And then she was kind and supportive and the best cheerleader ever when, in a turn of events that will probably surprise no one, this turned into 15,000 words of Steve's point of view on Ready, Fire, Aim. Because she's awesome.
A few quick things before we start--the Cleveland City Mission's webpage can be found here, and there's also a charity mentioned in this story called Project Reach Youth, which is a very real organization that I absolutely, entirely fictionalized for the purposes of this story. However! The reason I did not just invent a random charity for use in this tale is that Project Reach Youth, like the Cleveland City Mission, like all the nonprofit orgs out there doing so much good for so many people, is always in need of donations from those who are able to give, and I figured a shout-out couldn't hurt. I MAKE NO CLAIMS OF REPRESENTING ANY OF THE VIEWPOINTS OF ANYONE BUT MYSELF ETC, but if you're interested in learning more about, or donating to, either org, you may do so through the websites linked above.
Author's Note: This is Steve's side of the story Ready, Fire, Aim; you should probably read that before you read this. All of my thanks to postcardmystery, sheafrotherdon, siriaeve, and, of course, esteefee, without whom this story would never have been written at all.
Summary: It doesn't matter who you are; eventually, everyone's past catches up to them.
The first time Steve notices it is long before anything happens between them, friendship or…otherwise. He's still stumbling half-blind through a century he never expected to see, and Tony Stark is just the brash man in the metal suit who looks too much like Howard in the right light. The idea of depth there is nearly impossible to fathom; in the three weeks since they met, Steve's seen Tony do a hundred unspeakably rude things, and that's not counting the video footage one of the SHIELD agents showed him.
"I just thought it was better that you know what you're dealing with," the woman said, eyes flat. Steve stared in horror as Tony referred to a panel of United States senators as assclowns and couldn't help but agree.
But then there's a mission, a second one, a third, tumbling into each other like dominos; the team's exhausted and doing a poor job of hiding it, not comfortable enough working together yet to take each others' slack. Reaction times slow and injuries increase, and Friday night finds them all in a little bar in Yonkers, nursing their wounds and their pride.
"Thought you couldn't get drunk, " Tony says, three Dewers in, as he signals to the barkeep for a fourth. "Part of your whole thing, right? There's a note in your file, it's an interesting read; wouldn't've thought you'd need to strip the fun out of a guy to make him a hero, but hey, I'd be the wrong person to ask."
There are ten things Steve could take offense to there, eleven if he counts the way Tony's standing, pressed up against the bar like he owns it, hip jutting out just so. But then again, there's hint of a burn on the side of his face, leftover from an explosion that'd hit when his mask was up; Steve's still feeling guilty for calling the scene clear too early, so he doesn't bite.
"It was an accident, I think," he says, rolling his beer bottle between his palms. "Or, uh, side effect is probably a better phrase. Still tastes good, though."
"Yeah?" Tony says, eyebrows up. "Sierra Nevada, really? I would've figured you for a Budwiser guy."
"I just told him to give me the best stout he had," Steve admits. "I would've asked for a Guinness, but I realized I don't even know if they still make it."
Tony laughs, half surprise, half honest amusement; it's the first time Steve's felt like he was being laughed with, not at, and he smiles a little despite himself.
"Another Dewer's for me, and a Guinness for Cap here," he says to the bartender, and winks when the glass slides along the bar. "Some things never go out of style, you know?"
There's a full head on the beer, frothy, and Steve relishes the first sip more than he really should. It tastes…god, it tastes exactly like it did the first time Bucky passed him a glass of it, and he closes his eyes, rolls it around on his tongue a little before he swallows.
There's a strange expression on Tony's face when Steve opens his eyes. "Good?"
"Yeah," Steve says, with real feeling behind it. "Thank you."
Tony smiles at him instead of saying anything, raises his own glass in a toast before knocking half of it back, and it's the longest pleasant interaction they've had since they met.
Or, at least, it's the longest pleasant interaction they've had since they met until Bruce, drunker than he should be by a fair margin, bumps into Tony on his way to the bathroom. Things get a lot less pleasant after that.
"Christ, Banner, can't you watch where you're going?" Tony snaps, snatching for a napkin to try to mop up the whiskey he's spilled all over himself. "I don't exactly buy my clothes at the Salvation Army, fuck, like it wasn't enough that Barton shot up the Armani the other day--"
"Well, I wouldn't have if you'd been on your mark," Clint says from the next stool, bristling. "Or suited, like you were supposed to be."
"Sorry, can't hear you over the sound of how badly Bruce ruined this shirt. For god's sake, walk much?"
"I…sorry," Bruce says, reaching for the napkins himself, "I didn't mean to, I really am sorry, sometimes it's a little hard after I've been all--"
"Giant green rage monster, yeah, excuses, excuses," Tony mutters, and Clint narrows his eyes.
"Do you have to be such a dick all the time?" he says, while Bruce does an awkward little attempt at patting Tony dry. "I mean, shit, the guy said he was sorry. Were you not hugged enough as a child or what?"
Steve only sees it--the twist to Tony's mouth, the way he freezes up--because he's looking for something else. He's looking for Tony's next vicious retort, for the way his eyes go dark and hard before he moves in for the kill; usually Steve's the person on the receiving end of that, because no one else really tends to bother taking the bait when Tony throws it. But that's…hurt, isn't it, achingly obvious for the second it takes him to cover it, and even the cover's not great. Steve can still see something rough and raw in the way Tony shoves his hands in his pockets, in the way he cracks his neck like he's trying to shake something loose.
"C'mon, Barton," Tony says, his mouth twitching up in a lopsided smile, "think we all know how much I've been hugged--god, Bruce, quit it already, it's fine. It's just a shirt."
Steve watches for another minute, but Tony doesn't say anything else; he just waves Bruce away and grabs his drink, saunters off to the pool table in the far corner. Clint mutters something under his breath but lets it go, and Steve takes another long pull from his beer, turning more than just the flavor over in his mind.
They do a photo shoot for Time Magazine, Steve and Tony, fully costumed, a month after the night at the bar. Steve wants it to be the whole team, argues with Fury about it when he brings it up in a meeting--it's only fair that they be depicted together, share the credit, and admittedly he doesn't relish the idea of being anyone's publicity stunt. Fury stands firm, though, pushes that he and Tony are the most identifiable, the ones that'll really sell, and when he reminds Steve that SHIELD owes the city several hundred thousand dollars in damages already, Steve caves.
He doesn't realize his argument--which really had been about camaraderie, nothing more--must have offended Tony until the day of the shoot. They're in one of the Stark Industries limos Tony seems to have lined up and waiting for him wherever he goes, awkward silence rife between them; Tony's poking at one of the various pieces of glass he insists is a computer, nodding dismissively when Steve tries to engage him, not even bothering with an attempt at conversation.
Admittedly, this is how a lot of their conversations go, outside of the field. When they're fighting together, Tony's a different guy; pulled together and competent, Iron Man doesn't resort to argument for argument's sake, the way Tony so often seems to. Steve's not entirely sure what to make of it, but he remembers the way Monty was, those first couple of months--he'd drawn a very serious line between the business of destroying Hydra and what passed, in those days, for his personal life. Steve had known better than to push it, and he knows better than to push Tony now, lets the silence hang heavy until they've reached the warehouse where the shoot's being held.
Sure enough, the moment they're costumed, Tony gets looser. He throws an armor-clad arm over Steve's shoulder for the camera, cracks a couple of ill-advised but fairly amusing jokes; he's old hand at this kind of thing and it shows in the way he moves around the set, the way he greets the photographer like an old friend. It makes Steve feel a little less like he's going hear the strains of Star-Spangled Man filtering in through the window, and the two hours pass quicker than he'd expected them to, although not quite quickly enough.
It's only when they leave--out through the front entrance this time, since the loading dock they came in through is already occupied with a crew unloading the next shoot's equipment--that Steve realizes where they are. He hadn't placed it coming in, because everything looks so different, but this is--
"What's up?" Tony says, stopping in his tracks. "We got trouble?"
"Uh," Steve says, and blinks, trying to clear his head. "Oh! Oh, no, it's fine, I just. Uh. I…once tracked down a Hydra spy around here. Over there, actually, there was a…submarine, it's kind of a long story…"
"Oh," Tony says. His mouth quirks up in a strange little smile; Steve tries to focus on that instead of the incredibly unsettling moment of cognitive dissonance, that this place is still here, but nearly unrecognizable, too. "Yeah, huh, the time with the taxi cab door, right?"
"Yes," Steve says, surprised. "There was--how did you know about that?"
"My old man had a whole," Tony says, waving his hand. "Collection, I guess you could call it. I never got to see most of it, kept it in his study--but there was an article about you and the cab. Kept it framed in the living room, must've read it a hundred times when I was a kid, waiting for him to--anyway, I'd forgotten that was here."
"Howard kept a collection?" Steve says. "A collection of…newspaper articles about me?"
"Yeah, sure," Tony says. "Articles, memorabilia, whatever. There were comic books and stuff, I always wanted to read them--well, and I mean, the expedition that found you was ours, as it turns out. Always thought that billing code was for a secret kid he was putting through college or something, kind of a surprise when Fury told me. You wanna grab a burger?"
"Uh," Steve says, because that's a lot of information to take in at once. He's gotten about as far as Howard Stark never stopped looking for me when something shifts subtly in Tony's face, stutters back towards the distance he usually keeps.
"Check that," he says, "got a two o'clock, completely forget about it--I'm gonna take the suit, actually, since it's right here and all. Happy'll take you for lunch if you're hungry, though, he's good with burgers, you'll see."
He's engaged the suitcase armor--how he fits all that armor in a suitcase is honestly beyond Steve--and taken off a second later, before Steve gets the chance to press the point. Steve stays for a minute, hands brushing against the worn brick of the warehouse, before he sighs and goes to find the car.
The "philanthropist" part of Tony's "genius billionaire playboy philanthropist" comment turns out to be no joke. Steve doesn't realize it until a few weeks after that photo shoot, when he shows up for his weekly visit to Project Reach Youth to find a party going on in the administration offices. It's something he's been doing lately, volunteering the time he's not spending with the team--it had been Fury's suggestion, when Steve mentioned that he was a little at odds as to what do when they weren't working. He'd probably been thinking of the publicity, has been less than pleased with the fact that Steve flat-out refuses to draw any attention to it, and PRY itself had actually been Pepper Potts' tip.
"They focus specifically on disenfranchised youths in the Brooklyn area," she'd said, when Steve asked her for suggestions. "The head of development there is an old friend--do you have email set up yet? I'll have someone send along some information."
Steve had fallen in love at once--with the information he'd been sent and then with the organization itself, the dedication of the staff, the bright, brilliant kids he meets with every week. What they have him do changes whenever he drops in; sometimes it's tutoring and sometimes it's talking, and some days it's pickup games of basketball, painting, cleanup. He's got a standing time to come in that he never, barring urgent crime, misses, and he shows up unscheduled whenever he's got a free hour.
He's never seen the offices in this state, though, music blasting loud, volunteers drinking cheap champagne and fruit punch from the big jugs they keep in the fridge. Steve stands in the doorway, bemused but pleased--it's rare to see the staff here so relaxed, and he doesn't know what's caused it, but he's hesitant to interrupt. He just watches, a small smile quirking at his mouth, until Marie, the volunteer coordinator, spots him and hurries over.
"Did you," she says, with tears in her eyes, "did you do this, Steve?"
"Did I do what?" Steve says, mystified, and Marie shakes her head.
"We…we got a call," she says, "this afternoon, from the Maria Stark Foundation. And they're…Steve, we've been trying to get the funding to build the new facility for years. I don't know what you did, but I can't thank you enough."
"Wait," Steve says, "the Maria Stark Foundation?"
"Yes, they're, they're, it's more than we'd ever have dreamed of asking for," Marie says, shaking her head. "I don't know what you said to Mr. Stark, but just, thank you, and please thank him for us? We'll, we're trying to pull together an appropriate gesture but it's, you understand, we're a little overwhelmed."
"Of…course," Steve says, a little overwhelmed himself. "But I, you shouldn't thank me, I didn't have anything to do with--"
"The Foundation looks at hundreds of proposals every year," Marie says, shaking her head. "It's, really, there's so much need, and it's so hard to--you must have done something, Steve, to put us at the top of the heap. And, in any case, the good you do in coming at all--"
"Don't," Steve says, for the hundredth time, holding up a hand. "Being here does more for me than I could ever do for you, you know that," and Marie smiles, shakes her head.
"Have some champagne," she says. "The kids are already gone for the day, and we've put a temporary hold on everything to celebrate."
Steve looks around the room, something swelling in his chest that he doesn't know how to name, and shakes his head. "Sorry," he says, "but there's, uh. There's someone I need to talk to."
Tony's at Stark Tower--Steve knows, because he was downtown to begin with for a meeting there, only popped into PRY on a whim--and he walks the whole way there, trying to sort out his thoughts. He doesn't manage it, and he must make a strange picture when he throws open the doors of Tony's office, because Tony looks up from the designs he's got spread out across his desk and furrows his brow.
"Uh," he says, "I thought you…left?"
"Did you," Steve says, "my god, did you offer to build Project Reach Youth a new facility?"
"Now, see, that was supposed to be an anonymous donation," Tony says, rubbing the heel of his hand against his forehead. "It defeats the whole purpose when they stamp my name all over everything, seen enough of these things get overrun with greedy little shits covered in political aspirations, I'll have to make sure the Foundation follows up on that--"
"I, you," Steve says, "how can you just--how can you be blase about this, Jesus, that's so much money--"
"It's a tax write-off," Tony says, grinning slightly, his eyes far away. "C'mon, I needed that--look, seriously, don't get weird about it. The Foundation gives a ton of money each year, it's not even really me, it's not like I'm hurting for cash or anything."
"But you," Steve says, "but it's the--I'm there every week--"
"Well, yeah, obviously when I know someone," Tony says, waving a hand. "I mean, look, you talk about it enough, you keep trying to get us to go, maybe I felt a little bad that I didn't have time to stop in--"
"So you decided to build them a new facility?"
"No, the Foundation did that," Tony says, shrugging. "They must've had a hell of a proposal--I just told them to make sure they looked into it, that's all. I try not to meddle too much there, because, I mean, it's not like I know what I'm doing or anything--and, plus, that's the kind of thing my mother would've liked, probably, and it's all her, really. That's the whole point--she didn't like much, I don't think, but she really didn't like it when people weren't heard, or at least people that weren't--uh, anyway. I didn't really do anything, I just pointed them in the right direction or whatever, it's not a thing, don't worry about it."
And…and he's lying, Steve realizes after a second. He has to be lying, because that's the nervous babble he slips into when he's avoiding the truth, and he's twitching and god, maybe he didn't even want Steve to know he'd done it. He's--this is a version of Tony Stark Steve's never seen, someone shying away from the credit and trying to downplay his own involvement, and it's hard to match up with the guy who'd gloated when Steve mentioned the "assclowns" video to him.
Except maybe it's not, not really, and that's horrible and heartbreaking and Steve doesn't know him well enough to know how to say that, to even be sure if it's true. He just says, "Thank you," and Tony shrugs again, looks back down at his work.
"Seriously, it's nothing," he says. "Thank Pepper, if you want, she liaises with the Foundation more than me these days."
"I," Steve says, "I…will?" and Tony nods, waves a hand, dismissive.
"See you at the thing tonight, yeah?" he says, and Steve nods, slips out the door.
He starts paying attention, after that.
Which…it's not like he hadn't paid attention to Tony before. Tony is not someone who allows attention to be paid to anyone else; when he's in a room, he's the only person in that room, and he makes damn sure everyone knows it. It had struck Steve from the first as the kind of ostentatious posturing that's usually masking incompetence, and even once he'd discovered that that wasn't the case--Iron Man, for all his obnoxiousness, was a hell of an ally--it had still stuck in his craw.
But it's hard to dismiss Tony's antics as the fruit of too much money and not enough discipline in the wake of the work Project Reach Youth is doing, even harder when they're saving lives together nine days out of ten. Steve stops rising to his bait in meetings and starts listening to what he has to say; he doesn't always agree, but they're rarely unfounded arguments, regardless of how they're presented. He maintains the distance Tony seems to prefer, using his last name instead of his first and trying to avoid getting too familiar, but he allows himself to get a little more comfortable with the man, a little less armed for battle.
He's still not expecting it when Tony stops him in the hall, waves his hands around for a second, and then thrusts a piece of paper at him like it'll burn him if he holds onto it for too long.
Steve looks down at it, bemused, and then…oh. Oh, he remembers when this was taken, in that thrown-together base in London after the fourth Hydra raid; that cut running down Bucky's cheek was fresh off of a Tesseract-enforced knife, and he himself has a hand wrapped around one of Howard's failed attempts to sell him on new weaponry. Peggy had taken this photo, laughing at all of them from behind the camera, raising her eyebrows and the very corner of her mouth just for Steve, and he feels tears prick at his eyes, can't help it.
Tony's babbling something--"oh, god, just don't, don't cry, okay, because then I'll have made Captain America cry and I do not want Coulson to watch Supernanny while I drool, don't, please don't"--and Steve barely hears it, awash with a hundred, a thousand memories he's been trying to keep buried, that he's been too much a coward to touch.
After a second, enough filters through that he blinks and says, "I'm not crying."
Tony doesn't say anything; Steve thinks it's a kindness, perhaps, not calling him out on that obvious lie, until he glances up and sees the naked panic written on Tony's face. He can't quite bring himself to invest much focus on it, eyes drawn back to the photo; god, Howard mugging for the camera, Bucky's fist halfway to Dum Dum's bicep, it could be yesterday except for how it couldn't be at all. "Where did you get this?"
"You know the guy in the middle who looks like me was my father, right?" Tony says, voice still riding that manic edge. "That's registered for you, hasn't it?"
Steve looks up at him to nod and has to blink back tears again, because--because this is Howard's son, fifteen years older than Howard was the last time Steve saw him, and the terrible truth of his reality can be summed up with that fact, can't it, that Tony's here and Howard's not.
"I'm just…cleaning house," Tony says finally, like it's costing him money. "Trying to get rid of his shit, donating it, burning it, whatever, and I just thought--"
"You're burning Howard's things?" Steve says, horrified, before he remembers himself.
"Burning then," Tony says, nonchalant, waving a hand like it doesn't matter at all, "throwing them in the ocean, bathing them in acid, whichever you like. Getting rid of them, that's the point. The last thing I need is more memories of my old man, I'm full up, thanks."
And Steve would say something to that, he really would, because the idea of what remains of Howard falling into some uncrossable abyss is terrible, leaves something in him aching. But it's not his place, is it--because this is Howard's son, so those things belong to him, now. That which was Howard's is now, by any scale of measurement, Tony's to do with what he likes, and the fact that he'd been willing to give up this much is more than Steve has any right to ask for.
"I…thank you," he says, finally, clearing his throat around it. "He was my friend."
"Well, lucky you," Tony snaps, anger wiping across his face so quickly that Steve can't make sense of it at all. "He was my father; I didn't get that luxury."
He stalks away, down the hall, and Steve knows that there's something he's supposed to do here, but he's to wrapped up in the past to wrangle the present. He says, "Tony?" before he can think better of it, before he can remember to maintain distance, but Tony turns anyway, nearly at the door.
"What was he like?" Steve says, staring down at Howard in yellowed black and white, too hungry for the knowledge to worry about the consequences. "I mean…later. After I knew him. As a…well, as a father, I guess."
There's a long pause; Steve looks up, wondering if Tony's gone, only to see him standing stock-still, like he's being hunted. Steve feels his brow furrow, feels his mouth open and close again. His fingers flex against his thigh, unsure, the slip of paper heavy, suddenly, in his hand, before Tony finally speaks.
"Disappointed," he says, like it's being dragged wild out of his mouth, like he's uttering a confession, and he's gone before Steve can think of anything to say to that.
Steve can't help but feel a little overwhelmed at the size of the mansion when he shows up on move-in day. He's seen the place before, of course; there was that first time, when he'd come to apologize to Tony only to find him stubborn and impossible, and a few times since, when Happy dropped Tony off first before taking the rest of the team back to HQ. He's never been inside of it before, though, and he trails behind the rest of the team as Tony gives them a halfhearted tour, sounding like he doesn't know how he ended up in this position.
"So, right, uh, all the guest rooms have bathrooms, so that's not a thing," Tony says, waving a hand down an ominously long hallway. "Just pick one, I guess--except you, Cap, yours is over by the first floor living room, 'cause it's got the French doors and I know how you are about clear exits--"
"Thank you," says Steve, surprised by the thought there, at the same time Clint says, "Sorry, man, the first floor living room?"
"Well, one of 'em, anyway," Tony says, absent. "The other one's still under construction, the whole south wing's kind of shot. You can just ignore the work crews, Jarvis does security checks on everyone who comes in here--oh, right, I should probably--Jarvis, say hi--"
"Good afternoon, Avengers," says the crisp, British voice that Steve recognizes from their comm-link; everyone but Tony and Natasha jumps, looking around. "My apologies; I suspect Mr. Stark has not explained the full extent of my functionality and purpose. He tends to forget these things."
"Oh, good, that's good, slip a little lecture in, why don't you," Tony mutters, rolling his eyes. "Jarvis runs the house."
"I am, in fact, Mr. Stark's artificial intelligence," Jarvis corrects, in the tones of someone who has had this conversation several times before. "I run the house, as well as his assorted technological creations, up to and including his suit and your communications devices. Should you have any need of anything during your stay, please do not hesitate to ask; simply address me by name, and I shall do my best to assist you."
Steve would be taken aback by that, but many things about the future have turned out to be far and away beyond what he would've imagined, and, in any case, that's a Picasso on the far wall. The only person who looks rattled by the whole thing is Clint, and, considering his fondness for lines of sight, Steve's not particularly surprised.
"Right, yeah, that's better than what I'd've said," Tony says, covering a yawn with one hand. Steve narrows his eyes, noticing the dark circles he's sporting even though the criminal element has been quiet this week, narrows them further when Tony adds, "Actually, Jarvis, finish the tour, would you? I've got a thing running downstairs."
"Certainly, sir," says Jarvis. "How would you prefer me to manage it? Shall I use the LED systems, or would it be more to your liking that I advise them to follow the bouncing ball?"
"Ha-fucking-ha," Tony says, and that--the fact that Tony appears to have some sort of rapport with what he's just explained is a machine--well, that Steve finds a little disconcerting. "Just--I don't know, look around, and Jarvis'll tell you where you're going, or where you shouldn't go. You can pick your bedrooms, the ones you can't have are locked."
"Except for Cap," Bruce says, something strange in his tone, and Tony nods.
"Right, except for Cap," Tony says. "Or, look, uh, Cap too, you can pick a different one if you want--"
"No," Steve says, "the one with the doors will be perfect, thank you."
Tony gives him a strange little smile before his face hardens again. "Right," he says, "well, welcome home or whatever," and he disappears down the hall.
Steve's not sure why he follows him. Maybe he's just riding a long-honed instinct for trouble or maybe it's because he's noticed, since Tony originally offered to take them in, a certain hesitance about actually doing so. He feels vaguely guilty about that, honestly; when Tony made the offer, Steve had jumped to thank him for it, trying to maintain the good humor that seemed to be growing between them. He'd only realized on thinking about it later that Tony might not have meant to offer at all, that he might have unwittingly pushed him into doing so, though he finds that thought fairly incongruous; Tony's not the type to agree to anything he doesn't want to do, regardless of outside pressure.
Still, there's something itching at the back of his mind, so he slips out of the room after Tony. He catches up to him a few minutes later, leaning against the doorframe of a room he'd hurried them past, his back to Steve. Steve folds his arms over his chest, watches.
"Are you alright?" he says after a minute, and Tony yelps, spins around with his fists half-raised. Steve puts both hands up, calming.
"Sorry," he says at once, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
"Uh," says Tony. "No, it's…it's fine. You're fine. Sorry, just not used to…. yeah, uh, I'm fine. Don't worry about it."
"You seem a little," Steve says, waving a hand instead of finishing his sentence, and Tony laughs.
"I'm always a little," he says, mimicking Steve's gesture. "You'll get used to it, living here, I guess."
"Ah," Steve says. "Well, if you're sure."
Tony cocks his head. After a second, like it's a test, he says, "This was my dad's study."
"Yeah?" Steve says, trying not to sound too eager. Tony nods, distant.
"I kept it," he says. "The, uh, the stuff about you. I wasn't sure if you'd want it or not."
"I'm…honestly not sure about that myself," Steve admits. "I would like to see it, though, if you don't mind."
"Knock yourself out," Tony says, gesturing towards the room. "There's a cleaning crew coming tomorrow; I though, you know, people moving in, I should probably bite the bullet on getting stuff out. The stuff about you's in that box in the corner, but you can look through the rest, if you want, I pulled all the financial shit."
"Thank you," Steve says, and Tony smiles at him, a lopsided little quirk to his mouth.
"Yeah, well," he says, clapping Steve on the shoulder as he turns to go, "I think he probably liked you a lot better than he ever liked me. Figured I probably owed at least one of you this much, right?"
"Tony, I'm sure that's not true."
"Huh," says Tony. "Well, you'd know better than I would."
Steve has no idea what to say to that; Tony goes, and Steve doesn't follow him this time, knows a dismissal when he sees one. He settles himself down on the floor, starts flipping through the box of Captain America memorabilia. It's…strange, not in the least because of some of the dates on these things. There are comic books from as late as 1979; one of them features an illustration of a man who looks nothing like him, in a colorful shirt and strangely cut jeans, who answers to the name Stan Rogers. He smiles a little despite himself; he can imagine Howard's bark of laughter on finding this.
In fact, a number of the things he seems to have kept are things that got some essential fact wrong. That, too, is very Howard; he always was one for his own superiority, and it probably did something for him, knowing he was right, even if history wasn't. Steve plucks one or two things from the pile--the ridiculous comic, a plastic yo-yo with lights studding the side that looks a bit like his shield--and leaves the rest, figuring it would be a little self-congratulatory to hold onto all of it.
He's packing it up, getting ready to go, when a hint of white catches at the corner of his eye. It's poking out from behind the desk, and Steve narrows his eyes, leans over to pull it all the way out. It's a…photograph, of sorts, inside of a sort of thick, white cardboard frame, and there are marks on it where the desk had it pressed to the wall. The ink in this photo seems to have shifted slightly, dripped, almost; it must have been back there for years, and Steve holds it up to the light to see it more clearly.
It's Howard, older than Steve's ever seen him, hair gone white around the temples. He's got an arm around a man Steve doesn't recognize, a big guy, mostly bald; they're standing under a sign that reads "New York State Science Fair, 1976," and they're both smiling.
And, really, it would be a throwaway photograph, wouldn't hold Steve's attention at all, except for the boy in the far corner of the shot. He's got dark, messy hair and knobby knees, a frown on his face even though he's holding a trophy nearly as large as he is, and no one's standing with him; it's Tony, Steve realizes, couldn't really be anyone else.
He's crumpled it before he means to, without even realizing it, regrets it and smooths it out the moment he realizes what he's done. He hasn't done any permanent damage, but the act of getting it flat again doesn't do much to soothe his own sudden flare of anger, almost--but not quite--inexplicable.
He tucks the photograph in between the pages of the rescued comic book and goes upstairs, pushing at questions he's not sure he wants to answer. When he sees Tony that night at dinner, he makes sure to smile.
He gets a text message a month or so after he moves into the mansion, sitting in a meeting with Director Fury; it takes him a few minutes to remember how to open it, since the phone Tony'd given him pulls up new screens every time his fingers graze the surface. He gets there eventually, though, only to find the words "party @ the house, start time right now, consider this an fyi & an invite."
Steve sighs. On the one hand, it's Tony's house; if he wants to throw a party, Steve certainly doesn't have any grounds to stop him. On the other hand, he's been to two of Tony's charity events now, and he knows that Tony's idea of a good time doesn't line up, at all, with his own. He agonizes for a few minutes over his reply, settles on "DEAR TONY, I AM IN A MEETING WITH DIRECTOR FURY. I WILL ATTEND, BUT MAY BE QUITE LATE. SINCERELY, STEVE ROGERS," all in capitals because he can't actually figure out how to turn them off.
"Sure, whenever," he gets back a few minutes later, and a few minutes after that Fury adjourns their meeting, leaving Steve to his own devices.
And, well. The right thing to do, the polite thing to do, would be to go home and face the music--probably literally, given the volume that Tony tends to think is normal. He's not quite sure he's prepared, though, and ends up wandering the streets, enjoying the twilight quiet and trying to psych himself up. He buys a hot dog from a vendor on the corner, which is disgusting, but not as disgusting as it could be, and he finds himself on a bench in Central Park, his sketchbook balanced on his knees.
He draws what he sees, without any coherent plan behind it; a young boy laughing on his father's shoulders, a squirrel intent on rescuing some sort of wrapper from the garbage. There's an oak tree that's probably--not definitely, but probably--older than Steve, and he devotes a whole page to sketching it out, the lines thick with fellow-feeling.
It's been a few hours when he notices that he's doing it again. He's got this bad habit of imagining conversations with Peggy, what he'd tell her about this strange new world he keeps realizing he lives in, and it tends to crop up when he's drawing. He knows all too well that it's unhealthy, and, worse, that it's nonsensical; Peggy'd lived the years he'd slept, almost certainly knew everything Steve could think to tell her. But he can't quite help it, imagining the way her accent would roll across her vowels, how she'd snort at what passes for politics these days.
He misses her; not in the dark, crippling way he did at first, like it was going to eat him alive in that dank room at HQ, where everyone looked at him like an experiment or a ghost--but still, he does, more and less every day. She fades in and out of focus, leaving him panicked that he'll forget what she looked like until he remembers he has photographs, and when he looks down he sees he's sketched her next to the oak tree, eyebrows up, like she's scolding him.
He decides it's probably time to go home after that, music or no.
There is, sure enough, an audible aura around the house, something with heavy bass booming out from a few open windows, but there's only one car in the drive, and it's one of Tony's. Steve's confused until he goes inside, sees his team (and Pepper) in various states of intoxication, and realizes that "party" had simply meant "Avengers, getting drunk." He feels a little silly; he hadn't been prepared for one of Tony's lavish affairs, but he certainly could have handled this.
Then again, it's hard to feel silly when face with the image of Thor picking Tony up by the ankle and waving him in the air. Steve tries, and fails, to bite back a smile when Tony flails his arms, says, "Steve!" in tones of great surprise.
"Hi, Tony," Steve says, and he keeps most of the laugh out of his voice. "You guys look like you're having fun."
Then Thor lets out some kind of warrior cry and hurls Tony to the floor, at which point things become a lot less fun for everyone involved.
Steve doesn't know all that much about medicine; he has a soldier's grip on trauma, an understanding of the frailty of the human body that comes from being a nurse's son. It's enough to calculate that an impact with the floor at that force, from that distance, could've been enough to cause serious damage, and he's crouching down with panic flaring in his chest even as he hears Tony moan "Shut up, god, fuck," into the carpet.
He puts careful hands on Tony's shoulders--no response of pain, nothing shifting that shouldn't be--and waits a moment, until he sees Tony move his head, before he rolls him over. He half-expects to see blood and snow, just for a second, before he remembers that he's checking for injury, not battle wounds.
"Oh my god, Tony," he hears himself say, more frantic than he means to be, than he'd have expected himself to be, and tries to resist the urge to pat him down on the off-chance something's actually broken. "Are you okay? How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Uh," says Tony, squinting up at him. "Is this a trick question?"
Steve thinks concussion for half a second, out-and-out winded at the idea of Tony suffering brain damage, before he realizes that both of his hands are still on Tony's shoulders. Embarrassed at himself, he waves two fingers in front of Tony's face; Tony's answering babble is normal enough that he lets himself relax a little. He helps Tony up, then helps him stay up when Thor slaps him on the back; he glares, a little, over Tony's head, and Thor looks appropriately ashamed of himself, so Steve doesn't push it.
It's not until he realizes that Tony's not really capable of stringing a sentence together that he caves and says, "I think you've probably had enough to drink." He's careful to keep his voice warm, free of judgement--he's not sure how much of it is the alcohol and how much is a head injury he's not qualified to diagnose--but Tony narrows his eyes anyway, stiffens so instantly Steve winces in sympathy, and mutters something Steve can't quite make out.
He's weaving his way through the room a second later, favoring his right side so visibly that everyone stops and stares at him. Steve's pretty sure Tony doesn't even notice it, and he sighs when Tony snatches a decanter of what looks like whiskey from the bar and wanders out the back doors.
"That is an interesting look on your face, Captain Rogers," Pepper says, a little unsteadily, at his elbow out of nowhere. "Would you like to be the one to chase him down, or shall I do it myself?"
"So this isn't the first time he's done this, then," Steve says, not really a question, eyes fixed on the door Tony just walked out of.
Pepper sighs. "No, it's not. First time in quite awhile, though, if that helps."
"Is he always so," Steve says, and waves a hand. "Oh, I don't know--"
"Maudlin," Pepper provides handily, and then makes a face like that was, perhaps, more than she meant to say. "No, sometimes he's quite a cheerful drunk. Depends on the day."
"Fantastic," Steve says, under his breath. "Right, well, I'll get him a….glass of water or something…"
"Advil," Pepper says. "Cabinet over the sink, in the back, the white and green bottle. He'll thank you later."
Armed with water and the bottle, Steve goes outside; Tony's drunker than Steve's seen anyone since that time with Monty and the absinthe, and even that had been less…upsetting, Steve guesses, is the right word. Tony slips in and out of consciousness a couple times, clearly isn't aware he's doing it--he tells Steve he thought he was a dick the first time they met and then backpedals by offering up the fact that he doesn't think Steve would try to kill him. Steve's not sure what the worst part about that is--whether it's how readily this idea comes to Tony, how clearly he sees it as a forgone conclusion, or how little sense he's making.
Steve ends up talking about Bucky. He's not sure why, exactly; he hasn't mentioned Bucky's name since he woke up, because even after 70 years asleep it's too raw. He's still waking up from nightmares where Bucky's falling and Steve's reaching--but he's had one foot in the past all night anyway, and Tony's drunk and visibly heartbroken, even if Steve's not quite sure why. He talks about Bucky, just for a minute, and nothing terrible happens, the world doesn't fall apart, and he feels almost giddy until he notices Tony trying to fall asleep against the brick.
"Alright, up, up," he says, dragging Tony to his feet. Tony can barely walk, turns his face into Steve's shoulder and lets himself be dragged through the house, and Steve waves off the offers of help their teammates throw his way. If he knows Tony at all--and he does, he thinks, at least a little--it'll be easier for him to deal with the fact that this happened if he's given as little assistance as possible.
But Steve can't quite stop himself from stepping in when Tony collapses down across his bed, missing the pillows by a good half a foot, still fully dressed and clearly intending to sleep that way. He pulls Tony's suit jacket off first, as gently as he can, mindful of the fact that Tony's probably more injured from the incident with Thor than he's willing to let on; he gets his button-down next, then each of Tony's shoes, before he eases him up towards the pillow and pulls the blanket over him.
He's turning to leave, having already pushed things well beyond what's really acceptable here, when Tony makes a soft, strange little noise. Steve's eyes narrow, but Tony's just as asleep as he was a moment ago, sprawled out across the sheets. A nightmare, then, based on the way his face is twisted up; he mumbles something into the pillow, "Sorry," and then a word Steve doesn't understand, "owe me" or "obie" or something.
He's got a hand in Tony's hair before he can stop himself, stroking lightly, because just this minute he can't bear it, this loop they seem so stuck in. Steve knows there's something not quite right about what's going on between them, about the distance they keep pushing towards and then away from again; Tony's his best friend except on days when he isn't, and Steve's got feelings he doesn't know how to deal with on top of that, attraction or something like it burning hot at the pit of his stomach. It's not fair--Steve wants to be a good friend but he doesn't know how, not when it's all so tangled up in things Tony won't tell him and people he once knew, but maybe didn't know at all.
He runs his fingers through Tony's hair once, twice, doesn't stop even after the wrinkles in Tony's forehead have smoothed out and he's stopped with the pained, half-coherent mumbling. It's easier, isn't it, soft and so simple, a few swipes of his fingers saying things Steve isn't sure how he'd put into words.
"I don't know what I'm doing here," he says, and doesn't know how he means it--if here is 2012, or this bedroom, or the no-man's land he and Tony keep winding up in, where there aren't any rules, where there are no clear borders.