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A Solid Connection Part 2

Part 1


Steve stared at the door to the workshop, a tray of food in his hands as he wondered about his welcome. He hadn't seen Tony in a day or two, and when he asked JARVIS to relay a request for getting lunch together, he got no response. It was now dinner time, but Tony still hadn't come out.

While Steve knew that Tony had a kitchen down there (which Tony used like the comfort eater he was), part of Steve was just a little worried. So he ordered pizza, set up a tray with a couple of sodas (Tony would have whiskey down there already if he wanted a shot to go with his) and some napkins. That settled, he went down to the workshop, only to stare at the door.

"Is this a good idea, JARVIS?" he asked hesitantly. Because if Tony wanted company, he would have come out by now. Or at least he would have mentioned he was busy when Steve asked JARVIS. JARVIS's response that Tony wasn't available wasn't comforting.

"It's probably not, Captain Rogers," the AI replied. "But it appears to be one of the better outcomes according to my calculations."

"Is something wrong?"

"I am not at liberty to say," JARVIS said. "But if you are willing to try, the door will open for you, Captain."

Well, that wasn't cryptic at all. Still, his mother had taught him manners. "Thanks, JARVIS."

He put in his code, surprised to hear nothing but silence greeting him. The feeling of dread grew as he put down the tray and he saw that the workshop was a mess. There were burn marks from what looked like Tony's repulsors all over, and paperwork and parts littered everywhere. It was only the fact that JARVIS would have told the Avengers if there was an attack that Steve didn't raise the alarm himself. He was unwilling to break the silence, however, so he looked around, hoping to catch sight of Tony and get an idea of what this was all about. It wasn't until he saw Dummy in the corner that he noticed Tony was curled up on the ground next to the robot. He wasn't hiding, but he was out of view of most of the workshop.

At first, Steve panicked. Something was wrong and he didn't know how to handle this kind of wrong. Except he did. He really did. Because Tony wasn't crying or shaking like this was an anxiety attack. He was curled up in a ball, misery rolling off him in waves.
Tony was having a Bad Day, and Steve had plenty of experience with those.

A connection, Steve thought. That was what Tony needed. An anchor to keep him from moving too far away. Steve didn't rush forward, but moved quietly until he was sitting by Tony's side.

"Go away," Tony said, his voice muffled behind his knees. He wore one of the Iron Man gauntlets on one hand, and Steve looked over at the burn marks again. What could cause Tony to be this destructive?

Steve didn't follow that order. "Bad Day?" he asked instead, scooting closer so that he was shoulder-to-shoulder with Tony.

He didn't receive an answer. But then, he didn't need one, given the evidence. Tony was always in the room with Steve for his Bad Days whenever he wasn't at work, even if Tony was only sitting there with his tablet. That was before they'd even become friends, and it shamed Steve a little that he'd never noticed just how frequently Tony turned up. Steve also suspected Tony called the others in if he did have to leave. To return the favor was no hardship, even if Tony looked like it had been a day or two since he showered. Steve had seen and been through worse on the front lines.

He sat there, waiting for Tony to speak for an hour according to his internal clock. When Tony uncurled and rested his head against Steve's shoulder, Steve only acknowledged it by briefly resting his cheek against Tony's unruly hair.

"Life sucks," Tony said finally, a small shudder going through his body.

"Tell me about it," Steve replied, not really expecting an actual response.

He was very surprised when Tony answered him. "Obie's dead," he said blankly. "And I killed him."

Steve pulled up a mental image of Tony's file, searching for anything that would fit. Obie... Obidiah Stane? That was the man who had put out the hit on Tony, the previous CEO of Stark Industries. He cross checked the dates in his head, finding that today marked the anniversary of his death.

"He was the bad guy, right?" Steve said after Tony had fallen silent.

"He was a better father than Howard," Tony stated. He paused, then added, "Well, up 'til the fact he sold weapons on the black market, betrayed me, and tried to kill me. That was pretty crappy."

Steve flinched at Tony's words. The man who tried to have Tony murdered was a better parent than Howard? Steve forced himself to be calm, see things from Tony's perspective. Tony had known Stane for most of his life, according to his file. Stane must have stepped up to fill the vacuum Howard had left.

"Sometimes, I wonder if he'd always been after the money, or if he actually did care," Tony continued absently, as if he'd forgotten Steve was there despite curling closer against Steve's side.

There was an ache settling over Steve's shoulders. It wasn't like The Ache, but it was close. Different, in that it wasn't overwhelming. But it was strong, and part of him wanted to find a time machine to go back and take care of Stane personally, if just to spare Tony that death on his conscience. A bigger part just wanted to pull Tony into a hug and not let him go, but he didn't know how far to push Tony's boundaries at the moment.

"You still love him though," Steve said quietly. He heard a whirl and click from Dummy as the black arm lowered itself into Tony's lap, giving him something more to hold on to. Steve smiled at the bot, amazed all over again by the things Tony managed to create. Tony had a lot of love to give the world, except it kept spitting it back at him, and that made the new ache grow just a little.

"I don't," Tony said, but it lacked conviction. "He sold weapons behind my back, killed innocent people, and tried to kill me and Pepper. If he hadn't paid the Ten Rings to take me, Yinsen would be..."

Tony choked on the name, taking an unsteady breath. Steve didn't remember anything about a Yinsen in Tony's file, but he didn't interrupt to ask for clarification. Tony gave it to him anyway. "They brought him in to operate on me and killed his family in the process. He died when I tried to escape. That shouldn't have happened, not just because Obie wanted me dead."

For the first time there was more than blankness in Tony's voice. There was anger and raw pain that Steve wished he knew how to soothe. But when Tony spoke again, it was back to detachment, as if he couldn't handle the other emotions for too long without breaking apart. "I've only ever told Rhodey about Yinsen. He went back to look for a body, but the Ten Rings had already cleared everything out by then. I couldn't even give him a proper funeral.

"So I don't still love Obie. Because I shouldn't," Tony finished, stating it as if it were really that simple. Considering the state Tony was in, Steve didn't believe him.

"Thor still calls Loki his brother," Steve said, trying to sound normal despite the lump in his throat. "Are you saying he shouldn't love Loki either?"

"I don't know," Tony said with a heartbreaking amount of vulnerability. "I don't... I miss him, and that is all kinds of fucked up after what he did, but I can't..."

"It's okay," Steve said, soothingly. "It's not wrong to miss him, Tony. It's not wrong to love him still. He should never have done that to you, but you got yourself out. That's what matters. That doesn't mean you have to stop feeling."

"I can't..." Tony repeated, burying his face against Steve's shoulder. "I can't deal with this, Steve. Not right now. I can't..."

"I brought pizza," Steve said. "It probably has to be heated up, but we can eat. Then we can watch a movie and see if any of the others are around. Or it can just be you and me, if you'd rather."

He let his words sink in for Tony as the genius took shuddering breaths. Steve ran his hand through Tony's dark, greasy hair, wondering how it would feel if it were clean. "You don't have to do this on your own, Tony," Steve said. "We'll even help you clean up down here."

"Even Clint?" Tony said, sounding a little bit like his usual self.

Steve chuckled. "Even Clint. So what do you say?"

"It sounds good, Cap," Tony said quietly, but he didn't move from Steve's shoulder. And that was okay. Steve could wait as long as Tony needed, as long as this connection could go both ways.

* * *

Nothing overtly changed between them after that. Tony was still a bit of an ass, still pushing buttons, and Steve was still just a little too stubborn in refusing to let go of some things. But Steve started to catch unguarded smiles, and it might be his imagination, but Tony was a little more tactile. He lingered a fraction of a second longer when their hands brushed or when he pat Steve on the arm. Sometimes, Tony would stand just close enough that their shoulders bumped, and Steve would admit to himself that he liked these brief bursts of physical affection.

His mind kept returning to the question of 'she' though. He'd never forgotten the fight, and Tony still looked pleased whenever he caught Steve out on the dance floor. Not smug either, but a genuine smile that softened his features and brightened his dark brown eyes. Part of that, Steve was sure, was because Steve was starting to have less Bad Days. But another part of that smile wasn't wholly Steve's, and he wasn't sure he liked that without knowing who it belonged to. He couldn't help wondering every time he saw it, and he was pretty sure it wasn't Tony's mother by this point. He wondered if Tony trusted him enough for Steve to ask, or if he needed more time.

"When you social dance, you have to look out for your partner," Lizzie said one night. "Odds are at some point you'll end up on a crowded dance floor, and being thrown out into someone isn't fun, trust me."

"Or being thrown into someone's elbow," Victor muttered darkly, receiving his usual pat from Lizzie at the words. The man looked a little happier than usual though, so Steve took it as a good sign about Victor's mysterious boyfriend.

"Your partner needs to be able to trust and rely on you," Lizzie continued. "Thankfully though, most cases you'll just get a laugh if you mess things up. A few mistakes are natural, but too many and your partner constantly has to be looking over your shoulder for you, instead of having fun with the dance. Trust is what will change a good dance into a fantastic one."

A leader they can trust. Steve mulled over that as he spun Jane around in for an outside turn. Steve wondered if he'd earned that with the other Avengers. In the field, he doubted they could laugh off his mistakes. And Tony had never brought up this mysterious 'she' in any of their conversations so far. He wasn't sure if that was a lack of trust or something else entirely.

Steve was just going to have to keep trying harder.

* * *

Steve wasn't aware something was wrong until Natasha used Tony's given name on the field. Natasha was always very professional when it came to missions, and everyone became their code names or surnames. Steve wondered if it was to distance herself, or because she had no clear idea where 'Natasha' started and 'Black Widow' ended, a fact that bothered her more than she let on. It was a way to keep them separate, so she could be herself when they were relaxing back at the Tower, even when she was still searching for who she was in her off hours.

But when Natasha yelled "Tony!" instead of 'Stark' or 'Iron Man,' Steve felt fear in his gut. "Status," he forced himself to say as he ran through the halls of the Maggia stronghold.

The Maggia had stolen some of Tony's tech, and the team had offered to help him destroy it or take it back. Steve steadfastly ignored The Ache and the Bad Day he woke up with, because Tony needed help and evil didn't wait for depression to get better. It was hard, but not the first time Steve had forced himself through a mission. But if the Maggia was advanced enough to steal Tony's tech, Iron Man could be vulnerable as well, and Steve cursed himself for not thinking of this earlier. He couldn't afford The Ache to cloud his thinking and get his friends hurt.

"Tony's down," Natasha said curtly. "There was an EMP, but the suit also looks totaled. I'm trying to get him to - damn it."

"Widow, report!" Steve demanded.

"The Maggia's thugs found us. Back up would be appreciated."

Steve was too far from their position, being two floors down. "Is anyone close?" he asked as he took out a few of the scientists who tried to power up one of the experimental weapons.

"The way's blocked from this end," Clint said with a hint of frustration and worry slipping through his cool facade. "I don't want to chance explosive arrows and bring the rest of the building down."

Thor chimed in after. "I have found the stolen weapons. It appears the blueprints they stole for this 'Jericho' missile are more complete than our Shieldbrother feared. I cannot leave it unguarded."

Steve heard the Hulk roar even out side of the comms, and the sound was blind frustrated rage. Steve assumed that meant he couldn't get through either.

"Coming," Steve grit out, changing his course. He was supposed to be going after the head of the family, but he couldn't afford to lose two teammates. "Widow, hold on. Hawkeye, Hulk, take over finding the leaders of this operation."

"Copy that, Cap," Clint said. Natasha merely grunted and Steve couldn't tell if that was a grunt of pain or agreement. He took out his frustration on a door that was blocking his way.

"Watch out," Natasha gasped. "There's something... There's something on their blades. Probably.... probably poison."

Clint swore over the comms, and Steve nearly dropped his shield. He pushed through the halls, racing to the stairs. "Do you need-" Thor started to say.

"Stay with the weapon, Thor," Steve said despite how giving the order ripped his heart in two, telling Thor to stay away. "Unless you can destroy it without blowing this place up or disarm it, then we can't afford to let that fall into their hands." Tony would never forgive them if they failed. If he survived to be angry at them.

Steve shut down that thought as he jumped over the railing down a flight of stairs, putting it down to The Ache acting up. He couldn't afford to think that way. When he burst through the stairwell door, he barely got a glance at all of the bodies when he had to bring up his shield to block a Widow's bite. "Natasha, it's me!" Steve said as he dodged a kick.

Natasha paused, listing to the side as she tried to focus her eyes. "Cap?"

"Yeah, it's me," Steve said, approaching her carefully. When she slumped against him, he caught her. "Natasha, you-"

"-'m fine. Check Tony," she said, but she let Steve guide her to sit down before he barricaded the door to keep out any unwelcome guests.

"You're not fine," he said, trying to keep an eye on her while looking for the armor. Panic was threatening to take over, but Steve pushed it back down. This wasn't like the time on the train. He couldn't afford to break down right now. "You've been moving around and letting the poison work faster through your system."

Natasha looked about to argue, but Clint cut in through the comms. "Steve will take care of things, Nat. Just stay still for fuck's sake."

"Yeah? Why should I?" Natasha slurred, though she stopped trying to stand to follow Steve.

"I'll come quietly to dance class?" Clint offered. Steve could hear the unguarded worry in his voice.

"I'll consider it," Natasha said, her eyes unfocused, but with a faint smile on her face.

Then Steve caught sight of the armor, and his heart nearly stopped. "Tony..." he said, rushing over to where the armor was lying limp and dark. For a moment the panic took over, before he remembered that the arc reactor wasn't keeping Tony's heart beating any longer.

The armor was a mess, broken and dented with jagged edges that Steve was terrified of moving in case it was just as sharp on the inside of the suit. The face plate was up, which was a relief, because Steve could see the short, shallow breaths as Tony's lips moved. "Tony? Come on, wake up."

He looked over to Natasha for a sitrep, but Natasha's eyes were closed as she slumped forward. He had to lunge to catch her. "Natasha?"

"Cap, what's going on?" Clint demanded.

"She's out, and Tony... I can't do anything."

"Cap, calm down," Clint said with enough power behind his voice to get Steve to listen.

Steve took a deep breath and realized he was shaking as he pushed some of the hair out of Natasha's still closed eyes. "I can't lose anyone else," he said, desperately trying to pull himself together. He couldn't afford this right now. He couldn't think of trains, of Bucky falling while Steve could do nothing to help. He...

"You won't," Clint said forcefully. "They're tough. They'll get through this."

"Aye, we will do what we can for our friends," Thor said, though Steve could hear the helplessness in his voice as well.

"We can't do anything for Natasha right now, but SHIELD's incoming. She'll be fine until we can get her an antidote. Focus on getting Tony out of the armor, and see how bad it is," Clint said calmly.

"The Maggia-"

"They're gone." Steve let that sink in. Not only had he failed his team, but he failed the mission as well. He clutched Natasha's prone form against him, struggling to breathe. He didn't have time for The Ache to take over. They were depending on him. He closed his eyes and gave himself a mental shake.

"Okay," he said, feeling not steadier, but able to function. This was why he hadn't tried to make connections since waking up. He didn't know how it would affect him on the field, and he wasn't sure he could keep going if this kept up. The connection was snapping instead of steadying him.

He put Natasha in a recovery position that was close enough to Tony that he could still reach out to her, then he tried to find the hidden catches on Tony's armor. JARVIS was offline, so he couldn't ask for further information. He didn't want to jostle Tony too much either, in case his spine was damaged. "What's SHIELD's ETA?" he asked.

He heard both Thor and Clint breathe in relief over the comms. "Ten minutes," Clint said. "And it looks like the Hulk's ran out of things to smash, so we might have Banner back soon."

"Send him down as soon as he's able," Steve said, reaching for the jagged edge on Tony's torso.

But as soon as he shifted it, Tony started gasping worse than he had been before. "Tony?" Steve asked, seeing the panic in the now open brown eyes. "It's okay. You're okay."

"Can't..." Tony said hoarsely as he gasped. Tony tried to move, but he could barely struggle to lift an arm. He pointed to his neck. That was when Steve saw it, how the armor was pressing down against his neck.

Steve swore.

His hands moved without thinking, searching for a way to lift the metal without hurting Tony further. Had the last time he'd moved it pressed it further against Tony? As much as he wanted to yank the suit off, he lifted carefully, watching Tony gasp and cough for breath. "It's okay," Steve said, moving to support Tony's head now that the neck brace was gone. He ran his free hand through Tony's hair. "Just breathe. You'll be okay. Anything else I need to remove?"

Tony shook his head, starting another coughing fit. "Leave him in the armor if you can," Clint said over the comms. "It'll be better support if nothing else is wrong."

"I don't like how it's dented inward," Steve replied. He shifted Tony until his head was resting in Steve's lap, freeing up his hands to check on Natasha. She was clammy and cold, but still breathing. Tony, on the other hand, was still gasping. Hyperventilating? How long had he been unconscious while his body struggled for oxygen?

"Easy. Deep breaths, Tony," he said, ripping away at the armor covering Tony's chest to make sure that it wasn't part of the problem. The metal sliced through Steve's fingers since his new gloves didn't cover them, but he didn't care about that right now. "SHIELD ETA," Steve demanded again as he tossed the metal aside and watched Tony's chest rise and fall.

"Seven minutes," Clint supplied without any mockery for Steve's impatience.

"We don't have seven minutes. Tell them that's not good enough," Steve snapped.

Clint almost sounded gleeful. It was enough to cover the worry and fear he was hiding underneath, but Steve still heard it anyway. "Will do, Cap. I'm almost to your position now as well. Hang tight while I tell SHIELD Captain America says they're not doing good enough."

Steve didn't have the heart to tell him to play nice, knowing it was part of how Clint coped. Instead, he tried to remember all the things he had to do to help with asthma when he was a child. "Match my breathing, Tony. Come on. You can do it. Breathe with me," he said soothingly.

Steve clutched at Natasha's hand like a lifeline as he watched the two of them breathe. Part of him was terrified of blinking, just in case one of them stopped. He'd blinked and then Bucky was gone. He couldn't deal with that again.

When backup finally arrived, they rushed Natasha away, but Tony merely had a concussion and minor hypoxia. All of the other scrapes and bruises were mostly cosmetic, the armor taking the worst of the beating. His chest was bruised where the armor had pressed too hard though, making the hypoxia worse, and Steve tried not to think about how if Tony had had the reactor still in, he'd probably be dead with its added weight.

They set Tony up with an oxygen mask and let Steve sit with him after Clint promised he'd stay with Natasha and keep them updated. Steve didn't think he could have moved to be honest, because Natasha felt so far away and Tony was... The Ache set in fast and hard, and Steve didn't know what made him feel more helpless, The Ache or the fact he could do nothing but wait.

He lost track of time when Bruce came in. Tony was sleeping and the bruises around his neck were starting to turn ugly shades of black. If Steve had gotten there sooner, Tony wouldn't have had to wear the brand of Steve's failure.

"The doctors say Natasha will be fine," Bruce said quietly by way of greeting.

Steve let out a breath of relief, slumping onto the narrow bed Tony was laid out on. He had failed them as a leader, but at least they got out of the mess regardless. "Thank God," he said, lightly squeezing Tony's hand.

"When Tony wakes up, you should let him know that Thor is standing guard over the weapons still," Bruce said with a small smile. "He won't let even the SHIELD agents near them."

"He'll be glad to hear it," Steve said. He traced down the line of Tony's palm with his thumb, almost envying Thor for being useful. Steve's fingers were still scarred from earlier, and the scratches burned as he touched Tony's skin, but they'd heal soon. Tony's bruises would take far longer to disappear.

"You look like you could stop beating yourself up," Bruce said, resting a hesitant hand on Steve's shoulder.

Steve looked away, the guilt stubbornly clinging on. "It was my plan that nearly got them killed," Steve said. "I spread us too far apart. And I should have realized that if they'd been stealing Tony's tech, it would have made him more vulnerable."

"Steve, that's the depression talking. You spread us out so that we could root out this branch of the Maggia once and for all. That's not-"

"But we didn't, did we?" Steve asked. "I failed that too. I can't..." He ran a hand through his hair. "I've had botched missions before, but this..."

Before, he had Bucky and Peggy to talk him down. Now he'd nearly killed two of the only anchors he had in his life. How would they be able to trust him after this? He was on too unsteady of a position in this time and-

Steve was pulled out of his guilt by something soft and plastic hitting his head as Bruce stifled a laugh. The oxygen mask? He looked up from where it fell in his hands to see a grumpy Tony glaring at him. "No guilt trips by my bedside," he croaked, his voice hoarse and raw like every word was painful to say.

Bruce helped Tony drink some water as Steve refused to meet his eyes. "Tony... that's not... How can you follow my lead any more when it nearly got you and Natasha killed?"

"Idiot," Tony said, taking the oxygen mask out of Steve's hands, only to throw it at Steve's head again. This time it was Steve's turn to glare.

"Tony, be nice," Bruce admonished.

"Still an idiot," Tony said, smirking despite the pain he must be in when Bruce hummed in agreement.

"Tony, this isn't a game or a joke," Steve said, feeling anger pulse through him.

"You had our backs," Tony said, looking around presumably for something more to throw at Steve until Bruce lightly slapped his hand away from the paper cup.

"I let the head of the Maggia get away, left my position, and nearly got the two of you killed." Steve forced himself not to yell or the nurses would shoo him out for being disruptive. Then he really would be useless, and he wasn't sure he could handle that.

"He's stubborn," Bruce said.

Tony looked heavenward in exasperation, then heaved a sigh. Except that ended in a coughing fit that made Steve feel even worse. "We get the Maggia later," Tony said, waving his hand dismissively. "Stopped plans. Kept weapons guarded. You had our backs instead. Still trust you, idiot."

"I..." No one else was blaming him, even though he'd failed them. Duty and obligation and these standards everyone placed on him were crushing him, and neither Bruce nor Tony seemed concerned that he couldn't keep holding them up on his shoulders.

After lightly tracing the scars on Steve's hands, Tony pulled his own hand away as Steve rested his head against the bed, The Ache making it too hard to lift. He felt Tony smooth down his hair, carding through it with the same precision in his hands that he used to repair the armor. "Idiot," Tony said again, with a fondness that shocked Steve. "No one's perfect. Not even living legends. Just 'cause you make mistakes doesn't mean you failed us. Still had our backs. Trust me. Genius."

Steve drew a sharp breath, closing his eyes as he felt Tony's fingers continue to toy with his hair. It wasn't Bucky's arm around his shoulders, and it wasn't Peggy's calm words, but it anchored him down when he felt too far adrift, reaffirming the connection that had faltered, but not broken. It pulled him back to the team.

"Come on. You need more rest and the oxygen you're wasting," Bruce said, presumably replacing the oxygen mask when Tony's muttering became muffled. Steve still couldn't quite raise his head to see. "You can both visit Natasha later. I'll go keep Thor company until you can take the missile apart."

"Thanks," Tony said, fingers trailing down to brush against Steve's cheek.

"Anytime, Tony. And I mean all of us," Bruce said as he left, the sound of the door closing behind him softly, letting Steve know they were alone again.

"Idiot," Tony said again. It sounded sleepy, and Steve could only form a wordless sound of agreement from his constricting throat. "Our idiot."

That startled a laugh out of Steve. He didn't know where he stood in this new world, but he couldn't argue if they were going to trust him regardless. He needed that as surely as he needed to drag in his next breath. "Okay," he agreed when he could speak again, his voice sounding almost as choked as Tony's. "Don't know why you'd want a relic like me, but-" He felt the sharp tug on his hair, but didn't protest. "Yours," he finished simply.

"Ours," Tony repeated. Steve finally managed to look up to see Tony smiling behind the oxygen mask.

When Tony fell asleep again, Steve didn't dislodge his partner's hand from where it rested possessively on his head. Pepper's words floated back to him. 'Besides, more partners mean you learn more and become a better dancer, rather than just learning one partner's tricks.'

As long as it was the Avengers, Steve decided Pepper might just be right.

* * *

Dance class that week felt off. Natasha and Tony both refused to let the others cancel the class because they were still recovering, but the big dance floor felt emptier with one less couple on it. Steve kept waiting to hear Tony's laugh, but every time he thought he heard it, he'd turn and realize it was just his imagination.

"You do not seem yourself tonight, my friend," Thor said while Lizzie was going over the girls' footwork.

"It just feels a bit strange without Tony and Natasha," Steve replied.

"You worry." Thor placed a hand on Steve's shoulder, squeezing it gently.

"I'm not worried exactly," Steve said, feeling frustrated with himself. "I'm..."

A look of understanding dawned in Thor's storm-like eyes. "You are lonely."

That was ridiculous, because he was standing in a room full of people - people that Steve considered to be partners and friends - and that was being unfair to them, that without two people (though if he were honest, it was more a specific one) he felt off. Steve felt a little guilty at the thought.

Thor chuckled softly. "Do not fear, Steven. I do not hold this against you. But until our friends return to our lessons, the rest of us will work hard to distract you from the hole they leave. We all feel their loss as well."

"Yeah?" Steve asked.

"Aye," Thor replied. "Now, come. Let us study this step so that we might make our Shieldbrother and Shieldsister proud."

Thor had an awfully funny way of putting things sometimes, but Steve felt a lot better for it.

The next week Natasha and Tony refused to sit out. Natasha still looked pale and Tony wore a high collar to hide the lingering bruises, but none of them were quite willing to face their wrath and tell them no. Clint and Steve privately agreed that a team-up of Tony Stark and the Black Widow was slightly terrifying, and it was not worth putting up a fight.

And Steve was awfully glad to hear Tony's voice (still a little hoarse, but improving) as he went tête-à-tête with Darcy over his dance prowess. The hole that had been there last week filled again, and Steve wondered when he'd actually have to stop and think about this.

* * *

Steve and Tony didn't have a set place for their lunches. Tony was mercurial in his tastes when in a good mood, consistent when he was in a bad one. Some days they would hit ethnic food from all over the world, fancy up-scale restaurants, and places Steve could never afford, and some days were for simple, home-cooked burgers or a hole-in-the-wall French place that no one recognized them at. Tony had a particular fondness for Burger King, and Steve happened to like a little diner run by a couple just out of college with a passion for food. So they frequented those, but at other times, they let JARVIS roll the dice and call the shots.

Today they found themselves at a little Italian place that felt homey and warm. Steve liked the atmosphere and Tony was practically moaning over the food, so he put it on his mental list of places to come back to.

Steve bit his lip as Tony inhaled his plate of spaghetti with a look of pure bliss on his face. He'd rather have this conversation over burgers, but Tony had wanted to be adventurous today. He'd put off asking for a while, because their friendship had been so strained at the beginning, but now...

Now he sat across from Tony and couldn't imagine going back to the way things were before. Steve still had Bad Days, but there were less of them than there used to be. He had friends now, who weren't just background noise to fight off the worst of The Ache, but ones that he could look up occasionally to see how much they cared. Maybe the cold and the nightmares would never go away, and he'd always miss the life he'd lost by putting that plane down in the ice, but now he had ways to warm up again. It made things more bearable, easier to breathe when obligation and duty threatened to strangle him. And that all started with the man in front of him, inviting them all into his home and taking up dance lessons.

He hoped Peggy would be proud that he'd learned how to dance finally, even if part of him still regretted that she wasn't the one to teach him herself.

"Tony," he said, gathering up his thoughts. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Shoot, Cap. Though, technically, you just asked one," Tony said without any hesitation.

Steve on the other hand, chose his words with care, not sure how touchy a subject this would be. "Back when you set up the dance lessons, you said she wanted me to dance. Can you tell me what you meant by that?"

Because Steve had been wondering for a while now. Who would mean that much to Tony that he'd fly off the handle like that? And why? It couldn't have been his mother, who seemed to be responsible for some of the few happy memories in Tony's childhood.

And even if it was someone Tony cared about, there was more to it than just that. That was too simple of an answer, if it had been that. Steve would have been shut out with a few scathing remarks, not a bloody lip. No, Steve had said something that hit deeper, more personal, than just that. Tony had mentioned something about always being second best, but that didn't make sense at all. 'She' couldn't be referring to Howard.

He saw Tony tense and wondered if it was still too soon to be asking. That thought hurt, but he was starting to realize it wasn't because Tony didn't trust him, but because Tony wasn't ready to deal with things. "Damn," Tony said, putting his fork down. "I guess I'd hoped you'd forget about that part of the fight. I didn't really apologize for... I'm sorry about hitting you. That was crossing the line."

Steve nodded, accepting the apology, late as it was. Tony had crossed the line, but Steve had come to understand that he'd had reasons for it. "It's okay," Steve assured, confident that Tony wouldn't react like that now, even if he was pushed to be that angry again. Steve hoped he himself knew better than to let things get that far again. "Just, can you tell me why it happened? Who is she?"

"Steve, I'm not sure..."

"You don't have to tell me if it's painful," Steve reassured him.

"It's not like that, but you..." Tony started, only meeting Steve's eyes for a brief moment before looking down. "Look, you know what Howard did after the war, right?"

"The file said he helped start up SHIELD," Steve said, not adding that Howard had looked for Steve. That was a touchy subject.

A look of hurt crossed Tony's face before it was hidden by bitterness. "Of course they'd give you that information," he heard Tony say under his breath, making Steve wonder when Tony had found out. Then louder, "He wasn't the only one though, you know? A lot of the guys from your old unit helped as well."

Steve swallowed, pushing back The Ache that thinking about the files of his old friends stirred up. "Yeah. They gave me files on everyone after I..."

Tony's head shot up sharply. "What the fuck? They gave you files of the people you were closest to? And SHIELD thought this was a better idea than that fucked up hospital farce? The least they could have done was have someone there to tell you in person!"

To be honest, he'd been glad no one had been there to see him as he went through those files. There had been no one to break it to him gently back then, and the impersonal files were less painful. He couldn't let Tony be distracted by that though. Not unless he wanted a rant on SHIELD rather than his answer. "Tony," he said gently.

"Yeah, yeah," Tony said, though Steve could still see the righteous anger in his eyes. It warmed something in Steve that the memories had left cold, seeing Tony so furious on his behalf.

"Steve," Tony started, back to the tentative looks. "I... I don't know if I should be telling you this."

"I told you, if it-"

"No, it's not that." Tony tapped at his chest, right where the arc reactor used to be. It was a habit Tony was never quite able to drop. "You..." He sighed, closing his eyes. "I didn't know why they were around so much back then, but some of them stuck around after business was concluded to see me when I was younger. One in particular," he said finally.

Steve felt the breath rush out of him, as if Tony had physically punched him in the gut. "Peggy," he whispered, shutting his eyes tightly against the thought. It all fell into place, all making sense now. And God, he'd yelled at Tony, saying he didn't care what she wanted not knowing... No small wonder Tony had hit him. He almost wanted the split lip back, because how could he have said that about Peggy, the woman he'd been saving up to buy a ring for? How could he have-

"Hey," Tony said, and Steve felt a hand covering his. "Hey, Steve. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have... I should have kept my temper back then. I'm sorry. Steve! Hey, talk to me. Steve..."

"I..." Steve said, sucking in a breath. "She wanted me to dance."

"Yeah," Tony said, keeping his eyes downcast. He didn't move his hand, and Steve was grateful. "Aunt Peggy sometimes told me stories about you."

Steve held back the flinch from hearing the words Aunt Peggy, but only just. He wondered what she had thought of Howard's parenting skills. For a moment, he was irrationally jealous, because Tony got to be part of her life when Steve couldn't, but he kept that emotion firmly in check. That sort of thought would do him no good.

"I hated her sometimes," Tony admitted quietly, and that nearly snapped Steve's temper. "She was strict, and Dad always gave her attention when she had something to say. And she'd look at me sometimes and tell me I needed to clean up my act, because all the shit I did wouldn't make Howard..." Tony faltered, stumbling over the words. "It wouldn't make Dad pay attention to me, not in the way I wanted."

And Steve was torn. He was torn between wanting to defend Peggy, wondering how she could have been harsh to a child like Tony, and wanting to know how Tony couldn't see past that to how amazing she was. He didn't know what to say, so he stayed quiet, though he was tempted to pull his hand away from Tony.

"Sorry," Tony said after a moment. "You probably didn't want to hear about that. She was... She and Obie, they kept me from flying off the rails, and part of me always resented that a little, despite the fact I know I should be grateful. She came by when I was in college. I don't know if Howard sent her to knock some sense into me or if she just came on her own. She took one look at me and declared me pathetic.

"Then she threw out all of my stockpile and told me I wasn't going to waste my mind on drugs. She helped me through the withdrawals," Tony said, his eyes hazy with the memory, far away and in a dark place Steve could only shudder to think of.

It made something go cold in Steve, thinking of Tony on drugs. He'd used some of what were now considered illegal drugs before the war to ease his asthma, but he'd also seen some of the kids the Maggia had been dealing to. The thought of Tony, bright, fiery Tony, looking so out of it made him cold in ways not even the ice had. "She probably saved your life," Steve said.

"Not just probably," Tony said ruefully. "Anyway, as part of getting me clean, she dragged me and Rhodey to dance lessons. She'd learned it on some undercover mission, and it just kind of stuck with her."

"She taught you swing," Steve said.

"She taught me swing," Tony echoed with a soft smile. Whatever Tony had said about hating her, Steve realized with a start, Tony still loved her. He had seen through the strictness to how amazing she was, and Steve felt a bit guilty for assuming he hadn't. It sounded like Peggy had been hard on him, but also that she cared.

"She loved dancing," Tony continued, lost in a memory. "She was beautiful in red, no matter how old she got. And after she got too old for field work, she said dancing was one of the only things that made her feel alive anymore."

Steve closed his eyes, picturing her in that red dress, with Bucky saying 'I've turned into you,' as he watched her leave. She must have been a sight, gliding across the dance floor, even as he tried to picture the laugh lines and crow's nests around her eyes, seeing her as Tony must have seen her. Tough, but breathtaking as the hard lines melted into the smooth dance he'd been learning.

"She told me once that you'd never learned how to dance," Tony said, his voice breaking through Steve's thoughts like a stone thrown in the water, rippling outward. "And that sometimes when she was dancing with other guys, she would imagine it was you. I got a bit jealous of that, 'cause I could always see when she did it."

Steve opened his eyes to see Tony blushing faintly. "Can we just forget I said that?" Tony pleaded, sounding a little horrified.

Steve put two and two together, finding the result surprisingly more adorable than he expected. "The first time you were sweet on someone?" Steve asked, a bit of teasing slipping into his tone. Even though it was a weak joke, it had been natural despite his current emotional turmoil, and he hadn't expected that. When had he gotten so comfortable with Tony that he could tease him like he used to tease Bucky?

"I'll have you know I lost my virginity before I went to college," Tony said, though he mumbled something that was suspiciously like a confirmation about the crush bit even if not the first.

Steve didn't want to think about the fact that Tony was having sex before the age of fifteen. Tony wouldn't want the sympathy, and Steve didn't want the fight. He couldn't help but feel a little sad on Tony's behalf though.

Besides, he couldn't blame Tony for having a crush on Peggy. The mental image, though tinged with melancholy, was kind of sweet as well. He wondered what it would have been like if he hadn't gone down in the ice. Could he have helped Tony from having to go through that? Would he have teased Peggy about Tony's crush on her? Would... Would he and Peggy have taught Tony how to dance, instead of Tony setting up lessons for him?

"Anyway," Tony said forcefully, the hint of a flush not quite gone from his face. "She talked about you. And she said she wished you'd known what dancing was like, before you went down."

"She wanted me to dance," Steve finished sadly. She wanted him to understand something she loved, and he hadn't been able to keep that promise.

"Steve," Tony said, looking away again. "I'm sorry. I didn't want..."

"Don't," Steve said, uncertain if his voice was soft due to the pleading or to cut off Tony's guilt. "I'm glad you told me."

"Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," Steve lied.

"No, you're not," Tony said.

"If you knew that, then why did you ask?" Steve said. He didn't quite snap at Tony, but it was sharper than Steve had intended it to be, and Tony pulled back, taking the warmth of his hand with him.

"I..." Tony said.

Steve sighed. "I'm sorry," he said, rubbing at his eyes with his now freed hand. "You're right. I'm not."

The rest of the meal was spent in awkward silence as Steve tried to process everything. He avoided Tony for the rest of the day, only leaving his room to force himself to eat, since he couldn't be caught with his strength down.

The next day was a spectacularly Bad Day. Steve couldn't find the will to get out of bed, even his usual stubborn insistence he get up had all but disappeared. What would Bucky think of him now, all that stubbornness finally defeated by something as simple as depression? Not even the Depression had managed that. He knew he needed breakfast, but instead he stared at the ceiling as The Ache crept through him.

At noon, there was a knock on his door. Steve didn't answer, but the door opened anyway. "Steve?" he heard Tony's voice say. "JARVIS says you're still... Steve."

Steve closed his eyes, knowing that he was only making things worse. He was letting Tony down, and now Tony would feel guilty on top of that. He wasn't sure he could follow if Tony wanted him to leave the room right then either.

Tony didn't try to get him to leave though. He pulled up the chair by Steve's drawing table, pulling out his tablet. "JARVIS, music please," he said, and a mix of songs started to play as he worked, both of Tony's usual music and songs Steve knew were tailored more to him.

Tony couldn't stay for long, but Clint came by before he had to leave, most likely summoned by JARVIS. "Are you sure we should-" Clint started to say, looking at Steve's bed. Steve didn't have the energy to acknowledge him. "What if he doesn't want us in here?"

Tony sighed. "Then he'd have told me to get out. He always comes to us on bad days. And if he can't come to us..."

"We come to him," Clint said with the sort of determination reserved for missions. Then more cheerfully, "Then sure. Sounds like a plan."

Clint took the chair Tony had vacated, wincing at one of Tony's songs as it started to play. "JARVIS, can you cut the music? And cue up Die Hard. It's time for Christmas in July."

"The movie certainly does portray the spirit of Christmas, Agent Barton," JARVIS replied sarcastically with a hint of disapproval.

"Yippie Kay-Yay, JARVIS!" Clint said with a laugh. "Yippie Kay-Yay."

The rest of the Avengers took turns sitting with him, and by the end of the day Steve was in his usual spot in the kitchen, managing to force down dinner while he read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The next day was better, and by the end of the third day, he felt human again. He asked Tony if he wanted to go for lunch the next day, and the look of open relief in Tony's eyes eased the last of The Ache's hold on him. It would come back, he was sure, but he wasn't alone in fighting it. And that made it bearable.