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The Hand That Feeds You

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Blood tasted better in the future. 

 

Steve paused mid-mouthful, the mug still pressed to his lips, and wearily acknowledged that that was a bad thought. 

At another time, he would’ve gone on to admonish himself for still thinking of it as ‘the future,’ or panicked over the fact that he’d started thinking of the supplements as ‘blood,’ or at least cringed at himself for critiquing the taste of it…

But it was late, and he was just so tired. 

 

So, instead, he tried to quiet his mind entirely, focusing on the rhythmic clanging in the radiators as he drained his mug…

They were wrong, by the way. 

Which was probably also a bad thought, but it seemed easier to let that one drift through his head than to stop and examine it-

And the radiators were wrong. 

Steve was sure a lot of effort had gone into researching and replicating the features of a 1940s home. At least, his apartment looked very different to everywhere else he went in the 21st Century, and was mercifully free of the ‘wireless’ and ‘interactive’ appliances that the world seemed to take for granted these days - so he knew that really he should just be grateful for the consideration…

But he’d never seen radiators of this shape and size, before. Like he’d never seen light fixtures that looked like his, or ever been in a home painted this strange shade of yellowish cream. Oversights in the research process, slight errors in the dates, a misunderstanding of the little details - like Fury picking the wrong baseball game to play as Steve woke up, or the agent who came to greet him wearing the wrong tie and bra. Minor, understandable mistakes that nonetheless made Steve feel disorientated and nervous, like he was wandering through the eerie almost-perfect suburb at the beginning of a horror movie…

Well, that’s assuming they are all harmless mistakes…

And that Fury didn’t play the wrong baseball game on purpose -

 

He stopped that thought dead, as he dropped his cup into his era-appropriate enamel sink. He most certainly did not have the energy to get into paranoia right now. 

 

He didn’t really have the energy to wash his mug right now either, but certain habits were hard to break. Wearily, he turned on the tap, and waited for the water to heat up.

...He knew they had water heaters now that worked much quicker. That he could, if he wanted, install a specific tap that dispensed boiling water in an instant. And he would have wanted that, in the forties. Everyone on his block would have wanted that. 

He didn’t even know if he wanted that, now. 

There was a fine spray of water over his chest, as he held the cup under the stream. He watched, mindlessly, as the foam burst into a bright cerise, and then faded into a soft pastel pink… and then into nothing… He carried on like that until a memory piped up out of nowhere. The cheery voice of one of the many nurses he’d met in his first few days out of the ice,

Mustn’t waste water.

He could recall the vaguely condescending, sing-song tone. The jaunty little flourish as she turned off the faucet. He remembered thinking that she sounded nervous, and not knowing why.

He remembered trying to figure out if she was making a joke.   

 

He turned the tap off. 

 

As he trudged through to his little living area he glanced up at the clock, willing it to be later than he already knew it was-

Wondering if it would matter if he went to bed at seven twenty. 

Instead, he sank into his ugly, beige couch - which did at least look like a thousand couches he'd hated in the forties. He rubbed his eyes and groaned softly, even though there was no one there to hear it. He just couldn’t work up the energy to go through his usual list of anxieties and neurosis at the moment … and he genuinely didn’t know how else to take up his time. 

 

A montage of well meaning strangers scrolled through his brain, reciting a list of support groups and help lines and offers to talk, if he ever needed anyone… All of which would be more of a chore than a comfort. 

Steve had always hated small talk anyway. Even in the forties, he’d gritted his teeth through every interaction with new people - or followed Bucky around like a valet, if that was an option. And back then he’d at least known how to speak the language. Now, the thought of trying to start a conversation with a stranger, having to navigate all the assumptions and references that they didn’t even know they were making, avoid the pitfalls of offense and misunderstanding with no idea where they might be hiding...

That all sounded more like the problem itself than any sort of solution to it. 

 

He cast a disinterested glance towards the left of the room, knowing that there was a laptop over there somewhere, tidied away so that it wouldn’t jar with the aesthetic. 

Contrary to everyone’s awkward assumptions, Steve had picked up the actual workings of modern technology pretty well. The true purpose and modern ethics… not so much. But as a cognitively enhanced, at one time highly-trained strategist, he’d managed to master a smartphone… 

Thank you though…

Please stop offering to show me how a touchscreen works.

The instructions are in the name...

Steve could have opened the laptop, and gone to Google, and started researching anything he liked. Watched any movie, read any book, listened to any song… he knew how to do all of that. He knew how it worked, how all of these thousands upon thousands of servers were connected to this shared global network…

 

And he couldn’t think of a single thing he wanted to do with it.

 

Mindlessly, he looked down to the stack of manila files on his coffee table. The cold, heartless details designed to summarise the lives and deaths of his closest friends. 

Steve had found that his interest stirred gently when he went through those files the first time. There was a genuine curiosity about the stories that those facts obscured, a real and immediate reaction to some of their revelations… Actual thoughts and personal feelings, which were hard for him to fish out of the numb trauma of his mind, these days. 

Briefly, he mused over the idea of digging a little further, maybe looking for some first hand accounts or candid photos or notable events too minor to be considered in the summary - something that might add some human colour to what he knew already…

He could look for interviews and accounts by the first SHIELD agents, see if any of them mentioned Peggy…

Or he could look into some of the educational programmes that Morita founded in his retirement, see what they developed into, if they had produced any famous alumni or groundbreaking new discoveries…

...Or he could look up Howard’s son. Try to work out if there really was something unusual in his features, or whether it was just a vague family resemblance hidden behind a posed expression and a lot of hair product. Seeing as staring at that one photograph for twenty minutes hadn’t helped Steve to figure it out…

He’d almost worked up some enthusiasm for the idea, before that ominous resistance began to swell in his chest. That wordless feeling that it was likely to be more confusing than he expected and more effort than it was worth. The instinct to prepare for frustration and disappointment, which was apparently just his default setting now. 

The odd thought that it wouldn’t matter what he discovered, seeing as he didn’t have anyone to share it with.

 

...If you learned something about Vampires it would matter, though. 

That wouldn’t be an arbitrary use of your time…

 

Steve noted the observation, and filed it away. Immediately, he knew he wasn’t going to do anything about that now . It was far too big an idea to just get started on like that, especially considering the mood he was in. 

...But still, it was a thought for later. Something that might provide some meaningful contemplation, when he was up to it. 

As for right now-

 

And there was a knock at the door.

 

Steve felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end - one of very few panic reactions that remained unchanged after Operation Rebirth. He knew there was no one in the world who could be calling on him for a friendly chat. 

As quietly as he could, he rose from the couch and stepped into the hall, pausing to survey the area. He cast a glance at his shield, resting in its usual place by the front door, but he didn’t reach for it yet. A quick calculation suggested it might be better to start this thing with both hands free.

 

He fell into battle stance as he opened the door - and stayed there, even after he recognised Nick Fury. 

 

“Trouble sleeping?” Nick enquired wryly, casting a knowing eye over Steve’s tensed muscles. Steve huffed a little breath of acknowledgement, and stepped back - but didn’t loosen his shoulders. Out of spite. 

“I’ve slept for seventy years sir, I think I’ve had my fill,” he muttered. Begrudgingly, he gestured to the living area, come in then.

“You should be out celebrating,” Nick observed, as he made the leisurely stroll through Steve’s apartment. And Steve would’ve liked to have been annoyed by the callousness of that remark, but he was too busy watching Nick run his gaze over all of his things.

 

Really, he could’ve relaxed that instinct just a little on this occasion- 

Yet another habit he couldn’t break. 

 

Nick Fury was one of a very, very small group of people who had ever known that Steve was a vampire. He didn’t really know what it meant , of course. No one really knew what it meant. Steve didn’t really know what it meant. But Nick would at least understand if he saw a bloodstain on the coffee table, or a medical bag in the trash…

Still, Steve nervously catalogued his living room as Nick did, because there had been too few exceptions to that rule for it to be worth his time thinking about it -

And the consequences of breaking it had always been too great.

 

The authorities behind Operation Rebirth had decided, unanimously and without need for much discussion, that ‘Raising An Army Of The Undead’ would be bad for the propaganda war. The euphemism ‘Super Soldier’ had been decided on long before Steve was - and only became more important after Erskine was shot, and their proposed ‘army’ became one symbolic serviceman. For that first year, Steve’s only value to the Allies was as a poster boy and a bond salesman, and he didn’t need reminding that it would all have been for nothing if the truth came out - that, if the American Midwest discovered they’d been handing their babies to a vampire for souvenir photos, Steve would have done more harm than good.

People reminded him anyway, of course. And now the fear was rooted. 

 

“You here with a mission, Sir?” Steve prompted, barely masking his irritation. 

“I am,” Nick confirmed, and handed him another manila folder. Steve frowned as he took it.

“Trying to get me back in the world?” He sighed, wondering why he should resent that-

 

And then the folder fell open in his hands, and everything went cold. 

 

“Trying to save it,” Nick’s voice echoed somewhere in the distance, as Steve’s eyes were drawn deeper into that eerie, ethereal blue…

“Hydra’s secret weapon,” Steve murmured, hating how familiar the words felt in his mouth-

Hating that these were the first familiar words he’d heard in weeks.

“Howard Stark fished that out of the ocean when he was looking for you,” Nick explained, still managing to sound as though he didn’t feel any need to explain himself. “He thought - we think - the Tesseract could be the key to unlimited sustainable energy. That's something the world sorely needs.”

And the worst part was the immediate instinct to snap at Nick, what the hell was Howard thinking?

...As though he was still alive.

For one very brief moment, Steve found himself right back where he left off -  talking to a government agent about Howard’s latest investigation into Hydra tech. 

The recognition that Howard wasn’t in a lab across town justifying himself to whoever would listen, that this mission report was actually over seventy years old… it was sad for so many reasons.

 

He fixed Nick with a level stare for a second, allowing himself to briefly indulge in the fantasy of saying no. Or, at the very least, pointing out that - from his perspective - it had only been a few weeks since he’d died to keep the world safe from this threat. That the reckless, shortsighted opportunism of his own side had rendered all of his sacrifices meaningless, and it was perfectly reasonable that he should resent that. That Nick should be embarrassed to ask him to fix this…

“Who took it from you?” He asked in a resigned monotone.

“He's called Loki. He's... not from around here. There's a lot we'll have to bring you up to speed on if you're in. The world has gotten even stranger than you already know.”

 

Steve almost laughed. As though there was any sort of scale, at this point. 

 

There was a pointed silence before Nick sighed, and stepped back towards the door. 

“I’ll let you familiarise yourself with the details,” he said, as though he’d decided to be gracious about Steve’s bad mood. “Agent Hill will be here in thirty minutes with transport.” 

Steve just nodded tersely, and then cast a little glance between Nick and the exit - still feeling slightly rude for not showing him out. Damn his good Catholic upbringing. 

Nick took the hint, and nodded a goodbye. 

He’d made it as far as the hall before he paused, and, as though it was an afterthought, added, “is there anything that you can tell us about the Tesseract that we ought to know?” Without missing a beat, Steve replied,

“Yeah, you should have left it in the ocean.”

 

Nick actually smirked. Which was infuriating, of course - but not in the same league as everything else Steve had to be angry about. It began pinching in his head as soon as Nick closed the door. Vicious, hot little thoughts that seemed to pull a piercing irritation up through his skin. 

His mind filled with incomplete ideas and evocative images; not really thinking about why he was angry so much as creating an abstract representation of it. 

He was furious at everyone who’d helped bring this nightmare back into the world. He was aghast and outraged at the thousands of people who’d accepted and defended this project. He thought of all the people who had worked on the Tesseract, knowing that Steve had killed himself to protect the world from it… he felt as though every one of those people had dismissed his intelligence and invalidated his sacrifice, every single time they’d clocked in for a shift.

And he was furious at Howard. And he was furious that he couldn’t be furious at Howard - that he would never be able to confront him or yell at him or punch him in the fucking face for this…

That he’d never see Howard again, or any of the people he knew - that the routines and relationships of his life were all ancient history… forgotten… like a tree falling in the woods, they no longer ever existed…

And all for nothing

All at once, Steve was angry over everything that had happened to him, all over again. He found himself reliving that bitter sense of injustice that he should be so alone and lost and miserable-

No - it was worse this time. 

 

Agent Hill will be here in thirty minutes with transport

 

Steve’s shoulders slumped from under him. He wanted to be angry at himself for bringing that up… That petulant part of him, that had always been prepared to get his head kicked in rather than let anyone treat him like shit - that part of him knew that Fury had no right to ask this of him, that SHIELD had had no right to disrespect everything he’d died for, that they deserved to clean up their own mess…

That part of him had always ceded to the determination not to do the same to others. The desire above all else to be a good person. The moral lessons that he still heard in a voice a bit like his mothers… although, of course, he was beginning to forget her voice now…

Steve knew he couldn’t let the world get its head kicked in to prove his point. That he had no right to dismiss anyone else's suffering, just because everyone seemed quite happy to dismiss his.

And he knew how dangerous the Tesseract was. 

And - as of thirty seconds ago - he was sure that he couldn’t trust anyone else on earth to take it seriously…

 

So, somewhere between reconciled and begrudging, Steve sank back into the couch and threw Fury’s folder down onto the coffee table with a satisfying slap. With his irritation still grinding somewhere in the background, he forced a checklist into his head.

Read the files

Look up all the references that he didn’t recognise.

Re-read the files.

Change into some more durable clothing.

Drinking again should probably have been on that list too, just to be on the safe side - but he’d well and truly lost his appetite, so he’d have to wait and see if he could face it again in time.

 

Dejectedly, he looked at the file...

And then his eyes ran over to the stack of folders next to it…

It was a ridiculous impulse, and probably a waste of valuable time, but Steve decided to indulge his anger for just a second longer before he got to work. He took the folder marked Stark from the top of the pile and opened it to the first page, his mind filling up with things he would have liked to yell at him…

But this wasn’t a picture of the Howard that Steve knew. 

This was an old man, his hair cut in a style that hadn’t existed in the forties, his features worn and somehow crueller...

Even the surrogates for Steve’s former life were wrong , now. 

Steve huffed bitterly and let the file fall into his lap. And then he sat up to collect the folder he was supposed to be looking at-

Pausing, when he saw that the papers on his knees had fallen open at Tony Stark's page again. 

There was a brief curl of embarrassment, acknowledging that it was probably because the files were falling into their natural position - that Howard wasn’t the reason this one was already on the top of the stack… But Steve’s anger was hot enough to swallow it up, burning it into fragments that became a part of his fury. 

 

Leading expert in renewable energy…

 

Ha. Well, that figured. 

And, to think, Steve had actually been vaguely impressed when he read that Tony Stark had unilaterally shut down Howards weapons business. 

Not that he’d given much thought to the details on Tony Stark's report. The first time Steve saw it, he’d just finished reading all of his friends' obituaries, and he’d not had much mental energy left for the people he’d never even met - if his attention hadn’t been snagged by that strange… quality , in his facial expression, Steve doubted he’d even remember Tony’s name. 

But, now that he thought of it, he did remember briefly thinking it was unusual to hear of any businessman making such a comprehensive stand. It had seemed to Steve that most companies had to be bullied for years before they changed their harmful practices, usually in as small a way as possible and only after it had actually become more cost effective to do it. When he read the line ‘Tony Stark stated that after his experience in Afghanistan, he had no choice but to…’ Steve had already assumed an end to the sentence - that it would be something about stricter safeguards or a charitable donation, or something. When it actually read ‘shut the company down’, Steve had almost smiled. It was unexpected, and yeah, maybe even worthy of admiration…

 

But now that he thought about it, it made far more sense that Tony Stark had simply decided that another one of his fathers projects was potentially more profitable. That he hadn’t suddenly grown a sense of responsibility so much as decided to be irresponsible about something else. 

That seemed far more in keeping with the world as Steve found it. 

In fact, he felt embarrassed that he’d fallen for the publicity stunt. 

 

It’s just the same old cycle, over and over again…

 

He slammed the Stark folder closed with too much force, and tossed it aside. 

 

...So I guess I might as well get on with it, then. 



*

 

There was still something otherworldly about the freedom of flying. At times, it was like being free from the boundaries of reality, feeling so at ease with the sort of speed and movement that should’ve been impossible. 

Beneath him, the city streaked into an abstract work of art, a perfect balance of colour and form that would disappear completely when he moved closer to it. In moments like this, Tony could still appreciate the wonder and absurdity of what he was doing, however many times he’d done it before.  

 

“We’ve gotta go wider on the public awareness campaign,” Pepper interrupted his train of thought over the headset. “You need to do some press. I'm in DC tomorrow-”

“Pepper, you’re killing me. Remember the moment?” Tony smiled...and carried on smiling, as he realised that actually he’d forgotten the moment. That he was in the moment, living it and enjoying it, without the usual anxiety and background stress…

“Well, get in here then, and we’ll celebrate,” Pepper told him cheerfully, as the familiar shape of the Tower came at him out of the blur. 

And it was nice that it just sounded nice . It was almost nostalgic, that mundane little lift in his chest as he looked forward to spending a few hours with a friend. The simplicity of enjoying leisure time as a reward for a job well done. If he didn’t think too hard about why this felt special, maybe he could hold on to it - maybe even get to appreciate it, before-

 

“Sir, Agent Coulson of SHIELD is on the line,” JARVIS informed him.

 

Oh well, I guess not then.

 

“I’m not in,” Tony bit out, as his feet made contact with the landing pad with a soft bump. “I’m actually out.”

“Sir, I’m afraid he’s insisting.”

Immediately, Tony’s jaw clenched with a particular sort of indignation. He let go of a slow breath through his nose as he began the walk into his suite, trying to let go of the tension in the same way he relinquished his suit to the flank of bots.

“Grow a spine JARVIS. I’ve got plans,” he retorted - even though Coulson had already disrupted them, simply by jarring him out of his easy mood. 

 

Now he’d remembered his prickling sense of injustice over the way SHIELD had treated him the last time; now he had to commit some mental energy to not thinking about it.

Not starting up a thousand well worn arguments about their cruelty and hypocrisy-

Not reliving the searing pain of palladium breaking down in his chest, or the familiar panic of having someone he thought he knew - someone he’d trusted - sneak up behind him and take ownership of his body, without warning, much less consent-

Not to think about Obie, and the lie of his youth, and the increasing worry that maybe no one was as they seemed-

The burn of metal melding with flesh-

Afghanistan-

 

- nope .

 

Even if it wasn’t quite the care-free evening he’d had planned, Tony was determined to keep hold of it. Out of spite.

 

“Levels are holding steady...I think…” Pepper informed him, as he walked through the living area.

“Well, of course they are, I was directly involved” he responded with a jovility that he no longer felt. “Which brings me to my next question - how does it feel to be a genius?” 

Pepper laughed, dropping her eyes briefly to mask the fact that even she wasn’t immune to shyness-

But there wasn’t the awkwardness to it that there once was.

 

Tony would be lying if he’d said he never wondered how things would be, if they’d gone the other way. If, when they’d finally sat down to talk about their changing relationship like adults, they’d taken the conversation in a different direction. A simple human curiosity about the road not travelled, really. 

In reality, Tony was becoming increasingly comfortable that they’d made the right call. And increasingly pleased that they’d actually made a call, come to that. That they’d finally acknowledged that their relationship had changed since he hired her to be his PA, even if that didn’t make them a good match romantically. To find and name those acts of kindness and concern and commitment for what they really were. 

At moments like these especially, Tony could appreciate that there was nothing lesser about having Pepper as a best friend. That maybe he preferred it. Being able to give her an honest compliment like that, without there being any question of what it might mean. Being able to talk about his life, or choose not to, without the inherent moral burden of having already agreed to share it with her. Being able to spend the evening not doing much of anything-

 

“Sir, the telephone. I’m afraid my protocols are being overwritten.”

 

-would have been nice, wouldn’t it?

 

Unfortunately, Tony could already feel his phone vibrating in his pocket, so he knew he wouldn’t have time to process exactly why that was so fucking annoying-

And, as usual in those circumstances, it came out as a misplaced attempt at humour.

 

“You have reached the life model decoy of Tony Stark. Please leave a message-”

“This is urgent,” Coulson snapped impatiently.

“Then leave it urgently,” Tony snapped back-

 

And then the doors of his private elevator slid open.

Of course they fucking did. 

 

Tony was always so much more affected by the things he knew were wrong, than by the things that hurt his feelings. 

What burned brightest, as Coulson casually let himself into Tony’s home, was a sense of the unfairness in this - how obvious the parallels were, and how blindingly irritating it was that no one else saw them. 

 

This man had treated him like shit, and justified himself on the grounds that Tony deserved it .

Because Tony was irresponsible - said the man who’d threatened to taser a terminally ill person with a serious heart condition. 

Because Tony was selfish - said the man who’d held onto a treatment for palladium poisoning, or at least a potential relief from the incredible pain of it, just to see how Tony would react without it.

Because Tony was arrogant - said the man who had no problem letting himself into Tony’s living room, against his express wishes, whilst being generally impatient that Tony had dared to have a life in his absence. 

And, of course, there was no chance Tony would get to say any of it.

 

So, another meaningless quip it was.

 

“Security breach,” he sighed, glancing at Pepper to watch her smile at the in joke. 

And then she turned to face Coulson, the little grin breaking out into a full-on joyous welcome.

“Phil!” She beamed-

And, okay, yeah - that hurt Tony’s feelings a little bit…

But that was the easy thing to brush off.

“Why is he Phil?” he asked anyway, never expecting he’d get an answer. 

“We need you to look this over, as soon as possible,” Coulson dictated, already aiming a data case in Tony’s direction.

“I don’t like being handed things,” Tony reminded him, in lieu of mentioning all the reasons that this whole thing was entitled and presumptuous and rude -

“That’s okay, because I love being handed things,” Pepper announced - and, immediately, Tony’s shoulders sagged, because he knew where this was going.

“Official consulting hours are between five and eight,” he muttered, taking the file from her without so much as a glance. Talking purely for his own amusement, now.

“This isn’t a consultation,” Coulson - or, apparently ‘Phil’ - asserted.

 

No, technically it’s breaking and entering.

 

But Tony didn’t say it - in fact, he had just decided that there was no point saying anything else, when Pepper piped up,

“Is this about The Avengers?” And, when Tony raised an eyebrow at her, hastily added, “Which I.. I know nothing about…”

Ah. Just as he was about to bury this resentment, Pepper had to poke that particular argument out of its slumber.

“The Avengers initiative was scrapped,” Tony commented bitterly… and then just carried on talking . “And I didn’t qualify. Apparently I’m volatile, self obsessed, don’t play well with others…” 

“This isn’t about personality profiles anymore,” Coulson replied, tersely.

 

Tony would’ve liked to ask why they ever needed to so bluntly dissect his personality - what even gave them the right - if he was obviously capable of fixing their mess regardless. 

What, he was too volatile to work on a side project, but not too self-obsessed to be handed responsibility for national security?

Was it all just because they thought he deserved it, because they wanted to put him in his place?

When he didn’t even work for them - had directly declined the offer to work with them, in fact - when he’d never asked for their help. And still maintained that he never needed it, seeing as their only real input was to lock him in his room and tell him to fix it himself-

 

Stop . You have to stop.

 

If there was one lesson Tony had learned, repeatedly, from birth , it was that there was no point in defending himself on a point of principle. 

He’d learned how to defend himself in every battle of wits, every battle of will, every competition he could be objectively strong enough or fast enough to win - but there was no point trying to change people’s opinion of him. 

There was no argument, however well thought out or cleverly communicated, that would dissuade people of that inherent understanding they already had of him. That Tony’s feelings weren’t quite as real as everyone else's. That he should have to disprove their preconceptions of him, to be worthy of a fair shot. That he was somehow asking for it

Tony remembered far too many infuriating arguments with his father to believe that any good could come from trying to explain. 

 

“Whatever,” he sighed, opening the data case and placing it on a work desk before he turned his attention back to Pepper, “Miss Potts. Got a minute?”

She smiled a polite apology at Coulson, gesturing, one moment , before she skipped down to join Tony.

 

“This is not what I meant by staying in the moment, by the way,” Tony murmured, just to fill the gap while he waited for the files to load. 

“This seems pretty serious. Phil seems pretty shaken,” Pepper answered.

“I’m amazed you can tell the difference,” Tony muttered. He considered asking again why it was ‘Phil’, all of a sudden… he was strangely relieved to remember that it wasn’t actually any of his business. 

“What is all this, anyway?”

This , is…”

 

And then, right on cue, the air around him lit up in a wall of movement and colour-

That colour…

That blue…

 

Tony didn’t know much about the Tesseract, scientifically speaking. But he knew enough to immediately recognise the whole new level of serious they were at. The briefest glimpse of it was enough to set off a chain of sense memories… The hushed whisper his father had used whenever he mentioned it... the way the air had changed, that one time Tony had asked about it…

His eyes rushed on to the block of text beneath it, taking it in at a sweep-

- They were experimenting on it?

-The were experimenting on it and they lost it?

...These were the people who deemed Tony too reckless and narcissistic, by the way. 

 

And maybe he would have quite liked to turn to Coulson with one final barb, just for his own sake, before he got to work. 

A pointed observation about why their experiments were obviously flawed to begin with, before an unfriendly agent became involved. 

A thinly veiled question about the many safeguards they’d overlooked - safeguards that, oh, say, the world's leading expert in renewable energy might’ve suggested, if they’d asked him. 

But before he could get to even that minor point of satisfaction, his eyes caught on the screen to his right.

 

... Captain America .

 

Oh, that was an entirely different sort of nostalgia. A cold, curling sensation low in his gut; the sort of fear you can only come up with as a kid, but remember all your life. 

An uneasy chill crept over him, as he remembered Steve Rogers face staring down from the wall of his father’s office, the sound of his name in his fathers voice

Steve Rogers died for ungrateful little shits like you

Do you know how hard Steve Rogers fought just to get a chance at life? While you throw all yours away?

Steve Rogers was twice the man you are even when he was half your size - all the super serum in the world wouldn’t make you the man he was.

… All with that slightly sinister filter over everything. That ominous music playing faintly in the background of Tony’s memories. Those blink-and-you’ll miss it scene-shifts that only he could see…

He’d never found the words for it.

But, somewhere, ever since he was a little boy, he’d just had the feeling that there was something… nefarious, about Steve Rogers, something forbidden and… wrong , somehow-

Tony swallowed roughly, and was just about to tell himself to get a grip, when his gaze dropped to the information listed beneath those horribly familiar images-

 

- He’s alive?

 

There was what could only be described as a trauma response.

A hot burst of denial - because, surely, he couldn’t be ?

A deluded attempt at bargaining - no, someone would have told me

A spike of anger, as he realised - what, like Fury told you about that message from your dad, that he’d kept hold of for you-don’t-even-know-how-long? Like they told you there was a treatment for palladium poisoning, or like they told you they were working on the Tesseract at all? Or do you mean like they told you that your new assistant's name was Natalie?

A wave of genuine, bodily fear, followed immediately by a curl of shame. 

 

Steve Rogers is alive.

 

“I’m going to take the jet to DC tonight,” Pepper spoke as though from miles away.

“Okay,” Tony nodded robotically, his eyes still fixed on Steve Rogers name. “Fly safe.”

“Work hard,” She smiled as she left - but he barely heard it. He’d fallen into his own little world long before she and Coulson had strolled out the door.

 

For a moment, he simply let his eyes run over the chaos of information, waiting for one issue to make itself known as the priority right now. 

Of course, he knew it should be the mission - at the very least, he should probably figure out exactly what the mission was-

But his attention just kept getting dragged back over to Rogers image.

Tony had the eerie feeling that he was about to live through one of his childhood nightmares. That he was about witness the real Steve Rogers decreeing once and for all that Tony really was the disappointment that his father always predicted-

That maybe he was about to come face to face with whatever wordless quality it was that always made his blood run cold... 

 

Currently employed as an Agent of SHIELD…

 

Tony coughed a joyless laugh. Well, that figured. 

His dad had never given him much of an insight into Steve Rogers character - only what Rogers would think of Tony … But on that basis, he would probably fit in very well alongside Fury and Romanoff and ‘Phil’...

 

...And if he walked in right now and called you a disappointment, he’d have a point.

 

Tony felt his entire body surrender to it, softening under him in defeat. He carried on chastening himself, even though he already felt thoroughly ashamed,

The issues you have with your father don’t matter

The issues you have with SHIELD don’t matter

The issues you have with Steve Rogers don’t matter

The things you have been through don’t matter and the feelings that have been hurt don’t matter and your arguments about any of it don’t matter-

It’s not all about you.

 

What matters is doing the right thing, now.

 

So, you might as well get on with it.