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Blowing Soap Bubbles at the South Pole

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Prologue
New York, Spring
The future

 

 

EXTERNAL TEMPERATURE: 2.7 KELVIN
VELOCITY: 1,798,752 KM/SEC
ALTITUDE: INFINITE

 

It could have been any bar in any city in the American subcontinent. The tables were small, the lighting dim, and the decor generic. There was a games room with a pool table, and a jukebox on the wall, silent. The Budweiser sign above the mirror was flickering, but the shelves were stacked with polished glasses and bottles and the optics gleamed. In the far corner two young men with beards and glasses had their heads bent over a lightwell tablet, and there was an elderly woman on a stool at the bar, her eyes moving with the ribbons of silent data scrolling across the muted television projection. She was knitting.

"Anything else you need, you just give me a call," the bartender said to Steve. She smiled. "I'll be right with you."

"Thank you," said Steve. She'd uncapped the bottles on the table, a courtesy he still appreciated, although it'd been years since anyone had tried to slip him a Mickey Finn in a bar. Decades.

"Least I can do, Captain," she said. "You sure you don't want anything else? Mustard? Ketchup?"

"Thank you," said Steve. "We're fine." He pushed one of the bottles across the table and shuggled the basket of fries to let the losodium shake down.

"Drink here often?" Steve heard, muttered from behind the newspaper opposite.

"No," he said.

"Often enough to be recognized?" Nick Fury had put the newspaper down. Behind it, he was leaning back against the dirty yellow paintwork of the wall, his shoulders carefully angled into relaxation, although he had the pale skin of a man who spent most of his time working under a UV shield. There were two fat cigars tucked in the pocket of his shirt, and the padding of his nuKevlar undershield showed under the open collar of his jacket. The grey streak in his hair had not broadened since 1942.

"We all have our weaknesses," said Steve. He had a soft spot for bars he'd drunk in on both sides of the millennium and for old soldiers with war wounds. He was hoping it didn't show.

The security camera in the corner whirred as it tried to scan the room. Glancing up, Nick tapped a couple of buttons on his wrist unit: it subsided, grumbling. No one else noticed. Text spooled along the bottom of the television screen. Steve read, FEMA reassessment of Upper Manhattan flood defenses unveiled. Residents protest at City Hall. The image on the screen was of a beauty queen, bright white smile and cornrowed hair underneath the glitter of a rhinestone tiara.

"Speaking of weaknesses," said Nick.

On screen, bodyguards jostled by remote cameras and audiowired netjournos, three men and a woman made their way up the steps to the Senate. City Tycoons convene on Capitol Hill, read the screen. Lucy Stane, Michael Obama, Tyrone Potts, John Jameson III, called in to testify.

Some names stayed the same.

"Hey!" said one of the guys with the lightwell screen. "Is your net down?"

"Must be," said the bartender. "Sorry." She shrugged.

"You're immortal, Nick," Steve said. "I'm not."

"Serum's good for a few years yet," said Nick.

"Maybe I'm just tired," said Steve.

Nick tapped one of his cigars on the table. "I always thought you'd retire to Brooklyn. Settle down, have kids. Old man in a cap."*

*HOUSE OF M - J

 

"That was someone else's dream," Steve said.

Novasky Industries confirmed as sponsor of UN Peace Commission.

"Maybe it's time to hang up the shield," said Nick.

"Bucky's got his hands full already," Steve said.

"That's not what I said," said Nick.

The fries were already sagging in their basket. Steve, reluctant to waste food, tried one. It was made of reconstituted potato powder, sour and metallic. He said, "Captain America's always been bigger than me."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Dreyfus, Pacific Nations vote to ratify Ulan Bator Accord.

Nick said, "Son, I sat out the fifties on a beach in Mexico. I reckon as the world didn't collapse because I never heard Buddy Holly play live."

Steve said, "America needs heroes. The world needs heroes."

"Right on, bro!" shouted one of the men with the lightwell, hand stretched out for a high five.

"Pardon?" said Nick. His glare was all the more fierce for the single eye that delivered it, gunmetal hard.

"Uh, sorry," said the man with the beard, sitting down, fast.

"Steve," Nick said, leaning forward. "I'm just telling it like it is. Your reflexes are slower. Your response times are down. You're sleeping less, eating less and training too hard, and don't think I haven't noticed that this is the first social engagement you've had since Thanksgiving. I'm not sitting here for the good of my health, Captain."

Cooling, the basket of fries smelled of overused grease and the faint chemical tang that still clung to the losodium salt substitute, ten years after the FSA had banned NaCl from the American diet. Steve pushed it aside. The table was made of real wood, warm and smooth under his fingertips.

They'd fought under the same flag for most of his life, he and Nick. Sometimes, he thought they'd been friends. Sometimes, not.

Steve had never known Nick's endgame.

Indian Navy deploys against pirates in Waddell Sea :: Premier Suhana Rukh Khan restates support for UN resolution 1047.

"You've served forty-five years for your country, Steve. And if the Neovengers can't carry on without you, you've been wasting your time for the last fifteen."

"Fair point," Steve said, although there was an undertone to the statement that was uncomfortably sharp. He'd brought all his experience to the training of a roster of superheroes who had not even been born when Hank and Tony brought him out of the ice. He'd been the public face of the Neovengers since they were formed, a veteran superhero on a team whose younger recruits still fell silent when he walked into the room. He worked with the best group of people on the planet.

The one thing he didn't have on his team was friends.

It wasn't important. The future mattered more.

And finally. Reporter Sally Parker checks in from Westlife no-kill Animal Shelter: take a look at these cute guys looking for a new home.

"The world needs heroes. It doesn't always need Steve Rogers," Nick said. "Think about it."

Steve looked down at his hands. They were strong hands, unscarred. "I heard you," he said.

Then his communicator vibrated against his ear, whining with the muted tone of a call to assemble, and the screen above the bar was lit with silent flames. The day's duty teams were already on their way, but Steve grabbed his jacket, snatched up the backpack holding his shield, and ran.

 

Part One
New York, Spring
Two weeks later

 

"Coming right at you, straight down Fifth." It was Ice speaking, her voice as sharp and cold over the SHIELD comm unit as the frozen aquamarine of her eyes. Blue Team leader, Ice was one of the most powerful mutants born to the post-Genosha generation, an Alaskan ex-pat weather-worker who could turn the Kolkata monsoon to snow if she chose.

"Red Team all set and ready to roll." Shockwave. Red Team. Still only twenty-two, Freedom Jones had landed in Salem off a Liberian trawler with a pocket full of grubby one-dollar bills and a battered, ten-year old postcard of Avengers Tower. He was one of the team's heavy hitters, with a punch like an earthquake and a laugh like a stuttering chainsaw.

"Green Leader to Blue, fall in, your spread's covering most of Manhattan right now." Laconic, imperturbable, Luke and Jessica's daughter Danielle, Green Jewel, was probably the most experienced Neovenger on the roster. She was a shape shifter, with one of the sharpest strategic minds Steve had ever met.

"Firestarter," said Ice.

"Okay. Okay," Jon grumbled into the comm, and overhead the trail of vapor and smoke took an abrupt turn north.

Steve said nothing, watching the multiple screens that showed his four teams. He had visuals on all of them, facial recognition software routed through the security cameras of every building in Upper Manhattan and an on board feed from each team member. Ice, still muttering into the comm, was pulling her Blue Team into flight formation, and Freedom had Fifth Avenue covered right down to 54th Street, although behind his back Cassie had her personal feed streaming into her comm unit and was softly dictating to her liveblog.

They were so young, his Neovengers teams, so convinced they were immortal, the way Steve had been in his first war, the way Tony and Hank and Jan and even Thor had been, before Wanda had ripped the universe apart and showed them how fragile they really were. Yet half of their strength lay in that conviction, their courage and willingness to throw themselves whole-heartedly into any mission. The rest was training, preparation, anticipation. The Neovengers were a group of superheroes who worked together as if they were a single mechanism, each in their place, perfectly aligned and responsive. Steve was proud of them.

But, watching his teams take their positions on his screens, Steve ached for the days when he would have been standing on the asphalt with his shield in his hand, the adrenalin of combat already pumping through his veins and his own team at his back.

His team was the Neovengers.

As he watched them deploy, the images on his screens flatlined for a moment, as they did when the SHIELD comms were compromised, and then steadied. Steve had tensed for an alarm that did not come, but connectivity was sometimes a little rough on the move.

"Why is it always Wednesdays?" said Rachel, her voice coming as clear over the comms as if she was standing in the control unit. "I mean, it's like the Universe has a grudge or something. Wednesdays."

 

ALTITUDE: 102.4 KILOMETRES ABOVE SEA LEVEL
EXTERNAL TEMPERATURE: 6900 KELVIN
LIFT TO DRAG RATIO: 4.8

 

"Honey, that's why we got Netflix," Juli drawled. Overhead, the third member of the Neovenger Blues was holding steady above the roof of the Sears building, her sleek black costume reticent against Firestarter's vivid red.

"I know, right," said Jon. "I mean, when's the last time we got a call out on Thursday? Ice? Danielle? Anyone?"

The needle on the seismograph shivered, skittering across the gage on the screen. Heavy-gravity aliens coming out of the Central Park rift seldom even made it to the gates, but this one was powerful enough to manage the transition. It had torn through the polykevlar mesh of the permanent trapnets without even blinking, and taken out the park gates with a single sweep of its tail. Armored, disorientated, it was not yet actively hostile, and for the Neovengers this was a standard decontamination mission. Bai and Juniper, Danielle's Green Team partners, were holding the Quinliner steady over the Hudson, loaded with nets and pulleys and with a course already set for the Negative Drift.

"It's like," Rachel said, "Everything exciting happens on Wednesdays. That giant bug in Novolsk. The earthquake in Iowa. The-" She stopped.

"And?" said Jon.

"44th," said Ice.

"On it," said Freedom.

As Steve watched, the alien nosed curiously into a side street off Fifth. It was tall enough for the furred, pointed ears to brush against the second floor windows, wide enough to take up two lanes of the road, and so heavy every footstep shook the streetlights and set off car alarms in the abandoned curbside vehicles. Even on Fifth, the high-rise buildings were too close together for the flyers to negotiate easily, and in the alleyway, it would be impossible. Freedom, waving a red silk flag he'd taken from one of the roadside vendor's stalls, was trying to lure the thing back onto the main boulevard and into the open space around Bryant Park. Beside the alien mass of black fur and chitin plates, he looked small, and to Steve's eyes he was recklessly close.

The alien was faster than it looked. It batted at the flag with a paw the size of a Chevrolet truck, and the blow caught Freedom's shoulder and sent him tumbling across the asphalt. Covering, Tomas ran in to snatch the silk up, rolling under the alien's paws and then, limber as the dancer he'd once been, springing up to lure it onwards.

"Good catch. Shockwave?" Danielle.

"I'm fine," Freedom reported. "Winded."

"You're two blocks from the park, Tomas," said Bai, from the Quinliner. "Just get it to open space, we'll do the rest."

Freedom was already on his feet.

"Any news on that sedative, Marc?" said Danielle. Then she said, her voice sharper, "Wait, picking up-"

Urgent and strained, Ice's voice interrupted. "Incoming," she said. "Eleven o'clock."

"Holy smoke, that's fast," Jon yelled into the comm unit.

"No trackers," Danielle said, "Cap, UFO coming in hot and heavy."

Steve had heard the sound barrier smash. Ignoring the data frantically unrolling across the SHIELD screens, he was already dashing out of the unit, shield at the ready, craning up at the pale blue of the sky. A single missile - a plane, a spacecraft, he couldn't see - arced towards him so swiftly sunlight on metal was a streak of white flame across the sky.

 

ALTITUDE: 1536.4 METRES ABOVE PLANET SURFACE VELOCITY: 287.4 KM/HOUR GOOD MORNING AMERICA

 

"I got nothing," Danielle said. "We're flying blind. Assume hostile?"

"Negative so far," said Steve, staring up. There was something about the grace of that flight that caught at the edges of his memory, something familiar, nostalgic. He shivered.

"Unknown object entering NY quadrant, all available units red alert, all units red alert, repeat." The SHIELD operator's voice sounded robotic over the emergency comm channel, but the newsfeed's spliced "Reports from the scene that a second alien has been spotted over Battery Park," was breathlessly enthusiastic.

"Good to know I haven't forgotten how to make an entrance."

The voice in Steve's ear was amused, intimate, sharp, and broadcasting on a private comm link inactive for fifteen years.

Shock stopped Steve's breath in his throat.

"Who the-" Danielle, rattled as he'd never heard her before, although her "Identify," was as short and sharp as the burst of an automatic pistol.

Steve knew. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing up.

The sound of the wind came first, and after it the rush of air. Then the glint of the armor and the whine of the repulsor units, nearly silent at ground level, although the suit in full flight on the verges of the stratosphere was a screaming tornado of raw power.

"Hey, Cap," said Iron Man's voice, as cheerfully casual as if he'd just come back from a shareholder's meeting held for a company that had crashed and burned fifteen years before.

"Captain?" snapped Ice.

Steve had always thought the armor amazing. The version that slid overhead now was sleek, minimalistic, all its lines flowing red and gold. It was as far from the last model he'd seen as a biplane was from an unmanned stealth X-class, and the controlled landing was so swiftly, cleanly executed this version must be responsive to a single thought.

"Captain?" said Ice, and began to dive.

Steve pushed his cowl back. Took a deep breath, held it, let it out. He said, "Stand down. This one's mine."

It looked alien, the new armor. Organic, fluid, when that last armor had been built for strength. Steve couldn't look away. His hand was clenched so tightly on the straps of his shield that the leather was cutting into his gloves and his stance had widened. His shoulders were braced. He'd warned his team off: whatever was coming, confrontation, surrender, proposal, Iron Man was his.

"Tomas, keep going," said Danielle. "Black Angel, move to cover. Yellow Team, you're cleared to hover, NYPD's holding the perimeter for you. We've got a ten minute window, Neos, so make it fast."

Those first years, while Tony sorted out the hydraulics, Iron Man's movements had been weighty. Then, when Tony had Extremis, they'd been disturbingly swift, as if Iron Man moved from pose to pose like the flash-frames of a computer game. At the end - when Tony lost Extremis, at the end, he'd moved like a medieval cartoon of himself, brutal and heavy. Now, Iron Man moved as smoothly as if he was as much flesh as metal, but the helmet did not melt into Tony's skin. He was taking it off, he and the armor as separate as they'd been before Extremis. Before Registration.

They'd betrayed each other in every way that mattered, but before God, Steve would have walked with this man to the gates of hell and trusted him to have his back every inch of the way. Still would.

Alone on the sidewalk, Tony was smiling neatly, non-committal, the kind of smile he wore for overlong security briefings and transitory presidents. He looked up at the tall, clean lines of the Fifth Avenue skyscrapers, the advertising screens and the hovering newscopters, the skybuses and the layered walkways. Then, the Quinliner, the armored SHIELD staffers, the hovering control unit with its blacked-out windows and flashing lights. Finally, he dipped his head and looked at Steve. His eyes were the same, the stance of his body, his beard, his mouth, the closed, clenched tension of his hands.

It would have been casual, the way Tony looked, helmet off, shoulders relaxed, were it not for those hands and the way the hairs on the back of Steve's neck prickled, electric with tension. Charm was Tony's weapon, not Iron Man's, and Tony had not taken off his gloves.

He said, "Hey. I'm Tony Stark."

BPM: 102% NORM

The cameras flashed. Steve said, "Tony."

Over the comms, Jon asked, "Who's Tony Stark?"

"-claims to be retired politician Tony Stark, last seen-" Abruptly, the newsfeed cut out.

"Tony," said Steve, and began to walk forward. He was ten meters away, eight, five, and his strides were lengthening with each footstep. Tony was still smiling, the lines at the corner of his eyes a little deeper and just as familiar as they had been twenty years ago, his irises the same blue, his hair close-cropped and flattened as it often was, under the helmet's weight. The last time Steve had seen Tony they'd been - they'd been - Steve shook his head, and held out his hand. Both of his hands. He meant to say, 'Tony,' but what he actually said, with a gasping, hollow ache, was, "Shellhead."

BPM: 107% NORM

"It's been a while since I heard that name," said Tony. He didn't move to take Steve's hands, standing with the helmet tucked under one arm and his hands on his hips. His fists had uncurled, but the frown line between his eyebrows was still deep and his eyes were a fraction wider than they normally were, a betraying tell Tony would hate to have acknowledged.

Until it began to fade, Steve hadn't realized he'd had a smile on his face. He said, "It's good to see you." The words seemed so inadequate.

"Just like old times," said Tony, his voice even, neutral, controlled, but his eyes - for a moment his eyes were so wide he could have been a Tony Steve had never known, Tony as a child, a teenager, all the wonders of the world at his fingertips, and then they were as blank as Tony's voice.

"Rhodey's fine," said Steve. He was stumbling over the words, off balance, so aware of the distance between them. "Married." He'd learned that from Carol. They didn't speak, Steve and Tony's best friend. "Pepper's out on the West Coast. She's doing well. Logan's still around. Carol's retired. Peter - Peter gave up the suit." He paused. Tony wasn't going to take his hand. They were not, evidently, going to hug. "Jan and Hank-"

"I heard," said Tony. "I keep in touch. Interstellar communication's a lot better than it used to be."

Steve had to uncurl his fists. It took a moment. "I wouldn't know," he said. He tried smiling again, but the muscles of his jaw were tense.

There was nothing between them but air.

BPM:-
SHUT UP.

"Well," said Tony, "Cap, it's been swell, but, stuff to do-" He paused. "It's behind me, isn't it?"

"Yes," said Steve. He was looking up. Towering over Iron Man's armor, tall as a three floor house, their alien visitor had its head cocked on one side. It licked its teeth with a tongue the color of strawberry candy. It had big teeth, sharp, and it was eyeing the armor as if it was a very brightly colored toy.

Tony raised an eyebrow. Steve hesitated, and then nodded, no more than the faintest tilt of his head. As the alien lunged, jaws opening, Tony ducked and, so neatly they could have rehearsed the feint, Steve leapt forward and punched it right on the tip of its nose. Yowling, it fell back, but Steve had his shield ready, poised to leap.

"Anyone would think we've done this before," said Tony.

"Hold steady!" said Danielle, over the comms.

Her voice was an abrupt reminder that Steve and Tony were not alone. Later, Steve would have time to castigate himself for the fact that his combat awareness had narrowed to just one man, poised, sunlight glinting off his armor.

Danielle said, "Ice has got one shot, so-"

Tony fired. In a crackle of power, the alien was suddenly surrounded by a force field of interlocking red beams. It screamed, beating itself against the bars, tail lashing, paws reaching towards the spot where Steve stood.

The force field held. Steve didn't need to look around to know Iron Man was standing by his shoulder.

"Kind of cute," said Tony.

"Really?" said Steve, looking at the asphalt crack under two-ton paws. "Neat trick."

Tony shrugged. In the new suit, the movement was a fluid dismissal.

Overhead, Ice was aiming an oversized dart gun, hand steady on the trigger. She fired.

"Negative Drift?" said Tony.

"Kinder than killing them," Steve said. "We're getting one a week right now. Most of them are harmless. We've had a couple that needed a little more persuasion."

Shaking its head, the alien wobbled, and sat down abruptly. The ground shook. Steve nearly reached out a steadying hand. Didn't.

The alien yawned, flicked the tip of its tail, and yawned again. Its eyes were half shut.

"I'm sure you'll do the right thing," said Tony, with a dry edge to his voice that lent the words uncomfortable weight.

It snored.

"Nets," said Ice.

The force bars vanished, as silently as they'd gone up. Overhead, the Quinliner swung into place, trailing pulleys and chains. Firestarter and Juli were slowly rolling the alien over onto the netting Tomas and Carrie were laying out. It was a perfectly planned, perfectly executed end to the mission. Textbook. The Avengers themselves could not have done better.

"You always did run a tight ship," Tony said.

"We did," said Steve, spinning around. "We had the best team, the best-"

Tony was looking away.

He couldn't remember what Tony had looked like, the last time they met. Steve could remember every one of Tony's smiles. He knew what Tony looked like when he was tired, exalted, hung-over, triumphant, determined. He was achingly aware of the exact power and force of Iron Man's fist, the pain of it ground deep into his bones and threaded through his nightmares. But the last true memories he had of Tony were blurred, and the later, unwanted memories of Tony's face seen through the red veil of Red Skull's vicious time trap were an artificial horror. Then, after the two months Steve knew he had spent recovering in SHIELD's hands, Fury had shown him the three-line memo in which Tony had said he was joining another team. In space.

Steve hoped they'd been good to him.

"I didn't come here to argue with you," said Tony. He was putting the helmet on. It flowed over his head, liquid metal, seamless.

The newscopters were spinning lower, netbots making darting runs over the cordon of NYPD officers.

"We kept your-" Steve said. "We - I kept everything. You could-"

"Whatever's left, I don't need it anymore," said Tony. The faceplate snapped down. "But thanks," Iron Man's voice said.

CREDIT CHECK: PENDING
RESERVATION: CARLTON ORIENTAL
CAR HIRE: BENTLEY

"Tony!" Steve yelled. Then his comms kicked in, a blur of voices, and he had a split second to realize Tony had blocked the feed before the other people's voices drowned out the sound of Iron Man's flight.

"Hey, Carrie, pull that corner out a bit more."

"Down a bit, left a bit - whaddaya mean? Okay fine, east, more east...."

"Some old friend of Cap's."

"Freakin' big claws."

Reporting from Bryant Park, where City Mayor Jon Langtrom's investment in the Neovengers is paying off for the second time this week-

"Told you, Wednesdays. Weird."

"-never seen the boss look like that."

"Good timing with that sedative, dude."

"Back with us, Cap?" asked Danielle.

"Yes," Steve said. "Good work, teams."

 

NON-INVASIVE TRACE SEARCH NOTED
IP: 208.47.254.42 BROOKLYN NYC

 

There was a bodega on the corner that still sold paper newspapers, and Steve, jogging home from the Tower after a night spent out at the Negative Drift, picked up both locals and a national. He half expected Tony's return to be headline news, the way everything about Tony had been headline news - Iron Man, The Avengers assembled and disassembled, Stark Industries bankrupt, Resilient, Registration, the UN, SHIELD - but the front pages were fueled by political press conferences and net celebs. Making coffee, Steve sat down to a systematic search and discovered Tony rated a couple of lines in the gossip columns and half a paragraph of dismissive political comment.

He must hate that.

But the image Tony showed to the press had been so much less than the whole of the man. Tony, with his showman's instincts and his brilliant, glittering mind, his stubborn endurance and his mordant wit, his generosity and his charm and his inability to compromise. Tony, whom Steve had missed more than he knew how to encompass, and whose return had left him so shaken that it seemed as if the world he knew had shuddered to a stop for that one frozen moment, on a New York street twelve hours ago.

Yet Tony had looked at him as if there had been nothing more between them than an uneasy and long-gone alliance, and the world had not even blinked.

Steve had left his past behind, buried the burnt earth regrets and betrayals of the Avengers years in a future that was so very different, not only from the future he'd lost in the Second World War, but the future he'd once dared to hope would be his. Back then, when Steve had thought he'd have his team forever: when Thor was still alive and himself, before Tony had begun to value machines over morality*, before Wanda, before - before. It had felt for a moment, there on that street, as if they could start again, he and Tony. As if he could have reached out a hand and touched that dusty, half-forgotten ideal of being something more than the shield he carried.

*ARMOR WARS - J

But Tony had looked him in the eyes and turned him down. Somewhere on that street, Steve had inexplicably, obviously failed. What else should he have done, today? What had Tony expected, dropping into a confrontation that should have happened fifteen years ago? What did he want?

Fifteen years, and there was still an empty space at Steve's back, where Iron Man had once stood.

Steve swept the mugs and papers from the table, stood up, and grabbed his bike keys.

8.02AM
PROXIMITY ALERT

"Open the door," Steve said.

The Carlton Oriental had exorbitant rates, a shuttle pad, and two Embassy Suites, and one of those was empty. "Tony," Steve said, one hand braced against a locked door and the other stretched around two warm waxed paper cups and his helmet strap. "Tony, if I have to kick this door down, it's on your tab."

"I knew you wouldn't let this go," said Tony. His voice was close, as if he was standing against the other side of the door, and dry.

"I've got coffee," said Steve.

8.04AM
PROBABILITY RAIN 87%

It was early for Tony, but there were electronic components strewn over the glass coffee table and a disemboweled netcom perched uneasily on one of the couches. The screen above the fireplace was flickering between news reports - explosion at out of town LPG facility, Cameron LaPez weds for third time, Chicago stakeholder share prices drop for seventh week in a row- and schematics, which meant that Tony, predictably, had hacked the hotel's netlink.

"Where's the armor?" Steve asked, handing over one cup and keeping the other in reserve.

"Bedroom," Tony muttered. Under the sleeves of the toweling robe his wrists were bare, and his face still had the blurred edge he wore after waking, although his hair was damp and his beard freshly trimmed.

8.05AM
DEFENSE MODE Y/N?

"You've got two floors of parts back at the Tower," said Steve.

STANDBY.

"I could build one of these with a hairpin and a transistor radio," said Tony.

"I know," said Steve.

"That'd go down so well," said Tony. "Me. The Tower."

"It's your home," Steve protested, although he had never been so aware that for him, Tony's home was the long-demolished Avengers Mansion.

"Nostalgia's never been my favorite sin. Shall we get this over quickly?" said Tony, putting the coffee down on the pristine breakfast bar. "What do you want, Cap? What part of don't call me, I'll call you did you not get?"

"The part where you dropped in from space but didn't even ask for my number?" said Steve. "I'm an old-fashioned guy, Stark, but even I know-"

Ex-Avenger Tony 'Iron Man' Stark returned to New York yesterday, making a brief appearance with the Neovengers.

Tony had set up a keyword search.

"-even I know when the bank's not open." Steve passed over the second cup. There was just a little silver in Tony's hair. It looked distinguished, statesmanlike.

Growers: Peptech, up 41 points on the FTSE following the public appearance of founder Tony Stark. Although currently retired -

"Did you know you're going grey?" Steve blurted out.

"No, I'm not," said Tony. He rubbed his temples. "Steve."

"Tony," said Steve. "Why are you here?"

- what this means for veteran superhero Captain America. The two were last seen together at this Long Island charity gala, but that was -

He'd never seen that photograph before. He didn't even remember the event. And if Tony had ever looked at him, ever come close to looking at him like that - were they holding hands?

"What?" said Tony, suddenly sounding wide awake, following Steve's eyes to the screen.

ABORT.EXE

The feed snapped off. The screen was blue, blank.

"Stuff to do," said Tony. "Saw Peter and MJ last night, left it too late to go home."

"You would have passed security. Your biometrics are still on file," said Steve, frowning.

"At the Tower?" said Tony. "I meant Malibu."

"You're going out to the West Coast? You're not just here for the weekend?" said Steve. His voice was a tone or two higher than he meant it to be.

He hadn't intended to ask at all.

Tony, turning away to the window, downed the last of the coffee. Outside, private flyers competed with the ubiquitous yellow airbuses, following the invisible lines of the city's air transport network. Dull grey against the pale blue of the sky, the cityscape was spiked with the peaks of high-rises that had not even been lines on a drawing board when Tony left. It was the kind of future Tony had been working for, with its environmental controls and clean energy, with its commitment to education and equality, and it was his designs that powered much of what they saw.

Tony must have seen cities that made this one look like a child's building blocks. He'd had the wonders of the galaxy at his fingertips.

"I'm not staying for long," Tony said. His fingers, white at the knuckles, had compressed the cardboard of the coffee cup into a crumpled wad.

"Then we should-" What? "Talk." Steve tried the idea for size and was jolted by the strength of his own desire.

"No," said Tony. "The past's a foreign country, Steve, and we don't get to look back. You should know."

For a moment he stood and looked back at Steve, and the way his shoulders were braced, the tilt of his chin and the set of his mouth, were familiar and worrying. Tony had never learned how to share, even when they had known each other so well they could finish each other's thoughts. "What's wrong?" asked Steve.

Tony's eyes narrowed. "I think you should go now," he said.

He could have predicted both response and answer. "Let me help," said Steve.

Tony laughed. He said, "I should have expected that. No." He said, "You can show yourself out," and turned his back, walking towards the bedroom. As casually as if they were in the old garage at the mansion, he was stripping the robe off as he went, the muscles of his bare back as lithe as they had always been.

There was a subtle cruelty in the intimation of intimacy where none existed, but Tony had never been a cruel man, nor cold. Under Steve's fingers, his skin was smooth and warm, human, and there was a moment when Steve thought Tony would lean into his touch.

Then Tony said, "Get your hands off me," the words short and harsh.

"You don't have to do this alone," said Steve. "Whatever it is." Beyond the doorway, the covers on the bed were rumpled and the pillows tumbled, and the lightwell tablet on the bedside was flickering through media screens. There was no sign of the armor, but beside the window was an open suitcase, new, and empty. The drapes were closed, the room lit only by the dim reading lamp, and the scent of Tony's cologne was viciously familiar. For a moment Steve felt as if he'd seen the same scene before, a shadow of a memory that jarred against his mind and overlaid the bed with rumpled sheets and tumbled pillows. He let it go.

Tony said, "Three weeks ago I was over Aleph. There was a - it doesn't matter. But I thought then, what would Cap do, just as if-" He dragged the robe up. "I wish you weren't so damned kind," he said, as if the word was an insult.

"Is this about Registration?" Steve said. "Because it's over, it's gone, finished-"

"Fuck Registration," said Tony, dropped the robe, and snapped his fingers.

ASSEMBLE

The suit flowed. Liquid metal, elegant as silk, materializing not from Tony's skin but from the air itself.

"'Bye, Steve," said Tony. "Tell Fury up yours for me."

ALTITUDE: 597 METRES ASL
VELOCITY: 384 KM/HOUR
DESTINATION: LOS ANGELES

"Hey," said Steve.

Nick glanced up. "Cap. Didn't expect to see you today."

Steve shrugged. Behind him in the corridor, a SHIELD operative walked past, heels clicking on the tiles, tapping keys on a wristcom. "Agent 254," she said. "Do not cut the red wire. Repeat, do not-"

If Nick hadn't known the moment Steve had fired up the bike, Steve would eat his hat. "I saw Tony this morning," he said, and knew Nick had known that too.

The door closed, sealing the room with a huff of compressed air. Steve walked forward. There was a chair by Nick's desk that he was privately convinced was two inches lower than it should be. He stood, at ease.

"Message for me?" said Nick.

"Up yours," said Steve obligingly. Then added, "Sorry."

"Succinct, for Tony," said Nick. He pushed the screen aside and steepled his hands, elbows on his desk, chin on the tips of his fingers. "Why'd he come back? Galaxy too hot for him?"

"He didn't say," said Steve.

"Huh," said Nick.

"I was hoping you'd know," said Steve.

Nick snorted. "Right." His one-eyed stare was unblinking, intent. "Tony say anything else?"

Steve shrugged. "He met up with Peter and MJ." That wasn't news to anyone. Tony had mentioned they kept in touch in front of all four Neovenger teams and half a dozen SHIELD operatives. "He's going to California. He said he wasn't staying long."

"Anything I need to know?" said Nick.

"No," said Steve. He thought about telling Nick Tony was going grey and did not. It seemed a small thing, but private, to be defended.

Nick was frowning. He said, "When the chips are down, Tony's always been on no one's side but his own."

"That's not true," said Steve automatically. "Tony's always..." But there had been a time when Tony had not had his back. He conceded, "We all make mistakes."

"His are bigger than most," said Nick. He hit the play button on the screen.

The camera was in the corner of the comms room, opposite the door. Steve saw himself walk in, the jacket he was now carrying over his arm hitched over the case for his shield, Tony's tablet in his hands. He was smiling, and Danielle, at the desk, was spinning her chair to face him.

"Morning, Cap," she said. "What can I do for you?"

From the camera's viewpoint, Steve could see that she'd changed the way she put up her hair. He hadn't noticed at the time.

"Danielle," he said, on screen, "This isn't Neovengers business, but could you retrieve a net photograph for me? It was accessed through this tablet and relayed to a screen."

Danielle shrugged. "Easy," she said. "Pass it over."

The camera angle showed only the back of Danielle's workstation, but Steve knew she was syncing the tablet to her personal server. His own face was intent, his arms folded as he watched, not Danielle, but her screen.

"Where did you get this?" Danielle asked. "I can get you the net history, but everything else is so heavily encrypted it'd take a while. I don't even recognize the coding."

"It's not mine," Steve saw himself say. "Just the history. The rest's private."

"Sure," said Danielle, and for a minute or two they were both as silent as Nick and Steve, watching, only the flickering shades of light over Danielle's face showing the download. Then Danielle said, "You want a tracker on this?"

"No," Steve said.

"Okay," said Danielle. "Change your mind, let me know. I've put the file into your cloud."

"Thanks," said Steve, on screen, taking the tablet back. Off screen, he watched Danielle watch him leave, watched her watch the door.

"Captain," she muttered, "I hope you know what you're doing."

When the clip finished, Nick's screen reverted, not to the SHIELD badge, but to the winged skull of the Howling Commandos. Never Forgotten.

"Is there something you're trying to tell me?" Steve said. "Is this about Tony's mistakes, or mine?"

"I am warning you to tread very carefully indeed," said Nick. "There are complications to this situation of which you are unaware."

Never Defeated.

Steve leaned forward across the desk. "Tell me," he said.

Even his best Captain America voice had never worked on Nick. "I'm not the one you need to ask," he said. Then he said, slower, "Steve, did Tony mention re-forming the Avengers?"

"I got the impression that was the last thing on his mind," said Steve. "Why? Did he mention it? To you? When?"

"Last time, a week before this photograph was taken," said Nick. "This is the one you wanted, isn't it?"

The image was black and white, sharply delineated. On screen, Tony, in a tuxedo, was leaning backwards against Steve's shoulder, head tilted up. He was smiling. So was Steve, in a suit he had no memory of having ever worn, one of his hands on Tony's arm and the other out of shot. They were looking at each other, and for all the times Steve had seen both of them in combat shots or in press photographs and interviews, he had never seen a pose so unselfconsciously intimate.

"Yes," Steve said. He'd only caught a glimpse of the photograph back at the hotel, but there were details he'd missed. The relaxed line of his own shoulders, the softness of Tony's smile, the elegant folds of his own bow tie. He had not tied that tie. He'd never owned that tie.

They weren't holding hands, but they might as well have been. Steve knew there were images of both of them which were far more explicit, and if he'd ever wanted to go looking, some of the pictures of Tony were real. But this image came from Tony's files, and it was that provenance which, rightly or wrongly, made Steve think that what he was looking at was an unmanipulated photograph.

"Life model decoy?" Steve asked. "Red Skull? Alternate Reality? Nick."

Steve looked so young. Tony, too.

"Neither," said Nick. "You don't remember. I wasn't sure."

"Remember what?" said Steve.

Nick looked him in the face and said, "The weeks you and Tony were lovers."

TO KYOTO
STILL HALF THE SKY TO GO -
SNOWY CLOUDS

/

Steve sat down, so fast the chair shivered and groaned under his weight. He said, "Aw, hell."

Outside Nick's door, a woman's voice said, "Okay. Okay. Hang on in there." She must have been shouting.

Steve said, "I'm taking leave."

"Already cleared," said Nick.

"Thanks," said Steve.

 

Part Two
New York, Spring

 


BBC World Service, news at 3.00am.

He'd always found dangerous women attractive. And few people were more dangerous than Tony Stark. Or more fascinating.

The thought was compelling.

On the windowsill opposite, a pair of pigeons had nested. At night, both birds huddled together on a nest that was as much fast food biowrappers and rags as twigs, but they were easily disturbed sleepers. Their eyes glinted as they watched him, uneasy, and Steve took pity and slumped onto his couch before he wore a hole in the floorboards.

His coffee was cold again, but there were still dregs in the cafetiere.

He couldn't remember a single moment. Not one word. He remembered dying. He remembered being trapped in his memories. He remembered fighting Red Skull for his own body, the visceral outrage of knowing his own mind occupied and controlled by a presence so evil he could barely encompass the degree of his disgust. He remembered the Skrull invasion - under his spare pair of boots in the wardrobe there was a detector, one of Tony's, and once a month he made sure it was still charged.

3.30am, BBC World Service, India Pakistan Test Match scores

The last half inch of coffee at the bottom of the mug was bitter with grounds.

He remembered Tony dying. Bucky's face when Steve found out. Pepper's at the hospital. Tony, alive, but coughing, racked, wheeled away by the hospital staff.

Then, Tony had gone, and Nick had SHIELD back. They were still mopping up Skrulls from every corner of the political sphere, and when half the people involved already hated and distrusted the other half, the fallout had been catastrophic. It had taken years to mend the wounds Osbourn had left in the superhero community, and some of them were still bleeding.

He couldn't remember the last time he saw Carol. And Tony - he would have given almost anything to have had Tony's support during those first years with the Neovengers, not just his technological genius, nothing to do with Tony's money. Just Tony. He'd had Sam, and Bucky, but it was Tony who'd made Steve laugh. Tony who he'd trusted, even then, after everything that lay between them. If he'd had the chance again, he'd say it: Tony, it wasn't worth it. Whatever they promised you, however badly you judged yourself, it wasn't worth it. Come home.

Tony had come home, and Steve hadn't said a word.

4.07am, BBC World Service, shipping forecast

The truth of the matter was that he had nothing but Nick's word and Tony's single photograph, and Steve wasn't naive enough to imagine that either of them never lied.

Tony, though. Tony, who knew so few limits and respected none of them. For all his appreciation of feminine beauty, Steve would not have been, by a long mile, the first man Tony had taken into his bed. Outside the casual liaisons of those early years, Tony had always preferred lovers who were as strong-minded as himself.

Tony had built Rescue for Pepper.

If Steve thought about it - and he was thinking about it - he could imagine, far too easily, his own back to the wall and Tony's hands on his hips, that edge of post-mission adrenaline burning off in a moment of release. But even in his own mind, the grip of his hand on the back of Tony's neck was not casual, and the imagined feel of Tony's body against his was both startlingly arousing and familiar.

In Steve's mind, Tony came with his head back and his eyes open, because Steve wanted to watch and Tony had no shame, and he wore the prints of Steve's fingers long after they should have faded. They'd have taken their arguments to bed, dangerous and aggressive and glorious, because both of them knew how to use every weapon they owned. They would have fought over the pillows and Tony would have complained about how hot Steve's body ran, and in the morning, every morning, Steve would have woken up with the same person in his bed.

Their bed.

A day ago he could have raised his hand and sworn that he'd never thought of Tony Stark with anything other than friendship in mind, but the feel of Tony's back under his fingers and the scratch of stubble against Steve's skin were uncomfortably familiar thoughts, the passing echo of something real.

In another world and time, they might have been lovers. In this one, the thought was loaded with betrayal.

Half the storage facilities Steve shared with Sam were stuffed with Tony's tech. Old suits, old gifts, obsolete technology, the paintings and memorabilia Tony had left behind at the Tower, everything Steve had sworn to keep safe in Tony's absence. Experimental shields and discarded jetpacks, blueprints and patents and share certificates, buried in fireproof safes fifty feet underground. A suitcase. An Avengers ID card, with Steve's own signature.* A case of USB drives he'd never investigated, kept exactly as both the SHIELD IT techs and Reed Richards advised, just in case Tony ever came back for them.

*CAPTAIN AMERICA: ROAD TO REBORN - J

If that was Steve in the photograph, what the hell had he been thinking? He'd always fought so hard for his privacy, for the right to keep his private life private, to keep the people he cared for safe. It was Tony who danced with the press, not Steve. Tony who lived his life in so many separate layers that his truths were always relative.

Had Tony faked that photograph? Had someone else?

Why?

4.44am - click.

If the truth was out there, Steve was going to find it.

 

NEXT HIGH TIDE: 3.33 HOURS, 5.37AM
SURF REPORT: 2-3 FEET, RISING NW WINDSWELL, FAIR CONDITIONS
LIGHTS 5%

 

"Cap, you've got to realize, everything seemed mad back then. Seemed like every time we got one thing sorted out, we got slammed with the next. You dying, Bucky picking up the shield, Tony going mad, bust, and then just plain gone, the Skrull invasion - we hadn't but picked ourselves off the floor by the time the next thing hit, you know what I mean?"

Steve said, "I know."

Sam put the mug in his outstretched hand without even looking. It was Redwing that watched, unblinking, from the perch in the corner of the room. The hawk looked the same as he always had, and Sam wasn't much different, even if he had hung the costume up ten years before. He still had the same long-legged stride, the same proud slant to his head, the same honesty.

"So I reckoned as it was just one more thing. I'm not saying I saw it coming, because that ain't true, but damn-"

Outside the window, half a dozen pigeons and a sparrow perched on the ledge. Head bent, Sam looked down at them. "Traffic snarl downtown," he said. "You'd have thought there'd be enough space in the air for everyone." Then he added, "Straight up, I wasn't exactly surprised."

Disturbed, Redwing mantled. Steve must have moved.

"I mean - you ever seen a pair of peregrines hunting? Perfect, man. It was like that. Sometimes I could've sworn you guys had some kind of freaky mind-reading thing going on back then. The guy was an ass, but stick him in a suit and he sure was useful to have around."

"Is," said Steve.

"I'm gonna assume you mean present tense," said Sam. "I'll take the rest as read." He tapped on the window. The pigeons took off, dropping into the building's downdraft. "But back then, yeah. I mean, things weren't so easy then as they are now and you guys weren't waving a rainbow flag, but you weren't keeping everything on the down low, either. I could have done without seeing Iron Man grab yo' ass, man." But Sam was grinning as he sat down on the couch.

There was a coffee table between them, scattered with journals and reports, a couple of leaflets for the sanctuary over in Queens Sam had set up five years ago. A fruit bowl, a tray scattered with bottle tops and sweet wrappers and a single earring, shreds of silver foil and music box sized keys.

"Kidding," Sam said. "If I hadn't known better, I'd have maybe just thought you guys were tight. And that I already knew."

"So how did you find out? Who told you?" said Steve. "Black Widow?"

Sam shook his head. "Nah," he said. "You did."

THIS IS PASADENA CALLIN' ON 214.8 FM,
KICKIN' OFF THE MORNING WITH THE BEACH BOYS' CALIFORNIA GIRLS. SUN'S UP, KIDS, RISE AND SHINE.

"What?" said Steve, and although his voice was steady he'd forgotten about the mug in his hand. The handle snapped, the crack of the pottery loud enough to startle the last sparrow into an offended flutter of feathers, although Redwing only blinked.

"You really don't remember, huh," said Sam. "I always thought it was one of those things we didn't mention."

Carefully, Steve put the mug down.

"You know what?" said Sam, "I was kinda flattered. You want another?"

"Thanks," said Steve.

"I mean, it's not like you weren't dating," said Sam. "Diamondback. Now there was a woman. Shame about the way that panned out.* And Sharon - hell, that was one hot mess. So I knew the signs. There's a way you get around the eyes - kind of soft? I'll be honest, I thought you and Sharon had got your shit together and that weren't none of my business. So when you came over and sat right where you are now and said, 'Sam, I've got something to tell you,' I thought you'd given up the shield again. It wouldn't be the first time." He tipped fresh grounds into the pan, filled the carafe, snapped the lid down and pressed start. "You came right out with it. 'I'm dating Iron Man.' Clear as a bell. Man, I laughed." Peering in the refrigerator, Sam pulled out a carton of milk, sniffed it, and said, "Glad you take your coffee black, Cap."

*AVENGERS DISASSEMBLED - J

"Sam."

"Always struck me as odd, you know? I mean, you're dating the guy, and seeing as it's Tony Stark that pretty much means you're getting it on, and what you say to me is, 'I'm dating Iron Man.' Like, why didn't you say Tony?"

Steve closed his eyes and leaned his head against the back of the couch. "That's the first thing that struck you? Okay," he said, and opened his eyes, looking over. "What I'd really like to know is why I told you at all."

"That's exactly what I said," said Sam. "And you said, you'd rather I heard it from you, because it was going to hit the papers sometime, and given it was Tony, sooner rather than later. You've got to remember, he wasn't exactly anyone's numero uno superhero at that point. But what got me is, you weren't just rubbing one off under the covers, Cap. If you were thinking of going public, you were in it for the long haul."

"I hear you," said Steve.

"You know," said Sam, "First thing I said to you was, is this Tony's idea? And you said, no. I said, hey, thanks for letting me know, and you said, no problem." Sam shrugged. "And then it's a week later, Tony's vanished into outer space, and you were acting like nothing ever happened. So I figured something blew up between you guys, and if I needed to know you'd tell me. And you never did."

"Here," he said, "Have some more coffee. You look like you need it."

"Are you sure it was me?" said Steve.

"Is that what you were thinking?" asked Sam. "Life model decoy, clone, double, AU, right? Sure crossed my mind. It wasn't that long since Red Skull had done his best to make you a meatsuit. Plus, there was the whole Wanda thing, so, yeah, I had my doubts. But you were - I don't know. Centered. And we were watching." For a moment, the tilt of his head was exactly the same as Redwing's.

Steve scrubbed a hand over his hair, frowning. "There wasn't anything else you noticed that was out of place? Nothing?"

"Yeah," said Sam. He leant back. "Tony asked me if I wanted to join the Avengers."

For a moment Steve couldn't catch his breath. Then he said, "Crap," and had to stand up. "Then? A week before he left? He really was talking about re-forming then? To you?"

"Yeah," said Sam. He shrugged. "Idea seemed moot, afterwards. But for what it's worth, I would have said yes. Seemed to me that the world could have done with something bigger than the sum of its parts, then."

"I never knew," said Steve. "And he was right. It would have helped."

"Maybe you did know, and maybe you didn't," said Sam. "Given what else you've managed to forget." His mouth was tight.

"Sam, back then I'd have signed you up in a heartbeat if I thought Tony was willing," said Steve. He'd made it as far as the window, and the sparrow looked up at him bright-eyed, head on one side. "I'd be glad to have you now."

"No Iron Man, no Avengers. It wasn't in the cards," said Sam. "And I know that glint in your eye, Cap, but there's one thing I want to know first. Is this something to do with Stark coming back? Did he say anything to you?"

"Yes," said Steve. He hesitated. "I think he remembers." 'Get your hands off me,' Tony had said, and although the words were bitingly harsh he had not shrugged off Steve's fingers. Steve hadn't noticed, then.

"Then you tell me," said Sam, leaning forward. "What did he have to gain from you forgetting? This is Stark we're talking about here."

"I don't know," said Steve slowly. "But it was Tony who - if it wasn't for Tony, I wouldn't have found out."

"Did he tell you himself?"

"No," said Steve.

"Point made," said Sam.

CALLER ID: ENCRYPTED LINE, NICK FURY
ACCEPT/DECLINE?

Steve said, "How do you feel about a trip upstate?"

"Sure," said Sam, drawling the word. Then he said, "Breakfast first. I've got eggs."

DECLINE.

"Sixteen years of therapy," said Maria. "And counting. My job. My career. Three court mandated interventions, one delusional episode, and the best damn relationship I never had. Oh hellno."

"I just want to talk to you," said Steve gently. He had one hand on the door, palm down, and he was close enough to hear the way Maria Hill was breathing in tiny pants, harshly controlled, on the other side. "No more than that. I promise."

"I know he's back," said Maria. "And if you think I'm gonna play nice just because he sent you you're gonna have to think twice. Fast."

"Tony doesn't know I'm here," said Steve.

"But I do," said Natasha.

When Steve turned around she was standing on the path up to the house, that easy, relaxed pose that meant she had at least half a dozen weapons within reach and more if she bothered to move. That month, her hair was a crimson so dark the sheen on it glinted purple, and her nails were colored to match. She was the most dangerous woman he'd ever met, she'd been Bucky's girl, on and off, for the last fifty years, and Steve still didn't know if she was human or not.

"Black Widow," he acknowledged.

She spared him a nod, but her eyes were on the house. "Hey, soldier," she said, her voice just loud enough to carry past the door. "You doin' okay in there?"

"No," said Maria, although when she opened the door her hands were steady on the .38. "I'm angry, frustrated and underappreciated, but I can still hit a moving target at fifty feet. Tell me Fury didn't send you."

"I volunteered," said Natasha.

"Then let's get one thing straight," said Maria. "I am done with this. I am done with the costumes and the missions and the lack of any clear parameters and the fact that when I don't know who the enemy is supposed to be it really screws with my head. Are we clear?"

"Yes," said Steve.

"Good," said Maria, and shot the safety clip back into place.

LIGHTS: 100%
POWER: CHARGING
HEY KIDS. IT'S ME.

"I'm just sayin', I don't think they should call it maple syrup if it's not maple syrup, you know?"

"Just pass it along, Sam," said Natasha.

"I mean, stuff comes out of trees, not a test tube."

"You okay?" said Steve softly.

"I've been worse," said Maria. "Although any time SHIELD starts sending agents to my front door is not a good time." She prodded her pancakes with a fork. "And I like this diner. Don't get it blown up."

"This one's personal," said Steve.

"Yeah, yeah," said Maria. "I've heard that before." Cutting into her pancake, she wielded the knife with short, sharp strokes. "I'm still not sorry about arresting you.* Don't expect me to apologize."

*CIVIL WAR - J

"That's not what I came here to talk about," said Steve.

The diner had red and white tiles, old-fashioned booths and milkshakes on the menu, and all of them had ordered pancakes. Thirty years ago, even twenty, he'd have loved it, but now the place felt old and worn.

Maybe that was just him.

He said, "You knew Iron Man was back?" Then he remembered that Maria knew Tony well - probably, at the end, better than Steve himself did - and said, "Tony."

"Yeah," said Maria. She glanced over the table at Natasha. "I knew. Not one of my better days." She ate methodically, quickly, the way Steve did. Refueling.

"I want to know what happened when he left," Steve said carefully. "I know this isn't easy for you, but you were around at the time. I don't remember what happened, but you might."

Maria stared at him. "We got you that USB," she said. "Tony rebooted himself, deleted every fuck-up he'd made with SHIELD in the process, you argued, he left. The end."

"What Cap means to say is that he can't remember dating Stark," said Sam.

Natasha added more maple syrup to her pancakes. Maria's mouth tightened and her eyes dropped.

"You slept with Tony?" said Sam to Maria, wide-eyed. "It's like - have you slept with him?" he asked Natasha. "Because I can guarantee I have not slept with the man, but it's starting to feel like I'm in the minority here."

"I have never slept with Tony Stark," said Natasha, every word precise.

"Well, good," said Sam.

WELL I HAVE SEEN THE TRUTH, YES I'VE
SEEN THE LIGHT AND I'VE CHANGED MY WAYS
- BASS DOWN 3HZ KABOOM

"That was the problem," said Maria. "He was off the rails. No self-control, no idea of how to communicate, blew the command structure sky high and sent it out to space - he was a loose cannon waiting to explode. When Fury came back, SHIELD was a shambles, Congress was gunning for our ass, and Stark was still out there on the edge. He could have blown us sky high. Something had to be done. We all knew it."

"Tony's always been like that," said Steve, a little uncomfortably. "He's a genius. He's not always going to react the way you expect." He felt as if he was running reconnaissance blind two miles beyond the wire, had never expected to find himself defending Tony to Maria Hill. He'd had to fight his way off the helicarrier when she'd tried to have him arrested. On Tony's orders.

Things were different now.

Maria said, "That was a reasonable assessment when he was still arguably sane. But by the time the Mandarin had finished screwing with him he was certifiable. It wasn't a question of picking up the pieces. We needed to contain and control."

"Is that what you said to him?" said Steve. He pushed his plate back. Demanding as his metabolism was, he wasn't going to manage another bite.

"No," said Maria. "It was what Fury said to you."

AND I'LL BE PREPARED WHEN>
YOU'RE LONELY AND SCARED AT THE END OF OUR DAYS
- DE DE DE DEE KICK IT NIBBY

Steve took a deep breath. Then another. He said, "How do you know that?"

"Wait," Sam said. "How did we get from here to dating Stark?" Then he added, pointedly, "Ouch."

Natasha's face was utterly blank. She looked as if she hadn't moved a muscle.

"Because it's so obvious to you," said Sam.

Maria said, "Because you told Pepper Potts, Captain, and Pepper told me."

"The theory was that Stark's always done his best work in a structured environment," remarked Natasha. "The Avengers. Or with someone he trusts. But at that stage, there was almost no one left he hadn't alienated."

"Pepper told both of us," Maria amended. "Did you know this was going to happen?" she asked Natasha. "I knew I should have kept that door shut."

"I'm just a precautionary measure," said Natasha, nodding at Steve. "He's been talking to Fury. You know how that goes."

"I'm not the person to talk to about relationships," said Maria.

"This was Nick's idea?" said Steve.

"Nick suggested the Neutral Zone," said Natasha. "So did Osbourn." She smiled, all teeth. "Dating was your idea."

AND ANOTHER ONE DOWN, AND ANOTHER ONE DOWN
ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST

"And you're telling me you didn't notice anything wrong?" said Steve. He had his hand braced on the dash and the flyer window open, and although the spring air was still cold Sam had his head tilted into the breeze.

"Nope," said Sam, and pulled out to skim around one of the transcontinental cargoboats. They were crossing the Atlantic heavy goods stream, heading back towards metropolitan airspace, and the routes were crowded.

"I'm going to have to talk to him," said Steve. And that had worked out so well, last time.

Sam slanted him a sideways glance, and said, "Yup." His mouth was carefully pursed, but there was a glimmer of amusement in the angle of his eyebrow and the curve of his cheek.

They'd known each other a very long time.

"You want my advice, go in fast and hard," said Sam.

From the back seat, Redwing huffed, and while the sound was hoarse there was a note to it that was very nearly gleeful.

Steve kept his eyes on the route ahead.

 

Part Three
New York - Malibu
Spring

 

He flew out to the West Coast as Steve Rogers, not Captain America.

It seemed fitting. He didn't really feel like the Captain in that moment, although both uniform and shield were in the locker above his head. What he felt was confused, and angry about being confused, and impatient with himself for feeling both, and uncertain if he was doing the right thing, and - And.

The cardboard coffee cup was crumpled in his hand. Thankful it had been almost empty, he put it back on the tray.

"Don't worry," said the woman sitting next to him. "We're nearly there. And my son says this is the safest airline to fly." She smiled at him. "Only another half hour or so. The seatbelt signs will be on in a minute."

"Ma'am," said Steve, and made sure to relax his grip on the armrest. The only place he could go was forwards. He fastened his seatbelt.

Nothing to report. National's expecting you at the desk in five minutes - the upgrade's standard, Captain.

The AGPS in Steve's hired flyer picked both flight path and speed along the coastal flyway, although Steve had his hand over the manual over ride. After the scurrying waltz of the city airspace round LAX's flyhire terminals, the sight of the sea was a welcome relief, and the air surprisingly empty. He rode slowly, skimming at low altitude, the route beneath him lined with shell-colored houses and yards with palm trees, boats and plant-box balconies, so different from New York. The sea on his left was the deep blue of summer, and the hills on his right were scattered with pine trees and inviting, winding roads. Even the breeze smelled of salt and sunshine, and he had the flyer's air conditioning off and the roof rolled back. After a while, he found a station that played jazz, soft and low against the rhythm of the engines. Sometimes he forgot about ordinary things, the simple pleasure of doing very little. The thought crossed his mind that he hadn't taken his bike beyond the city since the last spring, nearly a year ago. He could rent a beachfront house, ship the bike out, drive the coastline with his tires on asphalt, be someone he'd never been. Just for a day or two. No more.

PACIFIC COAST FLYWAY
Malibu 2
Ventura 40

Then, he was back on his flight path, looking for Tony.

There was a force field around Tony's Malibu house, pushing the flyer down to the ground level drive, and the tall, closed gates at the top of the rise were forbidding. Steve hadn't called ahead, although he'd thought about it, at Newark. Then, once or twice on the plane, and at LAX he'd stood by the flyer thinking about Tony's voice, the designation for that disused channel as familiar as his Neovenger call signs. But he'd wanted to see Tony, not an empty house.

Now, he stopped the car, got out, and found the intercom. His fingers hesitated over the button. Then he pressed it, once. He didn't have long to wait.

STEVE

Tony said, "Captain?" The crackling intercom lent his voice a hollow intonation.

WE
THINK THE SUN MAY SHINE SOMEDAY

"Hi," said Steve, staring at the road ahead beyond the grill of the gates, the sharp-edged white gravel in sunlight. "Can we talk?"

WHEN WE'LL
DRINK WINE TOGETHER AND THINK OF WHAT USED TO
BE

"That doesn't sound good," said Tony.

"Just talk," said Steve.

Tony was going to have a camera on him. Bareheaded, empty-handed, his chinos and t-shirt carefully, deliberately casual, Steve waited. A few moments. Longer than Steve was hoping for, but then the gates started to swing open. Tony said, "Follow the road."

Steve did. Tony must have had a gardener on retainer, because the drive was lined with well-tended flowering shrubs and palm trees, exotic to Steve's eyes no matter how many times he came out to the West Coast, and beautiful. The house itself was low to the ground, a white stucco Spanish-style ranch, banded with the blank glass of shielded windows, and in front of it Tony was waiting.

Letting the flyer sink gently to the stones of the drive, Steve got out, standing with his arms held loosely at his sides. He said, "Hey."

"Right," said Tony, not moving. Even without the armor, the stiffness of his pose looked like Iron Man, Iron Man braced against an invisible weight, waiting for the sky to fall. The angle of his shoulders under the suit jacket was exactly the same, and the tilt of his chin, although his hands were fisted in the pockets of his jeans. "There's an invention called the telephone," he said. "You might have heard of it." Under the shot silk of his jacket he was wearing a crumpled t-shirt, as if in lieu of the suit he'd pulled on the armor of formal clothing.

Everything was a weapon with Tony, and some of them cut deeper than others. Formal dress was for press conferences and congressional hearings, arms fairs and product launches and funerals. Steve remembered Tony in oil-stained overalls and steel toe-capped boots, sleeveless vest tops and safety goggles.

They had been friends, once.

Steve said, "I missed you." It wasn't what he meant to say, first. But the thought had taken on words and been dragging at the back of his throat since halfway over Missouri, the first thing he should have said to Tony, and hadn't.

"You don't get to say that," Tony said, stepping back, and the words were angry, sharp-edged, Tony's mouth hard and his eyes narrow.

Steve didn't look away. "It's true," he said. "But that wasn't what I came here to say."

"Spit it out," said Tony.

They weren't going to discuss this over coffee. There was no couch, no garage, no kitchen, no murmur of familiar voices, no hint of spiced cookies or roasting ham. Steve said, "Tony. Why did you leave?" Then, because he knew that expression, the way the skin seemed to tighten around Tony's eyes when he was about to lie, he added, "Was it something to do with me? With us?" He nearly winced. That us was loaded, weighted with expectation, blatant.

Tony's face was, suddenly, as blank as Iron Man's mask. "That wasn't what I expected. But past tense, I assure you," he said. "Yes." He looked away for a second, at the long line of the horizon, and then he looked back. "Yeah, Cap," he drawled. "We fucked."

The words were as direct as a bullet, and they rocked Steve back on his heels. Tony wasn't joking, and the blunt ugliness of the words was harsher and colder than anything Steve could have brought himself to say of any other lover. And true. Steve had hoped to put every word, every revelation, down to some kind of multiverse anomaly in which he wasn't himself. Wipe the page blank, move on. He couldn't. This was his timeline, and if he was - if they were ever to be in the same space again, he and Tony, he was the one who had to fix this. Whatever it was. "Tony, I don't remember anything," he said. "Tell me what happened."

Tony said, "Not the conversation I expected to be having. How did you find out?"

"You had a photograph on your tablet," said Steve. "At the hotel. I still have the tablet," he added, conscientious. It was in his kitbag.

"Right," said Tony. He didn't look down. He said, "So. We dated. It didn't work out. I knew what I was thinking, but don't ask me what went through your addled mind, because I have no idea. Was that all?"

"So you do remember," said Steve. "At first I thought it was some kind of time shift. But Sam said I'd spoken to him about - Tony, we didn't just-"

"You told Falcon?" said Tony. "Of course you did."

When Tony looked away, Steve took two steps forwards, fast, and then Tony's eyes snapped back.

"You know, what hurt the most was that everyone knew you were lying. Except me. In retrospect," said Tony, "I may have over-reacted."

"You're going to have to explain this to me very clearly," said Steve.

Tony said, "There must have been something about your star-spangled persona. Maybe I just wanted to sleep with the president? Or was it play golf? No, that was Tuesdays."

Steve said, "You need a martini in your hand if you really want to make that point."

"Damn right. I forgot the sunglasses," said Tony, and dragged a pair out of his shirt pocket. "Dolce and Gabbana," he said, frowning. "Are they still in vogue? I should go shopping."

"Stop deflecting," said Steve. "Please."

Head ducked down, Tony looked over the top of the sunglasses. His mouth was pursed. He said, "Stevie, baby, I loove it when you beg."

"Tony," said Steve.

The windows were close enough now for Steve to catch both of their reflections from the corner of his eye. He was two steps away, but Tony was still backing up, head on one side, hands back in his pockets.

Tony said. "You can't remember because I don't want you to."

Steve stopped, mid stride. He put his leading foot down, very carefully, and kept his hands by his sides. He said, "Did you make me forget?"

"Yes," said Tony.

"Why?" said Steve.

Tony said, "I could say, I wanted you to have a past you could still live with, but I'd be lying. I was furious." He was still furious. Angry enough to say, acid-sharp, "Was I really so unstable, Captain? Did you honestly believe sleeping with me was going to make everything all right? That you'd fix us by lying to me?"

Suddenly, Steve was fiercely glad he was having this discussion out of uniform. He felt out of his depth, blindsided, and he had a terrible suspicion that in some painful bout of masochism Tony was enjoying himself. He said, "You told me you didn't know what I was thinking."

They'd slept together. The thought rang like a bell, deep toned, seismic.

Tony's eyes slipped sideways. He said, "Semantics." His back was nearly flat against the glass, mirrored.

"You mind-wiped me," Steve said, and Tony's face didn't change. He said, "You stole my memories. You didn't give me the chance to know what I was thinking."

"You're missing the point here," said Tony. "You lied to me first."

"I don't know that!" Steve snapped, the palms of his hands were flat against the window, and he was so close he had to look down into Tony's face.

Tony said. "Captain, I think we're done here." His mouth was set, a little white around the edges, the expression in his eyes as fiercely indomitable as the thrust of his chin.

"I don't think we are," said Steve.

The window was gone. Melting, shimmering, sliding around Tony's chest and his shoulders as he stepped back, covering his face, his hands, the glass as liquid as water. Steve had to scrabble back, but Tony was vanishing, slipping back - gone, and the window was as black and sheer as it had been five seconds ago.

Steve thumped it. "Tony!" he yelled. "Tony!"

He couldn't even find a door. No back porch, no bell, no door, no secret entrance - only the blank line of the windows and, on the other side, an infinity pool large enough for a yacht, a crumpled red towel and a sun lounger. A highball glass half-full with soda and melted ice. No Tony.

In the end Steve gave up and went back to the intercom at the gates, but that too was silent. For the first time in his life, Tony had tapped out.

The motel five miles down the road was only a little worn around the edges. The rooms were small, the lot crowded, and the menu so generic Steve took one look and dodged across the highway to the In-N-Out opposite. Uneasily aware of the cameras behind the counter, the cross-continent cargoboat driver tapping at her tablet and the sharp, tired eyes of the kids serving burgers, he ate hurriedly at a corner table, his baseball cap dragged down over his eyes.

No excuses, no additives. All-organic American beef, just the way you like it.

hey you'll never believe who

lookin' good for a guy hitting triple figures

He'd try Tony again in the morning. Things always exploded, with Tony, happened quick and sharp and then vanished, as if he didn't care - except that Tony had cared. Steve had, he had, they'd both - damn the SHRA act to hell.

What had he done?

Rolling over, Steve buried his head in his pillow, but sleep came in fits and starts and his thoughts tangled themselves in knots.

FUCK

Tony's house exploded at 2.13am.

ASSEMBLE. SHIELDS.
LOCATE.
GO.

The concussion slammed into the motel windows, flaring the curtains and rattling the hooks. Steve was already on his feet, dragging on his uniform, snatching his comm unit and his shield and his flyer control and racing out the door. The horizon was red, the bright, dense red of intense heat, although the color was already fading. "Jewel," Steve said urgently, "Jewel, come in." He couldn't get the keys on the controller to work. "Danielle!"

TARGET LOCK

Then he let his hand drop from the comm.

The sound came first, always. Then the shockwave. There was something racing towards him, angled low, metal that glinted red and gold in the unnatural light. Almost disbelieving, Steve clenched his fist around the straps of his shield and held up his hand. Iron Man snatched him up, wrenchingly swift, as surely as if Tony was working on an automatic beacon. He'd barely slowed. Steve flung his shield arm around the strange, soft metal of the suit, tangled his legs around Iron Man's knees, and clung on in the teeth of a headwind as fierce as a rocket thrust.

RETRIEVED

Tony finally eased off in the hills above Los Angeles. The wind lessened, first, and Steve could raise his head from Tony's shoulder and stretch his fingers, and then they were dropping slowly through the darkness of the sky onto frost-sharpened grass. Just below the snow line, they were twenty miles from the glow of the city streetlights, and once Tony stumbled to a clumsy landing, enclosed in silence.

Steve rolled to his knees, stood up, and stretched. It was a clear night. He could still see, just, down on the coast, the pinprick red glow of the fire. Every blade of grass glinted with a tiny, crystalline flame.

"On a scale of one to ten," Tony said, "How angry are you?"

"It'll keep," said Steve. His communicator crackled urgently. In the headwind, he had heard nothing. "What do you want me to say to them?" he asked, glancing sideways. The suit seemed to give out its own pale light, and he could see that Tony had the faceplate up, but there were ash stains on the metalwork and Tony's skin seemed pale. "You okay?"

"Nothing I can't fix," said Tony, his voice very dry. "Stall. For now."

"Danielle?" said Steve. "We're fine. Nothing we can't handle."

But it was Nick's voice that said, "Report."

Steve pulled the comm away from his ear and mouthed 'Fury' at Tony.

"Shit. Pass it over," Tony said. He made a face at the comm design, but wriggled it into place. The suit retracted smoothly, the same way that the window glass had, but did not melt into Tony's skin as the Extremis suit had done. "Nick," he said.

 

 

TRACK.

"Tony. No damage done - yeah. Yeah. No. He's here. Fine. Undamaged. Perfect. No. No. Nick - hell. Hell." The comm unit was off, clenched in Tony's hand.

"Problem?" said Steve.

"I don't know," said Tony. He stared at the coast, the dull red flare of the fire. Then he said, as if he had already dismissed Fury's questions, "I liked that house." There was a note of regret in his voice.

"Someone didn't," said Steve, watching Tony's profile.

Tony snorted, but didn't answer. He closed his eyes for a moment, the strong structure of his face backlit by the suit, dark hollows and black eyelashes. Then he looked back. "Steve. I didn't even think. This is my problem. I'll drop you back at the motel. Or the airport."

"You can drop me wherever you're going," said Steve. "You're not on your own."

"You don't even know what I've done," said Tony.

"I trust you," Steve said.

"I wouldn't," said Tony. He handed the comm unit back. "I'll take you back to the airport."

"No," said Steve. "We tried this before. It didn't work. I'm going with you."

"Steve-" Tony bit back whatever he was going to say. "This isn't the kind of fight you can win. There's no villain. There's no happy ending. This is where it ends. Even this - I knew you'd be fine, and yet I still-"

RECALIBRATE

"Oh, what the hell," said Tony, but his voice was flat. "I've got nothing to offer but bad coffee and worse conversation. You in?"

"Yes," said Steve.

Offering his elbow, Tony was as formal as a guy at a tea dance. "Let's go."

Steve slotted himself into place. "A little slower?" he asked. The suit was soft under his hands. There were no easy handholds, there never had been, but the material seemed to grip at his fingers, and it felt warm through the scales of his uniform.

"Sunday afternoon jaunt," Tony promised, and tightened his grip around Steve's waist. "Old man." For the first time since he'd come back, there was a trace of warmth in his voice, achingly familiar.

They were already thirty feet above the ground. Steve hitched his elbow and the shield a little higher on Tony's back, tightened his fingers, and said, "Go on, then. Show me what you've got."

For the first time in a very long time, as the faceplate came down, he saw Tony's wry grin.

CODE REKEY
IDENTIFICATION ACCEPTED

Tony had a studio flat in an anonymous apartment building on reclaimed land just outside the airport. Sparsely furnished, undecorated, it had a bed, a chair, a coffee machine, a phone line, and a laptop the size of a small briefcase. There were no sheets on the bed and nothing in the kitchen cupboards except for a mug, three plastic sporks and a heavy linen napkin, wine-stained, monogrammed FDR. If Steve stretched out his arms, he could almost touch the walls in the living room, and he was already dubious about the shower.

TRANSMISSION SECURED
STEALTH MODE TERMINATE Y/N

Tony shrugged. "Pull up a chair, you're making me nervous."

N.

Steve said, "If you'd known who you were looking for, we wouldn't be here." He sat on the edge of the bed, shield to hand, careful to tuck his knees out of the way. The mattress sagged under his weight.

Sitting on the floor, unscrewing the back of the laptop, Tony flicked up a dismissive glance. "I know who I'm looking for," he said. "It doesn't help." He ripped out a handful of wires and started to strip them down, frowning. "How good are you at flint knapping?"

"So it was personal," Steve said.

"I'm damn sure it's personal," said Tony. Unsurprisingly, he had a compartment in the arm of the suit full of tools Steve didn't recognize. "Unless someone else has one hell of grudge against Miley Cyrus and very suspicious timing."

"Who?" said Steve.

"My neighbor," said Tony. "It's fine, she hasn't been home since 2016."

"I'd be more comfortable knowing who I'm taking a swing at," said Steve, "Just in case they walk through the door."

"Go ahead," said Tony, a little muffled, ripping the casing from a connection with his teeth. "I'm right here."

Steve let himself drop back onto the bed. "Don't tell me," he told the ceiling. "Stark satellite."

"Got it in one," said Tony. There was a brief smell of solder wire, and then the sound of a net newsreader.

- senate members debating environmental proposals put forward by a consortium of business owners -

"Crap."

- explosion at -

"Tony. What did you do?" said Steve.

"That's what I'm trying to figure out," said Tony. "Could be an automatic defense, could be triggered by something I didn't expect me to be doing, could be something I wanted to warn myself off doing, I don't know. I'll find out."

"Tell me you are actually you," said Steve, sliding his eyes sideways to Tony's face.

Tony scowled, and the sharp smell of solder curled up from his laptop. "Check," he said.

"Okay," said Steve. He rolled over and looked down. Tony was holding a miniature blow torch in one hand, with three wires and what looked like a metal hub in his other, gloved. "Is that safe?" Gleaming molten metal drips ran down the wires.

"Don't be so trusting. Time sensitive. But safe as-" Tony blinked. His voice sharpened. "We've got visitors. Visitor."

Steve was already at the door. Footsteps thudded up the stairs, heavy and even, that flat-footed gait that meant armor. "Did you call out reinforcements?" he asked.

"Comms are off," said Tony. He was puffing hard on the wires, cheeks hollowed, and the blow torch was burning a hole in the carpet while his right glove snapped into place.

The floorboards shivered, Steve raised his shield, and War Machine burst into the room.

"Answer your fucking-" Rhodey yelled, faceplate snapping up.

Then he saw Steve. War Machine's fist smashed through the drywall, six inches above Steve's head, Steve slammed his shield up from a spinning crouch, and Tony's repulsor incinerated half the door frame.

"It's not what you think!" Tony shouted.

Steve had his shield angled. Rhodey did not drop his fist. There were sparks running over War Machine's elbow, where Tony had always run the wiring, through the underarm joints.

"What the hell is he doing here?" Rhodey spat.

"Picked him up outside Malibu," said Tony. "He came along for the ride."

"Damage control," said Steve.

"Too little, too late," said Rhodey.

He hadn't even looked back at Tony, and the weapons on the armor's shoulders were tracking Steve. One of the mountings was stiff, and the armor itself looked like one of the older suits. Someone else was piloting War Machine now, a younger man. Steve had met him, once.

He hadn't seen Rhodey since Tony had left. Before Red Skull.

"We're on the same side, Rhodes," Steve said, deliberately authoritative.

"Tony?" said Rhodey.

Tony glanced up. "It seems to have worked out so far. We're both still alive. But, satellite to disarm. Can we have this conversation later?"

"Blow the thing up," said Rhodey. His eyes had not left Steve's.

"Can't," said Tony. "Also, working."

"Let's take this outside, Colonel," said Steve, jerking his head to the landing.

"You first," said Rhodey.

"Didn't think you were the kind of guy to shoot me in the back," said Steve.

"Could say the same of you," said Rhodey. Sparks sizzled around his fingers.

"Fine," said Steve, and ducked through the smoking doorway. He kept walking, to the end of the landing, where a vase of plastic flowers stood on a two-inch windowsill, and there he turned around. War Machine was right behind him.

"I always thought Tony would be my best man," said Rhodey, the anger in his voice no less potent for how quietly it was voiced. "But when I got married, he was on the other side of the galaxy. You going to tell me why, Captain America?"

"You know what?" said Steve. "I'd like to know that too. But your best friend wiped my memory, so your guess is as good as mine." He was staring back into Rhodey's narrowed eyes, not giving an inch. "Looks like we're on a par, War Machine."

"I don't think so," said Rhodey. "You tore him apart, you know that? And then the day after he comes back you're sniffing down his neck again. Rogers, you might be the white knight of the East Coast, but no one wants to see you over here. Go home."

"I'm not going to apologize for something I don't know I did," said Steve. "Does the word mind-wipe mean anything to you, Rhodes? Because in my book, that's a little damning for a guy in the right."

"He loved you," Rhodey said, very quietly.

He might just as well have thrown that punch, and by the look in his eyes, Rhodey knew exactly what that betrayal of trust meant. Sucking in a breath through his teeth, Steve had to look away.

The flowers were dusty. And whatever else they'd done to each other, it was Tony who had struck back hardest.

"So don't tell me you're here to pick up where you left off," said Rhodey. "Because you weren't the guy he ran to when the shit hit the fan. You were the guy who threw it. And that stuff sticks, know what I mean?"

"That's not your choice to make," Steve said.

"It sure as hell ain't yours," said Rhodey.

"Really?" said Steve. "Because your best friend stole every memory I've got of that particular relationship, so I don't know what the hell I was thinking, or what he was thinking, or if someone reset the universe to slam both of us into the same bed. And you know what, Colonel Rhodes? I'm taking that personally."

"Don't let us stop you feeling, Steve," said Tony, "But a little more action would be better for all of us. Rhodey, is that suit still up to off-planet combat?"

As he stood in the doorway, there was a shimmer around Tony's silhouette that Steve was beginning to recognize. One day, he was going to ask Tony how that worked, because unless things had changed drastically, the new armor wasn't magic, but it was sure as hell alien.

"Not after Cap took out the right arm," said Rhodey. Then he added, "And I did drag it out of the garage." Rhodey had always been an honest man.

"He's married," said Steve. "I'll go."

For the first time, Tony's eyes had that blank emptiness he'd worn when he was using Extremis. Steve hadn't seen it for fifteen years, and he still hated the sight. When Tony blinked and the mask disappeared, he had to unclench his hand from the windowsill.

"Okay," Tony said. "Suit up. You're plan B. Rhodey, sort him out, I haven't got time." He disappeared back into the apartment.

Steve and Rhodey looked at each other. "Demanding guy, the boss," Rhodey said.

"Come on," said Steve. "Get it off."

"Er," said Rhodey. "Might need some help? Knees seem to have shorted."

After a moment's silenced pause, Steve offered both his hands, palm up. Working together, they freed Rhodey from the armor, twisted a few wires back into shape, and then levered Steve inside. He and Rhodey were the same height, both of them long-legged, but Steve was broader in chest and shoulders, and he'd always found the armor claustrophobic even when it was made to adjust. Breathing was awkward, moving difficult.

"Keep your feet flat," Rhodey advised. "Don't twist your hips."

"I thought I was going to be flying this thing," Steve grumbled.

"About that," said Rhodey. "It pulls left. Hard. You'll need to ramp down the right thruster, the left's stuck on three-quarter power. Don't turn too quickly, I think I lost a stabilizer or two on the flight in. Weapons are all sound. Except for that right launcher. Don't fire that one, I think it's jammed."

"Okay," said Steve. "Thanks."

"Don't thank me," said Rhodey. "But I'm not going to send you out to your death deliberately, Rogers."

"Takes a lot," said Steve. He wasn't going to offer his hand, but he did nod.

Tony was sitting cross-legged on the bed with the laptop screen in front of him, data scrolling across it too fast for Steve to read.

"Sitrep?"

"No imminent explosions," said Tony. "I think."

"Anything?" said Rhodey.

"No," said Tony. "Nothing that counts. In the system, though." He glanced up. "Suits you."

"Thanks," said Steve. "Fits him better." He waddled to the bed, where Tony sat with the laptop screen. "What can we do?"

"Unless you've got coffee," said Tony, "Nothing."

Rhodey coughed. "Hatch on the left thigh," he said.

He really had brought two packets of Kona, and in silent agreement, Tony got both first and last measures. His hands were almost still on the keyboard, and his eyes dark, only the occasional flurry of movement showing that he was working.

Not wanting to risk the creaking knee joints, Steve stood still. Rhodey, on the other side of the bed, was watching both of them, but Tony seemed oblivious. Then he muttered, "Going for it. Cap, timer's on."

"Want me up there?"

"Not if I can help it, in that suit. You're last ditch only. Rhodey, plot this into the helmet?" Tony turned the screen. "I'm not going to patch comms in, I don't know if that's the trigger. Steve, once you're out there, it's going to be radio silence all the way. Assume you're live to go."

"Understood," said Steve.

Rhodey passed him the helmet and opened the windows to the tiny mock balcony. Standing on the sill, his back to the sea, Steve watched Tony stare at the laptop screen.

"Countdown?" he said softly to Rhodey.

"Twelve minutes," said Rhodey, equally quiet, eyes on the screen. "He's cutting it fine. Put the helmet on."

Steve did. The faceplate struggled down, and the HUD display looked antiquated after SHIELD's combat comms. He flexed his fingers, and the gloves were still uncomfortably stiff. There was something odd about the seal on the left hip. It felt hard and dry, as if the rubber had perished.

It wasn't as if it was going to be a long mission. Get up there, shoot the thing down, get back. He could hold his breath.

Rhodey held up ten fingers and thumped him on the shoulder, very gently.

Nine. Steve widened his stance. It had been a while, but he still remembered the force of the thrusters. He was just about to hit the button when Tony looked up and slashed the edge of his palm across his throat.

The smile was two degrees too wide, and Tony's eyes were still dark.

"Tony-" Steve said, helmet snatched off.

"Oh, thank god," said Rhodey. "That thing nearly killed me on the way in."

"Then look after it better," said Tony. "I didn't design it to stand in a corner looking pretty. Did you even dust?"

"I don't dust," said Rhodey. "We're good, right? Because some of us have to be up in time to get the kids breakfast."

"We're good," agreed Tony. His smile was broadly confident, but the skin around his eyes was still tight.

"Steve, you want a hand with that?" Rhodey asked.

"Tony?" said Steve.

"Yeah," said Tony. Watched, he tapped a couple of keys with theatrical finality. Glanced up, sneaked a glance back down at the keyboard, and then deliberately leaned back, looking at Rhodey. "I recalibrated that thruster. It'll get you home."

"Come and fix it properly for me," said Rhodey. "I can spare you a couch."

"Not tonight," said Tony. His fingers were tapping on the mattress.

"Soon. I've got a ten year old marriage I'd like you to meet." Rhodey was unclipping the stiff left knee, holding the boots steady so that Steve could step out of them. "Two kids and a boat. Couple of postcards a year doesn't cut it, boss."

"Soon," Tony agreed.

Uneasy, Steve helped Rhodey into the suit. Tony might have fixed what he could, but Steve was pretty sure that wasn't the whole story. It'd wait, though, until Rhodey had gone, although there was a moment when Rhodey remembered his objections, was clearly reluctant to leave Steve and Tony alone, and had to be urged out of the door. Steve left that bit to Tony, and caught echoes of a conversation about absent godfathers and over-expensive educations.

When he came back into the room, Steve was frowning at the laptop screen.

"You read it right."

"Eight hour cycle?"

"Yup. Bought us a little time. Enough to get Fury involved if we need to." Tony leaned back against the door for a moment, eyes closed, fingers curled over the charred frame. Then he slid down to the carpet. "Please tell me there's more coffee."

"Eight hours? There's a market two blocks down," Steve said. "Have you got any money? Cash?" He was turning out his pockets on the bare mattress, three hundred plastic dollars, one five dollar eagle, two ten cent pieces, the flyer keys, a plastiknife. A walk would do him good, he was still wired, adrenaline high from an aborted mission.

"What?" said Tony blankly.

"I'm going to need food. You're going to need coffee. Clean clothes, too. I know you're good for it. I'd rather share."

Staring up, Tony fumbled at his left wrist, flipped over a translucent Amex chip and then, a stack of pristine plastique notes. Tip money.

Steve reached down and palmed the chip, hoping not to use it. "Anything else?"

"Nothing," said Tony. His eyelashes flickered.

"Right," said Steve. "Stay here. You hear me? Right here." But Tony was already inching towards the laptop.

Shopping at speed, Steve kept his head tilted away from the cameras, and paid in cash. When he got back, he put the coffee machine on, for Tony. Steve was still uncomfortably alert, and he'd given up late-night caffeine when there was no one to share it with.

Tony had curled his legs back up onto the bed. "Nick's got us on the watch list," he said, squinting. "Someone called Firestarter is looking for you? And Danielle? Jess and Luke's daughter, right?"

"Yes. She's a flyer," Steve said. "Analyst. Comms back up?" He handed down a mug, looking at Tony's bent head, not the laptop screen.

"Yup. Danielle asked if you were enjoying your vacation. And Falcon left you a message. I didn't answer that one."

"Thanks," said Steve. His own comm unit was in his pocket, silent and still, as it had been since they left the hillside. "You hacked SHIELD."

"Of course I did," said Tony. "Comm Fury back and tell him to call off the kids. I'm not risking anyone else." He took a gulp of coffee, eyes on the screen.

"Sure," said Steve, "Once I know we're not going to need them. Sending Rhodey back to his family was the right thing to do, but you're going to have to convince me that thing is safe before I stand down my teams."

Tony flicked a glance at him. "Have a little faith."

"I do," said Steve. "That's why I'd like to be sure."

"I'm not sure if I should take that as a compliment or not," Tony said.

"Two-edged sword," Steve agreed, and resisted the temptation to pat Tony's shoulder. They weren't friends anymore. He didn't have the right. It was the last thing Tony needed.

He wasn't even persuading himself.

Instead, Steve unrolled both of the sleeping bags he'd bought and spread them out on the bed, curved around Tony's knees. The mattress sagged when he sat on it and propped himself against the headboard. Tony didn't move, looking at the laptop screen but focused on whatever data he was unraveling in his head. There were still smuts of ash on his forearms.

He'd done this so many times before, Steve thought, picked himself up and dusted himself off and started again. The architecture would be second nature. Retrench, consolidate, rebuild: in Tony's life, the loss of one house must be little more than a moment's annoyance.

The laptop pinged. Tony said, irritated, "Call Danielle."

"Green Jewel," said Steve. "You'll like her."

"They're your team, Cap, not mine," said Tony.

Steve prodded him in the back with his toes. "It looks like we're on the same side, Iron Man, so you call her up and get acquainted."

"No," Tony said. Something beeped, and then on Steve's indrawn breath he said, "I need to work on it." Keys rattled, an impatient, shoulders-hunched comment.

"It's not because it's you she's calling," Steve said awkwardly. "Fury's concerned."

"I know," said Tony. But the curve of his back softened.

Tugging his comm unit from his pocket, Steve let his fingers tap out the codes for the command channel. Danielle would be sitting in front of her desk, back straight, one finger tapping at the edge of her screen, head tilted a little sideways. Most of the time, she was her own woman, but occasionally when the light was right, in profile, she looked so like her mother Steve could have thought himself back on his own team.

He always tried to look at Danielle face-on.

"Rogers. Green Jewel?"

"Cap," said Danielle. "Hear you've got a situation."

"Under control," said Steve. "Monitor, but don't interfere unless I give you the codes. Iron Man doesn't know the trigger yet, so we're holding steady right now."

"Understood," said Danielle.

"Tell Fury I'll be back when I can," said Steve, watching Tony's hands on the keyboard.

"Sure," said Danielle.

"Did I miss anything?" Steve asked.

"Not much," said Danielle. "Two more incursions. I've got Red Team over in Lille, dealing with a rogue meta, they should wrap up in a few hours. The budget got hung up in committee, so I sent Tomas over and he talked them into clearing us for two years. I've sent you the blueprints for the new Quinliner, Novasky had some ideas about propulsion that sounded exactly what we need, but that's a major engine redesign and they want clearance first. Fury's signed it off, but I thought you'd want to have a look. Anything else?"

"No," said Steve. "Thanks."

"Don't forget you're on vacation," said Danielle, her voice warmer. "Say hi to Tony for me."

The comm went dead.

"Tony?"

"We talked," said Tony, scowling at the keyboard. "And don't look at me like that, it was purely platonic. An interchange of pixels."

"She caught you," said Steve. He leaned back, smiling, against the headboard, weathering the creak. The adrenaline of an hour ago was a slow burn now, waiting for the next crisis, and Steve was amused.

Tony snorted. "We noticed each other in passing. Steve-"

"What?"

Hesitating on the keyboard, Tony's fingers were still. "Nothing," he said.

Reflected in the glass of the screen, Steve caught his eyes. "Tony."

"Busy."

It'd keep. He'd get it out of Tony sometime, some early morning when Tony was coming down off a garage bender, his voice slow and deep and his eyes tired, and Steve had already been for his run and come back and was in charity with the world. Steve let himself relax, thinking idly of Jan in a silk robe and Hank burning muffins. They were a long way from the mansion, but the faint tang of hot metal to the air was familiar, and the smell of Tony's sweat, old and dry, and the way Steve was watching Tony work.

He'd signed up for a truce he wasn't at all certain Tony would honor. But Steve looked at the gleam of light over the armor and the familiar, vulnerable dip of the nape of Tony's neck, skin above the red and gold metal of the suit, and could not help the fierce rush of gladness that he and Tony were together. His fingers, restless, itched to touch, to assure himself that Tony was flesh and blood, alive and warm and human. Present.

It was too soon. Steve compromised with himself, sitting up in a rustle of sleeping bag, and leaned over Tony's shoulder. The screen was alive with data, searching through files and images. In the top right hand corner, a boxed display showed an image of a satellite, unmoving, faintly lit.

Tony did not look around, but the curve of his armored shoulder inclined towards Steve's, a bare millimeter or two of recognition. "I put the satellite into deep orbit when I launched," Tony said. "And everything nearby I can hack is running on fumes, there's no back door. I've reset the timer, but I built in a failsafe when I designed the thing and it's that I can't get into. I could go up and take a look, but I'd rather know what I left up there first, and I think I deleted all the designs."

"Sure that was you? Could it be the Skrull virus?" asked Steve. Twenty years ago, he'd have been leaning his weight against the companionable strength of Tony's shoulder. Here, on the edge of the bed, holding himself separate, he missed that intimacy. "We've had a few intruders since you left, but nothing I can think of that affected the net." Then Steve said, "Tried rebooting?" He could feel the small grin tugging at the corners of his mouth.

Tony looked sideways at him, skeptical eyebrows and cynic's eyes. "Steve. Do not forget that I am the one who makes the jokes." Then he said, "You're not that far off. I tried. But the failsafe's running cold, it's on, but disconnected, offline. I don't even know if - I need to get closer," Tony said. His hands stilled on the keyboard. "I don't remember building this. I don't remember anything about it."

Steve didn't say anything, but Tony didn't look around again. If he was aware of the parallel with Steve's own lost memories, he'd let it go unspoken, and after a moment, he started typing again. "I'm sure I had good reason at the time," he muttered.

FULL SCAN
EVENT LOG

The image of the satellite grew to fill the screen. Steve, used to Tony's grandiose, room-wide displays and SHIELD's multiple viewpoints, mourned the disparity, but Tony himself was intent. "There's only a certain timeframe possible," he said. "I had R&D build those dishes just before..." He'd signed it, of course he had. Gently spinning, the bold black Starkrolled across the body of the satellite. "Just before I ran out of money." Zoomed in further, the image showed the fragile pattern of struts and antennae supporting the dish. They were moving, adjusting, a pointed realignment that was untouchable and inevitable. Pointedly aimed earthwards, the center probe was gradually unfurling, a direct and present threat.

"Tony."

"I see it," said Tony, his voice tight. "Working on it." Then he added, "This wasn't supposed to happen."

CONNECT
CONNECT, DAMN YOU

 

"Don't leave it too long," said Steve, and did drop his hand on Tony's shoulder, the brief reassurance of touch he had not allowed himself earlier.

"I got this," Tony said, but when his eyes flicked up to Steve's, his face had none of the calm certainty he'd had as an Avenger.

Steve rolled off the bed, dragged his boots on, snatched his shield and said, "We're good to go."

"I'll tell you. Head towards the sea if I say run," said Tony. He'd stopped using the keyboard, hands resting on the bedspread. "I don't know it's aiming for me, but - I'll pick you up."

"Understood," said Steve, although he judged the distance between bed and window and the drop to the yard below, and knew that if he was diving head-first out the window, so was Tony, willing or not.

RANGE CALIBRATION
ALERT: TARGET LOCK

"It is me," said Tony. "Us."

On screen, the satellite had stopped moving, hanging poised in the black emptiness of space. Eyes closed, Tony's face was utterly still. The lines around the corners of his mouth ran deep, and his skin looked fragile in the pale light from the screen, thin as paper. Those fifteen years, Steve thought, had not been kind. They'd take a break after this. Tony could show him what the future looked like a million light years away. He'd ship the bike over. Some of the old blacktop roads were still maintained, nostalgic echoes of the American dream.

Maybe a flyer instead, flashy, overpowered.

Tony's eyelashes flickered, his eyes moving behind the shield of his eyelids. Steve wondered if the screen had been for his benefit all along.

He was holding his breath.

LOG-ON CONFIRMED
ABORT SEQUENCE>
OVERRIDE. ABORT.

ABORT

Tony looked up. His eyes were bloodshot, the whites stained pink, thread veins scarlet, and he was breathing through his mouth, the air whistling a little in his throat. Tony had looked like that before, at the end of days so long they'd bled into endless nights. But his eyebrows crooked upwards, his mouth tilting a little at the corners. Tony's proud-of-himself swagger, made small. He said, "Done."

Unexpectedly giddy with relief, Steve wanted to do something foolish, something triumphant, because for a moment there - but of course Tony had won. Instead Steve smiled back. He said, "Great." On screen, the satellite rolled lazily, innocently quiet. Steve said, "Done, or done for now?"

"Done," said Tony. He rubbed a hand over his face, still gloved. The armor was creeping over his hair, a slow tide of metal.

Steve had a little sleep under his belt. Tony, most probably, none. "Then rest," he said. "I'll be here." He was already turning away when he saw Tony's face.

He'd seen Tony fall. He'd seen Tony crushed and crawling, and never thought he'd break. To Steve, Tony was not a shattered colossus but a living giant who might stumble, but would never fail. They'd fought villains who would have torn the world from its axis, warmongers and technocrats, monsters crawling from the darkest nightmares and the demons of their own pasts. Tony had traversed alien galaxies; Steve had fought to give his own planet the peace he'd craved for all his adult life. They had been friends. They were heroes. They were Avengers.

That was the one designation Steve had never doubted.

But in that moment, Tony looked fragile.

"What?" said Tony, looking up. "What is it?" He'd found a smile from somewhere, jaunty and defiant, but he'd read Steve's silence as if the old accord between them still held true.

"I don't know," said Steve.

Tony snorted. "Can't help you there." The smile was gone. He'd put the laptop down.

"I know," said Steve. Then he said, "When Nick told me, I - Tony, I-"

CUT FEEDS

"Save the self-recrimination," snapped Tony. "I'm not that needy and you're not as romantic as you think you are."

"No," said Steve. "No."

Tony was kneeling on the bed, one hand raised, gloves creeping back over his wrists. When his eyes flickered, Steve knew damn well that, clear as blueprint, Tony had every escape route and attack plan laid out and dissected. He'd probably - and Steve knew, could see it plain as day, Steve had gone into whatever relationship they'd had completely blind and Tony would have had every get-out clause bullet-pointed and signed.

He said, "I wish you'd trusted me."

Tony looked away. The turn of his head was a cutting rejection, sharp as a knife, and his shoulders were braced.

Angry and careless and achingly lonely, Steve lunged forward. He wanted - he wanted Tony to actually see the gaping wound he'd left behind him, to realize that how much his decisions had hurt. Steve had walked away from so much. He wasn't going to let Tony walk away from him.

He landed hard on Tony's armored body, hard enough to crack the bedframe and slam a grunt from Tony's throat before it was swallowed back. In those first seconds, armored, Tony could have thrown Steve through the wall. He didn't. Their legs were tangled, Steve's thigh between Tony's knees, Tony's hand cramped on Steve's chest, the sleeping bag wrapping around their ankles. Tony's eyes were a blazing blue two inches from Steve's. One of Steve's hands was grappling Tony's wrist, guarding against the repulsors, the other was cupped around the back of his neck, and even Steve did not know if he was offering protection or threat.

- CAN'T -

The long, powerful arch of Tony's back sealed them together, belly to belly, hip to hip, and the clasp of his thighs against Steve's was a heated cradling. Palm down, Tony's hand on Steve's shoulder was skin, not metal, and his grip was desperately hard. His eyes were wide, shocked, his mouth open, and the jerk of his chin and the single stutter of his hips was a revelation. The laptop had clattered over the edge of the bed, the sleeping bags were tangled around Steve's feet, and comfortable abstract of sex with Tonywas suddenly and painfully real. He'd been here before, they both had, even if Tony was the only one of them who remembered.

Regret burned into need so quickly Steve shuddered. He was instantly, maddeningly hard, his own pulse an urgent drumroll and his skin fever-hot. Under Steve's weight, by his bared neck and his greedy hands and the roll and jerk of his hips, by the shocking heat of his hardening cock and the way he gasped, Tony wanted Steve just as badly. When Steve dragged Tony's mouth to his, bit at Tony's lower lip and licked at the salt-sweat of his beard, he'd gone well beyond compromise. He needed, demanded, the moment when Tony broke and kissed him back open-mouthed and starving.

Steve had always thought Tony would be a dirty kisser, and he had been right. There was a shred of humor in the thought, a very old affection mixed with the unfamiliar, familiar adrenaline of desire. Steve let himself smile, teeth bared, into the moment, and claimed his victory too soon. Panting, disheveled, Tony pulled back, and he was as angry as Steve.

"Fuck you," he hissed. "Fuck you, Steve Rogers, I'm better than this."

Steve had him pinned. He said, "Tony. I want you. You want me." His thumbs were against Tony's cheekbones, Tony's face in the palms of his hands. "Give me something back. You owe me."

He'd let go of the gloves and loosed a weapon that could kill him in a heartbeat, but Tony was staring up with the black of his pupils bleeding into blue and his cheeks flushed. The armor had gone from his forearms, was melting from his chest, and his thighs pressed against Steve's were bare skin.

"No strings, Tony Stark," said Steve. "One last go-around for the road." He barely recognized the bitter drag in his own voice.

"You don't get to fuck me just because I still want you," Tony hissed.

No point denying that one. Tony was as hard against Steve's thigh as Steve was against Tony's belly.

"Who said anything about-" The image was incendiary, the thrusting jerk of his dick an uncontrollable urge. "No," Steve said, and let his hips roll against Tony's, a hitching torment. "Not that." He swallowed, choking down the resentment and frustration, putting it aside. "Just us, just- oh god, Tony, just this once. Please."

The wait felt like the moment before the balloon went up. Wide-eyed, Tony stared up at him, shocked into silence, speechless. Then Tony said, "Really?" His voice should have been mocking, but it was surprisingly gentle, and his hands were moving, covering Steve's own, and his touch was warm and not covered in metal.

The one thing Steve couldn't take from Tony, now, was kindness. Anything but. Steve felt clumsy, stumbling, uncomfortable here on this battlefield as he never was in combat, but just as determined. "If that's a yes, shut up and kiss me," he said.

He thought Tony would push him away. He was braced for it, but the curve of Tony's neck was still bare, and the hollow of his collarbone, the sturdy rise of his chest and the strength of his thighs, rough and solid against Steve's. Steve said, "Any way you want."

HOLY FUCK STEVE DON'T

"Don't sell me anything you don't want to give," said Tony.

He'd loosened the grip of his hands, but his eyes were dark and his breathing was coming short. Steve could feel the way Tony was struggling not to move, as if they were strangers, as if Steve couldn't read Tony's body as well as he could his own and know how much they both wanted each other.

"You know exactly what I'm offering," Steve said, riding out the last dregs of his own anger on the stunning tide of straightforward lust. He'd never felt like this. Sex, he could take or leave. This was something else, a terrifying, temporary necessity.

Tony said, "I wasn't expecting this to be on the menu. Anything. This. Us. Holy shit, Steve, what you do to me." His hand had fallen from Steve's shoulders, but the armor was creeping into nothing, fading, gone. "I didn't come here for this," he said.

"That's fine for you to say," said Steve. "You remember. It's all new to me. We could have been - Tony, help me out here," he said. "You know what you're doing." He was back up on his elbows now, looking Tony in the eyes.

"With you?" Tony asked. "Steve." He was smiling, thin-lipped, eyes down. "I'm not that desperate."

"I am," said Steve.

WELL, SHIT

The moment the smile curled into something real was the moment Steve bent his head and kissed Tony as if he meant it, courting, soft lips and tongue-tip licks, delicate and precise. As if they had all the time in the world, as if this was the first time and not the last. He knew the softness under Tony's chin, his neck, the thin skin under Tony's ear where his pulse was racing, the sharp sleek stabbing hairs of his beard. Give Tony an inch and he'd take a mile: Steve's kisses were very nearly chaste, and the slow, careful grind of his hips was little short of teasing, but his breath was coming short and Tony had always hated to wait.

He still did.

"Steve, okay," Tony said. "Okay. And if it all goes to hell it's not my fault."

Steve smiled. He said, "I thought you liked living on the edge." Tony's hands were on his back, warm over his uniform, sliding down. Steve shimmied his hips, encouraging, and the bed creaked, wood snapping. The mattress lurched down at one corner.

"Not quite what I meant," Steve muttered.

Tony was shaking, and it was a snatched, snuffling amusement, not fear. "Steve. Hold still, you idiot, or this'll be-"

He had a ticklish spot under his ribs: Steve found it, the armor completely gone, and what had been a snigger became a dirty, wicked chuckle. One of Tony's hands fisted in Steve's hair and dragged his head up, just as Tony heaved them both over. The armor was gone. Naked against the mail of uniform, Tony was all sinewy muscle and harsh-furred skin and the faded eddies of a familiar cologne. His mouth was hard against Steve's, hot, powerful, his beard a stabbing, prickling irritant, and then when Steve gasped, Tony's tongue was a merciless invader. Dragged up Steve's back with bunching cloth, his nails scored into skin, and while Steve fought his way out of the uniform top Tony was already elsewhere, unbuttoning and unzipping with such knowledgeable, efficient speed Steve cursed him all over again.

"Please," he said, and then, "No, tonight, yes, Tony - Tony, I'm sorry, please-" He lost the rest of the sentence to Tony's mouth, had to scrabble them both back from the edge of the bed, and then lost all his words altogether in the breathtaking moment when Tony rolled his hips and the thick heat of his cock against Steve's. They were both hard now, Steve wet as he sometimes was when it happened like this, too fast for control, Tony dry, but the shock of the feel of them together arched Steve's back and bowed his shoulders.

"Like that?" Tony muttered. "Yeah, you do, don't you, empirical - Steve, I can't - hold on for me, I can't - Oh, God."

Steve had turned his back, laid himself open, stretched his hands up to the headboard and fastened them there. Let his legs fall apart on the tilting mattress and felt Tony's knees shake against his skin. It was the most powerful surrender he'd ever lived through, and when he looked back over his shoulder Tony was staring back at him pale-faced, except for the scarlet color along his cheekbones.

"I can't," he said. "Steve, I can't, it's too much, don't-"

"You can," said Steve. "Please. Tony. Please. Take it back for me. Show me. Just. Tony." He arched his back. There was an ache in his stomach he'd never felt before, a hollow, urgent need, and then - like nothing he could ever remember, an urge to be filled, fucked, partnered. "Tony!"

"Okay," Tony said. "We need - yeah-" His fingers were dragging at Steve's ass, wet, infuriatingly hesitant.

"I know how this works," Steve said, "Do it."

"Shit," Tony cursed, heartfelt.

His finger - two fingers, were inside. The pressure burned sharp as a crushed bone and then bloomed into pleasure in an instant. Steve cried out, felt his body tighten, and had to fight his own desperation to relax. "More," he said. Sweat was stinging his eyes. He could hear Tony panting. "More."

Three fingers. Steve rolled and heaved on the mattress, shoving his legs apart, tilting his ass up, demanding more. The burn was incredible, a bright, stinging pain that became a craving in seconds, and then exploded. Tony had crooked his fingers, a touch that hit something in Steve's body he'd never felt before. His elbows gave out, Tony said something that might have been a triumphant "Gotcha," and Steve slammed the flat of his hand against the mattress. "Fucking do it, Tony, c'mon, fuck me, fuck-"

YOU WANT IT, YOU GOT IT

That first stroke, Tony took him hard, a single slam-dunk of a thrust that speared Steve open and left him gasping, incredulous in the face of his own need. It hurt, it burned, and he wanted more, everything Tony could give him. He was whining in the back of his throat, and Tony's hands on his back were so gentle while his cock was iron hard.

"Do it," Steve managed.

Pulling out hurt. Ached, so badly Steve groaned and writhed, helpless. He could swear he heard Tony grit his teeth, and then, back with him, easier, Tony shuddered into the next stroke, and the next. His hands gripped Steve's hips, his sweat was hot on Steve's back, and they were - together, they were - he'd lost all control, everything, given it up, and Tony, Tony - hell.

STEVE

Steve came, stunned, helpless, utterly laid bare, and Tony fucked him through every excruciating, crazy spasm and on into the floating aftermath. "You gonna-" he said through clenched teeth, his hand snaking down to close around Steve's cock, still jerking, and Steve was. So sensitive his skin felt electric, Steve was already hardening again, pushed past every ounce of endurance. "I can't," he wailed.

GONNA MAKE THIS SO GOOD
FUCK YOU LIKE NO ONE ELSE

"You can," said Tony.

He could. Seconds afterwards, Tony let go of the control he must have pushed himself to the limit to hold, pounding into Steve's ass with a terrible, desperate rush that nearly sent Steve over again. "Oh God," Tony moaned. "Oh God, Steve, Steve." His hands were clenched into Steve's hips as if he would never let go.

SWEAR TO GOD YOU'LL NEVER

Tony couldn't hold himself up, afterwards, shaking, curled up on Steve's back in a sweaty, sticky mess, head buried in the nape of Steve's neck, their hands clasped. His cock softened, gently, but he didn't move and Steve was not pulling away. Even the hot trickle of Tony's come, seeping between his legs, was a welcome proof of intimacy.

FORGET ME NOW.

Better, Steve thought, not to say anything at all. If he opened his mouth, God knows what would come out.

He said Tony's name into the pillow anyway. Then again.

"I'm-" Tony said, cleared his throat, and started again. "I'm gonna, have to pull out. It's gonna be messy."

"I don't mind," Steve said, but he did. He minded the way Tony's weight was gone, and the soft warm puff of his breath and the tickle of his hair, and the empty ache of his own body. He'd been lying to himself if he'd thought once was going to be enough.

"Huh," Tony said, by his ear, so carefully not touching.

SAVE. BACK-UP. PERMANENT
REINSTATE DRIVE

Without opening his eyes, Steve reached out and drew him close, hip to hip, shoulders crushed together. Their heads were side by side on the mattress.

Tony cleared his throat. "So. So?"

He sounded as nervous as a teenager. Steve, still floating in afterglow, said firmly, "Ten more minutes."

"Okay," said Tony. He wriggled a little. Sighed. "I should shower."

Steve tightened his grip.

OKAY

"Maybe not."

Eyes closed, Steve leaned their faces together. They were breathing into each other's mouths, Steve's breathing steady now, Tony still breathless. Steve kissed the corner of his mouth, the rise of his upper lip, tilted his head and caught the bare skin under Tony's lower lip. He had so much still to learn, things he had known once, the way his hands spanned the divots of Tony's back, the way Tony groaned when he came, the way he shivered and gasped when Steve dared stroke the curve of his ass. Steve kept the touch feather-light, skimming the fine, soft hair, but he could feel the way Tony smiled, tired and sweet.

GO ON, ALL THE WAY, STARK. GIVE IT UP FOR THE MAN.

"Yeah," he said. "Yours. But only if it's your turn to make coffee." His fingers tangled with Steve's, and his other hand was patting at the bed head. The tiny lube dispenser came back over Tony's shoulder as he rolled, but the push of his ass into Steve's hips was slow and smooth and explicit.

That promise, Steve could keep. He knew it wasn't their first time by the way Tony moved with him, sleepy and easy, soft in a way that for Steve was a quiet revelation. He kept the thing as gentle as he could, easing into Tony's body and coaxing him hard again. Then he learned that Tony demanded hard, but begged and shivered and moaned when Steve moved in him deep and slow and gentle. When they came, seconds apart, their hands were still clasped.

Afterwards, Steve wanted to do it all again, but the night was already shading into dawn and Tony's hands were shaking. Steve rolled him down into the bed, kept him there with one hand and pushed the dark, sweaty strands of his hair back from Tony's face.

"I'm not going to sleep," said Tony. But he hadn't even made a token resistance, flopping onto the mattress with his head pillowed on the sleeping bag. His eyes were heavy-lidded, closing. "Just...do the thing with the thing." His hand made grabbing motions, but his eyes were closed.

There were grey hairs in his beard as well as at his temples.

Quietly, Steve cleaned up and made coffee, but when he walked back into the bedroom, Tony was asleep, encased once again in the new armor. Moving the laptop from the floor, Steve set it up carefully against the wall, where he could see the image of the satellite. He slid onto the other side of the bed, every shift in weight carefully calculated against creaking bedframe and the tilted mattress. Hard against his back, the bed's headboard was scarred, the bedding thinly padded and worn, and if he glanced past his toes the dip of the frame was disorientatingly alarming.

The mug in his hand was advertising Star Wars, the original, and it was chipped.

The apartment wasn't Tony's kind of place at all, but he must have had the lease for years. Before he went spaceside, maybe even before they'd met.

They were going to have to talk, he and Tony, but for now Steve drank his coffee in the quiet of the early morning, and let himself watch Tony sleep.

SATELLITE
COFFEEbr /> STEVE

"Hey," said Steve, very quietly.

SHIT.

Tony's mouth closed, his lips thinning, and his eyelids tightened, as if he was determined to keep his eyes shut for as long as it took for Steve to disappear.

"It's me," Steve said.

"I know that," Tony muttered, into the rucked-up sleeping bag. He'd slept the last of the night in the armor, only his hands and his face bare, and his body had been awkwardly tense in the sag of the mattress. "I just don't know what the hell I was thinking."

"Roll with it," Steve suggested.

Tony's eyes snapped open. "Sorry?"

"Here," Steve said, and passed the coffee across.* If he dropped his hand, he could run his fingertips over the smooth metal of Tony's shoulder plate. Asleep, Tony had been restless, his hands clenching on nothing and his head tossing and turning on the makeshift pillow. Steve hadn't minded. He didn't mind now, when Tony's face was crumpled with sleep and his hair tousled, intimately vulnerable in the casing of the suit. He knew how strong Tony was, knew in the echoes of the space left between them how hard they'd wounded each other, but he'd forgotten how much he cared, how familiar they'd once been, he and Tony.

*CF. AVENGERS DISASSEMBLED, DIAMONDBACK LMD - J

Steve wondered if this was what he had felt like, when they were truly lovers, this fierce tenderness. He said, "We need to talk."

"Too early in the morning," said Tony, but his eyes above the mug were as sharp as they had always been.

"Fine," said Steve.

OUCH

Sitting up, Tony pulled into himself, back curled against the headboard, elbows on his knees. The cowl of the armor was creeping back into place over his head. "Did you check in with Nick?"

TIME WAS, STARK, WHEN YOU COULD HAVE FUCKED HIM INTO THE MATTRESS TWICE BEFORE BREAKFAST
AND HE'D HAVE WANTED YOU TO

"Not yet," said Steve. "Pass that mug over, we've only got the one."

Tony snorted. "Huh," he said, and took another mouthful before passing it back.

The carafe was by the side of the bed. Topping up, Steve said, "I'm still glad you came for me." He nearly spilled the coffee when Tony started to laugh. It wasn't the full bellied chuckle Tony could sometimes be persuaded into, off guard, but small.

GUESS THE OLD MAN'S STILL GOT IT.
MAYBE

Steve leaned over. Very carefully, he tapped the chest plate, Tony's armor warm under his knuckles, the metal soft. "Lose the armor. We're not going to fight. We've done too much of that already and I'd rather not talk to you when you're like this. Come on."

"I think you're doing just fine," said Tony. His breath smelled of coffee, his skin of sour sweat and metal. He hadn't moved, but his shoulders were tighter and he wasn't meeting Steve's eyes.

"No, I'm not," said Steve. "I don't know what the hell we're doing. I need you to tell me what's going on. I need to see you. Lose it. Please."

THERE'S ALWAYS A CATCH
PAY UP

Tony did.

"Good," said Steve. Under his palm, the pulse in Tony's neck was fast and erratic. He uncurled his hand, his fingers dragging against the flush of warmth under his touch, and sat back. Watched Tony, unselfconscious, drag on a T-shirt and sweatpants and, cautiously, sit back onto the bed. He sat cross-legged at Steve's knees, his feet propped up on the mattress, hands so conspicuously stilled they were as compelling as the lines of his face. "So. What's wrong? Is it the armor? You?"

"Nothing you can fix," said Tony. He was staring at the ceiling. Then at the end of Steve's sleeping bag, head on one side. The doorway. The ceiling.

"Yeah, you said that," said Steve. "I'm not gonna let this one go, Tony. You came to me."

"Error of judgment," Tony said. For a moment, he looked as if he wasn't going to say anything else, his mouth held tightly, the light of the rising sun outside the blinds highlighting, cruelly, the hollows under his cheeks and the lines at the corner of his eyes.

"Let me help," Steve asked, softly. He knocked his knee against Tony's thigh, gently familiar. "Come on. And I've got - I'd like to talk to you too." He wondered, the thought sharply painful with regret, if they'd talked after Registration. When Tony had hated himself so much he'd deleted his own memories and Steve was still coming to terms with being alive. What they'd said to each other, if Tony had been flippant and crass or if, naked, he'd trusted Steve with an honesty he seldom gave anyone else. Pepper. Rhodey, perhaps.

If he had been honest, then, thinking Steve had lied would have been a kick in the guts.

"If I show you mine, you'll show me yours?" Tony said. His smile was very wry. "Cap."

"I know you've got no reason to trust me," Steve said. He wondered if he could pull Tony up to sit beside him without the action being construed as a threat.

NO SHIT

But Tony was actually looking at him. Just to give Tony something to do with his hands, Steve passed over the mug, and waited. Ridiculously familiar, Tony pulled a face at the cold coffee, a memory that came untainted and warm to Steve's mind. Tony, working. Tony at the old mansion, working. Tony and Steve together, half a hundred kitchen confidences and diner tables and boardroom and Avengers meetings, playing off each other, smooth and so well attuned half the time Steve knew what Tony was going to say before he spoke.

Tony said, slowly, "I don't think it counts if you can't actually remember lying to me."

And half the time Tony came out of the outfield with a Hail Mary throw that saved the day.

"I wish I could say I never had," Steve said.

"Yeah, I know you do," said Tony. He uncurled himself from the bed and went to the window. Behind the shutters the sun was already bright, slanting his silhouette in lines of light and shadow.

He said, "This was the first place I ever bought myself. For me and Rhodey. He came out for base camp. I haven't been here since I built the first Malibu house. But we were both good here, I think."

YEAR'S END, ALL
CORNERS OF THIS
FLOATING WORLD, SWEPT

"My worst nightmare used to be someone who could beat me at my own game," Tony said. His voice was quick, sharp-edged. "But the future is already here. It's out there, three million worlds of futures. I've seen it. The trick was to think faster and build quicker. I did okay. Better than okay. Then. Then - Steve. I'm getting older. Getting old. I can't - that satellite? That was set up for anyone who wasn't me. Or you. And I knew that, I knew the codes, I just didn't - I forgot. And that wasn't the first time."

Gently, Steve said, "It's going to happen to everyone. Half the people we've ever worked with have laid up their uniforms." But he hadn't realized how much he'd clung to the thought of Tony coming back until the possibility was slipping away.

"That's not the problem," said Tony. Against the light from the window, he was a cut-out shadow, his face hidden.

Tony had always been so carelessly casual with his body, so free with a physical intimacy that was just as much armor as the suit: his hands, his shoulder, the bare lines of the muscles of his back, promises Tony did not know he was making. I trust you. I trust you to stand by me. One of them had lied.

Tony said, "You hated it when I had Extremis. But I could change all of me now. Not just my mind - the software's fine, Steve. It's the hardware that's failing. And I could change that. I could rebuild right up from my genes. Everything you could think of. Everything you'd hate."

Steve said, honestly puzzled, "Why haven't you done it?"

Tony said, "I'd be immortal, Steve. Or as near as anyone can be."

"I don't see why you'd have a problem with that," said Steve.

"Thanks," said Tony, his voice very dry indeed.

"I'm trying to understand," said Steve. "Tony, for as long as I've known you, you've always been about the future. Not just dreaming it, or keeping it safe, but building something real. You could have that forever."

"Yeah, I know," said Tony. "I'm just not sure if I want it."

Steve said, unguarded, "You've always been your own worst enemy."

ASSEM-

"Please don't," said Steve. He'd leaned forwards. Tony's shoulders were under his hands, broad and strong: his narrowed eyes were two inches from Steve's own. Steve's insides felt hollow, scoured. He'd forgotten how Tony could play him on a thread, raise an eyebrow and start a war, kick the world from under his feet and toss it in the air, smiling. He'd forgotten the hurt kid under the stark courage and the bravado. "Tony."

"We're not playing this game," said Tony. "I'm me. Armor. Skin."

Under Steve's hands, his body was strung as tense as a wire rope, his pulse off-beat, uneven, but Tony was still warm. Uncovered, not metal but flesh. Vulnerable. Steve opened his hands and stood back. Sat back down on the bed. If Tony wanted to tell himself the armor wasn't always a weapon, Steve wasn't going to challenge.

"Sorry," he said. Then he added, "For what it's worth, Stark, I can tell you the future's never what you expect it to be. But it's worth finding out."

CAP

Tony hadn't moved, but he hadn't called the armor back either. He said, "I built a garden for Rumiko. In Japan. Sometimes I wonder if it's still there. I always thought you'd like it. I was going to take you there."

"We could go," said Steve, eventually.

"I don't think so. It's someone else's, now." Then Tony said, "Get showered. It's my turn to make coffee."

"There's a diner down the street," Steve offered. He was expecting Tony's side-eyed, dubious contempt, but what he got was Tony's considering gaze, as if he'd said something more significant than let's eat. He said, "It was open when I walked past." He couldn't get more awkwardly mundane if he tried. "We could have breakfast." Tony never had breakfast. He had coffee, sometimes brunch, more coffee. Sometimes Steve had brought him food, oatmeal, fruit, bagels. Coffee. Sometimes it was the other way around. Sometimes, Tony ate.

"Let's do that," said Tony.

SURVEILLANCE MODE

Pepper called on the way to the diner.

The sky was clear, the sidewalk was empty, and the trailing black SHIELD issue flyer was visible without being intrusive. Tony was wearing sandals and board shorts, his sunglasses pale enough for Steve to catch the dark line of his eyelashes under the smoked glass. He had his hands in his pockets, and there was a hitch in his step that made Steve hesitate between shame and pride. Whatever healing factor Tony was packing these days, that, he'd chosen to keep.

Steve was daring to consider the idea that it wouldn't be the only time. The silence was comfortable, their footsteps rhythmic, and there was a soft curl to Tony's mouth he liked.

PEPPER

"Pep?" Tony said.

It was Steve who stopped walking, not Tony. Then two steps ahead, Tony spun on his heel and looked back. He had one hand up to his ear, where his comm unit would have sat if he'd had one.

"Yes," he said, and grimaced at Steve. "Sorry," he mouthed.

MEDIA FEEDS

Steve caught up and set his shoulders between Tony and the flyer.

Iron Man Tony Stark California Stark Resilient Avengers returns Captain-

Longtime friends and partners-

-next for the superhero voted most likely to retire in last month's-

"Say hi to Steve. I got it. Yes, I know he's here. Yes, I know we're on the net. No, I don't care."

FREEZE NETCAM

"Yes, I'll tell him. Steve," Tony said. "Pepper says hi. Pepper says, come to dinner, she hasn't seen you for years, and one last thing, don't - hell no, I'm not saying that, you can tell him yourself. Yes. Yes, I'll bring him. Yes. And no. No, I'm not. It's not on the table. Pep, this is not the way to - okay, fine, I promise. I'll see you later."

"We're on camera," he said to Steve.

"I guessed," said Steve. He let his hand fall from Tony's shoulder. "How is she?"

"Hosting a dinner party," said Tony. "In Emerald Bay. We're invited."

"Okay," said Steve.

"Tonight," said Tony.

"I said fine," said Steve. He pushed Tony around and got him walking.

"I didn't tell her I was on the West Coast," said Tony.

"I guessed," said Steve. He looked sideways. "She's not the only one who wants you back," he said.

"Huh," said Tony, and looked up under his eyelashes, flirting and dirty.

Steve put his arm around Tony's shoulders. It was okay. Tony could take his weight.

KH 214.8 FM RADIO LOS ANGELES
ANOTHER SUNNY DAY HERE IN CALIFORNIA, FOLKS

The patio table had the dull sheen of cheap organic plastic and the menu was limited, but the view of the ocean was encompassing. Spring in California was as warm as summer in New York, but the breeze still came salt-scented off the waves, and they'd held the paper napkins down with the condiment tray. Tony had borrowed Steve's new cotton plex hoodie, the sleeves drooping over his hands, but his eyes behind the mask of his sunglasses were half-closed, a relaxed weariness. He had his feet up on a spare chair and a mug of coffee in his hands, and Steve could have sat there all day if it meant the amused curve to the corner of Tony's mouth would never uncurl.

SPOTTED AT DiMARCO'S, MALIBU,
TONY STARK AND COMMANDER STEVE ROGERS

"Anything else I can get you?" asked the girl with the pancakes.

Steve smiled up her. "No," he said. "Thanks."

'AN HONEST-TO-GOD DATE FOR THE VETERANS?
WE'LL GO TO NETCAM IN A SECOND-'

The radio was playing something simple, a man's voice and a guitar, and there was a snow-white seagull posed on the seaward wall with a fixed yellow eye and an elegant beak. Steve thought of Sam, but the butter on his pancakes was melting and Tony had just passed the maple syrup across the table.

"I turned the cameras off in here too," he said. "I don't think the world needs to see how sweet you like your breakfast."

"Thanks," said Steve, although he was pretty well certain the world didn't give a brass monkey about the state of his breakfast. He said, "I had pancakes in a diner in upstate New York, two days ago. I went to see Maria Hill."

For a moment, Tony was very still. Then he said, "I owe her an apology."

"I gathered," Steve said. "She's not that keen on me, either. I took Sam. And Natasha turned up. I gather you've never slept with Sam, but the jury's still out on Black Widow and Iron Man." He crooked an eyebrow.

"Good pancakes," said Tony.

"I'll take that as a yes," said Steve. "More syrup?"

"Are you sure you want to do this, Steve?" Tony said. "Rehash the past? Because I'm not that guy anymore."

"Give me a chance to find out," offered Steve. "Stay. Past dinner. Past-" He looked up at the flyer. "What do I put on the table, Tony? What do you need?"

One last dance with Mary Jane
One more chance-

The radio snapped into silence with a crackle of static. "I thought you just wanted to talk," said Tony.

"I'm not judging you," said Steve.

"That's fine for you to say," said Tony. "No one's judging you against any standard but your own. I can't compete." His feet were off the chair, his shoulders tense again, his hand tight on the handle of the mug.

Steve said, "Tony, that's not true. I judge myself."

"Well," said Tony, "I'm not judging you for that."

"I think you're forgetting who I am," said Steve.

"I think I'm the only one of us who is remembering!" snapped Tony.

"I don't need to know what I did, to know it wasn't all about you," said Steve. "Tony."

Tony dragged his sunglasses off and slammed them on the table. "It was the last thing I needed, the last straw, the last-" He was leaning forwards, almost spitting the words, Tony, so frightened of giving himself what he wanted if he didn't make it or buy it.

"I loved you," Steve said. "I still do."

"-ten-cent shot-" Tony said, and stopped.

FORMULA?

"That doesn't compute," said Tony, slowly.

"It doesn't need to," said Steve. "I don't need to know what it felt like to - court you. I'd like those memories back, but I don't need them. I know what I was thinking."

"Right," said Tony.

"I'll always love you," Steve said. It wasn't even hard to say. "I know you, Tony Stark. Iron Man. Shellhead. Whatever name you're wearing. I know you. I'll always know you. And I loved you then and I love you now."

Tony said nothing. After a moment or two, Steve picked up his fork again. The seagull had gone, but a girl in a blue chiffon dress walked past, golden skinned. Tony's eyes flicked up and past her, to the line on the horizon where the sea met the sky.

"Whatever you want to do," Steve said. "Just so long as you're here to do it. Pancakes are getting cold."

"I don't give a flying fuck about the pancakes!" said Tony. Then he added, "Sorry."

"And whatever I did then, I'm damn sure I did it because that's what I wanted," said Steve. "No matter what I told Fury. And I think you did too."

"Yeah, well, that one was obvious," muttered Tony. He poked at the pool of syrup on his plate. "Me, I mean, not you."

"And you came back," said Steve. He clarified. "To me."

"Wait, hang on a minute," said Tony. "No one said anything about coming back to you, Captain, don't raise that eyebrow at me."

Steve raised an eyebrow and said, "Tony, of all the places in the world you could have ended up, you land on Fifth Avenue? In the middle of a mission I just happen to be leading? What did you expect?"

"Streamers?" said Tony. He prodded at his pancakes. "No blueberries," he said.

"You didn't ask for them," said Steve.

"Sometimes you can be all too literal," said Tony.

"I seem to remember doing all right last night," said Steve. "Should I quote?" Hotly flashing through his mind's eye, Tony demanded, "Fuck me," his back an impossible arch and his voice raw.

Steve had.

"Okay," said Tony. "Unexpectedly good at following orders when it counts. I'll cede you that one."

"I'll take it," said Steve. He shifted in his seat, watched Tony's eyes darken, and let himself smile. "Turn the cameras back on," he said. "Who's watching?"

RESTART CAMS. TRACK FEEDS.

"Local radio," said Tony. He had his head a little on one side, but his eyes were focused on Steve. "CNN. FoxReuters. SHIELD. Hey, Nick," he said, and waved. "And the server, live cam to her own feed. Why?"

"That'll do," said Steve. He pushed his plate to the side and stood up. The table was in the way, but the camera angle was perfect. Leaning over, he uncurled Tony's hand from the fork, and pulled him upright. "Any objections?" He had his hand cupped around the back of Tony's neck, his thumb on a pulse that thudded under his touch in an echo that was already familiar, but Tony was still frowning.

"Cap?"

"Something I should have done fifteen years ago," Steve said. He looked up at the camera. "You were right, Nick," he said. He should have waited to ask Tony to turn the cameras on, but he wanted, for this moment, an honesty even Tony could not doubt. "Stick a notice on my office door," he told the world. "I've gone fishing."

After the first minute or two, Tony started to kiss him back. Then he got a knee on the table, and then two: one of the plates crashed down onto the decking, and he was laughing. "Can't take you anywhere," Steve said, utterly satisfied, and slid his hands down. Rolled hip to hip, the straining heat of his own erection fitted, a perfect, exquisite friction, against Tony's. Steve firmed his grip, and went for the soft spot under Tony's jaw with a single-minded intent that won him a breathless grunt.

"You do know...we're on camera?" said Tony.

Pulling back, Steve let himself savor the victory of Tony's marked skin. "Yup," he said. "Planned it."

"What?" said Tony, distracted. And then his eyes sharpened, coming back into focus, although he was shaking a little, Iron Man, and his fingers were cramping on Steve's shoulders. "Steve. That's. Pin my heart on some impossible-"

Steve kissed him again. Slowly. Afterwards, Tony leaned back in his arms, a little dazed, smiling. He shook his head. "Don't say anything," he warned. "I'm gonna get this right. One shot option, yeah?" He had his fingertips on Steve's mouth. "I'm sorry," he said. "I love you." Straight out, loud and clear.

"I know," said Steve.

"Then stick with me, Cap," Tony said. "All the way." Staring back at Steve, his eyes were fiercely alive, the vivid blue of a summer sky. He promised, "I'm gonna show you the stars."