Steve hadn't had enough time to get to know Phil Coulson the way he would have liked. Really he'd only known him a few days at the most, but it was hard to not feel attached to a man who so completely looked up to him. Steve couldn't help it, he'd known a lot of guys back during the war who looked up to him or to the uniform and he cared about every single one of them; sometimes he even had a few moments to feel guilty when he knew a man who'd enlisted because of him was killed. It wasn't a good feeling, even thought he knew at the time he'd been ready to make the same sacrifice.
In the wake of the alien invasion, the death of one man had seemed both terribly significant and profoundly insignificant. The Avengers were to attend a small memorial for Coulson a few days after the attack, and Steve was at something of a loss. The construction of the planned memorial for the attack itself would take months, but that one person would be mourned ahead of all the others, at least for the Avengers.
He had looked through his small collection of clothing and decided even if the future allowed for showing up to a memorial in a plaid button down and khakis he wouldn't want to do that. That didn't stop Steve's collection of clothing from being inadequate to the task. The temporary room that Tony had given him in Stark Tower had too large a closet and it dwarfed the small pile of clothes even more conspicuously; the finished floor would no doubt be larger.
"Do you even own a suit?" Tony asked, startling Steve out of his reverie.
"Just the costume," he answered, with a joke he wasn't quite feeling.
"Pretty sure Natasha and Clint aren't going in their superhero get ups, mostly because Natasha objects to spray on clothes for memorial services. Pity." Tony let himself into the room with something that seemed like casual disregard, but Steve was actually wising up to Tony's game and started to figure out what it was. Tony was intentionally seeking out his company. "Army uniform?"
"Apparently it's been donated to the Smithsonian." That had been a shock. "They do this... exhibition every few years around my birthday."
"We usually just call it 'The Fourth'," Tony answered. "Sadly my ties are with the Air Force and the only uniform I'd be able to get on short notice would be the blues, don't suppose you want to be a flyboy?" Tony didn't wait for an answer, just waved the idea away with a flick of his hand. "Come on, we've got an appointment to get you a suit. Nothing bespoke with the turn around time, but there's enough time to get something off the rack fitted properly. We'll take the Corvette."
Tony didn't even let him argue, just reached out and took his elbow before guiding him out of the room and towards the elevator.
That was how Steve found himself in a small shop a few blocks away from the Tower being poked and prodded while Tony looked on with a hint of something not quite nameable in his smile, amusement maybe. Thankfully there wasn't too much poking and prodding, as somehow the tailor that Tony had dragged him to had already pulled several pieces off of the rack, and as much as he fussed over the final fit, they all made Steve look pretty good. He tried not to feel uncomfortable with the attention, he wasn't used to comfortable and expensive fabrics, and he wasn't used to the concern over his appearance; even at the height of his war bonds selling he'd never had someone so focused on the topic.
It actually more reminded him of Howard and the careful attention the man had paid to the armor Steve wore into battle.
The comparison was a difficult one to make; even though in his own mind he'd seen Howard only a few weeks ago, the young man he'd known had been replaced by his son, his son who was currently flirting with the shop assistant and having his scotch refreshed before pulling her off to one of the fitting rooms. Steve couldn't help but roll his eyes; he'd thought Tony was going steady with Pepper...
"As much as I'm loathe to admit it, compliments to your last tailor, Mr. Rogers," the tailor said from where he was carefully setting the line of his shirt.
"My... last tailor?" He'd never had a tailor, he'd had a quartermaster for the Army uniform and Mr. Stark for his battle suit.
"I had assumed that was where Mr. Stark obtained the measurements that he forwarded to me."
Steve couldn't deny that the clothes fit him perfectly, whatever measurements Tony had of him were more than accurate, of course they hadn't changed much in the last seventy years... "Oh, right, my last tailor."
Tony returned a few minutes later as Steve was being helped into a suit jacket. He didn't look rumpled at all, instead he'd changed into a very sleek black suit that fit him very well. Steve couldn't quite help the casual sweep of his eyes down the lines of the suit. Tony wasn't a particularly slim man, but he didn't have the same bulk around the shoulders that Steve or Thor did; the suit was obviously tailored to accommodate that, but if anyone knew how to put himself together when necessary, it would be a Stark.
"Look at him. You work magic, Rene. Put 'em on my account."
Steve opened his mouth to protest, but Tony was obviously hearing none of it. The two of them walked out of the store, Steve's plain clothes and the casual t-shirt Tony had come in with tucked neatly away in an unbranded bag.
"No arguing, Capsicle, I'm pretty sure you'd have paid less for a car in the 40s." Tony handed a ticket to the valet and then casually slid his hands into the pants pockets of his new suit.
"Rene said that my 'old tailor' obviously knew my measurements," Steve said, eyeing Tony as he completely ignored Steve's comment. "Who made my latest costume?"
"Dad did. It's a leftover from the War, old prototype."
Unlike the usual deflections, Steve could tell that was an outright lie. "There's this kevlar-like material in it, JARVIS told me kevlar wasn't invented until the 60s."
"The kevlar like derivative that your suit is made of was actually designed to be incorporated into new military body armor post 9/11." Steve had learned enough history to know that was the twenty-first century, nothing Howard would have been alive for.
"Stark Industries," Tony said, voice stop. "We stand between harm and the boys who're put in harm's way." He made it sound like he was parroting some company slogan, but even Steve could hear the note of conviction behind.
Of course, Stark tech. What else would Steve have worn into battle?
Getting fitted was ridiculously uncomfortable, but unlike going to the quartermasters and having them throw a few different size shirts on him and hoping one fit, Mr. Stark only had one design to work on, and he worked on it tirelessly. The base of the uniform was leather, red, white, and blue, each piece carefully fitted together, just tight enough to be fitted but with enough room to breathe and maneuver.
"It doesn't have to be perfect," Steve had told Mr. Stark after the fourth fitting in under two days. "We need to roll out ASAP."
Mr. Stark didn't seem to be listening. "You'll have it in under twenty-four hours and it will be perfect." Mr. Stark pressed his hands to the sides of Steve's ribs and checked the fit there, running his fingers down and then hooking his fingers under the chest piece entirely, his knuckles grazing against Steve's stomach, the white t-shirt, and the thin cotton padding that kept the armor from chafing. "Form and function, Captain. You need both for quality engineering."
Steve politely didn't mention that the reversion hover car Mr. Stark had demonstrated at the Expo wasn't functional at all.
"Go button up, soldier. If anything is hanging or catching I want to know before you're out in the field." He handed Steve the bright blue pair of pants that went with the uniform.
He pulled them on and buttoned them closed, tucking and buttoning the two pieces of the armor together and then sliding into his harness. All told, it was pretty comfortable, but as the usual army uniform proved constantly, parade rest and battle conditions had little to do with each other. Howard handed him the shield, flipping it over in his hands once before letting go, leaving Steve with a cocky, self-assured smile
"Alright, Captain, let's see form and function in action." Howard backed away a few steps, and then a few more, finally coming to rest against one of the walls, leaning with his arms crossed over his chest.
Steve realized a few moments later that Mr. Stark was referring to him, not the armor, as the quality engineering. He couldn't help the slight heat that rose up his neck when he realized. It was still embarrassing to have that level of attention paid to him.
He gave the armor the same workout he always did, starting with a few range of motion stretches at the waist, at the knees, at the elbows and shoulders and neck. Nothing pinched, nothing resisted, every motion felt more natural than the last few attempts. Mr. Stark pulled out a notepad, penciling down a few things quickly.
"Feels good," Steve reported, stretching a few more times in each direction. "Very fluid, good range of motion."
"Overhead?" Howard asked.
Steve dutifully lifted his hands over his head, and moved down to one knee, shield overhead, mimicking taking a downward strike.
He shook his head. After checking the the shield was safely affixed to his back, Steve started to work through a set of punches, interspersing a kick now and again. He didn't have a bag to work, or an opponent - that would have been a bad idea - but his body remembered the movements even if his style belonged more to a scrapper rather than someone built like he was now. Throughout it all, Howard watched. Steve saw him make a notation here and there, the one time the armor did feel encumbering - making his form of a punch hitch - Howard noticed immediately and wrote himself a note.
A half-hour through the exercise, he wound down, finishing with a few stretches before dutifully waiting for Howard and extending his arm the moment he'd tucked the notepad into his back pocket and gestured. He didn't even flinch when Howard pulled out a knife and carefully cut into the leather at his elbow, loosening in the touch needed to allow him a full range.
"It's good," Steve said, finally.
"Good?" Howard frowned and pressed his fingers to Steve's sides again. "Damn near perfect. I'll expect a full debriefing on the uniform's performance out in the field, Captain. Go sock ol' HYDRA in the jaw."
"Of course, Mr. Stark."
The two of them shared a brief smile, something that felt almost secret, or private. Steve watched the way Howard could act with women, as much as he insisted that he was about the work, he did obviously look, and he knew that cheesy showman smile that Howard usually used. It was the one Steve recognized from the Expo, and the one he recognized when he was being slightly less than honest to Colonel Phillips' face. This was a different smile, soft and just a quirk of lip.
Steve liked that smile.
"Be careful," Howard said, barely audible.
"I'll take that next HYDRA base down, and bring our boys home safe."
Howard was going to say something else, Steve could tell, but instead he just shut his mouth and nodded.
Steve had only started to get the very basics of e-messages down when Tony had invited the entire Avengers team to live in Stark Tower full time. Tony had taken one look at the computer that Steve had been purchased by SHIELD, made a very sad and disturbed noise, and handed him a StarkPhone, a tablet - which seemed like it was just a much bigger StarkPhone, and a computer that went on the desk of Steve's study. All three of the machines were apparently put on some sort of 'network' which allowed Steve to access the internet, a terrifying world where Steve mostly asked JARVIS to find him things because it was very much more complicated than he liked.
He actually found he liked e-mailing, some. Many messages that he was more used to being delivered in the form of 'Rogers, get your ass over here' from Colonel Phillips suddenly became 'Message from Col. Fury, marked urgent', which was one of the many ways that nothing had changed between 1944 and 2012, Colonels always thought what they had to say was very, very important and it usually wasn't.
The other side-effect of being on the Stark - and Avengers - Tower network thing was that Steve was automatically on something called a robo-list-serve (or RoboLISTSERV) which apparently everyone in the Tower hated except for him. Steve didn't understand why they didn't enjoy it. Parts of it were silly, he didn't really need to know that You - one of Tony's robots was actually named that - had started work on machining a part or that Dummy was going to be donated to a city college, but it was... comforting.
When he wasn't working in the gym or the fighting simulation room, Steve often took downtime in Tony's lab space. It didn't take long, curled up on one of the couches, to catch Tony talking to one of the robots as though it really could understand him. Steve wasn't exactly clear on the concept, but based on what JARVIS had told him, and Tony had confirmed, the robots did have some manner of personality, so maybe it made sense to talk to them.
One of the robots - Dummy - had brought Tony over a glass with some sort of green colored juice in it, which Tony sniffed dubiously before taking a drink.
"Dummy! Dummy, this is a tragedy. What's wrong with you?"
Steve found himself grinning in spite of the way Dummy sagged with some sort of visible sadness. Intentional or not, the little guy put a lot of empathy into a robot arm. "What is in those things anyway?"
Tony startled, looking over towards where Steve was laying on the couch. Steve's presence couldn't have been a surprise, Tony had waved at him hours ago. "Today? Papaya spinach. Dislike." He put the glass he was drinking down. "JARVIS, I thought Dummy had algorithms concerning the appropriate mixing of fruits and vegetables."
"He does, sir, but the food delivery for the lab isn't scheduled until tomorrow. He was, as I believe is his programming, feeding you everything but the kitchen sink. Tomorrow will be some combination of lemon, apple, spinach, and grape."
Steve went over to where Tony had set down the drink and picked it up to sniff. It smelled... pretty bad. "You have your robot make you smoothies?"
"I made him when I was seventeen, of course one of his primary duties is to feed me. He stocks the lab refrigerator, knows the vitamin content of all the food he puts there, and has a long list of things that do not taste good together. I would probably have died of scurvy otherwise." Tony took the glass from Steve and took a long drink of it. "That's a hallmark of a leader, right? I know what tasks to delegate to others. Of course, my confidence in Dummy is probably overrated if he's feeding me spinach and papaya. City college, kid."
"It's not his fault you didn't keep your lab refrigerator stocked properly. Maybe he would have made you something delicious." Steve didn't think the lack of supplies was a reason to berate the robot. "You told him you were going to donate him to a city college twice today."
"Are we seriously discussing how I'm stunting my robo-children's growth by failing to provide enough positive reinforcement?" Far from looking annoyed, Tony looked fascinated by that.
Steve didn't know how to answer. "You and JARVIS said that they can learn, right?" Tony nodded. "Positive reinforcement works much better in the long run."
"Captain America, robopsychologist."
Steve failed to see how that was a bad thing. "Well, if you can talk to it, and it can almost answer back, maybe you could think of something nice to say."
Tony looked at Steve, and then back to Dummy. "Way to not poison me, today."
Steve watched, slightly concerned, as Dummy reached his claw out and grabbed at a thick tuft of Tony's hair, almost like he was stroking it, before he let go and rolled back away. Tony seemed to think absolutely nothing of it, either, immediately going back to work on whatever it was the horrible tasting smoothie and Steve's insistence that Tony be nice had distracted him from.
Steve always found he was far too buzzed after a mission to sleep that first night back. London was never quiet, not with the constant threat of air raids, the hum of captured HYDRA tech, and the clanging, whirring, and other metallic sounds of the labs. The SSR tunnels beneath London were comfortable enough, not warm but not particularly cold, and Steve and his team had their own small barracks where they could crash - or stay up late playing poker. He liked to let the Commandos have their drinking even if he didn't partake; Steve had never acquired a taste for it before the Serum, alcohol went straight to his head and the hangovers were murder.
He swung by the mess and picked up two cups of coffee, a decrepit looking apple, and some jell-o before he went looking for Mr. Stark. He could always count on Howard to be up late after a mission. He was the first one to grab Steve and the other Commandos to debrief, and Steve was the only one for any patience for it.
The labs were mostly empty, even though the SSR worked around the clock the scientist contingent did tend to keep more normal hours. Howard, however, was hunched over Steve's bike, fingers working along one of the exhaust pipes.
"Yes," he said to no one that Steve could see. "I know you'd rather be made of vibranium, but there's really no choice in the matter. It's damn near impossible to strike into a usable shape anyway."
Oh, Howard was talking to his bike. Of course he was.
"Still, that's no excuse for almost catching on fire. That would be a waste of a perfectly good engine." Howard grabbed some sort of wrench or another and worked on a bolt before pulling off the exhaust pipe that had a particularly large dent in it. "Waste of a perfectly good Captain, too."
Steve cleared his throat.
Howard didn't even look embarrassed when he caught sight of Steve over his shoulder, just smiled. "She'll be back in order for your next sortie, don't worry."
"I never do, Mr. Stark." Steve took the few strides to come up to stand beside Howard, looking over the man's progress. Steve wasn't an engineer, and he trusted Howard to do a good job, but sometimes it was just nice to watch the man work.
A few moments later, the slightly covetous look on Howard's face became obvious, and Steve handed over the second cup of coffee he'd gotten. He took it, hands rubbing over the mug for a moment before he sipped. "I miss real coffee."
Steve had never been a fan, but he knew Howard loved that thick, heady Italian roast coffee that he absolutely never smuggled back to London whenever he landed in Switzerland for one reason or another. He offered up the apple and jell-o instead. Howard gave a nod of thanks at the apple before he accepted it and took a large bite out of it, completely ignoring the light smear of oil his fingers left on the peel. Howard had once said he would run on motor oil and electricity if he could find a way.
"Someday, I am going to invent a machine that feeds me," Howard said. "That's the problem with working on an assignment where everyone needs super Top Secret clearances, not enough support staff in the fun places."
There were loads of secretaries and assistants, but it was only the true intelligence staff, Steve, and a few of the Commandos who were allowed passed the doors into Howard and the engineers' inner sanctum. "You're the best mechanical engineer in the country and you want to make something that feeds you?"
"Think of the potential, Cap. The refrigerator, the gas stove top, all in anticipation of automatic food preparation. The increase to leisure time would be incredible." Howard always seemed to earnest about these things. When they'd first met, Steve had often thought that Howard was just a showman; he was a showman, but that wasn't all by far.
"Or the amount of time you can stay standing playing with a motorcycle engine before you have to break to eat?"
"That, too." He took another bite of apple, chewing slowly before he swallowed. "No one says it needs to only be to increase leisure."
"I think this is your idea of leisure, isn't it?"
Knee deep in engine parts, drinking coffee, motor oil smeared over his hands and a manic gleam in his eyes. Howard didn't even need to answer for Steve to know that, yes, this was Howard's idea of fun. He had a reputation for womanizing and being distracted by anything in a skirt, but Steve was fairly certain that oil and iron were the man's first love.
"More coffee, Mr. Stark?"
"I don't think blacking out half of Brooklyn to bombard you full of vita-rays actually counts as engineering something to feed me, but I'll take it."
Steve's first thought when he heard that he and the other Avengers would be receiving a Distinguished Service was that he already had one. The fact that they would get them wasn't too surprising, it also didn't surprise him that Tony had taken the news with something resembling manic glee. Steve found the idea self-congratulatory; when he'd received his own medal there'd been a war on and far more important things to do, but now all that was left to do was clean up and the idea of standing up and having his hand shaken because he was a hero again still didn't appeal.
And Tony just was acting like a giddy school-boy, flipping through clothes to wear. Steve already had a newly issued uniform with all of his old ribbons neatly reacquired.
The other man was throwing several different suit styles on his bed, flipping through shirts and pocket squares with a speed that made Steve dizzy. "Hmm?"
"Don't you think this is sort of... in bad taste?" Steve frowned, trying to put what he was feeling into words. "A lot of people died and we're going to Washington to be celebrated like heroes."
Tony didn't even stop what he was doing while he rambled. "Cost benefit analysis, Cap. Tens of thousands against like seven billion. They give you medals for making those decisions. They also give them out when you clean up government messes. I have like... seven." Tony eventually ended up picking something very light grey, and Steve watched him brush his fingers across the fabric and leave it hanging while he put everything back in the closet. "Look, dad told me about the Medal of Honor thing. You skipped out on giving the asshole who used you a chance to get even more publicity out of being BFFs with Captain America. Good on you, but this is different."
Steve barely remembered Howard coming out of his lab enough to know that Steve had stood up Senator Brandt. It was odd to think of that it had become some sort of Stark family anecdote. "Oh?"
"You were an object lesson in substance over style for that one." Tony shrugged. "The last time I got one of these, I had the Senator who was riding my ass about weaponizing the Mark II give me the award. He called me a national treasure." Tony seemed to almost giggle from the memory. "What an ass. Look at it this way: Midtown just got flattened and the world needs people to look up to, that's why we pin a medal on Captain America."
He noticed the conspicuous lack of Iron Man or Tony Stark on Tony's list of people to admire. Tony was also remarkably well behaved for the awarding itself, the Junior Senator from New York presented the medal and Tony looked dashing and threw a peace sign. The two of them were on a plane back to New York out of National Airport only an hour later.
"I still don't understand why no one else had to come," Steve said, watching - and then conspicuously not watching - as Tony stripped out of most of the pieces of his suit.
"Natasha and Clint are operatives, putting them out in front of the cameras was officially dumb according to Fury, Bruce passed, he hates the military, and Thor was Asgarding it up, also is an alien." Tony flung his tie over a chair and then peeled off his jacket, setting it over his lap and carefully unpinning the medal from the lapel. "Like it or not, you're looking at the public face of the Avengers."
Tony then fished out the case for the medal from his jacket pocket, and flung the offending garment the same way as his tie. Steve didn't answer, which seemed to place Tony into his own little world. He took the medal, slid it carefully in to the foam of the case and then set it on his knee. The look on Tony's face was peaceful, at rest in a way that Steve rarely saw, and he watched as Tony breathed deep before finally exhaling. He touched the medal, repositioned it twice, before finally closing the lid.
That was about when Tony seemed to realize that Steve was still watching him. "I had JARVIS order you a ribbon for your new medal."
"Oh," Steve looked down at his chest, pointing to the appropriate ribbon. "I just need an oak leaf cluster, actually."
"Of course you do." Tony shook his head and got... very close. He was standing barely a foot from Steve, looking down at the - frankly overwhelming - collection of ribbons on his breast. "Nice."
It was unkind, but Steve almost expected Tony to be dismissive of the uniform and everything it stood for. He was a self-proclaimed cowboy, a rogue, and he'd cut most of his ties with the military over a year ago. Had also gone so far as to stand in front of Congress and tell them 'where to shove it', if he had his vernacular right, when it came to the Iron Man armor. If anything, Tony seemed to like the uniform more than that silly costume that he'd built for Steve.
"So you have other medals?" Steve asked.
"What? Oh, yeah. I mean technically I'm not in the military, just a contractor so I'm not really supposed to earn medals, but they throw them at me anyway. Afghanistan POW, teach the military kids how to use Stark guns, heroic flying yadda yadda." Tony waved his hand, dismissively. "And I once got my hand shaken by the pilot I rescued out over by Gulmira, although I stand by what I told the military police, he hit me."
"He hit you?" Steve asked, morbidly curious in spite of himself.
"With his plane." Steve listened attentively while Tony explained the various maneuvers he had gone through to destroy a weapons depot in Afghanistan and bring one of the petty warlords to justice and how he'd been pursued out of a No Fly zone by some Air Force reconnaissance. "... So even though Whiplash Two was on my ass, I went after One and popped his 'chute. I didn't get a medal for that, though."
"Oh, well then, I guess it doesn't count?"
Tony made a dismissive gesture, waving away the comment, and the topic was unofficially closed for the duration of the flight back to New York and the car ride back to Stark Tower.
Steve was no stranger to vanity walls, although they weren't something that was easy to keep during the War; he was familiar with the concept of bragging through the contents of a wall covered in awards. Steve had once seen something resembling Tony's CV, which included hundreds of scientific publications from the time he was thirteen, dozens of awards - many of which listed multiple dates Tony had received them - and literally thousands of articles that had been written about them, although Tony had rightly called most of them 'puff pieces'. So to say that Steve had expected Tony to have a vanity wall to end all vanity walls would have been an understatement.
Instead, when they arrived back at the mansion, he watched as Tony made his way down to his workshop; the medal case never made it to another floor after that, from what Steve had seen. In Tony's workshop, the only things down there that could have been termed a vanity wall were a few pictures of Tony and Howard from when they were in a magazine together.
Steve didn't actually find the thing for months.
After a few weeks of living in the Avengers Tower with Tony and the other Avengers, he'd taken to spending a few hours a day watching Tony work in his lab. He was more than capable of feeding himself, and sleeping at semi-regular intervals, but Steve liked the company, and Tony seemed to enjoy it well enough.
"Dummy!" The robot answered with a mournful little whine from where he was working on machining some sort of part. "Nevermind... Butter..." Tony sighed. "Steve? Will you be my robot minion for five?"
Steve generally thought that Tony just used it as an excuse not to get up, but at least this time he could accept the fact that Tony was, in fact, tethered to the Iron Man armor, and the armor was pinned down by three robots. He put his sketch pad and pencils down. "I don't have to call you 'Sir' do I?"
"His Royal Starkness?" Tony asked, but he obviously wasn't serious. "Side wall, tool chest, second drawer."
Steve got up and found the chest that Tony was referring to, there were five drawers. Steve poked the second from the bottom, only to have it slide gently open and reveal... pretty much every military ribbon that Tony had earned, tucked neatly into display foam, clearly labeled with a date but no reference to whatever had been done to earn it.
"Second from the top," Tony yelled.
He tucked away the display drawer and opened the other drawer and pulled out the tool that Tony needed. "Where do you keep the Sexiest Man Alive award, Tony?" He asked as he handed over the tool Tony needed.
"Above my bed," he shot back, immediately. "Would you like to see it, Captain?" Tony's voice actually sounded more than a bit sultry, and Steve blushed in response.
"Somehow I don't think Pepper would approve." Where had that answer come from? Tony was handsome, of course, and far less vapid than he liked people to think, but he was taken, and very likely not the sort - invitations to see his 'sexiest man' awards notwithstanding.
"Do you have designs on my virtue?" Tony asked, most of his attention back to his suit and not to Steve. "Are you going to ask me to your room to see your sketchbook?"
Steve's sketchbook - depending on which one he picked - would have been an embarrassing display of Tony at work, surrounded by his robot children, looking far more relaxed than he ever did in public. Steve wasn't certain he could stand the scrutiny.
"I think I'll pass," Steve answered, settling back down on the couch with his sketchbook as he went back to a portrait of You, one of Tony's robots.
Tony left his medals in a display case in his workshop. The more Steve thought about it, the more he realized exactly how much sense that made. Tony had this ridiculous public persona, one that Steve had been taken by at the start, the braggart, the ham, the publicity hound, but there were some things: time with his robots, quiet moments of engineering, and tokens of real, legitimate service to his country, that Tony kept far more private.
Steve really liked the fact that he was one of the few allowed to see that side of Tony; he had a feeling very few people even realized it existed, and that was their loss.
Steve had come as soon as he heard Howard was in the infirmary with a concussion. He'd run double-time when he found out that Howard had nearly gotten blown up working on that HYDRA explosive that Steve had brought back from the base, making his injury completely Steve's fault, as far as he was concerned. Instead of finding Howard resting he was talking a mile a minute with his assistant.
"The power potential on that little thing was incredible. And to think I thought Rogers was pulling my leg. I want more!" Howard looked wild-eyed and completely in some sort of haze, pleased with himself. "Rogers!" Howard waved at him. "I need to know everything."
The idea of making Howard's mind work when he was concussed seemed unwise, but Steve didn't want to upset the man, so he sat down beside him. "Doing alright, Mr. Stark?"
"The energy potential in just that tiny bead, Captain! It's incredible. If I could unlock the engineering behind it..." Howard laughed, almost giddy, and Steve couldn't help but smile in return. "I want more of those, as many as you can find. Consider it a mission."
"Of course." Steve waited for the moment of mania to pass before scooting closer. "I think you should probably relax."
Howard's assistant nodded as well, making a soothing sort of placating gesture. "Howard, get some rest. You took a bad blow to the head."
Howard frowned, but finally nodded. The assistant left and Steve continued to sit next to him in the infirmary. He hadn't known Howard for long, really, just a few days in real time, even if the meetings had been separated by months, and Howard hadn't made the most favorable impression at the start, but now Steve was starting to get the impression that Howard was just... brilliant, if quirky.
"Obie took my notepad," Howard said.
"Probably for the best," Steve answered, even if Howard didn't seem to agree. "Let's talk about something other than magic HYDRA weapons."
"It's not magic." Howard tried to maneuver himself so he was sitting. Steve leaned in to help him, leaving him upright with a carefully fluffed pillow before Steve sat back down. "It's science, there is some sort of energy that Schmidt and Zola have been able to harness recently. How to make that energy is beyond my knowledge, and maybe even beyond Zola's, but how to capture it has not eluded them."
"That's not resting easy," Steve said. Howard seemed incapable of relaxing, so Steve just set a hand on his shoulder, almost physically pushing him down.
"Alright, then, Captain America. How should I be resting easy?"
Everyone knew Howard's idea of relaxing was a fast car and a dame on each arm, so Steve wasn't sure how he was supposed help Howard relax. He fumbled in his pockets for anything that might be a distraction, instead finding the case for his Medal of Honor. Steve took it out and looked down at it. He hadn't even seen the medal yet.
"You made Colonel Phillips happy," Howard said. "Standing up Senator Brandt."
"You don't approve?"
Howard put out his hand, and Steve handed over the medal, Howard opening the case and leaving it to sit on his lap. "I don't much approve of Brandt, I don't mind him having a bit of egg on his face... but you're a hero now."
"I'm not a hero, Mr. Stark." He wasn't. He'd done one good thing, hardly enough to qualify himself as a hero.
"Kids are buying your comics for a nickle on every street corner in New York." Steve didn't think that was something that made a man a hero either. "Sometimes an award ceremony is just an award ceremony, but the war's not going the way we'd like right now. Taking down a HYDRA base, saving some good men from certain death, it's those things that win a war."
Steve looked down at his hands, blushed. "I think you're still a bit concussed." Howard didn't protest, but he did look like he was thinking about it and just hadn't found what to say. "What am I going to do with a medal anyway?"
"Keep it, put it somewhere safe. That's a reminder of saving a lot of lives, Cap." Howard picked up the case and closed it, handing it back to him. "Give it to your kid when you have one, tell 'em the difference between true heroism and just playing at it. Just because you have a fancy medal to show for it doesn't make it any less real."
The moment felt heavier than Steve was comfortable with, leaving him with this strange impression of Howard as a man both wise beyond his years and very, very young. This was the man who Steve had first seen on a stage kissing a dame as part of his presentation on a flying car, but he'd flown Steve out into Nazi territory without a second thought.
"They ever give you medals for your fancy flying?" Steve asked, eager to break the tension he was feeling, if only in his own mind.
"I have not. You know they don't actually like sending one of their greatest mechanical engineering minds anywhere near where he can be shelled, right?"
"You did a pretty good job of getting yourself clobbered right here in London."
"That I did." Howard ran his hands over his thighs, mulling something over before he turned to Steve. "They give you medals for figuring out fancy ways of blowing things up, and pulling HYDRA gear apart and making a way to counter it. There's... a few other projects that might be worth a medal or two. Scientists don't usually get medals for saving lives, Captain. You should savor that one."
Steve put his hand over the box, feeling neither particularly blessed or particularly special, but he realized, probably much later than he should have, that almost every weapon he fired other than a straight up gun, every piece of armor, every tank or plane addition, came courtesy of Howard's mind. He wondered, vaguely, what his body count must have been; even not counting the Nazis - the HYDRA goons so far gone that they believed Schmidt was a god - Steve had been responsible for maybe a few deaths of the prisoners he couldn't save. Howard's body count, if only from shot down tech or armor that wasn't quite up to scratch, must have already been impressive. He knew Mr. Stark had been consulting with SSR for years by now.
He put the box down next to Howard's thigh, and gave it a soft little pat. "You should hold onto it."
"It's a Medal of Honor. It's yours."
"It's not like I can take it on missions," Steve answered. "Just... keep it safe? Think of it as pre-payment for all the times you're going to keep me and my boys safe."
Howard accepted that, and he pressed his fingers to the edges of the box, their fingers coming close but not touching. Steve knew he should pull away, should leave, should let Howard recover, but instead he sat there, looking at their fingers as they nearly intertwined. Howard broke the near-contact first. "You gonna tell me a bit about that HYDRA tech you're gonna throw your boys against, Cap?"
"I think you're just trying to get me to tell you more about glowing, exploding bubbles, Mr. Stark."
"Guilty, but you can't blame a guy for trying."
Steve spent the next four hours giving Howard a technical blow-by-blow while Howard sat, enraptured. It was far easier than Steve would have expected.
Tony's voice in his ear was a constant hum that Steve was still getting used to even after their third major mission together. Like another Stark from both years and months ago, he was getting used to trusting it implicitly. It was both hard and easy, comforting and deeply unsettling. Maybe it shouldn't have been either.
"Dodge left, Rogers!" Tony's voice came over his headset. "Four feet!"
Steve did so immediately, in time to feel a wrecked car fly by him, thrown by Hulk. "Mr. Stark."
"Captain," Tony returned the acknowledgement.
"Is there a reason you're playing air support, Tony?" Steve asked, watching as the car Hulk had flung bounced harmlessly off one of the robots they were fighting. "I figured rampaging robots would be your specialty."
"Electromagnetic fields plus Tony equals bad," Tony answered. Steve had remembered Tony had said something about electromagnetic fields, but Steve hadn't been paying too much attention. Usually he didn't have to. "Have we gotten you to see Alien yet?"
"Is that the one where he wants to phone home?" Steve asked. That was the only alien movie he could think of.
"Who the hell exposed Cap to science fiction while I wasn't there to watch?!" Tony said, full volume in Steve's ear.
"TINY ALIEN SAD!" Hulk answered.
"Of course you feel kinship with the little green man getting chased around by the military industrial research complex," Tony answered. "How silly of me. To sum up, Cap, Alien is a movie where a horrible monster bursts out of this guy's chest. Magnets attract metal, there is metal in my chest, magnet pull metal out of Tony's chest. I don't have enough shielding to deal with this level of magnetic power. Thus I am an annoying voice in your ear."
"I don't think you need the magnet excuse for that," Natasha broke in.
"I don't want to watch Alien," Steve answered. Modern movies were so terribly violent all the time. Steve was of the opinion that there was enough violence in the world that he didn't need to watch it on a movie screen.
"If you two are done bickering like an old married couple, could be please concentrate on the crazed robots."
"Yup. Cap, ricochet, three and five o'clock, twenty-three degrees." Steve had his shield up in a moment, and the blast from Tony's chest piece came flying towards him before he was even consciously aware of it. The beam bounced off of his shield and rammed straight into the oncoming pair of robots. "Whoo! Cap and Iron Man, SURE PLAY A MEAN PINBALL!"
In spite of himself, Steve grinned. He didn't know the song, but that never stopped Tony in the past. He used it as an excuse to bring Steve to listen to one song or another, usually a bunch of songs. It was just another reason to expose Steve to another decade of music, really. He didn't mind; Tony usually ended up singing half-way through.
Steve always found it relaxing when it wasn't a part of combat, sometimes it was just that perfect reminder that he did have a Stark on his back, and that was a position that Steve was familiar and very comfortable with.
Steve's leg was covered in far more blood than he was used to having outside of him; he probably should have been used to it from the way he spent his youth fighting in back alleys, but he wasn't. Dum Dum had Steve's leg wrapped tight in a belt while he had one arm around Bucky and the other around Dum Dum while Jacques had both of his legs as they barreled towards the make-shift airstrip and extraction point.
HYDRA cannon fire came from behind, overhead and to the side, vaporizing trees in its wake.
"Come on, come on," Howard's voice came over Morita's radio when they were in range. "We are wasting daylight."
It wasn't that, and Steve knew it, Howard was a sitting duck on the makeshift runway, and the idea of sending the best and brightest engineer out to pick up a few stray Commandos wasn't exactly a brilliant idea. Howard should probably have been inventing something, and have one of the Army pilots pick them up. Howard was very proprietary about the Commandos, though. Why, Steve would never know.
Steve hissed in pain as he landed on the floor of the plane, the rest of the Commandos piling in behind and dragging the door closed. "Tray tables up, boys."
"Get us in the air, Mr. Stark," Steve hissed through gritted teeth. The propeller was back into gear a moment later and they began the bumpy takeoff. Steve tried not to bite through his lip to avoid shouting as the plane rocked and Steve's leg banged against one of the chairs.
The plane finally made it to an altitude where they could actually cruise and Bucky started to work to get the leg of his pants ripped open. "Stark, how the devil do you get these damn pants off?" Bucky asked.
"More a question I expected from his Pistol Packin' Mama," Howard said, making Steve think back to when Peggy had shot at him, and Howard had left that song to run in the engineering bays whenever he knew Steve would be coming to see him. At first, he'd thought it was just his way of poking fun at Peggy, but he soon realized it was more to tease Steve in this strangely affectionate way that Howard had sometimes. Only Howard would think a song about a dame coming after you with a gun was the right way to tease a guy about his failure with women.
The memory was lost, however, when Howard turned to look at Steve, and Steve imagined he looked paler than Howard expected. "Damn." The plane jolted slightly to the side and Howard fumbled in the cockpit, finally passing back a knife. "Be careful with that, Sergeant Barnes."
"Just hold us steady, Mr. Stark," Bucky answered. Steve gritted his teeth as the plane shook from a close explosion. "I thought you knew how to fly!"
"And I can tell you how it manages to do it, Sergeant," Howard shot back. The plane fell quiet a few moments later, Howard focusing full ahead on his flying and Bucky doing his best to cut open the pant leg. "Anything broken?"
"I don't think so," Steve answered. "Through and through."
"Good thing it wasn't a HYDRA weapon. Explosives?"
"Didn't clear the building quite in time. Just some exploding metal." Steve gritted his teeth again as Bucky prodded at his thigh with some proper medical supplies that he'd pulled down from the overhead. "Mr. Stark, not that I mind, but you usually save the debriefing on the technical issues of the mission until after we've stopped bleeding."
"Of course." Howard was facing forward again, finally getting them out of the immediately dangerous airspace and back towards the base camp.
Bucky was dabbing and prodding at the wound now, and Steve concentrated on anything he could, caught sight of Howard's hands gripped tight on the steering. Even in the low light, Steve could see the way Howard's jaw twitched when he checked one of the indicators. It was easy to focus on that rather than the pain in his leg, rather than the way every poke and prod made him wince.
He closed his eyes, listened as Howard called in their estimated arrival so the landing strip could be lit up in advance. Steve was fairly certain that Howard could have landed the plane with his eyes closed in pitch black with a fog bank, but he appreciated the man not trying it.
At first, he thought he was imagining the faint humming, but a few moments later it resolved into an actual tune, one that teased at the edge of Steve's memory as he tried to place it. He glanced around, Morita was the first to notice it - his hearing was almost as good as Steve's had become. He watched the communications officer grin and then tap his fingers lightly against this own knee.
Howard finally broke into actual song, rather than just humming the accompaniment. "All or nothin' at all/ Half a love never appealed to me/ If your heart, it never could yield to me/ then I'd rather, rather have nothin' at all."
That was when the rest of the Commandos noticed, and Steve was glad for the distraction from the pain, even if it made him feel... odd. They were a plane full of fellas and Howard was singing something like that, but the truth was a man took his music where he could find it. Howard made a point of bringing in all sorts of singles from home whenever he needed more supplies they couldn't find in London, or just whenever he had to go to that other project Howard was always very hush hush about, something to do with another super weapon in the works.
They had a very extended rendition of the song by the time Howard actually set wheels down and Steve waited for the stretcher to help him to medical. Howard flipped through the post-flight cool down while Steve waited.
"Thank you for that. It was... very distracting."
"I seem to excel at that sometimes," Howard said.
"You sing it better than Sinatra."
Howard shrugged. "That's a matter for some debate."
"You do," Steve answered, completely meaning it. "You never struck me as an 'all or nothing at all' sort of guy though, Mr. Stark."
"It's more your speed," Howard said. "Not one to settle for half."
Howard took his chance to exit the plane, leaving the moment Bucky and the medical staff arrived with a stretcher. Steve just stared up at at the empty pilot's chair as they lifted him out of the plane and took him away for a proper surgery.
A period of intense mourning had settled over Avengers Tower after their latest mission that Steve wasn't immediately aware of the cause of. Natasha and Clint seemed to spend more time than usual brooding in a corner, sharing intense whispers that suggested they were planning a strategic strike of some sort without conferring with the others, Bruce seemed to divide his time between working in his lab and cooking for everyone else, mostly baked goods, Thor was completely missing in action, having gone off to see his girlfriend Dr. Foster, and Tony was hiding in his lab and hadn't come out in over a day and a half.
For some reason, Tony's seemed the most reasonable reaction of all of them. His girl had dumped him, apparently in a manner that felt more permanent than the last three times, and Steve wasn't surprised at all to find he was hiding in his lab. If he had to guess, he'd say there would be another three days of Tony remaining locked in his lab, less if he blew something up or made something neat first.
On the third day, Natasha came up to him just after breakfast, glowering. "You should talk to him."
"Who?" None of the other Avengers were around so there was no obvious target or reason for Natasha's concern.
"Tony," her voice held a tone that he had learned could be described succinctly as 'duh'.
Tony was still locked in his lab. "Why?"
"Because he's depressed, he's locked in his lab, his best friend is on the West Coast and his CEO-slash-former-assistant-slash-girlfriend broke up with him and he could probably use a shoulder to cry on before he goes on a bender." Natasha actually grabbed him by the shirt collar and tugged him so he was more on eye level with her, which was strange and completely unnecessary. "And you're the team lead with him. Any more stupid questions?"
He opened his mouth and then thought better of the next question he'd been about to ask. He knew that Natasha knew Tony for longer than Steve had, might have a better understanding of him, but he found the idea... well it just didn't fit the guy that he'd gotten to know over the last few months. "Alright. I'll... take care of it."
Steve then went to the shared kitchen and started to poke through the dozens of varieties of coffee that Tony had stocked the pantry with. Natasha stared at him.
"What?" He paused, realized what he said. "That's not a stupid question. If you want me to go talk to Tony, I have to do it right." He'd known he'd found the right coffee before he even smelled it. The label was different, had changed over the last seventy years, but Steve recognized the brand and when he opened up the pack and gave it an experimental sniff he knew he'd found his coffee. "Very expensive Italian roast."
"Tony drinks his coffee with a gallon of sugar in it," Natasha answered, but said little else.
Steve poked awkwardly at one of the kitchen panels and mostly waited for JARVIS to realize he wanted a coffee grinder. A few moments later, one appeared, and Steve measured enough beans to make three cups. "Do you drink ridiculously expensive imported Italian roast?"
"No one in the house does."
"Then why does Tony have an open bag that doesn't expire for another six months?" Steve knew, knew in a way that transcended genetics, that this was Tony's moping coffee. "Howard used to drink this when..."
"Don't handle Tony Stark the way you'd handle Howard, Steve. Did you even read his dossier?"
"I did." And he'd read everything he could get his hands on concerning Howard. The Howard he'd known had always been open, but just a touch too guarded to truly show what he was feeling. He just... knew. "And if it does bother him you can say you told me so and no harm done; Tony doesn't hate his father, I don't know why you or Fury seem to think that."
Natasha looked set to say something, but eventually left him be, and Steve brewed the small pot of coffee, transferring it into a warm ceramic pot and taking two mugs - and some sugar - down to the lab. He balanced the small tray one handed and punched in his code. Tony wasn't even working, just picking up glowing hologram things and throwing them at bulls eyes. Steve set the tray neatly on the edge of one of the work benches, glancing over to see a picture of a slightly older Howard, he and Tony working together on some engine or another.
"Coffee?" Steve offered.
"Music to my ears." Tony went over and poured himself a glass, staring down at the liquid for a moment before he actually seemed to smell it. He'd barely poured a half glass when he brought the cup up to his nose and took a long sniff. "I thought I hid this."
"Well... I was looking for it." Steve considered saying something, closed his mouth, and then reminded himself he didn't get where he was by being shy and retiring. "Your father used to smuggle it out of Switzerland whenever he landed there. Apparently it's hard to get Italian coffee even when you're fighting a war in Sicily."
"He loved this stuff," Tony said, staring down into it. "It's now considered bad form to give your six year old kid coffee, but whenever we were working on an engine there was always a pot brewing or sitting. I think it's the smell; I don't even like the taste." He took a sip anyway. "You took a shot in the dark on this?"
Steve shrugged. "Natasha said you didn't like dark roast coffee."
"I don't." Tony poured himself a full cup, and then one for Steve, before he sat on the couch and sighed. "You knew dad pretty well, didn't you? Early Howard, pre-Manhattan project, pre-lots of stuff."
"I think he was a little different, easier," Steve had gotten that impression from the bits and pieces of Howard he'd found around the house, in the pictures and mementos that Tony had around the lab and the Tower.
"You met the kinder, gentler Howard?" Tony asked, skeptical.
"I guess." He knew a different Howard.
"There was this whole man I never knew." Tony stood, balling up another chunk of hologram and flinging it across the room. "Obie... Obie once told me that he never quite was the same after the War. He always played it like he toughened up, became the Howard Stark who made Stark Industries' legacy. I find myself wondering sometimes."
"I saw that press conference you did after coming back from Afghanistan," Steve said, following the train of thought. 'I never got to say goodbye to my dad. There were questions I would have asked him.' Steve could still hear the touch of emotion in Tony's voice. "What ever happened to Obie? He worked with your dad all the time during the War." He'd been alive a few years ago.
"He... ripped my heart out, literally, and use it to power battle armor designed for war and destruction." Tony fell silent, laughed. "Bad breakup." His laugh turned into a manic giggle that reminded him of Howard on his worst days, when even the most morbid things were slightly funny. "Kinda puts the Pepper thing in perspective."
Tony lifted his hand, settled it over his chest where Steve knew the arc reactor rested in Tony's chest. Steve took the moment to let the horror of that sink in. Obadiah had tried to kill his best friend's son.
"So how did this work? You and my dad? You poured him a cup of Italian roast and---?"
"He worked, I sketched, he complained about what was bothering him, or everything but." It had only happened a few times, but Steve had found he enjoyed it well enough.
"And this isn't weird for you? Playing Rogers-Stark BFFs: the Next Generation." Tony turned away. "It's weird. This is weird for me."
"You're... a bit like your dad." A lot, Steve wanted to say that Tony was very much like his father, but he didn't think that would be well-received at the moment. "I think your Howard and my Howard were very different, though." He wondered, sometimes, how much he would have gotten along with Howard after the war. It was hard to separate the man from the myth, really. Tony he was actually getting to know the man, and Howard, even when he was vulnerable, had always seemed untouchable. "It's not weird for me. You're two different people."
"JARVIS, make a note: be less weird about Steve knowing my dad."
"Of course, Sir."
Steve gave him a grin. "That part is weird," Steve said, pointing to the ceiling where he had sort of decided JARVIS lived. Tony let him stay after that, the two of them throwing holograms at the wall and watching them stick, taking mouthfuls of coffee that neither of them liked until Tony seemed to finally unfurl, allowing himself to smile and not let himself fall back into the work he didn't need to do to hide from the world.
Howard wasn't conspicuous in his mourning, not in any way that the scientists or even the military and Colonel Phillips noticed. To them, Howard just looked to be wrapped up in his work. Steve was always surprised when even Obadiah didn't seem to notice the way his friend visibly suffered from his failures; Steve wouldn't even have called it a failure, not really, but he knew Howard tried and when his tech wasn't perfect people died.
They'd lost almost seven hundred men to a poorly timed push by HYDRA and another failure by Howard to sort out a defense to the HYDRA weapons. A few of the Commandos were grumbling about Howard not having an empathetic bone in his body, but Steve knew that Howard was upset by the arrival of a single cup of coffee in place of the more usual chicory. The stuff smelled horrible, but Steve had long since realized it was for a certain sort of special occasion.
"You're not getting any coffee, Rogers."
"Of course not, Mr. Stark."
That wall remained, the one where Howard didn't let himself seem tired, didn't allow himself to show any sign of weakness, didn't let the other scientists or the other military guys see how much the war was being fought in the back of Howard's mind. Steve felt a certain amount of kinship with Howard in this. In the same way that people had started to look to him to pull a perfect military victory out of the hat, people turned to Howard to engineer countermeasures for the work of a whole team of HYDRA scientists. It wasn't fair, not any more than asking Steve to lead a fistful of men to take down HYDRA, but they both were in it together.
"Do you have... any more projections?" Steve asked, poking his nose conspicuously into whatever Howard was doing. "Power readings?"
"This from the man who mostly asks me if the weapons run on electricity or not," Howard said, but he came over to where Steve was standing, poking his head very close to the weapon. "No, nothing."
Howard leaned against the table and glanced over his shoulder towards Steve, taking another sip of the coffee and letting it rest on his tongue. Steve knew the gesture well, Howard seemed to love nothing more than a mouthful of coffee and a moment to think. Steve took position beside him, leaning as Howard did, waiting for the man to break their silence.
"After..." Howard stopped. "You've got HYDRA on the ropes, we've got an ace in our pocket back home, but it's still strange to think about 'after'."
Steve thought about the things he wanted, getting to know Peggy better, maybe seeing if Howard was only serious because of the War or if all those rumors the soldiers had about him were just talk; Steve wanted to meet the girls his Commandos talked about at night whose pictures they had in their jacket pocket. "You think things'll be different or the same?"
"The world's gonna change." Howard brought his coffee up to his mouth and inhaled rather than take another sip. "The future's not going to just be flying cars or new and flashy technology. The whole world is going to change into something... different, there'll be technology, especially when you crack HYDRA open and I can start working with whatever technology Zola's been working off of. Limitless power used to create a better tomorrow."
Steve couldn't help but allow himself to get wrapped up in it. Howard rarely talked about the future, it was one of the consequences of being in the middle of a total war with a power that seemed almost unstoppable at times. There was so much riding on Howard, so much riding on Steve, and if the man wanted to take a few minutes to escape from the present Steve would take him there.
"Do you ever feel as though you were meant to live in the future, Mr. Stark?" Steve certainly didn't, but if there was anyone who could best appreciate the future, it would be Howard.
Rather than give one of his more flippant answers that he sometimes gave, Howard seemed to chew over the problem for some time. "Well... yes. I think I might like the future. The present does have its charms, though."
Steve looked over at Howard, saw him smiling with a certain distant look on his face; he always wondered what was going through Howard's mind in those moments when he just seemed to look fond, like he was thinking something particularly warm and pleasant that had nothing to do with science. Steve assumed it had to do with dames, but he couldn't say he really knew the look.
"And then," Howard continued. "There's the very real possibility that the future won't get here if I'm not here to help you make it."
Right. The pressure that Steve felt constantly returned, the pressure that Steve knew Howard felt constantly returned. "It wouldn't want to miss the opportunity, Mr. Stark."
"Thank you." Howard sounded so sincere, his hands still curled around his coffee cup, he brought it to his mouth and just let it sit there, eyes closed, inhaling the scent.
"I know what it's like to have everyone counting on you," Steve said, voice very quiet.
Howard tensed, Steve had said the wrong thing.
"I want to see that flying car," Steve offered. "The one you showed at the Expo."
That made Howard laugh. "You saw that? I think it was in a few papers, at least. The power requirements are too much to be running on just gasoline, unfortunately."
"I was there," Steve admitted. "Bucky, too, just before he shipped out."
"And then a few weeks later I was there to flip a switch with Erskine. It's a wonder you let me anywhere near you, Captain."
It was, Steve realized. It wasn't as though he knew of Howard's record before then. He hadn't even known for sure that Howard was a proper mechanical engineer until long after he'd been treated. "You have a very trustworthy face, Mr. Stark."
The two of them glanced at each other, the corners of Steve's mouth turned up, Howard was actually grinning now. At least Howard wasn't wrapped up in his own head, for a genius, it didn't suit him much.
Steve couldn't get drunk, not the way he found he wanted to. He had barely twenty-four hours to save the world from total annihilation, and he had to do it while missing his best friend, a man he'd never see again. It was the end, everyone at SSR felt it, and even Howard had somehow stopped in that breathless moment where Steve had to make that last push against HYDRA and Schmidt.
Even though Steve had no intention of dying and no desire to die, he knew it was entirely likely. He avoided that conversation with Peggy, though, it was too much like giving up a dream. He found Howard in his work room, alone; the rest of the scientists had been dismissed for a few hours or a day, released to make their inconspicuous goodbyes to their loved ones under the watchful eyes of SSR intelligence officers.
"Captain," Howard greeted him, leaning up against a bench.
"Not calling anyone?" He knew Howard had a father and a brother, but the man never really talked about them beyond confirming they existed.
He shook his head in response.
"You've done some amazing work," Steve said. How else would he say goodbye to Howard but through all of the millions of little ways Howard had tried to keep him alive for the last years? "Time for it to all pay off."
"I'll be right behind Phillips and Carter," Howard said. "We'll make it all pay off."
Goodbye. He wanted to say it. "Thank you for everything, Mr. Stark."
"You never call me Howard."
Steve did call him Howard, in his mind when thinking about him, but there was this distance between them. Sometimes he felt as though Howard was holding him at arms length even as they became closer; Steve would have given anything for him and Howard to have been closer, for Howard to have been able to take the same sort of comfort that Howard gave him when he most needed it.
"Do you want me to call you Howard?" They'd known each other for months, going on well over a year, and Howard had never invited it. "You never call me Steve."
Neither of them had an answer for each other. He watched Howard turn away, run his hands over Steve's bike, tuned up and ready to go once more into the breach. Sometimes Steve wished--
It didn't matter.
"I'm... scared," Steve admitted, finally. For the first time in years he said that. He'd never been scared back in Brooklyn, not even with his back against the wall in a fight of impossible odds. "I barely have a plan."
As much as he'd looked Philips straight in the eye, asked his men to follow him into Switzerland and take out Schmidt in his lair, he had no idea if this would work. It was a last hurrah, it was all he could do to keep going, to keep taking the fight to HYDRA, and this was the first time the stakes felt almost stifling. If he'd said that to Peggy, he was certain she'd say something about how he had to succeed, how he had so much riding on him and it wasn't time to back down now. Phillips would have just told him to 'man up, son'. Howard just reached out and squeezed his shoulder.
"You've always done your best work flying by the seat of your pants," Howard assured him.
Howard took his predictable turn for the philosophical, Steve recognized the moment he went from showman to introspective. "You spend all this time, all this engineering, creating the perfect augmentation, but it's just that, an incredible feat of engineering. Without the right man underneath it all, I think it's worse than that. It's dangerous."
A good man. Steve remembered Erskine's words to him, his reminder as he laid dying that Steve had to be, above all, a good man. He knew too well what happened when an evil, selfish man got his hands on the reins of power: chaos and annihilation loomed. "I'm just a kid from Brooklyn."
"It's easier to admire Captain America," Howard answered. "The... perfection is far more conspicuous. Admiring the kid from Brooklyn that made Captain America the man he was is far harder, and far more... personal."
The confession itself felt loaded with meaning that Steve wasn't certain how to untangle. He knew Howard cared about him, worked his ass off to see to it that Steve came home safe, but in that moment it felt like an incomplete picture. "Is that why you always call me Cap?"
"Probably." Howard turned back to him now, looking up the several inches it took to meet Steve's eyes. "I think you'll always be the best man I've ever known."
Howard was... all but eulogizing him, or himself, or them both. Steve knew what this was, it was a man preparing for the end, a man taking the reins or letting them go. Howard could never, ever let go. "Your not so bad yourself, Howard."
There was something on Howard's face, warmth, sadness, some emotion that Steve wished he could figure out, but he knew he'd never quite understood Howard, not the way he wished he could. He wondered if all Starks were as complicated, or if Howard just made it seem effortless.
"I'll see you around, Steve." He put out his hand to shake, and Steve did, feeling warm and cold for reasons he couldn't put into words. "Come back soon. I've got a prototype I want to show you."
There wasn't any prototype.
Howard just wanted him to come home.
"Cap!" Tony's voice came from somewhere above him, panicked and breathless. "Steve!"
He groaned. Every inch of him hurt.
"Oh, good, if you're in pain you aren't dead. Embrace the pain." He could still hear Tony, his voice sort of in his ear and not. He must have been over the comm, still fighting.
"Stark," Natasha said, she was also in his ear. "You are a morbid son of a bitch, and that sentiment says so much about you it's not even funny."
"Shrink-wrap me another time, 'Tasha," Tony answered, and the sounds of combat came over the headset and all around them.
Steve tried to move, he was fairly certain he remembered being set on fire, but somehow his body hadn't... stopped, he just hurt, a lot. A crash sounded behind him, and then a crunch. He tried to move, that sound meant there were people fighting nearby and he needed to move. Cold metal wrapped around the back of his head and he tried to struggle against it.
"Shhhh." Tony. "Take it easy. You have like... the worst chemical imbalance ever according to JARVIS and scanners. Open your mouth."
He did, always trust a Stark, they'll get you through anything. Disgusting tasting water hit his mouth and he spit most of it out, barely holding back the scream when it touched his cracked lips and skin.
"Stop that, soldier," Tony snapped at him. "You'll drink it and you'll like it."
This time when the bottle hit his lips he managed to swallow most of it, and after several seconds he actually managed to open his eyes, looking up and seeing-- just the helmet. "Tony."
The helmet snapped open breath later. "Hey, yeah. Tony's a bit busy right now, but if you'll leave your name and number he'll be happy to get back to you within three business days." Steve smiled, barely. Tony smiled back. "Please don't die. I've gotta say stupid, impulsive things to you."
Tony helped him drink again, enough that he could actually start to feel himself... knit, there was no other word for it. He got enough strength back to reach up and take the bottle Tony was forcing him to drink from. "I have these horribly inappropriate feelings for you. I hope you don't remember this." And then Tony was gone, flying back into the fray leaving Steve flat on the pavement in more ways than one.
Super soldier serum sort of guaranteed Steve wasn't going to forget.
Tony staying away the week it took him to recover from burns no ordinary human could recover from didn't make Steve any more likely to forget. Fury had finally released him to go back to Avengers Tower and be looked after by hyper-advanced biological monitors that apparently Tony had installed on every floor anyway. But in spite of the fact that Dummy had apparently been tasked to 'do whatever Steve says' and JARVIS actually seemed to be mothering him, Tony stayed elusive for several hours after Steve arrived.
"Sir?" JARVIS interrupted Steve staring at the ceiling, waiting. "Mr. Stark is here to see you. He has brought sustenance."
"He's welcome to come in."
The door slid open revealing Tony, looking no different than he ever did, jeans, black t-shirt that fit him just right, only he was carrying a tray, and on it was a bowl. "Chicken and Stars. It's Campbell's, that's got to have like a nostalgia factor, right?"
His mother usually made homemade soup, but Steve wasn't going to quibble. "Thanks."
Tony set the tray down across Steve's lap, and then he... hovered. There was no other word for the awkward lines of Tony's back and sides as he stood poised to flee at a moment's provocation. "Feeling better?"
Horribly inappropriate feelings. He looked over at Tony again, nodded. "I feel pretty good, actually."
"Good." Tony glanced back. "Good. I should let you... get to it."
"I've got a puzzle, actually," Steve said, stopping Tony before he could leave. If there was one thing he wouldn't be able to resist it was a puzzle. Tony stood, waiting. "What sort of feelings?"
Tony's face paled. His face said he was seriously considering a retreat. "Inappropriate ones." Neither of them said anything. "Ones where I'm pretty sure I don't want to keep doing this without you, ones where I'm pretty sure I'm not the first Stark to go there. I'm pretty sure my dad didn't run annual Arctic exploratory missions because he really liked seals and ice."
The words were a punch to the gut and a thousand little pieces sliding into place. A thousand glances, a thousand almost touches, moments when if Howard had just... moved forward, Steve didn't think he would have moved back. Howard, for all his bravado, had always been cautious. He could imagine it now, though, the way he must have crumpled, the way never getting to reach out and touch must have killed him every day. Peggy, at least, must have been able to hold on to that goodbye kiss and been able to console herself that she was loved, that Steve had wanted that dance. Howard had... a prototype and a 'thank you for everything, Mr. Stark.'
"Howard and I were friends. Tony, we're friends."
"Yeah." Tony nodded. "Yeah, BFFs, that's... that's what Starks and Steve Rogers do." Tony was probably so wrapped up in his own head he didn't even realize how he shook his head and muttered 'stupid' under his breath, chastising himself for an error, a miscalculation.
"Tony." Tony was already most of the way to the door. "Tony!" He stopped. Steve took a deep breath, his lungs weren't really back to full strength yet, in spite of the Serum. "Waking up to you and not Howard was only weird at the start. It hurt losing one of my best friends, it felt wrong to replace him like that. Now... now it's mostly awkward because I think about how the hell I'd look him in the eye if I had to say I had a few inappropriate feelings for his son."
He wished he could have seen the look on Tony's face in that moment, but the glimpse he got a few seconds later when Tony turned was almost enough. Raw shock and incomprehension were etched over every line of his face. "You and he never--?"
"He totally would have," Tony said.
The idea ached, hard in Steve's chest. Even if it never would have gone anywhere, even if it probably would have destroyed what he could have with Tony, Steve hated the idea that he had left his friend alone for all those years.
"Well, if you come over here-" Steve patted the bedside next to him. "I am fairly certain we can find at least one way you absolutely do not remind me of your father."
They ended up finding several more over the years to come.