It starts on the anniversary of Tony’s return from Afghanistan.
Well, technically it started before that, with the toppling dominos of Thor’s return from Asgard, the Avengers coming back together, and then living together. But for this particular segment of what Steve’s been thinking of as the Rogers vs. Stark Status Tracking Graph, it starts on the anniversary of Tony’s return from Afghanistan.
Steve knows the significance of the day, but he also knows that said date hasn’t overtly bothered Tony before in the two years they’d worked out of the tower together. That said, things do change, and maybe the Ultron episode (plus Wanda’s joining the team) has rubbed some old wounds raw.
Whatever the case, when Steve steps into the common area on this day, Tony’s there by himself, half-sprawled in one of the chairs and watching TV. There’s a documentary playing – or a retrospective, or whatever they call it these days – with narration set over old footage of Tony and various Stark Industries-stamped set pieces.
Steve doesn’t hide his approach, and comes up to lean against back of the couch. He’s sure that Tony heard him, but there’s no telling if the tilt of Tony’s head is an acknowledgement, or a response to what he’s watching.
“And the turning point,” the narrator says, “at press conference number one.”
Steve’s seen this footage before. It was part of Fury’s welcome pack, and the first glimpse Steve had had of Tony as a person. He remembers how he’d felt disappointed, at both not recognizing enough of Howard in Tony, and wondering how on earth a supposedly-genius weapons manufacturer could take so damned long to realize what he’d been sending out into the world.
But mostly, Steve had been angry at being woken up, and it felt good to have someone to aim that anger at. The world didn’t seem at all better than the one he’d left behind (so it’d felt at the time) and Tony seemed to be part of the system that kept the world fucked up (instead of someone who’d been fucked over as well and had just figured out how to break out of old patterns).
“I had become part of a system that is comfortable with zero accountability,” Tony-on-TV says.
Steve sees now what he hadn’t then. He knows Tony’s face, the masks and the real, and how he flips between both. Tony-on-TV is trying to keep the mask on yet bring it down at the same time; terrified of doing both, but wanting to.
“I should’ve fixed my hair.” Tony sounds curious, almost detached. Not upset.
Steve relaxes. “No, it suits the message you’re trying to get across.”
“No fucks given?” Tony smiles, though his eyes don’t leave the screen. “Yeah, I’ll give me that.”
Steve moves around the couch and sits down. There’s footage of the fight with Stane in the suit, along with amateur shots of Tony’s earliest flights. Surprisingly, Tony seems to lose interest just as the retrospective gears up for its big climax – a predictable one, Steve thinks, with the reveal of the red-and-gold – and instead tips his head against the back of seat as though in preparation for a nap.
“It’s the anniversary of the day I came back,” Tony says. “Didn’t realize at first.”
“Oh,” Steve says. “They made this show especially for that?”
“Probably.” Tony frowns. “No one asked me for an interview. Or maybe they did and I forgot? Anyone ask you?”
“No. I would have, if they asked.”
Tony swivels his head, pinning Steve with a surprised look. “Really?”
“Sure.” Steve shrugs. “I’m happy to share my thoughts about you, as a teammate and so on.”
“How you hated my guts from the get-go—”
“Come on, now.”
“Anything else would be a lie, Steven. You wouldn’t lie to the public, would you?”
Steve sets his face in a glare that has Tony grinning. “I’d talk about the important things, and how we didn’t hit it off at first is not important.” Steve can see Tony start to protest, so he adds, “Better to talk about how we surprised each other, and brought different, necessary, viewpoints into the team.”
“Would you rather I talk about how persnickety you are about the coffee machine?”
“The human touch. People like that. Off-topic, though.” Tony’s brow furrows for a second. “Right, they can’t interview you. You didn’t know me, before.”
“Does that matter?”
“This is a—” Tony flaps his hand at the screen, where the credits are playing. “It pivots on the kidnapping. Before and after.”
“Should’ve asked Pepper, then.”
“She has better taste than to say yes.”
“So you’re saying that I have poor taste, because I would say yes.”
Tony sounds cheerful, lazy, but there’s something else going on behind his eyes, no doubt kicked into the motion by old memories brought to the surface. There’s nothing about him that’s demanding that Steve leave, so he stays, waiting. It’s not new for Tony to seem like he’s contemplating a dozen things at once, but his moments of open introspection are rare enough that Steve still hasn’t quite figured out how to handle them without striking a nerve and causing Tony to close off.
Afghanistan is one of those nerves. They’ve never talked about it, so all Steve knows is what Fury put in the files, plus the one time that Tony, with his usual flippantness, mentioned that he knows what it feels like to be waterboarded. They were tearing a Hydra base apart at the time, which of course meant that Steve had no time to acknowledge it, and by the time he wanted to they were back with the rest of the team and he’d known in his gut that Tony would kick his ass if he brought it up.
“They called it my rebirth,” Tony says at last. “People like using that term, don’t they?”
“All of us have had a rebirth of sorts,” Steve says. “All of us Avengers, I mean.”
“Mm, yeah.” Tony twitches, a familiar tic that usually precedes an exit or a joke. His fingers drum on one knee, two waves back and forth before they go still, and Steve wonders if he should call Rhodey, or Pepper, or someone else better at this. Steve considers himself damned lucky to get along with Tony the way he does these days, but he knows his limitations.
Maybe Steve should say something. Such as how he’s had near-death trauma, too, except Tony knows that, too. Not to mention that Steve doubts his ability to make it sound like anything but using his experiences as currency, or worse yet, as a comparison to belittle Tony’s.
Geez, even Natasha would be better at this.
“Can I change the channel?” Steve says. Tony gestures an affirmative, so Steve does, flipping through the channels until settling on what looks to be a procedural.
The moment passes.
At least, it should pass. But then Tony says, the strain evident in his voice: “I don’t think it was a rebirth. Not really. I’m still an asshole putting all my creative eggs in one basket, just aimed in a different direction.”
Steve shakes his head. “It’s more than that.”
“You don’t know, you weren’t there.” Tony says this so carelessly that there’s no bite in it. “I’m focused on this work now, but I think I’ve always had the ability to do this. To be this. I just needed the kick to get it started.”
“That’s not bad, whether it’s true or not.”
“I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m saying that there was no actual change in my core code. Not enough to call it a ‘rebirth’.” Tony uses the finger quotes, though it’s hard to tell exactly what has him frustrated. “An awakening, sure, or a switch being flipped on. But it’s not…” He trails off, mouth working silently as though for the first time since Steve’s known him, he can’t find the words.
“Well,” Steve says slowly, “if rebirth means a change in your deeper self, I didn’t experience one either. I was merely given the ability to do what I’ve always wanted.”
Tony stares at Steve, appalled. “That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“Then you better go slowly. I’m old.”
That startles a laugh out of Tony, who then frowns and wags a finger at him. “Stop that.”
Steve raises an eyebrow. “You are telling me to stop joking around?”
“I’ve got a point here! Look. The point.” Tony pushes himself up in his seat, moving from a slouch to a business-like curl forward, his elbows on his knees and his hands gesturing as he speaks. “You never needed to change. You were always a hero, you just needed the means to execute that drive.”
“I’m not saying you’re perfect, because you’re not, you’re also a dick,” Tony says, which of all things has Steve relaxing minutely, “but your focus, your purpose, was always due North. I was presented a new, logical purpose and shifted everything around to accommodate that, but I never actually changed.”
“I don’t know if I agree with that either, but I accept that since I didn’t know you before, I cannot comment.”
“Good. So.” Tony rubs his hands together. “It is generally agreed upon that I was a bad person before. Selfish, self-centered, uncaring about anything not immediately relevant to my personal gratification. And if my core code is the same as it was then, doesn’t that mean I’m still a bad person now, just working for a good cause?”
“Tony,” Steve says patiently. “I have no doubt that you were a bigger pain in the ass when you had different priorities, but if you were a bad person through and through, Pepper would have quit ages ago.”
Tony thinks. “Okay, that’s true.”
“And of course you’re changed. You’re not even the same person you were when we first met.”
“Am I? I don’t feel like I it.”
“Come on, Tony. Accumulative changes are a thing, you know that.” When Tony still looks skeptical, Steve adds, “Maybe the problem is that you believe that a massive change – a ‘rebirth’ – into Iron Man should have been painful. Not physical pain, but mental.”
“Had that, too.”
“No.” Steve sighs, while Tony just smirks at him. “The pain of an uphill climb, where every choice in the new direction is a battle against your older self.”
Tony cocks his head, considering. “Like dieting.”
“I suppose that’s closer. From my perspective, you changed. But from your perspective, you didn’t, because the change was an obvious, natural choice after what you went through. You didn’t have to fight yourself to turn due North. But that doesn’t mean you didn’t change at all – it probably means the change went so deep that it shifted your core code without you realizing.”
Tony stares at him, eyes narrowing as though in suspicion. “I don’t like that.”
“Why, because I’m right?”
“I do hate it when you’re right.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
Tony reaches behind himself, grabbing the cushion that he lobs at Steve’s head. Steve could catch it, but he chooses to lean over a little, letting it hit the couch seat. It’s a good decision, because it deepens the petulant curve of Tony’s mouth.
“Maybe you’re onto something,” Tony says. “But it doesn’t seem to – I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t seem to what?”
“Doesn’t sit quite right.” Tony wrinkles his nose. “Why am I even thinking about this, it’s stupid.”
“It’s not stupid.”
“You are not the authority on what’s stupid or not.” Tony stands up and pats at his pockets in search of his phone. “Dammit. I have to go.”
Steve feels himself deflate a little. This was just getting interesting, but of course Tony’s busy. He starts to flip through the channels again, this time in earnest, but pauses when Tony, standing at the threshold of the sitting area, says, “Hey.”
Steve looks over. “Yeah?”
“I don’t…” Tony shrugs.“My head’s kind of in a weird place right now.”
“I don’t think I should be alone too long. I’ve got to finish a thing for Hill, but want to do something later?”
“Oh,” Steve says, surprised. “Sure, I don’t have anything tonight.”
“Okay, I’ll…” Tony starts walking again, heading for the stairs though his voice carries as he calls out, “…I’ll ping you when I think of something. Dinner or whatever.”
“Sure thing,” Steve calls back.
They go out for dinner, just the two of them. This isn’t something they do often, for there’s usually at least one other Avenger or Avenger-ancillary with them, but it goes well enough, mostly thanks to Tony’s buzzing with so much energy that the food’s long gone before the conversation is.
It’s obvious that something’s been knocked loose in Tony, casting him with a fresh burst of restlessness not unlike how he gets whenever hit with some new revolutionary idea. There hasn’t been much of this side of him in the past few months since Bruce disappeared, so Steve’s glad to see it even if he doesn’t exactly get what’s going on behind it.
“No, look,” Tony says, moving the cutlery like chess pieces around their now mostly-cleared table. “I don’t disagree that pre-emptive measures can be misused. But the fact is, all measures we create have the potential to be misused, preventive or not.”
“But that’s looking at it glass half-empty,” Steve says. “How about, by moving pre-emptively you create new enemies where there weren’t any before? Or, your actions give your enemies the means to move against you?”
“Isn’t that a worthwhile risk?”
“I don’t know. Is it?”
Tony’s face twists – in disappointment or maybe disgust. His gaze is ostensibly on the tablecloth, yet in reality is probably looking into things that Steve can only vaguely imagine.
For the briefest second Steve thinks that this pause in the conversation is a boil about to rupture, but this isn’t one of those. There are no immediate threats breathing down their necks, no resurfaced mistakes begging for attention. In fact, this turn in the conversation was Steve’s doing; he’d commented on one of the café’s servers accidentally dropping a dish earlier, to which Tony had posited ways to prevent that from happening, and here they are.
“You don’t actually have a plan,” Tony says. “For when that hole in the sky opens up again.”
“No, I don’t. But I understand that you need one.”
“If that’s true, it’s a very shallow understanding. Which blows my mind, because you survived things I can’t even imagine.”
“Oh. Well. I’m sure your imagination can picture it.”
“Not accurately.” Tony’s slouching now, a lopsided man made out of slow-ooze putty, his weight resting on one elbow braced on the table. Steve realizes that in comparison he’s been sitting almost ramrod straight out of subconscious contrariness, which is a microcosm of their relationship, really.
“I get why you made Ultron,” Steve says. “I get the idea. But you hadn’t even launched it and it already went sideways.”
Tony hums an acknowledgement. “You know, I thought we were doing well.”
“With the Iron Legion?”
“No, the Avengers. Teamwork, cooperation, yadda yadda. But one goddamned day with the same goddamned sceptre and we were all ready to throw down, like the last how many missions we’ve had at each other’s backs didn’t happen. Funny, that.”
“Not that funny.”
Tony smiles ruefully. Steve feels a pang; as team leader, he should’ve done better. After the Sokovia rescue, he and Tony had talked it out, and although it had been stilted as they’d both tried to avoid another shouting match, they’d managed to boil it down to better communication and show of trust, though who knows if such well-intentioned yet vague promises are enough for the next time something like that happens?
“We were doing well,” Steve says firmly. “Yes, it got bad, but when was the last time we’d had an argument like that? Ages.”
Tony makes a face.
“And we were all compromised,” Steve adds.
“We can be compromised again.” Tony’s given up on the cutlery and has moved to his sunglasses, folding and unfolding them on the tabletop. “We have to do better.”
“I never, uh…” The twirling of the sunglasses stops. “I’m really grateful for everything you’ve done.”
Steve blinks. “I… What?”
“I am really grateful,” Tony says, enunciating the words slowly, “for everything you’ve done. You see things I don’t, you bring people together in ways I could never… Yeah. I’ve learned a lot, and I don’t think I’ve ever, you know. Told you that. You’ve done a lot for us, and for me, too.”
Steve’s neck feels warm, appreciating the apparent sincerity with which Tony just said all that, except there’s a tinge of wrongness all over it because earnest? Tony?
“I…” Steve trails off, at a loss.
“Hey, put these on.” Tony lifts his glasses, bobbing them in the air in front of Steve’s face. “Put ‘em on. I want to see.”
Steve takes the glasses and puts them on.
“Whoa there, Tyler Durden.” Tony whips out his phone and snaps a picture before Steve can react. A flick of Tony’s fingers has his phone projecting a holographic display of the resulting photo, which has captured Steve looking particularly offended, though this time said offense is partially masked by large, pink-tinged lenses. “You look like a douche.”
“Of course I look like a douche,” Steve says.“They’re your glasses.”
“No, it’s the face. You have one of those faces. I should add lenses to your helmet.”
“Push the glasses up.”
“If I do that, do you promise not to add lenses to my helmet?”
“Yes, cross my heart.” Tony is practically bouncing in his seat as Steve slowly urges the glasses up to his hairline. The hinge catches at a few strands but Steve soldiers on until he can perch the no doubt hideously-expensive pair of sunglasses on the top of his head. When Tony lifts his phone again, Steve gamely angles his head to peer at the middle distance of nothing.
There’s a fake-shutter click, followed by Tony’s happy, “Yeah, that’s going on the Avengers twitter.”
“A small price to pay.” Steve scoots over and goes along with Tony’s very important discussion on filters to use, which at least keeps Steve from wondering if he should be relieved or not that this side of Tony, at least, is familiar.
The next morning, by the time Steve’s returned from his run, he’s almost forgotten about Tony’s unusual flare up over dinner. Tony has his quirks, after all, and they’ve only known each other for a few years, so of course there’ll still be moments where Steve will be taken off-guard.
Steve’s very close to filing away the whole thing when he walks into the kitchen for breakfast.
Natasha’s there alone, which is not unusual since barely anyone else is up at this time of day except Rhodey and maybe Sam, who are currently away. She waves her phone at him, where the screen is lit to Tony’s twitter upload from the night before. “You encouraging his crush now?” she says.
“Hey,” Steve hisses. “Not so loud.”
“There is literally no one here.”
“That’s not…” Steve sighs and sinks into a chair. Natasha helpfully pushes her bowl of granola towards him, and he takes a handful, popping the pieces into his mouth between speech. “Don’t be mean.”
“You know when I’m being mean,” Natasha says. “This isn’t mean. This is me asking politely if I should be aware of a change of status among my teammates.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Steve says. “All right, it wasn’t entirely like that.”
“It was a nice night out.” That comes out gentler that he intended, making Natasha’s eyebrows jump up. Steve adds, exasperated, “It was nice the same way it’s nice when you and I hang out. He was flirty, but he’s always flirty, that’s not new.”
Natasha bobs her phone in Steve’s face, only pulling away when Steve threatens to grab it. “You posed for him,” she says.
“It wasn’t a date. It’s possible that he wanted it to be, but he didn’t ask, and he wasn’t pushy at any point. In fact, he was more…”
Truth be told, Steve doesn’t want to be unsettled by Tony’s behavior yesterday, with the flashes of intensity between his more typical, irrelevant chatter.
The man could talk a mile a minute about any topic, even the ones he knew barely anything about, but over dinner they’d fallen into discussion about the Avengers, the choices they’ve made and the consequences they’d faced, as though those were things they talked about in incredible detail all the time, instead of merely skimming over what is functional for the day-to-day.
Honestly, Steve thinks that Tony was shaken by the reminder of his Afghanistan experience, and he needed to burn that energy off. The fact that he chose Steve instead of Rhodey or even Natasha is unusual, and Steve can’t dismiss the possibility that Tony’s feelings for him were indeed a factor in that choice. But even so, Steve can’t judge him for it.
If Tony needed help with a less-obvious problem, Steve was more than happy to do what he could.
“What if he does ask?” Natasha says. “Hey, Steve, you want to go steady sometime? That’s how they say it these days.”
“I know how to handle it.”
Natasha hauls a spoonful of granola into her mouth, her polite expression making perfectly clear her opinion of the accuracy of that statement.
“I do,” Steve insists.
As far as Steve’s aware, only he and Natasha know of Tony’s feelings for him. Natasha, whenever she brings it up, refers to it as the ‘crush’, but that doesn’t seem like the kind of word that can be applied to someone like Tony Stark.
Natasha knows about it because she’s Natasha, and that’s what she does.
Steve knows about it because although he can be a little obtuse about such matters, once you’re living with and spending enough time with another person to notice patterns in their behavior, you figure some things out. Plus, it’s literally Steve’s job to observe his teammates, usually to the goal of bringing out the best in them, with genuine friendship and camaraderie being a wonderful bonus.
The Rogers vs. Stark Status Tracking Graph in Steve’s head looks like the following.
It starts low to begin with (their first meeting) before dropping like a stone to negative points. Recovery into the positive is a surprising loop upwards, though the points stay in the low, nothing-to-write-home-about range. The build up from there is slow-going, awkward, with brief drops to negative here and there, though those get rarer as time goes by and eventually vanish altogether.
Then it gets good. And better. By the time they’d gotten Hydra base-smashing down to an art, it was at an all-time high, culminating in a particular mission off Sri Lanka that only went a little sideways, requiring crashing the Quinjet in open water.
Steve’s memory is excellent, but he doesn’t know why that particular incident was the turning point for Tony. He remembers that they’d been arguing (no surprise) about whether Clint and Natasha would find them, or whether they should make the effort to get back to the mainland. Tony’s suit was damaged but he believed it could make the flight. Steve disagreed. Words were said, Tony accused Steve of wanting the both of them to sink together, and Steve snapped back that maybe that wasn’t as bad as the alternative.
It was far from one of their worst arguments. Tony caved and agreed to stay, using the suit to strengthen the Quinjet’s signal. They worked together, and waited.
Something happened in those few hours of waiting; Steve knows that in retrospect. Nat and Clint did find them, and Tony was quiet on the way back. Quieter, anyway.
After that, there was a week or so Tony being an absolute prick. He was snappish, irritable, and seemed determined to pick a fight with Steve, and only Steve, over every little thing. It was the worst kind of throwback to their earliest days, so to say that Steve was bewildered was an understatement. It got so bad that even Thor noticed, and made a comment out of Tony’s earshot that the man must have a desperate craving for sport.
Enough was enough. Steve went up to Tony’s workshop and, after letting Tony’s first few petty jibes roll off him, squared his shoulders and said, “I’m sorry.”
Tony’s scowl, already a fearsome thing, deepened. “What?”
“I must have done something to upset you. I don’t know what it is, but if you tell me, I’ll listen and do my best to make it better.”
Tony stared at him, but said nothing. Unfortunately, Steve had timed his visit wrong and Tony was wearing goggles, making it harder to read his expression.
“I know I did something,” Steve pressed. “Just tell me what it is.”
Steve braced himself for another round of Tony’s snark, but to his surprise, Tony deflated. Tony also turned away, hiding his face from view. “No, you didn’t do anything.”
“Tony. I’ve always been able to count on you to tell me when I’ve done something—”
“It’s not you, it’s me. It’s literally me.” Tony kept his back to Steve, hands moving across the computer screen that was there, but that was just an excuse. He didn’t even notice his reflection.
The glass surface of the lab’s far wall showed enough of Tony’s face, which was very clearly contorted in self-directed dismay.
Said face, hidden as it was, did not at all match Tony’s calm tone: “I’m just working through some things.”
Steve remembers the white noise in his head, a familiar companion of the panic he still sometimes gets in social situations when there’s no immediately obvious action to take save, perhaps, jumping out the nearest window.
“Okay,” Steve managed to say.
“Yeah,” Tony replied, curt. “Don’t worry about it.”
Things went back to normal after that, for the most part. The Rogers vs. Stark graph returned to the nice, comfortable equilibrium of late, with companionship and snark and teamwork, and only low-level belligerence in between. Everything seemed to be and effectively was back to normal, except Steve had a piece of additional information.
Initially, Steve railed against the immediate conclusion. It was egotistical, narcissistic. Not everything had to be about him.
But Tony’s actions fit a particular profile, and said actions clearly did center on Steve, and Tony was very much the kind of person who could get pissed at himself for falling for someone and choose to lash out in response. And for all that Tony acted afterward that nothing had changed, Steve would every so often catch glimpses, brief and fleeting; whenever they’d had a particularly good day, or when Steve looked over at Tony too quickly, or when Tony said something that made Steve burst out with genuine laughter.
The little bow on top was Natasha’s casual comment one day: “Better watch out there, Tony’s going to start etching little hearts all over your uniform.”
Steve had stared at her, horrified. “You – you can tell—”
“He’s good at hiding it, but yes. Obviously.”
“Don’t tell anyone,” Steve said urgently. “And especially don’t tell him I know. I don’t want to hurt him.”
“He’s a grown man, he’ll be fine,” Natasha said, rolling her eyes. “But don’t worry, I won’t say anything.”
That was a few months ago, just before Ultron and their latest clash. Honestly, Steve had hoped that it would go away.
Tony’s a fine guy. Difficult, but he’s a hardworking man with a huge heart, and Steve’s proud to fight alongside him. It’s even flattering that someone who’s lived the life Tony has could want him, but Steve’s brain can’t help slipping off the idea of even trying to think of Tony like that. Good looks and personality may be criteria to consider, but Tony’s like Natasha and Sam, or Thor and Bruce when they were around. Steve trusts him, enjoys spending time with him (for the most part), and would gladly follow him into battle, but that’s it.
The other key factor here is that Tony hasn’t acted upon his feelings, to the point that every so often Steve forgets they’re there or assumes that Tony’s moved on, right until something happens to remind him that nope, Tony hasn’t weighed anchor.
Like that time a building fell on Steve (long story) and Tony visited him while he was in the tower’s recovery.
Steve had drifted in and out while Dr. Cho did her work, and retained just enough consciousness to choose not to move. The building collapse had been the finale to a really long week, leaving Steve exhausted and just plain grateful to be able to lie down on a comfortable surface. There wasn’t anything to worry about either, because the session in a cradle and a few days of the serum doing its work would have him back on his feet in no time.
Tony knew that, too. Yet at some point after Dr. Cho took her leave, Tony came in with the apparent mission to hold Steve’s hand, which he did while muttering half-hearted threats to kick Steve’s ass as soon as he woke up.
Steve didn’t hear all of it, but he does remember Tony’s faint, “You are never allowed to criticize my sleeping habits ever again.” Tony’s hands were calloused and warm.
He eventually put Steve’s hand down, though his fingers lingered, trailing over the back of Steve’s knuckles.
“Ugh,” Tony said when he finally pulled away. “Stop being a creep.”
Like every other incident before it and since, Tony pretended it never happened, and Steve pretended he didn’t know that it happened.
If anything, Tony’s always seemed content to leave things the way they are. He’s still a brilliant and driven teammate, their working relationship is tight-ish, and any blow-ups they do have are more ideology-driven than anything personal. Tony’s feelings, whatever they may be, are background noise, and barely noticeable if one doesn’t go looking.
So whatever’s going on with Tony right now has nothing to do with that.
Two days after the unexpected dinner, Tony takes Natasha out for a night on the town. Steve finds out after the fact, when the pair of them swan back into the compound close to midnight, while Steve is playing board games with Wanda and Vision in the common area.
“Wow, I feel underdressed,” Wanda says.
“You would’ve been bored.” Natasha’s in a low-backed dark purple stunner, her hair up but with a few curls loose. She parks herself at their table while Tony moves past to the TV area – he’s talking on the phone, but pauses at the threshold to remove a silver clutch from under his arm and toss it at Natasha. She catches it, naturally.
“One of the usual meet-and-greets?” Steve says.
“Just dinner, actually,” Natasha says. “And a show. Well, half a show, because I got bored.”
“That dress is not for ‘just’ dinner,” Vision says.
Wanda grins at him. “You have that type of information in your databanks?”
“It’s self-evident, wouldn’t you think?” Vision says.
“Tony dared me to look prettier than him, so I rose to the challenge.” Natasha pushes a hand into her hair, drawing a handful of pins out and shaking her tresses loose. Partway in the motion of lowering said hands, she reaches over, tapping a forefinger to Steve’s nose knowingly.
Steve narrows his eyes but stays silent, conscious of Wanda and Vision’s presence.
“Wanda, if that’s something you’d like to do, we could bring you,” Natasha says. “Both of you, even.”
“Oh,” Wanda says, “no, that’s…”
“Tony’s up for it,” Natasha says, sounding way too confident despite there being barely any historical precedent for this. “At the very least we should bring you to the tower. You didn’t get to enjoy the views much before we moved out here.”
“I think the views from the compound are perfectly nice,” Vision says. “Though an organized outing to the city would be nice as well.”
“Discuss anything interesting?” Steve asks.
“You can ask Tony. Actually.” Natasha leans back in her chair and throws her voice: “Hey, Tony! Did we discuss anything interesting?”
“That dumbass dossier you made on me!” When Tony returns, the jacket’s gone and the top button of his dress shirt undone. If there was indeed a competition on who was prettier for the night, Natasha would’ve won, but Steve’s objective enough to admit that Tony put a decent showing. “The one she wrote up after spying on me.”
“That is what I do,” Natasha says.
“You made a dossier on Tony?” Wanda says curiously.
“If I was suitable for the Avengers initiative, way back when.” Tony pulls a free chair from the table and swivels it before sitting down, arms braced on the frame. “Rejected me outright.”
“No, I rejected Tony Stark,” Natasha says. “Iron Man got a pass.”
“Yeah, that,” Tony says. “You knew I was dying at the time. You should’ve been nicer.”
“I also knew you would get better,” Natasha says.
“No, you didn’t. You assumed I would, you didn’t know.” Tony combs a hand through his hair, a masculine mirror of Natasha’s movements, which is a very strange comparison to settle in Steve’s head. “What’re you guys playing?”
“Game of Life,” Vision says.
“Holy shit,” Tony says. “Who’s winning?”
“Viz,” Wanda says. “Why did you ask Natasha about the dossier she made on you?”
“Oh, ‘cause I figured she had the deeper 411, reams upon reams of politically incorrect opinions that she didn’t put into the report.”
“Happy to share,” Natasha said.
“How do you play, actually?” Tony rises up to poke at a game piece. Steve smacks his hand, mostly on automatic, but Tony just grins at him. “Okay, serious business, got it.”
“You need to go to bed,” Natasha says. “You have an SI meeting in New York tomorrow.”
“I do?” Tony pauses, and there’s a faint chime from his watch of FRIDAY agreeing. “Yeah, I do. Okay, I’m off. Hey, thanks for the—”
“Yep,” Natasha says. “Got it.”
Tony gets up, and starts down the hallway before double-backing to grab his jacket from where he’d left it. This gives Steve an extra couple of seconds to decide to get up, which he does, following Tony down the hallway to reach him before he gets to the stairs at the far end.
“Hey, Tony,” Steve says.
Tony stops, surprised to see him. “I forget something?”
“No, it’s…” There’s probably no polite way to say that Steve can see how Tony’s thrumming with the same restless energy from two days ago, which Steve thought had been burned off but is instead simmering steadily, and where Steve had been startled by this show of bluntness where Tony usually resorted to empty bluster, Natasha had been clearly enjoying it. “Just surprised you went out with Natasha, that’s all.”
Tony huffs a laugh. “Don’t worry, I’m not trying to steal her from you.”
“I’m not—” Steve tamps down his smile, but Tony sees it anyway. “I’m glad you had a nice time.”
“Natasha’s… complicated, but you know that. I get why you’re BFFs.” Tony leans a little, as though to share a secret. “She notices things.”
“She saw the mistakes I didn’t. I mean. I know I was in a bad way, but there were things I did that I know I did, and the things I did that I missed. You know? That.”
“But why now? That was years ago.”
“Is it because of the… that show you watched the other day?” Steve tries.
Tony nods slowly. “There was a man with me, back at the… A captive like me, but he didn’t make it. Died in front of me, and the last thing he told me was to not waste my life. Barely a year later, I almost did exactly that. I mean, just because your life happens to be short doesn’t mean you should still waste it, right? Didn’t make the connection then. Those last words didn’t resonate the way they should have, maybe.”
“Erskine,” Steve says.
“Sorry, no, it’s nothing to do with—”
“Erskine. Erskine. The serum guy.” Tony’s eyes widen a little. “Right. He died in front of you, too.Huh. Well, he probably didn’t tell you not to waste your life.”
“Just to stay a good man, instead of a good soldier,” Steve says weakly.
“Hah. As if you need a reminder for that.”
“Maybe I do,” Steve snaps.
“That’s fair,” Tony says easily. “And so we live, and we carry these words with us. Rebirth. You need to get back to your game before they fleece you.”
Steve, used to Tony’s sudden sharp turns in conversation, says, “We’re not playing for money.”
“For favors, then. No? I swear, all of you live on another planet. I’m going to bed.”
Tony turns on his heel and starts walking, the jacket that’s folded under his arm flapping like the edge of a cape. Steve watches him go all the way down the hallway, then turn for the stairs with a little flourish – Tony always moves as if he’s putting on a show, even when his guard is down – and bounds up the stairs.
There’s a knot in Steve’s stomach. He knows he’s overreacting, and it’s worse because he’s not sure what he’s overreacting for.
It’s one thing to go out with Natasha, or have a weekend in Nice with Vision, or even to sit out one of their group training sessions to watch from the sidelines and take notes.
The last straw, if it can be called that, is when Steve goes to gym and stumbles upon a tableau of Tony, Wanda and Natasha together on a yoga mat. Tony and Wanda are sitting cross-legged and facing each other, while Natasha’s a little ways behind them, as though in a spotting position.
Steve tenses up, hands dropping to his side in readiness. There’s no obvious fight, but Wanda has her hands up in a frame over Tony’s head, red tendrils of magic curling out from her fingers to Tony’s temple.
He steps forward, about to ask what’s going on, but Natasha holds a hand up.
She looks at him meaningfully. It’s okay. Wait.
Steve decides that he can work out later. As he leaves, he glances back one more time. Tony’s face is tense, but there’s stubbornness in the set of his shoulders. That’s familiar, at least.
They’ll need an hour or so, probably. Steve goes down to the training hall to check on the equipment and makes notes, then comes back up for a snack. His timing’s good, because just as he’s reading the news he sees a flash of black move past – Tony in one of his band shirts, heading up for his personal quarters.
Steve jumps up to his feet. “Hey, Tony.”
“Hmm?” Tony turns. “Oh, hey. What’s up?”
“I went by the gym earlier. What were you guys doing?”
“Trust exercise,” Tony says promptly. “I let the kid rustle around my head a little. I know, dumb idea, but is it more or less dumb that your inviting her to join the Avengers? That’s the real question.”
“We discussed that in committee.”
“I discussed this in committee, too. Natasha said it was a good idea.”
“A good—” Steve feels his face contort, mouth moving into a silent snarl that, aggravatingly, just has Tony’s smile widen.
“We can’t watch each other’s backs if we’re watching each other,” Tony says. “I don’t expect her to forgive me, but I’d like her to know me, at least enough that we can work together. It goes the other way, too – I can trust her if I have better understanding of where she’s coming from, what she wants. She’s got a lot of pain, and I think there’s, uh… there could be kinship, in that. Maybe. I don’t know.”
Steve’s used to Tony provoking him, but that’s always been Tony weaponizing his ideas and ideals against Steve’s ideas and ideals. This is different, and Steve’s so used to (and accepted) Tony having walls as dense and impenetrable as the armor of his Iron Man suits, that any behavior to the contrary of that has to be dangerous.
“Dagnabit, Steve,” Tony says with a sigh. “You complain that your teammates don’t tell you things. Here I am. I’m telling you things.”
“Tony.” Steve’s eyes are imploring, his voice gentle.“Are you dying?”
Tony’s mouth falls open. “Wow. Okay.”
He flips Steve off with both hands and starts to storm off. Steve might even be relieved how typical this response is even if it’s not what he wanted, but then Tony stops mid-step.
For a second there’s stillness, and then Tony turns, stiffly, to face Steve again. His jaw clacks, and that’s when Steve understands what’s happening. “I’m not dying,” Tony says.
This is a choice. A conscious choice, made deliberately and repeatedly, and against Tony’s instincts. Steve’s head spins, so he almost misses Tony’s next, “I want the team to be better. You handle the strategy, the training, the teamwork. I’m… seeing how we fit as people.”
“That’s not it,” Steve says, almost breathless. “You think that whatever shortcoming we have as a team is your fault, and you’re forcing yourself to act differently to fix that.”
“It is my fault, though,” Tony says.
“Jesus, Tony.” Steve comes in close, putting his hands on Tony’s shoulders and squeezing. “It’s not on you alone. It’s on all of us.”
“Sure, but I’m doing my part, because that’s the part I can do.” Tony shouldn’t look so pleased, not when Steve’s very, very close to shaking him hard enough to rattle his teeth. “And it ripples. It echoes back. You see that, right?”
“I don’t want you to think you have to force yourself to be someone else with us,” Steve says angrily.
“I’m not being someone else. I’m just being more me, in a productive and highly obnoxious way, which is par for the course for me.”
“But it scares you.”
Tony blinks, eyes flickering. Another pause, another choice is made. “Yeah, ‘course it does. But the pay-off’s gonna be worth it.”
“For the Avengers?”
“Sure. The Avengers, protecting the world, whiskers on kittens, all my favorite things. But I also enjoy taking the holistic view, so this is also for me. Personal gratification. Become a slightly-better person. Who knows? Maybe then you’d like me.”
“As a friend, as opposed to a person you work with,” Tony says, a shade too smoothly. “That’s what I meant.”
“You are my friend,” Steve says.
“Sure, I guess. But if we were really friends, Ultron wouldn’t have happened. I would’ve been able to tell you about my worries, and you would’ve listened with a significantly less amount of judginess.” Tony purses his lips in a coy expression, a light touch that should ease the tension in Steve except that none of this is going the way he thought. “You know I’m right.”
“I’m the leader,” Steve says distantly. “Everything that went wrong is on me. I should’ve been there for you, with or without judginess.”
Tony beams. “See. It ripples. I talk to you, you talk back.”
“Okay.” Steve slowly removes his hands from Tony’s shoulders. “I… don’t know if this is the right thing to do, but…”
“What, you mean there’s risk in giving a whole bunch of people – some of them untested – enough ammo to completely destroy me?” For a second Tony’s grin takes an edge of hysteria, before he tucks it away. “Where on earth would you get that idea? Pro tip: don’t destroy me, Cap.”
“I won’t. I wouldn’t.”
“It is funny, isn’t it,” Steve says quietly. “It’s easier to sacrifice our lives than to sacrifice… that.”
Tony’s eyes widen. “Exactly! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. Why is that, Steve? Why is it easier to put our lives down than to open up? That’s one of the things been rattling around my head, and it’s just... I don’t know if it should be easier to die.”
“For a given value of easy.”
“Right.” Tony’s practically vibrating now. “I’m hungry. You want to get lunch? I know a place.”
“You always know a place,” Steve says. “Yeah, lunch sounds good.”