Steve wouldn’t have even noticed except that night, he happened to be up late reading and had gotten hungry. He took the stairs (seemed silly to use the elevator when it was only one floor down) to what had become unofficially the common kitchen.
Even though everyone’s apartment was outfitted for cooking, more often than not whoever happened to be home from a mission (Clint and Natasha) or back on the planet (Thor) or free from the lab (Bruce and Tony) or hungry (always Steve) would get together and eat. It was nice, reminded Steve of cooking up eggs with Bucky in their apartment or sitting around the fire sharing rations with the Howling Commandos. It was pretty late, felt to be around 2 or maybe even 3, Steve also knew that if he didn’t get to the leftovers from dinner now, they’d be gone by breakfast, the downside of living with a group of people with crazy schedules and healthy appetites.
Over the past few months, Steve had been working his way through a list of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that he’d missed while in the ice. It was a slightly crazy collection, built from Google searches vetted by JARVIS and recommendations from Bruce (apparently getting lost in a book had been calming while on the run). His current find was all about domestic policy during the 1960s, so most of Steve’s attention was still wrestling with what would make a person so full of hate against another person, why something as simple as wanting to attend school could be an act of rebellion. He was three steps into the kitchen, shifting his focus towards the important decision of hot chocolate versus leftovers when he realized that he wasn’t the only one up, there were voices coming from the down the hall in the living room.
“Sir, if you would like me to contact Miss Potts, I am sure that-”
“Dammit, JARVIS, you’re not my babysitter!” It wasn’t too surprising for Tony to be up, though he hadn’t been at dinner, Steve couldn’t remember why (usually neither could Tony, there were always at least three people riding herd on Tony’s schedule) and Steve would have thought he’d be down in the lab if anywhere.
“Indeed,” JARVIS replied. Steve wasn’t sure how a computer program could sound pissy, but JARVIS did. “Your current behavior is simply leading me to deduce-”
“You’ve been watching too much Sherlock Holmes, JARVIS, for the last time, leave me the fuck alone!” At the rise in volume, Steve started moving quietly towards the living room. Tony could be sarcastic, but it was rare that he sounded so angry, especially with JARVIS.
“Stark override, code Tesla Gibson 13,” Tony snapped. Then there was silence, and the uneven rattle of ice and liquid being poured into a glass.
Steve thought of heading back to bed and just leaving Tony alone, he sounded like he wanted to be alone, but only last week, Bruce had said that Tony seemed to be drinking less. Tony’s response had been to say that it was easier to code when the numbers didn’t blur. All jokes aside, it seemed to Steve that Tony had been sticking with it, so it wouldn’t hurt to see if Tony would talk to him.
Steve walked into the room, surprised by how dark it was. The overhead lighting was off, but one of the lamps near the window threw a bright puddle of light across the couch. In other times, this was the room for movie nights or Clint and Thor’s epic video game battles. (Dance Dance Revolution was now forbidden in the Tower until the floor could be reinforced.) At the edge of lamp’s light, Steve could see Tony wedged in the far corner of the couch. He watched as Tony raised a glass to his mouth, the slow shift in his throat as he swallowed.
“Tony,” Steve began, but Tony cut him off.
“Shit, Cap, warn a guy before you loom out of the shadows, huh? Last guy who surprised me at night ended up with a face full of suit, if you know what I mean.”
But Tony hadn’t jumped and his voice was still even. He’d noticed Steve come in, just as Steve thought he had. When Steve didn’t say anything, Tony kept talking. The anger in Tony’s voice that he’d had while talking to JARVIS was still there, but a layer of sarcasm slid in as well.
“You’re up late, or early, guess it depends on whether you call this Friday or Saturday. Thought all Boy Scouts needed plenty of shut-eye. Needed some warm milk?”
“Was reading and didn’t realize how late it was. Can I sit?”
The ice rattled a little as Tony shifted his grip on his glass.
“You’d think with a place this big I could find a spot to myself.”
Steve felt the sting of the words and could hear the hint loud and clear, but he wasn’t biting.
“Figure you’d pick a different floor if you didn’t want to be bothered.”
There was a pause, and Tony sighed.
“Fair enough. Take a load off.”
Steve settled onto the couch, close enough he could see how tightly Tony was holding himself, how his fingers were white around the glass. Tony was wearing a tuxedo; Steve could see the messy edges of an untied bowtie and the glint of cufflinks at his wrists. It was what Steve thought of as Tony’s real uniform, more constraining than his armor could ever be.
“Fancy duds,” Steve offered.
“Only the best,” Tony said with what was supposed to be a laugh. “Pretty sure this tie cost more than most people at tonight’s benefit make in a month.”
Having to go to one of the fancy Stark events didn’t really explain the alcohol, Steve thought. Tony had been to three dinners and four talks in the past two weeks without incident. Still, Tony was the kind of guy who clammed up when you asked him what was wrong. Better to come at it sideways.
“Food any good?” Steve asked, knowing it would make Tony smile.
“Thinking with your stomach again, why am I not surprised. Nothing as good as whatever you guys made tonight. Who cooked?”
“Bruce again. He’s on a Thai kick.” Tony made a humming noise of interest. “There’s leftovers in the fridge if you want some.”
“Maybe in a bit.” A clink as more liquid disappeared. “Eating doesn’t sound quite so awful anymore, but not yet, I think.” A smirk. “Though I guess it would get JARVIS off my back.”
Steve shot a glance at the ceiling, a habit that he hadn’t really kicked.
“Is he giving you the silent treatment?”
“Er, sort of.” Tony still sounded annoyed, but now he also sounded embarrassed. “I… you know how you can put a computer into sleep mode instead of just shutting it down?”
Steve stared at Tony in surprise.
“You made JARVIS take a nap?”
“More like a time-out. He was pissing me off.”
Steve paused, then offered, “I heard him asking you if he should call Pepper.”
Tony sighed, bigger this time.
“Shit, hoped you hadn’t heard that. JARVIS worries, and he knows that talking to Pepper can… help sometimes when something like this happens.”
Aha, Steve thought. Sideways worked.
“This?” he asked carefully.
For a minute he thought it wouldn’t work, but then Tony almost… deflated, his shoulders coming down, spine uncurling back into the cushion.
“Were you close with your family, Steve?”
Steve almost told Tony not to change the subject when he realized that he wasn’t, so instead he said, “well, my parents both died when I was young, so I grew up in…”
“An orphanage, that’s right, I read the file. Never mind.”
Steve shook his head a little.
“Yeah, I grew up in a boys’ home, but I had other family. An aunt and uncle, some cousins, lived in the Bronx. I think some of my dad’s brothers were up in Albany.”
Tony looked at him.
“I would have thought they’d take you in after your parents died. You know, family sticks together, all that romantic crap,” and the edge in Tony’s voice was icy and razor sharp and Steve thought, oh, there it is.
“My dad wasn’t too close with his brothers. Something about them not thinking Mom was good enough to marry him, I never got the full story. And Mom’s sister… wasn’t very nice.” Steve had a memory of a tall woman with a steely sweet smile, fingers gripping hard into Steve’s shoulder and telling him art isn’t much of a living, but I suppose there’s not much better that could come from a Rogers. He swallowed. “When my mother died, my aunt sent a letter saying she didn’t have room. And… some other things. A boys’ home seemed better.”
“Well, shit.” Tony said. “That sucks, Steve.”
“If I hadn’t gone there, I wouldn’t have met my best friend in the world,” Steve said, throat going tight like it always did when he even thought about Bucky. “And I might not have met Dr. Erksine, and then you’d been sitting here drinking all by yourself.”
Tony huffed a laugh.
“I’d always heard that your family was supposed to be there for you; thought it was just me where that wasn’t the case.” Tony said, and took a deep breath. “My dad has some cousins who were in town on business—they’re in finance, always thought that an engineer was only a mechanic that knew how to do math—and they crashed the party tonight. A few of them had some choice remarks about how Stark Industries was doing an excellent job of making money off of war or peace, whichever was more profitable at the time. That my dad would be proud that I was so… flexible with my marketing abilities.”
“Aw, Tony, that’s a load of…” Steve began, but Tony raised a hand to stop him.
“Their firm took a bit hit a few years back when I went from the Merchant of Death to whatever the hell I am now. The Merchant of Peace? Not quite as catchy. So I understand that they’re hurting, and that Howard might be pissed that I’m not making things go boom as much anymore but fuck ‘em, right? Who needs family?”
Tony slammed his glass down and made a move to get up, but Steve shot out a hand, holding him in place. Tony glared at him.
“Let go, Cap.”
“Not before I tell you something. Well, two things. The first is that while I didn’t know your dad very well, I think he would be proud of the things you’ve done.”
Tony raised an eyebrow.
“That’s a messy conversation I’d rather not tackle tonight, but okay. What’s the second thing?”
Steve smiled a bit.
“The second thing is that sometimes you find family that you weren’t born into having. Bucky and I might not have been related, but he was pretty much my brother since I was twelve years old. And while I haven’t know the team very long, I’d say that when you depend on people to keep you alive, that’s another kind of family.”
Tony wrinkled his nose, but Steve could see that the tension leave him.
“That’s pretty damn sappy, Steve.”
“Doesn’t make it not true.” Then he stood and said with what he hoped was enough casualness, “I was going to get some of the leftovers before Thor raided the fridge. Want to join me?”
Tony sat for a moment longer, then rolled to his feet.
“I know where Clint keeps his stash of Oreos too. You can’t have a midnight feast without Oreos!”
“Can you at least wake JARVIS up first? He was only looking out for you.”
“Don’t you dare make me feel bad about a computer program! Aw, come on, Steve,” and Tony trailed behind Steve into the kitchen. “Don’t give me that face! Fine, if it makes you happy, I will wake up my computer program and apologize. Hey, if we’re a family, does that make you the oldest older brother ever? Or maybe you’re Grandpa? Ow! Was that a chopstick? I’ve changed my mind. Younger brother, definitely annoying younger brother.”
From the kitchen, the voices continued to rise and fall, while back on the coffee table, the remains of Tony’s drink warmed and melted in its glass.