History - from Greek ἱστορία (historia), meaning "inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation"
Television – from Greek τῆλε (tēle), meaning “at a distance, far off, far away, far from” + Latin visum, “seeing”
Steve Rogers stared down at his broken tablet, wishing it would turn on again if he just stared at it long enough. It wasn't that he didn't know how to use it - Steve was fairly proficient at most technology now that he'd given in and started lessons. He'd even taken apart a computer and put it back together under the watchful eye of a SHIELD agent. He just didn't like using it.
And since he didn't like the technology in the first place, it tended to be the first thing to get thrown against the wall when he got frustrated.
Steve sighed, pushing the tablet aside and closing his eyes. The history he'd been reading had caused him to throw the tablet. History Director Nick Fury was starting to insist he read. Which, fine, he liked reading well enough, but to say the fifties and sixties were giving him trouble was an understatement.
How could people talk so casually about the assassination of a President? He'd heard people joke about President Kennedy before and now... He couldn't understand how people allowed blacklisting and Communism as an excuse to start a witch hunt, either. Don't get him started on Vietnam. What had happened to America while he'd been sleeping?
Steve pushed those thoughts aside and looked down at the tablet again with dread. It wouldn't charge or turn on, though it didn't look to be physically damaged. It just didn't work. Mentally, he ran through his options. Clint and Natasha were busy at SHIELD, due to Agent Coulson not being as dead as they were lead to believe. Thor was just as bad with breaking tech as Steve was, and he was with Jane at the moment anyway. And Bruce...
"Is it fixable?" Steve asked Bruce some time later, since Director Fury expected a report by the end of the week. The Director had realized Steve ignored the history files on the tablet without some sort of incentive to read it, and no matter how much Steve wanted to buck the order and drag his feet some more, he was honest enough with himself to know it wasn't a bad order. That didn't mean he liked it.
Bruce turned the tablet over in his hands, then shook his head and glancing over at the temperature of one of his experiments. "Sorry," he said. "Something probably got jarred when you dropped it-" and, no, Steve didn't feel bad at all for that little white lie "-but I wouldn't know where to start on fixing it. That's more Tony's area of expertise."
Steve's heart sank as Bruce continued. "I'm pretty sure he's down in the lab right now if you want to go ask him."
"Mr. Stark is probably busy," Steve replied, taking the tablet back from Bruce. Explaining to Director Fury why he needed a new tablet would be easier than asking Tony Stark a favor.
Bruce winced, pulling his attention away from the lab to give Steve his full attention. He was obviously reading far more between the lines than Steve had intended to let slip. "You guys still aren't on first name basis?"
Steve didn't look down, but he didn't exactly meet Bruce's eyes either. Bruce sighed. "People are going to notice that."
"Is that a problem?" Steve asked, already knowing what answer Director Fury would give.
"Yes and no," Bruce replied with a shrug. "You've both proven you can work together, in battle and with clean up, but you remember how the press pounced on Natasha's unease around me?"
Bruce's eyes darkened to an almost green color, and Steve was reminded of yet another reason he hated this time period. "You know she doesn't feel that way anymore," Steve said, slipping into a gentler version of his Captain America voice, the kind he used to reassure people while on the job. Absently, he wondered when he'd lost the ability to reassure one of his team mates as Steve Rogers.
Bruce smiled, though the anger remained hidden behind his dark eyes. "I'm aware of that, Steve. We had a few talks when the media started blowing things out of proportion. It's them I'm angry at, not her."
That was a relief. Steve knew far too well how important trust was on a team like this, and Peggy would have had a real row with him if he'd let such a mistrust linger. He wasn't sure he could put up with even the mental image of her disapproval. Which was exactly what she would have given him for the whole Stark situation, but fixing his own problems was much different from fixing someone else's.
"Why don't you try talking to him?" Bruce suggested after short pause. "I know he's a bit difficult at times, but... you were one of the first people to trust me when we first met. Tony was one of the first people to trust the other guy. That means a lot to me, and I'd like both of my friends to get along, if possible." Bruce fiddled with his glasses, cleaning them for an excuse to look down. "It's not something I've had a lot of experience with, so I may not be the best person to go to for advice on this. But you just have to realize that his heart really is in the right place."
He could almost hear both Peggy and Bucky calling him out on his cowardice for not attempting to talk with Stark sooner. Even his mental attempts to argue that he wasn't being a coward fell short. He hated it when they were sensible. It meant Bruce was probably right, and Steve should do something about the situation.
"I know he's a good..." Steve said, wincing at Bruce's raised eyebrow. He added, "Now I do, really. I just..." He and Stark had apologized after the battle. But while Loki's staff had made them say those things, that didn't mean neither of them hadn't been thinking those thoughts originally. The intent was still there.
Besides, it was still... It still hurt a little too much, seeing Stark. He was too much like his father in all the wrong ways that caught Steve off guard, but also too different in all the wrong ways when Steve went looking for Howard behind those intelligent brown eyes. And he shouldn't look for Howard. Steve knew that, he did. It wasn't fair to either Stark or himself. But for some reason, Steve could stop himself from trying.
Bruce had replaced his glasses and was now looking at him expectantly, silently chiming in with Peggy. "I'll try to talk with him," Steve promised finally. He couldn't exactly say no after what Bruce had said. The team was all he had left right now; Steve couldn't intentionally cause a rift like Bruce was describing.
"Thanks," Bruce said with a small smile.
"No, it's me who should be thanking you," Steve said. "I needed to hear that."
Bruce smiled again, this time with less tension than he normally had. "I'm glad," he said, fumbling with a beaker as he returned to his experiment.
Clearly dismissed, Steve made his way down to Stark's lab. It was a decent amount of ground to cover, which gave him enough time to... not reconsider his promise, exactly, because he couldn't let Bruce down like that without at least trying. But it was long enough for him to regret making it.
He stood at the door, out of sight from the window as he debated knocking. Stark had invited them all to live in his ugly tower (and Director Fury had strongly encouraged then flat out ordered Steve accept the offer. Yet another order Steve wanted to ignore but knew he shouldn't, but in the end, his apartment and the Tower were just a place to live, and there wasn't much difference between the two, not to Steve), but he hadn't seen much of Stark in the past few weeks. The others did, but after the first few days or so, Steve only caught glimpses of the other man. Probably due in no small part to how awkward those days had been between them.
Come on, Rogers. Nazis weren't this hard to fight. Facing the son of one of your few friends shouldn't scare you this much. How do you expect to be able to ask Peggy to mar-
Steve closed his eyes, wishing he hadn't thought that. The pain that accompanied it once he realized it was never going to happen nearly overwhelmed him. The tablet and his promise to Bruce could wait, at least until he'd calmed down or-
"Are you going to go in, Captain, or are you just going to keep standing there?"
"Ms. Potts!" Steve started, automatically cataloging the number of ways he could have been killed for being caught so off guard before he remembered he wasn't in a war zone anymore and didn't need to be on high alert.
Ms. Potts's expression softened when she saw his face. "Are you alright?"
Steve took a deep breath, pushing all thoughts of Peggy aside for now. "I'm fine, Ma'am. Thank you," he said nervously, making sure not to stutter. It helped that Ms. Potts wasn't eying him like a well cooked steak like a lot of women have since the serum changed him. Between her and Natasha, Steve felt like he was getting regular practice with the whole 'talking to beautiful women' situation. It was one of the few things he was making headway with.
He held up the tablet in explanation. "I was going to ask Mr. Stark if he could fix it."
"His bark is worse than his bite," Ms. Potts said, not looking convinced, but willing to let it pass. Thank God for small mercies. "I could take it in for you though, if you'd rather not deal with him right now. Tony was in a bit of a mood last time I checked on him."
That was an easy out, and Steve was half-tempted to take it, keeping his promise to Bruce another time. He wasn't sure he could take seeing Stark right now, another reminder of the future in his own time that he'd lost. But if he left now, leaving his excuse to talk to Stark... "Thank you, Ma'am, but I should try talking with him myself this time."
That got him a genuine smile from Ms. Potts, which made it slightly more difficult for Steve not to blush and turn into a stumbling mess, but he held on to his dignity. "Well, I'm glad one of you is finally willing to stop being stubborn. I know you and Tony haven't always gotten along, but he really is trying to make this-"
"Ms. Potts, Captain Rogers," JARVIS interrupted. "Mr. Stark has forbidden me from informing you of his condition, but seeing as you are already here, I would recommend that you both enter the workshop quickly."
"What?" Ms. Potts yelled, pushing Steve aside as she darted to the door. She quickly put in a complicated code onto a panel that hadn't been lit up before and was rushing in as soon as the door slid open. Steve followed close behind her.
The sight that greeted them nearly made his heart stop. "Tony," Ms. Potts whispered. They both ran over to the prone figure on the floor, Steve nearly skidding to a halt on his knees. He had to blink for a moment, pushing away the image of Howard that was juxtaposed over the man lying on the floor. "JARVIS, update now," Ms. Potts said in a stronger voice.
"He's breathing," Steve said in relief as his fingers reached for Stark's pulse. The skin under his fingers was burning hot, and there was an unhealthy flush on Stark's face, but the reactor was still bright and the pulse was weak, but there.
"Mr. Stark has a fever of 103.2 Fahrenheit, his breathing is uneven, and his voice was hoarse the last time he spoke. He collapsed just before you opened the door, but did not hit his head and appears to have suffered no ill consequences due to the fall."
"Damn it, I knew he was hiding something from me," Ms. Potts said, cursing under her breath. With his super-serum hearing, Steve picked up a few of them and felt his face heat. Which was an accomplishment considering Steve had been sure the Howling Commandos had long since cured him of that. Also, he was pretty sure that last one wasn't anatomically possible, but he wasn't going to tell her that. Dames were something else, these days.
"Should we take him to the hospital?" Steve asked, hoping to distract her.
"JARVIS?" Ms. Potts asked again, hand resting briefly on Stark's forehead before she brushed her fingers through his hair.
"Provided Mr. Stark gets enough rest and fluids, a hospital visit should be unnecessary," JARVIS replied. "However, given his current record of resting, he might need to in the future."
"Noted," Ms. Potts said grimly. "He'll need a guard 24/7 to make sure he doesn't try to work himself to death." She sighed, pushing back her hair as she did a quick mental assessment. Steve bit his lip to keep from interrupting her. "There's a board meeting in half an hour, and then I've got to fly out to the West Coast branch. With Natasha busy with Phil..."
Her eyes fell on Steve and he fought the urge to fidget. "Bruce is upstairs," he suggested, really hoping that she wasn't considering what he thought she was.
"Bruce gives into his puppy dog eyes too easily and gets distracted when Tony starts talking science," Ms. Potts said with a hint of a smile.
"Thor?" Steve tried again, knowing it was a lost cause.
"Off with Jane. Think of it as a crash course in Tony Stark, Captain Rogers," Ms. Potts said, sealing his fate.
Steve really hated history.
* * *
They had nearly gotten Stark to his bedroom when he woke up and started protesting hoarsely that it was undignified to be carried about by Captain America. That caused a detour to the couch while Stark attempted to argue his way back to the workshop. Key phrase being "attempt." Steve highly doubted Stark could get five paces before falling over, and his arguments with Ms. Potts tended to fade halfway through the sentence.
"Captain Rogers hasn't seen Doctor Who yet. You could start watching it here on the couch," Ms. Potts said sweetly after Stark trailed off again.
"A television show?" Steve asked. More like whined. What little he'd seen of modern television had left a lot to be desired. Dealing with both Stark and what passed for entertainment in this time was not going to be fun.
The look Ms. Potts gave him could have rivaled a bayonet for its piercing quality, and Steve had personal experience with the former from a very frightened old man on the Polish border. "Yeah, sounds great," he amended quickly.
"Have to start with the First Doctor..." Stark said, and Steve winced in sympathy at his voice. He finally stopped fighting Steve and let the comforter be wrapped snugly around him. "JARVIS, put on..."
"Starting An Unearthly Child now, Sir," JARVIS said. The screen on the wall flickered to life. Ms. Potts gestured for Steve to follow her before he could really get a good look at the screen. He heard some oddly electronic music starting up behind him as he followed her into the next room.
"Sorry," she said, gesturing towards Tony. "Bad sci-fi is about the only thing that will keep him occupied in this state."
Internally, Steve winced. How bad was bad sci-fi compared to the rest of modern television? "Understood, Ma'am," he said, thinking back to some of the chores he'd had to do once he joined the military. This would be easy, right? "Is there anything we can get for the fever?"
"I'll send Bruce down with something on my way out," Ms. Potts said before turning stern. "Before I go, there's something you need to know. Tony's not a bad patient once he's settled, but he'll try to push himself too far and too quickly. I'm pretty sure he hasn't slept since I left him yesterday, which is probably what got him in this state in the first place." Ms. Potts crossed her arms over her chest and leveled Steve with a hard expression. "That's why you're here to keep him from working. That, and make sure he eats."
"Yes, Ma'am," Steve said. He smiled a little painfully as he remembered Dum Dum throwing a sniffling Howard over his shoulder to pull him out of the workshop.
"One more thing." Ms. Potts hesitated a moment. "Tony... talks sometimes, when he's sick. I want you to understand that you are under no circumstances to repeat what he tells you, especially not to him. I don't need another paparazzi scandal on my hands on top of him being sick."
He felt his gut twist sharply at that, the thought that someone would take advantage of anyone that vulnerable and talk to the press afterward... Steve's hands curled into fists, and he had to remind himself that Ms. Potts didn't know him well enough to overcome that well-earned distrust. She was just protecting Stark. "I won't take advantage of him, I promise."
Pepper nodded, glancing at her phone and typing out a quick message before looking up again. "I guess Captain America's word is good enough that I don't need that in writing. I've got to get going. Take care of him for me, understand?"
There was a desperate concern in her eyes that Steve felt a little jealous of. There was no one left who would worry like that for him. "I will," he promised.
"Thank you," she said, touching his shoulder gently before walking out in a flurry of clicking heels.
Gathering his patience, Steve went back out to the living room to face 'bad sci-fi'. He blinked in shock when he saw the wide screen television though. Two people were sitting in a car, discussing a young girl... their student? Which wasn't very extraordinary in itself, but the movie was in black and white. Clint had assured him repeatedly that everything was in color now.
He didn't have much time to dwell on it though, because he could hear Stark muttering about a tablet to finish the schematics on. "What'd I miss?" Steve asked, hoping to distract Stark.
It worked. Stark's eyes were glazed over as he looked up, and Steve could see the effort it took to concentrate. "Cap?"
"That's right," Steve asked, a little helpless against the smile toying with his lips at the sight of Stark curled up in the over-sized comforter. It was kind of hard to remember how much of a pain Stark could be when he was about as helpless as a de-clawed kitten. It also made it easier to remember Howard. "What did I miss?" he asked again, gesturing towards the screen.
Stark blinked, then looked back at the screen. Steve took a seat on the couch beside him and wrapped Stark a little tighter in the blanket before Stark's attention left the screen again. "Barbara and Ian followed Susan home," Stark said eventually.
The information didn't mean much to Steve, but he figured he could pick up on context clues easier than getting a full explanation from Stark in this state. On the screen, the teachers were exploring a junkyard.
"It's cold," Stark said absently, unfocused eyes watching the screen.
Steve remembered being that sick as a child, more frequently than he cared to admit. The blankets were always too thin, but his mother or sometimes Bucky would... Hesitantly, Steve tugged Stark closer and wrapped his arm around his back. Steve knew that since the serum, he always ran a little warm, and even giant comforters were too thin without a hug to go along with it. "Is that better?" he asked.
Stark blinked again, his head now resting on Steve's shoulder and a slightly baffled expression on his face. "Um, yes?"
That was good enough for Steve. Apparently good enough for Stark too, who was out like a light within minutes. Steve returned his attention to the screen as an old man chided the teachers about the ridiculousness of keeping someone in a phone box.
Steve was surprised by the rate he became absorbed in the show. The time machine disguised as a phone box that was bigger on the inside, and the old man who piloted her, it drew him in before he realized it.
He was even a little annoyed when Bruce interrupted just as the cavemen kidnapped the Doctor. "JARVIS, is there a way to pause?"
The movie stopped and he heard JARVIS say, "I can resume playing whenever you wish, Captain."
"What are you watching?" Bruce asked, peering over the couch.
"Ms. Potts called it bad sci-fi," Steve said, though he was secretly enjoying it now. "She said it was the only way to keep Stark occupied."
"I'd believe that," Bruce said, ruffling Stark's hair fondly. Stark mumbled something unintelligible against Steve's shoulder and cuddled closer. "You might as well call him Tony given how he's curled up on you."
That... was a point. He considered it as Bruce frowned, touching Stark's forehead. "He's really burning up," Bruce murmured, all sense of his earlier humor diminished. He sat a couple of pills on the table next to Steve and got a glass of water from the kitchen. "Have him take those the next time he wakes up, and try to get him to drink something. I'll bring down some soup in a little while."
"Are you sure you wouldn't be better at watching him?" Steve asked.
"Puppy dog eyes," Bruce said, barely hiding a smile.
They were lying, Steve realized with a start. Both of them were lying to keep him here instead of staying here themselves. That was sneaky and underhanded and... and he wouldn't have a reason to find out if Barbara and Ian ever got home if he called them on it. Darn it.
Steve quickly schooled his face into disappointment, not giving away that he'd caught on to their game. He got the feeling it wasn't about trying to get out of taking care of Stark, but... well, they both appeared to be shoving him into Stark's company, and Steve supposed it wasn't too bad so long as Stark stayed asleep.
"Have JARVIS give me a call if he gets worse," Bruce said, ruffling Stark's hair one last time before retreating.
Steve looked down at the man curled up against him. Both Bruce and Ms. Potts cared a lot for Stark... for Tony. It seemed strange that they would want Steve to be looking after him considering that they'd never really gotten along. This wasn't exactly helping Steve be friendlier towards him... Granted, it was awfully hard to hate someone who was curled up against him for warmth.
He asked JARVIS to start up the episode again, quickly becoming engrossed in the story. Bruce left a small container next to the pills at one point, but it had been sometime during the escape scene with the flaming skulls. Steve's mind made a note of Bruce moving around, marked him as non-dangerous, and decided it not worth taking his attention off the screen for.
Except soon the credits started rolling, but the next episode didn't start up. "Was that the last one?" Steve asked, feeling gypped. They had just gotten away from the cavemen only to wind up in a scary looking forest!
"That is the end of this serial, Captain," JARVIS replied. "Would you like me to start up the next one?"
"What do you mean by serial?"
"The classic episodes of Doctor Who were often organized into serials rather than seasons. The serials consist of all the episodes following one particular plot line," JARVIS explained. Which made sense, Steve supposed. He was more than familiar with the short films and radio programs that used the word, and it fit for what he'd just watched.
Tony stirred before he could ask JARVIS to start up the next one though, muttering into Steve's shoulder. "Hey," Steve said. "You up to some soup?"
Tony looked up at Steve, then at the TV screen, then back to Steve. "Cap?" he croaked out, wincing at the sound of his voice. "What are you..?"
"We're watching Doctor Who," Steve said, reaching over for the glass of water Bruce had left and handing it to Tony. He was surprised when Tony let him help hold the cup as he started shivering, but Tony still looked a little dazed. Steve pressed the pills into Tony’s hand and said, "Take these. They'll help bring down your fever."
Tony blinked at them for a moment as if he were trying to figure out how the pills got there, before he obediently swallowed the pills dry. Steve was beginning to see the amount of trust Ms. Potts had put in him for this, if Tony was this out of it when he got sick. It took some of the sting out of the promise she'd made him make. "How are you feeling?" Steve asked, pressing the back of his hand to Tony's forehead. Still burning up.
"Cold," Tony said. "And it hurts to move. My head is... I'm just going to..."
As Tony lost track of the thought, Steve pulled the lid off the container of soup and searched for the spoon he knew Bruce had put - ah, there it was. "This will warm you up," Steve said, replacing the water with the soup bowl.
Tony wrinkled his nose at the soup, pushing it back to Steve. "You're handing me things. I don't like..."
"Bruce made it," Steve said a little desperately, making a mental note to next time give Tony food while watching the show to keep him distracted.
This time, Tony accepted the soup, though he still looked at it dubiously. Seeing Tony like this when the man was usually sharper than a blade... it was a little scary seeing Tony reduced to a butter-knife. "We can start watching while you eat," Steve said. "JARVIS, what's the next serial?"
"The next serial is called The Daleks."
"I like that one," Tony said, leaning against Steve's shoulder again. "It's creepy. Probably scarier... in the sixties."
"Why would it be scarier in the sixties?" Steve asked, but Tony was hesitantly testing the soup and had lost track of the conversation. "JARVIS, do you know?"
The AI was one thing Steve really liked about the future. JARVIS never got tired of Steve's questions and was endlessly patient when he got frustrated with the time period. "I believe he is referring to the nature of the planet Skaro, Captain, which was destroyed by a neutron bomb in a war between two factions. The planet was then saturated with deadly radiation, plaguing the few survivors. While it still has a possibility of occurring on Earth, in the sixties the United States and the Soviet Union were at a nuclear stand-off. The threat of such large scale destruction was also still relatively new," JARVIS explained.
Steve processed that information, putting it together with what he'd been reading earlier. Weapons of Mass Destruction and nuclear power were things he'd read about, but he didn't think he'd realized the scope of it. A quick glance at Tony told him his teammate was still eating, and he asked JARVIS to start the serial.
Tony ate at least half of the soup before dozing against Steve's shoulder. Steve had meant to put the lid back on so that Tony could eat more later, but the serial really was disquieting and Steve discovered he was a little hungry. Fairly soon there was nothing left of the soup but a faint lining of guilt on the bottom of the bowl.
Putting the soup aside, he watched with growing suspense as the strange metallic aliens paralyzed Ian. "Could have been us, ya know," Tony said.
"What?" Steve asked, starting. Thankfully, he didn't knock Tony off.
"The Daleks," Tony explained. "They're not that different from Germany or other dictators. If they'd had nuclear weapons back then, that could have been our future."
The serial was suddenly a lot more terrifying.
* * *
Tony slept through most of The Daleks, and right through two episodes that were more confusing than Steve could follow. He checked on Tony, whose fever seemed to finally be going down. Bruce brought more soup and medicine, along with dinner for Steve which was demolished without waking the man sleeping against his shoulder.
"Would you start the next serial please, JARVIS?" Steve asked finally.
"I'm afraid there is a small problem with the next serial, Captain," JARVIS said.
Steve felt disappointment wash over him. "Is there something wrong with it?"
"Not wrong, necessarily," JARVIS said. "But the original film of many of the early Doctor Who episodes were lost when the BBC purged their old files. Only the audio portions remain."
"Only the sound?" Steve asked, not entirely sure what that meant. How had the video been lost but the sound survived? Weren't they together?
"Indeed, Captain Rogers. You have a few options available if you wish to view these serials, however. Mr. Stark has reconstructions of the episodes using the audio and still pictures, along with audio-only versions with bridging narration."
"The audio-only version, that'd be like listening to the radio, right?" Steve asked.
"That is correct," JARVIS confirmed. "Would you like to continue with Marco Polo in one of those formats, or watch the next complete serial?"
"Could you play the audio-only version please?"
With Tony curled up against his side, a warm reminder that Steve wasn't alone on his floor with nothing but a punching bag for company, Steve settled in to listen to the next serial.
* * *
Tony slept through several serials, and Steve was getting a bit twitchy. Bruce had offered to sit with Tony for a while, but Steve was really enjoying Doctor Who, and he didn't want to jostle Tony awake. But this long without any sort of physical activity was starting to get to him.
Bruce had brought down Steve's sketchbook before he'd gone to bed, at least. Steve knew he should get some sleep himself, but he started drawing Barbara and Ian in The Reign of Terror. Sleep always made Steve feel cold, and he wasn't quite worn out enough yet. That's what he got for sitting on the couch all day, he supposed.
He didn't realize Tony was awake until Tony's fingers brushed against Barbara's face. "These are really good," Tony said, looking much more lucid than he had before.
"Thanks," Steve replied, a small coil of pleasure wrapping around him as he remembered similar words from Howard. It wasn't often other people commented on his work, especially now that everyone he was close enough to share his artwork with were dead. Steve winced at the thought, pushing it away. This was why he usually spent a lot more time exhausting his body before it got this late. "How are you feeling?"
"Better," Tony said, though he didn't move out of his comforter-cocoon, or away from Steve. "I always wanted the Doctor to find me when I was little, so I could travel with him as one of his companions."
"Really?" Steve asked, smiling at the mental image of a small Tony trying to take apart and reverse-engineer the TARDIS (which was what Steve knew would happen, even if he couldn't tell if it was his knowledge of Howard or of Tony that fueled it). He wondered if he could find a picture of Tony as a kid and draw the scene. He'd have to ask Natasha. She had the best blackmail.
"Yeah, the Doctor's companions were always special," Tony replied, eyes shifting from Steve's drawing to the screen as Leon betrayed Ian. Steve bit down a smug smirk when it was revealed the French traitor was a bad guy. He hadn't liked Leon due to his flirting with Barbara. She and Ian were a much better couple, especially now with Leon out of the way.
Tony continued on, pulling the comforter tighter around him. "I always thought that the Doctor would see how smart I was. I'd have been much cooler than Adric. Everyone hates Adric."
"Who's Adric?" Steve asked, but Tony kept talking over him.
"Then the Doctor would teach me how to fly the TARDIS, and he'd tell Dad about how smart I was. And Dad would have had to believe him, because he was the Doctor," Tony said, the words slowly breaking Steve's heart with how carelessly they were tossed out. It was like Tony wasn't even aware he was saying them.
He was starting to see why five different people had warned him not to mention Howard to Tony. "I'm sure Howard knew-"
"He never showed it," Tony said, his body tense against Steve's. "He talked about you all the time. How proud he was to be your friend and how he was still looking... Me, he just showed the back of his hand and kicked me out of the house if I was in his line of sight for too long. If I was lucky, he just ignored me. Though I kinda hated it when he did that."
Steve suddenly felt like his asthma was back full-force, even though all he'd done was sit there for the past several hours. Howard did all of that? "I'm sorry," Steve choked out, not sure if he was apologizing for Howard, Steve's absence, or the fact that he just couldn't imagine Howard doing that to anyone, much less his own kid. Part of him wanted to be furious and defend Howard, but Tony was practically trembling with tension. Curled up against Steve as he was, Steve could feel every shake. Not to mention Tony was still so sick, too sick to handle that sort of argument.
Steve forced himself to take a deep breath then sighed internally, wondering if that was why Tony had brought up the subject now, when he knew Steve wouldn't fight back.
"I don't think Dad would have listened to the Doctor anyway," Tony continued, completely oblivious to Steve. "I saw a video a while back that Dad made and... I don't know what to think anymore. Sometimes I wish I could go back to just hating him." The tension drained out of Tony as he relaxed against Steve. He wished he could do the same, but Steve was still reeling with the information about Howard. He couldn't even think of anything to say to Tony after that but more meaningless platitudes.
"Everyone wants me to be Dad," Tony said sometime later as Robespierre was lead away clutching his shattered jaw. "Even you. I always liked to think the Doctor would see me."
Steve couldn't even deny it, because it was true. It felt like Tony had just gutted him with a few simple words, and Steve was still trying to wrap his mind around it. When the episode was over, Tony started to navigate the comforter like he was trying to get up. "Mr. Sta... Tony..."
"I'm fine now," Tony said, pushing off Steve's shoulder. "I need to finish the designs for your new armor and Clint's bow. Plus that fail safe on the reactor that I promised Pepper. I should..."
"He'll try to push himself too far and too quickly," he heard Pepper tell him, and Steve had to find his voice again fast. "Why don't we watch another serial?" Steve managed, his voice sounding rough to his own ears. "What's the next one, JARVIS?"
"That would be Planet of Giants, Captain," JARVIS chimed in.
Tony stopped fighting the comforter to snort. "That one was the Master's fault. Had to be. He's testing the T.C.E. on the Doctor."
"Who's the Master?" Steve coaxed, relieved to hear the now familiar theme song starting up as JARVIS didn't wait for the command to start. At least JARVIS was on his side for this.
"Not technically a character yet, but it's still his fault," Tony said, letting Steve fuss with the comforter around him as his attention was diverted to the screen. "But him and the Brigadier are my favorites. They had the best facial hair. Sarah Jane was also aweso- Why're you laughing?"
"Only you would pick a favorite character because of his facial hair, Tony," Steve said, after he'd gotten his breath back. And he decidedly didn't think of Howard's mustache and why Tony would like characters who... No, he couldn't... Steve couldn't think about how one of his friends had neglected and possibly abused a child, not right now. His laughter had been slightly too hysterical as it was.
"Only me?" Tony asked, turning his attention from the screen to Steve with a lucidness that Steve hadn't seen since before they'd found Tony on the workshop floor.
Steve sobered at that, his breath caught in his throat again. "Only you," he said, reaching out in an aborted movement to touch Tony's shoulder and wishing this was enough to make up for his past treatment of the man. Except something this simple couldn't even come close.
Tony smiled at him, open and honest in a way that Steve still didn't know how to deal with. It just made Steve feel worse. "Good," Tony said, turning back to watch the show.
He was asleep again within minutes.
This time when the serial ended, Steve got off the couch and headed to the bathroom. He splashed water on his face, looked at the time, then went to the kitchen, avoiding his eyes in the mirror. "JARVIS?" he asked.
"How may I help you, Captain?"
"Can you tell if Ms. Potts is still awake?"
JARVIS was silent for a long moment, then he responded with, "She has answered affirmatively to my inquiry. Would you like me to call her?"
"Yes, please. Can you direct the call to my phone?" Steve said, resting his head against the wall. He pulled the phone SHIELD issued him out of his pocket to find it already ringing.
"Is Tony alright?" Ms. Potts asked immediately, not even letting Steve say hello.
"He's... he's fine," Steve said, trying to clear the exhaustion from his voice. "He's sleeping right now."
There was a brief pause, and Ms. Potts' voice was softer. "Are you alright?"
"I don't think so," Steve said, sliding down to the floor and rubbing his eyes. And wasn't it telling that the only person he could think of to call right now was one of Tony's friends? He didn't have anyone else to turn to. Steve missed Bucky, with a dull ache that sharpened to the point of searing pain.
Ms. Potts was silent on the end of the line, waiting for Steve to talk. Except she'd made him promise... Steve had to swallow the frustration in his throat before he could speak. "You said not to mention anything he said, especially not to him, but I can't..."
"What did he say?" Ms. Potts asked sharply.
That was enough of a permission for Steve. "He... talked about Howard."
Phones nowadays were really pretty swell, because he could hear Pepper's sharp intake of breath over the line and she was halfway across the country. "Was Howard really..." Steve couldn't finish that sentence, not wanting to know the answer of it.
He heard Pepper sigh, and her response wasn't what he'd been expecting. "Captain Rogers... Do you mind if I call you Steve?"
"No, I don't mind, Ma'am."
"Good. Please call me Pepper. It's a bit ridiculous having this sort of conversation while still using last names. Look, Steve, people change, even when we're not around to see it."
"I know that," Steve said, trying not to resent the obvious platitude.
"Yes, but you never actually know it until you see it for yourself," Ms. Potts said, her voice soft. "I used to think I knew Tony pretty well before Afghanistan. But when Rhodey finally brought him back... It was only three months, but it was like I didn't know Tony any more. The masks were still the same, but the person underneath was radically different. I had to re-learn who Tony was."
Steve swallowed, leaning his head back against the wall as Ms. Potts... as Pepper spoke. What had been in Tony's file was mostly conjecture, but even the conjecture was enough to make Bruce Hulk-out when he'd been debriefed. SHIELD had made sure both Steve and Thor were on hand before they let Bruce near the file, and Steve didn't blame him. Most of the Avengers' files were things Steve never wanted to see happen to anyone, ever again.
Steve's mind flickered back to Bucky, no matter how much he couldn't handle the image of Bucky right now. Torture was never an acceptable response.
"For a while, I let Tony fool me," Pepper continued. "Because I wanted to be fooled. I wanted the old Tony back, and I was angry at the new one for taking his place."
"That's not fair to Tony," Steve said, closing his eyes against the weariness that threatened to overwhelm him.
"No, it really wasn't," Pepper agreed. "I couldn't take the next step in our relationship until I'd accepted the changes, and by that point he'd nearly died because of the palladium poisoning."
"So you two are-" Steve started, then backpedaled furiously. "I'm sorry. That's none of my business." Just because no one would give him a straight answer (not even the tabloids, though Steve did not read those. Not even for curiosity. Except that once) on that, and 'he'd been wondering' was no reason to be that rude to someone trying to help him.
Pepper laughed, which was a nice sound. Steve wondered when the last time he'd made someone else laugh like that had been. He didn't like the answer he came up with. "It's alright, Steve. And it's a bit more complicated than that. We're on and off again, and... I'm pretty sure we're off again right now, actually."
Steve had no idea how people could stay in a relationship like that. He didn't suppose getting along with Tony was an easy thing even for Pepper. "I see," he said, though he didn't really.
"You know what I found out though?" Pepper asked, picking up the earlier conversation. "That it's okay to love both of them. The memories of the old Tony, and the Tony who is here now, both of them are important to me. Howard Stark changed while you weren't here, Steve, but that didn't make him any less your friend back then."
It wasn't the same, not really. Pepper still loved both versions of Tony Stark. But this version of Howard... What she said made sense, however, no matter how much it stung. "Does it ever get easier?" he asked, because he still felt too off-balance.
"With time," Pepper said, sorrow filling her voice. "But that's never what anyone wants to hear."
Steve had already lost so much time. Hearing that he needed more of it was just depressing. "I don't know if I should be around Tony," he admitted. "He said everyone wanted him to be like Howard. And that I was like that too."
"Do you want him to be like Howard?"
"Yes." Steve pulled his head off the wall, only to strike it back sharply. Not enough to hurt, but it kept his mind off the sick feeling in his stomach. "I've tried not to. It's not right to keep wanting to see... But I can't stop. I just can't..."
"That's not going to get better by avoiding him," Pepper said, without any of the judgement he'd expected in her voice. "The only way that will change is by learning to like Tony for himself."
"Why is everyone so damned reasonable?" Steve complained, getting another laugh out of her.
"Because we're on the outside of the drama looking in," she said, and that made him smile weakly. "It'll get easier with time, I promise. But if you need a break to process some of this, I can call Bruce to take up Tony-watching."
"What about his weakness for puppy dog eyes?" Steve asked innocently.
Another laugh, this time slightly guilty. "So you caught us out. We were hoping you'd find it easier to deal with him when he's not up to verbal sparring. I didn't expect him to start talking about Howard. If you need to get away from him for a bit, we'd understand."
"Thank you," Steve said, considering. "I think... I'd like to keep trying though. Besides, I've actually enjoyed watching Doctor Who."
"I've created another Whovian," Pepper said. He could hear a mixture of amusement and exasperation in her voice. "Clint will never forgive me."
"Call me Pepper, Steve," she reminded him warmly.
"Pepper," Steve said, testing the name. "Thank you for talking to me. I must be keeping you from work."
"Thank you for looking after him," Pepper countered. "And thanks for trying. Not many people do, you know. Before the Avengers, he only had me and Rhodey."
He has more than me, Steve wanted to say, but he held back. He bid her goodnight and gave himself ten minutes of sitting in the kitchen before going out to check on Tony.
The den was just as he left it, but Tony was shivering again. Had things gotten worse when he'd left? "JARVIS, can you give me an update on his temperature?"
"Mr. Stark has a temperature of 101.9, Captain. He appears to be recovering at an expected rate."
That was a relief. At least he wasn't messing this up any more than he already had. Sitting down on the couch, Steve pulled Tony into a hug and settled down to watch the next serial.
* * *
Steve didn't remember falling asleep, but he woke up to see a pair of brown eyes staring down at him with honest confusion in them. "Feeling better?" Steve asked, stretching out the kinks in his body. At least the pain in his neck would be temporary, but oh, he should never have slept like that.
He raised an eyebrow as he felt Tony's finger poking his bicep. "You're actually here," Tony said, slightly baffled.
Steve snorted, brushing aside Tony's bed head and feeling his forehead. Tony tensed for a moment, then relaxed. "I think your fever is finally gone," Steve said. "And what did you think I was, an illusion?"
"Yes," Tony said so swiftly that Steve was reminded of Pepper's words from last night, about Tony only having her and Col. Rhodes. At the time Steve had been stuck in self-pity, but now... He thought back to Tony's confusion at being hugged and the surprise every time he woke up to find Steve still there. At least Steve had his mother and Bucky when he'd been sick.
"Anyway, thanks Cap. It's been fun, but now that I'm better I should get back down to the workshop to-"
"Don't," Steve said, grabbing Tony's wrist as the man tried to pull away on unsteady feet.
It wasn't hard to see the anger in Tony's eyes. "I have a company to run, if that didn't escape-"
"Pepper's given you the day off," Steve cut in. "Why not come to the kitchen with me? I'll make breakfast, and we can keep watching Doctor Who. I'd like that."
"Why?" Tony asked, his voice sharp with suspicion.
Steve considered his answer before speaking, making sure to keep the pity out of his voice that Tony had to ask such a question. "Because you're still sick and could use the rest. I don't want you to make yourself worse again. Also, I've really been enjoying Doctor Who. It's a lot different from the TV shows Clint has been telling me to watch."
Tony waved that off dismissively, but he sat down again. "Clint is a philistine who watches reality shows and Lost. Absolutely no taste. Doctor Who blows those out of the water. It's classic. Fifty years old, over 800 episodes, and still going strong. Of course you like it better. I'm officially taking over your TV tutelage."
That... was a lot of Doctor Who. 800 episodes? Still, he enjoyed it so far and it'd be a good way to connect with Tony. He could do this. Maybe. Good heavens, 800 was daunting.
"That's not the whole reason though, is it, Cap." Tony's voice left no question in that statement.
"Please, call me Steve?" he countered hesitantly.
Tony looked surprised again. "...Right. So, uh, Steve. You're not getting out of that question."
Steve smiled, feeling a sudden warmth at hearing his given name. "Ms. Potts was the one who told me to watch you. I really don't want to think about what she'd do to me if I let her down."
"That's a good reason," Tony said, giving a sympathetic shudder. They both ignored the fact that they knew it wasn't the answer Tony had been looking for. "Right. JARVIS, what serial are we up to?"
And they left it at that.
* * *
"But the Doctor just died! Who's this new guy?"
"No one told you about regeneration? It's a thing. He's still the Doctor, with all the same memories, but his face and personality change to keep up the continuity. How do you think the show has kept going for fifty years? Happens all the time, whenever the actor decides to move on. It's pretty ingenious."
"I don't like the new Doctor."
"Oh, my God. Steve's first fanwank over a new Doctor! This is precious. JARVIS, are you recording this? Not even Captain America is immune. I'm so proud, I'm getting misty-eyed."
Steve didn't feel the slightest bit guilty over throwing a pillow at a sick man.
* * *
Steve found that Tony had really meant it when he said he was taking over getting Steve caught up. After Tony got better (and Steve had decided that the second Doctor wasn't that bad after all), Steve expected to fall back into his regular routine of exercise, reading, and drawing in his free time. Always by himself, unless there was a scheduled training. But now after a shift of construction work to help rebuild the city, Steve found himself being dragged off (sometimes literally) by an over-excited Iron Man.
He found out that Tony's favorite Doctor was the third, the Brigadier was his favorite character, and Sarah Jane, Leela, and Ace were his favorite companions, followed closely by Donna, Tegan, and Jack Harkness. Steve himself still didn't know most of those characters, but after they finished the second Doctor, they knocked out the new series. He liked all the Doctors so far, and Donna. Rory was definitely growing on him. He was still attached to Ian and Barbara though, and Ben and Polly were probably his favorites so far. Steve couldn't help but relate to Ben--chasing after a girl who was out of his league, but winning her over anyway.
"I really don't like Rose," he said one night as her picture was shown in the TARDIS's databanks while the Eleventh Doctor ranted at it.
"You, me, and Bruce both," Tony replied. "But don't let Natasha hear you say that. Rose was her first companion, and it's skewed her opinions. It's a sad fate."
It wasn't like they were keeping his new-found fandom secret or anything, but it'd simply never come up with the team. That is, until they were on clean-up duty in a shopping center near the tower, and one particular item caught his eye.
At first, he thought the flash of red might lead to a body. They'd found plenty of those before, and Steve steeled himself to get a closer look. But when he looked closer, Steve found something else all together. He reached for the dark mahogany and dusted it off, sticking it on his head as he turned around to face the team, minus Tony who had been caught by Pepper on their way out for a meeting. With a grin, he announced, "I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool."
Natasha, Clint, and Bruce's jaws dropped open. Thor just laughed. "It is indeed a hat worthy of you, Captain."
"Oh, hell no," Clint said, regaining his voice first. "I am not living under the same roof with another Doctor Who fan. I refuse. Who started this travesty?"
"Pepper," Steve admitted.
"The traitor! We were anti-Whovian soul mates. Thor! Thor, buddy. You have to stay strong on this. It's only you and me against the rest of them now," Clint lamented. Thor just laughed, patting Clint on the back hard enough to make him stumble.
"I approve," Bruce said, smiling shyly. "Eleven is my favorite Doctor, but I've only really seen the new series. Was that what you were watching when Tony was sick?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "Tony apparently has all of them."
"Molto bene," Natasha said dryly, though she was secretly hiding her amusement if the slight quirk of her lips was anything to go by. "Welcome to the Whovian fandom. Now convince Stark to make a sonic screwdriver I can use on missions."
In retrospect, Steve really should have ducked when he heard the whine of repulsor blasts powering up. As it was, the fez was already blown to smithereens before he could bring his shield up. He frowned at the newly arrived Tony, feeling petulant.
"I, for the record, am completely in agreement with River and Amy on the subject of fezzes," Tony said, his faceplate up to show his smug smile. "Right, people. This rubble's not going to move itself. Allons-y, Alonzo!"
When Natasha secretly passed him and Bruce new fezzes later that day, he forgave her for being a Rose fan.
* * *
"So what're you guys watching for your date tonight?" Clint asked as Steve toweled off the sweat from his workout. He'd come to the kitchen to get a water bottle, only to find it full of people.
"Date?" Col. Rhodes asked. He'd been visiting Tony for the past week, drastically cutting into the time Tony dragged Steve out to get caught up on television. They'd been branching out from Doctor Who to The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, and other movies on off weeks, but with Col. Rhodes... Well, Steve hadn't seen much of Tony at all this week, and he absolutely was not sulking about that when Tony had dropped by to promise to make time tonight.
"It's not a date," Steve said, rolling his eyes. Though he probably should change into something a bit more suitable before he dragged Tony from the workshop.
Col. Rhodes whistled. "That's one lucky girl. So what kind of movies does Captain America watch on a 'not date'?"
"I'm just watching movies with Tony, so it's not really a date," Steve said. Col. Rhodes's eyebrows shot up, but he should know better. Tony and Pepper's relationship was too complicated, and Steve refused to upset that delicate balance. "Tony's been getting me caught up on pop-culture that I've missed."
"He has?" Col. Rhodes said, a calculating expression on his face. "Tony's been keeping secrets from me."
"So what are you watching tonight?" Natasha asked. She'd been joining them occasionally for Doctor Who, and Steve really enjoyed her added commentary.
"I think Tony said something like South Pacific?" Steve said apologetically. Natasha just nodded impassively, but she went straight for the chocolate chip cookies to cover for her disappointment.
"You're watching musicals?" Clint asked, as Col. Rhodes went still. "Sorry, Cap. There's no way around that. It's a date. No one watches musicals for fun, especially not two guys."
"Actually, Steve's getting caught up on the Civil Rights movement, and South Pacific goes into inter-racial marriages, and sure, it's a bit too pat and trope-y, but it seems like the sort of thing Cap likes," Howar-damn it. Tony said as he walked in. There was a smear of oil on his cheek and left shoulder, and his hands were a mess, a look Steve had seen Howard pull off frequently. He moved to the sink, washing what he could of the grime off before tossing Steve a smirk. "We should see if we can get in Sound of Music tonight too. You'll like that one. It's set in your time period, grandpa."
"You're watching musicals, Tony," Clint said. "I'm revoking your man card."
Clint received a sharp whack to the head from Natasha for his efforts. "Don't be sexist, or I'll tell Phil you've never watched CATS, and you know how much he likes Webber," she chided as he scowled at her.
"Coulson is an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan?" Tony asked, slightly taken aback.
"Hey, Tony," Col. Rhodes said casually. "Wasn't South Pacific one of your mother's favorites?"
The reaction lasted only a split second. Steve wasn't sure he'd seen the change at all, but Tony quickly covered up whatever emotion it had been. "Yup. Pretty sure I still know the words to all the songs and would really rather shoot myself than get them in my head again, but hey. It's a patriotic sacrifice we all have to make sometime to better educate America."
Tony's quips, while still grating, were only meant in jest now. Or so Steve told himself when he felt his hackles raise.
"I'll come and watch too, if you don't mind. Rodgers and Hammerstein were pretty manly men." The fact that Col. Rhodes included Steve in this question only made Steve feel slightly less possessive of his Tony time. Col. Rhodes had had Tony all week, after all, and now it was Steve's turn.
It wasn't him that protested though. Tony's eyes narrowed before Steve could speak, crossing his arms. "No."
"No?" Steve asked, not sure how to take that.
"I know what trick you're trying to pull, and it won't work, honey bear. Not even for you," Tony said. Steve looked at Clint and Natasha, but they looked just as baffled. Col. Rhodes looked suspiciously innocent.
"And what trick would that be, Tony?" Col. Rhodes asked, leaning back casually.
"We'll get through about twenty minutes, then you'll start moaning about how the main character's ass doesn't come close to Rosario Dawson's. Which, except for a few select cases, will probably be true because it is indeed a very fine ass, but we are watching South Pacific and Sound of Music for education. You can find someone else to watch Sin City with you for the 500th time. Just because she spent the night on my arm-"
"Yeah, sure, brag all you want, Tony. She was using you to get to me."
"-doesn't mean you have to torture me with your obsession."
By this point, Col. Rhodes was grinning broadly as Tony gestured wildly with his hands. "Rent is educational and still a musical. It'll help Captain Rogers understand the 90s," Col. Rhodes said slyly.
"I did not hear you say that," Tony said as Col. Rhodes laughed. Even Natasha was looking amused by the banter, though Steve still felt like he was in over his head. "No. I am putting my foot down. No amount of sake will change my mind, sugar pie. You can't come. We are kicking you out of the super-secret club if you sully our patriotic endeavor."
"We don't have a super-secret club, Tony," Steve said, resigned to losing all thread of this conversation. And no, he wasn't sulking over that. Much.
"Sure we do," Tony replied, grinning at Steve with the same smile Howard used to throw at him. It was impossible not to smile back, no matter how much Steve was (not) sulking. "It's so awesome, it cannot be named. It's the Eldritch Gods of secret clubs."
Before Steve could gloat in the fact that he knew that reference, Bruce walked in, distractedly nibbling on his pen as he refilled his coffee. He ruffled Tony's hair as he walked by, a gesture Steve had since discovered was retaliation against Tony's poking. "What have we talked about summoning unspeakable horrors while in the lab, Tony?" Bruce said absently. "I am not saving you if you accidentally wake up Cthulhu. I will, however, lock you away if it drives you insane."
"That's why I love you best, Cookie," Tony said, batting his eyes up at Bruce.
Clint laughed from his spot at the kitchen counter. "Why does it surprise me that this is a serious conversation for you two? I should know better."
"I'm totally feeding it you last, Barton," Tony said. "Steve's first. Everyone else will just have to suffer under my insane rule."
Through all the banter, Col. Rhodes watched Tony without looking like he was doing so, and Steve had a sinking feeling that Rhodes was joining them no matter what. And it worried him just a little, because he couldn't help but think something was off with Tony.
* * *
He was right. By the time Steve changed clothes and went up to the den, Col. Rhodes was already on the couch, arms stretched over the back. Tony rolled his eyes and took a seat beside him, leaving Steve to the armchair.
Steve would like to say he didn't resent that, but he knew when to give up and just be honest with himself. It didn't make him feel any less ridiculous to admit he felt threatened by Col. Rhodes stealing away the one person who made it a point to keep Steve from being lonely.
At least South Pacific was good. He liked the songs, and he checked the Internet on his (now fixed) tablet to find that it had been released a few years after the war. He wondered if Peggy had gone to see it. She'd always liked music...
He glanced over at Col. Rhodes and Tony as one of the actresses sang about Bali Ha'i, surprised to see Tony curled up to Col. Rhodes's side. Tony's eyes were glued to the screen with a frighteningly blank expression.
Steve was halfway to his feet when Col. Rhodes caught his eye and shook his head. He was rubbing small circles into Tony's shoulder, casually taking care of Tony and giving comfort without looking like he was doing so. It was then Steve understood: if he drew attention to things now, Tony would be back on the other side of the couch in an instant without the comfort of a friend.
He forced himself to relax, and Col. Rhodes offered him an approving smile before returning his (in)attention back to Tony. Steve felt... jealous. That was the best word for it, really, though he couldn't tell if he was jealous of Rhodes for comforting Tony, or of Tony for having someone who knows him well enough to give him exactly what he needed.
Steve missed Bucky desperately.
* * *
Though Col. Rhodes had stayed quiet during South Pacific, he did start tossing out comments twenty minutes into Sound of Music about how fantastic Ms. Dawson's behind was. Steve resented the interruptions and told him so, since Ms. Andrews was really fantastic herself (Steve made no mention of her behind, but his eyes may have lingered around other curves). It took a few tries, but soon Tony was throwing quips back and teasing Steve for his developing crush on Julie Andrews. He also promised to watch Thoroughly Modern Millie at some later date, which Steve assumed also featured Maria's actress. Steve was finally able to relax, somehow feeling less isolated despite still being set apart on the armchair.
Steve wasn't surprised in the slightest when Col. Rhodes brought out the alcohol and suggested they watch Rent.
"Come on, Cap," Rhodes said, turning to plead to Steve in the face of Tony's stubbornness. "I know what the history books say about your life before the serum. If you'd been born a few decades later, Rent would have been the story of your life. Poor artists starving in New York City. Help me out here!"
Between Rhodes's taunts and the alcohol, Rent won out in the end.
It was... interesting probably wasn't a strong enough word. Disconcerting was closer. Enjoyable, but at the same time-
"I'm surprised this isn't shocking you, Cap," Col. Rhodes slurred as Steve smiled at the couple on screen singing about a thousand sweet kisses. "I mean, cross-dressers and strippers, but you're not even batting an eye."
"New York really hasn't changed that much from the 40s," Steve said with a shrug, which was what ended up bothering him the most. It felt so familiar, while being so glaringly different at the same time. "Are starving artists always like that?"
"See? Told ya Steve wouldn't fall for your ploys," Tony declared smugly, attempting to poke Col. Rhodes only to miss by a half inch. "He sees a heart of stars and stripes in everyone, even strippers."
"To strippers with hearts of stars and stripes and fantastic asses!" Rhodes said, raising his glass.
Steve really couldn't help the chuckle as all three of them drank to Ms. Dawson's admittedly lovely form.
It was well past midnight when both Tony and Col. Rhodes were laid low by the booze and the movie ended. Steve considered the amount of effort it would take to move them to their rooms, versus just leaving them as they were, lying on top of each other in slightly compromising positions on the couch. Then he remembered Natasha's gift in commiseration for his inability to get drunk.
A quick trip down to his floor later, Steve set about putting the multicolored sharpie set to good use. He topped it all off with a sign saying "The only thing to do is jump over the moon" like in the song, and he attached a paper cow tail to Tony's sweats. With JARVIS to refresh his memory on how to use the camera phone, Steve was soon sending pictures to Clint of his handiwork, whom he knew would pass it around.
Steve went to bed feeling much better about himself, even if it was a little petty.
He woke several hours later to see a text from Bruce. 'You're either very brave, or very foolish. He's a higher rank than you.'
'There's a reason why you never go drinking with lower ranking officers who hold their liquor better,' Steve texted back smugly, viewing the picture of the stars and stripes he'd drawn on Col. Rhodes again.
* * *
Col. Rhodes was flying out tomorrow, and Steve was humming "My Favorite Things" as he drew seven Lovecraftian horrors singing in outfits made from curtains. He was looking forward to things going back to normal.
"That's freaky," Col. Rhodes said over his shoulder, staring at the Cthulhu in a nun's habit.
"Thank you, Sir," Steve said, shading in the tentacles. "I think Tony's being held hostage in his office until he finishes some paperwork for Pepper, if you're looking for him."
"I was looking for you, actually." Col. Rhodes took a seat next to Steve. "Also, you're one of us now, so you might as well call me Rhodey."
Rhodey. That... actually sounded nice. Steve looked up from the drawing curiously. "One of us?"
"Those who brave the unspeakable, unnameable terrors of Tony Stark," Rhodey said with a brief smile, before sobering. "I wanted to give you some advice, if you'll take it."
Steve nodded, putting his drawing supplies away. He smiled a little shyly, despite the fact he'd seen Rhodey dead drunk not two nights before looking more spangled than Steve did in uniform. "I won't say no."
Rhodey stared at Steve for a moment before starting, shaking his head. "I'll tell you flat out. Being Tony's friend is exhausting and stressful. You'll want to strangle him for 90% of the time when he's being an ass, he won't change or get better, and he'll pull shit like that stunt the other night just to prove that he can face something by himself, and then he'll leave you to pick up the broken pieces when that fails. Not that he'll ever thank you for it," Rhodey said as easily as if they were discussing the weather.
It was the tone that set Steve off and made him furious. One of Tony's friends shouldn't talk about him like that! "Tony's not-"
"Easy, soldier," Rhodey said, holding up his hands in surrender. "I'm not saying anything you don't already know. And trust me, there will be times he'll manipulate you into giving up on him. I'll admit, I've let him dupe me in the past. It was a hard lesson to learn."
Steve pushed the anger away when he saw the guilt in Rhodey's eyes, suddenly getting the real reason he was saying this. "Why would he?" Steve asked quietly.
"Because he's an idiot." Rhodey shrugged. "Because he occasionally comes to the dumb conclusion that we're better off without him, and he's too much of an emotionally stunted S.O.B. to do it right. You'll lose years of your life looking after him, man. I wasn't lying when I said it's exhausting."
"Then why put up with it?" Steve asked.
"I should be asking you that," Rhodey said. "You're the one who's put up with two generations of Stark bullshit. Why keep coming back for more?"
Because he never had much choice when it came to the Starks. But Steve didn't say that, thinking instead about why he'd still been friends with Howard despite the flirting, explosions, worry, and difficulty. "Howard was a good man," Steve said finally, noting the spark of anger in Rhodey's eyes when he spoke. "He was when I knew him," he qualified, needing Rhodey to understand. "He would have done anything when one of us needed to be cheered up, and he risked his own life to keep us safe in his own way. He worked for hours on end for new weapons and armor to keep the Howling Commandos and the rest of our boys out there safe. He was worth putting up with all the bad things, because he was a good man."
"Not when I knew him," Rhodey growled.
Steve winced, caught between defending Howard and screaming in frustration at the whole situation. Rhodey sighed, rubbing his temples. "Sorry. I know he was a friend of yours, but I've known Tony too long to think very kindly of Howard Stark."
Nodding, Steve batted down his own anger and forced himself to think on the second generation. "Tony... I haven't known him that long yet, but he's the same, isn't he?"
"To what you described? Yeah, but with a basket case of other issues to go along with it." Steve heard the unspoken 'because of Howard' that Rhodey bit back. "But there's no one else I'd rather have at my back. He's ten times the man Howard was."
That was a low blow, though Rhodey hadn't known it. Steve closed his eyes, reminding himself to breathe as equal parts of guilt and anger froze his lungs.
Rhodey seemed to realize he'd hit too low, even if he was mistaken on the reason. "Sorry, that was uncalled for. I really didn't come here to hash it out with you over Howard."
"It's not like I can't see your side," Steve said, summoning a weak smile.
"Well, there's a way to make me feel guilty for not trying the same." Rhodey sighed, then shook it off. "Anyway, I wanted to make sure you knew some of the tricks to handling Tony when he goes on a bender. You saw what I did the other night?"
Steve pushed Howard to the back of his mind, searching for a way to lighten the conversation. "Yeah, that sake sure was something else."
"So were your drawing skills," Rhodey said dryly. Steve gave him his best 'I'm Captain America, who saves kittens from trees and wouldn't harm a fly so long as it wasn't a Super Villain' look. "Jesus, man, no wonder you've got them all fooled." Rhodey's chuckle broke the last of the tension between them, and Steve didn't have to try so hard to smile this time.
"Look," Rhodey said, leaning forward. "Tony's not easy to deal with on good days, but on days like that? You've got to let him come to you. Anything more and he'll end up pushing you away."
It was pretty sound advice. Sometimes dealing with Tony was like wandering around land mines, so Steve filed that knowledge away for later. "I'll keep it in mind."
"One last thing. Tony... He's sometimes too much for any one person to deal with on their own. Pep and I learned that the hard way." Rhodey winced, and Steve could only wonder at what Rhodey was thinking of. "If you ever just... need a break from him, or help dealing with him, give one of us a call. Or the other Avengers, if we're both out of touch. Happy'll probably even listen, if you need it. Just don't feel like you have to go at Tony by yourself."
It was more than just an offer to help with Tony. There was more to the offer than that. It was in Rhodey's words when he'd sat down across the table from Steve. 'You're one of us now.' And it was just a little terrifying, because Steve felt like it was betraying his old friends, even if he knew that was ridiculous.
"Thank you," Steve said, gripping his notebook painfully tight.
"Also, next time I come back? It's your turn to end up drunk, buddy. I've already got Bruce working on something and we'll see who's laughing the next morning then. This is War."
Steve laughed, letting go of the fear for now. He was laughing a lot more these days, and it felt good.
* * *
"This show's pretty swell."
"Cap. Steve. You're killing me here. No. For the love of electronics, no. Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles is not 'swell'. It's awesome. It's radical, dude. It's even tubular, but I'm never repeating that word outside of the 90s again. Come on, Cap. You gotta do it right."
"This show's pretty awesome?"
Tony sighed, patting him on the back. "We'll work on it."
* * *
"I don't understand how people can protest the fact that soldiers are keeping them safe," Steve practically yelled, only resisting throwing the tablet at the wall because of Tony's raised eyebrows.
"Did anyone ever think to just enroll you at NYU and stick you in a couple of history lessons?" Tony asked, not waiting for Steve to answer. "Cause that would make sense. Seriously, you could have even had some art classes too. You'd have a real history teacher who could explain these things without giving you the government propaganda with it. Who'd have thought an organization of spies would be so crappy at giving you the whole picture?"
It was a strange thing, but Tony's sarcasm diffused Steve completely. He offered a sheepish smile, releasing his death grip on the tablet, really looking at Tony. He was smiling, but not... Not the smile Steve usually saw. Steve didn't know if this was because of the subject matter or because Tony had locked himself in the lab for a full day after Pepper had spoken with him. He decided to play it safe and stick with the current conversation. "I don't think there's any sort of context that will make that understandable," Steve said.
"If we're talking about the Westboro Baptist Church, I'd grant you that, but I have the feeling we're talking 'Nam. Give me that." Tony plucked the tablet out of his hands without so much as a by-your-leave. Not that he would have taken it if Steve had offered anyway, since Tony was finicky about being handed things. By this point, Steve just let it slide. Tony was... well, Tony. It wasn't malicious or intentionally rude, and Steve was learning that if he picked his battles wisely, Tony even tried to be a little more polite. Pepper had smiled and patted his hand when he'd told her that.
He waved at Thor as Tony scanned the text with a peculiar expression on his face. "What troubles you, shield brother?" Thor asked, taking a seat across the table. He always looked far too large for the chairs, no matter how big Tony made them.
"This," Tony said with disgust, "is ridiculous. Jesus. No wonder you're frustrated. I slept through history classes, and I could write something better than this. It's not giving you reasons for anything, just expecting you to know the mindset while feeding you the whitewashed propaganda."
"Ah, those are the Captain's history assignments, are they not?" Thor said with an amused spark in his eyes. "I have heard much of your troubles on this."
Steve smiled back, ignoring the pain this continued discussion of 'history' was giving him. It wasn't really history to him. It should have been his future.
"The problem is they give you no perspective on this. I mean, we could always watch some Vietnam movies... Though you'd probably only like Miss Saigon, and I've had my fill of musicals for at least three months." Tony paused thoughtfully, then smiled. "You said you can't think of any reason?"
"I really can't," Steve said, not that he'd exactly tried. He'd felt like punching someone, anyone, just like all those times before the serum when he'd gotten into fights. Those two boys at the movie theater the night Bucky shipped off...
"Right. Let's go at this from another angle. What do you know about the Battle of Thermopylae?" Tony asked, a hidden gleam indicating mischief that Steve occasionally regretted. No more than Bucky put him through though, and that was getting easier to remember.
"It was a battle in the Persian War, wasn't it?" Steve said, thinking back to what he'd learned in school. "In Greece? A small pass defended by a few men is defensible against a force of superior numbers. Except unlike at the Battle of Marathon, the other army found an alternative route around."
"That is indeed a very wise strategy," Thor said thoughtfully. "'Tis a pity it was foiled."
"Figures you'd know the strategy, but nothing else," Tony said, shaking his head. "The Greeks were fighting off the Persian invasion. Again. As Steve said, ten years before in 490 B.C., the Athenians fought the Persians off at the Battle of Marathon using that tactic and won. In 480 B.C., they hoped for another victory using the same strategy in combination with a naval battle."
Tony spoke with his hands, and Steve was enjoying the fusion of grace and explosive energy with which Tony moved. He remembered wanting to draw Howard like that, but he'd never gotten the chance. Perhaps he should try with Tony instead. "Due to a traitor who showed the Persians a secret pass around the mountain," Tony continued, "the leader of the troops sent the majority of their fighting force away and then remained behind himself with a small group of soldiers to delay the army as much as possible. The Greeks eventually fell at Thermopylae, but the ships were given time to retreat to the Straight of Salamis where they won a decisive battle against the larger, but slower, ships."
"You are very knowledgeable about such battles, my friend," Thor said, and it wasn't hard to hear the approval.
Tony shrugged, waving it off like it was nothing, though Steve was personally impressed as well. "I helped Rhodey with his military history homework. It was better than staying in an empty apartment, and Howard didn't have to be bothered with me if I stayed out of trouble."
Tony's eyes flickered to Steve, but then he was off again, clapping his hands together with a manic energy that was a touch too explosive. It was South Pacific all over again on a smaller scale, and Steve wished that Tony didn't feel the need to prove himself like that. Or at least stop baiting Steve while doing it. Don't show you're angry, Rogers...
"Right," Tony said, talking over Steve's thoughts. "Great military loss, but the Greeks still won the war. Remember the Alamo, and all that. Let's watch the movies."
"Tony," Steve said, but no matter how much he tried, a small bit of affection slipped in on his attempt to be stern. "I've got to get this report done."
"Humor me," Tony said, a brief smile flickering across his face before he turned to Thor. "You wanna come too, big guy? Epic battles, brave warriors, yada yada. Right up your alley."
To Steve's surprise, Thor looked hesitant. "I wouldn't want to intrude on your courtship."
Steve blinked. Tony laughed. "You need to stop taking Clint's word on these things. Sorry, Blondie, but we're not actually dating, so no worries. Phil even joined us a few days ago for CATS and Phantom. Look, I'll meet you guys up in the den in fifteen. I've got something I want to put together first."
With that, Tony left the room with a whirlwind of movement. Thor looked after him with a fond expression on his face. He was one of the few people who could look at Tony like that and not have it tempered with exasperation. "The Man of Iron appears to be planning something," Thor said. "I recognize that look from my brother."
"I just hope it won't end in another explosion," Steve replied, moving to get the popcorn kettle. If Thor was joining them, they'd need twice as much.
"Are you sure it is right for me to join you, Captain?" Thor asked, getting the butter out of the refrigerator for Steve. "I have heard of your reaction when Col. Rhodes expressed his wish to join you..."
Next time, Steve decided, if he was going to sulk, he needed to do so out of sight. "No, it's fine, really. I was just... I guess I didn't realize how much time I was spending with Tony until Rhodey came. I wasn't sure what to do when Tony was hanging out with someone else." Which sounded a lot more pathetic than Steve had realized.
"Ah, now I understand." Thor placed a hand on Steve's shoulder, squeezing it gently. Thor's kindness radiated off of him, like a blanket of warmth that could shield a friend from any cold. "You should have said something, Captain! You would have been most welcome to join me and our good doctor on our trips into the city. I'm sure your presence would have a soothing effect on him."
Steve hadn't even thought to ask. He knew Thor and Bruce went out to explore the city, looking for tea shops and ethnic restaurants they would then drag the rest of the team to after long days. Tony had practically pushed them out of the tower the first time, demanding they find him a good Greek restaurant in New York. Bruce only felt safe going with someone who could stop 'the other guy' if necessary, and Thor had been eager to explore more of 'Midgard'.
He could have gone with them, he supposed. It never occurred to him that he didn't have to be alone that week. "I... Thanks, Thor. Next time I'll do that."
"You would do well to remember your friends, Captain," Thor said, not unkindly. "You are no longer alone in this strange world any more than I, and none of us wish you to feel lonely."
Steve looked down at the kettle, his throat constricting painfully as he let himself lean into Thor's hand on his shoulder. Then he laughed, rough around the edges in a way that Steve didn't stop to think about. It still felt like betrayal to Bucky and the others, so he needed to deflect. "Must be pretty stupid, not to remember that, huh?"
"I find humans' inefficient memories to be refreshing sometimes," Thor said, his laugh far more hearty. "Come. Let us make this fine Midgardian snack and await our shield brother."
Steve took a deep breath and nodded, pouring the un-popped kernels into the pan. It was a concession Tony had made when Steve proved how much better popcorn tasted when it wasn't microwaved. The thought of Tony's stubbornness at the time made Steve feel better. Warmer.
"Yes, my friend?"
* * *
Tony took twenty minutes, not fifteen, to come up to the den, but with Thor there, Steve didn't mind the wait. They'd been looking up the Battle of Marathon on Steve's tablet, since looking up Thermopylae would have had spoilers, and Thor had a very strict taboo on those. "These Athenians are very wise warriors," Thor remarked, impressed by the valor of a scholarly city-state.
"Tell that to the Spartans," Tony said, leaning against the doorframe. "Athens did lose the Peloponnesian War to them."
Steve looked up to see a smile on Tony's face. He supposed they must have been a sight, two large men on the couch, huddled over a small tablet. "We brought popcorn as an offering to the great Hollywood," Steve said, repeating Thor's earlier phrasing and gesturing to the bowl on the table that they'd clean forgotten in favor of Wikipedia. It meant there was still popcorn left for Tony.
"Awesome," Tony said, walking in and pushing Steve over until he could plop down between them on the couch. "Next time, you can ask JARVIS to put your research up on the big screen, by the way. Also, send a picture to Pep, JARVIS. I'm a Tony-sandwich between two gorgeous blonds. She will drool."
"As you wish, Sir," JARVIS replied as Steve chuckled. "I'm sure Ms. Potts will be most thrilled by this development."
Tony just hogged the popcorn bowl in response, but it was the only way he'd actually be able to eat any before Steve and Thor demolished it, so Steve didn't mind too much. "Okay, first movie!" Tony said as the lights dimmed automatically. "300, made in 2007, directed by Zack Snyder. Pay attention, there will be a quiz. Not that it's hard to pay attention to the sausage fest in this one."
The movie was... interesting. Stylistically, Steve was intrigued by the use of colors and shadows. "It's based off a comic book," Tony told him, and Steve could see the influence. It was a little too bloody for his personal tastes though. He saw enough violence in his day job.
"Why do these Warriors not join in the fight?" Thor asked, anger coursing through his voice. "There is a war, and they are able. Surely their gods would forgive a missed festival?"
"It's politics, big guy," Tony explained, patting Thor on the shoulder.
"They are foolish and cowardly," Thor spat out.
Steve thought back to the years before America entered the War. He might have disagreed with staying out, but he'd had the other point of view pounded into him a few times, occasionally literally. A few of the reasons were even good ones, though Steve still argued against them. As if he knew what Steve was thinking, Tony winked at him, and Steve realized that was possibly part of the 'lesson' Tony had planned.
"That was indeed a movie worthy of such valor these warriors showed," Thor boomed as the credits rolled.
"I don't think the real Spartans would have agreed," Tony said with a smirk.
"I do not understand you, friend Tony," Thor said. "Would they not feel honor at how their warriors were portrayed?"
"Well, I just don't think they'd be all that thrilled with a few of the themes," Tony said. "They make a big deal about fighting for freedom, when Sparta had the biggest slave population out of all the city-states. I'm pretty sure the love story would have thrown them for a loop too. Sure, Spartans didn't like the Persians, but I don't think they were overly concerned with fighting for freedom."
"So what you're saying is that the Greeks wouldn't have understood where the writers were coming from?" Steve asked.
"Good job, Cap. You get a sticker," Tony said, and Steve felt a little foolish for taking so long to get Tony's point. But the other man was smiling, telling JARVIS to start up the next film. "This next one is over the same event and is slightly more historically accurate. Which isn't saying much, considering the liberties 300 took with the source material. 300 Spartans was directed by Rudolph Maté, and made in 1962. Let 'er roll, JARVIS."
This movie was much more Steve's pace. It was interesting, not overly graphic in the gore department, and Steve really admired the strategy Leonidas employed over the course of the movie. Sure, it wasn't as flashy as the first movie as Thor pointed out a few times, but Steve enjoyed it a lot more.
"This narration is strange," Thor said, frowning as the narrator continued to talk. Steve frowned. He liked the narration. "The Spartans were a monarchy, and Leonidas is their King. Why would they be fighting for democracy as this speaker is saying?"
Oh. That was a point.
"Bingo," Tony said with a snap of his fingers. "Well, not quite bingo. Sparta was technically an oligarchy. But the point is they wouldn't. Except, this movie was made smack dab in the middle of the Red Scare, with Communism creeping towards America. It had to be stopped at all costs, according to politics at the time. So even the Greeks had to be fighting for Democracy, 'cause that's how the cool cats rolled."
Once the movie was over, Tony leaped on his point. "Two different movies, over the same events, with vastly different takes on them," Tony summarized. "We see history different from the way the people living it did, even from how the three of us see it due to how we were brought up. The context is different for all of us, and for the time period. So, context. Steve, how much did the papers get back home about the war efforts?"
Thrown off by the non sequitur, Steve had to take a minute to collect his thoughts. "Not a lot. And what they did say, it wasn't always strictly true."
"So did the average Joe in New York have any access to battlegrounds? Any pictures of the fights?" Tony asked.
"Not really," Steve replied. "It... People shouldn't have to see that."
"JARVIS, put up the powerpoint I made earlier," Tony said.
Steve's breath caught as the black and white image of a man about to be shot by a soldier flashed up on the screen. God have mercy, his face... Steve had to close his eyes for a moment and swallow the bile in his throat. He'd seen that expression before, but it never got easier. He could hear Thor growling softly, and Steve could feel the couch shift as he tensed.
"That," Tony said, his voice grim as Steve opened his eyes again, "is one of the most famous pictures to come out of the Vietnam War. Followed by this one." The picture shifted to show a monk calmly sitting in the middle of a sidewalk while burning to death. Steve had to look away. "He was protesting the government that the US was supporting."
Tony clicked through more slides as he spoke, each one showing a picture or a news article. "Napalm, the symbol of the war, and the public got to see all of its nasty side effects. This was the first time the public saw that war wasn't the glorious thing all the movies and books made it out to be. They saw death. They read about military abuse and their government condoning unspeakable things to people they could see and empathize with. So they protested."
That... was a pretty damn strong reason, no matter how sick it made Steve feel. None of that had been in his reading. "I don't agree with how they treated veterans," Tony said quietly, "And whether or not the US should have kept their nose out of things is a loaded question I'm not even going to try to answer. You fought in a war, Steve. You know how complicated orders can be. But protesting was the only thing a lot of them could do to let the government know they were horrified by what they were seeing."
The screen went blank and Steve wrestled to be able to think properly again. He hadn't wanted to see it from their point of view, and now... Now he didn't know what he wanted.
"I used to think that war was a glorious thing," Thor said softly, with a haunted expression. "Perhaps I should have visited Midgard earlier, and seen the truth with my own eyes."
"Hindsight's 20/20." Tony leaned against Thor's shoulder as he spoke, giving comfort where he could. Now that Steve was looking at him, he could see the tension in Tony's shoulders as well. Was that the reason Tony put himself between Thor and Steve? Despite how level Tony had kept his voice during the explanation, now that Steve knew where to look, he could see how tired Tony was. "Damn, that was a downer to end on. Sorry. Didn't think that one through very well," Tony said.
"How 'bout another movie?" Steve suggested, his voice a lot shakier than he liked. Rhodey's tactics of 'do not mention the problem then provide a distraction' worked last time. Steve could go for some of that himself right now.
Tony thought a moment, absently bringing up a hand to squeeze Steve's shoulder. The selfless comfort -even when Tony himself was upset- still surprised Steve, despite knowing that he was far from selfish as Steve had originally thought when they'd first met. "Nothing Greek or with wars. I think it's time to introduce both of you to Mel Brooks. JARVIS, start up Silent Movie. Grandpa'll get a kick out of that.
Despite the jab at his age, Steve really did enjoy that movie. And if he laughed a little too hard, so did Tony, so neither of them mentioned it.
* * *
Steve stared at the door to Dr. Doom's lair that was so stereotypical that none of them actually believed the pictures until they saw it themselves. Thor and Tony were still skeptical since they were off running air support. Clint and Natasha flanked him, and Steve looked back to Natasha, then to the door again. "What knockers," he said, just as innocent as the day he was born.
Bruce was laughing so hard that he nearly doubled over, and Clint's jaw was on the floor. "You're lucky I like you, solnyshko," Natasha said as she pushed the door open and tranquilized the guards with deadly efficiency.
* * *
Steve had seen enough Doctor Who now to really wonder about some of Tony's favorites. They had just spent half an hour arguing about Nyssa and Tegan after watching Mawdryn Undead, and Steve was still no closer to understanding why Tony liked Tegan. The real puzzle though... "I never would have thought the Third Doctor would be your favorite," Steve said, coming to the real reason he'd been considering it while watching the Fifth Doctor. "Or the Brigadier."
"I've always liked UNIT," Tony said. "Besides, who doesn't love those smoking jackets Three wears? He's dashing. Dashing's a good word for him. Everyone loves dashing."
"It's just, you're always complaining about how unscientific the Third Doctor is, and I never really expected you to like the military side of things," Steve said, working his way through the puzzle and coming up blank.
He got an honestly baffled expression in return. "I mean," Steve hastened to clarify, "I know you're friends with Rhodey, but you've always scoffed at Director Fury and everyone knows how many issues you have with SHIELD."
"One, UNIT is way more awesome than SHIELD, no lie. As far as super-secret government programs go, the Brig tops all, end of story. Torchwood can't even touch him." Steve smiled at Tony's half-insulted expression that SHIELD and UNIT were even comparable. Tony grew more serious with his next point. "Two, I'm a patriot, Steve. I might not always act like it, but I've spent the majority of my life working for the military. I've never wanted anything but the best to protect the men and women who serve our country. That's why I couldn't keep making weapons after I saw that my weapons were the ones being used to kill them."
Steve immediately felt guilty for asking. He should have realized... It wasn't like Tony went off on Rhodey's job choice, and Steve knew that Stark Industries still had a lot of defense contracts with the military. Tony had to cut out of their Bond marathon with Clint just last week because one of the radar systems he'd made was giving off false positives. It was one of the few times Tony had ever walked out on their 'lessons'. Steve had just never realized the depth of that passion, and he should have. He couldn't keep missing the real Tony like this.
He'd expected that to be the end of the conversation, but Tony haltingly went on. "Third... Dad would take me on base sometimes, when I was a kid. It was to prove to Mom that he wasn't just ignoring me, or whatever, but he always ended pawning me off on whoever was on duty at the time to discuss weapon contracts."
Steve refused to let his muscles stiffen at the mention of Howard. For once, he was grateful to Tony's previous baiting for giving him the practice. It occurred to him that Tony might have done that for just this purpose, so that when he really was genuinely trying to speak about something relating to his childhood, Steve wouldn't ruin things by losing his temper. It made him a little sad, to know Tony prepared for that.
He stretched his arm over the couch in an open invitation like Rhodey had done the night they watched South Pacific. Tony gave him A Look that said he knew exactly what Steve was up to and he wasn't falling for it this time.
Steve supposed he needed to work on being more subtle, but he was glad that Tony hadn't taken enough offense to stop talking. "Some of them were jerks. It was easy enough to run circles around them. But I guess one of the higher-ups caught on and... Instead of calling me out to Dad, or finding some way to punish me, they made sure someone who was good with kids was on guard whenever Dad visited. They'd listen to a six-year-old ramble about physics, and they didn't treat me any differently because I was smart. They..." Tony paused, looking for the right word. "They cared. Rilley, Perlowsky, and Jefferson... they cared about me, not who I was or what I could make for them. I was just Tony."
And how sad was it, that Tony had to be on a military base among strangers before he found that? Steve found himself getting angry again, but this time not at Tony for going off on Howard. This time he was angry at who Howard had become, leaving Tony to grow on infertile soil instead of nurturing like he should have, and at himself for still looking at Tony and seeing Howard three times out of ten.
Tony had grown up strong anyway.
"So that's why I like the Brigadier," Tony said. "He cared. You could see it when he told the Master to stop in The Claws of Axos, when he yelled out Captain Yates' first name after the bomb in Time Monster, or any time he smiled after giving Sergeant Benton a stern lecture when no one else was looking. He really did care."
Steve, who was also inordinately fond of the Brigadier, agreed readily with those points. He and Tony didn't agree often, their recent fight over Tegan and Nyssa proof of that, but the Brigadier was impossible not to love. It was as universal as hating Adric.
"Besides," Tony added, a smirk slowly spreading on his face. "He really did have an awesome mustache. And Three's jackets are just that snazzy."
That, at least, Steve had a bit of trivia on that he'd found while searching the net. He'd been waiting for just such a moment to divulge. "According to the Internet Movie Database, all of Nicolas Courtney's mustaches up to his appearance in this last serial were fake."
"What?" Tony's eyes went round as a look of pure betrayal entered his eyes. "No. That's not.... That's wrong. Steve, you have just ruined my childhood. I will never be able to watch those episodes again. I am scarred for life. And it's all your-Cap! What are you-"
Tony squeaked indignantly, a sound Steve was smart enough not to mention, as Steve pulled him into a tight hug. It felt good to give in to the urge, and Steve was willing to put up with Tony's glares if Tony wasn't actually trying to wiggle away.
* * *
With intel from Natasha, the mission was bound to be solid. Steve and Clint would go undercover to infiltrate AIM's warehouse while Tony and Bruce concocted some sort of technological wonder that would take care of the the tech problem in one fell swoop. Thor would create a distraction once they were ready and give the signal to those inside.
"Let's be bad guys," Clint said at the end of the strategy meeting.
"Shiny. I aim to misbehave," Steve replied, getting a round of raised eyebrows.
"Tony, that's not cool, man," Clint groused as he rounded on Tony. "You finally show him something I approve of and you don't invite me! I can't believe I missed a Firefly marathon!"
* * *
Four weeks later, Tony and Natasha were sparring in the gym.
When Steve saw that, he turned around so fast he nearly got whiplash. He could go back to his old gym, near his old apartment, except that he'd donated all the extra bags he'd bought after he'd moved in. And right now, he'd destroy a normal bag with one punch. He'd just have to wait until Natasha and Tony were finished.
Damn it, why did things have to go wrong?
'Because we always have to do what Captain America says,' he heard Tony's scathing reply though his head on endless repeat. 'What happened to Steve Rogers, who knew that you can't always follow orders? Oh, that's right. He died in the ice, didn't he? You're nothing but an empty shell covered in a flag!'
It had started simple enough. Steve had had a plan - a very good plan - on how to bring up Tony's failure to follow orders after a mission gone wrong. He'd planned out everything he was going to say before hand, trying to be as reasonable as possible. He didn't want Tony to stop making those calls out on the field if they were needed to keep people safe. He just wanted Tony to tell the team when he was changing the plan so suddenly, instead of forgetting to tell Steve when he changed position. Tony wouldn't object to that, not if Steve was understanding about it.
'You want to know why you hate those history lessons, Cap? It's because you're still stuck in the past, refusing to move forward! You can't even cope with the present, much less the past!'
As with most things that involved Tony Stark, the plan went right out the window as soon as he started. He didn't know who escalated it, or if the long mission had gotten to both of them more than they thought, but suddenly Steve was screaming about Howard, about how selfish Tony was, and what the hell was Tony doing on a team if he couldn't be bothered to get off his ego and give them an update. Steve had pushed, and he kept pushing.
Tony pushed back.
'There really is nothing about you that you didn't get from the serum, Captain. Maybe there was before, but not anymore. Only ice. Why the hell should I follow orders from a dead man who can't take five minutes to come out of the mausoleum he's built around himself?!'
Tony always pushed back harder.
It was fifteen minutes before Tony limped out of the gym, followed by an annoyed-looking Natasha. She was supposed to be leaving for a solo op in an hour, so he didn't know why she was sparring with Tony. Steve didn't care, because they hadn't left a moment too soon for the energy he'd built up. She and Bruce had dragged Tony off during the fight, leaving Clint and Thor to deal with Steve. When their attempts to calm him down didn't work, Clint had sighed and told Thor to just leave him alone for a little while. So he'd come down to the gym, because he was too keyed up to draw or read.
He wrapped his hands once he was sure they were both gone, practically trembling with pent-up energy. He laid into the specially made punching bag Tony had given him as a moving-in present. Just another reminder of Tony's words... Lord, he should have left the tower.
Well, today Steve was determined to break the damned thing. It'd lasted over half a year of Steve's daily routine, but right now Steve felt spiteful enough to want to tear it apart, just to see the look on Tony's face. To rip apart something that Tony had made, because it would make Steve feel a little better. It was only what Tony had done to him, after all.
The worst of it wasn't the fact that the other Avengers literally had to drag them apart before they came to physical blows. The worst was that this time, there was no magical staff to blame. This time it was all them, no matter how Steve looked at it. They only had themselves to blame for everything falling to pieces, and Steve was the one who started the worst pushing first.
Steve punched and kicked, but nothing even hinted he could knock the bag off the chain. It was extremely frustrating, and damn it, Tony. He and Bucky had fought before, but nothing like this. Hell, Peggy had shot at him, but he hadn't felt the need to strangle her after. Maybe it was just a Stark special. He wouldn't know, considering he'd never gotten into a fight with Howard. Friendly, eccentric, and witty Howard, who would rather buy you a drink than get into a fistfight. Bucky had tried once to rile Howard up. They'd even had a betting pool going, but Howard just laughed it off and bought the whole room a round.
Steve wanted to go home.
He gave the bag one last vicious kick before catching it and leaning his forehead against it. He breathed heavily onto the still whole fabric, trying to figure out how long he'd been down here. Two hours? Possibly more, given the ache in his arms. It took a lot to wear his body down.
Punching bag wins this round. Steve was not happy with this result.
"Steve..." he heard Tony say.
Steve immediately tensed, all the anger coming right back at the sound of that voice. "What do you want?" Steve asked sharply, not turning to face Tony.
"I... Can we talk? Please?" Tony asked, none of his usual bluster. He sounded tired and worn, and more openly vulnerable than Steve had ever heard him before.
But Tony wasn't Howard. Tony wasn't Peggy. And he sure as hell wasn't Bucky, who was the one person that Steve wanted to see right now. He didn't listen to the alarms that went off in his head at Tony's soft 'please'. He spun around with all of his anger and lashed out at the convenient outlet. "No," Steve said, feeling a little sickened by the spike of pleasure he got when Tony's eyes widened.
There was a prominent bruise on the side of Tony's face that Steve assumed was from Natasha. Tony himself was dressed simply, in a black wife beater with a hole cut out to display the reactor - another of Tony's distraction tactics. Look at the bright light instead of the scars underneath! - and sweatpants tied loosely at his waist. He looked just as exhausted and worn as his voice had sounded, and just a little battered. "Just leave," Steve growled, a little frightened of his own anger. In this state, Tony would be better off gone.
Tony flinched, but didn't leave. Instead, he took a deep breath and a step closer. "Just... I know I shouldn't have said those things, but I was... It was the anniversary of Yins-of when I was found in Afghanistan, and I-"
"I don't want to hear it, Stark."
This time Tony froze, hurt and fear flickering through his eyes briefly before they were glazed over with anger. "Would you just listen," Tony hissed, throwing his hands about. "I'm trying to apologi-"
"And I don't want to hear it," Steve said, advancing on Tony who took a step back. It made Steve's stomach churn to see, but he couldn't stop himself. "I don't want to see you right now. Leave."
"Why?" Tony shouted, his hands falling dead at his sides as they turned to fists. "What's wrong, Steve? I'm trying, but you have to give me some-"
"I really don't," Steve said, cutting Tony off. He had to get Tony to leave. "But you want to know why? 'Cause you're not the person I'm looking for. So get out."
There was a second when Steve had pierced though all of Tony's walls and deflections, when he saw the open betrayal written across Tony's body like a damning tattoo, and he heard a breath that might as well have been a sob. It was gone in the blink of an eye, replaced by a quiet tremor in Tony's hands that could have been fear, or could have been anger.
"You know what?" Tony said, his voice scathing. "Fuck you, Steve Rogers. I tried. You want to be alone? Fine. Don't let me stop you. Next time we'll just leave you in the ice if you like being alone that much."
With that, Tony turned on his heel and left the gym. Steve didn't call him back.
"What the hell?"
Steve spun around to see Clint standing there, slightly out of breath as if he'd just been running. "Seriously, what the hell, Steve? What the fuck was that? JARVIS, get Bruce to find Tony, stat."
He did not need to deal with anyone else right now. "Go away," he said, walking past Clint to eye the punching bag. No reason why he couldn't keep trying.
"Hell, no," Clint said, steel in his eyes. "I left you alone so that you could calm down, not to get a call from JARVIS telling me to haul my ass down here before one of you started throwing punches."
"We didn't. So I don't need your-"
"No, you shut up this time." Clint grabbed Steve's arm, and he only just managed to temper his strength so that Clint only stumbled back a few steps instead of being flung into a wall.
Steve needed to be alone now. Before he hurt someone. But Clint, stupid, idiotic, lacking survival instincts Clint only looked angrier. He wasn't afraid in the slightest, getting right up in Steve's face as his pointed finger nearly hit Steve in the nose. "You are going to listen, and you are going to listen well, or I'm gonna kick your ass so hard that you won't be sitting for weeks, and that's not even starting with what Natasha will do to you when she finds out."
It was an empty threat, at least on Clint's end. Clint was good at hand-to-hand, and no doubt he'd been trained very well, but he'd never come close to beating Steve in a sparring session. Clint, so break-ably human and without his bow, was hardly a warm-up in Steve's current state.
That thought terrified Steve.
He took a panicked step back, but Clint followed, not allowing him any space. "You know what that was, Cap? That was the behavior of a first class asshole. I'd expect that from Tony, not you, and I don't think even Tony would be that cruel."
"Why do you care?" Steve bit back, his muscles trembling at the need for control.
"Because someone needs to tell you when you're being an ass, and it looks like I'm the only one around to do it right now," Clint said.
"I don't want to hear this from you," Steve hissed, pushing Clint aside with the minimum amount of force necessary.
"You think we don't know that?" Clint walked right back into the danger zone, pushing Steve back. "The person you'd hear this from ain't here. But guess what? He's dead."
"Don't you dare-"
"Or what, Steve? You'll hurt me? You'll lash out at the people who are trying to help you because you can't let yourself grieve?" Steve batted Clint's hand out of his face, but didn't dare do anything else. "I didn't know Bucky, but if he'd been half the friend you make him out to be, he'd be telling you the same thing," Clint continued. "And he'd keep telling you until you got it into that thick skull of yours no matter how much you don't want to hear it."
Steve closed his eyes, forcing himself to breathe. Bucky... "Why?" Steve asked again, struggling for control.
"Ya know, you really suck at this whole team thing," Clint said, some of the anger in his voice deflating. "You are officially worse than Tony Stark, which is saying something."
That got Steve to open his eyes. "What?" he asked, He worked well with the team, or so he'd thought. It was the one thing in his new life that he cared about, and he threw what little left he had of himself into the team to make it work. Had that not been enough? Maybe he really was that obsolete.
"Don't get me wrong. On the field you know what you're doing. But off it? You make sure we're all okay, but you don't let us do the same for you. Even then, it's hard to tell if you're just thinking about the team or if you're actually worried about us, since you never want to let us in any further than you have to! And that's some crappy leadership skills right there."
It was like Clint had punched him right in the gut, knocking the breath out of him as Steve stepped back and sagged against the wall. His anger just didn't hold up against that.
"Look, Steve..." Clint started, rubbing the back of his neck. "We got that you have issues. Hell, I don't know how you keep it together after all of that. But we want to help. Maybe I'm not Bucky, and we're not the Howling Commandos, but we're your friends too, and you're not betraying them by letting us help. It's about time you let us in."
Steve sank down against the wall, bringing his knees up against his chest miserably. "Really botched this one, didn't I?" Steve said, his body aching all over. His exhaustion from earlier hit him as his anger left him.
He felt Clint sit down awkwardly beside him, intentionally bumping Steve's shoulder as he settled. "Yeah. Who knew? Even Captain America has colossal screw ups."
Steve flinched away at the name, Tony's words coming rushing back all too readily. "Shit, sorry," Clint said. "Dude, you think I'm any better at this emotional crap? I'm really not."
"I hadn't noticed," Steve said, attempting for dry humor but just ending up tired-sounding. And he couldn't stop the small bit of fear from entering his voice as he said, "What you did was stupid. I could've hurt you."
"But you didn't," Clint said, returning to his usual cocky tone. Steve looked over at Clint in time to see the grin fade from his face. "You guys didn't have to accept me on the team, ya know? But you took Natasha's word that I was clean, and didn't try to coddle me out there. So if you're willing to trust me after all of that, I need to return some of that."
"That wasn't your fault," Steve said with a small frown. If Clint still felt like that, Steve really must be failing as a leader.
"No, see, that right there," Clint said, shaking his head. "You just turned into Cap again. You're thinking of how that affects the team, aren't you?"
Steve looked away. Clint had a point. He needed to be worried about Clint, rather than the team and his non-existent leadership. "Sorry," he said quietly.
"Hey, it's not your fault life screwed you over so royally," Clint said with a shrug. "And you've been getting better. In the beginning, none of us could get through to you, no matter how hard we tried. Tony was actually talking to a few SHIELD shrinks for ideas when he finally hit on Doctor Who, of all things."
Ignoring the dismissive tone Clint used when naming the show, Steve thought back to those first few weeks. To Fury ordering him to stay in the Tower. To Thor offering to spar, and Clint's continued persistence in getting him to try watching new reality shows. To Natasha's sakura blossom tea when he couldn't sleep, and Bruce's attempts to talk while he was drawing. And even Tony, though they'd been avoiding each other... The small gifts Steve kept finding, from the old Victrola to a Gameboy with strategy games, or the new helmet for his bike. They appeared without a note or anything, but there was no one else who would have gotten them. The team had all been trying to help him, and Steve had been so caught up in his own loneliness to notice.
"I'm an idiot," Steve said, earning a grin from Clint.
"Yeah, coulda told ya that," Clint said. "But you're one of us, so we don't mind. You're not half as bad as me or Tony. Just... we're here, Steve. We want to help."
Steve nodded, wondering how he could have missed it for this long. It's not like Rhodey, Thor, and the others weren't trying to tell him the same thing. Maybe it would sink in this time. Bucky would have told him this feeling of betrayal was ridiculous from the start, so it was about time Steve started fighting against it. "Thank you," Steve said, his voice only a little wobbly. "And... thanks for yelling at me. Probably needed that."
"I am totally willing to verbally bitch slap you when you need it," Clint said proudly. "It's the one sparring session I can win. So, uh... This whole pep talk thing is over, right? What usually happens after? I don't have to hug you or anything, do I? Cause I like you, Cap, but not enough to cuddle."
That got a weak laugh out of Steve, and he leaned his head back against the wall. "I can live without it this time," he said. "What happens now is that I go apologize to Tony for 'being an asshole' as you put it and hope he forgives me."
"Yeah, you might want to give Tony some time to cool down before doing that, but it sounds like you're on the right track." Clint got to his feet, brushing himself off as he looked down at Steve. "You okay now?"
"I don't know," Steve answered honestly. "I... I'll get back to you on that. Could use some time to think all of that over though." He didn't think things would be right again until he'd had a chance to speak with Tony. Clint nodded, leaving him in the gym with a few more worried glances.
Steve looked back to the unbreakable punching bag in defeat. He'd already broken something Tony had made. He just hoped there was still time to stitch it back together.
* * *
Steve stayed there for a few more hours, just sitting on the mat and thinking. He felt exhausted, but he knew he wasn't going to be able to sleep until he spoke with Tony. Slowly, he stretched and made his way down to the workshop.
His code didn't work.
"JARVIS?" Steve asked. "Can you..?"
"I'm afraid Mr. Stark is refusing to allow anyone in the workshop," JARVIS said apologetically.
"So he's in there alone?"
"Dr. Banner is currently with him."
That was a relief. At least Tony wasn't alone. Steve knew the sorts of things Tony could do in that state, and he hated himself for being the catalyst for it.
"I'd recommend returning again later, Captain," JARVIS suggested. "Perhaps he will be in a better mood to receive visitors at a later hour."
"Yeah," Steve said. He was disappointed, but he really only had himself to blame for that. He could go see if Thor was up or... "JARVIS? Do you remember which serial the Second Doctor talks to Victoria about her father?"
"I believe you are referring to The Tomb of the Cybermen, Captain. Would you like me to play it at that episode or do you wish to watch the whole serial?"
"The whole serial, please," Steve said, walking back up the stairs to the elevator.
"It will be ready for you to start watching in the den, Captain," JARVIS said. "And if I might say, Captain, I don't believe Mr. Stark will wish to remain with this rift for long."
He must look really bad, if even JARVIS was trying to cheer him up. "Thanks, JARVIS." Steve just hoped that it was true.
He started the serial as soon as he got to the den, sinking down on the couch. It was strange, watching it alone like this. He missed Tony and Natasha's commentaries, or Bruce's laughter while watching the Muppets, or Thor's excitement at action movies. Even Clint's gleeful pleasure at watching other people's squabbles on his reality shows would have been welcome, but he wanted to watch this serial alone.
"Are you happy with us, Victoria?" The Doctor asked on screen, his clownish attire not detracting from his kindness.
"Yes, I am. At least, I would be if my father were here," Victoria responded. "I wonder what he would have thought if he could see me now."
Steve knew what Bucky and Peggy would have thought of him right now. Clint was right. They'd have told him off for moping around and probably have given him a good licking for it. He was honestly more afraid of Peggy's right hook than Bucky's, but the two of them together would have made a terrifying team against him.
"You miss him very much, don't you?"
"It's only when I close my eyes. I can still see him standing there, before those horrible Dalek creatures came to the house. He was a very kind man."
Howard. What happened to you? And Howard didn't even have the excuse of being possessed. Steve could still see all of them so clearly when he closed his eyes. Peggy, Bucky, Colonel Philips, the Howling Commandos... But Howard, he could see Howard as he was, sometimes. The picture always became murky when he thought of Tony though.
"I shall never forget him. Never."
"No, of course you won't. But you know, the memory of him won't always be a sad one."
"I think it will."
It'd been over half a year now, closer to eight months since he'd been defrosted. It still hurt too much sometimes, but others... Sometimes he really could talk to Tony or Clint about Bucky, or Thor would ask about Peggy and he could smile. Only on good days, but it happened sometimes. His mother's memory was fond, like what the Doctor was talking about, but the others were still...
"You probably can't remember your family," Victoria said after teasing the Doctor about his age.
"Oh, yes, I can when I want to. But that's the point, really. I have to really want to--to bring them back in front of my eyes. The rest of the time they sleep in my mind and I forget. And so will you. Oh, yes, you will. You'll find there's so much else to think about, to remember."
The Doctor's words were comforting and painful in equal turns. He wanted them to be true, but he couldn't let go of Peggy and Bucky yet either. He still wanted to go home.
"Our lives are different to anybody else's. That's the exciting thing. There's nobody in the universe can do what we're doing. You must get some sleep and let this old man stay awake."
No one else in the universe. It was so painfully true that Steve almost asked JARVIS to stop the serial. He didn't regret agreeing to the serum, but he just wished... He wished it would get easier someday.
He was tired of waiting for things to get better.
* * *
Steve didn't remember falling asleep on the couch, but when he woke up there was a blanket covering him. "JARVIS, who..?" he asked sleepily.
"Mr. Stark was the one who brought you the blanket, Captain," JARVIS said.
Tony. Maybe he hadn't botched things that badly after all. "Do you think he'd-"
"Captain, there is a priority one call from Director Fury. Do you wish to take it here?"
Damn. "Put it through, please," Steve said, his spirits falling. He'd have to talk to Tony after the mission.
* * *
Steve woke up to hear the steady beep of a heart monitor, every nerve in his body feeling like it was on fire. Sadly, he wasn't unfamiliar with waking up in this sort of pain, though this was the worst he could remember it being. He must have cut it really close this time, because even with the serum he still felt like bits of his skin were burning. He was covered in bandages, though his shield arm felt fine, probably protected from whatever burned him. He'd had the sense to cover his head too, thankfully.
At least Peggy and Bucky wouldn't be here to worry, Steve thought, slightly hysterical. He was used to waking up to their lectures, but he doubted anyone in this new world would wait at his bedside. The Avengers had plenty of other things that needed to get done, and Tony... Steve still hadn't gotten around to apologizing, and Tony was the busiest of the Avengers. He'd been giving Steve the cold shoulder all during the mission. He wouldn't be waiting around for Steve to wake up.
Steve pushed back the rush of emotional hurt that he couldn't deal with on top of the physical pain. He tried to think back to what had landed him here in the first place. There had been a fire, and he remembered the house coming down around him. He'd gone back in for...
Steve's eyes shot open and he tried to sit up, only to start coughing uncontrollably as he tried to breathe through the oxygen mask. A pair of small, cold hands pushed on his burning skin, forcing him down again. "The kid..." Steve managed to gasp out as he felt a sharp twinge in his neck. It relaxed him, but he knew how to fight tranquilizers. It'd be out of his system almost as soon as it started to circulate, so that was only a very temporary solution.
"He's fine, Steve. He had some smoke inhalation, but you saved him. He's fine."
That was all he needed to know. Steve stopped fighting the drug, drowsily dozing for a few minutes to let it run its course and breathe. Through the haze of pain, he tried to pinpoint the voice. Natasha? But she had been out on a solo mission...
Steve eventually opened his eyes to see Natasha staring down at him. "You've been out for a couple days," she told him when she was sure Steve would understand her. "The doctors nearly lost you twice, because even the serum couldn't work that fast, and the first attempt at skin grafting failed due to you waking up and thrashing."
Well, that explained why Natasha was back. They'd probably needed some sort of guard on him in case he hurt himself more, and the Avengers must be taking it in shifts.
He felt raw, but he knew from experience that the worst of it would be over in a few days. He'd be back out in the field in a month, tops. Any normal person would have been laid out for months.
This time when he tried to sit up, Natasha helped him. It was a small room, which Tony would have called depressing, with a little TV in the corner that was currently turned off. The rest of the room was filled with the machines helping him survive. When he felt steady, he removed the oxygen mask, but kept it close in case he still needed it. "Thanks," he croaked out, wincing at the gravel in his voice. He sounded like a chain smoker of fifty years.
Natasha didn't smile back. Instead, she helped him get some water to soothe his throat before sitting back and returning to... Tony? Tony was asleep, leaning against his arms on the bed as Natasha slowly stroked his hair like he was a particularly vexing -though lovable- cat.
"He hasn't slept since he and Thor pulled you out," Natasha explained, her voice blank of any emotion. It was just a little unnerving, because Natasha hadn't been this distant with him since he revealed he was a Whovian. "After the forty-hour mark, Bruce and I double-teamed him with tranqs. He hasn't left your side since you got out of surgery."
Tony hadn't... But their fight..? Natasha went on, not sparing him any of the details. "The hospital staff stopped trying to get him to leave after we sent Coulson in to negotiate. He came out with standing orders from Fury to have you under guard by two Avengers at all times. Tony to watch over you, and one of us to watch over Tony."
The tranqs explained why his earlier fit hadn't woken Tony. But that didn't explain...
Natasha was well versed in reading people, and she didn't even have to interrogate Steve to know what he was thinking this time. "You're wondering why Tony would do this," she said, hitting the nail on the mark. Steve couldn't bring up annoyance at being so transparent since it meant he didn't have to talk. "Because you have become part of his very small circle of people who he considers friends. His trust is hard to get, but once you have it, Tony trusts completely. He doesn't have a lot of people he can rely on, Captain, and he clings to the ones he has when he's not actively pushing them away because he's an idiot."
Finally, Natasha's expression softened as she looked at Tony. Steve let out a short breath he didn't know he'd been holding, reinstating the oxygen mask for a few moments. At least Natasha wasn't completely shutting him out, though he was still confused as to why she was angry. Because she was very angry with him, no matter how blank she looked.
"He'd go to hell and back for each of us," she said, moving her hand to trace the bandage on the side of Tony's neck that Steve assumed was from a needle point. It wasn't long before her hand found its way back to petting Tony's hair. "He'd do it for Senator Stern too, just to piss him off for having to thank Tony. But for us? There would be no force in the universe that could stop him if we needed it, not even death. He is a lot more fragile than he seems though. So you will understand this: When he's being an idiot, I will gladly make sure he gets some sense knocked into him. Literally if I have to. But if you hurt him like this again? There will be consequences. I'll make sure of it."
At this, Natasha looked back up at him, a cold fury in her eyes. Steve wasn't intimidated by much, but this small Russian woman at his hospital bed? He was terrified. This wasn't the Natasha who dropped him to the floor in training matches before dragging him up to the kitchen for hot chocolate and tea. This was the Black Widow, and Steve was almost ready to start praying for mercy. "Yes, Ma'am," he said around the oxygen mask.
He looked down at Tony, guilt flooding through him as he thought back to their last encounter. He still hadn't apologized. Removing the mask, Steve swallowed a cough before speaking. "I keep misjudging him, don't I?" he croaked out.
Whether it was what Steve said or the guilt on his face, Natasha relented in her anger, letting some emotion through when she looked at Steve. "It helps if you don't try to sort him into categories," she said slowly. "He'll break out of them, even if he doesn't know you put him in one. He's an extremely frustrating man for someone like me."
"Personal experience?" Steve managed a smile for her, if a small one. It hurt to keep up the expression for long, but the one thing Steve learned since the serum was pain management. The drugs stopped working far too quickly for him not to.
"He was my mark," Natasha said, a soft sigh escaping her. "You're not supposed to get attached to your mark, because you're going to betray them. But Tony knew about me, or was pretty sure of it, even if he didn't know who I worked for. Rather than feed me false information, he kept me around. And for that... I've studied him a long time, but I still can't find the reason that I let myself become attached to a mark."
"He's a good man," Steve said, this time not just clinging to it desperately as he was trying to make sense of Tony Stark, but meaning it.
"That's a category," Natasha said with a raised eyebrow. "And I've spied on good men before."
"He'll stick in that one. And you've never spied on a Stark before," Steve replied.
"No, I guess not." Natasha smiled at him, and Steve was very glad she was on his side.
He replaced the oxygen mask, and they sat in silence for a while, just enjoying the company. A nurse came by to check on him, but he was doing as well as one could hope. Steve really did miss pain medication.
Steve fell asleep again for a while, waking up to Tony's movement. Tony started groaning, pushing up into Natasha's hand as she pet him. "Feels good," Tony murmured. "Keep..."
Then his eyes flew open and he glared at Natasha as he wobbled to his feet, still half-asleep. "You guys drugged me," he accused, pointing a wavering finger at her.
"He's awake," Natasha said, and Tony whipped around to stare wide-eyed at Steve. "And now that you are as well, I'm going to fill in the others. You will stay here and talk with him, duchenko, or there will be pain in your future." With that, Natasha left, the door closing behind her and leaving Steve alone with Tony.
Tony looked like he was about to run after her, even with that threat, but he swallowed and turned back to Steve. "I-Are you alright?" Tony asked, not waiting for a response. After the initial stutter, Tony's voice was smooth, with no hint that this wasn't his normal rambling. Except Steve could see the signs now, the tension of his shoulders and the closely guarded hurt in his eyes as Tony's fingers tapped against the covered reactor. "Of course you aren't. You have burns on forty percent of your skin and were breathing smoke for who knows how-They said you won't have any scars, by the way. Serum and all. Do you need anything? I could get you water, or food, or a nurse. I should get a nurse, should-"
"Tony," Steve said, as commanding as he could manage once he took off the breather. It wasn't his best given his condition, but it still got Tony's attention. "I need you to be quiet for a moment."
Tony started to speak, but then shut his mouth quickly, looking everywhere but at Steve. "Come here," Steve said.
When Tony moved closer, he looked as if he were mentally bracing himself for another rejection. But Steve raised a bandaged hand to touch Tony's cheek. That got Tony's surprised brown eyes back on him. "Steve?"
"Quiet, Tony," Steve said with a small smile to let Tony know he wasn't angry. "Just let me say this, okay?"
Tony stilled for a moment, then nodded, his hand hesitantly moving to cover Steve's bandaged one.
Now or never, Rogers. "Tony, I'm sorry. I should have never said those things to you, not even when I was angry. But the worst of it wasn't what I said. I was angry, sure, but I..." Steve said. Tony leaned into his hand, a silent encouragement that gave Steve the courage to continue. But oh, his throat hurt. "I should never have shot you down like that, when you came to apologize. That was inexcusable, and I'm sorry for lashing out at you."
Tony stayed quiet for so long that Steve's stomach started tying in knots. Tony wasn't acting angry, or like he didn't forgive Steve, but why would he stay silent? Was it...
"Can I speak now?" Tony asked.
Oh. Steve felt foolish now. "Yeah," Steve said hoarsely, coughing a few times. He needed to remember not to make long apologies while recovering from smoke inhalation.
Tony nodded, tentatively sitting down on the bed. He didn't let go of Steve's hand, looking way out of his depth and a little overwhelmed. "Look, I... About... I know I screwed up, and what I said wasn't right either. It won't happen again and... I..."
"It's okay," Steve said, cutting off the awkward apology that was obviously rehearsed and part-misremembered from a different one. Tony had already apologized twice over, first with the blanket and now with his eyes. That was enough for Steve. He rubbed his fingers over Tony's cheek, wishing the bandages weren't in the way.
Tony looked down at him uncertainly. "It's okay," Steve repeated again. "Are we okay?"
"Yeah," Tony said, letting out a sharp breath.
Steve slumped back against the pillows, closing his eyes in relief as the pain he'd been keeping at bay flooded through him. "Steve?" he heard Tony say, his voice slightly panicked.
"I'm fine," Steve said, taking a moment to just breathe as deeply as he could without coughing before reopening his eyes. "I thought I'd lost you," he said weakly.
"That's our line," Tony said, rolling his eyes. "You're the one who nearly died."
In more ways than one, but Steve didn't say that out loud. Tony was twitching, fighting to keep still and and from squeezing his injured hand. "I don't know what I've have done if I'd lost you," he said instead. The thought of losing Tony's friendship was nearly unbearable, and his earlier despair was still too fresh in his memory.
"What are you talking about?" Tony asked, worry entering his eyes again. "I'm not the one who had a burning building fall on me."
"No," Steve agreed. "But if I'd driven you away after..."
"Hey, water under the bridge. It's fine. You said it yourself, so-"
This time Tony looked annoyed at the implied command to shut up, but he stopped babbling at least. Steve knew that was guilt talking for Tony, so he didn't expect it to last for long. He was going to take advantage of Tony's silences while he could.
"I know that," Steve said. "It's just... You were right about what you said. I really don't know who Steve Rogers is any more. I don't think I've known since I woke-No, probably not since Bucky died." He'd found Steve Rogers again for a little while, talking to Peggy before he crashed the plane into the arctic, but really, Steve Rogers had been lost with Bucky in the snow that day. The ice only sealed his fate.
"You've been getting better," Tony said quietly.
Because of you and the others. Because of how you keep trying to pull me out, not Captain America, but Steve Rogers. Because you haven't given up on that, even now, when I've given you all the reason to. Even when I still look for Howard instead of you. "It's still not enough," Steve said. It was true. He still saw Howard in Tony, still closed his eyes and saw Bucky or Peggy standing there, and the memories were still too painful. Still too much he had to say to Tony that he wasn't ready to say yet.
"Hey, it's cool," Tony said, smiling even though it really wasn't 'cool' as he termed it. "We've got this. We'll just keep up our marathons until you find him again. Speaking of..." Tony pulled out his phone, tapping on it furiously. The small T.V. screen in the corner flickered on as Tony grinned. "I've got The Middleman on here. You'll love that one. Totally obscure and it's a damn shame barely anyone's heard of it, but it'll blow you away. Its epic levels are over 9,000. I mean kangaroo-riding stormtroopers level of epic. Plus, we can use it as a test to see what else I still need to show you for the references you miss."
Could he really find himself again under Captain America? He wasn't as sure as Tony. But Tony was already pressing play and Steve pushed those thoughts to the side for now. There wasn't much else he could do.
* * *
It was his first mission back, and Steve really was trying to follow the meeting. He was. Except Justin Hammer's evil plot was so convoluted that even the Doctor's best enemy, the Master, wouldn't have been able to make heads or tails of it.
"Well," Tony said as Deputy-Director Hill paused in the explanation. "This plan..."
"Is sheer elegance in its simplicity," Steve finished with him. Everyone was looking at them blankly for a moment before Steve doubled over laughing as Tony started berating everyone for not getting it. It felt good to be the only person in the room to get the reference. Better than he'd have guessed.
* * *
Steve made an effort after that. He occasionally went out with Bruce and Thor to explore the city, read in the living room when Clint and Natasha played video games, and went down to Tony's workshop to draw. "Cap? What are you doing here?" Tony asked when he finally looked up from the boot of the Iron Man armor to see Steve sitting on the couch. "Did you need something?"
"No, just... Thought it'd be better to have some company, instead of drawing in my room by myself," Steve replied, not quite clutching at his notebook in nervousness. "Do you mind if I stay?"
The smile Tony gave him lit up his whole face, and Steve felt something inside him ease. "Nah, it's fine, so long as you don't mind the noise. Good to see you getting out more, Steve."
That night, it didn't feel so cold when Steve went to sleep.
* * *
Steve had learned the signs when Tony was off or on with Pepper. It was harder to pull Tony out of the workshop when they were off, and he smiled a little more frequently when they were on, dancing to his eardrum popping music as he worked. It also wasn't hard to tell what had happened when Pepper texted him to check on Tony. He walked into the lab to find Tony on the couch Steve usually sat on to draw, hunched over a real paper notepad, and trying to draw complex formulas and designs on the paper. He was surrounded by a sea of crumpled up pages that had been tossed carelessly around him.
Tony only used paper when a project was giving him too much trouble and he couldn't take JARVIS finding the flaws any more, even when he was muted. That usually meant that Tony was upset. And for him to have worked up that much crumpled paper? It was bad.
Steve sent out a quick mass text to Rhodey, Happy, and Natasha about his suspicions and asking them to check up on Pepper. She shouldn't be alone in the break-up either, not when she still cared enough to ask someone to take care of Tony.
Tony still hadn't noticed him, so Steve considered his strategy of attack. Asking Tony what was wrong would yield no results and probably drive him to drinking once he stopped being distracted, which was even worse. Steve spotted the bottle of whiskey on the table next to Tony, but it and the tumbler next to it were still mostly full. Tony had probably tried to push everything else aside to get lost in his work, which meant Steve had to move carefully if he wanted to keep Tony sober.
Which meant another - hopefully healthier and better for the environment - distraction. He needed to give Tony a problem to solve.
"Hey," Steve said, walking in completely. Tony barely worked up the attention to wave at him, growling in frustration at the design in his hands. "Rough time?"
"The laws of physics aren't cooperating," Tony said, glaring at the pad. "Which is ridiculous, because I am a sexy bastard, and science should be my bitch just on the pure charisma. Physics should be fawning all over me, but the damned thing won't take off the ground."
A jet engine of some sort then. Or something else Tony wanted to make fly, but Steve hoped it was just a jet engine. The washing machine had never quite been the same after the last time. "Maybe a break might help?" Steve asked tentatively, biting his lip and looking down at his hands. He had to make this realistic. "Though if you're busy..."
He ignored the quickly covered relief in Tony's eyes. "What's up, Cap? Something wrong?"
Sighing in frustration, Steve ran a hand through his hair. "The fifties," he said, hunching his shoulders a little. It was ridiculous, but true. The decade closest to the one he'd known was still giving him the most trouble.
Tony looked a little confused, raising an eyebrow. "I thought you were well into the nineties, Steve. Besides, what's wrong with the fifties? They weren't that different from your time, right?"
"Might have skipped it when I got too frustrated," Steve replied sheepishly. Then darker, in a completely non-feigned anger, "And it's McCarthyism that's wrong with the fifties."
"Ah, Communism and the Red Scare," Tony said, patting him on the arm. He looked exhausted, Steve noted. Exhausted and heartbroken. "I take it you don't approve of Joe McCarthy's methods?"
Who needed acting when Steve could feel the anger resurfacing? "Didn't they see what he was doing? It's Kingfish all over again, but worse because he was succeeding!"
"Kingfish?" Tony asked. "That sounds like a super-villain. Why have I not heard of him?"
"Huey Long," Steve replied, a little jittery over the reminder that he was the only one who had lived through the thirties. "He was a politician who was assassinated. He had some funny notions on how to run the government that didn't usually end in democracy."
"Politician," Tony said with a sneer. "He might as well have been a super-villain. So what made him stand out in the crowd? What made people like him?" Steve could see Tony filing away the information for later, and Steve sometimes wondered if he looked up Steve's references like Steve had to look up the rest of the team's.
"Well," Steve said, remembering his mother's strong words on the subject before the man had gone to the Lord for judgement. "He was charismatic, and people liked listening to him talk. He said a lot of nice things too, that people in the Depression really wanted to hear. What he said, though, he had no way to back up. People shouldn't just follow someone blindly like that!"
Tony looked amused by Steve's last statement, though Steve couldn't think of what he'd said to gain that sort of reaction. "Has anyone ever told you you're a bit precious sometimes?" Tony asked, plowing through Steve's indignant glare. "Okay, so we can do this either one of two ways. There's the short way, which is to watch The Crucible and do the Salem Witch hunts, but really, that play is boring. Or we can watch Babylon 5, which will take longer, especially since most of the Nightwatch stuff doesn't really get started until the second season, but it's definitely more satisfying. Plus, it's way more awesome. Actually, why haven't I shown you this one before? You'll love it. It's a military-political drama that-"
"Tony," Steve said with an exasperated smile. It was obvious which choice Tony wanted, and a series would keep Tony distracted longer than a play. A military-political drama sounded interesting too. "Watching... Babylon 5, right? That sounds good to me."
"You won't regret that choice, Steve," Tony said, really smiling for the first time since Steve had come down. It was still a bit sad around the edges, but it was there. Stage one: Distraction - Operation was a go. "I'll just er... pick up this mess and meet you up there."
Steve recognized that for what it was, a bit of time to compose and prepare himself for being in someone else's company for an extended time, so he didn't offer to help with the clean up. "I'll head up now then," Steve said, giving Tony's shoulder a brief squeeze before leaving the workshop.
* * *
It was forty-five minutes before Tony showed up, but Steve spent that time on Wikipedia. He'd meant to refresh his memory on McCarthyism, but he got distracted by the much less frustrating Doctor Who. He wasn't at all repentant.
"Tony!" he called out excitedly as the other man walked in. "There's radio plays of Doctor Who! It's all the older Doctors, and it looks just like the old radio programs I grew up with!"
"Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?" Tony said dramatically.
"The Shadow knows," Steve replied with a grin. He was surprised Tony knew that reference. "But yeah, that sort of thing. They sound really nifty."
"Those are the Big Finish Audios, right?" Tony leaned over the couch to look at Steve's touch pad. Steve could smell the faint trace of alcohol, but it wasn't as bad as he'd feared. If he were to guess, he'd say Tony drank just enough to be able to deal with people, but not enough that he might give something away that he didn't want to. If Steve hadn't gotten a text from Natasha and Happy confirming his suspicions, he'd have been sure after that. He wasn't surprised to hear that Tony had texted them before Steve had to ask them to check on Pepper, though the text had been just as cryptic as Pepper's text was.
"You still have any of them?" Steve asked, genuinely excited. He thought radio plays were just another obsolete thing of the past, but according to the website Big Finish was still producing the plays.
Tony just smiled at him, an extraordinarily fond expression that made Steve wonder when Tony had started giving them to him. He wished he'd paid more attention. "Yeah, sure. I'll have JARVIS put them on your personal server. Ready get your mind blown by awesome television from the 90s? Cause the writer totally spoils three seasons worth of questions in the pilot episode without anyone knowing."
"Lay on, Macduff," Steve said, making sure he was seated closer to the middle of the couch. Tony never fell for the open arm approach, not when it was from Steve (Sadly, Steve was nowhere near as smooth as Rhodey), but he found if he sat closer to Tony's spot, sometimes the genius would end up with his head on Steve's shoulder when he was upset, and Steve could sneak a cuddle attack during one of the more light-hearted moments. It was a work in progress, trying to figure out what Tony would allow himself to be tricked by.
But when the opening started, Steve looked back at Tony with confusion. "I thought this was a military drama?" he asked, as the screen showed a station in outer space and a man with a strange accent doing a voice-over.
"It is," Tony replied. "It's just also a sci-fi. Rhodey always liked it, because Earth Force is based around the Air Force."
Steve shrugged, willing to go along with it for now. It didn't take long for him to be drawn into the show.
"I like Lt. Commander Ivanova," Steve said, part way through the first episode. "She..."
"Is commanding and insanely hot?" Tony replied with a grin. Steve decided that was a better answer than 'reminds me of Peggy'. "Yeah," Tony continued, "she's scorching. One of the best characters."
"One of the best? Is she your favorite?" Steve asked.
"Definitely," Tony said immediately. "Also, I like Londo and Garibaldi. Delenn, who is also really hot, by the way - just wait till the second season. A few others you haven't met yet. I can see you as a G'kar fan though."
"But he tried to get the Commander shipped off to the Vorlon Homeworld! He's the bad guy!" Steve didn't think he could ever like the crude alien who came on to the resident telepath so tastelessly and was particularly nasty when it came to Commander's problems.
But Tony just smiled knowingly and shrugged. "We'll see. No one is exactly who they seem to be."
Steve, who was quite annoyed by the fact he still didn't have a lot of answers, demanded they continue after the pilot and first episode because he wanted the mysteries solved. Tony's Smug Smiles of Knowing were also just a little too intolerable for Steve to ignore.
He quietly developed a small crush on Lt. Commander Ivanova while Commander Sinclair was quickly proving to be a second favorite. The man was just so sneaky.
He didn't like the way Tony stiffened as a female character boarded the station in the episode "Parliament of Dreams". "Who is she?" Steve asked, wondering why Tony was so tense when Tony had just been assuring Steve that this episode was one of the best.
"You'll see," Tony said, waving it off. He didn't relax though.
It wasn't long before Steve realized what was wrong with the character, however. "So she and Commander Sinclair are..."
"It's an on-again, off-again sort of thing," Tony said, not watching the screen.
"Like you and Pepper?" Steve asked, testing the waters.
"Not anymore," Tony said, his voice tight with unhappiness. "But you already knew that, didn't you?"
"Yeah," Steve admitted with a sigh. "Sorry. If you..."
"I'm fine," Tony said shortly, closing himself off. "Knew it would happen sometime. Better now than after I'd gotten a ring - which, not that I was thinking about it, by the way. Pepper will be... We'll both be better for it. She's strong, and it's about time she... It's good."
Steve's heart broke a little, watching Tony like this. "It's okay for you to miss her."
"That's rich, coming from you," Tony spit back.
Steve bit his lip to keep from responding, telling himself Tony was upset and lashing out. He couldn't afford another fight like the last one.
"Steve..." Tony said after a moment, not meeting his eyes. "That wasn't..."
"It's okay," Steve said, even though it wasn't. They might as well both be lying.
Tony sighed, inching closer and leaning against Steve's shoulder. It was an obvious attempt at manipulation, but Steve didn't really mind. It was as much an apology as Steve was going to get, and more sincere than any verbal one Tony could give. He'd learned the words themselves weren't that important with Tony, so long as the intent was there.
"This really is a pretty swell show," Steve said, impressed with Commander Sinclair's solution for the demonstration of Earth's major religious beliefs. All those people lined up in that room was a mental image that stuck with him.
"You say that now, but you're going to hate some of it," Tony said, not taking his head off Steve's shoulder. "I'll warn you when we get to some of the potentially heavier stuff."
"JMS - that's the writer, by the way - doesn't always put easy situations for the Command staff to solve during the wars. Then there's the death toll, which he doesn't shy away from. The military funerals are sometimes hard to watch," Tony said. Steve nodded, suddenly glad Tony was going to warn him. Some things you just needed to prepare for.
"Was it my fault?" Tony asked softly, just as Steve was about to start the next episode.
Steve thought about that. He was pretty sure Tony wouldn't accept an empty platitude, but he had to come up with something... "Was it all Commander Sinclair's or Ms. Sakai's fault that it never worked out for them before?"
Tony smiled weakly at that. "Guess not. Still feels like it though," he said.
Steve snuggled closer, wishing there was more he could do to ease the heartbreak. Being a shoulder to lean on never felt like enough. "Do you want to stop for today?" he asked, reminding himself that this was about Tony no matter how much he wanted to go on.
Tony was quiet for a moment, but he nodded his head. "I want ice cream and Bruce. That's what you do with break-ups, right? Ice cream and getting really, really drunk."
"We'll start with asking Bruce to join us for ice cream and see where it goes from there," Steve said. He had no doubt Tony would be getting drunk at some point, but he hoped to stave that off for a little while longer.
* * *
They took turns patching Tony and Pepper up. It was tough, but they both were really smiling again after a few days, and by the end of the week they were in the same room working together. It was only natural they both completely fell apart after walking out of the room.
Tony got rip-roaring drunk, but the other Avengers were in varied degrees of joining him/watching him, which left Steve with Pepper. Pepper, who wasn't part of the team, but had been one of the first people whom he'd really opened up to in this time period. Steve wished he knew something better to repay her with than taking her out to eat. But he wanted to be Steve for her, not Cap, and Steve always felt a little better with food.
"How are you holding up?" he asked, sitting across from her awkwardly at the coffee shop he, Bruce, and Thor had found last month. It was a small place with only three tables, but it had some of the best blueberry muffins Steve had ever tasted. He hoped it would go over better than Tony's infamous gift of strawberries.
"I'm surviving," Pepper said with a watery laugh. "You all... you've been so good for him. I worry less with you there to look after him."
"And who looks after you? You and Tony... " Steve asked. They were both so selfless when it came to their relationship, that it was almost painful to watch when it was broken apart like this. He wondered if that might have been why they clashed so much in the end.
"We couldn't keep going the way things were," Pepper said with a sad smile. "But Natasha and Happy have been looking after me. And you. It used to be that Tony was all I had, but now... Thank you, Steve."
Steve slid his chair around besides hers to give her a hug. Unlike Tony, she was much less fussy about accepting comfort, her fingers digging into his shirt as she held back tears. He knew far too intimately what it was like to feel alone, and Pepper should never feel that way. "You'll keep looking after him?" she asked, her voice shaking.
"We'll keep looking after both of you," Steve said. And not just for the team's sake, but because... Steve could do this, he really could. He could let them in the rest of the way, even if he was still learning how. Looking after Pepper and Tony would help. He was determined to do this as Steve, and care about them as friends instead of just as his team.
It was a little terrifying, because he couldn't help but think about what would happen if he'd lost everyone in this time too. But Steve couldn't let the others down. Peggy and Bucky would never have forgiven him if he did. "It'll be okay," he said as much to Pepper as to himself. "You both... you'll be okay."
* * *
"Why does it not surprise me that this is what gets the whole team together to watch?"
"Shut up, Tony."
"Robin Hood is way better."
"Shut up, Clint."
"This one is my favorite Disney movie so far."
There was silence in the room as Steve stopped bouncing along to the song that played during the credits.
Tony raised his hand. "Anyone else not surprised Cap loves Oliver & Company?"
Everyone raised their hands.
Steve rubbed the back of his neck, feeling his cheeks heat up. "There's nothing wrong with being a kid from Brooklyn," he said, laughing along with the others when Tony threw his hands up in the air.
* * *
Babylon 5 ended up helping with the Kennedy assassination as well as McCarthyism. Steve shivered just thinking about it, glad to see that people had reacted that strongly at the time, even if since it's become 'history'. He didn't like thinking on it too long though, so he tried to focus on other things. "Commander Ivanova and Ms. Winters, are they..."
"Seriously, you're adorable when you're formal with fictional characters," Tony said, amusement in his tone. "And if you're asking about the epic sexual tension between Talia and Ivanova? That's completely intentional. So yeah."
"And the writers intended for this 'sexual tension' to be there?" Clint had shown him a few comedy shows where there were homosexual characters, but those had all been relatively new. Rent aside, which Bruce and Natasha had told him was still unusual, most characters were still white and straight.
"Yes," Tony said, stilling beside him. "Ivanova was one of the first openly bisexual characters in television, though most of her relationship with Talia was in the subtext. Is that a problem?"
"No," Steve said, falling just a little bit more in love with her. "I just... that's really good."
Tony relaxed next to him, and Steve realized Tony had never been with him to see him react to homosexual characters, aside from Jack Harkness from Doctor Who, who was... blatant. Steve hadn't really liked the character's arrogance, but if Tony had thought Steve objected because of different reasons... There was also Rent, but Tony had been too drunk to remember much of that. Steve doubted Tony saw his unconcerned shrug to Rhodey.
He filed Tony's reaction away to consider later, smiling as Tony started talking animatedly with his hands. "Great, Cap. I like Talia and Ivanova together. Always have. Cause that? That's hot. There's enough fantasies in that to fuel a life time. I'd consider myself a shipper, but really, who has time for fandom other than political science major who follows Dr. Foster around?"
"Shipper?" Steve asked.
Tony blinked at him, and shook his head. "All this time in the future, Steve, and you've never been introduced to fandom? I'm not that into it myself, but you should give it a shot."
* * *
Fandom seemed like a pretty swell thing, but the pairings were slightly terrifying. Steve decided that was a door better left closed.
* * *
"Hey, about this next episode..." Tony started.
"I think JARVIS called it "GROPOS"?" Steve said, wondering why Tony had stopped them.
"Yeah, it's... It's about the infantry setting up to fight a battle with heavy causalities. And the ending isn't graphic or anything, but it's not really pleasant either," Tony explained. Steve watched carefully for any sign of discomfort from Tony, but either the genius was hiding it really well, or it was a genuine warning for Steve. "We can skip it if you want. It's not an arc episode, so you'd be fine without it."
Steve thought about it, and about the preparation for storming the Normandy Landings. He figured he could handle it, even if it brought up some memories. "Is it violent?" Steve asked, which was a bit more of a deal breaker. He'd watch violent movies like 300, but he still didn't enjoy them very much.
"All the violence is off screen. It just shows the results of the battlefield. Nothing above par from the rest of the series," Tony said.
Why would Tony want to warn him about this? Steve didn't think it would be too bad. Couldn't be as bad as some of the movies Thor liked to watch. "Let's start it. We can always stop watching later."
Tony nodded, and the video started playing. The episode itself was entertaining, but Steve really didn't understand why Tony had warned him until the end. It wasn't the violence or the battlefield that was bad, but the emotional punch to the gut of seeing the characters they had just gotten to know lying on the battlefield left Steve blinded for a few seconds. Not flashback inducing, but it hit hard where it hurt the most, and Steve needed a minute or two to get himself under control after that. He hoped the military funerals Tony had warned him about at the start of the series weren't soon, because he needed some time before being able to sit through that. "Thanks for warning me abo-Tony?!"
He'd turned to thank Tony, only to find his friend staring at the screen still, clutching the arm of the couch. Steve didn't have look twice to know this was a panic attack brought on by shell shock. "Tony," Steve said, making his voice as gentle as he could. He stood then, moved until he was kneeling down in front of Tony, but he hesitated to touch him just yet. "Hey, Tony. Look at me."
"They were protecting me. And they died. They shouldn't have, not for me, not for-"
"Tony," Steve said, desperate to stop the babbling that kept breaking his heart. Tony looked down at him finally, but he didn't really see. "You're at home, Tony. In New York. Everyone is fine."
"Steve..." Tony closed his eyes, sagging against the couch. Then in a whisper even Steve's enhanced hearing had trouble with, Tony said, "I'm not... I'm not worth that."
Moving slowly, so that Tony had plenty of time to pull away, Steve pulled Tony forward into a hug. It was a bit awkward from his current position, so he moved back to the couch, pleased that he could hug Tony tighter. "It's okay, Tony. You're fine now."
That lasted about a minute before Tony started to push back and move away. He looked flushed and his eyes still held some of the earlier panic. "I'm fine, alright? Jesus, I'm fine and you don't have to-"
"I'm not fine," Steve said stubbornly. It was a chance, but Steve remembered that night with Thor and several times since then. Tony would give comfort, even if he couldn't accept it for himself. The bet paid off. Tony stopped struggling immediately, giving Steve the chance to feel the minute tremors going through Tony's body. "Please, just for a little while."
That, surprisingly enough, worked. Tony's arms came up around him to hug back, and Steve had no intention of letting go until Tony had stopped trembling. Even then, he waited a while longer, until Tony was more relaxed against him. "Sorry," Steve said sheepishly, still not letting go. "You're right. Maybe we should have skipped that one."
Tony gave him a look that made it clear he knew what Steve was up to, but he stayed curled up against Steve's chest. "You're getting better at this," Tony muttered. "I don't know if I like this development. And I... didn't think it would be that bad."
"I don't mind," Steve replied, rubbing Tony's back. "And maybe it's selfish, but I'm glad they were able to protect you, Tony."
"It wasn't worth-"
"Are you saying they died in vain?" Steve asked quietly. "That their deaths were meaningless, because they were protecting you?"
Tony winced, not responding. They sat in silence for a while, as Steve held on. "That's the job of a soldier, Tony," Steve said finally with a small sigh. "We protect. And given all that you've done since their deaths, I don't think you've wasted their bravery."
"Still working on that," Tony said, not meeting Steve's eyes.
Steve just hugged Tony tighter at that. They didn't watch another episode that night, though they stayed on the couch for a while after.
* * *
"I still don't see how you can like Londo after all of that," Steve said at lunch two weeks later.
Clint groaned, putting his head on the counter as he nursed his hangover. He'd only just woken up. "God help us. A lover's squabble over science fiction."
"Clint, you are far too involved in our non-existent love life. Is there something you'd like to tell us?" Tony asked, pouring his coffee. He'd fallen asleep last night during their marathon, but Steve was privately glad no one had witnessed his heartbreak over the episode Divided Loyalties and the end to Ms. Winters and Commander Ivanova's relationship. It meant he couldn't have an outlet for his Londo rage until Tony woke up though. It had been waiting long enough as he watched Londo sit by and do nothing to stop a massacre.
"I am a secret Captain America/Iron Man fangirl," Clint said solemnly, growling Tony turned to face him with the uncovered arc reactor. He shut his eyes against the light source. "Now take your damn nightlight and sleep with him already. Somewhere away from here."
Tony rolled his eyes as Steve chuckled softly. "You are encouraging him," Tony said to Steve before rounding back on Clint. "If you keep this up, I will give you a play-by-play of our first night of hot, steamy sex with all of Cap's sickeningly romantic sweet nothings that he whispered into my ear as he thrust in."
"Wait, what?" Clint shot up, followed by a wince from the pain the movement caused. "God, way too much TMI. I do not want to know. Stark, you are not allowed to talk anymore."
"You should just have JARVIS forward him the security video," Steve said, taking a bite of his sandwich with a perfectly straight face. "I know you kept it. And you call me sentimental."
Clint went white as a sheet, horror on his face. "TMI!" he cried out. "That's it, I'm leaving. Mental scarring for the rest of my life. God, why me?"
It was an effort not to start laughing until Clint's hasty exit from the room, but Steve managed better than Tony did. "That," Tony said with pride once he'd calmed down, "was troll-worthy. I did not expect that level of evil from you. I'll not underestimate you again."
"Our first time and you’re the catcher?" Steve said with a mock pout. "Did I get to try it out our second time? Just to set our stories straight."
Tony just laughed, patting Steve on the back as he walked by and took a seat opposite him at the table. "You may fool everyone else with your all-American goodness, but you can't fool me. I remember the cow incident."
Steve just smiled innocently, which only made Tony laugh harder. He still had pictures of that night watching Rent. He wondered briefly what Tony would say if he found out Steve was still a virgin, before pushing that thought aside. He'd gotten enough ribbing from Bucky on that, and Tony was bound to be worse.
Then he remembered his earlier question. "You still haven't answered me about Londo," Steve said with a scowl.
"You also couldn't believe me when I told you you'd be a G'kar fan, and I saw you wibbling at the 'My people will be free!’ speech. Don't think I missed you having to wipe a star-spangled tear from your eye. You even cry red, white, and blue."
Steve flushed. "I thought you were asleep."
"I was dozing," Tony said with a smirk. "Didn't get a lot of sleep the night before, but I wouldn't miss that part. And as for Londo.... He was trying his best."
"He's working with the bad guys! If he were trying his best, he wouldn't have gotten mixed up with the Shadows and letting millions of innocent people die just so he could have some power," Steve said indignantly.
Tony's smile was a little painful to see. It was the one he gave the press, not the Avengers, and Steve was startled to find himself on the receiving end of it for the first time since he'd moved into the Tower. "And he's a racist son of a bitch too, though he comes around eventually. But everything he does, he does it for his people. He's a patriot who makes a lot of really bad choices, but he's only ever wanted the best for the Centauri people. It's not an excuse for what he's done, but I guess... I can understand. I know what it's like to screw up like that."
"Tony..." Steve said, guilt-stricken. "Your life before... I never meant-"
"Yeah, it was that bad," Tony said, sipping his coffee. It was a false calm that Steve had learned the hard way to see through to the hurt underneath without snapping at Tony. "And it was just as inexcusable. But hey, that's what the rest of my life is for."
"So what's this I hear about the two of you making passionate love to each other?" Bruce asked absently as he walked in, the glasses on his nose slipping slightly as he didn't even look up from the science magazine he was reading.
"Cupid's hangover is making him hallucinate," Tony replied, the previous conversation seemingly forgotten. "Though if you want to tell him we were in the throes of passion when you walked in, you'll feed the troll."
"Just as long as it's not in the kitchen," Bruce said, obviously only paying attention to half of what was being said.
"Tony, don't change the subject," Steve pleaded. "You-"
"It's okay, Cap," Tony said. Steve flinched at the reminder that he'd slipped into his Captain America voice. "Steve," Tony said gentler this time. "It's alright, really. I know you weren't judging me. Mentally, at any rate. Just give me a little time to get that through to the rest of me."
Steve nodded, not liking the wait, but knowing he had to give Tony some space.
Bruce looked up from the paper when he couldn't find his tea mug in the usual spot, seeing the two of them for the first time, including the tension. "Did I interrupt something?" Bruce asked, pushing his glasses up.
"Yes," Tony said, grinning maniacally. "Steve was just going to bend me over the table and take me hard. But since you're here now, I'll have to settle for science. Come on, Cookie. Science waits for no man."
Bruce sighed, ruffling a scowling Tony's hair. "Don't tease Clint while he's hungover."
"But where's the fun in that?"
* * *
Marcus, Steve discovered, was becoming one of his favorite characters in Babylon 5. It probably helped that Marcus had a thing for Ivanova and she was way out of his league. Story of Steve's life, really. No wonder he had a soft spot for those sorts of characters.
"It figures you'd be a Marcus/Ivanova fan," Tony said, rolling his eyes. Steve just smiled a little, drawing Ivanova in his notebook.
No matter how much Steve could relate to Marcus's crush, it still came as a surprise that they had even more in common. "People still wait for the right partner to have sex?" Steve asked.
"Not a lot of them," Tony replied. "But some. See? Some old fashioned values are still there."
The beat of silence was long enough for Tony to pick up on. "Then are you..?"
"Yeah. I'm the same," Steve admitted. It was easier to say after seeing Tony's lack of scorn in the light teasing.
A strange look crossed Tony's face, then he smiled. "I know I'm trying to update you, Steve, but don't let anyone change that."
"Your first time wasn't good?" Steve asked, touching Tony's shoulder.
Tony shrugged, dislodging Steve's hand in the same motion. "Don't even remember it, honestly. I was pretty drunk."
"That's..." Steve said, feeling a twinge of sorrow at that.
"I don't regret it, Steve. But I think you'll be happier sticking to unicorns until you find the right girl. When you do find her though, I'm more than willing to give you tips on how to-Steve!"
Steve didn't look up from his cuddle attack. Instead, he tugged Tony closer. "We really need to work on this whole cuddle-issue you have," Tony said, though there was a barely suppressed note of amusement in his voice.
"Only you and Clint really mind," Steve said smugly.
"Wait... Does that mean you tried this on Natasha and she let you live?" Tony asked incredulously. "That's not fair. She'd kill me before I got within five feet of her!"
"That's 'cause she likes you better," Steve stage whispered, as if imparting a great secret.
"Now I know that's a lie. Who's feeding you this? Is it Clint? You should know better than to listen to Legolas." Tony huffed expectantly, and Steve let him go if only so they could keep watching.
But this time, it was Steve that was Smiling Knowingly. Tony might not believe it, but there was no question about Natasha's favoritism.
* * *
Steve didn't say anything after the episode "Endgame," staring stonily at the TV screen. Tony tried to make a few weak jokes, but Steve just asked JARVIS to play the next one.
"All love is unrequited, Steven. All of it," Ivanova said at the end of the next scene. She might as well have been talking to Steve. That nearly destroyed him.
He had to leave.
Steve stood up, ignoring Tony calling his name as he left the room. All he could see was Peggy. Peggy, who had moved on after his death. Just like the character Ivanova would after Marcus, because Steve was sure she'd be okay in the end. But in that moment after, when Steve had crashed the plane, had Peggy reacted like that?
God. Had he done that to someone he loved so dearly?
He heard the banging on his door, only then realizing that he'd made his way down to his own floor and was sitting on his bed. "Come in," he heard himself say automatically, immediately regretting it. He didn't want to see anyone right now. At least not anyone from this time period.
Tony opened the door, not giving Steve a chance to change his reply. "Hey," Tony said, looking at Steve like he was a frightened animal. "Are you alright?"
Tony's eyes were flat-out disbelieving, but he didn't contradict Steve. "Okay, that's... that's great. So. You want to talk about it?"
He saw the panic on Tony's face, but didn't move as Tony tapped his arc reactor nervously. "If it helps, he isn't actually dead," Tony blurted out. "He's just in cryogenic freezing until they can find a way to save him."
"Does he see Ivanova again?" Steve asked.
"No," Tony said, shaking his head. "Not in the series. He still hadn't woken up by the end."
"That doesn't help." That actually made things ten times worse. Marcus was... God, he might wake up someday, without a soul in the world who knew him. Without Ivanova. Without Peggy.
"This isn't about the show," Tony said, sitting down on the bed beside him tentatively.
Steve didn't answer.
"Steve..." Tony's hand covered his, but Steve didn't actually feel it. He felt too cold to feel anything. "Come on, Steve, give me something to go on. Don't close up on me now. I know it's hypocritical for me to say it, but you can't..."
"Why?" Steve asked finally, something inside him breaking. "What's the point of waking up when everyone else you know is dead? When dying like that leaves someone behind?"
The realization hit Tony, plain as day on his face. "Shit," Tony said, his voice wavering. "I didn't... Damn it! I'm supposed to be a genius, so how did I not make that connection and-Steve! You're shaking..."
Steve leaned forward as Tony pulled him into a hug. His chest felt tight, like he was having an asthma attack, but he could breathe just fine. The serum fixed all of that. So why...
"You told me it was okay to miss Pepper once," Tony said, hugging Steve tightly. "You should take your own advice. It's okay for you to grieve. It's... It's okay. Crap, what do people usually say in these situations? They, uh, wouldn't want you to hurt this much? Actually, that's a crappy thing to say. I suck at this. Steve. Look, I should get someone else to-"
"Tony, just shut up," Steve barely held back a sob to grit out the words. This was his room, but it wasn't his old apartment, his home. Tony wasn't Bucky, or Howard, and Peggy... God, Peggy. The future was a terrible place and...
Suddenly, the sobs refused to be held back any longer.
Peggy. Bucky. Howard. The Howling Commandos. Colonel Philips. All gone. He'd left all of them behind, and even his old life... He couldn't even live the same way anymore. It all built up until it couldn't hold anymore, tearing through him worse than any bullet ever had. It all came rushing out now that he'd buckled under the strain.
It was a long time before he felt the hand rubbing warmth into his back, or the one carding through his hair. Steve realized he was clinging to Tony and was terrified that he was holding on too hard, though he couldn't bring himself to let go. "No, you're fine," he heard Tony say. He must have said something aloud. "You're not hurting me. Are you al-Yeah, you aren't, obviously. Steve? You with me now?"
Steve nodded against Tony's shoulder, which he now noticed was very wet. He also had an odd ache to his shoulders from bending over for a long time to bury his face against Tony's shoulder, but that was nothing compared to the bone-weary cold that settled over him. Tony's hands were the only thing keeping the cold at bay. Letting the fabric of Tony's shirts fall from his hands, Steve pressed forward into the warmth, and just let Tony hold him. He tried not to resent his one anchor to this time that refused to let him slip back.
* * *
Steve woke up a little while later, still curled up in Tony's arms with the hum of the arc reactor in his ear. Tony. He'd stayed. Stayed to watch over Steve, even when he'd wanted the others more. Held him through the self-pity and the grief, a constant reminder of the present no matter how much Steve resented it. Steve couldn't bring himself to resent it now.
And oh, Tony looked like a wreck, half-way to shell-shocked and with a barely contained panicked energy about his eyes. "Are you alright?" Steve croaked out, his voice shockingly hoarse.
"Am I alright?" Tony asked incredulously. His laugh held a slightly hysterical note that calmed when Steve reached out to touch his face. "No, I'm terrible. I'm covered in super-soldier snot and have no idea what I'm doing, but hey, I'm not the one who's been-damn it, your eyes aren't even the slightest bit red. You still look perfect after crying, and that's not fair."
It startled a laugh out of Steve, and there was no doubt that his was on the verge of hysteria. "Sorry," Steve said, swallowing around the knot in his throat as he pulled himself up to return the hug properly.
Tony went willingly, still tense, but relaxing slowly. "I really suck at this," Tony whined and Steve could hear the guilt in his tone. "You'd be better off with someone who knows how to handle it."
"You're doing fine," Steve assured, hugging Tony a little tighter out of guilt. Now that he was thinking clearer... Please, Lord, let him not have said what he'd been thinking earlier out loud. Tony didn't deserve that on top of everything else he'd put the man though. What he had said aloud had been bad enough. "You stayed. And I think I needed that," he admitted quietly. "Probably have for a while."
He could feel the arc reactor pressed against his chest, the warmth of it flooding through Steve. "What I said earlier-"
"Steve, you don't have to explain. I should have realized the connection and given you some warning, because, Jesus, that was... I'm sorry," Tony said, his hands making an aborted movement before Tony must have realized he was still supposed to be hugging Steve back.
"Not your fault. Just let me..." Steve pulled back to rub away the tear trails, but Tony beat him to it. The engineer's warm hands wiped at his cheeks, and Steve's eyes fluttered shut for a moment as he just let himself feel. He took a deep breath that was a little more shaky than not, but without hindrance from being clogged up. The serum really was a God-send.
Opening his eyes, he saw Tony staring up at him with a combination of guilt, concern, and panic. "What I said earlier, asking about what there was to wake up to?" Steve said, focusing on the warmth surrounding him instead of the cold of the memories for the first time since he could remember. It was easier now, a fact that surprised Steve greatly. Especially so soon after that... "I... There's a lot here I have to wake up to as well. It's just taken this long for it to sink in."
"Steve..." Tony said, his eyes downcast. "You've been trying."
"Not hard enough," Steve said, shaking his head. "Peggy would..." Steve swallowed hard, but pushed forward. "Peggy would've knocked me flat if she'd seen how I was carrying on. The other Avengers, Pepper, Rhodey, Coulson, and... and you. You're all worth waking up to." And wasn't that the revelation of the century. Steve felt his chest tighten again, only to be soothed by the low hum of the arc reactor.
"Me?" Tony asked, a half-formed joke on his lips. "I'm-"
"You," Steve said, cutting him off. "Tony. Just plain old Tony. Not Howard or Bucky, but you, Tony. I was an idiot for not trying hard enough after all you've done."
It surprised Steve just as much as Tony, because it was true. After the nightmare he'd just put himself through, he didn't want Howard right now, or even Peggy or Bucky. He wanted this broken man who sat beside him, who held him through all of that, spreading warmth where the memories chilled. The man who had never given up on Steve Rogers, no matter how deeply encased in the ice he was. "Thank you," Steve said simply, meaning more than he could ever put into words.
"I-no problem," Tony said, looking a little stunned. It didn't take long for his mouth to start running away with him. "I guess we should call it a night with... Oh, bad topic to-Fuck. I wouldn't blame you if you never wanted to watch Babylon 5 again."
"No, it's alright." Steve's throat felt tight for a moment, but it passed. "I'd like to continue it, if you don't mind. To... To see how she moves on."
"Yeah," Tony said, leaning against Steve again. "Besides, there's always fix-it fics, if you like that sort of thing. The head writer of the show even wrote a fix-it fanfic for them."
* * *
Fix-it fanfiction was amazing. The world was a better place for it.
* * *
"You never said what your favorite Disney move was," Steve said one day, curled up on his couch in Tony's workshop. He was drawing Tony without permission, which added a small amount of thrill to the endeavor. He knew none of the Avengers actually minded, but it was fun to pretend.
"Sure I did," Tony replied absently, crumpling up a bit of the design he was working on and tossing it over his shoulder. He got five hundred points for the automatic pre-programmed bulls-eye. "The Great Mouse Detective, remember? What isn't brilliant about Sherlock Holmes with mice?"
"That's what you said was your favorite," Steve said with a touch of reproach. "But you weren't telling the truth."
That got a shocked look from Tony, as Steve smiled up at him smugly. "How did you... Who told you that? Not even Pepper knows that!"
"You can't lie to Captain America. I always know when people lie," Steve said in his best Cap voice. Which was a complete lie. Rhodey had told him. But Tony didn't know Steve had started talking with Rhodey after the whole "GROPOS" incident to see if there was anything else in the series Tony might not take well. They were becoming fast friends.
"I like Oliver & Company, Natasha likes Sleeping Beauty, Thor agrees with Natasha while also liking Lilo and Stitch, Clint loves Robin Hood and Aladdin, and Bruce likes The Fox and the Hound and Beauty and the Beast, supposedly before he had the Hulk, but what about you? Which movie does the great Tony Stark like the best?" Steve asked, shading Tony's shoulders. He really liked Tony's shoulders, especially when they were bare, like now.
"The Great Mouse Detective is perfectly acceptable. It's-"
"Exactly," Steve interrupted. "It's acceptable. So what's your unacceptable favorite?"
The silence went on for long enough that Steve looked up from the drawing in concern. "Tony?"
"The Rescuers," Tony admitted, and was that..? Yes, it was a certified Tony Stark Blush.
Steve was willing to admit he found it just a little adorable, though he didn't tease Tony about it for fear of not seeing it again. "I liked that one," Steve said, thinking back to the little girl searching for the diamond. The sequel wasn't bad either. Tony had been awfully quiet during the first movie, come to think of it. "Why don't you like talking about that one?"
"I liked it as a kid," Tony said, waving it off. "It didn't have any machines or any other reason for me to like it, but... sometimes, I wondered if Bernard or Miss Bianca would come and talk to me, if I sent out a letter. They helped out lonely kids, right?"
It wasn't hard to read between the lines, to see where his father had disapproved of the movie. Steve got to his feet, putting the drawing pad aside. "Tony..."
"Oh, no, you don't," Tony said, holding his hands up in a clear halting motion. "I know your game, Cuddle Monster. I'm fine. My childhood sucked, but it wasn't that bad."
Privately, Steve disagreed. Maybe it wasn't the worst childhood to be had, but it still wasn't something any child should have to go through. "Don't try the puppy dog eyes on me," Tony said, interrupting Steve's thoughts as he crossed his arms over the arc reactor. "Just because Captain America can pout does not mea-Dummy, no! Why is everyone against me?
Steve just laughed as Dummy pushed Tony closer to him. Finally, Tony threw his hands up in surrender and accepted the hug. "Fine. But this is not the end of it, understand? Right, you've had your cuddle now, so go terrorize someone else. No, You, that's not where you put-Dummy! Back to your charging station!"
Steve couldn't help the smug smile as he let go of Tony so that he could chase after his bots. When he got back to his drawing, he added the bots as mice, lined up and vying for Tony's attention.
* * *
The bars wouldn't bend.
Under Steve's super human strength, the metal still wouldn't budge. He even tried the trick Howard had showed him that didn't need brute force, but they still didn't move. The other Avengers were being tortured in front of him, but he couldn't do a damned thing.
"Stop it!" he screamed as the Hydra soldier broke another of Natasha's ribs. They'd found some way to keep Bruce from Hulking-out, and Thor was powerless and broken. Clint... Good gracious God above, Steve couldn't think about Clint. Even Pepper and Rhodey were in this hell somewhere. He'd heard their screams from time to time. Steve's mind kept wandering back to G'kar breaking those impossible chains to save his people, but Steve couldn't even do that!
Then they brought out Tony. Brave, stupid Tony, who kept baiting their captors like Clint had. "Don't! Tony, don't..." Steve begged.
But Tony didn't listen. The bars were merciless.
Then they started taking the arc reactor out and Tony screamed. Suddenly, all Steve could see were the bars keeping him from his team. The screams kept continuing as he pushed with all his might, until even they tapered off into the distance.
The bars still wouldn't move.
"You know, we don't need all of them alive," he heard one of the guards say over the roaring of his heart in his ears.
"Just leave the reactor out this time. See how long it takes for billionaires to die."
No. None of his team... his friends were going to die. He couldn't allow that to happen. Steve pushed at the bars desperately as he searched for some hidden center of strength. The bars held, but he could feel it... Just a little more. Lord, please, just a little more.
The bars started to give.
His team. Tortured and broken. Tony. The first person who managed to get through the layer of ice surrounding Steve Rogers. His team that had never given up on him, even when he was just a stranger living in the same place as them. He was--Not--Letting--Them--Die! "Tony, hang on!" he shouted as he pushed. The guards were yelling, but Steve could no longer make out the words.
The bar bent. It was enough for him to squeeze through.
Steve honestly didn't remember what happened to the guards, though there were several bodies on the ground and he had a gunshot wound in his thigh. None of that mattered as he fumbled with the arc reactor, pressing it into Tony's chest. "Tony, come on," Steve begged. He was still breathing, he was...
Steve saw Tony's eyes. Tony was always animated and lively, never sitting still. Never quiet, even in sleep, thanks to the soft hum of the reactor. But now his eyes... they were dead. Tony was still physically alive, but he wasn't there anymore. Steve was too late.
"Tony!" Steve begged, wanting to shake him, but too scared of hurting Tony more. "Please, don't. Tony..."
Steve woke up with a gasp, adrenaline pumping through his body as he started to shake uncontrollably. "The Enchantress... What..?" The Enchantress had hit him with something, he remembered that much. Then he'd woken up captured by Hydra with the rest of the team and...
"Hey, easier there, soldier. Whatever she made you see wasn't real."
Steve's head snapped up. He was at the Tower in the den, lying on the couch with all the other Avengers in civilian clothing loosely gathered around him with worried expressions. Bruce's arm wasn't mangled at odd angles, Natasha was breathing normally, Thor wasn't bleeding out at a terrifying rate, Clint was... Clint was whole, his eye still... And Tony. Tony was babbling, tapping at the arc reactor and still very much living.
"-said it was some sort of spell, to make you dream of people closest to you. She disappeared before we could catch her, but the spell should be broken now, right, Thor? Thor?"
"Amora will pay dearly if it is not," Thor replied darkly.
"Was it Bucky and Peggy? Or Howard? Or..."
"Idiot, don't ask about what he saw!"
"Everyone give him some space!" Natasha ordered.
Except that meant everyone was moving away, and that wasn't-
Steve reached out, tugging Tony to him. Tony yelped, but didn't fight him as Steve pulled him right into his lap and clamped down around him.
"Thor!" Clint shouted. "The spell, is it-"
"I'm fine," Steve said, breathing out. He wanted to bury his face against Tony's neck, but didn't want to let the other Avengers out of his sight. He settled for hugging Tony tighter as the engineer started fidgeting and twisting. "I'm fine, really. I just... Just a 'twinge of cosmic angst'." He couldn't help the hysterical giggle at that quote.
"Steve?" Tony asked, his brown eyes filled with concern, worry, and just a little bit of panic. They were so very alive. Steve could have kissed him and... He was far too keyed up for that sort of revelation, so Steve filed it away for later. But he was definitely coming back to that later. "Steve, what did you see?"
Steve shook his head, shuddering as he curled around Tony. He wasn't going to be able to talk about that for a while yet. The people closest to him...
To save those most important to him.
Steve hadn't seen Peggy, Bucky, Col. Philips, or anyone else from the past. They were all still important, no doubt about that, but they weren't part of his life anymore. Right now, those most important to him were...
His friends. He'd never known that he needed them so much.
And Tony sitting in his lap and trying not to fidget as he let Steve just hold him. One of his dearest friends since waking up: brilliant, crazy, broken Tony, who could maybe become something more, if Steve played his cards right. Tony was still alive.
Bruce placed a gentle hand on his forehead. "How are you feeling, Steve? It was a while before we could wake you."
"Good," Steve said, leaning his head against Tony's. Despite the fact the dream still haunted him, he felt so very warm. It was wonderful.
"If you're good, can you let go of me now?" Tony asked with a scowl, but he didn't try to move away.
"No," Steve replied, taking a few more deep breaths. "I... We're home, right? All of us, we're home?"
"Indeed, my friend," Thor answered. "You were the only one of us to be felled by the Enchantress."
Home. It wasn't Steve's apartment in the past, or one of the many camps set up with the Howling Commandos. All those were gone now, but he had something else that was... It was good, this place. This tower where he could tease Clint over his ridiculous love affair with his bow, or have Natasha beat some sense into him when he needed it, or watch Sesame Street with Bruce after he'd Hulked-out, or explore this crazy new world with Thor. And when all else was lost to the ice and he couldn't claw his way out again, there was always Tony, to thaw him out and force him through endless marathons of Doctor Who and other TV shows.
Sometimes the best references were the old ones, the ones that Steve had known from his time. Because Dorothy was right. Even if it was a new time period and his family was far different than he'd ever imagined, there's no place like home.
Neither of them said anything during the final episode of Babylon 5. Tony did not comment on Steve having to wipe his eyes, and Steve didn't say anything about how glossy Tony's had looked.
After though, "That was..."
"It was a good ending," Tony said simply.
"Yeah," Steve said. "It was."
It was as one of the characters had said, after all. An ending of one story is the beginning of a new story, and Steve was finally ready to start the next one.