"I think," Steve said, "we should have called for back-up."
"No shit," Tony said in that dry tone that indicated quite clearly how stupid he thought you were. "I figured that out two miles ago."
Steve flushed. "Okay, fine. So you're smarter than me."
"Well, yeah," Tony said. "But don't take it personally, okay? I'm smarter than everyone." The water beneath the catwalk swelled up, spilling over their shoes and rising nearly to their ankles before sinking back down again. "Ugh. Remind me again why I followed you down here?"
"Because it was the right thing to do," Steve said.
Tony sighed. "Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. I forgot who I was talking to."
Steve just shook his head.
4 Hours Ago
The day had started out normally. Steve ate breakfast with Thor and Natasha. Afterward the god of thunder clapped him on the shoulder and wished him a good day, then he was gone, most likely on his way to New Mexico again. Natasha left without a word, giving him no hint of her plans for the day. Clint wandered into the kitchen and made a circuit around the room, grabbing random bits of food as he passed by, then wandered back out again, mumbling something about the firing range. Bruce got a cup of coffee, then went right back to his lab. All of this was just part of the morning routine.
The first surprise came when Tony showed up in the kitchen while breakfast was still on the table. Even more surprising, he was dressed in a fine suit and tie, and acting quite civil to everyone.
Or rather, just to Steve, since he was the only one left by the time Tony showed up.
"Where is everybody?" Tony asked while he poked at the remains of the breakfast casserole. He didn't sound particularly interested, but Steve was willing to play along. It wasn't often that Tony Stark even pretended to be a part of the team.
It was hard being a leader to such a disparate group. Too often he felt like he spent most of his time just trying to understand them all. What motivated them, what interested them, what strengths they brought to the team, what weaknesses they tried to hide. Some days he could almost see them slowly coming into harmony with each other. Other days, they made him want to punch things until his hands bled.
He still couldn't decide if living together in the Avengers Tower was a good idea or not. When Tony had first extended the invitation, shortly after their defeat of Loki, he had accepted without really thinking about it. He and Bruce had been the first ones to move in, even having some input into the design of the floors Tony had allocated for them. Clint had come a couple weeks later, just showing up one day with a duffel bag and a comment about needing a change of scenery. No one was really sure when Natasha had arrived – she was just there one morning, acting like she had always been there, the look on her face daring anyone to suggest otherwise.
Now, two months later, here they all were. Thor came and went, depending on what was happening in Asgard at any given moment, but the rest of them had settled in and made this place their home. Steve never knew what he was going to encounter from one day to the next – just yesterday he had nearly been knocked off his feet when Clint went howling past him in the hall on what had looked like a rocket-powered skateboard. But really it wasn't that much different from sharing barracks with twenty other guys, if you didn't take into account the fact that an awful lot of things here were rocket-powered, or talked back to you in pleasant English accents.
"So where are you going?" he asked.
"Hmm?" Tony looked up, but he did not sustain the eye contact. He went over to the counter and poured himself a cup of coffee. "Oh, nothing, really. Just, this little thing, it's nothing, something about a…" He trailed off, already distracted.
Steve had intended to spend today helping out with the still-ongoing clean-up efforts in Manhattan, as he did on most days, but on the spur of the moment he changed his mind. "I'll go with you."
Tony turned his whole head to look at him. "Why?" He drew out the word, frowning in suspicion, his eyes narrowing. Then he snapped his fingers, and his features smoothed out. "I know. It's finally my turn, isn't it? You know, for the Q and A session, the get-to-know-you bit, all that. Am I right?"
Phrased in those terms, it sounded so cynical. Steve hated that, the way Tony could take even the most innocent of gestures and put a negative spin on them. He didn't even seem to know when he was doing it. It was one of the worst things about him.
Steve stood up and shrugged in what he hoped was a casual manner. "No, I'm just bored."
Tony stared at him for a little bit, then twitched his head to the side in a gesture of acquiescence. "Suit yourself. But if you ask me what my favorite color is, I might have to kick your ass."
Steve just chuckled. "You could try."
The "nothing really" Tony had mentioned turned out to be a visit to a plant that built machine parts for atomic physicists. Or something like that, as near as Steve could translate from the technobabble Tony spewed endlessly on the drive over. "I had all this stuff back on hand in Malibu, but you never know when it could come in handy. And sometimes you're on the clock, like when I built that particle collider. Plus I know Bruce would drool over this stuff. So I'm just thinking, it's better if I've got it all right here. Not to mention, I would totally run the company better. More productive, efficient. That kind of thing. Well, not me. Pepper. I mean, yeah I know she went back to California and we're not a thing anymore, but she does still work for me, and she got a taste of being CEO and I'm pretty sure she liked it, so maybe Pepper. If she's talking to me this week."
Even after two months of working together, Steve still hadn't grown accustomed to the way Tony Stark talked. His speech mirrored his thought patterns, so rapid-fire and far-reaching in topic that trying to follow a conversation with him was downright maddening, and sometimes flat out impossible. And he didn't even want to touch the whole Pepper Potts thing. So he seized on the first thing that had caught his attention. "Particle collider?" He didn't even know what that was. It sounded vaguely ominous.
"Yeah," Tony said. "Kind of a necessity when you're inventing – well, re-inventing – an element." He gave Steve a quizzical look. "Didn't you know about that?"
"No," Steve said, and made a mental note to ask Director Fury about it when they got back.
Along with half a dozen other things.
Tony had intended to meet with the plant manager to discuss the sale, but they never got the chance. As they were crossing the parking lot, Steve saw the Hydra logo on a maintenance shed. It was tiny and it was embedded in the company's much larger logo, and it was definitely not meant to be noticed – but Steve saw it anyway.
After that, there was no other option but to investigate.
The shed was locked, which was no obstacle at all to someone with Steve's strength. He ordered Tony to stand aside, then kicked the door in. He backed off hastily, his hands raised, ready to take on anything and anyone.
He need not have bothered. Inside the shed was nothing but empty space, and a staircase leading down.
Silently, they began walking.
The stairs led them down and down and down and down. At the base of the stairs, a round, high-ceilinged tunnel stretched forth. There were also four small motorized carts parked neatly in a row. Tony wanted to jump start one, but Steve refused to let him. He had no idea how sound carried in the tunnel, and if they were indeed on Hydra's turf, he wanted nothing to give them away.
So they walked.
Tony said the tunnel was aimed south, and Steve had no reason to doubt him. They followed it for quite a while before it sloped down and grew smaller. They began to smell bad things, and Tony made a face. "If we end up in the sewers while I'm wearing five-hundred dollar shoes, I may have to hurt you."
"What do you care?" Steve said. "Just buy another pair."
Tony shrugged. "I will. I'm just getting the obligatory bitching out of the way."
Steve ducked his head to hide a grin.
They walked on. The tunnel was lit by fluorescent lights set into the ceiling, and remained wide enough for a cart to pass through. Occasionally they encountered a closed door. Each time, Steve tested it and found it locked. By now he was beginning to regret the impulsive decision to come down here. Reconnaissance was not his specialty; he should have called Natasha and Clint. And now that he had finally thought of it, it was too late. He had a SHIELD-issued phone, but he hadn't thought to bring it with him. And the sleek, tiny thing that Tony called a phone but in reality was so much more, couldn't even get a signal.
Tony did not take this very well. "I built this thing," he said, giving it an irritated shake. His fingers danced over the screen. "It should work anywhere. I can barely even get through to JARVIS."
"They must be jamming it somehow?" Steve suggested a little dubiously, because he wasn't even sure if that was possible, but also because when it came to modern technology, Tony greeted his ideas with either horrified silence or scathing mockery, depending on how stupid he thought Steve's comment was.
This time Tony just ignored him. "I got JARVIS working on it, but it's going to take some time. Whatever they're doing, I want to know." He gave the phone another annoyed glare, then shoved it in his pocket. "Come on."
They started walking again.
The tunnel remained unchanged. Once, worryingly, they came across another one of those small carts in front of the latest locked door. Tony offered to sabotage it, and again Steve had to refuse him. They had gone too far now; they could not afford to give themselves away. The last thing they needed was for a Hydra operative to discover his cart was non-functional, and raise an alarm.
They walked on. The tunnel curved gently to the left and began to rise. They heard water, far off at first, but growing ever louder. At last they reached a junction where the tunnel split into two paths. After some heated debate, they chose the left tunnel, and walked on.
Within ten minutes they came to a halt. Steve felt a looming sense of disaster approaching. Already he was deeply regretting letting Tony have his way.
Up ahead, the lighting in the tunnel was out. Only blackness stretched ahead of them.
"We go back," Steve said firmly.
"No," Tony said. "We go on. This is the right way, I'm telling you."
"Why?" Steve asked. "What makes it the right way? And what are you doing?" This last he said with some alarm, as he watched Tony remove his tie and begin unbuttoning his shirt.
"You'll see," Tony said with a smirk, and he began walking forward again.
Left with no choice, Steve followed him.
They crossed the line in the ceiling where the last of the lights buzzed overhead. For a few paces they walked in a strange kind of twilight, their shadows growing ever longer. Then they moved too far ahead, and the light failed altogether.
Except that it didn't. Soft blue-white light illuminated the way. It wasn't very bright, but it was enough to see by.
"Wait," Steve said. That light couldn't be what he thought it was. It couldn't be.
"What?" Tony demanded. When he turned toward Steve, the light grew brighter.
Steve just stared. He didn't mean to be rude, but he couldn't help himself. It was the first time he had really seen the arc reactor. Well, he had seen it before, of course, but it had always just been this hazy glow glimpsed through Tony's clothing. Now it was uncovered and he saw just how amazing it really was.
Mesmerized, he took a step forward. The arc reactor was set in the middle of Tony's chest. Without anything to cover it, it looked almost terrifyingly large. Steve wondered if it hurt. A ring of thick scar tissue surrounded it, so possibly Tony couldn't even feel it.
The closer he got, the brighter the light emanating from the arc reactor became. It wasn't bright enough to obscure the device itself, though, and Steve realized in sudden wonder that it was absolutely beautiful.
It wasn't just the arc reactor itself, and its simple circular form and endless light. It was the mere fact of it, that it even existed. Tony Stark had built this from darkness and captivity, creating light and freedom with only his bare hands and his quicksilver mind. It was, in plainest truth, nothing short of a miracle.
Still awestruck, he looked up. Immediately his sense of wonder wilted, and he stood ramrod straight, like the soldier he still was. He cleared his throat. "Um. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…"
Tony just stared at him, hands on his hips, one eyebrow raised. The wary disbelief Steve had initially seen on his face was gone though, replaced by exasperation. "Get a good look? Need a couple more minutes?"
Against his will, Steve's eyes dropped back to the arc reactor. In the light it emitted, Tony's shirt was very red, contrasting sharply with his black suit jacket. For a moment the colors were all Steve could see. Then he blinked, and he stepped back. "I'm sorry. I just…I never saw it before. Not like this," he finished lamely.
Tony barely suppressed an eyeroll. He stuffed his tie into the pocket of his jacket. "Well, now you have. And if you ever tell anyone that I acted as your personal flashlight, I will make it my mission in life to tell every reporter I talk to that Captain America still wears longjohns when it gets cold out."
Steve flushed violently. He hadn't thought anyone else knew about that.
"Okay then," Tony said. "Let's go."
They walked on.
The sound of rushing water became their constant companion. The floor of the tunnel was metal grating; beneath that, an endless flow of rank-smelling water passed through a deeper tunnel. After a time Steve no longer smelled the nasty odor, but he could never block out the sound. Sometimes the flood was rapid and chaotic, and the water levels swelled nearly to reach the grating. Other times it was more like they were walking above a calm, stately river.
Tony talked constantly, informing Steve that they were going the right way because this was obviously an outflow tunnel for some massive project of Hydra's, and this would lead them right to the bad guys' lair where they could lie low and snoop around and gather information and return to SHIELD with a really big scoop that would enable them to put a stop to the nefarious villains once and for all.
Tony also rambled on about his plans for the next Iron Man armor, his ideas on how to upgrade Steve's uniform, Clint's bow, and give SHIELD their own AI similar to JARVIS. When the water beneath the grating rose abruptly to reach their ankles, soaking their feet and pants cuffs, he complained about how uncomfortable it was to walk in wet shoes and socks. From there he went off on a tangent about who did the laundry at SHIELD and how difficult it must be to wash uniforms that were part Kevlar, then launched into a monologue about how the true soldiers at SHIELD were in fact the silent, unseen people who handled the day-to-day countless tasks involved in running such a huge operation while allowing the egotistical, selfish superheroes to think they were the ones in charge.
Eventually he had to stop to take a breath, and Steve seized his chance. "Do you think we could maybe have just one minute of silence? Please?"
Tony bit off his next comment with an obvious effort. He glared at Steve, but managed to hold his tongue.
Grateful for even this small reprieve, Steve concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other. Sooner or later this tunnel must end. All that water had to come from somewhere. And the size of the tunnel, coupled with the smooth grating of the floor, led him to believe that occasionally people came this way on those motorized carts.
He tried not to think about what they would do if one of those carts came their way, then remembered that it was his job to think about things like that. He was just putting together a tentative plan of action when Tony suddenly said, "I can't stand this. I hate this."
Steve gave him a look. "That wasn't one minute. That wasn't even thirty seconds."
"I know, you're pissed off at me, I don't blame you, but I hate this. I just hate it. What the hell am I doing here?"
Steve stopped walking. He was suddenly angry. He had had enough of listening to Tony Stark. "Well, I'm sorry I'm such poor company," he snapped. "Or that trying to stop a major threat to this world is taking up so much of your valuable time. Maybe—"
Tony talked right over him. It was another one of his most annoying traits. "Wait, wait, wait. Who said you were poor company?"
"—you should have thought—" Derailed from his original line of thought, Steve floundered for a moment to catch up with this new line of attack. "You did. Just now."
"No, I didn't," Tony said. "I said I hated this. What part of that makes you think you're poor company? And for that matter, when did I say this was a waste of my time? I didn't say that. Did you hear me say that? You didn't, because I didn't say that. What I said was--"
"You hate this," Steve said. He didn't feel angry anymore. He was just tired. "I heard you the first twenty times."
To his surprise, Tony dropped his eyes and looked away uncomfortably, and that had to be a first, Tony Stark feeling embarrassed about something.
Steve took a deep breath. He was the leader of the Avengers. It was his responsibility to reach out to his team members and let them know that he cared about them and what they thought. "Listen," he said. "I'm not very happy about this, either. I don't like walking around in wet shoes. I'm thirsty. I'm not at all looking forward to what we're going to find when this tunnel finally ends. Okay? You're not in this alone, you know."
Tony's gaze was still fixed on the tunnel wall. "I am," he said softly. A split-second later he winced angrily. He shook his head. "Listen, forget I said anything. Let's just keep going, okay?"
Long ago Steve had learned to listen to his instincts, and they were screaming at him now. Something was wrong here. "No," he said.
"No?" Tony repeated.
"I'm not going to forget it," Steve said. "What did you mean, you're alone in this?" He thought of something else. "And you keep saying, 'I hate this.' What is 'this'? What are you talking about? What's going on here, Tony?"
"Nothing," Tony said. His voice was tight with anger. "It's nothing, forget it, okay?"
"It's not—" Steve started to say, but in the heat of the moment he had forgotten the way Tony simply talked right over everyone, and he barely got the words out before Tony blurted, "It's this place."
Tony waved his hand about in a gesture eerily similar to when he was wiping something off the holographic computer display in his workshop and tossing it into the virtual garbage. "This… It reminds me, that's all."
Now Steve was just confused. "Reminds you of what? I don't get it."
Tony stared at him. The light of the arc reactor glowed in between them. Then Tony sort of sighed, his shoulders slumping a little. "Christ," he said. "I keep forgetting how out of it you are." Some of the vitality returned to his voice. "You claimed you 'saw the footage.' How can you not know this? Didn't they give you my file to read or something? Wait, scratch that. I don't think I want to know what would be in my file. But seriously, Cap, haven't you done any homework for this gig?"
Steve opened his mouth to reply, and that was Tony's cue to keep talking.
"This." Tony raised both hands and moved them in a short arc. "This tunnel. Passageway. Whatever you want to call it. Cave." He stopped and looked at Steve.
The look on his face nearly killed Steve then. He had seen that look before, on the faces of his soldiers when they were trying to talk about something without actually talking about it. Something that had them in such distress that even trying to think of the right words was difficult. Something they had to talk around and just hope that you understood what they meant, because that was the best they could do.
But it was okay, because Tony had said the one word Steve needed to hear in order to understand. Cave.
In point of fact, he had read the SHIELD file on Tony Stark. Or at least the parts of it that weren't classified. He felt like all kinds of a fool then, for not figuring it out himself. He had even thought about it just now, while he was staring tactlessly at the arc reactor. He just hadn't made the connection.
Of course Tony hated being down here. The tunnel wasn't exactly the most spacious of areas, and it was dark and damp and smelled bad. It was probably nothing like the cave in Afghanistan where he had been held captive for three months, but that distinction was completely irrelevant. In Tony's head they were the same thing, and that was enough.
Tony's mouth twisted in a bitter smile. "Ladies and gentlemen, he gets it."
"I didn't know," Steve said. "I'm sorry. Do you want to go back?"
"Hell no. We've come this far. Besides, if we turn back now, Clint will never stop ragging us for it. And he's already an asshole. We don't need to give him any more ammunition."
Steve wasn't too keen on hearing one of his men call another one an asshole, but now was not the time to say anything. "All right. We keep going."
They started forward again. Tony led the way, the arc reactor glowing in the darkness. Steve followed only a step behind, walking at his right side. "Did you want to talk about it?" he offered.
"Why in the hell would I want to do that?" Tony said. He did not look at Steve. "There's nothing to talk about."
"Nothing to talk about? You wouldn't know that, listening to you," Steve said. It was taking a risk, teasing Tony this way, but he was pretty sure this conversation needed some lightening up.
Tony's eyes narrowed, then he shrugged. "Touché."
It was hard to tell if he was truly angry or not. Steve hurried to fill the silence. "I didn't mean—"
"Look," Tony said. "This whole earnest bit? It's gotta stop. Seriously. You're making my teeth ache, you're so sweet." Abruptly he stopped walking and turned toward Steve. "All right. You want the short and not-so-sweet version? I got kidnapped. By some very bad guys who had some very persuasive ways of making you do what they wanted you to do. I spent three months in a cave. I built an arc reactor and the first Iron Man armor. I killed the bad guys. I got out. End of story. Are we done here? Can we move on? Because I'd really like to find out what's at the end of this tunnel, but even more than that, I'd really like to change into a dry pair of socks and have a drink."
He marched forward again, and Steve had no choice but to follow.
For a while they walked in silence. The water rose beneath them, occasionally lapping over the grating. Once they heard a distant boom, and though they speculated on what it could have been, there was simply no way to know.
They had come to a halt in order to discuss the noise they had heard. Steve looked back over his shoulder, into the darkness they had already passed through. "I think," he said, "we should have called for back-up."
"No shit," Tony said in that dry tone that indicated quite clearly how stupid he thought you were. "I figured that out two miles ago."
Steve flushed. Now that he understood how this place was affecting Tony's mood, he was far more willing to forgive both the incessant chatter and these sharp little barbs, but that didn't mean they still didn't affect him. "Okay, fine. So you're smarter than me."
"Well, yeah," Tony said. "But don't take it personally, okay? I'm smarter than everyone." The water beneath the catwalk swelled up, spilling over their shoes and rising nearly to their ankles before sinking back down again. "Urgggh. Remind me again why I followed you down here?"
"Because it was the right thing to do," Steve said.
Tony sighed. "Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. I forgot who I was talking to."
Steve just shook his head. When they got back to the Tower, he and Tony were going to have a very long talk.
They walked on.
Like a trapdoor swinging open, the metal grating gave way beneath them with a sharp crack and a very loud clanging noise, a sudden gap yawning beneath their feet. Steve was standing with one foot on solid ground, one foot poised to step onto the section of grating that had just collapsed. He teetered dangerously off-balance for a second, then managed to throw himself to the right and to safety.
Tony fell straight through, into the rushing water below.
In the close confines of the tunnel, Tony's startled yell was very loud. Even as Steve was wrenching himself away from a fall, Tony sank beneath the water. He wasn't under for very long, though, and by the time Steve had righted himself and was just starting to lean down so he could peer anxiously through the gap in the grating, Tony's head had popped back up.
"Hold on!" Steve called.
"It's okay," Tony said. He sounded very strange, very distant. "It's not that deep. I can stand." He reached up and wrapped his fingers around the section of catwalk behind the one that had just collapsed. "Current's strong, though."
Steve remained where he was, on the solid ground that lined either side of the tunnel. "Are you hurt? Can you get back up?" The gap in the grating was certainly big enough. He could see no reason why Tony couldn't pull himself up as easily as getting out of a swimming pool.
"I can't," Tony said. It sounded like he was choking.
Steve scrambled forward in a bent-over crouch. "Okay," he said. "I'm here. Just hold on."
In the distance, another one of those hollow booms sounded.
Steve went down on one knee, keeping well to the side of the missing section of grating. He stretched out one arm and put his hand down in the water. "Here. Take my hand."
Tony did not reach for him. He stayed perfectly still, holding onto the grating they had just walked over. The water level reached his collar; the arc reactor was underwater, dimming its light considerably, but Steve could still see the absolute terror that suddenly crossed his face.
He turned to look, and there was nothing he could see, no reason for Tony to panic. Just another rush of water, this one lapping up and through the bars, and for a few seconds, Tony was completely underwater. Then the wave moved on and the water level receded again.
Tony was breathing fast, his eyes fixed on the darkness ahead of them. Steve did not think. He dove headfirst into the gap in the grating.
The water was cold, but not shockingly so. He came up for air, oriented himself, then dove back under again. This time he came up behind Tony, encircling him with one arm and pulling them through the water to the gap just ahead.
Tony didn't want to come with him. He was still holding onto the grating. And he was still staring at the oncoming river with wide-eyed fear.
"Let go," Steve said. "Tony, you have to let go."
Tony gave no sign of having heard him. His death-grip on the catwalk did not lessen at all.
Steve shook him. "Let go! Tony, you need to let go, so I can get you up top again. Let go."
In the end he had to reach up and pry Tony's fingers off the bars. Tony fought him then, twisting in his grasp, kicking and throwing his head back, trying to brain him. Steve went under once, and then another wave rolled over them both, and abruptly Tony went limp and stopped struggling.
Spitting water, Steve finally managed to loosen Tony's hold on the grating. Two powerful kicks brought him to the gap. He bodily lifted Tony up and halfway out of the water, and Tony seemed to come back to reality once he felt the solidity of the catwalk beneath his hands. He kicked and squirmed until he was fully out of the water. He crawled forward a couple feet, then he vomited all over.
Steve hauled himself up and stood on shaky legs. He did not trust the grating beneath him anymore; he worried that at any moment they might find themselves plunging through again.
Finished being sick, Tony closed his eyes and collapsed weakly onto the grating. He curled up, shaking and coughing.
Something wrenched sharply in Steve's chest at the sight of him. There was no way he could let him lie there like that. He crouched down and lifted Tony up, raising him into a sitting position.
Tony's eyes remained closed. When Steve lifted him, he made a sound like nothing Steve had ever heard from him before, a terrified whining noise in the back of his throat. His breath caught, he choked, and as Steve pulled him close, he breathed, "No more."
Steve sat very still, his back to the tunnel wall. It had been a long time since the war, but he knew shell-shock when he saw it, and he knew what to do. He wrapped both arms about Tony and held him close. Tony just slumped against Steve's chest, shivering and coughing. He did not speak again, nor even seem to know that Steve was there.
"It's okay," Steve said. The words themselves didn't really matter. It was the tone that mattered, and the comfort he could provide. "It's okay, you're okay, I'm here, you're safe now, it's okay."
When they were done here, he was going to see Directory Fury and demand that Tony Stark's entire file be made available to him. And he was finally going to learn how to use the Internet and do some research of his own. He might even make time to speak to Pepper Potts and Colonel Rhodes. There were things he needed to know. Things he didn't want to know, but that he must. He was the leader of this team. He needed to know his soldiers' weaknesses.
His lips thinned. But that was the thing. Tony Stark was no soldier – as he had angrily pointed out on their very first mission together. In all his life he had probably never been physically threatened or harmed until Afghanistan. He had never been trained to handle things like abduction, or captivity, or torture. There had never been a need. He was incredibly brilliant and filthy rich, but he was still just a civilian.
Another boom sounded from far down the tunnel. Steve tensed up, ready to leap to his feet if necessary. At that second, he would have gladly gone into battle, standing protectively over Tony, shielding him from harm. He hadn't been there before, he hadn't been there in Afghanistan. No one had. Tony had saved himself then. And he could do it again – he would do it again, if the situation ever called for it. Steve had no doubt of that.
But he didn't want it to ever get that far. He was never going to let it get that far. Never again was he going to fail one of his men. Never again was Tony going to have to face his fears alone. He didn't understand where that vow had come from, but he did not question it. In the very moment of thinking it, it had become a part of him. He sat there and he held Tony close and he murmured his litany of reassurance, and he had not felt such a strong sense of mission in so long he had all but forgotten what it felt like. It made him shiver in a way that had nothing to do with wet clothing and the cool air of the tunnel.
For the first time since waking up in this century, he felt like he had a reason to be here.
Long minutes passed. The worst of Tony's shivering subsided and he stopped coughing, but he showed no sign of returning to his normal self. Steve craned his neck back so he could look down at him, and was not reassured by what he saw. Tony's eyes were still tightly screwed shut, and both hands were curled over the arc reactor in a protective cradling gesture.
He was pretty sure he knew now what "persuasive methods" Tony's captors had used on him in Afghanistan. The thought of it sickened him, and filled him with fury. He had never condoned torture and he never would. It was barbaric, and never justified. And it took good, strong men and twisted them into darker versions of themselves. Would Tony Stark have ever discovered that he could kill a man, had he not been forced into it?
"Mmm." Tony stirred within the circle of his arms. He lifted his head and pushed weakly at Steve's chest. At once Steve let him go, although not without a pang of misgiving.
Tony tottered to his feet. Unsteady at first, he stumbled backward onto the grating. A dull metallic clang rang out when his shoe made contact with the bars, and Tony went deathly white. He lunged for the safety of solid ground, arms outstretched. Both his palms struck the tunnel wall with a loud smack, and he stopped, arms braced, head hanging. "Shit."
Slowly Steve stood up. "Are you okay?"
"Oh sure," Tony murmured. He drew in a deep breath through his nose, then another. "Sure."
"We're going back," Steve said firmly. "This isn't our job. It never was. We'll let SHIELD handle the reconnaissance. Once they—"
"The hell we are." Tony dropped his arms and stood up straight. He glared at Steve. He was an absolute mess, his expensive suit ruined, his hair plastered wetly to his head. There was still a wild cast to his eyes that Steve misliked, but he was obviously himself again, there was no doubt of that. "We finish this."
In the distance, another boom sounded.
"No," Steve said. "We go back. That's an order."
Tony laughed mirthlessly. "I'm not one of your Howling Commandos, Cap. You can't order me around."
"I think I just did," Steve said.
"What are you gonna do?" Tony challenged him. "Knock me out and drag me back? 'Cause I'm warning you, that's what it's gonna take. I'm not going back. Not now. Not ever."
And he wouldn't, either, Steve knew that. For all his faults – and they were many – Tony Stark was one of the bravest men Steve had ever known. He had to be, just to keep surviving.
He wanted to argue the point, but a series of sounds coming down the tunnel stopped him. Instantly alert, they both turned and peered into the darkness ahead. "What was that?"
"I have no idea."
The noises drew closer. "There's something in the water," Steve said.
Surprisingly, Tony did not take advantage of the chance to point out – for the hundredth time – that Steve should change his name from Captain America to Captain Obvious. He simply squared his shoulders and walked out onto the grating as though nothing had happened. There he dropped down to one knee and leaned forward, so the light from the arc reactor could illuminate the water rushing below.
And that, Steve thought with pride, was why he was glad Tony Stark was on his team. Because for every twenty occasions when Tony was a complete dick, there were these singular moments. Times when he swallowed his pride and did whatever needed doing. No questions asked, just stepped up and did it. Those moments weren't all as spectacular as taking a nuclear missile through a portal into another realm, but that didn't make them any less amazing.
In the light from the arc reactor, they could see things in the water. They tumbled and bounced along on the current, crashing into each other and rebounding, then as the water level swelled again, they dragged along the underside of the grating with a screech of metal. Steve caught a glimpse of something shaped vaguely like a body, and his heart nearly stopped, even though his mind could not reconcile the sight of a corpse with the metallic sounds he was hearing.
Tony figured it out first, although to be fair, he had far more experience with this sort of thing. "Son of a bitch."
Steve plunged one hand into the water. Something hard and metallic struck his fingers. He winced a little, then grabbed hold of it. He pulled it out of the water and held it up so the light from the arc reactor fell on it.
"Oh no," he said.
"Oh yes," Tony said grimly.
Together they stood up, Steve still holding the steely gray gauntlet. Although half the pieces were missing, it was still large enough to reach halfway up his forearm. A tangle of wires and circuitry trailed from the open end. Embedded in the palm was a round repulsor, the lens cracked and broken.
"Seriously," Tony said. "Doesn't anyone have any original ideas anymore? Besides me?"
The walk back was miserably long.
By mutual consent they had agreed to turn back. They had the gauntlet, and Steve had fished a half-finished helmet from the water as well. There was nothing more they could do here; the armor was all the evidence they needed of Hydra's activities.
They walked along the right-hand side of the tunnel, on the narrow strip of solid ground that bordered the metal catwalk. They were both soaked to the skin, and Steve knew he wasn't the only one who shivered in the chill air. His wet clothes were uncomfortable and cold, and though he wrung out his blazer several times, it never seemed to get any drier.
But the worst thing was the tension that hung between them. Tony did not say a word the entire way back. It was the longest Steve had ever heard him go without talking. Before today he would have expected that he would find the silence to be a pleasant surprise. Instead, it bothered him immensely. He knew Tony was still distressed at being underground, and his immersion in the water had only made things worse. But this time there was no rambling, no chatter, no nothing. Only brooding silence.
Several times Steve thought about initiating conversation, but always something held him back. He had seen this too in the war, the way some men just needed time to sort through their feelings before being able to face something that had hurt them.
The silent walk back gave him plenty of time to think about what had happened. He was sorry Tony had had to go through that, but he couldn't bring himself to regret it. The incident had given him a whole new perspective on Tony Stark, and he would never be sorry for that. A whole lot of things had changed today, and the repercussions would be felt far down the line.
He just wondered where they went from here.
When they returned to Avengers Tower, Tony headed immediately for his workshop, taking the armor with him. Protesting, still damp and uncomfortable, Steve followed him.
At the door, Tony stopped him with a sharp, wordless negative. It was the kind of noise you might make at an unruly child, or a dog that wouldn't stop trying to hump your leg. It pissed Steve off tremendously.
"You," Tony said curtly, "wait right here." He walked inside, and before Steve could get over his temper and follow, the door had closed and sealed itself.
Faintly through the glass, he heard Tony give JARVIS the override code that meant no one else could use their password to get inside. All Steve could do was stand there, locked out, feeling like an idiot.
The intercom light flashed on. A pre-programmed picture of Tony's face filled the screen to indicate who was speaking. "Be right with you, Cap. I just need JARVIS to scan these first. Then they're all yours."
The fact that this very rational explanation had to take place through the medium of a speakerphone embedded in the door did nothing to improve Steve's mood. "You could have just said that."
"I believe I just did," Tony said. In the workshop, he did not even look up from the holographic screens he had summoned.
As soon as he had the helmet and glove back in his possession, he went straight to Agent Coulson. Who went to Director Fury. Who tore Steve a new one.
The others were not much help, either. Natasha was scornful and said that he should have called her right away. Clint said he was an idiot. Thor seemed hurt that they had not thought to ask for his aid. Bruce said that one would have thought the great Tony Stark would have a cell phone that worked even that far underground, and Steve had to explain again why they hadn't been able to call for back-up.
Agent Coulson took the armor and said he would get SHIELD's best scientists and engineers working on it. Director Fury wanted to know where Tony's report was. Bruce wanted to know where Tony was. Natasha made him promise for the fifth time to call her if he ever found himself in another situation like that. Clint nudged Thor and asked if the god of thunder wanted to go play some Gran Turismo 5, and when Thor looked baffled, Clint told him it involved racing chariots, which got Thor very excited.
Steve didn't get headaches anymore – but right now he felt very close to having one. He reached up and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger.
He dropped his hand and stood up straight. "Yes, sir?"
Director Fury glared at him, more intimidating with one eye than most men were with two. "Now let's go over this one more time…"
It was nine o'clock before Steve finally managed to make his escape. He went immediately to his room and finally got to take the long hot shower he had been craving all day. After that he headed for the kitchen and wolfed down an enormous dinner of leftover barbecue chicken and rice. When he was finished eating, he looked up at the ceiling. "JARVIS?"
Immediately the disembodied voice responded. "Yes, Captain Rogers?"
Steve knew JARVIS wasn't located in the ceiling, but it gave him something to look at. "Is Tony still down there?"
"Mr. Stark is in his workshop, yes," JARVIS replied.
"Is he—" He didn't know how to ask if Tony was okay. Maybe JARVIS wouldn't even understand that question. For all his sophisticated programming, he was still just a computer.
"Does he need any help?" he finally settled for asking.
There was a bit of a pause before JARVIS responded. Then he said, "Mr. Stark has ordered that I cease communications with you, Captain Rogers. Good night."
Steve scowled. Tony had done that to each of them at one point when they were first settling in and getting to know each other, when the marvel of having an AI to answer their every question was still fresh and new. But it had been a while since Steve had been cut off like that, and it irritated him. Especially after what had happened today.
He had learned, however, that being angry with Tony would get him nowhere. He had to come at this from a different angle.
This he could do, and do well. It wasn't much different from wartime, sitting hunched over a map or an aerial photograph while planning his assault. The times had changed, the names had changed (well, some of them, anyway), but the idea that sometimes an unexpected ambush worked better than a frontal assault – that never changed.
He put together a platter of chicken with the last of the rice and vegetables. He added some of the peanut butter cookies he had seen Tony sneaking a couple times, and a can of soda. He covered it all with a dishtowel, then headed downstairs.
The scene in the workshop was a familiar one. Tony was hard at work, screens lit up all around him. His back was to Steve, and for a few minutes, Steve had an uninterrupted view.
Watching Tony work was like watching a maestro conduct an orchestra. He was constantly in motion, his hands moving gracefully over one holographic screen, then pivoting to reach another. He talked non-stop, the display on the screens changing in response to the commands he gave and JARVIS executed. Twice he leaned over something on the table in front of him, and when he straightened up the last time, a wire construct gleamed about his hand and wrist.
He held out his hand in that imperious manner Iron Man had, a non-existent repulsor aimed at the computer screen. He said something, hesitated, then spoke again.
One of the computer displays flashed a bright red. The wire construct lit up in response, and Tony was jerked off his feet. He actually flew forward then, an utterly awkward flight that looked more like an invisible string was pulling him along by the wires wrapped around his wrist.
"Enough!" Tony yelled loud enough that Steve could hear it. The invisible force pulling him forward abruptly died, halting his flight. But not before he had crashed into a low portable workbench on wheels, the kind of thing that a busy person could roll to wherever they needed it as they moved about their large work space.
The workbench tipped over. Gears and circuits and tools scattered everywhere. An empty bottle and a half-full glass of amber liquid shattered on the concrete. Tony lay sprawled in the midst of this carnage, dazed and blinking up at the ceiling. Yet when he stood up, he was grinning.
His smile died, though, when he saw Steve standing outside the doors.
Undaunted, Steve held up the plate. He made a Can I come in? gesture.
Tony shook his head.
Well, that wasn't entirely unexpected. Still holding the plate of food, Steve sat cross-legged on the floor. It was a cheap shot, but a necessary one. His entire strategy depended on getting through those workshop doors.
Tony stared at him for a long moment, then rolled his eyes theatrically. He said something, then made a short beckoning gesture.
Steve stood up. This time when he tried it, his passcode worked. The doors opened.
The interior of the workshop smelled like engine oil and burning metal and at this particular moment, strongly of liquor. "I brought you dinner," Steve said.
"Put it over there," Tony said. He gestured to another workbench. The wire construct was still wrapped about his wrist.
Steve did as he was asked. He looked around with some interest. "What are you working on?"
"I don't talk about my work," Tony said curtly. He looked around, made an impatient gesture at one of the computer screens, then removed the apparatus from his wrist. He set it down on the table in front of him, selected a thin tool, then began to pick delicately at the wires. "Something you needed, Rogers?"
"Just wanted to bring you dinner," Steve said. He hadn't missed the way Tony called him by his last name in a deliberate display of disrespect. "And see how you were doing."
His head still down, Tony peered up at him. And Steve suddenly realized that he was incredibly drunk.
He bit back a sigh. All his planning had been for nothing. Sober, Tony Stark was unpredictable at best. When he had been drinking, all bets were off.
"You wanted. To see. How I was doing," Tony repeated flatly. He let go of the tool he had been holding, and it clattered to the table.
"Yes," Steve said. Now that he had seen the truth, he was starting to get a bad feeling about this. As they had back in the tunnel, all his instincts were warning him that things were wrong here, very wrong. Like the way Tony had changed into clean clothes, but not showered – the smell of the sewers still clung to him. The many empty glasses scattered throughout the workshop. The lack of the loud rock music Tony normally listened to while working.
Tony was still staring at him with a combination of wary disbelief and veiled hostility. And okay, Steve got it. They weren't going to talk about what had happened today. They were going to pretend it had not happened.
He could do that, Steve decided. He was not going to forget it, though. He was never going to forget that moment when his world view had changed, when he had realized Tony was worth fighting for.
So abruptly he changed tactics. "And, you know, to see what you were working on. What was that thing you did earlier? Is that an upgrade?"
Silence drew out between them. Tony continued to stare at him. Steve edged closer to the table and felt a drop of sweat slide down between his shoulder blades.
There was almost something physical in the way Tony wrenched his gaze away. He pointed without looking at one of the robots who assisted him. "Refill. Now." Obediently it wheeled away, toward the refrigerator set up at one end of the workshop.
"Not an upgrade," he said. He frowned at one of the holographic screens and began to mutter commands to JARVIS again, while sweeping his hand across the display. "Well, sort of. You could call it that. I guess." Little by little, he began to sound less like a robotic version of Tony Stark, and more like his normal self. "It's a remote control. You know, summon the suit when needed. Not mine. Hydra's. This is their tech, right? Their rejected, garbage tech, but still their tech. It wasn't hard to configure the remote to match their output. So when they get ready to unleash their new toys, all I gotta do is activate my toy, and then I get all the toys, Merry fucking Christmas. You like that?"
"That could work," Steve said, although he wasn't sure he liked the idea of a hundred or however many empty suits of armor coming flying toward him at the push of a button.
The robot came back with a bottle clasped in its pincer-like hand. Tony took it, unscrewed the top, and poured the contents into a glass sitting beside the wire construct. He drank deeply, refilled the glass, then turned to face Steve. "Why are you being so nice to me? Don't you know I hate you?"
Steve blinked in shock. Tony was leaning against the table, one hip cocked, drink in hand. He looked so elegantly cool and casual, but there was nothing casual about the hard stare he was giving Steve. Right then he looked like he could kill Steve without even batting an eyelash.
"You do?" It was the only thing Steve could think to say. For two months they had lived together and worked together, and sure, he couldn't exactly call Tony a friend, but he had felt pretty certain that they had moved past their disastrous beginning on board the helicarrier. It rocked him to the core to think that he had been so wrong all this time.
"Shouldn't I?" Tony said.
"I don't know," Steve said. He was suddenly very thankful that Tony needed time and assistance to get into the Iron Man armor. "Should you?"
Tony pointed at him with the hand holding the glass. Liquor sloshed and almost spilled onto his hand. "Stop repeating everything I say. It's annoying."
"Sorry," Steve said. He was beginning to realize just how drunk Tony was; the odds were very good that in the morning he wouldn't even remember this conversation. Which was good, because he had a feeling that these were things Tony would never, ever say aloud at any other time. "Why do you hate me?"
"Officially hate you," Tony corrected him.
"Okay, why do you officially hate me?" Steve asked.
Tony swirled the liquid in his glass. He studied it for a long moment, then looked up at Steve with the slow bafflement only young kids and the very drunk could ever achieve. "What is it about you?" he asked in wonder. "Are you emitting some kind of pheromone? Is it a side effect of the serum? I suddenly want to run tests on you. I can't explain it. I don't like that. I like explanations. But seriously, what is it about you that makes me do this, talk about things I don't talk about, like, ever." He tossed back the last of his drink and crunched an ice cube. "Come on, Cap. Give me something here. Help a guy out."
Even just listening to him was exhausting. He had made a big mistake coming down here, Steve knew now. At this point the best he could hope for was to make a dignified exit and pray that in the morning Tony wouldn't remember any of this. "I don't know. What are you talking about?"
Tony looked him dead in the eye. "Howard."
Oh. Oh. There it was. The elephant in the room. The thing they had never talked about, never even acknowledged.
The first time he had met Tony face to face, on board the Quinjet, he hadn't been able to stop himself from staring. He had seen Howard in the man standing in front of him, and it was surprising how much that hurt. Even more surprising had been Tony's hostility toward him, causing him to snap back in anger. Their argument on the helicarrier had only served to drive the wedge in deeper. Realizing that they had been under Loki's influence had not changed anything – he was deeply ashamed of himself and his behavior, but he hadn't known how to apologize. Even then, so early in their relationship, he had recognized that Tony would not want to hear his apologies.
He did not apologize now. He would never regret having known Howard Stark.
"It should have been you," Tony said. He swayed against the table; he had reached that stage of drunkenness when most people passed out. But it was not in Tony Stark's nature to do what everyone else did. He just poured himself another drink.
"Every year he went out there, into the Arctic, looking for you. Did they tell you that? Did they? He'd already shipped me off to boarding school. I was only home during the summer. That's when he would go." The words were short and clipped; he was speaking to the alcohol now, staring with unfocused eyes at the contents of his glass. "I built my first engine when I was six. Did anyone tell you that? You know why I did it? Wasn't 'cause I could, even though I could. Wasn't 'cause it was fun, even though it was. I did it so he'd be proud of me. So he might actually look at me for once." Tony laughed a little, a quiet laugh that was all the more terrible for the lack of bitterness it contained. "Well, no one ever said little kids were smart."
Steve swallowed hard. He had known about Howard's search attempts, but only because Director Fury had mentioned it in passing when he first learned about the Tesseract. That night, sitting alone in his apartment, he had thought about that revelation, and what it meant. At the time, he had only felt a stunned amazement, never having realized how much Howard cared. Now, he suddenly understood that Howard's determination to find him had affected many lives, not just his own.
"Doesn't matter," Tony said, slurred but emphatic. "He was stuck with me anyway. And now you are, too. Boy, it's gotta suck to be you." He chuckled again, and knocked back half his drink in one long swallow.
From the moment he had realized how drunk Tony was, Steve had mentally discarded the script he had come down here with. Here, however, was the perfect opportunity to use one of the lines he had intended on saying.
"It doesn't suck," he said. "You know, you may find this hard to believe, but I'd like for us to be friends. I really think we could."
Tony gave him an incredulous look. Steve was familiar with that look, the one that said, Jesus are you for real? "You're making my teeth hurt again," he said.
The reference to their earlier conversation was worrisome. Maybe Tony wasn't near as drunk as he had originally thought. That was bad. Very bad. If Tony did remember this conversation in the morning, it would be the last one they ever had. Certainly Tony would never speak to him again.
He couldn't let himself think about that right now. Tony was one of his men. His job right now was fairly cut-and-dried. "I mean it," he said sincerely. He held out his hand.
Tony looked down at his outstretched hand. Then back up at him. He had to move his entire head to do it, and that reassured Steve a little, if only in regards as to how intoxicated he was.
"No," Tony said. He shook his head and waved his hand like he could erase Steve standing in front of him as easily as erasing the contents of his computer displays. "Bad move, Cap. You don't want to be my friend. Trust me on this."
"I do," Steve said. He stepped a little bit closer, his hand still outstretched.
For a fraction of a second something flashed hungrily in Tony's eyes, then it was gone, replaced by bitter mockery. "Nope. Not falling for that one." He drained his glass again. He turned to look for the bottle, and his knees unhinged. He dropped to the floor like a stone. "Shit."
Steve plucked the empty glass from his hand. "Don't you think that's enough?" he asked.
Tony tipped his head back to look up at him. "No," he said quietly.
"I think it is," Steve said. "Let's get you to bed." He wrapped one arm around Tony's shoulders and hauled him upright.
To his surprise, Tony did not protest. He just waved a hand blearily in the direction of the computer screens and muttered a shutdown command.
There was a bedroom down the hall. No one ever used it, although Steve assumed it was there in case Tony ever decided he needed a break while working. He steered Tony through the workshop door and out into the hall. This close to him, the smell of alcohol was overwhelming – and yet he could still smell the rank odor of the sewers from their earlier adventure.
He sighed. He had learned a lot of things about Tony Stark today – and most of them were things he wished he could forget.
"Sorry about all this," Tony said. He was stumbling now, barely able to stay on his feet. "I know I'm not what you expected. I'm not him."
"I don't want you to be him," Steve said truthfully.
Tony smiled a sad, little smile. "You know, you're quite possibly the first person who's ever said that to me and meant it. I like that about you." He tried to clap Steve on the shoulder, but his hand fell short of the mark and instead his fingertips just whisked down Steve's sleeve.
They had reached the bedroom; Steve slapped his hand at the wall until he found the switch, then turned the lights on. The room wasn't large, but it was tastefully furnished and it was clean. He guided Tony over to the bed. "Get some sleep," he said. And please don't remember any of this tomorrow.
"Aye, aye, Cap'n." Tony dropped face first onto the comforter, all four limbs spread, sprawling out across the entire bed. Within seconds he was breathing deeply, fast asleep.
"Oh, thank God," Steve whispered.
He removed Tony's shoes and tugged the comforter down, then covered him with it. In the adjoining bathroom he found a plastic cup meant for rinsing your mouth after brushing your teeth. He filled this with water, then placed it on the table beside the bed.
He started to go, then at the door, he stopped. He turned back and retraced his steps. He stood over the bed, hovering uncertainly, not even sure why he was lingering here.
So many things had happened today. Already things had been set in motion for an attack on Hydra – Natasha and Clint were both out there now, gathering intel in preparation for their next move. Quiet moments like this were going to be in short supply over the next few days. He had to take advantage of them while he could. That was one lesson the war had taught him, one he would never forget.
"I don't understand you," he said. "Then again, I don't think anyone does. But I want to. I want to be the first." He remembered that moment in the tunnel, soaking wet and shivering, holding Tony in his arms, and felt the sudden rush of protective need sweep over him all over again. "I want you to feel safe with us. With me."
You couldn't change the world and the bad guys always came back – this morning had provided ample proof of that – but you could still look out for the man who had your back. You could give everything of yourself to keep him safe and bring him home. You could do that, and you could do it gladly, with a light heart and the sure knowledge that you were doing the right thing.
He wasn't even sure why he did it. He just leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss to Tony's forehead. "Sleep," he said. "We can talk about it tomorrow."
Shortly after eight the next morning, JARVIS informed him that Tony had woken up. He was just getting ready to step into the gym, and it startled him when the pleasant English voice said, "Good morning, Captain Rogers. You wished to know when Mr. Stark was awake."
He was honestly surprised. "Thanks," he said. He had requested JARVIS do this for him last night after putting Tony to bed, but in truth he hadn't expected it to work. There were very strict limits on the type of commands the team was allowed to give JARVIS.
Then again, he thought, even artificial intelligences could learn to care for their creators, and recognize when someone else genuinely wanted to help.
He didn't take a tray down with him this time. Only a cup of coffee and four aspirin.
Tony was indeed awake, still dressed in yesterday's clothes but now with a truly impressive case of bedhead. He sat on the edge of the bed, feet propped on the rail. His right elbow was planted on his knee, and the heel of his hand pressed against that tender spot just above his eye. When he heard someone approach, he tilted his head slightly so he could squint up at Steve with his left eye, the only one that was open yet. He grunted in acknowledgement, then lowered his head and closed his eye again.
"Good morning," Steve said.
Tony hissed. "Don't yell."
"Here," Steve said, barely above a whisper.
Tony peered up at him again. "I don't… Just put it over there." He gestured feebly toward the nightstand.
Steve did as requested, then stood back, saying nothing. He watched Tony carefully, waiting for some sign that Tony remembered what had happened last night.
"JARVIS says you're responsible for this." Tony's voice was thick with pain.
"I am," Steve said.
"Why?" Tony asked. He slid off the bed and landed awkwardly on his feet. He groaned, swaying, his eyes closed.
"Would you rather have woken up on a cold concrete floor?" Steve asked.
"Wouldn't be the first time," Tony mumbled. He cracked one eye open and began shuffling toward the bathroom. Suddenly he stopped. He turned around, wincing. "Did we…?" There was genuine confusion in his eyes. "Did you…take advantage of me last night?"
Steve was horrified. "What? No!" Surely Tony had been asleep, surely he didn't remember that kiss…
"You did," Tony insisted. "I have the distinct impression that I was not happy with you last night. What did you do to me in my fragile drunken state?"
"Nothing," Steve said. He held his hands up to display his innocence. "I didn't… I would never!" To his annoyance, he could feel a blush heat up his cheeks.
Tony stared at him. "Really?" And were Steve's ears fooling him, or did he actually sound regretful? "Oh well. Maybe next time," he muttered.
Steve was too shocked to say anything.
In the doorway, Tony stopped again. He turned around. Already he was standing straighter, and his eyes were clearer. That wasn't the aspirin, though, which he hadn't even touched. That was simply Tony Stark taking control of himself again with the same unyielding determination that had enabled him to escape three months of captivity and certain death.
"We talked, though," Tony said. "I do remember that." He leaned against the doorframe. "And that's very unusual, because I don't let people in when I'm working, and I never talk about my work."
"Well, you did last night," Steve said. He had to go very carefully here. Even hungover, Tony would easily catch him in a lie, so he had to tread a fine line and stay just on this side of the truth.
Tony's eyes narrowed. "What did we talk about?"
"I don't really know," Steve said. "It was mostly you doing the talking. I barely understood most of it." That was the truth. He had lain awake much of the night, trying to understand how the Howard Stark he had known could have become the same man Tony talked about. He could not deny that it warmed his heart to know that Howard had searched for him year after year, proving that they had truly been friends after all. He only wished Howard's devotion hadn't come at the cost of his own son's love and affection.
"No," Tony said flatly. "I don't talk about my work."
"Remote controls," Steve said. "To steal Hydra's suits. You told me, right after you demonstrated it. It was pretty neat, actually, the way you were pulled across the room. Well, until you crashed."
Tony frowned. "Huh. So now I guess I do talk about my work. To you."
Steve smiled. "Is that such a bad thing?"
Tony rolled his eyes. "Go away. I need a shower. And I'm really not in the mood to be taken advantage of today. That window of opportunity has closed." He pushed himself off the doorframe and went into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him.
The joke was lame at best, but Steve was glad to hear it nonetheless. It meant he had done it. He had escaped unscathed from last night.
He was smiling as he climbed the stairs.
At lunchtime he went back down again. This time he brought nothing with him.
Tony was hunched over a worktable, welding goggles on, sparks flying. The arc reactor was visible through his thin T-shirt. When he saw Steve walking toward him, he set down the welder with an annoyed sigh. "I thought I overrode your passcode again."
"Must've forgot," Steve said without apology.
"What do you want?" Tony asked. Half a dozen replicas of Hydra's armor were scattered about him, with another four spinning lazily in the air as mere holographs. The boot he was working on right now, however, was the red color of Iron Man's armor.
"Clint and Natasha should be back soon. Also, lunch is ready," Steve said.
Tony pushed the goggles up on his head and stared at him. "You came all the way down here to tell me that lunch is ready. You do realize there is an intercom in every room in this building, correct? Not to mention JARVIS is always standing by, eager and ready to obey your every command."
"You flatter me, sir," JARVIS said smoothly.
"Not at all," Tony replied.
"I know all that," Steve said.
Tony just looked at him, searching his face intently. It was hard to remain neutral under that scrutiny. Steve folded his arms and returned the stare as best he could.
With a sigh, Tony pulled off his welding gloves. "Okay, you got me," he said. "Why did you come down here?"
"I told you," Steve said. "Lunch is ready." In the face of Tony's wary disbelief, he added, "I guess you don't remember, but last night I told you I hoped we could become friends. I meant that. So that's why I'm here. We're going to get called into a meeting real soon, but right now lunch is ready, and I'd really like it if we could eat together. Get to know each other. That kind of thing." He was aware that he was flushing again, but he didn't care this time. It was all part of the script.
"Wow," Tony said. "How often did you practice that in the mirror?" He seemed more amused than hostile, though, which was a good sign.
"Only twice," Steve admitted with a grudging smile.
Surprisingly, Tony grinned back. "Not bad. I wouldn't quit your day job, but still, not bad."
"So?" Steve said. "Are you coming?"
Tony hesitated. He gave Steve a narrow look. "One of these days," he said, "you're gonna tell me just what we talked about last night."
Not on your life, Steve thought.
With a sigh, Tony gave in. "All right. Let's go."
They crossed the workshop together. At the door, Tony paused. "Wait." He reached up and pulled the welding goggles off his head. He tossed them toward the nearest table; they fell short and landed on the floor. Tony shrugged. "Won't be needing those for a while."
All the way up the stairs, Steve smiled. Of all the victories Captain America had scored, none had ever been so sweet.