Rogers loved to fight.
It wasn’t a workplace obligation; it was a fucking hobby. He was a wrecking ball, a hurricane in human form who could annihilate anything set in his path. (And not the cheap crush-smash-pound annihilate, either: he wrecked them like a cosmic collision, immovable force meets mortal object.)
SHIELD quickly learned his dirty little secret and sent him into the warzone as often as they could. Rogers wasn’t technically skilled -- technical, in the original iteration of the word; it was laughable to think of Captain America as unskilled -- but he was a nuke in the pocket of whatever organization could keep him on a string. SHIELD threw Rogers into battles like he threw his own shield, a boomerang arrangement that allowed ample freedom of movement.
That freedom was necessary for optimal results. In battle, Rogers was unpredictable, bulletproof. He didn’t throw blind punches: he dismantled his opponents with great intent. It was horrifying to be on the receiving end of that rage, no matter how controlled. His hit-to-kill ratio was high -- he rarely cut the thread if he could avoid it -- but no one on the opposing team treated him as anything other than lethal.
You didn’t tranq or stun Captain America. You killed him, or you lost.
. o .
Of the members comprising the newly-formed Avengers initiative, Tony had pegged Rogers as the most likely to go rogue. Banner was a pacifist, willing to fight but unwilling to throw punches if he could avoid it; Romanoff’s skillset meant fighting hand-to-hand was often suboptimal or a sign that the mission was about to go south; and Barton liked to keep his distance to take his shots. Thor liked to joust, but even he didn’t lust for battle like Rogers did; he was perfectly content to let the world settle its own affairs.
Maybe, Tony mused, sitting on the couch flickering through the declassified SHIELD footage of Cap in action, that was the kind of nonchalance you could afford if you had the power to truly shake the world. Not change it: rock it, like a tidal wave, sweeping away anyone who got in his path. Tony had only caught glimpses of Thor fighting, but he had turned away the Chitauri like they were nothing. Despite what Fury said, Earth wasn’t ready for a higher form of war, and Thor seemed to adopt the hands-off approach. He would stand with them, but he wouldn’t fight outside the battlefield.
Rogers made the world his battlefield.
Whether it was at home, reducing a punching bag to its lowest common denominator, or on the field, backing his opponents into a corner they couldn’t escape, he fought relentlessly. At first Tony thought it was just training, fulfilling a self-imposed obligation to give his very best to SHIELD. But Rogers didn’t fight until he was tired, didn’t stop when he was satisfied.
He fought until he was on the verge of total physical collapse, and he loved every second of it. He wasn’t fighting to get to the finish line; he was fighting because he enjoyed the raw adrenaline, the howling fury, the irresistible momentum of letting nothing stop him. Fighting wasn’t his job: it was his identity. Tony couldn’t imagine him slowing down, and Rogers didn’t give him any opportunities to see it.
Shawarma was the last time Tony saw Rogers so much as look tired for weeks following the Chitauri attack. To be fair, Tony hadn’t had much contact with him once the emergency crews had taken over the clean-up. Tony and Rogers had parted ways friends, Tony liked to think -- if only because the thought of being in the “enemies” tab of Rogers’ relations made it harder to sleep at night.
Tony had read the declassified SHIELD reports and knew Fury wanted him in the game, but Rogers had things under control (plus, said-reports were declassified, but only in parantheses: Tony had yet to meet a security system he couldn’t hack). Besides, Thor was off-world, Banner had quietly faded back into the woodwork, and Barton and Romanoff had slipped back into their SHIELD agent roles without so much as a thanks-for-the-fish. Tony owed nothing more than saving New York City to the organization that had rejected him for irredeemable character flaws.
They had their banner savior, and Rogers was a wolf in man’s clothing who had them all thinking he was leashed. Tony knew better. If SHIELD had been wise, they would’ve left Rogers in the ice. They had no handle on him. At least Rogers was uptight enough that he probably didn’t even entertain the idea of overtaking the very organization that called his shots. He just followed the sir-yes-sir song-and-dance, because it let him be where he wanted to be: in the middle of blood, metal, and fire.
Tony wanted little to do with any of it. He’d had enough blood, metal, and fire for a lifetime.
He kept his distance and watched SHIELD target the boldest hits on their wishlist. Tony knew why, even if it was surprisingly difficult to think about: they wanted to get the most out of Captain America before he died. Agents didn’t live forever, and even a super-soldier who acted bulletproof would bleed out as surely as the rest of his comrades. Tony had spent a few sleepless nights just fishing through the system, looking for the hard cases -- the prioritized cases, locked behind the firewalls he made the keys to -- and realizing with bitter certainty that SHIELD didn’t intend to keep Rogers alive forever. They just wanted to see how far he could go -- how far he could take them.
And if Rogers wasn’t as blind as he acted about the sinister context his noble missions were set in, he would have walked away while he still could.
Of course he couldn’t, Tony knew. It was his entire personality: soldier. He wasn’t a combatant because there was a war: the war just fed a hunger deeper than most people realized could exist in one person. Rogers wasn’t just fighting the good fight to protect people; he was fighting to crush, red tooth and claw, the evil around him.
Everything was fine. They had their new normal, and Tony was still his own boss, and that was all he wanted out of life.
Rogers could kill himself for the greater good. Tony could live with that.
He could, he insisted, as he saw a bruise on Cap’s face that had no right being there, Rogers’ vitriol sharp enough that Tony realized being smart was just going to give him a matching one. He could absolutely live with Rogers’ death on his conscience, because they weren’t friends; work-proximity associates could surely express interest in the way Rogers seemed more and more tired every time Tony saw him. He wouldn’t attend Rogers’ funeral, but he could live with Rogers’ death, Tony thought, staring at the empty chair Rogers usually sat in during the debriefing and wondering quietly if he’d slipped away for good this time.
Rogers loved to fight. He lived to fight. It was his way of expressing emotion, of venting rage and fear and something more yearning. There was a masochism to it, but no enjoyment -- just a yearning for something that wasn’t the same. For a feeling of being alive. Tooth and nail.
He looked at Tony with burning eyes like he was daring Tony to say something about how crazy the whole thing was. Tony wanted nothing to do with it, so he kept his snarky comments to himself whenever Rogers was in uniform. The setup wasn't fair because Rogers was always in uniform. No one could work all the time, but Rogers was trying to.
He moved stiffly, taking a seat at the empty conference table. The room felt ten degrees cooler, but the thermostat wasn’t even there, and Tony knew it was just an illusion. Calmly, he asked, “Do you live here?”
Rogers looked up at him with wolf eyes. He weighed a response. “What’re you doing here, Stark?”
Robustly ignoring the cold tone, Tony replied, “Well, since you asked so nicely, I’m here to ask why you’re throwing yourself into suicide missions.”
Rogers narrowed his eyes. His voice wasn’t much deeper, but Tony heard the verbal safety switch off the gun. “Director Fury wants to talk to you.”
"That's nice." Tony had been avoiding Fury, and he wasn’t there to change that. “I came to see you, actually. The whole living legend thing wasn’t enough for me.” He took a seat at the table. Rogers didn’t move, but Tony could almost see his hackles raising. “So. How’s the family?”
This time Rogers completely ignored him, returning to the file in front of him. Old-fashioned as he was, it was on paper. Tony changed tactics. “You can ignore me all you want, but you can be damn well sure no one here is going to shed a tear if you drop dead."
Tony blinked. Sat back in his chair. Measured his words. “So that’s it, then.”
Rogers looked up at him coolly. “What do you want?”
“You want to disappear.”
Rogers sighed. Exasperation and fury were building in his shoulders. It was a dangerous combination in a dangerous man. “If the war ground to a halt every time a soldier dropped dead, we’d never win.”
“The war,” Tony repeated, testing him. “You know we won that, right?”
Rogers’ eyes darkened. Abruptly, he turned the folder around and sent it flying across the table. It landed perfectly in front of Tony. Guy had reflexes like no one’s business. Looking down obligingly, Tony saw a man he didn’t recognize and a name he very much did in the top corner. Hydra. “Did we?” Rogers challenged coldly.
To that, Tony had nothing meaningful to say.
. o .
Captain America’s kill count was low, but it wasn’t zero.
Tony had JARVIS keep an eye on it, as he did everything Cap-related. He kept track of the red number that ticked upward like it was his own pulse. He wasn’t afraid of Rogers, but he was very aware of the man, even when they weren’t on the same continent. He was content to try to live a normal life, but Rogers was on the verge of going super-nova. Tony didn’t want to be caught in the crossfire, and in a way he didn’t want to watch it happen.
No one at SHIELD would lose sleep if their pet super-soldier died. It was like Rogers had said: they were in their own personal war, and dead soldiers were part of the deal. Captain America was an impressive asset, but to them he was just one weapon. They threw him like a grenade, and he kept coming back for more, restless, hungry. Tony almost couldn’t watch it, but he found himself staring at the glowing red number - 7 - and wondering when Rogers would go too far.
. o .
Appallingly, no one told Tony when it happened.
For four beautiful days, nobody seemed to want him around SHIELD. That was fine in Tony’s book: he took a long weekend, letting himself unwind for what felt like the first time since the Chitauri attack. He was feeling surprisingly well-rested on Tuesday morning when Fury finally called and asked him to come by. Tony tried to wheedle his way out over the phone, but Fury was a persistent bastard, and his tone brooked no argument.
Tony took his time, making Fury simmer. He enjoyed a decadent lunch, even finished updating some Iron Man logs, before JARVIS finally said, “Sir, the appointment with Director Fury?”
Long gone, Tony thought, pleased, before suiting up and taking off for the new HQ.
Nothing tipped him off. Everything seemed fine as he stepped into the conference room. Rogers was sitting at the opposite end, as per usual, regarding him with cold eyes. He sat up slowly, like he wasn’t expecting Tony to actually show, and didn’t grimace visibly, but his movements were stiff. Uncomfortable. Tony was tempted to slide the Iron Man suit on, get a read on him, but it wasn’t subtle and he stuffed down the urge. Cap was fine.
Cap was fine, he told himself, because there was an itch under his skin, something screaming at him to pay attention, but he took a seat and shoved it back down. “Stark,” Rogers greeted coolly.
Rogers looked at Fury dispassionately. It was strange, Tony thought, to see Rogers angry at the Director. To his credit, Fury didn’t so much as twitch under the scrutiny. “I’ll let you two talk,” he said, and Rogers didn’t snarl, but his eyes darkened. Uncharacteristically, he didn’t nod, salute, or do anything to show the slightest acquiescence.
When Fury was gone, Tony asked bluntly, “What happened?”
Rogers didn’t budge. “How was your weekend?” he asked conversationally.
For once, Tony ignored the easy way out. “I asked you a question.”
A flash of teeth. It was barely there, but it was enough to trigger the same primal response reserved for big cats lurking in the underbrush, and Tony felt unease settle in his stomach. “I don’t take orders from you,” Rogers said, still deceptively calm.
“That wasn’t an order.”
Rogers looked away. He seemed supremely tired of the whole thing. “We gonna do this all day, Stark?”
“Depends.” Daring to be nonchalant, Tony rested his crossed arms on the table. “Fury doesn’t do social calls. I’m here for a reason.” Nodding at Rogers, he added calmly, “You’re the reason.”
Rogers didn’t look at him. “He didn’t say anything, huh?”
Tony didn’t respond. His curiosity was a burning thing, but he didn’t want to risk losing a chance when he saw it. The picture of non-threatening, he put his chin on his arms. Watchful.
Rogers spared him a glance. He seemed angry, ready to lash out, for just a moment longer. Then it left him. The urge to fight evaporated, and his shoulders dropped. Not much, but it was noticeable. At ease, soldier.
“I’ve always preferred awkward conversations over food,” Tony said blithely. Rogers didn’t respond. He’d hung up the proverbial shield. For a moment, Tony was tempted to push him, see if he was faking it. It didn’t matter: Cap could have his guard back up in an instant. Tony let it go. “Wanna blow this popsicle stand?”
To his surprise, Cap nodded.
Tony waited a beat, and when Cap didn’t move he prompted, “Cap?”
Rogers pushed his chair back calmly, planted a hand on the table, and pushed himself to his feet.
A less observant man might have missed the metal belt curled around his waist. It was silver, just like the suit, and Tony almost saw it as a purely aesthetic change, but there were metal arms on it, curved low on his flanks, bracing him, and Cap wasn’t standing up straight.
Cautiously, Tony stepped towards him. Rogers glared, but he didn’t say anything as Tony approached. More curious than afraid, Tony reached out, a hand hovering over Cap’s hip. The intricate metalwork reminded him of a mesh net. He thought about touching it, but he stepped back instead, lowering his hand. He felt suddenly small, like he’d missed something important.
Cap took one step forward. It was damning. He didn’t stumble or fall, but he moved with the faltering normalcy Tony had come to associate with everyone other than Captain America. Captain America crossed the floor in great, smooth strides, fought like a dancer, had the physical dexterity to pull off maneuvers that would have left athletes ten years his junior struggling breathlessly to mimic. Tony had never thought figure skater and soldier could fit in the same breath, but Cap was living proof.
He didn’t move easily now, even though his steps were measured. Tony alighted beside him, tempted to reach out to steady him. He resisted the impulse. Cap didn’t need to be steadied. It still felt wrong to see him like this. Tony had planned to drag Cap off to a hole-in-the-wall place they could get lost in, but the journey suddenly seemed daunting. Cap said nothing.
When they were in the elevator, Cap leaned a hand against the railing. There was tension in his expression, hard jaw, flat gaze. Tony stood, arms folded, and watched the numbers rise, dutifully ignoring him. Tony had flown in, but Cap didn’t have a car. Do you live here? Tony had asked snidely, but it seemed sickeningly like this was Cap’s home. Maybe he had a little crawlspace somewhere else, a lease in name, but this was where he resided.
His own self-imposed prison.
Luckily, SHIELD had cars to spare, and it was nothing for Tony to sign one out. Cap eased into the passenger’s seat. Tony had the distinct impression he was hurting, but he flipped on the ignition and focused on talking his way into ignoring reality.
He was doing a reasonable job of it, except he drove automatically, and before he’d fully decided he was doing this he was pulling into the parking garage under Stark Tower. Rogers said nothing, didn’t even move until Tony parked the car and got out. Alone in the semi-darkness, Tony watched him with open curiosity as he moved. His stance hadn’t changed at all. Tony wasn’t even sure Rogers had an off-switch: his steps were precise, military, on guard.
Tony resented the steps between the car and the elevator, and he stayed near Cap without crowding him. He was surprised at how desperate he was to keep this tentative peace between them, but he filed that away for future contemplation. He told the elevator to take them to the balcony level, and Rogers clamped both hands on the railing in front of him.
The sun was setting, and the city view really was spectacular, but neither Rogers, slightly bowed, or Tony, staring openly at him, paid it any attention. They stepped out and the lights automatically illuminated the space. The space felt huge, empty in a way it rarely had, and Tony felt almost embarrassed by it as he stood there, Captain America at his side. He wanted to justify it, but there was nothing to say.
Cap stood alongside him, patient, silent. Waiting.
“Make yourself at home,” Tony said at last, walking over to the kitchen without looking back. He made himself busy, didn’t even turn around until he had a bottle of cognac and a plate of cheese. Food from his own stores felt far too personal to share, but the thought of interacting with other humans, bringing one to his doorstep for delivery, felt wrong.
Cap was sitting at the table, as unruffled as Tony had ever seen him, still in uniform. Tony set the plate on the table, slightly off-center - Rogers had a longer reach - and popped the lid on the cognac. He wasn’t raised in a barn, and there were glasses in the cabinet, but he didn’t want to get up and break the peace settling over them. He took a generous sip right from the bottle, then held it out to Cap, who wordlessly took it and drank exactly as much as Tony had. There was something infuriarating about it, like he was goading Tony, but his expression didn’t betray him.
Tony popped a piece of brie cheese into his mouth, chewed for a long moment, and finally asked, “Lumbar, right?”
Rogers frowned at him. He didn’t respond.
That was fine. Feeling bold, Tony reached into his pocket, produced a pair of dark sunglasses, and slid them on. They weren’t quite x-ray vision, but they picked up on the slightest anomalies in a person’s posture and produced probable causes. Favoring, leaning, even something as unconscious as a breathing arrhythmia could all be read and decoded.
The suit was better, but the glasses were enough. What had seemed dim and dark in reality was angry red now. He could see the slight distortion in his back, the way Rogers’ muscles were tensed unnaturally, supported by the brace but still agitated in pain. The glasses told him other things: his left palm was highlighted in indecipherable orange, and Tony surmised it, too, was newly healed. But his back was still fiery, furious, and Tony lowered the glasses with clammy hands, stunned.
Cap’s expression was still the picture of calm.
It was involuntary: “What’d they do to you, bud?” It was the voice he used with Rhodey when the latter was being stubborn or dismissive. Admittedly, it was a rare quality in the most practical man he knew, but even Rhodey reached his limits and needed someone to stop him. Tony spoke not with cruelty -- not with blame and anger -- but sincerity.
Cap watched him, unblinking, and slowly curled his fingers around the cognac bottle. He brought it to himself, drank deeply, and waited for Tony to rebuke him as he set the bottle aside. His fingers trembled. Not much, but it was something, and Tony saw it before Cap tucked them out of sight, folding them on his lap. He leaned a shoulder back calmly, coolly. He wasn’t giving an inch.
He’s not Rhodey, a voice reminded Tony quietly. It was the same voice that told Tony that Captain America might be his teammate but wasn’t his friend, and Steve Rogers was an enigma tangled in a war and frozen in ice. Tony refused to budge. He considered calling Rhodey -- he would know what to say; he was reason incarnate, where Tony was a wildfire -- but Cap cleared his throat.
“It wasn’t their fault.”
Tony flinched. He hadn’t expected the admission to hurt, but the way Cap threw blame to the floor, refusing to point to those who had failed him -- spectacularly -- was almost more than he could bear. “Things went sideways,” Rogers continued cryptically. “I made it out. That’s all that matters.”
“You broke your back,” Tony said, enunciating the words very clearly, because it didn’t seem like Cap even realized they were talking about the same collateral. Cap stared at him. His expression was perfectly blank. Tony felt sick. “Were you just gonna walk it off?”
A flicker of irritation, there and gone, flitted across Rogers’ eyes. He silently finished off the bottle, like he needed it to keep his temper in check. It was a focal point, and Tony hated to leave him to replenish it, afraid anything approaching progress would be lost and he’d be standing on the outside again, but he got up and brought an entire goddamn case.
“I can do this all night,” Tony declared sharply. He wanted to punch Rogers, suddenly, just to get anything other than that flat, guarded stare.
Stiffly, Rogers said, “That’s my line.”
Tony made a disgusted sound, not bothering to hide it, before freeing a bottle for himself and drinking deeply. Rogers didn’t reach for it or the case. He waited.
The warmth of the brandy helped calm him, and Tony let his shoulders down, trying to look calm so he would feel calm. “I’m not above bribery,” he said at last, settling the bottle down between them.
Rogers looked at it. He reached for it, but Tony pinned his hand with his gaze, and Rogers retracted it wordlessly. He sat up a little straighter, daring Tony to come after him. There was a glint of steel in his eyes, but he kept his mouth shut.
“If it were me,” Tony began calmly, playing the dirtiest angle he could think of, “what would you do, Captain? Just walk it off, Tony?”
Rogers sighed. “Course not.” He swiped the bottle before Tony could react, but he didn’t drink from it. He cradled it in his right hand. His left, Tony knew, had been broken recently. He hated that knowledge. “It doesn’t concern you,” he said, redirecting.
“You know, purely from a business standpoint, you’re dead wrong, Rogers. If SHIELD couldn’t use you, they’d use me. You’re my shield.” That was too much, and Tony wanted to retract it as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but he couldn’t. He bulled on. “But frankly, I’m not looking at this from a business perspective.”
Rogers uncapped the bottle defiantly and took a sip. He set it down, and Tony was on it in an instant, snatching it from his grip. Fight flared in Rogers’ eyes, but he let it go. Visibly stepped back from it, leaning in his chair, a slightly glassy expression passing over his face. Abruptly, this felt cruel, like poking a wounded bear, but Tony refused to quit. This had to stop. He wasn’t going to attend goddamn Steve Rogers’ funeral. “You’re done with these solo missions.”
Under normal circumstances, Rogers would have surged into the fight gladly, leaning into Tony’s space and declaring in a menacingly calm voice that Tony was welcome to stop him, but he was too slow, now, waiting a moment too long. Tony pressed his advantage, and pressed it hard. “No, I don’t wanna hear it,” he snapped, angry, furious. “You’re done. I don’t care if you’re the Captain of the goddamn universe, you’re done, Rogers.”
Rogers was silent and unmoving for so long that Tony had the impression he would wait forever, outlast if not outmatch Tony. At last, he rasped, “Business, huh?”
Caught off-guard, Tony cocked his head slightly. Rogers smiled at him, small, rueful. It was strange: Tony couldn’t remember ever seeing Rogers smile, except for a brief moment after the fight, lying on the concrete looking up at the man streaked in soot and smiling brilliantly at the sky. He was a man quick to anger, hard and fast in his resolve, but Tony knew there was a person locked up in the suit.
He was angry. Incredibly angry. He hated the people who had taken the paragon of virtue, dragged him into a new millennium, thrown a suit on him, and told him to do what he was born to until he dropped dead. It wasn’t fair. No soldier should have to fight a war alone, but Rogers was happy to be a one-man army, and SHIELD was happy to stand out of his way.
Tony planted his feet.
Rogers didn’t fight him. He dropped the shield. He smiled. It was small and sad and pained, but it was real.
“I’m tired of watching people use you,” Tony said. He hated that smile, because without even trying it was emotional leverage, irresistible. It made him want to say stupid stuff. You’re important. To me. To the world. We need you. He kept his remarks to the bare minimum. “It gives me a bad vibe, Rogers.”
“I can take care of myself.”
There it was. The challenge, thrown at Tony’s feet. He wasn’t smiling anymore, expression perfectly neutral. Tony hesitated, and then he reached for the gauntlet. “I have Pepper,” he said, “Rhodey. The Avengers -- you know them?” He hadn’t meant for it to sound so bitter, but hearing Rogers shamelessly defy the world to kill him when he had people who needed him was too much. “JARVIS, Coul--” He shut his mouth. It was too late.
Rogers’ brow furrowed. Tony couldn’t speak. He had to get over it, had to let it go, but it was like a vice around his throat, choking him. There wasn’t enough air in the room. He forced himself to continue, “I have people, Rogers. I’m not alone, and I couldn’t do this alone. I couldn’t. I need them.” They need me. It was comforting, the give-take of it all. He could see in the flatness of Rogers’ gaze that he wasn’t listening -- was trying not to listen. Tony firmed his voice, refusing to let him run. “You’ve gotta let someone help you. I don’t care who, but this lone wolf thing? It’s gonna kill you. Period.”
“Are you volunteering?”
Coldness seeped down Tony’s spine at the thought. He’d stared sleeplessly at the numbers, the reports, the rare security footage of Cap in action. Occasionally he had longed to halt the mission, even though it was already over, just because it seemed too dangerous. He’d never wanted to be there.
Rogers sensed his hesitation. He shifted in his chair, sitting a little more loosely. Like he was trying to be casual, nonplussed. His words weren’t. “I had people, Tony,” he said at last, in the same tone he used for everything: calm. Quiet. “Bucky, Peggy, Dr. Erskine, Colonel Phillips.” He didn’t blink. “Howard Stark.” The name was poison to Tony, a knife in his chest, but Rogers didn’t stop there. “Dum Dum, Morita, Jones, Falsworth, Dernier.” He took the bottle from Tony’s limp hand, drained it, and finished, “I’m not doing it again.”
It was so final.
Tony stared at the man out of time and realized just how adamantly he didn’t want to be there. Rogers twitched a little, anxious, realizing that he’d revealed too much but stranded, like Tony, at the impasse. There were no retractions. Slowly, Tony said, “I’m sorry.”
Rogers spoke like he wasn’t there. “I thought I was home. I woke up, and I thought it was 1945, and they’d found me. I knew the plane had gone down. I knew the payload was neutralized. I knew I finished the mission. But I woke up, and I wasn’t supposed to wake up.” He reached for another bottle. His appetite, whetted, would have impressed Tony if he knew that Rogers couldn’t get drunk. “You know what the cruelest part was, Tony?
“I thought I was home. For thirty seconds, I thought I’d been given a second chance.” He looked right at Tony, holding the empty bottle in a gloved hand, and then, with effortless force, he crushed it in his palm. “I didn’t ask to be woken up,” he went on, agitated, now, dropping the tiny shards on the table with a shaking hand. “I didn’t ask for this.”
It was so raw Tony couldn’t possibly respond, but Rogers watched him with open, desperate supplication. Like he needed Tony to give him the answer.
Tony couldn’t. He wasn’t sure the answer existed.
“How would you feel if you woke up in sixty-seven years?” Rogers asked coldly. A flicker of a pause, mental math, an even colder smile. “2079, Tony. They’d tell you the new millennium is coming. They’d tell you they’d drilled to the center of the Earth. They’d tell you they’d invented teleportation. They might even have flying cars. They don’t know you, and you don’t know them, and there is no one who can help you make sense of it all.
“Pepper is gone. Rhodey, too. JARVIS? You think anything you make can last, Tony? Nothing lasts.” He moved the pulverized glass into a pile. He didn’t look at Tony. Tony wasn’t even there to him. He was speaking to an empty room, and Tony could only sit there and take it. “I want you to imagine it, Tony. You just lost everything you thought was your own. Your country isn’t the same. Your family and friends are dead or dying. The war you bet everything on ended. Where do you go? You want to go home. You do: you miss the food, the sounds, the dreams people had, the way people talked, the empty and fullness of it all.”
Tony was suddenly, irrationally grateful he didn’t order in. As it was, he took another piece of brie and watched in almost wonder as Rogers talked to him. At him.
“And now some punk kid tells you you need to quit bein’ reckless and settle down, make some friends, get a life,” he added searingly, staring at Tony with hate in his eyes. It wasn’t directed at Tony, but Tony felt the weight of it. He couldn’t look away. “Maybe I don’t want to. Maybe I wanted to stay down.”
Tony’s heart was pounding. He took a sip of the cognac that had found its way into his hand to steady himself. It helped, a little. Rogers all but panted with fury, spitting, “You’re Howard’s kid, Tony. I’m still trying to get my head wrapped around the new president. You people went to space, and nobody told me.” It was irrational fury, and Tony knew Rogers knew it, but it didn’t make the sting any less.
Exhaling, exhausted, Rogers leaned forward a little and spoke more quietly. “Why’d we fight the war, Tony? To protect the future. We fought for you, for everybody back home. We couldn’t fight for ourselves: we'd run and never look back if we were just trying to stay alive. No: we fought for the people we’d left behind and the lives they’d keep living. We didn’t fight for our own future. We might not have one.”
A fire kindled in his eyes, just for a moment, before it dimmed. Defeat entered his tone, a tone Tony had never heard from Captain America. “A war is a suicide run. Some of us were lucky. A lot weren’t. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t about us.”
The silence was long, but Tony allowed it to settle, choosing his words carefully. “I’m Howard’s kid,” he agreed. Rogers looked at him, apology entering his expression. He looked shell-shocked, like he’d hit Tony, but they were still on opposite ends of the small table. It didn’t lessen the impact. “There’s a new president. We went to space.” He spoke calmly, levelly. “We did a lot of stuff because you gave us a chance to.”
Rogers shook his head a little, realizing the implication behind his own words, but Tony persisted. “I read about you, Rogers. I know what you did. Everyone knows what you did, and if they don’t, they learned once we found you.” Rogers’ jaw stiffened, but he didn’t speak. Tony proceeded cautiously. “You met their impossible demands and gave them everything, and they somehow found more to take. I’d be pretty pissed, too.”
Rogers said nothing, but he stared at Tony, like he was trying to see him. Tony softened his tone. He didn’t want to hurt him. It surprised him how simple and sincere the desire was. I don’t want to hurt you. “Rogers...”
He halted. Reset. Firm, like it had never crossed his mind to even say otherwise, he went on, “Steve, you don’t owe the world everything. I know we can’t all jump out of windows and stop moving cars with our bare hands, but we’re pretty clever. We look after each other. We occasionally get things done. And we’re all shouldering our own blame. Not every tragedy rests on you.”
He reached across the table and laid a hand gently on Steve’s left wrist. Careful to avoid the meat of his hand. He was trembling, so finely Tony couldn’t see it, but Tony didn’t say anything about it. He just held on, very, very carefully. “Okay? It’s not your fault. We messed up, too. We did it wrong the first time and people got hurt. Now we’re trying to do better.” Steve’s hand twitched, more knee-jerk than conscious, but he didn’t move it.
“I know it was burned into you that you didn’t matter,” Tony continued, “but that’s not how this works anymore. You are not a soldier we pull out of a locker and throw in the ring until you drop. You’re a human-person with human needs. That includes the right to slow down, to say no, and to tell your team when you aren’t doing well. We’re your backup. All times. Not just when Fury calls.”
He felt anger burn inside him, realizing that he was about to have a good long talk with the man about the sheer indecency of it all, but that was a distant thing. Steve was immediate. He focused on Steve, who was watching him, again with that faintly glassy, faraway expression. He nudged Steve’s wrist with his thumb gently, and his eyes focused, locked in on Tony, as Tony finished, “Okay? Fury’s our boss, not our dad. You can tell him to go fuck himself.”
Steve arched an eyebrow. “You kiss your mother with that mouth?”
Tony groaned, letting him go so he could reach for the bottle, sipping carefully. He didn’t want to get drunk, and he could feel the warm buzz in his belly warning him that he needed to pace himself a little more, but it was better than responding with something a little too sharp. “Now I know why he likes you so much,” he grumbled, setting the bottle down emphatically.
For a moment, Tony thought Steve would reply with a repartee. Instead, Steve said simply, “You’re a good man, Tony.”
He hated what those words did to him: the sheer, overwhelming validation burned inside him, rendering him speechless. Captain America really was something else, and Steve Rogers commanded a level of honest authority that no one could contest. If he said you were good, you were good. It really was that simple.
He nodded, swallowed. “I want you to stay here,” he said, committing to the plan. “No more living at the office. You can pick your own floor and everything. We never have to see each other. Come and go as you please; I’ll get you in the system. You can use the gym.”
Steve stared at him. His eyes were soft. Tony blazed forward, afraid to stop talking and allow Steve to speak. “I’m serious, I’ve gone weeks without visiting the forensics department. You can use this space,” he waved a hand around airily, “and whatever amenities you please. I’m not asking you to sleep in my bed.” Jesus Christ, stop talking. “You’re staying. Period,” he finished as strongly as he could.
Steve seemed to chew the thought for a moment. Tony was prepared to argue until sunup, if that was what it took, because he was 100% not letting SHIELD near Cap. He was already looking at the edge of the table where he could still make out the edges of the metal framework. Tony could do better. He was certain of it. Cap would heal before he needed a better brace, but ... Tony hated it, but the reality was blunt, unavoidable: Preparedness.
“Okay,” Steve said at last.
Anxiety melted out of Tony’s shoulders, and he nodded, grateful and reeling at the same time. It was crazy, but it was also the most natural thing in the world. Of course Cap would live here. He had space to spare. Hell, he could probably wrangle Barton, maybe even Romanoff, make it a real family. That’s what Steve needed. A family. People to look after him.
And, hell, even if Steve didn’t need them, Tony did. He couldn’t carry Steve’s weight alone, literally or metaphorically.
“Thank you,” Steve said, simple, sincere.
Tony looked right at him, said, “You’re welcome,” and then rose from the table. Steve watched him. “This was just an appetizer,” Tony explained, indicating the remains of the cheese and brandy. “You want real food?”
Steve smiled. “Real food?” he repeated. “You don’t eat crackers anymore?”
Tony blew out a breath, borderline exasperated. “Cheese and crackers are not a meal, Rogers.”
“Sure,” Steve answered breezily. Then, standing carefully, he added, “How can I help?”
Tony didn’t growl at him, but it was a near thing. “If you can take that brace off and walk ten steps, I’ll let you outrun the Uber driver.”
Steve looked down at his own waist like he’d forgotten it was there. Then, reaching for it, he halted when Tony said sharply, “Drop it.”
Ambling over -- still not limping or staggering, nothing outwardly alarming, but everything strange for Captain America -- Steve joined him behind the counter and repeated, “How can I help?”
Tony caught him by the sleeve, dragged him over to a couch on the main floor, and said shortly, “Take a hint.”
Steve sat gingerly, tilting his head to look up at him, a small thing that made Tony’s heart skip a beat. “I feel like a moocher.”
Tony sighed and ruffled his hair, exasperated. He couldn’t say what inspired it, other than he had to, and it was softer than it looked. Beating a retreat before he could linger or Steve could respond, Tony quipped, “I will pay you to sit still and do nothing.”
“I don’t need money, Tony.”
“Just shut up and stay down, Cap.”
Steve huffed, but he didn’t offer any more commentary. That was good, because Tony needed time to -- stop shaking, for starters. He spent an inordinate amount of time tidying up, carefully sliding the glass into the bin, the trembling finally dying down as he sipped water and talked to JARVIS in the same level tone he did when he was tinkering in the lab.
He was about to ask Cap how he felt about seafood when he glanced over. A tuft of blond hair was just visible on the arm of the couch, and Tony stilled, listening closely. Deep, even breathing. I’ll be. Tony was curious -- almost curious enough to wander over and risk waking him just to see what the Energizer Bunny looked like asleep -- but he kept himself in check. Just because he had Captain America in his sanctum sanctorum didn’t mean he had to lose all semblance of dignity.
“Sir?” JARVIS prompted gently.
Fuck it. Curiosity won, and Tony inched closer, careful to walk at the exact same pace as before. He knew how powerful the serum was, and he was careful not to tip Steve off by changing his gait. He needn’t have worried: Steve was out for the count, sleeping on his side, facing the couch. He’d strategically arranged pillows under himself to keep his back level. The sight was ... it made his heart twist.
He eased away from the scene, telling JARVIS to beat it -- nicely -- while he whipped up some chocolate ice cream for himself. It wasn’t the meal he’d planned on eating, but it helped tide him over, and it was delicious. There was a satisfying crunch as Tony bit into the cone unthinkingly. An inquisitive sound broke his reverie and Tony froze, but it was too late. Steve sat up slowly, gazing at him over the back of the couch with bleary eyes. Steve didn’t say a word and Tony didn't move, teeth still clamped around the cone.
Then Steve sighed, eased back down, and went back to sleep.
Tony couldn’t bring himself to finish the cone until the ice cream was almost dripping down his fingers. Steve didn’t stir again. He didn’t snore, but Tony could still hear his deep, quiet breathing in the near perfect silence. He told JARVIS to dim the lights to 80% power. The change, while not enough to disorient, was substantial. Tony padded around more quietly, torn between leaving and staying. He was afraid to leave, afraid that the second he walked out the door Steve would vanish again.
It wasn’t fear alone that kept him in that room, however. He felt deeply protective, like he was the only thing keeping Steve in the room and his enemies out. He wasn’t sure Steve would even consciously describe it that way, but that was how Tony felt: he was on guard so Steve could rest. Soldiers.
Friends, Tony amended gently.
He snagged a blanket from the back of another couch, and with as much care as an art director handling a priceless artifact, he draped it over Steve. Steve tensed and Tony froze instinctively, but he didn’t sit up, so Tony finished laying the blanket down before stepping back. Admiring his handiwork.
“What d’you think, JARVIS?” Tony asked a beat later, standing in the kitchen and chewing on a second ice cream cone. Steve slept on.
“About what, sir?”
Tony nodded at Steve. Aloud, he clarified, “Him.”
JARVIS was silent for a long time. “I’m not quite sure what you mean, sir.”
Me neither. “Never mind.” Finishing the cone off, Tony sighed in contentment, grabbed a tablet, and curled up in a chair adjacent to the couch Cap was sleeping on. He busied himself in his reading, idly looking up life in the 1940s, huffing softly at the occasional absurdity: gas cost eight cents a gallon, life expectancy for men was just sixty-two years old, and only forty-eight stars flew on the American flag.
Did anyone tell you about Alaska and Hawaii? Tony wondered, glancing up and looking at Steve. Silently, he told him: We live twenty years longer, now. On average. It’s no wonder you feel crowded; there are almost three times as many people living here. Well. Two-and-a-half. Still a jump. Gas is expensive, but that’s Fury’s problem, not yours. It’s the least he can do, provide you a nice rig. We need to get you a car. Oh, they’re cool, now. Or a motorcycle. Bet you’d love that, wouldn’t you? Something to drive on open country, letting the breeze run through your hair ... that’s more your style. You’re a country slicker. And a fighter. I should show you cow-tipping. Bet you could tip a cow. It’s not really a thing, but I’d love to see you try.
Aloud, he affirmed softly, “It’s not so bad here. We’ve got Wi-Fi. You don’t even know what that is, do you? I’m gonna level with you, most people don’t. Doesn’t stand for anything. Just a word. Wi-Fi. It’s how we connect to the Internet. Everybody’s got a computer now. A handful of weirdos in the eighties really helped things take off in the tech industry, and by the nineties they started selling like hot cakes. We’ve still got those, you know. Hot cakes, and weirdos from the eighties. Bet you’d love our pancakes. They’re better. I don’t know what pancakes tasted like in the forties, but I know this diner, and you’re gonna die. They’re that good. Make peace with your Maker and I’ll take you.
“There’s a lot in this city, you know. Have you even been outside? I’m serious. You don’t look like a man who gets out enough. Central Park. You’d love it. Times Square is a bit of a hell-scape, but I can show you the better parts of the city. You’re not a tourist here. You’re a New Yorker. Got that? Memorize it. You grew up in, what, Brooklyn? Close enough. You’re a New Yorker. This is your turf. We still play baseball, if that makes you feel any better. Bet we could get Banner and Barton to play a few rounds, maybe even Thor. You think Romanoff would show up?
“Hypotheticals. Hey, big man, wait till you hear the music. It’s like you’re there. You don’t need to show up for a concert anymore to feel it. I bet you love the static. I can get you an old radio. I could even fuck around with the songs, make ‘em sound like they’re ten miles underwater and transmitted via tin plates. What’d you do back then for fun, huh? Other than beat the shit out of each other. I know you love to fight.”
Sleepy, tipsy, Tony mused, “I’ve got the best of the best, big guy. You’re gonna love the showers. It’s like standing in a rainforest when it’s coming down hard. You ever been to the rainforest? I’ll take you to the zoo. They’ve got some lemurs. You a lemur guy? You look like a lemur guy. You’d like the zoo. It’s a lot nicer now.
“And the aquarium. It’s gonna knock your socks off.”
The lights dimmed without prompting. Tony continued through a yawn. “Take you to the movies. Show you the good stuff. I’ve got it all here but, the principle of the thing, you know?” He looked over at Steve, half-expecting a response. The warm buzz had nestled pleasantly in his skull, like a lemur. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, the room was darker still. There was still enough light to see by, but Tony didn’t move, sluggish and satisfied. He was drooling on a pillow, arched uncomfortably over the arm of the chair. “Hey, Rogers, you awake?” he mumbled.
Those were the magic words: the lump on the couch suddenly turned, and even in the dim light Tony could easily pick out Steve’s eyes, brilliant even half-lidded. “Mm?”
“Good,” Tony said, flapping a hand at him, dismissive. “Would’ve had to get my big suit if you ran away.”
Steve sat up, winced, put a hand on his side. He stretched very carefully. It was nice to just sit and watch, Tony reflected. He was still in the goddamn suit, but he didn’t seem uncomfortable in it. Even the metal brace didn’t seem so bad. They wouldn’t have used it if the cloth ones were superior. Steve was watching him with a curious expression, strangely open, hair tussled.
“You wanna watch Jurassic Park?” Tony asked in a sleepy drawl. “Great movie. People get eaten by dinosaurs.”
Steve huffed, then slid his left hand up and down the same side a few times, self-comfort. I can do that, Tony thought, but he didn’t want to move. Steve stopped after a moment, then committed, squaring his shoulders.
“Hey, no, don’t go,” Tony said.
Steve grunted, walking over to him and murmuring, “Up, soldier.”
“I’m not a soldier." Steve grabbed his arm, and with gentle but irresistible force, he pulled Tony to his feet. Steve’s shoulders were too high for Tony to comfortably sling an arm around them, but Steve had a steadying arm around his waist, so Tony just mirrored him. He could feel the edge of the brace, and was surprised at how soft it felt. It was like a rigid putty. “Huh,” he mused. Steve, gently but adamantly, caught his hand. “Oh, no, I’m not feeling you up, I was just curious,” Tony assured, freeing his hand and patting Steve’s side.
He couldn’t see Steve blush, but he felt the moment’s pause before Steve led them towards the door. “Where’s your room?” he asked, his voice a rumble Tony could feel. That was nice.
Obligingly, Tony pointed towards the elevator, falling into step alongside Steve. It was a short trip up to the proverbial penthouse, and Tony yawned deeply and leaned freely into the very warm, very soft tree standing next to him. “This whole superhero thing doesn’t work out, you’d make a great living statue,” he observed.
“Mm,” was all Steve said.
Tony’s room was smartly appointed, but it wasn’t quite neurotic-supervillain fancy. It was about half the size of the main room, and there was plenty of floorspace, almost no clutter to speak of. Maybe a little neurotic, Tony mused, exhaling happily as he let go of Steve and flopped, face-down, on the mattress.
Tony moved as fast as his stupefied senses would allow him, reeling around and snagging Steve by the silver belt, the nearest grabbing point. That would have been -- well, awkward, if he was firing on all cylinders -- under normal circumstances. But his fingers didn’t close on cloth, they caught on the brace, and Steve staggered towards him, planting a hand on the mattress for balance and letting out a faint whimper.
Tony sobered up real quick, sitting up, silent and wide-eyed, as Cap stood there, bowed and shaking, before slowly righting himself. “I’m sorry,” he said softly.
Steve hissed as he straightened fully, then shook his head slowly. “You’re fine. I wasn’t ready.”
That made Tony feel worse. He sat up more, reaching for Cap, who actually winced before letting Tony take hold of his right hand. Tony squeezed it gently, apologetically, then let it go, and Cap stepped back, deliberately putting space between them.
Tony’s stomach was knotted, but Steve didn’t look angry. Just tired. Sore. “Don’t leave,” Tony entreated.
“I’m not gonna leave,” Steve assured, but then he was moving towards the door.
“Room down the hall,” Steve said. He could be sharp when he wanted to be, but his tone was gentle, forgiving. “Come get me if you need me.” He shut the door quietly behind him.
Tony stayed put, sitting back on his heels slowly, hand warm, heart sore. Captain America was invincible. Steve Rogers was not. He had to be better.
He fell asleep curled up on his side on top of the covers, dreaming about popcorn and old timey movies and eight-cent-a-gallon gas.