“I am not watching Mission Impossible again. No. Not a chance. Stop making that face, it's my turn to chose and I hate Tom Cruise.” Clint held up the tablet, blocking his view of Thor's hangdog face. “Stop making that face! Stop it! I- No!”
“Giving in would be easier,” Steve pointed out, settling down on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and some microbrewed soda in an actual glass bottle that Tony had acquired from God only knows where. He was kinda looking forward to it, even if he'd never been a fan of cream soda as a kid.
“I am not giving in. It's my turn to pick the movie, and no, we are not watching anything involving Tom Cruise.” Clint gave Thor a bop on the head with the tablet, making the demigod laugh. “Just because some of you have horrible taste in movies-”
From a nearby armchair, Natasha made a noise that would've been a laugh coming from any other person the planet. She was in the process of sharpening an array of knives, the same way she did every week, making it clear that she was disinterested in the movie, no matter who picked it. Steve, however, noticed that she always chose to do her weapons maintenance in the rec room on Thursday nights. And she muttered in Russian at the widescreen tv sometimes during unrealistic fight scenes.
“Listen, at least my movies don't have subtitles,” Clint said to her.
She arched an eyebrow. “Didn't you make us watch Spirited Away with subtitles?”
“Fine, fine, shut up now,” he said, grinning. His fingers were dancing through the huge array of digital media that Tony had available for viewing. “Jarvis, is this stuff in any sort of order whatsoever?”
“I believe the filing system is along the lines of 'awesome,' 'more awesome,' 'chick flicks,' and 'why do I own this?'” Jarvis said, and Steve could so easily hear Tony saying it that he choked on a laugh. The AI continued, voice droll and only faintly amused. “If you would prefer, I can attempt a more... Conventional classification system.”
“You are the man, Jarvis, no kidding.” Clint gave the room a thumbs up.
“I appreciate the sentiment.” On the tablet, the screen went blank, and then the files reappeared, falling into neat columns and rows.
“What're we watching?” Bruce was barefoot and rumpled, his glasses crooked on his nose and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Behind him, Coulson was immaculately pressed, his shoes at a high gloss and his hair in place. Both of them were carrying an array of folders.
“Clint is holding up the works,” Steve explained with a smile. He offered Bruce the popcorn bowl. The scientist took a handful with a warm smile.
“And no one in the room is surprised by this,” Coulson said, his lips twitching. Clint, embroiled in lists of entertainment, flipped a middle finger in his direction, his grin broad and amused.
As everyone took their usual seats, Clint hummed his way through the choices. “Hey, Jarvis? What're these?” He tapped a list of files that were only marked with a series of dates.
“Sir's recordings of his early experimentation with the Iron Man suit,” Jarvis replied, and just like that, the whole room stilled.
“Wait, what?” Steve glanced up. He knew, intellectually, that Jarvis didn't live in the ceiling, but he couldn't break himself of the habit.
“Sir regularly records his experiments,” Jarvis said. “So the data can be evaluated. This particular series was from the time when he was attempting to make adjustments to the repulsor technology and the preliminary armor structure.”
Everyone stared at the tablet in Clint's hands. Even Natasha lowered her blades, eyebrows arching. “Why are they on the list?” Clint asked at last.
“The query presented was for video files that you have the clearance to access,” Jarvis explained. “While not strictly entertainment, or even particularly entertaining, these files do meet that criteria.”
“Wait, we can watch these?” Clint asked, eyes huge. “Are you fucking kidding me? Oh, we are watching these.”
“Barton-” Coulson started.
“No. No, no, no, I am watching these, the rest of you can leave if you wanna, but I am watching these, all of these, right now. Jarvis, you said we have clearance? This isn't like, super personal stuff, right? He didn't get naked or do casting couches for the Ironettes in the middle of these?”
A minute pause. “He remains fully clothed throughout the entire process,” Jarvis said. “And yes. I did have to review the footage before I could give you that assurance.”
“I fuckin' love Tony,” Clint said, cuing up the video.
Steve knew he should be objecting to this. It was an invasion of privacy. At the very least, they should wait for Tony to arrive and ask his permission. Instead, he scrunched himself down behind the popcorn bowl, ignoring the way his cheeks had heated at the idea of a naked Tony running tests on the Iron Man suit. Heck, even a semi-naked Tony doing repairs on the armor...
Oh, God, he was a pervert.
The screen flickered, and when it stabilized, Tony was standing alone in his workshop, adjusting a series of wires that wrapped around his arms and chest. He was wearing a black tank top, ripped to allow access to the Arc Reactor, a battered pair of pants, and a positively manic expression. “Okay,” he was saying, his voice holding that sharp, eager edge that meant he was into what he was doing. “Going to start at ten percent power.”
He held up his hands and shifted his legs, and in rec room, Bruce's back went poker straight. “Wait, what is he doing, that's-”
On the screen, Tony went airborne, his body smacking into the angled ceiling with a sickening thud.
“Oh, SHIT,” Clint said, jerking back.
“Jesus!” Steve said, slapping both hands over his mouth. The popcorn bowl tipped, contents going in all directions, and he grabbed for it.
“-far too much thrust,” Bruce finished, his voice almost lost under a string of what sounded like curses from both Natasha and Coulson.
“First attempts at flight seldom go smoothly,” Thor said, nodding. “I am most sympathetic to his plight, my own first flight resulted in a half dozen deaths.” When everyone looked at him, he shrugged. “Geese.”
And that was not a mental picture Steve needed, thank you very much.
“What're we watching?” Tony asked from the door. Every head swiveled in his direction, and he blinked at them. He had a box of cookies under one arm and a can of whipped cream in his other hand. “What?” he asked, head tipping to the side. His eyes caught on the screen, and he froze.
Steve straightened up, guilt rushing in to take over for the panic he'd felt when he'd seen Tony go airborne. “Tony, we-”
“Oh, my GOD, are you watching this?” Tony said, a huge grin breaking over his face. “Oh, oh, it just started, excellent, that is unbelievably excellent, you haven't even gotten to the best part yet.” He hopped over the back of the couch, crashing down on the cushions next to Steve. He grinned at Steve, dark eyes dancing with amusement. “You have to see this, this is-” He started laughing. “This is so good.”
“How is this good?” Coulson asked, his voice deadpan. “You nearly broke your own neck.”
Tony waved him off, waggling the can of whipped cream in his general direction. “And yet, I didn't, so, hey, funny!” He pointed at the screen. “Watch. Watch this.”
On the tv, Tony had stumbled to his feet, wobbling and unsteady, but with narrowed eyes and a couple of nudges from Dummy, he returned to the central spot in the workshop. “Okay, need to make adjustments to the-” He swayed on his feet, and Dummy put a hand in the center of his back like a little robotic prop. “What, what're you doing, I do not need your help, go pick something up, you've left the work bench a mess again, deal with that. No, not me, not-” Dummy rolled away obediently, and Tony pitched over, hitting the ground with a thump. “Ow.”
The Tony on the couch was in hysterics, laughing so hard that he was almost crying. Bruce was frowning at him, eyebrows drawn up tight. “This,” he said, his voice stern, “Is not proper lab safety protocol.”
“Well, duh,” Tony said, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. He was leaning up against Steve's side, his legs along the length of the couch and his head on Steve's shoulder. He didn't seem to notice how stiff Steve was, and Steve took a deep breath, trying to relax. Tony pointed at the screen again, grinning like a fool. “Here. Here, watch this.”
In the video, Tony found his feet again, made some minute adjustments to the wiring, shifted his arms, braced his feet, gritted his teeth, and went smashing right back into the wall.
“I did it again!” Tony crowed, laughing. “I am an IDIOT. Look at that, oh, my God, I am a fucking moron.” He bent double, laughing. “The next twenty minutes or so is me attempting to determine, with Dummy's not so helpful help, if I've got a concussion or a dislocated shoulder. And the answer was-” He pointed the whipped cream can at the ceiling. “Jarvis?”
“Yes to both,” Jarvis said, droll.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!” Tony stood and took a sweeping bow. “Thank you. I'll be here all week, remember to tip your waitresses.” He tossed himself back on the couch. “Jarvis, pause that sucker.” He grinned at the screen. “I look drunk or brain-damaged. God, I love this stuff.”
“This isn't funny.”
It wasn't until everyone looked at him that Steve realized that the tense, angry sounding words had come from him. Tony tipped his head back, looking at Steve upside down, blinking owlishly in Steve's direction, eyes warm and dark and alive, so alive that just looking at them hurt. Steve could feel his heart pounding beneath his breastbone, the pressure so painful that he could barely stand it, he wanted to scream, to grab Tony and shake him, to make him understand-
Tony shrugged. “Sure it is.” He leaned back, fishing a cookie from the box and shaking the whipped cream. “I mean, I turned the camera off before I had You and Dummy reset my shoulder. That was pretty damn dumb, but I didn't want to bother leaving the shop. You know how it is.”
“No. I don't.” Steve realized his hands were fisted on his knees, and he struggled to get them to relax. “Tony, this isn't funny.”
Tony squirted a swirl of whipped cream on the cookie and popped it in his mouth. “You think this one isn't funny, you should definitely not watch the first Iron Man test flight. Man, that went poorly.” He chewed, swallowed. “Icing problem, did I ever tell you guys about the icing problem?”
“It's not funny,” Steve gritted out. “You could've died.”
And at long last, Tony seemed to understand that there was an issue. He arched an eyebrow at Steve. “And I didn't,” he said, and the levity was gone from his voice, he was calm and almost reassuring, his smile so very Tony, not the overblown one he threw around at the press and the president and his own lawyers, just a warm, 'hey, it's okay' smile that he reserved for Steve after the world almost got blown up and chunks of Manhattan were still smoldering.
It didn't even scrape the surface of the overwhelming rage that was shaking through Steve's frame.
Knowing he was at his limit, Steve jerked himself to his feet, sending the popcorn flying, and a bottle of cream soda went spiraling across the floor, round and round like some parody of spin the bottle and everyone else was quiet and he wanted to scream at all of them to just stop, just stop pretending, this was STUPID.
“I don't understand why you find this funny,” Steve bit out. “It's not. None of this is funny, it's dangerous and it's stupid and it's-” He cut himself off, turning on his heel and stalking away, only to come snapping back, feet crunching in discarded popcorn, and he didn't want to acknowledge the fear that was churning through him, did not want to think about that. About how many times Tony had almost died, how close he'd come to waking up in this century and finding himself without Tony.
“Are you seriously yelling at me about something that happened years ago?” Tony said, shaking his head just a little, and his dark eyes were obsidian sharp, black and clear and they cut so easily. “Is that's what's happening here? Yeah, we're not doing that, because, news flash, Cap, I had a whole life before you showed up, before any of you were here, so I'm not sure why you think I'll apologize for it, because this-” He stabbed his finger at the screen, where he'd been frozen in mid-step, determination and pain and frustration on his recorded face. “Is the least of what I could spend the entire rest of my life living down.”
“I'm not yelling at you about that, I'm yelling at you because you're still doing the same thing, you're still doing this stuff downstairs, aren't you? You have no sense, Tony, you just do things without thinking of the consequences and how it effects everyone around you and-” He felt Thor shift beside him, and he broke off, snapping, “What?”
“Oh, for God's sake,” Tony said, rolling his eyes, “back off, he's not going to hit me, don't be stupid.”
“I'm not going to-” Steve jerked his head towards Thor, some of his anger sliding away, replaced by hurt. “I would never, you don't think I would-”
Thor rolled massive shoulders in an eloquent shrug. “It would not be the first time one of warrior blood came to blows with a shield brother off the field of battle,” he said. “Best I stand near, so you have less to regret, if such a thing were to happen.”
“Okay, that's enough,” Natasha said, and it was with silky calm, even as her body shifted into fight position between them, a hand on each of their chests. Steve realized that Bruce and Clint were gone, and he knew the archer had moved Bruce away, just in case. Because the shouting was bad enough, but if there was anything more than that, well, the last thing they needed was the Hulk getting involved, because Bruce's fondness for Tony had definitely manifested in his alter ego.
It was fine. Steve was calming down, he had to calm down, because Natasha was between them and Coulson was behind Tony, and he was fingering the pocket where Ol' Sparky was kept, and Tony would never forgive Steve if they got tased in his own rec room.
“Come on, boys,” Natasha continued, with a faint smile at Tony first, and then Steve. “We can all blame Clint for this mess, in that it is in fact all of his fault, and he's most likely hiding behind Bruce right now. But why don't we all take a step back, calm down a little, and then pick out a movie we all like? Something nice and-” She smiled at them. “Soothing.”
“I don't want to watch the movie, I want to discuss what we just saw,” Steve bit out.
“No. You do not want to have this discussion with me,” Tony said, his voice very soft, very clear. “Trust me. You don't. So let's take Natasha's completely intelligent advice and all just go back to watching a nice movie right now, and pretend that this whole thing didn't happen.”
Steve just about lost it. “Actually, I do want to have this discussion. About what sort of stupidity you pull every damn day we're active, ever mission we have, every time you sneak off and use yourself as bait and test things without having a clue what they are and throw yourself right in front of an attack-”
“Didn't we start our little working relationship by you pointing out that I wasn't the sort to make the big sacrifice?” Tony asked, his voice cold. “And now you're pissed off at me because I am? Just out of curiosity, can I do anything right where you're concerned?”
Yeah, he deserved that one, and it still hurt, it still hurt like a punch to the gut because yes, he seemed to make an absolute career out of saying things to Tony Stark that were both insulting and completely wrong, and if he thought about it very much, he'd never be able to look Tony in the eye again. And he didn't know why, why this was always the way, he didn't know why Tony could get under his skin so easily, scramble him up and twist his guts in a knot and make him so confused that he didn't even know which way was up sometimes.
But he knew that watching Tony flip through the air and impact with the wall was one of the worst moments of his life, and now he couldn't stop thinking about it, couldn't make his brain focus on anything else.
“Don't ever do that again,” Steve said, and wow, yes, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person and he didn't know why he didn't just quit while he still had a friend, a lover, while he still had a chance of Tony ever touching him again.
Tony snorted back a laugh. “Don't do what?” he asked. “Narrow down what I'm not allowed to do. What you have now decided that I'm too incompetent to handle. Is it my work? Is it the Avengers? Going to my workshop? What, exactly, do you think you have the right to order me not to do, Captain?” he bit out, the words very precise, very crisp on his tongue. “I have a job to do, I have people, and a company that depends on me, and I'm sorry if you don't approve of my methods, but it's not your call to make.”
“Okay, now,” Coulson started.
“Do you really think that-” Steve stabbed a finger at the tv, “helps anyone other than your ego?”
Tony turned his head towards Steve, eyes and face unreadable behind a precise, sculpted mask that he'd honed from his own skin through years and years of practice. “Don't push me,” he said.
Steve leaned forward. “Or what?” A deliberate taunt, and he shouldn't do that, he knew he shouldn't do that, but the rage was bubbling, in his head and in his throat, and he couldn't seem to control the things that were coming out of his mouth, and he knew he was out of control even before he felt Thor's hand, big and broad and soothing on his shoulder.
Those long black lashes shuddered down, a flicker of movement, and then he was smiling up at Steve. “Or I'll just have to point out that you were so desperate for glory, for purpose, to escape who and what you were that you allowed a mad German scientist with a solid background of making fucking MONSTERS and my own grandstanding, drunken, power mad father to use you as a fucking lab rat in front of half of the military brass of the United States, who were there out of perverse fascination, and were more likely to witness your AUTOPSY than your transformation. You, Steven Rogers, do not get to lecture ANYONE on proper lab safety protocol, because YOU are a living example of what happens when people don't read the fucking clearance forms before they let people jam electrified needles into them in a fucking BASEMENT in BROOKLYN.”
“Well, damn,” Coulson said on a faint sigh.
And that's when the argument got ugly.
Steve didn't look up from his position slumped over at the kitchen table. He might've mumbled something that sounded like a hello, or maybe a go to hell, that wouldn't have been very polite, so he hoped it was hello, but he really didn't know, his brain was so focused on repeating, over and over, the completely stupid things that had come out of his mouth as he and Tony had SCREAMED at each other.
That wasn't a fight, that was a car accident without seatbelts.
“Uh, Cap? Do you know you're hugging a toaster?”
“It's warm,” Steve said, his voice vacant.
“Well, okay.” There was a scrape of a chair being pulled away from the table, and then someone took a seat next to him. A mug was placed next to his elbow, almost but not quite touching his arm. “It's Pepper's custom blend of tea leaves. I have a custom blend of tequila and more tequila, but I hear you don't get drunk.”
Steve raised his head and met James Rhodes' warm brown eyes. The other man arched his eyebrows in Steve's direction and gave the coffee mug a nudge. “C'mon, I know, it feels stupid, but it's Tony Tea. Pepper's been holding it together around him for a decade now. It's gotta be worth something.”
“Thank you,” Steve said, the response automatic. He reached for the mug, more so he had something to do than because he wanted the tea. “Sorry, Colonel, I didn't know you were coming, I-”
“I was down in Washington, planned to stop up here tomorrow, but Pepper gave me a call. Asked me to come help soothe the stormy waters, but I figured you might need to talk more than Tony does right now. She's got him under control, anyway, he's used to ranting at her.” Rhodey had his own mug, and he wrapped broad, long fingered hands around it.
Steve didn't know what to say to that. “Okay, Colonel.”
“You're dating my best friend. I think at this point, you have to call me Rhodey.” His head tipped to the side. “Or James? I answer to James, too. Are you, I mean, how're you doing, because I gotta say, you're really kind of freaking me out here, Cap.”
“Have you ever,” Steve said, staring at the wall as if it was the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen, “just felt like you were outside of your own body? Absolutely aware that you're doing exactly the wrong thing, but it's like watching someone else do it?”
“All the time,” Rhodey said, his mouth twitching. “Mostly around Tony. The man has a way of finding my every exposed nerve and stomping on them. It's enough to make me want to strangle him some days.”
“I don't know why I said, well, any of what I said,” Steve said, and he could hear the haunted, traumatized note in his voice. “I just...” His words trailed off. “I'm going to get dumped, aren't I?”
There was a pause. “He didn't try to break up with you during the fight?” Rhodey asked, the words slow and measured.
Steve glanced at him. “No.”
“Huh.” Rhodes shoulders relaxed, a wide grin creasing his features. “Well. That's... That's a surprise. From the way that Pepper was talking, I thought we'd have much more damage control to do. This is... This is fine. You're fine.” He picked up his mug with a long exhale of breath. “That is a relief, I was not looking forward to talking him down off that particular ledge.”
Some of Steve's confusion must've shown on his face, because Rhodey smiled at him over the rim of his cup. “Tony,” he said, and the words came with care, with deliberation, “has a habit of cutting his losses before he can lose, or before he can become the loser. It's a defense mechanism. It's also a dick move, but...” He shrugged. “Can't fault the guy for finding a way to cope.”
Steve's fingers tightened on the porcelain cup. “He didn't try to break up with me. I don't think. He didn't say-” He sucked in a breath. “I'm not good at this.”
“Uh, I've never met anyone who's GOOD at relationships,” Rhodey said, his teeth flashing as he leaned back in his chair. “Really. But you, uh, you don't have, don't take this wrong, man, really, but, you don't have much experience. In this. Do you?” He paused. “Wow. I usually have an easier time with words than this, so, yeah.” He held out a hand, his eyes crinkling with silent laughter. “Hi, I'm James Rhodes. I hear you're dating my best friend.”
Steve gave a faint chuckle, not able to resist the warmth in Rhodey's expression. “Hi,” he said, accepting the handshake. He wasn't surprised to find that Rhodey's grip was firm and confident, his fingers strong and warm. “I'm Steve Rogers. Pleased to meet you, again. I am dating your best friend. For now.”
Rhodey stood up and headed for the cabinet. “Sorry, I'm starving. Pepper caught me in transit, I was lucky to be able to cut up here as fast as I was. Despite the fact that Tony's not actively building weapons any more, the military likes to keep him on their side. When the CEO of StarkIndustries calls to make a request for my presence, it's usually granted.”
“May I assist you in finding something, Col. Rhodes?” Jarvis asked.
“Yeah, any cookies in here?” Rhodey was digging through the shelves. “Tony's always got some stashed somewhere...”
“Second shelf, right hand side, in the-”
“Red tin with the stars,” Rhodey finished, laughing. “Thanks, Jarvis.” He returned to the table, cracking the tin open. “Hey, chocolate chip. Want one?” He looked up, and caught Steve's eyes. His head tipped to the side, and he set the tin down on the table. “Cap?”
“What? Oh, sorry.” Steve reached for the cookies. “Sorry, you just seem so at home here.” He wasn't really hungry, the lingering effects of the argument had his stomach churning. He took a bite anyway, hoping the familiar taste of sugar and chocolate would help settle it.
“I helped build the place.” Rhodey took his seat again, and popped the rest of the cookie in his mouth before reaching for another one. “You know, most best friends just want help moving. Mine decides that I need to move rebar.”
“That's what you get for taking the suit,” Steve said, with a small smile, and Rhodey burst out laughing.
“See, that? Right there? That is Tony Stark, burrowing into your brain and leaving his crazy behind. You, you need to be careful about that, Cap, he's very infectious.” He took a sip of tea, washing down the last of his cookie. “Was this your first Tony Fight?”
“No. Uh, no, we fought all the time when the team was first assembled,” Steve said, staring down at the pale liquid. “ALL the time.” It did smell good. He gave it a try, letting the warmth linger on his tongue. Tasted pretty good, too.
“Those were just arguments,” Rhodey said, like there was a difference. He took a sip of his tea. “This, from what I hear, was a Tony Fight.” He pronounced the capital letters very clearly, and Steve couldn't stop a faint snort of amusement. Rhodey leaned back in his chair. “It's easy to forget, it's easy to be tricked by Tony, but under the flash and the sarcasm, he has a mind as sharp and finely honed as a scalpel.
“Let yourself be fooled, let yourself be tricked by his facade, and drawn in by his charm, and if he goes after you, he will shred you like a combine with an attitude problem,” Rhodey said, grinning. “You think you're having a discussion, you think you're having a fight, even, but you can hold your own. You're a smart dude, you know what's what. But he's on a whole other level, when he goes in for a kill, and it is so razor fine that you don't even know he's drawn blood. So when you're done, and you think things went well, and you walk away and realize that you are going to have to shove your intestines back into your stomach with both hands, well, then, you've had your first Tony Fight.”
“Yeah, that sounds pretty accurate.” Steve tried not to think about the way his stomach churned. It certainly felt like he was bleeding at this point. He swallowed another gulp of tea, avoiding Rhodey's eyes. “How do you handle that?”
Rhodey kicked out with long, rangy legs. “Me? Drinking and not living with him,” he said. “So are you asking, how are you supposed to handle it? Because that's a different question.” His eyebrows arched. “Is that what you're asking?”
Steve glanced at him, and away, reaching out to run his fingers over the top of Calcifer's case. The toaster rolled in circles on the table, bumping against his hand every time it passed. “I'd take the answer, if you had it,” he said to Rhodey.
Rhodes helped himself to another cookie, and they both sat in silence as he ate it, with careful, precise bites. “How well do you know Anthony Stark?” he asked at last.
Steve looked at him. Resisted the knee-jerk response that churned in his throat. Instead, he swallowed hard, and tried to relax his fingers before he broke the handle off of his coffee cup. “Not as well as I'd like.”
“Good answer.” Rhodey saluted him with his cup. “I guess I'm in the same boat, but I have known him a little while longer.” He leaned forward. “Do you know why you're sitting here, playing with the toaster, Cap?”
“I... Like our toaster?” Steve said, not sure where this was going.
“Yeah, but you're playing with it right now, because Tony made it. Tony made it, and Tony comes back for his things. He's not good at coming back for people, but he comes back for his things.” Rhodey set his cup aside. “I don't deny liking the armor, I don't deny it made his life, and my life easier when he let me take it, and pilot it, but you know what? Some part of me is glad to have that armor because Tony Stark comes back for the things he creates. As long as I've got the armor? I know he'll come back.” He heaved a sigh, and it sounded tired. Aching. “Eventually.”
“So that's it. I just wait?” Steve asked, setting his cup on top of Calcifer just to see the toaster try to heat it. Calcifer hated a challenge.
Rhodey studied him, eyes calm and dark. Steve met his gaze without flinching, his jaw tight and his shoulders squared. If he was acting like an idiot, so be it. No point in pretending otherwise.
After a long moment, Rhodey's mouth kicked up on one side, a lop-sided half smile, but his eyes were warm and kind. “All right, Cap,” he said at last, settling back in his chair. “You want to know? Then you need to run a mission for me. You've done information gathering, scouting, I'm sure, even you lazy Army types manage that from time to time. I'll tell you where and when and what. If you follow orders, I promise, you'll get the intel you need. Understood?”
Not quite sure, Steve nodded slowly. “All right,” he said at last.
“Good. Now listen up, because I'm only going to tell you this once. There are a set of files that can only be accessed from Tony's workshop. They're not classified,” he said when Steve frowned. “They're not even private. They're just not public. It's a contradiction, I know. They can only be accessed from the workshop terminals, and you might need to ask Jarvis for help finding what you need.”
Steve's frown settled in a little deeper. “I don't think Jarvis will help me,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “That's kind of breach of trust.”
“Yeah, no. Jarvis will help you, Jarvis is much, much happier when Tony's not in a snit, and right now? He is all snit and pout and acting like a twelve year old with a bad crush on the team quarterback.” Rhodey leaned forward again, folding his hands on the table. “Workshop. Go. Get into the terminal, and yes, Jarvis will help you. There will be a set of files. One of them, if I'm not grossly mistaken about the situation, and yeah, I'm not, one of them will have your name on it.”
Steve straightened up, a warm rush that he didn't want to examine too closely making him feel better about his life. “What? Wait, why?”
“You'll have to read it to find out.” Rhodey's teeth flashed in a wide smile, bright white and warm against his dark skin. “I know I have one. Pepper, Happy, Jarvis. We've all got a file. Tony's idea of a proper file. Find yours, and read it.”
“I really don't think he'd want me in his files right now,” Steve said, his fingers fiddling with his mug.
“Look, Cap-” He paused, shook his head. “Steve? Tony is my best friend. As much as I admire you, and I do, and I'm pleased to know you, I'm not going to throw Tony under a bus just to get on your good side. I'm telling you this because I think you will find out what you're looking for, and you'll, well, believe it a bit more when it's coming straight from Tony, rather than me telling you what I'm sure is in there.” He stopped, lifted his mug and took a sip. The silence stretched, but there was nothing uncomfortable about it. Rhodey cradled his coffee mug between his palms, his head tipped forward towards the liquid, his eyes half closed. Steve let him think, more than used to carefully weighing the options and possible outcomes. Eventually, the other man set his cup down, the movement controlled and precise. “I'm on your side, or rather, I'm on both of your sides. If that makes sense at all.”
“It does, but I don't know if I can-”
“This is what I can offer you,” Rhodey said. The expression on his face was kind, understanding, but there was a sharp intelligence in his eyes, and Steve couldn't help but feel he was being tested somehow. “I can't tell you why I put up with Tony. I can't tell you why I like him, why I love him, I can only say, I can help you see him a little differently. The fact that you're here, looking a little frustrated and a lot homicidal, but still asking me why, that-” He chuckled, just a little, under his breath. “That's a good sign. You're tough. You can do this, if you want to. I think you can understand. But you've got to get there on your own.”
“To an understanding of what Robert Hayden called 'love's austere and lonely auspices.'” Rhodey grinned as he stood, picking up his mug as he went. “Find your file. Read it. And then you can come back and ask me again, 'why do you put up with Tony Stark?'”
Steve nodded. “He's not ever going to speak to me again,” he said at last, and Rhodey patted him on the shoulder, a stern clasp of strong fingers.
“Cap, I've known him for years. Right now, he's more pissed at himself than he is at you. You have your orders. Let me know if you decide to take my advice. I'm going to go talk Pepper off the ledge before she quits, kills him, or sells his company to a wandering hobo for a button.” With a faint smile and a wave, Rhodey ambled out of the kitchen, leaving Steve to stare at the depths of his mug.
It took him three days to make his decision. As he stood outside the door to the workshop, staring through the shadowed glass, he started to reconsider.
This was a horrible idea. Not the worst one he'd ever had, but a horrible idea anyway.
“Jarvis?” he called, head tipping back.
“How may I assist you, Captain?”
Steve grinned at the ceiling. “Hi, Jarvis. I was thinking of going into the workshop.” He dropped his head to peer through the glass walls.
Another pause. “You visit the workshop often,” Jarvis said, and there was a faint note of a question in the words, as if Jarvis was trying to figure out if this was trick question. “Your security codes will open the door.”
“I know I can,” Steve said, resting a hand on the glass of the door. “I just don't know if I should.”
“Are you asking my opinion, Captain?”
“Yeah.” Steve glanced up again. “Rhodey told me to look at a file down here. I don't think he'd try to get me to do anything that would make Tony want to kill us both, but-” He sighed. “So I'm asking your opinion. Will I make things worse between me and Tony if I start poking at his files? Because, well, that's not what I want, but I don't know what to do anymore.”
The silence stretched out. “Sir,” Jarvis said at last, “is precise about his permissions. If you find that your codes do not work on this door, I can almost assure you that it will be when he is inside, and he doesn't want company. If your authorization codes allow you access, then that is access sir wants you to have. Even if he, perhaps, does not consider that you'd ever use that access.”
Steve mulled that over. “So, it's fine, at least until he realizes I am using it, and then it might be taken away?”
“That would be the long and short of it, yes.”
Steve couldn't hold back a grin. “You're going to rat me out, aren't you, Jarvis?”
“Are you going to attempt to order me not to?”
“Nah, fair's fair, and you have to protect him.” Steve leaned over and took a deep breath before typing in his access code. Just as Jarvis had said, the door opened with a faint click. That was a bit of a relief. At least their fight hadn't gotten him banned. Steve slipped through, and pushed it shut behind him.
“I don't see any reason to volunteer the information,” Jarvis mused. “If I am asked, of course I will answer truthfully, but it is unlikely sir will inquire.”
“Jarvis!” Laughing, Steve picked his way through the workshop, sidestepping through the debris of a half dozen projects. “That's pretty underhanded.”
“One does what one must. Please take care with that workbench, the contents are highly unstable.”
Steve took a step back, giving it a wide berth. “Gotcha.” A faint whir and rhythmic clicking was the only warning he got before a mass of metal and wires barreled into his side. “Hey, Dummy, what going on?” Amused, he reached out to rub a palm over Dummy's head, laughing as the bot arched up into the touch. Butterfingers and You both raised their frames up out of their charging stations, but they contented themselves with whirring and whistling until Steve raised a hand in their direction. “Hi, guys. How's everyone doing? Upgrades working out?”
“Dummy, Steve was sent to retrieve a file by Col. Rhodes. Please do not harass him, he does not have any oil for you.” Jarvis' voice was stern, and Dummy drooped down, looking pathetic.
Steve laughed, fingers running down the metal spine. “I can try to find some oil,” he offered. Dummy was a shameless attention hog, and Tony was in a mood. Which was, if he was being honest with himself, mostly Steve's fault. He heaved a mental sigh.
“Do not encourage his poor behavior,” Jarvis said. “He knows better than to- Dummy, enough. Sir will be down tonight, and you can wait. Show Steve where he can access the maintenance files.”
Dummy chirped at the ceiling, then turned on his wheels, pulling Steve along by the front of his shirt. As they passed by, both Butterfingers and You gave up pretending to be uninterested, and rolled out to join them. The three of them bounced along, bumping into each other like a pack of rambunctious dogs. They exchanged a series of sounds, high pitched clicking and whines, then they clustered around Steve to shepherd him towards the appropriate terminal access.
At some point, his life had gotten very odd.
They all backed off when Steve was at the terminal, but they continued the encouraging sounding noises. “Thanks, fellas,” Steve said, and he couldn't resist one last scratch to Dummy's rotating wrist. “Jarvis, does this thing work like the rest of the computers?”
“It does. Would you like me to locate the appropriate file for you?”
“Thank you,” Steve said, relief bleeding into his voice. Tony's stuff made his head hurt sometimes. It was beautiful and brilliant and like art coming to life in front of him, but when it came to the systems that only Tony and Jarvis used, it was in a league of its own. A closed system that welcomed no one else. “Rhodey said that there would be a file with my name on it.” There was a beat of silence, and Steve glanced up. “Was he wrong?”
“No, he was not. I was simply not expecting that request. One moment, please.”
The holographic interface snapped into place, and a series of files flicked open, nesting within each other until Jarvis located the one they were looking for. As Rhodey had promised, it was simply labeled, “Rogers, Steven, Captain.”
The file opened, and the pages spread out.
Steve frowned. The first pages, opening on the left, were information about the upgrades Tony had made to Steve's old 1940's motorcycle. Plating, paint jobs, engine and shock changes to make the thing less of a civilian bike and more of a 21st century troop transport. Steve knew all this, Tony spent a lot of time babbling about the upgrades, eyes alight and hands moving almost too fast for Steve's eyes to track. Tony'd tinkered with everything, and there were schematics and records to prove it. Below that, there were shorter pieces about the changes to the Captain America uniform and Tony's attempts to get his hands on Steve's shield.
Yeah, that wasn't happening, Steve thought with a grin.
Frowning, Steve was about to close the file when he noticed the stacked 'pages' on the right hand side. Curious, he reached up and touched it, unfurling the information, and his eyes went wide.
Hundreds of data points stacked up, neat and precise, dated, counter referenced. He scanned them, and gripped the edge of the console, not really sure what to think.
It was maintenance data. Basic, uninteresting, but amazingly comprehensive. Checks of fluids and linkages, tire wear and brake pads, notated carefully. There were quick lines, in Tony's rather unique voice, about pressure and potential failure, tire tread wearing unevenly and handlebars not able to withstand the grip of Steve's hands under stress. He'd been quietly, carefully, adjusting things in ways that Steve hadn't even noticed. Tires swapped out for ones with better grip, then again for ones able to handle extreme temperature changes, and again to resist puncture.
Tony was learning from the use, finding new solutions, new materials, using all of his resources and inventing what didn't exist. Steve's bike had become a prototype, there were schematics and chemical formulas and blueprints. Beneath that, quick notations of numbers that Steve didn't have a chance at comprehending, but he could see that some of this was being used, being produced now, military and civilian contacts for tires and shocks and grips and brakes.
But it was the notations that caught Steve's attention, reading Tony's mood in the words. Frustration when Steve did something he wasn't expecting, pride when a part held up the way it should, annoyance when it didn't. Failure was met with a flurry of sharp, hard lines, materials created and discarded, attempts marked as plausible or rejected or approved. Success just got a quick review, and then he'd move on to something else that wasn't functioning the way he wanted it to.
There were dozens of pages, on and on, precise and careful and so detailed that it was staggering.
“How long has he been doing this?” he whispered, and it was a rhetorical question, but Jarvis answered him anyway.
“Since the first day your motorbike was moved on site,” the AI said, his voice calm, and Steve felt something in his chest tighten in an painful manner. “It's not just you, Captain. Everyone has a file.”
With a flick of his hand, Steve closed his file, and pulled up the one under it. Clint's. Pages of data on experimental arrowheads and possible stringing solutions, bow structure, arrow shafts and fletching and the reworked quiver, reworked over and over and over. Body armor and the shooting glove and arm guards made of materials that cost more than Steve used to get paid in a year. Boot grips and body camouflage and something that looked like a mini-parachute.
Natasha's was weaponry, lots of weaponry, that was expected, but other things, things he would never have thought of, communications devices and adaptive cloaking and prototypes for fabrics as light and flexible and thin as cotton but with the ability to dispel force, allowing her to move the way she did, but protecting her from a bullet in the back. There were paper thin computer tablets and gloves with fingertips that would allow her to cling to walls and ceilings just like Spider-Man did.
Bruce's was filled, page after page after page, with materials built to withstand the Hulk. Things for him to use, to wear, to surround himself with. Tony was building a world that could withstand the other guy, giving Bruce a sanctuary, a safe spot to hide and live and grow.
Thor's was there, too, equipment and comm devices all designed to withstand brute force impacts and gale force winds, lightning strikes and extremes of temperatures. Steve hadn't known just how many SHIELD communicators Thor had gone through, how many phones, how many tablet computers. Steve suddenly felt better about his own early fumbling attempts to use the delicate tech. At least he'd never dropped a SHIELD comm unit into the garbage disposal.
Steve stared at the files, stacked up, electronic data that would fill hundreds of pages, if printed. “Hundreds of pages, hours of work, for no reason,” he mumbled, stunned.
“That is incorrect,” Jarvis said, and Steve jolted. “The purpose is to keep all of you safe, and alive. That is the profit in the thing. It appears to be enough for sir, since he continues his work.”
He hadn't known about any of this. How many hours, how many days that Tony had spent down here, laboring in silence, pushing the limits of his craft, replacing things and fixing things and upgrading things while doing everything possible not to call attention to it.
“Jarvis, I don't understand,” Steve said, bracing his hands on the console.
“If you would like, you can ask sir yourself about the files,” Jarvis said. His voice sounded a bit tense. “In that he is currently on his way down to the workshop.”
Steve froze. “Do you think I should ask-”
“I DO NOT,” Jarvis said, making Steve jump.
“Close the files,” Steve said in a rush, and the holographic interface disappeared.
“If you would not mind,” Jarvis said, his words staccato and precise, “there is lubrication fluid two meters to your left on the workbench, perhaps you could assist Dummy with his joint issue?”
“What, uh, yes, yes, of course.” Steve wasn't proud of his fumbling attempts to grab the simple bottle, but he didn't knock anything over, and he was seated on a stool, with Dummy's 'head' in his lap, when Tony walked into the workshop.
Tony arched an eyebrow at the two of them. “What are you doing to my bot, Rogers?” he asked, but there was nothing accusatory about it, just a wry humor. He tossed a tablet onto the crowded workbench. “Hey, hey, no welcome for me?” he asked You and Butterfingers, both of whom rolled over to get in the way.
“Sorry,” Steve said, giving Tony a lopsided smile. He hadn't realized how much he'd missed being down here, just watching Tony work. “Dummy wanted some attention.”
Tony rolled up his sleeves with a snort. “Dummy always wants attention.” He crouched down. “What've you done to these relays, You?” He flicked his fingers on the underside of You's main strut, making the bot stretch up to give him better access. “Dummy is the classic oldest sibling, secretly wishing that he was still the only child.” He glanced up, dark eyes glinting. “Well, not so secretly.”
“I don't know,” Steve said, as Dummy flexed and rotated. “I think he'd miss his brothers. You'd be lonely, wouldn't you, Dummy?” Apparently uninterested, Dummy nudged the lubricant again. “Okay, okay!”
Tony gave a faint snort of laughter. “There's no reasoning with him until the bottle's empty. Greedy little weasel.” He pointed at Dummy. “Con artist. No one is fooled. Okay, Steve is fooled, but that's because he's new here. He'll learn.”
Steve brushed his fingers over Dummy's frame. “Do I get a chance to learn?” he asked, his voice quiet.
Tony didn't pretend to misunderstand. He gave a quick shrug of his shoulders. “Sure,” he said, reaching for a tool. He knocked a couple of things out his way, snagging what he needed by touch alone. “You're down here now. What're you doing here, by the way?” he asked, before jamming the screwdriver in his teeth. “Uttringers, UP.”
Steve stared down at him. “I wanted to talk to you,” he said, because that was nothing less than the truth.
“Wonderful,” Tony grumbled under his breath. His head down, his shoulders hunched, he kept his eyes on his work. “So talk.”
Steve's shoulder's slumped, and he sighed. Dummy tipped his camera up, and then bumped against Steve's stomach. Steve couldn't help but smile down at him. “Gotta be brave, huh?” he said to Dummy under his breath. “Thanks, buddy.”
“Look, Steve,” Tony started, his voice tight, and Steve cut him off.
“I want to watch the rest of them.”
Tony's head jerked up. “What?”
Steve stroked Dummy's head. “The rest of the Iron Man videos. I'd like to watch them.”
Tony sat back on his heels. “Why?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest. His eyes were narrowed, his expression unreadable, but the screwdriver in his hand was twitching rapidly up and down. Steve stared at him, not entirely certain of the answer. But the sight of Tony's fingers, clenched tight on the handle, was strangely reassuring.
He wasn't alone in this, this fumbling, awkward attempt to find his lover's limits, in finding out what interference and contact and control that Tony would allow. Steve wanted things, too many things, and he never felt like his feet were on solid ground. It was like he was always on thin ice, and Steve couldn't forget just how cold the water was, under the ice.
Couldn't forget what it felt like to drown.
“I don't understand you,” Steve said at last, because that was the truth. “But I want to, Tony. I want to...” He glanced up, catching Tony's eye. He held Tony's gaze. “I want to understand you.”
“At what point does 'understanding me' become 'not liking me?'” Tony asked, rolling his eyes. “They're still in there, Steve. I didn't delete them or deny you access. They're all still there. Enjoy.”
Steve paused, and Dummy nudged him. “I know, I know,” he said, in an undertone. “It would be easier for me,” he said, choosing each word with care, “if you were there. With me. To remind me that you're still okay. That this is something that happened before, and doesn't-” He swallowed. “Will you watch them with me?”
Tony pushed himself to his feet. “This is the worst date idea ever,” he told Steve, tossing the screwdriver onto the bench. He ran a hand through his hair, and Steve smiled. “What?” Tony asked.
“You go from business sharp to workshop shabby in record time,” Steve told him. “I like you like this,” he said, risking a faint smile.
“You have lousy taste, we already knew that.” But his shoulders were relaxed now, his mouth twitching. “Dummy. Get over here.” Dummy raised his head and put it right back down. “Hey! You- You are not nearly as adorable as you think you are, you damn heap of rusting metal. Get over here, or I'll make you clean out the Roomba bellies for the next month.”
Dummy was not impressed by the threat.
“Go,” Steve said, giving him a gentle push. “Before we're both in trouble.” Dummy glanced up at him, and pulled away, the movement so slow and reluctant that Steve could almost hear his wheels rotate. “That is a bit much,” he told Dummy.
“And the Oscar nomination to most ungrateful bot goes to- Not you!” Tony said. He shook his head as Butterfingers went to nudge Dummy along. “Fine. Whatever, Cap. We'll watch embarrassing home movies. But-” He stalked forward, stopping in front of Steve. He shoved a finger in Steve's direction. “I'm drinking if we're doing this.”
“Okay,” Steve said, grinning. Without thinking, he reached out and brushed a thumb against the streak of oil that had appeared on Tony's cheekbone. Tony reached up and caught Steve's hand against his cheek. He turned his head and kissed Steve's palm, the contact fleeting, before he moved away.
“I am suspicious of your sudden pliability, Rogers. You are up to to something,” Tony said, going to the bench. He reached for a random part, and as Steve watched, he began fiddling, his fingers dancing over the surfaces like the artist he was.
“When you've had a drink or two, you put up with me cuddling you,” Steve said, rolling to his feet. “If you're home and you're safe, and you're not hurting yourself-” He shrugged. “I'll take whatever advantage I can get.” He glanced back and found Tony staring at him, his mouth hanging open. “Yes?”
“Did you just admit to hoping that I'll get tipsy so we can CUDDLE?” Tony asked, bracing a hand on his workbench.
“Yep.” Steve shrugged. “I feel less guilty about it now that I told you. You can make an educated decision if you'd like to get drunk, knowing that I will take advantage of you. And your inebriated state.”
“Taking advantage of my inebriated state to cuddle me,” Tony repeated. “That's a little kinky, Rogers.”
“I'm confused. In that I don't remember having objections to cuddling while I'm sober.”
Steve had to work to keep a straight face. “True.”
Tony turned back to the bench, not quite fast enough to hide the wide grin on his face. “I think I'll take my chances.” He stabbed a finger in Steve's direction. “You perverse bastard.”
“I was kind of hoping you would,” Steve agreed, and headed out, feeling far lighter than he had in days.