Tony and Steve are in porcupine mode. They're bristling and snappy and turning their backs on each other.
Clint, watching all this, has been sketching little cartoon porcupines on his notes in missions. It's uncomfortable to be around, and he's distracting himself, ok? He can't draw for shit, but cones with eyes and spiky butts he can manage.
But then, somehow, Steve wins.
Like seriously, what the fuck? Steve's not even right about the original argument; no, Tony shouldn't have to justify his science on the run, Steve, you are never going to understand it in time. And Steve knows that, Clint's pretty sure. The devastated look on his face and Tony's visible exhaustion are clear though. Steve won the argument somehow and Tony's self esteem is in the pan.
So. Tony's at his therapist's. It's Howard again; he knows he was right, there's no way he can talk fast enough to explain to a layperson mid-engagement, but Steve threw Howard in his face and Tony crumpled like a deck of cards.
“So. It sounds like we're working on conditioned emotional behaviour today, Tony.”
Tony nods and grips the fiddle-toy Liz insisted on. “I started placating, just because--”
“Ding ding! Bad word alert.”
He scowls and shoots her a glare. “I started placating, because Steve invoked the great Howard Stark.”
She nods. “Well done. That sounds right. You're analysing the way we established?”
“Sure. Best I can anyway. I encountered a trigger, had a flash, my heart got whiplash, and voilà, behavioural shift.” He twists the fiddle toy into its back and buries his fingers in its soft belly fur.
“Okay, we can keep working on breaking down the associative conditioning, but the more often it gets triggered without extinction conditions, the longer that is going to take. I'd like you to have a better baseline response before you have to handle it on your own.”
Tony knows where this is going and groans, fingers squishing the toy's stuffing until he can feel the poly beads in the middle. “How exactly do I do that? I can't control Captain America, Paragon of Virtue’s dirty fucking mouth.”
“You'd be surprised. Example: I tell you 'the crepé van on the corner of the block has a health violation.’ What happens?”
Tony wrinkles his nose in distaste. “I don't go for crepés. But that's an intrinsic motivator, you're taking advantage of my desire not to get sick; telling Steve he hurt my feelings isn't going to ‘modify his behaviour.’”
“Tony, come on. Remember what you've told me about the captain. About his intrinsic motives.”
“You are the worst. He's motivated by vinegar and pepper and bile.”
“ Tony. ”
“Fine! fuck. I'll talk to him. If you help me work out the fuck I'm supposed to say.”
“Steve, sit down for a minute, and don't talk over me. So help me Obama, if you interrupt I'll leave for Malibu.”
Steve sits and clenches his jaw. What the hell kind of irresponsible threat is that? But, Tony's done it before, and if he's found a way to explain Doppler tracking that actually makes sense, Steve isn't going to reward his effort with interruptions and rudeness.
“So. You threw Howard in my face on Tuesday. You brought him up in the middle of a tactical argument. Did you know you'd win if you did?”
Steve can't get a read on Tony's face; it's a concern. “I hoped it might inspire you to try and explain.”
“Well, fuck you. It didn't. It 'inspired me’ to do whatever I could to make you happy,” Tony grumbles. He's angry, that's clear, and he's breathing hard. Steve doesn't understand what the hell is going on here.
“I have PTSD. You know this, I admit this, it's a fact of my life. I have triggers. Howard's name was used as a stick to beat me with during the most traumatic experience of my life, it's a trigger. I can say the name, just about, but hearing it from you? From the Captain, from an angry, powerful man, more than capable of physically pulling me to pieces?”
Steve's fists are shaking; he feels sick.
“I can't-- You didn't win that argument, you ended it. I can't fight you now, I can't be your SiC. You don't understand physics. You don't have a college education in it, and you don't need one, because you have-- had, me. You didn't trust me when I said it was too difficult to explain in time, not even after the fact . I told you ten times if I told you once, that you were asking the wrong question. I gave you the information you needed, you saved the day, why couldn't you leave it?”
“I'm not an idiot, Tony, I can understand physics if you just explain it!”
“For fuck's sake Steve, then ask for physics lessons! Doppler modeling is a postgrad study, you have to be able to differentiate, integrate, and matrix transform data--”
Tony stops. He snaps his mouth closed on an argument that was finally making sense to Steve and glares. “She said this would happen. Shut up, Steve, no interruptions!”
Steve grits his teeth. “You asked me a question.”
“It was rhetorical. Shhh.”
Steve shuts it.
“I can't be your SiC, Steve.”
What had felt like another idle threat before, turns into a solid lump of dread in Steve's stomach.
“I was right. I still am. It'll take months to teach you enough to understand what I did. You understand enough. You have more than enough information to make the right call; I give you the practical reality that the data distills into.”
Yeah. He does. Steve’s frustrated beyond words, but Tony's right. Steve's scared he doesn't know enough, but then, when isn't he? “If I can learn to trust that, will you stay on?”
Tony raises a censorious finger and Steve holds his hands up in apologetic surrender.
Tony waits, to make sure he's staying quiet, and then continues. “No, that's not our biggest problem. It's a symptom of getting thrown into the future without a parachute, but it's not a problem itself. Any other day, we'd eventually have understood each other. Howard's the problem.”
“If you bring him up, invoke his name like that, you trigger a conditioned emotional behaviour. It's a fault line right through me. Howard... And Obie, can't forget him,” Tony adds in a bitter aside that makes Steve want to hug him despite everything. “They trained me to always please them. Unhappy Howard drank, he got violent, and mouthy. And I.” He takes a deep breath, like this hurts, like it burns. “I was too young to learn rebellion. I just. If I built something amazing, if I told him he was the best, if I salvaged his goddamn ego from the trashcan, I was safe. We had good times, we built and invented and I loved him for it.”
“He was my dad.” Tony's voice breaks. He tries to keep talking, mouth opening soundlessly, but gives up and sits down next to Steve. He wishes he could help break Tony's block, but he doesn't even dare to put an arm around him. Or get up to make coffee, not after Tony chose to sit close enough to touch.
“He was my dad, and he was abusive. He used his affection like an accelerator pedal; conditional love. I could have it if I made him happy enough.”
They sit in silence, unless you count the thunder of Steve's heart in his throat and the ringing in his ears.
“And then Obie used his name as a stick to beat me with for the next twenty five years. And tried to kill me. So.”
“Can I... “ Steve asks. His hands itch for the shield, but then he remembers Howard made it, dismissed it and denigrated it even. He shudders.
He wraps himself around Tony, pressing himself against the warmth and trying to hide him away. “I'm sorry, I. I am so, so sorry. Fuck. He was--”
“He was your friend. Yeah. I was there for the drink, the whole awful thing, and I still love him. He loved me, he loved mom, and he was an asshole. I don't blame you for ...grieving him too.”
“I'll never bring him up. I'll learn to trust all the shit I can't see, I promise.”
“Yeah. You will. I have faith in your stupid perfect brain. I couldn't have said any of this if I didn't. But I still can't be SiC.”
Steve's crushed by that, he can admit it to himself. His throat is tight with guilt and grief for the man he left behind in 1945, and he's probably crushing Tony at least a little bit, but he can accept that.
He hurt Tony, he doesn't deserve him.
“Whoever you choose has to be able to argue the toss with you. Toe to toe. And I can't right now. In a few months, or a year, maybe. But I don't want to butt heads like this ever again.”
Steve manages to swallow and croaks; “Natasha?”
Tony nods, his hands settling more firmly on Steve's back. “She's the obvious choice.”
“I'm so sorry, Tony. I--”
“Yeah, yeah, quit blubbing. I'll get better. Liz is great, and... I'm told I'm a tough nut to crack. I'll get better.”