“You look like you’re about to walk into a lion’s den,” Steve Rogers observes as he comes around a corner, and Natasha Romanov looks up at him with a wry twist of her mouth that can’t quite be called a smile or a grimace.
“I’d prefer that, actually,” she says as he falls into step with her, and when he just raises an eyebrow in question, she explains, “Hand-to-hand training the rookies.”
Steve laughs even though he feels like he probably shouldn’t. “That explains the fieldgear.” Grinning at her, he suggests, “Try not to kill any of them—it’s so hard to get blood out of the grout under the mats.”
She smiles the kind of smile that makes most of their enemies drop their weapons and either fall facedown on the ground or run away screaming, and he sighs. “I said try, Tasha, try.”
“Hey, you pull the mats back in place, no one notices without Luminol,” she replies a little too cheerfully, brushing a loose strand of hair away from her face. He doesn’t know if it’s the lighting or something else, but there are shadows under her usually sniper-sharp blue eyes like she hasn’t slept in weeks, and he doesn’t think it’s the red of her hair that makes her look atypically pale. He also knows better than to ask. “What are you up to?”
“Paperwork,” he says with an exasperated sigh. “If we were still writing hard copies I think we’d have destroyed the Amazon by now.”
“Welcome to bureaucracy,” she says with a dry laugh, reaching up to clap him on the shoulder. “I’m this way.” She nods at a split in the hallway.
“Are you sure?”
“Shut up, Rogers,” she says easily, lifting a hand to wave as she walks away even though she doesn’t look back, and he doesn’t bother hiding his amusement.
The scope of the property, which is in more ways than one the new SHIELD Academy, is absolutely enormous. Considering it was paid for with Tony Stark’s money, that’s hardly a shock: for the first month after he and the rest of the team had moved into the newly-renovated Avengers Tower a year-and-a-half ago, even Natasha had been getting lost. It’s therefore a good thing Tony (or, more likely, Pepper or JARVIS) had the foresight to send the new facilities’ blueprints to their phones, because otherwise Steve would probably still be lost after that one day he’d been looking for a broom closet and failed spectacularly. (It’s at least ten days later and he still doesn’t understand how he ended up on sub-basement three, a mile opposite and five floors down from where he’d started, never mind where he’d intended to be. He never did find the broom closet, either.)
Officially, none of them have vacated their quarters at the Tower, in part because Tony won’t hear of it every time one of them tries to bring it up. Steve, Natasha, and Maria Hill have ended up spending so much time at the new facility that it makes more sense to just stay in residence there—it’s not like they all have flying suits of armour to speed up the commute, but no one will say that to Tony’s face lest he actually give them suits for that express purpose. Bruce Banner is still unaccounted for; Clint Barton’s doing a convoluted rotation with the training facility, the Tower, and home, and with a new baby no one can blame him; and Thor is off-world searching for things none of the rest of them entirely understand beyond “could cause apocalyptic horror” (i.e. business as usual).
Navigation and personnel notwithstanding, though, the place really does feel like home, like this is where he’s supposed to be, and Steve’s pleasantly surprised to find that most of the people there seem to feel the same way. He’d gone from feeling displaced in a New York that was a stranger, seventy years late for a date he wanted more than anything to make; then it was a DC that almost literally blew up in his face, with his supposedly dead best friend a brainwashed assassin; and finally to a billionaire’s tower he’d never in a million years expected to be able to call comfortable. But he was wrong about that last and he was wrong about this place (which they still need to name, since “new facility” is getting old), and he’s rarely been happier to be wrong about anything in his life. He’ll never not wonder what he and Peggy could have been; he’s not going to stop looking for Bucky this time, not until he has incontrovertible proof one way or the other; but he doesn’t feel stuck, like an anachronistic relic no one knows what to do with, and he thinks he’s beginning to learn how to belong in this century.
He nods in passing to one of the handful of agents from the old SHIELD; then, through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, he sees a sleek silver convertible working its way up to the main entrance. There are only a handful of people that could be, so he detours from his office and heads for the front doors instead, emerging just as Tony shuts the driver’s side door of the Aston Martin (he is, quite literally, the only reason Steve bothered to figure out high-end vehicle brand insignias—it’s not like the majority of people they chase are driving cars, what with actual aliens and their distinct lack of driver's licences, and the ones that do typically aren’t in the six- or seven-figure bracket).
“Well hey, James Bond,” he says in greeting, and Tony flashes him a broad grin.
“Look at you, with the pop culture references,” he replies, dropping his keys in his blazer pocket and lifting his coffee cup toward Steve in something between a salute and a toast. “You been bored or something?”
What used to drive Steve up the wall has now become an old inside joke within the team, so he shrugs nonchalantly. “Like I could avoid it after seventeen months living in the same space with you,” he scoffs.
“True,” Tony concedes, spreading his hands wide. “I am irresistible.”
Steve rolls his eyes, fighting a grin. “I am not feeding your ego.”
“Sure you are,” he replies brightly, then starts heading up to the main doors. “How’s it been going?” he asks, passing his ID across the scanner to key them in.
Pulling open the door and gesturing for the other man to precede him, Steve slides one hand into his pocket and waves the other in a “see for yourself” sort of motion around them. “It's been good. We’re still trying to finish up the paperwork for Sokovia and everything else—funny how there’s a lot of that when you kind of vaporise a city—but the recruits seem to be settling in well if you ask anyone who’s not Natasha, and Fury’s been in and out trying to call back any of the remaining SHIELD agents who didn’t turn out to be Hydra.”
Almost anywhere else, the halls would be echoing if they spoke any louder than a whisper, but whatever Tony did—or had the construction crew do—to insulate everything in sight (walls, floors, ceilings) keeps it from feeling like walking through a gymnasium. The window glass is about three inches thick and as close to bulletproof as science allows, and it allegedly protects against microphones eavesdropping by way of reverberations. Which will all be a miserable complication if something inside the facility goes to hell in an overly ironic handbasket, but otherwise it means the complex is surprisingly quiet and slightly less cold and businesslike.
“Well that sounds fun,” Tony says in a tone that suggests anything but, and Steve nods wryly. “Disaster relief is making good progress—I just got back from a couple days in Seoul last night. This morning.” He stops talking for a second, then waves a hand dismissively. “Whatever, timezones are irrelevant. Helen asked me to look in on her lab, and bottom line, Sokovia, Wakanda, and South Korea may be slightly less inclined to sue our collective asses off.”
Herding Tony toward a half-open door with a hand on his elbow, Steve leads them into an observation room that sits above a heavily shielded training room the size of a football field. Wanda Maximoff is sparring with Vision on one end (she gets to narrow down her precision, he gets to increase his reaction time), James Rhodes and Sam Wilson on another, though theirs is more traditional and involves less glowing fire and flying. It’s a good thing they’re both Air Force, since it’s slightly less likely that that will change. “Your relief fund’s half the reason why we don’t have triple the amount of paperwork and negotiation than we currently do,” Steve says as they watch. “I knew you’d covered a lot of the repair in New York after the Chitauri, but I never realised exactly how wide a reach it had—or how fast it could work.”
Tony lifts one shoulder in an awkward shrug, takes a sip of coffee; for all his brazen audacity, Steve’s learnt over the past two years exactly how terrible he is at accepting compliments at face value. “We broke it, I have the money to fix it, I figured why not.”
Chuckling softly, Steve bumps Tony’s arm with his own—he’s only about an inch taller, and not having to lean down or have people aim for his shoulder and hit his biceps instead is kind of weirdly novel unless he's been spending extended amounts of time isolated with the team. “Maybe so, but I hear you’re also covering medical and funeral costs. That’s hardly in the job description.”
The lines tighten around Tony’s mouth, his eyes. “Ultron being a homicidal asshole may have been an accident, but those people would never have needed our help if I hadn’t tried to create him,” he says flatly, grip on the mug tightening until his knuckles are white, and Steve wonders, not for the first time, what his friend saw under Wanda’s influence. None of them have asked, and none of them have volunteered, with the exception of Thor’s brief relay regarding Vision; and while it’s a safe bet Clint has an idea of Natasha’s, they’re the only pair not left guessing.
But he doesn’t know how to assuage the guilt, especially with Pepper and Extremis still too close for comfort, so he doesn’t ask now, either. All he says is, “Maybe that’s true, but we wouldn’t have Vision if you hadn’t tried, either. And even if none of that were true, there are plenty of millionaires who feel guilty about something, and you don’t see all of them starting humanitarian funding efforts.” He’d been more than his share of infuriated when it all started, but no matter how long you’ve been doing the job, surprise assassination attempts on your day off will never be charming and welcome; and it doesn’t escape him that Tony’s going above and beyond to try to minimise impact and alleviate damage. Turning just enough to stop having to look at him out of the corner of his eye, Steve adds, “You’re also bringing in anyone who has the skills to do the construction, who happened to lose their jobs when we blew up their buildings; I don’t think I’ve ever seen half a city go up in the space of a week.”
Tony’s saved from having to come up with an answer to that by Maria Hill’s appearance, as she walks right by the door, then promptly doubles back. “Oh, Steve, I was just looking for you.” She hands him a sealed envelope—the interdepartmental, eyes-only type, if those came in cardboard FedEx-esque form. “Sam couldn't find you this morning.”
For a moment, there’s that brief, vertigo-inducing sensation of his heart dropping straight through to the floor. It happens every time he sees Sam’s name on his caller ID (which is inconvenient, especially now that Sam’s here and has plenty of other reasons to call), or receives one of these dispatches; he has yet to get used to it, but he’s more than a little sick of it. “Thanks,” is all he says aloud, and while Maria just nods, Tony shoots him an odd look out of the corner of his eye that he pretends not to notice.
“So, how’s life now that you’ve ditched me for your old digs?” Tony says to Maria, and Steve could kiss him for providing the distraction. “Enjoying working for Fury again?”
Maria pulls a face. Off the Helicarrier, she’s out of her fieldgear and back in the suits she’d been wearing at SI, albeit with heels slightly less prone to killing you if you tried to run in them, and the butt of her service-issue is just barely visible against the dark fabric of her suit jacket as she twists around to pull her phone from her pocket. She looks at the screen, then drops it back in and says, “I don’t actually know who I’m working for—Fury insists he’s not officially here, Steve keeps saying he’s not in charge…” Shrugging, she hesitates for a moment, looking behind them through the windows. “Phil would love this, though.” It seems like a non-sequitur; it doesn’t feel like one.
Leaning back against the glass, Steve nods in agreement. “I like to think so. Though, to be fair, I’m kind of glad he wasn’t around to see SHIELD fall to pieces.”
There’s a tiny quirk of her lips in answer that he can’t quite read, not sadness or anger or…anything else relevant he can think of. “But getting to be part of the rebuilding might have been worth it for him.” Then, more lightly, she adds to Tony, “Then again, far as I can tell I might technically still be working for you, and that might not fly so well with him.”
“Stop accepting SI’s pay, then,” he says with a grin, and she rolls her eyes so hard Steve’s concerned she’ll pull a muscle. “At least my name’s not on this building, though I could always change that.”
“You know, I was almost going to say I missed you,” she retorts, pointing a pen at him. “Must have been temporary insanity, which sadly will not save me from the next three hours of meetings.” She starts to turn away, then pauses halfway and glances at her [possibly former] boss, serious now. “Are you back?”
Tony does that half-shrug again, only less uncomfortably. “I'm at retirement age from all this flying around and blowing shit up,” he answers, deliberately flip, and Steve snorts in spite of himself.
“Right, and gravity reversed overnight,” she says drily, but she catches his eye, and there’s an entire conversation conducted in those few seconds of silence. Then she nods once, like she suddenly has an answer; to Steve she says, “I’ll catch up with you later,” and, to Tony, “Good seeing you, boss.” Then she’s out the door, and Tony follows to shut it behind her before turning to face Steve, one hand still on the doorknob.
“I can step out.”
Shaking his head, Steve doesn’t bother verbalising the “no” as he slits the top open and pockets the folding knife. He feels like an idiot, having to take a deep breath just to open a fucking envelope, and Tony steps up beside him, pressing their shoulders together as he goes back to watching the training floor. It’s an illusory sort of privacy, but Steve leans into him all the same as he pulls a sheaf of papers out. A minute later and he sighs, scrubbing his free hand across his face.
“I’m sorry,” Tony offers as Steve hands him the papers to look over. He speed-reads them, though Steve’s reaction hardly left room for doubt on their conclusions. “I haven’t come up with anything new, either, never mind anything actionable.”
Tony had appeared in DC literally as he and Sam had been leaving the cemetery housing Fury’s fake headstone—and in spite of the show of surprise when Fury had shown up at the Bartons’ farm, Steve’s fairly convinced the engineer already knew the former Director wasn’t really dead. He’d handed Steve an encrypted flash drive and said, “Everything I could find on Barnes or the Winter Soldier from 1942 onward: old KGB files, police reports, news articles, anything. The originals are there, but I also had JARVIS translate anything that wasn’t printed in a language you speak.”
Stunned into speechlessness, Steve had gaped at him stupidly for about five minutes, long enough for Sam to hold out a hand and say, “Sam Wilson. I already know who you are.”
While most people would have replied with something along the lines of “nice to meet you”, Tony isn’t most people and had said instead, “Nice flying,” at roughly the same moment that Steve found his voice again.
Well, sort of. All he’d managed was a strangled, “How?”, Natasha’s painfully thin folder still in his other hand, and Tony had given him a long, level look before answering, “It’s all legit. Do you really want to know more than that?”
Smart enough to read that as the warning it was, Steve had shaken his head. “Thank you.”
Turning to Sam, Tony had continued, “I assume by the complete lack of surprise on your face that you’re sticking around for the search.” Sam had simply nodded. “Whatever you need, just ask. I’ll keep digging, but whether it’s weapons or data or an inconspicuous flight overseas, if I have it it’s yours.”
Then, that night, Steve had gotten a text: “Your apartment’s pretty blown up. Tower’s renovated, there’s a floor waiting for you. Flying back tomorrow morning, 10:30—I’ll leave your name at the SI airfield if you feel like being back in New York.” The address for said airfield had followed shortly.
He’d gone, grateful and feeling guilty over the accusations he’d levelled at Tony four months prior when they’d met on the Helicarrier, something Tony still has never brought up. In the months since then, they’ve followed leads to two dozen countries, conveniently accompanying SI flights or borrowing smaller planes and private airstrips, and while they've still found nothing solid, Steve refuses to stop trying. Tony and Sam keep helping, and the English (or German, or Russian, or Japanese, and so on) language doesn’t have a word that properly encompasses his gratitude.
So he pushes a hand through his hair and says only, “Hardly your fault. We know where he’s not, in large part thanks to you, and that’s better than nothing.”
Corners of his mouth quirking up, Tony shakes his head. “You’d do the same for me. We’ll find him.”
Before Steve can respond, there’s the solid thunk of a boxing glove thrown at the glass, and they both turn to see Rhodey and Sam looking up at them with matching “dude, seriously?” looks on their faces. Tony snorts in amusement and sets his coffee mug on the windowsill before pulling open the interior door that lets them out onto the flight of stairs leading to the floor.
“What, life as an Avenger isn’t entertaining enough?” he asks with a grin, returning Rhodey’s hug and slapping him on the back.
“Nah, I just take it personally when I see you sitting on your ass while the rest of us do all the work.”
Sam almost chokes in the middle of trying to swallow half a bottle of water, and Tony points a finger at Rhodey. “Hey now, you’ve been on the team for like five minutes, rookie. Save the world a couple times, and then we’ll talk.”
And that rapidly becomes the next ten minutes, mostly meaningless barbs and banter thrown back and forth, which, whether or not it was intentional, is exactly what Steve needed to get his head back on straight.
Finally, throwing up his hands in melodramatic despair, Tony declares, “You’re hopeless,” at Rhodey in response to something Steve didn’t catch but has the colonel half-strangling himself trying not to laugh. Digging his phone from the back pocket of his jeans, Tony looks at the time and says, “And I’m starving—food, anyone?”
“I wish,” Sam responds, since Rhodey still looks incapable of coherent speech. “We’re due for a debrief with Fury that’s been rescheduled about twenty-five times at this point.”
“Ow,” Tony says.
“Thanks,” Sam replies, and Steve tries to hide a smile with minimal success. “I don’t know about those two,” he adds, jerking a thumb over his shoulder in Wanda and Vision’s direction, “but I wouldn’t interrupt them. That’s usually when things start exploding.” He pauses. “Well, unintentionally—more than usual.”
Once again breathing normally, Rhodey suggests, “Raincheck. You know, in addition to the two hundred thirty-seven you already owe me.”
“Please try to leave the building standing,” Tony calls after them as they leave. “I’d like to go a month without having to do major renovations somewhere!”
Laughing, Rhodey flips him off over his shoulder, and Tony turns back to Steve, still grinning. “Asking you is pointless, since you can pretty much always eat. Maria said she had meetings. Natasha? Clint?”
“Clint’s not in today, and Natasha’s training the new recruits. If she doesn’t kill them, she might kill us.”
“Point.” He gestures over at the other pair in the room. “And them?”
“Sam’s not wrong—they find a rhythm, and it works for them, but the interruptions usually throw someone off.”
Tony nods, and Steve figures he’s probably done the one-track mind stretch often enough to need no further explanation. “Guess it’s just you and me. You game?”
“As long as you don’t poison me.”
With an entirely unreassuring smirk, Tony leads him back to the car parked out front, and they drive for maybe twenty minutes (with the music on just loud enough to make conversation possible but not mandatory) before pulling into a small lot beside an utterly unremarkable building. Tony heads for the door, completely ignoring Steve’s questioning looks, and nods at the dark-haired woman behind the counter when she gestures off to the left. The place appears to be one room and the kitchen, walls panelled in worn dark wood and lit with a combination of natural light from the windows and the lamps hanging above most of the tables.
“How did you find this place?” Steve finally asks as they take a tiny booth in the back corner, sliding across the brown leather seat. He’s gotten more used to the Tony Stark who knows some of Manhattan’s street vendors by name and goes to decrepit-looking hole-in-the-wall restaurants with the best food he’s ever tasted, as opposed to the media’s Tony Stark who wears five-figure custom tailored suits and attends events that charge a couple thousand dollars a plate. That doesn’t mean it’s not still surprising when the man pulls one of these off-the-beaten-path places out of his pocket, though the lack of recognition and autograph requests is sadly refreshing.
“Road trip one summer while I was at MIT,” Tony says with a chuckle that suggests he knows exactly what Steve’s thinking. “Rhodey’s actually the one who told me about it; there’s pretty much nothing on this menu that sucks.”
“Hell of an endorsement coming from you.”
When he looks up, it’s just in time to catch the wicked glint in Tony’s eyes before Steve realises what he said. He isn’t, however, fast enough to stop the other man from replying, with altogether too much glee, “Language.” Rather than dignify that with a response, Steve balls up his napkin and throws it at Tony instead. Which is a vast improvement, of course, so logically he also kicks Tony under the table. Granted, the booth wasn’t exactly built for two people over six feet tall, so it’s harder not to accidentally kick each other, but that’s beside the point.
They place their orders, Tony flirts with the waiter just because he can, and there’s just enough ambient noise to cover them as they spend the next half-hour on the “new” team, on the facilities, on the training and the newcomers and the state of SHIELD—relatively speaking—on the AI development and where they fall in the jurisdictional hierarchy. (Short answer: no one knows.) Then, halfway through the meal (Tony's right: the food is fantastic), Steve leans back in his seat and says, “So, you want to tell me what’s up with you and Pepper?” and Tony freezes with his fork halfway to his mouth.
“…What?” He’s got that wide-eyed, deer-in-the-headlights expression that makes him look like he’s about to bolt from the restaurant as if it’s on fire.
“They taught me to be all perceptive and stuff,” Steve points out drily, and Tony shoots him a halfhearted glare.
“It didn’t work,” he tries.
“Liar,” Steve retorts, but he’s smiling enough to take any sting out of it.
Tony says nothing for long enough to make it clear he’s debating the merits of lying; Steve just waits him out. He waited seventy-something years for his best friend (to try to kill him, but this, too, is beside the point). He can wait five minutes for this infuriating man he has, astonishingly enough, come to like.
“We split eight months ago,” Tony answers at last, blunt and final, and Steve blinks in spite of himself.
“Damn, Tony, I’m sorry,” he replies, nudging his knee under the table since reaching across it would be more likely to result in them knocking something over.
Tony just shrugs, not quite meeting Steve’s eyes. “It is what it is.”
“So…all that with the farm was, what, cover?”
That at least earns him a half-smile. “No, that was…well, it’s the least I can do after I almost got her killed and everything. We’re still friends, we’re just not…together.”
Levelling a long look at him, Steve finally just sighs. “Why didn’t you say anything?” he asks, even though he knows the answer. How did we not notice?, he doesn’t ask, because he probably knows the answer to this, too.
“Wouldn’t have done any good,” Tony points out altogether too reasonably, blue eyes resigned but even: it happened; it hurt; he’s accepted it and moved on, insomuch as Tony Stark ever moves on when he feels he’s at fault (which seems to be all the time). “Pretty sure she told Maria—and jesus christ on a pogo stick those two are terrifying together—” Steve exhales a sharp laugh, because yes, they really are. “—which means Natasha probably knows, but it’s not like we were cancelling an engagement.”
Yeah, you kind of were, Steve thinks to himself. “I’m sorry,” he says, again, and Tony gives him that same half-smile.
“Not your fault, but thanks,” he replies, an unconscious mirror of Steve’s earlier response. He pauses long enough to take a drink, then blatantly changes the subject: “How’s the new suit working out?” His rather mercurial moods are something else Steve’s learnt to run with, so he lets him, at least for a few minutes, talking shock-proofing and range of movement and durability, and yes, in spite of his reservations, those magnets were an excellent idea.
Until there’s a lull in the conversation as they’re waiting for the cheque to come back, at which point he asks, “Then after all that about tapping out—what brought you back so soon? It’s been like two weeks.”
Again, Tony doesn’t respond right away, though at least this time he’s making eye contact; in response to the semi-token glower, Steve merely raises an eyebrow in a silent “what, you didn’t think I was letting you off the hook that easily, did you?” Then he takes a deep breath, like he’s about to jump off a cliff, and says simply, “I missed home.”
Steve frowns in confusion, trying to parse the Stark logic that usually underlies Tony’s otherwise tangential statements and coming up empty. “But this isn’t—” Except then he sees the look on Tony’s face—a little wary, but also warm and fondly amused—and there’s the epiphany, leaving him feeling incredibly, irredeemably stupid. “Oh.” (Okay, so maybe he should have taken Natasha a little more seriously whenever she made a crack about him and Tony getting together. Oops?)
At that Tony laughs outright, and Steve suddenly realises how long it’s been since he heard him sound that genuinely happy. It maybe breaks his heart a little bit. “When I’m actually ahead of you on the emotional insight, Cap, that’s a bad sign.”
Ducking his head with a sheepish grin, Steve can feel the heat rising in his face and hopes he looks slightly less like a tomato than he feels. “So I’ve been told.”
They’re interrupted by the return of the waiter, and Tony’s signing the receipt before Steve can so much as open his mouth to protest. Then he tips his head at the door, eyebrows raised in wordless question, and Steve nods. He does at least have the presence of mind to wait until they're back in the car, before Tony can start the engine, to ask, “So was that supposed to be a date?”
Tony laughs again, eyes bright with mischief. “Steve, when you’ve been on a date with me, trust me—you won’t need to ask that question.” He pauses with a long, considering look, and his next question is all trademark Stark insouciance with a dash of caution (or perhaps an expectation of rejection, Steve’s not entirely sure). “If it were, would you object?”
Steve knows better than to blow the question off, knows if he does there will be an impermeable wall erected between them, and twists in his seat to look Tony full in the face. “I haven’t yet, have I?”
As though that weren’t quite the answer he was expecting, Tony blinks owlishly at him. “True.” Another pause; then, “So if I were to kiss you, would you throw me through the windshield?”
Rather than answer and risk tripping any one of the ten billion landmines that could kill this before it begins, Steve just leans in, slow enough for the movement to be predictable, avoidable. But when he doesn’t back away, Steve wraps a hand around the back of Tony's neck and pulls him in to kiss him first, easy and slow and terrifyingly, perfectly familiar. “Does that answer your question?” he replies when they break apart, smiling and still close enough their foreheads are touching, and Tony chuckles.
“Cocky bastard,” he says gently, with entirely too much affection for that to be remotely insulting, and it’s Steve’s turn to laugh.
“Takes one to know one,” he points out. He can’t seem to stop smiling, but to be fair he’s not trying all that hard.
“Touché,” Tony replies. Then he leans in to kiss Steve again, and the point is moot.