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The Roles We Play

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The rumors start almost immediately after Siberia. Whispers floating around that say the man in the armor these days isn’t Tony Stark.

There are reasons for them of course, for the rumors bouncing around the internet that Tony never really made it back from Siberia. They postulated that the billionaire met his unfortunate end out there in the frozen wasteland at the hands of Captain America and the Winter Soldier and that for some reason the Avengers left behind in the wreckage were covering it up. As with all conspiracy theories, the attempts from Stark Industries to quash the rumors isn’t really doing anything beneficial and each time a statement is released instead of a press conference with the missing billionaire the conspiracy grows.

The continuous lack of Tony Stark sightings since Siberia stays in the forefront of the public’s mind even as Secretary Ross gets impeached from office. Ross answers questions thrown out to him about the brunet – when did he see him last? Where was he going? Did he make contact at any point in time with Ross or his camp? – to which the former Secretary could only say that Stark had been as annoying as ever when he crawled into his helicopter to go rush to the aid of Captain America.

It would be the last time anyone saw him in any verifiable manner, and Ross was quick to throw out his own belief that Rogers and Barnes definitely ended Stark’s life and that the King of Wakanda would have them get off without recourse.

‘Mr. Stark has suffered severe injuries from his most recent outing as Iron Man and will not be able to make appearances at this time while he heals away from the public eye.’ Those were the words that Pepper Potts said with a neutral face and steady hands as she stared down the world demanding to see proof of life. The press conferences from Tony Stark’s old lover and current CEO and business partner calmed the world at first, but then the days turned into weeks which turned into months without any visual sign of the usually boisterous billionaire.

Proof of Life for Tony Stark! – Justice for Tony Stark! – Where in the World is Tony Stark?

The headlines practically wrote themselves, and no amount of comment or statement from ‘Tony Stark’ could sate them.

It wasn’t until the Iron Man armor rushed to the aid of the Fantastic Four in New York that then next chapter in that saga unfolded. The adoring fans and rampant cheers that erupted from the crowds once the scene was contained died down into pure confusion and rampant speculation when the pilot remained unusually camera shy, trading a few quips and doing a few trademark poses before taking off into the sky. He never once let the mask rise, he never once let them see the face underneath.

It isn’t Tony Stark piloting the armor. The first online discussion forum declaring this truth popped up minutes after the suit left the scene to be contained by law enforcement.

Tony Stark is dead, came next when a statement from the brunet was given out by Colonel Rhodes and Pepper Potts instead of the man himself emerging to handle the public’s concern.

Captain America killed Iron Man followed shortly after that, and once the idea had been given voice and a soap box, it was impossible to truly contain.

The accusations managed to follow Steve to Wakanda despite their separation from the world at large, haunting him at every corner. The Wakandan’s that he passed every day before T’Challa confined them to their wing would look at him with the same distrust that they looked at Wanda with. Murderer their eyes said and they gave him a wide berth as if just coming close to him would cause him to lash out and start killing again. With each passing day, Steve found it harder and harder to push away the legitimate concern that perhaps Tony had been in need of more assistance than Steve had thought he did when Steve left him on the ground and walked away.

“Stark’s just playing to the public.” Clint was quick to assure him. “He’s probably sitting off in one of his mansions, drinking a fucking mojito and laughing at the gullibility of the masses.”

“I don’t know man, why hasn’t he shown up for even just one event?” Sam asks. “A charity or something? It’s not like him to shy away from the cameras.” Steve can see the sideways glance that Sam sends him alongside the Wakandans. The glance speaks of a loss of trust that might never be undone. “I told him to go as a friend because I thought that he’d be meeting one.” Sam had snapped at him in anger once when they first arrived and Steve told the full story of what happened in Siberia. The break between the two of them had just created a festering wound that hadn’t healed and that both of them probably weren’t going to manage to heal with their silent, agreed upon understanding that they’d never mention it again.

“The armor is coded to Tony and Potts only. Maybe Happy, but the two of them have been present while the armor’s been doing its thing.” Natasha told him one night with a simple shrug. “It’s Tony piloting it. I don’t know why he’s doing his best hermit crab impression, but there’s no way that Stark died and that there’s some unknown third party piloting the suit. You know how paranoid he is. He even once told Fury that all of the suits that weren’t coded for Rhodes were designed to self-destruct upon his death. It’s him.”

Steve tried to believe her, but the fear nagged at him in the dark. He couldn’t close his eyes anymore without seeing Tony trapped beneath him, dark eyes wide in pain and betrayal as Steve slammed the shield down into his chest over and over again.

Steve can’t help but wonder if maybe…if maybe he really did leave Tony to die…alone and in the cold darkness so similar to the memory of space that Tony had confessed to him late at night still haunted his every waking moment.

+++

“You will be returning to the Avengers Compound within the week.” T’Challa tells the whole group when he pulls them into an impromptu meeting within the living quarters that they’ve been holed up in for these last few months. “During that time, you will become wards of the Avengers Initiative and the Accords Council until your probation period has ended.” T’Challa slides several small packets to each of them. They’re summaries of the court cases, and Steve doesn’t fully agree with how the ‘truth’ that was sold inside the courts doesn’t resemble the actual truth at all, but somehow several fast talking lawyers have spun the ‘not truth’ into a story that the courts ate up and now Steve and the others have gotten everything they wanted since the start of this whole fiasco.

They get to go back home.

They get to be Avengers.

Sure, T’Challa’s been quick to remind them of the fine line they’ll be walking, the hoops that they’ll have to endure but how at the end of the day – if they’re smart and if they play their cards correctly – all of this will soon be a bad memory of poor choices and foolish hardheadedness.

Steve can’t fully put into words how much he hopes that’s true.

“Do you think Stark will actually grace us with his presence?” Clint asks when they’re on the plane ride back to the Compound, being the first to break the uneasy silence that’s descended upon them. “Or do you think he’ll continue playing the ‘am I dead or aren’t I?’ card?”

“Give it a rest.” Sam snaps, and Steve can hear the exhaustion in his voice.

“What? It’s a legitimate question.” Clint says with a shrug and a roll of his eyes. “I’ll bet you ten bucks he keeps pretending.” Clint smirks and leans closer to Sam, nudging the other man with his shoulder.

“Stop it.” Sam says pulling away.

“What the hell is your problem?” Clint fires back and Sam just shakes his head and looks out the window, opting not to engage with the other.

“Clint, leave it.” Steve tells him and his voice sounds far too close to Sam with the exhaustion winding through it. When did he get so tired? And when did he start feeling so old?

“What the fuck ever.” Clint mutters as he leans back in his seat. There are no more words shared between them for the rest of the plane ride. When they finally arrive at the Compound and step off of the plane Steve deals with a strange dichotomy where his legs feel like lead weights are attached to him while at the same time each step creates a feeling like a weight is lifting off his chest at the sight of home.

Tony’s nowhere to be seen, but Rhodes is. The Colonel is standing at the entrance to the Compound from the landing pad and he’s flanked by a beautiful blonde woman and a large dark skinned man with biceps that Thor would envy that Steve can’t place names to.

“Rhodes.” Steve greets and he tries to pretend that he’s not subtly searching the area for a brief glimpse of a certain brunet who might be hiding in the wings. There’s a tightness in the Colonel’s eyes that tells Steve that Rhodes knows exactly what he’s doing, and who he’s looking for, and Rhodes doesn’t approve.

“Rogers.” Rhodes replies, his voice calm and professional. “I take it the king briefed you all on your probation and what that entails?”

“He did.”

“Good, come with me then and we’ll get you settled away into your new living arrangements.”

“New living arrangements?” Wanda asks and Rhodes nods.

“If you can’t already tell from the outside, the Avengers Compound has undergone significant changes in structure and design. Your old rooms have been repurposed into a housing wing for Avengers members in need of a safe location to lay their heads for either a brief or extended period of time.” Rhodes says. “Your things have already been returned to your new rooms.”

“Where’s Stark?” Clint asks, looking around for the billionaire in a much more obvious manner than Steve did. “Too busy playing dead to come greet us?” Steve doesn’t miss the dark look of rage that crosses the Colonel’s face for a brief second before disappearing behind the neutral mask like it was never there, and it makes something in Steve’s stomach plummet at the potential reason for it.

No…Tony’s not dead. It’s a ploy, some kind of public relations thing or for some Avengers reason, but Tony’s going to pop out of a box any time now and turn the whole thing into his favor.

…Because he’s not dead.

Steve didn’t kill him.

Steve didn’t.

“I am the Team Leader for the Avengers Initiative now, and there was no reason that I saw to involve Tony in these affairs.” Rhodes replies calmly.

“What, Stark too much of a special snowflake to waste on the likes of little ol’ us?” Clint presses and Rhodes gives him a sharp grin.

“Pretty much. Glad we’re all on the same page.” He says and there’s a razor’s edge of something – maybe hate, maybe a threat, maybe both – in his tone as he motions to the doors.

“Aren’t you going to introduce us?” Natasha asks gently, clearly trying to negate the hostile air that’s popped up since Clint’s untimely poking at the bear and Rhodes glances at the two people with him and nods.

“Of course, I forgot how out of the loop you’ve all been in Wakanda.” Rhodes says. “This is Sue Storm. She’s a member of the Fantastic Four team, designation Invisible Woman.” The blonde inclines her head but there’s no kindness in her eyes for them. “And this is Luke Cage, a member of the Defenders team. More commonly known as Power Man.”

“No I am not, and please do not call me that.” Luke says with a roll of his eyes.

“I don’t know, I think the kids were right. It’s pretty catchy.” Rhodes jokes lightly with the man before motioning for them all to go inside again. “Now that introductions are over, let’s get this little reunion on the way shall we?”

“Where is Vision?” Wanda asks while they’re making their way through the building, glancing around each corner for a glimpse of the android and Rhodes doesn’t look at her when he responds.

“Vision is currently working outside of the Compound.” Rhodes says. “You will probably see him in a few weeks, and then off and on for a little bit after that.”

“Why?” Wanda questions.

“Vision is currently the representative and liaison for the American Avengers in Europe. He’s assisting Captain Britain and the others with their own team building and missions during this time and he’s handling the new branch of the Avengers Initiative on scene.”

“Captain Britain?” Clint snorts. “Fanboy much?”

“He really isn’t.” Rhodes says cryptically before motioning to their rooms. Steve thanks him and steps inside his new living arrangements. The room is so much smaller than the one before and Steve wonders if that’s intentional or just a side effect of however many rooms Tony’s decided to add to this wing.

Steve doesn’t say anything to Rhodes or question it. He’s just happy they’re home.

 

Chapter Text

Steve doesn’t see Tony anywhere in the Compound in the next few weeks and the nightmares start to get worse. A nightly demon that comes upon him with a gnawing mix of guilt and fear. He tries to ignore them, to push them away and hold tight to Rhodes’s assurances that Tony just isn’t available and Clint’s constant barrage of ‘he’s just being stubborn and difficult’ comments. If Tony were dead, there’s no way that Rhodes would be able to look at Steve, no way the Colonel could handle the knowledge that Steve’s hands had taken the life of his best friend.

Steve tries to enter the lab one morning, when the dreams get particularly nasty. A phantom Tony lying beneath him with blood on his lips and teeth sneering at him. “All hail the righteous king, the man with a plan. Tell me Rogers, do you feel like you won? Do you feel like you were right?”

“Mr. Rogers, you do not have the necessary clearance to enter the labs.” FRIDAY tells him from somewhere overhead and Steve looks at the elevator for a few moments.

“I just…I used to have some things down in the lab.” Steve says, changing his mind about what words wanted to come out. I just wanted to apologize. I just wanted to see him…I just need to see him. “I can’t find them in the boxes and I thought that maybe they were still down there.”

“If you make an itemized list, it will be looked into.”

“It’s just my sketchbook. It’s probably still in the couch.” Steve says. “I could just be in and out in a second.”

“It has been noted and it will be looked into.”

“I wouldn’t bother anyone.”

“Mr. Rogers, you do not have the necessary clearance to enter the labs.” FRIDAY repeats again and Steve already knows that he isn’t going to get past her.

“Oh, okay…um…could you pass on a request to Tony?” Silence meets his question. “I just…It’d be nice to be able to talk to him for a moment…I’m…I’ll admit that I’m worried and I just want to know that he’s okay.”

“Your concern has been noted and it will be passed on to the proper channels.” FRIDAY says and Steve nods, casting a final glance at elevator doors that always used to open for him.

…But not anymore.

Not for the man who might have killed Tony Stark.

Steve feels like he goes through the rest of the day in a daze. He doesn’t really remember much of the meeting with the PR specialist that the Accords has sent over and he doesn’t remember much of the training session that Natasha kicks his ass in, snapping at him to get his head in the game.

“What is going on with you?” She asks when he finally just taps out and they walk over to where the others are sitting.

“I’m sorry Nat, I guess I’m just not feeling it today.” He says apologetically and Clint nudges his shoulder when he sits down on the bench next to him.

“Hey, what’s wrong?”

“It’s Stark.” Wanda replies in Steve’s place. “He’s fussing about Stark.”

“Please stay out of my head without permission Wanda.” Steve reprimands her gently and she just gives him a look like he’s a moron.

“I didn’t need to read your mind for that. It’s obvious. You’re freaking out about Stark and he’s taking advantage of it.”

“I just…I thought we would have seen him by now, even just a glance from down the hall or something.” Steve says and Clint shakes his head.

“Don’t worry about it Cap. Stark’s being an ass just like Wanda said. He’s been out in the field, he’s fine.”

“No…the suit’s been out in the field. No one’s seen who is in it.” Steve corrects and that makes everyone look at him in concern.

“Steve, Stark’s in the suit.” Natasha says carefully. “He wouldn’t abide anyone else getting into it, not while he still breathed.”

“…and what if he isn’t?” Steve forces out past a tight throat. “What if he isn’t?” There’s silence in response to his question and he knows why. They can’t actually promise him that Tony’s okay. They can’t promise anything.

“He’s down in the labs right?” Clint says eventually. “Why don’t we just go say hi?”

“FRIDAY says that my access to the labs has been revoked, and I think it’s safe to guess that all of yours has been too.” Steve mutters and Clint snorts.

“And that’s supposed to what? Stop me?” He asks with a grin. “Cap, if you want into the labs, I’ll get you into the labs.”

“Any of us will.” Wanda adds on. “If you are truly worried about Stark, he should answer you.”

“He doesn’t want to.” Steve says and she just looks at Steve.

“I don’t care.” She replies honestly, and there’s a general consensus between the other two that makes something in Steve lighten a bit. They’re prevented from either coming up with plans to break into the labs or anything else when Rhodes steps back into the room and takes back over the training session.

He retires to his room early, and his heart jumps into his throat when he sees the sketchbook resting on the edge of his bed. He goes over to it and there’s a bright yellow sticky note stuck to the front of it.

Here’s your sketchbook. Stay out of the labs – T.

A small laugh bubbles out of Steve’s throat as he looks at the note. That’s Tony’s handwriting, he’d recognize it anywhere. This has to mean he’s alive, he thinks as he clutches the note tightly.

It has to.

+++

The day Steve finally sees Iron Man on the field, he could almost weep. The small group of ‘supervillains’ who have decided to pool their strengths together are actually causing quite a bit of ruckus and apparently have also managed to kidnap the Mayor’s son.

The Avengers get called out and Steve almost freezes mid battle when he hears the telltale sound of the approaching repulsors. War Machine is off in Scotland helping out the European branch and that means that the only other person wearing a suit of armor that makes a sound like that has to be…

The red and gold armor drops out of the sky and lands on the ground in the signature knee down pose and Steve feels like the air has been knocked out of his lungs.

That’s Tony.

The way that the suit moves, shifts around and fires, covering all their blind spots like he used to is almost like a fingerprint.

That’s Tony.

The realization almost makes Steve’s knees go weak before he’s forced to defend himself again from one of the villains, and he can’t help but keep watching the armor out of the corner of his eye and taking in the aerial movements and fighting style that just screams that it’s being piloted by the genius behind its creation.

“Tony.” Steve says softly when the battle’s over and the police start to contain the scene. The man in the armor ignores him for a second, directing the officers to certain areas and coordinating with the lead officer in charge for a few minutes. Steve steps forward when the armor turns away from the man, stopping him from taking off. “Tony.” He repeats and the armor just stares at him with those glowing eyes. “It’s…it’s good to see you.” Steve offers up.

“Can’t say the same.” Tony retorts and Steve can’t stop the flinch that he gets in response to that. “Head back to the Compound. Your work here is done.” Tony commands before the repulsors light up again and the armor takes off to the sky.

The face plate never retracted to show him the brunet, but there’s still a lightness in Steve’s step when he returns to the Compound that hasn’t been there for a while.

“I saw Tony today.” Steve tells the others the moment he sees them at dinner. “It was him, I know it was.”

“See? Told you he was alive. Fucking bastard.” Clint snorts before he shovels some food into his mouth and Steve notices how Natasha’s face goes a little pensive and thoughtful.

“Nat?” Steve asks and she looks up at him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“You actually saw him?” She asks and Steve nods.

“Yeah, he was on the field today.”

“And you saw him? Not just the armor?” She presses and Steve frowns.

“Well…no? But it was Tony, there was no mistaking it.” Steve tells her and that lightness slowly starts to fade away with the way the female spy gets an unhappy look. “Nat? What is it?”

“Nothing. Or at least I’m not sure yet.” She says and Steve pulls out a chair to sit down next to her.

“What?” He repeats.

“Stark’s camp is…preparing for something, something big.” She says. “I’ve only heard whispers but…”

“But what?”

“…Stark’s stepping down from SI.” She tells him and her words are like a punch to the gut. “Stark’s ‘retiring’.”

“What? But…Tony eats, sleeps and breathes SI.” Steve says and the words are coming out quick and tight. “He’d never just quit.”

“I know.” Natasha agrees. “But you said you saw him.”

“…I only saw the armor.” He admits and the joy from that morning is gone. “…I only saw the armor.”

“So no actual proof that FRIDAY isn’t piloting the suit in place of Tony?” Nat says and Steve shakes his head.

“…No…I guess not.” Steve says and for the first time, everyone is quiet as they all look at the plates in front of them.

+++

Steve tracks down Rhodes the moment that he hears that the Colonel is back in the Compound. There’s a meeting later today and Steve just wants a chance to speak to the man before it. He knocks on the door to Rhodes’s office and he waits for a few moments before the man opens the door.

“Can I help you Rogers?” He asks and Steve nods.

“Yeah, I was just hoping that I might have a quick word with you about something.” Steve tells him and Steve’s a little confused when Rhodes shakes his head.

“I’m in a meeting. We’ll talk later.” Rhodes says and Steve looks up, goes to nod and leave before several things stick out to him.

-Rhodes is bodily blocking the door, keeping it closed and giving Steve the absolute minimal visual of the office.

-There’s a tightness in his body, like Steve is completely unwelcome right now.

-And there’s the look in his eye that speaks of a stubborn readiness to defend his position.

The whole thing adds up quickly in Steve’s mind.

“Is Tony in there with you?” He asks before he can think twice about it and Rhodes’s face is almost unreadable.

“I am in a private meeting Rogers. We will speak later.” The man repeats and Steve takes a small step forward. “Back off Rogers.”

“Is Tony in there with you?”

“No.” Rhodes replies and Steve’s mind screams ‘Liar!’ “Now go.”

“Please, I just want to talk to-”

“No.” Rhodes repeats before he leans back. “I’ll see you later Rogers.” He says in dismissal before he closes the door in Steve’s face. Steve stands there a few minutes, determined to be here when the two men have to leave. Tony and Rhodes are required for the meeting today, they’ll have to leave the office at some point, and Steve will just be waiting here when they do.

Rhodes exits about twenty minutes later and Steve stands up straighter, ready for Tony to emerge.

“What did you want to talk about Rogers?” Rhodes asks. “We can discuss it on the way to the meeting.” Steve nods and looks behind him, into the office and a frown crosses his face as he sees no one else in the room.

“I thought you were in a meeting?” Steve says and Rhodes nods.

“I was.”

“…oh.” Steve says as he looks back at the empty room again. “Telephone?”

“No.” Rhodes replies and Steve gives him a confused look. “They left out the other door if you’re waiting for them.”

“Who was it?”

“None of your business. Now you said that you had something to speak to me about.”

“I just wanted to talk about Tony.”

“No.” Rhodes replies firmly. “You and I don’t talk about him. If you need to discuss Iron Man then I’m here, but you don’t get to talk to me about him.

“I’m just worried.”

“Maybe you should have been more worried before.” Rhodes tells him. “But we’re not talking about this.”

The two of them enter the conference room and there are dozens of new faces that Steve doesn’t recognize sitting all around the table and in the various chairs littered around the room. Clint, Natasha and Wanda have saved him a seat over by them and he goes over there gratefully before he sits down.

“Okay, it looks like everyone is here. Let’s get this meeting started.”

“Shouldn’t Tony be here?” Natasha asks, and Rhodes shakes his head. “I thought that this meeting was mandatory.”

“It is, but Tony is in route to Europe right now to assist Vision.” Rhodes says easily. “He won’t be present for this meeting.”

“How convenient.” Clint mutters and Wanda snorts along with him.

Chapter Text

When the news finally hits the stands, everything devolves into chaos.

It’s the End of an Era! The news proclaims following Pepper Pott’s and Stark Industries press conference. The various outlets voice their concerns about Tony Stark stepping down from SI and leaving behind a legacy that will possibly never be matched.

The result from the general public however is a lot more concerned with the implications in regards to the returned Avengers members and the brunet’s declining health. The rallying cries of ‘Justice for Tony Stark’ start back up almost instantaneously and Steve can’t say that he blames them.

“You must know how this looks Ms. Potts.” The reporter on the television screen asks and Pepper just stands there at the podium looking as unflappable as ever. She reminds Steve of Peggy, a look in her eyes that makes him think that if there was ever a human embodiment of ‘planting yourself like a tree’ it would be her. “Over the last few months there has been no verified sighting of Mr. Stark, and now Mr. Stark has chosen to step down out of the sight of the public as well. You can imagine that this ‘retirement’ is bringing up some concerns about Mr. Stark’s wellbeing. Something that Stark Industries and yourself have been exceedingly vague about.”

“Despite the rumors,” Pepper states, flowing easily into an answer without a single glance down at any cards or cues. “There have been several verified witness accounts of – what I’m guessing you mean ‘proof of life’ – for Mr. Stark.” She looks at the reporter in the crowd. “I understand that these rumors and these ‘concerns’ are stemming from a place of legitimate concern and Mr. Stark has expressed to me that he is very humbled by the response that has arisen since his return.”

“Stark humble? Not likely.” Wanda mutters, slowly dragging the black polish over her nail.

“Have there been verified witness accounts?” Steve asks, turning slightly to Natasha and the spy shrugs.

“Doctors mostly.” She answers him and Clint shakes his head.

“Not that they couldn’t have been bought off.” He says and Steve frowns.

“Why would they do that?” He asks and Natasha glances at Pepper on the screen.

“Tony’s death is practically a death sentence for Stark Industries. I can think of billions of reasons why Potts and the others would keep Stark’s death a secret.” She says and Steve feels that pit in the bottom of his stomach again.

“He’s my friend.”

“So was I.”

The memory feels like a thousand knives under his skin, each of them stabbing him with the guilt of realizing what he did, of realizing how he incapacitated a man who had been his friend (although had Steve ever really been Tony’s friend? It was hard to look back at the memories that were now tinted with regret and see all the times that he could have been better. ) and left him there to die. Steve hadn’t even looked back, hadn’t even considered Tony’s health or really anything about Tony when he walked away. He’d won, what else was there to think about other than Bucky and getting Bucky to safety?

“I will say this once and for all, Mr. Stark did not perish in Siberia although it was a very close call. The injuries that he sustained during that fight though have taken a severe toll on his already deteriorating health and Mr. Stark has decided that the remainder of his time is best utilized in mentoring his replacement and getting SI ready for the next generation.” Pepper’s answer doesn’t ease anyone’s concern, not the press and certainly not Steve’s.

“Mr. Stark is mentoring a replacement?” The media picks up on that dangling carrot and Pepper nods.

“He has been mentoring this individual for some time now.” She answers.

“Who is it?” One reporter asks while another asks over them “Who could replace Tony Stark?”

No one. Steve’s mind supplies. No one could replace Tony.

It’s the next question that really hits it home.

“What about Iron Man?”

“I have no comment on that at this time.” Pepper replies easily to all of their questions and Steve barely pays attention to the rest of the press conference where Pepper fields inquiries about the future of SI and how Tony has more than set them up to succeed in his absence.

“Alright, I’m getting pretty sick and fucking tired of this.” Clint snaps. “I say we storm the castle and see Stark with our own eyes.” He looks at them. “Then we can kick his ass for playing around with us like this.”

“We’re still in probation.” Natasha warns him. “Rhodes is just looking for a reason to get rid of us and T’Challa will not come to our defense a second time. Like it or not, our hands are tied.”

+++

Steve can’t help but stare at the Iron Man armor the next time they go into battle together. He takes in every movement and every action to try and determine if that’s actually Tony in the suit or if that’s FRIDAY or some new ‘mentored’ individual.

He can’t tell.

He can’t tell and it’s driving him insane.

+++

“We should go out. Get some pizza or something.” Natasha says, looping her arm in Steve’s before practically dragging him out the front door.

“Are we allowed to leave the Compound?” Steve asks and Nat nods.

“I got permission from Rhodes. We’re in the clear.” She answers and Clint joins them outside.

“He probably just wants us out of the building.” Clint says. “Works for me.”

“Where’s Wanda?” Steve asks as he looks around for the girl and the other two shake their heads.

“She didn’t get permission to leave. Too volatile and too likely to cause a scene.” Clint snaps with a roll of his eyes. “What the fuck ever.”

Steve doesn’t say anything as the two ex-SHIELD agents drag him over to some small pizza establishment. It’s not the best and Steve’s almost disappointed at the sad state of the New York slice of pizza on his plate.

“So what’s this really about?” Steve asks as he picks at the toppings and Natasha sighs.

“I’ve got bad news.”

“Do we ever get any other kind these days?” Steve can’t help but mutter dejectedly and she puts a hand over his in solidarity or comfort. He gives her a fake smile but he nods for her to continue. “What is it?”

“You know the ‘verified’ reports?” Natasha says and Steve nods. “I had Sharon look into it as a favor to you.”

“And what she find?” Steve can’t help but ask even though Natasha’s earlier warning of ‘bad news’ echoes in his ears.

“It’s false.” Natasha says. “The people, the medical staff and everything never really saw Tony, they were just assistants to the doctors who did. However they all signed NDA’s that forbid them to disclose that information.”

“How did Sharon find that out?”

“I don’t ask the methods and you shouldn’t either.” Natasha warns him. “Just know that she’s been able to verify that each of these so called ‘eye witness reports’ are fabricated. No one actually saw Tony after the initial surgery.”

“So they can verify that he was ‘alive’ quote on quote when they wheeled him into the hospital, but they can’t verify that he survived the E.R. or what happened after that.” Clint fills in.

“So the last time anyone actually saw Tony was when they pulled him into the E.R?” Steve asks and the other two nod.

“There is one person who could answer us, if we could get a hold of them.” Natasha says and Steve nods.

“Who?”

“Apparently the Doctor on call – Helen Cho.”

“Helen? That’s good news right?” Steve says and Natasha shrugs.

“Don’t know, but she’s the only one who has been on file stating that she’s treated Tony several times since Siberia and it’s on her word that most of the sharks have dropped it.”

“So if we can talk to Helen, she can tell us what’s going on with Tony.” Steve clarifies and Natasha gets a complicated look.

“The only problem is that she’s undoubtedly signed certain paperwork too and we’re not exactly on the good list when it comes to Stark’s camp. I doubt she’d tell us anything.”

“Then what?” Steve asks and she shrugs.

“We need to get in contact with Thor. Thor could get Cho to talk if he wanted to.”

“And Thor would probably call this bullshit Tony’s pulling as ‘not honorable amongst warrior brethren’ or some other such crap.” Clint adds.

“But how are we supposed to get a hold of Thor?”

“Jane.” Natasha replies. “We get Jane to get him to contact us.”

“It’s worth a shot I guess.” Steve says slowly and he gets two nods.

“Leave it to us Captain. We’ll get this handled.”

+++

There’s a little bit of surprise that winds through Steve when he sees the attending physician on hand for his physical. He’d been worried when Rhodes had said that they would be checking him over like before with SHIELD and he was about to complain or dig his feet in if he had to if it seemed like anything fishy was going on.

“I just don’t think it’s a good idea. My blood is dangerous.” Steve told Rhodes, crossing his arms and Rhodes just looks up at him with a sigh.

“Rogers, there is so much data on your blood floating around out there that I’m not surprised that we don’t have more Winter Soldier cores stomping around out there.”

“What do you mean?”

“SHIELD was Hydra remember? And you were ‘checked up on’ by them multiple times. Not to mention the data that was left over from your blood draws shortly after the experiment when Phillips was trying to recreate what had passed on with Erskine.”

“Hello again Doctor Banner.” Steve greets with an easy smile and the other man doesn’t fully return it as he pats the examination table for Steve to get up on. “I didn’t know that you’d returned?” Steve says after a brief moment of silence as Bruce starts taking down notes and poking at him.

“I’ve been back for a few weeks now.” Bruce replies. “But not in any field capacity so I’m not surprised that you didn’t know.”

“Why aren’t you on the field?” Steve asks as Bruce pulls on some gloves and takes his arm, swiping a spot with an alcohol swab.

“I’ve asked not to be.” Bruce replies as he takes the small vial of blood. “I signed onto the Avengers Initiative as myself mostly, and as the other guy only in moments of extreme, extreme need.”

“And they agreed to that?” Steve asks and he can’t help the surprise in his tone and it causes Bruce to look him in the eyes for the first time since he walked in.

“Why wouldn’t they?” He asks, sounding confused and Steve shrugs slightly, unsure how to voice his concern.

“I guess I just assumed that Ross would want…the big guy. I mean, you said he’s been pretty obsessed with him for years. I didn’t think he’d let you…do you I guess.” Steve says carefully and the confused look doesn’t leave Bruce’s face.

“What makes you think that Ross had any say in how the Avengers were run, even during his tenure?” Bruce asks him and Steve just gives a helpless sort of shrug.

“Since he helped write the Accords and seemed pretty determined to get us under his thumb with them.”

“The Accords are a series of laws regulating superhero teams and the manner by which they conduct themselves.” Bruce tells him. “They have no control over those of us who would rather stay on the sidelines and despite popular opinion they were not written up by one or even ten individuals. Ross had no power past the power he tried to make you believe he had. Once the Accords were signed, he actually had less authority over the Avengers.”

“Then why was he pushing for them?”

“I guess he knew that they’d fall apart if he could make the Avengers fall apart in response to them.” Bruce replies and it sounds like an accusation even though it’s calmly said. “Luckily for all of us, Tony somehow managed to stay afloat during all of that and to turn the tide back in our favor.”

“…Have you seen him?” Steve asks gently. “Tony I mean…have you seen him recently?” There’s a heavy pause between the two of them.

“…I will run your tests and destroy the samples as is proper protocol and procedure. I’ll get back to you the moment that we have the green light.” Bruce says, turning away from Steve and Steve can’t help but notice the slight tenseness in the doctor’s body as he leaves.

Why will no one answer him? He just needs to know.

 

 

Chapter Text

They find themselves in Rhodes’s office two days later, at the end of their ropes. Clint shoves open the doors and Rhodes just glances up from his paperwork with a completely unimpressed look on his face.

“I didn’t realize we had a meeting scheduled.” The Colonel says and his tone is mild in a way that just feels like he’s mocking them in some way. Steve has to admit to himself that it irritates him. They used to be a team, hell they used to be practically a family and now it felt like they were the unwanted step-children in a Grimm’s fairytale. Like Cinderella amongst her stepmother and sisters, always belittled and never allowed to be part of the family dynamic.

“Cut the crap Rhodes.” Clint says with a snarl as he slams his hands down on the desk and Rhodes looks mildly inconvenienced as he readjusts the papers that Clint’s unsettled. “We’re fucking finished with this bullshit.”

“The only thing that you are finished with Mr. Barton is this display.” Rhodes says calmly. “You will conduct yourself in a manner befitting the Avengers Initiative or I will be contacting the Accords Council to inform them of your breach of protocol in regards to your probations.”

“We just want to talk Rhodes.” Natasha interjects and Rhodes nods.

“Then talk like adults and not like a four year old throwing a temper tantrum.” Rhodes fires back and Natasha puts a hand on Clint’s arm to pull him back. “Now I have ten minutes, how may I help you?”

“You can start by giving us a clear fucking answer.” Clint snaps and Rhodes looks at him curiously.

“You haven’t asked a question yet Mr. Barton, how am I supposed to give you an answer?” Rhodes replies and Steve has to step in quickly when Clint looks like he’s about to give Rhodes a piece of his mind and let Rhodes get him in trouble.

“Tony.” Steve says once he calms Clint down. “We’re here about Tony.”

“I know that I have already told you this before Mr. Rogers, but I will repeat myself only this once. If you wish to discuss a member of the Avengers with me because you feel that they have behaved improperly in the field or within the purview of the Initiative, please feel free to come knock on my door or set up an appointment and I will gladly sit down with you and handle your concerns.” Rhodes interlaces his fingers on the desk and looks up at them with a look that reminds Steve that this man has singlehandedly been the liaison between Stark Industries and the US Government for over a decade. “However, personal inquiries into the lives of any of the Avengers outside of their Avengers persona will not be permitted. Is that clear?”

“We just want to know that he’s okay.” Steve pleads. “No one will give us a straight answer.”

“Have you not been watching the news?” Rhodes says and Steve gives him a look as Natasha steps forward.

“No one has seen Tony in months. Now he’s retiring from SI out of the public spotlight? Tony would never pass up a chance to be in front of the cameras, and you know it.” Natasha says and Rhodes gives her a neutral look for a few moments like he’s seriously considering his reply to her statement.

“Interesting, and SHIELD put you in charge of ‘personality profiles’?” Rhodes says eventually. “Liking something and being good at something are two completely different things Ms. Romanoff, as is knowing how to play the game and wanting to play it. I recommend that you keep that in mind.”

“Where is Tony?” Clint snaps finally. “Where are you keeping him? Why isn’t he here?”

“Mr. Stark’s whereabouts are none of your concern.” Rhodes replies. “And his decision to retire from SI, or how he chooses to go about it, are none of your concern either.”

“We’re just worried about him.” Steve presses. “Please, we’re his friends and we’re worried.” Rhodes pauses again, but this time his face has a look like Steve has said something that physically pains him not to respond to. The Colonel takes a second before he reaches for a drawer and opens it, pulling out several forms of some kind and starting to fill it out the one on top.

“What is that?” Steve asks, holding onto hope that maybe it’s an approval or something to go down into the labs just this once to catch a brief glimpse of the illusive billionaire.

“I’m mandating therapy for you all.” Rhodes says, signing at the bottom of the page.

“What? You can’t do that.” Wanda snaps and Rhodes just holds out the slip of paper to Steve and Steve takes it slowly before Rhodes starts to work on the next one.

“I can and I am. I’ve become concerned that you are all fixating unhealthily on the past and on Tony himself. Worse, you’re fixating on it in a way that it never existed and I’m worried. The Accords probation allows for me as Team Leader to require mandatory sessions with an Accords approved therapist. You will all be seeing one, it is non-negotiable if you wish to remain on the field.” Rhodes says before he holds out the next one for Clint who snatches it out of his hand in anger. “As for your question about Mr. Stark, you can watch the news like everyone else. If he doesn’t want to reach out and talk to you, he is not required to.”

“Is it really so much of a fucking hardship to answer a fucking phone or just show up to say hi just once? Don’t you think he owes us that much?” Clint snaps and Rhodes holds out the next page to Natasha.

“Mr. Stark does not owe you anything nor is he obligated to do anything in regards to you despite what you seem to think.” Rhodes replies. “Do keep that in mind, and remember to knock next time or I will be on the phone with your probation officers. Good day.”

+++

“Will Mr. Stark be handing over the Iron Man armor to a new pilot?” The reporters ask as cameras flash in Pepper’s face and the woman merely keeps walking, the horde held at bay by Happy as he guides her to the car.

“Has it even been Mr. Stark in the armor all this time? Has it been someone else?” “Ms. Potts! This new protégé of Mr. Stark’s, will they be stepping into his role in the Avengers Initiative?” “Is Mr. Stark dying? Is that why there’s so much secrecy surrounding his departure from Stark Industries?” – “Ms. Potts!” – “Ms. Potts!”

Steve turns off the television, submerging the room into darkness and lets the weight of the world settle down on his shoulders again.

+++

“I just wish that I could see him, apologize to him.” Steve says, looking at his hands as the therapist glances at him from where he’s sitting. “I don’t understand why Rhodes and everyone is being like this. If he’s okay then isn’t it better to just come out and say it? Why won’t they just say it?”

“I believe they have, multiple times if Ms. Pott’s interviews are anything to go by.” The man replies and Steve shakes his head.

“It’s not the same, it’s not…good enough.” Steve tries to explain. “I just need to see him.”

“…Mr. Rogers, have you considered what Mr. Stark might need?” The man questions. “Perhaps this is more about Mr. Stark’s own journey towards healing than it is about just keeping secrets from you because they can.”

“How is he supposed to heal if he won’t talk to me?” Steve asks, feeling slightly frustrated. “How are either of us supposed to heal?” The man makes a few more notes and Steve inwardly pulls out his hair until he’s able to leave the room and he sees his team minus the brunet sitting in the waiting room.

“Well?” Natasha asks and Steve shakes his head.

“He’s not the one for me.” Steve replies. “I’ll put in an ask for a new therapist.”

“This is all just a big ass waste of time if you ask me.” Clint mutters, stretching before he stands up. “But whatever, let them pat themselves on the back for being grade A douchebags. I say we ignore them and go get some pizza.”

“Sounds great.” Steve says with a small smile.

+++

“I’m sorry Tony, he’s my friend.” Steve tells the other and Tony looks at him, opening his mouth to speak and blood trickles out of it.

“So was I.”

The nightmare doesn’t end there no matter how much Steve wishes it did. It doesn’t end till Steve’s holding Tony’s bleeding heart in his hands and begging him to forgive him.

+++

He’s walking past the training rooms when he sees them, Tony and Rhodes doing some testing. Well, not Tony, but the Iron Man armor. Steve can’t help how his feet seem to freeze in place as he watches the two of them. It’s a new model, the armor that they’re putting through the numbers and Steve wonders what made Tony choose to go with a silver and red design over the gold and red of the past.

There’s a moment where a target gets thrown out and the suit aims and barely manages to knick it, and Steve’s already heading down there before he can think of all the reasons why that’s a bad idea.

“I’m overcompensating.” The armor says. “It’s hard not to.”

“Yeah, you’ll get used to it.” Rhodes replies as he turns back to the tablet in his hands and hits the screen, sending another target flying. The suit takes aim again and once again barely manages to tag the side of it. “That was better.”

“The recoil was less on that one too.” The armor replies.

“Good.”

“Is everything okay?” Steve asks, announcing his arrival into the conversation as gently as he can and both men turn to him. Rhodes looks unimpressed at his arrival and the armor seems to be giving him a sense that if he could see Tony inside of it, the billionaire would have an annoyed look on his face.

“Just running the suit through a few simulations Mr. Rogers.” Rhodes says. “Nothing to be concerned about.”

“Is there something off with the suits targeting system?” Steve presses, desperate to stay in the conversation and the armor shakes its head.

“It’s perfect, don’t worry about it.” The modulated voice says and it doesn’t sound like what Tony usually has them sound like. It sounds off and it makes the hairs on the back of Steve’s neck rise.

“Tony?” Steve asks and he already knows the answer to his question before the armor turns back to look at him with an almost sarcastic turn of its head.

“I would ask, ‘do I look like Tony’? But I guess you can’t really see me. Although I’m pretty sure that it’s obvious that I’m you know, not Tony.” The armor says and Steve feels like those words have reached into his chest and squeezed the air out of his lungs.

“Steve, Stark’s in the suit.” The memory of Natasha’s words rush back at him. “He wouldn’t abide anyone else getting into it, not while he still breathed.”

All at once, Steve’s remembering Tony – lying there under him with wide eyes as he makes the conscious choice not to take the shot that Steve is so clearly giving to him…why didn’t Steve stop? Tony had stopped, he’d made the choice not to continue…why hadn’t he done the same?

“You don’t deserve that shield.” Tony’s final words to Steve had been both true and full of anger. Steve didn’t deserve it, what had Steve actually done to deserve it? “You’re a laboratory experiment Rogers, everything special about you came out of a bottle.”

“Rogers? Rogers!” Rhodes’s call of his name has Steve snapping out of the horror that’s gripped him and the realization of what he’s done. Rhodes is closer to him than Steve could have sworn he was just a second ago and he’s got a look on his face like he’s concerned. “Are you alright?”

“What? Yeah I’m…” I’m a murderer. Steve thinks. “I’m fine.” He lies and it’s a poor lie but he tries anyways.

“Are you sure? You look…unwell.” Rhodes ventures gently and Steve thinks that the other man might be on to something because Steve feels like he might throw up. “I told him to go as a friend because I thought he’d be meeting one.” Sam’s words dig at him while “So was I” echoes in his mind. “Rogers?”

“…so he’s…gone?” Steve whispers and he’s trying to keep it together but he feels like he’s rapidly unravelling at the seams. “…Tony’s gone?”

“What are you talking about Rogers?” Rhodes asks carefully and Steve motions to the armor.

“Someone else besides you is in the armor.” Steve answers him like it explains everything, and it does. “He’d never allow that if he were still…if he were still…” Steve’s voice cuts off and Rhodes sighs as the armor takes a step forward and it opens up to reveal a young man with a mop of messy brown hair. He doesn’t register to Steve as anyone he’s ever met before and he secretly balks against the idea of someone so young taking over the prolific career of Iron Man.

“I’m not Iron Man.” The kid says, crossing his arms and looking at Steve like he’s an annoying sort of pest. “This is the Rescue model and I may not be Rhodes or Pepper, but Tony coded the armors to respond to me years ago. So I mean, if I wanted to be Iron Man, I could be.”

“Harley’s right.” Rhodes agrees and Steve remembers the name of the young boy that Tony kept in touch with after the Mandarin fiasco. Clint had joked that the kid was actually Tony’s kid with how involved in his life the billionaire became. “Harley’s just helping me run through the final production schematics before we give this model the green light. He’ll be using it in the field soon enough so you’ll be seeing more of him.”

“Harley…Kramer?” Steve tries to remember and the boy snorts.

“Keener.” He replies. “You know, one of Tony Stark’s actual friends?”

“Harley.” Rhodes admonishes gently. “Go take the suit back downstairs with the new numbers. Have FRIDAY start working on it.” He waves off the kid. “Go, I’ve got this.” The boy nods with a sigh before he steps back into the suit and walks off with it.

“Rescue?” Steve asks and Rhodes nods once he’s gone.

“Yeah, Rescue. Iron Lad just sounded ridiculous.” He says before he takes a step closer. “Are you sure you’re alright? Because I’m a little afraid that you’re going to fall over.”

“...Is…” Steve starts and he considers the wisdom of asking this question again when Rhodes has already made his stance on it clear. “…is he dead?” He asks and he reaches out and grabs Rhodes’s arm when the Colonel gets a slightly annoyed look and goes to step back. “Please…just…please.” He begs. “Did I…Did I?”

“…What do you want me to say Rogers?” Rhodes says after a moment. “What do you really want me to say?”

“…the truth…please…just tell me.” Steve asks and Rhodes growls to himself before he reaches up and taps his ear.

“Are you seeing this?” He asks to the unknown third party and Steve wonders if he’s called Pepper. “What do you want me to do?” There’s a pause. “Are you sure?...Okay.” Rhodes turns back to him and for the first time since he’s returned Steve can practically taste the answers that he needs.

“Did I…is he…?” He asks again and Rhodes frowns.

“Do you really want to know?” He asks and Steve nods almost frantically. “Why? Why do you need me to remind you of what you did? Will it change what happened somehow? Will it change how you left him, broken and alone in a Hydra base as you flounced off with your old war buddy? Will it change how long it took Vision and FRIDAY to find him? Will it change how long he lay in the dark – alone and hurt?” There’s rage in Rhodes’s voice. “You know what you did Rogers, you don’t really need me to tell you.”

“…I killed him…I killed Tony.” Steve says and it’s a horrified sort of whisper. Of course he did, he beat him down, slammed the shield into his chest and left him lying on the floor in a powerless metal suit in freezing temperatures. Rhodes is right…what else does Steve think happened?

“Yes.” Rhodes states with a heavy kind of finality and Steve is glad that he’s locked his knees because he’d have fallen over at the admission of what Steve’s done. “…but so have a lot of other people.” Rhodes continues. 

“What?” Steve asks and he stares at Rhodes with a feeling like hope starting to rush through him.

“I’ll never forgive you for what you did to him – my best friend…my brother.” Rhodes growls. “And I would have gladly let you keep wandering around the halls like a lost puppy but clearly he’s a better person then you deserve. So yes, Tony’s alive. I give you my word that he’s alive.”

“He is?”

“You’ve seen him in theory. He was out in the field with you those last few times.”

“He’s alive?” Steve feels the need to repeat and Rhodes nods.

“Yes.”

“I didn’t…I didn’t kill him?”

“No, you did Rogers.” Rhodes cuts him off. “He died. He fucking died and while you were mooching off of the king in five star accommodations, I had to be the one standing there while the doctors had to work overtime to drag him back to us kicking and screaming over and over again. I had to hold Pepper and watch as Happy cried as we kept seeing that damned monitor flat line time after time. Each time wondering if this was the one where they wouldn’t be able to bring him back to us.” Rhodes looks at him and firmly pulls his arm out of Steve’s grasp. “You did that. It doesn’t matter that he came back, you still did that.”

“I’m…I’m sorry.”

“No you’re not.” Rhodes says like he’s just saying the weather. “But he’s alive and he’s coping with what that means. He’s trying to deal with everything that happens next and he doesn’t need you or your lot causing him any stress. So this is his kindness to you I guess, he stepped in and said that you should know. He’s alive, go pat yourself on the back for not killing the man that you stabbed in his.” Steve cringes at those words and he nods, taking a small step back and heading towards the entrance. He pauses at the door and just feels the need to ask.

“But he’s okay now?” He asks and Rhodes just lifts the tablet and starts typing on it.

“…He’s alive Rogers, that’s all you’ll get from me.” Rhodes replies. “Now go lie down or something, you look like you need it.”

 

Chapter Text

Steve tells the others what Rhodes told him the moment they sit down for dinner in the remodeled kitchens.

“It’s still bullshit.” Clint says, flicking a pickle off of his hamburger and managing to land it in the trash.

“It’s good news.” Steve argues against him. “Tony’s alive, Rhodes swore it.” He doesn’t need to say how he trusts the man and his word, it doesn’t seem like something that needs to be done, and with the way everyone else seems to be taking it for face value, Steve figures it really doesn’t. Tony’s alive, Rhodes assured him of it. So wherever Tony is right now, Steve knows that he didn’t extinguish that flame with his own hands – even if the guilt is still slow to fall away.

“Stark’s alive, yay.” Wanda mutters softly and with a healthy amount of sarcasm. “And here I was just starting to get used to the idea of being free from him.” She continues on angrily, stabbing at a puddle of ketchup on her plate with a fry before munching on it.

“It still doesn’t explain whatever their end goal plan is.” Natasha says, reaching over and stealing one of Clint’s fries. “If Tony’s really alive and well then why hasn’t he revealed himself? If he’s well enough to have been in the armor for those fights then why is he retiring from Stark Industries on the down low? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Rhodes said something about how he was trying to figure out his life.” Steve says, munching a bit and thinking about it. He gets where Natasha’s coming from, Rhodes’s word is good but actually seeing Tony would be better. “Maybe all of this put some things into perspective for him and he’s reorganizing?”

“More like having a mid-life crisis.” Clint snorts. “Vain, peacocking jackass.”

“Stark mentioned a protégé.” Wanda adds in, clearly wanting to talk about this unknown third party than the billionaire himself. “Who do you think it is?”

“Well, I saw that boy – Harley Keener, practicing in the new armor.” Steve says. “He’s still a little young though, and he’s not going out under the name Iron Man.” Natasha hums thoughtfully.

“It would make sense for Keener to be Tony’s replacement. The two of them are a pretty tight knit group and it’s been pretty obvious to those paying attention that Tony would leave his ‘legacy’ to Keener. Especially since he doesn’t have any kids of his own.”

“Which is a fucking miracle that I’m still curious how Stane pulled off.” Clint snorts. “Could you imagine how obnoxious it must have been for Stane? Trying to keep track of your meal ticket when said ticket is a partying, millionaire druggie who anyone and their cousin could call up for a good time? Hell, I think after a few years of that I’d try to kill the guy too.”

“That’s in the past though.” Steve says uncomfortably. He knows what Clint’s talking about, Tony’s SHIELD file spelled it out quite clearly. “He hasn’t been like that for a while now.”

“Once a habit always a habit.” Clint says with firm assurance. “You think Stark stopped because he wanted to Steve? No, he got the ARC reactor and physically couldn’t anymore. Can’t imagine what Potts saw in the guy, I mean besides dollar signs.” Their conversation is cut off by the arrival of a new third party and they all pause to look at the woman standing in the doorway. She glances around at them before her eyes land on Clint and she comes forward. She’s not a face that Steve recognizes, she’s pretty with her long black hair and slim physique but the look on her face makes Steve think that she’s having a bad day.

“Clint Barton?” She asks, almost like for verification and Clint looks her up and down.

“What’s it to you?” He asks and she pulls out a letter before handing it to him.

“You’ve been served.” She says as she takes out her phone and snaps a photo of Clint with it.

“Served?” Natasha asks, leaning forward over Clint’s should as he opens it and Steve wonders how some random court worker managed to get inside the Avengers Compound.

“What the hell is the meaning of this?” Clint snarls, standing up and the woman doesn’t even look mildly concerned in the face of a man’s rage, and Steve stands up anyways to intervene just in case. “Who put you up to this? Stark?”

“Do I look like I get paid what Stark pays his employees?” She asks, sounding bored. “I did what I came here to do. I’m out.” She turns away from them, but instead of walking back out the doorway, she heads over to the fridge and opens it. She makes a small sound of disgust at what she sees in there before she grabs a can of soda and makes to leave.

“Excuse me Miss.?” Steve says. “That isn’t yours.”

“And whose is it?”

“It’s for the Avengers.” Steve replies and she looks him straight in the eye, unblinking as she holds up the can and pops the top, taking a long drink. Steve frowns and goes to say something in reply to that little display of childishness when Vision enters the area and Wanda practically jumps to her feet. It’s the first time that they’ve seen the android since they’ve returned and Steve feels a knot of worry ease at the sight of him.

“Ah, Miss Jones, pleasure to see you again. I didn’t know that you were stopping by today?” Vision says, ignoring them completely as he goes over to the cabinets and starts pulling out several coffee mugs.

“Here on business.” She says with a motion towards Clint. “I’m heading back out though. Stay out of trouble, or don’t.” She starts towards the door, waving goodbye to Vision before throwing a middle finger over her shoulder at them.

“Who was that?” Steve asks, trying to contain the irritation at the woman’s crude behavior.

“Miss Jones.” Vision replies. “A member of the Defenders Team. You probably won’t work much with them out in the field.”

“That’s a fucking relief.” Clint mutters as he sits back down in his chair with a haunted kind of look in his eyes as he rereads whatever is in the letter in his hands.

“Is everything alright?” Steve asks and Natasha shakes her head.

“They’re divorce papers.” She replies gently and Steve feels like the ground beneath him has shifted.

“Laura wouldn’t do that.” He argues and Clint motions angrily to the papers.

“Looks like she did.”

“No, it has to have more to it than that.” Steve presses as Wanda moves away from them to go over to where Vision has started filling the mugs with coffee and placing them on a tray.

“Viz?”

“Vision if you please.” Vision corrects her without even looking at her and Wanda flinches like she’s been struck. “Or I guess The Vision if you feel like adding the article on. I don’t require it, but I will not respond to any other variation of my name from any of you.”

“Vision…what’s wrong?” Wanda asks and there’s a wobble to her voice, and Steve doesn’t need to be able to see her face to know that her eyes must be watering at the cold shoulder that her boyfriend is giving her. Sure, Steve knows that things might not have been left on good terms, but it was obvious that Vision and Wanda were meant to be together, so none of this was making any sense.

“Nothing is wrong Miss Maximoff, or would you prefer that I refer to you as the Scarlet Witch?”

“I’d prefer that you call me Wanda, like you always do.” She says and Vision shakes his head.

“I am no longer comfortable with such a casual reference between us. I may have been at one point, but no longer.”

“What? Why?”

“That are many reasons Miss, your extreme physical assault on myself included in them.”

“I had to do that.” She argues, stepping forward. “Stark was holding me hostage Viz, what else was I supposed to do?”

“…Now I know that I just said that I would not reply to that nickname coming from you, but I will ignore that for this once in order to address something far more pressing.” The android says before turning to finally look at her. His face is solemn and unmoved by the tears on hers. “Mr. Stark did not hold you hostage. To be held hostage is to be used as a bargaining chip in some way – which you were not. What Mr. Stark did do was that he asked me to convince you to remain within the walls of the Compound where you would be out of sight and out of mind during an event that would have been best served if you had stayed indoors and not gone out and flout the exact reason why the general populace was afraid of you and those of us who are not like them.” Vision turns away again and finishes arranging the cups on the tray, and Steve notices a certain mug amidst them.

“Are you taking that downstairs?” Steve asks and Vision nods.

“I was asked to do a brief coffee run.” The android replies before grabbing a fresh container of unbrewed coffee mix and sliding it under his arm. “They have apparently run out in the labs and as you can imagine, anarchy is quickly descending.”

“…Tony’s downstairs?” Steve asks and Vision tilts his head a little before Steve points to the mug. “That’s one of Tony’s cups, one of the ones that he doesn’t allow others to use.”

“Is it now?” Vision states before picking up the tray and moving past them. Steve quickly turns and follows him.

“Can I see him real quick? I mean, Rhodes already told me that he’s fine, there’s no reason to stay away now.”

“You are not permitted down into the labs regardless of who may or may not be down there.” Vision replies and Steve frowns.

“I’d only be a few minutes. He’s just downstairs, I’m sure if you asked they’d let me-”

“Mr. Rogers, have you forgotten that I was the one who went to Siberia after you left to go collect him?” Vision asks and his voice is as cold as the temperature in that place was “Knowing that I was, why would you ever think that I would agree to speak on your behalf to go see him?”

“It wasn’t like that Vision. It wasn’t, I promise. If I could just have a second to explain-”

“I am not interested in your explanations, and while I do not speak for Mr. Stark, I think I can safely assume that he is not either.” Vision cuts him off, walking into the open elevator. “Have a good day.” He says as the doors close and leave Steve standing there.

+++

“I’m grateful that Rhodes told me that he’s alright, but this isn’t helping anything.” Steve says, with frustration curling through his words and the new therapist nods as they write something down.

“And what is it not helping?”

“We should be talking this out, not hiding behind locked doors.” Steve replies. “I get that Tony might have needed some time, but it’s been months and now it’s affecting everyone else.”

“Do you believe that Mr. Stark’s own healing schedule is somehow inconvenient to you?”

“But that’s just it. He’s not healing, he’s hiding. That’s not getting past this that’s burying your head in the sand. He’s already told me that he’s alright, why can’t he just take five minutes to just come say hi? And I know that it’s not because he’s busy or something because he always managed to find time for us before. It was one thing when I thought he was off at one of his penthouses or somewhere, but to know that he’s just right downstairs?”

“Do you believe that you are entitled to Mr. Stark’s time on your timetable?” The therapist asks and Steve just looks at them in frustration, falling silent.

“So? How was this one?” Natasha asks when he exits the room and Steve shakes his head again with a tired sigh.

“Still no good, I’ll have to ask for a new one again.” Steve says and he wonders how long before he finds an actually decent therapist, someone like Sam. Someone who listens to him like they’re supposed to. “Come on, let’s head out.”

+++

“Why would I want to speak to you?” Tony asks, holding up Bucky’s broken arm and looking up at Steve.

“I’m your friend Tony.”

“Are you?”

“I care about you.”

“Do you? Do you really?”

“Please…Please don’t do this.” Steve begs and dream Tony just smiles.

“But I’m not doing anything Steve. This is all you.” The crunch of Bucky’s skull under the suit’s boot makes him scream.

+++

“You look worse than Clint, and that’s saying something.” Natasha says as she takes a seat next to him on the couch and Steve just shrugs. “Still having nightmares?”

“Pretty much.” Steve answers. “What about you? Why are you up?”

“Old habits die hard.” She replies. “I would have thought that they’d go away, once you learned that he wasn’t dead.”

“Me too.” Steve admits. “But they’re still here.”

“Same ones?”

“Close enough.” Steve says and it’s mostly true. It doesn’t matter if the aggressor has changed in them, it’s still Siberia, it’s still hell. They fall into silence for a moment and Steve would call it companionable if he didn’t have this weight on his shoulders, if he didn’t feel like Tony’s blood was still dripping from his hands.

Steve jumps a little when there’s the sounds of people running down the hallway and he looks up over the back of the couch to see Rhodes and Bruce go barreling down towards the lab elevator.

“FRIDAY?” Rhodes calls and Steve strains to hear the female coded AI’s response.

‘Containment is holding, now at 62% and falling.’

“Shit.” Rhodes snarls and Steve jumps up, Natasha and him rushing over to intercept. “Not fucking now Rogers!” Rhodes snaps, pushing him to the side as he all but slides into the newly opened elevator. Steve reaches out quickly and holds the door.

“What’s happening? Is everything okay?” He asks and Rhodes glares at him.

“Let go of the doors Rogers. Now!”

“I can help!”

‘Containment has fallen to 30%, shall I deploy secondary countermeasures.’ FRIDAY says and there’s a level of urgency in its voice and Steve stumbles backwards when Rhodes just pulls his fist back and slams it into Steve’s face.

“Deploy countermeasure, and get Strange in here now!” Are the final words that Steve hears Rhodes say as the doors close and cut them off from whatever is happening. Natasha puts a hand on his arm to help him steady himself.

“What was that?” Steve asks and Natasha sends an unsure look at the doors.

“I don’t know.” She admits heavily. “I don’t know.”

 

Chapter Text

“A containment breach?” Clint says, a frown on his face. “What were they containing?”

“Well it wasn’t the Hulk.” Natasha answers him. “He was present with Rhodes in the hallway during the alert.”

“And Rhodes punched you?” Clint verifies and Steve nods.

“Yeah, but he’s already been written up for it.” Steve replies and Clint smirks slightly with an amused snort.

“Yeah, I’m sure they hate that getting turned against them.” He chuckles with a shake of his head. “Karma’s a bitch…but what the hell were they containing?”

“Some new problem that got out of Stark’s hands?” Wanda offers up and they all take a moment to consider the possibility.

“Or maybe…what they were containing was Tony himself.” Natasha says slowly, her face getting an ‘aha!’ look on it as she sits up straighter. “Maybe that’s why Rhodes reacted the way that he did. It was Tony that was breaking free of the containment field.”

“Tony? Why would they be restraining Tony?” Steve asks confused and Clint makes a low sound of agreement in his throat.

“That makes sense Nat. Fuck that makes a scary kind of sense.” He says and Steve and Wanda give each other looks before glancing back at the two ex-SHIELD agents.

“That’s all well and good that it makes sense to you guys…but do you think you might shed some light over here? We’re still in the dark here, what are you guys talking about?” Steve asks and Natasha turns to him

“Extremis.” She says with a kind of weight to her words.

“Extremis?”

“The AIM program, well the virus really. The one still coursing through Potts’ veins.” Natasha tells him. “It has amazing healing properties, it allows the body to repair itself, even to go as far as regrowing lost limbs.” Steve’s eyes go wide at the example. His mind thinks immediately of Bucky, on ice somewhere in Wakanda with a missing arm. “But it’s dangerous to the user. If it doesn’t integrate correctly then the host can literally go ‘boom’.” She says with a flick of her fingers to show the explosion. “Remember when Tony pissed off the Mandarin on national television?” She asks and Steve nods with a frown.

“Yeah?”

“That was the virus that they were trying to cover up by saying it was intentional bombings.”

“So Stark turned himself into a walking bomb?” Wanda asks and Natasha shrugs.

“It would make sense. It might also explain why he hasn’t been allowed outside of the suit. The suit probably has protocols to prevent him from overloading and exploding. Outside of it though, they might still be trying to stabilize it.”

“That might be why he’s playing hermit down in the labs.” Clint agrees. “Can’t take the risk that he fucks up and blows us all to hell.”

“Why wouldn’t Rhodes just say that Tony’s dealing with this Extremis virus?” Steve asks. “Why keep us in the dark?”

“Maybe because the Council doesn’t know.” Natasha replies. “Maybe they haven’t discussed it with the guys at the top that they’ve messed around with Tony’s DNA and how it’s all still volatile.”

“So they’re lying?” Steve says and Natasha shrugs.

“It’s just a theory at this point.”

“A pretty damn good theory that answers a lot of questions.” Clint adds onto her statement.

“How dangerous is it really?” Steve asks. “I mean, I doubt that Tony would have injected himself with something that he couldn’t control.”

“Or he thought he could control it and learned once again that he couldn’t.” Wanda mutters and Natasha sighs.

“Maybe they didn’t have a choice. Maybe the state that Tony was in when they retrieved him required it in order for him to even have a chance to survive.” She says. “It would also explain why Cho was involved.” Steve pauses to think about her words for a few moments.

“Is there anything we can do to help?” He asks and Natasha shakes her head.

“SHIELD didn’t really have any data on AIM or the Extremis virus, and Tony locked all of it down after Potts killed Killian.”

“They killed a man to cover it up?” Wanda asks angrily.

“No, self-defense. Killian attacked them first, they retaliated. It held up in court.” Natasha replies to her, but Wanda doesn’t look satisfied.

“Probably more like Stark didn’t want anyone else getting the formula and being able to use it for themselves.” Clint adds on and Steve frowns.

“I guess that makes sense? In order to keep others from turning people into walking bombs.” He says and Clint shakes his head.

“Yeah, but it also keeps people from perfecting it and using it to help others.” Clint tells him. “Plus, it has the added bonus that if Stark perfects it it’ll become a Stark property.”

“Isn’t that stealing?” Steve asks and Clint shrugs.

“Like father like son I guess.” He replies and Steve shakes his head immediately, shoulders going back.

“Don’t talk about Howard like that.” He snaps and Clint holds up his hands in appeasement. “I doubt it was that simple.”

“Whatever Cap.” Clint relents. “But if Stark’s fucking around with Extremis, then we need to know about it. Rhodes shouldn’t be hiding that from us. Sure, keep the Council in the dark but he shouldn’t be keeping his teammates in the dark alongside them.”

“I’ll talk to him about it.” Steve says after a brief pause. Clint’s right, its one thing to hide things from those outside the Avengers family, but it’s a whole different thing to hide important things from those inside of it. Didn’t Tony learn his lesson with Ultron?

+++

Rhodes is in a meeting when he first comes to discuss Tony’s predicament with him. He waits outside patiently and he waits for Rhodes to say goodbye to Vision before the Colonel opens the door and motions for Steve to enter.

“Mr. Rogers.” He says with a little bit of surprise. “Can I help you?”

“I was hoping that we could talk real quick.” Steve says and they both take seats at the desk before Rhodes motions for Steve to continue. “It’s about last night.”

“We’ve already discussed what happened.” Rhodes says, referencing the write ups that both of them got for their actions in the hallway and Steve shakes his head.

“I don’t mean about what happened between you and me.” Steve corrects. “I’m talking about Tony.”

“Tony? What does Tony have to do with last night?” Rhodes asks and Steve has to give the other man, he’s as good of a liar as Tony is, his face looks legitimately confused.

“The containment breach.” Steve leads him gently. “That was Tony, wasn’t it?”

“Why would you think that would be Tony?” Rhodes asks.

“Extremis.” Steve replies, jumping to the chase and he sees that the word hits some kind of chord in Rhodes by the way his face shuts down completely. “Tony used Extremis to heal from the fight, didn’t he?” Rhodes just stares him down.

“Extremis was touched on when Tony was brought back, yes.” He says carefully and Steve sighs.

“Look Rhodes, I understand that you’re angry with me-”

“Oh, I’m glad that you understand.” Rhodes mutters like he can’t help himself but it doesn’t derail Steve.

“And I get if you want to keep it quiet from the Council, but you don’t need to hide it from us.” Steve tells him. “We should know and we can help.”

“And how do you think you’d be able to help Rogers?” Rhodes asks, sounding slightly amused now. “Are you going to throw yourself over Tony’s body like he’s a grenade and hope for the best?”

“Wanda’s contained explosions before.” Steve reminds him and Rhodes shakes his head.

“Wanda barely contained an explosion and she let it out in such a way that there were quite a few civilian casualties.” Rhodes says carefully. “While I will admit that it would have been much worse if the explosion had happened down on the ground level, it doesn’t change the fact that the situation would not be considered a success or an example of her ability to control collateral damage.”

“She’s learning.” Steve replies in Wanda’s defense and Rhodes nods.

“Exactly, which means we wouldn’t rely on her abilities prior to her having full control over them. To do anything else would be irresponsible and dangerous.” Rhodes says. “But, let me stop this train of thought. The containment incident last night did not involve Tony.”

“Rhodes you don’t have to lie.” Steve starts and Rhodes holds up a hand to stop him.

“I’m not lying, the incident last night had nothing to do with Tony, he isn’t even in state nor was he last night either.” He looks Steve in the eyes. “You are also incorrect that the Council does not know about it. They are more than aware of the situation.”

“If it isn’t Tony, then what was it?” Steve asks and Rhodes shakes his head.

“That isn’t your concern Mr. Rogers.” He says and Steve crosses his arms.

“We’re Avengers too Rhodes, whether you like it or not and it’s our concern too.”

“Yes, you are Avengers.” Rhodes says and it almost sounds like he’s saying ‘bravo’ and mocking him. “But this mission has not been handed off to the team that you are currently on. As such, you are not privy to this information. It will be revealed when it is time.”

“We shouldn’t have secrets from each other.” Steve tells him firmly and Rhodes gives him a look.

“Funny, considering your own history with ‘secret keeping’.” Rhodes replies.

“That’s in the past, I’ve already apologized for it and we’ve all moved on.” Steve snaps and Rhodes shakes his head.

“You’ve acknowledged it. You’ve defended it. Under no circumstances have you apologized for it.” He responds.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You’re referring to your letter and that piece of junk you sent Tony, yes?” Rhodes asks patiently and Steve figures that he shouldn’t really be that surprised to hear that Tony shared that information with the Colonel. “That wasn’t an apology Rogers, and if you truly think it was then I highly recommend that you take a few minutes and go back to the drawing board to start over again.”

“I don’t think it’s any of your business what goes down between Tony and I.” Steve says with a frown. “Did Tony even see the letter?”

“…I wish I could say no, but yes he did.” Rhodes replies. “But I’ve told you before that we’re not going to discuss Tony’s personal life outside of the Avengers and that non-apology rests in that area.” He shrugs. “If you ever see Tony again you’ll have to ask him how he felt about it personally.”

“’If I ever see Tony again’, I’m going to be seeing him out on the field.” Steve argues and Rhodes sighs.

“Tony’s retiring Rogers, you know that.”

“From SI, not from Iron Man.”

“He’s stepping down from both.”

“What? Why!”

“He has his reasons. You’d have to ask him.”

“All of this because he doesn’t want to talk to us?” Steve asks, a little bit of frustrated rage in his tone. “That’s…that’s…that’s childish!”

“If he didn’t want to work with people who took advantage of his hospitality and generosity that would not be childish.” Rhodes says darkly. “If he didn’t want to work with people who lied to him and betrayed him and hurt him, that would not be childish either.” He takes a deep breath. “However, after being beaten and left to die, he’s in a place where choices have to be made and he’s made them. Those choices don’t concern you and I’m a hundred percent sure that none of you crossed his mind in the slightest as he made them and put them into effect.” Rhodes looks him in the eye at that point. “You overestimate your importance.”

The ending statement shakes Steve down to the core for some reason and he bucks back against it, but he doesn’t see a point in arguing with Rhodes about it. It’s clear that the man isn’t going to be honest with him in regards to the brunet.

“…About the containment.” Steve tries to get the conversation to come back around and Rhodes holds up a hand again.

“It’s an open mission between the Accords Council and the Avengers. A team was assigned and they are currently responsible for it.”

“If something goes wrong, we should know what we’re getting into.” Steve argues and Rhodes nods.

“I agree, that is why if something goes wrong there is already a secondary team on standby who have been filled in on the situation at hand. If for some reason things need to go past that, FRIDAY will alert the next team designation and fill them in on the specifics.” Rhodes says and Steve wants to argue with him, but he can see that it’s pointless.

“I guess I’ll let the others know to stop worrying about Tony possibly exploding underneath us at any moment.” Steve says and Rhodes nods.

“You do that.”

“I hope that it’s the truth.” Steve presses and Rhodes looks like he’s barely containing an eye roll. “I’d hate for something to happen and to find out that we could have helped if you had just been honest with us.”

“I am being honest with you Rogers, you’re just choosing not to listen.” Rhodes replies with a sigh. “The containment had nothing to do with Tony, like I said he wasn’t even in the state when it happened. When the mission is finished, everyone will be made aware of what transpired and why.”

“We should all know now.”

“It was determined to inform all the members of the Avengers would only hinder our ability to do our job.”

“We’re not liabilities Rhodes.”

“If you know nothing about the mission, then you can’t say that with any kind of certainty.” Rhodes responds to him. “You have a good day Rogers.”

“You as well Colonel.”

+++

No one believes him when he reports back what Rhodes said and Steve doesn’t blame them, he doesn’t believe Rhodes either, however the answer to the ‘Containment Breach’ question does get answered two days later when Thor comes strolling into the Compound with a wide smile on his face and a fierce hug for his friends.

“I have hear that you have returned to us!” Thor says with a giant smile. “It is good to see familiar faces again. Hopefully Stark will rejoin us soon as well.”

“Nice to see you again too Thor.” Steve says with a return smile. “Where have you been?”

“I have returned from Asgard with Loki, but I did take some time to go visit my Lady Jane.” Thor says with an even bigger grin and Clint just puffs up as he takes a threatening step towards the demi-god.

“Loki? You brought Loki back? Why the fuck would you do that? Where is he?” Clint snaps and Thor tilts his head like he doesn’t understand.

“He is here?” He replies. “Have not the Avengers been tasked with his temporary imprisonment until your Council determines to agree to his offer to assist Midgard?”

“What!” Clint snarls and Steve has a sudden moment of clarity.

“The ‘Containment Breach’, that was Loki trying to get out wasn’t it?” He asks and Thor looks slightly guilty.

“Yes, it appears that Loki grew bored and decided to test his magic’s against the cage that Stark has designed for him to see if it could truly hold one such as him.” Thor smiles again. “It appears that it can. We are all very much impressed.”

“They had Loki under us and they didn’t fucking tell us?” Clint rages and Thor shakes his head.

“My brother has redeemed himself in the eyes of the All-Father and he is here to assist Midgard again with its preparations for the Mad Titan.”

“We don’t need his help.” Clint snaps and Thor frowns.

“Have care how you speak, my brother was a victim as well.” He says and there’s a dangerous undertone like someone getting really tired of repeating said information.

“We’re not angry with you Thor, the others just didn’t tell us. This is the first time we’ve heard about it.” Steve intervenes. “And they should have, Loki – redeemed or not – is dangerous and has a pretty negative history with this planet and this team.”

“I hope that you will give him a second chance like you were all granted Captain.” Thor tells him firmly and it sounds like a warning. They look at each other and Clint snarls something under his breath before he storms off and Steve nods.

“If he’s really changed, then we welcome his help.” Steve replies and Thor’s frown is gone as quickly as it came.

“That pleases me to hear Captain.” Thor says, and Steve gives Natasha a look behind Thor’s back that clearly says that once again – he’s going to have to have words with the current acting team leader.

Chapter Text

“You should have told us that Loki was here.” Steve tells Rhodes when he manages to pull him to the side in the hallway and Rhodes just gives him a neutral, almost bored look.

“As I told you before Mr. Rogers, you and your team were not authorized to have that information.”

“Of all the teams, we should have been the ones to be told. Who else didn’t know?” Steve challenges and Rhodes doesn’t flinch.

“That is none of your concern. Who else had clearance to know about this mission does not change the fact that you and your team did not.”

“Everyone else knew but us, didn’t they? That’s what you’re not saying.” Steve presses. “Does everyone else get to see Tony too? Is it just us being locked out in the cold?”

“Mr. Rogers.” Rhodes says with a heavy sigh. “There is no conspiracy here regardless of how much you might wish there were, or how much you might think you see one.” He says and Steve crosses his arms. “It was determined that due to the history of certain members and their…aggressive natures, that informing your team would do more harm than good in the long run. The Council agreed with our concerns, as did the other team leads. As for who interacts with Mr. Stark, once again I feel I am going to sound like a broken record when I say that it is none of your concern who is and who is not allowed to interact with him.”

“So it’s just us he’s avoiding?”

“I didn’t say that.” Rhodes denies and Steve finds that he doesn’t believe him in the slightest.

“How long?”

“How long what Mr. Rogers?” Rhodes asks and Steve looks him down.

“How long are we going to be on this ‘inner circle probation’ that you have us on?”

“There is no such thing as ‘inner circle probation’, that’s just nonsense.” Rhodes replies. “However, if you feel that other members of the Avengers may not feel comfortable with you, interacting with you or including you in things outside the Accords authority, I would consider taking a step back and looking at the situation in an unbiased light.” Rhodes makes eye contact with him. “You are not owed others time or their trust Mr. Rogers. It does not matter if they have their own reasons why they stay away or if they don’t – you do not get to decide what is a legitimate cause or what isn’t. Please keep that in mind.”

“We used to be better than this.” Steve tells him and Rhodes sighs.

“You really weren’t.” He answers him. “But that is neither here nor there, the fact remains that those days are gone and this is the new order. Adjust or be left behind. There is no other option. Digging your feet in and trying to ‘plant yourself like a tree’ isn’t going to help you, actually it’s doing the exact opposite.”

“I want to talk to Tony.” Steve says firmly. “If it’s all ‘those days are in the past’ then there’s no reason why he shouldn’t talk to me.” Rhodes just looks at him with that blank face. “It’s an open door for us, and it deserves to be closed.”

“I honestly hope that it’s only open on your side Mr. Rogers.” Rhodes tells him. “But even if it isn’t, you don’t get to demand to talk to him. He knows that you wish to speak to him and he has decided not to reach out and facilitate communication. That is his right and I will not attempt to overrule it in order to make you feel better.”

“I could take this to the Council.” Steve warns him and Rhodes motions for him to go.

“Go right ahead. I warn you that it won’t go the way you think it will, but it is your right to file any concerns and I will not tell you otherwise.”

“And if they tell him to speak with me?”

“They won’t.”

“What makes you so sure?” Steve challenges and Rhodes just shakes his head.

“Mr. Rogers, I would explain if I thought that it would make a difference but I honestly don’t think it will so please, by all means go over my head and attempt to convince an entire group of people dedicated to the success of the Avengers that forcing a victim to interact with their abuser is a good idea.”

“I didn’t abuse Tony.”

“Fine, I’ll rephrase. Try to convince them that ordering a man who was violently beaten to death and who is still undergoing his own healing regimen from that attack, should interact with the man who murdered him and left him in the dark like trash, just to make the attacker feel better about himself. I’m really curious how that plays out.”

“Tony’s not trash.” Steve snaps and Rhodes snorts.

“Don’t start trying to defend Tony’s honor now Rogers, and don’t try doing it to me.” Rhodes tugs on his sleeve to straighten it. “But as for your earlier concern, it was actually with Barton’s best interest in mind that the decision not to inform your team about Loki was made.”

“Of course it was.”

“What do you think Barton’s reaction would have been?” Rhodes asks. “Nightmares? Paranoia? Anxiety? And that’s just internal concerns, what if he had lashed out from some form of untreated or leftover PTSD from his previous encounter with Loki? He would have been pulled immediately from the Avengers.”

“Don’t act like you care about Clint.”

“I won’t, because I didn’t.” Rhodes admits. “Tony did. Having gone through a similar experience with Miss Maximoff, he was concerned about Barton’s mental health and brought it to all of our attentions. He made it to where Barton didn’t get the chance to act out and damage his pardon. He made it to where Barton didn’t have to feel on edge in his own home. He did that because he’s a better person and teammate than any of you ever were to him.”

“Tony told you not to tell us?” Steve asks, and he can’t help the surprise in his voice.

“For some reason, I feel that you’ve misinterpreted my words and have assigned them an ulterior motive that just isn’t there.” Rhodes says and he sounds tired. “The decision holds and I recommend that you keep an eye on Barton if you don’t want him to do anything foolish. He’s turned down the offer to be housed temporarily outside of the Compound until Loki’s case is finished, which should be any time now.”

“We can’t stay outside of the Compound. It’s not in our pardons remember?” Steve challenges him and Rhodes just looks him in the eye.

“It was approved for this due to the circumstances surrounding the situation. Not that it matters because as I said, Barton turned it down. He’s been warned about seeking Loki out, and that’s the last we’ll say on the issue. Now I must be going. If you need me again, as I assume you will, you know where to find me.” Rhodes turns and walks away, leaving Steve standing there in the hall with more unanswered concerns and a feeling of worry about whatever Tony might be doing behind the curtain.

+++

“The Council isn’t going to agree to work with Loki, Clint.” Wanda says kindly to the archer who has been sharpening each one of his arrows for the past two hours. “They’ve already got their one villain on the team requirement with Stark remember?” She says playfully and Clint growls to himself as he keeps sharpening.

“Remember, you can’t try to go after him.” Steve tells Clint and the other man just looks up through his hair with a dark look aimed at Steve.

“…He got in my head. He unmade me. He made me kill for him.” Clint reminds him and Steve nods.

“I know Clint, I haven’t forgotten, nobody’s forgotten.”

“Except Stark and his group.” Wanda mutters and Clint’s motion on the next sharpening stroke is angry and uncontrolled.

“They’ll see through whatever Loki is planning. From what Thor says, the Council isn’t comfortable with Loki at this moment. They want to keep him locked up.” Steve tells him and Clint shakes his head.

“He should be dead.” He snarls and Steve nods.

“He’s done a lot of terrible things, and no one is going to let him do that again.” Steve promises him. “We’re all here this time Clint, and we’ve got Wanda. Do you really think she’ll let someone get into your head without a fight?” Steve says and Wanda smiles and places a gentle hand on Clint’s arm.

“I won’t, I promise.” She says to the archer and Clint finally lets the arrow fall out of his hands and he rests his face in them.

“I can’t stop thinking about it.” He says from beneath his hands. “Every time I close my eyes I see him, I see the people I killed.”

“It’s never going to happen again.” Steve assures and Clint’s shaking but he seems to be calming down.

Of course, that’s when Steve should have known that things were going to get worse. Natasha comes marching into the area, a stern look on her face as she approaches them and sits down.

“Fools.” She mutters and they all look at her.

“What happened?” Steve asks and Natasha crosses her arms.

“The Council has agreed to a deal with Loki, it’s been signed and settled.” She says and Clint’s whole body tenses. “He’s negotiated his own ‘probation’ period.” She pauses. “Well that’s not right, apparently Tony’s negotiated a probation period between both sides and it was agreed upon and pushed through.”

“Stark helped get Loki on the team?” Clint asks and his voice is cold, calm and dangerous.

“From what I was able to gather from Thor, the talks were falling apart. Neither side was finding a compromise before Tony stepped in and negotiated.” Natasha says. “Loki’s agreed to the terms and the Council has agreed as well, although the final result is a little more lax than it could have been.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asks, his mind still reeling that Tony would do something like this to them.

“The concessions agreed upon, Loki got a lot more out of the final negotiation than what it was originally looking like.”

“So Stark made a deal with Loki.” Clint fills in, reading between the lines of what the female spy is saying. “He made some kind of deal with Loki and got him a better offer from the Council.”

“From what I can tell? That’s what it’s looking like.” She nods. “But of course, everyone thinks that this is a brilliant middle ground. Never let it be said that Tony can’t sell Hell to the Devil and make the Devil thank him for it.”

“Why would Tony do that?” Steve asks and Natasha shrugs.

“I don’t know. Maybe Loki promised him something, maybe Loki promised to help heal him or maybe he promised to heal Rhodes. Heck, maybe Loki even just promised to make our lives hell in a way that won’t come back on Tony. There’s no way to know, we can’t get close to either side long enough to find out.”

“And Rhodes is a closed door. There’s no way he’ll tell us.” Steve growls, frustration curling inside of him. “Tony’s making clandestine deals with our enemies and he’s more than content to just look the other way.”

“He’s not looking the other way.” Clint growls. “He’s ignoring it in favor of spitting on us every chance he can get. And now they’ve fucked us over.”

“If I could just speak to Tony.” Steve snaps and Natasha gets a small smile.

“Well, I guess I do have good news on that front.” She says and they all look at her, different reasons for wanting to see the billionaire in their eyes. “On my way over I overheard that Tony himself is going to make his first and last public appearance.”

“What?” Steve says, hope starting to rise in him.

“He’s revealing his protégé to the masses and apparently wanting to ‘clear the air’ of any conspiracy theories regarding his demise.”

“Oh, so now he wants to ‘clear the air’. What about a few months ago when they were raking Steve across the coals for killing him? What, he couldn’t ‘clear the air’ then?” Clint snaps and Natasha looks at Steve.

“I can’t get all of us in, but I can probably get you and me in when it goes down.” She tells him and Steve doesn’t even hesitate when he nods.

“Do it.” He orders and she smiles.

“Consider it done Captain.” She promises and Steve squares his shoulders.

It’s finally going to come time to talk to Tony.

Chapter Text

Three weeks.

That’s when the press conference is scheduled for, three weeks. In three weeks Steve will finally get to see Tony after months of getting the cold shoulder. In three weeks, Steve can finally start mending all of the bridges that were burned by both sides. In three weeks they can finally start to get back to being a complete unit, instead of this broken and scraggly thing that the Avengers currently were.

Three weeks.

Steve sighs as he looks out at the city lights in the distance. He likes the balcony, it’s always quiet out here. Tony used to come keep him company sometimes, back before the ‘Civil War’, rambling on about anything and everything to try and make Steve feel comfortable instead of drowning in whatever melancholy had gripped him that night. He doubts that Tony will come out for the melancholy tonight though. Things have been less than ideal after all since their return and Steve’s trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel with the press conference, but there’s still a heaviness weighing down on him.

There’s the sound of the door opening behind him and Steve’s heart lurches in hope – before he hears Wanda’s voice greet him.

“Hey Steve.” She says softly and he turns slightly to see the Sokovian girl walk out onto the balcony with two cups in her hands. Tony used to bring him hot chocolate, Wanda’s brought him tea instead. She hands a mug over to him and he accepts it gratefully.

“Thanks Wanda.” He says as she comes over to rest against the balcony with him. “How’s Clint doing?” He asks, and Wanda sighs.

“Tonight’s a hard night for him.” She says, pausing for a second before looking down at the mug in her hands. “He just heard that Laura is seeking full custody.”

“That’s terrible.”

“Yeah, he’s upset…he didn’t want me around anymore and people are always so loud in their minds when they’re drunk.”

“Do you think he’s going to be okay?”

“I think if he sees Stark tonight he’ll kill him, but other than that he’s fine.”

“He’s still angry about Loki?”

“What do you think?” She challenges him and Steve sighs.

“Yeah…yeah I guess.” He answers her and they both look out at the lights again. “You know, with how crazy things have been, I haven’t really gotten a chance to check up on you. How have things been?” He asks and she takes a moment, a look of absolute sadness on her face and her eyes go watery for a second.

“They’re…hard.” She admits. “I spoke with Vision earlier.” Steve wants to say that should be a great thing, but it’s clear by the look on her face that it wasn’t.

“…What happened?” He asks gently and she scoffs, rubbing at her eyes.

“He told me that once he might have loved me, but that it was no longer true and that he wants me to leave him alone.”

“He said that?”

“He said ‘let him go’.” She corrects. “Same thing.” Steve can’t help but feel surprised at the admission. He knew that the android was angry with Wanda and the choices that she’d made, but he’d never expected this level of stepping back that the android had apparently decided to go with regarding Wanda.

“I’m sorry Wanda…how are you?” He asks gently and Wanda does a small, sad shrug.

“It hurts.” She admits. “It just hurts so much…I thought…I thought that some things just were. That regardless of anything they just were…I thought Vision and me were like that too.”

“Me too.” Steve agrees with her softly. They fall into a sad lull for a moment before Wanda rubs at her eyes again.

“I thought that things would be better, when we came back. I thought we’d be home and that all of this would be a bad dream.” She mutters. “And then we get here…and we’re still living in the nightmare.”

“I thought that too.” Steve admits. “I mean, I knew in theory that there’d be some frayed corners that’d have to be smoothed over…but for the most part I thought that coming back symbolized that it was all over. That it was in the past and we could all finally move on.”

“It should have been.” Wanda growls into her tea past her tears. “We were only doing what we thought was right. Why do they get to get off when they say that but we’re condemned for it?”

“That just seems to be how the world works these days.” Steve answers her and she tightens her fingers around her mug, a small amount of red leaking from them.

“I hate it.”

“Me too.” He says in solidarity as they fall back into silence.

“Do you think it’ll ever go back?” She asks after a while and Steve nods.

“I do.” He says, and he means it. He does truly think that they’ll find a way to get past this and to go back to being a family again. There are some things that need to be taken care of and some hurdles to get over, but at the end of the day he does still think that.

“And you really think talking with Stark will help?” There’s hatred in how she says the brunets name and he nods.

“I do.”

“Why?”

“Because this whole thing started with Tony and I, and I believe it can end with us too.” He tells her.

“But you didn’t do anything wrong.” She argues and Steve sighs as he considers how to explain this.

“Sometimes…in order to get past something it’s not about who was in the right and who was in the wrong.” He says slowly. “Sometimes someone just has to…be the bigger man I guess and accept the fault in order to allow things to start getting fixed.”

“Then maybe Stark should practice it once in a while.” She snaps and Steve sighs.

“It’s going to be okay.” He tells her. “I’m willing to do what needs to be done in order to help the Avengers come back together and I think, deep down Tony is too. That’s why I honestly think talking with him will work. He talks a big game most of the time and he pretends that he doesn’t care, but he’s always tried to have the Avengers best interests at heart, and I believe that intent matters.”

“Stark might want what’s best for us, but he’s off the mark about what that is.” She snaps. “And I won’t forgive him, not for locking me up and for taking my family, for taking Vision from me.”

“Maybe it’s time though, to try and offer forgiveness.” Steve tells her and she shakes her head.

“No.”

“Wanda…”

“No Steve, just no.” She tells him and she looks away, clearly marking the end of that discussion. Steve nods and figures that they’ll try and approach that at a later time, drinking his cooling tea before Wanda goes rigid next to him a little while later and he turns to look at her worried.

“What? What’s wrong?” He asks and she turns to look at the door.

“Clint’s in trouble, he’s hurt...I think he’s under attack.” She says and that’s all Steve needs to hear before the two of them take off running to where Wanda leads them, sensing the archer in distress. They run past the main area and end up down at the training grounds before Steve hears Clint’s voice.

“Get the fuck off of me.” He snarls, and it sounds off. The two of them come around the corner and they see what looks to be damage caused by a small explosion and Clint propped up against a nearby wall with a person kneeling next to him with a first aid kit on the ground and attempting to dab at the small cuts on the archer’s face despite the man swatting at him and hindering his attempts to clean the wounds. “I don’t need your fucking help.” Clint says and Steve registers that he’s really drunk, and Steve can already guess that he was letting off steam in the training grounds when something must have backfired.

“What happened?” Wanda says, coming forward and Steve can see how the man helping Clint tenses slightly at the sound of her voice.

“Steve! Wanda! Help me up!” Clint demands and Steve shakes his head as the two of them approach.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Steve tells him. “It might be better if you stay down for a little while.” Clint swats at the cotton that dabs at a cut on his forehead with a snarl.

“Ow you son of a bitch.” He snaps at the man. “I said I didn’t fucking need your help.” He turns to Wanda. “Wanda! You’ll help me right! Let’s go get him!”

“Who?” Wanda questions, even though Steve is sure that they both know the answer as to who ‘he’ is could only really be one of two people: Loki or Tony.

“That fucking backstabber – who else?” Clint all but yells and Steve’s mind fills in Tony as the answer.

“He shouldn’t be left alone tonight.” The young man says as he pushes a Band-Aid over the cut and closes up the kit. “He doesn’t have any head injuries according to the scans, but it’d still be a good idea to keep an eye on him.”

“Who are you?” Steve asks and the man stands up as he walks back over to where the kit usually goes and hangs it up. Steve waits for him to turn around and the other man seems reluctant to do it for some reason before he finally turns to look at them. He’s not someone Steve recognizes, but that’s becoming more and more usual these days with his dark eyes and boyish features. It’s hard to place an age to him, late teens? Early twenties? 

“I guess I was the one who was closest.” He says, dropping his hands to his side with an awkward sort of energy about it. “FRIDAY contacted me when Barton’s arrow went off and injured him.”

“Is he okay?” Steve asks and the man nods.

“He’ll be fine, you’ll want to watch him but most of it is cosmetic. He was far enough from the blast radius.” He says and Steve looks at Clint who seems to get a moment of lucidity past however drunk he is and he flips them all off.

“Thank you.” Steve tells the man. “For responding so quickly.” Steve says and the brunet shrugs slightly before turning and starting for the door. “I’m Steve Rogers, I haven’t seen you around here before.” Steve says, moving slightly to the side to be closer as he holds out his hand. “Are you an Avenger?” There’s a pause, before the other man slowly reaches out and accepts the handshake.

“A.J.” He says and Steve smiles at him. Despite Clint blowing himself up while drunk testing arrows, this is one of the best meetings with a new member that they’ve had since their return. Steve almost wants to chuckle at how low the bar has been set.

“Nice to meet you A.J.” He says as Wanda steps up alongside him and holds out her own hand.

“Wanda Maximoff.” She says and there’s that pause again, but slightly more pronounced this time as he looks at Wanda’s hand. Steve wonders what Rhodes and the others have been telling the new recruits about Wanda that has A.J. looking like he’s unsure about accepting the young girl’s greeting. Steve’s rather impressed when A.J. pushes back against whatever rumors he’s heard and accepts her handshake as well. There’s a moment of connection between them before Wanda stares at the other brunet in confused surprise and he takes his hand back with a small little jerky sort of motion.

“Well, I’ll be off. Have a good night.” He says as he slips past them and all but power walks to the door and out of sight. Wanda’s still staring off after him, that look on her face and Steve reaches out and nudges her arm.

“What was that? What’s wrong?” He asks and she turns to look at him with wide eyes.

“…I couldn’t hear him.” She admits. “It was…it was like it was there…but I couldn’t.”

“He’s telepathic? Like you?” Steve asks, glancing off after where the other man disappeared and Wanda shakes her head.

“I don’t think so… I don’t…I don’t know…I don’t know what just happened.” He voice takes on a different tone and it takes Steve a second to realize that it sounds awed and suddenly Wanda’s reaction makes sense. He remembers how she confided to him once how hard it was, to always hear everyone’s surface thoughts and ramblings at all hours of the day. How it felt trying to tune them out when she wanted to just hang out with people and how it would leave her feeling drained and frustrated, especially when people would get angry for the random thoughts she’d pick up whether she wanted to or not. “I couldn’t hear him.”

“He must be a new Avenger then.” Steve says. “I wonder what team he’s on.” There’s a groan that interrupts them as Clint slides over and lands on his side and Steve nudges Wanda again. “Come on, let’s get him sobered up and to bed.”

“Yeah.” Wanda agrees as the two of them grab the archer and head out.

Chapter Text

The door is open when Steve arrives and he glances inside to see Rhodes sitting at his desk going over some paperwork. The man always seems to be busy with some form or meeting and Steve almost pities him in his position. But this is something that Rhodes and Tony fought for – to have this ridiculous amount of red tape that they had to wade through every day and Steve is more than content leaving them to it.

Steve walks up to the open door and knocks gently on the frame. The noise catches Rhodes’ attention and he looks up.

“FRIDAY said you wanted to see me?” He says and Rhodes nods.

“Yes, thank you for coming so quickly.” He replies as he motions for Steve to come in. Steve steps inside and closes the door behind him as Rhodes motions to the chair. This is one of those times that Steve almost feels like this is an office that he and Rhodes share with how often Steve seems to be in this room since their return. “Please sit down Mr. Rogers.” Rhodes asks and Steve takes the chair.

“Am I in trouble?” Steve asks and Rhodes shakes his head.

“Not at all, I wanted to discuss something with you.”

“Okay.”

“I’m going to just jump right to the chase and waste as little of our time as possible if that’s alright with you?” Rhodes says and Steve nods.

“Go right ahead.”

“By this point I’m guessing that you know all about the press conference that Stark Industries is putting together.” Rhodes says and Steve considers pretending that he didn’t know about it before he figures that it’s mostly common knowledge so he nods.

“I do.” Steve answers him. “And to be honest, I’d like to go.”

“I have no doubts.” Rhodes says before sighing. “Unfortunately it seems as though I’m about to make your day then.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asks, and there’s a small kernel of hope for the one thing that statement can possibly mean.

“Tony has offered for you to be in attendance at the event.”

“Yes.” Steve agrees instantly, before Rhodes can say anything else. “Absolutely, I want that more than anything.” Rhodes holds up a hand to stop him.

“Please don’t mistake what this is that’s being offered.” Rhodes warns. “Tony’s not offering to speak with you, he’s only allowing you to be present at the event.”

“If he doesn’t want to talk to me then why let me come?”

“He’s offering you a chance to see him in person – from afar – in order to clear up any lingering concerns that you might have about his continued existence.” Rhodes says firmly. “He’s not interested in rehashing old memories with you, he just wants to make sure that you have no doubts that he is alive and off doing his own thing.” Steve lets those words sit between them before he speaks again.

“You…don’t sound like you agree with this.” He points out and Rhodes nods.

“You’d be correct, but Tony requested that I give you the offer instead of Pepper – something you should probably be thanking him for. As such though, I’m the one who has to read you the riot act.”

“…but if you and Pepper don’t agree why are you allowing this?”

“Because we don’t control Tony and we agreed with his reasoning when he gave it.”

“His reasoning?”

“He was certain that if he didn’t offer an invitation that you would probably send Romanoff to attempt to collect one, or worse the lot of you might attempt a break in at the event and cause a scene. Too much work has gone into the P.R. for the Avengers since your return and it would be a shame to waste all of it with one or more of you getting outed so quickly.” Rhodes replies and Steve wants to frown at that, but he figures that it’s right on the mark for what they were planning on doing so he wisely keeps his mouth shut. “As such, your invitation allows you to remain in the booth that you will be assigned. You will not leave the booth, you will not seek out an audience with Tony at any point in time during the event. Doing so will have Pepper pressing trespassing charges before you can blink. If that happens, the police will be involved and if that occurs your probation will be immediately revoked.”

“How is it trespassing if I have permission to be there?” Steve points out and Rhodes just gives him a look.

“You will not have permission to wander behind the scenes just like everyone else. Doing so will be an act of trespassing and will be charged faster than you can say ‘god bless America’, am I clear?”

“I understand.” Steve says after a brief pause and Rhodes just shakes his head like he knows that Steve is going to still be a problem for him regardless of any promises to the contrary. “Is…is that all you wanted to speak to me about?”

“Yes it was.”

“Okay, have a good day.” Steve says as he starts to get up before he pauses as a thought crosses his mind. “Hey, may I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“I was hoping that I might be able to talk to A.J.” Steve starts and Rhodes looks up at him a little too fast and a little too surprised for a brief second before the look is instantly covered up. “Which team is he on or how would I go about getting in contact with him?”

“Why?” Rhodes asks and Steve shrugs.

“I wanted to thank him for last night.”

“Last night?”

“Yeah, when he helped Clint. It could have been worse, but I wanted to thank him for stepping in so quickly.” Steve says and Rhodes frowns.

“Helping Barton? What happened to Barton?” He asks and Steve pauses for a second.

“…oh, you didn’t know?” Steve asks slowly and he cringes. He’d figured that Clint’s unfortunate life choices last night had been filed already and that Rhodes was just waiting to call the archer up to his office to do a complaint or to just chew his ear off.

“Apparently not.” Rhodes snaps. “FRIDAY, what is he talking about?”

‘Last night Mr. Barton was involved in an accident in the training room that he was operating in while under intoxication.’ The AI answers and Rhodes takes a deep breath like he’s asking some deity for strength before he looks back at Steve.

“And you were there as well?”

“I came in later, afterwards.” Steve says slowly.

“Why was an incident report not filled out?”

“No one was badly hurt.” Steve defends. “Just minor scratches. Clint’s had much worse.”

“That doesn’t-” Rhodes stops and sighs. “FRIDAY, please have Barton come to my office and inform A.J. that I will need to discuss something with him as well.”

‘Of course Colonel.’

“I wasn’t trying to get anyone in trouble, I just wanted to thank him. I haven’t seen him around before, and I appreciated his help…Clint wanted to say thanks too, if at all possible.”

“I’ll pass on the message.” Rhodes replies. “And for the record, an incident report should have been filed.”

“It really wasn’t anything.”

“Operating dangerous weaponry or machinery while under intoxication is dangerous Mr. Rogers, and it doesn’t require being an Avenger for that to be true, but it’s doubly true when it is.”

‘Mr. Barton is on his way Colonel.’

“I guess I’ll be on my way.” Steve says and Rhodes nods as he leaves the room.

+++

When Clint returns from his meeting with Rhodes, he’s in a right mood and isn’t up for any form of chatting as he disappears into the gym to let off a little steam. Steve figures that the man needs it right now, with everything that just seems to keep going wrong for him and the weight on his shoulders with Laura and the kids. Steve wishes that he could help him, but Natasha warned him just to let Clint do his thing and give him time to get his head on straight and Steve figures that in all the time he’s known Clint, that advice sounds solid.

He picks up a card from the lineup and puts down a few before grabbing more out of the deck and dropping a new one. There isn’t much to do in the Compound, regardless what people say. Sure, there are things to entertain them, but it all gets rather repetitive after a while. Steve figures it’s worse for Wanda though. At least Steve, Nat and Clint can get approval to go outside but the Sokovian girl is required to remain inside the Compound at all times that she is not out with a team leader on a mission.

Wanda discards her own pickup and passes the turn back to Steve as Steve’s mind wanders to Sam. He wonders what his friend is doing right now. Sam’s managed to negotiate some kind of agreement that allows him to serve his time out at somewhere called the Baxter Building and Steve kind of wishes that his request had been denied. If it had, then Sam would have eventually found time to talk to Steve about Siberia and about the wedge that it put between them.

Steve plays his turn and can’t help but take in Wanda across from him. She’s looking better today than she has for the last few weeks, the break-up with Vision seems to be agreeing with her more now since the door has been fully closed and Steve’s happy to see her taking pride in her appearance again. It eases Steve’s heart a little because he hasn’t known how to help her when she was wandering around looking like a lost puppy. Now though, Vision’s ‘let me go’ request seems to have freed her as well, her hair is pulled back, her nails are done and there’s a small amount of gloss on her lips. It’s a good step forward.

There’s a soft knock at the entrance to their little living area and both Steve and Wanda glance up to see who their visitor is. It’s the young man from last night, A.J., standing there in the doorway with an unsure look on his face. Almost like he isn’t positive that he’s wanted here and Steve stands up seconds behind Wanda.

“A.J.” He greets, coming over and the brunet inclines to him.

“Um, Rhodes said that you wanted to see me?” He asks and Steve nods.

“Yeah, come on in.” He motions into the area and A.J. pauses at the threshold for a moment before he slowly steps in. The hesitancy is clear in his actions and Steve wonders if the other man is normally this shy or if something he’s been told about them is causing this reaction. “I wanted to talk to you about last night.” Steve motions to a chair at the table they were playing at and A.J. takes a seat.

It’s the first time that Steve’s really gotten to look at the young man, without Clint half-passed out on the floor nearby to distract. Steve stands behind his initial estimation of his age, the full guess thrown off by the youthful smoothness and boyish good looks.

“Did you want something to drink?” Wanda offers and he shakes his head.

“No thank you.” He tells her before he looks back at Steve. “You said you wanted to talk about last night?”

“I wanted to thank you. I know that it ended up being nothing, but I’m glad that you responded so quickly. It could have easily been much worse than it was.” Steve tells him and A.J. shakes his head.

“Oh, um, no thanks necessary. Like I said last night, I was just the closest.”

“You’re the kid from last night?” Clint asks from the doorway, coming in and A.J. nods as Clint comes over and offers a hand. “Steve’s right then, thanks. Sorry if I gave you hell.”

“Uh…no problem.” A.J. says, slightly unsure,  and it’s strangely endearing how he seems to be acting in their presence. Steve wonders if he was a fan before he joined up, and if he was still a fan after everything and after all of the smear campaigns. “Um, if that’s all you needed then I should probably be going.”

“You could stay if you wanted.” Wanda offers. “You could play a game with us if you have some time.” She says as she motions to the cards on the table.

“I really can’t.” He says. “Rhodes has me on lab decontamination and cleanup.” He cringes and slightly scrunches up his nose in obvious displeasure at the punishment.

“I’m sorry about that.” Steve says in apology. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble for last night.”

“It’s fine. Rhodes was right, I should have filed the forms.” A.J. replies.

“Why didn’t you? If you don’t mind me asking?” Steve questions and A.J. shrugs slightly.

“I don’t know.” He says. “I guess, I just thought that it wasn’t a big deal. I mean, Barton was fine and with your pardons I didn’t see a reason to…I guess I didn’t really see a reason to cause a big fuss about it since no one got hurt.”

Steve can see how the brunet’s words make Wanda and Clint relax slightly around him and Steve feels a similar sort of way. It’s the most consideration that someone has shown to their situation and it’s a kindness from a stranger that Steve wouldn’t have figured they’d be getting with all of the false information about them being spread throughout the new Avengers teams in their absence.

“Well, thank you again and I’m sorry I got you in trouble.” Steve says and Clint seconds the statement. There’s a funny look on A.J.’s face at the words of gratitude being sent his way and Steve wonders why, but he figures that the answer either falls under the ‘it’s none of my business’ category or the possibility that they’ve been painted as ungrateful jerks during their time away. “If you don’t mind me asking, who do you work with on the field?”

“What?”

“You’re an Avenger right?” Steve asks and the brunet nods slowly. “Which team are you assigned to?”

“Oh…um, none at the moment.” A.J. admits. “I’m mostly working with Dr. Banner and Dr. Cho down in the labs.”

“You’re a scientist?” Steve asks surprised.

“Sometimes.” The young man says generically. “I’m mostly just whatever they need at the time.”

“Sounds like fun.” Steve says before a thought crosses his mind. “Do you work with Tony as well?”

“You could say that.” A.J. says cryptically and Steve can almost see the gag order that Rhodes and Tony have undoubtedly placed on this poor man.

“That must be exciting. Working with those three.”

“I should probably get back to it actually.” A.J. says, motioning behind him to the door as he stands up.

“Thanks again kid for your help.” Clint offers up and Wanda pipes up.

“You’re always welcome here, if you wanted somewhere to hang out on break or someone to just play a game with.” She offers and there’s another one of those unreadable looks on the young man’s face before he smiles awkwardly and inclines to them.

“I’ll keep that in mind. Have a good day.” He says before he turns and once again all but sprints out of there. Steve turns to Wanda and Clint and he watches as the archer gets a grin like the cat who ate the canary and he nudges Wanda’s arm.

“He’s cute, in a pretty boy sort of way.” He says with a grin and she quickly shakes her head.

“I don’t know what you mean.” She says, her voice a mix of embarrassed and defensive.

“Hey, at least he’s not like Stark’s other new playthings. He doesn’t seem like a complete dick.” Clint says, using the towel over his shoulders to wipe at his face. “Who knows, if there are more like him here, maybe there’s hope for the Avengers after all.”

Steve can say that he seconds that statement.

 

Chapter Text

The court agreements between Steve’s Team and the Accords Council are unnecessarily wordy and undoubtedly created to give someone a headache long before they manage to wrap their minds around the double speak and red tape. Steve’s been going over his in his spare time, really trying to delve in to see where certain lines have been drawn after the Civil War and with their probationary periods. There’s really only one thing that he’s after and he almost weeps for joy when he finally finds it.

The paragraph that holds every hope that Steve had almost thought had gone away.

He stands up and heads out of his room, walking down the hallways to the conference rooms. He never really comes here outside of mandatory meetings, there’s really no need for it. Just Council workers and technicians that Steve doesn’t know and will never work out on the field with. But he’s down here for a reason and he’s determined to get an answer.

He pokes his head into several empty conference rooms, glancing in the windows at ones that aren’t so empty, and he pauses when he hears a familiar voice coming from a room to his left.

“Which of the following gases has the weakest attractive forces between particles?” A.J.’s question leads Steve over to an open door to glance in. “A: CO2, B: He, C: NO or D: HCI?” The brunet is sitting at one of the tables with the Harley Keener kid and the table is filled with what looks like open school books.

“B: He.” Harley says and A.J. gets a smile and nods.

“Yes, do you know why?”

“Because the gas with the weakest attractive forces between particles will also have the lowest boiling point.” Harley answers and A.J. nods with a kind of proud, silly smile. He looks back down at the booklet in front of him.

“Oh wow, a question on nuclear chemistry. Awesome, you’ve got this. Ready?”

“Ready.”

“Which of the following must be true for a sample of supercritical uranium? A: The density exceeds that found at ambient temperatures and pressures. B: There is less density than found at ambient temperatures and pressures. C: The rate of production of neutrons exceeds their rate of consumption or D: The sample is pure.”

“C.” Harley says and A.J. grins with him and high fives him.

“See? You’ve got this test in the bag.” A.J. praises and Harley grins.

“Thanks, and thanks for taking the time out to practice with me. I know you’re really busy right now.”

“Hey, none of that. I’ve always got time, you know that.” A.J. tells him and Harley gives him a smile like A.J. is the greatest thing since sliced bread – before his eyes land on Steve standing in the doorway and it falls off his face in record time. “What do you want?” He snaps and Steve holds up his hands in surrender.

“Hey, hey. None of that now.” A.J. tells Harley lightly.

“I’m not the one creeping around in doorways like a creeper.” Harley snaps back and A.J. looks at Steve.

“Is there something you needed?” He asks and Steve shakes his head.

“No, I was looking for Rhodes. I thought he might be down here.” Steve says before he motions to the books. “Studying?”

“Practice exams.” A.J. answers him and Harley flips to the next page.

“Which we should probably be getting back to.” He says as he nudges A.J. like a child trying to get their parents attention again.

“You understand all of this?” Steve asks him, and Harley snorts.

“Does he understand all of this?” He mutters like Steve has just asked the stupidest question in the book, and A.J. just gives him a smile that seems like it’s hiding something.

“I know a thing or two.” He answers cryptically and Steve goes to say something but he notices Rhodes out of the corner of his eye down the hallway.

“Oh, well, good luck on your test.” Steve tells Harley. “And good to see you again A.J.” He doesn’t receive a response to that, and he figures it’s probably because Harley’s already tugging the brunet’s attention back to him as Steve leaves them and rushes down the hall. “Rhodes.” He says and Rhodes turns to look at him.

“Rogers?”

“Hey, do you have a minute to go over something with me?” He asks. “It’s about the probation.”

“Of course.” Rhodes answers him. “Walk with me.” Steve falls into line with the other man. “So what was it that you wanted to talk about?”

“The probation period puts my team under your…jurisdiction I guess for the allotted timeframe right?”

“Yes, you’re one of the groups that I supervise.”

“And when the probation is over, what do you intend to do with us?”

“I’m thinking that you will probably work best under Captain Marvel while Maximoff might do best with Doctor Strange. I haven’t fully determined where to place Romanov or Barton yet, but I’ve got a few ideas.”

“What about leaving us together?” Steve asks and Rhodes looks at him like he’s speaking crazy talk. “I checked the agreement and it allows for us to be eligible for team lead at any point after the probationary period ends.” Steve tells him, holding up the forms. “I’d like to do that.”

“…While you’re able to request consideration for team lead, I don’t see that happening any time soon - which would still require all of you to be placed amongst other teams in the interim.” Rhodes says and Steve frowns.

“I’ve already lead a team, I have experience and I have a team that trusts and follows me.”

“Your experience leading a team led to a super powered showdown on foreign soil where the team literally split down the middle before twisting about itself once more and betraying each other left and right.” Rhodes tells him. “That’s not exactly something that we would like to see repeated in the future.”

“That was just as much Tony’s fault as it was mine.”

“It really wasn’t.” Rhodes tells him. “You were the team leader. You bear the responsibility of your teams actions. Take the incident in Nigeria, yes Miss Maximoff was the one who slipped up in the field but you were her commanding officer and you knew that she was not field ready. Training doesn’t happen around civilians. You bear the fault for what happened just as much if not more than she does.”

“If Wanda hadn’t been there then Crossbones would have killed hundreds more.”

“If you had gone through proper channels, it’s possible that no lives would have been lost.”

“There was no time.”

“That isn’t a reason, that’s an excuse and that’s one of the reasons why you would not be allowed to be team lead.”

“How would I go about becoming one?” Steve presses. “What would I need to do?”

“If you’re serious about it, I’ll put together an action plan for you. I warn you though, an action plan is not a promise, it is merely a place to start.”

“I’ll take it.” Steve tells him firmly. “I’ll do whatever I need to do to take care of my team.” Rhodes doesn’t say anything to him but Steve presses on. “I have another question.”

“Yes?”

“You mentioned breaking us up, don’t we get any say in which teams we’ll be assigned?”

“In theory, yes.” Rhodes tells him. “You’ll be tested for compatibility with a team lead and the team members already under said lead. If for some reason there is a conflict of interests or just a conflict in general you’ll be pulled back into backfill until a new team compatibility can be assigned.”

“What about keeping us all together? We’re already compatible and I think it would work best for whoever-”

“Compatibility isn’t just who works well together in small groups, it’s also who works well with the team lead and doesn’t cause complications to the layout of the Avengers Initiative.” Rhodes tells him. “It’s already been discussed the concern we have about keeping any of you together on a team least you ignore your team lead and fall back into old and dangerous habits.”

“I think it’s dangerous to break up a team that already has rapport together and that already trusts one another.”

“Once again, I draw your memory back to Germany and these same ‘trusting’ individuals who went all out and severely injured team members who did not agree with a command issued by a leader who was compromised.”

“Tony was compromised too.”

“Tony is not in question here, you are. Tony is not trying to become a team lead, you are.” Rhodes tells him firmly. “Do you have any other questions?”

“No, that was it.”

“Good, I’ll have FRIDAY email you that action plan as we discussed. If you need me, you clearly know how to track me down.”

“I’ll do that.” Steve tells him with a smile and Rhodes doesn’t return it as he walks off. Steve swings back by the room with the other two but the door is closed now and he doesn’t doubt that it’s intentional. He watches as A.J. seems to take time, having FRIDAY create holograms in the air and pointing to each part explaining things to the younger boy who nods along, pointing up every once in a while and asking questions that the other brunet clearly answers.

Steve smiles slightly and walks back towards his rooms. It’s good to see someone taking time out of their busy schedules and assisting the younger members with their lives. Steve wonders if Tony ever helped Harley with his homework (if he ever found the time or want to) or how long Harley’s known A.J. that the young man has stepped up to assist without complaint.

+++

“What’s that?” Natasha asks, coming into the room and looking over Steve’s shoulder at the papers in his hands.

“I printed out Rhodes’ action plan for me to become a team lead.” Steve tells her and Wanda looks up from where she’s watching some soap opera nearby.

“You’re going to be leading us again?” She says hopefully and Steve nods with a smile.

“Yeah, it’s going to take some time, but someday.” He tells her and she grins.

“That’s awesome.” She tells him and Clint smiles when he sees Natasha.

“You’re back, what happened?” He asks, inquiring about Natasha’s stint at the Accords Building for the last week.

“A lot of paperwork and a lot of stupid questions.” Natasha says with an overdramatic sigh. “I miss Hill.”

“Ditto.” Clint says with a chuckle. “The paperwork queen.” Natasha takes a seat and slowly reaches out to place a hand on the papers and push them down.

“So, how have things been here?” She asks, clearly trying to start the conversation on a good note and that lets Steve know that it’s about to go bad.

“Things have been good.” Steve says slowly. “We’ve been keeping our heads down, keeping out of trouble…mostly-” He glances at Clint who shrugs. “And we’ve made some new friends.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, A.J.” Wanda says with a small smile and Clint makes a few kissing faces in the background and fake swoons while Wanda uses her magic to throw a pillow at him. “Shut up.” She tells him. “You’re the one who almost blew himself up.”

“Hey, if I hadn’t done that, you might not have met your ‘Prince Charming’.” Clint fires back, grabbing the pillow and tossing it back at the girl.

“A.J.? A.J. who?” Natasha asks and they all shrug.

“Don’t know, he’s Bruce’s assistant right now.” Steve tells her. “He’s not assigned to a team yet, he just works down in the labs.”

“Well it’s good to hear that.” She says and Steve looks her in the eyes.

“Okay, spill. What’s going on?” He asks her and she sighs, pushing some hair behind her ear.

“The CIA picked up Sharon.” She says and that gets all of their attentions. “I mean, it was just a matter of time but it finally happened.”

“What’s going to happen to her?” Steve asks and Natasha shrugs.

“I don’t know. It depends what they’re going to try and charge her with and what value of information she’s been storing away for a rainy day to barter with.” She says. “Carter knew what she was getting into Steve, she’s not some helpless little waif although I’m sure she’s about to play that card.”

“Is there anything we can do to help her?” Steve asks and Natasha shakes her head.

“Our hands are tied probably more than hers are. Best we can do is sit back and wish her luck.” Natasha answers him and Steve frowns, looking down at the papers before him.

He needs to get out of this probationary period and become team lead again. Only then will he have the voice and the authority to help his friends, both old and new.

Chapter Text

“What do you think about this one?” Natasha asks as she pulls a new shirt out of his closet and holds it up for inspection. Steve tilts his head as he looks at it, it’s rather simple and plain.

“Are you sure?”

“Blue’s always been your color.” Nat says as she comes over with it and holds it up against his chest. “I think it’s perfect.” She says a moment later after she approves of whatever she’s seen. Steve shrugs and takes it from her and slips it off the hanger.

“So, have you thought about what you’re going to say to him when you see him tonight?” Clint asks from where he’s sitting on Steve’s bed as he flicks some imaginary lint off the blankets. “I mean, obviously past demanding what the fuck was his deal, getting off on making you miserable.”

“Maybe don’t open with that.” Nat says with an amused smirk as Steve starts doing up the buttons.

“Yeah, I don’t really see that going down well.” Steve admits easily with a smile. “Besides, I might not get to say anything to him tonight.”

“What do you mean?” Clint asks and Steve tries to smooth out his collar.

“Rhodes says that the invitation is for being there only and not for any backstage VIP access to Tony. I’ve been warned against trying to seek him out for a private chat too.” Steve tells him and Clint rolls his eyes dramatically as he falls backwards onto the bed.

“Dear god, that asshole just won’t let this little power play end will he?” He asks and Steve opts not to say anything to that as he turns to get the green light from Nat.

“How do I look?” He asks and she comes over to help settle his collar better and run her fingers through his hair to let it fall more easily into his eyes.

“Like the kind of American icon that Stark just can’t resist.” She tells him with a wink and Steve flushes slightly under the praise. “Are you ready to go?”

“Yeah.” Steve says with a nod. “I mean, we’re finally going to get some answers.”

“There’s no way that Stark’s really stepping down.” Clint says with a shake of his head. “It’s a publicity ploy.”

“Well if he is, I’d like to know who he’s handing the suit over to.” Steve says. “Power like that shouldn’t just go to anyone. Honestly it should stay in the team, like Sam or someone.”

“I’d be surprised if he actually handed it over and if it didn’t go to Potts.” Clint says. “Although I think I’d be terrified if that woman got any kind of weaponized anything. I might have to move to Mexico or somewhere to avoid her wrath.”

“Are you guys going to be good without me?” Steve asks and Nat nods.

“We’ll be fine.” Nat promises him. “I’ll keep them out of trouble.” She says and Steve smiles a little at Clint’s fake angry cry at her words.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Steve tells them. “And hopefully with good news.”

“Land a solid one on Stark’s jaw and that’ll be great news to come home with.” Clint tells him with a thumbs up from the bed and Nat smacks him upside the head with a Russian word that Steve can only guess means some form of ‘idiot’.

Steve heads out to the car and tries to push back the memory of Rhodes refusing to allow them all to carpool, claiming that he was going to the event early with Tony and Pepper to set things up and that he wouldn’t be available to ride with Steve.

Steve had offered to come early as well but of course that had been ignored.

The car ride to the event is long and nerve racking in a way that Steve didn’t really think it would be. This is going to be the first time that he’s going to be seeing Tony since the Hydra base…the first time that he’s going to be able to see with his own eyes that the brunet is okay instead of having to rely on rather questionable second hand sources. Steve just needs to know for sure that Tony’s fine – once he knows that for certain then maybe he can start moving on from Siberia too.

Plus, there’s the added issue of the Avengers that Steve hopes he gets a chance to speak to Tony about. Tony might be ‘pulling back’ but that doesn’t change the clout that he still has with the Accords Council and with the current leader of the team. There are lots of things that Steve would like to discuss with him, things that happened between them that Steve would like to close the door on and things that have happened because of the open wounds between the two of them. There are cracks and chasms between them all, and things are slipping through them. Dangerous things – things like Loki. Things that are undoubtedly going to come back and hurt them all regardless of what team they were on all that time ago and Steve just wants to make sure that Tony is really thinking these things through. Steve just wants to make sure that Tony knows that they’ll have his back if he decides to turn around and come back.

The car pulls up in front of a large building and the front is packed with reporters and their cameras, each practically frothing at the mouth to be the first one to get a glimpse of Tony before the others. It reminds Steve a little of the Avengers and Stark Events that Tony used to try and drag him to. He’d only gone to one and had been completely uninterested the whole time in being some kind of trophy at the billionaire’s side. Being Stark’s amusement and way to cure his boredom at something like that was not something that Steve wanted to do with his weekend.

The feeling of being on display comes back full force when the car stops and Steve steps out. It only takes a few seconds before someone notices who he is and within moments there are lights flashing down on him as dozens of reporters shout over each other trying to get answers to questions that Steve’s been told that he’s not allowed to answer under any circumstances without approved cue cards written by an over paid speech writer.

Happy pushes his way from the door to where Steve is and it’s obvious that he’s very comfortable in doing something like this with how he just drags Steve through the crowd and how it parts for him like the red sea parting before Moses. Happy leads him to a balcony room over the main floor that gives Steve a great view of the stage and the podium.

“This is where you’ll be Rogers.” The man says as he all but pushes Steve inside and goes to leave.

“Is there any way-” Steve starts and Happy just shakes his head.

“No.” He cuts him off before he closes the door and motions from the other side of the glass to the two security guards who have clearly just been tasked with keeping Steve inside the small area.

It makes the hope of seeing or speaking to Tony fall away into an impossibility. He gets himself some water from the small bar area and wonders for a brief moment if he’s going to be alone in the room for the entire event before the door opens and Rhodes slips in.

“Colonel?” Steve greets and Rhodes inclines his head to him. “Did you come by just to make sure that I stay put?”

“Something like that.” Rhodes admits to him easily and it rankles Steve a little.

“I said I’d stay.”

“Then it shouldn’t bother you to have company.” Rhodes replies easily.

“All of this is unnecessary.” Steve tells him. “You’ve been very clear about the repercussions if I leave this room without permission.”

“Good to know you were listening.” Rhodes tells him before he takes a seat and motions to the stage. “It’s about to start.” He says and Steve comes over and sits next to him as Pepper steps out onto the stage and settles the reporters down.

“…Tony’s really stepping down?” Steve asks and Rhodes nods.

“He is.”

“Why?”

“Health reasons.” Rhodes answers without even looking at him.

“…and Iron Man?” Steve asks. “What about him? What happens with the armor?”

“What do you mean?”

“I just mean, Harley seems like a good kid and all – but he’s still a kid. I don’t think he’s ready for the responsibility that being Iron Man would require of him.”

“Harley is a lot more capable than you are giving him credit for.” Rhodes says. “However, you needn’t worry, Harley isn’t stepping in as Iron Man for Tony.”

“He’s not?”

“No. He’ll be practicing with the backup armor.”

“The Rescue model right? Why did Tony need to make a new armor model?” Steve asks and Rhodes looks like he isn’t going to answer for a second before he finally does.

“It was created for Pepper, but she declined.” He admits. “But Pepper doesn’t need the armor to be dangerous.” It sounds like a warning to Steve and Steve doesn’t argue against it.

“So if Harley’s not stepping in as Iron Man then…does that mean that Iron Man is retiring?” It sounds like an impossibility even as the words come out of Steve’s mouth. Iron Man was the first recognized Avenger after all and the armor was an image and an icon that even Tony’s past and his bad choices had never seemed to bring down in the eyes of the world.

“No.”

“But…if Tony’s stepping down and Harley isn’t stepping up and Pepper doesn’t want to be in a suit…then who?” Steve asks. “Surely not Happy?”

“Happy isn’t interested in being Iron Man.”

“Then who?”

“Wait and you’ll find out. It’ll be revealed when Tony comes on stage.” Rhodes tells him and Steve sighs as they fall silent to Pepper’s half of the press conference.

“…It just doesn’t seem like a decision that should be made in a vacuum.” Steve tells him. “Iron Man is a big part of the Avengers and maybe just handing it off to some unknown isn’t the best idea.” Steve says.

“That isn’t your call.”

“The suit is dangerous Rhodes.” Steve reminds him. “You of all people should know that and I’ve seen what it can do when the pilot uses it for personal vendettas-”

“Shut up Rogers.” Rhodes snaps and Steve stops. “You don’t know a damn thing about what Tony could have done to you and I recommend that you don’t start down this conversational road with me right now.” He still doesn’t turn to look at Steve as he talks. “It won’t end well for either of us.”

Steve sighs and looks away, glancing down at the conference and he can tell the moment that Pepper winds down and how the silence seems to unfold over the whole room when she looks to her side and Steve leans forward in his seat a little bit. There’s a momentary pause, like a magician waiting behind the curtain who missed his cue before Tony finally steps out.

The room bursts into chaos again as he walks slowly over to the podium and gives a megawatt smile to everyone, but Steve can’t help but take in the slowness of his steps and the way he seems to be slightly short of breath already – like just the mere effort of walking over to the podium has almost undone him and it makes a horrible, sick feeling settle in Steve’s chest.

“Long time no see.” Tony says with a playful grin and a wink for the reporters and there’s a smattering of laughter amidst the questions already being thrown his way. Tony holds up a hand and Steve’s always amazed how quickly Tony can control a room with so simple a gesture. “It’s been a while, and we’ve got a lot of mileage to cover and very little time in which to do it, so if you could all hold your questions till the end, thanks.”

“…Is he alright?” Steve asks softly and he sees how Rhodes’ fist clenches on his lap and how the other man takes a deep breath. He doesn’t answer Steve and Steve tries to take in every piece of information that the brunet is giving him from a distance. “…he looks good.” Steve says as kindly as he can and it’s true. Tony looks immaculate despite the small tremor in his arm that Steve can see from here that Tony keeps pressing against the podium to hide the weakness, and Steve has to try and ignore the small amount of showmanship in his supposed 'injuries'.

“You never were very good at seeing past the masks.” Rhodes mutters quietly and Steve bites back a retort to that. Tony was never as hard to read as they liked to pretend sometimes.

“- so without further ado. I’d like to introduce for the first time ever, the heir to the Stark legacy-” Tony holds out his arm for someone offstage. “Come on out Junior.”

Steve feels like he’s been punched in the gut with a familiar brunet walks out from behind the curtain and goes over to Tony’s side.

“What?” Steve asks and Rhodes doesn’t reply as Tony drapes his arm over A.J’s shoulders with a big grin.

“It is my great pleasure to introduce – my son.”

If Steve thought that it had been chaos before, it doesn’t hold a candle to what erupts inside the building with those two little words.

Chapter Text

By the next morning, the newly revealed Stark Heir is everywhere. People are clamoring to get any kind of information on ‘Anthony Stark Jr.’ to fill their tabloids with and from what Steve can tell, they’re getting blocked at each and every turn by Stark Industries and those people that Tony pays ridiculous amounts of money to keep certain indiscretions out of the public eye. There are of course a few ones that slip through the cracks, pictures and accounts from people more than willing to share their brief encounters with the youngest Stark in exchange for their fifteen minutes of fame. Steve’s also pretty sure that the price tags that come on those pictures is pretty good incentive as well.

Steve flips through the latest story on Anthony Stark Jr. and he isn’t sure yet how he feels about the young man. The pictures attached to this story are from some of the Stark Industries philanthropic excursions that someone has managed to locate the brunet in the background of other people’s pictures. Places like the aftermath of the bridge collapse, or the building of houses or helping lay groundwork for clean energy or water in places that could truly use the outside world assistance. He’s never front and center in the picture like Steve would guess his father would be, he’s in the background working or sometimes off to the side in group pictures with the biggest grin on his face.

The smile itself contrasts with what Steve’s seen on Tony as well. Tony’s smiles never really reached his eyes unless he was mocking you. They were always picture perfect, just the right amount of teeth showing and just the right amount of crinkle around the eyes. A.J.’s by contrast is open, and genuine.

But that doesn’t change the simple truth that he lied to them. Maybe not right out, but as everyone in Stark’s camp is so quick to remind Steve these days, a lie of omission is still a lie. He never told them who he was. He never told them he was a Stark.

Why? Why hide that? What difference would it have made? What did he think they would have done or said to him if he had just been honest with them?

Wanda hasn’t left her room since last night, and Steve figures he’s not surprised. Wanda had thought that she’d found a potential friend in the brown eyed brunet, but she’d never expected to learn where he came from. Clint’s been trying to bring her food, but she’s turned it all down, refusing to unlock the door and come out.

Steve looks at the page again as he scrolls past people talking about A.J.. ‘He was a really nice young man.’ Seems to be the general consensus and Steve figures that the verdict is still out.

He’s Tony’s son.

Why did he even bother helping them? Why did he even bother pretending like he was just shy around them or pretending like he was open to the possibility of friendship with them? Would he have come by and played cards with them and laughed internally knowing that they didn’t know who he really was? Or is Steve putting too much of Tony onto his son?

Steve stares at the picture from last night, with Tony’s huge smile like this whole thing is so funny – to reveal a secret that the world didn’t know about him – with his arm around A.J. who seems to be playing along with the older Stark’s game.

Does he call him dad? Steve can’t help but wonder. Did Tony even bother to be in his life before he needed something from him? How much interaction did the two have before the Civil War? How much of Tony was actually in the young man before them?

Clint comes into the main area and puts down the plate with the untouched sandwich and chips on it. He looks tired and Steve doesn’t blame him.

“How’s she doing?” Steve asks and Clint just gives him a look that answers the question even without the archer saying anything else

“She’s dealing with it. She isn’t sure how she feels about it yet.” Clint answers him. “Kind of caught us all off guard.”

“Did SHIELD honestly not know about him?” Steve asks, glancing down at the article and Clint shrugs as Natasha comes into the area and takes a seat next to Steve.

“It was always a possibility. There were claims, a lot of claims, but nothing ever panned out. Fury always thought it was possible, you can only be so careful with the kind of life that Stark led, but no. There was never anything concrete.” She tells him as she reaches out and takes the computer from him, scrolling through. “There isn’t a lot of information to go off of right now.”

“Why didn’t he say something?” Steve asks and Natasha shrugs.

“If he’s gone this long being Tony’s son and no one finding out about him it’s probably just second nature to him to just leave it out.” She says and that sounds reasonable. “Having the last name Stark doesn’t automatically connect you to Tony Stark unless you’re suddenly in a building owned by him and surrounded by people who would certainly take a second look if someone went around saying his name was Anthony Stark.” She flips through the pictures. “He looks like he’s just trying to keep a low profile.” It’s the same thing that crossed Steve’s mind when he went through them.

“The apple fell pretty damn far from the tree then. Poor kid.” Clint mutters as he comes over and sits, biting down into the sandwich that he had made for Wanda. Steve doesn’t say anything as he glances over the article again with Natasha.

+++

Steve doesn’t see A.J. for almost two whole days, and when he does there’s something amusing about the picture that the young man paints. He’s wearing a hoodie and a baseball cap attempting to be incognito with sunglasses on his face that he takes off with a sigh as Rhodes smiles next to him.

“Missing how it was?” Rhodes asks and A.J. takes off the cap and runs his hand through his hair.

“…yeah. It was nice not being accosted when I just wanted to go out and walk down the street to get a cup of coffee.” A.J. says and there’s a sadness there that Steve wouldn’t have guessed would be present. “I guess I just forgot…” He trails off and Rhodes gets a sympathetic look.

“Do you wish you could take it back?” Rhodes asks, looking at the other and A.J. takes a moment.

“A little? Yeah? Is that selfish of me? To miss being able to just sit on a park bench and have everyone just walk on by?” A.J. asks and it’s so soft and so sad that Steve’s heart goes out a little to him. A.J. didn’t ask for Tony to be his father after all. “But I stand by my decision if you’re worried about it. The world needs Iron Man, you know that. And people would have started doubting and losing trust in the armor if I never stepped out of it. This was the lesser of all evils.”

“…to be honest…” Rhodes says gently. “I would have said to hell with Iron Man and let you go have that life if it had been my choice.” A.J. smiles at him.

“I know.” He says and there’s a history between these two that throws into disarray the thought that maybe Tony didn’t have any connection with his son. Or perhaps he just sent Rhodes to check in on the youngest Stark every now and then? Tony was always quick to leave his responsibilities with people like Rhodes or Potts. There’s a moment before they both turn to him.

“Rogers.” Rhodes says and there’s a challenge there, like the Colonel is daring Steve to start something.

“Good morning.” Steve says instead. “Hello A.J.”

“…Hi.” He replies, his fingers tapping an almost nervous rhythm on the Starbucks coffee cup in his hands. It’s that same unsure, shy energy that he’s shown them since the beginning. “I should get back down to the labs. I’ll see you around Rhodey.” A.J. says, the nickname that his father uses for the Colonel slipping off his tongue like an afterthought as he slips away and disappears down the hallway. Steve watches him go before he turns back to Rhodes who still has his shoulders squared and Steve tries not to antagonize him.

“…have you known each other a long time?” Steve finds himself asking and he almost cringes at how it comes out.

“I’ve known him most of his life.” Rhodes answers evenly.

“And Tony?” He asks and Rhodes gets a small, secretive kind of smile.

“I think it’s safe to say.” He replies before he puts a hand to his ear and listens to something over his earpiece. “I have to go, but I expect that everyone will be professional and courteous to everyone while I’m gone.” He says and it’s a clear threat.

“Of course.” Steve tells him and Rhodes looks like he doesn’t want to leave before he finally turns and walks away. Steve waits a few moments before he heads off in the direction that A.J. went, curious if he can catch up with the brunet before he disappears into the labs. He’s a little bit pleased when he sees him in the hall and Steve jogs to catch up with him. “A.J.!” He calls out and A.J. freezes so eerily still and straight before he turns around to look at him.

“Mr. Rogers.” A.J. responds. “Did you need something?”

“I’m sorry.” Steve blurts out and it seems to take A.J. aback.

“For what?”

“I’m sorry that you thought you couldn’t tell us.” Steve says honestly. “I’m sorry if you thought that we would have treated you differently if we had known.” There’s a pause in the other man and Steve knows what he has to do and he presses on. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who your father is. I’d like to get to know you, I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that too. We’d like to get to know you.” Steve offers out his hand to shake and there’s a strange look on A.J.’s face, almost like somehow what Steve’s said has upset him, has pained him in some way before he gives a shaky kind of smile that doesn’t look like it’s coming across as unaffected and friendly as he’s trying to make it seem, like Tony could have undoubtedly made it seem, as he reaches out and shakes Steve’s hand.

“Here’s to being judged on our merits I suppose and not what other people say about us.” He says and there’s something there, something heavy that makes Steve wonder if this is actually a problem that A.J.’s had before. People looking and only seeing Tony Stark instead of him and judging him for it unfairly.

“Hear, hear.” Steve says with as friendly of a smile as he can give. It’s not a perfect start, but perhaps it’ll be a good one someday.