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History Lessons, Part Three

Fic: History Lesson, Part Three

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four


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.

-Part Four-