Steve watches Tony swan out of the meeting room, poking at a tablet with gloved hands. He's dressed in a custom-tailored suit that probably costs more than Steve can rationally think about – it would have to be custom; the jacket is far thicker than any other suit jacket Steve's ever seen, and he finds himself envious of how warm it looks even as he's irritated by that exact same fact. Tony is flaunting his wealth even as he shoves Steve's own weakness back in his face, and Steve wonders, for the umpteenth time, what the hell the other man's problem is. He'd been quick enough to accept and dismiss Steve's apologies after the invasion, even offering his own apology in turn for what he'd said while under the Sceptre's influence. Now Steve wonders if the sincerity Tony had shown then had really just been more sarcasm.
Bruce catches his eye as they both stand, following in Tony's footsteps rather more slowly. "Sorry," he offers quietly. "I tried talking to him, but..." he shrugs, as if to say, You know how he is.
Steve does, and he sighs. "It's fine. I need to talk to him myself."
This has gone on long enough – ever since August gave way to September, and now it's nearly the end of October. If his teammates are feeling the need to intervene, then it's past time that Steve confront the situation.
And frankly, trying to just ignore Tony's callous teasing, hoping that he'll get bored with it, is grating on Steve's nerves. Tony teases people, Steve knows that. But there're things you have to respect about other people, boundaries that you don't cross, and Steve's had it with Tony infringing on this one.
Before Steve can go looking for Tony, Tony comes to him.
Steve's sitting on the couch, playing Tetris. It's not that he's putting off the ensuing confrontation, he's just... getting in the mind-set for it. As Bruce had explained when he'd introduced the game to Steve, being unable to win also meant you couldn't lose. You just did the best you could. It was sort of meditative, listening to the music and shutting out everything but falling blocks.
"Hey, Capsicle," says Tony from behind him, breaking his concentration. Steve hits pause, barely refraining from grinding his teeth. That nick-name, too? How damn petty could the man get?
"Really, Stark?" he asks, barely managing to keep his tone even.
Tony's eyebrows shoot up. "Last names, huh? What's got your panties in a bunch now, Captain?"
"I've had enough," Steve replies, putting the controller down so he can stand and face Tony fully. "You've succeeded, okay? You've gotten on my nerves. Really thoroughly. So just stop."
Tony's expression is very strange for a moment, but then it clears as he slips on the cool, devil-may-care smile that he uses on the press. "Right. Well, extended exposure to my presence does have that effect, I know – too much concentrated awesome in a small space of time – but hey, you don't have to worry, I was actually coming to let you know that I'm heading back to Malibu for the next few months, so you'll be free and clear of me."
Steve's thrown off-track. "You're heading back to Malibu?"
"Is there an echo in here? Yes, Malibu, land of warm winters and sunny skies," Tony says, a touch of impatience slipping out from behind his mask. "You think I want to stick around here while New York gets frozen in smog-colored sleet? This is why people have homes in California. Don't worry, the suit's top speed means I'll still be nearby if you need me – "
"You just can't leave it alone, can you?" Steve interrupts him, cold and furious. He shifts his weight forward, blocked from actually taking a step – from getting in Stark's space, the same damn way Tony keeps getting in his – by the couch between them. Even so, Tony leans back slightly; Steve has a lot of inches on him. Good, he thinks viciously. The only times Tony seems to listen to him are when he gets right up in his face – why the hell does Stark have to be so damn difficult?
"I lost my entire life to the ice," Steve spits, all the hurt of the past few weeks welling up in him and given words before he can pause to consider them. "And I'm sorry that your own is so pathetic that you feel the need to mock that. But if you need to go so far in taunting me about it that you'll up and move for a couple of months at a time, then maybe you should just stay away."
Tony's expression is blank for a long moment, during which Steve dares to hope that he's made his point, even as he immediately begins to regret the harsh way he'd done it. He knows Tony has his – issues. He really should have addressed this earlier, before he got so wound up about it that he'd lashed out, but – well, Tony isn't the type to back down easily, and Bruce had said he'd already tried talking to Tony about it. Maybe this is the only way. If Tony's going to be cruel enough to taunt Steve about this, then he's going to have to put up with getting some back.
"Right, Captain," Tony says brightly, as if the awkward pause had never happened. He shoves his (gloved) hands in the pockets of his sweater – they called them ‘hoodies' these days, Steve knows – and smirks. But it's the exact same smirk that Tony gives Nick on those rare occasions when Fury's thoroughly outmaneuvered him, and Steve feels the little bud of hope bloom, ever so slightly – until Tony's next words crush it. "Yeah, if this is going to be – yeah, probably a good idea. Jarvis," he doesn't look away from Steve as he says this, "prep the house, I'm leaving early – have my stuff shipped on the plane, I'll just take the suit now," and as Jarvis answers back in the affirmative, Tony is turning and leaving, brushing past Clint, who is standing in the doorway. Steve hadn't even noticed him arrive. For a moment, Clint looks like he wants to grab Tony, stop him from walking away, but instead he lets him go.
Steve's mouth twists. He's not happy to have had an audience – praise should be given in public, but remonstrations in private. Clint frowns at him, but doesn't say anything, just shakes his head and leaves.
Steve sinks back down onto the couch, but doesn't pick up the controller again. His concentration is broken, and stays that way, interrupted by the nagging need to let Fury know of this most recent upset. He can't bring himself to be sorry, even if kicking Tony off the team isn't his call to make – he should have consulted with Nick first, he knows. But if Tony can't manage to not act like an asshole all the damn time, then no matter how much of an asset the Iron Man suit is, Tony's going to be detriment to the team.
He's drowning, but his body isn't screaming for air – air is a distant, unimaginable thing – but for heat. For warmth. True warmth, not the false fire that screams up his limbs, a cold so deep that it burns. Debris pins him in place, keeps him from generating even the meager heat that thrashing about would create. His head swims as he tries to think through the cold; his feet have already gone completely numb –
Steve wakes with a rushed intake of breath, his eyes opening to the pitch black of his room. His feet are – not numb, thankfully, although they are cold. He's managed to pull his blanket up too much, again – although it's enormously wide, and at least ten feet long, it's still not big enough to huddle under as fully as he'd like. The room may be climate-controlled, but there's something about having a thick comforter on top of you to keep you warm, so by request Jarvis keeps it somewhat chilly while he sleeps so that he can snuggle under the blankets without overheating... which is nice, except for how his feet keep getting uncovered in the middle of the night.
The dreams had stopped being so frequent after he moved into the Tower, but the advent of colder weather brought them back again. Tony's teasing hasn't helped, either; having it shoved in his face all the time has left it preying on his mind. Steve breathes in and out, feeling his racing heartbeat return to normal. Maybe with Tony indefinitely in Malibu, the dreams will start to go away again.
Fury had not been impressed when Steve had informed him of that development yesterday – but apparently he'd had other concerns to deal with, because he'd merely given Steve a gimlet stare and promised (threatened; Steve's aware that Nick is usually a tad softer around him than with the rest of the team, but not this time) to send Coulson to deal with the situation. Steve likes Coulson - now that the other man has gotten over his hero-worship and started to see Steve as a person - but he only manages to successfully wrangle Tony about half the time.
"Jarvis?" Steve calls out after a moment, when the room doesn't brighten on its own. Since Tony left yesterday, Jarvis hasn't spoken to Steve at all, when before they'd gotten along pretty well – Steve thought it was because Steve treated him like a person, instead of a computer. He doesn't really understand why Coulson and Fury – and to a lesser extent, Clint and Natasha – insist on treating Jarvis as anything but a person. Clearly, he has a mind the equal of (at the very least) any human. Unfortunately for Steve at the moment, that also means he is fully capable of feeling whatever emotions are fueling his current recalcitrance. Not that Steve would ever begrudge Jarvis his sentience, but he does dislike the way that there isn't even a light switch in his room; it's hard being so fully dependent on someone who is currently angry at him.
But what is he supposed to do? He feels oddly like he should be apologizing to Jarvis, but for what? He didn't say anything to Tony that didn't need to be said.
Well, perhaps he could have said it a bit differently, he admits to himself, as the lights finally come on – a bit too dim, but enough to see by, so he won't push his luck. No doubt Jarvis could do a whole lot more to make him feel unwelcome, if sufficiently riled.
"Thanks," he says softly, and the lights glow a bit brighter, and simultaneously a bit softer, in response. It feels almost like sympathy – but Jarvis still says nothing.
He goes through the rest of his morning routine in silence, without Jarvis's usual mild commentary on the weather, the location of his teammates, or the day's scheduled baseball games. It's disquieting, not having Jarvis to talk to – Jarvis's voice is soothingly British, but has just enough of an electronic accent to remind Steve that the future is his present, AIs are real, and there is no Santa Claus. It is with some relief that Steve finally exits the Tower for his morning run.
The relief fades as soon as the first gust of cold air hits his face. He's wearing long sweats, instead of the shorts and t-shirts he'd preferred during the summer, and he knows his body will warm itself as he runs, but that doesn't make breathing the chilly, pre-dawn air any easier. For a moment he fiercely envies Tony, able to pack up and move to California on a moment's whim, and resentment boils in his gut at the way the other man had casually thrown that in his face.
Steve breathes in, deep. The air is chilly in his throat; he makes himself feel it. He breathes out, and lets the anger flow with it, like his therapist taught him. If Steve wanted to go to California or Texas or Florida, SHIELD would oblige him, he reminds himself. He'd chosen to stay here because New York is his home, and he's not going to be chased from it by something as insignificant as a bit of cold weather.
By the time he's completed his run, some two hours later, he's sweating, and New York has come alive. Smartly dressed businessmen and -women hurry by on the sidewalk, next to construction workers heading to the repair sites. The crowd is thick enough that Steve slows to a jog instead of keeping up his usual pace, which anyone else save Thor would consider a sprint. Steve likes running: he hadn't been able to run very well before the serum, with his asthma and his bum leg, and being able to outrun cars – well, that never gets old.
He gets a couple of appreciative glances, along with a few glares from people who bump into him, but almost nobody tries to stop him. That's one of the things Steve likes so much about New York: superhero, celebrity, or otherwise, the people here have seen it all. By the time he jogs up the steps of the Tower, he's only been asked for his autograph once, by pleasant young man who had thanked sincerely him for his efforts saving the city, and not pressed him for anything more than a quick signature.
The inside of the Tower is busier than it usually is at this time of day. As Steve crosses the lobby, he offers his usual greeting to the receptionists, but he only gets a distracted nod from Marla, who is holding a phone to her ear. Bettany and Tim ignore him entirely - they're also busy with phones, and people are standing in front of them at the desks. Near the main elevator bank – the penthouse elevator is off to the side, but it's being suspiciously slow to respond this morning, and his hearing was phenomenal even before the serum – Steve catches snippets of conversation from well-dressed employees sipping no-doubt-complicated coffees from paper cups.
" – just leave on a moment's notice. I wish I could do that."
"R&D must be thanking god that we don't all have to pack up and move, too. You remember when he first moved out to LA?"
"Oh, yeah, who could forget Stane's face? He sure knows how to drop bombs at press conferences."
"Uh-huh. I can stand to get up early today if I don't have to spend the entire day packing up my office."
"Yeah – funny how you get to be thinking, ‘thank god, this is pretty tame' once you start working here."
"Alien invasions really screw up your sense of scale!"
"Only in New York! We just gotta hope that some senator has an affair, soon, and gets Jameson to stop writing those stupid editorials about the boss – "
"- you mean the boss's boytoy, now," a third suit interrupted with a laugh. "Thank god for Pepper Potts – "
The private penthouse elevator arrives, giving a discreet ‘ding' from its hiding spot in the corner, and Steve steps in, letting the doors close and cut off the conversation. It's unnerving to think about, the way Tony moving could stir up all these people – not even because it affected their work, but just because people like to watch what he’s doing and comment on it. Is that why Tony keeps needling Steve? If a guy got used to being the center of attention all his life - but, no, most of the time when Steve pays attention to Tony, the other man gets annoyed at him for interrupting his work... and Steve knows it isn’t just him; Tony’s like that with any of the Avengers who come down to the lab, except Bruce. But when the man spends almost all his waking time in the lab, how else were they supposed to ever talk to him? Granted, Steve interrupts him the most – the others have mostly given up.
A shower later, Steve heads to the communal kitchen for breakfast. A part of him wants to just make something simple in his own kitchenette. Breakfasting in the common kitchen has been awkward for weeks, with Tony there (Tony, surprisingly, actually gets up about as early as Steve – even though Steve doesn't think Tony's ever gone to bed before 3AM, in all the time he's known him. But SCIENCE! doesn't wait for sleep, although apparently it will wait for coffee. Coffee is the only reason Tony ever visits the communal kitchen, or so he's sworn on several occasions, citing the superiority of that kitchen's espresso machine over the one in his lab. Steve, as always with Tony, has never been quite sure how much the other man is joking). Tony, who wears scarves – both finely knitted ones, and dorky cheap knock-offs that look ridiculous when paired with his custom-tailored suits – and hats, even indoors. For the past few weeks he's been constantly wearing gloves, but a few mornings he's even worn mittens, as if Steve wouldn't notice the gloves all on their own. Once he even came down draped in a blanket, and at the sight of it Steve had to get up and take his plate of scrambled eggs elsewhere, lest he say something he regret.
Now he wishes he hadn't. Maybe if he'd said something sooner, he wouldn't have been quite so harsh yesterday. But still – Tony can dish it out, but he can't take it? All the issues in the world aren't an excuse for just plain being mean. There's a point at which a person has to be responsible for their own actions.
Voices coming from the kitchen pull him from yet another examination of yesterday's argument, and other ways it might have gone. " – confirmed this?" That's Coulson's voice, which is somewhat surprising – Steve would have thought he'd be in Malibu, trying to deal with Tony. Tony may be occasionally impossible to deal with, but it's not like Phil to give up that fast... which means that he thinks there's something here at the Tower that needs to be handled first.
Steve wants to groan. Of course Phil has to hear all sides of the issue to properly deal with it, but after weeks of constant reminders of the cold, Steve wants nothing more than to be done with it – even if that means Tony will be gone for months. Honestly, he'll miss the man, even if he won't miss the cruelty that Tony's been displaying these past weeks. But putting it off talking to Coulson won't do much good.
"He didn't deny it, which is – " Clint cuts himself off a moment before Steve enters the kitchen, which is all the confirmation that Steve needs of the topic of their conversation.
"No need to stop on my account," Steve says wryly, pouring himself a mug of chocolate milk and sticking it in the microwave to make some quick hot chocolate. Ordinarily he'd just drink juice, but if he's going to be debriefed on this now, he'd prefer to have a hot drink ready to wrap his hands about, and he doesn't want to wait for the water to boil for tea. A few seconds later – Steve is given to understand, by virtue of Tony's pre-coffee rambles, that most microwaves don't work this fast, but apparently SCIENCE! had happened to this one at some point – he pulls out the now steaming-hot drink, and takes a careful sip. He burns his tongue, but it will heal fast enough, and the heat provides welcome comfort.
He's aware of Clint and Phil's eyes on him while he does this, assessing. It's a look that he'd gotten used to long before the ice, so it's easy to ignore. When he turns back around and fixes them with his best neutral look, Phil inclines his head and Clint shrugs.
"Jarvis, play the first of those clips I grabbed," Clint says to the ceiling. He hasn't gotten the hang of not needing to direct his voice at something, the way Steve has, following Tony and Pepper's examples. Steve suspects it's because Clint doesn't engage Jarvis in casual conversation.
The door of the fridge shimmers a bit and turns into a TV screen. Most of the surfaces in the Tower can become touch-screens at a moment's notice, which, as Steve's said to Tony, is pretty nifty. The future might not have jetpacks, but there're a lot of things it does have that none of the old masters of sci-fi had ever imagined.
On the screen is the team from a few weeks ago, when, on their way to a press conference, they'd been ambushed by even more reporters just outside the Tower. The footage is from the security cameras, not from that taken by any of the news networks – this is obvious not only from the lack of newsfeeds at the bottom of the screen, but also from the viewpoint. Tony takes his security very seriously – no reporter would ever be able to get that angle.
The camera is focused on one of the foremost reporters, who is standing far too close to Tony, practically shoving her microphone in his face. Tony being Tony, he's actually leaning forward into it, reaching up to take her microphone and purr something no doubt filled with innuendo, when something catches his attention and he leans back, shoving his hands into his pockets. The clip repeats. There's no sound.
"I see," Phil murmurs, apparently catching something that Steve doesn’t.
Steve shoots a questioning look at Clint, but it's Jarvis who answers – still non-verbally. Instead a part of the video brightens, highlighting Tony's hands, and then Steve sees it – Tony's hands are shaking slightly as they reach for the microphone, right before he shoves his hands into his pockets and starts projecting personal space so strongly the reporter quickly backs away a step, as if he'd actually pushed her. Although Tony's eyes don't flicker down, Steve knows suddenly that what Tony had gotten distracted by was his own trembling hands.
Steve remembers that day. It had been cloudy, with a bitter edge to the air, which was colder than he'd felt since waking from the ice. Unprepared and thus a bit underdressed for the change in weather, he'd been in a poor mood himself, feeling the cold creep over him – he hadn't noticed that there was something wrong with Tony at the time.
"What's wrong with him?" he asks, frowning in concern.
"Same thing that's wrong with you," Clint returns, matching his frown – but with irritation instead of concern.
Steve is skeptical, and he lets himself show it. If there was ever a man who was the exact opposite of ‘left behind by the future', that man would be named Tony Stark. Tony invents six impossible things before breakfast, and then complains (over coffee, or occasionally weird green gloop; Steve has tried cooking him breakfast, and so have Clint and Bruce, but apparently Tony has a ‘thing' about ‘solids' in the morning) about how the rest of the world is falling behind the times.
"We all forgot about Afghanistan," Phil says. "Except for Agent Barton." He nods at Clint.
If that was supposed to be explanatory, Steve thinks, he's still not getting it. It's a familiar sensation these days and he's learned, by force of repetition, not to get annoyed by feeling it. "I thought the anniversary of that came and went already," he says, letting his confusion show here, in private with two friends, like he wouldn't in public.
If this is something to do with Afghanistan, then – Steve hopes that Tony is alright, alone in his big empty house in Malibu. Was that why he was being an asshole – trying to drive Steve and the others away? Steve's noticed, and Tony's file also mentioned, that when Tony's hurting he tries to go off alone by himself, like a wounded animal preparing to die – which is the worst sort of thing he could do, but then, one only has to see Tony pre-coffee in the mornings to know that although he really is a genius, he's also a complete idiot sometimes. If that was what was going on... well, it wouldn't excuse his behaviour, but it would explain it.
On the other hand, Afghanistan alone being a problem... doesn't actually explain anything.
The files on his teammates make Steve so angry sometimes. Thor's is, thankfully, actually rather fun, written by somebody with a subtle but pervasive sense of humour. The phrasing is just so as to remind Steve of some epic ballad, but not so much that the writer would have gotten called out over it. Too, almost everything in it, aside from mentions of Loki, is pretty light-hearted - Thor's a fun guy.
Bruce's file, on the other hand, makes Steve's blood boil. The way that the man has been betrayed and hunted by the military is completely inexcusable, and whenever he's reminded of it, Steve has to hope like hell that he never meets General Ross, because the day he does is the day he punches a three-star general in the face.
Natasha's file makes something in his gut feel queasy. Much of it is blacked out, but there's enough there for Steve to know just how young she was when she started, what she'd been forced to do as a child – and he can't bring himself to ask whether the American government had (or, even worse: has) a similar program, because his teammates might all think he's an idealist, but he's not out of touch with reality (and even if he was, Bruce's file would bring it home right quick). He knows his government can do evil. But with all awful things that USA or its presidents have done since he was frozen – and he knows, he forgives his country that because he has to, because people are people and people make mistakes – he can't bring himself to believe that they wouldn't. But he also can't muster the bravery to destroy the illusion that there is yet one line left uncrossed.
Clint's file is easier reading, but that might just be because it's more selectively blacked out: missions that were shady, or which went wrong, and Steve doesn't know which it is and doesn't have the clearance to find out. He does know that Clint's been tortured at least once, but he's pretty sure he's never been in the other chair, the one asking questions and breaking fingers, and Steve is angry that he's thankful for that – that that is a thing to be thankful for, instead of something just automatically assumed.
Tony's file is, next to Thor's, the easiest for Steve. It's one of the longest, but the vast bulk of it is mostly an accounting of Tony's various inventions and interactions with the military, along with a great deal of intel on his company, which threatens to send Steve to sleep every time he reads it. He's looking at brilliance, he knows, but it's a bit hard to appreciate it when it's up close and personal and totally incomprehensible.
It's really only the first section that's difficult: the brief synopsis on Howard. Steve was surprised, and bit wary, when he first heard that Howard had a kid. Howard had been a great friend – one of the most loyal men that Steve had ever met, as well as one of the smartest, and he'd had a sense of humour to rival Bucky's – but he was a scientist first and foremost: an engineer who believed in testing to destruction. Even after all they went through together, all the gadgets that Howard had made for the Commandos, and all the times he'd flown transport for him – much to the dismay of the SSR – Howard had still sometimes looked at him as an experiment. Steve wonders how often Howard had fixed that clinical gaze on his son, tumbler of brandy in hand – because that was Howard's other real flaw, drinking too much – and winces when he thinks of his old friend as a father. Before he'd ever heard that Tony existed, he'd been told all about how Howard would spend months at a time off in the arctic, searching for Steve – and while it had deeply moved him at the time, once he'd learned that Howard was abandoning his young wife and son to go searching for the dead, Steve had been unable to view his actions in the same fond light.
The section of Tony's file that covers the arc reactor, and Afghanistan, wasn't – or hadn't been, but maybe it should be – one of the sections that made Steve want to punch the wall. Afghanistan in particular was a sparse section, apparently gathered entirely from quips that Tony had made later, as he'd refused to be debriefed; but it read like a tale from a penny-dreadful: the dashing, rich hero is captured by villains, but manages to daringly outwit them and escape, putting an end to their villainy in the process. His initial injuries had been terrible, Steve knows, but he also knows that Tony doesn't view the arc reactor as a weakness: it's exactly the opposite. He can't bring himself to feel regret for Tony's experiences, either, when they were clearly what turned him into the man he is today. Tony's file might be devoid of anything analyzing his personality (beyond a brief paragraph that discusses his textbook narcissism), but Steve knows that Tony quietly, deeply hates the person he used to be, and after some exposure to Tony's ‘in-public' personality, Steve had to admit he thinks the change was for the better, too.
Now, Steve feels himself preparing to change his mind, as he's so often had to do these days, when he receives so much new information, all the time, almost always in incomplete chunks (because they always expect him to have background that he's lacking), and disordered despite SHIELD's best efforts. Clearly he's missed something to do with Afghanistan, if Phil and Clint are so concerned about it.
"Not the anniversary, the cold," Clint explains.
"I thought Afghanistan was a desert."
"Deserts get pretty fucking cold at night," Clint says. "And I've been in some of those caves – heated, they ain't."
"You've pulled more clips?" Phil asks, as Steve's eyes widen.
He barely hears Clint reply, "Yeah. Jarvis, play the rain comparisons?" His own voice is the one echoing in his mind, replying his argument with Tony yet again, but this time showing them from a different perspective. Because if Tony wasn't mocking – if he genuinely doesn't like the cold, after spending three months in Afghanistan – then Steve's words... he winces. ‘Harsh' barely begins to cover it. And here he'd thought it was necessary.
Two videos play side-by-side on the fridge door, time-stamps on the bottom, both lacking sound. The one on the left is dated from July, and shows Tony standing on the roof of the Tower, holding a beer and standing in the rain. His head is tilted back and his tongue is out to catch raindrops. Steve remembers this – he'd been watching from the door, with amusement, as Tony refused to come inside after the storm that had been threatening all day broke. The rain was warm and his tech was all waterproof, he'd argued, teasing Steve about running away like the wicked witch of the west, afraid he'd melt. Steve is pretty sure that Tony had made that reference just because it was one that Steve would understand, and even now, it makes him smile, the subtle ways that Tony can be kind.
The second clip is from a few days ago, and shows Tony getting out of a car – it's footage from a news camera, filming Tony's arrival at some event or another. Happy's holding out an umbrella protectively as Tony gets out of the car, but there's a gust of wind and the umbrella slips, slightly, allowing some drops to fall directly onto Tony's face. He flinches, and Steve would put it down as just a normal reaction to the unexpected touch of cold water, but on the replay Steve looks closer, and there's something unusually tense about Tony's expression. It's hard to tell with his customary sunglasses hiding his eyes. Tony never goes anywhere in public without sunglasses, even at night, and Steve had put it down to eccentricity, but.
"He won't be happy you've compiled this," Phil says after a moment, and the video shuts off. "And he'll undoubtedly be keeping an eye on you now that he's gone, if he knows you know."
"You have a certain grace period, as Mr. Stark is currently unconscious on the floor of his Malibu lab," Jarvis announces, the first time that Steve has heard him talk since yesterday. Steve barely notices it; he's too busy turning over events in his mind, re-analyzing everything Tony's been doing for the past seven weeks. "Unfortunately, the current security directives are sufficiently redundant to prevent me from losing the footage of this conversation without drawing his attention."
Clint tosses a thumb drive across to Phil. "Be careful plugging that in, or he'll just hack it, too," he warns, and Phil nods and tucks it away.
"The bit about the water – what is that?" Steve asks, and he doesn't like the looks he gets from the other two in return. They're surprised, and Clint is disapproving.
"You haven't read his file?"
"Of course I have."
Clint frowns at this, but Phil suddenly looks understanding, and asks, "Where and when did you read it?"
"Before I met him. It was part of the package I was given to get caught up – files on people with superhuman abilities." The keywords for Tony Stark's extraordinary abilities were ‘non-mutant genius' and ‘supreme ego'; the Iron Man suit wasn't mentioned until the summary paragraph. He'd thought that strange, until he'd met the man.
"You got it on your tablet – not hardcopy?" Phil asks, and Steve nods, then immediately has to resist the urge to thunk his head on the table. Clint apparently has no such compunctions, and his head hits the surface with a metallic thud.
Of course Tony had hacked his own file. Steve should have known, right from the start, when it had made no attempt to fathom at the deeper issues that kept the man up at nights, drinking whisky straight from a bottle. More than once Steve had come back from a 3am workout to find Tony staring out the windows at the lights of New York, his expression much darker than the night outside. Why hadn't it occurred to him earlier to wonder at how SHIELD had obviously dropped the ball when writing that particular file? He'd seen the way that Stark and SHIELD hacked and counter-hacked each other (much to Jarvis' increasing irritation); he should have known that Stark would take a pick-ax to anything he didn't like in his own dossier.
"I'll bring you a hard copy when I come back," Phil says, standing. "I need to discuss this with Fury." He nods at them both, already on his way out the door.
"I owe him an apology, don't I?" Steve asks Clint.
Clint snorts. "You think?"
Backstory; Tony's Evil Exes from comic's canon; id!fic in full.
Tony's full file, delivered to Steve in a box by a junior SHIELD agent who probably doesn't have the clearance to read it herself, is about an inch thick. There's a note on top – an apology from Phil, explaining that he's needed urgently in Malibu. Steve feels the guilt settle more firmly in his stomach at that. He still doesn't know the background behind Afghanistan, but Clint had been pretty clear that Tony wasn't mocking him: the other man sincerely doesn't like the cold. Steve shouldn't have jumped to conclusions the way he had – and he should have prevented the rest of the team from doing the same.
He winces every time he remembers what he'd said. "I'm sorry that your own life is so pathetic that you feel the need to mock mine... you should just stay away."
Maybe he'd been blinded by hurt... but hadn't he been thinking to himself just a few hours ago that that was no excuse? He should have given his friend the benefit of the doubt. That he hadn't...
More than anything, he wants to take a flight to Malibu and apologize to Tony. But Jarvis has made it clear that Tony wouldn't hear it at the moment, and Steve knows how sometimes the hurt runs deep enough that a person can need time to process it. His first day out of the ice, he'd asked about Peggy, and Fury had told him that he was sorry for Steve's loss – and all Steve had felt was anger. He hopes that he hasn't hurt Tony anywhere near that badly, but he also knows that Tony's actions and reactions, whatever they may be, tend to be over-the-top.
So instead, Steve sits down and reads Tony's full file, the one he should have read back when Coulson was still secretly preparing him to lead the team (because the WSC might have nixed the Avengers Initiative, but Fury played a long game, and Coulson still believed in heroes). It's... awkward. He'd read the files on Bruce, Thor, and Tony (well, the hacked file) long before he'd met them, and that was fine; when he'd read the files on Clint and Natasha, he hadn't known them for more than two days, and he'd been asleep for most of one of those. But he's known Tony for months, now, and he considers the other man a friend – even if Steve apparently wasn't a good enough friend in return to consider that maybe Tony wasn't just being a jackass. Seeing Tony's life laid out like this feels like an invasion of privacy, despite knowing it is all background information that, as team leader, he needs to have.
Natasha must have read it – as Steve thumbs through the index, he sees that she actually composed a lot of the later portions of the file, including most of the summary – but she'd missed the Afghanistan connection, too. Maybe because Tony and Natasha don't get along very well; of all the relationships on the team, their connection is the weakest. But Clint had gotten it, so that means that if Steve had read this file, he might have caught it, too, instead of being the spark that blew up the whole mess.
He wants to skip straight to the section on Afghanistan, but he's afraid of missing something else that will, some day, prove important when dealing with the highly eccentric mind that is the genius Tony Stark. So he diligently starts at the beginning and forces himself to keep reading, to step back and view the person portrayed on the pages objectively, to prevent himself from constantly comparing what the file is saying to his own view of Tony. That can come later.
Tony Stark had been a public figure since he was born, and he'd had the eyes of the government on him since the moment Maria started showing. The early years of his life are chronicled in black and white photographs and exhaustingly detailed paragraphs of his life and his parents' lives.
"...obviously looking for approval from his father, but appears curiously indifferent to the lack of attention from his mother," writes one observer. A psychologist's thoughts on the matter are included below, beginning rationally and then branching out into such horrific speculation – "...a sort of reverse Oepedial complex that may indicate an early tendency towards sociopathy..." – that Steve honestly can't blame Tony from deleting such bullshit from his digital file. Steve reads it all anyway, even when he can't stop his lips from curling in disgust.
Below the psychologist's commentary is a later review, dated from Tony's late adolescence, by another expert in the profession – an actual expert, in Steve's opinion. This one writes about the strangely adult world Tony grew up in, constantly observed and prodded by adult figures who, although more knowledgeable about the world, were never able to keep up with his intellect – and some of them were not mature enough to be able to keep from resenting that fact. The psychologist concludes that at eighteen – already working on his second doctorate – Tony was actually quite well-adjusted. "Despite living in a world where almost no one can keep pace with him – and where the one man who might be able to appears content to ignore him – Tony is nonetheless capable of charming anyone when he puts his mind to it, and yet mature enough to avoid toying with those who are made vulnerable to him by his name and wealth. Adolescents quite often display sociopathic traits which they then grow out of (Ext. Ref. 47), but if anything Tony displays fewer signs than most. The conclusions reached by Dr. Berkal must be treated with extreme skepticism..."
Steve wonders if he likes this psychologist just because he calls Tony by his first name. The other experts brought in to comment on Tony's life just refer to him as ‘Stark', which Steve thinks is an awfully cold way to refer to a child, even in government documents – maybe especially in government documents. He wonders how many of them had actually met Tony. In this new day and age armchair psychologists seem happy to informally diagnose anyone based on wholly second-hand accounts, a practice which Steve can't help but find immoral.
He'd brought it up with the SHIELD psychologist he saw, after it had been making him uncomfortable in her presence for an entire month. The way Katie's lips had pursed, before she'd quite professionally spoken about the ethics involved, and her own view on such ‘diagnoses', had been reassuring. But he knows that organizations grow and change, and anyway the information in Tony's file was not wholly from SHIELD investigators alone. In particular, the first-hand data gathered about his childhood seems mostly to come from other government sources – organizations which, outside of SHIELD's direct control, might not have such strict standards.
At the same time, he finds himself hoping that all these different doctors hadn't met Tony. How was a kid supposed to grow up ‘normally' when surrounded by a bevy of doctors all trying to diagnose him with various problems?
Some of them do seem to have valuable insight. Some of them, like Dr. Berkal, are so far off the mark as to be offensive – but these are always accompanied by a further review, shedding more light on the first writer and incomprehensible without that introduction, which at least explains why such pieces haven't been removed.
He reads about Howard and Maria's marital problems, and feels the aching pain of sympathy and anger at his old friend. The Maria described in the file was a quiet but brilliant woman, her mind fully the equal of Howard's. But while her husband was away, as he so often was, she found herself shut out by the men who ran Stark Industries, and she didn't have a forceful enough personality to make them let her in on her own merits. Shortly after Tony was born she began drinking; by the time he was old enough to be interviewed by the press, Tony didn't acknowledge her until the interviewer asked a direct question about her, and then his answer was an alarmingly blank silence. Stark Industries barely managed to hush up the scandal.
Steve allows himself to imagine, briefly, how it might have gone. If Howard hadn't been away six months out of the year, off searching for a dead man – if he'd been there to support Maria, and encourage her brilliance... She was twenty-three years younger than him, and her family was all back in Italy; Howard should have been there to support her. Damn Howard, anyway – the ice stole Steve's life, wasn't that enough? Why the hell did Howard have to abandon his own, and screw up his wife and kid's while he was at it?
Steve's eyes burn, and he's forced to put down the file before he crumples the paper. No doubt, with Tony hacking all the electronic versions, it's a real pain in the ass to make new copies.
If Tony had two parents, both interested in and able to keep up to his brilliance, instead of being concerned with their own problems... if Howard had been there, instead of busy in the arctic half the year and busy at the company the other half... if Maria had been able to nurture her own gift, and share it with her son, instead of drinking away her sorrow until her mind rotted...
...maybe New York would now be a nuclear wasteland. It's no use dwelling on what-ifs. Steve makes himself pick up the file again, and reads on.
Here and there, he comes across notations made by Natasha, and occasionally one by Coulson. Phil's are mostly bland, cross-references to different sections or entirely different files, but Natasha's offer keen insight, managing to summarize in a sentence or two what some of the other writers take pages to explore. "Classic Stark," she's written on a post-it note stuck to a long-winded essay on the significance of Tony Stark's breakthrough robotic arm (age fourteen). "He is lonely (problem) so he builds himself friends (solution); involving other people doesn't occur to him. He is still closer to Jarvis (AI) than he is to Potts." The first part of the note is dated from two years ago; the second part, written in different ink, is dated from this summer.
At Howard and Maria's funeral, Tony was rumpled, silent, and glassy-eyed: "Drunk," an observer comments, unusually succinct. It's followed, of course, by more speculation on the underlying issues of his behaviour; one predicts that, "...given the example of two alcoholics to follow, it seems unlikely Stark will deviate from their path. Recent research suggests that alcoholism may indeed have a genetic component (Ext. Ref. 489), but even if this ultimately proves false, other studies have previously shown that it can be a learned trait (Ext. Ref. 490, Ext. Ref. 491)."
Natasha notes, "His drinking is escalating even though his interpersonal relationships are stabilizing. This is going to require intervention."
Frowning, Steve puts down the file again. That note is dated from August, and now that Steve thinks on it, Tony has been drinking more than he was earlier in the summer. It wasn't a huge increase – enough that Steve could dismiss it as chance – but if Natasha thinks it's significant, then it's significant.
Part of him wants to keep reading – or to just skip to the much slimmer summary, to see the rest of Natasha's thoughts – but his stomach is rumbling, and he can't ignore it. Having a metabolism so much faster than normal leaves him consuming a ridiculous amount of food, but since he was unfrozen he'd been warned by the doctors that failing to eat properly might send him back into a coma. He hadn't really believed them, until Bruce had caught wind of it and insisted on testing the truth of that hypothesis. Much to Steve's dismay, after less than a full day of fasting, he'd suddenly felt faint and nearly collapsed, hypoglycemic. Since then, he's been extra vigilant about making sure to eat regularly.
His muscles feel itchy, too, from being inactive almost all morning. Usually Steve spends at least eight hours a day exercising – the serum might make his body superhuman, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't need to exercise to keep himself at his peak, even if that peak is far beyond the normal. And, well, he's gotten used to it. The routine of exercise helps clear his mind and calm his thoughts. After reading reports about the type of father that Howard had turned out to be, and then psycho-analyses of everybody who had turned up at his funeral, Steve really wants to go break a few more punching bags.
Bruce is in the kitchen when Steve enters. He's got a tablet in one hand, open to some technical-looking document, while he scoops falafel into a pita with the other. Steve grabs a trio of pitas and waits patiently for Bruce to be done with the falafel, before claiming the container and beginning to assemble his own lunch. It uses up the last of the falafel, but Steve doesn't even feel a twinge anymore when he does that – there are advantages to having a nigh-omniscient butler backed by all the billions of Tony Stark: Steve can use up the last of anything, and it'll be replaced within hours. The freedom from the nagging feeling of worrying about wasting food – or lacking it – has been a huge relief, although he still mostly just grabs whatever somebody else had pulled out first and finishes it off.
They eat in silence for a while, Bruce reading his tablet and occasionally taking a bite of his pita, Steve tucking into his food more vigorously. Some of the agitation that Steve's been feeling ever since Tony left bleeds away. Bruce is a calming presence – at least, he is now that Steve knows him. It's a bit funny, since most everybody who has only heard of Bruce by reputation finds him the exact opposite of calming. Steve has had to admit to himself that as much as he tried to judge the man on his own merits, he was far too aware, in those first few hours, of the danger posed by the Hulk.
It had been partly why he'd snapped at Tony – the other reason, of course, being that Steve didn't like bullies, and Tony Stark had 'bully' written all over him. Even now that Steve knows Tony projects it deliberately, he's ashamed of the way he'd misjudged him – and Bruce. Tony had seen the truth immediately... but maybe they couldn't all be geniuses.
"So, uh," Bruce says after a bit, putting down the tablet gently and thumbing the screen off. "Tony's gone to Malibu."
"Yeah," Steve confirms, swallowing a mouthful of falafel. He sighs. "I screwed up."
Bruce's eyebrows shoot up, although Steve knows he's probably not actually surprised – not because he was expecting Steve to screw up, but because Bruce doesn't really do surprise. He's very ‘zen', is how everyone else put it. Steve would just call it being in balance: with so much towering rage on one side – and Lord knows that Bruce has so much reason for feeling that rage – he needs to have that much serenity on the other. Surprise just doesn't have much room to exist.
"Clint's pretty sure, and Phil agrees," Steve says after a pause, "that Tony actually doesn't like the cold."
Bruce considers this, grabbing another bite of his pita. When he's finished chewing, he says meditatively, "Not that I'm dismissing their judgement... but he keeps the lab pretty cool, and it never seemed to bother him before."
"They mentioned something to do with Afghanistan?" Steve offers, a shade tentative. He doesn't know what Bruce knows about whatever happened to Tony in Afghanistan. He does know that Bruce hasn't been offered dossiers on the team the way Steve himself has, and while Tony might have shared whatever information he'd grabbed off of SHIELD's servers, Steve doubts Tony's willingness to share would extend to his own, unedited file.
There's always the possibility that they actually just discussed it, whatever it was, at some point, but Steve finds himself doubting that, too. "If it's related to his PTSD then – yeah, I guess that could make sense," Bruce muses. "His lab is something he can control, a place where he's always in control – or something like that, I'm not a psychologist," he disclaims. "But the weather is something imposed upon him. The cold as a trigger, though..." he trails off, then makes a bit of a face. "I suppose it would get cold in those caves." He looks like he's feeling just as guilty as Steve, now, even though Steve doesn't think that whatever Bruce has said to Tony could be even half as harsh as what Steve had snapped.
Steve resists the urge to sigh again. "I didn't even know he had PTSD," he confesses. Issues, yes. That specific issue? No. He'd relied too much on the hacked file to tell him about things like that ahead of time. How much has he missed, because he wasn't expecting to see it – was expecting to not see it? Tony is a master showman.
"Don't you military types have briefings and files full of information on all of us?" Bruce asks, waving a hand vaguely to indicate the rest of the Tower.
"I got the electronic version," Steve says wryly, knowing that Bruce will get it. The other man is a genius, too, even if he doesn't constantly throw it in people's faces the way Tony does.
They sit in guilty silence for a few minutes, before Bruce sighs and says, "Well, let me know when Coulson clears you for Malibu. I should apologize, too." He looks thoughtful. "And I think if Tony goes back to working in his lab alone, it'll be a race between whether Pepper kills him or just finds his corpse sitting there one day."
Bruce has a morbid sense of humour; Steve frowns at him. "That's not funny."
"I know," Bruce says, picking up his tablet and plate and setting the latter in the sink. Steve has looked for a dishwasher before, but he's never managed to find one. Somehow, dishes placed in the sink – or left haphazardly wherever, but when Steve had realized what slobs his housemates were being he'd started insisting that they at least bring them to the sink – are magically clean the next time someone enters the kitchen. It's probably robots, except that, unlike the little vacuum bots, Steve has never actually seen a dishwashing robot. He once surreptitiously camped out in the kitchen for nearly twelve hours with his sketchbook for an excuse, just to try to catch a glimpse of it, until his bladder had been protesting too loudly to ignore. By the time he'd come back from the washroom, half the dishes in the sink were gone, and there was no sign of whoever or whatever had done it. Steve's still not sure whether it's because Tony does actually like to mess with him – if far less cruelly than Steve had thoughtlessly assumed – or whether the dishwashing robot is just shy. He had asked Tony, once, but had only gotten a blank stare in return: one of those vacant, ‘Lights are on, but I'm actually downstairs in my lab with the AC/DC turned up' looks.
Alone in the kitchen, Steve slouches, letting his chin rest on his hand as he finishes off the falafel pita. He wonders what Clint and Natasha think of Malibu.
After his parents' funeral, Steve reads, Tony Stark shut himself up in his house, refusing all visitors. There's some speculation that he was working on creating Jarvis during this time, grief fueling the creative process. Apparently, Steve learns, SHIELD is still unsure about when Tony started (or finished) what is, really, his most elegant creation – they only know that by the time Tony was thirty, Jarvis was installed in the Malibu house. This is gained from discreet interviews with less discreet supermodels, who have no idea that the slightly robotic voice that talked to them was a fully realized AI; indeed, he might not have been, by that point. Even SHIELD didn't realize how advanced Jarvis was until they started hacking him; Steve is directed to consider another file, which he is sure is also stored entirely offline.
Steve wonders at that. For a man used to shouting his brilliance to the world, Tony has kept Jarvis unusually under wraps, even though his creation is a mind-boggling feat. To create another mind – another genius... Steve can't properly imagine it, and from what he's seen and read since waking up from the ice, the rest of the world can't, either. He has yet to watch a movie with an AI that isn't a cookie-cutter personality, one that inevitably turns to evil when its protocols disagree with morality. Apparently no one has pointed out to these filmmakers that for an AI to be a person, they'd be a person, with just as much diversity and limits (and lack thereof) as anyone else. In that light, Tony's unusual caution makes sense – but it's also frightening. For Tony to be that wary, what would the consequences be if Jarvis's existence were revealed to the world? Steve knows that Tony would throw himself between Jarvis and any threat, but apparently Tony doesn't believe that would be enough to protect his best friend.
No doubt if Steve asked to see Jarvis' file, he'd get essays and essays of exploration on the topic; likely including plans for dealing with a skittish public if Jarvis ever became well-known (he's sure there would be plans for attempting to deal with Jarvis if he went rogue, but those might be outside of Steve's security clearance). He supposes he should ask for it, at some point, but for now he turns back to reading Tony's.
The young woman who lured him out of his house, two weeks after his parents' funeral, was a colleague of Tony's: a graduate student at MIT, where Tony had returned to complete his third PHD – his previous two being done at Stanford. Sunset Bain was twenty-five years old and the only child of Gordon Bain, the CEO of Baintronics. She'd met Tony a few weeks before his parents' deaths; reportedly, they'd gotten along like a house on fire, which had led to yet another blow-up between Howard and his son when the former had heard of the hookup. At nineteen, Tony had a history of hooking up with older women, but Baintronics was a start-up looking to get into the big-leagues of weapons manufacturing, and Howard was suspicious.
It turned out to be a valid suspicion. After a solid year of dating, Tony was on the verge of proposing when Sunset dumped him. SHIELD has a copy of the receipt of the engagement ring he bought. Steve winces as he reads about it – a vicious, public breakup, with pictures on the front covers of every gossip magazine in America, and most European ones, too. Worse still, several weeks later Stark Industries launched a massive lawsuit against Baintronics, alleging theft, copyright infringement, and corporate espionage carried out by Sunset Bain herself. But then Tony surprised everyone by publically claiming that he'd given all the information to Sunset Bain freely, and that everyone should, "Consider it a gift between two mutually consenting parties." Steve pictures twenty-year-old Tony stating this to flashing cameras, leering smirk firmly in place, and feels his heart ache for his friend.
A memo directs the reader to look at the file of Stane, Obidiah for further information on the fallout between the two companies; only a brief summary is included in Tony's. It states that five years after Gordon Bain's death (like Howard's and Maria's, ascribed to drunk driving after a late-night party), Baintronics began to get hit with more losses than usual for a weapons manufacturer – losses that appeared to be coming within the company. The losses finally were traced back to Sunset, who committed suicide while alone in her penthouse before she could be arrested. But after Stane's death a full decade later, SHIELD's investigation of his personal files revealed a carefully orchestrated scheme to take Baintronics down. The memo notes also that Stane's methods might be useful in future SHIELD operations; the agent who compiled this part of the file is disturbingly admiring.
At the time of the breakup, however, Stane had simply sent Tony to Europe, "to get his head back on straight," he was quoted as saying to a board member. "To get more familiar with our foreign operations," was the reason given to the press.
In Europe, Tony stayed with a friend from childhood, Tiberius Stone – like Tony, heir to a corporate magnate, but since Stark Industries had ruthlessly launched corporate offensive after corporate offensive against then-Stone Industries ten years ago, Stone's father had been forced out of the weapon's business. He'd turned to a different industry entirely, and in the years since the Stone Media Corporation had quietly become a powerhouse.
Both Tiberius and Tony were noted child prodigies – in the boarding school they'd attended as children, Steve recalls reading earlier, they'd been as much arch-rivals as best friends, competing in grades, sports, and on the dating scene, both of them far and above the boy relegated to third place, Justin Hammer – whose friendship Tiberius and Tony also competed for ruthlessly. They'd seen far less of each other after the Stone Industries fallout, but apparently kept in contact; both were teenage rebels unwilling to let their fathers dictate their every move. By the time Tony headed to Europe, he clearly believed that the entire debacle was behind them – but Tiberius, unlike Tony, had grown closer to his father as he'd aged, and Steve reads the clinically worded summary profile of twenty-one-year-old Tiberius with a sinking feeling in his gut.
It's a feeling that gets worse as he reads about the romantic relationship that developed between the two. Although he knows that SHIELD, at least, didn't have someone watching full-time, that this profile was most likely investigated and written after the fact, there's enough evidence presented that Steve has to wonder why someone, anyone, hadn't said something. The emotionless descriptions of how Tiberius manipulated Tony – pointing out with clinical detail the subtle nuances of how Stone isolated him, cutting off his contact with the outside world; of how he used the Sunset Bain fiasco to weaken Tony's already shaky self-worth and make him more dependent upon Stone himself; of how methodically he moved from emotional to physical abuse (and here it answers Steve’s earlier wondering: this is when Tony started wearing sunglasses in public full-time) – Steve has to put down the file, again, until he stops seeing red, because why the hell didn't somebody do anything?
Only one person tried – Justin Hammer, who ran into Tony and Tiberius during a week-long party in the Swiss Alps... the first time that Tiberius had allowed Tony out of his house since Tony had defended his (fourth) doctoral thesis five months before. The file notes that Tiberius likely only allowed the trip to avoid inquiry into Tony's absence from the limelight by Stark Industries. SI itself was inclined to view Tiberius benevolently, happy with the way he was managing to keep the young heir out of the tabloids, but too long a time without appearance might have brought attention that Tiberius wanted to avoid.
Steve finds himself sympathizing with Hammer even as he wants to shake the man. "Presents the type of social awkwardness that Stone never possessed and which Stark quickly learned to hide," the file had described him earlier, in the section on Tony's grade-school friends. Now, it remarks, "Able pick up on the abusive relationship –likely due to his own experiences with abuse as well as his familiarity with both Stark and Stone – but uneducated as to a helpful response, and not socially adept enough to discern one himself, Hammer made several critical mistakes..."
Mistakes such as confronting them in public; mistakes such as growing angry when Tony denied the allegations and Stone scoffed at them; mistakes such as shouting, "What, you miss the way that your dad used to fuck you up, so you had to go find a replacement?" Despite an immediate apology on Hammer's part, Tony never forgave him. Steve knows that Hammer is now in jail – that had been included in the hacked file, at least – and had attempted to kill Tony; now he's forced to wonder how Hammer had done such a complete one-eighty, from doing his best – no matter how terrible that had been – to save Tony from such an awful situation, to orchestrating a plot aimed at killing Tony and "destroying his legacy."
Because Hammer had managed to get Tony away from Stone, despite the initial mess he'd made of it. Phone records indicated that after leaving the party early, he'd started phoning Obidiah Stane a dozen times a day, until Stane personally flew out to Europe and brought Tony back – under threat of various types of legal action, since Tony refused to listen to Stane, too, even though he was wearing sunglasses to hide a black eye that Stone had given him the night before. Here, the file is filled with addenda added in the last few years, noting how smoothly Stane had continued the isolation, even as he appeared to be dragging Tony out of an abusive relationship; Stane never hit Tony, but he very neatly manoeuvred him from being dependent on Stone to being dependent on himself.
He made only one mistake, and that was letting Tony hire Pepper Potts.
Reading the section on Pepper is like a glorious breath of fresh air. Steve can't even bring himself to find it awkward, anymore, reading about people he knows, because she at least is one person who has definitely had a positive impact on Tony's life – and according to the file, that's a definite first, and maybe even a last. Steve doesn't know yet what effect SHIELD thinks the team is having on Tony, but he recalls the earlier note from Natasha about his drinking increasing, and he is acutely aware of exactly where Tony is right now and why.
At the time that Pepper came into Tony's life, Tony was at his most isolated. Since coming of age he was beginning to be more involved in the company, but he really only spoke to Stane, and most of his contact with the outside world was filtered through a secretary – most definitely not a personal assistant – who had been chosen by Stane, and whom Tony hated. Yet, during a presentation to the board, one of the member's assistants managed to catch – and then had the fortitude to correct – a mistake in Tony's accounting. The file is speculative about this, since Tony only ever makes miscalculations when he's working on his third day with no sleep, or on purpose. Despite his general ebullience and over-the-top lifestyle, Tony Stark – Steve knows well – is a master of subtle misdirection: he draws all eyes to him, and no one notices what goes on in the background. Well, no one but SHIELD.
If it had been a case of misdirection, it certainly worked. Tony hired Pepper nearly on the spot, and then argued his case in terms of, "having someone who can stand up to me, come on, Obie, I'm trying to be responsible here – well, okay, I'm trying to avoid being responsible by letting somebody else be responsible, but that's, like, an acknowledgement of my limits and moving to work within them or some bullshit like that, so it counts, right?" The file writes that it's unlikely that Stane actually did accept this argument, but rather that he looked at Pepper and saw long hair, long legs, and a pretty face – and figured that Tony was definitely not after her for her brain.
Which might have been partly true – but certainly wasn't fully true. The relationship between Pepper Potts and Tony Stark is almost entirely free of any sort of sexual harassment; a report indicates that Pepper very firmly put her foot down during her first week on the job, and that Tony respected her wishes – and that was that. Stane realized his mistake too late, and after failing to have Pepper removed, moved to isolate her as well – a task made easier by Pepper's own lonely status in the world (single, an only child, with both parents long since passed away), but infinitely more difficult by the fact that Pepper networked like nobody's business.
The next few years are easier to read about, because although there's this looming sense of terrible inevitability whenever Stane is brought up – his methods of coaxing control of Stark Industries away from Tony highlighted – Tony seemed to be doing, well. Okay. He had reached a stable balance in his life, and if it hurts Steve to read the analysts' conclusions on how Tony wasn't actually happy, going from one party to the next, never really connecting with anyone, but content to take them home for a one-night-stand – well, the hurt paled next to the relief at no longer seeing such a downward spiral. He has the urge to phone Pepper up and thank her, profusely, but – she’s a busy woman, and if Jarvis's reaction was any indication, she would not appreciate a phone call from Steve at present.
The file describes Tony's introduction to James Rhodes, and Steve is torn between wincing and smiling. The War Machine armour packs quite a punch, and Steve doubts that Rhodey will have that much trouble getting over his fanboyish glee about Captain America once he hears about what Steve had said to Tony – but Rhodey is one of Tony's close friends, even if they spend less time together since Stark Industries' departure from the weapons sector. Reading the full file, now, makes Steve appreciate Rhodey just all that much more. Tony's file is one long list of betrayals, but even though Rhodey only initially became friends with Tony because that was part and parcel of his job (the file is depressingly clear on that; the military had realized full well, after five failed liaisons in a row, that the task of wrangling Tony Stark could only be managed by someone that Tony actually liked), he still keeps in touch, comes over to the Tower when he's on leave and beats the pants off of Tony at Mario Kart.
(Steve suspects that Rhodey developed such skill at Mario Kart mostly out of self-defense. Tony, as intuitive as he is with all forms of technology, and skilled to the point where he sometimes doesn't realize he's gone and hacked the system, is disgustingly smug about being able to beat them all at any other video game, ever. Steve has sometimes imagined Rhodey telling his superiors that, "In order to facilitate better relations with Stark Industries, it is my recommendation that we have at least one asset who can beat Tony Stark at Mario Kart," and then being ordered to sit his ass down in a room with a Nintendo 64 and not come out until he could whoop Tony Stark's ass. It would be far from the most ridiculous thing that the military had ever done to keep Tony Stark happy.)
And the military definitely wanted to keep him happy. Tony Stark streamlined weapons systems, fine-tuned targeting systems, and built better armour and better tech than anyone else had ever dreamed of. His stuff was the strongest, most durable, most reliable stuff on the market, and everybody knew it. But behind the scenes, Obidiah Stane was showing signs of dissatisfaction. For all that Tony was constantly producing newer and more lethal weapons, they were all based on innovations, on making things just that much better – rather than being something entirely new and revolutionary, as Tony had produced during his younger years, when he'd been so desperately unhappy. Tony picked up a fifth, sixth, and then a seventh doctorate, each time apparently just on a lark, but they were all in barely-related areas, and were hardly the same type of groundbreaking that his first four had been. Stane thought that Tony had lost his touch.
More alarmingly, so does the file. "Stark produces his best work when he is seeking to bury all of his other troubles by forgetting about them," Natasha writes in one notation, dated from a few years ago. "When left without any type of support network, however, he lacks the drive to invent. In situations calling for his isolation, care should be taken not to push him too far."
That's... Steve isn't sure what to make of that, entirely. His first thought is that he needs to finish reading this file, and then go see Natasha, and maybe Fury, and ask them what the hell they are thinking. But then he remembers that Tony has hacked his file and read all of this, so he knows what they're doing – and apparently lets them, when they see fit. Steve wonders how often that is, and makes a note to look out for it in the later sections of the file. Given the picture of Tony that is being painted for Steve, Steve should probably be going to have a serious conversation with Fury anyway, because despite all the flash and substance, the way that Tony projects ’I do not give a fuck' half the time, like a physical, tangible force-field, Steve is beginning to see that the way Tony bends over backwards making them all new armour and weapons and toys is not just Tony trying to make the team work, in his own odd way.
He wonders if, for all the crassness of the remark, Justin Hammer didn't have the right idea about Tony. The file is pretty clear that Howard never laid a hand on Tony, but there's something in Tony that seems constantly wanting to prove himself, and Steve knows, from years of watching his drunken father lay into his mother without ever coming near Steve himself, that being physically beaten up isn't the only way that someone can be fucked over.
So Tony continued on, producing great work though not groundbreaking work, while the engineers at Stark Industries deciphered his notes and turned his ideas into mass-producible reality. Steve reads about Tony's further descent into assholishness – the file speculates on whether or not Tony, too, believed that his time had already come and gone – including a spectacularly vindictive vendetta against Hammer Industries once Justin took over from his own father. Tony humiliated Justin a handful of times before the latter started retaliating, and from there it escalated almost to open warfare. Hammer Industries did less pie-in-the-sky R&D work, instead focusing more on the nuts and bolts and standard equipment side of things, but it used to have a portion of its R&D department dedicated to more explorative innovations, and Tony seemed absolutely determined to make every single one of their new products unsellable. He succeeded about half the time, too.
The file specifically notes here that, although there was some speculation at the time that such offensives were prompted by renewed contact with Tiberius Stone, Pepper, Rhodey and Stane had teamed up to ensure that any contact that had the remotest chance of being from Stone was screened and denied before Tony could even hear of it. Since this extended to modifying Tony's home security system, he certainly knew of it – and since he apparently never said a word protesting it, the file concludes that after several years of Pepper and Rhodey's influence, Tony might have begun to realize just how awful his relationship with Tiberius had been. But that does mean that Tony's vendetta against Hammer had been entirely his own – the file confirms that it wasn't at Stane's prodding, either – and Steve shakes his head in dismay.
And maybe, in a different world, things would have come to a head against Hammer Industries in some other way. Tony appeared to be spiraling downward, despite the best efforts of the three people closest to him (the file is fairly certain that Jarvis became fully sentient at some point before this time). Perhaps he was subconsciously depressed by the lack of cutting-edge genius he was producing – and maybe he would have crossed a line at some point, become too depressed and then locked himself in his lab for three weeks and produced something that would change the world – and then ride the high, for a time, and start the cycle all over again, with years of genius mediocrity interspersed between brief flashes of being truly exceptional.
But before that could happen, Stane became tired of catering to the spoiled, damaged man-child that Tony Stark had grown up to be. Already having been selling weapons and technology on the side – in a smart way; weapons companies took losses, and if SI took more than most then they didn't take enough that someone would have been suspicious of their CFO – he used his black market contacts to arrange a hit.
And then he subtly suggested to Tony – in a way that would make Tony think it was all his own idea – that Tony personally demonstrate the new Jericho missile in Afghanistan.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The contents of the full file that pertain to Afghanistan make it abundantly clear – as if it wasn't already – that it was Tony who edited the hacked version. As far as Steve can tell, Tony didn't actually write in anything new, but the way this segment has had a machete taken to it – and the remaining paragraphs have been gone over with a scalpel – make it obvious. Steve wonders if Tony knew he'd be revealing just as much by what he chose to delete as he might by fully rewriting it, and decides that he probably did – but then went ahead anyway, because none of this was anything he wanted floating around on a server, where damn near anyone could hack in and read it. (Steve knows that the SHIELD database is one of the most secure in the world, despite Tony's incursions, but Tony no doubt sees it differently.)
The moment Tony Stark went missing in Afghanistan, SHIELD put an agent on the situation; that's when the SHIELD file was assembled, culled from various profiles made up by the Pentagon and other government agencies. The file sheds no light on whether this was because Nick Fury was slightly psychic in his paranoia, or because it was SOP for SHIELD, however much 'genius billionaire weapons designer kidnapped by terrorists' could have an SOP. But Steve supposes that if anyone in SHIELD already knew that Tony did his best work under the worst sort of pressure, then Nick realized that with Tony in the hands of some truly awful people, the world might not be ready for what could come.
And, as Steve reads on, it becomes abundantly clear that the almost cartoonish, incompetent villains presented in the hacked file are wholly composed out of erased words and things left unsaid.
Almost everything known about Tony's time in Afghanistan is speculation – well-founded speculation, but speculation nonetheless. Despite the strenuous insistence of the military, when they attempted to debrief him after Rhodey had picked him up Tony merely assured them that, "No, I didn't build them any fucking weapons, come on, you think I'd crack that easily? Those guys were morons, start-to-finish, I'm lucky they didn't kill me while they were trying to capture me, that I had just enough time to build this thing – and for fuck's sake, it's not a bomb, cannot be used as a bomb, there were no bombs involved, as much as I'd like to claim I am the bomb, at all times, I am not a bomb, stop getting your panties in a twist. And tell your doctors to stop getting their panties in a twist and stop trying to fucking scan me. Jesus, this coffee is terrible."
And then he refused to say anything else, despite being kept in interrogation until SI – having found out after Rhodey called Pepper with the good news – threatened to pitch a very public shit-storm.
That was, incidentally, the basis for the talk of disciplinary action against Rhodey after Tony held The Press Conference (even the file refers to it in capitals, which tells Steve that after he's finished reading this, he's going to have to dig up a video of that - he hopes that he can, because from the level of infamy The Press Conference seems to have attained, it should be everywhere. If it isn't, then Tony's gone a bit further than usual in hacking his way into everything). That's referenced in a discussion of Tony's extreme isolation after Afghanistan, explaining how he came to be cut off from everyone, even Pepper – really cut off, no longer just not connecting, but not even seeing in the first place. He didn't go out to parties, didn't bring home one-night-stands - he actually only left his house once in two months. His one attempt at reaching out was to Rhodey, but considering the type of fire that he was under, Steve can't wholly blame Rhodey for shaking Tony off. And he came back, in the end, when it counted.
There's a transcript of a call that Pepper made, six weeks in, from a disposable cell phone to an anonymous hotline for veterans, friends, and family. SHIELD was already monitoring her communications at that point – and also shielding them from monitoring by other sources. Pepper was clearly at her wits' end – and with so many eyes on her boss, she apparently felt that she couldn't start seeking help herself, at least not openly. The lies that she'd told to the person on the other end of the hotline were carefully considered: enough to throw off suspicion as to who she actually was (because the whole world knew what had happened to Tony Stark) while still close enough to the truth to get helpful information in return.
VP: "He wanted to go into war reporting – always loved a thrill, but, oh, god, I just think he had no clue what it was really like, you know? One of those things you can't believe it until you’re there– he didn't expect to get captured, I mean, who does, nobody thinks the worst will ever happen to them..."
HL: "How long ago did he come back?"
VP: "Three months. He hasn't – he hasn't written anything that I've seen, either, and he's usually so... he likes to show off. Liked. He – I don't know if he's written anything at all, he just stays shut up for so much of the time. And he – we have a pool, in the backyard, and when he got back he took one look at it and he went – he just went all strange – "
The file explains that this is an understatement. What actually happened was that Pepper entered Tony's house one day to find that overnight, Tony had drained both the indoor and outdoor pools and begun remodelling the indoor poolroom into a second fabrication unit. Pepper only saw Tony's face on the security logs; Natasha, who has apparently seen those same logs, has written in, "The pool triggered a flashback. (Section 78.4)"
VP: "No, he won't get help. I'm pretty sure – one of the soldiers in the unit that rescued him, he gave me his number, and he told me that he'd been debriefed, but there was only so much the military was going to insist on where a civilian was concerned. They gave me lots of information, that's, um, that's where I got this number from, but he's refused to see any doctors or counsellors, and he just – he gets angry every time I try to bring it up, and he won't talk to me after – "
The file notes that this is code for Tony revoking Pepper's lab access for a seventy-two hour period – the longest period which Jarvis will permit.
VP: "He won't say anything about it, and I'm worried – you hear all sorts of stories, what they might have d-done to him – and, I thought, I thought he was dead, he must have thought he, he was going to die - "
The helpline contact let her cry for a while, speaking soothingly to her all the while. They offered several pieces of general advice – but it wasn't anything that Pepper hadn't known already, and she'd told them as much. She still ended the call thanking them, though, simply for listening, and she was told to call back, at any time; that was, after all, one of the functions of the helpline. Steve finds himself feeling glad that Pepper at least had that, and decides that anonymous helplines are definitely a good thing about the future. At the same time, though, he feels helpless, thinking of how she had nobody else to turn to.
Section 78.4 discusses Tony's hydrophobia. Although he'd never been one to drink mere water in public, after he returned, bottled water was taken off of the standard grocery delivery list. Transcripts of other calls that Pepper made to the hotline – she dialed them three more times – make it clear that Tony stopped bothering much with personal upkeep, despite taking the time to rip out every bathtub in his mansion and replace them all with walk-in showers. Natasha is sure, and the other analysts responsible for the file agree, that Tony underwent some form of water-related torture, although they don't know whether it was dunking or waterboarding or something else entirely. But one doesn't keep Tony Stark alive in a cave for three months for no reason at all, and the way that Tony had jumped right to denying that he'd built anything for his captors was telling.
The only part of any of this that the hacked version had mentioned was Tony remodeling the pool area to create a new fabrication unit for the Iron Man armor.
But somehow, Steve reads, Tony recovered. The file isn't conclusive on what did the trick, other than just time. But eventually he pulled his head out of the sand and left his house for the first time in weeks – and none too soon, either, as the board of SI had long since filed an injunction against him, and Tony's self-imposed isolation wasn't helping his case in the courts.
There's nothing in the file about an aversion to cold. Steve expects that will change, very soon.
But it doesn't matter that it's not there. Everybody has said quite plainly that the caves in Afghanistan are cold, and the file makes it damn clear that no matter how much Tony would like to pretend otherwise, no matter how much the electronic file might like to portray the entire incident as a mere catalyst of brilliance, no pain, no loss involved – it had been far worse than Tony wants to remember.
And then there were the partial schematics of the arc reactor which SHIELD had managed to pull off of Jarvis's servers – although they were missing more than enough information to be incomprehensible, much to the dismay of the SHIELD scientists who tried to analyze them. The diagrams were prefaced by a snarky comment from Jarvis, directed at his attackers: "If you wish to understand the mind of Mr. Stark, I have but two words for you: good luck."
But the schematics were detailed enough for the scientists to realize that the arc reactor sat a good four inches deep in Tony's chest. That he was able to stand up – that he's able to breathe – boggled their minds. It boggles Steve's mind, too – he knows that the arc reactor is embedded in Tony's chest, but he always thought it was a flat thing. That it goes deep enough to replace his sternum is shocking.
It also added to SHIELD's growing collection of evidence that there was at least one other hostage kept with Tony: the person who kept him alive. One other person, who died sometime before or during Tony's escape. And with the medical scans that they'd pulled from Jarvis, SHIELD managed to come up with a likely candidate: Dr. Ho Yinsen, one of the leading minds in medicine and a staunch supporter of Doctors Without Borders, who'd been presumed dead after a raid on his hometown of Gulmira by the Ten Rings, two years before.
Steve thinks back to how Tony had reacted when they'd both thought Coulson was dead.
"Is this the first time you've lost a soldier?"
"We are not soldiers!"
Security footage of the mansion was missing for the night that Stane attacked Tony and finally revealed his true colours – power was the first thing that Stane cut, to ensure that Jarvis wouldn't be able to summon help. Although Stane was likely unaware of the full measure of Jarvis's capabilities – something the file believes was known only to Tony and Pepper at that time – he'd known enough to know that Jarvis ran the security system.
There's a transcript of the debriefing that Rhodey gave SHIELD afterwards, which explains, "Tony – Mr. Stark – said Stane had hit him with the Screechpen – that was the nickname given to the Auditory-Induced Temporary Paralysis Device – before taking the arc reactor from him."
Steve tries to picture that, in his head, and can't, at first, because Rhodey's words seem so calmly removed from the reality of it. And he doesn't want to imagine Tony, helpless, as a man he'd always trusted (never mind how carefully Obidiah had orchestrated that) rips away his life support, leaving behind a literal gaping hole in his chest (four fucking inches deep, how does he breathe?). He imagines Tony slumped there, in his huge, empty house, watching Obidiah walk away and knowing that with every breath he struggles to take, he is dying. That he is being murdered by the man whom he'd looked up like the father Howard should have been. That Obidiah is so sure that no one will bother to check on Tony that he doesn't even feel the need to stick around and watch.
"I'm sorry your life is so pathetic."
Steve is punching the hell out of one of Tony's ‘prototype' punching bags (he'd called them prototypes, but Steve has his doubts; there's not exactly a large market for punching bags made of Kevlar and filled with lead, and which can fly and fire lasers depending on which setting is chosen. It's pretty clear that Tony had designed them just for Steve, and maybe Thor, and was attempting to brush it off – he was happy to go on about their ingenious design, but acknowledging them as a personal gift? Not Tony's style) when Natasha appears in the gym.
It's a sign that she's unsettled. Steve has learned over the past few months that although Natasha and Clint are two of the sneakiest people he's ever met (and he used to run around with people who sabotaged Nazi bases for a living), when they're comfortable enough to relax, they attempt to make other people comfortable enough to relax as well. Thus, Natasha has stopped simply being in the kitchen during breakfast, and begun to make use of the door (instead of whatever she'd been using before; Steve frankly has no idea). Clint has stopped simply appearing on the couch in the TV room, and actually walks in and sits down and flips channels (unlike with Natasha, Steve is pretty sure that Clint was previously using the ducts to get around, since he overheard Tony swearing about it).
This does have its downsides. For instance, Steve is now sure that neither is the mysterious ninja dish-washer, despite being perhaps the only people in the Tower stealthy enough to pull it off. Unfortunately, time has proven that they are, just like Steve's other teammates (much to his despair), complete slobs about their personal areas.
(The fact that they now consider the communal floor part of their personal space always makes Steve feel just a bit cozy whenever he thinks about it – but he really wishes that Clint would be more careful about the popcorn on movie nights, and Natasha leaves socks everywhere. Everywhere. He found a nylon pair discarded in the freezer, once. She changes her socks at least half a dozen times a day – she usually works out twice a day, so he could begin to understand, but sometimes during movies she'll get up to grab a drink and come back wearing different socks – and he can tell because she has a bewildering array of casual-wear socks with different patterns – so no, he doesn't really understand at all.)
So for her to simply appear in the gym, now, rather than giving some sign of her presence as she enters, means that she's feeling off-balance. Steve waves at the punching bag so that it settles into standby-mode, and then begins unwrapping his hands in silence. Natasha will talk when she's ready.
It doesn't take her long. "I failed to properly understand Tony's behaviour," she says, her voice low.
Steve tilts his head to the side – not quite a nod, but an acknowledgement. "We all did. Except Clint."
"I wrote most of his personality profile," she says, meeting Steve's gaze with her own. Even unsettled, she's direct. "I recognized that his behaviour was out of the ordinary but I ascribed it to other factors. I should have put it together."
Steve grimaces, sympathizing – because he get where she's coming from, why this has her rattled even when she hasn't done anything nearly as hurtful to Tony as Steve has. Of all of them, Natasha has had the hardest time adjusting to being a member of the Avengers, constantly in the limelight. Tony has never not been in the limelight, Bruce has gotten dragged along in Tony's wake, Thor can return to Asgard and Steve – well, Steve hadn’t had anything left to lose. But Natasha and Clint both had jobs as full-time agents, and while Clint can (and does) still act as a sniper, Natasha's ability to blend in and be somebody else has been severely compromised, to the point where she's been effectively benched except for acting as an Avenger - which is not, at this point, a full-time job. She's been dealing with it fairly well, Steve thinks – but he'd also walked in on Tony and Bruce going over options for facial reconstruction with her in the lab one day, so.
(Tony had been pretty sure that he could instead work up a holographic projection which would sit close enough to the skin to be unnoticeable, and would let Natasha be anyone she wanted, within reasonable height and weight restrictions. Steve doesn't know whether to be amazed or horrified about that one.)
"Ever been in a cave?" he asks her.
"I've been in sewers."
"Was it cold?"
"It smelled." She wrinkles her nose. "It was warm. Unpleasantly so."
Steve shrugs, letting it convey, Well, there you go.
Natasha shakes her head, and sounds frustrated when she says, "Understanding people is my job. It doesn't matter if I'm missing some of the context – I had enough that I should have known." It sounds like an apology. I should have been able to explain it to you.
"We all make mistakes," Steve says, grabbing a towel and wiping sweat from his face. "That's why we have a team."
"If I rely on a team to cover me than I'm dead," Natasha says, before her lips quirk. "Or I was." She still doesn't look happy.
"Different skill-sets. We adapt."
Natasha considers this, walking over to the mats. "Maybe."
"Spar?" Steve offers. She nods acceptance.
He's already warmed up, but he follows her through her stretches, since a little more flexibility never hurt anybody. He's pretty good, but Natasha can do all sorts of weird things with her joints that he'd never be able to even attempt. When they're almost done, he says, "I had an idea about how we might make it up to Tony, but I'd like to run it past you first."
"I know he's got – abandonment issues," Steve says. He doesn't add that after reading Tony's full file, the reasons why are now painfully obvious. "So I thought – if he's willing, at all, to forgive me, we – or if I'd just make things worse, then the rest of you - maybe should move to Malibu?"
Asking Natasha this has a double purpose – it shows that he still trusts her judgement when it comes down to figuring out the heads of his teammates, that he still thinks that she hasn't lost her game. And it also lets him know whether it's a good or a bad idea, because, ultimately, he does trust her judgement. She made a mistake once: that proves she's human. She's still by far the best people-person on the team.
A moment later, he's rewarded by a small, slow smile.
Pepper Potts reminds Steve a lot of Peggy.
Well, to be honest, most women he knows these days remind Steve a lot of Peggy. He supposes that this is partly the result of being immersed in the supreme competence of SHIELD, but sometimes... He sees Peggy in the curl of Natasha's hair (even if it's the wrong colour), in the way that Natasha can keep a totally straight face whether she's cracking up inside in laughter or in rage – but is kind enough that, if it's the former, she will quirk her lips the tiniest amount, just to let her friends know that she's amused. The way that Agent Hill orders agents about, briskly and with no tolerance for stupidity, never fails to remind him of Peggy in the command centre, laying out plans and maps, willing to go at loggerheads with him whenever she thought he was being stupid.
Peggy isn't the only one. Bucky is echoed in Bruce's morbid, deadpan humour and Clint's lighter, cheesy jokes. Steve is reminded of him whenever Clint goes sniper-still, scouting vantage points and targets alike; when Tony flirts his way into a bystander's good graces; when Thor tries to encourage Steve to go out and meet "some of those beauteous Midgardians who continue to grace your doorstep with packages of fine undergarments." And whenever Tony grins at him, after the umpteenth time that Steve's asked Jarvis to add ‘underwear' to the list of things that need to be screened out of his mail, and yet underwear keeps showing up – he's reminded of Bucky then, too.
Tony, of course, is the spitting image of Howard in far more than just looks, no matter how much he'd like to deny it. Or really, if anything, Tony is Howard concentrated: charm taught by a lifetime of watching a master and living under a spotlight; cheerful, rambling commentary that is constant where Howard's was merely sporadic; and genius, honed to a razor-edge and wielded ruthlessly in the pursuit of his goals. They are all of them, each and every one dedicated to their job, but the drive that keeps Tony up three nights in a row is a darker drive than Howard's eager scientific curiosity. Bleaker. Perhaps, if Steve had seen Howard while he was on one of his arctic trips, he'd have seen the father equal the son – but of course he hasn't, so as far as he knows, Tony is simply more extreme in this, too.
The ghosts of his past don't always haunt Steve, of course, or he'd never get anything done. In the beginning, he couldn't see any of them. There were too many strange faces and settings; the world had changed too much for him to be able to find anything familiar. But as he'd begun to grow comfortable in the present, he'd started seeing resemblances. And then, after a while... he only saw them if he looked, deliberately. He wasn't ambushed by sudden memories of the things he'd lost, anymore; the future had become the present had become the comfortably familiar.
Nearly always, at least. Right now, as Pepper Potts strides toward him, her heels clicking neatly against the floor, Steve is reminded of nothing so much as the time that Peggy shot at him – except this time he's pretty sure that even an indestructible vibranium shield won't save him.
"Ma'am," he says, standing to greet her. He doesn't know Pepper half as well as he does his teammates – when she's in New York, she's mostly there to either spend time at the company, or spend time with Tony, and she doesn't have a lot of free time. She'd long ago told him to call her "just Pepper, please, Captain," – but there's no way that he can call her ‘just Pepper' right now, when she's wearing that expression.
"Captain," she says, stopping before him. Her face is open and pleasant, and her eyes are as hard as diamonds. "The helicopter is waiting on the rooftop to take us to the airport."
He'd thought that they'd be taking a quinjet, not the Stark jumbo-liner. The thought of sitting in Tony's lavishly appointed jet, across from a very pissed-off Pepper Potts, is enough to make Steve quail.
But he squares his shoulders and steps forward when, with a grace and subtlety learned during a lifetime of shepherding other people, she indicates for him to walk beside her. "Dr. Banner and Agent Romanoff also wished to accompany us," he says, trying to distract himself from just how pointy her high-heels are.
Steve knows, in his head, that Pepper Potts would never attempt to physically harm him – and even if she did, he could certainly defeat her if she actually came at him with a shoe, easily enough that he could prevent any harm from coming to either of them. But this is a woman who is CEO of a Fortune 500 country, one that is – so Tony has gleefully informed him – poised to take the world by storm. Tony is already working on revolutionizing cars, airplanes – the Starkjet, besides being transport, is also a prototype – and the suburban power grid; the only reason that he hasn't already unveiled the full potential of the newest reactors, he'd explained smugly, is he and Pepper are worried that if they move too quickly, they'll upset the world markets too much and cause a global economic collapse. And Pepper Potts is the woman in charge of that empire, of turning Tony Stark's insanity into business deals for billions – perhaps trillions - of dollars. Steve's not sure; money still gives him difficulties sometimes. But he does know that it's "More money than the GDP of a half-dozen or so small countries combined, Capricorn," (because Tony continues to disbelieve that Steve was actually born on the fourth of July, and has settled on January 6th for some reason that Steve can't fathom). So, yes, Steve finds the pointy-ness of her shoes scary.
"Jarvis has already informed the other members of your team, and they'll be taking a separate helicopter," Pepper says, her voice warm but impersonal. It is the epitome of professionalism. Steve winces.
"How's he... doing?" He hasn't felt quite this awkward since the last time that he had been going to apologize to Tony – way back, shortly after the entire Loki debacle. At least that time, Steve hadn't been the only one throwing harsh words around, even if he did have to claim most of the fault as the initiator of that particular fight.
The night after the invasion, Steve had woken up from a nightmare not of the cold, but of the closing portal and empty sky – a nightmare where he'd sent a good man to certain death, with condemnation and disgust in his eyes, and never acknowledged that man's worth. He'd ordered Natasha to close the portal, but in the dream Tony had been stranded in the... whatever it was on the other side. The other man had refused to describe it in any detail. He'd said it was just space, but there had been something dark in his eyes that said that wasn't the whole story... and in his dream Steve saw that darkness magnify a thousand-fold, until it engulfed Tony, leaving nothing of him behind.
Steve had gone to apologize the next day.
Tony had – predictably, as Steve would come to learn – not slept at all that night, kept up repairing his armour, rebuilding his tower, and fiddling with a strange document full of equations that he minimized whenever anyone drew too near. He'd been manic, running on caffeine and inspiration when Steve had arrived on scene, and he had accepted Steve's apologies with such casual ease that Steve had almost felt like it didn't count. But Tony, after offering his own quick apology in return, had clearly not wanted to dwell, so instead Steve had ended up listening to him ramble on about the armour until Bruce had wandered in and cooked breakfast for two (since even when he hadn't slept at all, Tony still had his thing about ‘ew, solids' in the morning).
That time, when he'd wanted to apologize, he'd just ridden his bike over to Stark Tower. This trip, Steve was sure, was going to prove considerably more awkward.
"Mr. Stark has been quite productive these past two weeks," Pepper says with a perfect, professional smile. "Stark Industries has filed for twenty-seven new patents based on the work he's done. Yesterday, he even showered."
"Stark produces his best work when he is seeking to bury all of his other troubles by forgetting about them," Steve recalls. Later in the file, after Afghanistan – because that was only halfway through the file; SHIELD is concerned with history and motives, but they're more concerned with what Tony is doing in the present day – is a section discussing how Tony and Pepper had settled into a routine, of sorts, after the Vanko and Hammer fiasco. Since Pepper had stayed CEO, with the full support of the Board – who knew exactly who it was who had kept Tony from running the company into the ground years ago – and the gradual acceptance of the public, they kept busy schedules, which intermittently left Tony alone for weeks at a time – and his playboy lifestyle, as much as he attempt to deny it, had never actually come back after Afghanistan. Jarvis was ever-present, but since Tony definitely came up with some brilliant inventions during that time, the file is speculative as to what Tony and Jarvis had arranged.
All the written opinions, Natasha's included, agree that something was arranged. There is no way Tony's lifestyle was anything but deliberate, since by that point his hacking was obvious: he'd read the file. And there is no world in which Tony Stark would pass up brilliance for happiness, as much as it pains Steve to admit it.
This is why Steve's been constantly re-evaluating his plan to move to Malibu. After the Avengers all moved into the Tower, the file notes that Tony's productivity dropped. After the first month that they'd all moved in, Pepper had commented that Tony was smiling more – actually smiling, rather than grinning or smirking. But Tony had chosen isolation previously, even if it didn't make him happy – and Steve wasn't sure they had a right to go against that choice. Where was the line drawn, when a friend deliberately, methodically (knowing Tony) set out to make themselves periodically miserable?
"I'm glad to hear that that he's... OK," Steve offers cautiously. "I've been very worried – we all have."
Pepper looks at him side-long. She's a tall woman, and in heels as lethal as she's wearing, she's at eye-level with him, something that Tony can't accomplish even in his customary lifts. It's easy to forget just how tall she is until she's looking him straight in the eye; whenever she's with Tony, they both seem so comfortable around each other that Steve never notices a thing like height differences (because Tony is just a bit touchy about being short, even though he's not, really – he's a lot taller than Steve was before he got the serum).
Beneath her gaze, Steve finds himself working to show just how sincere he is – he has to stop himself from going too far, and pulling out the ‘puppy eyes' (Clint's words), because he knows that even though that's his instinctive expression, everyone sees that and immediately becomes disbelieving (what he doesn't understand is why they then do what he asks anyway – but he's not trying to make Pepper do anything, he just... wants her to believe him). Tony might like to babble on about how Captain America is the heart and soul of patriotism, honesty, and looking manly in a spangly outfit (Steve likes Coulson, but he can't help but wish sometimes that his new uniform didn't look quite so much like that damned USO getup, even if he'll never admit this to Coulson's face), but Steve is quite capable of making such gaffes.
"I've been told there were extenuating circumstances during your argument on the Helicarrier," and Steve doesn't know how she knows about that, because he doesn't think that Tony told her, "and that you have been under more pressure than usual due to your personal history." She manages to say this without any censure, despite Steve's automatic tensing whenever anybody brings up his issues. He's not used to being confronted with understanding all the time – even Tony's rough brand of it. He's been out of the ice for more than half a year, but he still can't train himself out of the instinctive need to prepare his mental defenses.
"Those don't excuse it," Steve says evenly.
They stop before the door out onto the helipad. A small, low helicopter sits inside – sleek and slim, made for only carrying two passengers at most. The design has Tony's fingerprints all over it; Steve is pretty sure it's one of his arc reactor prototypes. But apparently it doesn't have any new and improved soundproofing good enough to make carrying on a conversation possible without headsets, because Pepper shifts just so as to block Steve from opening the door for her, and turns to look at him fully.
"No, they don't," she says, her voice managing to be far more even than Steve's. But then, he's just a soldier, while she's a consummate professional in all things.
"What I said was dumb, and wrong, and hurtful," Steve says. "I promise you, I won't be making any more snap judgements."
Pepper's eyes narrow just ever so slightly. He's not sure he would even have noticed if he didn't have the serum enhancing his eyesight – and then he wonders if she knows just how much it does, and decides that yes, with Tony chattering at her all the time she probably does, and the degree to which she narrowed her eyes was entirely, precisely deliberate. "I'm given to understand you learned that lesson after the first time. Phil's report did not make this sound like a snap judgement, Captain."
"It – was and it wasn't," Steve says, trying not to hunch his shoulders in beneath the mighty weight of her disappointment and anger. "I made a huge mistake in misjudging his motivations. I can't promise I'll never screw up like that again. But - when I was talking to him, I let anger get the better of me, and saying what I did – that was a snap decision, made in anger, and it was wrong. It was cruel, and it – I won't let that happen again. I can't promise to understand Tony always, but I can promise I won't – I won't let myself just lose control and shoot my mouth off like that again. I won't let myself say something like that, again, at all."
Pepper just looks at him for a long moment, while Steve tries not to squirm. But finally, she nods. At this, the door opens on its own, because of course Jarvis was watching and listening throughout, and they step out onto the helipad.
If you were wondering about what Natasha was really doing during her conversation with Steve, the answer is that she was doing exactly what she appeared to be doing... asking for reassurance. She just happens to know that Steve (like many other people) recovers best from a crisis when he has somebody else to worry about/take care of/keep it together for, and that if she asks for mild reassurance, he’ll actually get just as much (or more) out of the interaction than she will.
On height differences: the Google tells me that Chris Evans is 6’ even (which is, wow, really? He seems taller than that, though maybe that’s just because he’s so damn buff (and hot, yum) in both CA and Avengers), Gwyneth Paltrow is 5’9” (so given heels she could easily stand taller than Evans), and RDJ is also 5’9” (though there’s some debate about whether he’s not in fact 5’8” apparently). That’s not actually all that short, really, for people who aren't movie stars, but tiny!Tony is amusing (and also he looks a bit shorter than 5’8”? Idk). On the other hand, it’s kinda funnier to imagine that he’d be touchy about 1-2 inches rather than, say, 6 – because he’s the type to be twitchy over things that most people would overlook.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
At the Long Beach Airport, Pepper whisks Steve off the plane, away from his teammates, and into a car before he can protest.
"The others – " he starts to say, but she cuts him off so smoothly that he almost doesn't even realize he's been interrupted.
"- have rooms at a hotel that I've arranged." She leans forward slightly to speak to the driver. "Take us to the house, please, Happy."
In the rear-view mirror, Steve catches a glimpse of sunglasses sitting below a furrowed brow. Happy has never matched the nick-name that Tony bestowed upon him, but Steve doesn't need to see his entire face to determine that it a particularly ironic misnomer right now.
The file, of course, had included how Tony met Happy. The latter had been a down-on-his-luck boxer just fired from his job as a bouncer after bouncing a bad-mannered relative of his boss. Tony had been twenty-five at the time, and, being Tony, had managed to lose his bodyguards while bar-crawling, and then get mugged while drunk. Happy had seen what was happening, charged into the alley, and evened the odds to two-two, then two-zero; Tony had offered him a job on the spot... right before passing out. He'd repeated the offer once he was sober and no longer concussed, though, and Happy had been his driver-slash-bodyguard ever since. When he'd read that, Steve had wondered at it. The one person who ever did him a real favor who wasn't working for him, and Tony immediately offers the guy a job? Well, maybe it was a better response than asking him out on a date – when he did that, the person offering the favor always turned out to have some kind of ulterior motive.
Steve nods to Happy in acknowledgement, and the man tilts his face back down again, so maybe he caught it.
"The timing on this is very tricky," Pepper explains as they drive. "Tony's never going to just let you into his workshop, but if you attempt to apologize anywhere else I guarantee he'll just start sniping at you. The workshop is..." she tilts her head elegantly, "...his space. But if Jarvis or I simply use an override to get in, he won't speak to you then, either."
"Oh," says Steve, because if Tony is still that angry after two weeks, then is there really any chance at all that Steve can makes things right?
"However, he ran out of coffee this afternoon – we organized a shortage. He phoned me a half-hour ago and asked him to bring him some." She nods toward the front of the car, and Steve sees four enormous paper cups in the cup-holders there, the Starbucks logo on their side.
"Won't he know you were in New York?" Steve asks worriedly, because despite everyone telling him that sci-fi movies are a terrible way to get a grip on modern technology, he's come to the conclusion that it's safer to assume that anything that sci-fi thinks can be hacked, Tony can hack.
"I left my actual phone with Happy, and Jarvis was kind enough to rig up a back door to it through a disposable," she says, pulling a sleek phone from her pocket and glancing at it briefly. Steve tries not to wince. He knows how much phones cost – especially ones with touch-screens – and although he's become acclimated to much of the wastefulness of the future, that seems... well, like the sort of luxury that only someone as rich as Tony Stark or Pepper Potts could afford.
"Jarvis will inform Tony that Happy brought me by with coffee," Pepper continues. "Then Happy and I are going to enjoy our coffees, and you are going to bring the other two down to Tony in the lab, and enter in this code." She hands him a slip of paper with a five-digit alphanumeric code on it, and Steve memorizes it in a blink. The serum hadn't done half as much for his mind as it had for his body, but he's always been quick to remember things – a helpful skill for an artist and a saboteur alike.
"Tony may or may not check the security cameras, and if he does, he may or may not decide to accept coffee as a peace offering and allow you in," Pepper finishes crisply. "In the event that he doesn't – " she breaks off, her eyes narrowing that tiny fraction of an inch again as she considers.
"I've never been one to run away, ma'am," Steve says solidly.
She nods serenely. Steve has no idea if this is because she approves of his answer or because she's already resigned herself to his failure. He's pretty sure that she's hoping he'll succeed, however, because Pepper Potts is not the sort of woman who would go to all this trouble in the hopes that he would fail; such pettiness is beneath her.
The remainder of the car ride is spent in silence. Steve rehearses his apology in his head again. There are a couple of variants on it – despite how much confidence he's tried to project, he's reminded of the way he'd called Tony pathetic: Tony, who had spent three months in a freezing cave, been tortured by terrorists and watched the man who'd saved his life die. The memory of Erskine's last words bubbles back up in his mind – "Not just a soldier, but a good man." And Steve has never, ever wanted to be a bully.
But this apology is not about Steve, or making himself feel better. It's about Tony, and trying to do something – anything – to ease the shaking in his hands.
The driveway up to Tony's mansion is... impressive. It's also a bit daunting, driving that close to the cliffs. Steve would be fervently hoping that Tony never drives drunk, except the file has already informed him that Tony occasionally does. Never on public roads, and never with anyone else in the vehicle, but occasionally he'll drive up and down his driveway in one of his custom-modded cars, speeding around the curves and whooping every time he scrapes the rail. Steve glances over the side as the car cruises along, carefully guided by Happy, and promises himself that he'll make sure one of the team is always available to intercept Tony should he ever attempt to do that in the future.
At the house, there's a second gate, to compliment the one back at the beginning of the driveway. This one requires retinal scans of all of the people in the vehicle, instead of only the driver, and Steve thinks over the house defences listed in the file. SHIELD breaches them often and easily enough, but the file speculates that SHIELD personnel are, in fact, on a ‘non-lethal response' list - much as Tony is on a similar SHIELD list - and advises that new or unregistered agents not attempt to breach the perimeter without further scouting.
The truth of the matter is that it's impossible to fortify any place or database so that it can never be breached - unless you're willing to kill all comers. Nick, knowing that Tony will be Tony, attempts to keep him alive, in his own way. And Steve's pretty sure Tony wouldn't kill anyone. But then again, the summary at the end of the file had noted that Tony still designs WMDs for a lark in his meagre spare time, so...
The house itself is stunning. Steve can't help but gawk; it is elegance and space and light. The Tower has Tony's fingerprints all over it – literally – but this place was clearly done by somebody else... except for the rough hole in the floor of one of the front rooms with cabling dropping down into it; Pepper follows his gaze, and says casually, "That's for the particle accelerator." She sounds a bit resigned; Steve supposes it does ruin the decor.
Before two weeks ago, Steve would have no idea what a particle accelerator was. Even though he's gotten pretty caught up on modern technology, the cutting edge of science is still far beyond him – and he thinks it always will be. He was hardly a scientist before the ice, after all, and it's progressed so much farther in the time since, it's boggling – and amazing, really, everything that has been accomplished. Even if there are no jetpacks. But now Steve does know what a particle accelerator is, and he could pick up enough tone in that particular report to know that the scientist writing it was awed at somebody who personally built a particle accelerator in his basement on a moment's notice.
Pepper takes her coffee firmly and stands beside Happy, who still has that frown fixed on his face. "Down those stairs," she indicates, when Steve just stands there awkwardly, holding Tony's two coffees and unsure of where to go. "His lab is on the very bottom floor. It's the only door available."
Steve nods and takes a deep breath. "Thank you," he says sincerely.
"You're welcome," she replies serenely, but as he begins to turn away, she adds, "And captain? Good luck." It's the first time since she picked him up that her words haven't been coated in thick layer of professionalism, and Steve lets it bolster him.
"Thanks," he says again, no less sincerely but a bit less formally. Then he starts down the stairs.
They end at a long glass wall, through which Steve can see Tony sitting at a massive workstation. Just like in Stark Tower, all of the desks are rotated to grant line of sight to both the door and the garage entrance, but Tony doesn't look up or give any other indication that he's aware of Steve's presence. Steve makes it about fifty-fifty odds that Tony is merely feigning ignorance. Thanks to Pepper, though, a lack of acknowledgement actually gives him a better shot that he'll be able to get in, so he goes over to the door, juggling the coffees until he has a finger free to poke at the keypad. The door slides open, perfectly silent: success. Either Tony really didn't notice him, or he's willing to accept the olive branch of coffee rather than locking the entire place down. Steve hopes it's the latter.
Inside, the workshop is quiet. "Potts mentions that since his return from Afghanistan Stark no longer has loud music playing in his lab while he is working. Previously he had stated that he worked best while having enough noise to drown out any distraction." That note in the file had been from Coulson, with an added reference underneath that Tony's preference for loud music dated all the way back to MIT. The note had reports from two different psychologists appended to it, discussing the various possible reasons and implications for the change. Steve wonders if it's maybe just as simple as Tony getting used to the silence – although he hadn't gotten used to the cold...
Whatever the reason, the lack of background noise means that Tony can't easily ignore Steve's entrance, and apparently he's not up to trying. "Pepper gave you a security code?" he says, rolling his chair back a bit from the desk and making a gesture at the monitors that Steve knows means his work will be saved and closed. "That – that's Pepper's code, that is not cool, you do not give out passwords and access codes to non-authorized personnel, or even authorized personnel, every authorized personnel gets their own access code, this is a security breach, this is how security breaches are made," he insists, not pausing for breath.
Steve crosses over to the desk and puts the pair of coffees down, within easy reach, before backing off.
("Although his dislike of being handed things was initially an attempt at compensating for his compromised immune system during the palladium poisoning incident, it has now fully developed into a minor phobia. As Stark's immune system has still not fully recovered, and may remain depressed for the rest of his life (Section 142.3), unless the phobia significantly worsens no intervention is recommended," Natasha had written.)
Tony meets Steve's eyes throughout his entire monologue, doesn't even look away as he reaches for the coffee, until Steve has to make himself look away, look at his shoes, despite his training telling him no, don't give in, don't flinch first and his stubbornness backing it up all the way. But while the file has been flitting around in his head for two weeks and has had time to sink in, he hasn't had time to start seeing past it again, and just talking to Tony, his friend, as he normally would. Right now he's remembering the part of the file dedicated to analyzing four-year-old Tony's social skills. His parents (or rather, their butler) had taken him to a psychiatrist shortly before his birthday because, although Tony could build a circuit board, he never looked anybody in the eyes. Later on he'd been trained out of it, but Natasha noted from her report on working with him that, "Eye contact is very important for him. He maintains actual eye contact when he is comfortable with a person; in all other situations, he instead stares at the bridge of his target's nose. Spotting the difference is difficult."
Steve had always been taught that you looked somebody in the eye to be honest. But the eye-contact thing was dwelled upon in the report; one psychiatrist was convinced that it was because Tony fell somewhere on the autism spectrum, another thought it might be due to the neglect he was faced with in early childhood. The ones that cited adult causes – guilt over lives taken – were not considered particularly seriously by the people in charge of the file.
Even Natasha had written a full paragraph about it in her summary of How To Manage Tony Stark. "Except with persons whom he is comfortable with (Potts, Rhodes, Hogan), prolonged eye contact makes Stark nervous, as does too much avoided eye contact. As Stark is rarely allowed to stay in his exceptionally narrow comfort zone in this regard, when he only has to deal with limited eye contact he becomes considerably more tractable. Unfortunately the range has doubtlessly narrowed further due to his petulance over this report. Unless familiar with Stark, agents should be aware of how eye contact influences his mood, but not attempt to make use of this method."
When Steve looks back, Tony has his face buried in one of the coffee cups, his hands clutched around it like it's the Holy Grail. It has to be uncomfortably hot, but he chugs it without pausing to breathe, his Adam's apple bobbing as he gulps it down; he finishes it in less than half a minute and takes a gasping breath, already talking again on the exhale: "Okay, I forgive you, and you too, Jarvis, there can be security breaches for coffee, because coffee is sacred, but make a note because this is not the type of shit that you should be allowing on a regular basis – I'm serious, this sort of bad practice is how systems are compromised, ninety-nine percent of the time. Jesus, I hate having to correct Pepper, it makes me feel like the world's been turned upside down. There's just something wrong about that." He picks up the other coffee, but doesn't drink it, instead just staring down at it for a bit before his eyes flick up to meet Steve's.
Or, no, not entirely, Steve realizes: he's using his trick. Lacking Natasha's lifetime of training in how to read others, Steve wouldn't be able to tell if he weren't forewarned and blessed with serum-enhanced eyesight. How many other times had he thought Tony was looking him in the eye, when really the other man was avoiding doing just that? Had Tony ever actually been comfortable with him before – would he ever be again?
Well, here's Steve's shot at securing that chance. He takes a deep breath. "I owe you an apology."
Tony raises his eyebrows and leans back in his chair, the picture of carelessness as he doesn't quite meet Steve's eyes again. "You owe me an apology?" he asks incredulously. "I know I have a tendency to Stockholm everybody in my vicinity into insanity, but this is a bit further down the road than people usually get, other than the more stalker-y of my adoring fans – not something I expected you to fall to, although I guess you did come, uh, preloaded with existing issues – clearly – "
His eyes present a front of innocence covering a darker cruelty, and the only thing that's off in the guise is the direction of his gaze – and that by only the barest fraction of an angle. When on the defensive, Tony's mask is prone to slip – which is why he likes going on the attack, where it's damn near perfect. But Steve wasn't expecting him to attack like this (which is doubtless why he's doing it), and all his careful, rehearsed apologies are going to require some frantic improvisation. He's not sure whether he should be cutting Tony off or letting him finish his rant, and hesitation means he chooses the latter. But maybe that's the wrong thing to do, because Tony just charges into the breach, pulling up new weapons just like the Iron Man suit always pops new armaments out of the shoulders, forearms, legs, hands, everywhere –
" – I mean, I knew that, but I make no apologies, I'm an engineer, I like testing to destruction. Destruction is fun – and it's the only way to really learn a thing, go through all the depths and all that shit. I mean, I wasn't expecting you to be quite that, uh, frail, but hey, it's a weak spot, clearly identified, one of your biggest – and maybe it'll get SHIELD to sit up and fix you, or something, I'm sure they've got head-shrinks for that. God knows that if Loki had actually used ice you'd have been fucked – well, not that you were all that much use against Loki anyway, until he had an army to play with, but if that had been an army of frost-giants... well, Thor noted how much they liked to freeze people. Just think, you could be a capsicle for another seventy years – we could stick you up in Times Square, let you watch life pass you by properly this time..." he trails off suggestively. His eyes are clear and easy and his smile is friendly.
Steve is torn between snapping back, rolling his eyes, and hunching in on himself and wilting. The first is the reaction to Tony's increased cruelty, because of course, it hurts – when he wakes up sometimes he's not sure what year it is not because he thinks he's in the past, but because he's convinced he's in the future, waking up once again to an entirely new world and leaving all his friends dead behind him. But Tony's attack is weak, coming after two weeks of running away and shutting himself up in his lab – does he really think Steve'll buy it? He must be desperate, and Steve wonders how much Tony is lying to him, and how much Tony is lying to himself. Pepper had said he'd showered yesterday, but how much sleep has Tony had in the past few weeks? Malibu should have been a safe haven for him, but Steve had wrecked that, and that makes him feel worse than any of Tony's words.
So instead of letting any of his initial three reactions show – or at least, letting them show entirely; Steve's not as adept at lying as Tony is, not by a long shot – Steve just looks back at him calmly. "Clint let us know you don't like the cold."
That gets him more raised eyebrows. "Uh-huh? I'm fine with the cold, Steve. Ask Bruce – God knows he complained enough every time I turned down the thermostat in the lab."
"And he explained that caves get pretty cold."
Tony rolls his eyes, the picture of an arrogant man fed up with everyone else around him being an idiot. "Look, Afghanistan was Afghanistan, and – well, it sucked, but some of us have learned to put our issues behind us, Steve," he says, leaning forward, and now he's definitely lying to himself as well, Steve is sure. "And if you can't get a handle on your own – if you're projecting them onto me now? – then maybe you shouldn't be leading the team."
Does Tony realize how much of himself he gave away with that? Steve wonders. He's so obviously trying to pick a fight, he's showing his hand. Maybe if Steve had let himself get pissed off by the opening salvos, he wouldn't notice it now.
"And seriously, why are you relying on Clint? The widow-maker off on assignment elsewhere? Because I don't know if you've noticed, but Barton? Not the smartest tool in the shed. Possibly a bit too much ‘cognitive recalibration' done on that one."
Letting Tony rant a bit isn't working, Steve realizes – he's just working himself up more, with every passing moment that Steve doesn't retaliate, starting to pull out the nastiest tools in his arsenal. Steve can't even remonstrate him for being unable to trust that his teammate won't hone in on Tony's own weak spots because – well, Steve had. All he can try to do now is patch up the situation; they can work on how to fight – how to properly fight, without ripping into each other – later. "Tony," he says firmly, and Tony tilts his head to the side and looks back at him, so uncaring. "What I said to you was undeserved. You are one of the most amazing, remarkable, selfless men I know."
Tony stares at him in disbelief.
"You're not cruel, you're not petty – "
" – uh, about a thousand models would disagree with you there, even if you didn't hear any of what I just said – " Tony interrupts, but Steve just keeps talking right over top of him. Because sure, everything Tony has said in the past five minutes has been cruel and petty, but cruelty and pettiness is not why he said it. Steve is sure of that. The bags under Tony's eyes are too dark.
" – and I should have known better than to think for one instant you were trying to be. You are a good man. What I said was stupid – "
" – no surprises there, Rogers, a lot of what you say is – " and that does make Steve want to roll his eyes at him, because it's the weakest offense he's managed to launch yet.
" – and so was letting myself think it, even for an instant. Tony," he pauses, waits until he's sure that Tony isn't going to interrupt him again, "not liking the cold doesn't make either of us weak."
The silence that follows is only interrupted by Tony absently drumming the fingers of his left hand against the arc reactor. Steve wonders if he's doing that on purpose, if he's aware he's doing it at all – it doesn't look like he is, but, well, Tony does love his misdirection. Steve wonders if this is supposed to signal the end of Tony's attempts to misdirect away from his own issues, or if Tony is merely gearing up for another round.
"I'm sorry," Tony says abruptly.
"For being an idiot who can't accept an apology?" It's a weak joke.
"You don't owe me an apology, you've never owed me any – look, I made my bed, I'm content to lie in it – "
"You didn't do anything to deserve what I said," Steve protests. He'd been able to cut off Tony's self-flagellation before, but Tony's more intent this time, determined to cast himself as the villain in retrospect, if he can't secure the position here and now. Steve can practically see him mentally switching tactics; he's on the defensive, now.
" – God knows I've trolled you and everyone else plenty of times before – "
" – but never like that," Steve interrupts, because if he lets Tony keep talking then this is going to go the exact same way as it had the last time Steve had attempted to apologize for anything, and this time Steve is determined not to let him go on thinking he'd earned it, somehow. "You know where our lines are and you're careful never to cross them, Tony, and that I let myself think you would was – "
" – you had a lot on your mind, okay? It'd been a tough couple of weeks – "
" – not acceptable. Tony."
"Steve," Tony says right back, mimicking his tone perfectly. "It was a perfectly rational assumption to make, given my past behaviour. So. I'm apologizing. For that past behaviour."
"It was a stupid and wrong assumption, is what it was. You're one of the best men I've ever known."
Tony smirks. "Careful, Cap," he says teasingly, perfectly normal except for how he still isn't actually meeting Steve's eyes. "I already need a half-dozen or so mansions besides the Tower to store my ego in, you wouldn't want it getting any larger."
"Look." Steve buries his face in his hands, lets his exasperation show. "I was the one who fucked up, okay? Me and Bruce and Natasha – "
" – that I find hard to believe, but then, hey, Captain America just swore," he hears Tony mutter, and Steve lifts his head to give him a stern look.
"I owe you an apology. Will you just. Accept it?" he lets pleading slip into his voice.
"Fine," Tony says, rolling his eyes. He scoots his chair forward and gestures at his screens, which start lighting up again. "Whatever floats your boat – "
"Tony," Steve says again. He waits until Tony glances in his direction again before pouring all the sincerity he can into his words, even if it makes him look over-the-top sincere, because Tony seems determined to dismiss everything, and Steve is running out of ideas on how to get this through his head. When he catches his eye – only for an instant, before Tony's gaze slide-slips to the center of his forehead again – Tony swallows.
"You are a good man, and a hero. And the cold – or, the water – " Tony doesn't quite flinch, and Steve regrets bringing it up, wondering if he's gone too far, but there's no taking it back now, " – and whatever you may think of them does not make you anything less. You weren't being cruel, and I'm sorry thought you might be, because I. Was. Wrong."
Tony stares back at him for what feels like an age. Steve's internal chronometer disagrees with this assessment, but tells him that it is a good full minute. Finally Tony exhales, just the slightest bit shakily. "Okay," he says quietly – just that, and nothing more. No qualifiers. Finally.
Steve can't stop from smiling in relief. "Not everything's your fault, you know. You don't get to hog all the blame."
Maybe that's the wrong thing to say; Tony gives a half-hearted shrug and looks back at his screens. "Lack of blame implies a lack of control, Captain, and that's just unacceptable."
It's such a close paraphrase to what Natasha had written in her closing report from her stint as Natalie Rushman that Steve finds himself blinking; he'd been remembering that quote just a moment before. Tony looks up quickly and catches his expression, smirking in satisfaction. "So you did read it."
"Last week," Steve admits. "Before that I'd only seen the, uh, short version."
"You can say ‘hacked', Steve, I won't take offense," Tony says, and something in Steve's chest unknots, because even if Tony won't meet his eyes dead-on, his tone no longer has that hard edge to it, warning that Tony's about to go for his throat. Almost two months of friction between them and then two more weeks of silence isn't going to be fixed in a single conversation, but Steve hasn't screwed this up. There's something to build on.
And if they're all going to be moving to Malibu, then there will be time to build. The thought makes Steve look away awkwardly, something that doesn't escape Tony's attention; out of the corner of his eye he sees the other man's gaze sharpen with curiosity. But he hasn't planned for that conversation, and it's only now he realizes that it's because he'd thought he would fail, thought he'd doomed his friendship with Tony. The fact that he hasn't makes him smile. He can do this.
They can work it out.
A few days later, Steve and Clint are sitting out on the deck – one of the decks – sharing a cooler of beers, when Tony comes out. He looks pale and wan in the bright sunlight – which makes entirely too much sense given how often he locks himself in the lab; too much of his public appearance is carefully applied makeup. Clint looks at Steve with a raised eyebrow, and he gives a tiny nod back; when Clint relaxes into his chair and tosses Tony a beer, Steve knows that they are in agreement: We need to start dragging him out of his lab regularly again. Steve makes plans to enlist Bruce – whom, he knows, has taken to doing his morning meditation out here, listening to the waves crash against the cliffs.
Yesterday, he wouldn't have considered making such plans, not with Tony still stand-offish. But this morning Jarvis had spoken to Natasha at breakfast for the first time in days - Steve doesn't know when Natasha apologized, but she must have - and now Tony has actually emerged from his lair. Scheming for his own good can recommence.
Tony turns his nose up at the beer and sniffs, muttering something that sounds vaguely like, "Plebeian," under his breath. But he cracks it open anyway and collapses into one of the reclined chairs, his limbs sprawling everywhere (though he manages not to spill his beer).
The beer was a suggestion of Pepper's, made a couple of months before. On his own Tony drinks a lot of hard alcohol – there was a section in the file about that, too, with enough data on just how much and enough speculation about the whys that Steve now isn't certain that they shouldn't be keeping all alcohol away from Tony. But in social situations where he's comfortable – which translates roughly to only with the Avengers, Pepper, or sometimes Rhodey – he'll drink lighter stuff if he's offered some– and he won't head over to the liquor cabinet on his own afterward. Steve still has his doubts – but he has to admit that in the months they'd been living at the Tower, Tony had been drinking frequently, but during the summer at least he'd refrained from the excesses that Steve had seen plastered all over the tabloids.
They sit in comfortable silence for a while, soaking up the rays of the sun. After a while, Tony sits up and peels off his shirts – he was wearing multiple layers, again.
"So, you've lost at least fifteen pounds," Clint says to him.
Tony shrugs drowsily. "It happens. I'll pig out for the next few weeks and gain it back."
"Weight cycling isn't good for you, man," Clint shakes his head, but Tony just flaps a hand at him.
"If you fall asleep like that, you're going to get sunburned," Steve observes.
That earns him a one-eyed glare – since Tony apparently can't be bothered to open his left eye to even the minute amount that he opens the right. With his hair all dishevelled, he reminds Steve of the stray calico cat that lived around his apartment in Brooklyn the summer of '38. He'd practiced drawing it many times, since once it had curled up in a sunbeam it was content to stay there for hours, and fed it scraps of food in return, when he had enough to spare – which wasn't often, but a little fella like him hadn't needed as much food as bigger guys.
"Why did I invite you to come live here, anyway?" Tony grouses. "Oh, right, I didn't. You just all showed up here and started nanny-ing me." There's a layer of fondness very badly hidden behind his half-hearted irritation, but Steve refrains from laughing at him, because Tony looks like he might actually fall asleep right there and Steve doesn't want to give him a reason to get properly indignant and wake up fully. Tony needs all the sleep he's willing to get, and then some.
Instead, Steve puts aside his beer and gets up to fetch one of the umbrellas and a heavy base to keep it in place. The breeze off of the ocean is constant and pleasantly cool, although it does make sketching a bit difficult at times. He might ask Tony about putting up one of the invisible wind-deflectors on this deck, like he has around the top of Stark Tower – but later.
By the time the umbrella is fully up, Tony's asleep. Steve returns to his own chair in silence, sipping his beer and closing his eyes. The warmth of the Malibu sun seeps through his skin and into his bones.
On weather: Average high temperatures for Malibu in November are high seventies (mid-twenties, for the rest of us who don’t live in America) which is also basically what it is the rest of the year. Their averages have a smaller than 10-degree (20-degree, if you’re American) range – who wants to move to Malibu? – though the last day described is warmer than usual. Average temperatures for New York are actually pretty nice in September, by the way, but as far as this story is concerned they had a cold autumn, because averages are just averages and allow for variations. Except in Malibu, because I am now convinced that Malibu is always perfect.
The Tetris reference and Bruce paraphrase on the subject is homage to the exceptionally amazing Come at Me by Closer. Go read it, it’s awesome! The idea of Tony disbelieving that Steve’s birthday is on July 4 is from the shorter but also awesome fic Independence Day by Kroki Refur.
Things that were not my idea, but I don’t know whose they are (and would like to know!): The nickname of ‘Capricorn’. The thing about Tony not liking ‘solids’ (I’ve seen it a few places; not sure who did it first).
Thanks for reading!