Even now, somewhat safe in the knowledge that most of Steve's words had been because of Loki's meddling, it didn't take away the sting of the actual words.
Still, he hadn't really expected Steve to seek him out so soon. It had been less than two days since the Battle of Manhattan and Tony had barely gotten through the start of his Avengers Tower remodeling plans.
"Sir," JARVIS interrupted his planning. "Captain Rogers is at the front of Stark Tower examining the keypad. He has been inspecting it for the last thirty seconds."
"Oh, take pity on the old guy," Tony said. "Let him up, point him my way."
Even with Tony permitting Steve in, it took him several minutes for him to get upstairs and find Tony in the bombed out remains of his top floor workshop. Tony didn't waste it waiting. He spent the time pondering the problem of Steve, the floor Tony had already started to put together for him, and wondering just how the hell he was supposed to work with the guy. Fighting alongside each other had mended some of the worst of the problems, but that didn’t erase the history; it probably didn’t help that Steve hadn’t been there for the history that troubled Tony the most.
He doubted Steve had the same reservations he'd had a few days ago - they would make a good team, Tony knew that - but that didn't change the fact that there was some awkwardness there that transcended a few harsh words while high on pixie-troll-magic.
"Is this a bad time?" Steve asked, standing quite amusingly in the threshold of the elevator wearing the most ghastly shirt Tony had ever had the misfortune of laying eyes on.
"Oh, you know, wrath of a god, alien invasion, my tower to my magnificence will never be the same again." Tony gestured towards the stool across from his workbench. "Please, come in. My robots are still in Malibu so if you want a cocktail you'll have to mix it yourself."
Steve took that well enough, and sat across from Tony, looking at him for a few moments long enough to leave him feeling a touch uncomfortable with the scrutiny.
"Do I have something on my face?"
"No. No." Steve put his hands on the desk, accidentally jumbling things around, and then jumbling them even worse when he tried to put them back the way they’d been before. "I've really only been here a few weeks. I'm still trying to sort things out."
Tony took pity. "I assume you're here for some sort of Howard Stark: The Lost Years briefing?" Tony's relationship with his father was… complicated, and a work in progress despite the fact that he'd been dead for twenty years now. Coming into SHIELD and getting to know Director Fury a little better had helped fill in a few of the gaps that a seventeen year old Tony hadn't been prepared to see; that didn’t make it easy to soothe the hurt of the inattention and ambivalence Tony remembered from his youth.
"I know you two didn’t have an easy relationship," Steve said. "I'm sorry to bring up something that must seem like ancient history to you."
Steve just looked so sad, so put out, so lost, that Tony - even though he was a colossal asshole - couldn't help but feel for the guy. Dad had worshiped the ground Captain America walked on, if the feeling was anything close to mutual Steve had to be hurting just as hard, if not harder, than Tony had twenty years ago. "Hit me."
"What?” Steve looked up, startled. “I don't want to hit you."
"Idioms, we need to get you some idioms. It means 'go'. What do you want to know?"
"I know he… died a long time ago." Steve reached up, pinched the bridge of his nose, very obviously trying to push back tears. "Damn. I'm sorry."
Tony wasn't exactly an expert in feelings, but Steve was a wreck over this; he was a wreck over his old man in a way that not even Tony could really understand. Hell, he did care about his dad, loved him in his own very emotionally stunted way, but Steve seemed lost here. "He talked about you a lot," Tony said.
Steve's head snapped up. "He did?"
"Yeah. I mean don't tell Fury or any of the other SHIELDies, although I'm sure they know, but you were definitely a presence in the house." Tony nodded, looking for the words that he could say that would also tell Steve what he maybe needed to hear. "You were just always… 'Cap this' or 'Steve that', whenever I fucked up you were there, whenever I did something awesome you were there. You were like this annoyingly perfect older brother or something."
It was probably unfair to put that on Steve; looking at the way his face had gone pale and white it was definitely unfair. Tony had 'Captain America Issues'. He had adored Steve since he was a kid, since before he knew he was competing for his father’s attention with a super soldier. He'd wanted to be Cap when he grew up, and Howard had - to a certain extent - encouraged that admiration even as he used it to make Tony feel like shit for not living up to this perfect ideal.
Apparently that was the hang up. "Hey, we don't have to be fake related. That was just how it felt when dad talked about you."
Steve was very interested in his hands, fumbling them together awkwardly before looking back up at Tony. "Did Howard say that?"
"Nah," Tony answered. "But seriously, the Fourth of July was like 'Steve is Awesome' Day or something. Way to give a kid a complex, dad."
"I…" Steve took a deep breath and looked across the table at Tony. "I don't think I can really say anything that would fix that. Anything I said I can't imagine it doing anything but making it worse."
"You get used to it," Tony said. He had gotten used to it. He knew dad had these weird, complicated emotions about losing Steve. He'd gone out every year looking for him even into Tony's youth almost fifty years later. "It's cool, Cap. Dad and I are-- healing. Maybe it's part of actually being a big kid now, but Howard was an adult far longer than he was my father and you know this different guy that I never met."
Steve stood, his mouth turned down, his lip was tucked between his teeth and Steve, almost literally, chewed something over in his mind. "I don't want to mess up the image you have of your father."
His father had made a pretty messed up image of his father. Finding out twenty years after the fact that his dad was even more brilliant than Tony had given him credit for, and had all these thoughts about Tony making the world a better place, had put a bit of a twist in Tony's image of the guy. In the end it had made their relationship stronger. Tony finally felt a bit less like a horrible failure in his father’s eyes.
"Go for it, he's your Howard, too." Tony was feeling exceptionally magnanimous, and maybe part of him hoped that Steve would have some revelation that put a salve on things the way Fury had.
"You father and I…"
Tony's head filled in a million potential endings for that, most of them hilarious, including the idea of Cap and dad going to join the circus after the war, or possibly engaging in some sort of GI beer pong or whatever passed for fun back then. Tony could imagine that his dad knew how to have fun even if Tony had never witnessed it personally.
"We were together during the war." Steve said it like it was a big deal, but Tony knew that. It wasn’t as though Project Rebirth had been a big secret in the Stark household. "We were together for almost a year and a half, and… I know it's something folks have less problems with nowadays, but I really did care for him."
Tony was a genius. It still took him almost a minute and a half to realize what the fuck Steve had just implied. "You had sex with my dad!?"
Oh that was so, so much worse than joining the circus together.
Tony couldn't even think for several minutes after that, his mind bouncing around through... everything. That little piece of news threw a whole new light on a really startling number of things, and Tony really didn't want to think about them while Steve was standing there looking more and more nervous even as he stood completely stock-still, awaiting Tony's response.
"Just so you know, this isn't because you're not straight, or that my dad wasn't either; this is because my dad had sex with Captain America." Holy shit, Tony's dad had had sex with Captain America. "Can you just...?"
Tony didn't even know what he wanted Steve to do.
"Go?" Steve asked. Tony shook his head. "Stay?" He shook his head again.
"Shit." Tony stood, turned his back to Steve as everything whirled around and he tried to just put the pieces into an order that made any sense. "Not... not an annoyingly perfect older brother. You were..." The other man? Did that even make sense? Steve was always there; the pictures of dad and Steve that littered the library Tony was only rarely allowed to enter, the war reels, the 'Steve would do this', the... Tony covered his mouth, fighting down the urge to vomit.
Tony had had such a damn crush on Cap growing up.
Yeah, vomit was probably going to be a thing that happened. "Go. Please. I've got to sort this out."
Steve hesitated, but did eventually turn, made his way to the elevator. "I'm sorry. I just..."
"Got it, needed to tell someone and that someone was me. Go."
Pepper found Tony two hours later vomiting into a toilet that Tony really hoped would flush because the sewer system in Midtown was not really the best right now. "Are you drunk?!" She yelled at him. "Because it's been maybe two days since you saved the world, and if you are going to go on one of your benders I really need to know, now."
Tony sort of just spit up a little bit. "I need my robots." They made him drinks - alcoholic or non - when he needed them. "Can I have my robots?" He couldn't deal with gay-dad-sex revelations without them. He could not deal with his 'it's complicated' towering over him while he vomited a bit and tried to wrap his head around how weird his childhood had just retroactively become.
"Tony, what the hell is wrong? Is it your heart? The reactor?"
He just sort of whimpered pathetically. "Reactor fine, brain not fine."
Pepper crouched down next to him, and Tony was very aware of the fact that he had gotten about three scotches in before he realized his stomach was really not going to handle that, so he probably did look completely trashed and more than a little fucked up. Not exactly the image he'd wanted to present moving forward.
"Nuh-uh," he answered.
"JARVIS?" Pepper asked, obviously thinking his traitor robot would serve him up on a silver platter.
"Mr. Stark's current blood alcohol content is approximately 0.02, far below the legal limit."
"Traitor." Tony spit one final mouthful of bile flavored saliva into the toilet and then stood, heaving his whole body up to standing and finding he was a little wobbly on his feet. He was definitely not feeling well and his head continued to swim even without the addition of alcohol. He staggered his way back to his bar and looked for something... anesthetic and antiseptic, he ended up with a mouthful of vodka which he then swished, gargled, and swallowed, much to Pepper's lack of amusement. "Pepper, I am not dying. I may very well be going off the deep end, but if I do I promise it will be quiet and away from the flashbulbs."
Tony couldn't even begin to imagine those headlines. He laughed, the laugh ended up slightly manic and maybe a bit too wild-eyed given the way that Pepper was backing away.
"Tony, if something's wrong..."
"Yes, Pepper, something is very wrong, I need my robots, I need food, and I need to think." Food he could probably deal with. He shuffled through the various odds and ends that made up the bar contents and pulled out some chips. "Please?"
Pepper nodded, and left him, finally, which was exactly what Tony needed right then. He just really needed to be alone, to hide, to keep his head down and not let what he'd just learned affect him so damn much.
"Hey, JARVIS? Do we know if the mansion's still standing?"
"News reports and systems check indicate that there was no damage to the mansion."
"Turn the lights on for me, honey." Tony punched a few buttons and waited for his systems to assemble the Mark VI around him. It was the most recent upgrade that was still flight-worthy. He waited for the indication that JARVIS was streaming with him before blasting off to head deeper into the city. "Did you know about Cap and dad?"
"As much as I share a name with your former butler, I do not share his memories," JARVIS answered. It wasn't like he really could know. He was capable of info-crawling with the best of them, but if JARVIS had known he most likely would have told Tony, and possibly far less gently than Steve had tried to. "It is possibly my namesake was aware, but it seems more likely your father kept the relationship a secret. Historical opinions on homosexuality, even as late as the 1980s and early 90s were--"
"Yeah, got it." Tony pushed the suit harder, accelerating across the swath of Midtown before landing on a high balcony of the mansion. The door from the bedroom opened at JARVIS's command and Tony walked in, watching the way the suit scan naturally gravitated towards threats or heat signatures. Tony tugged off the mask.
The rooms were quiet, dusty, and disused. Tony had never taken particular pains to see to it that the mansion remained well kept. It was cleaned quarterly, and he hadn't kept the servants to keep it running - or automated it the way he had his Malibu house - and that left him with little by way of a home. It wasn't a bad house, but it certainly didn't contain the same good memories any of his later property acquisitions did.
"If you were illicit proof of my dad's big gay love affair with Captain America, where would you hide?" He asked the room at large.
"I really couldn't say, Sir."
"Are there any parts of the mansion that aren't fully catalogued?" He asked. It wasn't like he spent his free time on sorting through dusty old memories.
"You have always been loathe to do a full accounting of your father's library contents. There are additionally six upper floor bedrooms, largely used for storage, that I am neither installed in, nor am I aware of your cataloguing efforts," JARVIS reported.
Tony headed to the library. The books were just... books. Tony didn't really want to scan all of them, but he did browse the titles for anything that looked more conspicuously like a journal and less like a novel. He didn't find anything. An hour later, he ended up in one of the small nooks that made up the library, and collapsed onto one of the chairs, metal-clad fingers running along the old leather.
It took him several hours to realize there really wasn't anything to find that he hadn't already found. Dad had owned pretty much every promotional reel that Steve had ever performed in, he had a small room in the mansion that had been the home of several photo albums and war correspondences, and he'd just... well Cap had been everywhere in the house in his own little way. There wasn't a shrine, there were no hidden letters, just every place there might have been photos of Cap, there were; every corner there were pictures of mom and dad, and just to the side there was Steve.
The revelation hit like a ton of bricks; dad had loved Captain America, had loved Steve... a lot, and Steve, the obnoxious and judgmental boy scout had loved dad back. Genius was sometimes overrated, mostly because now every question was pounding through Tony's mind: had dad intended to be with Steve after the war? Would he have still married mom? Was there an alternate universe where he wasn't born or where Steve was his 'uncle' who was way too close with his dad? Had it just been a wartime fling or was it something deeper?
Tony remembered the relationship between his parents, the strained almost business-like agreement that he had seen. Obie sometimes had said that dad's first love was technology, and even as a child it had been painfully clear where Maria Stark had stood in the order of his father's affections.
He ended up grabbing one of the 'Steve boxes', the contents of which Tony already knew by heart: a few passionless letters, a few pictures of two men who gave the appearance of being nothing more than close friends, and little else. The trip back to Stark/Avengers Tower was short, but Tony's mind was still racing. He found Steve on the beginnings of his floor, working a heavy bag.
It only took a minute or so for Steve to notice him. "Pepper said you were ill."
"Pepper has a lot of experience covering for me when she thinks I'm going to do something inordinately stupid." Tony left the box on one of the chairs, watched the way Steve worked the bag for a few moments before positioning himself to brace it. He noticed immediately when Steve started to pull his punches. "She's laying the groundwork for a bender."
"Does she know what's wrong?"
"Not a clue," Tony reassured him. "Which is probably grounds for another breakup but..." Tony shrugged. "I haven't exactly been there for her when she really needed it."
It was obviously the wrong thing to say. Steve stopped working the bag and turned away. Dumping his emotional unavailability insecurities on the guy who'd been MIA for 70 years in a Capcicle was probably high on Tony's list of asshole things he'd done for the day. The pain was gone a moment later, though, forced down and behind bright blue eyes.
"Why did you tell me?" Tony finally asked. "I'm an asshole, sure the working relationship is much improved from last week but we're hardly... bros." Tony tried to force back another dry heave and mostly managed it, covering it like it was an extremely uncomfortable cough.
Steve started to unwrap his wrists and hands, and Tony watched the motion. He was familiar enough with it, had taped himself up exactly like that more times than he could count, but it was... comforting. "When I woke up, everyone was so coddling." Steve balled up a fist of tape and then continued to pull it from his hands. "They were so gentle about breaking the news that I’d missed my chance with Peggy, and not at all subtle about pointing me in the direction of her niece."
Weeeeeird, Tony decided that whoever had done that needed some sort of lesson on bizarro incest or something because even he was not quite that broken in the head.
"And then they just dropped it on me that Howard had died in a car accident with a son who was..." Steve chuckled, wrecked and worn out and unhappy. Tony knew that laugh from way too many uncomfortable conversations with JARVIS late at night. "I hated you."
Visions of childhood heroes died hard, but even that was a little rough for Tony to take. He turned away himself, picked up the tape roll that Steve had used to prep himself for the bag. After a few moments hesitation he started to wrap his own hand up, hitting each of the needed points effortlessly.
"Not because of you, but because no one at SHIELD even knew I might care. Howard moved on, had a wife and a son, and if anyone ever knew what he was to me it had long gotten buried and..." Steve shook his head. "It was just another way everything was unreal, like the War was this pretend fantasy when it was a few weeks ago."
"Yeah." Tony finished taping his hand, gave Steve's shoulder a light tap with his fist. "For what it's worth, I don't think dad really moved on."
"That's... nice of you to say, Tony, but--"
"Ah!" Tony interrupted him, hand up, before he went about taping his other hand. "Asshole, remember. I don't say nice things. Saying that wasn't nice. It's not like you can reconnect or anything; the guy's dead, staying hung up on him doesn't do you any favors." It didn't. Tony was never one to stay hung up on the past - or he wouldn't be if his brain ever listened to itself - so he knew that Steve wasn't going to get much out of staying constantly hung up on the emotionally unavailable asshole who had conceived Tony. He wasn't.
"It's only been a few weeks for me," Steve said, handing Tony over a slightly smaller pair of gloves and then holding the heavy bag for Tony to work.
He started to take a few punches, a bit gingerly at first since he was still feeling the fight against Loki, mostly in the everywhere region, and he didn't want to pull something. "Dad didn't get married for almost twenty five years after the war. He took annual visits out to the Arctic by boat until the day he died. I'm just saying it would have been damn easy to have a Captain America free home, and we didn't, you were everywhere."
Steve was definitely the other woman, or maybe mom was, it was hard for Tony to decide. He punctuated the thought with a perfect little straight-punch right into the heavy bag's kidney region.
"You have good form," Steve said, two or three dozen punches later. "I would have thought you'd rely on the suit more."
"Suit's barely a year old, I'm almost forty." Tony was slightly offended, but it wasn’t as though Cap knew him from Adam whether he banged Tony's dad or not. "Dad insisted. He said brains were great, but you needed to know how to stand your ground. I always figured he boxed as a kid, too; grandpa was a bit... blue collar. I don't know if you knew that."
"Your grandfather was a mechanic, best in Queens." Steve had the sound of a man who was parroting something he'd heard, something he'd heard from dad. "Neither one of them were boxers, though. Howard knew how to take a hit, but the man didn't have a..." Steve stopped, hands running over the back of the bag for a moment while something flickered across his eyes. "He made you take boxing lessons to learn how to stand up for yourself?"
"I just said that." If he was going to do all this reminiscing, he was only going to do it once, because it was damn awkward and Tony didn't really much enjoy that. "What?"
"Nothing," Steve answered, far too quickly, backing away from the bag and the whole conversation.
"What?!" Tony yelled at him. "I'm trying here, Steve. This is fucking awkward as hell, and the least you can do is--"
"I took boxing lessons in Hell's Kitchen, when I was a kid..." Steve trailed off, Tony shut up, waiting, breathless and waiting for something but hell if he knew what. "To stand up for myself. Howard-- Howard never much cared for boxing, he said that was what his mind was for."
Tony took boxing lessons as a kid...
Because dad thought Steve would have wanted him to.
Apparently his life had reached a level of awkward he previously had thought unimaginable, and there were several videos of him mostly naked on the internet. Generally when he was naked he knew what he was doing, this was not a time when he knew what he was doing.
Yet his confession made him feel ashamed.
He'd confessed to Tony in a moment of overwhelming aloneness. No one had understood; everyone whispered Peggy's name in hushed tones around him and yet no one gave him the same respect about Howard. SHIELD became a festering wound if he wandered anywhere near the science sections. At least the scientists tended to stifle themselves around Tony.
In spite of Tony's assurance that Howard had remained hung up on Steve for years, Steve couldn't help but wonder if what they had shared had been shameful to Howard. Howard had never been ashamed of caring for Steve at the time, but...
Steve wasn't naive, he knew things had changed in the intervening seventy years, but he knew he came from a different time. After the War, Howard had settled down and had a child; even with Howard in the picture, Steve had always known he would try to marry Peggy. His affection for her had been so real, but it had always felt a bit more childish and not quite so passionate. He understood, he couldn’t blame Howard, but that didn't stop it from stinging when he saw that hair and those eyes and that jaw on someone else, his lover's son.
Mostly the issue meant that he spent far too much time staring at the back of Tony's head while Tony worked in the lab or went through sketches of how to redo the rest of the floors of the Tower to better suit the Avengers.
"You're seriously making me consider the benefit of back-of-head sensors outside of the suit, Steve," Tony said as he flicked through even more holograms of his designs, or something. "Inflation adjusted penny for your thoughts?"
Tony actually spun around in his chair so he could face Steve, and Steve almost wished he hadn't. He looked tired, very much so, and worn out. The idea that Pepper had pre-announced that Tony might go on a bender seemed to have been a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most of the other Avengers treating him with kid gloves when Steve could see exactly how much Tony needed to work on something instead of be caught up in his head. It was unfortunate because Steve needed to be caught up in their own head. It wasn't exactly complimentary.
"Do you want to box?" Steve would have to go easy on him, but Tony did have enough style that he could keep up as long as Steve didn't slug it out as hard as he could.
"Wanna play catch after?" Tony asked, with a bite.
That didn't sound bad... of course, then he realized what Tony was actually getting at, comparing the request to something a father might ask. Steve's relationship with Howard wasn’t having a great effect on Tony's ability to see him as just a person rather than his father's ex. "We both box, Tony. It doesn't have to be... about that." It was, though, for Tony. It was about the fact that Howard had gotten him boxing lessons because Steve probably would have. "We could be friends, you know."
"You want to be friends with your ex-boyfriend's son?"
Both yes and no, desperately. "I want us to have some sort of relationship. It doesn't have to be about me and Howard." Steve knew it would be, no matter what he said. It was impossible not to look at Tony and see a nephew, or a step-son. It was hard not to imagine what life might have been like if he'd been there with Howard, for Howard, after the War and how that might have affected the man sitting in front of him.
"Fuck." Tony raked his fingers through his hair. As much as Steve didn't quite approve of the language changes over the last decades, he couldn't deny that Tony had a point. "Fine, boxing."
"You don't have to..."
"Don't stop me in mid-martyr here, Steve." Tony slid off the chair he'd been spinning on, landing on his feet and pulling out his phone. "The sooner I get this shit out of my system, the sooner Pepper can take herself off the Stark Industries watch alert list, or whatever she does when she thinks I'm going to end up with cocaine, hookers, and a lot of pictures."
Steve looked away, trying not to let the words get to him, but sometimes Tony just screamed for someone to stop him, to tell him no, and Steve didn't want to be that person but... "Do you usually end up like that after troubling news?"
"I don't pay for sex," Tony answered with one of his non-answers. The two of them went into an elevator and Tony didn't even punch the button for Steve's floor, it just went. "Look, it's sweet you being all paternal, but that's sort of exactly the problem right now, Steve." Tony's face softened, just a touch, as though another thought came to him. He continued: "I keep wondering if mom knew."
Tony's mom, Maria. He'd seen pictures - not intentionally, he hadn't gone looking - but it was easy enough to fine glossy photographs of the beautiful brunette who had become Howard's wife. Steve wondered, too, he wondered if Howard had loved her, if he'd finally moved on when he met her. He found himself slightly jealous of her. "Do you think she did?"
He obviously chewed it over, far longer than the few seconds it took to get to the lower floor and exit. "I hope she knew." The two of them headed over to the locker room and Tony changed from jeans to sweats while Steve did the same. "They were never warm, so... I hope she knew why."
Maybe Tony was mistaken, maybe he had misunderstood his parents' affection, but even though the idea of Howard moving on hurt, the idea of him never finding someone else to love hurt even more.
"Were you two...?" Tony trailed off, chucked a roll of tape at Steve and then the two of them started to prep for some time in the ring. "Was he affectionate with you?"
Howard was affectionate with everyone, handshakes and pats on the shoulder for his co-workers, all but bouncing with enthusiasm. He'd hugged more than a few coworkers when they were all a little punchy or drunk or tired, that was just how he was. But Tony had asked about him and Howard, and he probably didn't mean handshakes. The idea of sparing Tony's tender sensibilities might have seemed silly to some, but Steve felt a bit duty bound to try. "We... when we had the time, yes. Howard was very tactile."
He checked Tony, found him making a queasy sort of face. "Things I didn't need to know about my dad, dot com."
"I don't know what that means," Steve answered. "I mean there were the rumors, that your dad was... are you allowed to say fairy?"
Tony winced, shook his head. "Gay. I'll let it pass for an ironic use of it in a historical context, but you don't want to say that. Captain America or not, someone will punch you in the face."
It took some getting used to, knowing what he could and couldn't say. Tony - in spite of the fact that he seemed to open his mouth rather willy-nilly - did have his own standards, and Natasha or Clint generally backed whatever Tony said on a propriety front. Still, it was hard to put into words what he meant; guys didn't talk about this sort of thing back then.
"Well, Howard never let that stop who he was, and at the time most people knew he was... flexible in his preferences. That was the sort of thing they dug up and then some when it came to clearing you to work on the sorts of projects Howard worked on. We weren't particularly subtle at first, you know, even with Howard's reputation. My CO, Colonel Phillips, took me aside and made it clear that Captain America couldn't be a gay, though."
"And Stark could?" Tony looked upset by the idea. "What a dick."
Steve tried to put it into perspective in his own mind and so Tony might understand. "He wasn't unkind about it, and he was nicer than Senator Brandt would have been. Colonel Phillips had been working with your father for years. He didn't have a problem with that, he was worried about... my reputation. He encouraged me and Peggy, I think he figured that your dad would break my heart."
"Ironic," Tony answered. The two of them finished suiting up, headgear and mitts in place, and the two of them took to the ring, circling lightly.
It wasn't a real fight, not something he would have even really called sparring, but putting the mitts and the headgear between them seemed to make Tony loosen up, he all but danced on his feet, free and bouncy.
"Happy and I box a lot. He's my bodyguard."
"Iron Man has a bodyguard?" Steve asked.
"Well, Tony Stark has a bodyguard. You know sometimes people try to assassinate me just for running a company that used to provide the ordinance to blow up portions of the Middle East on a regular basis? Or kidnap me." Tony shivered slightly, but he tried to pass it off, touched his shoulder as though he was actually cold when if anything the room was too warm.
Steve realized a few moments later that Tony had... shared something, something deeply personal. He knew from Pepper that Tony didn't exactly keep company with many people, and the people who he did spend time with were mostly his employees. Happy was probably the closest thing Tony had to a brother, at least after Rhodey. Of course, his mind latched on to that second part, the piece that Steve had wanted to know more about since he'd read it weeks ago. "I read about your time in Afghanistan."
Tony's face closed off. "Well, you don't see me crying about it."
He'd just been starting to learn that maybe crying about it could be the best option sometimes. "I had a friend, during the War and before. He's the one who got me into boxing, actually."
"Yeah?" Tony responded, and he actually sounded, if not interested, at least curious enough to allow Steve to ramble.
Steve thought better of the anecdote a moment later, but realized it was far too late to back down and Steve didn't get where he was by backing down. "Bucky," Steve said the name softly. Tony nodded, the look of a man who wasn't unfamiliar with the name; that idea made him smile just a bit. "Did Howard...?"
"Howard wasn't much for war stories," Tony answered, looking down at his boxing gloves for a moment before he put his fists up again, close enough that he could have hit Steve right in the nose if he'd tried. "I've heard of the Commandos, though."
"Bucky was my best friend, and he's actually one of the ones who got me to stop USO touring and actually make something of myself." Peggy and Howard had pushed, as well, but he wouldn't have gone out there without Bucky as the one he needed to rescue. Even just thinking about Bucky hurt. It had only been a few weeks, really. So much had happened, the whole world had changed, and it didn't matter to the world if Bucky had died 70 years ago and Howard only 20, but to Steve they were both still fresh. "I went to rescue him, he was being held, experimented on. He never really told me the whole story but... You could always see it in his eyes in a way that didn't touch the other Commandos, even the ones who'd been in that HYDRA camp but hadn't gone to the infirmary."
Steve tried to sort out the rest, tried to find the words. "Sometimes he'd wake up and think there were needles in his arms, or he'd just... the way the light hit something, or a certain tone in German and he was somewhere else."
"PTSD," Tony said, but he didn't leave Steve time to ask, or to explain himself. Tony lashed out, hard, with a fist and even Steve hadn't been expecting it so he nearly took the hit square in the jaw. "It's fine, it's over, I'm not there."
Steve danced back, as much as he could. "Not even my mind lets me work that way, Tony."
"Christ, what the hell is this? Shape up or you'll end up like Bucky?" Tony ripped off the headgear, threw it across the ring. "I'm dealing. I am handling it, and if I end up dead in a ditch it would be for the same damn reasons as him, because it was the right play."
Steve had to grab onto one of the posts to keep from trying to just clock Tony, his knuckles aching inside the mitts. It had only been weeks, and Tony was just using that to punch him in the gut, over and over.
"Shit. Steve, I'm... I'm sorry. I've just never heard a story where he wasn't already... yaknow. I'm an asshole."
"That's not actually an excuse," Steve shot back. It wasn't. It was damn hard to see those biting edges underneath Howard's charm instead of more charm. He cared about Howard and had loved him, but his son could be a bit of an asshole. "I just don't understand you sometimes, Tony."
And Tony laughed. Yet another way Steve completely didn't understand Tony. "I feel like I should dye my hair black and go listen to a Cure CD or something."
"You're hair's already black," Steve said, because the comment had come completely out of left field and Steve didn't understand it at all. "Unless you're talking about the grey."
"Hey! There is still way more pepper than salt." Tony put his hands over his hair protectively. "And thanks for reminding me my step-dad is younger than me. I'm pretty sure that's rich kid traumatic thing number four or something."
Tony had finally said it, out loud, one of the words that Steve had been dancing around since he'd found out that he was in the future and that Howard had a son. How was he supposed to relate to this man who was like a stepson? Divorce wasn't nearly so common in Steve's time, but he knew more than a few widows who'd been forced to remarry to support her children, and Steve knew the way a child naturally seemed to hate the man who had replaced their 'true' father. Some things never changed, not even in seventy years, but the problem was that Steve didn't know how to bring this all together.
"I'm sorry I told you," Steve said, finally. It was an apology, though, not regret. "I keep clinging to you as this one piece of Howard that's left in this world and it's not fair to you. If you were anyone else's son I think we could have been friends, easily. I don't know what happened to the man I fell in love with that made him so hard and cold. I don't like knowing that happened, and this is just... all I can do to start to make it up to him."
Steve missed Howard, with this terrible aching feeling deep in his chest. He missed him even more when he saw this man, over a decade older than him, who seemed to barely tolerate memories of his father. Steve had always known his relationship with Howard wouldn't contain a happy ending, not the way it might have with Peggy, but that didn't stop the evidence staring him in the face from being so painful.
"Howard, your Howard, he's gone, Steve, and he'd been gone for a long time before he died." Tony started to tug off his gloves, looked down at his hands, and frowned. "Maybe it was just because he was well over fifty when I was born, but whatever you saw in him got put in the ground. It got buried at sea."
Steve knew Tony was right, and that was what hurt the most; there were a thousand ways that Steve wished it could have been different, but right now he wished he could have been there for Tony for the last forty years.
"Obie..." Tony's hand pressed to his chest, the heel of his palm digging in where Steve knew the arc reactor was. "Obie painted this picture for me, as I got older, and it was probably just for his benefit to keep me on the path he wanted me on, but I'm not ready for this, Steve. I'm not ready for everything I knew about my father to be a lie again. I don't hate him, I never have, I love him, but I think that knowing he had it in him to be the father I wanted makes it worse, not better."
"I didn't want to leave," Steve said, softly. He wished he could have had another way.
"I wonder if I even would have existed if you hadn't." Tony raked his fingers through his hair. "My entire existence is predicated on my father being miserable."
Steve hadn't seen enough science fiction to argue that. He just wished he could have said something to make it better. "I'm here for you."
"You're here for my dad's son."
"It's the same thing, Tony."
Tony obviously didn't think so, but he didn't say it. That might have been an improvement, as far as Steve was concerned. Tony knew him well enough that most of his comments could hit their mark pretty hard. "Look... I'm sorry about Bucky. Peggy never had anything but the best to say about him."
"You know Peggy?"
"Aunt Peggy, my go-to source for all my Howling Commando questions." Tony shook his head, though.
Aunt Peggy, she would have been in her sixties almost when Tony was born, probably nearing retirement no matter how much she'd want to carry on. He wondered if Tony would have liked Peggy if he'd known her the way Steve did. Probably would have asked her out for fondue.
"Look," Tony said, looking defeated, again. "We should try this again sometime."
"We will." Steve was more than willing to make that promise.
They avoided each other for the rest of the day; as much as Steve wanted to trust Tony, he did get a bit nervous when he hadn't seen him even stop by the kitchen for a snack by midnight.
"JARVIS?" He asked the Tower computer. "Where's Tony?"
"Sir is in his workshop," JARVIS answered immediately.
"Is he working?"
There was a long pause, far too long for Steve's comfort. "No he is not."
He headed downstairs to check on Tony, punching in his access code and walking through the door.
"Are you alright?" Steve asked, because Tony wasn't in his workshop working, he was, instead, curled up on the couch of his workshop, huddled under the thickest blanket that Steve had ever seen, rubbing his shoulders and shivering.
"Just a little keyed up," Tony answered.
Steve didn't believe him in the slightest. "Tony."
"Afghanistan," Tony said, just a split second later. "You wouldn't think it, because it's a desert, but the nights are really damn cold."
Someone else might have said that it was summer, and almost eighty out right now, even overnight, but Steve knew that it could be balmy and sunny and that still wouldn't keep his eyes from snapping open with the feeling of ice water seeping into his veins.
"My mind likes to revisit it when I'm feeling like I'm wasting my life." Tony laughed again, this time more than a bit bitter, but Steve understood that feeling.
He took the blanket that Tony was clinging to in a haphazard mess and smoothed it over his shoulders, and then tucked it around his feet to wrap him almost like a cocoon.
Tony snorted. "Or when I'm feeling like my dad would be disappointed."
"Definitely not," Steve could answer that one easily. If Howard could see Tony now... well he'd probably wonder why he was wrapped up in a fluffy red and gold and green christmas blanket that was at least an inch thick, but he would otherwise have been impressed with Tony.
"Right after Afghanistan, I'm sure you saw the film? Or at least the briefing materials?"
"You shut down your company's weapons manufacturing and were nearly killed in an accident with the arc reactor at one of your research buildings." Steve had read the briefing material, and it was one of the many things that had confused Steve about Tony right after waking up.
"Seriously, even the SHIELD dossier calls it an accident? Tale for another time." Tony cleared his throat, and then a few moments later he lifted his feet off the couch in clear invitation. Steve sat down and then Tony let his feet fall back down onto Steve's lap. "I know the SHIELDies would tell you otherwise, but I don't hate dad, never really have as much as I thought he hated me."
Steve opened his mouth to protest, but Tony waved it away.
"Not the point. So when I decided to break with dad's company vision, to stop manufacturing weapons and push SI over towards green initiatives and a lot of hippy mumbo jumbo that I honestly thought was a crock of shit at the time, I thought I was betraying dad." Tony fell silent, but it was the sort of silence that Steve could feel was pregnant with words left unsaid, every few moments his lips moved, almost sounding out the next sentence before he finally continued. "No matter how much I thought dad hated me growing up, I always wanted to be like him. That went for you, too, and the Commandos, and Peggy."
Steve let Tony ramble; the last day had been full of meaningful words instead of the vapid ones that Steve was used to.
"I find out later that dad was in on going green and post-nuclear as early as the 70s. He'd probably love Stark Industries now. It's everything he said he wanted for me, his legacy, his greatest invention."
"That's good, right?"
"Doesn't undo the fifteen years I was running it like my personal candyland with exploding candy." Tony ran his hand over his chest again, before he shivered and pulled the blanket up to his chin.
"Your father wasn't an angel, Tony." Steve said, putting a hand on Tony's ankle and squeezing very gently. "He was a bit of a cad, he was a show off, he was a braggart, he was impulsive, and he was a bit narcissistic. He was responsible for the deaths of millions of people."
Tony took a shuddering breath. "No, seriously don't hold back, Steve. Tell me what you really think."
"He was also brilliant, he loved his country, he saved hundreds of millions of people, and through it all he was loved by plenty of people for who he was and not just what he represented." Steve let his hands rest there, on Tony's legs. "I think he'd be disappointed if you weren't that complicated, too."
"Would you mind--?" Steve interrupted his thoughts, then cut himself off.
"I just... I keep wondering what it was about you and Howard that went so wrong." Steve was looking down at his hands, a thumb rubbing up against the palm of his hand, arms resting on Tony's shins as the two of them sat. "When we... when we were together, he loved so easily."
The image just didn't work for Tony; that wasn't who his dad was. "You mean sex."
"I mean love," Steve shot back. "I guess it's really hard for you to imagine, but he had a team, dozens of Allied scientist working to counter what HYDRA was coming up with. HYRDA had been active since long before the War, they had years of technological advances on us. Your dad was ahead of them all, but he had this team that he cared about, he had soldiers in the SSR that he made sure were outfitted with the latest tech, and it hurt him when one of them didn't come home."
"Maybe he used himself up, then. That wasn't dad." Tony sat up straighter, tried to actually give the conversation the weight Steve was putting into it. "I was building circuit boards and engines before most kids learned long division. I am, immodestly put, a genius, and I would have done anything to get dad's attention. For years growing up, I thought he regretted me and wished I'd never been born. My mother was nice enough when she wasn't busy with society parties, but I needed dad to say he was proud of me. You could find more praise for me in the quotes he gave to magazines about me than I ever heard."
Steve was silent for a long moment, his hands resting on Tony's calves and he could tell Steve was considering the urge to touch, to offer a more physical comfort than just the soft press of hands. Eventually Steve squeezed his calves. "Wasn't knowing he thought that enough?"
"He sent me to boarding school the minute I was old enough. I barely saw him for holidays. From my perspective it seemed more likely that I was grudgingly tolerated than loved. And every damn time I came home he tried to drag me to the lab the minute I was home. We always fought about that." That was the last thing they had fought about, actually. Tony had been home for the winter, relaxing in the yard, sunning himself. "You say some pretty shitty things when you're a teenager."
When he glanced up to Steve's face, his answer was written all over it. Steve hadn't said shitty things when he was a teenager. It should have made Tony bitter, instead he just laughed. "Except for you, Captain Perfect."
The two of them fell silent, Tony huddled under his blankets and Steve running his hands up and down Tony's shins. "I'm sure he was proud of you."
"I used to try not to think about it," Tony admitted. "That was better than thinking that he didn't want me. A few months ago, just a bit before they found you, Fury gave me this film of dad from when he was introducing the 1974 Stark Expo. I was just a kid back then, but he looked right into the camera and said that his greatest invention was me."
He'd never talked about what he'd seen Howard say on those films, not with Pepper or Rhodey or Fury - although he was sure Fury knew their contents. Pepper had never known dad, Rhodey had only barely, and Fury was not a friend; he hid secrets in his eyepatch. It made sense to say it to Steve, though. If anything, he might be able to knit together some of the way dad was with how Tony remembered him and turn it into a whole. Steve also didn't need to spin this the way Fury had when he was trying to keep Tony from crashing and burning and dying of palladium poisoning.
"He wanted me to grow up faster. We always fought about how much time I spent not working, like a fifteen year old shouldn't spend time working on his tan." Tony raked his fingers through his hair, looked over to where Steve was watching him, bright blue eyes looking right at his, not saying a word. "I think he must had hated seeing his legacy tanning and having sex with cheerleaders."
Steve smirked. "Your father was a fan of cigarette girls."
"Little bit hypocritical, dad. Although I guess that does answer one question."
"Oh, just wondering how much of that ladies man showmanship was really true." Tony had loved those old reels; the older Expos had shown him his father in a different light, loose and fun and happy. "When I took over Stark Industries at twenty-one, I based a lot of my style on dad and those old Expos. There had always been a rumor or two about him being gay, although your name never came up in connection with it."
"Howard... I looked it up, and I think you'd say he was bisexual, although there weren't many polite words for it back during the War. A lot of people thought it was something that was wrong with you, but it actually seems like I missed some of the worst of it." Steve shrugged, and his eyes fell. "He married your mother. Is it really so hard to believe that he was attracted to her?"
Tony made a face; it probably came off a bit like a grimace. "Yeah, it is." Tony didn't want to give Steve the blow-by-blow, somehow he imagined it would hurt him to know that Tony saw far more affection pass between every other parents he'd seen. Even the parents he'd known who eventually ended up divorced had been more affectionate. Mom, when he saw mom and dad together, had seemed more like a chaste companion than anything particularly sexual or sensual. "I never had much reason to think my father loved my mother or me. Sorry."
Neither of them spoke.
He was suddenly very aware of the fact that he had never had this conversation with anyone before. It wasn't the sort of thing you told reporters, reporters always saw the Tony who was enamored with his father's legacy; he'd never said as much to Pepper even though she knew the relationship had been rocky; Rhodey knew enough of the history to not ask. The only person he really talked about dad with had been Obie. The comparison immediately made him uncomfortable.
"I shouldn't have pushed."
"No, it's... not that." Tony sighed, wondering if there was even a good way to say all the things that were tumbling through his head. "I don't have a great record on father figures, Steve."
It was Steve's turn to turn contemplative. "Is that what we're doing here?"
"I don't know," Tony admitted. "You look at me and you see Howard, I look at you and I see a guy who knew my dad better, and knew him at a better time, than anyone else still alive. Why else did you tell me about you and dad, if not to have it mean something?"
"At the time, I just needed to have someone else who understood. You've had a lot of time to mourn him. For me it's been just a few weeks." Steve's face fell, his eyes fluttered closed, and it was easy to see where the tears were starting to well up, but Steve held his eyes shut. "I-- we always knew that we wouldn't have a happy ending. I didn't want to die, but I did expect to; we were in the middle of a war, the War. Every time the Commandos were back in London or New York or anywhere else where we had a few moments of downtime, Howard and I thought this might be the last time we saw each other. Howard prepared, every time he sent me back to the front he treated it like the last time we'd ever see each other. We had a proper goodbye, Tony. I just..." Steve was crying openly, as much as he was obviously trying not to. "I never thought I would lose him. That wasn't the way it was supposed to go."
Tony moved, legs and limbs covered in blankets, but he moved so he was kneeling next to Steve and he wrapped his arms around those ridiculously broad shoulders and he tugged Steve closer. Without a word, Steve buried his face in Tony's shoulder and started to sob. His fingers dug so hard into Tony's back he was certain he would leave bruises. "He loved you. Proper goodbye or no, he missed you."
He remembered his own reaction, years ago, stony faced and silent as he stood through all of the preparations and arrangements. He had never cried then, there wasn't time to cry; he'd gone back to school and buried himself there for years. Tony brought his hand up, fingers pressing hard into the back of Steve's neck as he held him.
No longer bothering to stifle himself, Steve made a broken, choking sound before he squeezed Tony even tighter. His breath came in ragged pants as he tried to suck in enough air even as he continued to cry. "I love him."
"I know." Tony wasn't sure what Steve wanted, what he needed, but he rubbed along Steve's back with his free hand, soothing as best he could. He wasn't good at this, never had been.
"I never got to tell anyone." Steve seemed, if not calmer, at least it was easier for him to force the words out between tears. "If anyone..." Steve let go, pushing himself away and Tony let him go, the two of them putting a few feet between them as Steve tried to wipe away the redness from his eyes and only succeeded in smudging the tear tracks down his cheeks. "If anyone other than Colonel Phillips knew, they didn't give any indication, and Phillips didn't want to hear word one about it; he was my CO and it wasn't allowed anyway. I loved your father and I wanted to shout it from the rooftops."
"But you couldn't," Tony answered. It wasn't a protest, just a simple statement.
Hearing Steve say it, over and over, gave it some strange sense of truth and finality. All the little pieces had slotted into place; the fucked up world Tony had grown up in finally had a reason. Steve wasn't the perfect older brother, he was the lost love of his father's life. If that wasn't a bit fucked up, Tony didn't know what was, but his life had never exactly been normal.
"And Howard never told anyone. Whatever was between us never ended up on a page of a report anywhere. When they were briefing me on all of the things that had changed, they actually held back on telling me gay service members were allowed to serve in the military, like that would have changed how I felt about the uniform!" Steve was almost yelling now, voice raised, not mad at Tony but at the whole damn circumstance. "I spent years with your father and it's like it never even existed. No one remembers."
"Come on," Tony said, hand out, grabbing around Steve's wrist, tugging. "We're going out."
"It's almost three in the morning."
"Don't care. Put some pants on."
"Tony, you're the one who's not wearing pants." Steve was, of course, perfectly correct. Tony was wearing a tanktop and ratty sweatpants, Steve was still in slacks and a ugly plaid shirt.
"Dum-E, pants." The robot ended up whirring to life, heading over to the pile of clothes that might be vaguely clean. "And a shirt."
Dum-E dragged over to pants and a shirt, and Tony tugged on the shirt before turning his back to Steve, stripping off his sweatpants and tugging on jeans.
"JARVIS, get me the keys to something old school and prep the mansion for me." Tony turned back around and grabbed Steve's wrist again, tugging, and the man followed. "Come on, Captain Mopey-pants."
The two of them made their way down to the Tower garage, and Tony took one of the cars, an old school Corvette, and headed down to the mansion with the top down, Steve beside him. The 3am drive was blissfully quiet, and the lights were on for him, waiting, when Tony pulled into the garage and stopped the car.
"I get it," Tony said, finally. Steve followed, still silent. "When Fury gave me those reels where dad was talking about how I was his legacy and his greatest creation and all that crap, I didn't know what to think. This guy who I thought barely tolerated me thought that of me? Never expected that, but dad was shit at saying how he felt." Tony walked through the house, Steve following just after him. "But I guess in the end it made sense. Dad wanted a mini-him, and the more I think about it the more I realize he sort of wanted me to skip the fucked up, not thinking about the consequences of your actions, stage that he had circa 1940s through 1960s. Why else would he be constantly talking about responsibility to a spoiled, bratty teenager?"
"Tony, why are we here?" Steve asked.
"Too existential for 3am."
They ended up in the library. Tony took Steve around the shoulders and sat him down in dad's old chair. Seeing him there was... well it was odd. When dad was in a good mood, Tony would sometimes curl up next to the chair while dad sketched ideas. Steve sat, eyes darting around as he took in the wood paneling and the distinctly classic, dark, masculine colors of the room. Tony's more modern design aesthetic had ached to tear down the walls any number of times, but the whole house was like a memorial to dad and mom, in spite of JARVIS's modern presence.
Steve waited, at first looking at Tony like he was going to enlighten him, but Tony just waited, and eventually his eyes started to take in more of the details. Old newspapers sat in frames, Steve didn't even have to squint, clearly able to make out the headlines. V-E day, Captain America to receive Medal of Honor, nation mourns fallen hero, and so on. He finally glanced down at the end table and the photos littering it. It didn't take him long to sense a theme.
"Where are the pictures of you and your mother?"
Tony reached out, picked up one stuffy family portrait from the back. "They didn't have photoshop back then, or I'm pretty sure you would have been..." Tony trailed off, pointed to the negative space above where mom was sitting, dad's hand resting gently on one shoulder while Tony sat at her hip, in front of dad. "Right about there. I mean the whole house has its moments, but you can't beat the library for raw, concentrated Steve Rogers."
"This is how he left it?"
He nodded. "I mean I have cleaners in once every few months, but yeah."
Steve stood, started to wander, and Tony took his seat, trying to relax into it, accept the idea of Steve Rogers here in his house, in his father's old house. In truth, Steve had never stopped being here. "He died in... 1991, right?" Steve didn't wait for an answer, he'd obviously read it in a dossier. "Forty seven years. All those years later and he still..."
"He was designing you new suits until the day he died." Tony had helped from time to time. "Sometimes... usually when he was drunk off his ass, he'd talk about you like you'd just gone to the corner for some milk, like you'd be right back any minute now. I don't know how much you've read about the old Rebirth files, but he hypothesized you wouldn't age, or would do so very slowly. Howard thought it was possible you might have survived the impact. When they found you, they didn't just hook you up to a heat lamp and hope for the best, dad had been working on the possibility you were cryogenically frozen for decades. He wanted you back, Steve, more than anything."
More than Tony. Howard spent anywhere from two weeks to a month out on the ice every year, and the boat itself was out every month the seas were navigable.
"I thought..." Steve started, shook his head. "All of this? Fifty years later and this is the way your father kept the house?"
"Yeah." Tony was fairly certain, now, in hindsight, that Steve had been... the love of his father's life. "I'm sorry, I wish there was more. I guess dad didn't want to commit anything to paper or film."
"It's enough," Steve assured him. He picked up one of the photos - Tony didn't see which one, but he assumed it was the one of dad and Steve, arms draped over each other, bodies just a fraction too close. "I feel this is one of those times you're supposed to say 'I never even got to say goodbye', but the truth is I did, it just... hurts."
"I never got to say goodbye," Tony said. His last words had been to the effect of 'get the hell out of my life', so there was a bit of added teenaged guilt mixed in over top of the inferiority complex. "At the funeral I was so busy standing there, glassy eyed, trying not to cry. I didn't even speak. I don't know what I would have said."
"What would you say now?"
Inspiration struck - as inspiration was wont to do where Tony was concerned - in a perfect combination of sleeplessness and weary and frantic. "We should go."
"Go where?" Steve asked, bewildered.
"To see dad, we'll... have a little funeral, you, me, mom and dad. Say your piece." The cemetery itself wasn't far out of the city, Iron Man could get there in minutes, Tony Stark and Steve Rogers could get there in... an hour or two. "We can cry like babies and just... I don't know, let go or something."
"Today tomorrow or tomorrow tomorrow?"
"A few hours from now," Steve answered, sighing, almost fondly. "You do need to sleep, Tony."
"Yeah, yeah. Are you done having a crisis about whether or not my dad love-loved you, old man?" The epithet was... sort of terrifyingly apt. Howard, and even Obie, had never really settled into that place where Tony could affectionately think of them as 'his old man' the way plenty of people talked about their fathers.
Steve either missed the nuance or was doing a very good job of ignoring it. "Colonel Phillips said your father was going to break my heart. He said a fai-- a man like him wasn't going to settle down. Part of me is glad to know that Howard really did..." Steve's voice wavered and cracked, and he gave a brief cough to clear his throat before continuing. "But I never wanted to break his heart."
"He knew the risks," Tony answered, shepherding Steve out of the mansion and towards the car. "Not that that makes it any easier. That very issue is the reason Pepper and I spend more time 'off again' than 'on again' when it comes to our relationship. Billionaire playboy? ok; riding through an interdimensional portal with a nuclear weapon? Not ok." He knew Pepper didn't actually like it back when he was having sex with anyone willing and designing weapons, but she'd never much taken to the role of 'superhero's girlfriend' either. "I'm slightly weirded out by the fact that I'm you and Pepper is my dad in this analogy."
Steve answered with a weak laugh, and actually slung an arm around Tony's shoulder as they walked through the halls, Steve lingering in spite of the late hour, free hand running carefully over old wood. "I recommend against getting frozen and waking up seventy years later only to discover she went on to have a son without you."
"You should write for Hallmark." No, really, Steve was right, he and Pepper could be weirder. "I should tell Pepper, at least then she'd know why I'm having a hard time, but not overloading on hookers and blow."
Steve's arm tensed, and then relaxed only a moment later, his face was very clearly forced into a half-grimace, half-smile.
"Hey, it's your secret to share. I'm not telling anyone without your say-so." Tony was all for blurting out inappropriate things - see: Iron Man, announcing he was - but he wasn't going to tell Cap's big gay secret step-dadness without Steve knowing about it.
"Not yet." Steve's answer had a sort of finality to it, and Tony suspected he was working up to it, trying to find the right moment to really talk about it with the team or with Fury. "I'm still figuring out how it all fits together."
"Tell me about it."
Tony barely slept, just a few hours of pillow time before he was up before the sun and down in the lab with a reminder to JARVIS to make sure he grabbed Steve around nine. He figured that was more than enough time for Captain Earlybird to get up, exercise, run, eat, shower, and get dressed in whatever he wanted to as far as faux-funeral-wear. Just before nine, Tony caught a shower to rinse off the engine grease and oil, did his hair and pulled on a shirt, jacket, and slacks - no tie.
When he got upstairs to re-caffeinate himself, Steve was sitting at the table, idly sketching the view out of the window, or bits and snatches of Clint and Natasha's faces as they talked on the couch. He was dressed in an actual suit, complete with tie.
"Stark in a suit I expect," Natasha said, breaking off their conversation and heading towards Tony and Steve as Tony sipped his coffee. "But what is Rogers doing in a suit?"
"Introducing Captain America to the joys of the Champagne Room," Tony answered.
Steve rolled his eyes. "Tony is showing me some sights."
It was enough of a lie that Tony was almost impressed, and the two of them headed off before there were too many questions; Tony blared the radio, something vaguely classic and 50s, since that was about as adventurous as Steve currently got as far as music went - the car was just as classic. When they finally came into view of the sleepy Long Island cemetery, Tony killed the radio and the two of them slid wordlessly through the gate. He hadn't been here in... years, but he still remembered the way, winding passed some of the other plots before he finally arrived at the small corner of family plots that Tony's grandfather had bought years and years ago.
The two of them exited the car, wordlessly, and Steve followed after Tony as he walked a few short yards into the actual plots themselves. There was no epitaph, just names and dates - the usual 'loving husband and father' hadn't seemed right to Tony at the time, and as apt as it might have been, the J. Robert Oppenheimer quote seemed callous at best, even with his father's legacy. So it sat, Howard and Maria Stark.
Tony had never been one to talk to the dead. He was one of those 'dead means they're gone' sorts, but a quick glance at Steve said the man was not prepared to say his own goodbyes. "Hey, sorry I haven't come around. Been a bit busy saving the world one green initiative and alien invasion at a time, also sort of a cyborg." Tony tried to relax into it, feel his way around what the hell he would actually say to his father and... what Steve might need to hear. "Obie--" Bad thoughts, Tony backed away from any line of thought that started with Obie. "You saved my life last year. I miniaturized the arc reactor, we're at the beginning of an energy revolution again. And at first I thought you were brilliant, but you're still a damn cheat because you knew vibranium would work in the arc reactor and palladium was the only thing you could get your hands on and..."
He coughed, turned and glanced towards Steve, his head still bowed, but not in anything like prayer; he was still collecting himself so Tony continued to ramble.
"I'm sorry I couldn't be the son you wanted when you wanted me to be. I'm... still an asshole, that much hasn't changed, but that dream you had back in the 70s that you stopped short on? Yeah, I went there. Stark Industries isn't in the iron monger business anymore, we're about world peace and saving the world and... stock prices could be better but it's worth it."
Steve came up beside him, placing a hand on Tony's shoulder, finally allowing him the chance to just shut up and stop babbling about shit that his dad would no doubt have cared about but this really wasn't about closure for him; he'd started to find that after the Vanko incident.
Tony gestured over his shoulder, like he could go back to the car, but Steve just grabbed his shoulder hard enough to leave a mark. Tony stayed.
"Sorry I'm... late. Tony said you looked for me for years and I..." Steve bowed his head, hand dropping away from Tony's shoulder and it was Tony's turn to put his hand on Steve's shoulder, holding tight. "I love you. I don't think I said that enough when I had the chance. I wish you could be here today, Howard. I wish I could see you again, see your face, hold you. I miss your... ridiculous clothes that were so permeated with the scent of coffee and chicory not even the wash could get the smell out. I miss coming home and getting the chance to see you... if you remembered what day it was and that I was coming back, which you never did."
The diatribe of missed things ended and Steve cleared his throat, enough so that Tony got the idea that there were far more things Steve missed but the list would have been far too long to count. "You always talked about the future, and here it is, and I still don't have my damn flying car." Steve laughed, something pained and tight and awkward. "It's been almost seventy years and the cars still don't fly. Your son flies. He's more of an ass than you, but you could be a bit of a jerk yourself. I wish you could see him."
Tony glanced away, not quite comfortable with the conversation, not wanting to hear what Steve had to say about him and yet also morbidly curious, and he knew Steve wouldn't be an ass about it.
"You... before the War ended, before I disappeared, the Howard I knew would have loved Tony. Sometimes I see him in his lab and I think how you would have gotten along like a house on fire if you were there beside him. You got the selfish teenaged years." Steve stopped again, head bowed, and he glanced towards Tony. He thought about looking away but Steve was looking at him, looking for something. "I'll get the rest of the years."
"You don't owe me that," Tony answered, mouth dry and tight. "You don't owe him that either." Never mind that Tony wasn't certain he wanted Steve in his life like that; they were still feeling around the edges of this fucked up relationship.
"I want to."
There were... worse people to have looking out for you, Tony supposed.
Steve continued, he rambled about everything, so much so that Tony did eventually retreat to the car to allow Steve the chance to say the rest outside of Tony's hearing. He relaxed against the car, watching the figure Steve cut, head bowed, crying his eyes out, saying a lifetime of goodbyes that he only had a few weeks to feel. A phone beep interrupted his thoughts and he glanced down at it.
'Tony, Natasha and Clint suggested you were taking Captain America on a bender.' Pepper was texting, this was not good.
Tony sighed, glanced up at Steve again. The weight of how much it sucked to be Steve, how much it must have hurt dad to lose Steve, settled into the back of Tony's mind. 'I'm sorry I almost died and left you alone again. I'd say it won't happen again, but it will.'
Pepper's answer was a long time coming, minutes passed, which for Pepper texting was eons. 'Are you drunk?'
'Never more sober.' He finished up the text only to see Steve turn back from the grave, back straight, head raised high, tears streaming down his face. 'Gtg. Steve's getting accosted by strippers and I need to protect his virtue.'
Tony slid his phone into his jacket pocket and opened the car too for Steve to slide into the passenger's seat; Tony pulled on a pair of shades. "You alright?"
"You're too damn honest for this century, Cap." Tony turned the car on and put it in gear, trying to avoid the worst of the thoughts tumbling through his head. He took them to a diner a mile or two from the cemetery, it seemed to be the place for whatever conversation was brewing between them.
Tony ordered a coffee, Steve ordered half of the menu. Tony helped himself to most of Steve's fries.
"I'm a grown man, you know." Tony broke the silence between them. "I'm older than you by more than a decade."
"You're Howard's son, you're my teammate, and you're... I'd like us to be friends, Tony, in addition to all of the other things." Steve took a huge bite of a reuben, wiping the corner of his mouth on one of the paper napkins as he chewed and then swallowed. "You can call it old-fashioned or sentimental, you can call it a lot of things, but I loved your father, you are his son, and the idea that the two of us could live in the same Tower, work together on the same team, and I wouldn't look out for you like that isn't in the cards. I know this is awkward for you, and you're... you're too old for another father-figure, but I can't look at you and see anything but... the man I would have looked out for your entire life, if fate had given me the dignity of allowing me to come through time the long way."
What could he even say to that? Tony nodded.
"As a father figure... you know, you wouldn't be so bad." Tony could admit that, here, in a silly little Long Island diner, eating fries and drinking too much coffee. It wasn't as though Tony hadn't looked up to him before. "Finding out my annoying big brother was actually my annoying step-dad was a bit to wrap my head around, though."
Tony still couldn't quite wrap his head around it, but he found it all fit now, at least a little. He felt like he understood dad better, and if you were going to have one great lost love of your life, there were worse choices than Captain America. Knowing that his father had been profoundly, fundamentally broken long before Tony had arrived made his father's failure to connect no less upsetting, but a lot more understandable. The dopey-haired man sitting across the diner from him had certainly slid a lot of pieces into place.
"I never knew his... fun side," Tony admitted; before talking to Steve he wouldn't have even imagined his father had one. "He was so broken, a slave to his work, and a lot of people must have liked him that way, but I wonder how much of his legacy was... making a world you would have been proud to sacrifice yourself for." The legacy that Howard had laid out for him, the one that Tony found himself wholeheartedly embracing as he got older and wiser, really was something he could be proud of.
"First impressions and what I said aside... Howard would be proud of you." Steve sounded completely and totally certain of himself. "I don't know how much he changed after the War, but for him it was never about killing bad guys, it was about protecting people. That was..."
Steve stopped, the prickle of tears welling up at the corners of his eyes again, but he carried on.
"That was what I always loved about him. In a world full of scientists and soldiers, many who signed up to kill Germans, he was there just trying to figure it all out, make sense of it, enjoy the thrill of discovery and the joy of protecting the people he loved." Steve took a small bite of his omelet, chewed it over and waited. "He wasn't a patriot in the sense most people would mean it. The Army recruited him, he didn't join up. He had doubts about what he did during the War. That was part of what made me tell you about me and your father, I watched that film of your press conference after you came back from Afghanistan, the way you talked about not getting to say goodbye to him and how you would have asked him what he felt about what Stark Industries did. I don't think he would have liked what it was back then, but I know he'd be proud of what it is now."
Tony let out a breath he'd been holding for... probably over a year now. He'd always hoped. After he'd moved away from weapons he'd always hoped that dad would have understood, would have been, if not happy, at least alright with the direction Tony took the company in after his captivity. "Wow, um... that..." Tony coughed, turned away to hide his discomfort and embarrassment and Steve just waited him out. "Thanks. I hated never really knowing. I've gotta say, Cap, you don't suck at this."
Steve rolled his eyes, but he allowed it, and the two of them worked their way through far more coffee and a good deal of food before Tony paid and the two of them headed back to the car. Things were going to be interesting from here on out, having this weirdly personal connection to dad was a first, Obie had given him this warped view of his dad, Fury had his own agenda, and Steve might have been a bit blinded, but at least it was by love, love for dad, maybe even eventually some sort of love for Tony, and he found - years and years after his dad had died - that he might have been alright with that.
Steve thought it was usually safe to interrupt when Tony descended into playing basketball with scrunched up holograms. "Tony?"
"How do you find a good mechanic on the internet?" He had done his best to research the parts, it would set him back a few thousand dollars - which still smarted even as he tried to remember that money wasn't quite the same as he remembered - but that was apparently what he got for having a vintage motorcycle.
Tony shrugged. "Review sites, I guess? Is that some sort of trick question?"
"No?" He tried to type in the query 'motorcycle repair shop reviews', but by the time he'd typed it Tony had collapsed onto the couch next to him and stolen the tablet.
"I'm offended," Tony said. Steve frowned. "You do know one of my degrees is in mechanical engineering? One of the only things dad and I ever bonded over was playing with engines." Tony had started a full on ramble, at that point. "My youngest magazine cover was, in fact, for me building an engine - because apparently circuit boards aren't impressive enough, but everyone understands 'ooo an engine'. Is there a reason you didn't ask me?"
"It's..." Steve struggled to find the word. Tony waited, and as much as he tried to hide it, Steve saw the corners of the mask, the tenseness in his mouth that signaled that Tony was upset, not just rambling. "Vintage?"
"So you want to take your one-of-a-kind, vintage, World War II era bike to a random guy you found on yelp?"
Steve wasn't certain what yelping had to do with anything, but... Tony was right, and Steve wondered how you could politely tell a guy whose father thought a flamethrower was an appropriate addition to a shield that he wanted his motorcycle to come back... as a motorcycle. "I just... didn't want it to end up with an arc reactor and a..." He waved his hand in front of his own face. "View thing."
"HUD, heads up display, and have you seen my car collection? Every single one of them is a lovingly and authentically maintained classic, except for the ones that aren't classics." Tony took a deep breath and handed back the tablet. "I'll have JARVIS find you a good mechanic."
"Nope. Busy now." Tony shooed him out. "Genius in progress."
Steve left, very aware of how incredibly he'd stepped in that one. But he knew Tony well enough now to not try to fix it while Tony was in a huff, for a man nearing forty, he could be incredibly childish sometimes. He headed out of the lab and to the elevator. "My floor please, JARVIS." The elevator started to descend and Steve lightly banged his head back against the metal of the elevator. "I messed that one up, didn't I?"
"I would say so, Captain." Leave it to JARVIS to not spare his ego.
"I wasn't even thinking." He'd known Tony's degrees must have been in engineering of some sort, it wasn't as though he had studied art or economics. "Howard kept that bike in peak condition all throughout the War, and he..." Steve took a deep breath. "He salvaged what was left of it after my assault against HYDRA, and then he leaves the thing in SHIELD custody even though he thought I was dead. He tried to put a flamethrower on my shield."
JARVIS made some sort of sound that almost made it seem like he was clearing his throat. "If I may say so, Captain, Sir took a great deal of comfort in working on engines with his father. Even though he did not offer much to suggest true emotional intimacy, it is something they shared regularly, and it is not as though Sir is entirely self-taught on matters of mechanical engineering."
"Can you show me?" He asked as he walked back onto his floor and raided the kitchenette for the fixings for hot chocolate. His bike - currently unable to start - was tucked away in the corner by the table.
A half-dozen holographic magazine covers appeared before him, and Steve picked one of them at random and set it on the countertop. JARVIS was always very nice to him, even when he'd irritated Tony, and Steve was almost able to treat the magazine as though it was made of some weird, weightless future-paper. He flipped through it while he set some milk on to boil. Howard and Tony were on the cover together, and Steve didn't take long to find the actual article which explained exactly how brilliant Tony was, as he had been able to put together a modest engine. A few of the pictures showed both Howard and Tony, curled over some sort of car technical manual as they worked on another engine.
There were also pictures of Tony with Howard working on... a Corvette, something from the 50s if Steve remembered right. It took him a few moments to realize that was Tony's Corvette, the one they had taken to visit Howard at the cemetery. "Do people realize how nostalgic he is sometimes?"
"Sir does everything in his power to dissuade the notion. It's not in keeping with his image as a futurist." JARVIS's voice floated somewhere to the side of Steve's head, Steve got out a mug and shaved some chocolate. "The presence of two robots that are by all objective measures obsolete in his continued daily employ would suggest otherwise. To be blunt, Captain, your motorcycle is the only item in Howard Stark's vehicle collection that Tony has not had the privilege of working on."
Howard was... well Steve knew he could be like that sometimes; proprietary would have been the polite word for it, possessive the more negative. No doubt he'd felt personally responsible for the motorcycle in a way that he wouldn't have even on his most classic of cars. "Any thoughts, JARVIS?"
Steve snorted. "I meant any advice on how I should make it up to Tony?"
"I would be extrapolating with limited data, as I cannot say Sir has had any other father figures from the past arrive unannounced in his adult era."
Tony had told him, only a few days ago, really, that JARVIS was far more advanced than he sometimes let on and able to make all sorts of estimates based on limited data, which meant he wasn't answering on purpose. "When I think mechanical engineer, I think Howard." To be fair, most things made him think of Howard. It was only just getting to the point where he could see someone on the street, find them attractive, and not be immediately overcome by a flash of guilt; now he found himself just overcome with sadness. "What Tony does is like magic. He puts together glowing blue sticks and then says 'welp, make a prototype, JARVIS' and he comes back and there's a little jet somewhere."
JARVIS didn't comment.
"Maybe I could ask Ms. Potts."
"Sir and Ms. Potts are currently 'off again', I am afraid."
Steve rolled his eyes. "Tony."
"I believe the correct expression is 'I am never getting grandchildren at this rate', Captain." If JARVIS had a face, Steve was certain he would be grinning, but a few moments later the AI sobered. "I also do not think she would be able to offer a fully informed opinion without being informed of the nature of your and Sir's relationship."
That was part of the reason he wasn't taking this up with Natasha. She had shadowed him for weeks, if anyone could understand what might be going through that head of Tony's, and wasn't programmed to be as secretive as possible, it would be her. He fumbled with the pot of chocolate for a moment, pouring himself a glass and then heading over to his couch, collapsing on it and going back to flipping through his magazine. "Do you think I should tell her?"
"I have been expressly forbidden from expressing direct advice concerning actions towards Ms. Potts."
"To me?" That was a pretty weird restriction.
"The original restriction was for Sir, but it is extrapolated to all users."
The restriction made a weird sort of sense, but... "No wonder he and Pepper have problems. He's forbidden the only person he talks to on a regular basis from giving him advice about her."
JARVIS did not respond immediately, and Steve could never be certain when his attention was elsewhere or he was just considering. He'd noticed that, after a little while; Tony had said he was a computer, that he processed things, and there were moments when after a few slower answers JARVIS would tell him that Tony had him working on several problems. Steve just considered it to mean that his attention was elsewhere, since it was slightly awkward to think of JARVIS as a person, even though - as far as Steve was concerned - he obviously was.
"Thank you, Captain."
"For what?" He left the holo-magazine to settle, weightlessly on his lap, taking a sip of chocolate.
"For categorizing me as 'a person'." After a pause, JARVIS continued. "I do have a recommendation, however it does not concern Ms. Potts."
The very best part about conspiring with an artificial intelligence who'd been created by the man he was hoping to apologize to was that he had almost ten years of history to fall back on. Steve had only known Tony for a few weeks, JARVIS had known Tony for the AI's entire lifetime. Steve gave it a day, and then followed that up by waiting for his cue from JARVIS, and wheeling the very sad, couldn't even start, motorcycle down to Tony's lab.
"Nope," Tony said, almost as soon as Steve wheeled in. "Missed your chance." He didn't even look up from where he was working on a half-dozen blue walls of information and schematics. Over in the corner, one of the fabrication machines was working on who-knew-what, and Dum-E was making a smoothie.
Steve didn't even waste the energy being irritated at Tony's ornery behavior and shrugged. "JARVIS helped me download a repair manual. Can I use your tools?"
The question made Tony turn to face him, eyebrow slightly arched, but he pointed towards one of the chests and Steve carefully made his way over there. By the time he had the motorcycle setup, Tony had turned back to his work. Steve ignored him, set up the tablet so he could read from the pages, pulled out a half-dozen different tools that he was fairly certain he would need. JARVIS had suggested that he make a show of not knowing what to do, but Steve realized as he stared at the outer engine housing that he really didn't have to pretend. Howard had never meant it meanly, but there was a simple fact that he was an artist and a tactician, but not an engineer. He knew his limitations.
It took him almost fifteen minutes to find the screws and fastenings to get the housing off. His victorious tug was undercut by the housing not budging one inch when he tried to remove it. "JARVIS?"
"Although you have removed fourteen fastenings, Captain, they were not the ones necessary for removal of the outer housing."
Steve took out three more screws and gave it another tug.
JARVIS sighed. "The appropriate screws are---"
"Christ, Steve, Dum-E and U could do a better job of that." Tony was watching now, not even bothering to look over at his work. "Don't keep pulling out more screws! You're going to lose them and..." Tony stopped, rucked his fingers through his hair, and stormed over, inspecting the many screws that Steve had left over the floor, before he picked up six screws and took the screwdriver right out of Steve's hand before he went about putting them back in. "U, bring a tray over here, Dum-E, pen and labels."
Tony quickly located and re-fastened the screws that shouldn't have come out, before he gave Steve a glower from the other side of the bike.
"Don't think I don't know what you're doing." Tony pulled out two more screws and set them on the tray that U had brought over. "This is far more devious than your usual, though. JARVIS, did you come up with this?"
"Captain Rogers did fully participate in the planning phases," JARVIS answered.
The workshop was silent as Tony picked up the manual that Steve had, indeed, gotten, and glanced over at it and then the bike before nodding. "Now you can take off the housing."
Steve barely had to tug, it came off neatly. Tony took it just a moment later, fingers running over the casing. There were one or two small dents, picked up from a thrown piece of gravel or just normal wear and tear, the shine of the metal itself was dulled. "You want the dents buffed out and the thing polished or are you going for vintage charm and character?"
He really hadn't thought about it. When he reached out and took the housing from Tony, Tony let him, watching as Steve ran his fingers over the few dings. "I'm sure it's not all the original parts, but... I rode this all through the War. She barely got scrubbed down for a promotional photo op."
"Dad used as many of the original as he had, but you sort of... plastered it to the door of the HYDRA base in Switzerland." Tony tilted his head towards U. "Give it to him, he'll de-gunk it, give it a good scrub, and call it a day."
Steve let the part go, and U happily rolled away and began his task.
Tony didn't even have to glance at the repair manual that Steve had gotten, just moved on, inspecting each piece of the engine and the wiring in turn. In spite of never having touched it, it was clear that Tony knew the machine, inside and out. He would point, tell Steve what to do, and Steve would hand over each piece for Tony's inspection, cleaning, and reattaching if necessary. It was slow work, methodical, and Tony never seemed to lose his place even as Steve looked at all the bits spread over the floor and held by the twin robot arms and wondered if the whole thing would ever get back together again.
"This was dad's idea of unwinding," Tony said, finally, voice low as he whispered out the confession. "He never really invited me, but he worked on the cars, on the motorcycle, and sometimes even on the planes; if I showed up, though, he'd hand me pieces, point, tell me where they went, explained what each and every piece did, why it went where it did or why it shouldn't have been put there in the first place. Fuel efficiency, compression ratios, horsepower, cylinder efficiency, every little aspect explained. He never let me play with this, though; that was his and his alone, usually while he was half-drunk."
Steve didn't know exactly what he should say, but he nodded. "I think I wrecked her, one way or another, five or six times, and that doesn't include a bullet here or there. By the time the war was over, Howard probably could have put 'er back together in his sleep."
They fell back into silence.
"You two--" Tony cut himself off, went back to the work.
Steve didn't push, waited. He wasn't certain he wanted to hear the question or comment anyway. He didn't know what Tony would have to say or want to know, and that was its own slice of terror.
"It was the fucking forties." Tony ran a thumb over the motor. "You said people around SSR knew that dad was bi?"
"I wonder if Fury knew." Tony didn't seem to be working, now, just thinking as he looked over the deconstructed wreckage that was the bike engine. "He said he knew my dad right when SHIELD was starting up and dad was working with the Tesseract to try to design the arc reactor, but Fury's... what, maybe sixty? He wouldn't have been with SHIELD until at least the sixties, and dad wasn't married, but you'd think I would have heard if my dad was being a free loving hippy during Vietnam."
"He doesn't know," Steve said. He decided that on the spot. "He thought I was with Peggy." That was when it had started, right after he'd woken up. The hushed tones, the light suggestions that he might be missing her. No one had even thought it might hurt to see Howard's dossier listing him as deceased.
"There are some things a man doesn't really want to know about his father, but... how did you two...?" Tony shook his head. "I'd ask how you met, but I know the answer to that."
Telling Tony that his father had been a bit... promiscuous would certainly have been temporarily amusing, but he wondered how he would take that. Tony had spent his entire youth knowing his father as the man who had been married to his mother, not the one who had been together with cigarette girls and Stark girls and all sorts of young soldiers. "Back during the war, your dad was one of the few people working as a government contractor and running a company. I looked it up, most of the SSR boys, and the ones working on the bomb--"
Steve trailed off, thinking about the images he'd seen and how that must have affected Howard. He'd read a few of the personal journals of some of the other men who had worked on the project and it was impossible to not think of Howard going through the same thing, the loathing, the guilt, and the pure terror of what those scientists had managed to bring into the world.
He shook his head, trying to clear the images. "It was hard to be a kid in the city and not have seen Howard out there doing promotional stuff. He was one of the closest things we had to a celebrity that wasn't a guy or a dame on the movie screen."
"Are you trying to say you had a crush on my dad?" Tony was smirking, but he was obviously more amused than horrified.
"I had a crush on your dad." He sure hadn't been the only one, but that was probably more than Tony needed to hear. "After the serum was a success, I didn't see your dad again for... probably almost four months. He flew me out for a drop for a mission, I made it back home, and he patted me on the back, said well done, and then took the explosives I'd managed to bring back from the base and went to play with them in his lab."
Tony laughed, and everything eased between them in one simple sound. The last of the tension that Tony had been carrying in his back melted away and there was just something young and happy to him. "I'm not sure I'm comfortable knowing exactly how much I'm like my father, here, Steve."
"You are. It's a compliment." Tony was so much like his father it hurt sometimes, but it made it easier to look at Tony and see Howard's son, someone who he needed to protect and care for. "He took the sample, and he managed to blow up his lab. I saw the wreckage afterward; it was pretty impressive. And since your father didn't know when to leave well enough alone, he hunted me down in my quarters and started... I think you call it 'technobabble' now, my head was spinning, I'm pretty sure Howard had a concussion, and he was just so damn excited."
Steve couldn't even remember what Howard had been saying, energy potential and revolutionary energy sources and running inventions for a thousand years with that sort of device.
"He was attractive on a good day, and like that he was... magnetic." Just thinking about it, Howard's face lit up, his soft brown eyes frantic and wild. "I think, at the time, I meant to shush him, or calm him down, and I put my thumb to his lip and..." Steve coughed, just thinking about it was a bit embarrassing, but he remembered the way Howard's whole face had changed, his breath had hitched, and his hands had shot out like they had when Steve had first walked out of the treatment pod, running over his stomach. "We... um..."
"Kissed?" Tony offered.
"A lot." It hadn't been anything particularly suave, and Steve had had no idea where his hands went, where his body went, what his body could even really do, but Howard had pulled him down into that kiss and Steve's hands had fisted into the back of Howard's jumpsuit. Howard hadn't pushed, even though Steve's heart had been pounding and he'd been whimpering into this amazing kiss, and that was it. He'd gone to look at prototypes the next morning like it had been nothing.
Tony shuddered before turning back to the bike, pulling apart and inspecting more pieces. "That... I mean it doesn't sound like the start of a great love affair. I sounds like a hookup."
"It was a - um - 'hookup'." Steve shrugged. He and Peggy had been on the outs, and anyone with any sense knew that a fella wasn't forever the way a dame was. Howard had never said outright that that's what it was, but Steve just knew, and if he hadn't known on his own, the stern talking to from Colonel Phillips before he went out to take on his first HYDRA base would have been his wake up call; fairies didn't live happily ever after. "A few weeks later, when the Commandos and I were shipping out, he... he said goodbye, and..." Steve tried to remember the exact words, found he couldn't. "He said he would wait for me." The words didn't do any justice to the moment when Steve realized that Howard was worried for him, that it was something more than friendship and a casual fling between two men. "I'm explaining it wrong."
He had no protest from Tony, but no confirmation either. A quick glance over to Tony showed his hands relaxed against the metal of the bike, touching, maybe thinking, maybe caught up in his own thoughts.
"We talked about what would happen after the war, sometimes. Howard said he'd stick around with SSR, and he asked me to... stay." Steve would have, after the Nazis had been defeated he would have stayed, would have gladly been the poster boy or fought the good fight, would have gone to Korea, to Vietnam, to any damn war they had wanted to send him to if he'd had Howard and his designs at his back, if they'd been able to be together. "It's hard to put it into words. We were never going to have a happily ever after, but I still loved him. I still love him. It's barely been two months."
"I get it, now." Tony pressed his forehead to the side of the bike, and Steve reached out his hand and wrapped his fingers around the back of Tony's neck, lightly. "I'm sorry you missed him. I'm sorry he missed you."
"Me too." Steve missed Howard, missed him in a way he never could have imagined three months ago.
The bike sat, parts sprawled over a huge swath of the lab floor, but the two of them stayed like that, curled up, Steve's hand at the back of Tony's neck and Tony leaned into him, forehead pressed against Steve's shoulder and they just rested. Steve's thoughts were caught up in Howard, in wondering if he should be trying to force himself to move on or if Howard was the one thing he should cling to while he was thrown into this future his lover would have adored and a son he would have been fascinated by.
Steve had never considered children, not in any way that would be meaningful. Before the serum, he'd never had a conversation with a gal, much less felt as though he had anything to offer as a husband; Peggy he might have had children with, had they both made it through the war, which they hadn't; Howard had mentioned kids from time to time, Steve knew Howard had wanted Tony even if Tony hadn't felt that way... but Steve, Steve hadn't really thought about children.
And yet now he had one, one that was older than him, stuck in the future, a playboy but somehow just as terrible with women as Steve had been, a fighter, and a man who knew how to make the sacrifice play even if he never, ever would admit it out loud.
"You're a pretty amazing kid, Tony."
"You're not a terrible old man, Steve."
He knew how to understand that now; he heard it for what it was. It wasn't quite something that made sense, but he was certain they would get there.
They would get there in time.
"Stop woolgathering, Old Man, we've got a bike to put back together."
The two of them turned back to the bike, and there were more than a few pieces that they needed to fabricate to get it back together, but after that the bike ran smooth, and when it didn't, Steve knew where to turn to fix it. It worked, and really in the end that was what mattered.