Actions

Work Header

In the Stillness of Remembering

Chapter Text

Art Masterpost by chosenfire28

Soundtrack

“What…precisely is going on here?” Tony makes a vague gesture around Steve’s person as he takes in the set of blue and white striped button-down pajamas that are hanging off Steve’s body. They’re about a full size too big, which makes Tony wonder how and where Steve even found them. And if he bothered telling Thor that he’d found a store with off-the-rack clothes made for giants.

Steve blinks at him, sleep clearing from his blue eyes with enviable speed.

“Is everything all right? I didn’t get a call from Director Fury.” Steve is already near full alertness and his tone is brimming with concern. Tony could guarantee that if someone had woken him up from a dead sleep at three in the morning, the welfare of others would be the furthest thing from his mind.

“Everything’s fine,” Tony waves him off, pushing past him through the doorway and inviting himself inside. His shoes click on the hardwood floor. He glances around, taking in his surroundings quickly. It doesn’t take long; Steve’s entire place is the size of his childhood playroom. It smells incredibly clean yet musty, like age is clinging to the wallpaper and can’t really be washed away no matter how many times Steve gives everything a fine military polish. The rooms are sparse and tidy, bordering on bare. There’s little furniture, all of it battered but sturdy, handcrafted. Not the kind of cheap modern furniture put together on the quick; more like furniture bought at an estate sale.

Tony grimaces.

“Who the hell did you rent this place from,The Honeymooners?”

“Who?”

“Nevermind.” Tony wanders further, tapping his fingers across the sill as he passes the window, which is propped half-open to cool the joint down. The night’s too warm for that to do much good though. He doubts Steve would want to install an air conditioner, if he even knows what one is. A few potted plants sit on the rusted metal grating of the fire escape; a short clothesline is strung up, white t-shirts pinned and fluttering slightly in the barely there breeze. He holds back a snort at the thought of Steve likely cleaning them using a washboard in the kitchen sink.

There’s an array of folders in two stacks on the nearby table and the SHIELD logo stamped across the face of one catches Tony’s attention. An open folder tops the smaller stack; Tony recognizes a photo of his father anywhere. The big red deceased marked across the bottom corner of the personnel form is atrociously tacky. He wonders whose job it is to make that rubber stamp. He flips the folder shut with a curt flick of his hand and moves on.

“You could really use a sprucing up in here, cowboy. Or perhaps a complete tear down and remodel from the ground up. Either or.” Tony comments dryly as he spots the green pilled fabric on the old-fashioned love seat by the old Zenith radio – radio? – in the corner. He points to the wooden cabinet. “Really?”

“It doesn’t work,” Steve mumbles.

“You’ve got cash, buy a new one.” From the look on Steve’s face, that’s a non-option. “Or here’s a thought, fix it.”

Steve turns and goes to the kitchen, apparently deciding that whatever Tony’s business might be at this hour, it is clearly not Avengers-related and therefore he can, at the very least, stand down. Tony follows him slowly, stopping to lean against the open doorway between the living room and kitchen.

“Hardly seems worth the trouble. Not as if I’m going to turn the dial and hear what I used to hear.” Steve opens up the white Frigidaire, his tone as flat as Tony’s ever heard it. The fridge is mostly empty but Steve bends down to look as if he needs to sort through stocked shelves. As Steve buys time for whatever reason, Tony takes a moment to consider the room.

Apart from the teakettle on the stove and the toaster on the counter, the kitchen is unsurprisingly free of gadgets and appliances. The drying rack by the sink implies Steve’s never bothered to open the dishwasher. There’s decaying vintage art of the American flag on the pale green wall and Tony suspects that apart from the cross hanging by the door, that’s as far into decorating the place as Steve will ever get.

“Besides, I don’t have a pressing need to hear Lady Gaga and if I did, s’pose that’s what an iPod is for.” Steve turns back from the fridge, carton of milk in hand. Tony hesitates a moment, pulling himself away from evaluating Steve’s living space and focusing back on the conversation.

“Firstly – it boggles my mind that you know who Lady Gaga is; secondly, who gave you an iPod if not me; and thirdly, why the radio at all then?”

“Agent Barton mentioned the lady in passing as a possible alien invader – and yes, I did realize he was joking –” Steve cuts Tony off before he can interject. “And Agent Romanoff provided the iPod-”

Natasha did?” Tony assumes that’s what’s sitting, most likely untouched, inside the white Apple store bag on the viciously ugly pale yellow linoleum counter. He eyes it suspiciously and lowers his voice, using his hand to shield his mouth from direct sight of the bag. He’s not even sure if he’s kidding around in doing so. “She is probably listening to us right now. Just so you know.”

“She wouldn’t do that,” Steve retorts quickly and Tony doesn’t doubt for a second that Steve believes it. He’s about to ask Steve when he saw Nat when Steve presses on, still answering the list of questions that Tony has already forgotten he asked. “And the radio…well, the radio is comforting.”

“Like this apartment is comforting?” Tony raises an eyebrow. Steve doesn’t reply but he visibly swallows hard, a shadow crossing over his face like a power source abruptly cutting out and then switching back on – brief but very dark.

The bare bulb fluorescent light fixture above Steve’s head is flickering slightly; Tony can hear it buzz. It’s probably an update from the 70s by the look of it, so, really, not much of an update at all. He eyes it, eyes Steve.

“It’s an illusion.”

“Of course it’s an illusion.” Steve looks at him straight on and blank-faced. It leaves Tony frankly puzzled and frustrated. He takes a breath and puts his palms together, pointing his fingers toward Steve.

“Here’s where you’re goin’ wrong, Cap. An illusion is pointless if you know it’s an illusion. What you should be going for here is delusion.” Tony’s sarcastic advice is met with a stern frown.

“Look. I know ten feet outside that door it’s a different world. That’s pretty hard to ignore. Not kidding myself, Stark. But here…it’s one place at least that doesn’t feel completely wrong.”

“500 square feet of not wrong ain’t much.”

“It’s something.” Steve retrieves a glass from the cupboard and glances toward Tony, holding it up in offer. Tony allows the conversation to be diverted elsewhere, pretty sure he doesn’t really want to get too deep into this with Steve anyway.

“Got anything stronger?” He asks, though he hardly expects Steve to suddenly pull a bottle of Jack from some secret hiding place. To his shock, Steve reaches into the small cabinet above the stove and pulls down a bottle of scotch. “Your file says that you can’t drink.”

“Can’t get drunk; there is a difference,” Steve corrects, a slight smile breaking his stoic expression. For a moment Tony thinks he might be pleased with this turn of events, but Steve backs away from the edge of comfortable familiarity as quickly as he approached it. “This isn’t for me though. My mother always said to be prepared to entertain guests.”

“Well this guest will have it on the rocks, then.” He retreats to the living room and sits down on the arm of the loveseat, watching from a distance as Steve clinks cubes into the glass, uncaps the bottle and pours. The apartment falls near silent. Tony can hear the subway rattling somewhere close by. It makes the floor vibrate.

He considers asking Steve if the train came through this neighborhood when he lived around here, before, but the thought crosses his mind that maybe Steve’s sick of being asked these things. Like he’s a human time capsule only here to compare and contrast the now and the then.

Steve circles the kitchen counter and walks to Tony, stopping directly in front of him and gingerly handing him his glass. He meets Tony’s gaze as he sets the drink in his outstretched palm. This close, Tony notices the day’s worth of stubble shadowing Steve’s sharp jaw line; it makes him look older, slightly tired. It also means Steve’s someone who likes to shower and shave in the morning, which isn’t surprising in the least. The guy probably rises before the sun.

Tony lifts the drink to his lips, ice cubes rattling.

“You know all your friendly, helpful neighbors are actually SHIELD agents, right?”

Steve sighs, two fingers pinching his furrowed brow.

“I do.”

“Even the old lady across the hall. She’s actually only sixty or so, give or take, but she’s had a hard knock life, man. You should hear the stories.”

“I’m aware.”

“You already got the low down? Steven Rogers, I never would’ve pegged you for a gossip.”

“No, I meant-“

“And you made the guy working the counter at the bodega ‘round the corner too, right?”

“Tony…why are you here?”

“Do I need a reason to stop by, see a pal?” His tone is as jovial and casual as Steve’s had been soft and serious.

Are we pals?” Steve is ever direct. Tony could maybe like that about him, but it’s easier to enjoy when Steve’s bluntly challenging someone else, like Fury or Hill.

“We’re not enemies.” Tony replies simply, then drinks slowly, gauging him over the rim of the glass.

“About what happened on the helicarrier-“

Tony waves Steve off, knowing from the earnest look on his face that this is going somewhere touchy-feely and not wanting to visit that particular land of marshmallows and sunshine tonight.

“I think we’re over that. We both got each other wrong. Bygones. I mean, if you need to hug it out, guess we can. But we don’t need to.”

“’Hug it out’?”

“Anybody teach you about Google yet?” Tony points at him with the hand still holding his glass, the liquid barely sloshing. There’s a SHIELD-issued laptop sitting next to those files on Steve’s tiny dining room table, but that doesn’t mean the man knows how to use it. “Because keeping up with me is going to be hard and conversations are going to be made exponentially and needlessly longer if I have to stop and explain every completely unimportant offhand reference I make.”

“Not much time for Google.” Steve sets his untouched glass of milk on the end table and crosses his arms over his chest. “Thus far I’ve helped defend the earth from a loony demigod and his army, and then went for shawarma. That’s really about it.”

“Don’t let you get out much, do they.”

“Tony.”

“Steven.”

Steve tenses at the sight of his smirk.

“Tony. It’s the middle of the night. You didn’t come over here to inform me that I’d be hopelessly out of my depth in a Jeopardy! tournament.”

“Yet you know what Jeopardy! is. There’s hope for you yet.”

“Tony…”

“That’s my name, don’t wear it out. Pee-Wee Herman. Look it up. No –” He shakes his head. “– On second thought, don’t. That’s a bad idea. I’m sure you’ve seen enough weird stuff as it is.” Steve exhales with a hint of desperation. He takes the glass from Tony’s loose grip and bends down in front of him.

“Are you all right? I mean…should I call Miss Potts?” His eyes seem more clear and blue when he’s concerned, even though Tony knows that’s a physiological impossibility. He wants to hold Steve’s earnest gaze on the principle that that look is making him jumpy and nervous. He doesn’t like it therefore he must defeat it.

He’s not built for standing still though, more likely to steamroll over someone and just keep going than plant his feet and face them down. So he moves. He’s a mover.

“I’m fine,” Tony reclaims his drink, finishes it with a long swig, and places the empty back in Steve’s grasp. “But you’re right, it’s late. I should go.”

“Never even said why you came over in the first place.”

“Fair point.” Tony glances at Steve again, and what a mistake. That look.

It’s not wrong for Steve to expect an answer. It should be an easy question.

But Tony doesn’t have a clue why he came, or more to the crux of the matter, what he hopes to gain from being here. All he knows is that he was in his lab and he felt like he was crawling out of his skin. After a few weeks the excitement over the plans to reconfigure Stark Tower for the Avengers’ use wore off, and even the prospect of the work he and Bruce might be able to complete together, their two great minds combined, faded as nighttime minutes ceaselessly ticked their way into early morning hours. Not even repairs and re-designs to his suit could release the pressure building up inside of him and he could feel his gears rattling, gaskets getting ready to blow.

He had needed to get out. He had needed to make sure, somehow, that he wasn’t the only one feeling as he did.

Because the truth is, everyone went their own separate ways that day, casual goodbyes and thoughtless assumptions that those next times would just work themselves out. Fury would call them in; the world would need them once more.

And he knows that’s what will happen. He knows everyone will come back, that’s not the problem. The problem is that he hadn’t wanted anyone to leave in the first place.

This realization didn’t hit until much, much later. He didn’t immediately comprehend that he hadn’t suddenly been willing to lay down his life for the sake of the city and for the world at large. He hadn’t needed any reason on that grand a scale. He’d been willing to do it for them.

His days of cutting the wire are over. So now he’s hopelessly tied.

Tied to this wildly disparate group of people now scattered across the globe – the universe, even - and above all, tied to Steve. Tied to Steve maybe more than most, in a taut line that stretches across oceans and ice, decades and wars and money and death and milestones unmarked because his father was off searching…elsewhere.

There’s just…so much. Too much.

He doesn’t want to deal but it’s there, and it’s all shouting at him incessantly, a cacophony impossible to ignore.

Steve has no idea what stands in that paradoxically infinitesimal yet vast space between them. Tony isn’t sure that he ever wants to tell him; he isn’t sure what he’d say. At one point in my life, I adored you? At one point in my life, I hated you? Right now, I don’t know how the fuck I feel except I don’t want you to disappear while I figure this shit out?

“Tony.” His name again. Steve has this way of saying it that sounds like both a plea and an order. Tony doesn’t know how that’s possible and he knows why most everything is possible.

Steve’s very existence might actually drive him crazy. All the shit he’s been through in his life, the terror and the betrayal and the heartache he has survived, and Steve Rogers is going to do him in by mere proximity.

Tony shakes himself from his thoughts, realizing he’s been silent for a good couple of minutes, his hand still covering the glass he’d placed between Steve’s fingers and his vacant gaze still seemingly trained on Steve’s face.

He attempts to re-focus but his previous thoughts remain a steady undercurrent to everything running through his mind now.

“You probably never give up, do you.” He finishes a half-formed notion that began somewhere unspoken and came out a damning accusation and an awed observation. Steve’s brow furrows and his hold tightens almost imperceptibly on the glass. Tony lets go of it and stands up.

He needs to leave.

Steve’s voice stops him.

“If that’s your way of asking if I’m planning on going anywhere, I’m not. I’m staying right here.”

“Right…” Tony nods, looking down to where Steve kneels on the floor. He just now notices Steve’s got hair sticking up at the back of his head, rumpled from sleep, and for a moment Steve seems so young and innocent that something in his stomach twists and clenches. “Because where else would you go?”

Steve looks at him like he’s the one who is young and doesn’t understand.

“That’s not why people stay, Tony.”

“Isn’t it?” He replies. He can’t describe how Steve stares at him then, but he doesn’t really like that look either. “Anyway. Thanks for the drink, Cap. See you around.”

“You don’t have to leave – “

Tony’s the two steps it takes to get to the door before he turns back, plucking a plastic ID card from the back pocket of his jeans. He slips it into the front breast pocket of Steve’s seriously outdated pajamas and pats his hand over it against Steve’s chest.

“New security ID cards for the tower. Come by, use the new gym, whatever. It’s there. We’re there.”

He lets himself out the door and Steve’s soft spoken Thank you chases him down the stairway like the most well intentioned monster there ever was.

*******

“Oh, hello.” Tony’s step falters minimally as he rounds the corner and finds Natasha, clad in a pair of black yoga pants and a dark red tank, perched on the edge of the kitchen’s island. He lets the magazine he was reading flop downward in his hands. “I take it you’re back then.”

She licks the rest of the yogurt from her spoon before bothering to reply. He tosses the magazine onto the counter beside her, going about his business as if unexpectedly finding a highly trained assassin in his kitchen at ten a.m. isn’t the slightest bit jarring.

“Apparently.”

“And how is Colombia this time of year?”

“Hot.” Natasha agilely hops down from the counter, bare feet landing on linoleum with an almost dainty grace. For all Tony’s taught himself and made for himself, he still moves like a machine when he’s in the suit. A well oiled and elegantly designed machine, but a machine nonetheless.

His gaze follows Nat as she slips across the kitchen and deposits the empty container in the trash and the spoon into the dishwasher. He wonders if she intentionally means to move like this all the time or if it’s been drilled into the core of her being like so much else. She turns to face him as she pushes the dishwasher firmly closed behind her.

“Did you forget what I looked like while I was gone? Last time you looked at my ass this long, Stark, you thought I was your PA.”

“Not staring. Evaluating,” Tony corrects. “And not your ass, as lovely as it may be.” He ignores her glare as he tilts his head and narrows his eyes, moving to consider her form from another angle as ideas ping around his brain. “It’s your gait.”

Anyone else would’ve been puzzled, but Natasha stares at him like that’s the least interesting thing he’s ever said.

“You up for some biometric tests later? I’m working on a lighter weight alloy for the suit, trying to up the speed, and I’d like to -“

“Can’t. I got a thing.”

“A thing?” Natasha nods, frustratingly vague, and Tony makes a face at her. “You and Clint are always going off on ‘things’. SHIELD-related ‘things’. Fury should really be sending us all out on these ‘things’. You know, team building and other such nonsense. Misadventures and the like breed brotherhood. Or so I’ve heard. I never got much into the whole frat thing at college. I think I’d enjoy hazing Katniss, though that’s just a guess.”

“Barton and I are still agents, Stark. You’re…you. We all have our day jobs.”

Tony pretends to contemplate this.

“Yes, well, I suppose all things considered, I do have the better end of that stick.” He grabs a bottle of mineral water from the doublewide refrigerator and cracks it open. By the time the heavy stainless steel door falls closed, Natasha has disappeared from the room.

“By the way, Steve’s here.” Her voice echoes back, an offhand punch to his gut. He startles mid-drink, water dribbling down his chin and all over the front of his favorite AC/DC shirt.

“What the – hey, you think you could’ve led with that maybe?!” Tony calls after her, but she’s long gone and far from caring. He grabs a hand towel from the rack and dabs at his wet clothes. “JARVIS! When did the Captain get here?”

“Approximately forty-five minutes ago, sir. I greeted him and directed him toward the gymnasium.”

“Thanks for the heads up on that one, buddy.”

“Captain Rogers has been cleared to use the facilities for over two weeks, sir; I was not aware that his presence need be announced.”

“In those two weeks, has he been here once? One time?” This question is rhetorical and JARVIS knows enough to remain silent. “My standing invitation has been repeatedly stood up. Next time, announce it, kay?”

“I will make sure to do so, sir.”

Instead of making his way to the training level, Tony seeks out Bruce in R&D. They’ve been working on a global sweep and alert system that will notify Bruce of any Tesseract-like changes in the earth’s gamma output. The glowing blue death cube and its endless energy should be safely ensconced in the Asgardian treasure chamber, but after the havoc the thing has wreaked, neither of them want to take any chances of missing an unexpected return.

Bruce has slowly been perfecting the rushed algorithm that they’d thrown together during Loki’s attack; a few more tests and the system might be ready to permanently implement.

Bruce looks up from his work as Tony enters. He lifts his glasses from where they sit crookedly on his nose and pockets them carefully.

“Don’t stop on my account, big boy.” Tony holds up his hands and Bruce raises an eyebrow, lets out a small sigh.

“So you know Steve’s here?” Bruce asks plainly. Tony can’t imagine he’s such an easy read, but of all the new acquaintances he’s collected as of late, Bruce is the one who seems to be riding the same wavelength.

Most of the time, anyway. The Other Guy kinda has his own shtick.

“Yes, I was just informed of that fact. Belatedly, I might add.” He glares at nothing in particular; it’s hard to aim a withering stare at JARVIS. “Did you talk to him?”

“To Steve?” Bruce shakes his head, then shrugs and nods a little. “I was in the middle of something and I got the sense he didn’t want to interrupt. We exchanged pleasantries, that was about it.”

“Huh.” Tony contemplates this for a moment, and then glances around the lab. “Why was he down here? Gym’s three floors up.” Tony shoots Bruce a quizzical look.

“I think…I think maybe he felt weird about letting himself in and using your gym without even saying hello to anyone? The guy’s polite.” Bruce sounds unsure about his theory, but to Tony the basic hypothesis seems correct.

“Well, let’s hope the twenty-first century can knock that out of him. Being polite gets you nowhere.”

“It can get you somewhere, Tony. Just maybe nowhere you want to go.”

“Are you getting philosophical on me, Banner? You should stop it, it’s not a good look on you.” Tony lifts himself up and sits on one of the counters, jostling a rack of vials nearby. He picks up a stack of Bruce’s paperwork and rifles through it – most of it is SI memos and guidelines, but there are some magazines, and one single letter addressed directly to Bruce in a decidedly feminine scrawl. No return address. Curious, he lifts it up to the light but the paper’s too thick to make anything out.

Dissatisfied, he tosses it back onto the pile and picks up a couple of empty test tubes instead, rolling them between his palms. Bruce glances at him warily.

“I really feel like I shouldn’t have to tell you to be careful in here.”

Tony smirks, swings his legs a little.

“I know what you’re cleared to work on and what projects you have checked out. There’re no flesh-eating viruses or crazy genetic mutation experiments lurking about.”

“But you are sitting near a pretty resistant strain of Ebola.” Bruce nods to a culture dish a few inches from Tony’s hand. Tony instinctively moves in the other direction but then stops, knowing better.

“You do not have Ebola in here.” He eyes Bruce, jokingly wary. “Was that the Other Guy poking through and being an ass or are you finally loosening up?” Tony jumps down from the table; Bruce returns his easy grin with a shy but pleased one of his own.

Bruce, he understands. They’re simpatico. He gets where the dude’s coming from.

Steve, on the other hand…well, okay, he knows exactly where Steve’s coming from, down to the day and the year and the approximate time, and he still has no clue what the hell to do with the guy.

“You should just go talk to him. You invited him here, after all.” And there Bruce goes again. Tony’s gonna have to figure out if there’s some facial tic that gives him away. He’ll have to think about Steve in front a mirror or something and see exactly what’s going on up there.

He twitches his face purposefully once to try and get rid of whatever’s happening and then responds.

“I did invite him. Weeks ago. Isn’t there some statute of limitation on hospitality?”

“Did you formally rescind said invitation?” Bruce inquires, taking his glasses out of his pocket and getting back to work as Tony backs toward the door and into the hallway.

“Well…no.”

“Then go say hi.”

“But I don’t want to.”

“Yeah…except you do.”

“You’re a bossy know-it-all and I don’t think I like it.”

“Bye, Tony.” Bruce waves him off and brings something new up on the holo, his attention already diverted. Tony opens his mouth to snap back but Bruce reaches out without looking, pushes a button on the desktop, and the door whooshes closed.

Bruce is clearly getting too comfortable here.

*******

Tony pauses in the entryway, noting that the door has been left wide open. Apparently Steve hasn’t realized that the whole purpose of these things is not just to keep people out, but so you can hear when someone comes in.

So that someone can’t stand in the shadows and stare at you for a good long while before you even realize you have company.

Tony doesn’t mean to watch. What he meant to do was come down here, hustle and bustle his way through a meet and greet with the Cap and then be on his way. He has things to do, surely – Pepper always insists he does – and Rogers wouldn’t be expecting an Oprah share and care in the middle of the gym, so chances are the good captain would be fine with a brush pass.

But he’s never seen Steve in a completely unguarded moment, with the mask of Captain America figuratively cast aside, and it catches him entirely off guard. He leans against the wall and allows himself to scrutinize. His mind instantly rattles off a list of descriptives – intense, wired, focused, tightly-wound, determined – and they’re all pretty much synonyms for that dark look on Steve’s admittedly handsome face as he beats the ever-living crap out of the punching bag.

Yet he doesn’t strike Tony as angry. He’s just…raw.

Like something torn open, a deep gash ripped by serrated edges. Still bleeding.

The pace of his punches increases in speed and ferocity and Tony suddenly feels like he needs to make his presence known; he’s intruding on something private and his gut twists with the knowledge that he’s seeing something he wasn’t meant to see.

“It’s probably not much use to practice on something that doesn’t hit back.” Tony clears his throat and speaks loudly over the whump-thump-thump of Steve’s fists hitting sand and leather and vinyl over and over again.

Steve breaks his pace with a quick-footed grace, stilling the bag immediately and turning to face him. Tony’s never seen a smile so fake, and that counts the millions of his own he’s thrown out there, the ones that have been plastered on magazine covers and have placated talk show hosts.

Steve’s grin has a metric ton of all the best intentions without an ounce of actual happiness to back it up.

“Tony, hello. Didn’t hear you come in.”

“Yeah, probably hard to, over your Rocky impersonation,” Tony gestures first to his own ears and then to the punching bag. “Adrian…!” He Stallone-mumbles, even though he knows Steve won’t get it. He tries to keep his own expression as level and easygoing as possible as he saunters toward the center of the gym where Steve stands.

“I…” Steve starts, looking unsure, and Tony knows there’s an apology coming at him sooner rather than later.

“It’s about time you made your way over here,” He sidesteps smoothly. “Though I think maybe we should get Bruce down here to Hulk out. It ain’t easy being green but he needs to give it a shot, and you need a run for your money. Y’know, at least until Thor drops in and you have an approximation of a more likely enemy. The Hulk is a bit one of a kind and all.”

Steve runs a hand through his sweat-drenched hair and glances down at the floor. His cheeks are surprisingly flushed. Tony wonders exactly how hard and how long a man enhanced with super serum has to work out before he sweats like this. Steve’s white t-shirt clings to his chest, droplets of perspiration clinging to his biceps and dripping from his face.

“Not always about who packs the most punch when it comes to a fight,” Steve replies a bit sheepishly. “Gotta be quick on your feet and outthink your opponent. I’m sure I have as much to learn from you or Natasha as I would from Thor or Dr. Banner.”

There’s a compliment for him in there along with the old-fashioned modesty and cautious phrasing but Tony decides not to dig it out. It’s easier to let it lie. Steve lifts the edge of his shirt to dry off his face and Tony’s focus snaps downward to the exposed skin, to the set of sculpted abs that are a permanent fixture of Steve’s perfect physique. It’s a mixture of self-conscious jealousy and a bit of admiration, not lust, which makes his mind go blank.

Definitely not lust.

He’s fine with having an aesthetic appreciation for anyone beautiful, but thinking about Steve within a sensual, physical framework sets off warning signals in every quadrant of his brain. He’s reckless and all, but letting sexual attraction pile on the already towering heap of conflicting emotions he has for this guy would be beyond willfully dumb. He can’t afford to think that way.

“This gym has the best and the newest equipment available.” Tony gestures around to all of the machines that Steve has ignored. “You should really give some a try.”

“Didn’t want to touch anything, honestly, was afraid I might break something important. Punching bag seemed the safest bet.”

Tony nearly offers to show Steve how they work, but catches himself.

“I’ll have my guy Happy come ‘round sometime and give you a run down on all the dos and don’ts. They’re all very simple, really, but he knows all the ins and outs and quirks better than I do.” He looks around the room again, catches sight of Steve in the mirrored wall, and makes a mental note to get Steve some workout clothes that aren’t army issue slacks and thin t-shirts painted on his body. Maybe a pair of loose-fitting basketball shorts and an XXL tee. That’d be so much easier to deal with.

Tony crosses the room and pulls a clean towel from a cabinet, tosses it to Steve.

“Dry off, Wonder Boy. You should come up and have some breakfast.” He nods his head toward the door but Steve shoots him down.

“Appreciate that, Tony, it’s very kind, but I already ate.”

“At five this morning, I’m sure. Before your pre-dawn workout and your mid-morning marathon.”

“Are you having someone keep tabs on me?” Steve’s shocked, and Tony lets out a surprised shout of laughter.

“Hell, Cap, I was just kidding. Tell me you didn’t really.”

“Exercise keeps my mind clear,” Steve replies a bit defensively. “Besides, Fury’s been limiting my time with the clean up, so I don’t have much else to do.”

Tony almost asks what Steve means by clean up when he realizes Steve’s talking about the Chitauri mess. He’d sent a whole army of workmen and machinery from SI to assist, but of course Steve’s probably been down there digging through rubble on his hands and knees.

He aims the conversation elsewhere.

“What did you used to do?”

“Pardon?”

“Before you got hit with the super juice, before you became Mr. All-American Hero. You did something, right? A job? A hobby?”

Steve hesitates for an obviously pained moment and his face kind of crumples, like he doesn’t want to answer and is trying hard to cough up a very unnatural lie.

“Out with it, Stevie. Don’t tell me, milk man? Paper delivery boy? No…please tell me that you worked at the corner soda shoppe and wore one of those funny white paper hats and a red bowtie? I bet the girls just loved you.”

“I drew,” Steve spits out, stopping Tony’s guesses from growing ever more ludicrous. “I mean…I draw. S’pose it’s merely a hobby now. But before…it was my job.”

“You were an artist?” Tony tries to imagine it, but it’s a lot like trying to picture a stereotypical high school quarterback painting happy little trees. The only thing that comes to mind is one of those silverback gorillas you see in the documentaries that learn how to sign and finger-paint. Steve as an artist does not compute. He swallows down his disbelief and tries to imagine Steve as he was, then. “What did you draw?”

“Drew for the comics, mainly.” Steve’s already blushing; Tony’s reaction is apparently a foregone conclusion. If only to remain unpredictable, Tony bites back the quip that’s on the tip of his tongue and merely nods, turning the thought over in his mind a few times before speaking. Steve seems surprised by the momentary silence.

“Like…for Superman? Batman?” Tony finally prompts, proud of himself for sounding genuinely interested rather than mocking. His default tone can sometimes be read as mocking. Or so he’s been told. Numerous times, by many, many different people.

“Oh, golly no. Nothing as good as all that. Barely made enough to pay my bills. If Dr. Erskine hadn’t come along I probably would’ve had to find another line of work.”

“One day you’re drawing superheroes, the next, you are one. Bet in your wildest dreams you never saw that coming.” He forgets what he was going to say next as he realizes that he and Steve have walked right out of the gym and have somehow found themselves waiting for the elevator. He even unthinkingly pushed the up button whilst they were talking. Steve is unwrapping the tape from his hands. He almost asks Steve how they got here and where they’re going but then remembers they’re going to go eat and it was his idea.

Strange how that happened.

The elevator doors slide open and they walk into the small compartment side by side. He smirks to himself as he notices Steve standing at soldier’s ease, feet a shoulder width apart and hands folded behind his back. Tony lounges against the wall lazily and lets Steve feel him looking.

It only takes two floors before Steve moves his gaze from the numbered lights above the doors to sneak a sideways glance at Tony.

“What is it?” His smile is small and nervous, slightly crooked.

“Nothing.” Tony shrugs. It’s a bit mean to deliberately keep the guy unsettled, but he can’t stand side-by-side on solid ground with Steve. In every situation with every person, someone always has the upper hand, so it best be him. His sense of self-preservation is innate and overwhelmingly strong.

Not strong enough, however, to stop him from making scrambled eggs and serving them up like he’s Steve’s personal June Cleaver. He says as much to Steve as he’s plating everything and gets a blank look in return.

“I really gotta start boning up on some pre-Eisenhower references here, don’t I?” Tony remarks, plopping down on the stool next to Steve and shoveling a fork-full of eggs into his mouth.

“I know General Eisenhower.”

“President Eisenhower,” Tony amends around a mouthful of food. “And did you actually know him? Cause even I’d have to admit that’d kinda be awesome in a Forrest Gump meets JFK kind of way.”

“Not personally. We never crossed paths.”

“You never really punched Hitler in the face, either, did you.” Tony lowers his voice joke-conspiratorially. Steve blanches.

“You’ve heard about the stage shows, then.” Steve mumbles, disappointed, and Tony shifts in his seat, feeling like he just kicked the family dog.

“To be fair, it’s happened in many stage shows since. And television shows. And movies. There’ve been many fake punches thrown at many fake Hitlers. Can never have enough Hitler TKOs, if you ask me.” Tony presses on, not wanting to linger over the embarrassed look on Steve’s face. “Fury did catch you up to speed on the whole brand of merchandising that went down, y’know, after you supposedly did? The other lug heads they got to pretend to be you, the comics, all the lunchboxes and the bed sheets and the trading cards-“

Steve puts up a hand to cut him off and Tony halts mid-sentence. Steve pushes his plate of food away and leans back in his chair.

He shouldn’t have said trading cards. Steve knows about the trading cards.

“I met one of ‘em once. I was like, oh, maybe eight, nine? I was at Macy’s with my mom and you were there. Well, not you, but ‘you’. I thought it was pretty awesome at the time, got my picture taken and everything. Of course, dear old dad threw it in the fire, or else I’d pull it out and we’d have a good laugh over it now.” Tony needs to stop talking but he can’t find the off switch. Every word out of his mouth is making things worse. These aren’t things he means to share or that Steve needs to hear. He picks his fork back up and moves what’s left of his eggs around the plate. “You’re better. I mean…not like I sit around rating Captain Americas or anything – ”

“It’s okay, Tony.” Steve’s smile is sad and half-hearted, now. “I know what they used me for after I was gone. Heck, there were comics and film reels and all that before – I was part of it. I knew what they were using me for back when I was alive.”

“You’re still alive,” Tony points out, but Steve doesn’t reply. Tony sighs and drums his fingers against the edge of his plate, then drops an elbow to the counter, resting his head against his hand. He tries to switch back to a casual tone, like he’s gently poking fun. “Hate to say it, Cap, but you almost sounded cynical just then.”

Steve shrugs and Tony thinks he seems small for a man so large. But then Steve sits up a bit straighter, squaring his shoulders and taking a deep breath.

“It’s best not to let what others think of you define who you are,” he states, pushing back from the counter. Tony knows Steve means the people who dolled him up and trekked him out as a one trick pony to sell those war bonds, but for a second he thinks Steve’s talking about him and his own views on the Captain. Suddenly Steve’s all polite again, shield up, armor on. “Thank you very much for breakfast, Stark. Probably best I get going now. I’m sure that you have more important things to do with your time than entertain me.”

“I hardly feel like this was entertaining.” It’s unbearably awkward; maybe they should shake hands or maybe he should just let Steve wander off or maybe he should walk him to the exit, he doesn’t know. A long elevator ride to the ground floor sounds like a terrible idea. Way too much time for him to say something else wrong.

“Tony, there you are. Good morning,” Pepper walks into the kitchen, the quick, efficient click of her high heels and the brightness of her smile instantly sending a tidal wave of relief through Tony’s entire body.

“Thank god, Pepper,” he can’t help but say aloud. “Pep, Pepper, my love, my beauty, good morning, wonderful to see you.” He stands up quickly and clumsily, practically racing to her. “You know Captain America, don’t you?”

“We’ve never officially met, but yes, hello, Captain.” Pepper gives Tony a strange, suspicious look and shrugs off his over eager greeting. She offers her hand to Steve, exuding that welcoming warmth that Tony treasures her for.

“Steve Rogers, ma’am,” Steve takes her hand; Tony’s surprised he doesn’t kiss it in some quaint old-timey gesture. But he gives it a quick, firm shake, accompanied by a pleasant but staid smile. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Potts. I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about you.”

“Likewise.”

Steve seems set off-kilter by that, like he can’t imagine Tony saying anything good to Pepper about him.

“Not from me,” Tony interrupts, seeing a chance to get things back into their accepted groove. “I don’t say good things about anyone. As policy.”

“His ego can’t merely be big, it has to be the only one in the room,” Pepper states dryly, but the affection underlying her words is unmistakable. Tony knows she adores him, really.

“Steve was just on his way out. Pepper, would you mind walking him down?” Tony bats his eyelashes once at her, looking as innocent as possible. Pepper and Steve both look at him with surprisingly similar expressions that call bullshit.

“I can find my way out, Miss Potts, no need to go to such trouble,” Steve says so very courteously and Pepper reaches over, puts a comforting hand on his forearm.

“It’s no trouble at all. Really,” she adds, tossing a look over her shoulder at Tony as she guides Steve toward the elevator. “And call me Pepper, please.”

Tony waits until he’s sure they’ve gone before letting out a long exhale, trying to will some of the stress from his body. He leaves the dirty dishes on the counter and makes his way into the living room, collapsing onto his back on the couch.

He stares at the ceiling, arms folded in toward his chest and his fingers tapping out idle rhythms against the metal and glass of the arc reactor, until he hears the elevator doors open and Pepper clicking her way back into the room.

“He’s really a very lovely man,” Pepper declares, taking a seat on the oversized armchair an arm’s length away. Tony rolls his eyes and moves a pillow behind his head. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Talk about what.”

It’s Pepper’s turn to roll her eyes.

“That thing we haven’t been talking about for the past month. That Steve-shaped thing that just got on his motorcycle and went back to Brooklyn.”

“When did Cap get a motorcycle?”

“Tony.” Pepper sounds exasperated, but she gets up from her seat and fits herself precariously on the edge of the couch, reaching out and running her hand through his hair. “I understand if you don’t want to discuss it with me…but it might do you some good to at least acknowledge to someone-“

“Oh please, Pepper, stop,” Tony cuts her off. He hates it when she chooses her words carefully, tiptoeing around him. It’s always how he knows something is really worrying her, because usually she and Rhodey are the only ones to call him on his crap and if she’s hedging...

And then she stops hedging.

“But don’t you think it’s horribly unfair to punish a man for things he’s not really responsible for? Especially without even telling him why…I mean, it’s not his fault that your father was -”

“That’s not what I think. I don’t think that.” Tony sits up and Pepper’s hand falls away. He doesn’t look at her; he knows she’s going to have that pinched, hurt look on her face that makes him feel like the worst man on earth. He sighs. “I’m not punishing him for anything. He just reminds me of things I don’t want to be reminded of. That’s all. I’ll get over it. I’m getting over it.”

“Really.”

“I invited the man over, I made him eggs! Me! In a kitchen! Is that not the perfect picture of someone getting over it?” He swings his legs around till his feet hit the ground and Pepper slides easily into the empty space now made beside him.

“It’s a perfect picture of something, all right, though I’m not sure what.”

Tony gives her a half-hearted smirk. Pepper slides a hand down his back, moving in a gentle circle as she peers at him through the fringe of her bangs.

“So, that was what I walked in on here?” She prompts him softly. “The cathartic breakfast of champions?”

“Pretty much. Sans Wheaties. And catharsis.”

“So it went that well.”

“As you’d expect.” He rubs his face, feeling tired. “I awkwardly vomited out inappropriate things until the Captain just as awkwardly made his excuses and beat tail outta here.”

“A rousing success then.” Pepper rests her head on his shoulder, runs her hand down his arm until she twines her fingers with his. “Don’t worry. You figure out a solution to every problem eventually; you’ll find a solution to this. You’ll make it work.”

Tony leans his head against hers and admits to her what he probably couldn’t admit to anyone else.

“That’s just it, Pep. I don’t even know that I want to.”