“Goddamn it, that’s enough!”
Steve slams his fist down against the wooden conference table hard enough that it cracks in two. Microphones and drinks tumble toward the center where the sagging table cloth catches them in a pile. The simultaneous feedback of five mics banging together all at once sends a painful screech through the room.
Tony’s got to give credit to his friends-- none of them even startle. Clint shifts his chair back an inch or two to avoid some spilled water, Bruce and Nat cross their arms menacingly and Steve stares down the room.
The silence that follows the Captain’s outburst is the silenciest silence that has ever silenced. It’s beautiful. Golden. It’s like the ultra quiet anechoic chamber out in Minnesota that Bruce is always threatening to lock himself in, only this is better, because it’s full of politicians simultaneously pissing themselves. Silently.
Under the cracked table, a flicker of movement catches Tony’s eyes. Clint’s fingerspelling two letters over and over. O and K?
Tony knows it’s meant for him and he gives the slightest dip of his chin. Yeah, he’s okay. A minute ago, not so much. A minute ago he’d been desperately fighting off the first twinges of a panic attack. The Senate mandated inquisition had turned into a Let’s Blame Stark party, and Tony was done trying to prove himself to these people. Just not as done as Steve apparently.
The quiet in the room stretches out on under Cap’s unrelenting glare. When Steve speaks again, his voice is low and deadly serious. This is not the Captain America these people think they know. This is Steve Rogers: protective, battle-hardened and mad as shit that these assholes think they’re going to bully a member of his team.
“Tony Stark is not on trial here,” Steve says. “We agreed to answer your questions about recent events as a courtesy. If we’d known the only reason you asked us here was to rake our teammate over the coals, we’d have told you where you could shove your invitation.”
That sends a low murmur of objection through the crowd though no one’s brave enough to stand up and walk out.
“The man you’re talking about-- the man you’re so eager to rip apart-- I’ve never met that man,” Steve continues. “I was on ice when he was kidnapped. The Tony Stark I know is the man who returned. The one who shut down a profitable company-- his family legacy-- and has risked his life time and time again to fix his past mistakes.”
Tony feels his chest tighten. He hates to think about this stuff. Especially hates the part where he can hear admiration in Steve’s voice. It will always feel undeserved.
“Tony never knowingly or intentionally sold weapons to arms dealers or terrorists. That went on without his knowledge. He would have rather burned his empire to the ground than see one more innocent life lost to Stark technology. I know that for a fact.”
Tony’s eyes tingle with tears he refuses to let fall. No one has ever defended him like this before. Rhodey and Pepper have come close, but what Steve’s doing is unprecedented and Tony has no idea what to do with his stirred up emotions.
“But rather than scorch the Earth, Tony chose to build. Not just the Iron Man suit, but a future where he and his company could do more for the world than create death and destruction. I am tired of people ignoring the good Tony does. He’s thrown himself into clean energy and sustainability, into medical technology and development, into every facet of innovation and he daily pushes the boundaries of what humankind can achieve. He puts on his Iron--” Steve pauses, looks at Tony and gives him a slight nod-- “sorry, a Gold-Titanium Alloy--,” he corrects, before turning back to his audience “suit, and he makes the sacrifice play. He is a loyal member of our team and we trust him with our lives.”
Steve stops and looks down at the floor. When he looks up his eyes have softened slightly. His tone is less irritated.
“What kind of world would it be if all of the worst mistakes we ever made were held against us? Because that’s the world Tony lives in. Everywhere he turns there are people telling him he can’t make up for his past and people waiting for him to fail.”
Steve scoots his chair back from the table and reaches over to put a hand on Tony’s shoulder.
“Despite the fact that some of you will never be able to see him as anything other than his mistakes, Tony Stark is a good man, invaluable as an Avenger and a national hero. Thank you. You’re dismissed.”
Steve stands and Natasha follows him to her feet. She reaches down a hand to tug at Tony’s elbow since he’s not moving. He stands and follows his friends out the back door, and they quickly walk without speaking down the hall to where the limo is waiting. Tony’s heart is racing. He’s not sure what to make of Steve’s defense. He’s grateful. Confused maybe. Feelings are hard.
Clint opens the limo door and Natasha pushes Tony inside.
“We’ll walk,” Bruce says, as Natasha flicks her finger toward Steve and then points her thumb toward the car, so he knows he’s riding with Tony.
Then Natasha walks over to Happy and leans in close.
“Take the long way to the tower,” she says, giving him a reassuring smile.
Tony sees all this, but isn’t entirely sure what’s happening. Steve’s words are still playing on repeat in his head, though none of them slot into place in a way that makes any sense. It’s not that Tony and Steve aren’t friends-- Tony knows they are. He’s just always had the feeling it’s based on necessary tolerance and mandated team unity and unavoidable mutual friends. That Steve might genuinely like him-- might respect his work and how hard he tries to make things right-- has honestly never crossed Tony’s mind.
Someone shuts the door behind Steve and the limo moves forward before he’s taken his seat.
“What was that?” Tony asks, making eye contact with Steve for the first time since the table. His voice is off-key to his own ears. It was meant to sound light-hearted but instead it reveals so much of what he wants to hide. The confusion. The unworthiness.
“The truth,” Steve says. In contrast to Tony, he says it with all the confidence in the world. “I call things like I see ‘em.”
“Then you need to get your eyes checked, grandpa,” Tony says. It’s supposed to be a joke except his voice cracks. He turns his face toward the window, to shut Steve out. The car will park soon. Steve will leave. They can laugh about this in a few days.
For almost a full minute Tony thinks that it’s worked. Steve doesn’t disagree with him and Tony knows when Steve calms down he’ll remember all the reasons defending Tony isn’t worth the effort. He’ll recall the catalog of mistakes and he’ll rejoin the stone-throwers.
That’s how it’s meant to go.
Tony jumps when a hand settles on his back. He doesn’t pull away. Physical comfort is Tony’s weakness, and it’s a rare gift. Something he can’t buy for himself. He wants to enjoy it for a minute before he has to give it up.
Steve must take it as permission to do more, because he ghosts his hand over Tony's shoulder, then down his arm, before Steve puts his arm around him entirely and settles his hand on Tony's stomach. He tugs him back a little so Tony can rest against him.
“Why are you doing, this?” Tony asks. It hurts. It’s causing him physical pain to know whatever this is, it’s going to be ripped away from him as quickly as it was given.
“It's what I should have done a long time ago,” Steve says quietly. “What I said-- that wasn’t off the top of my head. I’ve rehearsed it for months-- in the shower, in the gym... in bed at night. Not as a speech to deliver in a hearing, but to say to you. So you’d understand...”
Steve trails off and Tony closes his eyes as he reaches down to let his own hand rest against the hand on his stomach.
“I don’t think I’ll ever believe it,” Tony admits.
“And here I heard you were a genius,” Steve says into Tony’s shoulder. “Next time I’ll try smaller words. Maybe make an Excel pie chart or a PowerPoint. Definitely use something Microsoft based.”
“Crueeeeel,” Tony complains, though he’s laughing because Steve’s making nerd jokes and that more than anything makes him turn in Steve’s arms and look at him. Really look at him. “You’ve really been practicing that whole speech?”
“Every word,” Steve agrees.
“Even the part where you swore, used the Lord’s name in vain, and broke the table?” Tony asks with a grin.
“That part was improvised,” Steve admits, ducking his head in embarrassment.
“You do realize it’s going to be my ringtone from now on, right?” Tony asks. “That’s what you’re getting into with this. With... me.”
When Steve looks up at him he’s smiling the sort of genuine, relaxed smile Tony thought only existed in photos taken 70 years before.
Steve nods and takes Tony’s hand and brings it to his lips so he can kiss one of his knuckles.
“Wouldn’t have you any other way.”