined I could and if I can’t, well, I mean, it’s not like there aren’t things I can do. You can’t have everything, right? Except here I am, and I don’t—I don’t know. I don’t know if it was enough , if what I did was enough to be worth it if so many people were still hurt and there’s still so much wrong with the world and I just want to feel like I’m still me in here, somewhere and god, that just sounds so…stupid.”
He’s not sure how much Dummy understands – and is afraid of how much Jarvis does – but Jarvis is silent and Dummy presses up against him as hard as he can – a not inconsiderable weight – and hums quietly until he falls asleep.
The smell of coffee wakes him, and he blinks his eyes open to Tony looking down at him with a bemused expression. “Okay, so Dummy is over 18 and his life is his business, but the shop? Really? Naughty,” he says to Dummy with a smirk; Dummy gently nudges Steve’s arm off him and blows the mechanical equivalent of a raspberry at Tony before sliding quietly out of the way to return to his charging station. Steve sits up and braces for questions and explanations he feels too fragile and stupid to give, but Tony just sighs and pushes one of the cups of coffee he’s holding into his hands before sitting next to him and taking a gulp of the second. “Since it appears nothing has been moved, however, I suppose you all may live. You could have called, you know, instead of resorting to Dummy for entertainment. I was bored out of my fucking skull. Japan? Is awesome. Business meetings in Japan? Not awesome. Not awesome at all.”
He keeps talking, a brisk rambling stream about nothing and everything, sublime to ridiculous: wagashi and takoyaki, microscopic semiconductors, bizarre and horrible vending machines, tiny jewels of gardens tucked between and behind buildings, manga, Kurosawa – Steve can hesitantly offer comment there at least, since Clint had been insistent that he see Seven Samurai and Hidden Fortress (“no, come on, you like Star Wars, you HAVE to see this, it’s what Lucas ripped off to make it!”). The way Tony’s eyes crinkle as they talk, the warmth of his knee and shoulder, his arm brushing against Steve’s makes things somehow okay, the balance in his head reasserting itself.
Back in his suite, Steve starts to paint again and somehow it’s easier to push through the mis-strokes, scrape, cover, correct, keep going. To have faith that it will come together, if he just keeps pushing at it, pushing through it.
They end up going for sushi later in the week; since Steve is unconvinced by Tony’s fervor on the subject, Tony decides actual experience in the matter is clearly overdue. “So while this isn’t THE best way to experience sushi, since there’s too much awesome stuff it’s too hard to get here or that Americans are scared of—“
“Sounds to me like you’re already looking for excuses, Stark.” Steve grins.
“—this is as close as you can get in Manhattan,” Tony continues over him, “and that will just make it that much more satisfying when you admit that as always, I am right. So, tough guy, you want me to tell you what’s in them and then pick, or would you rather try them first and then find out what you just ate?” Mischief dances in his eyes.
“Please. As if you aren’t the pickiest eater in the house by far,” Steve snorts, looking over the selection they’ve been presented and choosing the one that looks the most raw, mostly because he refuses to be intimidated by a piece of fish no matter what it tastes like.
Tony scowls at him. “Untrue. That is totally Banner.”
“He’s vegetarian, not fussy.” Steve closes his eyes and takes a bite, then hums in surprise and pleasure at the contrast of rich, almost buttery fish, the salt and crunch of seaweed and the delicately tangy taste of the rice. “And he’s totally missing out right now,” he finishes after swallowing. “Okay, I give, this is pretty good stuff. What was that one?”
“Maguro – tuna. I like that, but the eel’s my favorite. So what’s going on with you, Steven?” Tony asks as he picks out another piece, eyes dark as he toys with his chopsticks.
“Same things as ever?” Steve tilts his head, thoroughly confused. “Why?”
“You just—you’ve been doing that thing again, where you hide in your room, and I was just. Is everything okay?” He looks up on that last word, something almost defiant in the way he meets Steve’s eyes then.
His first instinct is to deflect – it always is, he thinks, half-smiling, takes a breath. Maybe it’s time to throw the shield instead. “Yeah. Yeah, it is. Just working on something--painting, actually. First time I’ve played around in oils since art school. Kind of a mess at the moment, but. I think it might be going somewhere, finally.”
“Oh.” Tony nudges another piece toward him, eyes back on his plate. “I…when you’re done. Can I see?”
Steve swallows at that. “Can see now, if you want, although it doesn’t look like much yet. Or maybe ever, but if there’s anybody can see what something COULD be it’s you.”
Tony looks up at that and the surprise in his eyes almost hurts, that he doesn’t understand already that he’s welcome where Steve is; the warmth that follows it actually does, aches in Steve’s chest, the fact that he put that look, that light in Tony’s eyes. “Like to. When you want. Tell me when you’re ready.”
When Natasha finds out that Steve learned to knit during the war, she invites herself along the next time he goes out to buy art supplies and asks him to teach her. When he asks why, she tells him about seeing a woman on the subway knitting with a circular needle; she was immediately taken with the possibilities of an innocuous reason to carry around two sharp metal tips joined by a length of flexible steel wire. Steve, pleased that he knows SOMETHING well enough to show someone else when it’s usually HIM needing to ask, tries not to think about that too hard as they find a yarn store and proceed to pick through a bewildering variety of fibers and colors before she chooses a dove-grey and purple that she decides will be a scarf for Clint.
They settle in at a tea shop a few doors down from the yarn store for her first lesson; Steve takes a moment with the unfamiliar needle but it comes back after a few stitches and he’s intrigued by how much easier he can see this would make socks and hats. They achieve a cast-on without incident, although some quiet but fulminant swearing in Russian ensues as she proceeds to drop her first stitch and then pick up three more by mistake by the end of her first row of actual knitting. Steve grins wryly and coughs. “Uh, Tasha,” – only Clint calls her Nat – “if it’s more satisfying in your mother tongue I get that but if that’s for my benefit, Bucky’s grandpa was Russian, I worked with Russian soldiers a time or three, I know those words. Most of them. The others I can guess.”
She laughs sheepishly. “Oh. I don’t like to - you just always look so uncomfortable.”
He looks down. “Do I? I don’t mean to. I mean, you can talk however you want, it’s not like I think less of you. It’s just – not something I’m used to. Yet. Still.”
She reaches out to tousle his hair and he wonders if this is what it’s like to have a sister, a terrifying and wonderful big sister. “It’s all right. It’s kind of sweet, actually.”
A refill of English Breakfast later, Natasha more or less has the hang of garter stitch and is industriously knitting away. Steve half-watches but more drifts, thoughts a hemisphere and more than a half-century away. The memory of Peggy’s voice, that delicious, maddening combination of crisp and precise and husky, strokes over his nerves as he thinks of countless cups of black tea brewed to death with just a hint of carefully rationed sugar in the Strategic Scientific Reserve base in London, the taste of her mouth in that one bright, hot stolen kiss under the wings of Schmidt’s plane...
“This makes you sad. Why?”
Steve glances at Natasha with a little surprise, hands cupped around his mug. “Not sad, exactly. Just makes me think of London, I guess. Tea was easier to come by than coffee. Scents, tastes, sometimes they just…flip a switch, I guess, and there things are.”
Natasha stares into her cup. “Yes.”
“What do you see?” he asks, very softly. “If you want to tell me.”
She swallows hard. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “But only true things have tastes. Things that really happened. I remember…gray eyes, ice-colored eyes, kisses that tasted like tea and lemon, just lemon, no sugar.”
They walk again after that, Steve reaching for her hand and her looking up at him quizzically but letting him take it.
Bucky’s eyes were that color she described, the chancy gray of scudding clouds and sheets of rain.
They bring back chai mix for Bruce and Thor, Earl Grey for Phil, mint for Clint who religiously avoids caffeine to keep his hands steady, and snickerdoodles for Tony, who disdains any and all tea-related beverages but has the sweet tooth of a five-year-old. Steve goes back to the yarn store after a while and picks out a lush dark brown wool that will not show coffee or oil because Tony perpetually bitches about how cold it is in New York; he knits the gloves without fingertips so Tony can still play with his phone and gadgets with them on and leaves them in the pocket of his coat. When Tony discovers them, they become a more or less permanent fixture, and Steve smiles a little bit every time he sees them.
Steve doesn’t think anybody else knows what day it is. Or maybe they do – as he considers it, Coulson almost certainly must –but they know better than to say or do anything differently and he is grateful for it.
Down in the workshop, Tony works in silence, without music, going rigid when Steve comes in. However, when Steve doesn’t try to talk to him or touch him but just settles in on the couch with an armful of books, he relaxes and returns to what he’s doing. He works silently through the day and into the night, until the anniversary of Howard and Maria Stark’s fatal accident is long over. When Tony finally comes to sit next to him, Steve looks at him inquiringly; Tony shakes his head at the silent question. Steve nods and slips his arm around him, murmurs, “Rest your eyes a little,” and starts reading aloud from the battered copy of Foundation. Tony rests there until almost dawn before whispering, “That always surprises me, science fiction from the guy who smartassed at me when we were oh, fighting for our lives, about the Helicarrier running on some sort of electricity.”
“Well, duh, another kid from Brooklyn, Tony. You don’t have to know how spaceships work to enjoy the story.”
Tony huffs a little laugh. “I’m hungry. I think. Are you hungry?”
“Could eat, sure.”
They make pancakes and eggs and bacon and coffee and talk about books - Clarke and Tolkien, Gibson and Doctorow, Williams and Gaiman - for hours, and Steve learns that Tony’s much more likely to allow himself to be taken care of if he has something else to think about while someone is doing that.
He wonders later with a cup of coffee on the table on his elbow as he sketches Clint as Legolas for Phil—the Tolkien discussion had reminded him and it will make Tony laugh--when he had so thoroughly acquired that taste that it’s the first thing he reaches for.
He is COMPLETELY sure he is having this conversation with the wrong person. He's also sure that absolutely nobody else there has anything even remotely resembling his perspective on what's happening ,so it’s not like he has a lot of choices. The Internet is good for a lot of things, but this is something he feels like he really ought to talk to a real person about.
No matter how embarrassing.
"You're not serious." Steve hides his face in his hands, and Barton rubs his back sympathetically. "Okay. Yeah, you are. Wow. I'm not sure if that's more impressive or depressing as an example of how deeply life has fucked you over. I mean, Captain America’s never -"
"Not NEVER." Steve looks up, face flaming. "I mean, just not - that. I've. Hands. Mouth. It's...you know."
"Coitus? Copulation? Penetration? Intercourse?” Clint offers helpfully. “You really shouldn't be doing it unless you can actually say it." His lips quirk up at the corners.
"Well, I just – jeez, you just didn't talk about things like that back then! Especially not in the Army."
“Welcome to 2012, Steve—or actually wait, wait, wait. Back up. Why especially not in the Army?" Clint's eyes go very bright and faintly luminous. "Let me guess, they didn't ask and you sure as hell didn't tell?"
Steve’s done enough reading that he catches that one and nods. "Yeah, something like that. You know how it is in the field, there's pretty much nowhere you can be where there aren't people around all the time. It was taking a hell of a chance to do as much as we did, let alone—the other. They probably wouldn't have cashiered me, they needed me too much and it would’ve been too embarrassing. But him? Dishonorable discharge in a red hot minute, if they thought something would have gotten out about me, us. If not Leavenworth or some Army looney bin. And well, being some combination of in immediate danger, filthy, starving or beat up, if not all of the above most of the time didn’t help much either."
Clint whistles softly. "Yeah, okay, so all of that would definitely have presented a problem then. However, this is now and I take something – ahem – brings it up for you?” He smirks as Steve rolls his eyes but doesn’t disagree. “As much as I would like to believe this is where you've decided to entrust me with punching your v-card - and before you ask, Phil would so, so NOT be upset as long as I told him alllllll the details—“
“Oh my god, Clint, too much information,” Steve covers his eyes with a hand, trying NOT to think about Clint telling Phil and no, just no.
Clint grins and briskly continues, “--I don't think that's where this is going. So hit me, what do you need to know? Topping, bottoming, lube? Because seriously, I can’t stress the importance enough, lube early, lube often."
"Yeah. I'm just going to go crawl into a corner and die now--"
"Oh, come on. This would TOTALLY have been worse asking Bruce. Or Thor. Or Natasha--”
Steve is pretty sure his face will never resume its normal color again, ever.
Hours later, after a long, brutally frank, occasionally hysterically funny and terrifying conversation, Steve stares at the disc with Tony’s handwriting on it that is still in his desk drawer, even though he has long since transferred the songs to his tablet. He then takes out the candy-apple red one he bought and starts writing on it in blue, you are cordially invited to the opening of the Rogers Gallery, tonight at 7 PM, sets it in the drive and calls up the menu to burn the songs he’s chosen into it, leaves it on Tony’s workbench. A gesture from long after he went into the water and STILL out of date, but it feels like a love letter, only better because it is someone else’s perfected poetry instead of his awkward words and he’s not sure he can man up to say it the way he wants to, not to Tony’s face.
This is better. Steve loves technology.
Tony stares at the finished wall, and Steve swallows uneasily at his silence. The Brooklyn Bridge is floating in space, uprooted and crumbling, the twisted wrench of broken girders unsettlingly like bone. The sky it’s swimming in is rendered as faithfully as he can remember those unfamiliar nebulae and galaxies boiling beyond the portal; lines delicately incised into the darkness above the bridge showed the golden and green and red and violet underpainting beneath, names of the constellations he had shaped with those lines in illuminated script beneath each; Sagittarius, Atrata Vidua, Janus, Tonitus. A small suited figure slumps against one of the great pillars, head tipped back against brick, face a blur of light; further down the span, a broken railing dangles uselessly in the wake of a comet’s tail vanishing into the abyss below. And in the foreground, pitilessly luminous, the arc reactor glows like a blue-white alien sun, its rays shading to gold, then red and black but still brushstroke-aligned into a thousand tender almost-invisible lines that somehow bind the bridge to its star, an orbit instead of a fall. "Jesus, I don't - I don't know what to say." Tony’s voice was harsh, almost angry.
"You don't - I mean, it's not -"
"If you say it's not that good I will beat you senseless. My God.”
Steve colors to the roots of his hair. "I - I never did anything like this before, not a serious piece just for me, just for things to come out. I didn't realize- it's hard to look at."
"The best things hurt," Tony says, still staring. “They’re the only things that get close enough to.”
“Tony…” he says in protest, then just says it again, as Tony turns to look at him, something almost savage in his eyes. “Tony.”
“Don’t. Just don’t. Don’t tell me it shouldn’t hurt or that you won’t hurt me. It’s a fucking lie.”
“Wasn’t. Was gonna say, come on, tough guy, I can do this all day.” He is shaking, adrenaline singing in him like all those years ago, waiting for it and Tony kisses like a punch, teeth clicking against his before fastening in his lower lip, one hand fisted in his hair pulling his head down. He pushes back, greedy and raw and grasping, gets a hand behind Tony’s head just before slamming him into the wall and Tony’s hands are scrabbling frantically at his shirt.
“Off, off off off why are you always covered in so many clothes fuck.”
“Like you can talk, Stark,” Steve gasps, fumbling with Tony’s zipper as Tony’s teeth close almost delicately on his neck. He hears buttons hit the floor as Tony loses patience halfway through and just yanks his shirt over his head, moans as Tony’s nails rake over his sides then palms smooth back over them around and down into his jeans and over his ass. “What’d that shirt ever do to you anyway?”
“In my way,” Tony sucks a bruise into his collarbone and Steve thinks dizzily, I’m in love with a vampire but it’s hard to care about anything other than those hands, that mouth, those fierce dark eyes. They’re all stripping him bare right down to his bones, to the Steve that’s somewhere buried inside Cap’s solid sturdiness and he realizes there, right there that Tony has always seen right down into the core of him past the borrowed glory. It drives him to his knees, hands vising on Tony’s hips and he noses over Tony’s cock outlined tautly beneath boxer briefs. “Steve,” Tony gasps, not quite a cry but something raw and pleading in it, “you don’t—“ but yes, yes he really does have to, mouths over that straining curve through fabric first before baring him for hands and mouth.
It’s more than a little daunting – he prefers not to think about how many times Tony has probably done this as opposed to how many times he has - but Tony gasps and moans like he’s never been touched before, hips pushing forward and hands tangled in Steve’s hair, not pushing but restlessly caressing and tugging as he chants ragged encouragement and direction. “Oh, God, yeah, just like that. So good, so—yeah. Yeah. Oh, your tongue, yeah, like that, fuck, baby, yes, please…” Encouraged, Steve slips a finger into his mouth with Tony’s cock, and then once it’s thoroughly slick works it inside Tony and carefully crooks it; Tony jolts and moans when he finds the right spot. He can’t help his own shudder of response at that sound, that racking needy whine as he sucks him harder and deeper, his touch surer although no less careful. He’s got Tony deep enough that it’s surprisingly easy, reflex even to swallow when he comes and it’s so, so worth it to feel him shuddering, hear him keen Steve’s name like he’s forgotten every other word he knows. Tony hasn’t laid a hand on him other than the restless fingers stroking over his head, and it’s still an act of will to keep from tipping over that edge after him.
“God.” Tony’s voice trembles as Steve relinquishes him and looks up, hot blue eyes meeting dazed brown and Tony’s hips buck again with aftershock, bites his lip hard. “Oh, jesus, you are cruel because I think I just came again and I am not built for that, some of us need recovery time and that hurt how are you even so fucking beautiful?”
“Triumph of engineering,” Steve says, voice a little wrecked and Tony shivers again.
“It was there already or they couldn’t have found it. Bed, Steve. Let me touch you. I want to touch you so fucking much.”
“I want you to,” Steve murmurs, scrambles to his feet as Tony steps out of the tangle of boxers and jeans. He wants to burn that image into his head and paint it on canvas to be there after Steve himself has gone, the warmth of Tony’s olive skin and sad dark eyes, the beginning of silver at his temples, the fine lines etched by smiles and frowns, his lean spare grace and solid strength. The resilience and athleticism, the marks of time and abuse are all equally manifestations of Tony’s drive and determination; everyone’s attention is always taken up by his momentary stumbles and Steve wishes it hadn’t taken him so long to see that the falls are because he’s carrying so damn much. He wants to draw maps on Tony’s skin as a visual nod to the globe on his back, with fingers and tongue and someday with pen and ink.
“What do you see when you’re looking at me like that?” Tony nudges him back down to the bed, hands deft and careful now as he strips Steve of his jeans and boxers. The raw desperate hunger from before has been transmuted into focus; Steve’s breath stutters as Tony swings a leg over to straddle him, looks down like Steve is a particularly interesting piece of technology and he’s considering how to begin taking him apart.
“You,” Steve manages, a choked cry as long fingers sweep over him like one of his schematics as Tony shifts his weight back to grind down against his cock. “Just you,” and Tony grins like a blade at the way Steve comes up off the bed when rough fingertips pinch his nipples.
“I thought maybe,” he murmurs, bending in a way that should really not be possible to rub his cheek with its delicious scrape of stubble over one side before curling his tongue over the other; Steve bucks and moans at both the sharp and the soft. “God, the way you look. That blush does go all the way down. Fucking edible.” He leans back up to take Steve’s mouth, drawing another choked gasp from him. “Barnes was a lucky, lucky guy.”
“Not as lucky as you’re going to be, Tony. I want.” He licks his lips. “I want you. For the first, inside me. Inside you, if that’s something you want, something you like.”
Tony closes his eyes at that. “Jesus tapdancing Christ. Give me a second, rebooting, because I think you may have just broken my heart and my brain simultaneously. Fortunately, secondary cerebral cortex in my pants? Still fully operational. “
Steve isn’t sure whether to laugh, cry or growl at that reaction, smacks Tony on the ass in lieu of a better response. “Hey, genius billionaire playboy philanthropist, you’re not IN your pants at the moment.”
“How incredibly fortunate for both of us, artist hero supersoldier humanitarian,” Tony purrs. “Because that would make me riding that ridiculously impressive dick a lot more difficult. Tell me, were they expecting that side effect?”
Steve whimpers for possibly the first time in his adult life at the image those words conjure up, at the way Tony is looking at him as he says them. Tony’s eyes are dark and dreamily intent as he leans forward and licks into his mouth to capture the sound. “Not a side effect. They didn’t,” Steve gasps against his mouth, “that’s about the only thing…that didn’t change.”
“Well, god bless good genes then.” Tony noses against his nose. “Do you have lube? Please tell me you have lube.”
“Drawer,” Steve mumbles between Tony’s light teasing nips, full-body shudders as Tony drops kisses on his closed eyelids. His eyes snap back open when Tony shifts position again to rummage in aforementioned drawer, his ass rubbing against Steve’s cock and he thinks he might in fact die of frustrated pleasure if Tony doesn’t get the hell on with it. “Stark, are you trying to kill me?”
“God, you’re adorable. I don’t think anybody’s been this excited about fucking me – well, honestly, ever. Want to help?” Tony pours a generous dollop of really cold lube onto Steve’s stomach and he gasps and shivers in surprise. “Needs to get warm before it’s going anywhere near my ass,” Tony says innocently, idly swirling a finger in it as Steve’s eyes cross at that light teasing pressure, then slips it inside himself, sighing. “Much better.”
“You ARE trying to kill me,” Steve mumbles, eyes feverish. “You said I could help.”
“You mean as other than a heat source? Well, that would certainly be less work for me.” Tony smiles sweetly as Steve slicks his fingers thoroughly through the lube, arching against his own hand a little which wipes the smile right off Tony’s face and replaces it with predatory intent as Steve’s fingers slip into him. “Mmm,” Tony sighs at that slow, careful touch, half-hard again. “Nice. Ohhh, yeah, just like that, now spread ‘em. You’ve really never had someone inside you at all? Sure seemed like you knew what you were after before while you were sucking me off, felt like it.”
“I—fingered myself,” he grits out as Tony rocks down against his hand. “Wanted—to be sure, where to touch, how.”
Tony’s lashes flicker. “You have no idea how fucking hot that mental picture is, do you? I want you to show me later, how you touched yourself, what felt good. For right now, another, baby, please?” He bites his lip as Steve slips his fingers out, pours more lube on them and then sighs as he slides them back in, rolls his hips against Steve’s hand as he crooks them a little bit. “Oh, god, there’s nothing like that, being filled up, how intense that is. It’s almost scary how much you feel that way. I am going to make that so, so good for you baby, when I fuck you, but right now because I’m a selfish bastard I am so glad this is happening first. You look – if Michelangelo painted porn this is what it would look like.”
“Thanks? I think.” He stifles a small cry of protest as Tony pulls away, then groans as Tony slicks lube over his dick instead and guides him in, settling slowly and carefully on him as Steve’s hands bite bruising-hard into his thighs. Tony’s head tips back, lips parting and lashes dropping as he moves and maybe not Michelangelo but damned if it doesn’t look like art to Steve, the sight and the sensation each incredible and together devastating. “Tony, oh, goddamn, Tony.”
“Shhhhhhh.” Tony’s voice is light and strained. “Can you stay still for me, Steve, a minute? So good, so fucking good but it’s been a while, well, years, it’s actually been years and yeah, mmm, you are really fucking in there. Wow.”
Steve forces his eyes open to see him. “Tony, I don’t want to hurt you –“
“You aren’t. It doesn’t. Just need a second.” Tony takes a deep breath, eyes flashing as he leans down to kiss him and they both shake at the way that changes the pressure, the angle. Tony is fully hard against him now, his cock rubbing against Steve’s belly. “Okay. You can move now if you need to. I’m sure as hell going to.” Tony’s smile is filthy, breath breaking as Steve pushes his hips up to meet his strokes, deep and sure and shifting a little bit each time until he finds the depth, the pace where Tony gasps every time, his hand closing around Tony’s dick and stroking, wanting to give him as much as he was getting. “And for the record, I would never have known this is the first time you’ve done this if you hadn’t told me, motherFUCK, are you good at everything?”
“I broke,” Steve pants, “the self-checkout at the grocery store. I hate chopsticks. I can’t dance. And—oh, fuck, Tony – I can’t get the hang – of first-person-shooters…”
Tony, surprised, bursts out laughing between awkward brushes of kisses, and damn that is the best sensation ever joined that way. Steve’ vision whites out as he comes, hands fisted in the sheets and a raw harsh cry as it blazes through him. Tony’s teeth sinking into his shoulder finds another flare of response; the hot splash of him coming against Steve’s belly leaves him finally breathless and shaking and spent.
“I can’t feel my feet,” Tony mumbles after a moment. “this would be more of a problem if I ever intended to move again. Except kind of have to because yeah, this will be so bad in the morning if I don’t.”
“Really?” Steve is going to open his eyes, really. In a minute.
“The things I do for love,” Tony grumbles, started gathering himself to get up, “but hey, I broke Captain America, so, there’s that—"
“Tony.” Steve is wide awake at that, breathless and taut, eyes wide and black-dark. “Say that again.”
Tony looks almost as startled as Steve; his shoulders hunch a little. “Do I have to? You obviously heard it the first time.”
Steve smiles, blinks back the burning in his eyes. “No. You don’t have to. I love you too.”
“I earnestly hope that gets less weird. It doesn’t have to be a thing, right? We’re not going to start like, saying that, right?”
“You say it all the time, just not out loud. That’s fine. If I wanted something else, I’d want another guy. I don’t.”
“Okay. Good. Getting up. ” Tony disappears to the bathroom, and if his face is suspiciously cool like maybe he splashed some water at it and stared at himself in the mirror for a few minutes before he comes back, that cool face is tucked into the nape of Steve’s neck and his hands on Steve gently cleaning him up and possessively gathering him in are anything but cool or uncertain. They are who they are.
“I love you,” Tony whispers after a few minutes when he thinks Steve is asleep, and Steve’s face hurts with the grin.
Coney Island is and isn’t the place he remembers. The Bowery has for all intents and purposes disappeared, the penny arcades, the sideshows and kooch dancers have been reduced to a few flyers and a couple buildings that are more museums than anything, really. He understands a little better how if this is all that’s left, how what they know about his Coney Island comes from movies and Eugene O’Neill, why everyone seems to imagine he’ll be shocked by grifters and strippers. Keyspan Park wasn’t there before, but unlike most of the new things it feels like it COULD have been, built on a scale and in materials that look like home. It makes him smile and bite his lip, thinking of Ebbets and he thinks that maybe this might feel more like the game he remembers than Tony’s box at Citi, beautifully appointed, lavishly comfortable and somehow more like watching on television than actually being there. He’ll have to come see the Cyclones play some weekend when they’re not saving the world. Not everything is gone; the Wonder Wheel and the Parachute Jump still dominate the skyline, and the boardwalk still snakes along the beach. And of course, the reason why they’re there, the oldest roller coaster still operating in America.
Bucky had loved the Cyclone. Steve had just been grateful he had managed to not puke until he’d gotten off the darn thing because that would have been the only thing that would have made it MORE embarrassing, having it all over him. It had still been worth both the shame at his defective system AND the quarter to hear Bucky laughing and hollering, windblown and wide-eyed, the weight of looking after his ma and his sisters and his sad scrawny excuse for a best friend blown away in an eighty-five foot drop at sixty miles per hour. For that, Steve would have gone another hundred times if he’d had the money – he’d had enough for one more at least but Bucky wouldn’t let him and they hadn’t had time to come back…after.
“Seriously?” Tony looks at him, eyebrow arched enough to peer up from behind ridiculously colored and equally ridiculously expensive sunglasses.
“Seriously,” Steve says with a smile, something secret and faraway and Tony sighs.
“Yeah, okay. But you’re letting me take you somewhere real for dinner after, right, not hotdogs?”
“You’re such a snob,” Steve says warmly. And for all that he’s driven Formula 1 cars and flown supersonic experimental aircraft and the Iron Man suit, Tony’s eyes still widen by reflex, the grin breaking out helplessly across his face as they crest that first hill and start to fall into flight. Steve lets go at that, puts his hands up and laughs with him.
At the end, whiskey-colored eyes look up at him amused. “So, I have a confession, Steve. Not having your average adolescence, or even a semi-feral street child existence in Brooklyn, that was the first time I’ve done that.”
Steve blinks down at him incredulously. “You—really? You’ve never been on a roller coaster? You, the original thrill-ride junkie?”
“Howard and Maria, not so much amusement-park people. Boarding school? Not so much an amusement-park kind of place, and when you’re 14 years old in college it tends to make you kind of paranoid about looking even more immature than you, you know, actually are? And then I sort of had a company to run and mind-blowing feats of genius to create and you know, stuff. Seriously, I was an adult, I had Ferraris I didn’t have to stand in line for, how much could I have been missing? And so. Yeah. That happened. Steve Rogers took my rollercoaster cherry, and it was actually kind of awesome. Let’s do it again. Several times.”
He can hear Bucky’s voice in the back of his head, warm and rough: see, punk, knew you had it in you, as they go to get back in line.