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Theory of Mind

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Tony was the only one of the Avengers Steve still didn’t understand. Strike that: There was a lot he understood about Tony Stark, but very little he ever seemed able to predict. For instance, he understood that Tony liked the rush of adrenaline and would go chasing after it one way or another any time he got bored (or angry or sad or elated or, or, or). But the space between that one way and that another was wider than Steve liked, and it included both helping the Avengers wipe out alien invaders and taking the suit for drunk joyrides into space.

“Testing my limits, Cap,” he would say, coming back from one of the latter incidents, red-eyed and breathless.

Most times, Steve was able to restrain himself. If there was one thing about Tony Stark that was perfectly, without exception, predictable, it was that he didn’t like being told not to do something he wanted to do.

(He shared this trait with your average American toddler.)

When they first came to live at Avengers Tower, Tony kept out of the way of the others, and Clint joked that Tony Stark didn’t want to get his millionaire hands dirty consorting with riff-raff.

Steve was not far enough removed from being riff-raff for this not to sting. Though Clint was joking. And Clint had grown up rough so if anyone was going to joke about being riff-raff, and have it not hurt, it should be Clint.

Even when Tony started coming downstairs for dinner, he gave the impression that he, well, not that he was above them. More that he owned them. As if living in Avengers Tower had turned them all into his paper dolls. As if being a genius, and rich, meant that everyone else’s lives and brains and feelings counted less.

It was okay when they were in the field. Tony questioned him more than the others did, and that was risky and stupid and got him yelled at by Director Fury in debriefs afterward, but generally he did what Steve asked. Ordered. For best results, ordered in a way that sounded like asking.

So it was unusual for Steve to go into a job feeling that Tony was the Avenger he could best rely on to do as he was told and keep things professional.

They were taking out a Hydra facility in Atlanta, drawing from plans and intel that one of Nat’s connections had gotten for them, and everyone apart from Tony was antsy as hell. Nat had a chip on her shoulder a mile wide when it came to Hydra, and Clint did too, on her behalf; Sam and Steve knew way the hell too much about the kinds of—well, you couldn’t call it by any name other than torture, as far as Steve was concerned—that Hydra inflicted on their trainees and, particularly, their captives. The building was supposed to be an educational and recruitment facility, but Steve couldn’t shake a tiny frisson of fear that they would find Bucky here, captive again, screaming, ready to do murder.

Tony was the only one who was looking at it with any objectivity, and that wasn’t the kind of operation Steve preferred to run.

“I don’t want to work with SHIELD on this,” said Clint, as the quinjet touched down about a mile from their target. He meant that Natasha didn’t, but Nat was being a good soldier, because it was Steve’s op.

“I don’t know how much choice we have,” Steve said. “It’s been reconstituted since—well.”

The SHIELD agents had flown down separately, the week before, to stake out the building, to watch for unusual movement. Signs that Hydra had been warned in advance. Weapons transport. The Winter Soldier. Anything. Tony hacked their camera feeds, to make sure that they were reporting accurately. They were as sure as they could be, and SHIELD were only the drivers. They would be lightly armed, nothing more; the Avengers were the big guns.

“Clint and Nat go in first,” Steve continued, pretending that Clint’s question had been part of a customary mission review. “You’ll take out the front line of guards, quiet as you can, and clear a path for Tony to get into their control room. Once you’re in, Tony, top priority is to lock down any sleeping quarters you can access. Then you can start downloading data. We want as much info as you can get us.”

Tony was halfway in his suit, as usual when they were flying. He was paranoid about the quinjet crashing and having to suddenly rescue all the non-fliers. “That’s very commandery, Cap. You practice that in the mirror?”

Steve ignored him. “I’ll be outside giving cover to the SHIELD vans, in case someone does manage to raise the alarm, and Sam will be providing air support. I want everyone to keep me updated on the comms as often as possible, Sam, you too. They shouldn’t have any idea that we’re coming, but I want to keep this running smooth.”

“Lee,” said Tony.

They had made their rendezvous point with SHIELD and were halfway to the Hydra facility before Steve realized that Tony wasn’t saying someone’s name, or making an obscure reference he knew Steve wouldn’t get. He was correcting his English: Keep this running smoothly.

Time and place, Steve wanted to retort, but it was way too late now.

“Keep updating on the comms,” Steve ordered, as Nat and Clint split off from the group and headed for the back fence. “You too, Tony. Nobody takes any risks on the initial run. Lock down anything that can be locked down, and we’ll go in for clean-up later.”

Nat wasn’t much for chatter on the comms, so Clint filled in for her, under his breath, updates on both their whereabouts.

They’d gotten the plans from city hall, because apparently Hydra filed all their building permits very promptly, but Steve wasn’t counting on their accuracy. For one thing, buildings (like people, like Avengers ops) were never exactly what you planned them to be, and for another thing, Hydra was no more prone than Tony Stark to letting the whole world know where to find all their stuff.

“Hey!” said a voice on Clint’s comm.

Steve tensed. He hated being on the outside, listening in. If Clint and Natasha weren’t the stealthiest two, if the op could instead have required—

“Widow took care of it,” said Clint, after some thudding.

“Take care of it yourself, the next time.” Nat’s voice was still and flat, and Steve could hear the edges of her accent. Bad sign, bad sign, bad damn sign.

“You can send in Iron Man,” Clint said, finally. “Cleared the—” His comm cut out, then came back in, stronger. “—plenty of room. Widow and I’ll keep moving.”

(He meant that he had Nat’s six. That he wouldn’t let her take any stupid risks. Steve was glad he was there. Clint played dumb sometimes, but he was a hell of a team player, when he wanted to be.)

“Thanks,” said Steve. “Widow?”

“Control room’s clear,” said Nat, though Clint had already said that. Steve should have left her home. He should have taken someone else (but there was no one else). Nobody’s heads were clear on this. When you went in with emotions running high, people got hurt. Every damn time.

Count on it.

A weight thunked down onto Steve’s shoulder, and he jolted.

“Hey, whoa,” Tony said, taking his gauntlet away and holding both hands up to prove he was harmless, though Tony, as Iron Man (for that matter, as Tony Stark), was the furthest thing from harmless. “Just checking up on you, grandpa. I’m heading in, okay?”

“Yeah,” Steve said. “Yeah. Yeah. I’m—keep me posted.”

“It’s a milk run, Cap,” said Tony. He clicked his helmet closed and shook his arms loose as he advanced on the building. Hydra’s building.

Steve wished he wouldn’t. Call it simple, it turns out complicated. He wasn’t a superstitious man, but.

It was a bad op, it was always going to be a bad op. Nobody had their head in the game, which meant a bad op, and superstitions weren’t going to make it better or worse.

Tony chattered nonstop on the comms, going into the building. He talked so much that Clint said, “Shut up, Iron Man,” which might have been real annoyance on Clint’s part, or might have meant that he noticed Natasha was getting angry.

Tony shut up.

Neither Clint nor Natasha was being any too gentle with the Hydra agents as they started herding them out of the building, zip-tied and spitting angry. Steve considered whether he would have let prisoners be shoved around like this, if it weren’t for Bucky, and decided that he didn’t give a damn, because there was no if it weren’t for Bucky.

“Keep moving,” Steve barked at them. (Tony would have made fun of the way his voice sounded.)

To a man, their eyes widened when they saw him, his shield, his uniform. So they hadn’t expected anything like this, maybe hadn’t considered their facility important enough for the Avengers to deal with it personally: Good. That meant, should mean, fewer weapons inside, fewer defenses.

“Iron Man, do you have the sleeping quarters locked down?” said Steve.

No reply.

Natasha cut someone’s throat. The blood came over her gloved hands in a dark rush, and the body slid to the ground in front of Steve with a sick thump. Maybe he deserved it. Maybe there was something he said to Nat, some way he moved, that told her he was a threat. Maybe.

Still, Steve said, “Widow. Let’s keep the L91s to a minimum, huh?”

“She is,” said Clint.

Not like you would care, Steve nearly snapped. Clint never did any of his paperwork, even the really important forms, things like L91s that were subject to committee oversight, and they should be because killing people was serious and had to be treated seriously.

He was not going to snap at Clint. Save it for the debrief. “Iron Man. Report.”

Nothing.

“Iron Man, come in,” said Sam, helping. He was aloft by this time, keeping eyes on everything from above.

The SHIELD agents they’d sent were young, scared. Antsy. Three of them were buckling the Hydra agents into the wrist and ankle cuffs in the armored truck. Even with Clint and Natasha there for backup, Steve didn’t like it.

Fucking Hydra infiltrator bullshit, Tony would have said. All the experienced agents gone, everyone who could act with competence in this, everyone Steve could rely on.

“Come in, Iron Man,” Sam said again.

“Iron Man,” Steve repeated, sharply. “Come in.”

Not that these kids weren’t doing a good job. Wasn’t much to it, but they were doing fine. Steve gave the nearest one an encouraging smile.

Natasha glanced at Steve on her way back to the building. As he met her eyes, he knew they were thinking the same thing. Tony would have his faceplate down, his gauntlets rolled back. He wasn’t defenseless whatever he did, Tony wasn’t, he’d be angry with Steve for worrying. But.

Hydra had, they had facilities, they had chairs and tubes and cryo chambers, they put you in them and—

Everything that was in your brain, every frustrating, bewildering thing—

“I want eyes on Tony,” Steve said. “Hawkeye?”

“You got it, boss.” Clint didn’t mention that you weren’t supposed to say names on the comms. Heck with it, thought Steve. Everyone knew who Iron Man was, Tony didn’t keep it a secret. All of them were blown, truth be told.

Sam swore and banked left.

“Falcon, report!” Steve ordered.

Though he had missed the noise of the first shot, Steve heard the second, and the third. He couldn’t get a line on where they were coming from, except that it was high. Far above where Steve could toss his shield and put them out of commission.

Sam sounded a little out of breath. “Missed,” he said. “Give the civilians cover.”

“Not civilians,” Steve muttered, but he shifted, shielding the glass of the van doors. “Widow, Hawkeye, we’ve got snipers on the upper level or the roof, must be an area that wasn’t on the building plans. Get up there and disable them. Falcon and I will cover down here; let us know if you need one of us inside. Iron Man, come the hell in.

“He’s fine, he’s okay,” said Sam.

For a second, Steve thought Sam meant that he had Tony in sight, but of course it wasn’t that. It was platitudes.

A handcuffed Hydra agent went down without a sound.

It wasn’t SHIELD they were aiming for. It wasn’t Steve, or Sam. Whoever was up there shooting downward at them, their first priority was to protect their information.

“All agents, fall back to defended positions,” Steve ordered. The SHIELD agents stopped trying to show off their bravery and ducked backward, getting themselves low, out of the lights. “Leave the enemy, it’s not worth the risk. Hawkeye?”

“On our way up,” said Clint, out of breath. “I’ll get the fucker.”

"Falcon, if you can get high enough to get an angle on the sniper, take the shot,” said Steve. To hell with the Hydra agents. Let them all die, if it meant Steve didn’t lose a man on this op, if it gave Tony time to pull everything off their servers. Milk run, Tony had said.

Sam was a marvel when he flew, elegant lines. You could mistake him, up very high and at night, for a bird. He was that natural in the air. Born to it. Whereas Tony—

A bullet clanged into Steve’s shield.

“Widow, do you have eyes on—” No, she couldn’t. He had assigned her elsewhere. “Iron Man, come in.

Flight was something Tony had stolen. He cheated the air with it. That edge of wildness in his voice, when he flew, that was because he knew it. He was all the ambition of a Daedalus, but he wasn’t foolish enough to put his trust in wax.

They cracked open your skull, Hydra did, they dug out everything inside it and filled up the empty spaces with muck, poison, murder.

Tony hadn’t said a word in almost ten minutes.

To hell with it. In their armored truck. Steve dropped to a crouch, waiting for the space between shots so that he could go in. He knew he couldn’t go in, leaving the Hydra captives and the SHIELD agents undefended. But he couldn’t lose an agent on this. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, lose anyone else to Hydra. Not in this lifetime.

Sam’s voice crackled, “Fuck!” and above Steve’s head, far, far above, a silhouetted shape that looked like a bird began to tumble.

No.

No.

Everything was slow. Sam was falling, and Tony—

“Iron Man, come the hell in,” Steve demanded. His voice shook.

In the sky, Sam was trying to get control back, slowing his descent with the wing that still worked. God, not Sam too. Sam’s breathing, on the comms, was labored, and the wind that rushed past him was drowning out the sounds of his pain. Here, down below, Steve’s people were beyond his ability to protect. God, please, please.

“Got him,” said Natasha’s voice. “Just the one, but I’ll do a sweep.”

Steve didn’t hear the impact when Sam landed. Sam groaned, then said, “He got me good, Cap. Sorry about that.”

“Injuries?” Steve called. “Hawkeye, find Iron Man, Sam needs a hospital.”

“Broke some shit,” said Sam. His voice was sticky and uneven.

“On it,” Clint said.

“Keep updating me,” Steve said. “Sam, I’m sending Iron Man to you as soon as—”

“Goddammit, Stark,” Clint barked, so loudly that it hurt Steve’s ears. “Cap, he’s fine, apart from being an insubordinate piece of shit, which we already goddamn knew. Get the fuck—”

“Hey,” said Tony’s voice.

“Sam’s injured,” Steve said, the first, most important thing. “Get out here and fly him to the hospital. I told everyone to stay active on comms.”

“You told me,” said Tony, and one booted foot of his suit appeared at the gateway where he had disappeared, way too long ago. “You said lock down the—bedrooms—done, by the way, not that I ever get any thanks—and then get the data. Don’t blame me cause your—Nazi fucks went analog.”

At first Steve thought he was wounded, because his step, the suit, coming out of the building, was irregular, his speech came in spurts, and his helmet was snapped up, his mouth bunched up at one side. But no: Tony was dragging two large metal crates behind him, one in each hand.

“Get Sam to the hospital,” Steve ordered. He was too furious to say more. Milk run.

“Falcon,” Tony corrected.

He could never leave well enough alone, Tony Stark, he couldn’t—

“East side,” said Sam in the comms. “Not too much blood but uh—”

Like that, Tony was gone. Blame him for anything you wanted, but he feared responsibility for someone else’s death more than the rest of them. Which was pretty goddamn ironic when you thought about all the people who must have died from the weapons he’d created, or his father had, over the years.

(Including Steve.)

***

It was another three hours before Steve was able to leave the op behind. If SHIELD had been what it used to be—

Steve had a policy about ifs. They were dangerous roads to walk down.

Anyway, they’d had to gas the whole building, which Steve didn’t like doing without Tony there to check their science, and then toss on gas masks and go in armed, dragging out the trainees and officers and whoever else, one by one by one by one. Wait for a second SHIELD truck to get there, because they’d underestimated how many Hydra agents could be packed into a building this size. Load them onto the buses, cuff them all in. Clint’s legs were shaky with exhaustion by the end, carting out bad guy after bad guy in awkward fireman’s carries. Nat had just dragged them, careless of their heads on the gravel and cement.

Four hours was getting off easy.

Four hours, then another forty minutes in Atlanta traffic to the Piedmont emergency room, which might have been the closest as the crow flies but wasn’t anything like the closest in a car. Steve was humming with so much tension that Natasha, who was driving, punched him in the shoulder.

“Ow,” he protested.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” said Nat.

“So you’re hitting me?” He made a joke of it, glancing back at Clint like can you believe her? Clint didn’t play along, and Natasha’s expression didn’t change, so he dropped the joke and said, “Thanks, Nat.”

Because he made a point of visiting any agents wounded in his ops, Steve was something of a connoisseur of hospitals. Piedmont had better parking than most, he’d give it that. The gift shop was closed, but of course it was closed, it was the middle of the night, that wasn’t Piedmont’s fault. And the big good thing was that the ER let two people in at once (a lot of places only allowed one), which meant Steve could go straight in, uniform and all.

When Steve got to the room, Sam was laughing. Tony was making him laugh. For no reason he could identify, this flooded Steve with fresh rage, the instinct to shove Tony up against the wall by his throat.

The Iron Man suit was a red-and-gold briefcase, tucked neatly under a chair.

“Hey, Cap,” said Sam.

Tony glanced up at him fast, then looked away. “Well,” he said. “I’ll leave you to it, birdbrain. Call Pepper if there’s anything you need.”

Call Pepper. Not, call me. Steve exhaled slow and long and stepped tidily out of Tony’s way when Tony left the room. He left his suit behind, which meant he wasn’t leaving leaving, which meant that when Steve’s presence was no longer required in Sam’s room, he’d be able to find Tony and have words with him.

“It wasn’t his fault, Cap,” said Sam.

“Well, hell, Sam.” He meant for there to be a second part to that, a joke about covering for Tony, or about Sam’s social worker dislike for apportioning blame, but he couldn’t find his way to whatever he’d thought he was going to say next.

“Bad op,” Sam said.

“Bad op,” Steve agreed.

“You know it’s a bad op when you have to send someone to pararescue the pararescueman.” Sam was grinning at Steve, trying to get him to laugh.

“You shouldn’t have been put in that position,” said Steve stiffly. “Tony should have been back out by that time. He should have stayed in communication with us. He would have been the natural person to take out the sniper. Now you’re out of commission, and—”

“It’s not his—”

“Anyway,” said Steve. He didn’t want to argue with Sam. “What’d the doctor say?”

“Waiting on some test results. X-rays. They’re still tryna decide—” Sam yawned. “If I need surgery.”

“Gave you something for the pain?”

“Mm-hm, yep. Tony got them—” He yawned again. “Give me an extra. Dose.”

“I bet,” muttered Steve.

“Not his,” said Sam blearily. “Not his fault. Flying down. My.”

Making an effort while Sam was still in shape to pay attention, Steve managed a chuckle. “Don’t worry about it, soldier. Rest up.”

When Sam was finally asleep, Steve shut his eyes too. He didn’t get tired the way regular people did, didn’t need as much sleep, but he felt like death now, after this night.

As a kid, if he had nightmares, he would go shuffling into his mother’s room and tell her, “I’m having bad thoughts.” Grown now, there wasn’t anything he could do, nobody he could seek out who would chase the images out of his head.

Sam, falling. High, high above him, and Steve couldn’t fly.

Bucky’s eyes when he wasn’t Bucky. Hydra had scooped Steve’s friend’s brain out of Steve’s friend’s body and left behind—

Drifting between sleep and wakefulness, Steve dreamed of Bucky in the chair where Hydra tortured him. Sometimes the man being tortured, lost to himself, was Bucky, or sometimes Steve, or sometimes Tony. Steve jerked awake and drifted back to sleep again and again. Every time he woke up, he reminded himself: Just a dream.

(It wasn’t a dream. It happened. It happened to Bucky and it could happen to any of them if they didn’t destroy Hydra. Tony’s voice could have fallen silent on the comms first, and then forever, he could be gone the way—)

Eventually, Sam’s parents got there. Mr. and Mrs. Wilson shook Steve’s hand and said it wasn’t his fault, but he could see fault in their eyes.

“They’re letting you both back here?” Steve asked, when he couldn’t stand listening to them excuse him anymore.

“Looks like,” said Sam’s dad.

Sam’s mother put her hand on Sam’s forehead. He hadn’t woken up, still.

“They gave him morphine,” Steve explained. “And some other stuff, I don’t know. They’re moving him to a room downstairs and giving him a cast as soon as the doctor gets in and a room comes available downstairs. I’ve left a card with the nurse, and another on Sam’s bedside table. Call any time, day or night. Anything you need, we’ll—he’s an Avenger so we’ll take care of it.”

Technically Sam wasn’t an Avenger. Steve didn’t give a damn about any of it.

He brought Tony’s briefcase-suit out to the lobby, his shoulders squared for a fight. Like always when Steve wanted to talk to him, Tony was stern and focused and undisturbablem pacing up and down the room, messing with his phone. Clint and Natasha where nowhere to be seen. “Tony,” Steve barked.

Tony glanced up, and his face changed. He looked—braced. A second later, Steve was sure he had imagined it, and Tony was off his phone and onto on one of his tirades. “Okay okay, this day had to come, have at it, Captain America. I messed up the plan for the star-spangled man. You asked me to get the data, and I got the damn data, well fucking hidden though it was—”

“Can I please—”

“—but no, right, your new boyfriend got hurt so now I should have magically known there was a sniper on the roof and stopped that from happening—”

(It wasn’t the onslaught of words. It was the way he never seemed to care about the words. Like words and ideas were an infinitely renewable resource and he could keep trying them out forever until he found the ones that got him what he wanted. Like it didn’t matter what they—what he—actually meant.)

Steve started, “I asked you to—”

“—and just disregarded the mission objective you fucking asked for!” Tony’s voice rose to a shout as he reached the end of the sentence. Both of them glanced around guiltily, but the room was mostly empty anyway.

Before Tony could gear up for another round, Steve said, “It isn’t your fault what happened to Sam.”

Tony’s chin tilted up. It made him look wary (but he always looked wary, at least with Steve). “Really.”

“Yeah. Could we have used better air support? Sure. But it’s outside of your control. We made plans the best we could, and mostly that worked out okay.” Steve drew in a breath. “I told you to keep updating me on comms, Tony.”

“Control room killed the signal,” said Tony with a shrug.

That wave of rage swamped Steve again, and he shoved it back. Letting himself be as out-of-control furious with Tony as he wanted to be wouldn’t accomplish anything. “That would have been pretty good information for your mission leader to have, don’t you think? I told you to keep updating me on comms. Nat and Clint were all over the place on this mission and I was counting on you to help me keep this running smoothly.”

Tony swung his shoulder sideways, the way he did when he was telegraphing surprise, like he’d been stopped in his tracks by Steve’s words. Like everything Tony did, it was fake. For show.

(Not everything. Be fair.)

(Steve wasn’t in the mood to be fair.)

“Well, I’d say counting on me was your first mistake, Cap, but—”

Steve snapped, “This isn’t a joke, Tony. Sam could have died.” You could have been captured, and we wouldn’t have known, for how many minutes we wouldn’t have known. You arrogant jerk. You think you’re unvulnerable, but you don’t know, you haven’t seen, you don’t goddamn know how breakable your mind is.

The automatic doors slid open, and Clint and Natasha sauntered in with greasy bags of McDonald’s burgers and fries. Natasha was licking salt off her fingers. “Germs,” protested Clint. “Steve, Tony, anyone want to eat some unhealthy shit?”

“His parents got here,” Steve said curtly to them. “I’ll stick around until the surgery’s finished and he’s in a room. You guys can all head out and get some rest. You did good work today.”

He didn’t look at Tony. He told himself it wasn’t pointed.

***

The whole time they were in Atlanta, which was another week, because Sam’s parents insisted he take some well-deserved vacation on Uncle Sam’s dime, Steve kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. He kept thinking that two cracked ribs, a broken leg, and cuts and bruises weren’t the extent of it, and they’d find out worse.

Sometimes Steve felt like he’d spent the last two years braced for disaster. Ever since they pulled him out of the ice.

But this time, at least this time, there was nothing. Sam, Steve, and his parents flew back up to New York on one of Tony’s jets, and Sam had strict instructions to rest the leg as much as possible and not lift anything heavy.

The rest of the Avengers had been back in the tower for a while by the time Steve returned. Traces of them everywhere: Clint’s fletching supplies, Nat’s hair ties, Tony’s metal doodles.

When Steve wasn’t in residence, nobody did any dishes. Nobody did any chores except for Bruce, if he was in town, and he wasn’t. The kitchen sink was empty of dirty dishes, and the hand towels were clean and folded in the wrong drawer, which meant that Tony had hired someone, which Steve had expressly asked him not to do.

“I’m a job creator!” Tony had protested.

“I can do them,” Steve had said wearily.

He left the kitchen, feeling frustrated, and went upstairs to dump his stuff, the things he’d bought on the cheap in Atlanta because he was damned if he’d let Tony pay for express-shipping for Steve’s own clothes. Steve wasn’t always sure he knew exactly where the line should be, when Tony should be allowed to pay as the bankroller of the Avengers, and when he was doing a financial favor for Steve as a friend, which Steve was in no mood to accept.

The cleaner had been in his rooms, too. Everything smelled tastefully of lemon.

He’d worry about it another time, Tony’s (un)awareness of appropriate boundaries. Right now he just wanted to sleep for a week, in his own bed.

He dreamed of falling. In his dreams, he fell and fell, and the ice never killed him.

**

It was another week again before Steve was able to get access to the Hydra papers. Tony had flown them back to New York separately, using some newly-designed magnet gadget that he’d invented for his suit, because of course it would have been too easy to pack them on the helicarrier and send them back with Clint and Nat. After that, Tony had asked Pepper to arrange to have them screened for bombs, bugs, or booby traps (which in Steve’s opinion would have been a great thing to do before flying them a thousand miles up the coast); and after that, because he was Tony, he did a whole bunch more tests on them himself.

“Doesn’t trust the techs,” Natasha explained.

“Of course he doesn’t,” said Steve.

When they were finally delivered to the Avengers common area (Steve had asked for them to be sent to his floor), Steve settled himself onto the floor between the two and started unpacking them. There were a lot of receipts. There were a truly unbelievable number of receipts.

Natasha came by in the middle of all this. She looked disgustingly well-rested. “Anything good?”

“Help me look if you want.”

Nat laughed. “Give me the Cliff notes.”

Since Steve had no idea what she was talking about, he guessed Cliff notes were something he should have learned by now. He kept unpacking receipts. Not exactly worth Sam’s broken leg. Not worth the two men Natasha had killed. He couldn’t help wondering if there had been more, other papers, more valuable information, that Tony had left behind.

“Steve?”

“Still looking through it. Nothing yet.”

When he looked up again from his work, Natasha was still leaning against the door, her posture unchanged, but the lines of her mouth had gone tense. Nat didn’t have many tells. By this time, Steve knew them all. “What?” he said.

“Just—”

“Hey, Cap.”

Steve sighed. “Hey, Tony.”

They hadn’t seen each other since Atlanta. Steve hadn’t been avoiding Tony, exactly, but he’d been at least cautious about venturing into common areas at times when he knew Tony didn’t have work to tend to. When Steve looked up properly, Tony had come in from the hallway, cradling something wrapped up in brown paper.

He looked fresh as a daisy, as if everything that happened in Atlanta had meant nothing to him. Even his tie was crisply knotted, its deep green bringing out the hint of green in Tony’s brown eyes. Of course he was wearing a tie, even though it wasn’t business hours and anyway, Tony could just as well have done all his work in regular-person clothes, considering he owned the company and only ever did exactly what he wanted.

“Got you something,” Tony said, and he tossed the paper-wrapped package to Steve. “Careful, it’s irreplaceable.”

“Then why’d you just—”

“Cause I’m careless, Rogers. Keep up.” Tony’s voice carried an edge of something. You could cut your fingers on it.

Natasha made a noise of Russian-tinted disgust and vanished without a sound.

Steve unwrapped the irreplaceable package. Inside the paper, and inside another layer of bubble wrap, and another layer of paper after that, was a bronze sculpture of a hand. That was all it was: a model of a left hand, with two of the fingers curved slightly inward.

That was all it was, but it took Steve’s breath away. The delicacy of it, the perfection. Like somebody had looked at all the hands in the world and cast the best of them in bronze. Or, no: it was like somebody had looked at all the hands in the world, and discovered the thing about them that made them hands, and cast that thing in bronze. He couldn’t take his eyes off it. “How did,” he said.

“Like it?” said Tony.

Lost for words, Steve looked up. Tony was hiding a grin behind his hand. “Did you make this?” Steve asked.

Tony snorted. “Close. Rodin.”

Rodin.

But then.

The stab of disappointment was keener than Steve wanted to admit. He caught his breath around it and began, as quickly as he could bear, to wrap the perfect thing back up again. He didn’t, couldn’t, look back at Tony, the way he was smiling, expectant.

“Hey, hey, what are you doing?” Tony pushed off of the door frame and went to his knees on the floor beside Steve, pushing the papers away from the sculpture. Rodin. “Look, if you’re so scared of hurting it, I’ll have Pepper—”

“You think this makes it okay?” He wasn’t shouting. He was—he wasn’t shouting. He hadn’t known about the hand two minutes ago, and he couldn’t want it this much, this fast. “You think this fixes what happened to Sam?”

Tony didn’t look up from what he was doing. “I think a highly trained team of medical professionals fixed what happened to Sam. Pretty successfully, if you want to take a gander at his chart. And if I’m not mistaken, oh captain my captain, I’ve already been given absolution for that little error, by you, and I can’t help but notice you’re sitting here paging through the fruits of my perpetual-fuck-up not-a-team-player labor, so I don’t know what it is about a hunk of metal that makes you think it’s time for take-backsies.”

“I can’t take this,” Steve said, retreating to ground of which he felt more certain. He pushed the half-wrapped bronze hand at Tony.

Tony rocked back on his heels. “You can’t—”

“And you can’t just buy things for the team any time you screw up.”

“Want me to play you back the suit recording for that morning?” Tony dropped the Rodin in Steve’s lap and shoved himself backward and up onto his feet. “You said, and I quote, it wasn’t your fault what happened to Sam. And then you fucking ignored me for two weeks, and now I’m bringing you this peace offering—”

“I wasn’t ignoring you!”

“—for you, incidentally, not for the team, because I actually wanted to say I’m sorry—”

“You’re never sorry enough to do what you’re told instead of what you think is—”

“—didn’t listen when you said you wanted the whole team to be your fucking security blanket instead of focusing on the main objective, which as you’ll recall from our initial briefing, and please, I’ll be thrilled, fact-check me from what we have file for this one—”

Tony was always faster. He thought faster and he was smarter, and Steve could never argue with him. Still less when he was sitting on the floor holding the most beautiful thing he’d ever touched, and Tony was on his feet twiddling one of his preposterously expensive rings. “Yes, look, fine, I wanted the information but—”

“I can’t read your mind,” Tony said flatly.

“Which is why I specifically told you—”

“Okay, yeah. Fine. Would you stop wrapping it back up? I shredded the receipt, can’t take it back, you might as well keep it. Look, fine. I did the wrong thing with you. Fucking shocker. Next time I’ll, whatever, I’ll say to hell with the mission objective and make sure you never experience a moment’s worry. Happy?”

No. “Yes.”

The tape wouldn’t reattach, over the first layer of paper wrapping, but at least now he couldn’t see any part of the Rodin hand. He didn’t look up at Tony, but started swathing the crackly paper package in bubble wrap.

“No matter how short-sighted I think that is. As a futurist.”

He never let anything go. He never—

“I don’t want,” Steve said carefully, “for there to be— If it’s in our power to stop it, then what Hydra wanted, wants—” Because they had tried to keep it from him, but he had seen the videos, what was happening while Steve and his Howling Commandos fought their battles, what was happening in Germany, in Poland, those innumerable deaths, the scope of it. “What Hydra did, and the Nazis—I don’t want that ever to happen again.”

“Bit late for that,” said Tony.

(Bit late for what?)

The Rodin was back in its packaging, trailing stray pieces of papery tape. Steve swung himself to his feet and offered it to Tony, trying not to think about what he was giving up.

Tony nodded at the nearest table. “Leave it around for me, if you don’t want it. And for the record? I was trying to be nice.”